It's time to cast the spotlight on Virginia.
Still recuperating from your midweek bar crawl? Are you nostril deep in term paper research? Have no fear, fellow bracketeers. As a companion to the Bracket Big Board, the I.D. is here to highlight all the college hardwood action from the week that was and preview the most pivotal matchups of the weekend. Unlike McLovin’s Hawaiian driver's license, there's nothing fake about this I.D. …
Almost three weeks ago college fanatics were rewarded with an instant classic. In a fight of ACC heavyweights, Duke and Syracuse, in front of nearly 36,000 screaming Carrier Dome patrons, exchanged uppercuts in a remarkably well-played game. Excellent defense, breakaway dunks, clutch shooting, bonus basketball – it was a match that left everyone awestruck, including the pair of Hall of Fame coaches working the sideline.
Crazily, that highly entertaining contest, won by the Orange 91-89 in overtime, was only the primer for the ACC’s true main event, Syracuse at Virginia.
While sportswriters have penned sonnets about Syracuse and its unblemished record, the stealth assassin of the league, Virginia, has also amassed a high body count. Whether at John Paul Jones Arena or on hostile soil, the Cavaliers have taken care of business. Their mixture of experienced upperclassmen and talented understudies have routinely plunged daggers into opponent hearts. Their hallmark, like every other Tony Bennett-coached team, is defense.
Similar to Wisconsin or Wichita St., the Cavs lull teams to sleep. They force foes to play slow, bleed clock and take highly questionable shots. Tough to penetrate inside and net second-chance opportunities against, they are stifling. On the year, they’ve surrendered just 0.873 points per possession, the second-lowest total in college basketball. In many ways, playing against them is akin to engaging in a chess match with a Russian grandmaster – arduous, frustrating and maddening.
Offensively, Virginia isn’t nearly as stellar. Joe Harris and Malcolm Brogdon are its only double-figure scorers. Because of its methodical execution, putting ball into basket, at times, is a premium. No surprise, it ranks outside the top-80 nationally in several offensive categories including adjusted offensive efficiency (89), effective field-goal percentage (167), three-point percentage (116), two-point percentage (190) and free-throw percentage (308). Still, because of their staunch D, it’s hard to blow out the Cavs. They will always be in games until the bitter end. Three of their five losses, all to tourney-worthy competition (VCU, Green Bay and Duke), were by four points or less.
Currently a rock solid No. 4 seed on the latest Bracket Big Board, Ralph Sampson U is knocking on the door of an attractive NCAA tournament standing, despite the mainstream media's reluctance to accept it. Defense may be its M.O., but, according to Bennett, his club’s ego-free mentality and added balance are its driving forces. From the Washington Post:
“We have such unselfish players. Guys with no hidden agenda about scoring, about anything,” he said. “I think as long as you have players like that, that are also very good individually, you’re going to have success…”
“Teams that are more balanced and have some depth, when they’re playing well, are harder to beat,” Bennett said. “I like that, that you can’t just focus on one guy and say, ‘If we stop him, we’re good.’ At times we were like that last year and I think we have more balance and that has shown when we’ve played our better basketball. I think there’s different weapons and that makes a stronger team.”
That resolve explains why the Cavs are on a collision course.
After clipping the Terrapins 61-53 Monday, Virginia has a rather unchallenging schedule in the short-term. A road test with Clemson Saturday will be no walk in the park, but it will be heavily favored in follow-ups versus Virginia Tech, Notre Dame and Miami. Assuming it conquers the meek, March could be a program-defining month.
Highlight, circle, triple star March 1 on your calendar – Syracuse/Virginia will be a contest with far-reaching impacts. The Orange, who topped Pittsburgh with a last-second Tyler Ennis heave ho Wednesday and have a highly publicized rematch at Duke upcoming, could easily enter that weekend deadlocked with UVA for the league lead. It could also be in position to shore up the No. 1 overall seed in the Big Dance. If the hoop gods cooperate and the perfect storm comes to fruition, the college basketball nation will have its eyes fixed on Charlottesville.
It may sound cliché, but, as the Seattle Seahawks showed recently, defense wins championships. If the cards fall right, it’s that characteristic which could net underappreciated Virginia its second ACC title in 18 years.
Rehearse your choreographed moves one last time. Get into costume. And press "play" on your boombox. It's time for an Interpretive Dance …
Here are this week’s biggest bracket bulls and bears:
DA BULLS (MOVING UP)
At the end of January the Hoyas were drinking water from the toilet. At 3-6 in Big East action, their postseason hopes were on the verge of getting flushed. However, credit to John Thompson III, the perennial dancer is back in the at-large conversation. Season-turning wins against Michigan St. and Providence coupled with key non-conference triumphs versus Kansas St. and VCU have the dogs barking once again. Depth and three-point contributions (33.2 3PT% in Big East games) are ongoing issues, but G'Town's much improved defense and dynamic backcourt of Markel Starks and D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera has it climbing. Over its current four-game win streak, the productive pair have chipped in a combined 36.0 points per game. The Hoyas rest-of-season slate is a bit treacherous. Road matchups against St. John's, Seton Hall, Marquette and Villanova along with a home tango with Creighton await. But finish 9-9 in conference and win a game in the Big East tourney, and Georgetown will 'Dougie' for the fifth-straight year.
Illinois fans will forever criticize Bruce Weber for his recruiting failures and overall period of mediocrity, but one thing is for sure; when he has talent, the man can maximize it. Pure pandemonium struck the Octagon of Doom Monday. Against arch-rival Kansas, the 'Cats, who had dropped 48 of their past 51 versus KU, overcame an embarrassing meltdown in regulation to seal a three-point victory in overtime. Super frosh Marcus Foster, rarely mentioned alongside the country's finest first-year players, proved he's on the same plane as Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Julius Randle and Tyler Ennis. He lead KSU with 20 points and has totaled 77 points in his past three games. Now with the same number of RPI top-100 wins as Duke and equipped with a top-15 defense, the Fighting Fosters are in position to generate a No. 6 seed or better in the NCAA tournament. Yes, even with early-season losses to Northern Colorado and Charlotte.
It's hard to believe 10 years ago, little St. Joe's, a school with a magnetic head coach, Phil Martelli, and dynamite point guard, Jameer Nelson, captivated the college basketball world. Recall that squad, also equipped with Delonte West and sharpshooter Pat Carroll, ran the table in the regular season only losing to Xavier in its opening round game in the A-10 tournament. Gifted a No. 1 seed in the Big Dance, it blazed a trail to the Elite Eight, ousted by Eddie Sutton's Oklahoma St. team in a heart-wrenching 64-62 loss. Though they've made the NCAA tournament only once since, Martelli has the Hawks knocking at the door. Imperative triumphs over UMass and VCU matched with a fairly challenging non-conference schedule has them dancing, for now. Senior guard Langston Galloway is a wonderful player, converting better than 43-percent from distance and 78-percent from the line, but untimely turnovers and poor free-throw shooting by his teammates have been persistent eyesores. Still, the Hawks are a solid rebounding team that can be tough to score on inside. If they can emerge victorious in four of their final seven, they should win a ticket to Dayton.
Also Flaming: St. John's, Richmond, Duke
DA BEARS (MOVING DOWN)
Even Bob Costas, through his pinkeye-infected retina, could see the Seminoles are in serious trouble. A firm at-large candidate less than a month ago, they've finished on the losing end of five of their past six games, including fumbling in home matchups against Clemson and Miami. Known as defensive stalwarts during Leonard Harmilton's tenure in Tallahassee, the Seminoles have failed miserably in the category of late. Over their past nine games, they've surrendered 1.115 points per possession. Offensively, they've made strides. Thanks to Aaron Thomas' hot hand, they've netted 41.2 percent from distance in conference play. However, as a team they attempt few threes per game. Battered by turnovers and relatively ineffective inside the arc, this is a team struggling to take advantage of its strengths. Critical non-conference wins against VCU and UMass has FSU registering a pulse, but it must undermine North Carolina and/or Syracuse at home to impress the Selection Committee. Hey, can Jameis Winston splash jumpers?
Circumstances in Stillwater have officially gone from bad to worse. Last weekend's incident in Lubbock involving Jeff Orr – a supremely obnoxious Texas Tech fan previously known for flipping an angry bird at a Texas A&M player – and Marcus Smart threw the Cowboys onto a pile of manure. Orr's actions were despicable and inappropriate. However, Smart needed to play the bigger man, exuding the leadership qualities many on his own team believe he possesses. Instead, he shoved Orr and was promptly slapped with a three-game suspension, a fair punishment. For a club in the midst of a downward spiral, however, the timing is a wee bit poor. Already on a five-game skid and extremely thin due to injuries and suspensions, the 'Boys could easily drop their next two contests. With tilts home against Oklahoma and at Baylor upcoming, odds are strong OSU drops to 16-10 overall and 4-9 in the Big 12. Unless Le'Bryan Nash drops 35 points per game over the next week and Bryant Reeves somehow has eligibility remaining, Travis Ford and friends will need a mad March dash to make the NCAA tournament. The good news: they won't be without opportunities. Their final three games of the regular season are against Kansas, Kansas St. and Iowa St.
Xavier Thames bricks. Nonexistent help defense. Surrendered dunks and fast-break points off missed free-throws. Tuesday was that kind of night for the Aztecs in Laramie. Wyoming wiped the floor with the No.5 ranked team in the country, easily beating SDSU off-dribble and frustrating it with a clamping zone. Without question, it was the Aztecs' worst performance of the season, a dumbfounding loss that greatly complicates their standing in the eyes of the Selection Committee. Few teams, if any, own as good or better non-conference wins as Steve Fisher's bunch. They defeated Creighton on a neutral floor and improbably went into Phog Allen and took out Kansas. Still, the Mountain West, likely only a two-bid league, has dragged down their overall strength of schedule and created a small margin for error. With a resume similar to St. Louis, a projected No. 5 seed, they're hard to slot. Another L, possibly at The Pit Feb. 22, and SDSU will probably earn a No. 3 at best.
Also Laming: UMass, Pittsburgh
This segment sifts through the bountiful weekend slate to highlight five titanic games that will bear the greatest impact on a team's "Bracket Big Board" standing.
1. Florida at Kentucky
So you want a No. 1 seed, Gator Nation? Well, the road to landing on the top bracket line goes through Lexington. Florida, which has won a school record five consecutive road games and is untouched overall in conference play, is the class of the SEC. Scott Wilbekin is one of the best on-ball defenders in the country, an agitator who is sure to get under the skin of the Harrison twins. Glass commander Patric Young is also a fabulous interior defender who should neutralize freshman sensation Julius Randle. Kentucky has pulverized teams at home in SEC play winning by an average margin of 17.6 points. However, the Gators match up extremely well. Bank on experience trumping youth.
Prediction: Florida 66 Kentucky 64
2. Arizona at Arizona St.
Friday nights are usually reserved for Ivy Leaguers and other small conference tilts, but this week, hoop heads are gifted a Valentine's evening treat. There go the dinner plans. Down Brandon Ashley, the Wildcats barely skirted by a highly suspect Oregon team last week. Though it dismantled Oregon St., its sketchy free-throw shooting, mediocre three-point effort and poor overall depth has Arizona vulnerable. Jahii Carson versus T.J. McConnell and Jordan Bachynski versus Kaleb Tarczewski should be battles for the ages. Whichever duo steals the show will spur its team to victory. Gut feeling says it will be the host.
Prediction: Arizona St. 65 Arizona 64
3. Villanova at Creighton
As many would say, this one could be for all the marbles. The 'Cats and Jays, with a firm grip of the top two spots in the Big East, are separated by a measly one mark in the loss column. Whoever claims victory in Omaha will have a leg up on the regular season title. The number of threes attempted in this contest could equal the combined enrollments of both schools. Each ranks top-10 nationally in three-point attempts per field-goals attempted. But, due to 'Nova's 236th-best perimeter defense, Creighton will have the advantage. Doug McDermott, Ethan Wragge and Jahenns Manigat unload on the 'Cats ... again.
Prediction: Creighton 81 Villanova 73
4. VCU at St. Louis
Despite a sparkling 22-2 record, the Billikens have garnered little national attention. A victory over VCU, however, and a spotlight will surely shine on them. Intense defense will be the theme in this game. Both squads guard tenaciously, apply relentless pressure and force turnovers. If St. Louis can slow tempo and successfully feed Rob Loe in the post, it will add another notch to the collar. If not, VCU's havoc pace will lead to easy transition buckets and the Billikens' first conference loss.
Prediction: St. Louis 67 VCU 63
5. Tennessee at Missouri
For the residents of Bubbleville, this SEC clash is loaded with intrigue. The Vols, despite tripping up against Florida inside Thompson Boiling Arena Tuesday, are on relatively stable ground to net an at-large. Signature out-of-conference wins against Xavier and Virginia explain why. However, Mizzou, currently on the outside looking in, desperately needs another slash in the RPI top-50 column. Vols enforcers Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon are highly active down low. They rip down rebounds, convert easy buckets and generate a ton of second-chance opportunities. Missouri answers Ryan Rosburg and Jonathan Williams must control the paint to prevent another crippling L.
Prediction: Tennessee 69 Missouri 67
Last week record: 5-0
Overall record: 9-1
Other Notable Games: Georgetown at St. John's, Wisconsin at Michigan, Pittsburgh at North Carolina, Oklahoma at Oklahoma St., Memphis at Connecticut, UMass at George Washington, BYU at St. Mary's, West Virginia at Texas, Kansas St. at Baylor
What underrated player earned his bust?
What high-profiled player took a long, embarrassing walk home?
Each week, per your tweets, the Noise will attempt to get inside the mind of Selection Committee chairman Ron Wellman.
It's hard to trust a school with a mascot that haunts my darkest nightmares (It's as though the ghost of John Candy mated with the Grinch), but the Billikens are a club to fear.
Jim Crews has done a marvelous job carrying on Rick Majerus' legacy. Similar to Virginia, his team is relentless defensively. Quality high-percentage shots are rare against it. Rob Loe, an intimidating enforcer inside, is a prolific shot-blocker who seals off the glass beautifully. On the whole, the Billikens pressure the ball incredibly well, coaxing turnovers on 22.1 percent of opponent possessions. Through 24 games, they've yielded a mere 0.876 points per possession, the third-best mark in the country.
Unfortunately, scoring baskets continues to be a difficult assignment. They share the ball well, particularly floor general Jordair Jett, but trey-bombs, second-chance opportunities and general scoring runs are scarce. Mike McCall, StL's best three-point shooter from a season ago, has especially struggled.
Last year's St. Louis team was better offensively, but was housed by Oregon in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Of course, the second season always boils down to matchups, but if slated to face an uptempo opponent with excellent ball-handlers, it will again get the hook early. If not, the Billikens should taste sweetness for the first time since the Eisenhower presidency.
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