Big 12 Weekend In Review

Posted by Brian Goodman on February 19th, 2018

Another weekend of Big 12 action is in the books, and with it another dramatic set of games, each one carrying significant implications on both the league standings and the at-large picture for the NCAA Tournament. With Kansas and Texas Tech drawing back to even with four games remaining — including a crucial head-to-head match-up this coming Saturday — there’s still plenty of intrigue even if Saturday night’s events in Lawrence gave the impression that a 14th straight conference title for the Jayhawks is likelier than the standings suggest.

Bob Huggins became the latest visiting coach to show his frustration with the officiating at Allen Fieldhouse. (Nick Krug/Lawrence Journal-World)

  • Starting with the weekend’s marquee game between Kansas and West Virginia, Bob Huggins’ comments on the officiating, while valid, also left me ambivalent. Huggins certainly made a strong point when he pushed for referees to be made available to media after games in a fashion similar to that of coaches and players. The game as a whole would benefit, but as The Kansas City Star’s Sam Mellinger wrote in his postgame column, Huggins is probably not the right messenger for that idea when you consider his own team’s style of play. That said, while the 35-2 free throw disparity between the Jayhawks and Mountaineers drew the lion’s share of attention, caution should be exercised from draw sweeping conclusions. After all, the Mountaineers held a double-digit lead with fewer than 10 minutes to go despite the difference in free throw attempts, and West Virginia attempted just six shots at the rim all game long — compared with 13 by the Jayhawks. When a team fails to attack the tin, it will have a much harder time getting foul calls, especially on the road. Again, that isn’t to absolve John Higgins’ officiating crew from some responsibility here, but proper context is the name of the game when it comes to wide free throw disparities, even in extreme cases like this one.

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What’s Trending: Gold Medal Performances

Posted by Matt Eisenberg on February 19th, 2018

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

Northwestern could do no wrong in its first half against Michigan State on Saturday. Twitter was buzzing and many writers were left wondering what was happening…

…then the second half happened…

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Friday Figures: WVU’s True Problem, Mo Bamba’s Crazy Block Rate, More…

Posted by Chris Stone on February 2nd, 2018

Friday Figures is back after a brief hiatus to run down some of the most interesting statistics from the Big 12 conference. This week we’ll focus on West Virginia’s recent struggles, Keenan Evans’ outlier season and Mo Bamba’s soon-to-be record setting rim-protection.

West Virginia’s shot volume problem. Way back in November, this column made reference to the importance of shot volume for the Mountaineers. Simply put, Bob Huggins‘ squad shores up its lack of shot-making by taking more true shot attempts [FGAs + (0.44*FTAs)] than its opponents. Over the last three-plus seasons of the Press Virginia era, tracking the difference in true shot attempts for the Mountaineers and their opponents has become a seemingly reliable indicator for success. Take 12 or more than the opponent (demarcated by the grey line below) and West Virginia wins nearly 90 percent of the time. Dip below that number and it’s just 43 percent.

Source: Sports-Reference

Offensive rebounds and opponents’ turnovers are critical to creating the differential, but they’ve dipped below that magic number in all five of the team’s recent losses. Why? Iowa State, Kansas, TCU and Texas Tech all protected the ball. Those four games represent the lowest opponent turnover rates for West Virginia’s foes this season. Kentucky, meanwhile, rebounded 55.3 percent of its own misses, creating plenty of true shooting attempts of its own. If the Mountaineers are going to get right over the next six weeks, this is the issue they need to figure out.

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Take Me Home, Country Woes…

Posted by Brian Goodman on February 1st, 2018

Who knew that John Denver could predict the future? Fine, so West Virginia basketball probably wasn’t on the forefront of the late country star’s mind when he wrote his 1971 hit, but the title nonetheless aptly sums up the Mountaineers’ January performance. Bob Huggins‘ team had an absolutely dreadful month, illustrated by a 1-3 mark away from WVU Coliseum and punctuated by last night’s 93-77 defeat to eighth-place Iowa State — a loss as surprising as it was debilitating for West Virginia’s regular season Big 12 title chances. Throw in a second second-half meltdown against Kansas in as many years, and just like that, the team’s hopes of giving the conference a new champion for the first time in 14 years are dead and buried.

A 1-5 skid has Bob Huggins’ Mountaineers searching for answers. (Richard W. Rodriguez/AP)

We can point to a few factors when diagnosing the current skid. The first is a smattering of blown second-half leads. The Mountaineers held such advantages in their games against Texas Tech, Kansas and Kentucky, but let all three opponents overtake them and grab hold of the victory. On one hand, the abundance of high-quality competition in the Big 12 means that top teams aren’t fazed by their peers in any location, but on the other hand, perhaps the biggest distinction between the program that has a seemingly generational lock on the conference title and those that do not is a keen ability to close games out. A dip in effectiveness in West Virginia’s vaunted press has also betrayed the team, as the Mountaineers’ last six opponents have each posted turnover rates below the season-average 25.4 percent clip. As we saw against Kansas, when West Virginia’s opponents avoid mistakes, not only does their shot volume increase but the Mountaineers fail to score in transition. This correspondingly forces them to rely on their half-court offense, which has never been a particular strength.

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Can West Virginia Keep It Together?

Posted by Brian Goodman on January 9th, 2018

For a touch over three years now, West Virginia has experienced consistent success playing one of the country’s most unmistakable brands of basketball. Lest you call the Mountaineers’ pressing style a gimmick, they’re 93-29 over a period that includes two Sweet Sixteen runs, a Big 12 Tournament crown and one other finals appearance. But just like every Big 12 team other than Kansas, a regular season title has eluded Bob Huggins. The ‘Eers have been right in the thick of the race over the last two seasons, finishing second in both, but while banking on the Jayhawks to cede the regular season league title remains a sucker’s bet, West Virginia absolutely has the pieces on hand to finish the job in 2018.

Jevon Carter (left) doesn’t care how quickly Trae Young is rising up the draft boards.
(Ben Queen/USA TODAY Sports)

Though their competition in the run-up to league play was not great, the Mountaineers are nonetheless are off to a 14-1 start with zero losses since Opening Night. Their resume includes an early December win over Virginia that has only escalated in value, and a victory over Oklahoma that doubled as a reminder that Trae Young — as talented and electrifying as he is — is also a human who occasionally has to share a court with the one-man defensive juggernaut that is Jevon Carter. As the unrelenting heartbeat of the Mountaineers, Carter has continued to improve despite the consensus that he first played for Huggins in the old Big East. As good as Carter already was — the senior guard was an All-Big 12 Second Team selection last season — he’s improved his game on both ends, increasing his steal rate, assist rate, ability to draw contact and free throw proficiency. Additionally, in a system that relies on non-stop activity, depth and fresh legs, Miles has played 83 percent of the available minutes during the young conference season.

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A Quick Look at the Big 12’s Opening Weekend

Posted by Brian Goodman on December 29th, 2017

It’s not very often that the performance of a single conference as a whole is extensively discussed before the start of league play, but the manner in which the Big 12 asserted itself over the first six weeks of the 2017-18 season was nothing short of impressive. Nine of the conference’s 10 teams are ranked among the top 50 of KenPom‘s current rankings, and no team took more losses than Texas‘ three (of which two came in overtime against very good Duke and Gonzaga teams). In fact, the league finished non-conference play by ripping off 27 straight victories. Yes, there were some cupcakes in there, but there were also road and semi-road meetings against teams like Wichita State, Florida State and Nebraska. It’s gotten to the point where there’s been reasoned discussion on this site and others of the Big 12 sending 80 percent of its membership to the NCAA Tournament come March. Even if an underperforming team squelches that possibility, this conference will have meaningful games practically every night from now until March, beginning with tonight’s action. Here’s a quick look at each of the weekend’s five games.

Kansas remains the Big 12 favorite, but its competition is tougher than ever. (AP)

  1. West Virginia at Oklahoma State (Friday 7:00 ET, ESPNU) – The Cowboys project as one of the league’s worst teams, but West Virginia is just a 3.5-point favorite, which should tell you something about the Big 12’s parity and the intense challenge that the road represents this season, no matter the gym. Since installing the press prior to the 2014-15 season, Bob Huggins has not lost in Stillwater, and I expect that to continue tonight. Oklahoma State’s 10-2 start in the wake of Brad Underwood’s unexpected departure is a nice story, but the Cowboys are lacking in the three key areas needed to get the best of the Mountaineers: Ball control (117th nationally), defensive rebounding (174th) and drawing fouls (291st). Those will have to change if the Cowboys are to pull the upset.
  2. Baylor at Texas Tech (Friday 8:00 ET, Fox Sports Regional) – The Red Raiders stunned the Bears in Lubbock last season to give then-first year head coach Chris Beard a big home win. Three Baylor players fouled out of that game, which saw Texas Tech head to the foul line 43 times over the course of the night. That probably won’t be the case this time around, as Baylor ranks second in the country in foul avoidance. It also means that Texas Tech will need to find a fallback plan quickly if Baylor’s zone keeps Keenan Evans, Zach Smith and Zhaire Smith from attacking the rim as effectively as they have to this point in the season. Read the rest of this entry »
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Big 12 Notebook: Opening Weekend

Posted by Brian Goodman on November 13th, 2017

Most of the Big 12 started its season with resounding victories over the weekend, but the two exceptions were certainly glaring as they came in matchups that pitted teams against programs from other power conferences. After a solid start to the game, West Virginia completely fell apart against Texas A&M on Friday night in Germany. Back in America, Iowa State got much more than it bargained for when the Cyclones agreed to play a very different Missouri program a year ago as the Tigers soundly defeated their old conference foe in Columbia. Elsewhere around the league, two heralded recruits got their first tastes of Division I action and did not disappoint. Here are the three items that stuck out the most over the Big 12’s opening weekend.

1. West Virginia falls flat against Texas A&M.

Texas A&M handled West Virginia’s press with ease on Friday night. (Michael Probst/AP)

When the Mountaineer press is working and they’re crashing the offensive glass, West Virginia is incredibly tough to beat. This is not a new development, but it’s worth a reminder as the season tips off, because when they don’t do either of those things, it’s a very different story as we saw on Friday night. In an 88-65 blowout loss to Texas A&M, the Mountaineers generated turnovers on just 23 percent of the Aggies’ possessions and rebounded their own misses just 23 percent of the time. Disappointing results on those two fronts put the pressure on Bob Huggins‘ half-court offense to produce, but any chance of that was snuffed out by Billy Kennedy’s switch to a zone defense midway through the first half. Combine all of that with big shooting nights from the Aggies’ Admon Gilder (4-of-6 3FG) and JJ Hogg (4-of-5 3FG) and there was just too much to overcome. Huggins mentioned earlier this month that he may pull back on the press in spots, citing the team’s changing roster, and with the Mountaineers facing a relatively lax schedule over the next couple weeks, don’t be surprised if he utilizes those opportunities to do a little tinkering.

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Where 2017-18 Happens: Reason #9 We Love College Basketball

Posted by rtmsf on November 2nd, 2017

As RTC heads into its 11th season covering college hoops, it’s time to begin releasing our annual compendium of YouTube clips that we like to call Thirty Reasons We Love College Basketball. These 30 snippets from last season’s action are completely guaranteed to make you wish the games were starting tonight rather than 30 days from now. Over the next month you’ll get one reason per day until we reach the new season on Friday, November 10. You can find all of this year’s released posts here.

#9 – Where Comeback Happens.

We also encourage you to re-visit the entire archive of this feature from the 2008-092009-10, 2010-112011-122012-132013-142014-15, 2015-16 and 2016-17 preseasons.

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Final Four Fact Sheet: South Carolina Gamecocks

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 28th, 2017

Now that we’re down to the Final Four, let’s take a deep dive into each of the four remaining teams. Today: South Carolina.

How South Carolina Got Here

South Carolina is headed to its first Final Four ever. (Photo Credit: Elsa/Getty Images)

East Region Champions. Despite entering Selection Sunday having lost six of its previous 10 games, South Carolina was given a surprisingly-high seed (#7) in a surprisingly-favorable location: Greenville, South Carolina. The Gamecocks took full advantage, crushing #10 seed Marquette before pulling off one of the biggest upsets of the NCAA Tournament against #2 Duke, scoring 65 points in the second half en route to an 88-81 runaway victory against the National Championship favorite. In its first Sweet Sixteen since appearance since 1973, South Carolina then held #3 Baylor to a season-low 0.76 points per possession; two days later, the Gamecocks put the finishing touches on their Cinderella run by upending SEC rival #4 Florida, limiting the Gators to 0-of-14 three-pointers in the second half on their way to a seven-point triumph.

The Coach

Frank Martin. In just five short years, Martin — a former nightclub bouncer and perhaps the scariest man in college basketball — has lifted a program from the depths of irrelevance to its first Final Four in school history. And he’s done it with the same hard-nosed, defensive-minded coaching style that made him successful in his first Division I coaching stint at Kansas State (2007-12). The former Bob Huggins assistant has clear stylistic similarities to his mentor, employing an aggressive, relentless brand of basketball intent on wearing down opponents mentally and physically. In eight of his 10 years as a college head coach, Martin’s teams have ranked among the top 40 nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency. The Miami native spent 15 years coaching high school basketball in his hometown before joining Northeastern as an assistant in 2000, so his decision to take the South Carolina job in 2012 — a program with only three Sweet Sixteen appearances in its long history — was not overly surprising. Martin knows how to be patient. After missing the NCAA Tournament in his first four seasons, that patience is finally paying off.

Style

For South Carolina, success starts on the defensive end. The Gamecocks rank second nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, fourth in defensive turnover rate, 12th in effective field goal percentage defense, and perhaps second to only West Virginia — Huggins’ group — in sheer physicality. Led by a pair of elite defenders in 6’5” Sindarius Thornwell and 6’6” PJ Dozier, South Carolina presses and traps all over the court, making it difficult for opposing ball-handlers to cross the timeline, much less comfortably run offensive sets. In the half-court, the Gamecocks aggressively extend on shooters, preferring to commit fouls over allowing open shots from the perimeter. Their length and knack for swarming to the ball (often employing a half-court trap) makes clean interior looks nearly as difficult, especially with 6’9” Chris Silva — a good per minute shot-blocker — manning the paint. They simply deny everything. Offensively, aggression remains the name of the game: South Carolina scores a whopping 23 percent of its points from the free throw line and another 50 percent from inside the arc, attack the basket at will, often off of turnovers. Having big, physical guard/forwards like Thornwell and Dozier helps.

Strengths

Sindarius Thornwell has been Superman for the Gamecocks this season. (Getty Images)

  • Limiting three-pointers. South Carolina does an exceptional job of taking away perimeter jumpers, allowing opponents to score just 25.6 percent of their points from behind the arc. The Gamecock guards relentlessly press up on shooters, sometimes resulting in fouls, but often resulting in forced jumpers or haphazard drives late in the shot clock. Really, the same reason opponents have such a difficult time shooting three-pointers is the same reason South Carolina forces turnovers at a higher rate than all but three other teams in the country: opposing guards simply can’t breathe once they cross half-court.
  • Attacking the basket. Thornwell is in a class of his own when it comes to attacking the rim. The senior ranks 13th nationally in fouls drawn per 40 minutes, a testament to his bullish aggressiveness in the lane and willingness to push the ball as far and as fast as back-peddling defenders will allow. When South Carolina forces turnovers (which is often) he and his teammates waste no time getting downcourt—the Gamecocks average just 16.6 seconds per offensive possession. They also pound the offensive glass, cleaning up misses at the third-highest rate among SEC teams. Between free throws, offensive rebounds, and plain strong drives to the hoop, South Carolina is able to sustain itself offensively despite its poor shooting numbers.
  • Endurance. According to this account, South Carolina full-court presses during the majority of practices and often plays five-on-seven (advantage to the offense) in order to whip its dogged defense into shape. That grueling work ethic clearly pays off on game day. The Gamecocks are +54 in the second half during the NCAA Tournament, wearing down opposing offenses to such a degree that their offense — which, again, thrives on attacking the rim — can flourish. South Carolina’s second-half blitzes against Duke, Marquette, and Florida are shining examples. Conditioning, both mental and physical, seems to matter.

Weaknesses

  • Shooting. At 47.4 percent eFG, South Carolina ranks 299th nationally in effective field goal percentage. That’s not good. Outside of Thornwell (39.4% 3FG), there really aren’t any serious outside shooting threats on the roster. Guard Duane Notice (10.2 PPG) is capable of getting hot, but he’s also very streaky. Dozier (13.8 PPG) takes a lot of shots, but he’s usually not all that efficient. If Thornwell is off and Silva isn’t going to work inside, the Gamecocks can become very stagnant very fast.
  • Foul trouble. That aggressive defense has one glaring downside: free throws and foul trouble. Not only do South Carolina’s opponents score almost 27 percent of their points from the charity stripe, but several crucial Gamecock players — most notably Silva —are often forced to take a seat early. The 6’9” forward has fouled out 10 times this season, seven of which South Carolina lost. Dozier, another superb defender, also runs into similar trouble from time to time. Against talented offenses like Gonzaga, North Carolina and Oregon, free points and foul trouble could become an issue.
  • One-dimensionality. It may be oversimplifying things to say that South Carolina’s success boils down merely to defense and Sindarius Thornwell, but it’s not that far from the truth. Fact is, the Gamecocks must continue dominating on defense, and the senior sensation must continue to playing at a high-level offensively in order for Martin’s team to have a chance in Phoenix. If one of those two elements slips — say, the defense sputters like it did against Arkansas in Feburary, or Thornwell struggles like he did against Alabama in the SEC Tournament — it’s hard to envision South Carolina recovering.

Go-To Scorer

For South Carolina to succeed in Phoenix, PJ Dozier must keep performing offensively. (fansided.com)

Sindarius Thornwell (21.6 PPG, 7.2 RPG, 2.2 SPG). Before Duke’s Round of 32 loss to South Carolina, Mike Krzyzewski called Thornwell “the best, unheralded, great player in the United States.” And even that might be an understatement. The 6’5” in-state product is averaging nearly 26 points per game during NCAA Tournament play, showcasing his relentless aggression (he’s already attempted 39 free throws), shooting ability (42% 3FG over four games), and superb defensive skills. He’s also an outstanding offensive rebounder, once ripping down 10 offensive boards en route to a ridiculous 44-point, 21-rebound stat line against Alabama on February 7. Among players who have attempted 250+ free throws this season, only a handful of players boast a higher free throw percentage than the senior (83% FT). Thornwell also led the SEC in steal percentage during the regular season. There’s a reason he was the coaches’ choice for Conference Player of the Year (not to mention 7th in KenPom National Player of the Year rankings)—Thornwell is great.

X-Factor

PJ Dozier (13.8 PPG, 4.7 RPG). For better or worse, the talented sophomore takes a staggering 31 percent of his team’s shots while on the floor, which is roughly 70 percent of the time. That shot rate is higher than Thornwell’s (28.7%). When he shoots 50 percent or better from the field, South Carolina is 11-0; when he shoots under 40 percent, Martin’s team is 10-6. That seem like “picking and choosing” statistics, but it’s hard to deny that the Gamecocks’ offense is markedly better when Dozier is efficient. Silva, and bench production from players like forward Maik Kotsar (12 points vs. Florida), will also be key.

Outlook

When are we going to learn? South Carolina has entered each of its last three games as the underdog, yet won each contest by an average 11.3 points. It hadn’t scored over 1.1 points per possession since February 15 prior to Selection Sunday; in the four games since, Martin’s group has surpassed that mark three times. Tough, confident, and afraid of nobody, the Gamecocks now face their most difficult opponent yet: a Gonzaga team that boasts the nation’s most efficient defense with nearly an offense to match. Still, count South Carolina out at your own risk.

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Rushed Reactions: #1 Gonzaga 61, #4 West Virginia 58

Posted by rtmsf on March 23rd, 2017

RTC is providing coverage from start to finish of the NCAA Tournament for the next three weeks.

Gonzaga Survives and Advances (USA Today Images)

Key Takeaways.

  1. The Abominable Mountaineers. West Virginia got the game it wanted. A foul-filled first half full of ugly was followed by more of the same in the second half, ultimately resulting in a gnarly 61-58 abomination of a win by Gonzaga that came down to struggling offense as a result of gritty defense. This game notched a total of 51 fouls, 61 free throws, 29 turnovers and only nine made threes, but it was a bomb by Jordan Mathews from the left wing who provided a glimmer of beauty in a visual disaster. And although Gonzaga clearly did not prefer to play such a physical, rough-and-tumble style, credit goes to the Zags for beating West Virginia at its own game to advance to the Elite Eight.
  2. And It Came Down to Defense. Everyone knows about West Virginia’s pressure defense, and it was certainly a factor tonight — the Zags committed 16 turnovers that included a period in the late second half when it appeared the wheels might be completely coming off. But it was the less-heralded Gonzaga defense that held West Virginia to a moribund 27 percent from the field and 21 percent from three-point range, allowing Mark Few’s team just enough wiggle room to suffer a horrid offensive night and still come away with the win. As Huggins alluded to after the game, there simply weren’t many open looks for his team tonight.
  3. That Final Play Though. The final play of the game — which was really three offensive plays in one — resulted in West Virginia’s Jevon Carter dribbling 22 times (!!!) in an effort to isolate and create space for a pair of long not-close threes. When the Mountaineers grabbed the offensive rebound both times, the ball ended up in his hands again. His final attempt, which Gonzaga had by this point completely sniffed out and covered well beyond the top of the key, resulted in what would have been a blocked shot but ended up being a bailout pass to the wing and no shot at all. It was a disastrous end to a disastrous game, but it felt completely appropriate given all the nastiness that had been displayed over the previous 39+ minutes.

Star of the Game. Jordan Mathews, Gonzaga. In a game where points were at a premium, the most insane play of the game occurred after West Virginia had missed two free throws, Gonzaga corralled the rebound, only to have the ball stolen and a layup attempt blocked (possibly fouled?) and the Zags moving back upcourt. After a tipped 40-foot pass from the right sideline to Mathews standing on the left wing, his three-pointer broke a deadlocked game and allowed the Zags to put together their final stand. Mathews only logged 13 points on 4-of-12 shooting from the field, but his shot will go down in Gonzaga lore in a game that surely felt like it was slipping away.

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