Ten Tuesday Scribbles

Posted by zhayes9 on January 11th, 2011

Zach Hayes is an editor, contributor and bracketologist at Rush the Court.

If I had to compile a midseason All-American team, the first four choices seem fairly obvious: Kemba Walker, Jimmer Fredette and Nolan Smith at the three guard spots and Jared Sullinger manning the frontcourt. The final selection is up for debate and valid arguments can be made for JaJuan Johnson, Jon Leuer, Terrence Jones and Derrick Williams. Due to his invaluable status relative to his team, Williams takes the cake. His importance to the success of the Wildcats is immeasurable and the idea that Arizona is barely an NIT team without his presence isn’t far fetched. Williams is compiling a monstrous season not only as far as basic statistics are concerned (19/7 on an incomprehensible 66/75/71 from the floor) but also in most advanced metrics you can dig up (24th in offensive rating, third in effective FG%, second in true shooting% and second in fouls drawn per 40 minutes). Walker spurted ahead of Sullinger to reclaim frontrunner status for National POY following his heroics late in Austin on Saturday, while Fredette is a must-see spectacle every time he takes the floor. His scoring display against the normally rugged UNLV halfcourt defense was a sight to behold and the 6’2 guard now only trails the aforementioned Walker atop the scoring charts in college basketball. Sullinger has exemplified why it’s preposterous for people to criticize freshmen inclusions on preseason All-American teams. In the one-and-done era where the premier high school talents are forced to play a season on the collegiate level, the last five or so years have shown freshmen are more than capable of making this type of dramatic impact. We just pegged the wrong rookie in early November. Finally, if it’s possible to play for Duke and be underrated, Nolan Smith fits the bill. His seamless transition to point guard in the absence of Kyrie Irving should be applauded. Striking that delicate balance between scoring and distributing is a challenging one. Prior to struggles against Maryland, Smith was playing the best basketball of any player in the nation.

Fredette is a clear choice for midseason AA

It’s too early to make any broad, sweeping statements about which teams are definitely elite and separating themselves from the pack. Remember, at this point last season, Texas was the #1 team in the nation with North Carolina and Connecticut also setting up camp in the top 15. At the same time, Saturday’s action gave us a glimpse into that pecking order possibly starting to take shape. Four of the five remaining unbeaten teams- Duke, Ohio State, Kansas and Syracuse- all survived hard-fought, competitive, high-intensity games over the weekend, while, with the exception of unblemished brethren San Diego State, the rest of the top 25 experienced quite the upheaval. One of the discernable traits of Final Four-caliber teams is the ability to win games despite not playing their best basketball, especially on the road. Nolan Smith shot just 5-18 from the floor, Duke as a team only made 6-21 from three and the Blue Devils still found a way to edge past ACC rival Maryland. The Buckeyes shot just 39% from the floor, blew a double digit second half lead and still managed to survive Minnesota. Kansas shot an ugly 36%, including 4-24 from behind the arc, yet outlasted upstart Michigan in a true road game. The same applied to Syracuse on Saturday in their low-scoring affair with Seton Hall. Elsewhere, ranked teams like Missouri, Kentucky, Vanderbilt, Georgetown, Kansas State, Michigan State and UCF succumbed to losses, the majority coming on the road against conference competition. If the season ended today, it’s clear that undefeated Duke, Ohio State, Kansas and Syracuse would be the four #1 seeds. If those squads can continue their habits of winning despite not playing their best basketball, we could see a hierarchy start to take shape. As for the rest of the rankings, be prepared for a jumbled mess for the next two months.

Speaking of Kansas, the more things change, the more they stay the same in the Big 12. The job Bill Self has done with that program cannot possibly be overstated. The depth he has been able to assemble is remarkable. How many teams can lose two lottery picks and their senior point guard and not miss a beat? Self has reached an enviable position in Lawrence: recognizable and historical program, energized fan base, top-flight recruiting and a winning expectation. The reason why Kansas has won the Big 12 every season since 2003-04, and the reason why they’re the prohibitive favorite once again this year, is their ability to play at any tempo, any pace and in any type of game in any environment. Missouri is widely considered a threat to KU in the conference this time around, but their stunning defeat at the hands of struggling Colorado is the perfect example of the contrast between Missouri, and other Big 12 programs to an extent, and rival Kansas. The Tigers are only successful against competitive challengers (North Alabama doesn’t qualify) when they force turnovers and turn the game into a chaotic marathon, and Missouri has historically struggled away from the friendly confines of their home arena. While Kansas enjoys home cooking as much as any program, they’ve shown a much greater propensity to win away from Allen Fieldhouse. They can win games in the 50’s or games in the 90’s. Their offensive and defensive efficiency are both equally top notch year in and year out under Self. Here’s a rule of thumb: until Kansas doesn’t win the Big 12, they should be picked in the preseason. Every single year.

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Ten Tuesday Scribbles

Posted by zhayes9 on January 4th, 2011

Zach Hayes is an editor, contributor and bracketologist for Rush the Court.

- Connecticut is facing a daunting week ahead, one that will give us a clearer picture as to whether their November ascendancy in Maui with wins over Wichita State, Michigan State and Kentucky was a blip on the radar screen rather than the emergence of a bona fide contender. The Huskies and their multitude of underclassmen will face Notre Dame and their roster full of fifth-year seniors tonight in South Bend before embarking on an equally-daunting true road game at Texas on Saturday. Connecticut will be underdogs in both contests and don’t necessarily need to win either game. What the goal should be for Jim Calhoun is twofold: stay competitive for 40 minutes and receive contributions from players not named Kemba Walker. If the Huskies can scratch and claw with Notre Dame and exploit their mediocre defense and follow that up with the same type of effort in Texas, the questions over whether Connecticut will have to rely on those Maui victories to propel them to an NCAA berth will be tempered. Calhoun also needs Alex Oriakhi to put his disappearing act in Pittsburgh behind him and contribute as he did against Michigan State and Kentucky when the 6’9 sophomore posted double-doubles of 15/17 and 18/11, respectively. Calhoun will especially need Oriakhi to stay out of foul trouble against the long and athletic Longhorns frontline of Tristan Thompson and Gary Johnson. That Saturday duel in Austin is worth the price of admission to watch two of the top perimeter defenders in college basketball work their craft- Shabazz Napier likely gluing himself to fellow freshman Cory Joseph and Dogus Balbay chasing Walker.

A difficult two-game week for Calhoun's Huskies lies ahead

- Most expected Purdue to move down a few pegs with the loss of Robbie Hummel during preseason practice, but the Boilermakers have done a commendable job persevering through that demoralizing road block in their season and beginning the 2010-11 campaign at 13-1. JaJuan Johnson and E’Twaun Moore have been everything Matt Painter could have asked for out of his senior leaders and top players. Both have played a large bulk of Purdue’s minutes and are filling up the stat sheet in every way imaginable. Johnson’s ability to score with his back to the basket or facing his defender and his constant contributions defensively and on the boards makes him indispensable. Moore has been the go-to scorer, a crafty and smooth operator around screens who is now averaging over 20 PPG. The senior guard poured in 31/7/3 on 11-20 FG in the Big Ten opening win against Northwestern. Still, the real key to the Boilermakers success has been their true identity since the Hummel-led recruiting class arrived in West Lafayette four years ago- aggressive, physical, man-to-man defense. Some anticipated the defensive effort would slip with Chris Kramer departing. Truthfully, it has slipped, from third in efficiency to fourth in efficiency. If Painter can just receive scoring punch from one of his secondary players on any given night, whether Ryne Smith, Terone Johnson, Kelsey Barlow or a few other candidates do the honors, Purdue remains a top-ten team and Elite 8 threat.

- The story of the early part of conference play thus far has to be St. John’s. We discussed their triumphant win over Georgetown Monday night in ATB and in a separate post, and I want to look ahead at the daunting route the Johnnies have to navigate to remain atop the Big East. Starting with last night’s win, St. John’s does not play an unranked team the rest of January with two games on the docket against Notre Dame and clashes with Syracuse, Georgetown, Louisville and Cincinnati. The Johnnies did schedule a quick Big East breather on January 30 with a non-conference visit from…#1 Duke. The Georgetown win, coupled with surprising road victories at West Virginia and Providence, is certainly getting this brutal stretch off on the right foot for Steve Lavin. But if St. John’s merely wants to tread water over the next three weeks, they’ll need to improve on a defensive efficiency that ranks ninth in the Big East and a team three-point percentage hovering around 32%. Lavin also needs his three primary weapons D.J. Kennedy, Dwight Hardy and Justin Brownlee, all of whom played 40 minutes against the Hoyas, to keep up their tremendous level of play. Luckily for Lavin, he has one of the most experienced teams in the nation at his disposal, a group of seniors that have navigated through these treacherous Big East waters in past seasons, albeit with minimal success. After their win over Georgetown, Lavin’s Red Storm are the talk of college basketball in and around the Big Apple. Survive this stretch and they’ll have lasting power in the Big East as a legitimate contender for a respectable NCAA bid.

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Ten Tuesday Scribbles

Posted by zhayes9 on December 21st, 2010

Zach Hayes is an editor, contributor and bracketologist at Rush the Court.

Self's next challenge: incorporating Josh Selby

– I’ve been taken aback by the number of analysts that believe Josh Selby is going to hurt Kansas, at least in the short term. While I understand that the college game is much more predicated on ball movement, teamwork and on-court chemistry than the next level, anyone that believes Selby throws a wrench into the Rock Chalk juggernaut is underestimating Bill Self’s coaching acumen, ignoring that the Jayhawks haven’t played like a well-oiled machine during all ten of their wins and are forgetting just how special Josh Selby is on a basketball court. Kansas doesn’t have a truly threatening foe on their slate until a month from now, January 17 at Baylor. This is plenty of time for the coaching genius of Self to integrate his star-studded freshman into the offensive flow. Every quote I’ve read from Selby shows he’s more than willing to play within Self’s halfcourt style- perimeter ball movement, high-low passing with their bigs and drive-and-kick action to their plethora of capable outside shooters, including Marcus Morris, whom Self insists the offense will still revolve around. Selby provides the Jayhawks with the type of player– a “pro” in scouting circles– that they need, someone who can rekindle a lost possession with seven seconds on the shot clock and find his own shot or draw a foul. Plus, Kansas has beaten Arizona by eight, UCLA by one, Memphis by 13 and USC by two in their stiffest tests to date. It’s not like Selby, the number one recruit in America per Rivals.com, is joining the 1990 UNLV Runnin’ Rebels.

- Re-watching the Syracuse-Michigan State game from the Jimmy V Classic, I was surprised at how the Spartans elected to defend a poor perimeter shooting team like the Orange. Kalin Lucas, Korie Lucious, Keith Appling and Durrell Summers often employed an aggressive defense against the Syracuse guards rather than electing to play softer and dare the Orange into shooting deep jumpers. The Orange are currently ranked a dismal 249th in the nation in three-point percentage at 31.2% with their biggest offenders being Scoop Jardine at 30%, Kris Joseph at 27% and Brandon Triche at 27%. Luckily for Jim Boeheim, and the main reason why his Orange boast an undefeated record heading into Christmas, is that their length and athleticism allows for a plethora of offensive rebounds on those misses and that 2-3 zone continues to be lethal. But there does appear to be a blueprint for dethroning the Orange: sag off their perimeter players like Jardine and Triche and defy them to jack up long threes rather than allow dribble penetration. This could turn into a fatal flaw come Big East play in a similar fashion to how Kentucky was defended for most of last season.

- All throughout the summer and into the preseason, I couldn’t escape the hype surrounding the SEC East. Florida returned all five starters from an NCAA Tournament team. Kentucky was reloading with another powerful John Calipari recruiting class. Georgia was the sleeper extraordinaire with two all-SEC caliber players. Tennessee and Vanderbilt returned enough talent to be formidable foes for the entire season. Some experts even had the SEC in the discussion with the Big 12 and Big East as the second best conference in the nation after the Big Ten, especially if Mississippi State incorporated Renardo Sidney and Dee Bost and another SEC West squad surprised the masses. As we sit here five days before Christmas, I can’t help but label the SEC as a major disappointment thus far in the 2010-11 campaign. In fact, I’d go as far as to say Vanderbilt may be the class of the lot. Tennessee has continued their bipolar ways of overachieving as a plucky underdog and folding their tent when expectations begin the mount, plainly evident by quality wins over Villanova and Pittsburgh followed by back-to-back losses to sneaky mid-major Oakland and a middling Atlantic 10 team in Charlotte. Kentucky has collected wins over Washington and Notre Dame, but obvious flaws at the point (Brandon Knight is more of a scoring off-guard) and a gaping hole at center leave the Wildcats young and vulnerable. Florida and Georgia are glaring examples of a lesson we should all learn: just because a team returns a large chunk of their talent, it doesn’t mean they’re going to dramatically improve. Finally, the SEC West has proven to be nothing short of a disaster site, with their six representatives already having suffered defeats at the hands of Iowa, Rutgers, South Florida, UAB, Dayton, East Tennessee State, Florida Atlantic, Coastal Carolina, Nicholls State, Saint Peter’s, UNC-Asheville, Samford, Jacksonville, Campbell and Presbyterian (to be fair, Auburn represents a healthy chunk of those truly embarrassing losses).

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Ten Tuesday Scribbles

Posted by zhayes9 on November 23rd, 2010

Zach Hayes is an editor, contributor and bracketologist for Rush the Court.

Pitt has a team capable of reaching that elusive Final Four

1. I had an opportunity to attend the consolation and championship games of the 2K Sports Classic last Friday and learned a great deal about the four teams participating- Pittsburgh, Texas, Illinois and Maryland. The Panthers were one of my preseason Final Four teams and did nothing to give me second thoughts on that prediction. Ashton Gibbs is a true playmaker at the end of the shot clock, Jamie Dixon has an incredibly deep frontcourt and the Panthers play heady, smart, hard-nosed basketball for 40 minutes. It’s possible we overrated Illinois a bit coming into the year. They lack a bruiser down low that can post up on the block and demand the basketball. Mike Tisdale’s the same player he’s been his entire career at Illinois, a capable mid-range jump shooter that lacks any sort of physicality and is often mired in foul trouble because opposing power forwards constantly out-muscle him. Maryland looks like a middle-of-the-pack ACC team that should sneak into the NCAA Tournament because Gary Williams always receives max effort from his teams and Jordan Williams is a force in the post, although he needs to avoid silly fouls and demand the basketball more often. The team that needed to convince me they were a contender after last season’s disaster is Texas. The Longhorns are a top-20 team with a duo of physical, lockdown defenders on the perimeter in Dogus Balbay and Cory Joseph, an athletic low-post presence in Tristan Thompson and an explosive scorer in Jordan Hamilton. A shortened rotation and accepted roles has helped Rick Barnes develop improved chemistry, as well.

2. The story of the first two weeks of college basketball might just be Minnesota. The Big Ten was the best conference coming into the season with Michigan State and Ohio State shaping up to be Final Four frontrunners, Purdue and Illinois mainstays in the polls and Wisconsin as solid as ever. Minnesota was a team that nobody could quite get a handle on, especially considering it was impossible to predict just how much the additions of Trevor Mbakwe and Al Nolen would help Tubby Smith.  After three statements wins in Puerto Rico over Western Kentucky, North Carolina and West Virginia, the Gophers appear to be yet another contender primed for a deep March run out of the absolutely loaded Big Ten. Al Nolen was superb in the championship game against West Virginia locking down the Mountaineer’s point guard duo of Joe Mazzulla and Darryl Bryant on defense and splitting the West Virginia defense with dribble penetration that either resulted in free throws (11-12 on the night) or open looks for sharpshooting teammate Blake Hoffarber. Where the Gophers have forged their identity, though, is inside with a plethora of size and length. Ralph Sampson, Colton Iverson, Mbakwe and big bodied Mo Walker provide Smith a frontline that can go toe-to-toe with any in the nation. Just wait till they get Devoe Joseph back.

3. The most crippling defeat for any team with NCAA Tournament aspirations could have come Monday afternoon at the Maui Invitational for Wichita State. The Shockers inability to contain Kemba Walker (29 second half points) cost them a chance to pick up a quality win over a Big East opponent and a shot at potential #1-seed Michigan State in the semifinals. Why is this so devastating? One, Wichita just blew their best chance for an RPI/SOS booster. The only other challenging non-conference game on the slate is a road trip to San Diego State, where it’s extremely unlikely the Shockers leave with a victory. Merely the addition of the Spartans on their schedule would improve Wichita’s power rating dramatically. Instead, it’s increasingly likely Gregg Marshall’s team will have to win the MVC Tournament. This task is very possible; after all, the Shockers are the prohibitive favorite, a senior-laden squad with talents like Toure Murry, David Kyles and J.T. Durley. Marshall’s goal in Maui was to pick up two quality wins for the resume in March. That chance has gone by the wayside.

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Ten Opening Night Scribbles

Posted by zhayes9 on November 13th, 2010

Zach Hayes is an editor, contributor and bracketologist at Rush the Court.

It would be foolish to draw too many sweeping conclusions after one rust-filled outing against inferior competition, but there are certain elements within a game that can provide a glimpse into what to expect during the season ahead.  After watching a handful of games last night and tracking each and every box score this morning, these ten things caught my eye:

Tinsley is now the full time point guard at Vandy

1. As is often the case in the SEC, Vanderbilt flew under the radar in the preseason. Kentucky’s ballyhooed freshmen class received the buzz, Florida was crowned the prohibitive favorite due to the return of five starters, Bruce Pearl’s recruiting indiscretions vaulted Tennessee into the spotlight for the wrong reasons and Mississippi State could certainly be dangerous when Dee Bost and Renardo Sidney return nine games into the campaign. The Commodores, coming off a 24-9 season and a #4 seed in the NCAA Tournament, didn’t receive the same publicity as their SEC brethren. But that’s just how Kevin Stallings, one of the best X’s and O’s coaches in the business, prefers it. The loss of senior point guard Jermaine Beal (and the premature departure of A.J. Ogilvy inside) was a big reason why many pegged Vanderbilt to take a step back from a season ago, even with returnees John Jenkins and Jeffrey Taylor oozing with talent and potential. The question was how junior point guard Brad Tinsley would step in for the grizzled veteran Beal and run the Commodores offense with the same aplomb, finding Jenkins off curls and screens for open threes or big man Festus Ezeli in scoring position on the block. Tinsley showed he’s up for the task in a 41-point romp of Presbyterian at Memorial Gymnasium on Friday, notching Vandy’s first triple-double in school history with 11 points and a career high 10 assists and 10 rebounds (not too shabby for a 6’3 guard). Tinsley also collected three steals and only turned the ball over twice. If Tinsley provides playmaking and stability at the point, Taylor lives up to his future lottery pick billing as an impact wing, Jenkins continues his proficiency from deep and Ezeli gives Vandy a presence inside, the Commodores will win 24 games again.

2. Two wins on Friday night may fly under the radar a bit, but are absolutely worth highlighting. The first is Minnesota’s convincing home victory over Wofford. I expected the Terriers to give Tubby Smith’s squad all kinds of trouble and possibly even win this game straight up. Wofford returns four starters, including potential SoCon POY Noah Dahlman, from a stout defensive team that gave Wisconsin a scare in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Heck, I even pegged them as my Cinderella last week. Throw in yet another Minnesota suspension on Thursday (this time off-guard Devoe Joseph) and this had all the makings of a super competitive test for the Gophers. Instead, Minnesota controlled the game throughout, leading by ten at half and winning 69-55 behind 20/13 from Ralph Sampson and 14/10 in Trevor Mbakwe’s debut in maroon and gold. The Gopher bigs also contained Dahlman to 15 points and the Wofford guards couldn’t find their stroke from deep. Don’t be surprised if this is an RPI top-100 win for Minnesota by season’s end. A second win that stood out is West Virginia’s romp of Oakland, another squad favored to win their conference behind potential first round pick Keith Benson. Benson did his thing with 22/15 but received no help as the Mountaineers utilized a balanced attack- Joe Mazzulla, Dalton Pepper, John Flowers, Deniz Kilicli, Casey Mitchell and Darryl Bryant all scored in double figures- to romp the Golden Grizzlies 95-71. Without an all-Big East perimeter threat like Da’Sean Butler at their disposal, this type of team effort is imperative if the Mountaineers want to vault themselves into the upper echelon of the Big East this season.

3. It’s painfully obvious that Georgetown is going to live and die with their backcourt this season. Their frontcourt pieces- Julian Vaughn, Nate Lubick, Jerelle Benimon and Henry Sims- are unspectacular, role players that can crash the boards, provide versatility and dish from the top of the key in the Georgetown halfcourt offense, but simply cannot be relied upon as consistent scoring threats. The Hoyas opener at reigning CAA champion and preseason favorite Old Dominion exposed this weakness inside. The Monarchs out-rebounded Georgetown by 11, blocked nine more shots and the Hoya forwards only scored eight of the team’s 62 points. Yet Georgetown eked out an enormous road victory on the heels of their experienced and savvy backcourt trio of Chris Wright, Austin Freeman and Jason Clark. The threesome led Georgetown back from a second-half deficit with clutch threes and free throws down the stretch, including one from Wright on a crosscourt Hollis Thompson feed where the 6’1 senior wasn’t even able to even land as the shot clocked expired. Given the Monarchs defensive prowess and the return of four starters from a team that advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament, this is in all likelihood a top-50 RPI win for Georgetown in the first week of the campaign. If more of those marquee wins are to come, Wright, Freeman and Clark will be the reasons.

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(Elite) Eight Tuesday Scribbles…

Posted by zhayes9 on February 23rd, 2010

RTC contributor and bracketologist Zach Hayes will deliver permeating thoughts every week as the season progresses.

This week’s Scribbles column will take on a new twist- which eight teams I’d select to reach the four regional final games in late March. Now, I realize individual matchups within the bracket will determine the fate of these teams, but these are the eight clubs I feel like have an excellent chance of winning three games to reach the Elite 8 regardless of the teams that stand in their way. Some of these teams are the favorites, those expected to reach this level or their season will be labeled a colossal disappointment. The others are mild sleepers that certainly have the capabilities to make a serious run. Without further ado:

1. Kansas- One screaming commentator keeps telling me there’s not one clear favorite heading into March Madness this season. There’s no one team that stands above the rest akin to last year’s North Carolina entering the field as the favorite to hoist the championship trophy on that Monday night in April. This claim continues to baffle me for two reasons: 1) North Carolina was NOT the clear favorite to win the national championship last season. They entered the NCAA Tournament coming off a semifinal loss in the ACC Tournament to Florida State and were chosen as the #3 overall seed in the Dance behind Louisville and Pittsburgh. They were also dealing with question marks around Ty Lawson’s playing status. For a sample, I checked back to the NCAA Tournament pool I conducted last season and North Carolina was picked to win it all less than both Pitt (the most frequent) and Louisville. Even though the Heels featured the most pure talent, let’s put an end to this false claim. I also vehemently disagree that one team doesn’t stand alone this season ahead of the pack. To me, Kansas is the clear cut #1 favorite to win their second title in three years. Bill Self has the second most efficient offense and the third most efficient defense. He’s slowly but surely cut down his rotation and found a perfect balance. Most great teams start with a dominant point guard and center and Self has both of those covered. Even the enigma known as Tyshawn Taylor received a jolt from a surprising start by Self last Saturday and responded. I haven’t even mentioned the scorching hot Xavier Henry. The Jayhawks are an obvious Elite 8 team.

Taylor and Self finally on the same page?

2. Kentucky- If any team can hold a candle to Kansas at this stage of the season, it’s Kentucky. The Wildcats have matched Kansas’ road triumphs in the Big 12 with impressive wins away from Lexington against Florida, Mississippi State and Vanderbilt. John Calipari has blended complicated personalities to perfection and found the ideal concoction to finally win a national title. I mentioned Kansas has a tremendous starting point with Collins and Aldrich; they’re actually topped by the inside-outside duo of John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins. Wall has emerged from a mid-season turnover slump to play more like the December John Wall the entire college basketball world fell in love with. He’s absolutely deadly in transition and continues to make clutch plays down the stretch. Cousins will be the single most difficult player to guard in the entire NCAA Tournament, evident by his top-five rank in fouls drawn per 40 minutes. He has guard skills in a 6’11 body and is the most effective rebounder in the nation. The real question is if Kentucky can play a halfcourt game against the likes of Purdue and West Virginia should they run into either team. The Wildcats are much more ordinary than spectacular when they play a game in the 60s and are forced to settle for outside jump shots. Still, this team has the goods and the talent to reach a regional final.

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Ten Tuesday Scribbles…

Posted by zhayes9 on February 16th, 2010

RTC contributor and bracketologist Zach Hayes will deliver ten permeating thoughts every week as the season progresses.

I like to mix it up here on Tuesday’s with my Scribbles column. Rather than the usual listing of ten players/coaches/programs catching my eye, I’m going to give this column a bit of a twist. My ten this week will attempt to rank the top ten conferences in America and highlight an underappreciated player residing in that conference. Sure, labeling someone as underrated can be completely subjective, but that’s the joy of having my own weekly column. And team success is not a factor, here; in fact, that’s what makes these players underrated on an individual basis. Let’s get right to it:

1. Big 12: Donald Sloan, Texas A&M- Most thought Derrick Roland’s crippling knee injury would devastate the Aggies both on and off the court enough to destroy their NCAA chances. Instead, Donald Sloan tossed on his Superman cape and carried the load in the absence of his best friend. The run began for A&M with a stunning road victory at a place where nobody wins- Missouri- coupled with a sweep of Texas Tech and a home win over fellow NCAA team Baylor sandwiched in the middle. Sure he struggled in the second half in A&M’s valiant effort vs. Kansas, but just ask head coach Mark Turgeon if Sloan has been the senior leader, the backbone, the constant force behind the A&M attack. Sloan has scored in double figures in every Big 12 game save a loss at Kansas State and even poured in three performances of 26+ points. His 18.2 PPG is good for third in the Big 12 and Sloan is shooting a cool 46% from the field, 78% from the line and 37% from three. The 6’3 senior ranks in the top-75 in the nation in fouls drawn per 40 minutes, meaning if a defender respects Sloan’s reliable mid-range shot, he can penetrate and get to the charity stripe as good as any offensive player in the Big 12. Cole Aldrich, James Anderson and Jacob Pullen may get more publicity, but Sloan is just as vital to his team on the offensive end of the floor.

Sloan has done an admirable job leading the Aggies

2. Big East: Jamine Peterson, Providence- This high-flying Friar might be the most athletic player in the Big East outside of Stanley Robinson. I witnessed his athleticism first-hand during the late stages of a win at Northeastern early this season when, inbounding under their basket, Peterson leaped over two Huskies on an alley-oop dunk that iced the game for the Friars. His skill set is incredibly rare: a 6’6 redshirt sophomore that can score with ferocity in the paint, step out and drain a three (40 made on the year) and absolutely dominate the glass. Peterson and the rest of his Friar teammates do have a propensity to turn the ball over with extreme frequency, but Jamine more than makes up for it with his 18.9 PPG. His rebounding ranks even a notch higher as Peterson is just 0.1 RPG from averaging a double-double, ranks in the top-50 in offensive rebounding percentage and has two games this season with 20+ rebounds, including an otherworldly 29/20 effort vs. Rutgers in January. A suspect overall floor game and woeful free throw shooting percentage are the only facets of Peterson’s game hindering his quest towards becoming a top-flight Big East player. With two years left at the Dunk (appropriately named), I’d be willing to bet Peterson receives more and more love from the national media as he averages 20/10 and the Friars improve under Keno Davis.

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Ten Tuesday Scribbles…

Posted by zhayes9 on February 9th, 2010

RTC contributor and bracketologist Zach Hayes will deliver ten permeating thoughts every week as the season progresses.

1. One team that I believe could make a run for the Final Four that people seem to be slightly ignoring is Wisconsin. The Badgers should be favored in every game the remainder of their schedule other than possibly at Minnesota or at Illinois. Remember, Wisconsin already played their six games against fellow Big Ten contenders Michigan State, Purdue and Ohio State and emerged clean with a 3-3 split. Finishing the season on a 6-1 run basically guarantees the Badgers a top-three finish depending on the fortunes of those rival teams and that could put Wisconsin in the tremendous position to play their first two NCAA games in nearby Milwaukee. Bo Ryan’s team is incredibly efficient, ranking in the top-20 in both offensive and defensive efficiency. They’re top-40 in the nation in two-point FG%, FT%, blocks and steals and rank just below in effective FG%. The Badgers boast tremendous computer numbers- #9 RPI, #10 SOS, #53 non-conference SOS- and have three wins against the RPI top-15. Not many teams can match that overall portfolio. Throw in the committee factoring in the Jon Leuer injury, and it’s entirely plausible Wisconsin could go from being predicted ninth in the Big Ten to earning a #2 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Throw Bo Ryan’s name in there along with Jim Boeheim, John Calipari and Steve Alford for National Coach of the Year.

Trevon Hughes has emerged as a star during his senior year

2. One team that no high-major wants to see in the first round of the NCAA Tournament is Siena. We know their recent history of winning tournament games, toppling 4-seed Vanderbilt two years ago and pulling out a 2OT classic over 8-seed Ohio State a season ago largely due to the heroics of Ronald Moore. While the Saints did blow their chances to pick up quality wins out of MAAC play- losing to Northern Iowa, Georgia Tech and Temple- Siena is inching towards the polls, boasting an unblemished 13-0 conference record and a winning streak that stretches back to mid-December. A win in Hinkle Fieldhouse against Butler on February 20 would make it an absolute certainty Siena earns a bid regardless of the MAAC Tournament, but even with a loss the Saints should run through their conference regular season and postseason at 21-0 and garner a seed in the 9-11 range. Other than Kenny Hansbrouck, head coach Fran McCaffrey has nearly his entire squad returning from that Ohio State victory. Moore is averaging an incredible 8.1 APG to lead the nation while Edwin Ubiles appears to be inching towards 100% after a banged-up start to the campaign. Ryan Rossiter has developed into a legitimate low-post threat and effective rebounder and fellow frontcourt mate Alex Franklin is one of the most efficient scorers around. There’s plenty to like with regards to Siena’s chances to pulling off another first round upset: top-50 efficient offense, tremendous coaching, four double-digit scorers and, most notably, the experience of success in March.

3. There are a few reasons why the Atlantic 10 has earned an astonishing six bids in Monday’s bracket: 1) the Pac-10 turning into a one-bid league, 2) Big Ten teams like Michigan and Minnesota disappointing and 3) a mediocre middle of the Big East. Most of all, though, the league is just really good. The top-flight teams all challenged themselves out-of-conference and picked up impressive wins to show for it, from Temple knocking off Villanova, to Richmond downing Missouri and Florida, Rhode Island beating Oklahoma State and Charlotte dominating Louisville in Freedom Hall. With the exception of Rhode Island, all of the other five bid-earners have a win over the RPI top 25, and the Rams have the highest overall RPI of the bunch mostly because they played the 28th strongest non-conference schedule in the nation. Dayton could be the team closest to the bubble; if they had fallen to Xavier at home on Saturday, the Flyers likely would have been on the outside looking in this week. Still, Dayton did beat Georgia Tech in November and if they can split their two challenging road games at Temple and at Richmond in February, Brian Gregory’s team should be in decent shape. I’d fathom that Charlotte is still the most likely team to fall out even if they currently sit at the top of the standings. They barely edged George Washington and Fordham on the road this week and still have four games against these NCAA contenders, including roadies at Dayton and URI.

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Ten Tuesday Scribbles… (With a Wednesday Twist)

Posted by zhayes9 on February 3rd, 2010

RTC contributor and bracketologist Zach Hayes will deliver ten permeating thoughts every week as the season progresses.

This week’s Scribbles column will look ahead to a couple months down the road in Indianapolis, where 65 deserving teams will be whittled down to just four, and to that blissful Monday night in April when one lucky group will be dancing at mid-court to the tune of One Shining Moment. In my estimation, there are ten squads with a promising-to-slight chance of hoisting a 2010 National Champions banner during their home opener next season. I’m here to tell you those ten teams, why they have hopes of winning a national title, what’s holding them back, and the most realistic scenario as I see it come late March or beginning of April. These teams are ranked in reverse order from 10-1 with the #1 school holding the best cards in their deck.

10. Duke

Why they can win it all: Their floor leader and senior stalwart Jon Scheyer is the steadiest distributor in all of college basketball, evident from his incredibly stellar 3.28 A/T ratio and a 5.6 APG mark that ranks third in the ACC and 23d in the nation. Scheyer is also a deadly shooter coming off screens when he has time to square his body to the basket, nailing a career-high 39% from deep to go along with 44% from the floor overall. Duke is also a tremendous free-throw shooting team as a whole and Coach K has the ability to play a group of Scheyer-Kyle Singler-Nolan Smith-Mason Plumlee-Lance Thomas that doesn’t feature one player under 70% from the charity stripe. Duke also features a ton more size in the paint than during previous flameouts in the NCAA Tournament. When Singler plays small forward, Coach K can rotate Miles and Mason Plumlee, the glue guy Thomas, rebounding force Brian Zoubek and even Ryan Kelly at two positions with no player under 6’8. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more efficient backcourt in the nation than Scheyer and Smith. And it’s widely known that exceptional guard play is the ultimate key to winning in March.

What Makes Duke 2010 Different than Duke 2006-09?

Why they won’t win it all: Depth could certainly be an issue for the Blue Devils’ chances of raising their first banner since 2001. Andre Dawkins has fallen almost entirely out of the rotation and Coach K has started to limit Mason Plumlee’s minutes during important games. Also, Brian Zoubek’s tendency to immediately step into foul trouble limits his availability. It wouldn’t shock me to see Duke play Scheyer, Smith and Singler 40 minutes per game during their time in the NCAA Tournament. That could cause those key players, who rely primarily on their jump shot, to lose their legs and start throwing up bricks. Kyle Singler isn’t quite the superstar he was last season, either. Singler’s numbers are down across the board — scoring, rebounding, FG%, 3pt% — and he’s been dealing with a nagging wrist injury that may not improve in the weeks and months ahead. Duke also lacks the athleticism of teams like Kansas, Kentucky, Syracuse and Texas. They could struggle with quicker guards like John Wall and athletic rebounders of the Damion James mold.

Likely scenario: I see Duke reaching the Sweet 16 as a #2 seed where they fall to a more athletic, quick group of guards that can explode to the rim and draw fouls. Duke may have height, but most of that height just isn’t a threat offensively by any stretch of the imagination. Eventually getting into a jump shooting contest could be the Blue Devils’ downfall if two of Smith, Scheyer and Singler go cold.

9. West Virginia

Why they can win it all: Da’Sean Butler is one of the best players in the nation when the chips are on the table. If the Mountaineers need a big shot to keep their season alive, Butler will demand the basketball and more than likely deliver. He’s downed Marquette and Louisville on game-deciding jumpers and led the second half charge against Ohio State. West Virginia is also supremely athletic and Bob Huggins’ teams always crash the boards with a tremendous ferocity. No contender can match the height across the board that West Virginia touts other than Kentucky. Huggins has experimented with lineups in which all of his players are 6’6 or taller, including 6’9 Devin Ebanks acting as a point-forward and 6’7 Da’Sean Butler capable of posting up smaller two-guards. Sophomore Kevin Jones is an incredible talent and a rebounding machine (7.7 RPG) that hits 55% of his shots from the floor and 44% from deep. West Virginia has the luxury of any of their forwards being able to step out and drain a mid-range jumper, from Ebanks to Jones to Wellington Smith to John Flowers every once in a full moon.

Ebanks is the X-factor for West Virginia

Why they won’t win it all: Let’s face it: Bob Huggins doesn’t have exactly the best track record when it comes to NCAA Tournament success. Huggins hasn’t reached the Elite 8 since 1995-96 with Cincinnati and only one Sweet 16 in the last ten years. In 2000 and 2002, his Bearcats lost just four games all season and yet didn’t reach the second weekend of March both times. Most also question whether the Mountaineers can hit outside shots on a consistent basis. They’ve struggled mightily in the first half of Big East games and can’t afford to fall behind against elite competition in March like they did against Dayton last season. Point guard play is a prudent question for West Virginia, as well. Joe Mazzulla is a quality perimeter defender and a capable distributor, but he’ll never be the offensive threat he was two seasons ago due to that shoulder injury. Darryl Bryant can certainly catch a hot streak shooting-wise, but in all honestly he’s more suited as an undersized two-guard. Bryant is averaging just 3.6 APG in 25+ MPG of action.

Likely scenario: I’m still fairly high on this team. I love Butler at the end of games and Ebanks can do anything for Huggins — from score to rebound to run the point — and Kevin Jones is one of the most underappreciated players in the Big East. In the end, I see a clankfest from outside ultimately costing West Virginia their season. And for all their rebounding history, the Mountaineers are in the mid-60s in the nation. The Elite Eight seems like a proper place for their season to conclude.

8. Texas

Why they can win it all: No team boasts better perimeter defenders than Texas. Anyone that watched Dogus Balbay completely shut down James Anderson in the second half Monday night knows he’s the best perimeter defender in the nation, even stronger than Purdue’s Chris Kramer. Avery Bradley came in with the reputation as an elite defender and he’s certainly lived up to that billing. Even J’Covan Brown off the bench is a capable defensive player and Justin Mason is a plus defender. When Dexter Pittman stays out of foul trouble, Texas boasts a legitimate shot-blocking presence that can negate quick guards on the rare occasion they slip past Balbay or Bradley. Texas is also the deepest team in the nation and Rick Barnes has the capability of playing 10 or 11 men on any night if he feels the need. The preserved minutes could pay dividends in the form of fresh players come March. Damion James should also be on a mission come March as a senior. He’s never reached a Final Four during his Longhorns career and came back for a fourth year in Austin to accomplish that very feat.

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Ten Tuesday Scribbles…

Posted by zhayes9 on January 26th, 2010

RTC contributor and bracketologist Zach Hayes will deliver ten permeating thoughts every Tuesday as the season progresses.

1. I’d be fairly shocked if Gonzaga is any lower than a #3 seed when the brackets are unveiled in March. In fact, I’d be fairly shocked if the Zags lost again this season. Think about it: they’ve already notched wins on the road against the three teams most likely to shock Mark Few’s team by dispatching Portland, Saint Mary’s and San Diego on a single road trip. They have one challenging non-conference game left against a rebuilding Memphis team in which Gonzaga will surely be favored. The only team I could see possibly stunning the Zags is Pepperdine and their explosive guard Keion Bell. The Waves only fell by seven in the Kennel this past week behind Bell’s 37 points, but they’re still 7-13 on the season and I highly doubt Bell is going to post 37 again on a stingier Gonzaga defense. Win out and Mark Few is looking at 27-3 (16-0) heading into the WCC tournament where they could finish with a 29-3 (18-0) overall record and an RPI in the top-20 with their only losses at Michigan State, at home against Wake Forest and Duke in MSG. That sets up Gonzaga for a #3 seed in the Spokane regional, meaning two quasi-home games until the regional (and they could be in the Salt Lake City regional). German import Elias Harris has spear-headed the Zags hot streak. He’s averaging 16/8 and shooting nearly 60% in a tremendous debut campaign.

Vasquez heating up for the Terps

2. Remember that Greivis Vasquez guy on Maryland who’s had a pretty damn good career? After scoring in the single digits in his first four games and struggling mightily with his jump shot in Maui, the brash and often polarizing emotional sparkplug for the Terps is heating up in a big way. And that’s bad news for the rest of the wide-open ACC. Vasquez has now scored in double figures his last 14 games including a 30-point outburst at Wake Forest and 22 in a big home win over Florida State. He played his most efficient game Saturday in the blowout win over NC State, notching 19 points on 7-11 FG and 3-4 3pt. Despite the concerning start, Vasquez is now playing like the ACC POY contender he truly is. His 43% FG is only second to his 44% as a freshman (but he only needs three more shots to match the amount taken that season), his 39% 3pt is far and away a career best, and he’s also contributing with 6.1 APG and 4.6 RPG, solid totals for a 6’6 guard. I fully expect Duke to win the ACC- they’ve already played two of their three most difficult ACC games- but Maryland is absolutely a contender to finish second behind Vasquez, the continued improved play of Landon Milbourne and Eric Hayes (46% 3pt), plus the superb coaching of Gary Williams.

3. Other than maybe Georgetown or Notre Dame, the most disappointing team in the nation last season may have been Baylor. The Bears entered the season fresh off reaching the NCAA Tournament just a few years following the Dave Bliss fallout with Scott Drew being lauded as one of the best young coaches in the game. Even though a late-season Big 12 Tournament and NIT push healed some wounds, the 5-11 Big 12 mark a season ago was still a campaign to forget. What led to the downfall? For one, Baylor ranked #103 in defensive efficiency in 2008-09. During their crippling six game Big 12 losing streak, the Bears surrendered 95 points to Oklahoma, 89 to Missouri and 83 to Texas Tech. In a related story, Baylor is ranked in the top 25 this week and ranks 41st in defensive efficiency. What has sparked the change? A big reason is the human eraser Ekpe Udoh in the post, a Michigan transfer who ranks sixth in college basketball in block percentage (Baylor ranks first in the nation in the same category). Baylor as a unit has also turned up the intensity on the defensive end, ranking third in the nation in opponents two-point FG% behind just Mississippi State and Florida State. Baylor hasn’t forgotten how to score, either. They rank 15th in offensive efficiency and eighth in effective FG%. Anyone who watched the Bears go toe-to-toe with Kansas at Allen Fieldhouse last Monday knows this team can play.

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Ten Tuesday Scribbles…

Posted by zhayes9 on January 19th, 2010

RTC contributor and bracketologist Zach Hayes will deliver ten permeating thoughts every Tuesday as the season progresses.

I’m taking a bit of a detour from our normal Ten Tuesday Scribbles format this time around. Rather than list and discuss ten players/teams/developments in college basketball that caught my eye this past week, I figure this would be an opportune time to properly gauge the debate-friendly National Player of the Year race. Here’s my top ten ranking of the players I feel are most deserving of capturing this esteemed award when the season comes to a close.

10.  Jacob Pullen (Kansas State)- The 2-15 FG, 0-6 3pt stinkbomb last night against Avery Bradley and Texas puts a bit of a damper on this ranking, but dropping him out of this list would be remiss given his phenomenal junior campaign to date. Pullen has put together some spectacular performances against quality opponents, including 26/5/4 against Dayton in Puerto Rico, 28/6 on 10-16 FG against UNLV in Vegas and one of the best shooting efforts of the season in a win at Alabama: 30 points on 10-15 FG, 4-4 FT and 6-9 3pt. While Pullen has encountered a bit of a shooting slump since, he’s still one of the quickest guards in the nation with one of the smoothest jump shots. Jamar Samuels and Curtis Kelly led the way last night, and backcourt mate Denis Clemente is also potent, but coach Frank Martin knows how Pullen plays will determine how far the streaking Wildcats can go this season.

9. Jimmer Fredette (BYU)- A bout with mild mononucleosis has slowed down the explosive Fredette in recent weeks, but the complimentary pieces on a super-talented BYU team have certainly picked up the slack en route to a glamorous 18-1 record. Fredette is the catalyst and offensive machine that makes Dave Rose’s offense work, utilizing 31% of BYU’s offensive possessions and scoring at a clip below 20 per contest. Fredette shoots a stellar 44% from deep, 50% from two-point range and a remarkable 91% from the charity stripe. The junior guard isn’t just an explosive scorer, though, ranking 58th in the nation in assist rate. He’s best known for one of the best individual performances of the season at Arizona on December 28. Fredette scored 49 points on 16/23 FG and 9/13 from three to go along with nine assists and seven rebounds. Mono doesn’t seem to be slowing down Fredette too dramatically, either. This past Saturday against Colorado State, Fredette scored 21 points in just 24 minutes.

8. Quincy Pondexter (Washington)- Always a player blessed with tremendous length and talent, Pondexter had been a bit of an enigma during his career at Washington, showing glimpses of stardom but unable to maintain any sort of consistency. This year, the 6’6 senior has molded into a bona fide superstar. The last five Pac-10 games are a perfect example of how important Pondexter is to the fortunes of the Huskies, even more so than sophomore point guard Isaiah Thomas. After defeating Oregon State, Washington lost their next three games in conference and Pondexter totaled just 32 points in those three contests while battling foul trouble. Washington has rebounded nicely with two blowout wins on their rocking home floor in which the lanky forward has scored 52 points on 19/31 FG and 12/12 FT. Overall though, Pondexter’s senior season has been of the consistent variety, scoring 20.3 PPG and grabbing nearly eight boards per game while shooting 56% from the floor.

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Ten Tuesday Scribbles…

Posted by zhayes9 on January 12th, 2010

RTC contributor and bracketologist Zach Hayes will deliver ten permeating thoughts every Tuesday as the season progresses.

1. Other than Kansas students, graduates, former players and all former or current residents of Lawrence, was there anyone in this fine country of ours rooting for the #1 Jayhawks to beat a depleted Tennessee team, a group of kids and a stunned head coach that just dealt with the suspension and/or dismissal of four of its regular rotation players? All of the events that occurred in that two-hour window in Knoxville Sunday was a release of pent-up frustration and anxiety from a tumultuous week in which Tennessee was considered a prime threat to upend favorite Kentucky in the SEC one day and counted out as a SEC contender that must scratch and claw the final two months for an NCAA berth the next. Renaldo Woolridge banking in a three, the Vols maintaining their lead with Wayne Chism and J.P. Prince on the bench with four fouls, the coach’s son Steven taking a critical charge, a miracle Skyler McBee (one of three walk-ons playing substantial minutes) leaning trey that iced the game, and coach Bruce Pearl aiding the Volunteer mascot in waving the orange Tennessee flag while the sounds of Rocky Top reverberated throughout Thompson-Boling Arena summed up what college basketball should be about. Bill Self pointed this out after the game, but there are some moments during a season when a team officially becomes a team instead of a group of individuals. Even though Pearl would gladly reset the timer to New Year’s Eve and prevent four scholarship players from getting in that car, sometimes it takes a catastrophic occurrence that truly tests the mettle of a unit for them to band together and accomplish lofty goals. I think it’s fair to say Tennessee became a team Sunday night.

2. As long as Mike Anderson is employing his Forty Minutes of Hell hellacious press on demoralized opponents, especially on a home floor where his team has won 30 consecutive games, Missouri should never be totally counted out of the Big 12 race. Losing DeMarre Carroll, Leo Lyons and Matt Lawrence from an Elite 8 squad isn’t easy to overcome, and certainly the ceiling for the Tigers isn’t nearly as high, but the ultra-talented and quick Mizzou backcourt should have enough firepower to carry them to an NCAA berth. Missouri carried an impressive 12-3 record into their Big 12 opener with #10 Kansas State Saturday, yet their overall resume wasn’t incredibly awe-inspiring with their best wins over Old Dominion, Illinois, Georgia and Oregon and opportunities lost in defeats at the hands of Richmond, Vanderbilt and Oral Roberts. The win Saturday was clearly a statement that Missouri will be a contending force in the Big 12 for that #3 spot behind Texas and Kansas. Anderson looks to have a workable combination with experienced seniors J.T. Tiller and Zaire Taylor (evident by Taylor’s tie-breaking 3 with under a minute to play) making plays in late-game situations, a promising sophomore backcourt duo of Kim English and Marcus Denmon carrying most of the scoring load, and a defensive unit that ranks seventh overall in D efficiency, first in turnovers forced and gives Missouri a fighting chance on any night.

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