Five “Under-the-Radar” Mid-Major Teams You Should Pay Attention To…

Mid-Majors. They break a few hearts in the tournament, gain a cup of coffee of national spotlight come tournament time, and for the most part, fade out of the collective memory of college basketball fans by the following season. Oh sure. You have your Gonzaga’s, your Atlantic-10 and Mountain West Conference squads, but for the most part, it’s always  random when it comes to which Mid-Major squad comes into the national spotlight come tournament time.

Well, as the regular seasons wind down and as we lead up to conference tournament season, here are five “under-the-radar” Mid-Majors you should start paying attention to if you’re a college basketball fan and need something to watch on ESPN3.

South Dakota Coyotes and South Dakota State Jackrabbits

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On Thursday, the “Rushmore State” rivalry will be in full bloom as the first place SDSU Jackrabbits host the second place USD Coyotes in Brookings. Both teams have been excellent squads with sterling records (both 20-plus win teams) and some big wins (the Jackrabbits beat Iowa on a neutral court this year). However, the Summit is a one-bid lead, so unfortunately, one of these teams will be left out come Tournament time.

The Jackrabbits have been an underrated Mid-Major contender for almost a decade, starting with Nate Wolters, who’s small-town Jimmy Chitwood-esque style of play got the Jackrabbits onto the national spotlight. This time around, forward Mike Daum is the centerpiece of the SDSU offense, as he is a legitimate Summit Player-of-the-Year candidate. After helping lead the Jackrabbits to a Summit League Tournament Title a year ago, and a first-round matchup against National Runner-up Gonzaga, the Kimball, Nebraska native has continued to produce despite being the target of Summit league foes all year long. He’s not quite as effective offensively (his rating has dropped from 121 to 114), but he’s become a better rebounder, has continued to carry this offense, and more importantly has helped his team “win” more, as the Jackrabbits have more wins so far this year (23) than their tournament squad a year ago (18).

The rival Coyotes have been second-class citizens to the Jackrabbits since the Wolters-era. Since taking over in 2015, head coach Craig Smith has turned things around, as evidenced by a Summit regular season title a year ago, and a 24-6 mark so far this year. But last year, USD was upset in the conference tournament semifinals by their rivals from Brookings, something they hope to avoid this year. Guard Matt Mooney and Center Tyler Hagerdorn have been one of the best two-man combos in the Summit League this year, and Smith will need them to finish the season strong if they want to get over the hump and make their first NCAA Tournament since going Division 1 in 2010.

Loyola Chicago Ramblers

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The Missouri Valley has changed a lot over the past decade. Gone are the days when Creighton and Wichita State dominated the conference. Creighton left for the Big East a while ago, and Wichita State moved over to the American to battle it out with Cincy and Houston. So a lot of the “star” power that carried the conference in the past has been sorely missed this season.

While it’s nice to see Southern Illinois back in the MVC mix (Bruce Weber shout out!), the biggest surprise has been Loyola Chicago, a former member of the Horizon Conference who joined the MVC in 2013. Porter Moser has done a phenomenal job with this Ramblers squad, which not only has the history of being the only college in Illinois to win a national title in basketball, but has also been the most successful squad in Illinois this year as well as evidenced by their 23-5 record (DePaul, Illinois, Southern Illinois, and Illinois State eat your heart out).

Yes, the MVC without Wichita State has not been a strong as in year past, but that shouldn’t deter the accomplishment’s of Moser’s team this year. They have a big win over Florida on their resume, and their 13-3 mark in conference play show this team’s consistency. They are tough-minded bunch, not the most athletic team perhaps in the MVC, but fundamentally strong, and balance on both ends of the ball. Their effective field goal percentage is seventh best in the nation, and the effective field goal defense is also in the Top-40, a sign that the Ramblers can beat you if they’re not totally clicking on one side on a given night. The team has also been led by freshman post Cameron Krutwig, who is a beast on the glass, and has displayed soft and reliable touch around the rim, demonstrated by his 118.8 offensive rating and 63.2 true shooting percentage.

Moser is a coaching lifer, as he has a career 216-211 record over three stops in coaching career (Arkansas Little-Rock, Illinois State and Loyola Chicago). However, while he does have a CBI title (half-hearted yay), he has yet to make a NCAA Tournament berth as a head coach. If the Ramblers finish strong, not only may he end that personal streak, but he also may pull off an upset win or two in the big dance to boot.

Marshall Thundering Herd

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The Conference USA certainly has its more heralded favorites this year as the conference wraps up its regular season. Middle Tennessee State has entered the AP rankings, and has a tournament pedigree thanks to head coach Kermit Davis, who has spurned many openings at bigger schools to build something special in Murfreesboro. Furthermore, second and third place squads Old Dominion and Western Kentucky also have tournament history, albeit in difference conferences (CAA and Sun Belt, respectively).

But Marshall is probably the funnest team in the conference and solely due to head coach Dan D’Antoni. Yep, you heard that right. He’s the brother of Mike, the “Seven Seconds or Less” wizard who’s currently the head man of the Houston Rockets.

D’Antoni’s hire initially was met with some skepticism. While D’Antoni had plentiful experience as a high school coach and NBA assistant, and was a Marshall alum, he had no head coaching experience at the college or professional level. Many wondered if he’d be able to survive the grind of college recruiting, and if he could adjust his “NBA-offense” not just to the college game, but Mid-Major players who weren’t Steve Nash, Amare Stoudemire or James Harden.

After a rebuilding first year (his team went 11-21), the Thundering Herd have improved steadily each season under the affable D’Antoni. They went 17-16 two years ago, and last year they went 20-15, the first time they had won 20 games since 2012. This year, the Herd seemed poised to surpass last year’s record, as they are currently 19-8 overall, 10-4 in conference and have won 5 straight games in C-USA play. And D’Antoni has done this without adjusting his philosophy much: his team has ranked in the top-10 in tempo every year in his tenure (including the 6th fastest this year), and they attempt a lot of three’s, as their 3-pt field goal attempts percentage ranks 32nd highest this year.

It will be a tough stretch as Marshall will be traveling to MTSU and UAB, two teams who are projected to beat the Herd, according to Ken Pom. However, D’Antoni’s teams have always finished the season strong, and his pick and roll heavy offense has been beautiful to watch as a fan (and infuriating to defend for C-USA squads). They may still be a year away thanks to MTSU and the C-USA being likely a one-bid lead, but the Herd made it to the C-USA title game a year ago, which they dropped to the Blue Raiders. They could make it back…only this time, the results may be different (they beat the Blue Raiders at home already this year).

Utah Valley Wolverines

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New Mexico State has been the class of the Western Athletic Conference since Reggie Theus was in charge almost a decade ago (in his “real” coaching debut after “Hang Time”).  Grand Canyon has gotten a bit of spotlight as well, thanks to Dan Majerle and a recent ESPN article highlighting their unique status as a “for profit” school playing D1 athletics (take a gander; it’s a good read). And Seattle U (in it’s never-ending quest to join the WCC) has been a nice surprise this year, which is great to see considering the history of the school (Elgin Baylor is an alum).

However, Utah Valley may be the one to emerge out of the WAC, which would be the first NCAA berth in school history after they became Division 1 in 2003. The squad is 19-8, 8-3 in conference play (which is currently tied for second with Seattle) and is coming off a big win over WAC juggernaut NMSU. Mark Pope, who is in his third year at the helm, is already coming off a CBI semifinal appearance last season. As of today, he is hoping that the school’s first ever NCAA Tournament appearance is the next step.

Pope’s team plays incredibly efficient on the offensive end, as they rank 67th overall in the nation in offensive efficiency, and have posted the highest adjusted offensive efficiency in conference play. The Wolverines shoot well beyond the arc (highest 3-pt percentage in conference play) as well as overall (highest eFG% as well in WAC play), and don’t turn the ball over either (third-lowest turnover percentage) while playing a decent tempo (4th fastest tempo). They may not have the athletic depth of the Aggies or the NBA frills of Grand Canyon, but despite not being as flashy, the Wolverines still prove to be a solid basketball team, and in March, those kind of fundamentally sound squads can be more dangerous to a susceptible high-major team in the Tournament.

A key to Utah Valley’s success is Oklahoma transfer Akolda Manyang, who was originally a JuCo player who came off the bench at Oklahoma before getting kicked off the team after being arrested for aggravated battery. Despite his checkered history, he has been not just a solid citizen in Salt Lake state, but he also has been an All-WAC player and borderline NBA prospect. He has the ninth-highest offensive rebounding percentage in the nation as well as the 25th highest block percentage to boot. Add that with a long 7-foot frame and a 13.4 ppg/8.3 rpg/63 percent FG line, and it makes sense why the Wolverines are on the cusp of their first NCAA Tournament appearance in school history.

It won’t be easy. It’s New Mexico State’s to lose, as usual. But the Wolverines’ 7-point win on Feb. 15th was a step in the right direction, and should give them some confidence should they meet again in the WAC Championship game in Las Vegas.

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Wait? There are 3 Good Teams?: American Athletic Power Rankings

The American Conference to me has always been a “Conference USA-Plus” of sorts. It’s not a power conference, but there are some teams who are power conference worthy. UConn won a national title as a member of the American. Cincinnati probably should be in the Big East. Houston was a member of the SWC back in the day and had Phi Slamma Jamma, so they have tradition, but they have never seemed to get over hiring Clyde Drexler as head coach. To make matters worse, they don’t have the “factors” that make mid-majors special. They aren’t all Catholic schools like the Big East, WCC or MAAC. They aren’t really united by geographic proximity or natural rivalries (ask Bob Diaco about trying to manufacture rivalries). So the conference has really gone under-the-radar, especially since Louisville left for the ACC.

But, surprisingly, the American has been one of the best (if not arguably the best) non-power conferences this season (they are ranked the 7th strongest conference in the nation by Ken Pom). That is mostly due to three teams: Cincinnati, Wichita State and Houston, who all have 20-plus wins, and are ranked in KenPom’s top 20 (5, 14, 19, respectively).

So let’s take a look at the American Athletic Power Rankings, this time starting from the bottom and finishing at the top, since it’s more interesting at the top and we like to save the best for last.

10. Tulane, 11. East Carolina, 12. South Florida

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All three programs have had recent coaching changes in the past couple of years. Tulane is in year 2 of the Mike Dunleavy era, which has been low on “Jail Blazer” antics and Clipper clubhouse chaos, but still high on big, 90’s esque suits. Surprisingly, they have taken a big step up from year 1, as the Green Wave has won 13 games this year after winning only 6 in Dunleavy’s college debut. Tulane was considered as a borderline NIT team earlier in the year, as they were 9-3 in non-conference play and were 13-8 at one point before losing 5 straight games. Tulane’s probably a .500 or slightly below team, but they play an up-tempo brand of basketball (highest tempo team in the AAC), and could get be more competitive in 2018-2019 if Dunleavy continues this trend and stays put (which is likely as I don’t think any NBA team will be calling for his mid-range, 90’s style of ball).

East Carolina and South Florida are going through typical first-year blues with new coaches Michael Perry, and Brian Gregory, respectively. Perry last coached at Georgia State and has done what is expected at ECU in basketball: play mediocre ball and get double digit wins (they are 10-15 so far). But, considering that’s the tradition for the Pirates, nobody can blame him. As for USF, it is weird that Gregory is still coaching a “somewhat” high level team. And much like his previous stop (Georgia Tech), he hasn’t found much success initially (they are 8-20 and 1-14 in conference). Did you know that in his 13 years as a head coach he has only made the Tournament twice? (Both with Dayton; no appearances with Georgia Tech). Not sure if Gregory is going to be the right guy in Tampa, but when you look at who’s been there (Seth Greenberg, Orlando Antigua, Ray McCallum, Steve Masiello for like a day), it looks likely that it’s more of a “program” rather than a “coach” thing.

7. Temple, 8. SMU, 9. UConn

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If I could categorize these three, I would label them as the “disappointment trio”. These are teams who should be better than what they have been in 2017-2018.

Temple has bee typical “Temple” this year. They have those “good wins” that make you think “Hey! They’re a good team! I can’t wait to see them in March!” In non-conference, they have beaten Auburn, Clemson, South Carolina (woo! They own South Carolina!), Wisconsin, Old Dominion and St. Joseph’s. In conference, they have beaten Wichita State at home. If you look at those wins, you would be tempted to think that Temple is in the top 4 of the conference and competing for an at-large spot.

But the losses? Oh boy they are bad. Losses to La Salle and George Washington, both mediocre teams in a mediocre Atlantic 10 this season. They also lost by 10 at home to Tulane, 21 on the road to UCF (where they scored 39 points), and in OT at home to Memphis, who may be the worst Memphis team since John Calipari’s first year. The lack of consistency has just haunted Fran Murphy in his tenure at Temple, and this year has been no different.

SMU has also been wildly inconsistent under Tim Jankovic, who is starting to see some of the luster wear off since Larry Brown bolted/got pushed out of Dallas. Much like Tulane, SMU had an impressive 10-3 mark in non-conference play, and were 15-7 going at the end of January. However, 5 straight losses in February has sunk SMU from possible bubble tournament team to possible bubble NIT team. Injuries have hurt this squad for sure, but it’s sad to see that SMU, which a couple of years ago looked like they were rising as a program, stagnate so sharply over the second half of the season.

As for UConn, it’s only  a matter of time before the Huskies let Kevin Ollie go. This team has just played uninspired ball all season, and that’s evident in their 13-14 record with its best win over a down Oregon team. Yes, he has a national title, which at UConn is no easy matter (it took Jim Calhoun a while to get his first one). But look at the whole profile: Ollie has only made the tournament twice in his tenure in Storrs, and his team has steadily declined since winning the title (they ranked 96th according to KP last year and are an abysmal 169th this year). I like Ollie, and think he probably will be in the NBA coaching sometime next year, but I think he’s a dead man walking, and it will only be a matter of time before we see someone else in the UConn driver’s seat. Tom Crean, perhaps? Maybe Rick Pitino?

4. Tulsa, 5. UCF, 6. Memphis

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We’re now in the “NIT-bubble” zone. These teams have been competitive and have showed glances of promise throughout the year. But let’s face it: nobody is considering these squads for Tournament berths.

Frank Haith has basically been the Bruce Weber of the AAC. His Golden Hurricane has performed better than the numbers say they should. They are fourth in the AAC, even though they rank below three teams according to Ken Pom (they are 119th). They aren’t a great offensive team, not a great defensive team. There best win is over K-State (Irony!!) and they don’t really have a star player. But damn, the Golden Hurricane and Haith just win baby. They’re 16-10 now, and should be favored in 3 out of 4 games down the stretch (the lone one is Cincy), so it’s not out of the question that Tulsa can win 20 games this year (including AAC Tourney play) even though they won’t get any serious consideration for an at-large Tournament berth.

Johnny Dawkins has taken over UCF and given them an identity: which is boring, defensive-oriented basketball which he was known for at Stanford. (It’s so weird that he’s like this considering he’s a Dukie…oh wait!) According to KP, UCF is the fourth best defensive team in the nation according to defensive rating. Yes, you read that right. Dawkins has turned UCF into Charlottesville-South, but replacing the protesting White Supremacists on their campus with gorgeous co-eds. So there’s a lot to like from Dawkins’ first year. A good record (17-9), an identity as a team (though on the flip side, their offense is ranked 279th in the nation…yikes), and co-eds! Way to bounce back after the Stanford fiasco Johnny!

As for Memphis, I can understand why the Tigers would settled on Tubby Smith, who’s in his second year as the Tigers’ head coach. Smith is a “grandpa” sorts of coach. He does things the right way. He gets good, not great talent, though sometimes he’ll luck out with a recruit here and there. (Rajon Rondo, Keith Bogans, Tayshaun Prince, Saul Smith…wait Saul Smith wasn’t highly recruited?) After living through the ups and downs of two hucksters (Calipari and Josh Pastner) I can imagine why the athletic department would go this route. Tubby is safe and after recruiting violations and vacated Final Fours, safe is what they maybe needed for the time being. But damn…Memphis is boring…and mediocre. 16-11, 7-7 in conference, 159th in Ken Pom, and their best win is over 76th ranked SMU. Remember Derrick Rose? Remember Tyreke Evans? Remember Joey Dorsey? Hell…remember Dajuan Wagner? We haven’t see any of those flashes this year Tiger fans, and it’s not going to be like that either for a while as long as Tubby is the coach.

3. Houston

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Let’s just say we shouldn’t be surprised. Yes, their loss to a 263rd rated Drexel team wasn’t good, and may have gotten college basketball fans off the scent of this Cougars team early. And yes, all the basketball noise in Houston centers on James Harden and Mike D’Antoni and “seven seconds or less Morey-ball”. But this is Kelvin Sampson, who is arguably one of the most successful coaches in Oklahoma history. This is Kelvin Sampson, who knows how to get talent, and turn around programs. This is Kelvin Sampson, who won 20 plus games the last two years with the Cougars leading up to this season.

Maybe we should have seen this coming.

At 21-5, Houston has the profile of a dark horse Sweet 16 contender. They have the 14th best defense according to Ken Pom, and a good overall rating (they are rated 19th). They have a senior point guard in Rob Gray who is a dark horse for AAC player of the year. They have quality wins over Arkansas, Wichita State, Providence, and Cincy.

Don’t fall asleep on them any further. Good Kelvin is back (just waiting for the shoe to drop on Bad “recruiting violation maestro” Kelvin). And Houston is dangerous, not just for the rest of the year in the AAC, but in the Tournament as well.

2. Wichita State

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Gregg Marshall continues to be atop the coaching game in college basketball, and the Koch brothers continue to shell out big bucks to keep him there, winning games in Wichita, where Shocker basketball is the biggest, baddest (and only) thing to do in Southeast Kansas. Marshall continues to attribute his team’s success to his “Shaka Smart” style: a gritty underdog team who will play hard for 40 minutes on the court, especially against bigger team with bigger name recruits. That was especially clear on Saturday, as the Shockers went on the road, and beat a much more heralded Bearcat team (though the game wasn’t played at their usual home court, so I’m sure Cincy fans will complain about that).

The ironic thing about the Shockers this season though is statistically, this is one of the weaker defensive teams in Marshall’s tenure. Their 75th ranked adjusted defensive rating is the lowest for Marshall since 2009 when Wichita State’s defense was ranked in the 100’s and went 17-17. That’s not a ding on this team. They’re good, have a legitimate player of the year candidate in Shaq Morris, and still follow for the most part the mold of what a successful Shocker team looks like (their defense is not mediocre, but more just inconsistent). But it does make you wonder about this team, and if they are as ready for March as some of the Ron Baker, Cleanthony Early-led teams of the past. Teams with huge differences in offensive-defensive ratings tend to be vulnerable in the Tournament (either offense goes south or defense gets exposed), and unfortunately the Shockers fit that type this season.

It may be easy to jump on the Shockers to the Final Four bandwagon after their win over the Bearcats. But I would cool the jets just a bit. They have a serious shot to win the American regular and/or Tournament title. But serious NCAA run? That’s a little harder to predict with this atypical Marshall squad.

1. Cincinnati

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It’s Cronin-ball per usual, and unlike Marshall (where what we see on the court doesn’t necessarily match up with the numbers) the stats ring true with Cronin. Cronin’s teams are known to be physical and defensive-oriented with just enough offense to win. Cronin’s team once again is one of the top defensive squads in the nation (no. 2), and actually is better than usual on offense (51). Thus, it makes sense that Cincy is a borderline Top-10 team to most experts.

Cincy probably has the most star power in the conference, with three great players in Gary Clark, Jacob Evans and Kyle Washington carrying this Bearcats squad. Cincy also has good wins, as they obliterated UCLA on the road, and beat a “better than you think” Mississippi State team (coached by Ben Howland who has rebounded since he fizzled out at UCLA). So, Cronin has the production. He has the star power. He has the big game experience. Will this be the year he gets Cincy over the hump and into the Final Four?

It’s still a question mark with Cronin at the helm. Cronin’s a solid coach and has emerged from Bob Huggins’ shadow. However, he is a fiery dude, and isn’t surprising that his fieriness gets in the way of Cincy’s success at times. It feels like Cronin loses his composure in big moments, and his team feeds off that and loses theirs as well. You could argue that was the case against Xavier, as JP Macura seemed to get under the skin of Cronin (though many would argue that wasn’t until the end of the game, I guarantee you Macura was goading Cronin and the Bearcats frequently during the game). It took a while for Huggins to manage his composure and not let it get the best of him, both at Cincy and at WVU. Cronin will need to do the same, especially important considering Cincy is coming off two straight losses to Houston and Wichita State, with aspirations still to compete for a 2 seed in the Tourney or higher. They need to finish strong both in the regular season and AAC Tournament to make that happen, and a composed Cronin is a step in the right direction to making that happen.

It’s the Jayhawks’ to Lose (as usual) : Big 12 Power Rankings

I know it’s contrite and generic, but I think the best way to get going again on this blog will be through conference power rankings. This works a few ways in mine and potential readers’ favor:

  1. I don’t have to go into crazy detail into posts, which is fair because I don’t have a whole lot of time to commit on these posts.
  2. I can still satiate my own opinions about college basketball while still opening it up to debate from other college basketball fans.
  3. I can discuss many different aspects of college basketball, from the “power” conferences to the “mid-majors” without pretending to be an expert in a “specific” field (which will not be possible due to my limited time…as after-mentioned in point 1).

So, for my first power rankings, I’m going to stay local (as I live in Kansas City) and will go with the conference I have the most direct knowledge of: the Big 12. Again, I am not a college basketball expert or John Feinstein or Andy Katz (is he employed by the way? It’s been nice to not see his articles on ESPN anymore), but just an opinionated college basketball fan with his own passionate and strong takes.

All right, here we go.

Big 12 Power Rankings (as of 2/20)

1. Kansas, 2. Texas Tech

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I know some people will argue that Tech should be no. 1 and Kansas should be No. 2. And to be frank, I understand their argument. This Texas Tech team is a legitimate team, as head coach Chris Beard has done more in two years than the tenures of Tubby Smith, Pat Knight, and the last three years of Bob Knight combined. Tech is in the Big 12 driver’s seat, as they host Kansas in Lubbock down the stretch, and have a bonafide Big 12 player of the year candidate in Keenan Evans, who should probably get the award, but won’t because the writer’s blew their collective wad on Trae Young being the next Stephen Curry too early. Tech also has not lost at home, which bodes well for them in their upcoming matchup this weekend with the Jayhawks.

But…let’s face it. This is KU. They know how to win the regular season, and they know how to bully Big 12 players, coaches, officials and opposing fans when it counts. Udoka Azubike is starting to give Kansas the semblance of a post game as of late, as he has put up big numbers in the last three games after the Baylor loss in Waco. And Tech feels like the kind of game where Devonte’ Graham  and Svi will go nuts and silence a rabid, and maybe closet racist, Lubbock crowd. Beard has been in some big games, but Bill Self has been in more , and Tech seems due for a let down this weekend, especially after they blew one on the road at Baylor as well (making the KU loss not so bad…hey maybe Scott Drew can coach after all).

And because of all those factors, I give KU the edge…barely. But if Tech knocks off the Jayhawks this weekend…well…

Let’s just wait and see.

3. West Virginia, 4. Baylor, 5. Kansas State

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West Virginia and K-State are tied at 8-6 in conference and Baylor is creeping behind barely at 7-7. Baylor is probably the hottest team of the trio, which is why I gave them the fourth spot over K-State even though technically they are behind the Wildcats in the standings. They have big wins over KU and Texas Tech on consecutive Saturdays, and are suddenly in the tournament “should be in” mix after hovering on the “probably out” bubble for weeks. Just think: on January 30th, Baylor was 12-10 and 2-7 in conference after a 2-point loss to Oklahoma. Since then, Baylor has won five straight (including another notable win over Texas), while Oklahoma has dug themselves a deeper and deeper hole in the Big 12. Baylor’s always been a good defensive team, as Drew recruits tall, long guys who can clog up the paint, and force teams to shoot from the outside. Now, they’re getting some semblance of offense, mostly thanks to senior forward Terry Maston, who has scored 20-plus in three out of five games this February. I don’t know if Baylor will do much in March (I don’t think Maston is the kind of scorer who can carry them in big games in the Tournament), but they look primed for a strong finish leading up to the Big 12 Championship.

West Virginia is the typical Huggy Bear team. They’re tough defensively, they have some athleticism, they’re physical, but they really don’t have the kind of standout player that really scares you in the games waning moments. In fact, it’s kind of been like that the past few years for West Virginia: be above average all year, showcase good depth without star talent, put up a good record, probably get a 3-6 seed in the tournament, but really finish the year without a standout victory. If you look at the profile, the Mountaineers just don’t stand out as a real serious Final Four contender compared to KU or Tech: two losses to KU, a loss to Tech, and a loss to a Kentucky team that’s not as powerful as past UK squads. Yes, they have a sweep over Oklahoma, but this is an Oklahoma team that could be a Session 1 Big 12 Championship team, not the Final Four dark horse experts touted a few weeks ago. Don’t get me wrong: I love Huggins and “Press Virginia”. I love that they provide entertaining games, and really put teams on the edge each and every game. But are they going to rise above third in the Big 12 at this point in the year? Most likely not. Get ready for that 5-12 matchup Morgantown (against Marshall perhaps?)

At five, I have K-State listed, and I was tempted to put them down lower. If West Virginia’s resume is unimpressive, K-State’s is downright laughable. Their best win is a road win over Baylor, which was during a run where Baylor was looking at a bubble NIT berth rather than a NCAA one. They also have no good non-conference wins (sorry Vandy), and their KenPom rating (47) would be third-worst in the Big 12 (above only Oklahoma State and Iowa State). I still give the Wildcats the nod at fifth though because they have taken care of business in the Big 12: they beat everyone they’re supposed to, even if they don’t pull off the upsets. Bruce Weber is the Al Davis of the Big 12. For all his faults, he just wins, baby.

However, K-State will have a tough stretch to finish Big 12 play, as they play on the road against desperate Oklahoma and TCU teams, and at home against Texas and Baylor, two teams who are trending upward. Logic tells us that this Bruce Weber-coached team will probably split by some miracle of God (or Weber-esque magic), but it’s not out of the question that they finish 0-4 either, and are playing on Day 1 of the Big 12 Championship, not necessarily a badge of honor.

6. Texas, 7. TCU, 8. Oklahoma

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This is such a weird Shaka Smart team: they play one of the slowest paces in the nation (296th to specific), they have some really good wins (Tech at home, Butler in the PK80), and a lot of not-bad losses (Gonzaga, Duke, Michigan in non-conference). This team doesn’t press much (if at all…what happened to “Havoc“?) and depends on their height, especially freshman center Mohamed Bamba, something Smart teams weren’t really known for at VCU. However, this Texas team does share something in common with Smart’s past teams: defense (though more of a half court, non-pressure type). Texas is ranked 3rd in adjusted defensive efficiency, which is a big reason why they are still in the Tournament talk even though they don’t have much consistent offensive firepower. I don’t know if Texas will get out of the middle-of-the pack range in the Big 12, but they have some weapons, they are playing harder than they did a year ago (I saw them at the Big 12 Tournament and was thoroughly unimpressedI saw them at the Big 12 Tournament and was thoroughly unimpressed), and they are trending in a better direction than some other squads in the Big 12 (cough…Oklahoma…cough), which is a good sign for Shaka after such a disappointing campaign last year.

TCU has been an interesting team to watch, and it’s sad that Jaylen Fisher went down, which I think hurt their chances from being a NCAA Tournament lock or higher up in the Big 12 standings. The Slovakian center Vladimir Brodziansky has been a beast this year as his 128.0 offensive rating is 26th best in the nation (plus I’m privy to European players, especially European big men). And let’s face it…Jamie Dixon is a hell of a coach. Just look at TCU now compared to the Trent Johnson days, and look how far Pitt has fallen under Kevin Stallings. And lastly, don’t forget that TCU made a run to the Big 12 Championship last year, nearly getting the auto bid into the Tournament. If they can make a similar run, they’ll lock up their first tournament berth in quite some time. They have some problems defensively, but TCU has the coaching chops and offensive firepower to finish the season strong.

Oklahoma has been the biggest head scratcher this year. Accomplished coach? Lon Kruger, so check. Star, Naismith-candidate player? Trae Young, so check. Big wins? Oregon, USC, Wichita State, sweep over TCU, and over Tech. Oklahoma should not be this far down on the power rankings, but February has not been kind to the Sooners. Kruger’s team is 0-6 in games in February so far, and Big 12 defenses have adjusted to Young, and the rest of OU’s team hasn’t done diddly. If there’s one major difference from college and pro ball, it’s that complementary players struggle stepping up when opposing teams shut their star player down. That has been the case for OU, as they have been reliant on Young for so long that they have no idea what to do when he’s not clicking on all cylinders. That was incredibly evident as KU thumped OU 104-74 and held Young to 3 of 13 shooting on Monday night. Will OU miss the tournament? I don’t think so. They have too many good wins, and the media have been on him for so long this season that the tournament committee would be amiss to leave him and the Sooners out. However, they have fallen from grace quickly and they look like a one and done team, not just in the Tournament, but in the Big 12 Championship perhaps as well.

9. Oklahoma State, 10. Iowa State

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It’s been a rebuilding season for both squads, and it’s tough to say much about either. Oklahoma State has surged a bit as of late, with a big upset on the road over KU, but it’s obvious that they’re still in the 8-10 range in conference (a Session 1 Big 12 Tournament team) and smarting from Brad Underwood bailing for Illinois after one year. After two good initial years, Steve Prohm from Iowa State is trying to prove his chops as a coach, and that he’s not just living in Fred Hoiberg’s shadow, and that’s hard to prove in year 3 and you have no shot of making the big dance. That being said, if you look at the whole picture, the Cyclones beat in-state rivals Iowa and Northern Iowa, so they at least have something to hang their hat on this year, even though this Big 12 campaign for them has been a disappointing slog.

There is nothing for fans of both teams to be worried about really when you think about both squads in the long run: nobody really had them as real contenders in the Big 12 in the preseason anyways. Furthermore, while they’re records aren’t great, they aren’t “Pitt-Level” bad by any means. However, it’ll be interesting to see if a good Big 12 Championship run from either squad in a couple of weeks can parlay into some success in 2018-2019 much like TCU a season ago.

An outsider’s recap of session one of the Big 12 Championship

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I am not going to pretend by any means I am an expert on Big 12 hoops. Growing up in the West Coast, it was primarily a diet of Pac-12 (then Pac-10) and WCC basketball, and if I got up early enough in the mornings, it would be Big East or Atlantic 10 basketball on ESPN (oh the Marcus Camby UMass, Ray Allen UConn, Allen Iverson Georgetown, and Kerry Kittles Villanova days). The Big 12 (or Big 8 in its prior existence)? Eh…I haven’t really cared or paid all that much attention to it. Kansas? I would have rather seen them upset in the tourney than win a national title (wasn’t the biggest Roy Williams guy). Texas? They were cool when they had Kevin Durant…I guess (I did see him play against a Nick Young-led USC team my sophomore year in college when the NCAA Tournament held games in Spokane; somehow, they played some of the most uninspired basketball ever; this Texas team was led by Durant and DJ Augustin and somehow they looked like a NIT team that day). Everybody else? Sans a brief love affair with a Frank Martin and Michael Beasley-led Kansas State team (mostly to combat Tyler Hansbrough apologists), I have developed an apathy for Big 12 hoops over my nearly 30 years of existence on this earth.

However, the past four years, I have lived in the heart of Big 12 country (Kansas City). No longer are UCLA, or USC, or Cal, or Gonzaga, or UW gear the norm, but rather Jayhawk, Wildcat, and Cyclone apparel instead. When people bring up Kirk Heinrich, and Nick Collison, and Georges Niang, they don’t highlight their middling careers as NBA bench players, but rather their hey-days as Midwestern college basketball legends. It’s been an adjustment. In some ways, I enjoy all the attention on college basketball from January-to-April (College football dominates November and December) that is for the most part ignored in the West Coast until conference tournament time. (The NBA is king in the West Coast, and with the Warriors, Lakers, Blazers, Kings, Clippers and Suns, can you blame them?)

On other occasions though, I find the adjustment to Midwestern D1 hoops difficult, as I find the average Big 12 basketball fan views basketball in the most “Gene Hackman-from-Hoosiers” fashion possible. Certain guys are loathed (Andrew Wiggins) while other guys lauded (Wayne Selden) because the average Big 12 fan mistakes supreme individual skills for “showboating,” or “declaring for the draft early” not as an “exceptional opportunity” but “as selfish.” (Yeah, I would play basketball for free and risk millions of dollars so I can eat at a campus cafeteria 5 days a week between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. too). Crappy, low-scoring, shitty shooting performances are seen not as “dogshit basketball” (like it should be), but “defensively driven, gritty contests”. And the NBA in the average Big 12 fans’ mind is seen as “boring” while a 54-52 game between Oklahoma and Oklahoma State is characterized as “the right way to play the game.” (even if those teams shoot around 30 percent and each turn the ball over 20 times…but hey! Fundamentals, right? Whatever those fundamentals are.)

But I get it. The name on the front matters more than in the back, and that makes sense at any college, let alone Big 12 country. These people aren’t necessarily basketball addicts like myself, but just college sports fans, so I can understand the misinterpretations and heavy “college-is-better-than-the-NBA” bias (I certainly used to be that way for a period of time…than I graduated college). So, this year, instead of just hating the Big 12 like I have done most of my tenure here in Kansas City, I decided to see what Big 12 basketball really was all about, and what better way to do it than to go to the first session of the Big 12 Championship at the Sprint Center.

Pregame

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The Power and Light district is probably the biggest entertainment district in Kansas City. In most instances, it sucks. It feels very manufactured, and overly caters to a “just out of their fraternity and sorority” crowd. Everything tends to be overpriced, and ruckus usually happens because Mizzou frat boy can’t stand that his KState sorority girlfriend is talking to that KU dude from a rival frat. (Can you tell that I wasn’t in Greek life in college?) I feel like for a Friday night in Kansas City, there are way more authentic places to go to, especially off the strip in Westport (the main strip has become P&L lite), in the Crossroads or even the Strawberry Hill area of Kansas City, Kansas (though to be frank, those places are more for “hanging out” rather than “partying” or “clubbing” like P&L).

However, to it’s credit, the P&L exhibits the “Big 12 aura” of the Championship week. The main concourse area of the P&L is decked out with Big 12-basketball themed regalia, and legions of basketball fans are supporting their schools in appropriate colors. Whether it was Kansas, Iowa State, Kansas State, Texas, Texas Tech, etc. every patron that late afternoon in Power and Light with a beer or mixed drink in hand seemed to have some kind of vested interest in a particular school participating over the four-day affair. To be honest, I was impressed. I don’t think the WCC Tournament in Vegas or Pac-12 Tournament in Los Angeles would have that kind of school gear-to-fan ratio. At those tournaments, it would be common to see some NBA stuff or some other school stuff. But Wednesday evening? It was strictly Midwestern college apparel only. Nothing else allowed.

The downside of the pregame festivities? Prices. 14 dollars for a Blue Moon. Yeesh…I thought the cost of living was supposed to be less in the Midwest?

Game 1: TCU (8 seed) vs. Oklahoma (9 seed)

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After a Final Four appearance a year ago, this season has been the polar opposite for Lon Kruger and the Sooners. I knew the loss of Buddy Hield would hurt, but holy smokes…OU cannot shoot at all. In both halves, the Sooners got off to decent starts, using their length and size to get easy buckets around the paint. However, that all changed when Jamie Dixon got his TCU to switch to a 2-3 zone. Somehow, the Horned Frogs’ 2-3 chewed up the Sooners like a Kansas class 6 school chewing up a class 4A-II one on the high school boys basketball court. Because TCU took away the paint with their 2-3, the Sooners settled for mid-range jumper after mid-range jumper (the most inefficient shot in basketball…ask Marshall’s Dan D’Antoni). And one shot after another just clanked off the rim. And from beyond the arc, they weren’t much better, as they shot 4-18, good for 22.2 percent. There are many ways to beat a zone beyond shooting, of course (ball movement; smart screens; getting it in the middle; attacking the baseline, etc.). However, outside shooting is the easiest ways to exploit zone-defenses, and lacking the ability to shoot (as Oklahoma has displayed all year by their 47.4 effective field goal rate, which ranks 300th in the nation) made it that much harder for the Sooners to score buckets. Add that with the fact OU was careless with their skip passes (they turned it over 10 times), and it makes sense that they lost by nearly 20 in the 82-63 first round contest. Granted, this was a young and injured OU team, so expectations were low going into the tournament (even with a win over TCU, they had a date with Kansas in the next round; and at 11-19 going into the game, they weren’t going to any postseason whatsoever). Hence, judging from the body language of Kruger (Kruger didn’t even stand up from his seat until the first media timeout), the bench, the cheerleaders, band, and the fans decked in Sooner gear in the stands, it was obvious that they were just ready to get this miserable season over with.

TCU on the other hand, may have been the most impressive team of the night. Though they lost 7 straight to finish the year (hence, killing any at-large potential they may have had) and finished 17-16 and 6-12 in conference, this is a vastly improved TCU team from years past. And why? Dixon. I don’t think Dixon was given enough credit in his tenure at Pitt. He had them regularly competing for Big East championships and had them competitive in the ACC when they arrived, not easy to do considering the pedigree of the other programs in the conference (Duke, North Carolina, Syracuse, Virginia, etc.). The biggest knock on Dixon was that he never made it to the Final Four, even though he had teams with enough talent to do so…allegedly. After all, how many Pitt Panthers that Dixon coached are playing in the NBA? Eh…not many (I can’t name any off the top of my head). That just goes to show you how Dixon maxed out their potential when they suited up for him in Pittsburgh.

The energy the Horned Frogs brought to the court in this Big 12 first round game proved to be impressive, and by the end of the first half, it was obvious that TCU had the Sooners whooped. TCU basically owned the Sooners on the little details: 50-50 balls, jumping the lanes on skips, energy off the bench. etc. Yes, this TCU team is probably hoping for a NIT berth (at best). But the attitude displayed on Wednesday night stemmed directly from coaching, and Dixon has this team playing with a moxie and a confidence that wasn’t really seen under Trent Edwards. (Then again, Edwards was a horrifically overrated coach; he had one good year at Nevada where he upset a Gonzaga team that probably was over-seeded and he had a couple of good years when he had the Lopez twins at Stanford; other than that though, his teams at Stanford, LSU and TCU have been crap, and I’m surprised he lasted as long at TCU as he did).

But while Dixon deserves credit, make no mistake, this TCU team is talented. I haven’t watched a lot of them this year (well…to be honest, not at all, because I watch a combo of NBA, Euroleague and WCC primarily), but they certainly are a team capable of playing above their seed and record. Though inconsistent, Jaylen Fisher is a talented floor leader who can go off when he’s feeling it, both with his strong dribble drive as well as his pull-up jumper (though he really wasn’t on tonight, as evidenced by his 90 offensive rating for the game, highlighted by 3-of-12 shooting overall). Slovakian center Vladimir Brodziansky, certainly lived up to All-Big 12 honors hype, as he went for 20-6 on 10-of-13 shooting from the field, dominating the Sooners bigs with a trio of strength, soft touch around the rim and footwork in the block. Considering my affinity for European players in college, the NBA and abroad, I was surprised Brodziansky had been off my radar for so long. He absolutely made mince meat of the Sooners, and I look forward to his matchup with Landen Lucas of Kansas Thursday.

However, one of the biggest stars of the game proved to be Kenrich Williams, KenPom’s MVP for the game with an offensive rating of 140 on only a usage rate of 21 percent. Williams went for 19 and 9 on 8 of 10 shooting from the field, including 2 of 4 from beyond the arc. He also had 3 steals (initiating the Horned Frogs fast break off lazy skip passes by the Sooners) and 3 assists as well. While talking with a couple of KU fans during the Texas-TTU game, he seemed to be a focus point, especially considering Josh Jackson is suspended for the first game, and it is debated whether anyone else on the Jayhawks will be able to step up in response to that defensive assignment on Williams.

While the Jayhawks will be able to weather Brodziansky with Lucas and Fisher with Mason, it will be interesting to see who Bill Self will match up on Williams with Jackson out. While the Jayhawks should be heavy favorites, another big game by Williams could make this 1-8 second round Big 12 Championship game a lot closer than expected, and in single-elimination competitions like the Big 12 Championship “closer than expected” can lead to an upset if the chips fall right (bad shooting night from the Jayhawks, foul trouble, etc.)

Game 2: Texas Tech (7 seed) vs. Texas (10 seed)

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I was looking forward to this game more than the TCU-OU contest because I had a strong interest in both of the coaches. I have always had an affinity for Shaka Smart back to his VCU days: he’s a fiery coach, and I loved the “Havoc” style they put on teams on a nightly basis. As for Tech, while I know what Chris Beard did at Little Rock and currently at Texas Tech, I was interested to see what his teams looked like? Were they scrappy? Were they tough? Could they handle the athleticism and size of Texas? Were they like his Little Rock team last year or a whole different animal all together?

That being said, at the end of the game, I came away disappointed in both teams. Now, that’s not to say I think any less of the coaches. I think they are excellent in their profession, and it’s difficult to do consistent damage in a conference like the Big 12 where there are so many accomplished coaches (seriously, Oklahoma State and TCU lost Travis Ford and Edwards and replaced them with Brad Underwood and Dixon, respectively…that’s like upgrading from a Honda Civic to a BMW Z4). However, it was obvious after Wednesday’s night games that they still have a long way to go and some adjustments to make if they want to really challenge the league’s upper half of Kansas, Iowa State, West Virginia and Baylor.

At the start, it looked like Tech was going to make this a blowout. They got off to a 23-11 lead, and the Red Raiders just seemed to out-hustle the more highly-recruited Longhorns. McDonald’s All-American Jarrett Allen kept getting pushed around on the block like a timid high school kid, and the Longhorns kept settling for crappy, contested shots. Furthermore, Tech pounced after loose balls in the first half, as well as 50-50 balls on the offensive glass. The “Havoc” I expected to see from Smart’s Texas team was non-existent in the first 20 minutes. They didn’t communicate on defense. They didn’t play together. They didn’t press. It was as if Rick Barnes was still coaching the Longhorns, not the plucky Energizer bunny who led a Mid-Major team to the Final Four. My thinking midway through the first half was “Hey, maybe Tech can make a run and get that at-large tourney berth after all, especially if they carry this momentum into the West Virginia game next round.”

But after the Longhorns got a tip in at the buzzer of the first half to make it 26-20, things changed. Tech seemed less cohesive on offense. Texas turned up the pressure on defense, throwing full court and half court presses that were non-existent in the first half. While Tech in the first half looked like the team desperate to keep their season alive, it was the Longhorns in the second half that had taken that mantle. Make no mistake: this was not a good basketball game, and the Longhorns, though they won 61-52, did not play well at all. They scored 1.00 per possession this game (compared to Tech’s 0.85 mark), but that spiked up at the end during a frantic 28-10 run during the last quarter (i.e. 10 minutes) of play. They only shot 5-23 from beyond the arc, but they started the game 1-of-13 or 1-of-14 (I’m too lazy to check; either way, it was shit). And Allen, who did receive All-Big 12 honors and scored 10 points, did so on 2 of 9 shooting with only 3 rebounds. The Longhorns certainly have potential, and when they’re clicking, they show glimpses of the team that had so much promise in the preseason. But to think they got a shot against West Virginia? Neigh way, Jose.

As for Tech, I wondered if something happened that just sapped their energy and momentum. At the end of the first half, I noticed a player went down hard at the buzzer, and that appeared to be a sign of things to come. Tech looked slower, which is not surprising considering they play one of the slowest paces in the nation (they rank 328th in pace). But slow can be a good thing if a team is crisp and clicking in the half court and making teams work. However, more often than not in the second half, it proved to be the opposite. It was a bit sad to see, because there were definitely more Tech fans in the building, and it’s always nice to see obnoxious Longhorns fans be put in their place, no matter what the sport. Unfortunately, it just wasn’t the Red Raiders’ half and hence, night. They couldn’t handle the Longhorns’ speed and athleticism, and that will be a major building block for Beard this off-season: getting his team bigger and faster to match up better with the big boys of the Big 12.

Postgame

I hopped on the streetcar at the station across from the P&L around 10’ish, when the game finished. It was packed like a New York subway train during Friday morning rush hour, but it was worth the inconvenience, as I had to take it back to Union Station to pick up my car (I parked in that area to avoid the expensive parking; I’ll take 5 buck parking over 30 any day). Most of the conversations i overheard stemmed on how Kansas would fare against TCU. Most were pretty positive, most felt confident, though the questions surrounding the loss of Jackson for the first game certainly came up on occasion in the sardine-crammed car more than once.

Kansas City probably will never get a NBA team (again) in my lifetime. I won’t be able to afford tickets for the remainder of games this week, but I do hope one day to get session tickets for the first two days of the tournament, mainly because I’m a basketball junkie and spending dozens of hours watching hoops is heaven to me.

Is the Big 12 Championship a hoops heaven? Maybe not mine exactly. I don’t really understand the Big 12 like some fans in this area. Basketball is different for me than it is for them. I associate Keith Langford more with UNICS Kazan or Paul Pierce with the Celtics than the Jayhawks, and I understand that’s sacrilege in these parts. It’s why the Big 12 Championship won’t be the kind of hoops heaven for me as it is for someone who went to school in Lawrence or Manhattan or Ames, Iowa.

But it IS a kind of hoops heaven, and that’s worth experiencing, especially when its in the city that you live in.

Just make sure you come with a lot of cash.

 

The Glorious All-Offense, Little-Defense Approach of Marquette

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At 19-11 and 10-8 in the Big East, there is no guarantee Marquette will be dancing come Selection Sunday. While they do carry big wins over Villanova, season sweeps of Big East foes Xavier and Creighton, and “better-than-you-think” non-conference wins over Vanderbilt and Georgia early in the season, there are some blemishes on their resume. Losses to Georgetown and St. John’s would have been okay maybe a decade ago, but considering how far those programs have fallen, they have become more of a liability to their tournament chances than a liability. Add that with shaky RPI (59) and SOS (68) numbers, and it makes sense why many Marquette fans and alums may be sweating a bit next Sunday, unless they make a deep run in the Big East tournament this upcoming week (an appearance in the championship game “should” seal it; a win would definitely do so).

However, the Golden Eagles, whether or not they make tourney (they should; Joe Lunardi has them as a last four-in and a 10 seed in his current bracket prediction), have experienced a bit of a renaissance under third year head coach and former “Dookie” Steve Wojciechowski (who will be referred to as “Wojo” from here on out). The Jesuit, Milwaukee-based school has not made the tournament since 2013, Buzz Williams’ second-to-last season before he bolted to Virginia Tech. While Marquette has still been able to stay in the realm of respectability in the Big East (unlike Georgetown or St. John’s, who have fallen off cliffs in that time span), the lack of tournament appearances, and the resurgence of in-state rival Wisconsin, who nearly won a national title in 2015, has not helped the profile of the storied basketball program. Remember, this is a program that not only has won a national title and been to the Final Four, but also has produced bon-a-fide NBA stars currently such as Dwyane Wade, Jimmy Butler, and Jae Crowder, just to name a few. Marquette, without a football program and located in the heart of the city in Milwaukee, should have the kind of imprint in the Midwest that Gonzaga has in the West Coast.

And thus, it is understandable that the administration not only tabbed Wojo as Buzz’s replacement, but also why Wojo left his seat as the right-hand man to Coach K at Duke. Unlike colleagues who left for major rebuilding jobs (like Chris Collins to Northwestern) or semi-rebuilding jobs (like Johnny Dawkins to Stanford, where he flamed out), Marquette is a powder keg of potential, and one can see how the move would benefit Wojo in the future. A Final Four and perhaps national title would seal the deal for him as Coach K’s successor (he has always been seen as thus, and many felt he left the bench simply to get head coaching experience). On the flip side though, the program is big enough and prestige enough that if he were to achieve consistent success, he could stay long-term and enter the pantheon of Big East coaching legends such as John Thompson, Jr., Jim Boeheim, and Lou Carnesecca, just to name a few.

Of course, being a “Big East coaching legend” wasn’t enough for Williams, who left for the ACC after five 20-plus win seasons, not to mention tournament berths (also add an elite eight and two sweet 16 appearances to that resume). So, considering Wojo’s Duke ties and his considerable time as an assistant on Tobacco Road, it may be foolheartedly to believe that Wojo will fill in McGuire’s shoes in Milwaukee.

Despite the murky long-term future, that doesn’t mean Wojo and the Golden Eagles haven’t been a remarkable and worthy team to pay attention to heading into the Big East tournament (and hopefully the NCAA one as well).


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Williams certainly achieved his fair share of success at Marquette. One doesn’t lead his team to at least the Sweet 16 three years in a row without being a good coach, if not one of the nation’s 25 best, perhaps. However, if there was one knock on Williams’ teams, it was that they typically played the kind of basketball that college basketball haters tend to point to: grind-it-out, physical, messy affairs that produced wins and success, but didn’t necessarily win style points or affinity from the general basketball fan, especially those who tend to favor the NBA’s more wide-open game (much like myself). His team only ranked within the Top-100 in fastest pace twice (2012, and 2009, his first season), and in his last three years, ranked 126th, 112th, and 210th in effective field goal rate. Add that with a lack of usage of the three point shot (in his last four years, they only ranked under the 300 mark once in 3-point field goal attempts, and that mark was 257th), and while Marquette fans miss Buzz’s energy and postseason success, the same can’t be said of his archaic on-court approach, especially on the offensive end.

Flash forward three seasons later, and Wojo has Marquette playing a different kind of ball. According to Ken Pomeroy, the Golden Eagles (who rank 28th overall in his rankings) rank 8th in adjusted offensive efficiency, 5th in effective field goal rate, 1st in three-point percentage, 19th in points coming from three-pointers, 57th in assists to field goals made, 72nd in 3-pointers to field goal attempts, 75th in average possession rate, and 78th in adjusted tempo. In other words, Wojo has transformed the Eagles into a run-and-gun, three-point bombing squad, the antithesis of the “Royal Rumble” affairs commonly seen in the Buzz-era.

Of course, this transition didn’t necessarily come immediately. In years 1 and 2, Wojo seemed similar to his predecessor. Last season, though they played an up-tempo style, he leaned on his post players, especially Henry Ellenson, who averaged 17.8 ppg and 9.7 rpg and was selected in the NBA Draft after one season. They ranked 286th in 3-pt attempt percentage and compounded that with a 33.9 3-pt percentage, 210th in the nation. Though the record was respectable (20-13 and 8-10 in the Big East), the Golden Eagles’ lack of a threat from the perimeter proved to be a major problem in achieving consistent success, especially considering their 106.9 points per 100 possessions rating, which was 116th best in the nation last year.

What is amazing about this Golden Eagles team this year though is they haven’t done much else different. Last year, they played up-tempo, got off quick shots, and passed around the ball well on the offensive end. That still is proving to be true in 2017. The main difference though? The Golden Eagles are shooting way more fucking three pointers, and not only are they shooting more, but they are shooting straight up fire as well.

Freshman Markus Howard is shooting an insane 55.1 percent from beyond the arc on 138 three-point attempts. Junior point guard Andrew Rowsey is shooting 45.5 percent on a 143 attempts from beyond the arc. Small ball four Sam Hauser is shooting 44.7 percent on 132 attempts. And senior Katin Reinhardt is shooting 38.3 percent on a 141 attempts. Average those together, and those four combined shooting percentage is 45.9 percent on an average of 138.5 3-pt attempts. Last season, only two players shot more than 100 three pointers: Ellenson, who shot 104 and shot a paltry 28.8 percent and then-sophomore Duane Wilson, who shot 156 3-pt attempts at a 34.6 percent clip (Wilson has seen his role diminished this season, as he has only attempted 46 3-pointers this year).

The emphasis on shots beyond the arc has helped, especially as of late, as the Golden Eagles closed out their Big East campaign with two big wins over Xavier on the road and Creighton at home. They scored 95 and 91 points, respectively, and the three-point shot was a big reason why. As you can see in the video below, their ability to move the ball and create open 3-point looks has been a crucial element to Marquette’s improved success on the overall offensive end. Big man Luke Fischer, while not the NBA prospect that Ellenson was, has been a key cog in opening up shots beyond the arc, as his ability to finish around the rim at a high rate (65.3 effective field goal rate) puts defenses in dilemmas. Focus on him, and you give up open looks. Let him go one on one in the block, and Fischer is going to get his. For most teams, how to game plan Fischer and the Marquette offense can be a lose-lose situation, and Xavier and Creighton were two victims of that this past week.


If there is one major achilles heel for this Marquette squad, it focuses squarely on the defensive end. Unlike his predecessor or in his first couple of years, the defensive rating of this year’s Marquette squad (102.8 points allowed per 100 possessions) is severely behind the offensive end in terms of ranking. The Golden Eagles ranked 132nd in defensive efficiency, much worse than the 88th ranking and 69th rankings in Wojo’s first two years in Milwaukee. The numbers appear a lot worse when one compares the defensive rating of this year’s squad to any in Buzz’s tenure, as the worst year he had with a team was in 2011, when they ranked 66th in defensive rating.

The massive difference between offensive and defensive ranking (in this case, a difference of 124 spots), has been an indicator of teams who get upset in the tournament. In 2014, Duke lost in the NCAA Tournament first round to Mercer, despite having the top offense in the nation according to adjusted offensive rating. Defense? They ranked 87th. In 2012, Missouri was 30-4 and fresh off a Big 12 Tournament championship. They had the top adjusted offensive rating in the country at 122.4 points per 100 possessions. However, they lost in the first round in a historic 2-15 upset to Norfolk State. Missouri’s defensive rating? Ranked 112th in the nation.

So, is Marquette a Final Four dark horse? Well, according to the numbers, it is unlikely. But should they be considered team that can do damage in the Tournament despite their defensive issues? Absolutely.

Marquette’s defensive issues and difference from the Buzz era in my mind stem from two issues: 1.) they don’t have the defensive talent as in years past and 2.) they switch up defenses a lot, putting more emphasis on taking risks to generate turnovers rather than get traditional stops.

In terms of the first issue, the reality of recruiting in college basketball is this: you always are going to have to give something up unless you’re a Duke, Kansas or UNC. Under Buzz, he went after athletes and defensive stoppers to fit into his system. Unfortunately, while they had defensive skills and elite athleticism, they were often unpolished on the offensive end when they arrived, and it was a growing process to get them to be at least average by the end of their college tenures. Even Butler and Crowder took a couple of years in the NBA before they became good offensive players.

Wojo on the other end has gone the opposite route. Instead of recruiting defensive-minded athletes, he has gone with more polished players, especially on the shooting end. The plus? The offensive efficiency and shooting has improved dramatically. The negative? They don’t have the kind of athleticism or size to matchup defensively like Marquette squads during the Buzz era.

Which leads to the second point: in order to mask these defensive issues, Wojo mixes it up a lot on the defensive end. It is quite common to see Marquette switch between different zone looks as well as man-to-man to make up for their lack of overall size (they rank 192nd in the nation in overall height) and athleticism. The reliance of different looks (the strategy of “quantity” perhaps rather than “quality” when it comes to defensive strategy) has led to defensive breakdowns easy buckets at times, which you will see in the highlights below from their game against Villanova, where Marquette got burned on occasion by a crisp passing, quick Villanova team. The numbers highlight the Golden Eagles’ lapses on defense: they rank 237 in effective field goal percentage allowed, 272nd in 3 point percentage allowed, and 220th in 2-pt percentage allowed.

But, as mediocre as the defensive numbers look, the strategy pays off in one way: steals. The Golden Eagles’ steal rate ranks 43rd in the nation, and is a big reason why their defense stays average instead of horrible, like all their other metrics suggest. Marquette likes to get live ball turnovers, push things in the full court, and get quick shots off these changes in possession, which are often 3-pointers. It’s an interesting strategy, because when the emphasis on stealing the ball pays off (like it did against Creighton when they got 10 steals in their regular season finale), it can lead to big scores and wins, because it makes up for the mismatches Marquette often gives up against bigger or more athletic teams. When it doesn’t, it can lead to some of the let down losses they have had this year such as being swept by Providence and losing to St. John’s at MSG.

Year three under Wojo could be seen as a satisfying season for Marquette fans, alums and admin alike. Barring a first round upset in the Big East tourney, and some other weird things going on in other conference tourney, Marquette should at least make the tournament as a first four. Irregardless of the tournament appearance though, the turnaround in playing style has been something to behold in Milwaukee. Wojo has brought a fast, exciting brand of basketball, and considering the stiff competition from the Badgers in Madison and the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks, the kind of interest Marquette is generating is nothing to shrug at. Add that with the fact that this team is young (193rd in the nation in experience), and it further shows the progress that Wojo had made with a Golden Eagles program that went through a bit of a lull for a couple of years after Buzz left Milwaukee for Blacksburg.

Now, how long Wojo will stay at Marquette? Who knows. I guess that depends on Coach K. But let’s enjoy this three-point heavy, fast-paced, high-risk defensive style of play in upper Midwest for as long as we can.

Is the Gonzaga Hype For Real This Time?

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I am not going to lie, I don’t follow college basketball as much as I used to. Probably the peak of my college basketball/Gonzaga fandom was my second year out of college, when I lived in San Jose, not far from Santa Clara university. (I probably went to about 4-5 Bronco games that year, including their contest against the Zags which resulted in an upset loss for Gonzaga and my first experience of a court storming; I hated it). After I moved from San Jose, to South Dakota, a college basketball wastelands of sorts, I grew to have more of an affinity for the NBA with each and every year of age.

At nearly 30 years old, coming back to write on college basketball on this blog feels weird. It was something I sort of disavowed to do a couple of years ago, opting to concentrate more on NBA and Euroleague analysis which has become more of my niche the past couple of years.

So why am I coming back to follow college basketball again? Coming back like a couple who split apart years ago, but somehow managed to find their way back to one another’s arms stronger than ever, bent to see if it will work out the second time around?

Mostly due to Gonzaga and their 14-0 start.

In all honesty, I know with the advent of ESPN and online streaming, following Gonzaga basketball isn’t all that difficult. Hell, I can follow games going in Belgrade, Serbia. Following the Zags shouldn’t be a problem. But, it’s tough being a Zag in the Midwest simply because there aren’t a lot of us here. Most Zag fans either live in the Pacific Northwest or West Coast. There is a contingent of Zags fans who are from Denver and Colorado, but that’s about eight hours driving distance away from my current home in Kansas City. Yes, in Big 12 country (i.e. Kansas Jayhawks country with K-State, Iowa State and Mizzou fans sprinkled in), people know about the Zags. They know about their general legacy (“they always choke in the tournament” they tell me) and know about players like Adam Morrison (“I don’t know why he wasn’t good,” they’d say).

But it’s not enough really. Talks are superficial and shallow at best. They don’t know about the extensive history of Zags basketball, including the empowering joys, and crushing disappointments. Maybe they know about the UCLA collapse in 2006, but thanks to NCAA On Demand, that is easy conversation fodder with anyone who likes or follows college basketball on a moderate basis. But to talk about the St. Mary’s rivalry? The WCC Tourney in Vegas? The 28-year-olds on BYU’s roster? Well…that goes unnoticed or uncared for here in the Conservative Red States in contrast with the Liberal West Coast.

So, I have distanced myself from Gonzaga, mainly because it’s just not productive nor worthwhile to majorly invest in it considering my current circumstances. And Gonzaga has had good teams worth paying attention to on occasion. I have enjoyed sporadically keeping tabs on Zags teams over the past few years in Kansas City, watching them from afar, being elated and equally crushed by them in that time span. Of course, all this usually experienced in private, with the exception of text/Facebook/now Snapchat conversations from time to time with some friends from college who are in closer proximity to live Zags basketball action (i.e. in Washington, Oregon, Idaho or California). Usually, the fandom doesn’t hit until late February/Early March, when it’s closer to WCC and consequently NCAA Tourney time.

Yet this year, it’s the first of January, and I’m trying to catch up on as much Zags basketball as I can. I watched the Pacific game in its entirety on ESPN 3. I re-watched the Arizona game via CBB Reddit Uploads on YouTube. I’m back analyzing Ken Pomeroy.com, studying up on other teams sure, but mostly breaking down the Zags.

I’m practically two months ahead of schedule from my serious Zags “fandom” over the past three years. And I’m doing this because this really may be the best Zags team I have ever seen, followed, or studied up on in my years of Zags fandom (since my Dad is an alum, that includes my early years during the Dan Fitzgerald era).

I’m wanting to see if this Zags team actually will live up to the hype.


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Zags basketball fandom is like most irrational college basketball or even sports followings. Like Duke’s Cameron Crazies in the East Coast and Jayhawks fans here in the Midwest, they are passionate, loyal, and usually unconditionally biased toward Gonzaga teams each and every year. Zags fans swoon like the Pacific tide, changing moods and expectations quickly and often. A big win over a non-conference opponent like SMU or UCLA, and all of a sudden, Gonzaga is a Final Four shoe in. An unexpected loss to BYU or USF, or a season sweep to the rival Gaels, and all of a sudden Mark Few is a shitty coach who is going to be responsible for the Zags missing the tournament for the first time since the Nixon administration (okay, not that long; Clinton administration). I have seen fans overly rate former Zags, with Zags fans clamouring that Morrison was a shoe-in NBA All Star to Sam Dower being a second-round pick talent (neither was true). Zags fans are passionate, but in the grand scheme of things, they prefer to live in their bubble when it comes to the basketball world, not allowing practicality or reality to enter their “overly fond” feelings when it comes to GU hoops.

And that’s fine, as that’s what being a fan is about. I have grown out of that over the years the more I have branched out with basketball (i.e. following more NBA and Euroleague), but I still have friends or know former classmates who still live in that bubble with basketball and it’s cool. If I still lived in the West Coast or Northwest, maybe I would follow that lead as well. Be irrational with Few. Think Pangos should be a NBA sixth-man. Always have the Zags winning the national title in my NCAA Tournament work pool.

Maybe not though. I have become a more inquisitive type since I graduated Gonzaga with my bachelor’s degree. I used to believe in things like “heart” and “smarts” and “grit” as the key to a Zags victory. Now, I believe in skill sets, athleticism, matchups and data when it comes to evaluating how strong Gonzaga basketball teams and players are on annual basis. Maybe it’s a sign of the maturation process of basketball fanhood. Maybe I’m just becoming a fucking adult. But I have left the bubble of typical “Zags” fanhood long ago, and this is one bubble I can’t push myself back into, much like the bubble of Santa Claus or Tooth Fairy myths.

During times when I make it back to the West Coast for the Holidays or special circumstances, I do get the chance to meet up with old college friends and discuss the state of the Zags and WCC basketball. This past Christmas season was no exception. I met with a couple of friends in Midtown Sacramento and we discussed the Zags. They told me how loaded this team was. They told me how big a difference Nigel Williams-Goss made on this team. They talked about Zach Collins looking like a diaper dandy. They sung the merits of transfers such as Jordan Matthews and Jonathan Williams, guys I had my reservations about considering Gonzaga’s shaky history with transfers recently who never lived up to the hype in Spokane. (Yes, there was Kyle Wiltjer, but there were also examples like Gerard Coleman, Bol Kong, and Angel Nunez too.) They talked about USF being a plucky dark horse, that St. Mary’s continued to play no one in non-conference, and how Terry Porter, the former Blazer, was doing a decent job in his first year as head coach of the Pilots.

It made me realize something. I missed the Zags a lot. I had missed the conversations. I had missed analyzing the WCC and the Zags. Yes, we probably had a beer too many at Bar West, and probably should have been focusing more on getting the attentions of single women than talking about Kyle Smith’s 3-point heavy approach with the Dons. But I loved it nonetheless. In a sea of endless Bill Self and “When is Fred Hoiberg returning to college basketball?” talk, immersing myself in the “Zag bubble” for a temporary period brought not only fond nostalgia, but comfort in the sense that no matter how far apart I became from Spokane or the West Coast in terms of years or distance, I could still come back, without warning or preparation, and still ignite that flame for mid-major West Coast basketball. A beer here. A Diamond Head Classic game there. Snapchat sharing of the Gonzaga-Arizona game in Los Angeles. A memory or two of the Kennel. It all brings one back, even for someone who has become a “grounded” basketball fan in general (i.e. less irrational or passionate about their team).

So when I touched down back in Kansas City on the 27th, I got out my laptop. I searched games on Watch ESPN. And I became determined to see if this Zags team is for real, much like my more “in-tuned” friends had preached back in California’s capital.


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Gonzaga is currently ranked 10th in Ken Pomeroy and is currently ranked 7th in the polls entering this week. They are 14-0 and have four “A” quality wins according to Ken Pom: neutral floor wins over Florida (14th), Iowa State (28th), and Arizona (18th), and a win over Tennessee (65th) in Nashville. The schedule hasn’t been extremely challenging (138th strongest non-conference schedule according to Ken Pom), though their win over San Diego State (currently 64th) could get better if SDSU picks it up in MWC play.

The best and most recent comparison of this team should be the 2015 Zags, who went 29-2 in the regular season, and 35-3 overall, making it to the Elite 8, where they lost to eventual national champion Duke. Heading into conference play, the Zags that year had three “A” quality wins: UCLA (40th) at Pauley Pavilion; Georgia (35th) at MSG; and St. John’s (50th) also at MSG (a home game for them).  They also had a narrow “A” quality loss to Arizona, whom they lost to in OT in Tucson. Finish that with a “B” quality win over SMU (26th) at home in Spokane, and you could argue that the non-conference performance in 2015 was every bit as impressive as the current Zags’ one.

The one thing that the 2015 Zags may have over the 2017 Zags in terms of legacy and outlook is the fact that the WCC was much stronger in 2015 than today. In 2015, the WCC was the 8th best conference according to Ken Pom, which was better than even the American Athletic Conference (which includes programs like Cincy, SMU and Temple). Today, the WCC is rated as the 11th best conference, behind other Mid-Major conferences such as the Missouri Valley and Mountain West. The dramatic difference mostly is due to BYU being much weaker than in years past, as they are going through a bit of a rebuilding year after losing six years of key players like Kyle Collinsworth and Tyler Haws (the Cougars are currently 11-4 and ranked 56th in Ken Pom’s rankings; which is where they were last year roughly). Yes, St. Mary’s is still strong (ranked 16th according to Ken Pom), but the WCC needs a good BYU team to be a serious conference, and with BYU not what they were two years ago, this not only hurts the WCC in the current, but also the Zags’ legacy and postseason outlook (i.e. mostly seeding).

But let’s get away from those kinds of numbers and just look at the talent itself. Can this Zags team compare? Could the 2017 team match up with the core of Pangos, Bell, Wiltjer, and Sabonis?

I would say yes, as of now.

First off, Przemek Karnowski’s injury last year may have hurt the Zags’ frontcourt depth a season ago, but it has been a blessing in disguise for this year’s campaign. I cannot really recall a player in college basketball recently who has the pure size of Karnowski and is able to utilize it so well. Sabonis comes to mind from last season, but even though he had Karnowski “post presence” and skills, he doesn’t have Karnowski’s 7’2, nearly 3 bills frame. Watching Karnowski in the block is a godsend for fans of old-school, play-in-the paint basketball, akin to the older John Thompson Georgetown teams, which had Patrick Ewing and Alonzo Mourning in the post (not to be confused with John Thompson the Third Georgetown teams which are boring and underwhelming). It’s amazing how much he has developed from his rawer freshman days, when he still had a lot to learn when it came to moves and position around the blocks. Considering his 118.4 offensive rating though, it is obvious that not only how much he has progressed, but also how he will stand out as one of the most accomplished and talented post players in Zag history.

But while Karnowski is the link from that 2015 team, everything else tends to weigh in favor of this year’s team in comparison to that Elite Eight squad. Wiltjer was a better shooter, but Collins may be a better overall post talent to complement Karnowski, especially on the defensive end. Pangos could be deadly from beyond the arc, but he could not handle defensive pressure like Williams-Goss, whose 6’3 athletic frame and ability to beat players off the dribble as well as from beyond the arc (he’s shooting around 39 percent from three) make him the point guard Zags fans have been dreaming about (and that is saying something considering the Zags’ history at the position). Furthermore, the quartet of Perkins (who was the Zags’ point last year and has been able to play more off-guard, which is more his strength)-Melson-Matthews-Williams definitely is a more efficient and well-rounded group in comparison to the Bell-Dranginis-Wesley-Nunez one of 2015. And lastly, even though the foreign wild card of this year, Killian Tillie, pales in comparison to the one of 2015 (Sabonis), he could become a special player as well in a year or two, albeit in a different way from Sabonis. Tillie is the younger brother of Kim, who is playing well with Baskonia, one of the top teams in the Euroleague currently. And Killian flashes the same kind of inside-outside skill set that makes his older brother a key cog for the Basque club. While I don’t see Tillie with Sabonis’ upside, he could be a more athletic version of his older brother, which would be a huge boost in the future for a Gonzaga team that already has depth in the frontcourt with Rui Hachimura (who will play more when Karnowski leaves) and Jakob Larsen (who suffered an injury in the pre-season).

It’s amazing how far the Zags have come from their early 2000’s days. My friends and I talked about it a lot in Sacramento during my recent trip: premiere talent comes to Spokane now. The Zags used rely on under-recruited northwest guys like Morrison, Sean Mallon and Josh Heytvelt or under-the-radar foreign players like Kevin Pangos and JP Batista. Now, they are getting premiere transfers, foreign talent and Top-100 high schools players. Furthermore, not only is Few’s staff acquiring them, but seamlessly transitioning them into the system and culture of the Zags program without hitch. I thought there would be some growing pains for this Gonzaga team considering how much they relied on Wiltjer and Sabonis a year ago. Now, I’m just wondering if anybody in the WCC will be able to give the Zags a true test until the NCAA Tournament. Yes, St. Mary’s is good and an offensive machine. But on individual matchups alone? There isn’t a single Gael who may be better than what the Zags will put on the floor.

I have seen the Zag hype train before. I grew up and was educated in it. The Dan Dickau era. The Blake Stepp era. The Adam Morrison era. The Jeremy Pargo-Matt Bouldin-Austin Daye era (i.e. they all were good, but no one established himself as the star, which is why they were disappointing). The Kelly Olynyk era. The Pangos-era. The Wiltjer-Sabonis era. All those eras had hype. Final Four hype. National Championship hype.

And they all fell short. They all in varying ways disappointed the irrational, bubble-encapsulated Zags fans, including myself.

The cautious or irrational Zags fan in me would say to “take time” with this year’s Zags team and wait until the first St. Mary’s game. He would tell me to know history. Remember the scars. Remember BYU and the hockey goon Kafusi. Remember the NCAA Tourney is about matchups and luck.

The inner Zags fan in me tells me not to believe the hype…not just yet. Give it a little bit more time, perhaps halfway through the WCC slate.

But I have grown more seasoned and level-headed over the years with basketball in general. All basketball at all levels. Not just Gonzaga basketball. I’ll be 30 in six months. I’m not the same Zags fan I was when I was 21-22 years old and drinking pitchers of Kokanee at the Bulldog when it actually was still a bar and not whatever the hell it is now.

That inner, irrational Zags fan doesn’t carry as much weight as it used to. Superstition and “fandom” don’t run my life or how I feel about Gonzaga basketball or the sport as a whole. Data. Matchups. Talent. The system. The process. The growing evolution of college basketball toward the professional game.

That’s what matters more to me now. Not collapses in Oakland or buzzer beaters over Western Kentucky or “they always choke” mantras from college basketball fans or analysts who still believe the 3-point shot is overrated.

The inner Zag fan in me is not dead. But it just doesn’t have the voice it used to. And I’m glad it doesn’t. He was a bitch to put up with anyways during those years.

So fuck it. I’ll say it without holding back:

This team is for real. This team should be a Final Four and National Championship contender.

Don’t overthink it…

Just believe the Gonzaga hype.

Under-the-Radar: Musa of BIH and Vasiliauskas of Lithuania are Talents from Unlikely Places

Dzanan Musa of Bosnia and Herzegovina is one of the top talents in Europe that comes from a country that isn’t exactly a basketball powerhouse.

When it comes to European basketball development, certain countries and clubs have a stronger reputation for developing talent than others. If you are from Serbia, you have a strong basketball talent history that includes players like Vlade Divac and Milos Teodosic. If you played for Real Madrid B (Real Madrid’s developmental team), you also played for a club that developed talent such Nikola Mirotic and Bojan Bogdanovic. Certain countries and clubs in Europe have a more illustrious history when it comes to producing basketball talent, and thus, there is higher attention on players from those countries and clubs when it comes to finding “the next big stars” in European basketball.

However, there is a tendency sometimes for talent to come from unexpected European countries and/or club programs. That is the case with two players who faced off against each other in the 2015 U16 FIBA European Championship last year: Dzanan Musa of Bosnia/Herzegovina, who played for Cedevita Zagreb during the Euroleague and ANGT, and Grantas Vasiliauskas of Lithuania who played for his home club of Alytus SRC during the domestic season, and on loan for Lietuvos Rytas Vilnius in the ANGT. Despite the fact that they did not come from a “power” country or club in the European basketball scene, these two versatile talents are rising up quickly in the youth scene, and could be major contributors to upper-level clubs in the next couple of years.

Let’s take a brief look at each player, as well as check out some of their highlights.

 

Dzanan Musa, Forward

Dzanan Musa not only played for Cedevita during the ANGT, but also spent some time with the senior club during the Euroleague season.

Country: Bosnia/Herzegovina; Club: Cedevita Zagreb; Height: 2.03 meters

2015/2016 ANGT Stats: 16.6 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 7.2 apg, 2.4 spg, 52.9 2-pt FG %, 40 3-pt FG % (5 games).

Bosnia and Herzegovina is developing as a country in basketball, but by no means are they up there with traditional “former-Yugoslavian” powers such as Serbia and Croatia. In the 2015 Eurobasket, BIH failed to get out of the group round, and only went 1-4 in group play, their lone win being a 1-point win over Israel. Granted, they do have some recent talent who have made a name for themselves in the global basketball scene as of late. Sharp shooting forward Mirza Teletovic of the Phoenix Suns, and formerly of the Brooklyn Nets, has carved out a good career in the NBA, and center Jusuf Nurkic seems to be following his lead with the Denver Nuggets, though he suffered some injuries that set him back a little last year.  Furthermore, guard Nihad Dedovic of Bayern Munich, Milan Milosevic of AEK Athens, and Elmedin Kikanovic of Alba Berlin, have represented the BIH well by playing for clubs that participate in the Euroleague and Eurocup scene. But if you go back further or look beyond those names, there is not a lot of extensive history of basketball players from Bosnia and Herzegovina making a major impact in Europe or in America.

Musa however seems to be the exception to that rule. Last summer, during the U16 European Basketball Championships, Musa earned MVP honors in leading Bosnia and Herzegovina to their first Gold Medal in any kind of FIBA competition (be in European or World). Musa averaged 23.3 ppg, 9.0 rpg and 6.3 apg for BIH and scored 33 points and had 8 rebounds and 7 assists in BIH’s 85-83 victory of Lithuania, who was playing the Gold Medal game in front of their home country fans in Kaunas.

During the tournament, Musa displayed a versatile and explosive game, as he is able to beat defenders off the dribble, but is skilled enough to step back and hit the mid-range and 3-point shot. If there is one word to describe Musa’s game it is “active”. Musa is a multi-tool players and a legitimate “triple double” threat that can carry a team, as was obvious last year with his home BIH squad. Check out the highlights below and see how Musa torched the competition during the U16 European Championship, especially against global powers like Lithuania in the Gold Medal game and Spain in the Semi-finals (he also scored 24 points in their 86-78 OT win).

Since the European championship, Musa has kept the momentum going after signing with Cedevita Zagreb. He put up a strong overall performance in the ANGT, averaging 16.6 ppg, 5.8 rpg and 7.2 apg, once again showing that multi-faceted ability that makes him so intriguing as a player against the best under-18 talent in Europe. However, his success and impact wasn’t simply limited to the ANGT, as Musa also appeared in 10 games for Cedevita during the Euroleague campaign. Though he only averaged 2.7 ppg, Musa was the ninth-youngest player in Euroleague history to make his debut, and he held up well considering he was only 16 years old and playing against some of the best veterans in Europe (in his debut he matched up against Olympiacos guard and Greek legend Vasilis Spanoulis).

Musa has the chance to be a real impact player not just in Europe, but abroad as well. He has a well-rounded game (he can create for others as well as himself), an excellent shooting stroke and the kind of competitive fire that can carry a team, even one that may not be as talented. Musa does have times where his game can be streaky. In the ANGT, he started off strong in the qualifying round with a 37 point performance against Bayern Munich and a 24 point performance against Partizan Belgrade, but he struggled to find his rhythm in the following 3 games, as he scored only 9 points in the final qualifying round game against Zemun Belgrade, 13 points against Spurs Sarajevo in the first Belgrade Final Round game, and zero in 9 minutes of play in a re-match with Partizan with a trip to the Finals in Berlin on the line (though an injury was a reason for his limited time).

Granted, while Musa couldn’t carry Cedevita to the ANGT Finals in Berlin, and didn’t have as strong a finish to the tournament as his start, he definitely displayed that he has the potential to be one of the best overall players and pure scorers in Europe. And furthermore, he’s doing it from a country whose national program has only been established since 1992.

Yes, Teletovic and Nurkic may be the figureheads for Bosnia and Herzegovina’s basketball program now, and rightfully so considering their status in the NBA. However, expect Musa to inherit their place on that mantle within the next five or so years.

 

Grantas Vasiliauskas, Forward

Grantas Vasiliauskas had a strong performance for Lithuania in the 2015 Euorpean Championships as well as the ANGT for Lietuvos Rytas Vilnius

Country: Lithuania; Club: Alytus SRC and Lietuvos Rytas Vilnius; Height: 2.00 meters.

2015/2016 ANGT stats: 14.7 ppg, 5 rpg, 3.7 apg; 47.5 2-pt FG%; 30.8 3-pt FG%.

Vasiliauskas comes from Lithuania, which is a pretty big hotbed when it comes to basketball talent. NBA players that have come from the county include Jonas Valanciunas of the Toronto Raptors, Sarunas Marciulonis, formerly of the Sacramento Kings and Golden State Warriors, Sarunas Jasikevicius, formerly of the Indiana Pacers and Golden State Warriors (not to mention numerous European clubs like Maccabi Tel Aviv, Barcelona, Fenerbahce, Zalgris, and Panathinaikos), and of course, Arvydas Sabonis, formerly of the Portland Trail Blazers. So, Vasiliauskas doesn’t exactly come from a less-developed basketball country like Musa.

However, what makes Vasiliauskas different from other Lithuanian basketball players is the fact that he doesn’t come from a big program or town. He isn’t from Vilnius or Kaunas (the two biggest cities in Lithuania), nor is he in the systems of Lithuania’s premier clubs, like Zalgiris, Lietuvos (more on this later) or Neptunas. Instead, Vasiliauskas played for his hometown club of Alytus SRC, based in his home town of Alytus, which has a population of less than 55,000 residents, according to this feature piece on Vasiliauskas on the Euroleague web site. Vasiliauskas went under the radar in his home country by the major clubs, mostly because of where he lived, and the fact that his father was a champion rower, not basketball player.

However, while his background may be anonymous in Lithuania, his game certainly is not. Lietuvos sought the “under-the-radar” talent from Alytus, after his strong performance in the European Championships where he averaged 10.6 ppg, 6.0 rpg and 2.4 apg in 9 games, which included a 12 point-6 rebound performance in the championship against BIH. Vasiliauskas did not disappoint for the club based out of Vilnius, as he averaged 14.7 ppg, 5 rpg and 3.1 apg while averaging 29 minutes per game. Vasiliauskas’ best performance came in the qualifying round, where he averaged 16.7 ppg and put up a 25 point-9 rebound stat line against VEF Riga. Furthermore, he did have some strong performances against much better competition in the Final Round in Berlin, as he scored 15 points against ANGT runner-up Crvena Zvzeda and 15 points against Alba Berlin.

Vasiliauskas doesn’t have the dynamic scoring ability or explosiveness of Musa, but if there is one word to describe his game it is “consistency”. Vasiliauskas plays within himself on a regular basis, and displays a solid overall skill set that mirrors Musa’s, though he doesn’t have the ceiling that Musa has as a player. One of the most impressive aspects of Vasiliauskas’ game is his heightened-sense of awareness on the court. He finds open pockets of the defense naturally, which leads to a lot of easy baskets; has a nose for the ball on lose balls and on rebounds, both on the offensive and defensive end; and is a strong passer, able to hit cutting teammates through tight windows with relative ease. Check out his highlights below, and though he doesn’t blow one away like Musa, he certainly does impress with his consistency and overall skill set displayed.

If there is one issue with Vasiliauskas’ game is that his shooting isn’t consistent and still is in need of refinement. Most of the buckets we see for him in the highlight tape are finishes around the hoop (layups and dunks), and his lackluster shooting percentages (47.5 from 2; 30.8 from 3) during the ANGT display that he doesn’t have the kind of outside game to make opponents play him honest on the perimeter (teams can sag to stop his drive or push him off the block, which is where he seems to prefer to play in the half court: moving from high to low post and creating from where he receives the ball). Vasiliauskas’ shooting form looks good in terms of elbow positioning and footwork, but it appears that his release is a little slow, which may be a reason why he struggles to find a consistent stroke on the floor.

It will be interesting to see if the “small town” kid will find a bigger club to participate with next year. His impressive performance with Lietuvos has the big club (which finished second in the Lithuanian league at the senior level) thinking about buying him out from Alytus and developing him year-around, which would be crucial since he still has parts of his game that need work (mostly his shooting). However, they are not the only club in Lithuania with interest: defending Lithuanian champion and Euroleague participant Zalgiris is also thinking about buying his rights as well.

Vasiliauskas hasn’t necessarily hinted what club he is leaning toward, and he seems to not have ruled out staying with Alytus SRC for another year as well, though I think the need to face better competition will be better satisfied if he played with Lietuvos or Zalgiris. Whatever the young forward chooses, he is certainly rising in the radar of players to watch out for, not just in Lithuania, but in Europe as well. He probably doesn’t have the European superstar potential like Musa, and I don’t even know if he has the kind of game that would translate to the NBA. While he certainly has the maturity and intensity to perhaps compete at that level down the road, I just don’t know if he will develop the size and athleticism to match up against NBA players (Musa on the other hand has all those characteristics).

That being said, Vasiliauskas is a very talented player with a polished skill set and considerable upside that would be beneficial to a major European club’s current developmental team and senior team down the road. Don’t be surprised to see him starting or playing a primary bench role for a major club team in the Euroleague or Eurocup within the next 10 years.