Big East reset: Four teams jockeying for first place as league play starts
As conference play begins across the country, SI is resetting the races in the top nine leagues. Next up is the Big East:
Top three contenders
The Musketeers' start to the season has been truly unbelievable. Their five starters are averaging double-digit scoring, and their top seven rotation players boast offensive ratings north of 104.9. And really, Xavier is relying more on its defense and rebounding than its offense. It has the third-most efficient defense in college basketball, and the Musketeers are 15th and third in offensive and defensive rebounding percentage, respectively. Mix in four kenpom.com top-50 wins—including a 29-point drubbing of Dayton on a neutral court on Nov. 29—and you have a formula for a contender in the conference and in the country at large.
The Bulldogs have been one of the most fun teams to watch in November and December. They’re averaging 89.9 points per game, second only to The Citadel (93.1 ppg), on whom Butler hung 144 points in its season-opening win. Seniors Roosevelt Jones (13.8) and Kellen Dunham (15.6 ppg) have been electric again, and they’ve been bolstered offensively by breakout performances from sophomore Kelan Martin (14.3 ppg) and junior Andrew Chrabascz (12.8 ppg, 141.5 O-Rating). When Butler beat Purdue by six at the Crossroads Classic in Indianapolis on Dec. 19, it proved it’ll be in the conversation all season long.
Before you begin complaining about a two-loss Villanova squad beating out one-loss Providence for this final spot, consider the Wildcats’ two losses. They lost a neutral-court game to Oklahoma, kenpom.com’s No. 2 team, and a true road game at kenpom.com No. 3 Virginia. Those are the two toughest games any Big East team has played so far, so the losses can be forgiven. The Wildcats look like their usual selves, with the 12th-most efficient offense and the 11th-most efficient defense. They’re incredibly balanced, too, with four players using more than 20% of available possessions, all with offensive ratings above 113.0. As long as Jay Wright is running the show, it seems hard to imagine Villanova anywhere other than in the top three in the conference in March.
Providence. Our projection system predicted Providence to be the sixth-best team in the Big East and to have a conference record of 7–11 at the end of the year. And while that’s of course possible, it seems highly unlikely. Kris Dunn has been as good as almost everyone thought he would be, but the X-factor for the Friars has been sophomore Ben Bentil, who is leading the Friars in scoring (18.8 ppg) and taking 29.4% of their shots, and making enough plays for Dunn to feel like he doesn’t have to do it all himself. All that said, the Friars’ schedule is holding them out of the top three for now. They’ve played two games against kenpom.com top-50 teams, beating Arizona but losing to Michigan State on neutral courts. Their overall strength of schedule is 199th. We’ll get a better sense of how good Providence is in January, as it takes on Butler (twice), Villanova and Xavier.
Georgetown. It’s still tempting to believe in the Hoyas, but they haven’t helped themselves at all during the non-conference portion of the season. Their best win was at home over Syracuse, a borderline NCAA tournament team. Their worst loss? You pick: At home in two overtimes to Radford or at home to UNC Asheville? Georgetown has talent with D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera, Isaac Copeland and the emergence of senior center Bradley Hayes, but they haven’t been fundamentally sound. They’re 238th in offensive turnover percentage and below 170th in both offensive and defensive rebounding percentage. It’s too early to write Georgetown off, but they’ll have to battle to be considered a contender again in the Big East.
Player of the year so far
Kris Dunn, Providence. Dunn is on the very short list for national player of the year. He has improved in almost every way from his breakout 2014-15 season. His offensive rating is up (109.9 from 103.0) despite the fact that he is using more possessions and taking a higher percentage of the Friars’ shots form a season ago. He’s a significantly better offensive and defensive rebounder, and perhaps most importantly, he’s turning the ball over 1.3 fewer times per game. If Providence stays relevant, Dunn should have no trouble collecting conference player of the year honors.
Best non-conference win
Butler over Purdue, 74–68 (Dec. 19). Coming into this contest, Butler’s only top-25 game had been a neutral-court loss to Miami. But the Bulldogs took advantage of this opportunity in Kansas City to prove that its offense could score even against college basketball’s most efficient defense.
Must-see game in January
Villanova at Butler (Jan. 10). Xavier plays at Villanova on New Year’s Eve, but we’re talking January games only here. Butler seems like it can score on anyone, but will it be able to defend the Wildcats multi-threat offensive attack? Hinkle Fieldhouse will be rocking.