Fab Melo

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.

Auburn lands third transfer within the last week

Auburn guard T.J. Dunans (4) and coach Bruce Pearl celebrate a 75-74 win over UAB in an NCAA college basketball game Friday, Nov. 13, 2015, at Auburn Arena in Auburn, Ala.  (Julie Bennett/AL.com via AP)
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After receiving commitments from former Purdue/Houston guard Ronnie Johnson and former Presbyterian forward DeSean Murray, Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl continued to load up on the transfer market Monday. Forward LaRon Smith, who was named MEAC Defensive Player of the Year at Bethune-Cookman last season, announced that he will use his final season of eligibility at the SEC program.

Like Smith, Johnson will also be eligible to compete immediately for the Tigers while Murray will have to sit out next season before having two years of eligibility remaining.

The 6-foot-8 Smith played two seasons at Georgia State before transferring to Bethune-Cookman, where he averaged 7.1 points, 6.9 rebounds and 3.0 blocks per contest in 2015-16. Smith played just over 25 minutes per game for the Wildcats, shooting 58.5 percent from the field.

Smith reached double figures in scoring in four of the Wildcats’ final seven games, including a 20-point, 11-rebound, three-block outing in an overtime win over North Carolina A&T. He joins a front court in need of depth following the departures of the likes of Cinmeon Bowers and Tyler Harris, with Horace Spencer, Trayvon Reed and incoming freshman Anfernee McLemore also competing for minutes in 2016-17.

SMU lands former Arkansas guard Jimmy Whitt

Arkansas guard Jimmy Whitt (24) leaps for a layup past Tennessee guard Shembari Phillips (25) during an NCAA college basketball game in Knoxville, Tenn., Saturday, Feb. 27, 2016. Arkansas won 75-65. (Adam Lau/Knoxville News Sentinel via AP)
Adam Lau/Knoxville News Sentinel via AP
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With a five-member recruiting class set to arrive on campus this summer, SMU added a talented transfer Monday afternoon. Jimmy Whitt, who played his freshman season at Arkansas, committed to join Larry Brown’s program. Whitt, a 6-foot-4 guard from Columbia, Missouri, will have three seasons of eligibility remaining after sitting out the 2016-17 campaign.

As a freshman at Arkansas, Whitt averaged 6.1 points and 1.7 rebounds in just over 17 minutes of action per game. He reached double figures in scoring nine time, with the high being a 15-point outing in a blowout win over Missouri in mid-January. Whitt produced a stretch of four consecutive games in double figures during non-conference play, but he struggled to maintain that consistency against SEC competition.

At SMU he’ll join a perimeter rotation that will lose rising senior Sterling Brown following the 2016-17 season. Among those who will have eligibility remaining when Whitt becomes eligible are Ben Emelogu, Shake Milton, Jarrey Foster and incoming freshmen Tom Wilson and Dashawn McDowell.

 

Boise State assistant named head coach at Northern Colorado

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Courtesy UNCBears.com
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GREELEY, Colo. (AP) Jeff Linder is the new basketball coach at Northern Colorado. He spent the last six seasons at Boise State, where he was associate head coach for the Broncos since 2013-14.

Linder replaces B.J. Hill, who was fired last month amid an NCAA investigation into allegations of violations in the program.

University President Kay Norton and Athletic Director Darren Dunn announced Linder’s hiring Sunday.

Linder played high school ball in Lafayette, Colorado, and college ball at Mesa State and Western Colorado State. He began his coaching career under Colorado head coach Ricardo Patton.

In a statement, Linder said, “I look forward to returning home to the state of Colorado and continuing to build this program into something everyone can be proud of.”

Hill was 86-98 in six seasons at UNC.

Duke’s Azura Stevens transfers to UConn

Duke's Azura Stevens (11) steals the ball from North Carolina A&T's Kenya Hailey, right, as Duke's Ka'lia Johnson watches during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Friday, Jan. 2, 2015, in Durham, N.C. (AP Photo/Ellen Ozier)
(AP Photo/Ellen Ozier)
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STORRS, Conn. (AP) Azura Stevens, the leading scorer and rebounder for Duke, has decided to transfer to UConn.

The 6-foot-6 sophomore center from Raleigh, North Carolina will sit out next season and will have two years of eligibility remaining when the 2017-18 season begins the school announced Saturday.

Stevens averaged 18.9 points and 9.6 rebounds a game and was named to the ACC’s all-conference first team.

She was second in the league both scoring and rebounding.

UConn coach Geno Auriemma said Saturday that he normally doesn’t get involved in transfer situations, but Stevens convinced him that Storrs would be the right place for her going forward.

Beachem says he’ll be back at Notre Dame for senior season

Notre Dame's V.J. Beachem reacts during the second half of the team's NCAA college basketball game against Wisconsin in the regional semifinals of the men's NCAA Tournament, Friday, March 25, 2016, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Chris Szagola)
(AP Photo/Chris Szagola)
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) Forward V.J. Beachem has withdrawn his name from the NBA draft and will return to Notre Dame for his senior season.

Beachem made the announcement Sunday night on Twitter, writing that he was thankful for the opportunity to experience the NBA draft process and invitations to work out for teams, “but now I’m ready to lead [Notre Dame]. #IMBACK.”

The 6-foot-8, 200-pound forward finished third on the team in scoring, averaging 12.0 points and 3.9 rebounds as the Irish finished 24-12. He was at his best in the NCAA Tournament, when he averaged 17.5 points as the Irish advanced to the Elite Eight for a second straight year.

Coach Mike Brey sent a Tweet saying he was thrilled Beachem will return.