Cincinnati Win Gets AAC on the Board, Only Six Weeks Too Late

Posted by Bennet Hayes on December 18th, 2014

Let’s be clear: Cincinnati’s Wednesday night victory over San Diego State was very important for the Bearcats. Mick Cronin’s team was in urgent need of a quality victory, and it got one. But the Bearcats didn’t need the win nearly as badly as the American Athletic Conference. Before Cincy’s takedown of the Aztecs, the league’s best wins were over Wyoming, Dayton and Creighton. Let’s do that again: The league’s best wins were over Wyoming, Dayton and Creighton. Throw in Temple’s home victory over Louisiana Tech, and you VERY quickly have the entirety of the league’s victories over KenPom top-100 foes this season. Four top-100 wins, none over a team in the top 60 as of December 17. Conference USA, a league that nine of 11 AAC programs chose to leave of their own accord, has more than twice that number. More unflattering comparisons are available, but the point is already clear: The AAC is off to a disastrous start. For the sake of a league that once formed a significant portion of the Big East, San Diego State had to lose last night.

Winston Shepard Should Know: Troy Caupin's Bearcats, Not To Mention The Entire AAC, Needed Wednesday Night's Game Far Worse Than San Diego State Did

Winston Shepard Should Know: Troy Caupin’s Bearcats, Not To Mention The Entire AAC, Needed Wednesday Night’s Game Far Worse Than San Diego State Did (Photo: Aaron Doster, USA Today Sports)

As far as early resumes go, Cincinnati’s looks pretty good, especially after last night. The bad isn’t so bad (their two losses came away from home to Ole Miss and Nebraska), and the Bearcats now have an actual win of substance. Further non-conference profile-bolstering opportunities also lurk in upcoming matchups with VCU (home) and NC State (road). Whether the Bearcats are good enough to take advantage of those chances is another story. The match-up with the Aztecs was billed as a “first to 50 wins” type of deal, but Cincy actually got by the Aztecs with some sneakily stingy shooting – 17-of-21 from the line, 21-of-42 on two-point field goals, and 4-of-11 from three-point range. Out of character? Certainly. Completely unsustainable? We’ll see. Expect the Cincinnati defense to remain as fortified as ever (among the top 25 nationally in defensive efficiency over the past four seasons, 26th this season), so the offense won’t need to come in bunches for the Bearcats to keep winning games. Keep an eye on sophomore Troy Caupin – the better his Sean Kilpatrick imitation, the more games this team will win.

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Oregon Showing Signs of Life

Posted by Bennet Hayes on December 15th, 2014

It’s very much still football season for Oregon fans, but the basketball team offered Ducks’ faithful a reason Saturday night to also pay attention to them. While Marcus Mariota was busy accepting college football’s highest individual honor at the Heisman Trophy ceremony in New York City, Dana Altman’s band of Ducks was carving out their best win of the season against a solid Illinois team playing in its home state. The end result in Chicago – a 77-70 Oregon victory – had to generate minimal buzz back in Eugene (the school’s first Heisman winner casts a substantial shadow), but it represented an important first step for a young team. Nobody should expect the Ducks to become any more predictable than they have been over the course of an up-and-down first month of the season, but consider Oregon’s upside flashed. The good news is that in this year’s wide-open Pac 12 – a league with no proven teams outside of Arizona and Utah — a little potential might go a long way.

Joseph Young Is Known As A Scorer, But His 2014 Assist Rate Of 26.2 Also Reveals An Able And Willing Passer

Joseph Young Is Known As A Scorer, But His 2014 Assist Rate Of 26.2% Also Reveals An Able And Willing Passer

It’s always been about offense in Eugene. Whether discussing the gridiron or the hardwood, Oregon’s success has classically been predicated on dynamic offenses. The recipe should remain the same for the Ducks this season. They haven’t been terrible on the offensive end (51st nationally in offensive efficiency), but both Dana Altman and John Groce agreed that Saturday featured their crispest execution to date. Altman said that decisions to pass up good shots for great ones on three early second-half possessions set the tone for a selflessly efficient half of basketball. Joseph Young (who didn’t start due to a violation of team rules) garnered praise from Groce for his passing, while Dillon Brooks scored an effortless 24 points to lead the Ducks. The freshman will be a key player moving forward. Young is willing and able to shoulder the bulk of the offensive load, but finding a capable second option is imperative. Brooks has yet to display the consistency needed to fill that full-time role, but the stocky forward’s inside (10.1% offensive rebound percentage)-outside (45% three-point) game could make him a nice complement to a gunner like Young.

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Can Michigan Survive This Storm?

Posted by Bennet Hayes on December 10th, 2014

Last weekend was not a good weekend for John Beilein’s Michigan team. Most notable among the afflicting issues was a ground-shaking loss to NJIT, the biggest upset by point spread (NJIT was a 24.5-point underdog) in college basketball in over seven years. If that wasn’t bad enough, Oregon and Syracuse both lost convincingly at home, rendering the Wolverine’s two biggest wins of the young season that much smaller. It was about as traumatizing as a December weekend can get for a Big Ten team in the Top 25, but come Monday, it was only the pain of the weekend that was over. We found out on Tuesday night that the mini-nightmare was in fact just beginning when the Wolverines sputtered to 42 points and yet another embarrassing home loss, this time to Eastern Michigan. The second loss was the lowest point total submitted by a Michigan team since the season finale in Beilein’s first season at the helm. With many things clearly unsettled and a trip to #3 Arizona on tap for this weekend, the Wolverines find themselves at a crossroads. Will this unsightly string of four days prove to be nothing more than a surprising blip on the radar, or is it the first sign of a team incapable of matching the standard set by its recent predecessors?

After A Weekend Loss To NJIT, Caris LaVert And Michigan Didn't Think Things Could Get Any Worse. They Did On Tuesday.

After A Weekend Loss To NJIT, Caris LaVert And Michigan Didn’t Think Things Could Get Any Worse. They Did On Tuesday. (AP)

At some point, personnel losses have to take their toll. In the last two offseasons, Michigan has waved goodbye to all five players who took to the Georgia Dome floor for the opening tip of the 2013 National Championship game. Trek Burke, Nik Stauskas, Tim Hardaway, Glenn Robinson, Mitch McGary: all gone, all with eligibility to spare. That gives the Wolverines more early entrants in the last two drafts than any other program in America, Kentucky included. Caris LeVert, Zak Irvin and Derrick Walton currently form a nice perimeter-based nucleus for Beilein’s squad, but there isn’t a program in America that wouldn’t feel the effect of those unplanned defections.

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Iowa Feeling Good Again After Big Road Win at UNC

Posted by Bennet Hayes on December 4th, 2014

Albert Einstein once defined insanity as the act of “doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” Fans have called Fran McCaffery crazy before, but the way his Iowa team finished last season had to leave the Hawkeyes head man questioning his own sanity. After a 19-6 beginning to 2013-14, his team lost seven of its final eight games, and the lone win in that stretch came against Big Ten bottom-feeder Purdue. Time and time again, McCaffery sent out the same talented group that had racked up points and wins in bunches all the way through January, and time and time again they would retreat to the locker room defeated. The collapse came late enough so as not to prevent Iowa from making its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2006, but a bitter taste lingered. What happened to the Hawkeyes?

Mike Gesell (right), Adam Woodbury and Jared Uthoff All Played Key Roles In A Potentially Season-Shaping Win For The Hawkeyes Wednesday. (Photo Credit: AP)

Mike Gesell (right), Adam Woodbury and Jared Uthoff All Played Key Roles In A Potentially Season-Shaping Win For The Hawkeyes Wednesday. (Photo Credit: AP)

New seasons have a way of washing away the memories of the last one. Jubilant title runs dissolve into the tumult of the mixing and matching of a new group of players, while stinging too-soon-to-end Tournament stays are banished from memory banks by fast starts. The latter was supposed to be the case in Iowa City, where McCaffery returned another team talented enough to make some noise in the Big Ten. Unfinished business from last season was now finished; unanswered questions now irrelevant. This was a new band of Hawkeyes. And then the season started. Iowa dropped its only two games against reasonable competition in November, losing to Texas and Syracuse on back-to-back nights in New York. Sure, they handled their business elsewhere (5-0 in other games, but all against teams outside of KenPom’s top 125), but the doubts, the questioning – they were slowly creeping back. Even McCaffery and his team had to be wondering if there was just some very hidden fundamental flaw with the Iowa Hawkeyes.

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Is Kentucky’s Platoon System Built to Last?

Posted by Bennet Hayes on November 19th, 2014

John Calipari has been known to indulge in a bit of hyperbole from time to time, which forced most of us to take the preseason news of his installment of a hockey-style, 5-for-5 substitution system at Kentucky with a grain of salt. Super cool that you have a roster deep enough to float an idea like this, Coach Cal, but lets talk when actual games begin, okay? Impediments to wholesale substitution patterns go well beyond having a short roster. Foul trouble, injuries and varying match-ups are all reasons to maintain the classic flexibility of free substitutions. Even with a Kentucky roster overflowing with ability, this mindless platoon system Calipari was espousing seemed suboptimal at best and viciously exploitable at worst.

Waves Of Wildcats Wore Down Kansas On Tuesday Night

Waves Of Wildcats Wore Down Kansas On Tuesday Night (USA Today)

Or so the thinking went. After Kentucky walloped Kansas by 32 points in Tuesday night’s Champions Classic, it is suddenly evident that Calipari’s decision to eschew convention has the potential to pay massive dividends. At least for a night, there were no complaints about playing time. Rhythm remained steady as the units exchanged places, and both blue and white platoons played with the sort of boundless energy that Calipari dreamed this arrangement could foster. You could pull any five guys out of the Kentucky 10-deep and field a sufficiently scary basketball team, but the relentlessness of a long, athletic Wildcats front line was significantly magnified by the five-in, five-out waves that Kansas had to fight through all night. The Wildcats not only looked like the best team in the country on Tuesday night, but also a potentially unbeatable best team in the country.

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Preseason Questions: When Will Wichita State’s Regular Season Streak End?

Posted by Bennet Hayes on November 14th, 2014

On March 2, 2013, Wichita State and Creighton played a game initially notable for the fact that it would be the Jays’ final regular season game in the Missouri Valley Conference. Somewhere in the midst of Creighton rolling to a 12-point victory in Omaha, the contest became less about the Valley swan song and more about Doug McDermott, who poured in 41 points on 15-of-18 field goal shooting. At the time, it appeared to be a day to quickly forget for Gregg Marshall’s Shockers, and forget they did: Wichita State was playing in the Final Four just five weeks later. Fast-forward from that point more than 20 months, though, and that regular season finale has developed a new reason for recall – it’s the last regular season game Wichita State has lost. The Shockers will be sporting a 31-game regular season winning streak when they take to the Roundhouse floor tonight, where New Mexico State will be the latest opponent to have a crack at snapping the streak. Gregg Marshall’s team will face challenges this season that never afflicted last year’s team, but it returns a nucleus capable of maintaining an established lofty standard. So we ask: How good can these Shockers be, and exactly when will the regular season streak end?

How Long Can Ron Baker And Company Keep Winning?

How Long Can Ron Baker And The Shockers Keep Winning?

Wichita State will miss Cleanthony Early. List as many reasons as you want for the magical run of a season ago – Gregg Marshall’s coaching; utterly committed team defense; grinding offensive execution – but the Shockers also had the luxury of Early, a player with the athletic tools to dominate any game if needed. In 2013, Early’s 39-point explosion against Southern Illinois saved the Shockers from a near-upset at home. Last year at Indiana State, he scored 15 of his game-high 19 points in the second half to stave off the Shockers’ primary Valley challenger. And in that lone, season-ending loss of 2014, it was Early who matched Kentucky’s NBA talent shot-for-shot down the stretch, keeping the Shockers afloat. The current New York Knicks forward may not have been the most consistent Shocker during his two years in Wichita, but his athleticism and scoring ability made him a dynamic dimension that few college basketball teams – power conference or not – could lay claim to. Ron Baker, Fred VanVleet and Tekele Cotton will deservedly reel in plenty of acclaim this season, but for the myriad talents of that trio, none possess the game-breaking abilities of Early. This team will need to find its way without a take-over scorer.

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Welcome Back, College Basketball

Posted by Bennet Hayes on November 14th, 2014

At 8:00 AM local time today in Cheney, Washington, it will happen. A man will throw a basketball into the air, two other men will jump for it, and a new college basketball season will commence. Texas Southern and Eastern Washington will play a college basketball game that will almost definitely mean nothing, but they will be playing a college basketball game. Midnight Madness was fun and exhibition games offered a pleasant tease, but they’ll never leave you fully satisfied. It’s possible that a SWAC/Big Sky battle might also leave you wanting more, but that’s the beauty of today and beyond — more is on the way.

For The First Time Since This Moment On April 7, College Basketball Will Be In-Season

For The First Time Since This Moment On April 7, College Basketball Will Be In-Season (AP)

Shortly after things kick off in the Evergreen State, familiar faces – and familiar fun — will begin popping up all over the country. Shaka Smart and the gang will resume their HAVOC-wreaking ways in Annapolis against Tennessee. Duke can be found on an ESPN network (versus Presbyterian), while ACC rival Virginia will look to suffocate an intrastate foe (James Madison). National Player of the Year candidates will begin their campaigns: Marcus Paige in Chapel Hill (against North Carolina Central), Frank Kaminsky in Madison (versus Northern Kentucky), Jahlil Okafor in Durham. The game of the day features as many likely NCAA Tournament teams (2) as it does coaches with the last name Pitino, which I’ve heard is a fairly familiar surname in college basketball circles. It’s a beautifully inverted hibernation that begins anew today, as dozens more teams, coaches and players reappear for their winter stay in the collective eye of the nation.

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Preseason Questions: Does Louisville’s Departure Cripple the AAC?

Posted by Bennet Hayes on November 11th, 2014

By nearly any measure, the American Athletic Conference’s maiden voyage was a successful one. The odd new assemblage of schools that was the 2013-14 AAC sent four of its 10 members to the NCAA Tournament, and then UConn went out and won the whole damn thing. As a result, the one-year old AAC is currently the proud owner of more post-2000 national titles than the Big Ten and Pac-12 combined — who says a new conference can’t possess a little slice of history? The brilliant opening act was fun, but present and future prospects for the AAC have quickly turned murky. Much has changed in the six months since the Huskies cut down the nets in Arlington. Three new programs have joined the league — East Carolina, Tulsa, and Tulane – while two former league members – Rutgers and Louisville – have departed. The balance sheet of coming and going league members is laced with irrelevant basketball programs, with one massive exception – Louisville. Can a nascent and unsettled league survive the departure of one of college basketball’s premier programs?

Louisville's Move To The ACC? Should Be Fun For Pitino & Co., Less So For The American Athletic Conference. (Getty)

Louisville’s Move To The ACC? Should Be Fun For Pitino & Co., Less So For The American. (Getty)

If you’re wondering how Louisville is liking its new ACC digs, the answer – at least during this preseason – is very well, thank you. Six ACC squads populate KenPom’s preseason Top 25 (compared to just one from the AAC), including the Cardinals at a healthy No. 3. Identifying the ACC as tradition-laden is about as obvious as naming Michael Jordan an all-time great, but seeing conference-mates Duke, Virginia, North Carolina and Syracuse in the top 20 sends a message loud and clear: Welcome to the big time, Cards. Read the rest of this entry »

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Preseason Questions: Is Utah’s Delon Wright Ready For Stardom?

Posted by Bennet Hayes on November 7th, 2014

Many college basketball fans still may not know who Delon Wright is – he remains a trendy selection for the “criminally underrated” superlative – but 12 months ago, no college basketball fan knew who Delon Wright was. The younger brother of NBA veteran Dorell Wright was a late bloomer who garnered little recruiting attention out of high school. He was a more coveted quantity by the time his two years at the City College of San Francisco had expired, but even then, Wright arrived on Utah’s campus with little fanfare.

Delon Wright Was A Pleasant Surprise Last Year; Are Bigger Things In Store For The Utah Senior This Season?

Delon Wright Was A Pleasant Surprise Last Year; Are Bigger Things In Store For The Utah Senior This Season?

What a difference a year can make. The efficiency tour de force that was Wright’s first D-I season has turned him into a preseason contender for Pac-12 Player of the Year and made his team a good bet to crash its first NCAA Tournament in a half-decade. Utah was picked second in the Pac-12 preseason poll, and for the first time in a long time, there are real expectations in Salt Lake City. Whether those hopes are fulfilled will partially be decided by how stirring an encore (and finale) Wright can deliver. The now-senior was brilliant last season, but also disappeared for critical stretches of a Utah season that ended in the NIT. Fans crave a different sort of postseason this year, but a critical question has yet to be answered: Is Delon Wright ready for stardom?

Statistically speaking, Wright kept everyone happy last year. Old school per-game enthusiasts were satiated by a nightly average of 15.5 PPG/6.8 RPG/5.8 APG across the board, while efficiency hounds marveled at Wright’s disruptive defensive habits (4.0% steal percentage, 3.5% block percentage) and a squeaky clean 119.2 offensive rating. His efficient offense was propelled by an eye-popping 62 percent two-point field goal percentage, an outrageous rate of conversion for a guard from inside the arc. By contrast, Louisville’s preseason All-America big man Montrezl Harrell had 97 dunks a season ago and still failed to match Wright’s gaudy two-point range percentage.

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Win And They Will Come: ESPN’s College GameDay Finally Shifts to Flex Scheduling

Posted by Bennet Hayes (@hoopstraveler) on October 8th, 2014

While it’s doubtful we will bear witness to Katy Perry flinging corn dogs around Cameron Indoor Stadium this winter, the basketball spin-off of college football’s wildly popular College GameDay might finally gain a foothold of its own. The series is, at LONG last, moving to a flexible schedule that will allow the network to select the game and venue capable of supplying college basketball fans maximum intrigue. What’s more, Jay Williams and Seth Greenberg will join Rece Davis and Jay Bilas in a reconfigured lineup of on-air talent for the series. The duo should provide a welcome respite from the aimless rhetoric of Digger Phelps and Jalen Rose, the two men they will be replacing. GameDay has never felt like a requisite watch on winter Saturdays; might that begin to change in January 2015?

Seth Greenberg And Jay Williams Will Join The College GameDay Crew In 2015

Seth Greenberg And Jay Williams Will Join The College GameDay Crew In 2015

Last year’s slate of games actually played out nicely for the folks over at the Worldwide Leader, as even the sites saddled with underachieving hosts (Colorado, Oklahoma State) were accompanied by plenty of surrounding drama (thanks Marcus Smart!) when the crew came to town. In 2014, there were no trips to sub-.500 Missouri Valley schools (Southern Illinois, 2008), battles between SEC also-rans (Florida vs. Tennessee, 2009), or match-ups of NIT squads (Washington vs. Arizona, 2012). The flex schedule should ensure that none of the above – or anything remotely close to them – occurs in 2015, either. But the new schedule should do far more than simply ensure quality match-ups. Site selection now becomes something for fan bases to win each weekend; we’ve seen the fall travel itineraries of Chris Fowler and the football crew become a weekly news story as college towns battle for hosting rights. Basketball sites of years past have often failed to generate the local red carpet treatment afforded the football gang, but this new, more spontaneous selection process should have fans excited and cities better prepared to enjoy a weekend with GameDay.

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Digging Deeper Into ESPN’s Future Power Rankings

Posted by Bennet Hayes (@hoopstraveler) on September 16th, 2014

The 2014-15 college basketball season may be creeping ever closer, but the folks over at ESPN are already thinking well beyond Indianapolis and the 2015 Final Four. Last week, ESPN’s group of college basketball insiders released their take on what Top 25 polls could look like over the next three seasons in a column entitled “Future Power Rankings.” The panel evaluated and rated programs on a 1-10 scale in five different categories — Coaching, Current Talent, Recruiting, Program Power, and Stability — then pooled the results to extract a singular score (out of 100) for each program. Coaching, Current Talent and Recruiting each counted for 25% of that final tally, while Program Power made up another 15%. Stability counted for just 10%.

Rankings and lists may seem particularly interesting on the slog through these college basketball-less months, but the exercise in responding is the same now as it will be in January, February and March: We will always have our gripes. Highlighted below are a few of the more controversial decisions — some method-based, others result-oriented — that ESPN’s committee of experts produced.

Coach K Should Have Plenty Of Reasons To Keep Smiling; His Program Graded Out On Top In ESPN's Future Power Rankings

Coach K Should Have Plenty Of Reason To Keep Smiling, As His Program Graded Out On Top In ESPN’s Future Power Rankings

  • Redundancy Within Formula: In many ways, this list would have wound up more accurate, honest and interesting if the esteemed panel hadn’t been forced to break down each program into five components. The gimmicky, algorithmic path that they followed may offer more individual points of discussion (Is John Thompson III really that bad a coach? Is the power of Xavier’s program ACTUALLY significantly stronger than Villanova?) , but there’s significant overlap across many of the categories. The delineation between coaching and recruiting is often a difficult one — as Mike Francesa and John Calipari recently discussed — and stability also strongly correlates with a successful, entrenched head coach. In fact, save for Kentucky, every team in the top 10 of the rankings had a stability score that measured within four points of their coaching score (UK received a 98 for coaching and an 88 for stability). Looking elsewhere, recruiting and program power are another pair of categories with predictable overlap, as growth in either category inevitably fuels the other.

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RTC NBA Draft Profiles: Rodney Hood

Posted by Bennet Hayes on June 17th, 2014

nbadraftprofiles

The NBA Draft is scheduled for Thursday, June 26, in Brooklyn. As we have done for the last several years, RTC will provide comprehensive breakdowns of 20 collegians likely to hear their names called by Adam Silver at some point in the draft’s first round. We’ll start with prospects currently slated for the back half of the opening round, but as June progresses we will slowly work our way up and through the presumptive lottery selections. RTC National Columnist Bennet Hayes is tackling this series; you can find him on Twitter @HoopsTraveler.

Player Name: Rodney Hood

School: Duke

Height/Weight: 6’9”/210 lbs.

NBA Position: Shooting Guard/Small Forward

Projected Draft Range: Mid First Round

On The Journey From Duke To The NBA, Rodney Hood's Sweet Stroke Should Travel Well

On The Journey From Duke To The NBA, Rodney Hood’s Sweet Stroke Should Travel Well

Overview: It was Hood, not Jabari Parker, who was the Duke newcomer with the highest offensive rating last season (119.8 to Parker’s 111.7), and the Mississippi State transfer also doubled as the Blue Devils’ best perimeter defender to boot. The latter point may not be stating much on a team that finished 116th in defensive efficiency nationally, but Hood projects as a solid two-way player at the next level – something that may not necessarily be the case for his more-acclaimed former teammate. No, we aren’t starting a push for Hood to hear his name called before Parker’s on draft day, but the sophomore’s production to buzz ratio (the PTB?) clearly and quietly outdistanced that of Duke’s All-American. All year long, Hood showered in buckets from everywhere on the floor, shooting 49 percent from two-point range, 42 percent from three-point range, and 80 percent at the free throw stripe. He was also a capable ball-handler and passer for Coach K’s team (more assists than turnovers), and used his plus athleticism well enough on defense to earn Duke’s “Best Defensive Player Award” at the team banquet. His shooting touch may have eluded him at the most untimely of moments last season — he went just 2-of-10 from the field against Mercer in the Blue Devils’ shocking second round NCAA Tournament ouster — but Hood made quite the impression in his one and only season in Durham. He will almost surely be overshadowed by Parker one final time on draft night, but green room attendants should make room for two Dukies, because the 2014 lottery could very likely house both Hood and Parker.

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