It happens every year during conference tournament time. A team in either a power or mid-major conference goes on an unexpected run, grabbing an NCAA tournament bid for themselves while taking one away from a bubble team. What teams are capable of pulling off a similar run this season? Here are a few teams to keep an eye on over the next nine days.
– Northern Iowa: The winner of the Missouri Valley quarterfinal between the Panthers and Illinois State will be a team to watch this weekend. The Panthers won both regular season meetings, most recently beating the Redbirds 80-72 last Saturday, but as the saying goes it’s tough to beat a team three times in a season. UNI is 7-2 over its last nine games with Anthony James and Seth Tuttle lead the way offensively, and the Panthers have four players averaging at least 10.2 points per game.
– Providence: The Friars have been hot, as they’ve won seven of their last eight games leading up to Saturday’s regular season finale at Connecticut. Vincent Council runs the show at the point and Providence has two of the Big East’s most improved players in forward Kadeem Batts and guard Bryce Cotton. A win on Saturday gives Providence the seven seed in next week’s Big East tournament, which could mean an opener against a St. John’s squad that’s struggled of late.
– USC: The Trojans have played much better since Bob Cantu took over for the fired Kevin O’Neill, and the talent is there for this group to get hot in Las Vegas. Transfers Eric Wise (UC Irvine) and J.T. Terrell (Wake Forest) are the leading scorers, and USC doesn’t lack for size inside either due to the presence of Dewayne Dedmon and Rice transfer Omar Oraby. It’s all about focus for USC; if the Trojans show up in Vegas ready to compete they can win what looks to be a wide-open Pac-12 tournament.
– Iowa: Four of the Hawkeyes’ last five defeats have been by four points or less, and with Roy Devyn Marble and Aaron White leading the way Fran McCaffery’s team doesn’t lack for talent. But Iowa struggles some from the field, as they shoot just 41.9% from the field. With a win in the first round they’ll likely get a shot at an Indiana or Michigan, and a win would not only open up the Big Ten bracket but also give the Hawkeyes another quality victory for their resume.
– Saint Joseph’s: Given how tough the Atlantic 10 has been there are a number of teams capable of winning the tournament in Brooklyn. The Hawks may be a bit of a surprise here given their inconsistent nature but Phil Martelli’s squad is talented. C.J. Aiken and Ronald Roberts Jr. are both skilled front court players, and the backcourt tandem of Carl Jones and Langston Galloway can put points on the board as well. Can Saint Joseph’s wake up and make a run? Don’t rule them out.
– Arkansas: The Razorbacks have been dreadful on the road this season, but Mike Anderson’s team has depth and skill with B.J. Young the main attraction. Maybe the Hogs will feel more comfortable playing at a neutral site than they do on the road, and if so don’t be surprised if Arkansas ends up winning games in a conference tournament that looks to be a crapshoot after regular season champion Florida.
Who are the favorites to win a national title? Who can legitimately be called a contender? Who has the pieces to make a run to the Final Four? We’ll break that all down for you over the next three weeks in our Contender Series.
WHY THEY CAN WIN: Because they bring back the majority of the roster from a team that stormed through the Big East for a third straight season and went on to win the national title.
Josh Hart, an NBCSports.com preseason first-team all-american, is back. Kris Jenkins, the guy that his the national title-winning three six months ago, is back. Jalen Brunson, Mikal Bridges and Phil Booth all return, while Eric Paschall is eligible after sitting out last season as a transfer.
When you put all that together, what you have is a veteran team that has done nothing other than experience winning at an unbelievable level – the seniors on this team are 97-13 in three years with a 48-6 record in the Big East while winning three outright regular season titles, a Big East tournament title and a national title.
Put another way, the Wildcats return better than 70 percent of the scoring and rebounding from last year’s national title team, putting them in the best position to repeat as national champions since Joakim Noah, Al Horford and Corey Brewer all decided to return to Florida and make a run at winning back-to-back titles in 2006-07.
And if the Wildcats can make that happen, it will be a direct result of the versatility that Jay Wright will have on display.
With Daniel Ochefu graduating and Omari Spellman being ruled ineligible, Villanova is going to play a lot of small-ball this season. I wouldn’t be surprised – in fact, I hope it’s the case – if we see Villanova use a Golden State-esque ‘Death Lineup’, where Jenkins plays as their “center” with Hart, Bridges and Paschall on the floor with him. That team would be able to play so many different styles defensively while creating mismatches all over the offensive end of the floor.
For that to work, Hart would have to be a more consistent perimeter shooter while Bridges would need to take a major step forward in his offensive development. We would also need to see Darryl Reynolds prove that he can handle playing 25-30 minutes as the lone big man on the floor for an entire season, something he did adequately in a three-game sample last year.
So there are some things that head coach Jay Wright will have to spend the preseason working out.
But there’s no reason to believe he won’t be able to get that done.
And there’s no reason to believe that Villanova won’t be getting right back to their winning ways.
After all, no one on this roster has ever lost more than five games in a season at Villanova. They don’t know what losing is.
WHY THEY WON’T WIN: The way I see it, there are three reasons to be concerned about this Villanova team.
The first is the point guard spot. Losing Ryan Arcidiacono is a major blow, one that many fans may not truly appreciate. Arch was a starter from Day 1 for the Wildcats, spending the last four seasons as an extension of Jay Wright on the floor. It’s not a coincidence that Arch’s arrival coincided with the resurgence of Villanova as a nationally relevant program that could win conference championships and national titles. Wright and Arch had such a strong relationship that teammates jokingly referred to them as father and son. I don’t think it’s hyperbole to refer to the last four years as the ‘Arch Era’.
That’s how important he was to this program.
Now, Jalen Brunson is good. I’m not saying that he isn’t. He does have some of the same length and athleticism question marks that Arch had, and there are valid concerns about his ability to consistently make plays against elite defenders because of it, but there shouldn’t be any doubting his basketball savvy, his intelligence on the floor or his ability to lead. One NBA scout told me this summer that Brunson is as intelligent of a prospect, in terms of basketball IQ, as he’s ever evaluated. He should be fine, but going from being a secondary point guard as a freshman to the only point guard on the roster of a national title contender as a sophomore is a major leap to make.
I’m also concerned about whether or not Villanova took advantage of the lack of talent in the college game last season. The 2015-16 season was a weird year. Stars weren’t clustered at programs around the country. The nation’s elite freshmen were spread out at programs like LSU, Cal, Mississippi State and Marquette, and that’s before you consider the fact that the class just wasn’t all that good. The question we had about the Wildcats entering the year was whether or not they would be able to beat teams that were chock-full of elite, NBA-caliber talent, and they didn’t necessarily prove that wrong during their run to the title.
The reason Coach K went from avoiding one-and-done prospects to trying to rebuild his roster every year with elite freshmen is that, in basketball, the team with the best players is going to win the majority of the time. Talent matters more in this sport than just about any other, and when you compare Villanova’s roster to, say, Duke or Kentucky or Kansas, it’s pretty obvious which team has more talent.
That said, I’ll admit I’m picking nits when discussing the issue of Villanova’s talent and, to a point, their point guard question marks.
But there is one major issue with Villanova, and I think even the most rabid Wildcat fan will agree with me: Their front court.
Like Arch, I don’t think the value that Daniel Ochefu provided this team can be shown in a box score. His size allowed him to defend opposing bigs in the post and act as a rim protector when Villanova’s perimeter defenders pressured or gambled for steals. His ability to score on the block kept defenses honest and allowed him to work as a pressure release for the Villanova guards; 1-on-1 on the block, and Ochefu was probably going to draw a foul or get two points.
Villanova probably didn’t have that guy heading into the season, and they certainly don’t now that Omari Spellman is being forced to redshirt.
That leaves Darryl Reynolds, who is something of an enigma. He’s spent the last three seasons being little more than a guy that spelled Ochefu or played when he had fouls. But in three games where Ochefu was injured last season, Reynolds was good, averaging 9.0 points and 10.6 boards. I don’t know that he’ll ever be the low-post presence that Ochefu was, but if guys like Josh Hart, Mikal Bridges and Eric Paschall take a step forward in their development on the offensive end, Villanova may not need him to be.
PREDICTION: With all due respect to Xavier, a team that has the talent to be a top ten team and make a Final Four, I don’t think there’s any doubt that Villanova is the heavy-favorite to win the Big East for the fourth straight season.
The Wildcats will be a consensus preseason top five team, and there will be rankings where they end up as high as No. 2 in the country. It’s almost as if Villanova is playing with house money this season. They shed their early-exit demons with last year’s national title, they got Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins back for another season and they have a team that is good enough to get to a Final Four and make a run at being the first team to repeat in a decade.
I hope Villanova fans can appreciate what they’re going to be able to watch this season.
A ride like this doesn’t happen all that often.
CBT Podcast: Louisville’s Notice of Allegations, breaking down elite freshmen
In the latest episode of the NBCSports.com College Basketball Talk podcast, I’m joined by Sam Vecenie of the Sporting News to talk about the Notice of Allegations that the NCAA handed down to Louisville as well as taking a deep dive into the freshmen class and some of the elite NBA Draft prospects.
As always, you can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Audioboom or anywhere else that podcasts are given away for free.
If you enjoy what you hear on this podcast, please rate and review the podcast, as it will help us reach more listeners.
Last month, the NBA and NBA Players’ Association reportedly began discussing a new collective bargaining agreement.
On Thursday night, Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports’ The Vertical reported that a “deal was within sight” as the two sides have moved closer and closer in negotiations.
One of the consistent issues over the years has been one-and-done rule, which was instituted during the 2005 negotiations, requiring a prospective draftee to be 19 years old and be one year removed from his high school graduating class.
According to Wojnarowski, the one-and-done rule will remain intact in the new CBA agreement.
Among items that will be in final CBA agreement: NBA's "one-and-done" college draft rule will remain in place, sources tell @TheVertical.
Since taking over the league in February 2014, NBA commissioner Adam Silver had made increasing the age limit to 20 years old a priority. So, this reported news is clearly a comprise on the side of himself and the owners; a group of 30 executives who would rather have another year of scouting and information on a prospect rather than taking a potential gamble on a teenager in the first round.
For college basketball, things remain relatively the same. Some players will go for the money, whether pundits like it or not — remember, every early entry should be viewed on a case-by-case basis. But recent rule changes have benefited college players. Pushing the deadline back saw tons and tons of players declare for the 2016 NBA Draft, which left many coaches in precautions situations as they sweated over what next year’s roster was going to look like. But it was beneficial to the players, providing them a thorough process of interviews, workouts and, in some cases, a spot in the NBA Draft Combine. This gave them the resources and insight to make informed opinions about their future, whether that is finding out that their stock is likely at its highest, or getting the proper critiques on what they need to improve upon before turning pro.