Thursday, May 31, 2018

Kurly’s Preseason Top 10

Now that the transfer and NBA exploratory stage are over, here is my Top 10, the only one you need.

10. Villanova - I didn’t necessarily have an epiphany, but I now believe Jay Wright is the best coach in college basketball. Couple two national titles and player development, argue with me about that.  

9. Michigan - The second best coach resides in Ann Arbor. Forget Sparty, forget Maryland, by the end of the regular season, Michigan will be the best team in the Big 14.

8. Tennessee - They might be the best team in the SEC but we’ll get to why I have them here for the moment. They’ll be a year older and have most of their minutes back. Falling back seems highly unlikely.

7. Kansas State - They’ll be an interesting team to watch but they return so much. We have to remember they took advantage of a region that lost all its top seeds but unlike South Carolina of 2017, this team shouldn’t fall backwards.

6. Kentucky - Rumors abound Reid Travis is going to end up in Lexington as a grad transfer. If that’s the case, Kentucky is a legit title contender. Plus, we’ll all be cheering for Tyler Herro.

5. Duke - Freshman heavy again, Duke’s season will hinge on what kind of defensive team they become. It is a very intriguing mix in Durham.

4. North Carolina - Luke Maye is my early choice for POY and this Tar Heel squad added some five stars as well. I think we’re due for a Tobacco Road heavy Final 4. It’s been far too long.

3. Nevada - Nevada added a five star freshman to the Martin twins who are returning. They should roll through the Mountain West. How they get seeded will be the big question for them next March but with Eric Mussleman on the bench, it may not matter.

2. Kansas - This should be Bill Self’s best chance at a second national title since all the others. They add oodles of talent. This includes traditional transfers who had a season to acclimate. 

1. Gonzaga - They bring back two NBA caliber players and add one of Europe’s best prospects in Filip Petrusev, a skilled big. Zach Norvell should have a huge season and will be a potential All-American. 

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Villanova

Last nights thumping of Michigan by Villanova is a culmination of Jay Wright and the Wildcats establishing themselves as one of the new blue bloods of college basketball. If Jay Wright sticks around, it’s likely there are more Final 4’s around the corner for the new Big East flagship program.

Wright and Villanova began drawing criticism as a March flopper following their 2015 loss to NC State in the second round as a 1-seed. That followed a second round loss to eventual champ UConn as a 2-seed in the second round in 2014. Going further back, they lost as 2-seed to St. Mary’s in 2010 after surviving a scare from Robert Morris in the opening tilt. In between, Nova was searching for an identity as Wright and his staff looked to re-establish themselves.

Prior to that, from 2005-09, Nova had great success, making 4 Sweet 16’s and a Final 4 run in 2009. Like many programs before them, sometimes, you get lost in the wilderness for whatever reason. Beginning with the recruitment of Darrun Hilliard and JayVaughn Pinkston, Nova round Nova dudes and the culture established when he originally arrived in Philly was back for Jay Wright and Villanova.

There’s a lesson here. Wright failed to make the tournament his first three years at Villanova. He took slings and arrows as a March failure after great success in a five year period. We lack patience in sports. In college sports, patience is sometimes required. Jay Wright didn’t become a dummy in 2010. Luck and circumstance all played a part as Villanova saw success elude them in March. We’re nearing the end of the decade and along with perhaps Duke, they’ve laid claim to program of the decade. Jay Wright has something only two other current coaches have, multiple national titles. He has more than Tom Izzo or Jim Boeheim. He’s a walking hall of famer.

Whether Villanova can sustain success is yet to be seen. The NBA will be a tempting lure for Jay Wright. UConn won 4 titles in 15 years and became an afterthought almost overnight. Nova loses Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges. Omari Spellman probably played himself into guaranteed money this March. They still have Nova dudes coming back but success isn’t guaranteed. Whatever the case, any doubt Villanova or Jay Wright are capable of climbing the mountain again seems silly. Welcome to the land of the blue bloods.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Final 4 Thoughts and Random Observations

The biggest surprise last night wasn’t the winners, but the ease at which Villanova handled Kansas. I thought Michigan would wear down Loyola. They did. I thought Kansas had put away the bad KU we had seen during the Big XII season. They hadn’t.

Loyola had a great season. A season they’ll find increasingly difficult to repeat as time goes on. They’ll also be kicking themselves. The talk on twitter after Michigan jumped out to a 12-4 lead was they’d be kicking themselves for not building a bigger lead as both teams scuffled on offense. My thought was Loyola was getting to the rim without trouble and just missing too many bunnies. Sure enough, they closed the half on a 25-10 run executing their offense with precision and brilliance. 

Even after 8 minutes in the 2nd half, Michigan had only shaved a point off the halftime lead. Then Loyola had that stretch we’d seen against Nevada and to a lesser extent Kansas State where the offense got stuck. Marques Townes started cramping and things went sideways fast. Mo Wagner was the best player on the court last night and in a sense, willed the Wolverines to victory with some help from Charles Matthews as the Michigan guards were largely absent. It was a performance for the ages. Wagner joined Akeem Olajuwon and Larry Bird as the only players to get 20 points and 15 boards in a national semifinal. That’s nice company.

In the nightcap, Villanova set a Final 4 record with made 3-pointers in a game by halftime and largely cruised past a shellshocked Kansas team. It was vintage Villanova. They’ve been a juggernaught for 5 years. A win tomorrow cements them as one of the best runs in recent memory.

I saw criticism of Bill Self but I’m not sure what his answer was supposed to be. Even when they clamped down outside, Nova’s guards broke them down off the dribble freeing up shooters. They could have zoned all night but Nova was too good for that to be effective. Sadly for KU fans, it was one of those nights.

Brian mentioned to me it’s possible Nova shot its wad last night. It’s possible. They shot lights out against Oklahoma in 2016 and followed that up with a 77 point night against Carolina. Michigan can defend but I’m not sure their guards have seen a back court like Villanova’s all year. And while Nova had stretches of mediocre defensive play this season, they’re still 14th in defensive efficiency. I’d wager playing in an offensive minded Big East skewed their numbers. Michigan is a much better defensive team than KU and will guard the perimeter better but I’m having a hard time finding a big advantage for them. Spellman can take Mo and even if Wagner goes off again, Nova has far more options to counter than Loyola did.

Michigan has had a bit of the Gonzaga luck when it comes to the draw to get this far. They’ve beaten a 14, 6, 7, 8 and 11 to get to this point. That’s not their fault and quite frankly, Houston was better than a 6. And now that it’s a single game, I’m not sure any of that matters. They’ve won 14 in a row and that’s damn impressive. I just don’t see the advantage they have in this game. They play slower, 4 possessions slower than Nova but that won’t bother Villanova. Alabama and Texas Tech play slow, too and those were still double digit wins. Villanova is a healthy KP favorite. It’s 6-points with a 69% win probability. That sounds right to me.

Title Game Pick: Villanova 70 Michigan 64

Friday, March 30, 2018

Final 4 Picks

Loyola vs. Michigan

How long can the Loyola run last? Do they have another buzzer beater or close win in them? The numbers favor Michigan and pretty heavily for a Final 4 matchup.

Loyola isn’t the first 11-seed to ever make the Final 4 but they’re looking to be the first to win a game there. Betting against them simply because of the numbers or the matchup looks to favor Michigan seems silly after the last two weeks but Michigan is the clear favorite.

This is the bizarro Michigan as I’ve mentioned before. They’re defense first, offense second. It’s not Beilein-like. That’s not to say they don’t run solid offensive sets but they’re not as dynamic as past teams. That’s probably the road to victory for Loyola. Michigan has been pretty average on offense in 3 games of 4. If they play that way, this game should be close. If Michigan plays like they did against Texas A&M, Loyola has not shot.

Michigan has another bugaboo and that’s bad free throw shooting. Will it catch up to them at some point? They’ve dodged it thus far. 

Loyola has one big win in the tournament in margin and the rest have been close, similar to Michigan. The moment shouldn’t shake them. At some point, though, midnight strikes and it strikes tomorrow night.

The Pick: Michigan 61 Loyola 51

Villanova vs. Kansas

A month ago, I’d have said Nova would roll these guys. After Sunday, I’m not sure. That’s not a knock on Nova. Kansas has become a different team. It’s largely sprung from the brilliance of Malik Newman. Devonte’ Graham has been the the heart, Newman has become the muscle. 

If the first game is a bit of a slog, this game could be a track meet in the scoring sense. Both have great offenses and KU is 3rd in the nation in 3pt. shooting and Nova is 15th. Nova seems to have been more prone recently to shooting slumps. Part of that is playing a frenetic West Virginia and defensive minded Texas Tech team. 

Both are fairly similar defensively. Both defend the arc roughly the same. Both have about the same effective fg% defense. Neither team turns it over. Neither team puts the other at the line. My gut tells me, which team makes more of their 3’s wins. Flip a coin.

The Pick: Villanova 79 Kansas 78

Monday, March 26, 2018

Recapping the Weekend

If there’s one thing reinforced this weekend, luck matters in March. This isn’t a complaint or excuse but part of the beauty of March Madness and part of the frustration for some.

Loyola did something only true believers could have imagined possible at this school. It’s been proven possible for Valley teams to have March success. But there was no reason to believe Loyola was the school to return the Valley to a Final 4 so soon after losing Creighton and Wichita State. Quite frankly, before Porter Moser got there and even after, no one thought this possible. They were a very good team this season but out of all the recent 11-seeds to make a Final 4, Loyola was the luckiest. A buzzer beater over Miami, a late bucket over Tennessee, drawing the 7 and 9 seed in the regionals helped a lot. They won their first 3 games of the tournament by 4 points but to their credit, they kicked the door down Saturday night handling a Kansas State team who can frustrate any and all opponents. My hunch is, this is a fluky George Mason like run versus a Butler or VCU run. Butler and VCU had tasted some March success before a Final 4. Whatever the case, Loyola owes no one an apology and will not be a pushover for Michigan.

Speaking of Michigan, like Loyola, they owe their Final 4 to a stroke of luck as Jordan Poole saved their season with a buzzer beater over Houston. They also got help from Leonard Hamilton who inexplicably called off the dogs late Saturday despite Michigan being a woeful FT shooting team. Doesn’t matter, they’re in the Final 4 for the second time under John Beilein and 10th time overall. Win or lose this weekend, John Beilein has established his reputation as one of the great college coaches of all time. He adapts to fit his personnel and fixes his deficiencies. His hiring of Luke Yaklich as an assistant was the best coaching move of the past year. Brian texted me calling Michigan, “Virginiaesque”. Nah, they’re closer to Wisconsin but without the grabbing, flopping and undercutting.

Of all the Final 4 participants, Villanova was the one where some luck wasn’t needed. Oh, there was some involved. They drew West Virginia and Texas Tech, teams that love to foul and Villanova will eat your dead at the line. Jay Wright now has 3 Final 4’s under his belt and makes Tom Oates look like an idiot. As great as Rollie was, Jay Wright has established himself as the best coach in Nova history.

Finally, Kansas rode the brilliance of  Malik Newman (pats self on back) past Duke. Duke avoided heading west where UNC got trounced by Texas A&M but looking back, they would have had an easier path to a Final 4. Instead, they ended up in the Midwest and basically played a road game in a regional final. As they say, them’s the breaks. It won’t make Brian feel any better, but that was a fantastic game where no one deserved to lose. Bill Self takes a lot of criticism but I thought he had a great game plan yesterday. He threw double teams at Duke’s bigs forcing the guards to beat them and Trevon Duval was almost up to the task. On offense, KU was patient and got a lot of good look 3’s and enough lobs to force Duke to defend the rim. Players have to execute and KU did. That’s a credit to Self and his staff. Duke played a great game and lost. It happens. It sucks, but I saw a group of kids that left it all on the court and despite idiotic proclamations about the folly of one-and-dones, the kids that have gone through Duke have always given effort and looked like great teammates. The criticism of Coach K is petty jealousy. If you think that team was bad for college basketball, you’re an idiot.

Finally, a lot of Badger fans took satisfaction in Grayson Allen’s career ending. That’s fine. He has a national title at the expense of the best team in Badgers history. Enjoy that big win yesterday. 


Sunday, March 25, 2018

The Midwest

Duke vs. Kansas 

This is the 6th time these teams have played each other in the NCAA Tournament, with Duke winning 3 of the 5. The last time they played one another in the tournament was 2003 when Kansas beat Duke in a regional final.

Kansas played 30 great minutes against Clemson and then held on. Duke won the type of game that many teams may not have won against Syracuse. Somehow, Duke is a top ten defense while Kansas is 46th. If Duke can make some 3’s today and manage the glass against a weak rebounding Kansas team, they should win.

The Pick: Duke 71 Kansas 68

The East

Villanova vs. Texas Tech

Villanova is a pretty solid favorite. They’re up to 14th in defensive efficiency after hovering near 30 for most of the season. Texas Tech has been one of the top defensive teams in the nation for most of the season. Villanova has a distinct advantage on the offensive side of the ball.

Nova has won its last 7 games by double digits. Tech has gotten healthy and playing like the team they were early in the season. Tech is in unchartered territory but I don’t think they’ll be overwhelmed by the moment. I do think they’ll be overwhelmed at some point by Villanova, though.  

The Pick: Villanova 73 Texas Tech 68