Ball Reversal: 24-Hour Marathon Edition

Posted by zhayes9 on November 14th, 2011

Zach Hayes is an editor, contributor and bracketologist for Rush the Court. Follow him on Twitter @zhayes9.

The idea of an “opening day” has always been a challenging concept for college basketball. Rather than one momentous game-signaling commencement, we’re introduced to hoops by St. John’s and Arizona playing somewhat competitive mid-majors every other night. With football in full swing, the absence of a season-opening celebration often keeps more casual observers out of the loop.

Improvements are slowly being instituted. The unique nature of the near-consensus #1 team in the country playing on an aircraft carrier surely increased awareness. But it’s the ESPN-invented four-year old Tip-off Marathon that has truly registered on the nation’s radar. This season’s slate is so promising that a battle of top ten teams is being overshadowed by the newly formed Champions Classic featuring Duke, Michigan State, Kentucky and Kansas.

For hoops-starved fans whose last memory is the UConn-Butler brickfest last April, merely plopping on the couch for hour after hour of hoops is sufficient enough, but let me take you through the analytical realm of each game, tackling the key question: what does each team need to do to ensure a resume-building victory?

#7 Florida at #3 Ohio State, 8 PM ET

Patric Young holds the key to not only a win at OSU but Florida's entire season

How Florida wins: Patric Young becomes a man. Exactly one year ago, Jared Sullinger announced his presence to the college basketball world by dropping 26 points on an overwhelmed Florida frontcourt. Not only did Sullinger become a household name after that breakout performance, but Ohio State vaulted to the top of the rankings for nearly the entire campaign. He doesn’t have to score 26 points on 17 shots or make an All-America team, but Florida’s success this upcoming season is predicated on Young taking a big step forward as a paint enforcer and capable scoring option. The Gators backcourt is absolutely loaded, but Young must provide some semblance of balance to prevent teams from crowding the perimeter defensively. His first major test: the newly trimmed Sullinger. For 30-32 minutes. On the road. Young doesn’t have to outplay Sullinger, but if he merely keeps Sullinger in check and shows glimpses of effectiveness, Florida’s guards are lethal enough to exact revenge on the Buckeyes.

How Ohio State wins: Perimeter defense. It’s no secret that Florida will be extremely perimeter-oriented this season. Billy Donovan has broached the possibility of utilizing a four-guard lineup at times with Erving Walker, Kenny Boynton, stud freshman Brad Beal and Rutgers transfer Mike Rosario all on the floor. Obviously utilizing Jared Sullinger as much as possible is helpful, but if the Buckeye guards can force the Gators into ill-advised shots on the other end (they tend to cooperate), it could be the second straight Buckeye blowout. Aaron Craft is the ideal perimeter defender to harass Walker, while Thad Matta might go with Lenzelle Smith, a player much more defensive-oriented than scorer Shannon Scott, as the starting two-guard and Will Buford at the wing against Florida’s smaller lineup. Craft is as reliable as they come, but Smith didn’t break Matta’s notoriously thin rotation last season and Buford is prone to periodic defensive lapses. If those two step up their game on the defensive end, the Buckeyes will ensure themselves a win that will surely look good in March.

#2 Kentucky vs. #15 Kansas, 9:30 PM ET

How Kansas wins: An efficient Robinson and Withey down low. What would qualify as a blasphemous statement a year ago suddenly rings true: Kentucky is going to miss Josh Harrellson. Admittedly, Anthony Davis is a clear upgrade in almost every imaginable way. But he likes to fashion his game after Kevin Garnett and utilize his unique ball-handling and face-up skills to impact the game away from the post. Excluding reserve Eloy Vargas, Kentucky’s one weakness may be their lack of a true low-post presence capable of doing the same dirty work as Harrellson. This is where Thomas Robinson, a 6’9” future lottery pick with an incredible physique and raw talent in spades, and seven-foot starting center Jeff Withey, enter the picture. Kansas and Kentucky were both dominant teams last season, but where they differed is in two-point field goal percentage. The Jayhawks shot an incredible 57% from inside the arc with Kentucky at a much more mediocre 49%. Credit the Morris twins, but Robinson was also incredibly efficient during his time on the floor. If Withey follows in the footsteps of previous KU bigs and makes offseason strides, the Jayhawks could pull off a mild upset by out-producing Kentucky in the post.

How Kentucky wins: Dictate tempo. I get the sense that this year’s Kentucky outfit is going to run more than any Calipari-coached team since Derrick Rose. Although John Wall could go end-to-end in the blink of an eye, Calipari liked utilizing his ultra-efficient post players DeMarcus Cousins and Patrick Patterson; in fact, Kentucky’s tempo only ranked #65 in the country in 2009-10. Calipari has yet another freshman blazer in Marquis Teague, but this season his roster also boasts versatile, fluid and athletic weapons like Terrence Jones, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Doron Lamb and Anthony Davis that are fully capable of getting up and down the floor, regardless of height or position. Kentucky will want to maximize the number of possessions in every game they play this season (other than UNC) to increase the chances their superior talent reigns supreme. This matchup against Kansas is no different. Speeding up the tempo accomplishes three goals that may work in UK’s favor: 1) limits the amount of post-up touches/possessions for Thomas Robinson; 2) may coax enigmatic KU point guard Tyshawn Taylor into committing needless turnovers; and 3) an up-and-down affair will expose Kansas’ lack of depth.

#6 Duke vs. Michigan State, 7 PM ET

How Duke wins: Feed the Plumlees early and often. For the first time since Shelden Williams or Josh McRoberts were in Durham, Duke will run their offense from the inside out this season. Coach K has said as much during preseason interviews. Although Miles Plumlee is turning heads during practices and Mason has the skill level of a future lottery pick, this change in philosophy is more out of necessity than choice. Losing Kyrie Irving, Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler has that kind of effect, but another factor is that Duke really only has one playmaker with the ball in his hands: freshman Austin Rivers. Seth Curry is saddled with point guard duties and Andre Dawkins is much more of stand-still shooter than capable penetrator. While Michigan State is fairly set on the perimeter with Keith Appling, impact transfer Brandon Wood and the 6’6” versatile Draymond Green, the Spartans frontcourt tandem of Derrick Nix and Adreian Payne have contributed close to nothing at the collegiate level yet. Nix has reportedly slimmed down this offseason and seems committed, but Duke should do everything in their power to exploit this mismatch by force-feeding Miles and Mason while either, or both, are on the floor.

How Michigan State wins: Duke can’t guard Draymond Green. Both of these teams will be adjusting early to losing key contributors, but Duke’s talent level is clearly superior at almost every position. Where the Spartans may be able to exploit Duke is utilizing Draymond Green whenever possible. Green is difficult enough to defend given his ability to operate anywhere on the floor, but Duke doesn’t have someone on their roster that matches up with State’s senior leader, especially if they employ a three-guard starting lineup of Curry/Rivers/Dawkins with 6’10” forward Ryan Kelly and the two Plumlees off the pine. Dawkins is two inches shorter than Green and a liability on the defensive end, Kelly doesn’t have the quickness or athleticism to contain Green off the dribble and the Plumlee are much more comfortable defending around the rim. If Duke goes cold from three and Green takes the first step towards an All-America senior season, Coach K’s wins record may have to wait.

Washington State at #21 Gonzaga, 12 AM ET:

How Washington State wins: Limit Robert Sacre. The Zags return guards David Stockton and Marquise Carter, but their real strength is down low with seven-footer Robert Sacre, breakout candidate Sam Dower, 6’11” Kelly Olynyk and versatile junior Elias Harris. The loss of Steven Gray leaves Gonzaga without a threatening outside shooting weapon, only increasing incentive to pound the post and cater their offensive sets around Sacre. The Cougars’ primary post defender DeAngelo Casto finished near the top of the Pac-10 in block percentage last season, but he went undrafted and is currently playing in Turkey, leaving the Cougars without any true post presence. It’s absolutely imperative that forward Brock Motum, along with JC transfer D.J. Shelton and seldom-used sophomore Patrick Simon, hold their own against Sacre, a center that relishes operating in the post. Olynyk, Dower and Harris are more face-up oriented, so if the Cougars collective post effort can limit Sacre, Wazzu will hang with the favored Bulldogs.

How Gonzaga wins: Guard the perimeter. Due to Casto’s early departure from Pullman, the Cougars are bereft of a reliable frontcourt scoring option. Especially early, Ken Bone will run most of his half-court sets for talented scorer Faisal Aden and backcourt partner Reggie Moore. Neither backcourt returnee is particularly lethal from beyond the arc, but Aden attempted 157 threes as a junior, while Moore shot a respectable 37% in limited attempts. One definitive weakness for the Zags last season was defending the trey. Gonzaga finished an ugly 297th in the country in three-point field goal defense, allowing opponents to make 36.9% of their long-range attempts. Mark Few’s squad holds a distinct advantage down low. Limit the three, especially out of Aden’s hands, and Gonzaga should cruise against a rebuilding Wazzu team sans Klay Thompson.

Robert Sacre should feast on a thin Wazzu frontline

Belmont at #14 Memphis, 12 PM ET:

How Belmont wins: Create turnovers. Belmont’s widely known for their suffocating full-court pressure and hockey line substitutions, a style that simply overwhelms Atlantic Sun opposition. The Bruins finished second in the nation last season in both forced turnover percentage and steal percentage. While the national-average bench uses 30.7% of a team’s available minutes, Belmont’s reserves play 44.4%. Unlike first round opponent Wisconsin and its super-stingy offense, Memphis may be the perfect upset partner. The Tigers employed four freshmen in their backcourt rotation and, predictably, turned the ball over at a remarkably high rate. Josh Pastner hopes that a year of maturity helps Joe Jackson, Will Barton, Antonio Barton and Chris Crawford make considerable strides being smart with the basketball, an important development if Memphis wishes to finish higher than fourth in Conference USA. They won’t face a bigger test on that front all season long than this tilt with an upset-minded Belmont squad.

How Memphis wins: Limit turnovers. Normally I try to find something different, but this matchup could not be more cut and dry. If Memphis’ young guards fumble the basketball and fold against Belmont’s press, an upset is entirely plausible, similar to a #13 seed knocking off a #4 seed in the NCAA Tournament. If Pastner’s young guns, notably Jackson, play with composure and poise, the Tigers vastly superior talent will eventually overwhelm the Bruins, especially at FedEx Forum. If Memphis gets to the point where they can set their offense in the halfcourt, Belmont doesn’t have anyone who can contain Tarik Black in the post or super frosh Adonis Thomas on the wing.

Northern Iowa at Saint Mary’s, 2 AM ET:

How Northern Iowa wins: Contain the Gaels 3-point attack. St. Mary’s loves shooting it from deep, especially in Moraga. Randy Bennett’s team led the WCC last season in three point attempts per field goal attempt and canned a remarkable 39.4% as a unit. Although 46% marksman Mickey McConnell is gone, there’s still an abundance of shooters lining Bennett’s roster and their philosophy won’t change. One of the major reasons Northern Iowa took a major step back last season was their inability to guard the perimeter. UNI opponents sunk 37.7% of attempted threes, which ranked a meager 318th in the country. St. Mary’s entire offense is predicated around getting their shooters open looks from three. If Northern Iowa doesn’t do a better job defending that shot than they fared a season ago, it’s going to be a long night (morning?).

How Saint Mary’s wins: Force turnovers. Northern Iowa wasn’t an exceptional offensive unit by any means in 2010-11, but indicative of a well-coached team, they ranked fourth in the nation in both turnover percentage and steal percentage, meaning they rarely ever wasted a possession without a shot going up. And while St. Mary’s isn’t exactly VMI, they are capable of playing at a faster tempo than the snail-like Panthers. Only five Divison I teams played at a slower adjusted tempo than UNI last year and Ben Jacobsen will be even more cautious early in the season as his team adjusts to playing without graduated floor general Kwadzo Ahelegbe.  If the Gaels can speed the game up and not allow the Panthers to dictate tempo, they’ll have success.

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