by Dan Gardella
It truly is the most wonderful time of the year. Yes, while most people are focused on Christmas and the plans that are made, non-conference play has come to an end and conference play starts up within the next week across college basketball. The Big East kicks off their conference play Wednesday, December 27th with three conference battles.
Before that happens, here is my last non-conference edition of Risers and Tumblers.
I’ve been high on St. John’s from the start of the season. They have become one of the deepest teams in the conference. The Johnnies have held their ground amid the absence of sophomore standout Marcus LoVett, only falling to Arizona State with him sidelined with a sprained knee. With his return hopeful for St. John’s first conference game Thursday against Providence, the Red Storm feature six scorers averaging at least 6.5 points a contest, including five averaging double figures.
One thing that has taken a massive leap since the beginning of the Chris Mullin coaching era has been defense. The Johnnies average nine steals and seven blocks per game as a team, both top 20 rankings nationally. Justin Simon and Tariq Owens have been the main catalysts in the defensive shift as Simon, a 6’5” guard averages 2.5 steals a game along with a block a game. Owens seems to be a presence in the paint every night, averaging 3.7 blocks per game, good enough for fifth best in the country. They will be tested right out to of gate in Big East play as they take on a banged-up Providence team in Queens followed by a road trip to take on Seton Hall in Newark. If St. John’s offense and defense look good in these games, the Big East may want to watch out for the Johnnies who are a projected 11 seed in Joe Lunardi’s latest bracketology.
The Blue Jays have flown under the radar when it comes to making national news. Creighton has been in and out of the lower half of the top 25. But by looking at their non-conference schedule, it was pretty successful, with wins at Northwestern, home against UCLA, and their only losses coming at the hands of Gonzaga and Baylor. The Jays average 92 points a contest, highlighted by a 90 and 116 point performance this past week against UT Arlington and South Carolina Upstate respectively. Yes, not the fiercest competition but if we are continuing the talk about Big East teams being deep, twelve players scored in Creighton’s last win including six in double figures. Like St. John’s a lot of different players could kill you during any game. The Jays have eight players averaging at least 6.8 points a game.
Creighton also gets their first test in conference play right out of the gate as their first three games include a trip to face Seton Hall, and then return home to take on Providence. Conference play is where Marcus Foster (19.5 PPG) is going to have to step up and emerge as the player of the year that people think he is. People have slept on the Blue Jays all season. This is where they can show what people have been missing.
Marquette has firepower and a lot of it. Their guard play of Markus Howard and Andrew Rowsey was the best 1-2 punch in the conference during non-conference play, each averaging 20+ points a game while shooting above 39% from downtown.
The only issue is firepower is a dangerous game to play with.
The Golden Eagles started their week slow by narrowly escaping Northern Illinois by single digits before beating American University convincingly to close out the non-conference slate of their schedule. As a team, Marquette shoots 40% from behind the arc. This team has been known to live and die by the three over the past few seasons. The only issue with that as they enter Big East play: There are some strong teams defensively in the conference (Villanova, St. John’s, take your pick).
If Marquette wants to avoid being disregarded, they need players such as Sam Hauser, Theo John, and Matt Heldt to elevate their play to support Howard and Rowsey. Heldt and John along with Harry Froling need to have a presence in the paint to rebound for a team that struggles with that at times.
Heading into the season, many people thought the senior leadership of Trevon Bluiett and JP Macura along with a strong freshmen class would lead the Musketeers to their first ever Final Four in program history.
However, they have begun to slide of that path ever so slightly.
After needing a historic comeback against East Tennessee State last week, Xavier escaped Marshall and got an impressive road win at Northern Iowa. But Bluiett and Macura have not been as productive as people have expected. Bluiett who still averages a hair under 20 points a game, only shot 35% from the field between the two games this week (7 for 20). He will need to shoot more efficiently come Big East play otherwise they may fall into scoring droughts which have proven to be costly, especially in the Big East.
Macura on the other hand has been more hot and cold than New England weather. While he is shooting around 50% on the season, he has scored less than 10 points in 5 of the twelve games he has played in (Not including the lone game he did not play in). To put it in perspective, Macura scored in single digits in only 6 of the teams 38 games last season. If you want to get more statistical, Macura shoots 63% from the field in the seven games he has scored in double figures. In games where he scored single digits: A mere 17%. While Kerem Kanter and Naji Marshall have picked up the slack production wise, consistent play from Macura can go a long way towards helping this team go deep into March.
Xavier takes on Marquette, DePaul, and Butler in their first three games of conference play. An easier start compared to some of the other teams.by