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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Race for a Top NCAA Seed Begins Early in the Big Ten

Posted by Shane McNichol on November 29th, 2016

At least one team has represented the Big Ten at the Final Four in six of the last nine NCAA Tournaments and seeding is a big part of that. Big Ten teams have been awarded a #1 seed in four of those nine tourneys with seven more conference teams receiving #2 seeds over that period. Being projected among the mix to win the conference title usually means that the jockeying for March begins right away. In the season’s first two weeks, Wisconsin, Michigan State and Indiana all had great chances to put themselves in the Big Ten pole position before conference play even begins. Yes, the NCAA Tournament is still three and a half months away, but the Selection Committee weights all games the same regardless of when they are played. Parsing through the first handful of games among this trio allows us a chance to see which, if any, teams took an early head start in the race for a top-two NCAA Tournament seed.

Michigan State

Tom Izzo needs to make sure his team gains confidence before the NCAA tournament.

Tom Izzo needs to make sure his team gains confidence before the NCAA tournament. (AP)

The Spartans’ early struggles have been well-documented so there’s no reason to re-hash them here. With three losses already on the books and a very difficult game at Cameron Indoor Stadium tonight, dreams of a #1 seed have been all but dashed in East Lansing. In the past 10 NCAA Tournaments, only one school has been awarded a top seed with seven or more regular season losses — Michigan State in 2012. With games at Minnesota, Ohio State, Indiana, Michigan, Purdue and Maryland still to come (not to mention several other potentially tricky road tilts as well as home games against Purdue, Michigan, Ohio State, and Wisconsin), the Spartans are very likely to surpass that loss figure. The loss of Denzel Valentine and his 28.9 percent usage rate has proven difficult to replace, as the capable role players around him last season have so far failed to step up. Instead, it has been freshmen like Miles Bridges, Joshua Langford, and Cassius Winston who have sparked the Spartans during their better moments. Tom Izzo hasn’t yet found the right combinations but history suggests that he will do so. Whether he can manage to turn things around quickly enough to push Michigan State into the discussion for a #2 seed is an open question.

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O26 Early Impressions: Takeaways From First 10 Days

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on November 21st, 2016

With Feast Week now upon us and two weekends of college hoops in the books, let’s take a step back and reflect on what we’ve learned, which teams have impressed, and why Florida Gulf Coast’s loss at Michigan State was unforgettable… for all the wrong reasons.

Saint Mary's center Jock Landale has been nothing short of excellent. (USATSI)

To this point, Saint Mary’s center Jock Landale has been nothing short of excellent. (USATSI)

The West Coast Conference looks even better than expected. We ranked Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s #1 and #2 in our preseason Power 13, respectively, with Brigham Young also cracking the list. Each has lived up to—perhaps even exceeded—expectations in the early going. In their first major test, the Zags crushed San Diego State by 21 points, holding the Aztecs to 0.69 points per possession and receiving major contributions from freshman big man Zach Collins (16 points on 6-for-7 FG). The Gaels, to their credit, blitzed a talented Nevada team in their opener before earning a huge, resume-bolstering road win at Dayton two games later. The Cougars began their season with a double-digit victory over Ivy League favorite Princeton. As for potential WCC Player of the Year candidates? There may wind up being too many to count. Along with Gonzaga’s cast of contenders, BYU forward Eric Mika (21.0 PPG, 11.0 RPG), back from his two year LDS mission, has looked downright dominant on both ends of the floor through three games. Likewise, Saint Mary’s center Jock Landale (20.0 PPG, 10.0 RPG)—who averaged fewer than 15 minutes per game in 2015-16—has been an offensive revelation for Randy Bennett, in addition to hyper-efficient point guard Emmett Naar (9.0 PPG, 9.7 APG). Strap in for a heavyweight battle atop the WCC.

Rhode Island is the real deal. Sure, the Rams (4-1) lost handily to #1 Duke in Sunday’s Hall of Fame Tip-Off championship game, but they looked like they belonged, and they only got there by grinding out a 76-71 victory over #24 Cincinnati one day earlier. E.C. Matthews (19.5 PPG) appears to be his old self after missing last season with a knee injury, while forward Hassan Martin (4.3 BPG)—who blocked seven shots against Duke—looks well on his way to repeating as Atlantic 10 Defensive Player of the Year. Rhode Island has the grit, the talent, and (finally) the offensive punch to reach its first NCAA Tournament since 1999. The season’s first 10 days have only reaffirmed that.

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Big Ten Feast Week Primer: Part Two

Posted by Brendan Brody on November 21st, 2016

Eight of the 14 Big Ten teams will play in early-season tournaments over the next seven days. The festivities begin this afternoon with Wisconsin in the Maui Invitational, but continue for much of the next week as turkey, dressing and cranberry sauce commingles with basketball in far-flung locales. Here’s the first of a two part-breakdown that discusses what each participating Big Ten team faces this week.

Nigel Hayes needs to have a productive stretch of games in Maui for Wisconsin to win it. (Getty).

Nigel Hayes needs to have a productive stretch of games in Maui for Wisconsin to win the event. (Getty).

Maui Jim Maui Invitational

  • Teams: Wisconsin, Tennessee, Georgetown, Oregon, Oklahoma State, UConn, North Carolina, Chaminade
  • Capsule: Wisconsin is 2-1 and looking to gain some momentum after losing a road game to Creighton and not playing well in a win over Chicago State. The Badgers’ offense is attempting a robust 29 three-pointers per game, so establishing Ethan Happ in the paint should help. Top 10 teams like Oregon and North Carolina potentially await later in the week if Wisconsin can get past Tennessee.
  • Key Player: Nigel Hayes hasn’t shot the ball well this season (38.7% FG), only scoring three points in 16 minutes of action against Chicago State. The preseason Big Ten Player of the Year needs to start producing for Wisconsin to earn some big wins on the islands.
  • Prediction: Wisconsin will go 2-1 in Maui. They will win their first game against Tennessee; lose to an Oregon squad that expects to have Dillon Brooks back; and then beat either UConn or Oklahoma State on Wednesday.

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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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Big Ten Preseason Superlatives: POY, COY, FrOY

Posted by Alex Moscoso on November 11th, 2016

The season-opening tip-offs are set for tonight and the RTC Big Ten microsite has arrived at our predictions for the coming year. We’ve huddled our clairvoyant minds together and selected our conference preseason Player of the Year, Newcomer of the Year, and Coach of the Year. Some of these predictions are likely to miss, but the three individual profiled below are definitely worth keeping a close eye on during the regular season.

Thomas Bryant is the RTC Preseason Big Ten Player of the Year (USA Today Images).

Thomas Bryant is the RTC Preseason Big Ten Player of the Year (USA Today Images).

Player of the Year: Thomas Bryant, Indiana. This was by no means a unanimous choice among our group. While we believe our other two Badger candidates — Nigel Hayes and Ethan Happ — will each also have a terrific season, we settled on Bryant for a couple of reasons. First, he is one of the nation’s most talented big men in an offense full of second options — expect him to significantly improve on his 11.9 PPG and 5.8 RPG freshman tallies with an added a year of experience. Second, he is the anchor of a reigning Big Ten champion that is expected to contend for a second consecutive title and a deep NCAA Tournament run. Given the talent and opportunity here, we believe that Bryant is ready for a monster year.

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Big Ten Conference Preview: Purdue, Michigan State, Indiana, Wisconsin

Posted by Brendan Brody on November 11th, 2016

The ballots have been revealed and the results have been tabulated. Unlike another round of voting that took place this week, there isn’t as much shock value in seeing these results. We at the Big Ten microsite have voted and determined how the league will shake out this season. The last of three segments lists our top four teams (the bottom tier can be found here and the middle tier can be found here).

4. Purdue: The Boilermakers enjoyed their best season since 2010-11 by winning 26 games and finishing 12-6 in conference play. They lost two All-Defensive Team members, including the Defensive Player of the Year AJ Hammons, but expectations are still high in West Lafayette. This is mainly because there just aren’t many teams nationally that can unleash a frontcourt with a trio of players as talented as Vince Edwards, Caleb Swanigan and Isaac Haas. With this trio in place, Purdue can expect the defense and interior scoring to comparable to last season. If PJ Thompson and Dakota Mathias can also consistently knock down shots from the perimeter, Purdue should equal, or surpass last season’s success.

Caleb Swanigan leads a deadly Purude frontcourt that is one of the best in the nation. (AP Photo/Doug McSchooler)

Caleb Swanigan leads a deadly Purude frontcourt that is one of the best in the nation. (AP Photo/Doug McSchooler)

Best-Case Scenario: Elite Eight

3. Michigan State: A brutal early schedule and some nagging injuries on the interior makes Sparty’s preseason ranking a little fluid, but it’s difficult to not give Tom Izzo a well-earned benefit of the doubt. A star freshman crew of Miles Bridges, Josh Langford, Cassius Winston and Nick Ward will all have to contribute early, but they have the skill sets to do so. Bridges (26.5 PPG, 4.0 BPG) in particular dominated in Michigan State’s two exhibition wins and could be a First-Team Big Ten talent. Also keep an eye on Eron Harris and Matt McQuaid. They will have to make many of the shots that Denzel Valentine and Bryn Forbes took last season. If Gavin Schilling and Ben Carter can return well at some point from their injuries, this will be one of the best and deepest teams in college basketball.

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How Will Michigan State Adapt to Its Injuries?

Posted by Jim Root on November 9th, 2016

The losses Michigan State sustained after last year’s disappointing First Round NCAA Tournament exit would cripple most programs: a national Player of the Year (Denzel Valentine), the Big Ten’s best three-point shooter (Bryn Forbes), a stout senior interior presence (Matt Costello), and a one-and-done freshman (Deyonta Davis). Fortunately, Tom Izzo was able to reload with perhaps his best recruiting class ever, and along with some veteran returnees, it looks as if the Spartans once again have a team capable of winning the Big Ten and making a run in March.

Michigan State's excellent freshman will need to be good right away for Tom Izzo's short-handed squad. (Source: Detroit Free Press)

Michigan State’s excellent freshman class will need to be good right away for Tom Izzo’s short-handed squad. (Source: Detroit Free Press)

Not so fast. Injuries have already struck hard to the Spartans’ frontcourt, sidelining UNLV graduate transfer Ben Carter and senior Gavin Schilling with knee ailments before exhibition games even tipped off. Both figured to see extensive minutes at the four and five slots, and the loss of both leaves Izzo in a precarious position with his frontcourt rotation. Right now it basically consists of two true freshmen (albeit highly-regarded ones): 6’7” Miles Bridges, 6’8” Nick Ward, and 6’6” redshirt sophomore (and former walk-on) Kenny Goins.

The best version of this team’s lineup probably involves Bridges at the four and Ward at the five, although Izzo will likely go with Goins as the nominal center to start (for example, he started against Northwoods). Bridges will be a matchup nightmare up front, too quick for big men and too strong for wings. He has a smooth lefty stroke from the perimeter (going 5-of-5 from deep in the first exhibition game), and he can also grab a defensive rebound and push the ball up the floor by himself. Most of all, he’s an insane athlete – the height he gets when leaping and the sheer power with which he dunks are awe-inspiring. Ward, on the other hand, is a more traditional post player. He’s got great touch around the basket with his left hand and has proven capable of playing above the rim. Given his girth (listed at 250 pounds), he has the best chance of slowing opposing big men, but Izzo will still be forced to double-team against the likes of burly Big Ten bodies such as Ethan Happ, Isaac Haas and Thomas Bryant.

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The Five Best Non-Conference Schedules in the Big Ten

Posted by Brendan Brody on November 3rd, 2016

The exercise to choose the five best non-conference schedules always involves a decent amount of speculation because we currently only know which Big Ten opponents we think are going to be good. We also don’t know how the various holiday tournament brackets will work out, but we can give it our best guesses. Here are the best five.

5. Purdue: The Boilermakers ease into things for exactly one game before they will play the reigning National Champion Villanova at Mackey Arena in their Gavitt Games match-up. Purdue will also be tested with a trip to Louisville in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, followed by a contest against Notre Dame in the Crossroads Classic. Furthermore, a potential showdown with Chris Beard — the head coach last seen leading Little Rock to an upset over Purdue in the NCAA Tournament — and his new team, Texas Tech, could be tasty if the bracket holds in the Cancun Classic.

Tim MIles and his Nebraska team will have a rough early schedule in 2016-17. (Getty).

Tim Miles and his Nebraska team will have a rough early schedule in 2016-17. (Getty).

4. Nebraska: This schedule might be a bit on the ambitious side for a team picked to finish near the bottom of the Big Ten standings. Start with a road game against former Big 12 foe Kansas followed by a home game against their intrastate rival Creighton. They also have to visit the newly renovated Littlejohn Coliseum at Clemson, a team that could very well be make the NCAA Tournament this season. The Cornhuskers also play Dayton in the First Round of the Wooden Legacy Tournament, with a bracket path that could involve games with some combination of UCLA, Virginia Tech, or Texas A&M.

3. Indiana: The Hoosiers play their usual slate of easier games where they don’t leave Bloomington (UMass-Lowell, Mississippi Valley State, Houston Baptist, etc.), but they also play three teams currently ranked among the top 15 of the preseason AP Poll, including two tough neutral site games against Kansas and Louisville. National runner-up North Carolina visits Assembly Hall for this year’s ACC/Big Ten Challenge, and Indiana will also play a solid Butler team in Indianapolis as the second part of the Crossroads Classic. An interesting road game to Fort Wayne could trip up Tom Crean’s group as well.

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Five Tweaks to the CBS 100 From a B1G Perspective

Posted by Brendan Brody on October 28th, 2016

CBSSports.com’s Gary Parrish and Matt Norlander published their preseason top 100 (and one) list of the best players in college basketball on Wednesday. Fifteen Big Ten players made the list, with many of the usual suspects appearing at some point in the countdown. The full list is available here, with the stated premise being “it’s a huge game of pickup hoops, you keep picking guys in order of who you think is best.” Here are the five small revisions that one humble Big Ten basketball scribe would offer to Parrish and Norlander.

  • Too Low: Vince Edwards, Purdue (#84): Edwards is one of the most underappreciated players in the Big Ten and nationally. He made steady progress in numerous facets of the game during his sophomore season, specifically in increasing his three-point percentage by eight points to a legitimate 40.7 percent. He led the Boilermakers in assists from the forward spot and can guard both wings and post players. He should be 10 to 15 spots higher.
Vince Edwards is the 84th best player in the land according to CBS. (Jerry Schultheiss).

Vince Edwards is the 84th best player in the land according to CBS. (Jerry Schultheiss).

  • Too High: Bronson Koenig, Wisconsin (#32): It is certainly understandable that Koenig was selected this high because he has a pedigree of two Final Fours and a Sweet Sixteen to his credit. But with NPOY Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker gone from last year’s squad, he struggled shooting (39.2% FG) and distributing (15.1% assist rate) the ball. He belongs on the list as a top 100 player, but he should not have been listed as the sixth-best player in the Big Ten.

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