Session previews

Kentucky Wildcats' Kidd-Gilchrist celebrates with teammates Miller and Davis as Indiana Hoosiers' Zeller walks off the floor during their men's NCAA South Regional basketball game in Atlanta

Previewing Sunday’s Elite Eight action

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Baylor may be the least popular team in the country tomorrow afternoon.

And contrary to what Baylor fans will believe, that fact has nothing to do with their head coach wouldn’t win many popularity contests or that their team spent the majority of the season folding when they were faced with an elite opponent.

It will, however, have everything to do with the fact that the team they are playing — No. 1 seed Kentucky — just so happens to be the heated in-state rival of Louisville, their would-be opponent in the Final Four. That’s the game that everyone wants to see. Those are the stories that everyone wants to read. Those are the teams that would draw the most eyeballs to TV and bring the biggest crowds to New Orleans.

And given the way that Kentucky has been playing of late, it should come as no surprise that many consider it a foregone conclusion that Big Blue Nation will be headed to the Big Easy.

That’s perfect for Baylor.

The Bears are as talented as anyone left in this tournament, and they are playing as well and as confidently as they have all season long. They are one of the few teams in the country that can matchup with Kentucky athletically. They have big bodies in the paint and a talented point guard that is unafraid of taking and making a big shot.

They have all the pieces needed to take down the Wildcats if Kentucky’s players decide to look forward to next weekend instead of focusing on this afternoon.

Of course, Kentucky-Baylor is not the only game of the day, as North Carolina will tip off against Kansas in St. Louis at 5:05 pm. And the story line that everyone will be following in that game involves Kendall Marshall and the wrist heard ’round the world.

The latest?

Marshall is questionable. He dribbled a basketball for the first time yesterday, but he still has pain and needs a better range of motion in the wrist. Even if Marshall does suit up, there is reason to be skeptical about his effectiveness. He’ll be playing more or less one-handed, and doing so after not touching a ball for a week.

And while Stilman White played well in Marshall’s stead — finishing with six assists and no turnovers — the concern is that, as a team, UNC had 24 turnovers against Ohio. The rest of the roster tried to do too much against the Bobcats, and the result was some ugly offense.

Seeing Thomas Robinson and Jeff Withey go up against Tyler Zeller and John Henson will be a treat. But if Tyshawn Taylor is able to break out of his slump, than UNC is going to be in big trouble against the Jayhawks.

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @robdauster.

Kentucky’s the favorite, but Indiana is a dangerous matchup

Kentucky v Indiana
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Indiana played pretty close to a perfect game on December 10th.

That was the day that the Hoosiers, then undefeated but unranked, knocked off Kentucky in one of the season’s best games with one of the year’s most memorable shots.

Indiana shot 9-15 from three that day. They won the battle of the back boards, they put five players in double figures and they managed to get Anthony Davis — who never fouls — into foul trouble.

The problem, however, is that many of the issues that Kentucky faced they brought upon themselves. Like, for example, the fact that Terrence Jones spent much of the second half pouting about the fact that he wasn’t playing well. He finished the game with four points, one rebound and six turnovers in 28 minutes. Jones seems to have gotten his head screwed back on over the last couple of month, which should make him a different player.

The other issue is that while Davis did get in foul trouble against the Hoosiers the first time they played, that was basically the last time he’s had foul problems. In the 27 games he’s played since then, Davis has committed three fouls just four times, hasn’t picked up four fouls in a game and has gone without a foul three times.

Need I mention the fact that Marquis Teague is playing his best basketball of the season and Verdell Jones III is out with a torn ACL?

And you’re wondering why this game has all-but been given to Kentucky already?

That said, you’d be crazy to think that the Hoosiers won’t come to play. Remember, this is an Indiana team playing with house money right now. Not only have they already beaten Kentucky this season — having confidence you can win against a team of Kentucky’s stature is half the battle — but they’ve made it farther than anyone expected them to.

Indiana wasn’t supposed to be in the NCAA tournament this year, let alone in the Sweet 16. They were called overrated for months after their hot start. They were a trendy pick to get knocked off in the first weekend. And yet, here they are.

Playing the overwhelming favorite to win the national title who just so happens to be a heated rival.

Indiana has nothing to lose. And that’s what makes them so dangerous.

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @robdauster.

Sweet 16 Previews: Baylor’s zone vs. Xavier’s ball-screens

NCAA Basketball Tournament - Lehigh v Xavier
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Ed Isaacson of NBADraftBlog.com contributed to this post.

Back in November, if I were to have told you that there would be a Sweet 16 matchup between Baylor and Xavier, you wouldn’t have been surprised. Both team were in the top 15 nationally, both teams had rosters stocked with talent surrounding a potential all-american. But were considered favorites to win their league.

But for a variety of reasons — The irony here? One team’s season changed when they got in a fight while the other is criticized for not putting up enough of a fight. — both the Musketeers and the Bears had seasons that didn’t exactly coincide with the expectations they had coming in. As recently as the first week of March, I’m not sure that there was anyone that would have picked this Sweet 16 as something that could happen.

Well, here we are. For the fourth time in the last five seasons, Xavier made their way through the first weekend of the NCAA tournament. UNC, Michigan State and Kansas are the only other programs that can make that claim, and none of them has made it this far all five years. With a win, Xavier will be advancing to their second Elite 8 in the last five seasons and third since 2004. That’s impressive.

What may be more impressive, however, is that Scott Drew is now just one win away from his second Elite 8 appearance in the last three seasons. Say what you want about his coaching ability or how he handles himself as a recruiter and I may not disagree with you. But it is inarguable that getting Baylor to the Elite 8 twice in three seasons, especially given the fact that this program was very nearly wiped from the face of college hoops thanks to Dave Bliss, is an accomplishment.

Now that that’s done, on to the game.

What’s more intriguing to me about this game is the matchup between Tu Holloway and Pierre Jackson. Jackson and Holloway are different players — Jackson is quicker and more athletic while Holloway is bigger, longer and more physical — but they player essentially the same role for their respective teams: penetrating point guards that can score big and want the ball in the clutch.

That has been magnified in the NCAA tournament, as both Holloway (25.5% to 31.4%) and Jackson (26.0% to 30.4%) have seen their usage rate spike. The reasons aren’t exactly the same — Holloway is Xavier’s leader and go-to guy while Jackson has had to make up for the fact that Perry Jones has been a no-show thus far — but the bottom-line is that both players have become more important to their team’s success.

And for both players, the pick-and-roll happens to be where they get the majority of their offense. Here’s a handy-dandy breakdown of how Jackson and Holloway perform in the pick-and-roll, and how well Baylor and Xavier defend it as a team:

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What’s notable in that chart is how heavily Holloway — and Xavier, for that matter — rely on the pick-and-roll to be able to score.

I’ve written plenty about how bad Baylor’s zone is capable of being, but if there was ever a situation where I would recommend playing zone, this would be it.

Screening the zone is possible, however. Here are two examples from Xavier’s win over Notre Dame. In the first you’ll see Jeff Robinson set a screen on the inside of one of the zone’s top defenders:

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This creates a gap for Mark Lyons to dribble into, giving him an open 17 jumper:

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In this next example, you’ll see Lyons setting a guard-to-guard screen on the outside of one of Notre Dame’s top defenders:

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A lot of times, you’ll see the guard try to penetrate off of this screen as it opens up one of the gaps in the 2-3. This is a set play, however. As Davis dribbles off the screen, Dez Wells and Andre Walker set back-screens on the opposite wing and the middle defender in the zone:

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And Davis finds Frease wide-open for a dunk:

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(*I know Holloway isn’t in either of these ball-screens, but these were the two best examples I found in the tape.)

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @robdauster.

Sweet 16 Previews: A closer look at UNC without Marshall

North Carolina State v North Carolina
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All anyone can talk about regarding North Carolina is the status of Kendall Marshall, quite obviously.

The sophomore point guard fractured a bone in his wrist in Saturday’s round of 32 win over Creighton, and while he had surgery on Monday morning, it is unclear whether or not he will actually be sitting out or if my some miracle of modern medicine he’ll be able to get on the court.

As of now, I think it’s safe to assume that Marshall will likely need at least the better part of a week to recover from surgery, which means that Roy Williams is going to be looking at having his uptempo, fast-breaking team run by true freshman Stilman White or by senior Justin Watts, who isn’t even a point guard.

Inspired by this post from Kevin Pelton and by this post from Luke Winn, I decided to take a look at just how UNC fared without Marshall on the floor since Dexter Strickland went down with a torn ACL. What I did was go through the play-by-play stats (neither Miami nor Wake Forest listed substitutions on their PbP, so they weren’t included) from each of the 17 games that Strickland has missed and chart precisely how many minutes Marshall was off the floor and what the scoring looked like during those possessions.*

(*To factor out garbage time, I didn’t include any rotation where Marshall came off the floor and ended the game off the floor. In other words, if White entered the game with three minutes left and finished the game, I didn’t include it in these numbers.)

Here’s what I came up with:

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For reference, UNC has scored 83.0 (PP/40) and given up 68.2 (PP/40) since Strickland was hurt with Marshall on the floor.

Now, some of these numbers look a little funky — 49.9 (PP/40) in an insanely low number — but that will happen when you’re dealing with a sample size that is only 58.5 minutes and is made up of rotations that are just a minute or two in length. There were times during this stretch where Marshall was off the floor for, literally, one possession.

What we can take out of this, however, supports what both Pelton and Winn were saying: that UNC probably won’t be worse and may end up being a better defensive team without Marshall on the floor. That would make sense. Marshall has never been known for his defense (in fact, calling him a defensive liability may not be an exaggeration), and given the fact that he was playing 37 or 38 minutes a game, there were times where Marshall appeared to be getting his rest on that end of the floor.

White is not a great defender, either, but he’ll likely be willing to put in more effort on that end. Watts, on the other hand, is a better defender than Marshall, which won’t make Ohio’s star point guard DJ Cooper too happy to hear. It will also be interesting to see if playing without Marshall will make the UNC players less likely to try and beat their opponent down the floor. I’m not saying that UNC cherry-picks, but without the guarantee of a 50-foot pass thrown in stride that leads to a dunk, will UNC be more focused cleaning off the defensive glass?

Considering that the Heels were already better defensively than they were offensively — they rank 11th in Kenpom in defensive efficiency and 14th in offensive efficiency — the key to the Heels having continued success may be to focus on that end of the floor.

With or without Marshall, the Heels have quite a bit of scoring pop. Harrison Barnes and Tyler Zeller are both capable of going for 25 points on any given night, and they don’t necessarily need Marshall’s table-setting ability to do so.

They say defense wins championships. UNC better buy in.

Sweet 16 Previews: Anthony Davis, Cody Zeller and foul trouble

Kentucky v Indiana
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Friday’s rematch of December’s classic between No. 1 seed Kentucky and No. 4 seed Indiana is about a lot more than just a single personnel matchup.

Marquis Teague is a different player than he was back in December. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is as well, although that isn’t necessarily a good thing. Indiana will be without Verdell Jones III. Victor Oladipo and Jordy Hulls have had their roles in the back court some what reversed. And while this is far from a guarantee, based on his play of late, Terrence Jones should be able to be more competitive with Christian Watford this time around.

With all that said, there is no doubt that the most intriguing individual battle in this game will be between the two freshmen big men: Cody Zeller and Anthony Davis.

The first time around, Zeller got Davis in foul trouble in the first half. How? Zeller is one of the best in the country at drawing fouls, earning 6.3 whistles per game, which is 44th in the country according to Kenpom. Despite being a bit slender, Zeller is terrific at earning position in the post, knows how to get his defender in the air with pump fakes and understands the concept of leverage on the block.

Here is how Zeller drew those fouls, both of which are plays that Indiana often uses to get him touches on the block.

Twice in the possessions leading up to this play, Jones had run off of a high-ball screen from Zeller:

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Instead of setting the screen, however, Zeller steps in front of Davis and seals as Jones dribbles to the foul line area and dumps the ball into him:

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Zeller uses on dribble and a drop step, getting his body into Davis and drawing the foul:

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Three minutes later, IU ran a pretty similar play to get Zeller in position to score. Jones runs off of a double ball-screen from Hulls and Will Sheehy while Zeller stands out of the play under the basket:

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As Jones comes off the screen, Zeller “ducks in”, sealing hard in the paint very close to the rim. Jones dumps the ball down to him:

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Zeller is terrific as staying low while he posts, which takes away Davis’ legs. Zeller uses a pump-fake to get Davis off balance and leaning, going up through his body and drawing foul No. 2:

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Davis picked up two more fouls fairly early in the second half, but neither were due to Zeller. One was on Victor Oladipo when the guard grabbed an offensive rebound, and the other came against Jones as Davis ran out to try and block a three.

Despite all the hype that it gets, Kentucky’s defense is actually not as efficient as their offense, but that doesn’t change the fact that the Wildcats are winning because they are able to get stops when they need to. Davis is a huge part of that because of his ability to block shots — perimeter defenders can feel more comfortable pressuring and gambling know they have an eraser at the rim — which is why getting him in foul trouble early would be important for Indiana.

Not only do they get Davis out of the game, they set up a situation where either Eloy Vargas will be guarding Zeller or Kyle Wiltjer will be covering Christian Watford. Both of those matchups greatly favor Indiana.

The problem?

Anthony Davis doesn’t foul. Like, ever.

He commits just 2.4 fouls per 40 minutes despite being involved in 25% of Kentucky’s defensive possessions. To put that in perspective, think about it like this: Anthony Davis has committed four or more fouls just three times this season. Two came in the first four games of the season. The third was against Indiana on December 10th. He hasn’t committed more than three fouls in a game in more than three months.

In the 27 games since the loss to the Hoosiers, Davis has committed three fouls just four times. He’s had three games where he hasn’t committed a single foul.

That’s astounding, especially for a freshman.

If Zeller wants to get Davis in foul trouble, he’s going to have his work cut out for him.

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @robdauster.

Sweet 16 Previews: Can NC State do to T-Rob what Purdue did?

NCAA Basketball Tournament - Purdue v Kansas
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On Sunday night, Purdue very nearly pulled off an incredible upset of No. 2 seed Kansas, eventually succumbing to the Jayhawks as Tyshawn Taylor and Elijah Johnson turned three turnovers into fast break baskets in the final 70 seconds.

Up until that point, however, Kansas had only held one lead in the entire game, when Johnson hit a three at the 3:04 mark to put Kansas up 57-56, and trailed by as many as 11 points in the first half.

Much of that credit falls onto the shoulders of Robbie Hummel, who wowed the nation with one final display of his shooting ability, scoring 22 of his 26 points in the first half and sparking the surge that gave the Boilermakers their lead. Hummel wasn’t completely alone, either, as DJ Byrd hit a pair of first half threes and Ryne Smith, Terone Johnson and Byrd made big shots in the second half to help Purdue sustain the lead for so long.

As good as Hummel was leading his team offensively, it was the defense that he played on Thomas Robinson that was more impressive.

A contender for National Player of the Year, Robinson was held to his worst performance of the season on Sunday, finishing with 11 points on 2-for-12 shooting from the field. Hummel spent much of the game matched up with T-Rob. How did a jump-shooting power forward with one good leg mange to keep the nation’s biggest bully on the block in check for 40 minutes?

Easy.

He brought his friends with him.

Purdue spent the majority of the game bracketing T-Rob with (at least) two defenders. Here’s an example of a typical possession. With the ball in Tyshawn Taylor’s hands on the far side of the court, you’ll see Sandi Marcius bodying up Robinson despite being on the opposite block. Hummel is sloughed off of Travis Releford on the same side of the floor as Robinson:

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After the ball is swung around the perimeter, you’ll see Terone Johnson in the lane as Robinson is attempting to post up. Hummel is playing a good five feet off of Releford, who has the the ball, to prevent an entry pass:

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When Robinson finally does get the ball in the post, he is not only double-teamed by Marcius and Hummel, but all five members of the Purdue defense are in the paint:

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Here are a couple more examples of just how much attention Robinson received from Purdue. Here, Robinson is bracketed on the far block while Teahan is left wide-open in the corner with no defender even concerned about Johnson on the near side of the floor:

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Naadir Tharpe has the ball on the far side of the floor, and Anthony Johnson is daring Tharpe to shoot while basically doubling Robinson to prevent a post touch. Also not where Hummel is in help-side:

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Robinson has three people circling him before he even gets a touch. Hummel is completely disregarding Kevin Young:

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Robinson actually has the ball on the far block. Yes, that’s a triple-team:

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Who needs to send a triple-team when you can just double-team Robinson before he even gets a touch:

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The Jayhawk’s strategy was simple: make someone else beat us. And it almost worked. Tyshawn Taylor was 4-for-11 from the floor, with two of those field goals being breakaway dunks in the final minute. Releford had 10 points on 4-for-7 shooting, but the majority of his damage was done early in the first half. Connor Teahan was 2-for-8 from the field. Withey and Young combined to go 1-for-7 from the floor.

In fact, if it wasn’t for Elijah Johnson, who had 18 points and scored 13 in the final 13 minutes, Purdue would be preparing for NC State right now, not the Jayhawks.

I hope Mark Gottfried was taking notes, because that is precisely what the Wolfpack are going to need to do on Friday night.

The good news for NC State is that their front line is going to be bigger than Purdue’s. Richard Howell and CJ Leslie have more size, more strength and more athleticism that Marcius and Hummel. The bad news? They still aren’t going to matchup that well with Robinson and Withey.

Out of curiosity, I went back and watched the tape of NC State against UNC (with and without Henson), Virginia and Florida State. The Wolfpack didn’t double the post against the Cavs or the Noles, opting to allow their big men to try and defend one-on-one against Mike Scott and Bernard James.

But against UNC, the Wolfpack sent a double-team every time Tyler Zeller or John Henson got the ball on the block with their back to the basket (they didn’t double-team James Michael-McAdoo). The example I’m showing you is of Kendall Marshall making the post-entry … :

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but regardless of who threw the pass into the post, the double-team was coming off of Marshall (or Stilman White or Justin Watts, depending on who was in the game):

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The strategy didn’t exactly work, as NC State went 0-3 against the Tar Heels. In the first game, Zeller had 21 points and 17 boards. In the second game, Zeller and Henson were held in check, but Marshall destroyed NC State to the tune of 22 points, 13 assists and no turnovers. And in the ACC tournament, despite Henson not being available, Zeller still finished with 23 points and nine boards.

Not exactly a great omen for the Wolfpack.

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @robdauster.