From Nov. 20th thru Dec. 1st, I’ll be on the road, hitting 21 games in 11 days. To follow along and read my stories from the road, click here.
NEW YORK — No. 4 Arizona came out like they were more concerned with where they were going to eat Thanksgiving dinner than the Drexel Dragons on Wednesday night.
Thanks to the hot hands of Chris Fouch and Frantz Massenat, the Wildcats found themselves in a 27-8 hole 13 minutes into the game. They were 2-for-17 from the floor with six turnovers at that point, finishing without a single assist in the first half. That’s about as ugly as it gets.
“It’s easy to say Arizona was overlooking Drexel but that couldn’t be further from the truth,” Arizona head coach Sean Miller said after the game. The Wildcats knew what they were getting into, and while it took some time, the Wildcats would eventually wake up, cranking up their defense and holding Drexel to just four points over the next 12 minutes of game time. Arizona finally took a 33-31 lead — a 25-4 run — with 15 minutes left in the game. The Dragons fought for as long as they could, but Kaleb Tarczewski was too much in the post and Nick Johnson made a number of big plays down the stretch en route to a well-earned, 66-62 win.
Johnson would finished with 20 points, five boards and four assists while Tarczewski chipped in with 15 points, 13 coming in the second half, and 10 boards. Aaron Gordon added 10 points and 13 boards.
Drexel may not have earned the win, but they sure did provide future opponents with a blueprint as to how to beat Arizona.
The Wildcats are a talented group, but much of that talent manifests itself in length and athleticism. In other words, Arizona’s potential is off the charts, but this is not the most skilled offensive team that we’ve ever seen.
Think about it. Who scares you in a half court set on this roster? Who do the Wildcats give the ball to at the end of a clock? T.J. McConnell is a terrific facilitator and defender, but he’s not a break-down-the-defense kind of point guard. Gordon will be a star one day, but he still has a ways to go to realize that potential. Gabe York is a jump-shooter. Do you run your offense through postmen Brandon Ashely and Tarczewski? As good as Nick Johnson as played this season, he’s more of a secondary option, a complimentary piece, than he is a primary scorer.
And Drexel is one of the toughest, most physical defenses teams that you’ll come across. They control the pace, they control possession in the half court and they make trying to run offense miserable against them. In the first half, Arizona’s offensive rhythm was non-existent, as they finished the half shooting just 6-for-23 from the field. In the second half, the Wildcats started pounding the ball into Tarczewski, who Drexel was guarding 1-on-1, and that began to loosen things up. It also helped that Drexel’s big three — Fouch, Massenat and Damion Lee — cooled off after a sizzling start.
When the Wildcats get themselves into trouble is when they get away from moving the ball and running their offense.
“For the first time I think it was our offense,” Johnson said of Arizona’s struggles in the first half. “We just had to calm down. We know we could play with anyone in the country, just don’t get fancy on offense.”
“We were much more willing too share the ball and pass it [after halftime],” Miller said. “No team is going to function at the highest level when individuals try to force plays.”
As Johnson noted, Arizona had to “stick to their identity”. And for all the hype and attention that Arizona will get this year, their bread and butter will be on the defensive end of the floor. That’s where they will win games. “We have to defend,” Miller said. “We have to be an elite rebounding team.” They just don’t have the offensive weapons that a team like Duke does.
And after getting punched in the mouth for 13 minutes, that’s precisely who Arizona was. All that length and athleticism will look good on the fast break and in Sportscenter highlight packages, but where it will really have an effect on the game is defensively. Nick Johnson is a sensational on-ball defender, and T.J. McConnell isn’t bad himself. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Aaron Gordon are both playmakers on that end, while Kaleb Tarczewski is the physical rim-protector and low block presence that can anchor a defense.
Perhaps more impressive is that Arizona has as much lineup versatility as anyone in the country. If they play a team that goes small against them — like, oh I don’t know, Duke? — the Wildcats can go with three guards and put Gordon at the four, or even the five if needed. But against a bigger team? It’s not ideal, but Arizona has used a lineup that featured the 6-foot-9 Gordon and the 6-foot-6 Hollis-Jefferson on the wing with Ashley and Tarczewski up front.
College basketball is all about style of play, matchups and taking advantage of mismatches, and there aren’t many teams that will have a mismatch against the Wildcats.
What’s that mean?
You may be able to stifle Arizona on the offensive end of the floor, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be able to score on them.
2018 NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 Preview: Ranking the eight games
The Sweet 16 is going to kick off in less than 36 hours, which means that it is time for us to dive into the matchups and the games themselves.
Here are the eight games that we have on the docket on Thursday and Friday, with an in-depth look at each one, including some analysis on betting lines and how I expect each game to play out.
8. No. 2 DUKE vs. No. 11 SYRACUSE, Friday 9:37 p.m.
Line: Duke -11.5
Projected score: Duke 72.5, Syracuse 61
All the zone! Syracuse has been playing a 2-3 zone for as long as Jim Boeheim has been a surly, bespectacled basketball coach. But now, Duke is doing the same thing! They couldn’t guard anyone when Marvin Bagley III and Wendell Carter were forced to run around on the perimeter, guarding small fours and switching ball-screens, but now that Duke is in this zone, they can fully take advantage of their size without having to worry about dealing with the mismatches at the other end.
I think Duke runs away with this. For starters, they have better perimeter shooters than they get credit for — both Grayson Allen and Gary Trent Jr. can stroke it — and Bagley and Carter are both skilled and versatile enough to be killers at the high-post. Throw in that Duke is the nation’s best offensive rebounding team and Syracuse gets annihilated on the defensive glass, and I think the Blue Devils roll.
PICKS: Duke and the under. Betting Duke unders has been very profitable of late, mainly because it took a while for the public to catch up to the pace — and defense — that Duke was playing with this zone. And Syracuse? They’re not much different than Virginia, only they play a zone instead of a 2-3 (and win in the tournament … too soon?) so while 133.5 is low, I would still hammer the under here. I think this ends up somewhere around a 75-55 game. When they played in Cameron a month ago, the final score was 60-44 Duke.
This Florida State team is not like the Florida State teams that you remember from Leonard Hamilton. In the past, Hamilton has seemingly recruited every big body that he can possibly find to pack into the paint and defend like hell while struggling to buy a bucket. This team? They have a slew of talented guards, they love to get out and run in transition and they’ll even play some small-ball.
To be honest, I think that will play into Gonzaga’s hands. The Zags have enough athletic and mobile big men to be able to handle any kind of matchup, particularly when Rui Hachimura is playing the way he has of late. The big question I have is for Josh Perkins and Silas Melson. They were not their best during the first weekend, and if they are not their best Gonzaga is only going to go so far relying on both Rui and Zach Norvell to have career performances.
PICKS: I do think Gonzaga wins, although I don’t love that line. What I do think is a sneaky-good bet is the over. The line is 153.5 while KenPom projects it at 158 points.
Let’s pretend that Florida game three weeks ago — the one that happened in the regular season finale for the Wildcats — never happened. Erase that from your memory, and the Wildcats have won their last nine games, and many of them in impressive fashion. They’re defending at the same level they’ve guarded all year long, but with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander playing the way that he has over the course of the last two months and Kevin Knox seemingly finding more consistency, I do think that Kentucky is playing as well as anyone left in this tournament not named Villanova or Duke.
The big question here is the health of Dean Wade. He told reporters after the win over UMBC that he would be playing on Thursday night, but we’ll see if that comes to fruition. If he does play, I can’t imagine that he’ll be at 100 percent.
PICKS: If Wade plays at 100 percent, I like Kentucky here. If Wade doesn’t play or is limited, I love Kentucky. I just think the Blue Wildcats are bigger, more athletic and more talented than Kansas State at every position, and that’s not good. Even if they guard Kentucky well, they are going to get killed on the defensive glass.
I have, not once this season, believed in Clemson. Not once. And every time I don’t believe in them — in the preseason, after Donte Grantham got injured, heading into the NCAA tournament — they do something to make me look like an idiot for not believing in them. So guess what? I’m not believing in them again!
Let me rephrase that. It’s not that I don’t believe in Clemson. I’ll admit it. I messed up. They’re really good; you have to be really good to beat the SEC regular season co-champions by 41 points. But I think that the way to beat Kansas is to be able to beat them up in the paint. Take advantage of the fact that they play Svi Mykhailiuk at the four. Clemson doesn’t really do that, so I think Kansas scoots on by Clemson to face Duke in the Midwest Regional final.
PICKS: Here’s the interesting thing about this game: The line is Kansas -4.5, and the projection on KenPom is Kansas -1. Generally speaking, those are inefficiencies to capitalize on, and it makes me want to take Clemson and the points even though my gut says go the other way. When that happens, I tend to stay away.
I think the worst thing that could have happened to Loyola-Chicago was for Nevada to win the way they won the last two games. It basically came down to Eric Musselman having guys on his roster that could makes play and didn’t care what the scoreboard said or the pressure of the moment. And now those dudes are confident.
Loyola is a good, well-coached basketball team. They execute offensively, they shoot the leather off the ball and they clearly have God on their side with Sister Jean. But I would not want to play this Nevada team with the Martin twins, Jordan Caroline and Kendell Stephens in this kind of a rhythm.
PICKS: Give me the Wolf Pack. They were able to make shots on both Texas and Cincinnati, who were two of the very best defensive teams in the country this season. Playing against Loyola, who is a good defensive team in their own right, will feel like every shot is wide-open as a result. I’d lean the under here, but I probably will stay away myself.
This is a fascinating contrast in lineup builds. Michigan doesn’t have all that much size inside but is, instead, built on their ability to limit opponent possessions and stifle the ones they do get; they don’t turn the ball over, they don’t give up offensive rebounds and they are the best defensive team left in the tournament according to KenPom. The Aggies are absolutely massive upfront but have had questionable guard play all season long.
Here’s what I think the key will be: Zavier Simpson vs. T.J. Starks. Simpson can erase a point guard from a game, and Starks is a freshman that has been, at times, erasable. Will he be able to get the ball to Big Bob Williams and Tyler Davis where they can be effective? Will Simpson, and Moe Wagner, be able to create enough in John Beilein’s ball-screen offense to score on one of the nation’s top ten defensive teams?
PICKS: I think they will. I think Michigan muddies this game up, their perimeter pressure prevents A&M from getting any kind of rhythm going and they do enough offensively and on the defensive glass to win a rock fight. Michigan and the under.
What makes this game so interesting to me is that we don’t really know what Matt Painter has up his sleeve. I’m operating under the assumption that Isaac Haas isn’t playing, and that even if he does, we’re looking at a situation where he is out there for limited minutes as a motivation tool more than his usual self. I don’t care how good your brace is, imagine shooting jump-hooks with a broken elbow. I don’t see it.
Painter will have had three or four days to figure out an answer, and my guess is that they use more spread pick-and-rolls, looking to get Haarms rolling with four shooters around him. Texas Tech should actually matchup with that pretty well — I’d be more concerned about them trying to slow down Haas one-on-one on the block — given their athleticism. Hell, I could see them using lineups with Zach Smith at the five quite a bit. They also have the ultimate trump card in Keenan Evans, who has been one of the best closers in college basketball this season.
PICKS: Texas Tech with the points. The Red Raiders are good at chasing teams off of the three-point line, they matchup well with Purdue and they are, according to KenPom, the second-best defensive team left in the tournament. The best — Michigan — beat Purdue pretty handily in the Big Ten tournament title game three weeks ago. If forced to, I’d bet the under here.
1. No. 1 VILLANOVA vs. No. 5 WEST VIRGINIA, Friday 7:27 p.m.
Line: Villanova (-5.5)
Projected score: Villanova 79, West Virginia 73.5
I love Jevon Carter. I have the utmost respect for what Bob Huggins has been able to do with this West Virginia program. While what he does is the polar opposite from what Tony Bennett does at Virginia, the way they do it is not all that dissimilar: They find and recruit players that are going to buy into the program, that fit what they want to do and then, over the course of four or five years, develop them into stars. Some become pros. Most don’t. But they keep winning games.
But the reason that Press Virginia works is that their defensive identity speeds opponents up and forces them to make mistakes. No one is speeding Jalen Brunson up. No one is going to rattle him. Villanova doesn’t make mistakes. They don’t turn the ball over. But they do make a ton of threes, and what I’m picturing in my head is Jay Wright’s club breaking this West Virginia pressure with relative ease and getting open three after open three at the other end.
PICKS: I think Villanova covers fairly easily. The question here is whether or not you think West Virginia is going to keep their press on for the whole game. If they don’t — if they settle into a half-court defense or play a token, full-court man-to-man — then Villanova sometimes takes the air out of the ball. I’d bet the over, but I’m not entirely confident in that.
2018 NBA Draft Early Entry List: Who declared? Who is returning? Who are we waiting on?
A season that began with the firing of Rick Pitino in mid-October came to an end Tuesday night, as Louisville lost to Mississippi State 79-56 in a Postseason NIT regional final. There are a lot of questions to be answered, most notably who will lead the program moving forward after interim head coach David Padgett led the Cardinals to 22 wins.
As for the players, two announced following the loss that they will be going through the NBA Draft process. Junior wing Deng Adel and junior forward Ray Spalding both confirmed that they will be entering the NBA Draft but not hiring agents, so as to preserve their collegiate eligibility should they decide to return to school.
This will be the second time that Adel has entered the NBA Draft, doing so last spring before making the decision to return to school.
Playing just over 33 minutes per game, the 6-foot-8 Adel averaged 15.1 points, 5.8 rebounds and 2.8 assists per contest, shooting 44.8 percent from the field and 35.0 percent from three. Moving into the starting lineup after serving as a reserve in each of his first two seasons at Louisville, the 6-foot-10 Spalding averaged 12.3 points, 8.6 rebounds and 1.7 blocks in 27.4 minutes per game.
Mississippi State advances to NIT semifinals at MSG
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Quinndary Weatherspoon scored 19 points and grabbed 14 rebounds and Mississippi State advanced to the NIT semifinals at Madison Square Garden in New York with a 79-56 victory over Louisville on Tuesday night.
Mississippi State (25-11) will face Penn State (24-13) on March 27.
Lamar Peters opened the second quarter with a 3-pointer and Mississippi State led by at least nine points the rest of the way. Weatherspoon scored eight points during a 12-3 run to start the third for a 51-31 advantage and MSU cruised.
Aric Holman added 16 points and eight rebounds for Mississippi State, which has won its most games since the 2009-10 season. Xavian Stapleton and Nick Weatherspoon each chipped in with 12 points. Abdul Ado had three blocks to tie Jarvis Varnado for the most blocks by a MSU freshman with 67.
Ray Spalding paced Louisville (22-14) with 13 points and 11 rebounds for his 11th double-double of the season. The Cardinals shot 35 percent from the floor and were outrebounded 42-32.
Gregg Marshall does right by Alex Lomax with NLI release
And it didn’t take long for Hardaway’s hiring to have an impact on the recruiting trail either, as the point guard who led Hardaway’s Memphis East squad to its third straight TSSAA AAA state title is expected to play for his longtime mentor.
Alex Lomax, who signed a National Letter of Intent to play for Gregg Marshall at Wichita State, requested to be released from his NLI on Tuesday. It didn’t take Marshall long to make his decision, granting Lomax’s request and citing the unique circumstances in his statement as to why.
“Obviously, we take commitments to the Shocker program very seriously, but this is a very unique situation where a young man’s mentor and coach since the 5th grade has become a Division I head coach,” Marshall said. “Allowing him out of his NLI without any penalty is the right thing to do.”
The National Letter of Intent, for those who may not be too familiar with it, is a document that when signed binds the recruit in question to the school they’ve committed to. If the circumstances surrounding the recruitment change, getting released from the NLI can be incredibly difficult. Coaches and universities have no obligation to release a recruit once they sign, and it seems like every year we run into a situation where a coach is refusing to so.
Kansas point guard Devonte’ Graham is only a senior this season because, after signing an NLI with Appalachian State, he was not given a release and forced to go to prep school for a year. That’s not as uncommon as you might think.
That is also perfectly within the bounds of the rules, if not the laws of being a decent human being.
Wichita State and Marshall could have taken this opportunity to make life miserable for Lomax, and there would have been those who rushed to say that since the young man made a commitment he should stick by it no matter what. Lomax was a noteworthy recruiting win for the program during its first season in the American Athletic Conference, as the Wichita State went into Memphis and landed a pledge from a prospect who was likely to be a key part of the program’s plans moving forward.
But the hit that comes with allowing Lomax to leave without fuss is far less severe than what happens if Wichita State and Marshall make things difficult for him.
Faced with the opportunity to do the right thing and help out a young player, Marshall and Wichita State did just that.
The program should, and will, be applauded for it.