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Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Stories by ShaneMcNichol:

8 teams most likely to land a No. 1 seed in March Madness

Bill Self

It’s hard to believe we’re nearing college basketball’s home stretch already. Conference play seemingly just started, but teams are already separating themselves in the standings and making their case for tournament bids and seeds. With the entirety of non-conference play in the rearview mirror, the Selection Committee already has a large portion of the information that will lead to the bracket that is revealed in mid-March.

Even though there are plenty of games left on the schedule and a pile things to be decided, for something as prestigious as a No. 1 seed, the crop of contenders has already whittled down to just a handful of teams. These eight teams have the best chances to secure a spot atop one of March Madness’ four regions.

8. Louisville

Despite similar talent levels and performance this season, Louisville edges Dayton for the last spot on this list. As good as the Flyers have been, they face the unfortunate reality of playing in a mid-major conference. To reach the top line from a non-power conference, the committee expects near perfection. No Atlantic-10 team has even been a 3-seed in March since Xavier did so all the way back in 2008. The ACC meanwhile has had nine top seeds since expanding to its current size in 2015, with at least one team from the conference earning a No. 1 each of those five years. Louisville has laid the groundwork, with wins over Akron, Michigan, and a crucial victory at Duke. If the Cards can hold serve the rest of the way in conference play, they’ll have a chance to earn a top seed during the ACC Tournament.

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Five teams that could become Cinderella stories in March Madness

The four days between Selection Sunday and the round of 64 games of the NCAA Tournament is one of the most fun periods for sports fans. Brackets are distributed, analyzed and agonized over. Everyone has a common goal: find the Cinderella team.

There are few joys as sweet as predicting an upset, especially when the team you stood up for makes a run past the first weekend.

Finding the teams capable of an upset is certainly easier once the field is set, yet there is some real value to checking in on possible Cinderellas earlier on in the schedule. Let’s take a look at teams with a chance to make waves in March, limiting our search to mid-major teams currently rated no higher than a 11 seed in ESPN’s most recent bracket projection.

5. Duquesne

Before this season, the Dukes would not have figured into a list like this one. The program has been in a nearly permanent downturn, winning more than 20 games in a season just twice in the last 40 years. It came as a surprise then when the Dukes started 10-0, with just three teams left unbeaten when they suffered their first loss on December 22. Duquesne’s early schedule helped. The Dukes played no true road games and didn’t face a KenPom top-100 team in their first 10 games.

Even after losing two games, Duquesne looks like a team to fear in the Atlantic 10. Wins over Davidson and Saint Louis has the Dukes tied atop the conference standings. Defense has been a strong point, as Duquesne leads the nation in block rate. Junior big man Michael Hughes swats 5.2 shots per 40 minutes, and Duquesne only allows a conference-low 60.0 points per game in A-10 play.

The case against Duquesne comes from their competition atop the conference standings. Dayton is a true top-10 team and Final Four contender, meaning Duquesne likely needs to beat the Flyers (or pick up crucial quality wins over Richmond or VCU) or win the A-10 Tournament to reach the Big Dance.

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Five big breakout players this college basketball season

Obi Toppin

The college football season has come to an end, bringing college basketball to the forefront. If you haven’t tuned in yet, you’ve missed an absolutely wild season to-date. Good teams have been upset left and right, leaving the media and fans totally lost when trying to figure out which teams could really advance to the Final Four in Atlanta.

On a more local level, we’ve seen enough games now to believe that some of the hot starts we’ve seen from players are not an aberration, but a real sign of growth. In a college basketball landscape that points tons of attention at the one-and-done freshmen, the development of upperclassmen can be forgotten.

These five players have improved so much this year, it would be impossible not to recognize their newfound success.

5. Daniel Oturu, Minnesota

The Big Ten is an absolute slaughterhouse this season, with every single team offering a tough test in conference play. KenPom is currently projecting 11 of the conferences 14 teams to finish between 11-9 and 9-11 in conference. The battles for conference tournament seeds and bubble superiority will be ruthless. That’s due in part to the emergence of players like Oturu. His elevation from a productive freshman who put up 11 points, 7 rebounds, and a block each game to a game-wrecking big man as a sophomore has changed Minnesota’s outlook.

Oturu is currently posting 20 points, 12 rebounds, and 3 blocks per game. His 29-point, 18-rebound effort on the road at Purdue proved that the Gophers won’t just be tough to beat at home at the Barn. They’ll mean business all over the conference, thanks in part to Oturu.

4. Luka Garza, Iowa

Elsewhere in the Big Ten, Iowa is also built around a dominant big man. Garza was a good player in previous seasons, averaging double-figure scoring in both of his seasons in Iowa City. This year, he has started the season on fire. Garza uses his size to overpower opposing big men and has a soft enough touch to finish all kinds of looks in the paint. He’s averaging 22.0 points and 10.8 rebounds per game and is drawing 7.2 fouls per 40 minutes in Big Ten play, the most in the conference.

3. Malachi Flynn, San Diego State

The nation’s most notable breakout team deserves a mention, with Flynn playing the role of breakout player for the undefeated Aztecs. He was a good player at Washington State before transferring, adding 15.8 points per game for the Cougars two years ago. After sitting out the requisite year for transferring, Flynn has returned as a better, more complete player. He’s more aggressive attacking the paint, while also refining his shot. Flynn increased his 3-point percentage from 34 percent as a sophomore to 42 percent this year despite the line being moved back in that time.

2. Jared Butler, Baylor

In a development that no one saw coming, Baylor has grown into one of the best teams in all of college basketball. Butler’s development as a sophomore is a huge reason for the Bears success. He’s increased from 10 points per game as a freshman to over 16 per contest this year, raising every one of his shooting percentages year-over-year. Butler’s development as an offensive playmaker has given the Bears a real go-to option — something they lacked last season as a middling NCAA Tournament team.

1. Obi Toppin, Dayton

No player has had a more eye-popping breakout season than Toppin. I’m not even sure how it would be possible to outdo his rise in his sophomore season. Last season, he was a contributor to a mediocre Dayton team that reached the NIT, pitching in 14 points per game, mostly coming off the bench. This season, Dayton is a bonafide top-10 team, and Toppin is a legitimate National Player of the Year candidate.

The 6-foot-9 power forward plays an inside-out game and has been dominant with the ball in the paint. He shoots the 12th-best 2-point percentage in the nation and the best in the Atlantic 10, at over 82 percent in conference play.

Shane McNichol covers college basketball and the NBA for Larry Brown Sports. He also blogs about basketball at Palestra Back and has contributed to Rush The Court, ESPN.com, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain.

Early favorites to win college basketball’s power conferences

Coach K

Everything in college basketball changes when conference play begins.

Those in power have done wonders to drum up interest in early-season action, with big name teams being featured in tournaments and showcases for the first few months of the season. But blowout wins over cupcake opponents and sloppy early-season play are littered throughout that part of the schedule.

Conference play brings rivalries, road games with student-sections, and a landslide of upsets. In short, it’s the reason we love college basketball. On top of that, succeeding in one of America’s toughest conferences is the best way to prove yourself before March Madness tips off.

With that in mind, here are the early favorites to win the six biggest conferences in college hoops.

ACC – Duke

The Blue Devils might be the boring and obvious pick, but at this point in the season, they are also the most qualified. Duke’s overtime home loss to Stephen F. Austin was a bad mishap, but it’s their only blemish so far. Aside from that slip-up, Duke has impressed with wins over Michigan State, Kansas, Georgetown and Miami.

The ACC’s other top contender, Louisville, lost at home to Florida State this weekend and only gets to play Duke once this season –- a road game at Cameron Indoor. Advantage to the Blue Devils.

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5 college basketball teams off to troubling starts

Roy Williams

The new year is upon us, giving teams that have come out of the gates slowly are starting to run out of time to make corrections. Conference play for nearly every league in college basketball begins in earnest in the next week or so, with true road games abound and very few sure things left on the schedule.

There are plenty of chances to identify problems and correct them before March, but for some teams, those chances will run out sooner than they might realize. Here are five teams in need of a course correction after a shaky start.

5. Florida

No team that began the year as a title contender has been as soundly disappointing as the Gators so far this season. Mike White and company have already dropped four games and have had more than their fair share of close calls against lesser competition. Florida will enter SEC play with just one win against top 50 KenPom competition and an 0-2 record against the top 25.

The Gators’ offense has been hindered by poor shot selection, a lack of motion, and bad shooting so far this season. Florida ranks 301st nationally in assist rate — a putrid sign for a team without a true go-to scorer. Their preseason dreams of a top seed are likely in the dumps, yet there is plenty of time to turn things around and look better by March. Best of all, Florida doesn’t see Kentucky until February 22. If the Gators, a team that starts two freshmen and a transfer, can start to figure things out before then, we’ll feel a lot better about their tournament outlook.

4. Wisconsin

Greg Gard returned six contributors from last year’s Badgers, a team that won 23 games and was a 5-seed in the NCAA Tournament. Expectations were reasonably high in Madison. Instead, it’s been a rocky road thus far for the Wisconsin program, its first season in four years without Ethan Happ reliably roaming the paint. Without Happ, the Badgers have struggled to adjust defensively. On the other end of the floor, Nate Reuvers has emerged as a leading scorer, yet the Wisconsin guards have started the season with cold shooting on questionable shot selection. It’s resulted in a 7-5 record with the absolute gauntlet of Big Ten play, likely the toughest slate of any league in college hoops, on the horizon.

The Badgers most recent game, a 20-point win over Tennessee in which Wisconsin made 11 threes, could be a sign of better days ahead.

3. Vermont

On November 19, Vermont was coming off a win at St. John’s and held a four-point lead deep into the second half against Virginia in Charlottesville. In that very moment, the sky looked like the limit for the Catamounts. Even when Virginia came back to win, the possibilities of a 30-win type season were very much in the works for Vermont. Since that loss, Vermont has hit several road bumps, losing to Rider, Cincinnati, Yale, and UNC-Greensboro. All four are good teams with tournament aspirations, yet for Vermont to reach the heights considered possible preseason, those are the types of teams against whom the Catamounts should collect wins.

Like so many teams at this stage of the season, cold shooting is to blame for so many of Vermont’s problems. More than 44 percent of the Catamounts field goals come from long range (41st most in the nation), but they’ve sunk just 29 percent of those attempts (300th best in the nation). That issue is exemplified by Vermont’s best player, Anthony Lamb, who sunk 7 of 14 from deep against Virginia but has made just 8 of 44 in his last 8 games (just 19 percent).

2. Providence

The Friars had aspirations of contending with the Big East’s elite tier this season, yet have failed to do so in non-conference play. Providence has played the 228th strongest schedule in the nation and struggled to a record of 7-6 so far. That makes the Friars the only Big East team with more than four losses. A three-game skid against Penn, Long Beach State, and Charleston marked a clear low point for Providence. Alpha Diallo, expected to be the Friars’ main playmaker, is shooting just 21 percent from long range and has coughed up 3.3 turnovers per game, eclipsing his nightly assist average of 3.0. If he can’t stay under control, the rest of the Providence offense, which relies on his production, will falter.

1. North Carolina

After a 5-0 start in which Cole Anthony looked like a First Team All-American, things looked great in Chapel Hill. Since then, the Tar Heels’ season has taken a turn for the worst. Anthony is injured and will miss a total of four to six weeks. That news came in the midst of a seven-game stretch in which Carolina lost five times, including twice at home.

With Anthony in the lineup, the Heels lacked a secondary scoring option and relied heavily on players who appear unready for the big stage. With Anthony sidelined, North Carolina has virtually no play-making ability and only finds points in transition or around the rim.

The ACC schedule is kind of North Carolina in light of Anthony’s timetable. The Heels’ tougher match-ups all come down the stretch of the season, with seven of their next eight conference games coming against teams ranked outside the KenPom top 50 (with the exception being 36th ranked NC State).

Shane McNichol covers college basketball and the NBA for Larry Brown Sports. He also blogs about basketball at Palestra Back and has contributed to Rush The Court, ESPN.com, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain.

5 early candidates to win National Player of the Year

Devon Dotson

This college basketball season has been as jumpy and rickety so far as your favorite, or maybe I should say least favorite, roller coaster.

Five different teams have been ranked No. 1. There are only four unbeaten teams left, but only one of those clubs (Auburn) has played a top 200 ranked schedule to date, per KenPom. Picking a team to win the national title right now is a fool’s errand, let alone trying to single out the teams capable of surviving two weekends in March to advance to the Final Four in Atlanta. It might make even less sense to get even more granular and search for Player of the Year candidates. Usually the short list of names for the sport’s handful of season ending awards comes from the top of the AP Poll, with the best teams housing the best players.

Right now, it’s flat-out unclear who the best teams are. If you took a poll for national Player of the Year this week, you’d see some consensus, but some ballots would include multiple players that other ballots completely excluded.

Still, someone is bound to not only win the award, but also to earn recognition over the next several months. Based on the early going, these five names lead the Player of the Year race.

5. Cole Anthony, North Carolina

If we were basing awards simply on which player has performed the best so far this season, it would be hard not to reward Anthony for his current season. Surrounded by one of Roy Williams worst teams in memory, Anthony has carried the load essentially on his own, contributing 19.1 points, 6.3 rebounds, 3.4 assists, and 1.9 steals per game. Everything the Tar Heels accomplish offensively, or even try to accomplish, runs through Cole Anthony’s hands.

His hands haven’t been the problem of late, with news that the freshman phenom will miss four to six weeks with an ankle injury. He’d have to be spectacular upon his return to earn buzz as National Player of the Year, yet he can’t really be counted out because he has the opportunity and talent to do so.

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Zion Williamson scouting report – NBA Draft Guide excerpt

Zion Williamson

Larry Brown Sports college basketball correspondent Shane McNichol covers the NBA Draft every June. This year, his rankings and full prospect profiles are available as part of his Palestra Back NBA Draft Guide. For $3, readers have access to 70 player breakdowns that include more than 25,000 words, making it a must for any draft nerd. Learn more at PalestraBack.com.

The post below is an excerpt from this guide, breaking down the presumptive No. 1 overall pick, Zion Williamson.

WHAT HE DOES WELL:

Defense

Everything you read or watch about Williamson will lead with his forceful play above the rim, his effectiveness in transition, or his ability to drive the basketball with direct aggressiveness. Each of those elements is part of Williamson’s game, with each of those factors adding to his position as a top-tier prospect.

In truth, what really separates Williamson from other high-level athletes is his ability to use his speed, springiness, and quickness on the defensive end of the floor. Despite standing 6-foot-8, Williamson was an effective rim protector patrolling the paint in his year at Duke. His ability to nearly scrape the ceiling, jumping off of one foot or both, makes Zion Williamson a feared shot blocker. He swatted 2.4 shots per 40 minutes, posting a block rate of 5.8 this season.

Although Williamson was among the heaviest players in all of college basketball at 285 pounds, his foot speed allowed him to close out on shooters and into passing lanes. No player taller or heavier than Williamson recorded a higher percentage of steals this season on a per-possession basis than the Duke freshman.

His rejection of a De’Andre Hunter 3-pointer at Virginia was the perfect encapsulation of Williamson’s defensive abilities.

Williamson reaches a closing speed that no one his size could even dream about reaching and a peak height that no one, no matter their size, could match.

There are maybe five NBA players who can even fathom trying to guard every single player in the NBA. LeBron James, Giannis Antetekuompo, Ben Simmons, and maybe Kevin Durant make up that entire list. From the second Williamson steps on the court, he joins that group. If he stays properly motivated and healthy, Williamson could be First Team All-Defense many, many times, beginning as a rookie.

Attacking the paint

Williamson’s ability to effectively spark his team offensively stems from his penchant to use his size and speed to slice into the painted area. Defenders are constantly forced out of position as Williamson uses his body to create space.

While he was at Duke, Williamson unleashed a siege on the paint, doing so by building a full head of steam, barreling from the perimeter, or establishing position on the block. Either way, once Williamson had the ball inside his optimal scoring range, he was unstoppable. As just a freshman, Williamson led the ACC in 2-point shooting percentage and field goal shooting. In conference play, he converted just under 77 percent inside the arc.

Williamson showed the ability to score in the paint with floaters, hooks, layups, and dunks. While Zion certainly could overpower college level opponents, and he did, his arsenal of ways to score proves that he’ll continue to be able to convert at the next level.

When Williamson doesn’t get the ball where he wants to, it’s often because he was fouled. In ACC play, Williamson drew 6.4 fouls per 40 minutes, the 2nd-highest rate in the conference. With defenders constantly out of place, many are left with no other option than to reach in or overextended their arms, sending Williamson to the free throw line.

Passing

This year’s Duke team was one of the worst shooting teams in all of college basketball. The Blue Devils shot in the bottom 8th percentile from outside the arc and the bottom 29th from the free throw stripe. Williamson was certainly part of that problem (more on that in a minute), yet he was surrounded by a crop of poor shooters for nearly all of his minutes on the floor this season. Duke’s offense struggled with spacing, without true shooters to stretch the defense to the 3-point arc.

Coach K also made the strategic choice to play Williamson at power forward this year rather than center. This left a big man in the paint, even further complicating Duke’s spacing issues.

For Williamson, this resulted in less room to operate when the ball was in his hands. Defenders were ready and able to double-team Williamson at a moment’s notice, or at least pay extra attention as he looked to operate in the paint.

As just a freshman, Williamson showed himself able to respond to those extra eyeballs, creating scoring chances for his teammates all year long. Williamson only averaged 2.1 assists per game, yet saw countless crisp, smart passes ruined by a subpar shooter missing the mark.

At the next level, Williamson may not be able to be a primary offensive creator early in his career, but has the court vision to develop into that kind of weapon with the ball in his hands. This season, playing as a power forward, he ranked in the 99th percentile as a ball-handler in pick-and-roll. For his size, that level of playmaking is mind-blowing.

WHERE HE STRUGGLES

Shooting

Though he doesn’t lack shooting in the same way a player like Ben Simmons does, Zion Williamson’s jump shot leaves a lot to be desired. In Simmons’ case, he has chosen to exist completely without a 3-point shot. Heaven only knows if he could manage to even shoot 25 percent from beyond the arc or if that would be enough to at least make defenders stay within a car-length of the Sixers point guard. Instead, Simmons focuses his energy on attacking downhill and scoring on the interior.

Williamson looks to use his clunky jump shot to open up driving lanes to the basket. This season, he made 33.8 percent of his 71 collegiate long-range attempts, below the national average. He showed more issues in his shooting stroke at the free throw line, where he sank just 64 percent of his tries.

At the end of the day, Williamson can probably be a good enough shooter to open up the rest of his offensive game at the next level. Giannis Antetokounmpo attracted at least some perimeter attention, despite shooting just 26 percent from outside the arc. Draymond Green has been an effective playmaker when he was at least a threat to make shots, at 32 percent for his career. Joel Embiid suckers big men into his pump fake time-after-time, though he barely cracks 30 percent shooting as a pro.

If Williamson’s shot can at least make defenders commit to a cautious close-out on the perimeter, he’ll have no trouble blowing by them to the rim.

HOW HIS GAME TRANSLATES TO THE NBA:

Williamson will be able to compete in today’s NBA from day one due to his athleticism and high motor. He will be able to defend at an elite level right away, even when his offense is a work in progress. It may take Williamson time to adjust offensively, facing stronger defenders and more complete defensive schemes. He should find opportunities to score in transition or as a roll-man before finding and developing a smart, nuanced offensive identity.

His career will have extra life in the modern game, with positions becoming less and less important. Whereas a player the size of Zion Williamson used to be thought of as a “tweener” with no true position, we now know the value of a player able to switch defensively and exploit mismatches offensively. Williamson’s likely most valuable role will be as a small-ball center, protecting the rim with his verticality and spreading the floor offensively with his foot speed.

Comparable to:
Springier Larry Johnson
Explosive Draymond Green
More Skilled Kenneth Farried

If you enjoyed this scouting breakdown, be sure to visit Palestra Back to purchase Shane McNichol’s full draft guide.

Shane McNichol covers college basketball and the NBA for Larry Brown Sports. He also blogs about basketball at Palestra Back and has contributed to Rush The Court, ESPN.com, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain.

Five biggest reasons Virginia won the college basketball national championship

Tony Bennett

College basketball is ripe for dramatic storylines. A single-elimination tournament filled with all kinds of schools from all over the country leads to some wild endings and inspiring narratives. But there may never be a story that matches the Virginia team that became national champions on Monday night.

Just one year after a disastrous upset loss in the first round of the tournament, Virginia returned to redeem itself.

The Cavaliers did more than that, earning the national title and cutting down the nets in Minneapolis. Here are five things that led to that moment for Tony Bennett and his team.

1. A resilient attitude in search of redemption

One year after Virginia became the first No. 1 seed to lose in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, the Cavaliers responded as well as they possibly could. The Hoos lost just three games all season long, won the ACC regular season, and won the national championship on Monday night.

After the letdown of last season, the mental marathon the returning Virginia players and coaches went through was daunting. The Cavaliers were a punching bag and laugh line all season, constantly reminded of a single game failure last year. People questioned Tony Bennett’s coaching ability and the individual talents of every key Virginia player.

In order for this team to overcome those questions, they had to exhibit an incredible amount of resiliency. In just their last three games, the Hoos had to hit a shot in the final seconds to survive Purdue, needed last second miracle moments from Kyle Guy to sneak past Auburn, and hit a late dagger to send the game to overtime on Monday, where they ultimately prevailed.

This team faced so many hurdles and answered every one of them.

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