No. 4 Arizona overcomes 19 point deficit, proves defense is how they’ll win games

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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.

College Hoops Contender Series: Villanova takes their shot at going back-to-back

HOUSTON, TEXAS - APRIL 04:  Daniel Ochefu #23 of the Villanova Wildcats and Ryan Arcidiacono #15 hoist the trophy after the Villanova Wildcats defeat the North Carolina Tar Heels 77-74 to win the 2016 NCAA Men's Final Four National Championship game at NRG Stadium on April 4, 2016 in Houston, Texas.  (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
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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.

Last week, we gave you our Final Four sleepers talked about six different Final Four contenders that are just flawed enough that we can’t call them contenders.

There is a pretty clear-cut delineation between the five best teams, the five clear national title challengers, and the rest of the country this season.

This week, we will be taking a deeper dive into all five of those teams, breaking down why they can win a national title and why they won’t win a national title.

MORE: 2016-17 Season Preview Coverage |Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

Villanova head coach Jay Wright celebrates as he cuts down the net after the NCAA Final Four tournament college basketball championship game against North Carolina, Monday, April 4, 2016, in Houston. Villanova won 77-74. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Villanova head coach Jay Wright (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)


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.

MORE: All-Americans | Impact Transfers | Expert Picks | Trending Programs

LOUISVILLE, KY - MARCH 26:  Josh Hart #3 of the Villanova Wildcats dunks the ball in the first half against the Kansas Jayhawks during the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament South Regional at KFC YUM! Center on March 26, 2016 in Louisville, Kentucky.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Josh Hart of the Villanova Wildcats (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

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.

Villanova's Phil Booth interviews teammate Mikal Bridges (25) in the locker room before a practice session for the NCAA Final Four college basketball tournament Thursday, March 31, 2016, in Houston. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
(AP Photo/Eric Gay)

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

Rick Pitino
AP Photo/Frank Franklin II
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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.

Thanks for listening!

Kennesaw State misses dunk, yet still makes shot

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Jordan Jones will not score a more impressive bucket all season. Probably for the rest of his career. And that’s not being harsh. That’s just how ridiculous the three-second clip below is.

The Kennesaw State junior forward went up for a windmill dunk, back-ironed the attempt with so much force — and at the right angle — that it went in a different hoop along the sideline.

The 6-foot-8 Jones averaged 3.5 points and 3.4 rebounds per game for the Owls last season.

Report: One-and-done rule to stay in new CBA

NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 23:  Ben Simmons poses with Commissioner Adam Silver after being drafted first overall by the Philadelphia 76ers in the first round of the 2016 NBA Draft at the Barclays Center on June 23, 2016 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
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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.

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.

The NBA and NBPA each have the ability to opt out of the current collective bargaining agreement on Dec. 15, but Wojnarowski reports that a deal is expected to be in place by then.

Eustachy to remain with Colorado St. through 2020-21 season

LAS VEGAS, NV - MARCH 13:  Head Coach Larry Eustachy of the Colorado State Rams calls to his team during a semifinal game of the Mountain West Conference basketball tournament against the San Diego State Aztecs at the Thomas & Mack Center on March 13, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  (Photo by David Becker/Getty Images)
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FORT COLLINS, Colo. (AP) Colorado State extended basketball coach Larry Eustachy’s contract Thursday through the 2020-21 season, adding a year to his existing deal.

Eustachy enters the season 11 wins away from 500 for his Division I career.

The 60-year-old Eustachy took over at Colorado State in 2012. He’s 87-48 with the Rams, including an NCAA Tournament appearance during his first season in charge.

Athletic director Joe Parker says he’s “excited about what the future holds for this program over the remainder of his coaching time here.”

As part of his agreement, Eustachy has bonuses for winning 20 games ($40,000), taking the Mountain West Conference championship ($100,000) and earning an NCAA Tournament bid ($200,000).

He’s led five programs to 24-plus-win seasons: CSU, Southern Miss, Iowa State, Utah State and Idaho.