Final Four - Ohio State v Kansas

Top 25 Countdown: No. 7 Ohio State Buckeyes

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Throughout the month of October, CollegeBasketballTalk will be rolling out our previews for the 2012-2013 season. Check back at 9 a.m. and just after lunch every day, Monday-Friday, for a new preview item.

To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here. To look at the rest of the Top 25, click here. For a schedule of our previews for the month, click here.

Last Season: 31-8, 13-5 Big Ten (t-1st); Lost in the Final Four to Kansas

Head Coach: Thad Matta

Key Losses: Jared Sullinger, William Buford

Newcomers: Amedeo Della Valle

Projected Lineup:

G: Aaron Craft, Jr.
G: Lenzelle Smith Jr, Jr.
F: Sam Thompson, So.
F: Deshaun Thomas, Jr.
C: Amir Williams, So.
Bench: LaQuinton Ross, So.; Evan Ravenel, Sr., Shannon Scott, So.

Outlook: Thad Matta’s team is going to have their work cut out for them this season. Not only are they losing William Buford, who spent the last four seasons as one of the nation’s most consistently underrated wing scorers, but Jared Sullinger also made the decision to head to the NBA. And as much as it will hurt to lose a guy that averaged 17.5 points and 9.2 rebounds, what will be even more difficult for the Buckeyes to adjust to is not having a post presence that commands a double-team every single time he touches the ball.

The past two years, everything Ohio State has done offensively was built around Sullinger’s presence on the blocks. It will be quite the adjustment without him.

That’s not to say that Ohio State doesn’t have any talent left on their roster, because that certainly isn’t the case. In fact, depending on where you are looking, Matta has two preseason all-americans at his disposal.

The first name is one that everyone in the country should be familiar with by now: Aaron Craft. Craft has spent two his first two years in Columbus reminding us what the point guard position used to be played like. He’s a pretty good shooter, he’s a capable penetrator and he’s certainly able to create shots off the dribble, but his real strength is two-fold — Craft is an absolutely tenacious on-the-ball defender, to the point that he can change a game with the way that he applies ball-pressure, and he’s an ideal facilitator. Not to be overly cliche, but Craft is a coach on the floor that understands what each member of his team is supposed to be doing and can get the ball where it needs to be and when it needs to be there. It sounds simple, but it is a vital skill to have.

Craft is joined by Deshaun Thomas, who, for the first time in his collegiate career, will be the focal point of Ohio State’s offensive attack. Thomas has always been able to score the ball, and even averaged 15.9 points last season, but it will be interesting to see what happens when he also becomes to focal point of a defensive game-plan every night. Will he be a willing passer? Will he be able to wait for shot opportunities within the flow of the offense, or is he going to end up forcing the issue to often?

It will be interesting to see how Matta uses Thomas. The past two years, he’s been primarily a perimeter option, which was to his advantage as Thomas was mostly guarded by power forwards that were unable to stay with him on the perimeter. With Sullinger gone, will the 6-foot-7 combo-forward see more post touches?

Beyond those two, Ohio State has plenty of talent, but also plenty of question marks.

The biggest issue that Matta will need to address is where he finds secondary scoring options. Craft has never really been an offensive-minded player, but he will need to make that more of a focus this season. That still won’t be enough. Two guys that see primed for the role: Lenzelle Smith Jr. and LaQuinton Ross. Smith put together some big games in big moments — he had 28 in a win over Indiana, 17 and 12 boards in a win against Michigan, 35 combined points against Syracuse and Kansas in the NCAA tournament — but he was obscenely streaky last year, averaging just 6.8 points on the season.

Ross is a big-time talent. At one point in his early high school career, Ross was considered to be the best prospect in the country. But he’s had a myriad of issues since then and has never quite lived up to the expectations. He only saw action in nine games as a freshman, and even took to twitter to voice his displeasure with the lack of playing time.

Those two need to be able to provide somewhere around 22-24 points on a nightly basis for the Buckeyes.

There rest of Ohio State’s rotation will be made up of a trio of sophomores — athletic small forward Sam Thompson, backup point guard Shannon Scott and promising big man Amir Williams — as well as veteran center Evan Ravenel.

Predictions?: Ohio State has two proven stars on their roster, surrounded by a slew of highly ranked recruits that are yet to prove themselves on the collegiate level. Does that remind you of anyone? Like, I don’t know, Kansas from last season? This year’s Buckeyes and last year’s Jayhawks are quite different teams, but the situations are eerily reminiscent. We know how good Craft and Thomas can be, and if they live up to expectations while the Ohio State role players can step up and fill their assigned roles the same way Elijah Johnson, Jeff Withey and Travis Releford did for Kansas last season, Matta’s team will be just fine.

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

UCLA is no longer a Final Four contender if their defense doesn’t improve

LEXINGTON, KY - DECEMBER 03: Lonzo Ball #2 of the UCLA Bruins reacts after making a three-point basket against the Kentucky Wildcats in the second half of the game at Rupp Arena on December 3, 2016 in Lexington, Kentucky. UCLA defeated Kentucky 97-92. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Saturday’s win over No. 8 UCLA was massive for No. 7 Arizona for a number of reasons.

They got Allonzo Trier back into the fold. They remained undefeated atop the Pac-12 standings, keeping pace with an Oregon team that’s dealing with another Dillon Brooks foot injury and getting ready to make the nightmarish trip to the Mountain schools, Utah and Colorado, this weekend. They took a two game lead over the Bruins in the Pac-12 standings.

Perhaps more importantly, the Wildcats certified themselves as a legitimate threat to get to the Final Four. Their 17-2 record entering Saturday was pretty. A win at Pauley finally gave that résumé some substance.

So good for Arizona.

But that wasn’t the biggest story line coming out of Pauley Pavilion on Saturday afternoon.

UCLA’s defense, or lack thereof, was.

Ever since the Bruins went into Rupp Arena and knocked off then-No. 1 Kentucky, UCLA has been considered one of the very best teams in the country. Villanova’s up there, too. So is Kansas, and Gonzaga, and those Kentucky Wildcats. North Carolina probably should be in that conversation as well. Maybe Baylor, maaaybe Florida State.

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You get my point. The Bruins, for better or worse, were one of the handful of teams that everyone thought would enter the NCAA tournament as a favorite to win the national title, but it’s time for us to question whether or not that is actually the case. That’s how bad the UCLA defense has been this season, particularly of late.

Against Arizona, the Bruins were a train-wreck. They gave up 96 points on 1.315 points-per-possession, which, for those of you who aren’t into advanced stats, is atrocious. That game was the culmination of a four-game stretch where UCLA’s defense had gone from concerning-but-good-enough to a major red flag. In those four games – road trips to Colorado and Utah and home games against Arizona and Arizona State – the Bruins allowed an abysmal 1.153 PPP. For comparison’s sake, the 2015 Kentucky team that went 38-1, the best defense we’ve seen in the KenPom era, gave up 0.847 PPP. UCLA averages 75 possessions a game, which is a difference of 23 points over 40 minutes.

That’s a big deal.

And on the season, UCLA has fallen the way to 125th in KenPom’s defensive efficiency metric.

That’s a bigger deal.

For those that don’t know, KenPom.com is a website that ranks teams based on how many points they score and allow per possession, adjusted for schedule strength. It’s widely considered the best way to determine who the best offensive, the best defensive and the best overall teams are.

It’s been around since 2002.

And since 2002, given where UCLA’s defense is today, they would be the second-worst defensive team to ever get to a Final Four.

In 2011, VCU ranked 138th in defensive efficiency as of Selection Sunday*, and they are the only team to ever rank outside the top 80 in defensive efficiency and make it all the way to the Final Four. Only three other teams have ranked outside the top 50 and made it to the final weekend of the season: Marquette in 2003 (76th), Butler in 2011 (72nd) and Michigan in 2013 (66th). Two others ranked outside the top 40 and won at least four games in the Big Dance: Texas in 2003 (46th) and Wisconsin in 2014 (50th):

screen-shot-2017-01-23-at-3-16-43-pm

*(All of this info is via KenPom.com and as of Selection Sunday in those given seasons. That’s important to note, because winning games against good teams in the tournament changes those stats.)

The precedent is there.

UCLA, unquestionably, has to get better defensively if they want to win a national title.

But all hope is not lost.

The two teams with the lowest defensive efficiency entering the NCAA tournament to win the national title – North Carolina in 2009 and Duke in 2015 – both had top three offenses nationally.

UCLA leads the nation in offensive efficiency.

AP Poll: Villanova, Kansas neck-and-neck for No. 1

VILLANOVA, PA - DECEMBER 13: Head coach Jay Wright and Jalen Brunson #1 of the Villanova Wildcats congratulate Josh Hart #3 of the Villanova Wildcats in the second half against the Temple Owls at The Pavilion on December 13, 2016 in Villanova, Pennsylvania. The Villanova Wildcats defeated the Temple Owls 78-57. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
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Villanova maintained a slim lead over Kansas for the No. 1 spot in this week’s AP poll, with Gonzaga being the only other program to receive any first place votes.

RANKINGS: AP Poll | Coaches Poll | NBCSports Top 25

After losing to Arizona at home, UCLA dropped to eighth as the Wildcats vaulted them into No. 7 in the poll.

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1. Villanova (35 first-place votes)
2. Kansas (28)
3. Gonzaga (2)
4. Kentucky
5. Baylor
6. Florida State
7. Arizona
8. UCLA
9. North Carolina
10. Oregon
11. Butler
12. Virginia
13. Louisville
14. Notre Dame
15. Wisconsin
16. Creighton
17. Duke
18. West Virginia
19. Cincinnati
20. Purdue
21. Saint Mary’s
22. Maryland
23. South Carolina
24. Xavier
25. Florida

Coaches Poll: Kansas remains No. 1, Villanova No. 2

LAWRENCE, KS - JANUARY 21: Frank Mason III #0 of the Kansas Jayhawks drives to the goal against Andrew Jones #1 of the Texas Longhorns in the first half at Allen Field House on January 21, 2017 in Lawrence, Kansas. (Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images)
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Kansas remained No. 1 in the Coaches Poll this week, getting 18 of the 32 first-place votes.

RANKINGS: AP Poll | Coaches Poll | NBCSports Top 25

Villanova sits at No. 2 in the poll, with Gonzaha in third, the only other team to receive a first-place vote.

After beating UCLA in Pauley Pavilion, Arizona jumped up to No. 9 but still sits two spots behind UCLA at No. 7.

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1. Kansas (18 first-place votes)
2. Villanova (11)
3. Gonzaga (3)
4. Kentucky
5. Baylor
6. North Carolina
7. UCLA
8. Florida State
9. Arizona
10. Oregon
11. Butler
12. Notre Dame
13. Virginia
14. Louisville
15. Wisconsin
16. Creighton
17. Duke
18. West Virginia
19. Cincinnati
20. Purdue
21. Sainy Mary’s
22. Xavier
23. Maryland
24. South Carolina
25. Florida

College Basketball Talk Top 25: It gets muddy after a clear-cut top four

VILLANOVA, PA - DECEMBER 03: Josh Hart #3 of the Villanova Wildcats reacts in front of Lamarr Kimble #0 of the Saint Joseph's Hawks in the first half at The Pavilion on December 3, 2016 in Villanova, Pennsylvania. The Villanova Wildcats defeated the Saint Joseph's Hawks 88-57. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
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This week’s rankings were probably more difficult to put together than any week so far this season.

The top four, frankly, seem pretty obvious. I have Villanova No. 1, but I would have no qualms with ranking any of Kentucky, Kansas or Gonzaga in that No. 1 spot. I expect those to be the four teams that get votes for No. 1 in the AP and Coaches Polls this week.

After that, however, is when it gets difficult. Are you going to rank North Carolina above Florida State? UNC beat the Seminoles when they squared off this season but that was the Seminoles lone loss in a six game run against ranked teams. I went with Carolina over them because, simply, I think UNC is a better team.

Then there’s the question of what to do with the top three teams in the Pac-12. Arizona just won at UCLA and they got Allonzo Trier back. Oregon also owns a win over the Bruins, but there’s came at home on a buzzer-beater from Dillon Brooks, who is dealing with a foot injury again. And while UCLA has consistently proven to be one of the most dangerous offensive teams in the country, they are a nightmare defensively right now.

Where does West Virginia slot in after a pair of losses? What about Creighton without Mo Watson Jr.? Butler’s profile looks great but their performance on the floor has been less than stellar since their win over Villanova. Is Duke actually back?

You can find the rankings below. What did I get wrong?

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1. Villanova (19-1, Last Week No. 1)
2. Kentucky (17-2, 2)
3. Kansas (18-1, 4)
4. Gonzaga (19-0, 5)
5. North Carolina (18-3, 5)
6. Baylor (18-1, 7)
7. Florida State (18-2, 8)
8. Arizona (18-2, 16)
9. UCLA (19-2, 3)
10. Oregon (18-2, 10)
11. Louisville (16-4, 11)
12. Wisconsin (16-3, 13)
13. Purdue (16-4, 15)
14. Notre Dame (17-3, 17)
15. Cincinnati (17-2, 18)
16. Duke (15-4, 19)
17. West Virginia (15-4, 10)
18. Butler (17-3, 14)
19. Creighton (18-2, 12)
20. Saint Mary’s (17-2, 20)
21. Virginia (16-3, 22)
22. South Carolina (15-4, 24)
23. Maryland (17-2, 25)
24. Kansas State (15-4, NR)
25. Iowa State (12-6, NR)

DROPPED OUT: No. 21 Xavier, No. 23 Florida
NEW ADDITIONS: No. 24 Kansas State, No. 25 Iowa State

Five Things We Learned This Week: Duke’s back, Creighton might be OK, and can UCLA win a title?

DURHAM, NC - JANUARY 21:  Matt Jones #13 of the Duke Blue Devils reacts after making a three-point basket against the Miami Hurricanes during the game at Cameron Indoor Stadium on January 21, 2017 in Durham, North Carolina. Duke won 70-58.  (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
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1. Jeff Capel’s gamble paid off: For the first time in more than a month, Duke looked like Duke again, and it all came from a roll-of-the-dice by interim head coach Jeff Capel.

With the Blue Devils down 36-25 at the half at home against Miami, he benched Grayson Allen, Luke Kennard and Harry Giles III to open the second half, and it worked. Matt Jones scored all 13 of his points to sparked a 31-4 run that turned what should have been Miami’s first marquee win into a moment in Duke’s season that we have to highlight.

The specific turning point came less than two minutes into the half. Duke was finally playing with energy defensively, but they couldn’t quite get things going on the offensive end of the floor. After another missed shot from the Blue Devils, Jones picked off an outlet pass and rattled home a three that sent Cameron Indoor Stadium into hysterics. The crowd went nuts. The bench went nuts. Capel went to go chest bump Jones at half court after Miami called a timeout and nearly truck-sticked his veteran leader.

And it was more than just Jones hitting shots. Frank Jackson looked the part of an all-american for the first time since his more-heralded freshmen counterparts returned from injury. Marques Bolden played what was by far his best game as a collegian, too. They were brimming with confidence, but perhaps more importantly, it was the first time that Duke looked to be having fun playing basketball since the Jimmy V Classic on Dec. 10th.

I don’t know what the future holds for Duke’s season.

But I do know that if they make a run now, Matt Jones rattling home a three will have been the turning point in their season.

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2. Creighton might be OK without Mo Watson Jr.: Creighton got smoked by Marquette at home on Saturday afternoon, losing 102-94 in a game that wasn’t really that close in the second half. That’s not exactly the most reassuring thing to have happen for a team trying to figure out how to survive without their all-american point guard, but there is something important to note about the result: Creighton lost because they decided not to defend.

Marquette has one of the most potent offensive attacks in the country. They currently rank 7th in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency metric. They have loads of guards to spread around Luke Fischer in the post, and head coach Steve Wojciechowski has them running and gunning like some of those old Duke teams he played on. They made 12 threes against Creighton, shot 60 percent from the floor and scored 1.275 points-per-possession.

That’s atrocious defense from the Bluejays.

But they also put up 94 points. Marcus Foster went for 30. They were 11-for-24 from the floor and shot 49.3 percent on the game despite missing 23 of their first 34 field goals. Davion Mintz, playing the point in Watson’s absence, finished with 17 points and eight assists. Their offense, overall, looked fine.

Part of that is because Marquette is a bad defensive team. Part of that was likely because they were chasing the game late, able to get a flurry of points down the stretch against a defense that was trying not to foul. And it’s not like we can ignore the 11-for-34 start to the game.

That said, when you combine this performance with the fact that the Bluejays were able to hold on and win at Xavier after Watson’s first half injury, there is reason to be optimistic that Greg McDermott will figure this thing out. Creighton no longer has the same upside without Watson – he was awesome, let’s not forget that – but this weekend showed us the Bluejays aren’t dead yet.

OMAHA, NEBRASKA-NOVEMBER 26: Marcus Foster #0 of the Creighton Bluejays take s a break during their game against the Loyola (Md) Greyhounds at the CenturyLink Center on November 26, 2016 in Omaha, Nebraska. (Photo by Eric Francis/Getty Images)
Marcus Foster (Photo by Eric Francis/Getty Images)

3. Indiana isn’t dead yet, either: We were all ready to bury the Hoosiers after they lost O.G. Anunoby to a knee injury that will require surgery and end his season, but someone forget to tell Indiana.

Four days after James Blackmon Jr. hit a buzzer-beating three to give Indiana a win at Penn State, the Hoosiers smacked around Michigan State at Assembly Hall on the strength of 33 points from Blackmon. All of a sudden, Tom Crean’s club is sitting at 4-3 in the Big Ten, two games out of first place, having won four of their last five, the only loss coming by three points at league leader Maryland.

That’s impressive, but it doesn’t get any easier for the Hoosiers. This week, they visit both Michigan and Northwestern, who is currently 5-2 in the Big Ten. Winning at home in front of a raucous crowd is one thing. Taking care of teams that they should be able to beat on the road is another.

4. Can we still take UCLA seriously as a title contender?: At the risk of sounding overly dramatic, UCLA’s defense has gotten to the point where it’s difficult to picture them winning six games in a row against quality competition. They rank 125th nationally in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric after giving up 1.315 points-per-possession. Arizona routinely obliterated UCLA off the dribble, getting into the paint at will and exposing Bryce Alford as a defensive liability. Arizona also pounded the offensive glass, getting 34 percent of their own misses, and the cumulative effect was that the Bruins were unable to get their transition game into high gear.

As the saying goes, the easiest way to keep a running team from running is to make them take the ball out of their own net.

The Bruins are still the most dangerous team in the country. When they play their best, when they are banging threes and getting out in transition and Lonzo Ball is doing Lonzo Ball things, they can beat anyone else’s best. Their ceiling is the highest ceiling in the sport.

But we’re just not going to see that ceiling for six straight games.

So while Arizona proved themselves a Pac-12 favorite and a threat in March on Saturday, the more telling issue was that UCLA may not be quite as good as we thought they were.

5. Is West Virginia’s press broken?: One of the knocks we had on Baylor entering Big 12 play was that once they began playing teams that knew how to attack that funky zone they run their defense would take a hit. For the most part, that hasn’t been the case for the Bears.

It has, however, for the Mountaineers.

The blowout win over Baylor aside, West Virginia has not been impressive in Big 12 play. They lost to Texas Tech in overtime. They barely beat Big 12 bottom-feeder Texas. They lost at home to Oklahoma in overtime. They lost at Kansas State by four. In all four of those games, the Mountaineers had more turnovers than they forced. West Virginia leads the nation by forcing turnovers on 31.1 percent of their defensive possessions. In those four games, they forced turnovers on 20.3 percent of their possessions.

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 25: Head coach Bob Huggins of the West Virginia Mountaineers reacts against the Temple Owls in the second half during the championship game of the NIT Season Tip-Off at Barclays Center on November 25, 2016 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
Head coach Bob Huggins (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)