National Championship Game Live Thread

College basketball fans, tonight it all ends. Tonight’s title game should give fans the show they deserve after a wild March Madness Tournament. The hottest team in the nation will square off against the undisputed most talented team in the country.

Destiny vs. Dynasty.

Defense vs. Offense.

I’ll be continuously blogging my thoughts on the game so feel free to follow this channel and enjoy the ride with me! Before we get underway though, here are a few of my pregame thoughts:

  1. Michigan does a fantastic job of running shooters off of the three point line. Those of you who are expecting to see a repeat of Villanova-Kansas will be disappointed. This game should resemble the Villanova-Texas Tech Elite Eight showdown as Michigan’s defense is very similar to Tech’s.
  2. Michigan needs Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman to get going early. He was critical in the Big 10 Tournament with his three point shooting and playmaking off of the dribble.
  3. How will Michigan guard Brunson in the post? Simpson gives up three inches to Brunson and has difficulty staying out of foul trouble. Kansas tried to double him, but that did not work as he passed through the double too well.

Under 16 Timeout – 13:56, Michigan 11, Villanova 8

Michigan’s defense is giving Villanova all sorts of problems so far. Coach Beilein has chosen not to double Brunson in the post and stay with the Wildcat shooters on the perimeter instead. Brunson has 4 early points, but the story of the game is Moe Wagner so far. He has 9 of Michigan’s 11 points so far and has scored in the post, off the dribble and behind the arc. Abdur-Rahkman looks locked in early on both sides of the ball though.

Under 12 Timeout – 11:51, Michigan 18, Villanova 14

DiVincenzo knocked down Villanova’s first three pointer of the game. He looks poised to have a big game. However, Michigan’s defense is definitely giving the Wildcats problems early on. They are struggling to find space on the perimeter and all of their shots are being contested. Abdur-Rahkman is forcing the issue early on offense for Michigan. Jordan Poole had a nice and-one off the dribble.

Under 8 Timeout -7:32, Michigan 21, Villanova 18

Villanova keeping plays alive despite not making shots. DiVincenzo’s hustle is paying dividends as Michigan is struggling to contain him on the boards. Jordan Poole has continued to make plays for the Wolverines on the perimeter as he had a nice pick and roll assist to Wagner. There was a bit of a scuffle between Wagner and Paschall as the two big men hit the deck going after a loose ball. Emotions are running high! Michigan’s offense seems to be falling into a little bit of a drought here. Their defense is good enough to keep them in it, but they need to find their rhythm again.

Under 4 Timeout – 3:59, Villanova 30, Michigan 26

Donte DiVincenzo has completely taken over this game. DiVincenzo has 16 of Villanova’s 30 points and is the only player consistently hitting shots. The Wildcats are find their offense by creating second chance opportunities off of hustle plays. Michigan needs to get back into a groove on offense. Abdur-Rahkman has tried to force the issue by taking it to the rim. The Wolverines need more of that moving forward.

Halftime – Villanova 37, Michigan 28

This game is in danger of getting away from the Wolverines. They did a great job of limiting the Wildcats as a whole, but DiVincenzo carried their offense for a solid 10 minutes. DiVincenzo finished the half with 18 points. Wagner started out really hot from the field, but Villanova did a great job of limiting his touches in the second part of the first half. Michigan needs Charles Matthews to find a groove on offense. Matthews is 1-5 with 2 points after scoring 18 against Loyola in the semifinals.

Michigan Timeout – 18:03, Villanova 44, Michigan 30

Hold onto your hats, folks. Villanova is getting ready to blow this game open. Wagner opened up the half with a nice move to the bucket, but Simpson, rather than box out, watched Villanova miss a three. This allowed Bridges to track down the loose ball and finish the second chance shot. Paschall then knocked down a three and blew past Wagner for a layup capping off of a 7-0 run. Michigan needs to get back to the basics and take the ball to the hole and communicate better on defense.

Under 16 Timeout – 15:24, Villanova 48, Michigan 33

This game is close to being over. Michigan’s offense is dead in the water. There is no movement, no confidence and no swagger. Villanova’s defense, the underrated part of their team, is winning them this game right now.

Under 4 Timeout – 3:21, Villanova 74, Michigan 54

Well it’s safe to say that the Villanova Wildcats will win their second national title in three years behind a fantastic performance from Donte DiVincenzo. DiVincenzo currently has 29 points off of the bench. Villanova has not missed a beat with Brunson on the bench with four fouls, which really shows you how talented this Wildcat team is. Villanova has completely rampaged the competition in this NCAA Tournament and that is a testament to how good of a coach Jay Wright is. This is not a knock on Michigan though. Abdur-Rahkman has 19 points and played his heart out. This Wolverine team played with fire and heart from February until now and they have no reason to hang their heads after this game.

Final – Villanova 79, Michigan 62

That’s it! Villanova is your 2018 national champions! Congratulations the Wildcats and Coach Jay Wright!

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Final Four Preview and Predictions

The day has finally arrived! Four teams have a shot to achieve their dream this weekend in San Antonio at the Alamodome. This NCAA Tournament has provided fans with everything they could have wanted. Fans saw the greatest upset in Tournament history when UMBC took out top overall seed Virginia. The lovable Loyola-Chicago Ramblers won over the hearts of the nation with Sister Jean as they will attempt to become the first double-digit seed to win it all.

While the left side of the bracket was pure chaos, the right side was pure chalk. Top-seeded Villanova and Kansas took care of business in the East and Midwest to meet and have a chance to cut down the net in San Antonio. This begs the question: who will move on and meet Monday night and play for ultimate glory? Let’s look at the matchups and find out!

No. 3 Michigan vs. No. 11 Loyola-Chicago

This game should shape up to a defensive battle. Both the Wolverines and the Ramblers attempt to dictate the pace of play with their defensive pressure. Each offense is capable of lighting up the scoreboard, but each is prone to occasional stagnation.

We all know Marques Townes and Loyola have a flair for the dramatic (AP Photo/John Amis).

It is safe to say that most casual fans in the nation will be pulling for Loyola-Chicago to continue to shock the world tonight. The showdown between Loyola’s offense and Michigan’s defense will decide the winner of the game tonight. Loyola’s offense does a fantastic job of putting a defense on its heels with their ball movement. The Ramblers average 16 assists per game and are the definition of unselfish.

However, these Wolverines might be up to the task of halting Loyola’s highly efficient offense. Michigan sports three of the best on-ball defenders in the country with Zavier Simpson, Charles Matthews and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman. These guards are long, athletic and quick laterally. Michigan does a great job of maintaining physicality with their body and hands without picking up fouls.

The key for Michigan is to stay at home against Loyola’s pump fakes. Loyola does a good job at getting their defender in the air since they are such a good jump shooting team. This helps the Ramblers invert the defense as Clayton Custer, Donte Ingram or Marques Townes are all capable of taking their defender off of the dribble and creating plays in the middle of the defense. When the defense collapses Loyola will kick the ball back out and proceed to shoot, take it back in or swing the ball on the perimeter.

Loyola has a way of demoralizing opponents with their use of the shot clock as well. Their ball movement allows them to use all 30 seconds of the clock and get a good look at the rim. The Ramblers, as a team, shoot 50.9 percent from the field. Michigan’s defenders need to work on pressuring the Ramblers and contesting their attempts from the field without fouling.

Moe Wagner needs to have a big game to keep Michigan dancing (Harry How/Getty Images).

On the opposite side of the ball, Moe Wagner figures to cause all sorts of trouble for Coach Porter Moser and this Rambler defense. While the Ramblers are ultra-versatile, they lack the big man who can step out to the perimeter and guard Wagner effectively. Cameron Krutwig has done a masterful job of locking down the paint for Loyola, but he will be in uncharted territory tonight.

Wagner is so dangerous because he not only has the ability to consistently knock down three-pointers but also utilize his lateral quickness and take the ball to the rim. Wagner is two inches taller than Krutwig and 15lbs lighter. If I were Moser, I would not leave Krutwig on an island against Wagner.

Michigan’s offense is very hit or miss. The Wolverines showed the world what they are capable of doing to good teams when their offense is clicking, as they rampaged their way through the Big 10 Tournament. But they have struggled to find the same consistency throughout the Tournament.

Michigan wants to utilize on and off ball screens to free up shooters and create open passing lanes to the basket. Loyola needs to stay disciplined when they face these screens and communicate effectively on their switches. If they fail to do so, Michigan will run them out of the building.

One thing to keep an eye on is free throw shooting down the stretch, Michigan is a notoriously poor free throw shooting team. The Wolverines only shoot 66.2 percent from the line and Loyola will target Simpson (51.1 percent) and Matthews (57.4 percent) near the end of the game. If Michigan cannot put Loyola away, the Ramblers showed the world what they are capable of doing to teams at the buzzer (just ask Miami, Tennessee and Nevada).

Ultimately, this game will be a battle of willpower with defense ruling the day on both ends. Michigan’s defense, despite Loyola’s passing attack, is difficult to break down and Michigan will struggle to get open looks from the outside. In the end, Michigan is still a top 15 team in the nation and has too many weapons on offense to hold down all game. Michigan’s defense will keep Loyola in check.

Prediction: Michigan 66, Loyola 63

No. 1 Villanova vs. No. 1 Kansas

This game should be the exact opposite of Michigan-Loyola. Two blue-bloods with top-5 offenses that play fast-paced should have fans on the edge of their seat from start to finish. This showdown will also feature two Wooden Award finalists going head-to-head with a chance to further cement themselves as legends within their respective programs.

What is interesting about this game is that both teams have a distinct advantage when they are on the offensive end. This does not mean that either team plays poor defense, but that each team presents unique challenges on the offensive end that have troubled defenses all season. For Villanova, it is their positionless versatility. For Kansas, it is their four-guard lineup with a 7-foot, 280lb matchup nightmare in the middle.

Omari Spellman’s versatility is critical for Villanova (Yong Kim/The Daily Inquirer).

Let’s start with Villanova. Coach Jay Wright usually plays six players significant minutes throughout the game. All six of these players can spread the floor, knock down three-pointers and attack the rim in different ways.

The engine of the Wildcat offense is Jalen Brunson. The unique aspect of Brunson’s game is that he can run the offense on the outside or in the paint. Brunson is the best post-up point guard in the nation. He excels at using his strength to back down opponents while using his exceptional court vision to find open teammates if the opposing team brings the double team. Brunson can also attack the rim from the perimeter while consistently knocking down three-pointers and mid-range shots.

Omari Spellman looks to give Kansas problems too. Wright has done a wonderful job with the development of Spellman this season. Spellman, a 6-foot-9, 245lbs freshman, has turned into a dual threat on offense. Spellman has the highest three-point percentage on a Wildcat offense that lives off of the three at 44.6 percent. Spellman does a great job of flexing out to the corner/wing and hitting threes consistently. He presumes to be a huge matchup problem for the Jayhawks.

Throw in potential NBA lottery pick Mikal Bridges, Donte DiVincenzo and Eric Paschall and any opposing defense has serious problems. If Bill Self chooses to remain in man-to-man, Villanova will have a serious height advantage against the Jayhawk four-guard lineup. Self would most likely put Malik Newman, who completely shut down Grayson Allen in the Elite Eight, on Brunson. However, who would guard Spellman? Udoka Azubuike and Silvio De Sousa do not have the lateral quickness to stay with Spellman on the wing. Self could bring in Mitch Lightfoot to shadow Spellman, but look for him to draw up a hybrid zone that is designed to guard the three-point line.

Changing focus to the other side of the ball, Kansas does a great job of decimating opposing teams in transition. Devonte’ Graham has fantastic court vision and touch as a passer when running the break. Kansas’s wings tend to flank out and widen the court while their big men charge down the middle looking for the lob. This gives Graham the option to throw the long lob or hit Malik Newman, LaGerald Vick or Svi Mykhailiuk on the wing where they can either shoot the three, throw the lob or attack the rim.

Graham’s playmaking ability is critical for Kansas on offense. He averages over 7 assists per game and can shoot the rock or take it to the rack. Graham has struggled with his efficiency throughout the Tournament so that bears keeping an eye on.

The duo of Newman and Graham need to light the lamp offensively tonight for Kansas (Getty Images).

The MVP of the entire Tournament to this date is Malik Newman. Newman is an absolute assassin from three and is an underrated defender on the other end. Self likes to run Newman on the baseline off screens to get him open looks from the corner. Newman is capable of creating his own shot off of the dribble as well. If Kansas wants a shot to move on to the title game, they desperately need Newman to score at least 20 points.

Despite all of this, Udoka Azubuike is where Kansas’s advantage lies. There is not a single player on Villanova who can handle Azubuike’s physicality in the paint. “Dok” is the most efficient player on the floor, shooting 77.2 percent from the field. His size allows Graham and Mykhailiuk to throw entry passes over the defense to him as well. Spellman, while a serviceable defender, does not have the strength or size to stop Azubuike. Wright needs to decide whether he will send the double off of a player like Vick or play him straight up.

However, Wright may not even need to decide if Azubuike gets into foul trouble. Azubuike has had extreme difficulty staying out of foul trouble and this limits his playing time severely. Kansas cannot take advantage of this mismatch if Azubuike is on the bench.

Ultimately, look for Self to fall into a creative zone that fixates on defending the perimeter, but this will not stop the Wildcats from putting up big numbers. Kansas will score as well, but Azubuike will fall into foul trouble once again. Villanova’s defense is the reason they slipped by a pesky Texas Tech team in the Elite Eight and that’s the reason they will move on to the title game Monday night as well.

Prediction: Villanova 84, Kansas 79

 

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Loyola-Chicago Ramblers Final Four

Final Four team breakdown: Loyola-Chicago Ramblers

The 2018 Final Four has been set. Fans are buzzing and pundits are predicting who will cut down the nets in San Antonio. Throughout this week, I am going to highlight each of the four remaining teams and break down their roster and their chances to win it all. Today, we will be focusing on the South Regional champions: the Loyola-Chicago Ramblers. Let’s do this!

offense

The Ramblers are defined by balance, passing and efficiency. The lore of this Cinderella squad has almost masked the fact that this Loyola team is actually really talented. The Ramblers are currently riding a 14-game winning streak into the Final Four and as Sister Jean herself said, San Antonio better watch out.

Loyola lacks a truly dominant scoring threat on offense, but has five different players that average over 10 points per game. Their leading scorer, Clayton Custer, only averages 13.2 points per game, but shoots 52.7 percent from the field and 45.4 percent from three. As a team, Loyola shoots 50.9 percent from the field and 40 percent from three.

What differentiates Loyola from their competition is how they play as a team. If any team in the nation could be classified as unselfish, it is these Ramblers. They average 15.9 assists per game and are always looking for the extra pass. 6-foot-9 freshman center Cameron Krutwig is critical to their offense in this sense. Krutwig has fantastic vision when he gets the ball in the high post and has a knack to finding cutting teammates on the baseline or on the wing.

Loyola-Chicago Ramblers Final Four

Clayton Custer’s all-around play is key if the Ramblers want to cut down the net again. (Photo by Action Images)

This selfless play enhances Loyola’s offensive versatility. In all four of their tournament games, the Ramblers had a different leading scorer. Their four-guard lineup allows coach Porter Moser to space the floor and create mismatches on the wing.

Passing is great on offense, but meaningless passing can actually hurt a team’s offensive rhythm. Proper, purposeful passing can lead to unhinging a defense and getting open looks at the basket. Loyola can dissect a team’s half-court defense better than any of the three remaining teams through its inside-out passing attack. Loyola’s passing and basketball IQ led to them not shooting below 47 percent from the field in any of their four tournament games.

To top it all off, Loyola is clutch. They hit three game-winning shots with under seven seconds to go in the first three rounds. The even more crazy part about that is that a different player hit each shot. Donte Ingram hit the buzzer-beating 3-pointer from NBA range to sink Miami 64-62. Clayton Custer’s jump shot, that seemed to touch every part of the rim, with less than five seconds left, knocked off Tennessee. Marques Townes hit a dagger 3-pointer with six seconds to end Nevada’s run in the Sweet 16.

It is difficult to highlight a single player on this Loyola team, but Clayton Custer can do it all. Custer has shown that he can light it up from the field when he is hot. Custer led Loyola in scoring in their 64-62 win over Miami with 14 points and scored 15 points on 7-for-9 shooting in their 69-68 win over Nevada.

One area of concern for Moser’s crew could be lack of efficiency. Loyola is not a team that throws up a high volume of shots per game as they only average 49.5 shots per game. Loyola utilizes this to their advantage due to their ability to make a high volume of these attempts. But this style of play leaves little room for error. The Ramblers cannot afford an off day from the field against any of the three remaining teams.

defense

Loyola is primarily known for their lockdown defense. The Ramblers rank 19th in adjusted defensive efficiency according to KenPom. They tend to exclusively play man-to-man and are content to sit in the half court rather than apply full-court pressure.

Loyola-Chicago Ramblers Final Four

Will Sister Jean’s magic carry into the Final Four? (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

However, they have actually struggled to contain teams from the field throughout the NCAA Tournament. Miami shot 51 percent from the field and 44.4 percent from three against Loyola. To continue this trend, Loyola’s opponents have actually shot 42.5 percent from the field this tournament against them. Aside from Loyola’s exquisite all-around performance against Kansas State where they held the Wildcats to 34.8 percent, Loyola’s opponents all hit more than 40 percent from the field.

However, it is worth noting that Loyola is a pack line defensive team. What this means is that the Ramblers will sacrifice crashing the offensive glass in favor of falling back on defense. This prevents opposing teams from getting out on the break and attacking Loyola before their half-court defense is set.

One potential problem that looms large for Loyola in their matchup against Michigan is defending on and off ball screens. Loyola’s versatility allows them to switch at will against screens, whether they are on or off ball. Coach John Beilein of Michigan runs his offense through screening, so Loyola’s communication will be critical to slowing down this attack.

How Moser plans on slowing down Moritz Wagner is another issue in itself. Cameron Krutwig is not as athletic or quick as Wagner and will struggle defending him on the perimeter. Wagner is at his best when he creates these mismatches and can take advantage of slower defenders with his quickness and skill. Keep an eye on that matchup.

x-factors

Ben RichardsonRichardson showed the world what he is capable of doing in Loyola’s 78-62 demolition of Kansas State. Richardson rained in 23 points on 7-for-10 shooting from the field and 6-for-7 shooting from 3-point range. Richardson also grabbed six rebounds and dished out four assists in that victory as well. This was arguably the best performance from an individual player on Loyola throughout the tournament.

Loyola-Chicago Ramblers Final Four

Ben Richardson could spark Loyola to a national title. (Photo by John Amis/AP)

Before that offensive eruption, Richardson was averaging a mere 4.7 points per game in the tournament. If Richardson can find a way to contribute in a similar manner to his performance against Kansas State, Loyola will have another incredibly dangerous offensive weapon at their disposal.

Shot efficiency: Michigan is no slouch defensively. The Wolverines rank fourth in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency according to KenPom. They have three stifling on-ball defenders in Zavier Simpson, Charles Matthews and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman. Their man-to-man defensive pressure will be a unique challenge to Loyola’s offense.

Loyola’s offense is predicated on ball movement and efficiency from the field. However, if they cannot break down this Wolverine defense the way they have been able to do against every other team they have faced, their shots may not fall. Loyola’s game provides them with little margin for error. If the Ramblers want to play Monday night, they need to hit outside shots and keep their efficiency high.

conclusion

If you think Loyola is here completely due to luck, you are wrong. This Rambler team is dangerous on both sides of the ball. They feed off of their defense and have the ability to break down any opposing defense in the nation. However, the remaining teams are bigger and more athletic than what Loyola is used to seeing. Does Sister Jean’s darling squad have anymore upsets left? We cannot wait to find out.

 

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Kansas Jayhawks Final Four

Final Four team breakdown: Kansas Jayhawks

The 2018 Final Four has been set. Fans are buzzing and pundits are predicting who will cut down the nets in San Antonio. Throughout this week, I am going to highlight each of the four remaining teams and break down their roster and their chances to win it all. Today, we will be focusing on the Midwest Regional champions: the Kansas Jayhawks. Let’s do this!

offense

This Kansas offense can be described in one word: deadly. These Jayhawks were expected to take a step back after losing reigning Wooden Award winner Frank Mason III, Josh Jackson and Landen Lucas. However, Bill Self proved to the world, once again, that he is a Hall of Fame head coach with the development of Devonte’ Graham, Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk, Malik Newman and countless others.

The offense starts with Graham, a Wooden Award finalist. Graham’s development has been nothing short of incredible this season. Graham entered Kansas as a fringe Division I recruit. He slowly grew into a reliable 3-point shooter, and now he is Self’s top all-around player. Graham has averaged 17.2 points, 7.3 assists and 1.6 steals per game this season.

Kansas Jayhawks Final Four

Malik Newman’s scoring and defense propelled Kansas to San Antonio. (Photo by Charlie Neibergall/AP Photo)

The tournament has been a different story for Graham though. Aside from his explosion against Penn with 29 points, six rebounds and six assists, Graham has struggled to score consistently. He has averaged 11.7 points per game on 31 percent shooting, excluding his performance against Penn. But Graham has found other ways to be effective as he has averaged over 6.3 assists per game in the tournament and has made big plays late in games.

The best player for Kansas this tournament has unquestionably been Mississippi State transfer Malik Newman. Newman has developed into Self’s secondary playmaker on offense and his most reliable 3-point shooter. Newman’s ability to rise to the occasion in big moments cannot be overstated as he scored all 13 of Kansas’ points in overtime in their 85-81 win over Duke.

Newman is shooting 44.8 percent from three in the tournament and is averaging 21.8 points per game. His ability hit threes from NBA range and create his own shot off of the dribble results in the ultimate nightmare for the defender that draws him.

After only playing three minutes against Penn, Udoka Azubuike has returned to form after spraining his left MCL before the Big 12 Tournament. Azubuike was the key to Kansas’ win over an underrated Seton Hall team in the Round of 32 as he went toe-to-toe with Angel Delgado. Azubuike’s 7-foot, 280-pound frame helps Kansas control the paint on offense. He is a fantastic finisher in the paint and especially adept at snagging lobs from Graham over the top of the defense.

As a whole, Kansas plays its offense similarly to Villanova. They usually roll out four guards and a center and decimate teams from behind the arc. Three of Self’s four starting guards shoot over 40 percent from 3-point range. Kansas has the ability to shoot most teams out of the game within a span of minutes if they get hot.

However, Kansas is at their most dangerous when they get out on the break. Graham has fantastic court vision and Kansas’ wings and bigs run the floor very well. Not only that, but when Kansas pushes the pace, their shooters tend to widen the court. What this means is that Newman, Mykhailiuk and Lagerald Vick will sprint out to the opposing corner to await a pass from Graham to either shoot a three or attack the rim. Kansas also loves throwing fast break lobs to either Azubuike or Silvio De Sousa.

However, Kansas can find itself in trouble if or when Azubuike gets into foul trouble. Azubuike has had difficulty staying on the court throughout the season as he seems to always find ways to pick up fouls early in the contest. While De Sousa has proven himself a more than capable reserve, Kansas is a much better team with Azubuike on the court.

defense

Kansas is by far the worst defensive team in San Antonio, and that could be problematic as they face Villanova, the nation’s top offense. The Jayhawks are ranked 40th in adjusted defensive efficiency according to KenPom.

Kansas tends to stick with their traditional man-to-man defense against most teams. While this group can play at elite levels from time to time, the Jayhawks are prone to falling asleep on defense, especially if they have a lead. Whether it is lazy closeouts or a lack of communication on ball screens, Kansas lacks the full 40 minutes of intensity that is required of a top-notch defense.

Kansas Jayhawks Final Four

Svi Mykhailiuk’s defense against Marvin Bagley sparked the Jayhawks in the Elite Eight. (Photo by Rich Sugg/The Kansas City Star)

Regardless, Bill Self is a mastermind at wiggling Kansas out of supposed defensive disadvantages. Look at their matchup against Duke in the Elite Eight. Kansas faced a monumental size disadvantage going up against Marvin Bagley III and Wendell Carter Jr. Self tasked Mykhailiuk with guarding Bagley (who is three inches taller and 30 pounds heavier) and doubled their bigs off of Trevon Duval, who struggles from the outside. This strategy resulted in Duval having a big game, but Mykhailiuk held Bagley to his worst performance of the tournament and Newman completely shut down Grayson Allen.

Self will have his work cut out for him against Villanova though. Omari Spellman is much more versatile than Azubuike or De Sousa as both of these players are limited from the outside. Both figure to struggle staying with Spellman on the perimeter, which is critical as Spellman shoots 44.6 percent from three.

Self should avoid daring Spellman to beat them from the outside, just ask West Virginia what he is capable of doing. Self’s strategy of doubling off of another player may not work either as all of Villanova’s main rotational players are capable of knocking down outside shots consistently. Based on his recent performance, the most likely candidate would be Phil Booth, but Booth has the potential to light it up from the outside at any time.

Self will need to get creative with his defensive scheming to slow down the versatile Wildcats. Whether this means sitting back in a hybrid zone that is predicated on guarding the 3-point line or trapping at the mid-court line, Kansas will have its work cut out for them.

X-factors

Kansas Jayhawks Final Four

Udoka Azubuike’s ability to stay on the court is key for Kansas. (Photo by Charlie Neibergall/AP)

Udoka Azubuike’s fouling: As stated above, Azubuike is a game changer for Kansas. That is, when he is on the court.

In both games that Azubuike played without minute restrictions (Clemson and Duke), he was limited to 25 and 19 minutes respectively due to foul trouble. It is worth noting that Azubuike fouled out of both games. Despite only playing 25 minutes against Clemson, he recorded a double-double, grabbing 11 rebounds and scoring 14 points on 7-for-9 shooting.

There is not a single player that matches up to Azubuike’s physicality remaining in the Final Four. If Azubuike can find a way to stay on the court for over 25 minutes, he will provide Kansas with a serious edge in rebounding and scoring in the paint.

Silvio De Sousa: De Sousa played his first game of the season on Jan. 13. He struggled to find his role until the Big 12 Tournament, where he filled in for the injured Azubuike serviceably. De Sousa’s sound play continued in the NCAA Tournament. He played 26 big minutes against Duke and grabbed 10 rebounds.

If Azubuike gets into early foul trouble, Self will most likely call upon De Sousa to step up and play significant minutes in San Antonio. He will be relied upon to hold his own and control the glass.

conclusion

This was the Kansas team that was not supposed to reach the Final Four. However, Bill Self showed the world how great of a coach he truly is. The Jayhawks have the offensive firepower to outgun any of the remaining opponents outside of Villanova. The key for Kansas will be how they adjust to Villanova’s ultra-versatile lineup with Azubuike or De Sousa on the floor. If Kansas can slip by Villanova, they should be favored to cut down the nets in San Antonio.

 

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Villanova Wildcats Final Four

Final Four team breakdown: Villanova Wildcats

The 2018 Final Four has been set. Fans are buzzing and pundits are predicting who will cut down the nets in San Antonio. Throughout this week, I am going to highlight each of the four remaining teams and break down their roster and their chances to win it all. Today, we will be focusing on the Eastern Regional champions: the Villanova Wildcats. Let’s do this!

Offense

When this team gets going offensively, watch out. Villanova can outscore any team in the nation on any night. Coach Jay Wright tends to send out six players for significant minutes on a game-by-game basis. Ranked No. 1 in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency by KenPom, this Wildcat squad torches teams with their outside shooting.

The three ball has become the bread and butter for Wright’s team this season. Collectively, Villanova shoots 40 percent from 3-point range. The Wildcats also have six players who shoot over 38 percent from three.

Villanova Wildcats Final Four

Jalen Brunson’s dynamic offensive play could send Nova to the title game. (Photo by AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

The Wildcat offense is led by Wooden Award favorite Jalen Brunson. Brunson has averaged 17.5 points and four assists per game in the NCAA Tournament. What makes Brunson so dangerous is that he is the best post-up point guard in the nation. Brunson loves to back down his defender in the paint. This tends to draw the double-team, allowing Brunson to find an open teammate on the wing for an open 3-point shot. If he does not draw the double, Brunson has the quickness and strength to finish around the rim against his defender.

Brunson also has the ability to take over a game with his scoring. In Villanova’s 90-78 Sweet 16 win over West Virginia, Brunson poured in 27 points on 53.3 percent shooting. He is Wright’s ultimate weapon heading into the Final Four.

Mikal Bridges is most likely on a crash course to be selected in the NBA Draft as a lottery pick. Standing at 6-foot-6, Bridges tends to do most of his scoring on the perimeter. He shoots 51.2 percent from the field and 43.6 percent from three. Bridges has averaged 16 points per game in the NCAA Tournament. Bridges does a great job of finding space on the perimeter as the ball is worked inside. He is almost automatic when stepping into a kick-out three ball.

One of the key players on offense for Villanova in the tournament so far has been Omari Spellman. Only a freshman, Spellman has struggled to find his role on this team throughout the season. But Spellman has grown instrumentally during the Big East Conference Tournament, and that has shown in the big dance. Spellman’s versatility and skill allows him to work inside out.

Spellman has torched defense’s with his three ball and his offensive rebounding. His growth was on full display against West Virginia when he scored 18 points, grabbed eight rebounds, blocked three shots and recorded two steals.

Despite the all-around potency of this Villanova offense, it can be slowed down. In Villanova’s 71-59 Elite Eight victory over Texas Tech, the Wildcats only shot 33.3 percent from the field and 16.7 percent from three. A common trend in three of Villanova’s four losses this season is poor 3-point shooting. In Villanova’s losses to St. John’s, Providence and Creighton, the Wildcats averaged a mere 25 percent from behind the arc. The moral of the story is if you want to take down Villanova, you have to guard the 3-point line.

DEfense

One of the biggest knocks on Villanova this season has been their defense. Throughout the season, the Wildcats tended to rely on their scoring to beat teams. However, Wright’s crew has taken their defense to the next level in the NCAA Tournament. That is bad news for the remaining three teams.

Villanova Wildcats Final Four

The length of Mikal Bridges is problematic for opponents. (Photo by Getty Images)

Villanova tends to start off their defense with a 1-2-2 press as the opponents bring the ball up the court. This culminates in a trap as soon as the opposing point guard brings the ball across half court. Wright tends to send Bridges over from the middle of the court to complete the trap due to his length and quickness. The way this trap differs from the likes of West Virginia is that it is not turnover or bust. Villanova quickly falls back into their man-to-man if they cannot force a turnover.

Villanova’s athleticism and versatility allows them to play a switching-based, man-to-man defense. They switch off their man on ball screens and apply high pressure on the perimeter. They also do a better job than most teams in the tournament at not fouling. This is mostly a testament to Jay Wright as Villanova is easily the most disciplined team playing in San Antonio this weekend.

One issue Villanova may face in the tournament is defending the paint against bigger opponents. This directly relates to their upcoming matchup with a healthy Udoka Azubuike and Kansas. Azubuike gave a big Duke lineup fits when he was on the floor in the Elite Eight. Spellman, who only stands at 6-foot-9, will draw the 7-foot, 280-pound center. This is certainly an area of concern for Wright and company.

X-Factors

Villanova Wildcats Final Four

Phil Booth’s shot is the x-factor for Villanova in the Final Four. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images North America)

Phil Booth: The junior guard simply has not been the same after returning from a fractured hand injury. Before his injury, Booth had a deadly outside shot and played a highly efficient offensive game. However, since breaking his hand, Booth has only hit double-digit scoring in four out of eleven games. Not only that, Booth has only shot 35.4 percent from the field since returning as well.

Booth has struggled shooting the ball in the NCAA Tournament, but Villanova’s depth and scoring prowess has allowed them to overcome Booth’s lack of offensive contribution. Booth has averaged only 6.3 points per game on 33.3 percent shooting in NCAA Tournament play. Back in 2016, Booth helped propel Villanova past UNC with a team high 20 points in the National Championship. If Booth rediscovers his shot in San Antonio, Villanova will be unbeatable.

 

The three ball: The way that you beat Villanova is lowering their efficiency from beyond the arc. Villanova, regardless of how effective it is, is going to shoot a lot of threes. It is simply how they play offense. This game plan is not without its flaws though. A talented perimeter defense can slow down Villanova by running them off the 3-point line or contesting their shot attempts.

Even though Texas Tech fell to Villanova in the Elite Eight, the Red Raiders provided the remaining three teams a blueprint on how to take down the Wildcats. The Wildcats only hit four threes the entire game out of 24 attemps. However, Villanova’s defense won them that game against a Texas Tech offense that could not get going. If another team remaining can keep Villanova in check from behind the arc, they have a great chance to knock off the Wildcats.

Conclusion

Quite frankly, Villanova should be the consensus favorite to cut down the nets in San Antonio. Their offense is nearly unstoppable once they get going, their defensive pressure has been cranked up a couple of notches, and their discipline is next to none. However, if a team can force the Wildcats to have an off night from three while capitalizing on the other end, Villanova will be in trouble.

 

Featured image by AP Photo/Charles Krupa.

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Final Four team breakdown: Michigan Wolverines

The 2018 Final Four has been set. Fans are buzzing and pundits are predicting who will cut down the nets in San Antonio. Throughout this week, I am going to highlight each of the four remaining teams and break down their roster and their chances to win it all. Today, we will be focusing on the Western Regional champions: the Michigan Wolverines. Let’s do this!

Offense

Moe Wagner’s offensive production was key for Michigan’s run (USA Today / Via Reuters).

Most John Beilein coached teams are known for their offensive prowess. But this Michigan team is not your typical Wolverine squad. They only have three players to average double-digit points per game and struggle to find consistency scoring the ball.

Star center Moe Wagner is the key to Michigan’s offense. The German center averaged 14.3 points per game while shooting 52.4 percent from the field during the regular season. Wagner’s versatility allows Beilein to be creative when deploying him on offense. Even though Wagner stands at 6-foot-11 and weighs in at 245lbs, he has the quickness to work off the dribble on the perimeter and create outside shots. Most opposing centers struggle on the defensive end when forced out on the perimeter.

The offensive MVP in the NCAA Tournament for Michigan has undeniably been Charles Matthews. The Kentucky transfer poured in double-digit points in every game in the NCAA Tournament. In particular, his 17 points and 8 rebounds helped propel Michigan past a pesky Florida State team in the Elite Eight.

Zavier Simpson’s play at point guard in the latter half of the season cannot be overstated as well. One of the biggest issues for Michigan on the offensive side of the ball was the lack of a true point guard. Simpson, benched in the early part of the season by Beilein, may not be a consistent scorer, but his recognition and court awareness are key for Michigan’s offense. Simpson has averaged 4.5 assists per game throughout the NCAA Tournament.

Michigan’s offense is predicated on ball movement and attacking the rim. Michigan, while they can hit the three ball, does not simply rely on the three-point shot to buoy their offense. Playmakers such as Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, Matthews and Wagner work best when they can attack the rim and create plays both for themselves and their teammates off the dribble.

However, the offense is prone to stagnation and scoring droughts. Throughout the Tournament (and season), Michigan has fallen in love with either the three ball or mid-range jump shot. When these shots are not falling, Michigan will fall into a drought offensively. Michigan is also an incredibly poor free throw shooting team. They collectively only shoot 66.2 percent from the field and this could come back to haunt them down the stretch of a close game.

Defense

Defense is the primary reason Michigan is in the Final Four. The Wolverines erupted offensively throughout the Big Ten Tournament, torching opponents from the three-point line and working their defenses inside and out. However, the NCAA Tournament has been a different story. The Wolverines struggled from the field in three of their four games during the Tournament (sorry Texas A&M).

Zavier Simpson’s on-ball defense is key to Michigan’s identity (Junfu Han/Detroit Free Press).

Michigan’s defense is predicated on aggressive, physical man-to-man on-ball pressure. Michigan does a great job of running teams off of the three-point line and forcing them into difficult looks from the field. No team has shot higher than 37 percent or 39 percent from three against the Wolverines throughout the Tournament thus far.

According to KenPom, Michigan comes in fourth place in adjusted defensive efficiency in the nation. Michigan’s versatility and length allow them to switch against on ball screens and effectively contest shots. This defensive pressure allows Michigan some room for error on the offensive end. When Michigan falls into a scoring drought, their defense is capable of keeping them in the game.

The thing about this Michigan team is that they love frustrating their opponents. They feed off of their opponents’ frustration and negative emotion. Abdur-Rahkman and Simpson do a masterful job of moving their feet and keeping their man in front of them. Most teams tend to occasionally fall asleep on defense, but not Michigan. They lock in from the minute the ball is tipped off and they hound their opponent until the final buzzer.

The only concern for Michigan on this end of the court is foul trouble. Wagner and Simpson have been prone to foul trouble in the past. Michigan is not the deepest team as Beilein usually prefers to play his starters, along with Duncan Robinson and Jordan Poole, most of the game. Simpson becomes too aggressive with his hands on defensive and Wagner can be overpowered in the post at times. It is critical that they avoid early fouls.

X-factors

Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman’s offensive production is key for Michigan (Harry How/Getty Images).

Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman: Abdur Rahkman is one of the vocal leaders of this team. He is arguably their best on-ball defender and rarely gets into foul trouble. But Michigan is at their best offensively when Abdur-Rahkman is hitting threes and making plays off of the dribble. In the Big Ten Tournament, Abdur-Rahkman averaged 15 points and shot at least 50 percent in every game.

The NCAA Tournament has been a different story though. Abdur-Rahkman has averaged 14 points, but his efficiency is way down. In Michigan’s four games, he is only shooting 35.9 percent from the field. Outside of his 24-point explosion against Texas A&M where he shot 57.1 percent from the field, Abdur-Rahkman has not hit a mark higher than 33.3 percent. If Michigan wants to win a title, they need Abdur-Rahkman to play more efficiently on offense.

Free Throw Shooting: As stated above, Michigan struggles at the line. Teams have targeted Simpson repeatedly down the stretch of games as he is only a 51.1 percent free throw shooter. Abdur-Rahkman has the highest FT percentage out of the starters and his is only at 74.8 percent.

Beilein usually has Duncan Robinson, a 90 percent free throw shooter, in the game in these situations. However, opposing teams will look to force Michigan’s hand by forcing the ball to one of their poor free throw shooters and fouling them instead. Michigan cannot afford to leave points on the table against any of the three remaining teams, as all three of them are capable of capitalizing on Michigan’s inability to convert at the line. As a result, Michigan needs to find some consistency at the line this weekend.

Conclusion

Michigan’s defense catapulted them into the Final Four this season. When Michigan’s outside shots are collectively falling, they are nearly impossible to defeat thanks to their stifling defense (see Michigan’s 99-72 demolition of Texas A&M as an example). Michigan is capable of defeating Loyola-Chicago with a stellar defensive effort but will require an efficient offensive game to compete with the likes of Villanova or Kansas if it reaches the title game.

Featured image by USA Today via Reuters.

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New York Jets 2018 NFL Draft profile

The 2018 NFL Draft is just over a month away, which means that Draftmas is back. Draftmas will take a look at each NFL team heading into the NFL Draft, what their needs are and who they could be targeting. You will find it here. Draftmas will continue with the New York Jets 2018 NFL Draft profile. 

summary

Projected to be the team most likely to go 0-16 by many pundits, the New York Jets surprised many last season by going 5-11. Despite this record, the Jets proved to be competitive in many games throughout the season, losing six of their 11 games by eight points or less. Last season was the result of general manager Mike Maccagnan tearing down an aging, hostile roster from 2016 and attempting to infuse the locker room with younger players.

The Jets entered free agency this season with the most cap room in the NFL ($89.879 million to be exact). In Maccagnan’s first season as general manager back in 2015, he landed aging, big name talents such as Brandon Marshall, Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie. While this strategy worked back then, the Jets fell apart amid large expectations in 2016. This offseason, Maccagnan focused on bringing in value, rather than big-name talent.

New York Jets 2018 NFL Draft profile

Josh McCown’s leadership will be vital to the development of New York’s future rookie quarterback. (Photo by Ed Mulholland/USA TODAY Sports)

It was the same old story for the Jets on offense in 2017. If the Jets want to take their offense to the next level in the next couple of seasons, they must find their quarterback of the future. Josh McCown led the offense by playing his best season of his career. McCown had a 2:1 touchdown to interception ratio and won the team’s Curtis Martin MVP Award (the first quarterback to win this award since Chad Pennington in 2002). McCown’s value went further than his play as his leadership helped guide young players and transform the culture of the locker room.

After missing out on Kirk Cousins despite offering him $30 million a year, Maccagnan re-signed McCown on a one-year, $10 million deal. Maccagnan remained proactive, as he signed former Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater on a one-year, $6 million contract. This is a low-risk, high-reward deal for the Jets as Bridgewater flashed promise before going down with a grotesque knee injury that sidelined him for two years.

The Jets brought in former Browns running back Isaiah Crowell to replace the now retired Matt Forte. Crowell, who is only 25 years old, will complete the Jets’ backfield that includes Bilal Powell and Elijah McGuire.

At wide receiver, the Jets need to tread carefully with breakout star Robby Anderson. Anderson developed a powerful rapport with McCown last season as an explosive big-play threat, but he has been arrested twice in eight months. If Anderson does not clean up his act up, he may force the Jets to part ways with him in the upcoming future. Quincy Enunwa, Jermaine Kearse and newly-signed Terrelle Pryor round out New York’s wide receiver corps.

After receiving subpar play from center Wesley Johnson, Maccagnan signed former Washington center Spencer Long to a four-year, $28 million contract. The Jets are betting big that Long’s extensive injury history is behind him. Outside of Long, the Jets will stick with their current talent on the offensive line.

On defense, the Jets experienced numerous ups and downs throughout the year. However, the play of rookie safeties Jamal Adams and Marcus Maye should bring optimism and hope to even the most downtrodden Jet fans.

New York Jets 2018 NFL Draft profile

Trumaine Johnson is a major upgrade for New York’s secondary. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

The Jets addressed their holes at cornerback, re-signing Morris Claiborne to a one-year, $7 million deal and snagging the top corner on the market in Trumaine Johnson with a five-year, $72 million deal. Johnson and Claiborne, if healthy, have the potential to form one of the top cornerback duos in the NFL next season. The Jets brought free agent E.J. Gaines in for a visit, but he ended up signing with Cleveland. Time will tell whether or not Buster Skrine will be sticking around.

Demario Davis enjoyed a breakout season at middle linebacker this past season, but his age and previous inconsistency resulted in Maccagnan allowing him to walk. Instead, the Jets signed 26-year-old Avery Williamson to a three-year, $22.5 million contract. This is a great value signing for the Jets, but there are questions about Williamson’s coverage abilities.

Aside from cutting much-maligned Muhammad Wilkerson, the Jets have been quiet on the defensive end front. Fans should be excited to see a healthy Leonard Williams in his fourth season as a pro.

Picks and Needs

The Jets changed the entire complexion of the 2018 NFL Draft by trading with the Colts for the third overall pick. In exchange for Colts’ pick, the Jets gave up the sixth pick, both 2018 second-round picks (37th and 49th) and their 2019 second-round pick. After this transaction, the Jets have six total picks in the 2018 NFL Draft.

First round (1 pick): 3

Second round (0)

Third round (1): 72

Fourth round (1): 107

Fifth round (1): 157

Sixth round (1): 179

Seventh round (1): 235

Offensive needs:

Quarterback – Josh McCown and Teddy Bridgewater were nice free agent signings, but if the Jets want to finally return to the status of contender, they need to find their next Joe Namath.

Running back – Yes, the Jets signed Isaiah Crowell to a three-year deal, but the way the contract is structured allows the Jets to part ways with him after one season if it does not work out. Bilal Powell is 29 years old and Elijah McGuire is still developing. It would not hurt the Jets to invest in a future running back.

Offensive guard – The Jets are locked into Brian Winters at right guard for the time being, but could seek out a replacement for James Carpenter in the draft.

Defensive needs:

Defensive line – After trading Sheldon Richardson and cutting Muhammad Wilkerson, the Jets’ once most talented position is now a big need. There are serious question marks after Leonard Williams and Steve McLendon.

Edge rusher – This is a position that has plagued the Jets for decades. The Jets struggle to gain pressure on the opposing quarterback without blitzing. It is imperative that they address this.

Cornerback – The Jets did a nice job at addressing their need at outside cornerback by signing Trumaine Johnson and bringing back Morris Claiborne, but Buster Skrine’s deal is coming to a close and the Jets ought to look for his replacement.

Targets

The picks in this section are the players the Jets could realistically select with their respective picks.

First round:

Pick No. 3: Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA

New York Jets 2018 NFL Draft profile

Josh Rosen could be the Jets’ target at No. 3. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

By trading with the Colts to obtain the third overall pick in the draft, Maccagnan announced to the league that the Jets are all in on finding their quarterback of the future with this pick. This trade changes the complexion of the draft in the sense that this trade may force Cleveland to select a quarterback with the No. 1 overall pick.

However, it is very possible that Maccagnan has fallen in love with the arm of Josh Rosen. Rosen is probably the most NFL ready quarterback in the draft this season, and that could be an appealing factor for the Jets. Rosen’s physicality fits the NFL quarterback mold (6-foot-4, 226 pounds), and his arm strength and accuracy will help him make all the necessary throws.

While Rosen may be the top pure passer in the draft, teams are concerned about his outspoken personality and injury history. Teams have expressed doubts about Rosen’s leadership abilities and love of the game. Rosen also suffered two concussions this past season and underwent surgery to repair a soft tissue injury in his right shoulder. Naturally, teams are concerned about his durability as the game’s physicality increases in the NFL.

Third round:

Pick No. 72: Brian O’Neill, OT, Pittsburgh

O’Neill stands at 6-foot-6 and around 300 pounds. He is a versatile athlete who once played wide receiver and tight end. However, he transitioned to offensive line after gaining a lot of muscle weight. O’Neill would be a smart investment for a Jets team that saw its offensive line struggle at times throughout last season. By bringing in a long-term project, it provides the Jets with insurance once Kelvin Beachum’s contract ends.

Conclusion

The Jets have announced to the world that this year’s draft is quarterback or bust. If Maccagnan finds the next Joe Namath, fans will anoint him as a saint. If he misses, it may cost him his job.

Enjoy the days of Draftmas here at The Game Haus! Make sure to tune in tomorrow for the Denver Broncos 2018 NFL Draft profile.

 

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2018 Sweet 16 thoughts

Thoughts on the 2018 Sweet 16

The 2018 NCAA Tournament has certainly lived up to its billing as March Madness. We have seen No. 16 UMBC stun Virginia, the top seeded team in the tournament. The defending national champion North Carolina Tar Heels got steamrolled by No. 7 Texas A&M, who appears to be peaking at the right time. Syracuse also shut down trendy national champion pick Michigan State to continue its unlikely run.

We have witnessed history numerous times this tournament, and it is safe to assume the upsets will not stop. Let’s dive in and take a look at how the chips have fallen in each region and what fans should expect moving forward.

Is No. 5 Kentucky a Final Four Lock?

When the bracket was revealed, it appeared that Kentucky would potentially have to get through Arizona, Virginia and Cincinnati to reach the Final Four. Thanks to the chaos that subsumed the South Region, Kentucky, a No. 5 seed, is the highest ranked team to reach the Sweet 16. Now coach John Calipari needs to defeat No. 9 Kansas State and either No. 7 Nevada or No. 11 Loyola-Chicago to reach San Antonio.

That being said, is Kentucky a lock to make the Final Four?

While they are certainly the heavy favorite, Kentucky is by no means a sure thing to reach San Antonio. However, this Kentucky team is clicking at the right time. In a 95-75 Round of 32 victory over Buffalo, four players scored double-digits. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander anchors the Kentucky offense, having dominated both games in the tournament. In Kentucky’s 78-73 win over Davidson, Gilgeous-Alexander scored 19 points, grabbed eight rebounds, dished out seven assists and recorded five steals.

2018 Sweet 16 thoughts

Kevin Knox needs to maintain consistency if Kentucky is to advance. (Photo by Chris Humphrey, SB Nation)

The key for Kentucky to continue its march to San Antonio is the play of both Kevin Knox and Wenyen Gabriel. Knox willed Kentucky past Davidson with 25 points on 50 percent shooting, but only mustered eight points against Buffalo. Meanwhile, Gabriel was a non-factor against Davidson, only scoring one point. But against Buffalo, Gabriel torched the Bulls by scoring 16 points and hauling in 12 rebounds.

Calipari needs these two players to show up on the same day moving forward. Gabriel’s ability to stretch the floor was dearly missed against Davidson, as the Wildcats did not record a single 3-point shot. This will create more space for Knox to work in the middle of the defense. Knox’s specialties are his mid-range shot and ability to get to the free-throw line (he shot 11 free throws against Davidson).

With all of this being said, the remaining three teams in the South all pose unique challenges to Kentucky. Kansas State ranks 20th in adjusted defensive efficiency according to KenPom. Barry Brown has buoyed Kansas State’s offense in the tournament thus far, scoring 18 points against both Creighton and UMBC.

Kansas State wants to slow down the pace of play and disrupt their opponent’s offensive rhythm. They are a tenacious on-ball defensive squad that is battle-tested thanks to a difficult Big 12 schedule this season. State’s defense held Creighton and UMBC to 33.8 and 29.8 percent shooting from the field respectively. The problem for Kansas State is on the other end of the court. Outside of Brown, State does not have any consistent offensive threats.

Loyola-Chicago and Nevada have each shown that they are unafraid of the spotlight in the tournament. The Ramblers relied on two game-winning shots with under five seconds to play. The Ramblers attack their opponents with a balanced offensive style. No player has scored over 16 points per game thus far in the tournament. Their defense leads into their offense.

Nevada is an explosive offensive team that can get up and down the court quickly. All five of their starters are capable of scoring double-digits. The Achilles heel of the Wolfpack could be their short bench or tendency to come out of the gate sluggish. Nevada needed two big comebacks to defeat both Texas and Cincinnati.

In short, Kentucky needs to play their best basketball moving forward if Calipari wants a chance to raise his second title banner at Kentucky.

Does Defense Win Championships?

The East Regional Sweet 16 features a tantalizing matchup between Villanova and West Virginia. Villanova features a high-flying offensive style that emphasizes the three ball. Meanwhile, West Virginia plays a pressure-oriented defense that is capable of dictating the pace of play.

Villanova has arguably been the most dominant team in the tournament. Mikal Bridges has been nothing short of dominant in both games. In Villanova’s 81-58 demolition of Alabama, Bridges poured in 23 points while shooting 62.5 percent from three.

2018 Sweet 16 thoughts

Donte DiVincenzo may be the key to Villanova’s Final Four chances. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

The X-factor for Villanova is the offensive production of Donte DiVincenzo. DiVincenzo scored 18 points and dished out five assists against Alabama. When DiVincenzo’s shot is falling, Jay Wright’s squad becomes nearly unstoppable.

West Virginia comes into the this game after crushing Murray State and Marshall, two vastly overmatched teams. Everyone knew West Virginia’s defense could disrupt any team, but the question was whether they could muster up enough offense to make a run to the Final Four. Luckily for Bob Huggins, his team has averaged 89.5 points per game in the tournament.

Senior point guard Jevon Carter has anchored West Virginia so far, averaging 24.5 points per game. But the reemergence of Teddy Allen (16 points against Murray State), Lamont West (18 points against Marshall) and Esa Ahmad (12 and 10 points respectively) have added another dimension to this Mountaineer team.

Regardless, this showdown will be decided by whether Press Virginia can slow down Villanova’s 3-point offense. West Virginia’s defense wears opposing teams down and completely throws them off balance. West Virginia forced 16 and 18 turnovers against Murray State and Marshall respectively. Granted, there is a large step up in guard play from those two teams to Villanova.

Villanova’s versatile lineup is equipped to handle the relentless West Virginia pressure. Jalen Brunson, Phil Booth, DiVincenzo and Bridges can all handle the ball and push it up the court. The key for teams playing against West Virginia is to not just beat the press, but attack it. Villanova is built similarly to Kansas, a team that beat West Virginia three times this season by attacking the press to score.

The key for West Virginia will be to avoid any prolonged scoring droughts. Even a great defensive team cannot entirely contain an offensive juggernaut like Villanova the whole game. West Virginia does a great job of jumping on teams with their intensity and pressure, but their inability to consistently implement their pressure after scoring tends to be their Achilles heel. Huggins needs Dexter Miles to rediscover his shot from the Big 12 Tournament if West Virginia wants a chance to take down Villanova.

Wild, Wild West

2018 Sweet 16 thoughts

Gonzaga should be the favorite to reach the title game on the left side of the bracket. (Photo by Ted S. Warren/Associated Press)

The West Region saw the two top seeds, Xavier and North Carolina, fall hard in the Round of 32. Florida State avenged last season’s Round of 32 demolition at the hands of Xavier with a late-game comeback that catapulted them into the Sweet 16. Texas A&M destroyed the defending national champs from start to finish in a game that was not remotely competitive.

The intriguing aspect of this region is that all four remaining teams have a legitimate shot to make the Final Four. Gonzaga and Michigan, with all their talent, have looked shaky at times throughout the tournament. Texas A&M seems to have rediscovered their form from earlier in the season, and Florida State showed the grit and toughness necessary for a deep tournament run.

Texas A&M showcases a lineup that is long and dangerous offensively. Tyler Davis is a 6-foot-10, 266 pound behemoth who creates mismatches by simply walking onto the court. Davis controls the paint in most games and his efficiency is key for the Aggies.

However, the team that is the most equipped to escape the West, and reach the championship game, is Gonzaga. Gonzaga’s versatility matches up with every team on the left side of the bracket. Zach Norvell has torched teams from behind the arc and Johnathan Williams has bullied opponents in the paint. Josh Perkins brings experience at the point guard position, and we are still waiting for Killian Tillie to erupt from three.

 

Featured image by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images North America.

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2018 NCAA Bracket regional analysis and Final Four picks

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! The after Selection Sunday is utter madness and insanity. Pundits are declaring their final four picks and fans are frantically researching to try to find that one sleeper team that is poised for a run. Now I’m not saying I am an expert or anything, simply an average Joe who nailed three of the Final Four teams, the title game match-up and the champion last season.

What I am saying is if you want to know the ins and outs of each region and the eventual regional champ, keep reading below. Let’s get to it!

South Region

The South region starts and ends with the most dominant team in college basketball this season: Virginia. The two-loss Cavaliers steamrolled their way to an ACC regular season and tournament championship. Coach Tony Bennett’s crew, buoyed by their impenetrable pack line defense, led the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency according to KenPom. Virginia forces opponents into contested looks better than anyone in the nation and rarely gives up transition buckets.

With that being said, Bennett will not have a cake walk to San Antonio this season. Assuming Virginia can make it into the Sweet Sixteen, they will most likely draw either No. 4 Arizona or No. 5 Kentucky. Both teams are peaking at the right moment as they each won their respective conference tournament championships.

Arizona seems to be a trendy pick in this region. Anchored by DeAndre Ayton, who is arguably the nation’s best player at the moment, the Wildcats dismantled opponents in the second half during the PAC-12 Tournament. Ayton scored 32 points and grabbed 18 rebounds in Arizona’s 75-61 victory over USC in the PAC-12 title game. Ayton is nearly unguardable when he receives the ball in the post and Coach Sean Miller will look to exploit this advantage nearly every possession.

The bottom half of the bracket features more defensive teams in Cincinnati, Tennessee, Miami and Texas. A potential upset pick could be Loyola-Chicago over Miami. Miami will be without Bruce Brown Jr. for the length of the Tournament after sustaining a foot injury. Brown’s injury weakens Miami’s offensive consistency as he averaged 11.4 points per game, one of only three players to do so for the Hurricanes.

This may be Tony Bennett’s best shot at reaching a Final Four (Brad Penner/USA TODAY Sports).

Cincinnati has ranked highly on basically every metric available, but has played relatively weak teams throughout the season. The Bearcats nonconference schedule featured numerous mid-major teams aside from Xavier and Florida (both of whom defeated Cincinnati). Cincinnati is a great defensive team, but is prone to stagnation on the offensive end.

When it is all said and done, I believe the Sweet Sixteen match-up between Arizona and Virginia will decide who comes out of this region. Arizona was a preseason favorite to reach San Antonio and compete for a national title, but they have failed to live up to expectations. That game will feature a battle of the pack line defenses (Arizona plays this style as well) and while the Wildcats have more talent, I’m riding with the team whose defense has not been solved yet.

Add in the fact that people are riding Arizona based on the fact that they won the PAC-12 in a season where only three teams reached the big dance (and the other two needed a play-in game to make it). Arizona’s defense is shaky and their guards struggle to consistenty feature Ayton in the offense. Give me a Cavalier team that dismantled the ACC this season.

West Region

Here is where things get tricky. Xavier, the fourth number one seed in the Tournament this season, is by far the weakest top seed in the Tournament this season. According to KenPom, the Musketeers were the ninth luckiest team in the nation this season. Pundits make Trevon Blueitt out to be the next coming of Kemba Walker, but Blueitt has been prone to shooting slumps throughout the season.

Blueitt has averaged 19.5 points per game this season on 44.2 percent shooting from the field and 42.3 percent from three. However, in Xavier’s 75-72 Big East semifinal overtime loss to Providence, Blueitt was limited to 13 points on 14 percent shooting from the field. Xavier has the offensive firepower to survive the first weekend if Blueitt has an off-game, but after that, the Musketeers need Blueitt to be on to make it to San Antonio.

With that being said, watch out for the No. 4 Gonzaga Bulldogs. This Gonzaga team may not have the hype of last year’s squad that lost to UNC in the national title, but these Bulldogs have even more versatility than that team. This team is long, athletic and well-rounded. Johnathan Williams lead the Zags with 13.5 points and 8.3 rebounds per game, but sophomore Rui Hachimura is the key for the Zags this year. If Hachimura can provide consistent low-post scoring and rebounding, the Zags will be a tough out.

Killian Tillie is poised for stardom in the big dance (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review).

The bottom half of this region has explosive potential. Headlined by the defending national champion North Carolina and scorching hot Michigan. North Carolina looked shaky throughout the year, but behind the offensive development of Theo Pinson, the Tar Heels look poised to make some noise once again.

Michigan roared its way to back-to-back Big Ten Tournament titles behind its defense. This is easily the best defensive team of the John Beilein era and the Wolverines are looking to take care of unfinished business this year. Avoiding foul trouble and free throw shooting are weaknesses for Michigan though. Star center Moe Wagner is prone to early fouls. If opponents can force him onto the bench early, Michigan will lose a serious offensive weapon.

Both Michigan and UNC should draw difficult Round of 32 opponents. UNC could be dealing with a dangerous Providence team that knocked off Xavier and pushed Villanova to overtime in the Big East Tournament. Michigan will either play a Houston team that defeated Wichita State and lost to Cincinnati by one point in the AAC title game or a streaking San Diego State.

When it’s all said and done, expect the top four seed to advance to the Sweet Sixteen. In a rematch of last year’s Western Regional Elite Eight, Gonzaga will eliminate Xavier behind strong performances from Killian Tillie, Zach Norvell and Williams. Michigan’s defensive pressure will force UNC out of its comfort zone on offense and Wagner will outduel Luke Maye to send the Wolverines to the Elite Eight.

I like Gonzaga to sneak by Michigan in the Elite Eight behind a strong game from Killian Tillie, who will force Wagner into foul trouble. Gonzaga has the length to handle ball screens and switching assignments. Tillie is versatile enough to check Wagner on the perimeter as well. The Zags will ride him back to the Final Four.

East REgion

Villanova has run college basketball for the past three seasons. Coach Jay Wright’s player development is nothing short of extraordinary, as he has turned Jalen Brunson into the frontrunner for the Wooden Award and Mikal Bridges into a lottery pick candidate.

This Wildcat team has the capability to run you off the court. They are relentless and disciplined and force you to play the full 40 minutes if you want to send them home with a loss. If Villanova has one weakness, it is that they are heavily reliant on the three ball. Six players on this team shoot over 38 percent from three, but this style of play lacks consistency at times.

When Villanova’s three pointers are not falling, this team can be beaten. In Villanova’s 76-71 loss to Providence in the regular season, the Wildcats only shot 15 percent from three. In their 89-83 overtime loss to Creighton, Villanova took 39 three pointers and only made 12. If Villanova struggles from behind the arc against any of the top teams in this region, watch out.

West Virginia is Villanova’s biggest threat in the top half of this region. The Mountaineers have looked dominant at times this season behind the play of senior guard Jevon Carter. West Virginia’s press defense can be difficult to prepare for in short notice and in single elimination tournaments. Press Virginia feasts on tired legs.

However, West Virginia’s defense can be susceptible to transition buckets if the opposing to team looks to score while breaking the press. That’s a big reason West Virginia struggled to contain Kansas in their three meetings. Villanova has the offensive capability to capitalize on offense after beating the press.

The bottom of the bracket is headlined by Texas Tech and Purdue. Purdue has had an extra week off after the Big Ten Tournament and was one of the hottest teams in the nation for most of the season. Purdue, much like Villanova, feasts off the three ball with the likes of Carsen Edwards and Vincent Edwards.

Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges can send the Wildcats to their second Final Four in three seasons (Joe Robbins/Getty Images).

Texas Tech suffocates teams with their half court defense. Their versatility allows them to switch through ball screens and guard multiple positions. Keenan Evans appears to be returning to normalcy after his turf toe injury later in the season. Tech’s offense can stagnate at times and relies on Evans’s play-making ability to bail them out. If the Red Raiders want to make some noise, they will need Zhaire Smith, Jared Culver and Tommy Hamilton to step up on offense.

A darkhorse in this region could be the Arkansas Razorbacks. Arkansas rolls out two incredibly talented guards in Jaylen Barford and Daryl Macon. Barford and Macon average 18 and 16.9 points per game respectively while each shooting 43 percent from three. Daniel Gafford, who stands a 6-foot-11, can go toe-to-toe with Purdue’s Isaac Haas if they end up squaring off in the Round of 32.

When it comes down to it, I expect mostly chalk as Villanova will square off against West Virginia and Purdue will take on Texas Tech. Villanova-West Virginia is set up to be an absolute war as Press Virginia will have some early success against the Wildcats. I was tempted to go with the Mountaineers, but the big question is whether they can get enough offense to catapult them into the next round. I don’t think so.

Purdue-Texas Tech is clash of styles. Tech is a defensive juggernaut and Purdue can score with the best of them. Purdue’s biggest weakness is defending the pick and roll, as Haas struggles with lateral quickness on the perimeter. Look for Tech to utilize high ball screens to scramble Purdue’s defense and have some success. Tech will advance in a nail-biter.

Tech will look to slow down the pace against Villanova in the Elite Eight, work their defense through off-ball screens and run the Wildcats off of the three point line. However, Tech’s offense will stall during the final ten minutes of the game and Mikal “Big Shot” Bridges will send the Wildcats to the Final Four with his clutch play down the stretch.

Midwest Region

The Midwest is most certainly the region of death. At the one spot, we have Kansas led by Big 12 Player of the Year Devonte’ Graham. Graham’s development has been nothing short of breathtaking. Graham has anchored this Jayhawk unit by scoring 17.3 points and dishing out 7.5 assists per game. Graham has the ability to lead Coach Bill Self past the Elite Eight this season.

There are two big factors for this Kansas squad. The first lies in the health of Udoka Azubuike. Azubuike sprained his left MCL in practice before the Big 12 Tournament. Azubuike has been a dominant force in the paint for the Jayhawks, averaging 13.7 points on 77.4 percent shooting and grabbing 7.1 rebounds. Silvio De Sousa, Azubuike’s replacement, showed Self that he can provide strong rebounding and post scoring off of the bench. De Sousa torched West Virginia in the Big 12 title game with 16 points and 10 rebounds.

Mississippi State transfer Malik Newman’s offensive consistency is critical as well. Newman lit the lamp throughout the Big 12 Tournament from beyond the arc, relieving Svi Mykhailiuk and Graham of some of the offensive burden. Newman averaged 24 points throughout the Big 12 Tournament. If Newman continues this hotstreak, watch out.

Duke and Michigan State appear to be on a crash course for a Sweet Sixteen clash. Michigan State has been the most popular pick to emerge out of this region. Michigan State is a deep team that has a dangerous front court in Jaren Jackson and Nick Ward. Miles Bridges runs the show in East Lansing, averaging 16.9 points and 6.9 rebounds per game. Bridges is an incredible athlete, but struggles to create off of the dribble against press defense and falls in love with his jump shot from time to time.

Duke’s season turned around ever since Coach K implemented the 2-3 zone. According to KenPom, Duke is ranked seventh in the nation in defensive efficiency, a stunning turnaround for a team that was putrid on the defensive end early on. Duke can score with any team in the nation most nights. Duke’s frontcourt, featuring ACC Player of the Year Marvin Bagley and lottery pick Wendell Carter, is a fearsome duo that can be difficult to slow down. Grayson Allen is a marksman from deep, too.

Malik Newman’s offensive consistency is key for Kansas (Shane Keyser/The Kansas City Star).

Duke bowed out of the ACC Tournament with an ugly loss to UNC 74-69. Many people expected Duke to storm past an inferior Tar Heel team (including myself). Theo Pinson and Luke Maye shredded Duke’s 2-3 zone by finding the soft spot in the middle. If Duke runs into a team that solves the 2-3, they could be going home early.

The team most susceptible to an upset in this region is Auburn. Auburn squares off against an underrated Charleston team. Auburn got outclassed by Collin Sexton and Alabama in the SEC quarterfinals. The Tigers got outscored by 28 points in the second half and looked atrocious on defense. If Auburn’s three pointers are not falling, don’t be surprised if they bow out early.

My Sweet Sixteen consists of Kansas-Clemson and Duke-MSU. Kansas will squeak by a tough match-up against either NC State or Seton Hall (I have NC State in my bracket) and then breeze through an outmatched Clemson to Self’s third straight Elite Eight.

Duke-Michigan State could be one of the best games of the Tournament and will have a Final Four atmosphere to it. Fun fact: Tom Izzo is a mere 1-11 against Coach K during his career. This game feels like a toss-up, but I’m sending Duke to the Elite Eight. Duke has faced superior competition all year and has more talent. Michigan State will look to attack the 2-3 utilizing Jaren Jackson, so look out for him to have a big game. Duke will get hot from three and ride Bagley to the Elite Eight.

The ride will end their for the Blue Devils. It seems that pundits across America have implicitly agreed to send the winner of Duke-MSU to the Final Four. Kansas has the tools to shred Duke’s 2-3 zone. Look for Self to work the zone inside-out with either Legerald Vick or Mykhailiuk manning the high post. Newman, Graham and Mykhailiuk are three point assassins and could light Duke up from beyond the arc. De Sousa will be the X-factor and will contain Bagley enough to send Self to an unlikely Final Four.

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2018 SEC Tournament preview

The SEC arguably boosted its stock the most during the 2017 NCAA Tournament with three teams reaching the Elite Eight. This trend continued in the 2018 season as an Auburn program riddled in scandal claimed a share of the SEC regular season title for the first time since 1999. A Kentucky team that reeled in six five-star recruits only finished fourth in league standings. This shows how deep this conference is and how unforgiving the schedule and competition can be.

Which team will scratch and claw their way to the top? Let’s dive in and find out.

overview

This SEC season was defined by Auburn and Tennessee. The Tigers jumped out to a blazing 10-1 conference record before cooling down substantially. Bryce Brown and his streaky jump shot led the way all season for Auburn. The Vols settled down after a rocky start to conference play and have won four straight entering the SEC Tournament. The SEC preseason media poll projected Tennessee to finish in 13th out of 14 teams.

Florida and Kentucky, the two favorites heading into the season, endured a season maligned by inconsistencies. Florida’s offense appeared unstoppable when its three point shooting was on point, but lost and confused when it was not. Kentucky, a preseason season national title favorite, never seemed to fully come together as so many John Calipari coached teams do down the stretch of the season.

Missouri’s conference championship hopes were dashed when top-three recruit Michael Porter Jr. went down in the first game of the season with a back injury. However, Missouri still battled its way to a fifth place finish. Alabama drew preseason intrigue due to the presence of flashy, confident freshman Collin Sexton. Sexton, along with freshman John Petty, could not vault the Crimson Tide into serious contention at any point during the season.

favorites

Admiral Schofield led Tennessee to a share of the SEC regular season title (Wade Payne/Associated Press).

Auburn dominated the SEC for about three quarters of the season. Coach Bruce Pearl’s blistering and relentless attack often left opponents dazed and confused. Pearl encouraged aggressively pushing the ball on offense, often seeking an early three point shot attempt in transition. Bryce Brown spearheaded the Tigers’s attack, averaging 16.4 points on 41 percent shooting.

Mustapha Heron added 16.6 points and 5.5 rebounds per game for the Tigers. Heron’s ability to create plays off the dribble helped create space for Auburn’s shooters on the wings.

Tennessee was led by the two-headed of Admiral Schofield and Grant Williams all season long. Schfield averaged 13.5 points and 6.1 rebounds while Williams added 15.6 points and 5.8 rebounds. Tennessee, winners of four straight to end the season, will look to continue to build off of that momentum in the SEC Tournament. Schofield, in particular, has been hot, pouring in 25, 24, and 23 points respectively in each of his last three games.

darkhorse: Arkansas

2018 SEC Tournament Preview

Daryl Macon has Arkansas primed to shock the SEC world (Bob Donnan/USA TODAY Sports).

Many pundits are clamoring about how the possible return of Michael Porter Jr. will magically vault Missouri into a dangerous darkhorse role both in this tournament and the NCAA Tournament. However, there is not guarentee Porter will play this tournament, and if he does, no one knows how effective he will be. Porter is returning from back surgery and will most likely struggle in his first few games back.

Meanwhile, the Razorbacks are seemingly rounding into shape as the SEC Tournament begins. Arkansas will enter the tournament winners of six of their past eight games. Led by two dynamic scorers in Jaylen Barford and Daryl Macon, the Razorbacks are capable of shooting any opponent out of the gym.

Both Macon and Barford each average over 17 points per game and shoot 43.8 and 43.4 percent from three-point range as well. Arkansas, as a team, shoots at a 48.1 percent from the field and 40.2 percent from three.

Arkansas can be derailed by poor free throw shooting. As a team, the Razorbacks only shoot 67 percent from the pinstripe. Poor fundamentals such as missing free throws can lead to blown late leads and disappointing exits in single-elimination tournaments.

The Champion: Auburn

2018 SEC Tournament Preview

Bryce Brown is capable of shooting Auburn to an SEC Tournament title (Adam Sparks/Scout.com).

Auburn seemingly found its offensive legs once again in its much-needed 79-70 victory over South Carolina. Down by eight points early in the match, Bryce Brown awoke out of hibernation to score 29 points on 60 percent shooting. Brown’s primary offensive game stems from his ability to hit open three pointers in transition. Brown could not buy a bucket during Auburn’s brutal stretch of losing three of four before defeating South Carolina.

In its first game, Auburn will take on either Texas A&M or Alabama. A&M defeated Alabama in its final game to end the season. Even though both of these teams found a way to take down Auburn during the regular season, Auburn’s offense is clicking at the right time and this should be enough to outlast any push from these teams.

Auburn would then take on Kentucky and then Tennessee in the final. If Auburn’s shooting begins to falter, a team like the Vols could take advantage by controlling the pace of play and pounding the rock inside. Look for Brown and Heron to take over in this tournament on the offensive end and lead Auburn to a title.

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