Analyzing Kentucky’s Improved Defense

Posted by Brian Joyce on March 22nd, 2017

Kentucky scored at least 100 points five separate times this year so it is no surprise that the Wildcats’ offense has grabbed most of the headlines. When the season was on the line on Sunday afternoon, however, it was instead a strong defensive performance that propelled John Calipari‘s club into the Sweet Sixteen. In a season-low 62-possession grinder with the Shockers, the Wildcats proved they can win with defense by shutting down one of the 10 best offenses in college basketball.

For reference on the defensive score sheet, refer to this previous post — http://rushthecourt.net/2012/04/10/charting-kentuckys-defense-in-the-championship-game/

Kentucky quietly owns a top 10 team defense (eighth in adjusted defensive efficiency, per KenPom), and it will need it to continue improving if this season is going to be extended. With UCLA looming and a potential Elite Eight matchup with North Carolina beyond that, the Wildcats will need to do better than allowing 97 points and 1.17 points per possession (PPP) to the Bruins and a season-high 100 points and 1.27 PPP to the Tar Heels.

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Getting to Know the Pac-12: Arizona

Posted by Mike Lemaire on March 16th, 2017

The footprint of the Arizona fan base is vast and the program’s history and prestige mean few teams on the West Coast get more media attention. But these Wildcats don’t have the same brand names and star power as some of their teams of the past. Casual college basketball fans in fact might have trouble naming more than two players in Arizona’s rotation. But Sean Miller‘s club is a fashionable Final Four pick right now, so there is plenty of time to get acquainted.

Who are the stars?

Allonzo Trier hasn’t missed a beat in his return from a steroid suspension. The sophomore is averaging better than 17 points per game and shoots more than 40 percent from downtown. He also chips in five rebounds per game and has more than doubled his assist rate (16.9%) this season. In short, Trier is becoming the all-around monster many expected him to become after a stellar freshman campaign in Tucson. He has scored at least 19 points in seven straight games and is clearly the team’s best all-around player.

Allonzo Trier is back and better than ever since his suspension. (James Snook/USA TODAY Sports)

Trier is not, however, the best future professional on the roster — that honor belongs to Finnish sensation Lauri Markkanen. After averaging 15.6 points and 7.1 rebounds per game and shooting an eye-popping 43 percent from behind the three-point arc, Markkanen is one of the hottest NBA prospects in college basketball. A college basketball unicorn, Markkanen is a legitimate seven-footer who Arizona utilizes as a matchup-wrecking gunner.

Rawle Alkins probably doesn’t belong in the same “star” category as Trier or Markkanen, but he gets a pass here. The Brooklyn native is the offensive opposite of Markkanen — a bruiser who is at his best attacking the rim with his physicality. Alkins shoot  37 percent from three-point range, so his shot is far from broken, but his time is better spent bullying weaker opponents on the blocks. He is also an excellent defender and wing rebounder.

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Big Ten Survival Guide: The Keys For Each Squad’s First Round Survival

Posted by Brendan Brody on March 16th, 2017

The brackets have been set and all of the Big Ten teams left dancing will begin seven separate quests to bring home the league’s first National Championship since Michigan State did so in 2000. Before anything approaching that level of success can take place, however, each team must win its First Round game. Here’s a brief look at how all seven Big Ten teams can get past their first opponent.

Reggie Lynch has to stay on the floor for Minnesota against Middle Tennessee on Thursday. (AP Photo/Andy Clayton-King)

  • Minnesota: The Gophers have almost no depth now with the season-ending injury to senior wing Akeem Springs, which means Reggie Lynch has to stay on the floor and out of foul trouble. As a result, Minnesota will have to win this game with defense. If Lynch suffers early foul issues, Middle Tennessee and its 54.3 percent eFG rate will be able to score in the paint at will.
  • Northwestern: Northwestern has a dangerous tendency to go through long scoring droughts. For the most part the Wildcats runs their offense well, but when they go cold, they go frigid. This cannot happen against Vanderbilt because a three-minute drought will feel like five or more with in a one-and-done format. Vanderbilt shoots 37.7 percent from three-point range on the season, so long dry spells could be disastrous against a team that can effectively bomb away from the perimeter.

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Big 12 Survival Guide: Keys to Each First Round Matchup

Posted by Brian Goodman on March 16th, 2017

Despite Oklahoma‘s Final Four run last season, the Big 12 continues to fight a public relations battle for reasons both earned and not when it comes to NCAA Tournament success. Kansas State‘s win over Wake Forest in Tuesday’s First Four started things off on a positive note, but the league still has plenty of work ahead. Here are the keys to each of the conference’s six games taking place over the next couple of days.

Frank Mason looks to end his career with a national title (Getty).

  • #1 Kansas – Show up. The Jayhawks have had plenty of rest over the last couple of weeks, so Friday’s game is about shaking off the rust. A handful of #15 and #16 seeds over the last decade have hung with Kansas for 20 or so minutes, but UC Davis wasn’t competitive in its only game against a Power 5 school this season — an 86-61 loss to California in November. Additionally, the Aggies have only won their last three games by a combined nine points, so they’ve beaten long odds to even get to this point. There’s no need to overthink this.

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Pac-12 Tournament Prospectus

Posted by RJ Abeytia on March 15th, 2017

The Pac-12 ended up with fewer seeds in the NCAA Tournament than the ACC, Big 12, SEC, and Big 10.  Of course, it was always quality (Arizona, Oregon, UCLA) and not quantity for the Conference of Champions this season. Outside of the ACC, no conference has three teams being hailed as legitimate Final Four threats.  The questions this time of year focus on where you’re trending and your presumptive path. By the time you get to a National Semifinal you are certainly going to be playing a great team, or at the very least a team playing like one. Those games match up as coin tosses in most cases, so let’s focus on which of the four Pac-12 teams who qualified has the best shot of reaching Glendale.

Do Allonzo Trier and Arizona own the Pac-12’s best chances of reaching the National Semifinals? (Photo: USA Today Sports)

USC

  • Trending Up:  Jordan McLaughlin is averaging nearly 17 points a game over his last four and has a stellar A/TO rate of 31/6 over those four games. Guard play takes center stage in the NCAA Tournament, and if the Trojans are to make more than a cameo in the round of 68, they’ll need McLaughlin to keep playing at a high level this week.
  • Trending Down:  Since posting a stellar 156 ORtg against Washington State in March 1, Bennie Boatwright has slumped to games with offensive efficiency ratings of 88, 102, and 83 amidst an 8-28 field goal shooting stretch.  USC is not a great offensive team and they struggle in the halfcourt; without Boatwright at max efficiency working to stretch defenses and convert in the paint, USC isn’t long for this week.
  • Final Four:  The Trojans were on a three-game winning streak before UCLA dispatched them in the quarterfinals of the Pac-12 Tournament. USC didn’t make it easy for the Bruins, however, and in the last four games found an offensive groove, posting efficiency ratings well over national average in its three wins. The loss to UCLA showed they could hang with an elite team despite subpar performances from Boatwright, Chimezie Metu, and De’Anthony Melton. Coming off a loss, it’d be wrong to say the Trojans are streaking, but they are playing good ball.

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A Look at the ACC in the NIT

Posted by Charlie Maikis on March 14th, 2017

March Madness is now upon us, but let’s take a moment to consider a different postseason tournament as the ACC is sending three teams to the NIT this season. In a year where many observers thought the NCAA Tournament bubble was one of the weakest in years, the Selection Committee was not particularly kind to the conference. Of the three ACC bubble teams, Wake Forest made the field of 68 while Syracuse and Georgia Tech were left at home. Clemson joins the Orange and Yellow Jackets in this year’s NIT, meaning that the 12 of the 15 ACC teams were invited to one of the two prestigious postseason tournaments. Before the NCAA Tournament vacuums all the oxygen in the college basketball universe, let’s discuss the trio of ACC teams playing in the NIT.

Syracuse and Clemson are two of the strongest teams in the NIT field this year and give the ACC a great chance at success. Credit: Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

Syracuse

Syracuse was a curious case as the Orange were left out of the NCAA Tournament presumably because of a lackluster non-conference performance. Teams that go 10-8 in what is widely regarded as the nation’s best conference usually get an invitation to the Big Dance, but that factor alone clearly wasn’t enough this season. The result was Syracuse’s placement as the top overall seed in the NIT bracket, but perhaps in the toughest region of the four. Their region also contains four other power conference teams, and the average Kenpom ranking of of the group is five spots better than the rest of the field. Luckily Syracuse doesn’t have to play the other seven teams but just the ones in front of it, starting on Wednesday night at home against UNC-Greensboro. Remember, after Jim Boeheim blasted the city of Greensboro (site of ACC headquarters and numerous ACC Tournaments) at last week’s ACC Tournament in Brooklyn, the municipality fired back:

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NCAA Tournament Instareaction: Pac-12 Teams

Posted by Adam Butler on March 12th, 2017

We thought that the Pac-12 Tournament champion would be rewarded with the West Region’s best available seed. The release of the committee’s bracket confirmed as much and here we are. With the Pac-12 represented by only four teams this season, let’s react to their seeding.

Arizona Rode the Wave to the Pac-12 Title (USA Today Images)

  • #2 Arizona, West – The Wildcats stormed through Las Vegas over the weekend and were rewarded for the effort. What will be interesting in the upcoming days, however, is how Arizona will be evaluated. The advanced metrics like KenPom rate Sean Miller‘s squad as the nation’s 20th best team, loosely correlating to a #4 or even #5 seed. Subsequently, the Internet has instareacted by noting that Saint Mary’s (Arizona’s potential Second Round opponent) in fact has fantastic odds of making the Elite Eight. Of course, Saint Mary’s (14th) rates ahead of the Wildcats, which means that it makes sense that the Gaels are a trendy sleeper pick. But ask yourself, is the team that just beat UCLA and Oregon on successive nights not capable of making the Final Four?

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NCAA Tournament Instareaction: ACC Teams

Posted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on March 12th, 2017

The ACC received nine bids to the NCAA Tournament today, as the Selection Committee rewarded one of the league’s two bubble teams with Wake Forest making the field over Syracuse and its 2-10 record away from the Carrier Dome. Another big question going into today was whether regular season champion North Carolina or ACC Tournament winner Duke would get a #1 seed? The Tar Heels, on the strength of their regular season work, ultimately got the nod from the committee. Here are some quick best- and worst-case scenarios for each of the nine ACC teams in the field.

North Carolina (#1 South)

  • Best Case: The Tar Heels’ size and experience results in another appearance in the National Championship game with a chance for the school’s sixth national title.
  • Worst Case: North Carolina has another bad shooting night away from the Smith Center against an opponent (e.g., Butler) that will not allow the Heels to dominate the offensive glass.

Duke hopes to continue to play like it did in Brooklyn where they won four games in four days to capture the ACC Tourney Title. (abc11.com)

Duke (#2 East)

  • Best Case: Duke builds on its current momentum all the way to Phoenix, giving Coach K a shot at his sixth National Championship.
  • Worst Case: On a day when Duke’s threes are not falling, the Blue Devils get picked off in the Second Round by South Carolina, which benefits from a friendly local crowd in Greenville.

Louisville (#2 Midwest)

  • Best Case: Louisville’s defense overwhelms its foes and the Cardinals hit enough shots to get Rick Pitino back to the Final Four for a chance at his second title at the school and third overall.
  • Worst Case: The threes and free throws don’t connect for the Cardinals and they can’t get turnovers against a hot Michigan or Oklahoma State squad in the Second Round.

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NCAA Tournament Instareaction: Big 12 Teams

Posted by Brian Goodman on March 12th, 2017

The Big 12 will send six teams to the NCAA Tournament, down from seven in each of the last three seasons. Kansas State may have missed the cut if not for its win over Baylor on Thursday night, but the Wildcats took care of business and the committee rewarded them with a bid despite a soft non-conference schedule. In other relevant news, Kansas lost its grip on the #1 overall seed after its quarterfinal defeat to TCU, while Baylor slipped to a #3 seed due to a 5-6 stretch entering Selection Sunday. Below is a quick look at the Big 12’s lot, including best-case and worst-case scenarios for each team over the coming weeks.

Frank Mason gets one last shot to deliver a national title for Kansas. (Aaron Doster/USA Today Sports)

Kansas (#1 Midwest) – Bill Self‘s team opens on Friday against the winner of North Carolina Central and UC Davis. Assuming a win there, the Jayhawks will either face Miami (FL) or Michigan State, a familiar foe from the Champions Classic rotation.

  • Best Case: Powered by a deathly combination of hot three-point shooting, Josh Jackson‘s dynamic athleticism and Frank Mason‘s knack for closing games, the Jayhawks compartmentalize their off-court issues and cut down the nets in Glendale on April 3.
  • Worst Case: Foul trouble from Landen Lucas and a poor shooting night lead to the Jayhawks underperforming versus their seed for the fifth straight NCAA Tournament.

Baylor (#3 East) – Baylor’s sputtering finish definitely cost them. Not only did the Bears drop from a #2 to a #3 seed, but they received a very tough potential draw in the form of SMU in the second round. That match-up would neutralize (to some degree) the advantage the Bears gain by playing in nearby Tulsa.

  • Best Case: The Bears put the last two seasons of disappointing finishes in the rearview mirror, stifling offenses with their amoeba zone and riding Johnathan Motley‘s all-around game to the team’s third Elite Eight appearance under Scott Drew.
  • Worst Case: With Manu Lecomte compromised by ankle problems, Motley faces constant double-teams and the Bears once again fail to beat a double-digit seed in the opening round.

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NCAA Tournament Instareaction: Big East Teams

Posted by Justin Kundrat on March 12th, 2017

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

The Champs Are Ready to Defend Their Title (USA Today Images)

  • Villanova, #1 seed, East Region. The Wildcats got what everyone was expecting: a trip to Buffalo followed by a short commute to Madison Square Garden, the venue of their recent Big East championship, if they can notch two more wins this week. In terms of specific match-ups, Jay Wright‘s team should have no problem disposing of its #16 seed play-in-game winner. The more intriguing game would come next against Wisconsin, a team that opened the season 21-3 before stumbling down the stretch in February and March. The Badgers could give Villanova a run for their money, given their propensity for slowing the pace and playing tenacious defense — not to mention their NCAA Tournament chops and outstanding coaching.
  • Butler, #4 seed, South Region. A #4 seed usually gets the treat of a #13 mid-major that has dominated its conference — Winthrop from the Big South fits the mold. The Eagles finished 15-3 in conference play, but the league ranked 28th of 32 Division I conferences this season (per KenPom). The Eagles’ uptempo style of play, while entertaining, should falter against Butler’s deliberate defensive schemes. The only potential downfall is if Winthrop, a top 50 team nationally in three-point shooting, gets hot early and forces Butler to play from behind.

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