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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Has Villanova Outgrown the Big 5?

Posted by Joe Dzuback (@vtbnblog) on December 15th, 2014

Joe Dzuback is the RTC correspondent for the Atlantic 10 Conference. You can also find his musings online at Villanova by the Numbers or on Twitter @vtbnblog.

“…a loveless marriage… [that] began out of a desire that was neither pure nor innocent. They were just trying to make a buck”

— Rich Hofmann (The Big 5-0)

Has Villanova outgrown the Big 5? Like the question about the health of a terminally ill relative, it goes unasked after another big Villanova win over the weekend, but it was always the question behind the question. After Villanova beat his Hawks 74-46 (which followed the 93-63 beating the Wildcats delivered in 2013), Saint Joseph’s head coach Phil Martelli couched his answer as a “talent gap” problem. After his Explorers lost 73-52 to Villanova (they were beaten again this season, 84-70) La Salle head coach Dr. John Gianinni challenged his players with (to paraphrase), “Villanova won the game in June, not on the court but in the training room.” It was, he contended, a “dedication gap” problem.

Jay Wright and the Wildcats should be excited about their chances

So far this season, it’s business as usual for Jay Wright and crew. (Getty)

After losing 85-63 on Sunday, that universal question, “Why’d you lose?” was posed to Temple‘s senior guard, Will Cummings. He replied, “[Villanova’s] got a lot of weapons. So we really have to be conscious of every player on the court. You can’t leave somebody or they’re going to step up and make a play. That really tested our defense. We had some lapses and that was the tale.” When Temple head coach Fran Dunphy was handed the “talent/dedication/effort” question, he gave a nod to his players’ sense of responsibility but did not take the bait, “Well, [Villanova] has a very talented team. And I thought they played hard, We can play harder, we can do a better job. I appreciate those guys (Will Cummings and Obi Enechionyia) saying that [they lacked effort]. Maybe it was a loose ball here and there that we needed to get to. We didn’t. They did. They are a talented group, a really good basketball team.” That far and no further. Talent, effort or commitment gaps aside, the evidence suggests something is going on in the Big 5. In the 13 seasons Jay Wright has coached on the Main Line, Villanova has shared (two) or won outright (five) the Big 5 title seven times. Historically, Villanova has won or shared 22 Big 5 titles, second only to Temple (28) and gaining fast. Read the rest of this entry »

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VCU’s Win Over Northern Iowa Does Little to Mask Defensive Deficiencies

Posted by Lathan Wells on December 14th, 2014

Sometimes a team, if it has enough overall talent and a few breaks, can win a game in which its major flaws are exposed by an opponent. That’s exactly what happened in VCU’s thrilling double-overtime 93-87 win over an excellent Northern Iowa team on Saturday night in Richmond. Coming in, VCU’s detractors were wondering how the team dubbed Shaka Smart’s best since he took over the Rams program in 2009 could be a mere 5-3 and out of the national rankings already. The answer(s) to that question surfaced early and often against the Panthers; luckily the Rams’, buoyed by an always boisterous home crowd, overcame their nagging issues on the defensive end to win.

Shaka Smart's Rams got a much-needed resume-builder, but defensive issues remain (vcuramnation.com)

Shaka Smart’s Rams got a much-needed resume-builder, but defensive issues remain (vcuramnation.com)

VCU’s HAVOC defense is now a nationwide buzzword, and their pressing style can be utterly infuriating for opponents. But what has caused this Rams team to struggle in the non-conference schedule is the fact that once that press is broken or has been rendered impossible to set up, they’re a subpar half-court defensive team. Coming into the Northern Iowa matchup, the Rams were allowing opponents to shoot nearly 41% from three-point range. For a team that loves to chuck from long-range themselves, that can negate any good three-point shooting night they have. They’re not a whole lot better inside the arc, either, mostly because they take chances with their guard-heavy lineup and don’t have any true rim-protectors on the roster.

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And Then There Were 10: A Look at the Remaining Unbeatens

Posted by Henry Bushnell on December 12th, 2014

We are exactly four weeks – four eventful and enthralling weeks – into the 2014-15 college basketball season. And while at times the non-conference season can get a bit monotonous, this time around it’s been anything but. Most of the top teams have challenged themselves, and we’ve already had several marquee match-ups that gave us a telling look at some squads that we assume will be contenders come March. As far as the hunt for a perfect season goes, there have already been significant casualties. Wichita State’s 35-game regular season winning streak was shot down in overtime by Utah. Top 10 teams Wisconsin and Kansas fell to Duke and Kentucky, respectively, in two titanic clashes. A strong Gonzaga team also came up just short against Arizona, which is easily the best team the Zags will play all season.

Ten teams now retain unblemished résumés through the first 28 days of action. And whereas in many seasons there are multiple mid-majors who feast on weak teams and get through the first month without a loss, that’s not the case this year. Two of the 10 come from non-power conferences, but neither is a fluke – both are decent bets for an at-large bid come March (if they don’t win their conference tournaments, of course). And only one of the 10 might be considered a total fluke. Let’s now take a look at these 10 teams, their remaining schedules, the biggest threats to their unbeaten records, and their chances to progress into January, February and beyond, unscathed.

Note: teams listed in order of KenPom probability of an undefeated regular season as of December 11, 2014.

Given Kentucky's Talent, Coaching and Conference, the Wildcats Easily Have the Best Shot to go Unbeaten (credit: USA Today)

Given Kentucky’s Talent, Coaching and Conference, the Wildcats Easily Have the Best Shot to Go Unbeaten (credit: USA Today)

  1. Kentucky (10-0) | Probability of perfect regular season: 4.6%

“Kentucky” and “undefeated” have been appearing in the same sentence a lot ever since the Wildcats demolished Kansas in Indianapolis in mid-November, and the Wildcats are by far the most likely team to accomplish the feat. KenPom’s model in fact probably undersells their chances. The biggest potential impediment to the notion might actually be the three-game stretch that begins this weekend in Lexington with a visit from North Carolina. Kentucky then plays UCLA in Chicago next weekend followed by a true road game at Louisville. The third of those three games is particularly tough, but John Calipari will have a week ahead of time to prepare for his team’s biggest rivalry game. And with the SEC down this year – like, waaaaay down – if Kentucky can get through these next three, the possibility of an unbeaten regular season is quite real. A February 7 trip to Florida could present a challenge if the Gators correct some of their current issues, but other than that, the toughest other conference games are either at Georgia, at LSU or at South Carolina. I’d put Kentucky’s chances to run the table somewhere around 15 percent.

  1. Duke (8-0) | Probability of perfect regular season: 1.1%

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RTC Top 25: Week Three

Posted by Walker Carey on December 8th, 2014

College basketball experienced its first true upset weekend and this week’s RTC25 reflects the madness that took place on the court. Let’s run through the carnage. Fresh off a hard-thought ACC/Big Ten Challenge victory over Syracuse, previously-#15 Michigan was stunned at home by NJIT. What made the upset so stunning is that the Wolverines are the reigning Big Ten regular season champions, while NJIT is the lone remaining Division I independent because its former conference folded and it has yet to find a new league willing to offer an invitation. This defeat along was stunning enough to cause Michigan to fall completely out of this week’s RTC25. #23 Miami (FL) also suffered an upset loss at home to Green Bay over the weekend. The previously unbeaten Hurricanes were ice cold from the field, shooting just 32.8 percent from the field in the defeat. Poor shooting was also the theme for #16 San Diego State on Sunday, as the Aztecs shot just 20.5 percent in a road loss at Washington. College basketball is often where the unexpected becomes the ordinary, and that was certainly on display over the weekend.

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

rtc25 w3

Quick N’ Dirty Analysis.

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RTC Top 25: Week Two

Posted by Walker Carey on December 1st, 2014

Feast Week has come and gone, and it once again did not disappoint. Top teams #2 Wisconsin and #4 Arizona showed the nation why they are thought of as some of the nation’s best. The Badgers took home the Battle 4 Atlantis title after scoring victories over UAB, Georgetown, and #16 Oklahoma. Sean Miller’s Wildcats took home the title at the Maui Invitational with wins over Missouri, Kansas State, and #13 San Diego State. #9 Villanova also turned in an impressive week. Jay Wright’s squad was victorious at the Legends Classic, as it secured notable wins over #23 VCU and #15 Michigan. With the ACC/Big Ten Challenge set to take place this coming week, expect a lot more great action on the court and even more fluidity in the RTC25.

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

week2_top25 Quick N’ Dirty Analysis.

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Big East Weekend Wrap: Vol. II

Posted by Justin Kundrat on December 1st, 2014

The Big East Weekend Wrap will cover news and notes from the weekend’s games.

After a long week of preseason tournaments, which often featured days of consecutive games for a team, the Big East has just two undefeated teams remaining: Villanova and Seton Hall. The conference at a whole has continued to play competitively and currently stands at 48-12, ranking 4th in Kenpom’s conference rankings. Below is a list of four key takeaways from the past week of Big East action.

JayVaughn Pinkston Came Up With the Defensive Play of the Year in CBB (USA Today Images)

JayVaughn Pinkston Came Up With the Defensive Play of the Year in CBB (USA Today Images)

  • Villanova finally showed up to play. After their first three games, some had already begun to question whether Villanova truly deserved their preseason #12 ranking. The team as a whole struggled mightily with its outside shooting – something they relied upon heavily last season – and up until last week, held unconvincing wins over Lehigh and Bucknell that weren’t decided until the closing minutes. Yet when the national spotlight was on, the Wildcats came through. The team handily defeated #14 VCU with quick, effective ball movement and a penchant for taking care of the ball. Then, following their statement win was a gripping victory over #19 Michigan, in which the Wildcats escaped after several lead changes in the last few minutes. Finally, they capped off the week with a 31 point rout over Delaware. Junior center Daniel Ochefu should be the frontrunner for Most Improved Player in the Big East. The 6’11 center has shown a newly developed array of post moves that have added a frontcourt dimension unseen in previous Villanova teams. In a league without much talent disparity, Villanova has established themselves as the top dog, head and shoulders above the rest. They will be playing with a target on their backs all season as every opponent will be seeking a resume building victory when they step onto the floor to face the Wildcats.

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Villanova Doesn’t Need a Star; It Has a Team

Posted by Justin Kundrat on November 26th, 2014

Save for a few hiccups and misfires on the recruiting trail, Jay Wright has kept Villanova in tournament contention throughout his entire 14-year coaching tenure with the team, a track record matched by few. Many remember his success from the tenacious four-guard lineups in 2005 and 2006 or the Scottie Reynolds-led final four team in 2009, and while recent years have been filled with early tournament departures, the Wildcats have continually remained in the picture. His success can be attributed to a number of factors, but above all its his adaptation to changing personnel. While the team has made the NCAA tournament in nine of the previous 10 seasons, the playing style has been remarkably different. Wright has transitioned the team from a fast-paced drive and dish offense centered around guard play and outscoring opponents to one centered around team defense and a balanced, unselfish scoring attack. For the past several seasons, Villanova has not had what NBA scouts would categorize as a star player. There are no one-and-done’s, no lottery pick athletes. Instead, Wright has recruited a group of hard working four-year players who bring a variety of skillsets and offer multi-positional diversity. What this does is build a brand of basketball built around teamwork, help defense and selflessness, and its success can be seen through the Wildcats’ play over the last two games at the Legends Classic.

JayVaughn Pinkston Came Up With the Defensive Play of the Year in CBB (USA Today Images)

JayVaughn Pinkston Came Up With the Defensive Play of the Year in CBB (USA Today Images)

Despite struggling against the likes of Lehigh and Bucknell, everything seems to have clicked on Monday night when Villanova took on VCU and the HAVOC defense that has make Shaka Smart famous. But when reviewing the box score, there isn’t a single player that can be pointed to for the reason behind the team’s 24 point rout of VCU. Villanova as a team dished out 20 assists on 29 made baskets and committed just nine turnovers in the process, against a team that had forced a remarkable 60 turnovers in the three contests before it. Four players scored in double figures and the team’s leading scorer is averaging 12.5 points, accounting for a mere 16.2% of the team’s total scoring output. The balanced offense is complemented with a balanced defense. The Wildcats are not particularly quick, or tall, but the team has a number of interchangeable parts, allowing them to effectively switch on ball screens or play help defense in the lanes.

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For Villanova and VCU, Handling the Ghost of Seasons Past

Posted by Joe Dzuback (@vtbnblog) on November 25th, 2014

Joe Dzuback is the RTC correspondent for the Atlantic 10 Conference. You can also find his musings online at Villanova by the Numbers or on Twitter @vtbnblog. Joe filed this report after Villanova’s 77-53 victory over VCU Monday evening.

When Villanova and Virginia Commonwealth faced off in the first round of the Legends Classic at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn last night, a trail of questions about these two dynamic teams followed them onto the court. Both had great success last season, winning their respective conference regular season titles while compiling a combined record of 55-14 (Villanova was 29-5 while VCU was 26-9) but each saw their seasons expire with a sigh that betrayed what they had worked for. VCU had run up a 24-7 record even before the conference tournament, securing no worse than an at-large place in the NCAA field as the Atlantic 10 Conference garnered a record-breaking six bids. They burned through Richmond and NCAA-worthy George Washington by 20 points apiece before bowing to a senior-heavy Saint Joseph’s squad, 65-61. But it was the two-point loss to Stephen F. Austin (77-75) that stung. Had HAVOC run its course? If the defensive turnover machine of seasons past could not produce, the Rams’ open court offense was reduced to their half court set which yielded far fewer points (and possessions). Like Gonzaga, Butler and George Mason before them, the Rams were no longer the hunters, they had become the hunted.

Will Shaka Smart Be Interested In The Open Position In Westwood? (US Presswire)

Smart’s club started off well, but tailed off against an equally talented Villanova squad in Brooklyn. (US Presswire)

In “the old” Big East a 28-3 regular season record capped with a 16-2 conference record would have heralded the Wildcats as an elite team and Final Four contender even before the conference tournament. For Villanova and “the new” Big East however, double-figure losses to Syracuse and Creighton (twice) appeared to undermine the Wildcats’ — and the Big East’s — attempts to write a new chapter. Villanova dropped their first round conference tournament game to Seton Hall (64-63), secured a #2 seed in the NCAAs, then dropped their second round game to former conference mate Connecticut (77-63). The Big East garnered four bids and no conference team made it to the Sweet Sixteen. Read the rest of this entry »

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RTC Top 25: Week One

Posted by Walker Carey on November 24th, 2014

Week one is in the books and what a week it was. One of the great things about college basketball is that many of the elite teams play other elite teams early in the season, and that is what happened at the Champions Classic in Indianapolis last Tuesday. First, #2 Duke led the entire way in scoring a comfortable 11-point victory over #19 Michigan State, and in the nightcap, #1 Kentucky showed everyone why it will be the story of the year in college basketball, as the Wildcats thoroughly dismantled #11 Kansas. Duke’s win over Michigan State paired with its weekend victories over Temple and Stanford have the Blue Devils all the way up to the second slot in this week’s RTC25. #1 Kentucky remains in the top spot, but its style points in demolishing a talented Kansas squad earned the Wildcats every one of our pollsters’ number one votes. Outside of Kentucky, the team of the week had to be #7 Gonzaga, who rose from #11 after it impressively handled previously-#22 SMU and dominated its way to a 52-point thrashing of Saint Joseph’s.

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

Screen Shot 2014-11-24 at 9.21.01 AM

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Big East Weekend Wrap: Vol. I

Posted by Justin Kundrat on November 17th, 2014

The Big East Weekend Wrap will cover news and notes from the weekend’s games.

After an 11-game slate of games for the Big East’s 10 teams,  the league remains perfect. While none of those 11 games were against top competition, wins are wins at this point in the season and losses here can really damage a team’s NCAA Tournament resume. Despite the relative talent imbalance between most of the Big East teams and their opponents, some of these games were shockingly close and may have provided wake-up calls for teams and players who were still stuck in preseason mode. For others, it could be a sign of things to come. Below is a list of five key takeaways from the weekend’s Big East action.

Villanova Made Enough Twos to Make Up for a Cold Shooting Night From Three

Villanova Made Enough Twos to Make Up for a Cold Shooting Night From Three

  • Villanova came out flat, shooting 3-of-23 from deep in the first half before finishing 8-of-33 (24.2%) on the night. Those off nights were a major concern for this team last season when the offense sputtered and failed to create easy baskets when the three-point shot wasn’t falling. Starting guards Dylan Ennis and Ryan Arcidiacono combined for 10-of-28 shooting from the floor while senior wing Darrun Hilliard shot just 4-of-18 and 1-of-9 from deep. The Wildcats forced enough turnovers (28) and got enough points in transition to put Lehigh away, but the win was not a comfortable one by any means. The Wildcats’ shooting numbers are worth watching moving forward.
  • Creighton swept its weekend slate, finishing 2-0 against Central Arkansas and Chicago State by a combined 45 points. The biggest question for the Bluejays coming into this season was how the team would respond without its offensive centerpiece, Doug McDermott. While neither of the above teams was strong enough defensively to provide an answer to this question, the offense continued to fire on all cylinders. Creighton hoisted up a whopping 56 three-point shots in the two games, making just 19 of them, which is disappointing for a team that led the country in this category at 41.5%. Yet the offense was the same free-flowing, unselfish and pass-heavy one we saw last season. Senior center Will Artino was highly efficient with his touches in the paint in limited minutes, with sophomore Isaiah Zierden providing strong scoring output off the bench. Look for Toby Hegner to make a name for himself this season: the 6’9 freshman contributed 17 points and seven rebounds, including 3-of-6 shooting from deep.

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Big East Conference Preview: Xavier, Georgetown & Villanova

Posted by Justin Kundrat on November 14th, 2014

The Big East microsite will preview each Big East team in tiers in preparation for the season’s tipoff. The bottom tier was released earlier this week; it can be found here. Yesterday: the middle tier of the conferenceToday: the top tier, including Xavier, Georgetown and Villanova.

#3: Xavier

Xavier's Matt Stainbrook is a Load on the Blocks

Xavier’s Matt Stainbrook is a Load on the Blocks

Xavier’s projected top three finish is less a testament to the team being talented and more a statement about the lack of quality, NCAA-caliber teams in the Big East this season. But that’s not to say the Musketeers will be a bad team. Senior Matt Stainbrook, arguably the conference’s most talented big man, will play a crucial role in serving as the team’s go-to scorer and anchor in the paint. While the 6’10” center has not been considered a primary option in his career, he has started in almost every game dating back to his first two years at Western Michigan. Coming off a season in which he averaged 10.6 points on 55.6 percent shooting (second in the Big East) and 7.4 rebounds (5th in the Big East) in just 24.4 minutes per game, head coach Chris Mack knows what he has in Stainbrook. With the departure of leading scorer Semaj Christon to the NBA, Stainbrook will be the team’s number one option. Also gone from last year’s NCAA Tournament team are two additional starters: junior forward Justin Martin (transfer) and senior forward Isaiah Philmore (graduation), who together combined for 29 percent of the team’s total points per game.

Yet the Musketeers still find themselves with a projected third place finish. Aside from Stainbrook, there are two reasons for this. First, point guard Dee Davis is back for his senior season. Davis has shown over his career that he can run an offense, averaging 4.7 assists per game last season (second in the Big East) with an assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.5-to-1. Second, Xavier brings in guard Remy Abell, an Indiana transfer, and six new freshman in an incoming class that ranks as one of the best in the program’s history. Headlining this list is 6’5 forward Trevon Bluiett, who could very well be the conference’s second best freshman behind Isaiah Whitehead. Bluiett is a big time scorer at the wing, and he will most likely see immediate playing time in the starting lineup as the Musketeers’ depth at the wings is limited. Additionally, the development of rising sophomores Jalen Reynolds and Myles Davis, who round out the starting lineup, will be instrumental in determining Xavier’s postseason success. Both players have shown flashes coming off the bench, but will need to find consistency if Xavier is to push for another NCAA Tournament bid. Given the team’s relatively weak non-conference schedule this season, the Musketeers will have to capitalize on their games versus projected conference front-runners Georgetown and Villanova.

#2: Georgetown

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