National Championship Preview: North Carolina/Villanova Will Win If…

Posted by Tommy Lemoine & Bennet Hayes on April 4th, 2016

Only one game remains this college basketball season, and it tips off in about six hours. What needs to happen for North Carolina and Villanova if they expect to win a National Championship in Houston later tonight? Here are the keys to victory for both sides.

North Carolina Will Win If…

Brice Johnson and North Carolina must rule the interior on Monday night.(Photo: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports)

Brice Johnson and North Carolina must rule the interior on Monday night.(Photo: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports)

  • The Tar Heels’ front line imposes its will. Five North Carolina regulars are 6’8” or taller, a fact that will matter even more than usual against a Villanova team with a de facto starting power forward (Kris Jenkins) who is just 6’6”. The Wildcats will have their hands very full with Brice Johnson, Kennedy Meeks and the rest – particularly on the backboards. Jay Wright has found plenty of advantages to exploit with his smaller lineup, but there’s no denying that the undersized Wildcats will be playing at a significant disadvantage when the ball comes off the rim. Villanova ranks 209th and 134th nationally in offensive and defensive rebounding percentages, respectively, and gave up 19 offensive rebounds to Oklahoma on Saturday (about the only thing the Wildcats didn’t do well). No shift in offensive philosophy is needed tonight, but expect North Carolina to wage a full-blown assault on its offensive backboard.
  • Joel Berry is effective offensively. Senior Marcus Paige is usually noted as the most effective barometer for the Tar Heels’ offense, but it has been the play of Berry this season (not Paige), that has more closely correlated with the overall success of North Carolina. Berry has averaged 12.6 points and 3.8 assists per game this season, but has managed only 9.8 PPG and 2.2 APG in UNC’s six losses. He had eight points, 10 assists and seven rebounds on Saturday against Syracuse; finding a way to have a similarly significant impact against Villanova’s tenacious perimeter defense will take a lot of the pressure off the UNC frontcourt.
  • They make Villanova take difficult three-point shots. Carolina’s length is sure to bother a Villanova team that has excelled inside the arc this season (the Wildcats rank second in the country in shooting 57.3 percent on two-point field goals), so expect them to rely on the three-point shot even more than they normally do. Forty-three percent of Villanova’s field goals come from behind the arc, (29th highest mark in the nation), and while they don’t shoot an outstanding percentage from there (35.9%), nearly every Villanova regular is a threat to convert — six Wildcats have made at least 23 three-pointers this season. North Carolina has not defended the arc well this season – the Heels rank 247th nationally in allowing opponents to shoot 35.9 percent from three – but must be able to challenge Villanova’s shooters tonight.
  • They don’t turn the ball over. The North Carolina recipe for offensive success, in its most succinct form, is to limit turnovers and collect offensive rebounds. Doing the former will not be easy against a pesky Villanova team that will surely look to utilize its disruptive 1-2-2 press, but it will be no less important. The more field goal attempts that go up, the more offensive rebounds that will be available to a North Carolina frontcourt that is the Tar Heels’ biggest advantage in this game.

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Final Four Fact Sheet: Villanova Wildcats

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 28th, 2016

Now that the Final Four is set, our writers have put together a fact sheet on each of the four teams still remaining. First, Villanova. 

Villanova hopes to do more celebrating in Houston. (Timothy D. Easley/AP)

Villanova hopes to do more celebrating in Houston. (Timothy D. Easley/AP)

How the Wildcats Got Here

South Region Champions. Villanova handled #15 seed UNC Asheville in its NCAA Tournament opener before crushing #7 seed Iowa in the round of 32. The Wildcats then headed to Louisville, where they posted 1.56 points per possession – the most efficient performance in college basketball all season long – en route to a 23-point drubbing of #3 seed Miami. Two nights later, the Big East champs came up with the necessary late-game stops to grind out a victory against #1 seed Kansas and clinch its first Final Four appearance since 2009.

The Coach

Jay Wright. Before Wright took over for Steve Lappas in 2001, the Wildcats had not reached the Sweet Sixteen since 1987-88. In the 15 years since, Villanova has made five second weekend appearances, including Final Four trips this year and in 2009. The 54-year-old coach, known for his cool demeanor and sharply tailored suits, has elevated the program to even greater heights in recent seasons, posting a 95-13 record since 2013 and earning a #1 or #2 seed in the NCAA Tournament three years in a row. With another Final Four now under his belt, Wright should now be considered among the finest regular season and tournament coaches in college basketball.

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NCAA Regional Reset: South Region

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 21st, 2016

Rush the Court will be providing wall-to-wall coverage of each of the NCAA Tournament from each of the 13 sites this year. Follow our NCAA Tourney specific Twitter accounts at @RTCEastregion, @RTCMWregion,@RTCSouthregion and @RTCWestregion.

New Favorite: #1 Kansas (32-4). Meet the new favorite, same as the old favorite. Kansas did nothing over the weekend to diminish its stature as the #1 overall seed and clear Final Four favorite out of the South Region, dropping 105 points on Austin Peay on Thursday before handing Kevin Ollie his first NCAA Tournament loss two days later. In that contest, a 73-61 victory over #9 seed Connecticut, the final margin didn’t even do the Jayhawks justice; Bill Self’s bunch led by 20 points at the half and limited the Huskies to just 27.5 percent two-point shooting for the game. The defense has been sharp, focus doesn’t seem to be an issue and Perry Ellis is playing Most Outstanding Player-level basketball (21.0 PPG, 15-of-21 FG). Even with Maryland and (possibly) Villanova looming next weekend, it would be silly to consider anyone else as the favorite to reach Houston out of this region.

Wayne Selden and the Jayhawks look better than ever. (Associated Press)

Wayne Selden and the Jayhawks look better than ever. (Associated Press)

Horse of Darkness: #3 Miami (27-7). Can we really designate a #3 seed as a dark horse? In this case, yes – the Hurricanes were actually underdogs against #11 seed Wichita State on Saturday, and their hopes seemed grim after coughing away a big first half lead. But Miami (FL), led by point guard Angel Rodriguez, came up with enough big shots to hold off the MVC champs, and now stands just two wins away from its first Final Four appearance in program history. Despite finishing tied for second in the ACC this season, Jim Larranaga’s experienced group was not the subject of much pre-NCAA Tournament chatter. That will change if the Hurricanes take down Villanova on Thursday.

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Bracket Prep: South Region

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 15th, 2016

bracketprep22

On Monday and Tuesday we will roll out our region-by-region analysis on the following schedule: Monday (East and West); Tuesday (South and Midwest). Here, Tommy Lemoine (@hoopthink) breaks down the South Region from top to bottom. Also, be sure to follow our RTC South Region handle on Twitter for continuous updates the next two weeks (@RTCsouthregion).

Region: South

Favorite: #1 Kansas (30-4, 15-3 Big 12). Who else? With perhaps his least talented squad in recent memory (from an NBA perspective), Bill Self led Kansas to yet another Big 12 regular season title – its 12th in a row – and the #1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament. The Jayhawks enter the Dance on a 14-game winning streak and its 30 wins include victories over Kentucky, Oklahoma, West Virginia (twice), and Baylor (twice). One of only two teams with four losses, Kansas possesses such a complete resume, such a cohesive roster, and such strong advanced metrics that it’s hard not to consider the Jayhawks odds-on National Championship favorites, much less favorites in the South. Self’s group ranks #1 in KenPom – with offensive and defensive efficiency numbers near the top – and boasts one of the country’s best players in 6’8” forward Perry Ellis (16.7 PPG, 5.9 RPG). Scoring is seldom an issue with Ellis, Devonte’ Graham (44% 3FG) and Wayne Selden Jr. (13.3 PPG) in tow, and nearly every player on the roster plays consistently stingy, team-oriented man-to-man defense. Even if it faces a high-talent opponent like #4 seed California or an experienced, spread-you-out club like #2 seed Villanova, Kansas easily remains the best bet from the region to reach Houston.

Expect more smiles from Kansas in the coming weeks. (Nick Krug)

Expect more smiles from Kansas over the next few weeks. (Nick Krug)

Should They Falter: #2 Villanova (29-5, 16-2 Big East). If you’re down on the Wildcats, don’t be. Sure, they lost to Seton Hall in the Big East title game, and yes, their recent NCAA Tournament record isn’t great – Jay Wright’s team has not reached the second weekend since 2009 despite being a #2 seed or better three times. But if past performance is no sure indicator of future results, then there’s also no reason to think that Villanova – with one of college basketball’s most balanced rosters – cannot make a very deep run. The Big East regular season champions rank among the top 15 nationally in both offensive and defensive efficiency, with five players averaging more than 9.7 PPG and a true rim protector in 6’11’ senior Daniel Ochefu (7.8% block rate). The bottom half of the South is not swelling with raw talent, so it’s perfectly reasonable to expect the Wildcats and their spread attack to push deep into March.

Grossly Overseeded: #10 Temple (21-11, 14-4 American Athletic). Temple’s inclusion as a #10 seed seems to be proof that the committee simply didn’t give a darn about advanced metrics – nor quality non-conference wins, for that matter. The Owls enter the NCAA Tournament as the lowest-ranked at-large selection in KenPom (#86 overall) by a staggering 26 spots, with perhaps their best non-conference victory being a five-point neutral court win over 8-23 Minnesota. If its KenPom number holds, Temple will finish the season as the lowest-ranked at-large unit since Colorado State in 2012 (95th). Yuck.

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Rushed Reactions: Michigan State 66, Purdue 62

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 13th, 2016

rushedreactions

Three Key Takeaways.

Michigan State edged Purdue for the B1G crown. (AP Photo/AJ Mast)

Michigan State edged Purdue for the B1G crown. (AP Photo/AJ Mast)

  1. Michigan State’s front line was up the challenge. In Purdue’s blowout victories over Illinois and Michigan this weekend its massive trio of AJ Hammons, Caleb Swanigan and Isaac Haas combined for 67 points (on 36-of-55 FG) and 44 rebounds. Hammons was especially dominant, pouring in 27 points against the Wolverines and looking altogether unstoppable within 10 feet. On Sunday, it was a different story. The Spartans threw every big body they could at the Boilermakers – including seldom-used senior Colby Wollenman – and never allowed Purdue’s lethal frontcourt to take over. All told, Matt Costello, Deyonta Davis, Gavin Schilling and Wollenman held the three-headed monster to just 26 points on 10-of-25 shooting, which – combined with the Boilermakers’ ugly performance from behind the arc (3-of-15 3FG) – proved to be the difference. Costello was especially great, bodying up Hammons each time down the floor and coming up with several huge blocks to seal the victory.
  2. Denzel Valentine is special in late-game situations. Between his ability to handle the ball, make quick decisions and knock down big shots, Denzel Valentine gives Michigan State something few other teams have: a steady hand in late-game situations. That asset was on full display Sunday, with Valentine knocking down an impossible double-clutch jumper with just under two minutes to play, then securing a pair of big rebounds to ice the victory. Even his ability to take the ball up the floor without making careless mistakes – to force the opposition to foul – cannot be overlooked. On its quest for another Final Four, Michigan State will surely face a few more close, taut games likes the ones it played against Maryland and Purdue this weekend. Having a late-game conductor like Valentine could wind up being the difference between a very good season and a banner-worthy, great one.
  3. Despite the loss, Purdue is playing its best basketball. Make no mistake – Purdue is still in excellent shape heading into the NCAA Tournament. If not for some very poor outside shooting (3-of-15 3FG), the Boilermakers – backed by an enormous home crowd in Bankers Life Fieldhouse – would probably be the Big Ten Tournament champions. Not only is AJ Hammons playing his best basketball of the season, but Matt Painter’s club is consistently earning trips to the free throw line (39 attempts against Michigan and Michigan State combined). Purdue was also superb on the defensive end this weekend, holding both Illinois and the Wolverines to well below one point per possession, and nearly doing the same against the explosive Spartans. With a top 25 national ranking in both offensive and defensive efficiency, along with one of the best frontcourts in the country, the Boilermakers should be a real threat to reach Houston.

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Rushed Reactions: Michigan State 64, Maryland 61

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 12th, 2016

Three Key Takeaways

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MARCH 12: Deyonta Davis #23 of the Michigan State Spartans rebounds against Robert Carter #4 of the Maryland Terrapins in the semifinals of the Big Ten Basketball Tournament at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on March 12, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Deyonta Davis and the Spartans staved off Maryland in Saturday’s semifinal. (Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

  1. Michigan State’s defense can win games. After scoring 41 points in the opening 20 minutes, Michigan State’s offense struggled mightily in the second half, mustering just 23 total points and failing to rediscover its high-efficiency transition game. And yet, thanks to one of the best defensive halves of basketball they have played all season, the Spartans managed to survive. Tom Izzo’s group held Maryland to just one made field goal in the final 10:27 of play, a stretch of grind-it-out, physical basketball that culminated in two huge defensive stops to seal the win. Senior forward Matt Costello, who helped key the effort, cited his team’s defense as “the only reason we won.” For most of the season, Michigan State’s exceptionally efficient offense has carried it to victory. On Saturday afternoon, the Spartans proved that their defense can also bail them out.
  2. The Spartans’ half-court offense can be worrisome against large opponents. Like Purdue – the last team to knock off Michigan State – Maryland is one of the largest teams in the country, boasting a front line with enough strength and length to frustrate nearly any opponent it faces. In the second half, the Terrapins did just that, limiting the Spartans’ transition game and forcing them to score over its massive bodies in the half-court. Diamond Stone, Robert Carter, Damonte Dodd and company allowed Michigan State very few opportunities in the paint, limiting it to 41.9 percent shooting (13-of-31) from inside the arc and causing visible frustration on the part of Spartans players and coaches. Izzo’s club still won, sure, but perhaps Maryland’s defensive effort gives future Michigan State opponents a possible formula for victory.
  3. Maryland will be fine. Much was made of the Terrapins’ late-season struggles, a stretch from mid-February through the end of the regular season during which they lost four of six games and failed to come up with solutions on the offensive end. Some pundits even suggested that Mark Turgeon’s club is among the most likely potential NCAA Tournament upset victims. And while that could still be the case – this is March Madness we’re talking about – it won’t be because Maryland has completely lost its mojo. Despite only winning a single game in Indianapolis, the Terrapins looked far more confident in both their 11-point win over Nebraska and their narrow loss against the Spartans. After scorching the nets to the tune of 1.37 points per possession on Friday, Maryland flexed its defensive muscle on Saturday, holding the country’s most efficient offense to just 23 second half points. Turgeon seemed genuinely relieved in the postgame press conference, as if his team had turned a corner in spite of the outcome: “Everybody in Maryland basketball feels good – feels better than we did coming into this week.” If those good feelings continue into the NCAA Tournament, the Terrapins may have a very nice March ahead of them.

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Rushed Reactions: Purdue 76, Michigan 59

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 12th, 2016

Three Key Takeaways

The Boilermakers will play for a B1G title on Sunday. (Mykal McEldowney/IndyStar)

The Boilermakers will play for a B1G title on Sunday. (Mykal McEldowney/IndyStar)

  1. Purdue’s game plan was simple – and it worked. The Boilermakers boast one of the tallest and deepest frontlines in the country, with two players – AJ Hammons and Isaac Haas – standing more than seven-feet tall, and another, Caleb Swanigan, checking in at 6’9”, 250 pounds. Against the much smaller Wolverines, Purdue pounded the ball inside early, often, and to great effect. All told, Hammons, Haas and Swanigan combined for 45 points and 21 rebounds, including a dominant 27-point, 11-rebound effort from Hammons. No matter which team(s) Purdue draws in next week’s NCAA Tournament, they will be hard-pressed to stop the Boilmakers’ dominant big men – especially when Hammons plays like he did on Saturday.
  2. The three-ball betrayed Michigan. The Wolverines found their fair share of good looks, too, but for a team that relies so heavily on three-pointers – Michigan generates nearly 40 percent of its points from behind the arc – not nearly enough of them fell through the cylinder on Saturday. John Beilein’s team shot just 6-for-25 from long distance, including 1-5 from the usually-automatic Duncan Robinson. Had they been able to slow down Purdue in the paint like they did in their 5-point victory over the Boilermakers in February, the Wolverines may have been able to overcome the poor shooting performance. But their lack of answers on the other end culminated in a 17-point defeat.
  3. It’s tough to win three games in three days. Robinson and top scorer Zak Irvin came up short on numerous shots against Purdue, something we might normally chalk up to a “bad game”. But considering the circumstances on Saturday, the pattern was hard to ignore. After expending a great deal of physical and emotional energy in its dramatic victories over Northwestern and Indiana on Thursday and Friday, Michigan could not replicate its same desperate, high-level of play against the Boilermakers. Fatigue truly matters in these tournaments, especially for teams that must win four or five straight games in order to claim the title.

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Michigan State Grows Stronger Ahead of Selection Sunday

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 12th, 2016

Tom Izzo’s disappointment in the first half against Ohio State on Friday might be the best indication yet of just how well his Spartans are playing. Less than a week after beating the Buckeyes in East Lansing, Michigan State controlled the opening 20 minutes from start to finish, taking a seven-point lead into the locker room and holding its bubble-bound opponent to just 26 points on 27 shots. “I thought we got off to a bit of a sluggish start,” Izzo said. “We didn’t feel like we were in sync the whole first half.” His team went on to dominate, of course, winning by 27 points and completing a three-game season sweep of the Buckeyes by an average margin of 20.3 PPG. The victory was more than just a necessary step toward a Big Ten Tournament title, though. On a night when the threes weren’t falling, Michigan State – in one of its best defensive performances of the year – took an important stride toward invulnerability heading into the NCAA Tournament.

Denzel Valentine and the Spartans continue improving. (http://247sports.com/)

Denzel Valentine and the Spartans continue to get better. (http://247sports.com/)

Guard Bryn Forbes entered Friday as the nation’s best individual three-point shooter on the nation’s best three-point shooting team, having knocked down more than 50 percent of his 200 attempts from behind the arc. On nights that he and Denzel Valentine (a top 50 three-point shooter in his own right) get hot, Michigan State is incredibly difficult to beat. Friday was not one of those nights; the Spartans shot just 8-of-23 on three-point field goals, and Forbes never got going. For Izzo, it could not have worked out any better. “The best thing that happened was Bryn struggled, best thing for our future, because we had to learn to play without,” he said. Instead of blowing out the Buckeyes with lights-out perimeter shooting, the #2 seeded Spartans blew them out by pounding the glass and finding easy looks inside. Already a top 20 offensive and defensive rebounding team, Michigan State ripped down 14 offensive boards (41.2% OReb) and prevented many Ohio State second-chances on the other end. To score, the Spartans used a combination of high-percentage transition looks, easy put-backs and well-run set plays to blow open the lead after halftime, opening the final 20 minutes on a 14-2 run and never looking back. Spartan big men Deyonta Davis, Matt Costello and Gavin Schilling complemented Valentine’s predictably excellent play by combining for 27 points on 12-of-19 shooting. Junior guard Eron Harris, playing in his hometown for the first time since high school, poured in 13 points of his own. College basketball’s most efficient offense was as efficient as ever (1.27 points per possession), even without its usual perimeter prowess.

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Big Ten Tournament Takeaways: Friday Night

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 12th, 2016

After Purdue’s blowout victory over Illinois in Friday’s afternoon session, Michigan State and Maryland followed suit with a pair of drubbings of their own. The Spartans used a 14-2 run early in the second half to ease past Ohio State, 81-54, while the Terrapins shot the lights out against Nebraska on their way to an 11-point victory in the late game. Here are four takeaways from quarterfinal Friday in the Big Ten Tournament.

Maryland took care of business against Nebraska on Friday (Kiichiro Sato, Lincoln Journal Star)

Maryland took care of business against Nebraska on Friday. (Kiichiro Sato, Lincoln Journal Star)

Michigan State: The Spartans won by 27 points despite shooting poorly for a large stretch of the contest – which probably says something about just how good they are right now. Denzel Valentine was his usual versatile self, scoring 19 points to go along with nine rebounds and eight assists, but it was the play of Deyonta Davis (12 points, seven rebounds), Matt Costello (10 points) and Eron Harris (13 points) – along with stellar defense from start to finish – that made the difference. Watching Iowa and Indiana go down early in the tournament may have also had something to do with the Spartans’ dominant victory: “We saw that those two teams didn’t come out with as much fire as they had throughout the season… we had to be ready to play today,” Costello said afterwards. Next up for Michigan State is a rematch of last season’s Big Ten semifinal against Maryland.

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Big Ten Tournament Takeaways: Friday Afternoon

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 11th, 2016

The Big Ten Tournament’s afternoon session on Friday yielded two starkly different outcomes. In the opener, Michigan upset top-seeded Indiana in dramatic fashion, knocking down a three-pointer just before the buzzer to preserve its NCAA Tournament at-large hopes. The second game was far less dramatic, but perhaps a louder statement – Purdue throttled #12 seed Illinois, 89-58, in one of the more dominant quarterfinal matchups you will ever see. Here are four takeaways from this afternoon’s games.

Michigan reserve Kameron Chatman preserved the Wolverine's NCAA Tournament hopes on Friday (KIICHIRO SATO, NY Daily News)

Kameron Chatman preserved Michigan’s NCAA Tournament hopes on Friday. (KIICHIRO SATO, NY Daily News)

Indiana: Despite the massive, swarming fan base that filled Bankers Life Fieldhouse like a sea of crimson, Indiana was never able to go on one of its patented runs Friday afternoon. That, plus a high turnover rate and poor shooting from behind the arc (4-of-17 3FG), doomed the Big Ten champs. Tom Crean‘s bunch never went on a run of more than seven points, and was not able to take advantage of its fresh legs like the eighth-year head coach had hoped. “We weren’t as fast in the first half as we were in the second half, and that’s not how we play,” Crean said afterwards. While freshman OG Anunoby had another nice performance (13 points on 6-of-6 shooting), Yogi Ferrell – who seemed in utter command during the Hoosiers’ blowout win over Michigan in February – struggled to find nearly as many good looks against a much-improved Wolverines defense. Indiana’s own inability to cover Duncan Robison and Kameron Chatman on the game’s final two possessions ultimately sealed their fate. The good news? The Hoosiers should be a #3 seed when the NCAA Tournament bracket is published on Sunday, and will have plenty of time to rediscover the confident basketball that carried it through February.

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State Your Case: Wichita State, Monmouth, Valparaiso, Saint Mary’s

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 9th, 2016

It’s an all-too-familiar story: Several of college basketball’s most promising mid-majors – potential bracket-busters that made mincemeat of their conferences during the regular season – bulldoze their way into March, only to see their dreams of an NCAA Tournament appearance crushed during Championship Week. Nice to know ya; enjoy the NIT; better luck next year. In fact, of the 11 conference tournaments completed so far in 2016, only one top seed (Chattanooga) has managed to clinch its league’s automatic bid. Luckily, for a few of the unfortunate champions, this season may offer new hope. An exceptionally weak bubble, combined with some strong Other 26 resumes, has enabled several teams from non-power conferences to remain in the at-large conversation. In the spirit of election season, let’s allow these candidates to state their cases leading up to Selection Sunday.

Will Ron Baker and the Shockers get another shot on Selection Sunday? (kwch.com)

Will Ron Baker and the Shockers get another shot on Selection Sunday? (kwch.com)

Wichita State

  • The At-Large Argument. Advanced metrics love the Shockers more than any other team on the bubble, and it’s not close. KenPom currently ranks Wichita State #11 in the country – ahead of Miami (FL), Arizona and Xavier, among others – thanks in large part to its second-ranked adjusted defensive efficiency. Sagarin is not quite as high on Gregg Marshall’s group, but he still ranks the Shockers among the top 25. For the sake of comparison, fellow bubble comrades Syracuse and Ohio State do not fall within the top 40 of either ranking. On top of that, the Shockers are a classic example of a team the NCAA Selection Committee might – and perhaps should – judge differently now that they are at full strength. Three of Wichita State’s eight losses came without All-American Fred VanVleet, who missed four games in late November with an ankle injury. In two of those losses, the Missouri Valley champs didn’t have starting center Anton Grady either, who suffered a nearly career-ending injury against Alabama – a game they lost by just four points. There were other injuries, too. Now healthy, Wichita State seems to be a genuinely better basketball team. Oh, and did we mention that non-conference victory over Utah?

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At Monmouth, Confidence Oozes Up and (Very Far) Down the Roster

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on November 30th, 2015

There simply aren’t many teams in college basketball with a better trio of wins to this point than Monmouth, power conference or otherwise. The Hawks, picked to finish sixth in the MAAC, have already toppled UCLA in Pauley Pavilion, upset #17 Notre Dame in the AdvoCare Invitational and staved off USC to place third in the event. From a mid-major perspective, King Rice’s bunch simply owned the month of November. And yet, despite the spate of upsets and already-exceeded expectations, Monmouth’s achievements on the court have taken a backseat to its swagger directly off of it. You already know what we are talking about here: that bow-and-arrow-shooting, touchdown-tossing, feather-flapping, best-show-in-town bench mob of theirs. Not only have the antics been picked up by myriad blogs and news outlets around the country, they earned split-screen airtime during the team’s semifinal and third-place games over the weekend. But while the bench’s hilariousness and popularity is obvious and undeniable (the crew’s Twitter handle, @MonmouthBench, now has over 3,300 followers), its tangible connection to Monmouth’s on-court success deserves a deeper look. After all, what could be a better reflection of team culture than a bunch of no-names performing choreographed, multi-act celebration routines?

Daniel Pillari, Greg Noack and Monmouth's bench are taking college hoops by storm. (Getty Images)

Daniel Pillari, Greg Noack and Monmouth’s bench had some fun in November (Getty Images)

Make no mistake – the Hawks have talent, and their winning ways are not altogether shocking. Diminutive point guard Justin Robinson, a 5’8” preseason first-team all-conference pick, ranks sixth nationally in scoring (24.4 PPG) and racked up 77 combined points over the holiday weekend on his way to being named the AdvoCare Invitational MVP. Junior Je’lon Hornbeak, once a four-star recruit, has been an immediate contributor since transferring from Oklahoma. So too has freshman Micah Seaborn, another highly-touted prospect who went for 20 points against USC on Sunday, including 4-of-8 shooting from behind the arc. Deon Jones (7.0 PPG, 7.2 RPG), Collin Stewart (11.0 PPG) and Chris Brady (7.2 PPG) are all upperclassmen who have developed into solid players during their time in West Long Branch. This team is built to compete. Yet, Rice, a former North Carolina point guard under Dean Smith, seemed to suggest before the season that the toughness-based culture change he sought to create in 2012 has only now come to fruition because of his decision to loosen things up. “I think I understand the position probably more than when I first started, I learned everything doesn’t have to be my way or the highway type of deal,” he told the Asbury Park Press in mid-November.

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