Archive | March, 2015

3/31 Tuesday NIT and CIT Thoughts

31 Mar

Evansville’s offense has been on fire in the CIT, particularly DJ Balentine. I’m not sure really how much the 30 second shot clock has made them speed up their off ball motion sets, but with the exception of a game against ultra fast Coppin State, the Aces have played their highest possession games of the season in this tournament, and they’ve gone 1.11ppp, 1.14ppp, and 1.16ppp, with the last two wins on the road. They return home tonight to face road warriors UT Martin, who will be playing their 21st road game of the season, and fourth in a row of this tournament. You know exactly what you’re going to get with UT Martin. They’re going to play a super compact defense that will let you bomb away from you three in favor of having all five guys near the rim to crash the defensive glass and try to push the ball, but pull back and run a super slow motion that relies on working the ball for an open three. That’s essentially the entire offense. The Skyhawks haven’t seen an offense like Evansville’s in the OVC, but that defense that basically just clogs up the lane and takes away penetration might actually work to slow down Simmons’ offense because there’s just not going to be a lot of room to run all those screens (see Bradley games). Defensively, the Aces are going to get back in transition, as they don’t really try for offensive rebounds, but UT Martin should be able to find the open three more often than not in the halfcourt. UT Martin has been surviving a bit on the offensive glass the past two games, but that’s unlikely to continue against the excellent defensive rebounding of the Aces. In short, I think the Aces might have some issues initially running their offense against the compact UTM defense, but I’m really concerned about the legs of the Skyhawks. They only go six deep, and combined with all the travel, the Aces’ hyper efficient offense will be able to get going, and they might actually turn the tables on the Skyhawks and push off the defensive glass themselves, as it would behoove them to get this game into the mid 70s again possession wise. I counted out the Skyhawks once before when they traveled to Upstate, but I don’t expect Balentine to go 1-15 from three, or for the Aces to turn the ball over at a 27% clip. Prediction: Evansville 80-70 (ATS: Evansville -6.5, Over)           In the other CIT semifinal, NJIT travels all the way to Flagstaff to take on Northern Arizona in the Skydome. Both teams are off wild (and controversial games) to get here. NJIT hasn’t left Newark since January 25, when they traveled to face South Alabama. Certainly the 7,000+ feet altitude could play a major factor for a team completely unfamiliar with it, and playing on tired legs. They’ll also have to play a much bigger team as well, and it’s not just the length that could bother NJIT, but that length paired with mobility as well. NJIT is extremely reliant on the three point shooting of the 5’11 Damon Lynn and 6’0 Winfield Willis. NAU can throw out Yanku at 6’4 and Upshur at 6’5 in the backcourt, and Martin and Bewernick are both highly capable of contesting the three point line, and itt’s not like the Jacks haven’t seen prolific three point offenses before, having played in the best three point percentage league in the country (side note: Damon Lynn will be the third top five individual three point shooter in terms of attempts NAU has seen this year, joining Tyler Harvey and Dev Manley). Defensively for NJIT, I’m majorly concerned about their ability to keep Kris Yanku in front of them and off the FT line. When Yanku is getting into the lane at will, the NAU offense is at its best, as it opens up the three point line for Upshur and Dixon. NJIT just doesn’t have a guard who keep the bigger, more physical Yanku out of the lane. Additionally, they’re going to get killed on the glass on both ends against a very good rebounding NAU team. There’s certainly something to be said for the “playing with house money” attitude of NJIT, but the height and physicality of NAU combined with the Highlanders playing in extreme altitude for the first time and on tired legs makes me think the Jacks have a really good chance of playing in the CIT title game. Prediction: Northern Arizona 77-68 (ATS: NAU -4.5, Over)

I don’t have too much to say about the NIT games tonight. I think Coach L is going to have Miami sitting back in a zone, as opposed to the aggressive, in the guard’s face pressure zone that he liked to use when ARod was available (likely still out tonight). This has been the Will Cummings tournament so far, and he’s been ultra aggressive while not making mistakes. Led by Cummings, the Owls have gotten to the FT line at a much higher rate than they did during the regular season, and they’ve virtually eliminated turnovers, with TO rates of 7%, 12%, and a ridiculous 8% vs Louisiana Tech. You simply can’t afford to apply any pressure at all if you’re Miami, because you’re going to get shredded, and that’s why you’re likely going to see the Canes sitting back in a zone and trying to force Temple into jump shots. Defensively, Temple is getting some huge minutes inside from Enechionyia, Watson, and Dingle to help out Bond, but that’s sort of ok for the Canes, who are just looking to jack up the three anyway. Unfortunately for the Canes on that front, the Owls have been pretty solid contesting those three point attempts as well. I’m not sure Temple can get to the FT line 20+ like they have been against a defense likely to be in a zone and who already possesses one of the lowest foul rates in the country, but they’re just not making any mistakes and allowing extra possessions, and it’s going to take an exceptional shooting night for the Canes to win. That’s certainly not an impossibility, but I’ll side with the Owls. Prediction: Temple 68-65 (ATS: Temple -1, Under)               Not really sure at all who wins between Old Dominion and Stanford. The Monarchs are playing outstanding defense in this tournament, and Freeman’s ankle is getting closer to 100%, but Stanford is the type of team ODU has struggled with all year…a team with length across the board. The Cardinal have been exceptional defending around the rim in their games, and even when an outstanding shooting team like Vandy got hot from outside (12-25 from three), they still won. For the Monarchs to win, it’s going to take Freeman, Mosley, and Bacote all having unreasonable shooting nights, or for Nastic and/or Allen to get in some early foul trouble. Otherwise, I’m not sure the Monarchs are going to be able to muster enough offense against all the length and different defenses Dawkins can throw at them. Old Dominion is like Rhode Island in terms of offensive profile, but without the Rams’ aggression, and URI was only able to manage .88ppp against this Cardinal defense (granted, it was after traveling across the country and vs some suspect officiating). Stanford can also match ODU on the glass on both ends, and if offensive putbacks are limited, that’s just another avenue to supplement the ODU offense that’s cut off. Prediction: Stanford 67-62 (ATS: Stanford -2, Under)

3/30 Monday CBI Thoughts

30 Mar

CBI best of three series kicks off at Gentile Arena tonight, with games two and three (if necessary) being held in Monroe at Fant-Ewing. UL Monroe has played basically three identical games to get here, and they’re in the finals mostly due to Tylor Ongwae throwing the Warhawks on his back at the end of each game. Ongwae was shut out in the SBC semis for Georgia Southern, and emotionally vowed to dominate if ULM’s season continued, and he has certainly delivered. All three of ULM’s CBI games have been played at a significantly faster pace than what they were used to in the SBC, and I think that has been the key, because this team is pretty dreadful when forced to operate solely in the halfcourt offensively. They’re 4-8 this year in games played at 60 possessions or fewer, with their six least efficient games offensively all being sub 60 possessions. They’re a very poor perimeter shooting team, and they get to the FT line at the lowest rate in the country. However, thanks mainly to Ongwae’s aggressiveness, they’ve been getting to the FT line at a much higher clip in this tournament, and I think they’re probably the poster child in terms of the 30 second shot clock helping a team enough on the offensive end to make a noticeable difference. The Warhawks have a massive size advantage over Loyola, as the Ramblers’ frontcourt runs 6’5, 6’5, and 6’7, but Loyola is a team that is really going to make you execute in the halfcourt, and as I mentioned earlier, that’s where ULM runs in to trouble. Moser won’t be afraid to mix in a lot of zone, and zone offense has been a major issue for the Warhawks all season long, as they tend to struggle to get the ball to the rim consistently. Loyola’s offense isn’t as inefficient as ULM’s, but it’s nothing special either. They’re not reliant on the three by any means, but when they shoot it, they tend to make it. Richard will willingly switch to zone, and thus the ULM defense has tended to give up a lot of threes, but they contest incredibly well with their length. Keys to the series: 1) Will ULM maybe gamble a little more defensively against a Loyola team that’s 300th in offensive TO rate? Richard doesn’t generally apply much, if any, ball pressure, but ULM really needs to speed the game up into the upper 60s in terms of possessions, and pushing off the defensive glass isn’t really an option, as Loyola is behind only Wichita State, Cal Poly, and NMSU in terms of total FGAs in transition allowed. Moser will continue to punt offensive rebounds in favor of getting back defensively, so those extra possessions have to be squeezed out via live ball turnovers. 2) Can Loyola find a way to mitigate ULM’s length? They’re the eighth smallest team in the country. 3) Can ULM find some way to score against zones in the halfcourt? This could ultimately be the biggest factor in the series. ULM dominated the offensive glass vs EMU and Mercer’s zones, and that’s ultimately probably the best way for them to eke out extra points. 4) Which star player can provide more offense when both of these teams struggle? Ongwae and Doyle have been outstanding in second halves of this tournament. Great individual matchup. 5) Will depth play any role at this point in the season? Loyola has the deeper bench, but both teams have had 5 days off, although ULM is the team that has to come up to Chicago, and then back down to Monroe on one day rest between games one and two. I’ll say Loyola keeps game one in the high 50s/low 60s in terms of possessions, and wins a tight one at a home. (Prediction: Loyola Chicago 60-59 ATS: UL Monroe +6)

Sunday Elite 8 Thoughts and Predictions

29 Mar

4 LOUISVILLE vs 7 MICHIGAN STATE (Syracuse)

Pitino hasn’t been pressing much, if it all, this entire tournament, and he’s been relying on switching halfcourt defenses and his offense actually executing at a high level in the halfcourt, something not even the most hardcore Louisville fan could have really anticipated. I think Izzo is in a bit of bind here because Nairn is probably the only guard who can consistently keep Rozier out of the lane, but Nairn pretty much kills the MSU offense in the halfcourt, and Louisville’s halfcourt defense has been exceptional this entire tournament, as they’re simply not allowing anything at the rim (except for mammoth UCI in the first round). The Harrell/Dawson matchup is a great one, but generally speaking, I think both teams are going to play more defense oriented lineups at the cost of offense, which means lots of Mathiang for Louisville and lots of Nairn for the Spartans. I think we’re going to possibly see a sub 60 possession game in that scenario, especially with Pitino being way less aggressive with the press lately. If that’s the case, I think Louisville’s defense will be the best unit on the floor, and the Spartans aren’t going to be able to jack up 27 threes like they did vs Oklahoma. In short, the offense for defense lineup tinkering gives a slight edge to Louisville, and they win a tight, low possession game.

ADVANCE: LOUISVILLE 63-62 (Under)

ATS: LOUISVILLE +2

1 DUKE vs 2 GONZAGA (Houston)

Hopefully both teams have had a chance to adjust to cavernous NRG Stadium (yes, the poor shooting myth in airy footballs stadiums has been fairly well debunked, but it’s more about the weird concentrated lights at NRG that players often complain about), because this has the potential to be the game of the tournament with two super efficient offenses and two exploitable defenses. My biggest concern for Gonzaga is who can match up with Winslow. He’s just so skilled at basically every aspect of the game, and Wiltjer doesn’t have the agility to keep up with him, and Wesley doesn’t have have size/strength to keep him from backing him down. My biggest concern for Duke is the all height and frontcourt depth Gonzaga can throw at you on both ends. It’s been proven that Okafor can be bothered by big big doubles, and his defense around the rim and the baseline has been suspect, at best. I’ve been going back and forth on this one all day, but with the poor perimeter shooting numbers that are consistently posted in NRG Stadium, I have to side with the team who can defend around the rim better, and that’s Gonzaga. Both 2PT offenses are outstanding, but Duke’s season long struggle with interior defense catches up with them (although they’ve been much better in the tournament), and the Zags get to the Final Four in what should be a great game.

ADVANCE: GONZAGA 71-70 (Under)

ATS: GONZAGA +2

Saturday Elite 8 Thoughts

28 Mar

1 KENTUCKY vs 3 NOTRE DAME (Cleveland)

I think that Kentucky’s ability to completely take away the three point line is something that doesn’t get discussed enough. We’ve fallen in love with their height and athleticism, but their length on the perimeter completely takes the three out of the equation. Add in the fact that Notre Dame is essentially a four out one in offense, I just don’t see the Irish being competitive in this game. Simply put, the Irish can’t keep Kentucky tethered to the paint. We’re going to see Kentucky completely shut down the Notre Dame offense tonight. Defensively, I don’t see how Notre Dame can possibly compete with Kentucky’s length. Do we see Brey try to run the burn offense? That’s basically my only concern here…that Kentucky is going to be forced to play at a super slow pace, and defend for 20+ seconds, but on the other side of that coin, it’s been proven over and over again that you can’t beat Kentucky in the halfcourt. Essentially, Notre Dame is screwed.

ADVANCE: KENTUCKY 74-52 (Under)

ATS: KENTUCKY -11

1 WISCONSIN vs 2 ARIZONA (Los Angeles)

So we actually get to see if a healthy Arizona can beat Wisconsin. Words can’t express how much I’m looking forward to this matchup, and I think it’s one that Arizona dominates. They have the height inside and the length on the perimeter that can totally disrupt the Wisconsin offense. Wisconsin finally runs into a team that can take away both the perimeter and the interior. Additionally, you’re going to see TJ McConnell totally destroy Wisconsin’s backcourt off the dribble. The Badgers simply don’t have anyone who can keep him out of the lane.

ADVANCE: ARIZONA 65-60 (Under)

ATS: ARIZONA -1 

Thursday and Friday Sweet 16 Preview and Predictions

26 Mar

3 NOTRE DAME vs 7 WICHITA STATE (Cleveland)

This is the Thursday game I’ve been going back and forth on the most, which isn’t all that surprising given the other games tomorrow night. I’ve talked at length all year about how Wichita State is going to hawk the three point line and totally take away transition (only 14.5% of FGA come via transition vs the Shockers, by far the lowest in the country), and that former aspect is what’s going to hurt the Irish the most, especially since Zach Auguste can’t be relied upon solely to beat what can be a very good Wichita State interior defense as well. Notre Dame will have some opportunities to attack off the dribble with Grant and Jackson though, especially when Baker is on Grant. Wichita State has had trouble with elite dribble penetration at times (see Illinois State) and mobile bigs (see Seth Tuttle). Auguste isn’t a threat away from the rim, and the vastly underrated defense of Evan Wessel is key vs Pat Connaughton. Neither team is going to turn the ball over, like at all, so it basically becomes a question of who is going to defend in the half court more efficiently, and I give the edge to Wichita State. Grant and Jackson may be able to penetrate at times, but beating Wichita State for 40 minutes with a four guard lineup and without a mobile big doesn’t seem like the best proposition to me. Additionally, the Shockers have a big advantage on the glass, and while their size with Carter and Morris might not be super skilled offensively, they can rebound and Morris can at the very least clog up the lane and absorb some fouls. Offensively, Wichita State put on a clinic vs Kansas in the 2H, and when VanVleet and Cotton are both attacking and opening things up on the perimeter for Baker and Wessel, they can beat just about anyone. However, Grant and Jackson are both excellent defenders on the perimeter, and it’s been proven that to beat Notre Dame, you have to have some size at the rim. I mentioned that Wichita State’s size isn’t highly skilled offensively, but Carter is capable of supplementing enough if FVV and Cotton are being stifled on the perimeter, he just can’t be expected to carry the load. All in all, with the ability to defend in the half court and hawk the three point line, plus the big advantage on the glass, I’ll go with the Shockers.

ADVANCE: WICHITA STATE 68-65 (Under)

ATS: WICHITA STATE -2

1 WISCONSIN vs 4 NORTH CAROLINA (Los Angeles) 

I don’t know if Wisconsin was just sleepwalking through the opening weekend or what, but that didn’t look like the same Badger team I watched during the regular season. They were lethargic defensively, lazy offensively, and dare I say “soft” on the glass. When Oregon puts up better rebounding numbers against you, that’s a symptom of work ethic. Maybe they thought they could conserve some energy vs Coastal and Oregon, but whatever the reason, they just didn’t look like Wisconsin. Scheme wise though, I think UNC has some issues. Points at the rim are tough to come by vs the Tar Heels, as they’re second in the country in terms of limiting close shots, with just 19.6% of FGAs coming at the rim. That’s not necessarily a concern for the Badgers given the mobility of their bigs and the fact that Wisconsin can totally exploit UNC on the perimeter (think how UNC defended Notre Dame in both games this year). Offensively, Marcus Paige is the type of smaller, super quick guard who has given Wisconsin tons of trouble in the past few years, as guys like Keifer Sykes or Yogi Ferrell have been able to break the Badger defense down off the dribble, and get to the rim before the big comes up to the FT line extended to cut off penetration. As a result of not having any shooters and not getting to the FT line frequently (and they’re certainly not going to get there vs non fouling Wisconsin), UNC takes more two point jumpers than anyone in the country, and by a wide margin. Interestingly, as a result of being an efficient defense, Wisconsin allows a lot of mid range jump shots. So there’s sort of a back door to offense in this game for the Tar Heels that might need to be exploited since they’re 1) not going to be able to get in transition 2) not going to get to the FT line and 3) not going to be able to dominate the offensive glass vs (what’s usually) an outstanding defensive rebounding team. Additionally, the loss or limitation of Kennedy Meeks (the releases from UNC don’t make it sound like he’ll be a factor) puts a huge dent in UNC’s ability on the offensive glass and in that ability to protect the rim I referenced earlier. He’s the best on the team in both of those areas. In short, while I haven’t liked what I’ve seen from Wisconsin so far in this tournament, they’ve had a few days to regroup, and they have more efficient paths to offense than UNC does.

ADVANCE: WISCONSIN 74-71 (Over)

ATS: NORTH CAROLINA +6

1 KENTUCKY vs 5 WEST VIRGINIA (Cleveland)

Kentucky has played five games against teams that can be characterized as defenses that apply pressure for the majority of the game, and they’ve gotten progressively better at handling it as season wore on and Calipari abandoned the platoon system in favor of putting the best five on the court depending on the situation. As I’m sure everyone who is reading this is aware, West Virginia has the highest defensive turnover rate in the country, and it’s the heart and soul of Huggins’ squad this year. Here’s a quick glimpse at how those five Kentucky games vs constant pressure broke down…

12/7 vs Eastern Kentucky (2nd in TO%): 1.14ppp with 24% TO rate, won 82-49

12/27 vs Louisville (27th in TO%): .98ppp with 31% TO rate, won 58-50

2/17 at Tennessee (19th in TO%): 1.16ppp with 19% TO rate, won 66-48

2/28 vs Arkansas (20th in TO%): 1.20ppp with 13% TO rate, won 84-67

3/15 vs Arkansas (20th in TO%): 1.28ppp with 21% TO rate, won 78-63

So as Calipari went with the optimal lineup over the platoon system, Kentucky’s ability to matchup vs pressure improved. Additionally, the only one of those teams to go over 1ppp offensively vs Kentucky was Arkansas in the SEC title game, and they went for 1.03ppp, with a lot of those points coming in garbage time. Basically, when West Virginia isn’t turning Kentucky over, they’re not going to score. The Mountaineers half court offense struggles even against mediocre defenses, and is basically reliant on getting offensive rebounds in those situations (which is actually going to be their best form of offense against a Kentucky team that can struggle a bit on the defensive glass). Simply put, pressure alone won’t beat Kentucky. You have to be able to physically body them up inside and supplement with plus three point shooting. A Bob Huggins team certainly won’t be intimidated to body up, but they can’t shoot.

ADVANCE: KENTUCKY 73-53 (Under)

ATS: KENTUCKY -13.5 

2 ARIZONA vs 6 XAVIER (Los Angeles)

Obviously Chris Mack and Sean Miller are quite familiar with each other and are still very close friends, and Xavier fans have a bit of a love/hate relationship with Miller after he left Xavier. It’s not so much the leaving, but comparing Xavier to a Buick and Arizona to a Lexus on your way out the door probably wasn’t the best move, especially when Xavier had just been left by Thad Matta after he claimed he wasn’t going anywhere. Anyway, that’s all secondary background stuff now. Scheme wise, the issues for Xavier are how do they score against Arizona’s defense, and how do they stop Arizona from scoring. I’ve talked at length about how Arizona is so great defensively because they have ridiculously long and athletic wings who take away the three and a ton of height protecting the rim. That essentially leaves opposing offenses with two point jump shots, and that’s obviously not ideal. The good news for Xavier is that not only do they have height with Stainbrook, Reynolds (not going to get into the speculation and rumors with his investigation, but Mack said he will play), and Farr, but Stainbrook’s effectiveness passing out of the high post and moving the Arizona defense around is particularly key. So it’s not just height, it’s effective height. Defensively, you absolutely have to zone Arizona, and force them to hit jump shots. Oregon State did it effectively, as did UCLA and Ohio State for a half. Mack has being going to the 1-3-1 frequently with Macura at the top, and I would expect to see it early and often vs tomorrow night. The issue is that Xavier is really slow to rotate defensively, and it’s been a major problem all year. If York and Johnson are stretching the 1-3-1 with some threes early and Mack is forced to go to man, like Ohio State was, the game is over because Xavier can’t possibly guard them in man. Additionally, Xavier is usually an outstanding defensive rebounding team, but they’re weakened a bit when they’re forced to rebound out of the 1-3-1, and Arizona is an outstanding offensive rebounding team. On top of that, on the other end, Arizona is the best defensive rebounding team in the entire country. But really, the problem is that even if Xavier’s zones are effective in limiting Arizona offensively (and it’s highly dubious they will be for 40 minutes), Arizona is just so good defensively in all areas that the Muskies won’t be able to take advantage. It’s going to take Arizona being cold from outside for 40 minutes and Xavier executing at a high level through Stainbrook for 40 minutes for them to beat the Wildcats, so essentially they just need to play a perfect game.

ADVANCE: ARIZONA 75-61 (Over)

ATS: ARIZONA -10.5

2 GONZAGA vs 11 UCLA (Houston)

I could go on and on about how lucky UCLA is to be in this spot (shouldn’t be in field, goaltend, UAB, etc), but it doesn’t really matter at this point. They’re here, and they’re capable of beating the Zags, especially if Gonzaga keeps playing defense like they have in the first two games. I have the same feeling about Gonzaga as I had when watching Wisconsin in the opening weekend, and that’s that they didn’t seem to really care, especially on the defensive end. I love Dexter Werner for NDSU, but 10-14 around the rim vs that Gonzaga frontcourt is inexcusable, and then no one seemed all too interested in trying to defend Jarrod Uthoff, like even try to stay in front of him, and that could be a disaster against a much improved Norman Powell and a much improved overall UCLA team from the first time they saw them. Powell wasn’t much of a factor in that game, but I’m not really sure who can guard him Friday night. Bell is going to have to be on Alford because while he’s a lockdown defender, he struggles with guys who have height on him, and same goes for Pangos. That leaves Wesley, who hasn’t really seemed too interested in playing defense for a while now. UCLA’s frontcourt is also much improved from the first meeting, as Parker has been way more consistent in March, and Looney has broken past the freshman wall he seemed to be hitting. This makes UCLA the best frontcourt Gonzaga has seen since Arizona, where they managed just .94ppp. Now with that being said, major improvement or not, UCLA is still a LONG way off from being Arizona, and there are some glaring mismatches here, namely who can possibly check Wiltjer. He was too mobile for Looney or Parker, and way too big for Hamilton or Powell in the first meeting. Alford can’t really afford to stay in a basic zone for long stretches because this Gonzaga offense crushes zones into tiny little cubes. That means a lot of defensive switching and trying to keep Gonzaga’s pick and roll continuity offense off balance, but I think it’s more likely to keep UCLA confused defensively and create some major mismatches, since the Gonzaga offense basically has it all working from the Pangos Wiltjer pick and roll game, to Wesley slashing, to Sabonis and Karnowski in the post. There are just going to be too many opportunities for Gonzaga to score, from Alford’s “let them have the three” general philosophy, to UCLA being unable to defend the pick and roll. So the question becomes whether or not Gonzaga’s defense decides to finally show up this tournament. Bell being able to shut down Alford is a start, but with the improvement of Looney and Parker from the first meeting, I think the frontcourt might have some issues tomorrow night, and as I mentioned earlier, I’m not sure who can guard Powell. Ultimately however, I think this one goes the way of Gonzaga’s first two tournament games, the offense covers up the lackluster defensive effort.

ADVANCE: GONZAGA 84-74 (Over)

ATS: GONZAGA -8.5 

4 LOUISVILLE vs 8 NORTH CAROLINA STATE (Syracuse)

Louisville gets another crack at NC State, and Rick Pitino with a few days prepping for the second time around against a Mark Gottfried coached team seems like a recipe for disaster for the Pack. Of course, that’s assuming this new found Louisville offensive juggernaut makes a return appearance. No way around it, the Louisville offense was phenomenal vs an outstanding Northern Iowa defense. Terry Rozier was fantastic in that game, and the Cardinals posted 1.20ppp, their most efficient offensive showing since 1.19ppp at a listless FSU team on February 28. What’s funny is that I’m now more concerned about Louisville’s defense in this game than I am about their offense, a thought which seemed as plausible as a sixteen beating a one seed when this tournament began. I’m concerned because it’s clear that NC State can handle Pitino’s full court matchup press with the unique match up zone in the halfcourt. Barber and Lacey handled it with relative ease, and the Pack posted a 1.12ppp OE with just a 12% TO rate in the first meeting. The Pack were simply prepared for that kind of pressure (albeit unique to Pitino teams) because of a three games in six days stretch where they faced Tennessee, West Virginia, and Louisiana Tech. Against the Vols they posted 1.32ppp and just a 16% TO rate, and against LA Tech 1.11ppp with just a 14% TO rate. They were however flattened by WV’s press, which at that point in the season everyone was, as teams simply seemed unprepared/unaware that Huggins was going to go the full 40 minutes in a full court press. Now that being said, Pitino with a couple of extra days and tons of tape means he’s going to mix up those zone presses some, and that could ultimately be the difference in this game. Although Cat Barber and his ability to break down the zone press was huge in the first game, the Pack’s mercurial defense turned up huge as well. Gottfried’s teams aren’t going to gamble defensively, and forcing Louisville to execute in the halfcourt is generally a good idea. The key to NC State’s run in this tournament has been the interior defense. Abu has been phenomenal, and when paired with Anya and Freeman, the Pack are basically forcing teams to beat them with jump shots, and LSU and Villanova simply couldn’t do it. Those two were a combined 29-78 on 2PT FGAs. In the first meeting with Louisville, that same stellar interior defense combined with Cat Barber breaking down Louisville’s defense won the game. Chris Jones led Louisville in scoring that game, and he obviously won’t be able to contribute 20 points again, but Wayne Blackshear going 4-6 from 3 was really the only reason Louisville was in the game. I expect Pitino to bring Harrell away from the paint more this game, as NC State has had trouble staying in front of aggressive wings this year, and it just doesn’t make much sense to waste possessions trying to pound the ball down low against a defense that’s 25th nationally in terms of FG% at the rim. In short, I expect Pitino to make a few adjustments to the full court matchup press and to use way more 2-3 than matchup in the halfcourt, which means Mathiang will continue to see 20+ minutes, and Harrell moves the defense away from the rim enough offensively to open up some lanes for Rozier against the stout NC State interior defense.

ADVANCE: LOUISVILLE 64-60 (Under)

ATS: LOUISVILLE -3

1 DUKE vs 5 UTAH (Houston)

Utah is a team that I fell in love with, but quickly fell out of love with when they started settling for the three WAY too often at the end of the season. It appears that Coach K the Younger has them refocused on what made them such a dominant force earlier in the season, as they’ve only attempted 27 threes in two games in the NCAA Tournament, as opposed to the 40 they jacked up in two games in the Pac12 Tournament. Duke’s vulnerabilities defensively are well known if you’ve followed this blog or anyone else who knows even a modicum of college basketball schemes. They can’t defend inside/baseline, and they can be destroyed off the dribble/isolation sets. That means you’re certainly going to see Utah pound the ball inside to Poeltl and let Delon Wright attack off the dribble. Winslow is an outstanding defender, but even if he’s limiting Wright’s penetration, he’s more than talented enough to find the other mismatches on the perimeter involving Loveridge or Tucker. Although it appears the Duke defense has improved lately, I just can’t read too much into how they limited an already poor SDSU offense that was also stricken with a team wide flu. Defensively, I think Utah is pretty well equipped to limit the outstandingly efficient Duke offense, but it’s all predicated on Poeltl and Bachynski staying out of foul trouble against Okafor. It’s not too often Okafor is going to face potential double teams from dual seven footers, but if they get in early foul trouble by taking a block foul or two early from a patented Okafor dipped shoulder, things start to get dicey. With the outstanding height inside, Utah is really able to focus on taking away the three with their perimeter and not having to gamble for turnovers outside, although Wright does have a top 50 steal rate, simply because he’s a freak athlete. So with Okafor potentially stifled, and Utah shutting down the three point line combined with distinct paths to offense vs a vulnerable Duke defense (they basically do one thing well defensively, and that’s hawk the three point line), I think there’s a very reasonable shot for the Utes to advance to the Elite Eight.

ADVANCE: UTAH 70-69 (Over)

ATS: UTAH +5.5

3 OKLAHOMA vs 7 MICHIGAN STATE (Syracuse)

This is perhaps the Friday game I’m most interested in in terms of scheme, because I think Izzo has a fairly tough choice to make…does he back off the offensive rebounding that has been the bread and butter of so many of his teams in favor of getting back defensively against a fast paced Oklahoma team, or does he try to run with them? I think we’ll see more of the latter than the former. With all the talk of how fast Oklahoma and how great they are in transition, I think we’re actually forgetting that Michigan State is, by the numbers, a better transition offense, they just got bogged down in a much slower Big Ten. Michigan State and Oklahoma are about even in terms of FGA in transition (MSU 47th, OU 52nd), but Michigan State is 50th nationally in terms of eFG% in transition, whereas Oklahoma is 130th. In terms of who’s better in transition defense, that’s a little tougher to quantify, just because as I mentioned, so few teams run in the Big Ten, but against Minnesota, MSU’s transition defense was really suspect. In the half court, I think Oklahoma has a distinct edge. They’re 17th nationally in terms of defensive FG% at the rim, and Thomas and Spangler have the length and athleticism to matchup with Dawson, and the length they have in the backcourt with Hield and Cousins to matchup against Forbes and Valentine and a lock down defender in Woodard against Trice is going to make things difficult when the Spartans can’t get anything at the rim. There’s a reason why Lon Kruger has the sixth most efficient defense in the country, something that doesn’t get discussed a whole lot with this team. In short, despite Oklahoma having the much faster overall tempo, I actually think these teams are even in terms of their ability to score in transition, and that was fairly evident for the Spartans in the 1H vs Virginia, a team generally known for denying transition opportunities. What it boils down to for me is that Oklahoma is more capable of shutting down Michigan State in the halfcourt when the Spartans need to have buckets because of their ability to deny at the rim with their athletic frontcourt, and it gets even dicier for the Spartans offensively when Nairn is on the court. I think we’ll see both teams run on each other a fair amount, but the Sooners win because of their halfcourt defense.

ADVANCE: OKLAHOMA 72-70 (Over)

ATS: OKLAHOMA +2

3/25 Wednesday NIT/CIT/CBI thoughts

25 Mar

Not much to be gleaned from UT Martin and Eastern Kentucky’s only OVC meeting this year. It was way back on January 8 and it was the first OVC game for both, and UTM was still figuring some things out in Schroyer’s new system. Nonetheless, UTM basically executed their gameplan against the zone press, as they dominated the defensive glass and had just an 18% TO rate. They just couldn’t get a shot to fall from outside vs the zone, going 5-21 while simultaneously being unable to contain Walden off the dribble defensively. UTM has regained their form as the early season road warriors they were, as they won at Upstate just two days removed from winning in an uptempo affair at Northwestern State. EKU meanwhile hasn’t had to leave Richmond for their two CIT games. UTM’s big advantage on the defensive glass is basically negated since EKU punts offensive rebounds in favor of getting back defensively since they take so many threes anyway, and UTM doesn’t allow much in transition either, and do a good enough job handling pressure with the Smith/Anderson/Newell trio. So with UTM being unable to push off the defensive glass like Schroyer loves to do, and EKU being unable to turnover UTM consistently like Neubauer loves to do, this game basically comes down to who hits more threes, and against EKU’s zone and UTM’s sagging perimeter defense, the three is going to be open all night. EKU certainly has the fresher legs and more depth, but UTM has proven all season long they have a different mentality on the road. Prediction: EKU 67-64 (ATS: UT Martin +5.5)

Loyola hasn’t exactly slowed anyone down from outside in the CBI (Rider and ORU went a combined 23-51 from three), and that’s a bit worrisome against the three point chucking duo of Umipig and Flora. If you can’t slow down the Seattle backcourt, you’re putting yourself at a serious risk to lose. Seattle does have to travel all the way to Chicago with one day off, and they’re not a team that has proven they can win on the road, with just two wins away from Seattle, although they have made the trip to Chicago with Chicago State being a WAC opponent (and they won there). Loyola doesn’t shoot a ton of threes, but led by Turk, they hit at 40% when they do, which is troublesome for a Seattle team that mostly sits back in a zone. Ultimately, I think the length the Ramblers can throw out on the perimeter (particularly out of Moser’s 1-3-1 he was using vs ORU) will be enough to bother Flora and Umipig, and when they’re not providing the offense, Seattle can’t score (they’ve scored 86 of Seattle’s 134 points in the CBI). Pretend like this is the early 1960s, and you’ll get really excited for this game. Prediction: Loyola 67-60 (ATS: Seattle +10)          

In the other semifinal, Vermont makes the 1,600 mile trip all the way to UL Monroe for a matchup that were it played anywhere else under different circumstances, I would love the Catamounts in. I’ve spent a lot of time talking about how stellar Vermont’s defense is in terms of both taking away the three and limiting looks at the rim (sixth in the country in FG% at the rim). That’s really bad news for a ULM team that thrives on beating teams at the rim with their overall length, and really struggles when teams force them out into perimeter shots. ULM has faced two teams that do exactly that with their zones in EMU and Mercer, and they’ve somehow squeaked out wins in both, including overcoming a 20 point 2H deficit in Macon on Monday, as Tylor Ongwae completely took the game over down the stretch. Ongwae is once again key tonight, as Vermont has had problems defending against lengthy slashers (see Peter Hooley, John Green, Wes Saunders, DeAndre Bembry, Willie Rodriguez, I’ll stop now) and Ongwae is they type of player who can give them fits. He’s also been playing like a man possessed after he was held scoreless vs Georgia Southern in the SBC semis, and we might have an instance where one player beats scheme, just like it did vs EMU and Mercer. Additionally, who knows how much Hector Harold can give on short rest after only being able to play 12 minutes with the flu on Monday. His versatility defensively would be key against Ongwae. Defensively, Keith Richard will throw out a lengthy zone that really contests the three well and limits penetration without fouling, which is key against attack heavy Wills and Bell-Haynes. Vermont isn’t a bad three point shooting team, but it’s certainly not what they’re looking to accomplish offensively. Prediction: UL Monroe 67-66 (ATS: ULM +1)

Not too much to be gained from looking into the first game of the year between Louisiana Tech and Temple. The Owls were a totally different team and were without Bond, Morgan, and Coleman, and a team that has the fifth lowest TO rate in the country is even more equipped to handle the LA Tech pressure this time around. Cummings has basically been attacking straight downhill in both games this tournament, and I don’t see how Louisiana Tech stops the Owls after they get past the press, and I actually think White is going to have to seriously scale back the press this game. Defensively Temple can really limit penetration and protect the rim with some atheltic length inside, and I think LA Tech is going to be forced into a lot of jump shots they don’t really want to take. In short, Temple has the ability to force the Bulldogs out of their usual game plan on both ends of the court. Prediction: Temple 78-73 (ATS: Temple -4)

Trey Freeman’s ankle is supposedly better than it was Monday night, but he’s still not really that close to 100% it seems, and that’s not a good thing when you’re trying to slow down Cam Payne and the Racer offense, who has steamrolled to 1.17ppp in both NIT games against two good defenses. I don’t really have too much to add to what should be a great game. ODU has proven they’re going to get back in transition at all costs in this tournament which limits the Racers prolific offense somewhat, but I’ve gone on ad nauseam about how underrated and athletic Murray State’s frontcourt is, and they’ll be able to compete with a very good Monarch team on the glass. All in all, I’m not sure Old Dominion gets enough offense with a limited Freeman to score enough to beat a determined Murray State team, but I could very well look foolish picking against the Monarchs at home, especially with a short benched Murray State traveling on one day of rest all the way from Tulsa. Flipped a coin and it came up Murray State though. Looking forward to this one. Prediction: Murray State 68-67 (ATS: Murray State +2)

Sweet 16 Preview and Predictions

25 Mar

3 NOTRE DAME vs 7 WICHITA STATE (Cleveland)

This is the Thursday game I’ve been going back and forth on the most, which isn’t all that surprising given the other games tomorrow night. I’ve talked at length all year about how Wichita State is going to hawk the three point line and totally take away transition (only 14.5% of FGA come via transition vs the Shockers, by far the lowest in the country), and that former aspect is what’s going to hurt the Irish the most, especially since Zach Auguste can’t be relied upon solely to beat what can be a very good Wichita State interior defense as well. Notre Dame will have some opportunities to attack off the dribble with Grant and Jackson though, especially when Baker is on Grant. Wichita State has had trouble with elite dribble penetration at times (see Illinois State) and mobile bigs (see Seth Tuttle). Auguste isn’t a threat away from the rim, and the vastly underrated defense of Evan Wessel is key vs Pat Connaughton. Neither team is going to turn the ball over, like at all, so it basically becomes a question of who is going to defend in the half court more efficiently, and I give the edge to Wichita State. Grant and Jackson may be able to penetrate at times, but beating Wichita State for 40 minutes with a four guard lineup and without a mobile big doesn’t seem like the best proposition to me. Additionally, the Shockers have a big advantage on the glass, and while their size with Carter and Morris might not be super skilled offensively, they can rebound and Morris can at the very least clog up the lane and absorb some fouls. Offensively, Wichita State put on a clinic vs Kansas in the 2H, and when VanVleet and Cotton are both attacking and opening things up on the perimeter for Baker and Wessel, they can beat just about anyone. However, Grant and Jackson are both excellent defenders on the perimeter, and it’s been proven that to beat Notre Dame, you have to have some size at the rim. I mentioned that Wichita State’s size isn’t highly skilled offensively, but Carter is capable of supplementing enough if FVV and Cotton are being stifled on the perimeter, he just can’t be expected to carry the load. All in all, with the ability to defend in the half court and hawk the three point line, plus the big advantage on the glass, I’ll go with the Shockers.

ADVANCE: WICHITA STATE 68-65 (Under)

ATS: WICHITA STATE -2

1 WISCONSIN vs 4 NORTH CAROLINA (Los Angeles) 

I don’t know if Wisconsin was just sleepwalking through the opening weekend or what, but that didn’t look like the same Badger team I watched during the regular season. They were lethargic defensively, lazy offensively, and dare I say “soft” on the glass. When Oregon puts up better rebounding numbers against you, that’s a symptom of work ethic. Maybe they thought they could conserve some energy vs Coastal and Oregon, but whatever the reason, they just didn’t look like Wisconsin. Scheme wise though, I think UNC has some issues. Points at the rim are tough to come by vs the Tar Heels, as they’re second in the country in terms of limiting close shots, with just 19.6% of FGAs coming at the rim. That’s not necessarily a concern for the Badgers given the mobility of their bigs and the fact that Wisconsin can totally exploit UNC on the perimeter (think how UNC defended Notre Dame in both games this year). Offensively, Marcus Paige is the type of smaller, super quick guard who has given Wisconsin tons of trouble in the past few years, as guys like Keifer Sykes or Yogi Ferrell have been able to break the Badger defense down off the dribble, and get to the rim before the big comes up to the FT line extended to cut off penetration. As a result of not having any shooters and not getting to the FT line frequently (and they’re certainly not going to get there vs non fouling Wisconsin), UNC takes more two point jumpers than anyone in the country, and by a wide margin. Interestingly, as a result of being an efficient defense, Wisconsin allows a lot of mid range jump shots. So there’s sort of a back door to offense in this game for the Tar Heels that might need to be exploited since they’re 1) not going to be able to get in transition 2) not going to get to the FT line and 3) not going to be able to dominate the offensive glass vs (what’s usually) an outstanding defensive rebounding team. Additionally, the loss or limitation of Kennedy Meeks (the releases from UNC don’t make it sound like he’ll be a factor) puts a huge dent in UNC’s ability on the offensive glass and in that ability to protect the rim I referenced earlier. He’s the best on the team in both of those areas. In short, while I haven’t liked what I’ve seen from Wisconsin so far in this tournament, they’ve had a few days to regroup, and they have more efficient paths to offense than UNC does.

ADVANCE: WISCONSIN 74-71 (Over)

ATS: NORTH CAROLINA +6

1 KENTUCKY vs 5 WEST VIRGINIA (Cleveland)

Kentucky has played five games against teams that can be characterized as defenses that apply pressure for the majority of the game, and they’ve gotten progressively better at handling it as season wore on and Calipari abandoned the platoon system in favor of putting the best five on the court depending on the situation. As I’m sure everyone who is reading this is aware, West Virginia has the highest defensive turnover rate in the country, and it’s the heart and soul of Huggins’ squad this year. Here’s a quick glimpse at how those five Kentucky games vs constant pressure broke down…

12/7 vs Eastern Kentucky (2nd in TO%): 1.14ppp with 24% TO rate, won 82-49

12/27 vs Louisville (27th in TO%): .98ppp with 31% TO rate, won 58-50

2/17 at Tennessee (19th in TO%): 1.16ppp with 19% TO rate, won 66-48

2/28 vs Arkansas (20th in TO%): 1.20ppp with 13% TO rate, won 84-67

3/15 vs Arkansas (20th in TO%): 1.28ppp with 21% TO rate, won 78-63

So as Calipari went with the optimal lineup over the platoon system, Kentucky’s ability to matchup vs pressure improved. Additionally, the only one of those teams to go over 1ppp offensively vs Kentucky was Arkansas in the SEC title game, and they went for 1.03ppp, with a lot of those points coming in garbage time. Basically, when West Virginia isn’t turning Kentucky over, they’re not going to score. The Mountaineers half court offense struggles even against mediocre defenses, and is basically reliant on getting offensive rebounds in those situations (which is actually going to be their best form of offense against a Kentucky team that can struggle a bit on the defensive glass). Simply put, pressure alone won’t beat Kentucky. You have to be able to physically body them up inside and supplement with plus three point shooting. A Bob Huggins team certainly won’t be intimidated to body up, but they can’t shoot.

ADVANCE: KENTUCKY 73-59 (Under)

ATS: KENTUCKY -13.5 

2 ARIZONA vs 6 XAVIER (Los Angeles)

Obviously Chris Mack and Sean Miller are quite familiar with each other and are still very close friends, and Xavier fans have a bit of a love/hate relationship with Miller after he left Xavier. It’s not so much the leaving, but comparing Xavier to a Buick and Arizona to a Lexus on your way out the door probably wasn’t the best move, especially when Xavier had just been left by Thad Matta after he claimed he wasn’t going anywhere. Anyway, that’s all secondary background stuff now. Scheme wise, the issues for Xavier are how do they score against Arizona’s defense, and how do they stop Arizona from scoring. I’ve talked at length about how Arizona is so great defensively because they have ridiculously long and athletic wings who take away the three and a ton of height protecting the rim. That essentially leaves opposing offenses with two point jump shots, and that’s obviously not ideal. The good news for Xavier is that not only do they have height with Stainbrook, Reynolds (not going to get into the speculation and rumors with his investigation, but Mack said he will play), and Farr, but Stainbrook’s effectiveness passing out of the high post and moving the Arizona defense around is particularly key. So it’s not just height, it’s effective height. Defensively, you absolutely have to zone Arizona, and force them to hit jump shots. Oregon State did it effectively, as did UCLA and Ohio State for a half. Mack has being going to the 1-3-1 frequently with Macura at the top, and I would expect to see it early and often vs tomorrow night. The issue is that Xavier is really slow to rotate defensively, and it’s been a major problem all year. If York and Johnson are stretching the 1-3-1 with some threes early and Mack is forced to go to man, like Ohio State was, the game is over because Xavier can’t possibly guard them in man. Additionally, Xavier is usually an outstanding defensive rebounding team, but they’re weakened a bit when they’re forced to rebound out of the 1-3-1, and Arizona is an outstanding offensive rebounding team. On top of that, on the other end, Arizona is the best defensive rebounding team in the entire country. But really, the problem is that even if Xavier’s zones are effective in limiting Arizona offensively (and it’s highly dubious they will be for 40 minutes), Arizona is just so good defensively in all areas that the Muskies won’t be able to take advantage. It’s going to take Arizona being cold from outside for 40 minutes and Xavier executing at a high level through Stainbrook for 40 minutes for them to beat the Wildcats, so essentially they just need to play a perfect game.

ADVANCE: ARIZONA 75-61 (Over)

ATS: ARIZONA -10.5