Sunday, February 1, 2009

Big East at the Eighth Poll

Through Friday, every team played at least 7 games, while three have posted their first 9. Every member of the conference should have 9 in the book by the end of this week. So how is the season shaping up?

Big EastOverall
Marquette 701.000182.900
West Virginia44.500156.714
Notre Dame36.333128.600
Seton Hall26.250119.550
St. John's26.250119.550
South Florida 26.250713.350

Pleasant Surprises
The conference is tough on first year coaches, especially those coming in from mid-major conferences; the only really good first season lately that I can remember was the one posted by John Thompson III. So I was not that optimistic about the prospects for Marquette and Providence in the face of their HC turnovers in the off season. I rated both about a quartile lower than I thought they would have done with their original coaches. Looks like I was wrong as Buzz Williams and Keeno Davis have their squads off to very good starts (despite the Friars' loss to Connecticut Saturday). Marquette, a bit shaky back in December (watching the Warriors versus the Vols in the BE-SEC Challenge was painful) is on track to get two byes in the Big East Tournament. Other surprises (albeit to a lesser degree) include Connecticut, which I thought would be 1st quartile, but not the #1 ranked team in the country (if the voters cooperate on Monday) & Pittsburgh, which also topped the D1 rankings for a week or so last month.

No Surprises
At the top of the conference, the nod goes to Louisville, and in the 2nd quartile, to Villanova, West Virginia and Syracuse. The Orange Nation might have expected more from their team, especially after the high rankings in the D1 polls (and the fast start to the Big East season), but they have hit a glitch or two in the past week, including another injury to Andy Rautins (principal outside threat whose absence last season reduced their offense to an inside game) and a 1-4 skid during a challenging portion of their schedule. I had pegged Georgetown to finish in the 3rd quartile and they are sitting there now complements of a five game losing streak. Observer columnist Howard Megdal ruminates on the Hoya's (and the Irish -- more on them in the next section...) in his Big East Bubble Teams column of 1/31. Early season (OOC) success combined with MSM acclimation may have raised expectations for the Hoya faithful, but after the cheering subsides, the Hoyas have a young, uninitiated front court (ie Monroe & Vaughn) combined with a young point guard. The bumps were bound to come. The major part of the 4th quartile (South Florida, St. John's and DePaul) are about where they where I suspected they would be. The Blue Demon's collapse this season was a bit more extreme than I expected. There is a good deal of season left, but Coach Wainwright has to be feeling the heat right now (especially with the loss to Rutgers, not noted in my standings, on Saturday).

Unpleasant Surprises
Just when I finally got on the Irish band wagon the wheels fall off. For the past two seasons I have projected the Irish somewhere in the #9-#12 spots (a 3rd quartile finish). And twice they proved me wrong by finding a defense (which I dubbed the "Just Enough Defense"...) which allowed their potent and high speed offense to turn games into blowouts, rather than road races. When Rob Kurz graduated someone should have checked his bags before he left campus. He seems to have packed up the defense and taken it with him. Luke Harangody would benefit from a second body down low to challenge defenders to block out. Challenging Notre Dame for most disappointing (for my projections...) is Rutgers. Granted my projection for the Scarlet Knights was modest enough -- the 3rd quartile as opposed to a 4th quartile finish. But having waded 9 games into the season to log their first win (against DePaul no less) is not a good sign for their prospects. They lost the first round of The Battle of New Jersey on Thursday night (on the road), but have a second try against Seton Hall in a week or so. They also host fellow 4th quartile dweller South Florida in late February. Those two may be their best prospects for a win in the second half of the season.

Pythagoras Says
Ken Pomeroy prefers to use overall points for and against when using the pythagorean winning percentage formula for projecting wins and finishes. It makes sense for the season, but given the Big East's dominance in D1 (indeed a "more wins than losses" distortion occurs with respect to most of the power conferences...), so using conference results only provides a less distorted apportionment of the wins/losses. The results through Thursday evening yield a season ending standing that looks like:

Marquette 153
West Virginia126
Notre Dame711
Seton Hall414
St. John's315

Little here that is especially startling, given the 1st half, but seeing Connecticut finish 2nd and Georgetown and Notre Dame finish with double digit losses seems overly pessimistic for all three schools. Cardinal fans may disagree with the first note, and while over reliance on freshmen and no defense may seem daunting challenges at this point, neither is impossible to fix. There is still time.

Half Time Observations
1. The teams making the best showings so far feature upper classmen leaders. The juniors & seniors have (with an exception or two) pushed the freshmen to the side. Consider the "underperformance" of several of the teams that rely heavily on freshmen/transfers to step into leadership roles with graduations and transfers. Are those long learning curves really that surprising, especially given the number of very experienced squads featured this season?
2. Defense seems to dominate play so far. The Marquette -- Georgetown game on Saturday is a notable exception as each team registered efficiency ratings > 1.10 points per possession (ppp, sometimes designated ORtg and DRtg), the Hoyas registering a very respectable 1.16, but falling to the Warriors because they could not stop Matthews, McNeal (and Hayward) as those three shot/scored to the tune of 1.33, one of the highest for a game I have seen in the Big East this season.

Thoughts About Post Season Teams
1. Notre Dame's Luke Harangody may take the POY award on inertia. He is after all, having a very good individual season and got the nod in the preseason. But Marquette's Jerel McNeal is having one of those seasons. The senior has posted a series of eye-catching performances, and unlike the Irish, the Golden Eagles (thinking of Marquette's three senior guards, how could anyone seriously not think of Marquette as the Warriors?) are among the elites in the conference this season, and McNeal is a big reason why they are there.
2. Preseason ROYs were Samardo Samuels and Greg Monroe. No one has emerged to challenge those two, though Samuels may have the advantage now with the Hoyas in a slump. The All Rookie Team may well be front court (#5) heavy as Monroe, Samuels, Rutger's Greg Echenique, Cincinnati's Yancy Gates and South Florida's Gus Gilchrist have all carved out large amounts of playing time as starters and contributors. The strongest candidates among the forwards (but not centers...) include West Virginia's Devon Ebanks and Louisville's Jared Swopshire. Late bloomers among the freshmen frontcourt players include Syracuse's Kris Joseph, Georgetown's Jason Clark, Louisville's Terrence Jennings, Georgetown's Henry Sims and South Florida's Eladio Espinosa, all of whom have begun to find their way into the regular rotation. Espinosa has logged several starts as USF coach Stan Heath juggles the lineup in the face of injuries. The best back court candidates include Connecticut's Kemba Walker, Rutger's Mike Rosario, St. John's Quincy Roberts and West Virginia's Darryl Bryant, the last two pressed into duty when injuries sidelined their squad's starters. A few contributors who may get votes include South Florida's Justin Leemow, St. John's Tyshwan Edmondson, Cincinnati's Dion Dixon, DePaul's Jeremiah Kelly and Pitt's two freshmen guards, Ashton Gibbs and Travon Woodall.
3. Villanova's Dante Cunningham has had a tremendous half and has garnered a comment or two in the ink and electronic media. If he maintains the momentum he will most likely play himself onto one of the three All Big East teams.

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