Friday, March 28, 2014

Sweet Sixteen Predictions (Friday)

Well I couldn't have read that Wisconsin/Baylor game any worse.  I expected Frank Kaminsky to get killed, but instead he did the killing.  It was like watching The Others and being like, man this is way creepy poor Nicole Kidman but then bam it turns out Nicole Kidman is dead the whole time.  Oh, spoiler alert.  Anyway thanks to Florida coming through, a couple over/unders, and hitting two middles with second half bets I overcame the big Baylor loss and made a little bit of money.  Hopefully there's more to come tonight.

#11 Tennessee vs. #2 Michigan.
Advanced metrics absolutely love Tennessee.  They rank 16th in offensive points per possession and 17th in defensive points per possession.  The only other teams to rank in the top 20 in both this year are Wichita State, Florida, Virginia, and Louisville.  That's a pretty damn impressive group.  However I think this is a classic case of beating up on bad teams.  The Vols have a win over Virginia back in December, but do you know their next best win?  That win over a fading Iowa team.  Next up?  A win over a fading and overseeded UMass.  Then Georgia, LSU, and Arkansas.  See what I'm saying?  Yeah they've won three games to get here and that's impressive, but I am not loving them.

Michigan, on the other hand, seems to be peaking at the right time.  They destroyed both Wofford and Texas and everybody's clicking.  Tennessee has overwhelmed their opponents with their size and rebounding so far, but that won't happen against Michigan.  Jordan Morgan and Jon Horford might suck offensively but they can play defense.  From there I think Michigan's perimeter guys can out score Tennessee's.  I just think Michigan is a far superior team, so I'm going with Michigan -2 for four units

#7 UCONN vs. #3 Iowa State.
The loss of Georges Niang didn't hurt Iowa State against North Carolina, but it very well could against UCONN.   Without him the Cyclones are very small, and although Melvin Ejim and Dustin Hogue play bigger than their size would suggest I'm not so sure that gets it done against a more rough and tumble former Big East team.  It will also allow UCONN to go small with what is probably their best lineup, and one they have only been able to use about 5% of the time over the last 5 games because they generally need to have either Amida Brimah or Phillip Nolan in there at center for extra size.  That's not really a concern against a Niang-less Iowa State, and Brimah's foul issues become much less important.

Then of course there's the whole Kemba Walker thing Shabazz Napier has going on right now.  He's put up 24-8-6 against St. Joe's and 25-5-3 against Villanova despite missing a huge chunk of the first half.  And man did you see some of those shots against Nova?  Right now he's fearless and he's hot, and that is a dangerous combination to run up against.  DeAndre Daniels seems to be peaking at the right time, and Ryan Boatright played as well as I've ever seen him play against Villanova.  It wouldn't shock me to see this team make the Final Four.  Sorry Clones.  UCONN +2 for 3 units, and also a unit on the over 146 - ISU likes to get up and down, and I expect UCONN to get in the spirit.

#8 Kentucky vs. #4 Louisville.
Easily my most anticipated match-up of the weekend, and also the hardest to read for me. Before the tournament started I would have gone with Louisville -4.5 without hesitation, but Kentucky's win over Wichita was one of the most impressive top to bottom games I've seen anybody play this year. Everyone said at the beginning of the year that Kentucky was the most talented team in the country and if their talent came together they'd be the team to beat in the tournament, and that is still the case with at least five guys who are likely to be NBA first round picks in either this year's draft or the next.  So that's the question, has this team now come together enough to beat the defending champs who, with the exception of the Manhattan game, have been rolling?

Well, it was just the sixth time this year a team scored 70+ against Wichita, and Kentucky shot 54% while doing it so they played pretty much a perfect shooting game on the offensive end.  With Andrew Harrison's six turnovers and a total of 11 for the Wildcats vs. just 11 assists that tells me they didn't suddenly "get it" and considering six of those assists came from Julius Randle it's pretty clear the Kentucky guards still don't really know how to run a team.  Another big piece of Kentucky's win was their 22 offensive rebounds, but the presence of Montrezl Harrell for Louisville should guarantee that at a minimum that number is cut in half, and the rest of Louisville's guys should be able to keep Kentucky off the boards better than Wichita did.  Plus when it comes down to Calipari vs. Pitino with  almost a week to prepare, I'll take Pitino every time.  Louisville -4.5 for one unit and another unit on the over 139.  Louisville tries to speed teams up and that should work beautifully against Kentucky.

#4 Michigan State vs. #1 Virginia.
People really seem to underrate Virginia this year, but a 16-2 run through the ACC, an ACC Tournament Championship, and a thorough thrashing of Memphis (with a mini scare against Coastal thrown in there) is one hell of a run.  They've mainly done it with an incredible defense and a slow pace that left them allowing the fewest points per game in the country at 55.5.  They also score at an efficient rate, a top 10 in the country rate, although they don't shoot the ball particularly well and can be prone to shooting slumps.

The Spartans should be able to handle them, however, because they're one of the best shooting teams in the country (13th by eFG%) and the execute extremely well and move the ball well (62% of baskets come from an assist, also 13th).  I tried to find teams that have a similar profile that Virginia played this year and the closest two I could find were Duke and Wisconsin, team's that gave Virginia two of its six losses this year, and Michigan State is both a better rebounding and defensive team than either Duke or Virginia.  Plus the Spartans put up those impressive numbers while rarely being healthy, and now they are.  The pace shouldn't bother Sparty either, they can grind it out with the best of them.  One unit on Michigan State -2, and two units on the under 127.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Sweet 16 Thoughts - Thursday

So far things in the NCAA Tournament have gone pretty close to what I expected.  All my Final Four teams are still alive (Florida, Louisville, Arizona, Michigan State - and yes I know that's a pretty popular combination), and I called Kansas going out early.  My only real misses were believing in Creighton (or maybe not believing in Baylor), believing in Duke despite knowing how horrible their defense was (I have no idea why I didn't take Michigan here), and thinking Syracuse had figured out their issues.  Overall, my bracket still has a chance to win, so thank you for asking.  Anyway, here's what's happening on Thursday:

#11 Dayton vs. #10 Stanford. 
There are many great looking games that will be played this weekend, and this game will also be played.  There isn't a lot of shine to it because even though both teams are underdogs neither team is very sexy.  Stanford is nerds and Dayton is Dayton.  Although Dayton looks like the more athletic team with guys like Sibert, Sanford, and Pierre who can kind of do a little of everything, Stanford has not just size but skilled size in Dwight Powell and Stefan Nastic, as well as Josh Huestis who seems to play big.

It should be a close game, but unfortunately for lose who were hoping to experience a little schadenfreude at the expense of Reid Travis with Johnny Dawkins flaming out and getting fired (which clearly isn't happening now), I think he gets another big win.  I'm on Stanford here laying the three.

#6 Baylor vs. #2 Wisconsin.
I know Scott Drew is a horrible coach.  I know it all the way to the bottom of my tiny black heart, but I'm not so sure Bo Ryan is that much better, at least this year and Baylor is absolutely clicking at the right time.  More than that, how the hell is Wisconsin going to deal with Baylor's size and athleticism?  Cory Jefferson is what Nigel Hayes hopes to be in four years and he's having a great run to end his career.  Isaiah Austin seems to finally be getting it, Rico Gathers is a rebounding machine, and the wings are Royce O'Neale and Taurean Prince who are 6-6 and 6-7.  Frank Kaminsky might actually get killed. You realize Duje Dukan will likely have to be prominently involved here?

Wisconsin's only chance is if Scott Drew plays a zone, which is actually Baylor's preferred, and they get hot.  Drew is dumb enough to do it, but even if he does their size might bother Wisconsin enough so it actually works.  This is still my biggest bet of the weekend at five units to cover three and a half and another unit on the moneyline.  Also taking the under 137 for a unit, as I think Wisconsin is going to play slower and hope Baylor is dumb enough to not be able to guard.  Also possible.

#4 UCLA vs. #1 Florida.
Florida was my pick to win a couple months ago and still is, and I realize that's not really going out on a limb but I just can't find any weaknesses here.  They have the second best defense in the country (on a per possession basis) behind Arizona and a top 20 offense as well.  They have senior leadership that seems to count in March and excellent guard play with the SEC player of the year in Scottie Wilbekin.  They have five guys who can have a blow up game so if anybody is off (maybe outside Wilbekin if we're talking things beyond shooting) oh well just move on to the next guy.

I like UCLA a lot and Kyle Anderson is one of my favorite players and if Zach LaVine and Norman Powell are clicking those three and Jordan Adams form a damn good four pack, but LaVine has been horrible lately.  For UCLA to win you're going to be counting on the Wear twins and Tony Parker to check Florida's group of tight end looking guys who can come at you in waves.  No chance.  Florida -4.5 for three units.  I also think there's a decent chance this goes over the 137 because UCLA likes to run and Florida can run with anybody, but I can also see a repeat of their game against Pitt where the Bruins can't score and the Gators just grind clock.  Pass for now, but I'm sure I'll do something with it prior to tip because I'm an action junkie.

#4 San Diego State vs. #1 Arizona.
This has not been a kind tournament to defensive minded teams who are limited offensively - Kansas State, Ohio State, Cincinnati, and St. Louis are all gone.  San Diego State fits that mold as well with one difference - Xavier Thames.  You could try to make a similar argument in favor of Cincy and Sean Kilpatrick, but where it always seems like Kilpatrick has to struggle to score, Thames seems to do it much more effortlessly.  I know that kind of sounds stupid since Kilpatrick averaged over 20 points per game this year, but I managed to watch a lot of Cincy and see SDSU a few times and it's just an impression I got, I can't really back it up. Just trust me I'm much smarter than you.

Yes, the Wildcats have the #1 point-per-possession defense in the field, and it's because they force opponents to take jump shots and pack the paint to take away almost anything driving to the rim.  Well, Thames doesn't drive - he's taken only 17% of his shots this year at the rim but hits 40% on both two point and three point jumpers.  Arizona is basically going to be daring an excellent jump shooter to shoot jump shots.  I don't think that will be enough for the Aztecs to pull off an upset, but with that dynamic and a really, really good defense I expect this to be close.  I know Arizona beat SDSU by 9 in San Diego earlier this year, but Arizona had Brandon Ashley in that game and SDSU didn't have Dwayne Polee so I'm on SDSU getting seven for two units.  I also expect a real grind it out game, but the 122 is too low a number for me since it's a tournament game I figure to be close which could result in a lot of fouls, especially since my perception is in an elimination game losing teams continue to foul longer than they normally would.  Instead I'm throwing two units on the first half line, under 55.5. 

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Gophers 81, Southern Miss 73

Good win, and on to Madison Square Garden.  Here are 10 things I liked and didn't like about the Southern Miss game.  And it's going to be fast, because I have some sweet 16 stuff I need to ignore my real work for tomorrow.

1.  Obviously the A topic here is Austin Hollins's monster game.  32 points.  6-11 from 3.  2-3 from 2.  11-11 from the line. 4 assists and 3 steals with no turnovers to boot.  Plus he was as active as I can ever remember seeing him, just running all over the court especially without the ball which is a place he can disengage from a game from time to time.  Great going away game from Austin in his final game at the Barn and I'm glad he got to have a huge moment in front of the home crowd after he's been beaten up pretty hard by a certain segment of fans (*cough* gopherhole).  A good well rounded player who cares as much about defense as offense is always a nice luxury to have and although I wouldn't call him a Gopher legend (he's no Stan Gaines) he will be sorely missed next season.  I'd slot him somewhere below Damian Johnson and above Travarus Bennett.  Pretty good spot to be in.

2.  The other A topic should be the freaking horrible announcers and actually all around production by ESPN.  Good lord are Dan Dakitch and whoever the other guy was terrible.  How many times did they get Austin and Andre Hollins confused?  And every time the Gophers had the ball all they could talk about was how the Gophers needed to get Austin the ball, even though I'm positive they meant Andre because they had no idea he wasn't 100% because I don't think - no, I know - neither of them has seen a Gopher game this year.  Then what happens?  The show a graphic to show Austin's great stats and the picture is Andre.  Good lord we could have expected this in year 1 with both of them, but it's year 3.  I was surprised, however, they never mentioned that they are brothers.  Odd.

3.  Great job handling pressure......until the last two minutes.  The Gophers turned the ball over 10 times which for them I would consider good.  But two of the ten came in the last two minutes and it felt like a lot more because the Gophers suddenly seemed all panicky.  Southern Miss is a big time turnover creating team, which makes the overall numbers very impressive.  I said they'd have to take care of the ball to win and they did.  If they had played like this more often, well, we probably wouldn't have any more Gopher ball to watch, but we'd all be a lot happier with the season.

4.  Someone in the middle of the zone - unstoppable.  Against that matchup zone, and really any zone, is getting someone in the middle of the zone, right about the free throw line, and getting them the ball.  Tonight it was usually either Joey King (more on him later) or Elliot Eliason there - when someone was there - and almost every time they got the ball either King hit a jumper or King or Eliason were able to find an open shooter, and the team was actually hitting open shots tonight so everybody was all smiling and stuff.  Sadly, far too often nobody bothered to get in the middle, which is like why not?  I would love to have some kind of breakdown of points per possession when they got a touch in the middle vs. not.  One led to easy shots, the other a ton, and a mean a ton, of contested long jumpers and three pointers.  Just some terrible shots tonight.  Some great offense too.  Schizo team, as usual.

5.  The rebounding and defense kind of sucked.  A 14-4 edge on the offensive rebounds is not very good, and letting Southern Miss shoot over 50% on twos is not ideal.  No reason to harp on this, because it's been a season long theme, luckily tonight their offense was good enough to overcome it.  Moving on.

6.  This Mavsurgence is not real.  Mav has made some headlines after scoring 21 in the first round game against High Point, but that was High Point.  Since then he's come back to normal but is at least hitting his shots which is really his only role or should be.  Tonight he had a possession where he basically like, kicked the ball away from himself and then fell down.  It felt like a metaphor for something, but I'm not sure what.

7.  Joey King is good?  Seriously, is he?  I hated him at first, he slowly won me over, but after scoring 15 points tonight that makes four straight games in double figures, which I'm told is the first time he's done that in his career, I'm wondering if he's actually good.  Like, starting Big 10 caliber good?  He looked awfully good as the middle guy against the zone, he's started to get better from three without relying on it, he's gone from zero post moves to something like 0.8 post moves, and just, stopped being such a tit.  I can't believe I might be a fan.  Not what I was expecting.

8.  Dre Hollins is still broken.  He's shooting like shit, yes at 6-38 in his last four games (not a misprint) but other than a down tick because he can't get to the rim as easily as he used to that's not what I'm talking about.  There were two plays tonight that made it crystal clear he doesn't have the burst he did before he hurt his ankle.  One was a run out where he had one of those one on two breaks but the two are out of position so you generally take it right at the rim and he tried but was turned back because he was too slow and the other was a trap towards the end of the game that he usually would be able to dribble out of with his quickness but was unable to.  It makes this win (and the last one) even more impressive by the Gophers doing it with a best player who is max at 90% of his capability.  Hopefully he's all back next year.

9.  I am far too excited about Mo Walker next year.  I can't get over about how good he's been since his breakout against Ohio State.  He's learned to trust his body and can just bull his way into lay-ups, even against good defenders.  He's got a semi decent jumper out to about 16 feet, and he can pass the ball very well for a man his size.  If he adds 1-2 post moves other than his jump hook and the drop step lower your shoulder he could end up nearly unstoppable.  Generally I don't trust college kids to work all that hard because I remember being a college kid, but this is a guy who lost 60 pounds or whatever, I can see him busting his ass to add a dream shake and a fall away or something.  So excited.  Unreasonably so.

10.  Why not win it I guess.  The NIT mostly sucks.  It's hard to care about, you play mediocre teams who you have no idea whether they're at all interested, and many of the games run up against NCAA games and as such go unwatched.  But hell, as long as you're stuck in it you might as well win it, right?  And wins over St. Mary's and Southern Miss are nice wins you can build on?  I don't know.  The Gophers are still playing, and god help me I'm still watching.  Let's hope they win two more.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Game Preview: Gophers vs. Southern Miss

So the Gophers are still playing.  In all the NCAA gambling and brackets and game watching I kind of forgot about them, and didn't even realize they were playing St. Mary's until mid second half, and when I switched over I still paid more attention to the Wichita/Kentucky game I was streaming on the ipad.  I know, I'm a great blogger.  So they are still playing, and that's good, and on Tuesday night they'll welcome Southern Miss to the Barn with the winner heading to Madison Square Garden for the NIT Final Four.  Joy.

With all the good teams having fled Conference USA, Southern Miss is probably the jewel of the (severely weakened) conference, having won 20+ games in each of the last five years and making the NCAA Tournament as a 9 seed in 2012 as an at-large before losing to Kansas State.  This year's squad has gone 29-6 overall and was 13-3 in Conference USA, losing to Louisiana Tech in the conference tournament semi-finals.  To get here the Golden Eagles beat Toledo at home and Missouri on the road with that win over Mizzou one of their most impressive this season.  They also beat NCAA team North Dakota State as well as quality opponent Georgia State in non-conference, and had a season sweep of LA Tech but that's basically it as far as good victories go with the rest coming against a shitty conference or really bad teams out of conference.  This is not a juggernaut, but the win over Missouri is significant.

Looking at the stats, Southern Miss has four major strengths:  they cause a lot of turnovers, they grab a lot of offensive rebounds, they pass well, and they get to the free throw line a lot.  Their weaknesses are not shooting or defending shots very well, giving up a lot of assists, fouling a lot, and allowing an absolutely absurd amount of three pointers.  I haven't seen So Miss play this year, but this statistical profile is basically textbook for a team that plays an aggressive high pressure zone (Syracuse's profile is similar).  I also know that Southern Miss employs a full court press pretty much at all times, though I don't know if it's regular man-to-man or if there is a lot of trapping.  The game comes down to:
  • Taking care of the ball.  High pressure zone and full court press are terrifying for the Gophers considering how the turnover bug has reared it's head at times this year.  The Gophers have played games where they take phenomenal care of the ball and others where they seem to be intentionally giving it away.  They will need to do the former to win this game.  On the flip side, Southern Miss is really good at giving the ball away, and hopefully the Gophers can ratchet up the pressure to take advantage.
  • Rebounding.  Southern Miss is an outstanding rebounding team and as we know the Gophers are.....challenged, in that area.  Creating turnovers and forcing missed shots are meaningless if the other team just gets another crack at it with an offensive board.  This is Southern Miss's biggest strength, and probably the #1 key to the game.  The Gophers are a bigger team than the Golden Eagles, so this should be doable with effort and proper technique.
  • Creating fouls while avoiding them.  Southern Miss loves to get to the line and they get there a ton, even if they aren't very good at foul shots.  With only two real big men, it's imperative at least one if not both of Eliason and Walker stay out of foul trouble.  On the other side Southern Miss really only goes 6-7 guys deep, so getting any of them in foul trouble, and as a team they commit a lot of fouls, could help stretch their bench further than they want to go.
  • Hitting shots.  An aggressive zone can be easily defeated by good ball movement and hitting open shots.  35.1% of points scored against Southern Miss this year have come via three-pointer, the 3rd highest percentage in the country.  Related, opponents scored off an assist on 63.5% of their baskets, also the 3rd highest percentage in the country.  It's obvious what you need to do to beat this team, it's just a matter of doing it.
Personnel-wise, the Golden Eagles aren't deep but they are balanced within who plays.  They have five players averaging between 9.7 and 11.5 points per game who also average between 3.6 and 7.6 rebounds.

5-11 senior point guard Neil Watson is probably the leader of the team, averaging 10.7 pts and 3.9 assists per game.  He put up 18 points and 7 assists against Missouri, so he seems to be doing the whole I'm a senior and I don't want my career to be over yet thing.  He only takes 16% of his shots at the rim so he's a clear jump shooter, but he does it well hitting 40% of his twos and 37% of his threes.  He also hit 92% of his free throws this year, and buried with Missouri with four threes (on 9 attempts).

If Watson is the leader on the perimeter then 6-5 forward Michael Craig is the leader in the paint, leading the team in both scoring (11.5) and rebounding (7.6).  His range doesn't extend too far, but he's an excellent scorer in the lane for somebody that short.  He's their go to scorer and is an excellent passer out of the post - something to watch for.

Their other three main players are 6-7 senior Daveon Boardingham (9.9ppg/4.8rpg and a terrible name), former Temple transfer and 6-5 junior Aaron Brown (10.0ppg/4.3rpg), and 6-0 senior Jerrold Brooks (9.7ppg/2.5apg).  Man they have a lot of upperclassmen.  Boardingham is the closest thing they have to a center and leads the team with a whole 1.0 block per game, Brown is probably the scariest of these three just because he can score in a variety of ways and has had a few explosive games this year, and Brooks is their big time three point shooter (along with Watson) though he did hit just 33% this season.

Other than that they have some bit parts, one of which is our former good buddy Chip Armelin.  Armelin played just 13.4 minutes per game this year (actually slightly less than his last year with the Gophers) and averaged 4.7ppg and 1.9rpg.  In general he looks to be the same kind of player he was back then, although he's gotten much more efficient with his two pointers, hitting 60% this year compared to 46% back in 2012 mainly due to attacking the basket more.  He's also turning it over more than he did back then, but that could be a product of the system.  He's also nabbing more steals but again, product of the system.  Anyway, I'm happy to see Chip back.  I always had high hopes for him.  It will be interesting to see what happens next season with four seniors departing Southern Miss, and Chip will have to step in to a bigger role.

It boils down to this being one of the more easy games to analyze that I can remember.  The Golden Eagles are a decent team who can score, but a lot of their offense is predicated on getting turnovers and offensive rebounds, things the Gophers can control or limit.  Offensively there's a clear blue print to beating Southern Miss - move the ball and knock down open shots.  It's all about if the Gophers can execute.  I'm not exactly sure why, but I have a bad feeling.

Southern Miss 70, Minnesota 65

Monday, March 17, 2014

Game Preview: Gophers vs. High Point

I'm not going to spend a lot of time on this because High Point is terrible and the NIT is the NIT and there's a lot of gambling and game picking going on this time of year and my time is better spent on that, but I will do a preview because then I can tweet it out and people can remember that this blog exists and I didn't die and I was just on vacation.

Anyway, High Point is terrible.  They did go 12-4 in the Big South, but the Big South was not very good this year even by Big South standards, with kenpom ranking it 29th out of 32 conferences.  Yuck.  The Panthers totaled four wins outside of the Big South and two of them were to non D-I teams.  They had losses to terrible James Madison and terrible Morgan State, and lost to Georgetown by 35, Arkansas by 41, and were dropped by a stunning 28 points by Wofford.  They did win 10 of their final 11 regular season games before losing in their first conference tournament game, and that included a 3-point road win at Coastal Carolina - who made it to the NCAAs.  So maybe they just hit a slow start and are putting it altogether at the right time.  Or maybe their just the best of a bad lot.

The Panthers are pretty terrible defensively, giving up 1.12 points per possession, one of the worst marks in the country.  Their mainly a zone team from what I can tell, but teams absolutely lit them up hitting 35% from three and 54% from 2, the latter putting them in the bottom 20 in the entire country in that metric, and the former not much better.  They have a couple of decent shot blockers in 6-9 John Brown (more on him later) and 6-5 Devante Wallace, but obviously given that 2pt % number they didn't do much to deter scoring.  Worth noting that teams take a large percentage of their field goal attempts from behind the arc against High Point, and given not much turnover creation I'd assume the zone is more saggy than pressure-y.  They also rebound like crap on both sides of the ball.

The offense is better, tallying 1.05 points per possession, slightly above the national average, and mainly that's because of Brown.  He's a versatile big man who can post up or step out and hit the mid range jumper (not a 3-point threat) to the tune of 19.5 points per game on 54% shooting, although it's worth noting that he failed to break double digits against Arkansas, Georgetown, or Syracuse.  He also grabs 8 boards per game and chips in 2 assists, 1.5 steals, and 2 blocks.  He ranks in the top 500 in every kenpom metric other than assist rate, although his 14.4% is awfully good for a post player who shoots as often as he does (Austin Hollins is 14.8% and Dre Hollins is 16.8%, for comparison).  He's an awesome player against low-mid major defenses, but hasn't proved it against a big time team.  Hopefully the Gophers' shreddable defense doesn't give him that chance.

Two other double digits scorers join Brown in Wallace (12.4ppg) and 6-3 guard Adam Weary (11.9ppg).  Wallace is a good shot blocker as referenced above and is second on the team in rebounding (4.6ppg) so I'm going to assume he's a pretty good athlete, but his best skill might be his three point shooting.  Wallace took a team high five attempts per game, and ended up on the year making exactly 50% of them.  He got better and more aggressive as the season went along, with 4+ makes in seven of the team's final 15 games.  It would be a good move to not let him get hot.  Weary is coming off an ankle injury and the game against the Gophers will be just his third game back after missing five, and he's scored just five and nine points in those two.  There was a chunk of games where he scored 20+ in four of six in the middle of the season, and he scored 14+ in three straight before the injury.  It'd be better if he's still hurt a little.

The rest of the team is balanced with six other guys getting at least double digit minutes.  Lorenzo Cugini, who I bet is Italian, is probably the best of the bunch and can knock down some threes.  Anthony Lindauer is a three point specialist.  Jorge Perez-Laham is a pretty good point guard when he's on the floor.  Cliff Cornish has some size although he doesn't play much, though he most likely will against the Gophers.  He's a good shot blocker.  High Point would be better but they caught a bad break when Allan Chaney had to retire due to heart problems - he was averaging 15.4 points and 8.6 rebounds at the time.  You can read more about it here if you'd like.

Basically High Point won the Big South regular season title so if the Gophers come out flat or play poorly they are certainly capable of winning. But they shouldn't.  The Gophers should win this game with relative ease, but the NIT is a weird animal because you never know how a team will perform because the mental state can be anywhere from pumped to keep playing to bummed to be in the NIT so who cares.  I think the Gophers, with a first year coach and low expectations for the season, will be up for this one.

Minnesota 77, High Point 57

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Tournament Talk. Stupid NIT.

I am back from Florida now and it sucks.  I'd much rather be there than here what with their beaches, fishing (I caught a snook!), ocean life (saw many dolphins, a couple of manatees, almost stepped on a stingray, and found a baby crab to show my kids), happy hour every day, the ocean, spring break chicks in bikinis who invite me into their bungalow to play drinking games and give me jello shots (actually happened!), fresh seafood, Yuengling evewhere, awesome sunsets and sunrises, the ocean, and consequence-less drinking.  I won't dwell on how awesome Florida is because it should be pretty self-evident, but if you ever have a choice to be on Estero Island or Sanibel Island rather than being in stupid Minnesota you should totally do it. 

One piece of advice I will give, is if you love seafood like I do go to the Farmer's Market (Fridays) or drive just over to the bridge to one of the fish markets.  Even though it's so abundant in the gulf it's also really expensive - a typical grouper dinner is 20-25 bucks while a pound of shrimp appetizer is up to $15.  At the markets you can get the grouper for about $20 a pound and the shrimp for a lot cheaper as well.  If you know how to cook (and I do) and like to (and I do) you can get out of there a lot cheaper considering two pounds of grouper is about 8 portions, so you're only paying like $5 per meal instead of $25.  I made an awesome almond-crusted grouper and an almost as good chili-lime preparation, and made some butter poached shrimp seasoned with this local seasoning blend that thsi one dude who my parents had try them said they were the best shrimp he had all week and he had some every day for a month.  So yeah, I rock.  And I got to de-head the shrimp, which is something I'd never done before.  That's right, manly enough to rip the head off a shrimp and talented enough to cook a gourmet dinner.  Settle down ladies, I'm taken.

Lots of basketball to catch up on, so we might as well get to it.

First, Gopher thoughts: 

-  Major bummer the Gophers missed the tournament, but not at all unexpected.  They were essentially a single win away from getting in most likely, and it wouldn't have mattered when it happened.  I think if you take any single one of their losses and turned it into a win the Gophers get in the tournament.  Not having Dre Hollins for a couple of those losses sucked and who knows how much the committee looked at that and if it even would have mattered, but their name wasn't called, it would have been an upset if it had been, and we move on to the prestigious NIT.

-  Despite missing the big tournament, I still consider this season a relative success since I didn't really plan on them making the tournament anyway (I'll delve further into a season recap after the NIT).  They won a couple of games I normally wouldn't have thought they'd win, and competed well against teams I thought would blow them out.  Despite a little regression by Austin Hollins, in general the players improved quite a bit from last year to this year, particularly the big men, and Dre Mathieu emerged as the type of player who should be on preseason all Big-10 lists.  Even somebody who looked completely worthless in Joey King emerged to show he could end up being a decent big 10 player. 

-  Recruiting has been more interesting, if not any better.  If you follow it you know how often the Gophers made top 5, top 3 lists and were mentioned as being in contention for a whole lot of highly ranked players.  They pretty much failed to land any, however, which an optimist could chalk up to the late start Pitino got.  I am that optimist.  Looking forward to seeing what he can do with the class of 2015.  If he doesn't land any high level talent in that class, then we can talk.

-  NC State getting in is, yes, a pretty big surprise and yes, I would have thought the Gophers would get in over the Wolfpack but it's not really worth bitching about.  If not NC State it would have been SMU.  If not SMU it would have been Green Bay or Ole Miss or Cal or somebody like that.  The Gophers just weren't there.

-  Their NIT bracket is interesting, I guess.  The first game against High Point is like, shoot me in the face, but a second rounder against either St. Mary's or Utah should be pretty fun.  Then, if they make it, a game against Southern Miss would be interesting, although if they end up against Missouri the Gophers will get destroyed, but it'd be fun to watch their guards (Jabari Brown and Jordan Clarkson who each average over 17.5 points per game) in person, if that game would be at The Barn.  I really don't know how that works.

-  And I don't want to hear that a deep NIT run is more valuable/important than a first round NCAA exit. It's not, and anyone saying so is rationalizing, a pollyanna fan, or a complete idiot.  That being said, a deep NIT run can be fun and entertaining and sure, may even help the team a bit for next season, so let's try to enjoy this even though I'll completely ignore any Gopher NIT game that clashes with any NCAA Tournament game. 

Speaking of, now onto to general NCAA tournament things:

-  The first thing I hate is Kansas and Florida in the same region, and I hated it because it popped up right away in the first region.  But then I thought more and looked more and I think it might have saved me from making the terrible mistake of putting the Jayhawks in the Final Four.  Without Embiid they're weaker inside, and in the second round they'll play New Mexico (who will kill Stanford) and their two headed giant monster of Cameron Bairstow and Alex Kirk.  New Mexico could totally beat an Embiid-less Kansas, and I'm calling it now - they will. 

-  The second thing I hated was the potential round 2 match-up for Iowa State in North Carolina.  When you're whole bit is to play fast and loose and basically try to outscore someone, the last thing you want to see is somebody who might be better at that style than you, and that's how the Heels look compared to the Cyclones (remember, I'm a pretty big Cyclone fan).  Good news for the Cyclones is that UNC plays insanely fast, but they have struggled offensively at times this year.  The bad news is that they've also beaten Michigan State and Louisville.  As a fan of circus ball, and if  you read this blog you know I love circus ball, as scary as this match-up is for ISU I really hope it happens - it would be circus ball galore.  They couldn't make this over/under number high enough for me to not take the over.

-  I had four teams in mind as my Final Four, as I usually do, prior to bracket release.  Unlike usual, they actually are in three different brackets, so I only have to figure out what to do with the West.  I like the idea of Ok State knocking off Arizona, but if that happens I basically have to take either OK State or San Diego State all the way to the Final Four, because there's no way anybody is making it out of that bottom bracket.  I am a believer in Wisconsin, but the flame out too often to trust, so it's either Ok State, SDSU, or don't pick the upset and go with Zona.  I don't know yet, but I'll let you know what I decide.  Don't act like you don't care.

-  The other place where I'm really having trouble is in the bottom half of the South.  I already said I have New Mexico beating Kansas, but I don't feel really confident in their ability to make the elite 8, which means my choice is pretty much Ohio State or Syracuse.  If Syracuse's late season plunge hadn't been so drastic and they still ended up as a 3 somehow that would have been perfect, but I'm not a big believer in the Orange right now.  But Ohio State can't shoot, so as much as I think Syracuse is open to upset I don't think the Buckeyes are the team to do it.  So basically I don't know what to do.  I think New Mexico could do it, but I also know that's not how you win brackets.  I'll probably end up going with Syracuse.  Lucky draw for them, considering neither Western Michigan nor Ohio State can shoot for shit.  Could get interesting if Dayton gets by the Buckeyes though, but they aren't really anything special.  Lucky break for the Cuse.

-  Although SWAC Champion Texas Southern is horrible, Aaric Murray could make things interesting.  If you remember, Murray was a hot shot recruit who ended up choosing his hometown LaSalle, and averaged 12 and 7 and then 15 and 8 his two years there before, if I remember, a rather ugly transfer to West Virginia.  After a rough year there (averaged 9 and 6) he somehow got another year of eligibility for, you can probably guess, Texas Southern.  Murray averaged 21 and 8 against the terrible SWAC competition, but at 6-10, 245 lbs. with some serious offensive skills (not to mention 2.5 blocks per game) he could be a March hero.  Here are the "real" teams they've played this year and Murray's results:
  • Miami:  16pts, 1 reb (foul trouble)
  • Texas Tech:  8pts, 4 rebs (foul trouble)
  • Stanford: 28 pts, 5 rebs
  • Tulsa:  30 pts, 6 rebs
  • Temple:  48 pts, 8 reb
Pretty nice numbers.  Ok well his rebounding isn't that great and actually his shooting percentages in those games aren't very pretty and he's awfully inefficient for someone with his size and skill but whatever.  It's a story, man.  Or more like a narrative I just started running with and couldn't pull out.  Now they just have to get by Cal Poly, aka Shane Schilling U.  Then he can destroy Wichita.  Probably.

- Very little controversy it seems this year, which is a new thing.  What are the beefs?  SMU out, Louisville a 4 seed, and a loaded region for Wichita?  Pretty low on the outrage meter.  It's nice, because usually people bitch a whole lot more.

-  Really, this is such a fun bracket.  Can team's build on defense but with trouble scoring like Cincinnati, Ohio State, San Diego State, Virginia, and St. Louis have success?  How about high flyers like the aforementioned Iowa State and UNC as well as BYU, VCU, Oklahoma, and Iowa who get up and down the court in a hurry?  There are tested and experienced smaller conference teams like Wichita State and Harvard, and super young teams like Kentucky and Kansas.  New Mexico State is the biggest team in the country by kenpom's Effective Height metric, and three of the five most experienced teams in the entire country made the field (Tex Southern #1, NC Central #4, and Mercer #5).  Then there are teams with guys who could pull a Danny Manning/John Wallace in Oklahoma State, UCONN, and Creighton.  I'm excited every year, but somehow this year seems better, even though there is no Chicago trip :sadface:.

- First pass - Final Four: Florida, Louisville, Arizona, Michigan State.  Other Elite 8s: Syracuse, Creighton, Michigan, UCONN. 

-  Lastly, it could change but I'm taking Florida as my national champion, and yes I realize that's probably going to be a popular pick but I can't help it if this year the popular pick is also the correct pick.  They play great defense and they can play in an uptempo game or a slow down game so they aren't vulnerable to any particular style of play.  They have a guy in Michael Frazier who could win a game by himself by shooting threes, a smart experienced point guard in Scottie Wilbekin, and a mish mash of athletic big men who can pass and are comfortable anywhere on the floor and look like NFL tight ends.  I love having a bunch of exchangeable players who can all do the same things, and Florida has that in spades with Will Yeguette, Dorian Finney-Smith, Casey Prather, Chris Walker, and Patric Young.  Plus they have Billy Donovan.  I know they're the #1 overall seed so it's not exactly going out on a limb, but who is going to beat these guys? I would absolutely love to see a Florida/Louisville game.

Be back later with a preview of the big NIT tilt on Tuesday.  Looking super forward to researching High Point.  Don't act like you ain't all jelly.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

I'm on Vacation

Florida weather is much better than Minnesota.  I'm not saying I won't post at all for the next two weeks (two weeks!) but just want to leave this post here so nobody thinks I quit.  Not yet anyway. 

Also I'm a big fan of Roberto Nelson from Oregon State. Too bad those teams have always been horrible.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Gophers lose to Michigan in the same way they always do

Story of the year for the Gophers, right?  Play a much better, more talented team extremely close for a portion of the game and come up short.  Yeah, I suppose the other stories of the year are beating a few good teams at Williams and also losing to some teams that they should beat, but this Michigan game from the tip seemed like a narrative of the year to the point where I could have written the game story before they even tipped off.

Rather than go into a whole thing where I could once again point out defensive lapses, stupid turnovers, and a seemingly pathological inability to get a loose ball, let's step back and see where the Gophers stand right now in the big picture, and try to figure out what they need to do to get a NCAA tournament bid because at this point they are basically the poster child for a bubble team.

And by the way, if I was going to write about the Michigan, and I'm not, I would definitely point out that when a defense constantly doubles the ball handler on ball screens it's pretty important for the offense to exploit that because, fun fact, if two guys are guarding one guy that means three guys are guarding four guys and if an offense has proper spacing and the ball handler has good enough anticipation and vision and the other offensive players can move the ball quickly there should be a lot of open shots.  With an exception or two the Gopher offense was rarely able to take advantage of this situation, which came up a lot, and that could have made a big difference in the game.  But again, I'm not going to talk about that instead let's look at some stuff.

The Gophers are now 17-12 and 7-10 in conference play, neither of which is very impressive.  The RPI is 47 and the Strength of Schedule is 3, and those numbers are pretty good combined.  All of which means the Gophers are squarely on the middle of the bubble, which feels way to god damn familiar.  The Gophers have 2 wins over the RPI top 25 and 6 over the top 100 with no really truly bad losses, as horrific as the Illinois and Northwestern home losses feel.  Basically this can still go either way.   I see four distinct ways this breaks:

1)  Gophers beat Penn State, lose early in the tournament (defined as first round game).

2)  Gophers beat Penn State, go on a run in the tournament (defined as 2 or more wins).

3)  Gophers lose to Penn State, lose early in the tournament.

4)  Gophers lose to Penn State, go on a run in the tournament.

#3 isn't worth talking about because they have no shot at getting a bid in this scenario.  #2 I will pass on as well because I think a three game winning streak to close it out, which would include a win over somebody good like Wisconsin, and they're comfortably in.  The other two scenarios are where things get icky.

Let's say the Gophers beat Penn State, draw Illinois in the first round of the B10 tournament, and then lose to Ohio State.  Is that enough?  8-10 in a very good league with an PRI likely in the low 40s?  IF they had done anything at all on the road or on a neutral court this year I'd say this would probably be safe, but the committee won't look favorably on that road//neutral column.  This probably makes for a really uncomfortable Selection Sunday.

How about if the Gophers lose at home against Penn State to drop to 7-11 in the Conference, but then beat Illinois and Wisconsin in the tournament?  Will that be enough?  Adding a quality win on a neutral court to the ledger can only help, but I feel like that loss to PSU in this scenario and the horrendous 7-11 conference record would keep them out.  In this scenario I think they'd have to win the next game too against like, Michigan.  Possible, but unlikely.

Three ways I see the Gophers have a shot: 

1.  Beat Penn State, win 2 games in the B10 Tournament.  In this scenario I say they're 90% in.  Probably a 9-10ish seed.

2.  Beat Penn State, win 1 game in the B10 Tournament.  This I would call 50/50 and would be pretty heavily dependent on how some of the conference tournaments break.  Go Wichita.  Probably a 12ish seed if they get in this situation.

3.  Lose to Penn State, win 3 games in the B10 Tournament.  This I would say is also 50/50 to get a bid.  The lost to the Nittany Lions would be a pretty bad black mark, but winning three tournament games would net the Gophers two more high quality wins.  In this case, even though I think it would be 50/50, if they did get in I'd guess they'd be around a 10 seed.  I think the committee will either focus on the number of good wins and they'll be comfortably in, or focus on the horrible conference record and keep them way the hell out.

So I guess I'm counting on 3 straight wins to close out the season.  I'm super optimistic.