Posted October 18, 2013

Stock watch Big East: Villanova trending upward, Butler set for a rough transition

Big East, Stock watch
Villanova returns a strong backcourt featuring sophomore point guard Ryan Arcidiacono. (Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Villanova returns a strong backcourt featuring sophomore point guard Ryan Arcidiacono. (Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Over the next few weeks, One and One will highlight two teams from each conference — one riding a positive trajectory heading into the 2013-14 season (stock up) and one headed for a decline (stock down). The unpredictability of college basketball could force a reassessment of these projections at some point over the next few months, but whether our analysis is prescient or misguided, watching the following teams perform in the upcoming season should be fascinating.

Stock up: Villanova

Everything changed during one week in January.

Villanova was trudging through a disappointing season in the Big East, having already suffered a brutal 18-point, non-conference home loss to Columbia, when something totally unexpected happened. The Wildcats, entering a pivotal stretch of their conference slate, knocked off two top-five teams — first No. 5 Louisville, then No. 3 Syracuse — in five days. Though Villanova’s miraculous run ended four days later with a five-point loss to Notre Dame, Jay Wright’s went on to win 20 games (a seven-win improvement over 2011-12) and earn a nine seed in the NCAA tournament. More important, it proved something — that the team could compete with, and occasionally beat, the best teams in the Big East.

This season, not only will Villanova be able to compete with the best teams in the Big East, it should be one of the best teams in the Big East. Part of that bullish projection has to do with the simple fact that last year’s Big East no longer exists. The present-day Big East is composed of seven basketball-only schools (Villanova, St. John’s, Marquette, Providence, Seton Hall, Georgetown and Depaul), imports from the league’s old iteration, plus add-ons Creighton, Butler and Xavier.

Picked to finish fourth in the conference’s preseason coaches poll earlier this week, Villanova is in position to push Marquette, Georgetown and Creighton in the race for the new Big East’s first regular season championship. Four of the Wildcats’ top-five minute-getters from last season return, including sophomore point guard Ryan Arcidiacono, the team’s leader in average minutes per game (34.0). Arcidiacono, a unanimous pick for the Big East All-Rookie team last season, fronts a backcourt featuring junior Darrun Hilliard and senior James Bell, the latter of whom could be Villanova’s best hope for improving its three-point shooting, which ranked 208th nationally last season at 33.2 percent.

Rice Transfer Dylan Ennis, the brother of esteemed Syracuse freshman Tyler Ennis, can spell the highly used Arcidiacono at point guard, but is versatile enough to play anywhere along the perimeter. Four-star freshman Josh Hart, a 6-foot-5 wing touted for his motor and attack-first mindset, is a promising reserve option that could contribute in his first year.

Replacing 6-10 center Mouphtaou Yarou, who graduated this offseason, won’t be easy, but sophomore Daniel Ochefu impressed in spurts last season, and appears ready to take on a larger frontcourt role. Junior JayVaughn Pinkston, who should start alongside Ochefu in the frontcourt, posted the eighth highest free throw rate in the country last season, according to KenPom.com, and led the Wildcats in scoring (13.3 points per game). He’ll need to increase that total this season to balance out Villanova’s perimeter-oriented attack, which scored just 45.4 percent of its points inside the arc last season, good for 328th in the country, per Kenpom.

Villanova used a simple formula last season: get to the free throw line and play disciplined defense. If it can maintain that blueprint while cleaning things up on the offensive end, the first year of life in the new Big East should be more enjoyable for Jay Wright’s team than the last few years in the old version.

Stock down: Butler

Maybe doubting Butler in its first season in the new Big East is a bad idea. Maybe the loss of former coach Brad Stevens, who shocked the basketball world this summer when he became the head coach of the Boston Celtics, won’t hurt this program as much as many suspect it will. Maybe Butler’s tradition of hiring from within, a trend it continued this offseason by promoting former assistant Brandon Miller, will lead to another seamless head coaching transition. Or maybe, without Stevens, Butler is doomed to fail.

The Bulldogs’ trajectory probably falls somewhere in the middle: The loss of Stevens will rob Butler of some of the momentum it built up over the last few seasons, but it would be foolish to count the Bulldogs out in the long run, to consider them a mere creation of Stevens.

In the more immediate future, Butler is likely to suffer some major growing pains, but its grim outlook can’t be pinned solely on Stevens’ departure. For one, the Bulldogs are entering a tougher league; the new Big East, while weaker than the old iteration, is a step up from Butler’s most recent home, the Atlantic 10, and an even bigger step up from the Bulldogs’ longtime place of residence, the Horizon. Butler has proven its chops against power conference opponents in recent years — inside the NCAA tournament and outside of it — and last year’s move to the A-10 proved the Bulldogs can handle the grind of a more rigorous league schedule.

Unfortunately for Butler, two of last season’s key contributors, leading scorer Rotnei Clarke and center Andrew Smith, are gone.

Losing players to graduation is one thing. Having arguably your best returning player lose his season to a wrist injury in the preseason — as Roosevelt Jones, Butler’s leading returning scorer (10.1 ppg) and rebounder (5.6 rpg), did while playing on the team’s summer trip to Australia — is another matter entirely. Without Jones, Butler will need sophomore Kellen Dunham, whose disappointing three-point efforts (57-for-165) last season belied his smooth shooting stroke and high school reputation, to pick up the scoring slack. True freshman Rene Castro, a three-star recruit, could earn a starting spot in the backcourt next to Dunham and junior Alex Barlow, the overtime hero of last year’s upset win over then-No. 1 Indiana. Versatile senior Khyle Marhall and junior Kameron Woods should hold down the frontcourt, with senior Erik Fromm contributing off the bench.

There is no getting around it: Butler fans will need to lower their expectations this season. Stevens is gone. Jones is injured. The Big East is going to be tough. These are all things the Bulldogs should overcome in due time, but there could be some tough sledding in 2013-14. Reaching the NCAA tournament for the seventh time in eight seasons would be a huge accomplishment.

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