Five sleepers and five upset specials to keep an eye on

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A hearty welcome to those of you just now joining the rest of us in following college basketball now that football season has ended. We’ll be running a series of posts to get all you football fans caught up on the season at-large. To read through them all, click here.

It’s never to early to start thinking about the NCAA tournament bracket and your office pool. In fact, I’d say that’s the reason that 75% of the people that watch college basketball on any given night are doing it. Scouting.

I get it.

Trust me.

It’s been four years since I haven’t finished in the money in a tournament pool. So book mark this page, and consider it my gift to you: a guide of who to focus on while you “scout”.

Five lower seeds that can make a tournament run:

Kentucky Wildcats: Kentucky’s on pace to end up getting somewhere around an eight or a nine seed. If I’m John Calipari, I’m hoping for a seven or a ten seed. Or lower. I don’t know if the Wildcats have the horses to knock off one of the top four teams in the country, but I think they certainly will be good enough to make the Sweet 16, regardless of seeding. They are starting to show some signs of growth, and with (at least) four lottery picks on the roster, I’m not ready to write this group off yet.

VCU Rams: The Rams play such a unique and tough-to-prepare-for style, they can spring an upset on a team with a back court that’s uncomfortable going against their pressure. The key for VCU is and always will be turnovers in the full court; given their lack of size, half court defense is not a strength for Shaka Smart’s club.

Pitt Panthers: The Panthers are almost certainly going to be underseeded as a result of their embarrassing non-conference schedule. And trust me when I tell you this is a good basketball team. They can defend, they are excellent at getting to the offensive glass, they pass the ball well and they have an underrated back court. You don’t want to see the Panthers in the second round of the tournament.

St. Louis Billikens: Tough, physical, half court defense. That’s how St. Louis wins game. And that’s out a team with less athleticism and less talent can win a basketball game. And, like Pitt, thanks to a couple of questionable losses this year, the Billikens are probably going to be seeded lower than they should be.

Long Beach State 49ers: LBSU isn’t going to be getting a seeding much better than 14 or 15, but this is a group with high-major talent and athleticism. James Ennis is legit, and he’s got a slew of talent — Michael Caffey, former top 25 recruit Keala King, DePaul transfer Tony Freeland, West Virginia transfer Dan Jennings — around him.

Five higher seeds that may bow out early:

NC State Wolfpack: NC State doesn’t defend at all, their star point guard has a bum ankle and has been up-and-down all season long, and their most talented player struggles when trying to take a game over and has been ineffective down the stretch. There’s so much to like about NC State this season, which is why it’s frustrating to see them struggle.

Minnesota Golden Gophers: I just don’t trust Minnesota offensively. So much of what they do relies on their ability to get to the offensive glass. Good teams are going to be able to keep them from getting there; it’s going to depend on the matchup. I don’t trust Minnesota to be consistent. They lost four in a row at the end of last month, and needed an impressive choke-job from Iowa to avoid losing to the Hawkeyes.

Creighton Bluejays: The Bluejays are a much-improved defensive team this season, yet they still rank 81st in the country in defensive efficiency, according to Kenpom. Throw in the fact that this is a team that survives because of their ability to shoot the basketball, and they are a risky play. On the nights those threes go down, they’re going to be tough to beat. On the nights they don’t, the Bluejays can be beaten.

Oregon Ducks: How healthy is Dominic Artis? That’s the biggest concern for Oregon right now, because without him, the Ducks simply cannot protect the ball. Already in the bottom third of the country when it comes to turnover percentage, Oregon has seen that number dip to 29.8% — literally the worst in the country — in the last three games without him.

Butler Bulldogs: I realize that it’s sacrilegious to say that Butler might get knocked out of the tournament early. I’m not happy about doing it. But here’s my thought process: Butler is good, but they don’t play the kind of defense that we expect out of Butler teams. They can struggle against teams that defend them physically (ahem, St. Louis) and I don’t love Butler’s point guard situation. But thanks to wins over Indiana, Gonzaga, Marquette and North Carolina, Butler looks like they could be in line for a three or a four seed, depending on how the A-10 plays out.

You can find Rob on twitter @RobDauster.

Sweet 16 Preview: Thursday’s picks, predictions, betting lines and channels

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The Sweet 16 kicks off on Thursday night, and the games are going to be terrific.

Oregon-Michigan should be thrilling, Gonzaga-West Virginia is a fascinating contrast of styles and Kansas-Purdue features arguably the two best players in college basketball.

Oh, and then there’s Arizona-Xavier, with Sean Miller and Chris Mack doing battle.

For an in-depth look at each region, check these out:

SWEET 16 PREVIEW: Midwest | West | South | East

No. 3 Oregon vs. No. 7 Michigan (-1.5), 7:09 p.m. (CBS): So this run that Michigan on, is it a fluke?

Frankly, I don’t think that it is. Derrick Walton has been awesome for the better part of two months while Michigan’s perimeter shooters have always been shooters and the duo of D.J. Wilson and Mo Wagner are legit. I honestly do not believe that the Wolverines are a team of destiny after the plane crash. They are just really good and a perfect roster for John Beilein to tinker with.

That’s why they’re favored on Thursday night. But here’s the thing … Oregon is pretty good themselves. Dillon Brooks is going to be guarded by a big man, which should be a matchup that Brooks can take advantage of, and Tyler Dorsey has been playing terrific basketball since the start of the Pac-12 tournament.

If you like small-ball, spread-the-court basketball, you’ll love this game.

PREDICTION: Michigan (-1.5)

No. 1 Gonzaga (-3) vs. No. 4 West Virginia, 7:39 p.m. (TBS): On paper, I think Gonzaga should win this game. They have a good back court in Nigel Williams-Goss and Josh Perkins, a pair of talented point guards that have won a lot of games in their career. Gonzaga is also the best defensive team in the country. So if they don’t turn the ball over against West Virginia’s press and they make it difficult for West Virginia to score in the half court and get into their press, they should be able to win this thing, right?

Well, maybe not.

My concern with Gonzaga is game-pressure. They didn’t handle it well down the stretch against BYU in their one loss of the season, and I’m not convinced that they win that second round game against Northwestern if the officials don’t blow the goaltending call. How are they going to handle an endless wave of Mountaineers in their face?

PREDICTION: Gonzaga (-3)

No. 1 Kansas (-5) vs. No. 4 Purdue, 9:39 p.m. (CBS): More than any other game this weekend, I’m fascinated to see how these two teams decide to try and play each other. Kansas has, essentially, one big man that Bill Self can trust, and he’s going up against a Player of the Year candidate in Caleb Swanigan and one of the best big men in the country at drawing fouls in Isaac Haas. Will Self double-team Swanigan knowing that Purdue may be more effective offensively when Swanigan can find shooters out of the double-team, or will he risk Lucas getting in foul trouble by trying to guard Swanigan one-on-one?

Then, at the other end of the floor, how will Purdue deal with the Kansas back court? Frank Mason III, the NBC Sports National Player of the Year, and Devonte’ Graham are a nightmare for anyone to deal with, let alone a team that struggles against penetrating guards and that lacks rim protection. It should be a fascinating coaching battle.

PREDICTION: Kansas (-5)

No. 2 Arizona (-7.5) vs. No. 11 Xavier, 10:09 p.m. (TBS): On paper, Arizona should be able to handle a Xavier team that doesn’t have Edmond Sumner or Myles Davis. That said, as we all know, Chris Mack and Sean Miller are very close and used to work together. Mack knows everything that Miller is going to do and vice versa. I think this game will be a low-scoring, grind-it-out affair that comes down to the final minutes.

PREDICTION: Xavier (+7.5)

Shayok and Reuter transferring from Virginia

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Virginia announced the departure of two players Wednesday.

Marial Shayok and Jerred Shayok will both transfer out of the program, the school said.

“Marial and Jarred informed me today that they are leaving the Virginia basketball program and are looking to transfer to other schools,” Cavaliers coach Tony Bennett said in a statement released by the school. “I thank Marial and Jarred for their hard work and contributions to our program, and wish them success in the future.”

Shayok, a a 6-foot-5 junior, played 20.9 minutes per game last season for the Cavaliers, averaging 8.9 points and 2.4 rebounds per game while shooting 44.5 percent from the floor. The Ottawa native started 23 games in three seasons with Virginia.

Reuter played a minimal role for the Cavaliers, averaging just 10.8 minutes and 3.8 rebounds per game.

Wake’s Collins declares for NBA draft without hiring agent

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WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (AP) Wake Forest’s John Collins is entering the NBA draft but will not hire an agent and is keeping open the option of returning to school for his junior season.

In a statement Wednesday announcing the decision, Collins said he wants “to make an informed decision about what is best for my future.”

Collins is a 6-foot-10 forward who as a sophomore blossomed into one of the best big men in the Atlantic Coast Conference and was voted to the Associated Press all-ACC team.

He averaged 19.2 points and 9.8 rebounds, putting together a string of 12 consecutive 20-point games late in the season.

His progression was a big reason why the Demon Deacons earned their first NCAA Tournament berth since 2010. Kansas State beat Wake Forest in the First Four.

More AP college basketball: http://www.collegebasketball.ap.org

Porter, Jr. will ask for Washington release

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There may be an overwhelming assumption on where Michael Porter, Jr. – and his father – will ultimately end up, but the five-star recruit is said publicly that he see his re-recruitment process through.

Porter, Jr. said in a teleconference Wednesday that he will ask for his release from Washington, and his father, a former Huskies assistant, has been offered a job at Missouri by new Tigers coach Cuonzo Martin.

“Right now I’m just trying to take it slow with my family and weigh my options,” Porter Jr. said, according to the Kansas City Star. “I plan to get my (national letter of intent) from Washington back and just go from there, not saying that I’m not going to Washington anymore, but I just want to get it back and weigh my options.”

The prevailing thought has been that the Porters will ultimately land in Columbia, where they have significant history.

Still, it would appear at least publicly that Porter, Jr., a potential No. 1 pick in the 2018 NBA draft, will weigh his options in at least the short-term.

Calipari signs two-year extension with Kentucky

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Kentucky continues to take care of John Calipari.

The Wildcats coach has received a two-year extension, keeping him under contract in Lexington through the 2024 season, the school announced Wednesday.

The contract will pay Calipari $7.75 million next season and increase to $8 million per season thereafter.

“John has achieved consistent championship-level performance at Kentucky,” Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart said in a statement. “No one in America is better suited for everything that comes with being the coach here. Not only has he attained incredible success on the court, he is also a leader in our community and in college basketball.

“We have been blessed to have him and Ellen here for the last eight years and we are blessed they will continue to call Kentucky home.”

Not only does the deal extend Calipari, but it continues to keep Kentucky competitive with the NBA, which would seem to be the only outlet that would even potentially tempt Calipari away from Kentucky. An NBA franchise would have to make him among the highest-paid coaches in the league to even match Kentucky financially.

Of course, given that Calipari has spurned interest from the league since returning to college in 2000, it seems unlikely that financial considerations would be the lone or heaviest variable in making a decision to move on.

Certainly, Calipari has an excellent thing going at Kentucky as the premier recruiting program in the country that has enjoyed serious success on the court, culminating in a 2012 national title and a 38-0 start to the 2015 season before a loss in the Final Four.

“The last eight years at the University of Kentucky have been a terrific ride,” Calipari said in a statement. “This extension shows our full commitment to each other. I believe this school is the gold standard and I’m so thankful and blessed that this university has given me this opportunity at this point in my career.”

The Wildcats face UCLA in the Sweet 16 on Friday.