Tuesday, February 23

Gearing Up For The NCAA Tournament

Selection Sunday is a mere 19 days away and while we do not yet know the match-ups, it is never too early to start speculating on what the madness will bring. Today we look toward the top. For a variety of factors the teams at the top of the rankings are not inspiring anyone with great confidence right now. While these teams are talented and have impressive records, it is hard to say there are any clearly dominant teams. Last year there were the heavyweights of North Carolina, Pittsburgh, Louisville, and Connecticut as the 1 seeds. Not to mention Memphis, Oklahoma and Michigan State as 2 seeds. This year there are a few teams at the top and everyone else in a indecipherable mix of slightly better than average squads. Looking at the heavy favorites going into the tourney this year I think that most, if not all of them are missing that ability to put away opponents and finish strong.

I use the term killshot for lack of a better one. We have seen it with great teams in the past, to beat a team down and keep them down. It also means making a late charge when the team is in a close battle. Can any of these top teams have that "step on the throat" mentality come tourney time? I think there are only two of these teams capable of this and only one that has the ability to display it throughout the tournament.

When we discuss some of the recent great teams that used this ability during the tournament we can look no further than last year. North Carolina was the most complete team the whole season. Their talent and experience were unmatched. Many were even hinting at an undefeated season early on. While that dream floated away and Ty Lawson became gimpy, the Heels were still the unquestioned favorite in the tournament. Their average margin of victory was just over 20 ppg in the tournament. While the 43 point win in the first round helps that average, Carolina whipped a very game Gonzaga in the sweet 16 and was never in danger in Detroit during the Final Four. Their only test was in the 2nd round against LSU. The Tigers had the lead in the 2nd half, but then Carolina turned on the afterburners and won by 14.

The factors that lead to this ability goes beyond simply having talent. That of course is important but talent alone does not get you through the 6 game gauntlet. You have to have a coach who knows how to manipulate the line-up and put the foot to the floor. Game theory is important but coaching in the tournament is a different animal than a conference game in January. Secondly, teams are going to make mistakes but how well does a team limit them? That usually starts at the point and it is no secret solid guard play is a must-have for tourney teams. It also means making your free-throws and not turning it over. Shooting the ball well goes without saying but every team is going to struggle at some point in the tournament if not for an entire game at least part of one. It is how the team responds in that situation that will prove if they have the killer instinct. With these factors in mind let's look at the teams that will right now are projected favorites going in.

West Virginia (21-6, 10-5)

Right now they sit at 4th in the Big East due to their loss last night to UConn. The Mountaineers have plenty of experience and talent in Butler and Ebanks, but as we say last night if they go cold is there enough behind them? Their early season schedule was a joke but they have come on in conference play and beat Ohio State a month ago. They did get thumped at Purdue though.

The concerning factors about WVA is there lack of free-throw shooting (68.7%) and that their opponents shoot roughly the same percentage that they do. They do limit their turnovers to just under 12 per game, and Butler can carry them a very long way. Huggy Bear is one of the best at the game getting talent and maximizing it but has yet to get a team over the hump to the Final Four. It is not absurd for anyone to pencil in the Mountaineers for Indianapolis, they are not a killshot team.

Villanova (22-4, 11-3)

The Wildcat bandwagon is riding a little higher off the ground at the moment. After losing two straight many are being quick to dismiss Nova but that would be foolish. The Wildcats returned a lot from their Final Four squad a year ago headlined by Scottie Reynolds. Jay Wright has established himself as one of the premier coaches in a stacked Big East. They have been blowing out the bads (Penn, Fordham, Delware, Depaul) but even their good wins have been battles. Of course, if they can walk into the packed Carrier Dome this weekend and beat Syracuse in front of a record crowd it will change opinions quickly.

The biggest problem I see with Villanova is that they are a guard-dominated team that have been struggling from the outside. Pena is 6'8 and their biggest low post player. While they shoot 46.6% from the field they only shoot 37.6% from 3 which is 47th in the NCAA. They will come into the tournament having the record and resume of a juggernaut but can they overcome their long-range woes repeatedly or will it keep their tourney opponents in the game?

Duke (23-4, 11-2)

Want to discuss this year's Blue Devils with Catfish? DON'T. This season has not been enjoyable for Tar Heel fans but on the bright side while Duke is atop the ACC, they will be far from a dominating presence in the tournament. It does not mean coach K is fielding a weak team though. I think this year's version of Duke is much improved, if not more pale. Scheyer, Singer, and Smith have been carrying the load this year. The minutes they take each game is mostly viewed as a negative that could have them worn down by the first weekend of the tournament. When you look at their schedule, though, Duke has a shown an ability to run away from opponents. However, this has usually happened in the confines of Cameron.

It should not come as a shocker that Duke so far has shot 122 more free throws than their opponents. They also shot theirs fairly well at 76%. Duke also forces over 15 turnovers a game and shoots 39.2% from deep. They have all the makings of a team that can finish any opponent off. The problem? It is really the same problem Duke has faced in its years following their 2001 title. They grind minutes out of their big stars as mentioned above. Even when games are decided the big 3 stay out there. Singler has already tweaked his wrist this year and is there any guarantee Zoubek can stay on the floor for a long time? Also Duke rarely has an answer if they go cold from the outside. The biggest block in recent years and this year are athletic ball handlers. Duke's agressive defensive style often is trumped by ball quickness and athleticism. Georgia Tech and Georgetown handed Duke defeats away from home using this tactic. With no tournament games in MSG or New Jersey, Duke is going to have to prove itself on a neutral floor. Many are saying it is all about their draw, not exactly the benchmark of a dominating team.

Kansas State (22-4, 9-3)

It goes without saying that K-State is not going to be viewed as a dominant team. Detractors seem to point to their pre-conference schedule which only featured Xavier and Dayton as possible tourney teams. Yet their SOS is ranked 8th. They dropped games in-conference to Missouri, Oklahoma State, and Kansas in an OT crushing loss in the Octagon of Doom. Frank Martin has shaken off the stigma of fill-in coach from when Huggins left and put together a strong squad. There is no doubt the man can recruit, but now his team's success is becoming more of the story than him...or his suits. Not surprisingly Martin wants his boys to play up-tempo and it is very hard to blow through good teams playing that way unless they are very disciplined and experienced. They sit at 8th in scoring average, but they also commit 15.2 turnovers per game and shoot a paltry 65.8% from the FT line. Guards Jacob Pullen and Denis Clemente combine for almost 35 ppg.

K-State sits in 2 seed territory right now and has supplanted Texas as the 2nd best team in the Big 12 but this team is not battle tested in March and it is going to be a hit or miss affair for them that will not bring back memories of the great Arkansas teams of '94,'95.

Purdue (23-3,11-3)

Is this the year Purdue stops being Purdon't?(/shows self out, /realizes no one else is here to write post and lets self back in) Seriously though, how many times has Purdue come close to the Final Four in the modern era only to fall short. Their last Final Four was in 1980 and since then it has been a lot of seasons cut short. Matt Painter has taken the torch and carried it well for Gene Keady. Ward "Piggy" Lambert would be proud. Purdue boasts a 3-headed monster of Moore, Hummel, and Johnson. They have the experience but after these three the production slopes off.

The Boilermakers won their first 14 games which included a 14 point win over West Virginia. They then lost 3 in a row to Wisconsin, Ohio State, and Northwestern. Since then they have bounced back and won their last 9. They have done it with defense, holding all opponents but one under 66 points in the last month. Purdue is holding opposing shooters to 40% from the field and forcing nearly 16 turnovers per contest. Concern comes in for their 3-point shooting which is only 32.4%. Another worrisome stat is the fact that they have been outrebounded for the season. Hummel has shown he is a streaky shooter from deep, and I don't think Purdue runs away from anyone in the brackets. Plus, the pressure to break a reputation for failing to get to the Final Four almost always results in a team struggling with, not killshotting their opponents.

Syracuse (25-2,12-2)

People thought Syracuse was good last year and they were, but this year's team has thrived with the addition of Wesley Johnson following the subtraction of Flynn, Harris and Devendorf. Andy Rautins is the real catalyst behind the team. His shooting has always been there but his defense and passing ability this year has filled the void left by Flynn. Rautins is not the athletic driver Flynn was but makes up for it with this shooting. The Cuse have an inside presence as well as the outside threat with Onuaku and Jackson. Yet Johnson leads the team in rebounds which is always a challenge in the 2-3 zone.

What is holding Syracuse back from that killshot characteristic is their inability to consistently finish off opponents. Jim Boeheim said recently his team was not playing extraordinarily well and many scoffed since they only had one loss going into last weekend, but they were not putting the other team away. A lot of their games look closer than indicated. UConn and Georgetown both mounted big comebacks on them and to their credit the Orange won, but doing that in the tournament can lead to getting upset. They turn it over 15.6 times a game and shoot 67.1% from the stripe. However, they are 38.2 percent from deep and Johnson has a sweet stroke from beyond the arc. Johnson has one of those shots that always looks like it has a chance to go in. Syracuse will be favored in each of its regional games, but if they let teams hang around, foul trouble and their poor free-throw shooting could come end it for them. They normally start playing their best at the end of the season so the game upcoming versus Nova and the Big East tourney should be good indicators of them taking the next step.

Kentucky (26-1, 11-1)

Kentucky has all the makings of a team that could run through the brackets like a hot knife through butter. They are not as talented as the '96 squad(but who is) but they have the ability to put the most athletic and talented line-up on the floor. John Wall is tremendous, if unpolished and Demarcus Cousins is an absolute beast on the boards. Lost in this shuffle is Patrick Patterson, who could have been drafted last year.

As expected with new freshman talent and a new head coach, Kentucky's play has been a bit erratic at times. Wall and Cousins have shown the propensity to get rattled during games. Calipari claims he allows the give and take with him, but Cousins has been giving to other players and officials. Teams are going to try to exploit this in the tourney. The freshman are also going to have to adjust to playing much more games and Calipari's old friend, free-throw shooting(sensing a trend? a lot of these teams are not even close to 70%) has returned again. His Memphis team and star freshman Derrick Rose missed critical free-throws a few years ago in the tournament which costs them a title. John Wall has been struggling from the line late in games this year. The Wildcats have had to hold on lately in the SEC but they have time to get their team back and clicking. There are just too many variables for me to take UK as a team that will crush opponents once they get past the second round.

Kansas (27-1, 13-0)

Kansas is the most complete team in the country to me. They have great guard play with Sheron Collins. They have athletic scorers in Henry and Morris. They have a dominant big man in Aldrich(averaging a double-double). They have solid role-players in Taylor, the other Morris, and Morningstar. They shoot just under 70% from the line and 40% from 3. They are shooting 48.8%(!) from the field while their opponents shoot 36.9%. Their average scoring margin is 19 points. Bill Self is no longer an "almost" coach. When his Jayhawk team almost choked away a regional final against Davidson two years ago, you could see Self was coaching tight. Once the final buzzer sounded Self collapsed to the floor, all the weight taken off. Since then he has been coaching like he is playing with house money and he is. This led him to winning coach of the year last year and a Sweet 16 appearance that went down to the wire with Michigan State. Self is going into this tournament with the experience under his belt and without the pressure of getting over the hump.

Kansas has blown the doors off most of their opponents and also won the few tight games they have had. Their one slip-up was at Tennessee and if not for that everyone would be asking if the Jayhawks could make a run at going undefeated. They may be happier not having that pressure on them. Right now I would have to say that Kansas is the team to beat because they have shown throughout the year that they have ability get up on quality opponents and keep them down. The Jayhawks may be the only team this year that has that killshot ability.

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