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Keonte Kennedy’s commitment gives Xavier backcourt depth

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Xavier kept its commitment from three-star guard Keonte Kennedy as he pledged to the Musketeers for a second, and final, time on Friday.

The 6-foot-4 Kennedy was originally committed and signed to Xavier back in November, but he opted to open up his recruitment in late April when former head coach Chris Mack left for Louisville. Now re-committed for next season, Kennedy gives the Musketeers a badly-needed perimeter shooting threat on its perimeter to go with Quentin Goodin and Paul Scruggs.

Joining six new players on the roster next season, new head coach Travis Steele was able to keep the original three-man recruiting class that Xavier had under Mack while also successfully recruiting three grad transfers in Columbia’s Kyle Castlin, San Jose State’s Ryan Welage and Ferris State’s Zach Hankins.

Hankins and Welage are expected to receive heavy minutes in the frontcourt while Castlin provides a former double-figure scorer from the Ivy League. Considering that Xavier lost its top five players from last season’s No. 1 seed, and this is a strong recruiting effort from Steele to fill out a depleted roster in only a few months’ time.

With so many new guys stepping into starting roles, and basically an entirely new team trying to learn how to play together, Xavier is going to be one of the more fascinating teams to track in the crowded Big East race.

 

Big East Conference Reset: Perennial powers must reload

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The NBA Draft’s Early Entry Deadline has come and gone, and there are a dozen or so truly impactful decisions that are left to be made.

Just about every elite recruit has decided where they will be playing their college ball next season.

The coaching carousel has come to a close.

The transfer market is slowly winding down.

In other words, by now, we have a pretty good feel for what college basketball is going to look like during the 2018-19 season.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at what has happened — and what will happen — in the Big East over the next six months.

KEY OFFSEASON STORYLINES

REMAINING DECISIONS: Most of the decisions have been made and have been for some time, but there are a number of outstanding calls to be made by some underclassmen mulling a pro future or a return to school. Some are big enough to factor in significantly on what 2018-19 looks like in the Big East.

With Donte Divincenzo likely gone, Omari Spellman’s stay-or-go quandry is probably the biggest among them, not just because the 6-foot-9 center averaged 10.9 points, 8 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game, but because the defending national champs are already getting hit hard by early entries. Spellman returning could be an important anchor as Villanova looks to bridge eras. He’s the connecting piece for this Villanova program.

Spellman isn’t the only one waiting out the NBA’s May 30 deadline, however, as St. John’s guard Shamorie Ponds, DePaul wing Max Strus and Georgetown center Jessie Govan remain testing the waters as major pieces to both their respective teams should they elect to return to campus.

HOW DOES VILLANOVA RELOAD?: Villanova is slated to lose at least two (potentially three) starters, one of whom was the national player of the year and another a likely lottery pick, plus the guy that scored 31 points off the bench in the national title game. That’s enough for most programs to hit the reset button without shame – two titles in three years is pretty good, after all. Villanova, though? Not Villanova.

If Spellman returns, he’ll be joined by two other national-title game starters in Phil Booth and Eric Paschall, back for the Wildcats along with a highly-regarded recruiting class highlighted by five-star guard Jahvon Quinerly and sniper Cole Swider. Villanova might not start the season as high as we initially tabbed them (No. 2) with DiVencenzo expected to stay in the draft, but they’re still going to have plenty of talent – and experience – on the roster.

HOMECOMINGS GONE AWRY: The homecoming for Chris Mullin to his alma mater St. John’s hasn’t gone exactly according to plan. The Red Storm have posted three-straight losing seasons and are 12-42 in Big East play. There have been signs of life, namely wins over Duke and Villanova last year, but the big picture results just haven’t been the improvement that was envisioned when Mullin returned to Queens in 2015. Given his legend status, Mullin has some leeway in which to operate, but the production is going to have to have to show some upward trajectory.

Dave Leitao’s second stint at DePaul has been an uninspiring one. Leitao, who left DePaul for Virginia before returning in 2015, has posted three-straight losing seasons in which getting to 11 wins last year actually signified an improvement. The team was young a year ago, but the talent level doesn’t suggest the Blue Demons are going to rocket up the Big East standings.

(Elsa/Getty Images)

WHO’S GONE?

  • JALEN BRUNSON, MIKAL BRIDGES and DONTE DIVENCENZO, Villanova: After winning its second national title in three years, Villanova was prepared to lose Brunson and Bridges, but DiVencenzo’s expected decision to stay in the draft wasn’t as predictable. Those are three huge pieces for the Wildcats, who are still awaiting the draft decision of Omari Spellman. Jay Wright may have things rolling in Philly, but that’s a massive trio – or potentially quartet – to lose and not miss too many steps.
  • MARCUS FOSTER and KHYRI THOMAS, Creighton: Marcus Foster was the better-known half of Creighton’s dynamic duo, but Thomas was just as important to the Bluejays success. The 6-foot-3 junior elected to forego his final season of eligibility after averaging 15.1 points, 4.4 rebounds and 2.8 assists while becoming a lock-down defender. His departure makes is a significant blow to the Bluejays.
  • SETON HALL’S SENIORS: Angel Delgado, Khadeen Carrington, Desi Rodriguez and Ishmael Sanogo were the core of a Seton Hall team that was the best we’ve seen from Kevin Willard to date.
  • ANDREW ROWSEY, Marquette: The 5-foot-9 dynamo was one of the most entertaining scorers in the conference last season.
  • KAISER GATES, Xavier: The Musketeers were hit hard this offseason. Trevon Bluiett, J.P. Macura and Chris Mack are all gone. But they also lose Gates, a junior who averaged 7.2 points and 4.6 rebounds per game who was expected to play a much bigger role this season.
  • MARCUS DERRICKSON, Georgetown: The Hoyas’ 6-foot-7 forward elected to go pro following a junior season in which he averaged 15.9 points and 8.1 rebounds per game.
  • KASSOUM YAKWE, St. John’s: After a promising freshman season, Yakwe’s production dipped in each of the last two years before he decided to transfer to UConn this offseason.
(Darryl Oumi/Getty Images)

WHO’S BACK?

  • MARKUS HOWARD, Marquette: A second-team all-Big East selection, Howard returns to Milwaukee for his junior season as a potential player of the year in the conference. He put up 20.4 points per game on 46.4 percent shooting from the floor and 40.4 percent from 3-point range
  • KAMAR BALDWIN, Butler: The Bulldogs guard will carry a heavy load this season, but after averaging 15.7 points per game as a sophomore, he’s proven he can fill it up with the best of them in the conference.
  • MITCHELL BALLOCK, Creighton: After having a reserve role as a freshman, Ballock figures to move into a much more significant spot for a new-look Bluejays team. He averaged just 7.3 points per game, but the 22 points he put on UCLA in November suggests he could be a big-time scorer.
  • MYLES POWELL, Seton Hall: The 6-foot-2 guard is coming off a sophomore season in which he averaged 15.5. He’ll be asked to do even more this season with Desi Rodriguez and Angel Delgado no longer on the roster. If he can be a little more efficient, he’s looking like a potential all-conference performer.
  • ALPHA DIALLO and EMMITT HOLT, Providence: Diallo had a breakout sophomore campaign in which he went from a five-point scorer to a 13-point scorer. He shot 46.6 percent from the floor and also grabbed 6.6 rebounds per game. Holt, meanwhile, missed the 2017-18 season due to injury. He averaged 12.5 points as a sophomore after transferring from Indiana.

WHO’S COMING?

  • JAHVON QUINERLY, COLE SWIDER and BRANDON SLATE, Villanova: The Wildcats may have suffered some significant losses to the pro ranks, but they’ll benefit from a highly-regarded group of incoming freshman. Quinerly is the headliner as a top-30 prospect Jay Wright undoubtedly looks at as the future of the point guard position for his program. Swider and Slate are both top-50 prospects with big futures ahead of them.
  • DAVID DUKE and A.J. REEVES, Providence: Ed Cooley has taken the Friars to five-straight NCAA tournaments and looks to have the talent to keep Providence viable in the top half of the Big East for the foreseeable future with Duke and Reeves, a pair of top-50 guards, coming into the program.
  • JAMES AKINJO, Georgetown: Previously a UConn pledge, Akinjo flipped to Patrick Ewing and the Hoyas after Kevin Ollie’s ouster. He gives Georgetown the gem of a solid four-man recruiting class
  • KYLE CASTLIN, Xavier: The Columbia graduate transfer averaged 10.5 points whiles hooting 49.6 percent from the field and 34.9 percent from distance. He gives Travis Steele talent and experience when both will be paramount in his first season at the helm in Cincinnati.
  • JOSEPH CHARTOUNY, Marquette: The 6-foot-3 guard averaged double figures in scoring in each of his three seasons with Fordham before deciding to grad transfer to the Golden Eagles.
  • QUINCY MCKNIGHT, Seton Hall: The Sacred Heart transfer sat out last season as a transfer, but he provides the Pirates with firepower. He averaged 18.9 points as a sophomore.

COACHING CHANGES

  • TRAVIS STEELE, Xavier: When Chris Mack left his alma mater to take the reins at Louisville, Steele was the natural successor. He was initially hired at X by Sean Miller and then spent nine years on Mack’s staff, going to NCAA tournaments and making a name for himself as one of the country’s top recruiters. Xavier has turned into a Midwestern power in no small part because it’s made smart hiring decisions, and Steele looks to be cut from the same cloth that made Miller and Mack prolific winners.

WAY-TOO-EARLY ALL-BIG EAST TEAM

MARKUS HOWARD, Marquette (POY)
SHAMORIE PONDS*, St. John’s
OMARI SPELLMAN*, Villanova
JESSIE GOVAN*, Georgetown
MYLES POWELL, Seton Hall

AP Photo/John Minchillo

WAY-TOO-EARLY POWER RANKINGS

1. VILLANOVA: The losses the Wildcats sustained were more than just significant, but the talent and culture remains intact in Philadelphia. Omari Spellman’s decision looms large, but a strong recruiting class – plus Jay Wright – keeps ‘Nova on top.

2. XAVIER: Another bet on culture, Xavier is another program that lost a ton, but by keeping some level of continuity by promoting Travis Steele, the Musketeers may not slip as far as you’d normally expect considering their losses. Steele has his work cut out for him, but the pieces are there to be competitive.

3. PROVIDENCE: Kyron Cartwright and Rodney Bullock are two huge names to lose, but Alpha Diallo and Emmitt Holt should be enough to carry the offensive load.

4. CREIGHTON: Greg McDermott reinvented his program the last few years, going from being among the country’s slowest-paced teams to one of the quickest. WIth the losses of Marcus Foster and Khyri Thomas, this will likely be the third chapter of his time in Omaha following this back-to-back NCAA tournaments and the Dougie McBuckets era before that.

5. SETON HALL: The Pirates will hang their hats on getting a lot of production from Myles Powell and Quincy McKnight to overcome the losses of Angel Delgado, Khadeen Carrington and Desi Rodriguez.

6. GEORGETOWN: Jessie Govan’s decision to stay or go will have a big impact on the Hoyas’ future, but Patrick Ewing’s return to to D.C. looks to be headed in the right direction.

7. BUTLER: How Kamar Baldwin goes, the Bulldogs are likely to follow. He’s going to have a ton of offensive responsibility if Butler is going to get back to the NCAA tournament in LaVall Jordan’s second season.

8. MARQUETTE: The Golden Eagles are 1-for-4 in NCAA tournament seasons under Steve Wojciechowski, and his fifth season looks to be an uphill battle to improve that percentage.

9. ST. JOHN’S: If Shamorie Ponds returns, it’s not hard to see the Red Storm outperforming this prediction. If he doesn’t, it could be another difficult year for Mullin and Co.

10. DEPAUL: The Blue Demons have three-straight losing seasons in Dave Leitao’s second go-round, and it looks as though a fourth is likely.

Four conferences sign on to basketball officiating alliance

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GREENSBORO, N.C. (AP) — Four more Division I conferences will join a men’s basketball officiating alliance formed last year by the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Big East, the Atlantic 10 and Colonial Athletic Association.

The Big South, the Ivy League, the Northeast and the Patriot League are joining ahead of the 2017-18 season, according to announcements from the leagues Thursday. The alliance launched last summer for conferences to work together on officiating matters and enhance training, development, recruitment, retention and feedback for officials.

John Cahill, the Big East’s supervisor of officials, and Bryan Kersey, the ACC’s coordinator of men’s basketball officiating, will continue to lead the alliance operations.

ACC commissioner John Swofford says the new additions to the alliance “provide an even greater opportunity to build chemistry and quality” across the officiating ranks.

Creighton’s Khyri Thomas posterizes defender

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Creighton rising junior wing Khyri Thomas, like several of his teammates, are taking part in the Omaha Summer League this offseason.

On Thursday night, the 6-foot-3, 205-lb. Thomas eviscerated a defender with a one-handed posterization.

Thomas is coming off a breakout sophomore campaign for the Bluejays. He started all 35 games, averaging 12.3 points, 5.8 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.5 steals per game. Aside from the increase in offensive production, Thomas served as one of the top defenders in the Big East. He shared the Big East Defensive Player of the Year Award with Villanova’s Josh Hart and Mikal Bridges.

Five Things We Learned This Week: Malik Monk, Justin Jackson and Aaron Holiday

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1. Malik Monk is the most dangerous scorer in college basketball: We all saw the 47 points that he scored, right?

And if you didn’t see it you’ve at least heard about it by now, correct?

On Saturday, squaring off against No. 7 North Carolina, Monk went 18-for-28 from the floor and 8-for-12 from three en route to a 47-point eruption, which included a pair of threes in the final two minutes to give the Wildcats a 103-100 win. I honestly cannot remember an individual performance as impressive – I’m sure there’s been one – and it’s critical for the Wildcats for two reasons:

  1. That vaunted Kentucky defense doesn’t look so scary all of a sudden. In the two games they’ve played against elite competition, the Wildcats have now given up 197 points in 162 possessions, or 1.216 PPP, which is a pretty bad number. If this group is going to make a deep tournament run, they’re going to be playing in games where they will need to score in the 90s to win, and I think Monk has proven that he’s capable and unafraid of being the guy to carry this team.
  2. Monk is far and away the most effective player this Kentucky team has in half court settings. Coach Cal knows this, which is why he put in set plays to run specifically to ensure that Monk would get the ball in a spot where he can do some damage. They worked. The key to beating this Kentucky team is keeping them out of transition, where they are just too fast to defend. Forcing them to execute in the half court is the better option given some of the issues they have with perimeter shooting and floor-spacing, but if Monk is going to consistently be able to score when plays are run for him, it makes UK that much more effective offensively.
LAS VEGAS, NV - DECEMBER 17: Justin Jackson #44 of the North Carolina Tar Heels drives to the basket against De'Aaron Fox #0 of the Kentucky Wildcats during the CBS Sports Classic at T-Mobile Arena on December 17, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Kentucky won 103-100. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Justin Jackson. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

2. UNC’s stars gave us reason to believe in them: We learned just how valuable Joel Berry II was last week, when North Carolina struggled at home with Davidson and Tennessee as Berry nursed an injured ankle back to health. If that didn’t prove it to you, then his 23 points and seven assists on Saturday against Kentucky should have.

Berry was terrific.

He was also the second-best player on North Carolina that day, as junior wing Justin Jackson went for a career-high 34 points and kept the Tar Heels within striking distance while their front court seemingly spent the entire game battling foul trouble. That matters, because it is really the first time against competition like this that Jackson has shown that he’s capable of throwing the Tar Heels on his back and carrying them. He damn near led them to a win, too; his three with two minutes left to give UNC their first lead since the opening seconds will go down as one of the biggest shots he’ll ever make even if it doesn’t matter at this point.

The bottom line is this: I’m not sold on UNC’s front court. I think that the Tar Heels were a bit overrated after the way they started the season. But Jackson and Berry very nearly dragged this team to a come-from-behind win over a really good Kentucky team that had a star player going all NBA Jam. That’s notable even in a loss.

RELATED: Player of the Week | Team of the Week | Five Takeaways

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3. Aaron Holiday is the best sixth-man in the country: There are 351 Division I programs in college basketball. There are, at most, five or six programs where Holiday wouldn’t step in and immediately start in their back court. There probably aren’t 20 teams in America where he wouldn’t be the best player on the roster. And yet, Holiday – the younger brother of NBA guards Jrue and Justin – is content working as UCLA’s sixth-man as a sophomore after starting his freshman season.

In fact, he’s more than content. He’s thriving, averaging 14.4 points, 4.1 assists and 1.4 steals. He’s shooting 53.3 percent from three, which leads the team. He’s playing more than 26 minutes a night. He had a team-high 20 points in UCLA’s win over Ohio State. He had 13 points and four assists in the first half of the win at Kentucky, his play changing the course of the game.

It works because of his versatility. He can replace any of Lonzo Ball, Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton and do what they do. He is a point guard by trade, but he’s also capable of playing off the ball as a shooter and can score when he puts the ball on the floor. He’s also a very good on-ball defender, which isn’t necessarily the case for the rest of UCLA’s perimeter. He’s clearly not this team’s MVP, but the Bruins would not be where they are right now without him.

Not just because of his skill set.

But because he embraced the “demotion” of coming off the bench.

4. Can Notre Dame close out games?: Two Saturdays in a row now we’ve seen the Fighting Irish jump out to big first half leads against two of the best teams in the country, and two Saturdays in a row we’ve seen them give those leads right back. The Irish blew an 11-point first half lead against Villanova two weeks ago, following that up by losing to Purdue after holding a 14 point lead at the break.

Point guard Matt Farrell, who has starred in both of those games, was blunt when he asked what happened.

“I think it’s just toughness,” he said. “This is two times now we’ve had double-digit leads and it’s come down to defensive rebounding and we haven’t done that. That’s just toughness.”

“I feel like we got comfortable at halftime just like we did in the Villanova game. We can’t get comfortable, especially if we’re up by 15, we gotta make that jump, extend the lead. It’s all about toughness and winning close games.”

The Irish watched Josh Hart put together the best performance we saw this season pre-Malik Monk. They then let Caleb Swanigan get loose against them on Saturday. On a team without much proven size and with a star big man that tops out at about 6-foot-6 on a good day, it’s worth wondering whether Notre Dame has the physicality inside to be able to handle games against teams like that.

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - DECEMBER 17: Matt Farrell #5 of Notre Dame shoots the ball during the game against the Purdue Boiermakers in the Crossroads Classic at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on December 17, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Matt Farrell Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

5. The Big East is as good as it has been since the split: I think that this is the best that we’ve seen the Big East since it split off from the AAC. Villanova, the reigning national champs, are a threat to repeat. Creighton is still undefeated and find themselves ranked in the top 15. The Bluejays have usurped Xavier’s title as Villanova’s biggest threat in the league, although that may change when Myles Davis is allowed to play again. Then there’s Butler, who is the proud owner of the best résumé in the conference, with wins against Indiana, Arizona, Cincinnati, Northwestern and at Utah.

There is a valid argument to make that that top four may actually be better than the top four teams in the ACC.

There also appears to be more depth in the conference than in recent years. Seton Hall is a tough, veteran group that landed a brand-name win last week, handing South Carolina their first loss of the season. Providence is 9-2 on the year with a win over Rhode Island. Georgetown had some struggles early on in the year but just won at Syracuse over the weekend. Marquette probably isn’t looking at a tournament trip this season, but they certainly aren’t going to be pushovers this year. DePaul is DePaul and St. John’s is a tire fire, but overall, there is a lot to like about the league this season.

Big East releases conference slate

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The Big East will open conference play with a quartet of games, headlined by the defending-national champions.

Villanova will host DePaul (6:30 ET), Providence visits Xavier (7 p.m.), Creighton welcomes Seton Hall ( 8 p.m.) and Georgetown goes to Marquette (8:30 p.m.) on Dec. 28, to tip off league play, it was announced Tuesday.

Other highlights include Xavier travelling to Georgetown on New Year’s Eve, Xavier at Villanova on Jan. 10, the five-game Big East marathon on Jan. 16 and Villanova at Xavier on Feb. 11.

The Big East tournament runs March 8-11.

Click here for the full schedule.