Teams outside the top 15 that could end up in the Final Four, more mailbag

Which teams outside the top 15 already look like sleeper candidates for the Final Four?
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Greetings, Hoopheads, it is time to dip into the Twitterbag for the first time this season. As you well know, I conduct my world famous Twenty for Tuesday Twitter chat every, well, Tuesday. I have carved out a few questions so I can address them at length here. Double dip if you want! The bag’s all yours.

Why aren’t we seeing the ridiculous foul totals that we saw [two years] ago [with] that enforcement? — Rush the Court (@rushthecourt)

Indeed, the early numbers on the freedom of movement movement continue to be encouraging. According to official statistics put out by the NCAA over the weekend, points are up by 5.69 per team per game when compared to this stage last season. Fouls are up by 1.32 per game. That has led to teams making 1.01 more free throws per game, which means that just 17.8% of the scoring increase can be attributed to the extra free throws.

As you all know, I was a huge advocate of this initiative. (Notice I’m not using the phrase “rules changes.” The major change has nothing to do with adding new rules, it’s the emphasis on enforcing the rules as they were already written. ) But I issued stern warnings in the preseason that we were about to endure some ugly, whistle-infested basketball. I am pleasantly surprised that has not come to pass. Yes, there have been some ugly games, but there were ugly games last year, too. Numbers don’t lie, and the numbers indicate that this effort has been a rousing success—so far.

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That the sport has made such a seamless transition owes largely to the efforts of J. D. Collins, the NCAA’s new national officiating coordinator, and the coordinators from various leagues. But they have benefited from several things that were not the case two years ago. First, the decisions and implementation of the changes two years ago happened more in the late summer and early fall. This time, Collins and his staff got more of a head start.

The clunky implementation from two years ago led everyone to abandon the efforts, and by the time conference play rolled around, the refs reverted. Last year, there was no effort at all to clean things up, and the result was a stark drop-off in scoring and pace. So with the benefit of those experiences, the stakeholders were able to make a better effort during the off-season to education everyone on what was going to be done. Now that we have looked into the abyss and seen what college basketball looks like without enough freedom of movement, everyone came in with a lot more preparation and resolve.

Like I said, these numbers are early, but I’m predicting (and hoping) that this time, there will be no slippage come January. It appears that college basketball has officially changed, and for the better.

Do you know if refs are graded down for “let the players decide it” last [two minutes]? Rules don’t change for that time! — Mike Dollens (@PoppaJET)

This brings up several commonly held opinions about officiating, which I believe are misguided.

In the first place, I really don’t like it when people say, “Let the players decide the game.” Sometimes, the players decide the game by fouling. To suggest the referees call nothing on game-deciding possessions is ludicrous. Yet, I am amazed how often I hear this phrase.

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As for the question of how the refs should officiate the final minutes of a close game, my answer has evolved over the years. I used to believe that they should officiate the last two minutes differently—that they should not call fouls unless they were blatant. I have since shifted somewhat. I do agree that a foul is a foul is a foul, whether it’s committed in the first minute or the last. However, I do believe that officials have a much higher obligation to make the correct call in the final minute than in the first. That’s why I advocated giving them the ability to use the replay monitor to adjudicate out of bounds calls in the last two minutes, where the calls are so critical, but not in the first 38, which will needlessly slow down the game.

This idea that the refs should “swallow their whistles” at the end of games is really off the mark. Why would we want them to give an unfair advantage to the defense—on decisive possessions, no less? I don’t want refs to swallow their whistles in the final two minutes, but if they do blow their whistles, I want them to be sure they’re right. The same goes for non-calls, which are just as significant as calls.

Certainly, refs are going to make mistakes. We can’t expect them to be totally locked in mentally for every minute of every game. But when it comes to nut-cutting time, the players and coaches need to get into a stance and really bear down in order to produce the best possible result. We should certainly expect the same from the zebras.


What’s your outlook for Arizona now [that Kaleb Tarczewski] is out? — Clair Wyant (@KG7MAJ)

To be honest, I’ve thought for a while that the national opinion of Arizona was inflated. The Wildcats were No. 12 in the AP’s preseason poll. (I voted ’em No. 13, so I’m guilty, too.) This week they are No. 19, although I left them off my ballot. Right now, I think my fellow ballot filler outers are giving Arizona program voters, rather than judging this particular team.

The Wildcats made three Elite Eights in the last five years, but they lost four—count ‘em, four—starters from last season’s squad. And by Sean Miller’s standards, the incoming freshman class was just O.K. Allonzo Trier, the 6'3" combo guard from Findlay Prep in Las Vegas, has promise, but the second-highest-rated member of the class, 6'7" forward Ray Smith, suffered a season-ending knee injury in the preseason—the second time in a little over a year that he blew out his knee. Miller did add two well-regarded graduate transfers in 6'9" forwards Ryan Anderson (Boston College) and Mark Tollefsen (San Francisco), but does anybody think of BC and USF as basketball powerhouses?

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Now, the one player it seemed Miller could count on has been lost for at least a month. Kaleb Tarczewski, aka “Zeus,” the 7-foot senior center, suffered a stress reaction and strained muscle in his left foot during an overtime win over Santa Clara on Thanksgiving Day in Anaheim, Calif. It’s hard to know what is more discouraging for Arizona, losing their most veteran player for several weeks, or the fact that a previous winless team took them to overtime in the first place.

Where does this team go from here? Well, when you think about Arizona, you think about great guards, but right now it appears the Wildcats don’t have any. Sophomore Parker Jackson-Cartwright and juco transfer Kadeem Allen make for a competent tandem, but taken together, they still don’t add up to what T. J. McConnell provided the last two years. Nor is Arizona very good at shooting the long ball. The only player who is remotely a three-range threat right now is 6'3" senior Gabe York, and at 36.4% he is hardly the second coming of Stephen Curry.

After escaping Santa Clara, the Wildcats only lost by four points to a very good Providence team the night next. Then on Sunday, they beat Boise State by nine. So all is not lost. They have to play at Gonzaga on Saturday without Big Zeus. This is by no means a bad team, and given the overall weakness of the Pac-12, the ‘Cats will still contend for a conference crown. But is this the Arizona we’ve come to expect the last few years? Is this still a top 25 team? The answers are no and no.

What is a realistic expectation for the Texas Longhorns in Shaka [Smart’s] first season? — Andrew Mitchell (@DruMitchell33)

I have a good vantage point on Texas because I just called three of their games during last week’s Battle 4 Atlantis. I detailed last week the good and bad things the Longhorns learned about themselves. As for expectations, they key word in Andrew’s question is “realistic. ”

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In keeping with that theme, the good and bad news here is that the Big 12 is quite strong. I count at least five surefire NCAA tournament teams: Kansas, Iowa State, Oklahoma, West Virginia and Baylor. Maybe there’s room for a sixth, but asking for a seventh team in a 10-team league is a stretch. This is bad for Texas because there are a lot of losses to be had (and keep in mind that the league still plays a double round robin). But it also means Longhorns will have many opportunities to face quality teams on their homecourt throughout January and February. All they need is one or two hot shooting nights against a team that is low on energy, and they can earn the signature wins necessary to make the NCAA tournament.

But make no mistake: That is the baseline here. The Longhorns are in a bind on several fronts. They have a new coach who can’t implement the system that brought him so much success because he does not believe he has the personnel to pull it off. They have five seniors who are fairly entrenched in what they do. They have three freshmen who are promising but raw. The young trio might give Smart some quality minutes as the season goes on, but they are not going to transform the core of the team. And the Longhorns have a sophomore point guard in Isaiah Taylor who is quick with the ball and tenacious on D, but who is not remotely feared as an outside shooter.

In other words, Smart is coaching to his players’ strengths, not his own. Once he has strung together several recruiting classes, we will be able to make a better judgment as to whether he can duplicate the success he had at VCU in Austin. In the meantime, my advice to Texas fans is to hope they make the NCAA tournament. Anything beyond that is gravy. Sorry to be such a Debbie Downer. Just trying to keep it realistic.

Who is a team outside the top 15 who could make a run at the Final Four? — Frankie Rapone (@_frankierapone1)

1. UConn (unranked). Raise your hand if you’re tired of me pimping ... er, pumping UConn. Frankly, I was shocked to see the Huskies drop completely out of the AP poll this week. They lost by close margins on a neutral court to two teams (Syracuse and Gonzaga) ranked in the top 15. And as I wrote last week, the Huskies brought their C game at best.

2. Louisville (AP rank: 24). I’ve waited to rank the Cardinals until I saw them play quality competition. After a pillow-soft early schedule, they were finally forced to play at Michigan State Wednesday night in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. They passed the eye test with room to spare before falling, 71–67, thanks to a combined 44 points from the transferred backcourt of Trey Lewis and Damion Lee. Keep in mind the Cards were playing without 6'7" freshman Deng Adel, who had been averaging 17 minutes per game but who missed the game because of a strained MCL. Adel should be back in a couple of weeks, but even in losing the Cardinals showed they are going to be better than a lot of people thought.

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3. Miami (No. 21). Every team is going to have an off night or two this season, so I’m prepared to give the Hurricanes a mulligan for their 78–77 loss at home to Northeastern. If it’s one thing this team can do, it’s play perimeter defense, but that takes a lot of focus and energy. Miami didn’t have it that night, which is why the Huskies made 12-for-22 from three-point range and still needed a buzzer beater to win.

4. Providence (23). Is Kris Dunn really that good? Yes, he’s really that good—good enough to put a team on his back and carry it deep into the NCAA tournament. I say this not just because of Dunn’s ability but also because of his position as the point guard. And it’s not like he has to do it all by himself, by the way. Sophomore forwards Ben Bentil and Rodney Bullock are both averaging more than seven rebounds per game, while also putting up 17 and 14 points per game, respectively. This isn’t the biggest team you’ll ever see, but the Friars know how to scrap.

5. Wichita State (unranked). Frankly, there’s no reason the Shockers should be this bad, with or without Fred VanVleet. They lost all three games they played with VanVleet sidelined because of a hamstring injury. They also lost at Tulsa when he played but was clearly hobbled. Wichita State is also down two other players, 6'8" senior forward Anton Grady (neck injury) and 6'4" freshman guard Landry Shamet (broken foot). We don’t yet know when VanVleet will return, but we do know this team will be a lot better once he does. Also, keep in mind that Conner Frankamp, the sweet shooting transfer from Kansas, will become eligible in a few weeks.