When Syracuse announced its decision to move to the ACC back in September 2012, there were a couple match-ups that the program hoped would carry over as non-conference games. The Orange set up home-and-home series with St. John’s and Villanova, and at some point (we hope) they’ll resume on-court hostilities with Georgetown. On Saturday afternoon the Wildcats will invade the Carrier Dome, with the game being a matchup of teams ranked in the Top 10 and neither having lost a game.
Jay Wright’s Wildcats being undefeated is the bigger surprise of the two, with their run including a win over Kansas in the semifinals of the Battle 4 Atlantis last month. Five players are averaging at least nine points per game, with junior forward JayVaughn Pinkston leading the way at 16.5 ppg. But if there’s one player whose improvement mirrors that of the Wildcats to date it would have to be senior James Bell (15.4 ppg, 6.5 rpg), who’s raised his scoring by nearly seven points from a season ago and is also the team’s leading rebounder.
Villanova’s skilled offensively and tenacious defensively, and they’ll use that ball pressure to pester Syracuse freshman point guard Tyler Ennis. Ennis has proven to be a cool customer at the point for the Orange, displaying the proper balance between looking for his shot and making sure talented scorers such as C.J. Fair, Jerami Grant and Trevor Cooney get their looks as well. On the season Ennis is averaging 5.4 assists and 1.9 turnovers per game, with his assist-to-turnover ratio ranking third in the ACC.
So what will the keys be on Saturday afternoon? The most obvious key is how Villanova deals with Syracuse’s 2-3 zone. The Orange don’t have the length at the two guard spots that they normally enjoy, but Ennis and Cooney have done a good job of making up for that with activity. They’ll challenge the looks that Villanova gets, and a key for Ryan Arcidiacono and his teammates will be to avoid getting suckered into those “fool’s gold” attempts. The longer than normal look that falls in the first half cannot seduce Villanova into ignoring areas such as the high post when it comes to attacking the zone, because if that is the case they’ll be in trouble.
But given the history of the two programs there will be familiarity on both sides. For Syracuse, their work on the glass could have a major impact on the outcome. To this point in the season the Orange have rebounded 40.5% of their missed shots, with Villanova limiting teams to an offensive rebounding percentage of 29.2%. If Pinkston, Kris Jenkins and Daniel Ochefu can keep Syracuse off the offensive glass (five players are averaging at least 1.6 offensive rebounds per game) they can win. That’s a tough task for Villanova but it’s clearly one they can accomplish.
Two former Big East rivals and the matchup of the brothers Ennis (Tyler’s older brother Dylan is a key reserve for Villanova) means that this game won’t lack for story lines. But the biggest story line is that both teams enter without a loss, and the winner will have another statement victory to add to its resume.
Even before Rhode Island’s NCAA tournament came to an end Saturday in the Round of 32 against Duke, speculation was running wild about the future of Rams coach Dan Hurley.
Stay or go. If it’s go, where to?
There was no clarity, but maybe some progress Monday.
Both Connecticut and Pittsburgh, the prime candidates to pry Hurley away from Rhode Island, spoke with the coach, but no decision had yet been reached, according to multiple reports.
Hurley was set to meet with Rams athletic director Thorr Bjorn on Tuesday, according to ESPN’s Jeff Goodman. Heart Connecticut Media’s Jeff Jacobs reported that UConn was “closing in on an agreement” with Hurley but that Pitt was continuing its pursuit.
Hurley has led the Rams to the NCAA tournament the last two years and signed a seven-year contract with Rhode Island worth approximately $1 million per year last off-season. UConn was paying Kevin Ollie, who led the team to the 2014 NCAA title before being fired after this season, an average of $3 million per season while Kevin Stallings reportedly was due a buyout of nearly $10 million when he was fired by Pitt this season.
What Hurley will have to weigh beyond the financial circumstances will be his ability to win at either UConn or Pitt, should he decide to move on from Rhode Island.
Ollie – well, really Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright – showed you can win a national title out of the AAC at UConn. The league adding Wichita State only strengthens that point. Pitt, meanwhile, may be a tougher job now than it was when Jamie Dixon had it rolling since their move from the Big East to the ACC.
Eamonn Brennan of The Athletic joined Rob Dauster for an epic, two-hour podcast on the first weekend of the tournament. It was so good that we had to split the podcast into two parts. On this show, the two go through everything that happened in the South and West Regions, from Sister Jean to UMBC to Nevada’s comebacks to Kentucky’s chances at a Final Four.
On this show, the two go through everything that happened in the East and Midwest Regions, from Villanova and Duke steamrolling to Michigan State collapsing to Syracuse and Clemson and Texas Tech and Purdue. It’s all in there.
One of my favorite parts of the NCAA tournament is seeing who comes out of nowhere to turn into a viral celebrity during this month of madness.
By my estimation, we had eight true candidates for the award of March Madness Viral Celebrity of the Year. Here they are:
8. ROB GRAY’S LITTLE BROTHER
He was more fired up for Houston’s success in the tournament than any Houston fan in the history of basketball in the city of Houston.
7. JORDAN PEELE
Jordan Poole is spelled a lot like Jordan Peele, which inevitably led to people tweeting at Peele instead of Poole. Peele’s thank you tweet was a highlight of the first weekend.
6. TY JEROME DOESN’T HAVE TIME FOR YOUR DUMB QUESTIONS
Having to answer questions from a bunch of reporters after suffering the most humiliating moment of your life is not an easy thing to do. Having to answer ridiculous and stupid questions could be intolerable, which is why I loved Ty Jerome’s response to a stupid question he was asked:
5. ROBERT WILLIAMS TEAMMATE
I loved seeing Robert Williams’ teammate do a panotmine windmill in the background while Williams was throwing down a windmill in real time on Providence:
4. MARIAH MUSSELMAN
Nevada head coach Eric Musselman has led his team to the Sweet 16, cussed on live television and gone shirtless to celebrate with his team, but the star of the Musselman family is his daughter Mariah:
3. MATT HAARMS’ HAIR
He really does have great hair:
This dude lived the dream of every twitter user out there. When your shot is there, you have to take it.
1. SISTER JEAN
Nevada head coach Eric Musselman went shirtless to celebrate his team’s come-from-behind win over No. 2 seed Cincinnati on Sunday.
I guess this is better than dropping F-bombs live on national TV. Maybe that’s why they had Steve Lappas talking over him …
The worst-kept secret in college basketball no longer appears to be a secret: Penny Hardaway is going to be the next coaching at the University of Memphis.
ESPN is reporting that a deal has been agreed upon. The Memphis Commercial-Appeal is reporting that Penny was waiting for his season to end with East High School before he made anything official. NBC Sports can confirm that an announcement is expected to be made early this week, likely as soon as Tuesday, to introduce the former Memphis and NBA star as Tubby Smith’s replacement.
The truth, however, is that we all knew this was what would be happening the second that Memphis formally fired Tubby Smith. Hell, we knew it a month before that decision was made final. This was always how it was going to play out.
What’s interesting to me is now the discussion of whether or not Penny will be able to handle being a Division I head coach, because it’s been hit or miss with basketball programs hiring legends of their past. Chris Mullin and St. John’s hasn’t exactly gone to plan but Fred Hoiberg was quite successful at Iowa State. Kevin Ollie won a title with UConn then fell off a cliff. Patrick Ewing’s start wasn’t great, but he was better than expected.
Where does Penny fall on this scale?
Well, let me just drop this section of a column from Geoff Calkins in here:
Hardaway isn’t a guy who woke up one morning and decided he’d like to be a Division I head coach. He’s not a former player who got bored with retirement and decided he’d like to do something other than play golf.
Hardaway started coaching at middle school. Middle school! Because an old friend needed some help.
Then he built one of the best AAU programs in the country. Then he spent years coaching a high school team.
Does that sound like someone who doesn’t want to roll up his sleeves and do the work? Does that sound like someone who is just in it for the glory and the glitz?
The truth is, if it weren’t for Hardaway’s iconic stature, he might be characterized as a grinder, as a guy who worked his way up from the lowest levels of basketball on the strength of his relationship with the kids.
I think that this is going to work out for both Penny and Memphis, especially if Penny hires a staff that can help him with the intricacies of running a college basketball program.