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Final Thoughts On Ranking 351 D1 Teams

In case you missed it, last Thursday I presented my upgraded projections model. Then I presented my 13-14 season projections on ESPN Insider. My projections included the median simulation, best case, and worst case for every team. I also did a Q & A session with Eamonn Brennan and another one with John Templon. I have also been answering a few questions on Twitter. You would think after all those words I would have run out of things to say, but here are a few thoughts that did not quite make the cut in those articles:

The Underrated Club

Q: Why does the simulation hate Arizona St.? Jahii Carson is one of the best players in the country.

A: Arizona St. is a team with a lot of two-star players on the roster. In fact, they have the second lowest average star rating in the entire Pac-12, ahead of only Utah. Luckily a few of those players are transfers who played well for other teams. But what this really means is that Arizona St. just doesn’t have the same upside as many of the other schools in the Pac-12. Herb Sendek’s track record on defense is also a huge concern.

Q: Why does the simulation hate Maryland? A lineup of Shaquille Cleare, Evan Smotrycz, Dez Wells, Nick Faust and Roddy Peters sounds like it could hang with anyone. And Seth Allen, Charles Mitchell, and Damonte Dodd all seem like solid reserves. Why is the model so pessimistic?

A: The simulation is concerned that Maryland has only nine scholarship players on the roster. There is real downside risk with such a short bench because if a couple of players struggle or get injured, there are no alternates. Last year N.C. State entered the year with just nine scholarship players and things turned south early. Now, that doesn’t mean Maryland is destined to fail, but depth is a risk with this type of roster.

Q: Why does the simulation hate Denver? They had a great margin-of-victory numbers last year.

A: While I truly believe star ratings are important, the focus on recruiting evaluations really hurts the small conference squads in my projections. Only when a small conference team has virtually no lineup questions will that team be ranked near the top. (This year the two exceptions are North Dakota St. and Harvard. North Dakota St. brings back 95 percent of its minutes and gets a player back who was injured for much of last year. Meanwhile Harvard gets two star players back who were suspended last season.)

In Denver’s case even with several efficient players back, particularly star Chris Udofia, winning seems likely. But Denver has to replace two of the three players that played the most minutes last season. And the likely replacements will only be two-star athletes. That’s not to say that head coach Joe Scott cannot build a winner again. But it is very hard to get a Top 50 margin-of-victory in a small conference. And if Scott does it again, that should be considered a huge accomplishment. It shouldn’t be the expectation. (The real issue for Denver is finding another ball-handler to compliment Udofia. Last year Royce O’Neale and Udofia both were key distributors for the team, but with O’Neale transferring to Baylor, the remaining options are not great.)

Random Thoughts on Some Major Conference Teams

- In my Insider column, I said that the Spartans were the lowest risk team in the nation which sparked some jokes from Michigan St. fans on Twitter. I think this points out how insanely volatile college basketball can be. Even when the Spartans bring back five of their six top rotation players including three clear stars, their fanbase in nervous. Part of that is the fact that Tom Izzo’s teams notoriously struggle in November. But when a team with Top 10 talent brings nearly everyone back and their fans are nervous, you know that anything can happen in college basketball.

- Michigan’s position in 12th in my rankings is a little misleading. I honestly believe that Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson can lead this team a long way. But I am legitimately concerned about the guard rotation. John Beilein was very reluctant to play Jordan Morgan and Mitch McGary together last season because they weren’t outside shooters. So I have to assume Robinson will play most of his minutes at the four-spot again this year. But then how does the guard rotation work? Does the team play Spike Albrecht, Derrick Walton, and Nick Stauskas together? What if Albrecht and Walton aren’t ready? That is why my model has such a low downside for the Wolverines. (And don’t tell me Caris LeVert is the answer. He was a low-ranked recruit and nothing he did last season leads me to believe he should be a key player on a Top 10 team.)

- When I first ran the model, I was a little surprised the downside for Kentucky was not lower. After all, a young Kentucky team lost in the first round of the NIT last season. But this is what happens when you return two efficient high potential players (in Alex Poythress and Will Cauley-Stein), and add five Top 10 recruits. With that many high potential players, even if two or three of them struggle immensely, Kentucky can still win. Kentucky could not afford for Archie Goodwin to struggle and Nerlens Noel to get injured last season. This year if Julius Randle struggles and Will Cauley-Stein gets hurt, the team can just say “Next man in.”

- I love the range for Indiana in my ESPN Insider rankings. The team has 7 top 100 recruits, and an elite season is still possible. But given all the new faces and how little most of the returning sophomores played last year, the downside risk is major.

- If you want to vote any of my model’s Top 34 teams into the Top 25, I can see arguments for all of them. But I stick by my model’s skepticism of Baylor. Pierre Jackson carried the Bears last year and I don’t see how they can be a better team without him. Their margin of victory was 26th last year (thanks to winning the NIT) and I only give them about a 20 percent chance to do better than that.

- If you have ESPN Insider, look at how painfully low Alabama’s downside is this year. After Devonta Pollard was arrested this offseason, the team is down to nine scholarship players who are eligible this year. If someone on Alabama’s squad doesn't play well, there are no alternatives. This is too bad because Anthony Grant is such a talented young coach, but off-court issues keep derailing his teams.

- Iowa St. made a great move adding Marshall transfer DeAndre Kane. But I suspect Fred Hoiberg needed to add a couple more transfers to keep his transfer winning streak going. With 64% of the lineup gone and four of Iowa St.'s six most efficient players departing (Melvin Ejim and George Niang return), expect Iowa St. to take a step back.

- My model is more optimistic about Seton Hall than what you see in some other rankings. Texas transfer Sterling Gibbs will be a huge upgrade over Tom Maayan and his 50% turnover rate. And with fewer injuries, Kevin Willard should have the defense playing better.

Random Thoughts on Some Mid-Major Conferences

- I’ve still got St. Mary’s on the NCAA bubble. Many will discount the team after Matthew Dellavedova's departure. But Beau Leveasque and Stephen Holt aren't suddenly going to forget how to shoot. Brad Wadlow isn't going to stop being a physical force on the boards and finishing over 60 percent of his shots. This team still has talent.

- The team I think most pundits have over-rated this year is Northeastern. The Huskies were extremely lucky last year. Despite the 7th best MOV in the CAA, they won a ton of close games, including a 4-1 record in OT. Their conference title is very deceiving. With the team's leading scorer and most efficient player Joel Smith gone, a repeat conference title seems unlikely.

- One team I am buying is Weber St. Weber St. had the best margin-of-victory in the Big Sky last year. They even outscored Montana by 19 points in their three meetings. But somehow they went 1-2 against the Grizzlies and that 1-2 mark gave Montana the regular season and conference tournament title. Weber St.’s aggressive and efficient inside-outside combination of Davion Berry and Kyle Tresnak is going to make sure that doesn't happen again.

- The conference champion I expect to come out of nowhere this year is Manhattan. Manhattan somehow lost 10 games to conference foes, but only one of those games was by double digits. This team was much better than last year's conference record would indicate.

- The race for the Big West title is wide open. I have five teams projected within one game of first place in that league.

- The CUSA race should also be highly entertaining. Louisiana Tech is the only team in CUSA that returns over 70 percent of its minutes from last year. (Tech brings back 85 percent of its minutes.) And Tech's losses won't hurt the offense. The team loses its least efficient player Brandon Gibson, and the extremely passive JL Lewis. With an already solid defense and an improved offense, Louisiana Tech could be headed for the NCAA tournament. But Southern Miss is just as formidable a competitor. The newest Golden Eagle, transfer Aaron Brown, shot the ball extremely well as a sophomore at Temple. His addition could give Southern Miss the CUSA title.

- Speaking of transfers, transfer Jay Harris was the PG on a Valparaiso team that won the Horizon league title in 2012. He could be the key addition that gets Wagner an NEC conference title in 2014.

- Finally, Indiana St. PG Jake Odum has to be kicking himself that RJ Mahurin transferred out in order to play his senior year with his younger brother. Mahurin was the team's only efficient big man, and the Sycamores could have been a more realistic NCAA bubble team had Mahurin returned.

Late Breaking News

- The news that Josh Smith was eligible immediately didn’t break until after I finished my rankings. With a full season of Smith you can move the Hoyas up to 27th in my projections. But as many people have noted, because of his conditioning, it still isn’t clear how much Smith will play. The downside risk for the Hoyas remains real. However, I do think that it is a major break that Smith will be around from the start of the season. The Hoya offense is a nuanced system that depends on precise cuts and passes, and integrating Smith mid-season would have been much more difficult.

- I had already assumed Joseph Young would be eligible for Oregon so their ranking is not affected by that news. It is clear that the transfer combination of Mike Moser and Young could be one of the best inside-outside combinations in the country. But I want to offer several cautionary tales. Ryan Harrow, Trey Ziegler, and Aaric Murray were three transfers that received a ton of hype last summer, and they were all such poor fits in the new environment, they have all moved on again. We’ve seen teams bring in a bunch of transfers and live up to expectations (like Iowa St.), but we have also seen teams take in a lot of transfer and disappoint (like Missouri last year.) Transfers are high risk players, and that is why my model has such a large range for the Ducks this season.

Dan Hanner vs Ken Pomeroy

Ken Pomeroy also released his preseason rankings on Saturday. While he is rather humble about his algorithm, I think it is important to note how well his system did last season. From a modeling perspective, a more complex system is not always better.

I would argue that the real advantage of my lineup-based system is not the predictive power. The advantage is that by focusing on the lineup, my model has fewer head-scratching conclusions. For example, Ken’s team level model has Miami at 62nd this year. With basically everyone in last year’s rotation gone and Angel Rodriguez electing not to apply for a transfer waiver, that’s an extremely optimistic prediction. But that prediction is based on how well Miami did last season, not any reasonable evaluation of the current roster. The same can probably be said of Minnesota at No. 35. The Gophers had strong margin-of-victory numbers last year, so Ken’s model loves them again this season. But my model sees that the Gophers made a substantial downgrade in the front-court and added an unproven coach. My model based on the current lineup has Miami at No. 102 and Minnesota at No. 63, and I think that’s much closer to what I have seen in most expert rankings.

But while Ken’s model can cause us to scratch our heads at certain results, do not overlook his predictions. The last five seasons of data are a very strong predictor in the aggregate. (If a team had a great offense before it tends to have better facilities, higher caliber recruits, and better coaches today.) And when the results of both our models agree, those are probably the strongest predictions of all. 

American Conference Basketball Early Projection

The American Conference was in the news this last week. They launched a beta version of their new website complete with a logo. And Commissioner Mike Aresco sat down for a Q & A with Matt Norlander of CBS Sports.com. The best part might have been Aresco’s admission that losing the Big East brand might not be a bad situation for football.

In terms of expectations for next year, pretty much every preview I have read has said the same thing: Louisville, Connecticut, Memphis, Cincinnati, and Temple will be good enough to make the league relevant.

From a historical perspective, that’s correct. Those are the five teams with the most NCAA tournament appearances and most basketball success. But I don’t think people have looked hard enough at Temple’s roster or considered who the Owls have coming back next year. Temple’s streak of six straight NCAA appearances is very much in doubt. More in a moment, but first, here are my lineup-based model’s projections for the American Conference:

Team

Proj CW

Proj CL

Proj Off

Proj Def

Last Off

Last Def

T100

Ret Min

Ret Poss

Louisville

15

3

115.4

87.4

118.9

83.1

8

70%

71%

Connecticut

14

4

115.7

92.1

108.5

94.2

5

93%

95%

Memphis

12

6

110.7

91.0

105.8

90.0

7

55%

59%

Cincinnati

10

8

104.0

91.4

104.2

88.7

2

60%

60%

SMU

7

11

105.6

98.0

98.3

100.2

3

90%

94%

UCF

7

11

106.6

99.5

105.1

102.6

1

79%

77%

Temple

7

11

103.1

96.8

110.2

97.4

1

31%

28%

Rutgers

6

12

106.0

99.8

105.9

99.7

4

40%

40%

Houston

6

12

110.0

104.2

105.9

107.2

2

80%

81%

USF

6

12

102.0

96.8

98.8

97.4

1

63%

63%

For an explanation of the column headings, click here.

Louisville: We all agree Louisville is a Final Four favorite and national title contender. But here is why I will still be watching the team in November and December.

1) I want to see how Rick Pitino replaces Gorgui Dieng in the middle.

Chane Behanan and Montrezl Harrell will probably be the best offensive post players on the team. But Pitino seemed reluctant to play Behanan at times last year against larger opponents (mainly Syracuse), and while Harrell is taller, he is no 7 footer. For defensive reasons it may be desirable to play either Akoy Agau and Mangok Mathiang in the post. That will probably lead to some growing pains offensively, but their defensive presence may make up for it. Finding the right balance of players should be interesting.

2) I want to see if Russ Smith can do it again.

Russ Smith was the kenpom.com player-of-the-year because of his amazing efficiency last season, but I think there are a lot of reasons to doubt he can repeat that. For starters, players that see big jumps in efficiency typically fall back slightly the next season. And Louisville had two of the bigger jumps in ORtg last year. Luke Hancock went from an ORtg of 114 to 121, and Smith went from an ORtg of 92 to 109. In both cases it was largely due to improved shooting. Whether that improved shooting is sustainable remains to be seen.

It is also possible that Smith might be less efficient, even if he isn’t a worse player. First, teams weren’t necessarily game-planning to stop Smith last summer. You can bet that UConn coach Kevin Ollie is getting out the tape and breaking down Smith’s weaknesses this off-season. For UConn to win a league title, they have to beat Louisville. And that means shutting down Smith.

Second, NBA scouts have made a big deal of the fact that Smith has to play point guard to make it to the NBA. I think this is a little silly. Smith has already proven he can create his own shot and create for other players. His assist rate is already above 20% which would make him the lead PG on a lot of teams. But it will be interesting to see if Smith has the ball more often in next year’s offense, and if he passes more. If he does pass more, will that lead to more turnovers or even better offense?

Certainly, Smith will not have to be the primary ball-handler with Terry Rozier and Chris Jones coming in. But I expect that Smith will want to look more like a PG this year.

Connecticut: Inefficient senior RJ Evans is gone. Enosch Wolf might be gone. But with basically everyone else back, the additions of George Washington transfer Lasan Kromah and borderline Top 100 forward Kentan Facey, everyone agrees Connecticut will be better than last year. The only question is how much better. My model is optimistic, in part because Kevin Ollie did well in his first year. Ollie took over a team decimated by unanticipated transfers and guided them to a winning record in the Big East.

If you think UConn needs a dominant forward to truly be considered a Top 25 squad, then you probably remain among the skeptics. But Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright are really the dream college backcourt at this point. They are aggressive, talented, and efficient. And having played together for two seasons, they have great chemistry with one another. With two players like that in the backcourt, UConn should be able to challenge for a league title.

Memphis: At this point Memphis has so much talent in the front-court that the addition of Top 100 center Dominic Woodson barely moved the needle.* Memphis jumped from 25th to 23rd in my model nationally. And there is no question that Memphis has a deeper and more talented lineup than Connecticut. They have talented seniors, a talented graduate transfer from George Washington named David Pellom, and five Top 100 recruits coming in. So why doesn’t my model have them higher? The answer is Josh Pastner. He has had talent before, but usually under-achieved.

Pastner’s team has been in the preseason Top 25 the last three seasons, ranked 19th, 11th, and 17th. But in terms of margin-of-victory, only one of the three years was a success. His teams finished 87th, 8th, and 40th in margin of victory those three years. His teams also never earned better than a 6-seed in those three NCAA tournaments. And his 0-11 record all-time against Top 25 teams is a symptom of those overall struggles. With a different coach, Memphis would likely be second in the projected standings.

*Note: It may seem puzzling why Woodson would de-commit from Baylor due to playing time concerns, but commit to a Memphis front-court where there are already 4 players likely to play a lot of minutes. But Woodson is the only true center joining Memphis’ squad. He has more weight and size than some of the other Memphis post players and will likely be better positioned to play right away. The reason Memphis’ projection doesn’t jump up more is because Woodson is mostly just taking minutes from a similar player.

Cincinnati: While Cincinnati was in most people’s preseason Top 25 rankings last season, I had serious questions. I noted that the front-court was likely to be well below-average. I didn’t get everything right, but I nailed that prediction.

Unfortunately, most of those players are back and Mick Cronin is left to rebuild around them. I particularly feel bad for Cronin’s relationship with Justin Jackson. Jackson has been an offensive liability his entire career. But he has always worked hard and Cronin seems reluctant to bench him. Last year Shaquille Thomas was inefficient too. David Nyarsuk shot a higher percentage, but he basically only shot when he had a wide-open lay-up. And Titus Rubles looked good for awhile, but he ended the season on a horrible streak. Rubles got above 1 point per possession just once in his final 13 games.

And if that isn’t bad enough, the team doesn’t have an obvious choice at PG next year. One of three unranked recruits will likely battle for that job. Sean Kilpatrick is back, but make no mistake, this is going to be an ugly offensive team.

Luckily, Mick Cronin has really found a niche as a strong defensive coach in recent years. Assuming he can keep that up, his team will be on the NCAA bubble. But there is no guarantee that they will make the field.

SMU: Last year SMU finished near the cellar of Conference-USA which is not a good sign. But keep in mind that SMU’s margin-of-victory numbers were better than their final record. They were 316th in “Luck” according to Kenpom.com. One factor that may have prevented them from winning close games is that the team was simply exhausted. SMU gave the fewest minutes to its bench of any D1 team. Larry Brown rode his five starters as much as he possibly could.

The great news is that those five starters are back and the team adds five players that should meaningfully improve the offense. The list includes three D1 transfers (Nic Moore from Illinois St., Markus Kennedy from Villanova, Crandall Head from Illinois), and a Top 10 JUCO player in Yanick Moreira. The team also adds Top 100 freshman Keith Frazier. With that kind of talent coming in and that kind of experience coming back, SMU should improve substantially on offense this season.

UCF: Star Keith Clanton is gone and that is a big loss. But basically everyone else is back, and with so many players returning the offense will probably be even better than last year. Isaah Sykes will be on many people’s preseason all-conference ballots. He has great size for the PG position and he is aggressive and efficient. Tristan Spurlock was a Top 100 recruit out of high school and he should continue to dominate in the paint. And Calvin Newell and Kasey Wilson bring a lot to the table too (Newell more on defense than on offense.) Add JUCO transfer Eugene McCrory and a bunch of rising sophomores, and UCF looks poised for another solid year.

The reason I cannot project them for the upper-echelons of the American Conference are the questions on defense. With so many of the same players coming back who couldn’t stop teams last year, it seems likely the team’s defense will not quite be NCAA tournament caliber.

Temple: I am assuming UMass transfer Jesse Morgan will not get eligible. Eric Angevine had a nice summary of this recently. Basically, it is going to take a lot for Morgan to play basketball this season. Of course if Dez Wells got kicked out of school and managed to land on another team immediately, anything is possible. For now, this projection assumes Morgan won’t play.

Looking at Temple’s rotation from last year, here is who is departing and who is returning.

ORtg, PctPoss, Player

Leaving

108, 32% Khalif Wyatt

116, 20% Jake O'Brien

106, 19% Scootie Randall

104, 19% Rahlir Hollis-Jefferson

122, 9% TJ Dileo

Returning

108, 20% Anthony Lee

95, 17% Will Cummings

89, 17% Dalton Pepper

86, 19% Quenton DeCosey

I love Anthony Lee as much as the next guy, but it doesn’t take any advanced math to realize that Temple is losing a bunch of efficient players and returning a bunch of inefficient players. Worse yet, Khalif Wyatt shot so much, opposing defenses were focused on him. If Cummings and Pepper were struggling to score with Wyatt on the floor, how efficient are they going to be when they are asked to take more shots this season?

Temple doesn’t have an instant-impact recruiting class to depend on either. There are no transfers and none of Temple’s incoming recruits are Top 100 recruits. In fact, only one current roster player, Dalton Pepper, was a Top 100 recruit out of high school. That isn’t that unusual for Fran Dunphy. Dunphy has made the tournament six years in a row and never had multiple Top 100 recruits on the roster.

But Dunphy isn’t superhuman. He has usually achieved that success by having a veteran team and relying on returning efficient players who he can develop into stars. That’s why most experts are willing to overlook Temple’s roster uncertainty. Dunphy has surprised us before, and it isn’t a stretch to think he will do it again.

But the difference is that Dunphy has never lost this much production in one year. In his previous seven years at Temple, Dunphy has always welcomed back over 50% of the team’s minutes from the year before. This year he welcomes back just 31% of his team’s minutes. And losing Wyatt means the team returns just 28% of its offensive possessions. And as noted in the table, these are low efficiency players that are returning.

Dunphy might still surprise us. But on paper, this is clearly the worst team in Dunphy’s tenure. Even in the A-10, my model would have pegged them for a disappointing season.

Rutgers: Rutgers hasn’t received any good news in awhile, but the recent additions of transfers Kerwin Okoro and JJ Moore was a huge development. Unlike Morgan, both will be filing for fairly normal family illness immediate eligibility waivers and I’ve assumed both requests are granted.

Moore is an extremely under-rated player.  At Pitt he almost never turned the ball over despite being an aggressive inside scorer. He has shot over 50% every year in his entire career, raised his free throw percentage to 81% last season, and his career ORtgs are 108, 109, and 120. That’s the kind of smart effective player Rutgers has usually been missing on its roster.

Also, despite all the crazy transfers this off-season, Myles Mack did not depart. Mack was easily the most efficient player on the roster last year, and almost certainly the team’s MVP.

Combine Mack, Moore, a pair of JUCO guards, and hope that Kadeem Jack and Wally Judge start living up to their high potential and Rutgers might actually have a starting lineup that can compete with the better teams in the league.

But if anything goes wrong, it is going to be a total disaster. There is no depth. (That is literally true now, but assuming Jordan signs a few players before the end of the summer, they will likely only be 2 star recruits who cannot be expected to contribute as freshmen.) You can’t mention names like Malick Kone or Greg Lewis and expect to win in this league. It just isn’t feasible.

Houston: Let’s just get this out of the way. The model hates Houston’s defense. 269th in the nation is just embarrassing. Worse yet, Houston’s defense has pretty much always been at that level under James Dickey.

Now if this team gets you a little excited, particularly with elite recruit Chicken Knowles finally becoming eligible, I get that. In fact, the model above pegs them as the fourth best offense in the conference.

Lineup-wise, the only weakness is PG, but that is probably a little deceiving. Dickey’s offense doesn’t take many threes, and the pressure to get the ball into the paint contributes to an above average TO rate for any ball-handler. But obviously, if you can get the ball to a front-court of Knowles, TaShawn Thomas, and Danuel House, good things will happen. And that has meant in the rare occasions when off-guards Joseph Young and Jherrod Stiggers do shoot threes, they are usually wide open. Really, I’m excited about this team. They just need to realize you have to play both ends of the court.

USF: One player had an ORtg over 100 last year so Stan Health decided to start from scratch. In a new league where even a bad team will have more chances to win, he is going all in with six freshmen, led by Top 100 recruit John Egbunu. That should pay off someday, just not this year.

Slim Margins

One of the things that stood out in Lance Armstrong’s interview with Oprah Winfrey was how he rationalized doping under a “win at all costs” mentality. As a sports fan, it is hard not to slip into that mentality at times. In the end, you want your opponent’s best player to foul out. You want your opponent to miss their free throws. You want things to break your team’s way. You don’t just root for your team to be good, you root for them to be lucky too.

(After all, almost no one wins a national title without a few breaks along the way. This is the reason Arizona’s streak of beating three #1 seeds in the 1997 tournament remains so special. Almost everyone gets lucky and faces a few weaker teams at some point.)

But I also think it is fair to say that the more sports one watches, the more important it is to not just win, but to also win the right way.

For example, there is nothing more frustrating in college basketball then when a player gets hit with an elbow and exaggerates their reaction. It is perfectly smart to do so, because any elbow is an automatic flagrant foul, two free throws and the ball. But if a team wins or pulls away in a game because of this call, especially when the elbow contact was incidental, it certainly feels wrong.

Similarly, if a team wins after a bank-shot, that is less satisfying. (The Arizona – Colorado game from Jan. 3 might have been the first time that neither team could pick up a truly satisfying win. Colorado would have won the game with a banked shot at the end. But instead, Arizona won in OT when the refs waived off the shot, breaking the NCAA rule about indisputable video evidence in the process.)

This is also why so many fans find Kentucky’s recent success so frustrating. They view it as unseemly to recruit so many one-and-done players. Whether anyone proves John Calipari has done something wrong recruiting players to Kentucky is not the point. For many people, the perception will always be that his style is not the right way to win.

And that is why Gonzaga vs Butler on Saturday night was the perfect summary of what people feel is right about college basketball. The game was being playing in Indiana, where the movie Hoosiers defined team sport. And the game featured two programs that define winning the right way. Neither team wins by engaging in ugly recruiting battles. Both teams have done a fabulous job graduating four year players. And despite offers to coach in BCS leagues, both coaches have chosen to stay with their programs. Both coaches have realized that there is more to sports than just trying to maximize money and maximize their ability to recruit NBA draft picks.

And of course with this backdrop, it was the ultimate hustle play that decided the game. Butler’s 6’4” Roosevelt Jones had been defending Gonzaga’s 7’0” Kelly Olynyk all day. Jones had even blocked an Olynyk shot down the stretch (which sort of defies the laws of physics). And on the games ultimate play, Jones fought for space, stole the ball from Olynyk, and drove for the game-winning shot.

Sure, maybe in a few years, we’ll be complaining about how Brad Stevens teams do not win the right way. We’ll say they mug teams and ruin the game of basketball. (And if you watch the steal in slow-motion, Gonzaga fans may have reason to be upset about the contact that preceded that steal.) But for now, the world will continue to view it another way. An under-sized player made the ultimate hustle play leading to his team’s upset win. It was just two points, but it symbolized so much more.

One other game note: I loved the similarity between these two teams. With 1:24 and 24 seconds left in the game, the two teams scored on plays that were mirror images of one another. With 1:24 remaining, Kelly Olynyk backed Roosevelt Jones deeper into the lane and sealed off a crease for Elias Harris to drive for a lay-up. Then with 24 seconds left, Butler ran the exact same play.  Andrew Smith backed Olynyk into the paint allowing Alex Barlow to drive for a lay-up. With two teams this evenly matched, you cannot make this stuff up.

There are plenty of things worth discussing after this weekend. Is this the first time North Carolina looked like a Top 25 team? Did Washington’s home loss to Utah prove that the Huskies fast Pac-12 start was fool’s gold? Has Florida St. finally hit rock bottom after scoring 36 points against Virginia? And there were lots of critical injuries that deserve more examination. What has happened to Missouri without Laurence Bowers? But that analysis (particularly the injury numbers) will be saved for another week.

On a Saturday with 154 games and numerous dramatic endings, I am going to stick to the action. And with so many games coming down to the wire, I am not even going to have time to recount the drama of Texas leading Kansas, or Connecticut nearly coming back against Pittsburgh. Today I am only going to focus on games decided by the slimmest of margins.

Quantity leads to Quality

-Rutgers has never started 4-2 in Big East play, but they had a chance on Saturday. After a driving lay-up by Rutger’s Eli Carter cut the lead to one point, Rutger’s Mike Poole tied up Notre Dame’s Eric Atkins. The possession arrow favored the Scarlet Knights, and that meant that Rutgers had a chance to win the game. Rutgers once again fed Eli Carter, but this time Carter over-penetrated, was called for an offensive foul for running over Notre Dame’s Scott Martin, and Carter saw his shot blocked away by Notre Dame’s Jack Cooley for good measure. And Rutgers once again failed to achieve a 4-2 market in conference play.

-I’m going to continue to curse the limited television distribution of the Pac-12 Network by pointing out this one stat. In the Oregon St. vs USC game, the lead changed hands 8 times in the final 2:52 of the game. Aaron Fuller gave USC the lead for the last time with 5 seconds left.

-In an nearly equally dramatic game, Texas A&M’s Fabyon Harris hit a jump shot to give the Aggies a one point lead with 19 seconds left, but Alabama’s Trevor Lacey hit an even tougher jumper to retake the lead seconds later.

-And what about what happened in Blacksburg, Virginia? Virginia Tech’s Marquis Rankin, Wake Forests’s Travis McKie, and Virginia Tech’s Robert Brown all hit shots to give their team the lead in the final 45 seconds. And then it looked like Wake Forest would take the lead one more time. Wake placed its shooters on the left side of the floor, and using a rub-screen, Wake Forest’s CJ Harris seemed to have a wide-open drive for a lay-up. But several Virginia Tech players drove in defensively at the last minute which caused Harris to miss the lay-up. And when Wake Forest’s Tyler Cavanaugh missed the put-back, Virginia Tech held on for a one point win. (I still cannot believe Wake Forest didn’t make either the first lay-up or the put-back.)

-And failures were common in other games. Trailing Nebraska by two points at home, Penn St.’s Jermaine Marshall missed two free throws with 16 seconds left and Nebraska hung on for the narrow victory.

-Trailing Michigan St. by two with 30 seconds left, Ohio St.’s DeShaun Thomas missed a three, and the Spartans hung on to win. Ohio St. stayed in the game by hitting ten threes, including six by Thomas, but despite 28 from Thomas on the day, he couldn’t hit the go-ahead shot.

-Creighton’s Ethan Wragge had two three point shots to tie in the final seconds against Wichita St., but missed both. A lot of people are going to criticize Creighton for not getting Doug McDermott the ball in those situations, but Wragge has shot over 40% from beyond the arc as a freshmen, sophomore, and junior, and he already has 46 threes this season. Wragge certainly was not a bad choice for the last second shot.

-Meanwhile, Georgetown’s Otto Porter had 21 in the game, but lost control of the ball in the final seconds, and didn’t get off a shot while his team trailed by one at South Florida. Porter’s turnover allowed the Bulls earned their first Big East win on the season.

-And so it would appear that the rule was that hot shooters were not the place to go late in the game. But that wasn’t the case in Cincinnati where Cincinnati’s Sean Kilpatrick drove coast to coast at the end of overtime to break the tie and give his team the narrow win. Kilpatrick had 36 in the game in leading all scorers. Marquette came back after shooting 18% in the first half to score 50 in the second half, but even Davante’s Gardner’s old fashioned three point play at the end of overtime was not enough for Marquette thanks to Kilpatrick’s heroics.

Quality leads to Quality

Without question the endings were magical on Saturday. And I’ve often said that college basketball’s best asset is the sheer number of games, not the elite matchups. But just to make sure there was a cherry on top, Saturday’s featured game lived up to the hype too.

#6 Syracuse travelled to #1 Louisville for one of two meetings between the Big East favorites. Syracuse had won two of the last three Big East regular season titles and had won 26 of their last 27 Big East regular season games. The Orange featured possibly more depth in the front-court than any team in the nation, and by playing their traditional zone defense, they once again had a top five defensive team.

But if anyone was going to challenge Syracuse for the Big East crown, Louisville looked like the perfect candidate. The Cardinals went to the Final Four last season and had the best Points Per Possession (PPP) defense in the nation heading into Saturday’s game. But what was making Louisville into the possible Big East favorite was the emergence of Russ Smith. The former inconsistent sixth man had emerged as the Cardinal’s surprise national-player-of-the-year candidate by increasing his scoring average from 11 PPG to 19 PPG, increasing his shooting percentage, maintaining his incredible steal rate, and by continuing to pass the ball at a special rate for a score-first player. Clearly Saturday’s matchup had Final Four implications.

And the game started strong. For most of the first half on Saturday, it seemed like Louisville’s system might be Syracuse’s kryptonite. While Syracuse’s zone defense is as good as ever, by forcing 11 first half turnovers and pushing the ball in transition, Louisville was attacking the basket before Syracuse even had a chance to set up their zone. And when Louisville was forced into half-court situations, Louisville’s Gorgui Dieng emerged as the perfect zone beater. Dieng’s passing from the top of the key led to several beautiful lay-ups and dunks. Meanwhile Louisville was also using shot-fakes and other aggressive plays to drive the ball and carve up the zone in a way few teams had done this season.

But as well as Louisville was playing, Brandon Triche had every answer. The Syracuse guard put his team on his back making 8 of 8 first half shots including 4 of 4 shots from beyond the arc. I have never been a huge fan of Triche because I feel like people always mischaracterize his game. People raved about his point-guard play early in his career, but running an offense has never been his best trait. But now with freshman Michael Carter-Williams emerging as the team’s clear PG, Triche is free to become the elite scorer he was always meant to be. And on Saturday, by driving to the basket, and knocking down open threes in transition, Triche proved why fans have been praising him for all these years. Triche put his team on his back and refused to let Syracuse fall behind. Despite Louisville playing a seemingly perfect first half, the game was tied at 38 at the intermission.

And then in the second half, Triche’s teammates picked him up. Michael Carter-Williams started taking better care of the ball, Syracuse started forcing turnovers and blocking shots (even when Louisville made beautiful post-feeds), and in the final minute Syracuse had the lead. It wasn’t that Louisville had played poorly. Other than Louisville’s Peyton Siva missing some shots he normally makes (threes from the top of the key), Louisville never played flawed basketball.  But with time running down, Siva’s bad pass that led to a transition basket, and then a tough Dieng turnover under the basket, proved the difference in Louisville’s two point loss.

Syracuse now has the early lead in the Big East title race, but this game confirmed that both teams are legitimate Final Four contenders. Dieng’s passing and Triche’s scoring showed that if these teams continue to develop at a high rate, the top of the Big East may be better than we imagined.

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Yet Another College Basketball Column (Feb. 21st)

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