Site Seeing – An Early Look At NCAA Tournament Subregionals

Posted by Andrew Gripshover on January 22nd, 2016

We’re exactly two months away from the opening Thursday of the NCAA Tournament. While it’s popular to examine bracketologies and bubble watches in advance of Selection Sunday, the jostling at the top of the bracket for protected seeds and preferential geography is less discussed but potentially as important as seed-lines and the last teams in and out of the field. We’re at the point in the season when it’s starting to become clear which teams will be on the top seed lines and receiving a geographical edge. Beyond that, there are a bunch of teams jostling for position at their preferred locations. Here’s a look at some storylines and projections in regards to who will end up where in eight weeks.

The Midwest has both a ton of sites and a ton of top seeds. Oklahoma City, Des Moines and St. Louis each host subregionals this season. That is a lot of sites that are relatively close to each other (they’re all inside of 600 miles from one another), but it happens to come in a year with a bunch of strong teams in that part of the country. Oklahoma is a safe bet to stay in its home state for the opening weekend. Kansas is likely to end up in either Des Moines (234 miles from Lawrence) or St. Louis (289 miles). After those two likely top-three seeds, you’ve got both Kentucky teams (Louisville, Kentucky), the pair of Iowa contenders (Iowa, Iowa State), and then Michigan StatePurdue, Xavier all competing to stay in the Midwest for the first and second rounds. Texas A&M and Baylor should also be in contention to stay in the Central time zone, although Denver is also an option for the Aggies and Bears.

Buddy Hield And His Sooners Are Among The Big 12 Teams Likely To Stay Close To Home For The Tournament's First Two Rounds (Photo: AP)

Buddy Hield And His Sooners Are Among The Big 12 Teams Likely To Stay Close To Home For The Tournament’s First Two Rounds (Photo: AP)

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Iowa’s Red Hot Campaign: Jarrod Uthoff Spurs Hawkeyes

Posted by Shane McNichol on January 21st, 2016

The state of Iowa is buzzing right now. Somehow, the Hawkeye State has evolved into not only a key battleground in the US Presidential race, but also in college basketball’s push towards March. The state has become a legitimate graveyard for top-ranked teams, as Northern Iowa knocked off then #1 North Carolina early in the season, Iowa toppled #1 Michigan State, and Iowa State just nipped newly minted #1 Oklahoma on Monday night.

But there is one team in the state that is clearly being talked about more than the others right now. Iowa‘s Dec. 29 victory over Michigan State was nice, but that is only a piece of the red-hot run they are on. In its last five games, Iowa has beaten teams with an average KenPom ranking of 30.1 (which includes #89 Nebraska). The Hawkeyes not only beat Tom Izzo’s team in Iowa City, they went up to East Lansing and knocked off the Spartans there, again by double digits. Iowa also trailed KenPom darling Purdue by 19 just before halftime on the road, only to outscore the Boilermakers 50-26 in the second half.

Could Jarrod Uthoff Be The Best Player In College Basketball? (Photo: Quad-City Times)

Could Jarrod Uthoff Be The Best Player In College Basketball? (Photo: Quad-City Times)

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Handing Out Grades For Finals Week

Posted by Andrew Gripshover on December 18th, 2015

It’s finals week across the country and we’re currently in the midst of the slowest week of the college basketball season. The basketball may not be great, but it is the perfect time to hand out a few grades of our own to teams, players, coaches and conferences. Hopefully the feedback will be easier to understand than your teacher’s scribbled critiques in those little blue books.

Purdue: A

Isaac Haas Has Been Dominant For The Undefeated Boilers (Photo: The Exponent)

Isaac Haas Has Been Dominant For The Undefeated Boilers (Photo: The Exponent)

Over the first month of the season, the two biggest “it” teams are Oklahoma and these Boilers. Purdue is 11-0 for the first time since 2009-10, when Robbie Hummel, E’Twaun Moore and JaJuan Johnson led the Boilers to a share of the Big Ten crown. This Purdue outfit may be the best Matt Painter team since that group, and some are saying this could be the best team in West Lafayette since Glenn Robinson donned the black and gold in the early ’90s. That kind of talk may be getting a little ahead of things, but these Boilers have won all 11 games by double-figures. The major tests start coming in now, beginning with the Boilers’ next four games: Butler at the Crossroads Classic in Indianapolis; Vanderbilt at home; at Wisconsin (in the Badgers first Big Ten game without Bo Ryan in over a decade); Iowa in West Lafayette. Go 15-0 and this is a surefire A+.

Isaac Haas: A+

If you asked the average college basketball fan to name the best player on Purdue, the answer you’d likely get is AJ Hammons. It wouldn’t be a terrible response — last season, Hammons led the Big Ten in blocked shots for the third straight year (only JaJuan Johnson and Penn State’s Calvin Booth have ever done that before). If you asked a recruiting guru, you might hear the name of blue chip freshman Caleb Swanigan, who has met or even exceeded the lofty expectations attached to him since stepping on campus. But neither of those two has been the most important Boilermaker so far. That notation belongs to Haas, the 7’2″ sophomore who has made the leap as a sophomore. Last season Haas’ offensive rating, per KenPom, was 95.1. So far this year, it’s a whopping 129.8 as he draws almost 9.8 fouls per 40 minutes, the highest average in the country. He’s improved his free throw percentage by 20 points (54.7 percent to 74.2 percent) and he’s making 10 percent more of his two-point attempts (63.3 percent this season) He and Hammons are both dominant on the boards and as shot blockers (Haas’ 8.5 percent block rate falls just a bit short of Hammons’ 10.1 percent) but it’s Haas who is the #5 player in the (very early) KenPom Player of the Year race.

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Great Alaska Shootout a Dying Breed of Holiday Tournaments

Posted by Kenny Ocker on November 27th, 2015

The school-managed exempt tournament is going extinct. The proliferation of corporate-owned events, including those put on by ESPN, have made sure of that. But out on the Last Frontier, the last holdout is conducting its last event on its own: The Great Alaska Shootout, organized and hosted by the University of Alaska-Anchorage, goes until Saturday, with its champion being the final team to win the tournament before Basketball Travelers takes over as managers next season.

The Great Alaska Shootout Produced One of the Best Moments for Bob Huggins at Cincinnati, in 1998. (AP)

The Great Alaska Shootout Produced One of the Best Moments for Bob Huggins at Cincinnati, in 1998. (AP)

The 50-plus-year-old tradition of exempt tournaments started when schools off the U.S. mainland needed to have an incentive before teams would schedule visits, and for a long time it stayed on an island floating off the coast of the NCAA landscape. But when eccentric Louisianan Bob Rachal took over the UAA men’s basketball program during its inaugural year in the NCAA’s Division II in 1977-78 – donning a tuxedo and top hat in his first game on the sidelines – he found that metaphorical island and used it to his advantage.

“He wanted something that could make a splash, something that could get the program on the map, so he dug around in the NCAA bylaws and he found out that you could host basically free games held under the exemption for any teams playing in Alaska or Hawaii at that point,” Seawolves sports information director Nate Sagan said. Well, not quite free, but close enough: A tournament of up to four games could count as one game against the NCAA’s limit of contests per season.

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Giving Thanks: Setting the Table for the Rest of the Season

Posted by Shane McNichol on November 26th, 2015

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday by a significant margin. From the moment I wake up to the moment I slide into a food-induced coma at the end of the night, I have a wide smile on my face. My relationship with college basketball is much the same. It’s my favorite sport by a comparable margin and I certainly find my share of smiles throughout the season. The two are unquestionably intertwined, with Turkey Day acting as an unofficial turning point of the season. Everything prior feels like two boxers dancing and feeling each other out, but once Thanksgiving comes and goes, the real haymakers start to be thrown.

turkeydunk

And a Happy Thanksgiving to All…

Even if that may be well and good, I want to mash them together even further. If notable college basketball teams were the dishes on your Thanksgiving table, what would you eat? What would you pass along? What would you hoard all for yourself?

Turkey – Wisconsin

The bird may be the centerpiece of Thanksgiving dinner, but even that status can’t outweigh the connotation of its name. If we’re calling someone the “turkey” of the young season, it’s not a compliment. And that distinction goes to the Badgers. Losing the likes of Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker wasn’t supposed to be easy, but count me among the masses who though Bo Ryan, Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes would be able to steady the ship in the wake of their run to the National Championship game last season.

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The Champions Classic Lesson

Posted by Bennet Hayes on November 18th, 2015

Let’s get it out there: Kentucky and Michigan State collected MAJOR wins at the Champions Classic on Tuesday night. If Kansas and Duke turn out to be anything close to the top five teams that they are expected to be, these are the type of victories that can separate #1 seeds from #2 seeds come March. For teams closer to peril (not that either Kentucky or Michigan State is likely to fall into this category), wins like these can redirect NIT-bound seasons into the field of 68. Nevermind that it’s only November, or that all four of these teams will evolve dramatically over the course of the season: These results will still matter in March. But with that note out of the way, we can also admit something that all four coaches seemed to know last night: These games don’t matter all THAT much. There’s no realistic way that last night’s results will define any of these team’s seasons, and all four coaches, given a chance to improve over the next five months, trust their own ability to mold a team — no matter how dysfunctional they may appear in November.    

Denzel Valentine Was Tuesday Night's Show-Stopper (Photo: The Sporting News)

Denzel Valentine Was Tuesday Night’s Show-Stopper (Photo: The Sporting News)

But that isn’t to say that any of these four teams looked especially bad last night. Duke’s leading scorer, sophomore Grayson Allen, did look bad, but expectations should have been restrained in his first take in a starring role against elite competition. Allen and the other young Blue Devils — Brandon Ingram (1-of-6 from the field, four turnovers, four fouls), Derryck Thornton (3-of-7 FG, four turnovers) and Luke Kennard (0-of-5 FG) — are all good bets to steadily improve in the months to come. Kansas was the other team that left the United Center a loser last night, but Bill Self’s team displayed no signs of panic in the aftermath of Michigan State’s victory. Jayhawks junior Wayne Selden admitted that early season struggles had worried him in years past, but he said the more experienced composition of his current team quelled any such concerns this time around. Kansas handed away a game they held complete control of for 33 minutes — Bill Self admitted as much afterward — and the ball screen defense (or lack thereof) that enabled Denzel Valentine (29 points, 12 rebounds, 12 assists) to repeatedly break Kansas down will need significant revisions. However, the Jayhawks have the talent, experience and coaching to cure their November ills, not to mention plenty of time in which to do so.

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Thoughts From a Wacky Opening Night in College Basketball

Posted by Andrew Gripshover on November 14th, 2015

There were a lot of games and a lot of things that happened last night!  Some immediate takeaways on several of them…

Wisconsin. Yikes. You just don’t expect THAT from a Bo Ryan team, right? We all knew the Badgers were replacing a lot this season but it’s always been next man up in Madison. Perhaps it’s a little different though when you’re replacing the NPOY Frank Kaminsky, his sidekick Sam Dekker and many of the other key components of arguably one of the greatest offenses in college basketball history. Still, there shouldn’t be a drop from that to losing at arguably the nation’s greatest fortress to WESTERN ILLINOIS. Picked last in the Summit (as I’m sure you’ve heard by now), the Leathernecks weren’t exactly North Florida winning at Illinois or even Belmont winning at Marquette (both of which also happened last night). This was THE most shocking result of the night.

Shocker of Shockers on a Wild Opening Night

Shocker of Shockers on a Wild Opening Night

Monmouth over UCLA put in a late bid, though.  Playing 2,796 miles away from campus at Pauley Pavilion and with their body clocks at well after midnight Eastern time, the Hawks more or less debunked every time-zone theory by winning 84-81 in overtime. Maybe it’s fairer to say that the Bruins really lost this one, however, after blowing a 13-point lead with 12 minutes to play, and then up five with two minutes remaining in the extra session. Aaron Holiday had an end-of-game sequence to forget — first missing a jumper, followed by one-of-two free throws after an offensive rebound, and then badly bricking a game-tying three-pointer as time ran out. Perhaps tearing up San Diego State in a secret scrimmage isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be.

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The Story of the 2014-15 College Basketball Season: Unwatchability

Posted by Bennet Hayes on April 13th, 2015

Every college basketball season supplies its share of moments to remember, and in that regard, 2014-15 was no different. We’ll always have the epic regional final between Notre Dame and Kentucky. Coach K’s 1,000th victory at the Garden won’t soon be forgotten, and Peter Hooley’s bid-delivering buzzer-beater for Albany perfectly encapsulated the madness of Championship Week… even before we learned about his emotional story. There was, without a doubt, plenty to cheer about… but those tremendous moments do not mean everything was hunky-dory in college basketball this season. As the game neared its March climax, critics of college basketball’s decreased scoring and slogging tempos found their numbers growing and voices amplified. Despite record-breaking ratings for the Final Four and March Madness, the “watchability” of college hoops was called into question unlike ever before.

Virginia Was One Of Many Slow-Tempo Teams To Thrive In 2014-15 (AP)

Virginia Was One of Many Slow-Tempo Teams to Thrive in 2014-15. (AP)

“You’ve got three kids passing on the perimeter. With 10 seconds on the shot clock, they try to make something happen and two other kids stand around. They don’t look for anything and then run back on defense, so there’s no transition game because two out of five or three out of five or in some cases four out of five kids aren’t involved in the play. It’s uglier than ugly, and it’s evidenced by the scoring going down.”

— Mark Cuban, Owner – Dallas Mavericks, April 8

The Mavericks’ outspoken owner was just one of the most prominent – and recent – voices to lament the current state of the college game, but he was far from alone – and with fair reason: Putting points on the scoreboard proved to be a universally excruciating task. Teams averaged a smidgen over 67 points per contest this season – the lowest team scoring average in over 60 years. The nation’s leader scorer – Eastern Washington’s Tyler Harvey – averaged 23.1 points per game; no national scoring leader had averaged fewer than 25.0 points per game since 1949. The six most efficient offensive teams in college basketball averaged 63.7 possessions per game; if those six merged into one unit, it would be the 233rd-fastest playing group in the land. Recent rule changes intended to enhance offensive freedom, quicken tempos and improve overall efficiency have quite clearly flopped. Points are at an all-time premium, with tempos nearing historic lethargy.

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Sleeping on a Darling From a March Past

Posted by Bennet Hayes on February 19th, 2015

The return to anonymity was as swift as the introduction had been sudden. When Ali Farokhmanesh unleashed his ill-advised three-point attempt with 36 seconds to play in a 2010 round of 32 match-up with Kansas, Northern Iowa was a little known Missouri Valley outfit that had scrapped its way to 29 wins. But seconds later, after the brave long distance attempt found the bottom of the net and the Panthers were done toppling top-seeded Kansas, Ben Jacobson‘s team was a national sensation. It didn’t matter that his team’s season would end six days later against Michigan State — with that one shot, Northern Iowa had suddenly become the story of the 2010 NCAA Tournament.

Seth Tuttle May Be College Basketball's Most Unassuming Star. His Northern Iowa Panthers are now 25-2. (Photo: Associated Press)

Seth Tuttle May Be College Basketball’s Most Unassuming Star. His Northern Iowa Panthers are now 25-2. (Photo: Associated Press)

The Panthers’ 15 minutes of fame extended a bit beyond March that year – they won ‘Best Upset’ at the 2010 ESPYs several months later – but it wasn’t too long before most of the world (and this includes the segment that eats, sleeps and breathes college basketball) had forgotten about them. They won no more than 21 games in any of the four seasons that followed, with a 2012 first-round NIT loss standing as the most successful postseason run since ‘the shot.’ Like so many March darlings before them, they had been forced back to their post in the obscure outer regions of college hoops.

They’re now back. Most college basketball fans have taken note of this season’s Northern Iowa renaissance, but lets take a full inventory of what they have done to this point. After Wednesday night’s 58-39 victory at Loyola (IL), Jacobson’s team has won 14 in a row and sits at 25-2 on the season. On January 31, the Panthers handed Wichita State its worst loss (70-54) in over six years. Their two losses came in double-overtime at VCU and by three points at Evansville. They rank in the top 25 nationally in both offensive and defensive efficiency, and the AP poll and Ken Pom’s rankings list them as the 11th best team in the country. Things are not going badly for this group.

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College Basketball Loses a Legend: On Dean Smith’s “Carolina Way”

Posted by Bennet Hayes on February 9th, 2015

After years of failing health, Dean Smith passed away Saturday night at the age of 83. The tributes flowed in all day Sunday: Michael Jordan remembered his “second father”; Roy Williams reflected on his mentor and former boss; and media members across the country (including SI‘s Seth Davis and Alexander Wolff) shared their memories of one of college basketball’s greatest head coaches. Smith’s 879 wins, 11 Final Fours and two National Titles all found frequent mention yesterday, but equally conspicuous was praise of Dean Smith, the human being. In 1969, it was Smith who ended segregation in the ACC when he offered a scholarship to Charlie Scott, an eventual two-time All-American for the Heels (and later, father of current Ohio State guard Shannon Scott). To reveal the injustices of the American prison system, Smith brought his players to witness death row first-hand and meet some of the prisoners. Perhaps most valuably, he is widely credited as being the first to cultivate a true sense of family within his basketball program. It’s why Jordan viewed him as more than just his coach. It’s also become the elusive ideal that every program in college basketball now aspires to create.

College Basketball Lost One Of Its All-Time Greatest Leaders On Saturday

College Basketball Lost One Of Its All-Time Great Leaders On Saturday

“The Carolina Way” may sound like a snippet of cheesy propaganda, but those three words would come to define Smith’s coaching methodology. More than anything, they represented the fact that if you were a Dean Smith guy, you would care about accomplishments and lessons that couldn’t be defined by a simple ‘W’ or ‘L’. Other programs and coaches have successfully constructed programs that stand for that family ideal – with Smith’s old Tobacco Road and ACC rival Mike Krzyzewski still existing as the clearest current example at Duke – but for every program that successfully accomplishes the feat, countless others will try and fail. In a contemporary college basketball era where coaches are under more pressure than ever to win, players are offered more opportunities than ever to defect (either by transfer or to the NBA), and increasingly little is private, creating and sustaining a college basketball program with a clear ethos is difficult. By being a human and father figure first and a coach second, Dean Smith built the template on how to create a program – not just a basketball team – that’s built to last.

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Dear Santa: Conference Season is Beginning, Please Bring Help

Posted by Bennet Hayes on December 25th, 2014

The man in the red suit is a busy guy right about now, but more than a few college basketball teams should be hoping Santa has time to swing by campus before his work is done. No milk and cookies were left fireside in Lexington, KY, or Durham, NC (reinforcements not needed), and some programs need seek only a stocking stuffer or two (hey there, Virginia and Wisconsin). But most teams have wish lists that stretch far longer. Conference play is here, and the blissful ignorance of the non-conference season? Long gone. In its place arrive true days of reckoning – grinding tests against peers that won’t allow deficiencies to go unpunished any longer. With conference season looming, we take a look at a handful of college basketball teams in desperate need of a gift this Christmas.

Which College Basketball Teams Will Receive A Visit From Santa This Year? (Photo Credit: AP)

Which College Basketball Teams Will Receive A Visit From Santa This Year? (Photo Credit: AP)

Iowa: Last Season’s Shooting Touch

Shoddy defense destroyed the Hawkeye’s promising start a season ago, but things have changed this winter. The defense has been much improved (22nd nationally in defensive efficiency), but a sputtering offense has left Iowa just 9-4 heading into conference play. All eight of the Hawkeye returnees have seen their three-point percentage drop this year (team: 259th nationally in three-point percentage), while only Gabriel Olaseni has improved upon his 2013-14 two-point field goal percentage (team: 232nd nationally in two-point percentage). The widespread nature of the shooting epidemic would seem to indicate some sort of systemic explanation. No Roy Devyn Marble? A lack of comfort with a quicker tempo? A coaching staff that has lost its players? Any or all of these questions could be a dig at the root cause, but even if they are, expecting some reversion to the more efficient levels of 2013-14 is entirely fair. The defense has been there; can Santa bring back the Hawkeyes’ shooting strokes?

Arkansas: Road Victories

For most of Mike Anderson’s tenure at Arkansas, the New Year (and conference play) has brought two things in bunches: home wins, and road losses. The Razorbacks are well positioned to earn their first Tournament appearance under Anderson after a 9-2 start, even if old habits die hard. The Hogs are undefeated on the home hardwood (8-0) and less perfect on the road: Both of the Hogs’ losses (Iowa State and Clemson) have come in enemy arenas. A November win at SMU should not be overlooked, but Arkansas needs to prove they can win games away from Bud Walton Arena in 2015. A depleted SEC should play the role of enabler.

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Announcement of 2016 Field a Reminder that Maui is Still King

Posted by Henry Bushnell on November 25th, 2014

December 23, 1982. It’s a date etched in college basketball folklore, and with good reason. You’ve probably heard the tale before, perhaps many times: the tale of big, bad Ralph Sampson towering above his opponents; the tale of the tiny gym, of the mysterious aura; the tale of mighty Virginia being confounded and eventually upset by plucky Chaminade, an embryonic NAIA squad in just its eighth season of competition.

A Game 32 Years Ago Set the Maui Invitational in Motion

A Game 32 Years Ago Set the Maui Invitational in Motion

In fact, every November, the Maui Invitational serves as a convenient reminder of that day nearly 32 years ago, because it was in the wake of Chaminade’s shocking win that the tournament was born. What began as a four-team event soon expanded to eight, and pretty soon, it was attracting the top teams from around the country. Michigan made its first trip in 1985, Kansas (along with Stanford, Villanova and Illinois) followed in 1987, UNLV came in 1988, North Carolina debuted in 1989, Duke visited in 1992, and Arizona in 1993. As big time programs flocked to Maui, it became the pinnacle of November college basketball, and built quite the reputation. For at least two decades, it was one of the kings of early season tournaments.

It wasn’t the undisputed king though. Alongside Maui had always been the Preseason NIT, now known as the NIT Season Tip-Off, and the Great Alaska Shootout, both of which also drew the bluebloods. Recently though, given the resounding success of Maui in particular, even more competition began to sprout up in the form of other holiday tournaments. Organizers realized that with school temporarily out of session for Thanksgiving break, teams would love to travel to desirable locations and test themselves against other top national contenders. In 1995, the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic was founded. Following the turn of the century, the CBE Classic (2001), Old Spice Classic (2006, now the Orlando Classic), and Legends Classic (2007), plus others, joined the fray, and suddenly, it was no longer Maui, NIT or bust. Elite programs had options aplenty, and it may have even seemed as if the exclusivity and uniqueness of Maui had been watered down.

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