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A Seer Bids You Beware The Ides of March …

March 4, 2015

With less than two weeks until Selection Sunday on The Ides of March – AKA March 15, AKA Christmas for college hoop nerds – and feeling the need to get better acquainted with some of probable contenders to the NCAA throne, I made strategic use of the DVR to watch nine Top 25 teams over six games last Saturday, either live or taped from CBS and the ESPN family of networks (with apologies to Fox Sports 1, and NBCSN save for the Liverpool-Man City match I caught on Sunday). I wouldn’t call myself a “Seer”, but if you’re into bracket projection like I am, check out Bracket Matrix, which is a composite of 77 different bracket projections, along with links to each “bracketology” website from the widely disseminated like ESPN and CBS, to the more obscure; I enjoy ncaabracketology for including the “Last Four Byes” of the next four teams closest to the bubble and compiling a rankings system that accounts for both KenPom and RPI, the simulation tool on NCAA Game Simulator, and Team Rankings for their collective simulation statistics.

I’ll be putting out my own predictions for the Tournament field of 68 right before it is announced on Selection Sunday, as well as my yearly NCAA® Division I Men’s Basketball Championship preview in due course.  In the interim, I’ll share some observations on the games I watched as well as the near future prospects of the teams involved. Last week’s AP rankings are used for each team below when applicable; here are this week’s current poll rankings.

Michigan (56) at #14 Maryland (66) – Mark Turgeon finally has a Mark Turgeon-type team at Maryland, centered around defensive toughness (#38 overall in defensive rebounding) & shooting (.373 3P%, .754 FT%). Melo Trimble is a freshman who doesn’t play like a freshman and he surrounded by seniors, including Dez Wells, the Xavier transfer and Evan Smotrycz, a Michigan transfer. They might be small along the frontline – 6’9″ Smotrycz and 6’9″ Jake Layman get the bulk of the minutes underneath as “stretch 4” forwards – but everyone on that floor can shoot from outside and complements Trimble’s penetration game perfectly. Having watched them upset #5 Wisconsin earlier in the week, there was potential for a letdown against struggling Michigan, but the Terrapins methodically put Michigan to bed as they shot their way to a 9-point lead at the end of the 1st half, then Wells and Trimble took turns dissecting Michigan’s defense in the 2nd. Depending on the matchups, I can see an NCAA run deep into the second weekend for this squad, and their opponents should definitely Fear the Turtle.  As for the Wolverines, they’ve been snake-bitten by injuries but next year promises to be a better one, even if out-for-the-season Caris LeVert turns pro, with all the young talent John Beilein has assembled in Ann Arbor. Call it a rebuilding year if you want, Michigan now is in the spoiler role for the Big 10 Conference Tournament.

#10 Northern Iowa (60) at #11 Wichita State (74) – Best played game I saw all weekend (instead of the box score, I linked the WatchESPN replay link above, good for the next four weeks), and the Shockers’ 14-point margin (avenging a 16-point loss to Northern Iowa on January 31) belies how evenly matched the two teams were.  There might not be a team in college basketball as dangerous on the perimeter as Wichita State’s law-firm trio of Baker (Ron) Cotton (Tekele) & VanVleet (Fred). The only slight difference I see for this year’s team is their interior defense and length appears to be a shade behind their prior two seasons, but they bring the same intensity, toughness, offensive balance and spurtability, and will be a serious Final Four threat in any bracket. Meanwhile, Northern Iowa is legitimate in every sense of the word. If you don’t know about him already get acquainted with the Panthers’ All-American candidate Seth Tuttle, named yesterday as the Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year. A slightly-less-wealthy-man’s version of Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky, he can score from anywhere in the half-court or in transition, and functions as their “point-center”, running the offense through him and surrounding him with perimeter shooters who can get hot at a moment’s notice; Opponents should definitely “Fear The Tuttle” as well. Plus, the Panthers can defend as well as anyone, #16 overall in defensive efficiency (92.6 AdjD). On the day, Wichita State’s clutch shooting in front of a raucous home crowd was too much to overcome, but I expect Ben Jacobson’s squad to factor into the second week of the NCAAs. I will suggest that if these two meet up one more time in “Arch Madness” (the MVC Tourney in St. Louis, MO) for the rubber match, set your DVRs, you will be entertained.

#18 Arkansas (67) at #1 Kentucky (84) – My first time watching the Razorbacks this year, and I was convinced of their quality. They are one of the most athletic teams I’ve seen all season, flying around on defense, getting into transition and finishing at the rim. Bobby Portis is a monster, Rashad Madden is a versatile and experienced lead guard, while Michael Qualls provides reliable scoring from the wing, giving Arkansas a talented and productive trio to match most other elite teams.  And against Kentucky, it just didn’t matter. The #1 team in the country went up 31 at one point in the 2nd half despite having prolonged stretches of sloppy play. What is most remarkable about these Wildcats, is that they don’t have a single current superstar among them, but collectively overpower their opposition with depth, height, athleticism, skill, balance, and when focused, a stifling defense (85.2 AdjD, #2 overall). The Harrison twins are still mercurial, but when they’re on their game few guards can hang with them. If one or both are off their game, or not aggressive enough for John Calipari’s liking, he can replace them with one of the best backcourt duos in all of college basketball, Tyler Ulis and my favorite player on their squad, Devin Booker. Then Calipari can send big men at you in waves, like a hockey team changing their lines. Willie Cauley-Stein is the most athletic big man in college basketball, Karl-Anthony Towns is a Top 5 pick in waiting – although almost every time I’ve watched Kentucky play this year, he’s been in foul trouble; when he is in the game however, he is extremely efficient, and I notice things are easier for Kentucky at both ends of the floor – and Trey Lyles is an X-factor due to his offensive versatility, all of whom will play in the NBA. Plus you have tournament tested big men from last year’s NCAA Title game run in Dakari Johnson and Marcus Lee. I think there is a blueprint to beat Kentucky: take the ball early at Towns to get him in foul trouble (I’d rather take my chances with Johnson, whose focus can wane at times), make sure Booker doesn’t get hot by denying him easy looks, battle for every rebound, avoid the temptation to engage Kentucky’s athletes in the transition game, take care of the ball, and produce from 3 (only Ole Miss has been able to do this so far, shooting 9/17 and losing in OT to the #3 overall 3P% defensive team). A tall order for most teams, but there might be a few who can pull this off (we’ll save that for the tournament preview).  As for Arkansas, their recent lack of consistent perimeter shooting (.324 3P% over their last 13 games) will be their ultimate undoing, but until that happens they will frighten their March Madness opponents with their athleticism and physicality.

Texas (64) at #8 Kansas (69) – Texas set the tone on the first play of the game, when after losing the tip,  Jonathan Holmes blocked Perry Ellis’ drive to the rim. Kansas, playing without Cliff Alexander, looked even more vulnerable against the Longhorns’ deep and massive front line of Holmes, Myles Turner, Cameron Ridley & Prince Ibeh, eventually getting 14 of their shots blocked. While both teams suffered from spotty guard play, Texas carried a small but tenuous lead through most of the game’s first 30 minutes as Kansas couldn’t find water from a boat, shooting 14-48 (.292 FG%) over that stretch, until selfish play and poor shot selection let Texas down.  The Texas that showed up for those first 30 minutes is an NCAA tournament team, but the problem has been that Texas team doesn’t show up enough, or disappears when they need to finish games: 3-12 versus the RPI Top 50 after fighting their way past Baylor Monday night, with 7 of those 12 losses by single digits. Chemistry seems to be sub-optimal as well; the guards dribble way too much and Myles Turner, a potential NBA lottery pick this summer, appears to have gone rogue, although maybe the win over Baylor helps that along. In all likelihood, Rick Barnes’ charges will need to get to the Big 12 Tourney Title game to have a chance at an NCAA At-Large bid, including having to find a way past Kansas in a Big 12 tournament quarterfinal. Speaking of, Kansas is so difficult to beat at home – undefeated (15-0) this year, between the talent Bill Self has assembled, the great crowd, and what can often be some great home cookin’ (can someone explain to me how Kansas had only two team fouls until the last 3:13 of the game?) – and have clinched their 11th Big 12 Conference Title in a row, but since the NCAA Tournament isn’t played at “home”, the Jayhawks’ 8-6 Road/Neutral court record does not portend well for the NCAAs. I don’t trust them defensively either, especially with one less big man in the rotation as Alexander sits out indefinitely. Who else besides Perry Ellis will help carry the scoring load? Which Kelly Oubre will show up from game to game, Good, Bad or Ugly? Can Frank Mason get it done against elite opposition? Does their #1 Strength of Schedule ranks in KenPom and RPI indicate more than a 32 point loss to Kentucky or a 25-point loss to Temple? Is this Jayhawks squad full of freshmen and sophomores still a year away? I don’t have those answers, but I have my suspicions.

#7 Arizona (63) at #13 Utah (57) – Not even Coach K2 (I have issues trying to spell “Krystkowiak”, and no one just calls him “Larry”) wearing the red jacket and burning the sweet grass would be enough on the night for the Running Utes. Aside from the game lacking any real rhythm or flow thanks to the Pac-12 referees calling 46 fouls, my only real complaint watching the game was that the uniform colors were too close, Utah’s dark gray blending into Arizona’s dark blue, which became a microcosm of the whole game: An ugly, plodding battle of evenly matched teams that became equal parts wrestling match and free-throw shooting contest up through the stirring finish.  Utah went scoreless for almost six minutes in the first half, went down by nine and yet the way they were defending one never felt they were out of it. Sean Miller’s squad really struggled against Utah’s matchup zone, not only shooting blanks from outside but missing too many shots at the rim, which is a recurring theme in Arizona’s three losses (as well as super-frosh Stanley Johnson’s subpar play). After falling behind 17-8, Utah outscored Arizona 39-24 over the next 20 minutes of game time to manufacture a 47-41 lead, doing much of their damage from outside hitting five 3s over that stretch (for the game Arizona shot 2-12 from 3, Utah was 7-22).  The tide initially looked to have turned on a questionable contact technical foul call called on Kaleb Tarczewski at 16:58 in the 2nd half, as Arizona went from a tie game with the ball to being down 4, all while they were in the middle of an almost-10-minute stretch bridging the halves without a field goal, opening the 2nd half 0-9 before finally hitting their next two shots.  Down by 6 with 8:00 to go, the visitors then sprang to life, outscoring Utah 22-10, including the game’s last 8 points to close the game out and win a meat grinder. Gabe York had the play of the game, with the reverse three-point play, missing the second free-throw and then grabbing his own rebound at the rim as no one from Utah blocked him out, giving Arizona a 58-57 lead they would not relinquish. As Fran Frischilla noted on the broadcast, while the refs were far from perfect on the night, the fact that one of them nailed an out-of-bounds call with 35.7 seconds left – The ball ever so imperceptibly hitting the bottom of the stanchion after a rebound battle that gave the ball to Arizona, something that took about four minutes of Zapruder-film type review to see – was impressive, and with that went Utah’s hopes. All in all, a gutty road win for Arizona in front of a maniacal Utah crowd. Certainly two of the best defensive teams in the country – Through yesterday, Arizona is #3 (86.8 AdjD) and Utah #5 (88.1 AdjD) in defensive efficiency – were on display, and that’s where much of the NCAA tournament hopes for both teams reside, but these Wildcats might be the toughest out in the NCAAs west of Kentucky.

BYU (73) at #3 Gonzaga (70) – I was struck by how far out from the basket BYU started their offense, knowing they could drive past or shoot over their defender as needed, which BYU did by scoring their first 23 points on either layups or three pointers.  Gonzaga fell into a hole that they could never quite fully climb out of (despite shooting 50% in the 1st half), tying the game at halftime but never leading the game at any point. as the Zags were sloppy and disjointed throughout: too many turnovers, too many bad shots, didn’t get the ball into the paint enough against a shorter BYU team, lost the battle on the boards to said shorter team (39 to BYU’s 41), missed 7 free throws (14-21) and even had a lane violation. Although BYU missed 13 free throws, their aggression in drawing 29 free throw attempts carried the day. In hindsight, I think trying to match BYU by going with three (and sometimes four) guards might have been an error in judgment, and Gonzaga will need to find more opportunities for Domantas Sabonis (6 shots in 27 minutes isn’t enough) going forward to maximize their stay at the Dance. Not only does this loss likely prevent Gonzaga from getting a #1 NCAA seed, it ended the nation’s longest homecourt winning streak at 41 (an honor now belonging to Arizona with 36) and handed Gonzaga’s four-year seniors Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell their first home court loss in their career (on Senior Night no less). Upon further examination of the bubblicious Cougars, Tyler Haws may be the 3rd leading scorer in the country (21.9 ppg), and he did have an uncharacteristically tough game (10 points on 3-11 shooting, 4 missed free throws for an 88% FT shooter), but Mr “Triple-Double” Kyle Collinsworth is the straw that stirs BYU’s proverbial drink. Serving as BYU’s primary ball-handler with a ton of moxie and hustle, Collinsworth led led the way in Spokane with 20 points, 8 rebounds and a game-clinching offensive rebound and putback in the last minute that blunted Gonzaga’s final thrust. Should BYU claw their way into the NCAA Tournament, their perimeter shooting (.387 3P%) and their ability to get to the free throw line – #1 in the country in both attempts and makes, #6 in FT% (.768) – will put a scare the opposition, even as their defense (or lack thereof, #135 in defensive efficiency, 100.5 AdjD) provides some hope in return.

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  1. The Year of the Wildcats | Bobby True

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