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Big East Reset: Has Marquette taken control of the conference?

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College basketball’s non-conference season is finally coming to a close.

To help you shake off post-holiday haze and the hangover of losing in your fantasy football playoffs, we’ll be providing you with some midseason recaps to get you caught up on all the nation’s most important conferences.

Who has been the best player in the biggest leagues?

Who is on track to get an NCAA tournament bid?

What have we learned about the conference hierarchy?

What is still left for us to figure out?

We break it all down here.

Today, we’ll be taking a look at the Big East.

MIDSEASON BIG EAST PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Markus Howard, Marquette

The junior guard has been outstanding so far for the Golden Eagles. Since December started, Howard has caught fire in multiple games, as he’s put up two 45-point outings against top-25 teams.

Averaging a conference-leading 25.0 points per game, Howard also chips in 4.5 assists and 4.3 rebounds per contest on 40 percent shooting from three-point range. Devastating when he gets on scoring runs, Howard is one of the only players in college basketball who is a nightly threat to drop 50. He’s talented enough to single-handedly win a game with his scoring but savvy enough to win a game using guard skills to get others involved if his shot isn’t falling.

Howard is one of the very best players in college hoops this season and it’ll be exciting to see what he’s capable of in the Big East.

THE ALL BIG EAST FIRST TEAM

  • Markus Howard, Marquette:
  • Shamorie Ponds, St. John’s: Maintaining his across-the-board presence with improved efficiency, the 6-foot-1 Ponds is making a strong case for All-American status. He’s putting up 19.6 points, 6.0 assists and 4.5 rebounds per game.
  • Myles Powell, Seton Hall: Another big-time scoring guard, Powell is averaging 23.1 points, 3.2 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game. Also capable of 40-point nights thanks to his perimeter shooting prowess, the junior has elevated his play against good competition this season.
  • Alpha Diallo, Providence: Developing into a strong and dependable junior wing, Diallo is tops in the Big East in rebounding (8.5 rpg) while sixth in scoring (17.4 ppg) for the Friars. Also putting up 3.4 assists and 1.7 steals per game, Diallo is getting it done in a variety of ways.
  • Max Strus, DePaul: The senior has been a dependable presence for the Blue Demons, putting up 19.7 points and 8.1 rebounds per game. The streaky Strus is capable of putting DePaul on his back if he gets hot.

POSTSEASON PREDICTIONS

  • NCAA: Marquette, St. John’s, Villanova, Butler, Seton Hall, Creighton
  • NIT: Xavier, Georgetown, Providence
  • OTHER/NO POSTSEASON: DePaul
(Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

THREE THINGS WE’VE LEARNED

1. Villanova is beatable after being dominant in the past

Over the last several years, the Wildcats have, more-or-less, ascended into blueblood status. That’s the sort of thing that happens when you win two out of three national titles and send multiple players to the NBA.

But with a lot of roster turnover from those teams, Villanova has looked beatable to this point in the season. Surprising non-conference losses to teams from one-bid leagues like Furman and Penn already went down. Villanova also sustained a blowout home loss to Michigan in a rematch of last March’s NCAA title game.

The Wildcats haven’t seen much from the freshman class. They look overwhelmed. Other role players haven’t ascended into dependable players. Phil Booth and Eric Paschall are still vets who can make plays. Collin Gillespie has solid numbers. But Villanova has a lot of question marks entering Big East play and they’re far from a runaway favorite.

2. The Big East doesn’t have many (if any) title contenders

The Big East has seen multiple teams in the picture for solid NCAA tournament seeding over the last several years. Just last season, Xavier was a No. 1 seed and Villanova was the dominant champion as a No. 2.

Thanks to a sluggish non-conference portion of the schedule, the Big East isn’t in any such position to earn great seeds for this year’s tournament. Villanova, Butler and Marquette are the only Big East teams in the KenPom top 30. All of them have put up some questionable performances to this point. Others like Creighton, St. John’s, Providence and Seton Hall all likely have work to do just to safely get in the field.

If a team dominates conference play and only losses a handful of games, we might see a Big East team crack a top-four seed for the NCAA tournament. But as it stands right now, the Big East has a lot of work to do if it wants to get a team back to the Final Four.

3. But the Big East won’t have any easy outs

Even if the Big East doesn’t have many top-flight teams, they don’t have any awful teams either. The league doesn’t have a bloated membership number to begin with so that helps. But every Big East team currently is in the top 113 on KenPom as even bottom teams like DePaul and Georgetown have looked dangerous. Xavier also lurks as a team with some talent that hasn’t figured things out.

The Blue Demons have been easy to beat in recent years, but their senior core of Max Strus, Eli Cain and Femi Olujobi is solid. Georgetown has the league’s best big in Jessie Govan while James Akinjo and Mac McClung have been better than many believed. Xavier played tough despite a 1-2 record at Maui while they’ve also faced Wisconsin, Cincinnati and Missouri. The Musketeers haven’t knocked off a credible opponent under new coach Travis Steele, they have the ability to pick off anyone in the league at home.

Things are going to be brutal in the Big East this season as a lot of these teams are pretty evenly matched.

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THREE STORYLINES TO FOLLOW

1. Is St. John’s a credible threat?

The Red Storm are one of college basketball’s only undefeated teams remaining. They’ve also played the No. 344 non-conference strength of schedule to this point — according to KenPom.

So how seriously should we be taking 12-0 St. John’s? To this point, the Red Storm’s best wins are neutral wins over Cal, Georgia Tech and VCU with a road win at Rutgers added in the mix. It’s very possible St. John’s hasn’t played a legitimate NCAA tournament team to this point in the season.

We’ll learn very quickly how good St. John’s is once Big East play begins. Many of the Big East’s coaches and older players will know what to expect from the Red Storm with the true home-and-home conference schedule. Shamorie Ponds, Mustapha Heron and company are still going to be tough to stop. But is this St. John’s team a group that ascends into a top-five seed? Or will they finally come back to Earth and end up closer to the bubble?

2. Do any teams separate themselves from a large pack in the middle?

Entering conference play, the Big East has seven teams within the 18 to 61 range on KenPom’s rankings. A lot of teams are lumped together in the middle. Villanova, Butler and Marquette have the only top-30 rankings among the conference. But a lot of the league is right in the mix in the next 30 or so spots.

The key for some of these next-tier teams like Creighton, St. John’s, Providence and Seton Hall will be earning wins over one another while avoiding bad losses to non-tournament teams. If these teams keep beating each other and piling up good wins, it will be hard to keep them out of the tournament with the Pac-12 having such a down year.

It’ll be interesting to see if St. John’s is real or if Creighton, Providence or Seton Hall can elevate their play the next few months.

3. Can Marquette break through for a Big East title run?

Since Villanova doesn’t seem like a juggernaut, and the Big East doesn’t have a clear frontrunner, there’s a case to be made that Marquette is the real team to watch. The Golden Eagles have the league’s most potent weapon in guard Markus Howard and Sam and Joey Hauser are both talented double-figure scorers and 40 percent three-point shooters.

Marquette has only lost on the road at Indiana and led Kansas at the half before succumbing to the Jayhawks the second frame. Over the last month, the Golden Eagles have picked off ranked teams like Kansas State, Wisconsin and Buffalo. They’ve shown consistency on both ends. Brutal defensively a season ago, Marquette stands at a respectable No. 50 on KenPom’s defensive efficiency rankings as they have made great strides to become a more complete team.

With only one Big East title since joining the league in 2005, Marquette could be talented enough to bring home a conference title if their defense sustains.

(AP Photo/Darren Hauck)

THREE PREDICTIONS

1. Villanova turns things around and competes for a Big East title

It feels odd that Villanova finds themselves outside of the top 25 as conference season is beginning. But the Wildcats also have a lot of good things going for them as they’ll remain a major contender for the Big East title.

With title-winning players like Phil Booth and Eric Paschall to lead, the Wildcats will figure things out as long as other role players consistently step up. With a great win over Florida State and a close loss to Kansas, Villanova can knock off good teams and hang with great teams on certain nights. They’ll still be favored against most in the Big East.

We can’t expect the freshman class to develop into consistent pieces given their slow starts, but others like Joe Cremo and Dhamir Crosby-Roundtree are great role players who help in very specific ways. Even with some troubling early losses, Villanova should be fine.

2. Marquette claims the Big East title with Markus Howard claiming Player of the Year honors

Let’s be real here, the Big East is seriously lacking star power and great teams this season. So picking the top talent in the conference, on an intriguing team, seems like a solid pick to win the Big East title.

It’s also not as easy as it seems. Marquette has only made one NCAA tournament appearance in four seasons under Steve Wojciechowski as they never finished about fourth in the Big East during that same span. The history just hasn’t been there in recent seasons.

But Howard has serious All-American potential and the Hausers act as great scoring compliments. The Golden Eagles also have a deep and experienced roster filled with upperclassmen who have contributed in multiple ways. Marquette has all of the pieces to make a run for the conference title. It starts with Howard sustaining his tremendous early-season play.

3. The Big East gets six teams in the Field of 68

Although the Big East is noticeably down this season in terms of top-flight teams competing for high seeds, it’s still a league that should have some solid depth once we see conference play unfold. With the league having no true bottom-feeders, the competitive Big East should be able to do enough to get six teams back into the Field of 68.

The only dilemma comes as long as teams don’t beat each other up too bad. Plenty of Big East teams are already in strong NCAA tournament range with opportunities for plenty of big wins. The conference’s scheduling format will only help. But it could also go bad if some of the middle-of-the-pack teams can’t earn a signature win and they lose to teams like Georgetown and DePaul.

Villanova, Butler and Marquette are already looking good while St. John’s is unbeaten. Creighton and Seton Hall have also earned some early quality wins but they join Providence as teams that could find themselves near the bubble come Selection Sunday.

Kansas transfer Grimes receives waiver, eligible immediately at Houston

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Maybe we now know why Houston was picked to win the AAC over Memphis.

On Tuesday, news broke that Quentin Grimes had won his appeal and received a waiver to gain immediate eligibility this season. Grimes was a top ten prospect in the Class of 2018, but after going for 21 points in the season opening Champions Classic, he struggled. In 36 games, Grimes averaged just 8.4 points and 2.0 assists while failing to prove himself a lead guard and struggling with consistency as a shooter.

Part of the reason why Grimes eventually was ruled eligible for this season was that Kansas did not have a scholarship available for him. The Jayhawks supported his eligibility throughout the process.

Grimes will get a chance at starting over with Houston, where Kelvin Sampson has proven to be exceptional at getting the most out of his backcourt. He’ll join DeJon Jarreau, one of this year’s breakout stars, and Nate Hinton in Houston’s perimeter.

With Grimes in the mix, Houston has the making of a top 20 team.

Grimes released the following statement on twitter:

Michigan State’s Langford out until January with ankle injury

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The joy of being named the No. 1 team in the AP preseason poll lasted for a matter of hours for Michigan State.

Because that’s when the Spartans found out that Joshua Langford, who missed the second half of last season, would be out for another three months after suffering a setback in his attempt to return from that ankle injury.

“It breaks my heart,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo told reporters on Tuesday. “I love Josh Langford. He’s given me everything on the court, off the court, in the classroom.”

Langford started the first 13 games last season before the ankle injury kept him out, but he was cleared to practice in full in September. But Izzo said on Tuesday that Langford’s ankle had limited him of late and that he did not play when the Spartans scrimmaged Gonzaga in Denver on Saturday.

College Basketball’s Breakout Stars: Who will be this year’s most improved players?

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One of my favorite things to do heading into a season is to put together a list of the season’s Breakout Stars. 

Sometimes, the picks are just too obvious – think De’Andre Hunter, or P.J. Washington, or Nickeil Alexander-Walker. 

Sometimes, those obvious picks just don’t pan out – like Herb Jones, or M.J. Walker, or Cane Broome.

Sometimes, a guy needs to be on the list for a couple years before he actually reaches said breakout – hi Jermaine Samuels!

Some people have strictly-defined parameters for putting together a list like this. I do not, beyond the basic principle that the player will be going from playing a role to being a star, whether that means he was a starter that will become an all-american or a bit-player slated to be a key cog on a potential Final Four team matters not.

Anyway, here are the 17 players that will be household names by the end of the year:



JERMAINE SAMUELS, Villanova

There’s an argument to make that Samuels’ breakout already happened.

It happened on February 28th of last season. Samuels popped off for a career-high 29 points, hitting five threes, as Villanova snapped a three-game losing streak by knocking off Marquette at home. During that three-game losing streak, Samuels had gone scoreless while attempting just two shots. Over the final seven games of the season, he averaged 11.0 points, cracked double-figures five times and helped lead the Wildcats to their fifth Big East regular season title and fourth Big East tournament title in the last six years.

And now the Wildcats are entering a season without Phil Booth and Eric Paschall to carry the offense while Bryan Antoine, their five-star freshman guard, is out with a shoulder injury. Someone needs to provide Villanova with some scoring. Samuels is a former top 40 recruit that picked Villanova over Duke and Kansas, that has proven the ability to put up big numbers and is a perfect fit for what Villanova’s offense has been over the course of the last half-decade. He’s a junior now. This is the year that players make the leap on the Main Line, and I’ll be ready for it.

ANDREW NEMBHARD, Florida

Everyone wants to talk about Kerry Blackshear and what his arrival will mean for Florida. What people seem to be forgetting is that Andrew Nembhard is a former five-star recruits that averaged 8.0 points and 5.4 assists as a freshman for the Gators and will be helping to fill the “role” vacated by uber-inefficient gunners Jalen Hudson and Kevaughn Allen. I think Blackshear ends up being the best player on the Gators this season, but Nembhard may end up being their MVP and their leader. On a team that projects to finish in the top ten and contend for SEC titles and the Final Four, that’s going to put him in the All-American conversation. That, to me, counts as a breakout star.

TRE JONES, Duke

This all hinges on what Jones becomes as a shooter this season. We’ve talked about this ad nauseum. I put together an entire video about it. Jones may just be the most influential player in all of college basketball this season.

TYRESE HALIBURTON, Iowa State

I’m torn about having Haliburton on this list because I’m not exactly sure how much better he can play than he did over the first three months of last season. That said, Iowa State is going to be one of the better teams in the Big 12 this season, and after a terrific performance playing for Team USA in the U-19 World Cup, Haliburton returns to Ames to play for an Iowa State team that lost pretty much everyone in front of him in the offensive pecking order.

The thing to note here is that I am not expecting Haliburton to suddenly become a guy that averages 18 points. That’s not who he is or how he plays. But I do think that there is a chance that he puts up a stat line that is somewhere around 12 points, six boards, six assists and two steals while shooting better than 40 percent from three. Put another way, we’re going to know that he is a star without having to look at the counting numbers to confirm it.

JAY HUFF, Virginia

We have talked plenty about Jay Huff and Virginia’s big guys in this space, but I think that he is in line for a massive jump this season. On the one hand, he’s actually going to be playing. Huff was in the same recruiting class as Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy. He redshirted his first year in Charlottesville, he played just twelve games as a freshman and managed to see the floor for roughly 10 minutes a night last year. With so much of Virginia’s frontcourt depth gone, he is going to be getting 30-35 minutes a night this year.

But as we talked about in the video below, it’s not just the added minutes that changes things. It’s how good Huff is as the big guy in ball-screen actions and the fact that Virginia ran a more ball-screen heavy offense last season. Huff is a 7-foot-1 rim-running, lob-catching, shot-blocking menace that also shoots threes at a 45 percent clip while being able to put the ball on the floor. He’s going to have a massive year.

ISAIAH LIVERS, Michigan

With Iggy Brazdeikis gone after his one-and-done season, Livers is going to be the guy that steps up for the Wolverines. A hyper-athletic, 6-foot-7 combo-forward, Livers is a good, versatile defensive weapon that shot 42.6 percent from three last year. Someone is going to have to step up and fill the scoring void that has been vacated by the departures, and Livers seems to be the obvious fit. I would not be shocked to see Livers showing up in NBA mock drafts at some point during this season.

DEJON JARREAU, Houston

This one is simple, really. Jarreau played just 18 minutes per game last season and still managed to put up 8.7 points and 3.3 assists despite sharing the backcourt with the likes of Corey Davis, Armoni Brooks and Galen Robinson. This year, those three are gone, which means that Jarreau is going to be the guy that the offense runs through. I think that he is up for the task, and considering Kelvin Sampson’s track record of finding a way to figure things out with his lead guards, all the dots connect.

NOJEL EASTERN, Purdue

Matt Painter has been as good as anyone in the country at finding ways to get his best players into positions where they can succeed, and I think that this year is the year that he figures out how to take advantage of the things that Eastern does well. He’s a skilled passer that has terrific size at the point and has proven the ability to take smaller guards into the post. I think that Aaron Wheeler and Trevion Williams are candidates for this list as well, but I tend to lean towards the veterans when it comes to Painter working his magic.

OCHAI AGBAJI, Kansas

This pick is not actually as easy as it may seem, and that’s because Agbaji’s emergence last season came after Udoka Azubuike went down with his wrist injury. So while Kansas is losing Dedric Lawson, among other, Azubuike is coming back and is going to demand a very large market share of the Jayhawks offense. Throw in Devon Dotson’s continued development, and the added opportunities for Agbaji may not be there. That said, I think that he is clearly the most talented perimeter player on the Jayhawks roster this season, and given his size, athleticism and ability from the perimeter, I think there is a real chance that he ends up playing major minutes as the four in this Kansas system.

Put another way, he’s definitely going to be better than he was when his redshirt was pulled midway through his first season in Lawrence, and he is definitely going to be a useful weapon for Bill Self, I just don’t see him emerging as a guy that scores 15 points per game.

COREY KISPERT and FILIP PETRUSEV, Gonzaga

These decisions somewhat hinge on whether or not Killian Tillie is back and fully healthy this season. If he is, then I think that Kispert is the guy that takes the biggest step forward for the Zags. He’s an underrated talent that has been hidden by the likes of Zach Norvell and Rui Hachimura, but he’s a guy that has the potential to be an all-WCC performer if given the opportunity. If Tillie ends up being banged up all season long, than Petrusev is the obvious pick. He’s a really talented big that will carry even more of the load without Tillie’s presence.

REGGIE PERRY, Mississippi State

After getting off to a relatively slow start to his freshman season, Perry was absolutely dominant for long stretches of SEC play. He averaged 11.2 points and 8.2 boards during conference play, posting eight double-doubles. After an offseason to develop, he should end up being the focal point of Ben Howland’s offense as a sophomore.

KIRA LEWIS, Alabama

The way that Nate Oats played at Buffalo, he gave his lead guards quite a bit of responsibility. Lewis is going to be his lead guard this season. As a 17-year old in the SEC, he averaged 13.5 points and 2.9 assists. He’s heading into his sophomore season at the same age as the kids in the Class of 2019 heading into their freshmen year.

JOE WIESKAMP, Iowa

As a freshman, Wieskamp was one of the best shooters in the Big Ten, averaging 11.1 points and shooting 42.4 percent from three. Then Iowa lost Tyler Cook to the draft and lost Isaiah Moss to transfer and look like they may have lost Jordan Bohannon for the season. Someone is going to have to score, and Wieskamp is certainly capable of that.

OSUN OSUNNIYI, St. Bonaventure

Osunniyi was one of the best defensive players in all of college basketball last season, averaging 2.7 blocks to go along with his 7.5 points and 7.6 boards. With three of the Bonnies’ top four scorers graduating, he is going to be asked to play a much bigger role this season.

NATE REUVERS, Wisconsin

There is always someone waiting in the wings in Wisconsin’s frontcourt, and this year it is Nate Reuvers. As a sophomore, playing on a team that ran their offense through Ethan Happ, Reuvers averaged 7.9 points, 3.9 boards and 1.8 blocks while shooting 38.1 percent from three. If the Badgers are going to get back to the NCAA tournament, they are going to need Reuvers to have a monster junior season.

JALEN HILL, UCLA

Hill is a bit of a reach, but someone is going to have to step up and be Mick Cronin’s frontcourt anchor, and Hill makes sense. He’s long and athletic, he can rebound and he can block shots, he can do all of the things that Cronin got out of his big men for the last 13 years in Cincinnati. There is more talent in Westwood than people realize. Hill is the perfect example of that.

Michigan’s Franz Wagner out 4-6 weeks with fractured wrist

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ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Michigan freshman Franz Wagner is expected to miss four to six weeks with a fractured right wrist.

The school said Monday a full recovery is anticipated. The 6-foot-8 Wagner is the younger brother of former Michigan standout Moe Wagner. He’s expected to be a key newcomer in the basketball team’s first season under new coach Juwan Howard.

The Wolverines open Nov. 5 against Appalachian State. They face Creighton on Nov. 12 and Louisville on Dec. 3, and play in a tournament in the Bahamas in late November. Those are all games Wagner could conceivably miss if he ends up on the long end of his recovery timeline.

Michigan opens Big Ten play Dec. 6 against Iowa.

Kansas-Missouri hoops series to resume next season in KC

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LAWRENCE, Kan. — The Border War is returning to college basketball.

The acrimonious rivalry between Kansas and Missouri, once the longest continually played series west of the Mississippi River, will resume next season in Kansas City. The schools have agreed to play six times, with four of those matchups taking place on their respective campuses.

“Having coached a lot of games versus Missouri in my time in Kansas, I could not be more excited to start this series up again,” Jayhawks coach Bill Self, who had been among the biggest reasons the teams never played, said in a statement announcing the series Monday night.

The series began in 1907 with a pair of wins by Missouri in Lawrence. The schools went on to play 269 times over 105 years. The last meeting was on Feb. 25, 2012, when the No. 4 Jayhawks rallied from a 19-point second-half deficit to beat the No. 3 Tigers in overtime at Allen Fieldhouse.

The reason the series ended can be traced to Missouri’s decision to depart its longtime home in the Big 12 for the Southeastern Conference. During a period of chaotic conference realignment, the Tigers moved to what they considered a more lucrative league — even though it made far less geographic sense — and in doing so left the Big 12 scrambling for its very survival.

Many coaches and administrators at Kansas not only took umbrage with their decision but held a grudge for years. Among them was Self, who was asked periodically over the years if he could envision playing the Tigers again, and was usually steadfast in his refusal to schedule them.

Tensions finally cooled enough that on Oct. 22, 2017, the schools agreed to play an exhibition game in Kansas City dubbed “The Showdown for Relief” to raise money for hurricane relief efforts.

Kansas won 93-87 in their first meeting in five years.

The thousands of fans who turned up for the game, coupled with the buzz it generated on both sides of the Kansas-Missouri border, piqued the interest of new Kansas athletic director Jeff Long. He was not part of the conference realignment mess and harbored no ill will toward Missouri, making him the ideal figure to help patch up relationships and ultimately resume the rivalry.

“One of the best aspects of college athletics is rivalries,” Long said. “We have quietly sought input from fans and supporters on the renewal of this series and we believe the overriding sentiments are that this historic rivalry should resume.”

After the initial game scheduled for Dec. 12, 2020, at the Sprint Center in downtown Kansas City, the schools will alternate between Allen Fieldhouse and Mizzou Arena for the next four games. The final scheduled matchup will return to Sprint Center, though it’s possible the series continues.

It’s also possible that the basketball matchups are just the beginning.

“Hopefully, this renewal on the hardwood will lead to more opportunities down the road in other sports,” Tigers athletic director Jim Sterk said. “Rivalries make college sports great, and there is no question that when Missouri and Kansas face off in any sport, it’s important to a lot of people.”