"My rule was I wouldn't recruit a kid if he had grass in front of his house.
That's not my world. My world was a cracked sidewalk." —Al McGuire

Monday, September 16, 2019

Maryland & Temple Previews

Maryland Terrapins
December 1, HP Field House, Orlando FL
Coach: Mark Turgeon (180-92 at Maryland, 430-251 overall)
3-Year NCAA Rank Average: 45.0
3-Year kenpom Average: 36.3
2019-20 T-Rank Projection: 8

Projected Starters: PG Anthony Cowan (6'0" Sr), SG Darrell Morsell (6'5" Jr), SF Eric Ayala (6'5" So), PF Aaron Wiggins (6'6" So), C Jalen Smith (6'10" So)

Like Marquette, the Terps started last year on fire but faded down the stretch. Big man Bruno Fernando left for the NBA but everyone else of note returns. This is a talented team with potential star power in Cowan and Smith. The Terps could go bigger and put 4-star freshman Makhi Mitchell in the middle so Smith can remain at his natural PF position, but the roster above would give them a combination of on-ball defense and scorers.

The question this year will be the Terps' identity. Fernando dominated the offensive glass and was a potent rim protector, both of which were keys to their efficiency on both ends. They don't shoot particularly well and relied on put-backs. Expect a motion offense with a fairly deliberate pace. Everyone on the team can score, but I'm not sure they have that guy who can take control of a game. Defensively, they challenge shots and generally stick to man, though Turgeon is willing to go zone if necessary (see the LSU game last year). Maryland is getting top-10 respect and should be a Big 10 title contender. On paper, they are the best team Marquette could see in the non-conference, but pundits may be underestimating how important Fernando was on both ends of the floor. They will overwhelm some teams with sheer talent, but when it comes to other deep, high-major rosters, someone will have to emerge as a star.

Marquette Connection: If Maryland and Marquette meet in Orlando, it will mark the first time in their mutual history. Maryland is one of just three high-major programs (along with Oklahoma and California) that Marquette has never played. The closest they came was in the 2009 NCAA Tournament. The teams were set to meet in the Sweet 16, but each lost one game too early for the matchup to happen. Marquette lost to Missouri while Maryland fell to Memphis.

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Temple Owls
December 1, HP Field House, Orlando FL
Coach: Aaron McKie (0-0)
3-Year NCAA Rank Average: 81.0
3-Year kenpom Average: 91.0
2019-20 T-Rank Projection: 86

Projected Starters: PG Alani Moore (5'10" Sr), SG Nate Pierre-Louis (6'4" Jr), SF Quinton Rose (6'8" Sr), PF J.P. Moorman (6'7" Jr), C Justyn Hamilton (6'10" Jr)

Temple won 7 of their last 9 conference games to grab one of the last 2019 at-large NCAA bids. That streak was largely carried by the departed Shizz Alston's 23.7 ppg down the stretch. Alani Moore will take the reins, but it'll be hard for a guy who has only hit double-digit scoring 4 times in the past 2 years to fill those shoes. Expect the offense to be dominated by Rose, who is a high-usage, low-efficiency wing. The Owls have depth and experience as the top-8 rotation players are juniors or seniors, but the ones that look most likely to dominate the ball (Rose, Pierre-Louis, Moore) are also the least efficient offensively.

I expect this team to try to run. Since McKie's second season, Temple's pace has increased every year while top assistant Monte Ross had his greatest success pushing the pace at Delaware. Defensively, Temple focuses on turning teams over. Rose, Pierre-Louis, and bench wing D'Vondre Perry all excel at forcing turnovers so I expect a high-pressure man-to-man that seeks to get easy baskets in transition. As far as expectations, without Alston this just doesn't look like a tourney team. They will likely play fast and make games fun to watch, but Temple looks like a middle-of-the-American team that will be fighting for a NIT berth rather than a NCAA one. If Marquette plays them, it likely means they lost to Davidson.

Marquette Connection: Before Aaron McKie became the heir apparent to Fran Dunphy, there was another rising assistant at Temple. Current Marquette assistant Dwayne Killings started his college coaching career as the Director of Basketball Operations at Temple from 2006-09. After a brief stint away,  he came back as an assistant from 2011-16. He arrived with the Owls three years before McKie was hired. While McKie, as a Temple alum and former NBA assistant was a natural fit to succeed Dunphy, it's possible Killings would've been just as viable a candidate had he stuck around. This will be their first on-court reunion since Killings left Connecticut and the AAC for Marquette.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Fairfield Preview

Fairfield Stags
November 29, HP Field House, Orlando, FL

Coach: Jay Young (0-0)
3-Year NCAA Rank Average: 217.3
3-Year kenpom Average: 239.0
2019-20 T-Rank Projection: 215
Projected Starters: PG Aidas Kavaliauskas (6'1" Sr), SG Landon Taliaferro (6'3" Sr), SF Taj Benning (6'3" Jr), PF Jesus Cruz (6'5" Jr), C Vincent Eze (6'8" RS Sr)

When it comes to the Advocare Invitational field, "one of these things is not like the others" and it's definitely Fairfield. It isn't just that the Stags were bad last year, and finishing bottom of the 28th ranked MAAC is definitely bad, but they proceeded to follow that up by firing Coach Sydney Johnson and losing three starters. Big men Matija Milan and Jonathan Kasibabu graduated while freshman point guard Neftali Alvarez transferred to Mercer. Before those departures, the Stags went 9-22 on their way to the worst kenpom ranking of Johnson's coaching career.

So who comes back for rookie coach Jay Young? Taliaferro was last year's leading scorer and will carry the offensive load alongside Cruz, the only other returning player who averaged over 6 ppg last year. Kavaliauskas and Benning both earned minutes last year, but are both also very turnover prone. Eze joins as a grad transfer from Maine that contributed as a rotation piece last year and will be expected to fill a bigger role for the Stags. Calvin Whipple and Wassef Methnani provide some depth off the bench, but this is generally an unproven team that was bad for a reason. The freshmen will be intriguing, particularly 6'10" big man Chris Maidoh, who needs development but picked Fairfield over St. John's.

Young had some success as a Division II head coach before joining Steve Pikiell as an assistant, first at Stony Brook and later at Rutgers. Unlike most recent head coach hires that preach offense and pushing pace, Young is planning to set the tone for the Stags on defense. His first two days of practice were exclusively working on defense. Pikiell's teams were deliberate on offense and got their points by outworking teams on the offensive glass. Defensively, they mixed man and zone, but I would expect more zone from Fairfield this year as it's easier to install early.

The consensus seems to be that Fairfield will be around the middle of the MAAC this year, but that still leaves them as by far the worst team in Orlando. USC should handle them with ease, so if Marquette plays Fairfield, the downside is a hit to the strength of schedule but the upside is what should be a comfortable 20+ point win. This is essentially a neutral court buy game and will likely be a Quadrant 4 win when Selection Sunday rolls around. The best case scenario would be Fairfield cracking the top-200 of NET to reach Quadrant 3, but I'm not at all optimistic and honestly, the T-Rank projection might be a bit high for this team.

Marquette Connection: Before he came to Marquette, former assistant coach Aki Collins was an assistant at Fairfield. Collins joined Buzz Williams' staff in 2008 and was best known for player development, though he was also instrumental in recruiting guards Derrick Wilson and Todd Mayo. In addition, Collins' boss at Fairfield was current Providence head coach Ed Cooley, who has a 5-9 record against Marquette since leaving the Stags for the Friars.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

USC Preview

USC Trojans
November 29, HP Field House, Orlando, FL

Coach: Andy Enfield (151-120 overall, 110-92 at USC)
3-Year NCAA Rank Average: 54.3
3-Year kenpom Average: 62.0
2019-20 T-Rank Projection: 77

Projected Starters: PG Elijah Weaver (6'5" So), SG Jonah Matthews (6'3" Sr), SF Daniel Utomi (6'6" RS Sr), PF Isaiah Mobley (6'9" Fr), C Nick Rakocevic (6'11" Sr)

On paper, the Trojans looked like a team that would compete for a NCAA bid. Instead, injuries and off-court issues led to a losing season that included 6 sub-100 kenpom losses and three losing streaks of 3+ games. This led to massive roster upheaval in the offseason. Leading scorer Bennie Boatwright and starting wing Shaqquan Aaron graduated. Star freshman Kevin Porter left for the NBA Draft. Starting point guard Derryck Thornton led a cascade of transfers that also included bench players Jordan Usher, J'Raan Brooks, and Victor Uyaelunmo.

Matthews and Rakocevic are proven Pac-12 players that will lead the new-look Trojans. Weaver got some run at the point last year and will hope to improve on a dismal offensive efficiency rating. Utomi (Akron) and fellow grad transfer Quentin Adlesh (Columbia) were both double digit scorers for their mid-major programs and will add scoring and three-point shooting options. In addition to the returning starters and grad transfers, USC has an injection of young talent coming in as well. The biggest name is 5-star recruit Isaiah Mobley. He is not only the centerpiece of a top-10 recruiting class that includes another 5-star (6'8" F Onyeka Okongwu) but also the older brother of the top-ranked recruit in 2020, Evan Mobley, who will join the Trojans next season.

Under Andy Enfield, USC runs what they call an attacking man-to-man offense. They want to spread teams out to the arc and attack the interior using their length and athleticism in isolation. Enfield's teams have never been ranked lower than #67 in offensive average possession length, so their intent is to get to the rim before the defense is able to get set. The Trojans don't shoot a ton of threes, but when they do they do so efficiently. Expect lots of drives inside and when they kick it out the shooters to knock down shots. USC doesn't turn it over often (top-50 TO% each of the past 3 years). On the other end, USC will be looking to find a defensive identity. Enfield uses both man and zone defenses and numerous injuries led to a lack of identity last year. They will try to challenge every shot and do so without fouling, but even in his most successful seasons Enfield has never had a defensive efficiency rating better than #80 in the nation. They win games on the offensive end.

USC has a lot of intriguing pieces, but getting them to fit together will be a challenge. There's no proven point guard and while USC has plenty of size, how they play together will be a question mark. Their raw talent will earn them wins but they are projected almost across the board as a middle of the pack Pac-12 team. If it all comes together, they could challenge for an at-large bid, but while they will almost certainly win their first round Advocare matchup with Fairfield, this is a team that Marquette should beat.

Marquette Connection: Marquette has only played USC once in program history, but it was chock full of inter-program coaching ties. The two teams met in 2012 in the final game of the Maui Invitational. What stands out about that game is that USC was also coached at the time by former Marquette coach Kevin O'Neill. O'Neill wasn't the only former Marquette connection on the sidelines that day. Marquette's all-time assists leader, Tony Miller, was one of the O'Neill's assistant coaches. Jamil Wilson led the way for Marquette with 19 points and 6 rebounds as MU claimed a 72-64 win. It was also the last chance Marquette had to see O'Neill, as he would be fired less than 2 months later. Marquette dealt USC their second loss of the season en route to a 7-10 start that saw him fired mid-season. I would love to say that future USC and Marquette wing Katin Reinhardt was on the bench that day, but he didn't arrive at USC until 6 months after this game was played.

Wednesday, September 04, 2019

Davidson Preview

Davidson Wildcats
November 28, HP Field House, Orlando, FL

Coach: Bob McKillop (578-350)
3-Year NCAA Rank Average: 70.3
3-Year kenpom Average: 71.0
2019-20 T-Rank Projection: 52

Projected Starters: PG Jon Axel Gudmundsson (6'5" Sr), SG Kellan Grady (6'5" Jr), SF Luke Frampton (6'5" RS So), PF KiShawn Pritchett (6'6" Sr), C Luka Brajkovic (6'10" So)

Last year had to be a disappointment for Davidson fans. They returned the dynamic backcourt duo of Gudmundsson and Grady, both of whom were at least on NBA radars the year before. They had a ton of young talent, but after an 8-1 start, lost their last three meaningful non-conference games to Temple, Wake Forest, and North Carolina. They finished second in the A-10, including being one of two teams to knock of regular season champs VCU, and when early conference tournament upsets of VCU & Dayton left them the only top-100 (per Pomeroy) team in the semifinals, a NCAA bid seemed within grasp. Then they got lambasted by a mediocre St. Louis team and went to the NIT instead, where they squandered a 9-point second half home lead to fall in the first round to Lipscomb.

The good news is that after testing the waters, Gudmundsson and Grady are back. Along with Frampton, they form the most dangerous offensive backcourt in the A-10. All five starters are back, as is the only other player to average double-digit minutes in SG Carter Collins. The A-10 looks to have three NCAA caliber teams this year, and this is definitely one of them. The Wildcats will be tested again, with games against Auburn, Vanderbilt, Nevada, Wake Forest, and Loyola-Chicago in addition to the three Orlando games. The difference this year is that, according to T-Rank, they are pick-em or better in all of those games. In the A-10, they play VCU and Dayton just once each with both games at home. They are only projected as more than a 1-point underdog in 2 of their games: Marquette and at Rhode Island. This is a team that is going to win 20+ games, has a legit shot at winning their conference, and should be at least in the mix for an at-large berth come Selection Sunday.

Bob McKillop has had 18 straight winning seasons at Davidson, including 13 campaigns with 20+ wins in that span. The main reason is because of his dynamic offense. His teams are incredibly adept at running the break, running ball screens, shooting, and making good decisions. Everyone is involved, everyone can pass, everyone can shoot, and they take a LOT of threes (18 straight years in the top-65 of 3PFGA%). Davidson is also a team that won't beat themselves. They don't turn the ball over much, they don't expose themselves to fast-breaks by overcommitting on the offensive glass, and on the other end, they limit second chances. What's impressive about the last bit is that in the past two years, McKillop has taken advantage of his long guards by moving more to a 2-3 zone. The length of Gudmundsson and Grady bothers shooters on the perimeter and unlike traditional zone teams, they have been able to limit offensive rebounds. For comparison, the past two years Davidson has been top-35 each season in defensive rebounding percentage. The most notable zone in the country, Syracuse, has never been ranked better than #131 in the past 23 years.

I'll be honest, when I saw Davidson come up for Orlando, I shuddered. Their creative, well-schooled offense makes them an incredibly tough defensive matchup, and without the Hausers, shooting over their zone will be a challenge for Marquette. Davidson is a team that, like Belmont or Syracuse, are simply very difficult to match up with because what they do is unlike what anyone else does. The loser of this game will also likely draw a second-round match with Fairfield, which is by far the weakest opponent in Orlando, and also miss out on the chance to make a statement against preseason top-10 Maryland. Because of the importance of neutral court games and the implications on the schedule, this is unquestionably the most important non-conference game on the schedule, on par with the 2017 VCU game and 2012 Butler game, both played in Maui.

Marquette Connection: Anyone that listens to the Real Chilly Podcast knows the call from their introductory music. "Here we go, 5 seconds left, Marquette down by 1, trying to avoid the upset. Blue with the drive, the left hand, IT'S GOOD! 1 second to play, Vander Blue has put Marquette in front by 1!" Any Marquette fan whose allegiance goes back more than 5 years was likely jumping and dancing like an overcaffeinated idiot just like I was at BBC on the East Side of Milwaukee. Marquette finished the game on an 11-4 run. While some called it a choke, Davidson's 4 possessions before Blue's layup featured 1.200 points per possession, 75% free throw shooting, 100 eFG%, and just one turnover. They didn't choke. It was Marquette scoring a ridiculous 2.750 ppp, going 3/3 beyond the arc after starting the game 1/12, and having a 175 eFG% in the final minute of the game. Blue stole the final inbound to seal the improbable triumph. Marquette went on to follow that win with victories over Butler and Miami en route to the Elite 8. It all started with that Davidson game. If you never saw it or just want a reminder, you can get your goosebumps here.