Can Kentucky Shoot Well Enough to Win It All?

Posted by RJ Abeytia on December 16th, 2016

What does it all mean?

Whether we want to admit it or not, that’s the question we ask all season long in college basketball, where meaning is defined by crystal clear implication. We watch these games because we want to know before the rest of the sports world puts college basketball up on the biggest and brightest stage. Which of these teams can really win six straight in the NCAA Tournament? We’re inclined to believe that a number of teams can win, and they usually comprise the usual suspects. Take a look at the KenPom top 10 and who do we see? Duke, Villanova, Kentucky, Kansas, Virginia, North Carolina, Louisville, Wisconsin, West Virginia, and Baylor. UCLA is just on the fringe at #11. That’s a pretty comprehensive list of blue-bloods, and blue is the color of focus here. Kentucky sits at #3 despite a loss to UCLA in Lexington. Nobody questions the roster John Calipari has once again constructed. It’s another one-year baby full of basketball talent, as it has been annually since he took the throne in Lexington.

Kentucky Has No Problem Finishing... (USA Today Images)

Kentucky Has No Problem Finishing… But What About Shooting? (USA Today Images)

Four seasons have passed since Kentucky won the National Championship. Two years ago, the Wildcats won 38 straight games before falling to Wisconsin in the Final Four. In that game, the Wildcats went only 3-of-5 from behind the three-point line and ended up ceding a net of 12 points to Wisconsin from behind the arc. This ultimately provided the margin and then some in a game most pundits expected to be a Kentucky appetizer before a main course dinner two nights later against Duke, itself full of one-and-done talent. Last year Kentucky was stopped well short of the Final Four by Indiana in large part because the Wildcats’ 4-of-16 performance from three-point range. Against Wisconsin, Kentucky knew it couldn’t hit outside shots and therefore simply refused to take them. Last year, they accepted Indiana’s dare and couldn’t hit the shots. The net of six points that went the Hoosiers’ way ended up as the final margin.

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In Hoops We Trust: Blue-Blooded Season

Posted by Joshua Lars Weill on December 15th, 2016

One of the biggest changes in college hoops over the last 10 years has been the rise of several consistently strong mid-major programs to the status of legitimate national title contenders. George Mason first crashed the Final Four party in 2006 with a gutsy, emotional Elite Eight win over #1 seed Connecticut. That paved the way for the rise of Butler (2010, 2011), VCU (2011), and Wichita State (2013), each of which were led by dynamic young coaches building winning programs. Throw in the likes of Gonzaga, San Diego State and Xavier, and the growing parity brought with it added competitiveness and a widening of the NCAA hoops pie. But this year is all about the blue-bloods. Kentucky, Duke, Indiana, Kansas, North Carolina and UCLA are all in the AP top 10 for the first time since 1994. While some of those schools have maintained relevance over the intervening seasons, the simultaneous rise of the Hoosiers and Bruins augurs a shift back to the traditional power programs.

College Basketball Benefits When the Elite Programs Are Elite (USA Today Images)

College Basketball Benefits When the Elite Programs Are Elite (USA Today Images)

The “why” for this trend could very well be recruiting. Kentucky’s John Calipari was the first coach to truly embrace the one-and-done model of recruiting. The theory is basically that if you can gather the most talented players in the country — regardless whether all of them will be headed to the NBA after just one season — you should. Yes, there are challenges with youth, inexperience and with program continuity, but he proved with the 2012 National Championship and four Final Fours in five years that if you recruit the best players, challenge them in practice, and preach selflessness and defense, you can win. Mike Krzyzewski noticed and Duke jumped on board. Roy Williams also has a slew of McDonald’s All-Americans, and Bill Self has never shied away from recruiting one-year talents regardless of whether he plays them. UCLA this season joined the party with a pair of freshman All-Americans in Lonzo Ball and TJ Leaf. So far, Steve Alford‘s accumulation of talent has helped transform a formerly teetering program into the current #2 team in the country.

Conventional wisdom once held that experience trumps talent in the NCAA Tournament. This was the rationale for the VCUs, Butlers and Wichita States of the game. But as major programs blend experienced returnees with those talented NBA prospects, they often overwhelm their less athletic, overachieving rivals. So, does this early trend hold? That remains to be seen. Perhaps those talented freshmen will revert to traditional norms or hit the rookie wall as the long season works its way into spring. Or perhaps injuries will take a toll. Or maybe some of those power programs in smaller conferences will again crash the party. It wouldn’t be a shock. But so far this season, it’s been a feast for the rich. How fat they get we shall know in good time.

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2016-17 RTC Top 25: Week Four

Posted by Walker Carey on December 12th, 2016

Another week of college basketball is in the books, and with it came three previously-unbeaten squads suffering their first setbacks of the season. First, #16 Butler experienced its first loss last Wednesday when it traveled to Terre Haute to take on a feisty Indiana State squad that emerged victorious with an impressive one-point win. The Bulldogs, however, bounced back on Saturday with a nice home victory over a solid Cincinnati team. #20 Saint Mary’s was the next unbeaten to fall, as the Gaels were thoroughly outplayed in Thursday’s home loss to a pesky UT-Arlington team that already has a win over Texas. Much like Butler, the Gaels bounced back with a home victory over UC Irvine on Sunday. #22 Notre Dame was the final unbeaten of the week to fall, as Mike Brey’s squad gave #1 Villanova all it could handle before bowing out with a 74-66 defeat. There are now only seven unbeatens (#1 Villanova, #4 UCLA, #5 Baylor, #7 Gonzaga, #11 Creighton, #18 South Carolina, and #24 USC) remaining one month into the season, so keep an eye on each of these squads as we move into the holiday season and approach conference play. This week’s Quick N’ Dirty Analysis of the RTC25 is after the jump.

screen-shot-2016-12-12-at-5-31-08-pm

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It’s a Make or Break Week for the Pac-12

Posted by RJ Abeytia on November 30th, 2016

After a sizzling opening weekend followed by some Feast Week struggles, the Pac-12 finds itself facing a potential do or die week in terms of its national perception. Three teams will be front and center this week under the bright lights of ESPN and CBS, and after 71 games and even with all of December left, chances are it will be this week’s main events that set the tone for the Pac-12 come March. Part of the concentration on these games stems from factors out of the league’s control. Oregon’s injury issues have left it a shell of the team most expected it to be come March — the Ducks have already dropped games to Baylor and Georgetown without the services of Dillon Brooks (and have looked shaky even with him back). While the committee will factor Oregon’s injuries into its analysis, that doesn’t help the Pac-12’s overall profile. And that brings us to this week, starting this evening on the Peninsula.

St. Mary’s at Stanford: Wednesday 11/30 8:00 PM PT (Pac-12 Bay Area)

So far, so good for Jerod Haase and Stanford. (Tahoe Daily Tribune)

Jerod Haase and Stanford have a monster week ahead of them, including a trip to Haase’s alma mater where dreams tend to fade. (Tahoe Daily Tribune)

Not only is the Pac-12 counting on Stanford — the team picked to finish 10th in the league standings this season — but the Cardinal actually have two games with national ramifications this week. First, Randy Bennett’s St. Mary’s bunch (11th nationally, per KenPom) comes to Maples Pavilion tonight. The Gaels may not yet be a nationally-renowned name, but they drilled Stanford last season and will be a contender in a league (WCC) that has been quite the thorn in the side of the Pac-12 in recent years. This is one of two big Pac-12/WCC showdowns this week, and while it’s definitely the undercard, it’s still a big game for both teams and conferences.

UCLA at Kentucky: Saturday 12/3 9:30 AM PT (CBS)

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In Hoops We Trust: On Early Returns…

Posted by Joshua Lars Weill on November 30th, 2016

So, we’re three weeks in now, and while a majority of games have pitted teams expecting to win against teams expecting a paycheck, the holidays brought us some great major-on-major (and strong mid-major) action courtesy of a number of neutral site “tournaments.” North Carolina won Maui; Baylor won Atlantis; Gonzaga won the AdvoCare Invitational (okay); and Valparaiso won whatever the hell the “Men Who Speak Up Heavyweight Bracket” is. Geez, these things are getting worse than FBS Bowl Games (See also: the Poulan Weedeater Bowl). There have been a few surprises along the way. Butler, Baylor, and South Carolina are all undefeated with some good resume wins. Xavier and Creighton are lingering around and have the talent to stay there. Michigan State looks way down early after losing most of its experienced players to graduation. Indiana laid an absolute stinker on Indiana University–Purdue University Fort Wayne (say that five times real fast)’s home court.

Another year, another season where Butler fans have a lot to cheer about. (Credit: Kyle LaFerriere)

Another year, another season where Butler fans have a lot to cheer about. (Credit: Kyle LaFerriere)

Meanwhile, some of the usual suspects sit atop the rankings. Kentucky is demoralizing lesser opponents, relying on arguably the best three-guard backcourt in the country. Defending champ Villanova is rolling thanks to an All-American start from Josh Hart. North Carolina has a lot of offensive weapons with five players averaging double figures. Duke is banged up but clearly has the goods. Kansas is relying heavily on its experienced backcourt and will need its other players to step up as the season moves along. No one can score against Virginia. And Gonzaga and St. Mary’s—both undefeated to date—look to be on a collision course (again) in the WCC. All in all, it’s been a great start to the 2016-17 season. There are lots of questions as yet unanswered — Who will slow down Kentucky and North Carolina? When will Duke get its hot shot freshmen into the lineup? Can Xavier or Creighton keep their undefeated runs into the Big East season and beyond? — that will keep us watching through the holiday season.

Some meaty made-for-TV games will help answer some of those questions. Get ready for North Carolina-Indiana (tonight), Kentucky-UCLA (Saturday), Gonzaga-Arizona (Saturday), and Kentucky-North Carolina (December 17), to name but a few. These and other well-matched tilts should give us a clearer picture of who the contenders really are as the new year turns. Read the rest of this entry »

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2016-17 RTC Top 25: Week One

Posted by Walker Carey on November 21st, 2016

The college basketball season began in earnest over the last 10 days with several upsets taking place and a few teams providing a solid glimpse of what should be expected this season. #3 Duke and #4 Kansas are a pair of teams that experienced some high points as well as the upset bug. The formerly top-ranked Blue Devils are a respectable 4-1 on the young season, but they experienced their hiccup against the Jayhawks in the Champions Classic. It is important to note that Duke is still experiencing significant health issues, as Grayson Allen, Chase Jeter, Jayson Tatum, Marques Bolden and Harry Giles have all battled injuries to varying extents. Even with the corresponding depth concerns, Duke has already showcased that it is an extremely talented unit that will likely remain near the top of the polls throughout the season. Kansas’ season started on a sour note by getting surprised by #6 Indiana in an overtime thriller. The Jayhawks rebounded nicely in their victory over Duke and it appears that Bill Self’s veteran backcourt of Frank Mason and Devonte’ Graham will mask some of the growing pains the team will likely experience elsewhere. This week’s Quick N’ Dirty Analysis of the RTC25 is after the jump.

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Quick N’ Dirty Analysis.

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In Hoops We Trust: It’s Finally Here!

Posted by Joshua Lars Weill on November 16th, 2016

It would be easy to open this debut In Hoops We Trust column with some sort of election metaphor, but haven’t we already exhausted all of those? Red. Blue. Bad. Good. Bah. Instead of focusing even more attention on the emotional land mine that our political season has been, maybe it’s time we look to college basketball to bring us together instead. (Excluding, of course, those ever-so-bitter rivals. Ain’t nothing gonna stop that.) In the spirit of unity, let us now gather ‘round the squawkbox, pennants high, our sauce-stained rah-rah sweatshirts on, cheering on Hometown U. against Directional State Tech. Let’s hitch a ride on the peace train, y’all, all the way to Phoenix.

The Season is BACK. (USA Today Images)

College Hoops is BACK. (USA Today Images)

After another tedious offseason of transfers, coach hirings and firings, speculative polls, NBA defections, off-court shenanigans, and Jeff Goodman troll stories behind a paywall, we’re finally here. And thank the heavens for that. To be sure, offseasons are unavoidable. And invariably they do set the tone for each new season. So this most recent one is no different. Players arrived on campus. Coaches bailed on hot seats (Vanderbilt and Memphis), while others claimed new thrones (TCU and, well, also Memphis). Fresh regimes begin in Stillwater and Palo Alto, while familiar ones reign in Chapel Hill, Durham, Louisville, Syracuse, East Lansing, Tucson and Lexington. One blue-blood rebuilds (UNLV), while some new bloods reload (Gonzaga and Virginia). A seat gets hotter (UCLA); another chills out (Indiana).

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Rushed Reactions: #2 Kentucky 69, #13 Michigan State 48

Posted by Brian Otskey on November 15th, 2016

RTC’s Brian Otskey (@botskey) and Justin Kundrat (@justinkundrat) are providing on-site coverage of the Champions Classic this evening.

Three Key Takeaways.

Malik Monk (USA Today Images)

Malik Monk (USA Today Images)

  1. Kentucky’s defensive ceiling is very high this season. John Calipari has had plenty of elite teams over the years but it was typically the offensive prowess of his players that grabbed the headlines. This group of Wildcats is long and athletic across the board, and Calipari seems truly energized about coaching this team and watching it grow. After the game he complimented his players for all their hard work and unselfishness, saying how excited he is to come to the gym every day and work with them.
  2. Michigan State needs to find its offense. Sparty’s 0-2 start to the season is not cause for concern for Tom Izzo, who noted after the game that he has lost a bunch of games in the non-conference and still made seven Final Fours over the years. Still, an average of 55.5 points per game against top competition in Arizona and Kentucky is not going to get the job done. Izzo is happy with his defense, which held both sets of Wildcats to only 38 percent shooting, but he added that the Spartans need to find an offensive spark somewhere. Miles Bridges can’t do it all by himself, so he needs to look to Matt McQuaid and Eron Harris for complementary scoring. Michigan State’s November schedule will provide ample opportunities for growth, as trips to the Battle 4 Atlantis and Cameron Indoor Stadium to face Duke still loom before the calendar flips to December.
  3. This game was a snoozer. Let’s be honest here. Given the fair amount of hype that this annual event generates, everyone in the building expected better. One could argue that the travel hangover for Michigan State — after playing a hard-fought game against Arizona in Honolulu on Friday night — played a major role, but the Spartans just had nothing in the tank offensively. Kentucky’s defense certainly played a part in that, but it was also clear that the Wildcats were a step quicker than the Spartans all night.

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Pac-12 Burning Questions: Can Bobby Hurley Do More Than Recruit?

Posted by Mike Lemaire on November 10th, 2016

When Arizona State hired Bobby Hurley away from Buffalo as its new basketball coach a year ago, athletic director Ray Anderson made no bones about the incoming expectations for his new coach: “We are intent on becoming an elite men’s basketball program.” The hire gained nearly universal praise, in large part thanks to Hurley’s fantastic playing career at Duke and his work in leading Buffalo to its first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance in 2015. Once his first season in Tempe started, however, the Sun Devils looked anything but elite.

Bobby Hurley's Team Would Be In Based On Non-Conference Play Alone

Bobby Hurley’s Team Needs To Show More This Season. (Getty)

The team ranked near the bottom of the Pac-12 on both ends of the floor, won just five league games and generally appeared unready to compete for a conference title. Very little of this was the new head coach’s fault, of course. Predecessor Herb Sendek left insufficient talent on hand for the formation of a competent rotation, and those few players remaining were ill-suited for Hurley’s attacking style of offense. Still, despite the team’s continuing struggles, Hurley managed to pile up the accolades for his work in both changing the program’s culture and luring big-time recruits to the desert. As such, despite finishing 11th in the Pac-12 standings, Hurley convinced Arizona State that he deserved a raise and contract extension. And although there is plenty of evidence that Hurley has pointed the Arizona State ship in the right direction, he now needs to reward that faith and enthusiasm with some accompanying on-court improvement. Read the rest of this entry »

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The RTC Interview Series: One on One With Kyle Tucker

Posted by Chris Stone on November 9th, 2016

RTC interviews one on one

The college basketball season is now less than a week away and one of the sports premier programs resides in Lexington, Kentucky. We reached out to SECCountry.com‘s Kentucky basketball beat writer Kyle Tucker to discuss his time covering the Wildcats and what to expect in the upcoming season. The following interview was edited for brevity and clarity.

Rush the Court: You’re currently the Kentucky beat writer for SECCountry.com. Can you talk a little bit about how you ended up there?

Kyle Tucker: I was covering Virginia Tech for eight years and then wanted to get a little closer to home. I’m from near Nashville, Tennessee, and knew that the Kentucky beat was coming open at the Courier-Journal in Louisville. I got that job and covered Kentucky football and basketball for five years at the Courier-Journal and then got a call that the Atlanta Journal Constitution was starting a new website to cover the league, SECCountry.com, and talked with them for a while. I’m their football columnist in the fall and cover Kentucky basketball, same as I did before, during basketball season. That’s how we got here.

John Calipari is ready for another year at the helm. (USA Today Images)

John Calipari is ready for another year at the helm. (USA TODAY Sports)

RTC: You’ve been on the Kentucky beat for a while. What’s the most memorable Kentucky game you’ve covered?

Tucker: It’s a tough call between all of the Aaron Harrison late three-pointers in the Sweet Sixteen against Louisville, Elite Eight against Michigan, and Final Four against Wisconsin and then the 2011-12 Indiana regular season game that they lost on the [Christian] Watford buzzer beater and they rushed the court. It was the craziest court-storming I’d ever seen. Even though those NCAA Tournament games were really jaw-dropping, I think probably [Indiana] was the craziest, most fun game I’ve ever covered, period, because the crowd was electric and against Kentucky the whole day. It was one of the best home court advantages I’ve ever seen and it was just bonkers in there after Watford hit that shot. Also because I think that moment and the sting of that really did propel that 2012 National Championship team at Kentucky to play better and really lock in. They were definitely the most talented team in the country and that was their one wake-up call and the rest of the way they pretty much mowed everybody down. They wanted to get back and face Indiana again in the Tournament and they did and played another classic game in the Sweet Sixteen of that NCAA Tournament. Read the rest of this entry »

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