Key Stretch for Surprising Oklahoma Begins Tonight

Posted by Brian Goodman on December 21st, 2018

One of these days, people will learn to stop doubting Oklahoma head coach Lon Kruger. Full disclosure: that includes me, but in my defense, my skepticism of the Sooners coming into this year was justified. They struggled horrifically on defense all last season, and it wasn’t just Trae Young. The Sooners routinely got outhustled on the glass, and at a time when spacing and three-point shooting skyrocketed, Oklahoma didn’t apply enough pressure to consistently force turnovers or lock down the three-point line. They memorably beat Kansas by hacking Udoka Azubuike instead of defending him straight-up, and while it was a savvy and winning move, it also highlighted the team’s serious half-court weaknesses. On offense, we all saw how lost the Sooners were on the few possessions where Young wasn’t involved, and Kruger didn’t do himself any favors by pulling in the Big 12’s worst recruiting class. While players can get better, the league’s coaches pegged Oklahoma to finish eighth in the Big 12 during the preseason. All the Sooners have done since is go 10-1 against one of the country’s best non-league slates, with highlights like neutral-court wins over Florida and Notre Dame with a healthy Rex Pflueger and some solid if not overwhelming wins in true road environments.

Overlook Lon Kruger’s Team at Your Peril (USA Today Images)

The key to Oklahoma’s fast start has been its defense. The Sooners aren’t guarding the perimeter especially well or forcing a bunch of turnovers, but what they have done is make every shot a chore. Oklahoma’s defense ranks 15th nationally in eFG% (43.3%), fourth in field-goal percentage on shots at the rim (48.3%), and seventh in free throw rate (22.8%). To lead the way, Jamuni McNeace has developed into one of the Big 12’s best rim protectors, and sophomore Brady Manek has made some big strides as well. On top of their contributions, Christian James has crashed the glass like a man possessed, averaging 12.5 rebounds over his last four games (after averaging just 3.4 over his first seven). Though some of that can be tied to McNeace missing two games with a right ankle sprain from which he still hasn’t fully recovered, James has elevated his defense to complement his offensive improvement, making make him more of a two-way threat.

While OU’s improved defense has paced the team’s fast start, its offense hasn’t always been as good. Quality three-point shooting and ball control have carried the flag on its best nights, but consistency has been fleeting. Tonight’s game at Northwestern (7:00 PM, BTN) begins an insanely tough stretch for this group. Following a 12-day break, the Sooners will go back on the road to face #1 Kansas at Allen Fieldhouse. A visit from Oklahoma State should bring a reprieve, but next comes a January 8 date with Texas Tech in Lubbock. That’s three tilts against top-30 defenses, including two of the top six, and none of those matchups will take place in the warm confines of the Lloyd Noble Center.

A look at last month’s Battle 4 Atlantis provides something of a benchmark for how Oklahoma has fared against top-flight defenses, and it wasn’t a pretty picture. Against Florida (ninth nationally), Oklahoma scored just 0.94 points per possession even though it won 65-60 by tightening up even more than the Gators did. They weren’t so fortunate the next day against the 11th-ranked Wisconsin defense, though, losing by 20. Even if the Sooners come up short in their upcoming stretch of difficult games, they’ll be in much better shape than the industry predicted at the start of the season. Bag a couple more big wins, though, and the college basketball world will have to start thinking about Oklahoma as more than a run-of-the-mill at-large team.

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How Bad is Bad? Evaluating the Pac-12

Posted by Adam Butler on December 21st, 2018

During Wednesday evening’s broadcast of the Arizona-Montana game, Bill Walton, while simultaneously running the math for plates on the bench press and waxing poetic about his morning in Utah and evening in Tucson, noted, “This will be a most competitive conference.” I paraphrase; however, the gist remains: Walton was celebrating many of the Pac-12’s teams. He’s a known, if not unapologetic, champion of the Conference of Champions, and was not soon to bash it as many of us have lamented. But regardless of the Big Redhead’s admonitions, this year is looking BAD.  

Is Oregon the Best Worst Team in High-Major Basketball? (USA Today Images)

This is a conference not all that far removed from one of the worst conference performances ever. In 2012, the inaugural Pac-12 season, Washington won the conference regular season, lost in the first round of the Pac-12 Tournament, and was summarily dismissed by the NCAA Tournament committee on Selection Sunday. The Pac that year owned nine top-100 KenPom teams (zero among the top 25) and two teams that were rated in the 300s. Just two of those teams danced, including a 23-11 Colorado team that entered the Pac-12 Tournament rated 96th by KenPom yet earned the Pac-12 auto-bid by defeating Arizona in an ugly 53-51 championship game.

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Michigan Continues Rolling Despite Key Personnel Losses

Posted by Ryan O'Neil on December 18th, 2018

Michigan’s Ignas Brazdeikis Has Been a Huge Surprise (USA Today Images)

Michigan is just 11 games into the season but this is already turning out to be John Beilein’s magnum opus. It was reasonable to expect that the Wolverines would take a step back from last season’s national runner-up performance, but Michigan — fueled by an elite defense (third nationally, per KenPom) — has just continued chugging along. A team that lost three starters has already locked up a trio of top-15 offenses (Villanova, North Carolina and Purdue), and when necessary, has also shown that it can dictate tempo. In the Wolverines’ ACC/Big Ten Challenge win over the Tar Heels last month, Michigan struggled with the pace of the game early until settling down and holding the Heels to just 46 points over the final 33 minutes.

Some of Michigan’s defensive success is attributable to how the Wolverines defend ball screens. Beilein teaches his players to “surf” ball screens, where the guard gets over the screen while the big man forces the ball-handler to move sideways or retreat. But the most vital part of any ball-screen defense comes with off-ball rotations, and the Wolverines are particularly adept at rotating and guarding in mismatches. Long and athletic players like Ignas Brazdeikis, Charles Matthews and Jordan Poole give Beilein great defensive versatility: all three can guard the wing, and Matthews and Brazdeikis in particular can defend the post too. Jon Teske has also developed into a defensive force; the anchor in the post has already logged four games this season in which he has recorded three or more blocks.

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Big 12 Reset: Halfway Through the Non-Conference Slate

Posted by Brian Goodman on December 3rd, 2018

As we round the corner on the halfway mark of non-conference play, I can’t say I’ve been overwhelmed yet by the Big 12’s performance. Maybe that’s more of a testament to the league’s sterling performance over the last few years, but it’s the case nonetheless. There are certainly some things to be optimistic about, like Kansas’ unblemished 6-0 record despite not yet playing to its talent level, Texas Tech not just treading water but perhaps being better than last season’s group, and Iowa State and Oklahoma outperforming preseason projections. But there are some pockmarks around the league, too. Baylor looks completely dreadful even through the lens of what was expected, Texas’ offense has run hot and cold, and Kansas State was embarrassed over the weekend in its biggest test of non-league play. The metrics still show that this is the best conference in the land, but the eye test to date hasn’t always reflected it.

Lagerald Vick’s Big Three on Saturday Saved the Jayhawks (USA Today Images)

  1. Where would Kansas be without Lagerald Vick? Just six months ago, Lagerald Vick and Bill Self didn’t want any part of each other, but things have worked out wonderfully since. Put simply, the senior shooting guard looks like a completely different player. He’s embraced and delivered on key opportunities when other players haven’t and he’s playing with a looseness that was missing during his first three years. You can point to at least two games already this season that the Jayhawks would not have won without Vick getting hot, and his 59.6 percent on three-point shooting ranks 14th nationally (and first among high-volume shooters). His incredible outside shooting is bound over time to regress to the mean, but it’s hard to say enough about his hot start.
  2. Texas Tech is absolutely rolling. The Red Raiders didn’t assemble the intense non-conference slate that Kansas did this season, but Chris Beard’s team already looks fantastic in the early going. Texas Tech is undefeated at 7-0 — with their closest win coming by 11 points — and role players like Tariq Owens, Matt Mooney and Brandone Francis have been very supportive on the few nights where Jarrett Culver hasn’t been fully engaged. What sticks out most when watching the Red Raiders play is how well Beard has scouted his opponents. His team also plays with a chip on its shoulder, which makes sense when you remember how lightly several of the players on the team were recruited. Texas Tech’s meeting with Duke on December 20 is still a few weeks away, but it has a chance to be one of the best games of the season. Read the rest of this entry »
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Overnight 5: 11.13.18 Edition

Posted by rtmsf on November 13th, 2018

Can’t guarantee that we’re going to do this every night this season — questions of sustainability and all that — but let’s try this to see what happens. From over the weekend…

 

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Overnight 5: 11.07.18 Edition

Posted by rtmsf on November 8th, 2018

Can’t guarantee that we’re going to do this every night this season — questions of sustainability and all that — but let’s try this to see what happens. From Wednesday night:

 

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Overnight 5: Opening Night Edition

Posted by rtmsf on November 7th, 2018

Can’t guarantee that we’re going to do this every night this season — questions of sustainability and all that — but let’s try this to see what happens. From Opening Night:

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Where 2018-19 Happens: Reason #1 We Love College Basketball

Posted by rtmsf on November 6th, 2018

As RTC heads into its 12th season covering college hoops, it’s time to begin releasing our annual compendium of YouTube clips that we like to call Thirty Reasons We Love College Basketball. These 30 snippets from last season’s action are completely guaranteed to make you wish the games were starting tonight rather than 30 days from now. Over the next month you’ll get one reason per day until we reach the new season on Tuesday, November 6. You can find all of this year’s released posts here.

#1 – Where FINALLY Happens.

We also encourage you to re-visit the entire archive of this feature from the 2008-092009-10, 2010-112011-122012-132013-142014-15, 2015-16, 2016-17  and 2017-18 preseasons.

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Where 2018-19 Happens: Reason #2 We Love College Basketball

Posted by rtmsf on November 5th, 2018

As RTC heads into its 12th season covering college hoops, it’s time to begin releasing our annual compendium of YouTube clips that we like to call Thirty Reasons We Love College Basketball. These 30 snippets from last season’s action are completely guaranteed to make you wish the games were starting tonight rather than 30 days from now. Over the next month you’ll get one reason per day until we reach the new season on Tuesday, November 6. You can find all of this year’s released posts here.

#2 – Where Surgical Efficiency Happens.

We also encourage you to re-visit the entire archive of this feature from the 2008-092009-10, 2010-112011-122012-132013-142014-15, 2015-16, 2016-17  and 2017-18 preseasons.

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Where 2018-19 Happens: Reason #3 We Love College Basketball

Posted by rtmsf on November 4th, 2018

As RTC heads into its 12th season covering college hoops, it’s time to begin releasing our annual compendium of YouTube clips that we like to call Thirty Reasons We Love College Basketball. These 30 snippets from last season’s action are completely guaranteed to make you wish the games were starting tonight rather than 30 days from now. Over the next month you’ll get one reason per day until we reach the new season on Tuesday, November 6. You can find all of this year’s released posts here.

#3 – Where Splayed Out Happens.

We also encourage you to re-visit the entire archive of this feature from the 2008-092009-10, 2010-112011-122012-132013-142014-15, 2015-16, 2016-17  and 2017-18 preseasons.

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