Can Creighton, Xavier, Seton Hall or Marquette end Villanova's run atop the Big East standings?
Kansas' impressive streak of winning at least a share of the last 13 regular season Big 12 titles may never be duplicated again by a power conference team. In fact, the Jayhawks' streak could end this season. While not nearly as long, another streak is brewing in the Big East, where Villanova has won the last four regular season titles by a combined 11 games over the second place team in each season.
Villanova's big 89-65 win over Xavier Wednesday night saw the jump from fourth place into a second place tie in the conference. Could this be the first year of the revamped Big East that a team other than Villanova takes home the regular season crown?
One could make the case that this is the best the new-look Big East has been top-to-bottom. Every team in the Big East ranks in the top 100 in Ken Pomeroy's rankings as of Thursday morning with DePaul checking in at No. 100. In its current 10-team format, the conference has never had every team finish the season ranked in the top 100.
Here's a breakdown of the Big East title race, along with a statistical argument for why each of the frontrunners could win the conference, as well as each team's potential weaknesses. The top five teams in the standings are listed in order of their respective conference records.
The Bluejays currently sit alone atop the Big East standings with a 4-1 record. They have one of the most efficient offenses in the country because of their ability to make a high percentage of their 2-point attempts and take care of the ball. They're third nationally in effective field goal percentage (59.9 percent) and they've made 61.6 percent of their 2s.
Fifth-year senior guard Marcus Foster is an All-Big East-caliber player at 19.0 points, 3.2 rebounds and 3.0 assists per game on 50.4 percent shooting from the field and 43.2 percent from 3. Khyri Thomas (14.9 ppg, 50.3%, 37.8% 3-point) and Martin Krampelj (12.8 ppg, 8.5 rpg, 66.9%) are efficient secondary scoring options.
Creighton ranks as the most efficient defense so far in Big East play – and by a wide margin. The Buejays have held conference opponents to less than one point per possession and just 26.7 percent shooting from 3-point range. They're excellent on the defensive glass, limiting opponents to just a 21.7 percent offensive rebounding percentage that ranks fifth-best in the country.
The cause for concern, projecting forward, is that their wins have come against four of the bottom five teams in the conference standings. Creighton's 14-3 record isn't a house of cards – the Bluejays beat UCLA, Northwestern, Nebraska and UT Arlington in the non-conference portion of their schedule, while falling to Gonzaga and Baylor. The team's upcoming schedule will prove if the Jays are for real or not with five road games in a seven-game stretch, including games at Xavier, Providence and Villanova.
Don't worry, of course we can't leave Villanova – the four-time defending Big East regular season champion – off this list. The Wildcats are ranked No. 1 in the AP Top 25 and by kenpom.com, thanks to having the country's second-most efficient offense and a top-30 defense. Since the start of the 2013-14 season, Villanova is 66-10 against the rest of the Big East in the regular season, and 74-12 with a pair of Big East tournament titles if you include the conference tournament.
Like Kansas in the Big 12, it might be fair to say the Big East is Villanova's to lose until the Wildcats actually fail to win the regular season conference title. They have done a great job recruiting and maximizing the talent within their system, allowing them to reach an incredible level of sustained success.
It's very difficult to find any glaring weaknesses with Villanova, other than the fact that Butler has been the Wildcats' kryptonite recently. Since the start of last season, Villanova is 0-3 against Butler and 47-2 against everyone else.
'Nova has the highest effective field goal percentage in the country (60.7 percent). Five players have made at least 20 3s this season while shooting at least 38 percent from outside. The Wilcats make 59.7 percent of their 2s and their opponents steal the ball from them on less than seven percent of possessions. Their offensive maestro is junior point guard Jalen Brunson, who started as a freshman on the Wildcats' national title team. He has the second-highest offensive rating of any player in the country, scoring roughly 1.4 points per possession he uses. Five other players average at least 10 points per game, including redshirt junior Mikal Bridges, who has had a breakout season with 17.6 points per game, and redshirt freshman forward Omari Spellman.
The back half of Villanova's conference schedule might be its biggest impediment for its chances to repeat as Big East champion. In a three-week stretch, the Wilcats play Butler, at Providence, at Xavier, at Creighton and at Seton Hall, with a home game against DePaul sandwiched between the road trips against the Musketeers and Bluejays. Villanova would likely have to suffer at least two losses in that stretch for another Big East team to claim the top spot in the conference standings.
As we detailed last week, Seton Hall boasts one of the highest percentages of minutes continuity in the country. The Pirates are long, athletic and built around a core of upperclassmen who have turned around the direction of the program.
Seton Hall had a nice collection of wins in the non-conference portion of its schedule, including victories over Texas Tech, Louisville, Vanderbilt, Indiana and VCU. The Pirates handed current Big East leader Creighton its only conference loss and they've yet to lose at home.
Senior forward Angel Delgado is a walking double-double at 14.4 points and 11.6 rebounds and he's the team's third option offensively, behind Desi Rodriguez (18.2 ppg) and Khadeen Carrington (14.5 ppg). The team's upperclassmen won a combined 46 games in the last two seasons, made the last two NCAA Tournaments, and beat Villanova in the Big East Tournament championship game two years ago. It has the profile of a team that could end 'Nova's run atop the Big East.
The biggest question about Seton Hall is what do the Pirates do well? They rank 13th in offensive rebounding, grabbing 36.6 percent of their missed shots, but the rest of their advanced statistics don't jump off the page. They shoot just 66.9 percent from the free throw line as a team, which could be an issue in tight games, and like Xavier, the Pirates rely on outside shooting from just a few players.
The Musketeers were the last remaining Big East team in last year's NCAA Tournament. A late-season six-game skid left them with a tournament berth as a No. 11 seed, which they turned into an Elite Eight appearance. Xavier has parlayed last year's postseason success into a strong start to the 2017-18 season, to the tune of a 15-3 record with wins over Cincinnati, Baylor, Marquette, Butler, Wisconsin and East Tennessee State. However, the Musketeers are on a two-game skid after losing at Providence and Villanova.
With size (the 10th tallest average height in the country), experience (four seniors and a junior are in the team's rotation) and one of the country's most efficient offenses, Xavier has the recipe to contend for a Big East title. Senior Trevon Bluiett is a potential All-America candidate with per-game averages of 18.9 points, 5.6 rebounds and 2.7 assists on 45%/83%/41% shooting splits. Fellow senior J.P. Macura is the team's second options on offense, averaging 12.6 points per game, and six other players average between seven and 10 points per game, giving the Musketeers a nice balance on offense.
If there are any concerns with Xavier, they are the team's inability to force turnovers, their struggles against Villanova (which almost every Big East team besides Butler shares; Xavier is 1-9 against Villanova since joining the Big East), and its reliance on a few players for its 3-point shooting, which could leave it susceptible to cold shooting nights.
Marquette has the highest scoring duo in the Big East and the Golden Eagles are the only team nationally with two players who rank among the top 25 in points per game. Marquette's backcourt of Markus Howard and Andrew Rowsey is responsible for 44.4 points per game. Howard went for 52 points in an overtime win against Providence. Rowsey scored 35 the game before against Georgetown. If Marquette makes a run in the Big East, it'll be on the backs of its diminutive duo (both players are listed at 5-11).
The Golden Eagles' offense is clearly explosive and they benefit from having efficient secondary scoring options to go along with Howard and Rowsey. Forward Sam Hauser is shooting 48 percent from 3-point range on 102 attempts this season and junior Matt Heldt ranks as the most efficient scorer in the country, due to his 67.4 shooting percentage and 17-of-19 mark at the free throw line.
The concern for Marquette, however, is that its defensive efficiency is only slightly better than the national average. Opponents are shooting better than 54 percent from inside the arc and they get to the free throw line all too often.
The Eagles are coming off of their best win of the season, a 20-point win over Seton Hall, but they've already lost five times this season, including three by double figures. They have the offensive firepower to play with anyone on the right night if Howard and Rowsey are hitting shots, but the team's pedestrian defense and rebounding may keep it from the climbing into the conference's top tier.