Friday, January 17, 2014

An Early Look At The Frontrunners For The Final Four

As usual, I'll be doing bracketology picks for the Bracket Matrix again, but that won't be for another couple weeks.  In the meantime, I thought it would be a good idea to look at who the favorites are for the Final Four.  While I'm not going to pick a national champion in this post, if you're interested in the current odds and lines on who's going to win the NCAA Championship, if you're interested in the current odds and lines on who's going to win the NCAA Championship, you can read up more here.

So without further ado, here are my early picks on the Final Four.  As always, feel free to tear apart my analysis in the Comments section.


After getting off to their best start in school history, the Wildcats are one of the favorites to make it to Dallas.  The Cats are playing excellent defense, allowing .88 points per possession, good for 4th in the country.  In an era where the non-conference strength of schedule is highly scrutinized, Arizona has beaten Duke (neutral court), Michigan (away), and San Diego State (away).  The Wildcats also have shown the depth of a championship-caliber team, with 7 guys playing 18+ minutes per game, and 4 guys averaging double-digit points per game (I rounded up Kaleb Tarczewski's ppg from 9.8 to 10).  This team has a lot of size, with 4 of their major contributors at 6'7 or taller, and they've out-rebounded their opponents in every game except their last game at USC (a blowout win, by the way).  Aaron Gordon has been as good as advertised, and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson has shown he can be a beast down low.  There's no question this team is poised for a deep run.

Michigan State

What I really like about this Spartans squad is their balance.  While guys like Adreian Payne can dominate in the paint, they also have guys like Keith Appling that can score in transition and hit jump shots.  Sparty will switch between man and zone defense, so they can prepare for just about any offense.  Another factor I like about this team is what Ken Pomeroy refers to as luck.  Ken defines luck as a team's ability to win close games.  Statistically, Ken doesn't feel that there's much more to it than luck, but I think toughness is a big part of what wins those close games.  If you're going to go deep in the tournament, you have to be able to win the close games.  Michigan State's overtime win against Ohio State in the Breslin Center proved just that.  After giving up an enormous lead down the stretch, the Buckeyes had the Spartans on the ropes, but Michigan State found a way to get it done in overtime.  Games like those helps teams grow up very quickly.  Not to mention, coach Tom Izzo has certainly made his money in March, and having him at the helm will always give you an edge on the competition.


The Gators bring back 2 of their best players from last year's run to the Elite 8 in Scottie Wilbekin and Patric Young.  Casey Prather has clearly stepped up his game this year, scoring 17 ppg and playing 29 mpg, after only scoring 9 ppg and playing 17 mpg last season.  Despite tough losses to Wisky and UConn, Florida has quality wins over Kansas and Memphis.  Once again, this squad has great balance around the perimeter and in the paint, so they can attack you offensively in a variety of ways.  Florida doesn't play much zone defense, so they have to rely on their athleticism to play good defense.  Wilbekin, Young, and Prather are all seniors, so this squad has the experience to go deep.  Having a coach that has won back to back titles at Florida doesn't hurt either.

Ohio State

The Buckeyes look pretty beaten up right now, having lost 3 in a row.  I know what you're thinking, there's no way this team can get to Dallas.  Hear me out though.  This is the right time of year to go on a cold streak, because teams will fall asleep on Ohio State and get surprised when they lose.  The Buckeyes have a month to hit their stride.  There are two things I really like about this team.  One is their balance.  6 guys are scoring 8+ ppg, and nobody is playing more than 26 mpg.  This keeps guys fresh down the stretch, like the game at Michigan State.  Sure, they lost in overtime, but the comeback Ohio State made down the stretch was nothing short of impressive.  The other thing I like: Aaron Craft.  How could you not like this guy?  He's proven in big games that he can win.  Perfect example: Iowa State in the Round of 32 last year.  Craft took a (controversial) charge and made the go-ahead 3-pointer on the other end with less than one second remaining.  With the game on the line, he's the guy I want as my point guard.

Monday, January 6, 2014

A Qualitative Look At The Season So Far

It's 10 below in Chicago and the Packers are out of the playoffs (woohoo!).  Seems like a good time to do a MU post.

Despite how much I look to look at stats, I think I'll change the pace for this post and look at the team qualitatively.  While the eye test should not be the authoritative source for how good a team is, it should always be taken into consideration.  With the game on the line, give me the tougher team 10 times out of 10 (woops, so much for not using numbers in this post).

First I'll do a player-by-player rundown, and then look at the team as a whole.  I'm sure you'll disagree with a few things I have to say, feel free to comment below.  This is just my view of things from section 441.


Derrick Wilson

With Junior Cadougan and Vander Blue gone, #12 took the reigns at the 1-spot this season.  Overall I don't think D-Wil's play has lived up to what the MU faithful have expected, but that's probably not news to you.  I think where Derrick has struggled the most is in an overall lack of confidence.  Why would anyone guard him within 10 feet when he has the ball at the perimeter?  His confidence in shooting the ball mirrors that of a walk-on when he comes in during garbage time.  With that being said, Derrick has shown potential in a few spots.  He has shown he can make cuts to the basket, and score on occasion.  He also takes pretty good care of the basketball (sorry, can't share assist/turnover ratio as much as I want to).  Defensively I think he's played well, especially in on-the-ball defense.  Overall, he just doesn't put it all together at the same time to be a complete player.  If he had a killer instinct on offense (like Vander had last year, see the games at St. John's and against Davidson), a couple of our losses might have gone the other way.  Unfortunately, this team can not shine without good point guard play, and unless 12 steps up we'll continue to be mediocre.

Jake Thomas

Despite offseason issues of leaving and coming back, Thomas has consistently been the starter at the 2-guard spot this season.  Overall, I don't think Jake has been incredibly impressive this season.  Offensively, Jake is known as a sharp-shooter and not much of a slasher.  This essentially means he's a shorter version of Steve Novak.  When Novak was a senior, this worked out fine because he had the best trio of guards in MU history to dribble drive, collapse the defense, and create open shooting opportunities.  This season's team doesn't have that complement of players around Thomas, so if he wants to score, more of it needs to come from taking cuts to the basket.  He'll get some looks when the defense collapses around the frontcourt, but if Thomas continues to wait for kick-out passes on the elbows of the perimeter he'll never take his game to the next level.  Defensively, the good news is he's helped create turnovers that don't necessarily show up under his name in the stat sheet. The bad news is he's had issues on double-teams and leaving the perimeter open, and he's definitely one of the reasons we've given up a lot of 3-pointers recently (ahem, DePaul).

Todd Mayo

Mayo has certainly stepped up his game this year with the overall talent of the team taking a step back.  This year's squad is much slower than it has been in recent seasons, but the masked crusader has shown the ability to get out in transition and score quickly.  Unfortunately, those situations have come few and far between.  Between a high ankle sprain, a broken nose, and off-the-court issues, Mayo's season hasn't been as good as he'd like it to be.  What I'd like to see out of Mayo going forward is a few more assists.  When Mayo gets the ball he tends to settle for jump-shots, but I think he'd be a more complete player if he made a better effort to find the open man under the basket or on the perimeter.

JuJaun Johnson

JJJ is going to a be a great player for MU... he's just not great yet.  What I love about this kid is his fearlessness.  During the Arizona State game he picked off a pass at the top of the key that turned into an easy dunk on the other end that made my jaw drop.  He's shown the ability to hit jump-shots (although his form is so goofy I cringe every time I see him shoot).  That being said, he's still raw like most freshman.  Most of his cuts to the basket have ended in turnovers, and his defense is pretty shaky, thus explaining his decreased minutes during conference season (I don't remember him coming in against DePaul).  Going forward, I'm pretty excited about watching this guy put up 15-20 points by the time he's a junior.

John Dawson

The sample size on John has been pretty small so far.  Buzz is already playing more freshman than he has historically, so I'm not surprised that most of the point guard duties have been shared by a junior and a senior.  Only time will tell how John does, but with a healthy Duane Wilson coming in next year, I think it's pretty likely John will spend his collegiate career as a backup, unless he transfers.


Jamil Wilson

Quit turning the ball over!  I think of all the players going into this season I expected the most out of Jamil, partly because of being a senior, partly because he has the best chance of being drafted.  He's done some good things on offense, but fouls have been a serious issue at times and I feel like his jump shot has taken a half step back since last year.  I was hoping he'd be the guy to take over a game down the stretch, but I just don't see that kind of performance in him... at least yet.  Sure, I've seen him run the floor.  Sure, I've seen him hit 3-pointers.  Sure, I've seen him shoot lights out from 17 feet.  But has he put that all together in a 20-point performance?  Maybe once or twice, but not consistently.  I know Buzz is trying to get Jamil drafted, but I feel like putting him at point guard for spurts to expand his skill set has just taken us out of offensive rhythm, rather than provide a seamless transition between point guards.  And did I mention he has too many turnovers?

Davante Gardner

Bit of a roller coaster for the Ox this year, but overall I'm pretty pleased with his performance.  Free throws were anything but Au-to-ma-tic at the start of the season, but I feel like he's settled in nicely at the charity stripe in the last month.  Each season he has gotten a little more athletic, and to see him drive to the hoop from the top of the key has been fun to watch.  He still has pretty good moves around the hoop, but when he goes up against taller guys like that center from ASU he doesn't stand a chance.  His main issue based on Buzz's comments seems to be work ethic, which is tough to gauge as a fan since that's all based on how he practices.  I just hope he keeps up the hustle so that he keeps up his playing time.  What's also key about Gardner is he can be the X-factor like in the DePaul game last Saturday and against Syracuse at home last season.

Juan Anderson

Gotta love how this kid plays defense.  Plays tough on-the-ball defense, hustles, and is no stranger to diving for loose balls.  He's stepped up his offensive game a little bit this season, but is still a long way from being a consistent scorer and his best plays have come against the cupcakes.  Since this squad is so defense-heavy and offensively inept, you can only have so many non-scorers on the floor at once, which means at this point he's still a filler role and not a starter or sixth man.  If Juan can find a way to be more of a scoring threat by his senior season, he'll be dangerous.

Deonte Burton

BANE!  What's not to love about this kid's upside.  I just love watching him play around the ball because I know how good he's going to be in 2 years... heck, even next year.  Defensively, he can be a beast in the paint, blocking shots and forcing turnovers.  Off-the-ball defensively though, he seems lost at times.  That's fine, it's just a part of being a freshman; he'll get better defensively.  Offensively, I see a lot of Jae Crowder in him.  At times he just seems to be in the right place at the right time for easy put-back shots, and has great use of the glass.  While I'm impressed with some of the baskets he gets when he catches the ball 15 feet from the basket, a lot of times I just wish he'd pass it off, because his shots will either end in a turnover or a poorly missed shot.  His mentality when he gets the ball seems to be "gotta score... but if I happen to see someone open I might pass it to him...might."  Again, that will improve with experience.  I just hope he doesn't improve so quickly after 3 years that he leaves early for the draft.  And oh yeah... if he worked on his free throws that wouldn't be so bad either.

Steve Taylor

Tough to critique Steve Taylor this season since he's been banged up most of the time.  Even when he's been in, there hasn't been much worth writing home about.  Hopefully his wheels are 100% by the meat of the conference season so that he can contribute some meaningful minutes.


Chris Otule

How could you not like this kid?  He's never been a flashy player, but he epitomizes playing with heart.  Chris has a 6-year career at MU that includes 2 medical red shirt seasons (how many 24-year olds are playing D-1 basketball?)  I was really impressed by the fact that Chris worked hard enough in the offseason that he was able to shed his knee brace after tearing his ACL.  Defensively, he's the same player we've come to know and love.  Someone that plays great defense and will get his share of blocks (don't worry McIlvaine, nobody's going to touch your record).  Offensively, Chris has stepped up his game which has been nice to see.  With a frontcourt as big as ours, you need plenty of points from the bigs, and Gardner can't do it all.  He has that baby hook working pretty well, and has shown he can make moves around the basket too.  His free throw shooting has still been mediocre, but I can live with that from a center.  Otule won't go down as one of the best players in Marquette history, but he'll be one of the most memorable as a fan favorite.

The team overall

So what about the team as a whole?  The cliché goes that you're only as good as your record, and in this case at 9-6 it couldn't be more true.  Pretty much every tough test MU has faced, they've fallen short.  While playing good defense is key to any good team, if a poor offense outweighs a good defense you'll never get anywhere.  So what has led to this poor offense?  I don't mean to pick on Derrick Wilson, but our performance at point guard just isn't good enough.  We've gone on spurts where we can't run a good play on offense to save ourselves (for further information, see the Ohio State game).  Turnovers have also been an issue with this team.  Turnovers can cause swings in momentum, which can easily turn a win into a loss.  And if you thought last year's team wasn't good at shooting 3-pointers, you clearly haven't seen the 2013-14 team.  While we have several guys that can shoot the long ball in Jamil Wilson, Thomas, Mayo, and JJJ, nobody on the team can do it on a consistent basis, which puts us as a serious disadvantage.

Even with our offensive woes, the issue that bugs me the most is our lack of ability to win the close games.  The games against ASU, SDSU, and New Mexico were all big games and were all neck-and-neck down the stretch, and nobody stepped up to help get us a win.  Ken Pomeroy refers to winning the close games as "luck," and if that's the case, then we are a very unlucky team, I just think we're not clutch.

So how do we turn the season around?  Pessimistically (and realistically), I think it's too late.  We've shown deficiencies that are too tough to overcome to rise to the top of the Big East.  Will we get better?  Sure.  There are going to be growing pains after losing your point guard and your star shooting guard.  Will we get better in time to be dancing in March?  My prediction is we finish .500 in conference play, and based on our non-conference play and the diluted quality of the Big East this year, that's just enough to get to the Not Invited Tournament.