Point Blank – March 17, 2017
NCAA Tourney Friday – The Game Inside the Game
There is a day of dancing now in the books, 16 teams having had their season end on Thursday, and while there were some interesting pointspread end-games, there was only a limited amount of what could be labelled “madness”. The results did provide an intriguing set of Saturday games, one of which I will be touching upon today, with more to follow tomorrow morning in a special added Weekend Edition.
We’ve all got a lot to work to do, so the Friday flow will continue to bring in the classical jukebox for some background to make it easier, the cycle from now through the end of the tournament featuring some guitar greats, in particular a few that had their lives end way too early. Today we go back to the genius of Mike Bloomfield, another of those oh-what-might-have-been stories, with Nick Gravenites on vocals, “Blues on a Westside” from between those hallowed walls of the Filmore way back when…
Now on to the Friday action, using “The Game Inside the Game” as our framework.
OKLAHOMA STATE/MICHIGAN - Can the Cowboys force tempo with bad defense
The day begins with one of the best first round matchups of all, and a chance for some high drama. The Michigan story is one that has captured the consciousness of those following the sport, while the Oklahoma State story, the Cowboys having the second-best count for Adjusted Offensive Efficiency of any team over the past decade (bettered only by the 2015 Wisconsin team that made it to the national championship game), has certainly captured the minds of many in the betting marketplace.
The setting tells us that State should bring far more energy, only having had to play one game last weekend, while the Wolverines were out there four times. When a great offense brings energy against a defense that was only a little above average, that can mean something, especially with the markets having shifted based on Michigan’s Big 10 tourney run - had these teams met a week ago, almost all of the oddsmakers projections would have made the Cowboys the favorites.
So we get to the crux of the matter, in a battle of tempo does the fresher team control matters? In this one it is a most significant battle -
Oklahoma State #64
Here is the challenge in terms of basketball science. If you want to slow a game down it is best done on offense, where you can control the ball and the clock. To speed an opponent up requires defensive pressure, and also clearing the defensive boards after misses to get out and create fast break situations. Oklahoma State doesn’t do that. For as good as Jeffrey Carroll and the gang were with the ball, much of this season was spent watching them positioned far too distant from opposing shooters.
Part of Oklahoma State only being 19-12 despite that great offense was the schedule (keep in mind that the schedule is factored in to the ratings, hence the reference to “adjusted” offensive efficiency), but also in that the Cowboys were #136 in defensive efficiency, including a dismal #275 in Effective FG%.
So here comes the issue. While I agree with the energy notions that many will talk about, what if John Beilein reduces this to a half-court game, something that he is a master at doing? The Michigan defense brings a fantastic chemistry, good enough to rate #5 in efficiency, and also #8 in Effective FG%, while maximizing opportunities, rating #5 in Turnover%.
Okie State wants to speed this game up, but can a bad defense speed up a good offense that wants to play slow? It isn’t just human drama playing out in this one, but also an intriguing case study of basketball science.
SMU/USC - How much does it help the Trojans for this to be a second look
Full-season readers, and especially Podcast listeners (the link to today’s games can be found at the end of this column), may be expecting me to be on SMU today, a combination of really liking the Mustangs overall, and also the on-going notion that they may be the single most difficult team in the nation to prepare for, which can matter in the short turnaround time off of Wednesday night in Dayton. And in truth if it had been Providence advancing on Wednesday night, it might have been one of those matchups in which it would be time to raise the ante. But there is a twist now.
USC has the advantage of having faced SMU back on November 25, the Trojans winning 78-73 at their Galen Center home. It was a night in which shooting told the tale, USC going 26-53 from the field, including 12-24 from 3-point range, to just 27-65 and 6-17 for Tim Jankovich’s crew.
This is a terrible situation for USC, something that the NCAA should not allow. After rallying from 17 points down to beat Providence they chartered a flight for Tulsa that did not land until 3 AM, and then instead of playing tonight, which would have eased the turnaround, the Trojans are thrown into an afternoon tipoff. That would make it an extremely difficult preparation task if this were to be the first meeting with the Mustangs, but the fact that it will not only be the second time around in terms of developing a game plan, but that there is also the confidence of having won the first encounter, creates a different flow.
I will still have a small piece of the Mustangs if I can find a -6 in pocket, but not nearly for the level of investment a matchup against a different team in this same time sequence might have brought.
MARQUETTE/SOUTH CAROLINA - Is it Offense or Defense that gains control
Contrasts make for challenging handicapping, especially when the teams are evenly matched, and this game is a classic tale of how two teams can appear to be close, yet arrive at their power rating from such different directions.
Frank Martin has a squad that emulates his personality, a coach recruiting the kind of players to play his preferred style – the Gamecocks are going to come out and guard tenaciously, and win most of the battles when the ball is loose on the floor. But in filling a roster with the kind of athletes that can make that defense work, Martin also has a crew that can’t shoot a lick. Sometimes that comes with the territory.
For Steve Wojciechowski it has been the other end of that spectrum – he has some shooters, but hasn’t been able to coax the effort out of his team defensively. That changed down the stretch, which was a lead topic here about a month ago, when seniors Luke Fischer and JaJuan Johnson were brought off the bench instead of starting, and not only did the defensive energy improve, but it also meant more punch off the bench. Some of that has to be taken with a grain of salt because that late stretch included two wins over Xavier after Edmond Sumner was injured, and one over Creighton down Maurice Watson, but the flow was genuinely better.
So just how major are these contrasts? Let’s start with basic offense and defensive efficiency -
Efficiency Off Def
South Carolina #152 #3
Marquette #8 #154
And it gets even wider in this one -
Effective FG% Off Def
South Carolina #316 #11
Marquette #6 #230
And perhaps the biggest role of the dice for today’s game, perimeter shooting -
3-pointers Off Def
South Carolina #244 #5
Marquette #1 #280
This is going to be a fascinating one to watch, which is likely all that I will be doing, no investment in the making. Ordinarily I favor defense over offense because there is more consistency to it, but in the latter stages of a close game it can often come down to which players step up with confidence to make shots. Outside of Sindarious Thornwell, the Gamecocks don’t have much to choose from.
KENT STATE/UCLA - Was it good offensive rebounding by the Golden Flashes, or so many opportunities from some really bad shooting
One of the key notions talked about for the Friday NCAA Podcast (link below) is that by tipoff the Nevada shops will likely have the highest line in the world for the Bruins, the combination of the usual forced action leaning towards the chalk in a late tipoff, and also the fact that the local betting windows have a high ratio of west coast spring breakers in play. I would not be surprised to see a -19 hit the board, and some may find it too much to pass up, with a matchup that seemingly brings one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the nation in the underdog role.
There may be a problem with that. Kent State grabbed an impressive 524 offensive rebounds across 34 games, which is quite an achievement. But while some of that can indeed be attributed to tenacious work on the boards, especially from Charles Hall, there was also a whole lot of opportunity involved – the Golden Flashes missed 1,277 shots across their 35 games. They connected at only a 42.8 percent rate from the field against the #200 difficulty of opposition, and if you want to see the sorry details of bad offense here they are -
Effective FG% #271
But it was not all just saturation rebounding – they rated #4 in the actual percentage of their own misses they got to, a significant 38.1 percent. There is something to see here, but it is a bit tricky.
Hall is a gamer, a tough 6-8 senior that averaged 18.9 points and 10.5 rebounds, and will not back down from anyone. But outside of his presence this is actually a small lineup, three guards and two forwards, and in terms of tonight’s matchup there is a rather alarming gap – the UCLA starters are 19 inches taller across the board, nearly four full inches per player.
Hence the conundrum. Kent State is going to miss shots because that is what the Golden Flashes do. Kent State is going to crash the boards, because that is also what the Golden Flashes do. But what is the problem when you try to crash the boards against the Bruins? Fast breaks when you don’t get the ball. UCLA wasn’t just #3 in the nation in offensive efficiency and #1 in Effective FG%, but also #6 in average possession length on offense. If you miss, and don’t claim the rebound, the Bruins get down the court both with speed and effectiveness.
Is the Kent State strength a potential problem tonight? Because of the size differential there may not be the usual rate of offensive caroms gathered, and by crashing the boards the Golden Flashes might become vulnerable to Lonzo Ball consistently getting out into the open floor.
This is the matchup consideration I have to solve before deciding whether I want one of those +19’s when they show.
In the Sights, NCAA Saturday…
One of the key items I look for each tournament is the under-achieving first round favorite, especially if they were off of a conference tourney win, and faced an opponent that did not motivate them in any special way. There will often be a lethargic showing from such chalk, and because the focus is on the elite teams, they know when they didn’t play well, the coach being given the opportunity to crack the whip. That often means a much stronger second round showing, and it helps when they also get matched up against an opponent that may have the Cinderella slippers going to their head to the point at which it creates a glass jaw. For me that leads to #530 Gonzaga (5:15 Eastern), and I will use today to shop around the market to find a bargain (consider this good to -11).
Mark Few’s Bulldogs were terrible yesterday. They shot 39.7 percent; launched far too many times from long range and missed most of them (8-30 on 3-point attempts); made only 8-18 free throws; and had more turnovers than assists. That was not Gonzaga basketball, yet it led to a 20-point win anyway. It is unlikely that anyone in that locker room after the game was pleased with their performance, regardless of how the scoreboard looked, and in particular consider floor leader Nigel Williams-Goss, who finally got the opportunity to play his first tournament game. Williams-Goss was 4-13 from the field, missing all three attempts beyond the arc, and had only nine points and four assists.
His take in the post-game helps to understand the mindset - "We were able to grind out a tough game, not a pretty game. It feels good when you win a game when you know you didn't play your best." The players can feel good because they know they got away with one, and are not likely to again as the competition gets tougher.
I am not sure how difficult the challenge will be, with Northwestern potentially just so happy to have reached this stage that there may not be a lot left, perhaps comparable to the 76-48 shellacking the Wildcats suffered vs. Wisconsin in the Big 10 tourney last Saturday, their win over Maryland the previous evening seemingly having been “mission accomplished”.
Here is where that frame of mind matters. Chris Collins has done a simply superb job at getting his team to this stage, in particular the way that he has increased the confidence level, and Collins may be a coach star in the making. But now let’s go to his post-game take from yesterday –
"You dream of being in these games. That's why you get in the gym with these guys. That's why you put in the time. I tell these guys all the time, when you dream about these games, you don't dream about losing them. You don't dream about playing scared. You don't dream about being timid. You dream about being great, having confidence and winning."
That is a nice speech after winning a national championship. Perhaps after winning in the semi-finals to get to the championship game. You can even take it back to winning an Elite Eight game to move on to the Final Four. That is not the speech that comes from beating a mediocre Vanderbilt team that entered the game with 15 losses.
The Northwestern roster does not have a legacy of success, and it isn’t just about winning post-season games but merely even being in them. Most of the current rotation got knocked out of the Big 10 tournament in the first round each of the past two seasons; now they are playing their fifth game in 10 days under tourney pressure. I would not be surprised if there was a crash here, especially given the kind of punch I expect to see Gonzaga throwing, and there are also only minor concerns about the back door; once the crash happens the fight could go out of a team that has had a marvelous season, but just isn’t in this class yet.
For your listening pleasure…
I am joined by Brad Powers, Steve Fezzik and Dave Essler to run the board on all of the Friday matchups -
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