CINCINNATI — How’s this for an offensive performance: Xavier hits four 3-pointers for a 12-0 lead. Doug McDermott finds his long-range touch and gets started on a 35-point performance. Creighton’s formidable offense is rolling in front of 17,589 fans in Omaha.
The Bluejays rally to take the lead and hold on for a 95-89 win on Jan. 12 that becomes a defining moment.
A Big East team scoring 95 points? In the old days, two teams might not combine for that many.
In a lot of ways and for a lot of reasons, it’s a whole new Big East.
“To me, it’s been like the perfect storm,” Xavier coach Chris Mack said.
The rules have changed, and so have the teams. Seven holdovers plus newcomers Creighton, Butler and Xavier have given one of college basketball’s most familiar leagues a new look and a far different identity. Those physical, grind-it-out games are no longer the norm. There’s a big difference in the Big East.
“I like the direction it’s going,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said.
Through last season, the Big East could boast it had one of the best collections of teams in the nation and a distinct style that they favored. Big guys up front, big emphasis on defense and rebounding. And physical contact — lots of it. Scoring? Not so much.
That’s the way they wanted it. Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin noted that Big East games were officiated with that style in mind.
“It was basically: We were going to play Big East basketball,” said Cronin, whose Bearcats are in the first season of the American Athletic Conference. “So whatever rules were being enforced in other conferences, it was: ‘Well, the Big East is the best basketball conference, this is how we do things.’
“To me, at times it could get too physical, no question about it.”
In some ways, the Big East was Exhibit A for how the game had changed. Average points per game were down to 67.5 in Division I last season — the lowest total since 1951-52.
The NCAA cracked down on hand checking and cleaned up some of the contact under the basket this season, hoping to open up the floor. It’s working so far. Scoring in Division I is up 4.8 points per game this season, currently at 72.3 points per game, according to STATS LLC.
It’s even more pronounced in the Big East, where scoring is up from 64.2 points in conference games last season to 73 this season — almost 9 points per game. Field goal percentages have jumped from 41.8 percent to 44.1 percent, according to STATS.
Last season, only one Big East team averaged 70 points per game in conference play — Louisville, which is in the AAC with Cincinnati. This season, six Big East teams are scoring that many, with two others averaging 69 points per game.
A big part of it is the new cast of teams. Gone are four of the top five defensive teams from last season — Pittsburgh, Louisville, Cincinnati and Syracuse. Interestingly, when Cincinnati met Pittsburgh in New York on Dec. 17 for what was now a nonconference game, the Bearcats notched an old-style 44-43 win.
The league’s three newcomers have injected a new style as well. Creighton’s McDermott is among the nation’s leading scorers, averaging 24.8 points. The Bluejays lead the nation in 3-point shooting. None of this grind-it-out-inside stuff for them.
“We’re new to this league and we probably don’t look the best on paper,” Creighton senior forward Ethan Wragge said. “We’re kind of short. We’re not going and wind-milling during warm-ups.”
Xavier is a well-balanced team that likes to push the pace on offense. Butler is struggling the most of the three newbies, but the Bulldogs aren’t a slouch when it comes to scoring.
“There’s a real diversity of styles of play,” St. John’s coach Steve Lavin said. “And teams are winning in different manners.”
Which isn’t to say that the Big East has turned into a shoot-away league. The seven holdover teams — DePaul, Georgetown, Marquette, Providence, St. John’s, Seton Hall and Villanova — have rosters built to handle the old style of play.
Xavier forward Justin Martin said Big East games have been much tougher physically than the ones the Musketeers played in the Atlantic 10. During Xavier’s 86-79 win over Marquette on Jan. 9, the referees allowed a lot of contact under the basket.
“I think the referees are starting to scale back a little bit,” Martin said. “They’ll call the obvious fouls, but they’re letting guys play a lot more than they were in nonconference. I think a few other places can attest to that.
“It’s definitely physical. I think it’s going to get more physical come conference tournament time and NCAA tournament time.”
Coaches think it will take a few seasons for the Big East to develop a new identity. Teams will get more familiar with the new rules and with one another and figure out ways to hold each other down.
“We’re just in the beginning stages of figuring out what the identity of this conference will be,” Mack said.