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 (

Justin Coleman had a career night in the Tide’s loss to Oregon (

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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Can North Carolina’s Offense Compensate for Its Porous Defense?

Posted by Justin Kundrat on December 22nd, 2015

Free throws, threes, layups and dunks — the distance or form didn’t matter. For much of the second half in Saturday’s game against UCLA, it felt like North Carolina couldn’t miss. And for a crucial six-minute stretch late in the second half, it didn’t. The Tar Heels made 11 consecutive field goals, during which its lead ballooned from five to 16 points. From there, Roy Williams‘ veteran team put the Bruins in the rear view mirror and never looked back. For opponents that have never experienced the frenzy of North Carolina’s offense, the task of slowing it down once it gets rolling can be daunting, and UCLA was only the latest victim to conveniently fall into this trap. Still, for a team that blew the doors off of another quality opponent, questions linger about the quality and legitimacy of the Tar Heels’ defense.

North Carolina Carved Up the UCLA Defense (USA Today Images)

North Carolina Carved Up the UCLA Defense. (USA TODAY Sports)

The North Carolina offense is humming. The Heels boast seven players averaging more than eight points per game and rank second nationally in offensive efficiency. But a heavy reliance on an uptempo attack to generate all those points comes with the caveat that their two losses this season came against teams that are among the slowest in college basketball. Texas and Northern Iowa like to slow down the pace, and both have experienced guards who manage to limit turnovers, and hence, the overall number of possessions. As such, North Carolina stands at 8-0 this season in games with 70 or more possessions and is 1-2 in games where it failed to reach that threshold. While its offense is averaging a robust 14.6 seconds per possession, its defense is using 18.8 seconds per possession — one of the 10 slowest teams nationally. In other words, North Carolina is spending an inordinate amount of time in its games laboring away on the defensive end. Read the rest of this entry »

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Considering Utah’s Foundational Win Over Duke

Posted by Andrew Murawa on December 21st, 2015

A year ago, Utah hosted Wichita State in early December. After a 2013-14 season in which the Utes had made great strides but gone 3-8 in two possession games, it was a mammoth game for a program with March aspirations. It took 45 minutes to decide a winner, but a Delon Wright game-winner with 14 seconds left gave the program a foundational win against a proven opponent. They showed that they could not only hang with a top-10 team, but also come away with a win. Early this season, the big story for Larry Krystkowiak  is that life after all-Pac-12 performer Wright is hard. Prior to Saturday, they had played two games against quality competition this year and were blown out in both. So when the team traveled to Madison Square Garden to play Duke on Saturday, the opportunity felt similar to that offered by the Shockers last season. These Utes had plenty to prove.

Larry Krystkowiak, Utah

Larry Krystkowiak And Utah Earned A Win To Build On At MSG Saturday (Photo: AP)

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SEC Week That Was: Volume IV

Posted by Greg Mitchell on December 21st, 2015

The week before Christmas provided stocking stuffers for fans of SEC teams, as the league picked up a number of wins against power conference competition. But there was some coal too, highlighted by Kentucky‘s buzzed-about loss to an underwhelming-to-this-point Ohio State team. Here’s the rundown of the SEC’s penultimate non-conference week of action.

J.J. Frazier dropped 35 points over Georgia Tech in a big win for the Bulldogs (

J.J. Frazier dropped 35 points over Georgia Tech in a big win for the Bulldogs. (OnlineAthens)

Team of the Week Texas A&M has had a good time playing old Big 12 foes this year. The Aggies had wins against Texas (doesn’t that look better now?) and Kansas State under their belt, and then went and handled a good Baylor team at home this past week. Texas A&M did what Vanderbilt couldn’t a few weeks ago and controlled Taurean Prince, holding the versatile senior to just eight points on 2-of-8 shooting. In all, Texas A&M continued defending at the level it has all season, keeping an efficient Bears offense to 0.90 points per possession. On an individual level, this was a nice game for Danuel House. He helped the Aggies build an early lead and drilled a couple of three’s in the process. He’s a far better shooter than his numbers this year suggest (32.5 percent from three), but a lot of that is due to a dreadful 3-of-15 three-point shooting night against Arizona State. We’re talking about a potential future NBA wing, so confidence shouldn’t be an issue, but Billy Kennedy has to be pleased seeing House trend back up from distance. Read the rest of this entry »

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College Basketball’s Grinch: A Deeper Look at West Virginia’s Press

Posted by Chris Stone on December 21st, 2015

After five straight seasons of NCAA Tournament appearances including a run to the 2010 Final Four, West Virginia missed out on March Madness altogether in its first two years in the Big 12 (2012-13 and 2013-14). A 13-19 season was followed by a 17-16 mark, and after that disappointing season, the team’s second leading scorer, Eron Harris, announced plans to transfer. To outside observers, it appeared that the program was in something of an identity crisis. The next season, the Mountaineers were subsequently picked to finish sixth in the preseason Big 12 poll. But rather than to wallow in mediocrity, head coach Bob Huggins opted to make a significant change to his style of play. That process has been well-documented by both Raphielle Johnson from NBC Sports and C.J. Moore at Bleacher Report, but the short version is that Huggins enlisted the help of former Cleveland State coach Kevin Mackey to implement a faster pace and full-court press. The first-year results were impressive, as the Mountaineers became the most proficient team in college basketball at turning opponents over and their adjusted defensive efficiency shot 100 spots up the rankings. West Virginia finished tied for fourth place in the Big 12 standings with a 25-10 (11-7) record before making a run to the Sweet Sixteen.

With a revamped press philosophy, Bob Huggins and West Virginia are climbing their way up the college basketball mountain. (USA TODAY Sports)

With a revamped pressure defensive philosophy, West Virginia is climbing its way up the college basketball mountain. (USA TODAY Sports)

Through the first month of this season, the Mountaineers once again lead the country in defensive turnover rate. They are sixth in overall adjusted defensive efficiency and figure to again be a tough out in March. While many have already written about how “Press Virginia” came into existence, few have examined what makes the defense really tick. Last Thursday, in a below average defensive performance, West Virginia defeated intrastate rival Marshall, 86-68. It created a turnover on 24.7 percent of possessions, a number well below its 30.3 percent season average. However, the game still offered several insights into how Press Virginia operates. Let’s start with a full possession from early in the game. Read the rest of this entry »

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