Postseason Preview: Harvard vs. Cincinnati, NCAA Round of 64

The game: No. 12 Harvard (26-4) vs. No. 5 Cincinnati (27-6); 2:10 ET Thursday, TNT, in Spokane, Wash.

One key chart: Which players in the NCAA tournament bear the largest share of their teams’ scoring loads?

Sean_Kilpatrick_Cincinnati_NCAA_tournament_scoring_leadersBy pure points per game, only two teams in the field of 68 rely more heavily on their top scorer than Cincinnati does on Kilpatrick. A first-team All-America contender, Kilpatrick was the offensive star for the defense-first Bearcats, taking 32 percent of his team’s shots with a 120 offensive rating. Only once this season has the senior been held under 10 points — he scored nine in an infamous 44-43 win over Pittsburgh in December.

Superior mascot: Harvard has the worst mascot in the tournament, bar none. Sure, Syracuse and Stanford are also named for colors, and sure, their anthropomorphic orange and tree, respectively, are pretty silly … but for the love of god, at least they’re tangible. The Crimson is electromagnetic radiation of a certain wavelength, inherently no better or worse than any other section of the visible light spectrum. I’m not particularly fond of Bearcats, but colors are eternally 16-seeds in the tournament of mascots, and their winless streak will never be broken.

Critical matchup: Kilpatrick vs. Wesley Saunders. Last week, Saunders was named the Ivy League Player of the Year; this week, he gets to show why against one of the nation’s top players. Harvard’s defensive pressure isn’t likely to rattle Kilpatrick, who will be playing his seventh NCAA tournament game and commits few giveaways for a high-usage playmaker (13% turnover rate), so its one-on-one defenders — most likely Saunders at first — will have to contain him. Saunders will be spelled in the stopper role by Brandyn Curry, who did well against the closest thing Harvard has faced to Kilpatrick, Connecticut’s Shabazz Napier, with Saunders injured in January.

On the other side, Laurent Rivard has been critical in two of Harvard’s three NCAA tournament games, and I’m not sure that’s a coincidence. Rivard generally draws the opponent’s weakest perimeter defender; though top teams usually have shutdown defenders to challenge Harvard’s primary threats, they might not have the discipline to stick with Rivard for 40 minutes. Cincinnati wouldn’t have a top-10 defense without being at least good in all areas; still, I think Rivard will get his shots tomorrow.

History: December 13, 1974: Harvard 77, Cincinnati 76. The only previous meeting between the two schools, nearly 40 years ago, ended in a Harvard upset, as the Crimson knocked off previously unbeaten Cincinnati at the Volunteer Classic at Tennessee. The Bearcats would go on to post a 21-5 regular-season record and reach the round of 16 in the NCAA tournament, while Harvard finished 12-13. Harvard captain Lou Silver scored 38 points in the win, tied for fifth in the program record books.

One thought on Harvard: If the Crimson loses on Thursday, how will this generation of Harvard basketball be remembered? Over the last four years, Harvard has had two top-50 teams, and three that won at least 23 games … and yet, of course, the defining moment is last year’s NCAA tournament victory over New Mexico. That 2012-13 team was, by any reasonable standard, the worst of the four — it had the worst overall record, conference record, RPI and Pomeroy ranking, and even on paper, wasn’t nearly as deep as the others — but March victories have a way of clouding any other memories several years down the road.

One thought on Cincinnati: Entering the Dance, Cincinnati has the nation’s ninth-best defense, per Ken Pomeroy’s ratings, but just the 110th-best offense. I wondered, how have similar teams fared in past NCAA tournaments? (Fellow 5-seed St. Louis is an even more extreme case, boasting the #8 defense and the #178 offense.)

Without having easy access to pre-tournament Pomeroy data, it’s hard to get an exact comparison set, but roughly similar teams include last year’s Oregon and Wisconsin, 2012’s Alabama and Virginia, and 2010’s UTEP and Tennessee. Naturally, there are some hits and misses, but Cincy can be inspired by the success of the Ducks and Vols.

Winner gets: No. 4 Michigan State or No. 13 Delaware. The Blue Hens are dangerous, having nearly taken out Villanova on the road early in the season, and I bet they’d have some upset buzz if not for their opponent. But after rolling to the Big 10 tournament title last weekend, the Spartans are Vegas’ favorite to escape the East Region and ESPN pundits’ favorite to go all the way. Harvard or Cincinnati will have a tough path to the second weekend.

Prediction: Pomeroy has Cincinnati winning 62-60, giving Harvard a 44% chance of victory; Vegas says the Bearcats by three, while FiveThirtyEight gives the Crimson a 42% win probability. One thing is for sure — this won’t be a pretty offensive game, as both teams have better offenses than defenses and don’t mind a slow pace. I’ll say Harvard 59, Cincinnati 57.

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No. 12 Harvard draws No. 5 Cincinnati in NCAA tournament

NCAA_tournament_bracket_2013-14For the third consecutive year, Harvard is headed west for the NCAA tournament. The 12-seed Crimson will play 5-seed Cincinnati in Spokane, Wash., on Thursday, tipping off at 2:10 ET.

In the world of NCAA tournament selection, Harvard’s 12-seed wasn’t particularly surprising; most had the Crimson at that spot (or possibly an 11) for several weeks. Harvard finished at #46 nationally in RPI; though it ranked much better in other metrics (#21 in Sagarin ELO, #33 in Pomeroy, #37 in Sagarin Predictor), those couldn’t boost the seed of a team that went 26-4 but without any wins over tournament teams. By most other metrics, the Crimson deserved more like a 9- or 10-seed, if not better (#21 in Sagarin Predictor,

Of course, given the Crimson’s immediate draw, it might as well have been given a 10-seed. Cincinnati is a bit weak for a 5-seed (especially in a conference that the committee largely judged unfavorably), and could easily have been a 7-seed; meanwhile, potential second-round opponent Michigan State is more of a 2- or 3-seed, especially after beating Michigan in the Big Ten Tournament on Sunday in a game that was probably too late to change any seeds.

Cincinnati is quite similar to American Athletic Conference leaguemate Connecticut, which beat Harvard 61-56 earlier in the season, albeit in Connecticut and with eventual Ivy Player of the Year Wesley Saunders injured. Both Harvard and Cincinnati have better defenses than offenses and play at relatively slow paces, so the game as a whole might not be pretty, but the matchup of Saunders and national PoY candidate Sean Kilpatrick will be juicy indeed.

It’s a long shot, but if the Crimson can win twice and get to the second weekend, things might get really interesting. According to early returns, most experts have Michigan State favored to come out of what is otherwise a pretty weak bracket. Nobody seems sold on Virginia, which earned the final 1-seed practically by default; 2-seed Villanova plays a high-variance, upset-prone style; and the computers aren’t terribly fond of 3-seed Iowa State. So if Harvard fans want to really dream big, they’ve got a pretty good bracket in which to do so.

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Two other random thoughts on the bracket:

-Usually, I get a little thrill of predicting things accurately. This is not one of those times:

Wichita State entered the tournament as the nation’s best story, having gone 34-0 in mostly dominant fashion, and is probably the best mid-major team in at least a decade. For that, they got a #1 seed … and a path to the Final Four that might go through Kentucky (preseason No. 1), Louisville (preseason No. 3), and either Duke (preseason No. 4) or Michigan (preseason No. 7).

If the Shockers get back to the Final Four, nobody’s allowed to talk shit about their schedule ever again.

-I’m disappointed by the first-round pairings in high-vs.-low-seed games. The low seeds were already weak due to conference tournament carnage, and the ones I thought were most capable of a surprise (Manhattan, Delaware, American) drew tough matchups, while the top seeds I thought were most vulnerable (mainly Villanova) got off with easier draws. North Carolina Central and New Mexico State are the best bets to make things interesting, I think.

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Should Ivy League basketball have a conference tournament?

It’s the eternal topic of Ancient Eight debate: Should the Ivy League, like every other Division-I conference, have a postseason tournament to decide its automatic NCAA bid? The pros and cons of small-conference tournaments have become a national conversation this month, as a horde of 1-seeds lost during Championship Fortnight, depriving the NCAA tournament of many of the best mid-majors. In response, some have argued that other leagues should follow the Ivy’s lead and send its regular-season champion to the Big Dance.

Within the Ivy League, there has been some momentum in the other direction — most recently in the spring of 2012, when the coaches formally proposed a four-team basketball tournament (modeled after the conference’s lacrosse tournaments, which were instituted in 2010) that was ultimately rejected by the league’s athletic directors. With two powerful ADs, Princeton’s Gary Walters and Penn’s Steve Bilsky, retiring this year — and with four new presidents, who ultimately have to sign off on any tournament proposal, having taken office since 2012 — the idea may resurface in coming years.

This won’t be a #HotSportsTake for or against a conference tournament. My own feelings are esoteric enough to be of no real value — I’m personally neutral to the idea in the long run, and my hunch is that it would be a slight positive for the league overall, but I don’t actually want to see it happen until a #2BidIvy happens the hard way under the current system. But I do have thoughts on some specific arguments for or against a conference tournament:

A tournament would send the best team less often (but not by as much as you might think). The logic is pretty simple — the best team is more likely to come out on top of a 14-game, double-round-robin season than a two- or three-game tournament. And it’s undeniably good for a conference to be represented by its best team, which has a better chance of advancing in the NCAA tournament.

According to research, however, the difference between a tournament and a conference season isn’t actually that large. Ken Pomeroy found in 2010 that the best team (by his ratings) won the regular-season title 68 percent of the time and the conference tournament 58 percent of the time. Using a more rigorous and Ivy-specific simulation, Michael James (@ivybball on Twitter) estimated a similar effect, with the best team about 10-20% more likely to win the regular-season title than a tournament. The truth is, in some years, the best team doesn’t win the regular-season title (see: this year’s WAC); in others, such as the 2011 or ’13 Ivy Leagues, it’s not even clear who the best team is, so either method is likely to yield a reasonable contender.

This is still a real argument against a conference tournament — the best team would win the automatic bid less frequently, probably on the order of once or twice a decade. The best example, of course, is Cornell’s Sweet 16 run in 2010. The Big Red was clearly the Ivy League’s best NCAA representative, but it almost certainly wouldn’t have received an at-large bid, and it would’ve had only about a 70-75% chance of winning a conference tournament.

A tournament would also make two bids more likely. Of course, for the very best teams, there would be another lifeline: An at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. A two-bid Ivy wouldn’t be such a novelty in this world — there’s a reason you didn’t see any #2BidSunBelt hashtags last year — but teams like 2012 or 2014 Harvard, 1998 Princeton or 1994 Penn would have had at-large-caliber profiles with an Ivy tournament loss. That’s especially true in the 68-team era, in which the committee has looked favorably on league-winning mid-majors, such as 2012 Iona, 2013 Middle Tennessee State and, perhaps, this year’s Green Bay.

In fact, Green Bay shows why it can be impossible to tell whether a tournament helps or hurts until Selection Sunday. The absolute worst-case scenario for a mid-major league is for the 37th-best at-large team to lose in its conference tournament, but the best-case scenario is for the 36th-best at-large team to do so. In the former case, a team with the ability to make a deep NCAA run never gets the chance. In the latter, however, that team still makes the tournament — and its conference gets a second bid, a second game on national television, and another revenue share.

It’s harder to estimate the effect of a conference tournament on multiple bids, but given the Ivy’s recent history, I’d suggest the league would get a second bid once a decade or so. Given the uncertainty in both estimates, my opinion is that the best-team effect and the two-bid effect roughly cancel each other out (though if the Ivy as a whole keeps improving, two bids will become more likely).

A conference tournament is not unfair. As mentioned above, there is a practical argument that the regular-season champion is more likely to be the best team. But there’s also a more emotional or moral anti-tournament argument — the feeling that a regular-season champion team with the most regular-season wins deserves to advance to the NCAA tournament, and that it’s unfair for them to lose that right in a single-elimination playoff.

I understand where this argument comes from, but I don’t find it convincing. Sure, a 14-game regular-season sample is larger and more predictive than a two-game tournament. But the goal isn’t just to pick the truly best team, or even the team that played the best; if it was, we would incorporate non-conference results, margin of victory, and any other information about each team’s performance.

More to the point, the entire ethos of March — and of the postseason in any sport — is not to reward the best team, or the team that proved itself over the course of the season; it’s to crown a champion with entertaining head-to-head games or series. Connecticut clearly wasn’t the best team over the course of the 2010-11 season, but I don’t think anyone would say they didn’t deserve their championship after winning the NCAA tournament. Why are conference tournaments different?

Players aren’t clamoring for a tournament. In 2012, Harvard coach Tommy Amaker told the Harvard Crimson, “I think more than anything else if you polled or asked our players, not just our current players but former Ivy-League basketball players, I can’t imagine that many of them wouldn’t be in favor of the opportunity to play in their postseason conference tournament.” But when asked several Ivy players that year, I found more against a tournament than for it.

The sample was admittedly small and nonrandom (though it did include Amaker’s own Keith Wright, who was against a tournament). And while player opinion shouldn’t be the only factor — I do believe athletes should generally have a much larger say in college athletics, but in this case, I suspect players in any league would support their status quo — it shows that there certainly isn’t overwhelming demand for change among the athletes themselves.

A tournament would be fun as hell. Imagine if Harvard was scheduled to play Columbia in a semifinal tonight, with the winner taking on Yale or a surging Princeton tomorrow for the Ivy’s automatic bid? Wouldn’t that be awesome? (A tournament would surely be four teams, and probably played in the #1-seed’s city, if not necessarily its home gym; that model has worked well in men’s and women’s lacrosse.)

Will a conference tournament detract from the regular season? I’m still not sure what to think of this question, even though it might be the most important factor. I don’t identify with any other conference (or, truthfully, any other pro or college sport) quite like Ivy League basketball, so I don’t feel like I’m in a great position to judge this. I do think some excitement would have been lost from this season’s Harvard-Yale games, or the overtime games each played against others while sharing the lead, if a conference tournament was waiting after the season.

But the regular-season title would still have some meaning, and the stakes would be higher for other games. With a four-team tournament, Columbia, Princeton and Brown would have been fighting for the final two spots on this season’s final weekend, while Harvard might have been trying to lock up an at-large safety net. I don’t know if maximizing the extrinsic “meaning” of each game should really be the ultimate goal, but from that standpoint, a four-team tournament with the #1-seed hosting isn’t a bad alternative to winner-take-all.

Does the Ivy League have a comparative advantage right now? Two years ago, Columbia coach Kyle Smith — at the time, the leader of the coaches’ tournament proposal — told me, “I think we’re naive if we don’t think that having our product on those national TV opportunities on ESPN makes a difference … Especially on Championship Week and tournament time, that’s a window for people to see it. We usually go silent during Championship Week. I think it’s another opportunity for us to be seen.”

This is pure speculation on my part, but I wonder if Smith had it backward. Sure, Championship Week is a big time for college basketball, but will adding conference tournament games #300, #301 and #302 really give the Ivy League lots of exposure? A buzzer-beating finish would certainly get attention, but otherwise, I have a hard time seeing the Ivy League being a big draw for the casual hoops fan, especially since it would likely happen when major-conference tournaments are reaching their apex.

But right now, in a sport for which March Madness is king, the Ivy League is the only conference playing games in January and February that will directly determine who shows up in fans’ brackets. Even with less general interest in college basketball, I feel that the Ivy League should be able to leverage those games to get more attention before Championship Week even begins.

Shortly after Smith’s comment, the Ivy League announced a two-year basketball contract with NBC Sports Network. Given the explosion of national sports networks and the rising interest in mid-major leagues, it’s likely such an agreement would have happened with or without a conference tournament. Still, exposure is less of a concern for the league now than it was two years ago — and I wonder if the Ivy might be able to get more of it in February than in the first half of March.

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American shuts down BU, advances to NCAA tournament

Nathan Dieudonne walks off the court as American fans celebrate their team's 55-36 win in the Patriot League Tournament final.

Nathan Dieudonne walks off the court as American fans celebrate their team’s 55-36 win in the Patriot League Tournament final. (Beanpot Hoops photo)

With an NCAA tournament bid on the line Wednesday night, Boston University’s offense suffered 40 minutes of Murphy’s Law at the worst possible time. The regular-season Patriot League champions, who had scored 91 points in each of their first two postseason games, barely reached one-third of that total in the conference final, as shot after shot clanked off the rim or backboard. After the game, the Terriers could only watch silently as American celebrated on the Agganis Arena floor, having clinched an NCAA berth with a 55-36 victory.

“You have to give American all the credit — they had a great game plan, and they executed their game plan very well,” BU coach Joe Jones said. “I just feel horrible for my seniors — we wouldn’t be in this position without our three seniors; they were terrific all year, and it was a shame we didn’t play one of our better games.”

BU’s 36 points marked the fewest ever in a Patriot League championship game, breaking the previous record by 10 points; only 22 Division-I teams scored fewer than 36 points in a game this season, per Basketball State. Wednesday’s performance capped a terrific defensive tournament for the Eagles, who held all three of their opponents to below 40 percent shooting and fewer than 50 points.

The Terriers missed six of their first seven shots, but Travis Robinson, fresh off the bench, immediately assisted one basket and hit a three-pointer, cutting American’s lead to 8-7. Over the following seven minutes, however, BU was held scoreless for 10 straight possessions, shooting 0-for-10 in that span and missing two free throws.

Early in the first half, the Terriers missed some open shots; by the middle stages, their looks were becoming more and more difficult, including long pull-up jumpers and contested three-pointers that bricked harmlessly off the glass. For the game, the Terriers made only one of 17 treys; even with the game out of hand in the final minutes, their outside shots kept clanking off the rim, as the basketball gods denied BU any bit of penance.

“We took bad shots,” Jones said. “We took contested shots, we took quick shots. I hadn’t seen us play like that in a long time. Every time we took one, I kept thinking, ‘Alright, we’re not going to take another one like that,’ and then we took another one.”

Despite their long scoreless streak, the Terriers remained in sight of the lead, closing the gap to four points on a tip-in by Nathan Dieudonne. But Darius Gardner revived a sleepy Eagles offense and scored the visitors’ final eight points of the half, including a three-pointer in Maurice Watson, Jr.’s face with 12 seconds left.

Gardner finished with a game-high 18 points on 7-for-9 shooting, and was named the tournament MVP.

A pair of John Papale baskets brought BU within 26-20 early in the second half, but four straight points from Tony Wroblicky returned the Eagles’ lead to 10; it would stay within one possession of that level until garbage time. For the entire game, BU never scored on more than two consecutive possessions.

Four days after setting a program record with 17 assists against one turnover, Watson committed a season-high seven giveaways, including a few uncharacteristically sloppy or overheated passes. D.J. Irving, playing his last game at Agganis Arena, shot just 1-for-10, while Dom Morris, doing the same, missed six of his first seven shots.

“You start to second-guess yourself,” Morris said. We settled too much in the beginning, and then when we got our wide-open looks, some of the guys that would normally hit shots, they second-guessed themselves.”

Nowhere was American’s defense better than in the open court. The Terriers always preach that their offense comes from their defense, and their defense held up its end of the bargain on Wednesday, getting eight steals and forcing 17 total turnovers. But the Terriers turned those eight steals into just three points — a far cry from the 33 points they scored from 20 steals over their first two tournament games. American didn’t get a single offensive rebound in the first 37 minutes of play, instead sending everyone back to cut off transition opportunities.

“BU’s a dynamic offensive team; they can get out and score a ton of points quickly,” American coach Mike Brennan said. “Our guys knew, if we turned it over — or even if we make a basket — you have to get back.”

Perhaps no team has had a less likely road to the NCAA tournament than the Eagles. Under Brennan, a first-year head coach, American was picked to finish ninth in the 10-team Patriot League, and through the end of December, they looked the part of a bottom-division team. But since the start of 2014, the Eagles have played like a completely different team, and with a lockdown defense and a slow pace, they’ll be a team no 2-seed wants to face next week.

For the Terriers, and especially their seniors — Irving, Morris and Robinson — this isn’t quite the end; as the regular-season Patriot League champion, they will receive an automatic bid to the NIT, where they will seemingly join the 1-seed from every other mid-major conference tournament. But that’s little consolation after the Big Dance was just one more hot game away.

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Postseason Preview: Boston College vs. Georgia Tech, ACC First Round

Also see the Postseason Preview for BU-American in tonight’s Patriot League championship game.

The game: 14. Boston College (8-23 overall, 4-14 ACC) vs. 11. Georgia Tech (15-16, 6-12); 7:00 Wednesday, ESPN2.

In-league efficiency: BC: -.08 (1.09 pts/poss, 1.17 allowed); GT: -.08 (.99 pts/poss, 1.07 allowed)

One key chart:

Worst_conference_defenses_2013-14(Data via KenPom.com)

Only four teams in the nation posted a worse defensive efficiency in their respective conferences than BC’s 1.17 points allowed per possession: IUPUI, Cornell, Tennessee-Martin, Presbyterian and UC-Davis. Suffice to say, none of those teams had quite the same lofty preseason expectations that the Eagles did. Boston College entered the season hoping to be an NCAA tournament contender, and they’ve been half of an at-large-caliber team — but the defensive half has been barely Division I-caliber. Poor defense has always plagued Steve Donahue teams, at Cornell and at BC, which is the main reason why he’s not expected back for a fifth season.

Superior mascot: Donkey Kong 64 featured several types of dangerous enemies and bosses, and yet the one creature that gave me the most anxiety was one of the earliest to appear and easiest to defeat — the bees. I haven’t been stung by a bee in 15 years, and yet I still freeze in fear anytime I hear one buzzing around. What I’m saying is, I wouldn’t pick Yellow Jackets over the Orange, much less over BC’s Eagles.

Critical matchup: Ryan Anderson and BC’s front line vs. Georgia Tech’s rebounding. The Yellow Jackets swept the season series, and rebounding was a big reason why. In the first meeting, Georgia Tech held the Eagles to a 14% offensive rebound rate while collecting 30% of their own misses; in the second, the Yellow Jackets collected more than half of their own misses.

History: March 21, 2004: Georgia Tech 57, Boston College 54. When these two teams met in the postseason 10 years ago, it came under considerably better circumstances — the second round of the NCAA tournament in Milwaukee, where Jared Dudley and the 6-seed Eagles nearly upset Jarrett Jack and the 3-seed Yellow Jackets. BC took a 54-53 lead into the final minute, but Jack scored the game’s final four points. Georgia Tech would advance to the national final, where it lost to Connecticut.

One thought on BC: The Eagles’ win at then-unbeaten Syracuse in February might not be the biggest upset of the past few years, especially in the wake of the Orange’s struggles since then (including a home loss to the Yellow Jackets). But it might be the most unlikely, in terms of how it happened. Given BC’s defense, it seemed the visitors’ only path to an upset was to shoot the lights out … and then they held Syracuse to 50 points in regulation, and 59 in 63 possessions for the game, BC’s best defensive efficiency against any Division-I team this year. Basketball is weird.

One thought on Georgia Tech: The Yellow Jackets’ two best offensive performances of conference play both came against BC. Georgia Tech scored 68 points on 58 possessions at Conte Forum, shooting a blistering 8-for-15 on three-pointers; in Atlanta, it held off a similarly hot BC outside-shooting performance with 74 points on 58 possessions, thanks to 60% shooting on two-pointers and a 52% offensive rebound rate.

Winner gets: In the first year with a 15-team ACC tournament, the winner of Wednesday’s game would still have to play four more games to win the title. Next up would be #6 Clemson in the second round, for the right to face #3 Duke. BC lost to the Tigers 62-60 at home, while the Yellow Jackets were swept by Clemson, including an ugly 45-41 affair.

Prediction: Georgia Tech is a one-point favorite, in Vegas as in KenPom, but I think BC is more talented than it’s shown this year, and some of that will come out in the postseason. BC’s forgettable season is extended by another day, with a 72-66 win.

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Postseason Preview: American vs. Boston U., Patriot League final

Maurice Watson, Jr. (red shirt) and BU's bench celebrate during the second half of a Patriot League semifinal victory over Army. (Beanpot Hoops photo)

BU’s bench celebrates during the second half of its Patriot League semifinal victory over Army. (Beanpot Hoops photo)

The game: 2. American (19-12 overall, 13-5 Patriot) vs. 1. Boston University (24-9, 15-3); 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, CBSSN.

In-league efficiency: American: +.11 (1.08 pts/poss, .97 allowed); BU +.10 (1.08 pts/poss, .98 allowed)

One key chart: BU’s offense, catching fire at the right time:

Boston_University_basketball_offensive_efficiency_2013-14The Terriers’ two Patriot League tournament games have also been their two most efficient offensive performances to date. In the quarterfinals, they dropped 1.38 points per possession on Lafayette with 66 percent shooting; in the semis, they torched Army for 1.36 points per possession behind Maurice Watson, Jr.’s record-setting 17 assists. Lafayette’s defense was terrible this season, while the Black Knights’ was merely bad. Still, there’s no denying that BU’s offense is on a higher plane right now — and if they score 91 points again tomorrow, they’ll almost certainly reach the Big Dance.

Superior mascot: I’ve ridden Terriers throughout the tournament, but this is where I get off their bandwagon. This is a strong final from a mascot standpoint; Terriers would be a worthy champion, but the Eagles’ ability to fly is too strong for me to resist. The Eagles are probably the Patriot League’s most superior mascot, though I do credit Navy for naming itself the Midshipmen, which its players literally are.

Critical matchup: Darius Gardner and American’s other passers vs. Watson and BU’s ball hawks. The Eagles’ offense is built around ball movement and waiting for open shots; 66 percent of American’s field goals were assisted this season, second-best in the nation (behind Denver, which is, not coincidentally, also coached by a Princeton Offense alumnus). But all those extra passes come with a cost — the nation’s 11th-highest turnover rate (23 percent of possessions), and a tendency for those turnovers to be live-ball steals. And live-ball turnovers are trouble against the Terriers, who have one of the area’s most fearsome open-court players in Watson.

So far this postseason, BU has turned 20 steals into 33 points, a significant part of their offensive surge. “Our defense leads to our offense,” D.J. Irving said Saturday. “Our defense leads our transition, and when we’re in transition, no one can stop us.”

History: November 30, 1998: BU 58, American 56. Before the Terriers joined the Patriot League, it had been 15 years since American last played BU. During a forgettable season for both teams, the Terriers came out on top 58-56, thanks to a 9-1 closing run and two LeVar Folk free throws in the final minute. The previous season, in the two teams’ only other meeting of the modern era, BU won at American by the exact same score.

One thought on American: During the Eagles’ 10-0 run to start Patriot League play, a lot of attention was paid to their Princeton-based offense, which blistered BU for 86 points in Washington. But over their last 10 games, American’s offense has been downright pedestrian. Instead, it reached the Patriot League championship game on the strength of its defense, which held an explosive Colgate offense to 50 points on 59 possessions, then quieted Holy Cross for 46 on 53. American has been especially good at shutting down teams with primary scorers, like Holy Cross’ Dave Dudzinski or Army’s Kyle Wilson, but it’ll have its hands full with a more versatile BU offense.

One thought on BU: Entering the postseason, I already had this nagging question, which now seems appropriate to ask: Could BU pull off a major 14-over-3 or 15-over-2 upset at the NCAA tournament, if it gets there? The Terriers aren’t the sort of underrated-statistical-darlings like Lehigh was in 2012, but they do give me the same sort of latent-talent-that-finally-emerges potential that, say, Florida Gulf Coast showed last year. I’m not saying that BU will reach the Sweet 16 and star in multiple rap videos, but if the Terriers are in the national spotlight next week, I can easily see fans of a frustrated major-conference team wondering, “How did this team lose at home to Norfolk State?”

Per Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted efficiency, BU’s offense was only slightly above average for much of the season — and when looking at the Terriers’ pieces, I had a hard time figuring out why they didn’t rate better. At this point in the season, one bad game can ruin any story — but BU had the capacity to turn its performance up a notch, and that’s exactly what it’s done so far in March.

Winner gets: A chance to be featured in One Shining Moment. BU last made the tournament as the America East representative in 2011, losing to 1-seed Kansas, while the Eagles’ last appearance was a loss to 3-seed Villanova in 2009. The consensus forecast is that the Terriers, with 25 wins, would be a 14-seed, especially with the carnage befalling other top mid-majors in conference tournaments around the nation; I imagine American, with its weak non-conference performance, would be a 15. (As the regular-season Patriot League champion, BU would receive an automatic bid to the NIT with a loss Wednesday.)

Prediction: Intellectually, I know that American is a very good team with a solid chance of winning Wednesday night’s game. Pomeroy has BU as a four-point and 2-to-1 favorite, almost entirely due to home-court advantage, and I have no reason to argue with that. But after feeling the Terriers had a higher ceiling and then watching them blow out two solid teams last week, I will be emotionally shocked if BU loses. The Terriers are going dancing, 76-66.

D.J. Irving scores two of his team-high 20 points against Army at Agganis Arena on Saturday. (Beanpot Hoops photo)

D.J. Irving scores two of his team-high 20 points against Army at Agganis Arena on Saturday. (Beanpot Hoops photo)

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Postseason Preview: Northeastern vs. Delaware, CAA semifinal

The game: 5. Northeastern (11-20 overall, 7-9 Colonial) vs. 1. Delaware (24-9, 14-2), at 2:30 p.m. Sunday, NBCSN.

In-league efficiency: Northeastern: -.02 (1.00 pts/poss, 1.02 allowed); Delaware: +.08 (1.11 pts/poss; 1.03 allowed)

One key chart:

Northeastern_offensive_efficiency_2013-14Eighteen minutes against Georgetown aside, Northeastern’s offense has not been particularly potent this year; the Huskies averaged almost exactly a point per possession this season, below the national average of about 1.05. But in scoring 90 points in 76 possessions on Drexel in Saturday’s quarterfinal, the Huskies had their second-most efficient offensive performance of the season — and unlike January’s 70 points in 57 possessions against Hofstra, this one came against a good defense.

Five minutes in, the Huskies trailed 11-4, but from then on they were unstoppable; taking 44 free throws helps (including quite a few in extended desperation time), but Northeastern also shot 52 percent from the floor. Scott Eatherton had a double-double at halftime and finished with 23 points, while Zach Stahl added 19 and 12. Sixth-year senior Chris Fouch put on a second-half show (26 of his 30 points on 9-13 shooting), but it wasn’t enough to overcome a 14-point halftime deficit.

Superior mascot: It’s hard to think of any animate mascot (i.e., not the “colors”) that wouldn’t be superior to a Blue Hen. The name apparently has origins in cockfighting, but today, hens are primarily just a source of food — and I certainly wouldn’t feel comfortable eating this, nor anything that came out of it. Compared to Northeastern’s Huskies, this is not a fair fight.

Critical matchup: Eatherton vs. Carl Baptiste. The Blue Hens have an undeniable advantage on the perimeter, with Jarvis Threatt, Davon Usher and Devon Saddler all capable of changing games. To hang with Delaware, the Huskies will need to own the paint. In this year’s first meeting, Baptiste shot 9-for-9 with a double-double; in the second, he wasn’t as efficient but at least held his own against Eatherton. Delaware won both games despite missing Threatt.

History: March 4, 2011: Delaware 60, Northeastern 58. Several of today’s players likely watched this game as committed recruits, but Saddler is the only one who played the last time Delaware and Northeastern played in the postseason; he scored 13 points on 6-10 shooting, including a three-pointer with 2:45 remaining that broke a 54-54 deadlock for good. The Hens lost to second-seeded Old Dominion in the quarterfinals.

One thought on Northeastern: It says a lot about all-conference voting that Scott Eatherton can be named the CAA’s Defensive Player of the Year, score 15 points per game as his team’s primary offensive option … and not make the first All-CAA team. In today’s City of Basketball Love story, Eatherton and Northeastern coach Bill Coen were okay with the selections, but I think they’re selling the forward short. Defense is half the game, especially for big men, who are more involved in help defense and rebounding, and yet it always seems to get only a token thought in all-league voting (not just the CAA). If the CAA coaches really thought Eatherton was the best defensive player in the league, is he really not better overall than someone like William & Mary’s Marcus Thornton, whose offensive numbers were slightly but not overwhelmingly better?

One thought on Delaware: I know that it’s partly a function of the pace at which Delaware plays — 72 possessions per game, eighth-fastest in the nation — but I’m still amazed that the Blue Hens had two players, Usher and Saddler, average more than 20 points per game in league play. Even without Saddler, Delaware dropped 80 points at Villanova and nearly won, a performance that looks even better now than it did then. If the Blue Hens win their next two games, some ulcer-inducing game film will await whichever 3-4-seed draws them.

Winner gets: #2 Towson or #3 William & Mary, for a trip to the Dance; save for Northeastern’s mini-upset of #4 Drexel, the CAA bracket has held to form thus far. Northeastern was swept by the Tribe but took one game from the Tigers — a weird affair in which the Huskies scored nine points in the first 18 minutes of the second half, yet still won on David Walker’s buzzer-beating three. Delaware swept William & Mary and split with the Tigers.

Prediction: Pomeroy has Delaware winning 77-72; I don’t see Northeastern scoring quite that many, but I can also see the Blue Hens’ guards having slower legs on a back-to-back. I’ll say Delaware, 70-63.

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