NCAAB Sports

Unmasking contenders and pretenders of college basketball

As college basketball enters the final week of regular season play, teams on the bubble are scrambling to enhance their resumes and prove to the selection committee that they are worthy of a Tournament bid. Meanwhile, teams at the top of their respective conference are simply focused on winning out and capturing a Conference Tournament championship title.

Conference tournament week is simply a preview to the utter madness of the NCAA Tournament, but how reliable is it in showing the fans which teams are real contenders and pretenders?

Let’s look at last year for example. Heading into the Tournament, no team in the nation was as hot as Duke. The Blue Devils steamrolled their way to an ACC Conference Tournament title and were viewed as heavy favorites by fans to make a Final Four. However, Coach K’s squad bowed out of the Tournament after a shocking upset at the hands of a South Carolina team that looked dead in the water after losing its first game in the SEC Tournament against Alabama.

The moral of story is that while Conference Tournaments create a lot of headlines before the NCAA Tournament, it is not a fool proof way to understand which teams are true contenders heading into the the big dance. Let’s unmask the real contenders and pretenders of the college basketball universe as the regular season comes to a conclusion.

CONTENDER: VILLANOVA

Coach Jay Wright’s crew silenced the doubters in their 95-79 demolition of Big East rival Xavier. Xavier Coach Chris Mack assigned his best defender in Naji Marshall to shadow Jalen Brunson from start to finish. He dared other Wildcats to step up and beat them instead. The end result was the best team in the Big East flexing its offensive muscle power.

Projected lottery pick Mikal Bridges burned the Musketeer defense all night, loading the box score with 25 points on 66.67 percent shooting. Sophomore Donte DiVincenzo stepped up and showcased his ability to run the offense. DiVincenzo nearly recorded a triple double with 21 points, nine rebounds and nine assists.

While Brunson is the unquestioned star of this team, DiVincenzo’s consistent offensive production may be the X-factor for Villanova in their quest to return to the Final Four. In Villanova’s 76-71 loss to Providence, DiVincenzo struggled from the field, only connecting on 30 percent of his shots, scoring six points and turning the ball over three times.

After Phil Booth fractured his right hand earlier in the season, Wright had to force freshman Collin Gillespie into more game action earlier than he would have preferred. Gillespie’s production and efficiency have seen exceptional improvement over the past week. In Villanova’s past four games, Gillespie has averaged 9.25 points while shooting 65 percent.

If Villanova can limit turnovers, they accumulated 19 in their loss to Providence, and receive consistent scoring production from DiVincenzo and Gillespie, expect to see the Wildcats make some noise come mid-March.

PRETENDER: XAVIER

Unmasking Contenders and Pretenders of College Basketball
Trevon Blueitt and Xavier have encountered a number of lucky breaks this season (Logan Bowles/USA Today Sports).

Xavier has accumulated numerous victories over quadrant one and two opponents throughout the season. However, their play has been incredibly inconsistent throughout the season as they have struggled against lower quality opponents throughout the season. In Xavier’s 96-91 overtime victory over Georgetown, the Musketeers required a four-point play with under 20 seconds to play to send the game into overtime.

Coach Chris Mack’s squad required help from the officials in their 72-71 win at Creighton. Sophomore point guard Quentin Goodin was fouled attempting a shot with 0.3 seconds remaining. There was contact on the play, but the call was questionable given the context of the play.

To add to this, KenPom ranks Xavier as the fourth luckiest team in the nation with a score of +.129.

Xavier’s offense has been synonymous of a roller coaster ride all season. The Musketeers are heavily reliant on senior forward Trevon Blueitt to provide consistent, high volume production. However, Blueitt has been prone to shooting slumps and inefficiencies. In their 72-71 victory over Creighton, Blueitt was shut down all game, only scoring six points on 33.3 percent shooting. This was a game Creighton should have won and they provided a blueprint to take down Mack’s team.

Xavier’s porous defense could prove to be their downfall come March though. In their biggest game of the season, Xavier allowed Villanova to shoot 60.3 percent from the field and 47.1 percent from three point range. This stems from poor defensive close-outs and communication on switching.

CONTENDER: Texas Tech

Coach Chris Beard has Red Raider nation buzzing with optimism. Texas Tech as the opportunity to not only capture its first Big 12 regular season title in school history, but also make some noise once mid-March comes around.

Tech sports one of the most dominant defenses in the nation. Ranked third in adjusted defense by KenPom, Beard has completely altered the culture and playing style of this Red Raider team. Beard prefers to utilize a pack line defense, but also focuses on crisp player rotation and communication. This forces opponents into poor shot selection and passing decisions.

Their offense runs through star point guard Keenan Evans. Evans is averaging 18.2 points on 48.4 percent shooting, 3.4 assists and 1.4 steals per game. In Tech’s 59-57 loss to Baylor, Evans was sidelined the entire second half with a toe injury. The Red Raiders’ defense kept them in the game, but they had no offensive flow at the end of the game without Evans to handle the rock. Evans is listed as day-to-day, which should be a relief for Tech fans as their match-up with Kansas is on the horizon.

Evans has the defense and the team make-up in place to take on a role similar Kemba Walker this March and lead the surprising Red Raiders to the promised land.

PRETENDER: KANSAS

Unmasking Contenders and Pretenders of College Basketball
Kansas needs Devonte’ Graham to stay hot if they want to go far in March (Nick Krug/Lawrence Journal-World).

ESPN’s Joe Lunardi has moved Kansas back up to a No. 1 seed after the Jayhawks defeated West Virginia 77-69 at Allen Fieldhouse. However, Coach Bill Self’s crew required a 19-3 run to end the game to take down West Virginia. There were times during this game where Kansas did not look like they belonged on the same court as their Big 12 counterpart, as West Virginia dictated pace and dominated the offensive end of the court.

This Kansas team lacks the explosive offensive firepower that Coach Bill Self is used to having. The senior tandem of Devonte’ Graham and Svi Mykhailiuk lead the Jayhawks in scoring this season with 17.4 and 15.3 per game respectively. However, much of this scoring is reliant upon outside shooting, in particular the three ball. This ability allows Kansas to pick apart a zone defense, as shown by their 76-60 win over Syracuse.

However, when the three ball is not falling, the Jayhawks’ offense can fall prone to stagnation. Mykhailiuk struggles in taking defenders off the dribble, Graham is a volume scorer who only shoots at 39.8 percent and Udoka Azubuike has difficulty handling double teams down low.

If Kansas falls into a shooting slump against a team that plays strong defense, they could find themselves packing up and heading home early in March.

 

Featured image by Charles Fox/Philly Inquirer).

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