Category Archives: College Basketball

Why I Won’t Be Surprised if Notre Dame Takes Down Kentucky

There was some talk that West Virginia might be able to stun Kentucky Thursday night in the Sweet 16. Shane Battier was among those picking the Mountaineers to take down the mighty Wildcats.

Can Mike Brey, and his stars Jerian Grant (left) and Pat Connaughton (right) take down the might Wildcats?

Will Mike Brey, and his stars Jerian Grant (left) and Pat Connaughton (right) take down the mighty Wildcats?

I didn’t buy West Virginia’s chances at all. The ‘Neers are a team that can’t shoot and isn’t great at handling the ball. Kentucky has been drilling teams like them since they plowed through Kansas–another talented, athletic, somewhat undisciplined team–back in November. Kentucky can outrun, outwork, and outjump any other school in the nation. They pressure teams into turnover after turnover. They get easy buckets without even breaking a sweat. They lob alley oops. They crash the boards. They swat seemingly every shot that goes up around the rim. They’re hard to score on and they’re just as tough to stop when they get out in the open court. They’re basically West Virginia on steroids. And it showed as Kentucky thrashed the ‘Neers, rolling to a 78-39 win. West Virginia shot brick after brick and failed spectacularly to stop UK in the post.

While the undefeated Wildcats have shown few flaws this year, they have shown the most cracks against teams that execute, shoot the ball well, and avoid turnovers. Columbia, of all teams, nearly pulled off an upset on Big Blue in December when the Lions rode some hot shooting, an effective 2-3 zone, and a relatively low turnover tally to a halftime lead. A few weeks later, Ole Miss shot 53% from deep and took ‘Tucky to overtime. UK escaped only thanks to hot shooting of their own (11-20 from 3). While simply shooting the lights out isn’t the only way to beat Kentucky–Texas A&M and LSU both took the Wildcats to the wire without hitting a barrage of threes, but both kept the turnover battle at least even–hitting jumpers and taking care of the ball is probably the most plausible strategy. So, what’s a team that shoots spectacularly, handles it well, and is generally unflappable? The Wildcats’ Elite 8 opponent, Notre Dame, of course!

Now, I’m not going to call for a Notre Dame upset of John Calipari’s crop of diaper dandies. Kentucky has been my national champion pick since the start of the dance, and I don’t have the chutzpah to predict anybody to stop the Wildcats’ train. But I do think that Notre Dame has a very real shot.

First of all, the 32-5 Fighting Irish are really good. They’re gritty. They fit the bill I’ve been describing: no team in the country is better, or more surgical offensively. They reflect the steady demeanor of their cool, unshakable coach Mike Brey. They don’t commit carless turnovers.

Roosevelt Jones' 23 points were not enough for Butler to halt the Irish.

Roosevelt Jones’ 23 points were not enough for Butler to halt the Irish.

The Irish are also wicked hot. They have won eight straight, taking down Louisville, Duke, and North Carolina along the way and grabbing an ACC ‘ship. Most recently, they have looked impressive in two thoroughly different NCAA Tournament games. First there was their Round of 32 overtime barfight against an excellent Butler team playing inspired basketball. It was a truly outstanding game of college hoop, with Butler star Roosevelt Jones putting forth a memorable performance. Neither team shot it well from the outside, and it was the type of defense-first game that high scoring teams like Notre Dame tend to wilt in come tourney time. The two veteran teams both left it all on the court, and nine guys logged 40+ minutes. In the end, though, it was the Irish that came out victorious, as defensive rock Steve Vasturia dropped in 20 for ND and studs Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton shook off rough shooting nights to make big plays at both ends down the stretch. The Irish are undefeated in overtime this year, and they showed some serious toughness in their win over Butler.

Notre Dame got back to classic Notre Dame ball against Wichita State in the Sweet 16. Against an outstanding defensive Shocker squad, Notre Dame didn’t miss a beat, leading for most of the night and hitting on 55% of their shots in an 81-70 win that wasn’t even that close.

The Irish have shooters galore. Jerian Grant hits crazy shots. Pat Connaughton is as good a catch-and-shoot guy as you’ll find. Demetrius Jackson, Vasturia, and V.J. Beachem are all 40%+ three point shooters too. And they move the ball faster than Bill Raftery says “man to man.

Notre Dame’s weakness happens to matchup with a strength of Kentucky: size. Notre Dame lacks somewhat in that area, and while they defend outside decently, they’re not, well, Kentucky in the paint. That’s OK. If they get hot from the outside, and 6-10 forward Zach Auguste plays big, Notre Dame can still pull off the upset.

I’m not saying the Irish are going to get it done. But the ACC Champs are the real deal. And I’m not sure if Kentucky has faced a team as dynamic offensively as ND all year. Could Notre Dame be Kentucky’s kryptonite? Well, it is March, after all.

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Thoughts on all 68 Tournament Teams

It’s time for the Big Dance. I’m pumped. After all, you can’t dance and stay uptight. Here are my thoughts on all 68 teams that will be dancing starting this evening.

West Region: 

Dekker and Kam

Wisconsin gets buckets.

1. Wisconsin: It’s hard not to like Wiscy. They don’t make mistakes. They don’t turn it over. They don’t miss free throws. Oh, they’re pretty damn athletic too. Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker make up one of the best 1-2 punches in college hoops.

2. Arizona: Arizona’s hotter than Uptown Funk right now (OK, maybe not THAT hot). The Wildcats have not lost since February. They also have a ridiculous point differential–they outscored opponents by an average of 18 points per game this year. For counter-culture hipsters not picking Kentucky to win it all, Arizona is a popular pick.

3. Baylor: Are there still people that think that Scott Drew is bad at his job? Well, he’s not. And the coach’s team is nasty this year. The Bears are hella athletic (per usual), and shoot it well from deep.

4. UNC: The Tar Heels came up short against Notre Dame in the ACC ‘ship, but Roy Williams’ team seems to be playing their best ball of the season. The Heels are physical, athletic, and they’re playing smarter basketball than they did the past couple of years. Nobody wants to play them right now.

5. Arkansas: Meh. This is a five seed?

6. Xavier: Xavier played up and down to their competition this year, losing to Long Beach State, Auburn, DePaul, Seton Hall, and Creighton, but also notching wins over Georgetown (x3), Providence, Cincinnati, and Butler (x2). Xavier’s balanced and efficient, but their lack of consistency might concern some.

Treveon Graham

Treveon Graham and VCU are coming into the tourney hot. Will they have a repeat of 2011?

7. I’m really high on VCU. The Rams defense is as advertised this year and they shoot the lights out from deep. They looked tremendous in the A-10 Tournament (still the most underrated conference in the nation IMO). Wing Treveon Graham is the total package. VCU has overcome injuries to get to this point, and I wouldn’t be remotely shocked if they made a deep run. The potential second round matchup with Arizona was a tough draw though.

8. Oregon: The Ducks are licking their wounds from the pounding they took against Arizona in the Pac-12 championship game. Oregon really struggled against ‘Zona this year; they got steamrolled each time they faced the Wildcats. But this is still a pretty good Oregon team and they got a great draw in ice cold Oklahoma State. Joseph Young, the Ducks’ senior guard, is dynamite.

9. Oklahoma State: The Cowboys are wicked talented. But man, they look they’re over this season like Holden Caulfield’s over high school. Ok State has lost six of their last seven going into the Dance.

10. Ohio State: This has been a pretty disappointing Ohio State team. They simply don’t play that hard. On the bright side, D’Angelo Russell is a huge stud and one of the most fun players to watch in the country. Also: Greg Paulus does more on the sideline than possibly any other assistant coach in the country (the dude never sits down).

11. BYU: Everybody knows that BYU can score, and the Cougars’ ball movement is tremendous. Tyler Hawes is one of the best players in college basketball. I really dig BYU as a sleeper.

11. Ole Miss: Not really sure how the Rebels are in the Tournament. I guess it’s a testament to how weak the bubble was, but there is no way Ole Miss was more deserving than Miami, which had basically the same record in a much better conference (oh, and a win at Duke). The Rebels do happen to be an extremely good free throw shooting team (78%).

12. Wofford: Wofford. Sounds a little like onomatopoeia, does it not?

Wesley+Saunders+Harvard+Crimson+v+Spokane+3OjnqNtRVAwl

For Harvard to make any noise this year, Wes Saunders will need to explode.

13. Harvard: They’re not as good as they’ve been the past two years, when they have won first round games against New Mexico and Cincinnati. Still, they’re dancing, and they had to get through a good Yale team in the Ivy race to get here. The Crimson struggle to score, but they’re one of the better teams in the tourney defensively. They’ll need huge production from star Wesley Saunders to get to the Round of 32 for the third straight year.

14. Georgia State: These guys can score in bunches. R.J. Hunter and Ryan Harrow are both offensive machines.

15. Texas Southern: The Tigers actually beat Michigan State back in December, so that’s nice. But let’s be honest, Florida Gulf Coast they are not.

16. Coastal Carolina: I feel like they’re a really good 16 seed. I mean, they almost beat Ole Miss in December and 24-9 isn’t your usual 16 seed record.

South Region:

1. Duke: The Blue Devils were my preseason pick to win it all, and I’m still high on the Blue Devils. Jahlil Okafor is a force, and Duke’s vicious offensively and much improved defensively. They’re still not great defensively though, and Duke seems to have mad mojo in March the past few years. I think this is the best Duke team since they won the it all in 2010.

2. Gonzaga: The Bulldogs have tremendous size, shoot the ball at a ridiculously high clip, and have plenty of depth. Kyle Wiltjer and Kevin Pangos are both outstanding and long range assassins. And forward Domantas Sabonis might be Danny‘s favorite college basketball player ever.

JT3

John Thompson’s teams have struggled recently in the March. Can this year’s talented GTown outfit buck the trend?

3. Iowa State: This is another deep team. Georges Niang is of course the star for the Cyclones. Fred Hoiberg’s team scores efficiently and dominates the boards. They’re a good bet to make the Sweet 16 for the second straight year.

4. Georgetown: The Hoyas had a nice bounce back year after missing the Dance last winter. Their blowout win over Villanova remains extremely impressive. Some eyebrows rose at how high Georgetown was seeded, but I think they’re very good. The Hoyas are balanced and methodical and junior D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera is one of the toughest guards in the tournament.

5. Utah: The Utes slowed down the stretch, but they’re a really good team and an outstanding defensive squad. Stephen F. Austin was kind of a sucky draw though.

6. SMU: After getting snubbed from the selection committee last year, SMU is in this year, and they’re deserving. The Mustangs won the AAC regular season and tournament championships and have been pretty consistent after a shaky (2-3) start to the season.

7. Iowa: I thought the Hawkeyes were really good last year, and then they wound up being sort of meh. This year I didn’t think they were any good, and now here they are in the tournament. Guess it goes to show I don’t know much. But I do know this: Iowa is a much better defensive team than they were a year ago.

8. San Diego State: It’s the same story for the Aztecs as last year–they can’t really score, but damn do they defend. The Aztecs are incredibly athletic for an 8 seed.

9. St. John’s: Speaking of athleticism, the Johnnies have plenty too. St. John’s has strong guard play and plays aggressive defense. They’re a streaky team though, both from game-to-game and from possession-to-possesion. Definitely not a team anybody wants to play.

Kalinoski-GW

Star guard Tyler Kalinoski looks to lead Davidson deep into March.

1o. Davidson: The A-10 regular season champs are legit. The Wildcats have nasty guard play and shoot the lights out. I like them a lot as a 10 seed. Their style of play seems to lead to March upsets…

11. UCLA: Another how the hell did this team make the tournament team. Weak bubble blah blah blah weak bubble.

12. Stephen F. Austin: Everybody’s favorite upset pick for a reason. SFA went 29-4 this year and gets up and down the court. They also force loads of turnovers and rebound decently for a smallish team.

13. Eastern Washington: These guys beat Indiana in a defense-optional game back in November. They can score it plenty, with scintillating scorer Tyler Harvey leading the way. They also might be the worst defensive team in the bracket.

14. UAB: The Conference USA champions were 4-9 at one point this season.

15. North Dakota State: Senior Bisons guard Lawrence Alexander is a RIDICULOUS shooter.

16. North Florida Ospreys: My Northwestern Wildcats beat these guys back in November. North Florida outplayed NU, but we won so #gocats!

16. Robert Morris: Their logo is vaguely similar to the New England Patriots’.

East Region: 

Darrun Hilliard and Ryan Arcidacono have Villanova poised for big things.

Can Darrun Hilliard and Ryan Arcidacono take ‘Nova to a title?

1. Villanova: Villanova quietly has been absurdly good this year. The Wildcats were seriously dominant at home (only Syracuse took them all the way down to the wire in Philly), didn’t lose in non-conference play, and absolutely steamrolled the rest of the Big East. Villanova doesn’t have the raw NBA talent of Kentucky or Duke, but they have an excess of offensive firepower, they’re deep, they’re experienced, and they have no glaring weaknesses. Point guard Ryan Arcidiacono is the a steady assassin who makes big shots, not mistakes.

2. Virginia: The Cavs play suffocating defense. UVA looked like a 1 seed for most of the season, but enters the tournament having lost two of three (both losses came to really good teams: Louisville and UNC). They have been playing for a while without forward Justin Anderson, who just came back from injury.  Virginia isn’t the trendiest team right now, but they’re a good bet to get fairly deep–they’re better offensively than a lot of people realize.

3. Oklahoma: The Sooners have serious game. They’re very, very hard to defend and they crash the boards hard. Guard Buddy Hield is a bigtime player.

4. Louisville: Louisville is a scary team. The Cardinals are unbelievably athletic and super well coached (per usual). They make games messy and play aggressive defense. Terry Rozier is a scary player to guard and Montrezl Harrell never gets outworked.

Seth Tuttle and UNI play precision basketball.

Seth Tuttle and UNI play precision basketball.

5. Northern Iowa: They kinda do their own thing. They play at a slow pace and control the game. There’s nothing the Panthers do that is all that flashy, but they seem to have a formula for success. They’ve got nasty shooters and they don’t make many mistakes. Seth Tuttle, the Panthers’ star, is sort of a personification of the team as a whole–he’s not a tremendous athlete or exceptionally skilled, but the numbers he puts up are nothing short of gaudy.

6. Providence: This is a really solid Providence team. Ed Cooley is as good as it gets as an in-game coach and he’s got a great mix of athleticism and shot makers to work with. LaDontae Henton and Kris Dunn do the bulk of PC’s scoring and both are ballers.

7. Michigan State: It was a down year in East Lansing, but the Spartans seem to be getting hot at the right time. The Spartans took down Maryland in the Big Ten Tournament and took Wisconsin to OT. As we know, Tom Izzo owns March.

8. NC State: A little De Ja Vu? NC State seems to win about 20 games each year and get a high-mid seed. There’s nothing that spectacular about NC State this year, and they lack the star power of past years, but they managed to beat some pretty darn good teams in the regular season (UNC, Louisville, Duke). The key for the Wolfpack has been their ability to hit the boards. They’re pretty small, and the don’t have any singular rebounding force, but they are great at team rebounding.

9. LSU: This is LSU’s first visit to the Dance since 2009. The Tigers make their living in the paint, and Jordan Mickey is one the nation’s best big men. Mickey averages nearly four blocks per game. He’s joined in the front court by Jarell Martin who scores a dash under 17 per game. Both are forces on the glass.

10. Georgia:  Much like LSU, Georgia bullies opponents with their size. They’re also pretty deep.

Derrick Marks and friends are proving that Boise isn't just a football school.

Derrick Marks and friends are proving that Boise isn’t just a football school.

11. Boise State: Derrick Marks is offensive dynamite for Boise State, which has been playing great ball for the past month.

11. Dayton: Last year’s Cinderella, Dayton has a shot at making it deep again. The Flyers lack in depth, but they play smart basketball. Forward Kendall Pollard has a great motor.

12. Wyoming: The Mountain West champions snuck by Boise State and San Diego State and into the NCAA Tournament. They’re a slow-it-down team and their first round battle with UNI should be a low scoring possesion-by-possesion battle. I wouldn’t be stunned if Wyoming pulled out an upset.

13.UC Irvine: Their center, Mamadou Ndiaye, is 7-6.

14. Albany: The Great Danes’ one point win over Stony Brook in the America East Championship was one of the ugliest basketball games I have ever watched. That being said, Albany is a pretty good 14 seed. They have lost just once since December.

15. Belmont: The Bruins robbed Murray State of a bid by knocking off the Racers in the Ohio Valley Championship. Belmont has had some pretty good teams in recent years, including their ’08 team which came a point away from beating a 2 seed Duke team.

16. Lafayette: Terrible defensive team, but the Leopards do score it at a decent rate.

Midwest Region

1. Kentucky: They’re great. And they are playing the best they have played all year.

2. Kansas: For some reason, I have yet to buy into this Kansas team. They have plenty of pro-level talent, but KU struggled all year away from Allen Fieldhouse and scoring can look surprisingly difficult at times for a Bill Self team. I think they’re good, but I honestly like the 3 seed from this region much more than the 2 seed.

Jerian Grant and Notre Dame know how to put the biscuit in the basket.

Jerian Grant and Notre Dame know how to put the biscuit in the basket.

3. Notre Dame: The ACC Champs are an offensive juggernaut. Guard Jerian Grant is one of the best guards in the country, but Notre Dame really kills opponents with the way they move the ball. They sling it around and get great shots. And they have wet shooters. Pat Connaughton is their best sniper. They’re a better defensive team than you think too.

4. Maryland: After three fairly uneventful seasons, Mark Turgeon finally delivered the goods to College Park this year, as Maryland enjoyed a hugely successful 27 win season highlighted by wins over Wisconsin and Iowa State. Dez Williams and Melo Trimble are studs.

5. West Virginia: I like West Virginia, which presses constantly, quite a bit. They make games ugly and excel at turning turnovers into points. The Mountaineers led college hoops in steals per game this year. They are the type of team that nobody wants to play, even though they’ve struggled a bit of late (three losses in their last four games).

6. Butler: The Bulldogs just play good, hardnosed basketball. Sharp shooting guard Kellen Dunham is Butler’s best player, but Roosevelt Jones, a severely undersized forward with a Draymond Green-esq game, might be their most important.

7. Wichita State: The hype from last year is gone, but the underseeded Shockers are still really good. Good enough to make some serious noise.

Octavius Ellis is Monta Ellis' cousin.

Octavius Ellis is Monta Ellis’ cousin.

8. Cincinnati: The Bearcats impressed me every time I watched them this year and play stifling defense. Their consistency is questionable, and they lack a go-to scorer, but they’ve managed to make it work with what they have, even with head coach Mick Cronin away from the team for medical reasons.

9. Purdue: Boring team.

10. Indiana: There’s nothing that bores me about Indiana, which is poorly constructed but super fun to watch. The Hoosiers lack bigs but have tremendous guards. Point man Yogi Ferrell is full speed ahead at all times, and he’s a nightmare to guard. Defensively, Indiana really gets out and guards at times. Other times…not so much.

11. Texas: Barring a surprising run, it looks like this will go down as yet another extremely talented Longhorns team that never put it all together.

12. Buffalo: The Bulls definitely can run and gun. Will they be able to keep their turnover tally low enough to take down West Virginia?

13. Valparaiso: Bryce Drew, Valpo’s fourth year coach, is the brother of Baylor’s Scott Drew.

14. Northeastern: The Boston college team in the Dance not named Harvard, Northeastern is an extremely efficient squad. They’re not very disruptive on defense though.

15. New Mexico State: The Aggies rolled through the WAC. The 13 game winning streak they’re on might make Bill Self and Kansas feel a little nervous.

16. Manhattan: Steve Masiello continues to work his magic. Manhattan gave Louisville a scare last March. Imagine if they give Kentucky a scare this year…

16. Hampton: Idk.

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The Madness of March

(Disclaimer: I am currently sitting in the Bryan Center on Duke’s West Campus as I write this)

It’s good to be the king. Just ask LeBron. Or Kendrick Lamar (he just dropped an album a week early and does what he wants). I would argue that this is a year of kings in college basketball. A year in which the blue bloods are shining. Kentucky, Duke, Arizona, and Wisconsin were each ranked in the top 4 preseason, and here we are come tournament time and three of them are number one seeds and one, Arizona, deserved a number one seed but there simply wasn’t enough room for them. The top has been dominant this year, and I believe that will largely continue in this year’s Big Dance. (Side note: did you know it’s illegal to use the Star Spangled Banner as dance music in Massachusetts?) Let’s break down the most wonderful time of the year.

We begin in the Midwest region, Kentucky’s domain. To be honest, I really don’t need to name any other teams because, who are we kidding, Kentucky will get to the final four either way. But, let’s give credit to the other teams in their bracket. Kansas sits at #2, Notre Dame, fresh off its ACC tourney win, at #3, and Maryland at #4. The first round here may produce some memorable upset bids: I think the 4, 5, and 6 seeds better watch out: Maryland vs Valparaiso, West Virginia vs Buffalo, and Butler vs Texas. In the end, I think Maryland eeks out a victory over Valparaiso, but I think Buffalo can take down West Virginia and that Texas’ size will overwhelm Butler. But Texas is too undisciplined and too up and down to make a deep run. I see them losing to Notre Dame in the second round. A potential second round matchup would pit Kansas vs Wichita State and may very well produce Bleeding Kansas round 2. I think Wichita State’s veteran guards will get the better of Kansas and advance. Ultimately, I think Notre Dame will match up against Kentucky in the Elite 8, but the luck of the Irish will be no match for the fighting hyphens of Lexington (Willie Cauley-Stein and Karl-Anthony Towns).

Heading down to the West region opposite the Midwest, Wisconsin’s Big 10 Tourney run convinced the committee that they were worthy of a number one seed even though Joey Brackets (love the hair) had Virginia as a 1 seed for the longest time this year. In an interesting repeat of history, Wisconsin’s main challenge will come from a terrific all-around Arizona team, perhaps a rematch of last year’s terrific elite 8 matchup, but this time Wisconsin is the 1 and Arizona is the 2. In terms of potential first round matchups, I like the play-in winner, likely BYU over Ole Miss, to take care of Butler. BYU is an impressive club with a number of potent scorers that pose problems from everywhere on the court. Additionally, I think D’Angelo Russell and Ohio State will get past a VCU team that has been up and down this year in spite of claiming the A-10 championship. Can Harvard play spoiler again this year? I think not. They draw a UNC team that looked particularly inspired in the ACC tournament in spite of losing in the final to Notre Dame, and the Heels will outrebound and outrun them. The Crimson fall. Let’s advance to the Sweet 16. I like Wisconsin vs UNC and Baylor vs Arizona to be the matchups. It may be a bold pick, but I think that if UNC gets past the first weekend, they can beat Wisconsin. They have athletic bigs, notably Brice Johnson, that can match up with Frank Kaminsky, and terrific wing defenders like JP Tokoto that can shut down some of Wisconsin’s athletic wings. UNC also offensive rebounds tremendously and they pound the paint. I think UNC (if they get to the Sweet 16) will beat Wisconsin simply because they match up well with Wisconsin. Arizona will get the better of Baylor, and I think the Wildcats will advance to the Final 4 as their poise will overcome a determined Carolina team that will outperform most Roy Williams clubs in the postseason. Arizona goes to the Final 4.

Moving on to the chaos that is the East region, headlined by Villanova, we meet more Wildcats. Nova has the likes of Virginia as a 2 seed to be concerned with and Oklahoma and hot-shooting Buddy Hield as the 3 seed. The first round of this bracket smells quite chalky, but I think another play-in team could get the better of another 6 seed when the winner of Dayton and Boise State (a home game for Dayton, come on now committee. What are you doing?) will take on Providence. Dayton is a strong club and I like them to advance past Boise State in the play in and then win another against Providence. Louisville seems vulnerable to an upset but I just have no idea how solid this UC Irvine club is. All I’ve heard about them is that their mascot is the Anteaters and they have a 7’6” center. Let me reevaluate that one but I think Louisville may make that game closer than it should be. Villanova will get a test from either of their potential second round opponents (NC State or LSU), but I think those teams won’t execute well enough to complete the upset over a strong Villanova team. I think we’ll get a Northern Iowa vs Villanova Sweet 16. It’s funny how the committee seemed to put a couple repeats from last year on a collision course again this year. If Michigan State wins its first game, it will face the Virginia Cavaliers (Wahoos? Pick a mascot jeez) in a rematch of last year’s Sweet 16 game in which the Spartans advanced. I don’t think this Michigan State team is as talented as last year’s but I think Virginia is vulnerable in this matchup because this looks like a classic Tom Izzo team that is extremely tough, has big wings, and rebounds well. It looks like it won’t shoot itself in the foot and Virginia’s slow style keeps teams in the game. I think the Spartans can get the better of Virginia, especially if Justin Anderson’s hand doesn’t magically improve since his ho hum performance against UNC in which he looked like he was playing with 1 ½ hands. I guess my surprise here is that Michigan State, because of matchups, could make an elite 8 run and get past an Oklahoma team that has been up and down this year. I like Villanova and Michigan State in the elite 8, and I think we’ll be seeing more Wildcats in the Final 4. Villanova moves on.

Finally, the South. The Duke Blue Devils (sorry, they actually are the Blue Devils and not the Dukies) are the number one seed in spite of not winning the regular season or ACC tournament championship. They face competition from two good offensive clubs in Gonzaga and Iowa State potentially in the Elite 8, but I think Duke has an easy road to the Elite 8. They face a play-in winner (potentially the dancing band members of Northern Florida) and will get the winner of St John’s and San Diego St in the second round. The Blue Devils defeated St John’s on the road this year for Coach K’s 1000th win, and San Diego State doesn’t scare me as a Duke fan at all because they lack the offensive firepower to compete with the Blue Devils. The team that can beat Duke will do it because they can put up points with the Blue Devils and do enough to confuse them on offense that the game becomes close. In terms of potential Sweet 16 opponents, I think both the 4 and 5 seeds, Georgetown (overseeded in my opinion) and Utah are susceptible to losses to the 13 seeded Eastern Washington (with the nation’s highest scorer and owners of a 20 point road victory over Miami) and 12th seeded Stephen F Austin. There’s almost always one of those chaos groups in which two double digit seeds end up playing each other. I think this is where it will occur this year. I like Stephen F Austin to get the better of EWU and get a Sweet 16 matchup with Duke. I also like Davidson’s chances to beat an extremely Jekyll and Hyde Iowa team due to the strong guard play and motion principle offense of Bob McKillop. In a Sweet 16 matchup of two incredibly potent teams, I like Gonzaga to get the better of Iowa State due to the inside play of those eastern European guys. (Don’t ask me to try to spell or pronounce their names). In a terrific Elite 8 matchup, I think Duke will face Gonzaga. Here’s my take on Duke: they are their own enemy. The biggest factor in deciding whether they win or lose is their mindset. If you watched the game against Notre Dame in the ACC tournament, they were asleep and slow in the first half and looked like Notre Dame should roll over because it said Duke on the front of their jerseys. I actually think that loss will be beneficial and a good motivational tool for Coach K. If Duke advances past the first weekend, they will have the right attitude and will be playing better defense because they want to play better defense and their effort is there. If that happens, I think they will get past Gonzaga, and they will be a scary team that can send wings to run zone trapping schemes and get transition points and win big games like they did all year on the road (see Wisconsin, Louisville, Virginia). They get by and head to Indianapolis.

So: the Final Four is set. Three Wildcats and some Blue Devils. Although I think Arizona will give Kentucky a good game, I think the fighting hyphens get by and go to the national championship. I think Duke will take care of Villanova in the other semifinal to set up a classic final.

The year was 1991. The Final 4 was in Indianapolis. Duke faced a club coming in undefeated and highly favored over the Blue Devils. What happened? Duke won in suprising fashion and went on to win the National Championship. I like how the stars seem to align again. Where is this year’s final four? Indianapolis. An undefeated team highly favored over everyone else? Check. A Duke team with a terrific point guard and big man combo with enough surrounding pieces to win a ton of games? Check and Check. I think Duke upsets Kentucky in the Final as history repeats itself. Maybe I’m picking with my heart as much or more than my head, but hey, whatever. Duke raises the banner and the quest for 5 is complete. Sorry John Calamari.

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Ranking the Top 15 Conferences in College Basketball

As conference play starts up all over America, a picture of where each conference in college basketball stands entering 2015 is emerging. Today, I’ve decided to rank the top 15 conferences in the country. It’s a tough ranking to do and weighing different factors (depth, number of elite teams, etc.) can make it even more difficult. It is certainly a totally subjective, nebulous ranking, but that’s part of why it’s so much fun to do. Ranking conferences always seems to engender emotion, discussion, and debate. So go ahead, let me know what I got wrong in the comments!

1. Big 12

big 12The easy knock on the Big 12 is that its best teams aren’t that good. At least at this point in the season, it’s difficult to pinpoint a single dominant team in the conference and the highest ranked Big 12 team, Iowa State, clocks in at number nine. But the Big 12 is freaking deep. Six out of its ten teams are ranked. 13-0 TCU was ranked too before backlash against their weak schedule dropped them out. The Big 12 is going to put a lot of teams in the Dance.

2. ACC

ACCWhen the ACC expanded, folks expected the ACC to be dominant. And the new-look ACC is undoubtedly great. But while the ACC has four teams in Kenpom‘s top 10, it also five sub-100 teams. Louisville, Duke, and Virginia are all legit national title contenders. Meanwhile, Wake Forest, Florida State, and Virginia Tech are all legitimately mediocre. The ACC is huge, so of course it has some stinkers. It also has a bunch of teams with potential for great success in March, including a surprising Notre Dame squad. It’s reasonable to think of the ACC as the opposite of the Big 12: loaded at the very top, but not super deep.

3. Big East

big eastThe new look Big East might not be quite ready to reclaim its status as the best conference in the land, but it’s certainly very healthy. Villanova is nasty and still hasn’t lost. St. John’s has emerged on the national scene. The defending conference champion Friars are again good and getting better. Georgetown appears to be back. Aside from DePaul, everybody in the Big East had at least reasonable success in non-conference play. The Big East has good top-to-bottom depth. Get ready to watch a lot of Fox Sports.

4. Big Ten

b10Maryland arrived just in time for the Big Ten, because the Terps are really tough and the conference as a whole has taken a small step back. Wisconsin and Maryland are great. The conference’s other big-time programs are all down a bit, if not out. Michigan State and Ohio State’s aren’t playing at the high level we’re used to seeing them play. They’re still searching. Iowa and Illinois have both been good but not amazing. Michigan is young and has had some bad losses (NJIT…). The Big Ten has a lot of solid teams. There’s a lot of potential there. But, aside from a strong showing in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, the conference largely disappointed in non-conference play.

5. Pac-12

PAC-12 (edit 2)_1Everybody knows how good Arizona is. Don’t sleep on Utah though–the Utes are for real. Stanford and Washington have plenty of game as well. USC is going to be good soon; they’re young. The Pac-12 is better than it was a few years ago when it bottomed out. But there’s still more mediocrity there than Pac-12 fans would probably like. The conference isn’t overly deep. And UCLA remains a slumbering giant. Their embarrassing loss to Kentucky was a blow to the conference.

6. SEC

secKentucky, baby! The undefeated Wildcats are filthy. But after that… The conference’s next two best teams (LSU and Arkansas) both lost to Clemson so, umm, yeah. Florida’s a mess, albeit a talented mess, which leaves Kentucky without a surfeit of competition. The Gators lost to FSU yesterday by two after tipping the ball into their own hoop in the game’s waning seconds. Even if Florida figures things out (here’s guessing they will), the SEC won’t have much to brag about outside of ‘Tucky.

7. Atlantic 10

atlantic 10The A-10 has been on a high the past couple of years, but it’s taken a small step back this year. UMass has not been great. Saint Louis has not been great. St. Joe’s has not been great. But it’s not all bad news. VCU’s a terrific team. George Washington is a quality team. Davidson can score with anybody. The A-10 is still more major than mid-major.

8. AAC 

I waacas hesitant to put the AAC so low. It’s the home of the defending champs, after all. But the conference has struggled this year. UConn’s still working out the kinks following their title run. There are other solid teams in the conference:  Temple, SMU, and Cincinnati are not slouches. But no team in the conference is ranked and only two have managed double-digit wins thus far.

9. Mountain West

mwAt 13-0, Colorado State has snuck into the top 25. But the truth is the Rams probably aren’t even the Mountain West’s best team. San Diego State is an elite defensive squad and is arguably the conference’s flagship program at the moment. UNLV grabbed a huge win over Arizona. Boise State’s got game. And Wyoming is a good squad too.

10. WCC

wccGonzaga’s for real. It might be early, but they’ve looked like a final four caliber team. Gonzaga isn’t the only reason not to sleep on the WCC. Saint Mary’s, BYU, and Portland are all quality mid-majors as well.

11. Missouri Valley: UNI and Wichita State are great.

12. MAC: Central Michigan, Eastern Michigan, and Western Michigan are all solid.

13. Ivy League: Harvard is supposed to be the favorite, but there’s a surprising amount of parity in the Ivy. Keep an eye on Yale.

14. Horizon League: Green Bay’s win over Miami was great for the conference.

15. Conference USA: A lot of teams here. One of them–Old Dominion–happens to be very good.

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UConn-Duke Live Blog

Tonight, second ranked Duke will face the defending national champion UConn Huskies in a big time early season battle between two of the top college hoops programs in the nation. The game is set for an 8:00 PM ET start time and will be airing on ESPN. Join us here for a live blog and get ready for a classic college basketball battle. Joining in the live blog will be Grant Newman, a Duke freshman and one of our favorite guests here at CST. Click the link below to join!

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Picking the 2014 ACC-Big Ten Challenge

The ACC-Big Ten Challenge started last night with a couple of less-than-marquee games: Nebraska knocked off Florida State and Rutgers took down Clemson. Tonight, the real fun starts. Here are my picks for the remaining games in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.

Miami will attempt to stop Rayvonte Rice, who is averaging 18 points per game and shooting 58% for Illinois.

Miami will attempt to stop Rayvonte Rice, who is averaging 18 points per game and shooting 58% for Illinois.

Tuesday Night Games: 

Indiana 75, Pitt 73: Indiana can’t stop anybody, but the Hoosiers have shot the ball at a 51% clip to jump out to a 5-1 start to the season. Pitt hasn’t been great this year but is coming off a strong win over K-State. This looks like a toss up on paper–I’ll take IU at home.

Minnesota 74, Wake Forest 63: It may take a little while for Danny Manning to turn around the Demon Deacon program. Minnesota should handle Wake in Winston-Salem.

Syracuse 58, Michigan 50: Michigan is playing great ball so far this year. Still, Boeheim has had Beilein’s number in recent years. I have to take the Orange, even on the road.

Miami 67, Illinois 64: This is going to be a fun one. Two really good, well coached teams battling it out in front of what should be an electric atmosphere in Coral Gables.

Purdue 75, NC State 74: NC State’s looked sneaky good so far, and the Wolfpack are a pretty complete team. But Purdue owns the ACC-Big Ten challenge and the Boilermakers are at home. I’ll take Purdue. Reluctantly.

Louisville 73, Ohio State 66: Another tremendous matchup. This is the first true test of the year for Ohio State. And hoo boy, it’s a test!

Wednesday Night Games:

Michigan State 79, Notre Dame 76: This is a tough road test for Sparty. Notre Dame’s got game–they’re shooting 58% through seven contests. Michigan State will need to control the glass to pull this one out.

Penn State 70, Virginia Tech 62: Virginia Tech’s better than they’ve been the past couple years. They’re still far from good.

North Carolina 89, Iowa 76: Plenty of offense here. Not as much defense. The Tar Heels should roll at the Dean Dome.

Tony Bennett's defensively stout Cavs will take on a hot Maryland team.

Tony Bennett’s defensively stout Cavs will take on a hot Maryland team.

Virginia 55, Maryland 48: This one will be more defense-oriented. UVA is coming off a 45-26 win, so there’s that. The Terps just busted into the top 25 and they should have the Xfinity Center rocking. I’ll take the Cavs; I hate picking against Tony Bennett.

Georgia Tech 65, Northwestern 57: Northwestern’s 5-1 but they’re still searching for offensive answers. Georgia Tech should have the chops to win this one on the road.

Duke 74, Wisconsin 68: Final Four preview? Could well be. Both teams are filthy. Wiscy’s got home court. Duke’s got Jahlil.

 

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Nine Thoughts Through Nine Days of College Hoops

It’s nine o’clock on a Saturday…well nine o’clock-ish, PST. And we’re more than a week into college basketball season. Unsurprisingly, I have things to say about what I’ve seen. Here are nine thoughts on the young season.

Jahlil!

Jahlil!

1. Jahlil Okafor is absolutely the real deal. The Duke freshman came in with tons of hype and is living up to it early. The Blue Devils are 5-0 and have already logged wins over Michigan State and Stanford. Against MSU, Okafor scored 17 and shot 8-10 from the field. The near-seven-footer is mad skilled. Even when he misses, it looks good.

2. The Big East looks poised for a great season. Creighton is adjusting well to post-Doug McDermott life; they’re 3-0 and upset Oklahoma. Providence has looked sharp and sits at 4-0. They beat FSU 80-54 today. Villanova and Georgetown look good too. And only one of the conference’s ten teams has lost thus far (Marquette).

3. The national media might have overrated Nebraska. The 21st ranked Cornhuskers fell at Rhode Island today. It’s only one loss, but I continue to question any team coached by a guy who tweets during games. (I’m mostly kidding–Tim Miles is a good coach–but Nebraska’s ranking is probably steep.)

4. Gonzaga’s filthy. The 4-0 Bulldogs dominated SMU on November 17th and then beat St. Joe’s 94-42 on the 19th. The Hawks aren’t as good as they’ve been in past years, but still! Gonzaga had a 48-10 halftime lead!

5. San Diego State’s defense: still outstanding. The Aztecs held Utah to 49 points in a win on Tuesday and are giving up 45 points per game through three contests. Sure makes it less important that they’re shooting 36% from the field.

Bill Self

Bill Self’s Jayhawks had a rough go against Kentucky.

6. Colorado scored 90 points in their second game of the season (a blowout win over Auburn) and 33 points in their third game of the season (a blowout loss to Wyoming). Against Wyoming, they managed just nine second half points. Weird shit.

7. Kansas’ number five pre-season ranking might have been presumptuous. My ranking of them (tenth) in College Sports Town’s preview might have been, too. The youthful Jayhawks, who lost Joel Embiid and Andrew Wiggins to the NBA Draft, looked plenty green in a 72-40 loss to Kentucky earlier this week.

8. As for Kentucky, they might be OK.

9. Virginia Tech athletics had a rough day today. Their basketball team lost to Appalachian State. Their football team was involved in this.

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