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Kansas’ Championship is March Madness Magic

With the Kansas Jayhawks, there’s a sense that inspiration belongs to other people. Let Duke and Kentucky hoard their constellations of future NBA superstars and a-block segments on First Take; let North Carolina have their aw-shucks feel-goodness and Gonzaga their factory farm of number one seeds. The Kansas City Jayhawks’ blood is certainly blue, but it also runs somewhat cold, defined by a ceaseless, nondescript excellence that produces strings of 30+ win seasons that nobody outside of Lawrence especially remembers. If Phog Allen Fieldhouse is considered the Cathedral of Basketball, its ecclesiastics are fairly tempered. On the Plains, general-interest hoops romance doesn’t abound, but titles do. 

By beating the North Carolina Tar Heels 72-69 in the national championship game, the Jayhawks played spoiler, denying UNC the satisfaction of a perfect ending. After trailing by 15 points at halftime, Kansas mounted the biggest comeback in the 83 championship games to date.

From the outset, Kansas made a concerted effort to limit UNC’s newly dynamic backcourt of Caleb Love and R.J. Davis. Whereas Duke’s drop coverage got sandblasted by a barrage of pull-up jumpers, Kansas opted to pressure the Tar Heels’ guards by hedging the pick and roll, bringing their big men out to the perimeter to corral Davis and Love before they could turn into open space. And, initially at least, it worked—Kansas jumped out to a 7-0 lead to start the game. Eventually, though, Kansas’s aggressiveness on the perimeter left them exposed on the backend and unable to secure defensive rebounds to close out possessions. Thanks to their dominance on the boards, the Tar Heels went on a rollicking 18-3 run to end the half and seize a commanding 40-25 halftime lead. Kansas was foundering; UNC was playing poised, physical basketball, buoyed by the physical charisma of self-belief. The action: it was live, Tracy.

Still, whatever good vibes that were emanating from the Heels were almost immediately squashed in the second half. Although Kansas coach Bill Self has been dogged by his recent track record of NCAA Tournament underachievements, he flexed his bona fides as a master tactician—give him a dry-erase clipboard and a fine-tipped Expo marker and he’ll give you the world. Struggling to score in the halfcourt against a set UNC defense, the Jayhawks launched a stunning full court assault—they hunted for turnovers by extending full-court pressure; they hurtled down the court after securing rebounds, with Christian Braun stealing six easy points simply by running so hard in transition that UNC’s star big men Armando Bacot and Brady Manek couldn’t get back in time to contest his shots at the rim. Within the first eight minutes of the second half, Kansas had entirely erased UNC’s 15 point lead, knotting the score at 50 apop; less than two minutes after that, a Jalen Wilson and-one put the Jayhawks up by six with 10:08 left.

Like fellow Big 12 team Baylor did two weeks earlier, the Jayhawks cruelly and repeatedly jabbed at UNC’s sole pressure point—an utter inability to handle pressure at the point. Love, who previously buried Duke with 28 points that will redound through Carolina history, fumbled through his worst game of the year, a 13 point, 5-24 disaster-class that was capped off by an air-balled, potential game-tying shot at the buzzer. Davis didn’t fare much better, scraping his way to 15 points on 5-17 shooting. 

At their best, the Tar Heels are so dangerous because of their balance; Davis, Love, Manek and Bacot are a symbiotic, versatile foursome that shapeshifts to fit the tenor and demands of the game. Namely, the shared bravura of Love and Davis had been a major galvanizing force that gave the offense a needed jolt of spontaneity and dynamism. But, hounded by Kansas’s inexhaustible supply of wing defenders, Love and Davis were robbed of the privilege of possibility. With Bacot hobbled by a gimpy ankle and sharpshooter Brady Manek unable to shake free on the perimeter, Love and Davis had no choice but to repeatedly indulge their worst impulses, hoisting shots that they only had the faintest chance of making. 

Conversely, Remy Martin, Kansas’s ace improviser, thrived. The preseason Big 12 player of the year, Martin struggled with injuries and inconsistency for the entire regular season. He presented a hugely important conditional—he’d be difference-maker if he could subsume his ego for the good of the team; he’s a superstar if he could rediscover the form that made him one of the Pac 12’s all-time-great scorers during his four years at Arizona State; Kansas could be a contender if Martin elevates them to that level. 

In the tournament, Martin finally rediscovered the magic that makes him such a special player. Over Kansas’s six tournament games, Martin led the team in scoring with 14.0 points per game despite playing just 23.8 minutes per game. Even though Ochai Agbaji was Kansas’s undisputed star and David McCormack iced the game with two hook shots over Manek, Martin was functionally Kansas’s closer against UNC, hitting three go-ahead threes in the game’s final ten minutes and scoring or assisting on five of Kansas’s last eight field goals. He may not have been the sole reason Kansas won, but it’s hard to imagine that they’d win without him.

It’s tempting to cite that as the difference—Martin found ways to succeed within his team’s structure while Love and Davis dismantled theirs—but that elides and oversimplifies the thrill of watching 10 college students try to navigate a ludicrously high-stress situation without their brains combusting on national television. Here was a display of such supreme weirdness that it turned a prosaic matchup of two upperclassmen-heavy teams with not much high-end, NBA-caliber talent into an indelible moment in college basketball history. The game was the kind of panicked, delirious contest that only exists in the NCAA Tournament, an exposed-nerve pressure test that defies pithy catchphrases or easy lessons: UNC shot 31.5 percent and almost won; the Jayhawks got outrebounded by 20 boards and nearly choked away the game with an utterly head-empty turnover; Carolina’s three best players all sprained their ankles; a guy named Puff scored 11 points off the bench and then yakked on the court. And somehow, in the end, the best team in the country won the championship. This is March. 

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Hailey Van Lith Isn’t Done

Off the court, Hailey Van Lith is the premier celebrity endorser in college sports. With over 700,000 Instagram followers, Van Lith is estimated to be the most valuable athlete in the NCAA’s new Name, Image, Likeness era; according to Opendorse, Van Lith’s social media clout is worth approximately $1 million. Since NIL restrictions were lifted last summer, she has inked deals with Icy Hot, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Billionaire Girls Club and Twitch. Her Instagrams and TikToks are standard influencer fare: dancing videos, paeans to the grind and sponsored content.

On the court, Van Lith is a fucking maniac. A prominent character in the extended Ball Is Life/SLAM/Overtime cinematic universe, Van Lith is all unrelenting swagger—or, as the titles of her high school mixtapes would say: she is DANGEROUSLY SAUCY, so you should watch your ANKLES, SHEESH [fire emoji]. During Louisville’s run to the Final Four, she became the first player in school history to score more than 20 points in four straight NCAA Tournament games. Although she’s often been compared to James Harden on account of her left-handedness, Van Lith plays with a more direct tempo, eschewing Harden’s winding solos for decisive bursts to the rim. 

Naturally, Van Lith is part of the wave of Kobe Bryant disciples who have recently taken over women’s basketball; Bryant befriended Van Lith when she was in high school precisely because she’s the best kind of competitive psycho. When asked what advice Bryant would give her now, Van Lith responded, on Disney-owned ESPN, “He would say ‘Go fucking win this shit, Hailey, we not done.’” 

Over the last four games, Van Lith has amped up her aggressiveness in the pursuit of winning this shit, unspooling defenses with drives and talking copious amounts of shit while doing so. Nobody is safe—not the University of Albany, not the Tennessee Lady Volunteers, and definitely not Jimmy Fallon.

“We’re kind of like the Bad News Bears. We upset everyone’s bracket, we piss people off that we’re good,” she said after her Sweet 16 win against Tennessee. “We don’t need the people picking the brackets. We don’t need Barack Obama’s bracket, we don’t need Jimmy Fallon. We don’t need none of that, OK?”

This is—and I mean this as a compliment—truly insane stuff, the product of a competitive psycho. Louisville is a one-seed! They’ve been ranked in the top ten the whole season and have been in the top five since Christmas; Van Lith is a former five-star recruit and a finalist for the Nancy Lieberman Award as one of the best point guards in college basketball. It’s hardly unusual for athletes to dip into their nobody believes in us rhetorical bag in the postseason, but that’s patently untrue here: everybody believes in them. Because, at this point, it’s becoming impossible not to believe in Van Lith. 

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The Arizona Wildcats Could Change College Basketball Forever

The surest way to grok the Arizona Wildcats’ dominance this year isn’t on an NBA Draft big board—although Arizona has at least two probable first round picks) Nor is it by scanning a KenPom or Bart Torvik statistical table—although Arizona has sparkling advanced metrics. Instead, you just have to watch them. Unbound from Sean Miller’s formally glum brand of basketball, Arizona has morphed into an uncharacteristically explosive team under first year coach Tommy Lloyd; the former Gonzaga consigliere has his team playing at the seventh-fastest tempo in the country as a key aspect of their offense, which also ranks seventh. Even if the whole enterprise feels somewhat precarious because of the team’s collective youthful insouciance, who cares? Disciplined, boring flex offenses are for teams who don’t have Kerr Kriisa or Bennedict Mathurin. During any Arizong game, the team’s confidence is so potent and electric that it practically crackles in the air. The boys: they’re buzzing. 

Offensively, Arizona plays with a sense of vectored momentum—they produce a ceaseless rimward surge. This season, Arizona combined to shoot 57.6 percent on two pointers, the fifth best mark of any team. Despite playing at a breakneck pace, Arizona isn’t an especially prolific three-point shooting team—Mathurin and Kriisa are the only two players to attempt more than 100 threes this season. Accordingly, Mathurin functions as their go-to scorer, since he’s the only Wildcat who can steadily create his own offense on the perimeter. While Mathurin, a top eight prospect in next year’s draft, will probably not reprise this role in the NBA, he’s devastatingly effective in college. Averaging nearly 18 points per game, Mathurin combines an elegance of movement with a jolting athleticism; he glides through traffic with long, handsome strides and then decapitates a big man with a dunk. Against TCU in the second round of the Tournament, Mathurin pieced together the best performance that anybody has had all year; his game-tying pull-up three-pointer could become the defining moment of the tournament if Arizona wins it all.  Ask his teammates and they’ll tell you he’s the best player in the country. They’re probably right.  

In the frontcourt, Arizona is the rare potent offense that opts to play two non-shooting big men together. Whereas Purdue (perhaps Arizona’s closest contemporary as a high-octane power-conference team) platoons their dominant bigs to get more shooters on the floor, the Wildcats let the 6’11 Azuolas Tubelis and 7’1 Christian Koloko share the court. The two big men’s subtle differences make them an ideal tag team to thrive in tight confines. Tubelis is a canny ball-handler who specializes in catching the ball in the negative spaces in the midrange that his guards create and then attacking the rim off a dribble or two; in essence, he’s Lloyd’s new version of Drew Timme. Conversely, Koloko is a massive, athletic center who declares dominion over the rim on both ends of the court—he led the Pac 12 in both dunks and blocks. Since Arizona lacks a true slashing threat outside of Mathurin, Tubelis and Koloko provide rim pressure for their guards by proxy; the mere suggestion of Tubelis or Koloko catching the ball on their way to the rim is enough to bend a defense out of shape. 

In a purely empirical, standings-based sense, there’s no real difference between winning a game 85-80 or doing so 54-49. After all, a win is a win, or whatever it is that coaches say. As such, college basketball has been plagued by a kind of anti-basketball worldview, one where coaches win by making games as mucky and brutish as possible. And it works! Texas Tech, Arkansas, Houston, Villanova, Providence and Iowa State have ridden this gunky wave to the Sweet 16. Arizona is the antidote, the rare bright spot of beauty amidst a world of artless, results-focused cynics. Simply by loosening up, Arizona transformed last year’s forgettable—and mostly forgotten—17-9 team last into a one-seed and Final Four contender, a 33-3 megalodan who made a power conference their own personal feeding tank. Just as Lloyd imported Gonzaga’s philosophy and fundamentally transformed the Wildcats, Arizona could serve as a blueprint for the rest of the sport. In this sense, Arizona is so special because they’ve become the best team in college basketball by actually playing the best basketball. 

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Three Takeaways from the Opening Rounds of the NCAA Tournament

Like a Thomas Pynchon novel or Phoenix, Arizona, the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament is defined by its sprawl. There are 48 basketball games packed into just four days. Even for the most dedicated college basketball sickos (see: me), that’s a lot of basketball! But after watching nearly every game over the last 96 hours, here are the three biggest takeaways from the weekend that was.

It’s a great time to be a mediocre team:

For the bulk of the season, Miami, Iowa State, Michigan, North Carolina and St. Peter’s weren’t especially good teams. At various times during the season, one could even venture to say that they were bad. Miami wasn’t considered a top-50 team by advanced metrics until the start of the tournament; Iowa State was 3-9 in the Big 12 on Valentine’s Day; Michigan didn’t fully enter inside the bubble’s membrane until Selection Sunday; North Carolina lost to Pitt; I didn’t even know that St. Peter’s existed before Thursday night. And yet, all four have earned spots in the Sweet 16 by beating ostensibly “better” teams.

Crucially, these are all teams with distinct identities and styles that allowed them to fell the particular behemoths in their path; each of these teams overcame talent deficits through cohesion and tenacity. Miami’s spread-out, guard-heavy attack was the perfect antidote to USC’s and Auburn’s interior strength. Iowa State had the fifth-ranked defense in the country and railroaded Wisconsin’s delicate offense as a result. Michigan and North Carolina both had All-American big men (Hunter Dickinson for the Wolverines and Brady Manek and Armando Bacot for the Tar Heels) who their higher-ranked opponents had no answer for. Although there was some bracket luck involved in each of these team’s respective runs (i.e. Miami probably wouldn’t have been able to beat Baylor and Iowa State wouldn’t have had much hope against Tennessee), this tournament has offered proof that the surest way to transform from an ok team to a near-great one is through self-knowledge and self-belief.

This year’s NBA Draft isn’t just a three-horse race

Chet Holmgren, Paolo Banchero, Jabari Smith Jr.: this is the presumptive top three in this year’s NBA Draft and deservedly so. They’re all excellent—save for a stinker from Smith against Miami, they’ve acquitted themselves well in the Tournament. Still, with each star-making performance from Purdue’s Jaden Ivey and Arizona’s Bennedict Mathurin, it introduces the possibility that this Draft’s Big Three may actually be a Big Five.

While it was expected that Ivey would overpower Yale’s assortment of future bankers and podiatrists, he also dispatched Texas’s 14th ranked defense with surprising ease. Through the first two rounds, Ivey has averaged 20 points, offering a pretty convincing Ja Morant impersonation in the process. Like Morant, Ivey has an awesome combination of flexibility and explosiveness. It’s not just that he moves more quickly and fluidly than anybody else; it’s that he moves in ways that nobody else even can. In any given game, there are a handful of moments where Ivey does something so outrageous that it looks like some CGI-ed late-2000s Reebok ad campaign—when Ivey rises for a chase-down block or spins past a defender, he’s the basketball equivalent of Chris Cooley catching a ball through plywood or Laurence Maroney jumping through car windows. 

If Ivey is the top guard prospect in this year’s class, Mathurin is the premier wing. Despite being the best player on potentially the best team, Mathurin has maintained a surprisingly low national profile. Even on his own team, Kerr Kriisa’s antic leadership or Christian Koloko’s game-changing defense have garnered more attention than Mathurin’s elegant scoring. In this sense, Mathurin’s season-saving 30 point masterclass against TCU served as his introduction to the world. With Arizona teetering on the brink of elimination, Mathurin scored or assisted on 11 of his team’s last 15 points, including a deep-range pull-up three to tie the game with 14 seconds left in regulation. If Arizona goes on to win the championship, this performance—the game-tying three, the posterizing dunk—will be forever codified in NCAA Tournament history. It was the most impressive performance of this entire college basketball season—and the most striking part was that none of it seemed too out of the ordinary for Mathurin.

Guards matter—a lot:

In the first round, big-man-centric teams like Iowa and Kentucky were dealt shocking upsets because poor performances from their guards gunked up the offense. With Iowa’s offensive supply chain thoroughly borked by a smart Richmond defense, Keegan Murray (the nation’s leading scorer) couldn’t reprise his Big Ten Tournament dominance. Similarly, Kentucky’s entire game plan against St. Peter’s seemed to be to chuck the ball at the backboard and hope that Oscar Tshiebwe snagged the rebound. As such, Tshiebwe’s 30 point, 16 rebound tour de force was sabotaged by an uncharacteristically sloppy showing from a backcourt that combined for eight turnovers and 24 points on 7-27 shooting. 

Meanwhile, the one commonality amongst the Sweet 16 teams is that nearly all of them have dynamic and dependable ball-handlers. Arizona, Arkansas, Kansas, Iowa State, Purdue and Villanova all have a superstar shot-creator; St. Peter’s, Duke, UCLA, Houston, Gonzaga, Providence and Miami have deep menus of backcourt weapons. Although the idea that a team needs good players to be good seems tautological and pointless, this Tournament has underscored the importance of not just having good players, but having the right kind of good players.

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Can UCLA Make the Final Four Again?

Last year, UCLA, the most decorated overdog in the history of college basketball, decided to try out what it’s like being the underdog for a change. It was the rare delightful piece of stunt-casting, a historical Goliath brought low to cameo as a David. This year, though, UCLA has decided that being a spunky upstart is lame and grew into a juggernaut instead. Bringing back their entire starting lineup from last year and then augmenting that core with a five-star freshman and an elite shot-blocker, UCLA is loaded with talent and experience. Even if the roster is bereft of top-flight NBA talent, this might be the college basketball team that’s best at playing college basketball.

Notably, UCLA is once again an excellent offensive team. Although head coach Mick Cronin made his bones at the University of Cincinnati as an exsanguinating defensive coach who won games by draining them of joy, he’s quietly refashioned himself into one of the cleverest offensive minds in the NCAA. While UCLA isn’t especially prolific from three (312th highest three-point rate) or at the rim (327th in terms of percentage of shots at the rim), the Bruins offense remains among the nation’s elite because they play flawless, sensible basketball; they may not optimize their offensive efficiency with an analytically airtight shot profile or quick-hitting transition attack, but their security with the ball (fifth lowest turnover rate) ensures a high baseline level of competency. Similarly, star guard Johnny Juzang is such a gifted shot-maker that the Bruins have more leeway operating within the traditional paradigms of efficiency; as evidenced by Juzang’s pyromaniac run through last year’s bracket, pretty much any shoot is a good one when he takes it. 

With an array of crafty mid-range sharpshooters at his disposal, Cronin has crafted an offense that leverages and accentuates the peculiar strengths of his roster. The Bruins play with a collective intelligence befitting of their all-upperclassman starting five. Whereas some—actually, most—college offenses are circumscribed by a lack of imagination or effective personnel, UCLA pulls from a diner-menu of counters to beat any defensive coverage. Against drop coverages, they spray pull-up jumpers or bust out the suddenly trendy spain pick-and-roll, which has begun to trickle down from the NBA. When defenses try to blitz the dribbler, Jaime Jaquez Jr. morphs into a deadly short roll playmaker. Working in concert with the movement of the ball-handlers, shooters subtly relocate along the perimeter to create clean passing lanes and make defensive rotations as stressful and laborious as possible.  Squint hard enough and the Bruins look like a collegiate version of the Phoenix Suns, pairing mid-range sharpshooting with larger schematic mastery.

If the Bruins are the new (San Fernando) Valley Boyz, Juzang, Jaquez and Jules Bernard share Devin Booker duty while point guard Tyger Campbell functions as their Chris Paul proxy. Last year, Campbell’s scattershot jumper rendered him a hardwood coxswain, a small guy who directed and organized his team without actually driving them forward himself. Now, though, he’s still that same exacting floor general, except he’s also knocking down more than 40 percent of his three-pointers and has more than doubled his production from beyond the arc; he’s made 47 three-pointers this year after only making 18 all of last season. Crucially, his newfound accuracy has made him equally dangerous both on and off the ball—he ranks in the 79th percentile as a pick-and-roll ball handler and in the 97th percentile as a spot-up shooter. 

Compared to their pedigree and preseason hype, the Bruins have had a decently disappointing season—it’s hardly been the cataclysmic death march towards an early vacation like their professional neighbors, but a fourth-seed is not commensurate with what the Bruins were expected to be. Still, the fact that the Bruins were able to claw their way to a fourth seed might be a testament to their resolve. Juzang hurt his hip after he fell off a scooter; Jaquez dealt with balky ankles all year; a Covid surge in December caused a 26-day pause in the middle of the season; they almost all died in a plane crash. Entering the NCAA tournament, the Bruins are finally whole. The Bruins might have the best four man core in college basketball and, for the first time, all of them are playing at their best.

In this sense, UCLA could be the truest Cinderella, the rare team whose surprising success seems to be destiny rather than chance. The Bruins aren’t just some raggedy wannabe who crashes a fancy party before fleeing in the night; they’ve come back for their crown.  

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The Best NCAA Teams That Didn’t Win The National Championship

Every year when March Madness comes around there is almost always a definitive favorite to win the big dance. This year Gonzaga is slated as the best future odds to win the national championship at +300 with Arizona closely behind at +550. If these favorites won the tournament outright every year then the degenerates of America would be very rich, but as we know that is not the case. Instead we get Cinderella stories with wild upsets and buzzer-beaters every round that inevitably busts our brackets. These are the best NCAA teams that didn’t end up winning the national championship.

2014-15 Kentucky Wildcats: 18-0 in conference, 38-1 overall
Notable Players: Karl-Anthony Towns, Devin Booker, Willie Cauley-Stein, Aaron Harrison, Andrew Harrison, Trey Lyles, Tyler Ulis

The hype surrounding the 2014-15 Kentucky Wildcats was ambitious to say the least. Some Media outlets would even put out polls during this season asking the general public if that year’s Kentucky team could beat former NBA dynasties. There is no realm of possibility where an NBA team could lose to an NCAA team, but this Kentucky roster was so stacked that some entertained the idea. Headlined by future NBA big-men Karl-Anthony Towns and Willie Cauley-Stein, the Wildcats finished the regular season undefeated and were clear title favorites. Kentucky’s championship dreams were shattered however in a final four game against Wisconsin and Frank “The Tank” Kaminsky.

2009-10 Kentucky – 14-2 in conference, 35-3 overall
Notable Players: John Wall, Demarcus Cousins, Eric Bledsoe, Patrick Patterson
(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Another John Calipari led class of one-and-done hoopers at Kentucky that couldn’t claim the national championship was the 2010 team. Headlined by future NBA All-Stars John Wall and Demarcus Cousins, this team was far from lacking talent. Add the likes of Eric Bledsoe and Patrick Patterson and you have a starting five that could double as an NBA team (albeit they wouldn’t be very good today). This team would meet its demise in the elite eight against West Virginia, truly not living up to expectations.

1998-99 Duke: 16-0 in conference, 37-2 Overall
Notable Players: Elton Brand, Corey Maggette, Shane Battier, William Avery, Trajan Langdon

The 1999 Duke Blue Devils roster was stacked with future NBA talent including future Rookie of the Year Elton Brand. Duke tore through the regular season going undefeated and was looking like a lock to win the national championship. Unfortunately for this Duke squad, they would meet their demise in the national championship game against UCONN and future Hall-Of-Fame shooting guard Ray Allen. That 1999 national championship game is one of the most memorable in tournament history as UCONN barely edged out Duke 77 to 74.

1990-91 UNLV Runnin’ Rebels: 18-0 in conference, 34-1 overall
Notable Players: Larry Johnson, Greg Anthony, Stacy Augmon

To call UNLV the favorites going into the 1991 NCAA tournament would’ve been an understatement. UNLV had three future lottery picks, one of them being future first overall pick Larry Johnson. The Runnin’ Rebels were coming off a national championship victory where they blew out Duke by 30 points, and on top of that UNLV was cruising on a 45 game win streak entering the final four. They would square off in a rematch against Duke and come up just two points shy of returning to the national championship.

1982-83 Houston Cougars: 16-0 in conference, 31-3 overall
Notable Players: Hakeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler

The 1983 University of Houston Cougars may not be as deep as the aforementioned teams on this list, but the two key contributors make up for that. Leading the Cougars were future NBA Hall-Of-Famers and NBA 75 anniversary team members Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler. Houston plowed through the regular season and dominated any opponent in its path. Flash forward to the national championship game and they are facing off against lowly NC State coached by some eccentric guy with slicked-backed hair named Jimmy Valvano. In the greatest Cinderella story of all time, NC State would win the national championship on a last-second go-ahead bucket, and the rest was history.

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The Miami Hurricanes are a Cinderella in Disguise

Whereas University of Miami football has traditionally been a phantasmagoria of sizzle and stardom, University of Miami basketball has decidedly not been that. Surprisingly, there isn’t much demand for a two-part 30 for 30 documentary about that one time Barry Larkin’s kid and a 25 year-old redshirt senior made the Sweet 16 in 2013. The Hurricanes have long resided in the ACC’s hoops lower middle-class, somewhere below the Clemsons and Virginia Techs of the conference but still squarely above Boston College and Pitt. Outwardly, this year’s ‘Canes team, which went 23-10 and finished fourth in the ACC, is an above-average outfit, if an unremarkable one. When you look deeper though, it becomes apparent that Miami has the potential to piece together the best NCAA Tournament run in the program’s history.

The 10th-seeded Hurricanes have a standard mid-major gestalt, but with high-major talent, relying more on their craftiness and braininess than their brute strength. Accordingly, their offense is spearheaded by guards Kameron McGusty, Isaiah Wong and Charlie Moore, who combine to form the deadliest backcourt trio in the tournament. It’s rare enough that a team has even one defense-warping playmaker on their roster; the Canes have three. In this sense, the Canes have the luxury of choice, the ability to prod and stress-test a defense with multiple weapons.

Beyond Miami’s backcourt, forwards Jordan Miller and Sam Waardenburg are both credible perimeter shooters, enabling the Hurricanes to maintain five-out spacing and coax opposing rim protectors out towards the perimeter. While the Hurricanes don’t have a true interior presence, their spacing allows them to score at the rim by committee. Since the Hurricanes almost always have five shooters dotting the three-point line, defenses have to vacate the paint, leaving them vulnerable to drives and cuts to the basket. As such, the Canes have the 20th best field goal percentage at the rim, despite being one of the smallest power conference teams; Miami defangs opposing rim protectors so thoroughly that the 5’11 Moore, 6’3 Wong and 6’5 McGusty are the engines of an offense that’s scored the 23rd most points in the pain in the entire country. The Canes may not have a Paolo Banchero-type presence down low, but they’re able to create a convincing simulacrum of one through their collective goodness.

Defensively, Miami isn’t good. In fact, some would even venture to call them bad; they simply don’t have the size to be much more than a mild inconvenience to opposing offenses. As a result, they’re 316th in opposing effective field goal percentage and 267th on the defensive glass. Still, their 141st-ranked defensive efficiency belies a very real and very important strength: they force turnovers like gangbusters. In conference play, Miami forced turnovers on 21.2 percent of their opponents’ possessions, which led the ACC. Paired with their own sure-handedness with the ball, the Hurricanes have one of the best turnover margins in the country, helping them claw back some of the possessions they lose by being a poor rebounding team. 

In the muddled Midwest Region, Miami’s obvious strengths give them distinct, match-up specific advantages. Both the 7th seeded USC and 2nd seeded Auburn (Miami’s presumptive second-round opponent) derive their goodness from their size and defensive dominance in the paint, the exact trait that Miami is built to neuter. Ideally, Cinderella teams would have some blend of backcourt fire power, sterling turnover margins and excellent coaching. The Hurricanes have all three in spades. If a latent contender walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s probably Sebastian the Ibis

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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

New Mexico State’s Teddy Allen Could Bust Your Bracket

For Teddy Allen, New Mexico State’s talismanic guard and the 2022 WAC Player of the Year, all roads lead to getting buckets. During his peripatetic, five-year, five-school tour through college basketball, the sole constant has been that he’s remained a lethal scorer. At West Virginia as a true freshman, Allen topped 20 points on three occasions, despite averaging under 12 minutes per game; at Western Nebraska Community College, he put up 31.4 points per game, leading the entire National Junior College Athletic Association in scoring; at Nebraska, he notched an All Big Ten honorable mention and his 16.5 points per game ranked sixth in the conference. And now, at New Mexico State, his 19.3 points per game and inertialess confidence give the 12th-seeded Aggies a gunner’s chance to bust brackets in the NCAA Tournament. 

Allen plays like he considers Kobe Doin’ Work to be a foundational text for modern cinema. While he doesn’t have electric, jolting explosiveness to the rim, he’s a superlative shot-maker. What’s more, Allen is not just an accurate and efficient shooter, he’s an ace shot-creator as well; of his 121 two-point field goals this season, only 20% of those were assisted by a teammate. Accordingly, it’s easy to imagine Allen riding a wave of ballsy, contested pull-up jumpers to mainstream stardom like Johnny Juzang, Max Abmas and Buddy Boeheim did last year. Since New Mexico State isn’t an especially good 3-point shooting team, Allen has become comfortable operating within tight spaces. At once slippery and sturdy, he pairs lithe ball-handling with a 222-pound frame allows him to weather contact without too much disruption. 

For Allen, the NCAA Tournament is interesting not just because it’s the biggest game that he’s ever played, but because it’ll represent the first game in four months where it feels like Allen truly belongs—his goodness is so refined that it was jarring to see it displayed in cramped WAC gyms with roll-away, auxiliary bleachers. Low mid-major basketball is certainly full of good players, but even those guys carry some sort of obvious deficiency; for the most part these players wouldn’t be plying their trade at Tarleton State or California Baptist if they were guaranteed, unmissable stars. This is traditionally the realm of feisty, free-spirited 5’10 point guards or girthy 6’8 post-scorers, not 6’6 shooting guards who could walk into any NBA regular season game and score double-digit points without too much consternation. 

Against UCONN, Allen will still probably be the best player on the court. In fact, if the Aggies have any hope of beating the Huskies, it’ll be because Allen is, undisputably, the best player on the court. He’s the rare defense-agnostic scorer, the kind of player whose performance is almost independent of the competition. Every shot Allen takes is already supremely difficult and born from his own immense self-belief, so there’s only so much added discomfort that even the best defenses can offer. Although UCONN has two All-Big East First Team players in RJ Cole and Adama Sanogo, Allen’s clarity of purpose—that is, score a ton of points in increasingly demoralizing ways—stands alone not just in this game, but in the whole tournament, at large. 

Categories
Sports Strength

Missouri Valley Conference Tournament Preview: Arch Madness

Whether it be the Superbowl in February, having all four major American professional sports on in October, or the non-stop action of wild-card weekend in January, certain months standout in the yearly betting cycle. There is no better time of year for degenerates than the euphoric highs and epic lows of March. Currently teams are battling it out in conference tournaments to earn the right for a trip to the madness later this month. Having more than 300 games slotted to take place in over 30 conferences can be overwhelming. Have no fear because here is our preview of the Missouri Valley Conference ‘Arch Madness’ tournament.

Missouri Valley Conference Arch Madness (March 3rd-March 6th)
Notable Teams:

Northern Iowa Panthers (18-10 overall, 14-4 in conference; +350 to win Arch Madness)

Despite posting the fourth best overall record in the MVC, the University of Northern Iowa has been dominant in conference play and, in turn, have secured the one seed in this year’s conference tournament. Recently, UNI has been red-hot, winning nine of their last ten games, including an overtime win against Loyola-Chicago. Boasting the second most efficient offense in the MVC, UNI has a very real chance of making their first NCAA tournament since 2016. Similarly, UNI has the best free-throw percentage in the MVC giving them a significant edge in tight games. At +350 odds there is a lot of value in Northern Iowa. 

Loyola Chicago Ramblers (22-9 overall, 13-5 in conference; +150 odds to win Arch Madness)

Backed by the pureness of Sister Jean, Loyola has quickly carved a place out in the hearts of ‘Cinderella story’ fans across the nation. Led by first year head coach Drew Valentine, the Ramblers have put together one of the most impressive regular seasons in the MVC despite being slated as the four seed. Loyola plays with the 8th slowest tempo in the MVC, but when Loyola is able to get into their sets on offense, they shoot a conference best effective field goal rate of 56 percent as well as putting in 37 percent of their threes. The Ramblers can get it done on both ends of the floor however, finishing with the second highest steal percentage in the MVC. There is no question why Loyola has the best odds to win Arch Madness despite being the four seed. 

Missouri State Bears (22-9 overall, 13-5 in conference; +400 odds to win Arch Madness) 

Slotted with the third best odds to win Arch Madness, there is a very real chance Missouri State can be the dark horse team to win the tournament. The Bears are fueled by an extremely efficient offense. Ranking first in the MVC in offensive efficiency and turnover percentage, Missouri State does not make a lot of mistakes. If Missouri State can keep a clean sheet, they could make some real noise in Arch Madness.

Notable Players:
AJ Green, Northern Iowa Panthers
(19.1 points, 3.5 rebounds, 2.2 assists per game)
(Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images)

The MVC Larry Bird Trophy was awarded to Junior AJ Green for the second time in his career. Green is automatic from the free-throw line knocking down over 90 percent of his attempts and has ample experience in Arch Madness. 

Isiaih Mosley, Missouri State Bears
(20.0 points, 6.2 rebounds, 2.2 assists per game)
(Photo by Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images),

The Larry Bird Trophy runner-up Isiaih Mosley is an elite scorer. Putting in the second most total points of any D1 hooper while posting a true shooting percentage of 62.1, Mosley can get a bucket on anybody.

Lucas Williamson, Loyola Chicago Ramblers
(14.1 points, 4.8 rebounds, 2.9 assists per game)
(Photo by Chris Kohley/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Rounding out the player of the year voting is senior guard Lucas Williamson. Williamson is a knock-down three point shooter hitting 40 percent of his threes while attempting nearly six per game.

Prediciton:

Sister Jean and Loyola Chicago takes home another Arch Madness title