After winning 20 games and finishing in a tie for third place in the Atlantic 10 in 2011-12 (and reached the NCAA tournament) Mark Schmidt’s St. Bonaventure Bonnies took a slight step back last season, posting an overall record of 14-15 with a 7-9 mark in conference play. That tends to happen when you bid farewell to a player as influential and talented as Andrew Nicholson, and while the Bonnies did have three players averaging double figures offensively their biggest issues came on the defensive end.
St. Bonaventure finished the 2012-13 season ranked 14th in the Atlantic 10 in field goal percentage defense, with opponents shooting 44.9% from the field, and they were also 14th in the conference in adjusted defensive efficiency. So even with the loss of their top three scorers from a season ago, it was clear that regardless of who steps up to account for the lost scoring St. Bonaventure needed to improve defensively if they were to make a move up the Atlantic 10 pecking order.
Through 15 games the Bonnies have been better defensively, with opponents shooting 42.6% from the field and scoring an average of just 0.97 points per possession. Add to this a balanced led by senior guard Matthew Wright (16.5 ppg, 3.4 apg) and the result is an 11-4 record, with the Bonnies winning their Atlantic 10 opener against Richmond on Wednesday night.
But while that 84-70 victory was a good one, a lot more will be learned about the Bonnies on Saturday afternoon when they visit No. 19 UMass in the first game of a triple-header on NBC Sports Network. It’s the first of two A-10 games on the docket, with Rhode Island/George Washington (2:30 p.m.) being the other and Ivy League rivals Princeton and Penn (6:00 p.m.) completing the slate.
While that Princeton/Penn game is the league opener for both, Rhode Island and George Washington will look to avoid starting 0-2 in Atlantic 10 play. In addition to being broadcast on NBC Sports Network, all three games are available on the NBC Sports Live Extra app as well.
UMass, picked to finish fourth in the Atlantic 10’s preseason poll, is off to a 13-1 start with point guard Chaz Williams leading a talented group of players capable of attacking teams on both ends of the floor. The length of Maxie Esho and Raphiael Putney makes for tough match-ups, and center Cady Lalanne’s been one of the most improved players in the Atlantic 10.
Both teams have six players averaging at least nine points per game this season, but UMass has produced more of the attention-grabbing wins that have them in the national polls and on their way to their first NCAA tournament appearance since 1998. With that being the case, Saturday’s game in Amherst represents a great opportunity for St. Bonaventure, especially when it comes to earning some respect within the Atlantic 10. If they can hit the offensive glass as they have thus far (14.0 offensive rebounds per game), the Bonnies could have a “puncher’s chance” at the Mullins Center.
Saturday’s win over No. 8 UCLA was massive for No. 7 Arizona for a number of reasons.
They got Allonzo Trier back into the fold. They remained undefeated atop the Pac-12 standings, keeping pace with an Oregon team that’s dealing with another Dillon Brooks foot injury and getting ready to make the nightmarish trip to the Mountain schools, Utah and Colorado, this weekend. They took a two game lead over the Bruins in the Pac-12 standings.
Perhaps more importantly, the Wildcats certified themselves as a legitimate threat to get to the Final Four. Their 17-2 record entering Saturday was pretty. A win at Pauley finally gave that résumé some substance.
So good for Arizona.
But that wasn’t the biggest story line coming out of Pauley Pavilion on Saturday afternoon.
UCLA’s defense, or lack thereof, was.
Ever since the Bruins went into Rupp Arena and knocked off then-No. 1 Kentucky, UCLA has been considered one of the very best teams in the country. Villanova’s up there, too. So is Kansas, and Gonzaga, and those Kentucky Wildcats. North Carolina probably should be in that conversation as well. Maybe Baylor, maaaybe Florida State.
You get my point. The Bruins, for better or worse, were one of the handful of teams that everyone thought would enter the NCAA tournament as a favorite to win the national title, but it’s time for us to question whether or not that is actually the case. That’s how bad the UCLA defense has been this season, particularly of late.
Against Arizona, the Bruins were a train-wreck. They gave up 96 points on 1.315 points-per-possession, which, for those of you who aren’t into advanced stats, is atrocious. That game was the culmination of a four-game stretch where UCLA’s defense had gone from concerning-but-good-enough to a major red flag. In those four games – road trips to Colorado and Utah and home games against Arizona and Arizona State – the Bruins allowed an abysmal 1.153 PPP. For comparison’s sake, the 2015 Kentucky team that went 38-1, the best defense we’ve seen in the KenPom era, gave up 0.847 PPP. UCLA averages 75 possessions a game, which is a difference of 23 points over 40 minutes.
That’s a big deal.
And on the season, UCLA has fallen the way to 125th in KenPom’s defensive efficiency metric.
That’s a bigger deal.
For those that don’t know, KenPom.com is a website that ranks teams based on how many points they score and allow per possession, adjusted for schedule strength. It’s widely considered the best way to determine who the best offensive, the best defensive and the best overall teams are.
It’s been around since 2002.
And since 2002, given where UCLA’s defense is today, they would be the second-worst defensive team to ever get to a Final Four.
In 2011, VCU ranked 138th in defensive efficiency as of Selection Sunday*, and they are the only team to ever rank outside the top 80 in defensive efficiency and make it all the way to the Final Four. Only three other teams have ranked outside the top 50 and made it to the final weekend of the season: Marquette in 2003 (76th), Butler in 2011 (72nd) and Michigan in 2013 (66th). Two others ranked outside the top 40 and won at least four games in the Big Dance: Texas in 2003 (46th) and Wisconsin in 2014 (50th):
*(All of this info is via KenPom.com and as of Selection Sunday in those given seasons. That’s important to note, because winning games against good teams in the tournament changes those stats.)
The precedent is there.
UCLA, unquestionably, has to get better defensively if they want to win a national title.
But all hope is not lost.
The two teams with the lowest defensive efficiency entering the NCAA tournament to win the national title – North Carolina in 2009 and Duke in 2015 – both had top three offenses nationally.
UCLA leads the nation in offensive efficiency.
AP Poll: Villanova, Kansas neck-and-neck for No. 1
This week’s rankings were probably more difficult to put together than any week so far this season.
The top four, frankly, seem pretty obvious. I have Villanova No. 1, but I would have no qualms with ranking any of Kentucky, Kansas or Gonzaga in that No. 1 spot. I expect those to be the four teams that get votes for No. 1 in the AP and Coaches Polls this week.
After that, however, is when it gets difficult. Are you going to rank North Carolina above Florida State? UNC beat the Seminoles when they squared off this season but that was the Seminoles lone loss in a six game run against ranked teams. I went with Carolina over them because, simply, I think UNC is a better team.
Then there’s the question of what to do with the top three teams in the Pac-12. Arizona just won at UCLA and they got Allonzo Trier back. Oregon also owns a win over the Bruins, but there’s came at home on a buzzer-beater from Dillon Brooks, who is dealing with a foot injury again. And while UCLA has consistently proven to be one of the most dangerous offensive teams in the country, they are a nightmare defensively right now.
Where does West Virginia slot in after a pair of losses? What about Creighton without Mo Watson Jr.? Butler’s profile looks great but their performance on the floor has been less than stellar since their win over Villanova. Is Duke actually back?
You can find the rankings below. What did I get wrong?
1. Jeff Capel’s gamble paid off: For the first time in more than a month, Duke looked like Duke again, and it all came from a roll-of-the-dice by interim head coach Jeff Capel.
With the Blue Devils down 36-25 at the half at home against Miami, he benched Grayson Allen, Luke Kennard and Harry Giles III to open the second half, and it worked. Matt Jones scored all 13 of his points to sparked a 31-4 run that turned what should have been Miami’s first marquee win into a moment in Duke’s season that we have to highlight.
The specific turning point came less than two minutes into the half. Duke was finally playing with energy defensively, but they couldn’t quite get things going on the offensive end of the floor. After another missed shot from the Blue Devils, Jones picked off an outlet pass and rattled home a three that sent Cameron Indoor Stadium into hysterics. The crowd went nuts. The bench went nuts. Capel went to go chest bump Jones at half court after Miami called a timeout and nearly truck-sticked his veteran leader.
And it was more than just Jones hitting shots. Frank Jackson looked the part of an all-american for the first time since his more-heralded freshmen counterparts returned from injury. Marques Bolden played what was by far his best game as a collegian, too. They were brimming with confidence, but perhaps more importantly, it was the first time that Duke looked to be having fun playing basketball since the Jimmy V Classic on Dec. 10th.
I don’t know what the future holds for Duke’s season.
But I do know that if they make a run now, Matt Jones rattling home a three will have been the turning point in their season.
2. Creighton might be OK without Mo Watson Jr.: Creighton got smoked by Marquette at home on Saturday afternoon, losing 102-94 in a game that wasn’t really that close in the second half. That’s not exactly the most reassuring thing to have happen for a team trying to figure out how to survive without their all-american point guard, but there is something important to note about the result: Creighton lost because they decided not to defend.
Marquette has one of the most potent offensive attacks in the country. They currently rank 7th in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency metric. They have loads of guards to spread around Luke Fischer in the post, and head coach Steve Wojciechowski has them running and gunning like some of those old Duke teams he played on. They made 12 threes against Creighton, shot 60 percent from the floor and scored 1.275 points-per-possession.
That’s atrocious defense from the Bluejays.
But they also put up 94 points. Marcus Foster went for 30. They were 11-for-24 from the floor and shot 49.3 percent on the game despite missing 23 of their first 34 field goals. Davion Mintz, playing the point in Watson’s absence, finished with 17 points and eight assists. Their offense, overall, looked fine.
Part of that is because Marquette is a bad defensive team. Part of that was likely because they were chasing the game late, able to get a flurry of points down the stretch against a defense that was trying not to foul. And it’s not like we can ignore the 11-for-34 start to the game.
That said, when you combine this performance with the fact that the Bluejays were able to hold on and win at Xavier after Watson’s first half injury, there is reason to be optimistic that Greg McDermott will figure this thing out. Creighton no longer has the same upside without Watson – he was awesome, let’s not forget that – but this weekend showed us the Bluejays aren’t dead yet.
3. Indiana isn’t dead yet, either: We were all ready to bury the Hoosiers after they lost O.G. Anunoby to a knee injury that will require surgery and end his season, but someone forget to tell Indiana.
Four days after James Blackmon Jr. hit a buzzer-beating three to give Indiana a win at Penn State, the Hoosiers smacked around Michigan State at Assembly Hall on the strength of 33 points from Blackmon. All of a sudden, Tom Crean’s club is sitting at 4-3 in the Big Ten, two games out of first place, having won four of their last five, the only loss coming by three points at league leader Maryland.
That’s impressive, but it doesn’t get any easier for the Hoosiers. This week, they visit both Michigan and Northwestern, who is currently 5-2 in the Big Ten. Winning at home in front of a raucous crowd is one thing. Taking care of teams that they should be able to beat on the road is another.
4. Can we still take UCLA seriously as a title contender?: At the risk of sounding overly dramatic, UCLA’s defense has gotten to the point where it’s difficult to picture them winning six games in a row against quality competition. They rank 125th nationally in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric after giving up 1.315 points-per-possession. Arizona routinely obliterated UCLA off the dribble, getting into the paint at will and exposing Bryce Alford as a defensive liability. Arizona also pounded the offensive glass, getting 34 percent of their own misses, and the cumulative effect was that the Bruins were unable to get their transition game into high gear.
As the saying goes, the easiest way to keep a running team from running is to make them take the ball out of their own net.
The Bruins are still the most dangerous team in the country. When they play their best, when they are banging threes and getting out in transition and Lonzo Ball is doing Lonzo Ball things, they can beat anyone else’s best. Their ceiling is the highest ceiling in the sport.
But we’re just not going to see that ceiling for six straight games.
So while Arizona proved themselves a Pac-12 favorite and a threat in March on Saturday, the more telling issue was that UCLA may not be quite as good as we thought they were.
5. Is West Virginia’s press broken?: One of the knocks we had on Baylor entering Big 12 play was that once they began playing teams that knew how to attack that funky zone they run their defense would take a hit. For the most part, that hasn’t been the case for the Bears.
It has, however, for the Mountaineers.
The blowout win over Baylor aside, West Virginia has not been impressive in Big 12 play. They lost to Texas Tech in overtime. They barely beat Big 12 bottom-feeder Texas. They lost at home to Oklahoma in overtime. They lost at Kansas State by four. In all four of those games, the Mountaineers had more turnovers than they forced. West Virginia leads the nation by forcing turnovers on 31.1 percent of their defensive possessions. In those four games, they forced turnovers on 20.3 percent of their possessions.