Mike McCall Jr.

Picking Winners: Why I think St. Louis will upset Louisville in the Sweet 16

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I’m going to have a post up tomorrow explaining how and why I made all of my picks, but since I’ve been getting a lot of questions about it, I’m going to take a minute to get into why I think St. Louis will knock off the tournament’s top seed in the Sweet 16.

Louisville is the best defensive team in the country, according to Kenpom.com. They’re actually the most efficiency defensive team since Kenpom started keeping track of such things. That defense is built around their pressure: the Cardinals want to defend for 94 feet, tiring their opponents out, forcing turnovers, and turning those turnovers into easy baskets so they can jump right back into their press. They don’t always defend in the full court, but even when Louisville drops back into their 2-3 zone, they are looking to pressure the ball and force turnovers.

In fact, Louisville is No. 2 in the country in defensive turnover percentage.

The team that’s No. 1? VCU.

St. Louis is 2-0 against the Rams this season. The first time they matched up, the Billikens ran Shaka Smart and company out of Chafeitz Arena, winning 76-62 in a game that wasn’t even that close. On Sunday, St. Louis got the Rams again, winning 62-56 in Brooklyn for the Atlantic 10 tournament title. In those two games, the Billikens committed just 26 turnovers in 122 total possessions, a turnover percentage of 21.3%, well below the 28.7% that VCU averages for the season.

On the season, St. Louis is one of the top 50 teams in the country at protecting the ball, and that includes the stretch at the start of the season when starting point guard Kwamain Mitchell was out with a broken foot. In other words, the Billikens have the kind of veteran back court that has proven they don’t get flustered when having to deal with the kind of assaulting pressure that looks to do nothing more than turn turnovers into easy baskets.

And if Louisville isn’t getting easy baskets, are they going to be able to score on St. Louis?

The Billikens are seventh nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency. They don’t have a ton of size in the paint, but they are disciplined, they don’t give up open looks, they’re pretty good at forcing turnovers and they don’t give up offensive rebounds. If there is one issue that Louisville has repeatedly shown this season, it’s that they struggle to score against a set defense.

St. Louis doesn’t turn the ball over. They won’t let Louisville get out in transition. They are a nightmare to try and score against in the half court. And, frankly, they’re not too bad on the offensive end of the floor. Kenpom ranks them 58th in adjusted efficiency despite the fact they are 287th in offensive rebounding percentage, and they have the kind of balanced attack where you cannot simply game-plan to take away one guy. Build your defense around stopping Mitchell, Cody Ellis gets you. Build your game-plan around stopping both of them, Dwayne Evans goes off for 20 and 10.

Put it all together, and the Cardinals are ripe for the Billiken pickin’.

Now, that doesn’t mean that Louisville won’t win this game. Hell, they’ll probably be favored if this game actually does happen.

But everyone and their brother is picking Louisville to win the national title. If you are looking for an upset that has a real chance of happening, one that could all but lock up a win in your office pool, this is it.

You heard it here first.

You can find Rob on twitter @RobDauster.

Duke knocks off No. 13 Louisville in first game of critical four-game stretch

Duke's Grayson Allen (3) and Marshall Plumlee (40) react during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Louisville in Durham, N.C., Monday, Feb. 8, 2016. Duke won 72-65. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
(AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
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Grayson Allen scored 16 of his 19 points in the first half and Brandon Ingram added 18 points, 10 boards and four assists as Duke picked up a critical win over No. 13 Louisville in Cameron Indoor Stadium on Monday night, 72-65.

A call this a critical win for the Blue Devils because it kicks off what may be the most important two-week stretch of Duke’s schedule This weekend, the Blue Devils square off with No. 9 Virginia. Next Wednesday, they’re at the Dean Dome to take on No. 7 North Carolina. Four days after that, they head to the Bluegrass State to pay a visit to Louisville.

 

With the way that Duke has been struggling on the defensive end of the floor without Amile Jefferson, that’s a stretch that could derail Duke’s season; entering Monday, all four of those games were losable. But a four-game winning streak — or even going 3-1 in that stretch — could completely change the tenor of what has been a fairly disappointing year for the defending champs, and that’s before they get Jefferson back to 100 percent.

And the difference was defensively, at least in the first half.

I’ve written in this space a number of times about how opponents know what they’re going to get from Duke defensively. Coach K, traditionally, plays half court man-to-man defense, switching every exchange — ball-screen, off-ball pick or simply when two players run by one another — that doesn’t involve the center. In recent years, he’s played some zone in situations where he defense has struggled or, like this season, when he doesn’t have the depth to risk foul trouble. We’ve even seen some 2-2-1 pressure from him of late.

But on Monday night, Duke played straight man-to-man for much of the game, and in the first half, it seemed to fluster the Cardinals. They scored just 24 points in the first 20 minutes, and while Louisville did find a way to break Duke down defensively in the second half — they shot better than 55 percent from the floor after the break — but part of the reason Duke was able to win this game was the lead they built. After a three from Allen opened scoring in the second half, the Blue Devils were up by 14, and while Louisville made a run down the stretch, they could never get control of the game.

Duke is becoming appointment viewing for basketball nerds like me that pay too much attention to X’s-and-O’s to see what kind of wrinkle Coach K is going to put in to try and compensate defensively, so I’m not sure that this performance sticks. But it is worth noting that this was the first time in eight games the Blue Devils gave up less than 1.0 PPP, and the first time since Dec. 19th they did so against an NCAA tournament-caliber team.

As far as Louisville is concerned, you have to tip your hat to those kids. They played their hearts out and fought back from a big deficit in one of the toughest places in the country to play. They did all that three days after their school ripped their hearts out with an NCAA tournament ban for this season.

So good for them. You never know how a team is going to react to something like that, but the Cardinal players showed that they have some serious fight in them.

Iowa State’s starting center Jameel McKay remains suspended

Iowa State forward Jameel McKay celebrates on the court at the end of an NCAA college basketball game against Oklahoma, Monday, Jan. 18, 2016, in Ames, Iowa. Iowa State won 82-77. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
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Steve Prohm announced on Monday that starting center Jameel McKay will not be in the lineup on Wednesday when the Cyclones take on Texas Tech.

“He’ll practice today because I want him in practice,” Prohm said, “but game-wise, he’s suspended.”

McKay did not make the trip to Stillwater with the team on Saturday, where Iowa State beat Oklahoma State, 64-59. Prohm has not gotten into specifics regarding the cause of McKay’s suspension, but it’s reportedly an issue with the way he has been practicing. McKay is dealing with a nagging knee injury, which may play a role in the situation as well.

“My hope is he’ll be with us on Saturday,” Prohm said.