Despite Four Losses, It’s Far Too Early to Lose Faith in Wisconsin

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on November 29th, 2017

Wisconsin’s ACC/Big Ten Challenge loss to Virginia on Monday — its fourth defeat of the young season — rounds out the program’s worst month of November since 2002, when the Devin Harris-led Badgers lost to Weber State and Hawaii en route to a 3-6 start. This season, close defeats at the hands of Xavier, Baylor and UCLA, along with this week’s poor showing in Charlottesville, has left some wondering whether Wisconsin simply doesn’t have the firepower to remain a top-tier challenger in the Big Ten. After all, most programs don’t lose four heavily-used seniors and simply bounce right back. But Wisconsin isn’t like most programs. With Ethan Happ looking every bit the Big Ten Player of the Year candidate he was pegged to be and a key freshman emerging in the backcourt, the Badgers — one of the most consistent programs in college basketball — should still be viewed as a contender. Especially with the history that’s on their side. 

Ethan Happ and Brad Davison should keep the Badgers competitive. (AP Photo/Andy Manis)

The prevailing narrative for Wisconsin entering 2017-18 was that Happ, its ultra-skilled big man, would have to shoulder a massive load for the Badgers to be successful. “Now he’ll have to be even better,” the Wisconsin State Journal recently said, referencing the fact that Happ would need to improve upon his already-great 2016-17 campaign. Luckily, early results suggest the junior is more than up to the task. Through seven games, Happ is averaging 17.6 points, 9.1 rebounds, and 3.1 assists per night, posting an offensive rating (111.8) and shooting percentages on par with last year despite playing more minutes and using more possessions. He currently ranks third in KenPom’s Player of the Year standings, and his second-half scoring surges against Xavier and Baylor were key to the Badgers staging late-game (if ultimately unsuccessful) comebacks. Perhaps most impressive so far has been Happ’s ability to distribute the basketball. Often serving as a point forward in and around the paint, Happ currently boasts an assist rate (26.5%) that would make most point guards jealous. The notion that “Wisconsin will only go as far as Happ takes them” sounds far less scary now that the junior appears fully capable of carrying that heavy load. Read the rest of this entry »

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Trae Young Leads Salty Sooners Back on to the National Radar

Posted by Brian Goodman on November 28th, 2017

When Oklahoma lost Buddy Hield, Ryan Spangler and Isaiah Cousins after their trip to the 2016 Final Four, the Sooners predictably dropped off. They were better than their 11-20 overall record last year suggested, but you couldn’t fault anyone for tuning them out as it quickly became clear that a return to the postseason wasn’t in the cards. Just one season later, though, Lon Kruger‘s team is right back to putting up explosive numbers with one of the country’s best guards leading the way. To be clear, freshman point guard Trae Young and the former NPOY Hield are vastly different players, even aside from their different track records. Whereas Hield made most of his hay off the ball, Young is a more balanced offensive threat possessing savvy court vision to boot. In the early going, though, Young is showing that he could have a similarly memorable campaign in Norman.

After an off-year in 2016-17, Oklahoma is back among the most exciting teams in college basketball. (AP Photo/Troy Wayrynen)

Facing legitimate competition for the first time this season, Young balled out at the PK80 event in Portland, averaging 34.7 points per game across three tilts against Arkansas, Portland, and Oregon, while putting up a hyper-efficient 70.8 percent true shooting percentage. The freshman has excelled everywhere on the floor — shooting 38.6 percent from three-point range, 57.1 percent inside the arc, and 89.4 percent at the free throw line. For greater context, his 8.0 fouls drawn per 40 minutes dwarf Frank Mason’s clip of 5.5 per 40 last season, and he’s making his opponents pay at the stripe. Young’s aggression while leading the third-fastest offense in the country occasionally backfires in the form of a bad pass or ill-advised shot, but those miscues haven’t yet been detrimental to the Sooners, nor are they currently keeping him from occupying the top spot in KenPom’s National Player of the Year rankings.

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Get to Know Minnesota’s Jordan Murphy Before Everyone Else

Posted by Chris Hatfield on November 28th, 2017

Who expected this? Certainly not the media members who failed to vote for Minnesota junior forward Jordan Murphy on any of their preseason All-Big Ten teams. Probably not Richard Pitino, the head coach who talked often — and usually glowingly — about stalwarts Nate Mason, Isaiah Washington and Amir Coffey during the preseason, but not Murphy. Certainly not myself, who picked the Gophers as a Final Four team in the preseason, but did not believe Murphy would be a leading reason why.

Minnesota’s Jordan Murphy Has Been a Star This Season (USA Today Images)

Despite all that, Murphy’s name is slowly becoming more familiar across the college basketball landscape. The 6’6″, 250-lb. power forward isn’t on many mock NBA Draft boards because of his undersized frame, but if he continues to dominate everything in his path, he will find his way there too. He is averaging a double-double (22.0 PPG, 12.3 RPG) and has been consistent in his output, logging seven double-doubles in seven games — something even Duke standout freshman Marvin Bagley hasn’t accomplished. He’s also currently the second most efficient player in college basketball with a 37.9 efficiency rating, according to Sports-Reference, trailing only Notre Dame’s Bonzie ColsonThere are few individual statistical categories in which he is not within the national top five, especially on the offensive end of the floor. He’s been everything the Gophers have needed and more than they could have ever wanted.

Efficiency is His Calling Card

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ACC/Big Ten Challenge Preview: Part II

Posted by Matt Auerbach on November 28th, 2017

After a two-game appetizer on Monday night that resulted in a 2-0 ACC lead, the ACC/Big Ten Challenge revs into high gear this evening with a full slate of five more games.

  • Louisville at Purdue (8:00 PM, ESPN): Of the 10 Challenge teams playing tonight, only Louisville is ranked in this week’s AP Top 25, checking in at #17.  The Cardinals, which have won their first four games with new head coach David Padgett at the helm, travel to Mackey Arena for their sternest test to date to take on Purdue. The Boilermakers are coming off of a disappointing seventh place finish at the Battle 4 Atlantis during Feast Week, but they finished strong in obliterating Arizona in an 11-of-22 performance from three-point range. Padgett’s group has thus far sustained the defensive prowess and identity (second nationally in block percentage and 10th in two-point field goal percentage) of former head coach Rick Pitino, but Purdue will represent a significant step up in weight class in the featured game of the evening.

The Cardinals Have Maintained A Similar Style Under David Padgett (Credit: Michael Clevenger/Courier-Journal)

  • Florida State at Rutgers (7:00 PM, ESPNU): Considering the Seminoles’ opposition to date, a 5-0 start isn’t all that surprising, but the manner in which they have achieved that result most certainly has been. Florida State has exceeded 85 points in four of its first five contests by shooting a very healthy 53 percent as a team, highlighted by a blistering 64 percent conversion rate from inside the arc (trailing only Xavier nationally). A trip to visit 6-0 Rutgers should make for an interesting match-up, as neither squad has played a top-100 team nor have they been tested. Terrance Mann will be the focal point of Steve Pikiell’s defensive game plan, as the junior has missed only seven of his 40 two-point field goal attempts so far this season.

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Big East Notebook: Recapping Feast Week

Posted by Justin Kundrat on November 28th, 2017

With a seemingly infinite number of early season tournaments this year in college basketball, Thanksgiving week becomes one of the sport’s busiest of the year. So in case you missed some of the action while you were busy with family and friends, here is a recap of several of the Big East’s key Feast Week storylines.

Villanova Celebrates Its Battle 4 Atlantis Win (USA Today Images)

  • Villanova hasn’t skipped a beat. This may never have been a real concern but any team that loses three starters will face some degree of uncertainty. That said, while both Purdue and Arizona were busy laying massive eggs in the Bahamas over the weekend, the Wildcats steamrolled its resulting competition to win the Battle 4 Atlantis. One reason for that is that junior Mikal Bridges continues to develop his offensive repertoire. The 6’7″ swingman, known as a highly effective defender whose limited usage masks highly efficient shooting, now takes the most shots on the team. More impressively, his effective field goal percentage is a whopping 70.6 percent this season — connecting on 50 percent of his three-point shots and demonstrating better body control when attacking the rim (66.7% 2FG). Conversely, Omari Spellman‘s freshman campaign is underway and the results to this point have been underwhelming. He is shooting just 38.5 percent at the rim and 23.1 percent from deep while accumulating a total of three points in his last two games. That shouldn’t necessarily be surprising given his relative lack of experience, but it’s worth monitoring as the team prepares for conference play.

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ACC Feast Week In Review

Posted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on November 28th, 2017

Ten ACC schools saw action in early season tournaments over the last week-plus and the results of those games for conference teams were mixed. A shaky 5-7 start in the first five events caused some early concern, but those tournaments mostly involved lower-tier ACC clubs, and the results improved as the better teams took the court later in the week. Below we will review some Feast Week comparison statistics with the other six major basketball conferences (Power 5 plus the Big East and American) as well as some of the ACC’s best and worst team performances from the last 10 days.

The Big 12 solidified its position during Feast Week as the best and deepest conference in college basketball, taking home five tournament titles (remember, Kansas — the league’s best team — didn’t even participate), defined as neutral site victories in a winners-advance format. This restriction means that Virginia’s pair of wins in the NIT Season Tip-Off over Vanderbilt and Rhode Island count toward the ACC’s 15-10 overall record, but the Cavaliers’ home wins over Austin Peay and Monmouth do not. Also, games against non-Division I competition do not count either, so wins by Notre Dame and Michigan over Chaminade (as well as California’s loss to the Silverswords) are not included. Up next are some of the highs and lows involving ACC squads last week.

THE GOOD

Three Tournament Titles for ACC Teams. They are listed below.

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ACC/Big Ten Challenge Preview: Part I

Posted by Mick McDonald on November 27th, 2017

Since its creation in 1999, the ACC/Big Ten Challenge has accomplished all of its goals. It has provided a number of high-level non-conference games between two of the best basketball leagues in America. It has ensured that those games take place on campus in front of fans yearning for some real competition after a steady diet of November cupcakes. It has forced some well-regarded coaches — we won’t name anyone here, of course — to play a quality non-conference road game every once in a while. It has also created water cooler fodder for discussion between ACC and Big Ten fans during the heart of football season. Since the inception of the event nearly two decades ago, the ACC leads the overall series by a score of 11-5-2. The ACC won the first 10 challenges, but the Big Ten has come back strongly in recent years, winning five of the last eight, including two ties.

Tyus Battle’s back issue would certainly pose a big problem for the Orange moving forward. (Rich Barnes/USA TODAY Sports)

It’s no surprise that Duke leads the way among ACC teams historically — the Blue Devils are 16-2 in this event, carrying a current streak of five straight victories. Virginia and Wake Forest are tied for second with 11 all-time wins, while only Florida State (7-11), Georgia Tech (6-10), NC State (6-11), Virginia Tech (4-7) and Syracuse (1-3) have losing records in challenge play. This week we’ll be rolling out game previews for each night’s action — here is a look at the challenge’s first two games. (Ratings via KenPom as of Monday) Read the rest of this entry »

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Michigan State Needs More From Miles Bridges

Posted by Chris Hatfield on November 23rd, 2017

By many accounts, Michigan State sophomore Miles Bridges should no longer be in college. The body, the athleticism, the talent — it’s all there and screams one-and-done. That’s why so many observers were shocked when Bridges opted to forgo the NBA Draft over the summer. Never mind that now, though. It’s in the past. He is here and we have arrived at a point of pristine clarity. Whether fair or not, anything other than a 2018 National Championship for Michigan State will be viewed as a disappointment. Tom Izzo‘s seething six-word response of “I’m sick of holding my own” and discussion of embarrassment after losing to consensus #1 Duke last week at the Champions Classic make that obvious. The Spartans, however, will not get there without more production from their superstar. That’s not necessarily a statistical knock on him — after all, he’s nearly averaging a double-double with 19.5 PPG and 7.5 rebounds per game. You have to dig a little deeper, and Izzo hinted at it: “When they [Duke] were so good, a senior rose up.” Indeed.

Miles Bridges is Fantastic but He Needs to Take Over at the End (USA Today Images)

This may seem harsh. We have limited data points but an initial review is quite revealing. With 3:24 remaining in last week’s Duke game, everything was knotted up and Duke held possession of the ball. From that point, senior All-American Grayson Allen scored eight of Duke’s final 13 points while his counterpart Bridges only took two shots and scored a single meaningless bucket. That can’t happen in those spots. He can’t shy away from shouldering the weight of performing during crunch time.  He can’t defer to others. He’s too special and the Spartans don’t have a better alternative. They didn’t for Mateen Cleaves, a Spartan who put the team on his shoulders whenever necessary on the way to delivering Izzo his only National Championship. “The experienced guys have to take over at the end and let the freshmen fall behind us,” Bridges told the Big Ten Network after the game.

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Can Virginia Duplicate the Success of Its 2015-16 Squad?

Posted by Mick McDonald on November 23rd, 2017

It’s still early in the season, but the initial returns are all positive on Virginia this year. Certainly home wins over UNC-Greensboro, Austin Peay and Monmouth are nothing to boast about, but a road win at VCU is typically a nice resume booster. There are, however, some revealing similarities to a recent group of Cavaliers that should make the good people of Charlottesville smile. The 2015-16 Elite Eight team that featured Malcolm Brogdon and Anthony Gill started in much the same way. Early comparisons between the two teams seem fair.

A lot to potentially smile about for Tony Bennett and Virginia this season. (Amber Searls/USA TODAY Sports)

We know that Tony Bennett teams live and die by their defense. In the first four games of this season, the Cavaliers are allowing their opponents to shoot just 37.5 percent from the field. Through four games of the 2015-16 season, Virginia held its opponents to 37.4 percent shooting. This year’s team relies more on steals (8.3 vs. 5.0 SPG) and blocks (3.8 vs 2.5 BPG) than those Cavaliers, thanks to a starting front line (Isaiah Wilkins and Jack Salt) that is a stronger defensive unit than Anthony Gill and Mike Tobey. Bennett has also been adamant that his team get to the line more often. The 2015-16 team attempted 67 free throws in the first four games of the year; this year’s group has notched 74 attempts. That team had a deep backcourt, so when London Perrantes or Brogdon went to the bench, Bennett could turn to Darius Thompson, Marial Shayok or a young Devon Hall. Read the rest of this entry »

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ACC M5: Early Season Tournaments, Part III Edition

Posted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on November 23rd, 2017

morning5_ACC

Note: To gauge relative team strength, we use current KenPom ratings. All times are Eastern.

  1. PK80 – Victory: In a unique affair this Thanksgiving weekend, Portland is hosting the PK80–Phil Knight Invitational, a 16-team, two-bracket event in honor of the Nike co-founder’s 80th birthday (the actual milestone birthday is February 24, 2018). All of the participating schools have a business relationship with the footwear company, including North Carolina (#10), slotted into the Victory Bracket. The Tar Heels, fresh off an impressive 96-72 road thumping of Stanford on Monday night, will face co-host Portland (#302) today (ESPN – 2:30 PM) in the opening round. Assuming they win, Roy Williams‘ team would then take on the winner of Oklahoma (#22) and Arkansas (#38) in Friday’s semifinals (ESPN – 3:30 PM). The Victory Bracket championship will be decided on Sunday (ESPN – 8:30 PM). Lurking on the other side of the bracket are Michigan State (#12) and Oregon (#33), so the Tar Heels will have a chance to claim some impressive early season scalps this weekend in Portland.
  2. PK80 – Motion: Each Power Five conference + Big East has two schools in the PK80 event, with teams from the same league slotted in separate brackets to avoid meeting each other. Duke (#5) is the ACC’s other representative and will be part of the Motion Bracket. It appears that tournament officials along with ESPN have set the schedule to maximize the national drawing power of the Duke-North Carolina rivalry. As long as both teams win, the Blue Devils’ games this weekend will always directly follow the Tar Heels’ contests in a wrinkle of savvy marketing. Mike Krzyzewski’s squad meets Portland State (#217) in today’s opener (ESPN – 4:30 PM) and will see either Texas (#31) or Butler (#49) on Friday. If it reaches the Motion Bracket title game on Sunday (ESPN – 10:30 PM), Duke would likely get either Florida (#9) or Gonzaga (#23) in what would be a compelling tournament finale.
  3. Hoophall Miami Invitational:  This is a non-traditional event in which the games are all pre-scheduled. Syracuse (#58) hosted and already won three games as part of the event, beating Texas Southern (#259), Oakland (#110) and Toledo (#156) in the last five days. To wrap up the event, the Orange will travel to Miami to face Kansas (#3) on Saturday, December 2 (ESPN – 5:30 PM). This is Jim Boeheim’s least experienced squad in years but it has performed well so far against some decent mid-major teams. The Jayhawks will obviously present a much different level of competition, but if Syracuse can keep it close, it may indicate that the Orange won’t have the very down year many have projected.
  4. Gotham ClassicLouisville (#27) is also not participating in a traditional winner-advance tournament this season, instead opting for four pre-scheduled games in December as part of the Gotham Classic. They will host Siena (#273) on December 6, Bryant (#321) on December 11, and Albany (#102) on December 20. The main event will take place in Madison Square Garden, where Louisville will meet Memphis (#138) on Saturday, December 16 (ESPN2 – Noon). Rookie head coach David Padgett’s team did not exactly storm out of the gate this season, struggling to beat George Mason and Nebraska-Omaha in its first two outings. But the Cardinals looked much better on Tuesday night in destroying Southern Illinois by 42 points at the KFC Yum! Center.
  5. Diamond Head ClassicMiami (#19) will be the last ACC school to see holiday tournament action this year with a late December trip to Hawaii. The Hurricanes will take on the host school, Hawaii (#205), in the wee hours on Saturday, December 23 (ESPNU – 1:00 AM), and later that night, that they will face either Davidson (#68) or New Mexico State (#103) in the second round of action. The favorite on the other side of the bracket will be USC (#15), which means we could get a heavyweight matchup in the championship game on Christmas Day (ESPN2 – 6:00 PM). A victory over the Trojans would propel Jim Larranaga’s squad into ACC play on a high note.
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