If you can remember back to the middle of October, you probably recall that the Big East preseason projections, courtesy of the coaches' expectations, show only a faint resemblance to the standings on this day. Most notably, three teams -- Syracuse, Marquette and Pittsburgh -- have far outperformed their respective sixth-, ninth- and 12th-place projections.
It's hard to blame the coaches for placing each team where they did. In fact, I even thought Syracuse was picked too high (not a shining moment for me). All three teams lost at least four key pieces from top-20 teams. The Orange lost its top three players in terms of minutes and usage -- Jonny Flynn, Eric Devendorf and Paul Harris -- plus rotation big Kris Ongenaet. Pittsburgh lost its top three players in terms of minutes and usage -- Sam Young, DeJuan Blair and Levance Fields -- plus another starting forward, Tyrell Biggs. Marquette lost three of its top four players in terms of minutes and usage -- Jerel McNeal, Wesley Matthews and Dominic James -- plus its tallest player and sixth-highest minutes man, Dwight Burke.
There are several ways a team can rebuild from that, but these three went beyond rebuilding. Despite the personnel losses, Syracuse is the best team in the conference a year after slotting in somewhere in the fifth to seventh range. Pittsburgh has merely slipped from the league's best team -- according to efficiency margin in conference last season -- to its fourth or fifth. Marquette has gone from the same fifth-to-seventh mire that the Orange found itself in last year to fourth or fifth with the Panthers. And this is in a league that is probably better top to bottom than it was last season.
Here's a look at Big East efficiency margin for conference games only. Efficiency margin is points allowed per 100 possessions subtracted from points scored per 100 possessions. The efficiency margins have been adjusted for strength of competition.
It's unlikely that you would have had the option in Vegas, but you probably could have gotten good odds with your friends if you bet them that Syracuse, Marquette and Pittsburgh would all be among the league's best five teams this season. The question is how has each team managed to do so well in the face of such personnel losses and in such a strong league. Let's look at them one by one. You'll see defense become a recurring theme.
Syracuse: Entering the season, I wasn't especially concerned about the losses of Devendorf and Harris, who each left for the pros after their junior seasons (red-shirt junior season in Devendorf's case). An expanded role for Andy Rautins and the addition of Wesley Johnson after he sat out for a season as a transfer figured to mitigate the losses of those two. My greatest concern was at point guard where Jim Boeheim would try to replace the scintillating Flynn with Scoop Jardine, a red-shirt sophomore who struggled mightily with turnovers as a freshman, and Brandon Triche, a freshman who was not that highly regarded coming out of Jamesville-DeWitt High School.
Jardine and Triche have held down the point quite well. Both turn it over a bit more than one would like, but they also can make shots and find open teammates. Perhaps more importantly, Jardine, Triche, Rautins and Johnson have made Syracuse much longer in the 2-3 zone. The Orange were the ninth-tallest team in the Big East last season -- after accounting for which players play the most minutes; this season, SU is third tallest behind just West Virginia and Connecticut.
Flynn did a lot of things well, but he was not an exceptional defender, and his height hurt the zone. Replacing the 6-footer with the 6-4 Triche and 6-2 Jardine has made a difference. More importantly, replacing the 6-4 Harris with the long, 6-7 Johnson has made a huge impact.
After sending out defensive teams that ranged from solid to mediocre for the last half-decade, Boeheim now boasts one of the conference's top two defenses. The Orange is first in defensive efficiency at 98.5 and second in adjusted efficiency at 98.5 behind UConn's 98.3. Syracuse's good defenses in the past have been terrific at field-goal defense and keeping opponents off the free-throw line, and this one is no different. The Orange are third in eFG defense -- behind Connecticut and Pittsburgh -- and second in free-throw rate -- behind Marquette. The difference this season is that SU is also forcing turnovers out of the zone. Syracuse is third in the Big East in forcing turnovers at 21 percent, behind just Marquette and Louisville.
Before moving on to Marquette, I should mention the importance of Kris Joseph's emergence to this team. The Orange is not a deep team but is probably a bit deeper than it was last year because of Joseph, who is a two-way threat. He has joined Johnson, Triche and Jardine to fill in the minutes that the departing players took with them. Joseph is explosive in the open court and an active defender. If he can provide offense off the bench, Syracuse may be able to avoid that poor offensive effort which is likely the main obstacle between the Orange and the Final Four -- especially if Johnson continues to struggle with his shooting.
Marquette: Syracuse's primary losses came in the form of early entrants to the pros, but MU lost four seniors from last year's 25-win team. With the departure of the three-headed backcourt monster, plus Burke, Marquette is now a very different team. Both last year's squad and this year's have stature in common but little else.
To replace what the Golden Eagles lost, Buzz Williams used his junior-college pipeline. Jimmy Butler arrived last season and became a huge part of the team by season's end, putting up incredibly efficient offensive numbers with his slashing ability. To Butler, Williams added Milwaukee native Dwight Buycks out of Indian Hills in Iowa and Darius Johnson-Odom from Hutchinson in Kansas. Those three players joined returners Lazar Hayward, David Cubillan and Maurice Acker to form what would become MU's six-man rotation.
Williams survived early personnel troubles, including injuries to Chris Otule, Youssoupha Mbao and Junior Cadougan as well as a defection from highly regarded freshman Jeronne Maymon. With the first three went any hopes that Marquette could match up with bigger teams, but MU has shown it hasn't had to.
After a 2-5 start in conference that was thanks more to the schedule than to MU's level of play -- the five losses were by 11 total points -- Marquette has won nine of 10, including three overtime wins on the road and a two-point victory at UConn. Those narrow margins helped to balance all the close losses from earlier in the season.
The incredible thing about Marquette's reloading season is how the defense has improved. James and McNeal were known as top perimeter defenders -- indeed McNeal was named the league's top defender as a sophomore -- and yet Marquette's defense has gone from eighth best in the league last year to fourth best this season. This has helped to make up for the offense dropping from second best in conference last season to somewhere between fifth and seventh best this season (depending on whether one prefers the straight efficiency numbers or the ones adjusted for quality of competition).
Marquette continues to allow opponents to shoot a high percentage, ranking 12th in the league in eFG defense, and MU is just OK in defensive rebounding, although a ninth ranking in conference considering the team's lack of size is actually very good. The amazing thing about this year's Marquette defense is its ability to combine forcing turnovers with not fouling. Last year's team didn't send its opponents to the line but didn't force that many turnovers, which is normal. There is a strong correlation between forcing turnovers and fouling, as the more aggressive defensive teams tend to do both.
This year, though, Marquette enters the final weekend of the conference season first in turnovers (21.7 percent of possessions) forced and first in fewest free-throws allowed (26.2 free throws per 100 field goal attempts). In these ways, Marquette is actually similar defensively to Syracuse despite the disparity in size. That size does help Syracuse be a great field-goal defending team, which is what separates the Orange's great defense from Marquette's good one.
This transformation has led some to call for Hayward as Big East defensive player of the year, and those calls may not be far off. Along with his ability to grab defensive boards, swipe steals and pick up charges, Hayward's willingness to carry the offensive load -- with plenty of help from Butler -- has freed up Marquette's shooters to hit 40.8 percent of their 3-pointers, the seventh best mark in the nation. This is the how the offense has stayed good enough while the defense has -- perhaps quietly -- been very strong.
Pittsburgh: Syracuse and Marquette may not have had to do this sort of reloading in recent seasons, but it's become commonplace for Jamie Dixon at Pittsburgh. It seems like every year 2-4 players graduate, and Dixon continues to find a path to 25 wins. Much like Williams at Marquette, Dixon has reloaded using defense to make up for the offensive losses of the previous season.
First, we have to recall what Pittsburgh actually was last season -- a superb offensive team. The Panthers lapped the field in the Big East, averaging 1.17 points per possession, a figure that will surely stand as the best mark by any Big East team over the last two seasons. The Panthers did it with terrific offensive rebounding (led by Blair) few turnovers (thanks to Fields) and good shooting, especially on 2-pointers (from Young with help from Blair).
With all of those players gone, Dixon has seen his team's offense drop to ninth in the conference, and even when the Panthers score points, they're doing so much differently. The one area where Pitt didn't do well on offense last season was getting to the free-throw line, but that's an area of strength this season. Thanks to Brad Wanamaker with ample assistance from Ashton Gibbs, Pittsburgh has the third best free-throw rate in the conference this season, behind just South Florida and Connecticut.
Free throws have prevented Pitt's offense from plummeting further despite shooting, turnover and rebounding performances that place Pitt 10th, fifth and 10th in the conference, respectively. In conference play this season, Pitt has attempted 66 more free throws than its opponents; last season, the Panthers attempted 14 fewer free throws than their conference opposition.
The drop-off in Pitt's offense has assured that Dixon wouldn't be coaching a 15-3 team in the Big East again this season, but the defense has ensured Pitt's placement among the league's top five teams. Last year, Pitt's defense was good but not outstanding, ranking fourth or fifth in the Big East along with Villanova. This season, Pitt's defense is good but not great again -- sixth in conference -- and this is one place where the style hasn't changed from past clubs.
Dixon's defenses tend to play a strong man-to-man, but a low-risk one where preventing good looks and grabbing the rebound off the miss are valued more than forcing the steal. With Gary McGhee patrolling the middle of the Pitt defense, the Panthers have been able to play terrific field-goal defense, second best in the league behind UConn. Pitt ranks second worst at forcing turnovers but places in the top half in both defensive rebounding (eighth) and free throws allowed (sixth). As we saw to a greater extend with Syracuse, replacing talented if undersized players like Fields and Blair with taller players like Wanamaker, Gibbs and McGhee can have very distinct advantages when it comes to field-goal defense.
It hasn't been all smooth for Pittsburgh. The Panthers played some very poor basketball in the non-conference season, most notably in a loss to Indiana at Madison Square Garden. Even wins over Duquesne and New Hampshire were more ugly than successful. But by the end of December, when Jermaine Dixon was fully healthy and Gilbert Brown became eligible, Jamie Dixon was finally equipped with the depth and experience he needed to win in the Big East.
When it comes to surprising, oftentimes the data gap is on defense. We don't have similarly strong metrics to evaluate what the loss of a player will do to a team's defense as we do for offense. We've seen that losing talented players has affected the offense more negatively than the defense, at least in these three cases (see Friars, Providence for the reverse example). Boeheim, Williams and Dixon have shown that a strong defense can be built on the backs of new players in "rebuilding" seasons. To the surprise of many -- including me -- those three will be rebuilding deep into March.