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CBT Weekly Roundtable: Who are the top five teams as of today?

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In a new series here on College Basketball Talk, every Friday we’re going to have a discussion about some of the hot topics in college basketball. The inaugural installment focuses on the ACC, the now 15-team conference that some stated was the greatest conference ever assembled before a game had been played. Now that we’ve seen the teams in action, who’s the favorite to win the regular season crown? And who else can make a run at challenging for the title? 

Rob Dauster: Rankings are a tricky thing this early in the season. Are you ranking based on how good you think the team will be in the future? How good you think they are right now? How strong their resume of wins is? It’s an inexact science, especially when you’re dealing with some people that haven’t seen every team play.

That’s why Raph and I are here. We watch way too much hoops, and I know I can speak for both of us when I say that we both have a good feel for just about every team that deserves a spot in or around the top 25.

So, Raph, as of this very moment, these are who I believe are the top five teams in the country, in order: Arizona, Syracuse, Wisconsin, Louisville, and Florida. Tell me why I’m wrong.

Raphielle Johnson: I’d be happy to tell you why you’re wrong, and it starts with the fact that you don’t have Ohio State on this list. Now the Buckeyes may not have a “signature” win at this point in time, but how can you ignore their balance and work on the defensive end of the floor? While LaQuinton Ross still needs to show that he can consistently provide scoring for this group, the fact of the matter is that they have multiple options capable of leading the team in scoring on any particular night. There’s Ross, Lenzelle Smith Jr., Aaron Craft and Shannon Scott right now, and they’ve received a nice boost off the bench from Amedeo Della Valle and Marc Loving at various points of the season.

And I don’t think we can overlook the strides that Amir Williams has made either. He’s no world-beater by any stretch of the imagination, but he’s played much better basketball of late than at any point in his Ohio State career to date. Since your question stated “at this very moment” I’d take Ohio State over Florida, even with the Gators’s showing against Kansas and the fact that they’re some Shabazz Napier heroics away from being undefeated. Until they get Chris Walker (if that happens) Florida’s about as “complete” as they’ll be this season, and they’re going to be very good. But I’d take Ohio State over them at this point in time.

RD: No one over here is overlooking Ohio State. Trust me on that. I know how good they can be defensively.

source: Getty ImagesThat said, I need you to keep something in mind: the team you’re talking touting is going to be relying on LaQuinton Ross to be their difference maker. Ross has played the last couple of weeks. He played well during the NCAA tournament, too. But you’re really rolling with a team that is going to have to trust LaQuinton Ross to be a consistent offensive weapon over a team that just put a 29-4 run on Kansas?

Bottom line is this: Ohio State might be the best defensive team in the country. But Florida, given their length, athleticism and versatility, ain’t all that far behind, mainly because they can give a number of different looks on that end of the floor. That extended 1-3-1 looked pretty damn impressive. The difference, in my opinion, comes offensively. Scottie Wilbekin, Kasey Hill, Michael Frazier and new and improved Casey Prather and Dorian Finney-Smith is quite formidable.

Here’s my question: Would you rank Ohio State over Wisconsin?

RJ: In regards to Florida, I’d like to see a little more from them as the group is “currently” constituted. They looked phenomenal at times against Kansas the other night, but once again their time on the floor as a unit has been limited. With that being the case, we could very well be back here at some point wondering if they’re the best team in the country. That wouldn’t surprise me one bit. But you asked who I’d take right now, and that would be Ohio State.

As for whether I’d take the Buckeyes over Wisconsin, that answer would be “no.” A big reason why: who guards Frank Kaminsky? That’s a question many teams will struggle with given Kaminsky’s performance to this point in the season, as he’s very comfortable stepping out beyond the arc and firing away (connecting at a good rate to boot). It’s one thing to defend a big on the block, because that’s where they’re “supposed” to be in theory. But when faced with a big who can score inside and out, the task becomes all the more difficult. And there’s also the Josh Gasser factor, as his return has given the Badgers a piece they really needed last season. If they need scoring he’ll give them that, and the same goes for defense, distributing the ball to open teammates and leadership. Right now I’m taking Wisconsin, who may be sold short by those who simply say “oh, they’ll finish top four in the Big Ten again because that’s what Bo Ryan does.”

This group’s better than that, and they’re capable of accomplishing more. Where do you stand on the Ohio State/Wisconsin question?

RD: #TeamWisky. I don’t know what it is about this group, but they look like so much more than just another good Wisconsin team. Is it Sam Dekker? He’s been awesome this season. Is it the three-guard look they’ve been using? Is it the emergence of Kaminsky?

I’ll tell you what it’s not: Wisconsin becoming some uptempo, fast-breaking team. I’m going to go on a bit of a rant here, so forgive me. Wisconsin is still the same old Wisconsin on the overwhelming majority of their possessions. They didn’t turn into Loyola Marymount in the Hank Gathers and Bo Kimble days, not even close, and I really wish people would stop saying that. According to Synergy, 8.7% of Wisconsin’s possessions come in transition, up from 6.4% last season. By comparison, 28.4% of BYU’s possessions come in transition. They are a fast-breaking team. Wisconsin, who ranks 312th in tempo and 346th in average length of offensive possession, is unequivocally not. One or two more fast breaks per game is not a shift in identity.

So let’s just go ahead and put that theory to bed.

This is the same old Wisconsin doing the same old Wisconsin things, only they’re doing them better now.

So you’re good with Arizona and Syracuse as the nation’s two best teams right now?

RJ: Agree completely on your Wisconsin point. Trotting a little more often doesn’t mean that you’re a running team, and you know what? There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. They do what’s best for them, and it works.
Now on to your question. Right now I’d say that Arizona and Syracuse are the two best teams in the country. And the good thing for both is that there’s still room for improvement. Arizona can still use a shooter, and whether that comes from a source safely within the rotation or one whose spot seems to fluctuate (Gabe York played just six minutes vs. UNLV) remains to be seen. But they have the length and athleticism to be an elite defensive team, and there’s plenty of skill at Sean Miller’s disposal.

As for the Orange, I see a team that may only get better (barring injury, of course) with Tyler Ennis gaining experience and Trevor Cooney adjusting to a far more prominent role than the one he had last season. Add in the consistent C.J. Fair and a reserve in Jerami Grant who may be on the “Dion Waiters Plan” (from 6th man to the draft lottery) and you’ve got a very good quartet to start with. Add in the big men and Mike Gbinije and Syracuse has the look of a team capable of winning it all.

Your thoughts?

RD: The question that we all had with Syracuse heading into the season had to do with their back court. Were their guards actually going to be good enough to lead them to the top of the ACC?

Well … that question looks dumb at this point, because I think that there is a valid argument to make that Tyler Ennis and Trevor Cooney have been the best back court in the country this season. With Cooney draining threes like he’s the second-coming of Gerry McNamara and Ennis notching these kind of numbers — 11.2 ppg, 4.9 apg, 1.0 t/o’s, 42.9% 3PT — the Orange look scary-good.

Weekend Preview: Villanova tested by Notre Dame, bounce-backs for Xavier, Butler

Notre Dame's Steve Vasturia (32), Bonzie Colson (35) and V.J. Beachem (3) talk during the second half of a first-round men's college basketball game against Michigan in the NCAA Tournament, Friday, March 18, 2016, in New York. Notre Dame won 70-63. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
AP Photo/Frank Franklin II
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SATURDAY’S SHOWDOWNS

No. 1 Villanova vs. No. 23 Notre Dame, Sat. 12:00 p.m.: This is a fascinating matchup for a couple of reasons. For starters, this is the first real test that undefeated Notre Dame is going to be getting this season. We honestly have no idea how good the Irish actually are, and you wouldn’t be alone in needing to see a team starting Matt Farrell and Bonzie Colson prove it before buying in.

But we also haven’t see Villanova tested in a while, either. They won at Purdue earlier this season and, since then, have more-or-less coasted to their undefeated mark. This will not only be a nice gauge game for Villanova, but it will also be a chance for them to pad an NCAA tournament résumé that will need to be strong for them to get a No. 1 seed this year.

The other part of this that’s fascinating? Both of these teams play small ball. There are going to be times on Saturday where 6-foot-5 Bonzie Colson is playing center and being guarded by 6-foot-5 Kris Jenkins, who will be at center for the Wildcats.

No. 22 Cincinnati at No. 16 Butler, Sat. 4:30 p.m.: Butler could really use this win. Coming off of a road loss to Indiana State during the week, the Bulldogs will be playing back in Hinkle Fieldhouse on Saturday. But here’s the thing: Cincinnati could really use this win as well, and that Bearcat program already owns a road win over Iowa State.

The matchup here will be intriguing as well. Butler plays a more open, run-and-gun style than they did under Brad Stevens. Tyler Lewis is a show-man in transition, as is Kamar Baldwin, and getting Kelan Martin spotting up or attacking a close out is always a good coaching maneuver. Cincinnati is tough and big and physical. They try to wear you down. They pound the glass. They really, really defend. How does Butler handle it?

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FIVE MORE GAMES TO WATCH

  • No. 17 Wisconsin at Marquette, Sat. 2:00 p.m.: In one of the more under-appreciated rivalries in college basketball, Marquette will be looking to land a marquee win to bolster the non-conference portion of their NCAA tournament résumé. Will
    Nigel Hayes continue to play like an all-american?
  • Utah at No. 13 Xavier, Sat. 5:30 p.m.: The Musketeers have lost back-to-back games and are really struggling to shoot the ball from the perimeter. Utah has struggled this season as they have a young roster waiting on a pair of transfers to get eligible.
  • Michigan at No. 2 UCLA, Sat. 8:00 p.m.: UCLA is now a week removed from their win over then-No. 1 Kentucky in Rupp Arena. This will be the first time they see the floor since then. Michigan had the look of a tournament team earlier in the season, but they’ve lost a pair of winnable games in recent weeks.
  • Hofstra vs. No. 6 Kentucky, Sun. 3:00 p.m.: The Wildcats will square off with Hofstra on Sunday, a game that is only really notable because it will be played in the Barclays Center.
  • No. 21 Florida at Florida State, Sun. 4:00 p.m.: The Gators looked the part of an NCAA tournament team when they lost to Duke in New York City on Tuesday. Florida State is more talented, however, but it’s difficult to trust them. This will be a big win for whoever gets it.

FIVE STORY LINES TO FOLLOW

1. Kentucky’s perimeter shooting is officially a concern: The Wildcats are currently shooting 32.2 percent from beyond the arc, which is 254th nationally. The only real threat they have from three in their starting lineup is Malik Monk, and he’s streaky. They can play Derek Willis at the four, but Willis is such a step-down on the defensive end of the floor from Wenyen Gabriel that it may not end up being a net-positive to play him, not when the Wildcats rely so heavily on their defense to create offense in transition.

I’m not sure what the answer is. I’m not even sure there is an answer. This is just what Coach Cal has to work with this season. Can they improve? Probably. The great thing about being a bad shooting team is that shooting is the easiest thing to develop. Teams without size can’t get bigger. Teams without athleticism can’t get more athletic. The only problem? There are just four months left of the season. How much better can Kentucky really get?

One thing worth noting here: The 2010 Kentucky team, the one with John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe, the one that lost in the Elite 8 because of their shooting issues, finished the season making 33.1 percent of their threes.

LEXINGTON, KY - DECEMBER 07:  De'Aaron Fox #0 of the Kentucky Wildcats dribbles the ball during the game against the Valparaiso Crusaders at Rupp Arena on December 7, 2016 in Lexington, Kentucky.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
De’Aaron Fox (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

2. Let’s see if Notre Dame is for real: The Fighting Irish are one of nine undefeated teams left in college basketball, but as good as they have been this season, Mike Brey’s club still hasn’t really beaten anyone. The Colorado win looks better after the Buffaloes beat Xavier. Beating Fort Wayne, the team that upset Indiana, is good. Northwestern and Iowa are Big Ten teams.

But none of those four wins – none of Notre Dame’s nine wins – have come against a team we know will be in the NCAA tournament. We know Villanova will be, and the interesting thing about this matchup is how well the two teams matchup, particularly up front. Neither the Irish nor the Wildcats have much size inside. If Notre Dame can pull off the upset, it will be time to start talking about them much more.

3. UCLA’s first action since the win at Kentucky: The last time that we saw the Bruins take the court they put up 97 points on Kentucky in Rupp Arena. That’s pretty good. It’s also an easy way to get a big head, especially for a team that has so many freshmen on the roster. UCLA will face off with Michigan at home on Saturday. It will be interesting to see how they come out early on in this one.

4. Bounce-back chances for Big East programs: No. 13 Xavier has lost two games in a row now, both of them coming on the road. They were felled at No. 4 Baylor before getting dropped at Colorado on Wednesday. The Musketeers will host Utah, a winnable game that could help them find a rhythm shooting the ball.

No. 16 Butler is coming off of a loss of their home, having been upset at Indiana State by the Sycamores. The Bulldogs will have a bigger test than the Musketeers, as they host a top 25 team in No. 22 Cincinnati.

5. Jonathan Isaac’s health, Florida State’s tournament hopes?: Isaac is the forgotten top ten pick. He’s been terrific this season and has a chance to play his way into the top ten if he continues doing what he’s been doing, but he’s missed the last two games with a hip injury. This is an important game for the Seminoles, as they host Florida this weekend. Will Isaac be available?

UT-Arlington dominates, upsets No. 12 St. Mary’s

Texas-Arlington's Kevin Hervey, left, reacts to a 73-68 NCAA college basketball game win as Ohio State's Jae'Sean Tate looks on  in Columbus, Ohio, Friday, Nov. 20, 2015. (AP Photo/Paul Vernon)
AP Photo/Paul Vernon
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UT-Arlington made a statement on Thursday night, completely dominating No. 12 Saint Mary’s in a 65-51 upset win in a true road game in Moraga.

Back in October, I ranked both the Gaels and the Mavericks in the top-5 of my Mid-Major Power Rankings. Saint Mary’s was the obvious top choice, one of the nation’s most efficient offenses that returned Emmett Naar and Jock Landale. UT-Arlington, ranked fifth, served as a dangerous opponent. The Mavs had defeated Ohio State and Memphis in 2015, but their season was derailed once Kevin Hervey, a player with serious pro potential, tore his ACL.

With five starters back, including Hervey, who is just now getting back to 100 percent, UT-Arlington looks every bit the part of a March Cinderella.

The Mavericks jumped out to an early lead by forcing the Gaels to play out of character. Saint Mary’s had already committed a season-high 14 turnovers before the midway point of the second half. The Gaels, who entered shooting 40 percent from three as a team, were held to 8-of-27 (30 percent) from beyond the arc.

UT-Arlington did an incredible job of closing out on shooters. And it didn’t matter the matchup, at times we saw Hervey, a 6-foot-9 junior, come out and run a guard off the 3-point line. While those statistics mentioned above up appear in the box score, the amount of deflections don’t. The Mavericks used its length and athleticism to get their hands everywhere on the defensive end of the floor, making it difficult to find good looks.

In the first half, UT-Arlington controlled the glass. Saint Mary’s found more success in that department after halftime, as Kevin Clark’s offensive putback capped an 11-2 run, which cut the deficit to 52-41. However, the Mavs were able to counter each time the Gaels threatened, never letting the lead get to single digits.

Aside from the struggles the typically-efficient Saint Mary’s offense had, the Gaels failed to keep UT-Arlington guards Erick Neal and Kaelon Wilson out of the lane, whether it be on a high ball screen or a handoff. Saint Mary’s never seemed to have a help-side defender there to protect the rim. Neal had 13 points and eight assists (five turnovers), while Wilson had 10 points off the bench. Hervey had a game-high 15 points and seven rebounds.

UT-Arlington is winners of eight straight after losing three straight. One of those wins includes a double-digit win over Texas in Austin. The Mavericks are the clear-cut favorite to win the Sun Belt. Come Selection Sunday, I’d say plenty of at-large teams would not like to be paired with Scott Cross’ team.

Iowa cruises past No. 25 Iowa State

NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 20:  Head coach Fran McCaffery of the Iowa Hawkeyes reacts in the first half against the Villanova Wildcats during the second round of the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Barclays Center on March 20, 2016 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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Iowa picked up a major win on Thursday night, defeating in-state rival No. 25 Iowa State, 78-64, in a contest the Hawkeyes thoroughly dominated.

Let’s put it this way: the Hawkeyes have played four top-100 teams, according to kenpom. In those games, all losses by the way, their defense has surrendered 91 points to Seton Hall, 74 points to a Virginia team that plays at the slowest tempo in the country, 100 points to Memphis and 92 points to Notre Dame.

On Saturday, on the same floor Iowa demolished the Cyclones, its defense allowed 98 points in a loss to Nebraska Omaha.

This is exactly the sort of win Fran McCaffery and Co. needed to right the ship as we inch closer and closer to conference play.

When the Cyclones went to their bench in the first half, Nick Baer sparked a 10-0 run which helped set the tone for the remainder of the half. Iowa State went without a field goal for more than six minutes during that span.

Iowa kept Iowa State from getting out and running, holding the Cyclones to zero fast break points through the first 20 minutes and limiting them to only 36 percent from the floor as a team. Iowa, on the other hand, shot 47 percent, including 59 percent in the first half, which led to a 15-point halftime lead.

Peter Jok torched Iowa State to the tune of 23 points (4-of-7 from distance).

Monte Morris was held in check with 10 points, while Naz Mitrou-Long and Matt Thomas shot a combined 4-of-13 from three (they each hit a three with less than three minutes to play and the outcome all but decided).

Iowa State’s offense is becoming a bigger concern. Just like against Gonzaga, the Cyclones dug a first-half hole they could shoot out their way of. And like last week’s overtime loss to Cincinnati, they struggled from beyond the arc.

Iowa landed a marquee win it needed, while its rival headed home with questions to answer after losing three of four.

 

Alabama wing sidelined due to weight loss

ORLANDO, FL - NOVEMBER 29: Head coach Avery Johnson of the Alabama Crimson Tide during the game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at HP Field House on November 29, 2015 in Orlando, Florida.  (Photo by Rob Foldy/Getty Images)
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Alabama junior wing Nick King will not be with the team for Sunday evening’s matchup against No. 24 Oregon in Eugene.

According to Rainer Sabin of the AL.com, Alabama head coach Avery Johnson said King undergoing a series of tests after losing more than 10 pounds in less than a week and a half.

Johnson told reporters that he is “very concerned” and estimates that as of now King will be sidelined for “a week or two.”

King, who played his first two seasons at Memphis, has appeared in all seven games for the Crimson Tide, averaging 3.3 points and 2.9 rebounds in 12.7 minutes per game.

Damonte Dodd out with MCL sprain

COLLEGE PARK, MD - FEBRUARY 13: Melo Trimble #2 and Damonte Dodd #35 of the Maryland Terrapins react to a call as Alex Illikainen #25 of the Wisconsin Badgers looks on in the second half at Xfinity Center on February 13, 2016 in College Park, Maryland. Wisconsin won 70-57.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
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Maryland could be without the services of starting center Damonte Dodd for the remainder of the non-conference slate, the team announced on Wednesday.

Dodd suffered a MCL sprain in his left knee during practice earlier this week. The injury caused him to miss Wednesday’s 76-56 win over Howard. He will not be available for matchups with St. Peter’s and Jacksonville State. The Terrapins then close out the non-conference slate at Charlotte on Dec. 20 before opening up Big Ten play a week later.

Dodd has started in six of seven games he’s appeared in this season. He’s averaging 5.9 points, 5.3 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per game. Michael Cekovsky started in place of Dodd on Wednesday night. Ivan Bender, who returned to the lineup against Howard after missing the previous contest, should also see an increase in minutes with Dodd sidelined.