Skip to content

Rematches To Advance to the Title Match

Quick hits on tonight’s NCAA Final Four games (Oklahoma vs. Villanova, 6:09 EST; North Carolina vs. Syracuse, 8:49 EST, NRG Stadium, Houston, TX, TBS). Both are rematches of regular-season tilts, with Oklahoma having lapped Villanova 78-55 in the Pearl Harbor Invitational, and North Carolina having beaten Syracuse twice this season, at Syracuse’s similarly cavernous Carrier Dome as well as in Chapel Hill on Senior Night. Both games present wildly contrasting styles and tempos; According the KenPom.com, speedy Oklahoma and North Carolina have AdjT north of 70.0 posspg, while deliberate Villanova and Syracuse have AdjTs south of 67.0 posspg.  Then there is the “dome factor” to figure in, specifically games at tonight’s venue NRG Stadium in Houston, where altered depth perceptions due to the vastness of the space inside appear to have affected shooting percentages in prior games played there creating what Ken Pomoroy labeled the “NRG Effect”. At first blush it would appear to favor the teams who rely less on the three pointer (teams collectively have shot only 32.2 percent of their 3-point attempts in 15 games), and the teams who rebound better.

Applying that to these games, Oklahoma as a team shoots .428 from three, good for #2 in the country, although Villanova actually has shot more threes this season than Oklahoma (#7 in the country in 3PA, compared to the #19 Sooners), and since both teams are roughly equivalent in rebounding (Oklahoma grabs 51.5% of their total rebounds, Villanova’s TRB% is 51.4), I’ll go with the team that makes more of the threes they take, Oklahoma in a tightly contested game. Plus, Oklahoma has Buddy Hield, and you don’t. Villanova’s best chance is to go against the NRG Effect and get hot from three, belying their season-long 3FG% of .354, and their center Daniel Ochefu could be also be an X-factor for the Wildcats, but he’ll have to play more than 21 minutes and be more productive than his 8 point/10 rebound game in Hawaii.

As for the nightcap, I’m not a believer in the theory that it’s any more difficult to beat a team three times in one season, as the two prior victories usually show inherent superiority, or a higher ability to adapt to changing circumstances and find different ways to beat the same opponent. Syracuse is much more reliant on the three-pointer than North Carolina, as 42.4 percent of their field goal attempts come from three (whereby North Carolina only attempts 26.8% of their field goals from three); Although the temptation for North Carolina to shoot an elevated number of threes is ever-present against Syracuse’s 2-3 matchup zone defense, the Tar Heels are #1 in the country in two-point attempts and total two-point attempts made, as well as #1 in total rebounding and #3 in total offensive rebounding. Combined with the historical weakness of zone defenses in rebounding on the defensive end, and I think Carolina wins this game going away. Unless Syracuse and Malachi Richardson do to North Carolina what they did to Virginia and ACC Defensive Player of the Year Malcolm Brogdon – then all bets are off.

Advertisements

Parity Schmarity

All I’ve heard since November is how much parity there is at the top echelon of college basketball this year, that any of 15 (or more) teams could win the NCAA Men’s Division I College Basketball Championship™, and that many more could reach the Final Four. That we are due for the craziest, the Maddest March of recent memory.

Not. Completely. Buying it.

First, there are the wiseguys, the various oddsmakers who only have 3 teams at shorter than 10:1 odds to win it all: Kansas (9:2), Michigan State (5:1) and North Carolina (11:2) according to Sportsbook.ag. Then there are the smart guys, like Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight crew that crunched the data for their March Madness predictions and determined that four (4) teams – the aforementioned Kansas, Michigan State and North Carolina, plus Virginia – have a combined probability just over 52.5% of winning the NCAA Title. Four teams, better than the Field. And, like ESPN Insider John Gasaway, who 10 days ago postulated there are only “… eight teams that may win the national championship.” You’ll have to click the links to find out who he thinks those teams are, or just read further as my list of Contenders will have quite a bit of overlap.

Finally, there’s the often mocked, misunderstood, and subjective yet completely entitled “eye test”. Kansas and North Carolina won both their regular season and conference tourney titles, riding 14 and 5-game win streaks respectively. Michigan State recovered from a 3-game losing streak in January to take 13 of their last 14, avenging their only loss in that period (by 1 at Purdue) in the Big Ten Tournament Title game. Virginia is the only other team than Kansas to be Top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency. To these steely blues, few other teams look the part of a National Champion as we find ourselves, again, at the precipice of the Madness.

Without further ado, I present my “TL:DR”, macro-level look at the NCAA Tournament field. My chalky bracket is here as a matter of disclosure, a printed copy of which will surely be crumpled up in the wastebasket by Sunday afternoon.

Championship Contenders – Formerly of the now defunct BracketScience.com website, a true gent by the name of Peter Tiernan had developed three Championship Tests based on the common characteristics of every National Champion since at least 2003 (for a detailed breakdown of each Championship test, one can refer to last year’s NCAA Tournament Preview, under the same “Championship Contenders” heading). In the last couple of years, these tests have taken on a bit of water, Connecticut having blowing out half the criteria in 2014, and Duke having to work their way into meeting the defensive efficiency thresholds on their way to the 2015 Title; Entering the NCAAs, Duke had passed all criteria except for defensive efficiency (AdjD) by less than 1.0 point per possession (96.1, ranked 57th), but ended the tournament ranked 12th overall with an AdjD of 92.3, meaning they REALLY played great defense during the NCAAs to lower their season-long AdjD by almost 4 points per possession, both of which demonstrated that teams close to meeting these tests entering the tournament can play their way into matching their criteria and becoming an NCAA Champion.

I’ll save a more thorough analysis of these tests for later – Now is where I point out that we still don’t have a full appreciation for what the 30-second shot clock and emphasis on “freedom of movement” have done to collective efficiencies, pace and overall scoring this season, how that plays out in this and future NCAA Tournaments, and how that might inform attempts at forecasting legitimate title contenders – but I still find them to be a useful filter for separating Championship-level contenders from the vast multitude of pretenders, as well as identifying those teams who are thiiiiiiiiiis close (imagine my thumb and forefinger barely apart) from putting it all together and making the final step(s) into title contention.

Testing this year’s field, only nine (9) teams meet the Pomeroy Raw Data test. Nine (9) teams meet the Pomeroy Rankings Test; only five (5) of which also meet the original Raw test, with six (6) others conforming to what I shall refer to as the “Connecticut Standard” (Offensive Efficiency Ranking equal or better than #39, as opposed to #18 in the original Raw test), for 15 total passing in some form or fashion. Six (6) met Tiernan’s Eight Criteria: Kansas, North Carolina, Michigan State and Villanova pass all three tests, while West Virginia and Oklahoma satisfy the Connecticut Standard in addition to the other two tests. Virginia makes it a Magnificent Seven gunning for the NCAA Title, even as their coach Tony Bennett hasn’t taken a team to an Elite Eight (yet), and despite a healthy scoring margin (+10.7 points per game over their opponents) the Cavaliers don’t score as much as past Champions – only 70.4 ppg, lower than the 73 point threshold, but then again Connecticut (71.8 ppg) never met that threshold in 2014 either. Not so coincidentally, these happen to be the Top 7 overall teams in the Pomeroy College Basketball Ratings this season. From more to less likely, one of these teams will have that One Shining Moment:

  • North Carolina
  • Kansas
  • Michigan State
  • Virginia
  • Oklahoma
  • West Virginia
  • Villanova

Darkhorses – That slim margin separating Darkhorses from the Contenders above manifests itself in one aspect of each team’s season-long performance, whether lacking in reliable offense, or inconsistent team defense, or as Nylon Calculus suggests, how tested a team was by their non-conference schedule as a potential indication of their ability to close out close games under the pressure of tournament play. By the same token, each of these teams have proven they can perform at an elite level in the other aspects, well enough to compete with any team. These 10 Darkhorses are highly efficient offensively or defensively (if not both), but consistently fall short in one key area such as rebounding, turnovers, rim protection, shooting or defending the 3-pointer, or making free throws, or they may simply lack the depth to have a productive bench. All but two teams listed below meet one or both Pomeroy tests, with four of them (Oregon, Miami, Xavier, Arizona) one criterion short of passing Tiernan’s Eight, and the other four (Purdue, Texas A&M, Maryland, Iowa) as relatively efficient as 2014 Connecticut was, while the other two (Utah, Indiana) could play themselves into Championship levels like Duke last year. Although it might seem silly to call a #1 seed like Oregon a “Darkhorse”, they are much less tested out of conference than every Contender except Michigan State as well as lacking the defensive efficiency of their other fellow #1 seeds, so they’re here almost by default. Fortunately for the Ducks of Eugene, Oregon is the only team here with a path clear of Contenders or Darkhorses before the Elite Eight, so they are at the top of the list. At the other end of this spectrum, Arizona might have the toughest road to the Final Four, in that barring upsets, every team they could face will have a higher Pomeroy Rating, and they had the 3rd weakest non-conference schedule in the entire tournament field (behind only Hawaii and Pittsburgh). Yet Sean Miller’s squad hasn’t lost a game by double digits all season, their eight (8) losses by an average of 4.1 ppg. By Sunday, the true Darkhorses among this group will have revealed themselves:

  • Oregon
  • Miami
  • Purdue
  • Texas A&M
  • Xavier
  • Iowa
  • Maryland
  • Utah
  • Indiana
  • Arizona

Potential Sweet 16/Elite 8/Final Four Cinderellas – While the idea of a mid-major/low-major team that sneaks up on the rest of the field and surprises the even the casual fan has lost the element of true surprise, in a television landscape that turns former novelties like Gonzaga and Wichita State into household names, College Basketball still thrives on the notion that the glass slipper might fit anyone. So the following teams are only relatively below-the-radar compared to the field, identifiable names despite their mid-major status with players you may not (or actually may) be familiar with (such as Gonzaga’s Domantas Sabonis, Butler’s Roosevelt Jones, Northern Iowa’s Wes Washpun, or St. Joseph’s DeAndre Bembry), but will be before this weekend ends (everyone by now already knows my main man Scoochie from Dayton). Something else to note is that everyone listed below except Butler either won a share of their conference’s regular season title, or played in their conference tournament final (three of whom, Gonzaga, St. Joseph’s, and Northern Iowa, won). I don’t think any of them will replicate “2006 George Mason” or “2010 Butler”, but the beauty is, you just never know:

  • Gonzaga
  • St. Joseph’s
  • Dayton
  • Wichita State
  • Northern Iowa
  • Butler
  • VCU

Underachieving or Underseeded “Stepsisters” Capable of a Deep Run – AKA, the “Memorial LSU 1986/1987 Underdogs”, harkening to Dale Brown’s double-digit seeded 1986 (#11) and 1987 (#10) Tigers that reached the Final Four and Elite Eight in succession. Like those LSU underdogs from 30 years ago, all seven (7) teams a.) come from a high-major conference (like Cinderella’s Stepsisters), b.) Are seeded No. 8 or worse, c.) Have double digit losses, d.) Have beaten or pushed multiple highly ranked teams to the limit this season, and e.) Despite lacking cohesion or suffering curious losing stretches or streaks, are very talented with difference-makers that can heat up and win games. Most of these teams will shortly become “Also-Rans”, but one usually makes it to the second weekend, and if you can correctly call it, your bracket would likely have a big edge on others as all of these Stepsisters will have to knock off a Top 2 seed in the Second Round. I like Providence to have the best opportunity to pester and persevere, led by two future NBA players in forward Ben Bentil, and for my money the best point guard in college basketball, June NBA Lottery Pick Kris Dunn. Followed closely by (dare I say it?) Connecticut:

  • Providence
  • Connecticut
  • Syracuse
  • USC
  • Colorado
  • Temple
  • Pittsburgh

Feast or Famine – This category will also serve as the answer to last year’s archetypal question, “Could Some Middle-Seeded Team Pull a 2014 Connecticut on The Field?” The Quintessential high ceiling/low floor teams, matriculating in the Nos.3-8 seed range because they are either “jack of all trades/master of none” teams (Baylor) or are acutely one-dimensional, prioritizing defense over offense (California, Seton Hall) or vice-versa (Kentucky, Duke, Iowa State, Notre Dame). Several factors explain that stasis, such as an overreliance on underclassmen, a lack of depth or roster balance due to injury or attrition, and/or uncertain quantities in their coaching, all increasing the difficulty of stringing together tournament wins compared to Darkhorses or Stepsisters. In many ways, the next level down from Darkhorse status, where two wins in the first weekend automatically elevates them. Every #4 seed made this group, teams full of NBA talent and the opportunity to seize their promising future now. Three (3) teams also played in their respective conference tournament finals, with Kentucky (Big 12) and Seton Hall (Big East) winning, and three more (Cal, Baylor, Notre Dame) got to their conference tourney semis, so momentum could play a factor for these squads:

  • Kentucky
  • Duke
  • Seton Hall
  • California
  • Iowa State
  • Notre Dame
  • Baylor

“I Have No Idea What to Make of This Team” Teams – A true “Grabbag” category. Every year there’s a few teams I truly don’t “get”, despite multiple attempts to watch and analyze their play, often leaving me with a sense of basketball ennui, wanting more from these teams despite being unable to put my thumb on what exactly that “more” would be. Only Oregon State has what I would consider as recognizable, surefire NBA-level talent in Gary Payton II (does that make him “The Mitten”? Not if he has anything to say about it), so it could be the lack of an obvious Alpha with all of these other teams that confounds:

  • Texas
  • Oregon State
  • Wisconsin
  • Texas Tech
  • Cincinnati
  • Michigan

Upset Picks That Actually Could Happen – What is an “upset” anymore? Not a #10 beating a #7 seed to be sure, and when you consider in the last six (6) NCAA Tournaments #11 seeds are 12-12 vs. their #6 seed counterparts, it’s hard to consider that scenario an upset either. Surprisingly, none of the #12 seeds beat #5 seeds last year, so maybe that pendulum is swinging back into “Upset” territory (Yale fits that bill nicely). So is #13 over #4 the new threshold (Iona, please)? Two of the #14 seeds last year also won their First Round games, so maybe that’s the new sweet spot (I’d be more bullish on Pomeroy Rated #34 Stephen F. Austin here if they weren’t playing Championship Contender West Virginia)? Seed upsets tend to occur when high roster turnover and inconsistent results among high-major conference schools lower their seed to the point where they face mid-majors who have managed to assemble upperclassmen-laden rosters – where competitive “parity” actually occurs in the early rounds. In this field, most of the spry low-to-mid-majors are in the #12-14 range. It’s the most difficult aspect of filling out a bracket, assessing the deeper seeds for opening game upset potential; However, it’s no coincidence however that many of the teams here are the opponents of the “Feast or Famine” teams listed above:

  • Yale
  • Iona
  • Arkansas Little-Rock
  • Hawai’i
  • UNC Wilmington
  • Fresno State
  • Stephen F. Austin

Upset Picks That Probably Won’t Happen – Remember: Just because a team could beat higher seeded opponents in the Round of 64 or beyond, doesn’t mean they actually will. A No. 16 seed has never beaten a No. 1 seed since the tournament field expanded to 64 in 1985, despite coming close a couple of times, so I’m only including the No. 16 seeds here only by reference. These double-digit seeds have unfavorable matchups and should play to their seed (i.e., lose). In particular, I’m not buying any of the #15 seeds this year, and according to Pomeroy, Chattanooga is the 2nd-luckiest team in the field (a measure of the contrast between expectations based on the team’s actual efficiencies and their actual results), so I figure that “luck” runs out.

  • Chattanooga
  • South Dakota State
  • Stony Brook
  • Buffalo
  • Green Bay
  • Middle Tennessee
  • UNC Asheville
  • Weber State
  • Cal State Bakersfield

And Now … Four Fearless Archetypal Predictions …

“First Four” Team Most Likely to “VCU” … Wichita State. They are the #9 rated team in the country according to Pomeroy. How they are a #11 seed is beyond me. They virtually traded the graduated Tekele Cotton for Kansas transfer Connor Frankamp, added under-recruited super-Frosh Markis McDuffie, and return their senior, war-tested backcourt of Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker to a tenacious 9-man rotation, filling the rest with athletic frontcourt depth. Currently the Shockers sit as the No. 1 defense in the country, whether you measure it by scoring allowed (59.0 ppg) or Defensive Efficiency (88.6 AdjD). Plus they just don’t turn the ball over (less than 10/game), while they will turn you over (opponents average over 15/game), both in Top 20 in the country. In their First Four game on Tuesday, they closed out Vanderbilt on a 20-2 run, and held all five of Vandy’s starters to single digit point production, making them look not so Dandy. Finally, since VCU in 2011, one of the First Four teams has gone on to win multiple games every tournament. In sum, Arizona has their work cut out for them, as does any future potential opponent all the way to potential Elite Eight, in-state foe Kansas.

This Year’s “Texas Longhorns 2010 Memorial Shambles Team” is … Iowa. As recently as four weeks ago, they were ranked #4 in the AP Poll. Since then, Tom Petty called, and said the Hawkeyes are Free Falling into the NCAAs, losing 5 of their last 6 games, including their only game in the Big Ten Tournament to a 15-18 Illinois squad that lost their subsequent and final game of the season by 31 points, and likely dropping 4-5 seedlines in the process. All of which is eerily reminiscent of their 2014 season in which they lost 6 of their last 7 games prior to the NCAAs and ended their season in the First Four with a loss to Tennessee. Five of their seven rotation players average more the 30 mpg, and while Jarred Uthoff has garnered some All-American consideration, he and his teammates, and his coach Fran McCaffery, just look worn down. Yet, they beat Michigan State twice this season by a combined 30 points, beat Purdue twice this season by a combined 19 points, became a tempting pick to upset Villanova in the Second Round (more on that in a sec), and one of my Darkhorse teams for a Final Four berth due to meeting the “Connecticut Standard” Pomeroy Rankings Test. Go figure.

This Year’s “Kansas Jayhawk Memorial Round of 32 Upset Departure Team” is … Villanova. Stop me if you’ve heard this before: Jay Wright (once again) has (possibly) his best team since his 2009 Final Four squad, balanced (might be more guard dependent actually, but go with it), versatile, and eager to atone for last year’s (once more) premature exit to North Carolina State in the Round of 32. By seed, they are scheduled to face an Iowa squad (should they stop moonwalking and beat Temple) that a month ago was vying for a #1 seed alongside Villanova. Or in the alternative, a less than desirable matchup with “Big 5” rival Temple. Even though they are one of my seven (7) Contenders for the NCAA Title, much will rest on the healing right ankle of big man Daniel Ochefu. Despite their gaudy analytics and win totals, I’ll believe Villanova gets to the Final Four this year when I actually see it happen, and not a second before.

My Final Four and Champion … Last year I went 1 for 4, as my Champion pick Kentucky lost in the Final Four, so I’m starting to get a complex about it, but we forge ahead. Hollywood wouldn’t buy this script, but Cryin’ Roy Williams will surpass his mentor Dean Smith and win his 3rd National Title at North Carolina, at the expense of his former betrothed Kansas Jayhawks. Joining them in Houston will be the Oklahoma Sooners (AKA “The Fighting Buddy Hields”), losing for the 3rd time this season to the Jayhawks in what would  become a classic trilogy of games between the Big 12 rivals, and the Michigan State Spartans, getting “Izzo, Tom Izzo” to his 8th Final Four before losing a rematch of the 2009 Final. While it wouldn’t necessarily surprise me if one of these other three teams took home the NCAA Title, my final calculus is simple: All the top teams at their best, the Tar Heels just have too much talent and experience for anyone else, and they are the best team I’ve watched all season. In my mind, it’s gone to Carolina. Can’t you just see the sunshine?

Putting Out Cookies & Milk for The NCAA Tournament Selection Committee


One of the greatest days of the year is once again before us. Selection Sunday, a prelude to the 12 Days of Basketball Christmas that is March and early April) Madness, where at 5:30pm EST, we’ll finally get to peak under the tree as 68 invitees for the field of the NCAA® Division I Men’s Basketball Championship and their destinations and matchups will be announced.

I won’t pretend to be a “bracketologist”, as there are plenty of other professionals and amateurs out there who put vastly more labor into their prognostications, placing all 68 teams in seeds, matchups and tournament sites. I will however call my shot at the 68 teams in the field. Last year I called 67/68 correctly, missing on Colorado State instead of Ole Miss.

Here’s what we know, what I know, what I think I know, and my educated guesses at who will perchance to dream during this most wonderful time of the year (check once again in the mail to Andy Williams’ estate) and who receives the NIT consolation prize (never mind all the other also-ran, alphabet postseason tournaments, held for reasons I am still unclear about).

We know that all 32 automatic bids have been decided, as determined by conference tournaments (except for the Ivy League); only 5 of which repeated from last season (marked below with a *) while only 10 of the 31 Conference Tournament No. 1 seeds (indicative of the regular season champion or leader, only the Ivy League doesn’t hold a conference tournament, which changes next year) went on to win their conference tournament – both of which have to be some sort of record.

American Athletic – Connecticut

America East – Stony Brook

ACC – North Carolina

Atlantic Sun – Florida Gulf Coast

Atlantic-10 – St. Joseph’s

Big 12 – Kansas

Big East – Seton Hall

Big Sky – Weber State

Big South – UNC Asheville

Big Ten – Michigan State

Big West – Hawaii

Colonial – UNC Wilmington

Conference USA – Middle Tennessee

Horizon – Wisconsin-Green Bay

Ivy – Yale

Metro Atlantic – Iona

Mid-American – Buffalo*

Mid-Eastern – Hampton*

Missouri Valley – Northern Iowa*

Mountain West – Fresno State

Northeast – Farleigh Dickinson

Ohio Valley – Austin Peay

Pac-12 – Oregon

Patriot – Holy Cross

SEC – Kentucky

Southern – Chattanooga

Southland – Stephen F. Austin*

Southwestern Athletic – Southern

Summit League – South Dakota State

Sun Belt – Arkansas Little-Rock

West Coast – Gonzaga*

WAC – Cal-State Bakersfield

This leaves 36 at-large bids to be decided. Looking at all the metrics I could, the official NCAA RPI as well as CBS Sports’ “Nitty Gritty Report”, Ken Pomeroy’s data, The Bracket Matrix and volumes of bracketology sites, as well as ESPN’s and CBS’s handy “Bubble Watch” running features, and what I have personally observed this season having watched every team play at least once, here are the teams that I am extremely confident are locks, listed by conference (number of teams in parentheses):

American Athletic (2): Cincinnati, Temple

ACC (4) – Virginia, Duke, Miami, Notre Dame

Atlantic-10 (2) – Dayton, Virginia Commonwealth

Big 12 (5) – Baylor, Oklahoma, West Virginia, Texas, Iowa State

Big East (4) – Villanova, Providence, Butler, Xavier

Big Ten (5) – Indiana, Maryland, Purdue, Wisconsin, Iowa

Pac-12 (5) – Arizona, Utah, Cal, USC, Colorado

SEC (2) – Texas A&M, South Carolina

That’s a grand total of 29 teams that should be safe, which would leave seven (7) at-large spots. Here’s who I think are the teams competing for these spots, again listed by conference:

American Athletic (1) – Tulsa

ACC (2) – Syracuse, Pittsburgh

Atlantic-10 (1) – St. Bonaventure

Big 12 (1) – Texas Tech

Big Ten (1) – Michigan

Horizon (1) – Valparaiso

Metro Atlantic (1) – Monmouth

Missouri Valley (1) – Wichita State

Mountain West (1) – San Diego State

Pac-12 (1) – Oregon State

SEC (2) – Georgia, Vanderbilt

West Coast (1) – St. Mary’s

With these 14 teams competing for the last seven (7) spots, despite all the parity this season it is a relatively small bubble. Drawing straws, here’s my best guess as to those Quasi-Magnificent Seven, in order from safest to least safe:

Wichita State

Oregon State

Texas Tech

Syracuse

St. Mary’s

Vanderbilt

San Diego State

Michigan, Monmouth, Valparaiso and Pittsburgh would be what bracketologists would refer to as my “First Four Out”, or the top teams not selected, in what would mostly be a victory for the power conferences. The NCAA Selection Show is already underway, with its usual bag of surprises and head-scratchers, so we’ll know shortly who got lumps of coal in their stocking.

As always, Happy March Madness Eve, and an early Happy St. Patrick’s Day!!

EDIT 6:58 PST: I had counted Oregon State twice, in both the “Locks” and “Bubble Teams”, so I left them as a “Bubble Team”, which reduced the “Locks” by one (1) to 29, and raised the “Bubble Teams” by one (1) to 7. As such, I put San Diego State in as my least safe team on the right side of the bubble, and added Pittsburgh to my “Last Four Out.” As the field has now been announced (and apparently leaked online before CBS’ NCAA Selection Show had announced the entire field), I had 65/68 teams correct above, with one of my 29 “Locks”, South Carolina, not selected (First time that’s happened to me) as well as the bubble bursting for St. Mary’s and San Diego State (What’s a mid-major to do?), and Michigan, Pittsburgh and Tulsa (?!?) selected in their place. For what it’s worth, ESPN’s Joe Lunardi also got 65/68 teams right, missing Vanderbilt, Syracuse and Tulsa (Me too Joe, me too) while he had placed St. Bonaventure in the field, as well as St. Mary’s and San Diego State like I had. Finally, Andy Katz interviewed NCAA Selection Committee Chair Joe Castiglione on ESPN’s “Bracketology” show and Castiglione said the last team in was Tulsa, while the first four out were St. Bonaventure, Valparaiso, South Carolina and Monmouth. So there’s that.

BOBBY TRUE’S COMPLETELY PREMATURE 2017 TOP 10 BASKETBALL RECRUITS V1.0

Technically, this is the perfect time to release a “2017 Top X Recruit List”, as it’s the end of the 2016 November signing period, and almost a full calendar year before many of these 2017 kids can sign Letters of Intent. They are now front and center on the college recruiting stage, so in that sense it is right on time.

The reasons I call this list “premature” (not the least of which is I like to hedge my bets), are as follows:

  • I’ve only been able to watch highlight videos for most of the top prospects in 2017. There’s only so much I or anyone else can determine from a highlight video. Anyone can look like a world-beater in a highlight video; Heck, shoot it right, I can look like the second coming of Dennis Johnson in a highlight video (I’m pretty crafty). So, I don’t trust them, and I don’t put much stock into evaluations solely based on reviews of highlight videos (Which probably means you should stop reading right here, but I digress). Finding unedited game tape for younger prospects is difficult (even on YouTube), and I haven’t watched most of these kids live on TV/Internet or in person yet. Give me the travel budgets of Scout.com’s Evan Daniels or 247 Sports’ Jerry Meyer, and this amateur recruitnik would go watch prospects play anywhere or anytime.
  • Most of the highlight videos I watched as a result were either from their Sophomore year of high school, or from summer grassroots (aka AAU) tournaments and camps after their Sophomore year. Soooooo much time before they show up on a college campus (if at all, or overseas). You could seriously write in almost every Top 150 prospect’s Scouting Report “Needs/Areas To Improve: Strength”. Most difficult aspect of scouting these kids, as I’ve been told by those who do it for a living, is projecting how their bodies will turn out. Some max out early, some hit late growth spurts which completely change their game (Anthony Davis was a middling 6’2” guard until an 8-inch growth spurt between his Sophomore and Senior years in high school), some bulk up too much, some stay too thin and can’t add that weight. Never mind how some skills are innate, while others can be vastly improved upon with hard work. So it’s a crapshoot, an incomplete and changing picture at best.
  • Honestly, until recently, most of my recruiting attention was on the Class of 2016. Ask me what I think about the Cream of the 2016 crop, prospects like Josh Jackson, Harry Giles, Jayson Tatum, Dennis Smith, Terrence Ferguson or Lauri Markkanen, who I’ve watched play full games on live TV for either their prep or national teams, and I can provide breakdowns with confidence in my assessment. Right now, not so much with 2017, but give me time.
  • Because of the first three reasons above, I’ve had to rely on other scouting reports and databases as well to compile this list. That will have less influence as we go on.
  • I like to hedge my bets. This list will undoubtedly change next time I post it. Like I said, not the least.
  • Finally, and somewhat related to the first two reasons, is at this point, what often stands out to observers are athleticism & size for projected position, and the obvious skills like scoring ability or shot-blocking. I look for things such as motor, court vision, rebound anticipation, quickness with the ball, footwork, the lost art of shooting (and their related mechanics), decision-making and any inkling of defensive fundamentals and desire. These aspects of a player’s game are either difficult to assess (especially in a highlight video) or take longer to develop, requiring repeated viewing live over time – which for me has not happened.

With caveats out of the way, I will list 10 guys, with quick observations on them, followed by what is sure to be a rotating cast of “Others Worthy of Consideration”. On with the show (Heights and weights from Rivals.com) …

1.) Michael Porter, Jr, SF, Tolton Catholic HS, Columbia, MO (6’8”, 190) – Listed as 6’9”, 210 pounds on 247 Sports, and measured at 6’10” this summer at the Nike Skills Academy (I’m thinking that’s in shoes), if he grows another inch or two, he’s the next Kevin Durant (and I hate making those types of hot-take hyperbolic comparisons, but there it is). Dead-eye shooter with NBA range and nearly unblockable, can put the ball on the floor and score from mid-range or at the rim. Fantastic athlete; Will be the early favorite for the McDonald’s All-American Game Dunk Contest. Willing defender. One of the few kids that I’ve actually seen play in something other than a highlight video – check out footage of a one-on-one battle with 2016 Top 10 prospect Dennis Smith from the Stephon Curry Camp. My favorite prospect in the 2017 class, my guess is he makes Kansas, Duke or Kentucky very happy for nine months before being a Top 3 NBA pick. His younger (and taller!) brother Jontay is a rising 2018 prospect as well.

2.) DeAndre Ayton, C, Hillcrest Prep, Phoenix, AZ (6’11, 225) – Originally from the Bahamas before moving ton San Diego, his city should actually read “Parts Unknown”, with rumors swirling about the future of Hillcrest Prep. Gained wide notoriety last summer when he posted 17 points and 18 rebounds (!) in an exhibition game against the University of North Carolina. Best rim protector in all of prep basketball. Developing post game, thrives on his height and athleticism edge over his competition. So athletic and smooth, you forget sometimes you’re looking at what other recruiting websites list as a 7’ Center. If I had to hazard a guess at this point, I doubt he ever plays a minute of college basketball, and I have concerns about his motor, but undoubtedly Ayton is one of the better Center prospects in the last decade if he puts it all together.

3.) Troy Brown, Jr, PG, Centennial HS, Las Vegas, NV (6’6”, 195) – Some scouts suggest he’s not a true Point Guard, that might become a Small Forward instead, but I love what I’ve seen of his game, possibly to an irrational level. Freak athlete, excellent court vision and passer, gets to the rim whenever he wants, needs to continue to improve on his shooting – his mechanics don’t look that far off to me. I’d want him on the ball offensively, regardless of the position he defends.

4.) Trevon Duval, PG, Advanced Prep International, Dallas, TX (6’2”, 189) – Prototypical NBA combo/lead Guard prospect. According to the 247 Sports Composite rankings, most scouts consider him the best point guard prospect in the class, and they might be correct, but for me he looks to shoot a bit too much (despite not being a great shooter), and needs to tighten his handle. Does everything else really well, a John Wall-ish blur with the ball, and will be a fantastic college one-and-done lead guard.

5.) Billy Preston, F, Advanced Prep International, Dallas, TX (6’9”, 220) – No, not that Billy Preston. Originally from Los Angeles before going the prep school route. Probably has the most NBA-ready body at this point, projected as a face-up Power Forward due to his sheer size, but I think he’s just a large and powerful wing, at least in college. Elite athlete, plus shooter, good passer, solid rebounder, overly ball dominant, not sure he’s interested in defense (after all, nothing from nothing leaves nothing), but a future NBA lottery pick to be sure.

6.) Wendell Carter, PF/C, Pace Academy, Atlanta, GA (6’10”, 246) – Mr. Wendell. He’s the #1 ranked player in both the 2017 247 Composite rankings, and the Rivals 150, #2 on Scout and ESPN … I’m not seeing that on film. I mean, he’s a great prospect, does everything well, already has a great Power Forward body and motor, but he’s not crazy-athletic, not awesome at any one thing, and in my amateur opinion is not the best current player or prospect with upside in 2017 (although he is young for his class, won’t turn 17 until April of next year). This slot feels about right.

7.) Brandon McCoy, C, Cathedral Catholic HS, San Diego, CA (6’11”, 220) – Truthfully, on current ability he’s not a Top 10 player – Maybe Top 25 – so this is completely about his tremendous upside. He has elite physical tools, extremely mobile and athletic, and although he’s raw offensively, his jumper has mid-range potential, and he’s as active and capable defensively as anyone in the class. As he adds muscle and develops his offensive game, he should round into an elite NBA Center prospect; the Real McCoy, if you will.

8.) Zach Brown, C, Miami Senior HS, Miami, FL (7’1”, 256) – Consensus 5-star rated and ranked #20 overall in the 247 Composite, his rankings span the lower end of that range (#17 on 247 & Rivals, #18 on ESPN, #26 on Scout). I’m still trying to figure out what’s not to like relative to higher ranked Center prospects; Scout for example ranks him as their 9th best Center prospect and last 5-star player. He’s 7’1”!! A throwback Center, not an extreme athlete, but is truly large, light off his feet, and more than mobile enough. Very good rebounder with good hands, very long, an excellent motor (most guys his size & build don’t have that) and an improving post game. He has things you can’t teach, and most of his deficiencies can be improved with work and repetition. Factor in how long it takes for big men to develop, and where he is already, and I don’t understand why he’s not a consensus Top 10 player. Plus, he has his own band! (Not really).

9.) Jarred Vanderbilt, F, Victory Prep, Houston, TX (6’8”, 200) – Superb athlete, great motor, does all the little things well, somewhat the converse of Preston in that he projects as a Power Forward once he fills out, but right now has the body of a wing. Highest defensive upside of the non-Centers in this class; However, his shooting range, and much of his offensive game, is a work in progress. Kinda, sorta, maybe might have some similarities in his game to former University of Arizona star and Brooklyn Nets rookie Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. Like McCoy, his upside is through the roof.

10.) D.J. Harvey, SF, DeMatha HS, Hyattsville, MD (6’7”, 180) – Might be the most versatile and complete offensive player I’ve watched in the 2017 Class (#23 in white in this video, #1 in your hearts). Highly skilled, can score in a myriad of ways out to 3-pt range, equally adept in transition and the half-court. Has the physical tools to be an above-average defender, but like most his age isn’t asked to or otherwise has yet to show it. Not a superfreak of an athlete like most other Top 10 wings in this and past classes, but has enough athleticism to augment his high skill level.

OTHERS WORTHY OF CONSIDERATION: Mo Bamba, PF/C, Westtown School, Westtown, PA (6’11”, 205 – Mobile, skilled big man, favorite name in the class); Austin Wiley, C, Spain Park HS, Birmingham, AL (6’10”, 240 – Auburn commit is a similar prospect to McCoy in both current ability and upside); Kevin Knox, F, Tampa Catholic HS, Tampa, FL (6’7”, 195 – Silky smooth and long combo forward); Gary Trent, Jr., G, Apple Valley HS, Apple Valley, MN (6’4”, 180 – Maybe the best shooter in the entire class, his Father was the original “Shaq of The MAC”).

The New Jordan Rules

Has Jordan Spieth stepped forward as the next golfing generation’s standard bearer? Is Spieth the “next” Tiger? These are foremost among the many questions Professional Golf fans and followers have asked themselves during and after Jordan Spieth’s barnstorming triumph at the 2015 Masters.

Spieth either set or shared Masters course records at the end of every round, carding a record 28 birdies in 72 holes and going from the youngest runner-up in Masters history last year to the second-youngest Champion. I’ll let others place him in the historical context or draw the obvious, unavoidable Tiger Woods comparisons that began even before Spieth had actually won, but as Jim Nantz pointed out in Sunday’s broadcast, he’s played eight (8) competitive Masters rounds and has never been out of the top five on the leaderboard.

It’s easy to wonder after this blitzkrieg by the World’s best, whether Augusta National will break out the earth movers and raid the nursery for pine saplings again to Spieth-proof the course much as they tried to Tiger-proof the course in the 2000s. Singling out singular talents for special countermeasures isn’t a new phenomenon. In the 1980’s the Detroit Pistons created the “Jordan Rules” as an approach to contain and limit Michael Jordan’s effectiveness (further detailed in Sam Smith’s 1992 book “The Jordan Rules” about the 1990-91 Chicago Bulls championship season), and it worked, for a while. Debate has been ongoing as to whether Tiger-proofing Augusta actually worked, or whether it actually existed, or whether after last year when Bubba Watson won his second Masters in three years Augusta National should be Bubba-proofed. What is clear is that Tiger won two more Green Jackets (2002, 2005) after significant changes were first made to Augusta in 2002, but none since 2006 when a second round of alterations to lengthen the course and tighten landing areas limited favorable outcomes for Tiger’s usual scrambling game.

So could Augusta National similarly initiate a new set of “Jordan Rules”, a forthcoming era already suggested by the L.A. Times’ Bill Plaschke? Probably not, unless as one golf writer noted Augusta wanted to “dig ponds in the middle of fairways and ban putters.” Spieth isn’t cut from the same cloth of long-ball bombers or left-handed legends that have dominated Augusta’s “curvilinear camouflage” over the past 18 years. He won this week by being the most complete golfer on the course, an efficient jack-of-all-trades that allows him to overcome being outdriven by many of his competitors with his accuracy and clutch short game, zigging where others are zagging during the PGA’s current long ball era.

Although Sunday’s chase was enjoyable to watch, there was very little suspense for home viewers as well as those in the gallery munching on a $1.50 pimento cheese sando. Spieth’s second shot at the 13th sealed the deal as far as I was concerned. The announcers were prognosticating a common sense approach of laying up short of Rae’s creek on the Par 5, but instead Spieth fired right at the stick and put it within 12 feet of the hole. The fact that he missed the eagle putt that followed didn’t matter nearly as much as the gumption of the prior shot, showing he had the right stuff to become the 5th wire-to-wire Masters Champion.

It was the quality of those chasing Spieth – how many normally victorious efforts were posted – that made his dominating performance all the more impressive. Phil (he can go by one name now I think) played championship-level golf, a miraculous sand save on the 15th for eagle punctuating a steady but otherwise not spectacular enough 69 on Sunday to earn his 10th all-time runner up finish in a Major, tied (-14) with Justin Rose. On 70 of the 78 previous Masters Tournaments, both of them would have been walking back up the 18th hole for a sudden-death playoff. In other years the Sunday 66s shot by Rory McIlroy (-12) or Hideki Matsuyama (-11) would have won it outright more than three of every four times. I never saw Ian Poulter (World Ranked #26) or Paul Casey (#36) Sunday & they both finished T6th at -9 with Dustin Johnson (#6 and the second-most significant potential redemption story this week), all earning a trip back next year.

Then there was Tiger. His interview with CBS’ Bill McAtee, where Tiger claimed to pop a wrist bone back into place after swinging his club into a tree root on the 9th, was the capper to a promising but decidedly mixed bag of results for Tiger. Woods’ last hole Sunday was a microcosm of his week in Augusta, barely missing a par-saving putt after finding only his second fairway all day. Finishing T17th (-5) with Sergio Garcia, I tend to side with those who say this performance demonstrates Tiger can still contend for Majors in the future, rather than demonstrating he can’t, but to win at Augusta his game will have to continue transformation into the strategically specific point-to-point target golf that Spieth was so adept at all week.

Unsurprisingly, from my recliner none of the also-rans sounded all that happy about their performances in post-round interviews, at best barely even satisfied. That’s the thing about these pro golfers, when they see someone post a better number, they always think they could have done more.

But the immutable truth is, at 21 year 8 months, and 16 days old, Jordan Spieth is really, really good at golf. And this year, there was nothing the rest of the field could have done about that. We’ll see what Augusta National has to say about it next year and beyond.

So Much For The Year of The Wildcats

With 13:17 left in the Second Half, Duke Head Coach Mike Krzyzewski called a timeout, his Blue Devils staggering, down by nine, 48-39, in the NCAA® Division I Men’s Basketball National Championship Game. His alpha dog Freshmen, Jahlil Okafor and Justise Winslow, were on the bench in foul trouble with three (3) each. In the crowd there were crazed Cheeseheads dressed in red & white striped overalls jumping around like they were at a Slipknot concert. Newly minted Naismith Player of the Year Frank “The Tank” Kaminsky was well on his way to a 21 point/12 rebound performance and his Badgers were on the brink of a National Title. Duke needed someone to assert themselves and stop the bleeding, as a National Championship was slipping from their grasp. Out of the time out, Blue Devil Nation turned its lonely eyes to … Grayson Allen?

If you read that and said “Who?”, you’d be forgiven by everyone but his family & his teammates. Undoubtedly next in a long line of proud and publicly loathed Duke heels, Allen scored Duke’s subsequent eight (8) points out of the time out – en route to a career high 16 points – to singlehandedly bring the Blue Devils back into contention. Then, just as he had four months ago in Duke’s win in Madison, Tyus Jones took over, combining with fellow freshmen Allen for 23 of Duke’s game closing, title-clinching 29-15 run. The Apple Valley, Minnesota native and Final Four Most Outstanding Player (becoming only the fourth Freshman to do so) had 19 of his game-high 23 points in the Second Half, none more important than his dagger three with 1:24 left to put Duke up by eight (8) as Wisconsin once again had no answer for Jones, falling short in the rematch 68-63, this time costing the Badgers a National Championship.

On Wisconsin? More like slightly Off Wisconsin. Whereas the converse had been true for most of their season, Wisconsin’s whole on this night was less than the sum of their parts. Frank The Tank was his normal unstoppable self, but I don’t think he saw enough of the ball. Sam Dekker did most of his damage on second-chance points at the rim, scoring 12 points but was ineffective from the perimeter, shooting 0-6 from three and only scoring four (4) of his points after the half. While Bronson Koenig was steady if unspectacular, Traveon Jackson had an uneven game, shooting 1-7 from the field, while Josh Gasser played a scoreless 36 minutes despite (or because of, you decide) being poked in the eye early on. Aside from Kaminsky and Nigel Hayes (a tidy 3-4 from three on his way to 13 points), no one else provided a consistent offensive threat in the half court, nor was there the poise offensively or patience defensively that vanquished John Calipari’s Wildcats to their ole Kentucky home on Saturday.

Speaking of Wildcats, allow me to take a moment to discuss their alleged year. Villanova went out like a domesticated tabby rather than a feral feline, losing in the Round of 32 to a talented but unbalanced North Carolina State squad that would lose their next game; A jump shooting team can’t find water from a boat (19/61 from the floor, .311 FG%) and loses, go figure. Arizona couldn’t seem to put two good halves of basketball together in the Tournament before being shot out of the Staples Center in the Elite Eight by Wisconsin’s epic three-point barrage, leading Head Coach Sean Miller to tell ”bandwagon fans” to go root for their rival on Twitter. Then in the Final Four, Kentucky’s “Pursuit of Perfection” (or whatever lame-ass slogan ESPN created to hype Kentucky’s chase of an undefeated season) came crashing down Saturday as the more experienced and efficient Badgers prevailed over another team of kittens. Not the worst call I’ve made, and considering I pegged Duke as one of the few teams that could win it all, I don’t feel so bad.

But enough about me. Back to the actual winners. Duke won this title, Krzyzewski’s 5th which ties him with Kentucky’s Adolph Rupp for No. 2 all-time behind John Wooden, with defense. In six 2015 NCAA Tournament games Duke allowed an average of 56.3 points per game. Heading into the NCAA Tournament, Duke was ranked 57th in the country in defensive efficiency according to KenPom, with an AdjD of 96.1. After their six NCAA games, Duke had worked all the way up to 12th, improving their season-long AdjD to 92.3, a figure that would have had Duke meeting all three Championship Tests prior to the tourney. Their average defensive rating – same idea as KenPom’s AdjD stat, an estimate of points allowed per 100 possessions calculated by Sports Reference.com – was 88.6, a number that would have been good for 6th overall in that metric. And how about the young’uns? Freshmen scored 60 of Duke’s 68 points and played 112 of 200 total minutes, which is not only amazing, but something I doubt even Coach K would have ever foreseen in its antithesis of the Duke Basketball Experience (emphasis on experience). Who says old coaches can’t learn new tricks? Michigan’s Fab Five eat your heart out!

Now, some in the media (and many in the Twitterrazzi) have suggested that Duke may have had some help from the guys in the black and white stripes. Notably, the reviewed out-of-bounds call with 1:53 left in the game that gave the ball to Duke, despite the largest television audience to see a National Championship since 1997 clearly seeing that the ball went off Justise Winslow’s unmanicured fingertips. Maybe the refs were looking at the replay in low def, or maybe they really are vision impaired as all hecklers have decried for time in memoriam. Apparently the NCAA head official claimed the refs at the game did not have the same viewing angle as the television audience, which only raises more questions (Some of mine include “Why not?”, “Why the hell have replay then?”, and “Da fuq?!?”).

In the bigger picture, even a less-than-sporting Bo Ryan couldn’t stop himself from complaining about the officiating in both the NCAA post-game presser and the CBS post-game interview, claiming there was “more body contact in this game than any game” Wisconsin played all season. Sure, over the last 13:17, Wisconsin was whistled for nine (9) fouls to Duke’s three (3), and Duke enjoyed an 11-1 advantage in free throw attempts, making eight (8) of them. But is that really evidence of an officiating bias? Or, is it a sign of Duke’s increased aggression when facing a 9-point deficit, taking almost everything to the rim in a smart strategy to draw contact and create more scoring opportunities? I know my answer to that question. Duke had flipped the script after that fateful timeout, overcoming Wisconsin’s lead while being the team in significant foul trouble, and never say never, but I still think Duke, up by five (5) at that time, was winning that game regardless of that call. The die had already been cast.

Besides, reversing that call wasn’t going to help Wisconsin answer the Tyus Jones problem. Going into Monday night, it was fair to ask how Wisconsin was going to handle Duke’s two standout freshmen. Turns out, it was the other two freshmen they had to worry about all along.

Lessons From a Rematch?

I’ve heard more than one pundit say in the lead-up to tonight’s NCAA® Division I Men’s Basketball Championship Game between Duke and Wisconsin in Indianapolis to ignore the results of their December 3 battle in Madison, WI, won by Duke 80-70 in what was then and is not the most impressive win of the season by any team.  I’m not going to suggest history will repeat itself tonight – in fact, based on how each team has played in the tournament, I give the slight edge to Wisconsin, as does the betting public apparently, favoring Wisconsin by one (1) point 15 minutes before game time – but there are some lessons to be learned from what happened four months ago.

1.) Sam Dekker was a Non-Factor In the First Game – Having watched him build what may become a NCAA Final Four MOP résumé already, I have a hard time believing that he will only go 2-5 for five (5) points and four (4) rebounds in the rematch.  He is Wisconsin’s most important player tonight, and if he can continue his shooting streak from outside – 7/9 (.778) from 3 the last two games, each one more clutch than the prior – I’m not sure Duke has an answer.

2.) Duke Shot 65% From The Field in Madison – To be exact, 30-46 for .652 FG%.  I don’t see that happening again, but for Duke to win I would expect them to be north of 50% tonight. And even then, as Arizona found out in the Elite Eight, that might not be enough.

3.) Tyus Jones Took Over in Crunch Time Last Time – I remember watching that game on TV and thinking this was Tyus Jones’ coming out party that night, scoring 6 of Duke’s last 15 and 22 overall for the night with six (6) rebounds and four (4) assists as he was the best player on the floor that game and was the main reason Wisconsin never got closer than 5 points over the last four minutes. Another good game from him will go a long way for the Blue Devils.

4.) Jahlil Okafor and Frank Kaminsky Battled to a Standstill – The two best players this season in all of college basketball both played well last December, Okafor going for 13p/6r while spending part of the game in foul trouble, while Kaminsky had 17p/9r in eight more minutes (35 to Okafor’s 27) of game time. If Frank The Tank can get Okafor in foul trouble again tonight, that has to favor the Badgers more than it did in Madison.

5.) Traveon Jackson Was and Is The X-Factor – Jackson single-handedly kept Wisconsin in the game, going for 25 points and making all eight (8) of his Free Throws.  Since then he missed several weeks with a foot injury, but has returned off the bench in the NCAAs in a slightly different role during the Tournament to provide some toughness, poise and rest for the now starter at point guard Bronson Koenig. I doubt he’s the same influence on this game, and that might not bode well for Wisconsin, but I do think he has to come in and be a defensive presence on the perimeter against Jones and Quinn Cook.

So who wins this battle of two of the top three most efficient offenses in College Basketball?  Does Coach K get his 5th National Title?  Or does Bo Ryan get his 5th (the prior 4 at Division III Wisconsin-Platteville)? I think the Badgers win Bo Ryan’s 1st Division I Title, by the same margin of their last two games, seven (7) points in what should be a 40-minute, up and down affair.

%d bloggers like this: