Ten Questions To Consider: Mid-Season Tests and Challenges

Posted by Matt Eisenberg on January 26th, 2019

With no NFL Playoff games on tap this weekend, all eyes will be glued to the young men on the hardwood. With several marquee matchups, conference intrigue, and a star at Murray State all in action, here are 10 questions I have ahead of this weekend’s action.

It’s Always Fun When Kentucky and Kansas Get Together (USA TODAY Sports)
  1. Can Creighton find its defense? (Butler @ Creighton, Friday 8:3o PM EST, Fox Sports 1) Creighton ranks 61st in NET Rankings, is 2-4 in the Big East and was among Joe Lunardi’s “Next Four Out” in his latest Bracketology. A large reason for Creighton’s inconsistent play has been a defensive efficiency rating that ranks in the 200s. In conference play, however, Greg McDermott’s defensive efficiency rating of #120 is nine points worse than the next closest Big East team. (Ed. note: Creighton held Butler to 0.84 PPP last night in a 14-point victory.)
  2. Does Mississippi State’s upcoming schedule make Auburn a must win game? (Auburn @ Mississippi State, Saturday 8:30 PM EST, SEC Network) If the season ended today, Mississippi State would comfortably make the NCAA Tournament. That said, the Bulldogs will go on the road before returning home for LSU and Kentucky. A win against Auburn today would take quite a bit of pressure off of Ben Howland’s team as they prepare to travel next week.
  3. Is Kentucky’s Reid Travis set to have a big game against Kansas? (Kansas @ Kentucky, Saturday 6 PM EST, ESPN) In arguably Kentucky’s three biggest games to date (Duke, North Carolina and Louisville) Reid Travis has scored 17 points per game. The graduate transfer has eclipsed just 15 points in two of the Wildcats’ other 15 games. Beyond scoring, Travis’ ability to rebound (10 games with three or more offensive rebounds) could put added pressure on the Jayhawks’ All-American Dedric Lawson.
  4. Who is the favorite to win the SEC? Top-ranked Tennessee had a scare midweek at Vanderbilt; LSU remains unbeaten in conference play; and Kentucky sits just a game back through the first three weeks. One thing to consider moving forward is that LSU only plays the other two schools once each, while Tennessee and Kentucky will play each other twice down the stretch.
  5. Can Ohio State end their recent skid at a hostile Pinnacle Bank Arena? (Ohio State @ Nebraska, Saturday Noon, Fox Sports 1) In a game between a pair of Big Ten teams that cannot afford to drop another conference game, the Buckeyes will look to snap a five-game skid. Ohio State has turned the ball over a whopping 63 times in its last four games.
  6. Can Purdue’s stars figure out the Michigan State defense? (Michigan State @ Purdue, Sunday 1 PM EST, CBS) Purdue’s last loss came at the hands of the Spartans in early December. Michigan State held the pair of Carsen Edwards and Ryan Cline to 23 points on 28 shots, and the 11 points scored by Edwards was his season low.
  7. What will Ja Morant do this weekend? (Tennessee State @ Murray State, Saturday 8 PM EST, ESPN+) The Tigers of Tennessee State are one of the worst defensive teams in the country, but they will have the pleasure of attempting to stop Murray State’s dynamic Ja Morant. Heading into Thursday’s game against Belmont, Morant is averaging 26.7 points per game in conference play. According to Hoop-Math, the 6’3″ Morant is 100-for-148 (67.6%) on shots at the rim on the season.
  8. After a disastrous outing against rival USC last weekend, will UCLA show any resistance to Arizona? (Arizona @ UCLA, Saturday 10 PM EST, ESPN2) Last weekend, the lifeless Bruins fell behind 16-2 to start their rivalry game against USC, and Arizona has won three consecutive games at Pauley Pavilion by 11 points. With Thomas Welsh no longer there to torment the Arizona big men, UCLA’s disastrous season could get considerably worse by the end of the weekend.
  9. Will Iowa’s mindset be right when they hit the road this weekend? (Iowa @ Minnesota, Sunday 5 PM EST, Fox Sports 1) Sandwiched between home games against Michigan State and Michigan is a road test for the Hawkeyes at Minnesota. After starting conference play 0-3, Iowa has now won five straight heading into Thursday night’s game against Michigan State. Iowa is the only Big Ten team with five players averaging double-figure points per game.
  10. Can VCU avoid a road slip-up when they take on Duquesne? (VCU @ Duquesne, Saturday 2 PM EST, ESPN Plus) The Rams are coming off of a narrow defeat at Rhode Island where they turned the ball over 19 times. VCU’s offense has been abysmal all year long and is only bogged down further as they have the worst turnover rate among Atlantic 10 teams in conference play. A road loss at Duquesne could be crippling come March for VCU.
Share this story

Ten Questions to Consider: A Weekend of Statement Games

Posted by Matt Eisenberg on January 18th, 2019

This weekend features road tests for the two remaining undefeated teams, intrigue across the power conferences, and match-ups involving squads looking to end recent trends. Here are 10 questions I have for this weekend’s games.

Tony Bennett is Ready to Take On Duke Again (USA Today Images)
  1. Can Duke do what few can and solve Virginia’s defense? (Virginia @ Duke, Saturday 6 PM EST, ESPN) Prior to last season’s win by Virginia at Cameron Indoor Stadium, Duke had beaten the Cavaliers in the teams’ previous 17 games in Durham. Duke’s offense to date has been held under one point per possession just one time this year (Texas Tech), while Virginia has held 13 of its 16 opponents under that threshold. To beat Virginia, Duke will have to improve upon its three-point shooting, though, as the Blue Devils are hitting only 22.8 percent from behind the arc over their last eight games.
  2. Can Wisconsin find enough production off of its bench to hand Michigan its first loss? (Michigan @ Wisconsin, Saturday Noon EST, ESPN) In the Badgers’ three Big Ten wins, their bench has averaged 18.7 points per game; but in the Badgers three conference losses, their bench has averaged just 7.7 points per game. The trio of Ethan Happ, D’Mitrik Trice and Brad Davison will need help from the reserves in scoring to beat the Wolverines.
  3. Will Ashton Hagans continue to shine as both Kentucky and Auburn try to avoid a second conference loss? (Kentucky @ Auburn, Saturday 4 PM EST, ESPN) After scoring no more than eight points in a single game during his first 11 outings as a Wildcat, Kentucky’s Ashton Hagans is averaging 15.6 points per game over the last five. Hagans will be dealing with an Auburn defense, however, that leads the country in forced turnover rate (27.8%).
  4. Can Kansas State avoid looking ahead to an upcoming game against Texas Tech when TCU comes to town? (TCU @ Kansas State, Saturday 4 PM EST, ESPN2) After starting Big 12 play 0-2, the Wildcats have subsequently rattled off three straight wins. While Kansas State has an elite defense, its offensive efficiency ranks outside of the top 175. As a team, the Wildcats shoot a mere 63.8 percent from the free throw line, a number that could haunt them if they get caught looking ahead to Texas Tech.
  5. Would keeping Maryland off of the free throw line be enough for Ohio State to end its recent three-game losing streak? (Maryland @ Ohio State, Friday 6 PM EST, Fox Sports 1) According to KenPom‘s database, the average rate at which Big Ten teams are sending opponents to the free throw line in conference play is 32.9 percent. Through five conference games, Ohio State’s defense is sending its opponents to the line at a rate of 53.6 percent. During the Buckeyes current three-game losing streak, their opponents have made 20 more free throws than Chris Holtmann’s team has attempted.
  6. Can Texas Tech find any sort of offensive rhythm? (Texas Tech @ Baylor, Saturday 6 PM EST, ESPN2) While the Red Raiders continue to own the nation’s best defense, their offensive efficiency ranks ninth among Big 12 teams in conference play. Texas Tech has made just 29.6 percent of its three-point attempts over the last eight games.
  7. Might Syracuse get stuck looking back at its huge win on Monday when Pittsburgh comes to the Carrier Dome? (Pittsburgh @ Syracuse, Saturday 2 PM EST) Jim Boeheim’s squad is coming off of a marquee win against Duke in which the Orange shot 11-of-25 from distance while the Blue Devils went 9-of-43. Syracuse now hosts a Pittsburgh team that is led by the freshman backcourt duo of Xavier Johnson and Trey McGowens.
  8. How will Marquette fare against Providence if Markus Howard is unable to play? (Providence @ Marquette, Sunday Noon, CBS Sports Network) Markus Howard left Marquette’s most recent game after playing just three minutes with a sore back. Without Howard in the lineup, Sam Hauser stepped up and scored 31 points while making 4-of-9 from beyond the arc. Hauser is now shooting 29.4 percent from three-point range in five Big East games — last season, however, Hauser led the Big East from distance at an incredible 53.7 percent.
  9. Who will walk away from the Red River Rivalry game with a win? (Oklahoma @ Texas, Saturday 8 PM EST, Longhorn Network) Both Oklahoma and Texas sit at 2-3 in Big 12 play, but Texas has lost three consecutive games and Oklahoma has lost three of its last five.
  10. Can Oregon State make a statement in the desert? (Oregon State @ Arizona, Saturday 10 PM EST, Pac 12 Network) Oregon State began this week as one of three Pac-12 teams undefeated in conference play — it lost to Arizona State last night and Arizona has since lost to Oregon. The Beavers will have an opportunity to salvage a split against the Wildcats on Saturday night. Keep in mind that Oregon State has lost 33 of its last 34 games against Arizona in Tucson.

Share this story

Ten Questions To Consider: Conference Play Begins Across the Country

Posted by Matt Eisenberg on January 4th, 2019

With non-conference play all but over, it’s time to begin conference play in earnest. This weekend’s slate of games includes key road tests, match-ups among teams expected to battle for conference supremacy, and a chance to end a long losing streak.

It’s Always Fun When Kansas Visits Hilton Coliseum (USA Today Images)
  1. Will Toledo’s offense continue to shine as they take on Ball State in a “Best of the West” MAC opener? (Ball State @ Toledo, Friday 7 PM EST, CBS Sports Network) The MAC’s Western Division is led by KenPom top 100 teams Toledo and Ball State. The Rockets’ Nate Navigato has scored 14 or more points in six of the team’s last seven games while shooting 27-of-48 from distance.
  2. Can Iowa State make enough threes to beat Kansas? (Kansas @ Iowa State, Saturday 5 PM EST, ESPN2) On the season, 41 percent of Cyclone field goal attempts have been three-pointers. Iowa State will be dealing with a Kansas defense, on the other hand, that has forced opponents to miss 126 of their last 168 three-point attempts.
  3. Will Michigan State’s defense show up this year against Ohio State? (Michigan State @ Ohio State, Saturday Noon EST, FOX) Last season, Ohio State was one of four teams to score 80 or more points against Michigan State. The Buckeyes have managed to score at least one point per possession in each of their last five home games against the Spartans.
  4. Is beating Butler as easy as slowing Paul Jorgensen? (Creighton @ Butler, Saturday Noon EST, Fox Sports 1) Butler’s senior guard Paul Jorgensen began the year scoring in double-figures in each of the team’s first six games. Since then, Butler has gone just 1-4 when its backcourt star does not reach 10 points — in those games he is shooting just 3-of-21 from beyond the arc.
  5. Will Kentucky be able to get to the free throw line at its usual high rate in the Wildcats’ SEC opener? (Kentucky @ Alabama, 1 PM EST, ESPN) John Calipari’s squad has marched to the free throw line at a rate that ranks just outside of the top 10 nationally. Kentucky begins SEC play on the road against an Alabama team that has sent teams to the line at a rate better than the national average.
  6. Does this Florida State team have enough offense to beat Virginia if the Cavaliers continue to shut down Terrence Mann? (Florida State @ Virginia, Saturday 3 PM EST, ESPN2) Terrance Mann’s 13.1 points per game leads the Seminoles in scoring on the season, but in three career games against Virginia, he has logged only 11 points in 64 minutes of action.
  7. Will Oregon State’s fortunes change at Matthew Knight Arena this season? (Oregon State @ Oregon, Saturday 8 PM EST, Pac-12 Networks) Oregon State has lost six straight and 23 of its past 25 games at Oregon. In the current losing streak, the Beavers have lost by double-figures five times, including a 42-point embarassment in 2016. In order for Oregon State to come out on top, they will need Tres Tinkle to turn around his shooting woes as he has gone just 8-of-39 from distance over his last seven games.
  8. Will Duke’s freshman play like freshman in their first taste of ACC conference play? (Clemson @ Duke, Saturday 8 PM EST, ESPN) Duke begins ACC play hosting a Clemson team that has done a tremendous job in limiting second-chance opportunities all season long. If Clemson is able to limit easy buckets for Duke, might the pressure of their first ACC game be enough to keep it close?
  9. Is Michigan’s defense beginning to leak some air or is there nothing to worry about? (Indiana @ Michigan, Sunday 4:30 PM EST, CBS) While Michigan’s defense has been among the best in the nation to date, opponents have begun to see great improvement in shooting the ball from inside the arc against the Wolverines. In their first eight games, only one opponent shot better than 40 percent on two-point attempts. Since then, four of Michigan’s last five opponents have shot better than 50 percent in that range.
  10. How much better is Gonzaga about to get? (Santa Clara @ Gonzaga, Saturday 9 PM EST, ROOT Sports) Matt Norlander of CBS Sports tweeted that Mark Few believes Gonzaga could have both Geno Crandall and Killian Tillie available for its game this weekend against Santa Clara. Adding those two stalwarts back in the Bulldogs’ lineup will only make the nation’s most efficient offense that much more lethal.

Share this story

Big Ten Wrap-Up: Lasting Impressions and an Early Top Five

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on April 6th, 2018

Has Donte DiVincenzo stop hitting shots yet? Okay, good. Now that Monday is behind us, let’s take a moment to reflect on the season that was and look ahead to 2018-19.

Michigan had another year to remember. (PHOTO BY AP/DAVID J. PHILLIP)

  • Michigan is an elite basketball program. Before John Beilein took over in Ann Arbor in 2007, Michigan hadn’t reached the NCAA Tournament since 1998, a nine-year drought that made the historically great football school seem like just that — a football school. But that’s changed. Since the drought ended in 2009, Beilein has led the Wolverines to eight NCAA Tournaments, including finishes in the Sweet Sixteen (2017), Elite Eight (2016), and twice in the National Championship game (2013, 2018). After years of mediocrity, Michigan basketball now represents offensive efficiency, outstanding player development and clutch play in March. This season, Beilein — always considered an offensive mastermind — took an unproven collection of talent and won big with his defense, suggesting that the 65-year old coach is still evolving both as a tactician (he recently moved away from the 1-3-1 zone) and manager: His hiring of Illinois State assistant Luke Yaklich as “defensive coordinator” was crucial to the Wolverines’ run. With a decade of excellence under its belt and plenty of talent returning next season, Michigan has firmly established itself among the Big Ten’s elite programs.
  • This season will forever sting for Michigan State and Purdue fans. Michigan State went 30-5 and won the outright regular season Big Ten championship. Purdue finished at 30-7, at one point winning 19 straight games. And yet, this season will probably leave a bad taste in both programs’ mouths for some time. For the Spartans, 2017-18 was a Final-Four-or-bust kind of year, with the return of Miles Bridges alongside future NBA lottery pick Jaren Jackson ostensibly giving Tom Izzo his best chance at a National Championship from a talent perspective since 2000. Instead, a season of offensive inconsistency led to an offensively-inept loss to Syracuse in the Round of 32. For the Boilermakers, bad luck prevailed when 7’2″ center Isaac Haas fractured his elbow in the First Round against Cal State Fullerton, his absence proving too much for Purdue to overcome against Texas Tech in the Sweet Sixteen. On paper, both seasons appear successful. In actuality, postseason disappointment will likely overshadow their 60 combined wins.

Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

Untrustworthy: Caveat Emptor on These 10 Teams

Posted by Will Ezekowitz on March 14th, 2018

Preseason rankings — they are, in most sports, completely irrelevant when the postseason rolls around. But not in college basketball. When projecting Final Four teams, as we have covered in this space before, the preseason AP Poll is just as predictive as the current AP poll. The rationale for this is that preseason rankings account for things that the mathematical models struggle with (for example, coaching changes, big recruiting classes, injuries and suspensions, etc.), making them a surprisingly accurate projection system. So what about the handful of teams each year that are excluded from these rankings but go on to do great things in the regular season? Is it safe to assume that if you can’t crack the preseason Top 25, you won’t cut down any nets in March?

Can Virginia Break the Trend? (USA Today Images)

To answer this question, I looked at historical NCAA Tournament teams that were unranked in the preseason but were ranked in the final regular season poll (this one) to examine whether they came crashing down to earth when it mattered most. My findings indicate that these teams have in fact underperformed as a group in the NCAA Tournament. Since 2007, 106 teams fit the criteria. Just 37 of that group (35%) exceeded their seeds’ average win expectation (based on average wins for each seed since 2002), and the group as a whole won just 120 games. That mark is 30 below an expected aggregate total of 150 victories, a statistically significant difference at the five percent level. Furthermore, just one of 51 top-four seeds ultimately made the Final Four (Kemba Walker’s 2011 Connecticut squad), although they have collectively produced 11 Elite Eight appearances with Florida‘s run last year being the most recent example. The conclusion here is that, although a handful of teams in this group may turn out to exceed expectations, it is likely as a whole to underperform.

Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

NCAA Tournament Instareaction: Big Ten Teams

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 11th, 2018

Below is a review of how the selection process concluded for each Big Ten team and what they should expect in the first few rounds of the NCAA Tournament.

Can Michigan stay red-hot in the Big Dance? (SI.com)

  • Purdue, #2 seed, East Region. Fatigue played a role in Purdue’s late-season slide, which makes its first-round draw — a Friday match-up against Cal-State Fullerton — especially beneficial. While the Titans are the most aggressive squad in the country, scoring nearly 25 percent of their points at the free throw line, no team in the NCAA Tournament surrenders fewer points at the charity stripe than the Boilermakers. Isaac Haas and the rest of his front line should have no problem limiting Fullerton’s paint production. A potential second-round game with Arkansas could be a different story. The Razorbacks play an uptempo brand of basketball and have the size up front — 6’11” freshman Daniel Gafford (11.9 PPG, 2.1 BPG), in particular — to compete. Still, whether it winds up being Arkansas or Butler, expect Purdue to reach the East Regional in Boston.
  • Michigan State, #3 seed, Midwest Region. Despite a 29-4 record and regular season Big Ten title, Michigan State fell to the #3 line because of its dearth of Quadrant 1 wins. As a consolation prize, the Spartans get to play in Detroit, where they’ll take on Patriot League champion Bucknell. The Bison are a balanced, cohesive group that nearly upset #4 West Virginia in last year’s Dance. They also have size up front (namely 6’10” all-league center Nana Foulland) and considerable depth. Michigan State’s size and talent should ultimately overwhelm the Bison, but a harder-than-expected match-up could make the Spartans’ Second Round game a bit more interesting. Arizona State and TCU are two of the best offensive units in the country, while Syracuse boasts the tallest lineup in college hoops.

Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

The Big Ten Tournament’s Most Burning Questions

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on February 28th, 2018

It’s not even March yet and here we are, Day One of the Big Ten Tournament. It’s a strange feeling. Perhaps the only stranger feeling will be watching these predominantly Midwestern schools battle it out in Madison Square Garden, the venue where Willis Reed was immortalized and Frazier beat Ali and no Big Ten school outside of Rutgers sits within easy driving distance. Jim Delaney be damned, let’s examine the most important questions to be answered this week in Manhattan.

Crazy as it sounds, the Big Ten Tournament is in the Big Apple. (scarletknights.com)

  • Can Nebraska do enough to earn an NCAA Tournament bid? After losing to Illinois on February 18, Nebraska took care of business by beating Indiana and hammering Penn State on Sunday in a veritable NCAA Tournament elimination game. Which is to say, the Cornhuskers — currently among Joe Lunardi’s First Four Out — still have life. Yet, with a 1-5 record against Quadrant 1 opponents and a 2-3 record against Quadrant 2, they will probably need to beat at least one NCAA Tournament-bound opponent this week in order to have a legitimate case come Selection Sunday. Luckily, Tim Miles’ group should get that opportunity on Friday against Michigan — the lone Quadrant 1 opponent they managed to beat this season. Another win over the Wolverines will give the Huskers an argument; a victory over Michigan State in the semifinals would probably make them a lock. Key number: 29.7% 3FG. Nebraska did a masterful job taking away the three-point line this season, holding opponents to a Big Ten-best 29.7 percent mark from behind the arc — among the best of any power conference team in America.

Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

Ten Questions to Consider: Conference Races Heat Up

Posted by Matt Eisenberg on February 23rd, 2018

As the first conference tournaments begin as soon as early next week, here are 10 questions I have for this weekend’s slate of important conference games.

Texas Tech is Flagging But Still Alive in the Big 12 Race (USA Today Images)

  1. How can Texas Tech keep its dreams of a Big 12 title alive? Having now lost two games in a row, Texas Tech sits a game back of Kansas in the Big 12 standings. In order to sweep the series against Kansas and knot things up in the conference race, the Red Raiders must replicate their earlier performance of dominating the offensive glass and winning the free throw battle. Texas Tech must also hope that the toe injury to leading scorer Keenan Evans has improved, as Evans has scored just six points over his last two games.
  2. Will Arizona be focused for its game at Oregon? Arizona was 10-0 in conference play last season before a 27-point loss at Oregon. This season, Arizona has been much shakier on the road, having lost close games at Washington and Colorado and barely surviving a trip to Stanford. Oregon, on the other hand, improves its points scored and allowed averages by four points per game in Eugene.
  3. Can Wichita State keep the pressure on Cincinnati? Sitting just a game out of first-place in the AAC, Wichita State travels to Dallas to play an SMU team that already has one win over the Shockers. In that loss to the Mustangs, Gregg Marshall’s team allowed them to shoot an exceptional 76 percent on their two-point field-goal attempts.
  4. Is Arkansas’s bubble close to popping? While Arkansas currently sits as a consensus #8 seed in Bracket Matrix, the Razorbacks still have three Quadrant 1 games remaining on their SEC schedule. They also have a 2-5 road record in SEC games heading into this weekend’s trip to Alabama. While Arkansas has the profile of an NCAA Tournament team as of today, a losing streak to end the season coupled with some shaky wins mean the Razorbacks’ position on the bubble is anything but safe. Read the rest of this entry »
Share this story

What We Learned From a Wild Week in the Big Ten

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on February 19th, 2018

From massive upsets to historic comebacks and some ridiculous individual performances in-between, it was one heck of a week in the Big Ten. Let’s examine a few key takeaways.

Purdue should be just fine, assuming Vincent Edwards returns to action. (John Terhune/Journal & Courier)

  • Purdue fans need not panic (unless, of course, Vincent Edwards’ injury lingers). Entering its game against Ohio State on February 7, Purdue had won 19 straight, sat undefeated in the Big Ten (12-0), and looked seemingly unbeatable — especially in Mackey Arena, where it had crushed its opponents by 27 points per game. Then the Boilermakers stumbled against the Buckeyes. Then they dropped a nail-biter at Michigan State, which was followed by a stunning defeat at Wisconsin on Thursday. Suddenly, there were deep concerns about Matt Painter‘s crew. “Something just feels different,” senior Vincent Edwards said of the team’s struggles last Thursday. Take a step back and examine the losses, though, and it’s clear that bad luck was partially at play. Were it not for a last second tip-in against Ohio State and a last second three-pointer versus Michigan State, perhaps the Boilermakers would have gone 3-1 in their last four games. Maybe even 4-0. Their close win over red-hot Penn State on Sunday shows just how fine the line is between a quality win and a “problematic” loss. If there is real cause for concern, it’s this: Edwards (14.9 PPG, 7.8 RPG) missed the game against the Nittany Lions with an injured ankle. Assuming he doesn’t miss extended time down the stretch, Purdue should still be considered a Final Four contender. If his injury lingers, then the Boilers can panic.

Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

What’s Trending: Gold Medal Performances

Posted by Matt Eisenberg on February 19th, 2018

What’s Trending is a column examining the week that was in college basketball social media. Matthew Eisenberg (@matteise) is your weekly host.

Northwestern could do no wrong in its first half against Michigan State on Saturday. Twitter was buzzing and many writers were left wondering what was happening…

…then the second half happened…

Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story