Monday, August 15, 2016

#CatsInSpain -- 5 Takeaways

The Seniors Will Lead (Along with Jalen Brunson)

I think this trip gives Josh (Hart) and Kris (Jenkins) to really get a sense of what it means to be a senior captain in this program.
-- Jay Wright, 8/1/2016

The Villanova coach got his wish as Hart definitely emerged as the go-to guy on the tour. Hart was the leading scorer in each of the three Wildcat wins, and as his individual stats suggest, the offense looked to him for buckets when needed. The table below charts his production in each of the three games:

Hart% MinPoss %Off RatingPPWSeFG%OR%TO%A RateFT RateDR%
Game #167.526.0108.51.3063.612.314.316.427.316.5
Game #285.034.8110.21.3769.417.417.423.522.230.4
Game #365.034.1111.51.4765.411.021.28.946.236.4

The second game was the most competitive (87-80 Villanova) and Hart's minutes and possession rates increased accordingly. "Josh was dominant, by far the best player on the floor today...when we needed a bucket, we went to him every time and he came through." stated Villanova head coach Jay Wright after the game. The numbers back up what the coach's eyes saw -- a 35% possession rate combined with a shot rate of 33.4% and an assist rate of 23.5% -- the wing powered the offense either by taking the shot or passing to the open player. Hart's 27 points represented 31% of Villanova's points that Sunday. Hart's possession rate in all three games was higher than should be expected in regular season play (Villanova is in trouble if Hart is reponsible for more than 24-25% of the teams' possessions) that he could assume that large a role and do it without loss of efficiency (note his Off Ratings in games #2 and #3) is especially promising for the season as they suggest he can assume an even larger role in the offense (his possession rate, per Pomeroy, was 23.6 with an offensive rating of 117.7 -- #5 on Pomeroy's list of POYs) without loss of efficiency. The Big East has at least five legitimate candidates for Player of the Year, but Hart will most likely be named the favorite on Media Day next October.

2. The #5 is Unresolved.
This question surrounding the center position took two more twists on the eve of the trip as Villanova revealed that Omari Spellman had eligibility questions (unrelated to academic achievement) even as they announced that Darryl Reynolds would not make the trip due to a late injury incurred in practice. Reynolds should be healed before Fall Practice, but Spellman's eligibility questions may bleed into the season. For the tour Wright had the opportunity to take a long look at freshman Dylan Painter, a 6'9" 215 pound center out of Hershey Pennsylvania. The results were mixed:

Painter% MinPoss %Off RatingPPWSeFG%OR%TO%A RateFT RateDR%
Game #165.021.5114.61.4266.717.117.95.722.28.5
Game #245.09.1120.01.0450.
Game #365.010.866.70.8040.05.516.

Painter struggled with early foul trouble in game #2, but the video also suggests he struggled versus more experienced opponents. Note his defensive rebounding numbers in games #1 and #3 were well below an expected rebounding rate for Division 1 centers and his possession rate imploded versus the more competitive teams in games #2 and #3. If the video of game #2 is a good indication, Painter also struggles with the switching intricacies of Villanova's man-to-man defense (hardly surprising given that even the veterans miss assignments early in the season). This is not a knock on Painter. He is a freshman as the numbers suggest and will improve with conditioning and experience.

If Painter drew most of the minutes during the tour, Eric Paschall was the designated starter at the #5 for each of the three games. Fans finally saw the 6'7" 240 pound transfer out of Fordham perform under (exhibition) game conditions, even if the (normally) stretch #4 was playing up a position:

Paschall% MinPoss %Off RatingPPWSeFG%OR%TO%A RateFT RateDR%
Game #152.519.4105.31.2157.
Game #
Game #355.032.0112.31.3868.26.513.40.072.728.7

Like Painter, Paschall struggled with his low post counterparts in game #2, but managed better rebounding rates even as his possession rate dropped. Through all three games Paschall shot 15-26 from the field, but only 1-10 from beyond the arc (the lone conversion came in game #3). He appears to be a more mobile version of JayVaughn Pinkston, a starter who also rotated between #4 and #5 but graduated in 2015 along with Darrun Hilliard. In a post game #2 column NBC's Rob Dauster opined about a Villanova version of Golden State's Death Lineup of Brunson, Phil Booth, Hart, Mykal Bridges and Kris Jenkins. but I think if Paschall can find the range, he would fit in at the #5 better than either Jenkins or Bridges. He has three more months to work on it. As for a more proto-typical low post rotation, the Wildcats have about 92 days, to idenfiy and develop it, or find a reasonable alternative.

3. Jay Wright Loves to Play Two Ball Handling Guards Together
And he will have that option again this season with Jalen Brunson and Phil Booth. Each started and alternated the ball handling responsibilities in each of the three exhibition games. Brunson was on the floor consistently for at least 75% of the available time (Burson averaged 31 minutes per game), Booth was plagued by turnovers and poor shooting in game #2 and poor shooting in game #3. The junior guard registered assist rates of 30%, 25% and 23.3% in each of the games, suggesting that when he looks for teammates he can find them.

4. Mykal Bridges is the Early Favorite for Big East Sixth Man
Who will start continues to be one of the favorite off season pasttimes of the Nova Nation, and Mikal Bridges has a loyal contingent who have slotted him at the #3 or #4 (with Hart and/or Jenkins playing down). Bridges will be first off the bench however, without a doubt. On a roster with the (publicly anyway) avowed philosophy of "positionless basketball", Bridges, a natural #3, is the only player who can legitimately play up or down two positions from his spot. Seeing him dribble versus pressure would make me nervous as would seeing him defend against a legitimate 260 pound 6'11" center, but Bridges can cover either for shot stretches. And that makes him far more valuable as a "first in" substitute than a starter. Villanova has had success with versitile sophomore sixth men as Josh Hart and Phil Booth can attest. Bridges can be that and more, as Wright will have some flexibility when deciding who to take out. Bridges, when he subs in, will force the opposing coach to reassess the match ups and adjust. Advantage Villanova.

5. Turnovers...Life Without Arch
Villanova's turnover rate in 2015-16 was 16.1%, due in no small measure to senior point guard Ryan Arcideacono's 14.1% turnover rate, coupled with equally impressive TO rates of 13.3% and 12.7% from Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins repsectively. Arch is gone to the NBA, Jalen Brunson and Phil Booth will be tasked with insuring that continues this season. Villanova's evolution to a perimeter-oriented offense means there will be fewer second chance opportunities (offensive rebounds) and oppertunities for points at the free throw line (for the four factors followers that means a lower free throw rate), which places a greater emphasis on lower turnover rates as well. The Wildcats will have to insure that the maximum possible possessions end with a field goal (or free throw) attempt.

Keeping in mind this was a three game exhibition tour, the turnover rates logged (see table below) suggest there is room for improvement:
Game #12024.923.814.313
Game #
Game #327.152.442.221.232

The 'Cats no doubt left Spain with three wins, a good many fond memories and several notebooks of areas for improvement that will, no doubt be areas of emphasis when working in small groups and later in team practices. The team will not start where they left off from last spring. They will be another work in progress this season.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

#CatsInSpain -- Villanova 89-49 Spain Barcalona All-Stars Revisited

The Complete Stat Sheet
For those who wish to review the entire game, Villanova has provided a video feed of the game and a completed box score that actually provides a few more details than your typical collegiate box score. With the more complete box score we also learned that...
1. Computed possession for the game is 80 -- consistent with exhibition games. Pomeroy listed the average possession rate for Division 1 games in 2015-16 at about 69 possessions. Villanova's possession rate was 66.5 (below) the Division 1 average. Exhibitions due possibly to the difference in level of play/skill tend to be higher, as much as 25% higher than the team might play versus comparable competition in Division 1 games. Versus the Barcelona All-Stars, the possessions were 20% more than they typically took last season.
2. For those wondering about the level of competition or comparable play, the closest game from last season might Villanova's 91-54 win over Fairleigh Dickinson to open the 2015-16 season. The 'Cats and Green Knights played for 77 possessions apiece with the 'Cats winning by 37 points.
3. The offensive efficiency rate (points scored per possession) was 1.11, actually lower than last season's average of 1.23 (again, per Pomeroy). While a little surprising given the ease of the win, this can also be attributed to simple lack of practice and a four month layoff of play in game situations. Versus FDU for example, the 'Cats dominated the game throughout, but still scored at a 1.18 rate.
4. The defensive efficiency (points per possession at which the opponents scored) was 0.61, good news for the "defense first" advocates among the Villanova faithful. For those looking for comparisons, the defensive efficiency rate versus FDU was 0.60, so the defense appears to be pretty close to season opening level, an observation consistent with onsite accounts of the game.
5. The turnover rate for the 'Cats was 19.9, high by last season's standards (and very high compared to the FDU game). Where the breakdowns occured might help direct future practices. The 'Cats turned over the Barcelona All-Stars at a 26.1 rate, well above the defensive turnover rate last season (20.6), and the rate registered versus FDU (16.9).

For those wondering if the strong showing is confirmation that Villanova is well on its way to a second National Title, exhale please. These are exhibition games which rarely confirm a great team. They more frequently expose weaker teams rather than affirm stronger teams. Losing an exhibition game can identify areas where the team may struggle versus even stronger competition.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

#CatsInSpain: Day 2, Exhibition 1

A Very Brief Recap
The Villanova Wildcats defeated a Spanish Select team 89-49 in the first of three exhibition games they will play on their eight day tour of Spain. The game, played in the Palau Municipal d’Esport Badalona, home court for the Divina Seguros Joventut of the ACB League in Badalona, drew an exhibition-sized crowd as Villanova, playing the first game since winning the NCAA National Championship last April, outscored and out rebounded (49 to 29) a team composed of players drawn from teams in Spain's ACB League, their top tier professional league. The ACB is ranked in the top three leagues in Europe. Josh Hart paced the Wildcats with a 16 point performance that included 5-11 shooting (2-5 from beyond the arc) and 3-4 from the free throw line. Hart also collected seven rebounds and dished three dimes while pacing Villanova to their 40 point win. Hart was one of four Villanova players to score double digit points. Rising sophomore Jalen Brunson scored 15 points in 30 minutes of play and led the team with five assists, freshman Dylan Painter added 14 points on 6-9 shooting and rising sophomore Mikal Bridges chipped in 12 points in 24 minutes while gathering four rebounds, three steals and two assists. The Wildcats led 56-26 at half-time. After opening the game 0-2 to the Spaniards Villanova went on a 9-0 run to take a lead that they never relinquished.

The starting lineup included three 2015-16 starters, Jalen Brunson, Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins, from the championship game and two new starters, rising junior Phil Booth, Villanova's sixth man in 2015-16 and red shirt sophomore Eric Paschall, a Fordham transfer who joined the Wildcats at the end of the 2015 season. Paschall played the center position in place of rising senior Darryl Reynolds who sustained a tailbone injury days before the team departed and did not make the trip. The Wildcats were also without heralded freshman Omari Spellman who the NCAA has yet to clear for play. Coach Jay Wright considers this an excellent opportunity to see what his three other newest front court players, Paschall, Painter and red shirt freshman Tim Delaney, can do in the position. The triumph was not without a price as rising sophomore Donte DiVencenzo sprained his ankle in the third quarter and was forced to leave the game. It is not clear whether DiVencenzo will appear in the other two exhibition games.

A Closer Look at the Game
Working from an incomplete box score posted on Villanova's website that showed individual minutes played, shooting, rebounding and assists for each of the 11 Wildcat players who drew some playing time (but lacks turnovers, steals, fouls and blocks), I can work out several shot efficiency statistics, but cannot estimate the number of possessions. The box is located here for those who wish to see the partial detailed statistics. The shot efficiency, rebounding and assist rate statistics:

Player%MineFG%PPWSAst%FT RateOR%DR%
Jalen Brunson75.077.81.5923.811.10.07.4
Kris Jenkins55.026.90.6011.
Josh Hart67.563.61.3016.427.312.316.5
Eric Paschall52.557.
Phil Booth45.075.01.5030.
Donte DiVencenzio35.025.00.4810.48.323.831.7
Tom Leibig10.
Mikal Bridges60.071.41.5212.
Tim Delaney27.50.00.0010.
Denny Grace7.
Dylan Painter65.066.71.425.722.217.18.5

Defensive rebounding rates of 55.6 and 74.1 look great, but realize that Tom Leibig and Denny Grace, two of Villanova's newest walk-ons, gathered two rebounds apiece during their respective four and three minute runs. It does not necessarily follow that Leibig would have gathered 20 rebounds had he played the entire game. With "rates" stats that exclude time played, expect distortions at the lower margins. As for detailed explanations for the stats, look here (Ken Pomeroy's website). The one that should be explained here is PPWS, which stands for Points Per Weighted Shot. This is a variation on the True Shot stat developed for NBA players by Kevin Pelton, except that the last step (dividing the anticipated points by two, which converts the stat to a one number, percentage expression, that includes field goals and free throws). PPWS answers the question "How many points were scored each time the player took a field goal attempt?" while True Shot answers "What are the chances a shot will be completed if the field goal attempt is taken?". I prefer PPWS as it gives me the answer "in points" rather than "completion rate". Lacking the number of turnovers committed by each team, I cannot calculate the number of possessions for each team. Given all of the other inputs, I have an estimate (that I know is too low) of 62 possessions for Villanova. Since turnovers "add" possessions, I know that estimate is too low. Most exhibition games come in with a (wide) range of 73-85 possessions, which suggests that the Wildcats committed 10-20 turnovers.

A few observations:
1. Eric Paschall started at the #5, but Dylan Painter drew most of the minutes (26) at the position. The staff must have liked what they saw. Given Spellman's status, it is probably prudent to get the freshman as many minutes as possible in Spain and hope -- worst case -- he and Darryl Reynolds will develop into a serviceable rotation (with assistance from Paschall, etc.).
2. Brunson, Hart, Painter and Bridges (in that order) drew the most minutes. While not an expectation for games going forward, I suspect we will see Brunson and Hart, along with Bridges and Booth emerge as the nucleus this season.
3. The scoring was balanced with seven players (Hart, Brunson, Painter, Bridges, Booth, Paschall and Jenkins) scoring between 16 and eight points apiece, but the shooting efficiency was not. Brunson, Booth and Bridges were the most efficient scorers, followed by Painter, Hart and Paschall. Jenkins has work to do.
4. Note that Hart and Bridges drew the highest FT Rates -- they took contact while scoring, which suggests they went to the bucket to complete plays. Those two are not the most durable players on the squad. I would feel better had Jenkins, Painter and Paschall mixed it up more.
5. The squad had an offensive rebounding rate of 47.2% (the 'Cats gathered 17 of the 36 missed field goal attempts under their own basket) is crazy high, though consistent with exhibition games and the European opponent. The Spanish Select team was limited to an offensive rebounding rate of 19.4%, again suggesting rebounding was not a priority in their game plan or possibly their style of play. Those numbers will not hold up in Division 1 play, but clearly Painter, Paschall and DiVencenzo have no problems crashing the boards. The defensive rebounding rates were more evenly distributed with DiVencenzo, Jenkins, Booth, Hart and Paschall leading the way. Painter was strangely ineffective at that end of the floor, was the Select team center more effective in blocking him out?
6. Booth and Brunson led the assist rates, suggesting they will continue the duel point guard look into this season. I hope. The approach creates a lot of flexibility on offense.

The team will travel to Madrid Saturday and play exhibition games versus ACB Select teams Sunday August 7 and Tuesday August 9 in Madrid, before returning home Wednesday August 10.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Seton Hall -- A First Look at the OOC Schedule

The Opponents Announced
The Pirates released their out of conference schedule early last week, and it appears that, despite the loss of Isaiah Whitehead, Coach Kevin Willard has upgraded the Hall's slate for the 2016-17 season. Borrowing a leaf from Anonymous Eagles' playbook, I have averaged Pomeroy's 2016 rankings for the slate announced late last week, along with Pomeroy's rankings for the out of conference slate they played last season. I also added the RPI rankings (averaged again, not using the algorithm for the SOS) as a point of comparison. As of last March, the NCAA's Selection Committee (for better or worse...) continues to use the RPI as a point of reference. On to the details (again borrowing Anonymous Eagles' format (Kenpom rank is followed by RPI).

2015-16 Season:
Low: Wichita State (8, 50)
High: Bradley (336, 305 out of 351)
Average of Seton Hall's 13 opponents (Pomeroy): 165.3
Standard Deviation of Rank (Pomeroy): 106.7
Median Opponent Ranking (Pomeroy): 193

Ironically, both their highest and lowest ranked opponents were out of the Missouri Valley Conference. Both games were wins.

2016-17 Season:
Low: California (29, 16)
High: Central Connecticut State (351, 351 out of 351)
Average of Seton Hall's 9 known opponents (Pomeroy): 151
Standard Deviation of Rank (Pomeroy): 123.3
Median Opponent Ranking (Pomeroy): 61

The numbers reflect last season's performance, and are -- at best -- only partially predictive of performance this season. Iowa is listed as the highest ranked opponent per Pomeroy, but looking at both Pomeroy and the RPI, this should be a split decision between Iowa, 23 in Pomeroy and 28 RPI and California, ranked #29 by Pomeroy, but #16 in the RPI. I went with California because I believe coach Cuonzo Martin's squad will finish with a better rank next season. The Golden Bears return 6'11" forward Ivan Rabb, a consensus lottery pick had he stayed in the NBA draft last June. Rabb is a legitimate National (and Pac-12) Player of the Year candidate and a consensus of Pac-12 observers put California in the Pac-12 upper division with a return to the NCAAs in the offering. The Hawkeyes lost four senior starters off the 22-11 squad that rose as high as #3 in the AP polls before fading to a third round elimination in the NCAAs. The good news for Iowa coach Fran McCaffery is that rising senior 6'6" wing Peter Jok, also an NBA draft candidate, returned for his senior season. Although McCaffery has a deep squad and expects a solid freshman class, Hawkeyes have a lot of gaps to fill and most likely will struggle to maintain a presence in the upper half of the Big Ten this season. A return to the NCAA Tournament is not a forgone conclusion.

While the highs and lows both moved lower, the average and mean indicate the schedule is actually better (statistically) than the 2015-16 slate which featured (per Pomeroy) one opponent with a rank greater than #300 and four opponents ranked in the 200s. Those five were somewhat offset by two top 50 opponents and three others ranked in the top 100. While the 2016-17 slate has two last question marks (the second the third round opponents in the AdvoCare Invitational), the slate so far has one opponent ranked below 300, three ranked in the 200s and most importantly, three in the top 50 (Pomeroy) and two others in the top 100.

The schedule with Pomeroy and RPI

11-NovFairleigh DickinsonHNEC270208
13-NovCentral Connecticut St.HNEC351351
17-NovIowaABig Ten2328
6-DecHawaiiABig West5686
12-DecSouth CarolinaNSEC6157
23-DecRutgersHBig Ten291294

Drawing Florida in the first round of the AdvoCare Invitational will provide the Pirates with the chance to earn a quality win, the type that draws the attention of the early polls and the Selection Committee. The Gators return four starters from the 2015-16 squad that won 21 games and went three rounds into the NIT. Angel Delgado will have his hands full with 6'11" 255 pound John Egbunu, a South Florida transfer who played 34 games for the Gators last season. Egbunu, an efficient scorer and rebounder, is foul prone. With a solid entering class and Virginia Tech transfer Jalen Hudson eligible, coach Mike White should have them ready to return to the elites of the SEC next season. Potential AdvoCare second round opponents include Quinnipiac and (most probably) a rematch with Gonzaga which, should it happen, be a story lede nationally. The Zags however, return only three contributors from their 28-8 squad, and will need much of the season to bring the balance of the squad up to speed. They may be ready for the NCAAs by March, but not for the Pirates in November. Opponents on the other side of the bracket include a rebuilding Stanford, along with conference powerhouses Iowa State and Miami. Should the Hall advance to the championship game, their RPI and Pomeroy ranks should be top 30. South Carolina graduated three senior starters from a 25-9 squad that played in the NIT last season, coach Frank Martin will count on rising seniors Duane Notice (who completed 40% of his three point attempts) and Sindarius Thornwell a talented 6'5" ball handling point to lead a young Gamecock squad back into the top half of the SEC (and the NCAAs).

Roster Moves
The published roster lists both of the Pirate transfers from last season, Jevon Thomas (Kansas State) and Madison Jones (Wake Forest). Both appear to be pass first point guards, though Thomas whose free throw rate from 2015, 67.2 (along with a turnover rate of 32.8), suggests he drives the lane as an alternative to setting up a teammate. The tendency is similar to the departed (and aspiring fire fighter) Derrick Gordon. Neither appear to be the kind of efficient (or even prolific) scorer like Isaiah Whitehead. Willard also has three freshmen, all guards, joining this season, giving the squad a guard-heavy flavor. As a ball handling scorer in the Whitehead mold, 6'3" 190 pound Eron Gordon out of Cathedral High School in Indianapolis, might be the closest match. Gordon, a younger brother of Hoosier great and Houston Rocket guard Eric Gordon, averaged 24 points per game as a junior and 19 as a senior. The other two guards, 6'2" Myles Powell averaged 25 points per game as a senior at South Kent Prep and 6'4" Manny Anderson played at the Hun School and Worchester Academy before a prep year at the Hotchkiss School.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Ten Teams and the Conference, Three Questions Each, Part 5

The "skill camps" are quieting down and summer league is almost over. Teams are preparing for (or have just finished up) their European tour. Before our attention is consumed by the Olympics, a last few questions come to mind about Xavier and the Big East Conference going into the 2016-17 season...

With the return of Trevon Bluiett, the X-men losses were limited to Jalen Reynolds and James Farr, two of Xavier's mainstays in the front court, along with wings Remy Abel (a senior) and Larry Austin who transferred to Vanderbilt. Coach Chris Mack anticipated the graduations of Farr and Abel, and knew Reynolds, a junior, would most likely depart at the end of the semester. He has most of those gaps covered by incoming freshmen (Eddie Ekiyor and Tyrique Jones) and transfer (RaShed Gaston).

1. Xavier's front court -- Who's got next? Mack lost seven years of experience with the simultaneous departures of James Farr and Jalen Reynolds. Although he has Sean O'Mara (6'10", 247 pounds), Tim Stainbrook (6'6", 200 pounds) and Kaiser Gates (6'8", 217 pounds) returning, he brought in Ekiyor and Jones with NLIs during the fall as insurance. When Jalen Reynolds made his departure official, Mack also signed Gaston, a fifth year senior out of Norfolk State in the MEAC. The front court starters in November will most likely be O'Mara at center with Gaston and Gates at the #3/#4 (and Bluiett playing up to the #3 at times). As the season goes on expect Ekiyor and Jones to find regular minutes in the rotation as well.

2. Is Edmond Sumner ready to take the next step? Despite a concussion that sidelined him for nearly two weeks at the beginning of conference play last season, Xavier point guard put together the kind of season that earned him five Freshman of the Week nods and one of three unanimous selections to the Big East Conference All-Freshman Team. His end-to-end speed and leaping ability kept opposing defenses off balance and gave the Musketeer offense an edge in transition. According to Sports Illistrated's Luke Winn, Sumner connected on 49.6% of layups and dunks while drawing 5.8 fouls per 40 minutes (with a 73% conversion rate at the line). Already beginning to fill out his 6'6" frame, Sumner's off season To Do List includes improving his jump shot (per Winn, Sumner was identified by multiple pro scouts as the guard with the highest ceiling, but his form on jumpers needed lots of work) where he completed only 29.7% of his two point attempts away from the basket and three point attempts where he converted 30.3% of his attempts. Better shot selection and higher completion rates next season will earn All-Conference First Team honors. Look for a second graduate transfer Malcolm Bernard, a 6'6" guard out of Florida A&M to push Sumner in fall practice.

3. Can Xavier get past the Sweet Sixteen? Since dropping Division 1 football and making basketball the center piece of their athletic programs, Xavier has pursued excellence with a commitment that borders on obsession. Over the past 33 seasons the Musketeers have earned 25 NCAA bids across four different conferences under six different head coaches. In the 44 previous seasons the Muskies earned a single NCAA bid (1961) on a run that ended in the first round. Consistency has been achieved, but Xavier continues to pursue excellence as their ceiling, the Regional Final (Elite Eight), has been reached only once, under coach Sean Miller (now at Arizona). Now that Villanova has won a National Championship, Xavier's recent performance is coming under the microscope. Mack's ceiling has been the Sweet Sixteen, reached three times in six tournament runs as coach at Xavier. As a member of the Big East, Mack has reached a single Sweet Sixteen (2015), and exited the 2016 tournament as a #2 seed, 66-63, on a last second corner three by #7 seed Wisconsin's Bronson Koenig. Xavier will get back to the NCAA tournament, though they may not draw another #2 seed. Sumner, Gates and Bluiett will all show improvement while Myles Davis will continue to provide the experience that anchors the back court. If the front court comes together expect a seed from #2 to #4 which carries a good chance to be among the last 16 teams in the tournament. Match-ups matter here, a good draw would put them back in the hunt.

The Big East Conference
The conference had its most successful season in close to a decade. The conference sent five members (50%) to the NCAAs, while Creighton advanced three rounds into the NIT field before being eliminated by BYU. The conference drew two #2 seeds in the NCAA and Villanova won the National Championship last April. The conference heard the names of two players called in the first round and of the NBA draft June 23, followed by two others who were drafted in the second round. Providence guard Kris Dunn was a lottery pick (5th spot) by Minnesota while freshman Henry Ellenson was drafted in the 18th spot by Detroit. Sophomore Isiah Whitehead (42nd by Utah, traded to the NY Nets) and junior Ben Bentil (51st, Boston) were taken in the second round.

1. Has the conference regained its high-major status? Some would debate the Big East's status, despite losing six programs, was always a high-major. The number of NCAA bids earned since the reformation (16) is more than the SEC (11) and the American Athletic Conference (10). The conference sent 50% of their members to the NCAA in their first (reformed) year (2014), 60% in 2015 and 50% in 2016. That is a slightly better percentage than the Big Ten (50%, 50% and 50%) and the Pac-12 (50%, 33%, 58%) over the same period. Pomeroy ranked the conference 5th, 3rd and 3rd in the seasons since the reformation; the RPI ranks were 4th, 2nd and 4th. Yet in the minds of too many pundits the conference took a major step back when the conference reformed before the 2013-14 season. Villanova, after repeatedly drawing high seeds, won the 2016 National Championship, which, hopefully, puts those whispers to bed. Recalling the Big East of the early 1980s however, it is clear the conference did not draw elite recognition until 1985, when the conference put St. John's, Georgetown and Villanova (all members of the reformed conference...) into the Final Four.

2. Can the conference improve on the four invitational tournament championships they earned last season? Marquette (Legends), Villanova (NIT Tip-Off) and Xavier (AdvoCare Invitational) win their respective invitational tournaments, the conference also had three other members reach their championship games. Those tournaments, most coming during the 2015 Thanksgiving Week, accounted for an attention grabbing 20-3 (0.870) record, which in turn shined a very favorable light on the conference's bid contenders for the post season. This season the prospects are good that Creighton (Paradise Jam), Villanova (Charleston Classic) and Xavier (Puerto Rico Tip-Off) will repeat against so-so fields.

Finding a sure number four is challenging. Seton Hall, slated for the AdvoCare Invitational, may be the best candidate. The Pirates open versus semi-home Florida, and should they win, draw a rematch with Gonzaga (who bounced them from the NCAA's last March) next. Both games should be a challenge, but Stanford, Miami or Iowa State awaiting the winner of the Hall's bracket, would be the last team. Any of them (especially Miami or Stanford) would be difficult opponents. Butler, DePaul and Marquette have interesting match-ups that could work in their favor. Butler, due to appear in the Continental Tire Las Vegas Invitational will face Vanderbilt in the host semi-final, with the chance to meet Arizona if the Bulldogs advance to the championship game. Vanderbilt has a new coach and some significant roster changes, which suggest Marquette might be able to advance. But Arizona, the prohibitive favorite in the other semi-final, will be difficult. DePaul, set to compete in the (also) Continental Tire Las Vegas Classic faces Wyoming in the semi-final and either Missouri State or (most likely) Southern California. Beating Wyoming, also guided by a new coach, is probable, but USC? Not so much as Andy Enfield has a roster that should challenge in the Pac-12. Marquette will face Michigan in the semi-finals of the 2K Classic, and if they win would face either Pittsburgh or SMU, both of which have new head coaches and some roster turnover.

The other tournaments are problematic. Georgetown faces a loaded field in the Maui Invitational that includes UNC, Oregon and Wisconsin. St. John's will participate in the Battle 4 Atlantis whose field includes Baylor, Louisville and Michigan State (or and Wichita State also...). Providence is slated for the Emerald Coast Classic whose field includes Iowa, Virginia and Memphis (which hired Tubby Smith). The Friars will face Memphis first, with either Iowa or Virginia to follow.

3. Will the latest round of realignment, initiated this time by the Big 12, affect the Big East? Ugh, not again. Having left the five FBS members behind in 2013, the seven schools that reformed the Big East dedicated their attention and money to sports other than Bowl Division football. That, it would seem, settled the question that tore at the fabric of the conference for over 20 years. Just when one would have to believe the Big East is immune from the machinations of the 65 Power 5 conference members (plus Notre Dame) and the 64 members of the Group of Five (the other five FBS conferences and independents) ESPN's Andy Katz twitter set off a ripple of nostalgia with his tweet/blurb...

If UConn found a home for football, the Big East would seriously consider the Huskies for all other sports, according to a source with knowledge. The Big East would be a natural fit. So far the 10-team Big East only has all sports members, but doesn't offer Division I (FBS) football. UConn is in all sports in the AAC. If given the choice, the Huskies would want to be in the Big 12 in all sports. But the chances that offer ever comes is still too hard to predict now.
-- Andy Katz, July 20, 2016

The "a source with knowledge..." is of course unidentified leaving the reader with little to judge the value of the information (was the source a UConn insider? A Big East front office insider? One of the members schools? Scott Van Pelt?). Two weeks has cooled the nostalgia and slowly brought conference fans back to reality. UConn is not walking through that door. And even if the Huskies knocked (extremely unlikely) would the conference even answer? Consider that UConn would first have to leave the AAC, a process that would (per agreed upon procedures) take 27 months and a 10 million dollar exit fee (higher if exiting more quickly) to execute. UConn would have to (re)join the Big East before applying to the Big 12 for football only. NCAA regulations prohibit a school from applying to a conference for membership in a sport unless the school's "home conference" does not play that sport. Unwinding the sequence of actions that have to take place can be confusing, but two questions really put this to bed -- Does Connecticut honestly want to move only their football over to the Big 12? Does the Big 12 consider football only status preferable for UConn (or any other program they invite)? If the invitation is tendered it will be for all sports. And UConn will accept eagerly.

Scenarios that involve partial/split memberships are almost always for the benefit of the school who wants to maintain an unaffiliated status for their football program (ie Notre Dame, BYU and maybe Texas). Those arrangements do not promote stability for the conference that buys in. And for anyone connected to the Big East (conference employee, employee of a member school or even a fan) to entertain the notion of taking a school (much less UConn, nostalgia aside) with an FBS program into the conference suggests the entertainer learned nothing from the last three decades. Having put the FBS football issue aside, the only power 5 realignment variations that will impact the Big East would involve imploding conferences or the power 5 alignment leaving the NCAA and declining participation in the NCAA basketball tournament.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Ten Teams and the Conference, Three Questions Each, Part 4

The FIBA tournaments are winding down and their NCAA players have gained valuable experience. The last of the transfers and fifth year seniors are finding their spots. July foreign tours are wrapping up as teams taking their tours in August are getting ready to start practice. As summer moves on, a few questions come to mind about each Big East program going into the 2016-17 season...

St. John's
Rookie coach Chris Mullin found a very bare cupboard (returning 8% of the minutes, 5% of the possessions and 4% of the points scored from the 2014-15 squad) this time last off season, he has to feel good about heading into this season with 51% of the minutes and possessions, and 49% of the points scored from last season's squad. Even though the Red Storm posted a 1-17 in conference and 8-24 overall record, Mullin knows there is help in the form of more (in numbers and talent) players available to continue his roster overhaul and rebuilding program at St. John's.

1. What can the Red Storm fans expect in season 2? More wins for starters. Their single conference win matched the total from 2003-04, a tumultuous season that opened with player suspensions and a Mike Jarvis' melodramatic walk-out six games into the season, which left Kevin Clark and the remainder of Jarvis' staff to clean up the wreckage. Mullin's 0.250 overall winning percentage bettered only the 1918-19 squad which failed to win a game in seven tries. St. John's, ranked #300 on offensive by Ken Pomeroy, can expect help from the experience earned by the returning players and and five new faces, transfers and JUCOs, red shirts and true freshmen. Last season's front court rotation, Kassoum Yakwe, Yankuba Sima and Amar Alibegovic, will be helped by transfer Tariq Owens (Tennessee), who sat in 2015-16 and the return of red shirt (injury) Darien Williams. Mullin will fill out the back court rotation with red shirt freshman Marcus LoVett and true freshman Shamorie Ponds, who will compete with rising sophomore Federico Mussini for time at the point and shooting guard positions.

The Red Storm's out of conference slate which includes Nichols State, Longwood, Binghamton, LIU and Delaware State, is more an extended exhibition slate than bullet points on a post season resume. Post season considerations may come in 2017-18 (or later). Timely out of conference tests will come with trips to Minnesota (St. John's Gavitt Games opponent) and Tulane (fulfilling a home-away contract), both of which, given the state of their respective programs, are winnable for a well-prepared Red Storm squad.

2. How badly will St. John's rebuilding efforts be hurt by the loss of Barry ("Slice") Rohrssen? A friendship forged nearly four decades ago in Brooklyn was a major factor that lured Rohrssen away from John Calipari's Kentucky staff and back to the Big Apple. Rohrssen had the reputation, the pedigree and connections to pull down the Associate Head Coach job, but he could not carve out a defined role on Mullin's staff. Left with only deep bench players, the staff cast a wide net that eventually gathered a squad with gaps both in the talent level and skill set. Not every scholarship player was able to suit up to boot. The lack of completeness seemed to reflect on Slice. And as the season lurched to a conclusion Slice's status seemed to diminish. For the 2016-17 season the Johnnies did sign Ponds, but they swung and missed on two other high profile elite targets into whom Rohrssen invested time and effort.

By season's end Mullin turned the recruiting focus from highly-regarded high schoolers to junior college and transfer prospects. Mullin and staff found a wing -- Marvin Clark out of Michigan State -- and an additional guard, Justin Simmon out of Arizona. Two time NJCAA First Team Bashir Ahmed, a native of the Bronx who attended Hutchinson Community College before returning home was signed in December. Mullin picked up a second scorer, a forward out of Germany, Richard Freudenberg, who averaged 14.8 points per game for his club they ran to the U19 German League championship. Going forward, Mullin and the Red Storm staff will rebuild St. John's program and reputation with a mix of reachable high schoolers and transfers. Top 50 recruiting will wait until success draws positive attention. Nearly eight weeks after Clark and Simmons signed Zagoria and others reported that Rohrssen and St. John's were nearing terms on a buyout. St. John's -- the program and their head coach -- should weather this transition.

3. What is St. John's greatest need? Scoring, or more precisely, more efficient use of their offensive possessions. A look at Pomeroy's 2016 profile for the Red Storm shows a team that scored 0.97 points per possession, ranked #301 out of 351 Division 1 teams. Ouch. As for the why, Ken Pomeroy's 2016 profile suggests two serious problems. The Johnnies' field goal efficiency was 45.6%, ranked #321 out of 351 Division 1 schools. They shot badly when they had the ball. Their turnover rate was 20.9%, ranked #322 (out of 351). A thumbnail narrative might be "the Johnnies were able to finish less than 8 of every 10 possessions with a field goal attempt or free throw (ie scoring) attempt. And when they did finish with a shot, they converted less than 50% of them". Notably, the Johnnies had difficulty converting inside the three point line, shooting only 44.1%. Their FTA/FGA rate -- 38% a bit above average for Division 1 -- further suggests that while they got to the line when they drove inside they only shot 64% at the line, among the least efficient in Division 1.

Rumble in the Garden points out that the Johnnies were one of only two Big East teams that lost more games when their shooting was more efficient than their opponents than they won when their shooting was less efficient than their opponents. Shooting efficiency and turnovers are the more obvious problems, but defensive FTA/FGA percentage (43.3%, ranked #307 by Pomeroy) was the other problem. They have to foul less, especially at the end of close games. LoVett, Ponds and experience/maturity will help reduce the turnovers while Ahmed and Freudenberg should help with the scoring. Alibegovic, Sima and Yakwe will have to improve their offense around the basket to keep defenses honest.

Ryan Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu are playing in the NBA summer league, the Championship rings have arrived and the returning roster is prepping for their trip to Spain where, the staff has to hope, the squad will focus on the season coming up. The numbers, returning 72% of the minutes and points and 71% of the possessions are promising. However, how can one quantify the leadership and experience lost with the departure of Arcidiacono and Ochefu however? New faces include Donte DiVencinzo, a red shirt off guard, Omari Spellman a top 50 low post player with range and Dylan Painter, a traditional back-to-the-basket center much in the mold of Xavier's Matt Stainbrook and Villanova's John Pinone.

1. Can Arch be replaced? No, the intangibles are hard to duplicate, but Jalen Brunson and Phil Booth nearly match the tangibles and bring other assets to the point guard position. Brunson has an IQ and court vision equal to Arcidiacono's, which he can couple with a killer cross over move that he will learn to selectively apply to the appropriately scouted opponents. Brunson will have to master his tendency to over penetrate and learn to actively find and pass to the open shooter before the second (or third) defender closes off the passing lanes. Brunson will have to learn that even though you can hit the shot in front of you, passing to your teammate (who has an even better chance to convert) is essential to build the team. Booth will temper his tendency to over dribble and learn to look for and hit the open teammate, making his scoring instincts even more dangerous.

2. How will Wright manage a loaded roster? Villanova loses two senior starters (and most of his Bench Mob), but has to integrate an incoming class of five -- two true freshmen (Omari Spellman and Dylan Painter), two red shirt freshmen (Donte DiVincenzo and Tim Delaney) and a transfer (Eric Paschall) -- players with varying skill sets into a roster that features six returning veterans. The incoming group spans positions #2 through #5. If past is prelude, the new players will see the court when they commit to playing defense and when they are in game shape. Wright typically treats the first two months as an extended tryout and preparation for conference play, so expect to see the staff juggle the starting five and rotations early and often. Rarely going deeper than eight (or 8.5) come January, Wright will have to integrate two-three of the five newcomers with his six returning veterans. Everyone of the 11 players would probably start or be first off the bench for any of the other nine teams in the conference. Playing time last season ranged from a high of 32 minutes (Arcidiacono) down to 17 (#4/#5 Darryl Reynolds). Expect a similar distribution this season.

Ochefu, the established starter in the low post, rarely played more than 25 minutes last season and averaged 23.4 minutes per game. His backup, Reynolds has become a serviceable low post journeyman who averaged only six fewer minutes per game than Ochefu while providing nearly the same rebounding and scoring efficiency. Reynolds will close some of that six minutes gap next season as freshmen low post contingent (Painter, Delaney and Spellman) along with Paschall, learn the system. Paschall, a 6'7" 260 pound transfer exploded in his post grad year at Thomas More Prep and went on to garner the Atlantic 10 Freshman of the Year award playing for Fordham in 2014-15, has three years of eligibility and may be closest to playing shape.

Of the freshmen, Spellman, a consensus top 25 recruit with established scoring skills, is expected to have a more immediate impact than Dylan Painter, a 6'9" 215 pound bfc out of Hershey, Pennsylvania. Expect Spellman to invest quite a bit of his summer getting into a playing shape more suitable for Wright's style of defense. With multiple scorers at virtually every other position, the Wildcats' low post needs tend more toward a mobile rim defender, strong defensive rebounder, someone who can effectively set picks and screens and move to the basket as the scoring option that will keep defenses honest. Irrespective of position, defense is the way to earn playing time in Wright's program.

Both Brunson (24.0 minutes per game) and Booth (21.9 minutes per game) will earn more minutes as the kind of tandem point guard pairing that Wright has used for the past eight seasons. Expect Josh Hart to slide down to the #2 (or even a ball handling #1) at times with only a very small increase in minutes (31.4 mpg in 2016) as Wright tries out longer lineups while giving either Brunson or Booth (or both) a breather. Mikal Bridges most likely will slide down to the #3 while DiVencinzo will cover the #2 and #3 when Bridges moves up to the #4 as he did at times last season.

3. Can the Wildcats expect success comparable to 2015-16 this season? Most analysts seem to think so. Luke Winn has the 'Cats ranked #3 in his too early poll over at SI as does Garry Parish over at Should everyone get to campus and begin fall practice health (and happy...), expect the Wildcats to be ranked in the top 2-5 in pre and early season polls. A very early road game at Purdue, along games with Virginia and Notre Dame, make running the table on their out of conference slate improbable. Scheduled for the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey, the Irish should be a good test for fan draw, as many Villanova alums live in New Jersey and metro New York City. If the Charleston Classic field plays to seed, Wright will have to game plan a Ben Howland-coached squad in the championship game after working through a solid (but not great) set of tournament opponents. Winning the Big East regular season title three straight times, the Wildcats should repeat, though equaling their 16-2 regular season conference record may be a stretch as both Xavier and Creighton are expected to challenge -- and never over look a Seton Hall squad that has posted the best conference record versus Villanova since the conference reformed in 2013. Look for a more competitive conference in 2016-17 and do not be surprised if some combination of the Pirates, Blue Jays and Musketeers (and a revived Hoya program!?) prove to be very inhospitable hosts.

While the 2016 Wildcats had the look and feel of a team on a mission, common wisdom counters with "draw and match-ups matter". Of the six coaches Wright had to prep his Wildcats for, only UNC-Asheville's Nicholas McDevitt was an unknown. And of the five coaches Wright had faced before, he had a winning record versus three -- Fran McCaffrey, Siena/Iowa (2-0), Jim Larranaga George Mason/Miami (2-1) and Bill Self Kansas (2-1). While Lon Kruger's Oklahoma squad won an early season match-up by 23 points, the Villanova squad they faced three months later was a more mature and far better prepared. Roy Smith, whom Wright had played while Smith mentored the Kansas team in addition to North Carolina, was the only coach who appeared to have Wright's number (0-4). Villanova should take the regular season title again this year and with it the #1 seed in Madison Square Garden. The Hall seems to have their number in the tournament; look for where they will meet. As for Selection Sunday, look for the draw and the matchups. The program is learning to travel well, especially for the NCAA Tournament.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Ten Teams and the Conference, Three Questions Each, Part 3

The NBA draft is done, summer league games are winding down and the transfers have made their moves. As July turns up the heat and we all look for air conditioning, a few questions come to mind about each Big East program going into the 2016-17 season...

By headcount (and starters), the The Golden Eagles personnel loss appears minimal. Appearances can be deceiving. The Ellenson brothers, along with senior Michael Mache departed. Starter Henry Ellenson put his name in for the NBA draft, brother Wally, recruited as much for track as basketball (and his 5 star brother) lost his scholarship in a numbers crunch that reverberated through the Ellenson clan back in April. With 5'11" transfer Andrew Rowsey ready to play and fifth year senior Katin Reinhardt waiting in the wings, expect Marquette to up the long range feature of Wojo's offense.

1. Steve Wojciechowski -- What can fans expect in year 3? Wojo returns 80% of the minutes, 75% of the possessions and 76% of the points from the squad that went 20-13 last season. Year one to year two of the Wojciechowski Era saw the Golden Eagles improve by seven wins. Another seven win bump in 2016-17 is a stretch, but the back court rotation is promising. Headed by Duane Wilson, Traci Carter, Haanif Cheatham, Sandy Cohen and JaJuan Johnson will all get time. Johnson and Cheatham can hit the three consistently while Carter showed a good instinct for passing and stealing the ball. Wojo bolstered the wings this off season by bringing in Reinhardt, a fifth year senior who, despite starting 18 games for the Trojans in 2015-16, foresaw a diminished role with the 2016-17 Trojans. Reinhardt and Johnson will mentor freshman wing Sam Hauser, a 6'6" consensus Top 100 recruit out of Green Bay Wisconsin. The question marks come in the front court, where Luke Fischer (6'11") and Matt Heldt (6'10") are the roster's only players taller than 6'6". Both will have to stay healthy and contribute if Marquette is to improve on last season's 8-10 conference record. Assuming MU brings 10-11 wins into conference play, a 9-9 or better record should yield another 20 win season albeit versus a stronger slate of opponents. A post season invitation should be forthcoming.

2. Will the Ellenson breakup damage recruiting? In need of a third scholarship, Wojo pulled Wally Ellenson's, which led to some social media "unfriending" in the days that followed. Henry maintains contact with Marquette and the staff while Wally will most like continue to run track for Marquette. Given that Wojo managed a commitment from Hauser, Wisconsin's Gatorade Player of the Year, along with Marcus Howard, another consensus Top 100 guard out of Arizona by way of Findley Prep in Las Vegas, the damage looks minimal at this point. Henry Ellenson's name was called June 23, just as expected, but having the opportunity to sign Reinhardt, a proficient and experienced scorer with stops at UNLV (as a freshman) and USC (two season), was too good to pass on. Wojo received an early verbal for the 2017-18 season from three star power forward Ikechukwu Eke, a Nigerian out of University of Detroit Jesuit High School in Michigan.

3. Will Wojo upgrade the competition this season? Despite winning 20 games before being eliminated in the Big East Tournament, Marquette made no post season tournaments last March. The Golden Eagles out of conference schedule featured matchups with NCAA participants Iowa (a loss) and Wisconsin (a win), NIT invitee Belmont (a loss) to go with LSU and Arizona State (both wins). Five sub 300 RPI ranked teams devalued their 10-2 record going into conference play. Marquette will not participate in the Gavitt Games this season, but if tradition holds Marquette can count on a game with in state rival Wisconsin (at the Bradley Center). The out of conference schedule is taking shape as opponents and dates have been announced via twitter and news release. They will open versus Vanderbilt at a neutral site, return to Milwaukee to host Howard (2016 RPI #331) in their home opener, play Michigan (2016 RPI #58) in the semi-final of their early season invitational tournament (the 2K Classic Benefiting the Wounded Warriors Project this year), with a second game versus either Pitt (2016 RPI #51) or SMU (2016 RPI #13). Three home games follow -- IUPUI (2016 RPI #189), Houston Baptist (2016 RPI #224) and Western Carolina (2016 RPI #167) in that order. They return a date with Georgia (away -- 2016 RPI #62) and head back to the Bradley Center to host Fresno State (2016 RPI #69), in-state rival Wisconsin (2016 RPI #41) and St. Francis, PA (2016 RPI #267). That takes MU to Christmas Week and accounts for 11 of their 13 out of conference games. Howard, the lone #300+ ranked team, will most likely not improve its RPI much next season while St. Francis (PA) and Houston Baptist are worrisome. There is no guarantee that those RPIs will carryover through all of next season, but by the numbers, should Marquette log 10/11 wins versus that slate, post season conversations going into Big East play will include the Golden Eagles. With 11 of 13 out of conference opponents (more or less) identified, let's hope the remaining two are about the same quality.

Junior guard Kris Dunn, twice Big East Player of the Year, and sophomore Ben Bentil were both drafted by the NBA in June, taking the Friars top two scorers (and top rebounder in Bentil) to the league. Also losing rotation guard Junior Lomomba, Coach Ed Cooley returns 54% of the Friars minutes, 42% of the points scored, 43% of the possessions and 47% of the rebounds from last season's squad. There will be plenty of scoring opportunities available, the question is whether the 2016-17 version of the Friars has a player or players who can step into the role.

1. Who will be the next Council/Cotton/Dunn? Cooley has managed to find a backcourt headliner in every one of his four seasons in Friartown. This time around the candidates his three returning guards, Kyron Cartwright, Drew Edwards and Vincent Council II, along with a true freshman point Maliek White and a transfer, Isaiah Jackson (George Mason, 3 years of eligibility). Cartwright, who connected on 36% of his shots, both short and long range, is the best candidate from the 2015-16 squad. He takes, however, nearly three two point attempts for every three point attempt. Jackson, a well regarded bballer out of Florida, took his first stop at George Mason, coached at the time by Paul Hewitt. Hewitt was considered more skilled at identifying and recruiting talent than developing it once on the roster, was fired in March of 2015, leading to Jackson's move to Friartown and Ed Cooley's roster. While at GMU Jackson took a major role in the Patriots' offense and rebounded well for a guard. White, a 6' 2", two time conference player of the year, lead guard out of Richmond, Virginia, has a profile similar to Dunn's. Though two inches shorter than Dunn and only 170 pounds, White averaged 19.3 points, 6.3 assists and 6.1 rebounds per game last season for George Wythe High School. He might be Cooley's best bet.

2. Is Reggie Bullock ready for prime time? The junior forward is the Friars' lead returning scorer from last season's squad. Cooley has two freshmen wings, Khalif Young out of Ontario, Canada who was selected to play in the Biosteel All-Canadian Games -- the Canadian equivalent of the McDonald's All-Star game and Alpha Diallo, a consensus Top 100 recruit from Brewster Academy. Cooley's fourth option is Indiana (by way of Indian Hill CC) transfer Emmitt Holt, a 6'7" 230 pound power forward who ran afoul of Tom Crean when he struck a teammate with his car (and in a later incident picked up for achohol consumption). Those four will, unless Cooley gets a late signing (he hosted a number of fifth year seniors and JUCOs during the late spring), will be the nucleus of the Friar front court rotation.

3. Can the roster (and Cooley) get the Friars back to the NCAAs? PC lacks a traditional big man to function as a #5 on defense and that will be a problem. Historically Cooley's teams have played a high possession, quick paced game that relies on a well conditioned short rotation that presents an array of inside/outside threats designed to keep defenses honest. The out of conference schedule, as always, is weighted with traditional in state and regional rivals. Given that Rhode Island and Massachusetts should have good seasons, PC's SOS will benefit. Wins versus their Gavitt Games opponent (Ohio State) and Emerald Coast Invitational opponents (Memphis followed by Iowa or Virginia) will establish the Friars as credible challengers going into conference play.

Seton Hall
The Pirates lose a starter and their sixth man, a fifth year guard. While that seems minimal, consider they return 72% of the minutes played, but only 65% of the points scored, 63% of the possessions and 50% of the assists from last season's 25-9 team that won its first Big East Tournament in 24 seasons and made its first NCAA appearance since 2006. Such was the impact of Isaiah Whitehead, who was selected by the Utah Jazz (and traded to the New York Nets) in last months NBA draft. Though relegated to the bench, UMass transfer Derrick Gordon became the Pirate's glue guy and was a crucial part of the Pirates' run to the Big East championship and NCAA bid. Despite the first round elimination by Gonzaga, the run was the second in Gordon's career. Three of the more pressing questions that confront Willard during this off season include:

1. Who will lead the Pirates? Willard handed Whitehead the ball and the point guard spot in May of 2015, a symbolic nod to Whitehead's defacto standing among his peers and a practical step to help Whitehead develop skills he would need for the NBA. Whitehead could put the ball in the basket, but could he run an offense and get his teammates involved? The chemistry developed over the 2015 off season was one key to the Hall's revival in 2015-16, and Willard may have to decide whether to actively promote a successor now that Whitehead has moved on. The early leaders include Desi Rodriguez, another wing nearly as talented -- but more mercurial than Whitehead -- and Ishmael Sanogo, a forward whose work ethic and evolving talents have drawn favorable comments from Willard multiple times over the past two seasons. Rodriguez's demonstrativeness has made him a fan favorite, but also landed him in the coach's dog house a few times last season, Sanogo has developed as a solid defensive, but not an especially assertive offensive, #4. Those two are part of a now four man junior class that also includes Angel Delgado and Kadeem Carrington. The four appear to have a tight bond and may simply lead by committee.

2. Where will the lost points come from? Whitehead accounted for nearly one in four of the Hall's points scored last season. Taking his assists into account, he had a hand in nearly 400 additional points scored. With no obvious scoring machine in the wings, Willard will have to fashion a (large?) committee to close that gap. Rodriguez was efficient at scoring both close and long range, but he will draw more defensive attention. Willard must convince him to share the ball when he draws the extra defender. Among his teammates both Delgado, a traditional low post player and Carrington on the perimeter should be able to exploit any defensive cheating on Rodriguez. Sanogo and rotation player Michael Nzei were reliable inside scorers. Whitehead's absence should provide them with additional opportunities. If Veer Singh can improve his accuracy from the three point line, he may earn a sizable chunk of the available minutes left by whitehead and Gordon. Two freshmen off guards, Myles Powell and (especially) Eron Gordon, should get long looks from Willard.

3. Who runs the offense? Willard may have up to four back court players waiting in the wings. Two transfers were point guards at their previous stops and the two true freshmen were shooting guards. The high schoolers are expected to get to campus this fall, but there may be a glitch with Jevon Thomas, the more promising of transfers. A 6'1", 185 pound rising junior out of Kansas State Thomas is a Queens, NY native and former teammate of Marcus Foster (transferred to Creighton). He was involved in an altercation during an intramural game on the West Orange campus last February and subsequently slipped off the radar. In two seasons with Webber, Thomas showed a good aptitude for passing the ball and setting up his teammates. Rising senior Madison Jones improved his assist rate in each of his three seasons at Wake Forest, but drew a second team suspension in August of 2015 and transferred to the Hall. Unlike Whitehead, neither Thomas nor Jones showed an aptitude for scoring, so Willard will have to look elsewhere. He could, much as he did Whitehead, attempt to convert one of the freshmen off guards, most likely Gordon -- who has been described as an excellent passer and good play maker -- into a serviceable point guard.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Creighton -- Some Questions Answered

A partial answer to question #2 is...
The Blue Jays have released their out of conference schedule, and it appears they Coach Greg McDermott has upgraded the slate for the 2016-17 season, with a few caveats. Borrowing a leaf from Anonymous Eagles' playbook, I have averaged Pomeroy's 2016 rankings for the slate announced late last week, along with Pomeroy's rankings for the out of conference slate they played last season. I also added the RPI rankings (averaged again, not using the algorithm for the SOS) as a point of comparison. As of last March, the NCAA's Selection Committee (for better or worse...) continues to use the RPI as a point of reference. On to the details (again borrowing Anonymous Eagles' format (Kenpom rank is followed by RPI).

2015-16 Season:
Low: Oklahoma (7, 6)
High: Texas-San Antonio (339, 348 out of 351)
Average of Creighton's 13 opponents (Pomeroy): 187.2
Standard Deviation of Rank (Pomeroy): 105.6
Median Opponent Ranking (Pomeroy): 180

My question dealt at length with problems in the 2015-16 schedule, so I am not going rehash the argument here.

2016-17 Season:
Low: Wisconsin (33, 41)
High: Longwood (290, 324 our of 351)
Average of Creighton's 9 known opponents (Pomeroy): 167.3
Standard Deviation of Rank (Pomeroy): 85.9
Median Opponent Ranking (Pomeroy): 172

The numbers reflect last season's performance, and are -- at best -- only partially predictive of performance this season. They do suggest that McDermott has considered a more balanced schedule with fewer #200 and higher ranked programs, along with fewer top #50 programs. The second and third games from the Paradise Jam will be known only when the tournament is played, but looking at a second round match-up with North Carolina State (the better of the NCSU/Montana match-up) is not a stretch. The numbers improve at the margins in that scenario; the average and median drop to 158.8 and 131 respectively, while the standard deviation rises to 86.2 A quick look at the entire bracket suggests that Creighton would be the favorite in their side of the bracket, with (most likely) Mississippi (or less likely) Saint Joseph's/Oral Roberts the other bracket's contribution to the Championship game.

Scheduling Division 2 Truman State as the last out of conference opponent is interesting. With no obvious historical or personal connection to Truman State, there are pros and cons to weigh with this decision. The game is scheduled early in the Big East season and will be a respite to the conference grind. As a Division 2 opponent, the Jays' SOS will not suffer for scheduling the game. The school will include the stats in the records for the players and the history, while the NCAA will treat the stats and result as an exhibition game. While the Selection Committee will disregard the result when they analyze for the post season, it would be hard to unring the bell. This most likely is a guarantee game, a practice discouraged by the NCAA.

The schedule with Pomeroy and RPI

18-NovWashington St.NPac12204207
26-NovLoyola (MD)HPat286257
17-DecOral RobertsHSumm172149
20-DecArizona StAPac1210498
14-JanTruman St.HD2NRNR

More information for question #3 (and question #1)...
Kobe Paras, a consensus Top 150 recruit who reopened his recruitment when denied admission at UCLA in late June signed with Creighton earlier this week and will be available in the fall. At 6'5" and 190 pounds the Californian, variously described as an off guard and small forward, will join David Mintz as the second true freshman in the Blue Jays' four member incoming class. Expected to carve out a role as a wing in McDermott's system, Paras is known for his speed in the open court, quickness and his ability to score in bunches. At 190 he may have to put on some muscle to add an inside dimension to his game.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Ten Teams, One Conference, Three Questions Each, Part 2

The NBA draft is done, the transfers have made their moves and the teams traveling abroad have made their travel plans. As summer moves on, a few questions come to mind about each Big East program going into the 2016-17 season...

The Blue Demons lost five seniors and junior Tommy Hamilton (to transfer). Losing Hamilton, Myke Henry and Aaron Simpson hurt most, as coach Dave Leitao returns 54% of the possessions and minutes played, along with 50% of the points scored -- but only 39% of the rebounding -- from last season's 9-22 squad.

1. Leitao built a winning program at DePaul in his first stint in Lincoln Park (2002-03 through 2004-05) -- can he do it again? In the second year of his second stint, Leitao left DePaul as the Blue Demons concluded their run in CUSA, but before they moved into the Big East. The Big East of 2016 may not be the Big East of 2003 (some would argue that point...), it is a far more competitive conference than CUSA. Leitao has a lot of work ahead. A talent upgrade is mandatory. In response to the Blue Demons large turnover of scholarships (five seniors and Hamilton) Leitao will add up to eight new faces to the returning nucleus of rising sophomore Eli Cain (who showed real progress as he closed out his freshman campaign) and rising seniors Billy Garrett Jr. and Darrick Wood. Embracing a Division 1 wide trend, Leitao's new contingent will include both four incoming freshmen, a JUCO and three transfers. Among the freshmen Devin Gage and Brandon Cyrus, should, along with fifth year transfer Chris Harrison-Docks (Western Kentucky), provide a solid backcourt rotation headlined by returners Cain and Garrett. Levi Cook and Al Eichelberger -- along with JUCO wing Tre'Darius McCallum (Indian Hills CC) -- have large roles to fill with the departure of Henry and Hamilton. McCallum might be the answer to Henry's departure, especially if he can maintain his 40% three point conversion rate. Two additional transfers, Max Strus (a Division 2 All-American from Lewis University) and Austin Grandstaff (Ohio State and Oklahoma) will sit this season per NCAA transfer rules and be eligible to play (Strus for two seasons, Grandstaff for three) in 2017-18.

2. How can DePaul avoid the conference cellar this season? While Leitao gave back three conference wins (3-15) compared to Oliver Purnell's 2014-15 squad (6-12), DePaul managed to avoid the conference cellar for a second consecutive season thanks to Chris Mullin's 1-17 inaugural season at St. John's. The Red Storm will make progress in 2017, so DePaul must solve its tendency to slump in February and March to avoid the bottom rung for a third consecutive season. The Blue Demons' conference record from 2011-2016 is 17-73 (0.189) -- bad, but good compared to their February/March record during that same period -- 6-42 (0.125). Whether it is the grind of conference play, lack of conditioning, a too short rotation or eroding morale, the squad must develop the toughness to avoid this apparently inevitable late season malaise.

3. Will Billy Garrett finish his career with more than 1500 points scored? Garrett is ranked 34th among DePaul's highest scorers. A healthy season with even average offensive production would virtually guarantee that he becomes the eleventh player to join DePaul's 1500 point club. Garrett needs another 380 points and 75 assists to join Brandon Young as the second player to score more than 1,200 points, convert more than 100 three point field goals and dish 400 assists over the course of his career.

Bradley Hayes was granted another season of eligibility, leaving D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera as the Hoyas only significant loss this off season. Coach John Thompson III brings in three more players, guard Rodney Pryor, a fifth year senior from Robert Morris, Jonathan Mulmore, a JUCO point guard from Allegheny College in Maryland and freshman off guard Jagan Mosely, a St. Anthony's (NJ) graduate. The emphasis on guards is no mistake as the Hoyas are so stacked at the forward and low post positions that players will struggle to see the floor.

1. Will the Hoyas bounce back this season? A team loaded with four and five star athletes could not seem to find second gear in 2015-16. Stumbling out of the gate at 0-2, the Hoyas staggered to a 7-5 record through the first two months. A mid season 6-2 rally petered out with a 2-10 closing run, which broke an eleven season string of post season appearances (two NITs, nine NCAAs). Thompson will work with 82% of the minutes, 77% of the possessions and 78% of the points scored from last season's 15-18 squad which suggests that Thompson will start out with an 84% "ceiling" on his continuity of minutes (see Pomeroy here) -- a strong hint that Georgetown will improve. Other hints of progress include youth -- as measured by both division 1 (1.38 years per Ken Pomeroy, 279th) and the conference (7th), they will mature and luck -- the Hoyas played 13 close (margins of 6 points or 2 possession) games last season, going 3-10. They played eight blowout (15 or more points) going 6-2.

2. What two areas most need improvement? Thompson must address defensive fouls and turnovers (too many on offense and not enough on defense). Historically the Hoya combined shot efficiency with offensive rebounding to mask a tendency to lose possessions before taking a field goal attempt. Field goal conversion rates continue to be efficient -- though not as efficient as the six squads Thompson coached from 2006-2011, but offensive rebounding has cratered to 28.3%m=, the lowest ever under Thompson. Maturity alone with improve the fouling rate at the margins. Greater discipline and better defensive preparation will definitely yield better results as well.

3. Which will have a bigger impact on recruiting, the new practice facility or a new approach to offense? Both are long overdue. The John R. Thompson Jr. Intercollegiate Athletic Center, due for completion sometime in 2016, will provide separate men's and women's practice facility as part of a 144,000 square foot facility that will serve all 29 of the Hoyas' athletic teams. It should serve as proof of administrative commitment to athletics for the 29 coaching staffs that will use the facility. Thompson's most successful teams ran a high-post version of the Princeton Offense with the offense directed by the passing center (Roy Hibbert, Greg Monroe) or through a point forward (Jeff Green, Otto Porter). Guards advanced the ball and with their wings (Jon Wallace, Chris Wright, Austin Freeman, Jason Clark, Jabril Trawick), connected on enough threes to keep the defense from collapsing on the low post. Thompson will no doubt incorporate "Read and React" elements, pick and roll along with isolation plays for his guards, into his pass-oriented offense. No one in this back court, LJ Peak excepted, has consistently hit three point attempts. The roster is stacked at virtually every position, expect very competitive practices come October and an updated look come November. Nothing helps recruiting more than a winning program.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Ten Teams and the Conference, Three Questions Each, Part 1

After the NBA deadline and initial flurry of fifth year transfers, the rosters have settled down. With news of the out of conference schedules trickling out, it is time to look at some of the questions facing each Big East program going into the 2016-17 season...

The Bulldogs graduated Kellen Dunham, Roosevelt Jones and Austin Etherington, three solid contributors during coach Chris Holtmann's two years. Also departed, sophomore Jackson Davis a rotation forward and Jordan Gaithers, a graduate transfer who filled out the Bulldog backcourt rotation last season.

1. Butler's Backcourt -- Who's Got Next? The Bulldogs' largest productivity losses came in their backcourt as Dunham, a 43% shooter from beyond the arc last season (38.5% career) and Jones, a 230 pound linebacker disguised as an off guard/wing moved on. Holtmann returns 53% of the minutes, 51% of the scoring and 50% of the possessions from last season, but Dunham and Jones account for most of those missing minutes and points. Holtmann has two transfers, red shirt senior Kethan Savage (George Washington) and graduate transfer Avery Woodson (Memphis), to team up with likely starting point guard, senior Tyler Lewis. Savage, a slasher who posted a 48% completion rate inside the arc in three seasons at George Washington, compliments Woodson who matched Dunham's long range productivity last season playing for Josh Pastner. This combination should help the Bulldogs post a third consecutive winning conference record and upper division finish. Those three should give freshman Kamar Baldwin time to get up to speed.

2. Can Holtmann recruit at the Big East level? In his two years the coach logged hits and misses on the trail. He can identify and attract good transfers, while sophomores Tyler Wideman (a #4/#5) and (#3/#4) Kelan Martin, significant contributors at both ends of the court this past season, confirm that he can scout and recruit high school talent. This seasons three entering freshmen, #2/#3 Henry Baddley, a 6'6", 190 pound wing from St. Vincent-St. Mary's High School in Akron, Ohio, 6'11" 240 pound #5 Joey Brunk from Indianapolis' Southport High School and Kamar Baldwin, a 6'2" 175 pound combo-guard out of Winder, Georgia (Apalachee High School) do appear to be more projects than impact players. Red shirt freshman Sean McDermott, a 6'6" 'tweener has had the benefit of practicing with the team last season. Among the transfers, Austin Etherington (Indiana) did not have the anticipated impact, but fifth year senior Jordan Gaithers (St. Bonaventure) and two year transfer Tyler Lewis (North Carolina State) were consistent, solid backcourt contributors last season. Holtmann will look to two more transfers, Savage and Woodson to play expanded roles on this season's team. Another GWU transfer, Paul Jorgensen, will be available for two seasons starting in 2017-18.

3. Can Butler get out of the NCAA's first weekend? The question that haunted Villanova for the past three seasons will no doubt dog coach Holtmann's squad as they face the press on Media Day next October. Their records for 2014-2016 need no apology as they tallied wins over North Carolina, Purdue, Temple, Cincinnati, Texas, Texas Tech and Tennessee over that span. While the draw and match-ups will play a big role in how they do next March, do not minimize the experience gained by the staff and the returning members of the squad.

Geoffrey Groselle and James Milliken have exhausted their eligibility, but Maurice Watson, fresh off of an outstanding junior season, tested the NBA waters before returning for his senior season. Meanwhile guards Marcus Foster, a 6'2" transfer from Kansas State and 6'4" freshman Davion Mintz, are ready to compete for minutes. Coach Greg McDermott will have some interesting decisions to make about his backcourt.

1. How good is Creighton's back court? Potentially the best backcourt in the Big East according to many who cover the conference regularly. Foster (who, according to Jon Rothstein, reduced his body fat from 14% to 8% during his NCAA required sitting period) will pair with senior Maurice Watson Jr. to provide a 1-2 scoring and passing combination that should stretch opposing defenses next season. McDermott will have the option to run a long or a quick rotation as the Bluejays, returning 76% of the minutes and possessions and 74% of the scoring from last season's 20-15 squad, are deep at the wing and low post. The key will be the chemistry that Watson and Foster can develop and maintain, as they have similar skills. Their versatility will either enhance scoring opportunities for their teammates -- a healthy mix of seniors and sophomores -- or freeze them to setting picks and rebounding. The line however fine, should be easily recognized by McDermott, a Division 2 and Division 1 head coach for 22 years with stops at Northern Iowa, Iowa State before Creighton. If McDermott can fine tune the Bluejays they should shake up the Xavier/Villanova hegemony at the top of the conference.

2. Will McDermott upgrade the Bluejays' out of conference schedule? A 9-9 conference record that featured wins over Georgetown, Seton Hall, Butler, Xavier and Marquette (road) coupled with five losses by five or fewer points drew favorable comments from fans. The Bluejays, doomed by a so-so 9-4 out of conference record versus a #305 (RPI) ranked slate of opponents, were never in a serious NCAA bracket discussion. Their loss to #238 RPI ranked Loyola of Chicago rendered their pospects DOA by New Year's Eve. McDermott cannot control Creighton's draw in early season invitational tournaments. Stinkers like Rutgers (RPI #294) are inevitable, but he can control CenturyLink Center visitors and home-away contracts, five of whom last season were with teams ranked below #250. McDermott has an experienced squad that can post 20+ wins against a much stronger slate this season. The Bluejays are set to face in state opponent Nebraska, will kick off the Paradise Jam with Washington State (with either North Carolina State or Montana their second opponent) and have a return date with Arizona State (away). With five of 14 opponents set, McDermott can assemble a solid slate with (rumored) Akron (#36 RPI last season) and others in the #50 to #130 range. Rumors that Longwood (#324 last season) and Tennessee-Martin (#215 last season) are on tap -- let's hope McDermott can control his sweet tooth.

3. Has Creighton's recuiting pipeline made the trasition to the Big East? Yes, McDermott's annual additions usually include a healthy mix of freshmen and transfers/JUCOs. He appears to have many of his wing and front court needs for the next two years already in works. A pair of four star wings, Ty-Shon Alexander and Mitchell Ballock, are set to enter in 2017. This reduces McDermott's 2017-18 need list to #4s and #5s, the two areas where the heaviest attrition will take place. With Watson's departure timetable known, McDermott already has Syracusse transfer Kaleb Joseph waiting in the wings. Joseph will school Mintz in practice as he works out with the team during his NCAA-mandated red shirt season. Marcus Foster's plans could be the wild card (what else is new?). If he jumps after a single season in Omaha and disrupts McDermott's anticipated point guard line of succession (Watson-Foster-Joseph-Mintz), McDermott will have another spot to cover in the Jay's backcourt rotation.