Weekly Primer: Don’t Sleep on Mid-December Games

Posted by Henry Bushnell on December 16th, 2014

Every Monday (sometimes Tuesday), Henry Bushnell will provide a look ahead at the week to come. He’ll discuss the week’s top storylines, preview the three most prominent and compelling games, put a giant or two on upset alert, and decide which teams are in desperate need of a big week.

It’s a cold, dark Monday night in December. The holiday scent is in the air. Subpar football unwillingly seeps out of a TV. Winter threatens to envelop us – if it hasn’t already done so. On this cold, dark Monday night in December, college basketball doesn’t really matter. Or at least it seems like it doesn’t. The Monday evening slate is tinged with irrelevance. Duke sleepwalks over Elon, and not many take note. The sport still lurks in the distance. Lenses are still out of focus.

Exam Weeks Around the Nation Building Young Minds

Exam Weeks Around the Nation Building Young Minds

But this, my friends, is a time as important as any in college basketball. When the final weekend of February rolls around, we’ll be scrutinizing teams inside and out, but December matters too. Just ask a team like Cal, which barely missed out on the NCAA Tournament a year ago. Analysts rued their March losses to Arizona State and Utah, but how about that December loss to UC Santa Barbara? That hurt too. Or ask Southern Miss, which built up a solid résumé, but was left to wonder what might have been if it hadn’t slipped up against Western Kentucky during the week before Christmas. On that same day, December 18, 2013, NC State toppled Tennessee. The Wolfpack made the field as one of the last four teams in. That’s not a coincidence.

Don’t ignore this week. Even with those lenses somewhat out of focus, the results will come into plain sight soon enough. It doesn’t matter how you win; your performance doesn’t have to be aesthetic. Just get the job done. Statements can be made. They will not be forgotten.

Three for the Money

North Carolina vs. Ohio State | Saturday, 1:00 PM, CBS

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O26 Weekly Awards: SMC, D.J. Balentine, Kyle Smith, Incarnate Word…

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on December 16th, 2014

Throughout the season, the Other 26 microsite will run down our weekly superlatives, including team, player, coach and whatever else strikes our fancy in that week’s edition.

O26 Team of the Week

Saint Mary’s. It’s a full month into the season and we still didn’t know much about the Gaels before last weekend. They were transfer-laden, proficient on offense and led by Brad Waldow (21.1 PPG, 10.1 RPG) down low – that much we understood – but Randy Bennett’s club had yet to play a road contest (or even leave Moraga) through its first six games. And aside from a pair of solid wins over New Mexico State and UC Irvine, Saint Mary’s most noteworthy performance prior to Saturday was a 83-71 loss to Boise State on December 6. Was this team good? Mediocre? An at-large contender? Even if the Gaels’ 71-67 victory at Creighton over the weekend doesn’t fully answer all of those questions, it does make one thing clear: These guys are going to be competitive in the WCC.

Saint Mary's pulled off a huge road victory in Omaha. (MATT MILLER/THE WORLD-HERALD)

Saint Mary’s pulled off a huge road victory in Omaha. (MATT MILLER/THE WORLD-HERALD)

Creighton entered Saturday on a 24-game home winning streak, an impressive run that coach Greg McDermott probably would have assumed safe if you had told him Waldow would end up with just 11 points on 2-of-10 shooting. “Obviously, our game plan was to slow down Waldow, because he’s such a big part of their offense,” McDermott said afterwards. Unfortunately for the Bluejays, the Saint Mary’s backcourt more than picked up the slack, as Stanford-transplant Aaron Bright scored 22 points and Kerry Carter dropped in 19. Equally as important was sophomore forward Dane Pineau, who – having never reached double figures in his career – stepped up enormously in wake of Waldow’s off night, scoring 13 points on 5-of-5 shooting and ripping down 10 boards. The Gaels withstood an early-second half Creighton surge by responding with a 12-0 run of their own, ultimately forcing an extra period – where Bright and Pineau sealed the deal. Now at 6-1 and with a marquee road victory under its belt, Saint Mary’s looks capable of challenging BYU for second-best in the WCC and putting itself in the NCAA Tournament discussion. This weekend’s victory at the CenturyLink Center could go a long way.

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Is Anything Really Different With Gonzaga This Year?

Posted by Andrew Murawa on December 15th, 2014

At the end of last season — after Gonzaga was run out of the NCAA Tournament by Arizona, and amid all the hubbub and wailing and weeping and gnashing of teeth that tends to accompany the Bulldogs’ exit from March Madness — I wrote a little bit about the Zags. Go back and read it. I’m biased, but I think it is a pretty good summation of the Bulldogs basketball program. Sixteen straight NCAA Tournament appearances! Fifteen in a row since Mark Few has taken over the program! Sure, there have been some disappointing exits, but you find some interesting things if you look back over the years. Namely, in all of those years, only six Gonzaga players have been taken in the NBA Draft. Or that 14 of the 16 teams that have knocked Gonzaga out of the Tournament have had future NBA players on their teams. Or that they’ve run into some extremely bad luck in some of their March exits.

Fifteen Straight NCAA Tournament Appearances For Mark Few Speaks For Itself (David Becker, Getty Images)

Fifteen Straight NCAA Tournament Appearances For Mark Few Speaks For Itself (David Becker, Getty Images)

So, with that history fresh in our minds, let’s turn to this year’s vintage of the Zags, a team that just finished a three-game mini-tour of Pac-12 basketball with a road win over UCLA, a home win against Washington State and a heart-breaking overtime loss at Arizona. If you read college basketball scribes from around the nation, you’ve already seen plenty of love for Gonzaga. ESPN‘s Jeff Goodman went out on a limb and picked Gonzaga to win the NCAA Championship, while John Gasaway, Seth Greenberg, Jeff Borzello and Joe Lunardi all punched Mark Few’s team into the Final Four. Several other national writers from around the country are on the bandwagon too. So, the obvious question is whether Gonzaga is again being set up to be called, erroneously, March failures.

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Loss of Devonte’ Graham Puts Kansas Rotation in Even More Flux

Posted by Chris Stone on December 15th, 2014

Kansas head coach Bill Self announced prior to the Jayhawks’ win against Utah on Saturday that freshman guard Devonte’ Graham will miss at least the next four weeks after suffering a severely sprained right big toe in a 75-70 victory over Georgetown last Wednesday. The injury is not likely to require surgery, but the team’s doctors told Self it is possible that Graham won’t return this season. Although the team isn’t planning for it, Kansas would likely seek a medical redshirt if Graham is unable to return. According to Self, “The doctors feel he can come back but also say he may not come back. We’ll have to make a decision before the first half of the season is probably over so we can obviously utilize a medical redshirt if we need to, but we’re not thinking like that.”

Kansas will be without freshman guard Devonte' Graham for at least four weeks (Nick Krug/KU Sports)

Kansas will be without freshman guard Devonte’ Graham for at least four weeks (Nick Krug/KU Sports)

The loss only magnifies Kansas’ lack of depth at the point guard position after the preseason transfer of sophomore Conner Frankamp, as Graham and Frank Mason III are the only two point guards on scholarship. Prior to his injury, the freshman was averaging 14.9 minutes per game, mostly as the backup point guard, but Self has also used Graham and Mason together to increase defensive pressure on ball-handlers. “Just watching the game, we put so much more pressure on the defense when those guys were in there together, as opposed to when just one of them was in the game,” Self said in his news conference last Monday. Indeed, Kansas will miss Graham defensively. His 4.1 percent steal percentage would rank in the top 100 in the country if he had enough minutes to qualify. That number is important because a high steal percentage has correlated well with the Jayhawks’ best defensive efficiency numbers throughout Self’s tenure.

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Has Villanova Outgrown the Big 5?

Posted by Joe Dzuback (@vtbnblog) on December 15th, 2014

Joe Dzuback is the RTC correspondent for the Atlantic 10 Conference. You can also find his musings online at Villanova by the Numbers or on Twitter @vtbnblog.

“…a loveless marriage… [that] began out of a desire that was neither pure nor innocent. They were just trying to make a buck”

— Rich Hofmann (The Big 5-0)

Has Villanova outgrown the Big 5? Like the question about the health of a terminally ill relative, it goes unasked after another big Villanova win over the weekend, but it was always the question behind the question. After Villanova beat his Hawks 74-46 (which followed the 93-63 beating the Wildcats delivered in 2013), Saint Joseph’s head coach Phil Martelli couched his answer as a “talent gap” problem. After his Explorers lost 73-52 to Villanova (they were beaten again this season, 84-70) La Salle head coach Dr. John Gianinni challenged his players with (to paraphrase), “Villanova won the game in June, not on the court but in the training room.” It was, he contended, a “dedication gap” problem.

Jay Wright and the Wildcats should be excited about their chances

So far this season, it’s business as usual for Jay Wright and crew. (Getty)

After losing 85-63 on Sunday, that universal question, “Why’d you lose?” was posed to Temple‘s senior guard, Will Cummings. He replied, “[Villanova’s] got a lot of weapons. So we really have to be conscious of every player on the court. You can’t leave somebody or they’re going to step up and make a play. That really tested our defense. We had some lapses and that was the tale.” When Temple head coach Fran Dunphy was handed the “talent/dedication/effort” question, he gave a nod to his players’ sense of responsibility but did not take the bait, “Well, [Villanova] has a very talented team. And I thought they played hard, We can play harder, we can do a better job. I appreciate those guys (Will Cummings and Obi Enechionyia) saying that [they lacked effort]. Maybe it was a loose ball here and there that we needed to get to. We didn’t. They did. They are a talented group, a really good basketball team.” That far and no further. Talent, effort or commitment gaps aside, the evidence suggests something is going on in the Big 5. In the 13 seasons Jay Wright has coached on the Main Line, Villanova has shared (two) or won outright (five) the Big 5 title seven times. Historically, Villanova has won or shared 22 Big 5 titles, second only to Temple (28) and gaining fast. Read the rest of this entry »

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RTC Top 25: Week Four

Posted by Walker Carey on December 15th, 2014

Fresh off last weekend’s plethora of upsets, this college basketball season experienced its first week of relative chalk. To illustrate that, the top 16 teams in the RTC25 fell in exactly the same order as they were last week. The only notable RTC25 teams to suffer defeats and take tumbles were #19 North Carolina and #25 Butler. The Tar Heels dropped two spots after being thoroughly outmanned in a 14-point loss Saturday at Kentucky. The Bulldogs fell eight spots after getting tripped up Sunday in Knoxville against a feisty Tennessee squad. You should know by now that a week like this is not the norm in college basketball, and you should expect more weeks of upsets as the season progresses.

This week’s Quick N’ Dirty after the jump…

rtc25 12.15.14 Quick n’ Dirty Analysis.

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Georgetown Has Reason For Optimism

Posted by Justin Kundrat on December 15th, 2014

Last week Georgetown failed to close on yet another tremendous opportunity to tally a signature win, this time on its home floor against #10 Kansas. Despite not having watched a single college basketball game all year, my girlfriend made an astute observation in the closing minutes: “He shoots too much.” The “he” she was referring to was D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera, the Hoyas’ leading scorer at 13.3 PPG and the coaches’ nomination for preseason Big East Player of the Year. It confirmed something many Hoyas’ fans have been wondering as well: How is this the same player who finished sixth in scoring in the Big East last season? Against Kansas, in the midst a miserable 3-of-15 shooting performance, it became apparent that Smith-Rivera’s overwhelming desire to shoot took the team’s offense out of rhythm.

Despite some recent struggles, John Thompson III and Georgetown still have a lot going for them. (Washington Post)

Despite some recent struggles, John Thompson III and Georgetown still have a lot going for them. (Washington Post)

Thus far, the Hoyas have played four teams in KenPom‘s top 30 and have emerged with a relatively unimpressive 1-3 result. Those losses — to Wisconsin, Butler and Kansas — were by a cumulative of 14 points. So what gives? For one, turnovers. The Hoyas have coughed it up on 21.8 percent of their possessions, resulting in missed key scoring opportunities and failed late game offensive execution. However, the problem seems to extend beyond that. A big theme for Georgetown this season has involved Smith-Rivera shooting more and making less. The junior has yielded some of the scoring responsibilities to Joshua Smith, but he still accounts for 26.2 percent of the team’s shots and has converted at a rate lower than both his freshman and sophomore year campaigns. Even more troubling is his three-point shooting. Without backcourt mate Markel Starks to remove some of the defensive focus on the perimeter, it appears that defenses have honed in on him, or he has felt an increased pressure to pick up the offensive slack, resulting in poorer shot selection. Regardless of the reason, Smith-Rivera is shooting just 27.5 percent from deep, in stark contrast to his 39.3 percent mark last season. Read the rest of this entry »

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Saturday Rewind: Utah is Legit, Kentucky Cruises, and a Thriller in Richmond…

Posted by Henry Bushnell on December 14th, 2014

It was another whirlwind December Saturday of hoops, as 14 of 25 ranked teams were in action, and plenty major conference programs challenged themselves. Here’s how it all transpired.

Headliner

Delon Wright Did What He Could But Utah Fell Just Short (USA Today Images)

Delon Wright Did What He Could But Utah Fell Just Short (USA Today Images)

Kansas 63, Utah 60

  • The Game: This wasn’t your everyday, wire-to-wire battle. Kansas had seemingly left Utah in the dust with a 23-2 run toward the end of the first half that gave them a 39-21 halftime lead. But possession by possession, the Utes chipped away after the break, and reclaimed the lead with 4:39 to play. But Kansas didn’t miss a single shot – field goals or free throws – the rest of the way and escaped with the win in Kansas City.
  • Kansas Verdict: After the 32-point beatdown at the hands of Kentucky in mid-November, Kansas was rather rudely shoved to the background of the national college basketball picture. But since, the Jayhawks have somewhat quietly strung together some really nice wins – first over Michigan State and Florida, then at Georgetown, and now this one Saturday. However, it’s not as if Kansas has cruised – rather, it has labored through all four, and on different days, could’ve lost any of the four. Obviously this team is young, but it’s far from complete, and guard play in particular is a worry. Frank Mason and Wayne Selden looked worryingly out of sync during Saturday’s second half. So while the wins will look nice on Kansas’ résumé, Bill Self still has a lot of work to do.
  • Utah Verdict: Are the Utes legit? This game would seem to indicate they are. They are essentially a two-man team surrounded by role players, but those two men – Delon Wright and Jakob Poeltl – are really impressive. Wright is a true multi-faceted star no matter how you look at him, and Poeltl is a handful down low. And while Utah lacks some offensive punch – they scored 2 points in 10 late-first-half minutes – what stood out today was team defense. That’s what allowed them to mount their comeback. Over a 17-minute second half stretch, the Utes held Kansas to 11 points, and gradually, they climbed out of the 21-point hole with stop after stop. It wasn’t enough in the end, but a three-point loss is nothing to hang your head about – especially when you consider Utah was without Jordan Loveridge, arguably the team’s third best player, who should return in January.

Best of the Rest

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A Battle of Blue Bloods: Previewing North Carolina vs. Kentucky

Posted by David Changas & Lathan Wells on December 13th, 2014

Two college basketball titans renew their rivalry in Lexington Saturday when North Carolina visits Kentucky. RTC’s Lathan Wells and David Changas offer their analysis of the match-up, and give their takes on what it will take for each team to prevail.

David Changas: North Carolina has been particularly ineffective in keeping its opponents off the offensive glass – the Tar Heels currently allow their opponents to grab more than a third of their misses – and Kentucky leads the nation in offensive rebounding (46.1%).  How can North Carolina combat the Wildcats’ prowess on the offensive boards?

Kennedy Meeks will have to be almost perfect for the Tar Heels to have a chance (kentuckysportsradio.com)

Kennedy Meeks will have to be almost perfect for the Tar Heels to have a chance (draftexpress.com)

Lathan Wells: Honestly, I think this an effort issue. The Tar Heels, like the Wildcats, have plenty of size in the post. The two teams who made them look porous on the defensive boards were Butler and Iowa, both of which are much smaller than the Tar Heels, but which played much more aggressively. Brice Johnson has to stay out of the foul trouble that has plagued him recently, because Kennedy Meeks is undersized at the center spot. As you noted, the Wildcats’ offensive rebounding numbers are astonishing. But part of that has to do with the fact that they are only an average shooting team (currently 81st in the country in field goal percentage). If the Tar Heels are better on the glass than in those losses to Butler and Iowa, who has to step up their shooting to make sure the Wildcats’ shots count?

DC:  There is no question that this has to be an area of serious concern for John Calipari. The Wildcats are shooting 27% from three-point range, and last year’s NCAA Tournament hero, Aaron Harrison, is a dreadful 10-for-44 beyond the arc. Of course, Kentucky’s size and incredible ability to attack the offensive glass has covered up this weakness. While the obvious answer to your question is better production from Harrison, having Tyler Ulis and Devin Booker, both of whom missed the Columbia game Wednesday, should help, as the two freshmen have been the Wildcats’ best shooters from beyond the arc. Like Kentucky, North Carolina has struggled from deep, and is shooting just 28% from three-point range. Kentucky is nearly impossible to score against on the interior, too.  How can the Tar Heels score enough points to compete in Lexington, much less win the game?

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Who Won The Week? Washington, Kansas, Not Michigan…

Posted by Kenny Ocker (@KennyOcker) on December 12th, 2014

wonweekWho Won the Week? is a regular column that outlines and discusses three winners and losers from the previous week of hoops. The author of this column is Kenny Ocker (@KennyOcker), a Tacoma-based sportswriter best known for his willingness to drive (or bike!) anywhere to watch a basketball game.

WINNER: Kentucky

Because of the magic of calendars, Kentucky has gone 3-0 in the previous seven days. (That game against Texas was only a week ago!) The Wildcats asserted their dominance against a highly talented Texas squad Friday, then followed that up with a blowout win over Eastern Kentucky on Sunday. But the most important victory for this team was its grinding game on Wednesday against Columbia, in which the Ivy League school scored the first 11 points and held the lead for the first 27 minutes. Coming back from a deficit and being able to win while playing at the other team’s pace are two valuable skills to learn (especially when you’re missing two rotation players), and being able to do that without taking a loss is a boon. All is not perfect for Kentucky, as Alex Poythress’ knee injury hurts some of John Calipari’s frontcourt depth and a key game against rival North Carolina looming tomorrow.

John Calipari and his super talented Kentucky squad recorded a wonderful week. (AP)

John Calipari and his talented Kentucky squad recorded a good week on the floor. (AP)

(Related winners: Columbia, for showing how deep the Ivy League will be this season, and for playing without fear on the road against the best team in the country. Related losers: Poythress, who certainly didn’t return to school with the intention of blowing out a knee.)

LOSER: Michigan

Man, does that trip to the NCAA title game two years ago feel really far away right now. The Wolverines spent the past week putting the conference-less NJIT Highlanders in the national spotlight in a 72-70 loss last Saturday, then followed that lemon by only putting up 42 points at home against area minnow Eastern Michigan in another loss Tuesday. And now the Wolverines get to try to take down Arizona in Tucson on Saturday. Yeah, good luck with that.

(Related winners: NJIT, which got enough national attention that some conference might finally see the incentive in adding them; Eastern Michigan, for stealing a win they might have to wait a long while before replicating. Related losers: Syracuse and Oregon, both of which have lost to Michigan and are also due for down years after talent exoduses.) Read the rest of this entry »

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Dan Monson’s ‘Buy Game’ Compensation Raises Eyebrows, But Isn’t Unique

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on December 12th, 2014

Long Beach State head coach Dan Monson has assembled one of the 10 most difficult non-conference schedules in college basketball for each of the past six seasons, a tactic he’s on record as claiming helps with recruiting and toughens his players, among other benefits. The fact that The Beach also receives sizable paychecks from many of those contests – road trips to schools like North Carolina, Arizona and Ohio State – is also an understood reality, if less frequently discussed. What has not been known until this week, however, is that Monson himself reaps personal financial benefits as a result. San Diego Union Tribune’s Mark Zeigler reported on Tuesday that the eighth-year head coach in fact keeps a significant portion of the school’s payout for these ‘guarantee’ or ‘buy games’, having “been eligible to receive nearly $1 million of the $1.46 million paid to Long Beach State from 16 buy games he scheduled” since 2011-12. The notion that Monson directly profits from scheduling what often amounts to certain losses calls into question his motive for such tough scheduling – is putting his players through the gauntlet ultimately just for the money? – and sheds new light on a crafty method of compensation. But is it really unique; and, more importantly, is there a problem with it? Evidence suggests the answer to both is probably ‘no,’ even if feels a little deceitful.

Long Beach State head coach Dan Monson receives a large chunk of 'buy' game revenue. (Lenny Ignelzi, AP / AP)

Long Beach State head coach Dan Monson receives a large chunk of ‘buy’ game revenue. (Lenny Ignelzi, AP / AP)

Perhaps the only thing unique about Monson’s deal (at least to our knowledge) is the sheer dollar amount he earns from scheduling these ‘buy’ games. Using last season as an example, the report claims LBSU yielded a total of $365,000 on trips to Arizona, Washington, North Carolina State and Missouri, of which Monson was eligible for $265,000. While that’s an eye-popping figure, to be sure, the practice of sending large sums of ‘buy’ game money directly to a coach’s bank account is not exactly new. According to a USA Today article from 2007, then-Winthrop head coach Gregg Marshall made $85,869 from guarantee contests, in addition to his $118,588 base salary and other bonuses. “We don’t have available to us the big market contracts from apparel and shoe people that you can use to siphon money off to coaches,” Winthrop athletic director Tom Hickman said at the time. Likewise, NJIT head man Jim Engles – whose program received $92,000 for playing (and beating) Michigan in Ann Arbor last weekend – also takes home guarantee revenue, his contract stipulating that the school keeps the first $50,000, at which point the “coach shall be entitled to additional income received in game guarantees from Men’s Basketball thereafter, but not to exceed fifty thousand dollars ($50,000).” While these are just a few examples (and wide-ranging ones, at that), it’s clear that this method is regularly used as a self-sustaining source of remuneration – the school profits from guarantee games that the coach schedules, and is then able to directly use those profits to pay for part of the coach’s salary. It’s a win-win.

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Freeze Frame: Kentucky’s Alley-Oop Play

Posted by Brian Joyce on December 12th, 2014

Up until Wednesday night against Ivy League opponent Columbia, only Texas and Buffalo had stayed within 20 points of the No. 1 team in the country. While the Wildcats still beat the Lions by double figures, they looked somewhat beatable for much of the game as Columbia slowed things down to 51 possessions. Columbia maintained good spacing on the offensive end of the court, forced Kentucky to shoot primarily from the outside (17 of 60 shots), and cut off the Wildcats’ go-to offensive move, the alley-oop.

Kentucky's dunk totals on the year (through December 11 and the Columbia game).

Kentucky’s top dunk totals on the year (through December 10’s Columbia game).

Kentucky typically uses its athleticism and length to get easy looks at the basket. Against Eastern Kentucky last Sunday, the Wildcats ended up with 14 dunks and 10 lob plays in a rout at Rupp Arena. Just three days later, a well scouted game plan helped Columbia limit the Cats to just two alley-oops, both of which came in transition. In this edition of Freeze Frame, we look at how Kentucky gets so many easy lobs at the rim and how Columbia cut off that option without the same size and athleticism of all the future NBA players who reside in Lexington.

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