Maybe the Big East Really is Just Villanova and Everyone Else

Posted by Justin Kundrat on April 9th, 2019

It’s a painful narrative stemming from another painful season in the Big East. The conference as a whole battled all season long, collecting a number of impressive non-conference wins, amassing both longstanding and fleeting appearances in the Top 25, and ultimately achieving four NCAA Tournament bids. And yet again, come March, all that hard work failed to materialize. The best conference achievements might have been Xavier‘s run from 3-8 team to bubble team, the out-performance of Seton Hall and Creighton (picked eighth and ninth in the preseason poll, respectively), or DePaul‘s first postseason appearance since 2007 (it finished as the runner-up). But at the end of the day, the league’s attention disappeared as quickly as its several teams did from contention.

The Villanova East?

Given the exodus of talent from last offseason, most teams expected to struggle to adjust this year. But what hasn’t changed — not this year, last year, or the year before — is that the Big East continues to underwhelm in the NCAA Tournament. It’s a frustrating habit for conference supporters and it fuels the narratives that the league is no longer a top-tier conference, isn’t worth watching, is overrated, etc… So what gives? How many years will the non-Villanova Big East continue to languish in postseason play? And why is it even happening? There are a few schools of thought:

The first and most prominent is the sample size conundrum. The single elimination format of the NCAA Tournament allows for a wide variance in outcomes whereby a hot or cold shooting night, a few missed calls or a poor game plan will have an outsized effect on public perception of a team. The perfect example is last season’s Virginia club, which at 31-2 and an overall #1 seed, had one bad game at an inopportune time and received a shocking amount of criticism. Was it justified? Certainly not; a 33-game sample size greatly outweighs the one-game sample size of the NCAA Tournament. The same could be said for the postseason as it pertains to the Big East: single-game losses to equal or better teams should not outweigh the regular season as a barometer of success. But justly or not, it does, and it will continue to do so because the perceived point of the tournament in the first place is to crown the best team. One season might be a blip, but it remains perplexing that the Big East, aside from Villanova and an unexpected run by Xavier one year, has struggled for years.

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Texas Tech is The Best Parts Of College Basketball in 2019, Distilled

Posted by Brian Goodman on April 5th, 2019

The last 10-15 years of college basketball have witnessed a number of changes. The impact of the NBA’s one-and-done rule has been obvious, but think about what else has shaped the game. There has been an influx of international talent as well as a sharp increase in undergraduate and graduate transfers. In practice facilities, coaching staffs have access to more data and video than ever before, and on the sidelines, the best coaches find a way to marry all of that information with the traditional scouting and player development on which their careers have been built to get the best possible results on the court. Yes, there remains a variety of ways to skin the cat, but not many, and especially not when it comes to rising to the absolute top. Texas Tech may not be the objectively best team left, and whether they’re the most talented team left is debatable, but when I watch the Red Raiders play, I see college basketball in 2019 crystallized into one team.

Texas Tech is the Likeliest Unlikely Final Four Team (USA Today Images)

Sure, Jarrett Culver is a sophomore rather than a one-and-done, but he was already on many 2019 NBA Draft boards after playing a perfect complementary role to Zhaire Smith and Keenan Evans on last season’s Elite Eight squad. Last summer, the Red Raiders put Culver on a liberal eating regimen so that he could bulk up and carry the workload necessary to propel his team to a regular season Big 12 title. As a result, he earned Big 12 Player of the Year honors and has led Texas Tech to the sport’s final weekend as a prospective lottery pick two months from now. I guess you could say it’s worked.

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For Auburn, Bruce Pearl Was Well Worth the Gamble

Posted by David Changas on April 5th, 2019

Fifteen years between NCAA Tournament appearances. Sixteen years between Sweet Sixteen trips. One prior Elite Eight visit. One coach hired off the scrap heap following a three-year show cause penalty. The specter of an FBI investigation. Prior to its magical run to the Final Four, those things were just about all anyone knew or needed to know about Auburn’s rather nondescript history as a basketball program.

Bruce Pearl has taken the Auburn program to heights it has not seen before (si.com).

Of course, none of that encapsulates just how bad the program was when the controversial Bruce Pearl was hired by former athletics director Jay Jacobs in the spring of 2014. Tony Barbee, previous and subsequent to the gig a John Calipari disciple, oversaw four years of putrid results that included a total of 18 SEC wins, no postseason appearances, and a fan base beyond apathetic. With Pearl coming off the show cause that led to his unceremonious departure from Tennessee in 2011, Jacobs wisely decided that there was no reason to not take a chance on a coach who had made the Volunteers relevant again in the middle of the prior decade. While Pearl’s tumultuous history made the hire anything but a sure thing – and who knows where it really will go from here – what real risk was there to hiring someone who had proved himself a winner, taking two programs to the Sweet Sixteen and Tennessee to its only Elite Eight in program history? When 9,121-seat capacity Auburn Arena was seeing average crowds of less than 6,000 patrons per game, what did Jacobs have to lose by tying himself to the bombastic Pearl — a man who is perhaps equal parts basketball coach and circus act?

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ACC Conversation: NCAA Tournament Regional Recap

Posted by The ACC Team on April 3rd, 2019

Rush the Court’s ACC microsite team of Brad Jenkins, Matt Auerbach and Mick McDonald chat about the ACC’s lone Final Four participant, as well as the losses suffered by ACC squads in the regionals.

Zion Williamson’s Collegiate Career Ended in Washington, DC, on Sunday (USA Today Images)

Brad Jenkins: Welcome to April, fellas! Although it’s a little disappointing that only one of the ACC’s trio of top seeds made it through regional play, we still have the league’s best team, Virginia, heading to Minneapolis. But before we look ahead, let’s recap the amazing regionals action we just saw. Before we look at the individual ACC squads that perished, what are your overall thoughts on what we witnessed? Was this the best Elite Eight ever?

Mick McDonald: The 2005 NCAA Tournament is the standard bearer for amazing Elite Eights, and I think this year’s crop rates right up there with it. All four games featured two excellent teams playing at high levels in close games. We got two overtime games, a heavyweight battle between two legendary coaches, and one of the best individual performances in the history of the tournament from Purdue’s Carsen Edwards. Top it off with the amazing buzzer-beating scramble by Virginia to lock in an all-time moment, and I think you can make a pretty good argument for it being the best.

Matt Auerbach: All things being equal, the one that could rival this Elite Eight was, as Mick referenced, the one back in 2005. But, given the epic nature of the finish between Virginia and Purdue — with a backdrop of the performance of Edwards and the redemption of the Cavaliers — to highlight a weekend where another game went to overtime, another was decided by a point and another — Texas Tech vs. Gonzaga — was perhaps the best played of them all. It was an exhilarating set of games, and undeniably one of the best set of Elite Eight games ever.

Brad Jenkins: I’ve been watching this tournament since… well, let’s just say for quite a while. I can’t recall a better four games to get to the Final Four. And the Virginia-Purdue classic is on the short list of the best college games I’ve ever watched. Now, let’s talk a little about the ACC teams that bowed out in the Sweet Sixteen, beginning with Florida State and Virginia Tech. Tough losses for both programs, but historic seasons nonetheless.

Matt Auerbach: Yeah, I think Florida State just kind of ran into an off night situation with Gonzaga. It felt as though the Zags kept them at a comfortable distance throughout the contest, and the Seminoles could never get a spark to surge into the lead. As for the Hokies, you can’t get any closer than that!

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Handicapping the SEC’s Final Four Chances

Posted by David Changas on March 27th, 2019

The first weekend of the NCAA Tournament was quite a success for the SEC. Four of the league’s seven teams advanced to the Sweet Sixteen, and each did so in a different fashion — there was the dominant (Auburn), the methodical (Kentucky), the dramatic (LSU), and the confounding (Tennessee). The question now becomes whether the conference’s remaining teams can take it any further. Today we look at each remaining squad’s chances of advancing to college basketball’s biggest stage.

Jared Harper and Auburn will need to continue their superb play to have a chance of toppling top-seeded North Caroline (247sports.com)

Auburn: The Tigers were sensational against Kansas, scoring 1.27 points per possession against a solid Jayhawks’ defense that was simply overwhelmed by Auburn’s attack. We would like their chances a bit better if they weren’t going up against a team in North Carolina that can and will run with them. If Bruce Pearl’s team were to pull off an upset in the Midwest Region semifinal, it would still likely have to get by a Kentucky team that handled it twice during the regular season. So even though this is arguably the hottest team in the NCAA Tournament at the moment, this is realistically an order that might be too tall for a team that lives and dies by the three. We put Auburn’s chances of a Final Four appearance at 15%.

Kentucky: We were higher on the Wildcats’ chances to reach the Final Four than we were any other SEC team prior to the NCAA Tournament, and nothing has changed that. Of course, if Wildcats’ star P.J. Washington is again unavailable for Friday’s tilt with Houston, all bets are off. Assuming the sophomore big man returns from his sprained foot, however, we still think John Calipari’s team is the favorite to come out of this region –notwithstanding how well Auburn and North Carolina are playing. Accordingly, we think the Wildcats’ chances of advancing to the Final Four are 40%.

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ACC Conversation: Sweet Sixteen Preview

Posted by The ACC Team on March 27th, 2019

Rush the Court ACC microsite writers Brad Jenkins, Matt Auerbach and Mick McDonald got together this week to take a look back at the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament while also looking ahead to this week’s regional action.

Tony Bennett hope that Kyle Guy regains his shooting touch and leads Virginia to its first Final Four since 1984. (Amber Searls/USA TODAY Sports)

Brad Jenkins: Here we go. The ACC proved its strength at the top by putting five teams in the Sweet Sixteen. But before we discuss the outlook for those schools, any thoughts on the league’s two early exit squads — Louisville and Syracuse?

Mick McDonald: I was surprised Louisville lost the way it did, but who could have counted on Minnesota shooting the ball like that? I’m not sure the Gophers will EVER have another shooting night like that.

Matt Auerbach: Let me just reiterate for the eleven hundredth time how disappointing Syracuse’s season was. The Orange were never the team I expected them to be, and maybe that’s just on me. Certainly the absence of Frank Howard was an issue against Baylor, but this year was just wildly uneven for them from start to finish. As for Louisville, despite the tough finish to the year, I would call Chris Mack’s first year a success. With a strong recruiting class coming and the development of his young players — particularly Jordan Nwora — I expect a big year two for the Cardinals under Mack.

Mick McDonald: And yes, the future is very bright for the Cardinals. Chris Mack will have them in the top 10 in the next two years.

Brad Jenkins: Agreed. The Orange and Clemson must be the biggest disappointments in the league this year after returning their cores from a pair of Sweet Sixteen clubs a year ago. And Louisville is certainly headed for great things soon. Now on to the survivors. Let’s take a look at the ACC teams in action on Thursday this week, starting with Virginia in the South Region in Louisville. Thoughts on the Cavaliers’ chances there?

Mick McDonald: Look, Oregon wasn’t very good this year. Once Bol Bol got hurt, the Ducks didn’t really have an identity. But give Dana Altman credit. He figured out that they just needed to become a super-athletic, defensive freak type of team, with a great point guard in Payton Pritchard. They are the type of big, athletic club that can give Virginia’s offense trouble. Can Oregon score on Virginia? Not very likely. First to 50 wins?

Matt Auerbach: I still think Virginia is the favorite to win the Tournament, but I’m really a little worried about the Oregon match-up. The Ducks had a really poor overall season, but there is no denying they are currently playing some of the best basketball out there, particularly on the defensive end of the court. This game is tricky for me, because if both teams play their best, Virginia definitely wins — if not, Oregon may get them. I think if the Cavaliers win convincingly, they will rout the winner of Tennessee and Purdue on their way to the Final Four.

Mick McDonald: I’d like to see a statement game from De’Andre Hunter. He looked a little tentative in the Oklahoma game, and this is the type of game that will lend itself to taking over the offense at points. Also, Mamadi Diakite apparently finally putting all the tools together could not have happened at a better time. He looked fantastic in Virginia’s first two games and has given it that interior scoring option they have so badly needed.

Brad Jenkins: I admit that I was really worried when Virginia got down 14 points in the first half to Gardner-Webb. All I could think about was dreading having to go to the postgame presser and seeing those kids crushed again. Thankfully they pulled it together. And like Tony Bennett said, they defended like Virginia for 40 minutes against Oklahoma. I see them doing the same in Louisville and coming out OK. Any concerns about Kyle Guy’s sudden shooting slump?

Mick McDonald: Not really. He got some good looks against Oklahoma — they just didn’t go down. I worry a bit about him getting bullied and not being able to get open against Oregon, but if he gets enough open looks, he will knock some down. Shooters shoot, as the saying goes.

Matt Auerbach: I wouldn’t be concerned about Guy, but with the way Kenny Wooten is throwing shots back, Guy will need to make some perimeter shots — something he did better than just about anyone all year.

Brad Jenkins: Now on to the West Region semifinal rematch between Florida State and Gonzaga. Can the Seminoles pull off the upset again?

Mick McDonald: Florida State is good enough to beat any team in the country and I actually think they match up as well as a team can against Gonzaga. They have sufficient athletes to throw at Rui Hachimura and Brandon Clarke that should be able to rattle them. The key for me: Can Josh Perkins handle physical athletes like Trent Forrest, Terrance Mann and David Nichols that Leonard Hamilton? If he turns the ball over more than a normal rate, I like Florida State’s chances.

Matt Auerbach: Why not? They’ve been about as impressive as anyone else after the first weekend. Eleven deep, with that length and experience. I can certainly see it happening again, but not easily. People will focus on Killian Tillie playing this year, but the X-factor is Brandon Clarke — he’s almost a Seminole prototype on the other side, and I think he presents a lot of issues for Leonard Hamilton’s team on both ends.

Mick McDonald: Great point on Clarke, Matt. He is such a force on the inside, most teams have to be very worried about getting their bigs in foul trouble against him. The Seminoles have less of a worry because they are so deep.

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Oregon is Incredibly Hot: Does it Matter?

Posted by Adam Butler on March 26th, 2019

In the general realm of sport, we are often quick to relegate a team’s temperature. A team is – often obviously – HOT if they’ve won a series of consecutive games. Of course they are COLD if the opposite is true. In this time of survival and advancement, the latter is mostly irrelevant, the former, however, is heavily debated.

Oregon Has Been Blasting the Competition Over the Last Month (USA Today Images)

Take, for example, the famed 2011 Kemba Walker Connecticut Huskies. They wrapped regular season play, losers of four of their last five games, seven of their past 11. They were frigid before they were scalding, famously sweeping through the Big East and NCAA Tournaments over the last month of the season. They finished hot. Conversely, Gerry McNamara’s 2006 Syracuse team heroically get heated up in the Big East Tournament, winning four games in four days. Their season salvaged, the darlings of the sport promptly lost in the first round of the NCAAs. In March, you’re perhaps only as good as your last game.

These Oregon Ducks, however, they’re hot. Are they the UConn kind of hot or the Syracuse kind? That’s difficult to say and is ultimately rooted in results. Focusing on process – and I suppose temperature, if that’s the case – the Ducks are on fire. They’ve won 10 straight games and have improved their defense by an astounding 20 points per 100 possessions. Over this streak, the Ducks are yielding just 0.82 points per possession. Extrapolated across the whole season that would place the Ducks a significant five points per 100 possessions better than the next best defense (Texas Tech). Of note, these are raw rather than adjusted numbers, but what is March but raw?

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SEC Burning Questions: NCAA Tournament Edition

Posted by David Changas on March 21st, 2019

The SEC enjoyed another successful season, with the league earning seven bids and potential for a few of those teams to get to the NCAA Tournament’s second weekend. Just a few hours before the first tip, let’s take a look at the biggest questions facing the league as the Big Dance begins.

P.J. Washington’s breakout season gives Kentucky a chance at a deep March run. (Courtesy: CBSSports.com)
  • Which SEC team has the best chance to go deep? Tennessee and Kentucky have been the league’s best two teams all year, despite LSU claiming the regular season title and Auburn winning the SEC Tournament. Both the Volunteers and Wildcats are capable of making a run to Minneapolis, but it says here that John Calipari‘s team has the best shot. With Keldon Johnson, Tyler Herro and Ashton Hagans leading the way in the backcourt, along with budding superstar P.J. Washington and graduate transfer godsend Reid Travis, the Wildcats are the league’s best bet to reach the Final Four and cut down the nets once they are there. This team is a far cry from the shaky group that got destroyed by Duke on opening night, and Big Blue Nation would salivate about getting another shot at the Blue Devils on an April Monday night.
  • Which SEC player will break out and make a national name for himself? Tennessee’s Jordan Bone did not earn first-team all-SEC honors this year, even though a case can be made that he is the Volunteers’ most valuable player. Many across the country already know that Bone is an excellent cog in Rick Barnes’ attack, but his importance to this team cannot be overstated. In Sunday’s SEC Tournament championship game, Bone was not himself, dishing out only two assists while committing three turnovers — he averages six assists and two turnovers a game — and the rest of his team followed suit. Tennessee will only go as far as Bone can take them, and he has the chance to elevate his reputation from being a really good player to becoming a great one this March.
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Big East Burning Questions: NCAA Tournament Edition

Posted by Justin Kundrat on March 20th, 2019

If a down year for the conference means four bids, then the conference certainly has nothing to complain about. All four Big East clubs were slotted roughly in line with expectations heading into Sunday and each has a winnable First Round game (or a play-in game for St. John‘s). Below are the burning questions facing each team as it prepares for the NCAA tournament:

Marquette: Will Markus Howard get back on track?

Marquette Will Go as Far As Markus Howard Can Take Them (USA Today Images)

As good of shooters as the Hauser brothers and Sacar Anim are, there’s no question the Marquette offense runs through Markus Howard. His red-hot shooting (40.8% 3FG) and ability to draw fouls (seventh-highest fouls drawn per 40 minutes) keep the Golden Eagles humming and give much needed spacing to his teammates. Tertiary scorers such as Joey Hauser and Anim are less efficient when Howard is not on the floor and the Marquette offense as a whole scores 10 fewer points per 100 possessions without him. That drops Marquette from an elite offense (23rd nationally) to a strikingly average one. In the team’s recent six-game stumble, Howard’s effective field goal percentage plummeted to 42.2 percent, compared with 53.5 percent in the games preceding it. So it’s no surprise then that some of the team’s worst performances correlate directly with an off night from their 5’11” star. Coupling these recent struggles with news of Howard’s hand injury is definitely cause for concern.

Villanova: How will the Wildcats perform on an off shooting night?

By this point, everyone knows that Villanova relies heavily on the three-pointer, having ranked among the top 40 nationally in three-point attempt rate for each of the last six seasons. This season, Jay Wright has taken that ambition to an extreme, with three-pointers accounting for 53.5 percent of Villanova’s shot attempts, good for third nationally. When they connect, defenses are forced to adjust, which opens up driving lanes and creates better spacing. But Villanova is decidedly average in its long-range accuracy this season, making the slumps feel that much longer when the shots continue to be fired. In the Big East Tournament, the Wildcats did a good job generating points at the line and around the basket during those inevitable cold spells, but it wasn’t always pretty and felt somewhat unsustainable. Wins are wins, but in the NCAA Tournament, the question will be whether Wright’s club can find offense when their shooting dries up. The rim-attacking abilities of Saddiq Bey and Jermaine Samuels will be critical.

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NCAA Tournament Instareaction: Big Ten Edition

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 17th, 2019

Below is a review of how the selection process concluded for each Big Ten team and what they should expect in the first few rounds of the upcoming NCAA Tournament.

Michigan State looks to carry its momentum into the Dance. (Dylan Buell/Getty Images)
  • Michigan State, #2 seed, East Region. Michigan State backed up its regular season conference co-title by beating Michigan on Sunday en route to the Big Ten Tournament title. It was the Spartans’ third win over the Wolverines in three weeks, giving them more Quadrant 1 wins than any team in America. Their reward? A potential date with #1 overall seed Duke in the Elite Eight. Of course, Tom Izzo’s club will have to get there first, which is easier said than done. Assuming it gets past #15 Bradley (and it’s never safe to assume), Michigan State would play either Louisville — a team it lost to in November — or Big Ten foe Minnesota in the Round of 32. Still, the Spartans are superior to both teams and should reach Washington, DC. Once there, a win over #3 LSU or #6 Maryland (or Cinderella) would set up a highly-anticipated matchup with the Blue Devils. With Cassius Winston at the helm and forward Nick Ward back in the lineup, Michigan State has enough depth and physicality to hang with the Blue Devils for 40 minutes. Whether it’s enough to beat a trio of top-5 NBA Draft picks remains to be seen.
  • Michigan, #2 seed, West Region. The Wolverines hung on to a #2 seed despite dropping five of their last 13 games, setting up a rematch with Montana, which they played in the First Round as well just last March. Like that contest, Michigan’s elite defense should have no problem shutting down the sharp-shooting Grizzlies. A Second Round date with #7 Nevada or #10 Florida — both inconsistent down the stretch — also poses little danger to last season’s National Runner-Up. A trip to Anaheim, however, would be a different story. Assuming #3 Texas Tech avoids another bizarre upset, Michigan would likely face the Red Raiders in a Sweet Sixteen matchup between the nation’s two stingiest defenses. Are the Wolverines capable of winning that game and knocking off #1 seed Gonzaga for another trip to the Final Four? Absolutely. But their up-and-down offense will have to start scoring more consistently for that to happen.
  • Wisconsin, #5 seed, South Region. What are we to make of the Badgers? Always beloved by advanced metrics, Wisconsin finished the season ranked #12 overall in KenPom thanks to a rock-solid defense that led the Big Ten in efficiency during conference play. Not to mention Ethan Happ (17.1 PPG, 10.5 RPG, 4.6 APG), who ranked among the league’s best in nearly every statistical category known to man. One category not worthy of praise, of course, is free throw shooting (46.5% FT), which has proved to be Happ’s — and perhaps the team’s — kryptonite this season. That could be an issue against a red-hot Oregon team that has size, length, and fouls at a high rate. The #12 Ducks are good enough to beat Wisconsin and may well do so if they grab an early lead. If the Badgers can control the game flow, though, wins against both Oregon and an equally methodical, defensive-minded Kansas State team in the Round of 32 are also within the realm of possibility. For a team with only one consistent offensive threat, a fourth Sweet Sixteen berth in five seasons is probably Wisconsin’s ceiling.
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