The Achilles’ Heels of Arizona, Oregon and UCLA

Posted by Richard Abeytia on February 18th, 2017

The Pac-12’s Big Three of Arizona, Oregon and UCLA (in no particular order) have spent most of the regular season displaying their numerous virtues, but for these three programs their ultimate referendum is going to be performance in the NCAA Tournament. The trio certainly won’t be the only Pac-12 schools to qualify for the Big Dance this season, but they will be expected to carry the banner for the Conference of Champions deep into March (last men’s basketball championship: Arizona, 1997). So what to make of the Wildcats, Ducks and Bruins as we approach three weeks until Selection Sunday? Their talent is unquestioned, but each team carries at least one potentially tragic flaw that must be reconciled if it has plans on booking a trip to the Final Four.

Arizona: Inexperience

Lauri Markkanen is a potentially game-changing talent, but will his inexperience catch up to him in the Big Dance? (Getty)

No team epitomizes the conference’s youthful resurgence like Arizona. In Pac-12 play, freshmen Lauri Markkanen, Rawle Alkins and Kobi Simmons represent nearly half of Arizona’s field goal attempts and scoring. That hasn’t mattered until recently, but a reckoning more commonly known as “The Freshman Wall” is imminent. Rare is the first-year collegian who can completely sidestep a prolonged dip in performance. Markannen recently went through a two-week stretch of poor performances, punctuated by four-point, three-rebound stinker at Oregon. Simmons has also struggled with inconsistency in league play. His masterpiece against UCLA was the precursor to an ineffective 2-of-7 game against Utah. Another inconsistent swing through Oregon cost Simmons his starting job, and his 19 minutes against Stanford represented a season low. He bounced back somewhat against California with 13 points and three assists, but he doesn’t seem quite as comfortable as he once did. Alkins also struggled against the Oregon schools, but he played well in recent games against Stanford and Washington State. Teams have certainly won NCAA titles led by talented youth, but it’s also not hard to imagine a team like Arizona cracking against a veteran-laden athletic group like Villanova. Arizona has plenty of time to find greater consistency among its freshman corps, but like the rest of us, Sean Miller is probably still wondering what are his young Wildcats made of?

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Oklahoma State’s Recent Surge Could Lead to the NCAAs

Posted by Justin Fedich on February 18th, 2017

On January 18, Oklahoma State found itself alone in last place in the Big 12, staring up at the likes of Texas and Oklahoma in the standings with zero conference wins to its name. A team that had through the non-conference season appeared poised to make a run to the NCAA Tournament under first-year head coach Brad Underwood, wondered what had gone so wrong. “We’ve got to show and have some competitive pride,” Underwood said at after his team had dropped 96-88 home game to Kansas State.

Brad Underwood Has Turned His Team’s Season Around (USA Today Images)

Over the past month, the Cowboys have done just that. Since their 0-6 start, the Cowboys have won seven of their last eight games thanks to clear improvement on both ends of the floor. Oklahoma State’s defense will never be considered great, but a team that allowed an average of 85.6 points per game during its losing streak has held every opponent since to 76 points or fewer. On the offensive end, the Cowboys rank second in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency, behind only the record-setting group at UCLA. One of the keys for Underwood has been players other than Jawun Evans and Phil Forte contributing more consistently. As a result, Oklahoma State has made an improbable comeback to position itself for an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.

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This Weekend in the ACC: February 18

Posted by Mick McDonald on February 18th, 2017

Here are a few things to keep your eye on around the ACC this weekend (all times Eastern):

Saturday, 12:00 PM: Clemson (14-11, 4-9) at Miami (17-8, 7-6) — This is an important game between two ACC bubble teams. The Tigers enter the weekend just 4-9 in conference play, but given a strong performance in non-conference action combined with a weak bubble nationally, they can probably sneak into the NCAA Tournament with an 8-10 league record. That means winning two of their three tricky remaining games (they also visit Virginia Tech and host Florida State), starting with Miami this weekend. The Hurricanes will be without starting point guard Ja’Quan Newton for the second straight game as he serves a three-game suspension, but Jim Larranaga‘s club should have enough defensive length to handle Clemson star Jaron Blossomgame. The key in this contest will be how, without the services of Newton, Miami chooses to defend the Tigers’ three-pronged backcourt attack of Shelton Mitchell, Avery Holmes and Marcquise Reed.

Jayson Tatum has led the Blue Devils turnaround. Can he now lead them back to the Final Four? (Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

Saturday, 1:00 PM: Wake Forest (15-11, 6-8) at Duke (21-5, 9-4) — Duke’s current six-game winning streak has renewed discussion of the Blue Devils as the ACC favorite. Freshman Jayson Tatum is a big reason why — the versatile forward is averaging 15.8 points and 8.2 rebounds per game while shooting 52 percent from three-point range during those six games. Playing mostly as a small four, Tatum is a match-up nightmare who has shown he can make clutch jump shots when Duke needs them. Look for Tatum to have a monster afternoon, as Wake Forest does not have a good defensive option to counter his quickness on the perimeter. Read the rest of this entry »

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Inside the ACC Numbers: Volume V

Posted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on February 17th, 2017

Here is the latest edition of our weekly review of the current ACC standings and team performances where we focus on which teams are playing better or worse than their records indicate. Each week we delve into advanced metrics to reveal a few interesting teams, player statistics, and trends. This week we will compare how ACC teams defend the three-point line. Finally, we forecast how the final ACC standings may look given current efficiency margins, and what that means for teams’ postseason aspirations.

Note: All data is current for games played through Wednesday, February 15.

Current Standings

ACC teams continue to be bunched close together at the top of the standings as well as in efficiency margins — the schools that have played easier conference schedules look better in points per possession. Things are about to even out with respect to schedule difficulty, however, among the league’s top six squads. Here’s what each of those schools has remaining against one another:

  • North Carolina (4 games) – Virginia, Louisville, @ Virginia, Duke
  • Louisville (2) – @ North Carolina, Notre Dame
  • Duke (2) – Florida State, @ North Carolina
  • Virginia (2) – @ North Carolina, North Carolina
  • Florida State (1) – @ Duke
  • Notre Dame (1) – @ Louisville

North Carolina clearly has the toughest remaining slate, but at least three of those four difficult contests will come in the Smith Center where the Tar Heels have yet to taste defeat this season. Florida State and Notre Dame have the easiest closing batch of games, with just one each against the rest of the top tier. According to KenPom, North Carolina’s conference schedule has been about four points per game easier than those faced by the Seminoles and Irish. That gap is about to shrink considerably, and by year end we would expect ACC strength of schedule to essentially even out among the top six contenders. Read the rest of this entry »

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Wisconsin’s Big Ten Title Hopes Depend on a Healthy Bronson Koenig

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on February 17th, 2017

Wisconsin’s exclusion from the NCAA Selection Committee’s recent preview bracket left many analysts scratching their heads, especially those located in the upper Midwest. How could the Badgers — 21-3 and on top of the Big Ten — not even garner a top-four seed? Legitimate gripe or not, the consternation in Madison quickly shifted to a far more meaningful issue plaguing Wisconsin: Its offense simply hasn’t been very good lately, especially since point guard Bronson Koenig injured his calf in late January. After back-to-back losses to Northwestern and Michigan, it’s becoming increasingly clear that, while Big Ten Player of the Year candidate Ethan Happ can keep Greg Gard‘s offense afloat, a fully-healthy Koenig will be critical to their shot at a conference title.

Ethan Happ can only do so much for Wisconsin without Bronson Koenig. (Rick Osentoski / USA TODAY Sports)

Since Koenig tweaked his calf against Penn State on January 24 (a seemingly minor issue at the time), Wisconsin has simply not been the same team. In the seven games leading up to his injury, the Badgers scored more than a point per possession (PPP) in six of those, including a 1.23 PPP effort at Indiana and a 1.33 PPP performance against Ohio State. In the six games since his mishap, Wisconsin has reached that threshold just once, and hasn’t topped 1.03 PPP at all (well below its season average). On Thursday night against Michigan, Gard decided to rule out Koenig in order to give him some extra rest; predictably, Wisconsin’s stagnation continued.

But why, exactly? After all, the Badgers have two all-conference caliber forwards in Nigel Hayes (13.6 PPG, 5.9 RPG) and Happ (14.2 PPG, 9.2 RPG), the latter of whom is undoubtedly the team’s best and most important offensive player. Entering Thursday night, Wisconsin was 16-0 when Happ finished the game with an offensive rating of 100.0 or better, and just 5-4 in games in which he didn’t. The 6’10” sophomore currently ranks among the Big Ten’s top-10 players in both offensive and defensive rebounding rate, assist rate, block rate, steals rate and free throw rate. His 60.6 percent effective field goal percentage is also among the league’s best, and he currently ranks fifth overall in KenPom’s National Player of the Year standings. Put more plainly, he’s a statistical monster, adept at carving out space in the paint and capitalizing on mismatches. “Happ is as good a pure post player as I’ve seen since I’ve been here,” Michigan head coach John Beilein said of the sophomore.

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ACC Transfers Making Their Presence Felt on the Bubble

Posted by Charlie Maikis on February 17th, 2017

Everyone is well aware that the top tier of the ACC consists of top 10 programs like North Carolina, Duke and Louisville. These schools tend to recruit at a high level nationally and develop much of their talent from within. In the middle of this year’s ACC standings, however, a number of key transfers have proven responsible for much of their teams’ current success. Bubble teams Virginia Tech, Syracuse and Clemson are anchored by at least two players who did not begin their careers in the league. Let’s examine how the these programs’ reliance on transfers this season have impacted their pushes toward the NCAA Tournament.

Syracuse

Syracuse Orange guard John Gillon (4) and forward Tyler Lydon (20) and guard Andrew White III (3) come off the court during a timeout in the second half of a game against the Miami Hurricanes at the Carrier Dome. (Mark Konezny/USA TODAY Sports)

Transfers: Andrew White III, John Gillon

Both Orange transfers are now on their third team and seem to have finally found a good fit. White spent two years at Kansas before transferring to Nebraska and ultimately ending up at Syracuse, whereas Gillon spent a season at Arkansas-Little Rock before playing two years at Colorado State and finally landing in upstate New York. The pair of seniors has given head coach Jim Boeheim a needed influx of talent after losing his top three scorers from last year’s Final Four squad. White and Gillon combine to average 28.6 points per game, but that might understate their abilities, though, as Gillon in particular has shown that he can put up monster numbers (43 points, nine assists, 9-of-10 3FG against NC State). While Syracuse has struggled of and on this season, the Orange will likely go as far as their pair of transfers can carry them.

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Pac-12 Power Rankings: Who Will Get the Fourth Bye?

Posted by RJ Abeytia on February 16th, 2017

With three weeks of league play left, both the the regular season title and the cherished final Pac-12 Tournament bye are still very much in play…

UCLA Basketball is Cool in LA Again (USA Today Images)

  1. Arizona– The Wildcats are experiencing their three talented freshmen (Lauri Markannen, Kobi Simmons and Rawle Alkins) running smack into the proverbial freshman wall. Despite that ongoing issue, they were still able to sweep the Bay Area schools without playing their best basketball. One of the biggest signs for optimism comes in the form of Chance Comanche, who has fortified Arizona’s post rotation by shooting 17-of-29 (59%) over the last two games.
  2. UCLA– How about a little love for Aaron Holiday? Upstaged by the arrival of superstar freshman Lonzo Ball, the sophomore guard has drastically improved upon what was a very good freshman campaign. He has already converted more three-pointers than all of last season (42) and has flipped his assist rate (24.4%) and turnover rates (21.5%) as well. He isn’t playing as much this season, but he is still a key cog in the Bruins’ devastating offensive machine.
  3. Oregon– The Ducks were about 15 minutes away from looking like the best team in the Pac-12. A furious comeback, however, orchestrated by UCLA’s Lonzo Ball proved that the conference is still up for grabs. As balanced as Oregon is across its rotation, the need for a closer is still an issue. Dillon Brooks has played that role very well for most of this season, but when he’s having an off game, the Ducks need another player to provide late-game production. Read the rest of this entry »
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Freeze Frame: Kentucky’s Reboot

Posted by Brian Joyce on February 16th, 2017

Late in conference play is usually the point when young teams start to click. John Calipari’s latest edition of a young team at Kentucky, however, appeared to be regressing during a recent five-game stretch where the Wildcats lost three games. Over that period, his team was held under a point per possession three times — after doing so only twice to that point in the season — and gave up more than a point per possession to all five opponents. It wasn’t a very good run of play, but perhaps the predicted demise of Kentucky came far too soon.

Will Calipari’s latest reboot work to turn around the Wildcats? (image via CBS Sports)

Calipari’s defense came together on the road against Alabama on Saturday (holding the Tide to 0.83 points per possession), and his team followed that up with its most complete performance in almost a month against Tennessee earlier this week. What did Kentucky recently change that Calipari hopes to ride into March? In this edition of Freeze Frame, we examine several factors that will help the Wildcats keep their winning streak alive.

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Kansas’ Kryptonite: Five Teams That Can Cause Problems for the Jayhawks

Posted by Brian Goodman on February 16th, 2017

Monday night’s memorable comeback win over West Virginia effectively sealed Kansas’ record-tying 13th straight Big 12 title — if not mathematically, then symbolically. Yes, Baylor could topple the Jayhawks on Saturday in Waco to pull within a single game in the standings with two weeks left, but the Bears also must face the same Mountaineers team that steamrolled them last month and travel to Hilton Coliseum. Even if Baylor were to beat the odds and win out, Kansas’ finale in Stillwater represents the only other remaining game it could foreseeably lose, as its other three match-ups are home tilts against TCU and Oklahoma and a road game against Texas. And even if the improbable occurs and Kansas drops its final game along with Baylor winning its last five, the Jayhawks would still be in possession of a share of the conference title. So while the confetti may not officially fly in Lawrence for a couple more weeks, the gameday crew can start stocking up on cannons and CO2 without much apprehension. As far as March is concerned, Kansas’ status as the champion of the nation’s toughest conference may cement its standing as a #1 seed no matter what happens at the Big 12 Tournament.

Devonte’ Graham and the Jayhawks are on the cusp of yet another Big 12 title. (AP Photo)

We know that Kansas has a National Championship ceiling because it boasts three-point shooters all over the floor, one of the game’s best coaches, a one-and-done wing who is becoming more impressive by the day, and a penchant for closing out tight games in preparation for single-elimination basketball. On the other hand, though, those close games have revealed some weaknesses that opponents can exploit to send the Jayhawks home early. With their fate as a top-two NCAA Tournament seed all but assured, it’s not too early to look around the rest of the field and identify a handful of teams that could give Kansas some serious headaches when the brackets are revealed 24 days from today.

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Angry Melo Trimble Keeps Maryland in Big Ten Race

Posted by Brendan Brody on February 16th, 2017

If Wednesday night’s performance at Northwestern is any indication, Melo Trimble’s recent shooting slump is officially over. The junior guard came into Evanston having made only three of his last 22 attempts from the three-point line, but according to Maryland head coach Mark Turgeon, Trimble was “pissed off” by some of the comments made about his shooting prowess. The normally reserved guard responded to the criticism with a career-high 32 points on 12-of-17 shooting (4-of-5 from behind the arc) in yet another big road win. Not only does the 74-64 victory keep Maryland’s shot at a Big Ten regular season title alive, but it also shows as March quickly approaches that the Terrapins have a superstar capable of taking over games. The Terps are now 10-3 in Big Ten play, tied with Purdue for second in the standings and just a half-game back of league-leading Wisconsin. In a coincidental twist of scheduling fate, Maryland travels next to Madison to face the Badgers in the Kohl Center on Sunday afternoon. Keeping in mind that the team is 6-1 on the road in Big Ten action this season, another outstanding performance in an opponent’s building could mean that the Big Ten pole position is well within reach.

Melo Trimble torched Northwestern for a career-high 32 points on Wednesday night. (USA Today Images)

Trimble reminded everyone last night that he can carry the offensive load if needed. With Purdue’s Caleb Swanigan and Wisconsin’s Ethan Happ taking turns making headlines as the two best players in the Big Ten, Trimble has quietly ceded center stage while remaining an all-Big Ten caliber player. Advanced metrics do not show much faith in the Terrapins (KenPom ranks Maryland 32nd nationally, for example), but it is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore a 22-4 team that is a robust 6-1 against the top 50. Steady play from freshmen Justin Jackson, Anthony Cowan and Kevin Huerter has relieved some of the pressure from Trimble, but few teams around college basketball have a legitimate and experienced gamer who has played in two NCAA Tournaments and embraces the big moment. If last night’s performance turns out to be the beginning of a Maryland run into March, it will be because Trimble led the way.

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