The 6 teams that can win the 2018 NCAA Tournament

While upsets happen all the time in the NCAA Tournament, there are usually only a handful of teams that can win the tournament. These teams are efficient on both ends of the floor and are usually battle-tested as well. The last team to win it all and not be top 25 in both offensive and defensive efficiency was UConn in 2014. That UConn team is the only team since 2002 not meet those parameters and still win the championship. With that being said, here are the six teams that can come out on top this March Madness:

Virginia Cavaliers

This is the most obvious of the teams because they are the number one overall seed and have just two losses on the season. They weren’t highly thought of at the start of the season, as they weren’t ranked in the AP or coaches polls. There have only been four teams to go from being unranked in the preseason to winning it all since the tournament expanded to 64 teams. Virginia was underrated, but is now the team to beat in this tournament.

Why are they one of a few select teams that can win the NCAA Tournament? They rank first in points allowed per 100 possessions and 21st in points per 100 possessions. Their style of play slows the game down for opponents. The Cavaliers play lock down defense, then take their time to get a good shot by running good half-court offense.

Their bracket will be tough, with possible matchups with Kentucky, Arizona, Tennessee or Cincinnati, but Virginia has proven to be able to beat just about everyone they play this season. Can Tony Bennett finally find the tournament success that he desires?

Villanova Wildcats

teams that can win the 2018 NCAA Tournament

Mikal Bridges (Photo by draftexpress.com)

Villanova did not win the Big East regular season title, but did win the Big East Tournament. The Wildcats have lost some questionable games this season, but have also beaten the best of the best. This includes two wins over number one seed Xavier, a win over number three seed Tennessee and a win over number four seed Gonzaga.

The Wildcats are the most efficient offensive team in the country, averaging 127.4 points per 100 possessions. They are also pretty good at defense, ranking 22nd in defensive efficiency. The offense is run by Jalen Brunson, who does a good job of setting up the offense from the point guard position. Villanova also has Mikal Bridges, a future lottery pick, who is a great two way player. His length helps him guard great wing players and limit their effectiveness.

They also have some difficult games that they will have to get through in their bracket. West Virginia, Wichita State, Texas Tech and Purdue are all possible matchups they could have in the second weekend of the tournament. At times they rely too much on three point shooting, but when they get good shots, they are capable of winning six straight games and taking home the trophy.

Duke Blue Devils

Duke had a great recruiting class, but was only able to obtain a number two seed. Even though they didn’t get a one seed, they have a better chance of winning the tournament than the one seeds not listed here. Like Villanova, Duke has beaten some great teams, but also has lost some head-scratchers.

A lot has been made about Duke’s defense this season, but has gotten much better the last month of the season. They rank seventh in the country in defensive efficiency now. The Blue Devils have gone to a zone defense and use their length to contest shots. They also rank third in the country in offensive efficiency, with great offensive threats like Grayson Allen and Marvin Bagley III.

With their defense fixed, they have every opportunity to cut the nets down in San Antonio. They have a possible rematch with Michigan State in the Sweet 16 that could be the game of the tournament. Duke won the first matchup 88-81, but that game was months ago.

Michigan State Spartans

teams that can win the 2018 NCAA Tournament

Miles Bridges (Photo by draftexpress.com)

The Spartans only had four losses all season, but got a four seed. This was partially due to scheduling, but also an effect of the Big Ten being down this season. They only lost to NCAA Tournament teams this season in: Duke, Ohio State and Michigan (2x).

Michigan State is both efficient on offense and defense ranking ninth in both categories. They have too many good players to get on the floor consistently, so they are deep and stay pretty fresh. Another key factor here is that Michigan State ranks first in points per game with 19.8. This has helped them have five scorers in double figures for the season.

With stars like Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson Jr., the Spartans certainly have the talent to win it all. They will likely have to get past Duke in the Sweet 16, but if they get past that point, the Spartans will be more widely accepted as a favorite to win the whole thing.

Gonzaga Bulldogs

Gonzaga got a four seed with only four losses on the season, because they play in the WCC. Their only loss to a non-tournament team came to St. Mary’s, who was a bubble team. They also beat quality teams such as Ohio State, Creighton and Texas.

The Bulldogs rank 12th in offensive efficiency and 17th in defensive efficiency. While they may not have the stars like the last two seasons, Gonzaga has some solid players that can help them win the title. They have five players averaging over 10 points per game and have some matchup nightmares in Johnathan Williams and Killian Tillie. Point guard Josh Perkins has necessary tournament experience and has run the offense well in his first season taking over those duties.

The West region is there for the taking, as the number one seeded Xavier plays selective defense. The Musketeers rank 59th in defensive efficiency, which means Gonzaga should be able to do some damage on that defense. If they can get to the Elite 8 and play what will likely be UNC or Michigan, anything can happen.

Kentucky Wildcats

teams that can win the 2018 NCAA Tourrnament

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (Photo by draftexpress.com)

The Wildcats are peaking at the right time, but are still the least likely on this list to win the NCAA Championship. They won the SEC Tournament, showing that they have improved throughout the season. Kentucky has won games over Virginia Tech, Texas A&M, West Virginia, Alabama (2x), Arkansas, Missouri and Tennessee, who are all in the field of 68.

Surprisingly, Kentucky ranks 25th in offensive efficiency and 23rd in defensive efficiency. While their half-court offense still needs some work, they get out in transition very well. Their length is what helps them on defense, as there are times when the shortest person on the floor is 6’6″. They create matchup problems with 6’6″ point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Kevin Knox, who has the size of a big man, but plays mostly on the perimeter.

The South region is going to be tough to come out of, especially for a very young team like Kentucky. The second round features a matchup with DeAndre Ayton and Arizona. If they happen to get to the Sweet 16 to play Virginia, they will have to play the game of their lives to win.

 

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Big Ten Tournament Semifinal predictions

After an exciting quarterfinals in Madison Square Garden, the Big Ten Tournament semifinals looks to put forth some exhilarating basketball. Both games feature rematches from earlier this season as the Michigan State Spartans look to avenge their home loss to the upstart Michigan Wolverines back on Jan. 13. Meanwhile, the Penn State Nittany Lions look to lock down an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament by sending Purdue packing early.

Who will advance to the title game? Let’s dive in and make some predictions!

No. 1 Michigan State vs. No. 5 Michigan

Big Ten Tournament Semifinal Predictions

Moe Wagner and the Wolverines may be the hottest team in NCAAB (Kirtmon F. Dozier/Detroit Free Press).

This is the match-up everyone around the Big Ten hoped for. Back on Jan. 13, the Wolverines invaded East Lansing and knocked out Michigan State 82-72. Moe Wagner put up a career-best 27 points on 61.5 percent shooting. Zavier Simpson also demonized the Spartans with 16 points and five assists.

One of the big reasons the Wolverines walked out of East Lansing with a victory was their ability to limit the Spartans from beyond the arc. As a team, Michigan State averages shooting 41.8 percent from deep. However, Michigan’s top 10 defense limited them to only 23.1 percent from three.

For both teams heading into this match-up avoiding foul trouble will be critical. Opposing teams understand that the best way to defeat Michigan is to lure them into foul trouble. As great as the Wolverine defense is, it can be undisciplined at times. Moe Wagner, in particular, averages three personal fouls per game. Michigan State should go to Jaren Jackson Jr. and Nick Ward early to try to bait Wagner into early fouls.

Look for Michigan State to utilize Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson on offense heavily throughout the day. Bridges and Jackson each scored 19 points, with Jackson shooting 13 free throws, in their previous meeting. Bridges thrives when playing in space as he can properly use his athleticism to create an advantage over his defenders. Michigan needs to play tight, physical defense all afternoon on Bridges and force him to become a distributor rather than a scorer.

Prediction: This could end up being the most entertaining game of the Tournament. Look for Spartan Coach Tom Izzo to have his team on razor-edge heading into this rematch after a disappointing showing against Wisconsin. Michigan State should have success working through Jackson on the block as his athleticism and physicality will create a mismatch for the Wolverines.

However, Michigan is playing its best basketball of the year. Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman will create problems for the Spartans on the wing and Wagner’s versatility will be difficult to handle. When the game is on the line though, the Wolverine defense will come through and send Coach John Beilein back to the Big Ten title game. Michigan 72, Michigan State 69.

No. 3 Purdue vs. No. 7 Penn State

Big Ten Tournament Semifinal Predictions

Tony Carr has been unstoppable in the Big Ten Tournament (Abbie Parr/Getty Images).

Penn State entered the Tournament as a dark horse candidate that could make a run to the title game. However, No. 8 Purdue represents a more daunting challenge than an Ohio State team that they had defeated twice this year. Purdue got the better of Penn State on Feb. 18 at the Mackey Arena by a score of 76-73. In that game, Purdue was without Vincent Edwards, who scored 26 points against Rutgers last night.

The story of this game is the match-up between Big Ten All-American first team selections Tony Carr and Carsen Edwards. Carr went toe-to-toe with Keita Bates-Diop last night and emerged victorious. Carr is undeniably the hottest player in the Big Ten at the moment, averaging 25 points, six rebounds and four and a half assists. Carr is at his best in an iso set where he can lull his defender to sleep and create opportunities for himself or his teammates.

However, Purdue is ranked third in offensive efficiency according to KenPom. The Boilermakers are lethal from three point range, as Rutgers can attest to. They started off the game only one for eight, but caught fire down the stretch. Carsen Edwards can beat opponents in numerous different ways. He averaged 18.4 points, 3.8 rebounds and 3.1 assists during the season.

The key to this match-up lies in how the Nittany Lions will slow down Isaac Haas and how Purdue keeps Penn State off of the offensive glass. Without Michael Watkins, Coach Pat Chambers will have his work cut out for him in devising a way to slow down Haas. Purdue surrender 17 offensive rebounds to Rutgers, allowing them to stay within striking distance for much of the second half. They have to do a better job at rebounding as a team if they want a chance to play for a championship.

Prediction: Much like Michigan State, Purdue did not have the best showing last night against Rutgers. Coach Matt Painter needs to have his team focused and locked in from the get-go. This Penn State team understands the stakes at play. A win would lock them into the big dance, but a loss leaves things up for chance.

Penn State will rely on Carr to continue befuddling opponents along with strong three point shooting from Shep Garner and Josh Reaves. However, Purdue has the weapons to force Penn State into foul trouble early. Look for the Nittany Lions to put a scare into Purdue and keep things close, but the Boilermakers will ultimately move on to play in the championship. Purdue 78, Penn State, 73.

 

Featured image by Mike Carter/USA TODAY Sports.

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Recapping the early games of the Big Ten Tournament Quarterfinals

The Big Ten Tournament is heating up. On a snowy Friday in New York, the eight remaining teams in the tournament provided fans with an exciting spectacle of drama and offensive firepower. Both teams reigning from Michigan proved superior and are set up for an epic rematch in the world’s most famous arena tomorrow. Let’s dive right in and see what happened today.

No. 1 Michigan State vs. No. 9 Wisconsin

Recapping the Early Games of Big Ten Tournament Quarterfinals

Miles Bridges is a big reason why Michigan State is moving on to the Semi-Finals (Mike Carter/USA TODAY Sports).

In a surprisingly exhilarating, back-and-forth affair, the Spartans escaped by the skin of their teeth against Wisconsin by a score of 63-60. Wisconsin came into this game playing with house money while the lofty expectations seemed to weigh down on Michigan State. Every time Michigan State tried to pull away, Wisconsin would counter with a run of their own.

The story of the game for Michigan State was the play of sophomore phenomenon Miles Bridges. Bridges, after struggling in the early goings of the second half, caught fire in the remaining 10 minutes. Bridges poured in 20 points on 47 percent shooting and hauled in nine rebounds.

Critics have knocked Bridges throughout the year, claiming that he was purely athletic and lacked the skill necessary to lead a team in March. Bridges had the last laugh this afternoon, however, as he showcased his consistent three-point shooting ability, knocking down three of four attempts from beyond the arc. While his ability to consistently knock down mid-range and three-point jumpers really carried Michigan State today, Bridges still has difficulty creating opportunities off the dribble, especially when facing the double team.

Ethan Happ was magnificent for the Badgers all afternoon. Despite picking up two early fouls, Happ schooled Michigan State’s post defense all game. He scored 22 points on 10 of 15 shooting, grabbed four rebounds and dished out four assists. Nick Ward and Jaren Jackson struggled to contain Happ in single coverage.

Jaren Jackson, Michigan State’s dynamic freshman, spent the majority of the game on the bench as he fell into early foul trouble. He only played a total of 15 minutes which is not a recipe for success for the Spartans. However, in the final four minutes, Jackson, in his final two minutes of playing time, came up big with an and-one opportunity.

Poor free throw shooting proved to be the dagger for Wisconsin. The Badgers had numerous opportunities from the line down the stretch to pull even with the Spartans, but they could not convert. Khalil Iverson and Ethan Happ each missed two huge free throws with under two minutes to play.

Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo has to be pleased to escape with a win, but the Spartans will need their A-game if they want to avenge their regular season loss to Michigan in the semifinals. In particular, Joshua Langford needs to assert himself more on offense. Langford looked confused and unsure of himself on offense, either with or without the ball. Langford averages 12.2 points for the Spartans, but only scored four against Wisconsin.

No. 4 Nebraska vs. No. 5 Michigan

Recapping the Early Games of Big Ten Tournament Quarterfinals

Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman’s vesratile play helped boost Michigan to the Semi-Finals (Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY).

In a game that Nebraska had to have to boost its NCAA Tournament stock, the Cornhuskers got outclassed by a superior, hungry Wolverine team. Michigan defeated Nebraska 77-58 in the Big Ten quarterfinals.

Michigan came out of the gates blazing hot. They scorched Nebraska from beyond the arc and their defense devoured the Cornhuskers on defense, forcing them into contested shots. After a sluggish performance against Iowa, Coach Beilein was riding his team from the get-go. The energy and tempo of the Wolverines overwhelmed the Cornhuskers in the first half.

There was not a single Wolverine player that completely dominated as it was a team effort on both ends of the court. Michigan was lights out from three, with Moe Wagner, Duncan Robinson and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman all making two. Quick, decisive ball movement torched the Cornhusker man-to-man defense for the first 15 minutes in the first half. Michigan increased their lead up to 18 in the first.

The tide shifted when Nebraska Coach Tim Miles switched to a 1-3-1 zone defense. This movement stagnated a Michigan offense that was clicking all first half. Big Ten All American first team player James Palmer slowly began to find his groove on offense. He methodically worked the Michigan defense inside and out, resulting in numerous trips to the free throw line.

Palmer’s play continued to carry Nebraska’s offense in the second half, as the Cornhuskers slowly crawled their way to a seven point deficit. However, Wagner and Abdur-Rahkman slammed the door on Nebraska’s comeback. Wagner tortured the Cornhuskers’ defense all afternoon with his inside-outside motion playing style. Abdur-Rahkman’s senior experience and leadership steadied the ship for the Wolverines.

Abdur-Rahkman poured in a game-high 21 points while Wagner added a double-double with 20 points and 13 rebounds. Big 10 sixth player of the year Duncan Robinson knocked in four three-pointers while scoring 16 points. This Wolverine team is peaking at the right time. Check in later tonight for the second half of the quarterfinal recap and tomorrow morning for a semifinal preview.

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The FBI investigation in college basketball: What is going on?

The FBI continues to build a case against a lot of major names in college basketball, who are connected with getting payments from agents and apparel companies. The latest report from Yahoo Sports gave details to the information was gathered from the FBI’s raid of ASM, an agency that had many NBA clients. Over 20 schools were listed in the report.

Assistant coaches have already been arrested for their alleged participation in this, but now Tom Izzo and “Villanova Coaches” were found on this report. It has since been removed from the report. If coaches are connected to the agency in any way, there will likely be heavy sanctions on those programs and the coaches will likely be fired.

Not only were former players named, but current players like Miles Bridges, Kevin Knox, Wendell Carter and Collin Sexton, were all mentioned in the report to varying degrees of receiving money. Some were given loans and payments, while others just met with the agency for dinner. With the former players, wins will likely be vacated, as well as other additional sanctions. The current players may be ruled ineligible if and when the NCAA gets all the details.

The likely situation for all current players is that they will play out the season and be off to the NBA before anything happens. While the NCAA would love to have all the information, this is an FBI investigation that could take years to sort out. The FBI has no obligation to give any documents to the NCAA or help in the NCAA’s process of finding information.

Only Xavier has responded to this report so far. Edmond Sumner was a sophomore point guard on the team last year and was listed as having received $7,000 from the agency.

“I have no relationship with Andy Miller or any of his associates. He plays no role in the recruitment of potential student-athletes on Xavier’s behalf. Beyond that, our staff has never created a path for him to foster a relationship with any of our student-athletes while enrolled at Xavier. Any suggestion that I or anyone on my staff utilized Andy Miller to provide even the slightest of financial benefits to a Xavier student-athlete is grossly misinformed. We are prepared to cooperate with any and all investigations at any level.”

The NCAA has since responded with a statement from President Mark Emmert.

“These allegations, if true, point to systematic failures that must be fixed and fixed now if we want college sports in America. Simply put, people who engage in this kind of behavior have no place in college sports. They are an affront to all those who play by the rules. Following the Southern District of New York’s indictments last year, the NCAA Board of Governors and I formed the independent Commission on College Basketball, chaired by Condoleezza Rice, to provide recommendations on how to clean up the sport. With these latest allegations, it’s clear this work is more important now than ever. The Board and I are completely committed to making transformational changes to the game and ensuring all involved in college basketball do so with integrity. We also will continue to cooperate with the efforts of federal prosecutors to identify and punish the unscrupulous parties seeking to exploit the system through criminal acts.”

What’s next?

Don’t worry about the rest of this season through March Madness. That will go on as scheduled, as there is no way the NCAA gets all of the information needed to punish teams yet. It may be vacated later, but just enjoy watching good basketball. If they don’t get the information from the FBI, then they will likely make overall changes to their current procedures and rules to make these things easier to catch, as well as start to investigate on their own.

It’s a long process for these FBI investigations. The public having this information already is going to create some impatience. The FBI is going to turn over every leaf and hopefully get some confessions. They will likely want to find out how many coaches were involved with the agency actively. Izzo and Villanova coaches are likely going to be fired at some point if this report rings true, since they had direct communication with this agency.

Fans of college basketball who want to know everything now will have to wait. Keep an eye on Yahoo Sports, as they have been the only site to be granted access to these documents. Any further information will likely come from them.

 

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Michigan State basketball 2017-18: same team, more experience

The preseason rankings have Michigan State sitting firmly at number two. A second place rank is tied for the highest rank they have received in school history. The common theme for the 2017-18 Michigan State Spartans is experience.

The Spartans two top scorers returning this season for their sophomore seasons. Miles Bridges and Nick Ward combined to average 30.8 points per game last season and are looking to take the next step for their sophomore seasons.

The Spartans add a few highly touted recruits and return nearly their entire rotation from the 2016-17 season. Experience tends to win come March, and the Michigan State Spartans are loaded with talent and experience across the board.

The sophomore class

Michigan State basketball 2017-18

Michigan States Sophomores, (MLlive.com).

One of the best freshman classes we have seen in a while has stayed together for their sophomore seasons.

Joshua Langford, Cassius Winston, Nick Ward and Miles Bridges were four of the top five scorers for the Spartans in 2016-17. The four added 44.6 points a game which was good for 62 percent of the Spartans’ scoring last season.

Miles Bridges is one of the best returning players in college basketball this season and if he can take the next step forward he will lead a group of sophomores that could take over college basketball.

The freshmen

Lots of freshmen in big time conferences are looking to start and make an immediate impact. Although there is no doubt that Michigan States freshmen could do that, there are lots of other players that can protect the freshmen until they are ready to produce for the Spartans.

Jaren Jackson Jr. is the number nine recruit in this year’s class (via ESPN) and joins a starting lineup that is already loaded. The new freshman guards will learn from Tum Tum Nairn who is a senior.

Xavier Tillman (SF, 6-foot-8) is ranked as the 74th prospect on ESPN’s top 100 and is an excellent post player with tremendous passing skills and a high basketball IQ.

Brock Washington (SG, 6-foot-3) adds a shooting stroke from the guard position. He can help Matt Mcquaid open up a defense for guys like Ward, Bridges and Jackson inside. Washington made 148 threes in his high school career and looks to knock the top off of defenses.

Tom Izzo

This is a very impressive team that Tom Izzo has put together in just two years. He will have a chance to coach a lot of the same guys from last season and gets to work with the talented Miles Bridges again.

The three-time Big Ten Coach of the Year has been coaching Michigan State for 22 years and has had a lot of good teams. I don’t think he has had a team that has been this similar to a year prior however.

Izzo is currently studying tape just like players are, learning the tendencies of his young big men and experienced guards and looking to put them in the best position to succeed. One of the best things to have as a coach is three guys that can go out and get you buckets consistently.

With the addition of Jackson, Michigan State could have struck that this season. With Ward, Bridges and possibly Jackson, the Michigan State Spartans are loaded.

Season prediction

Due to the tremendous freshman class in college basketball there are lots of very good teams this season. Michigan State has experience to balance with great young talent. I think come March the Spartans find a way to be a one seed.

I think they win the Big 10 and end up cutting down the nets come April. Tom Izzo and Miles Bridges will be two key reasons to this Michigan State Spartans team winning the 2018 NCAA National Title. Izzo will finally get himself another National Title.

 

Featured Image from MSUtoday.com.

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College basketball preseason top 25: 5-1

It is the end of October so that means college basketball is right around the corner. What teams should be looked at as the best of the best? This is the final installment in the top 25 rundown. For teams 10-6, click here.

5. Kentucky Wildcats

College basketball preseason top 25

Hamidou Diallo (Photo by bostonherald.com)

The Wildcats lost a heart-breaker to UNC in the Elite Eight last season. Like most years they have to replace most of their team. They don’t return much at all and will be led by freshman, but they have a very talented freshmen class yet again that should be able to be successful.

Versatility is going to be the name of the game for the Kentucky bigs. Kevin Knox, P.J. Washington, Jarred Vanderbilt are all capable of playing on the perimeter and in the paint. How they fit in together is a big question. Vanderbilt is currently dealing with injuries and will not be ready for the start of the season. Nick Richards is the tallest on the team and will fight for minutes. The returnees Wenyen Gabriel, Sacha Kileya-Jones and Tai Wynyard will fight for minutes. Gabriel started 23 games last season and can be valuable if he knocks down outside shots. Wynyard is a very physical player who can step in if the other players aren’t rebounding. While there are a lot of talented players, Calipari will play the most talented.

Quade Green ad Shai Gilgeous-Alexander are both highly touted recruits who will handle the point guard duties. Whoever does not start will be able to play off of the ball. Hamidou Diallo got to campus last year in the midseason and John Calipari decided to redshirt him. His half-season with Kentucky last year will pay dividends, as well as his summer trip representing Team USA in the U19 World Cup. Diallo is an athletic freak, who needs to shoot the ball better to be a dynamic player. Jemarl Baker was supposed to provide some outside shooting for this team, but Baker had his knee scoped and will likely be out for three months.

As always if the young talent can mesh together, the sky is the limit for Kentucky. They may start off slow, but come March, Kentucky will be a factor once again.

4. Kansas Jayhawks

College basketball preseason top 25

Devonte’ Graham (Photo by draftexpress.com)

Kansas made their second straight Elite 8 last season and can do so again this season. They will have to deal with the losses of Carlton Bragg, Josh Jackson, Landen Lucas and, most importantly, Frank Mason. That is a lot to replace, but there is some significant talent returning.

Udoka Azubuike returns after getting injured last season. He will be asked to play way more than his 12.9 minutes per game that he averaged last season. In those minutes though, he showed flashes of being a great player. His per 40 minutes stats are great, as he would’ve averaged 15.5 points and 13.5 rebounds. Billy Preston, no relation to Bill S. Preston Esquire, is a great incoming freshman that is going to be thrust into any minutes Azubuike can’t be on the floor. He is very athletic, but needs to work on his inside game. The only other big on the roster is Mitch Lightfoot, who will see an increased role as the third big. There is not much depth in the frontcourt, so the Jayhawks will have to stay healthy and out of foul trouble.

The backcourt is loaded with talent. Devonte’ Graham returns and will take over at point after the loss of Frank Mason. He is a great defender that showed he could score too last season. He will need to set up teammates and find his own shot this season. Lagerald Vick and Svi Mykhailiuk return on the wing. Both can knock down the three point shot, while Vick has more athletic ability. Mykhailiuk may need to step more inside to cover up for the lack of bigs on the roster, seeing as he is 6’8″. Two transfers will have to step up for Kansas as well. Malik Newman was a big recruit going into Mississippi State and is hoping his career has new life at Kansas. Sam Cunliffe is an Arizona State transfer who will be eligible in December.

The guards and wings will be hard to match up with, but if Kansas’ frontcourt doesn’t step up it will be hard to reach a third consecutive Elite 8. Luckily they have talent so the sky is the limit.

3. Arizona Wildcats

College basketball preseason top 25

Allonzo Trier (Photo by draftexpress.com)

The Wildcats got upset by Xavier in the Sweet 16 last season, but have a lot of returning talent and incoming recruits to help them get to a Final Four. They lose Kadeem Allen, Chance Comanche, Lauri Markkanen and Kobi Simmons, but this team is actually better. Can Sean Miller reach his first Final Four of his career?

The frontcourt is going to be led by superstar recruit DeAndre Ayton. He can protect the rim and stretch the floor, making him unique. Dustan Ristic started 34 games last season and can play alongside Ayton or back him up. Rustic has a refined inside game that can compliment Ayton. Keanu Pinder is a good role player who will rebound and defend. Behind these three there isn’t much, but the guards on the roster should be able to play big if they need to.

Allonzo Trier is back after leading the team in scoring last season with 17.2 points per game. He could’ve gone pro, but elected to come back for another season. He can do a little bit of everything offensively, as a solid shooter and driver. Rawle Alkins also choose to come back to Tucson after considering the NBA. Alkins will improve in his second season with the Wildcats. Parker Jackson-Cartwright is back at point guard and will likely start every game. Backing these three up will be frehsmen and transfers, but they are talented. Emmanuel Akot, Brandon Randolph, Dylan Smith and Alex Barcello will all be expected to fight for minutes.

Sean Miller needs to get to a Final Four and this season offers his best chance to do so. If Ayton is as good as advertised, the Final Four should be an expectation for Arizona.

2. Michigan State Spartans

College basketball preseason top 25

Miles Bridges (Photo by draftexpress.com)

Tom Izzo gets a chance to make his first Final Four since 2015 with this squad. He has a lot of talent and depth, which is something he didn’t have last season due to injuries. If the Spartans can stay healthy, the team is going to be tough to beat.

Miles Bridges returns on the wing. He is going to be the best player in all of college basketball this season. As a freshman he averaged 16.9 points, 8.3 rebounds and 2.1 assists. He didn’t have a lot of help last season, but will this year. Nick Ward was thrust into playing a lot last year as a freshman and was a physical force on the inside. Jaren Jackson is a very good recruit who will be hard to keep off the floor. Gavin Schilling, Ben Carter and Kenny Goins return to give them some of the best frontcourt depth in the country. They can ride the hot hand this season.

Lourawls “Tum Tum” Nairns Jr. is a senior leader now who is a great defender and can set up his teammates. He needs to hit more perimeter shots to be more effective in the offense. Cassius Winston has turned heads with his passing and playmaking ability and will provide Michigan State with a chance to have two point guards on the floor at once. He can also shoot the ball and spread the floor. Mike McQuaid will add a three point specialist to the backcourt. Joshua Langford will also play a bit and is a good wing that can drive and shoot.

With so much talent and perhaps the best player in college basketball, this team can win the National Championship.

1. Duke Blue Devils

College basketball preseason top 25

Marvin Bagley (Photo by accsports.com)

Coach K has had one and dones before, but Coach K has fully embraced recruiting one and dones. He has a roster chalk full of them. A few key players return from a team that lost in the second round, but the freshman are what make this Blue Devils’ squad the best in the country.

Marques Bolden returns at center after a disappointing freshman season. He only played 6.5 minutes a game and needs to improve. He is the only returning player that will see significant minutes. Marvin Bagley Jr. is a dynamic player that is in contention to be the number one overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft. He reclassified to play at Duke this season and added to their great recruiting class. Wendell Carter is another freshman who can add to the depth on the inside. He is more of a stretch four and should get a lot of minutes, even if he is overshadowed by Bagley.

Grayson Allen is back for his senior season. Love him or hate him, he is a good scorer that has a lot of experience, which is something this team desperately needed. He saw his scoring decline last season as Luke Kennard stepped up, but may be asked to score a lot until the freshmen get into their groove. Trevon Duval is one of the best point guards of the class and will be the best point guard that Duke has had since their National Championship in 2015. If for some reason he fails, or gets injured, Allen can play point guard once again and run the offense decently well. Gary Trent Jr. is a great wing that will play on the wing with Allen, giving Duke a very talented starting lineup. Depth could be a problem, so role players will need to step up.

The only thing that can derail Duke this season is Grayson Allen’s attitude or a lack of depth. If Coach K can get the most out of this team, he may be cutting down the nets in April.

 

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Miles Bridges Declines Draft

Why Miles Bridges Declining the Draft is a Good Thing

Last week, Miles Bridges said he would return to Michigan State for his sophomore year of college basketball. Spartan fans couldn’t be happier that their star freshman will be coming back.

He told fans at his press conference last week, “I have personal goals here. I want to win a national championship.” ESPN has had a few mock drafts which put him in the top 20 but the NBA will not see Bridges for another year. Here is why Bridges made the right decision to return to college:

1. Another Year with Coach Izzo

Coach Tom Izzo is unarguably a legendary coach, and his awards are mere evidence of his success. Izzo won a national championship in 2000, appeared in the Final Four seven times and has been named Big Ten Coach of the Year three times. In 2016 he was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame with a .712 winning percentage in his career.

Miles Bridges Declines Draft

Tom Izzo speaks with guard Miles Bridges (22) during the first half against the Wichita State Shockers. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

This is all to say that the guy knows his stuff. Bridges will continue to learn a lot about Izzo’s motto: “players play, but tough players win.”

Coach Izzo is also well known for scheduling a very tough non-conference schedule in preparation for March, which will only benefit Bridges and the rest of the Spartans.

Along with Coach Izzo, think about Draymond Green. He stayed at Michigan State for four years and is now having one heck of a career in the NBA.

Green has had a lot of success with the Golden State Warriors over the course of five seasons. He won a championship in 2015 and has the perk of a 15.3 million dollar salary for 2017.

Miles Bridges is a lot like Green with a 6’7” stature and strong explosive moves. Bridges looks more like a guard than Green did in his Michigan State days, however there are lots of similarities.

2. The College Experience Will Help Miles Bridges and his Draft Stock

Miles Bridges Declines Draft

Miles Bridges of Michigan State Spartans. Mandatory Credit to spartanavanue.com

This statement rides on a lot of “ifs” because it won’t be true unless Bridges really improves his sophomore season. The experience will help if he can produce better statistics, take his team further in the tournament and have more success. However, if all of these ifs become reality, his draft stock will increase.

Bridges had the potential to make millions but he turned it down for the opportunity to go to school and win a national title. That says a lot about him as a player and a person.

He also averaged 16.9 points per game, which is the highest for a freshman since Magic Johnson who averaged 17 points per game his freshman season.

A lot of people are worried about his draft stock declining if he stays another year. However, the risk of staying another year could put him in the top 5 for overall picks. Another year with Coach Izzo and more growth, could be the key to even greater success in the NBA.

3. NEXT YEar is looking even better

The Spartans will have a lot of returners for the 2017-2018 season. Cassius Winston and Nick Ward will be coming back, along with Joshua Langford and Tum Tum Nair Jr. for his senior season. Eight of the top ten players will be returning for next year. They will have something special if Coach Izzo can keep everyone healthy and working hard.

Just last week Jack Hoiberg, son of Fred Hoiberg (Chicago Bulls head coach), said he would be walking onto Michigan State’s basketball team for the 2017-2018 season. Hoiberg will be joined by Jaren Jackson and Xavier Tillman, two power forwards who have signed with the Spartans. Jackson stands at 6’11, ranked 16th in the nation and will play good minutes for the Spartans next year. Tillman is 6’9 and 250 pounds, a little bit thicker than Jackson but will also add size to the Spartan roster for next year.

Bridges made the right decision to stay, despite the NBA being a very enticing choice. Teammates and fans of Spartan Basketball will get to watch him at the college level for one more year and next year could be big for the Spartans because of his decision.

 

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“From Our Haus to Yours”

Michigan State Poised For A Late Run Next Season

Don’t be fooled by Michigan State’s past season struggles. They’re not going anywhere.

The Spartans somewhat fell off the wagon this year after they went 20-15 in a rather shaky Big Ten. Not to say the Spartans had a bad season, but it just wasn’t the Michigan State we are used to seeing.

The Spartans finished 10-8 in the Big Ten with a loss in the second round of the Big Ten tournament to Minnesota. Many thought the Spartans might miss out on a trip to the big dance. However, the Spartans were rewarded with a nine seed and a matchup against eighth-seeded Miami.

Michigan State defeated Miami rather handily. However, in the round of 32, the Spartans were faced with the one seed and tournament favorite, Kansas. Despite keeping it close for much of the game, Michigan State lost 90-70.

After Tom Izzo’s young, injured and often overwhelmed team lost, he said the group “gave me everything they could give me.”

Michigan State

Bridges told fans he has “unfinished business” after declaring he would come back for his sophomore season (Photo/ Al Goldis)

The Spartans are looking forward, starting with returning star forward Miles Bridges.

Bridges, who was considered by many to be a lottery pick in next year’s upcoming NBA draft, officially decided to come back for his sophomore season a few days ago. He averaged 16.9 points per game, which are the highest points per game for a freshman at Michigan State since Magic Johnson. Bridges also averaged 8.3 rebounds, which is the most by a Michigan State freshmen since Greg Kelser in 1975-76.

“I got some unfinished business here,” Bridges said. “I want to stay.”

Even though Bridges could have left for the NBA and made millions of dollars, he decided to work on his game while enjoying the college life both on and off the court.

“I’d rather stay here and get better,” he said.

Many still had Michigan State as a highly ranked team going into next year even before Bridges decided to return. Much of that has to do with a core group of young guys, who showed towards the end of the season that they can be really good.

They have an elite low-post scorer with Nick Ward, a potential future quarterback of the offense with Cassius Winston and a dangerous off-ball wing with Joshua Langford. Those players, along with Bridges, were all freshmen and are all returning for their sophomore seasons.

There is a lot that this group has to improve upon, like reducing turnovers and improving on the glass. They will have to get a good contribution from additional players like Matt McQuaid and their incoming class. The new class consists of two really good top recruits.

Michigan State

Top recruit Jaren Jackson will join the Spartans next season in their hunt for another championship (Photo/ Mike Dinovo).

First, there is 6-foot-11, 225 pound forward Jaren Jackson, who was one of the top recruits in the country. The big man has not only been praised for being a big presence down low, but he can also step out and hit the mid or long range jumper, making him a matchup nightmare.

The Spartans also signed 6-foot-9, 250 pound forward Xavier Tillman, who was voted first team all state in Michigan. They are also trying to land highly recruited high school seniors Brandon McCoy, a 7-foot center from California and Mark Smith, an elite point guard from Illinois.

Regardless of if they end up signing McCoy and Smith or not, the Spartans will have a high-powered team on both ends of the floor. They will be more experienced, formulated and ready to make a serious run late in March.

 

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“From Our Haus to Yours”

The Big Ten is No Longer “Big”

Week after week there is talk about the No. 1 team in the nation (Villanova this week), the Big East, the ACC, and Grayson Allen. No one is talking about the Big Ten. There is a reason for that.

Maryland leads the conference with a 4-1 record, ranked No. 25 in the country. The Terrapins might be 16-2 overall, but they haven’t played one ranked team this year. They also have yet to play Wisconsin, Purdue or Minnesota. One might remember that Maryland is relatively new to the Big Ten Conference along with Rutgers, who is 0-6 in conference play. Minnesota has recently dropped out of the top 25 ranking after losing to Michigan State this past week. Wisconsin is sitting at No. 17 and Purdue is ranked No. 21. Neither team holds the top spot in the conference.

(Photo courtesy of impact89fm.org)

The Big Ten simply is not the hard-hitting, nitty-gritty conference that it used to be. There is not a single team that dominates. Any team could lose on any given day, which sounds like March Madness. However, it isn’t the exhilarating type of March Madness where teams are upsetting high-ranked ball clubs. It is a lot of average teams beating and losing to mediocre teams, with respect to the rest of the nation.

For a girl who grew up watching Drew Neitzel shoot threes consistently with both hands, and heard about Isiah Thomas and his two years at Indiana, it is obvious that the Big Ten isn’t what it used to be. All of the teams have at least one loss in conference play and teams are struggling to get wins on the road.

The only true press that the Big Ten is receiving currently is from select standout players in the Midseason top 25 ranking for the Wooden Award this year. Those few are Melo Trimble (Maryland), Ethan Happ and Nigel Hayes (Wisconsin), and Caleb Swanigan (Purdue). Now this article is not to denounce the Big Ten but rather to breakdown the conference and its struggles this year.

What happened to the hoosiers?

Indiana is one of those teams that could make a great tournament run, but will the Hoosiers even make it to the tournament?

The Hoosiers started off the season with a four-point victory over Kansas. Then the team proceeded to lay an egg at IPFW in its fourth game of the season. They also beat North Carolina, but lost to Butler.

If their season continues at this pace, it will be the season that “missed it by that much.” Losing has been more of a theme this year than Tom Crean ever thought possible. The Hoosiers lost to Butler by five, Nebraska by four, Wisconsin by seven and Maryland by three. They are that close.

Indiana is typically a team that gets by. The past two years they have made it to the tournament and last year they made it to the Sweet 16. They have scorers and they have a great coach. They just need to finish.

Sparty on or Sparty off?

The Spartans are sitting near the top of the conference despite losing key players Denzel Valentine, Bryn Forbes and Deyonta Davis to the draft last year.

Freshman Miles Bridges (ncaabasketball.com)

The freshmen are clicking at the perfect time. Miles Bridges is coming off an ankle injury that sidelined him for the end of the preseason and beginning of conference play. Nick Ward is contributing 6.5 rebounds per game and has been named Big Ten freshman of the week twice. Joshua Langford and Cassius Winston are maturing into great role players for the Spartans, which will be key in March.

This might sound like a lot of positive conversation, but let’s not forget some key losses this season. The Spartans lost to Northeastern, Baylor, Duke, Penn State, Kentucky and Arizona. More recently, Michigan State got the job done against No. 24 ranked Minnesota, but lost to Ohio State on Sunday. This puts them at 4-2 in conference play with a tough week ahead.

Wisconsin is now the consistent leader

Wisconsin is just about the only team that has been consistently competing over the last few years. This year itself has not been stellar, yet the Badgers find themselves on a 16-game home winning streak.

The Badgers are similar to West Virginia in the way that they have multiple players averaging good numbers and are balanced in their scoring. Sophomore Ethan Happ is a 6’10” forward pulling down 9.2 rebounds per game and shooting 62.3 percent from the field. Everyone else on the team is shooting good percentages, but nothing stellar for Division I basketball.

They also only allow 60.2 points per game (ninth in the country). It is the Badgers’ defense that keeps them in games. The seniors also demand an intensity from each other and their standout sophomore Happ. Bronson Koenig, Nigel Hayes and Zak Showalter know what it means to get wins and make a run in the tournament. They made it to the Sweet 16 last year before losing to Notre Dame and the National Championship in 2015 (but lost to Duke). They are a good ball club, but to compare them to UCLA, Oregon, or Villanova is another story.

Purdue

The Boilermakers got a win over Wisconsin, but have losses to Iowa and Minnesota. Sophomore Caleb Swanigan is ranked first in the country in rebounds per game, pulling down 12.6 on average. This was key against Wisconsin when Swanigan had 18 points and 13 rebounds to secure the win. The let down is they turned around and took a five point loss to Iowa soon after, despite being ahead by nine at the half.

Caleb Swanigan of Purdue (News-Sentential.com)

This has been the trend for all of conference play thus far in the Big Ten. A team might come out and get a key win, but then come out flat the next game. There is no domination and as a fan, it’s been a tough year to watch so far.

The Boilermakers do have a couple things going for them. They start mostly juniors with the exception of Swanigan. Next year they will be a year smarter and more experienced, which can’t hurt. Purdue also lost to Villanova by only three points at the beginning of the season. They have hope.

 

What does this mean?

Some people might chalk it up to rebuilding years. Others might say some coaches need to make an exit. As someone who has grown up respecting Thad Matta, Matt Painter, Tom Izzo and Tom Crean, I hope the latter is not the truth.

The Big Ten will bounce back. For all my fellow Big Ten fans, there is hope and March isn’t here quite yet. The tournament will see fewer Big Ten teams this year, but no one can predict what they might do.

 

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“From Our Haus to Yours”

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.