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.