Sunday, March 15, 2015

Final Bracketology: March 15

Ah yes, the best TV show of the year starts in less than an hour: Selection Sunday.  Below are my final picks for the field of 68.  As always, this will be included in The Bracket Matrix as well.

1. Kentucky, Villanova, Virginia, Wisconsin
2. Duke, Arizona, Gonzaga, Kansas
3. Iowa State, Notre Dame, Maryland, Baylor
4. Oklahoma, North Carolina, Northern Iowa, Louisville
5. West Virginia, Arkansas, Utah, Southern Methodist
6. Wichita State, Georgetown, Providence, Virginia Commonwealth
7. Michigan State, Butler, San Diego State, Oregon
8. Xavier, Iowa, St. John's, Ohio State
9. Dayton, Cincinnati, North Carolina State, Davidson
10. Georgia, Oklahoma State, Colorado State, Texas
11. LSU, Purdue, Temple, Boise State, BYU
12. Stephen F. Austin, Buffalo, Wofford, Wyoming, Mississippi
13. Valparaiso, Harvard, Georgia State, Eastern Washington
14. Northeastern, UC Irvine, North Dakota State, New Mexico State
15. Belmont, Albany, UAB, Texas Southern
16. Coastal Carolina, Lafayette, North Florida, Manhattan, Robert Morris, Hampton

Friday, March 13, 2015

Bracketology: March 9

Forgot to post this earlier.  I'll try to do one more before Selection Sunday.

1. Kentucky, Villanova, Virginia, Duke
2. Arizona, Wisconsin, Kansas, Gonzaga
3. Maryland, Iowa State, Baylor, Oklahoma
4. Notre Dame, Utah, Wichita State, Louisville
5. North Carolina, Northern Iowa, West Virginia, Arkansas
6. Georgetown, Butler, Southern Methodist, Providence
7. Iowa, Ohio State, San Diego State, Virginia Commonwealth
8. St. John's, Michigan State, Dayton, Oklahoma State
9. Oregon, Xavier, Georgia, Cincinnati
10. North Carolina State, Colorado State, LSU, Davidson
11. Mississippi, Indiana, Boise State, Texas, Temple
12. Wofford, Purdue, BYU, Stephen F. Austin, Louisiana Tech
13. Iona, Central Michigan, Harvard, Valparaiso
14. Eastern Washington, South Dakota State, Georgia State, UC Davis
15. North Carolina Central, New Mexico State, William & Mary, Belmont
16. North Florida, Texas Southern, Coastal Carolina, Albany, St. Francis (N.Y.), American

Monday, February 23, 2015

Bracketology: February 23

Latest and greatest is below.

1. Kentucky, Virginia, Duke, Gonzaga
2. Wisconsin, Kansas, Arizona, Villanova
3. Louisville, Iowa State, Oklahoma, Utah
4. Baylor, North Carolina, Notre Dame, Northern Iowa
5. West Virginia, Maryland, Arkansas, Wichita State
6. Oklahoma State, Arkansas, Butler, Virginia Commonwealth
7. Georgetown, Ohio State, Cincinnati, Indiana
8. San Diego State, Mississippi, Xavier, Southern Methodist
9. Georgia, Iowa, Dayton, Texas
10. Colorado State, Stanford, LSU, Michigan State
11. Texas A&M, Wisconsin-Green Bay, Temple, Miami (FLA.), St. John's
12. Illinois, Old Dominion, Tulsa, George Washington, Wofford
13. Stephen F. Austin, Harvard, Murray State, Bowling Green
14. Iona, Eastern Washington, William & Mary, UC Davis
15. North Carolina Central, Georgia Southern, High Point, Florida Gulf Coast
16. New Mexico State, North Dakota State, Albany, Bucknell, Texas Southern, St. Francis (N.Y.)

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Bracketology: February 11

After last night's 20-point drubbing at home against the X-men, I think it's safe to say MU won't be dancing this year (oh who am I kidding, we were out of the Dance a month ago).  I figure now is as good a time as any to switch gears and do a little bracketology (because it's just more fun to talk about teams that are in the tournament).  Here's my first crack at it for the season; I'll try to update it once a week.  Enjoy.

1. Kentucky, Virginia, Duke, Gonzaga
2. Wisconsin, Kansas, Arizona, Villanova
3. Louisville, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Utah
4. Baylor, Iowa State, Notre Dame, Northern Iowa
5. Oklahoma State, Maryland, Butler, Wichita State
6. West Virginia, Arkansas, Providence, Virginia Commonwealth
7. Georgetown, Ohio State, Cincinnati, Indiana
8. San Diego State, Texas, Iowa, Southern Methodist
9. Georgia, Xavier, Dayton, Mississippi
10. Colorado State, Stanford, LSU, Michigan State
11. Texas A&M, Wisconsin-Green Bay, Temple, Miami (FLA.), St. John's
12. Illinois, Old Dominion, Tulsa, George Washington, Wofford
13. Stephen F. Austin, Harvard, Murray State, Bowling Green
14. Iona, Eastern Washington, William & Mary, UC Davis
15. North Carolina Central, Georgia Southern, High Point, Florida Gulf Coast
16. New Mexico State, North Dakota State, Albany, Bucknell, Texas Southern, St. Francis (N.Y.)

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Seton Hall Pregame Q&A

This week I caught up with Brian Otskey, Seton Hall alum and contributor for Rush The Court.  I asked Brian about the current state of the team, where the Hall will end up in March, and a few fun facts about Newark.  Enjoy.

1. What has happened over the last month?  Does the team need to get accustomed to winning?

It has been quite a roller coaster month for Seton Hall. When the news broke on Christmas Eve that star freshman Isaiah Whitehead would be out indefinitely with a stress fracture in his right foot, a lot of "doom and gloom" fans came out of the woodwork given the cruel history of season-derailing injuries over the last few seasons. The Pirates were 10-2 heading into Big East play with two home games against St. John's (ranked 15th at the time) and Villanova coming up. It looked like a tall order but lo and behold, the Hall won both games and people thought missing Whitehead may not be a big deal after all. Fast forward to today and the team is in the midst of a three game skid and has lost four of its past five games. If it was not for Sterling Gibbs' heroics at Creighton on January 10 in a game in which the Pirates were outplayed for the majority of the game by the last place Bluejays, Seton Hall would be mired in a five game losing streak heading to Milwaukee. I think your second question about getting accustomed to winning is spot on. As Big East fans know, Seton Hall hasn't had much success over the last decade. While most Pirate teams over that span have been competitive, they were never good enough to seriously contend for postseason play year in and year out. A poor head coaching hiring decision in 2006 set the program back substantially but Kevin Willard (hired in 2010) has tried his best to establish a culture of winning. Unfortunately, that has been easier said than done. This is the second time in four years that a Willard-led team has almost immediately collapsed after gaining a national ranking and the attention that comes with it. Handling success and creating that culture of winning, such as that of the Marquette program, has proven to be difficult for Seton Hall.
2. How hot was Willard's seat going into the season?  Is he coaching to save his job?
Many folks in the national media placed Kevin Willard on the proverbial hot seat before the season began due to his poor 66-66 (24-48 Big East) record through four seasons on the Prudential Center sidelines. However, program insiders will say that Willard's job was relatively safe coming into this season barring something unforeseen (a total collapse or legal issues). Willard has done a very good job bringing the program back from the depths of the Bobby Gonzalez fiasco. Gonzalez had left the program in bad shape as recruiting was at an all-time low and there were multiple issues with players and the law during his tenure. Gonzalez never got along with the school's administration either and productivity suffered. Willard's former boss at Iona College, Patrick Lyons, was hired as the new Athletic Director four years ago and the results have been tremendous. The school's facilities have never been better, fundraising is stronger and Willard himself has acknowledged that the improvements spearheaded by Lyons have allowed the Hall to compete on a level playing field with bigger programs for top talent, something that was not the case when Willard took over the program. As you might imagine, Willard and Lyons have a strong relationship. I can't confirm this, but there were rumors last year that Willard received a contract extension from Lyons. While all bets are off if this season continues to spiral out of control and the team only wins a handful of the games on its remaining schedule, I'm pretty confident in saying that Kevin Willard's job is safe through at least next season.

3. How do the fans feel about the state of the program?  Are they getting restless... or are they hopeful about what they're seeing this season?

Seton Hall fans have been mostly positive this season as the 12-2 start and the infusion of quality young talent into the program created optimism. As you might expect, this recent downturn in the quality of play has the natives restless. Given the last decade of poor results and the collapse of the 2011-12 team, I get the sense that fans have in the back of their minds that it's too good to be true and everything will eventually come apart. That may or may not be happening, but we'll find out our answer over the next few weeks. There are legitimate concerns about Willard's ability to recruit. The 2014 class was a blockbuster for Seton Hall, but the two highest impact players (Whitehead and Angel Delgado) were directly tied to assistant coaching hires, one of whom has moved on (Oliver Antigua is assisting his brother, Orlando, at South Florida these days). While this tactic is perfectly within NCAA rules and has been used (and will be used again) by many programs across the country, most view it as unsustainable and possibly a one hit wonder. With only one player in the 2015 class on board at this point, the criticism of Willard's recruiting has intensified. One great class does not make a program and Pirate fans are eager to see results on the recruiting trail over the next few months, both for 2015 and among the 2016 class.
4. How badly does this team miss Isaiah Whitehead right now?  Would they have won the close ones against Butler and DePaul?

Isaiah Whitehead is incredibly missed right now. He is the only player on the roster who can create his own shot, set up a teammate with a great pass and take it to the basket and finish. While other players can do one or two of those things, Whitehead is the only one who can do it all. Defensively, Seton Hall is allowing opponents to carve them up in the paint through dribble penetration, shining a spotlight on the lack of a rim protector. Whitehead helped to limit dribble penetration because of his size and athleticism and it's no coincidence that Seton Hall was playing its best defense when Whitehead was healthy. The Pirates are at their best when intense defense fuels the offense. Willard's teams have never been great in the half court offense and it's players like Whitehead who open things up on both ends of the floor. Offensively, the guards have suffered most in Whitehead's absence. Sterling Gibbs and Jaren Sina have logged incredible minutes and it is taking a toll. Gibbs has hit a wall over the last two games and Sina has struggled for basically the entire year. While Gibbs can pull up for three or take it to the basket on a dribble drive, Sina cannot. Open looks have to be created for Sina in order for him to get his perimeter shot off and that just isn't happening without Whitehead in the lineup. I guess you could say they would have won two home games against Butler and DePaul but I prefer not to speak in absolutes. Both Butler and DePaul (especially Butler) are poor matchups for Seton Hall personnel wise given the length on both rosters. Whitehead's presence would have helped, but I wouldn't go so far as to say they'd have won both games with him. I would say a split would have been far more likely, with the win coming against the Blue Demons. The bottom line is the Hall had an eight point lead with under six minutes remaining in that one and couldn't get it done. With or without Whitehead, they did a poor job closing that one out.
5. Who is the leadership presence on and off the floor?  Is it Sterling Gibbs, or is it one of the seniors like Brandon Mobley?
That's a great question and I'm not so sure there is a definitive leader on the floor right now, perhaps therein lies the problem. The lack of strong floor leadership has been a contributing factor to this latest losing streak. I would say Gibbs had stepped up in a big way over the first few games of the Big East schedule but lately he hasn't seemed to be himself. Sina has been getting the most minutes on the team and Willard has commented before that he is almost like a coach on the floor (calling plays and such), but I don't get the sense that Sina has that type of personality. Is he a steadying influence? Yes. I would go so far to say that Whitehead, even as a freshman, has been a quality leader on the floor. While he looks for his shot like most talented freshmen do, he was vocal and also looking to set up his teammates through passing before he got hurt. A good example of that was in the Wichita State game back in early December. Nobody was scoring in the first half and Whitehead stepped up with no fear and put up 18 points before halftime.

6. Other than Whitehead, which freshmen are showing the most promise?
Angel Delgado is a really fun player to watch and root for. He plays with unbelievable passion and is an absolute beast on the glass. Delgado is 15th in individual offensive rebounding percentage nationwide and is one of only three freshmen in the nation to rank in the top 25 in that statistic. The other two are Duke's Jahlil Okafor and Utah's Jakob Poeltl (hat tip to Chris McManus of the South Orange Juice blog for that one). Pretty good company! Delgado has proven to be more polished on the offensive end than most thought, averaging 9.3 PPG. With six double-doubles already this season, Delgado is tied with Okafor in that department. Along with Xavier's Trevon Bluiett, Delgado is a front-runner for Big East Rookie of the Year. Khadeen Carrington, a gritty 6'2" guard from Brooklyn, has also been impressive. He's a lefty who has no fear of attacking the rim. Carrington stepped up with 17 points off the bench in the win over Villanova and had 20 in the home loss to Butler. Desi Rodriguez, a teammate of Whitehead's in high school, is another promising freshman. He doesn't see as many minutes as his freshmen counterparts but he provides a spark off the bench and a lot of toughness around the rim and on the glass despite being a bit undersized. Rodriguez may have the best hops on the team too, having thrown down a couple of thunderous dunks already this season. I really like his upside in the years to come. All in all, this group of freshmen is the best at Seton Hall in 15 years.

7. What's working this year that hasn't in previous years?  According to Ken Pom it's better play on the boards.

That's right, although offensive rebounding in particular is the area that has really improved and made the offense more efficient. Almost all of that has been due to the play of Delgado, who has been absolutely outstanding. Defensive rebounding is actually an area that has really hurt the Hall this year, especially in recent games. A lot of guys are missing block out assignments and their positioning is not good. As tenacious as Delgado is on the offensive glass, the coaching staff does need to work with him on awareness and positioning defensively. Another reason for this year's success had been defense, but that has started to fizzle over the last few weeks. Even with the recent struggles, the numbers say, Seton Hall is defending better than it has since Willard's first two seasons in South Orange. Perimeter defense is also a strength of this group as opponents are shooting an anemic 26.8% from beyond the arc, good for 3rd in the nation. I'm not sure how much of this is actual defense versus playing so many opponents who just don't shoot the three ball well, but it's something that has certainly helped. Making winning plays late in games is a major difference this year too. In games decided by five points or less, Seton Hall is 4-2 this season as opposed to 5-10 in 2013-14.
8. Will this team make the tournament?  Since they're so young, they could gel in February and get a single-digit seed.
At this point in the season it is a tough call. Two weeks ago I'd have said absolutely but the recent stretch of play has given me cause for concern. The Pirates have to make a move over the next two weeks because the schedule really toughens up after that. If they don't get out of this funk soon, they won't make it. That said, I'm going to say they will end up playing in the big dance. The bubble is going to be soft yet again and this team has plenty of quality win opportunities down the stretch. I think they need to get to 10-8 in league play, maybe 9-9 depending who the wins are against. While the DePaul loss was a killer both from an RPI and momentum perspective, the Villanova win was so significant and may be the difference come Selection Sunday. Right now I think this team is a classic 50/50 proposition for the tournament. Maybe it's blind faith because this is the best chance they've had for a tournament bid in a long time (2006 is their last appearance), but I'm going to roll with this group of players finding a way to get it done despite their youth.

9. How about a fun fact or two about Newark?
Newark is not exactly the most glamorous of American cities, to put it mildly, but the Prudential Center has revitalized the downtown area in some ways. The arena hosted the NCAA East Regional in 2011 and it was a great success, especially given its proximity to New York City. Newark is the birthplace of former NBA superstar Shaquille O'Neal and the late singer Whitney Houston, among others. Seton Hall's campus is actually in South Orange, located about five miles west of the Prudential Center. Something interesting about South Orange is that street lights in the village (yes, village is in the town's official name) are predominantly gas lights, one of the few communities in the United States to still have that. Actor Kevin Spacey was born in South Orange as well.

10. Pregame prediction? (I like the Hall to win by a point, btw)
When looking at this game my first instinct was to pick Marquette because it is a home game and the Golden Eagles seem to be playing with a lot of grit and toughness. They have lost four of five as well and both teams should be focused because of that. However, when looking at the matchups I think the Pirates are going to come out on top. I think Delgado's athleticism will give him the advantage inside over Luke Fischer and the statistics say it could be an offensive rebounding feast for Seton Hall against Wojo's undersized and undermanned group. If Marquette continues to play a zone defense, I think that favors Seton Hall despite some of the success Marquette has had with it. I think Gibbs and Delgado will have big games and the Pirate defense should do enough to at least contain either Matt Carlino or Duane Wilson. Stopping both will be a tough task. While I think Marquette is the tougher team and possibly better coached, the Hall has more talent even without Whitehead. Marquette deserves to be a two or three point favorite playing at home, but I think this may be the game where the Hall snaps out of its shooting slump, toughens up and comes together to get a much-needed road win. From a Marquette perspective, how does it respond to the emotionally draining Georgetown game this past Saturday? I think that could be a factor. The wildcard here is how each team reacts to the adversity they're both facing. Nobody can say for sure, but I think the Pirates know this is a more important game for them and will rise to the occasion in what should be a close game throughout.