Top-ranked Villanova survived a defensive slugfest Saturday against upset-minded St. John’s. Neither team shot 44 percent from the floor, and there were, combined, 26 turnovers, 50 defensive rebounds and 36 fouls.
It had all the markings of an old-school, Big East, physical, bare-knuckle brawl.
The final score was 78-71.
Excuse me, what? When did a combined 149 points qualify as a Big East dogfight?
As Georgetown coach Patrick Ewing, who was the greatest defensive player in Big East history while playing center for the Hoyas, said, “It’s a sign of the times.”
If you add the Big East to the five College Football Playoff conferences, it leads the college basketball heavyweight leagues with four teams – Creighton, Villanova, Xavier and Marquette – ranked among the top 30 teams in scoring.
Include Butler and Seton Hall, and 60 percent of the 10-team Big East is among the 62 programs that average at least 80 points. St. John’s is the only Big East squad not in the top half of the 351 schools playing Division I, and the Johnnies still average 73.1 points despite having lost one of their top offensive players.
The five other major conferences all have at least one team ranked below St. John’s at 214.
Villanova coach Jay Wright was expressing concerns about his squad’s defense, before learning that the other Big East coaches had expressed similar thoughts about their teams.
“It’s good to hear that other guys are thinking that, too,” Wright said. “I had a hunch, so that’s why I wasn’t overreacting to our defensive struggles.
“You look at the teams in this league, and they are so explosive. These teams are really good and really powerful offensively.”
It’s a numbers game. Defense is about taking away the opponent’s scoring options, but most Big East teams have so many scoring options that it makes it nearly impossible to contain all of them.
Villanova has five players who average double digits in scoring, and another who averages 9.9. Four shoot 50 percent or better, and the other two are close.
In Markus Howard and Andrew Rousey, Marquette is the only team in the nation with two Top 25 scorers.
DePaul, Seton Hall and St. John’s have four double-digit scorers, while Butler, Creighton, Georgetown, Marquette and Providence have three. Xavier has only two double-digit scorers, but eight Musketeers average at least 7.5 points.
“There are so many guys on each team that you have to worry about,” Butler coach LaVall Jordan said. “It’s a challenge when you’re facing a roster that has three or four, sometimes five, who can really score.
“Who are you going to help out on? I think everyone in the league is trying to figure that out.”
Ewing, who spent 15 years as an NBA assistant coach, said it’s about the way basketball has evolved.
“With the three-point line and everybody wanting to play spread basketball, that’s just the game,” he said. “People shoot the three at a high clip, so if you are not able to protect the paint plus get out and defend the three-point line, you’re at a disadvantage.”
Marquette, Villanova and Creighton are in the top 16 in three-pointers made per game. Among the CFP conferences, only the Big 12 (Oklahoma and Kansas) and Pac-12 (Washington State) have at least one team in the top 34.
The realigned Big East produces NBA-caliber talent, but it has had only a few “one-and-done” players, which means its coaches have the time to teach skilled players the concepts of team basketball.
“So many teams have combinations of guys both interior and perimeter,” Xavier coach Chris Mack said. “The coaches are running some really good sets in this league, spacing the floor and getting guys good looks.
“One of the great things about our league is we don’t have many one-trick-pony teams. That’s the chess match you are up against each night. If we had the answer, I think the scoring averages would be down a bit.”
Big East teams score so well, the game has become three-dimensional chess.