Big East analysis: Villanova has league, nation chasing it

Villanova men's basketball coach Jay Wright is restrained by players after receiving a technical foul in the first half of a game last season against Butler in Indianapolis. (By The Associated Press)

Over the next 24 hours, the Big East basketball schedule unfolds and it won’t be easy for any team. This is a league that currently has four teams that rank among the top 25 (in both national polls); including the nation’s top team (Villanova).

“Getting into actual league play will be an adjustment for me,” first-year Butler coach LaVall Jordan said Tuesday. “Coming back to Butler was exciting for me and my family and embracing where Butler is now versus where it was when I was a player. Being in an entirely new conference, at the highest level night in and night out, it’s different.”

It is “different,” and it is difficult. And the Bulldogs will find that out immediately as they open play tonight at 6:30 p.m. at Georgetown.

Here is a look at each of the Big East squads as they get into the challenging part of their seasons. The order will follow where each team was selected by the league’s coaches in the annual preseason poll.

VILLANOVA (12-0)

The opener: At DePaul, tonight at 7:30 p.m. (CBSSN)

The Skinny: The No. 1-ranked Wildcats are unbeaten in 12 games, but only two have been road games. However, the league power has wins over Tennessee and Gonzaga, among several other very good opponents.

“For anybody,” DePaul coach Dave Leito said of the Wildcats, “at any time, is a big challenge. They are probably the most efficient basketball team that I have seen in many, many years.”

A good sign: Villanova can really shoot the basketball from 3-point range. The Wildcats have made 41 percent as a team, which is best in the league so far, and their 129 makes ranks second in the league. No player in the league has been better than junior guard Jalen Brunson, who is making an impressive 53.1 percent of his 3-pointers.

A bad sign: ‘Nova has not been road tested much. The Wildcats do have road wins against city rivals St. Joseph’s and Temple, but haven’t played a high-major opponent on the road yet.

A good win: Villanova took care of surprisingly difficult Western Kentucky 66-58 in the Battle 4 Atlantis event in the Bahamas last month.

A bad loss: None so far.

Watch this guy: It would be easy to point out Brunson as a key piece in the Wildcats’ attack, and with good reason. However, his classmate and backcourt mate, Mikal Bridges has nearly doubled his scoring average. The 6-foot-7 athlete is averaging almost 18 points per game and six rebounds per game this season. In addition, he is a pain at the defensive end (third in the league in steals) and he makes his free throws (81.4 percent) when fouled.

SETON HALL (11-2)

The opener: vs. Creighton, Thursday at 6:30 p.m. (FS1)

The Skinny: The No. 23-ranked Pirates are among the most feared opposition for teams to face because of their size and ability in the paint.

“This is going to be a game, so to speak, for the men,” Indiana coach Archie Miller said of facing Seton Hall prior to his team’s game against the Pirates last month. “There’s no boys sort of allowed when you’re playing against Seton Hall.”

A good sign: With guys like Angel Delgado (6-10, senior) and Desi Rodriguez (6-6, senior), the Pirates are among the best rebounding teams (39.4 per game) in the league, including THE best on the offensive glass (37.6 percent).

A bad sign: Seton Hall is the worst free throw shooting team in the league (65.5 percent). For a team that relies on physical play in the paint, that is not a positive.

A good win: The Pirates beat Louisville on the road 79-77 in front of nearly 20,000 Cardinal fans.

A bad loss: None that are terrible, but falling to Rhode Island by one wasn’t great.

Watch this guy: Junior forward Michael Nzei (6-8) only plays 18 minutes per game and only averages six points per outing, but he crashes the offensive glass well and in close Big East games, a bucket here and there will often prove to be the difference between a win and a loss.

XAVIER (12-1)

The opener: at Marquette, tonight at 8:30 p.m. (FS1)

The Skinny: The No. 5-ranked Musketeers have challenged themselves with a pretty difficult schedule and fared well. They do a number of things very well at both ends of the floor. This is a deep, talented and balanced (at both ends of the floor) squad.

A good sign: There will be nights when a team’s offense or defense comes and goes over the next couple of months, but free throw shooting should be a constant. No team in this league gets to the line more than Xavier or makes more once they are there than the Musketeers.

A bad sign: There aren’t many negatives to this squad, but health, of late, is one. Xavier had to finish a win over Marshall without injured players J.P. Macura (blurred vision), Kaiser Gates (dizziness) and Naji Marshall (hard fall).

A good win: A 68-66 win over East Tennessee State tops even wins at Wisconsin or double-digit wins over Baylor and hated-rival Cincinnati. In the former, the Musketeers trailed by 22 in the second half before fighting back to win. That showed some fortitude on their part. Oh, and by the way, East Tennessee State is a good mid-major team.

A bad loss: Only loss for Xavier is a double-digit loss to No. 3-ranked Arizona State, so Muskies have no “bad losses.”

Watch this guy: Tyrique Jones is a 6-9 sophomore forward that plays limited minutes (fewer than 18 per game) and fouls frequently (he leads the team with 32 this season), as veteran coach Chris Mack manages a three-man rotation in the paint. However, Jones averages nearly 10 points and six rebounds in those limited minutes. If he can expand that to 23-25 minutes per game, he could be a force in league play.

PROVIDENCE (9-4)

The opener: at St. John’s, Thursday at 7 p.m. (FSN)

The Skinny: The Friars have had a challenging month, as they have lost half of their games and nearly 5 of 6. Providence had to go overtime to survive against Ivy League program Brown (77-72) and had to rally from double-digits down in the second half to get past Stony Brook recently in Providence 62-60.

A good sign: The Big East boasts a number of good 3-point shooters, but Providence defends against that shot almost as well as any team in the league. Opponents are making just 30.5 percent of their long shots against the Friars.

A bad sign: The Friars aren’t exceptional at taking care of the ball. They don’t share it well (just 14 assists per game) and they don’t take care of it that well either (13.8 turnovers per game).

A good win: Beating Boston College by 20 in front of nearly 11,000 people always is a plus for the Friar program.

A bad loss: Losing regional road games at Rhode Island and at Massachusetts never helps on the recruiting front.

Watch this guy: Sophomore guard Alpha Dialo is one of three Friar players that are “day to day” with ankle or leg injuries, along with Maliek White and Kyron Cartwright. If Dialo can play soon, his 6-7 length will help offensively (he shoots over 54 percent from the field) and on the glass (he averages nearly five rebounds per game in just 24 minutes per outing).

CREIGHTON (10-2)

The opener: at Seton Hall, Thursday at 6:30 p.m. (FS1)

The Skinny: The Bluejays are a balanced team that does just about everything either good to great. They have been consistently good as they have surprised some people so far this year with their play.

A good sign: Do you want to brag on Creighton’s offense (it ranks with Xavier as league’s most accurate) or defense (it ranks second in the league in defending the 3-point line)? Either way, it’s a positive for Bluejay fans.

A bad sign: Nit-picking here, but Creighton doesn’t do a great job on the offensive glass. But then again, they don’t miss many shots either.

A good win: You could argue the impressiveness of these, but non-Omaha wins over Northwestern and UCLA, as well as a home win over Nebraska have been noteworthy.

A bad loss: Bluejays really don’t have one, but they did get rolled in Spokane by Gonzaga (a lot of teams do).

Watch this guy: Junior guard Ronnie Harrell Jr. has played everywhere for Creighton from the power forward to the point and is having his best season ever. Yes, he is averaging less than seven points per game, but that is more than triple last year’s numbers and his versatility is impressive. He can pass, score and grabs almost eight rebounds per game.

ST. JOHN’S (10-2)

The opener: vs. Providence, Thursday at 7 p.m. (FSN)

The Skinny: Red Storm legendary player and current coach Chris Mullin was never exactly known as a defensive force, but his 2017-18 squad has evolved into that (to a degree) as it is immersed in the best season of Mullin’s brief tenure at his alma mater.

A good sign: This team defends well (it leads the league in defensive field goal percentage), which should be a constant on every night this season.

A bad sign: However, this team does not rebound the ball well (it ranks last in the Big East) to finish out those defensive possessions.

A good win: St. John’s has a number of nice wins, but a 46-43 win over a very solid Central Florida team is as good as any.

A bad loss: An 8-point loss to Missouri, who shot the ball well that night wasn’t terrible, but it’s still a loss.

Watch this guy: I’ve always been intrigued by redshirt sophomore guard Marcus Lovett, who lists his hometown as Fort Wayne, but played high school basketball in Los Angeles and Chicago, never actually in Fort Wayne. So go figure. In any event, Lovett has been out for an extended period of time (five games) due to a knee injury. When healthy, however, he makes nearly 40 percent of his 3-point shots and scores almost 15 per game. If he can return soon, obviously he’ll help the Red Storm considerably.

MARQUETTE (9-3)

The opener: vs. Xavier, tonight at 8:30 p.m. (FS1)

The Skinny: The Golden Eagles have improved defensively of late and that is a big reason as to why Marquette has won four consecutive games. Opponents are shooting just 41.2 percent against Marquette in the last four games.

A good sign: When the trio of Markus Howard, Andrew Rowsey, and forward Sam Hauser are clicking offensively and score in double figures, Marquette is difficult to beat (7-1).

A bad sign: If a shot goes up and misses, there is a fair chance that the Golden Eagles won’t grab it. They are among the worst in the Big East in rebounding.

A good win: A 19-point win over Wisconsin is always a positive in the Badger State for Golden Eagle fans.

A bad loss: Double-digit losses to Purdue (in Milwaukee) and against Wichita State didn’t reflect well on Marquette, but getting beat by Georgia in Milwaukee was bad.

Watch this guy: Harry Froling is finally eligible for the Golden Eagles and they can use him. The 6-foot-11 sophomore transfer from SMU recently became eligible and he almost had a double-double (9 points, 7 rebounds) in 21 minutes off the bench for Marquette. He’ll help in a lot of ways during Big East play.

BUTLER (10-3)

The opener: at Georgetown, tonight at 6:30 p.m. (FS1)

The Skinny: Butler has performed well against non-Power 5 opponents and just OK against actual peers of the Bulldogs.

“We finished on a high note in the non-conference schedule against Western Illinois,” Jordan said. “It kind of all clicked. We are a team that has improved. We’ve been up and down offensively, but there are some areas where we’ve seen great improvements. Defensively, we’ve been pretty solid for the most part.”

A good sign: If the Bulldogs can have good ball movement offensively, as well as make shots. Their offensive play has been poor against high-major competition.

A bad sign: If Butler struggles to get good offensive looks against long and athletic teams that play strong defense (like Georgetown).

A good win: Fighting back from being down 15 with 3:46 remaining and eventually winning against former Butler coach Chris Holtmann and his new Ohio State squad may end up being the high mark of this season.

A bad loss: The Bulldogs recently got pounded in front a statewide audience by Purdue.

Watch this guy: Kamar Baldwin has not built on a stellar freshman season like he is capable of or should have. He has shot the ball poorly (41 percent overall and 28 percent from 3) and hasn’t been very good with the ball either (37 assists and 32 turnovers). If he doesn’t turn his play around, like, beginning tonight, Butler will finish in the bottom half of this league and definitely will not be vying for an NCAA Tournament bid.

RELATED STORY:Butler to be challenged – at both ends of play – in league opener

GEORGETOWN (10-1)

The opener: vs. Butler, tonight at 6:30 p.m. (FS1)

The Skinny: Georgetown refused to relinquish the death-like grip that John Thompson Sr. has on the entire university and instead of hiring an experienced, successful college coach, it did what St. John’s did (somewhat successfully) and reached into its past, as the Hoyas named Patrick Ewing as head coach. Ewing was a Hall of Fame player, but has never been a head coach in his life. We’ll see how this story ends.

A good sign: If the Hoyas can play against Big East competition in a similar fashion as to how they did against one of the weakest non-conference schedules in the country, then that is a positive. Georgetown’s recent overtime loss to Syracuse should be seen as a bright spot.

A bad sign: If Georgetown turns the ball over against better competition like it did against week teams. The Hoyas averaged almost 15 throwaways per game.

A good win: I’ll say Jacksonville to open the season, but only because I am good friends with Dolphin coach Tony Jasick. Georgetown does not have a “good win.”

A bad loss: The Hoyas don’t have a “good win” yet, nor do they have a “bad loss.”

Watch this guy: It may seem obvious to mention Jessie Govan, but he is Georgetown’s most dominant player in so many ways. He is the Hoyas’ best scorer, rebounder and shot-blocker. The 6-foot-10 junior does everything well at both ends of the floor.

DEPAUL (7-5)

The opener: vs. Villanova, tonight at 7:30 p.m. (CBSSN)

The Skinny: The Blue Demon program has been down for a long time, but they have shown signs of life this season with competitive play against some solid teams. There is hope for the program, in addition to a brand new arena.

A good sign: DePaul has shown the ability to take care of the ball and defend well. Those are very good signs for the building of a program. Now…

A bad sign: If the Blue Demons have to make shots. DePaul is the worst shooting team in the Big East.

A good win: It wasn’t a win, but playing city-rival Northwestern tight (62-60) in front of a hometown audience brings a degree of respectability to the Blue Demon program.

A bad loss: To Leito’s credit, DePaul has played a very good schedule and yes, there have been defeats, but none (vs. Notre Dame, vs. Michigan State, vs. Oregon, at Illinois, vs. Northwestern, that were “bad.”

Watch this guy: Fort Wayne North Side alum Jaylen Butz is emerging fairly quickly for DePaul. The 6-foot-9 freshman has played in all 12 games so far and started three. He is averaging almost 15 minutes per game and is shooting almost 58 percent from the field.

For more on college basketball, follow Tom Davis on Twitter at Tom101010 and on Facebook at Thomas Davis.

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