By Dan Gardella
PHOTO: Robert Dea/dailydoseofhoops
Like most people watching the first week of Big East basketball, it was absolute chaos. With nine of the ten teams in the conference taking a loss in the opening week of conference play, it may just be the beginning of what will be a long, unpredictable two months.
After week one, here is how much my rankings changed within the Big East:
Last Week’s Rankings
3) St. John’s
4) Seton Hall
This Week’s Rankings
1) St. John’s (+2) – This Week: Lost @ Seton Hall, Win vs. Marquette, Win vs. Georgetown
2) Marquette (-1) – This Week: Lost @ St. John’s, Win vs. Xavier
3) Villanova (-1) – This Week: Win vs. DePaul, Win @ Providence
4) Seton Hall (-) – This Week: Win vs. St. John’s, Win @ Xavier, Lost @ DePaul
5) Georgetown (+3) – This Week: Win @ Butler, Lost vs. St. John’s
6) Butler (-) – This Week: Lost vs. Georgetown, Win vs. Creighton
7) DePaul (+2) – This Week: Lost vs. Xavier, Lost @ Villanova, Win vs. Seton Hall
8) Xavier (+2) – This Week: Win vs. DePaul, Lost vs. Seton Hall, Lost @ Marquette
9) Creighton (-2) – This Week: Win @ Providence, Lost @ Butler
10) Providence (-5) – This Week: Lost vs. Creighton, Lost vs. Villanova
I’m not quite sure there is a “right” way to rank the teams. It shouldn’t be this difficult to sort out the conference after only two or three games in conference play. But here’s what stands out in my rankings.
The Johnnies had the most up and down week in conference play. As their opener against Seton Hall approached, the talk about how the weak non-conference schedule would impact how they would perform in the Big East elevated. While the main topic of the game were the questionable calls made by the officials, the underlying issue was St. John’s poor execution down the stretch. To start off 0-1 in conference play courtesy of a heartbreaker, Red Storm fans were thinking, “Here we go again.”.
But Chris Mullin and his team did something that people have not seen in Queens in a long time: maturity.
They welcomed nationally ranked Marquette to Queens with a buzz like none other at this point of the season. The Johnnies responded in a big way, running away and handling the Golden Eagles by 20. They then headed to D.C. to renew their rivalry with Georgetown. Once again, the sign of upperclassmen leadership stuck out. Down five with 45 seconds left, the Red Storm did not panic, executed, and forced a young Hoyas team to crumble to give St. John’s a chance to tie the game and force overtime. In the extra session, the momentum was on Chris Mullin’s side as they would wind up winning by three.
On top of the crazy week on the court, newcomer Mikey Dixon announced that he would be transferring from the program. In the first game sans-Dixon, freshman Greg Williams Jr. and sophomore Bryan Trimble Jr. provided consistency and stability off of the bench against Georgetown. Although it’s a 2-1 start to conference play, it’s a strong start to an unpredictable schedule.
While Georgetown is still young, it is clear that this is a team with strong leadership surrounded by key pieces. To start off conference play, the Hoyas traveled to Hinkle Fieldhouse and took on the Butler Bulldogs. Prior to the beginning of conference play, Georgetown was without star freshman Mac McClung due to an ankle injury. His teammates however, would pick up the slack.
In the conference opener, it was newcomer Greg Malinowski who made ten of his twelve shots including six three pointers to propel the Hoyas on the road to start off Big East play 1-0. In their home opener in conference play, St. John’s gave Patrick Ewing’s team all that they could handle. Although the result was a loss, there are differences between a typical loss last season and a loss this season against a top team in the conference.
It was evident that last season, Jessie Govan had the offensive workload solely on his shoulders as well as leading a young team. This season, players such as Malinowski, Josh LeBlanc, and James Akinjo can take touches out of Govan’s hands and allow him to be more of a presence in the paint as well as the perimeter.
The only significant element that needs to be patched up for the Hoyas if they want to remain near the top of the conference is ball control. Georgetown struggled greatly at times last year holding onto the ball. So far through two games, the Hoyas have turned the ball over 32 times, including nine turnovers from Akinjo. Akinjo, who is another great freshman will sort things out as the season progresses needs to be smarter down the stretch of games.
While Villanova is the only team in the conference to not lose in Big East play so far, they have not exactly run away in their two games. In each of their two games, the window was open for them to lose.
In their conference play opener against DePaul, they Wildcats fell behind by as much as 14 points halfway through the first half. In previous years, this would be unfamiliar territory for Jay Wright and company. This year, this has become a far too common theme for the program. However, the Wildcats turned up the heat and outscored DePaul 57-38 over the final 30 minutes to sneak past the Blue Demons.
Regardless of the result, they then traveled to Providence to face off with the Friars in a rematch of the 2018 Big East Tournament Championship, but with almost completely new casts. From the opening tip, Villanova jumped out to a double digit lead and remained in control for most of the game.
Until they forgot to put the ball in the basket.
Leading 60-40 with 8:43 to play, the Wildcats struggled offensively, scoring only five points over the final eight minutes and change while giving the Friars a chance to make a massive comeback. But once again, the Wildcats did not break, getting defensive stops at the right time and making crucial free throws to close out the victory.
It still seems that Villanova does not quite exactly know their personnel and rotation yet. On Saturday, Joe Cremo got the start over Saddiq Bey and we saw freshman Cole Swider get extended minutes for the first time in almost a month. Behind Phil Booth and Eric Paschall, more consistency is needed if Villanova wants to repeat as champs of the conference.
Jay Wright has to prep his team for a big showdown with St. John’s on January 8th for a battle for first place in the conference early on.
Providence has started out slow in Big East play. They opened conference play with two games at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center, welcoming Creighton and Villanova. In their matchup with the Blue Jays, the Friars hung tough for the first 30 minutes before a late run would seal Providence’s fate, losing 79-68. Looking to bounce back, they took on Villanova. While they started off horrifically and were trailing by double digits throughout, they made a late run only to fall short due to poor execution down the stretch.
It is evident that the Friars hit a bit of a wall to start conference play. With the loss of four senior leaders, one of them the starting point guard for three years, there would be some growing pains. Through the first two games, sophomore guard Makai Ashton-Langford produced 10 and 20 point performances to Creighton and Villanova respectively. With Malik White getting the start along with David Duke due to A.J. Reeves sidelined due to the injury, Ashton-Langford has provided sparks off of the Ed Cooly bench.
With that being said, they are similar to Villanova in terms of a solid rotation. Duke, who entered this season as the highly touted recruit to come to Friartown has not performed up to those standards while Reeves has stolen the headlines. With Reeves sidelined, this is Duke’s time to step up. Through the two games in conference play, Duke shot 5-18 from the field and only scored 16 points. Only averaging 7.3 points per game on the year, Cooly needs to get more out of him if the Friars want to succeed without Reeves.