Ten Questions to Consider: A Weekend of Non-Conference Questions

Posted by Matt Eisenberg on November 15th, 2019

The second full weekend of college basketball is upon us. A weekend that is highlighted by a battle of Wisconsin and several other compelling match-ups between power conference opponents. Here are 10 questions I have for the slate of action.

  1. Which Marquette defense shows up against the Badgers? (Marquette @ Wisconsin, Sunday, 1 PM EST, FS1) Marquette trailed by 13 points at the break earlier this week against Purdue before rallying to win by 10. In the first half, the Golden Eagles’ defense allowed Purdue to shoot 44 percent from the field and make five three-pointers. In the second half, Marquette held Purdue to just 20 percent from the field that included only a single made three.
  2. How will Admon Gilder fare against his old team? (Gonzaga @ Texas A&M, Friday, 9 PM EST, SEC Network) After playing three years with the Aggies, Gilder is now in his first year at Gonzaga where he has gone 7-of-16 from behind the arc. Through the opening week-plus of action, Gonzaga has logged the nation’s best effective field-goal percentage.
  3. Can Minnesota end its skid by winning at hostile Utah? (Minnesota @ Utah, Friday, 9 PM EST, Pac-12 Network) A pair of second half collapses against Oklahoma and Butler have the Golden Gophers sitting at 1-2 heading to Salt Lake City. Minnesota’s bench has been a sore spot in those two losses, having been outscored 35-4 in the pair of games. 
  4. Will the Gators find any consistency from beyond the arc? (Florida @ Connecticut, Sunday, 3 PM EST, ESPN) Michael White’s Gators are currently ranked 298th in effective field-goal percentage, 310th in three-point field goal percentage, and 243rd in two-point field goal percentage. Kerry Blackshear, Noah Locke and Andrew Nembhard are a combined 7-of-33 (21%) from beyond the arc. With five of their next six games coming away from Gainesville, the Gators need to find their shooting stroke.
  5. Can the young Huskies pick up another marquee W? (Washington vs. Tennessee, Saturday, 5 PM EST, ESPN+) Having already beaten Baylor, Washington heads to Toronto for a weekend game against Tennessee. Will Mike Hopkins’ zone and his Huskies’ length frustrate Tennessee’s duo of Lamonte Turner and Jordan Bowden? Against Jaden McDaniels and Isaiah Stewart, this is a classic matchup of youth vs. experience.
  6. Quite simply, which Pittsburgh team shows up? (West Virginia @ Pittsburgh, Friday, 7 PM EST, ESPNU) The Panthers began the season by knocking off Florida State before returning to lose at home to Nicholls State. In last season’s match-up between these teams, they combined to commit 50 turnovers (Pitt, 24), grabbed 30 offensive rebounds (Pitt, 14), and shoot 11-of-44 (Pitt 6-of-23) from beyond the three-point line. Let’s hope for a better performance this year.
  7. Will Jon Axel Gudmundsson return to form for Davidson? (UNC Wilmington @ Davidson, Saturday, 7 PM EST) After dropping its opener to Auburn, Davidson was thoroughly outplayed in its next game at Charlotte. Last season Jon Axel Gudmundsson took home conference Player of the Year honors behind his 16.9 PPG. In the opening two games, Gudmundsson has scored just 18 points total in 67 minutes of action.
  8. Just how good is freshman Zeke Nnaji? (New Mexico State @ Arizona, Sunday, 2 PM EST, Pac-12 Network) Teammates Nico Mannion and Josh Green began the year as the must-see freshman at Arizona. While both have been worthy of their preseason hype, it has also been the play of fellow freshman Zeke Nnaji who has stolen the show. Nnaji is averaging 21.7 points per game on a scorching 81.3 percent shooting from the field.
  9. What will Virginia’s defense have in store this week? (Columbia @ Virginia, Saturday, Noon, ACC Network) New year, same Cavaliers’ defense. Through two games, Virginia’s opponents have shot 12-of-48 (25%) from inside the arc, 13-of-60 from beyond it, and 5-of-11 at the charity stripe. All told, back-to-back 34-point outings for its opponents has Virginia sitting at 2-0 despite some offensive concerns of their own. 
  10. Can the Bruins get off to a quick start? (UNLV @ UCLA, Friday, 11 PM EST, Pac-12 Network) UCLA trailed at the half against both Long Beach State and UC Santa Barbara before figuring things out in the second half. The Bruins are -8 in the first half and a +28 in the second half to date. This is a UCLA squad that got a huge lift from sophomore Jalen Hill, who grabbed eight offensive rebounds to go along with a career-best 22 points in the win over the Gauchos.
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What’s Trending: The 2019-20 Season Is Underway!

Posted by Matt Eisenberg on November 11th, 2019

What’s Trending is a column examining the week that was in college basketball social media. Matthew Eisenberg (@matteise) is your weekly host.

College basketball is back and all is right in the sports world again. The season began with the highly anticipated Champions Classic at Madison Square Garden last Tuesday. The battle of #1 vs. #2 was a tight game, but it was the play of Kentucky’s Tyrese Maxey which proved to be the difference-maker. Here is exhibit A of Maxey’s heroics…

Earlier in the night, Duke’s new dunking sensation Cassius Stanley showed off his vertical in the Blue Devils’ win over Kansas. This was a game in which Kansas turned the ball over 18 times in the first half and 28 times overall.

While Maxey and Stanley were starring at the Garden, North Carolina’s Cole Anthony set the Dean Smith Center afire in his debut….

It was also an opening night which included plenty of ACC match-ups. Syracuse and Virginia battled their way through a “first to 40” type of game. Afterward, Jim Boeheim expressed his displeasure in opening the season with a conference game…

It has been an opening week of action which has included plenty of surprises…

There was the record setting night in Salt Lake City where Utah beat Mississippi Valley State by a whopping 94 points…

There were upsets everywhere at the bottom of the Big Ten, including Merrimack getting it’s first win at the D-I level…

…and then there was Southern Utah getting the best of Nebraska in double-overtime.

https://twitter.com/marchmadness/status/1193288254679912448

The opening week also included a wild couple of hours in Memphis.

First there was the news that freshman phenom James Wiseman was ruled ineligible by the NCAA…

…and then there was the news less than an hour later that a restraining order would allow Wiseman to remain on the floor, at least for now…

Thus ultimately setting up what is sure to be a contentious battle between Memphis/Wiseman vs. the NCAA

It was an opening week which included an impactful injury.

And it was an opening week which included moments that players and fans will never forget.

In Wisconsin, there was this moment with Jerrell Moore being announced to the crowd as part of the Badgers staring lineup…

https://twitter.com/marchmadness/status/1192977717861474304

In Austin there was the career-high 20 point performance from Andrew Jones

https://twitter.com/br_CBB/status/1191938373184839686

And in Kent, Ohio, there was this moment with Kent State freshman Kalin Bennett

Then there was a showing of love and support for Michigan State All-American, Cassius Winston, who lost his brother to a tragic train accident on Saturday night.

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68 Preseason Questions For The 2019-20 Season

Posted by Matt Eisenberg on November 5th, 2019

Before a team can reach its ultimate goal of cutting down the nets in early April, it must find a way to become part of the field of 68. With the start of the season fast approaching, here are 68 questions I have for College Basketball Nation.

The Top 25: Questions On The Nation’s Best Teams

Tom Izzo Welcomes Back the Nation’s Most Accomplished Player (USA Today Images)
  1. With all that Michigan State is missing to start the season, might it end up being a blessing come March?
    Josh Langford is out for a while; Kyle Ahrens is dealing with an injured ankle; Joey Hauser’s status remains in the hands of the NCAA. This opens up playing time for freshman Rocket Watts and sophomore Gabe Brown. With Cassius Winston, Xavier Tillman and Aaron Henry, Sparty has plenty of elite talent on the court. These injuries just allow it to get young players even more experience in meaningful non-conference games.
  2. Can Immanuel Quickley carry over an impressive exhibition season into the regular season for Kentucky?
    After scoring more than 10 points in only six games last season, Quickley scored a team-best 16 and 15 points in Kentucky’s two exhibition games. Without Tyler Herro, Keldon Johnson and PJ Washington around, Quickley’s ability to shoot from deep could be critical for Kentucky.
  3. Is Udoka Azubuike really the type of player that can carry Kansas throughout the season?
    While Azubuike has been named preseason Big 12 Player of the Year, he does not come without flaws. He committed more than five fouls per 40 minutes in each of the last two years, and is a career 39.4 percent free-throw shooter. He is extremely talented, but can he carry the load?
  4. Can Tre Jones become the leader of a less talented but perhaps more balanced Duke squad?
    Without Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish, Duke must replace more than 55 points per game from last year’s team. The return of Tre Jones gives Coach K a floor general and an elite defender, but after shooting 26.2 percent from deep as a freshman, Jones went 0-of-6 from long range in Duke’s exhibition games.
  5. Will Louisville find ways to win on the road this season?
    The Cardinals were a team that went 1-3 away from home in last season’s non-conference schedule and then went 4-5 on the road in the ACC, including losses at Pittsburgh and Boston College. A team that returns a lot of talent, including Preseason ACC Player of the Year Jordan Nwora, needs to win away from the Yum! Center to have the season it hopes for.
  6. While Kerry Blackshear and Andrew Nembhard are getting all of the attention, is Noah Locke Florida’s most important player?
    Locke averaged 14 points per game in Florida’s first 11 SEC games last season, but just 5.5 PPG over the Gators final 13 contestes. He is a floor spacer and someone who could benefit on kickouts after voluminous Blackshear offensive rebounds.
  7. At Maryland, can Jalen Smith fill the shoes of Bruno Fernando?
    Bruno Fernando had 15 double-doubles last year in Big Ten play. A ferocious rebounder and rim presence on defense, Fernando was the heart and soul of the Terrapins. Jalen Smith had just three double-doubles in his Big Ten games — there’s enough around Smith to replace Fernando’s scoring, but Smith must do a better job at rebounding.
  8. How much action should Gonzaga reasonably expect out of Killian Tillie?
    After missing 22 games with an injury last year, Tillie begins the season questionable with a knee injury. For a team that needs to replace four key players from last year’s team, the Zags really need the talented and experienced Tillie to be on the floor.
  9. Freshman phenom Cole Anthony is North Carolina’s most talented player, but are transfers Christian Keeling and Justin Pierce UNC’s most important players?
    With North Carolina’s top five scorers departed, the Tar Heels need to replace plenty of scoring and experience. Freshman All-Everything Cole Anthony is the known, but it is transfer newcomers Christian Keeling (Charleston Southern) and Justin Pierce (William & Mary) who could be the difference-makers. These are two proven scorers at the college level who are now surrounded by a lot more talent.
     
  10. Will Villanova’s defense return to its old standard?
    Villanova finished Big East play with a defensive efficiency that ranked fourth last season in the Big East. It was the first time in four years that Villanova did not have the conference’s best defensive efficiency during the Big East season. Will it return?
  11. Who will be the toughest player for Virginia to replace?
    Will it be the decision making of Ty Jerome, the shot-making of Kyle Guy or the defense and scoring of DeAndre Hunter? This is a trio that collectively played in 214 games over the past two seasons. Tony Bennett’s squad will be put to an immediate test with an ACC season-opener at Syracuse.
  12. Can Sandro Mamukelashvili take another leap forward in being Seton Hall’s second option behind Myles Powell?
    Mamukelashvili averaged just 2.6 points and 1.9 rebounds per game in just under 10 minutes per contest as a freshman. Last season, he raised those totals to 8.9 PPG and 7.8 RPG in 29.4 MPG. The next step for Mamukelashvili is to improve upon his 28.8 percent three-point percentage in Big East play (52 3PA).
  13. What type of growing pains will Texas Tech’s defense go through with an influx of freshman and transfers?
    After consecutive seasons with a top-five defensive efficiency ranking, Texas Tech must replace six of its eight players who averaged at least 10 minutes per game last season. How will senior transfers Chris Clarke (Virginia Tech) and T.J. Holyfield (Stephen F. Austin) fit in and understand Chris Beard’s defensive standard?
  14. Will Memphis’ group of elite freshman gel as a team or will there be a “me not team” approach?
    The nation’s top recruiting class belongs to Memphis and Penny Hardaway. A pair of 5-star recruits and five 4-star recruits bring tons of talent to Memphis. Can Hardaway get his precocious talent to buy in and play as a cohesive team on both ends of the court?
  15. Will UNLV transfer Shakur Juiston be a difference-maker for Oregon?
    Including Bol Bol, the Ducks’ top four rebounders are gone from last year’s squad. Juiston averaged 10 boards a game at UNLV two seasons ago and 8.8 per contest last year in just eight games. Additionally, Juiston put up 14.6 points per game in 2017-18, an addition that could go a long way toward helping Payton Pritchard run the offense.
  16. Will Baylor’s Jared Butler do a better job of protecting the ball?
    As a team, Baylor finished last season ranked 257th nationally in turnover rate. Jared Butler logged a season turnover rate of 20.7 percent, which increased to an even higher 24 percent in Big 12 play. In league play, Butler committed three or more turnovers in 11 games. With Makai Mason gone, the sophomore could be handling the ball at an even higher rate this season.
  17. What type of impact will Neemias Queta’s knee injury have on Utah State?
    Mountain West Freshman of the Year and Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year Neemias Queta suffered a knee injury and his return is unknown. Sam Merrill can carry the Aggies early, but mid-November tests against LSU and Saint Mary’s become much more difficult without Queta available. A lingering injury could cost the Aggies several non-conference marquee wins, adding pressure to Mountain West play.
  18. Which point guard will have a bigger role with Ohio State this season?
    No Buckeyes returnee averaged more than two assists per game last season, and freshman DJ Carton and junior CJ Walker are both in contention to start at point guard. Carton, a top-40 recruit, scored 15 points, but more importantly dished out five assists while only committing one turnover in Ohio State’s exhibition win. Walker, a transfer from Florida State who redshirted last season, has two years of ACC experience under his belt.
  19. How will the new three-point line impact Xavier’s offense?
    The Musketeers return four players who averaged 10 or more PPG. Three of those players made 40 or more three-pointers, but Naji Marshall and Quentin Goodin each did so on sub-30 percent shooting. The NCAA is moving the three-point line from 20 feet, 9 inches to 22 feet, 1.75 inches, just so you know.
  20. Can St. Mary’s get a few key non-conference wins that have escaped them the past few seasons?
    Over the last two seasons, the Gaels have gone 2-5 against KenPom top 100 teams during non-conference play. This season, Saint Mary’s has five games on its schedule against preseason top-100 teams, beginning on opening night against Wisconsin. Saint Mary’s is a very good team, but an automatic bid out of the WCC is never a guarantee given that Gonzaga lives in the same neighborhood.
  21. Is Arizona back or is Tucson filled with more hype than hope?
    Following a 17-15 transition season, Arizona is ranked in both the preseason AP and Coaches polls. They add talented freshman Nico Mannion and Josh Green along with graduate transfers Max Hazzard (UC Irvine) and Stone Gettings (Cornell), as well as Jermari Baker (Kentucky). Returnees Chase Jeter, Dylan Smith and Ira Lee have all shown flashes, but each has been inconsistent while at Arizona. There’s ultimately a lot of “ifs” with this team that Sean Miller needs to answer.
  22. With Tremont Waters and Naz Reid gone, are Skylar Mays and Javonte Smart ready to carry the offensive load?
    Waters and Reid led LSU in scoring last season, each averaging more than 13 points per game. The Tigers managed to earn two SEC wins last season without Waters in the lineup (vs. Tennessee and Texas A&M) — in those games, Smart and Mays combined to score 80 points.
  23. What will Purdue’s offense look like this season?
    Approximately 46 percent of Purdue’s field-goal attempts last season were three-pointers, the 32nd-highest rate in the country. The trio of Carsen Edwards, Ryan Cline and Grady Eifert combined to make 285 of those shots, but each of those players is now gone. With fewer proven shooters on the roster, Matt Haarms should see even more defensive attention in the post.
  24. With Jared Harper and Bryce Brown gone, is J’Von McCormick ready to lead the Auburn backcourt?
    Harper and Brown combined to score 30.1 points per game last season, making 239 threes and dishing 308 assists. In his first year at Auburn, J’Von McCormick scored in double-figures just once prior to the NCAA Tournament. He did so twice during the tournament. In the Tigers’ exhibition win over Eckerd, McCormick dropped in a team-high 20 points.
  25. Can VCU find a way to knock down a better percentage of its three-point attempts?
    Last season, VCU shot 30.5 percent on its three-point attempts, ranking among the bottom 20 nationally. It was the Rams’ worst team three-point percentage since the 1999-00 season. In their two regular season conference losses and in Atlantic 10 Tournament loss, VCU went a combined 13-of-56 (23.2%) from deep. In an exhibition win over Virginia State last week, the Rams made an improved 13-of-33 (39.4%) from beyond the three-point line. Which is more representative?

Familiar Faces in New Places: Questions On First Year Coaches

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The 2019-20 RTC16: Preseason Edition

Posted by Walker Carey on November 4th, 2019

And so it begins — that wonderful time of year when we once again find our favorite teams playing college basketball. It is a glorious time, indeed. With a sizable slate of games set to commence on Tuesday evening, we are ready to officially unveil our 2019-20 preseason RTC Top 16. This initial poll will hold for the next two weeks, but you can expect our weekly RTC16 to release on every subsequent Monday morning starting November 18. Along with the rankings will be the usual quick and dirty analysis that dives more deeply into trends that the poll reveals. To see how we did last year, check out our 2018-19 preseason poll – sure, we nailed a few (Virginia; Duke; Gonzaga; North Carolina), and missed on some others (Kansas at #1; Syracuse; Texas Tech not even receiving a vote), but we promise to do better this time around. Here is our preseason poll. Enjoy opening week!

Quick N’ Dirty Thoughts.

  • Michigan State checks in as the preseason #1 team. Fresh off its first Final Four appearance since 2015, Tom Izzo’s squad begins the 2019-20 season in the #1 spot of the RTC16. Reigning Big Ten Player of the Year Cassius Winston is back at point guard — and having a dynamic veteran talent like him as your floor general is a luxury few teams will ever experience. Junior forward Xavier Tillman also returns and appears primed to improve on a sophomore campaign where he averaged 10 points and 7.3 rebounds per game while shooting 60.5 percent from the field. Sophomores Gabe Brown and Aaron Henry showed flashes as freshmen and figure to be important pieces in their second seasons in East Lansing. In addition to the returning production, the Spartans enroll guard Rocket Watts and forward Malik Hall, both of whom enter college as elite prospects with decorated prep résumés. The only noticeable concerns for Michigan State are the departures of key role players Matt McQuaid and Kenny Goins, and senior guard Joshua Langford‘s injury status. Langford, who was limited to just 13 games last season with a foot injury, suffered a setback in his recovery and will remain sidelined until at least January this season. Even with Langford’s uncertain availability, the Spartans are strong contenders to both bring home another Big Ten title and cut down the nets in Atlanta in April.
  • Defending national champion Virginia begins the season at #9. The Cavaliers are going to look significantly different than the group that fatefully responded to the UMBC debacle in the 2018 NCAA Tournament by capturing the National Championship this past April. Gone is the star-studded trio of Ty Jerome, Kyle Guy and De’Andre Hunter — replacing those three would be a daunting task for any team, but Virginia has maintained enough program stability over the last several seasons to make Tony Bennett‘s task much more manageable. Sophomore Kihei Clark, junior Jay Huff, and seniors Braxton Key and Mamadi Diakite each served as role players of varying degrees last season and they will all see their responsibilities increase this season. Freshman guard Casey Morsell is the new name in Charlottesville to learn. He joins Virginia — and is expected to start at shooting guard — after a highly successful prep career that culminated in the 2019 Gatorade Player of the Year award for Washington, DC. It would not be surprising to see the Cavaliers undergo some growing pains at the beginning of this season, but considering Bennett’s recent track record of developing ACC contenders, it would also not be surprising if this new-look group of Cavaliers becomes an important factor in the league race.
  • All eyes will be on #14 Memphis. When Penny Hardaway took over at Memphis prior to the 2018-19 season, it was only a matter of time before the native son used his AAU ties in both the city and beyond to stock the Tigers’ roster with elite talent. Entering just his second season on the sideline, Hardaway has enrolled the top-ranked recruiting class in the country and has brought a national interest back to the program that has been missing since John Calipari was running the program more than a decade ago. The crown jewel of that class is consensus #1 recruit, James Wiseman. The athletic seven-footer spurned Kentucky to stay home and play for his hometown Tigers. Fellow freshmen Precious Achiuwa, Boogie Ellis, D.J. Jeffries, Lester Quinones, Malcolm Dandridge and Damion Baugh were all at least four-star recruits and also project to make an early impact for what will be a young Memphis squad. Success is never a sure thing for a team that will rely so heavily on freshmen, but the talent alone will make Memphis a team to track for the entire season.

Poll Defenses.

  • Louisville returns preseason ACC Player of the Year Jordan Nwora, a wing in Dwayne Sutton who averaged 10 points per game and just under seven rebounds per game. Throw in seniors Ryan McMahon, Steven Enoch and Saint Joseph’s transfer Lamarr Kimble, and I believe Louisville enters the season with few question marks. Unlike Louisville, I have too many question marks for many of the other highly regarded teams in the preseason. Florida adds Blackshear, but losses three of its four leading scorers. I have question marks with Kansas and Azubuike. North Carolina and Duke each have tons of talent, but have to replace way too much from last year’s squads for me to give them the second spot. At the end of the day, I gave Louisville the #2 preseason ranking based off of what is coming back and a bump up in year two of Chris Mack.” – RTC pollster Matt Eisenberg on his decision to rank Louisville #2, the highest of any of the pollsters.
  • “It feels like Maryland has real potential to make a leap from a first weekend, 23-win team into a legitimate Final Four contender. The improvement en masse starts individually with senior point guard Anthony Cowan, who has been on the precipice of stardom for what feels like the better part of a year and a half. If he puts it all together in his final collegiate campaign, presumptive lottery pick Jalen Smith gives the Terps a viable second star. Sophomore Aaron Wiggins has all the makings of a player who takes a significant step forward in year two, after showing signs in spurts as a freshman — combine that with a dynamic and versatile incoming crop of talent, and Mark Turgeon has a roster with the balance and upside that is capable of making a run to Atlanta.” – RTC pollster Matt Auerbach on going out on a limb and tabbing Maryland as his preseason #3.

    Game of the Week. #1 Michigan State vs. #2 Kentucky. The top two top teams in the preseason RTC16 will meet Tuesday night at the Champions Classic in Madison Square Garden. This will be a heavyweight battle between two Hall of Fame coaches with loaded rosters that could reasonably see each other again in Atlanta next April. The individual match-up to keep an eye on here will be Spartans point guard Cassius Winston going up against Wildcats point guard Ashton Hagans. Winston is as steady as they come and his calm demeanor coupled with his elite playmaking skills is a major key to Michigan State’s success. Hagans is a hounding defender who made a name for himself as a freshman with his ability to make opposing point guards uncomfortable. Which point guard is able to get the best of the other should play a major role in determining who departs New York with a benchmark early-season victory.

    Keep Tabs On. #3 Kansas vs. #6 Duke; #7 North Carolina vs. Notre Dame; #13 Ohio State vs. Cincinnati; #9 Virginia vs. Syracuse; #5 Florida vs. Florida State; #14 Memphis vs. #16 Oregon; #11 Villanova vs. #13 Ohio State; #1 Michigan State vs. #15 Seton Hall.

    Conference Call. ACC (4), Big Ten (3), SEC (2), Big 12 (2), Big East (2), WCC (1), AAC (1), Pac-12 (1).
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Eight Questions: National Championship Edition

Posted by Matt Eisenberg on April 8th, 2019

After five grueling rounds of NCAA Tournament action, we are finally down to the final two. Texas Tech and Virginia have each navigated 37-game schedules to get to this point, where the only thing standing between themselves and a National Championship is 40 minutes of action. Here are eight questions I have ahead of the title game.

Texas Tech

Texas Tech Plays for Its First National Championship in Basketball Tonight (USA Today Images)

1) Will Matt Mooney continue his recent hot play? After beginning the NCAA Tournament 11-of-30 from the field in Texas Tech’s first three games, Matt Mooney has found his groove in converting 14 of his last 28 shots. The senior’s hot shooting in the second half against Michigan State is what opened the game up and ultimately allowed the Red Raiders to hang on. Texas Tech is 10-4 when Mooney is held to single-figures and 21-2 when he scores 10 or more points.

2) Will Tariq Owens be at 100 percent tonight? The bouncy Owens collapsed to the ground early in the second half against Michigan State, before eventually returning to the game. Questions loom about his potential swelling and discomfort moving forward, however, which is very important to Texas Tech’s defense as he is one of the nation’s best rim protectors.

3) Will Texas Tech be able to create those key turnovers which lead to easy points? In five NCAA Tournament games, the Red Raiders have forced 12.3 turnovers per game and are averaging 15.2 points off of those miscues. Virginia, however, remains one of the most difficult teams from which to force turnovers. After turning the ball over 15 times in its opening round game against Gardner-Webb, Virginia has coughed up the ball just 5.4 times per game since.

4) Will Jarrett Culver be able to get the best of De’Andre Hunter on the offensive end? Culver, a second-team AP All-American, will almost certainly see a whole lot of De’Andre Hunter tonight. Hunter, a third-team All-American, was the ACC’s Defensive Player of the Year and has a keen ability to play excellent defense while staying away from fouls. While Culver woke up just in time to ice the game against the Spartans, he has gone a mere 25.8 percent from the field over his last two games.

Virginia

Virginia Plays for Its First National Championship in Basketball Tonight (USA Today Images)

1) Which De’Andre Hunter shows up? In the first half of Virginia’s Final Four game against Auburn, De’Andre Hunter scored five points on 2-of-6 shooting, passively settling for jump shots repeatedly. After halftime, Hunter poured in nine points on a perfect 5-of-5 shooting from the field. A dynamic Hunter opens the floor and lessens the required offensive load on teammates Ty jerome and Kyle Guy.

2) Can Virginia find any production from its bench? Dating back to the Cavaliers’ Sweet Sixteen game against Oregon, Virginia’s bench has scored a grand total of seven points — its bench is -37 in points over that period. Texas Tech’s suffocating defense has been particularly tough on opposing reserves throughout this tournament, having held the benches of Michigan, Gonzaga and Michigan State to a combined 11 points.

3) Will Virginia be able to play Jack Salt? After starting in 28 of Virginia’s 32 games prior to the NCAA Tournament, Salt has been replaced in the starting lineup by Mamadi Diakite in Virginia’s last four games. The 6’10” senior played a big role against the frontcourt size of Purdue, but otherwise his minutes have dramatically shrunk. If Texas Tech goes big with both Tariq Owens and Norense Odiase on the floor at the same time, Salt could see more time this evening. While unassuming in the box score, heis a terrific screener and someone who can help free Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy for open looks.

4) What else could Virginia possibly face in the closing minutes of a game? Virginia has been living on the brink of its season ending in the final seconds of each of its last two games. From the Diakite basket against Purdue to the foul on Kyle Guy against Auburn, good fortune has been on the side of Tony Bennett’s squad. After dealing with the disaster of a season ago, nothing has yet flustered this Cavaliers’ team. With a National Championship on the line, will the trend continue?

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Eight Questions for the Final Four: Michigan State vs. Texas Tech

Posted by Matt Eisenberg on April 5th, 2019

The other side of the bracket features the East Region champion Michigan State and West Region champion Texas Tech. In a match-up of the Big Ten and Big 12, here are four questions I have for each team regarding the upcoming game.

Michigan State

Michigan State Has Its Eyes Set on One More Celebration (USA Today Images)

1) Will Michigan State limit its turnovers? On the season, Michigan State has turned the ball over at nearly the national average. The Spartans ranked 12th in Big Ten play in turnover rate, however, and they logged a 22-turnover performance in the Second Round against Minnesota. During the regional, Texas Tech pestered Michigan and Gonzaga into turning the ball over at a much higher rate than which they were accustomed.

2) Might the Spartans look to push the pace? While Michigan State’s pace of play ranks slightly below the national average, the Spartans tend to score with great success when they run. According to Hoop-Math, Tom Izzo’s squad owns the ninth-best effective field goal conversion rate while in transition. Texas Tech, on the other hand, has the second-best non-transition effective field-goal percentage defense in the country. A strategy that centers on beating Texas Tech in the half-court could make for a long night for Sparty.

3) Can Michigan State’s bench provide help for the Spartans offensively? The Spartans will be up against a Texas Tech defense that allowed just six total bench points in its two regional wins against Gonzaga and Michigan. Throughout the NCAA Tournament, Michigan State’s bench has primarily consisted of contributions from Nick Ward and Gabe Brown. Ward could provide second-chance opportunities against a Red Raiders’ defense that at times can be suspect in cleaning up its defensive glass.

4) Will the rest between the Elite Eight and Final Four be enough time to help Nick Ward return to his earlier form? In Michigan State’s first 15 Big Ten games, Nick Ward averaged 15.3 points per game. Since returning from an injury late in the year, however, the junior has averaged just 5.9 points per game. Ward, now coming off of the bench, has the potential to give Cassius Winston some much needed offensive help against the stout Texas Tech defense.

Texas Tech

Chris Beard is on the Fast Track to Coaching Superstardom (USA Today Images)

1) Will Texas Tech be vulnerable against Michigan State’s offensive rebounding ability? Through four NCAA Tournament games to date, Texas Tech has surrendered 46 offensive rebounds to its opponents. This weekend’s game against Michigan State will be the Red Raiders’ seventh game against an opponent with an offensive rebounding ranking of 25th or better. In those six games, the Red Raiders went just 3-3.

2) Can Texas Tech’s bigs stay out of foul trouble? In Saturday’s win over Gonzaga, Texas Tech’s Norense Odiase picked up two quick fouls within the opening three minutes. Fellow big Tariq Owens went on to pick up a pair of fouls in the first half as well. Michigan State’s trio of Cassius Winston, Xavier Tillman and Nick Ward all draw fouls at a high rate. After Odiase and Owens, Chris Beard is very limited in available bigs to put on the floor.

3) Which Davide Moretti shows up for the Red Raiders? The sophomore guard from Italy is shooting 46.3 percent from beyond the three-point line and led the Big 12 by shooting 53.5 percent in league play. Moretti made five of his eight attempts during the Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight, but he had gone 0-for-7 in the opening two rounds.

4) Will Jarrett Culver bring his A-game to the table? Culver, a second-team AP All-American, is averaging 21.5 points per game in the NCAA Tournament. A year after shooting a robust 38.2 percent on three-point attempts, Culver is converting just 31.6 percent this season. In Texas Tech’s six losses this year, Culver has made only 20.6 percent of his attempts.

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Eight Questions for the Final Four: Virginia vs. Auburn

Posted by Matt Eisenberg on April 4th, 2019

The right side of the bracket features the South Region champion Virginia and Midwest Region champion Auburn. In a matchup of ACC and SEC powers, here are four questions I have for each team regarding the upcoming match-up.

Virginia

Virginia Overcame Its Demons to Get to the Final Four (USA Today Images)

1) Should Virginia be concerned with its recent three-point defense? While on the season Virginia owns the third-best three-point defense (28.7% 3FG) in college basketball, eight of the Cavaliers’ last nine opponents have shot better than 30 percent from distance. Even more startling, opponents have made 39 percent of their long-range shots over the last five games.

2) Will De’Andre Hunter regain his shooting touch? While De’Andre Hunter is shooting a robust 42.4 percent on 99 three-point attempts this season, the sophomore has made just five of his last 22 attempts from beyond the arc. In Virginia’s two wins in Louisville last week, Hunter combined for 21 points on 8-of-23 shooting from the field. For a player that was among the ACC’s most efficient and effective scorers this season, things have not been easy for Hunter lately.

3) Does Virginia’s offensive tendencies create a glaring mismatch against Auburn’s defense? According to Synergy Sports, Tony Bennett’s squad creates 12.5 percent of its offense coming off of screens, nearly three times as much as the national average. Auburn, on the other hand, gave up 0.99 points per possession in those situations — a mark that ranked 295th in the nation.

4) Can Mamadi Diakite continue his recent hot play on the offensive side of the ball? Virginia’s hero of the Elite Eight, Mamadi Diakite, is averaging 13 points per game in the NCAA Tournament. Prior to the start of the event, Diakite was averaging just 6.8 points per game. The junior forward led the ACC in blocked shot rate during conference play and was a constant threat on the offensive glass this season, but as teams have geared their defensive strategies toward Ty Jerome, Kyle Guy and De’Andre Hunter, Diakite has stepped up to help his team’s offense.

Auburn

Auburn Heads to Its First Ever Final Four (USA Today Images)

1) Will Auburn dominate the three-point line? In Auburn’s 30 wins this season, the Tigers have made on average four more three-pointers than their opponents. In their nine losses, Auburn does not even make one more three than its opponents. Bruce Pearl’s team takes nearly 50 percent of their shots from behind the arc and the Tigers make a high percentage of them (38.3% 3FG). Defensively, Auburn has generally allowed teams to shoot a high volume of threes against it, something that could prove costly against a Virginia team that owns a top 10 three-point shooting percentage of 39.4 percent.

2) Will Auburn’s defense be able to create turnovers from Virginia? No team in the country has created turnovers at a higher rate than Auburn (24.9% TO), and the Tigers have forced 14 or more turnovers in each of their four previous NCAA Tournament games. Virginia is one of the toughest teams to force into miscues, however, having turned the ball over just 8.5 times per game so far in the NCAA Tournament.

3) How much will Chuma Okeke be missed in this game? The emotional jolt gained by Auburn in its desire to win for Chuma Okeke was certainly unmeasurable. But while Bryce Brown and Jared Harper were able to carry Auburn to an overtime victory against Kentucky, losing the 13.8 points per game that Okeke was averaging in March could prove very tough against the stingy Virginia defense.

4) Can Auburn find a way to speed up Virginia? Auburn’s offense thrives in transition — only American had a higher effective field-goal percentage in transition this season than the Tigers. In 20 Auburn games where the possession total was 70 possessions or higher this season, Bruce Pearl’s club logged an effective field-goal percentage of 56.6 percent that included 39.7 percent from three-point land. In nine games where Auburn was held to 63 or fewer possessions, the Tigers logged an effective field-goal percentage of just 50.1 percent and their three-point percentage dropped to just 33 percent.

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What’s Trending: A Wild Weekend in the NCAA Tournament

Posted by Matt Eisenberg on April 1st, 2019

What’s Trending is a column examining the week that was in college basketball social media. Matthew Eisenberg (@matteise) is your weekly host.

After a relatively chaos-free opening two rounds of the 2019 NCAA Tournament, the madness arrived in earnest over the weekend. Taking a look back at the memorable moments begins in the East Region where Virginia Tech and Duke found themselves in a battle to the very end.

While Zion Williamson marvels those that watch Duke play with his dunks, it is plays like this that truly show how unique he is. With Duke nursing a narrow three-point lead, Williamson gets crossed-up by Virginia Tech’s Justin Robinson. Despite the blow-by, Williamson recovers like few others playing high-level basketball can…

Just days after surviving at the buzzer against UCF, Duke found itself in a similar situation again. The Blue Devils were up two points with just over one second to go when Virginia Tech drew up this perfect play to send the game to overtime… minus the finish.

The East Region Sweet Sixteen also featured Michigan State’s 80-63 win over LSU. In that game, the Spartans’ Aaron Henry scored a season-high 20 points, grabbed eight rebounds and dished out six assists. This performance by Henry came on the heels of Tom Izzo’s outrage at the talented freshman in Michigan State’s opening round win. After the win against LSU, Izzo was quick to credit young Henry and his teammates…

The Elite Eight match-up between Duke and Michigan State was a game that many were looking forward to the second the bracket came out. With the lead going back and forth throughout much of the second half, Michigan State’s Matt McQuaid pushed the Spartans back in front with this layup that will not be forgotten…

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Eight Questions For The Elite Eight

Posted by Matt Eisenberg on March 30th, 2019

The Road to the Final Four has one final stop for the eight remaining teams in this year’s NCAA Tournament. As the weekend advances, here are the eight questions I have for the match-ups ahead.

The Zags Push For Their Second Final Four Appearance in History (USA Today Images)

Gonzaga vs. Texas Tech

Gonzaga: Will Gonzaga’s offense solve a Texas Tech defense that dominated Michigan for 40 minutes? Mark Few’s Bulldogs rank first in the nation in offensive efficiency, effective field goal percentage and two-point field goal percentage. According to Hoop-Math, Gonzaga also owns the fifth-best shooting percentage on attempts at the rim, an area that could be tested by a Red Raiders defense that blocks a lot of shots inside.

Texas Tech: Do the Red Raiders have enough size to compete against the large Gonzaga front line? Gonzaga’s bigs of Rui Hachimura, Brandon Clarke and Killian Tillie will be up against a Texas Tech squad that will play just two players 6’8″ or taller in Tarriq Owens and Norense Odiase. Texas Tech’s ability to stay out of foul trouble on its front line will be imperative in attempting to slow the Bulldogs’ interior game.

Virginia vs. Purdue

Virginia: Can the Cavaliers snap out of their shooting woes? Over Virginia’s last four games, the Cavaliers are shooting a woeful 26.9 percent on 104 three-point attempts. In the five games prior to that stretch they converted 54.2 percent on 107 attempts. Kyle Guy has most notably found himself in a staggering slump, having made just five of his last 31 attempts after shooting 42.7 percent on the season.

Purdue: Will Purdue’s recent struggles at the free throw line keep it from reaching the Final Four? While the Boilermakers have shot 71.9 percent from the line on the season, they have made just 63.4 percent from the stripe in seven March games. Purdue survived in its win on Thursday night against Tennessee despite missing 17 of its 33 attempts. And remember, points always come at a premium against Virginia.

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Eight Questions For the Sweet Sixteen

Posted by Matt Eisenberg on March 28th, 2019

The lack of major upsets in the opening two rounds of the NCAA Tournament has created numerous intriguing match-ups for the upcoming Sweet Sixteen. Here are the questions I have for each match-up:

Thursday Games

Brandon Clarke Has Been Putting on a Show for the #1 Zags (USA Today Images)
  • Florida State vs. Gonzaga: Does Gonzaga have a Rui Hachimura problem? While Hachimura is averaging 19.7 points per game this year, he is coming off of a season-low six-point performance against Baylor. Hachimura scored in double-figures in each of the first 32 games of the season, but has failed to eclipse 10 points in two of his previous three games. What’s going on with the junior All-American? The 6’8″ forward will be put to the test against the length of the Florida State front line.
  • Purdue vs. Tennessee: Will Carsen Edwards’ shooting be the difference? Carsen Edwards is coming off of an explosive 42-point performance against Villanova — a game in which he went 9-of-16 from beyond the arc. Tennessee’s three-point defense ranks below the national average and the Volunteers allowed Colgate to shoot 51.7 percent from distance in the First Round.
  • Texas Tech vs. Michigan: Which offense will be more dynamic in a match-up of elite defenses? According to KenPom, this game features the top two defenses in college basketball, as both teams have held their Tournament opponents under 60 points. The Wolverines are led offensively by freshman Ignas Brazdeikis — who scored just five points on 2-of-8 shooting against Florida — while Texas Tech is led by Jarrett Culver, who is averaging 25.5 points per game over his last four outings. The Red Raiders’ All-American, however, has shot only 20.6 percent from beyond the arc in games Texas Tech has lost.
  • Oregon vs. Virginia: Can Oregon’s defense stifle the immensely efficient Virginia offense? Since being blitzed for 90 points in a loss at UCLA, Oregon has given up an average of just 54.2 points per game over its last 10 contests. During that stretch, the Ducks have held their opponents to a sterling 20.9 percent on three-point attempts. While Virginia has shot over 40 percent from distance on the season, the Cavaliers have gone just 29.8 percent so far in the Tournament.

Friday Games

Duke Survived the UCF Push (USA Today Images)
  • LSU vs. Michigan State: Will LSU be able to put together a full 40-minute performance against Michigan State? Through two NCAA Tournament games LSU is +25 in the first half and -18 in the second half. That disparity features a 30.8 percent field-goal percentage in the second half and an even worse 16.7 percent from beyond the arc. Over their last five games, the Spartans, on the other hand, have outscored their opponents by 36 points in the second half.
  • Auburn vs. North Carolina: As hot as Auburn can get offensively, can its defense slow down North Carolina? Auburn has played 13 games against opponents with adjusted offensive efficiency rankings of 40th or better, and the Tigers have gone just 5-8 in those games. Additionally, the Tigers are just 2-6 in games against an opponent with an offensive rebounding rate that ranks among the top 20 in college basketball. For your consideration, North Carolina owns the nation’s eighth most efficient offense and has a top 20 offensive rebounding rate.
  • Virginia Tech vs. Duke: Can Virginia Tech replicate its winning formula against Duke? The Hokies defeated Duke, 77-72, back in late February in a game both Zion Williamson and Justin Robinson missed. Kerry Blackshear had a season-high 23 points to lead the Hokies in an all-around balanced effort. The return of the point guard Robinson will give Buzz Williams’ squad an extra ball-handler to deal with the pressure defense of Tre Jones.
  • Houston vs. Kentucky: What will the status of PJ Washington be come tip-off time? Kentucky’s PJ Washington missed the first two games of the NCAA Tournament and his availability remains unclear for Friday night’s game. Washington was the SEC’s second-best three-point shooter in conference play and is a player that would help spread the floor for a Wildcats’ team that has made just 25.9 percent of its 27 three-point attempts in the NCAA Tournament.
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