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College Basketball Conference Reset: The ACC’s best players and biggest story lines

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College basketball’s non-conference season is coming to a close, and to help you shake off post-holiday haze and the hangover of losing in your fantasy football playoffs, we’ll be providing you with some midseason primers to get you caught up on all the nation’s most important conferences.

Today, we’re taking a look at the ACC.

PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Luke Kennard, Duke

I’ve written about this quite a bit in our Player of the Year Power Rankings this season, but to me, Kennard deserves to be a first-team all-american as of today. If it wasn’t for the fact that Josh Hart, Frank Mason III and Lonzo Ball have been straight ballin’ on teams that could win a national title, Kennard would have a legitimate argument as National Player of the Year through the first six weeks of the season. He’s averaging 20.3 points, 5.8 boards and 3.1 assists with shooting splits of 53.2/42.2/88.5, and he’s been the best player on the floor for Duke in their biggest games, including last Monday, when he was maybe the only reason Duke didn’t get taken to the wire by Tennessee State.

ALL-ACC FIRST TEAM

  • Luke Kennard, Duke
  • Joel Berry II, North Carolina
  • Justin Jackson, North Carolina
  • Michael Young, Pitt
  • Amile Jefferson, Duke

RESETS: ACC | Big Ten | Big East |Pac-12 | SEC | Big 12

WHAT WE’VE LEARNED

  1. Does Duke have reason to be concerned?: We thought they were going to be awesome. You’ve heard this 1,000 times over by now, so I’ll keep it brief: Grayson Allen, Jayson Tatum and Harry Giles III – before the knee scope – were supposed to be the guys that were all-america candidates on this team. Six weeks into the season, Luke Kennard has been a first-team all-american and Amile Jefferson isn’t too far behind. But last week, it looked like Duke’s season was on the verge of going off the rails. There was Grayson Allen’s trip and meltdown, but perhaps more concerning was that Duke won two games they were favored in by a combined 53.5 points by just 21 points total. And then there were Kennard’s comments, which questioned the selfishness of this team.
  2. North Carolina will push the Blue Devils: The Tar Heels lost Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson to graduation and haven’t skipped a beat. Part of that is because Joel Berry II and Justin Jackson have both been terrific this season. Berry is playing like the point guard we’ve wanted him to be since he got to campus, and Jackson has embraced his role as the team’s go-to scorer. Their front line isn’t great, but it doesn’t need to be. As long as Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks, Tony Bradley and Luke Maye keep getting to the glass and keep getting opposing bigs in foul trouble, that should be enough. Kenny Williams’ improvement is also noteworthy, as is the fact that Theo Pinson hasn’t yet suited up for a game.
  3. Not as top heavy, but there may be more balance: Both Louisville and Virginia are elite defensively, but with Donovan Mitchell and Deng Adel failing to improve as much as some (namely me) thought and with Austin Nichols getting the boot, those two look like they’re a step below the Tobacco Road blue-bloods, even with last week’s wins over Kentucky and at Cal, respectively. That said, teams like Notre Dame and Florida State have been impressive in non-conference play while the likes of Virginia Tech, N.C. State, Pitt, Clemson and Miami all look as if they’ll be good enough to put together a tournament profile worthy of at-large consideration, at the least. And then there’s Syracuse, who has the talent to be a top 25 team but has yet to have the performances on the court to back that up.

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KEY STORY LINES IN LEAGUE PLAY

  1. Another Challenger outside of Tobacco Road?: Duke and North Carolina are the two best teams in the league. I say that because I think both of those teams are among the top six teams in the country – along with Kentucky, Kansas, Villanova and UCLA – and I think there’s a pretty clear delineation between the top six and the rest of the country. That said, there are a trio of teams that are at least worth mentioning here. Louisville has proven to have the nation’s best defense, but there are enough question marks with their shooting that we cannot put them in the same breath as the blue-bloods. Virginia is essentially dealing with the same problem: They’re elite defensively but do they scare you offensively? Notre Dame is the exactly opposite. The Irish don’t turn the ball over at all and they shoot the lettering off the ball. But are they tough enough to get stops in crunch time? For my money, I don’t think any of those three will mount a serious regular season title challenge.
  2. How many bids will the league get?: This will be the most interesting debate once we get near Selection Sunday. The conference is loaded. That we know. But how many bids can it actually support? My guess is that 11 will get in, as the league’s overall depth will bring up their computer numbers, but for that to happen, two things must be true: Duke, UNC and Louisville drop games to some of the teams on the bubble, and none of those bubble teams drop games to the likes of Boston College and Wake Forest.
  3. Just how good will Duke be?: People are going to be sick of hearing about this pretty soon. Hell, I’m getting sick of writing it at this point. But at the end of the day, the Blue Devils have as much raw talent on their roster as anyone that I can remember, including the 2014-15 Kentucky team that started out the season 38-0. That doesn’t guarantee anything, not when Harry Giles III is clearly still getting into game shape, Duke is without a true point guard on the roster and Grayson Allen can’t stop tripping people, but it does set us up for what could end up being a fascinating season that does down as one of the most memorable, good or bad, Coach K’s career.
CHAMPAIGN, IL - NOVEMBER 29: Dennis Smith Jr. #4 of the North Carolina State Wolfpack drives to the basket during the game against the Illinois Fighting Illini at State Farm Center on November 29, 2016 in Champaign, Illinois. Illinois defeated North Carolina State 88-74. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
Dennis Smith Jr. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

BETTER THAN THEIR RECORD: N.C. State is currently sitting at 10-2 on the season, but they have yet to do much to prove themselves. They’ve lost to Creighton and Illinois and their best win came at home in overtime against Tennessee State. But consider this: Maverick Rowan only recently returned to the lineup after suffering a concussion early in the season and Omer Yurtseven, a potential first round pick, only got eligible three games ago. Throw in the fact that freshman Dennis Smith Jr. is starting to play like the guy that’s projected as a top five pick and the Wolfpack are a team flying under the radar.

BEAT SOMEONE AND WE’LL TALK: Virginia is ranked No. 12 in the AP Poll and is currently sitting at 11-1 on the season with a win at Cal. It’s foolish, at this point, to overlook a Tony Bennett-coached program, but after losing Malcolm Brogdon and Anthony Gill to graduation and with Austin Nichols off the team, I think they need to prove they’re still ACC title contenders.

Florida State also should be mentioned here. They have a ton of talent on their roster and a gaudy record, but their best win is against Florida at home. In other words, we know they’re good. Are they really top 25 good? We’ll find out in ACC play.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE: Brad Brownell has not been to the NCAA tournament since his first season with the Tigers. That was six years ago. This group has the pieces on the roster to get back – Jaron Blossomgame is awesome, Donte Grantham is underrated, Elijah Thomas will be eligible soon. And if it doesn’t? How many high major head coaches have been able to survive missing the NCAA tournament for six straight seasons?

LAS VEGAS, NV - DECEMBER 17: Justin Jackson #44 of the North Carolina Tar Heels drives to the basket against De'Aaron Fox #0 of the Kentucky Wildcats during the CBS Sports Classic at T-Mobile Arena on December 17, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Kentucky won 103-100. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Justin Jackson (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

POWER RANKINGS, POSTSEASON PREDICTIONS

Tourney teams

  • 1. Duke: The Blue Devils are just so loaded, but the one thing to watch for is the thing we’ve been warning you about since Derryck Thornton transferred: Does Duke have a point guard? When they faced a stingy defensive team in Tennessee State, the Blue Devil offense looked bad.
  • 2. North Carolina: This team is going to go as far as Joel Berry II and Justin Jackson take them. Their front court is good enough, they have good role players that can do a job and Roy Williams has as much experience in the tournament as anyone. But Berry and Jackson are the difference-makers, and they’ve unquestionably made a difference this season.
  • 3. Louisville: I’m still not really sure what to make of the Cardinals, although that win over Kentucky sure seemed pretty convincing. They’re elite defensively but they haven’t shot consistently. Their front court length has actually been the strength of this team through 12 games, and while that’s a good thing for Rick Pitino, I’m not sure this team has Final Four potential if Donovan Mitchell and Deng Adel aren’t the two most indispensable pieces on the roster.
  • 4. Notre Dame: I really do love this Notre Dame team. The way they spread the floor, the way that over-looked players like Matt Farrell and Bonzie Colson have been playing at an all-ACC level, the way that Mike Brey is totally willing to roll with four guards and a 6-foot-5 “big man”. They have to get tougher, however, and learn to close out wins.
  • 5. Virginia: As I mentioned earlier, the Cavaliers are going to be a nightmare to try and score on regardless of who they put on the floor, but my concern with this team is on the offensive end of the floor. I don’t know who the points are going to be coming from with Austin Nichols out of the mix. No one on the team is averaging double-figures.
  • 6. Florida State: I think the Seminoles are real this season, real enough that a top four finish isn’t out of the question. We know about the talent they have offensively – Dwayne Bacon, Jonathan Isaac, Xavier Rathan-Mayes, Terrence Mann – but it’s their return to a grind-em-down defensive mindset that has me more intrigued.
  • 7. Virginia Tech: The Hokies are flying under the radar at this point. They’re 10-1 on the season with a win at Michigan and their only loss coming by three points to Texas A&M on a neutral. Overloooked is probably exactly the way that Buzz Williams likes it.
  • 8. N.C. State: The Wolfpack are the team that I’m most intrigued with in the ACC. We’re only just now seeing what they can be when they’re at 100 percent, as they played the majority of their non-conference slate without Maverick Rowan and Omer Yurtseven, who are both starters. Throw in top five pick Dennis Smith Jr. and a stable of scorers on the perimeter, and I think this is a team capable of both making a Final Four and missing the NCAA tournament.
  • 9. Miami: Miami, to date, hasn’t taken a bad loss this year. But they also lost to the two teams they’ve faced that rank inside KenPom’s top 75, and their only top 100 win is against a Stanford team that hasn’t been very good. On paper I like this group, but they have some work to do.
  • 10. Pitt: I think Kevin Stallings is going to get it done and get back to the Big Dance. A lot of that is depending on the fact that A) SMU won’t look like a bad loss come March and B) that win at Maryland is going to be a road win over a top six team in the Big Ten on Selection Sunday. Michael Young and Jamel Artis deserve a trip to the tournament.

NIT teams

  • 11. Clemson: I think Clemson is going to be the victim of numbers in the ACC. They’re probably good enough to be a tournament team in any other conference, but not everyone can win enough games to be at-large viable, and someone has to be 12th.
  • 12. Syracuse: The Orange have been the most disappointing team in the conference to date, although that is probably due to the fact they were overrated entering the season. This team has a ceiling of top five in the conference, but unless they learn to rebound out of that zone and Tyler Lydon plays like he did against Georgetown the rest of the year, they’re in trouble. If they lost at home by 33 to St. John’s, what happens when they host good teams in league play?
  • 13. Wake Forest: The Demon Deacons are actually better than I expected this season. John Collins has been one of college basketball’s biggest surprises, but Danny Manning’s boys are still probably a year or two away from really competing for a bid.

Autobid or bust

  • 14. Georgia Tech: Josh Pastner took this job knowing what he was going to get himself into. Hey, at least he’s not at BC. Shout out to Ben Lammers for being awesome, though.
  • 15. Boston College: The bright spot for Boston College this season: Jerome Robinson is a stud. That may be enough to get the Eagles at least one ACC win this season.

Spoilers! Baylor tops women’s NCAA field as bracket leaks

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NEW YORK (AP) — Baylor, Notre Dame, Mississippi State and Louisville are the No. 1 seeds in the women’s NCAA Tournament, leading a March Madness field that was revealed early thanks to a production error.

The bracket was mistakenly put out by ESPN hours before the network had scheduled its selection show. ESPN apologized and scrambled to air an early selection show to release the brackets while screenshots of the field were shared across social networks.

“In working with the NCAA to prepare for tonight’s Women’s Selection Special we received the bracket, similar to years past. In the midst of our preparation, the bracket was mistakenly posted on ESPNU,” the network said in a statement. “We deeply regret the error and extend our apology to the NCAA and the women’s basketball community. We will conduct a thorough review of our process to ensure it doesn’t happen in the future.”

In 2016, the men’s bracket was leaked during the selection show, reverberating on Twitter and elsewhere as fans wondered if the picks were accurate.

The No. 1 Lady Bears are the top team in the Greensboro Regional while defending champion Notre Dame is the first choice in Chicago. Mississippi State is the No. 1 team in the Portland Regional, where Oregon is the second seed. Louisville is the top choice in the Albany Regional, where No. 2 UConn potentially awaits.

“We’re thrilled to have the season we’ve had. We played an outstanding schedule. At the end of the day, I thought we might be going to Albany as 1 or 2,” Louisville coach Jeff Walz said. “It’s really great to be a 1 seed and we know there’s a lot of work in front of us.”

Walz won’t coach the Cardinals’ opening game against Robert Morris as he will be serving a one-game suspension for using profane language toward NCAA officials during the Final Four last year. The veteran coach said he expects to have the support of the UConn fans if his team reaches the Sweet 16 and plays in upstate New York. Maryland is the No. 3 seed in Albany and Oregon State is the 4.

“If we’re fortunate to get that far I’m confident that half of the UConn fans will be wearing Louisville gear and they won’t know who to cheer for,” Walz said, laughing.

It’s the first time since 2006 that the Huskies aren’t a No. 1 seed. UConn will try to continue its record Final Four run, looking to advance that far for the 12th consecutive year.

Tennessee sneaked in to the field as an 11. The Lady Vols have been in every NCAA Tournament since the first one in 1982.

“We felt Tennessee and other teams in our last four in had significant wins,” NCAA selection committee chair Rhonda Lundin Bennett said. “That went into determining they were an at-large selection.”

On the other end of the spectrum, Abilene Christian, Bethune-Cookman and Towson all are making their first NCAA tournament appearances.

The women’s tournament begins Friday. The Final Four takes place in Tampa, Florida, on April 5, with the championship game two days later.

Other top seeds in Greensboro are No. 2 Iowa, No. 3 N.C. State and No. 4 South Carolina. The Gamecocks will play the first two rounds in Charlotte as the men’s NCAA Tournament is being played on South Carolina’s home court.

Mississippi State and Oregon will be joined by Syracuse and Miami as host teams in the Portland Regional.

The Fighting Irish will potentially play their first two games at home before only having to drive 90 minutes to Chicago for the regional. Other top teams in the Irish’s region are Stanford, Iowa State and Texas A&M.

The ACC leads the way with eight teams in the field while the SEC has seven. The Pac-12 and Big Ten each have six teams.

NCAA

Made for TV NCAAs: Louisville-Minnesota hits Pitino intrigue

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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Richard Pitino sat calmly in the middle of the room, his eager players flanking him and his restless children in front of him on the floor, as the teams with NCAA Tournament bids flashed on a big screen.

There went Louisville, an awfully familiar name.

Next came Minnesota, his current team.

Pitino simply smiled, fully and immediately aware of the extra intrigue created by the selection committee with this East Region matchup of No. 7 and 10 seeds.

The madness of March has been built on all those low-major upsets and buzzer-beating swishes that bust up the office-pool brackets, but some of the must-see TV each year is arranged before the opening tip.

The Louisville-Minnesota game is one of those predetermined talkers, pitting Pitino and the Gophers against the storied program that fired his father, Rick Pitino, prior to the 2017-18 season in response to the federal investigation into a nationwide college basketball bribery and corruption case. Richard Pitino served two stints as an assistant with the Cardinals under his dad, who has been coaching a professional team in Greece this season .

“Has he talked about Louisville the last two years? Yeah, he has, not in the most positive light,” Pitino said. “It’s not going to be about me. I’m not going to be, ‘Oh, it’s revenge,’ or anything like that. It’s about our players. It’s about this program.”

The Gophers will go to the NCAA Tournament for a second time in six seasons under Pitino.

“We know he’s been there a long time, his dad’s been there, but we can’t make it all about the Pitino family,” senior shooting guard Dupree McBrayer said. “This is a team game.”

The Cardinals and Gophers were sent to Des Moines, Iowa, where they’ll face off on Thursday with a late morning tipoff. That was far from the only assignment made by the committee that carried a dimension beyond the matchups on the court, of course.

Buffalo will get a fresh look at its first opponent when Arizona State plays St. John’s in one of the play-in games on Wednesday night in Dayton, Ohio. If Arizona State wins the right to face Buffalo on Friday afternoon in Tulsa, Oklahoma, well, Bulls coach Nate Oats sure won’t be surprised. Sun Devils coach Bobby Hurley just so happened to be his boss, before Hurley left for Arizona State and Oats was promoted by Buffalo.

As the final quarter of the bracket, the West Region, was revealed, Oats had an inkling his Bulls, the No. 6 seed, would wind up next to the Sun Devils.

“You think it was a coincidence? Yeah, me neither. It’s TV,” said Oats, who was trading text messages with Hurley’s brother, Danny, during the selection show.

After Hurley directed Buffalo’s first NCAA Tournament berth in 2015, Oats has now steered the Bulls to three in four years.

“Coach Hurley gave me my shot. I pull for him,” Oats said. “We talk a lot. Emotionally, it’s not going to be fun. For his sake, I hope they get the win.”

If UCF, the No. 9 seed in the East Region, can beat No. 8 VCU, coach Johnny Dawkins will be subject to the same type of mixed emotions. The second-round pairing for the Knights would probably be Duke, provided the No. 1 overall seed takes care of North Carolina Central or North Dakota State. Dawkins both played for and coached under Blue Devils maven Mike Krzyzewski.

The coaches are a major part of the story in March, but they’ll always be on the bench. The players are the true stars of the show, and there are no greater individual standouts than Marquette’s Markus Howard and Murray State’s Ja Morant. Well, guess what? They’re scheduled to play each other right away, too.

Marquette is the No. 5 seed in the West, facing No. 12 Murray State in Hartford, Connecticut, on Thursday afternoon. Nobody in the tournament has scored more this season than the 5-foot-11 Howard (sixth in the country with an average of 25.0 points per game) and the 6-foot-3 Morant (eighth with 24.6 points per game). The sophomore Morant, a dynamic dunker, also leads the nation with an average of 10.0 assists per game. The junior Howard hit the 45-point mark three times.

Let’s go back to Minnesota for a moment, too. If the Gophers beat Louisville, there will likely be an even more familiar foe waiting for them in the next game: Michigan State. The No. 2 seed Spartans play No. 15 Bradley to start. That potential Michigan State-Minnesota matchup would be a big deal for the Big Ten even if not in the rest of the country.

Such an intraconference matchup on the first weekend is a rarity. In 2011, when the Big East sent a record 11 teams to the NCAA Tournament out of what was then a 16-team league, there were two all-Big East games in the second round: Cincinnati-Connecticut and Syracuse-Marquette.

According to David Worlock, the NCAA’s director of media coordination and statistics, the committee tries to avoid such matchups if possible. Tournament principles state that teams who played only once during the season can meet as early as the second round, and this season the Spartans and Gophers only met once. If two teams played twice, they’re allowed to meet as early as the regional semifinals. If they met three times, they couldn’t match up until the regional finals.

NCAA Tournament 2019: College basketball national title futures

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All futures courtesy DraftKings Sportsbook.

TEAM TITLE FINAL FOUR
 1. Duke 9/4 11/20
 1. Gonzaga 23/4 3/2
 1. North Carolina 15/2 2/1
 1. Virginia 7/1 6/4
 2. Kentucky 13/1 11/4
 2. Michigan 20/1 11/4
 2. Michigan State 17/1 4/1
 2. Tennessee 17/1 3/1
 3. Houston 40/1 5/1
 3. LSU 50/1 10/1
 3. Purdue 33/1 5/1
 3. Texas Tech 30/1 11/2
 4. Florida State 40/1 6/1
 4. Kansas 60/1 9/1
 4. Kansas State 60/1 10/1
 4. Virginia Tech 30/1 14/1
 5. Auburn 45/1 10/1
 5. Marquette 80/1 15/1
 5. Mississippi State 100/1 20/1
 5. Wisconsin 150/1 40/1
 6. Buffalo 100/1 15/1
 6. Iowa State 50/1 8/1
 6. Maryland 150/1 25/1
 6. Villanova 33/1 8/1
 7. Cincinnati 100/1 15/1
 7. Louisville 80/1 15/1
 7. Nevada 60/1 20/1
 7. Wofford 100/1 15/1
 8. Ole Miss 250/1 30/1
 8. Syracuse 150/1 40/1
 8. Utah State 150/1 20/1
 8. VCU 200/1 50/1
 9. Baylor 250/1 70/1
 9. Central Florida 200/1 50/1
 9. Oklahoma 200/1 50/1
 9. Washington 250/1 50/1
 10. Florida 200/1 70/1
 10. Iowa 200/1 50/1
 10. Minnesota 300/1 60/1
 10. Seton Hall 300/1 50/1
 11. Arizona State 300/1 100/1
 11. Belmont 350/1 40/1
 11. Saint Mary’s 250/1 40/1
 11. St. John’s 350/1 100/1
 11. Temple 500/1 70/1
 11. Ohio State 250/1 50/1
 12. New Mexico State 250/1 60/1
 12. Liberty 350/1 100/1
 12. Murray State 250/1 100/1
 12. Oregon 250/1 30/1
 13. Northeastern 350/1 80/1
 13. UC Irvine 350/1 70/1
 13. Saint Louis 500/1 80/1
 13. Vermont 500/1 100/1
 14. Yale 500/1 80/1
 14. Georgia State 500/1 80/1
 14. Northern Kentucky 500/1 100/1
 14. Old Dominion 500/1 80/1
 15. Bradley 500/1 100/1
 15. Montana 500/1 100/1
 15. Abilene Christian 1000/1 200/1
 15. Colgate 1000/1 200/1
 16. Iona 1000/1 200/1
 16. Gardner-Webb 1000/1 200/1
 16. Prairie View A&M 1000/1 200/1
 16. North Dakota State 1000/1 200/1
 16. NC Central 1000/1 200/1
 16. Fairleigh Dickinson 1000/1 200/1

NCAA tournament first round betting lines, odds and spreads

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Here are the betting lines, totals and spreads for every first round NCAA tournament matchup.

TUESDAY, 3/19

6:40 p.m.: No. 16 FAIRLEIGH DICKINSON (-1.5) vs. No. 16 PRAIRIE VIEW A&M, 150

9:10 p.m.: No. 11 BELMONT (-3.5) vs. No. 11 TEMPLE, 155.5

WEDNESDAY, 3/20

6:40 p.m.: No. 16 NORTH DAKOTA STATE (-5) vs. No. 16 NORTH CAROLINA CENTRAL, 134.5

9:10 p.m.: No. 11 ARIZONA STATE (-1) vs. No. 11 ST. JOHN’S, 152

THURSDAY, 3/21

12:15 p.m.: No. 7 LOUISVILLE (-5) vs. No. 10 MINNESOTA, 136

12:40 p.m.: No. 3 LSU (-7.5 vs. No. 14 YALE, 160.5

1:30 p.m.: No. 5 AUBURN (-7) vs. No. 12 NEW MEXICO STATE, 142.5

2:00 p.m.: No. 4 FLORIDA STATE (-10.5) vs. No. 13 VERMONT, 133.5

2:45 p.m.: No. 2 MICHIGAN STATE (-18) vs. No. 15 BRADLEY, 133.5

4:00 p.m.: No. 4 KANSAS (-8.5) vs. No. 13 NORTHEASTERN, 145.5

4:30 p.m.: No. 5 MARQUETTE (-4) vs. No. 12 MURRAY STATE, 149.5

6:50 p.m.: No. 7 NEVADA (-2) vs. No. 10 FLORIDA, 133

7:10 p.m.: No. 2 KENTUCKY (-21.5) vs. No. 15 ABILENE CHRISTIAN, 132

7:20 p.m.: No. 6 VILLANOVA (-6) vs. No. 11 SAINT MARY’S, 130

9:20 p.m.: No. 2 MICHIGAN (-16) vs. No. 15 MONTANA, 131

9:40 p.m.: No. 7 WOFFORD (-3) vs. No. 10 SETON HALL, 142.5

9:50 p.m.: No. 3 PURDUE (-12) vs. No. 14 OLD DOMINION, 128.5

9:57 p.m.: No. 8 SYRACUSE (-2) vs. No. 9 BAYLOR, 132.5

FRIDAY, 3/22

12:15 p.m.: No. 7 CINCINNATI (-3.5) vs. No. 10 IOWA, 139

12:40 p.m.: No. 9 OLE MISS (-2) vs. No. 8 OKLAHOMA, 143.5

1:30 p.m.: No. 3 TEXAS TECH (-14) vs. No. 14 NORTHERN KENTUCKY

2:00 p.m.: No. 6 KANSAS STATE (-5.5) vs. No. 11 UC IRVINE, 119.5

2:45 p.m.: No. 2 TENNESSEE (-17.5) vs. No. 15 COLGATE, 151

3:10 p.m.: No. 1 VIRGINIA (-23.5) vs. No. 16 GARDNER-WEBB, 130.5

4:30 p.m.: No. 5 WISCONSIN (-1) vs. No. 12 OREGON

6:50 p.m.: No. 8 UTAH STATE (-3.5) vs. No. 9 WASHINGTON, 134

7:20 p.m.: No. 3 HOUSTON (-11.5) vs. No. 14 GEORGIA STATE, 142

7:27 p.m. No. 5 MISSISSIPPI STATE (-7.5) vs. No. 12 LIBERTY, 136.5

9:20 p.m.: No. 1 NORTH CAROLINA (-24) vs. No. 16 IONA, 167

9:40 p.m.: No. 8 VCU (-1) vs. No. 9 UCF, 127

9:50 p.m.: No. 6 IOWA STATE (-6) vs. No. 11 OHIO STATE, 140.5

No. 4 VIRGINIA TECH (-9.5) vs. No. 13 SAINT LOUIS, 125.5

2019 NCAA Tournament: The case against the title contenders

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All that you are going to hear about this week is how good this team is, why that team can make a Final Four and how those guys are going to win a national title.

That’s not what this space is for.

Here, we’re going to spend some time discussing the other side of the coin. 

This is the case against the national title contenders.

REGIONS: East | South | Midwest | West

DUKE

As weird as it sounds, Duke is the heavy favorite to win this year’s national title the same way that Villanova was the heavy favorite to win last year’s title, but the Blue Devils are also the easiest team to project out a loss for. That’s because they are, frankly, a horrible jump-shooting team. Duke ranks 338th nationally in three-point percentage, making a measly 30.2 percent of their shots from beyond the arc. Cam Reddish is supposed to be their floor-spacer and he’s shooting 32.7 percent from beyond the arc, which is actually the highest number of all the freshmen on the roster. Tre Jones is under 25 percent from three. Jack White, an alleged shooter who missed 28 straight threes at one point this season, is at 28.4 percent. There are just two players on the roster that make more than a third of their threes: Alex O’Connell, who has not even shot 75 threes this season because of how limited his minutes end up being, and Justin Robinson, a walk-on that doesn’t play.

Now, to be clear, keeping Duke from getting to the basket whenever they want is a lot easier said than done, and part of what makes them so dangerous is that they are absolutely lethal in transition. They don’t need to be effective running halfcourt offense because they get so many points on the break and on second-chance points. But they are eventually going to run into someone that isn’t going to turn the ball over, that can keep them out of transition and does just enough defensively to force the Blue Devils to rely on the three-ball.

Who that is, I don’t know. But the 2010 Kentucky team that featured John Wall, Demarcus Cousins, Eric Bledsoe and Patrick Patterson shot 33.1 percent from three, and we all thought that team has major issues from beyond the arc. They lost in the Elite 8 on a night they went 4-for-32 from three. Will that happen to Duke too?

WHEN THEY’LL LOSE: A healthy Virginia Tech is dangerous, but I think a matchup with Texas Tech in the Final Four does Duke in.

NORTH CAROLINA

The biggest thing standing between North Carolina and a run to the Final Four is the region that they were put in. The Midwest is a tough play to be. If seeds hold — which is no guarantee — they will be playing Kansas in Kansas City in the Sweet 16. They also have to travel twice as far to get to the Sprint Center as No. 2 seed Kentucky or No. 3 seed Houston, and Iowa State fans already consider that building to be Hilton Coliseum South.

So that’s not ideal.

But that, to me, is not the biggest concern that I have with the Tar Heels. It’s the inconsistency of Coby White. North Carolina’s offense is so heavily based on the way that a point guard can play, especially in a year where they don’t really have a guy that can be a creator outside of him. White is a freshman and a volume scorer, meaning that everything about him is inherently streaky. So while that gives them a ceiling to be just about anyone in the field on the right night, it allows means that an Auburn team whose press is working or a North Carolina team that can harass White and run Cam Johnson off the three-point line will have a real shot at a win.

WHEN THEY’LL LOSE: Whoever they get in the Elite 8 — Kentucky, Houston or Iowa State — is going to be dangerous.

VIRGINIA

I’m just going to get this out of the way now: Yes, I think what happened last season might have some lasting effects on Virginia mentally. No, I don’t think they’re going to lose in the first round of the tournament again, but I do wonder how they are going to be able to handle someone making a run on them with five minutes left in the game.

Beyond that, there are two real concerns with this group. Let’s start with the pace of play. They average the fewest number of possessions in the sport which opens them up to upsets. Think about it like doing a study with a small sample size. There’s a reason that scientists want to get to a certain number when doing an experiment or that pollsters need a certain amount of people to get a correct feel for public opinion. That’s because variance can skew things in a small sample size. The same happens in basketball. It’s easier to hang with Virginia in a 60 possession game than it is to hang with Duke, or UNC, or Gonzaga in an 80 possession game.

I’m also worried about the athleticism factor, and it’s not because of Kyle Guy or Ty Jerome. Those guys tend are usually just fine against bigger and more athletic defenders. I know they lost to Florida State in the ACC tournament semifinals, but they also humiliated Florida State in a game earlier this season. Jerome didn’t seem to have any problem carving up Duke in either of the two games they have played this year. The concern for me is Tony Bennett’s infatuation with Kihei Clark. The fact that he is playing 25 minutes a night is concerning to me. He’s not good enough defensively — yes, he’s a pest on the ball, but he’s also 5-foot-7 — to make up for the lack of an impact he has offensively.

WHEN THEY’LL LOSE: I can see Virginia losing to Tennessee in the Elite 8, but watch out for that Sweet 16 matchup with Oregon, too.

GONZAGA

With Killian Tillie back in the rotation and, seemingly, healthy, I’m not super-worried about the depth of their frontcourt or whether or not they will be able to space the floor. I’m also not all that worried about some of the issues that the Zags have on the defensive end of the floor. Brandon Clarke makes a lot of mistakes disappear, and you only have to be so good defensively when you score the way Gonzaga scores. For context, in 2009, North Carolina, like this Gonzaga team, was No. 1 in the nation in adjusted offensive efficiency, according to KenPom, and they entered the tournament 39th in adjusted defensive efficiency. Gonzaga is 16th. They’re fine.

My concern is Josh Perkins. He has been terrific this season, and there are smart people that will tell you that he has been Gonzaga’s most important player this year. The reason that is a concern for me is that he has not proven to be 100 percent reliable, and we saw that come to fruition in the WCC title game against Saint Mary’s. Perkins had arguably his worst game of the season, and the Zags had inarguably their worst performance of the year.

When your most important player is a guy that has proven to have off-nights the way Josh Perkins has off-nights, you are just one game away from flaming out of the NCAA tournament.

WHEN THEY’LL LOSE: I think potential matchups with Syracuse and Florida State are just awful draws for the Zags.

MICHIGAN STATE

I have no idea how Tom Izzo is doing it, but he just took a team that starts Matt McQuaid and Kenny Goins as the No. 2 and No. 3 offensive options to a Big Ten regular season title, tournament title and No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament.

And look, I love Cassius Winston. He is a sensational player that can take over games and a joy to watch if you appreciate someone that can run a pick-and-roll. But the burden that he is going to carry for this team is heavy, and the way the bracket unfolded, the Spartans seem fairly likely to see teams they’ve played this season in the second round and in the Sweet 16. You have to think that at some point Winston’s load will become too much to bear.

WHEN THEY’LL LOSE: Can you see Cassius Winston beating Duke?

TENNESSEE

When we recorded the ‘Why Your Team Sucks’ podcast above last month, the concern that both Brian Snow and I had with Tennessee was whether or not their guards were good enough to win big games. Jordan Bone and Lamonte Turner have proven that they can be OK against some of the biggest games of the season.

I’m not worried about the Vols offensively.

I’m worried about them defensively.

They’ve been lit up by Auburn twice in the last eight days. They couldn’t guard LSU in a loss in which the Tigers did not have Tremont Waters available. Kentucky has done whatever they wanted offensive against Tennessee in two of the three games they’ve played. This is basically the same team that was a top ten defense last year. What happened?

WHEN THEY’LL LOSE: Tennessee’s offense is built around making two-pointers, and Virginia’s defense is designed to take that away.

KENTUCKY

The big question for me with this Kentucky team is pretty simple: Are they good enough?

I know, I know, I know. Let me talk this through. Kentucky turned into a top seven team in January when P.J. Washington turned into a superhuman, and as he came back to earth, so did Kentucky. Can he put together a three-week stretch where he is that guy in March? And if he doesn’t, who picks up the slack? Reid Travis has been useful in certain matchups and has looked like a guy that put up massive numbers against a bunch of soft Pac-12 frontlines in others. Tyler Herro has looked like a first round pick at times, and so had Keldon Johnson. They’ve also looked like freshmen in some big games and big moments. And while Ashton Hagans is a terrific player with a bright future, he’s also a point guard that gambles a bit too much defensively and cannot shoot on the offensive end of the floor.

Put another way, Kentucky has a ceiling when their best players are all playing at their best. But more than any of the other top six teams — Duke, UNC, Gonzaga, UVA and Tennessee — I can see the Wildcats having a floor-game at the wrong time.

WHEN THEY’LL LOSE: They’ve already lost to Seton Hall once this year, but the dangerous matchup to be is a potential showdown with Iowa State in the Sweet 16.

MICHIGAN

The Wolverines just have too many players that are liabilities offensively. Zavier Simpson does not have to be guarded all that tightly. Jon Teske has his moments, but he goes through stretches where he isn’t really a threat. Charles Matthews was really good last year in the NCAA tournament, but that came at a time when he was playing the four in a lineup that featured knockdown jump-shooters at three spots on the floor, including at the five.

That spacing isn’t there this year, and that is why the Wolverines can see their offense get bogged down for long stretches. If that happens in the NCAA tournament against someone like Texas Tech, they could be in real trouble.

WHEN THEY’LL LOSE: Texas Tech is a dangerous team for Michigan to draw in the Sweet 16.