(1) North Carolina vs. (16) Iona
Initial Thoughts: My initial reaction when I saw Iona slotted to play North Carolina in the opening round 1 vs. 16 seed matchup – a fortunate draw for the Gaels by the way, who could’ve easily been relegated to Dayton in one of the two play-in games – was something along the lines of “bloodbath”. The combination of the Gaels’ preference for pushing the pace along with their weak interior defensive fortress could be a recipe for disaster against North Carolina.
North Carolina on Offense: This is not a typical Roy Williams coached team that exclusively utilizes two paint patrolling big men who run the floor and crash the glass on almost every possession. Yes, the primary frontline combination in North Carolina’s most frequently used lineup features 6’9 Garrison Brooks and 6’8 Luke Maye, but this tandem doesn’t hold a candle to some of the dominant Tar Heel rebounding units of years past. Yet, while Maye and Brooks may not be as intimidating as their big men predecessors Brice Johnson, Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks on the offensive glass, they still get their hands on a hefty portion of missed shots offensively. Against Iona’s downy soft zone, Maye and Brooks will have ample opportunities to hit the offensive boards with minimal resistance.
Throughout the MAAC tournament, Iona head coach Tim Cluess opted to play a much more conservative matchup zone and rarely extended pressure beyond half-court, a slight deviation from some of his more pressure-focused defensive schemes in prior seasons. The matchup zone is tough to predict and could certainly disrupt UNC’s offensive flow, but Luke Maye is the perfect puzzle piece as a high-post triggerman to run the offense through. Few big men possess Maye’s passing vision and smooth mid-range touch, both of which will come in handy in the soft belly of the Gaels’ zone. Look for Maye to roam free like a safety in football, constantly hunting for the soft spots in the Gaels’ defense, which will likely be at the high-post and short-corners.
Iona on Offense: For those who have not seen Iona play this year, the Gaels are a copy / paste of seemingly all of Tim Cluess’s teams over the years in New Rochelle, NY. Fueled by another dynamic backcourt triumvirate (Rickey McGill, Asante Gist and Ben Perez), the Gaels’ ‘run-and-chuck’ offense can light up the scoreboard in a hurry when those shots are falling from long distance. Even their lone interior presence, 6’9 Tajuan Agee, can step away and stroke it from deep, which gives Cluess five long range shooting threats on the floor at all times.
However, while Iona is at its best when it’s able to get out in transition, the Gaels have shown they can execute in the half-court as well. In their 3-game run through the MAAC tournament, Iona was halted to a crawl by three inferior opponents hoping to win a lower possession game. Thanks to the innate craftiness of Rickey McGill orchestrating the offense, the Gaels were not agitated having to play at a more controlled tempo and still managed to get the shots they wanted through their half-court sets.
Key Factor(s): While St. Peter’s, Siena and Monmouth are stratospheres apart from North Carolina talent wise, Iona’s success in three straight snail-paced games should prompt Tim Cluess to consider walking the ball up the court against the Tar Heels. This is counterintuitive to how Cluess has always played, but it might be the only shot to prevent UNC from stepping on the gas and racing out to a big early lead. It will be tough to find the right balance of when to take advantage of fast break opportunities versus when to methodically initiate the offense, but few point guards in the tournament are as shrewd as the well-seasoned Rickey McGill. He’ll certainly have his hands full going toe-to-toe with the uber-talented Coby White, but McGill’s edge in experience could help neutralize White’s superhuman athleticism.
Final Predictions: From a handicapping perspective, this spread is inflated to the moon, but the glut of concerns for Iona matchup-wise substantially curbs my excitement for betting on the Gaels. North Carolina has seen its fair share of zone defense this year and the advanced data indicates the Tar Heels have been hyper efficient in those matchups. Per synergy, UNC ranked in the 87th percentile nationally against zone defenses, which is actually 3% higher than their 84th percentile offensive efficiency rank against man-to-man. Even though the Gaels are surging at the right time and trending closer to playing at the level most felt they’d reach in the preseason, they’re catching an equally as hot North Carolina team at the wrong time. All that said, I will stubbornly trust my power ratings on this one - for context, I handicapped this line at North Carolina -20.5 - and pray UNC doesn’t annihilate the Gaels on the glass.
SU Pick: North Carolina
ATS Pick: Iona +24.5
O/U Pick: Under 166
(8) Utah State vs. (9) Washington
Initial Thoughts: For the first two months of conference play, Washington had asserted itself as the class of the pathetic Pac-12, proving to be the only team capable of winning on the road consistently in a league where the value of home court advantage super cedes almost every other conference in America. That was until the Huskies trip to the Bay Area in late February, when Cal, one of the worst Power-6 conference teams in recent memory, embarrassed Washington 76-73 in Berkley. This came just three days before another near-collapse in close by Palo Alto when the Huskies survived another scare against Stanford, escaping by one point over another sub .500 Pac-12 team.
After taking two more losses to close out the year, both of which were at the hands of the red-hot Oregon Ducks, the Huskies recent skid has manifested in a nightmarish draw in the bracket. Not only will they potentially face North Carolina in the second round this weekend, but they have to first get past one of the most dangerous teams in the country in Utah State just to get there.
Utah State on Offense: With all the success Jim Boeheim has had in the tournament in recent years, there’s plenty of precedents that indicate preparing for the 2-3 zone with a short turnaround time is a precarious task for opposing coaches. So, while I would typically be inclined to apply an immediate matchup edge to Washington, the man strolling the sidelines for Utah State is no ordinary coach. Even amongst all the brilliant coaching brains found throughout this tournament, few have the intellectual horsepower of Craig Smith, who has transformed Utah State into a well-oiled machine in just his first season in Logan, UT. Smith’s fingerprints are all over the Aggies’ offense, which routinely carves up opposing defenses with perpetual ball and body movement, creative screening action and pinpoint passing precision. So, if there’s a team I trust to solve the Huskies’ mystifying zone – the brain child of Washington’s head coach and longtime Jim Boeheim disciple, Mike Hopkins – it’s the high-IQ and sharpshooting Aggies.
Washington on Offense: As well as Hopkins has followed the principles of his former mentor in implementing the zone at Washington, he also takes after his former boss in a rather apathetic approach to coaching offense. Much like Syracuse, the Huskies are prone to extended scoring droughts, a byproduct of stagnant offensive movement and excessive ball watching. Far too often, Washington’s offensive possessions end with an isolation or a forced screen-and-roll for Jaylen Nowell if nothing materializes within the first 20-25 seconds of the shot clock. As dangerous as Nowell is as a slasher, Washington has far too much talent to reduce guys like Matisee Thybulle and David Crisp to forgotten floor spacers.
Noah Dickerson somewhat mitigates this downside as a safety valve, who the Huskies can dump the ball to on the block for a quick bucket inside. Dickerson is an efficient low-post scorer, but he’ll be matched up with one of the most underrated rim protectors in the tournament in Neemias Queta. At 6’11 with a 7’0 plus wingspan, Queta has been the anchor to Utah State’s stout defense all year long and is a perfect 1-v-1 counter to Dickerson inside.
Key Factor(s): For Utah State to generate uncontested shots against the long and athletic Washington zone, a pair of unsung heroes, Quinn Taylor and Justin Bean, must be the difference makers. While Taylor is the more dangerous scorer and more polished shooter, both are willing facilitators at the 4-position and should be effective as ‘interior connectors’ against the Huskies’ zone. Look for Bean and Taylor to initiate inside-out kick-outs and side-to-side ball reversals from the heart of the Washington zone to set up open 3s on the perimeter and to find open cutters along the baseline. Here’s a simple baseline drive-and-dish by Taylor from earlier in the year against New Mexico, who threw a lot of matchup zone at the Aggies in their three meetings this season:
Final Predictions: Here we have yet another conflict between my power rating-based handicapping approach and my X&O matchup-based analysis approach. Everything referenced above screams Utah State as the right side here, but I have Utah State rated just a half point higher than Washington, which implies my line of Utah State -0.5 is two points lower than the actual number. While I opted to stay attached to my power ratings in the Iona and UNC matchup by reluctantly taking Iona with the points, I’m going the other way on this one.
All year long Utah State has debunked the misguided notion that it can be overwhelmed by athleticism. Queta is the ultimate equalizer inside and while Washington’s zone is a different beast compared to the other zones the Aggies have seen this season, they’re still well equipped to score efficiently – per Synergy, Utah State’s offensive efficiency against zones scored in the 82nd percentile nationally, an encouraging figure heading into this matchup with ‘Syracuse West’.
SU Pick: Utah State
ATS Pick: Utah State -2.5
O/U Pick: Under 135
(5) Auburn vs. (12) New Mexico State
Please refer to our full breakdown of the Auburn / New Mexico State matchup over at Sports Illustrated, but I peppered in some additional commentary below.
In that write-up, I gave a ringing endorsement for New Mexico State as one of our ‘best bet’ selections from the opening round of the tournament. Since then, the line has dropped a whole point and a half to Auburn -6, so I would tread lightly on betting the Aggies in this one. Don’t get me wrong - I’m still picking them to win outright in my bracket, but the betting value has quickly diminished from when the line initially opened at 7.5.
New Mexico State comes at you like a pack of hyenas. No one player stands out as the clear-cut, go-to alpha, which is what makes the Aggies so hard to prepare for – you just don’t know who’s going to strike on any given night. Head coach Chris Jans played 10 guys double digit minutes in the Aggies 32-point destruction of Grand Canyon in the WAC title game, a testament to how much depth this roster has. Auburn has plenty of offensive firepower coming off the pine as well, but I trust Jans to make the best of use of his lineup optionality and get the better of Pearl in what should be one of the more exciting opening round games this weekend.
SU Pick: New Mexico State
ATS Pick: New Mexico State +6
O/U Pick: Under 143
(4) Kansas vs. (13) Northeastern
Initial Thoughts: The NCAA committee dangled a golden carrot in front of the Jayhawks by slotting them in the Midwest region where they could potentially be playing two ‘semi-home’ games in Kansas City if they reach the Sweet-16. To get there, KU will first have to travel west to Salt Lake City and survive a vigorous four-team mini-bracket of Northeastern, Auburn and New Mexico State (who nearly beat the Jayhawks at home earlier this season). And if there’s a team you don’t want to see right now, it’s the Bill Coen-coached Huskies, who are fully healthy and firing on all cylinders heading into this opening round bout.
Northeastern on Offense: Similar to Wisconsin or Belmont, Northeastern’s offense is very much system oriented and rarely, if ever, puts the onus on any one player to single-handedly create shots for others. Bill Coen probably doesn’t even need a guy like Vasa Puscia, a dynamic 6’5 lead guard who can get into the teeth of the defense almost at will, which gives an already robust offense another gear. The Huskies put on an offensive clinic in the CAA championship game, twisting Hofstra’s heads into a pretzel with ping-pong passing that repeatedly produced lay-ups and open 3s.
The challenge for Bill Self will be deciding between a 4-guard lineup with Dedric Lawson at the 5 or a two-big lineup with either David McCormack or Mitch Lightfoot as the secondary big next to Lawson. Just isolating the three games in the Big-12 tournament, Self has been prioritizing the twin tower lineup, a rationale choice with how well McCormack has played over the past couple of weeks. However, that will put a ton of pressure on either McCormack or Lawson to chase 6’6 versatile wing Bolden Brace on defense, an offensive swiss-army knife who has torched more grounded opposing forwards playing the de-facto 4 in Coen’s offense. With how well Marcus Garrett has rebounded the ball at his position, Self might be wise to slide Garrett onto Bolden, unless he wants to use him as the primary stopper on Pusica.
Kansas on Offense: After a mini-slump during the final two and a half weeks of conference play, Devon Dotson flipped the switch back on just in time for the Big-12 tournament. Dotson reasserted himself as a reliable complementary scoring threat to Lawson and constantly put pressure on the defense with his lightning quick speed in the open floor. While Lawson is the one who Coen will have to key in on defensively in the scouting report, Dotson’s quick burst off-the-dribble could really do damage against the Huskies man-to-man defense. Historically, Coen has utilized zone a lot more frequently, but this recent wave of talent he’s brought to Boston over the past few years has allowed him to shift to a more man-dominant defensive approach. Plus, with Shawn Occeus, last season’s Defensive Player of the Year in the CAA, and Tomas Murphy, a bouncy forward and former 4-star recruit, now back, healthy and fully integrated, Northeastern won’t be overwhelmed by Kansas’ athleticism.
However, if we go all the way back to early December when Northeastern played Syracuse, a team with a similar caliber of athletes as Kansas, Coen resorted back to zone almost exclusively to try and mitigate the size discrepancy. It’s tough to predict if Coen will go a similar route against Kansas, but the Jayhawks’ two-big lineup may leave him no choice.
The clip below highlights a key feature of how the Northeastern zone moves. Try to ignore the lob at the end and watch how the top guard at the top of the zone (#12 Jordan Roland) rotates down quickly into the high-post area.
This leads me to believe the Huskies will prioritize taking away the easy point to high-post pass, which has become Dedric Lawson’s sweet spot whenever Kansas has gone up against zone this season. With Kansas’ perimeter shooting far less lethal than it has been in recent years, I think shading down to deny Lawson at the expense of potentially allowing open triples from the wing would be Coen’s best approach.
Key Factor(s): With Northeastern’s slightly smaller lineup, David McCormack or Mitch Lightfoot could end up being huge catalysts for the Jayhawks if Self can find ways to get them touches deep in the paint. Brace can typically hold his own against bigger 4s in the CAA, but McCormack and Lightfoot have both shown they can get buckets over big time forwards in the Big-12. The reinsertion of Murphy should help the Huskies cancel out some of the size disadvantage, but even Murphy is probably too thin to push McCormack or Lightfoot off the block.
Final Predictions: This is a dreadful opening round draw for KU, running into a team that’s under seeded on the 13-line given that the Huskies are now fully healthy. Last time Northeastern went dancing, the Huskies gave Notre Dame headaches for 40 minutes in the opening round 3 vs. 14 seed matchup, coming just 4 points shy of pulling off the upset. We also witnessed a talented Kansas team struggle in the first-round last season against Penn, another team that runs intricate offensive sets, which are tough to prepare a young team in a such a short time span. Ultimately, I think talent prevails here, but this should be a nail-biter for 40 minutes and have Kansas fans shaking in their boots right down to the final whistle.
SU Pick: Kansas
ATS Pick: Northeastern +7
O/U Pick: Under 144.5
(6) Iowa State vs. (11) Ohio State
Initial Thoughts: Replace “Slim Shady” with “Ohio State” or “Iowa State” in Eminem’s all-time classic ‘The Real Slim Shady’ and you’d have a perfect mantra for both the Buckeyes and Cyclones. Simply put, few teams have been harder to figure out this year. Ohio State hit a wall in the latter half of Big Ten play after a sizzling start to the season, which was compounded by the ill-timed suspension of Kaleb Wesson. Iowa State hit a similar skid down the stretch of Big-12 play, but promptly put those woes behind them when it rattled off three straight victories to claim the Big-12 title in Kansas City.
Of all the opening round matchups I’ve sorted through, this one has my brain tied in a knot – I have no clue what to expect here, so take any and all recommendations with a big fat grain of salt.
Iowa State on Offense: If there’s one thing I know for sure, is that the Clones’ offensive balance is second to none in this tournament. Most thought Lindell Wigginton would be the chief scorer this season, but an early injury parted the sea for Marial Shayok’s coming out party. The former Virginia transfer has thrived in Steve Prohm’s more free-flowing offense, allowing him to show off an advanced array of off-the-dribble pull-ups. Wigginton has unselfishly adapted to his new role as an overqualified 6th man super-sub, which gives Iowa State two top-notch scorers on the floor at any given time. Even if you manage to keep those two in check, it’s unlikely you have a third defender with the chops to guard Talen Horton-Tucker 1-on-1, a physical specimen blessed with a smooth jumper, a tight handle and an Elastigirl-esque wing span. Nebraska transfer Michael Jacobson provides the interior scoring punch, another hyper-skilled scoring weapon at 6’9 who has a knack for making highly contested shots from 8-10 feet out. The glue that brings it all together is a pair of rangy 6’5 point guards in Nick Weiler-Babb and Tyrese Haliburton, both of whom are primarily focused on setting the table for the stockpile of offensive ammunition around them.
All that is to say that any one of the Clones top-7 guys can burn you on any given night, which makes scouting and preparing for Iowa State such a strenuous task. Chris Holtmann is an elite game plan deviser and has the personnel in stock to matchup with the Clones 1 through 5, but Iowa State’s collection of elite 1-v-1 scorers and shot-makers is a special case.
Ohio State on Offense: The Bucks’ offense revolves around Wesson, a 6’9 270-pound ox and low-post virtuoso. With him on the floor, OSU is a completely different team, one that’s actually somewhat capable of throwing it in the ocean. During his brief suspension earlier this month, the Buckeyes were railroaded by Purdue and Northwestern in back-to-back games before losing a third straight at home to Wisconsin in overtime. Without their interior centerpiece, the Bucks had no reliable source of scoring or playmaking and the offense became painful to watch. During that three-game stretch, Ohio State scored 0.81, 0.78 and 0.92 points per possession – I don’t care if you’re playing the ’96 Bulls, no competent Big Ten offense should look that pitiful for 120 straight minutes. When Wesson returned against Indiana and then against Michigan State in the opening round of the Big Ten tournament, OSU was able to play through its big man inside, creating some much-needed space for CJ Jackson, Keyshawn Woods and others to get open looks on the perimeter with Wesson commanding so much attention in the middle.
Key Factor(s): Whenever Kaleb Wesson gets into foul trouble, the Buckeyes go into survival mode and are forced to make tough perimeter jump shots just to keep the ship afloat while he watches from the bench. In the Bucks most recent game against Michigan State, Wesson fouled out after just 16 minutes of action, which eventually opened up the floodgates for a late Sparty surge that ultimately put the nail in the coffin on OSU’s Big Ten tournament title hopes. For Ohio State, the good news is that the Cyclones’ front line is devoid of any bruising physical bodies like Nick Ward or Xavier Tillman who could potentially get Wesson in foul trouble. Cam Lard is a defensive stalwart, but he’s not someone Prohm will look to play through offensively and George Conduitt is still coming into his own as a young freshman. If Wesson is smart, he should be able to stay on the floor for most of the game, which should help Ohio State trade scoring punches with Iowa State for 40 minutes.
Final Predictions: As aforementioned, I have no profound opinion on a specific side in this game. With the line coming down to -5.5 in the first 24 hours of betting, I’m leaning ever so slightly toward the Clones. I just have no appetite to lay my hard-earned money on Ohio State in fear of the Bucks’ outside shots not falling, which will cause Iowa State’s defense to collapse around Wesson in the paint. Prohm has double teamed the post in a few other matchups this season, most notably against Dedric Lawson for Kansas, so look for him to send multiple bodies at Wesson whenever the ball is thrown inside - this clip below from the Big-12 title game shows it in action, but Lawson does a nice job making his move early and spinning away from the second defender:
Ultimately, I just trust the Clones’ offensive versatility far more than the one-dimensional Buckeyes’ offense, but I fear Holtmann might muck it up enough to keep the margin within two or three possessions.
SU Pick: Iowa State
ATS Pick: Iowa State -5.5
O/U Pick: Over 140.5
(3) Houston vs. (14) Georgia State
Initial Thoughts: After watching Georgia State struggle to pull away from a pesky UT Arlington squad in the Sun Belt championship game, I can’t help but wonder how in the world the Panthers will score against the Cougars nationally elite defense. Sure, they could catch fire from downtown and keep it close with a barrage of threes, but plenty have tried and failed miserably using this blueprint against Houston this year. There’s a reason opponents are shooting an ice-cold 28% from behind the arc against the Cougars, the second lowest percentage in the country. While this figure is susceptible to being skewed by luck, there’s often a reason why certain teams end up at the extreme ends of that spectrum. Look no further than the only team in America with a lower opposing 3P% than Houston: Virginia. Both the Cavs and the Cougs pride themselves on building a shell around the lane, which lays the foundation for each defense’s number-1 priority: denying anything going toward the rim, no matter the cost.
Despite the emphasis on cutting off dribble penetration, this does not come at the expense of being burned by uncontested outside jumpers. Both Kelvin Sampson and Tony Bennett have engraved the proper defensive positioning and rotations into their respective defenses, allowing each individual defender to quickly close-out to shooters spotting up behind the 3-point arc. Typically, these shooters are also pushed out a few feet further than their preferred comfort zone, another contributing factor to the absurdly low shooting percentage. As cited in my colleague Jim’s article from earlier this season, here’s Houston’s 3P% over the past four seasons (national rank out of 353 in parenthesis): 27.2 (3rd), 32.3 (31st), 32.9 (70th), 30.3 (9th).
Houston on Offense: As well-rounded as Houston’s offensive attack is, the key will be how well they settle into a rhythm against Ron Hunter’s unorthodox matchup zone. While it’s tough to predict how the defense will rotate from an offensive player’s point of view, the confusing nature of the zone is somewhat of a double-edge sword for the defense – that is, the players themselves sometimes miscommunicate defensively, which can lead to defensive breakdowns that result in uncontested threes and wide-open layups. Hunter does have an older and experienced team this season, most of whom have been living and breathing this zone for multiple years now, so those defensive mishaps are far less common than normal. Still, even with a veteran-laden lineup, the zone is still susceptible to losing shooters, which could be a slippery slope with two deadeye marksmen in Corey Davis and Armoni Brooks lurking on the perimeter.
Georgia State on Offense: I won’t gush anymore about the Cougs’ defense, but here’s why it will be mighty tough for the Panthers to score in this matchup. As much as I love Ron Hunter as a program leader and defensive specialist, he typically does very little with the offense. Because of his pull on the recruiting trail, Hunter’s teams at Georgia State often lay over their Sun Belt competitors in terms of both offensive skill and overall athleticism. And while Houston has no top-flight NBA prospects, they will most certainly not be out-classed from a pure talent perspective in this one, which will make it extremely difficult for Panthers to put points on the board.
Everything starts with D’Marcus Simonds, an exceptional slasher and crafty finisher who possesses an offensive arsenal that’s already NBA-ready - this Tasmandian devil-paced spin-o-rama move shows you all you need to know about what a unique talent he is:
Simonds is a special player and has the ball in his hands on nearly every Panther possession, but he’s far from the only offensive threat. Fellow co-lead guard Kane Williams is nearly as proficient as Simonds breaking down his defender in the open floor, while a pair of long-range snipers in Jeff Thomas and Devin Mitchell can each dial it up from distance as well.
Key Factor(s): The X-factor for Georgia State is undoubtedly Malik Benlevi, who plays the nominal 5 in Hunters’ super small-ball lineup. Benlevi is a walking mismatch on offense – he’s an athletic 6’6 forward who thrives in pick-n-pop action and even has the chops to hunt his own shot off-the-dribble, as seen below in this jaw-dropping step-back:
Yet, while Benlevi is a tough cover for more plodding forwards, GSU is almost always stuck with a size disadvantage with him at 5, a major reason the Panthers have been beaten up on the boards all season long. The tricky zone on defense exacerbates this problem, as the lack of a connection to a specific man allows opposing glass crashers to load up with no box out resistance. 6’9 Jordan Tyson is the lone member of the Panthers’ rotation standing taller than 6’7 but his production has been wildly inconsistent this year, which makes predicting his game-to-game effectiveness a crapshoot. Hunter will likely need a big game from Tyson against Houston’s formidable frontline that has bullied weaker AAC front courts all year long.
Final Predictions: This spread seems awfully high for a Georgia State team that’s oozing with talent, especially since the Panthers have already proven worthy of standing up to Power-6 caliber athletes this season (see 3-point win at Alabama). However, Georgia State’s lack of offensive discipline could lead to some long, forced threes that quickly turn into transition opportunities going the other way for Houston. And even when Georgia State does get back and set up their defense, Houston should dissect the extended zone with so many willing and effective passers scattered across all five positions. The Cougs have already had plenty of reps against zone schemes in AAC play – Cincinnati, SMU and Tulsa all play some variation of a typical 2-3 zone structure, and while Hunters’ scheme is a truly one-of-a-kind, the passing principles needed to beat it remain the same.
SU Pick: Houston
ATS Pick: Houston -11.5
O/U Pick: Over 141.5
(7) Wofford vs. (10) Seton Hall
Initial Thoughts: As one of the country’s most endearing Cinderella stories all season long, is it possible Wofford has outgrown the slipper? After all, this is far from some cutesy mid-major with a gimmicky style that made some improbable run through their conference tournament to get here. Wofford straight-up dominated the SoCon this season, a league that kenpom.com’s conference rankings grades as better than the Atlantic-10 and a smidge behind the Mountain West. Sure, they were taken to overtime by Samford and East Tennessee State during league play, but the Terriers won their 21 games against conference foes by an average of 17 points a contest. Even before they laid waste to their SoCon competition adversaries, the Terriers played North Carolina to a stalemate for 30 minutes on the opening night of the season and went into Starkville, MS and had Mississippi State down 12 in the second half before the Bulldogs caught fire late.
I sure hope Seton Hall is ready for what’s coming late Thursday night in Jacksonville when they take the floor against one of the best ‘mid-majors’ in the history of college basketball. Yes, this is an admittedly hot take but one that is far from hyperbole when you factor in how highly rated the Terriers are in just about every advanced metric system.
Wofford on Offense: The following clip below is one of the staples of Wofford’s lethal scoring attack – the dribble hand-off ball screen, which is all made possible by Cam Jackson and his broad shoulders. The quick point-to-wing ball screen initiates the action, dragging Jackson’s defender (#4 on UNC Greensboro) away from the top of the key. With how quickly Storm Murphy races across the floor, Jackson’s defender is stuck in a tough spot having to recover back to the middle of the floor, causing him to be off balance when he inevitably has to step up on Magee coming off the subsequent screen by Jackson. The result is a hesitant close-out, allowing Magee to rise into an open triple in rhythm.
While the way Magee contorts his body makes this seem like a highly difficult shot, this is just a walk in the park for one of the best shooters in college basketball history – just ask those who have watched Wofford play all year how frequently he cans 25-footers while twisting 180 degrees in midair.
When the defense gets tired of watching Magee bury jumper after jumper, head coach Mike Young will run this counter action. Magee will set his man up with a fake hand off and immediately look for the back door from Jackson. In this instance, Francis Alonso defends it well on the perimeter, but Magee simply clears out and leaves Jackson alone on an island to go 1-v-1 on the block.
While Wofford pulled away from UNC Greensboro late in the SoCon title game, the Spartans did a nice job throwing a wrench in some of these half-court sets by constantly changing defenses between man-to-man and a variation of different zone schemes. Kevin Willard is primarily a man-to-man guy but he may be smart to take a page out of Wes Miller’s playbook and employ a similar defensive strategy to ensure the Terriers don’t get too comfortable on offense. Quincy McKnight is the odds on favorite to draw the Magee assignment, who should be confident in his ability to chase him all over the floor after blanketing Markus Howard less than a week ago in the Big East tournament.
Seton Hall on Offense: I don’t mean to over index this analysis on Wofford, but the vast majority of the matchup nuances lie on that side of the ball. For the Pirates, while Willard has an under-appreciated supporting cast, let’s be crystal clear: this is the Myles Powell show. While Magee is the fulcrum of the Terriers’ offense, the Pirates are even more leveraged on Powell’s shooting and playmaking offensively. Much like some of the baseline double screens Mike Young will run for Magee, Willard will use a similar tactic to get Powell open looks – but the fear of letting Powell sniff even the smallest bit of space can lead to over-helping, as Villanova falls prey to in the possession below from the Big East title game:
With the respect Powell demands from the defense, he doesn’t even need to have the ball in his hands to get his teammates open looks. Simply his presence on the floor is invaluable as a distraction or decoy, which gives point guard Quincy McKnight more real estate to take his man off the dribble and helps keep the floor spaced for the feisty Sandro Mamukelashvili to go to work inside.
Key Factor(s): It’s weird that the ‘mid-major’ in this matchup is the one with the slight size advantage, but that’s one of the ways the Terriers ‘terr’orized the SoCon this season. Cam Jackson will likely be checked by Mamukelashvili, which leaves the bouncy Michael Nzei to guard Wofford’s other supporting cast star Keve Aluma up front. Mamukelashvili has that nasty mean-streak which should come in handy against the beefier Jackson, but Jackson is simply a cut above so many of the other post players Seton Hall has seen this year, even within the Big East. One revenant precedent in particular that would concern me as a Seton Hall fan were the two meetings with DePaul this season. In both games, the Blue Demons actively forced the rock inside through Femi Olujobi and Paul Reed, both of whom feasted against the Pirates front court.
Final Predictions: I’m cautious that my season long love affair with Wofford is manifesting in some level of bias here, but the Terriers are objectively the more complete team on both sides of the ball. Seton Hall has done nothing wrong over the last two months of the season, a well-timed course correction after stumbling to a 3-5 start in the Big East. With Wofford’s brilliant head coach Mike Young responsible for designing the Terriers’ defensive blueprint, I expect Wofford to make someone else beat them in hopes of making Powell a non-factor. While Hall’s other cast of characters have shown flashes this season, I still don’t trust them to lead the Pirates past a more balanced Wofford squad.
SU Pick: Wofford
ATS Pick: Wofford -3
O/U Pick: Over 142.5
(2) Kentucky vs. (15) Abilene Christian
Initial Thoughts: Pretty darn impressive that Abilene Christian punched a ticket to the dance in just its second season being eligible for postseason play after going through the ridiculous 4-year transition period to Division 1. The constant variable throughout the Wildcats rise up the Southland standings? Head coach Joe Golding. Since making the leap to D1, Abilene has done nothing but get better year-after-year under Golding, culminating into a program defining auto-bid berth this season.
Golding once again pulled all the right strings this year, but none was more impressive than the retooling of the roster after two of the Wildcats’ best players, Jalone Friday and BJ Maxwell, were dismissed from the team in late February. Friday was ACU’s leading scorer and Maxwell was averaging 9 points a game as a full-time starter before departing, but Abilene hasn’t skipped a beat in their absence.
Abilene Christian on Offense: Chiseled point guard Jaylen Franklin and bouncy wing Jaren Lewis and have taken their games to new heights without the services of Friday and Maxwell, while the rest of the supporting cast has seamlessly stepped into more featured roles. Versatile big man Hayden Farquhar has answered the bell, blossoming into a model of efficiency over the past month, while fellow forward Joe Pleasant has done his fair share of the dirty work as well. In Golding’s offense, Farquhar and Pleasant have mastered the art of the back-side post seal and become frequent recipients of lob passes over the top of the defense after a quick perimeter ball reversal – the clip below shows one of Golding’s quick hitters in action working to perfection, which is stunted by the desperation foul to prevent the layup:
Golding’s offensive sets should be especially useful in dead-ball situations or out of timeouts to help the undermanned purple Wildcats steal a few easy buckets against an unsuspecting and young Kentucky defense. However, Coach Cal is armed with two apt defenders needed to shut down the Wildcats’ 1-2 punch in Lewis and Franklin. PJ Washington is the perfect matchup for the 6’6 Lewis and Ashton Hagans is more than qualified to shut down Franklin at the point of attack. Without big nights from ACU’s two senior stars, it will be tough sledding for Abilene to keep pace with Kentucky.
Kentucky on Offense: Abilene plays a pressure-intensive man-to-man defense that forces turnovers at one of the highest rates in the country. Ashton Hagans is as fast end-to-end as any guard in America, but he can be nonchalant with the rock at times as the primary ball handler. Over the past month, however, he’s been a reliable, mistake-free offensive conductor, posting just three turnovers or less in seven straight games. Immanuel Quickly is also emerging as a steady back-up to Hagans, who’s also been superb at protecting the rock over the past few weeks – he’s turned it over just twice in the last 76 minutes of action, an incredible streak of sustained heady decision making.
If Hagans, Quickley and Tyler Herro can limit self-inflicted mistakes, Kentucky should feast inside against a depleted Abilene frontline. The loss of Friday earlier this season guts ACU of its best interior defender, which could spell doom against the imposing UK frontline that now has Reid Travis back in action and operating at full capacity.
Key Factor(s): With how aggressive Abilene defends on the perimeter and how undersized they are relative to UK’s pack of giants in the middle, I suspect this could turn into a free-throw-a-thon for Big Blue nation. 23% of Kentucky’s points came at the charity stripe this season, the 17th highest rate in the country, and UK converts a respectable 74% of those attempts. I’d wager Calipari opts to go right at Jaren Lewis inside in hopes of getting him into early foul trouble, This could quickly exposing the lack of interior reinforcements behind him and if that comes to fruition, this one could get ugly in a hurry.
Final Predictions: The only reason I’m taking Abilene Christian with the points is because of how I see the pace playing out. The total is hovering in the low 130s at the moment – a bit too low, in my opinion – a clear indicator that Golding will have no interest to try and run up and down with Kentucky. Another dynamic at play here that most non-Kentucky fans may not be aware of is the fact that the Wildcats just aren’t playing as fast as they were earlier in the season. Kentucky surpassed the 70-possession mark eight different times during the non-conference portion of the season but did not do so one-time during SEC play. While it’d make sense for Cal to ramp up the pace and allow his superior crop of talent to assert its dominance over more possessions, I don’t think he’ll go for the jugular in this opening round ‘tune-up’ game, which should help ACU stay inside the number.