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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.

Gavitt Games features national title game rematch

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Nothing like news in May of a national championship rematch to get you excited about November.

Michigan and Villanova, which battled for the NCAA tournament title in March, headline the Big East and Big Ten matchups of the Gavitt Games, which were announced Tuesday.

‘Nova bested the Wolverines, 79-62, in San Antonio to win its second national championship in three years. The Wildcats will be without Mikal Bridges and Jalen Brunson, both of whom are pursuing NBA careers, but they’re still a national-title contender in 2019 as the No. 2 team in our preseason top 25. Michigan landed just outside at No. 26.

Not a bad little non-conference matchup.

In other notable games, Wisconsin and Xavier will meet in a rematch of a memorable 2016 second-round NCAA tournament matchup while Ohio State will visit Creighton and Marquette will head to Indiana.

 

2018 Gavitt Tipoff Games Schedule

Tuesday, Nov. 13

Georgetown at Illinois

Wisconsin at Xavier

Wednesday, Nov. 14

Michigan at Villanova

Seton Hall at Nebraska

Marquette at Indiana

Thursday, Nov. 15

Ohio State at Creighton

Penn State at DePaul

Friday, Nov. 16

St. John’s at Rutgers

 

2018 NCAA Tournament: Azubuike’s presence huge as No. 1 Kansas holds off No. 8 Seton Hall

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It turns out Kansas is a whole heck of a lot better when Udoka Azubuike is in the floor.

Who knew?

The sophomore center returned Saturday for extended minutes after being limited with a knee injury to help the No. 1 Jayhawks to a 83-79 win over No. 8 Seton Hall to earn a spot in the Sweet 16.

Azubuike had 10 points, seven rebounds and two blocks, but the strongest stat in his column was his plus-minus. When he was on the floor, Kansas bested the Pirates by 21 points. When he was off, the Jayhawks got outscored by 17, and there is noise in that number as Seton Hall continued to put them on the foul line in the last minute with Azubuike on the bench.

The 7-footer’s importance to Kansas has been apparent all season, but it was even starker against the Pirates, whose Angel Delgado feasted when Azubuike wasn’t on the floor.  Seton Hall’s double-double machine finished with 24 points and 23 rebounds, but it wasn’t enough to power the Pirates into next week. Neither was Khadeen Carrington’s 28 points, all but two of which came after halftime.

Azubuike’s critical role for Kansas is three-fold. First, he’s very talented. Second, he makes the four-out offense possible. Third, the drop-off behind him – apologies to Mitch Lightfoot and Silvio De Sousa – is rather significant.

Kansas, which got 28 points from Malik Newman, has to play a very specific way offensively with guard-heavy roster. The Jayhawks have to get up a ton of 3s, and they’ve got to make a bunch of them. Without Azubuike in the middle drawing attention and making it difficult for defenders to stay hugged-up on shooters on the perimeter, the architecture of the offense can crumble in on itself.

Azubuike certainly isn’t a perfect or dominant player, but he rebounds well, blocks shots and makes about three-quarters of his shots. Which, of course, means he fits his role perfectly for maybe the most vulnerable Kansas team in Bill Self’s tenure. The Jayhawks’ margin for error, at least at this juncture against the competition they’re going to see in Omaha, is pretty small. Deviate from the plan and things can get away from them quickly. Duke and Michigan State, Kansas’ presumptive opponents in the Elite Eight, will punish them for any missteps or holes in their gameplan.

Azubuike is the linchpin. When he’s in place, things hold together. When he’s not, there’s trouble.

Saturday’s tip times and TV assignments released

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With Day 1 in the books, Saturday’s times and TV assignments have been announced for teams looking to book a trip to the Sweet 16. All times Eastern.

Pittsburgh: Kevin Harlan, Reggie Miller, Dan Bonner and Dana Jacobson

  • 12:10 p.m.: No. 1 Villanova vs. No. 9 Alabama, CBS
  • 2:40 p.m.: No. 2 Duke vs. No. 7 Rhode Island, CBS

Boise: Brian Anderson, Chris Webber and Lisa Byington

  • 5:15 p.m.: No. 5 Kentucky vs. No. 13 Buffalo, CBS
  • 7:45 p.m.: No. 4 Gonzaga vs. No. 5 Ohio State, CBS

Dallas: Spero Dedes, Steve Smith, Len Elmore and Ros Gold-Onwude

  • 6:10 p.m.: No. 3 Tennessee vs. No. 11 Loyola (Chicago), TNT
  • 8:40: No. 3 Texas Tech vs. No. 6 Florida, TNT

Wichita: Brad Nessler, Steve Lavin and Evan Washburn

  • 7:10 p.m.: No. 1 Kansas vs. No. 8 Seton Hall, TBS
  • 9:40 p.m.: No. 3 Michigan vs. No. 6 Houston, TBS

No. 8 Seton Hall keeps No. 9 NC State at arm’s length in win

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Try as they might, NC State could just never close the gap.

Eighth-seeded Seton Hall topped the No. 9 Wolfpack, 94-83, by staking itself to a lead and keeping NC State at bay throughout the day.

The Pirates never trailed and led by as many as 13 points in the second half as Kadeem Carrington had 24 points and Desi Rodriguez 18 to advance to a second-round date Saturday against the Midwest’s top seed, Kansas, in its home state.

The Wolfpack trimmed the lead to as few as three in the second half and had a fleeting moment of optimism when they got within six points with under two minutes to play, but Seton Hall always had an answer, turning them away at every turn.

What should have been the matchup of the day, NC State’s Omer Yurtseven vs. Seton Hall’s Angel Delgado, never really got off the ground. Both players fouled out, but Delgado clearly had the better day with 13 points and nine rebounds to the two points and two rebounds for Yurtseven, who managed to play just 14 minutes.

NC State’s loss will overshadow a spectacular performance from senior Allerick Freeman. The Baylor transfer had 36 points on 12 of 19 shooting, including going 6 of 8 from 3-point range while playing all 40 minutes.

The Wolfpack finish 21-12 this season, having lost three of their last four games.

Seton Hall’s attention will now turn to the weekend with the Jayhawks waiting. Delgado figures to be a problem from Kansas if center Udoka Azubuike is limited with the knee injury that kept him out of the Big 12 tournament and limited him just three minutes in KU’s NCAA tournament opener against Penn. The matchup could pivot on that position with both teams strong on the perimeter and wing.

The Pirates have been solid in chasing teams off the 3-point line, which will be paramount against Kansas. The Jayhawks are reliant on taking and making a ton of 3s while Seton Hall has been successful in limiting opponents’ attempts.

Kansas’ defense hasn’t exactly been elite either, and with Seton Hall putting up 91 on NC State, Bill Self will no doubt be concerned about how his team will fare on that end of the floor this weekend.

2018 NCAA Tournament: Big men that will break your bracket

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There’s a line of thinking that the NCAA tournament is a guard’s game, and there’s ample evidence of its veracity when we look back at runs by Kemba Walker’s UConn, Kris Jenkins and and Josh Hart’s Villanova and Russ Smith’s Louisville in recent years. Don’t, though, forget the big guys. Here’s a list of post presences that could help determine a national champion – and your bracket pool winner.

Marvin Bagley III, Duke: The Blue Devils freshman was the toast of the sport early in the season before being overshadowed by Trae Young, but he’s been consistently great. He’s great around the bucket, good enough from distance to keep defenses honest and rebounds at a high level. He may not be June’s No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft, but he ain’t slipping past five, either.

Deandre Ayton and Dusan Ristic, Arizona: This is about as close to a throwback frontcourt as you’ll see – despite the fact that Ayton fits well enough in the modern game to be a potential No. 1 pick in June. It’s rare that a team can put two seven-footers on the floor and make it work, but Arizona’s pair can make it work. Still, it’s Ayton that fuels this pairing as he’s established himself as a dominant force inside and capable of keeping the Wildcats moving through the bracket.

Michael Porter, Jr., Missouri: Jontay Porter and Jeremiah Tilmon held down the fort inside all season long for the Tigers, but they’re now adding Michael Porter, Jr. to the mix – which could either make them fearsome up front or create a rocky fit. It’s one of the big bets of the NCAA tournament that coach Cuonzo Martin is making here. The upside is massive given Porter, Jr.’s talent.

Isaac Haas, Purdue: It’s pretty astounding that the Boilermakers lost Caleb Swanigan, one of the best big men the sport has seen in recent years, and somehow had a better season. Isaac Haas is a big reason why. The 7-foot-2 senior is on the floor more this year without Swanigan now that coach Matt Painer doesn’t have to juggle the two big men, and Haas has upped his production as a result. His size and skill bends the defense like few other players in the country.

Jaren Jackson and Nick Ward, Michigan State: Jackson is the darling of NBA scouts with his modern game while Ward is a more traditional big man – together they make up an incredibly dynamic and productive frontcourt for the Spartans. Ward is the country’s most prolific offensive rebounder and Jackson is one of the top shotblockers in the nation. And both shoot better than 60 percent from the floor.

(Rey Del Rio/Getty Images)

Luke Maye, North Carolina: Maye went from a nice story on last year’s national champion Tar Heels to one of the most productive players in the country this year. He’s averaging a double-double of 17.2 points and 10.1 rebounds as his role has exploded from bit player to star for coach Roy Williams.

Killian Tillie, Gonzaga: With all the turnover off last year’s national runners-up, Tillie has seen his role and his production trend way up. He’s one of the most efficient scorers in the country with a true-shooting percentage of 68.2, which is top-10 nationally. He’s not as proficient as a shotblocker and rebounder, but he’s a major problem for defenses.

Udoka Azubuike, Kansas: The Jayhawks’ roster is incredibly dependent on Azubuike given the dearth of other options inside, making his health status one of the more important subplots of the NCAA tournament. The sophomore missed the Big 12 tournament due to a knee injury, but is expected to return to the court this week. His presence inside really facilitates Kansas’ guard-oriented and 3-point heavy approach.

Mike Daum, South Dakota State: The 6-foot-9 Jackrabbit may be the best mid-major player in the tournament. He’s a high-usage player with a 59.5 true shooting percentage and rebounds on the defensive end at a high rate. His athleticism isn’t going to wow anyone, but his ability to score at every level and in unique ways makes him an incredibly tough cover. If South Dakota State turns into this year’s Cinderella, it’ll be Daum who fit them with the glass slipper.

(Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Angel Delgado, Seton Hall: The 6-foot-10 senior is a double-double machine, averaging 13.3 points and 11.6 rebounds per game. His prowess on the glass is what separates him from the rest of the big man pack as he’s elite on both the offensive and defensive ends on the floor in that area. He’s not a prolific scorer, but he creates extra shots for the Pirates and limits those extra opportunities for their opponents.

Tyler Davis and Robert Williams, Texas A&M: Another super-sized frontcourt that harkens back to a different era of basketball. Both of these guys are great around the rim, but not threats from the 3-point arc. Williams is a fantastic shotblocker while Davis is a great offensive rebounder.

Mohamed Bamba, Texas: Bamba appears to have healed up from a sprained toe and will try to help the Longhorns escape the first weekend of the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2012. The 6-foot-11 freshman with an expansive wingspan is one of the most impactful defenders in the country as an elite shotblocker. His offensive game lags behind his defense, but he is capable of causing headaches for opponents on that end as well.