Monday, March 31, 2014

Scotty Hopson Makes It Back

After not being drafted in 2011 and bouncing around a few summer league teams, Scotty Hopson looked like he would slip through the cracks in the NBA. There's no question he had the talent - Hopson is an athletic 6'7 200 guard who averaged 17 points a game on 49% shooting at Tennessee.

However, at the next level, one-dimensional scoring guards are a dime-a-dozen. Hopson wasn't a great rebounder, passer or defender and he didn't get a ton of pre-draft publicity - he didn't have anything that made his resume stand out. Maybe he could have been MarShon Brooks, but that's hardly a big deal.

He ended up heading overseas and playing in Europe. It's a better living than the NBDL, but not many guys who go out there end up making it back to the NBA. It's easy to be out of sight and out of mind while the longer rotations and shorter games make it harder for guys to put up huge stats.

That's one thing I've picked up on covering the NBA draft - the line between making it and not can be very thin for non-elite perimeter players. It just isn't a huge deal if you are the 400th or 500th best player in the world. For 7th-8th men, it all comes down to opportunity. 

If Hopson succeeds, like Patrick Beverley before him, he could help blaze the trail from Europe back to the league. I don't see why more NBA teams don't use Europe as a minor-league - if you need to add a role player, why not get a 27-year old man as opposed to a 20-year old boy?

The best players will still get scooped up out of college, but there's no real reason to commit a rotation spot to a late first-round-early second round talent when you can get that same guy, except 4-5 years older, coming out of Europe. 

Not only that, working as a professional overseas for a few years humbles and matures players in a way that the NCAA does not. You can see it in Patrick Beverley - he plays every night like he's fighting for his spot and trying to prove every team in the league wrong.

If Hopson buys in on the defensive end and plays unselfish basketball, he has the size, athleticism and shooting ability to help the Cleveland Cavaliers. The real question is how many more Scotty Hopsons and Patrick Beverleys are out there, waiting for a chance.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Kentucky's Bench Is Unfair

There aren't many college teams who could lose a potential lottery pick at center (Willie Cauley-Stein) and not miss a beat. John Calipari just looked down his bench and called the number of a 6'9 McDonald's All-American (Marcus Lee) who hadn't played much all season.

Lee, a 6'9 215 jumping jack, could start for almost every team in the country and he couldn't get minutes at Kentucky. He had 10 points and 8 rebounds against a Michigan team which didn't have a big men who could hang with the sixth man (!!) in the Kentucky front-court.

The Wildcats start Dakari Johnson (future first-round pick), Julius Randle (lottery pick) and James Young (first-rounder) and they bring Cauley-Stein (first-rounder), Alex Poythress (second-rounder) and Lee off the bench. That's more McDonald's All-Americans upfront than most conferences and more size than a lot of NBA teams.

Cauley-Stein, Randle and Young are all projected to leave this season and even that won't clear up the logjam in the Kentucky front-court. Next season, they are bringing in a recruiting class with two more McDonald's All-Americans upfront - Karl Towns (7'0 250) and Trey Lyles (6'10 255).

Calipari literally has an embarrassment of riches, because there won't be enough minutes for all those guys next season. College teams are usually better off going small instead of going big - if he plays 3 big men at the same time, there won't be enough floor spacing or perimeter D.

You figure Johnson and Towns will split the center position, while Poythress and Lee fight for minutes behind Lyles. Long story short, we might not see anymore of Lee next year than we did this year. He might have an easier time finding minutes in the NBA than he will at Kentucky.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Anthony Lee: An Impact Transfer

While it won't make a big splash, picking up Anthony Lee from Temple is a coup for Ohio State. Lee is one of the most underrated players in the country, a legitimate NBA prospect at the 4 who drastically improves an OSU front-line that has been weak ever since the departure of Jared Sullinger.

Temple had a 9-22 record in their first season in the AAC, but they have been a perennial NCAA Tournament team under Fran Dunphy, making the Big Dance in each of the previous six seasons. Lee was a big part of their success last season, when they narrowly lost to Indiana in the second round.

At 6'9 230, he has prototype size for an NBA PF. And while he isn't an elite athlete by any stretch, he's big and fast enough to hold his own at the next level. He averaged 13.5 points, 8.5 rebounds and 1 block on 49.5% shooting this season, a slight dip in his efficiency numbers from the year before.

Lee, like the rest of his Temple teammates, struggled at times without Khalif Wyatt, who drew an incredible amount of defensive attention. Temple had neither a dominant scorer or a true PG who could get everyone else easy shots, so everyone on the roster was forced to fend for themselves.

At Ohio State, Lee should benefit from playing next to Shannon Scott, who will be given the keys to the offense with Aaron Craft gone. Lee can run the floor, finish at the rim and knock down a 20-foot jumper - he's the perfect complement to a slash-and-kick PG like Scott.

So while he will never be a great player, Lee has the skill-set to play a big role on a good team. He gives Thad Matta a lot of options in terms of deploying personnel - he can play in a huge line-up, as a face-up 4 next to Amir Williams, or he can play as a small-ball 5. 

Lee's NBA ceiling is probably Dante Cunningham, a reserve big man who swings between both interior positions on a second unit. If he can put up double-double numbers in the Big Ten and keep OSU in the Top 25, Lee will get a much longer look from NBA scouts than if he were on a rebuilding Temple team.

That's a thing for a guy with Lee's ceiling - just because you have the tools to play in the NBA doesn't necessarily mean you will. There's no pressing demand for backup 4's at the next level. For a potential second-round draft pick, it's all about being in the right place at the right time.

No one has more riding on OSU's success next season than Anthony Lee.

Friday, March 28, 2014

It Is Never A Charge

If there's even a question about a bang-bang play, it should be a block, not a charge. No one wants to watch guys run to spots and fall down. It may not violate the letter of the law but it sure as hell violates the spirit of it. Basketball is supposed to be entertainment - if everyone starts cheating in order to win, it ruins the flow of the game and the spirit of the action.

Can you imagine a guy trying to win a pick-up game by taking a charge? It's absurd - get up off the ground and play basketball. If you want to win a game, you must make basketball plays to do it.

A charge is when you are standing still, the other play is out of control and he runs directly into you. That's the only time that play should be called. If you are playing 1-on-1 defense and you are sliding, you should not be taking charges.

As a big man, I could elbow a guy in the kidneys every time there's a scrum for a rebound and it wouldn't get called against me. That would help my team win, so why shouldn't I do it? The answer is that basketball is a gentleman's sport and there are certain thing everyone agrees to do beforehand in order to make it a fun thing to do and to watch.

Jordan Morgan cheated, deceived the ref and made the game-winning play for Michigan. There is no justice in this world.

Zach LaVine is a Blank Slate

On the surface, a freshman guard with Zach LaVine's numbers (9 points and 2.5 rebounds a game) declaring for the NBA draft is ridiculous. Why would a player who wasn't even a starter on his college team think he was ready for the next level?

However, let's pretend for a second that every bit of hype you have ever heard or read about LaVine is true. If he really was one of the best SG's in the country, would he have been able to show it at UCLA this season?

On the perimeter, UCLA started a 6'9 sophomore point forward (Kyle Anderson), a 6'5 sophomore shooting guard (Jordan Adams) and a 6'4 junior combo guard (Norman Powell). There isn't a freshman out there who was going to come in and take either Anderson or Adams spot in the line-up. They were proven college players and first-round NBA prospects before the season even began - UCLA was always going to be their team.

With Anderson and Adams dominating the ball, the other starter on the perimeter needed to be a defensive-minded player who could play off the ball and guard multiple positions. That's a role for an upperclassman with experience like Powell, not a hot-shot freshman guard whose never had to play off the ball before in his life.

Not only was LaVine coming off the bench, he had to share time with Bryce Alford, the coach's son. Alford didn't have nearly LaVine's talent, but he's a good player in his own right, averaging 8 points and 3 assists a game as a freshman. 

As you can see, LaVine was at the bottom of a very long pecking order in Westwood. Even when he was in the game, he was playing with some combination of Adams, Anderson, Powell and Alford, all guys capable of making things happen with the ball in their hands. 

In essence, he was like Terrence Ross in his first season with the Toronto Raptors. A shooting guard needs the ball in his hands to impact the game - they aren't big men who can just dominate by rebounding and playing interior defense. But when you don't play a lot and you don't get a lot of chances to play with the ball when you are in the game, it can be very hard to get into any kind of offensive rhythm.

If LaVine was the man but the political situation at UCLA meant he couldn't be The Man, what would we expect? We'd expect him to be very efficient - 44% from the field and 38% from three - and we'd expect him to have more positive players than negative ones as a decision-maker - 1.8 assists on 1.1 turnovers. When Adams and Anderson were suspended for a game, we'd expect LaVine to thrive in a bigger role, which he did in UCLA's OT loss to Oregon in February, when he put up 18 points, 8 rebounds and 5 assists. 

When you are evaluating LaVine, you have to look beyond his statistics because there's no way any 18-year old guard in his situation would have put up better statistics. How would he look if he had dominated the ball and played 30+ minutes a night? We don't know - we can only project.

By leaving school before he was "ready", LaVine became one of the most polarizing prospects in the 2014 draft. My prediction? He's going to make some team in the middle to latter stages of the first round look very, very smart. I don't have any numbers to back this up - I just see a blank slate with every tool you could possibly want out of a big-time guard.

The Importance of Balance

At RealGM, a column on the importance of playing good offense and good defense.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Baylor and Stanford: The Luck of the Draw

After strong play in the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament, Baylor and Stanford came back to Earth on Thursday, losing handily to Wisconsin and Dayton. As well as they played in the first two rounds, Baylor went 9-9 in the Big 12 while Stanford went 10-8 in the Pac 12. They were the same slightly above-average teams they've been all season; they just got very favorable match-ups in their pod.

That's what the NCAA Tourney always comes down too - match-ups. If you changed up which 2 and 3 seeds were in Stanford and Baylor's pods, neither team advances to the Sweet 16. Stanford couldn't have asked for a better road than New Mexico and Kansas while Baylor was set up perfectly against Nebraska and Creighton. So much of a team's success or failure is determined by the seeding committee. 

Let's take Baylor's first two games, which gave them the mythical state crown of Nebraska. There's no big men in that state - the Huskers went 6'10 and 6'7  on the front-line; Creighton went 6'7 and 6'8. Baylor goes 7'1, 6'9 - they just overwhelmed small teams who couldn't handle their size. When they played a Wisconsin team that had good big men and good guards, they got run out the gym.

Size was the key for Stanford. At 6'11, 6'10 and 6'7, they had one of the biggest frontlines in the field of 68. In the first round, they played a New Mexico team which had no real Plan B if bludgeoning teams upfront didn't work. In the second, they played a Kansas team that was missing their center and couldn't shoot 3's - allowing Stanford to pound them inside on offense and sit in a zone on defense. 

Dayton had the better guards, so they sped the game up, got it going up-and-down and killed Stanford in transition. Stanford wasn't exactly a team full of world-beaters - if they had been the 10 seed in Wisconsin's regional, they would have had no chance to advance. The Badgers had the size to keep up with them and the players to expose their lack of athleticism and ball-handling on the perimeter. 

The NCAA Tournament is unpredictable in the sense that no one in February would have told you that Baylor and Stanford were going to the Sweet 16 - but that's because no one could have known who they were going to face. That's why having a balanced team that is strong at all five positions is so important, because you never know who you are going to face in a one-and-done scenario.

So when you see two average teams play above their heads in the first two rounds and get blown out in the Sweet 16, don't just write the whole thing off as completely unknowable. There are reasons these teams win or lose and if you back through the match-ups, you can find them. If Baylor and Stanford are proof of anything, it's this - even if your team isn't that great, a huge front-line can take you pretty far in March.

Why Tyler Ennis May Slide

In terms of maximizing his draft position, Ennis probably made the right decision coming out after his freshman season. He's not an elite athlete and his game doesn't need too much polishing - he plays with the decision-making and poise of an NBA vet. His assist-to-turnover numbers, for a freshman, are preposterous. The biggest knock on him is athleticism and that isn't going to change if he stays in school.

Here's the problem - if he doesn't project as a PG worthy of being in the Top 10, there aren't a lot of landing spots for him in the middle of the first round.

12. Orlando (from Denver) - If the Magic take a big man with their first pick, they will probably go with a perimeter player here. The question is whether they draft a PG and move Oladipo off the ball or draft a wing and continue the Oladipo as PG experiment. 
13. Minnesota - Rubio
14. Phoenix - Bledsoe, Dragic
15. Atlanta - Teague, Schroeder
16. Chicago - Rose (?) - Ennis would make sense here as a long-term hedge on Rose's health.
17. Phoenix 
18. Boston - Rondo - They could draft Ennis and move Rondo for picks.
19. Chicago
20. Toronto - If they didn't want to pay Kyle Lowry a lot of money in free agency, they could take the native son. If Greivis Vasquez is the starter, Ennis could fit right in as the No. 2 PG. As long as he can extend his range out to the NBA three-point line, he is ready for a role on a good team.
21. Dallas - Calderon, Larkin
22. Memphis - Conley
23. Utah - Burke
24. Charlotte - Kemba

I could see a situation where Orlando, Chicago, Boston or Toronto draft Ennis but all those teams have other options at PG and other needs they have to fill. Everyone else in that range is pretty much set at the position. PG is as deep a position as there is in the NBA.

Ennis is a guy who could fall on draft night, not because of his game but of because the way the draft board shakes out. 

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Difference Between Could And Will

Jabari Bird will be an NBA player.

When you're looking at whether NCAA players can play at the next level, you want to see if they have the physical tools to defend an NBA position and the skill-set to play a role on an NBA team. Jabari Bird, a freshman SG at Cal, checks both those boxes. At 6'6 190, he has NBA-caliber size and athleticism at the SG position and he already has a professional-looking three-point stroke.

Bird has had a fairly limited role for Cal this season - mainly spotting up in the corner and running off screens to hoist 3's. At his size, it's almost impossible to contest his shot on the perimeter. The numbers aren't there yet - Bird is averaging 8 points a game on 41% shooting - but the skill-set is. His stats will go up as he develops a better feel for the game in terms of shot selection and he plays a bigger role in Cal's offense.

Bird should look at the career path of Allen Crabbe, another Cal SG who was a second-round draft pick of the Trail Blazers this season. Crabbe came into college as a 6'6 shooter and slowly developed an all-around game, with the ability to put he ball on the floor as well as make plays for his teammates. With Justin Cobbs set to graduate, there should be plenty of opportunities for Bird to expand his game next season.

Cobbs, Cal's senior PG, could be an NBA player.

At 6'3 190, he has good size for an NBA PG, although he doesn't have the type of world-class athleticism you see at the position at the next level. Cobbs compensates by being a very head player, with the ability to run the offense, control tempo and create plays for his teammates. He's also capable of calling his own number, averaging 15 points on 46% shooting this season.

While he's unlikely to hold down a starting job in the NBA, Cobbs is certainly capable of playing 10-15 minutes a night and running a second unit. There are definitely NBA players he is better than - Gal Mekel of the Dallas Mavericks is one that comes immediately to mind. The problem is there are NBDL players who are better than him too - the competition for PG jobs in the NBA is intense.

Cobbs is currently ranked as the #36 senior on DraftExpress. He's not in their Top 100 and he's unlikely to be drafted. There's no guarantee Cobbs even gets a shot at the next level. He will likely need a stellar performance at Summer League to get into a camp and a lot of NBA teams already have 15+ guaranteed contracts on their roster before camp even begins.

Bird may never become as well-rounded a college player as Cobbs, but even as a freshman, the road to the NBA looks a lot more clear for a 6'6 SG than for a 6'3 PG. Cobbs is one of a dozen NCAA PG's who are competing for 1-2 roster spots as a 3rd PG this season. If he doesn't get a job next year, there will be a dozen more behind him.

When projecting guys to the NBA, 3 inches can be the difference between could and will.

Florida Scouting Report

Florida came into the NCAA Tournament as the No. 1 overall seed in the field and winners of 26 straight games. The Gators have not lost a game since early December. In that span, they beat Kentucky three times and Tennessee twice, both wins which look far more impressive now than they did during the regular season. After making the last three Elite Eights, they are the favorites to cut down the nets in Dallas this time around.

Florida starts 4 seniors and goes 8-9 deep with quality players. They have NBA-caliber athletes at every position - for all the hype Kentucky's players got this season, they couldn't just overwhelm Florida athletically. If anything, Florida was more athletic than them. This is as good a team as Billy Donovan has had since the Joakim Noah - Al Horford days.

Nevertheless, they are beatable. They aren't great outside shooting team, they don't have a ton of shot-creators and their offense can stagnate in the half-court. They even got a game from their 16 seed (Albany) whom they only beat by 12 points. If Florida is the favorite, you can see why people are saying there isn't a dominant team in college basketball this season.


PG - Scottie Wilbekin (6'2 175) - The SEC POY and the engine of the Florida machine. Wilbekin is their only indispensable player - he's their best playmaker, one of their best scorers and one of their only three-point shooters. If you can get him struggling or get him in foul trouble, the Florida offense will not be nearly as smooth.

SG - Michael Frazier (6'4 200) - Florida's designated zone-buster - athletic guard but still fairly one-dimensional. Contest his shots and make him put the ball on the floor - he's the inverse of most of the Florida perimeter players who can attack the basket but can't shoot.

SF - Casey Prather (6'6 210) - A mega-athlete who can attack the rim, crash the boards and get out in transition. Can't and won't shoot, so as long as you can stay in front of him, he's not going to kill you. 

PF - Will Yeguete (6'8 230) - An athletic senior role player - a description you can give to a lot of their roster. Yeguete is a scrappy defender who doesn't extend himself on offense. Donovan usually pulls him pretty quickly in favor of Dorian Finney-Smith.

C - Patric Young (6'9 240) - If Young is any indication, Donovan's player development program consists of having guys hit the weights for four years. He's huge and a little bulky - he has a game like a guy who enjoys lifting more than playing basketball. As long as you have the raw strength to keep him from bullying you (and few college big men do), it's not hard to limit him offensively.

Key Reserves:

Kasey Hill - 6'1 180 - A McDonald's All-American PG whose come along nicely over the course of his freshman season. Very fast player with the ability to get to the rim and create shots, but doesn't shoot from the perimeter and can be overwhelmed by size.

Dorian Finney-Smith - 6'8 215 - A transfer from Virginia Tech, DFS is basically a sixth starter. He's one of the glue pieces that connects the roster together. He can defend all three frontcourt positions at the college level and he can shoot 3's - he adds to their offense without taking away anything from their defense. They are at their best when DFS is making 3's.

Devon Walker - 6'6 195 - Another athlete who doesn't shoot 3's well. He didn't play much in their second-round win over Pittsburgh - he's not adding a lot to the table that their older players don't already do.

Chris Walker - 6'10 225 - Freak athlete who was ineligible for the first half of the season. He gives them a few minutes behind Young, but he's probably a year away from being a consistent player. Just doesn't have a ton of experience with the college game or his teammates.

Florida is a defensive-minded team that wants to turn over the opposition and get the game going up-and-down, where their athleticism is magnified and their lack of shooting is minimized. The strategy against them is simple - take care of the ball, pack the paint and make them beat you over the top in the half-court. To do it, you need the athletes to keep up with them and the skill to handle their ball pressure. 

UCLA runs a lot of zone and you can bet there will be a huge helping of it on Thursday. The zone negates a lot of Florida's ball screening and forces them out of their comfort zone - the big men have to make plays out of the high post and their guards have to spot up on the perimeter. However, the one weakness of the zone is the defensive glass and Patric Young could probably bench both of the Wear Twins.

If UCLA can force long shots and rebound the ball, they can run it back at Florida before they have a chance to set their defense. You want to get easy points on the Gators, because they are so good at squeezing you do to death in the half-court. That's what happened to Pittsburgh in the second round, where they put up only 45 points.

The big difference is that UCLA has a lot more options. With Kyle Anderson running point, the Bruins can afford to play a monster 2-SG back-court with Norman Powell (6'4 215) and Jordan Adams (6'5 220). Those guys will have a huge size advantage on Wilbekin and Hill - if things slow down, UCLA can invert their offense with their guards posting up and the Wears spotting up on the perimeter.

As long as UCLA can prevent Florida from scoring on broken plays - run-outs and offensive rebounds - they have the edge in size and offensive firepower. This should be a high-level basketball game between two of the best teams left in the field. Whoever wins here will be a huge favorite in the Elite Eight.

Tennessee Scouting Report

The Volunteers are one of the bigger surprises in the Sweet 16, a team that barely snuck into the Tourney and had to win a game in Dayton before even making the field of 64. They are the proof in the SEC pudding. Florida and Kentucky are nationally recognized - for a previously obscure team like Tennessee to make it to the second weekend says something about the strength of the conference.

They went to OT with Iowa, but they won the extra 5 minutes by 13 points. They beat UMass by 19 and they beat Mercer by 20 - they have been blowing teams off the floor. They are only 2 point underdogs to Michigan, a 2 seed. With the 1 seed and the 3 seed already gone, the bracket is pretty wide open. Tennessee has a chance to pull a VCU - going from the First Four to the Final Four.

Cuonzo Martin has built a college team in the image of the state's NBA team, the Memphis Grizzlies. Tennessee has a pair of big, physical bruisers upfront who try to maul you with their size. On the perimeter, he's got a bunch of NBA-caliber athletes and they try to dig into you. It's very late 90's Eastern Conference basketball - we're just going to brutalize you for 40 minutes.

I always like when Jimmy Dykes calls Tennessee games because he makes the action sound like an MMA match. It really kind of is - if you aren't prepared to have pain inflicted upon you, don't come into the paint against Tennessee. Watching them against a smaller, more offensive minded team like Michigan will be an interesting clash of styles.


PG - Antonio Barton (6'2 180) - The younger brother of Will Barton and a transfer from Memphis. A caretaker PG who shoots the ball, doesn't turn it over and starts the offense. If his jumper isn't falling, he isn't helping the team and he shoots 34% from 3 on 4 attempts a game.

SG - Josh Richardson (6'6 195) - As good an athlete as you will see in the country - an elite defensive stopper who has become a more complete player over the last two years. Throughout his career, Richardson has been prone to taking bad shots and making bad decisions with the ball. It's been his growth as a player that has taken this team to the next level - if he's knocking down 3's, they are a tough team.

SF - Jordan McRae (6'6 185) - A year ahead of Richardson on the same path. McRae is an elite NBA athlete with long arms and quick hands - he really gets into people on defense. He tends to fall in love with the jumper and he doesn't always have the best shot selection, but he's shown much growth in his senior season in terms of being a more efficient player. A likely second-round pick with a good shot at a long career as a 3-and-D wing at the next level.

PF - Jeronne Maymon (6'8 260) - One half of the Bash Brothers duo upfront. Maymon has not recovered the lift in his legs after knee surgery last season, but he's still a wide-bodied, physical big man with a good feel for the game. While he can struggle finish over length, he still manages to grab over 11 bounds a game - this is a guy you have to battle for 40 minutes down-low.

C - Jarnell Stokes (6'8 260) - Quietly one of the best big men in the country. Stokes, a junior who turned 20 in January, more than held his own against Julius Randle when the two behemoths faced each other in conference play. He's a deceptive player - you think he's all brawn and muscle and then he hits you with a soft hands, quick feet and a ton of touch around the basket. Unless you have an elite 6'10+ NBA big man who can cover him up, it's almost impossible to single-cover him.


G - Darius Thompson (6'5 180) - A big freshman guard who serves as their backup point. He has a lot of talent but he's not a very consistent contributor or outside shooter at this point in his career.

G/F - Armani Moore (6'5 215) - Another big-time athlete with a questionable outside shot - are you noticing a trend in the types of players Cuonzo Martin recruits? When his bench comes in the game, he's going to want to speed up the tempo, since they aren't as big and they can't shoot as well as the starters. For the most part, though, he's riding his starters all the way.

C - Rawane Ndiaye (6'10 275) - Here to give Stokes and Maymon a breather. Rebounds, blocks shots and picks up fouls when he's in the game.

G/F - AJ Davis (6'9 215) - The son of Antonio Davis. A freshman big man with a ton of talent whose fallen out of the rotation.

When Tennessee has the ball:

They are going to try and impose their will on the other team, especially a small, 4-out team like Michigan. There's no way GR3 can hold up behind either Maymon or Stokes, so Tennessee is going to pound it inside and force Beilein to make a choice - either play 2 big men (and sacrifice offensive spacing) or sit in a zone (and give up the outside shot).

That's been the key for them in this Tourney - they've been playing smaller teams who have had to pack the paint to defend their big men and their guards have been able to punish them from deep. When they aren't getting consistent outside shooting, Tennessee is very beatable, but when their guards are on (and they have been in March), they are TOUGH.

When Michigan has the ball:

They have to make Tennessee pay for having the bigger, slower team so expect to see Maymon and Stokes in a lot of pick-and-rolls. That will also free up Nik Stauskas and Caris Levert from the duo of Richardson and McRae - those 4 going at it will be one of the best individual match-ups in the Tourney. Michigan against Tennessee is a battle of strength on strength - the Wolverines offense is designed to get their wings in space to make plays, the Volunteers defense is designed to suffocate perimeter ball-handlers in 1-on-1 situations.

The key on Friday will probably be the transition game. The more Michigan can get the game going up-and-down, the better their chances are. If Tennessee can turn it into a half-court slog, where they bludgeon the smaller Wolverines with their post players, they have a good chance of pulling the upset. But if their guards get sped up, turned over and take bad shots, they will negate their size advantage down-low.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

LSU Poised For A Big 2014

LSU came up short in the second round of the NIT, losing 80-67 at SMU on Monday night. They had the half-time lead, but in the second half, SMU turned up the defensive pressure and rode an absolutely packed home crowd at Moody Coliseum for the win. That place was bumping last night - not many teams in the country were going to come out of there with a W.

Nevertheless, I came away very impressed with the talent on the LSU roster and I think they have a chance to be one of the best teams in the country next season. When you look at how the three SEC teams in the NCAA Tourney have done - Florida, Kentucky, Tennessee - you have to question whether the conference was underrated this season.

LSU had the horses to run with those three teams in a way that not a lot of teams around the country do, as the Tourney has proved. The best news for LSU fans? Most of those horses are coming back next season. Barring an unexpected departure for the NBA, LSU should be a preseason Top 25 team. Johnny Jones has this program going in the right direction.

They are losing two seniors - SF Shavon Coleman and SG Andre Stringer - but everyone else is coming back. Let's take a look at their roster for next season.

Returning Starters

PG - Andre Hickey (5'11 180) - Doesn't have a lot of size, but is a solid shooter and decision-maker. One of the keys for them next season will be bringing in a bigger guard who can ease some of the ball-handling and decision-making responsibilities for Hickey. Their big men are so good they just need guards who can take care of the ball and control tempo.

SF - Jarrell Martin (6'9 240) - One of the most underrated players in the country. Martin has the tools to be up there with the other great freshmen - he can shoot 3's, put the ball on the floor and play above the rim. His skill-set on a guy with his combination of size and athleticism is preposterous. He's probably best as a small-ball 4, but he can survive as a 3, allowing their other two big men to shine down low.

PF - Jordan Mickey (6'8 220) - The Dallas product is a shot-blocking wonder, getting 3.1 blocks as a game as a 6'8 freshman. He's crazy athletic, he's very strong and his offensive game is coming around nicely. He can play out of the high post and the low post - watch out for this guy on NBA draft boards next season.

C - Johnny O'Bryant III (6'9 255) - A grown man down-low. Not many college big men have the strength to wrestle with JOB and he's got a surprisingly soft touch. The problem is he's a bit of a bull in a china shop and once the ball goes inside, it's not coming out. The question is whether he wants to pile up big stats next season to boost his NBA stock or whether he will be willing to share the ball with Mickey and Martin.

Key Reserves

SG - Tim Quarterman (6'6 175) - I think this guy is the key for LSU to make a run at an SEC title. He has great size and ball-handling ability and he can see the floor - he would be a good complement to Hickey in the back-court. The question is whether he can develop a jumper this season - LSU's big men need guards who can space the floor and play inside-out.

If I was trying to beat LSU, I would follow the game-plan Larry Brown used on Monday - press their guards, get the game going up-and-down and pack the paint. You don't want their big men to beat you; they've got three 6'8+ players with a chance to play at the next level.

LSU reminds me a lot of Tennessee, another SEC program that was hanging around the fringes of relevancy for a few seasons. The key for the Volunteers in March has been their guards ability to space the floor and take care of the ball, because very few teams around the country have the big men to bang with Maymon and Stokes.

The front-lines in the SEC - Florida, Kentucky, Tennessee, LSU, Arkansas, Ole Miss - are freaking massive. Over the last few years, it's been the guard play that has let the conference down. If LSU can improve their guard play next season, watch the hell out. There could be no stopping this team.

Monday, March 24, 2014

The NCAA Is Not Corrupt - The NBA Is Cheap

That should be the starting point for every discussion of reforming grassroots basketball.

I think we can all agree that college basketball is a very inefficient system of preparing players for the NBA. In an ideal world, NBA teams would operate their own minor-league franchises, like they do in baseball and hockey. That's the real issue - why aren't they already doing that? Shouldn't every team have a junior team with a bunch of under-23 prospects, like they do in Europe?

There's no one stopping the NBA from having a 5-round draft of the Top 150 high school players every year, with each team giving a draft pick a six-figure salary. It's not a matter of cost - the NBA has billion dollar TV deals - the money is there for them to maintain a $5-10 million farm team.

So why don't they just set up a more efficient farm system? They are really, really cheap. Either cheap or their ownership group is under-capitalized.

I'm not going to sit here and listen to an NBA team crying about money when most of their franchises could go for nearly a billion dollars on the open market. If you can't afford to run the investment, just get a buy-out - you have made more than enough money off professional basketball!

That's where any discussion about reforming college basketball has to start. It has to start NBA opening their wallets. They are just pawning off the player development and marketing tasks on the colleges - and then they have the audacity to complain after the fact that players aren't trained correctly!

I don't think you will find a college basketball fan who will tell you the sport isn't incredibly corrupt. Here's the thing, though - that's the result of them being asked to do a job they were never capable of doing. You can't expect the colleges to be something they are not - that's only a way to avoid pointing the figure at the people really responsible for what's going on. And that's the owners.

The Poster Child For Staying Too Long

It's not Marcus Smart.

If you want to see a guy who really got a raw deal when he went back to school, look at Oregon senior Mike Moser, who saw his college career end in their second-round loss to Wisconsin. Two years ago, after averaging 14 points and 10 boards as a sophomore at UNLV, Moser was seen as a sure first-rounder. Instead, he decided to return to school.

Last season, he broke his elbow and by the time he got back, he was firmly behind Anthony Bennett. Instead of being the star, Moser became a 6th man. Moser and Bennett never really clicked - his statistics were down across the board and he decided to transfer. That's how he ended up at Oregon - he was given an extra year of eligibility because he graduated in 4 years.

After dismal numbers last season, Moser regained most of his production from his breakout season in 2012, putting up 13 points and 7 rebounds a game on 46% shooting. Two years later, though, after not progressing much between his age 21 and 23 seasons, Moser is no longer on the top of everyone's lists. He's not even in the Top 100 for DraftExpress - he will have an uphill battle even to be drafted.

Moser is still the same player, just the perception of him has changed dramatically in the last two years. He may or may not be able to stick in the NBA - as a 6'8 230, he's a little undersized to play his college position (PF) and his time with Bennett proved that he's not nearly as effective as a SF. On the plus side, he's still pretty athletic, he's a good shooter and he has a good amount of ball skills - Moser can put the ball on he floor, start the break himself and he's a solid passer. In the right system, he could be a good backup PF in the NBA.

That is the issue - no one really cares about backup power forwards in the NBA. The D-League is filled with guys who could be backup 4's. There are 7-8 PF's in every draft. You miss on one guy, there's always next year.

People have this idea that the NBA is the Top 450 players in the world when it's really 150 of the Top 200 and 250 of the next 1,000. Talent is distributed like a pyramid. Tennis players are ranked into the 1,000's, but no one cares after the Top 100.

For a guy like Moser, who needs to be in a very specific role at the next level, there is no guarantee that he gets an opportunity. The higher you are drafted, the more slack teams will give you, especially if your first team lets you go. You have a pedigree - if a guy was drafted in the first round, he must have some talent. An undrafted guy always has to prove others wrong, instead of proving them right.

For a guy like Smart, it's all the same. Everyone in the NBA knows who he is and everyone knows he is talented - if he wanted to enjoy an extra year of college, it wouldn't be the end of the world. What would have happened if he had been drafted No. 2 by Orlando? While he probably could have put up numbers as weak as Oladipo's, he doesn't need people thinking he's going to save their franchise.

When you are talking about deciding for the draft, the decisions that matter aren't the ones made by the lottery picks. It's the guys projected to go at the end of the first round - they are the ones who have to plan it just right.

Wiggins, Jabari And The Art Of The Pass

My column for RealGM on the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Emperor Has No Clothes

Perhaps the most amazing part of Baylor's 85-55 win over Creighton was that Baylor was the underdog coming into the game. Creighton has been living in a fantasy land all season - they've been all over TV, their offensive stats have been talked to death and Doug McDermott has even been compared to Larry Bird. In the second round, they got a nice cold slap of reality from a Baylor team that was bigger and more athletic than them at every position.

Creighton spent most of the season dominating a Big East conference that was only a shadow of its past glory. The conference got 4 bids and all 4 teams - Creighton, Villanova, Providence and Xavier - got knocked out before the Sweet 16. That's not good when two of those teams are a 2 and a 3 seed. Creighton's non-conference schedule was no big shakes either - wins over Arizona State, Nebraska, Tulsa and St. Joe's. No signature wins.

Against Baylor, a middle of the pack team in the Big 12, every single one of Creighton's holes were exposed. They had no big men who could match-up with Isaiah Austin or Cory Jefferson, no one who could protect the rim or clean the defensive glass, no one who could play out of the high post and dissect the Baylor zone. Creighton needed a lot of help in a lot of different areas and the only thing the National Player of the Year could do was hoist more shots.

People have the game exactly backwards. A one-dimensional scorer can't be the most valuable player in the sport - that skill-set is fairly replaceable. If you take a big-time scorer off the team, everyone else will get more field goal attempts and boost their scoring averages. Getting points is more zero-sum than getting rebounds, assists, steals and blocks. Every team has guys who can get points - the best teams have guys who get everything else.

As nice as McDermott's offensive numbers are, you could have switched him with any number of players and improved Creighton's team. If Aaron Gordon was in McDermott's role, Creighton would have a guy who could protect the rim, match-up with Jefferson and Austin, grab rebounds and set up their shooters from the high post. Gordon does more things on the court than McDermott, which makes his team much more dangerous. When it comes to stardom in basketball, people value the wrong things.

Doug McDermott was the basketball version of Andre Ware or David Klingler. He's a system player in a system designed to get him statistics at the expense of the team concept. Creighton plays 5-out with McDermott at the 4 and another 6'7 shooter at the 5 - great for spreading the floor on offense, pretty horrible when it comes to playing interior defense. That system will never beat a balanced basketball team in the post-season and McDermott will not be in that role in the NBA.

He's a good player and he'll have a long career at the next level, but this whole being a star thing is just about over. That SI cover is going to be pretty embarrassing in 10 years. It's kind of like when you tell younger basketball fans that Keith Van Horn was getting Larry Bird comps in 1998 - they don't believe you!

Calipari's Crucial Adjustment

There was a lot of talk about narratives headed into Wichita State-Kentucky, but the only one that mattered was two-post vs. four-out. It was no different from the Heat and the Pacers in the NBA - Kentucky played two 6'9+ post players all game while Wichita had a 6'8 combo forward (Cleanthony Early) who played on the perimeter at the 4.

Gregg Marshall, like Eric Spoelstra, had a choice. Either he could change his identity to match-up with Kentucky's size - by playing two big men at once rather than spreading the floor - or he could hope to hide smaller players in the post. Like Spo, he went with Option B. Wichita doubled the post a lot and forced Julius Randle to be a passer - he got a career-high 6 assists.

Marshall could live with that because of what it allowed him to do on the offensive end. Kentucky's young big men (Randle, Willie Cauley-Stein, Dakari Johnson and Alex Poythress) had no real idea how to defend Early on the perimeter. He was too quick and way too good of a ball-handler - he could create space for an open 3 or take them off the dribble and get to the rim.

The turning point of the game turned out to be the 3 pointer Early hit over Poythress with 4:37 in the 2nd half, which gave Wichita a 69-64 lead. Early hit Poythress with the jab-step than told him hand down, man down, nailing a 3 in his eye. Cal pulled Poythress immediately and made the crucial coaching adjustment of the game - sticking James Young on Early.

Young, at 6'7 210, was giving up some size, but he had the speed to stay in front of Early and contest his jumper. Cal opted to hide Randle on the 6'2 Tekele Cotton, gambling that Marshall wouldn't run offense through his 5th option. Just like that, Kentucky had gummed up the big mismatch in Wichita's half-court offense. Before he made that switch, Early had 27 points on 15 shots.

Early tried to attack Young in the post. In one sequence, Young fronted him, he caught the pass over the top but then missed the lay-up when Cauley-Stein came over to help. In another, Early caught the ball at 20 feet and hit a jumper over Young. Nevertheless, Early wasn't drawing a double team, didn't hit any 3's and opted not to attack Young several times in the last few minutes.

That's the kind of move that can win or lose an NCAA Tournament game - an in-game adjustment on your defensive assignments. By no means is it rocket science, but there are plenty of coaches in the field of 68 who wouldn't have made it. For all the knocks Cal gets as a coach, he has gotten a young team to play team basketball and he just went toe-to-toe with Gregg Marshall.

There's more to Calipari's job than just getting guys to Lexington and rolling the ball on the floor. It doesn't matter how much talent your teams have, you don't go to the Final Four four times if you don't know what you are doing.

Joel Embiid Shows His Value

If you want to know where it all went wrong for Kansas, all you have to do is look at the 7'0 giant from Cameroon sitting on their bench. Kansas went 3-3 in the six games that Joel Embiid missed at the of the season. They beat Texas Tech at home, got run out the gym by West Virginia on the road, squeaked by Oklahoma State in the Big 12 Tourney than got blown out by Iowa State. In the NCAA Tourney, they won a surprisingly tight game over Eastern Kentucky and lost a pretty ugly game to Stanford.

More revealing than their struggles is who they were struggling against. West VA is a 17-16 team that lost in the first round of the NIT, Eastern Kentucky was a 15 seed and Stanford was a middling Pac-12 team that didn't have a PG. Without Embiid, Kansas showed what they really were - a rebuilding team that lost 4 seniors and a lottery pick (Ben McLemore) from their starting line-up and had only one senior (Tarik Black) in their rotation.

None of these problems looked as big when they had an agile 7'0 250 giant protecting the rim, cleaning the defensive glass and commanding a double team in the post. Embiid's stats were impressive - 11 points, 8 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 2.5 blocks and 1 steal on 63% shooting - but they don't fully reveal his impact on the game. Embiid was the first player in every scouting report; he made the paint a no-fly zone on defense and he drew attention on offense, even when he wasn't scoring.

If Embiid was on the floor, the game against Stanford would have looked very different. Dwight Powell and Stefan Nastic, who combined for 25 points on 9-15 shooting, wouldn't have had as many easy looks around the rim. Powell, Nastic and Josh Huestis don't get 5 offensive rebounds. On offense, Kansas would have had a 7'0 who could play in the high post or the low post and see over the top of the defense. A few more made shots around the rim would have allowed the Jayhawks to set their press more consistently, a defense Stanford was never really able to solve.

As great as Wiggins was without Embiid, he just doesn't impact the game in as many facets as his fellow freshman. Wiggins is an inconsistent outside shooter who doesn't create plays for others, and while he is an excellent perimeter defender, most college teams don't have an elite 1-on-1 perimeter scorer for Wiggins to shut down. The only way to stop Stanford's deliberate, inside-out style of basketball was to have a big man who could shut down the paint, allowing the Kansas perimeter players to extend out their D and try to force more turnovers.

There is no more valuable player in basketball than a 7'0 who can impact the game on offense and defense - a player with Embiid's skill-set will dramatically improve any team he is on. Conversely, it's much easier to replace a perimeter player like Wiggins than a big man. If Wiggins had gone down, Kansas could have ran more offense through Wayne Selden, slowed down the tempo of the game and made more of a concerted effort to give Embiid the ball. He was always the difference maker for the Jayhawks - they were only going as far as Embiid could take them.

When projecting him to the next level, the back injury is obviously a huge concern. But if the team doctors give him the thumbs up, there's no question who I would take with the No. 1 pick. Embiid has the chance to be a great two-way center and center is the most important position in basketball. We got a pretty good demonstration of that in Lawrence over the last few weeks.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Jim Boeheim And The Draft

Over the weekend, as is his wont, the Syracuse coach caused a stir when he downplayed the importance of being drafted in the middle of the first round. Just another selfish coach trying to profit off the labor of his "student-athletes" was the consensus. As many pointed out, Boeheim's players had a long history of under-performing their draft position in the NBA. Syracuse, for all their success under Boeheim, has not exactly been an NBA factory.

That is true but it's worth unpacking a bit. What that really means is that he has won over 900 games despite not having a lot of NBA talent on his rosters. As the coach at Syracuse University, one of the coldest and more remote universities in the country, Boeheim couldn't count on getting the best recruits on a year-to-year basis. He would have to figure out a way to consistently win with more limited recruits - in essence, he was being asked to re-invent the wheel.

Boeheim runs a very specific system - an aggressive 2-3 match-up zone - and recruits players whose strengths are accentuated by the 2-3 and whose weaknesses are limited. That means a lot of tweeners - guards stuck between the 1 and the 2, forwards stuck between the 3 and the 4, big men stuck between the 4 and the 5. In a man defensive scheme, where their weaknesses are more exposed, they are not nearly the world-beaters they are in a zone.

This presents an obvious problem when his Syracuse players go on to the NBA. They don't really have an NBA position and it's very difficult for them to find a role that makes sense for them on a good team. Johnny Flynn, Donte Greene, Wesley Johnson, Kris Joseph, Hakim Warrick, Fab Melo, Andy Rautins, Dion Waiters, Etan Thomas - ALL these guys underperform their draft slots and that's a knock on Boeheim? Maybe it means he's getting his guys as much money as they possibly can in the draft by putting them in a position to succeed at the college level?

It's the same story with the three NBA prospects on this year's team - Tyler Ennis, CJ Fair and Jerami Grant. Ennis, at 6'2 180, is not a great athlete, but we don't know how bad he is at man defense because he doesn't play any at Syracuse. Fair, at 6'8 210, is a prototype tweener - not perimeter-oriented enough to be a 3, not big enough to be a 4 in the NBA. Grant, at 6'8 210, has no jump shot and will have difficulty hanging with bigger 4's in the NBA. Boeheim has these three somewhat limited players as the main cogs on a Top 10 team - that's damn good coaching!

Grant has the most upside of the bunch, but he has to develop a jumper. If he can't stretch the floor, he's not going to be very effective in the NBA. He'll have to live around the rim and he won't have the huge edge in size and athleticism that he does at the college level. Boeheim has watched generations of his players either succeed or not in the NBA - he has a VERY GOOD idea of what does and doesn't work at the next level. Don't just call him an asshole and congratulate yourself on your moral superiority.

Just because his players don't succeed at the NBA level doesn't mean a coach is doing "a bad job of preparing them". It could mean that he is turning lemons into lemonade and he's made his players a lot of money at the expense of NBA front offices who can't see through his tricks.

Rick Barnes Not Thinking On His Feet

At the under 12 minute TO of the first half, Rick Barnes brought in Prince Ibeh and Connor Lammert off the bench. That was one of the big clashes of style in this game - Texas played two big men all game while Michigan went 4-out with 6'6 Glenn Robinson III at the 4. While their starting PF - Jonathan Holmes - was quick enough to defend on the perimeter, neither Lammert nor Ibeh would be comfortable defending a 6'6 small forward at the three-point line.

Barnes had a dilemma. When he went to his bench, Michigan would be able to defend his line-up and he wouldn't be able to defend theirs. Ibeh is a defensive project at the 5 position and Lammert is a face-up 4 who likes to shoot jumpers - neither is comfortable using their size to score over the top of smaller defenders. Even if they could, Texas has a number of non-shooters in their perimeter rotation, so Michigan could sag off them and prevent the post-up.

In making a game-plan, Barnes had two options:

1) Not use the Lammert-Ibeh duo. He could do that and stay with his two big-man line-ups, by staggering the minutes of Holmes and Ridley so one was always on the floor or he could choose to go small at a certain point in the game, playing 4 perimeter players against Michigan.

2) Use the Lammert-Ibeh duo and try to play up their strengths. On offense, that means using your size to attack the offensive glass and slowing the pace of the game down. On defense, that means playing some type of match-up zone, so the big men don't have to play perimeter D.

He went with option 3 - which was go with his usual substitution pattern and make no adjustments in order to match-up with Michigan. Lammert and Ibeh kind of hung around the rim not doing much on offense, than got lost chasing perimeter players around the floor on D.

After a few minutes of that, Barnes brought Holmes to play as a 3 and kept Ibeh and Lammert in. He had three guys who couldn't play perimeter D trying to guard on the perimeter - even better, none of them could take advantage of their size inside, since there wasn't enough shooting on the floor and the guards weren't looking to play inside-out anyway.

The play-by-play shows the grisly aftermath - Michigan went from 16-10 to 27-12 in a few minutes and the game was essentially over. At that point in the game, Barnes began making adjustments - going small and playing 4-out, using a 2-3 and 1-3-1 zone when he had his big men in. When you are the underdog, you have to make those adjustments faster.

It was like Barnes spent the first 10 minutes of the game on auto-pilot. The problem was that John Beilein wasn't and his team had more talent. Beilein plays to his team's strengths and tries hide their weaknesses - he is always making adjustments with his line-ups in order to match-up with an opponents.

Texas was the underdog, but it was a winnable game. They even made it a little interesting in the latter part of the second half - they were just trying to come back from too far down. Games aren't always won or lost in the last few minutes of the second half - Texas lost the game in the stretch from 11:00-7:30 in the first half.

If you want to know about a coach, just watch his substitution patterns. That's where basketball games are won and lost.

Saturday Early Games

Florida - Pittsburgh
  • The strengths and weaknesses of the No. 1 team in the bracket were on display in this one. Florida is a disciplined team with athletes and experience at every position, but they are vulnerable if you can keep them in the half-court. Scottie Wilbekin is really their only consistent shot-creator - Casey Prather can't shoot, Michael Frazier can't drive and their big men can't post up. If you take care of the ball and have the athletes to keep them in front of you and score over the top, you have a chance. They blew open the Pittsburgh game by turning up the defensive intensity and getting out in transition. Florida is at its best on broken plays - offensive boards, run-outs.
  • The one Pittsburgh player who came to play was Lamar Patterson, their do-it-all senior SF. While he doesn't have ideal size or athleticism for the position at 6'5 225, Patterson has a chance to play at the next level because he's a smart and powerfully built player with a complete game. He can score, shoot, distribute, rebound and defend - he's in the second-round mix and may have to earn his way into a training camp in Las Vegas. Patterson is a better player than Jae "The Beast" Crowder, for whatever that's worth (not much).
  • Scottie Wilbekin isn't on a lot of draft boards, but the Florida senior PG (and SEC POY) has a chance to make himself some money over the next few weeks. He's been an integral part of some good Florida teams in his career, but he's never had the chance to dominate the ball like Russ Smith or Shabazz Napier. At 6'2 175, he has the size and athleticism of an NBA PG, although he isn't exceptional in either category. He checks all the boxes - he's a smart player who can shoot, get to the rim and run the offense. The problem is the competition for the job - he'll need to beat out guys like Smith, Napier and Keith Appling just to have a chance to be a 3rd PG on a roster at the next level. The one thing Wilbekin has going for him is age - he's only 20 years so he's been playing up for most of his life. He may need to prove himself in the D-League before he gets a chance.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Friday Early Games

Duke - Mercer

  • That was incredible. Everything about that was awesome. When that white kid started dancing at the end, that was one of the funniest things I've seen in a long time. And when Jabari is a ten-time All-Star, these Mercer guys will all be say they knocked him out of the NCAA Tournament. It was like a morality play come to life - experience trumping youth. 
  • The way Duke played made them very susceptible to an upset. I talked about this a lot in my RealGM column today - Duke couldn't slow the game down and throw it inside against Mercer. They don't have a traditional post presence and they can't protect the rim - Mercer's C was bigger than theirs. Duke ended up playing in the half-court and taking a bunch of 3's, while Mercer moved the ball around the floor and attacked the paint. Those percentages, over the course of a game, can even out the differences in talent. 
  • You saw the hole in Jabari's game today - 14 FGA's and 0 assists. Jabari doesn't really look to create shots for his teammates and he has the ball in his hands a lot, which means Duke has a lot less ball movement than it otherwise could have. It becomes a lot of 1-on-1 scoring, which is hard to be consistent at over the course of a game. When Jabari's shot isn't falling, he doesn't have a Plan B in terms of how he can impact the game. Passing the ball is a good way to get back into rhythm - the pass will always be there for you. 
Gonzaga - Oklahoma State
  • If the Powers That Be wanted to send a message about OSU, they couldn't have done a better job of setting it up. OSU has no C and they got to see the biggest C in the field of 68 in the first round. If they had gotten by 7'0 300 with a post game, they would have faced an Arizona team with a 6'11 250 C with a post game. There weren't two teams in the country that OSU matched up worse with.
  • That fifth on LeBryan was questionable at best. OSU was going to lose anyway - the refs didn't have to be so blatant about it. They pretty much ruined the whole flow of the game.
Creighton - UL Lafayette
  • Creighton was able to survive against the Sun Belt champs, but their style of play is really playing with fire. It's the same thing as Duke - small-ball teams who hoist a lot of 3's leave themselves vulnerable to the upset. UL-Lafayette didn't quite have the firepower to go 40 minutes for Creighton, but they certainly didn't look out-matched. Giving up 13 offensive rebounds isn't a great sign - if ULL had gone better than 4-16 from beyond the arc, they might have had a real chance at the upset.
  • Elfrid Payton looked really good. A 6'3 190 junior guard who played on the U-19 team this summer, Payton is an elite athlete with NBA ability. He was by far the best athlete on the floor today. He's a jumper away from being a really special player - even without one, he should be an excellent second-team combo guard at the next level. His ability to ball-hawk smaller PG's and run the offense should keep him in the NBA for a long time.
Kansas - Eastern Kentucky
  • You are really starting to see how the absence of Joel Embiid affects this team. Without him, they are pretty average - they lost at West VA, they barely snuck by OSU in the Big 12 Tourney and lost to Iowa State. EKU, which doesn't even have a ton of talent, gave them a hell of a game. Embiid is their defensive anchor and their post presence - without him, they have a hole on both sides of the ball. Jamari Traylor ended up being the difference in the second half, but that just shows you how much EKU would have struggled against a 7'0 like Embiid. Stanford has sizd but they don't have a ton of athleticism on the perimeter - they have a chance to give Kansas trouble in the round of 32, but on the whole, the Jayhawks got a very favorable pod. 
Baylor - Nebraska
  • Baylor's been one of the hottest teams in the country for the last few weeks, primarily because of the combination of Kenny Chery, Isaiah Austin and Cory Jefferson. Baylor has two huge big men who can score and block shots and they have a PG who can control tempo and create looks for them. That's a really hard combination for most college teams to match-up with. Nebraska fell into that category - they had to get the game going up and down to have any chance, but Baylor's zone and Chery's steady hand kept the pace at the Bears tempo. They will be a very tough out, especially in a second-round game in San Antonio, a few hours down the road from Waco.
Stanford - New Mexico
  • I'm not surprised at all by this one. New Mexico is a really unathletic team that plays bully ball against smaller teams. Stanford has a huge front-court, so you would have to be a more balanced team to beat them. Last year, New Mexico lost to Harvard in the first round and their lack of athleticism was glaring. This year, they brought back the same team without Tony Snell, now in the NBA. The Mountain West has been under-performing in the Tourney for awhile. Even if they have the size of high-major teams, they don't generally have the athleticism. In the case of SDSU, they have the size and athleticism but not really the skill. 
Tennessee - UMass
  • It just didn't seem like UMass had the horses to run with Tennessee in this one. Conferences like the Big East, the A-10 and MWC may get bids like they are high-major leagues, but they don't seem to really perform up to them in the Tourney. A team that fattens up on the bottom of one of those conferences may not be all that special. You got to take numbers from those conferences with more of a grain of salt, especially when you are projecting guys to the NBA. Those aren't like statistics you get in the ACC or the Big Ten.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Thursday Early Games

Ranked according to how compelling they were.

Dayton - Ohio State
  • By the end of the game, it seemed like the announcers had a bet going to see who could say the most ridiculous thing about Aaron Craft. "Angelic countenance" had the edge until the final seconds, when the play-by-play guy said he had more respect for Craft as a player than anyone he has seen in the last 30 years. Of course, immediately after that, Craft gives up the game-winning shot on a relatively easy drive by Vee Sanford. There's only so much the announcers can tempt the basketball gods - by building Craft into something he's not, they only made the fall all the more painful.
  • Dayton was in control until midway in the second half, when Thad Matta went small and put LaQuinton Ross at the 5. Ross at the 5 is an almost impossible cover and Dayton didn't have the big men to really exploit him. And while the tactic almost worked, it exposed the underlying problem with the OSU team this season - they didn't have much of a presence at the 4 and 5 positions. That's where high-majors usually separate themselves from the mid-majors; a high-major without size isn't any different from a mid-major like Dayton. Everyone has good guards - so if it becomes a small-ball game, the underdog has a much better chance of pulling it out. 
  • Dayton is a good team - they are very athletic and they have a lot of skilled guards. However, you saw their weaknesses in this game and it doesn't seem likely they advance past the round of 32. They have no real big man and no PG - if the game is in the half-court, they can have a lot of trouble executing on offense. There's no one on their roster who creates shots for their teammates, so if the game isn't going up-and-down, it's a lot of isolation basketball by guys who aren't elite scorers. 
  • OSU fans shouldn't worry about losing Craft next season. As long as LaQuinton Ross stays in school, Craft's departure should make them a better team. He was a very inefficient scorer who dominated the ball and couldn't stretch the floor - Craft dominating the ball puts a lid on how good your offense can be. Ross and Scott, both juniors, have never had the chance to play with the ball in their hands - they could be poised for big seasons. 
  • Ross is a tantalizing talent - a 6'8 220 small forward who can shoot and put the ball on the floor. He's got a big body, he's very skilled and he's pretty athletic - it's just been a matter of him putting it all together. If he comes back to school, he should be one of the front-runners for Big Ten POY. If he goes pro, I would take him in the first-round, for sure. He has a ton of upside, because he never had the chance to play out of Craft's shadow and his downside is pretty low. Worst case, he's a 6'8 shooter/scorer who adds a lot of pop to your bench.
Harvard - Cincy
  • The 5-12 pairing usually has a few upsets because after the top 4 seeds, the talent level starts thinning out completely. A lot more separates teams 1-4 from teams 17-20 in the country than 17-20 from 44-48. Harvard was just as good as Cincy - it wasn't really an upset at all. Harvard was bigger, they had a better PG and they had more outside shooting. While Cincy was the better defensive team, Harvard ran much better offensive sets. The margin was close enough that the game came down to the buzzer, but I would take Harvard as a comfortable favorite in a seven-game series.
  • Cincy had the same problem as OSU - they didn't have the size to punish the mid-major team down low. The Bearcats play five-out with their tallest player at 6'8 - they are downsizing and playing the mid-major game too. A high-major team that doesn't have a 4 or a 5 who can get offense - that's a big red flag to me that they could get upset.
  • Harvard probably had the better personnel upfront than Cincy, which is just ridiculous. Tommy Amaker is straight killing the recruiting trail. They can go 6'7 225, 6'7 225, 6'6 215 across the front-line, all of whom are good athletes. That's just about as big as the Bearcats. Wesley Saunders, the Ivy League Player of the Year, is a legitimate NBA prospect. If he can improve his three-point shot as a senior, he might have a chance to get drafted. Their PG - Siyani Chambers - is pretty good too; he did a much better job of controlling tempo and getting guys shots than the Cincy PG's. Long story short, Harvard is a really good team. 
  • If they weren't in Michigan State's pod, I think they would have a really good chance at making the Sweet 16. As is, though, they just have no one who can match-up with Adreian Payne at 6'10 245. That's the difference between a team like Michigan State and one like Cincy.
Oregon - BYU
  • By far the most aesthetically pleasing of the early batch of games - a fun-and-gun West Coast game played almost entirely in semi-transition. Eventually, Oregon's firepower edge just wore out a game but injury depleted BYU team. Both wanted to play uptempo; the difference was Oregon was just as skilled and far more as athletic. For the second straight year, Dana Altman's team looks like it's peaking at the right time. 
  • The NCAA Tournament is all about exposing the weaknesses of a team. BYU has a good big man (Erik Mika) and some guards who can fill it up (Carlino, Hawes), but without the injured Kyle Collinsworth, they don't really have a 6'6+ wing who can match-up with 3's and small ball 4's. That really killed them against Oregon, which had 6'6 205 Elgin Cook waiting to pounce. I kind of doubt there was a team in the Pac 12 as weak on the wings as BYU was today, which is why Cook was able to have a career game. 
  • Oregon - Wisconsin could be one of the best games of the Tourney. Just like with BYU, Wisconsin will want to play up-and-down with Oregon. Contrary to their usual style of play, this is one of the most offensive-minded teams Bo Ryan has had. Wisconsin and Oregon have a lot of skill and they do a great job of running sets in the half-court - expect a lot of points on Saturday. There should be a lot of very intriguing individual match-ups, but I think the key will end up being Wisconsin's ability to execute in the half-court. As long as they take care of the ball, they should be able to take advantage of their edge in size upfront and pound the offensive glass. If Oregon can turn them over and get out in transition, they have a real chance at the upset.
Syracuse - Western Michigan
  • Syracuse was at their best in this game - when their defense can get TO's and they exploit their athletic advantage in transition. You beat the Orange by taking care of the ball and making them execute in the half-court, which Western Michigan was not able to do. While they were a popular upset pick, the red flag should have been them averaging 11 assists on 14 turnovers a game. That tells you two things - they don't have a PG who can control tempo and keep the other team out of transition and they don't create a lot of easy shots for themselves. That formula can work if you have an athletic advantage and can dominate defensively, but that's usually not the situation when you are a 14 seed facing a 3.
Colorado - Pittsburgh
  • Colorado's performance today really shows what a great job Thad Boyle did this season. This is their true talent level without Spencer Dinwiddie - I'm shocked they even made the NCAA Tourney after their best player tore his knee. Dinwiddie was one of the most underrated players in the country - a 6'6 205 PG who could score, shoot, rebound, defend and get everyone else shots. It's just very hard to replace a big guard with that skill-set - you saw that with Jerian Grant at Notre Dame as well. Dinwiddie may not be 100% next season coming off the ACL injury, so he could be a huge steal in the 2nd round of 2015. As long as he retains his athleticism, he'll be a ten-year player in the NBA. 
Wisconsin - American
  • You saw what a good high seed does to a low seed trying for the upset in this one. American was up 7-8 points midway through the first half when Wisconsin started pounding the ball inside - Frank Kaminsky (7'0 235), Sam Dekker (6'8 220) and Nigel Hays (6'7 250). It took them a little while to get it going, but they just had too much size. It was only a matter of time until they either scored at the rim or collapsed the D and got open 3's. 

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Aaric Murray

Aaric Murray made himself a lot of money tonight and not just because he had 17 points in the first half against Cal-Poly. Murray made money by showing up, playing on national TV and letting NBA teams know he was alive.

Here's all you need to know about him - he's 6'11 250 with a 7'3 wingspan. He's athletic enough to get 2.5 blocks a game and he shoots 74% from the free-throw line. The 21 points and 7 bounds a game is just a cherry on-top - Murray's skill-set, in and of itself, is incredibly valuable at the next level.

The standards for NBA C's are different from other positions in that there are no standards. It's like with doctors - if you were picking between them, you would want to avoid the guy with money problems and a drug history, but if you were lying on the street bleeding to death, you would just need a doctor.

That's how NBA teams are with C's. The Dallas Mavericks are the perfect example, as they field a three-headed "monster" of Sam Dalembert, Brandan Wright and Dejuan Blair at the position. Dalembert has got the size and he seems like a genuinely pleasant guy but, at best, his offensive game can be described as "competent". Wright is 210 pounds and Blair is 6'5. If you added them up into one player, they would be an elite center. As is, the Mavs are bleeding points at the 5 position on offense or defense.

Murray is big enough to stand in front of the rim on defense and not get pushed around and he's skilled enough to force teams to guard him on offense when he's standing away from the rim. That's all he would need to do to improve Dallas significantly.

There are a ton of red flags surrounding him - he's 24, he's playing for his third school, he's had drug issues and, worst of all, he doesn't "love the game".

That is one of those things guards have convinced the world is true but really isn't. Guards need to love the game because they have to differentiate themselves, because what's really the difference between one small player and the next. A true big man differentiates himself just by showing up in shape.

None of which is to say that Murray doesn't "love the game". That's one of those things that's very easy to say from the outside but can only really be judged from the inside. How are you going to tell someone else how they feel about something?

Even if everything said about him is true, that doesn't mean he can't change over time. While some people might have had it all figured out when they were 20, 21 and 22, I certainly didn't. I would hate to be judged in my mid-20's by the way I acted when I was in college.

People who say people never change are the ones who have never changed themselves. Just because you didn't have any personal growth in your 20's, don't assume that someone else can't.

When Aaric Murray is a professional, none of this stuff will matter. Either he will be a professional about his business or he will be out of a job soon enough. The only thing he has to do is show up on time and be agreeable - when there are millions of dollars on the line, he'll probably be able to manage it.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

NC State - Xavier

  • NC State and Xavier were kind of mirror images of each other. NC State had a lot of athleticism and not a lot of skill, with the exception of TJ Warren while Xavier had a lot of skill and not a lot of athleticism, with the exception of Semaj Christon. The result was a game with a lot of ugly possessions and forced shots - it was not a beautiful brand of basketball. It kind of felt like a play-in game.
  • You will almost never see a team as totally built around one player as NC State is with Warren. In the few minutes when he wasn't in the game, their offense completely fell apart. He's really the only guy who can create his own shot - their offense is basically just give the ball to TJ, have him draw the defense and move the ball or take a difficult shot. If it's about getting buckets, TJ is about it - he runs the floor and he crashes the offensive glass in a way most 20-point scorers don't. Warren had 25 points against Xavier and it didn't feel like he had a great game.
  • Besides Warren, the difference was NC State's athleticism. They have a lot of NBA-caliber athletes on the floor - they may not be the most polished players in the world, but the difference between them and Xavier's guys was noticeable. It will be the same thing with St. Louis of the A-10. The NC State players aren't going to be very intimated by that 5 seed, that's for sure. 
  • Mark Gottfried has got a lot of talent in Raleigh - with the exception of Warren, NC State is a classic one-year away team. They've got a few very talented young big men - Kyle Washington and Beejay Anya. Anya, whose built like a LT at 6'9 325 with a 7'9 wingspan, swung the game in the first half with his ability to block shots and shut down the paint. Cat Barber is a talented PG with NBA-caliber athleticism - he's a jumper away from being a prospect. Even with Warren gone, I think NC State will be in Tourney contention next season.
  • Christon didn't have a great game and it showed why he's probably a year away from going pro. He takes a lot of long 2's - if he can extend his range out to the three-point line, he will be a high-level NBA PG. Right now, though, he's only an average playmaker for a PG and he doesn't have three-point range, so he projects as a Monta Ellis type combo guard coming off the bench. He isn't quite as explosive as Monta, but he plays a little more under control. He was really the only Xavier player with the athleticism to run with the NC State guys. The new Big East is a decent conference, but it's no longer on the level of the ACC.
  • Playing it forward, I think NC State beats St. Louis with athleticism in much the same way that Oregon did last year. They have the horses to get up-and-down with Louisville - the question is how Tyler Lewis will fare against Russ Smith and/or Chris Jones and I'm going to assume it won't be that well. 

North Dakota State

I've been catching up on the conference tournament championship games this week and the NDSU Bison from the Summit League are one of the teams that have jumped out at me. They are a 12 seed in the West bracket, playing OU in the first round.

Their starting five:

PG - Lawrence Alexander (6'3 180) - Average athlete, plays a Mario Chalmers role on this team. Stretches the floor, looks for his own shot and can make plays for others, but not a primary playmaker.

SG - Kory Brown (6'4 200) - Excellent athlete but can't shoot. He's plays around the basket, slashes to the rim and grabs offensive boards. Gives them a wing stopper on the perimeter - athletic enough to play at a high-major school.

SF - Taylor Braun (6'7 210) - Point forward. A very versatile player who gets 18/5.5/4 a night. He initiates a lot of the offense - he's a master at the hockey assist, driving into the lane than making the pass that leads to the pass. Not a great athlete, but a very savvy player whom they hide on defense.

PF - TrayVonn Wright (6'7 185) - Show-stopper. Check out this guy's dunks:

Not only that - he can shoot 3's too! He gets 11 points, 5 rebounds and 2 blocks a game. In the championship game against IPFW, he went for 19/4/2. Wright is going to get at least one monster dunk against OU - there's no way around it.

C - Marshall Bjorklund (6'8 250) - Undersized big man with a fundamentally sound post-up game. Not a great rim protector or interior defender - depends on Wright to help him out there.

Bjorklund, Wright and Braun are seniors, Alexander is a junior and Brown is a sophomore. They even bring in a decent senior big man (6'9 225 Jordan Aeberg) off the bench. NDSU has shooters, athletes and a 6'7 guy run offense through.

Given the right match-up, NDSU could upset a higher-seeded team and OU could be that match-up. The Sooners aren't very big - they are a 4-out team with a 6'8 5 man (Ryan Spangler) and a 6'7 combo forward (Cameron Clark) at the 4. NDSU is just as big as them, which makes the upset much more realistic. I'm always leery of high-major teams that don't have a lot of size because that's what separates the high majors from the low majors. Everyone has good perimeter players.

With Braun throwing oops to Wright and Brown, NDSU could be this year's FGCU. They would even play the same second-round team - San Diego State - but the Aztecs are a better team this season.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Picking The Bracket


Florida is the clear favorite in this region. They are one of the stronger 1 seeds and they have a reasonable shot to win it all, but they do have some weaknesses. They are a really great defensive team and they get a ton of points going defense to offense - if you take care of the ball and keep them in the half-court, they are beatable. They don't have anyone they can post up and they have a few non-shooters on the perimeter, so you can zone them and be OK.

Colorado doesn't have their best player (Spencer Dinwiddie) and I don't think Pittsburgh can score enough points to beat them, so they should be in good shape until at least the Sweet 16, where they would have an interesting match-up with either the 4 (UCLA) or the 5 (VCU).

I have been big on UCLA for awhile and I'm even more so after the way they beat Arizona in the Pac 12 Tourney. They have got too much firepower for Tulsa and they are the perfect match-up for HAVOC. You can't press UCLA - they are too good athletically and they have too many ball-handlers. If that game gets going up-and-down, they could get 90-100 points.

UCLA and Florida in the Sweet 16 should be one of the games of the Tourney - it could easily have been a Final Four match-up. I'll take UCLA because they have a lot more offense than Florida, who are susceptible to dry spells from the perimeter. The Bruins just have to play a lot of zone, grab the long misses and then get out and go. In the half-court, they can invert their offense, with their guards - Jordan Adams (6'5 220) and Norman Powell (6'4 215) - posting up and their big men shooting. The Gators are best offensively when they can go 2 PG's with Scottie Wilbekin and Kasey Hill and UCLA can just kill those two on the block.

On the other side of the bracket, I'm pretty down on Kansas without Joel Embiid. They did not look very good without him - even with Wiggins scoring a lot of points, they got beat pretty soundly by West VA, an NIT team, and they almost lost to Oklahoma State in the Big 12 Tourney. Their PG's are a mess and they have inconsistent three-point shooting - that's a recipe for an upset with Embiid, and I'm not sure he plays at all in the Tournament. You don't want to rush a big man with a back injury too fast.

Syracuse is a weird team - with their style of play they can be susceptible to anyone. They lost to a Boston College team that won like 6 games all season. If you just shoot 3's, stretch their zone and don't let them get out in transition, they are beatable. I'm going to watch the MAC championship game this week, see if I can get a better feel for Western Michigan.

I can go either way on OSU - Dayton. The A-10 has some pretty good teams this season, but I'd have to watch more of Dayton to say either way. They looked good in Maui - this pod seems like one where anything could happen.

Really the whole bottom half of the South I'm not huge on. I don't see this as a particularly stacked regional. New Mexico kind of burned me last season when they lost to Harvard - they are big and slow team that plays a very physical brand of basketball, so if the refs are calling the game tight, they could be in trouble. And while I really like Dwight Powell's game, Stanford has not really impressed me.

I'll take UCLA over whoever comes out of the other half of the bracket. I could see Syracuse making the Elite Eight or losing in the first round - it's all up for grabs.


I like the 4 seed (Michigan State) much more than the 1 (Virginia). I have MSU winning the whole thing, which I get into in my next RealGM column. Long story short, they are a complete team with no weaknesses on either side of the ball and they have the best coach in the country.

Virginia's style of play makes them vulnerable to upsets because every game is so close. That means they can beat anybody and lose to anybody. They have some good perimeter players in Malcolm Brogdon and Joe Harris and they play really good team offense and defense, but they don't overwhelm you from a talent perspective.

Memphis has all the pieces to make a run, but I'm not sure I trust Josh Pastner. I'm bullish on the A-10, but I haven't watched enough of GW to say much about them. I'll say Michigan State over Virginia on that side of the bracket, but I wouldn't be surprised if the 8-9 winner pulled an upset in the second round.

There's a lot of recipe for chaos on this side of the bracket, with a 2 (Villanova) and a 3 (Iowa State) who are vulnerable. Iowa State doesn't have a big man and they don't protect the rim; they have good athletes on the perimeter so it's hard to drive them, but if you can post up and crash the glass, you can beat them, regardless of the talent differences.

I will take the winner of UNC-Providence over Iowa State, because both those teams have multiple big men you can throw the ball inside too. That's two of the best front-courts in the field - James McAdoo, Brice Johnson, Kennedy Meeks and Kadeem Batts, Tyler Harris, LaDontae Henton. And you have a great PG match-up with Bryce Cotton and Marcus Paige. I'm going to take Providence to the Sweet 16; they are the most complete team and they are well-coached. The one concern is foul trouble - they pretty much only play 6 guys.

On the bottom half of the bracket, I like the winner of St. Joe's-UConn to take down Villanova. I have only seen St. Joe's once but I really liked what I saw - they have a very complete team with an elite athlete at 5 (Robin Roberts) a 6'8 post who they run offense through, a 6'6 freshman wing who can dunk on people and two shooters in the back-court. They are a hard team to match-up with and they have the pieces to match-up with any type of team. I'm going to roll with them all the way to the Elite Eight, even though UConn is a quality team who could get them in the first round.

Villanova has a lot of good pieces and they seem like a solid team on both sides of the ball, but I don't think they can impose the will and dominate a less-talented team.

I'm probably just picking against Villanova because I haven't seen them all that much, but you have to have upsets somewhere, so I'll take Michigan State over St. Joe's in the Elite Eight.


Arizona is going all the way in this bracket - they are a great, well-rounded team and they will have a huge home-court edge. Them vs. San Diego State would be a fun Sweet 16 team, but Arizona already beat them in San Diego this season and they have a much easier time shooting the 3 than SDSU, who goes into a lot of droughts from the perimeter.

I don't think either will have much too much trouble in the first two rounds.

Gonzaga doesn't have the perimeter athleticism to play with Arizona and OSU doesn't have the size upfront. I could see Marcus Smart going out in the first-round through no real fault of his own - OSU's starting 5 is out for the season and they just don't have the horses.

I could see OU going down in a 5-12 game, but I'd need to watch NDSU to have a better idea of that.

The bottom half of the West seems like a place where chaos could ensue. Wisconsin, the 2 seed, doesn't play great D and they could have trouble with Oregon, the 7, in the second-round. They both play 4-out and Oregon has the better 4 man in Mike Moser, a fifth-year senior once thought of as a lock first-rounder.

I'm going to take Baylor to go to the Elite Eight, as much as it pains me to pick a Scott Drew coached team to do much of anything. They've been playing really well ever since Kenny Chery got healthy and he fixes a lot of the problems Drew creates by being a one-man offense - he's a PG who gets shots for all his teammates and he has some really talented weapons. No one on this side of the bracket has an answer for Isaiah Austin and Cory Jefferson, though them vs. Frank Kaminsky (Wisconsin) would be fascinating.

I'm going to watch the WAC Championship game first, but it would not stun me to see UL-Lafayette knocking off Creighton. Creighton, like Iowa State, doesn't have a big man and can't protect the rim - that makes you vulnerable. I don't care who you have scoring the ball if you can't play interior D.

Arizona-SDSU, Baylor-Oregon, with Arizona going to San Antonio.


The bracket of death this year. A lot of stuff has been written about Wichita State's tough road, but they can't worry about that. To go through the Tourney, you have to win three 4-team mini-tourneys. It doesn't matter what goes on outside your pod - cross that bridge when you get to it.

It would be really interesting to watch Kentucky-Wichita State, but I'm not sure they get by Kansas State. The NCAA Tournament is a guard's game and the Harrison Twins are years away of living up to any of their recruiting hype.

Louisville has been on a tear, which would make for a fascinating Sweet 16 match-up. I like Louisville to handle St. Louis or the winner of the 12 seed play-in - both Xavier and NC State can give St. Louis a game and I might have taken one of them to go to the Sweet 16 in a different pod.

When Russ Smith is shooting 3's, it's very hard to beat Louisville. They've got their defense figured out again and they can just take the ball from most teams. Wichita State does have two great guards in Van Vleet and Baker, so I go back-and-forth on this one. Montrezl Harrell is big and athletic but I don't think he has the offensive game to punish Wichita on the blocks. I think the winner of this game wins the whole region - I'll say Louisville ends up missing Chane Behanan in this game and doesn't have a match-up for Cleanthony Early. The fact that the Shockers only lost by 4 in last year's Final Four to them eases my concerns about their overall team speed.

I could see the bottom half of this region going in all kinds of directions.

UMass is a really balanced team with a lot of size upfront and a legitimate star in Chaz Williams - but Tennessee, if they win their play-in game, plays some of the best D in the country and has been on absolute tear coming into the NCAA Tourney. I liked Mercer as a possible upset pick in the first-round, but not against Duke in Raleigh. They don't have anyone who can guard Jabari Parker or Rodney Hood.

I'm going to take UMass to the Elite Eight, mainly because it's no fun to pick all favorites and I certainly don't want to have to root for Duke.

I'm also going to be a massive homer and Texas to the Sweet 16. If Texas can get by Arizona State, which is no guarantee, they match-up really well with Michigan. They have a huge 5 in Cam Ridley (6'9 255) that Michigan can't guard without Mitch McGary and they have a 6'8 4-man in Jon Holmes who can run with GR3 and score over the top of him. They have a ton of athletes on the perimeter so Michigan can't really spread them out and attack.

Final Four

In terms of which picks I'm most confident in, I'd go - Arizona, Michigan State, UCLA, Wichita

Michigan State beats Arizona in what should be a really fun game.

This should be a fun Tourney - there are a lot of evenly matched teams and a lot of talent in the field.

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.