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BIG EAST Notes: Conference play enters crucial stretch

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ROLE PLAYERS TAKE STARRING ROLE

Casual watchers of BIG EAST basketball will likely know the biggest names: Jalen Brunson, Angel Delgado and Trevon Bluiett. Once February arrives, the players that get far less publicity become just as important.

Look no further than the Providence Friars for a demonstration of how important role players can be. Wing Alpha Diallo and guard Isaiah Jackson rank outside the Friars’ top three in usage rate and have still scored double figures in Providence’s last two games, both of which were wins.

“They’ve been great,” Providence coach Ed Cooley said. “We love their versatility and being able to move them around the court.”

Butler is another team that has leaned heavily on its role players. Sophomores Henry Baddley and Sean McDermott, along with junior Nate Fowler, have made key defensive contributions to help the Bulldogs win five of their last seven games.

“With seniors graduating or attrition, there’s an opportunity there,” Butler coach LaVall Jordan said. “I’m really pleased with the way our guys have developed.”

RED STORM RISING

St. John’s has had one of the strangest college basketball seasons in recent memory.

After being one of just two major Division I teams to lose 11 straight conference games this season – Pittsburgh is the other – the Red Storm upset No. 4 Duke and No. 1 Villanova in consecutive matchups. It’s the first time St. John’s has ever beaten top five teams in back-to-back matchups.

Head coach Chris Mullin said his team was always capable of hanging with good teams; the only difference is that this time, they closed out the game. “We were in seven two-possession games (before the wins,)” he said.

Villanova foresaw a tough game against St John’s even with the disparity in records. “Their defense was outstanding,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “We were ready to play and we weren’t looking past them … we expected a battle.”

If the Red Storm defeat Marquette Saturday, it’ll be just the second two-game conference winning streak during Chris Mullin’s three-year tenure as head coach.

 

CRASHING THE BOARDS… OR NOT

With almost every BIG EAST game involving at least 70 possessions per team, offensive rebounding has been put aside in favor of preventing opposing fastbreaks.

Only four teams rebound at least 28 percent of their missed shots and only three teams — Seton Hall, DePaul and Georgetown — rank in the top 125 in the country for offensive rebounding percentage.

Creighton has been the poster child for this trend, ranking dead last in the conference with only 22.4 percent of missed shots ending in offensive boards. Since BIG EAST play, the Bluejays have only rebounded 18.1 percent of its missed shots.

“We have some pieces that are a little bit more suited for getting back,” Huss said. “We sacrifice at times a little bit of athleticism for some guys that can really make (some shots) and guys that can really space the floor.”

Bluejays assistant Alan Huss attributed the disparity to the team’s focus on getting back on defense and stopping opposing fastbreaks.

“You look at your pieces and you start trying to do the math,” Huss said. “If we can take (the defensive transition) away, and sacrifice a few chances at offensive rebounds, we’re willing to do that.

DePaul is the only team to rebound at least 31 percent of its misses.

“I’ve been around enough to be called a little bit old school in my thought process,” DePaul head coach Dave Leitao said. “Defense and rebounding in basketball win championships.”

 

TWO-HEADED MONSTER

While seven teams have realistic chances at an NCAA Tournament appearance, the top two teams are beginning to break away from the rest of the conference.

Xavier and Villanova, 10-2 and 9-2 respectively, have a two-game lead over the rest of the conference. That’s the same gap as the space between third-place Seton Hall and seventh-place Marquette.

“Chris (Mack) has done an amazing job, year in and year out,” Villanova head coach Jay Wright said. “You know you’re going to get a really tough defensive team … I think (Mack) is one of the best coaches in the country.”

ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi has Xavier and Villanova as No. 1 seeds in his latest bracket. The Big Ten would be the only other school with multiple programs with top-two seeds.

Even then, no team is invincible so far this year. St. John’s shocked No. 1 Villanova Wednesday night and came within six points of taking down No. 6 Xavier the previous week.

Before the upset, Butler was the only team to beat the Wildcats this season.

“You know what to expect with (Villanova),” Butler head coach LaVall Jordan said. “They’re so solid. They’re fundamentally sound.”

 

BIG EAST: BEST IN AMERICA?

Fears about how the “new” BIG EAST would compare to the old can be safely laid to rest this season, if they hadn’t been already.

Six of the conference’s 10 teams make the NCAA Tournament in ESPN writer Joe Lunardi’s latest “Bracketology” projections. Another, the Marquette Golden Eagles, is in his “first four out.” Conference coaches have realized there aren’t any easy days.

“The conference has a whole; I’m just enjoying the heck out of watching the competitive level in each and every game.” Jordan said.

Nobody was feeling the rigors of conference play more than Wright and the Wildcats. If the first-place team could be knocked off at home by the last-place team, anything could happen.

“It’s just another night in the BIG EAST,” Wright said.

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About the Writer
John Steppe, Executive Sports Editor

John Steppe is the executive sports editor for the Marquette Wire. He is a junior majoring in journalism and double-minoring in digital media and Spanish....

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