NCAA Tournament First Weekend Observations

1. Talent prevails.
For all the madness in the first round of the tournament, there are few surprises in the Sweet 16. Of the remaining 16 teams, 12 were ranked in the preseason, and as I wrote last week, the preseason poll is one of the best indicators of talent. Notre Dame, Wisconsin, and Gonzaga might seem like surprises, but they were all ranked inside the top 20 before the year. The only teams in the Sweet 16 that weren’t ranked before the year are Oregon, Texas A&M, Miami, and Syracuse – of which, only Syracuse failed to garner any votes for preseason poll.

2. The ACC has 6 teams in the Sweet 16, but only one truly impressive win.
Everyone wants to crown the ACC but look at the draws its teams faced. North Carolina and Virginia were one seeds, so getting to the Sweet 16 for them meant merely meeting their seed expectation. Syracuse, a 10 seed, faced arguably the field’s weakest 7 seed Dayton, before playing the biggest shock of the tournament, 15th seeded Middle Tennessee State. Duke, Maryland, and Notre Dame were all able to reach the Sweet 16 without playing a single digit seed because Yale, Hawaii, and Stephen F. Austin pulled upsets respectively. And for Notre Dame, it took a miracle buzzer-beating tip-in, as well as two dubious calls in the final minute or so, to scrape by Stephen F. Austin.  That leaves us with Miami, who also didn’t have to play a single digit seed, yet was the slight underdog against Wichita State. Miami’s win over Wichita State was the ACC’s only win that was truly impressive. We will see just how dominant the ACC is in the Sweet 16.

3. This might be the year Gonzaga finally makes the Final 4.
For over a decade, people have been waiting for Gonzaga to make a run all the way to the Final 4, from when they had Adam Morrison to when they had Kelly Olynyk. But Mark Few might have his best player ever in Domantas Sabonis, who somehow stayed under the radar all season long, before dominating future top 10 NBA pick Jacob Poeltl of Utah in the 2nd round of the tournament. If the Zags were ever going to make the Final 4, this is the type of year it would happen. There are few stars in this year’s tournament and there is a case to be made that Sabonis is the best big man left in the entire tournament. Kevin Willard called Sabonis the toughest matchup Seton Hall faced all year. Syracuse is as generous a Sweet 16 draw as the Zags could hope for, and neither Virginia nor Iowa State would be as tough as it was facing eventual champ Duke in last year’s Elite 8.

4. Offense, not defense, wins in the NCAA Tournament.
Offense wins games; defense wins championships. At least that’s how the saying goes. But of the remaining Sweet 16 teams, the average offensive efficiency is 14th and the average defensive efficiency is 40th, going by the KenPom numbers. Duke and Notre Dame have sub-100 defenses, and Iowa State’s defense is not much better at 94th in the country. But they have all top 10 offenses to make up for their defensive woes. None of this is to say defense is unimportant or that an elite offense will always carry a poor defense. After all, Michigan State and Kentucky bowed out early, despite being ranked 1st and 3rd respectively in offensive efficiency. However, those are the only two teams with top 10 offenses that are not still playing. Whoever wins it all will probably have a blend of strong offense and defense, but if I had to pick or the other, I’m going with offense.

5. I’m not sold on any of the one seeds.
Every one seed advanced to the Sweet 16, but can anyone remember another time when the top seeds were so deprived of NBA talent? Going by Chad Ford’s top 100 prospects, there might be two future NBA first round picks on this year’s crop of one seeds. He has UNC’s Brice Johnson ranked 29th and UVA’s Malcolm Brogdon 30th. Taking a look back on recent years, that is a very low number. Below is a list of the one seeds by year and what future 1st round picks they had.

Kentucky: Karl-Anthony Towns, Trey Lyles, Devin Booker, Willie Cauley-Stein
Wisconsin: Frank Kaminsky, Sam Dekker
Duke: Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow, Tyus Jones
Villanova: None

Arizona: Aaron Gordon, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson
Florida: None
Virginia: Justin Anderson
Wichita State: None

Louisville: Gorgui Dieng
Indiana, Cody Zeller, Victor Oladipo
Gonzaga: Kelly Olynyk
Kansas: Ben McLemore

Kentucky: Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Terrance Jones, Marquis Teague
Michigan State: Draymond Green
Syracuse: Dion Waiters, Fab Melo (yes, he was a 1st rounder!)
North Carolina: Harrison Barnes, Tyler Zeller, John Henson, P.J. Hairston, Kendall Marshall

Ohio State: Jared Sullinger
Kansas: Markieff Morris, Marcus Morris, Thomas Robinson
Pittsburgh: None
Duke: Kyrie Irving, Nolan Smith, Mason Plumlee, Miles Plumlee

Glancing at the past five seasons, 2014 comes closest in terms of the lack of NBA players on the top seeds. And remember: that year, the championship game was a 7 seed versus an 8 seed. Just because you aren’t loaded with future 1st round picks doesn’t mean you can’t be a very good college team, but in every Sweet 16 matchup featuring a top seed this weekend, you could make the argument that the one seeds are facing more talented teams.

6. How a team does in its conference tournament has no bearing on how it will fare in the NCAA Tournament.
There is a longstanding belief that the conference tournaments are important for teams to build momentum heading into the NCAA Tournament. Think of the 2011 Kemba Walker UConn team. Conversely, we have seen teams in the past who seem to wear themselves out by winning their conference tournament, like the 2006 Gerry McNamara Syracuse team.

Seton Hall entered the tournament as one of the hottest teams in the country with a player in Isaiah Whitehead, who was playing as well as anyone. Yet, Seton Hall got waxed by Gonzaga and Whitehead had the worst performance of any player in the first round. Meanwhile, Indiana and Wisconsin lost in the first round of the Big 10 Tournament and have a chance to advance to the Elite 8 this weekend.

College Basketball Power Rankings

Selection Sunday is only eight days away! For all of the complaining that casual fans have about college basketball – too slow, not enough scoring, too many timeouts, etc – there’s no question that March Madness is one of the best times of the year for sports. So without further ado, let’s dig into the second to last power rankings before the tourney starts.

12. Iowa State
Iowa State just beat Oklahoma the other day, capping off the game with a 49-22 run. That’s right – the Cyclones were getting blown out at home, and then casually dropped 59 points on the 7th ranked defense in the country. I haven’t been buying Iowa State’s chances in the tournament all year. They have one of the highest powered offenses in the country, and Fred Hoiberg is one of the best coaches in America, but they don’t guard. For most of the season, their defense has hardly cracked the top 100. Last year, Duke and Michigan were two notable teams that had top 5 offenses and sub-100 offenses – Duke was knocked out in the first round and Michigan fell to Kentucky in the Elite 8. So, it’s not like porous defense always dooms you in the tournament, but it leaves you especially susceptible to a poor night shooting night. It’s hard to stay hot shooting the ball for six straight games in the tournament. Having said all that, I’m not sure if any other team outside the top 10 has as much upside as Iowa State. When they came back to beat Oklahoma the other night, they scored 59 points in the second half, but they also won with their defense, limiting Oklahoma to 22 points in the second half. If Iowa State plays defense, they have Final Four ability.  Continue reading

College Basketball Power Rankings

Selection Sunday is exactly one month away. That means it’s time to start sorting out who’s a real threat to reach the Final Four, and who’s a fraud. Every year, people say “this is the hardest year to pick” when the bracket comes out, and yet, I can’t remember a year where so many highly ranked teams have glaring fatal flaws that could send them home early. Everyone is going to pick Kentucky and for good reason. They’re absolutely loaded. They’re probably the one team in the country that could lose a borderline NBA player in Alex Poythress and not even flinch. Hell, Kentucky has more McDonald’s All-Americans than any NBA teamThey could easily finish the year without a loss and no one would be surprised. After Kentucky though, things get interesting. So let’s get down to business and rank the top 12 teams in the country at the moment.

12. Notre Dame
This team more than any other highly ranked team has red flags all over. Notre Dame has Jerian Grant, and that’s the main reason they are so good. But Notre Dame doesn’t play defense. Their signature win came at home against Duke when Jerian Grant was casually pulling up from half-court in the middle of the shot clock. But 10 days later, Duke hung 90 on Notre Dame in Cameron, dropping the Fighting Irish by 30. That pretty much sums up the apprehension regarding Notre Dame. They can score the ball with anyone in the country, but if you take Grant out of the game, or if Notre Dame’s shooters aren’t hitting, they’re toast. Their defense won’t keep them in games. And it’s pretty hard to stay hot for 6 straight games. Notre Dame is basically Creighton from last year. Creighton hit a ton of 3’s and they had arguably the best player in the country in McDermott. So some people picked them to go far, making more of a bet on McDermott than Creighton. That didn’t really pan out. You can bet on Grant this March, but just remember it’s been awhile (like, 12 years) since Mike Brey got Notre Dame out of the first weekend. Continue reading

Wizards All In Next Year With Recent Moves

With the Eastern Conference opening up more and more by the day, the Wizards are one of the few contending teams in the conference actually getting better. The Bulls are the only other team near the top of the conference that has added significant pieces to their team. Think about it. The Heat lost LeBron. The Pacers lost Stephenson. The Nets lost Paul Pierce. The Raptors mostly stayed the same. And while the Cavs added LeBron, they still have a young, unproven roster around him that will take time to gel.

The conference really is up for grabs, perhaps more so than at any other time in the past decade. Of course that could shift if the Cavs get Kevin Love, but at the moment, the Cavs seem unlikely to trade Andrew Wiggins. No matter who wins the Eastern conference next year, the NBA champion will almost positively come from the Western Conference. But that’s not a reason to throw the towel in if you’re in the East. Especially for a team like the Wizards who have been so starved of any playoff success in the past 30 years.

The Wizards haven’t made any earth-shattering moves this offseason, but they’ve quietly made smart moves that will keep them flexible in the long-run and competitive right now. Letting Ariza walk in free agency was the right move. Not because $8 million per season is too much for him, but because it allows the Wizards to pursue hometown superstar Kevin Durant in the 2016 summer. Replacing his value with the aging, but still effective Paul Pierce was one of the more deft moves we’ve seen Ernie Grunfeld make in his tenure with the Wizards. Even more recently though, the Wizards have signed three big men who will be key contributors for the Wizards off the bench. Continue reading

Pacers Lose Lance Stephenson, Blow Their Chance To Be Favorite In East

Unrestricted free agent Lance Stephenson signed a 3 year/$27 million contract with the Hornets today, further altering and balancing the Eastern Conference power structure. Stephenson is a polarizing player often the scapegoat for the Pacer’s demise after the All Star Break last season, but he was also their most consistent player throughout the season. Not the best–that would be Paul George–but the most consistent. His antics likely hurt his value on the free agent market, and made the Pacers hesitant to offer him a lot of money. You never know how a player will react to getting a big payday, but Lance, more than other guys, seems like the type of player whose play and personality would be greatly influenced by a big contract. And not in a good way.

The Pacers will miss Stephenson's playmaking ability.

The Pacers will miss Stephenson’s playmaking ability.

It’s rare to find a player as talented as Stephenson, at his young age, on the free agent market. Even rarer for that player to be an unrestricted free agent. Indiana wouldn’t have the chance to match any offer that Stephenson accepted. Stephenson is immensely talented and very young, but also a wildcard in the locker room. That’s why Indiana was left in a tough position, having to gage where Stephenson’s game might be in a few years versus the damage he inflicts to the team’s chemistry right now.  Continue reading

NBA Draft Winners

It’s officially time to overreact to the NBA draft results and hastily hand out make-believe grades. Rather than grade every team, I’ll focus on those teams that won the draft. It’s almost impossible to tell who won the draft, until we look back on the draft in a couple of years, but we’ll go ahead and try anyway. Here are the teams and players that made the Deans List for last night’s draft:

San Antonio Spurs
Obviously. They always win the draft. The Spurs are the smartest team in the league. They always walk away from the draft with a player that will help them. It’s no wonder that the Spurs are the most successful team in the league in the past decade. They don’t waste picks. Last night, they got Kyle Anderson with the last pick of the first round. He was projected earlier as a mid-first rounder, but probably due to his lack of athleticism, he slipped. Anderson is a unique player that wouldn’t fit on many teams. Hell, on the Wizards, they’d probably stick in the corner and expect him to be a corner 3 guy. That’s obviously not his game. The Spurs will improve his shooting, no doubt, but they drafted him for his passing and playmaking. He’ll create even more open shots on the perimeter, which is scary considering how open most of the looks were against the Heat in the Finals. In a couple of years, or maybe even months, teams will be kicking themselves for letting Anderson slide so far. Continue reading

What the Tyson Chandler Trade Means for the Mavericks and Knicks

The Mavericks are hoping Tyson Chandler is the same player he was in 2011. In 2011, Chandler was the defensive anchor for the Mavs as they beat the Heat in the Finals. They caught many by surprise when they then let Tyson Chandler walk in free agency, signing with the Knicks. They had  struggled in the past few years to replace Chandler’s defensive presence. On the eve of the draft, the Mavericks made a splash, dealing Jose Calderon, Samuel Dalembert, Shane Larkin, the 34th pick, and the 51st pick all for Tyson Chandler and Raymond Felton. The move frees up some cap space for the Mavs in the 2015 summer, and makes sense since they’re trying to win now. For the Knicks, things are less clear. They have been vocal in their intent to make a splash 2015 free agency, so why commit to $7 million more with the Calderon deal that doesn’t expire until 2017-2018? The Knicks could easily end up trading him before then, but the deal is still confusing. After all, Chandler’s contract only has one more year. Phil Jackson is scheming, and maybe the deal boiled down to getting rid of Felton, as well as picking up a good young prospect in Shane Larkin. Chandler’s worth around the league has probably dwindled a bit in the past two or three years while he’s been in a Knicks uniform, but you would think the Knicks could still at least pick a 1st round pick for him.  Continue reading

Top 75 NBA Trade Value (Part 4)

Here’s Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 of the series.

Group H: “He’s Young, Puts Up Great Stats, And Isn’t A Winner. We Hate Ourselves For Listening To Your Deal”

24. DeMarcus Cousins
Cousins should be in the top 10. He has that much talent. How many 23 year old centers averaged 23 and 12, with a PER over 26? If only Cousins could be surrounded by well-respected vets. The Kings made the poor decision of building their entire team around Cousins. He’s good enough to build around, but at this stage in his career, he needs other All-Star caliber vets to show him the ropes. Despite Cousins’ attitude problems, he’s still one of the best players in the league. Cousins needs to be on a good team with good players. Liken him to Zach Randolph. Cousins is more talented and a little crazier than Randolph. Remember though: Randolph had his share of issues when he was on the JailBlazers. It wasn’t until he joined the Grizzlies that he really turned his career around. Cousins could do the same if in the right situation. Continue reading

Trade rumor: Derrick Favors for the #1 pick

When Joel Embiid went down with a navicular stress fracture in his foot, it looked like having the top overall pick had lost its luster. The Cavs were left with the decision to draft Jabari Parker, Andrew Wiggins, or trade the pick. But things just a bit more interesting with the news that the Jazz have offered a monster deal for the top pick. They are reportedly offering Derrick Favors, Alec Burks, and the fifth overall pick for Jarrett Jack and the first overall pick. The Jazz have struggled ever since they broke up their playoff team led by Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer. The Jazz got a war chest of assets for Deron Williams from the Nets, but have failed to capitalize on the picks they acquired. They turned the assets they received into Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter, two young and slightly-promising-but-not-amazing big men. For years now, they’ve been searching for a legitimate scoring wing. Gordon Hayward is a good player, but not transcendent. Apparently, the Jazz think there is a transcendent player in this draft though: Jabari Parker. Continue reading

NBA Draft: Who is NBA-ready?

The issue of “NBA-ready” is always sort of a backhanded compliment when it comes to the NBA draft. It is sort like saying a player has already peaked. Or that he doesn’t have as much potential as other prospects in the draft. Usually, it’s a way of saying the player is one of the less sexy prospects. You know what you’re getting. As if that’s a bad thing. The rosy-red delusions about how good a prospect could be in 3 yearsin 5 years, in 10 years guide many teams’ drafts. But the most NBA-ready prospect is rarely also one of the best players in the class. Sure, this year Jabari Parker fits that description. Usually though, the most NBA-ready prospects are found at the end of the first round, or beginning of the second. They slip because their game is too predictable. Too translatable. Sometimes, NBA-ready simply correlates with age. The more seasoned prospects are more ready because they stayed in college longer and developed more. Think Taj Gibson (26th), Arron Afflalo (27th), Jimmy Butler (30th), and Draymond Green (35th). Everyone knew those guys would make it in the league. They contributed whenever they got on the court. But for some reason, they slipped. They’d never be the all-too-coveted superstar that would lead a franchise to the promise land. Those are guys though, that every good team has. Continue reading