College hoops fans, rejoice! Coming fresh off arguably one of the greatest sporting events of all time (Super Bowl LI,) college basketball enthusiasts got a little taste of what’s to come in about a month’s time. For those who are not true die-hard fans, maybe it wasn’t a big deal. Maybe you’ll stumble upon a retweet about it or see something on your Facebook feed and it will make you think ahead. Odds are it won’t help your bracket do any better, and you’ll probably still lose to your friend’s significant other who picks the cutest mascot or your co-worker, Matt, who gives it to his five year old son to fill out.
Does this Selection Committee preview really offer anything new? At this point last year, the top 16 teams were pretty clear. Yes, teams may rise from a 4-seed to a 2-seed, but for the most part those 16 teams are what people expected and what is expected to remain the same on Selection Sunday (March 12)–one of the single greatest days of the year.
Does the early release incentivize teams to play better to improve their seeding? I don’t believe so. I mean, that should be the incentive day in and day out, regardless what the committee says. It’s like Kentucky’s head coach John Calipari complaining last year about how he didn’t believe his team should be a 4-seed. If you have the best team, it shouldn’t matter what your seeding is, you should win if you’re the best. So no, I don’t think it offers a new drive for teams. It may give these teams an idea of where they are in the eyes of the committee, but when it comes down to it, the teams know they need to win regardless of where they are positioned.
Enough about the new system, it’s time to get into two of the most interesting growing storylines of some traditional powerhouses for this year’s tournament.
As previously mentioned, the top 16 teams released February 11th will, for the most part, remain the top 16, with some movement within the ranks. Of course, there will always be exceptions. One of those this year is Virginia. Prior to a non-conference road game at Villanova on January 29th, the Hoos boasted a 16-3 overall record, 6-2 in the gritty Atlantic Coast Conference. Ken Pomeroy had Virginia as his #2 team in the country, holding teams to a stifling 52.8 points per game. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, the wheels began to fall off. The Cavaliers dropped that game at Villanova, followed by three more on the road (Syracuse, Virginia Tech, and North Carolina,) as well as one at home to Duke over their next seven games. Over this three week stretch, Virginia went from formidable to floundering, falling to 18-8, 8-6 in the conference*.
What’s the issue? The Cavaliers are scoring 10 points per game more in their wins (70.8) than in their losses (60.8.) While their opponents are also scoring more in the games they lose (obviously,) Virginia is still able to hold their opponents to 68.9 points per game. Yet somehow, Virginia’s scoring in their wins is greater than their opponents scoring in Virginia’s losses, suggesting it is the Cavaliers offense that is losing them games rather than a lapse on defense. Their offensive efficiency ranks at 33rd best via KenPom, but due to their unbelievably slow offensive pace (the slowest in all Division I basketball) they are unable to get the ball into the hoop as often as other teams with comparable offensive efficiency.
Key for Virginia: The Hoos need to find the offensive rhythm from earlier in the season, knowing their defense will show up each night. Also, the same lack of offense was present during Duke’s skid just a month earlier, but since Duke’s ‘player only’ meeting, they have seemingly been able to right the ship. Maybe Virginia should consider the same thing?
*Note: this piece was written as Virginia tipped off with Miami. Their lack of offense in the first half did not have any effect on this piece. But 20 first half points, 48 at the end of overtime for a Division I powerhouse? They need to fix something and quickly. This loss drops them to 18-9, 8-7 in conference.
This now brings me to the very opposite end of the ‘hotness’ spectrum: Duke is red hot and people are getting nervous.
All it took were a few wins in a row for the Blue Devils to get their fire back. Freshman guard Jayson Tatum seems to be figuring out how to play team basketball at the college level, and in return has adapted his playing style to better fit the ‘Duke brand.’ Both his rebounds per game and assist-to-turnover ratio have seen significant increases from Duke’s seven game skid to their current seven game win streak (39% more rebounds per game and 58% increase in assist-to-turnover ratio.) By crashing the glass and being smarter with the ball, he has helped generate a new ‘big three’ in college basketball, joining the forces of Luke Kennard and Grayson Allen. Tatum without a doubt helps Duke when he is playing as a slasher and getting to the basket, which in turn opens up his shots beyond the 3-point arc, where he is shooting 38.9% on the season; he hurts the Blue Devils when he settles for contested mid-range jump shots like he was earlier in the season.
Each of Duke’s championship winning teams have been loaded with role players, not necessarily big name lottery picks. Sure, they won in 2015 with Tyus Jones, Justise Winslow, and Jahlil Okafor, all first round draft picks, but they also had a great role presence in Grayson Allen, Quinn Cook, Matt Jones and Amile Jefferson. In the tournament itself, it was these key role players that helped Duke win their fifth title. The key for Duke to continue their hot streak and make a deep run into the tournament will be the effectiveness of key role players. The Blue Devils are lucky enough to still have Allen (who has become one of Duke’s stars) but also Matt Jones and Amile Jefferson, whose leadership as captains are seen every game, even if they are not filling up the stat sheets like Allen, Tatum, and Kennard. Likewise, a key facet in this Duke team is freshman guard Frank Jackson. His minutes off the bench have been vital over the last few games; he has committed only two turnovers in his last 69 minutes on the court, and has not had one over the last 40 minutes. His ball security will be crucial for Duke if they want to take their sixth title, and second in the last three years.
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