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James Bell, Zedric Sadler

2014 Big East Tournament Preview: Can Villanova finally beat Creighton?

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It seems weird to write a Big East tournament preview in the realignment era. How can one describe the upcoming four long days at Madison Square Garden without including Syracuse, Cincinnati, Louisville, Pittsburgh, Notre Dame, or Connecticut?

Despite it’s current lean appearance, the Big East, according to Ken Pomeroy’s conference rankings, trails only the Big Ten and the Big 12, and sports two teams – Creighton and Villanova – that are threats to make a deep run in the NCAA tournament. After that duo, however, the rest of the conference is riddled with question marks, and lacking a strong showing at the Garden, it isn’t inconceivable that only the conference’s top two dance.

RELATED: Read through NBCSports.com’s latest Bracketology

Providence, Xavier, and St. John’s have all missed opportunities to provide any separation during the past two months. Puzzling defeats follow what seemed to be season-defining wins, and without at least one victory in the coming days for SJU and Xavier (in particular), those two squads will be absent from the tournament field (despite the Friars’ 20-win record, PC likely has to make the title game to get a bid).

As the memories of Allen Iverson, the six overtime semifinal, and Kemba Walker, among others, fade and become highlight packages for fans of Dave Gavitt’s Big East, the league’s new era begins on Wednesday – considering it is still the Big East, there should be a few surprises along the way.

MORE: Browse through all of our conference tournament previews


When: March 12-15

Where: Madison Square Garden

Final: March 15, 8:30 (Fox Sports 1)

Favorite: Creighton

Yes, Creighton has serious question marks – following St. John’s blueprint, teams have concentrated on stopping the Bluejays not named Doug McDermott, and the team’s defense (while improved!) is susceptible to undermining lapses – but Greg McDermott’s squad is still the conference’s team to beat. The path to a win on Saturday starts with McDermott, the senior forward who recently topped 3,000 career points, and when the team is clicking offensively, they are unstoppable.

MORE: Who joined Doug McDermott as an NBCSports.com All-American

The key for McDermott and company, however, is Ethan Wragge, the team’s bearded three-point specialist. Since February 1st, the senior has slightly slipped beyond the arc: his three-point percentage has slid to 40 percent, a decline from the 49 percent Wragge had converted during the first month of Big East play. As demonstrated in recent losses to Xavier and Georgetown, when Wragge isn’t connecting from deep, Creighton’s offense becomes stagnant, and open looks (and makes) for the forward enables better half court spacing and clear lanes for the other Bluejays.

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And if they lose?: Villanova

The team most overlooked in many Big East preseason rankings, Villanova has cracked the discussion for a top seed in the tournament field. Non-conference wins over Kansas and Iowa at the Battle 4 Atlantis padded the team’s resume, but they still haven’t beaten Creighton during Big East play, which is why the Wildcats aren’t the favorite for the tournament title. What is most impressive about this Jay Wright-led team is their offensive efficiency. Both James Bell and Darrun Hilliard make more than 50 percent of their twos and roughly 40 percent of their threes, and JayVaughn Pinkston ranks behind McDermott as the conference’s toughest one-on-one matchup.

How did a team which only lost one true contributor from a year ago manage to post an offensive rating with a conference efficiency margin of plus .16 from 2013? The squad cut down on their twos, beefed up their three point attempts, and display halfcourt ball movement that recalls the classic four-guard Nova teams from the mid-aughts.

Other Contenders:

  • St. John’s: After losing their first five Big East contests, St. John’s finished the season winning ten of their last thirteen games. The backcourt core of D’Angelo Harrison and Rysheed Jordan has propelled the Red Storm during their run, but the crux of the Johnnies success lies with JaKarr Sampson.
  • Xavier: Matt Stainbrook’s potential absence severely undermines the Muskeeters’ tourney title chances. The transfer wasn’t just the team’s most consistent scorer within the paint, but Stainbrook was Xavier’s best defensive rebounder. His potential loss will further Semaj Christon’s responsibilities, but the guard, whose sophomore leap helped him crack the conference’s first team list, should be up to the task.

Sleeper: Providence

The Friars are the tournament’s primary sleeper due to Bryce Cotton. Standing only 6-foot-1, Cotton never leaves the floor – he averages 40.1 minutes per game – is quick enough to get into the lane at will, and possesses a 40-plus vertical that helps him unleash jumpers from all over the court, regardless on how tight teams guard him. The most efficient player on PC’s roster, he could solely carry the team to Saturday night.

Deeper Sleeper: Georgetown

Despite a sub-.500 conference record, Georgetown has a slightly easier road to the title game than the other three teams playing on Wednesday. The Hoyas recently beat down on Creighton and Xavier, two potential matchups, and the backcourt of Markel Starks and D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera is an unpredictable nightmare to defend. Both guards could offensively take control of a game – versus CU and XU, the duo scored a combined 44 percent of the team’s points – or they could disappear.

Studs you haven’t heard about:

  • Josh Fortune, Providence: While he doesn’t play as many minutes as Cotton, Fortune also rarely leaves the court, and his improved three-point touch has made the guard less of the offensive liability he was as a freshman in 2013.
  • Daniel Ochefu, Villanova: The only Wildcat taller than 6-foot-7 who uses consistent minutes, Ochefu’s defensive contributions have helped Nova hold opponents to roughly one point per possession in Big East play.
  • Deonte Burton, Marquette: Freshmen don’t normally plays for Williams unless they have shown a necessary dedication defensively, but Burton is such a versatile threat that Williams has had to give Burton meaningful minutes.
  • Jalen Reynolds, Xavier: Since it is unclear if Stainbrook will play (or if he does, how many minutes he will contribute), Reynolds’ role will increase. Luckily for coach Chris Mack, Reynolds has shined with extra PT.

CBT Prediction: Villanova over Creighton

Best Big EastTournament Memory:

James Bell scores 27 to lead No. 6 Villanova past Xavier

Xavier v Villanova
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At this point, we know what we’re getting out of Villanova.

They are as tough as any team in the country, they are tough to run offense against because they are effective in different defensive looks, their ability to spread the floor with perimeter-oriented guards makes them difficult to defend and on the nights their threes are going down, they are going to be a very difficult team to beat.

On Monday night, those threes were going down.

No. 6 Villanova got 27 points from James Bell and as a team knocked down 11-of-28 from beyond the arc in an 81-58 win over Xavier in Philadelphia. The Wildcats shot 49.5% from the floor, handed out assists on 25 of their 32 field goals and committed just seven turnovers while holding Xavier to 37.7% shooting and 16 turnovers.

It was a beatdown, and outside of a run at the end of the first half, Xavier never really was in the game.

It begs the question: just how good are the Musketeers?

They have now lost three in a row and four of their last six games. Their resume is hinged on a 17 point win over Cincinnati that is only going to look better as the season goes on. But it’s not bolstered by much. They split with Tennessee, a fact that is somewhat nullified by losses to Seton Hall and USC. Semaj Christon has been as good as advertised this season, but his supporting cast hasn’t always been consistent. Defensively, they don’t force turnovers and they don’t defend the three well.

Five of Xavier’s last nine games are going to come on the road, and two of their home games happen to be against Villanova and No. 12 Creighton.

Xavier is currently a nine-seeded in the latest NBCSports.com bracket.

New Year’s Resolutions: Villanova Wildcats

Ryan Arcidiacono
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Over the course of the holiday week, we at College Basketball Talk will be detailing what we believe will be the New Year’s Resolutions of some of the nation’s most talented, most disappointing, and thoroughly enigmatic teams. What can we say, we’re in a giving mood.

Who else made Resolutions? Click here to find out.

WHAT DOES VILLANOVA PROMISE TO DO MORE OF?: Receive more production from Ryan Arcidiacono.

  • Why it will happen: For the amount of time that sophomore guard Ryan Arcidiacono is on the floor — better than 30 minutes per game, which is the most on the team — Villanova needs to start receiving more production from him. There is no doubt that he’s the floor leader and does the little things, but that doesn’t change the fact he’s shooting a mere 35.4% FG and 23.9% 3PT. However, if we are to go by history, Arcidiacono should get better in Big East play. He averaged 11.9 ppg and made double the amount of free throws per game (3.6 to 1.8) last season. Villanova is rolling right now thanks in large part to James Bell, JayVaughn Pinkston, and Darrun Hilliard, but a better Arcidiacono makes the offense that much more dynamic.
  • Why it won’t happen: Arcidiacono’s role on the team isn’t to be a scorer; that’s the aforementioned three players’ job. However, he needs to be more efficient on the offense end. His eFG% (effective FG%) is a poor 43.4%. Averaging 9.0 ppg is fine considering his role, but the amount of shots he’s taking to reach this number makes him inefficient on offense. For his shortcomings on offense, Arcidiacono is a true menace on defense. That counts as “production,” right? It may not come on offense, but Arcidiacono still plays a critical role for Villanova.


  • Why it will happen: It’s not earth-shattering to state Villanova takes a ton of three-pointers. Their rotation consists of just one player taller than 6-foot-7 and, as a result, they rely heavily on shooting from the perimeter. 46.8% of their FGA attempts are from three, which ranks fifth in the nation. Having the three-point shot be such a large part of the offense isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but that’s only if a team hits a high percentage of the shots. Look no further than yesterday’s game against Syracuse. Villanova came out on fire, hitting five three-pointers in the first 8:25 of the game, but then went cold going 5-24 the rest of the way, resulting in a relatively easy win for Syracuse. For the season, they are shooting 32.6% 3PT. Aside from Josh Hart, there isn’t a Wildcat shooting better than 40% 3PT. Living and dying by the three is a scary proposition. Expect Jay Wright to go inside more and more during Big East play, especially since Villanova is shooting 54.7% 2PT (19th nationally).
  • Why it won’t happen: With little presence in the post, Villanova will continue to be a jump-shooting team. Daniel Ochefu is the only true threat to score in the paint. James Bell and Darrun Hilliard have both attempted more three-pointers than shots inside the arc, even though they are each combining to shoot a mediocre 35% 3PT. It is easy to critique Villanova’s offensive ability. Ultimately, they hang their hat on the defensive end where they allow a mere .90 points per possession. If the strong defensive play continues, the Wildcats will be able to get away with — in most games — relying on three-pointers.

No. 2 Syracuse hosts No. 8 Villanova in a battle of undefeated teams

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When Syracuse announced its decision to move to the ACC back in September 2012, there were a couple match-ups that the program hoped would carry over as non-conference games. The Orange set up home-and-home series with St. John’s and Villanova, and at some point (we hope) they’ll resume on-court hostilities with Georgetown. On Saturday afternoon the Wildcats will invade the Carrier Dome, with the game being a matchup of teams ranked in the Top 10 and neither having lost a game.

Jay Wright’s Wildcats being undefeated is the bigger surprise of the two, with their run including a win over Kansas in the semifinals of the Battle 4 Atlantis last month. Five players are averaging at least nine points per game, with junior forward JayVaughn Pinkston leading the way at 16.5 ppg. But if there’s one player whose improvement mirrors that of the Wildcats to date it would have to be senior James Bell (15.4 ppg, 6.5 rpg), who’s raised his scoring by nearly seven points from a season ago and is also the team’s leading rebounder.

Villanova’s skilled offensively and tenacious defensively, and they’ll use that ball pressure to pester Syracuse freshman point guard Tyler Ennis. Ennis has proven to be a cool customer at the point for the Orange, displaying the proper balance between looking for his shot and making sure talented scorers such as C.J. Fair, Jerami Grant and Trevor Cooney get their looks as well. On the season Ennis is averaging 5.4 assists and 1.9 turnovers per game, with his assist-to-turnover ratio ranking third in the ACC.

So what will the keys be on Saturday afternoon? The most obvious key is how Villanova deals with Syracuse’s 2-3 zone. The Orange don’t have the length at the two guard spots that they normally enjoy, but Ennis and Cooney have done a good job of making up for that with activity. They’ll challenge the looks that Villanova gets, and a key for Ryan Arcidiacono and his teammates will be to avoid getting suckered into those “fool’s gold” attempts. The longer than normal look that falls in the first half cannot seduce Villanova into ignoring areas such as the high post when it comes to attacking the zone, because if that is the case they’ll be in trouble.

But given the history of the two programs there will be familiarity on both sides. For Syracuse, their work on the glass could have a major impact on the outcome. To this point in the season the Orange have rebounded 40.5% of their missed shots, with Villanova limiting teams to an offensive rebounding percentage of 29.2%. If Pinkston, Kris Jenkins and Daniel Ochefu can keep Syracuse off the offensive glass (five players are averaging at least 1.6 offensive rebounds per game) they can win. That’s a tough task for Villanova but it’s clearly one they can accomplish.

Two former Big East rivals and the matchup of the brothers Ennis (Tyler’s older brother Dylan is a key reserve for Villanova) means that this game won’t lack for story lines. But the biggest story line is that both teams enter without a loss, and the winner will have another statement victory to add to its resume.

Conference Catchups: Villanova rules again in the Big East

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College basketball is now almost two months old. League play will be kicking off in the next week. Let’s get you caught up on all you need to know with some of the country’s best conferences. 

To read through the rest of our Conference Catchups, click here.

Midseason Player of the Year: Doug McDermott, Creighton

This isn’t a hard decision to make. The two-time first-team All-American is having yet another All-American caliber season. Through the first two months of the season, McDermott is averaging 24.8 points (a career-high) to go along with 7.5 boards. He’s still got room to improve as well, as McDermott is shooting a career-low 40.5% from three.

All-Big East First Team:

  • Bryce Cotton, Providence
  • James Bell, Villanova
  • Kellen Dunham, Butler
  • JayVaughn Pinkston, Villanova
  • Doug McDermott, Creighton

Midseason Coach of the Year: Jay Wright, Villanova

In retrospect, we probably should have seen this coming with the Wildcats. Jay Wright has gotten back to his roots, recruiting a team full of tough, talented guards and undersized big men with a chip on their shoulder. Wright has rebuilt this Villanova program in the mold of his best teams, the ones that starred the likes of Randy Foye and Allan Ray and Scottie Reynolds, and it’s fun to watch.

Favorite: Villanova Wildcats

source:  Villanova is kind of the favorite by default here, as the Big East has been one of the country’s most disappointing conferences this season. They really are the only team that looks capable of winning a couple games in the NCAA tournament right now. That said, Villanova is legit. They defend as well as anyone in the country — No. 2 in defensive efficiency, according to KenPom — and they are difficult to matchup with defensively. If James Bell and Ryan Arcidiacono can get more consistent shooting the three, this will be a very, very dangerous team.

And three more contenders:

  • As long as Creighton has Doug McDermott on the roster, they will be a contender. They’ve been better defensively this season. They don’t force turnover or block shots, but they’re forcing tough shots and getting defensive rebounds.
  • You’d be foolish to count out a Buzz Williams team regardless of how many chances they whiffed on in non-conference play. Marquette has the league’s best front line and will only get better as Duane Wilson and JaJuan Johnson get more reps.
  • I’m still on the Georgetown bandwagon, but they’ll need to find a way to survive despite Josh Smith’s defensive issues. Having a third perimeter scoring option emerge would be beneficial as well.

Most Surprising Team: Butler Bulldogs

Villanova is the league’s most surprising team, but I’m going with Butler here because I can only talk about Villanova so many times. Kellen Dunham and Khyle Marshall have been just terrific this season. I’m not sure that Butler has enough to win the league, but they’ve looked good enough to make a push to finish in the top four and, potentially, play their way into an NCAA tournament bid.

Most Disappointing Team: St. John’s Red Storm

How many teams have more talent, top-to-bottom, than the Johnnies? I’ll give you a hint: none of them. But the Johnnies have looked like anything-but a title contender this season. With the amount of athleticism on this roster, it would be nice to see them become a pressing team, but until they have to rely less on D’angelo Harrison for scoring in the half-court, they’ll struggle.

Most Important Player (in league play): JaJuan Johnson and Duane Wilson, Marquette

The Golden Eagles have one of the best front lines in the country. Davante Gardner, Jamil Wilson and Chris Otule are as good as anyone. But Marquette needs to find consistency on the perimeter. They need shooters and scorers and people that can break down a defense. Johnson and Wilson, who is still working his way back from a leg injury, can do that.

Who will slide?: Georgetown Hoyas

I’m not ready to write-off Georgetown just yet because I think that Markel Starks and D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera make up one of the league’s best back courts. Any team with that back court and Josh Smith in the paint will be able to compete. But defensive issues and a lack of a supporting cast could eventually do the Hoyas in.

Who is the sleeper?: Xavier Musketeers

A lot of people wrote off the Muskies after a disastrous, 0-3 performance at the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas. But this isn’t a bad Xavier team. They’ve smacked city rival Cincinnati and won at Alabama in their last two games, and they just so happen to have an All-American caliber point guard in Semaj Christon.

New Power Rankings:

1. Villanova
2. Marquette
3. Creighton
4. Georgetown
5. Xavier
6. Butler
7. St. John’s
8. Providence
9. DePaul
10. Seton Hall