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.

 

Featured image from USA Today.

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2018 NCAA Bracket regional analysis and Final Four picks

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

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

South Region

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

West Region

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

East REgion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Midwest Region

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

 

Featured image from Basketballscores.com.

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Surviving on the bubble

As the days to selection sunday dwindle, so do the hopes of many familiar teams.

Conference tournaments are a time for bubble teams to play their way into the NCAA tournament or out depending on the resume. Many teams have helped themselves squarely on the bubble but few have played themselves into it. Here’s how the bubble looks with three days to go before selection sunday.

Assessing the eliminated:

Syracuse: Well it seems like Syracuse is always on the bubble and this season is no different. The Orange beat Wake Forest 73-64 to extend their bubble hopes but dropped their Wednesday night game to North Carolina. Syracuse is 311th in the nation in points per game at 67.5 and have dropped four of their last six. Including conference tournament play, they finished 9-11 in conference.

A red flag is then shown because the committee does not favor under .500 conference records. Losses to Wake Forest and Georgia Tech killed ‘Cuse’s chances throughout this season as they are the two worst loses on the resume. Syracuse has a lot of things going against them and seem to be a long shot to find an at-large bid.

Oklahoma: It seems like Oklahoma hasn’t gotten a win since they beat Kansas January 23. The reason for that? Well they really haven’t. Since that huge win for the Sooners in Norman they are 3-9. They give up 81.6 points per game which is good for 337th in all of division one basketball. This is the same in conference 9-11 that Syracuse has only it is valued slightly more due to the depth of the Big 12.

Although Oklahoma has some very large wins, they are reeling right now. If a few at-large bids get stolen in the next couple of days, the Sooners, and Trae Young could be on the outside looking in.

The ones in trouble:

Arizona States Bench, (Pac12.com).

Oklahoma State: I find it hard to believe that Oklahoma will get in but Oklahoma State won’t. Oklahoma State is 2-1 against both Kansas and the Sooners themselves this season.

They have wins over Texas Tech, West Virginia and even Florida State. The Cowboys have many wins against teams that are more than likely making it to the NCAA tournament. They finished at the same 9-11 in conference that everyone has so far but has beaten the Sooners twice which is a team valued ahead of them. Oklahoma State is one of the best 68 teams in the country, we will see if they get in.

Arizona State: The Sun Devils wrap up the eliminated teams on the list. The Sun Devils have struggled ever since they were ranked fourth in the country. Since that day they are 8-11. They have lost five of their last six and got bounced in the first round of the Pac 12 tournament by Colorado.

The Sun Devils are 8-11 in conference this season and are trending in the wrong direction. Despite some very solid non conference wins, the Arizona State Sun Devils seem to be on the wrong side of a bubble that’s ready to pop.

The Teams with life:

March Madness

Aaron Holiday, (Pac12.com).

UCLA: The Bruins have really turned on the jets lately. They took care of business in their first Pac 12 tournament and are 8-3 in their last 11. The Bruins have put themselves in great position being that they are 12-7 in conference games this season and have a nice road win against Pac 12 regular season champ Arizona.

They now draw Arizona again and barring an embarrassing loss, look to have played their way into the NCAA tournament.

Boise State: Well Boise State has been very impressive. They are 23-7 this season and are second in the Mountain West only to Nevada. Nevada is arguable an at-large team and looked rather unimpressive against UNLV Thursday afternoon.

It’s hard to beat any basketball team three times and with a possible Nevada and Boise State Mountain West final looming, Boise State could either play their way in, or steal an automatic bid at the same time.

In the best shape:

March Madness

Collin Sexton, (WRUF.com).

This is obviously the teams in the best shape of the ones that have been listed.

Alabama: Yes they have won one of their last six, but Thursday afternoon’s win was a huge one for the Crimson Tide. They now draw a chance to play a reeling Auburn team that they have already beaten once this season. More importantly they live to fight another day and take their shot Friday and further solidifying their spot inside the bubble.

Finally we have Providence: with wins against Xavier and Villanova who both might be one seeds the Friars continue to make noise in the Big East. They knocked off Creighton Thursday and have severely increased their chances. With upperclassmen leadership all over the place, the Friars could be a tough out for any team in March.

Featured image from Syracuse.com.

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Is Texas Tech the favorite to win the Big 12?

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

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

DEfensive Attitude

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

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

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

The Most Underrated Player in the Nation

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

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

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

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

Paint Problem

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

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

Verdict

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

Featured image by John Weast/Getty Images North America

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Virginia Cavaliers basketball

Virginia Cavaliers: Consistent as always

The Virginia Cavaliers are dominating defensively again. It seems like every season the Cavaliers are giving up barely 60 points per game on defense. They win games they “shouldn’t” and frustrate dominating offenses.

The Duke Blue Devils dove into the Virginia’s tremendous defense last Saturday and came up short against the Cavaliers.

This season

The Cavaliers have now won 13 straight games, have a 21-1 record and are 10-0 in the ACC. No team has scored more than 68 points this season against their lockdown defense. The Cavaliers are 3-1 against ranked teams and have lost their lone game on the road against West Virginia. They are first in Division I basketball in points allowed at 52.7 per game and are +16.5 in point differential.

They have forced at least 10 turnovers in 20 games this season and have given up more than nine assists just eight times this season. This shows that many teams struggle to share the ball against this team, and many of the baskets that are scored are isolation baskets.

Offensively, the Cavaliers are lifted by three different guards. Ty Jerome, Devon Hall and Kyle guy lead the way, accounting for 38 of the Cavaliers’ 69.2 points they score each game. No single Cavalier averages over 1.7 turnovers per game on offense.

Virginia has the slowest pace in college basketball. They force you to not only defend for 30 seconds on defense, but they are fine with a team taking 30 seconds to take a contested shot when they are on defense. They are built to wear you down, and they are built that way every season.

Most teams aren’t conditioned to grind out games, and teams with good offenses struggle against the Cavaliers because of their lack of conditioning. When the second half rolls around, teams slowly fall apart while the Cavaliers are consistent and fight on.

Week by week

Virginia Cavaliers basketball

Tony Bennett (Photo via google.com)

It seems like each week, the Cavaliers are picked to lose. Many experts see it as a strong offense against the Cavaliers defense.

Duke ended up being a victim of that this past week. The Blue Devils were the home favorite and ended up dropping a game to a suffocating defense. The Blue Devils scored 15 points less than their previous season low offensively, and they did it on their own court.

Duke shot just 26.7 percent from three and turned the ball over 16 times. When Virginia gives you 65 possessions a game and you turn the ball over on nearly a fourth of them, you are going to struggle.

The one struggle with Virginia that causes concern is their lack of rebounding. Being able to control the glass is a big part of winning games in March and April. The Cavaliers got beat on the glass by 13 rebounds against the Blue Devils. They are tied for 313th in Division 1 basketball with 32.5 rebounds per game.

The Cavaliers struggle at rebounding because of how small they are at nearly every position. They start three guards that line up at 6-foot-2, 6-foot-4 and 6-foot-5 and are generally small at every position. Isaiah Wilkins starts at power forward and is the Cavaliers’ leading rebounder, standing just 6-foot-7. Jack Salt is their starting center at 6-foot-10.

What’s ahead

The Cavaliers have eight ACC games left to play. As of right now, there aren’t any ranked teams left on their schedule. This season, they are 4-0 against the remaining schedule they have left and have beaten each team by an average of 15 points per game.

The Cavaliers have a very good chance of getting into the ACC tournament at 29-1 and 18-0 in conference play. With stingy defense and timely scoring, the Cavs seem to have found their identity yet again. Their identity looks the exact same year in and year out, and what’s even better is that it works.

Predicting a destination for this team

The Cavaliers have history going against them. Even though many of Tony Bennett’s teams have been excellent, they struggle come tournament time.

In the last four seasons that the Cavaliers have made the NCAA tournament, they have not made a Final Four and have only made one Elite Eight. This team can struggle at times offensively, and barring some deep heroic threes, they would have a few more loses than they do.

I think they finish at 28-2, lose to Duke in the ACC final and lose in the Elite Eight yet again. This team is very good, but the ACC is a gauntlet. It’s tough to make it all the way through.

The NCAA tournament is where absolutely anything happens. Tony Bennett has had better teams that have lost to worse teams. In terms of guessing just how far they go, I’m trusting the historically unpredictable NCAA tournament.

 

Featured image from dailyprogress.com

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College basketball All-Star roster

Creating college basketball All-Star starting lineups

As the NBA, NHL and NFL All-Star weekends are all upon us, we look to fill a college basketball roster of Division I players deserving of falling under an “All-Star” title.

Steph Curry and LeBron James had an NBA All-Star draft, so now it’s our turn. Time to break down the best college basketball players as of Jan. 29.

Team Trae

College basketball All-Star roster

Trae Young (Photo from Sports Inquirer)

The captain of this team and starting point guard has to be Oklahoma’s Trae Young. Young is leading all of college basketball with 29.6 points and 9.6 assists per game. He may be the most exciting player in college basketball and has taken the league by storm.

Angel Delgado, Seton Hall: Trae Young’s biggest assets are people who can score around the rim. Who better to have on his team than a walking double-double?

Delgado is averaging 13.4 points and 11.7 rebounds per game. He dominates the paint and seemingly grabs every miss on the defensive end. His rebounding ranks fourth in Division I basketball.

Allonzo Trier, Arizona: Trier has been one of the most consistent guards in the country this season. He is averaging 19.7 points, 3.0 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game. Trier has benefited from having Deandre Ayton on his team, but he is scoring at a high rate and has been extremely important to the Arizona Wildcats’ success.

Devonte’ Graham, Kansas: Team Trae needed a strong off-guard, and Graham is exactly that. Graham is shooting over 41 percent from three and is averaging 17.3 points and 7.3 assists. Obviously Graham is more of a point guard, but he seems to shoot it better off the catch while Young shoots it better off the dribble. Graham is the leader of this nationally ranked Jayhawks team and has been the go-to scorer when they need it most.

Jock Landale, Saint Mary’s: The final member of Team Trae is Jock Landale, who has been unbelievably consistent. He is averaging 22.1 points per game and grabbing 10.4 rebounds as well. He is shooting over 65 percent from the field and has helped the Gaels get off to a 21-2 start this season. Landale is a big reason why the Gaels are nationally ranked and has 15 games with at least 20 points this season.

Team Marvin

College basketball All-Star roster

Marvin Bagley III (Photo by Dennis Wierzbicki)

At this point, you have to stay with the trend. Marvin Bagley III of the Duke Blue Devils will be the captain of the other team. Bagley is quite possibly the future No. 1 pick in this year’s NBA draft. He has a ton of athleticism and has the numbers to back that up. He is averaging a double-double like many others on these rosters.

Bagley is averaging 22.0 points per game this season along with 11.6 rebounds. He is shooting over 61 percent from the field and over 33 percent from three. Bagley is impressing and therefore is deserving of this captain position.

Deandre Ayton, Arizona: We obviously couldn’t put Ayton and Trier on the same team, that wouldn’t be right.

Deandre Ayton is another one of those athletic freaks at 7-foot-1 with a 44-inch vertical. Him and Bagley in the same frontcourt would be something we all would like to see. Ayton is averaging 19.5 points and 10.7 rebounds per game. He is also averaging just under two assists and two blocks as well. Ayton shoots nearly 62 percent from the field and over 34 percent from three.

Jevon Carter, West Virginia: Jevon Carter is the leader of West Virginia. He scores 17.3 points, dishes out 6.5 assists and grabs 5.1 rebounds per game. He is a guard that does just about everything for a very good Mountaineer team. Carter is a senior and has shown his experience throughout this season.

Trevon Bluiett, Xavier: Bluiett has been one of the more exciting players to watch throughout his career. His ability to hit contested shots and be a streaky and consistent shooter put him on this All-Star roster. Bluiett averages 18.9 points, 5.7 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game. He is shooting a scorching 43 percent from three and 46.2 percent from the field overall.

Collin Sexton, Alabama: Sexton is a freshman who would go against Trae Young. He is averaging 18.5 points, 3.4 rebounds and 3.3 assists. He shoots almost 36 percent from three and has turned Alabama into an SEC contender. Sexton is a tremendous ball handler who has the ball on a string, can finish in traffic and shoot both off the dribble and spotting up.

These are 10 of the best college basketball players so far this season. They all have performed at a high level, which earned them all a spot on these All-Star roster.

 

Featured image from PickandRoll.com

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Trae Young

Can Big 12 teams slow Trae Young down the second time around?

Well Trae Young is still leading all of college basketball in assists and scoring. However, now there are scouting reports, and most teams in the Big 12 have already gotten a taste of him.

Although his numbers are impressive, this is where the part of the schedule gets difficult. This is the time for Wooden Award candidates to show if they really are special. Conferences are ready to get another swing at Trae Young, and this is where numbers start to slow down a little for star players.

Can Big 12 teams slow down Trae Young the second time around? Or will his numbers continue to be off the charts?

Schedule

Oklahoma has played one of the hardest schedule’s in all of college basketball this season. They have played six games against ranked teams so far. They are 5-1 in those games and swept TCU, which has only lost four games all season.

Young has continued to put up numbers, but has struggled shooting wise to get them. He has also struggled with his increasing turnovers. He has had halves of games where he shoots under 30 percent, but still finds a way to get to 30 points and 10 assists. Young is finally seeing signs of struggle and proving that he might actually be human.

The truth is, Kansas State may have just shown the blueprint in how to contain and beat the Oklahoma Sooners. A team scoring over 92 points a game scored 69 points and never even got close to on track on offense. Young had 20 points and 6 assists, but turned the ball over a career-high 12 times. It seemed like the first time all season where Young didn’t help his teammates and instead hurt their production. He shot just 2-for-10 from three and went just 8-for-21 overall.

One of the biggest things that Young likes to do is get to the free-throw line. Like James Harden and other NBA stars, getting to the free-throw line is an easy way to not only get your shot on track, but also get some quick and easy points. Trae Young went just 2-for-4 from the free-throw line in the game against Kansas State. He did not leave his normal Trae Young impression on the game.

In games that Young has drastically less than 10 assists and more than four turnovers, the Oklahoma Sooners are going to struggle. Against West Virginia, Young had 29 points and five assists. He also had eight turnovers to go along with those five assists.

Seeing him twice

Trae Young

Trae Young taking it into the TCU defense. (Photo from Tulsaworld.com)

The Big 12 is starting to become familiar with the explosive Trae Young. He is getting a lot more attention, and teams are learning that he wants to play fast. They are slowing the game down and attempting to cut down on live ball turnovers.

What’s crazy about Young seeing TCU two times already is he was actually better the second time around.

In the first matchup, Young had 39 points on 9-for-23 shooting and 15-for-18 from the free-throw line, He also added four rebounds, 14 assists and seven turnovers.

In the second time around, Young had 43 points on 15-for-27 shooting and 3-for-7 from the free-throw line. He added 11 rebounds, seven assists and nine turnovers as well.

For a team that’s well coached and has seen Young twice, TCU got torched by the young guard. What does that mean for the rest of the Big 12 and stopping Young and the Sooners?

How to slow the Sooners down

It’s definitely not easy to do so, but slowing Young down is a five-person job. One thing that has been done is getting the ball out of Young’s hands early in the possession.

Making the offense run through someone else means that Young isn’t as involved. Obviously Young is the most dangerous with the ball in his hands. He shows that to us with his scoring and assisting statistics.

Another thing that’s vital is chasing him off the perimeter. Obviously that’s easier said than done due to his extended range, but it’s always better to give up twos against bigger guys than to give up threes where he is most comfortable.

The most important part is slowing the game down. Young loves to get out in transition and getting easy baskets because of it. If a team controls the speed of the game, he gets frustrated and is more likely to try and force things. He gets frustrated and looks to make plays that are tougher because the way he plays is taken away.

Don’t let him get to the free-throw line and get him in a groove easily from the stripe.

Moving Forward

Even though Oklahoma has stumbled as of late, they are still in the thick of the Big 12. Young is one of the toughest people to guard in all of basketball, and it is going to be tough for almost every team from here on out moving forward. Trae Young is the best guard in America right now, and it takes a whole team to contain him on any given night.

 

Featured image from USAtoday.com.

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The Hottest Team in College Basketball

College basketball has been impossible to predict as of late. Duke lost by 11 to a 10-5 North Carolina State team. Michigan State got steam rolled at Ohio State and then followed that up by barely beating Rutgers at home in overtime.

Last week every team in the top 10 lost besides two. The inconsistency of teams has fans grasping for some sort of certainty as we hit the middle of the college basketball season.

The number two ranked Mountaineers:

The West Virginia Mountaineers are now 15-1 this season. They are 3-0 in conference play and have rattled off 15 in a row after their opening night loss to Texas A&M. They are 2-1 against the top 25 and 2-0 against the top 15. The Mountaineers outscore teams by an average of 18 points a game.

As of January 13th they will be getting their second leading scorer from last season back. Esa Ahmad has been cleared by the NCAA to play. He had eligibility problems that cost him the first half of the 2017-2018 season, however he will make a return for the Mountaineers. Ahmad averaged just over 11 points a game last season and can help contribute to an already solid offense.

Press Virginia:

College Basketball

Jevon Carter, (Fansided.com).

Many teams struggle with West Virginia due to their grind it out press. The team presses every single defensive possession and gives no easy baskets. Opposing teams have to work for every single point they score, and that wears on a team. They give up the eighth most two point field goals in the country. Which if it wasn’t already obvious, nothing comes easy against this terrific defense.

The Mountaineers press forces nearly 22 turnovers a game which is good for 4th in the country. They themselves turn it over just 13 times a game which is 58th in the country on the other side. One of their major strengths is the way they dictate the pace. West Virginia doesn’t get tired when they play teams.

The backcourt of Jevon Carter and Daxter Miles not only pick you up full court, but they also push the pace on offense. The team is eighth in the country in steals (10.9 per) and 10th in the country in offensive rebounds (14.7 per).

These two statistics in particular show just how well the backcourt dictates pace. Due to the speed of the guards the offensive rebounds are high, because the guards push it they create lots of space in the lane to crash the offensive boards.

When playing the number one ranked defense in college basketball the Mountaineers not only won the game but also won the defensive battle. They out shot the Virginia Cavaliers from the free throw line as well as from the three point line. They out rebounded the Cavaliers, and turned them over at a clip of 14 to the Mountaineers 10. The Cavaliers are one of the best teams in the country in protecting the ball, and the Mountaineers got a big win against a tough defense.

Jevon Carter:

It seems like Jevon Carter has been at West Virginia for forever. Well in today’s college basketball, he has been. He’s a four year senior who has increased his scoring every season he has been at West Virginia.

Carter is averaging 16.1 points, 6.8 assists, 5.5 rebounds as well as 3.6 steals a game. He is the teams best defender and their leader. He does a little bit of everything for the Mountaineers but what he truly brings is both experience and structure.

Jevon is the go to guy for this West Virginia team. When they need a big basket, he’s the one to take it. When they need a defensive stop, he seems to be in the right spot at the right time. He contributes time and time again to making winning plays that keep this team afloat.

The Big 12:

West Virginia is leading the way in the best conference in college basketball. The Big 12 has more then half their teams inside the top 20. They have four teams in the top 12 and three in the top nine. A conference that used to be dominated by Kansas has now been the deepest and most competitive in college basketball.

With all the unpredictability in college basketball this season West Virginia has quietly sat back and executed. It hasn’t always been pretty or high scoring, but the Mountaineers have rattled off a fifteen game winning streak.

Experience in the backcourt, good coaching and great defense is always a good combination come both conference play and NCAA tournament play. Look for the Mountaineers to make a deep run and make people remember just how tough the “Press” Virginia defense is.

Featured image from ESPN.com.

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When the Remaining Undefeated Teams Will Lose

It is nearly impossible to go undefeated in a season. The last team to do it and win the NCAA Tournament was the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers.  They were led by legendary Hall of Fame coach, Bob Knight, they are one of 19 teams to even reach the tournament undefeated. The most recent is the 2015 Kentucky Wildcats that fell just short in the Final Four. Wichita State also did it in 2014, but they lost in the second round to a different pack of Wildcats en route to the title game.

There are so many things that can happen in a season. Injuries can instantly derail a team’s season. Players can have acdemic issues as South Carolina’s Sindarius Thornwell did (and the team is still undefeated with him in the lineup). Naturally, players are human. As good as they are it is difficult to win night in and night out because there is bound to be at least one off night. It is a tall task to make it to March undefeated and it will not happen this year.

With Villanova’s loss to Butler, that leaves two out of the 351 division one teams undefeated. The Baylor Bears (14-0) and the Gonzaga Bulldogs (15-0). Each are currently in the AP top five due to their spotless records.  The question is, when will that first loss come?

Baylor Bears

Baylor has had a stellar season considering the turmoil of their campus over the past few months.  What is not in turmoil is their talented roster. Not to mention the fact that even with the roster they had the team was not picked to be as high as they are now. The preseason conference poll slotted the Bears at fifth in their own conference.

There are several facets to the Bears game that have gotten them to this point. Firstly, they are very efficient.  As a team they shoot 49.9% from the field. Part of that efficiency comes from the team’s depth.  The roster is not very full, 11 players have logged minutes this year, but 10 players play more than 10 minutes per game. Nine of those average more than five points per game.  Jake Lindsey is the tenth player and he contributes 4.8 points, 2.6 assists and 2.4 rebounds per game in support of leading point guard Manu Lecomte.

Lecomte is a Miami transfer and is flourishing in Waco. He has 11.4 points per game coupled with 5.1 assist per game. His success is aided by his top scorers Jonathan Motley and Allerik Freeman. Each of these three players has managed double digit points (16.0 for Motely) in under 30 minutes of play.

Jo Lual-Acuil Jr. (0) is one of the most prolific shot blockers in the country and is the teeth of the Bear’s defense. (photo courtesy of pickandroll.com)

What is more impressive is the defensive effect that each player has on the team.  All ten players that play significant minutes have a positive Defensive Box Plus/Minus.  This means that each player has a positive net effect on defense being in the game. The one player that it is impossible not to mention when it comes to Baylor’s tenacious defense is Jo Lual-Acuil. The seven foot monster smashes a whopping 3.6 blocks per game, good enough for third in the country. He has reached that mark in only 25.8 minutes per contest along with 11.1 points and 7.6 rebounds. Lual-Acuil’s high production in limited minutes is a perfect example of how Scott Drew’s use of the whole roster keeps his team energized.

That is what got them to this point. They will not reach the end of the season with a zero in the loss column. Baylor has taken down some giants on its way to current record. They have taken down Oregon who is now on track in addition to Xavier and Louisville. Conference play in the Big 12, however, is no joke. Baylor will finish the season with a minimum of two losses in the Conference.

The good news for all of this is that we will not have to wait long for this team to drop its first game. Already nearly faltering against an average Iowa State team, the Bears come home to Oklahoma State and then travel to West Virginia. This is the fun part about the Mountaineers being in the Big 12, teams have to go halfway across the country to play them. Travel has its wear and tear on players.

So after January 10th, only one team will remain undefeated in the NCAA. West Virginia and Bob Huggins are notorious for their full court defensive pressure that has caused 347 turnovers this season, best in the nation. They have only allowed 60.8 points per game. The really scary part? The team is fifth in the nation in scoring behind eight players over 7.0 points per game for a total of 90.7 per game. The fatigue of the Bears and the relentlessness of Huggins squad will result in Baylor’s first loss.

Gonzaga Bulldogs

At the beginning of the year Gonzaga was supposed to be good. They also had a few games that were supposed to challenge them on paper. Gonzaga has beaten all of the bigger conference teams on their schedule: Florida, Iowa State, an Arizona team on a neutral floor that is now coming around, Washington and Tennessee.

Karnowski is the main reason for Gonzaga’s offensive flow. (Photo courtesy of SI.com)

They have done it with a depth created by returning players, transfers and recruits. Nigel Williams-Goss has emerged as one of the most crucial transfers in the nation sitting at team bests of 13.8 points and 4.7 assists along with 5.7 rebounds. The versatile guard is a staple for the offense and has played the most minutes on the team thus far. To help him he has the interior presence of Przemek Karnowski, one of the best passing big men in the country. He has the highest usage percentage on the team (for players that qualify). Karnowski is the center of the offense for the team and his passing threat is a great creator. It helps Williams-Goss and fellow double digit scorer Josh Perkins to get their opportunities.

All of this action has allowed supporting players such as Cal transfer Jordan Mathews to flourish. Mathews is now shooting 42.5% from behind the arc.  Freshman Zach Collins and Killian Tillie also benefit from the lack of defensive attention. Collins is currently averaging 10.6 points per game on 72.5% shooting. When a guy is making three out of four shots from anywhere you know there is something good going on.

Unfortunately even that cannot prevent the Bulldogs from dropping a game or two.  They have a few tests on their schedule that will cause them some difficulty. The BYU Cougars may present somewhat of a challenge, but the team that will take down Mark Few is the St. Mary’s Gaels. The Gales have faced and beaten prime competition this year. When Gonzaga has to travel to St. Mary’s on February 11th, it will be too much for Gonzaga.

St. Mary’s is led by Australian Center Jock Landale with an outstanding 18.4 points per game and 9.7 rebounds. To this point he is one of the most productive players in the country, not to mention the WCC. Another Aussie player that has high production on the team is Emmett Naar.  Naar is a threat in several facets with 10.3 points, 5.7 assists and 2.9 rebounds. He is one of the main reasons that the ball moves so swiftly about the Gaels offense.

What the team truly brings as a strength is its defensive prowess. They are currently third in the country only allowing an astounding 58.1 points per game. They have allowed 61 points or under in 9 of their wins this year. The one game that they lost to UT-Arlington they only allowed 65 points. Gonzaga is a deep team, but they will not be able to fend off the aggressive defense of St. Mary’s.