1. Who will play the biggest role for either team in the Big East opener?
Robert O'Neill (Butler): I think it's the two guys we'll talk about a bit later -- JayVaughn Pinkston for Villanova and Kellen Dunham of Butler. Pinkston's scoring is down a bit from last season (10.7 compared to 14.1 points per game), those numbers certainly don't tell the whole story. Pinkston is a terror on the glass, grabbing upwards of six rebounds a game and averaging 1.3 blocks a game. As for Dunham, he has picked right up where he left off last season, averaging 16.6 points per game this year after averaging 16.4 last season. Aside from a brief shooting slump in the Bahamas, Dunham has been lights out this year.
Mike Murtaugh (Butler): I think the most important players for each team are going to be Villanova's Darrun Hilliard and Butler's Roosevelt Jones. Hilliard, who leads the Wildcats with 12.6 points per game, missed a game earlier this week due to a concussion, but is expected to be back in the lineup against the Bulldogs. Like Pinkston, Hilliard's numbers are down a bit this year compared to last season (14.3 points per game in 2013). However, he was starting to get on a hot streak before his injury, averaging 21.5 points and 4.5 rebounds while shooting a terrifying 62.5 percent from the field and 55.5 percent from three against Syracuse and Temple. For Butler, Jones has started to come into his own a little bit after struggling in the team's losses to Tennessee and Indiana. Jones' ability to force defenders to clog the lane will be key against the Wildcat defense, opening up looks for Dunham and the Bulldog shooters. He torched Belmont for 20 points earlier this week, and he'll have to get going in order for Butler to compete in this matchup.
Eric Kelly (Villanova): I think for Villanova it's Josh Hart and for Butler it's Kellen Dunham. So far this season, Hart has molded himself into one of the best sixth men in the entire conference, and one of the best pure scorers on the Wildcat roster. Despite coming off the bench, Hart still commands a good amount of minutes (26.8 per game) and he is third on the team in scoring. On the other side, Dunham has resumed his role as the Bulldogs' go-to scorer this season, leading Butler in scoring with 16.6 ppg. On top of that, he's been extremely efficient shooting-wise, shooting just a hair under 50% from the field despite taking almost 11 shots every contest. Not only are these two of the most dynamic scorers in this one, there's a good chance they will match up against each other on multiple occasions.
Adam J. Belletti (Villanova): I think for Villanova it is going to be JayVaughn Pinkston. He is the toughest matchup for the Bulldogs and the Wildcats need him to continue to thrive in conference play. For Butler, I would look to the defensive side of the ball to see who their best player will be today. Roosevelt Jones will most likely get matched up with JayVaughn Pinkston. It will be an interesting matchup between the 6'4 combo forward for Butler and the 6'7 power forward from Villanova. If the Bulldogs are going to win, they're going to need to play stellar defense and it will start with Jones. He will need to avoid foul trouble, which won't be easy. Offensively The Wildcats struggle to shut down go to scorers and Kellen Dunham has the potential to hit 4 or 5 3's today.
2. What was your team's biggest strength in nonconference play?
Robert O'Neill: I think Butler's biggest strength was the schedule itself. They faced North Carolina, Oklahoma, Georgetown, Tennessee, and Indiana. They had some wins and losses mixed in there, but what that portion of the schedule did was it gave Butler a chance to face off with other power conference teams and prove they can hang right there with them. A team that had all the uncertainty that Butler did going into the season needed that.
Mike Murtaugh: For me, Butler's biggest strength early in the season has been its defensive pressure. For those of you into advanced stats, the Bulldogs currently hold the 11th-best Adjusted Defensive Efficiency rating (88.8) in the country according to kenpom.com, which measures the average number of points allowed per 100 possessions. It all starts at the point of attack, where physical defenders like Roosevelt Jones and Alex Barlow create problems for the other team's guards, and the long arms of Kameron Woods can make entry passes a nightmare for opponents. While their offense is as well-rounded as it has been in a few years, it's their defensive pressure that has the Bulldogs 10-3 heading into Big East play.
Eric Kelly: To me, the biggest strength for Villanova has been the well rounded nature of the offense. For the second straight season, the Wildcats have a top 30 scoring offense nationally, and much like last season, there's a strong core of guys who are providing the scoring touch. The ‘Cats average almost 78 ppg, yet no individual player averages over 12. ppg. Four guys average double digits in the scoring department, and seven average at least 7 ppg. Therefore, the Wildcats force defenses to be prepared for everyone, because shutting down one player in particular will do defenses no good, because so many different guys are capable of stepping up and leading the team in scoring on a particular night.
Adam Belletti: Villanova's greatest strength has been their defense. They have survived poor shooting nights by forcing turnovers and (most importantly) bad shots by their opponents. The Wildcats do not give much up easily, but sometimes over-collapse or over-trap and give up wide open shots from deep. If Villanova loses during conference play, it will be due to a team being able to avoid traps and creating opportunities for open shots on the outside. They can then lose to a team with great outside shooting. (For a sample, see Villanova @ Creighton and Creighton @ Villanova in 2014)
3. What was your team's biggest weakness in nonconference play?
Robert O'Neill: The biggest weakness for the Bulldogs right now has to be their free throw shooting. They're currently 267/351 in free throw percentage at 65.3%. This puts them with the likes of Howard, Southern Utah, and Penn. Obviously, they're still a decent team in spite of this, but in the Big East, every point is going to matter.
Mike Murtaugh: While Butler has plenty of offensive weapons this season, the team is still struggling to pull consistent performances out of everyone not named Kellen Dunham. Some nights, the offense looks great, but in others, the team has a tendency to shoot themselves out of games. Despite having a handful of three-point shooters on the roster, only Dunham and forward Andrew Chrabascz are shooting 33.3 percent or better from deep, and the usually reliable Kelan Martin (26 percent) and Alex Barlow (29.4 percent) are still finding their consistency behind the arc. If they can find their shot, it opens up a world of possibilities for this offense, but for now, scoring efficiency is this team's biggest weakness.
Eric Kelly: You'd think with two pretty solid big men existing in the post that Villanova would excel in the rebounding department, but it's been the exact opposite. This season, the ‘Cats are 177th nationally in rebounding. Within the conference, the only two teams worse in that category are Marquette and DePaul, the two teams in the conference with the worst non-conference records. If the Wildcats expect to make a run not only in the Big East, but beyond in the NCAA Tournament, they must improve dramatically when it comes to grabbing rebounds.
Adam J Belletti: It's hard to find a lot of weaknesses in an undefeated team. I would like to see more dominance in the block. Villanova has 5 players on teh floor at any given moment who are capable of going up and pulling down a rebound. Further, I think that Ochefu's true scoring ability hasn't been fully exploited yet. I am concerned about what will happen when Villanova plays a team with a quality post game. They haven't seen much in the way of low-post scorers and defenders. I am really looking forward to see them play against St. John's and Chris Obekpa. In this game, Kameron Woods may actually be the best big man the ‘Cat's have seen.
4. How will Butler be able to stop JayVaughn Pinkston?
Robert O'Neill: It's incredibly tough to try and neutralize Pinkston on both sides of the ball. Luckily, Butler has two good big men in Andrew Chrabascz and Kameron Woods that should be able to get in front of Pinkston and contest his shots. As for stopping him defensively, they need to box him out, plain and simple.
Mike Murtaugh: I'm not sure Butler will ever be able to "stop" Pinkston, per se, but they will have to contain him. He's a goliath down low, and teams that give him space to operate in the post can get torched, as Michigan learned the hard way early in the season. Pinkston will throw around Kameron Woods in the post, so it's going to be on Andrew Chrabascz to plant his legs down low and fight Pinkston's physicality with his own.
Eric Kelly: If I'm Butler, my best guess on how to stop Pinkston is to find your strongest big man and just try to body him up. The only thing you cannot do with Pinkston is send him to the free throw line, unlike many other big men. For a college big guy, he shoots extremely well from the charity stripe and is second on the entire Villanova team in free throw shooting, at almost 79%. In the end, unlike many other centers and forwards in the conference, you need to make him beat you from the floor, not the line.
Adam J. Belletti: If Butler wants to stop Pinkston, they will match him up with Roosevelt Jones and have their other big men ready to stop him inside. Pinkston's biggest weakness is his lack of height and jumping ability (which has improved this year). If you're going to stop him, you need to provide a moderate amount of pressure on the perimeter (he's not going to shoot more than one or two 3's a game), and force him inside to waiting big men who he struggles to get over.
5. How can Villanova stop Kellen Dunham?
Robert O'Neill: The best way to stop Dunham is to double team him. He averages 1.8 turnovers per game (second on the team), so under pressure he's liable to get careless with the ball. Most Butler players can be stopped by being sent to the foul line, but Dunham is shooting 88.5 from the line this season, a whole 23 perfect better than the team.
Mike Murtaugh: We've seen it happen a few times this season where Dunham can get a bit flustered on offense and try to shoot his way out of a rut. If the Wildcats can put pressure on him on the perimeter and avoid giving him catch-and-shoot looks while flying off of screens, they'll be able to force Dunham into creating for himself. This can sometimes get a bit reckless due to careless ballhandling (see Rob's point about Dunham's turnovers), digging the Bulldogs into a deeper hole.
Eric Kelly: Dunham is one of the best pure scorers in the conference, reminds me a little bit of Gordon Hayward, so really the best thing you can do is try and force the ball out of his hands. Make the other guys on the floor beat you. If that's not working, you may just have to come to terms with the idea that Dunham is going to get his 18 to 20 points and it's about shutting down everyone else around him.
Adam J. Belletti: I think Villanova will be better at stopping him this year. They are very athletic on the outside and have gotten better with their perimeter D. I don't think that Butler has the inside scoring threats to demand a lot of collapsing defense from Villanova this year and that will free up their guards and wings to shut down the 3. In order to stop him, they need to be conscious of his presence on the swing-pass after traps. If they can get him in a trap on the wing that will be great, but he will do his greatest damage in space from the wing on the opposite side of the trap with a good swing. By being mindful of spacing and committing to stopping him, the Wildcats will limit his opportunities to score.