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NCAA Tournament Preview: West Region

The Favorites:

Tucked away in Spokane, Washington, Gonzaga (1 seed) has somehow become the premier program in college hoops. Since 2013, the Bulldogs have won the most NCAA tournament games of any team and transcended the West Coast Conference to become a national superpower. Last year, Gonzaga put together one of the greatest teams in modern college basketball history; they went 36-1 with that lone loss coming against Baylor in the Championship game. This year’s team isn’t quite at that level, but it was still the most dominant team in the country during the regular season by any conceivable metric; KenPom has their adjusted efficiency margin pegged as 5.5 points per 100 possessions better than any other team in the country. Although this team is tremendously balanced (all five starters average more than 10 points per game), the Zags’ real strength lies in their frontcourt—freshman big man Chet Holmgren is an all-world rim protector who shoots 41.2% from 3 and is the consensus favorite to be the first pick in the 2022 NBA Draft, and yet he’s still second-banana on the team to All-American center Drew Timme. Still, Gonzaga has dropped games against teams that can match their size and athleticism, losing to Duke and Alabama in November and to St. Mary’s in their last game of the regular season

If Gonzaga is the best team in college basketball, Duke (2) is undoubtedly the most talented. Come June, it seems likely that Duke’s entire starting five will be selected in the first round of the NBA Draft, with Paolo Banchero and AJ Griffin both going within the first seven-ish picks. Blitzing their way through an overmatched ACC during Coach K’s farewell tour, the Blue Devils are a phenomenally powerful and physically dominant squad, albeit an inconsistent one as well. Depending on the night, Banchero either looks like Duke Jabari Parker or Boston Celtics Jabari Parker; AJ Griffin is a turbo-charged sharp-shooter, and yet he’s often invisible down the stretch of games; the jumpers and defensive intensity of Wendell Moore and Trevor Keels wax and wane. Ominously, Duke has lost two of their last four games by double digits, sullying Coach K’s last game at Cameron Indoor Stadium against archrival UNC and then getting sliced apart by Virginia Tech in the ACC Championship game. 

While Gonzaga and Duke deservedly hog the headlines, Texas Tech (3) is a no-nonsense juggernaut with the best defense in the country. In his first year as the Red Raiders’ head coach, former long-serving assistant Mark Adams has constructed a stingy, terrifying defense. “No-middle” has long been the prevailing defensive philosophy in Lubbock, but this year’s team transforms that into an immutable rule; the Red Raiders hermetically seal off the paint, allowing the fewest rim attempts per 100 possessions of any team in the NCAA Tournament. Offensively, Texas Tech is fairly pedestrian, but the individual gifts of transfers Bryson Williams, Davion Warren and Kevin Obaner help keep their attack aloft.

After starting slowly, Arkansas (4) has been among the 10 best teams since January 9th. No team in the country plays as fast nor as furious as the hogs, who surround their lone big man, Jaylin Williams, with four frenetic, aggressive guards and wings. Defensively, the Hogs have the third best defense in the country during their recent torrid stretch, ranking third in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency over that span. In particular, they’re elite pressuring the ball and force turnovers on more than 20% of their opponents’ possessions. Offensively, All-American senior guard JD Notae keys their attack and scores nearly 20 points per game. On the whole, the Hogs struggle to score in the halfcourt and are among the 50 worst three-point shooting teams in the country, but their shooting struggles are leavened by their ability to score in transition and get to the free throw line.

The Cinderella:

New Mexico State (12) has potentially the best wing in the region in Teddy Allen, their superstar shooting guard. As a unit, the Aggies are huge and physical, with not a single rotation player standing shorter than 6’4. They are the rare mid-major team that will not be at a stark athletic or size disadvantage against their power-conference opponent; the fifth-seeded UCONN Huskies are the best offensive rebounding team in the country, but the Aggies aren’t so far behind, ranking 33rd in that same metric. Really, though, the Aggies’ upset potential is the result of Allen’s greatness. If he plays well, they have a very real shot to win. It’s that simple. 

Prediction:

Arkansas (4) makes the Final Four, beating Texas Tech (3) in the Elite Eight.

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Sports Strength

ACC Tournament Preview

If the NCAA Tournament is March Madness, then consider this to be its pre-psychotic warm-up—in the run-up to Selection Sunday on March 13th, all 32 Division 1 conferences will stage their conference tournaments and reward the champion of their mini-fiefdom with a bid to the Big Dance. With tons of high-stakes games on tap over the course of six, this is the best and most disorienting part of the college hoops calendar. Luckily, we’re here to help. Here is our guide to the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament.

ACC Tournament
Notable Teams

Duke (26-5, 16-4; -135 to win): In terms of pure talent, Duke is unparalleled; their entire starting lineup will be picked in the first-round of this year’s NBA Draft. Even after hilariously losing Coach K’s final home game against UNC, Duke easily won the ACC regular season title and has the conference’s best offense and defense. They’re on an entirely different level than the rest of the conference.  

Wake Forest (23-8, 13-7; +1000 to win): After Duke, the rest of the ACC is pretty grisly, but the Demon Deacons are probably the best of the bunch. Presumptive conference player of the year Alondes Williams combines with Jake Laravia to form one of the most potent duo’s in the nation.  Despite being low pre-season expectations, Wake Forest should make their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2017.

UNC (23-8, 15-5; +700 to win): This may not be a vintage UNC team, but it’s still a UNC team. Although the Tar Heels have gotten their teeth kicked in nearly all of their high-profile matchups, Saturday’s win at Duke offers proof of concept that this team’s ceiling is the roof.

Miami (22-9, 14-6; +1100 to win) : Led by the best conference’s best backcourt, Miami scores 114.7 points per 100 possessions, the second highest mark in the ACC. Still, the Hurricanes have struggled with inconsistency and have a tendency to play to the level of their competition; their three Quad 1-A wins are balanced out by their three Quad 3 losses. 

Notable Players:

Alondes Williams, Wake Forest: After three seasons as a little-used reserve at the University of Oklahoma, Williams was just named the ACC Player of the Year.  Averaging 19.3 points, 6.6 rebounds and 5.2 assists per game, the 6’5 Williams is a  forceful athlete and shot-creator whoo also doubles as an elite passer.

Armando Bacot, University of North Carolina: According to Coach K, Bacot is the best player in the ACC. Bacot may not offer a ton of juice as a shooter or ball-handler, but he’s brilliant at everything else. He’s huge with soft hands around the basket and impeccable rebounding instincts. Watching him, his 16.6 points and 12.4 rebounds per game somehow seem like they don’t totally capture his dominance; it feels like he grabs every single offensive rebound and then promptly dunks it. He’s a monster.  

AJ Griffin, Duke: I don’t think he’s missed a jumper all season. Sneakily, he could be Duke’s best player.

Paolo Banchero, Duke: He was the top recruit in the country going into this season and he’s going to be a top three pick in the draft. You know who he is. 

Blake Wesley, Notre Dame: A slinky, stylish scorer, Wesley is one of the most under-appreciated and overlooked studs in college basketball.

Prediction:

Duke. Duh.

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Sports Strength

Why AJ Griffin Should Be a Top Five Pick in the 2022 NBA Draft

Last year’s NBA Draft presented the privilege of easy choices. Cade Cunningham, Evan Mobley, Jalen Green, Scottie Barnes, Jalen Suggs, Josh Giddey: all undeniable stars, to varying extents. Comparatively, the 2022 edition is considerably thornier, lacking last year’s crop disaster-proof options. Even the consensus best prospects—Paolo Banchero, Jabari Smith Jr., Chet Holmgren—seem like they’ll require some amount of imagination and environmental cosseting to reach their potential. Banchero is a muscular 6’9 fantasia of stutter-rips and pull-up jumpers, but sees the court in fuzzy standard definition; Holmgren is an anemic defensive genius who needs to be protected by a brawnier center; Smith offers an intriguing array of skills (namely, being tall and making every jumper), albeit one that necessitate some creative assembly. But amidst all this uncertainty, AJ Griffin offers a welcomed dash of clarity.

A five-star recruit entering this season, the 6’6 Griffin has been eased into Duke’s rotation after spraining his knee during the pre-season; his modest per-game averages (7.9 points, 3.0 rebounds, 1.0 assists) are the result of limited playing time. At first glance, Griffin is a fairly familiar archetype: an athletic, low-usage wing who subsists on a menu of dunks and spot-up shots. What separates Griffin from the Stanley Johnsons and Josh Jacksons of the world, though, is that Griffin can actually do stuff besides having arms the size of legs and legs the size of caissons. 

Namely, if he’s not the best shooter in this year’s draft, he’s at least the best shot-maker in it. His 7.9 points per game belie his true scoring talent—his 25.7 points per 100 possessions are third-most on the team. He dribbles with the shambling wiggle of a marionette, flowing from move to counter-move to counter-counter move until he can create enough space for a stepback jumper; he bumps defenders off their spot and fires shots over their late contests. Although Griffin has a more sluggish first step than most elite guard prospects, he compensates for it by being the Strongest Teenager Alive; upper-classmen careen off of the 18-year-old Griffin. Through his first 16 games at Duke, Griffin is shooting 78.3 percent at the rim, 44.4 percent from mid-range (on an entirely unassisted batch of shots, by the way) and 44.4 percent from three. Aside from his low usage rate, there’s a very real argument that he’s having the most efficient volume-scoring freshman wing in recent memory.  

Defensively, Griffin’s primary goal is to cause mayhem. Despite not being fast enough to bottle up ball-handlers on his own, Griffin is an omnivorous off-ball presence. More, he can credibly switch onto nearly any player for short stretches because he can swallow small guards with his seven-foot wingspan and stymie post players because he’s brolic beyond comprehension. In high school, Griffin padded out his highlight reels with detonating weak lay-ups and presumably he will continue to do so at Duke once he fully shakes off two years of accumulated rust (Griffin missed most of his junior season in high school because of a knee injury and then Covid and then opted out of his senior year). 

And yet, Griffin somehow still languishes towards the back-end of the lottery, according to most draft-niks. Mock drafts at Bleacher Report and The Athletic predict he’ll be the tenth pick; ESPN’s big board lists him as the 11th best player. This is madness. Even independent of the fact that AJ Griffin is a fun player who does fun things, he’s an expert shot-creator-cum-body builder who moonlights as a fearsome backline help-defender—and is also one of the youngest players in the draft. 

Moreover, Griffin’s NBA translation seems like it’ll be fairly painless. He’s the kind of powerful, two-way wing—think: RJ Barrett with a handle or Jimmy Butler with a Valium prescription—that every team pines for. Projecting the development of a bunch of teenagers you’ve never met is a fool’s errand, but AJ Griffin’s obvious and overwhelming goodness is a reminder that it doesn’t always have to be so hard. 

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Sports Strength

The Development of Bronny James Is A Massive Success

Even though his name generates a ton of attention, please make no mistake about Bronny James and his game. The Class of 2023, four-star prospect is as good as advertised and is having a good season for top-three-ranked national powerhouse Sierra Canyon. And while he’s on a team with so much talent, including 2022 five-star UCLA commit Amari Bailey, Bronny is having his moments of being the best and most impactful player on the court.

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Since the start of his high school career, Bronny’s development has been fueled by his growth spurt (now 6-foot-3), athleticism, and ability to impact the game on both ends of the floor. Even though he is unlikely to carry similar offensive responsibilities like his father, four-time NBA MVP LeBron James, Bronny thrives as a combo guard who is comfortable playing on and off the ball and can shoot lights out from the three-point line. That’s a good sign for his future as a high-level collegiate player and potential pro.

There have been plenty of times during games where LeBron’s eldest son is coming off of screens, exchanging spots on the perimeter, and running hard in transition, giving him additional opportunities to score. This was evident during Bronny’s 19 point performance against his father’s alma mater, St. Vincent-St. Mary, on national television earlier this month.

While Bronny is more of a role player on offense, he’s a budding star on defense. Since he entered the public spotlight three years ago, the four-star prospect has taken pride in being a relentless defender who forces turnovers and can guard up to three positions (both guards and small forward). With only a season and a half left in his high school career, Bronny is beginning to level up, which means everything else will, too, including his recruitment– Duke and Kentucky are among those who are the most interested in him. Luckily for Bronny, thriving under pressure runs in the family.

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Sports Strength

Chet Or Paolo? Comparing The Two Best 2022 NBA Draft Prospects

In any given year, there’s usually one prospect who towers over his peers in the NBA Draft. This year, though, the conversation about who should be the #1 pick is more muddled. As we navigate through this men’s college basketball season, Gonzaga’s Chet Holmgren and Duke’s Paolo Banchero are considered to be the headliners of next year’s NBA Draft. But is it possible for either of them to become the draft’s leading man?

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The pair of five-star prospects from the Class of 2021 represents what basketball is about these days: A game where positions are simply a label for which role you fulfill on paper but not on the court because of massive transformation of skills, play calls, and body types. Whether you prefer Banchero or Holmgren is one thing, but how do you feel about their collective impact and ability to transition between now and the NBA in possibly less than a year?

When looking at Banchero’s game at the next level, he will likely operate as a versatile combo forward with the ball-skills to be a go-to scorer on the perimeter and the size (6-foot-10 250 pounds) to operate inside. During Duke’s 84-81 win over Holmgren and Gonzaga a week ago, Banchero displayed his scoring prowess, putting up 20 points in the first half of that game.

But for everything to like— and honestly love—about the Duke product’s game, there’s an equal amount of things to enjoy about Holmgren, if not more. Even though Holmgren doesn’t have the same ceiling as Banchero as a scorer, he has a higher ceiling because of his potential as an ultra-competitive rim-protecting and playmaking center with the height (seven-foot) and wingspan (seven-foot-six) that NBA teams are drooling over right now. And by the way? Last year’s National High School Player of the Year can score, as proven by his 71% field goal percentage and 36% mark from downtown this season.

Even if both players have only had a handful of chances to showcase their talents to a national audience, both players have demonstrated their respective strengths and weaknesses. Banchero is not having a problem scoring at this level and being a leader, but he’s struggling with his conditioning and is limited defensively by his relatively short wingspan. On the other hand, with Holmgren, we have to see how he holds up against bigger opponents given his thin frame and whether or not he’s able to take over a game for Gonzaga when necessary.

With four-plus months remaining in this men’s college basketball season, there will be enough time to elevate, discuss, and support these tremendous young players.