It Is Time for Syracuse to Challenge Themselves Before January

29 Nov

It is time once again for me to talk about one of my pet peeves, scheduling.  At all levels of college basketball teams schedule in different ways.  Some schedule tough, some schedule light and some are in between, scheduling tough games while giving their teams a chance to gain some confidence against lesser opponents.  But how that scheduling is viewed not only depends on who you are but it also depends on when it is looked at.  That is to say the narrative when it comes to scheduling in November is different than the ones we will hear about the same schedules in March, at least for some.

I want to look at three teams specifically, two notoriously have very difficult non-conference schedules, one is a mid-major the other is an upper echelon program and an high major team that likes to schedule lesser opponents in the non-conference.

Long Beach State has had a history of scheduling in a manner that says, if we don’t win our conference tournament we want a shot at an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.  They do that by scheduling as many high-major programs as possible.  Now the other side of that coin is you have to win your fair share of those games, but you can’t win them if you don’t schedule them.  Last season the 49ers played Byu, Seton Hall, Virginia, Oklahoma State (twice), UCLA, San Diego State, Oregon, Arizona and Duke before conference play began.  This season LBSU currently has the 20th toughest non-conference schedule in the country having already played Wichita State, North Carolina, Louisville and Washington with match ups with Kansas and Texas on the horizon.  Scheduling like this as a mid-major does a number of things.  It gives your team a shot at an NCAA Tournament bid if you can win a few of these games and happen to not win your conference tournament, it assures your team is battle tested heading into conference play and for a team like Long Beach State a win or two of that caliber does wonders for the program as a whole in terms of recruiting and branding of the program.

One school that doesn’t have to worry about any of those things is Michigan State.  Hall of Fame coach Tom Izzo is always willing to play anyone anywhere in the non-conference schedule and I would argue it is part of the reason he and his teams are so successful in March, they have already experienced anything that could be thrown at them.  Izzo schedules so tough that this past week he actually apologized to his team for that schedule, a schedule that has seen them play Arizona, Kentucky, Wichita State, Baylor and tonight Duke.  Izzo said he hasn’t left much time for his team to practice and gel and that is his fault.  But come tournament time his teams will be praised for their preparation and the time from November to January will be a big reason why.

The other end of the scheduling spectrum comes when a high-major team uses its already built in conference schedule to pad its tournament resume so much that their successful but weak non-conference schedule gets overshadowed.  Historically one program has been the poster child for this strategy and that is the Syracuse Orange.  Seeing Syracuse leave the state of New York, whether for a neutral site game or a true road game before January is a bit like seeing Haley’s Comet every 87 years.  For reference since joining the ACC for the 2013-14 season Syracuse has played a total of 10 road/neutral games outside of New York (with two being true road games not part of the ACC/Big 10 Challenge, at Georgetown and at Villanova).  By contrast Michigan State has played a total of 20 such games outside of Michigan in the same time period with three true road games at Texas, Notre Dame and Northeastern). Also by contrast the highest mid-major team in terms of strength of schedule right now is Florida at 6th and they play more true road games in December (3) at North Florida, Duke and Florida State as Syracuse has in four years and as many as Michigan State in that time. So Syracuse loads up on lesser opponents before January and come March people say, well look they won 23-24 games and played an ACC schedule.  That last part is the key, they played an ACC schedule, and they have no choice but to play Duke, North Carolina, Virginia, Louisville, etc. twice a season.  The likes of Long Beach State don’t have that luxury.

My peeve is if Florida and Michigan State can do it why doesn’t Syracuse instead of resting on the laurels of a built-in schedule year after year.  It certainly doesn’t seem to hurt those teams in March.

The Big East is off to a Big Start

23 Nov

The Big East boasts the defending national champion, but at least early on they are proving that the conference is much more than the Villanova Wildcats.  The top five teams in the conference; the aforementioned Wildcats, Creighton, Xavier, Butler and Seton Hall have raced out to a combined 22-0 record including wins over the likes of Wisconsin, N.C. State, Purdue, Clemson, Iowa and Northern Iowa.

The Wildcats, currently ranked 2nd in the country are 5-0 including a three-point victory over #15 Purdue in a true road game.  Villanova is averaging over 80 points per game and are led by a quartet of players, two seniors and two sophomores averaging double figures.  Seniors Kris Jenkins and Josh Hart are averaging nearly 32 points per game led by Hart’s 19.2.  Sophomores Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges are chipping in 24.4 points and 8.6 rebounds per contest.  As the season goes on Fordham transfer Eric Paschall should have even more of an impact than the 8.8 points he is averaging right now.  One question going forward for Jay Wright’s squad may be depth as of now only two other players, Phil Booth and Daryl Reynolds have appeared in all five games.  But Villanova is just one of three teams that have started out 5-0.

The 12th ranked Creighton Bluejays are also 5-0 with wins over N.C. State and #9 Wisconsin and are averaging a scorching 93.8 points per game and 19.6 assists per game both good for 16th in the country.  The Bluejays have eight guys who are playing over ten minutes per game and all five starters are double digit scorers.  Coach Greg McDermott’s team is led by his three-guard lineup of Marcus Foster, Maurice Watson, Jr. and Khyri Thomas who are averaging 40.8 points and 11.4 assists per contest.  Their frontcourt duo of senior Cole Huff and freshman Justin Patton are averaging 22 points and ten rebounds per game.  The Bluejays have made 61 three pointers in 121 attempts in five games, is that a pace they can sustain heading into 2017.

A top 25 team that is from the Big East that has started 5-0 and is led by guards, sound familiar?  This time it is the 9th ranked Xavier Musketeers.  With what might be the conference’s best backcourt  coach Chris Mack’s squad has just three players in double figures but boy is it a trio.   Juniors J.P. Macura and Trevon Bluiett and sophomore Edmund Sumner are averaging a staggering 52.8 points and 15.2 rebounds and 9.4 assists per game.  The guy early on that has been a key for the Musketeers has been Macura who has taken advantage of increased playing time averaging 17.6 points after averaging just nine last season.  The question for Xavier is will they be able to get rest for their terrific trio as they all play at least 35 minutes per game, Sumner is playing 37 per game.

The Butler Bulldogs find themselves at 4-0 to begin the year.  Granted they haven’t been challenged as of yet with a 2-point win over Northwestern being their best so far but they are averaging 84 points per game.  Chris Holtmann’s team is doing it with depth though with six guys averaging over eight points per game led by Kelan Martin’s 16.8 and senior Avery Woodson’s 10.5.  Even though they have yet to be tested, the Bulldogs are winning on the defensive end, giving up just 58.8 points per game so far.  One other thing to keep an eye on when it comes to Butler going forward, they have gotten off to a quick start without a player who is thought to be a key contributor, Kethan Savage a transfer from George Washington who has been sidelined all year with pneumonia.

Seton Hall is the final undefeated team in the Big East at 3-0.  The Pirates are doing it in similar ways to their conference brethren, averaging 88 points per game, but Kevin Willard’s team is also 51st in the country in rebounding at 42 per game.  Three juniors and freshman are leading the Pirates offensively.  Khadeen Carrington leads the team with 21.7 points and classmate Desi Rodriguez is second at 16.3 to go along with eight rebounds.   The two combined for 45 points in a 91-83 victory over Iowa.  Junior Angel Delgado has been a beast inside for the Pirates.   The 6-10 junior is averaging 15 points and 13.7 rebounds per game and freshman Myles Powell has shown up on campus and averaged 15 points per game including 26 in the win over Iowa and is eight for his last 15 from behind the arc in his last two games.

 

That’s a look at the quick start of the top teams in the Big East, add in what should be improvements from Marquette, St. John’s and Georgetown and conference play in the Big East should be as competitive as any in the country.

Opening Night Highlights

13 Nov

Opening night of the season certainly was not devoid of highlights, with a couple of surprises sprinkled in for good measure.  Here is a look at what went down Friday night.

The top two teams in the country, Duke and Kentucky both cruised to easy victories but also showed off why they are ranked #1 and #2.  The Blue Devils nearly doubled up Marist 94-49 while holding the Red Foxes to just 23% shooting from the field and having five guys reach double figures led by Frank Jackson who poured in 18 off the bench.  Oh and Duke played without any of its three highly-touted freshmen Jayson Tatum, Harry Giles or Marques Bolden.  Meanwhile in Lexington Kentucky forced 28 Stephen F. Austin turnovers en route to an 87-64 victory.  Offensively the Wildcats had five guys score at least 10 points and were led by their three-headed monster in the back court of sophomore Isaiah Briscoe and freshmen Malik Monk and De’Aaron Fox who combined for 39 points and 15 assists (12 of which came from Fox in his collegiate debut, a school record for a freshman).

The two best games of the night took place in Hawaii at the Armed Forces Classic.  In the first game #10 Arizona stormed back to defeat #12 Michigan State 65-63.  The Spartans raced out to a 17-2 lead before Arizona even knew what hit them.  The Wildcats finished the half on a 32-13 run to take a four point lead heading into the break.  The second half was a back and forth affair that culminated in Kadeem Allen’s layup with just two seconds left to give Arizona the win.  Both teams were led offensively by freshmen as Kobi Simmons had 18 for Arizona and Miles Bridges was a highlight reel as the only Spartan in double figures with 21.   The nightcap saw #11 Indiana take down #3 Kansas 103-99 in overtime.   This was a back and forth tussle all night as neither team led by more than nine points (that was Kansas early in the second half).  Frank Mason, whose30 points led the Jayhawks knocked down two free throws with three seconds left to send the game, but Kansas could never quite get over the hump.  Both teams had five players reach double figures.  The victorious Hoosiers were led by a returning James Blackmon, Jr. who had 26.

UCLA is looking to have a bounce back year after failing to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time in the last three seasons and boy did they get off to good start.  They beat Pacific by 39 and put up 119 in the process.  That wasn’t the impressive part however, what was impressive was the start of the Bruins’ two star freshmen in T.J. Leaf and Lonzo Ball who combined for 41 points on 15-21 shooting, 23 rebounds, 15 assists and just four turnovers.  In fact, the entire UCLA starting five did most of the damage combining for 94 of the team’s 119 points, led by Bryce Alford’s 30 point effort.

The lone major upset of the night took place in Connecticut as Wagner went on the road and never trailed in a 67-58 upset of #18 UConn.  The game statistically was relatively even across the board but every time the Huskies would make a run to cut into the Wagner lead the Seahawks had an answer to stop any momentum cold.  Wagner was led offensively Mike Aaman and Romone Saunders who each scored 15 points.  Bashir Mason’s squad also shared the ball well adding 13 assists on 20 made baskets.  The Huskies however had just two players reach double figures, Terry Larrier (19) and Alterique Gilbert (14).

2016 Marathon Preview

10 Nov

This year’s version of the ESPN Tip-Off Marathon begins at 10pm on Monday with Princeton traveling to Provo to face BYU and concludes with No.1 Duke battles No. 4 Kansas in the Champion’s Classic at Madison Square Garden.  In between there are nine contests that feature high major, mid major and low major teams along with an assortment of playing styles from Green Bay’s methodical to Oregon’s track meet style.

Gonzaga must replace their top two scorers Kyle Wiltjer and Domantas Sabonis, but they welcome two key transfers that are eligible this season in Nigel Williams-Goss who transferred from Washington where he averaged 15.6 points, 5.9 assists and 4.7 rebounds in his final season.  Joining him is Jordan Mathews who is a graduate transfer from California where he averaged 13.4 points last season.  Add those two components to a team that won 28 games last season with a trip to the Sweet Sixteen last season, the expectations are again high for Mark Few’s squad.  They face a San Diego State team that reached the NIT Semifinals last season and won 28 games and is the favorite in a down Mountain West Conference this season.   The Aztecs return five of their top six scorers only having to replace Winston Shepard but sophomore Zylan Cheatham is poised to have a bigger impact after averaging 7.9 points and 5.4 rebounds in his first year.

At 11am Longwood faces Stephen F. Austin.  This game is interesting because of changes in the Stephen F. Austin program this summer, Mr. Everything Thomas Walkup has graduated and the coach that put the program on the map has moved on to be the head man at Oklahoma State.  The Lumberjacks chose Texas A&M assistant and great recruiter Kyle Keller to take the helm and we get an early looking at the new-look Lumberjacks.

Final Four candidate Oregon finishes the afternoon slate with a game against Baylor.  The Ducks won 31 games but lost to Oklahoma in the West Regional Final.  The Ducks return five of their top seven scorers from last season, add to that Dylan Ennis returns after playing just two games after transferring from Villanova and the reigning JuCo player of the year Kavell Bigby-Williams joins the flock of Ducks looking to go even further this year.

The Champion’s Classic doubleheader finishes off the marathon with three of the top four teams in the country and a Michigan State team that is ranked in the top 15.  You could also call these two games the Freshmen Classic as last year was the year of the senior, this season the elite freshmen have returned.   In the first game No. 3 Kentucky faces No. 13 Michigan State.  Last year’s Spartan team lost as a #2 seed to Middle Tennessee State in the NCAA Tournament and had a bunch of off-season defections but their contribution to the fabulous freshmen is guard Miles Bridges who will help ease the transition to life after Denzel Valentine in the Spartan backcourt.  The Wildcats have their own quartet of first-year stars, two in the backcourt and two more up front.  De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk join sophomore Isaiah Briscoe to give Kentucky arguably the best guard combination in the country.  Wenyen Gabriel (6’9) and Bam Adebayo (6’10) give the Cats two lengthy pieces to their inexperienced frontcourt.

The finale of the marathon features the No. 1 team in the country Duke facing the Kings of the Big 12, No. 4 Kansas.  The Blue Devils have three of the best freshmen in the country but all three; Jayson Tatum, Harry Giles and Marques Bolden have suffered injuries and the status of Tatum and Bolden are for the classic is in question.  But unlike Kentucky, Duke returns a loaded roster including pre-season player of the year candidate Grayson Allen, a returning Amile Jefferson and a pair of Luke Kennard and Chase Jeter.  Kansas has freshman guard Joshua Jackson to help the Jayhawks to continue to reign over the Big 12 and Bill Self has himself a good test for his team young team that now only has two seniors that saw significant playing time last season in Landen Lucas and Frank Mason.

 

It has been a long off-season but the time is nearly here for the kickoff of what is sure to be another fantastic basketball season.

Fort Wayne/Arkansas an Interesting Opening Night Tilt

8 Nov

Kentucky will win the SEC again going away thanks to another historic recruiting class but after that it is anyone’s guess.  Evidence of that is the fact that one magazine picked Arkansas to finish behind the Wildcats but the same Arkansas team was picked 11th in the pre-season SEC poll.

That same Arkansas squad faces an interesting opening game on Friday when they host Summit League favorite Fort Wayne.   Coach Jon Coffman enters his third year and after leading the Mastodons to post-season berths in his first two years and 24 wins last season, this may be the year for Fort Wayne to make a third straight post-season but also win a game.

Fort Wayne returns three starters but must figure out how to replace the 19 points per game that was lost when Max Landis graduated.  They will look to senior guard Mo Evans who averaged 16.9 points and 3.7 rebounds per game last season.  John Konchar is also a key returner who averaged nearly a double-double as a freshman (13 points and 9.2 rebounds).

Arkansas returns arguably the SEC’s best non-Kentucky player in senior guard Moses Kingsley.  Kingsley averaged nearly 16 points and nine rebounds last season.  Along with Kingsley the Razorbacks also return leading scorer Dusty Hannahs and his 16.5 points per game.  After a trip to the NCAA Tournament two years ago Mike Anderson’s squad finished 16-16 last season.

This may not be a game that jumps out to people but it can be a statement game for both teams.   A win for Arkansas gets them off on the right foot in a year when the SEC is a coin toss behind Kentucky.  A win for Fort Wayne gives them confidence as they head into a non-conference slate that includes games with Indiana and Notre Dame as they look to take another step in the evolution of their program.

Be on the Lookout for Chattanooga

6 Nov

In minor league baseball there is a team called the Chattanooga Lookouts, which is ironic because if there is a small market team (to use a baseball term) to look out for this season it is the Chattanooga Mocs of the Southern Conference.

Florida assistant Matt McCall took over and led the Mocs to a school record 29 wins, wins over Dayton, Illinois and Georgia, a sweep of the SoCon regular season and tournament titles and a trip to the NCAA Tournament.  More amazingly is the fact that McCall and company did all of this without the conference’s pre-season Player of the Year pick guard Casey Jones who was limited to just eight games due to injury.

On top of a returning All-Conference level player in Jones, the Mocs also return four starters all of whom are seniors; Tre’ McLean, Justin Tuoyo, Greg Pryor and Chuck Ester who combined for 40.7 of the 75.8 points per game the team averaged last season.  The same quartet also pulled in 18.5 rebounds per game while dishing out 8.6 assists per game.

Chattanooga has all the ingredients people look for in a March Cinderella , a senior laden team, a coach that knows how to pull the right strings (clearly something McCall can do evidenced by how the team pulled together after losing Jones), and now a team that knows how to win and win a lot without its best player.

Don’t be fooled by Chattanooga’s relatively light non-conference slate with road games at North Carolina (Nov 13) and Bryce Drew’s Vanderbilt squad (Dec 17) are the only power-conference teams on the schedule.  The Mocs are a team to be on the lookout for as the season moves along and potential bracket busters come into focus.

Can UCLA Rebound?

6 Nov

Once again Duke and Kentucky dominated the off-season recruiting news with freshmen classes that have people fawning.  However out west there is a team in the Pac-12 that hopes to do some duck hunting and topple Oregon as conference favorite.  UCLA is that team and Coach Steve Alford has the support of four returning starters and two 5-star recruits, guard Lonzo Ball and 6-10 forward T.J. Leaf in that quest.

When Alford arrived in Westwood he helped the Bruins to consecutive Sweet 16 appearances.  Last season they stumbled a 15-17 record with a 10th place finish in conference at 6-12.  The pieces for a rebound are there for Alford, the team returns all but two players that saw significant minutes last season, Tony Parker and his 12.6 points and 8.2 rebounds per game and reserve Jonah Bolden who averaged four points and four rebounds off the bench.

Add Ball and Leaf to the puzzle that should slide in nicely.  Ball should start at the point allowing Bryce Alford to move off the ball which seems to be his more natural position and although Leaf isn’t as much of a wide body that Parker was, it is hoped that Leaf and a more seasoned Thomas Welsh can help replace that production.

Whether last season was just a speed bump or the beginning descent might be hard to determine until the start of conference play, which ironically begins in Eugene against Oregon on December 28 because the non-conference slate for UCLA consists of one true road game, at Kentucky on December 3rd.

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