Checking in on… the Mountain West

Posted by Andrew Murawa (@Amurawa) on February 2nd, 2016

Its been too darn long since we’ve done one of these, so let’s do this right and get caught up on the Mountain West. We’re basically halfway through conference play with eight of the 11 teams having played at least nine conference games, and San Diego State has clearly established itself as the conference’s best team — off to a 9-0 start that gives them a game-and-a-half lead over two-loss New Mexico. Before we get into the team-by-team rundowns, let’s take a moment to congratulate the conference on the fact that, in an era of the horrors of unbalanced scheduling in large conferences, its brass made sure that the league’s top four teams (San Diego State, New Mexico, Boise State, UNLV) play each other twice. Sure, it’s easier to set that up when the league only has 11 teams (where you only miss a home-and-away schedule against two conference foes), but regardless of how, that part of the schedule is right this year.

Power Rankings

  • San Diego State (16-6, 9-0) – I wrote plenty about the Aztecs yesterday, so go read that article first. But, there’s also the matter of San Diego State’s 17 million straight wins when leading with five minutes remaining in a game (actually, the number now stands at 159 straight). Now, that number sounds impressive, and it is (Mark Zeigler noted three weeks ago that the next longest streak in the conference is at 14 wins). But even more impressively, that time 160 games ago when the Aztecs lost a game after leading at the five-minute mark was when Wyoming hit six threes in the final 4:12 to outscore the Aztecs 24-8 over that stretch. Even crazier: That loss broke another long 65-game Aztec streak of winning games when they were ahead at the five-minute mark. By my math, San Diego State is 224-1 in the last 225 games where it led at the five-minute mark. Go read that excellent Zeigler article about the streak. There’s a lot more great stuff in there too.
San Diego State's History Of Winning Games When Ahead At The Five-Minute Mark Is Insane (San Diego State University)

San Diego State’s History Of Winning Games When Ahead At The Five-Minute Mark Is Insane (San Diego State University)

  • New Mexico (13-8, 6-2) – After getting handled by the Runnin’ Rebels in UNLV’s first game post-Dave Rice a couple weeks back, the Lobos came back and got surprised by Wyoming in The Pit. It was easy to write New Mexico off at that time, and wins at San Jose State and at home against Air Force did nothing to change that idea. But Saturday night in Boise changed this up indeed. Behind a 30 points from Elijah Brown and 21 from Tim Williams, the Lobos had a terrific offensive night, kept their turnovers in check and served notice that despite some early season bumps and bruises, they were going to stick around for awhile. In that loss to Wyoming, sophomore point guard Cullen Neal suffered a concussion and missed the win over San Jose State, but in the two games since then, Neal played his best back-to-back games of the season, averaging 11.5 efficient points and a combined six assists to three turnovers.

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San Diego State Succeeding Despite Its Inept Offense

Posted by Andrew Murawa (@Amurawa) on February 1st, 2016

On Saturday evening, San Diego State completed a perfect first half of conference play by going into the Thomas & Mack Center and coming away with a comfortable 15-point win over UNLV. As usual, the Aztecs earned the win not on the basis of amazing offense, but on athletic, grinding, demoralizing defense. Steve Fisher‘s team blocked seven shots, challenged seemingly every jumper and held UNLV to a mere 0.83 points per possession. The Aztecs played slowly (34.7 percent of their possessions ended with five seconds or fewer on the shot clock), deliberate and, yes, maybe a little ugly. But none of this is new. Fisher’s heyday on Montezuma Mesa has been marked by defense-first teams, and increasingly, a slow tempo has corresponded with that. Perhaps unbelievably given how defensively-oriented his teams have been, this year’s group is more reliant on that defensive identity than any previous team in the Fisher era.

Steve Fisher, San Diego State

San Diego State Under Steve Fisher Has Been A Defense-First Program (AP Photo/Gus Ruelas)

First, let’s look at the history. In each of the Aztecs’ last 10 seasons, the team has ranked higher nationally in defensive efficiency than offensive efficiency (per KenPom). Furthermore, the Aztecs have been among the top 10 defensive teams nationally four times, and their adjusted defensive efficiency has checked in below 90 points per 100 possessions three times (including this season). In seven of those 10 years, the Aztecs have played at a bottom-half tempo nationally. As a result of all these numbers, San Diego State has gone 250-85 (74.6%) overall, 113-42 (72.9%) in the Mountain West, taken six trips to the NCAA Tournament, notched the only five NCAA wins in program history while there, and earned two Sweet Sixteen appearances.

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Checking In On… The Mountain West

Posted by Andrew Murawa (@Amurawa) on January 12th, 2016

It’s been a couple weeks since we’ve done one of these because of holidays and real life, but it is time to jump back in as plenty has gone down in the Mountain West since Christmas. We’ll get to all the goings-on around individual teams below, but if you need a one-sentence summary of the season so far, here you go: Barring completely unforeseen circumstances, the winner of the Mountain West Tournament in Las Vegas will be the conference’s sole representative in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2001, the league’s second year of existence. And to show just how wacky this league is this year, I’d probably bunch four teams ahead of the pack as favorites to win that tournament. Of those four, three are undefeated in league play. The fourth – UNLV, hasn’t won a conference game and just fired its head coach, Dave Rice. We will get the first two matchups of the year among those four teams this week, so let’s jump into the mess that is the Mountain West.

UNLV's Midseason Separation With Dave Rice Is Apropos For A Messy Year In The Mountain West (Getty Images/E. Miller)

UNLV’s Midseason Separation With Dave Rice Is Apropos For A Messy Year In The Mountain West. (Getty Images/E. Miller)

Power Rankings

1. Boise State (12-4, 3-0)The Broncos are a bright spot. Riding a nine-game winning streak (the seventh-longest streak in the nation), they’re the team that ratings systems like the most. In KenPom, they’re just a notch above the rest of the conference at #79, but their RPI of #49 makes them seem like they have a chance to earn an at-large bid. But, in terms of quality wins, a home win over Oregon is about all there is. And additional quality wins just aren’t coming on the league schedule. Maybe if that nine-game winning streak turns into 16 or something. And maybe if the Broncos run away with the conference at something like 16-2, they could sustain a loss in the conference tourney and still dance, but that’s a whole lot of maybes for a program that won the regular season Mountain West title last year and was “rewarded” by the selection committee with a road game in the First Four. As far as on the court happenings, by now you probably know all about James Webb and Anthony Drmic. Nick Duncan has become a cult figure and if you read this here spot, Mikey Thompson has been a regular feature for four years. But the biggest reason for optimism may be the recent play of sophomore Chandler Hutchison. Coming into Boise last season as the most highly touted recruit in program history, he bumped around and never looked fully comfortable in his 12.3 MPG. Early in the non-conference season, his level of comfort didn’t look all that different and it wasn’t insane to question why he was so highly regarded of a recruit. Well, in three conference games, he’s put on a show. It’s definitely a small sample size, but he’s got the highest offensive rating in conference play thus far after averting 9.3 PPG and 4 RPG while shooting a 67.7% eFG in 23.6 MPG. More important than those numbers, he’s looked comfortable, he’s attacked the rim and flashed his athleticism and is beginning to get it on the defensive end of the court. Read the rest of this entry »

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Morning Five: 01.06.16 Edition

Posted by nvr1983 on January 6th, 2016

morning5

  1. Most people rebalance their portfolios at the end of the year, but for some reason Seth Davis decided to file his annual stock report at the start of 2016 (maybe his CPA doesn’t believe in tax-loss harvesting). In any event, it is a good refresher if you haven’t been focused on college basketball with the college football season mercifully ending. We agree with most of Seth’s buy, sell, or hold recommendations although buying the #1 team in this scenario seems akin to buying a stock with a ridiculous P/E ratio.
  2. Indiana will be without sophomore guard James Blackmon Jr. for the rest of the season after he underwent season-ending surgery on his right knee yesterday. Blackmon, who was averaging 15.8 points and 4.2 rebounds per game this season (similar to the 15.7 and 5.3 he averaged last year) had surgery on his left knee over the summer and appeared to recover. It is unclear if this injury was related to him overcompensating with the other leg or just a coincidence. In any event, the Hoosiers will have to find a way to make up for the lost offense although as we have seen their problems are usually on the other side of the ball. So far they are off to a good start with their win over Wisconsin last night.
  3. One of the bigger stories of this season that has flown under the radar is the success of Southern Methodist as the Mustangs have started the season 13-0, but are banned from participating in the postseason. That ban is in large part due to issues around the recruitment of Keith Frazier, who had been averaging 11.9 points per game, but decided to leave the program because he feels that he is being blamed for the postseason ban. Given Brown’s history it is an amusing twist that the last stop of his coaching career will end with a player leaving him after the recruitment of that player led to the third time that a program run by Brown has been sanctioned by the NCAA.
  4. Speaking of sanctions, it appears that San Diego State will not face any from the NCAA for allegations that they provided recruits with improper benefits. According to the original reports these could have potentially resulted in Level 1 violations. The full extent of the reported violations never came out publicly (possibly because there wasn’t enough evidence to substantiate them), but given Steve Fischer’s history of being fired at Michigan in the wake of the Ed Martin scandal we can understand if San Diego State fans and the administration are feeling a sense of relief.
  5. It might seem early to be talking about impact transfers, but Louisville appears to have landed one for next season in Penn guard Tony Hicks, who led the Quakers in scoring the past two seasons. Hicks is sitting out this season and will graduate in May making him eligible to play next season for Louisville as a graduate transfer. We aren’t ready to start thinking of Louisville as another version of Iowa State, but Hicks will be the third significant transfer to Louisville in the past two seasons with Damion Lee (17.6 points and 4 rebounds per game) and Trey Lewis (14.3 points and 2.4 assists per game) leading them this year.
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Checking in on… the Mountain West

Posted by Andrew Murawa on December 22nd, 2015

There’s plenty of on-court news that we’ll get to below, but the big news from the last week was from the conference office. As the Mountain West announced that the conference tournament will remain at the Thomas & Mack in Las Vegas through at least 2019, not so hidden in that announcement was the corresponding news that only the top eight teams in the final league standings will be making the trip. First, the venue. While nearly everyone in the conference is supportive of playing the conference tournament in Vegas because of the clear entertainment draw and centralized location, the particulars of playing on UNLV’s home court remain controversial. San Diego State coach Steve Fisher is a vocal opponent of that location, but subsidies for rent on the Thomas & Mack as well as hotel rooms make the decision a virtual economic necessity.

Las Vegas

The Mountain West Tournament will remain in Las Vegas, but fewer teams will be invited.

However, the paring down of invitees is more of a head-scratcher. Sure, commissioner Craig Thompson points to an invitation to the conference tourney as a reward for a strong regular season, but with an eye toward the fan experience, part of the fun of the conference tournament is having everybody at the same venue. Further, just in terms of planning a Vegas vacation in mid-March with weekdays in play, less notice for teams near the cut line does not bode well for maximum attendance. For example, the conference has had 11 members for the past two seasons. In 2013-14, there was a tie for eighth place, with just a one-game drop to ninth. Last season, there were three games separating spots #7 through #10. This year, KenPom currently projects sixth place in the conference at 9-9 with three more teams projected to go 8-10. In all of those scenarios, teams wouldn’t really be clinching a spot for an invitation to the conference tournament until the final week of the regular season, making it more difficult for fans to get time off work to head to Vegas. Read the rest of this entry »

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Checking in on… the Mountain West

Posted by Andrew Murawa on December 9th, 2015

Last week we were bemoaning the fact that the conference’s early season struggles had put it clearly behind the eight-ball. For example, in naming our top five non-conference wins, we had to include UNLV’s win over Cal Poly and Boise State’s win over UC Irvine. This week, however, following the Runnin’ Rebels defeat of Oregon, not only does the Mountain West have another fine scalp, the league has also got a team in those same Rebels with the makings of a legitimate at-large resume. Now, there’s a long, long way between here and Selection Sunday, but at least we can say there is some hope that the Mountain West is something more than a conference-tourney-winner take all one-bid league. And along the way, we’re ready to vault UNLV right into the role of the conference favorite.

UNLV's Most Recent Resume Win Has Dave Rice And Co. As Conference Favorites

UNLV’s Most Recent Resume Win Has Dave Rice And Co. As Conference Favorites.

 Power Rankings

  1. UNLV (7-1) – A technically neutral-site win over Oregon on Friday night gives the Runnin’ Rebels the two best non-conference wins in the Mountain West, arguably three of the top five and put them on the national top 25 radar. What’s more, that game against Oregon showed a lot of the things that have been missing around Vegas in recent years. First, there was far more ball movement that the nine assists on 26 made field goals would have you believe. Second, there was camaraderie and chemistry, all the signs of a group of teammates that actually get along with each other. And third, there were productive coaching adjustments and coherent offensive strategies against changing defenses. Ongoing doubts about Dave Rice’s ability to pull it all together for this team are still reasonable, but there is plenty of reason for hope. And with a trip to Wichita State tonight followed on down the line by dates with Arizona State and Arizona, we’ll continue to get chances to test that hope. Exciting times for the Rebs. Read the rest of this entry »
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Other 26 Previews: Mountain West Conference

Posted by Andrew Murawa on November 13th, 2015

Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West and the Pac-12. You can find him on Twitter at @Amurawa.

Top Storylines

Boise State Won The Conference Title Last Year, But Was Rewarded With A Road Game In The NCAA Tournament (Charlie Litchfield/IPT)

Boise State Won The Conference Title Last Year, But Was Rewarded With A Road Game In The NCAA Tournament (Charlie Litchfield/IPT)

Respect. If this conference isn’t careful, it could be on the verge of losing all of the respect it has built up over the course of a long period of competitive basketball. Last season, following Wyoming’s surprise Mountain West Tournament victory, the league went into Selection Sunday hoping to land four teams in the field of 68. Instead, the Cowboys were joined by San Diego State and a woefully underseeded Boise State (regular season champion relegated to a road game against Dayton in the First Four), while Colorado State and its three seniors were entirely left behind. Since 2011, when the conference put two teams (San Diego State and BYU) into the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament, the league has been afforded plenty of respect by the Selection Committee with 14 invitations over the past four seasons. But during that stretch, the Mountain West has also combined to go just 6-14 in the NCAA Tournament, a full six wins below expectations based on its seed line. Worse yet, the conference has dipped from top five conference RPI rankings in 2013 to #10 in 2014 and #13 last season. Not good.

Non-Conference Slate. Part of upping those RPI numbers has to do with scheduling smartly in the non-conference schedule. Back when the Mountain West was earning five NCAA Tournament invitations, some of the credit for that Selection Sunday success had to go to the conference programs massaging their schedules to boost their RPI profiles. It seemed like there was a collective effort to avoid scheduling terrible RPI anchors and, while also scheduling several tough teams with good RPIs, avoiding a brutal schedule to harm the all-important win/loss records. This year? As Matt Stephens of The Coloradoan showed on Monday, if you average the 2014-15 RPIs of this year’s opponents, nobody in the league plays a schedule with an average RPI of stronger than 100th. That’s not good. UNLV has the toughest non-conference slate, with UCLA, Oregon, Wichita State, Arizona State and Arizona dotting the schedule, but those tests are also dragged down by some of the dregs of Division I basketball (Southern Utah, Prairie View A&M, South Dakota). Long story short: the Mountain West has seemingly scheduled it’s way behind the eight-ball from the get-go this season.

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“Secret” Scrimmages Results and #HotTakes

Posted by Andrew Gripshover on November 13th, 2015

This post doesn’t matter. Scrimmages are poor man’s exhibition games; exhibition games are in the preseason; and the preseason is useless. The only people who watched these “secret” scrimmages are the participating coaches and players. And yet, information about them always gets out because nothing’s ever a secret on the Internet, allowing us to wildly overreact to games that don’t even count as not even counting. As we head into the opening weekend of the regular season, here are some such overreactions. Information herein is mostly courtesy of random message board posts and hearsay. #HotScrimmageTakes (miss you, Grantland) are my own and should definitely be saved to fill out your brackets in four months. Enjoy.

Scrimmage or note - Roy Williams and UNC will be expected to perform at a high level this season. (Getty)

Scrimmage or not – Roy Williams and UNC will be expected to perform at a high level this season. (Getty)

No. 1 North Carolina defeated No. 18 Vanderbilt by 12. The Heels stormed out to a 20-3 advantage and never looked back. Justin Jackson was their leading scorer and Isaiah Hicks was impressive off the bench. Joel Berry II started at point guard and ran the show most of the way. The Commodores got good performances from Camron Justice — Kentucky’s Mr. Basketball last year — and Riley LaChance, but those were not enough to prevent the nation’s No. 1 team from exacting some measure of revenge from previous scrimmages.

#HotScrimmageTakes – This UNC team is a hybrid of 2009 and 2005. Berry is Ty Lawson. Marcus Paige is Ray Felton. Kennedy Meeks is Sean May mixed with Tyler Hansbrough. Jackson is a bigger, less temperamental Rashad McCants. Hicks is a cross between Danny Green and Marvin Williams. 40-0 or bust. Vandy starts slowly and is shocked by Stony Brook before placing seventh in Maui (needing overtime to beat Chaminade) but goes 12-6 in SEC play thanks to Justice and LaChance averaging a combined 44 points per game. They’re one of the Last Four In and lose yet again in March to a mid-major as Dayton (yep, Dayton gets another home play-in game) completes the season sweep after winning in Memorial Gym on December 9. Read the rest of this entry »

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Ranking the Pac-12 Top 20 Non-Conference Games: Part II

Posted by Andrew Murawa on October 22nd, 2015

Early today we unveiled our list of spots #20 through #11 in our list of the top 20 non-conference games featuring Pac-12 teams this season. Below we list the top 10 while getting increasingly pumped for some actual games.

10. 11/16 San Diego State at Utah – A rematch of last year’s snoozer as part of the ESPN Tip-Off Marathon, this has almost every chance in the world to be another knock-down, drag-out, back-alley rock fight. All the warning signs are there: an early season contest; two teams who love to go deep into the shot clock; adjustment to the new 30-second shot clock; freshman point guards; defense-first coaches. It’s a good thing that this game is early in the marathon lineup because if it tipped off at around mile 20 or so, you might be tempted to pack it in. Still, two Top 25-caliber teams squaring off means I’ll be watching.

Nobody Mistook San Diego State/Utah '14 For A Beautiful Game; Expect More Of The Same in '15 (Gregory Bull, AP Photo)

Nobody Mistook San Diego State/Utah ’14 For A Beautiful Game; Expect More Of The Same in ’15 (Gregory Bull, AP Photo)

9. 12/3 – Kentucky at UCLA – After watching UCLA lose by a literal bazillion last year (I mean, I didn’t actually see the final score, but based on those first five minutes I assume it was something like: Kentucky, a bazillion, and UCLA, 44), I’m hesitant to put this game so high. But it is a game between two of the blue-bloods in our sport and there will be plenty of talent on both ends of the court. Even if this game turns into another blowout, I’d like to do everything I can to encourage more of these kinds of games.

8. 12/19 UCLA vs. North Carolina in Brooklyn – See above. After watching UCLA roll over and quit against the Tar Heels  in last year’s Battle 4 Atlantis, I’m hesitant to put this game this high. But… well, you know the rest. Read the rest of this entry »

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O26 Never-Too-Early Top Five (and More)

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on April 15th, 2015

Don’t look now, but college basketball season is only seven months away! Okay, so that may seem a bit far off, but it’s never too early to gin up a little excitement for the sport we love. Let’s examine a few O26 teams that are sure to make some noise in 2015-16.

Top Five

Wichita State will be right back at it in 2015-16. (Photo : Getty Images Sport)

Wichita State will be right back at it in 2015-16. (Getty Images Sport)

  1. Wichita State. Fred VanVleet is back. Ron Baker is back. As is Gregg Marshall, much wealthier after a sizable pay raise. With one of the country’s top backcourts and most sought-after coaches rejoining the fold, it almost goes without saying that Wichita State – on the heels of three-straight program-defining seasons – should be very good again next season. Of course, the Shockers will have to adjust to life without guard Tekele Cotton (9.8 PPG) and big man Darius Carter (11.4 PPG), but the late-season development of Evan Wessel (12 points against Kansas in the NCAA Tournament) along with forward Shaq Morris (4.7 PPG) should help mitigate those departures. So too should the addition of Kansas transfer Conner Frankamp and a solid recruiting class. Expect another year of big things from Wichita State next season.
  2. Gonzaga. Gone are WCC Player of the Year Kevin Pangos, guard Gary Bell Jr. and wing Byron Wesley (10.6 PPG). Still, barring an early leap to the NBA, Kyle Wiltjer (16.7 PPG), Domantas Sabonis (9.7 PPG, 7.1 RPG) and center Przemek Karnowski (10.9 PPG) are each returning for what should be one of the top frontcourts in America. Sophomores Josh Perkins and Silas Melson, both former prized recruits, bring plenty of talent (if youth) to the backcourt, where senior Kyle Dranginis will likely help both guys blossom. Throw in very good depth – like 6’8” Angel Nunez, who was granted another year of eligibility – and you quickly see why the Bulldogs could be top-15-worthy next season. Oh, and did I mention that the Zags are in contention for Drexel transfer Damion Lee (21.4 PPG), the nation’s fifth-leading scorer? Read the rest of this entry »
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Rushed Reactions: #1 Duke 68, #8 San Diego State 49

Posted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on March 22nd, 2015

rushedreactions

Rush the Court will be providing wall-to-wall coverage of each of the NCAA Tournament from each of the 13 sites this year. Follow our NCAA Tourney specific Twitter accounts at @RTCeastregion, @RTCMWregion,@RTCsouthregion and @RTCwestregion.

Three Key Takeaways.

Mike Krzyzewski leads Duke into the Sweet Sixteen for the th time. (Sporting News Photo)

Mike Krzyzewski leads Duke into the Sweet Sixteen for the 22nd time. (Credit: Sporting News Photo)

  1. Duke got a great draw for a second round opponent. While we all know how potent the Blue Devils are offensively, there have been games in which opponents have exposed some weaknesses in Duke’s defense this year. But those teams had characteristics that San Diego State just does not possess, namely capable perimeter shooting, and guards that excel at penetration. Many times this season, opponents have made 50 percent or better from behind the arc against Duke, often because guards got into the lane easily before kicking out to open shooters. Without a penetrating guard at its disposal, San Diego State was unable to break Duke’s pressure effectively and even when they got free, they missed – going 2-for-13 from distance.
  2. San Diego State just doesn’t have enough offense. That’s been the Aztecs’ Achilles’ heel all year. In each half today, San Diego State went through long stretches of cold shooting that kept them from hanging around. The killer came in the middle of the second half, after they had cut Duke’s lead to seven with just under 13 minutes to go. Over the next nine minutes, San Diego only scored two points as Duke built an insurmountable 25-point lead. You have to give them credit though for hustle, as the Aztecs grabbed 13 of their misses and turned them into a big (+16) advantage in second-chance points. But the overall lack of offensive skill was wholly evident as San Diego State couldn’t keep up with Duke’s firepower.
  3. Talent Matters. San Diego State has a good, deep team but probably lacks any future NBA players on its roster. On the other hand, Duke probably has several, including the likely overall #1 pick in this year’s draft – Jahlil Okafor. The big freshman displayed his advanced skill package against a tough defensive interior, scoring 26 points on a smooth 12-of-16 shooting performance. Justice Winslow looked like a top-5 pick himself, with a terrific all-around game. When he grabs a defensive rebound he immediately looks to push the pace, often going coast-to-coast a la Lebron James. That was big today as the Blue Devils were able to often avoid the rugged Aztec half-court defense, finishing with 18 fast break points in the game.

Star of the Game.  Justice Winslow, Duke. It appears that the Houston native really wanted to go back home next week for the South Regionals. Winslow has shown a knack this season for getting off to energetic starts that propel Duke to big early leads. That was true today as well, with Winslow setting the tone by grabbing nine rebounds and dishing four dimes before intermission. He finished a great all-around performance with a double-double (13 and 12) to go with five assists, four steals, and three blocks.

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NCAA Game Analysis: Third Round, Sunday

Posted by RTC Staff on March 22nd, 2015

RTC_NCAA15

For the majority of programs around the country, making the Sweet 16 is the start of what would be considered a “successful” season. While many of the programs set to participate in today’s Third Round have aspirations that extend well beyond the final 16, making it to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament has always been a mark of accomplishment. After today, eight teams will punch their ticket to next week. Here are eight preview’s of Sunday’s games.

#2 Virginia vs. #7 Michigan State – East Region Second Round (at Charlotte, NC) – 12:10 PM ET on CBS

Virginia faces Michigan State for the second-straight March. (Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports)

Virginia faces Michigan State for the second-straight March. (Jeremy Brevard/USA TODAY Sports)

The good news for Virginia is that Justin Anderson – still recovering from a broken finger – looked more like his old self against Belmont on Friday, scoring 15 points on 4-for-6 shooting and earning several trips to the free throw line. The bad news is that its vaunted defense allowed the #15-seeded Bruins to shoot 59 percent from two-point range and hang around for most of the afternoon. Michigan State, meanwhile, made relatively easy work of Georgia. Which makes one wonder: Is an upset a-brewin’ in Charlotte? Belmont found success by using its three-point barrage to spread out the Cavaliers’ Pack-Line defense, then exploiting the resultant lanes. The Spartans – while not quite as deep-ball oriented – attempt over one-third of their shots from behind the arc and hit nearly 39 percent of the time. On top of that, Tom Izzo’s club is very effective on both the offensive and defensive glass, led by rejuvenated forward Branden Dawson (12 PPG, 9 RPG). If Michigan State can stretch the defense, penetrate those openings and create second-chance opportunities, it might be able to find success against America’s second-most-efficient defense. Unfortunately, if Anderson takes another step forward, that might not be enough. With the 6’6” wing knocking down perimeter jumpers and attacking the lane on Friday, Virginia scored 1.22 points per possession – its most since February 28th – and looked much closer to the patient-but-efficient offense that dominated opponents in December and January. No matter how well the Spartans spread the floor, they are never going to score at will against Tony Bennett’s defense – no one does – so their ability to get stops will become crucial. But if Anderson is earning trips to free throw line and scorching from behind the arc, I’m not sure Izzo’s bunch can get enough stops to win this game. Expect Michigan State to stay within striking distance for 35-plus minutes, but count on Anderson to make the difference in the end.

The RTC Certified Pick: Virginia

#1 Duke vs. #8 San Diego State — South Region Third Round (at Charlotte, NC) — 2:40 pm ET on CBS

Steve Fisher is Leading This Year's Aztecs to Unexpected Success (Getty Images/K. Horner)

Steve Fisher vs. Coach K? Sign me up! (Getty Images/K. Horner)

Duke and San Diego State will play for the first ever in what highlights as an extremely intriguing matchup. The Aztecs were clinical in discarding St. John’s Friday night, even showing an unusual accuracy from three-point range (9-of-22 on threes). When Steve Fisher’s team can find ways to score the basketball – from three-point range or elsewhere – they become a difficult team to beat. There is little inconsistency to the Aztecs’ efforts on the defensive end, where they regularly cause intense trauma to opponents. That defensive activity is what should have Coach K’s attention right about now. Duke guards Quinn Cook and Tyus Jones stand 6’2” and 6’1”, respectively; no Aztec guard is shorter than 6’3”, and wings like Winston Shepard (6’8”) and Dwayne Polee (6’7”) will also take turns harassing Duke’s pair of star guards. The Blue Devils did manage well against Virginia and their bigger group of guards, but San Diego State presents a longer, more athletic challenge than even the Cavaliers. Of course, the question on the flip side is one that has long plagued the Aztecs: How will SDSU score points? Duke’s defense has taken nights off this year, sure, but there should be some trust that Coach K can devise a game plan capable of removing easy-bucket opportunities. The Aztecs’ best bet may be a continuation of the long-range prowess they displayed Friday night. There are guys on the roster who can knock down those deep shots – Quinn, Shrigley and Polee prime among them. Can they hit enough to complement the terrifying SDSU defense?

San Diego State would be a more appealing pick to pull the stunner if this game were not being played in Charlotte. As is, they are faced with defeating a #1 seed in a virtual road game, a proposition that even the strongest of stylistic matchups can fail to enact. Duke should be scared – the Aztecs are a truly scary matchup in this spot – but expect San Diego State to fall a shot or two short of swinging the upset. Duke will leave the home cooking behind in advancing to Houston.

The RTC Certified Pick: Duke Read the rest of this entry »

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