College Basketball Nation: Memphis Tigers

3-point shot: Memphis' young backcourt

July, 8, 2014
Jul 8
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In today's 3-point shot, Andy Katz reports on Memphis' young backcourt and the challenges it faces, experimenting with a 30-second shot clock and Washington State's rebuilding under new coach Ernie Kent.

3-point shot: Coaching improvements

June, 2, 2014
Jun 2
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video

Andy Katz looks at the coach rankings and what Archie Miller, Richard Pitino and Josh Pastner are doing to improve their games.

Position battles: Point guards

May, 12, 2014
May 12
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Some of the best 1-on-1 matchups will take place before the 2014-15 season tips off. They will come in the form of position battles within a team to determine a starter, which will in some cases shape an entire lineup.

Starting with point guard, ESPN.com will examine those quiet battles on a position-by-position basis this week while also promising we will never use the phrase "iron sharpens iron" to describe the competition.

In places such as Michigan State, the chance to replace a graduating senior was anticipated and planned. In places such as Oklahoma State, the vacancy opened up unexpectedly. The job was likely going to Stevie Clark, but his February dismissal means the Cowboys will rely on freshman Tyree Griffin or junior college transfer Jeff Newberry. And in many cases, the position comes down to choosing between a returnee or a talented newcomer.

Unlike other sports, even the players who lose their respective battles will still have a chance to shine. But winning could be the difference between a starring role and being a footnote.

Here are point guard battles to keep an eye on:


Duke: Quinn Cook vs. Tyus Jones

Cook too often allowed his overall game to be shaped by his makes and misses and was replaced in the starting lineup the final 10 games of the season by Rasheed Sulaimon. Jones’ arrival in the Blue Devils heralded recruiting class means Sulaimon can move back to his natural position off the ball and sets up this showdown. Jones was rated No. 4 overall and the top point guard in the 2014 class by ESPN.com. Praised for his court vision and ability to run a team, Jones is arguably the better facilitator. Cook is a much better defender who has the added advantage of knowing the system.

SMU: Nic Moore vs. Emmanuel Mudiay

Moore had a solid year for the Mustangs leading the team in scoring, assists and 3-point shooting while starting every game. He was first team all-conference in the American. Yet here comes Mudiay, who might be the most important recruit -- he’s certainly the highest ranked -- in SMU history. The 6-foot-5 Mudiay was ranked fifth overall by ESPN.com, and his time in Dallas could be limited to one season before he’s in the NBA. Point guard is the toughest position to play under coach Larry Brown, and Moore has had the luxury of learning his expectations for two years. Mudiay’s talent is so undeniable that the Mustangs might find a way to play both in the lineup.

Kansas: Frank Mason vs. Conner Frankamp vs. Devonte Graham

Naadir Tharpe’s decision to transfer opened up what was already a position begging to be solidified. The Jayhawks haven’t had stability at point guard in two seasons and it threatens what could again be a top-10 team. Mason was third on the team in assists as a freshman and briefly supplanted Tharpe in the starting lineup. Frankamp, also a rising sophomore, played in enough games as a freshman to season him for extended time this season. Graham just signed this month out of prep school, but is considered a true playmaker.

Michigan State: Travis Trice vs. Lourawls Nairn

Trice proved his value at point guard running the Spartans when Keith Appling was sidelined by injury this past season. If Nairn shows the ability to play right away, the two could likely be used in the same lineup with Denzel Valentine at small forward and Branden Dawson at power forward. Should coach Tom Izzo opt for Valentine at shooting guard, Trice would probably be the starter at point. Nairn, a 5-foot-10 freshman, will have to develop his perimeter shooting, but his toughness and leadership skills already mesh into the Izzo mold.

Wisconsin: Traevon Jackson vs. Bronson Koenig

It seems absurd that Jackson, a rising senior who started every game on a Final Four team, could see his minutes diminished by a reserve, but it speaks to Koenig's great potential. Jackson showed a penchant for making the big shot. Koenig is arguably the better scorer with his ability to get to the rim. The rising sophomore proved he’s ready for a bigger role during the Badgers’ loss to Kentucky in the national semifinals. Entrusted to run the team with Jackson in foul trouble, Koenig scored 11 points in 16 minutes during the first half.

Syracuse: Kaleb Joseph vs. Michael Gbinije

Coach Jim Boeheim has proven the past two seasons that he’s unafraid to play an untested point guard. As he did with Michael Carter-Williams two seasons ago and Tyler Ennis this past season, Boeheim could again put the ball in the hands of a player with little point guard experience in his system. Gbinije, a 6-foot-7 junior, filled in at times for Ennis, although he’s more of a combo guard than a point. Joseph, a true freshman, will be a part of the guard rotation that includes shooting guard Trevor Cooney. Don’t be surprised if Joseph ends up like Ennis in the starting lineup early.

Memphis: Rashawn Powell vs. Dominic Magee

It’s been a while since Memphis didn’t have an heir awaiting the starting duties at point guard. Coach Josh Pastner looks to replace five senior guards with a three freshmen who can all play point. Powell and Magee are the likely front-runners as pure point guards. Powell is as much of a wild card as the true freshman Magee. He didn’t qualify last season and was not allowed to practice, but was enrolled in school. Pastner will have a third option in Markell Crawford, who redshirted last season, who has the leadership skills to step in and run the team.

North Carolina: Nate Britt vs. Joel Berry

Thank Kendall Marshall for this battle. Marshall’s injury in the 2012 NCAA tournament sabotaged a team built for a national title run, and coach Roy Williams vowed he’d never be in that position again. In past years, Williams probably would not have added a point guard in this class considering Marcus Paige will ultimately run the show. This battle won’t be as detrimental to team success as others, but is intriguing nonetheless. Berry, the freshman, will challenge Britt, the sophomore, and the time-old notion in Chapel Hill that seniority wins out.

Cavs coast into Sweet 16

March, 24, 2014
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RALEIGH, N.C. -- Virginia led by 20 late in the second half when a double-team left Memphis’ David Pellom alone with the ball beneath the basket. Pellom rose for a two-handed dunk when Cavaliers forward Justin Anderson rotated in time to block his shot.

The Cavaliers made the Tigers work for everything.

“We knew they were going to try to get us to go a little faster and I feel like they did early,” Virginia guard London Perrantes said. “We slowed down and started to run off the picks like we usually do. They started to wear out pretty early.”

Meanwhile, everything seemed to come fairly easy for the Cavs. They used a 16-2 run to close out the first half, effectively ending any drama about the outcome.

Virginia so thoroughly dominated Memphis in its 78-60 win to advance to the Sweet 16 that the biggest surprise from the Cavs' performance came down to two plays: Evan Nolte’s dunk or Mike Tobey’s 3-pointer.

Nolte, a 6-foot-8 sophomore forward, is most known for providing a perimeter boost. His back-to-back 3-pointers against Coastal Carolina broke open a tight game and made the Cavs loosen up.

But they don’t call him “Takeoff” Nolte for nothing.

“We call Evan 'Takeoff' because he dunks once every two years,” forward Akil Mitchell said.

Forward Anthony Gill likened the sight of Nolte dunking to an eclipse. With a minute left in the game, Nolte threw down a tomahawk dunk that got the crowd chanting his name.

“That’s probably second to hitting a game winner, dunking on somebody,” Nolte said.

Tobey, a 6-foot-11 sophomore center, missed the only two 3-point attempts he had before Sunday night. He stopped and popped from the top of the key with the Cavs nursing a 23-point lead.

“We were kind of [mad] at first,” Virginia forward Joe Harris said. “We were trying to run offense and run some clock a little bit and Tobey just pulls for 3. You can’t get mad at him when he makes it. It was kind of funny seeing the coaches’ reaction on the bench.”

That look of frustration quickly turned into smiles and laughter when Tobey’s shot was good, which is why Nolte concluded that his dunk was the bigger surprise.

“Tobey can shoot 3s,” Nolte said. “He doesn’t really do it in games, but he can in practice. Next year or the year after he’ll be able to do it in games.”

3-point shot: Sunday storylines

March, 23, 2014
Mar 23
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Andy Katz previews Mercer versus Tennessee, Memphis versus Virginia and Baylor versus Creighton.

Search for new memories in Raleigh

March, 22, 2014
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RALEIGH, N.C. -- Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin played "One Shining Moment" enough times when his team struggled during the season that junior forward Jarnell Stokes said the team should have the song memorized by now.

Martin showed the video montage that concludes every NCAA tournament after a debilitating loss to Texas A&M. He even played the Luther Vandross song without the visual clips so his players could just feel it.

Martin said he wanted the Volunteers to realize they could still salvage their season.

"To have a chance to do that right now -- I think at certain parts of the year we didn’t even think we’d get in the tournament, so it just makes it that much more fun," Stokes said.

The "moments" are part of what makes the NCAA tournament so special, and there are plenty of reasons the four teams vying to leave Raleigh with one more win on Sunday would savor it.

[+] EnlargeCuonzo Martin
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesTennessee coach Cuonzo Martin hopes to leave Raleigh with at least one more shining moment.
Memphis coach Josh Pastner can taste his first Sweet 16 berth. For Virginia, which has had a lot of "first since" moments this season, it would be its longest foray in the tournament since 1995. For Martin and the Vols, it’d be validation that his method is working.

For No. 14 seed Mercer, though, it would mean Monty Brown gets another chance to build his tournament memories. The cruel irony of the Bears’ upset of No. 3 seed Duke on Friday is that Brown doesn’t remember much from it.

The 6-foot-11 reserve senior center played just four minutes before suffering a concussion in the first half against Duke. Brown had the ball and pump-faked, Duke’s Jabari Parker jumped and Parker's hip crashed into Brown’s head.

Senior guard Anthony White Jr., who was on the court standing in the corner when the play happened, initially didn’t think Brown was injured. When White encouraged him to shake it off, he knew something was wrong.

Senior guard Kevin Canevari, who will be Brown’s best man in his wedding this summer, went over and asked if he was all right.

"He was like, 'What’d you say?' and kind of looking very dazed," Canevari said. "It was a little bit scary at first. It’s definitely sad that it happened, but we’ll be praying for him."

Although Brown sat on the sideline for the remainder of the game with earplugs to block out the noise, senior Jakob Gollon said his teammate had trouble recalling the victory.

On Saturday, Brown couldn’t even attend the team’s practice and media sessions. He was at the hotel, likely sitting in a room with little light. His teammates couldn’t even talk to him much after the win because he was so sensitive to noise.

"Beyond his injury and not being able to play for us, as far as memories are concerned, that’s a pretty big deal," Gollon said. "Obviously, this is a pretty big experience that we’re going to remember for the rest of our lives. He may or may not be able to recall some of the things that happened during this time."

Brown wasn’t in the locker room when Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski made an impromptu visit to congratulate the team. He didn’t get to ride the team bus back to the hotel and hear his teammates' amusement over the #LordhaveMercer hashtag that was trending on Twitter.

Brown’s concussion meant what could arguably be the greatest single moment of his basketball career might be forever lost in the haze of his brain.

"This is what you live for. This is what you dream of as a kid," senior guard Bud Thomas said. "Especially playing Duke and Coach K. That’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and to go out and beat them and pretty much shock the world. We’re getting all this press and Monty is pretty much in the shadow."

[+] EnlargeMercer
Bob Donnan/USA TODAY SportsMercer's Monty Brown wasn't able to celebrate Friday's win over Duke with his teammates. The Bears are hoping another win will give him the opportunity to rejoin them next week.
Brown averaged only 9.5 minutes, 4.5 points and 2.4 rebounds per game this season. His numbers on the court can be replaced when the Bears play Tennessee on Sunday, but he is viewed like an elder on a team full of seniors.

Mercer coach Bob Hoffman called Brown "one of the unsung heroes on our squad."

The Bears view Brown as an "old head" who offers up wisdom and encouragement. After all, as Langston Hall put it, he is getting married. Senior center Daniel Coursey said Brown is the one who "tells us not to do stuff and be all responsible."

"No matter what’s going on, his spirits are always high," White said. "He’s always telling you it’s all right, get to the next thing if something bad happens. If something good happens, he’s the first person to come out and congratulate you."

The Bears are hoping to celebrate one more upset and have one more chance to watch Canevari dance the "Nae Nae," because that would mean Brown could have one more chance to rejoin them on the floor next week and enjoy his own NCAA tournament experience.

"Of course, he can watch the video on ESPN, but it’s another thing to be able to experience that," White said. "And Kev’s dance -- he would have been right there, right behind him jumping up yelling a little bit."

3-point shot: Memphis' inspiration

March, 21, 2014
Mar 21
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Andy Katz discusses Memphis' inspiration, Tennessee's preparation and Coastal Carolina's big dreams entering the round of 64.

Region preview: East

March, 16, 2014
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Before any team from this region makes the Final Four, it will have to first prove itself on Broadway. Madison Square Garden welcomes the NCAA tournament for the first time in more than five decades, serving as the host site for the East Regional finals. Virginia, on the strength of winning the ACC regular season and tournament, earned the No. 1 seed. But the team that already seems to have generated the most buzz is No. 4 seed Michigan State.

The Spartans navigated much of the season the way a No. 1 seed would until injuries decimated their roster. Starters Adreian Payne, Branden Dawson, Keith Appling and Gary Harris all missed time due to injury, but Michigan State coach Tom Izzo appears to have everyone again healthy at the right time, and the Spartans responded by winning the Big Ten tournament. Among the lovable underdogs in the region is a team from Durham, N.C., but not the team most identify with Durham. No. 14 seed North Carolina Central earned its first-ever bid to the tournament by winning the Mideastern Athletic Conference. The Eagles have a win over NC State on their résumé and one of the nation’s top bucket getters in Jeremy Ingram, who averages 20.5 points per game and put up 37 against Wichita State.

Five players to watch:

[+] EnlargeGary Harris
Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY SportsGary Harris' game has risen in recent weeks, giving a newly healthy Michigan State team a great chance to advance out of the East region.
A potential NBA lottery pick, Michigan State sophomore guard Gary Harris is as polished as they come. He can catch and shoot over defenders, drive past them and, after adding a few pounds since last season, he can finish through contact. Harris led the Spartans with 17.1 points per game.

UConn’s Shabazz Napier has a reputation for delivering the clutch shots for the Huskies. He was the American Athletic Conference Player of the Year after leading his team in scoring (17.4), rebounding (5.9) and assists (4.9).

Speaking of players of the year, Iowa State’s Melvin Ejim took that award among stiff competition in the Big 12. Ejim can score from anywhere on the court -- shooting 34.5 percent from 3-point range -- and averaged 18.1 points and 8.5 rebounds per game.

If you’re not impressed watching North Carolina’s Marcus Paige, make sure to check out what he does after halftime. Paige earned the moniker “Second Half Marcus” because of his knack for erupting for double-digit points after halftime, including 31 points in the second half and overtime in a win over NC State.

Get used to seeing Providence guard Bryce Cotton; he’ll never leave the court. Seriously. Aside from leading the Friars with 21.4 points per game, he actually averaged 41.9 minutes played in Big East games due to several overtime games.

Dark horse: Iowa State won the Big 12 tournament, beating Kansas and a very talented Baylor team to do so. The Cyclones own nonconference wins over Michigan, BYU and Iowa, which are all in the tournament field. They generally don’t beat themselves. Guard Monte Morris led the nation with a 5.71 assist-turnover ratio. DeAndre Kane (17.0 PPG) and Georges Niang (16.5 PPG) are as capable as Ejim of erupting and scoring a lot of points. The Cyclones also shoot the ball well from 3-point range, led by Naz Long’s 40.8 3-point shooting percentage.

Upset alert: No. 12 seed Harvard has a team suited to knock off No. 5 Cincinnati. The Crimson don’t have a lot of flash but boast five players who average double-figure scoring per game, led by Wesley Saunders' 14.0 points. More importantly, coach Tommy Amaker’s bunch has experience. The Crimson return all but one rotation player from the team that knocked off No. 3 seed New Mexico in last year’s tournament.

Conference with most to prove: Three teams from the American are in the region, led by Cincinnati, which finished tied for first with Louisville. The league's reputation wasn’t strong enough to get SMU a bid despite the fact the Mustangs finished tied for third with UConn and Memphis. The Bearcats, Tigers and Huskies can prove SMU belonged after the fact with a strong showing. The tournament could also be a proving ground for Memphis coach Josh Pastner, who has a 1-4 record in the NCAA. It will be the first appearance for UConn coach Kevin Ollie, whose team was banned from the postseason last year due to a low APR.

Matchup we’d most like to see: Virginia and Michigan State in the Sweet 16. Remember the 2000 Final Four semifinal clash between Wisconsin and the Spartans? This could be the long-awaited sequel where the son (Tony Bennett) tries to avenge the loss of his father (Dick Bennett). The Cavaliers play with toughness that Izzo would approve of. The Spartans would present one of the toughest challenges that Virginia’s defense has faced all season. If it materialized, the winner of this matchup would also be the most likely team to advance to the Final Four.

Most likely to reach New York: Virginia, Michigan State, Iowa State, UConn.

Who advances to Arlington? Michigan State.

Tournament preview: American

March, 11, 2014
Mar 11
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The regular season in the American Athletic Conference was so tight, it came down to a coin flip. Cincinnati and Louisville won on each other’s home courts in games decided by a combined four points. They shared the regular-season title, but the Bearcats took the No. 1 seed for the conference tournament after winning the coin toss.

There’s not much that separated the top five finishers in the conference. In fact, fifth-seeded Memphis swept its meetings with Louisville. Both No. 4 seed UConn and No. 3 seed SMU beat Cincinnati. It would come as no surprise if any of those teams won the league tournament.

[+] EnlargeJosh Pastner
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsMemphis coach Josh Pastner, who is 1-3 coaching in the NCAA tournament, needs a big showing from his team in the American Athletic Conference tournament.
The 10-team league has what promises to be one of the best quarterfinal matchups of any league tournament when the Tigers face UConn. The Huskies swept the regular-season matchup but needed overtime to win at Memphis.

As for the bottom five teams, March doesn’t contain enough madness to describe the reaction if Houston, Rutgers, Temple, UCF or USF emerge as champion. At 16-15, the Cougars are the only team among the five with a winning record.

The inaugural AAC tournament is held at FedEx Forum in Memphis, meaning the Tigers will have the unofficial advantage of being on their home court. As a member of Conference USA, they won the last five league tournaments that were held in Memphis. The last time the Tigers didn’t win a league tournament they hosted was in 2005, when they lost in the title game to Louisville.

What’s at stake?

Defending national champion Louisville, short of winning the American tournament and defeating two more ranked teams in the semifinals and title game, can expect to get a seed that won’t match the way it’s currently playing. The Cardinals didn’t have any marquee nonconference wins, and they lost their first four games against ranked opponents. Now they’ve won three of their past four against ranked foes, including an 81-48 smashing of UConn in the regular-season finale. Could it be too late for the tournament committee? Possibly. ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi had the Cards listed as a No. 4 seed, which isn’t entirely bad. Coach Rick Pitino guided the Cards to the Final Four while seeded fourth in both 2005 and 2012.

SMU got a wakeup call with its loss to Louisville in the home finale. The Mustangs had been unbeaten at home this season, but they showed signs of inexperience from a program new to winning. It’s not enough for an early lead and a raucous crowd to win games. SMU has been free of expectations and winning big for some time now. But its third-place finish in coach Larry Brown’s second season is clearly a sign of progress. The looming question for the Mustangs: Will they be content with what they’ve already achieved?

Teams with most to gain

Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin and Memphis coach Josh Pastner could both use a little momentum going into the NCAA tournament. Cronin and the Bearcats advanced to the Sweet 16 in 2012. Pastner, who has a 1-3 NCAA record, has yet to get the Tigers out of the first weekend. Both teams seemingly have the main ingredient for success in the postseason -- experienced backcourts. Winning the American tournament could be a springboard for NCAA success.

Some have loosely compared UConn senior guard Shabazz Napier to former standout Kemba Walker for his ability to come through in the clutch. If Napier really wants to cement his legacy with the Huskies, he’ll need to come through in the postseason.

Walker carried the 2011 Huskies on an unprecedented run winning five games for the Big East tournament title before winning six games to capture the NCAA title. Napier’s job isn’t nearly as tough. He’d only have to win three games for a conference title. Napier has the ability to make his teammates better and take control of a game when needed. And the Huskies will be looking to rebound after their most lopsided loss in more than two decades.

3-point shot: American tournament

March, 5, 2014
Mar 5
12:00
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Andy Katz discusses the American Athletic Conference tournament schedule, Jahii Carson's pro prospects and Arizona's conference title.

Video: Memphis 72, Louisville 66

March, 1, 2014
Mar 1
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Geron Johnson scored 15 points to help No. 21 Memphis knock off No. 7 Louisville 72-66.

Weekend homework: One last rivalry game

February, 28, 2014
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Louisville’s basketball rivalry with Memphis is probably better than its one with Kentucky. This version of Red vs. Blue certainly has run longer, although only old-schoolers on both sides maintain deep hatred. The Cardinals and Tigers have followed and fought each other through four different conferences (Missouri Valley, Metro, Conference USA, American) -- how many rivals can say that? Saturday’s meeting will be the final time (we think?) as league opponents, as Louisville jettisons the American for the ACC next season.

Louisville looks to avenge its 73-67 home loss to the Tigers on Jan. 9 and keep pace with Cincinnati for first place in the conference. The Cards were a disjointed team still trying to figure out who fit where in their loss. As Rick Pitino teams tend to do in February, they have hit their stride now. Louisville closed out the regular season of its 2013 national championship run with seven straight wins. The Cards got started a little earlier this season, and the proof is in their beards. Pitino and staff vowed not to shave until they lose a game. Their winning streak has reached seven games headed into Memphis.

Louisville guards Chris Jones and Russ Smith have developed a backcourt chemistry that was lacking earlier in the season. Jones is taking fewer shots; Smith is dishing more assists. The first meeting with the Tigers was a breakout game for senior forward Luke Hancock, last year’s Final Four Most Outstanding Player. He went from averaging 7.8 points in nonconference play to averaging 14.7 points in the American. Freshman Terry Rozier is becoming a budding star off the bench.

For Memphis and coach Josh Pastner, a win over the Cardinals could again bring validation that they could sorely use. Back in January, the Tigers’ road win over a ranked Louisville team brought credibility. The Tigers are staggering down the stretch of the regular season. They struggled with last-place Temple at home before winning 82-79 in overtime. They fell flat at Houston on Thursday and lost 77-68.

The schedule doesn’t present Memphis any breaks in its final three games. The Tigers close out conference play with arguably the toughest road in the league with Louisville, at Cincinnati and SMU. The Tigers will have the advantage of serving as hosts for the American tournament, but they can’t afford to try to build momentum then. They would love to start now and in the process send their old nemesis away to a new conference with the bitterness of a season sweep.

Weekend Picks: Florida over Kentucky?

February, 14, 2014
Feb 14
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About last weekend.

Well, Wichita State stayed undefeated after securing a win over Northern Iowa, but most predicted that.

Larry Brown is in the national coach of the year conversation nearly 30 years after winning the national title with Kansas. That SMU win over Cincinnati was a major step for Brown’s program.

I was surprised by Iowa’s stand against Michigan. Memphis came from behind and then stayed strong late against a Gonzaga team that stopped playing defense in the last five minutes. Traevon Jackson hit a game winner for Wisconsin against Michigan State.

Just the typical mid-February chaos.

This weekend, however, is a bit more difficult to assess.

But I’ll do my best.

Last week: 4-1

Overall: 35-15

Saturday


VCU at No. 12 Saint Louis, 2 p.m. ET, ESPN2: Remember VCU? Well, the Rams got lost on the national scene for a few reasons. They didn’t get off to the dazzling start many had anticipated with the talent that Shaka Smart brought back, including leading scorer Treveon Graham. The Rams still wreak havoc on defense (no team in America forces more turnovers per possession than VCU, according to Ken Pomeroy). But this is one of America’s most mysterious offensive groups. Smart’s squad has shot 41.3 percent from the field in conference play (11th in the league). The Rams have the Atlantic 10’s top scoring offense (77.3 PPG), but they’re 101st in adjusted offensive efficiency (according to Pomeroy). Saint Louis is much easier to figure out. Jim Crews’ squad has been flawless since a Dec. 1 home loss to 26-0 Wichita State. The Billikens are third in adjusted defensive efficiency. Dwayne Evans and Jordair Jett are a potent pair on both ends of the floor, but they haven’t faced an offense like this.

Prediction: VCU 60, SLU 56

No. 3 Florida at No. 14 Kentucky, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN: For weeks, Florida has looked like a bored team just itching to play an opponent that can truly give it a fight for 40 minutes. The Gators have won 16 in a row and are 7-2 against the BPI’s top 50. Since a December stretch that included a loss to Connecticut and wins over Memphis and Kansas, however, they’ve played only two teams in the BPI’s top 50 (Missouri and Tennessee) and zero in the top 25. Florida is playing as well as anyone in the country right now, but Billy Donovan’s program hasn’t been tested in a month. Literally. That’s not its fault. The SEC is bad. The Gators can’t control that, but this is a sharp turn from what it has dealt with in league play. Fighting on the road against a Kentucky team that has that next-level ability when it’s focused -- and I assume John Calipari’s team will be focused for a huge matchup -- will not be an easy affair. Plus, the Wildcats have the edge in offensive rebounding rate (43.2 percent to 37.5 percent) and free throw rate (54.8 percent to 45.5 percent), per ESPN Stats & Info. Turnover rate, however, will be more important. The last time Florida (24th in defensive turnover rate) played a young, athletic team with ballhandling challenges (Kentucky is 113th nationally in offensive turnover rate), Kansas left Gainesville. Fla., with a loss. Expect the same result in Lexington, Ky., on Saturday.

Prediction: Florida 87, Kentucky 84

No. 20 Memphis at No. 24 UConn, 12 p.m. ET, ESPN: In the first meeting, DeAndre Daniels was a monster. He finished with 23 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks in UConn’s 83-73 win in Memphis. Shaq Goodwin scored 10 points (4-for-9) in that game. The rematch will once again focus on the two big men inside. Both programs field comparable backcourts. Shabazz Napier, Ryan Boatright and Lasan Kromah can play with any backcourt in the country, but Joe Jackson, Geron Johnson, Chris Crawford and Michael Dixon Jr. can, too. Any of the aforementioned guards could go big and carry his respective squad to the win, but Daniels and Goodwin could be the difference-makers. Will be the difference-makers. If Goodwin doesn’t match Daniels and contain him with stingy defense, then the veteran big man will have another huge night for UConn. But Goodwin learned from that game. He’s been fearless in recent weeks, the sign of a young player who recognizes his significance to Josh Pastner’s plans.

Prediction: Memphis 75, UConn 70

Sunday

No. 6 Villanova at No. 18 Creighton, 5 p.m. ET, Fox Sports 1:
On Thursday night, the wonderful minds at ESPN Stats & Info distributed an email titled "A Complete Breakdown of Doug McDermott's Scoring (Through Feb. 13)" shortly after the national player of the year frontrunner -- and it’s not close right now -- scored 26 points (11-for-19) and hit a late 3-pointer in Creighton’s 68-63 win at Butler. That memo included stats like this one: "Doug McDermott has 2,824 career points, 15th all time in Division I history. He is averaging a career-high 25.3 points per game this season." By the end of this season, McDermott should be one of the 10 greatest scorers in Division I history. Think about that. But he wasn’t the guy who torched Villanova in the first game. Ethan Wragge was 9-for-14 from the 3-point line in a 96-68 win over Villanova last month. He’s a 49 percent shooter from beyond the arc, but he’s made eight of 22 since that breathtaking display, so maybe Creighton’s 21 conference record-setting 3s against Villanova last month were an anomaly. The problem is that Creighton (39 percent from the 3-point line) gets hot often and Villanova just hasn’t done a great job of defending against the Bluejays’ best weapon (Big East teams shooting 38 percent from the 3-point line against Villanova). Another loss for Jay Wright’s crew in Omaha, Neb.

Prediction: Creighton 77, Villanova 72

No. 21 Wisconsin at No. 15 Michigan, 1 p.m. ET, CBS: This is an interesting game for so many reasons. It’s a battle between a Michigan team that’s tied with Michigan State atop the Big Ten and a Wisconsin team that has to build momentum for a strong finish to keep Bo Ryan’s streak of top-four finishes in the league alive. In recent weeks, both teams have shown some of their flaws. Michigan is an offensive turbo-engine (No. 3 in adjusted defensive efficiency, per Pomeroy) that’s 18-2 when it registers a 105.0 offensive rating, according to ESPN Stats & Info. But, Big Ten player of the year candidate Nik Stauskas struggled during a recent 1-2 stretch for Michigan. Wisconsin has always been a stubborn defensive team, and the Badgers have gone from the 90s to the 40s in recent weeks in adjusted defensive efficiency, per Pomeroy. But they were No. 1 last season. Both teams are regaining their stride entering this game. Wisconsin, however, will stumble on the road.

Prediction: Michigan 64, Wisconsin 60

 

Weekend Homework: American dreams

February, 14, 2014
Feb 14
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The American needs Memphis-UConn to become a rivalry.

The league is losing Louisville after one season. Memphis and Cincinnati already had something going from their previous conference affiliation. Cincinnati and UConn have had their moments as members of the Big East. The rivalry that must endure is between the Tigers and Huskies.

If the season were to end today, these teams would meet in a 4-5 matchup in the quarterfinals of the American tournament in Memphis.

But it isn't, and the positioning for seeding has begun.

That's why Saturday's noon tipoff at the XL Center in Hartford, Conn., is such a critical game for both schools. UConn already has won at Memphis and a sweep would be a decisive tiebreaker. Cincinnati, Louisville and SMU appear to be in for the long run, putting even more meaning on this game. Neither team can afford to slide back.

"Everyone is jockeying for those five spots right now," Memphis coach Josh Pastner said. "There is a lot of basketball to be played. There's no room right now."

Pastner is Mr. Positive. He was trying to sell how deep the American conference is this season. But he doesn't have to shill for the bottom five. This league can put its top five against most, if not all, leagues in the country and fare well. That's plenty to shout about this season.

Memphis did struggle to beat UCF on Wednesday. The Huskies obliterated USF.

The Tigers are one of the top teams in the country in assists (third) and have shared the ball well. But rebounding and defense were the sore spots in the 10-point loss to the Huskies in Memphis. UConn shot 57 percent and outrebounded the Tigers by seven. That simply can't happen if the Tigers are to win in Hartford.

The Tigers finish the regular season home against Louisville, at Cincinnati and home against SMU. UConn hosts Cincinnati and is at Louisville in two of its final three games. The winner of this game will have a chance to direct the narrative in the conference in the final few weeks.

Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright will need to contain Joe Jackson, and Shaq Goodwin has a shot to be much more of a dominant player in the post against UConn's bigs, who tend to float more than anchor in the post.

This should be a late-possession game between two teams that are similar.

If this can be a precursor to a possible quarterfinal game in the American tournament, then the league can guarantee a high-level atmosphere at the FedEx Forum next month.
First, let’s take a moment to reflect on last weekend’s amazing Syracuse-Duke matchup. Sure, the Orange won. But the Blue Devils were still fighting in overtime with their best players on the bench. The Rodney Hood game-winning dunk attempt? The Rasheed Sulaimon 3-pointer at the buzzer in regulation? Jerami Grant’s overall effort (24 points, 12 rebounds in 40 minutes)?

I was right on that pick, but it really could have gone either way, right?

Virginia’s buzzer-beater against Pitt not only ruined that prediction, but it also gave the Cavs more street cred in their pursuit of the ACC crown. Oh, and then there’s Texas.

The Longhorns manhandled Kansas last weekend in an 81-69 victory in Austin. The same crew that lost its top four scorers from last year is now just one game behind Kansas in the Big 12 race.

Just go ahead and give Rick Barnes national coach of the year honors.

And it’s more proof that this game is unpredictable.

Now, remember that when I mess up this weekend’s picks.

Last week: 3-2

Overall: 31-14

Saturday

No. 7 Cincinnati at SMU, 7:30 p.m. ET, ESPNU: Mick Cronin is definitely in that national coach of the year conversation, too. And don’t be surprised if Sean Kilpatrick, fourth nationally with a 121.4 offensive rating per Ken Pomeroy, steals the inaugural American Athletic Conference player of the year honors from UConn’s Shabazz Napier. The Bearcats haven’t lost since mid-December, but Larry Brown, yet another candidate for national coach of the year honors, has something cooking in Dallas. His program’s AAC opponents are shooting just 38.5 percent from the field, the lowest mark in the league. The Mustangs, like the Bearcats, put an emphasis on stingy defense, so this could be sloppy, but SMU did produce 73 points in a loss to equally stubborn Virginia in late November. SMU dismissed Memphis and UConn at home this season. The next achievement for Nic Moore & Co.? Handing Cincy its first conference loss of the season.

Prediction: SMU 74, Cincy 68

No. 4 Wichita State at Northern Iowa, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN2: Let’s talk about perfection, as Wichita State prepares to face conference foe Northern Iowa. It’s interesting how the storyline has changed for a team such as Wichita State. When this run began, there was this sense of anticipation. Can they do it? And now the Shockers have been bombarded by scrutiny, an aura created by doubters who question Wichita State’s 24-0 resume. Those doubters have a point. Wichita State’s strength of schedule, per the BPI, is 114th overall. Louisville (111th) is the only top-20 program in the BPI with a triple-digit SOS. But this has still been a marvelous run by Gregg Marshall’s program. And who can deny the collective potency of the foursome that leads them? Tekele Cotton, Fred VanVleet, Cleanthony Early and Ron Baker were all good enough to guide the program to the Final Four last year, so let’s appreciate this run because we might not see another one for years. And it will continue against the oft-injured Panthers, who have lost five of their last seven.

Prediction: Wichita State 74, Northern Iowa 62

No. 10 Michigan at No. 17 Iowa, 2 p.m. ET, ESPN: John Beilein -- yep, another national coach of the year candidate -- has molded this Michigan team back into a national title contender. This is the same Michigan team that lost Wooden Award winner Trey Burke and potential lottery pick Mitch McGary. But Nik Stauskas, Caris LeVert and Glenn Robinson III have been a fluid group who’s been a perpetual quagmire for the rest of the league. Iowa’s depth is less significant than its offensive and defensive limitations, but Michigan is the worst matchup for the Hawkeyes. The Wolverines are comfortable outside (37.2 percent from beyond the arc in Big Ten play) and they can score in a multitude of ways via that trio. They can pack the lane against Roy Devyn Marble, Aaron White & Co. and force them to take risky 3s, which happened when the Hawkeyes went 2-for-10 in a 75-67 loss to Michigan in Ann Arbor on Jan. 22. The Hawkeyes scored just 1.02 points per possession in that outing. Yes, Fran McCaffery’s program needs a win to stay in this Big Ten race after dropping three of its last five, but Michigan is just a tough opponent for Iowa.

Prediction: Michigan 73, Iowa 71

No. 23 Gonzaga at No. 24 Memphis, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN: At the beginning of the year, this appeared to be a much sexier meeting between a pair of programs who’ve gone mainstream despite existing in what many would consider mid-major leagues in recent years. It’s still intriguing. The Kevin Pangos-Joe Jackson and Shaq Goodwin-Sam Dower matchups would be ideal pairings. But Gonzaga didn't acquire any top-25 wins during the nonconference season, and it suffered a loss to Portland in league play. The West Coast Conference’s overall decline has affected Gonzaga’s national reputation and its bracketology (27th in the BPI) standing. The Zags could use a win over a Memphis team that suffered a 15-point road loss to SMU last weekend, but the Tigers have been solid as defenders of the arc thus far (31.1 percent allowed from the 3-point line in American play). And they shoot well, too (38 percent from beyond the arc in conference play). Their athletic, turnover-forcing (13th in defensive turnover rate per Ken Pomeroy) perimeter players, however, will be the difference in this game.

Prediction: Memphis 80, Gonzaga 74

Sunday

No. 9 Michigan State at Wisconsin, 1 p.m. ET, CBS: Wisconsin won its first 16 games of the year. That dazzling start included wins over Iowa, Green Bay, Florida, Saint Louis, West Virginia and Virginia. But Bo Ryan’s program has lost five of its last seven games. Ryan’s Badgers have never finished below fourth in the Big Ten. Could this be the season that ends that streak? If Wisconsin’s defensive lapses continue, it’s possible. The Badgers are 60th in adjusted defensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy. They finished first last season and 12th the previous year and haven’t been this low since the 2010-11 campaign. They’ve never been the 1980s Lakers, but their ability to corrupt offenses has been a staple of the program for years. Bottom line, Wisconsin’s defense just hasn’t been consistent. Michigan State hasn’t exactly had a perfect year, either. Adreian Payne finally returned during this week’s double-digit win over Penn State, but Keith Appling missed the matchup with a wrist injury. The Spartans can’t get healthy, but they’re resilient and obviously a problem for every opponent, especially when Payne is healthy. The Badgers are usually successful, however, in these back-against-the-wall scenarios.

Prediction: Wisconsin 68, Michigan State 67

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