RTC Weekly Primer: An Ode to the Big 12

Posted by Henry Bushnell on January 6th, 2015

Money talks. It’s an unavoidable and unfortunate truth. In almost any facet of life, money is persuasive. Whether indirectly or directly, visibly or otherwise, it influences the decisions we make, creates irresistible motives, and causes things to happen that are otherwise undesirable. It’s an unparalleled force. A few years ago, the Big 12 was a victim of the almighty dollar’s faculties. It succumbed to money’s authority. Between 2010-13, while the league went about its business playing collegiate sports in the midsection of America, it was relentlessly under siege. Driven by economic motives, the SEC, Big Ten and Pac-12 ravaged it, pilfering four of its 12 members and rearranging the landscape of college sports. During this period of extreme uncertainty, there were thoughts of dissolution. There appeared to be a significant chance that the Big 12 would soon cease to exist. At the very least, it had been weakened as it’s BCS brethren had beefed up. These were times filled with worry; with concern; with fear.

The Big 12 May Have Lost the Football Wars This Year, But It is Killing the Basketball Side (USA Today Images)

The Big 12 May Have Lost the Football Wars This Year, But It is Killing the Basketball Side (USA Today Images)

Several years later, with all of that uncertainty now in the rear view mirror, money seems somewhat irrelevant. It still talks, and the economic side of Big 12 sports might not be as lucrative as that of the Big Ten or SEC. But money doesn’t automatically result in good basketball. And in 2014-15, while the Big Ten and SEC are crammed with mediocrity, the conference that once looked in serious danger is thriving. Seven of the 10 conference teams currently rank in KenPom’s Top 25, while only eight from the Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC collectively make the cut. In an age where money increasingly steps to the forefront of any discussions on college sports, there remains a majestic purity about this sport. And as conference play gets underway in the Big 12, that purity will be as enjoyable and as evident as ever. It’ll also produce night after night of high-quality basketball.

Three for the Money

Kansas at Baylor | Wednesday, 9:00 p.m. EST, ESPNU

Where else to start but with the Big 12? As will be the case many times this year, there are multiple mouth-watering match-ups in conference play, but any game that involves Kansas still draws extra attention. It’s an annual tradition around this time of year to pose the question, “Is this the year that somebody finally unseats Kansas atop the Big 12?” But this year, such an inquiry might just have a little more merit to it. Baylor isn’t necessarily one of the teams that could knock the Jayhawks from their perch — that responsibility should fall to Oklahoma, Texas and Iowa State. But the Bears are an outstanding example of the depth of the league. Picked sixth in the Big 12 preseason poll, Scott Drew’s squad has been steadily improving this season. Led by a physically imposing front line that pounds the offensive glass as well as anybody in the country, Baylor won’t be an easy out for anybody. And especially not for a Kansas team that, despite only two losses and several good wins, hasn’t looked vintage. It is important to note that we’ve seen the stage set like this before only to have the Jayhawks hit their stride in early February and run away from the pack. But the backcourt of Frank Mason and Wayne Selden is a far cry from what Self has had in Lawrence over the years. The interesting match-up here, however, is down low, where Kansas’ forwards, specifically Cliff Alexander, will have to brandish their Big 12 title winning credentials and show some requisite toughness.

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Notre Dame’s Supporting Cast Provides Staying Power

Posted by Lathan Wells on January 6th, 2015

Most of the accolades associated with Notre Dame’s 14-1 start have been bestowed on star senior Jerian Grant, the ACC’s second-leading scorer and top assist man. Skepticism over the Irish’s relatively unimposing non-conference slate were correlated questions about how the team would operate when Grant was held in check. After a thrilling one-point win over North Carolina in Chapel Hill last night, the Notre Dame trio of Zach Auguste, Demetrius Jackson and Pat Connaughton have silenced those questions and put the rest of the conference on notice that the Irish are a team capable of contending with the ACC’s elite.

Zach Auguste has had a great start to ACC play, including the winning bucket against North Carolina (AP Photo)

Zach Auguste has had a great start to ACC play, including the winning bucket against North Carolina (AP Photo)

It was apparent early in Monday’s game that North Carolina’s top defender, J.P. Tokoto, was tasked with slowing Grant. He and the other Tar Heels who took turns defending the explosive wing were extremely successful, as Grant contributed a season-low eight points on 1-of-8 shooting from the field and eventually fouling out. With as much as Grant has produced this year — he uses a quarter of the Irish’s offensive possessions — such a performance would have appeared to doom the Irish in a tough road environment. Instead, Mike Brey’s team showed that its supporting cast is strong enough to overcome his occasional lack of production by contributing a combined 49 points and 16 rebounds.

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ACC Stock Watch – New Year’s Edition

Posted by Lathan Wells on January 2nd, 2015

As we welcome 2015, the ACC’s 15 teams have all concluded their non-conference seasons. In the New Year’s edition of this week’s ACC Stock Watch, we’ll examine the league’s trending players and teams based on how they were predicted to finish in conference play (you can view the preseason ACC media projections here) and how they’re playing now.

Trending Up

  • Duke. The Blue Devils are on fire to start the season. Their veterans have ceded major roles to the star freshmen without complaint or drop-off in production. Their 12-0 start includes good wins over Michigan State, Wisconsin, Connecticut, Temple and Stanford.
  • Tyus Jones, Duke. Taking over the reins of a national championship contender is difficult enough, but unseating a senior in Quinn Cook and maintaining harmony on the floor is really something else. Jones has emerged as a true revelation and has made the Duke offense (the most efficient in college basketball) hum. Even his high school coach didn’t think he’d be this good so fast.
Tyus Jones may fly under the radar on a team with Jahlil Okafor, but he's been a revelation for Duke (Lance King)

Tyus Jones may fly under the radar on a team with Jahlil Okafor, but he’s been a revelation for Duke (credit: Lance King)

  • Virginia. Everyone knew the Cavaliers would be good again, but possibly better than last year? They’ve already held two teams to single-digit points in a half, and Akil Mitchell and Joe Harris have been capably replaced. Hopefully the recent defensive showing against Davidson was an aberration (72 points allowed by a Virginia team that had holds opponents under 50 per game on the year).
  • Notre Dame. A 13-1 start is great and this team is rolling on the offensive end. The Fighting Irish currently rank third in the country at 86.0 points per game and are shooting an otherworldly 55.4 percent from the field (best in the country). However, questions exist about the strength of Notre Dame’s non-conference schedule.

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RTC Top 25: Week Six

Posted by Walker Carey on December 29th, 2014

Much like week two of the season, last week was defined by a number of intriguing upsets. This trend began on Monday night when #14 Kansas was blown out by 25 points at Temple. It continued on Tuesday, as both #5 Arizona and #10 Texas fell to unranked opponents – the Wildcats losing at UNLV and the Longhorns losing at home to Stanford. Christmas Day spelled trouble for #15 Wichita State, as it was upset by George Washington in the championship game of the Diamond Head Classic. Finally, Sunday saw previously unbeaten #22 Washington fall at home to America East darling Stony Brook. With conference play fully set to begin this week in most conferences, we bid farewell to the stunning non-conference upsets that have been a major part of the college basketball season thus far. Upset enthusiasts should not worry too much, though, as we all know by now there is no such thing as an easy win in conference play. Strap in and get ready because it is going to be a fun two-month ride from here to March.

This week’s Quick N’ Dirty after the jump….

Screen Shot 2014-12-29 at 2.04.11 AM

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ACC Stock Watch: Holiday Edition

Posted by Lathan Wells on December 26th, 2014

As the holiday break kicked in, some ACC teams and players were probably thrilled to review their last few weeks of action with family and friends. Others were undoubtedly just glad they had some time away from the hardwood to refresh and reset expectations. We’ve now had three weeks since we last evaluated the state of the conference’s players and coaches, so here’s the Holiday Edition of the ACC Stock Watch:

Trending Up

  • Notre Dame. All the Fighting Irish have done since we last checked in is to reel off five straight wins, bringing their overall record to 12-1 (including an early ACC win over Florida State). Mike Brey’s team is one of the most dynamic offensive groups in the country, averaging 86.1 points per game and putting up 94 and 91 points, respectively, in blowout wins over Purdue and Northern Illinois. More impressive than the overall offensive output in those two games is that Jerian Grant scored a total of 21 points on just 5-of-22 shooting from the field. Once the All-American candidate returns to form, look out.
  • Virginia. Don’t look now, but the Cavaliers are finally getting their due as a serious national title contender. Tony Bennett’s team may be even better defensively this year than last, holding a talented Harvard team to eight first-half points en route to an impressive 76-27 win following a 17-point victory over rival VCU in Richmond two weeks prior. Duke and Louisville have gotten the majority of the attention so far, but the Cavaliers’ 11-0 start is something more pundits on the national scene are paying attention to.
Malcolm Brogdon and Virginia's throttling of Harvard proved they're a player in the national conversation (AP Photo)

Malcolm Brogdon and Virginia’s latest win, a throttling of Harvard, proved the Cavaliers are a player in the national conversation (AP Photo)

  • North Carolina. For all of the talk about this team’s uneven play and noticeable deficiencies, the Tar Heels actually have put together a nice stretch since our last stock watch. Although they fell to Kentucky in Lexington, it took the Wildcats’ best shooting day of the year to knock off the Tar Heels by a mere 14 points (plus North Carolina actually outscored the Cats in the second half). In addition to blowout wins over East Carolina and UNC-Greensboro, the Heels won an important non-conference battle with a good Ohio State team last weekend. At 8-3, there are still some reasons for pessimism in Chapel Hill, but you can’t ignore that Roy Williams’ team has earned some solid wins while playing the ACC’s toughest non-conference schedule.

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Evaluating ACC Non-Conference Schedules: UNC Has the Toughest

Posted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on December 24th, 2014

Back in late August when the ACC released complete team-by-team schedules for this season, North Carolina‘s non-conference slate prompted Roy Williams at the time to say, “This one may be a little off the charts.” As we will see below, perhaps his quote should be rephrased: “top of the charts” might be more appropriate. Now that we’ve reached the Christmas break for every ACC school, let’s evaluate this year’s non-conference schedules for all 15, considering different ways to judge the relative strengths and weaknesses of each. Keep in mind that each program must schedule according to its own needs that season, so some disparity in schedule strength is expected. But some of following numbers are still disappointing, to say the least.

ACC NonConf

In the chart above, we used current KenPom rankings and included all past and future opponents (most ACC teams have one or two non-conference contests remaining). As usual, the two most blue-blooded ACC programs top the list in most areas of evaluation. North Carolina has a clear edge in nearly every measurable factor, including average opponent rating, fewest home games, and most Top 25 opponents. The Tar Heels own the best average opponent rating by such a wide margin that even if #1 Kentucky is removed from the schedule, it would still lead the conference in that metric. Triangle neighbors Duke and N.C. State are in a tight race for the second-toughest non-conference schedule, with the Blue Devils earning the nod here due to the Wolfpack’s lack of a Top 25 opponent and their tendency to play so many home games. Mark Gottfried has always scheduled with the infamous RPI strength of schedule rating in mind, and who can blame him? The RPI rewards a win over a team ranked #150 much more than it does versus a team ranked #300, even though good teams should beat both squads relatively easily. Therefore, many of N.C. State’s opponents are chosen because they are expected to fall in that upper middle tier of the RPI: nine of N.C. State’s 13 non-ACC opponents currently have KenPom ratings between #59 and #114. Virginia has upgraded its schedule this season in accordance with the newly-elite status of the Cavalier program. Tony Bennett’s group only plays two games against bottom-150 teams and Virginia has already played (and won) three true road games in non-conference play.

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Duke and Notre Dame: Why the Nation’s Top Two Offenses Are So Efficient

Posted by Henry Bushnell on December 19th, 2014

Basketball is a very complicated game. It is littered with intricacies, and like any sport, there are many different ways to be successful. Almost every weekend in college basketball, many of those ways are on display. But sometimes, in a sense, basketball can also be simple. We’re a little over a month into the college basketball season, and at the moment, there’s a bit of a surprise atop the raw offensive efficiency leaderboard: Notre Dame. Mike Brey’s team is averaging 130.5 points per 100 possessions, and, albeit against a fairly weak schedule, Notre Dame’s mark is a full 10 points higher than last year’s season leader, Creighton. Duke is right behind the Fighting Irish at 125.6 points per 100 possessions, good for second in the country. And since Brey spent eight years as an assistant on Mike Krzyzewski’s staff, it should come as no surprise that the two offenses, in some ways, are strikingly similar. But why exactly are they so efficient?

The ACC's Notre Dame and Duke Sport the Nation's Most Efficient Offenses (USA Today Images)

The ACC’s Notre Dame and Duke Sport the Nation’s Most Efficient Offenses (USA Today Images)

At a very rudimentary level, the efficiency of the two offenses comes down to three things:

  1. Talent. Great offenses can’t be great without great players.
  2. Scheme and spacing. Both teams space the floor impeccably, and their offenses are extremely well-structured.
  3. The offenses are well-structured because they are designed to get two things: shots at the rim and three-pointers. These are, fundamentally, the two best shots in basketball – the first one is self-explanatory, and threes are efficient because shooting 40 percent from three is equivalent to shooting 60 percent from two – and both offenses are tailored to get the ball to these areas of the court to players in positions to score.

The third point above gives us a great idea of why the offenses at Duke and Notre Dame have been so successful this season. One of the most important stats in basketball is effective field goal percentage. It measures how much value a team gets out of the shots it takes, regardless of what those shots are. And consistently, the teams with the best effective field goal percentages are the ones that, of course, have good shooters, but also the ones that take as many high-percentage shots as possible. Prior to Duke’s Thursday game against Connecticut, Notre Dame and Duke were the top two teams nationally in two-point field goal percentage and effective field goal percentage (in large part because they don’t shoot many mid-range jumpers). Their offenses are structured to allow players to take the right shots – to allow players to either get to the rim or free behind the arc.

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RTC Weekly Primer: Don’t Sleep on Mid-December Games

Posted by Henry Bushnell on December 16th, 2014

Every Monday (sometimes Tuesday), Henry Bushnell will provide a look ahead at the week to come. He’ll discuss the week’s top storylines, preview the three most prominent and compelling games, put a giant or two on upset alert, and decide which teams are in desperate need of a big week.

It’s a cold, dark Monday night in December. The holiday scent is in the air. Subpar football unwillingly seeps out of a TV. Winter threatens to envelop us – if it hasn’t already done so. On this cold, dark Monday night in December, college basketball doesn’t really matter. Or at least it seems like it doesn’t. The Monday evening slate is tinged with irrelevance. Duke sleepwalks over Elon, and not many take note. The sport still lurks in the distance. Lenses are still out of focus.

Exam Weeks Around the Nation Building Young Minds

Exam Weeks Around the Nation Building Young Minds

But this, my friends, is a time as important as any in college basketball. When the final weekend of February rolls around, we’ll be scrutinizing teams inside and out, but December matters too. Just ask a team like Cal, which barely missed out on the NCAA Tournament a year ago. Analysts rued their March losses to Arizona State and Utah, but how about that December loss to UC Santa Barbara? That hurt too. Or ask Southern Miss, which built up a solid résumé, but was left to wonder what might have been if it hadn’t slipped up against Western Kentucky during the week before Christmas. On that same day, December 18, 2013, NC State toppled Tennessee. The Wolfpack made the field as one of the last four teams in. That’s not a coincidence.

Don’t ignore this week. Even with those lenses somewhat out of focus, the results will come into plain sight soon enough. It doesn’t matter how you win; your performance doesn’t have to be aesthetic. Just get the job done. Statements can be made. They will not be forgotten.

Three for the Money

North Carolina vs. Ohio State | Saturday, 1:00 PM, CBS

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RTC Top 25: Week Four

Posted by Walker Carey on December 15th, 2014

Fresh off last weekend’s plethora of upsets, this college basketball season experienced its first week of relative chalk. To illustrate that, the top 16 teams in the RTC25 fell in exactly the same order as they were last week. The only notable RTC25 teams to suffer defeats and take tumbles were #19 North Carolina and #25 Butler. The Tar Heels dropped two spots after being thoroughly outmanned in a 14-point loss Saturday at Kentucky. The Bulldogs fell eight spots after getting tripped up Sunday in Knoxville against a feisty Tennessee squad. You should know by now that a week like this is not the norm in college basketball, and you should expect more weeks of upsets as the season progresses.

This week’s Quick N’ Dirty after the jump…

rtc25 12.15.14 Quick n’ Dirty Analysis.

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Three Takeaways as Notre Dame Throttles Florida State

Posted by Walker Carey on December 14th, 2014

Walker Carey (@walkerRcarey) is an RTC Correspondent. He filed this report following Saturday night’s game between Florida State and Notre Dame.

Notre Dame’s 15-17 campaign from a season ago seems to be long forgotten as the Irish moved to 10-1 Saturday night with a dominating 83-63 victory over conference foe Florida State. The fact that the Seminoles feature three seven-footers on their roster did not phase the Irish frontline, as junior big man Zach Auguste turned in a career-best performance with 26 points on 11-of-15 shooting. Saturday night represented quite the bounce back performance for Auguste, as he struggled mightily in Notre Dame’s last game against a power conference opponent, finishing with just four points and four rebounds in December 3’s victory over Michigan State. The following are three takeaways from Saturday evening’s action.

Notre Dame Had No Letdown Against Florida State on Saturday (USA Today Images)

Notre Dame Had No Letdown Against Florida State on Saturday (USA Today Images)

  1. Zach Auguste was a monster. The majority of questions about Notre Dame entering this season were regarding the team’s inside players. Would they be good enough for the Irish to be a legitimate factor in the ACC? Well, from the looks of it in Saturday night’s first conference game, junior forward Zach Auguste is more than ready to lead the Irish frontline through the rigors of the ACC. Matched up against a Florida State front that features seven-footers Kiel Turpin, Boris Bojanovsky, and Michael Ojo, Auguste more than held his own. The junior finished with a career-best 26 points to go along with seven rebounds. Auguste – along with Irish reserve forwards Martinas Geben and Austin Torres – helped limit the Florida State frontline to just eight points and 11 rebounds on the night. The ACC gauntlet will undoubtedly be arduous, but if Mike Brey and the Irish can get performances from its frontcourt like it did Saturday, the Irish may earn a reputation for having more than just a strong backcourt. Read the rest of this entry »
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ACC M5: 12.12.14 Edition

Posted by Brad Jenkins on December 12th, 2014

morning5_ACC

  1. Raleigh News & Observer: In this piece, Andrew Carter talks about North Carolina’s Marcus Paige, who’s trying to regain the shooting form that made him a preseason All-American. With his accuracy numbers (35.5% FG) significantly down compared to last year, you have to wonder if Paige is feeling the pressure of being North Carolina’s only viable perimeter threat this season. He probably needs to regain that touch soon if the Tar Heels want to hang with top-ranked Kentucky in Lexington on Saturday (12 ET – CBS). While Kentucky is a bad match-up for most any team, they are a really bad match-up for teams that score almost exclusively from two-point baskets in the paint. Currently, North Carolina ranks 14th in the country in percentage of its points derived from two-pointers, while Kentucky leads the nation in defending two-point attempts, allowing only 30 percent. It would help the Tar Heels’ cause if forward Brice Johnson played well, but don’t count on it. A look at Johnson’s game-by-game statistics so far this year reveals a disturbing trend. In contests against the team’s four worst opponents, Johnson has solid numbers (16.0 PPG, 10.0 RPG, 61% FG); but against the team’s four top-40 opponents, his production has basically been cut in half (7.0 PPG, 5.0 RPG, 32% FG).
  2. South Bend Tribune & Seminoles.com: Notre Dame visits Florida State on Saturday (8pm ET – ESPN2) in an early conference match-up between two teams that appear to be moving in opposite directions. The Irish (9-1) are off to nice start and entered the AP Top 25 earlier this week. The Notre Dame offense has been on a tear, averaging 85.1 points per contest while leading the country in field goal shooting (56.2%). On the other hand, the Seminoles (4-4) have been one of the more disappointing teams in the ACC. But in fairness to Leonard Hamilton’s squad, it has been beset by injuries to their two primary guards. After missing two-and-a-half games, Aaron Thomas returned to action last week and looked back in top form, with 22 points in Florida State’s 96-73 victory over Central Florida. Hamilton hopes to get starting point guard Devon Bookert back for the Notre Dame game, after he missed the previous five games due to a foot injury.
  3. Fox Sports: In a game that didn’t get a lot of attention, Clemson rallied for a big overtime home win over #18 Arkansas this past Sunday evening. With all the hoopla surrounding the new NCAA football playoff selection coupled with a normal NFL Sunday, many didn’t notice that the Tigers gained their second win this season over an SEC squad (the other was LSU). Ironically, Clemson’s next two games are also against SEC members, Auburn and South Carolina. In Sunday’s win, Brad Brownell’s guys showed flashes of the defense we have come to expect from Clemson, holding the potent Razorbacks to a season low in points and points per possession (1.04 PPP). In each of Brownell’s first four years at the helm, the Tigers have ranked among the nation’s top-60 in adjusted defensive efficiency, but even after Sunday’s strong performance, Clemson only ranks 121st this year.
  4. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: Jamie Dixon was happy to welcome Cameron Wright back to action last Friday in the Panthers’ 76-62 win over crosstown rival Duquesne. Wright only played a token minute, but after a week of practice the senior wing should be ready for more minutes this weekend when the Panthers host St. Bonaventure on Saturday. Dixon hopes that Wright’s return will have a positive impact on the Pitt defense, normally a program strength but an inconsistent liability so far this year. In each of the Panthers’ three losses, opponents torched the Pitt defense by scoring over 1.2 points per possession, a mark only bested by three Panther opponents during all of last season.
  5. Winston-Salem Journal: In a bit of a surprise on Tuesday, sophomore guard Miles Overton informed Danny Manning that he would be leaving the Wake Forest program, effective immediately. It wouldn’t have been as big of a shock if the announcement had come about a week earlier, as Overton had only logged 49 minutes of playing time in the Deacons’ first six games. But last week, he saw a lot more action, scoring 22 points in 40 minutes combined in his last two games. In any case, by leaving now, Overton can transfer to another school for the spring semester, and be eligible to play again next December.
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ACC Exam Week: Grading Out the 15 Schools

Posted by Lathan Wells on December 11th, 2014

It’s Exam Week in the Atlantic Coast Conference, so what better time than the present to analyze the basketball aptitude of the 15 member institutions? Below we present three groupings: the teams representing the head of the class; those with the potential to improve on their early season results; and the disappointments. There’s no sliding scale to our grading system, so the teams were evaluated on how they have performed no matter their preseason expectations (sorry, tough professor).

Top of the Class

  • Duke has earned nothing shy of an A+ thus far, playing like a team that’s clearly a national title contender. The freshmen and veteran holdovers have meshed beautifully, and the Blue Devils’ 8-0 record includes a quality win over Michigan State as well as a very impressive defeat of fellow contender Wisconsin on the road.
  • Louisville is having no problem representing its new conference in an 8-0 start, save for a head-scratching 45-33 win over Cleveland State. Knocking off Ohio State in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge as well as wins over Minnesota and Indiana leave the Cardinals looking like a contender for the crown too. Montrezl Harrell has been as good as advertised, and the long-awaited emergence of Wayne Blackshear makes this a very dangerous team.
  • Notre Dame sure missed Jerian Grant down the stretch last season. Now that its leading man is back from suspension, the Irish have started off hot. They’re a one-point loss to Providence from being 10-0 and they can present a quality win by virtue of besting Michigan State. Four double-figure scorers contribute to the 10th highest-scoring offense in the country at 85.1 points per game.
Coach Mike Brey and the Fighting Irish are thrilled to have Jerian Grant back (USAToday Sports)

Coach Mike Brey and the Fighting Irish are thrilled to have Jerian Grant back (USAToday Sports)

  • Could Virginia actually be better than last year’s conference championship-winning team? The Cavaliers have let Justin Anderson loose, and he has been nothing short of a star to pair along with Malcolm Brogdon. They’re still one of the best defensive teams in the country and have shown they can win playing multiple styles, counting road wins over Maryland and VCU already on the resume.
  • Miami is probably the pleasant surprise of the conference thus far, sporting a 9-1 record and earning a spot few saw coming in the national rankings. We’ll excuse the hiccup against Wisconsin-Green Bay (the same team that nipped Virginia early last year) since the Hurricanes have already beaten Florida and Illinois. Transfers Angel Rodriguez and Sheldon McClellan have allowed the other players who were asked to do too much last season to return to more comfortable supporting roles.

Those With Potential

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