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.

Virginia Tech picks up most important win of the season over No. 10 North Carolina

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Virginia Tech picked up its most important win of the season on Monday night as the Hokies earned an 80-69 ACC home win over No. 10 North Carolina.

While the Hokies have been competitive against some good teams, they’ve never been able to get over the hump against a team as good as the Tar Heels this season. Virginia Tech had high hopes entering the year as a potential ACC dark horse and dangerous team in March. So far, they’ve largely fallen short of those expectations.

During Monday’s win over North Carolina, the Hokies ramped up the defensive intensity and looked like a team that could still be dangerous the rest of the season.

Playing better defense than they’ve shown for much of the season, Virginia Tech also knocked down enough big shots as they made plays on both ends of the floor against the Tar Heels. Neutralizing everyone on the North Carolina offense outside of Luke Maye and Joel Berry (23 points each), the Hokies had a balanced defensive effort that helped to shut down other options for North Carolina’s offense. The Tar Heels only shot 32 percent from three-point range as Virginia Tech’s perimeter defense looked more consistent than in other games during the season.

Virginia Tech has a top-35 offense (according to KenPom) this season. Scoring points and having enough weapons on that end has never been the issue. Virginia Tech knocked down 12 three-pointers, shooting 40 percent from distance as seven different players made threes for the Hokies. Even on a night where Justin Bibbs and Nickeil Alexander-Walker (eight points each) both struggled to consistently knock down shots, Virginia Tech had plenty of offense. Justin Robinson led the way with 19 points while Ahmed Hill (18 points) and Kerry Blackshear Jr. (16 points) both contributed plenty of offense as well.

The defense for the Hokies hasn’t been able to hold up against some of the elite teams on the schedule. With wins only over Pitt and Wake Forest before Monday night, the Hokies hadn’t picked up a win over a good ACC team thus far this season. And after allowing over 90 points in losses to Florida State, Louisville and Kentucky, Virginia Tech’s defense had a tendency to disappear against the best teams they faced on the schedule.

The North Carolina win was not only the signature victory that Virginia Tech could use at this point in the season. It was also a huge defensive improvement from what the Hokies have shown so far this season. Over the next month, Virginia Tech’s schedule remains difficult. They also don’t play any ranked teams until back-to-back road games on Feb. 10 and 14 against Virginia and Duke.

If Virginia Tech can put together a solid streak and continue to improve its defense, we can get a glimpse into how they could look during that important conference stretch in a few weeks. The Hokies looked like a NCAA tournament caliber team with its win over Monday night. Now can they put together a stretch to back that up and actually get in?

The North Carolina win also makes you wonder if this was a flash in the pan from an overrated team or a glimmer of hope in a turnaround effort.

SMU’s Jarrey Foster out of the season with a knee injury

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SMU will be without junior forward Jarrey Foster for the rest of the season, a source confirmed to NBCSports.com.

The 6-foot-6 Foster is the second leading scorer and leading rebounder for the Mustangs as he partially tore the ACL in his left knee driving to the basket in a win over Wichita State.

Foster was putting up 13.2 points, 5.9 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game as he’s a huge part of why SMU is 14-6 and in contention for an NCAA tournament bid. Only playing five minutes in the win over the Shockers, Foster didn’t play in the SMU win over Tulane over the weekend.

According to Adam Grosbard of the Dallas Morning News, freshman forward Everett Ray will also miss the rest of the season as he suffered a broken foot in warmups before the Tulane game. The injuries to Ray and Foster leaves the Mustangs with only nine scholarship players left for the season.

Without Foster in the lineup, SMU should still be able to compete for an NCAA tournament bid. The Mustangs just won on the road against a top ten team and have plenty of talent as the team currently has six double-figure scorers. But Foster was the team’s most versatile frontcourt player, leading the team in blocks and creating turnovers on the wing. He’ll be tough to replace on the defensive end and he’s also capable of being a solid scorer.

Coach Cal takes another shot at Duke, Coach K

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Duke and Kentucky have been at the forefront on the recruiting world for some time now, and as of late, it has been Duke that has been winning those wars.

In the Class of 2018, Duke has beaten Kentucky on Cameron Reddish, R.J. Barrett and, on Saturday, Zion Williamson. Kentucky landed Kevin Knox, who many believed was a heavy Duke lean, but the Blue Devils also beat out Kentucky on Marques Bolden.

That has not quite gone as well as planned, but nonetheless, Bolden’s commitment did set off the most recent Petty Wars between the two programs. It started with something that was posted on Coach Cal’s website that said that Kentucky isn’t trying to sell recruits on the idea that the program and the program’s alumni-base will take care of the kid for the rest of his life. That was a clear reference to comments that Hamidou Diallo made about Duke tried to recruit him.

Then, after Bolden committed to Duke, the Duke twitter account did their best to troll Coach Cal, responding to a tweet where he said “Our approach is to give them the fishing rod and the lures to help them catch fish, not to just give you the fish” with this tweet:

That was in the summer prior to the 2016-17 season.

After this year’s Champions Classic, where Kentucky lost and Duke beat Michigan State by playing zone the entire game, Cal had this to say:

“You know what was really funny? We were going to come in and I was going to play 40 minutes of zone. We were. My staff talked me out of it. And then I heard Duke played zone the whole. Like, the whole game. And I was going to do it simply to see if we can really play it then we’ll have to play it against this team. And then naturally I didn’t play one down of it, but I had come in with the idea. Like, let’s just throw it up and play zone the whole game. I laughed and I said look at—when you have a young team like that, a bunch of freshmen, it’s much easier to play zone than to try to teach them man-to-man principles and all the other stuff, which is what we’re trying to do.” (My emphasis added.)

That leads me to today, where Coach Cal met with local media to talk about, among other things, some of the issues that his program has had on the recruiting trail. (Quotes courtesy my buddy Kyle Tucker at SEC Country):

“I don’t sell, like, ‘When you come here, the university and the state will take care of you the rest of your life,’ ” Calipari said. “You may buy that, and I’ve got some great property in some swampland down in Florida to sell you, too.”

 

“Every one of us in this country is based on you’ve gotta take care of yourself. And then when you make it, you make sure that you’re helping [others]. And along the way you bring other people with you,” Calipari said. “And that’s what we’re trying to do, just give these guys the best opportunity. We’re not trying to say this university or this state will take care of you the rest of your life. There’s no socialism here. This stuff is, ‘You’ve gotta go do it and we’re gonna help you do it.’ Some [recruits] like that. Some don’t like it.”

I am so here for all of this.

I love Duke-Kentucky becoming a year-round rivalry. I wish that they played more often than every three years in the Champions Classic.

As part of my effort to become commissioner of college basketball, I propose that these two programs must play at least once every year.

UCLA lands McDonald’s All-American center Moses Brown

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UCLA landed one of the premier Class of 2018 players left on Monday as five-star center Moses Brown pledged to the Bruins.

The 7-foot-1 Brown brings legitimate size and length to the interior for the Bruins as the New York native is one of the better big men in the class. A McDonald’s All-American, Brown is regarded as the No. 20 overall prospect in the national Class of 2018 rankings, according to Rivals. Brown made his announcement with a tweet through Slam.

Brown becomes the headliner of a strong four-man class for the Bruins that includes four-star forward Jules Bernard and guard David Singleton and three-star big man Kenneth Nwuba. UCLA has continued to recruit well despite the Chinese incident and the Ball family essentially leaving the program for good this season.

With his size and ability to impact the game inside, Brown could get early minutes right away for UCLA next season as he becomes an important piece for its future. If Brown stays around for a few years then he could anchor the interior for the Bruins — although it remains to be seen how Brown will look in a more up-and-down system.

College Basketball Coaches Poll: Kentucky is no longer a top 25 team

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The latest coaches poll was released on Monday, and it should come as no surprise to anyone who the top three teams in the country are.

Villanova, Virginia and Purdue are the consensus three best teams in the sport.

Kentucky also fell out of the top 25 after a pair of losses this week.

Here is the full top 25 poll:

1. Villanova
2. Virginia
3. Purdue
4. Duke
5. Kansas
6. Michigan State
7. West Virginia
8. Xavier
8. Cincinnati
10. North Carolina
11. Oklahoma
12. Arizona
13. Ohio State
14. Texas TEch
15. Gonzaga
16. Wichita State
17. Clemson
18. Saint Mary’s
19. Auburn
20. Arizona State
21. Tennessee
22. Florida
23. Rhode Island
24. Miami
25. Michigan