Sweet 16 Previews: Will Fab Melo’s absence matter vs. Wisconsin?

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Ed Isaacson of NBADraftBlog.com contributed to this post.

Just eight short days ago, the course of the season for the Syracuse Orange completely changed.

For the second time in the span of two months, Fab Melo, the Big East’s Defensive Player of the Year and the rock that had anchored the Syracuse zone, was ruled ineligible due to the same academic issue. Without him, the thinking went, Syracuse not only didn’t have a chance of winning the national title, but their hopes of making a deep run into the NCAA tournament were severely hurt.

It would be difficult to understate just what Melo meant to the Syracuse zone. Luke Winn of SI.com did an exhaustive study of the Syracuse defense, and what he determined was that Melo was “simultaneously the Orange’s most obvious defensive force (by blocking shots) and its secret weapon (by taking charges and creating turnovers).”

I wrote this back when Melo was ruled ineligible*:

That’s really all you need to know about Melo’s presence in the paint. He not only blocks 2.9 shots per game, he forces opponents that he’s engaged with to shoot just 29.1% from the field without fouling (his defensive free throw rate is 37.7%). That doesn’t even mention the fact that he gathers steals and takes charges as well as any big man in the country. Melo is not a good rebounder outside of his area, which is a major problem for a team that struggles on the defensive glass, but his ability to end possessions via the turnover and the number of missed shots he forces make up for it.

(The stats came from Winn’s study linked above.)

But Melo’s absence didn’t stop No. 1 seed Syracuse from advancing to the Sweet 16 with wins over No. 16 UNC-Asheville (with an assist from the refs) and No. 8 Kansas State (with a hat-tip to the NCAA).

Syracuse gets No. 4 Wisconsin on Thursday night. On paper, the Badgers look like an ideal team to go up against a zone and exploit the absence of Melo. They have a playmaking point guard in Jordan Taylor, they have shooters all over their perimeter and they have skilled big men that can knock down that foul line jumper and pass from the high-post.

So would you be surprised if I were to tell you that Wisconsin actually struggles against a zone?

It’s true.

Kenpom.com rates Wisconsin as the 20th-most efficient team in the country on the offensive end of the floor. On the season, they are averaging 1.082 points-per-possession (PPP). Against a zone, however, that number falls to 0.960 PPP, which is a significant difference. Wisconsin averages 58.8 possessions per game, meaning that in an average game where the Badgers face a zone the entire 40 minutes, they lose 7.1 ppg.

Those struggles were evident against Vanderbilt in the round of 32. The Badgers had opened up a nine point lead with 6:07 left on the clock when Kevin Stallings threw on a 2-3 zone that completely flummoxed Bo Ryan’s team. Wisconsin would manage just seven points the rest of the game, but their struggles went deeper than that.

Wisconsin essentially had eight full shot clocks in the final six minutes. (Technically, they had six possessions, but they were able to grab a couple of offensive rebounds.) They managed eight shots from the floor, every single one of them a three-pointer. In fact, there were only two times in the final 6:07 where Wisconsin actually got the ball inside the three-point line without grabbing an offensive rebound, and they came on the same possession. Jordan Taylor passed the ball to Jared Berggren at the high-post, and after Berggren (almost immediately) kicked the ball back out, Taylor drove right and got about a foot inside the three-point line before pulling the ball out.

Wisconsin was saved because Ben Brust hit a 26 foot three (he tried three of them) and Taylor hit a tough, contested three off the dribble.

This is what Wisconsin’s offense looked like down the stretch. Jordan Taylor doesn’t even look to initiate an offensive set until there are 25 seconds left on the shot clock:

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The first time he gets rid of the ball is with 20 seconds left on the shot clock. Wisconsin still hasn’t gotten the ball with 25 feet of the rim:

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To their credit, Wisconsin moves the ball around the perimeter quickly, but an offense is easy to defend in the zone when that happens:

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The first time Wisconsin is within 25 feet, it is with six seconds left on the shot clock and Ryan Evans is firing a three:

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This isn’t the only time that Wisconsin struggled with a zone. Iowa played a lot of zone in their two wins over the Badgers — in the second game, the Hawkeyes made their game-changing run in the second half while in a 2-3 zone — as did Michigan in their 18 point win in January.

The issue is that Wisconsin’s offense is predicated around milking the clock and, if no good shots arise out of Ryan’s Swing Offense, the Badgers either isolate Taylor or give him a ball-screen. When that happens against a zone, however, far too often Taylor is forced to try and create against two defenders.

You have to beat the zone with the pass and by attacking gaps off the dribble. Unless Wisconsin has figured that ou, the absence of Melo around the rim will not decide the outcome of this game.

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @robdauster.

Grand Canyon lands Oregon graduate transfer guard Casey Benson

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Grand Canyon landed an important piece for its NCAA tournament push on Saturday night as Oregon graduate transfer guard Casey Benson pledged to the Antelopes.

The 6-foot-3 Benson will be eligible right away as spent the past three seasons with the Ducks as a key reserve guard, helping Oregon to multiple deep NCAA tournament runs. Benson picked Grand Canyon over Wisconsin for his final season of college basketball as Benson’s brother, T.J., is an assistant coach with the Antelopes.

Benson shot 40 percent from three-point range last season while also being a steady ball handler over the course of his career at Oregon as he has only 81 career turnovers in over 2,600 career minutes with the Ducks. While Benson wasn’t asked to score a lot for a loaded Oregon team that featured multiple bucket-getters, he could be asked to do more at Grand Canyon.

Grand Canyon is eligible for the NCAA tournament for the first time next season as the addition of Benson gives them an experienced guard who should be more of a factor in the WAC. The Antelopes are coming off of a 22-9 season in which they finished 11-3 in conference play.

With great facilities and a quickly-growing fan base, head coach Dan Majerle has the potential makings of a perennial mid-major conference contender if he continues to recruit well to Grand Canyon.

Colorado adds commitment from Class of 2017 point guard McKinley Wright

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Colorado landed one of the best available point guards for next season on Friday as Class of 2017 floor general McKinley Wright committed during an official visit.

A former Dayton commit who opted out of his recruitment after former head coach Archie Miller took the Indiana job, Wright was one of the best available point guards left as he played last weekend on the adidas Gauntlet in front of college coaches with D1 Minnesota.

The 6-foot-0 Wright gives the Buffaloes another ball handler and distributor as he was Minnesota’s Mr. Basketball during this past season. As a senior, Wright averaged 22.9 points, 8.1 rebounds and 7.8 assists per game.

It’s always hard to say if spring recruits who elevate a level in recruiting after decommitting are making the correct decision, but Wright looked the part of a high-major lead guard last weekend, and Colorado wasn’t the only high-major program that was pushing hard to add Wright at this late stage.

Oral Roberts to hire Baylor assistant coach Paul Mills

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Oral Roberts has found its new head coach as they will hire Baylor assistant coach Paul Mills, as first reported by NBCSports.com’s Rob Dauster.

Mills had been on staff with the Bears since 2003 as he’s been a big factor in why head coach Scott Drew has been able to turn around that program. A graduate of Texas A&M, Mills has been a full-time assistant at Baylor since the 2009 season.

“I am honored to accept this role of representing this historic institution, its students and its mission,” Mills said in a release. “Making this commitment today is a highlight of my career and I look forward with excitement to the basketball season directly ahead. Go Golden Eagles.”

Mills will replace former head coach Scott Sutton, who was relieved of his duties this offseason after 18 years at the helm.

 

Iowa commit Connor McCaffery to redshirt in basketball to pursue baseball

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Iowa commit Connor McCaffery is in a unique spot when he starts his freshman year in Iowa City next year.

Not only is the 6-foot-4 guard the son of basketball head coach Fran McCaffery, while being a four-star national basketball prospect, but Connor also has a bright future in baseball.

There was a lot of speculation as to what Connor might do for his future in athletics and he gave more clarification on what he might be looking to do on Friday.

McCaffery has decided to redshirt in basketball next season to focus on the beginnings of his baseball career at Iowa. A walk-on for both sports, the move enables Connor McCaffery to potentially play three years of basketball with his younger brother, Patrick, who is also a heralded basketball recruit for Iowa. This move also gives Connor the best chance to pursue both sports while he’ll also help out a young Iowa basketball team with its tough scholarship scenario.

Butler, Chris Holtmann agree to a contract extension

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Butler has agreed to a contract extension with head coach Chris Holtmann, the school announced on Friday, that will keep him under contract through 2025.

“Butler truly is a special place, and my family and I are thankful to be part of a great academic institution and an athletics department that is a source of pride for those who embrace Butler and The Butler Way,” said Holtmann. “Our student-athletes, our staff, and so many throughout our campus are remarkable at what they do, and I’m excited to continue to work alongside them.”

Holtmann was named Big East Coach of the Year after leading the Bulldogs to a 25-9 record and a spot in the Sweet 16. In three years with the program, Holtmann has a record of 70-31.

“Chris is a tremendous ambassador for Butler and the Butler Way, and his leadership has resulted in success both on and off the court for the talented young men in our program,” said Butler Vice President/Director of Athletics Barry Collier. “This commitment – both by our university and by Chris – allows the momentum within our program to continue.”

Holtmann was in the mix for a couple of jobs this spring, including N.C. State and Missouri.