"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

Saturday, September 30, 2023

St. Thomas Preview, 2023-24

St. Thomas Tommies

December 14, 2023, Fiserv Forum

Head Coach: (246-87 overall, 28-33 in Division I)

Two-Year NET Average: 255.0

Two-Year kenpom Average: 253.5

Projected 2023-24 T-Rank: 239

Projected Starters: PG Raheem Anthony (6'4" 5th), SG Brooks Allen (6'7" 5th), SF Kendall Blue (6'6" So), PF Parker Bjorklund (6'6" 5th), C Ahjany Lee (6'9" So)

Ahjany Lee represents the improved length and athleticism at St. Thomas

Photo from St. Thomas Athletics

The Tommies 2022-23 season showed massive improvement from their debutant season in Division I. They jumped more than 100 spots in kenpom from 305 to 202, more than doubled their Summit League win total from 4 to 9, and posted their first winning record at 19-14. They did lose two of their top-three scorers in fifth year senior Riley Miller and standout freshman Andrew Rohde, but the bulk of their team is back and looking to improve once again.

Replacing Rohde at the point is the hardest task. Raheem Anthony is a D3 up-transfer that was third nationally in scoring at 24.6 ppg. Anthony had a ton of D1 interest, but he was a former opponent of St. Thomas while at St. Mary's (MN) in the MIAC so they are familiar with his game and ability. He's joined by a trio of proven wings. Brooks Allen, Kendall Blue, and Parker Bjorklund all have length and inside-out scoring ability. Ahjany Lee had a solid freshman campaign and got better as the season went on, putting up better efficiency and rebounding in league play. The bench has a number of options, with Ben Nau and Ryan Dufault both experienced back court options and Courtney Brown giving Tauer a versatile wing off the bench.

Offensively, the Tommies are transitioning nicely to D1. After a year where they pretty much just protected the ball and bombed threes, they recruited additional length and strength. They were still great at protecting the ball, but the physicality allowed them to attack the interior more and put more pressure on the defense as they got to the line more often. Defensively, Lee is the centerpiece as the team's primary rim protector. However, their wings all have the ability to guard up which allows them to switch positionally. That said, none of the Summit League teams ranked in the top-100 defensively per kenpom, and only 2/10 were in the top-200, so that is definitely their weakness.

Two years ago, the Tommies were picked to finish last in the Summit and came in 8th. Last year, they were picked 8th and finished 4th. They will again be looking to overachieve and have the experience and talent to do just that. Bjorklund, Allen, and Blue is an excellent core to build around and Anthony is the type of player that could make an immediate impact at the D1 level. Tauer has proven to be a capable coach thus far and while the Tommies are still in the transition phase, there's no reason they can't compete for a regular season Summit League crown. This is a dangerous guarantee game as the Tommies had a lead in Omaha over Creighton with less than 10 minutes to go in last year's opener. At worst, this is a perfectly fine opponent, at best, they have Quadrant 3 upside.

Marquette Connection: From Fall 2017 through Spring 2021, the Brookfield Central Lancers went 85-17. The driving force behind that team was star forward David Joplin, now at Marquette, and guard Ben Nau, now at St. Thomas. They were never better than the 2020 season, when they entered the WIAA State Tournament ranked #2 in the state and were 24-1 after beating rival Brookfield East in the WIAA Sectionals. But remember, this was March 2020. "Every game from here on out, it could be our last game" said Joplin after the victory that did indeed prove to be the final game of their season due to the Coronavirus shutting down the basketball season later that night. The subsequent year, Joplin went on to be named First Team All-Conference and All-State while Nau shared All-Conference honors with his teammate. While both were standouts as teammates, they will be opponents when St. Thomas visits Fiserv.

Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Notre Dame Preview 2023-24

Notre Dame Fighting Irish

December 9th, 2023, Fiserv Forum

Head Coach: Micah Shrewsberry (37-31 overall, 0-0 at Notre Dame)

Three-Year NET Average: 109.0

Three-Year kenpom Average: 96.3

Projected 2023-24 T-Rank: 228

Projected Starters: PG Markus Burton (5'10" Fr), SG Julian Roper (6'3" Jr), SF Tae Davis (6'9" So), PF Carey Booth (6'10" Fr), C Kebba Nije (6'10" So)

Micah Shrewsberry takes over for Mike Brey in South Bend

Photo by USATSI

Mike Brey's final season in South Bend was one to forget. His team finished #166 in kenpom, the lowest rank of his career, and that includes four seasons at Delaware. The Irish managed to not finish last in the ACC, but only because the even more inept Louisville shared the league with them. Their 11-21 record represented the fewest wins and most losses in a single season in Brey's career. Making matters worse, every player that averaged double-digit minutes is gone. The leading returning scorer is reserve big man Matt Zona, who scored 34 points the entire season.

That makes this a complete rebuild for new coach Micah Shrewsberry, who took Penn State to their first NCAA appearance since 2011 and first win since 2001. His team will be led by youth, as freshman Markus Burton will likely get the first crack at the point. He was the last holdover recruit from Brey and was Indiana's Mr. Basketball last year. Julian Roper joins from Northwestern, where he showed promise for two years before having last season cut short by injury. Tae Davis might be familiar to Marquette fans as he transferred in from Seton Hall. He played a reserve role for the Pirates but has three years eligibility left. Carey Booth originally committed to Shrewsberry at Penn State, picking the Nittany Lions over Marquette, and is the prize of the recruiting class as 247's composite ranking has him #60 in the Class of 2023. Booth is a long, athletic wing that needs to add strength but has a lot of upside. Kebba Nije came along with Shrewsberry from Penn State, and like Davis has three years eligibility. He appeared in all 37 games for PSU, starting 26. He is a space-eater and is effective on the glass. Zona is joined by the coach's son Braeden Shrewsberry and Logan Imes on the bench, both of whom are top-200 composite freshmen.

At Penn State, Shrewsberry ran an inverted offense. He liked to put point guard Jalen Pickett on the interior, where he was an effective offensive weapon in the post but also a lethal passer in redistributing the ball to the wings. The Nittany Lions were top-10 in both three point attempt rate and three point field goal percentage, a lethal combination for a team that ranked #320 in tempo. With a younger squad, expect him to teach concepts and Shrewsberry has said he will tailor the offense to his personnel. That likely means offense will be a work in progress. Before last year, Shrewsberry was known as a defensive coach first. He describes his style as "gritty, not pretty" and the main focus seems to be on limiting second shots. They don't try to force turnovers, instead slowing the tempo and relentlessly crashing the glass. But again, with a young team, expect there to be some bumps on that road.

On paper, T-Rank has Notre Dame as the worst high-major team by a landslide. The next lowest team to their #228 is #174 Oregon State, more than 50 spots better. With four freshmen and two sophomores in the rotation, and only one player having played for this coach before, it will be an uphill slog. This is one of the least experienced rosters in the country, and the player with the highest D1 scoring average last year was Roper at 4.4 ppg. Shrewsberry showed a lot of promise as a coach at Penn State, but he walked into a much better situation than he inherited in South Bend. It will take time, recruiting, and development. This is an opponent Marquette should defeat handily.

Marquette Connection: No team has beaten Marquette more often than Notre Dame. 81 times the Irish have come away with the W against Marquette. But when the rivalry renewed on December 11, 2022, that was not the case. Notre Dame was competitive early and had a 28-25 lead before a 16-1 run spanning the half put Marquette ahead for good in South Bend. After not playing Notre Dame for close to a decade, this was an important game not only as a high-major road opponent but because of the import the rivalry has to the fanbase. "I want you guys to know, this game was very, very meaningful to a whole lot of people," Smart told his team after the victory, "Every game is meaningful to us, but this game means a lot. We came in here and made a lot of people happy because you guys played the right way."

Sunday, September 24, 2023

Texas Preview, 2023-24

Texas Longhorns

December 6, 2023, Fiserv Forum

Head Coach: Rodney Terry (22-8 at Texas, 185-165 overall)

Three-Year NET Average: 13.7

Three-Year kenpom Average: 15.3

Projected 2023-24 T-Rank: 13

Projected Starters: PG Tyrese Hunter (6'0" Jr), SG Max Abmas (6'0" 5th), SF Dillon Mitchell (6'8" So), PF Dylan Disu (6'9" 5th), C Kadin Shedrick (6'11" Sr)

Brock Cunningham is the last Shaka Smart recruit at Texas

Photo by Will Gallagher | Inside Texas

The Longhorns were 7-1 with a pair of massive wins over Gonzaga and Creighton before Chris Beard was suspended and later fired for domestic violence charges. Rodney Terry's tenure as interim coach had a rocky start, narrowly escaping a guarantee game loss when they beat Rice in overtime, but they rebounded nicely as the Longhorns went 12-6 in the Big 12, good for second in the league, won the Big 12 Tournament for the second time in their history, and made it to the Elite Eight before falling to Miami. Terry's interim status was removed and Texas moved forward with him as their head coach.

Tyrese Hunter is back to lead the offense, likely taking more of an on-ball role like he had at Iowa State. He's joined by Oral Roberts transfer Max Abmas, who has averaged over 20 ppg for three straight seasons in the Summit League and, with 2,561 points scored, has a good chance to become a 3,000 point scorer, finishing in the top-10 all-time. Dillon Mitchell and Dylan Disu both started every game they played for Texas and comprise an athletic, high-energy front court. Shedrick comes over from Virginia where he was an occasional starter the past two years and despite high efficiency couldn't establish himself in the lineup. Off the bench, expect to see Brock Cunningham, a versatile experienced wing, and fifth year transfer Ithiel Horton, most recently at UCF. Cunningham can guard 1-4 while Horton will likely be expected to provide reserve scoring.

Under Beard, Texas ran a heavy motion offense. Players would move constantly off the ball, passing around the perimeter until someone got free inside for an easy layup attempt. It requires everyone to have some guard skills, using cuts and screens to open up space and passing lanes inside. But now Beard and his offensive guru, Bob Donewald, are gone. So will Terry stick with the motion system, or go back to the slow-down, ball control style he employed at Fresno State and UTEP? Defensively, they will likely stick with the no-middle system that Beard helped popularize in the Big 12. Deny the middle of the court and prevent ball reversals. Challenge everything, pressure the ball, and lock down passing lanes.

Texas regrouped brilliantly last season, but their top three scorers are gone in Marcus Carr, SirJabari Rice, and Timmy Allen. Abmas fills a big scoring hole, but this is also a big step up for a guy who has historically struggled against top level competition. His surrounding cast should help, but this will likely be a team finding their way on offense early on. The biggest question, however, is Terry. He did an excellent job last year, but had he not been sitting on the sideline when Beard was fired, he likely would not have been in the mix for this job. On paper, this should be a top-25 team with the quality and depth to be a factor in the Big 12. But what Terry did last year was with Beard's roster and sustaining that will be a difficult task. Their trip to Milwaukee will be their first true road game on the season and is an excellent chance for Marquette to tally a quality win early on.

Marquette Connection: Let's address the elephant in the room, which is Texas taking on their recently-departed coach Shaka Smart. Smart spent 6 years in Austin, going to three NCAA Tournaments and winning the school's first Big 12 Tournament title in his final year there in 2021. However he failed to win a single NCAA Tournament game and when Marquette came calling, Texas didn't stop him from leaving. Suffice to say, it's been a wild two years since, with Marquette returning to the top of the Big East under Smart while Texas is on their second coach post-Smart but finally found winning ways in March under Terry. This will be one of the marquee games of the Big East-Big 12 Battle as much for the connections off the court as the talent on it.

Thursday, September 21, 2023

UW-Madison Preview, 2023-24

UW-Madison Badgers

December 2, 2023, Kohl Center

Head Coach: Greg Gard (164-94)

Three-Year NET Average: 42.7

Three-Year kenpom Average: 37.3

Projected 2023-24 T-Rank: 30

Projected Starters: PG Chucky Hepburn (6'2" Jr), SG Max Klesmit (6'3" Sr), SF A.J. Storr (6'7" So), PF Tyler Wahl (6'9" 5th), C Steven Crowl (7'0" Sr)

Chucky Hepburn singed Marquette at Fiserv last season

Photo by John Fisher | Getty Images

The Badgers had an up and down season. Greg Gard kept up his 6-year streak of landing at least one win against a kenpom top-10 team when they beat Marquette at Fiserv, and they began the year 11-2 (3-0 Big 10) with the only losses by a single possession to Kansas and Wake Forest. They followed that up by losing 6 of 7, then mostly alternated wins and losses as they bounced around the NCAA bubble the rest of the year. In the end, they missed the NCAA Tournament for just the second time in Gard's tenure, and an NIT semifinal appearance is likely little consolation to a fanbase that has been lukewarm on Gard for most of his career.

All five starters are back for this team. Chucky Hepburn is a face Marquette fans will not forget as his 19 points that included 5/6 shooting from three dealt the Golden Eagles their only home loss of the season. He is joined in the back court by Max Klesmit, who as expected saw his usage drop from his time at Wofford but improved his ball-handling and three-point shooting to give Hepburn a competent partner. Connor Essegian is another reliable shooter that doesn't turn the ball over. Up front, Tyler Wahl didn't have the breakout year some (including Cracked Sidewalks) expected as he needs to rediscover his interior touch (43.8 2PFG% after being a career 54.7% coming in). Steven Crowl mans the middle and is able to not only score in the paint but stretch the floor and create for others. The wildcard for this time is likely A.J. Storr. The St. John's transfer started 17 games for the Red Storm and is likely the best player on the team at creating his own shot both inside the arc and out. He may carve out a starting role with his offensive skills and at 6'6" he has the length to be disruptive defensively. The other most likely bench contributors are Carter Gilmore, a former walk-on that earned 3 starts last year, and freshman Gus Yalden.

With Johnny Davis gone, Greg Gard returned to the slow pace UW-Madison is known for. Ball control, taking time to create shots, swinging the ball around until you find someone with less than 10 on the shot clock to get a look. They favor jump shots over driving and won't hammer the offensive glass, instead getting back on defense. Defensively, they will stick with a rigid man-to-man, keep the boards clean, and defend without fouling. They are exceptional on the defensive end at slowing teams down and forcing them into late shot clock situations as well which suits their tempo.

Bringing nearly everyone back from an NIT semifinalist, the NCAA Tournament has to be the goal for this Badger team. That said, running it back with the same general roster a year older doesn't always guarantee greater success. The biggest problem for the Badgers most of last year was not having the Chucky Hepburn Marquette fans saw at Fiserv. In that game, he was efficient the entire night and a closer when they needed him most. But in their last 5 regular season losses, they had a lead with less than 5 minutes to play. For the regular season, it was 8 games in total they lost while having a lead under 5:00. Repeatedly they needed someone to step up and came up short, which is what cost them the NCAA Tournament. Maybe it's Storr, maybe it's a more experienced Hepburn, maybe it's someone else, but if they want to make noise in March they need someone to prove they are willing and able to take and make tough shots when the game is on the line.

What We've Learned: This team is erratic. After an uncharacteristic 105 point explosion in their first game, the highest scoring game in Kohl Center history, the Badgers dropped back-to-back games to Tennessee at home and were drubbed by Providence on the road. After playing Robert Morris close, they went to Fort Myers and blew out Virginia and pulled away from SMU to win the Fort Myers Tip-Off. The most surprising development may be the disappearance of Connor Essegian, who not only hasn't started a game yet (A.J. Storr took his role) but is tenth in minutes played so far. Not surprisingly, the key for Wisconsin has been tempo. Aside from the laugher against Arkansas State to open the season, when they play more than 62 possessions, they struggle (1-2 with the win a 10-point decision over RMU). When they keep it to 61 or fewer, they are 3-0 with an average 18-point margin of victory.

In terms of what Marquette can control, they need to do two things that feed each other. Wisconsin has their worst offensive turnover ranking in 6 years, while Marquette is turning teams over at a higher rate than any Shaka Smart team since he was at VCU. Pressure the ball-handlers into turnovers and turn those into quick points. Don't let them get comfortable and if they do get into the offense, don't give up on a possession until it's over because they do not feel pressure late in the shot clock. Marquette managed to speed up UCLA enough to pull off the comeback. Do the same against Wisconsin and they should win the game. But it's still Bucky, and none of us will feel comfortable until the last buzzer sounds with Marquette in the lead.

Marquette Connection: Last year at this time, Zaide Lowery and Gus Yalden were gearing up for their final season as high school players at the prep school La Lumiere in Indiana. LaLu, as it is affectionately known, is one of the premier prep schools in the country, claiming such players as Jordan Poole, Jaden Ivey, Jaren Jackson, and Tyger Campbell as alumni. Now they go from teammates to rivals, as Lowery is a freshman at Marquette and Yalden will be on the other side of the I-94 rivalry as a Badger (selecting Madison over Marquette on his final list). Update: Yalden has yet to play this year and is facing numerous legal issues. It's highly unlikely he will see action on Saturday and it seems his future at Wisconsin is uncertain.

Monday, September 18, 2023

Southern Preview, 2023-24

Southern Jaguars

November 28, 2023 at Fiserv Forum

Head Coach: Kevin Johnson (65-100 overall, 0-0 at Southern)

Three-Year NET Average: 257.7

Three-Year kenpom Average: 267.7

Projected 2023-24 T-Rank: 347

Projected Starters: PG Tidjiane Dioumassi (6'5" Jr), SG Brandon Davis (6'1" Sr), SF Derrick Tezeno (6'5" Jr), PF Jaylen Reynolds (6'7" Sr), Festus Ndumanya (6'7" Sr)

Kevin Johnson is back as a head coach 18 years after leaving Centenary

Photo from SWAC.com

After a to-be-expected rough 4-9 non-conference slate, Southern started 8-1 in SWAC play. From there, they feel apart, finishing 3-7 over their last 10 and missing the NCAA Tournament. Head Coach Sean Woods was fired and their top-5 scorers all departed as well. Kevin Johnson takes over after 4 years as an assistant at Tulane and 18 years removed from his last head coaching job at Centenary.

Johnson's roster looks like a patchwork quilt. The only true point guard on the roster is Tidjiane Dioumassi, a JUCO transfer that averaged 10.3 ppg/5.0 apg for Lee College last year. He's joined in the back court by Brandon Davis and Derrick Tezeno, transfers from Texas State and Stephen F Austin respectively. Both were low-efficiency role-players at their previous stops and will hope to benefit in dropping down to a lower level. Up front, Jaylen Reynolds and Festus Ndumanya are the leading returning scorers for the Jaguars, though both averaged fewer than 15 mpg and will be taking big steps up in responsibility. Off the bench, expect to see Dre'Shawn Allen, a fifth year returning guard, and Tai'Reon Joseph, last seen at Radford two years ago spelling the back court while freshman Brentay Noel will be the most likely front court sub.

So what can we expect from Southern? It's hard to say. Johnson's best teams at Centenary tended to slow the pace and relied on threes and their ability to both get to and convert at the free throw line. Defensively, their strength was creating turnovers and chasing teams off the three-point line. Expect an active bunch that tries to get into passing lanes and disrupts the perimeter. Woods played a higher tempo, but his teams had similar defensive tendencies so don't be surprised to see that continue.

Last year, Arizona and Creighton played in the final in Maui. Both lost their first games back on the mainland. San Diego State and Arkansas played the Maui consolation game and both were trailing in buy games in the final minutes. It's tough rebounding from the long trip, and Marquette playing Southern in their first game post-Maui doesn't look like an accident. There's no sugar-coating it, this roster is terrible and Marquette should win this game very comfortably. Even if they show up flat, this is a game they should win by double-digits. Maybe by conference play the Jaguars will get it together, but T-Rank has them as the 10th best team in the 12-team SWAC and that is probably overestimating their ability. Quite simply, this is a game tailor-made to be the "get it together" game as the only contest in a 9 day stretch after Maui and before going to Madison. If you're going to have one absolute roll-over cupcake on the schedule, this is the spot to have it and this looks like the perfect team to batter into oblivion.

Marquette Connection: While this will be Kevin Johnson's first trip to Milwaukee with Southern, he did bring his Centenary team to the Bradley Center in the 2000-01 season for the Blue & Gold Classic. Led by Cordell Henry, Marquette raced out to an 18-0 lead before the Gentlemen scored their first point. Johnson's team did narrow the gap to just 30-28 early in the second half, but Henry scored the next 9 points in the game and Marquette cruised from there to a 66-47 victory. Tom Crean's team went on to defeat Cal State Northridge for the title the following night.

Friday, September 15, 2023

Tennessee/Syracuse Capsules, 2023-24

Tennessee Volunteers

November 22, 2023, Maui Invitational

Head Coach: Rick Barnes (175-92 at Tennessee, 779-406 overall)

Three-Year NET Average: 10.0

Three-Year kenpom Average: 14.3

Projected 2023-24 T-Rank: 6

Projected Starters: PG Zakai Zeigler (5'9" Jr), SG Santiago Vescovi (6'3" 5th), SF Josiah-Jordan James (6'6" 5th), PF Dalton Knecht (6'6" 5th), C Jonas Aidoo (6'11" Jr)

Zakai Zeigler looks to spark some semblance of offense in Knoxville

Photo from Tennessee Athletics

The knock on Rick Barnes was his failure to escape the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament after just one Sweet 16 in the past 14 years. The team again reached the Sweet 16 in 2023, but some may be disappointed they fell to a lower seed in Florida Atlantic. Barnes has a ton of experience on this roster, though much of the defensive spine has moved on. Zakai Zeigler and Santiago Vescovi make up an experienced back court and are both capable of handling the ball. Josiah-Jordan James and Jonas Aidoo know the system well but will need to step up from supporting cast roles. Dalton Knecht joins from Northern Colorado where he averaged 20.2 ppg/7.2 rpg. If the step up is too big for Knecht, Barnes has options in veteran guards Jahmai Mashack and transfer Jordan Gainey, as well as promising sophomore bruiser Tobe Awaka.

Offensively, Barnes likes to work inside-out. The guards feed a big that can create offense in the post or kick it back out to shooters and drivers into the lane. That's the theory. The problem is if he doesn't have dynamic offensive players, they tend to be pretty mediocre. When he has inside-out NBA talents like T.J. Ford, Kevin Durant, D.J. Augustin, and Grant Williams, it goes great. When he has bigs that are more offensive role-players and guards that are more wings out of position, their attack can stagnate and games turn into low-scoring slogfests. Defensively, Tennessee is always tough as nails. Despite the losses of Julian Phillips and Olivier Nkamhoua, they still have James, who is an excellent wing defender. Aidoo provides the rim protection and this team will be well-drilled on sticking in front of their men, grinding down the defensive pace, and punishing teams that try to score. The keys for this team to reach the next level will be Zeigler's health and team running ability along with Aidoo's ability to become an offensive hub in the post. If they want to go from SEC contender to champion, they need to be better on offense. Last year, the strategy was basically to keep opponents in the 50s. When their defense held opponents below 60 points, they were 22-0. When opponents scored 60 or more, they were 3-11. That's enough to earn a decent NCAA seed and make a little tourney run, but you need to be able to put points on the board to turn a little run into a Final Four appearance.




Syracuse Orange

November 22, 2023, Maui Invitational

Head Coach: Adrian Autry (0-0)

Three-Year NET Average: 82.0

Three-Year kenpom Average: 76.3

Projected 2023-24 T-Rank: 140

Projected Starters: PG Judah Mintz (6'3" So), SG J.J. Starling (6'4" So), SF Chris Bell (6'7" So), PF Benny Williams (6'9" Jr), C Naheem McLeod (7'4" Jr)

Adrian Autry replaces Syracuse legend Jim Boeheim

Photo from Syracuse Athletics

Jim Boeheim's coaching career ended not with a bang, but a whimper. The Orange went 17-15 and missed the postseason for the second consecutive year. Syracuse grad Adrian "Red" Autry takes over after 12 years as an assistant to Boeheim. This is a monumental change, as Boeheim was at the helm for 47 years and has been a part of all but one NCAA Tournament appearance in Syracuse history as a player, assistant, or head coach. The biggest change is the anticipated move to man-to-man after decades of Boeheim's adherence to playing zone defense. The Orange are young, with zero seniors on the roster and just three of the thirteen scholarship players being juniors. Their sophomore back court of Judah Mintz and Notre Dame transfer J.J. Starling were both double-digit scorers last season. Up front, they have the expected Syracuse length, as both Chris Bell and Benny Williams are long, athletic forwards. Naheem McLeod is a monster shot-blocker who was a top-10 JUCO prospect who joins the Orange by way of Florida State. Their bench is led by Auburn transfer Chance Westry, who was a top-50 wing that never quite settled in with the Tigers. In terms of raw talent and recruiting rankings, this team seems to have a lot of promise, but none of them have actually produced wins at this level.

Expect the Orange to look more modern under Autry. They can put four shooters on the floor around McLeod and will likely let it fly more than they did last year. Defensively, they will probably still mix in some zone, but man-to-man will be the primary defense. They have the length and athleticism at every position to be a capable defensive bunch. The biggest question might be if McLeod is ready to be a full-time center. He averaged just 12.3 mpg in two years at FSU, but put up 16 points and 8 rebounds in 26 minutes against Syracuse. The biggest question is if he can be that guy every night or if Syracuse just fell in love with a guy who was productive against them. Analytics are low on this team, but if Autry can get them together, the talent is there to earn an NCAA bid. The youth at every position may hurt them in November, but if they can pull off an upset or two in non-con, they could be good enough by ACC play to make some noise come March.

Tuesday, September 12, 2023

Purdue/Gonzaga Capsules, 2023-24

Purdue Boilermakers

November 22, 2023, Maui Invitational

Head Coach: Matt Painter (438-203 overall, 413-198 at Purdue)

Three-Year NET Average: 15.3

Three-Year kenpom Average: 15.3

Projected 2023-24 T-Rank: 1

Projected Starters: PG Braden Smith (6'0" So), SG Fletcher Loyer (6'4" So), SF Ethan Morton (6'7" Sr), PF Mason Gillis (6'6" Sr), C Zach Edey (7'4" Sr)

Zach Edey is the favorite to repeat as National Player of the Year

Photo by Alex Martin | Journal & Courier

Big 10 champs, Big 10 tourney champs, 1-seed in the NCAA Tournament, all of that was forgotten when Purdue fell in the first round to Fairleigh Dickinson. The Boilermakers return all 5 starters and while there will be some argument for Kansas or Duke atop the rankings, when a team is that good and brings everyone back, they deserve to be where T-Rank has them. In addition, they return two key bench players in Caleb Furst and Trey Kaufman-Renn, while also adding a fifth year guard in SIU transfer Lance Jones and a dynamic athletic freshman in Myles Colvin. Painter is arguably the best coach in college basketball who has yet to reach the Final Four and questions will abound until he makes it to the third weekend in March, but this is a loaded team that will likely be even better than that team that was so highly decorated before FDU happened.

Offensively, everything centered on Edey. If he wasn't taking the shot, he was getting the rebound and putting it back in. That bit them against FDU, where his supporting cast looked afraid to shoot. He is going to dominate the opposition. He was named kenpom's Game MVP 22 times, which is the second highest total ever in a single season. Even in losses he averaged 23.5/12.7. The key is trying to mitigate the damage Edey does and hope his cohorts don't kill you from deep. Last year, six different players took 80+ shots beyond the arc, but as a team they shot just 32.2% from deep. They also tend to turn it over in losses. Purdue lost the turnover battle in 5 of 6 losses last year. Defensively, Painter likes to have a monster in the middle to erase shots in the paint and his wings and guards are great at chasing teams off the line. They keep coming at you and rarely give second shots, so teams have to make the most of their opportunities. Purdue is also excellent at defending without fouling (#1 nationally last year) so beating them from the field is critical. Pressure the guards into mistakes on the defensive end, prevent the non-Edey players from turning into a Robin to his Batman, and be patient on offense while hitting open looks once you get them and this team can be beat. But it won't be easy. This is deservedly one of the best teams in the country and their expectations should again be claiming a Big 10 title, earning at worst a 2-seed in the NCAA Tournament, and perhaps most important, making a deep run in March with the full capability of cutting down nets on the first Monday in April.




Gonzaga Bulldogs

November 22, 2023, Maui Invitational

Head Coach: Mark Few (689-135)

Three-Year NET Average: 2.7

Three-Year kenpom Average: 3.3

Projected 2023-24 T-Rank: 15

Projected Starters: PG Ryan Nembhard (6'0" Jr), SG Nolan Hickman (6'2" Jr), SF Steele Venters (6'7" Sr), PF Anton Watson (6'8" 5th), C Graham Ike (6'9" RS Jr)

Gonzaga hopes Anton Watson will emerge from the shadow of Drew Timme

Photo by Kyle Terada | USA Today Sports

By Gonzaga's recent standards, earning a 3-seed and finishing 8th at kenpom is a disappointment, as they haven't been that low in either category since 2018. They did make it to the Elite 8 which kept intact their streak of making at least the second weekend every tournament since 2015. Drew Timme, Julian Strawther, and Rasir Bolton all departed, which leads to transition in Spokane. Anton Watson and Nolan Hickman return, but Ryan Nembhard, Steele Venters, and Graham Ike are all newcomers via the transfer portal. Nembhard should look familiar, not just because his brother played for Gonzaga but he also played for Creighton last year. Venters and Ike were both productive at lower level programs than Gonzaga. To sustain their excellence, either one of those players or someone like Ben Gregg, who was highly efficient in limited minutes, Jun Seok Yeo, a South Korean sophomore that averaged 25.6 ppg/10.6 rpg in a U-19 World Cup field that included Zach Edey, Chet Holmgren, and Victor Wenbanyama, or highly regarded freshmen like Dusty Stromer will need to emerge on the national stage over the course of the season.

Few's offense has evolved with the game. He adapts to his players and the evolution of basketball. The current result is a fast-paced offense that uses ball screens and motion. Few has often ran his offense through elite bigs. As a result, his teams dominate inside, ranking top-10 in 2PFG% seven straight years. They don't tend to take a ton of shots from deep, but are highly efficient when they do. When Few finds something that works, he will run it over and over and over until the opponent stops it. Don't be surprised to see the same exact play on two or three straight possessions if it's working. Gonzaga's defense isn't as highly regarded as the offense, and slipped to #73 last year per kenpom, their worst mark since 2007. The goal is to relentlessly chase teams off the line and force the opponent into isolation scenarios. They typically have the length and athleticism to win one-on-one battles. What was missing last year was the Chet Holmgren/Brandon Clarke type shot-blocker to erase drives when they lost those one-on-ones. Ike is decidedly not a shot-blocker, so expect their defense to be their Achilles' Heel this year. In terms of talent, Gonzaga should still be good. Considering their league, they will likely rack up a gaudy win total and find their way to an at-large bid. But unless someone emerges as an All-American candidate, there probably isn't enough here to be the truly elite level of team we've become accustomed to seeing from Spokane.

Saturday, September 09, 2023

Chaminade Preview, 2023-24

Chaminade Silverswords

November 21, 2023, Maui Invitational

Head Coach: Eric Bovaird (167-119 at Chaminade vs DII)

Projected Starters: PG Ross Reeves (6'4" So), SG Isaac Amaral-Artharee (6'2" Sr), SF Chris Bready (6'5" Jr), SF Scott Ator (6'7" Sr), C Jalen Brattain (6'7" Jr)

Milwaukee native Chris Bready aims to start for Chaminade this year

Photo from Chaminade Athletics

Chaminade posted a 14-15 record last season, which was their best mark since the COVID pandemic. They rallied to earn a place in the Pacific West Conference Championships, which was played on their home court, but they were drubbed 93-69 by the defending champions Academy of Art. They saw two starters play their final game as Braden Olson and Razheel Watkins both graduated.

The Silverswords do bring back three starters and have two ready-made replacements who appeared in every game last year. Ross Reeves was a dynamic scorer and playmaker as a freshman, averaging 15.6 ppg/2.9 apg. He can score inside and out with a 55.7 eFG% but is also a dangerous ballhawk, leading the team in steals. Isaac Amaral-Artharee led the team with 16.1 ppg and is a sniper from deep, averaging 39.1% from beyond the arc. Waukesha West's own Chris Bready steps up from the bench where his primary role was as a floor stretcher. Scott Ator provided a defensive presence off the bench, leading the team in blocks. He also boasts the highest returning three point percentage at 40% from deep, but that was only on 15 attempts. Jalen Brattain is the other returning starter, averaging 10.3 ppg/5.0 rpg last year. The Silverswords also return a pair of bench contributors in Dorian Harris and Jessiya Villa.

Offensively, Chaminade loves to push the pace and let it fly. They averaged 25.2 threes per game last season. In terms of playing fast, Marquette averaged 68.1 possessions per game last year; Chaminade was only under that number once last season. In 27 games in the Maui Invitational since Bovaird took over, Chaminade has been held below 68 possessions just twice, and averaged 73.5 possessions, a figure that would be top-15 in Division I any year of the past thirteen since Bovaird was hired. As a team, they shot 37.1% beyond the arc. Defensively, they are aggressive and excel at turning teams over. They need to be, because they aren't strong on the defensive glass.

In this Maui field, which is almost certainly the strongest MTE in NCAA history, Chaminade is likely to be little more than a speed bump for their opponents. Of the seven high-major teams, five are in the consensus top-11 coming in and both UCLA and Syracuse have legitmate NCAA expectations. With a large talent gap, Chaminade is further hindered by their high-paced tendency. The more possessions you play, the more likely the superior talent is to win out. If Marquette runs into the Silverswords, it will be disappointing as it almost certainly means they lost to UCLA, but this will be a game that is over by halftime.

Marquette Connection: Marquette's first ever game in the Maui Invitational was against Chaminade in 2007. Marquette generally controlled the first half, but Chaminade opened the second with a 6-0 run that cut the lead to 39-36. The Silverswords hung around, getting within a single possession two more times, most notably on a Rodrick Johnson jumper with 6:46 to play that made it 58-55. That's when Jerel McNeal took over. He tipped in a missed Lazar Hayward free throw to spark an 11-2 run that put Chaminade in the rear view. "We were very fortunate to win, I hate to use the word lucky, but I'm going to" said Marquette coach Tom Crean. "I wouldn't call it a wake-up call, we just need to do a better job of what we should be doing." Whatever he wanted to call it, the game did serve as a wake up call, as Marquette routed Oklahoma State 91-61 the following night. They came up just short in the final, falling to Duke 77-73.

Wednesday, September 06, 2023

Kansas Preview, 2023-24

Kansas Jayhawks

November 21, 2023, Maui Invitational

Head Coach: Bill Self (787-237, 580-132 at Kansas)

Three-Year NET Average: 9.7

Three-Year kenpom Average: 13.0

Projected 2023-24 T-Rank: 2

Projected Starters: PG Dajuan Harris (6'2" RS Jr), SG Elmarko Jackson (6'3" Fr), SF Kevin McCullar (6'6" 5th), PF K.J. Adams (6'7" So), C Hunter Dickinson (7'1" Sr)

On paper, Hunter Dickinson is perfect for Bill Self and Kansas

Photo by Aiden Droge | Kansas Athletics

Kansas had a fairly typical year under Bill Self. They started the year 16-1 and climbed as high as #2 in the AP rankings. A 3-game losing streak had fans asking questions, but they rebounded to win the Big 12 regular season title outright and earn a 1-seed in the NCAA Tournament before bowing out in the second round. The Jayhawks then had one of the more interesting summers in college basketball. Gradey Dick and Jalen Wilson were drafted to the NBA, though they were bolstered by the return of Kevin McCullar, whom many thought would also have been drafted. They added All-American Michigan big man Hunter Dickinson, but saw promising young bigs Zuby Ejiofor and Ernest Udeh transfer out. Their transfer haul also saw Parker Braun and Nick Timberlake join along with stud freshman guard Elmarko Jackson.

As indicated by the #2 T-Rank, Kansas is loaded. Harris has been a steady presence at point guard and only grown in confidence since running the show for the 2021 National Championship team. If anyone not named Tyler Kolek has a claim as being the best point guard in the country, he's probably that person. Timberlake joins from Towson and is an absolute sniper, averaging over 40% from three each of the past two years on more than 400 combined attempts. McCullar is a defensive ace and willing to do all the dirty work. Adams spent a lot of time in the middle last year but is probably better suited for the 4 than the 5. Dickinson put up monster numbers at Michigan and is perfect for Self's system. He's a gravitational force on offense, demanding attention, controlling the glass, and has developed into a reliable long-range shooter over his career. While Kansas had some losses to the portal, they still have a deep bench. Jackson is a projected first round pick with the potential to be the fifth starter if Timberlake isn't as effective at the high major level. Braun and Zack Clemence provide depth up front and give Self options.

With Dickinson in the fold, expect Self to return to his big man focused offense. He loves to run pin-downs, using players like Udoka Azubuike in the past to isolate in the lane and use their strength to score. Expect to see that with Dickinson as well. However in the past few years, with less traditional bigs, he has used a lot more dribble hand-off action. Kansas will cross their guards and wings constantly, dribbling around the top of the perimeter, until they can either get a back door cut or an open look. They run a lot, and the theory is if you just keep going, eventually something will open up. Defensively, Self is flexible and works well with his personnel. In recent years, he adopted some of Texas Tech's no-middle style, which aims to keep the ball on the sidelines and limit abilities to reverse the ball. They have also turned up their ball pressure. No matter how he tinkers, though, he has success. For 24 of the past 25 years from Tulsa to Illinois to Kansas, his teams have ranked in the top-25 in kenpom defense. They will be stalwart.

Kansas looks like an immediate national title threat as this is the kind of roster Self loves. He has a steadying hand in Harris, a dominant big in Dickinson, and a plethora of wings. This team will be the favorite to win the Big 12 and one of a handful of teams that gets early title buzz. As Self has never had worse than a 4-seed in Lawrence, expect this team to be elite and in the top-10 for the majority of the season. They will almost certainly defeat Chaminade and if Marquette beats UCLA, they are virtually guaranteed to see the Jayhawks in the second round. That said, Marquette will also deservedly open the season as a top-10 team. With so many transfers and newcomers, as well as so much pressure on Dickinson and Timberlake to fit in early, this could be an opportunity for Marquette to land a third top-10 November win in three seasons under Shaka Smart, having knocked off #10 Illinois and #6 Baylor in the past two seasons.

What We've Learned: As expected, the Jayhawks enter this game ranked #1 in the nation and Dickinson is playing like a National Player of the Year candidate. They are top-10 in 2PFG%, 3PFG%, and eFG% while playing at a blazing tempo. The problem is it's hard to assess how much of that is a product of only playing one quality opponent. They are currently #3 in offensive eFG% and #18 in defensive eFG%. They have a balanced offense with a strong front court and the best non-Tyler Kolek point guard in the country in Dajuan Harris. It's no surprise they are favored to win this game and are the current on-paper best team Marquette will face this year (though UConn and their Maui game 3 opponents may be on par).

So where can Marquette take advantage? Kansas only played one quality opponent and that was a Kentucky team that had them down double-digits in the second half before a Jayhawk rally. Kansas tied the game and then Kentucky went cold from three, missing their last 5 beyond the arc. If you can sustain a shooting contest with Kansas, they can be beat. They also allow plenty of chances from three so the looks will be there. They also are not a deep team. Their starting five are excellent, but Parker Braun, Nick Timberlake, and Johnny Furphy have yet to establish themselves as viable sixth man options. Even against Chaminade their big three combined for more minutes than Marquette's top three players. If this becomes an up-tempo affair, which it likely will be, and the teams need to rely on their depth late, Marquette has the advantage as we've seen Chase Ross, Ben Gold, and Sean CoJones all come up with big plays late in important games already this season.

Marquette Memory: The Warriors have only defeated Kansas once, and it was indeed Warriors when Al McGuire led Marquette to their first Final Four appearance in 1974. The first half advantage went to Kansas as they held a 24-23 halftime lead, but Marquette stormed out of the locker room with a 12-5 run that propelled them to a lead they would not relinquish. Maurice Lucas led the way for Marquette with a mammoth 18 points, 14 rebounds, and 4 blocks. Kansas had no answers in the second half as Marquette ran away with a 64-51 victory and appearance in the 1974 title game.

Sunday, September 03, 2023

UCLA Preview, 2023-24

UCLA Bruins

November 20, 2023

Head Coach: Mick Cronin (462-206, 99-36 at UCLA)

Three-Year NET Average: 9.7

Three-Year kenpom Average: 9.0

Projected 2023-24 T-Rank: 28

Projected Starters: PG Dylan Andrews (6'2" So), SG Sebastian Mack (6'4" Fr), SF Lazar Stefanovic (6'7" Jr), PF Kenneth Nwuba (6'10" Sr), C Adem Bona (6'10" So)

Adem Bona pulled out of the NBA Draft for another year at UCLA

Photo from UCLA Athletics

From November 23 through March 10, UCLA went 26-2 and were the #1 team in the country per T-Rank in that stretch. However they lost future NBA draft pick and lockdown defender Jaylen Clark and stud freshman big Adem Bona to injury in the Pac-12 Tournament. A promising season with real National Title potential was cut short in the Sweet 16 as UCLA just didn't quite have enough to get past Gonzaga, falling 79-76 in one of the best games of the Tournament. Clark was joined by Jaime Jaquez and Amari Bailey as NBA draft picks and Tyger Campbell called it a career, leaving Mick Cronin with an exceptionally young roster.

Dylan Andrews will likely get the keys to the offense. He was an adequate backup at both guard positions as a freshman but a lot more will be expected of him next year. Top-75 recruit Sebastian Mack is a combo guard best known for his ferocious defense. Lazar Stefanovic transferred from Utah. He is a capable scorer that can also create for others, but will likely have a bigger offensive load simply due to the lack of experience on this roster. Adem Bona is the only returning player who averaged more than 4 ppg. He considered the NBA but ultimately returned and along with Stefanovic will likely be an offensive focal point. Aday Mara is projected as a lottery pick with immense talent but will be making a major adjustment to the American game. Will McClendon and Kenneth Nwuba will compete for starting jobs and have the most experience in Cronin's system. The Bruins have a talented recruiting class, with Ilane Fibleuil, Sebastian Mack, Brandon Williams, and Devin Williams all being top-100 recruits and any of them might surprise and contribute to this year's team. Even foreign recruits Berke Buyuktuncel and Jan Vide have shown up in early NBA mock drafts, so Cronin has a wealth of options despite the inexperience.

Cronin has continued to play a slower pace at UCLA. His teams prefer to play in the half-court, making their living with ball-control, multiple shooters, and aggression on the offensive boards. Cronin's staff tracks turnovers and it is anathema to their philosophy. What he really wants to do is put five capable scorers on the floor that aren't going to give the ball away. It sounds simple, but it takes elite recruiting and development to keep that up consistently. Defensively, they have similarities to Marquette. UCLA also tracks deflections and awards the Deflections Bone to the team leader (the hungry dog gets the bone). They swarm to everything, trying to contest, steal, or block every shot that goes up. Last year they were truly elite defensively, ranking #2 in kenpom.

In terms of raw talent, UCLA is one of the most gifted teams in the country. Mara, Buyuktuncel, Bona, and Vide show up frequently in mock drafts. Per 247, they had the 13th ranked recruiting class in the country and that wasn't counting Mara and Buyuktuncel, who were late commits coming over from Europe. But in terms of experienced, this is one of the youngest teams in the country as well. Stefanovic and reserve big Nwuba are the only juniors or seniors expected to crack the rotation. For a team that puts so much offensive focus on not turning the ball over, this much youth will likely be a challenge for Cronin. Further, how well will this team fit together defensively when most of the rotation players are in their first year at Westwood? It will also be a challenge to get the most talented roster on the floor, as there is positional overlap between Bona and Mara, Andrews and Mack, and Stefanovic and Buyuktuncel. This feels like a team that will struggle out of the gate due to the youth and lack of familiarity, but if they put it all together could be a tough out come March. Thankfully for Marquette, they will be playing UCLA in November and this is a good chance to get a win over a team that should only get better as the year goes on.

What We've Learned: The good news for the Bruins is they are 3-0. The bad news is how they got there. St. Francis, Lafayette, and LIU are all ranked 329 or worse in kenpom and a combined 0-11. UCLA has played the worst schedule in all of Division I per kenpom. Their kenpom rank has fallen after each win indicating the performances are poor despite the results.

Their top-15 defense is predicated on playing three bottom-twenty offenses in the country. Offensively, the question will be around Dylan Andrews, the starting point guard who sat out their last game due to a coach's decision. This early in the season, it's hard to measure how much advanced rankings mean, but per kenpom, in their 11 games, UCLA is the only top-100 offense those teams have faced. Despite that, UCLA has posted the lowest points per possession on offense each of those teams has faced so far.

On paper, this game looks like it should be competitive, but digging into UCLA's performances against this quality of opponent, Marquette looks like a complete mismatch. When a team sees their advanced metrics steadily moving down this early in the season it typically indicates they are regressing to the mean. UCLA might be #36 in kenpom, but if you sort for this year's results only, they are #131 per T-Rank. UCLA is capable of putting up big runs. In their three wins, they have made five double-digit runs that resulted in a 91-9 scoring difference over 34 total minutes. While that seems good, those three sub-325 teams outscored UCLA 143-130 over the other 86 minutes of play. Another metric T-Rank provides is Game Score, which evaluates performance based on the level of difficulty. There have already been more than 750 games played this season, meaning more than 1,500 performances to evaluate. Marquette's three game scores are a remarkably consistent 94/95/95. Only four teams have hit 94+ every time out (Colorado, Iowa State, and Tennessee are the others). UCLA has posted scores of 77/59/69. Thus far, at their best, they are playing well below Marquette at their worst. If Marquette can limit the UCLA runs and play their game, this could very well be a blowout victory.

Marquette Memory: With Marquette's 2019 win over Purdue and 2020 and 2021 losses to UCLA, there is no team in the country Marquette has played more often without earning a win than the Bruins. In 2020, Marquette came close, holding a 51-47 lead with 10 minutes to play at Pauley Pavilion, but UCLA went on a 14-3 run to take control of the game. Jaime Jaquez led the way for the Bruins with 18 points and 6 rebounds. D.J. Carton countered with 18 points, 5 rebounds, and 4 assists but it was not enough to hold the lead. Opening Maui against UCLA will give Marquette a chance to get the bear-shaped monkey off their back.