Saturday, March 15, 2014

Championship Saturday

Thoughts from an incredible day of basketball.


  • The game of the day had to be in the Pac-12, where UCLA edged Arizona in a 75-71 classic that had the feel of a Final Four game. There was so much talent in that game - both teams have multiple NBA players on the floor the entire game. They was defense, there was offense and there was a lot of up-and-down action - a 43-40 first half and a 32-31 second. There were 4-5 lead changes and a bunch of ties in the second half; it was everything you could have asked for in a basketball game. Arizona and UCLA are both going to be very tough outs in March.
  • Maybe the most intriguing match-up of the day was Kyle Anderson vs. Aaron Gordon, two of the most underrated players in the country. If those two played on the East Coast, you would be hearing about them every night. Anderson went for 21-15-5 while Gordon had 11-8-8 on Saturday ... the overall passing ability (vision + ball-handling + feel for the game) for 6'9 players is absolutely remarkable. You can run offense through either at the top of the key and there's a good chance it ends in an open 3-pointer and both are absolutely killer in transition.
  • I wrote about UCLA on Friday and they've done nothing to change my mind about them in the last two games. Here's an idea of how good they are on the offensive side of the ball - Arizona gave up 39 points to Utah and 34 points to Colorado in the first two games of the Pac-12 Tourney. And those are two good teams! Arizona plays some of the best D in the country and they can't stick UCLA. There's pretty much no way you can defend the Bruins - they have way too much offensive fire-power. They can shoot from all five positions and they have multiple huge ball-handlers who can create shots for others. 
  • You really saw Anderson's versatility in the way UCLA could attack the Arizona D. With Anderson running point forward, they played two SG's in the backcourt - Norman Powell (6'4 215) and Jordan Adams (6'5 220). There's nowhere to hide a small guard against the Bruins. Powell is one of the best athletes in the country and Adams is one of the best scorers; both will punish a defender's lack of size. Adams had 19 points and 4 assists on 8-16 shooting - he is going to get his shots and he needs only about an inch of space to score. That guy can roll out of bed and get you 15-20 points.
Big East
  • Providence put on a clinic on Saturday on how to beat Creighton. While the Friars were big underdogs, they had the personnel to exploit Creighton's weaknesses and Ed Cooley played his cards beautifully. It was a tremendous all-around performance for a team making its first NCAA Tournament appearance in more than a decade. Here's the formula - attack Creighton inside, control the offensive glass and keep them in the half-court. On defense, they played in a zone to prevent McDermott from moving off the ball and shadowed him all over the floor. He got his points, but they were able to make a lot of other guys for Creighton have to play with the ball in their hands.
  • Creighton, for all the publicity they have gotten this season, is a prime candidate to be knocked out early in the NCAA Tournament. They are like a boxer with a big right hand and a weak chin - they have the power to knock a team out from behind the 3-point line, but they are very weak upfront and can be attacked right around the basket. They really miss Gregory Echenique, their 6'9 center from last season.
  • Here's my worry on McDermott - Creighton had to go in a zone to protect McDermott because he couldn't defend anyone on the Providence front-line. The Friars start LaDonta Henton (6'6 225), Tyler Harris (6'9 215) and Kadeem Batts (6'9 240) and they bring Carson Desrosiers (7'0 250) off the bench. Henton, Batts and Desrosiers could all post-up Dougie Fresh and bang him on the glass while Harris could face him up and blow right by him. What do they have in common? Henton and Batts are fringe NBA prospects while Harris (Tobias' younger bro) and Desrosiers have a chance to play at the next level down the road. At the NBA level, McDermott's lack of individual D is going to put him on the bench really quickly.
  • That also shows you how much talent Ed Cooley has brought into Providence. The third-year head coach has really turned that program and gotten them going in the right direction. They are turning the corner - the first NCAA Tournament berth is always the hardest to get. Next season, even without Cotton and Batts, they will have a strong nucleus of Harris, Desrosiers and Alan Fortune. Imagine if Ricky Ledo had stayed in school this season - we would be talking a team that could make a Final Four run. As is, I wouldn't be shocked to see Providence win 1-2 games this year. With Cooley's ability to recruit, they could be a power in the new Big East for a long time to come.
Big 12
  • The way Baylor played in the Big 12 Tourney is why people (me specifically) rag on Scott Drew so much. The guy brings in as much talent as any coach in the country, yet he's always coaching for his life by March. He has two Elite Eights and two NIT Finals in the last five seasons - the talent level never really dipped in that span! It's just that he's had some teams that really underachieved. This year's team was almost in that position, but they turned things around at just the right time. They looked like the best team in the Big 12 Tourney - if they hadn't been playing their fourth game in four nights, they might have won the whole thing.
  • That's really the Scott Drew Experience in a nut-shell - a team with the talent to win the whole conference is playing on first day of the conference because they aren't one of the top 6 teams. Guess who was also playing on Wednesday this year? Oklahoma State, lead by our old friend Travis Ford, who may have actually done a worse job than Drew this year.
  • The big difference for the Bears has been the play of Kenny Chery, the junior college PG who was hobbled by an Achilles injury for a good portion of the Big 12 schedule. Chery is only 5'11 195 and he isn't an elite athlete, but he's a professional PG who runs sets, controls tempo, gets his big men shots and can create his own shot off the dribble late in the clock. Chery's ability to mastermind the Baylor offense makes up for a lot of their lack of structure in the half-court - as Texas fans well know, a great PG (TJ Ford, DJ Augustin) can pick up a lot of slack for a mediocre offensive coach. This Baylor team reminds me a lot of their first Elite Eight squad, which had Ekpe Udoh and Quincy Acy upfront and Tweety Carter running the show.
  • Iowa State is one of the most exciting teams to watch in the country and they are coming off a strong performance to win the Big 12 title - but I still wouldn't ride them very far in my bracket. They start Georges Niang, a 6'7 245 sloth, at 5 - and while he can take bigger 5's off the dribble, he can't protect the rim. The Cyclones are a lot like Creighton - they can shoot higher-seeded a team out of a game, but they are also very vulnerable to a bigger, lower-seeded team. If they lose, though, it will likely be in a classic gun-fight - no one is stopping Fred Hoiberg's team from scoring. They play 5-out and they have way too many offensive threats to be shut down.
Big Ten
  • There was no more impressive performance today than Michigan State in the first half against Wisconsin. The Spartans, after battling injuries for most of the season, are finally at full strength and they look IMPRESSIVE. Their top 5 - Payne, Dawsen, Valentine, Harris, Appling - is great on both sides of the ball. MSU is the most complete team in the country and they are my pick to cut down the nets in Dallas. I'll get more into this in a column on Monday.
  • Frank Kaminsky brought Wisconsin back in the second half. The big man (7'1 245) was absolutely unstoppable - he can shoot from 3, put the ball on the floor and create his own shot out of the post. Payne got into foul trouble trying to stick him - and if Payne can't stick a front-court player, there aren't many players in the country who can. Kaminsky reminds me of Andrea Bargnani and I swear that's a compliment. A Kaminsky-Payne front-court would be awfully intriguing at the next level. That's either an average starting 4-5 or one of the best second team front-courts in the league.
  • Aaron Craft - lol. I would appreciate his game a lot more if the announcers would stop acting like he's something he isn't. He seems like a nice enough fellow, I'd be happy to go to the dental practice he'll set up in a decade.
  • One of the most fascinating individual match-ups of the day was Rodney Hood vs. TJ Warren. Warren had 21 points on 22 shots - that was the best D I've seen anyone play on him all season. I'm a huge Warren fan, so I'm thinking his performance today says more about Hood. There aren't many 6'8 215 guys who can move like him. Hood projects more naturally as a 3 at the next level, but I'm thinking he provides more value as a 6'8 3-and-D 2. He's a pure shooter and he has a high release point, so he's always going to be a threat on the offensive end. Imagine him in Portland next to Nic Batum - you could have a real vicious pair of wings on both ends of the floor. I wasn't sold on Hood as a lottery pick before, but now I'm thinking he's solidly in the Top 15.
  • I don't follow the bracket all that closely, so I'm not sure if NC State is in the field or not and I don't even really know if they should. That said, they have a nice team with size upfront, shooting on the perimeter and a legitimate superstar in Warren. That is not a team I would want to see as a 13 or a 12 seed - I hope they get a chance to go to Dayton, at the very least.
  • Amile Jefferson is the player whose really turned things around for Duke. His ability to play as a small-ball 5 has improved them on defense and the glass while not compromising their floor spacing too much on O. They were trying to get away with Jabari Parker at the 5 earlier in the season and that just wasn't going to work. The key to beating Duke is making them play more limited big men like the Third Plumdog. If they can go Amile-Jabari-Hood-Sulaimon-Cook, they are awfully tough to beat. To beat them, you have to punish that line-up on the block and keep them in the half-court.
  • Virginia-Pittsburgh ... na, I didn't watch that shit.
  • Tennessee came up a little short against Florida, but they have the look of a team that could make a run in the Big Dance. Check the scores of their last three regular-season games - 76-38, 82-54 and 72-45. They have just been beating the tar out of teams and they gave the No. 1 team in the country everything they could handle on a neutral floor on Saturday. Cuonzo Martin's team puts elite athletes on the floor at every position, they have two NBA players in Jarnell Stokes and Jordan McRae and they have finally found the right mix of offense and defense. I would not want them as a lower seed in my pod.
  • Florida is a great team and I think they have a good shot at the Final Four, but I am starting to see a few cracks in their armor. If you can keep them in the half-court and prevent them from going offense -> defense, they don't have a ton of 1-on-1 creators. Florida has elite athletes at every position but no one who can command a double team against an NBA-caliber defender. They also have a few poor shooters, so if Scottie Wilbekin or Michael Frazier is going through a slump, they are very limited from the outside. That might not rear its head until an Elite Eight-Final Four type game, but that's why I don't have them winning it all. 
  • Kentucky continued their cake-walk through the SEC Tourney, facing another team (Georgia) that is still probably a year away from being an NCAA Tournament team. If they can give Florida a game tomorrow, I might start taking them seriously. I would not be surprised at all if they lost in the first round.
The American
  • Louisville continued their strong run of late, tearing through UConn to win their first (and only) American Tourney conference championship. It took the Cardinal a while to find the right mix after Chane Behanan's dismissal, but Rick Pitino has them peaking at the right time. The combination of Montrezl Harrell and Mangok Mathiang is absolutely frightening defensively and Russ Smith and Chris Jones are two of the toughest defensive guards in the country. If you play weak with the ball against Louisville, they will take it from you and run it right down your throats. Pitino is going for the kill too - he was screaming at the refs up 20 in the second half, just not giving a fuck.
  • I'm starting to come around on Russ as an NBA player. He has really improved his all-around game as a senior, becoming a much more reliable shooter, decision-maker and playmaker. He doesn't really fit the NBA prototype, but as a 3rd PG, he brings a lot of interesting things to the table. Russ is a dynamic athlete with a nose for the rim - as long as he can keep his shooting percentages and assist-to-turnover numbers at the right spots, NBA teams will be interested. 
  • Not sure what to make of UConn - b/c it might have been just them running into a steam-roller. Louisville has been absolutely smoking teams over the last few weeks. I was at their win at SMU - when Louisville starts playing downhill, it can be absolutely terrifying. I think UConn will go as far as Amidah Brimah and DeAndre Daniels take them. Both those guys could present match-up problems in a one-and-done setting - Brimah's ability to protect the rim and Daniels ability to score and shoot at 6'8 are the kind of things that are hard to prepare for if you have never seen them before. Even without Shabazz Napier, next year's UConn team, lead by Ryan Boatright, Daniels and Brimah, could be a serious outfit. 

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