Do-Everything Seniors Supporting Transition Year at Pittsburgh

Posted by Charlie Maikis on December 2nd, 2016

When Pittsburgh hired Kevin Stallings away from Vanderbilt last March, some were skeptical of how it would work out. Stepping into a new program in a much tougher conference, Stallings faces numerous long-term challenges. The one area where he found an immediate advantage is that he inherited the 22nd-most experienced roster in college basketball (per KenPom), led by two of the ACC’s best players: seniors Michael Young and Jamel Artis. On the backs of their leadership and talent, the Panthers have begun the Stallings era with a 6-1 record against a good schedule, including a decisive win at Maryland in this week’s ACC/Big Ten Challenge.

Seniors Jamel Artis and Michael Young have lifted coach Kevin Stallings to a hot start to his Pittsburgh career. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

Seniors Jamel Artis and Michael Young have lifted Kevin Stallings to a hot start to his Pittsburgh career. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

Almost everything Stallings’ team does begins and ends with the senior duo. The pair uses a combined 58.3 percent of the team’s possessions while playing over 80 percent of the available minutes. At 6’9″, Young anchors the team down low while the 6’7″ Artis acts as a point forward. The two highest ACC scorers thus far, Artis and Young combine to average 43.3 points per game while converting at high rates from the field (51%), three-point line (37%) and foul line (83%). Stopping just one of these two scorers is difficult enough, but teams are finding that limiting both is a near impossibility. The pair have gone for 20+ points in five of Pitt’s seven games this season and have made or assisted an astonishing 77 percent of Pitt’s field goals this season. Young also ranks among the top 500 players nationally in offensive (8.0%) and defensive rebounding (18.6%) rates as well as block percentage (4.2%); whereas Artis ranks among the top 300 nationally in turnover rate (10.7%).
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Has Notre Dame’s Mike Brey Done It Again?

Posted by Mick McDonald on December 1st, 2016

We are now just a few weeks into the season and only two ACC teams remain undefeated. Virginia has been as good as expected, with the Cavaliers handling the unexpected loss of Austin Nichols by using a committee-like approach we laid out when the news broke. The other unbeaten team, Notre Dame, may surprise many who haven’t paid attention to teams outside the Top 25. The Irish have played seven games to this point, four against low-major competition (Bryant, Seattle, Loyola (MD) and Chicago State) — which they have won by an average of 33.5 points per game — and three against middling high-majors. There are a pair of neutral court victories over KenPom top 60 teams Colorado and Northwestern, and an ACC/Big Ten Challenge home win over Iowa. All three of those wins figure to be solid top 100 wins for head coach Mike Brey‘s team come Selection Sunday.

The Notre Dame faithful is trusting that Mike Brey's system will prevail this season. (AP)

The Notre Dame faithful is trusting that Mike Brey’s system will prevail this season. (AP)

Most pundits figured that, after an outstanding two-year run punctuated by back-to-back Elite Eight appearances, Notre Dame was due for a fall thanks to the losses of star guard Demetrius Jackson and dependable forward Zach Auguste. It’s no easy task to replace a tandem that produced nearly 30 points, 14 rebounds and six assists per game, but it’s not like Brey’s teams haven’t done this before. Just last year, Notre Dame entered the season having lost stars Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton. The lesson is to never underestimate Brey’s ability to develop the next man up, and it appears that many observers may have made that same mistake again this season. Junior Bonzie Colson has led the way for this year’s version, averaging 17.2 points and 9.7 rebounds per game. He has become Brey’s go-to offensive player, using nearly 27 percent of the team’s possessions as he has blossomed into a terrific scorer.
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Syracuse’s Shooting Makes These Orange Especially Dangerous

Posted by Charlie Maikis on November 29th, 2016

Syracuse basketball has long built its identity on defense, as head coach Jim Boeheim’s 2-3 zone has flummoxed opponents with its length, athleticism and schemes for several decades now. Five games into this season, the Orange again own an exceptional defense (sixth nationally, per KenPom) that is predicated on holding opponents to the lowest effective field goal percentage in college basketball (36.5% eFG) and the lowest three-point percentage in the nation (20.3% 3FG). Where this year’s team is different, however, is on the offensive end of the court. So far Boeheim’s club is taking over a third of its shots from behind the arc and scoring over a third of its points from there, something just one other Syracuse team of the last five years has done — his Final Four darlings from a season ago.

Jim Boeheim's team looks to be set for a postseason run. (Getty)

Jim Boeheim’s team looks to be set for a postseason run. (Getty)

Boeheim recruits players that fit well into his defensive scheme — guys that are rangy and athletic enough to rotate quickly into gaps while running shooters off the three-point line, clog passing lanes and protect the paint. In many but not all cases, those players are not well-suited to become long-distance offensive threats. That is why versatile players such as Tyler Lydon can make all the difference for Boeheim’s teams. On the way to last year’s Final Four, Lydon averaged 1.8 blocks and 1.1 steals per game while spacing the floor on the other end to the tune of 41 percent shooting from three-point range. This season the sensational sophomore is at it again (1.4 BPG, 1.0 SPG, 50% 3FG) as the Orange have gotten off to a solid 4-1 start with the only loss coming at #20 South Carolina. Being able to defend at a very high level in the 2-3 zone while also providing a legitimate offensive threat is an invaluable asset for Boeheim’s team as the Orange run their system in the rugged ACC.

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ACC M5: Early Season Tournaments, Part III Edition

Posted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on November 23rd, 2016

morning5_ACC

Note: To gauge relative team strength, we use current KenPom ratings.

  1. AdvoCare Invitational: Miami (#17) will travel a few hours north to participate in Orlando’s AdvoCare Invitational. This event has a sneaky good field this year — one of the best of Feast Week. The Hurricanes open play against Stanford (#64) on Thanksgiving Day (ESPN2 – 2:30 PM) and then hopefully will take on the winner of Iowa State (#30) and Indiana State (#163) on Friday. Three powerful teams are lurking on the other side of the bracket, with Gonzaga (#20), Florida (#13) and Seton Hall (#36) all vying to make it to Sunday afternoon’s championship game (ESPN – 1:30 PM). Jim Larranaga’s team burst onto the national scene last year by winning the Puerto Rico Tip-Off in convincing fashion. Miami’s head coach would love to repeat that performance in Orlando this week.
  2. Wooden Legacy: After three easy home wins to start the season, Virginia Tech (#45) will head out west for the Wooden Legacy in Orange County. There are two other top-80 clubs in the Hokies’ half of the draw, so getting to Sunday night’s finals (ESPN – 8:30 PM) will be a challenge. Virginia Tech will take on New Mexico (#80) in Thursday’s opening round (ESPN – 4:30 PM) and then will meet either Texas A&M (#33) or Cal State Northridge (#184) on Friday. The top schools in the opposite side of the bracket are UCLA (#23) and Dayton (#38). With only two other non-conference opponents rated in the top 275 remaining on their schedule, it is very important that Buzz Williams’ club performs well in California this week.
  3. Barclays Center Classic: The ACC will be back in Brooklyn later this week as Boston College (#191) plays in the Barclays Center Classic beginning with a match-up against Kansas State (#41) on Friday (RSN – 7:00 PM). The other semifinal game will feature former ACC member Maryland (#54) taking on Richmond (#97). The Eagles will be heavy underdogs in this event but they can still take some positives from it even if they drop both games. This weekend’s pair of games will be Boston College’s only non-league action against good competition, which should serve to help prepare a young team for what it will face once ACC play begins in January.
  4. Emerald Coast Classic: Virginia (#4) travels south to Niceville, Florida, for the Emerald Coast Classic, a four-team tournament. The Cavaliers will square off with Iowa (#59) in one of Friday’s semifinals (CBSSN – 7:00 PM) and hope to advance to the championship game on Saturday (CBSSN – 7:00 PM) against the winner of Providence (#63) and Memphis (#98). It’s safe to say that the team that draws Tony Bennett’s group will have its hands full with the Cavaliers’ incredibly stingy defense. Virginia is allowing opponents to score a measly 38.7 points per game through its first four contests.
  5. Brooklyn Hoops Holiday Invitational: This is a non-traditional event in which the games are pre-scheduled. Syracuse (#8) hosts three games as part of the event and then heads to Brooklyn for the finale of the Brooklyn Hoops Holiday Invitational on Saturday afternoon (ESPN3 – 2:30 PM). There, the Orange will take on South Carolina (#58) in a Power-5 matchup. For those keeping score, that game will be one of seven played by ACC squads in the Barclays Center in a six-day period. In less than two weeks, Jim Boeheim will bring his squad back to the Big Apple as Syracuse hooks up with former Big East foe Connecticut in Madison Square Garden on December 5.
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ACC M5: Early Season Tournaments, Part II Edition

Posted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on November 21st, 2016

morning5_ACCNote: To gauge relative team strength, we use current KenPom ratings.

  1. Maui Invitational: North Carolina (#5) will be the favorite in the Maui Invitational, the marquee event of this season’s Feast Week. The Tar Heels will face host Chaminade in tonight’s opening round (ESPN2 – 11:30 PM) and followed by either Oklahoma State (#61) or Connecticut (#67) in Tuesday’s semifinals. With that draw, North Carolina should easily advance into Wednesday’s championship game (ESPN2 – 9:30 PM). Oregon (#9) and Wisconsin (#10) — two other top 10 teams — are on the other half of the bracket. North Carolina will look to add to its past success in this event, having won three previous titles in Lahaina in 1999, 2004 and 2008. Roy Williams’ team started its trip to the Hawaiian Islands late last week with an 83-68 win at Hawaii on Friday night.
  2. Legends Classic: The Barclays Center in Brooklyn will be the site of the next two ACC Tournaments so it is no coincidence that the facility is hosting four early season events that feature ACC schools this season. The Legends Classic is the first of those events, with Notre Dame (#33) joining a competitive four-team field. The Irish will meet Colorado (#51) tonight (ESPN2 – 7:00 PM), followed by Texas (#47) taking on Northwestern (#60). The winners will play in Tuesday night’s championship game (ESPN2 – 6:00 PM). With these four teams so evenly matched, expect Notre Dame to compete in two close games with a chance to pick up a pair of quality wins.
  3. Global Sports Shootout: Georgia Tech (#106) is one of two ACC schools that chose not to play in a traditional winners-advance tournament. Instead, the Yellow Jackets’ exempt event — the Global Sports Shootout — consists of four separate home games against mid-level competition. The last of those games will take place on Tuesday night (ACCN – 7:30 PM) when Georgia Tech hosts Sam Houston State (#148). Josh Pastner‘s team is 2-1 in these games after dropping Friday night’s contest to Ohio (#84), but the Jackets handily defeated Tennessee Tech (#268) and Southern (#271). Junior center Ben Lammers has been a standout so far, averaging 16.7 points, 11.3 rebounds, and an impressive 6.0 blocks per game.
  4. Battle 4 Atlantis: This will be Louisville‘s (#7) second appearance in the Battle 4 Atlantis event. In November 2012 the Cardinals lost to Duke in the finals of this event, although Rick Pitino‘s squad got its revenge in the Elite Eight by beating the Blue Devils handily on its way to the National Championship. As usual the Bahamas will host a highly competitive field, with all eight teams ranked among the top third of college basketball (per KenPom). Louisville faces the lowest-rated team in its opener against Old Dominion (#108) on Wednesday night (AXS – 9:30 PM). On Thanksgiving Day, the Cardinals will take on the winner of Wichita State (#23) and LSU (#87). On the other side of the bracket, Michigan State (#21), Baylor (#22) and VCU (#34) are all capable of making it to Friday afternoon’s championship game (ESPN/ESPN2 – 3:30 PM).
  5. NIT Season Tip-Off: Another ACC team will be playing in Brooklyn this week, as Florida State (#36) also ventures to the Barclays Center for the NIT Season Tip-Off. The Seminoles will battle Temple (#115) on Thanksgiving Day (ESPNU – 12:30 PM), and if they win that game, they will probably get a shot at West Virginia (#18) in Friday’s championship (ESPN2 – 3:00 PM). Two wins in Brooklyn would be huge for Leonard Hamilton‘s squad, as Florida State needs some impressive victories to put on its pre-conference resume. The Seminoles have not done so well in the non-conference phase of its schedule the last few years, so this represents a great opportunity to change that trend.
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With Austin Nichols Gone at Virginia, Who Takes His Place?

Posted by Mick McDonald on November 18th, 2016

Earlier this evening, Virginia made a shocking announcement that not only affects the outlook of the Cavaliers season, but that of the entire ACC. Forward Austin Nichols, who sat out last season after transferring from Memphis, has been dismissed from the program. In the announcement, Tony Bennett said, “It’s a privilege to be a part of this program and Austin has lost that privilege. We have standards for our student-athletes and when those standards aren’t met, there are consequences and this is the unfortunate consequence.”

Despite some issues at Memphis, Nichols had (apparently) been a model citizen in Charlottesville during the 2015-16 season while he was practicing with the team. It was a bit of an eyebrow raiser when Nichols was suspended for Virginia’s first game of this year, and there were a few questions asked when he came off the bench in the Cavaliers’ second contest against St. Francis (Brooklyn). Still, nobody expected this to be the next act in this saga.

When Anthony Gill graduated following last season, most in the Virginia program weren’t worried thanks to the presence of Nichols. They felt Nichols could replace Gill by stepping right into the role of an effective scorer on the low block and an elite shot blocker on the defensive end of the floor.

Isaiah Wilkins is one of several Cavaliers who will need to step up in the absence of Austin Nichols. (AP Photo/Ryan M. Kelly)

No one player on the roster can solely take over for Nichols so it will take a committee. On the offensive end, Isaiah Wilkins will be asked to be more of a volume scorer. Through two games, Wilkins is shooting 62.5% from the field, and he will now have to be the go-to scorer in the Virginia frontcourt, a role he has never played before. He is much more of an inside-out scorer than a typical back-to-the-basket player, however. That role will likely go to Jarred Reuter, who played sparingly last year but is a favorite of Tony Bennett thanks to his creative back-to-the-basket play. He has averaged 17 minutes per game in the Cavaliers first two contests, and you can expect that to rise in the coming games. Finally, they will need to replace Nichols on the defensive end, which will fall to Jack Salt and Mamadi Diakite. Both Salt and Diakite are quite raw with Salt playing limited minutes last season and Diakite redshirting, but both can be effective defenders. Salt is a bruiser at 6’10” and 240 pounds and can be a load to try to keep off the boards. Diakite is smaller at 6’9” and 195 pounds, but Bennett loves his athleticism. He should end up being an excellent shot blocker, but it remains to be seen how he will handle the physicality of the ACC.

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On Dennis Smith Jr.’s Early Struggles…

Posted by Charlie Maikis on November 18th, 2016

Dennis Smith, Jr. entered college basketball as one of the most hyped NC State prospects in recent memory. ACC media selected him as preseason Rookie of the Year, fifth in preseason Player of the Year and a preseason All-ACC First Team selection. The precocious point guard was expected to combine with veterans such as Abdul-Malik Abu, Beejay Anya, and Maverick Rowan to help the Wolfpack make a move up the pecking order of the ACC standings. And while NC State has won its first two games of the season — both home wins against mid-majors — Smith has struggled, averaging just 11.5 points per game on 27.3% shooting (0-of-7 from three-point range). Are Smith’s early issues just a sign of the steep learning curve of playing at a new level, or are his struggles caused by something else?

One of the most heralded recruits to enter the NC State program, Dennis Smith Jr. has struggled a bit coming out of the gates. (Addidas)

One of the most heralded recruits to enter the NC State program, Dennis Smith Jr. has struggled coming out of the gates. (Adidas)

Smith’s shooting is clearly the first area on which to focus. The freshman is 6-of-22 from the field to start his career, and per Synergy Sports, has yet to make a spot-up jumper or score out of an isolation situation (0-of-8). He is quickly learning that college-level defense is quite a bit more physical and complicated than it was in high school. As a result, he is taking too many contested, off-the-dribble jumpers and bad shots when he penetrates too deeply into the lane. When he does find a good shot inside, he has also struggled to finish as the added physicality of the college game hs affected him. His shooting stroke should come around with additional open looks — one positive sign is that he has gone 11-of-13 from the line — but it is clear that the game still needs to slow down. Read the rest of this entry »

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Two Key Players Off to Promising Starts in Virginia

Posted by Mick McDonald on November 18th, 2016

Virginia and Virginia Tech are both off to 2-0 starts with both teams posting a pair of easy victories. Given the quality of their opponents, these results were neither surprising nor particularly interesting. However, one takeaway from the first week of action is that a pair of players we thought might be key to their success are off to promising starts. The caveat of course is that this is just two games against sub-175 KenPom teams, but fans of both the Cavaliers and Hokies should be optimistic about what they have already seen from Marial Shayok and Ahmed Hill.

Marial Shayok as a consistent scoring threat will be key for Virginia. (Jim Dedmon/USA TODAY Sports)

Shayok has been a source of frustration for Virginia since his arrival two seasons ago. He has regularly mixed snippets of his obvious talent with games where he was a complete non-factor. The Cavaliers could afford to live with his volatility when Malcolm Brogdon was around to provide offensive punch, but the time has come for Shayok to be a more consistent presence. After one week of action: so far, so good. Although Virginia has spread the wealth with nine players averaging between 6.0 and 12.0 points per game, Shayok so far leads the way (11.5 PPG). He has clearly embraced his role as a go-to scorer and his improved mid-range game has resulted in shooting a scorching 64.3 percent from the field. After the victory over St. Francis (Brooklyn) on Tuesday night, Shayok told reporters that plenty of offseason hard work has helped him feel less tired during games. He also noted that he “lost about 20 pounds because I stopped eating Domino’s and cookies.“ While less pizza and cookies is probably a good suggestion for all of us, Tony Bennett has to be pleased that Shayok has gotten serious about his conditioning and is much improved this season.

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Clemson’s Jaron Blossomgame Seeking Recognition and Relevance

Posted by Charlie Maikis on November 17th, 2016

Clemson has always been a football school, but don’t tell that to Jaron Blossomgame. Coming off an All-ACC season in which he won the conference’s Most Improved Player Award, the redshirt senior is now looking to lead the Tigers to their first NCAA Tournament berth since 2011. Clemson started the campaign with a win over Georgia at the new Littlejohn Coliseum last Friday night, and it will continue with an opening round game later this morning  against Davidson at the Tire Pros Invitational in Kissimmee, Florida. A lack of postseason success has prompted many to overlook Blossomgame as a legitimate candidate for All-America honors, but after averaging 18.7 points and 6.7 rebounds per game last year, “JB” comes into his final season looking to cement his status as one of the premier players in the nation.

Dec 18, 2015; Greenville, SC, USA; Clemson Tigers forward Jaron Blossomgame (5) celebrates during a timeout in the second half against the South Carolina Gamecocks at Bon Secours Wellness Arena. The Gamecocks won 65-59. Mandatory Credit: Dawson Powers-USA TODAY Sports

Jaron Blossomgame is poised for a monster season. (USA TODAY Sports)

A legitimate inside-out threat, Blossomgame’s versatility makes him very difficult to stop. Per Synergy Sports, he ranked in the 89th percentile nationally in points per possession on post-ups, but also shot an outstanding 44.6 percent from beyond the arc (on 102 attempts). There is no easy solution for guarding him — an opponent needs a player quick enough to chase him around the perimeter but also big enough to avoid his punishment on the blocks. The dearth of players around the country capable of defending Blossomgame allows him to take advantage of his spots. And yet, as lethal as he can be in the half-court, he may even more potent in transition. Between points and assists, Blossomgame created 1.604 points per possession in 53 transition opportunities last year. In last week’s opener, Blossomgame did just that — he picked his spots en route to 13 points on 5-of-10 shooting with six rebounds and three assists. While he is already an elite offensive threat, there are still areas in which the senior can improve. His three dimes last weekend matched his second-best output ever in that regard, and as assistant coach Steve Smith said about his improving passing ability, “we stress those things to him daily.” Blossomgame’s defense also has room to grow, as he and Donte Grantham inside last year proved incapable of containing opposing bigs to the tune of 1.17 points per possession.

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ACC M5: Early Season Tournaments, Part I Edition

Posted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on November 17th, 2016

morning5_ACC

Note: To gauge relative team strength, we use current KenPom ratings.

  1. Tire Pros Invitational: Clemson (#25) tips off the ACC’s early season tournament action a bit later this morning, taking on Davidson (#74) in the first round of the Tire Pros Invitational (ESPNU – 11:00 AM). This may look like a brand new event, but it’s actually a relocation, as the tournament previously known as the Puerto Rico Tip-off moved to Orlando because of concerns with the Zika virus. Clemson has a chance to pick up some impressive wins here, especially if the Tigers draw Xavier (#12) in the second round. Three more top-100 schools are on the opposite side of the bracket so, no matter what happens, the Tigers’ non-conference strength of schedule should get a healthy boost.
  2. Charleston Classic: A key for Wake Forest (#69) this year will be the development of its young post players, and sophomore John Collins has already answered the bell by averaging 18.5 points and 10.5 rebounds in the Deacons’ first two outings. Danny Manning hopes his young frontcourt holds up well as his team opens with UTEP (#217) this afternoon (ESPN3 – 1:30 PM) in the Charleston Classic. A win today would likely set up a meeting with mighty Villanova (#2) in one of Friday’s semifinals. The rest of the field in this event is not very strong, with host Charleston (#76) the favorite to come out of the other side of the bracket. The tournament finals will be played on Sunday night (ESPN2 – 9:30 PM).
  3. 2K Classic: Pittsburgh (#53) heads to Madison Square Garden tonight for the 2K Classic benefiting Wounded Warrior Project. The field is extremely balanced, with all four schools rated within 22 spots (KenPom) of one another. The Panthers face SMU (#34) in tonight’s opener (ESPN2 – 7:00 PM) with Marquette (#31) and Michigan (#37) squaring off in the nightcap. The two winners will meet in Friday night’s championship game (ESPN2 – 7:00 PM). Pitt is guaranteed to play two high-caliber teams here, but it needs to register at least one win to make this trip a true resume-builder.
  4. Paradise Jam: Unfortunately for Mark Gottfried, N.C. State (#46) will not be taking freshman forward Ted Kapita with it to the U.S. Virgin Islands. This makes the Wolfpack very thin up front heading into their Paradise Jam opener versus Montana (#172) on Friday night (CBSSN – 6:00 PM). If the Wolfpack can get past the Grizzlies, N.C. State would likely get Creighton (#33) on Sunday evening. Two other top-100 squads — St. Joseph’s (#88) and Mississippi (#84)  — are on the other side of the bracket, so this is a decent all-around field. The event’s championship will be contested on Monday night (CBSSN – 8:30 PM)
  5. Hall of Fame Tip-Off: Duke (#1) will try to shake off its first loss of the year — Tuesday’s buzzer-beater versus Kansas in the Champions Classic — by heading to Connecticut for the Hall of Fame Tip-Off event. The Blue Devils are likely to still be without their three injured star freshmen forwards, but they will meet Penn State (#103) on Saturday regardless (ESPN3 – 12:30 PM) followed by either Cincinnati (#22) or Rhode Island (#35) on Sunday afternoon (ESPN – 1:00 PM). In its current form, Duke could be vulnerable to tough-minded teams like the Bearcats and the Rams, so don’t be shocked if Sunday’s game is another nail-biter for Mike Krzyzewski‘s squad.
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