As the calendar year comes to a close, it’s often a good time to take stock of where you are and where you would like to be. Did you follow through on your plans and goals? Did you fulfill your own expectations? What could you do better to reach your full potential going forward?
College basketball teams are no exception to this prompt for self-reflection. The new year coincides roughly with the regular season’s approximate midpoint, as well as the beginning of conference play and thus the season’s most important stretch. Both those make it a good time to evaluate areas that could use improvement and, like so many of us regular folks who are not college basketball teams, make some resolutions to do so in 2018. (Fortunately for them, given most resolutions’ atrophy over the year, they only have to make good on them for a few months.)
With that in mind, let’s take a look at a handful of teams who have stumbled a bit since the last time the sport had a new year, which was in November. Seven teams from the Associated Press preseason Top 25 poll have since fallen out of the rankings, and while being in a subjective group voted on by the media at an arbitrary time is not necessarily the best metric of success, it does provide a neat way to group teams in some way that correlates to their performance and expectation, so hey, that’s what we’re gonna do here. So, without further ado, here’s how those seven once-ranked teams can start getting their groove back come January.
Florida:A few weeks back in this space we wrote about how in the wake of a three-game losing streak where their outside shooting abandoned them, the Gators needed to figure out better ways to score inside the arc. Since then, Florida has ... not done that. In their last three games—a loss to Clemson and wins over James Madison and Incarnate Word—the Gators have actually attempted threes at an even higher rate of 49.7% of their field-goal attempts. If becoming less three-dependent is not in the cards, then what Florida can do is clamp down its transition defense, which currently ranks in the nation’s bottom 4% on a per-possession basis. When those outside shots don’t fall, teams can score too easily pushing the ball off a defensive rebound, the kind of weakness that SEC-quality teams will surely try to exploit.
Notre Dame: Mike Brey’s teams’ strengths have long skewed towards offense, and this year’s Fighting Irish are no exception, currently ranking 10th in offensive efficiency and 65th on the defensive end. That’s actually one of Notre Dame’s better defenses of the last decade, but given the quality of its offense, it’s clearly what is holding this team back. One idea: resolve to play some more zone. According to Synergy Sports, the Irish have gone zone on just under 25% of their possessions but are allowing .182 fewer points per possession out of it. That’s already Brey’s highest usage of zone since 2013–14, when the Irish’s defense was poor no matter what they played and they finished 15–17. Upping its situational use this year could come in handy when trying to keep ACC offenses out of rhythm.
Minnesota: The best way to defend the three-point shot is to prevent it from being taken in the first place. Studies have shown that teams generally have very little control over opponents’ accuracy on threes, which is why the Golden Gophers’ sudden success in limiting makes last season (opponents shot 30.9% from beyond the arc) seems so anomalous. That mark is back up to 37.5% this season, which is back in line with the 38.1% and 36.8% rates from the two years before last. What’s most troubling is that Minnesota allows a relatively high amount of attempts in the first place, generally seeing opponents take about a third of their shots from outside. Lowering that number will help mitigate the damage.
Louisville:Given everything going on in and around the program, the Cardinals have done an admirable job keeping things together on the court under interim coach David Padgett. One key area they could resolve to do better: hit the defensive glass. Louisville currently ranks 276th in defensive rebounding rate, and although it wasn’t a major factor in either of its losses (to Purdue and Seton Hall), ACC teams will make you pay for giving them too many second chances.
Northwestern: Teams are shooting a mere 68.0% from the charity stripe against the Wildcats, which is doubly fortunate given how often they are there. Northwestern’s opponents are attempting 43 free throws for every 100 field goal attempts, among the 50 highest rates in the nation and the highest among all power-conference teams. The Wildcats can’t count on teams continuing to miss like that, so they had better resolve to cut down on their fouls.
UCLA: This one’s simple: Make free throws. The Bruins currently rank 246th in free-throw percentage at 68.2%, thanks in large part to freshman wing Kris Wilkes (55.1%) and sophomore guard Prince Ali (57.5%), who have shot the team’s second and third most foul shots, respectively. Ali’s struggles at the line are particularly puzzling, as he has shown improved shooting accuracy from deep thus far, making 16 of 32 three-point attempts. The Bruins are leaving too much meat on the bone.
Saint Mary’s: Like Notre Dame, the Gaels are typically stronger on offense than defense, but this year’s imbalance is extreme: Saint Mary’s is currently third in offensive efficiency and 174th in defensive efficiency. One thing they can resolve to do better is defend out-of-bounds plays. On 106 such possessions this season, according to Synergy, the Gaels have allowed 109 points; whether the ball is inbounded from the side or baseline, their per-possession efficiency is in the bottom tenth of the country. That should be a clear coaching focus going forward.
If you are wondering what exactly you are reading, this is the Monday Rebound, SI.com’s weekly usually-Monday-morning-but-it-was-Christmas-so-it’s-Tuesday-instead column on college hoops. It’s a sort of a grab-bag of news and tidbits and opinions largely aimed at catching you up on the weekend’s (and week’s) action and being generally informative. If there’s anything you like or dislike or would want to see more of here, or if you would just like to chat and compare annual versions of Darlene Love’s Late Show performances, you can find me on Twitter @thedangreene. Thanks for reading.
Unless you were out shopping for presents or preparing to greet our extraterrestrial overlords for all of last week, you likely heard that this season experienced what will likely remain its most shocking upset when Wofford beat North Carolina 79–75 in Chapel Hill on Wednesday. The venerable Kenpom.com gave the Terriers just a 1.8% chance of winning at the opening tip. And while two other upsets this season had nearly identical odds—Washington over Kansas and Grambling State over Georgia Tech—the former was between two power-conference schools on a semi-neutral floor, and in the case of the latter, Georgia Tech ain’t North Carolina. To boot, Wofford was picked to finish sixth in the Southern Conference and had never beaten a ranked team. This was, simply put, a stunner.
So how did it happen? It’s not like the Terriers were red hot from outside (7-for-22 from three) or had some huge advantage from the free-throw line (16-for-18, compared to the Tar Heels’ 28-for-38). One telling factor: Wofford—which ranks 207th in defensive rebounding rate and often has 6' 5" Trevor Stumpe manning the four—held mighty, burly North Carolina to its worst offensive rebounding performance so far, limiting their hosts’ second chances on a night they shot just 36.4% from the floor. Senior guard Derrick Brooks, who stands 6' 3" and 205 pounds, tied for the team lead with eight defensive boards. “That team outworked us,” Roy Williams told reporters afterwards.
Williams also got a little more specific: “Bad movement, bad defense, bad coaching,” he said. “It was a disgusting thing for me the entire game.” But credit too is due to the Terriers, who earlier this month also upset Georgia Tech at home on a late and cold-blooded three by Fletcher Magee, who scored 27 against North Carolina. Wofford played its tails off, something the rest of the SoCon might not be too happy to see.
Also, in a much more literal ICYMI sense, here is the game condensed down to nine minutes, via the ACC Digital Network:
As the scandal turns...
Lawyers representing those indicted in the college basketball corruption scandal have filed motions for dismissal on the grounds that while their clients may have violated NCAA bylaws, they did not commit crimes. As the motion states, “It is not against the law to offer a financial incentive to a family to persuade them to send their son or daughter to a particular college.” This, of course, is the essential question of the case: Just how sturdy is the government’s case that coaches willfully violating NCAA amateurism rules constitutes fraud against the universities employing them? We’ll at least get some idea soon.
Less directly related, the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame announced a change to its eligibility rules last week, which will go into effect in 2020. Coaches will now be required to be either retired for three seasons or at least 60 years old with 25 or more years of coaching experience. Many quickly surmised that the changes were meant to lessen the chances of a college coach being enshrined only to later be implicated in the sort of scandal(s) that have disgraced 2013 inductee Rick Pitino. Along those lines, Hall chairman Jerry Colangelo said in a press release that “it’s best to evaluate a more complete body of work” from a coach before he is eligible. Of course, as many have already pointed out, Pitino had cleared both the age and experience thresholds at his time of enshrinement, and there’s no reason to think something similar might not happen down the road. Any way you leave the door open for active coaches to be enshrined, you leave the door open for these situations.
Each week, we’ll be highlighting five teams on the rise. Here’s who stood out over the past week.
1. Wofford: In the wake of this week’s massive upset, the Terriers’ trip to UNC-Greensboro this Saturday might not look like a huge opportunity to impress. But if Wofford is going to make noise in the Southern Conference, it’s going to need to win games like that.
2. New Mexico State: The Aggies are quietly 11–3 after picking up wins over Illinois (in Chicago), Davidson (in Hawaii), and Miami (also in Hawaii), the latter representing the Hurricanes’ first loss of the season. Even after a narrow loss to USC, they look like the class of the WAC.
3. San Diego State: First-year Aztecs coach Brian Dutcher got his first premier victory by knocking off Gonzaga at home on Thursday thanks in large part to senior guard Trey Kell, who scored 10 points in the final three minutes.
4. Auburn: The Tigers are off to an 11–1 start despite having an assistant arrested in the FBI probe and having two of their best players sidelined as part of an internal investigation. On Saturday they stomped UConn by 25 points and spent the middle portion of the game flirting with doubling them up.
5. UCLA: The Bruins bounced back from a two-loss week with a pair of wins, the first at home against South Dakota and the second over Kentucky in New Orleans. Given Wisconsin’s struggles, those might be UCLA’s two best victories thus far.
Top of the Classes
Senior: Yante Maten, Georgia forward
The Bulldogs’ relatively under-the-radar big man gave Temple fits to the tune of 30 points and 12 rebounds three days after scoring 24 (on 9-of-13 shooting) against Georgia Tech.
Junior: Cameron Jackson, Wofford forward
After 18 points, nine rebounds, and five blocks against the No. 5 team in the country, Jackson should never have to pay for a meal in Spartanburg again.
Sophomore: Keith Braxton, Saint Francis (Pa.) guard
Despite standing just 6' 5", Braxton grabbed 16 rebounds against Lehigh to go with his 20 points and eight assists and ranks 79th nationally in defensive rebound rate.
Freshman: Trae Young, Oklahoma guard
It may be time to retire Young from eligibility for this award and name it after him. He followed Tuesday’s ridiculous 26 points and 22 assists (in 29 minutes!) against Northwestern State with 31 points and 12 dimes against Northwestern on Friday.
Bests of the Best
Each week, we’ll get to know a standout player a little better by asking them about some of the best things in the world. This week we welcome Notre Dame forward Bonzie Colson, the ACC Preseason Player of the Year who is averaging 21.3 points and 9.8 rebounds for the Fighting Irish this season. So, Bonzie, tell us about the best...
...show to binge watch. “Shameless. It’s a dysfunctional family but there’s a lot of interesting, to say the least, things that occur within that family. Every episode leaves you saying, Wow, this is crazy. Lip is my favorite character. Their mom was never around, their dad was a drug addict, and he would always keep the family together and provide as best he can.”
...Christmas song. “‘All I Want for Christmas is You’ by Mariah Carey. She can sing. She’s hitting them notes. It’s just one of those catchy songs. When it comes on, everybody’s singing and dancing to it. It’s a good feeling.”
...player to imitate growing up. “Allen Iverson. For sure. I always wanted to wear a headband, always wanted to be No. 3. And I would always want my hair to be braided. I wanted to be just like him. Always had my socks high. I was bigger than everyone else, but I wanted to bring the ball up like A.I. and play his game, have all those crossovers. But it stopped in seventh, eighth grade.”
Social Media Post of the Week
Assigned Viewing: Oklahoma at TCU, Saturday at 2 p.m. Eastern on ESPNU
Two of the many things league play will reveal to us are going to be on display here: how Trae Young handles the rigors of Big 12 play, and just how good the undefeated Horned Frogs are. Of course, one game does not have the cumulative effect of a conference grind (and Young has lit up quality opponents already, like Wichita State) and the biggest asterisk on TCU’s 12–0 start is that they have yet to play a road game, which they still will not be doing here. But both teams have emerged as among the most intriguing sides of the season’s opening months, and Young in particular is perhaps the country’s most compelling source of on-court entertainment. And given that TCU has one of the Big 12’s weaker defenses, there’s reason to think that won’t change this weekend.
Before You’re Dismissed...
• Last week featured two significant personnel additions, both in the state of Kansas. First up, Wichita State welcomed back forward Markis McDuffie, who had been sidelined since suffering a stress fracture in his foot in September. McDuffie led the Shockers in scoring and rebounding last season and had three points and five rebounds in nine minutes against Florida Gulf Coast. Wichita State’s early conference schedule is its weakest stretch, which should allow McDuffie some leeway to get up to speed.
Elsewhere in the Sunflower State, big man Silvio De Sousa officially joined Kansas as an early enrollee after graduating from IMG Academy in Florida. De Sousa is 6' 8" and a consensus top-30 recruit who should provide the Jayhawks some much-needed depth in the post, where they have been unusually thin. He can begin practicing with the team this week, though he is yet to be officially cleared for games.
• UConn’s Geno Auriemma became the fastest coach in NCAA history to reach 1,000 wins when the Huskies beat Oklahoma last week, doing so in his 1,135th game. It took him 599 games to win his first 500, and 536 to win the next 500. That’s just staggering. And worth noting: Associate head coach Chris Dailey has been on Auriemma’s staff for every single one of them.
• UCLA extended the suspensions of Jalen Hill and Cody Riley, the two players arrested for shoplifting with LiAngelo Ball in China, through the rest of the season. I’d take a redshirt season in Westwood over an apprenticeship in meat sales in Lithuania, but maybe that’s just me.
• A week late here, but over at the Crossover’s Front Office, Jeremy Woo had an interesting look at Trae Young’s NBA draft prospects and statistical Steph Curry comps, among other items.
• George Washington got in the holiday spirit by posting its entire game recap of Saturday’s win over Harvard in the format of Clement Clarke Moore’s “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” a.k.a. “The Night Before Christmas.”
• Have a good New Year’s, everybody. Stay safe.