After a year without the Tournament, this is awesome! So, let’s get right to the games…
#7 Florida (-1) vs. #10 Virginia Tech
12:15 pm, CBS
I love the first game of the Tournament. It’s always interesting to think of what two teams are gonna tip us off. And, this year, it’s a pretty good one. Or, at least a competitive one.
The Gators come stumbling into this Tournament and, I think, are one of the few major seeding mistakes that the Committee made in what was a rather well-seeded tournament, in general. This team is not a 7-seed especially after losing 3 of their last 4 with that only win a close one over a bad Vandy team in the SEC Tournament that they easily could have lost. The big story of the UF season is the loss of Keyontae Johnson after he had a TERRIFYING collapse in a game at FSU in November. Johnson, the preseason SEC POY, was the best and most important player on this team, and their ceiling is definitely lowered without him. But, most importantly, it looks like he’s going to be okay. Before the recent swoon, the Gators had been pretty good considering they lost their best player. They are top-40 in both offense and defense, and have one of the most unsung stars of the SEC in the 6’5” SO Tre Mann (15.0 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 3.4 apg, 1.5 spg, 45/39/84%), who is a stud on both ends. He is probably the best player that no one ever talks about. They also have former McDonald’s All-American in 6’5″ SO Scottie Lewis (7.9 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 1.6 spg), but he has been surprisingly slow to emerge in now his sophomore year in Gainesville. They have a couple of decent wings in Reisterstown’s own 6’3” JR sharpshooter Noah Locke (10.5 ppg, 41% from three) and 6’1” JR transfer from Cleve State Tyree Appleby (11.2 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 3.4 apg, 1.6 spg),. And, losing Johnson has forced Mike White to go big and allowed for 6’11” JR transfer from Michigan Colin Castleton (12.7 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 2.3 bpg, 59% FG) to emerge as a really good SEC big. The Gators are 8-0 this year when Castleton scores 14 or more.
Coach Mike Young has walked into Blacksburg and picked up the pieces from the dumpster fire that Buzz Williams left and created a really solid team much quicker than anyone thought he could. And, Young has been doing it with some familiar faces to mid-major fans. Former Wofford Terrier 6’9″ JR Keve Aluma (15.9 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 2.1 apg, 1.4 bpg, 50/37/72%) is an ACC star and should be healthy and ready to go. Drexel transfer 6’7″ JR Justyn Mutts (8.9 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 2.2 apg) has been a really solid ACC big. And, Young also found some really solid pieces in his first recruiting class that are already bearing fruit as sophomores. 6’2″ Tyrece Radford (11.9 ppg, 6.1 rpg. 2.1 apg, 56% FG) plays a lot bigger than his size because of his length and athleticism. He is on a path to becoming an elite defender along with a potential big-time slashing scorer. If he develops a jumpshot, he could be a star. 6’4″ Nahiem Alleyne (10.3 ppg, 41% from three, 83% FT) is already an elite shooter, who is developing into a really good all-around player.
The computer number definitely favor the Gators, who have the better adjusted efficiency on both ends of the ball and there is no real “game within the game” that jumps out here. The battle of tempo could be interesting, as Florida has one of the fastest tempos in the country, while the Hokies like to slow it down. Both teams block a lot of shots (especially, Florida, who is 12th in the nation) and both teams get their shots blocked at a pretty high rate, so we could have a Block Party!
The Pick: Virginia Tech +1
Confidence Level (5-point scale): ***
I am not sure why I feel so confident about this one, but I do. With a healthy Aluma, I just think this team is better, so I’ll take the point and ride the Hokes.
#3 Arkansas (-8.5) vs #14 Colgate
12:45 pm, truTV
This is a game that a bunch of pundits are picking as an upset. And, if you know anything about me, you know that I LOVE mid-major and low-major hoops. I have been enjoying this Colgate team for years, and they are very good. But, guys (and I’m looking at you, Seth Davis), let’s pump the brakes on this. Arkansas has dudes. And, I LOVE this Colgate team, but this is quite the heavy lift here.
Coach Muss!!!! Hard not to love Coach Muss. And, his Razorbacks hadn’t lost an SEC game since Jan 16 until their SEC semifinal loss to LSU. Muss has a top-30 offense and a top-20 defense. And, he’s built this team the way he does – with HIS guys…immediately. Muss started the roster transformation by bringing in a fantastic recruiting class, one of whom – 6’6” Moses Moody – has been the unquestioned leader of this top-15 team. Moody, who was the 40th-ranked prospect and is as good a person as he is a player, is averaging 17.5 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 1.1 spg with shooting splits of 44/39/83%. He’s spectacular and should be a one-and-done lottery pick. A born leader, Moody has stepped right in and been the most important player on a darkhorse Final Four team. He’s awesome. The other top-100 recruit that Muss signed was the AR Mr. Basketball, 6’3” Davonte Davis (7.5 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 2.0 apg, 1.1 spg, 49% FG), who hasn’t been consistent enough from the outside to make the impact that Moody has made, but he still flashes all over the court and gives the Hogs exactly what they need – a combo guard to play starter’s minutes off the bench. And, then Muss went to work doing what he does best – crushing the transfer market. He did get Indiana’s 6’7” Justin Smith (12.5 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 1.1 apg, 53% FG) and Cal’s 7’3” Connor Vanover (7.1 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 1.9 bpg, 24 threes at 33%) from power conference teams, but he really hit home runs snagging great players off mid and low-major teams. 6’6” Jalen Tate (10.9 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 4.0 apg, 1.2 spg, 51% FG, 35% from three) was a big dominant lead guard for Northern Kentucky and has turned into a terrific SEC point guard. 6’1” J.D. Notae (12.9 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 2.0 apg, 1.4 spg) was a volume scorer at Jacksonville who won the ASUN Freshman of the Year with the Dolphins, and he’s become instant offense off the bench that has been so important to this team. And, 6’9” Vance Jackson from New Mexico is a very important defensive arrow in Muss’s quiver. 6’2” JR Desi Sills (8.8 ppg) is the only holdover from the previous regime that gets significant minutes. This team is loaded and poised for a potential deep run.
Former Penn Quaker Matt Langl has this Colgate program ROLLING and it very much in line for a big job very soon (crazy idea, but…Syracuse?!? Less crazy would have been Boston College or Penn State, but those have both already been filled). The defending reg season champs were absolutely LOADED last year, but graduations of all-time Raiders, Rapolas Ivanauskas and Will Rayman could have hurt, but Langl just continues to crush it. And, he still has the INCREDIBLE 6’0″ SR Patriot League POY Jordan Burns (17.1 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 5.6 apg, 1.7 spg, 40% from three) along with a slew of veterans like 6’3″ SR sharpshoorter Jack Ferguson (12.6 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 51/51/90%…WOW!), the uber-athletic 6’0″ JR Nelly Cummings (12.3 ppg, 48/37/75%), and do-it-all glue guy 6’5″ JR Tucker Richardson (11.7 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 4.2 apg, 1.3 spg, 47/38/71%). This team’s inside foundation has a couple of young twin towers with last year’s breakout freshman 6’10” SO Keegan Records (9.3 ppg, 6.9 rpg, 1.2 bpg, 62% FG) and this year’s breakout freshman 6’11” Jeff Woodward (7.8 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 1.2 bpg, 65% FG). This team is really, REALLY good…we think. But, how are we supposed to know for sure, considering they played reg season games against Army, BU, and Holy Cross…that’s it. They played THREE teams this year. They were 4-0 against BU, 4-0 against HC, and 3-1 against Army. Then, they beat BU again in the PL quarters followed by a semifinal win against 6th-seeded Bucknell, and 9th-seeded Loyola. That’s it.
This is going to be a track meet. Both these teams love to run, run, run, and score, score, score. The difference is that Arkansas combines it with the 14th best defense in the country. Colgate’s defense is “Patriot League good,” at best, and we only think that because they played 4 different teams – all in the bottom portion of the PL standings. I LOVE this Colgate team and will be rooting for them…but, regardless of what the national pundits (who have never seen them play) are saying, this is not a good flier to take.
The Pick: Arkansas -8.5
Confidence Level (5-point scale): ****
My only slight hesitation is that Jordan Burns and Nelly Cummings are high-major athletes, and Matt Langl is a fantastic offensive coach. And, I hope I’m wrong, but this has blowout written all over it, and I honestly don’t really know why the spread is single digits.
#1 Illinois (-22.5) vs #16 Drexel
1:15 pm, TBS
Drexel!!! The Drexel Dragons are in the field for the first time since 1996 when Malik Rose’s team upset Cedric Henderson and the 5th-seeded Memphis Tigers before hanging with John Wallace and Syracuse in the Second Round. Not sure they’re going to be as successful this year seeing as they are facing one of the two odds-on favorites to win the whole thing.
How good have the Illini been in the last two months? The answer is VERY good. Like, National Champion good. They are 17-1 since Jan 16 including two wins over Iowa, two wins over Ohio State, and a win at Michigan. My favorite power conference player in the country for three years now has been 6’5″ JR Ayo Dosunmu (20.9 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 5.2 apg, 1.1 spg, 49/40/79%), and he’s been awesome since he set foot in Champagne, but holy **** has he been incredible this year. In every way. The dude is awesome – and looks nasty in that superhero face mask. Ayo is probably on his way to a national POY runner-up behind Luka Garza, but he ain’t alone here. 7’0” SO Kofi Cockburn (17.3 ppg, 9.6 rpg, 1.3 bpg, 66% FG) might be the best pure interior player in the country. He’s got the Shaq-style game where he just imposes his will based on his sheer size and strength to bully the other bigs. He draws more than SEVEN fouls per 40 minutes. He’s unguardable. And, you can’t exactly double him because they have Ayo on the perimeter along with the smart, savvry, fearless vet 6’2” SR Trent Frazier (10.6 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 2.6 apg, 38% from three) and catch-and-shoot 5-star freshman 6’3” Adam Miller, who has struggled with his shot this year, but is always a threat. And, then there’s the jet-quick FR PG from Puerto Rico, 6’1” Andre Curbello (8.8 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 4.2 apg, 50% FG), who is starting to blossom and is going to be a star in Champagne.
First of all, I just have to say that I will never understand why there is only one team in the entire NCAA that has Dragons as a nickname [apologies for those hearing this rant again]. There are 357 teams and the most common name is boring old Wildcats. And, the popularity of Wildcats isn’t even including the countless Panthers, Lions, Cougars, and Tigers as if all of them aren’t “wild cats”. Hell, there are even two Catamounts…which I think is just another “wild cat,” but who really knows? There are dozens of boring old Bulldogs – and one Runnin’ Bulldogs. There are Hawks, Fighting Hawks, Seahawks, Riverhawks, Nighthawks, Redhawks, and Warhawks. Oh, and there are Ospreys, which apparently is just another word for Seahawks. There are a slew of Bears, but also 3 different Bruins plus a Black Bears and a Grizzlies. There are multiple Eagles and multiple Golden Eagles. There are two Wolfpack and even two Gamecocks (as if that’s such a great nickname). There are three Spartans and three Trojans – two of which reside in the Sun Belt and one of them is even the Troy Trojans (which I can’t decided is awesome or awful). And, the A-10 conference alone has themselves THREE different Rams! And, yet, there is only room for ONE Dragons in the whole country?!? Come on, people, it’s a GREAT nickname – if you’re gonna copy something, copy that! Anyway….the Drexel Dragons have the 3rd highest “minutes continuity rate” in the country which means they brought back more minutes from last year’s team than 354 of the other 356 teams in the country. And, they’re still middle of the pack in “experience,” so this very young team a couple years ago has all grown up together. They are led by their sensational 6’2″ JR PG Cam Wynter (17.6 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 5.6 apg, 1.1 spg, 41% 3pt, 84% FT), one of the best inch-for-inch rebounders in the country, 6’8″ SR James Butler (13.4 ppg, 9.1 rpg, 58% FG, 81% FT), and grizzled senior leader and 1000-point scorer, 6’6″ SR Zach Walton (10.6 ppg, 48/39/80%), who is their best perimeter threat. They also have basketball families represented like 6’9″ SO T.J. Bickerstaff (grandson of Bernie and nephew of Cavs head coach J.B., who is averaging 10.6 ppg, 5.4 rpg and shooting 54% FG and 84% FT) and 6’10” JR Tim Perry Jr. (who doesn’t play much, but had to get a mention as the son of the star of the first team I ever loved, the ’88 Temple Owls). This team is very talented and tight-knit and highly efficient (31st in the nation in 2pt% and 20th in the nation in FT%). Oh, and one other thing…not going to beat Illinois.
I’ll keep this short since I wasted 1,000 words on how great of a nickname “Dragons” is. The Illini have the #7 offense and #5 defense in the country. They have an elite coach, two of the best players in the country, and a perfect supporting cast. Drexel is excellent on offense, for the CAA, but struggles to get stops. I think they could be a sleeper if they had been given a better seed, but they can’t handle this Illinois team
The Pick: Drexel +22.5
Confidence Level (5-point scale): **
That’s a lot of points, and I think Drexel is decent. I’ll take all those points, but I don’t feel great about it. I think that line is pretty good. There’s a much better chance of a 30-point blowout than a close 10-point game, but if I had to go with the number, I’d take the Dragons to stay with three touchdowns.
#6 Texas Tech (-4) vs #11 Utah State
1:45 pm, TNT
If you like watching VERY well-coached basketball teams, then this is your game. Everyone should know about how good Chris Beard is (and, what you’ve heard is right – there isn’t anyone better in the sport right now), but Craig Smith is coming strong as one of the future stars of the profession. Sign me up for every second of this one!
The Red Raiders have stumbled a bit down the stretch, but I would argue that that was pretty schedule-dependent. They are 3-5 in their last eight, but those Ls were WVU, at Kansas, at Ok State (in OT), at Baylor, and a 1-point loss to Texas in the Big XII quarters. Overall, they had a winning record in one of the two best leagues in the country and have a non-conf win at LSU in the Big 12/SEC Challenge on Jan 30. The Raiders are led by the insane 6’2” JR transfer from G’town Mac McClung (16.1 ppg, 2.3 apg), who has zero Fs to give. He can shoot them out of games, but he can also win games single-handedly. He’s a ridiculously athletic guard (or “sneaky athletic” if you are a lazy announcer who thinks that any white dude who can dunk is “sneaky”) who is completely unafraid to take a big shot or drive amongst the trees. 6’6″ SO T.J. Shannon (12.5 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 1.1 spg) is a gifted scorer, but he also can shoot them out of games sometimes. They have 6’7” SR VCU transfer Marcus Santos-Silva (8.5 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 1.2 bpg) manning the post. And, a future star in 6’7″ FR Micah Peavy. But, I honestly think that this team is at their best when their two key wings – 6’4″ JR Kyler Edwards (10.2 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 2.7 apg, 1.0 spg) and 6’6″ SO Kevin McCullar (10.1 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 2.1 apg, 1.7 spg) – are involved on the offense and locked in on D. These two are, by no means, at the top of any scouting report, but are absolutely the key to a deep Tech run this year.
Craig Smith continues to churn out winners in Ogden, as this USU team hasn’t missed a beat despite losing the program’s best all-time player in Sam Merrill. They have a top-20 defense nationally led by one of the best defensive players in the country, who isn’t too bad on the offensive end either and might be the second-best player in program history. 7’0″ JR Neemias Queta (14.8 ppg, 9.9 rpg, 2.8 apg, 1.2 spg, 3.0 bpg, 57% FG) has become the Aggies go-to guy with Merrill on to bigger and better things and he has absolutely thrived in that position, and the big man from Portugal is going to play in the NBA some day soon. Queta is surrounded by old USU stalwarts Justin Bean and Brock Miller, who may look like they’re played in an over-40 rec league, but they are legit college basketball players. The 6’7” Bean (11.2 ppg, 7.6 rpg, 2.1 apg, 1.3 spg, 51% FG, 89% FT) is as steady as they come, while the 6’5” Miller (9.1 ppg, 39% from three) comes with a ton of energy that looks REALLY annoying to play against. They’re also supported by JR UVA transfer 6’5″ Marco Anthony (10.3 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 2.9 apg, 1.0 spg), who has made a seamless transition to key piece in the M-West. One question might be the fact that the Aggies have a very inexperienced backcourt. Both 6’3″ Rollie Worster (9.2 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 3.5 apg, 1.0 spg, 86% FT) and 6’1″ Steven Ashworth (6.6 ppg, 86% FT) have been really good and have bright futures in Logan, but they are both freshmen.
Both of these teams thrive on the defensive end. It is not surprising that a team coached by Chris Beard is top-25 in the country in defensive efficiency, but the Aggies are actually rated higher and are 8th in the country. Fueled by Queta (who has an argument to be the best interior defender in the COUNTRY…ya, I said it), they allow teams to shoot less than 43% from inside the arc, which is 4th lowest in the nation. They also only give up an offensive rebound on 21.3% of opponents’ missed shots, which is 7th lowest in the nation. Tech, on the other hand, does it by turning you over (8th best in the country), and those young USU guards could struggle there. And, Tech is considerably better (33rd) in offensive efficiency than USU (114th).
The Pick: Texas Tech -4
Confidence Level (5-point scale): ***
Full disclosure, this line opened at -6 and immediately dropped to -5, at which point I laid the points. It has since come down to -4, so the “smart money” all seems to be against me here, but what do professional gamblers know? I like the matchup for Tech, and I think that the “swoon” that people are referencing is simply a factor of playing in the Big XII. It’s going to be a slow game, so I don’t like laying points. And, Queta will be the best player on the floor, but I think Tech probably has 2-5, at least. Gimme Beard to get it done and cover this spread.