Ranking the Sweet 16 games

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A quiet first round of the NCAA tournament gave way to a second round that got just a little too out of control.

Particularly in the East Region.

It’s a bit of a snoozer in Madison Square Garden this weekend. But everywhere else, things are going to get a little crazy for the Sweet 16 and the Elite 8:

8. No. 3 Baylor vs. No. 7 South Carolina (East): With all due respect to South Carolina and Baylor, this game just doesn’t do it for me. The Bears play a grind-it-out style offensively, hammering the ball into Johnathan Motley in the post, that is effective but isn’t exactly the most aesthetically pleasing way to play. And South Carolina? They were a train wreck on the offensive end of the floor for the final month of the regular season before somehow averaging 90.5 points through two games during the first weekend. I’d expect the Gamecocks to come back to earth on that end, but that won’t make them any easier to score against. My advice: bet the under.

7. No. 4 Florida vs. No. 8 Wisconsin (East): The intrigue here is the clash of styles. The Badgers want to slow the pace down, pound the ball into Nigel Hayes and Ethan Happ and crash the offensive glass. Florida wants to speed the game up, force some turnovers and get their talented perimeter players into beneficial matchups. Here’s the thing that should worry you as an impartial observer: Florida is the third-best defensive in the country, according to KenPom. Wisconsin is the seventh. Neither of them are in the top 25 in offensive efficiency. This probably won’t be all that pretty.

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6. No. 2 Arizona vs. No. 11 Xavier (West): The story line is more enticing than the game itself. Sean Miller used to be the head coach at Xavier. His assistant was Chris Mack, who is now the head coach at Xavier. They’re still close, neither has been to a Final Four and it’s very possible that whoever wins this game will break that streak. That’s heavy. The game itself, however, is weird. Xavier looked like they were done late in the season, then somehow managed to put together one of the fiercest tail-whippings that we’ve seen in this year’s tournament, a 25-point beatdown of Florida State. The Musketeers are without Myles Davis and Edmond Sumner, who were two of their three most important players entering the season. Can the streak continue?

5. No. 1 North Carolina vs. No. 4 Butler (South): Butler has turned into something of a Cinderella in their region. That’s what happens when you’re the Big East team trying to escape the South, which also includes three of the biggest brands in college athletics. The Bulldogs are no pushover, however, as they swept Villanova and own wins over two Sweet 16 teams — Arizona and Xavier twice. UNC, for my money, is arguably the best team left in the field. They have the horses inside, they are the nation’s best offensive rebounding team and they can rely on Joel Berry II and Justin Jackson to carry them on the perimeter. With Theo Pinson healthy, they also happen to have one of the nation’s best shutdown defenders, who will likely give Kelan Martin fits. This should be a fun one.

4. No. 3 Oregon vs. No. 7 Michigan (Midwest): What I love about this matchup is the way both teams play. Oregon is small-ball through and through with Chris Boucher out of the lineup, running Dillon Brooks out there at the four and spreading the floor as much as they possibly can. Michigan spreads things out as well, but they also happen to have to 6-foot-10 front court players in D.J. Wilson and Mo Wagner who can play out on the perimeter. This is a quintessential John Beilein roster, and ever since the middle of the season, Derrick Walton Jr. hs been as good as any point guard in the country. I think this game comes down to the battle at the four-spot. Does Brooks for Michigan to go small, or can Wilson handle chasing him around?

(Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

3. No. 1 Kansas vs. No. 4 Purdue (Midwest): Let’s start with the obvious here: This is a battle between the two front runners for National Player of the Year. You have everyone’s pick in Frank Mason III, who has been sensational all season long and seems to be the favorite to win the award, and you have Caleb Swanigan, who is putting up Tim Duncan-esque numbers for the Boilermakers. Obviously, those two aren’t going to be guarding each other, and that’s where this game gets even more intriguing. Kansas has one big man on their roster worth his 6-foot-11 frame and that’s Landen Lucas. They play Josh Jackson, who will likely be a two-guard in the NBA, at the four. Purdue has the biggest, most physical front line in the country, and between Swanigan and Isaac Haas, they draw 14.3 fouls per 40 minutes combined. Will Lucas be able to stay on the floor? Will Jackson? This is a more dangerous matchup for Kansas than I think people realize.

2. No. 1 Gonzaga vs. No. 4 West Virginia (West): Oh, this is going to be so good. Let’s talk about Press Virginia first. They come at you in waves. They play as hard as anyone, they trap, they foul and they make life difficult for whoever is trying to get the ball over half court. Gonzaga, on the other hand, does not have the most athletic back court. Nigel Williams-Goss and Josh Perkins have both had really good years, but both of them tend to struggle against quicker, stronger and more physical players. That’s what West Virginia has in boat loads. That said, the way for West Virginia to get into their press is to score, and, believe it or not, Gonzaga currently has the No. 1 defense in the country, according to KenPom. If they keep the Mountaineers from putting the ball in the basket, they keep them from being able to get that pressure rolling. Gonzaga also has a distinct size advantage inside. Let’s see if that pays off, and let’s see if Mark Few will have a chance to play for his first career Final Four.

1. No. 2 Kentucky vs. No. 3 UCLA (South): Where do I even start? De’Aaron Fox vs. Lonzo Ball? Malik Monk vs. whoever tries to slow him down? A rematch from December’s thriller in Lexington? The Steve Alford-to-Indiana rumors? John Calipari’s return to Memphis? The bottom-line is this: these are two of the four best teams left in the field, both of whom can win a National Title. This is a Final Four-caliber matchup in the Sweet 16. This is the kind of game that you do not want to miss. I’m not sure how else I can put it.

No. 6 Wichita State survives Cal, advances to Maui semis

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With 16 minutes left in their Maui Invitational opener against Cal, No. 6 Wichita State – who I, for some reason, touted as potentially the best team in the country not once, but twice in the last week – finally decided to show up to the Lahaina Civic Center.

The Shockers would outscore the Golden Bears 52-24 down the stretch, as their defensive intensity sped Cal up and their size on the interior wore them down. Shaq Morris led the way with 25 points, seven boards and four blocks while Landry Shamet chipped in with 23 points of his own.

Cal’s lead was in large part due to a first half offensive explosion from the diminutive Don Coleman. He scored 26 of his 35 points in the first 20 minutes and his activity in their press helped keep the Shockers from establishing any kind of a rhythm.

But eventually, Gregg Marshall’s club imposed their will.

And in the end, that’s what really matters, right?

Wichita State was dead in the water early in the second half. Shamet was on the bench in foul trouble while Connor Frankamp was firing up 28-footers that never had a chance, even on Maui’s soft rims, and it looked like Wyking Jones was on his way towards getting the first statement win of his tenure. That slowly but surely changed. The Shockers got the ball into the paint, their defense ratcheted up and they do what they normally do: Grind you down to a pulp.

Is it concerning that Wichita State let it get to that point?

Absolutely. Cal is not all that good. They lost their opener to UC Riverside. If they had held on to win this game, there’s an argument to make that it could end up being the most surprising outcome of the season. They should not have been in that spot.

But they were.

And they got out of it with a win.

If I’m Gregg Marshall, I chalk that up to jet lag, tired legs and a team that spent too much time enjoying the islands. Burn the first half tape, show them the second half and get ready for Marquette, who is basically the same team as Cal, only much, much better.

Me?

I’m not quite ready to move off of the idea that Wichita State could be the best team in the country.

I just won’t be saying it publicly for a while.

Marquette opens Maui Invitational with 94-83 win over VCU

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LAHAINA, Hawaii (AP) — Markus Howard gathered the ball, gave a head fake, quickly moved his right foot forward to make the defender think he would drive to the basket. That one little jab step was enough to get the defender leaning and Howard stepped back for a 3-pointer that swished through.

After a rare poor-shooting half, the nation’s best 3-point shooter had found his rhythm.

Howard scored 18 of his 22 points in the second half, Andrew Rowsey added 20 and Marquette opened the Maui Invitational with a 94-83 victory over Virginia Commonwealth on Monday.

“I missed a couple shots and I can’t really even think about it. I have to move on to the next play,” Howard said. “The second half it’s like a start-over, hit your restart button, so I was looking at it that way.

Marquette (2-1) started slow, but got rolling behind Rowsey, who had 15 points in the first half. Howard, the nation’s top 3-point shooter as a freshman last season, struggled in the first half before catching fire. He made 4 of 9 from the arc in the second half and finished with seven assists, leading the Golden Eagles into the Maui semifinals against No. 6 Wichita State or California.

Sam Hauser added 20 points and Marquette hit 13 of 36 from the arc overall.

“I thought we took some really quick, ill-advised shots in the first half,” Marquette coach Steve Wojciechowski said. “The second half, I thought we had much greater poise on the offensive end.”

VCU (2-2) caused some problems with its pressure defense — 17 Marquette turnovers — but had trouble slowing the Golden Eagles shooters, particularly after offensive rebounds.

Marquette had 15 offensive rebounds that led to 22 second-chance points.

Malik Crowfield led the Rams with 17 points.

“They were tough today, they did a great job of getting more opportunities that I think it really cost us,” VCU coach Mike Rhoades said. “Put ourselves in a tough position, giving really good shooters extra shots over and over again.”

Rhoades was an assistant under Shaka Smart on the 2011 Final Four team and took over this season when Will Wade left for LSU. New coach, but the Rams still play that always-in-your-face “Havoc” defense that drives teams crazy and into mistakes.

VCU opened the season with wins over Grambling State and North Florida before losing to Virginia on Friday.

The Golden Eagles are coming off their first NCAA Tournament appearance under Wojciechowski, but lost two senior starters and two key reserves from that team.

Marquette beat Mount Saint Mary’s in its opener, but lost by 15 to No. 19 Purdue last Tuesday.

Both teams were creating a bit of havoc in a first half filled with runs. VCU went on an early run, Marquette scored 12 straight points during a 20-5 spurt to go up eight and the Rams rallied back.

Marquette led 45-44 after a first half filled with 21 combined turnovers.

Howard, who hit 54 percent of his 3-pointers last season, missed all four of his attempts in the first half.

He kept firing, as good shooters do, and the shots that were missing before started dropping, helping the Golden Eagles build a 73-64 lead midway through the second half.

The Rams tried to claw their way back, but the Golden Eagles had an answer every time they got close.

“We have a lot of fight and we can score the ball, but we’ve got to guard,” Rhoades said.

THE TAKEAWAY

Marquette took better care of the ball against VCU’s pressure in the second half and proved it can be a handful when its perimeter shooters are knocking down shots.

The Rams created some problems defensively, but allowed too many good perimeter looks against a strong outside-shooting team.

MARQUETTE IN MAUI

The Golden Eagles like it in Maui. The win on Tuesday improved them to 5-2 at the Maui Invitational. One of their losses: To Duke in the 2007 title game, when Wojciechowski was a Blue Devils assistant coach.

VANN-LESS RAMS

Isaac Vann had been a big contributor for VCU after transferring from Maine, averaging 18 points and 6.5 rebounds off the bench this season. The sophomore swingman didn’t have much of an impact against Marquette, finishing with seven points and no rebounds.

UP NEXT

Marquette faces the winner between No. 6 Wichita State and California in the semifinals on Tuesday.

VCU gets the Wichita State-Cal loser on Tuesday.

Michael Porter, Jr. missing Monday’s game to see “specialist”

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The mysterious leg injury that has kept Michael Porter, Jr. off the floor to start his collegiate career took a potentially serious turn Monday.

The Missouri freshman will miss the Tigers’ game Monday against Emporia State in order to see a specialist regarding the injury, according to multiple reports.

Porter, Jr., one of the favorites to be the top pick in June’s NBA draft, has missed the last two Missouri games after playing just 2 minutes in the team’s opener against Iowa State. The 6-foot-10 wing did not watch the Tigers’ win last week over Wagner from the bench, opting instead to watching from the locker room. He did not travel with the team to Utah, who toppled the Tigers, 77-59.

The Tigers haven’t offered much clarity or specificity on what exactly the injury is or what the timetable Porter, Jr. may be facing.

Missouri heads to Orlando later this week for the AdvoCare Invitational, and it’s uncertain whether or not Porter, Jr. will make the trip. Given his draft potential, it’s probably safe to assume that Porter, Jr. will be abundantly cautious with his health in order to prevent whatever the injury is from worsening.

For the Tigers, it deprives them of one of the country’s – presumably – most dynamic players in coach Cuonzo Martin’s first season in Columbia. Missouri has other young talent, namely Porter, Jr.’s brother, Jontay, and Jeremiah Tilmon, but their ceiling will be lowered considerably if Porter, Jr. continues to be sidelined.

Five-star center Bol Bol commits to Oregon

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Oregon received a commitment from one of the best players in the 2018 class and one of the more intriguing stories in basketball.

Bol Bol, son of former 7-foot-7 NBA center Manute Bol, announced his commitment and signing with the Ducks on Monday.

“I didn’t know much about the school until I started getting recruited by Oregon’s assistant coach, Tony Stubblefield,” Bol wrote in The Players Tribune. “And then later by coach (Dana) Altman. Before that, I knew they had a lot of jerseys, a lot of different shoe combinations, but that was about it. But it was really those first few meetings with coach Stubblefield that impressed me the most. He was accessible. He got to know me. He was really real with me.

And he was honest about the fact that Oregon has never really gotten a top recruit when it was between the Kentuckys and Dukes. He didn’t shy away from that. What he did was lay out the vision they had for me.”

The 7-foot-2 Bol averaged 22.0 points, 9.3 rebounds and 3.9 blocks while shooting 63.2 percent from the field last summer in the EYBL. He is finishing his high school career at Findlay Prep in Nevada. He’s a consensus top-five player in his class.

“We are really excited to welcome Bol Bol to our program,” Altman said in a statement. “Obviously he is a very unique player with a special basketball history and a great basketball family.”

Manute Bol played in over 600 NBA games and lead the league in blocked shots twice. He died in 2010 at the age of 47.

“I know my dad would want me to represent my family well,” the younger Bol wrote. “I know he would want me to pursue my interests outside of basketball, like music, fashion and eventually, the humanitarian work that he began in Sudan.

“Most of all, I know he’d want me to be my own person.”

Bol gives Altman one of the best recruiting classes in the country with fellow five-star prospect Louis King on board along with top-60 recruits Will Richardson and Miles Norris.

AP Poll: Duke consolidates top spot in Top 25 after Champions Classic

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Duke proved on a national stage at the Champions Classic last week why so many voters had the Blue Devils atop their Top 25 ballot before the season began.

Now, even more voters have them there.

The Blue Devils, who beat then-No. 2 Michigan State 88-81 in Chicago, pulled in 54 of 65 first-place votes from a national media panel in the AP Top 25 released Monday. That was an increase of 20 first-place votes over the first regular-season poll released last week.

Arizona was the only other team to receive a No. 1 nod, getting 11 first-place votes and taking the Spartans’ place at No. 2. Kansas moved up to third after topping then-No. 7 Kentucky in the other game at the Champions Classic, while Michigan State and Villanova rounded out the top 5.

Wichita State remained at No. 6, while Florida and Kentucky flip-flopped their spots. North Carolina was ninth and Southern California rounded out the top 10.

The Blue Devils got 37 points from Grayson Allen in knocking off the Spartans in the Champions Classic, an impressive performance against one of the toughest teams on their schedule. It certainly left a bigger impression on voters than a ragged 78-61 victory over Southern, arguably the weakest opponent on their schedule, that included 15 turnovers and 4-for-20 shooting from the arc.

“We’ve got to take every game seriously,” the Blue Devils’ Wendell Carter Jr. said.

Well, maybe not this week. Duke faces Furman on Monday night and Portland State on Thursday.

Arizona has won each of its first three games by at least 25 points, but gets a stiffer test against undefeated North Carolina State on Wednesday night, while the Jayhawks cruised to No. 3 thanks to their win over the Wildcats and a laugher over South Dakota State.

Kentucky continued is slow slide, but not so much because of its nip-and-tuck loss to Kansas on a neutral floor. Rather, the Wildcats sleepwalked through a 78-61 victory over East Tennessee State on Friday night in what was a 6-point game at halftime.

“I knew we would have a let-down after Kansas,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “But it just shows, they’re just — they’re not mature enough to figure all this out and that every game matters and you’re being evaluated personally and us as a team every game we play.”

BEST OF THE REST

Miami was No. 11, followed by Cincinnati, Notre Dame, Minnesota and Xavier — all of them staying right where they were last week. Texas A&M and Gonzaga were next, while Purdue and Louisville moved up one spot apiece and Seton Hall jumped to No. 20.

Saint Mary’s, Baylor, UCLA, West Virginia and newcomer Alabama rounded out the Top 25, while Northwestern was the only team to drop from the poll after getting trounced by Texas Tech.

ON THE DOCKET

Several major tournaments this week could produce some high-profile matchups and a reshaping of the Top 25. Villanova and Arizona could meet in the finals of the Battle 4 Atlantis, while Wichita State and Notre Dame could likewise at the Maui Invitational. UCLA and Baylor are in the Hall of Fame Classic, while Duke, North Carolina, Michigan State, Gonzaga and Florida are among the teams in the inaugural, two-bracket Phil Knight Invitational in Oregon.

ROLL TIDE

Alabama broke into the Top 25 after three wins over weak opposition, but the Tide will have to earn their spot now. They face BYU on Friday night in New York before getting No. 14 Minnesota in the premier Saturday matchup of the Barclays Center Classic.

ON THE DOORSTEP

Virginia was the top team outside the Top 25 to receive votes, appearing on 28 of 65 ballots, and Texas Tech moved just outside the rankings after its woodshed win over Northwestern. That gave the Red Raiders the title of the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame Tournament in Connecticut.

Here is the full AP Poll:

1. Duke (54 first-place votes)
2. Arizona (11)
3. Kansas
4. Michigan State
5. Villanova
6. Wichita State
7. Florida
8. Kentucky
9. North Carolina
10. USC
11. Miami
12. Cincinnati
13. Notre Dame
14. Minnesota
15. Xavier
16. Texas A&M
17. Gonzaga
18. Purdue
19. Louisville
20. Seton Hall
21. Saint Mary’s
22. Baylor
23. West Virginia
23. UCLA
25. Alabama

Others receiving votes: Virginia 93, Texas Tech 81, TCU 36, Northwestern 20, Nevada 19, Providence 11, Maryland 9, Michigan 9, Texas 7, Creighton 6, Oklahoma 5, Temple 4, Oregon 4, Arkansas 3, UT Arlington 2, Belmont 1, Rhode Island 1, Stephen F. Austin 1