National Championship Preview: North Carolina/Villanova Will Win If…

Posted by Tommy Lemoine & Bennet Hayes on April 4th, 2016

Only one game remains this college basketball season, and it tips off in about six hours. What needs to happen for North Carolina and Villanova if they expect to win a National Championship in Houston later tonight? Here are the keys to victory for both sides.

North Carolina Will Win If…

Brice Johnson and North Carolina must rule the interior on Monday night.(Photo: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports)

Brice Johnson and North Carolina must rule the interior on Monday night.(Photo: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports)

  • The Tar Heels’ front line imposes its will. Five North Carolina regulars are 6’8” or taller, a fact that will matter even more than usual against a Villanova team with a de facto starting power forward (Kris Jenkins) who is just 6’6”. The Wildcats will have their hands very full with Brice Johnson, Kennedy Meeks and the rest – particularly on the backboards. Jay Wright has found plenty of advantages to exploit with his smaller lineup, but there’s no denying that the undersized Wildcats will be playing at a significant disadvantage when the ball comes off the rim. Villanova ranks 209th and 134th nationally in offensive and defensive rebounding percentages, respectively, and gave up 19 offensive rebounds to Oklahoma on Saturday (about the only thing the Wildcats didn’t do well). No shift in offensive philosophy is needed tonight, but expect North Carolina to wage a full-blown assault on its offensive backboard.
  • Joel Berry is effective offensively. Senior Marcus Paige is usually noted as the most effective barometer for the Tar Heels’ offense, but it has been the play of Berry this season (not Paige), that has more closely correlated with the overall success of North Carolina. Berry has averaged 12.6 points and 3.8 assists per game this season, but has managed only 9.8 PPG and 2.2 APG in UNC’s six losses. He had eight points, 10 assists and seven rebounds on Saturday against Syracuse; finding a way to have a similarly significant impact against Villanova’s tenacious perimeter defense will take a lot of the pressure off the UNC frontcourt.
  • They make Villanova take difficult three-point shots. Carolina’s length is sure to bother a Villanova team that has excelled inside the arc this season (the Wildcats rank second in the country in shooting 57.3 percent on two-point field goals), so expect them to rely on the three-point shot even more than they normally do. Forty-three percent of Villanova’s field goals come from behind the arc, (29th highest mark in the nation), and while they don’t shoot an outstanding percentage from there (35.9%), nearly every Villanova regular is a threat to convert — six Wildcats have made at least 23 three-pointers this season. North Carolina has not defended the arc well this season – the Heels rank 247th nationally in allowing opponents to shoot 35.9 percent from three – but must be able to challenge Villanova’s shooters tonight.
  • They don’t turn the ball over. The North Carolina recipe for offensive success, in its most succinct form, is to limit turnovers and collect offensive rebounds. Doing the former will not be easy against a pesky Villanova team that will surely look to utilize its disruptive 1-2-2 press, but it will be no less important. The more field goal attempts that go up, the more offensive rebounds that will be available to a North Carolina frontcourt that is the Tar Heels’ biggest advantage in this game.

Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

Final Four Fact Sheet: Villanova Wildcats

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 28th, 2016

Now that the Final Four is set, our writers have put together a fact sheet on each of the four teams still remaining. First, Villanova. 

Villanova hopes to do more celebrating in Houston. (Timothy D. Easley/AP)

Villanova hopes to do more celebrating in Houston. (Timothy D. Easley/AP)

How the Wildcats Got Here

South Region Champions. Villanova handled #15 seed UNC Asheville in its NCAA Tournament opener before crushing #7 seed Iowa in the round of 32. The Wildcats then headed to Louisville, where they posted 1.56 points per possession – the most efficient performance in college basketball all season long – en route to a 23-point drubbing of #3 seed Miami. Two nights later, the Big East champs came up with the necessary late-game stops to grind out a victory against #1 seed Kansas and clinch its first Final Four appearance since 2009.

The Coach

Jay Wright. Before Wright took over for Steve Lappas in 2001, the Wildcats had not reached the Sweet Sixteen since 1987-88. In the 15 years since, Villanova has made five second weekend appearances, including Final Four trips this year and in 2009. The 54-year-old coach, known for his cool demeanor and sharply tailored suits, has elevated the program to even greater heights in recent seasons, posting a 95-13 record since 2013 and earning a #1 or #2 seed in the NCAA Tournament three years in a row. With another Final Four now under his belt, Wright should now be considered among the finest regular season and tournament coaches in college basketball.

Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

NCAA Tournament Instareaction: Big East

Posted by Justin Kundrat on March 13th, 2016

In terms of the bubble, there was little surprise about the five Big East teams that were going to make the Big Dance. Rather, the biggest outstanding question was how their draws would play out. For a number of the middle-seeded teams, first weekend matchups mean nearly everything for postseason success. Below is a review of how the selection process concluded for each Big East team and what they should expect for the first few rounds of the NCAA Tournament.

Villanova, #2 seed, South Region. A surprising and frustrating choice for many Villanova fans. Few expected to receive a #1 seed after losing to Seton Hall last night, but many expected the opportunity to play in the Philadelphia regional rather than being shipped to the South region. Nevertheless, Villanova’s opening pod is a favorable one. The Wildcats handily beat Temple on its own floor a few weeks ago and Iowa has struggled mightily over its last 10 games. The Hawkeyes should beat the Owls, but their guard play is weak and the team has no dominant interior presence. A matchup against Villanova would be a battle of wings against a team that isn’t particularly strong at defending the paint. On paper, Villanova should handle it well.

Villanova's Big East Title Game Loss May Have Cost Them A #1 Seed (USA Today Sports)

Villanova’s Big East Title Game Loss May Have Cost Them A #1 Seed (USA Today Sports)

Xavier, #2 seed, East Region. Xavier should be happy with this placement. Weber State won lot of games but succeeded only once over a team in KenPom‘s top 150. Looking forward, Pittsburgh and Wisconsin are the Musketeers’ possible second round opponents — both are big, physical teams that play a slower-paced game. Neither is particularly adept at forcing turnovers, a point of weakness for the Musketeers, but Wisconsin is probably the more dangerous team. Given the Badgers’ impressive recent stretch (winners of 10 of its last 13 games) and ability to control tempo, Xavier will need to bring its best game. It says here, however, that Wisconsin will struggle to shoot well enough to challenge Chris Mack’s team.

Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

Otskey’s Big East Observations: Scouting Big East Tournament Teams

Posted by Brian Otskey on March 9th, 2016

With the NCAA Tournament only one week away, let’s take a look at the five Big East teams likely to earn a bid from a scouting perspective. Matchups play a major part in whether a strong team makes an early exit or an average team makes a deep March run. This is magnified more than ever in the pressure cooker that is the NCAA Tournament as teams encounter opponents and styles of play they are largely unfamiliar with. Conversely, some of these teams may flourish once they’re free of the grinder that is the regular season in the Big East.

Villanova

Josh Hart and Villanova were the class of the Big East again this season. (USA Today Sports)

Josh Hart and Villanova were the class of the Big East once again this season. (USA TODAY Sports)

  • Why the Wildcats can go deep: Jay Wright’s team is incredibly balanced and cohesive on both sides of the ball. An elite defensive squad, Villanova leads the Big East in allowing only 63.3 PPG. That alone will keep this group in games against any team in the nation. They are known for their defense, but the Wildcats don’t seem to get enough credit nationally for their offensive prowess. They feature an experienced floor general in Ryan Arcidiacono, a versatile wing in Josh Hart and a savvy big man in the middle in Daniel Ochefu. Another thing Villanova does incredibly well that should come in handy in the NCAA Tournament is free throw shooting. It leads the nation with a 77.9 percent mark from the charity stripe. Mounting a comeback against the Wildcats in the final minute is often a futile endeavor.

Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

Big East Bubble Watch: Volume IV

Posted by Justin Kundrat on March 4th, 2016

With the Big East Tournament just around the corner, things are looking pretty good. Every conference bubble team that needed to win did so, giving us a much higher degree of certainty that the conference will earn five NCAA Tournament bids this season. Part of the reason for that is welcome to lock territory, Seton Hall. The Pirates picked up a signature win at home on Sunday against Xavier and would finish the regular season with a worst-case RPI of #44 should the Pirates lose this weekend at DePaul. At a macro level, the conference appears primed for postseason success: two highly-seeded teams and two or three mid-seeded teams makes for a good combination of quality and quantity in representation. Now it comes down to a final regular season game and the conference tournament to determine seeding for those five teams. Here’s the latest installment of the Big East Bubble Watch. RPI and SOS figures are from RPIForecast.com.

Locks

Jay Wright and Villanova have been on point. (Getty)

Jay Wright and Villanova have been on point. (Getty)

  • Villanova: 26-4 (15-2); RPI: 2; SOS: 12
  • Xavier: 25-4 (13-4); RPI: 7; SOS: 30
  • Seton Hall: 21-8 (11-6); RPI: 33; SOS: 52

Analysis: Once again, no justification is needed for Villanova and Xavier here, as both are reasonable contenders for the #1 seed line. Xavier dropped a road game at Seton Hall that may have diminished the Musketeers’ chances for a top seed, but the corresponding effect is that it moved the Pirates into the lock category. For a team that was picked to finish seventh in the preseason, Seton Hall and its wiser, calmer sophomore leader Isaiah Whitehead have come a long way. The Pirates have one remaining game at DePaul, but even a loss there would not push their RPI nearly low enough (#44) to fall out of consideration. While possibly out of reach, the goal is to push for a #6 seed, thereby avoiding the potential pitfall of facing a #1 or #2 seed in the Second Round. Time to celebrate, Seton Hall fans, it appears that your 10-year NCAA Tournament drought is finally over. Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

Xavier’s Weakness Becomes Apparent

Posted by Justin Kundrat on March 1st, 2016

Media pundits are always quick to jump on bandwagons and it happened again on Wednesday night. The chatter around Xavier’s perceived ceiling has been around all season, but it picked up considerably following the team’s win over #1 Villanova. Those claiming Xavier has Final Four potential aren’t wrong by any means; Chris Mack’s team is deep, athletic and extremely tough on the boards — a combination that usually makes for a tough out. Moreover, a 7-2 record against the RPI top 50 has erased any doubts about its ability to compete against Tournament-level teams. Below the surface, however, lurk some unpleasant memories, remnants of what are unquestionably ugly losses. A 31-point blowout at Villanova, a pair of brutally inefficient losses to Georgetown and Creighton, and most recently, a clunker at Seton Hall. The losses themselves aren’t the least bit concerning — Xavier’s four total losses is the second fewest of any team in the country — it’s the way they’ve lost.

Chris Mack is Safe For Now But Shouldn't 'Get too Comfortable (Getty)

Chris Mack and Xavier are legit contenders, but do have some things to work out. (Getty)

The Musketeers have a number of options — Trevon Bluiett, Myles Davis and JP Macura prime among them — when it comes to perimeter scoring, but these players aren’t relied upon for lights-out shooting as much as they are pure spacing. With a lightning-quick point guard in Edmond Sumner, Xavier can usually penetrate to get high quality looks around the rim because teams are forced to respect the array of shooters around Sumner. It doesn’t necessarily matter who is making shots, so long as they connect on a high enough percentage to keep defenses honest. The Xavier wings are also adept at making entry passes to the low post, a place where the Musketeers are converting at a high rate, as the presence of numerous shooters and slashers helps stop opponents from doubling on the interior. Xavier post options Jalen Reynolds and James Farr also both rank in the top 100 in offensive rebounding, helping the X-men corral 35.7 percent of its missed shots. Partially as a result of the attack of the offensive glass, Xavier attempts 40.3 percent of its shots at the rim and gets to the free throw line at an exceedingly high rate (29th nationally). Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

You’re Not Mistaken: Conference Races Are Tighter This Season

Posted by Will Ezekowitz on February 19th, 2016

We are quickly approaching March and that means the regular season is almost over. Usually by this point in the season there are a few teams running away with the crowns in the power conferences, but it hasn’t quite gone that way this year. Analysts have described the level of parity this year in college basketball as unprecedented, but we decided to look into it ourselves. Exactly how close are the conference races this season as opposed to in previous years? Here’s a look at the last six years of the power conference races three weeks from the end of the regular season.

Screen Shot 2016-02-18 at 11.20.38 AM Screen Shot 2016-02-18 at 11.20.34 AM Screen Shot 2016-02-18 at 11.20.28 AM Screen Shot 2016-02-18 at 11.20.23 AM Screen Shot 2016-02-18 at 11.20.17 AM Screen Shot 2016-02-18 at 11.20.09 AM

A quick glance at each league reveals that the ACC, Big Ten, Pac-12 and especially the SEC are having some of the most contested conference races in recent memory. Interestingly, for every conference other than the Big East, the current first place team (e.g., Kansas at 10-3 in the Big 12) has as many or more losses than any first place team the past five years has had on this date. That also means that second and third place teams across the board have a better chance of winning their leagues than they usually would.

Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

Marquette Slowly Rebuilding But Hope is on the Horizon

Posted by Chris Stone on January 5th, 2016

Under former coaches Tom Crean and Buzz Williams, Marquette made the NCAA Tournament in eight straight seasons from 2006-13. Despite all of that success, a tumultuous period in program history began just one season removed from a 2013 trip to the Elite Eight. It begin with a sour relationship between Williams and former athletic director Larry Williams (no relation). The latter Williams resigned in December 2013 amid a cloud of uncertainty. The former Williams, for his part, surprisingly left the program for Virginia Tech at the end of the 2013-14 season. In retrospect, the decision was calculated. Williams decided that Marquette, a school with no football program and mired in the thick of a shaky Big East realignment, was not well-poised for future success. The Golden Eagles’ 17-15 record that season certainly wasn’t reassuring.

Steve Wojchiechowski is in the midst of a rebuild at Marquette. (Mark Hoffman/The Journal Sentinel)

Steve Wojchiechowski is in the midst of a rebuild at Marquette. (Mark Hoffman/The Journal Sentinel)

Steve Wojciechowski, the associate head coach at Duke at the time, saw Marquette differently than Williams. He saw a school where, similar to his alma mater in Durham, the men’s basketball program is an integral part of the university. He also recognized that the program has a proud and passionate fan base that will not accept mediocrity. In his first season, Marquette finished 13-19 and once again missed the NCAA Tournament, but a top-10 recruiting class that included highly-touted freshman Henry Ellenson brought a rejuvenated sense of hope. Those expectations were tempered very quickly at the start of the season. In the span of a single November week, the Golden Eagles lost their home opener to Belmont, needed overtime to get past IUPUI, and was walloped by Iowa. They bounced back with neutral court victories over LSU and Arizona State in Brooklyn en route to a 10-2 record that also included a surprising victory over Wisconsin in Madison. The beginning of Big East play, however, brought forth some new adversity. After a disappointing home loss by 20 points to Seton Hall, Marquette hit 0-2 in league play after an 80-70 loss to Georgetown on Saturday. Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

Otskey’s Big East Observations: 12.18.15 Edition

Posted by Brian Otskey on December 18th, 2015

While every season is definitely long and winding, Georgetown’s loss to Monmouth should be concerning for both the Hoyas and Big East fans. The primary reason is not that Monmouth is a bad team — rather, the Hawks have a quality squad this season — it is that the Hoyas were run off their home floor in a game that should have been a close, competitive loss or a win. This loss is the latest in a recent history full of uninspiring Georgetown losses under John Thompson III and the second of this season alone. When you look at the Hoyas’ overall KenPom profile, a few things stand out. First, this team is not defending at a high level. While Georgetown’s field goal percentage defense of 37.7 percent is very good, that statistic only shows so much.

John Thompson III's team was the latest to fall victim to upstart Monmouth. (Washington Post)

John Thompson III’s team was the latest to fall victim to upstart Monmouth. (Washington Post)

When you dig a little deeper, you find a team fouling at a high rate and failing to close out possessions on the boards effectively. A team that struggles to rebound and puts opponents on the foul line too often allows for plenty of extra points, which is the main reason why Georgetown ranks 87th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency. When compared with their Big East companions, that rate puts the Hoyas ahead of only Butler, Creighton and hapless DePaul. Already with four losses on its resume, Georgetown has some work to do in league play in order to safely make another trip to the NCAA Tournament. Lackluster performances like those against Monmouth and Radford need to become a thing of the past, and Georgetown will have to become a more efficient squad in order to earn that invitation. Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

Propelled by Fresh Faces, the Chris Mullin Era Has Arrived at St. John’s

Posted by Justin Kundrat on December 15th, 2015

Few expected a winning season for a St. John’s team that experienced a complete roster upheaval. Not only was fifth-year head coach Steve Lavin shown the door, but all six players on a team that only played a six-man rotation to begin with departed the program. There was no apparent end in sight for the dark and gloomy forecasts that riddled the program. It went on for so long that fans, coaches and players alike were not wondering when, but if, St. John’s would ever return to its status as “New York’s team.” Alas, the arrival of Chris Mullin provided a struggling program with a flicker of hope. And that hope may be arriving sooner than expected. It started as an uphill battle for a program that hasn’t sniffed a continued degree of success since Mullin himself played in the 80’s. So after St. John’s suffered a blowout loss to Vanderbilt, struggled to hold off Division II Chaminade, and then lost by 16 at Fordham, few expressed much surprise. After all, this was a team full of misfits. Some were only at the university for a one-year stay as graduate students whereas others had been recruited to play for Lavin and were now forced to adapt to new leadership.

Slowly but surely, it seems the Red Storm are taking well to Chris Mullin's leadership. (Tania Savayan/The Journal News)

Slowly but surely, it seems the Red Storm are taking well to Chris Mullin’s leadership. (Tania Savayan/The Journal News)

Considering the limited degree of time and resources, Mullin’s roster construction in a matter of months has been a truly admirable effort. He took a completely unfamiliar group of players, put them on the floor together, and let the chemistry work itself out. “We’re young, we’re inexperienced, we’re all new guys, speaking a different language, but when you play together and you play well, it’s a positive reinforcement.” Mullin’s two graduate transfers Durand Johnson (Pitt) and Ron Mvouika (Missouri State) have stepped in as immediate contributors and provided invaluable leadership to the host of newcomers. Meanwhile, sparingly used returnees Christian Jones and Amar Alibegovic have worked to fill in the gaps while the freshmen, his freshmen, develop. Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

What Makes Kris Dunn Unique Isn’t His Offense

Posted by Justin Kundrat on December 4th, 2015

Providence’s Kris Dunn is a special kind of player. How many times have we heard that this season? His ascent to stardom came at an almost unprecedented rate, going from “good player who plays a supporting role to LaDontae Henton” to Big East Player of the Year in just one season. In the ensuing offseason, Dunn found himself in discussions as not just the best player in the conference, but the best player in the entire country. He’s seen his draft stock rise from completely off the board (DraftExpress on 12/3/2014) to surefire lottery pick in just 12 months’ time.

Dunn's Rise Has Been Meteoric (USA TODAY Sports)

Dunn’s Rise Has Been Meteoric (USA TODAY Sports)

But while much of the national media spotlight has been focused on Dunn’s flashy passing and bevy of offensive moves, his instinct on the defensive end of the floor hasn’t received proper attention. What many of those fail to realize about the junior All-American is that much of his playmaking ability is driven by the havoc he creates on defense.

Without much interior size, Providence fares poorly in defensive field goal percentages across the board. The Friars are allowing opponents to shoot 35 percent from three (222nd nationally), 51 percent from two (220th), and allowing offensive rebounds on 29 percent of opponents’ possessions (134th). Combining that with an average shooting offense might lead you to believe that this is a team struggling to stay afloat. Instead, Providence currently sits at 7-1 with significant wins over Evansville and Arizona along with a tightly contested loss to Michigan State. How is this possible, you ask? The answer is through an unusually prescient defense led by the prolific play of its superstar, Dunn.

As a team, Providence forces a turnover on nearly 24 percent of opponents’ possessions, ranking 26th nationally in this category. This turnover-hungry defense kickstarts an offense that converts on shot attempts in transition at a 54 percent clip (compared with 48 percent in non-transition settings). It also helps to explain why teams have only been scoring 68 points per game (seven fewer than the national average) in spite of the Friars’ poor field goal defense. Spearheading this defense is Dunn, who ranks second nationally in steal percentage at 6.5 percent. How does he do it? Let’s examine what makes Dunn such a great defender and how that propels the Friars’ offense.

Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

Otskey’s Big East Observations: 12.03.15 Edition

Posted by Brian Otskey on December 3rd, 2015

One season removed from sending six of its 10 teams to the NCAA Tournament, the Big East has again started the season with a bang. To date, the conference has amassed an 18-13 record against teams currently ranked in the top 100 of Ken Pomeroy’s ratings, with only Creighton, DePaul and St. John’s not yet in the win column. Against Power Five conference opponents, the league as a whole sports a 16-12 record. With a strong start under its belt, the question will inevitably turn to how many teams the Big East can place in the NCAA Tournament this year? It is probably safe to say that a minimum of four will go with a good chance for a fifth given the way Providence has been playing. However, it is still early and a lot of things can happen between now and March. As far as a sixth team, the odds are not as great but there is something of a chance. Marquette, Seton Hall and Creighton could very well fight for the sixth and final Big East NCAA berth when all is said and done in this league.

Jay Wright and Villanova have been on point. (Getty)

Jay Wright and Villanova, who sit at the top of the Big East standings at 7-0, is leading what is a tremendous conference pack so far this season. (Getty)

Right now, the edge would have to go to the Golden Eagles and Pirates. While Marquette’s (5-2) weak non-conference schedule will be an anchor, the Golden Eagles are a team that should get better as the season moves along and could win 10 games in the league. Its two wins before Thanksgiving at the Barclays Center against LSU and Arizona State were critical after starting the season with two early losses. As for Seton Hall (5-2), it has quietly picked up top-100 victories over Georgia and Mississippi and has another chance to grab a quality win at home against a banged-up Wichita State team that should get back to playing good hoops once Fred VanVleet returns. If Kevin Willard’s squad can finish the non-conference slate at 10-2 and get to 9-9 in conference, it will be right on the bubble come Selection Sunday. Creighton is in a tough position because of a non-conference schedule that provides limited opportunities for quality wins. It has already lost at Indiana, and while a game at Oklahoma later this month is certainly a top-notch opponent, it is unrealistic to think the Bluejays can win that one. After blowing a great chance for a top-100 win this week at home against Arizona State, Greg McDermott’s team will have a lot of work to do in conference play. Ultimately, five NCAA teams seems like the proper over/under for the Big East this year. Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story