NCAA Tournament Instareaction: ACC Teams

Posted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on March 12th, 2017

The ACC received nine bids to the NCAA Tournament today, as the Selection Committee rewarded one of the league’s two bubble teams with Wake Forest making the field over Syracuse and its 2-10 record away from the Carrier Dome. Another big question going into today was whether regular season champion North Carolina or ACC Tournament winner Duke would get a #1 seed? The Tar Heels, on the strength of their regular season work, ultimately got the nod from the committee. Here are some quick best- and worst-case scenarios for each of the nine ACC teams in the field.

North Carolina (#1 South)

  • Best Case: The Tar Heels’ size and experience results in another appearance in the National Championship game with a chance for the school’s sixth national title.
  • Worst Case: North Carolina has another bad shooting night away from the Smith Center against an opponent (e.g., Butler) that will not allow the Heels to dominate the offensive glass.

Duke hopes to continue to play like it did in Brooklyn where they won four games in four days to capture the ACC Tourney Title. (abc11.com)

Duke (#2 East)

  • Best Case: Duke builds on its current momentum all the way to Phoenix, giving Coach K a shot at his sixth National Championship.
  • Worst Case: On a day when Duke’s threes are not falling, the Blue Devils get picked off in the Second Round by South Carolina, which benefits from a friendly local crowd in Greenville.

Louisville (#2 Midwest)

  • Best Case: Louisville’s defense overwhelms its foes and the Cardinals hit enough shots to get Rick Pitino back to the Final Four for a chance at his second title at the school and third overall.
  • Worst Case: The threes and free throws don’t connect for the Cardinals and they can’t get turnovers against a hot Michigan or Oklahoma State squad in the Second Round.

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The Bubble Waiting Game Begins For Syracuse…

Posted by Matthew Auerbach on March 9th, 2017

It’s going to be a long 96 hours for Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim as his team waits to see if it has done enough to warrant inclusion in this year’s NCAA Tournament. Yesterday’s five-point loss to Miami (FL) dropped the Orange to 18-14 on the season (10-9 ACC) and have firmly planted the tradition-rich powerhouse on the bubble. With six wins over the RPI top 50, Syracuse has proven it can beat NCAA Tournament quality teams (all of which came on its home floor). But with 14 losses overall, including five outside of the RPI top 100, is Syracuse anything more than a mediocre beneficiary of playing in one of the strongest conferences in college basketball history?

Jim Boeheim (USA Today Images)

Losers of five of their last seven games and with a scary RPI rating of #84, Syracuse faces two enormous barriers to entry based on historical precedent. Despite the persistent narrative that an entire body of work is what the committee evaluates, there has been a subtle preference for taking teams that are playing their best basketball down the stretch. The RPI is another albatross, as inclusion in this year’s NCAA Tournament would make the Orange the lowest at-large selection since the peculiar inclusion of Air Force in 2004.

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Assessing the Race for #1 Seeds Two Weeks Out

Posted by Shane McNichol on February 24th, 2017

With a little more than two weeks until Selection Sunday, the battle for #1 seeds in this season’s NCAA Tournament is coming into focus. The specific teams that will sit atop each region have yet to completely crystallize, but the available scenarios are starting to make sense. As regular season conference champions are crowned and the conference tournament brackets are set, the variables in each candidate’s resume fade away and the pathways to a top seed become more clear. Looking around the college basketball landscape leads us to 10 teams remaining with a legitimate chance at the top line. Let’s review.

Kansas and Villanova Appear Locked In as Top Seeds (USA Today Images)

Kansas and Villanova are almost certainly locked into #1 seeds in the Midwest and East regions, respectively. Both schools have already clinched at least a share of their conference championships and sport resumes worthy of a top seed, barring absolute disaster (i.e., multiple losses) down the stretch. Gonzaga, 29-0 against the 147th-ranked schedule in college basketball, is likely to earn the top seed in the West region. When the Selection Committee provided its sneak peek of the top 16 seeds a couple weeks ago, the Zags occupied the fourth overall #1 seed. Those rankings were released prior to Gonzaga’s decisive victory that evening at St. Mary’s as well as consecutive losses by Baylor, the third overall seed If Mark Few’s club loses its regular season finale against BYU or the WCC Tournament championship game to St. Mary’s, they’d still be in good position to earn a top seed. A loss to any other team in the conference tournament, however, would definitely knock Gonzaga to the #2 seed line.

The fourth available #1 seed is where things get tricky. The likely front-runner for that slot as of today is North Carolina, which is leading the ACC by two full games. An outright regular season title would likely include victories over Duke or Virginia, sealing up a regular season resume well-situated to earn a #1 seed. Assuming a decent performance at the ACC Tournament in Brooklyn, the Tar Heels would head to the South Region. If North Carolina slips down the stretch, ACC colleagues Louisville and Duke would be in best position to gain. Even though both teams lost on Wednesday night, a strong closing push that results in an ACC Tournament championship could elevate the Cardinals or Blue Devils to the top line. In the end, the ACC is so strong that any of these three teams can earn a #1 seed by making it clear to the committee that they own the league’s best resume.

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Wisconsin’s Big Ten Title Hopes Depend on a Healthy Bronson Koenig

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on February 17th, 2017

Wisconsin’s exclusion from the NCAA Selection Committee’s recent preview bracket left many analysts scratching their heads, especially those located in the upper Midwest. How could the Badgers — 21-3 and on top of the Big Ten — not even garner a top-four seed? Legitimate gripe or not, the consternation in Madison quickly shifted to a far more meaningful issue plaguing Wisconsin: Its offense simply hasn’t been very good lately, especially since point guard Bronson Koenig injured his calf in late January. After back-to-back losses to Northwestern and Michigan, it’s becoming increasingly clear that, while Big Ten Player of the Year candidate Ethan Happ can keep Greg Gard‘s offense afloat, a fully-healthy Koenig will be critical to their shot at a conference title.

Ethan Happ can only do so much for Wisconsin without Bronson Koenig. (Rick Osentoski / USA TODAY Sports)

Since Koenig tweaked his calf against Penn State on January 24 (a seemingly minor issue at the time), Wisconsin has simply not been the same team. In the seven games leading up to his injury, the Badgers scored more than a point per possession (PPP) in six of those, including a 1.23 PPP effort at Indiana and a 1.33 PPP performance against Ohio State. In the six games since his mishap, Wisconsin has reached that threshold just once, and hasn’t topped 1.03 PPP at all (well below its season average). On Thursday night against Michigan, Gard decided to rule out Koenig in order to give him some extra rest; predictably, Wisconsin’s stagnation continued.

But why, exactly? After all, the Badgers have two all-conference caliber forwards in Nigel Hayes (13.6 PPG, 5.9 RPG) and Happ (14.2 PPG, 9.2 RPG), the latter of whom is undoubtedly the team’s best and most important offensive player. Entering Thursday night, Wisconsin was 16-0 when Happ finished the game with an offensive rating of 100.0 or better, and just 5-4 in games in which he didn’t. The 6’10” sophomore currently ranks among the Big Ten’s top-10 players in both offensive and defensive rebounding rate, assist rate, block rate, steals rate and free throw rate. His 60.6 percent effective field goal percentage is also among the league’s best, and he currently ranks fifth overall in KenPom’s National Player of the Year standings. Put more plainly, he’s a statistical monster, adept at carving out space in the paint and capitalizing on mismatches. “Happ is as good a pure post player as I’ve seen since I’ve been here,” Michigan head coach John Beilein said of the sophomore.

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Kansas’ Kryptonite: Five Teams That Can Cause Problems for the Jayhawks

Posted by Brian Goodman on February 16th, 2017

Monday night’s memorable comeback win over West Virginia effectively sealed Kansas’ record-tying 13th straight Big 12 title — if not mathematically, then symbolically. Yes, Baylor could topple the Jayhawks on Saturday in Waco to pull within a single game in the standings with two weeks left, but the Bears also must face the same Mountaineers team that steamrolled them last month and travel to Hilton Coliseum. Even if Baylor were to beat the odds and win out, Kansas’ finale in Stillwater represents the only other remaining game it could foreseeably lose, as its other three match-ups are home tilts against TCU and Oklahoma and a road game against Texas. And even if the improbable occurs and Kansas drops its final game along with Baylor winning its last five, the Jayhawks would still be in possession of a share of the conference title. So while the confetti may not officially fly in Lawrence for a couple more weeks, the gameday crew can start stocking up on cannons and CO2 without much apprehension. As far as March is concerned, Kansas’ status as the champion of the nation’s toughest conference may cement its standing as a #1 seed no matter what happens at the Big 12 Tournament.

Devonte’ Graham and the Jayhawks are on the cusp of yet another Big 12 title. (AP Photo)

We know that Kansas has a National Championship ceiling because it boasts three-point shooters all over the floor, one of the game’s best coaches, a one-and-done wing who is becoming more impressive by the day, and a penchant for closing out tight games in preparation for single-elimination basketball. On the other hand, though, those close games have revealed some weaknesses that opponents can exploit to send the Jayhawks home early. With their fate as a top-two NCAA Tournament seed all but assured, it’s not too early to look around the rest of the field and identify a handful of teams that could give Kansas some serious headaches when the brackets are revealed 24 days from today.

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ACC Bubble Watch: February 14

Posted by Mick McDonald on February 14th, 2017

With the Selection Committee releasing its early look at the top 16 seeds on Saturday, we are now officially in the home stretch of the 2016-17 regular season. Here is a look at the state of the bubble in the ACC four weeks away from Selection Sunday. (KenPom rankings are all as of Monday, February 13)

LOCKS (6): North Carolina, Florida State, Louisville, Virginia, Duke, Notre Dame

BUBBLE:

Wake Forest vs. Clemson Tonight is a Key Bubble Match-Up (USA Today Images)

  • Clemson (13-11, 3-9 ACC, KenPom: #39). We knew there was likely to be a very good ACC team that would fall victim to a brutal schedule and as a result miss the NCAA Tournament. To this point of the regular season, it appears that Clemson is that team. Wins at home over Georgia (KenPom: #50), UNC-Wilmington (KenPom: #56) and Alabama (KenPom: #62), along with a win over Davidson (KenPom: #88) on a neutral court, and at South Carolina (KenPom: #27) represent an impressive array of victories. The Tigers’ only bad loss came against Oklahoma (KenPom: #82) on a neutral court, but nine defeats in ACC play are too much to overcome. Clemson probably needs to a 5-1 finish to the regular season and a decent showing in the ACC Tournament to receive a bid — a difficult, if not impossible, task. This Week: Wake Forest (2/14), at Miami (2/18).
  • Georgia Tech (15-10, 6-6 ACC, KenPom: #79). In league play, Georgia Tech has notched big home wins over North Carolina, Florida State and Notre Dame. A home loss to Ohio (KenPom: #109) is the only significant blemish on the Yellow Jackets’ non-conference resume, but it’s not a killer and a nice road win over VCU (KenPom: #43) will help compensate. The Selection Committee has seemed to value “big wins” regardless of location in recent years, so it will be interesting to see if that trend holds again this year. If the Yellow Jackets can take care of business in their three remaining home games and find just one win on the road (at Miami, Notre Dame or Syracuse), they should be going dancing in Josh Pastner’s inaugural season. This Week: at Miami (2/15), vs. Syracuse (2/19).

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Finding a Parachute for Four Teams Fading Fast…

Posted by Shane McNichol on February 11th, 2017

In Sports Illustrated‘s recent profile of former Philadelphia 76ers general manager Sam Hinkie, he asked two philosophical questions about the game of basketball: “Why do we watch basketball games front to back? Why not watch games back to front, or out of order?” Those questions are silly on their face, but they stuck in my head this week while evaluating the NCAA Tournament resumes of a few teams whose seasons have clearly stagnated. Is there something to be said for viewing a team’s record of wins and losses without the associated construct of time, completely freeing its resume from any particular front-to-back narrative? This idea, in many ways, ties into the cutesy “blind resumes” gimmick we see on television so much throughout late February and early March. When we remove the bias that everyone inherently brings to the analysis, how does that change our opinions?

Is Tom Crean Destined for the NIT? (USA Today Images)

In the end, the individuals comprising the selection committee will bring their own biases along with them regardless of how the narratives are constructed. So as we sit here in mid-February, we thought it would be a useful exercise to re-evaluate a handful of teams who have seemingly lost control of their seasons. Indiana, USC, Clemson and Minnesota looked well on their way to the NCAA Tournament as recently as a month ago, but conference play has taken a significant toll on each. The narratives attached to these teams will greatly affect how they are viewed by the selection committee over the last month of the season. Can any of this quartet recover?

  • Indiana: The obvious poster child for this phenomenon, the Hoosiers were among the nation’s top 10 and projected as a #2 seed by ESPN‘s Joe Lunardi as recently as December 12. Since that date, Indiana has suffered injuries to key players (OG Anunoby and James Blackmon) and compiled a 7-8 record as a result. Fortunately for the Hoosiers, their only loss to an opponent outside the RPI top 100 came in a true road game at Fort Wayne, but with four of the Hoosiers’ last five Big Ten games on the road, concerns about a bid remain if Indiana can’t right the ship.

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In Hoops We Trust: Small Fries Eye Big Prize

Posted by Joshua Lars Weill on January 25th, 2017

This week, let’s take a break from discussions of the nation’s top 15 teams and all their tribulations. They get enough coverage already. Each year, there’s a bevy of small conference schools that threaten to upend the postseason hopes of middle-tier power conference teams with resumes that are, frankly, often more deserving. For now, they toil away in relative obscurity, their only chance at an appearance on any of the ESPN networks generally as a for-pay beatdown victim or in the finals of their conference tournament.

UNC-Wilmington and Several Other Mids Have Work to Do to Go Dancing Again (USA Today Images)

When a team from a small league can escape the non-conference season with a few wins over the Alabamas, Colorados, Seton Halls and DePauls of the college hoops world, they set themselves up for a chance at a low NCAA seed. More importantly, these schools must dominate their conferences to have any shot at an at-large bid. At season’s midpoint, here’s a quick look at several of them. All records are through Tuesday, January 24.

With a strength of schedule ranking in the 130s, UNC-Wilmington (17-2 (8-0 CAA), KenPom rank: 45, RPI rank: 26) does not have a shoo-in resume, but the Seahawks could end up with more than 25 wins and a credible at-large case. The current leader of the Colonial Athletic Association lost close games to Clemson and Middle Tennessee State, another mid-major contender, but there really aren’t any bad losses on its resume to speak of. But this is the perfect example of a team that cannot afford to lose more than one or two more games this season — and road losses might not kill them, but home losses surely will. College of Charleston sits one game back of UNC-Wilmington in the CAA but and owns an RPI of 67 and really has nothing to speak of from the non-conference schedule. Rather, the conference’s best non-conference wins came from third place Northeastern, which shocked Michigan State and beat Connecticut but has not been consistent enough to be taken seriously.

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Michigan’s Defense is the Difference Between NCAA and NIT

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on January 23rd, 2017

It doesn’t take a hoops junkie to recognize that a good, balanced effort on both sides of the ball generally equates to success. And maybe it would be overly simplistic to offer an unbalanced team such advice as “be better on defense.” For this year’s Michigan squad, however, there may not be a more apt prescription. The Wolverines—the Big Ten’s most efficient offensive unit—simply haven’t had a defense to match this season, ranking dead-last in conference play on that end of the court. On nights when they have defended well, the offense has taken a step back. Put simply, the pieces have rarely come together. After an inspired wire-to-wire victory over Illinois on Saturday, however, John Beilein’s group appears to be taking some steps in the right direction. Michigan was stout defensively, received contributions up and down the lineup, and—for perhaps the first time since November—played a complete game against a quality opponent. With a crucial five-game stretch coming and an NCAA Tournament berth still far from guaranteed, the Wolverines’ newfound balance has arrived just in the nick of time.

On Saturday, Michigan looked like the team that pounded SMU and Marquette back in November. (mgoblue.com)

“Blue-collar” defense. Following Illinois’ 85-69 thrashing of Michigan on January 11, Illini center Maverick Morgan referred to the Wolverines as a “white-collar team,” a comment which—at least at the time—seemed completely on point. Due to a mixture of lax perimeter defense and some bad luck, Michigan entered the weekend surrendering an astounding 52.4 percent from three-point range (53-for-101) against Big Ten opponents, including a 9-of-14 effort against the Illini in that first meeting. On the whole, Beilein’s team after came into Saturday’s game surrendering more than 1.2 points per possession, and yet, on the heels of an encouraging effort at Wisconsin, the defensive tide shifted drastically. Michigan held Illinois to just 0-of-5 from three-point range in the first half, and 2-of-12 for the game. Illini ball-handlers were forced into a Big Ten-high 17 turnovers, and Morgan, who made all but one shot from the field in the first meeting, was held in check underneath the basket. “We were active, we were in gaps, swarming to the ball, flying around,” Beilein said after the game. “That was as hard as we’ve played on defense all year.” Before the weekend, Wolverines’ guard Zak Irvin lobbied his team to wear its road blue jerseys to represent the “blue-collar” attitude with which it intended to play. And Michigan didn’t disappoint, holding Illinois to 0.86 points per possession in its strongest defensive effort since the calendar turned to 2017.

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Balance and Efficiency Taking UNC Wilmington to New Heights

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on January 18th, 2017

Perhaps no box score better encapsulates UNC Wilmington this season than its 101-77 drubbing of William & Mary last Wednesday. By night’s end, six Seahawks had reached double figures—three with 18 points, two with 14 and one with 11—as the team shot a blistering 70 percent from inside the arc and forced 17 turnovers. It was the second straight game in which five players eclipsed double-figures, and the fourth time this season that UNC Wilmington had scored 100. Put simply, Kevin Keatts’ unit pushed the pace, created good looks and capitalized more often than not. Now 17-2 and ranked #43 in KenPom‘s ratings, the Seahawks seem destined to surpass last year’s record-tying 25 wins and first-round NCAA Tournament appearance. With one of college basketball’s most balanced and efficient lineups, they have legitimate second weekend potential.

Devontae Cacok has been a revelation for UNC Wilmington this season. (Photo by John Crouch)

Taking care of (and simply taking) the basketball. If stellar guard play is the mark of a true Cinderella, then UNC Wilmington certainly fits the bill. Keatts starts four guards—Denzel Ingram, Ambrose Mosley, Chris Flemmings and CJ Bryce—three of whom are seniors and all of whom can handle the ball. All that experienced ball-handling has helped the Seahawks post the second-lowest turnover rate in the country at 13.8 percent, a level of mistake-free prowess put on full display last week: In 143 combined possessions against William & Mary and Hofstra, UNC Wilmington suffered just 11 turnovers. Conversely, its defense has been especially aggressive this season, forcing turnovers at its highest rate ever (23.2%, 13th nationally) under the Rick Pitino prodigy. On top of all that, the Seahawks don’t seem to care who shoulders the load. Bryce, the team’s best player (17.8 PPG, 3.2 APG), Flemmings (16.1 PPG) and Ingram (15.6 PPG) have each led the team in scoring multiple times this year, and UNC Wilmington remains the CAA’s only unit without a player who takes more than 25 percent of his team’s shots while on the floor. Combine balanced, mistake-free basketball with easy buckets from turnovers, and what do you get? One of the 20 most efficient offenses in college basketball. Read the rest of this entry »

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