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Favorites, beware these 10 darkhorses the field of 68

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The 2012 NCAA Tournament may end up being on of the most competitive fields in recent memory. While there are five to 10 elite teams this year, the quality of the entire field is incredibly high. Because of that, and because of what we’ve seen in the past, it is entirely possible that a dark-horse emerges from the field, such as VCU did a season ago.

Even if a darkhorse doesn’t make it to New Orleans, a successful run to the Sweet-16 or Elite Eight is enough to advance the program for seasons to come. Consider this the list of teams that you think could make a run, but aren’t positive enough to vocalize it.

(Note: Our list contains no teams seeded higher than a No. 7-seed)

Florida (No. 7 West):
In the dark: The Gators played in the shadows of Kentucky all season long, and when they had their chance against the Wildcats, they came up short. The SEC was pretty weak outside of Kentucky, so people wrote this team off as a legitimate contender.
Why they can make a run: Billy Donovan is a solid tournament coach, and they have a bunch of guards that can score a bunch of points. If they can feed Patric Young on a consistent basis, this is a team that can do some damage.
Tourney distance: A potential third round match-up with Missouri would be interesting and entertaining considering that both teams are very similar. It would not be a monumental surprise to see this team advance to the Elite Eight or further, but it would be a bit of a shock.

Creighton (No. 8 Midwest):
In the dark: Wichita State stole its thunder late in the season, and even a MVC tournament Championship couldn’t boost the Bluejays tournament seeding.
Why they can make a run: Doug McDermott. That’s why. This team does not play a lot of defense but Doug Mcdermott is an All-American capable of scoring 30 points night in and night out. Antoine Young can make clutch shots and Gregotry Echenique is a force down low.
Tourney distance: If, and that’s a big “if”, they can beat North Carolina in the third round, this team could go all the way. But their lack of defense will hurt them against North Carolina. That being said, it would not be a surprise to see this team advance past the third round.

Iowa State (No. 8 South)
In the Dark: Hoop junkies know how good of a job Fred Hoiberg has done as coach this year, and they know about Royce White. But this would be a perfect time for the casual fans to get introduced to “The Royce White Expressway”.
Why they can make a run: Royce White. The 6-9 forward is a match-up nightmare. He’s the type of player who can put the entire team on his back. But he does have help. Scott Christopherson is a phenomenal shooter, and Melvin Ejim can do a bit of everything. This team was right outside of the Big-XII’s big-3 of Kansas, Baylor and Missouri. Being just outside of that group isn’t too shabby for a team chalk-full of transfers coached by a second-year head coach.
Tourney distance: UConn is a difficult second round match-up, but talented teams that lack cohesiveness don’t usually fare well in March. If Iowa State beats the Huskies they can legitimately give Kentucky a run for their money in the third round. If they can knock-off the overall No.1-seed, sky is the limit.

Kansas State (No. 8 East):
In the dark: The Wildcats have no superstars like in previous years, and play in the shadows on the Kansas Jayhawks. They beat good teams but lost to teams they shouldn’t have.
Why they can make a run: The Wildcats are as tough as they come. They beat up on teams with more size and more talent. They are an extremely good offensive rebounding team and have solid guard play.
Tourney distance: It is possible that they could defeat Syracuse in the third round. The Orange are a poor rebounding tram, and as mentioned, Kansas State is surprisingly good. A berth in the Sweet-16 is possible, but that’s probably their limit. Nonetheless, that would be a significant accomplishment for a team that entered the season with limited expectations.

West Virginia (No. 10 East):
In the dark: The Mountaineers were just 9-9 in Big East play and have a roster with nine freshman on it.
Why they can make a run: Kevin Jones is a force down low. He is a tremendous rebounder, has great hands and can shot from outside. Truck Bryant is a capable point guard who can score in volume when he is responsible with the ball.
Tourney distance: Beating Gonzaga in the first round is very possible. A second round match-up with Ohio State is made less daunting because of Kevin Jones, who can go toe-to-toe with Jared Sullinger.

Xavier (No. 10 South):
In the dark: There might not ever be a downward spiral as big as the one the Musketeers fell into following the Crosstown Brawl. Luckily for Xavier, they had been so dominant prior to the incident, that they were buoyed enough to limp in the tournament.
Why they can make a run: They have a very easy draw, and if they can discover their moxie again, this team is dangerous. Tu Holloway hasn’t had a great season, but we all know what he’s capable of in the tournament.
Tourney distance: They are more talented than Notre Dame, but they will have to be more disciplined. If they can be, and Duke gets upset by Lehigh, which is very possible, a Sweet-Sixteen run isn’t out of the realm of possibillity. A Final-Four appearance probably is however.

Texas (No. 11 East):
In the dark: Only J’Covan Brown, Alexis Wangmene and Dean Melchonni return from last year’s squad. Plus, the ‘Horns finished in the middle of the Big-XII pack at 9-9.
Why they can make a run: They ran with a bunch of the top teams in the Big-XII despite having so much youth on their roster. Plus, their Nashville pod is rather weak.
Tourney distance: A berth in the Sweet-16 would be a tremendous success and would not be too farfetched. Cincinnati is a beatible first round opponent, as is either Florida State or St. Bonaventure’s.

Long Beach State (No. 12 West):
In the dark: Actually, this team is probably one of the sexiest lower-seed picks in the tournament. The 49ers’ monstrous non-conference schedule provided some exposure to the public, but still, they play in the Big West Conference. Not enough people know about Casper Ware.
Why they can make a run: They are loaded with experience. Not tournament experience per se, but all five starters are seniors, and their brutal non-conference schedule has given them confidence to hang with the big-boys. Casper Ware is one of the best point guards in the country, and this team plays a brand of basketball that not may teams want to deal with.
Tourney distance: A Sweet-16 appearance wouldn’t be a huge surprise, but they would have to beat Louisville, a team they already lost to, in order to get there.

New Mexico State (No. 13 South):
In the dark: The Aggies play in the WAC. The only reason you know about the WAC is because of conference realignment. They only played one BCS-conference team (Arizona) and lost 83-76.
Why they can make a run: They’ve won 12 of their last 14 games and all of their key players are upperclassmen. Guard Hernst LaRoche and forward Wendell McKines make up one of the ebst one-two punches out west. They are both capable of 30-point performances, and are both quality shooters. The Aggies aren’t terribly deep, but they have size and strength.
Tourney distance: 6-foot-11 senior Hamidu Rahman will have his hands full with Indiana’s Cody Zeller in the second round, but the Aggies backcourt may actually be better than the Hooisers, so if they can control the talented freshman, they can steal the victory. With Wichita State and VCU facing off in the other match-up, a berth in the Sweet-16 is possible. That’s about as far as this team can go.

Detroit (No. 15 Midwest)
In the dark: The Titans’ early season struggles killed all the preseason hype that was attached to this team. Playing in a Horizon League known primarily for Butler didn’t help either.
Why they can make a run: They have a surprisingly big and athletic team for the mid-major ranks. Ray McCallum Jr. is a five-star guard and Eli Hohlman is a dominant big-man that should be able to give Thomas Robinson some trouble. They also have two athletic forwards in LaMarcus Lowe and Doug Anderson.
Tourney distance: They are a No.15-seed, so earning one win would be considered a success. earning that one win against Kansas would have to be considered an even bigger success. Plus, Kansas hsa a penchant for losing to mid-major teams. Maybe the titans can summon some Horizon League magic and become “the new Butler”.

Troy Machir is the managing editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @TroyMachir.

Creighton’s Mo Watson Jr. has a torn ACL

LAS VEGAS, NV - NOVEMBER 25:  Head coach Greg McDermott of the Creighton Bluejays talks with Maurice Watson Jr. #10 during the team's game against the Massachusetts Minutemen during the championship game of the Men Who Speak Up Main Event basketball tournament at MGM Grand Garden Arena on November 25, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Creighton won 97-76.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
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Mo Watson Jr.’s Creighton career is over.

The star point guard for the Blue Jays had an MRI on Tuesday to determine the damage suffered in his left knee, and it revealed a torn ACL. Watson entered Monday’s game at Xavier averaging 13.4 points and a nation’s-best 8.8 assists on the season. He was the engine that made Creighton’s high-octane offense work.

“Devastated for [him],” head coach Greg McDermott said. “His impact on our program has been incredible. His leadership will continue to be vital to our success.”

With Watson, who was having an all-american season and was seventh in our Player of the Year Power Rankings as of Tuesday, Creighton was a team with Final Four upside. Their defense was a concern, but their ability to score in transition and to get easy looks from three – both of which were largely due to the ability of Watson – ensured that teams were going to have to score in the 80s to beat them.

Without Watson, Creighton was able to hang on to beat Xavier in Cincinnati, but it’s unclear what the future will hold. Isaiah Zierdan replaced Watson at the point down the stretch, and Greg McDermott does have a number of talented guards on his roster, but that doesn’t do much to mitigate was is a devastating loss for this team.

Watson released a statement on twitter on Tuesday:

Player of the Year Power Rankings: Mason, Hart, Lonzo. Who ya got?

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1. Frank Mason III, Kansas
2. Josh Hart, Villanova
3. Lonzo Ball, UCLA: At this point in the year, I feel pretty comfortable making the guarantee that the National Player of the year is going to be one of these three players for three reasons:

  1. All three of them are not just an important piece but the critical component to their team’s success.
  2. The team’s that they play on could very well be the three best teams in college basketball, and I’ve always been of the mindset that winning matters when it comes to Player of the Year and all-american honors.
  3. Their numbers alone are good enough to get them into the conversation even if they didn’t happen to be the best player on one of the best teams in the country.

Frankly, the more that I think about it, labeling this a two-horse race was probably wrong. I’ve had Lonzo Ball third in these rankings for more or less the entire season, but there’s always been a gap between him and the two guys slotted above. Ball’s numbers are ridiculous – 14.6 points, 8.0 assists, 5.5 boards, 1.8 steals, 2.3 turnovers – but it’s what he’s done to that UCLA team that I’ve under-valued. Ball is a talent, and so is T.J. Leaf, but on paper, the difference between this team and last year’s team shouldn’t be as stark as going from a 15-17 season to a year where they are a buzzer-beating three at Oregon away from being undefeated on Jan. 17th. Ball’s presence did that.

The other difference?

I have Frank Mason III as the current leader for the award. Part of that is because Josh Hart has had a couple of bad games in a row and Mason, in the three games since we last convened here, led comebacks at Oklahoma and against Oklahoma State before guiding Kansas to a win at Iowa State. But there is also an argument to be made that Josh Hart has been somewhat figured out in league play. Teams can key in on him and he isn’t quite to the point where he has a response. Big 12 opponents haven’t been able to do that against Kansas.

That, however, is the definition of picking nits, but that’s what we have to do to differentiate these three at this point.

Because when the chips are down, those three players, at this point in the season, have all been sensational, and I would have no issue with someone picking either of the three to win the award.

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4. Caleb Swanigan, Purdue: In Purdue’s only game last week, Swanigan had “just” 17 points and eight boards, but he had a late turnover, missed a critical, point-black shot with less than a minute left and then watched a ball bounce out of bounds that was ruled – probably incorrectly – to be off of Purdue. It wasn’t the greatest finish we’ve seen out of a player this year.

5. Luke Kennard, Duke: In the first 14 games of the season, Luke Kennard averaged 13.9 shots per night and consistently churned out enough terrific performances that he deservedly has been the only Duke player considered for a spot on all-american teams all season long. In the last four games, however, Kennard is averaging just 9.8 shots, which can be attributed to a couple of different things. I don’t think the issue is defenses being more focused in on stopping him, mainly because I think the issue is Jayson Tatum.

Tatum has led the Blue Devils in field goal attempts in six of the last seven games. His usage rate (the percentage of possessions that end with him while he’s on the floor) is 27.8 on the season despite posting an offensive rating of 105.1, meaning he scores 1.051 points-per-possession. In the last seven games, he’s only had an offensive rating better than 109 in home games against Georgia Tech and Boston College.

Kennard, on the season, has an offensive rating of 133.5, which is third nationally for players that with a usage rate above 20, but his usage rate is stuck at 21.7. In other words, the numbers back up what our eyes have been telling us – that Duke’s offensive isn’t as good when the offense flows through Tatum instead of Kennard.

LEXINGTON, KY - DECEMBER 07: De'Aaron Fox #0 of the Kentucky Wildcats dribbles the ball during the game against the Valparaiso Crusaders at Rupp Arena on December 7, 2016 in Lexington, Kentucky. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
De’Aaron Fox (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

6. De’Aaron Fox, Kentucky: Fox is the most important player on Kentucky, and I don’t understand people that argue otherwise. Malik Monk can win games with his ability to score, but Fox ‘s ability to defend and to turn defense into offense is why the Wildcats are in a position for Monk to win games with his scoring alone.

7. Mo Watson Jr., Creighton: It looks like Creighton dodged a bullet on Monday. There has yet to be an official diagnosis, but what initially to be a non-contact knee injury for Watson, it appears that there is no ligament damage. A torn meniscus will not be an easy thing to recover from, but a bone bruise would be. Here’s to hoping he’s OK, but Watson is the engine that makes Creighton’s high-powered offense run.

(UPDATE: Watson’s career is over. He tore his ACL.)

8. Joel Berry II, North Carolina: Berry has been fantastic this season, and there’s a very strong argument to be made that he’s the ACC’s Player of the Year as of today. He is everything we wanted Marcus Paige to be over the course of the last two seasons.

9. Nigel Williams-Goss, Gonzaga: Williams-Goss has been terrific this season, and I’m not sure how many people have noticed. After posting 19 points and six assists in a 23-point win over No. 21 Saint Mary’s, he’s averaging 15.2 points, 5.8 boards, 4.9 assists and 1.7 steals with shooting splits of 49.5/41.1/89.5. This is the best Gonzaga team Mark Few has ever had, and Williams-Goss is the best player on the roster.

10. Lauri Markkanen, Arizona: Luke Kennard is third nationally in offensive rating for players with a usage rate that’s better than 20. No. 1 on that list? Lauri Markkanen, who is quietly having a terrific season for the Wildcats.

JUST MISSED THE CUT

Malik Monk, Kentucky
Johnathan Motley, Baylor
Bonzie Colson, Notre Dame
Dwayne Bacon, Florida State
Markelle Fultz, Washington
Josh Jackson, Kansas
Ethan Happ, Wisconsin
Justin Jackson, North Carolina
Jock Landale, Saint Mary’s
Alec Peters, Valparaiso
Melo Trimble, Maryland

Lauri Markkanen, Arizona Athletics
Lauri Markkanen, Arizona Athletics

CBT Podcast: Luke Winn joins to talk Kansas and their unorthodox backcourt

LAWRENCE, KS - DECEMBER 03:  Devonte' Graham #4 of the Kansas Jayhawks celebrates with Frank Mason III #0 after making a three-pointer during the game against the Stanford Cardinal at Allen Fieldhouse on December 3, 2016 in Lawrence, Kansas.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
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Sports Illustrated’s Luke Winn, Mr. Power Rankings himself, joined the podcast this week to talk about something other than the Power Rankings.

Luke wrote a long feature on Kansas’ back court of Frank Mason III and Devonte’ Graham, a serendipitous pairing of former mid-major recruits that have turned into arguably the nation’s best pair of guards and the next great two-point guard back court. You can read that story here. You can listen to the podcast below.

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VIDEO: Mark Gottfried on Sunday’s N.C. State performance: ‘It’s embarrasing’

CHAMPAIGN, IL - NOVEMBER 29: Head coach Mark Gottfried of the North Carolina State Wolfpack reacts during the game against the Illinois Fighting Illini at State Farm Center on November 29, 2016 in Champaign, Illinois. Illinois defeated North Carolina State 88-74. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
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Mark Gottfried is probably the happiest man in the world that his N.C. State team played – and lost – a home game against Georgia Tech on Sunday night, overlapping with the end of the thrilling Green Bay-Dallas NFC Playoff game.

No one was talking about it.

Well, that’s not exactly true. Joe Giglio of the News & Observer was there and, like he did after last weekend’s loss at Boston College, he took Gottfried to task for his team’s performance.

The biggest issue? Gottfried’s nonchalance at the way that a team with the talent to finish in the top six of the ACC and get to a Final Four is playing. The Wolfpack should not be sitting at 1-4 in the ACC having already played BC and Georgia Tech. Gottfried told the media after on the loss to Boston College that his team “got better,” which was as laughable then as it is now.

On Sunday night, he certainly did not try and view his team through rose-colored glasses:

That’s about as mad and emotional as you’ll see Gottfried get.

And he’s got every right to be mad, because the Wolfpack – who count a future top five pick, another future first rounder and at least three more guys that will get a shot on NBA Summer League teams – currently sit at the bottom of the ACC standings and third-to-last in KenPom’s ACC rankings.

The biggest issue is on the defensive end of the floor, which Gottfried made so clear Sunday.

“It’s embarrassing,” he said. “We’ve got to decide if we want to play some defense. I can talk about it for 2 hours every day at practice, at some point, they better make a decision. Right now, we struggle to guard anybody.”

The numbers back it up. N.C. State is dead last in the ACC in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric and the only high-major programs that are worse than them defensively are Michigan, Washington State, DePaul, LSU, Washington and Arizona State. The Wolfpack are by far the most talented team out of that group, and probably the most athletic as well. They should be good defensively, but, if you talk to coaches in the league and NBA scouts that have watched that team play, the most consistent knock on them is, simply, that they don’t play hard.

And that may be more worrying than any of the results the Wolfpack have posted this season.

“I don’t want to paint the picture that I walk in there every night, even after a loss, it’s Pollyanna inside my locker room,” Gottfried said. “I think it’s time they understand, they need to understand. I can coddle them, I can baby them, but they have to take ownership.”

VIDEO: Roy Williams gets customized shoes from Michael Jordan

CHAPEL HILL, NC - JANUARY 16:  Head coach Roy Williams of the North Carolina Tar Heels is presented with a gift as he celebrates after his 800th career victory with a 85-68 win over the Syracuse Orange at the Dean Smith Center on January 16, 2017 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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Roy Williams became the second-fastest coach to get to 800 career wins last night, and to honor him, UNC did things like put together a video presentation, give him a jersey with the number 800 and bring him to the center of the Dean Dome floor to get cheered by everyone in attendance.

But it was Michael Jordan whose gift floored everyone.

Literally.

Because MJ got Ol’ Roy a pair of customized shoes, and it just about killed Brandon Robinson:

Here’s a closer look at those kicks: