by Dan Gardella
This season, unlike the first four seasons of the newly configured Big East had a different feel entering the season and now entering conference play. This league is wide open. A 100-23 non-conference record combined between the ten programs sets the stage for a wild three months of conference play.
Boy did we get a show in the first week.
Butler handed Villanova their first loss of the season Saturday afternoon.
DePaul and Marquette nearly took down Xavier.
After the first week, the three unbeaten are Seton Hall, Butler, and Xavier.
Who would’ve guessed those three?
With that being said, here are my Big East Risers and Tumblers after the first week of conference play.
What a first week of conference play for LaVall Jordan! The former Bulldog player got his first signature win as head coach of Butler taking down the number one team in the country in Villanova at home. Jordan’s team was also a part of the most intense game of conference play’s early stages. Butler went to D.C and came back from a 20-point deficit to Georgetown and eventually came away with a 91-89 double overtime victory over the Hoyas.
It appears that Butler, who was under the radar heading into Big East play has arguably made the most noise so far. Bulldog leaders Kamar Baldwin and Kelan Martin are both averaging over 20 points a game through the first week of play along Paul Jorgenson and Sean McDermott being key role players. Even if the numbers don’t hold up throughout the rest of the season, it has already been shown that Butler has many different players who can beat you on a given night.
Butler looks to keep the momentum going this week as they face the other two unbeatens in the conference this week. The Bulldogs first take a trip to Cincinnati to take on Xavier on Tuesday. From there, they return home and welcome Seton Hall to Hinkle Fieldhouse Saturday afternoon.
Xavier could have very well finished the week 0-2 after narrow, single digit victories against Marquette in Milwaukee and DePaul at home. However, the Musks’ exhibited why they have one of the deepest teams in the conference. Other than the senior leadership of Trevon Bluiett and J.P Macura, players such as Kaiser Gates, Tyrique Jones, and freshman Naji Marshall have given crucial lifts to Xavier to help them finish games strong.
Xavier also has two games this week as they play Butler at home Tuesday and head to Rhode Island to play Providence Saturday. If Xavier wants to remain perfect in conference play, the X-factor for the Musketeers is Quentin Gooden. The sophomore guard is second in the conference in assists, dishing out just under six a night. He needs to continue to facilitate Chris Mack’s offense and create good, open shots for Bluiett and Macura to be successful
The Johnnies have been hit with the injury bug at the worst possible time. It first struck with the absence of sophomore guard Marcus LoVett, who sprained his knee in practice a few weeks ago and still has not returned. In the Red Storm’s Big East opener, St. John’s fans held their breath as fellow sophomore Shamorie Ponds left the game with a knee injury that benched him for the entire second half. All of Queens sighed in relief as the MRI showed no structural damage in Ponds’ knee. St. John’s fell to Providence at home in the conference opener and to Seton Hall Sunday night.
The most concerning thing about this week? Defense. St. John’s defensive numbers through the non-conference slate of their schedule have been stellar, ranking in the top 20 nationally in blocks and steals per contest. However, in their matchup with Providence, they allowed the Friars to shoot 54% from the field and drained 16 of their 30 three-point attempt, resulting in a 22-point defeat for the Red Storm. Against Seton Hall, the Johnnies were without LoVett and Ponds, putting them at a huge disadvantage. Without their star guards, they managed to force 17 Seton Hall turnovers and only fell to the Pirates by five.
In hopes of getting LoVett and Ponds back, St. John’s takes on a resurgent Creighton team in Omaha on Wednesday, and return home to face DePaul Saturday. With more time off between games, this should be the prime time to get Ponds and LoVett rest to recover quicker.
Let me be clear on two things. Villanova is still a top 10 team in the country without a doubt. There’s no need to panic about the ‘Cats. With that being said, Villanova opened conference play with a convincing win against DePaul in Chicago. Although it was a win, the Wildcats lost freshman Jermaine Samuels to a Broken Hand suffered during the game and will be out for 6-8 weeks. Samuels joins fellow freshman Collin Gillespie, who also broke his hand before Villanova’s game against La Salle on December 10th.
The Wildcats then went into Indianapolis and did not play a Villanova-type game. Villanova allowed Butler to shoot 60% from the field, 68% from behind the arc and gave up 101 points, the first time they have done that since 2014 (Villanova gave up 101 points to Doug McDermott’s Creighton team). Giving up a lot of points is rarely done against Jay Wright and usually requires a tip of the cap when done. Since the beginning of the 2016-17 season, Villanova is 45-2 against teams not named Butler. They are 0-3 against the Bulldogs in the last season and a half.
The Wildcats have a week off to let this loss sit with them before welcoming Marquette to the Wells Fargo Center. The Golden Eagles are going to have a tall task taking of the Wildcats after a loss as bad as they one this past weekend.