Thursday, July 22, 2021

It’s Back! Conference Shuffle 2021

After nearly a decade of relative conference stability, a bombshell dropped yesterday when the Houston Chronicle reported Texas and Oklahoma had contacted the SEC about possible membership. A few things off the top:

1. Texas and OU always had an uneasy truce with the rest of the Big XII which is a shame because it’s a super fun football and basketball league! It doesn’t have the stuffiness of the Big 14 or the ego of the SEC.

2.  It’s hilarious it could be the SEC instead of the PAC-12 or Big 14. When conference shuffling happened circa 2010, it was rumored the Pac-12 would take Texas and OU along with Ok State and another Texas school. It was also the wet dream of Jim Delany to add Texas, OU less so.

The early scuttlebutt is Texas A&M isn’t thrilled about this possibility and there are political concerns in Oklahoma but that seems overblown. My hunch is this leaked yesterday from A&M but it won’t matter if Texas and OU want in. The SEC will have some internal strife over it but the additions would be too good to pass up.

Should that happen, what about the rest of the Big XII? That’s a great question. It sounds like OU is no longer joined at the hip with OK State. The Cowboys and Texas Tech and Baylor would be the big losers. Kansas will always be a valuable property because of hoops. Kansas State and Iowa State have always been vulnerable because they’re simply not great properties. The Big 14 isn’t taking any of the schools except Kansas. 

As for the ACC and Pac-12, they can choose to add more properties but I’m not sure outside Kansas and Notre Dame any of the leftovers of the Big XII are that interesting. West Virginia is a bit of wild card as they’ve shown a commitment to being competive in football and basketball through the years. I’m just not sure the ACC would see them as a necessary addition.

The league most vulnerable outside the Big XII would likely be the AAC. Should the Big XII try and stick together, it isn’t wild speculation to assume Houston and Cincinnati would be natural targets, along with Memphis who is itching to move up in the world. It’s possible BYU might be inclined to join a league as well in football.

The times are-a-changing.  Again.

Wednesday, June 2, 2021

Coach K Thoughts

I’m sort of surprised by the news. I guess I imagined him coaching until he was prodded out the door like Bobby Bowden or worse case scenario, Joe Paterno. Good for him. At age 75, enjoy the last years of your life.

I’ve seen some speculation he’s doing this because of the new frontier coming in college athletics, the combination of more liberal transfer rules and NIL. I don’t buy that. He transformed his roster building through the years, going from not having early entry candidates as late as 1999, to accepting that and to one-and-dones more recently. Given Duke and his stature, neither of those things would remotely hurt Duke. Is it possible he doesn’t want to deal with another change as drastic as what is coming? Sure, but he’s 75.  Sometimes, it’s just time. 

Here’s how I see his career in my mind. I split it into 4-sections.

1- Building the Program (1980-1994): We all know the story by now. Struggled early but gets the Dawkins class and begins a stretch of making every Final 4 between 1986 and 1994 except in ‘87 and ‘93. That’s still wild in my mind and so underapprecited. Sustained, stacked success like that was the closest thing the sport had outside UCLA under John Wooden and this was in the modern era of the sport (64+ tournament).

This was also the era where Duke went from being just another program to joining the likes of the New York Yankees as a truly hated entity. This wasn’t and isn’t a bad thing. You don’t become truly hated in sports unless you win a lot or cheat a lot, often they go hand-in-hand as we know.

I’ve thought about this through the years as to why they became so hated. They were truly an underdog against UNLV in 1991. They may not have been Buster Douglas but they were also still viewed as a team that was pretty good but never good enough, sort of like Dean Smith and UNC before 1982. The UNC comparisons for K at Duke are quite large. I think we loved UNLV because they were anti-establishment and that Duke team represented the establishment which wasn’t fair because quite frankly, they had some basketball dirtbags on that team. Coach K’s connection to Bobby Knight didn’t help either.

The same dynamic would repeat itself against the Fab Five in ‘92. The end of this era was the title game in ‘94 against Arkansas. The last vestiges of the ‘92 title game would be gone and the sport was transitioning to a different type of student athlete. The sport had also established itself into the sports hierarchy with the explosion of available games on TV due to ESPN. I’d bet at this time, this was the closest K ever came to making a jump to the NBA.

2- The Reboot (1995-2004):  As we know, the ‘95 Duke team would miss the NCAA Tournament and Coach K sat out the year with a back. It wasn’t a good look. Weak team and a coach “quitting” when the going got tough. Lest we forget, Duke failed to make it out of the first weekend in ‘96 and ‘97. The ‘96 team was pretty average, finishing 8-8 in the ACC. They were 4-7 heading into February that year. 

‘98 looked promising but they lost a heartbreaker in the Elite 8 to the eventual champ, Kentucky Wildcats in one of the best tournament games ever. I can make an argument his ‘99 team was his best ever and only a loss in another Classic, this time the title game against UConn sullied that remarkable season.

The 2000 team really represented how hard the tournament is and how random it can be. It also represents the remarkable run from ‘86-‘94. That 2000 team was good enough to beat Michigan State. Florida made 7 of 15 from 3 while Duke went 3 of 19. Ballgame. Of course, they’d win it all a year later. 

Unlike the original run, this one only produced one title. An unlikely loss to Indiana in 2002 and a loss to eventual champ UConn again in the ‘04 Final 4 closed the door. This era was also marked by the first early entries under Coach K. It was big news when a chunk of that ‘99 team turned pro. Nonetheless, he figured out a way to win.

3- The Transition (2005-2010): Duke once again had the most hated player in the nation in this era in JJ Redick and a lot less March success until the unlikely title in 2010. This time also marked the change of the NBA draft rule that ushered in the one-and-dones. It also coincided with Roy Williams establishing himself at UNC as a worthy heir to Dean Smith.

Duke had a number of foils before this in the ACC. The aforementioned Dean Smith, Jim Valvano and NC State to a certain extent and some very good Wake Forest and Maryland teams. None of them matched the winning and success of Roy Williams. In a lot of ways, Williams run at UNC was similar to Coach K’s early run at Duke, just without the stumbles early.

While Duke didn’t fall off the map, they certainly were second fiddle to UNC until 2010. Carolina fell off a cliff after their 2009 title and Duke retook the league. Despite this, Duke would never once be number 1 in the nation until after the tournament. This was a year where Kansas and Kentucky were heavy favorites heading into the tournament. Duke’s best win that year prior to the tournament? It’s pretty bleak. I think when we look back at all his titles and championships, this may have been the favorite of them all for me besides 2015.

Part 4- Embrace Change (2011-present): Beginning with Kyrie Irving in 2011, Coach K radically changed his roster building and fully embraced the one-and-done model, for better or worse. While it produced a title in 2015 (This is another one I don’t think we fully appreciate), it was also a pretty fallow when it came to accomplishments. 

Duke hasn’t won an ACC regular season title since 2010. Maybe this says more about conference regular season titles (It does for a variety of reasons for another day). They’ve only made one Final 4 but do have 4 Elite 8 trips. Coach K was also heavily involved with Team USA, helping right that ship.

In the end, it’s a remarkable career that has spanned a sport that as he has shown, is ever evolving. Evolving with it isn’t easy. 

Many will cheer his departure without appreciating the successes and will mock many things about him. That’s a shame but winners have that burden. Did I find some of his late career complaints cringeworthy? Absolutely, but a person at his level for that long will put themselves in those positions. 

Those arguing he’s running from something should probably look back like I did. Like Roy Williams earlier this year, it’s ok to walk away after decades of success whatever the reason. Chances are, they’ve already proven themselves more than capable of success regardless the parameters of the sport. The hate is just that, hate. It’s the winners burden.

Sunday, April 4, 2021

The Final

Gonzaga versus Baylor was the ultimate destination this season was on. Rarely do we get 1 versus 2 in this sport at the end of the season. While Baylor went through the motions post-Covid break, they’ve locked back in and thoroughly humiliated a very good Houston team. They’d still be a statistical outlier should they win Monday night but wouldn’t be a surprise to win.

We should stop and appreciate what a brilliant game we saw last night between Gonzaga and UCLA. UCLA came out and kept throwing uppercuts at Gonzaga who took blow after blow and found a way to win. We’ll know after Monday’s game if it’s an all-time classic (They have to win the whole thing for it to match the pantheon of Duke-UK). That’s a game that deserved a full arena.

As for the game, KenPom has Gonzaga by 4, with a 65% win probability. I think it’s closer than that just because Baylor won’t flinch and are every bit as good as UCLA. The one thing I’ll come back to is, even as well as Baylor has played in this tournament, there have been moments where they get disinterested. It’s not sloppy, it’s a stretch where the defense is exposed. If they have that 10 minute stretch against Gonzaga, they’ll be hard pressed to pull the upset. 

The Pick: Gonzaga 84 Baylor 79

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Final 4: The Picks

Baylor vs. Houston - It’s easy for us to forget what a great basketball history Houston has. This is their 6th Final 4. Remarkably, every time they’ve made an Elite 8, they’ve made the Final 4, albeit today’s Elite 8 is much different than 1968. Despite that history, they do not have a national title to their name. Phi Slamma Jamma made 3 trips in a row to the Final 4, losing the title games in 1983 & 1984. Prior to the arrival of Kelvin Sampson, Houston had been to only 4 NCAA Tournaments since losing the title game to Georgetown in 1984. Prior to winning in the opening round in 2018, their last tournament win was in the Final 4 in 1984 over Virginia, 49-47. Never change, Cavs.

Baylor basketball made two Final 4’s prior to this season. They were in 1948 and 1950. Before Scott Drew arrived, they had one NCAA appearance in total since that Final 4 in 1950. That was in 1988. They didn’t make it back to the dance until 2008. In a world of what have you done for me lately, Drew was hired in 2003. That means it took 5 years to make the tourney (We all know the mess he inherited) and has had seasons where he missed the tournament since, as recent as 2018. Baylor has made a lot of bad choices the last decade, keeping Scott Drew around is not one of them.

As for the game, Houston has done enough to win twice in games over Rutgers and Oregon State. They handled Syracuse with realtive ease as well in a matchup that favored them greatly. KenPom views this as a tossup as Baylor is 2 and Houston is 3. Baylor has a much better offense despite Houston being 7th in AdjuestedO (118.6) vs. Baylor who is 3 (123.0). Houston has the edge on defense, 8th overall (88.4) vs. Baylor, 28th overall (92.2). Basically, it’s a wash.

These are the 2nd and 3rd best offensive rebounding teams in the nation. Baylor is the nations top 3-point shooting team. Houston is 11th best in 3-pt fg% defense. Houston doesn’t turn it over much, Baylor forces a ton of turnovers. Baylor has the nations 7th best effective offensive fg%, Houston has the nations best effective defensive fg%. It’s a classic matchup of strength versus strength.

I’ll always lean towards the team with a better offense and in this case, I’ll do the same because Baylor’s 3-pt shooting is better than Houston’s and I think that’s the difference. Both teams will have extra possessions because of their offensive rebounding. Baylor should get more makes and if it’s a close game, I think that matters. Something else to watch, Baylor doesn’t typically shoot a lot of FTs but Houston fouls a lot. In a close game, it could matter.

The Pick: Baylor 70 Houston 68

UCLA vs. Gonzaga - Sigh. A Michigan-Gonzaga game could have been interesting. It’s possible this game could be, too. Gonzaga averages almost 10 more possessions per game than UCLA. UCLA does shoot it well enough from distance that if they get the Zags into a low possession slog, they may outscore them from distance.

However, USC was a much better defensive team than UCLA is and the Zags barely broke a sweat in what was one of the most, if not most impressive performance by a singular team this tournament. I said this about the Michigan-UCLA game, the Bruins are playing with house money and are 13.5 underdogs in this game. Hell, KenPom likes the Zags by 12 with an 86% win probability in a Final 4 game! The UCLA freaking Bruins are David to Gonzaga’s Goliath and it’s barely hyperbole.

UCLA has no pressure while the Zags chase perfection. I don’t dismiss that, especially in a game the Bruins will try and make ugly. Despite this warning, I think this Zags team eventually blows them out as Michigan could have and maybe should have done to UCLA. The difference between Gonzaga and Michigan is pretty staggering by the numbers.

The Pick: Gonzaga 80 UCLA 69

Monday, March 29, 2021

Tuesday Picks

Michigan vs. UCLA - Michigan waxed Florida State and UCLA dominated Alabama in overtime to advance to this game. UCLA got some help from Alabama shooting 11-25 from the FT line. This matchup for UCLA will be similar to what they had against Alabama. Michigan isn’t as 3-point reliant as Alabama and much more efficient overall. UCLA is playing with house money and those teams are always scary but Michigan is more balanced than Alabama and have figured things out without Livers.

The Pick: Michigan 71 UCLA 59

Gonzaga vs. USC - This is the best Elite 8 matchup. It’s also the toughest opponent for all the favorites. USC is up to 6th in KenPom. Gonzaga has the best 2pt offense in basketball, USC has the best 2pt defense in basketball. I keep hearing how size is the x-factor against the Zags and it’s possible it shows itself today but I think we really dismiss Zags complete package. They don’t shoot a lot of 3’s but they’re 29th in 3pt shooting %. USC will test them and maybe even win but I think Gonzaga shows us why they’re special in this game.

The Pick: Gonzaga 77 USC 72

Sunday, March 28, 2021

Monday Picks

Baylor vs. Arkansas - A throwback to the old SWC, Arkansas is in its first Elite 8 since making the title game in 1995. This is Baylor’s 3rd since 2010. Baylor’s win over Villanova was impressive as the Wildcats threw the kitchen sink at them and the Bears didn’t blink. Arkansas was behind almost the entire night against Oral Roberts but finally wore them down. Arkansas has been down double digits in all 3 tournament games. They can’t afford that against Baylor. 

The Pick: Baylor 71 Arkansas 62

Oregon State vs. Houston- The Cougs make it 3 old SWC teams in the Elite 8. The Beavers looked good against Loyola but Houston was more impressive against Syracuse. The numbers say this is a mismatch and I tend to agree.

The Pick: Houston 66 Oregon State 51

Thursday, March 25, 2021

The South Shall Rise Again

Villanova vs. Baylor - What could have been...Baylor is favored by 7.5 in Vegas while KenPom is less bullish, having them over by 4. 

The Wildcats are with out Colin Gillespie as we know. For the season, no one turned the ball over less than Villanova. Only 2 teams in the nation forced more turnovers than Baylor. The Gilllespie injury catches up to the Wildcats Saturday. To their credit, none of the Nova regulars turn the ball over but Chris Arcidiacano does and if he plays a lot Saturday, that could be a problem.

While we marvel at Villanova from distance, Baylor actually lead the nation in 3pt %. Nova was 237th in 3pt % defense. Couple that with a bad defensive effective fg% and this is simply a bad matchup for Villanova across the board.

We’ve seen Villanova shoot teams out of gyms but I think this will go the other way this weekend. Baylor isn’t great defensively but they’re much better than Villanova and the Bears offense is slightly better than Villanova and that’s impressive unto itself.

The Pick: Baylor 82 Villanova 72

Oral Roberts vs. Arkansas - KenPom gives Arkansas an 89% chance of winning this game with a predicted score of 86-72. They actually played earlier this year with Arkansas only winning by 11.

The Razorbacks have won 11 of 12 heading into this game and are a clear step above and defense Oral Bob has played. Arkansas isn’t anything special on offense but also don’t have any glaring warts you thing Oral Bob might exploit. Both teams play fast, averaging around 72 possessions per game, so there isn’t an advantage there. 

The key will be can Oral Roberts make 3’s? They’re 14th in 3pt % and 18th in attempts per FGA. They’ll put shots up and that gives them a punchers chance. While the Razorbacks are 10th in AdjustedD, they’re average in 3pt defense. I can see the Golden Eagles putting a scare into Arkansas but the Razorbacks should win.

The Pick: Arkansas 84 Oral Roberts 70