Five Reasons Why NKU Playing Kentucky was a Good Draw

March Madness is a time when everyone rallies behind their team and dreams of advancing to the late rounds of the tournament. The Northern Kentucky Norse are a 15 seed and are likely not headed past the first round. They did however draw an in-state team in this first round that should generate some interest: The Kentucky Wildcats. Some fans are conflicted as they are a fan of both teams, but here is why every Norse fan should be happy that this match-up is happening.

1. Generate Local Interest in The Program

NKU is in its first year of eligibility to make the NCAA Tournament and they did that. How will that success carry over? They need to draw as much interest in the program to sell tickets, get boosters and get recruits. There is no other match-up in the first round that could have generated more interest than playing Kentucky.

Drew McDonald (Photo courtesy: nkytribune.com)

How did this generate interest? Northern Kentucky is located just south of Cincinnati, Ohio. The majority of people in the city dislike the University of Kentucky, even though there is no major rivalry between the Wildcats and teams in the area. By playing Kentucky, the Norse are drawing fans that wouldn’t typically root for NKU, making the game of more general interest.

The key is to get some of these fans to stay on the bandwagon for years to come. Whether they buy one ticket or end up being the biggest NKU fans in the world, it will help the program.

2. Players Get Their Shot at the Super Bowl

I can guarantee that none of these players will end up playing in an actual Super Bowl, but for the Norse this game will likely be the biggest they ever play in.

With five players from the state of Kentucky, and many more from surrounding areas, NKU has a lot of local talent. These athletes were overlooked by the college basketball powerhouses, but the one that stings the most is Kentucky.

3. More People Will Watch Their Game

Kentucky has some of the most watched games in college basketball this season, which won’t change in the tournament. Their games against North Carolina and Kansas were the second and third most watched games in the regular season for college basketball.

Getting in the NCAA Tournament will draw a lot of eyes on a program, but if the Norse had drawn almost any other team the ratings would go down drastically. At the end of the day more eyes on the program is a good thing. The team and school will be more marketable and as mentioned before, should be able to recruit more.

4. They Get to Play in Indianapolis

While NKU is still a relatively new Division I college basketball program, there are some die-hard fans and students that would love to watch their first tournament game in history. It is a monumental game that will lead to good things in the future and can’t be missed for the loyal fans.

NKU isn’t far off from its first round location. (Photo courtesy: oberers.com)

The good news is that, because they are playing Kentucky, they get to play in Indianapolis. This is a manageable drive of, at most two hours from NKU’s campus. Fans have their chance to support their team, which isn’t something that comes very often. Last season Kentucky had to play their first and second round games in Des Moines, Iowa. The Cincinnati Bearcats, who are just across the river from NKU, play their first round game in Sacramento on Friday. Norse fans should consider themselves lucky to have an opportunity to go to this once in a lifetime game.

5. Free Steak

Jeff Ruby is a famous restaurant owner from the Cincinnati area. He has offered free steak to all students at NKU if the Norse can upset the Wildcats. That is free steak for 15,000 students. His steaks aren’t cheap, so this will cost him a lot of money. If a chance at free steak for poor college students doesn’t make you think that this match-up is the best thing that could’ve happened, nothing will.

 

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National Signing Day 2017: SEC

The SEC dominates National Signing Day seemingly every year. This page will be updated throughout the day. Here are how the teams look right now:

1. Alabama Crimson Tide

Commitments: 24, 5*: 3, 4*: 19, 3*: 1, Other: 1

Nick Saban has assembled another great class. Athlete Dylan Moses (who will most likely play linebacker), offensive tackle Alex Leatherwood and running back Najee Harris are some of the best players for the Tide. Harris is supremely talented, but it is a loaded backfield that may not offer much playing time. Alabama recruited a lot of offensive play-makers this season. There a lot of good recruits still considering Alabama.

Top Prospects Signed: ATH Dylan Moses (5*), RB Najee Harris (5*)

2. Georgia Bulldogs

Committed: 26, 5*: 4, 4*: 17, 3*: 5, Other: 0

Kirby Smart has put together a great first full class for the Bulldogs. Offensive tackle Isaiah Wilson and Safety Richard LeCounte are among the best players in the class. In the next few years, Georgia should be dominant in the trenches and well on their way to SEC East superiority.

Top Prospects Signed: OT Isaiah Wilson (5*), S Richard LeCounte (5*)

3. LSU Tigers

Committed: 23, 5*: 0, 4*: 16, 3*: 7, Other: 0

In Ed Oregeron’s first class, he has helped LSU stay prominent in recruiting. He has a lot of secondary and quarterback help on the way. Corner Kary Vincent is one the best players in the class for the Tigers. Quarterbacks Lowell Narcisse and Myles Brennan have different styles, but should help out with LSU’s offensive struggles.

Top Prospects Signed: OT Austin Deculus (4*), CB Kary Vincent (4*)

4. Texas A&M Aggies

Committed: 24, 5*: 0, 4*: 9, 3*: 15, Other: 0

The Aggies have a lot of players coming in this class. Quarterback Kellen Mond is a highly touted player and may get a chance to get on the field, with all of the transfers out of College Station. He leads a class with a lot of wide receivers. Linebacker Anthony Hines is going to be a difference-maker for the Aggie defense.

Top Prospects Signed: QB Kellen Mond (4*), LB Anthony Hinds (4*)

5. Auburn Tigers

Committed: 21, 5*: 0, 4*: 11, 3: 7, Other: 3

The Tigers have a good recruiting class, which they will be expecting to help win the SEC West with. Former Baylor quarterback Jarrett Stidham will be joining the Tigers from JuCo and will hopefully solve the issues at the position. Their best offensive line recruit Calvin Ashley is a tackle who will be looking to get on the field from day one.

Top Prospects Signed: OT Calvin Ashley (4*), QB Jarrett Stidham (4*)

6. Tennessee Volunteers

Committed: 27, 5*: 1, 4*: 6, 3*: 20, Other: 0

Butch Jones has put together yet another impressive recruiting class. Five-star offensive tackle Trey Smith is one of the best in the class and will likely start the season as a starter. Linebacker Maleik Gray will help out with some of the losses they suffer on defense.

Top Prospects Signed: OT Trey Smith (5*), LB Maleik Gray (4*)

7. Florida Gators

Committed: 20, 5*: 0, 4*: 13, 3*: 6, Other: 1

Florida has struggled to find good offense, but they don’t have too many skill position players in this class. They need to hit on the ones they did sign. Their best recruit is offensive tackle Tedarrell Slaton, which should help the offense out. Wide receiver Daquon Green is going to have to step up and be the play-maker Florida so desperately needs.

Top Prospects Signed: OT Tedarrell Slaton (4*), WR James Robinson IV (4*)

8. South Carolina Gamecocks

Committed: 21, 5*:0, 4*: 9, 3*: 11, Other: 1

Will Muschamp is doing a great job of recruiting for South Carolina. Corner Jameyst Williams is committed, but may be flipped. He will help out a secondary that isn’t near the top in the SEC. Shi Smith will give the Gamecocks a weapon at the wide receiver position.

Top Prospects Signed: CB Jamyest Winston (4*), WR Shi Smith (4*)

9. Kentucky Wildcats

Committed: 24, 5*: 0, 4*: 5, 3*: 18, Other: 1

Mark Stoops helped the Wildcats be one of the most improved teams in the country. The defense wasn’t great, so Kentucky emphasized that in this recruiting class. Secondary players Yusuf Corker and Tyrell Ajian will both be expected to produce in the coming years.

Top Prospects Signed: CB Yusuf Corker (4*), S Tyrell Ajian (4*)

10. Mississippi State Bulldogs

Committed: 23, 5*: 0, 4*: 10, 3*: 13, Other: 0

The Bulldogs got a bowl win, but it was a lackluster season otherwise. Coming into the fold will be a lot of defensive players. Brian Cole and Montez Sweat are both JuCo players who will likely help the Bulldogs immediately.

Top Prospects Signed: S Brian Cole (4*), DE Montez Sweat (4*)

11. Arkansas Razorbacks

Committed: 26, 5*: 0, 4*: 8, 3*: 15, Other: 3

Arkansas doesn’t have the best class, but they targeted a lot of offensive players in the class. Brandon Martin is a great JuCo wide receiver that will catch passes from Austin Allen next season. Quarterback Daulton Hyatt is expected to be the future leader of the team.

Top Prospects Signed: WR Brandon Martin (4*), Daulton Hyatt (4*)

12. Missouri Tigers

Committed: 23, 5*: 0, 4*: 0, 3*: 20, Other: 3

Missouri doesn’t look like they will be in an SEC Championship Game any time soon. Defensive line has been a huge target for this class. Defensive tackles Walter Palmore and Rashad Brandon both are great hauls for the Tigers.

Top Prospects Signed: QB Taylor Powell (3*), Rashad Brandon (3*)

13. Ole Miss

Committed: 21,  5*: 0, 4*: 8, 3*: 11, Other: 2

Ole miss is usually a lot higher in these rankings as of late, but this year was a down year for recruiting. Wide receiver D.D. Bowie and Linebacker Breon Dixon are both great finds for Ole Miss.

Top Prospects Signed: OLB Breon Dixon (4*), WR D.D. Bowie (4*)

14. Vanderbilt Commodores

Committed: 20, 5*: 0, 4*: 1, 3*: 13, Other: 6

The Commodores find themselves in a familiar position at the bottom of this list. Defensive end Dayo Odeyingbo and linebacker Colin Anderson will need to help make the Vanderbilt defense elite to win football games.

Top Prospects Signed: LB Colin Anderson (3*), DE Dayo Odeyingbo (4*)

 

ACC Signing Day- Here

Big Ten Signing Day- Here

Big 12 Signing Day- Here

Pac-12 Signing Day- Here

 

NFL Draft Prospects to Watch in the 2016 TaxSlayer Bowl

There aren’t many draft prospects in the 2016 TaxSlayer Bowl, but some players may be able to improve their draft stock. Kentucky and Georgia Tech are programs that don’t produce a lot of NFL players, but do have some players in the league. This is the bowl game that features two of the best centers in the country. Centers don’t get drafted highly, but these guys can have successful NFL careers. Here are the prospects to watch out for:

Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets

Freddie Burden, C

Projected Draft Range: Seventh round-undrafted free agent.

TaxSlayer Bowl

Freddie Burden (Photo courtesy: myajc.com)

Burden is a good run blocker for Georgia Tech’s triple option attack. He has the mobility to get down field to block defenders on option plays. Because the offense is mostly a rushing game, Burden doesn’t have the experience pass blocking that he needs for the NFL. At six foot three inches tall and 291 pounds he doesn’t have great size, but makes up for that with his mobility. Burden will have to fight to make an NFL team, which will be an uphill battle because of his size.

Kentucky Wildcats

Jon Toth, C

Projected Draft Range: Fourth round-sixth round

Toth is the main reason that Kentucky’s rushing attack took off this season. He is good at getting to the second level of the defense and blocking linebackers. His football IQ is great as he calls out blitzes and sets up the rest of the offensive line. Toth’s pass blocking is good, but could be improved. He has good mobility to get to blocks that a lot of centers wouldn’t be able to get to. Toth has great size for a center at six feet five inches tall and 310 pounds. Toth can be a guy who will compete for a starting job or provide good depth for a team.

 

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2016 TaxSlayer Bowl

The triple option attack of Georgia Tech will take on SEC opponent Kentucky in the 2016 TaxSlayer Bowl.

Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets

The Yellow Jackets had a tremendous bounce back season going 8-4. Their losses were all to bowl eligible ACC teams. They had solid wins over Boston College, Vanderbilt, Virginia Tech and rival Georgia.

TaxSlayer Bowl

Justin Thomas (Photo courtesy: yellowjackedup.com)

Quarterback Justin Thomas has been manning the option attack for what seems like forever now. He does have 1,454 passing yards, eight touchdowns and two interceptions. Thomas also rushed for 562 yards and five rushing touchdowns. He is the best operator of the triple option in college football.

Clinton Lynch is likely the target when Thomas throws the ball. He has 490 receiving yards at 30.6 yards per catch, making him great at big plays. Lynch also has six of Thomas’ eight touchdown passes.

Marcus Marshall and and Dedrick Mills are the ones who get the most carries out of the triple option attack. Marshall has 624 rushing yards and four touchdowns. Mills finished the regular season with 602 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns.

Georgia Tech has an average rush defense that allows 174 yards per game on the ground. The pass defense is also average, giving up 234 yards per game.

The strength of the defense is the interior of the defensive line, with both Francis Kallon and Patrick Gamble having good years.

Kentucky Wildcats

The Wildcats’ season looked like it was going to be bleak, but Mark Stoops did a tremendous coaching job to get the team to 7-5. They didn’t have any bad losses, as their only defeats came at the hands of bowl teams. They have good wins over South Carolina, Vanderbilt, Mississippi State and rival Louisville.

TaxSlayer Bowl

Stanley “Boom” Williams

Stephen Johnson took over the quarterback position for an injured Drew Barker. He wasn’t the most efficient, but the team started to play up to its potential when he took over. He threw for 1,862 yards and 12 touchdowns with six interceptions. Johnson added 278 yards rushing and two touchdowns.

Jeff Badet and Garrett “Juice” Johnson have been the best receivers for Kentucky. Badet leads in yardage with 639 yards, while Johnson leads in touchdowns with five. Both have a knack for making big plays, but Badet is a little better at 22 yards per reception.

Running the ball is what Kentucky does best. Behind a good offensive line, the Wildcats have two running backs who have reached 1,000 yards. Stanley “Boom” Williams has 1,135 rushing yards and seven touchdowns as the home run-hitting back. Benny Snell is the power back who has rushed for 1,057 yards and 13 touchdowns.

The defense for Kentucky was called one of the worst in the history of college football by ESPN’s Lee Corso. The Wildcats rebounded nicely and has an above average pass defense at 215 yards allowed per game. The run defense is bad at 225 yards given up per game, but they are by no means the worst defense in history.

Linebacker Jordan Jones has really improved this year and has 70 solo tackles.

Prediction

Kentucky’s offensive line will win the game. They are going to control the line of scrimmage, the ball and the clock, which is rare versus a triple option team.

 

Kentucky Wildcats 35 Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets 31

 

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A Blue Christmas: College Basketball is Being Dominated by Teams in Blue

We all know how the lyrics to Elvis Presley’s Blue Christmas go: “I’ll have a Blue Christmas without you, I’ll be so blue thinking about you.” After watching a thriller this weekend between two of the top blue teams in the nation, how could one not be thinking about the game between North Carolina and Kentucky? If we are discussing true blue, Duke is definitely in the conversation as well, and let us not forget about Villanova, the #1 team in the nation.

Kentucky Wildcats

Malik Monk takes on Kenny Williams III (review journal.com

Malik Monk takes on Kenny Williams III (review journal.com

Let’s start with the Kentucky Wildcats. There is one name we all need to be concerned with: Malik Monk. If you have not heard, he put up 47 points for the Wildcats with a 64% field goal percentage on the night. He made his final three-pointer to win the game against Coach Calipari’s wishes, who wanted Monk to drive on the last play. He shot it anyway, and Kentucky came away with the win. How is that for some freshman guts?

However, Monk is not the only talent that deserves recognition. De’Aaron Fox added 24 points on Saturday and he is averaging 15.9 PPG on the season. Isaiah Briscoe also added 10 points and Edrice Adebayo contributed 13 points before fouling out.

Kentucky is 10-1 on the season and still has a lot to prove. This is only their second win against a ranked team this year. They beat #13 Michigan State (who is no longer ranked) early on in November and lost to UCLA by 5 points who is led by standout Freshman Lonzo Ball. This is a key win on their resume as they head into conference play in January.

On Wednesday, the Wildcats will take on Louisville which will be another test of their abilities. Kentucky has won the last three in the series against the Cardinals, but the great part about basketball is that anyone can be beaten on any given day.

North Carolina Tar heels

North Carolina's Joel Berry II (goblueridge.net)

North Carolina’s Joel Berry II (goblueridge.net)

Now for the North Carolina Tar Heels, who were equally as impressive, but came up short. Joel Berry II was one point shy of a career high with 23 points. Josh Jackson put up a staggering 34 points and Kennedy Meeks also added 12 points. UNC played a great game, despite the outcome.

The name of the game was free throws and foul trouble. Berry and Meeks fouled out, and the Tar Heels missed seven free throws overall, which would have been the game right there. This is not a large worry for the Tar Heels though. Joel Berry II is just coming back from an ankle injury and they still had good production from their bench (Tony Bradley and Luke Maye added a combined 19 points).

Kentucky’s bench only had five points to add. It also could have been a very different outcome if Kenny Williams’ last second three-pointer hadn’t missed the mark.

This game was March Madness material, so one can only wonder what March will bring and if Malik Monk will be able to create similar performances in the games to come. Joel Berry II will hopefully continue to impress and Josh Jackson has been nothing short of thrilling. I know I will be counting down the days until February 9th when the Tar Heels take on Duke, another top team in blue.

Duke Blue Devils

Our third team up for discussion, the Duke Blue Devils, are 10-1 and the ACC is not going to be a walk in the park this year. Duke will have to take on Florida State, Louisville, Notre Dame and of course North Carolina before they can talk about dancing on the big stage come March. Luckily, the combination of Luke Kennard, Grayson Allen and Amile Jefferson has been sufficient to top Michigan State, Florida and Rhode Island early on. They also have Jayson Tatum, Frank Jackson and Matt Jones who are making an impact, and are some names to definitely keep in mind.

I am reminded that the color blue often symbolizes depth and stability. The Blue Devils embody these characteristics and Coach Mike Krzyzewski brings in some of top recruiting classes each year. The point is, Duke is consistently above average and sports fans can look for that to continue this season as well. They are firing on all cylinders and they have depth that should logistically carry them far into the NCAA tournament.

Villanova Wildcats

Josh Hart of Villanova (fox sports.com)

Josh Hart of Villanova (fox sports.com)

This article would not be complete without mentioning the top-ranked team in the nation, Villanova. They sit at 11-0 and one man is doing most of the dirty work. They are led by Senior, Josh Hart who is averaging 20.1 PPG, 6.5 RPG and 3.7 APG while shooting 45.3% from behind the arc. Hart is aided by senior Kris Jenkins who is averaging 13.4 PPG and sophomores Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges are contributing good numbers as well.

Recall Jenkins is the player who hit the game winning shot against UNC last year to win the National Championship game. Needless to say, these Wildcats have talent and the experience. They also have key wins over Temple and Notre Dame that will only add to their resume when discussing bracketology.

As we approach Christmas, these teams in blue have gotten our attention and will continue to be all the talk leading up to March. It would be a very “blue” Christmas without these teams putting on the performance that they have in preseason matches.

And with that, Merry Christmas to all my fellow college basketball fans, and happy holidays!

 

 

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Are Freshmen running the College Basketball scene?

Division I college basketball has always been set apart from other collegiate athletics for obvious reasons. However, it is the single sport where freshmen athletes can make an impact and leave after one year. Which brings me to the question: are the Freshmen the ones who are running the show and what does this mean for the sport?

Let’s look at the top five Freshman in the 2016 recruiting class. Harry Giles and Jayson Tatum at Duke University, Bam Adebayo at Kentucky, Josh Jackson at Kansas, and Lonzo Ball at UCLA. Ball contributed 19 points, seven rebounds and four assists in the win over Michigan this past weekend. He is averaging 15 points and 8.8 rebounds on the season. Their team remains 10-0 overall coming out of the weekend.

It is not just the current players either. Take a look at past Freshman who have stayed for a year and left for the NBA. The first name that comes to mind is Anthony Davis, who was drafted as a first round NBA draft pick following his freshman season at Kentucky. Davis led the team to a National Championship, was a first team All-American, and received Most Outstanding Player of the NCAA Tournament. In the 2012 title, Davis’ teammates Marquis Teague and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (two other freshman) were the second and third highest scorers with 14 points and 11 points.

Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones, and Justise Winslow were all freshman from the 2014 class that had a stellar year and left for the NBA. They combined for 1,610 points over the course of the season. The other major contributor was Quinn Cook, a senior who added 598 points. They essentially ran the team.

I realize that I have only noted the major power houses in college basketball thus far. So finally I think of Carmelo Anthony. In his 2002-2003 season with Syracuse he averaged a double-double (22 points and 10 rebounds), ranking 1st for freshmen in the NCAA. His professional career has not disappointed either.

There are a lot of stats. However, they are all to make a point. Freshmen run the game of college basketball regardless of the year. The best players and their performance will always be how on-lookers view each successive season.

I could sit here and list off statistics of players like Andrew Wiggins, Kevin Durant, John Wall, or Deyonta Davis, who all dominated their respective years and left. However, the more important question is: what does all of this mean?

This trend is the result of the one-and-done rule. The draft rule is as follows: you must be 19 years of age before the calendar year of the draft and be one year removed from high school athletics. This rule has stood for ten years now. It has allowed the greatest players to make their mark and leave to make money with their talents.

It has irrevocably changed the game.

The level at which players compete is incredible to watch as a fan. This draft rule is a blessing to college basketball, which would lack the finesse without these freshmen bringing fresh talent (pun intended) each year.

In an essence, freshmen run the game of college basketball every single year. This is not a new theme. It has impacted the game greatly and will continue to as long as the one-and-done rule stays.

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Five Lessons from Feast Week 2016

Thanksgiving week is a time for family, food, football and of course basketball! Over the past week, dozens of NCAA teams have made apparent their strengths and weaknesses. Here are the five most important insights that fans can pull from the plethora of Feast Week tournaments:

The Tar Heels are Elite

North Carolina won a not so climactic Maui Invitational and moved to 7-0. They won it with an average margin of victory of 30 points. Granted, one of those games was against Division II opponent Chaminade. Despite that, they obliterated the two Division I teams they faced, Oklahoma State and Wisconsin, by 32 and 15 points respectively.

These are not normal, run-of-the-mill teams. Wisconsin was on the preseason top ten list for many behind Ethan Happ and Nigel Hayes. Jawun Evans leads the Oklahoma State Cowboys as an elite scorer at 24.7 points per game. Evans was one of only two Cowboys in double figures against the Tar Heels.

Freshman Tony Bradley (5) is an excellent back-up for Kennedy Meeks. (Photo courtesy of newsobserver.com)

Freshman Tony Bradley (5) is an excellent back-up for Kennedy Meeks. (Photo courtesy of newsobserver.com)

North Carolina currently has five players averaging over ten points per game. They can spread the ball well and do not rely on one player to stay above water. Returnees Kennedy Meeks, Joel Berry II, Justin Jackson and Isaiah Hicks have made it business as usual for Roy Williams. Five star recruit Tony Bradley is a nice addition at 10.7 points per contest and 6.3 rebounds.

This is a very long Tar Heel team that possesses the ability to frustrate defenses by tipping balls away. Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks dominate the boards, keeping teams from getting too many second chance points. Each also possesses the ability to protect the rim with good size and length. North Carolina is not one-dimensional.  They are a threat to the two-headed monster of Duke and Kentucky come Phoenix in April. Their next test is Wednesday against Indiana.

Oregon is a Work in Progress

Dana Altman’s team was elite last year, achieving a one seed in the 2016 NCAA Tournament. With the big three returning for the Ducks, fans and analysts expected much of the same. With the early pre-season injury to Dillon Brooks, that has not been the case.

At the Maui Invitational, the Ducks dropped their first game to the Georgetown Hoyas. Rodney Pryor had 26 points and 10 rebounds for a stellar offensive performance against the Ducks. Despite that, Oregon’s problem has been offense, not defense. With Brooks still not at 100 percent, the team has struggled to put up points while holding every opponent below 70. That is including an overtime game against Tennessee.

Chris Boucher (25) had 13 blocks in three games at tghe Maui Invitational. (Photo courtesy of fox5vegas.com)

Chris Boucher (25) had 13 blocks in three games at the Maui Invitational. (Photo courtesy of fox5vegas.com)

Chris Boucher is the face of Oregon’s defense. He averages a whopping 3.0 blocks per game so far after setting the school record in 2015-16 with 110. As a side note, Boucher also leads the team with 15.0 points per game. That should change as Brooks transitions back into the line-up. As of now, Brooks has only 18.7 minutes per game. The most he has played all year is 25 against Tennessee which included overtime.

The bright spot in all of this is the development for the Ducks players in Brooks’ absence. Freshman Payton Pritchard has amassed a mountain of minutes, getting used to the collegiate game speed. His 29.7% three point mark is not the best but this should rise. As Pritchard’s role decreases and Brooks gets back into the swing of things, the freshman will see better looks with less defensive attention.

Despite the Ducks dropping a game to Georgetown and struggling against the Volunteers they showed some promise during Feast Week. Jordan Bell and Tyler Dorsey are each looking like their old selves, Brooks is settling in, and the Ducks have proven the ability to gnash their way to a win in a physical game. As Altman’s boys continue to mesh, watch for them to climb back up in the rankings.

 

Virginia Maintaining Identity without Austin Nichols

Examples of things that are certain in life: death, taxes and the Virginia Cavaliers as a defensive based team. Tony Bennett coaches this team year after year to the same sort of style. This year he has the added stress of doing it without key transfer Austin Nichols. Nichols played in only one game before being released by the team. He had previously violated team rules in October.

Virginia took down Providence for the Emerald Coast Classic Championship. (Photo courtesy of washingtonpost.com)

Virginia took down Providence for the Emerald Coast Classic Championship. (Photo courtesy of washingtonpost.com)

Regardless of the reasons for his dismissal, Virginia still looks like the top tier team that they have been over the past few years. Since Nichol’s discharge, the Cavaliers have been nothing short of brilliant. The team’s Feast Week exploits consisted of a dominating performance at the Emerald Coast Classic. They held their opponents to 42.3 points over the three game span of the tournament. While Grambling State is lesser competition, Iowa and Providence do not operate in the same category.

Better yet for the Emerald Coast champs are the two contests they played outside of Feast Week show their consistency. Virginia held Yale and St. Francis (NY) to under 40 points. Their points allowed average since Nichol’s left is 39.4 points.

The one detriment to the Cavaliers is that they do not score. Their 72.8 points per game through six games ranks them 214th in the NCAA. The only game which holds that average above water is the 90 point showing against Grambling State. Additionally only one player averages double figures in scoring: Darius Thompson at exactly 10.0 points per game. Virginia does play ten players, but they need someone to step up. Balance is great but they have no go-to player at this point. London Parrentes should turn into that player at some point this season.

UCLA is an Offensive Juggernaut

Okay, so with the exception of Texas A&M, UCLA has not exactly played anyone yet. Still, the offensive accomplishments and efficiency the team has put together is daunting. Putting up the numbers they have against anyone is impressive.

Lonzo Ball (2) has been one of the most impressive freshman in the country. (Photo courtesy of usatoday.com)

Lonzo Ball (2) has been one of the most impressive freshman in the country. (Photo courtesy of usatoday.com)

Lonzo Ball is the major recruit of this class for Steve Alford and he has not disappointed. Nothing short of brilliant, he averages 16.0 points, 9.1 assists and 5.3 rebounds per game.  Nearly averaging a double-double as a freshman is impressive. What about having two freshman nearly averaging a double-double on the same team? T.J. Leaf was the other stellar recruit for the Bruins and he sits at  17.1 points (leading the team), 8.9 rebounds and 2.6 assists.

Additionally, four other players are averaging double-digit scoring figures totaling six for the team as a whole. Bryce Alford is second on the team with 17.0 points per game. He also is first in shots made from behind the arc with 19 and is shooting at 44.2%.

There is a laundry list of personal accomplishments, but the team’s overall statistics are the most astounding. Through six games the team is second in the nation in field goal percentage, sixth in three point percentage and first in total assists. They average 96.9 points per game. UCLA has 249 made field goals and 169 assists meaning they assist on 67.8% of their baskets. Not only are they extremely efficient, but they also share the ball well.  That should be more than apparent with the aforementioned six players in double figures.

NCAA Champions Points Per Game
Year Team Points Forced Points Allowed
2015-16 Villanova 78.0 63.6
2014-15 Duke 79.3 64.2
2013-14 UConn 71.8 63.2
2012-13 Louisville 74.5 58.8
2011-12 Kentucky 77.4 60.6
*UCLA 96.9 Forced, 75.3 Allowed

The one caveat would be the lack of defensive efficiency. Sure, the team does not rely on one player for its scoring. However, they currently allow 75.3 points per game. They may have a high powered offense, but their defense needs to improve when they do hit the tougher schedule. Generally, championship teams do not allow that many points.

The Bruins won a lackluster Wooden Legacy tournament during Feast Week. The only game that caused them any trouble was the grind-it-out match-up Texas A&M. The Aggies have some surprising new faces contributing, but are not of the same caliber as the Bruins. December 3rd they will face Kentucky in Lexington. This will be the first true test for Alford and company.

Michigan State is Still Difficult to Trust

Tom Izzo’s teams are the epitome of March basketball. Right now they are searching for a legitimate identity. Between a rough early schedule and some early individual struggles the Spartans they have yet to establish consistency.

Michigan State started off the year 0-2 after a last second loss to Arizona and a less than stellar performance against Kentucky. After a 100 point performance against Mississippi Valley State, the Spartans won a controversial game against Florida Gulf Coast 78-77.

Miles Bridges (22) is the most dynamic athlete for the Spartans. (Photo courtesy of zagsblog.com)

Miles Bridges (22) is the most dynamic athlete for the Spartans. (Photo courtesy of zagsblog.com)

Tom Izzo’s squad spent their Feast Week at the Battle 4 Atlantis. They took down St. John’s 73-62 to start. They were then dominated by Baylor 73-58. Miles Bridges was the only player in double figures for the Spartans with 15 points. Bridges is the highest rated member of a stellar Spartan recruiting class. Bridges has had some up and down games, including struggles against Kentucky and Florida Gulf Coast, but is still the team’s leading scorer at 17.4 points per game. His dynamic athleticism has him averaging 1.7 blocks per game and defensive win shares. Bridges decision making is still a point of weakness with 3.4 turnovers per contest, also leading the team.

Michigan State finished up with a 77-72 win against Wichita State, but the Shockers nearly willed their way to a win in this one. Bridges led the team with 21 points, but this time four other players also achieved double figures. Senior Eron Harris, a West Virginia transfer, has had the most inconsistent year. In the contests against Arizona, Kentucky and Baylor this year he averaged 4.0 points. On the flip side he had 31 against FGCU. The Spartans will need Harris this year to have a deep tournament run and find some sort of team identity.

2016 Champions Classic: A Tale of Two Games

There were two completely different narratives for our top two teams in the nation on Tuesday. One team showed its prowess and already looks ready to compete at late-season form.  The other battered, bruised and war torn team showed some gutsy revival skills, but ultimately fell short.  What did we learn through the progression of these two games that we can take into the context of the whole season?

#2 Kentucky 69, #13 Michigan State 48

The Wildcats moved to 3-0, while Michigan State fell to 0-2 on the season with their first loss coming against Arizona on a last second shot in Hawaii.  The Spartans traveled a lot of miles this weekend to arrive at Madison Square Garden for the clash of titans and were slightly gassed.

The game went through a very frenetic pace through the first few minutes. There were a lot of looks in transition and fast break plays. The overall snapshot of the game really comes from when it was tied at 12 with 14:17 to go in the first half. That was the last tie of the game.

Malik Monk then hit his first of several threes. Monk shot with precision, hitting seven of 11 looks from behind the arc and finishing with 23 points. He hit four in the first half that helped the Wildcats establish and keep the lead. Bam Adebayo, one of the players to watch in this game, was also huge in helping the Cats control the glass and thus the game as a whole.

Wenyen Gabriel (left) with one of Kentucky's eight blocks. (Photo courtesy of kentucky.com)

Wenyen Gabriel (left) with one of Kentucky’s eight blocks. (Photo courtesy of kentucky.com)

The real story of this lead, however, was the suffocating defense of Kentucky. Kentucky showed amazing quickness on defense no matter the personnel on the floor. The Wildcats were beat a few times, but recovered very well. Their quickness will make them able to run with the best on defense. As a team, they had eight steals and forced 20 turnovers. They also had eight blocks. Some of these came in a one on one setting. Others came from players coming over to help. They utilized several defensive strategies including double teams and switches. This was definitely the biggest take-away for this team as it is the reason for the huge scoring gap.

The first half did end with the Spartans making up some ground. Tom Izzo’s team went on a 9-2 run and the lead was cut to four. However the half ended with momentum sputtering. Kentucky’s Isaiah Briscoe hit a last second layup in traffic for two of his 21. This late half inbound play was indicative of how the whole game had gone and would go.

The second half was full of more of the same which led to the anti-climactic ending. Michigan State really never put any pressure on Kentucky in the second chapter. This game was completely different from the other Champions Classic match-up.

One bright spot that Spartan fans can take away is Cassius Winston. He had only 2 assists in the game, but passed the ball effectively. There were several times where he found open players that were unable to convert. Also, Mile Bridges quietly had 12 rebounds. He had an underwhelming performance with nine turnovers and only six points, but it was his athleticism that scouts will be drooling over. He had a missed dunk in the game that he skied to the rim for. Bridges had a very freshman night but does not have freshman athleticism. Even thought the Spartans are 0-2 there is plenty to be hopeful about after a bit of roster overhaul.

Kentucky can take away from this game that they are the team to beat. Isaiah Briscoe improved his shooting tremendously. Through three games he is shooting 54.8% from the field and 75% from the charity stripe. He finished 2015-16 at a 46% clip from the free throw line. Even though it is early, this is great for the Wildcat offense. Still, it is the defense that should be the thing exciting fans.

#7 Kansas 77, #1 Duke 75

Duke came into the game leading the AP poll in votes, but were without their top three recruits from the 2016 class (Harry Giles, Jayson Tatum and Marques Bolden). Despite that they still expected to compete and win this contest. Kansas brought top player and freak athlete Josh Jackson to showcase his talent at the Champions Classic, and did he ever.

Grayson Allen (3) had a strange landing and left the game before returning to start the second half (photo courtesy of newsday.com)

Grayson Allen (3) had a strange landing and left the game before returning to start the second half (photo courtesy of newsday.com)

The game started with a weak offensive showing from Kansas.  They made only three of their first 11 field goals. After Duke took advantage of this and gained an early lead, Kansas went on a 10-1 run despite the heavy amount of fouling early in the game. Momentum shifted in Kansas’ direction especially after a scary landing that sent Duke guard Grayson Allen to the locker room for evaluation. Already having a quiet night, this did not do him nor Duke any favors.

The second half opened with more of the same for Kansas. Josh Jackson showed both the ability to get to the rim as well as shoot from mid range during a 19-6 run for the Jayhawks.  The game was noticeably in the control of Bill Self’s squad as Jackson scored seven straight points for his team.

Grayson Allen remained noticeably quiet during this time as he was during the whole game.  It was an off night for him only hitting on one of his seven attempts from deep, four of 15 overall. The tide began to turn as foul trouble set in late in the game. There were 48 total team fouls in this game and one very important one came in the first half when Josh Jackson was given a technical for slapping the ball out of Amile Jefferson’s hands. That cost Jackson a personal foul and was a big reason why he was disqualified from the game with 5:08 remaining. Kasnas was up 65-55 at the time but Duke had one last run in them.  They could have used his athleticism on both ends of the floor during the end of the game. Despite that Jackson still finished the game with 15 points.

Frank Mason III rises up to hit the eventual game winning shot. (Photo courtesy of kansascity.com)

Frank Mason III rises up to hit the eventual game winning shot. (Photo courtesy of kansascity.com)

Duke’s Luke Kennard and Frank Jackson each hit key shots down the stretch to bring Duke back within reach and eventually tie the game at 75 with under 20 seconds to go. Frank Mason III gave the blue Devils nightmares in the second half scoring 17 of his 21 in this second chapter. The 17 points after the break included yet another basket plus a foul, converting through contact which is something that he has shown a knack for so far this year. He has also been the unquestionable team leader, even in the loss to Indiana this past weekend. He had one final trick up his sleeve, hitting a pull up jumper to break the tie over Matt Jones with 1.8 seconds to go.  The Blue Devils had no timeouts left and a half-court heave fell short.

Both teams have plenty to take away from this game: Kansas found out that Frank Mason III is their go-to late-game guy. They got to see that Josh Jackson’s athletic ability sets him apart from the rest of the competition. They also got to see the type of domination they as a team can bring, especially with Udoka Azibuke in the game who grabbed 12 rebounds in just 15 minutes on the floor. The Jayhawks do need to improve from deep range and at the charity stripe. They hit only two of their 17 looks from downtown. the Jayhawks were 9/19 from the free throw line.

Duke saw what they have aside from Grayson Allen and their top recruits. Frank Jackson showed excellent poise late in the game and hit a huge three for the Blue Devils. Second year players Luke Kennard and Chase Jeter each displayed the progressions that they have made. Kennard made his own plays to put up 22 points as well as drove to open up the floor for others, nabbing five assists with five boards to boot. Jeter had quite a few hustle plays and finished with three blocks. The Blue Devils were drastically outplayed on the offensive boards 14-6. This will undoubtedly be a point of emphasis as second chance points and resets aided the Kansas offense in controlling the game.

Defensively each team has plenty of time and reason to improve.  Both teams switched to zone from time to time to shake things up. Each team had the athletes to shake the man-to-man defense from time to time. Dribble penetration was effective for both teams in creating open looks as defenders over-committed to help. Kansas was the winner on this level from a statistical base.  They forced 16 turnovers from Duke and controlled the glass.

 

Five Prospects To Watch At The 2016 Champions Classic

The Champions Classic is a two game event in its sixth year. Duke, Kansas, Kentucky and Michigan State are paired up and play each other on a rotating basis every year. The event is littered with NBA Draft prospects due to the caliber of teams competing. This year is no different and some of these players will hear their names called early in the 2017 NBA Draft.

Game One: Kentucky vs. Michigan State, 7 P.M.

1. Miles Bridges, G/F, Michigan State

(courtesy twitter.com)

(courtesy twitter.com)

Bridges got of to a stellar start in his college career in a big game against Arizona. He totaled 21 points, seven rebounds and and two assists. The scoring ability is apparent, but Bridges needs to work on a few facets of his game. He only hit one three on six attempts and had four turnovers to add insult to injury. Kentucky could throw a number of defenders at Bridges. If the Wildcats use Derek Willis to defend Bridges, he should be able to blow right by him and get to the rim. Kentucky goes small with three guards, so they may use Isaiah Briscoe to guard Bridges. He is a great on-ball defender. The advantage Bridges has here is his size. At 6’7″ he should be able to shoot over Briscoe or back him down in the post. Either way his match-up will be favorable.

2. Bam Adebayo, PF, Kentucky

It doesn’t take an NBA scout to see that Adebayo has one of the most NBA-ready bodies in the freshmen class. He has better size than Dwight Howard did when he entered his name into the NBA draft (Bam is 6’10” 260 pounds, Dwight was 6’10” 240 pounds). Adebayo could not really be list height or weight, but even if he isn’t, he is all muscle. He hasn’t had the best games so far, averaging 9.5 points and six rebounds per game. With Michigan State’s interior troubles (Gavin Schilling is injured and out), Adebayo should be able to show some good post moves and rebounding in this game.

3. De’Aaron Fox, PG, Kentucky

(Courtesy chatsports.com)

(Courtesy chatsports.com)

The choice between Fox and Monk for the last prospect in this game was tough, but Fox has had the more impressive start so far. If he keeps up his current stat line of 16.5 points per game and 7.5 assists per game he will be an All-American. He has also helped out in the rebounding department with four rebounds per game. His main asset is his speed, but he will have a tough match-up against a few different defenders on Michigan State.

Game 2: Duke vs. Kansas 9:30 P.M.

4. Josh Jackson, G/F, Kansas

(photo courtesy kansascity.com)

(photo courtesy kansascity.com)

Jackson is the best wing player in the freshmen class. He has the chance to be an elite defender. Getting to the rim is one of his strengths, but much like Bridges he needs to show he has a consistent outside shot to keep defenders honest. He only had nine points in Kansas’ first game Duke will likely put Matt Jones, their best on-ball wing defender, on Jackson. It won’t be an easy task, but if Jackson can succeed it would be impressive.

5. Grayson Allen, G, Duke

Duke will likely be without Marques Bolden, Harry Giles and Jayson Tatum, but they still have a lot of talented players to choose from. Allen is now a junior and has turned into a good college player, but still could improve his draft stock. He can play both point and shooting guard, which is increasingly important as the NBA moves to players who are more versatile. His shooting stroke is pure and he can drive really well (averaging over 20 points for the second consecutive year), but he has a few areas of his game he needs to improve. Those include cutting down on turnovers, making players around him better (roughly has a three to two assist to turnover ratio) and defense. There have been players drafted high in the NBA Draft with more problems than Allen.

 

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“From Our House to Yours”

How SEC Basketball is on the Rise

SEC basketball is not held in high esteem, but it should be and will be soon. Right now when people hear the letters SEC they think two things: bone-crushing football and Kentucky basketball. There is not much thought given to the basketball league that has not finished higher than fifth in conference RPI since 2011-12.

However, conference RPI is not always the best indicator of league strength from top to bottom. The PAC-12 proved this in the 2016 NCAA Tournament. The PAC-12 was second in conference RPI but went 2-5 in the round of 64. By percentage the AAC was the only conference worse in overall tournament record. This means that there is more to a conference’s power than the RPI. So even though the SEC is weak in that perspective, there are other things to rate them on.

The truth is that SEC basketball is subtly moving toward relevancy at more than a Big Blue Nation perspective. It will not happen overnight, but the tools are in place and all indications are that the SEC will have a heavy handed affect on March Madness for years to come.

Where it starts: Coaching

John Calipari is the best recruiter in the SEC and one of the best in the nation. (Photo courtesy of espn.com)

Coaches control everything. They are in charge of the program’s recruiting success or failure, in game management and tactics of their teams and the integrity of their programs. The SEC is exemplary in this category starting at the top. John Calipari is the best coach in the SEC, no argument there. While before it seemed he was the only one that mattered, he is no longer the only relevant coach in the conference. Other coaches with storied careers are beginning to make waves.

Ben Howland was the architect behind the three straight UCLA Final Four appearances. After a brief hiatus from basketball, he carries a 413-225 career record into his second season at Mississippi State. Bruce Pearl (257-139) finds himself in a similar situation. The difference is that his was more than just a brief hiatus, and he went from one SEC school to another. After three years off, the coach that formerly led the Tennessee Vols to the Elite Eight. Furthermore, there is Rick Barnes (619-333) who now coaches at Pearl’s former school. He once led Texas to 14 straight NCAA tournaments, including a Final Four, two Elite Eight appearances and two Sweet Sixteens.

There is more to add to the list including Frank Martin at South Carolina, Billy Kennedy at Texas A&M and Andy Kennedy at Ole Miss, among other notable names. In reality, had Billy Donovan not left for the Oklahoma City Thunder and the ACC not have four of the greatest coaches in the game (Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Boeheim, Roy Williams and Rick Patino), the SEC would be have the best coaching arsenal in the NCAA. Regardless, there is an overabundance of elite coaches and that is where growth begins.

Where it leads: The Recruits

High profile coaches bring in high profile recruits. High profile recruits lead to better classes. Better classes lead to better teams. It is a very linear and logical progression. Year in and year out big programs replace their losses without skipping a beat. Thankfully the best example, Kentucky, is in the SEC. They are proof that this strategy can and does work. The SEC has not always been the most prolific in this category, but that is changing.

Obviously the main source of recruits is Kentucky and this year is no exception. They have been top two in recruiting every year since 2009. The program has been keeping the SEC afloat in the pool of relevancy for quite a while. However, there are indications that other schools will join the party.

Surely no one has already forgotten the mania that was Ben Simmons nine month vacation at LSU. Last year the Tigers also grabbed Antonio Blankley, another top 25 recruit. Malik Newman, even though he has now transferred to Kansas, was a great grab by Mississippi State as part of a stellar 2015 class.

The 2016 class was no exception for Kentucky, but there are other SEC schools rising. Mississippi State had a second straight top 25 class with Ben Howland at the helm. Also in the top 50 are Texas A&M, Arkansas, Georgia and Tennessee. Alabama even squeezed in aftergrabbing two 4-stars thanks to Avery Johnson.

In addition Bruce Pearl was able to elevate his 2016 class by getting to work as soon as his show-cause ban lifted. Auburn ranks 25th this year, but it is the 2017 class that should have everyone murmuring about SEC basketball. The Auburn Tigers currently hold the top spot. Arkansas, Vanderbilt and Texas A&M made the top 25 while LSU is sitting pretty at 26.

The way the conference is headed right now, players will continue to flock to these schools.  The coaches that everyone want to play for are there.  They can help develop young men into NBA stars. The only thing that remains is seeing if success will be found. While not every coach in the SEC is grabbing top 100 prospects left and right, their resumes make it much easier to get any players that they may desire.

Where it ends: Results Tested and Made in March

NCAA Tournament success is the paramount of all measurements. Even just an appearance or several straight appearances can lead to a school being viewed in a more positive light. Now, the SEC has not had the most amazing tournament record over the past decade, but there are some positives to look at.

In 2015 there were five bids by SEC teams. That is a stark improvement from the three per year of the past several seasons. The horizon brings a few more bright hopes. Currently, ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi has four squads in the 2017 NCAA Tournament (Kentucky, Vanderbilt, Florida and Texas A&M). That is not very many, but he has Mississippi State in the first four out.

The Aggies may have found some stability for their program. (Photo courtesy of ncaa.com)

Texas A&M also looks to be on its way to being a tournament regular, and had they not met a talented Oklahoma team last year, they may have been the Final Four participant from the region. Additionally, there are some teams not there who could find a way to sneak in. LSU, Auburn and Arkansas all could find themselves with a bid.  If any of those teams, plus Mississippi State find their way in, then the SEC could put six schools in for the first time since 2008.

 

The most exciting thing about the SEC right now is the potential. There are potential tournament regulars outside of just Kentucky now. SEC basketball is no longer a joke.

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