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Big East Preview: Is there a real challenger to Villanova?

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Beginning in October and running up through November 13th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2015-2016 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the Big East Conference.

The Big East Conference landed six teams in the NCAA tournament last season. The Big East might not replicate that number come Selection Sunday, but the 10-league members should make for another unpredictable season.

Villanova should be the unanimous preseason pick, given what the Wildcats have accomplished over the past two years (two regular season titles and the 2015 Big East Tournament championship) and the key pieces they bring back, inclduding Ryan Arcidiacono, Daniel Ochefu and Josh Hart. Georgetown, Butler and Xavier should all pose as Villanova’s biggest competition, though the order in which they finish is up for debate.

The same could be said for the rest of the conference. St. John’s is likely out of the mix following a massive roster overhaul, but Nos. 5-9 could end up in a variety of ways.

FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW:

1. Kris Dunn spurned NBA: Kris Dunn could have been a lottery pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, but choose to return to Providence for his junior season. This is a gamble on Dunn’s part, given the recurring shoulder injury that plagued his first two seasons. But with the return of Dunn, arguably the top player in college basketball, the Friars eye an NCAA tournament for the third time in as many seasons, instead of focusing on a rebuilding year.

MORE: How Kris Dunn attacked the weaknesses in his game

2. Villanova postseason cut short again: In 2014, Villanova, a No. 2 seed, was upset by eventual champion UConn in the Round 0f 32. This past March, the Wildcats validated critics who believed that they were unworthy of a No. 1 seed, exiting the tournament in the Round of 32 again, this time at the hands of No. 8 N.C. State. Jay Wright led the Wildcats to the Final Four in 2009. In five tournament appearances since, Villanova hasn’t gotten out of the first weekend. Villanova can prove its among the top programs in the country with non-conference matchups against Oklahoma and Virginia, but it won’t matter unless NCAA tournament success follows.

3. Chris Mullin returns: After five seasons, St. John’s and Steve Lavin decided to part ways. This paved the way for a Chris Mullin homecoming. The Brooklyn native led the Johnnies to the 1985 Final Four before enjoying a Hall of Fame career as a player. Since retiring, he’s worked as both a broadcaster and in NBA front office’s but he returns to his alma mater with zero coaching experience. He inherits a team that lost its entire rotation, but Mullin has made tremendous strides in his first few months as a head coach, surrounding himself with talented recruiters, who have overhauled the roster and helped land a pair of four-star recruits.

4. Impact freshmen: The two highest-rated recruits entering the league is Marquette’s Henry Ellenson and Villanova’s Jalen Brunson. Both five-star prospects are expected to make immediate impact. This summer offered a glimpse of what to expect this season, with Ellenson putting up big numbers on Marquette’s European tour and Brunson leading USA Basketball to a gold medal in the FIBA U19 World Championships in Greece. Brunson averaged 14.0 points and 5.6 assists per game, earning MVP honors.

5. NBA Draft: For the first time in Big East history (dating back to 1979, not 2013), no player was selected in the first round of the NBA Draft. In all likelihood, that will change this June, as Kris Dunn and Henry Ellenson are both projected as lottery picks.

MORE: 2015-16 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

COACH’S TAKE:

  • Favorite: “I’d say Villanova. They’ve dominated our league. They’ve been the standard the last two years. They have a lot of guys back, a lot of experience, very, very good guard play. They can all shoot and drive. They’re all very good defensively, too.”
  • Sleeper: “I think Marquette has a chance to be a sleeper. I think Woj has done a really good job of upgrading the talent in the last year. They return just enough guys and I think he has some really good freshmen to help elevate them to the upper part of the league.”
  • Best player
    • “You obviously have to start with Kris Dunn … Ryan Arcidiacono as well. Those two guys headline our league. [Dunn] impacts the game on both ends of the floor. He’s a two-way player. He’s a phenomenal defender. At the other end, he’s just really hard to keep out of the lane. Arcidiacono stays more within himself. He can really shoot the ball, makes the right play, tough guy. He does a great job.”
    • “I think Arcidiacono is the best player … He’s truly a quarterback in that system. He makes average players very, very good and he pulls that team together. He’s an extension of Jay [Wright]. I’m probably a rare guy, but I think Arch is the best player.”
  • Most underrated player
    • “I think Daniel Ochefu is very undervalued. Obviously, he’s 6-foot-11, but he’s so mobile and he’s an extremely good defender around the rim and in ball-screen defense. Then he can score on the other end.”
    • “Roosevelt Jones. I think people talk about him, but I don’t think he gets the credit he deserves. For not being able to shoot the ball, he’s extremely talented. He understands his role. He’s one of those guys that makes a team click.”
Kris Dunn (AP Photo)
Kris Dunn (AP Photo)

PRESEASON BIG EAST PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Kris Dunn, Providence

Dunn is a candidate for Preseason National Player of the Year honors, so it’s no surprise that he should be the runaway selection to repeat as Big East Player of the Year after he shared the honors last season. The 6-foot-3 Dunn, in his first full season, posted posted 15.6 points, 7.5 assists, 5.5 rebounds and 2.7 steals per game as a redshirt sophomore. As opposing coaches mentioned above, he impacts the game on both ends of the floor, probably more so than anyone else in the country.

THE REST OF THE BIG EAST FIRST TEAM:

  • Ryan Arcidiacono, Villanova: The experienced lead guard who shared Big East co-Player of the Year honors with Dunn last season, anchors the conference’s top perimeter attack, which includes Josh Hart, Jalen Brunson and Phil Booth. Arcidiacono averaged 10.1 points and 3.5 assists per game and shot a career-best 37 percent from three.
  • Henry Ellenson, Marquette: The five-star recruit, rated No. 11 player in the class by Rivals, is the highest-rated prospect entering the Big East. The projected lottery pick will make up one of the top front courts playing alongside Luke Fischer.
  • Roosevelt Jones, Butler: His old-school game helped the Bulldogs turnaround the program’s first losing season in nine years. The 6-foot-4 redshirt junior, who missed the 2013-14 season due to a wrist injury, led the team in assists at 3.7 per game and added another scoring option, putting up points using his arsenal of unorthodox runners.
  • D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera, Georgetown: The key piece on a team loaded with talented underclassmen, the 6-foot-3 Smith-Rivera did it all for the Hoyas last season. The first-team all-conference selection averaged 16.3 points, 4.2 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 1.6 steals per game.

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW:

  • Trevon Bluiett, Xavier
  • Kellen Dunham, Butler
  • Billy Garrett Jr., DePaul
  • Daniel Ochefu, Villanova
  • Isaiah Whitehead, Seton Hall

BREAKOUT STAR: Jalen Reynolds, Xavier

There are several players that could fit this category (Georgetown’s Isaac Copleand or Providence’s Ben Bentil ), but Jalen Reynolds has the ability to put up an all-Big East caliber season for the Musketeers. The 6-foot-10 forward, who plays with the attitude that he can dunk everything, may be the most athletically gifted player in the conference. He averaged 9.9 points and 6.1 boards per game as a sophomore and had two strong showings in Xavier’s Sweet 16 run.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE: Kevin Willard, Seton Hall

In five seasons, Willard is 30-60 in conference, taking the Pirates to only one postseason appearance (2012 NIT). Willard is also coming off a season of highs and lows. The highs being back-to-back wins over Villanova and St. John’s to propel the Pirates in to the top-25 rankings. The lows: a 1-9 finish and the departures of starters Sterling Gibbs and Jaren Sina.

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING … : Can someone make run in March?

Through the first two years of the Big East relaunch, only one team has made it past the first weekend of the NCAA tournament. That was Xavier this past March, reaching the Sweet 16 by defeating No. 11 Ole Miss and No. 14 Georgia State.

Questions of the league’s strength will continue as long as postseason struggles do.

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT : The Gavitt Tipoff Games

Named in honor of the Big East founder, Dave Gavitt, the Big East and Big Ten will play eight games throughout the first week of the season. Kicking off slate of non-conference matchups is Georgetown traveling College Park to take on Maryland. The two teams haven’t played locally since 1993. The Terrapins host the Hoyas on Nov. 17.

FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR:

  • Nov. 17, Georgetown vs. Maryland
  • Nov. 20, Xavier vs. Michigan
  • Dec. 7, Oklahoma vs. Villanova (in Honolulu)
  • Dec. 5, Syracuse vs. Georgetown
  • Dec. 19, Villanova vs. Virginia

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @BigEastMBB

PREDICTED FINISH

1. Villanova: The conference’s most efficient offense and defense, returns a core of last year’s team. With deep guard play and a big man in the middle, Jay Wright’s team should expect to be back to the top spot in the Big East standings.
2. Georgetown: John Thompson III will rely on up to seven freshmen and sophomores. Isaac Copeland, L.J. Peak, Paul White and Tre Campbell were all part of the rotation as freshmen. First-year big men Jessie Govan and Marcus Derrickson both had impressive outings in the Hoyas’ summer trip. The return of D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera will Georgetown as the underclassmen develop over the course of the season.
3. Butler: It seems odd: a former McDonald’s All-American needing to fill the shoes left behind by a walk-on. But that’s the position Tyler Lewis finds himself in, replacing beloved Alex Barlow. The N.C. State transfer joins the veteran perimeter of sharpshooter Kellen Dunham and wing Roosevelt Jones. Like Villanova, Butler lacks depth up front, but third-year starter Andrew Chrabascz is a solid piece to have on the interior.
4. Xavier: Trevon Blueitt and Jalen Reynolds are poised for breakout years, but the Musketeers must combat the loss of both point guards, Dee Davis and Matt Stainbrook (yes, 6-foot-10 Matt Stainbrook). That point guard duties will fall on the committee of Larry Austin Jr., Myles Davis and Edmond Sumner, a 6-foot-5 freshman who sat out last season. There is still enough talent on the roster for another NCAA tournament appearance for Chris Mack.
5. Providence: Kris Dunn’s return is what keeps the Friars in the top half of the league to begin the season, but players like Ben Bentil and Jalen Lindsey will need to take major steps forward in their sophomore seasons in order for PC to still be there in February/March.
6. Marquette: The trendy pick as the dark horse in the Big East, the Golden Eagles could be in for a big turnaround in the Wojo’s second year. Henry Ellenson and Luke Fischer make for a good tandem on the frontline, while Traci Carter and Haanif Cheatham are other freshman to watch, playing alongside Duane Wilson in the back court.
7. Seton Hall: The Pirates are a dangerous team despite a dismal end to last season. Isaiah Whitehead, Angel Delgado and Khadeen Carrington all gained valuable experience as freshmen. Seton Hall will need contributions from players like Desi Rodriguez, another sophomore, and graduate transfers Braeden Anderson and Derrick Gordon if it wants to do more than pull off a few upsets.
8. Creighton: Seven of Creighton’s 14 conference losses came by five points or less, helping contribute to a last-place finish a season ago. Transfers Maurice Watson Jr. and Cole Huff should make an immediate impact alongside cast of returnees that includes James Milliken, Toby Hegner and Geoffrey Groselle. The Bluejays certainly got better, but is it enough to climb into the middle of the pack?
9. DePaul: Although the Blue Demons are slotted second from the bottom, this could be the team to surprise many this season. They return Billy Garrett Jr., Myke Henry and Tommy Hamilton IV, three double-digit scorers from last season.
10. St. John’s: Chris Mullin has covered a lot of ground since March, but the loss of last year’s entire rotation puts the Red Storm in the cellar for Year 1.

AP Poll: Duke takes over No. 1 in the poll after Kentucky’s loss

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Duke has moved to No. 1 in The Associated Press men’s college basketball poll following Kentucky’s surprising loss to Evansville.

The Blue Devils received 52 first-place votes from a 65-member media panel in the poll released Monday. No. 2 Louisville received eight first-place votes and No. 3 Michigan State, the preseason No. 1, had four.

Kansas and North Carolina rounded out the top five, with No. 7 Virginia receiving the final first-place vote.

Kentucky moved up to No. 1 last week after knocking off top-ranked Michigan State to open the season. The Wildcats fell flat a day later, losing 67-64 to unranked Evansville in Lexington and dropped to No. 9 in this week’s poll.

1. Duke (52 first-place votes)
2. Louisville (8)
3. Michigan State (4)
4. Kansas
5. North Carolina
6. Maryland
7. Virginia
8. Gonzaga
9. Kentucky
10. Ohio State
11. Oregon
12. Texas Tech
13. Seton Hall
14. Arizona
15. Utah State
16. Memphis
17. Villanova
18. Xavier
19. Auburn
20. Tennessee
21. VCU
22. Texas
23. Colorado
24. Baylor
25. Washington

Monday’s Overreactions: Myles Powell, Florida’s fix and Virginia’s shooting woes

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PLAYER OF THE WEEK: Myles Powell, Seton Hall

Coming off of an ankle injury – the severity of which can probably be debated – Powell went for 37 points in a three-point loss at home against Michigan State. It might have been a loss, but it was still one of the most impressive and entertaining performances that we are going to see this college basketball season.

Powell then followed that up on Sunday with a 26-point performance in a win at Saint Louis, a 3-0 Atlantic 10 team that knocked off the Pirates when they played in Newark last season. All told, Powell after spraining his ankle exactly nine days ago, Powell went out and averaged 31.5 points as the Pirates picked up a solid road win and played well enough to beat one of the three best teams in college basketball.

Not bad.

TEAM OF THE WEEK: Tennessee Volunteers

The Vols picked up the best win of the weekend, as they flew up to Toronto and landed themselves a victory over a Washington team that had impressed everyone when they knocked off Baylor last week. Tennessee made a bunch of threes and Lamonte Turner played well despite struggling to shoot the ball, but the key was the Tennessee frontcourt. Going up against Isaiah Stewart and Jaden McDaniels, Tennessee’s overmatched frontline won the day. John Fulkerson had 14 points, six boards, two assists, two steals and two blocks while Yves Pons finished with 15 points and a block of the year candidate on Naz Carter.

I was in on Tennessee in the preseason. I am very in on Tennessee today.

OVERREACTIONS

1. FLORIDA IS REALLY BAD, BUT THEY’RE ALSO FIXABLE

I’m ready for the influx of bad Florida takes today because that’s what happens when a preseason top ten team plays terribly for the first two weeks of the season. I’m going to do my best to avoid being frustrated by people saying that Florida was overhyped because Kerry Blackshear was the last guy to commit, or that Scottie Lewis is overrated as a top ten prospect, or that Mike White is just a bad basketball coach.

Well, the latter may actually have some merit if this thing doesn’t get turned around, but we’re not there yet.

Because the simple truth is that Florida is struggling because they cannot shoot. The Gators are shooting 24.1 percent from three this season. The only guy on the roster shooting better than 28.6 percent from beyond the arc is Keyontae Johnson, and he’s the starting four-man. Andrew Nembhard, a former five-star recruit and Florida’s sophomore starting point guard, is shooting 28.6 percent from the field. Noah Locke is 5-for-22 (22.7%) from three and shooting 9-for-36 (25%) overall. He is playing with the confidence level of eighth grader at a school dance.

This shooting cripples Florida for three reasons:

  1. The Gators are built to play small-ball. Small-ball is entirely ineffective when you are incapable of scoring from the perimeter.
  2. Florida’s inability to score means they can’t set their defense, get into a press or force turnovers. That means they are forced to play every possession in the halfcourt, which is a nightmare for a team designed to play small-ball that can’t make a shot.
  3. The entire reason we believed Florida was going to take a leap forward this season was that they replaced their high-usage, low-efficiency shot-jackers with freshman Tre Mann and sophomores Locke and Nembhard. As it turns out, those three have been high-usage, low-efficiency shot-jackers through four games.

The issue to date has not been Blackshear. He’s averaging 14.5 points and 11 boards as the sole interior presence on a team where defenses have not had to leave the paint yet.

He’s not the problem.

He’s been fine.

The issue is, quite literally, everything else.

2. TENNESSEE IS THE ONLY TEAM IN THE SEC OUTPERFORMING EXPECTATION

The SEC has been the most disappointing conference in major college basketball this season. Florida, obviously, has been a disaster to date. Kentucky owns the second-best win on the season (Michigan State in NYC) when the best win on the season was themselves (Evansville’s upset in Rupp).

Auburn has been fine, but the win over Davidson does not look nearly as good today as it did when it happened. Arkansas has looked good while beating no one. LSU lost at VCU and struggled in wins over Bowling Green and Nicholls State. Alabama has been bad. Vandy and Texas A&M have been about as bad as we expected.

Other than the Vols – and maybe Missouri – no one in the league has been better than we thought they were before the season started.

3. VIRGINIA GAMES ARE GOING TO BE PARTICULARLY UGLY THIS YEAR

There is a certain faction of college basketball fans that believes that Virginia plays the ugliest brand of basketball in the history of the sport, and for the most part, those people just don’t appreciate a good, well-executed offensive possession or the beauty of a shot clock violation.

Usually, I’d push back against these takes. Because usually, Virginia’s offense is ruthlessly efficient, just really so. That’s not really the case this year. Through three games, UVA is shooting just 20 percent from three. There are only five teams in the entire country that are hitting triples at a lower rate, and given that there are no Ty Jeromes, or Kyle Guys, or De’Andre Hunters on this year’s roster, I don’t know how much that’s actually going to improve.

Should I mention that Virginia didn’t allow their 100th point until there was 5:16 left in the second half of their third game of the season?

4. VERMONT IS THE BEST MID-MAJOR TEAM IN THE COUNTRY

The Catamounts went into Carnesseca Arena and knocked off St. John’s on Saturday after. Anthony Lamb hit the game-winner with 1.9 seconds left. It’s the third true road win of the season for John Becker’s club, who also owns victories over St. Bonaventure and Bucknell.

UVM will get two more cracks at high-major opponents in the next two weeks. They’re at Virginia on Tuesday and at Cincinnati on Dec. 3rd. If they can land one of those wins, and if they roll through the America East undefeated, I think there is a real chance that this group can get an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament.

The Monday Overreaction podcast: Florida stinks, Tennessee doesn’t, George Papas is a legend

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We are back for another rendition of the Monday Overreactions podcast. Rob Dauster was joined by Bobby Reagan to walk through everything that happened in college basketball in the last 72 hours, including an impressive win for UConn over Florida, a dominant performance for Tennessee over Washington and Vermont’s upset win at St. John’s. They also talk through the atrocious flopping rule and how it cost Xavier as well as Monmouth’s George Papas, who set the college basketball world on fire with the most ridiculous garbage dunk of all-time.

College Basketball Top 25 Power Rankings: Duke back to No. 1 as the top reshuffles

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This week’s Top 25 is tough to put together because so many of the top teams in the country keep on losing.

The No. 1 team in the country lost at home to Evansville. That’s really all you need to know at this point. But since they had beaten the previous No. 1 team in the country in Michigan State, it makes trying to decipher the top of the sport just that much more difficult.

To be frank, I think this is going to end up being one of those seasons where there is never truly a “No. 1 team.” It’s the kind of season where there 15 teams that feel like they are good enough to be a “top ten team,” so to speak, but none of those 15 feel like they are good enough to be a “top three team.”

Put another way, there are a whole bunch of teams that feel like they are somewhere between pretty good and very good and no one that feels like they are remotely close to unbeatable.

We’ll see if that ends up being the way that everything plays out.

But for now, I think that it’s fair to say that you can have the top 10-12 teams in any order this week and it would be tough to argue against it.

So with that in mind, here is the Week 2 version of the NBC Sports Top 25:

1. DUKE (4-0, Last Week: 3)
2. LOUISVILLE (4-0, 2)
3. MICHIGAN STATE (2-1, 4)
4. KANSAS (2-1, 5)
5. KENTUCKY (2-1, 1)
6. GONZAGA (4-0, 6)
7. OHIO STATE (3-0, 24)
8. MARYLAND (3-0, 8)
9. VIRGINIA (3-0, 9)
10. TEXAS TECH (3-0, 10)
11. OREGON (4-0, 11)
12. ARIZONA (4-0, 14)
13. NORTH CAROLINA (3-0, 13)
14. SETON HALL (3-1, 12)
15. UTAH STATE (4-0, 15)
16. VILLANOVA (2-1, 6)
17. XAVIER (4-0, 17)
18. TENNESSEE (3-0, 23)
19. AUBURN (4-0, 22)
20. MEMPHIS (3-1, 20)
21. TEXAS (4-0, 25)
22. WASHINGTON (2-1, 21)
23. VCU (4-0, NR)
24. LSU (2-1, 18)
25. BAYLOR (2-1, NR)

NEW ADDITIONS: No. 23 VCU, No. 25 BAYLOR
DROPPED OUT: No. 16 SAINT MARY’S, No. 19 FLORIDA

No. 15 Florida falls to UConn 62-59 on the road

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STORRS, Conn. — Christian Vital scored 15 points and made a key steal at the end of the game as UConn upset No. 15 Florida 62-59 on Sunday.

Tyler Polley also scored 15 points and Josh Carlton added 13 for the Huskies (2-1) who led by five points at halftime and never trailed after intermission.

A layup by Florida’s Keyontae Johnson with just over a minute to go cut the lead to 60-59, but those would be the last points the Gators scored.

Vital hit two free throws with 17 seconds left and Florida had a chance to tie. But Alterique Gilbert tipped the ball out of Johnson’s hands and Vital grabbed it and dribbled away, securing the win.

Kerry Blackshear Jr. had 15 points and eight rebounds for Florida (2-2), falling two boards shy of a fourth straight double-double. But he fouled out with 4:37 left in the game and his team trailing 53-49.

Andrew Nembhard scored Florida’s next four points, including a 3-pointer that brought the Gators within a point at 54-53.

Blackshear scored the game’s first two baskets, but the Gators made just four of their first 13 attempts from the floor.

But UConn had a tougher start, going without a basket for the first six minutes.

Vital got the UConn crowd into the game with a 3-pointer, a dunk and a jumper on consecutive trips down the court that gave the Huskies an 11-6 lead.

The Huskies held Florida to two Blackshear free throws over the final 4:17 of the first half and led 25-20 at halftime.

BIG PICTURE

The loss ends a rough seven days for the Gators. Florida was No. 6 coming into the season but lost to Florida State a week ago and beat Towson by just six points on Thursday. The Gators offense came into the game averaging just 63.7 points per game, while giving up 60.7.

UConn: Highly touted freshman guard James Bouknight has finished serving his three-game suspension following his arrest on charges including evading police in a September car accident. Bouknight, who is due in court on Monday, is expected to suit up for the Huskies in this week’s Charleston Classic, where it’s possible the Huskies could again face either Saint Joseph’s or Florida, depending on how the early rounds pan out.

UP NEXT

Florida: The Gators face Saint Joseph’s in the Charleston Classic on Thursday.

UConn: The Huskies also travel to Charleston and face Buffalo in the first round of the tournament on Thursday.