Big East Odds, Third State of Conference Betting Report: Answering Questions About UConn, Creighton & Villanova

Big East Odds, Third State of Conference Betting Report: Answering Questions About UConn, Creighton & Villanova article feature image

Photo by Brian Spurlock/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images. Pictured: Cam Whitmore (Villanova

The race for the Big East title is heating up, with five teams among the top-30 nationally.

Of those five, only Xavier remains undefeated in conference play. But the Musketeers have yet to visit any of the other four top-tier teams for a road game.

Back-to-back trips to UConn and Creighton later this month could put Xavier safely in prime position or drag it back to the pack.

That pack of chasers is hungry for a chance to win the conference since Villanova has dominated the Big East over the last decade. The Wildcats are struggling this season, though.

With plenty of conference games under our belt, let's evaluate the three biggest questions in the Big East moving forward.

Which UConn Will We See Down the Stretch?

After starting with 14 straight wins, Connecticut lost its first game of the season on New Year's Eve. The Huskies rose to the top five of the polls and became the odds-on favorite to win the Big East title.

Since December 31, however, the Huskies have come crashing back to Earth.

UConn has lost four of five games and sits at .500 in Big East play. The first three losses came on the road, playing three of the other top-tier teams in the Big East. Losing all three certainly raised questions about UConn's ceiling, but it was not time to panic.

The fourth loss came at home to a St. John's team that was previously 0-6 against teams in the KenPom top 75, with the Johnnies not just beating UConn on its home floor, but running away with the game.

It's important to clarify that the UConn that started 14-0 was not finding fool's gold against a soft schedule. The Huskies played a totally average non-conference slate, beating Oregon, Alabama, Iowa State, Oklahoma State and Florida in a row.

UConn reached the top of KenPom's rankings, which evaluates based on on-court play and adjusts for opponents.

The Huskies were the real deal.

What changed?

The issues have primarily creeped in on the defensive end of the floor.

All four of the Big East teams that have beaten UConn of late scored better than 1.1 points per possession. None were a case of a fluky outside shooting night, either.

Just one of the four managed to top 40% from outside or made more 3s than the Huskies did in the game.

UConn's biggest issue defensively is a tendency to foul. In their four Big East losses, the Huskies have sent their opponents to the line an average of 30 times.

For the season, only two teams are allowing opponents to score a higher percentage of their points from the free-throw line.

That's a terrifying habit to carry into the stretch run of the season. Three of UConn's key rotation players — both its dominant big men and athletic spark-plug Andre Jackson — average more than four fouls per 40 minutes of playing time.

This could have its biggest effect later on this season. Mark your calendars for Providence's trip to Connecticut on February 22. The Friars lead the conference in free-throw rate — miles ahead of the second place — and are top-15 in the nation in earning freebies.

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Does Creighton's "Luck" Turn Positive?

Big East fans are probably sick of hearing about KenPom's Luck metric after Providence's wacky 2021-22 season brought the idea into the national conversation.

Quite simply, KenPom's data is built to measure and compare teams based on how they play on a per possession basis, adjusting for level of opponent where possible.

By that logic, you could play (and analytically "score") very well in a heartbreaking loss or play terrible but sneak away with a win.

Creighton has been one of the 20-most efficient teams in men's college basketball by KenPom, or other efficiency based metrics like those at Bart Torvik and Evan Miya. The Bluejays are also just 10-8 on the season, leaving them as KenPom's seventh "luckiest" team.

In theory, if Creighton maintains its level of play, its luck should regress towards the mean. The Bluejays are just 1-5 in games decided by five points or fewer. That tends to level off as the year wears on, in theory.

In practice, I'm a little concerned about Creighton's ability to score in crunch time.

Ryan Nembhard is a creator off the dribble at the point guard position, but less likely to find his own shot.

Baylor Scheierman can do great things in the flow of the offense, though he's less likely to get a bucket in isolation.

Ryan Kalkbrenner is a good big man, yet not expected to get back-to-the-basket chances.

Not having a true go-to-guy leaves something lacking in crunch time. If the Bluejays keep playing close games, better results should show up. But I want to see it in action before believing the numbers blindly.

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So is Villanova Really This Bad?

In the last edition of this column, I ranted a bit about Villanova's lineup issues. Freshman star Cam Whitmore returned from injury, yet he wasn't seeing the floor often enough, with Chris Arcidiacono offering little to nothing during big minutes.

Since then, Villanova lost a home game to Xavier and came up empty on a road trip visiting two of the lesser teams in the conference.

The Wildcats sit at just 8-10, with a dismal 2-7 record against KenPom's top 100 teams.

How did a team that had seemingly cemented itself among the blue bloods of the sport fall to these depths?

Changing coaches after Jay Wright's retirement didn't help, but that can't be seen as the only issue.

In reality, the cracks that led to a down season have been forming well before Wright stepped away. The Wildcats' recruiting and development machine is on the fritz.

The 2021 Villanova recruiting class has scored just 118 combined points this season, with Jordan Longino battling injury and Angelo Brizzi transferring mid-season.

The 2020 class included only four-star big man Trey Patterson, who has six total points this season as a sophomore.

The 2019 class was built around five-star Bryan Antoine, who never looked the part and transferred to Radford.

The year prior, Wright brought in five-star Jahvon Quinerly, who didn't last long on the Main Line and left for Alabama.

While Wright may have peacefully transitioned to his chosen successor, leaving the rock solid Villanova culture in tact, he left the talent cupboard bare. Kyle Neptune has not looked capable of making the most out of his roster, though the answers aren't there.

It's mid-January. The Villanova magic turnaround isn't happening without a major change.

If All-Big East guard Justin Moore returns from his Achilles tear and looks like himself, maybe there's a path towards the postseason for Villanova. Until then, re-adjust your expectations for this team and expect the Cats to remain among the bottom rung of Big East teams.

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