Breaking Down the Pileup at the Top of the Big 12 Standings

Posted by Brian Goodman on January 21st, 2019

Through three weeks of Big 12 play, we have a metaphorical clown car at the top of the standings with Kansas, Texas Tech, Iowa State and Kansas State all sitting at 4-2 and Baylor just a half-game back at 3-2. As I wrote earlier this month, a big reason why the Jayhawks have been able to maintain their extensive conference title streak has been the inability of their top challengers to cash in when opportunity knocks. Sure enough, on Saturday Kansas lost to arguably the worst team in the conference in West Virginia and just four hours later, Baylor dropped Texas Tech without the services of Tristan Clark, far and away the Bears’ best forward. Yes, winning on the road is hard, but that doesn’t change the fact that the Jayhawks and Red Raiders were four-point and three-point favorites, respectively, and that Texas Tech did not lead the Bears at any point in the second half. Despite Kansas’ struggles, betting on them to win the conference remains the safe pick, but based on how things are going, it might be awhile before we see much separation.

After a tepid start to the season, Kansas State may finally be rounding into form.
(Olivia Bergmeier/Collegian Media Group)

As up-and-down as conference play has been as a whole this season, Kansas’ Achilles’ heel remains the same as it has been all year: an inability to close games out. This problem goes back to the team’s guards, who, as electrifying and athletic as they are, don’t have the experience, poise and confidence that so many of Bill Self‘s previous floor generals have possessed. In past years, whenever the Jayhawks needed a late bucket, they could always turn to guys like Frank Mason or Devonte’ Graham make something good happen. This year, Devon Dotson, who is fantastic in the open floor, is also showing his inexperience by deferring a little too much in the clutch. In fairness to him, Quentin Grimes was expected to be further along at this point, so Dotson has been forced to take on a bigger role than Self would like, but the results have nonetheless made crunch time an adventure.

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ACC Weekend Preview: January 19

Posted by Mick McDonald on January 18th, 2019

This weekend is highlighted by a monster showdown in Durham, but there are some tricky road trips as well for teams near the top of the standings. Rush the Court ACC microsite writer Mick McDonald (@themickmcdonald) gets you ready for the weekend ahead in the ACC. (All rankings via KenPom)

Saturday, January 19

Roy Williams Needs His Freshmen to Produce (USA Today Images)

#10 North Carolina (13-4, 3-1) at #72 Miami (9-7, 1-3). Did we finally see the Nassir Little coming-out party? The stud freshman has been spent plenty of time on Roy Williams’ bench so far this season, but in the Tar Heels’ recent win over Notre Dame, Little scored 11 second-half points on 5-of-8 shooting along with six boards. Part of the equation for this North Carolina team being successful was Little becoming an immediate star. The Heels also need Coby White to get back on track. In the Tar Heels’ four ACC contests to date, White’s Offensive Rating is down eight points and his turnover percentage is up six points to nearly 24 percent. He’ll try to find his footing in Coral Gables as he matches up with Miami dynamo Chris Lykes, someone who is posting a 133.3 Offensive Rating and a 27.3 PER.

#32 NC State (14-3, 2-2) at #75 Notre Dame (11-6, 1-3). Oh, what a loss in Winston-Salem will do for an ACC team’s outlook. The Wolfpack were feeling pretty good about themselves in early ACC play after a successful non-conference campaign followed by a competitive home loss to North Carolina. Then Kevin Keatts‘ squad dropped the one game you cannot lose in the ACC this season. NC State three-point shooting, which was so strong through the first 13 games of the year (41.4%) has dropped to just 29.9 percent in ACC play. Given the way the Wolfpack plays, they are going to be in considerable trouble if they can’t start making more shots from long-distance. NC State heads to South Bend to take on a struggling Fighting Irish club. Even though it’s been a disappointing season for Mike Brey’s team so far, how about a little love for John Mooney? He is quietly putting up a monster season (30.2 PER, 130.6 ORtg), averaging a double-double and shooting nearly 46 percent from three-point range.

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ACC Stock Report: Volume II

Posted by Matt Auerbach on January 16th, 2019

With #1 Duke’s home loss to Syracuse Monday night — and more significantly the injury and extended absence of Tre Jones — some of the luster of this weekend’s highly-anticipated match-up with conference-leading Virginia has eroded. Or perhaps Tony Bennett’s squad just appears like it will inevitably run roughshod through the ACC for the second consecutive campaign.

Stock Rising:

Jeff Capel is Making a Mark in Pittsburgh Already (USA Today Images)

Jeff Capel: While he wasn’t Pittsburgh’s first choice, Capel has left little doubt that he was the right choice to clean up the mess of the two-year failed marriage with Kevin Stallings. Capel entered the program last spring having to do yeoman’s work just to construct a playable roster. But now, after Monday night’s victory over Florida State, the feisty Panthers have already vanquished two NCAA Tournament likelies (Louisville), and in doing so, have brought back some of the energy that used to be synonymous with the Peterson Events Center.

Behind the precocious freshman trio of Xavier Johnson, Trey McGowens and Au’Diese Toney, Capel’s crew has already exceeded last season’s win total by four, and in so doings has risen from 138th in KenPom to start the season to a current standing of 68th. Pitt’s upcoming schedule is arduous, however, as three of the Panthers’ next four games are away from home (and the home game vs. Duke), but it is undeniable that a basketball trajectory is veering upward again in the Steel City.

Stock Zig Zagging:

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You’re Right, Villanova is Trending

Posted by Justin Kundrat on January 16th, 2019

Villanova might not be the team that some of its fans originally hoped for, but months of incremental improvements have finally manifested in Jay Wright‘s club. The Wildcats’ rocky 8-4 start to this season featured a pair of head-scratching losses to Furman and Penn, along with a 27-point home court defeat to Michigan. So heading into Big East play, many had already written off Villanova as the league’s team to beat, opting to place the target on the back of Marquette or St. John’s. That has quickly been proven premature, as just two weeks into conference play, Villanova sits alone atop the conference standings at 4-0.

Jay Wright Isn’t Worried (USA Today Images)

As discussed ad nauseam, Villanova’s early struggles were attributed to the overwhelming burden placed on seniors Phil Booth and Eric Paschall to generate offense while the team’s less experienced players became acclimated to high-level basketball. This led to a clear nosedive in the team’s efficiency during off nights, and it’s no surprise that the Wildcats’ four losses coincide with poor offensive performances from both players.

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ACC Weekend Review: 01.14.19 Edition

Posted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on January 14th, 2019

After a lackluster opening weekend, things were much crazier around the ACC this weekend. In the headline match-up in Tallahassee on Saturday, Duke survived Florida State, 80-78, on Cam Reddish’s last second three. Reddish (23 points) and fellow freshman RJ Barrett (32 points) picked up the slack when Zion Williamson missed the entire second half with an eye injury. The long Seminoles caused problems for the Blue Devils in the paint, blocking seven Blue Devils’ shots, winning the battle of the boards (+5) and out-dunking Duke by a 10-to-1 margin. League co-leader Virginia grabbed another impressive road win too, as the Cavaliers manhandled Clemson, 63-43. Two road underdogs also won with surprising ease as Louisville dominated North Carolina at the Smith Center, 83-62, and Georgia Tech pulled off a stunner at Syracuse, 73-59. Here are the highlights from the weekend around the ACC.

Steven Enoch outplayed Luke Maye as Louisville shocked North Carolina in the Smith Center on Saturday. (thecardinalconnect.com)
  • Best Win: Few gave Louisville a realistic chance to win in Chapel Hill on Saturday, much less blow the Tar Heels off their own floor. After all, the Cardinals had just lost to Pittsburgh while North Carolina was coming off an impressive road win over a ranked and fired-up NC State squad. However, Chris Mack’s unit came out smoking (seven first half 3-pointers) and North Carolina never put up much of a fight in the 21-point defeat. The most lopsided home loss of the Roy Williams era was also a huge boost to Louisville’s growing postseason resume. A major key to the victory was the Cardinals’ dominance in the paint. Connecticut transfer Steven Enoch finished with career highs in points (17) and rebounds (11), outplaying UNC star Luke Maye, who finished with just nine points on a cold (3-for-14) shooting day.
  • Worst Loss: Georgia Tech gave Syracuse a taste of its own medicine Saturday night in the Carrier Dome. Josh Pastner used a zone defense to befuddle the Orange’s offense and pull off a surprisingly easy upset. Syracuse was unable to penetrate the Yellow Jackets’ interior and struggled to make shots from deep (7-for-33), but Georgia Tech only launched 12 threes (hitting six) and shot 63.3 percent (19-of-30) on two-pointers. Jim Boeheim’s team now has three home defeats and is currently projected by KenPom to finish 9-9 in the league, well below its preseason expectations.
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ACC Weekend Preview: January 12

Posted by Mick McDonald on January 11th, 2019

ACC play is in full swing and Rush the Court’s ACC microsite writer Mick McDonald (@themickmcdonald) is here to get you set for a busy Saturday of hoops. (All rankings via KenPom)

Saturday, January 12

Kyle Guy Leads Virginia into Clemson (USA Today Images)
  • #2 Virginia (14-0, 2-0) at #40 Clemson (10-5, 0-2). First to 50 wins? Expect a defensive struggle at Littlejohn Coliseum tomorrow afternoon, as two of the best defensive teams in the country get together (Virginia ranks third, Clemson 24th, per KenPom). The good news for anyone hoping for some offense? Each team has a dynamic guard who comes into this game on fire. Virginia’s Kyle Guy is averaging more than 19 points per game over his last four outings while shooting 61.5 percent from long-distance and 62 percent from the field. Meanwhile, Clemson’s Marcquise Reed is also putting up just over 19 PPG in the same span while making 46.7 percent of his threes and adding 5.0 assists and 5.3 rebounds per game. This is a monster opportunity for Brad Brownell’s Tigers, which otherwise look headed for the bubble. The key for his squad may be turnovers. Clemson has given the ball away 16 or more times in five straight contests after doing so just once in their first 10 games. Given how few possessions there will be tomorrow, Clemson cannot afford to squander any opportunities to score against Tony Bennett’s defense.
  • #39 Louisville (10-5, 1-1) at #6 North Carolina (12-3, 2-0). The two leading scorers for Louisville and North Carolina may be two of the most underappreciated players in the entire ACC. Cameron Johnson gave every Tar Heel fan a scare when he left Tuesday’s game against NC State with what initially looked like a serious knee injury. Luckily it was cramping instead, because he’s been the best player on Roy Williams’ squad this season. The seniior leads the team with 16.2 points per game but is also backing it up with excellent efficiency numbers (24.5 PER, 127.5 ORtg). His flexibility allows the Tar Heels to play big or small, and his size makes him a tough cover for opposing defenders. For the Cardinals, Jordan Nwora (17.3 PPG, 8.3 RPG) is having the breakout season Louisville fans have been waiting on from V.J. King since he stepped on campus. There are still lots of questions about Chris Mack’s inaugural team in Louisville, but Nwora (27.6 usage rate) has answered the call as a go-to-scorer.
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Analysis: ACC Turnover Battle Drives Success

Posted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on January 10th, 2019

It is common knowledge in basketball circles that winning the turnover battle is an important factor in determining the victor. However, we did not realize just how crucial it is until we reviewed every ACC league game from a year ago and found that the teams committing an equal or lesser number of turnovers than their opponents were victorious 76 percent of the time.

Duke Lost Two Games to North Carolina Last Season in Part Because of Turnovers

Among major statistical measures, only overall field goal shooting (81%) is a better predictor of the outcome of a game. Turnovers, in fact, were a better indicator than three-point shooting (74%), free throw shooting (61%) and rebounding (54%) in ACC play. Armed with that fact, we decided to examine several team characteristics that influence how well conference squads take care of the ball, with the caveat that overall skill and talent is the most likely driver. Over the last five years of play, offensive tempo, assist percentage and three-point attempt rate turned out to have no discernible impact on turnovers. The four team attributes that are listed below, however — years of experience, minutes continuity, average height and bench minutes — exhibit some connection to turnover rates. Here’s a look at how these traits are already fitting some league teams in 2018-19.

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ACC Stock Report: Volume 1

Posted by Matt Auerbach on January 8th, 2019

With the non-conference portion of the season now in the rearview and the ACC schedule tipping in earnest last weekend, it feels like the appropriate time to assess a few programs and players in this year’s initial stock report.

Stock Up

Elijah Hughes: When considering Syracuse’s chances to contend at the top of the league, the preseason focus was on the returns of Tyus Battle and Oshae Brissett. And while both have been good, it is perhaps Hughes, the transfer from East Carolina, who has been the most consistent player for the Orange. Coming off Saturday’s 22-point, 10-rebound game in a victory at Notre Dame — both career highs — Hughes is now second on the team in scoring, third in rebounding, and is by far the team’s best threat from long range with 36 made triples. Notching double-figures in all but two games, the 6’6” swingman has been a pleasant surprise for Jim Boeheim during a season that has been a bit more uneven than some (guilty as charged) presumed before it started.

Kyle Guy: Unlike Hughes, big things were expected from the 6’3” Virginia marksman who was coming off a sophomore campaign where he earned All-ACC first team honors and a third team All-America nod. As a junior, Guy is leading the undefeated Cavaliers in scoring just as he did a year ago, but the improvements in his game have been obvious both visually and statistically. Guy’s shot creativity and ability to elevate quickly over bigger defenders off the bounce is an addition to his always lethal shooting coming off curl screens in set plays. His offensive rating is up from 105.2 to 126.4, while his true shooting percentage has similarly seen a 12 percent spike, thanks to a career best 48.3 percent mark from inside of the arc. The Virginia star’s money is made from beyond the arc, however, and after blistering Florida State in the league opener by making five of six attempts, Guy now ranks 42nd in the nation, making 41 of his 85 three attempts.  

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Injury to Udoka Azubuike and Other Woes Not Enough to Pick Against Kansas in Big 12 Race

Posted by Brian Goodman on January 8th, 2019

Kansas was dealt a significant blow on Sunday when the program announced that center Udoka Azubuike will have season-ending surgery to repair a torn ligament in his right hand. It’s the latest trickle of bad news for a team that can never seem to avoid having something go sideways with its big men, whether it is Azubuike, Silvio De Sousa, Billy Preston, Carlton Bragg, Cliff Alexander or Cheick Diallo. There have been injuries, certain and potential NCAA violations, slow development and matches simply not working out the way both parties hoped for one reason or another. You name it and the Jayhawks have been through it, even if it can be argued that some of it the problems have been self-inflicted. But this weekend’s news was also a tough break for Azubuike directly, who over the last two years has shown tremendous dedication to improving his game and his body to the point where he was considered a possible first-round pick in last year’s NBA Draft despite an awful track record at the foul line and an inability to defend in space.

Kansas Jayhawks Basketball Big 12
The Jayhawks may be down and out, but picking against them to win the Big 12 remains a trap. (AP)

Despite losing Azubuike, the road to the Big 12 title still goes through Lawrence even though personnel issues are poised to force Bill Self into playing a smaller but more modern brand of basketball for yet another season. Skeptics may point to the team’s current three-point shooting woes (27.9 percent over its last eight games), but those struggles are not any more indicative of the team’s proficiency than its white-hot start (43.9 percent over its first six games). As tends to be the case, the answer is somewhere in the middle, and for all the deserved talk of the league’s defenses being terrific this year, just two Big 12 teams (TCU and West Virginia) rank among the top 100 in defensive 3PA/FGA, and none in the top 50. It stands to reason, then, that Kansas will be just fine once its accuracy trends back up. Freshman Quentin Grimes is already starting to bounce back, with the highly-touted guard averaging 16.3 points and shooting at a 37.5 percent clip from distance over his last three games. Even if this unit doesn’t showcase the pinpoint accuracy of last year’s group, it has a better all-around five in Dedric Lawson, who can defend away from the hoop and terrorize opposing defenses with his above-average handle, passing ability and range. When combined with a strong arsenal of post moves, the transfer forward is a walking double-double and Player of the Year candidate.

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Big East Stock Report: Risers and Fallers

Posted by Justin Kundrat on January 8th, 2019

It’s so far been just one week of conference action, but the Big East’s cannibalization is already underway. With the exceptions of Villanova (2-0) and Providence (0-2), every league team has already notched at least one win and a loss (or two) to go with it. That includes both Georgetown and DePaul, each of which have already toppled potential NCAA Tournament teams. So which Big East teams are trending up or down and what’s the outlook for each?

Butler: Sell

Butler has some decent wins on the season (Ole Miss, Florida, Creighton, UC Irvine), but the Bulldogs haven’t quite looked the part with an offense that has sputtered in recent weeks. A 0.99 point per possession showing against Georgetown and 0.72 PPP against Florida revealed the floor for this team and it’s a steep drop.

LaVall Jordan‘s group might be on the bubble at this point, but buying this team is betting on it finding a reliable contributor outside of Kamar Baldwin, and that’s a risky gamble.

DePaul: Buy

The Blue Demons aren’t coming close to an NCAA Tournament bid this season, but they will almost certainly serve as the conference spoiler. DePaul’s offense has been rebuilt around a potent shooting backcourt of Eli Cain and Max Strus, along with what might be the best rebounding core in the conference.

Quite simply, sophomores Paul Reed and Jaylen Butz have been sensational on the glass, causing myriad problems for undersized opponents.

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