You blink and it's gone. While it might feel like the college basketball season just started, we're already just a handful of games away from March's Big East tournament. Over the past few months here at Big East Coast Bias, our job has been to analyze the ten teams in the Big East with as much detail as possible, and we're here to break down the conference's top storylines moving into the final stretch. In our inaugural Editor Roundtable, we deploy our five editors - Co-managing editors Christopher Novak and Robert O'Neill and editors Mike Murtaugh, Pierce Roberson and Cam Newton - to answer the burning questions for the final weeks of conference play. Let's get started:
1. Who is the frontrunner for Big East Player of the Year?
Mike Murtaugh: I wrote about this earlier in the week, but my guess is that it's either going to be Kris Dunn or LaDontae Henton from Providence. Honestly, it's kind of a toss up from there, but these two have just been dominating in conference play. On one hand, Henton has the numbers, leads the Big East in scoring, and is a matchup nightmare with the ability to score from pretty much anywhere on the floor. Conversely, the coaches are the ones who decide the winner, and I've heard at least one non-Providence Big East head coach speak extremely high of Dunn during media availability. As long as Friars finish strong, I'd bet POY goes to one of their top duo.
Cam Newton: If you had asked me last week, I would have been very tempted to Sterling Gibbs. After his actions in the Villanova game leading to his suspension, I have switched my pick to D'Angelo Harrison. While St. John's hasn't been able to beat any of the Big East's squads (and they lost to Creighton), the Johnnies have consistently been able to rely on Harrison to provide the bulk of their points. His performance against Georgetown last Tuesday was dismal, as he didn't hit a single shot, but it'd be foolish to discount him for that single performance.
Robert O'Neill: I can honestly say I have no idea. My opinion has changed on a weekly basis. It's weird to me that Villanova, the best team in the conference, doesn't have a player running away with the award. That speaks volumes to the depth and talent that they have. I think if I were forced to pick someone for the award, it'd be LaDontae Henton right now. He's been more of the catalyst for Providence this year with Dunn in a "sidekick" role. Not to diminish anything Dunn has done, it's a 1 and 1A situation, and Henton is 1 for me.
Pierce Roberson: Sterling Gibbs was on the fast track to POY before Seton Hall's season began to spiral out of control. After his elbow to Arch's face in the Villanova loss, it's safe to say he's out of the discussion. LaDontae Henton has been the heartbeat of the Providence Friars this year, picking up where Bryce Cotton left off and guiding the Friars to a top four seed in the Big East tournament. While the emergence of Kris Dunn shouldn't go unnoticed, Henton leads the Big East in scoring and has at will all year.
Christopher Novak: Unlike the Big Ten, which houses Wisconsin's Frank Kaminsky, or the ACC, which holds the honor and distinction of Jahlil Okafor in its realm, the Big East doesn't have a clear or distinct frontrunner for the award. To me, I think you could make a strong case for Kris Dunn of LaDontae Henton of Providence, but allow me to be the advocate for Daniel Ochefu of the Villanova Wildcats. First and foremost, it begins with efficiency. Ochefu's marks of 63.8 and 64.7 percent in effective field goal percentage and true shooting percentage are tremendous. In addition, Ochefu has also been an excellent rebounder on both the offensive and defensive ends, as well as being a very good shot blocker. He’s been disruptive in the paint as the Cats’ big man in a conference that has a long, storied history of premier, towering titans. The Wildcats may possess a rich amount of talent, but to me, Ochefu is the man of the hour, the tower of power and too sweet to be sour. The cream of the crop rises to the top, and in my opinion, that holds true for Ochefu in this case.
2. What has been the biggest surprise of the season so far?
Mike: Seton Hall’s complete and utter collapse over the last month. These guys have gone from the No. 19 team in the country in early January to an absolute dumpster fire in mid-February, losing eight of their last ten games. Would you even believe me now if I told you that the Pirates BEAT VILLANOVA seven weeks ago? Since then, Jaren Sina has left the program amid rumors of racial tension, they’re supposedly facing an uprising from freshman Isaiah Whitehead’s "posse" against the team’s vets in the locker room, and Sterling Gibbs showed the world his best Kimbo Slice impression against Villanova. This team is a mess, and head coach Kevin Willard could be on the chopping block. It’s hard to believe this squad was 12-2 coming out of the New Year’s Eve games.
Cam: It may have been short-lived, but it’s incontrovertible that nobody would have guessed that DePaul would be first in the league multiple times this season. For the past decade, DePaul was the perennial last-place finisher in the Big East, as the toughest teams in the league consistently beat up on them. This year was a far cry from that. A lot of that success has come from the spectacular play of Billy Garrett, Jr., a player who will no doubt be discussed in one of these roundtables some day under the "Big East Player of the Year" category.
Robert: This is a tough question, because i’d like to say Butler… but they haven’t surprised me. I said all summer that the return of Roosevelt Jones and the top-heavy makeup of the conference would equal great things for the Bulldogs. In fact, in August, I went on Bluejay Banter on ESPN Omaha and said the Bulldogs would finish third behind ‘Nova and Georgetown. Of course, when all the Brandon Miller stuff happened, I waivered a bit, but that win against North Carolina got me right back in the mindset of believing they would be right there in the thick of it, and they have.
Pierce: My heart nearly said DePaul, but I was one of the few that didn’t believe the Blue Demons would play like a last-place team this year. I set expectations for Oliver Purnell and Co. and they far exceeded them, but I’m more surprised at the rise and fall of Seton Hall. A 12-2 run at the open the year, capped with a stunner over Villanova, and the Pirates were playing like a team that would be around in March. Then Isaiah Whitehead went down and the Hall lost their way. Some (read: alleged) racial tension between Jaren Sina and Whitehead’s crew led to Sina’s departure, and after Gibbs’ elbow the other night, it became apparent that Seton Hall was not who we thought they were. Kevin Willard might get the boot outta South Orange, and who knows what to say about the situation between Gibbs and Whitehead. This year’s draft class doesn’t pop out at anyone. Either could be a first-round selection in June.
Christopher: While some (looking at you, Rob) believed in Butler more than others, they’re my biggest surprise of the season by a couple furlongs. It was Seton Hall before their epic collapse -- the 2011 Red Sox and Atlanta Braves probably feel bad for them -- but the play of the ‘Dawgs has been remarkable. Roosevelt Jones is back to being one of the best small forwards in the country. Kellen Dunham and Alex Barlow are as good as any backcourt you can find, and Chris Holtmann has done one hell of a job patrolling courtside all year in an extremely tough situation. Their story isn’t finished yet, but I would find it hard to believe that even the biggest, die-hard Butler fan could have envisioned this team battling for a four or five seed in the NCAA Tournament.
3. What storyline is the most important to watch for over the final stretch of games?
Mike: Can Butler survive without Andrew Chrabascz? To be clear, my answer is yes, but some stretches against Creighton on Monday were a little ugly compared to when the sophomore forward is in the lineup. The Bulldogs started freshman Tyler Wideman in his absence, but Wideman doesn’t have the post presence on offense that Chrabascz does, and that meant that Kellen Dunham and Roosevelt Jones were seeing a lot more double-teams throughout the game. Chrabascz’s offensive emergence before his injury was opening up a lot of space for his teammates to operate outside, and Wideman just doesn’t have that in his arsenal yet. Defensively, they asked Kameron Woods to play down low more rather than patrol the perimeter when Wideman sat, which led to some bad defensive rotations at the arc from bench forward Austin Etherington. Freshman forward Jackson Davis looked good defensively, and he’ll be valuable during Chrabascz’s absence after coming on a bit over the last few weeks. This is all going to be key while the team waits for his hand to heal after getting surgery on Monday.
Cam: How far will Seton Hall fall? It’s hard to imagine that, a few months ago, the Pirates were in the Top 25 and people were talking about them making it back to the NCAA tournament. Now, they are in shambles, as Sterling Gibbs feuded with Isaiah Whitehead, Jared Sina has decided to transfer, and Gibbs has been suspended for his horrible actions against Ryan Arcidiacono. This team is spiraling out of control and some sort of changes need to be made, whatever they may be. It’s going to be interesting for all fans to see where they go from here.
Robert: Cam nailed it, really. I hate to be generic and copy someone’s answer, but that’s the biggest storyline far and away. Will Isaiah Whitehead try his luck and declare for the NBA Draft? Will Kevin Willard be employed by Seton Hall next season? This year was supposed to be their big year with a nice mix of veteran leadership and Whitehead’s scoring prowess, and they fell flat on their faces.
Pierce: Is Villanova elite or are they bound for another early exit? The Wildcats have long been disrespected in the media, mainly by those with an anti-Big East bias. Now is the time for the ‘Cats to prove they are among the Duke’s and Arizona’s of the NCAA and make a strong run at a one or two seed. Of course, it’s all for naught if you don’t show up in the dance. But this unselfish Villanova team looks ready to make a run.
Christopher: I’m going to go against the grain and lock in on what’s happening in the Big Apple. Remember when the St. John’s Red Storm started off 11-1? Since then, they’re 6-8, and barring a remarkable run down the stretch, their chances of making the NCAA Tournament are thinning. They have the comfort of playing at home for their next three games against freefalling Seton Hall, as well as Xavier and Georgetown, but it’s hard for me to not think that their March 7 meeting with the Villanova Wildcats at The Pavilion won’t be one of the most important games for this program in decades. The Big East tournament does await them, but this stretch is as important as it gets for the Johnnies and, in my opinion, and probably others, their head coach as well.
4. How many Big East teams make the NCAA Tournament?
Mike: I’m going to guess they get six, but it’s contingent on how St. John’s finishes up. Villanova, Butler, Providence and Georgetown are all in, with Xavier and the Red Storm riding a little bit closer to the fringe. Xavier’s remaining schedule is brutal - taking on Butler, St. John’s and Villanova before closing against Creighton - but they should be able to steal at least one of those games. The Johnnies have it a little easier, with Seton Hall and Marquette mixed in against Xavier, Georgetown and Villanova, but man, this conference is competitive. I’m going with six, but it’s not unreasonable for one of those two teams to drop out. It would’ve been amazing to see DePaul here, but hey, time is a flat circle, blah blah blah. At least they’ll always have those first three conference games.
Cam: Four, possibly five. I can see that fifth spot going to either Xavier or the Johnnies, but there are truly no guarantees. Both have some bad losses on their schedule that will certainly hinder the possibility of an at-large bid (more for Xavier than St. John’s). Realistically, I don’t see Xavier winning enough of their final few games to get an at-large bid. They had better hope that they are firing on all cylinders come Big East Tournament time.
Robert: Six. I’m less confident in that answer than I was two weeks ago when Seton Hall still looked competent, but, six. I've said since the end of January "Nova/Georgetown/Providence/Butler are in, two of Xavier/St. John’s/Seton Hall will make it". Well, Seton Hall isn’t making it. I can see Mike’s hesitance regarding St. John’s, but they’re really started to put it together lately (the loss against Georgetown not withstanding). Speaking of teams putting it together lately, Creighton has been awesome the past few games, which has to be a welcome sign for Greg McDermott heading into next year.
Pierce: Four teams are a lock: Villanova, Butler, Georgetown, Providence. St. John’s and Xavier have the resumes to make the 68-field team, but my gut is saying that one of them will be left out on Selection Sunday. I would love to see a surprise team win the Big East tourney and finagle their way in. Start praying, DePaul/Seton Hall fans.
Christopher: Five. For me, Villanova, Butler, Georgetown and Providence are virtual locks for the field of 68. Xavier and St. John’s are the biggest question marks, and as I noted before, St. John’s HAS to make the most of this incoming stretch of games. Xavier does, too. They were greatly assisted with their big win at Cincinnati on Wednesday night, padding their nonconference slate. They have a chance to strike further on Saturday with their home matchup against Butler, and the Musketeers will welcome the Villanova Wildcats on February 28 to the Cintas Center (Sidebar: February 28 is a HUGE day in college basketball, folks. Check the schedule. It’s going to be INSANE). If the Musketeers and Red Storm make significant pushes down the stretch, it could push that number to six, but five seems feasible for me. And getting 50 percent of your conference into the field of 68 is a heck of a distinction, no matter how you slice it.
5. Make a prediction for the All-Big East First Team…
Mike: The Big East does this kind of weird, taking six on the First Team regardless of position. Dunn and Henton are locks for the Friars, so there’s two right there, and D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera has been rock-solid for a winning Georgetown team. Nobody has been more fun to watch than St. John’s’ D’Angelo Harrison (other than Gibbs in mid-January, but, well, you know what happened there), and if they finish hot, he should make the first team for the second year in a row. Someone from Butler is going to make it, and while Roosevelt Jones has the upper hand, Kellen Dunham has been on a roll lately. The last spot has to go to someone from Villanova, as much as I’d love to see Marquette’s Matt Carlino here. The best fit is probably Darrun Hilliard, who’s been leaving bodies in the street since the team beat Georgetown on Feb. 7. However, you could just give the whole Second Team to Hilliard, JayVaughn Pinkston, Daniel Ochefu, Josh Hart, Dylan Ennis and Ryan Arcidiacano, so who knows.
Cam: I really hate how the Big East does this, but that’s beside the point. I’d have to name the six as LaDontae Henton, D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera, Kellen Dunham, D’Angelo Harrison, Darrun Hilliard, and Matt Carlino. Each player listed above has been absolutely phenomenal for their respective teams and they're all one of the main reasons why their team while be representing the Big East in the NCAA Tournament (except for Carlino). I took Carlino over Dunn because I really think it’s critical to have a varied list when there is no rhyme or reason to how they are selected (thanks, Big East). Plus, I have always loved Carlino’s style of play, as I viewed him for years at BYU. He’s a scoring force, and it’s a shame that he won’t get to showcase his skills in the major postseason tournaments.
Robert: I, too, hate how the conference does this, but regardless, here we go. I agree with Mike in saying Henton and Dunn are locks. They have to be. I agree with both on Darrun Hilliard and DSR. So I have two spots left to play with. I’d consider putting Roosevelt Jones over Kellen Dunham just because, in watching the games and looking past the stats, Jones has more of an impact than Dunham does in more ways for the Bulldogs. Finally, I’ll give my final spot to Joshua Smith. I’m a bit biased here, since I called Smith the next great Georgetown big man in our Season Preview Podcast, but Smith is having a good year. 11.4 points per game, 6.1 rebounds per game, and a conference-high field goal percentage of 63.9 percent. His numbers would be even better if he didn’t get two fouls in the first half of every game, like clockwork, but so it goes.
Pierce: What they said about the selection process. I’m going Henton, Dunn, D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera, Kellen Dunham,D`Angelo Harrison and Darrun Hilliard. Hilliard should be a lock if he continues the tear he’s been on in recent weeks, plus Villanova deserves a guy on that list. Henton and Dunn are in, as is DS-R, who’s been the anchor of an extremely talented Georgetown team. Dunham has been amazing, no disrespect to Jones (who should make this list in 2016), and Harrison is a legit stud who I hope gets an good opportunity in the league.
Christopher: Echoing the thoughts of everyone else, this process is so lame. With that said, my six are as follows: Kris Dunn, Darrun Hilliard, D’Vauntes Smith Rivera, LaDontae Henton, Daniel Ochefu and finally, Roosevelt Jones. I recognize that I’m making quite a snub here with not having Harrison in, but these six, I believe, are worthy in their own right, and I can totally see the case for Harrison. However, Jones’ contributions to the Bulldogs this season have been tremendous after coming off of his injury, I’ve already gone in on Ochefu, and Darrun Hilliard is back to being a very efficient player after a skittish start to the season. Dunn and Henton are a very good one-two punch and DS-R is Georgetown’s best player.