Playing ACC Secret Santa: Part II

Posted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on December 25th, 2015

In offices all across the nation this week, people are playing the Secret Santa game. So let’s pretend that our company is made up of the ACC’s 15 men’s basketball teams, and we drew every head coach’s name out of the hat. As tempting as it may be to hand out traditional gifts like cheese logs and fruitcakes (yuck!), we instead will look at the specific needs for each squad right now and try and make each team better with our gifts. Part I, which published on Christmas Eve, can be found here.

Here are our gifts of choice for each of the ACC’s seven remaining schools (in alphabetical order):

  • Duke (Mike Krzyzewski) – We can’t do anything about Amile Jefferson’s injury except hope that the senior can recovery in time to re-acclimate himself into the Blue Devil lineup before the stretch run. So instead, we will give Coach K something very useful in the short term. We will turn on the light bulb for freshman big man Chase Jeter. We know that not all McDonald’s High School All-Americans are made alike, and some need more time to adjust to the college game. But it was very telling to see Jeter only get on the floor for six minutes in Duke’s recent loss to Utah – a game where help was certainly needed due to illness and foul trouble.
  • Louisville (Rick Pitino) – To date, the Cardinals have played a terribly weak non-conference schedule, which ranks 60th out of 65 power-five conference schools according to KenPom. So it’s really hard to analyze the needs of Pitino’s squad right now. With no real on-the-court need for this team that has been exposed so far, we will give them the gift of focus going forward. Louisville has basically been able to concentrate on basketball since the regular season games began, after a tumultuous preseason due to the stripper scandal. But eventually, the scrutiny of possible NCAA sanctions will begin again, and the players will have to handle that distraction.

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Playing ACC Secret Santa: Part I

Posted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on December 24th, 2015

In offices all across the nation this week, people are playing the Secret Santa game. So let’s pretend that our company is made up of the ACC’s 15 men’s basketball teams, and we drew every head coach’s name out of the hat. As tempting as it may be to hand out traditional gifts like cheese logs and fruitcakes (yuck!), we instead will look at the specific needs for each squad right now and try and make each team better with our gifts. In the first of two installments of this piece (check back on Christmas Day for Part II), let’s look at the eight ACC teams that need Santa’s help the most.

presents

It’s Secret Santa Time in the ACC!

Here are our gifts of choice for the eight ACC schools that need them most (in alphabetical order):

  • Boston College (Jim Christian) – This is the easiest coach of all to shop for. When you already don’t have anything, there is no such thing as a bad present. The Eagles desperately need quality players. Among the 65 power-five conference programs, only hapless Rutgers is lower in the current KenPom rankings than the Eagles are. So we would give Christian what he needs the most – a recruiting budget that is comparable with the upper level schools in the ACC. The only way this program is going to improve is for his staff to evaluate and talk with as many high school players as possible, all over the country. That takes money.
  • Clemson (Brad Brownell) – What Brownell needs more than anything right now is a quality win. Actually, just a halfway respectable win would do right now. So far, the Tigers’ best victory this season is over Wofford (KenPom #234). Against teams rated higher than that, Clemson is 0-5 after being blown out by Georgia on Tuesday night. The next opportunity will come next Wednesday at North Carolina, but asking Santa Claus to help Brownell and company break their famous winless streak in Chapel Hill feels very greedy.

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Big 12 Power Rankings: Safe To Call Kansas State Good? Edition

Posted by Nate Kotisso on December 24th, 2015

Kansas State had chemistry problems all season long a year ago as the Wildcats stumbled to a miserable 15-17 record. The offseason then brought a multitude of departures that only further weakened a fan base’s confidence in head coach Bruce Weber. This season, however, with 10 newcomers — including seven freshmen — Weber’s team has already given Texas A&M and North Carolina difficult games. The Wildcats also beat Georgia, a better-than-average SEC team, on the road. So who are these Wildcats?

You might be alarmed to learn that Bruce Weber has the Kansas State Wildcats out to an 8-2 start. (Scott Sewell/USA TODAY Sports)

You might be surprised to hear that Bruce Weber has the Kansas State Wildcats off to an 8-2 start. (Scott Sewell/USA TODAY Sports)

Justin Edwards and Wesley Iwundu are the two highest scoring returnees, but it’s freshmen like last year’s Kansas Mr. Basketball Dean Wade (11.3 PPG, 5.8 RPG) and Kamau Stokes (9.1 PPG, 3.5 APG) who have led the Wildcats to a 9-2 record thus far. Is it too early to call them a good team? Probably. Still, it’s encouraging to see the Wildcats hang around with teams that are clearly better than them. Kansas State likely isn’t at the point of beating good teams just yet, but the Wildcats also aren’t nearly as far away as we expected them to be before the season began. Let’s see how they fared in our latest power rankings.

Power Rankings

  • 1. Oklahoma (tie) — 6 points (Chris & Nate — 1st, Brian & Kendall — 2nd). Comment: “The Sooners still own the Big 12’s best win according to KenPom, a 23-point drubbing of Villanova on a neutral floor. They also have the country’s fifth-best defense. Sophomore Khadeem Lattin has helped fill the void left by the departure of TaShawn Thomas. His production on the defensive end, where he’s grabbed nearly 20.0 percent of the available rebounds and blocked 8.6 percent of the opposing shots, has been his biggest contribution.” – Chris Stone (@cstonehoops)
  • 1. Kansas (tie) — 6 points (Brian & Kendall — 1st, Chris & Nate — 2nd). Comment: Wayne Selden‘s development has fueled Kansas’ shot at winning a national title. Although Selden can’t shoot 54.0 percent from three-point range all season, he has also increased his field goal percentage at the rim by 10 percent from last season.” – Kendall Kaut (@kkaut)
  • 3. Iowa State — 12 points (All voted 3rd). Comment: “Yes, the Cyclones did not lose their first game until falling to Northern Iowa in Des Moines last week, but their imperfections have been noticeable for a little while now. They struggled to beat a clearly inferior Colorado team. They trailed by 20 at home to Iowa before coming all the way back to win that one in dramatic fashion. Now they’ve lost both a game and a major shotmaker in Naz Mitrou-Long for the season while they slowly work Deonte Burton into the rotation. So, naturally, they then go out and nip Cincinnati at the wire on the road.” – Nate Kotisso (@natekotisso)

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Butler’s Christmas Gift: The Impact of Roosevelt Jones

Posted by Justin Kundrat on December 24th, 2015

Butler has historically been a defensive-minded program. The best teams of the Brad Stevens era rarely had the biggest or most offensively talented group of players, but what won games for the Bulldogs was toughness and intelligence, a methodical pace and aggressive man-to-man defense. With Chris Holtmann at the helm, now in his second season, the switch has been flipped. This year’s team is playing at a tempo that far outpaces any Butler team in the 14-year KenPom era, and the results of the uptick have so far been tremendous. The Bulldogs are averaging the second most points per game in the nation (89.7) and are unquestionably the highest scoring team in the history of the program (the next highest is the 2011 team that averaged 71.2 PPG and lost to Connecticut in the National Championship game).

The impending battle down low between Roosevelt Jones and will be must see TV. (ZJB photograpy)

Roosevelt Jones finally has it going for Butler. (ZJB photograpy)

Don’t get the wrong idea, though. The team’s ridiculously high scoring rates have not been facilitated by a full-blown run-and-gun offense, as Butler has been shooting, rebounding and taking care of the ball at unprecedented rates. There are a multitude of explanations for its newfound efficiency: senior Kellen Dunham‘s improved shot selection; point guard Tyler Lewis‘ preference for faster basketball (particularly when compared to his predecessor, Alex Barlow), and the emergence of Kelan Martin as a legitimate scorer. But above all, it’s been the steadying force of guard Roosevelt Jones that has pushed Butler into overdrive. Despite playing fewer minutes this season, the senior has elevated his game and improved his production in nearly every statistical category.

In short, Jones has gotten more involved in every facet of the offense. He is shooting a career best 50.0 percent from the field and has increased his per-game averages in rebounding from 5.2 RPG to 7.8 RPT and assists from 3.7 APG to 5.4 APG. Moreover, he has logged only one KenPom offensive rating below 100.0 this season (it was over 100.0 in just 15 of 34 contests last season). But to explain Jones’ game in purely numbers would hardly be doing it justice; he has had a monumental impact within one of the nation’s most efficient offenses. While under greater pressure to score last season, his overall shooting percentage dropped from 48.6 percent to 42.1 percent. Now, with Lewis and Martin emerging as legitimate scoring threats as well, the lane has opened up and allowed Jones to thrive.  Read the rest of this entry »

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Big Men Standing Out Among Big Ten Freshmen

Posted by Patrick Engel on December 24th, 2015

Fall semesters have wrapped up across Big Ten campuses, and that means that league freshmen have now played 11 to 13 games and put a full semester of the collegiate experience behind them. As usual, their contributions run the gamut. Some have become invaluable parts of their teams; others are playing well but still going under-appreciated in fan circles; while a number of others haven’t yet cracked their teams’ rotations. As we enter the holiday break and look forward to league play starting on Tuesday next week, here is a look at how some of the Big Ten’s freshmen have performed so far this season.

Caleb Swanigan's addition to Purdue has taken this team to new heights in the early season. (AP Photo/Doug McSchooler)

Caleb Swanigan has been one of the Big Ten’s best freshmen and has helped make Purdue’s interior defense among the nation’s best. (AP Photo/Doug McSchooler)

Five Freshman Stars

(Note: Scout.com used for player ratings)

  • Caleb Swanigan, Purdue: This former five-star recruit has made Purdue’s front line even tougher than it already was. Purdue likes to play the 6’9″, 260-pounder alongside A.J. Hammons or Isaac Haas, which creates a special circle of hell for opposing teams and allows for more big-to-big passing on offense. Swanigan is averaging 11.2 PPG, 2.5 APG and a league-best 9.3 RPG, but he has exhibited a bit of a turnover problem (3.4 miscues per game).
  • Diamond Stone, Maryland: The No. 6 overall prospect in the class of 2015, Stone hasn’t been quite as good as fast as many thought he would be. Nevertheless, he has still put together a fine young season, averaging 10.7 PPG and 4.6 RPG as top-10 Maryland’s starting center. His 18.0 percent offensive rebounding percentage ranks ninth in the country, per KenPom.

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Loss of Amida Brimah Leaves UConn With Limited Options

Posted by Jared Kotler on December 24th, 2015

As Connecticut prepared to wrap up non-conference play this week, the Huskies suffered a key loss as center and defensive stalwart Amida Brimah broke his finger in practice. Brimah’s injury will require surgery and cause the junior to be sidelined for six to eight weeks. As one of the best rim protectors in college basketball, his loss will be tough to overcome. The hope for Kevin Ollie is that his team’s depth will find a way to pick up the slack heading into next week’s game at Texas followed by the start of conference play.

UConn will try to figure out how to handle the loss of center Amida Brimah. Photo Credit: Getty Images

UConn will try to figure out how to handle the loss of center Amida Brimah. (Photo Credit: Getty Images)

So where does UConn go from here? Standing at 8-3 with a couple quality wins over Michigan and Ohio State but not much else to show for this season, the Huskies will need to put together a strong performance in the American if they want to get back to the NCAA Tournament. Here are two areas where Ollie must focus on improvement.

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Shock Therapy: Finding a Cure to Wichita State’s Ills

Posted by Chris Stone on December 23rd, 2015

It’s been a rough first month of the season for Wichita State, as the preseason top-10 Shockers have struggled mightily in non-conference play. After ankle and hamstring injuries to point guard Fred VanVleet and five losses in their first 11 games, the Shockers aren’t even receiving any votes. VanVleet was absent for three of those defeats and Gregg Marshall‘s group managed to pick up two nice non-conference wins over UNLV and Utah once he returned, but their loss on the road to Seton Hall last weekend raised continued concerns about the Shockers’ postseason hopes. Wichita State has just one game to go before Missouri Valley play begins, so Marshall will need to right the ship quickly if his team wants to make its fifth straight NCAA Tournament. The solution, though, begins with identifying the problem. So, what’s the matter in Wichita?

Fred VanVleet will stay smiling as long as he stays healthy. (Fernando Salazar/The Wichita Eagle)

Fred VanVleet will stay smiling as long as he stays healthy. (Fernando Salazar/The Wichita Eagle)

The obvious place to start is with the injuries to VanVleet, the Shockers’ on-floor captain of the ship. It’s easy to attribute three of the team’s losses to those injuries given that VanVleet didn’t play in those games, but Wichita State also lost twice this season with him in the lineup. Dating back to October, the senior has been dealing with injuries that have affected his ankle and hamstring. The result has been a clear lack of explosiveness that has contributed to a nearly 20 percent drop in his shooting percentage at the rim. According to hoop-math, VanVleet has converted on just 34.5 percent of his layups this season. Time to heal, though, appears to be the optimal solution. VanVleet scored 13 points in the Shockers’ dominant win over Nevada on Tuesday by forcing the issue and getting to the foul line 12 times. “That’s the most burst I’ve shown in a while,” he said afterward. His head coach agreed: “That’s the best he’s looked to me,” Marshall said. VanVleet hinted that his recovery is still a work in process, but it’s one that appears to finally be showing some improvement on the court.

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Depth and the Devils: The Worries of Duke’s Shrinking Rotation

Posted by Shane McNichol on December 23rd, 2015

Over the last decade, Mike Krzyzewski’s teams at Duke have shifted toward the new era of college basketball. Duke brings in NBA-bound one-and-done players at a much higher rate than it once did, possibly even surpassing John Calipari — the recent king of transcendent freshman — at his own game. Including this season, the Blue Devils have spent the last three years among the 100 youngest teams in America in terms of college basketball experience.

duke experience

This year’s team includes three freshman receiving a heavy dosage of minutes yet appears to rely on more veterans than last year’s group. That would imply that these Blue Devils returned a reasonable amount of production from last year’s National Championship squad, but a little digging reveals that’s not really the case. The four Blue Devils who played the highest percentage of the team’s available minutes last year departed after the season. This year’s team may be slightly older, but the experience they bring is somewhat misleading. Of the seven players to log time in Duke’s most recent game versus Utah, only one player, Matt Jones, received more than 25 percent of Duke’s available minutes last season.

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Alabama Poised to Seize an Opportunity in SEC Play

Posted by Greg Mitchell on December 23rd, 2015

If you’re an Alabama fan, you couldn’t have been blamed for feeling underwhelmed when athletic director Bill Battle introduced Avery Johnson and his infectious smile as the next Crimson Tide basketball coach. Battle had swung hard for Wichita State’s Gregg Marshall and had come up empty. The former NBA Coach of the Year (Dallas Mavericks) was a good back-up plan in the sense that he brought some name-brand appeal to the program, but would he be a good fit for rhythms and demands of the college game? His last coaching stint did not go well with the New Jersey/Brooklyn Nets, and his last experience in college was as a player. It was easy to speculate that this was an experiment unlikely to pan out for Alabama, especially since Mississippi State (Ben Howland) and Tennessee (Rick Barnes) hired proven college winners.

Justin Coleman had a career night in the Tide's loss to Oregon (rolltide.com).

Justin Coleman had a career night in the Tide’s loss to Oregon (rolltide.com).

But as we near the start of conference play, the early returns on Johnson’s performance have been great. There have been wins on the recruiting trail, such as adding five-star shooting guard Terrance Ferguson to his class of 2016. That part was more or less predictable since few other college coaches can sell as much NBA know-how and connections as Johnson. The Tide’s results on the court, though, have been the bigger surprise. Sitting at 7-3 with games against Jacksonville State and Norfolk State before conference play begins, Alabama looks poised to become a legitimate player in an SEC race that looks as open at the top as it has been in years. That’s not necessarily something many saw coming in the preseason.

Blowout losses to Xavier and Dayton in November exposed two big weaknesses: poor rebounding and ball control. Over those two games, the Tide turned the ball over 38 times and were destroyed (-29) on the glass. They were able to right the ship with a subsequent five-game winning streak that included victories over Wichita State (without point guard Fred VanVleet), Notre Dame and Clemson. But Johnson’s offense generally struggled and starting freshman point guard Dazon Ingram was lost for the season with a fractured left foot. There were still a number of questions about Alabama heading into Monday’s game against Oregon in Birmingham. And although the Tide blew a 12-point halftime lead to lose a close contest to a team that has become a fixture in the NCAA Tournament, their effort against the Ducks nevertheless showed that they are not a fluke.

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Traveling Show: Tracking Elite Programs in True Road Games

Posted by William Ezekowitz on December 23rd, 2015

Last night Kansas traveled to southern California to take on San Diego State at Viejas Arena, providing college basketball fans with a rare sight: an elite, top-10 program playing a true non-conference road game. Teams in college basketball’s upper echelon generally like to stay close to home, and if they decide to venture away from their friendly environs, it is often for an exempted holiday tournament or Champions Classic type of event on a neutral court. This is all well and good and makes for appointment television before conference play begins, but what about a good old-fashioned road game? Those jewels are pretty hard to find these days, and, based on North Carolina’s 0-2 performance in their two true road games this season, it’s not hard to imagine why. Elite programs live off of perception, and perception does not always equal reality. So let’s take a look at the numbers and examine which teams from college basketball’s ruling class actually gets out and plays some road games?

Kansas is one of the few elite programs to consistently play true non-conference road games. (USA Today Images)

Kansas is one of the few elite programs to consistently play true non-conference road games. (USA Today Images)

For the purposes of this inquiry, the elite programs examined are Kansas, Duke, North Carolina, Kentucky, Louisville, Michigan State, Syracuse and Connecticut. We can quibble about who else should be on this list, but basically we wanted to choose programs that have had just one coach for the last 10 years (we’re cheating a bit in viewing Kevin Ollie as a continuation of Jim Calhoun, and using only Kentucky’s last seven seasons under John Calipari), and have the national cachet and draw to develop their schedules in any way that they desire.

So here are the numbers for true road games from those eight programs.

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Checking in on… the Mountain West

Posted by Andrew Murawa on December 22nd, 2015

There’s plenty of on-court news that we’ll get to below, but the big news from the last week was from the conference office. As the Mountain West announced that the conference tournament will remain at the Thomas & Mack in Las Vegas through at least 2019, not so hidden in that announcement was the corresponding news that only the top eight teams in the final league standings will be making the trip. First, the venue. While nearly everyone in the conference is supportive of playing the conference tournament in Vegas because of the clear entertainment draw and centralized location, the particulars of playing on UNLV’s home court remain controversial. San Diego State coach Steve Fisher is a vocal opponent of that location, but subsidies for rent on the Thomas & Mack as well as hotel rooms make the decision a virtual economic necessity.

Las Vegas

The Mountain West Tournament will remain in Las Vegas, but fewer teams will be invited.

However, the paring down of invitees is more of a head-scratcher. Sure, commissioner Craig Thompson points to an invitation to the conference tourney as a reward for a strong regular season, but with an eye toward the fan experience, part of the fun of the conference tournament is having everybody at the same venue. Further, just in terms of planning a Vegas vacation in mid-March with weekdays in play, less notice for teams near the cut line does not bode well for maximum attendance. For example, the conference has had 11 members for the past two seasons. In 2013-14, there was a tie for eighth place, with just a one-game drop to ninth. Last season, there were three games separating spots #7 through #10. This year, KenPom currently projects sixth place in the conference at 9-9 with three more teams projected to go 8-10. In all of those scenarios, teams wouldn’t really be clinching a spot for an invitation to the conference tournament until the final week of the regular season, making it more difficult for fans to get time off work to head to Vegas. Read the rest of this entry »

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Virginia’s Offense Fueled By Most Underrated Backcourt in America

Posted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on December 22nd, 2015

Since Tony Bennett turned around Virginia’s program during his third season in Charlottesville, the program’s staple has been a suffocating pack-line defense annually among the nation’s stingiest units. But times may be changing for the two-time defending ACC regular season champs, as the Cavaliers have been downright offensive this season. In fact, after Saturday’s impressive 86-75 victory over Big East power Villanova (which included a 53-point Cavalier second half), Virginia ranks not only first in KenPom’s overall ratings, but the Cavaliers are also first in adjusted offensive efficiency. It’s not like there’s been a huge dropoff on the defensive end — Virginia currently  ranks 14th in adjusted defensive efficiency — but the Cavaliers are now scoring at a rate of efficiency we haven’t seen in the Bennett era, making them even a greater threat to get over the Sweet Sixteen hump this season.

Anthony Gill has been dominant in the paint recently for Virginia. (Brad Penner - USA TODAY Sports)

Anthony Gill has been dominant in the paint recently for Virginia. (Brad Penner/USA TODAY Sports)

Virginia’s offensive improvement — 77.3 PPG compared with 68.8 PPG in the team’s first 10 games a year ago — can be attributed to a combination of tempo and efficiency. Always one of the nation’s slowest teams, the Cavaliers once again rank near the bottom of college basketball in pace (#348). Still, Virginia could act as the poster child for the NCAA’s new rules and enforcement strategy, as its adjusted tempo of 63.5 possessions per game would have ranked about 100 places higher a season ago. That difference in tempo is almost completely due to Bennett’s squad playing a little more quickly on the offensive end. Opponents still take a long time to find a good shot against the Cavaliers (19.2 seconds per possession compared with 19.5 last season), but on the other hand, Virginia has cut its length of offensive possession by over two seconds (from 21.1 to 18.9). The main reason that Virginia’s scoring is up, however, is its increase in efficiency (particularly with respect to its shooting). The shot selection table below shows that the Cavaliers are more accurate shooters this season from all areas of the floor. Additionally, the Cavaliers have lowered the percentage of two-point jumpers taken (easily the least efficient way to score) and are getting to the rim much more often. Read the rest of this entry »

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