Pro, College Basketball in My Sights Today

Hibbert
Hibbert
Roy Hibbert's face says it all. The Pacers are struggling right now.

Basketball as we know can be a funny game. It can go in favor of one team for the longest of times and then with just one shot the fortunes can turn on a dime. It isn’t that way for just a game though because over the course of a long season fortunes can change drastically as well. Just ask the Indiana Pacers.

It wasn’t long ago that the Pacers were ahead of the Miami Heat by two or three games and now they are looking up at the Heat in Eastern Conference standings. Losers of seven of their last ten and two straight, the Pacers are facing the prospect of once again having to go to Miami in a potential game seven should the two teams meet.

The bigger problem right now is that who knows if Indiana will even make it to a potential conference finals’ match-up with Miami? Big man Roy Hibbert was benched during yesterday’s game and he’s been one of the more outspoken players during this recent slump.

Defense has never been an issue for the Pacers but now they are suddenly showing some serious dents in that part of their armor. Combine that with a severely slumping offense and you’ve got yourself a pretty bad stretch.

Right now, I have doubts that the Pacers’ team as it exists right now will be able to get past Chicago or Brooklyn let alone Miami. To say Head Coach Frank Vogel has his work cut out for him would be an understatement right now.

Auriemma
I expect to see Geno Auriemma doing this again tomorrow night.

Battle of the Unbeatens in Women’s’ Basketball

The game that anyone associated with women’s’ college basketball anticipated is finally here. 39-0 UConn takes on 37-0 Notre Dame for the national championship tomorrow night.

In an era when many people hate all of the conference realignments, this is a situation where we can thank the realignment people. It wasn’t long ago at all when both of these teams were members of the Big East and would have played each other during the regular season and probably in the conference tournament as well.

Now, UConn is in the American Athletic Conference while the Irish are in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Both teams obviously went through their respective conference schedules without a blemish and did the same in the NCAA Tournament so here we are.

Notre Dame scores about four more points per game than does UConn but the real story is on defense. UConn is the top-ranked team in women’s’ basketball. They give up just 47 points per game while the Irish surrender just shy of 61 points per game.

We can perhaps point to level of competition in that stat because Notre Dame does play a little bit tougher conference schedule but that is a huge discrepancy. I think you’ll see a close game early but I expect the Lady Huskies to pull away late and win yet another title.

The Men’s game takes center stage tonight

If you saw my piece yesterday then you know I like the UConn men to get the points and win the national title. My thinking hasn’t changed much over the last 24 hours. Kevin Ollie may have only coached in five NCAA Tournament games but he has total control of this Huskies’ team. They took punches against Michigan State and Florida and yet survived by nailing their free throws and forcing the offenses to do things they just didn’t want to do.

Kentucky is loaded with NBA talent and if they won I wouldn’t be surprised one bit but this UConn team just seems to have all of the right cards to play and Ollie seems to know when exactly to play them.

Low Seeds, Big Names Meet in the Championship Game

Harrison Twins
Harrison Twins
The Harrison twins will need to both play well for Kentucky to win the title.

The NCAA Tournament is down to its’ final two participants and while they may be relatively low seeds, they are well-known to the college basketball world. In the first semi-final game last night, the UConn Huskies defeated the tournament’s top overall seed Florida 63-53. In the second game, Kentucky once again got a last second shot from Aaron Harrison to defeat Wisconsin 74-73.

What we have now is the largest combined total in terms of seeds for title game in the history of the NCAA Tournament. UConn is the first-ever seven seed to make the title game while the youthful Kentucky Wildcats are an eighth seed. I called Kentucky’s win over Wisconsin but missed on Florida who disappointed me but a lot of that had to do with the Huskies. Let’s see what I can come up with for Monday night.

Daniels
Daniels will need another monster game in order for the Huskies to win the title.

Kentucky (-2.5) vs. UConn – They often say that freshmen are no longer freshmen by the end of a long season but let’s be real here, the Kentucky freshmen weren’t exactly ‘typical freshmen’ when they arrived in Lexington in the first place. They have certainly grown up in a short amount of time under John Calipari but now they will be tested against an experienced group of Huskies from UConn.

How the Wildcats Win…. It really is a simple formula for Big Blue heading into the title game tomorrow night; they must win the battle of the boards and they must defend the tandem of Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright. Sounds easy right? Not so fast my friends…

Despite hitting the game-winner, Aaron Harrison didn’t play very well and neither did his brother Andrew. They weren’t bad by any stretch but they both admitted they need to play better. Calipari was constantly screaming at them to drive to the basket last night rather than take jumpers and not surprisingly Calipari was correct.

While that worked against the Badgers, Kentucky will have to be able to knock down those jump shots because UConn is a much different animal in the paint than was Wisconsin. While the Harrison twins must up their game I still believe UK’s fate will ride on the shoulders of Julius Randle. If the Wildcats can mix some outside shooting with Randle’s inside presence then I like their chances.

How the Huskies win… Well, well, well… Let’s see. How about just give the ball to Shabazz Napier and let him take over? Easier said than done to be sure but there is some truth to it. Napier will not necessarily need to score the basketball looking for 25 points or so, but he will need to be a catalyst. Both Ryan Boatright and DeAndre Daniels could be beneficiaries of Napier’s play-making.

Daniels became the first player to have at least 20 points and 10 rebounds in a semifinal since Carmelo Anthony in 2003. That’s pretty good company to be associated with and Daniels will need to have a similar game for UConn to win.  The size that the Huskies pose in the paint also includes Amida Brimah who can block shots and pass the ball very well for a big man.

If UConn can keep Kentucky out of the paint and force them to shoot outside jumpers then I believe the Huskies will once again be the champs.

The Verdict… The coaching match-up heavily favors Calipari over Kevin Ollie who is in his first NCAA tournament as a head coach. That said, let’s not forget that Ollie’s ear will be getting a mouthful from former UConn coach Jim Calhoun. Either way, the edge is to Calipari. That said, I think the inside-outside game of UConn will be just enough. Take the Huskies getting the 2.5 points.

 

Breaking Down the Final Four Match-Ups

Napier
Napier
Can Shabazz Napier keep the Huskies' run alive against the Gators?

The Final Four is finally here and I fully expect to see good games that will feature all kinds of swings and back and forth action. Who do I like to advance to Monday night? Read on people!

UConn (+6) vs. Florida – The last time these two teams met UConn defeated the Gators 65-64 in a game that could not have been any tighter than the final score indicates. The Huskies led by one at the half and then the two teams scored the exact same amount of points in the second half of that game. As close as the game was, it was also the very last time the Gators lost a game this season.

Florida comes in with one of the top defenses in the land but we have to give the Huskies credit for their defense as well. What concerns me for the Gators is the size that UConn can bring both in the starting line-up and from off the bench. The Huskies will have a significant height advantage over Florida’s big guys who are around 6’9″ and typically muscle their way to the hoop.

Huskies’ phenomenal guard Shabazz Napier had a 26 point game in that match-up and that’s about what he is averaging so far in the tournament. The challenge for Billy Donovan and company is to not necessarily keep Napier from scoring. They have to make him work for every shot and every point and they also must make him defend at the other end as well.

While Kevin Ollie has done a tremendous job coaching the Huskies, I have to give the coaching edge to Billy Donovan. Guard Scottie Wilbekin is an extension of Donovan on the court and I believe that’s the difference. I love the Huskies getting the six points so take them but I like Florida to advance in a close game.

Randle
Can the Badgers handle the athleticism of Randle and the Wildcats?

Kentucky (-2) vs. Wisconsin – Last week while I was watching the Kentucky-Michigan game, I felt either team could have easily won the game and no one could have complained. The one thing I kept coming back to in that game though as it wore on was the overall athleticism of the Wildcats.

Yes, they are a group of freshmen who are doing something we’ve really only seen once before and that was ironically the Fab Five of Michigan 20 years ago. That said, I believe the biggest problem Wisconsin is going to face is the sheer athleticism of Kentucky. I know, I know…. The Badgers face plenty of other athletic teams throughout the season so why is this any different?

I find it different for two reasons; first is the coaching. Love him or hate him, John Calipari can flat out coach and he’s gotten the most out of these kids and then some. The second difference about UK’s athleticism is that these are not weak, scrawny freshmen. These are thick, well-built young men who have weathered the physical storm all season long in the SEC.

The Badgers will counter the athleticism with physicality and precision. While this isn’t one of Bo Ryan’s better defensive teams, this doesn’t mean the Badgers can’t play any D. They will make the Wildcats work on the defensive end and then will play very physical and aggressive man-to-man defense that will challenge Kentucky to take care of the ball.

The fate of UK big man Willie Cauley-Stein is unknown but speculation is that he won’t play in the final four with his ankle injury. I really think Frank Kaminsky and the Badgers will make this interesting but the Wildcats just have too many options and too many athletes. I like Kentucky to cover and advance.

NCAA Hoops Thoughts As We Head to the Final Four

Auriemma
Auriemma's Huskies could meet another unbeaten team in the finals but is anyone watching?

The NCAA Final Four is now set and waiting to play on Saturday night in Dallas are Florida, UConn, Wisconsin and Kentucky. The Gators will play the Huskies and the irony here is that UConn is the last team defeat the Gators. Should they and Wisconsin both advance, the Gators would be playing the only other team to beat them in the 2013-2014 season.

As fantastic a run the Kentucky Wildcats are on, it’s hard to think the Wisconsin Badgers aren’t on a more amazing one. Consider for a second that this really isn’t one of Head Coach Bo Ryan’s best defensive units and that star player Frank Kaminsky was nothing but a bench-sitter most of the team last year. When the Badgers and Wildcats hook up on Saturday it will be the ultimate in college basketball contrasts.

Kentucky is dominated by freshmen who were McDonald’s All-Americans and the best players from their respective states. Wisconsin is made up of ‘really good’ players but nothing like what the Wildcats will bring to the court. I’ll give you my Final Fur breakdown later this week but rest assured, both games promise to be enticing and entertaining matchups.

The Women’s’ Game Continues to Suffer

Every year I hear how women’s’ college basketball needs just the right situation to capture the attention of basketball fans who could otherwise care less. This year appears to be offering exactly what some seem to think it needs in what could be a match-up of unbeaten teams in the National Championship game.

Assuming Notre Dame and UConn advance to the finals, both the Irish and the Huskies will do so with totally unblemished records. Yet, there is very little talk about it and frankly that’s a shame but the women’s’ game has yet to make the proper adjustments to even give it a chance.

I’ve argued for a long time that the women’s’ game needs to change when it plays its’ tournament so as not to be completely hidden behind the men’s’ games. Still they have yet to make the proper moves to gain any attention. The men’s’ game has already started toying with the idea of starting later so as not to be put on the back burner while college football gets the bulk of the attention.

I strongly encourage the women’s’ game to take steps to get itself out from underneath the shadow of the monster that is the men’s’ game and even a battle between two unbeaten teams can’t help that.

Wiggins Heads to the Pros

In what has to be the least surprising announcement in recent basketball history, Kansas’ Freshman Andrew Wiggins has made it clear he will be entering the NBA Draft this summer. The 6’8″ swingman will more than likely be chosen among the top three selections. With his teammate Joel Embiid already in the draft, only Jabari Parker’s entrance would change the order of the three might go.

Wiggins, Embiid and perhaps Parker entering the draft after one year of college ball again has to raise questions about whether the current rule really accomplishes anything. Part of me would love to see these kids have to fall in line with the NFL rule of being out of high school for three years before entering the draft but I also understand the games are very different.

If a young man coming out of high school is good enough to enter the NBA then he shouldn’t be held out but I do believe there has to be an out for some of these kids who chose to enter the draft but don’t get selected. I’m not sure how this process would or should work but something has to change in my opinion.

The Final Two Look to Join the Final Four

Napier
Napier
If UConn is to make the Final Four it will be on the back of Shabazz Napier.

Last evening the Florida Gators put an end to the Dayton Flyers’ Cinderella run with a ten-point win while the Wisconsin Badgers beat the Arizona Wildcats in a thriller to advance to the Final Four. Today, we get a couple of somewhat unexpected match-ups as the surprising UConn Huskies; a seventh seed play forth seeded Michigan State. In the other regional final, the Kentucky Wildcats and all their youth go up against the Michigan Wolverines and their three-point shooting sensations.

UConn (+6) vs. Michigan State – There was a significant amount of talk that should Michigan State get past Virginia in the Sweet Sixteen that a trip to the Final Four would be a foregone conclusion. Perhaps it will, but standing in the way of that trip is a surging UConn Huskies team led by a dynamic senior scorer.

Shabazz Napier has put the Huskies on his back in much the same way Danny Manning did so many years ago in leading Kansas to a National Title. The difference of course is that Napier is a guard whereas Manning was more of a post, swingman type player.

What Napier and his teammates will face is one of the more aggressive and well-rounded teams they’ve faced all season in Michigan State. Head Coach Tom Izzo finally has a team as close to full health as he has had all season. The signs of this current NCAA Tournament run started in the Big Ten Tournament where the Spartans blitzed through the opponents en route to the conference tournament title.

Izzo is six out of seven in Elite Eight games and has also had every senior class under his tutelage reach at least one Final Four. This current group of seniors is the only exception. The Spartans rarely do things the easy way and I think that will be the case again today. I expect them to challenge Napier at both ends of the court and I believe inside-outside big man Adriean Payne will be the difference.

Take UConn to win getting the six points but I like Izzo and the Spartans to advance.

Stauskas
If Stauskas is knocking down three's then Kentucky is in trouble.

Kentucky (-2.5) vs. Michigan – It’s extremely hard to argue and go against what the Kentucky Wildcats have been able to do so far in this tournament. I really expected them to have a tournament similar to their regular season. I figured they’d get past their first round game and then put together a real stinker of a game and be out by the third (I call it the second) round.

That hasn’t been the case though as John Calipari has led his band of youthful exuberants to the Elite Eight. The road will become more difficult with Michigan the opponent but also because the Wildcats will more than likely be without Willie Caulie-Stein. The UK big man was in a walking boot yesterday after a severe ankle sprain in the first half of the team’s win over Louisville.

That will put more pressure on Julius Randle who so far has been able to carry the Wildcats with great play in the paint. The Wolverines have of course gone this season without their great big man Mitch McGary who has been following back surgery. That has left Michigan a bit thin down low but they have survived with smart defense and good rebounding when necessary.

John Bielein’s club has and will live and die with the three-point shot where they knock down shots at about 40% of those. Let’s be blount here; if Nik Stauskus gets good looks and his fellow three-point shooters do the same then I definitely like the Wolverines especially getting 2.5 points despite being a two-seed.

Friday Night’s NCAA Tournament Action

Hoiberg
Hoiberg
Can Coach Fred Hoiberg and the Cyclones advance past UConn tonight?

Here are my thoughts on tonight’s NCAA Sweet Sixteen action.

UConn (+2) vs. Iowa State – If any team has flown under the radar so far in this tournament it has to be the UConn Huskies. They’ve quietly put together a nice run here as a seventh seed and are led by fantastic senior guard Shabazz Napier who has averaged 25 points per game this season.

The Cyclones enter this game doing three things very well; they score (6th in the nation), they assist like crazy (1st in the nation) and they kill the boards (2nd).  The Huskies are very ‘middle of the road’ in most departments but they do block and alter a lot shots. That’ll be a big issue for ISU’s inside game.

The Key here is Napier. If Iowa State makes him work for everything at both ends of the court then I like ISU big, if they don’t I expect a tight game but will still take the Cyclones.

Payne
Payne and the Spartans will be a monster task for the Cavaliers.

Michigan State (-2) vs. Virginia – I’m not sure how often this has happened but we have a number one seed as an underdog in the Sweet Sixteen. Top-seeded Virginia enters as a two-point dog against Michigan State. While the Spartans have been fairly impressive in wins over Harvard and Delaware, I’m not sure that would elicit such an advantage over a top seed.

I would expect this game to be a war. The Cavs are the top ranked defense in the country as they give up just 55 points per game, but MSU is very good with the basketball. They are the sixth best team in college hoops with over 17 assists per game and they rank 31st in field goal percentage.

If Virginia is going to continue this amazing season all the way to the Final Four then I think this is the biggest road block. Will State’s experience and guard play be too much? I think the Cavs move on.

Tennessee (+3) vs. Michigan – The Volunteers not too long ago were one of those teams forced to play in a ‘play-in’ game just to get to the actual tournament. They dismissed Iowa and have since beaten UMass and Cinderella wannabe Mercer in convincing fashion.

On the other side is second-seeded Michigan who has surprised no one by getting to the Sweet Sixteen. The Wolverines have had most of the season to figure out life without injured big man Mitch McGary and they did just fine in winning the outright Big Ten Title.

This promises to be a classic match-up of shooting vs. rebounding. The Wolverines knock threes down at the rate of 40% and their overall field goal percentage is pretty darn good as well. They will need to make those shots because Tennessee does a significantly better job of rebounding the ball than does Michigan.

I expect a Michigan victory but I will actually take the Vols and the three points in what should be a tight game.

Kentucky (+4) vs. Louisville – I can only imagine what life has been like this week in the Bluegrass State as these two longtime rivals meet in the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA Tournament. They met earlier in the season and the Wildcats grabbed the home court win 73-66.

Kentucky played much of the second half that game without Julius Randle who was being treated for cramps. The Cardinals only shot 23% from three-point range in the game which is considerably lower than their season average of 37%. Look for that to again be a huge stat in this one.

UK Head Coach John Calipari is 13-12 all-time against Rick Pitino and is 5-1 against him in the last six games. Despite the clear advantage in experience, I think the coaching edge Calipari has right now is too much to ignore. Take the Wildcats and the points.

Four Games in College Football That Caught My Eye

Manziel
Manziel
I like Manziel and the Aggies to bounce back in a big way against the Mustangs.

Season Record 4-9, Last Week 2-2

I say a little improvement last week and had all four winners correct but a flat performance by Notre Dame and an iffy one by Northern Illinois cost me a perfect record against the spread. Let’s hope this week works out better.

SMU (+28) at Texas A&M – Everyone is expecting the Aggies to have a let down following their tough loss to Alabama last week. I’m not buying it. The Aggies discovered they could play with the Tide once again and will be fueled by the fact that a BCS Title game re-match could happen if they win out.

SMU comes in with a fantastic passing game but a poor running attack. Not the combination you want against an Aggies’ defense that gives up a lot of yards on the ground. The Mustangs are 3-7 ATS in their last ten road games and that number could be a signal to look for the Aggies to win back and I think they will behind Johnny Manziel who looks better than he did last year.

Michigan (-19.5) at UConn – Last week, Michigan avoided one of the worst upsets since…. well, since they were beaten at home by Appalachian State and then Toledo. Akron had three shots at the end zone from with the five yard line but couldn’t complete the deal and the Wolverines survived.

There is no way that Brady Hoke’s Wolverines didn’t get the message this week in practice about their poor performance against the Zips and I believe that will propel them in their first road game of the 2013 season. UConn has lost games to Maryland and Towson State. Yes, I said “Towson State.” The Huskies boast a 1-4 record at home ATS in their five and have one of the worst running attacks in college football. I don’t see how this spread isn’t higher. Take the Wolverines and run.

Jones
Can Butch Jones and the Vols bounce back against rival Florida?

Tennessee (+16) at Florida – The Gators enter the classic match-up with Tennessee off a bye week in which they had plenty of time to sulk over a tough loss to Miami in South Florida. Tennessee spent last week getting taken to the woodshed by Oregon early and often. The Vols bring a record of 1-3-2 into the Swamp against the spread in their last six games against the Gators.

Tennessee runs the ball very well at a clip of over 240 yards per game, but now they face their stiffest test with the Florida defense. The Gators will force Tennessee to throw the ball much more than they want to and with a passing attack ranked 114th in the country who could blame them? I think the Gators cover at home in Gainesville.

Arizona State (+6.5) at Stanford – Both teams enter this pivotal Pac-12 showdown at 2-0 but something will have to give. The Sun Devils are in the top ten in the nation in passing while Stanford is among the top 25 in defense. The biggest question for ASU is are they ready to win a big game? Yes, they defeated Wisconsin last week in Tempe, but are they ready to go on the road and win?

The Cardinal have been very matter of fact in wins over San Jose State and Army. They scored 34 points in both games and had very good balance offensively. Two numbers stick out in this contest however. ASU is 4-7-1 ATS in their last 12 games against the Cardinal and the Sun Devils are 1-5 ATS in their last six trips to Palo Alto. I’m going with Stanford to win by at least a touchdown.