Archive | December, 2016

Conference Play is the True Litmus Test

29 Dec

Now that conference play is upon us it will be the true litmus test for a number of teams that have gotten off to good starts.  For Virginia Tech, USC, TCU and Northwestern it will be the gauntlet of the ACC, Pac-12, Big 12 and Big Ten respectively that will show whether these are NCAA Tournament worthy or just a product of easy non-conference schedules.

Buzz Williams’ Virginia Tech Hokies are 11-1 with the lone loss coming at the hands of Texas A&M at the Wooden Legacy 68-65.  They also had wins over Mississippi, Nebraska and Michigan in the middle of their current seven game winning streak.   The Hokies have five guys averaging double figures in scoring and are led by a couple of seniors that have accepted bench roles this season.  Zach LeDay leads the team in scoring at 16.5 while grabbing 7.5 rebounds per contest and Seth Allen is adding nearly 11 points per game.   Sophomore guard Chris Clarke has really come into his own averaging 10.8 points and 8.1 rebounds while fellow sophomore Justin Robinson and junior Ahmed Hill fill up the stat sheet with 26.2 points, 7.4 rebounds and 6.1 assists per contest.  We should find out about Virginia Tech pretty quickly, after a home date with Duke on New Year’s Eve they have road tilts with N.C. State, Florida State, Clemson and North Carolina in January.  Add in a home game against Notre Dame sandwiched in between and the Hokies have the chance to build a very solid resume before the calendar even turns to February.

Andy Enfield parlayed his success at Florida Gulf Coast and the birth of “Dunk City” into a gig at USC and now he has his Trojans sitting at 14-0.  While the win total may be impressive, the marquee wins among them are a two-point road win at Texas A&M and a seven point neutral court win over BYU.  While the opponents may not be impressive, what is impressive is that they have nearly six players averaging double figures (freshman De’Anthony Melton is averaging 9.7 points).  They are led by juniors Elijah Stewart and Jordan McLaughlin and their 29 points, 9.4 rebounds and 6 assists per game.  Sophomores Chemizie Metu and Shaqquan Aaron also average double figures at 13.5 and 10.2 points respectively and Metu is the team’s leading rebounder at 7.9 per game.  The most impressive thing may be that the Trojans have done all of this with sophomore Bennie Boatwright playing in just five games and is currently out six weeks with a sprained knee.  Boatwright  averaged 11.5 points and over five rebounds a game as a freshman and even bigger things are expected of him this season.  He flashed that talent with 38 points in a two game stretch, both wins over SMU and Cal-Santa Barbara.  The Trojans open conference play at Oregon tomorrow but their tournament hopes may come down to two four-game stretches.    From Jan. 15-25th they travel to Colorado and then host Arizona, Arizona State and UCLA and then from Feb. 11th-25th they host Oregon and then travel to UCLA and the two Arizona schools.

Jamie Dixon’s first season at TCU has been a successful one thus far.  The Horned Frogs sit at 11-1 with their standout victories probably being back-to-back wins over Washington.  Not only does TCU average nearly 80 points per game but they give up just 63.3, 32nd best in the country.  They have four players averaging double figures ranging from 10.4 to 10.8 points per game but they also have nine players averaging at least 12 minutes per game.  The Horned Frogs are a young squad with just two of those players averaging 12 minutes per game are seniors (Brandon Parrish and Karviar Shepherd) while four of them are freshmen or sophomores including leading scorer Alex Robinson (10.8) and freshman Jaylen Fisher (10.5) while junior Kenrich Williams is averaging a double-double with 10.4 points and 10 rebounds.  While the 11 wins is nice, Dixon and the Horned Frogs will be judged by what they do in conference beginning tomorrow night when they host Kansas, and for a team that has won a total of six conference games over the last three seasons here is Dixon’s chance to show this is a different era in Fort Worth.

There are 51 teams that have never made the NCAA Tournament but only one hails from a Power 5 conference, the Big Ten’s Northwestern Wildcats.  The 12-2 start has many wondering if this is the year that Coach Chris Collins and his team finally breaks through.  They have a win over then #22 Texas and their two losses are by a total of six points to Butler and Notre Dame both of whom are now ranked in the top 25.  The Northwestern staple so far this year has been sharing the ball with 18.3 assists per game 18th best in the country and playing defense allowing just 64.5 points per game.  Junior Scottie Lindsey leads the team with over 16 points per game while sophomore Vic Law (13.6 points) leads the team in rebounding with 5.6 per contest and junior Bryant McIntosh (12.1 points) leads the team in assists at 5.6 per game.  The Wildcats opened conference play with a 10 point win at Penn State and have a big test at Michigan State tomorrow but with only three Big Ten teams currently in the top25 the key for Northwestern will be avoiding bad losses to teams they should beat.

These four teams have gotten off to good starts but it is conference play that will determine whether it is the same old song and dance for these teams or if they are ready to take the next step.

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Press Virginia Progressing Nicely

22 Dec

The old adage in sports is that defense wins championships.  It worked for Nolan Richardson in 1994 and his Arkansas Razorbacks with their 40 minutes of hell and three years ago Bob Huggins decided to be successful in the Big 12 things would need to change.  What has become known as “Press Virginia” was born.  It’s a defensive style of constant pressure forcing teams to play at a faster pace than they want forcing them into turning the ball over.

The implementation of the style has been a growing process over the three years although you wouldn’t be able to tell by the end result of wins and losses.  Two seasons ago the Mountaineers won 25 games and earned a trip to the Sweet 16, last year they won 26 and fell in the first round of the NCAA Tournament and this year they are off to an 8-1 start including a true road win at #6 Virginia.

The success of Coach Huggins’ new style can really be seen by taking a look at the team stats over the last three seasons.  In the last three years West Virginia has gone from 173rd in scoring defense allowing 66.8 points per game to 4th this season at 57.1 points per game.  You see that progression across almost all of West Virginia’s defense stats since the style’s inception.   Two stats they didn’t need much improvement but have seen some anyway are steals and turnover margin.  Over the last three seasons West Virginia has ranked no lower than second in the country in steals forcing 376 in 2014-15 to lead the nation and their 123 is tops as well.  They also lead the nation in turnover margin at a staggering 14.9, a full eight turnovers more than the second best team.  To be fair that number is skewed a bit by a 34:11 turnover ratio in a 59-point win over New Hampshire.  But to also put the 14.9 turnover margin into perspective, two years ago when West Virginia finished second in that category, the national leader was Eastern Kentucky with a 7.2 turnover margin.

Rebounding has always been a staple of Bob Huggins coached teams and this incarnation of West Virginia is no different.  Over the last three years the team has ranked in the top 75 in total rebounds per game and has been first or second in offensive rebounds per game.  This year they rank 40th in rebounds per game at just over 40 and first in offensive rebounds per game at 16.5.

Growth can also be seen on the offensive end for the Mountaineers.  Three years ago the team averaged 72.6 points per game and jumped up to 78.5 last season.  This year they are sixth in the country averaging over 90 points per game.  Outside of the defensive struggle their low point total came in an 81-77 loss to Temple.

We know Kansas has had a stranglehold over the Big 12 Conference for a long time but if a team is going to unseat them it may very well be the West Virginia Mountaineers who fell to the Jayhawks in last year’s title game.  This season, at least so far West Virginia looks even tougher defensively and after all defense wins championships.

Juwan Evans Flourishing in Brad Underwood’s System

16 Dec

One of the many high profile coaching changes that took place in the off-season took place in Stillwater, Oklahoma when Brad Underwood replaced Travis Ford at Oklahoma State.  He shows up on campus after three extremely successful seasons at Stephen F. Austin.   He had an astonishing 89-14 record including a 53-1 mark in the Southland Conference.

In those three seasons at Stephen F. Austin he has three trips to the NCAA Tournament including wins over West Virginia and Virginia Commonwealth.  The staples of Brad Underwood coached teams are an up tempo pace while playing lock down defense, a formula every coach wishes they could bottle up and patent, but Underwood seems to how found a way to do just that.  Over his time with the Lumberjacks his teams averaged 78.2 points per game while only giving up only 63.6.

The difference in offensive styles of play between Travis Ford’s version of Oklahoma State and Underwood’s are pretty striking.  Last year they ranked 303rd in points, this year 4th, last year 230th in three pointers, this year 95th, 233rd in steals last year, 4th this year and 252nd in turnover margin last year compared to 6th this year.

So far this season the Cowboys have really taken to Underwood’s up and down style averaging over 93 points per game.  Individually there are a number of guys that have made a jump offensively and one of them is sophomore guard Juwan Evans.

The 6-1 guard from Kimball High School in Dallas, Texas was a McDonald’s All-American who was ranked as the #6 point guard and 33rd best recruit by ESPN.  As a freshman Evans averaged 12.9 points, 4.4 rebounds and 4.9 assists which earned him the Big 12’s Freshman of the Year honors.  His best game came against arch rival Oklahoma where he scored 42 points.  He also led the Cowboys in an upset of #3 Kansas scoring 22 points with six rebounds and eight assists.  After the season he went on to win a gold medal as a member of the U.S. team in the FIBA under-19 championships.  With a coaching change there is always a bit of uncertainty.  Evans has had a good relationship from the start with Coach Underwood, saying “When he came in we sat down and talked.  We went over the system and I just felt it was good for me to stay.”

This year Evans has made a couple of adjustments to his game.  He is putting up more shots than he did in his first year.  Over the summer Evans said he worked on his decision making and his shooting and says, “I think I’ve done pretty well with my shooting and knocking down shots.  My confidence goes up and everything just falls into place.”  He is averaging 21.6 points per game good enough for 25th best in the country.  Another aspect of his game that has improved is his defense.  Evans has 24 steals on the season and last year he had a total of 25.   Evans thinks that is a byproduct of Underwood’s style of play, saying, “He preaches defense defense.”

So far Underwood seems to be a nice fit for Oklahoma State as Evans and his teammates are flourishing in the new up tempo style of play.  The Cowboys sit at 8-2 averaging over 93 points per game.   They have two games left before the start of conference play, tomorrow at Wichita State and at home against Texas A&M-Corpus Christi on 12/22.  But conference play is where Evans and his teammates need to make strides as they have failed to finish above .500 in the Big 12 in the last three years.  For the remainder of the year Evans has some lofty goals for himself and his team.  He Said, “I would like to win Player of the Year and I’d like to make it deep into the tournament.”    Those goals may or may not happen this year but under the tutelage of Brad Underwood don’t be surprised if Evans is able to accomplish both of those before his time in Stillwater is over.

 

Juwan Evans-Oklahoma State

Tony Bradley a Key to UNC’s Success?

10 Dec

After coming up short in one of the most dramatic national title games ever North Carolina is off to a 9-1 start this season.   A key to the Tarheels success this season will be how far their starters take them as they only go seven or eight deep (when guard Theo Pinson returns from injury).  Their two reserves are young, sophomore guard Kenny Williams and freshman forward Tony Bradley.

The 6-10 240lb. big man from Florida has been a key piece off the light bench for Roy Williams.  He has scored double figures in seven of his 10 games and has recorded double doubles in wins over Hawai’i (10 points and 13 rebounds) and Radford (10 points and 11 rebounds).   Bradley has been extremely efficient on the offensive end shooting 61% from the field.  For a freshman Bradley has been discipline on the defensive end avoiding foul trouble which is key for a frontcourt that is thin.

Bradley’s development could be a key aspect to the success of North Carolina this season especially if one of their forwards were to go down with an injury.  If Bradley can continue his upward trajectory it will give Coach Williams a nice three-headed monster at forward with Bradley backing up Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks.

Under the Radar Freshmen

8 Dec

We have all heard about Duke’s star-studded trio of freshmen Harry Giles, Jayson Tatum and Marques Bolden and Kentucky’s quartet of highly-touted freshmen in Bam Adebayo, Wenyen Gabriel, De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk but there are other first-year players that have gotten off to strong starts such as Josh Jackson at Kansas, Dennis Smith Jr. at N.C. State and Markelle Fultz at Washington.  The dearth of good freshmen this season goes beyond the big names.  Guys like Jonathan Isaac at Florida State, TCU’s Jaylen Fisher and Creighton’s Justin Patton have also helped their teams get off to strong starts this season.

Florida State is 7-1 and their second leading scorer and leading rebounder is a 6-10 210lb. freshman from Naples, Florida Jonathan Isaac.  The five-star recruit and top player out of the Sunshine State has recorded double figures in every game he’s played in this season  including a career high 20 points in a win over Iona and a career high 13 rebounds in his last game, a win over Minnesota.    Isaac has not only been consistent offensively but he has also been very efficient, shooting 58% from the field and 44% from beyond the arc.  He has also been active on the defensive end with nine steals and eight blocks early on this season.  The Seminoles have one more test against in-state rival Florida on Sunday and will need Isaac to continue his consistent play if Leonard Hamilton and company hope to make waves in a once again loaded ACC.

Jamie Dixon’s TCU Horned Frogs are off to an 8-1 start in large part due to the play of freshman guard Jaylen Fisher.  The 6-2 guard from Arlington, Tennessee was a prized recruit of Dave Rice at UNLV.  When Rice was fired and the debacle of a head coaching search took place over the summer, Fisher reopened his recruitment and landed with Dixon at TCU.  Fisher is averaging over 11 points per game and has recorded double figures in all but two games this season.  He had a career-high 15 in wins over Illinois State and in the second of back-to-back wins over Washington.  He is also averaging a team-high 4.1 assists per game but would be even more dangerous if he is able to cut down on his turnovers, right now he’s averaging over three a contest.  TCU begins Big 12 play with a home tilt vs. #3 Kansas on Dec. 30 but before that have three winnable games to give themselves even more confidence heading into the New Year.

How good is the Big East right now?  Creighton is 9-0, ranked 10th in the country and is arguably the 3rd best team in the conference behind Villanova and Xavier.  They do however have one of the best backcourts in the country with Marcus Foster and Maurice Watson, Jr. but the guy to watch has been the man in the middle for the Bluejays.  Justin Patton is a 7-0 redshirt freshman from Omaha playing (and excelling) for his hometown team.    He is averaging 12.3 points and 6.7 rebounds per game.  He had 10 points and seven rebounds in a 12 point win over Wisconsin, 10 points and five rebounds in a 28-point dismantling of N.C. State and a career high 21 points and 10 rebounds in a 21 point victory over Buffalo.  What makes Patton such a key cog for Creighton is the fact that he has been putting up these numbers in just over 23 minutes per game and is shooting 80.3% from the field this season ranking him 3rd in the country.  The Creighton guards rightfully get the larger piece of the publicity pie but Patton is doing yeoman’s work for the Bluejays and that is something they will need to have continue heading into conference play.

There are big name freshmen all over the country but there are also ones that aren’t household names doing big work for their teams early on.

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