Kentucky’s Roller Coaster Coming to an End

2 Apr

When practice started in October there was a lot of talk about how John Calipari was trying to repeat his 2012 success at Kentucky with his 2014 team.  That 2012 team was led by freshmen Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Terrence Jones and Marquis Teague and won the national title.  This year’s edition is led by Julius Randle, Andrew and Aaron Harrison and James Young finds itself in the Final Four, but it wasn’t an easy ride.

The Kentucky season has been a roller coaster which seems a little funny to say for a team that is 28-10.  During the pre-season and the non-conference portion of the schedule the hype for the expectations for the team were extremely high after a 13-3 start with the three losses coming at the hands of nationally-ranked Michigan State, Baylor and North Carolina by an average of just 4.6 points.

When SEC play began expectations and excitement for the team was tempered a bit when they were swept by Arkansas and lost to LSU and South Carolina.  Talk then turned to the fact that the 2012 team had veteran leadership in Darius Miller and Doron Lamb that the 2014 team doesn’t have.  Jarrod Paulson is the only upperclassman to be in the top 10 on the team in minutes at just 8.7 minutes per game.  The other nine consists of seven freshmen and just two sophomores in Willie Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress.

After a 61-60 loss to Florida in the SEC title game and defeating three of last season’s Final Four participants, #1 seed and undefeated Wichita State and 2013 title-game combatants Louisville and Michigan the thought that this team could repeat the success of 2012.

The freshmen on this team seem to be gelling at the right time.   Randle, Young and the Harrisons are growing up into more than freshmen right in front of the eyes of the college basketball world.  The growth could be seen in their 75-72 win over Michigan in the Midwest Regional final that saw the Wildcats play seven freshmen, with just Poythress being the only non-first-year player to see the floor.  Big man Cauley-Stein missed the game due to injury but that allowed freshman Marcus Lee to play a season-high 15 minutes (he had played a total of 16 minutes since Feb. 4th) and contribute 10 points and a season-high eight rebounds in the game that saw Aaron Harrison hit a game-winning three pointer with 2.3 seconds to play.

There have been may peaks and valleys in Kentucky’s season.  Just like a roller coaster they are at the peak of a climb and with two more wins they will all be screaming at the top of the lungs as the ride comes to an end.

What a Difference a Year Makes

2 Apr

What a difference a year makes.  Last year at this time the Connecticut Huskies were sitting at home watching post-season play due to a post-season ban.   Now Coach Kevin Ollie and his crew prepare to take on Florida at the Final Four in his hometown of Dallas.

I was there in Storrs for the first day of practice this season and it was clear rebounding would probably be the biggest factor in Connecticut’s success this season.   Ollie wanted the team to have a positive rebounding margin but wouldn’t put specific goals on the team, “why limit them?” he said.

Senior Niels Giffey told me, “We have to step it up. We have a bigger line up, a couple more bodies that will help but in the end it is all mental.”  The bodies he was referring to was 6-6 George Washington transfer Lasan Kromah and 7-0 freshmen Amida Brimah from Ghana.  Brimah had a productive stat line of four points, three rebounds and over two blocks per game in just 16 minutes of playing time.

While they did end up with a slightly positive rebound margin at .4 they did increase their rebounding from 33 to 35 per game that includes 25.26 defensive rebounds per game 72nd in the country.  The 6-1 All-American guard Shabazz Napier is tied for the team lead in rebounding with 6-9 DeAndre Daniels at 5.9 per game.

Napier increased his rebounding by 1.5 a game up from 4.4 last season.  Daniels, Giffey and guard Ryan Boatwright all increased their rebounding over last season, buying into the gang rebounding mindset the team needed for the Huskies to succeed.

Connecticut was talented but no one knew what kind of season they could have, Napier said,”I expect us to continue to push ourselves and strive to be the best team we can be.”  So far they certainly have, finishing the regular season at 24-7 which included a 65-64 win over their opponent on Saturday, Florida. They made a trip to the American Athletic Conference Tournament finals where they fell to Louisville and dispatched St. Joseph’s, Villanova, Iowa State and Michigan State on their way to Dallas.

The current run by the Huskies is giving their fans fond memories of 2011 when the team finished the season on an 11-game winning streak and winning the national championship led by another dynamic guard in Kemba Walker.  As soon as the Big East Tournament began, Walker to over propelling Connecticut to five wins in five days for a conference title then a six-game run to the NCAA title.

During their run Napier is doing his best Walker impression by averaging 23.3 points, six rebounds and 4.5 rebounds per game.  Those kind of numbers will have to on Saturday if Connecticut hopes to knock off the tournament’s #1 overall seed in the Gators.  What a difference a year makes indeed.

Big Brothers Big Sisters Should Sponsor Sweet 16

26 Mar

Everything these days has a sponsor.  Everywhere you look a logo is plastered somewhere or an event is now called the XYZ Open presented by ABC.  Perhaps this year the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament should be sponsored by Big Brothers Big Sisters.  There are a plethora of sibling storylines coming out of the second week of the tournament.

The most high profile of these storylines is on the sidelines with brothers Sean and Archie Miller as they take their teams into the Sweet 16.    Sean leads #1 Arizona into Anaheim for a matchup with #4 San Diego State and younger brother Archie heads a somewhat surprising #11 Dayton team into a matchup of double-digit seeds when they face #10 Stanford in Memphis tomorrow.    The elder Miller began his career as a point guard at the University of Pittsburgh in the late 1980s.  He then paid his coaching dues at Wisconsin, Miami (OH), N.C. State as well as his alma mater before moving onto Xavier.  At Xavier he served as an assistant under Thad Matta for three seasons before taking over when Matta left for Ohio State.  Miller was then promoted to head coach where he guided the Musketeers for five years leading them to four NCAA Tournaments and an Elite Eight appearance in 2008.  He then took his current job at Arizona taking over for the legendary Lute Olson.  Now in his 5th year at Arizona Miller has the Wildcats positioned as a national title contender.

Younger brother Archie played collegiately at N.C. State and served as an assistant there as well as at Western Kentucky, Arizona State, Ohio State and under his brother at Arizona before becoming the head man at Dayton in 2011.  In his first season Dayton made the NIT and now Miller has the Flyers in the Sweet 16 since 1983-84 when they made the Elite Eight.

On the floor there are a pair of twin brothers that have found their way to the Sweet 16.  First at UCLA, senior forwards Travis and David Wear will help the Bruins take on #1 Florida in Memphis tomorrow and freshmen Aaron and Andrew Harrison and #8 Kentucky, after defeating previously unbeaten Wichita State will do battle with in-state rival #4 Louisville in Indianapolis on Friday.

The Wear brothers, California natives began their college careers at North Carolina in 2009 before transferring to UCLA after one season.  In their final season the Wears, who are averaging a combined 13.5 points and seven rebounds have finally been able to experience victory in the NCAA Tournament after losing their first game last season.

Aaron Harrison along with twin brother Andrew were considered top recruits  coming out of high school and both ended up at Kentucky  in a star-studded recruiting class.  With such a young team the Wildcats struggled at times to live up to the hype.  They certainly did however in a 78-76 win over #1 Wichita State in one of the best NCAA Tournament games in recent memory.  The Harrison brothers combined for 39 points in the win.  The Pecan Grove, Texas natives have stepped up their play averaging a combined 32 points in the tournament.

The final storyline comes from a player on the court, Dayton’s Devin Oliver and a fan in the stands, his sister Miya.  Miya, who has down syndrome has been Oliver’s biggest fan and he hers.  She can be seen at nearly all Flyer games cheering as loud as she can for her brother.   She says that Devin, who is averaging 11.5 points and 7.5 rebounds for the Flyers, has taught her how to play basketball, a sport she competes in for the Special Olympics and Devin says Miya’s passion is so wonderful because it is so genuine.  So as Dayton prepares to take on Stanford in Memphis tomorrow you can bet the UD cheering section will be led by Oliver’s biggest fan.

The bond between siblings will be very prevalent as the Sweet 16 kicks off tomorrow.  Who knows if any of them will make it to Dallas and the Final Four but someone should get Big Brothers Big Sisters on the phone, this has marketing genius written all over it.

Could Shaka Smart Be the Next Coach of Marquette?

24 Mar

Could VCU’s Shaka Smart be the next head coach at Marquette?  Some think it is likely, which is surprising considering Smart passed on openings at Illinois and UCLA among others.

The Golden Eagles have an opening because long-time coach Buzz Williams left for Virginia Tech. Reached for comment SID Scott Day declined to comment saying, “we have no comment at this time.”

Read that however you like, perhaps it says a lot. We have been unable to reach Marquette for comment.

Stay tuned.

Update: Craig McKee of WISN 12 in Milwaukee tweeted this just after 5:00pm

Key Stats for All 2nd Round Games

20 Mar

East

1.Virginia vs. 16. Coastal Carolina

Virginia is 8th in field goal percentage defense (38.5%) and Coastal Carolina shoots 43.8% 197th in the country.

8. Memphis vs. 9. George Washington

George Washington shoots the 3 at 36.9% while Memphis is 28th best at defending it at 30.8%

5. Cincinnati vs. 12. Harvard

Harvard shoots at 46.7% and Cincinnati at just 42.7%

4. Michigan State vs. 13. Delaware

Michigan State gives up 65.3 points per game and Delaware scores 79.5

6. North Carolina vs. 11. Providence

Providence commits 11.6 turnovers per game and North Carolina averages 15.6 assist a game.

3.Iowa State vs. 14. North Carolina Central

Iowa State is 6th in the country in scoring at 82.9 and North Carolina Central is 7th in defense at 58.5 points per game.

7. Connecticut vs. 10. St. Joseph’s

Connecticut shoots 44.8% and St. Joseph’s is 33rd in defensive rebounding at 26.1 a game

2. Villanova vs. 15. Milwaukee

Villanova scores 78.5 points per game and Milwaukee allows 70.5

 

West

1.Arizona vs.  16. Weber State

Arizona is 5th in points allowed at 58.1 and Weber State is 20th in field goal percentage at 48.1%

8. Gonzaga vs. 9. Oklahoma State

Gonzaga is 5th in the country in field goal at 49.8% and Oklahoma State is 16th in the country in points per game at 80.3

5. Oklahoma vs.  12. North Dakota State

Oklahoma scores 82.2 a game and gives up 75.9. North Dakota State is the top shooting team in the country 50.9%

4. San Diego State vs. 13. New Mexico State

New Mexico State is 7th in the country in blocks with 6.3 and San Diego State has 5.2

6. Baylor vs.  11. Nebraska

Nebraska struggles rebounding with 33.4 and Baylor is 24th at 38.7 a game

3.Creighton vs. 14. Louisiana

Both teams like to score, Louisiana at 81.4 and Creighton at 79.5 points a game

7. Oregon vs. 10. BYU

Both teams score a ton (top 11) of points but also give them up.  BYU allows 77 and Oregon gives up 74.

2. Wisconsin vs. 15. American

American is 7th in field goal percentage at 49.5% but scores just 63.9 points and Wisconsin gives up 64.6.

Midwest

1.Wichita State vs. 16. Cal Poly

Cal Poly is 319th in field goal percentage at  41% and Wichita State is 11th in the country in points allowed at 59.6

8. Kentucky vs. 9. Kansas State

Kentucky has a huge rebounding edge 41.3 to Kansas State’s 36

5. St. Louis vs. 12. N.C. State

Where St. Louis has the edge is on defense.  Both teams average about 70 points per game but the Billikens give up just 61.2 while N.C. State surrenders 69.2

4. Louisville vs. 13. Manhattan

Louisville is 2nd in the country in steals at 10.1 and Manhattan commits 14.2 turnovers per game.

6. Massachusetts vs. 11. Tennessee

These two teams match up well with UMass 23rd in defensive rebounds per game (26.4) and Tennessee 20th in total rebounding at 38.8 per game

3. Duke vs. 14. Mercer

Mercer is 25th in defensive rebounding at 26.3 and duke is 272nd at just 22.5

7. Texas vs. 10. Arizona State

Arizona State is 1th in defensive rebounding with 27.2 and Texas is 4th in rebounding at 41.8

2. Michigan vs. 15. Wofford

Both teams struggle to rebound, Wofford at 33.3 and Michigan at an even worse 31.9

South

1. Florida vs. 16. Albany

Albany is 287th in scoring at 66 a game and Florida gives up just 57.9 3rd in the country.

8. Colorado vs. 9. Pittsburgh

Colorado shoots 43.7% and Pittsburgh allows just 62.4 points per game

5. VCU vs. 12. Stephen F. Austin

VCU is first in the country in steals at 11 and Stephen F. Austin allows 62.6 points per game.

4. UCLA vs. 13. Tulsa

UCLA averages 9.4 steals per game and Tulsa turns the ball over 11.5 times a game.

6. Ohio State vs. 11. Dayton

Dayton shoots 46.6% from the field and Ohio State is 159th in defensive rebounding at 24 per game.

3. Syracuse vs. 14. Western Michigan

Western Michigan shoots just 33.2% from 3-point land and 46.6% overall and Syracuse struggles defensive rebounding with just 22.1 per game

7. New Mexico vs. 10. Stanford

Both teams are not very good offensive rebounding teams, Stanford grabs 9.67 a game and New Mexico is at 10.64

2. Kansas vs. 15. Eastern Kentucky

Kansas allows teams to shoot 35.9% from 3-point range and Eastern Kentucky shoots it at 39% from 3.

Quick Regional Thoughts

18 Mar

EAST

 

Best 2nd round game:

#7 Connecticut vs. #10 Saint Joseph’s.  The Huskies led by All-American guard Shabazz Napier take on one of the hotter teams in the country in Saint Joseph’s.  The Hawks led by Langston Galloway and big man Halil Kanacevic took out VCU in the Atlantic 10 final.

Best potential 3rd round game:

#1 Virginia vs. #8 Memphis.  The top-seeded Cavaliers calling card is defense, they are the #1 defensive team in the country.  A potential 3rd round match up with the athletic  Memphis Tigers could be an interesting dichotomy of styles.

 

Most dangerous double-digit seed:

In the East the most dangerous double-digit seed has to be the 3-time defending Ivy League champs Harvard.  The #12 Crimson have experience having defeated New Mexico in the 2nd round last season and a large majority of that squad returns including point guard Siyani Chambers.

 

Dream Regional Final:

#3 Iowa State vs. #4 Michigan State.  The typical heavy banging Big Ten team in Michigan State against Fred Hoiberg’s high-octane offense for a trip to the Final Four would be fun.  Guard Keith Appling facing off against stat-stuffer DeAndre Kane of the Cyclones is just one intriguing in-game match up.

 

WEST

Best 2nd round game:

#8 Gonzaga vs. #9 Oklahoma State.  The Zags while not as dangerous in past years are a tough match up for the Cowboys because of their ability to dominate in the frontcourt with the likes of Sam Dower.  Oklahoma State, despite falling to Kansas in the Big 12 tournament has found a bit of a groove since star Marcus Smart returned from suspension.

Best potential 3rd round game:

#7 Oregon vs. #2 Wisconsin.  Bo Ryan’s Wisconsin team has a little more offense than in past years, but if they meet up with Oregon how they handle the stretch ability of Mike Moser and Jason Calliste.  Another game with teams that want to play at different tempos.

 

Most dangerous double-digit seed:

I’m going to go with the 12th seeded North Dakota State Bison.  NDSU will be in their game for because of their top-ten field goal percentage and forward Marshall Bjorklund who led the country in that category last season.  The Summit League Player of the Year Taylor Huff can really score and that duo could spell trouble for Oklahoma.

 

Dream Regional Final:

#1 Arizona vs. #3 Creighton.   The Top Cats trying to get to the Final Four going against a team led by the guy who is now 5th all-time in scoring in his collegiate swan song, Doug McDermott.

 

 

MIDWEST

Best 2nd round game:

#3 Duke vs. #14 Mercer.  We all know what the Blue Devils have in terms of talent on the court and on the bench but Mercer comes from the same conference as Florida Gulf Coast and guard Langston Hall can really score and the Bears think they are capable of repeating FGCU’s success.

Best potential 3rd round game:

#1 Wichita State vs. #8 Kentucky.  The undefeated Shockers will potentially get a shot at one of the sports blue bloods.  The Wildcats are young but super talented and the Wichita State detractors want to know what they will do against elite competition, here’s their chance.

 

Most dangerous double-digit seed:

Don’t sleep on #10 Arizona State led by point guard Jahii Carson who has the ability to score with anyone in the country and big man Jordan Bachynski.

 

Dream Regional Final:

#2 Michigan vs. # 4 Louisville.  Different teams but a potential national championship game rematch looms for the Cardinals and the Wolverines.

 

 

 

SOUTH

Best 2nd round game:

#5 VCU vs. #12 Stephen F. Austin.  Shaka Smart’s havoc that has taken the Rams to a Final Four appearance will take on one of the nation’s best defensive teams and hottest teams in the country in the Lumberjacks of Stephen F. Austin out of the Southland Conference.  The Lumberjacks are 31-2 and have won 28 in a row.

Best potential 3rd round game:

#2 Kansas vs. #7 New Mexico.  The Jayhawks are young and talented but without freshman big man Joel Embiid who may not play due to back issues they may have trouble with the New Mexico frontcourt of Alex Kirk and All-Mountain West forward Cameron Bairstow.  Add to that duo guard Kendall Williams who can torch the nets, Kansas is going to have to battle to make it out of the first weekend.

 

Most dangerous double-digit seed:

Like I said above #12 Stephen F. Austin can really defend and having won28 straight the Lumberjacks have a chance to throw a bit of a wrench into the South Region.

 

Dream Regional Final:

#1 Florida vs. #3 Syracuse.  This year’s edition of the Gators rely less on the 3-point shot than they have in the past and a meeting with the best zone defense in the country in Syracuse would be fun to watch.  How would Florida attack the zone?  Attack the seams or shoot their way out of it?

Mediocre Bubble Adds to Unpredictability

4 Mar

Selection Sunday is less than two weeks away and still there is much unsettled about what the bracket will look like on March 16.  The top line of the bracket is still somewhat up in the air with Florida, Kansas, Wichita State, Syracuse and Arizona likely battling for the top seeds.

The middle of the bracket is even cloudier than the top line.  Teams currently being placed on lines 2-11 haven’t done much to set themselves apart from each other.  I’m not talking about the stats the selection committee will pore over when bracketing teams, I’m talking about the eye test.  Very few of these teams in my opinion look much different when watching them play.  A couple of examples of what I mean, on a neutral court do you pick Wisconsin or Harvard? What about Villanova or Gonzaga?  Well in ESPN’s latest bracketology Wisconsin and Villanova are 2-seeds while Harvard is 12 and Gonzaga a 9 seed.  Over at CBS Sports we run into the same issue, is Oklahoma a 4-seed six lines better than 10th seeded Xavier?

Another factor that is muddying up the waters is the fact that unlike previous seasons there are only a couple of mid-major teams that are on the fringe of an-at large bid should they slip up in their conference tournament.  Toledo out of the Mid-American conference at 24-5 and Stephen F. Austin from the Southland at 27-2 seem to be the only two teams that would garner at-large consideration from a mid-major conference.

While the bracket may be littered with mediocrity, the evenness of the teams may prove to be a blessing.  With such a wide variance on such a large number of teams the unpredictability of the tournament could be even more evident, and that should be good news for all of us watching.

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