Rob Dauster

Florida center John Egbunu (15) dunks the ball over West Virginia forward Brandon Watkins (20) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game , Saturday, Jan. 30, 2016, in Gainesville, Fla. (AP Photo/Ronald Irby)
(AP Photo/Ronald Irby)

Florida pounds No. 9 West Virginia in SEC/Big 12 opener

2 Comments

No. 9 West Virginia got a bit of their own medicine on Saturday afternoon, as Florida forced 19 turnovers and totally flustered the Mountaineers with a pressuring defense in an 88-71 win in Gainesville.

The win came the opener of the Big 12/SEC Challenge, a made-for-TV, Super Bowl-bye-week event that just so happens to be key for the SEC as we head towards the season’s stretch run. In a season with so much uncertainty, there may not be a conference where there are more question marks than the SEC.

If I asked you to rank the teams in the SEC, you’d probably have Texas A&M at the top of the league and Kentucky slotted in second, but beyond that? It’s hard to definitively say that anyone else in the conference is “good”, and that’s under the assumption that Kentucky’s last three games have locked them into the “good” category.

This event allows the SEC a shot at some of the best teams in the Big 12 in friendly environments. LSU gets No. 1 Oklahoma in Baton Rouge. The Aggies get No. 14 Iowa State in College Station. Even Kentucky (at No. 4 Kansas) and and Georgia (at No. 17 Baylor) will have a chance to prove themselves.

And the Gators kicked off the event with a statement.

They didn’t just beat West Virginia. They ran them off the court. They jumped out to a 21-8 lead and went into the half up by 15 points. They forced turnovers and threw down dunks and had the Mountaineers looking totally clueless as they tried to run half court offense.

But perhaps the most important part was that the Gators shot 12-for-20 from three. Entering the day, Florida ranked fourth in KenPom’s defensive efficiency metric but were just 138th in offensive efficiency in large part because they shoot just 31.8 percent from beyond the arc. One hotting shooting night won’t suddenly turn the Gators into the Golden State Warriors — or even, say, Oklahoma — but shooting is all about confidence, and it will be interesting to see if this performance will be a shot in the arm. Take Brandone Francis-Ramirez, for example. He was 4-for-34 from three entering the day and he hit all three threes he took against West Virginia.

Regardless, as I wrote here, however you break down what happened on Saturday, this is the kind of win that can be a difference-maker for bubble-bound Florida.

POSTERIZED: John Egbunu tip-dunks on defenders head

Screen Shot 2016-01-30 at 12.29.22 PM
Leave a comment

Florida currently holds a double-digit lead over No. 9 West Virginia in the O-Dome in a critical game for the bubble-bound Gators.

The highlight of the first half?

Florida center John Egbunu teaching Devin Williams a thing or two about why boxing out is important:

NEW PODCAST: Maryland’s win, Oregon’s for real and why Iowa is … B-Rabbit?

Melo Trimble
(AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Leave a comment

The podcast went a little off the rails today.

We talked about Maryland and their win over Iowa last night we talked about Oregon — and Washington — and whether or not they’re Pac-12 favorite and we previewed the big games this weekend.

But the best part?

I make the argument that Iowa is B-Rabbit from ‘8 Mile’. I swear this makes sense if you hear me out.

As always, you can listen to the podcast by clicking “play” on the Soundcloud player embedded below. Or you can do so through either iTunes or Stitcher if you so choose. Thanks for listening!

BUBBLE BANTER: Thursday’s Winners and Losers

Syracuse's Michael Gbinije (0) maneuvers past Notre Dame's V.J. Beachem, left, toward the basket during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Syracuse, N.Y., Thursday, Jan. 28, 2016. (AP Photo/Heather Ainsworth)
(AP Photo/Heather Ainsworth)
1 Comment

WINNERS

Syracuse (14-8, KenPom: 33, RPI: 42) was the bigger winner on Thursday, picking up their third top 50 win when they knocked off Notre Dame in Syracuse. The Orange now own wins over Texas A&M and at Duke, as well as knocking off UConn, St. Bonaventure and Wake Forest, the latter on the road.

In fact, when you look at the entirety of the Syracuse profile, they’re not in a bad spot. They’re 6-7 against the top 100 and they still have five games left against the RPI to 50, including visits to North Carolina and Louisville. Those are tough games, but a loss there wouldn’t hurt them and a win could be the difference between the NIT and avoiding the play-in games. The problem? That pesky loss to St. John’s, which is currently a sub-200 loss. That’s a black mark on their profile that isn’t going to be going away.

  • Cincinnati (16-6, KenPom: 30, RPI: 57) picked up a win that could scoot them onto the right side of the bubble on Thursday, winning at UConn. The Bearcats now have two top 50 wins, two more top 100 wins and no bad losses. But they don’t have much depth in their profile, which means every game like this is that much more important for them.
  • Washington (14-6, KenPom: 84, RPI: 53) is a fascinating team. They’ve beaten Texas, USC and Colorado but they’ve lost to Oakland and UC-Santa Barbara. They’re leading the Pac-12 despite having one of the youngest rosters in the country, and they make just be the most entertaining team in the sport. Here’s the crazy part: the Huskies have been outscored by 10 points in league play. I’m not convinced they can keep this up, but I will surely be watching.

LOSERS

Last night, UCLA (12-9, KenPom: 67, RPI: 59) fell at home to Washington, pitting them at 12-9 overall and 3-5 in the Pac-12. Now, conference standing means less than nothing in regards to the NCAA tournament, particularly in leagues that don’t plat a double round-robin, but it is a good reference point for how wild the Pac-12 has been. UCLA in ninth in the league and still in a pretty good spot for a tournament bid.

They have the two wins over Wildcats, Arizona and Kentucky, and their worst loss in name — Monmouth — has actually proven to be less of a black eye on their profile than Washington, Washington State or Wake Forest. There are plenty of good wins available in this conference, the key for the Bruins is simple: get them. A 7-3 finish in the league pit UCLA at 13 losses on Selection Sunday, assuming they don’t win the automatic bid. Will that be enough to get in?

  • UConn (14-6, KenPom: 32, RPI: 73) has been a pretty disappointing team this season, but they still seem to be destined for the NCAA tournament. They have no bad losses, even after losing to Cincinnati last night, and a pair of quality wins against Michigan and at Texas.
  • Oregon State (12-7, KenPom: 83, RPI: 54) took a pretty bad loss on the road on Thursday at Arizona State, meaning they’ve now lost five of their last seven games. The Beavers are in a bit of a tough spot at the moment in regards to their tournament profile, but they have three really good wins (Oregon, Cal, USC), no bad losses and nine of their last ten games come against RPI top 60 teams.
  • Gonzaga (16-5, KenPom: 40, RPI: 80) beat Santa Clara on Thursday night, a win that mattered because it wasn’t a loss. The Zags don’t have much at the top of their résumé — wins over UConn, Washington and Tennessee are all in the 50-100 range — but they also don’t have any RPI sub-75 losses. Gonzaga had a chance to get a marquee win at SMU next month. They need that win.
  • George Washington (15-5, KenPom: 79, RPI: 46) absorbed a double-overtime loss at home to Richmond, the third sub-100 loss for the Colonials this season compared to just one top 50 RPI win. Beating Virginia is a nice anchor for their résumé, but this group badly needs some depth there. After a game at George Mason on Sunday, the Colonials have a three-game stretch where they get Davidson at home, VCU on the road and St. Joseph’s at home. They need to win at least two of those.

WEEKEND PREVIEW: Simmons-vs.-Hield, Kansas-Kentucky and a huge day for Wichita State

Oklahoma guard Buddy Hield (24) dribbles the basketball up court in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Harvard at the Diamond Head Classic, Friday, Dec. 25, 2015, in Honolulu. (AP Photo/Eugene Tanner)
(AP Photo/Eugene Tanner)
Leave a comment

GAME OF THE WEEKEND: No. 1 Oklahoma at LSU, Sat. 5:00 p.m.

All of the typical late-January storylines will be in play in Baton Rouge on Saturday afternoon when the Sooners pay a visit to the Tigers: No. 1 team in the country, true road game against a bubble team, upset potential, NCAA tournament bids on the line, etc. All that stuff matters, but that’s not what makes this game interesting.

Buddy Hield vs. Ben Simmons.

That’s why people are going to tune into this one, and deservedly so. Because the difference between these two Player of the Year favorites is fascinating. On the one hand, you have Hield, a underrated recruit coming out of high school — remember, he went to high school in Kansas, wanted to go to Kansas and wasn’t taken by Kansas — that has turned himself, over the course of a stellar four-year career, into the nation’s best player. And he is just that, by the way. Going beyond the simple fact that he is averaging 25.7 points for the No. 1 team in the country, Hield also has the highest offensive rating on KenPom for a player with a usage rate over 28% in the 13-year database on the site. He’s been better than Doug McDermott was as a senior. He’s been better than J.J. Redick and Adam Morrison. He’s shooting 51.7 percent from three while taking eight threes per game.

He deserves every bit of attention he gets.

And then there’s Simmons, who is the latest uber-recruit to matriculate through the college ranks. Simmons is putting up video games numbers this season, where 20 points, 12 boards and five assists equals a quiet night. He’s a virtual lock to be the No. 1 pick in the draft, but despite all the individual success, the incredibly bright future and the comparisons to LeBron and Magic, LeBen is playing on a team that may not find themselves in the NCAA tournament when it is all said and done.

Should we take bets on who will write the column praising Hield for staying in college for four years and being everything that’s right about amateur athletics while lambasting Simmons as the poster-child of one-and-done culture, where AAU ball teaches kids that hype and chasing a dollar is more important than winning?

It won’t be me.

I’ll be the guy that’s content to simply enjoy just how good and intriguing this matchup is going to be.

THE OTHER GAME OF THE WEEKEND: No. 14 Iowa State at No. 5 Texas A&M, Sat. 2:00 p.m.

The Cyclones bounced back from a 1-3 start to Big 12 play with a pair of statement wins at home over Oklahoma and Kansas. The problem? Both of those wins came at home, in an arena know for creating ‘Hilton Magic’. We need to see what the Cyclones can do on the road, and they’ll have a chance to prove it on Saturday as they pay a visit to College Station to take on Texas A&M. The Aggies are coming off of a loss to Arkansas in Fayetteville on Wednesday night, so they’ll be looking to make a statement of their own.

THE OTHER, OTHER GAME OF THE WEEKEND: No. 20 Kentucky at No. 4 Kansas, Sat. 7:00 p.m.

This game was so much more interesting back when we thought that Skal Labissiere was going to be an all-american. He’s not, which takes some of the luster off of this matchup. That said, Kansas has looked vulnerable in recent weeks while Kentucky is surging thanks to … Derek Willis?

Yup, Willis, who couldn’t find his way off the bench with the GPS on his cell phone the last two years, was inserted into the starting lineup earlier this month and it’s turned out to be the best thing that John Calipari has done this season. He’s averaging 12.3 points, 10.0 boards, 2.0 blocks and shooting 9-for-20 (45%) from three in the last four games. Can that continue against a team as good as Kansas?

(AP Photo/James Crisp)
(AP Photo/James Crisp)

SEVEN THINGS TO WATCH FOR

  1. No. 11 Virginia may have saved themselves with a trio of triples at Wake Forest midweek, but the Cavs aren’t fooling us. This team is not good on the road. At all. Which is perfect for No. 16 Louisville, who badly needs to adds wins to a résumeé that is far more empty at the top than would be ideal this late in the season. Tony Bennett’s Pack-Line defense against Rick Pitino’s zone pressure. An interesting contrast of styles that, unfortunately, is destined to be played in the 50s. Tip is on Saturday at 1:00 p.m.
  2. If anyone knows how the power structure in the Pac-12 shakes out, I’d love for you to share with me. Because I have no idea beyond the fact that Oregon looks like they’re the best team in the league. What I do know is this: Washington and USC are the two most entertaining teams in the conference, and they’ll be going head-to-head on Saturday afternoon. Appointment viewing.
  3. No. 22 Wichita State is tracking towards being the most interesting bubble discussion on Selection Sunday. They lost a bunch of games early, but none of them were bad losses and three of them came without Fred VanVleet on the floor. The MVC has not been as strong as we initially expected it to be, but there is one other really good team in the league: Evansville. The Shockers pay the Purple Aces a visit on Sunday at 4:00 p.m.
  4. No. 9 West Virginia’s visit to Florida is not going to be for the faint of heart. Florida is fourth nationally in defensive efficiency, according to KenPom. West Virginia? They’re first. This is a win the Gators desperately need for their NCAA tournament profile. Upset city on Saturday at 12:00 p.m.
  5. At one point, the Mountain West looked like it would be a wide-open conference race, but that was before San Diego State went out and won their first eight games in league play. That said, the most talented team in the conference is UNLV, and since Dave Rice was fired, the team has won four of their last five, including a come-from-behind win over Boise State on Monday night. The two square off on Saturday night at 8:00 p.m. in the Thomas and Mack Center.
  6. First place in three mid-major leagues will be on the line on Saturday: UAB and Marshall will be squaring off for first place in Conference USA, Stephen F. Austin and Texas A&M-CC go head-to-head in the Southland and Norfolk State will visit Hampton with the MEAC lead on the line.
  7. There are three games that will be featured on NBCSN this weekend: Fordham at UMass (Sat. 12:00 p.m.), La Salle at Dayton (Sat. 2:00 p.m.) and George Washington at George Mason (Sun. 12:00 p.m.)

WHO’S GETTING UPSET?: No. 10 Providence at Georgetown, Sat. 8:00 p.m.

This prediction may come back to bite me because A) Providence has yet to lose a true road game this season, including their win at Villanova, and B) Georgetown has yet to prove themselves to have any kind of consistency. That said, I’ve still on the bandwagon saying that Georgetown is a top 20 team waiting to come out of its NIT shell, and I think this is the game where it becomes apparent. There is a clear-cut blueprint for beating the Friars this season: Pack in the defense, force Kris Dunn into being a passer and challenge every perimeter jumper. That’s not the ideal way for Georgetown to defend, but if they can get it done, they can land themselves a win that will put them further into NCAA tournament consideration.

WHAT WE’LL BE TALKING ABOUT ON MONDAY: I think the biggest story line that is going to come out of this weekend will be Buddy Hield.

Look, I think Ben Simmons is as terrific of a prospect as you are going to find in the college ranks, but that doesn’t mean that the Tigers are a team that can defend, and you have to be able to defend if you have any hope of beating Oklahoma this season. I think Simmons is going to get his, but I also think that the Tigers are going to end up losing by 25 points.

And I think Hield is going to go bananas.

35 points? Eight threes? Maybe a couple of dunks thrown down between contested, step-back threes?

Look, I know how good Buddy Hield is. If you’re reading this, than you probably know how good Hield is. But if just feels like he isn’t getting the kind of hype that he should be based on the season that he is having. This is the game that is going to draw the nation in, when, for the second time this season, he goes crazy in front of a national audience, this time outplaying the projected No. 1 pick in the draft as his team wins in a blowout.

This is the weekend that Hield goes from ‘That kid at Oklahoma is pretty good, right?’ to ‘Buddy Hield, boy. That dude is cold-blooded!’

No. 8 Maryland lands first marquee win over No. 3 Iowa

Maryland's Rasheed Sulaimon drives to the basket around Iowa's Dom Uhl in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, Thursday, Jan. 28, 2016, in College Park, Md. Maryland won 74-68. (AP Photo/Gail Burton)
(AP Photo/Gail Burton)
6 Comments

COLLEGE PARK, Maryland — For a team with legitimate national title aspirations and a shot to win the Big Ten regular season title, it may surprise folks that haven’t been paying attention that Maryland was a No. 3 seed in the latest NBCSports.com bracket projection.

And prior to Thursday night, there were projections that slotted the Terps as a No. 4 or No. 5 seed.

That’s what happens when it’s January 28th and your best win is over … a disappointing UConn team? A Georgetown team that lost to Radford, UNC Asheville and Monmouth? The worst Wisconsin team in more than 15 years? Believe it or not, their best RPI win as No. 3 Iowa rolled into town was against Princeton, who was slotted in at 60th.

And that is what made this result so important, as the No. 8 Terps knocked off the Hawkeyes on Thursday night, 70-64, giving them their first marquee win of the season against what may be the last elite opponent they play before March. The Terps really don’t have that many more opportunities for quality wins left on their schedule. They get Purdue twice. They play at Indiana. There’s a game against Michigan and the Big Ten tournament. That’s about it.

So this win in and of itself is key for seeding if nothing else, regardless of whether or not head coach Mark Turgeon believes it.

“It’s the first [game against a ranked opponent] at home,” Turgeon said. “It’s hard on the road against ranked opponents. It kind of made me mad when people were talking that way.”

Turgeon will have less reason to be mad tonight, but the fact of the matter here is that the win itself matters far less than the manner in which the Terps landed this win.

They did it without Melo Trimble.

Not without him without him. He played. He was on the floor for his usual 35 minutes. He just was more or less a non-factor.

Trimble, in case you’ve been sleeping under a football-shaped log for the last two months, is Maryland’s star. He’s the guy that hit the game-winning three at Wisconsin, the guy that has found his name somewhere near the top of every National Player of the Year list that you should be paying attention. He’s been dubbed by your’s truly as the best Big Shot Maker in college basketball, and he is the biggest reason that the Terps are now 17-2 in games decided by six points or less in his two seasons in College Park.

And on Thursday night, Melo finished with 11 points and three assists, shooting just 2-for-7 from the floor and, perhaps most surprisingly, getting to the free throw line exactly zero times before there were 17.4 seconds left on the clock. Five of his 11 points came in those final 17.4 seconds when the game was essentially decided. He didn’t score in the second until those free throws and took just three shots in the final 20 minutes.

Head coach Mark Turgeon didn’t even put the rock in Trimble’s hand on the biggest possession of the game. He used him as a decoy, sliding him on the weak side of the floor to draw the help defender as Jake Layman floated a lob pass over a fronting post defender for a Diamond Stone layup that made it 64-60 with a little more than a minute left.

Didn’t matter.

Rasheed Sulaimon and Robert Carter Jr. both finished with 17 points and the Terps left the Xfinity Center with the 70-64 win.

And therein lies the most confounding thing about this Maryland team.

On paper, they’re may be the most talented team in the country, and I don’t say that lightly. Trimble is an all-american, and when Sulaimon is playing well, he gives the Terps what may be the best back court in college basketball. Diamond Stone is a soon-to-be lottery pick, Jake Layman could end up getting drafted and Robert Carter Jr. may actually be the team’s most well-rounded player.

“It’s really impressive when you look at the talent level. The size, the versatility, I think that’s what makes Maryland so tough,” Iowa head coach Fran McCaffery said. “Carter’s a handful, Stone is so good. Sulaimon and Trimble are so quick off the dribble, it’s hard to contain them.”

“We know what we have and we know what our potential could be,” Sulaimon said.

Why, then, is this team so inconsistent? Nine days earlier, in the same building that the Terps beat the hottest team in college basketball, the Terps were taken to overtime by Northwestern. They needed to come back from down 13 points with seven minutes left to beat Penn State right here in College Park. It’s been a consistent thing this year. They struggled with Rider early in the year. They struggled with Illinois State.

And the answer may actually be their savior.

Trimble is one of the five best point guards in college basketball. I’m not sure there is anyone in the country that would tell you otherwise. But the knock on Trimble is that he can be too ball-dominant at times. When the offense gets bogged, often times it turns into — or it is the direct result off — The Melo Show. The ball sticks in his hands. He dribbles out the clock, waiting for a chance to attack in isolation or a ball-screen action.

That was just fine last year, when Trimble’s supporting cast wasn’t as good as this year’s squad.

But now he may be sharing the court with four other NBA players.

When the ball moves, it gets other guys involved. Sulaimon got into a rhythm shooting the ball early and that opened up lanes for him to penetrate. “He does such a good job of finishing, especially going to his right, but he’s a tough guard because he can shoot it too,” Iowa point guard Mike Gesell said. “He’s very good for that team. He really got it going tonight.”

Iowa’s inability to guard Sulaimon and Trimble in man-to-man forced them into their 2-3 zone, which Carter feasted on. “He went to work in there,” McCaffery said.

The key was that they weren’t just finishing off plays. That duo finished with 22 shot attempts and nine assists. They weren’t just involved in the offense. They were creating it.

That’s what it’s going to take for Maryland to reach their ceiling.

And when they do, they have the pieces needed to beat anyone in the country, to win a national title. Tonight was evidence of that.

“We beat a really good basketball team tonight,” Turgeon said. “They are probably one of, if not the best team, right now, in college basketball. And we were able to beat them.”

And doing so with Trimble playing a minimal role down the stretch to boot.

“That’s a good sign for us.”