"My rule was I wouldn't recruit a kid if he had grass in front of his house.
That's not my world. My world was a cracked sidewalk." —Al McGuire

Monday, November 30, 2020

Solid start to the season, now things get real #BadgerHateWeek

So the season has started and all things considered, it was pretty good. The Scrambled Eggs team got together to discuss the results of the first competitive games for #MUBB in 8 months. The focus of the discussion is on the front court, DJ Carton, and what the rotation looks like going forward. We then turn to this weeks contests, starting with Oklahoma State and the challenge Cade Cuningham represents. Then we turn to #BadgerHateWeek and discuss what we think MU can do against Wisconsin. It will be a challenging week but, hey, we're playing basketball so enjoy! https://mcdn.podbean.com/mf/web/y2gi6q/ScrambledEggs_Editted_113020.mp3

Saturday, November 28, 2020

Value Add Basketball Cards for 10 Marquette Players and 5 Other Big East Teams

Below are the projected player cards for Marquette and five other Big East teams included in the 68 team in the Value Add Basketball Game. After learning of the Covid-19 season shutdown while in Madison Square Garden in March I spent the next few days calculating player cards for 100 teams I thought would have made the NIT or NCAA tournament to add to my 100 all-time great teams (where Bill Walton's UCLA had defeated Michael Jordan's UNC for the all-time title).

This week I updated the game by choosing 68 of those teams who looked strong this season. I kept the cards for all players who had a card last year (whether on the same team or moving to a new team). The layout sets up to just have 10 players per team, so sorry for the MU and other players I left off. The calculations sort the players into 5 starters and 5 bench players, so do not take the line-up listed for MU as my opinion or suggesting the line-up Wojo put on the court these first couple of games was anything less than fantastic.

I took players who were on this ESPN roster, however I noticed some of the JUCO transfers and transfers who had sat out a season (e.g. Sam Hauser with UVa) were not listed on the ESPN roster, so we added players from the Top 100 JUCO rankings as well as Jeff Goodman's rankings from 2019 tracking the key transfers who sat out the 2020 season but planned to play this season. 

We did not go beyond those three steps to verify if players were sitting out this year due to Covid, were injured, etc., but we hope this gives a somewhat realistic play for what would have happened this season without the interruptions Covid-19 may cause. However, projecting player cards for college players is obviously not an exact science, so the top 150 freshman basically got a card that matched an equal freshman from last year at the same position (e.g. the 25th highest ranked freshman PG gets a card roughly equal to the 25th best freshman PG last year). You can pull up the cards for the non-Big Esat teams in this blog.

If someone actually wants to play a game, click on the image to open it in a separate screen, then print that sheet. The top line for each team are the suggested starting players left to right from 1 (point guard) to 5 (center), but you can rotate players in any order you want. Each player has an endurance figure of between 7 and 44 to indicate the maximum number of possessions he should play in the game. In addition to using these instructions, you will need to print out the scoresheet at the bottom of his blog. The game continues to be my most widely read blog with 43,300 clicks, and the game is free.

To look at the team's player cards, you should click on each image and then click to open the image in a new tab, where the players and their numbers should all be clear and easy to read.

Big East teams included

Connecticut 2021

Creighton 2021

Marquette 2021

Providence 2021

Seton Hall 2021

Villanova 2021

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

The season starts....we think

It's time for the weirdest season on-record for #mubb to kick-off. We start off by talking about the swirl of external events around the basketball season and how they will impact the shape of the season to come. We also discuss what a delay to the season may look like if it happens. We then discuss the news that Jose Perez is available to play this season, via waiver, and what that might mean for the team. We then discuss the upcoming games, how they might turn out, and what we think the results will be. Buckle up and enjoy! https://mcdn.podbean.com/mf/web/c4v9ty/scrambledeggs_edit_112420.mp3

Marquette Preview, 2020-21

Marquette Golden Eagles

Coach: Steve Wojciechowski (115-81)

Three-Year NCAA Rank Average: 37.3

Three-Year kenpom Average: 39.0

2020-21 T-Rank Projection: 76

Yes Big East fans, Theo John is still at Marquette

Photo from gomarquette.com

Projected Starters: PG Symir Torrence (6'3" So), SG D.J. Carton (6'2" So), SF Koby McEwen (6'4" RS Sr), PF Dawson Garcia (6'11" Fr), C Theo John (6'9" Sr)

Marquette's 2019-20 season was eerily familiar for Golden Eagles fans. A promising non-con start, competing near the top of the conference for two months, then a staggeringly poor finish. The biggest difference was the play of Markus Howard. His struggles were in large part responsible for the 2019 slump but this past year he was the only scintillating spot as Marquette dropped game after game. Howard's departure has fans in Milwaukee wondering what is next for this team and how successful Coach Wojo can be without the focal point of an offense that was ranked on average 16.5 nationally with Howard as its leader.

In addition to losing the Big East's all-time leading scorer, reliable contributors Sacar Anim, Brendan Bailey, and Jayce Johnson are also gone from this roster. Symir Torrence has received rave offseason reviews and will hope to make a significant freshman to sophomore year jump. He has excellent court vision and distribution abilities. Marquette got a huge boost when transfer guard D.J. Carton was granted immediate eligibility. Carton has NBA potential though while he can score is far more of a distributor and game manager than Howard was. He is also regarded as a better defender, something Wojo sorely needs. Koby McEwen should be more comfortable on the wing and along with Torrence and Carton gives more of a three-guard look. McEwen showed flashes early on but cratered down the stretch, with a 78.6 adjusted offensive rating during the 1-6 finish. Up front, Garcia is the preseason Big East Freshman of the Year. The McDonald's All-American can score inside and out, is able to put the ball on the floor, and should be able to play all three frontcourt positions. John is a physical enforcer who does most of his work around the rim. Jamal Cain and Greg Elliott will likely get close to starter minutes off the bench. Cain is a bouncy forward that can provide excellent rebounding, shooting, and length, while Elliott is an athletic guard that, when healthy, can be a big contributor on both ends, though that health has been elusive. The rest of the bench is filled by youth, with Dexter Akanno looking like a long-term piece in the backcourt and Justin Lewis and Osasere Ighadaro offering potential but no experience. The wildcard could be Jose Perez, a transfer from Gardner-Webb who was just granted immediate eligibility. Perez is a physical wing that was originally going to sit out. He tended to run hot and cold as one of the focal points at GWU and Marquette will likely hope a lower usage rate will lead to greater efficiency.

Offensively, the plan the past two years has been for everything to go through the hands of Markus Howard. Carton will likely have similar freedom, but expect him to share opportunities a lot more than Howard did. Expect the offense to continue to work from the outside in. Marquette under Wojo always has a wealth of three-point shooters and that will likely continue. This should be a better team on the offensive glass and while it's hard to imagine them being more offensively efficient without Howard, they will likely be more productive inside. On paper, this team should be better defensively. Wojo's teams usually stick with man-to-man, though in high-leverage situations they often throw a zone look at opponents. Marquette isn't the kind of team to try forcing turnovers or imposing their defensive will on opponents, instead working to stay in front of their assignments with John acting as the safety valve at the rim. This year they have more length with guys like Carton, Cain, and Garcia so logic indicates this will be a better defensive team. The problem is that it seems there's a case every year as to why Marquette will become a good defensive team (added athleticism in 2018, no more undersized Rowsey in 2019, no more slow-footed Hausers in 2020) and yet they never match preseason defensive expectations. Until we actually see the improvement, it's hard to accept that it will happen.

In a perfect world for Marquette, Carton would be a better replacement for Howard, not fully matching his scoring but guiding a more balanced offense that doesn't just rely on one guy going off to get a win. Garcia would live up to his immediate potential, serving as a Henry Ellenson type but better understanding his role. Torrence would blossom as a game manager, helping the other offensive pieces to reach their ceilings. And all the length would finally lead to a reliable defense that was able to carry Marquette to top-three in the league and a protected NCAA seed. But I can just as easily envision no one stepping up to alpha scorer status in lieu of Howard and the young roster leading to too many defensive miscues for a team that never really solidifies themselves in the NCAA picture. Like many Big East teams, there are a wide range of outcomes for this squad, perhaps best evidenced by their preseason kenpom and T-Rank disparity. Pomeroy has them at #36 and third in the Big East, T-Rank has them at #76 and ninth in the league. One of the problems with having high expectations for this team is that in the Wojo era, Marquette has only once finished higher on kenpom at the end of the season than they started. Wojo's teams consistently fail to meet expectations. So where do they end up this year? If they get a full season from Carton, I think he's too good for this team not to be competitive. I expect them to be in the middle of the league, good enough to be on the bubble but never quite reaching the heights Marquette fans want to see from Wojo.

Monday, November 23, 2020

St. John's Preview, 2020-21

St. John's Red Storm

Coach: Mike Anderson (386-215 overall, 17-15 at St. John's)

Three-year NCAA Rank Average: 77.0

Three-year kenpom Average: 76.0

2020-21 T-Rank Projection: 60

Julian Champagnie is looking for a sophomore breakout

Photo by Seth Wenig | AP Photo

Projected Starters: PG Rasheem Dunn (6'2" RS Sr), SG Vince Cole (6'6" Jr), SF Julian Champagnie (6'8" So), PF Marcellus Earlington (6'6" Jr), C Josh Roberts (6'9" Jr)

Mike Anderson's first campaign in charge of the Johnnies started in fine fashion, with an 11-2 non-conference record that included wins over West Virginia and Arizona, both teams that finished in the kenpom top-20. Big East play, however, was not nearly as successful. Despite a number of close losses, St. John's went just 5-13 in conference play, saved from the bottom of the league by only DePaul. A Big East Tournament win over Georgetown did insure a winning overall season, which keeps up Anderson's amazing run of finishing .500 or better in all 18 of his seasons as a head coach.

The offseason hit the Johnnies hard, with starters Mustapha Heron and Nick Rutherford graduating and leading scorer L.J. Figueroa transferring to Oregon. Those players take 58% of St. John's three-point makes and every player to connect on 35+% from deep off the roster. So who's left? Rasheem Dunn is the leading returning scorer and assister. He did well transitioning from a high-usage mid-major scoring guard to the point for Anderson and should be better with a year's experience under his belt. Joining him in the backcourt is JUCO transfer Vince Cole. The rangy wing will be counted on to replace some of that lost three-point shooting. The player most fans in Queens are keeping an eye on is Julian Champagnie. The long wing does a bit of everything and will likely try to fill Figueroa's shoes. Up front, Earlington and Roberts will need to step into bigger roles after serving as rotation players last year. Off the bench, expect guard Greg Williams, wing David Caraher, and forward Arnaldo Toro to all see minutes. Anderson will also likely count on at least one of his freshmen, with Posh Alexander being the most likely candidate to crack the rotation.

Anderson's system starts on the defensive end, where they play a high-pressure version of 40 Minutes of Hell. Expect the Johnnies to apply pressure, force turnovers, and when teams do get into the lane, have shot blockers ready and active. Because of that pressure, Anderson's teams do tend to give up a lot of offensive rebounds and free throw opportunities. Offensively, the turnovers created lead to a high-paced attack that is usually going downhill and trying to get to the rim before the defense can get set. His teams share the ball very well and he typically has 4+ players with over 20% usage, but rarely have any individual at 30+%. Conventional wisdom says the losses of Heron and Figueroa will hurt this team offensively, but that might not be true. Both of them shot under 40% inside the arc and while Anderson will hope for better outside shooting, his teams rarely rely on the three-point line, instead favoring inside scoring. With the ball more in the hands of Champagnie, Earlington, and Roberts, all of whom were reliable inside scorers, this team could surprise on the offensive end.

The coaches picked St. John's 9th in the league. Not as bad as Georgetown and DePaul, but simply not blessed with enough talent to compete at the top of the league. I think they're better than that. While Figueroa and Heron are big losses, I think there's reason to trust Anderson's system. The returning players fit his system well and Marquette fans will remember how effective that system can be when it's hitting on all cylinders. Having a wealth of players accustomed to lower usage rates that excel at scoring inside, which is exactly how Anderson coaches, seems to actually work more in this team's favor than the Mullin players that never quite seemed to fit right together. 40 Minutes of Hell will almost certainly allow St. John's to steal a few games they aren't expected to win and I think instead of fighting to avoid the cellar they will more likely be battling for the bubble come March.

Marquette Memory: The 2013 regular season finale at Madison Square Garden was one for the ages. The Johnnies built up an 8-point first half lead, but Marquette ended the first half outscoring the Johnnies 13-2, then matched that feat to open the second and stretch the run to 26-4 and the lead to 14. Marquette had relatively comfortable control through the second half and when Jamil Wilson pushed the lead to 61-51 with 3:25 to play, it looked like it was time to celebrate a Big East Championship. Instead, the Johnnies rallied late, going on a 12-2 run to force overtime. St. John's retook the lead twice in overtime, but Marquette matched them both times. With the score tied at 67, Vander Blue took the inbound, used a Davante Gardner screen to shed his man, drove to his right and slashed to the rim. "They're on their feet at the Garden, Vander Blue...HE GOT IT! AT THE BUZZER!!!" With that win, Marquette secured their first and only Big East regular season title and Blue gave us a precursor to the drive that would beat Davidson a couple weeks later in the NCAA Tournament.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Providence Preview, 2020-21

Providence Friars

Head Coach: Ed Cooley (273-191 overall, 181-122 at Providence

Three-year NCAA Ranking Average: 46.3

Three-year kenpom Average: 60.7

2020-21 T-Rank Projection: 20

David Duke is expected to step up as Ed Cooley's next great Providence guard

Photo by Paul Rutherford | USA Today Sports

Projected Starters: PG Jared Bynum (5'10" RS So), SG David Duke (6'5" Jr), SF A.J. Reeves (6'6" Jr), PF Noah Horchler (6'8" RS Sr), C Nate Watson (6'10" Sr)

2019-20 was a yo-yo season for Ed Cooley's Friars. They started the season 6-6 with four sub-100 losses and a pair of drubbings by the only teams of relative quality (Rhode Island & Florida) they faced. According to T-Rank, they were the 124th best team in the country during that period. Then an upset over Texas keyed a 5-1 stretch that had them near the top of the Big East and playing like the 16th best team in the country. They couldn't keep that up and dropped five of seven, looking like a bubble team as the 41st best team over that difficult stretch. Then, over the final six, they went a perfect 6-0 and during that period were the #1 team in the nation according to T-Rank. Through it all, Alpha Diallo was the consistent leader, but it was transfer guard Luwane Pipkins playing like a borderline All-American (14th nationally in PORPAGATU!), posting at least a 107 adjusted offensive efficiency and 28+ minutes in every game down the stretch. Now both Diallo and Pipkins are gone, as are a trio of key role-players in Kalif Young, Maliek White, and Emmitt Holt.

Cooley's offense is best when he has a dynamic point guard. Players like Vincent Council, Bryce Cotton, and Kris Dunn laid the groundwork for what Pipkins became at the end of last year. This season the keys will likely be in the hands of Jared Bynum, a transfer from St. Joe's who averaged 11.3 ppg/4.5 apg as a freshman. Bynum struggled against top-50 opponents but is expected to get the first chance at running the show. The wings are the strength of this team. Duke and Reeves were both top-50 recruits who have shown the ability to come up big before. Up front, Horchler was a double-double machine for North Florida who remained productive when he faced top competition while Watson is a proven productive and efficient contributor on both ends of the floor. Off the bench, Syracuse transfer Brycen Goodine is a former top-100 recruit who is immediately eligible if Bynum isn't able and the Friars have a wealth of long, athletic wings and forwards led by Greg Gantt that give Cooley depth and options.

Offensively, Cooley's teams used to always run through one point guard. Vincent Council, Bryce Cotton, Kris Dunn, and Kyron Cartwright all had top-5 national assist rates in their careers. The past two years, it's been more of a committee approach. They have one regular post player, currently Watson, and everyone else is focused on moving the ball for the best shot. Cooley has generally played at a medium pace, but last year they were racing out of the gate and were #67 (72.8 possessions per game) in tempo through the first 12 games, with a poor 6-6 record to show for it. Previously, Cooley's fastest tempo (and only top-150) was the 2015 team that ranked #129 nationally. The rest of the way they slowed it down, playing at the #243 tempo (67.2 possessions per game). Dropping possessions by 5.6 per game is a massive shift and unquestionably deliberate, and the Friars improved dramatically because of it. While their offense did improve as the season went on, it was the defense that was their calling card. Providence is primarily a man defense that uses its length at virtually every position to suffocate smaller opposing guards and force mistakes. That length also allows them to succeed in zone (they use more zone than any other Big East team, albeit only 20% of the time) which means they have the ability to mix defenses and with their length and athleticism throw a variety of looks at opponents.

Like most Big East teams, this is a hard one to project. While they lost a ton from last year, the team was actually better from an efficiency perspective without Diallo. Pipkins, at least how he played late, might be the bigger loss. Still, this team has the athleticism and length to keep up Cooley's consistently efficient defense and there's a lot of offensive talent. It will likely take time for the offense to come together, but Cooley has already had a year to work with Bynum while Duke has breakout star written all over him. This has the feeling of a comfortable NCAA Tournament team. In this year's Big East, that could mean a finish anywhere from second to fifth, but I tend to think this is a team better situated to capitalize on their upside because they have the defensive consistency to stay in most games and enough offensive playmakers to keep up.

Marquette Memory: Providence games are known to feature odd events and one of the most notable was on January 17, 2009. In a game at the Dunkin' Donuts Center, Providence guard Jeff Xavier drove to the rim and drew contact from Joe Fulce. Xavier went down with a scratch near his right eye and the game seemed ready to carry on until a fan came down from the stands, climbed over the Providence bench, and took to the court to confront one of the officials. Security quickly took the fan into custody and escorted him from the court. Marquette coach Buzz Williams said after the game "I told the officials, 'We'll leave, because that's extremely dangerous. I saw the guy coming out of the stands. Forget the game; I'm going to protect the guys. I'm going to protect those guys no matter what." It's a good thing Williams and his team stuck around as Marquette rallied from a 13-point second half deficit for a 91-82 win over the Friars. The fan turned out to be Jonathan Xavier, the brother of the Providence guard. He was charged with disorderly conduct for the incident.

Saturday, November 21, 2020

Georgetown Preview, 2020-21

Georgetown Hoyas

Head Coach: Patrick Ewing (49-46)

Three-Year NCAA Rank Average: 104.0

Three-Year kenpom Average: 87.0

2020-21 T-Rank Projection: 121

Patrick Ewing is still seeking his first NCAA bid at Georgetown

Photo from ESPN

Projected Starters: PG Jalen Harris (6'2" RS Sr), SG Jahvon Blair (6'4" Sr), SF Jamorko Pickett (6'8" Sr), PF Jamari Sibley (6'8" Fr), C Qudus Wahab (6'10" So)

This time last year, Georgetown was the trendy breakout pick in the Big East. James Akinjo, Mac McClung, and Josh LeBlanc were the building blocks Ewing needed to elevate the program while Omer Yurtseven was the perfect replacement for Jessie Govan as a proven high-major big man with the ideal mentor in Ewing. The Hoyas likely felt they were capitalizing on that potential when they started 4-1 and had a halftime tie with Duke at the Garden. Then the bottom fell out. They lost that game and a subsequent buy game to UNC-Greensboro. Akinjo & LeBlanc left the program with reserves Galen Alexander and Myron Gardner following a week later. McClung and Yurtseven rallied for three more solid non-con wins against Oklahoma State, SMU, and rival Syracuse, but once Big East play the Hoyas fell apart. They lost 7 of their first 10, then lost McClung and Yurtseven to injuries. Once the season ended, McClung transferred and Yurtseven declared for the draft, leaving the promising roster in shambles.

So what's left? Harris enters as a grad transfer who was a low-usage, low-efficiency game manager for three years at Arkansas. Blair and Pickett are the experienced statesmen of the team. Both stepped up adequately last year when the roster was decimated, but neither has demonstrated any level of star quality. Freshman Sibley is a Milwaukee native that has long-term upside but will likely struggle initially at this level. The one player that does seem to have real potential is Wahab, who excelled as a rebounder and shotblocker when Yurtseven went down while also providing efficient contributions on the offensive end. The bench is a mash-up of transfers (JUCO and mid-major) and youth. Simply, there's not a lot to offer much faith or hope.

Offensively, look for the Hoyas to try to push the pace, share the ball, and crash the glass in hopes of making up for their lack of definitive scoring options with extra opportunities. Defensively, the Hoyas focus on an inside-out approach. They aim to contest everything at the rim, control the defensive glass, and do so without fouling. That said, they had the worst defense in the league last year and in addition to the losses at the high-end quality part of the roster, they also saw Terrell Allen and Jagan Mosely graduate, taking experience with them. Expect a lot of growing pains for this group, especially as it's thoroughly unproven once you get past the starting five.

The shock of last year's team is that from an efficiency perspective, it was Ewing's best to date. The problem was a stacked Big East and an anemic roster. While the Big East won't be as good this year, the Hoyas clearly have the worst roster in the league and there are still 8-9 teams in the league that can at least make a case for being NCAA contenders. While there won't be that many (4-6 feels likely) Georgetown is going to be battling uphill every single night in terms of roster quality. Ewing has enough bodies that he will squeeze some wins out of this team, but I expect the Hoyas and not DePaul to be at the bottom of the league when all is said and done. It's sad to see what has happened to this once-proud program, but at this point, Georgetown is the doormat of the league.

Marquette Memory: Georgetown was the first opponent Marquette ever faced in the Big East Tournament back in 2006. Marquette defeated Georgetown 57-51 in the regular season and things started off swimmingly at MSG, with Marquette building an 11-point lead midway through the first half. Georgetown answered with a 13-2 run that tied the game at halftime. Throughout the game, shooting woes plagued Marquette, most notably Big East Freshman of the Year Dominic James, who went just 2/13 from the field. The second half was a back and forth affair with neither team being able to pull away until the final minute, when a pair of Brandon Bowman free throws with 0:39 to play put the Hoyas up 58-50. Marquette then ran off a furious 9-2 run that brought them within a point on Steve Novak's three with 6 seconds to play. Bowman hit another pair of free throws to stretch the lead back to three, and a Jerel McNeal desperation heave went wide, allowing Georgetown to escape with the 62-59 victory.

Friday, November 20, 2020

DePaul Preview, 2020-21

DePaul Blue Demons


Head Coach: Dave Leitao (208-227 overall, 123-132 at DePaul)

Three-Year NCAA Rank Average: 124.3

Three-Year kenpom Average: 103.7

2020-21 T-Rank Projection: 81

Charlie Moore is a First-Team All-Big East selection

Photo from depaulbluedemons.com

Projected Starters: PG Charlie Moore (5'11" Sr), SG Javon Freeman-Liberty (6'3" RS Sr), SF Courvoisier McCauley (6'5" Jr), PF Romeo Weems (6'7" So), C Jaylen Butz (6'9" Sr)

At 12-1 with wins over Iowa, Minnesota, and Texas Tech, the #RankDePaul movement was in full swing. It appeared that the Blue Demons were back, led by a legitimate NBA prospect in Paul Reed and a dynamic guard in Charlie Moore. Then Big East play started, and the Blue Demons reminded us all why so many of their critics refer to them as "DuhPaul." They started conference play 1-12 on their way to another last place finish in the league, the tenth time they've occupied that spot since 2009. Then second-leading scorer Reed left early for the NBA and third-leading scorer Jalen Coleman-Lands transferred to Iowa State.

The new edition of the Blue Demons will be led by Moore, who finally found a home after previous stops at Cal and Kansas. A pair of transfers join the starting lineup. Freeman-Liberty has received some NBA hype after scoring 19.0 ppg for Valparaiso last year while Courvoisier McCauley was a Division II All-American capable of scoring inside and out. Weems was a top-75 recruit who flashed big play ability and will be expected to take a lot of the load Reed left behind. In the middle, Butz has developed into a reliable if unspectacular big man in the middle, though he is expected to miss time to start the season. Off the bench, there is a trio of transfers that will fight for minutes. Guard Ray Salnave was a solid scoring option for Monmouth, wing Brian Patrick was a reliable shooter and scorer for Fort Wayne after failing to crack the rotation at Kansas State, and DePaul's Pauly Paulicap is a physical forward coming in from Manhattan. Another one to watch is Nick Ongenda, a 6'11" center who was impressive late last year and may start in Butz's place at least early on.

The offensive strategy for Leitao is built around attacking early and often. His teams play at a fast pace and get the vast majority of their points inside the arc, which is good as they generally suck at shooting (Leitao last had a top-100 3PFG% team in 2007). Long, aggressive forwards allow them to also crash the offensive glass, though that may suffer without Reed. They also suffer when it comes to holding onto the ball; Leitao's team has been sub-200 in turnover rate every year in this second tenure at DePaul. Defensively, they want to slow teams down and force the turnovers that allow them to push the pace at the other end. Reed was also a prodigious shot blocker, so it remains to be seen how their defense will operate without him flying around as a defensive terror.

Last year, I wrote this about DePaul: "...this is a team that finished last in the Big East and lost their top three scorers. It's hard to imagine them being better than they were a year ago." This year, they lose two of their top three scorers including their best NBA prospect, so it's again difficult to project a big jump, even if there are things to like on paper about this team. How this team fits together is a big question. Five of the nine projected rotation players are transfers in, coming from Division II and mid-majors. Moore, Weems, and Butz give them some stability and proven Big East ability, but there are a ton of questions around slapping a roster together in this fashion. Add in a new Athletic Director at DePaul and Dave Leitao will be squarely on the hot seat and under pressure to perform with this team immediately. There's enough question marks with some other squads that DePaul might avoid the basement, but competing for the middle of the league and a NCAA bid seems like just too high a hill to project.

Marquette Memory: When Marquette drubbed DePaul 85-64 on January 29, 1977, it marked the 19th straight victory for the Warriors over the Blue Demons. On Valentine's Day, it would be a different story. A pair of late turnovers by Marquette star Butch Lee allowed DePaul to tie the game at 60 and force overtime. Marquette held on through overtime, but missed a pair of shots with 1:01 to play and had to survive a missed Gary Garland shot at the horn as the teams headed to double-overtime. The second extra stanza started with a three-point play for DePaul's Joe Ponsetto (yes, that name should sound familiar) that put DePaul ahead for good. After the loss, Marquette coach Al McGuire was pessimistic on his team's outlook, saying "I personally think it's very doubtful that we'll get a tourney bed. One more defeat and we're out. Because there's never been any love affair with us and the NCAA." The bad news was that Marquette was defeated not once but three more times before the end of the season, including the next two after this DePaul defeat. The good news was that McGuire was wrong and Marquette did indeed get a bid to the 1977 NCAA Tournament despite their 19-7 record. Not only did they get a bid, they won five straight once they got there, cut down the nets at the Omni in Atlanta, and captured the first and only NCAA Championship in program history while also setting a then-record for the most losses by a title-winning team.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Butler Preview, 2020-21

Butler Bulldogs

Coach: LaVall Jordan (70-64, 59-40 at Butler)

3-Year NCAA Ranking Average: 41.3

3-Year kenpom Average: 39.0

2020-21 T-Rank Projection: 74

LaVall Jordan needs to find new production this year

Photo from IndyStar.com

Projected Starters: PG Aaron Thompson (6'2" Sr), SG Jair Bolden (6'3" RS Sr), SF Christian David (6'6" Sr), PF Bryce Nze (6'7" RS Sr), C Bryce Golden (6'9" Jr)

The Bulldogs started last season on an absolute tear, opening 9-0 before suffering their first defeat at Baylor 53-52. If anything, that closeness of that loss to a Baylor team flirting with the top-10 convinced people this Butler team was ready to compete. They ran their record to 15-1 and peaked at #5 in the country before the bottom fell out. They dropped three straight and eight out of twelve before a favorable closing schedule allowed them to finish 22-9 (10-8 Big East). The autopsy on last season would try to determine what was real, the brilliant start that had them as the #3 team over the first sixteen games according to T-Rank or the dismal finish that saw them play like the #64 team in the country over the last fifteen?

Any determination going forward will be have to be done without Kamar Baldwin, the stat-stuffing guard that always seemed to pop up with the clutch shot or defensive stop when needed. Also gone are sharpshooter Sean McDermott, wing Jordan Tucker, and a pair of bench contributors in Henry Baddley and Derrik Smits. While the starting lineup looks experienced on paper, most of these guys will have new roles. Aaron Thompson will run the offense and take the defensive task of the opposing team's best guard. Thompson is Butler's version of Derrick Wilson: solid defense, low usage, and can't shoot. Shooting from the backcourt will come from grad transfer Jair Bolden, who has been relatively productive at George Washington and South Carolina, but has never been an alpha scorer before. Christian David is looking to step up from a sixth man role. The front court pairing of the Bryces, Nze and Golden, was a solid but unspectacular pair last year. So who will lead this team? The best candidate might be Bo Hodges, a transfer from ETSU who would be a bit of a Swiss Army knife at the wing, able to contribute on both ends of the floor. If Hodges doesn't get a waiver to play this year, Jordan's bench will be stocked with unproven freshmen, the best of whom, Scooby Johnson, will miss the season with an ACL tear.

Jordan tends to run his offense through 1-2 higher usage players, grinding the pace to a snail's while repeatedly going to pick-n-roll. Bolden feels like the most likely to replicate what Baldwin tried to do. Don't be surprised to see the Bryces take significantly more offensive load. Nze is maybe the team's best all-around player. He's the guy that does all the right things but can go somewhat unnoticed. Golden is the highest usage returning player and could form an inside-out combo with Bolden. Where this team is likely to be best is on the defensive end. They suffocate teams inside and are great at team rebounding to limit second chances. Thompson is a great perimeter defender, though he'll need others to step up because Baldwin and Tucker were both athletic defenders.

Like so many in the Big East, this is a hard team to project. Offensively, they will likely struggle to score. I fully expect them to keep slowing the pace of the game, if only because getting into rock fights and keeping games close will be their best chance to win. While they have some experience, it's almost all role-players needing to step up without anyone proven, and while there are a lot of bodies on the bench, none of them are proven. The ceiling is probably landing on the right side of the bubble if Hodges gets eligible or someone can prove effective on the offensive end. If they can't find reliable scoring, however, this is a bottom half Big East team whose biggest danger to opponents will be keeping it ugly and close long enough to steal a couple games at the end.

Marquette Memory: While they wouldn't become conference mates until the next season, the 2012-13 season featured two meetings between Butler and Marquette. The first came in Maui, where the teams played a back-and-forth affair that looked to be going Marquette's way until a Junior Cadougan missed free throw with 8 seconds left allowed Rotnei Clarke to make a ridiculous off-balance, running, one-handed three pointer from 35 feet out at the buzzer to break Marquette hearts 72-71. I've always referred to it as the "puke shot" because Clarke just threw it up. Marquette did get a chance at revenge, however, in the NCAA Tournament. The teams met in the second round with a trip to the Sweet 16 on the line. The game was just as good, with Rotnei Clarke looking like the hero early after 18 first half points. Marquette had the answer, however, as Vander Blue took over late, scoring 19 of his 29 points in the second stanza. His three-pointer with 1:25 remaining tied the game at 69 as Marquette rallied from a 35-27 deficit at the half. Clarke was shut down in the second, scoring just 6 points after the break and with a 74-72 Marquette lead, it again came down to a shot at the buzzer. This time, a wild effort from Andrew Smith careened off the backboard as the buzzer sounded, allowing Marquette to complete their revenge en route to what would be an Elite 8 run.

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Connecticut Preview, 2020-21

Connecticut Huskies

Head Coach: Dan Hurley (186-134, 35-29 at Connecticut)

3-Year NCAA Ranking Average: 92.7

3-Year kenpom Average: 109.7

2020-21 T-Rank Projection: 34

James Bouknight is about to announce his presence to the Big East

Photo by Jessica Hill | Associated Press

Projected Starters: PG Jalen Gaffney (6'3" So), SG James Bouknight (6'5" So), SF Brendan Adams (6'4" Jr), PF Tyler Polley (6'9" Sr), C Josh Carlton (6'11" Sr)

It was a tale of three seasons for the 2019-20 Huskies. Aside from a disappointing loss to St. Joe's, they had a respectable non-con with a win over Florida and close losses to Xavier and Indiana. Conference play started with a thud as Hurley's side sputtered to a 2-6 start in league play with a loss to Villanova mixed in as well. Then it was Bouknight time. The freshman guard went from flash to phenom as UConn went 8-2 down the stretch with wins over Cincinnati, Memphis, and Houston included.

The Huskies lost a great four-year player in Christian Vital, who scored 1,735 points but never played in a NCAA Tournament game, but return a solid core with Bouknight as the clear star. While he was solid all year, he turned it on down the stretch. During that 10-game run, Bouknight had a PORPAGATU! score of 5.4, which would be the second best of all returning Big East players behind preseason Big East Player of the Year Marcus Zegarowski. He is a legitimate BEPOY contender and dark horse All-American candidate. He is joined in the backcourt by Gaffney, who they hope proves a more steady player than the departed Alterique Gilbert. Adams was mostly a role-player, but both Polley and Carlton bring experience to the front court. Off the bench, two-time MEAC scoring champ RJ Cole averaged 21.4 ppg for Howard University and Hurley has a trio of exciting freshmen in wing Andre Jackson, physical big Adama Sanogo, and the incredibly long Javonte Brown-Ferguson. One of those young bigs could be needed early if Polley and Akok Akok aren't ready to go; bother suffered injuries last year and could continue to miss time.

Hurley likes to run an offense with multiple point guards that can start the attack, so expect to see a lot of mixing of the guards. Due to multiple competent ball-handlers, his teams don't turn the ball over often and the length and strength up front allows them to crash the offensive glass. More than anything, expect Bouknight to be the man. During that 10-game stretch he averaged 17.8 ppg/5.7 rpg with a 121.6 offensive rating while shooting 39.0% from three. He is drawing NBA attention and will be the engine that makes UConn's offense go. Expect them to drive often and work to get to the line. At the defensive end, Hurley's teams excel at swarming teams off the three-point line. In 9 of his 10 seasons as a head coach, his teams have been in the top-35 nationally at limiting three point attempts. They want teams to drive because they have a glut of shot-blockers inside. Similarly, in 9 of 10 seasons his teams have been top-100 in percentage of shots blocked. They chase you off the line, and when you drive, they swat your shots away. His teams also aggressively pursue turnovers, but the aggression that leads to shot blocks and turnovers has two negative effects: teams are able to punish them on the offensive glass and also get to the line frequently. These trends have been fairly consistent going back to his earliest days coaching at Wagner. The key to beating his teams is to be patient, keep looking for good shots, and taking advantage of their overaggressive tendencies.

It's hard to know what to expect from this UConn team. Bouknight looks like a legitimate star, but performing nightly against Big East teams is different than the American. The recruiting and talent level is improving, but this is still a team that needed a late surge to finish 5th in the American, so projecting them as a Big East contender seems like a stretch. Because I expect a lot of parity in the league this year, anything from 2nd to 6th feels realistic. If it all goes well, this team could be fighting for the 2-seed behind an All-American in Bouknight. If it doesn't, they could be in the middle of the pack unsure of which side of the bubble they'll end up on. The truth is probably something in the middle, with a return to the NCAAs a fair expectation, but a seed that will likely see them packing their bags for Storrs before the first weekend is over.

Marquette Memory: As we welcome UConn back to the Big East, can it be anything other than the night UConn welcomed Marquette to the Big East? Jim Calhoun brought his undefeated #2 ranked Huskies to the Bradley Center to take on Steve Novak and the freshmen Three Amigos (Jerel McNeal, Dominic James, Wesley Matthews). The first half was a back and forth affair as Novak and Rashard Anderson traded shots. Marquette took a 39-33 lead into the half, then it was unquestionably Novak time. In the second half alone, Novak went 2/2 from two, 3/7 beyond the arc, and a flawless 11/11 at the line. He poured in 24 second half points and finished with 41 points and 16 rebounds. The 94-79 final score actually flattered the Huskies, who needed an 8-1 run in the final 81 seconds to get it that close. Without a doubt, Marquette emphatically announced their arrival in the Big East on January 3, 2006 with a resounding win over one of the best teams in the country.

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Villanova Preview, 2020-21

Villanova Wildcats

Head Coach: Jay Wright (593-267, 471-182 at Villanova)

3-Year NCAA Rank Average: 13.7

3-Year kenpom Average: 16.3

2020-21 T-Rank Projection: 10


 Collin Gillespie, Justin Moore, & Jeremiah Robinson-Earl all earned Preseason Big East Honors

Photo by Mitchell Leff | Getty Images

Projected Starters: PG Collin Gillespie (6'3" Sr), SG Justin Moore (6'4" So), SF Jermaine Samuels (6'7" Sr), PF Cole Swider (6'9" Jr), C Jeremiah Robinson-Earl (6'9" So)

Early on there were some questions as to how good Villanova was after losing their only two true early tests against Ohio State and Baylor. Taking out #1 ranked Kansas at home started to answer those questions. They started Big East play in excellent fashion, getting to 7-1 with the only loss at Marquette before a 3-game losing skid seemed to take them out of the conference title race. Instead, they rebounded to win 7 of their final 8 games and share the league crown at 13-5. The Wildcats were looking at a likely 2-seed in the NCAA Tournament before the season was cut short.

Star forward Saddiq Bey is gone for the NBA Draft, but everyone else from that team is back, including four double-digit scorers in Gillespie, Moore, Samuels, and Robinson-Earl. They are heavy favorites not only to win the league but to compete for the National Title as they register in the top-5 of the AP Poll, kenpom rankings, and just about every major publication. Swider joins the starting lineup and Wright will hope he can find shooting consistency. He came in highly regarded but has never made good on his top-50 recruiting ranking. If he can't handle the spotlight, there are a number of candidates to take his spot. Tulane transfer Caleb Daniels averaged 16.9 ppg for the Green Wave and was considered a future NBA player by staff there. Bryan Antoine was a top-15 recruit and McDonald's All-American that never got on track as a freshman due to injuries, and recent reports indicate he may miss more time this year, so whether he'll get a chance to make an impact remains to be seen. Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree has experience, is able to play either frontcourt position, and is an efficiency monster.

Offensively, this should be another typically beautiful Villanova attack. All five starters can step out beyond the arc, they share the ball brilliantly, and have had a top-25 adjusted offensive efficiency 7 years running. Gillespie will lead the way and has shown the ability to take his time probing the defense until he can create for himself, another player, or initiate the quick hockey passes that ultimately lead to a basket. As a team, everyone can shoot, they collectively score at all three levels, and they won't beat themselves because they limit turnovers and convert the easy points at the line. Defensively, they work hard to limit three point attempts, swallow up anything on the glass, and defend without fouling. With length at every position and off the bench, this should be a solid defense that is good enough to compete for a title, especially buoyed by what should be an excellent offense.

When it comes to the Big East this season, there is Villanova, then there is a gap, then there is everyone else. While Creighton might have a comparable offense, they don't have nearly the wealth of proven options and shooters and their defense can't hold a candle to 'Nova. This is not only the clear and obvious best team in the Big East but maybe the best team in the nation as well. With the Big East expanding the schedule to 20 games, I feel the only thing that might keep 'Nova from tying or breaking the league record for wins (Syracuse won 17 league games in 2012) is the high likelihood that there will be COVID cancellations. Otherwise, I think 17, 18, 19, or even 20 wins could be possible for this crew. That's how much better they are than the rest of the league.

Marquette Memory: Villanova was a familiar foe for Marquette fans before joining the Big East, and most of the memories were bad ones. Marquette was just 2-5 all-time against Villanova when Dwyane Wade's junior season started with the Coaches vs Cancer Classic at Madison Square Garden. Jay Wright's team wasn't as accurate from the line then, staggeringly missing their first 20 attempts from three before finishing 3/26. Where 'Nova did excel was on the offensive glass, pounding Marquette inside with 31 offensive rebounds, but as often as they grabbed those boards they seemed to miss the putback attempts, including five consecutive misses on the same possession at one point. Wade scored 17 points as Marquette came away with the 73-61 victory. Coach Tom Crean said "The great news is we got a win, the great news for me as a coach is I have a lot of things to work on." Clearly, that work paid off as Marquette went on to win the Conference-USA regular season title before advancing to the program's third Final Four. 

Monday, November 16, 2020

Xavier Preview, 2020-21

 Xavier Musketeers

Head Coach: Travis Steele (38-29)

3-Year NCAA Rank Average: 39.0

3-Year kenpom Average: 41.7

T-Rank 2020-21 Projection: 53

Paul Scruggs leads a transitioning Xavier team

Photo from The Athletic

Projected Starters: PG Paul Scruggs (6'4" Sr), SG KyKy Tandy (6'2" So), SF Nate Johnson (6'4" RS Sr), PF Jason Carter (6'8" RS Sr), C Zach Freemantle (6'9" So)

Xavier never seemed to really get settled into their 2019-20 season. An impressive non-con record (11-2) was dragged down by a loss to a bad Wake Forest team. They started Big East play disastrously, but were able to rebound from their 2-6 start to level their conference record at 8-8 before dropping their last three contests, including a loss to DePaul in the Big East Tournament (one of only two completed games). Departing from that team were star scorer Naji Marshall, seventh year senior Tyrique Jones (at least it felt that way), and starting point guard Quentin Goodin, leaving the Musketeers in flux.

On paper, there seems to be experience on this team, but much of it was accrued at other programs. While they have three senior starters, only Scruggs has been at Xavier the entire time. Johnson was an efficient scorer for Gardner-Webb, but did so against primarily Big South competition. Carter was a solid but unspectacular quality role-player in the front court. Tandy and Freemantle will be hoping to take big steps forward as their minutes go up. If anyone in the back court fails, freshman Dwon Odom will likely be the first option to seize minutes. He's regarded as the point guard of the future and will be expected to contribute immediately. A trio of transfers may also be worth watching. Bryan Griffin is a physical big who up-transferred from Division II. Adam Kunkel (Belmont) and Ben Stanley (Hampton) were both productive scorers, albeit at lower levels, but have yet to receive waivers to play this season. If they aren't available, expect Steele to dig deeper into his top-25 recruiting class as both CJ Wilcher and Colby Jones are wings that could be called on early if the depth isn't adequate.

***Update: Stanley's waiver was denied and he will have to sit out this season.***

Calling Xavier's offenses under Steele mediocre might be generous. His teams have been terrible shooting both from deep and at the line. Whereas Chris Mack was able to adjust his tempos to fit his team and seemed to constantly have top-30 offenses, Steele's teams haven't matched that. Part of that was because of Naji Marshall, who was their highest usage player each of the past two years despite being consistently inefficient. In the past, Scruggs has shown tendencies to defer to other players, so my guess for the guy the offense will run through is Tandy, who improved his efficiency in conference play and flashed the ability to take over games. Steele looks to score inside first, though that could be because of their inept shooting the past two years. If Johnson and Kunkel can't shore up the outside shooting, look for Griffin to be cast in the Tyrique Jones role. He led Division 2 in rebounding last year and should be a stronger interior presence than the other Xavier big men. Defense was Xavier's calling card last year largely because they challenged everything well. They have shotblocking inside and they will look for Griffin to take over Jones' rebounding to limit second attempts.

Since the mid-1980s, Xavier has been defined by a string of quality coaches. From Pete Gillen to Skip Prosser to Thad Matta to Sean Miller to Chris Mack, Musky fans have become accustomed to having quality young coaches that elevated their program before leaving for bigger destinations. It's still early, but I'm not convinced Steele will continue that trend. This looks like a third consecutive year where Xavier fails to inspire. Unless Scruggs, Tandy, or Freemantle can make a star turn, there simply isn't enough here. The rest of the roster is cobbled together from the mid and low major ranks mixed with freshmen. They will need a couple players to really hit big if they want to be in the mix for a NCAA berth. They will likely scrap their way to some victories, but look to have more a NIT than NCAA profile.

Marquette Memory: The first time Marquette faced Xavier was a banner occasion for new head coach Ed Hickey. It was December 22, 1958 when the 8th-ranked Musketeers took on Marquette at the Milwaukee Arena. Xavier was undefeated and coming off a NIT Championship the previous season, but it was Marquette's fast break that won the night. Mike Moran led the way with 26 points and 14 rebounds. Hickey praised his performance, saying "When the biggest guy on the team winds up in the front of the fast break time and again, makes the longest trip back on defense and then is out in front again going down, there's only one word for it and that's hustle." Hickey led Marquette to the NCAA Tournament and a Sweet 16 appearance that year, and added another victory over Xavier along the way, defeating them in Cincinnati on February 21, 1959.

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Seton Hall Preview, 2020-21

Seton Hall Pirates

Head Coach: Kevin Willard (236-183 overall, 191-134 at Seton Hall)

3-Year NCAA Rank Average: 34.3

3-Year kenpom Average: 35.3

2020-21 T-Rank Projection: 53

Sandro Mamukelashvili looks to emerge as the next Pirate star

Photo by Jeff Roberson | AP Sports

Projected Starters: PG Bryce Aiken (6'0" RS Sr), SG Myles Cale (6'6" Sr), SF Jared Rhoden (6'6" Jr), PF Sandro Mamukelashvili (6'11" Sr), C Ike Obiagu (7'2" RS Jr)

Seton Hall's start to the season was rough. Despite being a projected top-20 team, they sputtered to a 6-4 start and didn't look like Big East contenders. But then they ran off 10 straight wins, including an 8-0 start to league play, and played like a top-10 team during that stretch. On February 8th, with a 10-1 league record and 3-game lead in the standings, they were the giants of the Big East. A sputtering finish, however, saw they drop 4 of their last 7 as they shared the league title with Villanova and Creighton.

Gone from that team is their surprisingly efficient point guard Quincy McKnight, their defensive eraser Romaro Gill, and inefficient gunner Myles Powell. So who takes the reins? Harvard grad transfer Bryce Aiken is getting a lot of attention, but despite averaging 16.8 ppg for the Crimson over four seasons, he hasn't been fully healthy since 2017. The talent is evident on the court, but the jury is out on how much Aiken will be available. Cale and Rhoden have both flashed talent on the wing, but need to show they can be consistent contributors. Mamukelashvili is the most proven star of the team after averaging 11.9 ppg/6.0 rpg last season, but really turned it on down the stretch, going for 15.1/7.8 over the last 8 games of the season when Powell was struggling to find consistency. Up front, Obiagu brings similar shot blocking as Gill did, but needs to improve his offensive efficiency. Off the bench, guard Shavar Reynolds, transfer wing Takal Molson, and big man Tyrese Samuel provide experienced depth at every position.

To the casual eye, Seton Hall's offense the past two years has basically been "give the ball to Powell and let him go to work." While that was sometimes the case, when they were at their best, Seton Hall was spreading the ball between a number of different shooters and letting Mamu and Gill clean up the offensive glass. I expect them to spread the load more this year and continue to hit the offensive glass. It will depend on Aiken and Molson, both of whom have shown the tendency to mimic the inefficient gunner role Powell played. If Willard can rein them in, they could have a balanced, efficient offense. Defense is where the Pirates should be more consistent. Seton Hall has been tournament-caliber each of the past 5 seasons and averaged a top-40 defense in that time. Their length at almost every position and experience should allow that to continue. They will aggressively force teams into bad shots by denying three-point attempts and smothering teams at the rim. They may take a slight step back without human eraser Gill and lock-down perimeter defender McKnight, but they have the roster pieces to replace even those guys, so by the time the season is in full swing, expect more of the same from the Hall.

This is a really tough team to peg, and I feel their success will be almost entirely based on what the offense does. The pieces are there for the defense to be on par with Willard's routinely solid defenses, but whether Mamu is allowed to be the man or if one of the transfers tries to channel their inner Myles Powell will determine how far this team can go. If it all comes together, they could find themselves as high as second in the Big East. If not, don't be surprised for the Hall to be sweating on the bubble come March.

Marquette Memory: While everyone remembers Marquette's first Big East home game, a 94-79 drubbing of then-#2 UConn, their first Big East road game was a tighter affair but with a similar end result and star. Seton Hall raced out to a 7-1 lead, their largest of the game. Marquette came back to tie it and eventually took an 8-point lead of their own, however the game was within a single basket for 34 minutes and 4 seconds. More than 85% of the game was played within 3 points. Ultimately, it was Steve Novak, who led Marquette with 25 points and 9 rebounds, that gave Marquette the lead for good on a three with 4:07 to play. It was the first of 8 straight wins, and 13 of 14 against the Hall that spanned the Tom Crean and Buzz Williams eras.

Saturday, November 14, 2020

Creighton Preview, 2020-2021

Creighton Blue Jays


Coach: Greg McDermott (511-311, 231-116 at Creighton)

Three-Year NCAA Rank Average: 36.0

Three-Year kenpom Average: 32.3

 2020-21 T-Rank Projection: 13

Marcus Zegarowski is the Preseason Big East Player of the Year

Photo from Omaha World Herald

Projected Starters: PG Marcus Zegarowski (6'2" Jr), SG Antwann Jones (6'6" RS So), SF Mitch Ballock (6'5" Sr), PF Damien Jefferson (6'5" RS Sr), C Christian Bishop (6'7" Jr)

Creighton fans more than maybe any other in the Big East must have been emotionally gutted when the 2020 NCAA Tournament was cancelled. As a team, they had the #3 offense in adjusted efficiency in the country, Ty-Shon Alexander and Marcus Zegarowski were a scintillating backcourt combo, and Alexander's ability to lock down stud scorers papered over the team's defensive deficiencies. Early season losses to Michigan and San Diego State were a lot more understandable on the resume by March while their 11-2 finish to Big East play earned them a share of the league title and had them one of the hottest teams in the country heading into the sport's vanishing premier event.

On the heels of that success, Ty-Shon Alexander declared for the NBA. We'll dig in to the significance of that more later. Alexander's departure means Marcus Zegarowski will be the star of the show. The Preseason Big East Player of the Year is an excellent offensive player, able to create for himself and others, and will lead what will almost certainly be a top-10 offense. Our guess at his running mate is Antwann Jones, a former top-100 recruit who sat out last year after transferring from Memphis. Jones provides length and talent but has yet to prove it at this level. If he's not able, sixth man Denzel Mahoney will be next in line, though he's a high-usage feast or famine player that will sometimes wreak havoc on opposing defenses but whose shot choices can also wreak havoc on Creighton's own offense (think a poor man's Myles Powell). Mitch Ballock is far more consistent as the league's most accurate returning three-point shooter. Up front, Jefferson and Bishop are both effective interior scorers despite being undersized. They do have injury-prone junior Jacob Epperson and freshman Ryan Kalkbrenner to provide size, but whether either can crack into the regular rotation remains to be seen. Highly rated European freshman Rati Andronikashvili was thought to be a possible immediate contributor, but is out for the season with an injury.

This season's Jays should be a joy to watch again on offense. Creighton is an excellent example of pace and space as they put a ton of effective shooters on the arc while also having a great ability to score in transition. While their adjusted tempo was only 178th in the country, their average offensive possession length of 16.5 seconds was 69th, so they definitely push the pace on that end and were 4th in transition offense last year. They are an unselfish team that loves to move the ball, has a variety of scorers that can step up on any given night, and will likely put up a ton of points. However, as good as they will likely be on offense, they project to be bad on defense. Creighton is bafflingly projected as a top-50 defense by T-Rank and kenpom, and I just don't see it. McDermott has had a top-50 defense just three times in his nineteen seasons as a D1 head coach. The only times he had that at Creighton were when he had legit 7-footers in the middle, a board-cleaning PF in Cole Huff, and a lockdown wing defender. He has none of that this year. Last year's defense ranked 78th in the nation and they lost Alexander, the only player that seemed to put any effort in on the defensive end. In their sweeps of Marquette and Seton Hall, Alexander took the defensive tasks of Markus Howard and Myles Powell. He held them to 14.5 ppg and below 25% collectively on threes. While I don't think Creighton's offense will necessarily crater without Alexander, their defense and ability to slow opposing stars will almost certainly take a big hit. Consider the on/off splits for Alexander last year:

I feel like the near universal top-15 projections for the Jays are overoptimistic. To this Marquette fan, the impact of losing Alexander feels like a similar impact to what Marquette went through when they lost Vander Blue ahead of the 2013-14 season, and the offense/defense disparity reminds me of the Andrew Rowsey teams of 2016-17 and 2017-18. I'm not saying Creighton will miss the tournament, but I think somewhere in the fringe-top-25 to bubble conversation is more likely than the top-3 seed everyone seems to be penciling them in as. In the past 5 years, there hasn't been a single team to crack the kenpom top-10 with an adjusted defensive efficiency outside the top-50. Creighton was #78 last year and will likely be worse this year on that end without Alexander, so it's hard to see them improving as a team overall when they will likely be so bad on the back end. In fact, last year's Creighton team was somewhat an aberration as the ONLY sub-60 defense to rank in the top-15 of kenpom the past 5 years, so expecting them to catch lightning in a bottle twice seems improbable at best. This will be a team that absolutely scorches the nets some nights and runs teams out of the gym, but whose defensive mishaps could allow inferior opponents to match their scoring pace and steal some games they shouldn't lose. They should be in the top-half of the league, but how they adjust to life after Alexander will determine if that is nipping at Villanova's heels or somewhere closer to the bubble. I expect the truth to be somewhere in the middle, with a 6-8 seed in their future.

Marquette Memory: Before Creighton joined the Big East, the last time they had played Marquette was on March 11, 1998 in the NIT. It was a tight affair most of the way, with Creighton holding a 36-35 lead at halftime. Creighton's shooting went cold down the stretch as they didn't hit a field goal for the final 8:28 of the game, allowing Aaron Hutchins (19 points, 7 assists) to lead Marquette to an 80-68 victory. Marquette would follow that up with an overtime win over Auburn before losing to eventual champions (later vacated) Minnesota.

Thursday, November 12, 2020

UCLA Preview, 2020-21

UCLA Bruins

December 11th, Pauley Pavilion

Coach: Mick Cronin (384-182 overall, 19-12 at UCLA)

3-Year NCAA Ranking Average: 77.3

3-Year kenpom Average: 78.7

Projected 2020-21 T-Rank: 34

Tyger Campbell & Mick Cronin are brewin' up a UCLA resurgence

Photo from Los Angeles Daily News

Projected Starters: PG Tyger Campbell (5'11" RS So), SG David Singleton (6'4" Jr), SF Jaime Jaquez, Jr (6'6" So), PF Chris Smith (6'9" Sr), C Jalen Hill (6'10" RS Jr)

There were a lot of skeptics when Mick Cronin brought his bruising, slow-down style to Westwood. When the Bruins got off to a 12-11 start with losses to Hofstra and Cal State Fullerton on the ledger, it was even worse than people expected. The Bruins finished the season 7-1 and were playing like a top-20 team as they almost captured a share of the Pac-12 title. To Cronin's credit, the Bruins were at their best when they adhered to his style, going 7-8 when games had 66+ possessions but 12-4 in games with 65 or fewer possessions. Not only that, but all 4 of those losses came to teams that were either in the final Cracked Sidewalks projected NCAA field or, in the case of Stanford, just outside (first four out). Whether that late surge would've earned UCLA a tourney bid or not, they definitely improved as the season went on and as they adjusted to Cronin's style.

After losing top-20 freshmen Daishen Nix to the G-League, UCLA got a big boost when star forward Chris Smith pulled his name out of the NBA Draft. For the most part, UCLA goes forward with a roster very similar to last year. All five starters return and they also add former 5-star shooter Johnny Juzang, who is transferring from Kentucky, and 4-star freshman guard Jaylen Clark. Tyger Campbell is a talented distributor who is best served when he doesn't shoot the ball. They have a deep rotation of wings, including Singleton, Jaquez, Juzang, Jake Kyman, and Jules Bernard, all of whom are 6'4-6'7" and able to provide depth and defensive pressure. Up front, Smith, Hill, and Cody Riley excel as physical presences inside drawing fouls and cleaning the offensive glass while providing length and rim protection on defense.

It didn't show early on, but the end-of-the-year Bruins were what Cronin wanted his team to be. Offensively, they were grinding the shot clock, making threes, getting their misses, and putting back second-chance points. Defensively, they suffocated teams inside without fouling while their deep roster and physical length allowed them to be aggressive. Cronin's Cincinnati teams were similar to this. Slow-down pace, physical defense, and good enough offense to grind out wins. What makes this UCLA squad different is the level of talent. It's possible the late run last year was an aberration, but if the athleticism is going to truly mesh this well with Cronin's efficient system, their ceiling is high.

So what can we expect from UCLA in 2020-21? I definitely don't think they're as bad as their 12-11 start, but I'm not convinced by their top-20, 7-1 finish either. The Pac-12 last year wasn't particularly good and the most impressive of those 7 wins were sweeping Arizona (never as good as their efficiency metrics indicated) and Colorado (fell off after their stellar non-con). UCLA should be safely in the NCAA field, but look more like an "Also Receiving Votes" team than a bonafide top-20 squad. Early on in the season, however, I think they will be a stout test for Marquette. This is a team that has played together and is hungry after their late season surge was cut short. The key matchup to watch will be Tyger Campbell against DJ Carton. Campbell is UCLA's most important player simply because without Nix, they don't have anyone else who can play his position. During that late-season 8-game stretch, Campbell played 36+ minutes on 7 occasions, all of which were wins. The only one he didn't was when he played 34 minutes in the season finale against USC, which they lost.

Marquette Connection: What is stunning about Marquette and UCLA isn't the history they share, but rather the history they don't share. The programs have only met twice, both times in Milwaukee with UCLA claiming victory in both 1949 and 1964. In the 1970s, UCLA went 273-27 and their 0.910 winning percentage was the best decade in NCAA history. Barely behind them was Marquette at 252-40. While their 0.863 winning percentage was second to the Bruins, it still stands as the third best decade winning percentage in NCAA history with only 1950s Kentucky between the two. Yet somehow, despite two of the top three decade-long programs in NCAA history playing at the same time, they never met during that stretch. They came within a game of meeting twice. Both teams made the 1974 Final Four but UCLA lost to NC State, robbing them of a chance to meet Marquette in the title game. In 1976, Marquette came up one game short of the Final Four, losing to undefeated Indiana, who beat UCLA in their next game en route to the title.

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

UW-Green Bay Preview, 2020-21

UW-Green Bay Phoenix

December 8th, Fiserv Forum

Coach: Will Ryan (0-0)

3-Year NCAA Ranking Average: 248.3

3-Year kenpom Average: 223.7

Projected T-Rank: 279

Will Ryan takes over as the new Phoenix head coach

Photo from Wheeling University

Projected Starters: PG PJ Pipes (6'2" Sr), SG Josh Jefferson (6'2" RS Sr), SF Amari Hardy (6'3" So), PF Paris Taylor (6'6" Jr), C Terrance Thompson (6'8" Fr)

It surprised most when Green Bay head coach Linc Darner was fired after his fourth winning season in five with the Phoenix. With his departure, expect the blistering fast pace (top-10 in offensive possession length all 5 seasons) to go away and the anemic defense (319th in efficiency) to improve. Darner's departure may be down to his weak starts as Green Bay entered the New Year .500 or worse each of the past three seasons and despite his Horizon success (51-39 conference record, 1 tournament title) there just wasn't much interested in the program.

Enter Will Ryan, son of long-time UW-Madison head coach Bo. The Phoenix have a solid backcourt trio. PJ Pipes was the most efficient Green Bay player last year while Hardy is the leading returning scorer at 15.9 ppg last year. Transfer Jefferson was a solid shooter in his time at Illinois State and should slot right into the starting lineup. Up front is where they have questions. Taylor is a JUCO transfer that was a solid rebounder but hasn't done anything at the D1 level yet. They have a trio of 6'8" freshmen with Thompson looking like the most physical option in the middle. This team has 9 freshmen so quite a few of their rotation members will be new to D1 and thrown into the deep end early.

The initial thought with a Ryan coaching at Green Bay is that the Phoenix will basically turn into UW-Madison East, but that may not be the case. The younger Ryan spent the majority of his time as an assistant on staff with Saul Phillips, who is no stranger to a faster pace of play than Ryan's father. That held true in Ryan's one season as a Division II head coach, where his Wheeling team played at a middle-of-the-road pace. While the pace won't be Darner's, the Phoenix will likely still make their living slashing to the rim, particularly Amari Davis, who took 98% of his shots inside the arc. Pipes and Jefferson can both score inside and out so they will provide balance to Davis' downhill attack. Don't expect much from the Phoenix interior game as it's a mix of freshmen and transfers that have no D1 experience. Defensively, the Phoenix will look familiar. They will be in strict man-to-man, rarely helping, rarely trying to force turnovers, and rarely gambling. Considering how young their interior players are, that is an area teams could look to exploit as the Phoenix adapt to this defensive change.

College basketball is a guard's game, and because of the strength of the Phoenix backcourt, they will likely steal a few games they aren't expected to win. I doubt that will happen much early in the season, however, as a team with a new coach, a completely different style, and an overabundance of inexperience will take some time to find its footing. In time, Ryan could prove himself an able head coach, as did the last scion of a UW-Madison Final Four coach to ply their trade at the Division I level, but it will take time to get there. For this season, at least, UW-Green Bay should provide easy pickings for a team with Marquette's talent level.

Marquette Connection: The last time Marquette played UW-Green Bay was a road game in 2011. Buzz Williams took his team on a trip up to the Resch Center on a snowy December night and was handed a 49-47 loss at the hands of Marquette alum Brian Wardle. The game prompted chaos amongst Marquette fans as many wondered if the team would even qualify for the NCAA Tournament. Marquette responded well to the loss, winning their next six games en route to a 26-9 record, a share of the Big East title, and an appearance in the Elite 8, proving that there's only so much you can read into any December result, even a bad loss to a 3-7 team.

Sunday, November 08, 2020

UW-Madison Preview, 2020-21

UW-Madison Badgers

December 4th, Fiserv Forum

Coach: Greg Gard (101-57)

3-Year NCAA Rank Average: 51.0

3-Year kenpom Average: 36.0

2020-21 T-Rank Projection: 8

Nathan Reuvers & Micah Potter power the Badgers front line
Photo by Trevor Ruszkowski - USA Today Sports

Projected Starters: PG D'Mitrik Trice (6'0" RS Sr), SG Brad Davison (6'4" Sr), SF Aleem Ford (6'8" Sr), PF Micah Potter (6'10" Sr), C Nathan Reuvers (6'11" Sr)

If Marshall Mathers were asked to analyze the 2019-20 UW-Madison team, he'd likely ask will the real Bucky Badger please stand up? While they finished the season #19 in T-Rank and #22 on kenpom.com, they took a bizarre track to getting there. The first version of the team was pre-Potter. Before the Ohio State big man transfer took the floor, the Badgers went 5-5 and were ranked just #55 on T-Rank. The thought was that their roster was complete once he took the court, and in their next 10 games they went 7-3 and were #27 in T-Rank during that stretch. Then starter Kobe King left the team. Many believed the Badgers would fall off significantly, but instead they took off, going 9-2 the rest of the year and ranking #6 in T-Rank through the end of the season, while also capturing a share of the Big 10 title. The only player they lose that played a significant role down the stretch is Brevin Pritzl, and with the NCAA's new ruling, this could potentially be the start of a two-year run with everyone on the 2020-21 roster intact.

Last year's UW-Madison team seemed to be deep but lacking star power. While no one emerged the way Ethan Happ, Frank Kaminsky, or Sam Dekker did for past teams, every starter has shown the ability to put up numbers on any given night. Every one of them can score both inside and beyond the arc. While Reuvers and Potter will likely get the largest share of touches, both of the guards had 30+ point games last year and all of them averaged over 8.0 ppg. Off the bench, they have reliable place-holders in Tyler Wahl and Trevor Anderson along with a pair of promising freshmen in Ben Carlson and Johnny Davis. They likely won't have anyone on All-America teams, but they have a roster that is as experienced as it is deep.

When it comes to style of play, it feels like this could be a copy/paste paragraph from any of the past 25 or so years. Slow, methodical offense that grinds down the shot clock under 10 on most possessions coupled with rigid, man-to-man defense that focuses on limiting three-point attempts. Last year, we expected the Badgers' three-point offense to increase due to the departure of Ethan Happ and we were correct as they went from 281st in the country in 3-point attempts/field goal attempt all the way up to 44th. With Potter available for the full season, expect this to be a team that runs down the clock and finds open shooters on the perimeter regularly.

People usually expect experienced teams to take big jumps once their players are seniors, but more often than not when teams return the same roster, they end up with pretty much the same results. For the Badgers, the (admittedly small) sample size of this roster was top-10 in the country and Big 10 champs. This projects to be the best team Marquette sees in the non-conference and might be the best team in the country that no one seems to be talking about. I expect that's because they don't have the star power of other teams in the top-10, but I feel they are clearly the best on-paper team in the Big 10 and a legitimate conference and National Championship contender. As much as I like to be optimistic, this is a seasoned team that is used to playing together and, especially early in the season, it's hard for me to see a path to victory for a Marquette team that will be looking to replace over 54% of their minutes and 67% of their scoring from last season.

There is one reason for concern for UW-Madison fans that I want to address before closing this. While Reuvers and Potter are arguably their two best and most important players, the Badgers weren't particularly good offensively when they were playing together. As interesting as the number of neither on court is, I expect those numbers were largely garbage time and not to be given much weight. As a team, while they were better defensively with both, they were terrible offensively when both bigs were on the court. In an era when bigs are becoming less fashionable, UW-Madison's two-big plan may not be as effective as it would have been in years past. I'm still a believer in this team, but these numbers indicate it may not be a smooth path to the top-10.

Marquette Connection: Before Markus Howard made scoring 45+ points a casual thing (Howard holds positions 1-5 on Marquette's single game scoring record chart), the record for scoring in a single game was shared by Mike Moran and more recently Tony Smith, who scored 44 points at UW-Madison on February 19, 1990. While Smith was nearly unstoppable, nothing else went right for Marquette in that game as they were throttled 82-65 by the Badgers. To further exacerbate the 17-point loss, Marquette was saddled with 5 technical fouls and Head Coach Kevin O'Neill was ejected in the final moments of the game.

Friday, November 06, 2020

Oklahoma State Preview, 2020-21

Oklahoma State Cowboys

December 1st, Fiserv Forum

Coach: Mike Boynton (51-49)

3-Year NCAA Rank Average: 77.0

3-Year kenpom Average: 65.0

2020-21 T-Rank Projection: 50

2020's Top Recruit Cade Cunningham leads the Cowboys

Photo from OkState.com

Projected Starters: PG Cade Cunningham (6'7" Fr), SG Isaac Likekele (6'4" Jr), SF Ferron Flavors, Jr (6'3" RS Sr), PF Keylan Boone (6'8" So), C Kaleb Boone (6'9" So)

Mike Boynton's third season at the helm of Oklahoma State started with promise as the Cowboys found themselves 7-0 with wins over Syracuse and Ole Miss early in the year, spurred by a stellar Isaac Likekele. He missed 4 games with illness that started a 3-11 stretch as their shooting cratered. Their 44.3 eFG% during that span ranking 341st in the country (it finished at 260th). The Cowboys never fully recovered and were likely headed to the NIT when the season ended prematurely. They then saw 3 senior starters graduate and 2 key contributors transfer.

The positive came when the top player in the 2020 recruiting class, Cade Cunningham, committed to the Cowboys. Cunningham joins a backcourt with returning starter Likekele and sharpshooter Flavors, who is transferring in from Cal Baptist. The rest of the team is unproven, with the Boone brothers and JUCO transfer Bernard Kouma rounding out the front court. Off the bench, Avery Anderson, Chris Harris, and transfer Bryce Williams give some back court experience and depth. Freshman Rondel Walker will also fight for minutes, but this is a crew that is overloaded (maybe too much so) with back court options while being relatively thin up front. This team had the look of a possible NCAA Tournament team, but the NCAA ruled them ineligible. Cunningham will gloss over a lot of imperfections, but simply by the numbers they will likely have to play a lot of 3 and 4 guard rotations that could leave them at a size disadvantage.

Offensively, expect virtually everything to run through Cunningham and Likekele, and expect it to go downhill. The Cowboys were 267th in the three-point attempts/field goal attempts and their top four players in terms of three-point makes are gone. The guards will slash to the rim and try to get extra points at the line. Defensively they switch from a 2-3 zone to man-to-man. The hope will be that with quicker players, they can execute both defenses. That hasn't been the case in the past. They were 154th in defensive efficiency last year in zone. In man, the Cowboys excel at chasing teams off the three-point line. That aggressiveness can be a negative, however, as they give up a lot of extra attempts at the charity stripe and because they are chasing teams outside are not good at limiting second-chance points due to opponent offensive rebounds.

A number of outlets are high on this team, but once you get past the two lead guards, I'm skeptical. This is a roster that lacks high-major experience almost across the board. Cade Cunningham on this team feels a lot to me like the Ben Simmons LSU or Markelle Fultz Washington teams. Having one spectacular player surrounded by role-players can lead to some outstanding individual games here or there, but rarely leads to wide-spread team success (see also: 2019-20 Marquette). I don't mean to undersell Cunningham, who just might be the best individual player in the country, the #1 pick in the 2021 NBA Draft, and will absolutely have the ability to take over games on his own, but once you get past his name there's a lot to not like on this roster. I'm not sure how much home-court advantage will mean this year, but I tend to think this is a game that Marquette, who may not have the best player in the game but may very well have the edge at every other position, should win.

Marquette Connection: After beginning the series with the Cowboys 0-4, Marquette earned their first win against Oklahoma State in the 2007 Maui Invitational. Jerel McNeal (20 points) and Dominic James (18 points) led the way for Marquette as they pounded the Okies 91-61. The 30-point win remains Marquette's largest margin of victory in Maui.