ACC Burning Questions: Clemson Tigers

Posted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on October 27th, 2017

This team preview is part of the RTC ACC microsite’s preseason coverage.

Burning Question: Does Brad Brownell need to reach the NCAA Tournament this season to keep his job?

It’s rare for ACC coaches to survive a stretch of five consecutive years not making the NCAA Tournament, but in a move that surprised many observers, Clemson head coach Brad Brownell was asked to return for another season after missing the Big Dance for the sixth year in a row. This looks like it will be another hot-seat kind of year for the beleaguered coach as he tries to finally get his Tigers over the hump.

Brad Brownell returns for his eighth season at Clemson despite not making the NCAA Tournament for the last six years. (AP Photo)

Star Jaron Blossomgame has departed, but there is a strong veteran nucleus intact. Leading the way is a trio of former transfers who are now in their third year with the program. Two of those players make up one of the most underrated backcourts in the league — point guard Shelton Mitchell and wing Marcquise Reed. Mitchell began his career at Vanderbilt and was slightly hampered by a knee injury going into his redshirt sophomore year; still, he led the team in assists (103) and was the Tigers’ second leading scorer at 10.8 points per game. His running mate Reed was a conference Rookie of the Year at Robert Morris before making the jump to  the ACC. Some wondered how he would handle the higher level of competition, but the sweet-shooting guard proved he belonged with a 115.3 offensive rating and a solid scoring average (10.0 PPG) off the bench. Both Mitchell (45.3% 3FG) and Reed (40.2% 3FG) are capable shooters from deep. The third impact transfer from a year ago, 6’9″ Elijah Thomas, figures to be the Tigers’ best big man this season. After joining the team last December, he became a key defensive cog in Brownell’s system, where he was was a good shot-blocker (7.5% block rate) and demonstrated active hands (2.5% steal rate) on the front line. Yet another transfer, 6’8″ junior David Skara, joins the Tigers after a redshirt year. Skara had a fairly significant role as a sophomore in a good mid-major program, Valparaiso, in averaging 6.5 PPG. Read the rest of this entry »

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Several Takeaways From ACC Operation Basketball

Posted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on October 27th, 2017

We attended ACC Operation Basketball in Charlotte this week (links to the coaches’ and players’ press conferences can be found here). In addition to hearing from coaches and players from all 15 league schools, ACC commissioner John Swofford delivered his annual state of the league address. In this post we present some of the primary takeaways and interesting quotes we observed and heard over the course of the day. At the bottom of the post we also present the preseason award results as voted on by participating media.

LOOKING FOR SOLUTIONS TO COLLEGE BASKETBALL’S PROBLEMS

Wednesday in Charlotte, ACC Commissioner John Swofford discussed the conference’s role in addressing the current issues facing college basketball. (USA Today Images)

Swofford spent much of his 45-minute forum on Wednesday discussing the current state of college basketball in light of the recent FBI probe into the sport. The longtime commissioner has always been cautious and guarded with his words in public venues, and accordingly — instead of offering headline grabbing suggestions to fix the college game — he opted to take the position of gathering more information before taking a stance. Swofford correspondingly announced that the league is forming a five-member task force to be headed by former Virginia athletic director Craig Littlepage. The goal of the group will be to make recommendations to the recently formed NCAA commission, chaired by Condoleezza Rice, that is tasked with finding solutions to the myriad problems exposed by the federal investigation.

When asked for his personal opinion on two low-hanging fruits regarding immediate change, Swofford indicated that he would like to see the one-and-done rule disappear and would be interested in exploring something similar to the college baseball model that forces a decision on professional or collegiate tracks coming out of high school. Both proposals would do little to fix the problems facing college basketball right now — if the top 15 high school seniors went straight to the NBA, then the players ranked #16 through #30 would then become the prime targets for rogue shoe company representatives and agents. So, what’s the difference? As for considering the college baseball model, why don’t we instead worry about creating something that works specifically for college basketball? From the monumental amounts of money involved to the way the entire recruiting structure works, there’s very little in common between those two sports.

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ACC Burning Questions: Pittsburgh Panthers

Posted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on October 24th, 2017

This team preview is part of the RTC ACC microsite’s preseason coverage.

Burning Question: Can Pittsburgh avoid the ACC basement?

After suffering an inordinate number of player defections last spring, Pittsburgh head coach Kevin Stallings is now left with only two players who scored in a game last year — and that pair combined to produce a grand total of only 179 points all season. The Panthers finished the year with a 15-16 record, the first losing mark for the program in nearly two decades (1999-2000). It’s difficult to be overly optimistic about this squad either, a group that will almost certainly be picked near the bottom of the league. For some measure of hope, Stallings can look to the achievement of Josh Pastner at Georgia Tech just one season ago. Pastner’s first team in Atlanta likewise featured no returning starters and an unheralded crop of newcomers, but somehow, he turned that bunch into a surprising bubble team by the end of the year. Those Yellow Jackets featured a former role player who became an all-ACC caliber center (Ben Lammers) and a rookie (Josh Ogogie) who well surpassed his high school ranking. For Pitt to pull off that kind of season in Stallings’ second year at the helm, it will need to find similar production from several unexpected sources.

Pittsburgh needs Ryan Luther to make a big leap in production as a senior (Pittsburghsportsnow.com)

Of the Panthers’ two returning scholarship players, only one has the potential for a breakout senior year. Forward Ryan Luther has battled through some injuries —  he missed 12 ACC games last year with a stress fracture — but he has also shown a number of spurts of good play. The 6’9″ Pennsylvania native has contributed nine career double-figure scoring games and has proven to be a capable rebounder and defender — with greater usage, he could easily double last year’s season averages of 5.7 PPG and 3.9 RPG. The other holdover from last year, guard Jonathan Milligan, has not yet proven that he can play at this level — he went a ghastly 29 percent from the field in 27 games last season. Stallings also added another experienced player via the graduate transfer route in small forward Monty Boykins (Lafayette), who missed all of last year with an injury. But don’t expect the newcomer to add much — in 2015-16, Boykins posted just a 91.3 offensive rating for a terrible (6-24) low major team. Read the rest of this entry »

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ACC Offseason Storylines: FBI Brings the Hammer to Louisville and Miami

Posted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on October 17th, 2017

We are now a little over three weeks away from opening night in college basketball, so it’s time to start our preseason coverage here at the ACC microsite. Over the next several weeks we will preview the fortunes of all 15 ACC schools by projecting how each squad will maximize its strengths and mitigate its weaknesses, and we will also be reporting from ACC Operation Basketball in Charlotte later this month. But first, let’s catch up on a few of the most important storylines in the ACC since North Carolina captured its sixth NCAA Championship in Glendale last April.

FBI Case Rocks the College Basketball World

Louisville’s Rick Pitino became the first major casualty of the FBI Investigation into College Hoops Recruiting. (Getty Images)

On September 26, we learned in a dramatic morning announcement that even the NCAA was not aware of that the FBI has been investigating the college basketball recruiting scene. Four NCAA assistant coaches were charged with accepting bribes to steer players to pro agents and/or financial advisors, while six other individuals were also arrested, including several Adidas employees who were accused of arranging cash payouts for recruits and their families as incentives to join their sponsored college programs. Two of the schools involved are ACC members Louisville and Miami.

As soon as the FBI news broke and the Louisville program was implicated in the report, pressure immediately began mounting on head coach Rick Pitino and athletic director Tom Jurich. By the next morning, we knew that neither luminary would survive this scandal, the latest in a string of sordid revelations involving the program. Pitino was officially fired yesterday. Understandably, the university could not tolerate further violations and embarrassments in the midst of a probation currently being served for 2015’s stripper scandal. Even more damning for Pitino is news that his voice is allegedly on an FBI tape as a direct participant in the pay-for-play scheme. Two Cardinals’ assistants have also been placed on administrative leave, leaving former Louisville player David Padgett to pick up the pieces this season as the school’s interim head coach. It wouldn’t surprise anyone to see the school try to get out in front of the NCAA’s inevitable return to campus with another round of self-imposed penalties that includes a postseason ban.

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ACC Offseason Storylines to Follow

Posted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on April 28th, 2017

Now that we are back in the midst of the long offseason, it’s time to look at some key ACC storylines to keep an eye on in coming months.

NCAA Punishments (Maybe): Rinse – Recycle – Repeat! This has become an annual bullet point on the ACC offseason storyline list, but maybe it will be the last time we have to include it pertaining to North Carolina and Louisville. The North Carolina academic scandal investigation — which has now dragged on for nearly half a decade — may finally be moving toward a conclusion. Despite the best efforts of UNC’s Four Corners stalling strategy, a recent letter from NCAA infractions committee chairman Greg Sankey indicated that a hearing has been scheduled for mid-August. Still, as we are all aware given the prolonged nature of this case, nothing has proceeded at more than a snail’s pace to this point.

Rick Pitino and Louisville are still waiting on the NCAA to rule on the school’s 2015 stripper scandal. (Jamie Rhodes – USA TODAY Sports)

Louisville’s stripper scandal is a much less complicated case so it seems to be closer to a resolution. The school recently held its own hearing with the NCAA infractions committee and a commonly held belief is that the NCAA will have its final answer on penalties in about two months. The school’s argument that Rick Pitino should not be charged with failure to monitor his assistant coach has already been rejected by the NCAA, so barring a late reprieve, expect the Cardinals’ head coach to serve a suspension at some point next season.

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2016-17 ACC Year In Review

Posted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on April 21st, 2017

As with any college basketball season, the ACC experienced its ups and downs during the 2016-17 campaign. The obvious highlight was North Carolina capturing its sixth National Championship — the 14th time an ACC school has won the grand prize. Despite Duke’s late push in the ACC Tournament, the Tar Heels were the league’s best and most consistent team for nearly the entire season, winning the regular season conference race by two games in a historically competitive year. The league as a whole put a conference-record nine teams in the NCAA Tournament this season, but spoiled that accomplishment by laying a giant first weekend egg in the Big Dance. After placing 11 teams in the Sweet Sixteen over the previous two years, the Tar Heels were the only ACC representative this time around. Here’s a final look at some of the highs and lows of ACC basketball this season.

Roy Williams became the sixth head coach in NCAA history with three or more National Championships.
(Getty Images)

Best Performance: By capturing this year’s National Championship, North Carolina earned some redemption after losing one year ago on a Villanova buzzer-beater for the ages. The Heels did so with a potent combination of talent and experience, featuring three seniors and three juniors among their top six players. On the talent side, consider that five of the 15 remaining McDonald’s All-Americans from the 2013 and 2014 classes were in North Carolina’s starting lineup this season. This North Carolina team is not one of the greatest teams in school history, but its NCAA Tournament run proved Roy Williams’ club will be regarded as one of the toughest. The Tar Heels twice came back from late five-point deficits during the first two weekends (Arkansas and Kentucky), and both Final Four games against Oregon and Gonzaga were tight until the last few possessions. In keeping with its core strengths, North Carolina used its abilities in offensive rebounding and ball security to to beat the Ducks and Zags. John Gasaway calls the concept shot volume, as the Tar Heels were able to get 10 more shot attempts than Oregon and 14 more than Gonzaga. Williams, with his ninth Final Four appearance (fourth-best ever) and third National Championship, must now be considered one of greatest college coaches of all-time. His critics can no longer claim that he’s just been fortunate to have so much talent on his rosters. If talent is all that is required, then why aren’t Arizona and Kansas making more Final Fours? Why doesn’t John Calipari have three titles? It’s just not that easy.

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On Improving the NCAA Tourney: Part II

Posted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on March 31st, 2017

This is the second edition of our two-part look at ways to improve the overall structure of the NCAA Tournament. In our Part I piece published earlier this week, we made several recommendations concerning the selection and seeding of the 68 teams in the annual field. Today we will focus on improving the bracketing process. Over the years, the Selection Committee has endeavored to better balance the bracket while easing travel burdens on participating schools’ players and fans. Examples of these modifications include the current “pod” system for the first two rounds; ranking the four top overall seeds so that the top two teams are on opposite sides of the bracket; and, easing the restrictions on where schools from the same conference can be placed in the bracket. Since the last change was implemented, the committee claims that it has not needed to swap any teams off their true seed line. We think there is also an opportunity for further adjustments to that process, including one that is relatively simple and involves future tournament sites.

Black Stars – First/Second Round Sites (2015-17)
Blue Stars – Regional Sites (2015-17)

Go West Young Men — Just Not So Often

Our top suggestion deals with the issue of geographic balance. NCAA member schools’ presidents and chancellors have mandated that the Selection Committee consider traveling distance a priority when placing teams into each season’s bracket. But the committee is somewhat handicapped by the previously established locations that they have available for those placements. In the image above, we can see all of the regional sites for the last three NCAA Tournaments. In almost every year since the NCAA Tournament expanded to a full six-round event in 1985, the western region of the country has hosted two First/Second round sites plus a regional championship. To put it in mathematical terms, 25 percent of the NCAA Tournament prior to the Final Four is typically played in the Pacific and Mountain time zones. Yet, only 19 percent (six of 32) of the nation’s conferences are primarily located in those two zones — and that’s giving full western credit to the WAC even though three of its eight schools are actually in the Central time zone.

Similarly, only about 17 percent of all Division I schools reside in those two time zones. By moving one of those western sites to another part of the country each year, the NCAA Tournament would become much more representative of its membership in a geographic sense. The recommendation here is to only move one of the First/Second round locations out of the west — keeping the regional round located there for the sake of broader balance. As for where to relocate that site, the mid- to deep south needs more representation. Most of the major basketball conferences — the ACC, Big East, Big Ten and Big 12 — have plenty of viable nearby options in most years, but that’s not always the case for SEC schools. It’s not just about the big boys, though — there are a lot more mid-to-lower tier Division I schools that would have improved travel situations as well. There are plenty of options available in this region — cities with NBA arenas like New Orleans, Memphis, Atlanta, Nashville, Orlando and Miami.

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On Improving the NCAA Tourney: Part I

Posted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on March 28th, 2017

Last June the National Association of Basketball Coaches (NABC) empaneled an ad hoc committee whose stated purpose was to provide the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Selection Committee a perspective from men’s basketball coaches and their teams regarding selection, seeding and bracketing for the NCAA Tournament. The NCAA has in recent years become increasingly receptive to considering and making changes, and as this year’s event reaches its climax, we decided to offer some specific recommendations to bolster the best three weeks in sports. Let’s focus today on improvements to the selection and seeding process.

John Calipari is one of the members of the recently created NABC ad hoc committee formed to make recommendations to the NCAA Selection Committee. (Kevin Jairaj / USA TODAY Sports)

John Calipari is one of the members of the recently created NABC ad hoc committee formed to make recommendations to the NCAA Selection Committee. (Kevin Jairaj/USA TODAY Sports)

Bye Bye, RPI

Whenever the subject arises of improving the primary metric that the Selection Committee uses, there is one recurring response: Either dump the RPI altogether, or dramatically limit its influence. The good news is that we may finally be headed in that direction. A month after the NABC formed its committee and began communicating with the NCAA, the following statement was made as part of an update on the current NCAA Selection Committee:

The basketball committee supported in concept revising the current ranking system utilized in the selection and seeding process, and will work collaboratively with select members of the NABC ad hoc group to study a potentially more effective composite ranking system for possible implementation no earlier than the 2017-18 season.

Moving away from the RPI as the primary method for sorting teams into composite tiers would be a huge step toward improving the balance of the field. We have heard committee members for years make the point that a school’s RPI ranking is just one factor of many on its resume. But then the same committee members turn right around and cite that team’s record against the top-50 or top-100 — or its strength of schedule rating — all of which, of course, are derivative of the RPI. That means that the outdated metric is still, even now in an environment of Big Data, a highly significant influence on how teams are judged. The real harm occurs when the RPI results in entire conferences being overrated, which leads to those member institutions likewise being over-seeded. Placing five to seven teams well above their proper seed lines can have a substantial negative impact on the overall balance and corresponding fairness of the entire NCAA Tournament. Here are three recent examples.

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Rushed Reactions: #7 South Carolina 88, #2 Duke 81

Posted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on March 19th, 2017

RTC will be providing coverage of the NCAA Tournament from start to finish. Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) is in Greenville this weekend.

Celebrate Rakym Felder, you and your teammates just made school history. (Getty)

Three Key Takeaways.

  1. After a terrible offensive performance in the first half, South Carolina had another second half explosion. It was a repeat of Friday’s win over Marquette when it scored 54 second half points. Despite holding Duke to 30 points in 33 first half possessions, the Gamecocks were still down seven at the break because they shot 20 percent from the floor. But the change of baskets after intermission did wonders for the South Carolina aim. They connected on 20 of their 28 shots in the second stanza for 71.4 percent shooting. Additionally, the Gamecocks were great at the foul line–icing the game away by making 21-of-23 from the stripe in the second half. South Carolina put up 65 points after intermission in a complete turnaround that propelled the Gamecocks to victory.
  2. Overall, South Carolina did a great job containing Duke’s explosive offense. The Blue Devils looked rattled for much of the first half, committing 13 turnovers. About midway through the opening stanza Frank Martin went to a zone, which stood up the Duke offense and forced many of those miscues. It was more of the same after the break. For the game, South Carolina forced Duke into 18 turnovers and 41.5 percent field goal shooting. The result: South Carolina held one of the nation’s best offenses to 1.07 points per possession and the preseason #1 ranked Blue Devils end the year in disappointing fashion.
  3. Sindarius Thornwell is a bona fide stud. Earlier in the week, Mike Krzyzewski called him one of the nation’s least known great players. Maybe America will know who he is now as the senior forward displayed his versatility on both ends of the floor. He finished with a game-high 24 points, six rebounds and five assists. Thornwell, a member of the SEC All-Defensive Team, also deserves praise for his work against Duke’s star Luke Kennard. He was a primary reason that Kennard finished with just 11 points on 1-of-6 shooting from the field. And there’s no question that his play raises the level of his teammates’ confidence as well.

Player of the Game. Sindarius Thornwell. See Above! Read the rest of this entry »

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Rushed Reactions: #1 North Carolina 72, #8 Arkansas 65

Posted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on March 19th, 2017

RTC will be providing coverage of the NCAA Tournament from start to finish. Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) is in Greenville this weekend.

Roy Williams leads North Carolina back to the Sweet 16 for the ninth time in his 14 years at the helm. (Lance King/wralsportsfan.com)

Three Key Takeaways.

  1. What a turnaround we had. After the first 16 minutes of action North Carolina was in complete control of the game or so it seemed. The Tar Heels built a 17-point lead by dominating Arkansas on the defensive end of the floor as the Razorbacks committed 10 turnovers and were shooting close to 25 percent from the floor with four minutes before intermission. Suddenly things changed dramatically and Arkansas closed the half on a 16-6 run. That momentum carried over into the second half as Arkansas surged past the Tar Heels before North Carolina rallied to win a game that it appeared to have in the bag long before. With the game in the balance the Tar Heel defense came up big again as Arkansas failed to score on its last five possessions.
  2. For some reason, this North Carolina team doesn’t finish games very well away from home. For most of the year the Tar Heels have struggled to beat good teams when they aren’t playing in the Smith Center, which is surprising for such a veteran team. Fortunately for Roy Williams, they managed to make enough plays to win a tight game tonight, but the way they almost melted down is still concerning. As Arkansas made its comeback, the Hogs were greatly aided by the Tar Heels’ sloppy play – 10 second half turnovers that became 17 Arkansas points. Perhaps this year’s North Carolina team misses the steadying influence of departed guard Marcus Paige. As the competition improves, the Tar Heels must be a better 40-minute team to make it to Phoenix.
  3. Arkansas shot well enough to win after a slow start. To have a chance to upset the Tar Heels, Arkansas needed to have an effective shooting night from the perimeter. That was certainly not the case early as the Razorbacks clanked their first five shots from deep. But after that cold beginning, they heated up considerably – making eight of their next 13 from behind the arc and ended the night at 38.1 percent on three-pointers. JUCO transfer Daryl Macon led the Arkansas shooting comeback, coming off the bench to make 3-of-5 from behind the arc.

Player of the Game. Kennedy Meeks, North Carolina. The Tar Heels’ senior center led his team with 16 points and collected a game-high 11 boards. His putback basket in the last minute gave his team a three-point lead and basically clinched the game. Meeks was also instrumental to North Carolina’s defensive effort, blocking three shots and helping to hold Moses Kingsley to 4-of-12 shooting. Read the rest of this entry »

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