Unmasking contenders and pretenders of college basketball

As college basketball enters the final week of regular season play, teams on the bubble are scrambling to enhance their resumes and prove to the selection committee that they are worthy of a Tournament bid. Meanwhile, teams at the top of their respective conference are simply focused on winning out and capturing a Conference Tournament championship title.

Conference tournament week is simply a preview to the utter madness of the NCAA Tournament, but how reliable is it in showing the fans which teams are real contenders and pretenders?

Let’s look at last year for example. Heading into the Tournament, no team in the nation was as hot as Duke. The Blue Devils steamrolled their way to an ACC Conference Tournament title and were viewed as heavy favorites by fans to make a Final Four. However, Coach K’s squad bowed out of the Tournament after a shocking upset at the hands of a South Carolina team that looked dead in the water after losing its first game in the SEC Tournament against Alabama.

The moral of story is that while Conference Tournaments create a lot of headlines before the NCAA Tournament, it is not a fool proof way to understand which teams are true contenders heading into the the big dance. Let’s unmask the real contenders and pretenders of the college basketball universe as the regular season comes to a conclusion.

CONTENDER: VILLANOVA

Coach Jay Wright’s crew silenced the doubters in their 95-79 demolition of Big East rival Xavier. Xavier Coach Chris Mack assigned his best defender in Naji Marshall to shadow Jalen Brunson from start to finish. He dared other Wildcats to step up and beat them instead. The end result was the best team in the Big East flexing its offensive muscle power.

Projected lottery pick Mikal Bridges burned the Musketeer defense all night, loading the box score with 25 points on 66.67 percent shooting. Sophomore Donte DiVincenzo stepped up and showcased his ability to run the offense. DiVincenzo nearly recorded a triple double with 21 points, nine rebounds and nine assists.

While Brunson is the unquestioned star of this team, DiVincenzo’s consistent offensive production may be the X-factor for Villanova in their quest to return to the Final Four. In Villanova’s 76-71 loss to Providence, DiVincenzo struggled from the field, only connecting on 30 percent of his shots, scoring six points and turning the ball over three times.

After Phil Booth fractured his right hand earlier in the season, Wright had to force freshman Collin Gillespie into more game action earlier than he would have preferred. Gillespie’s production and efficiency have seen exceptional improvement over the past week. In Villanova’s past four games, Gillespie has averaged 9.25 points while shooting 65 percent.

If Villanova can limit turnovers, they accumulated 19 in their loss to Providence, and receive consistent scoring production from DiVincenzo and Gillespie, expect to see the Wildcats make some noise come mid-March.

PRETENDER: XAVIER

Unmasking Contenders and Pretenders of College Basketball

Trevon Blueitt and Xavier have encountered a number of lucky breaks this season (Logan Bowles/USA Today Sports).

Xavier has accumulated numerous victories over quadrant one and two opponents throughout the season. However, their play has been incredibly inconsistent throughout the season as they have struggled against lower quality opponents throughout the season. In Xavier’s 96-91 overtime victory over Georgetown, the Musketeers required a four-point play with under 20 seconds to play to send the game into overtime.

Coach Chris Mack’s squad required help from the officials in their 72-71 win at Creighton. Sophomore point guard Quentin Goodin was fouled attempting a shot with 0.3 seconds remaining. There was contact on the play, but the call was questionable given the context of the play.

To add to this, KenPom ranks Xavier as the fourth luckiest team in the nation with a score of +.129.

Xavier’s offense has been synonymous of a roller coaster ride all season. The Musketeers are heavily reliant on senior forward Trevon Blueitt to provide consistent, high volume production. However, Blueitt has been prone to shooting slumps and inefficiencies. In their 72-71 victory over Creighton, Blueitt was shut down all game, only scoring six points on 33.3 percent shooting. This was a game Creighton should have won and they provided a blueprint to take down Mack’s team.

Xavier’s porous defense could prove to be their downfall come March though. In their biggest game of the season, Xavier allowed Villanova to shoot 60.3 percent from the field and 47.1 percent from three point range. This stems from poor defensive close-outs and communication on switching.

CONTENDER: Texas Tech

Coach Chris Beard has Red Raider nation buzzing with optimism. Texas Tech as the opportunity to not only capture its first Big 12 regular season title in school history, but also make some noise once mid-March comes around.

Tech sports one of the most dominant defenses in the nation. Ranked third in adjusted defense by KenPom, Beard has completely altered the culture and playing style of this Red Raider team. Beard prefers to utilize a pack line defense, but also focuses on crisp player rotation and communication. This forces opponents into poor shot selection and passing decisions.

Their offense runs through star point guard Keenan Evans. Evans is averaging 18.2 points on 48.4 percent shooting, 3.4 assists and 1.4 steals per game. In Tech’s 59-57 loss to Baylor, Evans was sidelined the entire second half with a toe injury. The Red Raiders’ defense kept them in the game, but they had no offensive flow at the end of the game without Evans to handle the rock. Evans is listed as day-to-day, which should be a relief for Tech fans as their match-up with Kansas is on the horizon.

Evans has the defense and the team make-up in place to take on a role similar Kemba Walker this March and lead the surprising Red Raiders to the promised land.

PRETENDER: KANSAS

Unmasking Contenders and Pretenders of College Basketball

Kansas needs Devonte’ Graham to stay hot if they want to go far in March (Nick Krug/Lawrence Journal-World).

ESPN’s Joe Lunardi has moved Kansas back up to a No. 1 seed after the Jayhawks defeated West Virginia 77-69 at Allen Fieldhouse. However, Coach Bill Self’s crew required a 19-3 run to end the game to take down West Virginia. There were times during this game where Kansas did not look like they belonged on the same court as their Big 12 counterpart, as West Virginia dictated pace and dominated the offensive end of the court.

This Kansas team lacks the explosive offensive firepower that Coach Bill Self is used to having. The senior tandem of Devonte’ Graham and Svi Mykhailiuk lead the Jayhawks in scoring this season with 17.4 and 15.3 per game respectively. However, much of this scoring is reliant upon outside shooting, in particular the three ball. This ability allows Kansas to pick apart a zone defense, as shown by their 76-60 win over Syracuse.

However, when the three ball is not falling, the Jayhawks’ offense can fall prone to stagnation. Mykhailiuk struggles in taking defenders off the dribble, Graham is a volume scorer who only shoots at 39.8 percent and Udoka Azubuike has difficulty handling double teams down low.

If Kansas falls into a shooting slump against a team that plays strong defense, they could find themselves packing up and heading home early in March.

 

Featured image by Charles Fox/Philly Inquirer).

You can “Like” The Game Haus on Facebook and “Follow” us on Twitter for more sports and esports articles from other great TGH writers along with Dan!

“From Our Haus to Yours”

NCAA preliminary bracket winners and losers

Winners and losers from the NCAA preliminary bracket

The NCAA Tournament selection committee, for the second straight year, revealed who the top 16 seeds would be if the season ended this past Saturday. The committee deemed Virginia as the top seed of the Tournament despite its home loss to Virginia Tech. Villanova, Purdue and Xavier rounded out the remaining No. 1 seeds.

South: 1. Virginia, 2. Cincinnati, 3. Michigan State and 4. Tennessee.

East: 1. Villanova, 2. Duke, 3. Texas Tech and 4. Ohio State.

West: 1. Purdue, 2. Kansas, 3. North Carolina and 4. Arizona.

Midwest: 1. Xavier, 2. Auburn, 3. Clemson and 4. Oklahoma.

Let’s take a look at who the winners and losers of the committee’s judgement were this year.

Winner: Cincinnati

NCAA preliminary bracket winners and losers

Junior guard Jacob Evans III looks to lead the Cincinnati Bearcats to a strong finish. (Photo by Laurence Kesterson/AP).

The Bearcats are sitting at 23-2 and in first place in the American Athletic Conference. While this record is impressive, Cincinnati has played a weak schedule thus far.

The Bearcats dropped both of their premier non-conference matchups against Xavier and Florida back in December. They defeated UCLA, Temple and Houston, but none of those teams are considered legitimate contenders come March.

The fact that the committee already has Cincinnati as a No. 2 seed shows that they are high on the Bearcats moving forward. Coach Mick Cronin’s squad has a huge opportunity to further bolster its stock with upcoming matchups against Wichita State and Houston.

If Cincinnati can continue its winning ways and another No. 1 team crumbles down the stretch (possibly either Villanova or Xavier), the Bearcats could steal a No. 1 seed in the tournament.

Loser: Texas tech

The Red Raiders are poised to capture their first Big 12 regular season championship ever, yet they are only ranked as a No. 3 seed. Coach Chris Beard probably feels somewhat disrespected by this choice, and he has every right to feel that way. The Big 12 is the deepest conference in college basketball this season, sporting four teams in the AP top 25 rankings and three in the top 16 above.

Texas Tech sports an impressive 9-3 Big 12 record that includes a one-point victory over West Virginia (back when the Mountaineers were No. 2 in the nation) and a 12-point win at Kansas. What hurt the Red Raiders was their weak non-conference schedule (their only impressive victory coming against Nevada) coupled with a stretch of Big 12 conference play where they lost three of four.

Regardless of their spot at the moment, Beard’s upstart team has ample opportunities to move up to a No. 2 seed and possibly even a No. 1 if they win out. However, this is easier said than done as Tech has rematches against Kansas, Oklahoma and West Virginia lined up in the future.

WINNER: THE BIG EAST

While the Big East only has two teams in the top 16, those two teams each captured a No. 1 seed. Villanova and Xavier have slowly developed a fun rivalry this season and have a highly anticipated rematch in Ohio slated for this Saturday. Even more important is that both squads have a significant chance to maintain their spot in the tournament over the next few weeks, especially if Xavier can knock off Villanova this weekend.

The revamped Big East has failed to live up the hype and intensity of the old school conference that featured schools like Syracuse, Louisville, UConn, Pittsburgh and Georgetown. However, the Big East has been fairly competitive this season, both in and out of conference.

Competitive teams will not return the Big East to its former glory, but sending two teams into the tournament this season would be a significant step.

LOSER: THE PAC-12

Last season, the conference of champions (as Bill Walton would put it) had three teams vying for top seeds in the tournament at this point in the season. The season resulted in Arizona, Oregon and UCLA going to the Sweet 16 and Oregon making it to the Final Four.

This season has been much less kind to the Pac-12. Arizona entered the season as a national champion contender with top recruit Deandre Ayton coming to town. Coach Sean Miller also hauled in three other top 100 recruits per ESPN in Ira Lee, Emmanuel Akot and Brandon Randolph. Now the Wildcats might be the most disappointing team in the nation up to this point.

Neither UCLA or Oregon have the depth or firepower compared to their respective teams last season. USC entered the season as a dark horse contender for the Final Four, but have seemingly failed to recover from the offseason’s FBI investigation. Needless to say, Arizona is the Pac-12’s best shot at back-to-back Final Four appearances.

 

Featured image by Stan Szeto/USA Today Sports

You can “Like” The Game Haus on Facebook and “Follow” us on Twitter for more sports and esports articles from other great TGH writers along with Dan!

“From Our Haus to Yours”

Is Texas Tech the favorite to win the Big 12?

In a devastating weekend of college basketball, No. 7 Texas Tech saw the chips fall in its favor. After demolishing TCU 83-71 in a game that was not as close as the score indicates, the Red Raiders watched as first place Kansas suffered a defeat at home to Oklahoma State. This loss vaulted Texas Tech into a first place tie with Kansas, with Texas Tech owning the tiebreaker having defeated Kansas earlier in the season.

Coach Chris Beard has completely changed the culture of Texas Tech Basketball, working to install a level of toughness, intensity and energy that opponents would have difficulty matching. This change in attitude has led to the Red Raiders becoming a popular underdog story this season. Now, with highly anticipated showdowns against Kansas, Oklahoma and at West Virginia on the horizon, can this Texas Tech team complete the season with a Big 12 regular season title?

DEfensive Attitude

Perhaps the most stunning turnaround for this program has been on the defensive side of the ball. Beard’s squad ranks 11th in field goal percentage defense, 16th in turnovers forced per game and eighth in scoring defense. Add this to the fact that they rank third in overall adjusted defensive efficiency by KenPom.

Beard’s style of defense is slightly different from other top teams in the nation. Texas Tech does not simply rely on a singular style, such as West Virignia’s full court trap pressure, game in and game out. Beard is notorious for altering his schemes to attack his opponent’s weaknesses.

Regardless of its defensive scheme, the Red Raiders have a knack for forcing turnovers. This allows star point guard Keenan Evans to get out on the fast break and create easy offensive opportunities for Texas Tech. Evans, a ball dominant scoring point guard, can take over games early if he can find his offensive rhythm. Creating turnovers gives Evans increased chances at finding his groove quickly in games.

The Most Underrated Player in the Nation

Evans is the engine and the conductor of this Texas Tech team on both sides of the ball. Beard’s team went through a stretch this season where it struggled to score in the half court. Evans would consistently bail the Red Raiders out of poor possessions with his play-making ability. Evans has averaged 18.6 points, 3.5 assists, and 1.3 steals per game so far this season.

Keenan Evans nails a buzzer beating shot to down Texas 73-71 in overtime (Brad Tollefson/AP Photo).

As mentioned above, Evans has the skill-set to take over any game against any opponent on offense. Against Texas, a team that Tech had previously lost to this season, Evans poured in 38 points, including the game winning step back jumper, on 69.2 percent shooting from the field. Of Tech’s 73 points in that game, Evans accounted for 52 percent of them.

College basketball fans are familiar with how valuable it is come postseason play to have a star who has this skill. UConn fans will recall how Kemba Walker and Shabazz Napier seemingly willed their squad’s to national championships. However, both of these teams were coupled with a strong supporting cast, similar to that of Texas Tech, that was committed to playing defense.

Paint Problem

A common theme emerges from all four of Texas Tech’s losses this season: their inability to score and defend the paint against long, physical big men. In its 75-65 loss to Oklahoma, forward Khadeem Lattin controlled the paint from start to finish. Lattin ended up with 11 points, eight rebounds and seven blocks. Similarly, in its 67-58 loss to Texas earlier this season, center Mo Bamba rained in 15 points, 11 rebounds and five blocks.

Beard understands that the strength of his offense is attacking the rim, not relying on the three ball. Tech shoots 35.2 percent from three collectively. If big men Norense Odiase and Tommy Hamilton, the only registered forwards on the team, cannot prove to be able to spread the floor by making defenders respect their mid-range jump shot, Beard’s guards will have difficulty finishing drives at the rim. Rim protecting centers will shade toward the rim, anticipating the drive by Evans and co.

Verdict

Beard has molded this roster into a defensive machine capable of shutting down the nation’s most potent offenses any given night. With star point guard Kennan Evans playing lights out, Texas Tech has the momentum necessary to bring home a Big 12 title. However, Odiose must step up in a rematch with Lattin coming up on the calendar as every remaining game matters in a race as close as this one.

Featured image by John Weast/Getty Images North America

You can “Like” The Game Haus on Facebook and “Follow” us on Twitter for more sports and college basketball articles from other great TGH writers along with Dan!

“From Our Haus to Yours”