On Northwestern: Difference Between a Tournament Team and Advancing…

Posted by Chris Hatfield on November 16th, 2017

Chris Collins spoke openly and often about leaving last season in the past. He, along with his team, wanted to move on. They talked about higher aspirations. If you believe those around the country, the ones that by and large picked Northwestern to finish as high as third in a deep Big Ten, those aspirations should include a second-weekend appearance in the NCAA Tournament. Yet in Northwestern’s first realistic test of the 2017-18 season, it looked a lot more like a team happy with its first career NCAA Tournament appearance last March than anything else. And if its 92-88 home defeat to Creighton on Wednesday night is any indication, there’s much work to be done. There’s a noted difference between teams that make the NCAA Tournament and the ones that progress in it. You can find that stark contrast in many spots from last night’s game. What does Northwestern want to be?

Northwestern Showed Some Elements of a Hangover Last Night (credit: Chicago Tribune)

You could start by looking at bench points because it told the story of the evening — 33 for Creighton and four for Northwestern. Collins lamented about his shortened bench, and he has a point. The departure of forward Sanjay Lumpkin from last season has been a big blow. It has so far loomed larger than once thought, given that his partial replacement in sophomore Aaron Falzon has been slowed by injury. Still, you know what happens to teams that advance in the NCAA Tournament? They have injuries. Players foul out. Others step up and fill voids. The answer usually isn’t four of five starters playing over 25 minutes. It typically can’t be and it wasn’t for Northwestern on Wednesday.

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Big Ten Opening Week: A Primer

Posted by Chris Hatfield on November 13th, 2017

Honestly, there’s not much good about winter as a season. If you live in a city like Chicago, for example, the only good thing about the cold is that college basketball has returned. That’s it. There is nothing else. Your face may freeze off outside but it’s a trade-off we have to make. What do you have to look forward to in the world of the Big Ten? Well, I’m glad you asked. Here are three things this week.

1. Duke vs. Michigan State, a Final Four Preview?

Two titans of the game set to go at it again this week. (Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY Sports)

This is the first thing that has to be addressed. I don’t make the rules. It just has to happen this way. It’s the biggest game of the opening week in college basketball and, in all likelihood, the biggest of the opening month. We know nothing about these teams. We think we know things. We know some things, but others are educated guesses. Things go awry, outliers exist — that’s why we love the sport. I’ll be 100 percent there for Rush the Court preseason All-Americans like Miles Bridges and Nick Ward on the Michigan State side and Grayson Allen and Marvin Bagley on Duke’s. Beyond that, it seems a little different than just an early season game. It’s difficult to imagine a scenario where either team falls off the top two seed lines. You’re looking at the two teams with arguably the most talent in the country, and we could easily see them match up again in San Antonio next April. Will Michigan State, the less proven of the two teams, be ready for the moment? If so, I’ll certainly feel better about picking Sparty to cut down the nets. Read the rest of this entry »

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Big Ten Preview Part VII: Key Questions for Minnesota & Michigan State

Posted by Chris Hatfield on November 10th, 2017

With the season almost here, Rush the Court’s Big Ten preview will tip off its coverage by posing season-defining key questions for each team. Today we address Minnesota and Michigan State.

#2 Minnesota – How will Richard Pitino handle elevated expectations?

Was Richard Pitino really on the hot seat last year? Maybe. After coming off an eight-win season the year prior, there was certainly pressure to be better. Just how much better is difficult to quantify, but it’s in the rear-view mirror now. The Gophers were improved, much improved last season, notching a 24-10 overall record (11-7 Big Ten) despite ending the season on a sour note with a First Round NCAA Tournament loss to Middle Tennessee State. Things are different now. Minnesota was picked to finish third in the Big Ten this preseason, is ranked 15th in the USA Today/Coaches Poll, and you would have to think making it past the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament is a reasonable expectation.

Amir Coffey has the chance to be special. (Geoff Burke/USA TODAY Sports)

Guard Amir Coffey — arguably the catalyst of the offense for the Gophers last year — could be the star. As a first-year starter, he ranked second on the team in scoring at 12.2 points per game while leading the team with a true shooting percentage of 55 percent. You would expect him to take another step forward this year. If that leap includes getting more shots right around the basket, that would be huge benefit for a Minnesota team that finished 77th in adjusted offensive efficiency last season. Freshman Isaiah Whitehead will join the fold and figures to impact things immediately as well. He’s a first-year talent the likes of which hasn’t been around Minneapolis for some time. Senior guard Nate Mason was voted preseason all Big-Ten along with inclusion on the Bob Cousy preseason watch list. All the pieces are in place for Pitino this season, but it will be for naught if Minnesota cannot adapt to the unfamiliar role of favorite. The head coach’s challenge will be ensuring that the Gophers are not overlooking teams and losing games they shouldn’t. Read the rest of this entry »

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How Will Archie Miller Fix Indiana’s Defense?

Posted by Chris Hatfield on November 8th, 2017

It’s no surprise that the Indiana faithful have been less than satisfied with the Hoosiers’ defense over the past few seasons. It’s well-documented. Indiana finished last year’s regular season giving up 75 points or more in four of its final five games, gave up more than 90 points over the course of the season a conference-worst five times, and gave up 79.6 points per game — second-worst in the Big Ten, behind only Iowa. However, there is some good news coming for folks in Bloomington. Give him some time and Archie Miller can fix that.

Archie Miller has his work cut out for him on the defensive end, but he has a track record that says he will. (Noah K. Murray/USA TODAY Sports)

Tom Crean experienced a number of extremes during his tenure at Indiana, and KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency ratings illustrate this perfectly. More often than not, his Hoosier defenses were below average. In the KenPom era (since 2002) Crean coached three top-30 defenses and eight sub-100 defenses. Archie Miller’s Dayton teams, on the other hand, have been both better defensive units as well as more consistent. In the last three seasons, the Flyers finished among the top 50 , as the table below shows. This is a significant metric because no National Championship team nor runner-up has finished outside that top 50. In most cases, the Final Four has also met that threshold. To put it a little simpler: Teams that make deep NCAA Tournament runs generally have strong defensive efficiency numbers to justify those runs. Miller has shown he can coach such units, while Crean rarely did.

Ken Pom’s Final Adjusted Defensive Efficiency Rankings

                        Archie Miller        Tom Crean

2014                72nd                      38th

   2015                30th                       200th

2016                15th                        59th

  2017                43rd                       104th

Average            40th                   100th
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Chicago Basketball Needs Chris Collins

Posted by Chris Hatfield on October 27th, 2017

Chris Collins probably has traces of Lake Michigan running through his blood. I mean, it wouldn’t be suprising. After all, the Northwestern head coach, once a Bulls ballboy, is about as Chicago as it gets. He’s also one of college basketball’s hottest names. In my view, the Wildcats and he are a heavenly pair. It just feels like it needs to be this way. “We are working hard every day to make this a program Chicago can be proud of,” Collins told the Northwestern fan base in a promo that aired a few days after he was hired.

Chris Collins and Chicago Wear Each Other Very Well (USA Today Images)

The city must protect him. He must protect his commitment. The fate of the known universe depends on it. Maybe that’s a bit excessive, but man, it’s quite important. It was more apparent than ever last season. Collins delivered Evanston what it hadn’t had in 78 years, not even once — an NCAA Tournament appearance. He then took it a step further. He actually won a game by defeating Vanderbilt in the First Round. After that, his Wildcats came within a few plays of defeating eventual national runner-up, Gonzaga.

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Despite Roiling Offseason, Louisville Basketball Will Be Just Fine

Posted by Chris Hatfield on October 26th, 2017

In some respects, the dust has settled. The terminations of Rick Pitino and athletic director Tom Jurich have been made. And now Louisville Basketball moves forward in a new world. The program won’t get the “death penalty.” Putting the basketballs away for an entire season (or more) just isn’t going to happen. Forget the fact that the NCAA continues to lose moral high ground (just get some good lawyers then watch morals go out the door), and remember that it hasn’t been used for over 30 years. It ain’t happening now. Eventually, the beat will drum on, maybe sooner then some think.

The Coaches of Louisville Past and Present Commiserate (USA Today Images)

Is there a precedent for what’s occurred within the program over the last two years? Well. A precedent for strippers in dorms, Wells Fargo transfers to pay for those strippers, a National Championship banner likely being stripped, the head man claiming to have zero knowledge of anything, and the cherry on top – a pay-for-play scheme? No, there’s not much precedent for that. It’s easy to forget, but wanna know a secret? Louisville still has a pretty good team this season.

KenPom ranks the Cardinals as the 16th best team in the Country and fourth in the ACC. Valid questions will be asked about interim head coach David Padgett. How much of his style will be implemented? How much even can be? How will he react to actual game pressure? Can he even manage a game? Yet, the team’s’ talent speaks volumes. The frontcourt, led by the length of Anas Mahmoud and Ray Spalding, was rated the ninth-best in the country by Rob Dauster at NBC Sports. VJ King and Deng Adel on the wings may be one of the most underrated one-two scoring punches in the country. Even without the services of Brian Bowen, there is still a lot of talent on the roster. It’s doubtful that the NCAA will move fast enough to affect the Cards this season, and the university has expressed little interest in self-imposing again (why would it?). Expect Louisville to be a factor in ACC play as well as when March rolls around.

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