On Duke’s Timely Defensive Turnaround

Posted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on April 3rd, 2015

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What was once thought to be Duke’s weakness has suddenly become its strength in NCAA Tournament play. In fact, the Blue Devils have been so defensively stifling that none of its four opponents in the South Region were able to crack 60 points against them. So what’s behind Duke’s big turnaround on that end of the floor? Let’s take a look at some key defensive numbers from the last two weeks and compare those with its previous 21 games — beginning with when conference play tipped off on January 3. Duke DefenseIn its four NCAA Tournament games so far, Duke has reduced its opponents’ scoring by a whopping 15.0 points per game and 16 percent fewer points per possession. Duke’s sudden surge of defensive stinginess is related to two improvements: 1) better success in forcing opponents to miss shots (from both two- and three-point range); and 2) keeping teams from getting to the free throw line. At first glance it would appear that a markedly slower tempo (four fewer possessions per game) might be helping the Blue Devils’ defense, but that assumption could be somewhat deceiving. NCAA Tournament opponents are attempting only one fewer field goal per contest and turnovers and offensive rebounds have remained about the same as they were before. That means that the slowdown is almost entirely caused by the Blue Devils move from rarely fouling to almost never fouling. Opposing teams are averaging fewer than 10 free throw attempts per outing in the NCAA Tournament.

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Texas Brings HAVOC to the Big 12

Posted by Brian Goodman on April 3rd, 2015

Less than a week after the firing of Rick Barnes, Texas has hired its next head basketball coach. And as we speculated on Monday, VCU’s Shaka Smart is packing his bags for the Lone Star State. Once he’s introduced, Smart will be expected to immediately breathe new life into a program that had fallen into a lull over the last four seasons. Given its resources and location, the Longhorns have no legitimate reason to not be a force in the Big 12 and nationally on an annual basis, and Smart’s track record, enthusiasm and unique style of play make him Texas’ best bet to restore and possibly exceed its basketball peak from a decade ago.

As the new head coach at Texas, Shaka Smart will look to bring postseason success back to Austin.

As the new head coach at Texas, Shaka Smart will look to bring deep postseason runs back to Austin.

The first thing that comes to mind when thinking of Smart is his vaunted “Havoc” defense. His Rams led the country in defensive turnover percentage every year between 2012-14 and turned in a top-10 performance again this season. Had Briante Weber stayed healthy, the Rams may have ended up leading the nation again in that category. Smart’s teams also excel on the other side of the turnover column, giving the ball away less than 18 percent of the time in every season under his watch.

As with any coach making the jump from a mid-major to power conference, though, Smart will face the challenge of competing with consistently good teams on a regular basis. The Rams famously beat #3 seed Purdue and #1 seed Kansas on their way to the 2011 Final Four, but in the four seasons that followed, VCU went just 16-19 against teams rated in the KenPom top 50 and failed to return to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament. In fairness, many of those games came on the road or in neutral settings as the college landscape provides little incentive for power conference teams to travel to places like VCU, but Smart’s results against top-notch competition suggest that immediate success isn’t a given at Texas no matter how good a fit he is.

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What Jordan Mickey’s Early Exit Means For LSU

Posted by Greg Mitchell on April 2nd, 2015

Jordan Mickey joined former teammate Jarell Martin in declaring for the NBA draft this week, forgoing two years of eligibility and depriving the college basketball world of an LSU team that could have legitimately given next year’s Kentucky team a run for its money in terms of talent. Here is a rundown of what his departure means for the Tigers.

Jordan Mickey will enter the NBA draft after two highly productive seasons at LSU (lsusports.net).

Jordan Mickey will enter the NBA draft after two highly productive seasons at LSU. (lsusports.net)

  • Surprise Factor: Low. It took him a little longer than his teammate Martin to announce his decision, but this was expected.
  • Legacy: Mickey certainly got his money’s worth during his two years in Baton Rouge. He racked up all-SEC honors both years (1st and 2nd teams) and landed on the all-defensive team twice. He also leaves LSU with the second-most blocked shots in program history (218), looking up only to Shaquille O’Neal. He’s meant a lot for Johnny Jones as well, who used his North Texas/Dallas connection to get the top-50 prospect to LSU. Mickey had become a legitimate NBA prospect after his freshman year, and while that’s not shocking for a guy with his pedigree, recruits ranked where he was can be somewhat hit and miss. Jones should use Mickey’s clear development as a selling point when sitting in future prospects’ living rooms.

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The Pac: Way Back?

Posted by Andrew Murawa on April 2nd, 2015

Three Sweet Sixteen teams. One in the Elite Eight. And yet when the Final Four rolls around this weekend, it will commence without an entrant from the West Coast’s major conference, the Pac-12, for the seventh consecutive season. Arizona has nothing to be embarrassed about from its loss to Wisconsin on Saturday. Utah and UCLA both put up good fights before going down to clearly superior teams. But this is turning into something of an issue. Since the last time a Pac-12 team advanced to the Final Four (UCLA, 2008), four different Big Ten schools have earned a total of seven spots in the sport’s final weekend. The Big East has earned seven as well, although all of those but Villanova have scattered in the wind to different conferences (the new Big East does have Butler, however, which earned two Final Four appearances as part of the Horizon League). Even conferences like the Colonial (VCU, 2011), the Missouri Valley (Wichita State, 2013) and the newly formed American (Connecticut, 2014) have Final Four appearances since the last Pac-12 appearance.

Not Only Is Arizona A Player's Program, It Is The Pac-12's Best (AP)

Not Only Is Arizona A Player’s Program, It Is The Pac-12’s Best. (AP)

Furthermore, if you throw out UCLA’s three straight appearances from 2006-08, you have to go all the way back to 2001 to find another Pac-12 school (Arizona) with a Final Four appearance. In the history of the conference that starts with the word “Pacific” and ends with a number, only three schools (UCLA, Arizona and Stanford) have made the Final Four. Current member Utah got to the final weekend back in 1998 (and in 1966, for that matter) as a member of the WAC, and had previously earned spots as a member of the Mountain States conference in 1944 and 1961. Refer to the bottom of the page for the complete list of when teams in the conference last reached that level of success. So, really, I didn’t sit down expecting to write the above. I was just going to write a simple season wrap-up and wound up diving down a rabbit hole. Now I’m left with these burning questions: 1) Why does the Pac-12 find itself in such dire straits? And 2) is there any hope of significant change? Let’s dive right into the first one with the caveat that, even after thinking about this for 24 hours, I’m not sure I have a great answer. So, we’ll leave it open for further discussion. Feel free to shoot down any of my theories and propose your ideas along the way.

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Big Ten Transfer/Attrition Roundup

Posted by Brendan Brody on April 2nd, 2015

Lost amid the noise of two Big Ten teams advancing to the Final Four this weekend, there has been some important news over the last week involving the futures of several players around the league. A common occurrence for this time of year, a number of Big Ten players have decided that their futures lay elsewhere. While there haven’t been any earth-shattering moves in terms of drastically shifting the conference landscape next season, these moves could still have an impact on the programs they’re leaving. Here’s a brief look at what has happened so far.

Tarin Smith has decided to transfer from Nebraska after playing one season under Tim Miles. (Eric Francis, Getty)

Tarin Smith has decided to transfer from Nebraska after playing one season under Tim Miles. (Eric Francis/Getty)

  • Nebraska: The Cornhuskers are still waiting on an NBA decision from leading scorer Terran Petteway but in the meantime lost two other players in freshman guard Tarin Smith and junior center Walter Pitchford. The loss of Smith has to come as a surprise to head coach Tim Miles as the freshman played in 43.3 percent of the team’s available minutes and averaged 19.1 MPG in Big Ten play. The point guard seemed to have gained his coach’s trust as the season progressed, displaying an ability to run the team and get to the rim when necessary. Still, with top 100 recruit Glynn Watson coming to Lincoln and former Kansas guard Andrew White expected to become eligible after a transfer season, Smith would have been facing increased competition for playing time. Pitchford, on the other hand, simply decided to forgo his final basketball season (but he is expected to remain in school). The junior regressed significantly from a sophomore campaign where he made 41.0 percent of his three-point attempts playing as a stretch five. With his loss added to the mix, Nebraska is essentially devoid of inside players with Leslee Smith, Moses Abraham and David Rivers all graduating. Freshmen Ed Morrow Jr. and Michael Jacobson might have to play significant minutes next season, and Jacob Hammond will need to take some large strides from a freshman season when he barely played.

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Freeze Frame: Neutralizing Kentucky’s Big Men

Posted by Brian Joyce on April 2nd, 2015

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Thirty-eight teams have taken their best shots at Kentucky this season but none have come away with a victory. Last Saturday night, Notre Dame became “another test” for coach John Calipari’s team en route to its fourth Final Four in the last five years. Much has been made over nothing regarding Calipari’s postgame comments following the 68-66 win (the guy just moved to 38-0 on his way to another Final Four; what do you expect him to say when asked questions about the Irish?), but while the Cats have had a few games that were as closely contested, none were more meaningful.

The most efficient offenses this season against Kentucky.

The most efficient offenses this season against Kentucky.

Notre Dame’s defense last Saturday night was nothing particularly special. The Irish played with great toughness on that end of the floor, but so did every SEC team the Wildcats faced during the regular season. Notre Dame’s offense, however, was a completely different story. The Wildcats’ defense had only allowed five teams to score above a point per possession against it all season long, and Mike Brey’s team moved directly to the top of the list with its 1.16 PPP performance. In this edition of Freeze Frame, we analyze the three ways in which the Irish were able to neutralize Kentucky’s big men and do something that few other teams have been able to consistently do: score.

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McDonald’s All-American Game: A Big 12 Viewer’s Guide

Posted by Chris Stone on April 1st, 2015

Tonight the 38th Annual McDonald’s All-American Game will take place at the United Center in Chicago. Twenty-four of the top high school players in the country will showcase their skills in front of a national audience in what is one of the few opportunities for fans to catch a glimpse of next year’s class of recruits. Over the past few days, the players have been competing in practices against one another ahead of tonight’s showdown. With a number of players either committed to or still considering Big 12 schools, we felt that it would be a good idea to quickly profile those players to keep an eye on tonight as you tune into the game. All rankings from Scout.com.

Committed Players

Carlton Bragg has committed to Kansas. (Brian Spurlock, USA Today Sports)

Carlton Bragg has committed to Kansas. (Brian Spurlock, USA Today Sports)

This year’s class of All-Americans includes two players who have already committed to Big 12 schools.

Uncommitted Players

Jaylen Brown Has Kansas on His Short List (FreeP.com)

Jaylen Brown Has Kansas on His Short List (FreeP.com)

The 2015 McDonald’s All-American Game also features a number of uncommitted prospects who plan to sign with schools in the coming weeks. Many of these players are considering Big 12 institutions, with Kansas on the lists of just about all of them. Here is a quick rundown of each McDonald’s All-American prospect who is still considering a Big 12 school next season.

  • No. 1 Jaylen Brown, Wheeler High School (GA). Brown is a 6’7″ small forward who has spent the week speaking highly of Kentucky’s program while also saying that academics will help guide his decisionDespite having the skill set to make the jump, Brown may not be a typical one-and-done prospect. He’s got NBA size and athleticism but needs to spend time working on his jump shot to truly become an effective player at the next level. Kansas is the lone Big 12 school that remains on this prospect’s list.
  • No. 5 Ivan Rabb, Bishop O’Dowd High School (CA). It would be a big surprise to see Ivan Rabb in the Big 12 next season. Kansas is currently the only Big 12 school that remains on his list, but Rabb appears headed to California. He’s another versatile big man who showed off his shooting touch recently by hitting the game-winning free throws in overtime of California’s state championship game.
  • No. 8 Malik Newman, Callaway High School (MS). Newman has made his plan clear that he intends to spend as little time in college as possible. He’s considering six schools, including Kansas. Newman is a combo guard who has spent quite a bit of time running the point during practices this week, so keep an eye on how much he plays the position during tonight’s game.
  • No. 9 Stephen Zimmerman, Bishop Gorman High School (NV). Zimmerman is an almost seven-footer from Las Vegas who has also been open about his desire to get to the NBA as soon as possible. Hometown school UNLV appears to be the favorite over Kansas and some other bluebloods like Kentucky and UCLA. Zimmerman obviously has the size to develop into an impressive post presence over time. He’ll get a chance to show off some of that development this evening.
  • No. 10 Cheick Diallo, Our Savior New American School (NY). Diallo is perhaps one of the more interesting players on the uncommitted list. He’s being recruited by both Kansas and Iowa State but the Cyclones’ lead recruiter on Diallo is headed to St. John’s next season. He is a high energy big man who impressed observers during Tuesday’s practice, according to Rivals’ Eric Bossi, by showcasing his ability to block shots and collect rebounds on the defensive end while hustling to finish dunks on the other.
  • No. 13 Brandon Ingram, Kinston High School (NC). Ingram is another Kansas prospect. The 6’8″ forward spent most of Tuesday’s practice engaged in trash talk with Jaylen Brown. He backed it up with an impressive scoring ability that has RivalsEric Bossi calling him the “biggest revelation” of this week.
  • No. 33 Thomas Bryant, Huntington Prep (WV). Bryant is also considering Kansas but he hasn’t yet visited the school. He is a physical 6’10” center who has impressed with his play on the block during practices this week.

While obviously not all of these players will end up in the Big 12 next season, it is likely that one or more will choose a school in the conference. Tonight’s McDonald’s All-American Game should give fans a chance to see what each of them has to offer.

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The Non-Kentucky SEC Postseason Review

Posted by Greg Mitchell on April 1st, 2015

Only one of the SEC’s eight postseason teams is still playing, and you may have heard of them a time or two over the weekend. For the other seven schools, the season is now over. Let’s take a look at whether they met, exceeded or fell short of their postseason expectations.

Jarvis Summers and the Rebels stormed back against BYU, but couldn't find the same shooting touch against Xavier (espn.com).

Jarvis Summers and the Rebels stormed back against BYU, but couldn’t find the same shooting touch against Xavier. (Getty)

Three That Exceeded Expectations

  • #11 Ole Miss (beat #11 BYU in the NCAA First Four; lost to #6 Xavier in the Second Round). The Rebels’ magical second-half outburst to beat BYU in Dayton was a real treat and it gave Andy Kennedy just his second NCAA Tournament win at Ole Miss. That alone has to qualify the Rebels’ postseason journey as a success, especially since the team had lost four of five to end the season and had to be feeling fortunate just to be there. It’s a shame M.J. Rhett has used all of his eligibility since his inside/outside game was instrumental in the First Four comeback and was one of the few players to perform well against the Musketeers.
  • #6 Alabama (beat #3 Illinois in the NIT First Round; lost to #2 Miami (FL) in NIT Second Round). The Tide’s underwhelming season ultimately cost Anthony Grant his job, but for the team to stick together to win at least one game just days afterward is impressive. There’s also no shame in losing to a Miami team that had several big wins this year and ended up reaching the NIT Semifinals in New York. The big question now is whether the gobs of money Alabama has reportedly thrown at Gregg Marshall will be enough to lure him to Tuscaloosa.
  • #5 Vanderbilt (beat #4 St. Mary’s in the NIT First Round; beat South Dakota State in the NIT Second Round, lost to Stanford in the NIT Quarterfinals): The Commodores looked primed for a run in the SEC Tournament but were knocked out in their opener against Tennessee. A run eventually came in the NIT, however, and the future appears bright for Kevin Stallings’ club. Vanderbilt opened with a road win in Moraga and fought to the bitter end against Stanford in Palo Alto. The Commodores’ are certainly pleased with this week’s news that Damian Jones intends to return. Stallings will pair him with a stockpile of sophomore guards (Riley LaChance, Matthew Fisher-Davis, Shelton Mitchell, Wade Baldwin IV) that will keep Vanderbilt competitive.

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Evaluating Texas’ Top Three Candidates

Posted by Brian Goodman on March 31st, 2015

The head coaching job at Texas hasn’t been vacant for two whole days, but the search is already sending shockwaves throughout the college basketball landscape. Now, the top candidates for the gig had been rumored as successors even before athletic director Steve Patterson let Rick Barnes go on Sunday, and nothing has really changed since then, so none of the names are exactly surprising. But now that the wheels are actually moving, things could get real in a hurry. Here’s a quick rundown of the three coaches most likely to take the reins in Austin.

Say, that orange tie looks pretty good on Shaka. (sportsillustrated.com)

Say, that orange tie looks pretty good on Shaka… (sportsillustrated.com)

  1. Shaka Smart, VCU – Smart’s teams at VCU have turned heads ever since he led the Rams to the Final Four in 2011. While Smart hasn’t returned to the second weekend, much less the third, since that memorable run, that doesn’t make the 37-year old any less viable of a candidate. While some have doubts about his lack of experience as a head coach at a high-major program, he spent time on Billy Donovan’s staff at Florida and has successfully leveraged his track record, youth and enthusiasm to land commitments from some of the top prospects in the country. And he’s done it at a school with a fraction of Texas’ recruiting budget. Smart has notoriously rejected offers from plenty of high-major programs to stay at VCU, but turning down a top-10 job in terms of resources and access would be much tougher for him to do. Read the rest of this entry »
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Texas and Rick Barnes Finally Part Ways

Posted by Brian Goodman on March 28th, 2015

Rick Barnes‘ last four seasons with Texas were a rollercoaster ride. After failing to win an NCAA Tournament game in consecutive seasons for the first time in his 17-year tenure, Barnes reformed the team in 2013 without once-promising recruits Sheldon McClellan, Myck Kabongo, Julien Lewis, Jaylen Bond and Ioannis Papapetrou. His remaining players took him off the hot seat, riding stifling interior defense to a surprise third-place finish in the Big 12 and a thrilling NCAA Tournament win over Arizona State before bowing out to Michigan in the Round of 32. You probably know what happened next, but to bring you up to speed, the Longhorns came into this season as the leading candidate to knock Kansas from its conference perch, but injuries, inconsistent offense and lax perimeter defense kept the team from meeting expectations.

Rick Barnes brought unprecedented levels of success to Texas, but rocky seasons and early NCAA Tournament flameouts finally caught up to him. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Rick Barnes brought unprecedented levels of success to Texas, but rocky seasons and early NCAA Tournament flameouts finally caught up to him. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Texas finished with a losing record in the Big 12 for the second time in three years, and while they had a chance to redeem themselves in the NCAA Tournament last week, they petered out in an uninspiring loss to Butler. On Thursday night reports emerged that athletic director Steve Patterson gave Barnes an ultimatum: Replace your staff or I’ll replace you. Barnes wouldn’t acquiesce to those demands, and now the two parties going their separate ways.

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How Can Michigan State Keep Things Rolling Against Oklahoma?

Posted by Brendan Brody on March 27th, 2015

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Michigan State has made yet another Sweet Sixteen appearance under Tom Izzo and it did so by surprising a very good Virginia team in the Third Round. The Spartans are now 6-2 since March 1, with both losses coming at the hands of Wisconsin. With the two highest seeds now removed from the East Region, it’s looking like another Final Four run for Coach Tom Izzo is a realistic possibility. But first things first. Tonight the Spartans will have to get through an Oklahoma team with the sixth-best defensive efficiency in college baskeball. Here are several ways for Sparty to get the job done and advance to the Elite Eight.

Branden Dawson needs to continue to be a factor for Michigan State to advance Friday night.  (Al Goldis/AP)

Branden Dawson needs to remain a factor for Michigan State to advance. (Al Goldis/AP)

  • Bryn Forbes > Frank Booker: Both teams have a sniper coming off the bench who can swing things simply by knocking down outside shots. Forbes has been more consistent, as he led the Big Ten in eFG (60.0%) and shot 43.0 percent from behind the three-point line on the season. Booker has only shot 31.3 percent from behind the arc, but he’s been hot since mid-February in making six of 12 attempts in Oklahoma’s two NCAA Tournament wins. Forbes needs to enter the game and be more of a factor than Booker here. If he can make shots and give Michigan State another scoring option outside of Denzel Valentine and Travis Trice on the perimeter, the Spartans have the tools to offset Oklahoma’s stellar defense.
  • Keep Spangler off the Glass: Ryan Spangler would be a perfect fit as a Spartan. He’s physical and he crashes the boards with a zeal that many players under Tom Izzo have exhibited. Unfortunately, he plays for Oklahoma. This means that Gavin Schilling and Matt Costello need to do their best in preventing the junior banger from notching his 15th double-figure rebounding game tonight. Spangler and TaShawn Thomas cannot be the tougher duo here, and the two Michigan State post players have the ability to make Oklahoma pay for surrounding their inside pair with three guards.

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Coaches We Hope Stick Around… But Won’t Blame If They Don’t

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 26th, 2015

Ah, late March – the most worrisome time of year. There will be firings, hirings and anxiety over whether several beloved mid-major coaches finally make the leap. Nothing like the smell of pink slips and greenbacks in the morning. With the carousel already fully in motion, let’s take look at a few of the most highly-coveted O26 coaches out there and why they should stay put… but why we also won’t blame them if they leave. [Note: We don’t include Shaka Smart on this list because we hope he’s entering Mark Few O26 lifer-status.]

Gregg Marshall – Wichita State

Here's to hoping Gregg Marshall is a lifer. (David Eulitt / Kansas City Star)

Here’s to hoping Gregg Marshall is a lifer. (David Eulitt/Kansas City Star)

  • He should stay! You know what Wichita State has that Alabama doesn’t (besides Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker, of course)? A Final Four banner. Better yet, two Final Four banners. In fact, the Shockers probably have a better basketball program than the Crimson Tide from top to bottom – history, community support, momentum, etc. – and they don’t fall far behind in terms of compensation, either; Marshall’s base salary is $1.85 million this year, not including incentives. The eighth-year head coach has already led his team to a #1 seed, a Final Four appearance and a Sweet Sixteen, accomplishments he’s sure to build on next season if VanVleet and Baker stick around. Plus, how would he “Play Angry” at a power program? That ethos depends on perceived disrespect and thrives on an underdog mentality, which I’m not sure he could manufacture at a revenue mill like Alabama or Texas.
  • Why we wouldn’t blame him… If someone backed up the Brinks truck and said, “Just give me a price,” how would you react? At some point – regardless of landing spot – the monetary offer becomes too eye-poppingly good to pass up. According to CBS Sports’ Gary Parrish, Alabama is willing to offer Marshall “in excess of $3 million per year,” which would put him among the very highest-paid coaches in the game. If the Texas job opens up, the ‘Horns might offer something similar. That’s serious money and both schools’ available resources can back that up.

Steve Prohm – Murray State

  • He should stay! Cameron Payne – one of the best point guards in college hoops – is only a sophomore. Sharpshooters Jeffery Moss (11.1 PPG) and Justin Seymour (45% 3FG) are also set to return next season. Prohm, who has gone 104-29 since taking over in 2012, should continue winning big for the foreseeable future. Murray State’s fan base is among the strongest at the mid-major level, and the 36-year-old coach signed an extension through 2018 just last summer. Stick around, Steve!

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