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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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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Previewing Friday’s Sweet Sixteen games

What a difference Thursday and Friday is. Thursday? A rather unpredictable slate of games of teams that weren’t necessarily the experts picks to have moved on. Friday is exactly what most people assumed. Both the one seeds play on Friday and only Syracuse falls in the outlier category when on thursday more than half of the teams are seeded 7th or higher.

With a trip to the Elite Eight on the line Fridays slate of Sweet Sixteen games will be intense battles between historic coaches. Coach K, Bill Self and Jay Wright all headline an impressive friday slate. Who will make it to the Elite Eight and who will get their dreams crushed? Lets take our shot at predicting the unpredictable.

Kansas and Clemson:

Clemson is recently coming off a very strong win against the SEC regular season champions in Auburn. They face a Kansas team under Bill Self that has come on strong as of late and is getting a minutes restriction lift off of Udoka Azubuike. The difference is this game is just that.

While Clemson scores well and is balanced throughout their team, they lack a big man. With Udoka Azubuike on the floor, as well as the emergence of freshman Silvio De Sousa, the Clemson Tigers will have a tough time locking down the paint. As soon as they struggle with that, the lethal shooters on Kansas will get going.

Kansas will win this game 71-62 due to their ability to control the paint as well as the backboards.

West Virginia and Villanova:

Two of the very best college basketball coaches square off in this one. Jay Wright is leading a Villanova team that is looking very good in the NCAA tournament so far and West Virginia is coming off a dominant win against Marshall on Sunday. West Virginia or “Press” Virginia is a difficult team to prep for for some. Marshall had just two days to prep for them and it ended up costing them 18 turnovers which is a season high for them.

The Wildcats are different though. They have two guards in Jalen Brunson and Donte DiVencenzo who have been fantastic all season. They refuse to turn it over or speed up their games. This will be a game that questions if West Virginia can score in bunches offensively to keep up with the number one scoring offense in Villanova.

The best matchup in this game will be Jevon Carter drawing Jalen Brunson. Carter is nothing but productive and seems to make the game go however he and the press dictate. Jalen Brunson is exactly the same type of leader for Villanova. He never gets outside of himself and never does things to hurt their teams chances of winning the game.

Whoever wins that matchup will probably be on the winning side at the end of the 40 minutes. I think Nova takes this one 74-67 due to their tremendous offense and tremendous guards.

Duke and Syracuse:

Mens College basketball

Syracuse and Duke matching up.

Ah the battle of the zones. Duke has been much better offensively throughout this tournament. Instead of letting mediocre teams hang around they are taking big leads early and not looking back.

Syracuse is coming off an upset victory against Michigan State that has people thinking their zone just throws teams all out of sorts. Syracuse has the potential to be a zone killer because well one they practice against it every single day, and two because they have a guy in Marek Dolezaj who makes great decisions at the high post. Syracuse is not a particularly spectacular shooting team and needs Frank Howard and Tyus Battle to step up their scoring.

On the otherside we have a team that could potentially struggle against a good zone. Syracuse is a long zone and could make things tough for Duke. Duke has two tremendous three point shooters in Gary Trent jr and Grayson Allen. After that they don’t shoot it particularly great. Duke will struggle offensively and in turn we will see just how good their defense is.

Duke will win a very close one here. I have Duke winning this one 68-63 in a game that is close almost the whole time. If Syracuse can score well enough, they could even sneak out a huge upset win.

Texas Tech and Purdue:

I can’t imagine Isaac Haas playing in this game which could be a huge loss for the Boilermakers. The Red Raiders have dominated the defensive end all season. The stifle your offense and make you grind out long defensive possessions on the other end. They are effectively exactly what Virgina does. Keenan Evans has been very good scoring the basketball and will need to be in this game.

Purdue will struggle from the outside even though they have 4-5 guys that shoot it well and Texas tech will win this game 67-60 and absolutely shut down the Boliermakers’ offense.

 

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A recap of Selection Sunday

Well Selection Sunday has finally hit for college basketball fans. Selection Sunday is when the 68 teams that compete for a National Championship get announced. Whether you were comfortably in like Virginia and North Carolina or had to sweat it out like UCLA and Arizona State the field has officially been set.

Surprises: Arizona State:

Few people thought that Arizona State was going to make the big dance but they managed to do enough to grab an at-large bid. A record of 5-2 against other teams that made the NCAA tournament field was key here.

Although Arizona State has lost some games to lesser opponents they have key wins against Kansas, Kansas State, UCLA and Xavier that were too good to pass up to the selection committee.

Oklahoma:

The committee wasn’t judging the Sooners based on their whole body of work this season. Even worse is they didn’t think that Oklahoma well in the “last four in” category. Oklahoma has won just six games in all of 2018.

Yes you read that right, they have a 7-9 record against other teams that made it into this years field but have been trending in the wrong direction of late. Like Arizona State, a team that was once a top 10 team mid-season fell off drastically and almost missed out on one of the 32 at-large bids.

Syracuse:

This ones just completely shocking. I really did not think that Syracuse did enough to make the NCAA tournament. They were 5-9 against the field this season and had some “quadrant 3” or even worse loses. They did not fair well against the bottom of the ACC and finished 9-12 overall in conference, which includes conference tournament play.

The Fives and Sixes:

(KUhoops.com).

Notoriously a spot where there are a plethora of upsets the five and six seeds are locked in. One of the best match ups has to be Clemson and New Mexico State. New Mexico State is 2-0 against this year’s tournament teams.

They have back to back wins this season against Miami and Davidson and are 27-5 this season. They are lead by Zach Lofton ad have five guys that average eight or more points this season. The Aggies have some senior leadership and have the ability to shut down the incredible backcourt of Gabe DeVoe and Marcquise Reed.

Another solid matchup is West Virginia and Murray State. Now both these teams have very fast paced games which make this game interesting. West Virginia is the better team at forcing turnovers but Murray State both scores and allows less points. I think this game will be closer than many think and if Jonathan Stark, who averages just under 22 points per game shows up to play, this could be a big 5-12 upset.

The One seed with the toughest road:

This falls to either Villanova or Kansas. Even though Kansas has both Duke and Michigan State in their bracket they only have to play one of them in the Elite Eight.

With the best seeds in their bracket they would have to face Penn, Seton Hall, Auburn and then Duke. Auburn has slumped lately, Seton Hall they match up well against and then Duke will ideally be a toss up depending on the health of Udoka Azubuike.

Ultimately Virginia got rewarded this season by getting a gauntlet for a bracket. Seeds 2-8 have all been ranked at least once this season. They draw the SEC champion in Kentucky, SEC runner up in Tennessee, AAC champion in Cincinnati and a team that they have seen twice already this season in Miami. A team that has dominated all season will get tested throughout each game if they wish to win the National Championship.

Outside the top 2 seeds:

Michigan is blazing hot and comes in as a three seed. They fall in a region with North Carolina and Xavier who are all built similarly. They typically play with four guards who can handle the ball and play with one big. Ultimately teams clicking at the right time are dangerous in March.

This is one of the best brackets in recent memory. Lots of good matchups throughout the tournament as well as many teams who can win on any given day. The NCAA tournament is set and the Madness is set to begin.

Hitting your stride at the right time can lead to a deep NCAA tournament run. If you don’t believe me? You can ask Kemba Walker.

 

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NBA prospects to watch in the 2017 Champions Classic

The Champions Classic is loaded with NBA talent every year because of the level of teams in the event. Every year Duke, Kansas, Kentucky and Michigan State get together to play in an early season event to signify to everyone that basketball is back. Here are the top NBA prospects to watch in the 2017 Champions Classic:

Duke Prospects

Marvin Bagley, PF, Fr.

NBA prospects in the champions Classic

Marvin Bagley (Photo by bleacherreport.com)

Bagley is a generational talent that will likely be in the running to be the number one overall pick. He can do a little bit of everything and is leading Duke in scoring. He is averaging 24.5 points and 10 rebounds per game on the young season. One thing he can work on is his passing, as he continually will not find the open man and will rather put up heavily contested shots. The good thing for him is that he is good enough to make most of his shots, 65.7%, even when being double teamed.

Projected draft range: Top three pick

Wendell Carter Jr., PF/C, Fr.

Carter is only averaging 10 points and 6.5 rebounds, but there is so much talent on the Duke roster that stats aren’t the deciding factor for being a great prospect. He has been the rim protector for the Blue Devils so far with six blocks in two games. Carter was the fifth ranked prospect in the 2017 class according to ESPN.

Projected draft range: Top 10 pick

Trevon Duval, PG, Fr.

The number one point guard in the recruiting class was Trevon Duval. He is averaging a double-double in the first two games with points and assists. He averages 11.5 points and 10 assists per game. Duval has shown the ability to drive and score or dish the ball out, but needs to show he can knock down outside shots in order to keep defenses honest.

Projected draft range: Lottery pick-late first round pick

Gary Trent, SG, Fr.

Trent can be an x-factor for this Duke team this season. He is a good wing player, that with his outside shooting, can take some pressure off of Bagley. In the first two games he has already made seven threes on 13 attempts. His length can make him a good defender, but he will be tested by Michigan State on the defensive end.

Projected draft range: Lottery pick-late first round pick

Grayson Allen, SG, Sr.

Yes, Allen is still considered to be drafted in the NBA Draft. He gets a lot of criticism due to his attitude problems, but he is a solid player that has learned how to best play in his role every year at Duke. He is the second leading scorer so far, averaging 20 points a game. He has been the Blue Devils’ best shooter so far this season and, like Trent, can take pressure off of other players by knocking down shots. He has made 10 three pointers in 15 attempts.

Projected draft range: Late first round pick-early second round pick

Michigan State Prospects

Miles Bridges, SF, So.

Nba draft prospects in the champions classic

Miles Bridges (Photo by draftexpress.com)

Bridges surprised a lot of people by deciding to return to school after a great freshman season. He does everything for Michigan State from scoring to rebounding. His athleticism is crazy, and it can be seen in some of his highlight reel dunks. If he can knock down outside shots and limit turnovers, he is a complete player. Bridges will be one of the best college players this season and will get consideration for Player of the Year to go along with being considered a top prospect.

Projected draft range: Lottery pick

Jaren Jackson Jr., PF, Fr.

The Spartans have a lot of good inside players this season, but Jackson got the starting nod in Michigan State’s season opener. He had 13 points, 13 rebounds and four blocked shots against North Florida and he looks poised for bigger things. Jackson was also able to knock down nine of 10 free throws, which is a nice skill to have, being that he will be fouled a lot this year.

Projected draft range: Lottery pick

Cassius Winston, PG, So.

Winston is one of the best passers in college basketball. He makes plays and shows off his high basketball IQ in the process. Not only can he drive to the basket, he can also knock down outside shots. Winston is not the most sought after prospect right now, but with continued good play, NBA executives will start to fall in love with him.

Projected draft range: Second round pick-undrafted free agent

Kansas Prospects

Billy Preston, PF, Fr.

NBA draft prospects in the champions Classic

Billy Preston (Photo by kuhoops.com)

Unfortunately, the world has yet to see Preston on the college level yet, as he was suspended from the season opener for missing curfew and class. That is a little concerning, but overall not a big deal. He was the 18th ranked recruit by ESPN and will be asked to be one of the few legitimate inside players for the Jayhawks.

Projected draft range: Late first round pick-early second round

Legarald Vick, SG, Jr.

Vick has crazy athleticism from the wing. He has been getting significant minutes the last few years at Kansas, despite a crowded backcourt. If Vick can add some muscle and have a good season as one of the lead guys on the Jayhawks’ roster he can get drafted.

Projected draft range: Second round pick-undrafted free agent

Devonte’ Graham, PG, Sr.

Now that Frank Mason is gone, Graham is tasked with running the offense. He is a little undersized for the NBA, but has a lot of desirable qualities. Graham is a great defender and has the ability to play on ball and off of it. He has shown that he can create for his teammates so far this season with 12 assists in one game. Graham can also shoot from deep, with a career percentage of 41% on three point shots.

Projected draft range: Second round pick-undrafted free agent

Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk, SG/SF, Sr.

Svi has gotten an increased role every year at Kansas. He is intriguing to NBA people because of his length and shooting ability. Svi is a 38% three point shooter and at his size, he is a tough matchup. This season he can really prove he is worth an NBA draft pick with his added minutes.

Projected draft range: Second round pick-undrafted free agent

Udoka Azubuike, C, So.

Azubuike’s year ended early last season due to a wrist injury, but now he is back and healthy. He has great length at seven feet tall and is strictly an inside player. With a changing NBA game, where good inside players are devalued, Azubuike has to expand his game. He is still worthy of a draft pick if he plays well.

Projected draft range: Second round pick-undrafted free agent

Kentucky prospects

Kevin Knox, PF/SF, Fr.

NBA draft prospects in the champions classic

Kevin Knox (Photo by seccountry.com)

NBA executives will love Knox because of his athleticism and face up game. He can dribble, shoot and rebound. Knox does need to shoot more efficiently, as in two games he has below a 30% field goal percentage. He will get good experience playing on the perimeter at Kentucky, but needs to start knocking down outside shots to make him the ultra-versatile player that will be drafted really early.

Projected draft range: Lottery pick

Hamidou Diallo, SG, Fr.

Diallo is one of the most athletic players in the draft class. He has been the best player for Kentucky so far. While he can get to the basket almost at will, he does have some areas of his game he needs to improve. These areas include outside shooting, shot selection and on-ball defending. The athleticism is good enough to get him drafted highly, but if he can improve in other areas, he can move up draft boards.

Projected draft range: Lottery pick-late first round pick

Nick Richards, C, Fr.

Richards is a former volleyball player, whose skills in that sport should help him at Kentucky. He had three blocks against Utah Valley in the opener. Richards can rebound and defend, which is nice, but he will have to show a vastly improved offensive game if he wants to be selected early on in the draft.

Projected draft range: First round pick

P.J. Washington, SF/PF, Fr.

In his first game Washington did not look good, but was great in the second game of the season. He has an inside-out game, that will pique the interest of NBA teams. Knocking down outside shots will drastically improve his draft status.

Projected draft range: Late first round pick-early second round pick

*Jarred Vanderbilt will not play in the event due to a foot injury, but is likely going to be drafted as well.

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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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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.