Can Zags handle being No. 1? It’s now or never.

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Following No. 1 Indiana’s loss to Minnesota on Tuesday, and Virginia’s big upset of No. 3 Duke, No. 2 Gonzaga appears poised to seize the school’s first No. 1 ranking ever. The questions began to circulate immediately: Do they belong on top? Can they handle the pressure?

The first step in quieting the naysayers happened today: Gonzaga pounded Portland 81-52. It’s not a particularly impressive win in context of the weakness of the West Coast Conference this season, but it’s mega-impressive in the larger context of the top five this season. Indiana is the latest No. 1 team to suffer a surprising loss, but hardly the first. So, we’ll not scoff at the Bulldogs for handling the pressure of that next win, which was absolutely required for anyone to even think of naming them No. 1 next week.

Given that the WCC is providing no challenge for the Zags this year, the deeper question remains: can they win in the Big Dance? Can they make the Final Four? Anything less, at this point, would be an immense letdown for a program that has been knocking on the door for more than a decade.

There are a couple of ways to answer this question. One is the eyeball test. We can all look at what Gonzaga puts on the floor, think back to prior Final Four participants, and say “do they have what it takes?”

The Zags are lousy with upperclassmen, and those upperclassmen are key contributors. Kelly Olynyk, a junior, has put himself in the conversation alongside Indiana’s Cody Zeller and Duke’s Mason Plumlee when the best big men in the nation are discussed. By his side are seniors Elias Harris and Guy Lanrdy Edi and junior Sam Dower. Even freshman Przemek Karnowski has had his moments, which gives Gonzaga a distinctive size plus depth advantage over most opponents they face. The backcourt is a bit younger, featuring sophomores Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell, Jr., but legacy junior David Stockton brings some experience to the table.

That’s a team with experience, size, shooters, quality point guard play and a brilliant coach in Mark Few. The eyeball test plays out in their favor.

Second, we can do the math. Tempo-free statistics were developed in hopes of providing predictive metrics with a little science behind them. Per Kenpom.com, Gonzaga has the nation’s third-best adjusted offense, and 23rd-best adjusted defense. In this context, “adjusted” means strength of schedule has been factored in. Those two numbers – combined, adjusted, folded and spun in a centrifuge – put the Zags at No. 4 in the Kenpom rankings, behind Florida, Indiana and Louisville. In fact, Gonzaga is sort of a reverse-Louisville, with the Cards showing the single-digit defensive ranking and double-digits in offense.

So, math also makes them one of the top four teams in America.

Finally, there’s always superstition. Look at Gonzaga’s two losses: When Illinois beat the Bulldogs on December 8, they were ranked No. 13 in the nation. When Gonzaga went into Indianapolis and lost a thriller in Hinkle Fieldhouse, Butler was ranked No. 13. C’mon. Everyone knows that’s the unluckiest number there is. As long as they don’t face a 13-seed in the NCAAs, they should be golden.

The Zags are built to win in March, and well-led. They’ve had similar teams in the past, and never made the ultimate leap, being surpassed by latter-day mid-major heroes like George Mason, VCU and, yes, Butler. This is the year they must make good on that promise, because the opportunities will grow thinner in the future. With St. Mary’s recently slapped with a four-year probation, the WCC as a whole is about to take a serious credibility hit, giving each league opponent two less chances to earn an RPI-enhancing win in the regular season.  That places even more pressure on NCAA hopefuls from the conference to schedule tough out-of-conference teams, which generally means lots of long-distance road trips – assuming anyone wants to take them up on it.

So, overall, it looks like the Gonzaga Bulldogs will be No. 1 come Monday, and that they’ll do what must be done to retain that spot. Whether they finally make the Final Four or hoist a title trophy is another question entirely. Right now, Gonzaga has the perfect storm brewing. An opportunity this great may never come again.

Eric Angevine is editor of Storming the Floor. He tweets @stfhoops.

NTSB cites mechanical issue in Michigan plane incident

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YPSILANTI TOWNSHIP, Mich. (AP) A preliminary investigation into the runway accident involving a plane carrying the Michigan men’s basketball team cites a mechanical problem.

The National Transportation Safety Board on Wednesday issued an update about the March 8 crash at Willow Run Airport in Ypsilanti Township, near the Ann Arbor school. The aborted takeoff caused extensive damage to the aircraft but only one minor injury during evacuation.

The report does not list a likely cause of the incident, but it says flight data recorder shows the right elevator – the primary mechanism controlling an airplane’s pitch – didn’t move during the attempted takeoff.

The plane carrying 109 passengers and seven crew members skidded 1,000 feet past the runway. The team was headed to Washington, D.C., for the Big Ten Tournament. They flew the next day and won the tournament and are now in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament.

Butler, Purdue use true grit to get programs into Sweet 16

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) Coach Matt Painter kept believing in his team even as he watched Purdue fritter away a 19-point lead.

He did, after all, recruit these players to excel in tough times. And he did spend two years using the lessons from consecutive overtime losses in the NCAA Tournament to show his team what it took to survive in March.

So when the Boilermakers steadied themselves, retook the lead and reached their first Sweet 16 in seven years, Painter wasn’t surprised. He simply knew the Boilermakers, finally, were tough enough.

“No question, having that grit back after not having it for a couple of years helps,” Painter said. “We put a lot of skill on the court, but we also have guys who are competitive.”

Painter, after all, grew up a fan of former Hoosiers coach Bob Knight, went on to play for Gene Keady and then served on Keady’s staff briefly before succeeding his former coach.

Experience has taught Painter just how delicate it can be to find the proper balance.

After finishing last in the Big Ten in 2013-14 with guys who were content to rely more on their athleticism than mental toughness, Painter changed course.

He brought in gritty overachievers who embraced old-school principles built on effort and led Purdue to its first outright conference title since 1996. Nothing reinforced those beliefs more than last weekend’s comeback against Iowa State.

“Leads are blown throughout March Madness, which is all about close games. I always tell the guys, `If it’s not a blowout, then it is a close game,”‘ junior forward Vince Edwards said Monday. “We have learned to be able to take a run – like Iowa State’s – and be able to withstand it.”

The best teams always do, which is why fourth-seeded Purdue will now face top-seeded Kansas (30-4) in one of Thursday night’s Midwest Regional semifinal games .

Finding players who are the right fit is a challenge for every coach and program.

At Butler, it’s a tradition that has been passed down through nearly a half-dozen coaches over a span of two decades. Former coach and current athletic director Barry Collier started the process by turning the Bulldogs from perennial also-ran into a regular conference contender and NCAA Tourney hopeful.

Thad Matta and Todd Lickliter kept the momentum going before taking other jobs, and Brad Stevens perfected the script as the Bulldogs posted consecutive national runner-up finishes.

Things didn’t always go smoothly. Fans still remember watching the Bulldogs blow an upset against Florida in the 2000 tourney and the inexplicable 2002 tourney snub.

Eventually, though, those painful moments gave way to a litany of program-defining memories.

Against Louisville in the 2003 tourney, a teammate handed his dry shoes to the late Joel Cornette so Cornette could help close out an upset against Louisville in 2003. In the 2010 title game, junior center Matt Howard had the foresight to set a pick and give Gordon Hayward a clean look on his half-court heave that just missed.

The next year, Howard managed to draw a foul in the waning seconds against Pittsburgh to keep Butler’s postseason run alive.

“The stories are unbelievable,” point guard Tyler Lewis said. “That was a special group because they really made the community believe Butler was not just some small school. Butler was a school you didn’t mess around with.”

Stevens and his predecessors moved the school up the pecking order by recruiting late-bloomers or players who were often overlooked by bigger schools. They asked them to play selflessly, a style that defines The Butler Way.

While that philosophy worked well in the Horizon League and the Atlantic 10, Chris Holtmann needed to make some adjustments to thrive in the stronger Big East. Holtmann has recruited better athletes and is looking for more physical players, but the same basic philosophy hasn’t changed.

“I think it (toughness) has been valued here at a really high level, from those who came before me,” Holtmann said. “I just hope I’m doing my job to carry it on.”

The good news is he hasn’t had do too much.

Here, players like leading scorer Kelan Martin don’t complain about coming off the bench if asked. Grad transfers like Avery Woodson and Kethan Savage are both happy to help any way they can in their first and only NCAA appearance.

And it will be that way again when fourth-seeded Butler (25-8) tries to upset top-seeded North Carolina (29-7) in the South Region on Friday night.

“What makes us so tough is that we believe in each other,” said Lewis, who started his career at North Carolina State. “It’s an honor putting on this Butler uniform because it reminds us of what the guys did that came before us.”

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 Jarred Reuter 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