Every non-conference game matters when it comes to determining conference strength. For example, Mississippi St.’s one point overtime win over Loyola Illinois might not mean much to you. But for the other SEC teams, when Mississippi St. avoided a bad home loss on Sunday, it helps ensure the conference’s RPI is stronger in March.
But even if every non-conference game matters, the Feast Week Tournaments sure feel a lot more important. The opportunity to see games at neutral sites is huge. (Just ask Memphis which was crushed on the road at Oklahoma St. but won the rematch on a neutral court.)
And the opportunity to see teams play multiple quality teams means you get to see players respond to success and adversity. Butler’s Kellen Dunham looked like a world beater scoring 32 points, including several late threes from way beyond the arc, that sealed the Bulldogs win against Washington St. But then Dunham went up against Marcus Smart and Oklahoma St. and looked pedestrian. Then Dunham bounced back and made several huge shots in guiding his team to OT against LSU.
Meanwhile, LSU’s Johnny O’Bryant calmly sunk a basket to hold off Butler in OT. And this came a day after O’Bryant looked rattled with 10 turnovers vs Memphis. Good and bad, you learn a lot about your team during Feast Week.
Heck, even when teams go 0-3, you often get a chance to see them play well. Xavier may have exited the Battle for Atlantis at 0-3. But prior to Semaj Christon’s cramping episode against Iowa, the Muskateers looked legitimate.
Given the importance of these Feast Week tournaments, here are a few key summary stats. In the 16 Feast Week Tournaments featuring multiple power-conference teams and real brackets, here were the results:
ACC - 5 titles (North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Syracuse and Pitt)
Big Ten – 2 titles (Wisconsin, Michigan St.)
American – 2 titles (UConn, Memphis)
The Big East (Villanova), Pac-12 (Arizona), SEC (Ole Miss), A10 (UMass), MVC (Wichita St.), MWC (San Diego St.), and A10 (Charlotte) also chipped in with 1 tournament title each.
Records in these 16 events (excluding the “home” rounds in events with 4 team semis):
Big Ten 13-10
Big East 13-14
By almost any metric, the winner of Feast Week was the ACC. The first two weeks of the season may have been a bit of a disappointment for the league, but the holiday tournaments have helped save the league’s reputation.
And when a lower-division ACC team like Miami FL can knock off Jahii Carson and Arizona St. (albeit in a game in which Carson twisted his ankle), the real winners are ACC bubble teams like Maryland and Florida St.
- Has any transfer have had a more disappointing start than that of Kansas’ Tarick Black? I probably should have known something was up when Memphis message boards basically said “Good Riddance” when he elected to transfer. And yet with Bill Self’s ability to develop post-players, Black’s natural talent seemed like the perfect fit. But if Black was supposed to tide Kansas over until Joel Embiid was ready, he hasn’t succeeded. Despite starting, Black has essentially been a non-factor this season. And with Embiid in foul trouble in the Jayhawks loss to Villanova, Bill Self still refused to give Black more playing time. Embiid will probably take over the starting job sooner than later. (On the topic of disappointing transfers, Florida’s Eli Carter has also been a bust, but he has struggled with injuries, so I am giving him a pass.)
-Purdue’s AJ Hammons might be the most disappointing sophomore in the nation. A year ago he was a high volume shooter and efficient scorer, and he looked like he might be Purdue’s best player this season. But Hammons shot percentage has fallen from 25% to 15% this year, and he was basically non-existent in Purdue’s loss to Washington St. in Orlando. Hammons did bounce back with 7 of 9 shooting against Siena in the Old Spice 7th place game (and that was vital because Purdue nearly lost that game. But if Hammons isn’t breaking out, Purdue is going to struggle to reach .500 in the Big Ten.
-Texas has to be the luckiest 6-1 team in the country. They once again trailed at home by 9 points with under 10 minutes left. But for the fourth time this year, they pulled the late comeback, this week against Texas-Arlington.
-A lot of people liked Houston as a sleeper in the American Athletic Conference this year, but their defense was subpar in the Legend’s Classic. That was the teams Achilles heel last year, and the early returns are not great.
-Antonio Barton was supposed to step in and be the PG for Tennessee this season with Trae Golden departing, but he isn’t a PG. Instead freshmen Darius Thompson has been asked to step into a larger role as creator. But Thompson fouled out against UTEP, and Tennessee looked completely disorganized in their surprise Battle for Atlantis first round loss.
-I mentioned it above, but did any team have a worse Feast Week then Arizona St.? First, in the battle of Naismith Candidates, Doug McDermott’s Creighton team crushed Jahii Carson’s Arizona St. team by 28 points. And not only did Carson’s team lose, but Carson was contained by a team that can struggle defensively. Then Carson injured his ankle in the team’s loss to a lower-division ACC team in Miami.
And if you are looking for long-term concerns, those are there too. In Arizona St.’s three games against power conference schools (Marquette at home, Creighton, and Miami), Arizona St.’s defense has been mediocre. The win against UNLV was nice, but UNLV is not playing great basketball this year. And if Arizona St.’s defense is not better this year, they are not going to live up to many people’s lofty expectations.
Surprise Thanksgiving Blessings
- Chris Fouch’s steal with 17 seconds left against Alabama tied the game and allowed Drexel to prevail in OT. It was one of the most clutch one-on-one steals you will ever see. I had Drexel as the surprise CAA champ in my model this spring. The injury to Damion Lee now throws that into doubt, but with wins against Rutgers and Alabama, and a close loss to Arizona, Drexel fans should be very proud of their squad.
-Adam Smith was an undersized scoring guard on a dreadful UNC-Wilmington squad. But the sophomore transfer has proven to be a surprisingly key transfer for Virginia Tech. He is averaging 15 PPG. And on a team that has needed to replace Erick Green’s scoring, his aggressiveness has been a huge lift. Virginia Tech may still be the worst team in the ACC, but when a kid named after a famous economist is scoring like crazy, I can’t let it pass.
-Sidney Sanders Jr. had an ORtg of 86.3 last season for Fairleigh Dickinson and scored barely 5 points per game despite playing 23 minutes per game. But all of a sudden, he has become a star. His ORtg has shot up 20 points. His shot volume has more than doubled. And thanks to his emergence, a team that was supposed to be one of the worst teams in D1 has wins at Rutgers and at Seton Hall.
Baylor and Expectations
One of the unfortunate things about human nature is that once you make up your mind about a player or team, it is hard to change the narrative. For example, once the announcers started to view Dallas WR Dez Bryant as a selfish teammate, it is almost impossible for him to get out of that box. There is almost nothing Bryant can do on the field that will cause certain folks to view him in a positive light.
And I am just as guilty as anyone. When it comes to Baylor head coach Scott Drew, I have seen so many ultra-talented Baylor teams under-achieve that I cannot help but see everything Drew’s team does as a coaching failure.
In the Maui semi-final against Dayton, there was a TV timeout in a close game with under 4 minutes to play. After the timeout, Dayton was going to inbound with only 1 second on the shot-clock. Everyone watching at home knew Dayton was going to attempt a lob at the basket. Presumably the Baylor coaching staff knew that too. And yet no one bothered to remind the players. And Dayton threw the lob for an uncontested bucket at the rim. That kind of defense after a timeout is simply inexcusable.
Meanwhile, Baylor opened the game against Syracuse with an attempted alley-oop pass at the basket. I can’t think of a lower percentage play than an alley-oop pass when the entire defense is playing zone and staring at the guy throwing the ball. You need to get players facing the wrong way or out of position to attempt that kind of play. But Baylor went for it and Syracuse’s Rakeem Christmas came down with the ball.
Meanwhile, I continue to pull my hair out that Baylor doesn’t seem to run any plays to get Isaiah Austin the ball. The center once considered a lottery pick has seen his scoring and rebounding dip, and seems even less a focal point in the Baylor offense than in previous seasons. In fairness, his dip in production is mostly due to a dip in minutes and that might rebound in conference play. But in Maui, Austin only played 21 minutes per game in two exceptionally close games against Dayton and Syracuse.
Meanwhile, while most teams trim their rotations in the early season tournaments (to focus on wins instead of player development), Baylor continues to start the totally ineffective Ish Wainwright. Was this a promise made in recruiting? Is this just to allow the team to run some offense and keep Brady Heslip from jacking up threes to open the game? I just don’t get it.
I know Baylor has a ton of talent. And I know many people reasonably view a team that beat Colorado and has just one loss (to Syracuse) as a Top 25 team. But until Scott Drew can improve his team’s basketball IQ over a full season (and competed for a Big 12 title), the Bears remain in my personal doghouse.
More on Duke’s Defense
Speaking of expectations, I think a lot of people previewing Duke vs Arizona in the NIT felt that Arizona’s depth in the paint would overwhelm a Duke team with limited size inside. And when Duke hung tough in the game, I read a lot of recaps that described Duke’s defensive weakness as being less of a liability than expected.
But I disagree with that analysis for two reasons. First, Duke compensated for Arizona’s size inside by starting Josh Hairston. But Hairston is a non-factor offensively and had zero points in 20 minutes of game time. That isn’t the end of the world on a team that has Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood taking offensive basketball to another level, but when Duke also feels the need to play Tyler Thornton for defensive purposes, the presence of two non-scorers on the floor is eventually going to lower the quality of shot Parker and Hood can get.
Second, the real weakness of Duke’s defense isn’t necessarily that opponents are going to throw the ball in the post and back the Duke defenders down. Low-post play is rare in college basketball in the current era. Even Arizona, which supposedly has one of the deepest interior teams in the country doesn’t really have great low-post play. Brandon Ashley seems like he would prefer to take jump shots. And even as a highly ranked center and emerging sophomore, Kaleb Tarczewski still hasn’t figured out how to consistently beat his man inside. Most of Tarczewski’s points seem to come off offensive rebounds and transition baskets, not true one-on-one play. So the fact that Arizona’s big men didn’t dominate on post-ups is not a complete surprise.
What I am concerned about is that Duke’s defense is predicated on not allowing the opposing team to get open looks at three point shots. But what that means is that Duke is more likely to overplay, and teams are more likely to get the ball in the lane against the Blue Devils. And without a true shot-blocking center to back things up, those drives become lethal.
Make no mistake, Duke has the offensive stars to win the ACC. But unless something changes (such as Amile Jefferson deciding to become an elite defensive rebounder), I stick by the contention that Duke will fall before the Final Four. You can’t win multiple tournament games without a quality defense.
Harvard Watch Week 4
Harvard won the Great Alaska Shootout, a tournament I did not include in the Feast Week analysis above because of the weakness of the field. But even if the field was not littered with ACC and Big Ten schools, it was important for Harvard to win some neutral site games against teams like Denver or Green Bay that might win their conference. That will help Harvard’s seed in March if they win the Ivy League.
Overall, Harvard looked solid in the tournament. Laurent Rivard broke out of his three point shooting slump. After making 80 threes last year (and 40% or higher in all three years at Harvard), Rivard started this year making only 9 of 29 threes (31%). But Rivard finally broke out making five threes against Green Bay and TCU. No team can win without floor balance, and Rivard appears to be back on track after the final two games in Alaska.
But on the inside I continue to feel like Kyle Casey is not himself. Casey had a missed dunk late in a close game against Denver, and overall his footwork just seems off. He gets offensive rebounds and puts up wild-shots instead of finishing around the rim. Casey has played more minutes than Steve Moundou-Missi in some of the games, but I feel like Harvard is not the same team when Moundou-Missi is not on the floor. Moundou-Missi just has great footwork and body-position and in the tight early game against Denver, his inside scoring helped keep Denver at arms-length.
With the tournament win in hand, Harvard now heads back to Boston to take on Northeastern. The Huskies beat Georgetown and nearly beat Florida St. down in Puerto Rico and should provide a real test.