John Egbunu is Florida’s Underappreciated Anchor

Posted by Justin Kundrat on December 8th, 2016

In a world of highlight reel plays and attention-grabbing statistical lines, there’s a lost appreciation for the cornerstone of every defense: the rim-protector. Basketball at the professional level, and increasingly the collegiate one, has undergone a dramatic shift to small-ball lineups with an emphasis on spacing the floor and shooting. As a result, premium talent is moving farther away from the rim as players develop and refine their jump shots and ball-handling abilities. And who doesn’t enjoy watching players like 6’6″ Luke Kennard play the role of a stretch four at Duke, creating an immediate defensive headache in most switching scenarios. But amid all of this, hidden in plain sight, is the prototypical big man — the player who does a lot of the dirty work on the boards, helping off his assignment to contest a shot or fighting for another possession. Florida junior center John Egbunu epitomizes this player.

John Egbunu's Defense (USA Today Images)

John Egbunu’s Defense Makes Florida a Dangerous Team (USA Today Images)

At 6’11 and 255 pounds, Egbunu is not easily pushed around on the block, making well-positioned entry passes difficult to establish. This aspect alone provides tremendous value, but perhaps more importantly, Egbunu possesses a keen sense of timing with shot-blocking. The big man has nearly doubled his block rate this season (from 5.5 to 10.7 percent) and is averaging 4.2 blocks per 40 minutes (32nd nationally). As the below clip shows, in addition to generating a fair number of his blocks with help defense, he moves well enough laterally to stay with his man on dribble penetration.

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Freeze Frame: Kentucky’s Achilles Heel

Posted by Brian Joyce on December 7th, 2016

We may look back in March at last weekend’s match-up between Kentucky and UCLA and recall that the Bruins were the first team to outline the blueprint to beat the Wildcats. But while John Calipari‘s defense conceded 1.17 points per possession against the red-hot Bruins (which represents the worst non-conference home defensive effort in the Calipari era), it was the offensive end of the court that proved more concerning. Yes, Kentucky’s young defenders looked a little lost at times, and Calipari even pointed to his team’s woeful defense after the game. “For us, this wasn’t about offense,” he said. “We weren’t a disciplined enough team defensively.” But we all know that Kentucky’s defense will look much different in March than it does now, with different being code for improved.

John Calipari was not happy with Kentucky's defense, but it's the offense that is more concerning in the long run. (cbssports.com).

John Calipari was not happy with Kentucky’s defense, but it’s his offense that is more concerning in the long run. (cbssports.com)

Even though the Wildcats scored 1.11 points per possession against the Bruins, the bigger concern exhibited in that loss was about a half-court offense that struggled mightily against a mediocre defense. The Wildcats, one of fastest teams in the country at 75.2 possessions per game, are virtually unstoppable in the open court. However, UCLA’s hot shooting forced Kentucky to operate the majority of its offense in the half-court, ultimately exposing the Wildcats’ fatal flaw – its inconsistent three-point shooting.

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Freeze Frame: Just How Good Is South Carolina?

Posted by Brian Joyce on December 1st, 2016

South Carolina strung together 15 straight wins to begin the 2015-16 campaign, so forgive us all if we are still a bit skeptical over the Gamecocks’ latest hot start. Last November’s highlights included iffy neutral site wins over Hofstra and Tulsa, leaving some question about just how good Frank Martin’s team really was (it turns out that question was valid). This season, however, the Gamecocks enter December leaving little doubt as to their legitimacy after a pair of impressive KenPom top 25 (Michigan and Syracuse) victories already on their resume.

Coach Frank Martin and his Gamecocks are defensive stalwarts.

Frank Martin’s Gamecocks are defensive stalwarts.

The hallmark of Martin’s tenure in Columbia has always been his defense. The Gamecocks have boasted the 36th and 21st best defenses, respectively, over the last two seasons, but early indicators suggest that this may be his best defensive team yet. South Carolina held Michigan and Syracuse to just 19.2 percent and 31.8 percent shooting, respectively, from the field. In this edition of Freeze Frame, we will analyze the Gamecocks’ defense to assess the ultimate ceiling for South Carolina this season.
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Stifling Defense Leads South Carolina to Hot Start

Posted by David Changas on November 30th, 2016

South Carolina was bitterly disappointed to not make the NCAA Tournament last season after posting a 23-8 overall record, and given the departures of three key contributors from that squad — Michael Carrera, Laimonas Chatkevicius and Mindaugas Kacinas — not much was expected this season. Based upon last week’s thrashing of two Top 25 teams, however, expectations in Columbia have quickly recalibrated. On Thanksgiving Eve, the Gamecocks allowed Michigan to make only eight two-point field goals on their way to a 61-46 trouncing of the Wolverines. For anyone who may have thought that home win was a fluke, South Carolina then waltzed into the Barclays Center on Saturday afternoon and similarly throttled previously-undefeated Syracuse — again giving up only eight two-point field goals — on its way to a 64-50 manhandling of the Orange.

Sindarius Thornwell will continue to be a key piece for Frank Martin in 2016-17 (heraldonline.com).

Sindarius Thornwell is has been a breakout player for South Carolina. (heraldonline.com)

Frank Martin clubs define themselves on the defensive end, and this team’s success in that regard has been staggering. The Gamecocks currently rank 11th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, per KenPom, and have had only one game — a season-opening 85-76 win over Louisiana Tech — in which they have given up more than a point per possession (PPP). In contrast, Michigan garnered only 0.74 points per possession while Syracuse’s output at 0.77 points per possession was only slightly less dreadful. The Gamecocks have routinely been one of the SEC’s most efficient defensive teams since Martin’s arrival four years ago, but given his roster’s attrition, no one saw this level of production coming. An overtime one-point win over Monmouth may have initially indicated that the Gamecocks could be in for a long year, but last week’s resume-boosters should serve them well on Selection Sunday. December games with Seton Hall, Clemson and Memphis should also help. Read the rest of this entry »

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SEC Feast Week Preview: Part II

Posted by David Changas on November 24th, 2016

Earlier this week, we took a look at four SEC teams in action at various tournaments around the country. Today we’ll take another look at three other teams that will be in action over the next few days (we won’t mention LSU, which was blown out by Wichita State in its opening round matchup of the Battle 4 Atlantis on Wednesday).

Tyler Davis has been a force in the middle for Texas A&M. (Sam Craft/AP)

Tyler Davis has been as good as expected so far for Texas A&M. (Sam Craft/AP)

  • Advocare Invitational (Lake Buena Vista, FL) – Florida. The Gators have easily disposed of four solid opponents in racing to a 4-0 start. They have been good on both ends of the floor and rank as the nation’s 11th best team overall, per KenPom. Things will get tougher today when Florida faces the defending Big East champion, Seton Hall. The Pirates are off to a 3-0 start of their own, including a nice win at Iowa. The teams appear to be evenly matched, and it should be a terrific game. Florida has thus far benefited from the solid production of graduate transfer Canyon Barry, who leads the team in scoring (13.3 PPG) off the bench. The Gators are also getting excellent play from Devin Robinson and preseason all-SEC pick KeyVaughn Allen, but could use more consistency from point guards Kasey Hill and Chris Chiozza. If the Gators can beat the Pirates, they could earn an interesting match-up with Gonzaga in the semifinals, with Iowa State after that. So while Florida is off to a great start so far, we will know a lot more about the Gators after this weekend.

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Quinndary Weatherspoon Injury a Crippling Blow to Mississippi State

Posted by David Changas on November 23rd, 2016

Mississippi State announced Monday night that its leading scorer, Quinndary Weatherspoon, will require surgery after tearing ligaments in his left wrist and miss the remainder of the season. The sophomore is the team’s leading scorer (18.8 PPG) and second-leading rebounder (5.0 RPG) through four games, notching a career-high 25 points in last Friday’s win over Boise State. His loss is a big blow to a Bulldogs team that was expected to finish in the middle of the SEC pack under second-year head coach Ben Howland. Even though an earlier blowout loss to Central Florida confirmed that the rebuilding process is ongoing, losing the cornerstone of that process is tough in the wake of last year’s graduations (Gavin Ware and Craig Sword) and transfer (Malik Newman to Kansas).

The loss of Quinndary Weatherspoon is a huge blow for Mississippi State (Gary Rohman/USA Today Sports).

The loss of Quinndary Weatherspoon is a huge blow for Mississippi State (Gary Rohman/USA Today Sports).

With Weatherspoon out for the remainder of the year, Howland will need even more from his three top-100 freshmen: Tyson Carter, Mario Kegler, and Lamar Peters. Carter, a 6’4″ guard, is off to a nice start, hitting 11 of 25 three-pointers and committing only one turnover in 122 minutes of action. Kegler, a 6’7″ forward who already played 25 minutes per game, will see his playing time increase in Weatherspoon’s absence. Peters has played less than his fellow freshmen, but he has been solid in backing up the team’s only senior,I.J. Ready. The only player other than Weatherspoon who came into this season with any real experience, the diminutive point guard leads the team in assists (5.0 APG) and has a fairly low turnover rate (10.9%), but he struggles defending bigger guards and is a poor shooter from beyond the arc (27.3%). It is unlikely that he will be able to pick up the Bulldogs’ scoring slack.

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Freeze Frame: Arkansas’ Transition Play

Posted by Brian Joyce on November 21st, 2016

Arkansas loves to play fast. That statement isn’t exactly newsworthy, but this year’s version of the Razorbacks might be even more effective in the open court than Mike Anderson’s previous squads in Fayetteville. The Razorbacks were tested at home on Friday night in a 71-67 win over Texas-Arlington, and they responded with excellent defense that allowed them to set up the fast break. This also gave us an opportunity to analyze Arkansas’ transition offense in this week’s Freeze Frame.

Arkansas has reduced the number of mid-range jumpers it shoots, in part because of an increase in its transition field goal attempts.

Arkansas has reduced the number of mid-range jumpers it shoots, in part because of an increase in its transition field goal attempts.

As you can see in the table above, Arkansas’ overall shot selection has improved from a season ago. Contested two-point jump shots are the worst shot in college basketball, and through three games, the Razorbacks have proven far less reliant on the mid-range jumper. A decrease of almost 10 percentage points in attempted twos has resulted in the Razorbacks taking six percent more shots at the rim and a few percentage points more from beyond the three-point arc. This is important because Arkansas is converting over 44 percent of their three-point attempts so far this season. One reason for the bump in offensive efficiency is that Anderson’s team has increased its reliance on transition play from just less than a third (31.3%) of its overall initial field goal attempts last season to 38.9 percent in 2016-17.

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SEC Feast Week Preview: Part I

Posted by David Changas on November 21st, 2016

With one of the best weeks of the college basketball season now upon us, we offer Part I of our preview of what’s ahead for SEC teams headed to the various holiday tournaments around the country. This post will focus on the events beginning today and Tuesday.

Rick Barnes and Tennessee have a tough road ahead in Maui… and beyond. (Troy Taormina/USA Today Sports Images)

  • Maui Jim Maui Invitational (Lahaina, HI) – Tennessee. The Volunteers’ season got off to a rough start with a home loss to Chattanooga on opening night, but they now sit at 1-1 after an easy subsequent win over lowly Appalachian State. In Maui, however, Tennessee will get started with a bite than may be bigger than Rick Barnes’ squad can chew. The Vols open with a savvy, veteran Wisconsin team that is likely to give its offense fits. The Vols’ second game of the tournament on Tuesday will either be against a top-10 Oregon team that could have preseason All-American Dillon Brooks back in action, or a Georgetown team that will be desperate after a couple of early losses. There is a strong likelihood that the Vols will drop their first two games, with their only realistic chance for a win on the islands coming against non-Division I host Chaminade on Wednesday.

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Bryce Drew’s First Vandy Win Offers Blueprint For Future

Posted by Bennet Hayes on November 16th, 2016

Luckily for Bryce Drew, no memorable coaching tenure has ever been defined by its first game. The good vibes surrounding the Vanderbilt program and its new coach quickly dissipated on opening night last Friday, as Marquette sprinted past the Commodores in the second half of a 24-point rout. The shaky debut raised the stakes for Tuesday night’s inter-Nashville battle between the Commodores and Belmont, as an 0-2 start and a loss to a crosstown little brother would possess the potential to leave a lasting impact on Drew’s first season at Vanderbilt. However, Drew’s veteran outfit responded to the challenge at hand, posting a ship-righting victory that may be more crucial than the calendar and opponent would suggest.

Luke Kornet was the best player on the court Tuesday night. (USA Today Sports)

Luke Kornet was the best player on the court Tuesday night. (USA TODAY Sports)

At this point, no program in America should treat a win over Belmont as a given. The Bruins have proven to be more than just a pesky mid-major for over a decade now, and they pushed another high-major team on its home floor last night. Quite certainly, Drew’s first win is one he didn’t take for granted until his team extended its lead into double figures in the game’s final minute. However, the win revealed a blueprint for how his teeam might win games moving forward. Luke Kornet was the centerpiece, scoring 20 points, grabbing seven rebounds, and harassing 2016 OVC Player of the Year Evan Bradds into an unusually inefficient 6-of-15 night from the field. On a team with little in the way of overwhelming talent, Kornet will need to be this sort of difference-maker on a nightly basis. The four upperclassmen that join him in the starting lineup are all competent complementary pieces, but junior Matthew Fisher-Davis is the only other Commodore starter with the talent to truly concern opposing SEC coaches. Given these limitations, it is not only imperative that Kornet find consistency as a focal point of the offense, but also that the group around him finds a way to make him a successful centerpiece of an elite defense. Read the rest of this entry »

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Freeze Frame: Georgia’s Inability to Avoid Bad Twos

Posted by Brian Joyce on November 15th, 2016

Since Mark Fox’s arrival in Athens seven years ago, Georgia‘s calling card has not been made on the offensive end of the floor. Last season, the Bulldogs didn’t take care of the basketball (19.2% TO rate), weren’t particularly accurate from beyond the arc (36.8% 3FG), and weren’t the strongest offensive rebounding team (32.4% offensive rebounding rate) either. The most alarming statistic, though, was a dreadful 44.8 percent two-point conversion rate, a mark that ranked a horrendous 316th nationally. If Georgia is going to get back to the the NCAA Tournament like it did under Fox in 2015 and 2011, it will have to score more efficiently in large part by avoiding bad two-point jump shots.

Georgia's Mark Fox would love to see the Bulldogs attack the rim (The Athens Banner-Herald).

Georgia’s Mark Fox would love to see the Bulldogs attack the rim. (The Athens Banner-Herald)

Charles Mann is no longer in a Georgia uniform to get easy points at the free throw line, drawing 6.8 fouls per 40 minutes and scoring 43 percent of his points at the charity stripe. By comparison, backcourt mate J.J. Frazier, the Bulldogs’ primary ball-handler, scores just 27 percent of his points from the line. Where Mann’s game relied on attacking the hoop, Frazier is far more reliant on jumpers. If Georgia’s first couple of games this year are any indication, Fox hasn’t quite broken his point guard from the tendency to settle for too many mid-range jumpers. According to hoop-math.com, Georgia took 41.1 percent of its shots from mid-range last season (27.3% at the rim; 31.6% from three). To frame that number appropriately, the Bulldogs’ percentage of shots that came as two-point jumpers ranked ninth nationally. Conventional basketball wisdom says that long two-point jump shots are terribly inefficient, yet they are clearly a big part of Frazier’s offensive game. Read the rest of this entry »

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