Friday, January 30, 2015

game preview: Duke

Date/Time: Saturday, January 31; 7:00


Record against the Blue Devils: 50-116

Last meeting: UVA 72, Duke 63; 3/16/14, Greensboro, NC; ACC championship

Last game: UVA 50, VT 47 (1/25); ND 77, Duke 73 (1/28)


UVA: 58.3 (#350)
Duke: 68.1 (#45)

UVA: 117.8 (#5)
Duke: 117.4 (#6)

UVA: 83.9 (#2)
Duke: 94.1 (#50)

UVA: .9801 (#2)
Duke: .9275 (#8)

Projected lineups:


PG: London Perrantes (5.1 ppg, 2.1 rpg, 4.4 apg)
SG: Malcolm Brogdon (13.3 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 2.7 apg)
SF: Justin Anderson (13.9 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 1.9 apg)
PF: Darion Atkins (7.1 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 0.6 apg)
PF: Anthony Gill (11.3 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 0.8 apg)


PG: Tyus Jones (10.9 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 5.0 apg)
SG: Quinn Cook (14.4 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 2.8 apg)
SF: Justise Winslow (10.7 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 1.8 apg)
PF: Amile Jefferson (8.8 ppg, 7.4 rpg, 1.1 apg)
C: Jahlil Okafor (18.7 ppg, 9.4 rpg, 1.5 apg)

I haven't done a single one of these yet this year in light of scaling back the regular posting schedule, but how can I resist College GameDay?  This is gonna be fun.  UVA gets showcased for everyone who tunes into some college hoops on Saturday as a Super Bowl warmup, and they couldn't have picked a better opponent because pretty much everyone (who's otherwise neutral) will be hoping to see Duke get humbled.  UVA gets a lot of temporary fans on Saturday night.

This is game one of a four-game stretch of doom.  Most pundits are calling it three, but NC State is no pushover and that one's on the road.  ESPN is already using the "u" word not in terms of the season past, but the season future, so you already know what kind of hype is at stake over the next week.

Duke is having a rough go of it in the ACC, having lost to every non-crappy opponent they've faced, except for Louisville after busting out a surprise zone defense on Rick Pitino.  Their case for being #4 in the country is built mainly on three legitimate things: beating Wisconsin and Louisville on the road, and Jahlil Okafor.  These aren't to be sneezed at, but the Fightin' Coach K's have proven vulnerable, too, and UVA is a decided favorite here.

-- UVA on offense

The Hoos had a little trouble with the VT zone last weekend, so despite the fact that Duke is usually known for aggressive man-to-man defense, you can expect to see them break it out on Saturday.  I mean, it's been working, it certainly worked against Louisville, and it seems to be their best shot at reversing the trend of mediocre defense they've been lamenting this season.

With three freshmen in the starting lineup, it's probably not all that surprising that Duke's defense isn't elite.  Duke's defense possesses the fingerprints of a team whose perimeter defense is beaten off the dribble with some regularity: relatively high 2-point shooting percentage allowed and rather high free-throw shooting percentage allowed, while at the same time relatively few opponents' baskets are assisted.  Why include free-throw percentage allowed?  Teams with higher numbers there are likely to be fouling guards more than bigs.  All this points to a vulnerability to slashing guards - hence the switch to a zone defense, which compensates for that weakness.

A slasher is something that the UVA offense lacks.  The UVA ballhandlers aren't exactly bad at this, but there isn't that one elite player who can do anything on the dribble.  With Rasheed Sulaimon's dismissal from the team, chances are excellent that either Justin Anderson or Malcolm Brogdon - probably Brogdon - will spend a lot of time matched up against a smaller player, which should encourage that mid-range jumper that Brogdon is pretty proficient at shooting.

UVA's offensive rebounding prowess could pose a problem for Duke - not just in second-chance points, but foul trouble.  Grabbing an offensive board and going straight back up is a great way to draw a foul, and Duke is thin in the frontcourt following the early-season transfer of Semi Ojeleye.  Jahlil Okafor and Marshall Plumlee rotate at center with Plumlee being used mostly only to give Okafor a breather.  Amile Jefferson is the only other true big; when he's out of the game, Duke usually pairs Justise Winslow with Matt Jones as small forwards.  Okafor is an obvious freak of nature, one of the quickest big men you'll ever see, but also the only Duke big who matches up well with UVA's frontcourt.  Mike Tobey can score on Plumlee, Jefferson is too skinny to easily handle either Anthony Gill or Darion Atkins, and the remaining forwards are 6'6" or smaller.  And Okafor isn't a big-time shot-blocker - he's about average for his size, really.

Putting him in foul trouble spells bad news for Duke's frontcourt.  Putting any of them in foul trouble, really.  Gill is a bad mismatch for anyone who might guard him save Okafor, in which case Atkins should be able to go to work.  It might be tempting to start Tobey in order to force Duke to guard him with Okafor and let Gill take advantage of the resulting mismatch.

-- UVA on defense

Okafor is scary.  It's not for no reason he gets a lot of hype.  It's rare to see such a big guy move so well.  Okafor is 6'11", 270, and moves like he's 230.  He scores on about 2/3 of his shots, and his season low is 10 points, with eight 20-point games and seven double-doubles.  He's a top-notch offensive rebounder, and by the way that foul trouble thing we talked about earlier is rare, letting him play over 30 minutes a game.

Expect, then, a healthy dose of post-doubling when Okafor gets the ball.  UVA won't front him per se, but the pack-line footwork is still designed to force him to catch the ball somewhere where he doesn't want it, and to let the double come quickly.  Expect also a lot less post-doubling on anyone else, lest they find Okafor with an awful mismatch on him.

It's not a one-man show, though; it wouldn't be Duke if they didn't have a bunch of guys who could score.  Quinn Cook moved off the ball to take a more active shooting role and let Tyus Jones run the point.  Cook made 65 threes last year; a bit more than halfway through the season, he's at 53.  Jones and Winslow aren't hacks at the long ball, but with Sulaimon gone, Cook is the one really big distance threat.  And he's automatic from the stripe, missing only two of 44 free throws this year.

Jones, Winslow, and Jefferson are all perfectly capable scorers, too.  Jefferson is shooting .639 from the field, all from two; Jones and Winslow are rangy players who like Cook can score from a lot of different places.  But that's about where the good news ends for Duke.  The loss of Sulaimon costs the Blue Devils their most versatile player and only reliable bench scorer.  Matt Jones isn't used to shouldering any scoring load, Marshall Plumlee is a body that Duke uses to give Okafor a rest, and Greyson Allen doesn't appear to yet have the full confidence of Coach K.  When Tyus Jones would go out of the game, it was Sulaimon, not the former point guard Cook, who would take over at the point; Duke's choice now is to either hand it back to Cook or make Jones play all 40 minutes.  The former detracts from Cook's scoring focus and the latter is a huge risk and not sustainable.

Sulaimon provided most of his minutes at the three, though, which leaves Duke with another choice: lean more heavily on Winslow or Matt Jones.  Leaning on Winslow takes away his availability at the four, and leaning on Jones risks letting Justin Anderson run wild.  Sulaimon's flexibility gave Coach K a lot of options; his loss is a bigger depth hit than one man normally is.

-- Outlook

Make no mistake, this is a tough game, one of the season's hardest.  My guess is that Duke will lean as hard as they can on their starters in the absence of Sulaimon to back them up, because the more they go to the bench the more they play into the hands of the deeper Hoos.  Their starters can, mostly, match up well with UVA's, and they probably have an advantage at most positions.

But that's why UVA perfects a system, and that system has beaten Duke two years running.  And Duke's margin for error is much smaller than UVA's.  Okafor has had nagging knee twinges in more than one ACC game, and Duke can't afford to have a bad game from any of their starters or have prolonged scoring droughts, because their defense hasn't been good enough to hold off opposing runs.  And playing in what's sure to be a fired-up environment won't help matters.  If UVA's offense is clicking, it's over.  Duke could zone UVA into oblivion, or shoot hot from three, or see one of their stars go off on a big-night bender, and put an end to UVA's win streak in a hurry.  Chances are, though, that to win they'll simply need to play a more complete and balanced game - with fewer players - than they have for most of the season.

Final score: UVA 71, Duke 65

Monday, January 26, 2015

rock fights

So to be completely frank, if this terrific win streak must come to an end at some point, I'd prefer just about anywhere but Blacksburg.  So it was with a little trepidation that I watched the Hokies take a ten-point lead in front of a Cassell Coliseum crowd that wasn't precisely packed to the gills, but was a lot fuller and louder than it's been for most of the season.

This is normally the point where you'd think "but that didn't last for long," but truth is it did.  Various reports of the game call it a rally.  Nothing of the sort happened.  A rally implies a flurry of activity, a swift change in fortunes.  The Hoos just stopped letting VT score, is all.  VT stopped hitting shots they'd been hitting, they went back to giving the ball away a few times (like they'd done in the first half) and a glacial eight minutes after VT was up ten, the lead finally disappeared completely.  There was no Cavalanche, just a big, 11-minute stop on defense and a fun play or two along the way.

It illustrates a philosophy of Tony's completely: you better play defense if you hope to come back from a deficit.  Offense will happen if you don't panic, but you sure as hell ain't closing that gap if the other guys keep scoring.

So the march continues.  One imagines it'll stop in the next couple weeks.  Four very difficult matchups present themselves: Duke and Louisville roll into town, and the Hoos make two trips to the Triangle for UNC and NC State.  KenPom says the UNC game is the toughest left on the schedule, being as it's on the road; I think it's the two home games that are the toughest matchups on paper, but the Hoos have been playing much better at home of late than on the road.  Georgia Tech was mercilessly ground into powder because UVA had a home crowd behind them and the Jackets are pitiful shooters from outside four feet.

No league has as many legitimate national title contenders as the ACC, and UVA's schedule is the streakiest of any of them, so it might be fair to say these next couple weeks will be the longest, toughest stretch faced by any of the country's best teams.  Even in the Big 12, which is looking a little like the ACC used to, 15 years ago.  ESPN's Dana O'Neil did a rather awkwardly-premised article that boils down to "ACC and Big 12 teams will beat each other up and most of the rest of the country will coast."**   If that goose egg comes out the other end unscathed, the hype machine is going all the way to 11.

**I thoroughly love the characterization of UVA as a "veteran team that actually likes games to be rock fights."  That's a good identity.  All we need now is a recruit who's been called "Psycho T Junior" and a Kiwi kid who thinks it's rugby.  Where can we find guys like that, I wonder.


-- Malcolm Brogdon had a fantastic little layup against Georgia Tech where he decided on a change of plan midair.  It was a damn familiar-looking play:

Even more similar in motion, in fact.  Except for the finish.

(Yes, I'm gonna let you stew on it if you're drawing a blank on the bottom play.)

-- Buzz Williams is amusingly demonstrative, yes, but as much as he was on the case of the refs, I'm wondering if he realizes offensive fouls do exist in the rulebook.

-- Buzz is likely going to turn VT into a not-laughingstock, maybe even do what Seth Greenberg only ever did once, and get them to the tourney.  He might not even leave for so-called greener pastures; Whit Babcock appears to actually mind being a basketball backwater, and will give him an ACC contract with an ACC budget for assistants and upgrade his buildings to ACC-quality facilities.  Even seeing that is worth it, because of the gift of Marial Shayok, who looks like the future of UVA ball.  He's got the scoring versatility that sometimes takes years to develop.

-- Speaking of developed scoring ability, man it would've been cool if Darion Atkins hadn't had shin splints that set his development back light years.  The guy wearing #5 now for UVA is the guy that Tony Bennett and Mike Brey fought a pitched recruiting battle over, back in 2010.  There are some faint similarities to Mike Scott showing through, the way he likes to operate on offense in a range ring around the net, the way he sometimes says, "ok, you want me to shoot this, I'll shoot it," and knocks it right down.  Senior year has been incredibly good to Atkins, there's no doubt about it.

-- GameDay notwithstanding, I'd rather play Duke this Wednesday, all things considered.  Coming off an emotional win and heading on the road, from an intangibles perspective there are few riper upsets than Notre Dame over Duke this week.  I think they'll get a cold-water reality check in South Bend, and I'd rather be the team giving it to them than the team right after.


-- North Carolina and Wake Forest are charter members of the ACC, and have shared a conference since 1936 when Wake joined the Southern Conference.  It's about an hour and a half drive between the two schools.  They first met in football in 1888 and have played 105 games against each other.  That meeting in 1888 was the first college football game in the state of North Carolina.  So it makes perfect sense that they'd want to play each other more than once every goddam seven years.  Nice college football world you've delivered us, O oligarchs of the sport.  Throw bread and circuses at the drooling masses in the form of a playoff thing, and meantime make sure you set everything else up to make the least sense possible.

Of course, I don't gripe without offering a solution (much) and I've already put forth a great idea to fix the problem.  The best idea.

-- It was interesting to read about WR transfer T.J. Thorpe in this Jeff White article; coming to UVA was already on his mind (and leaving UNC was already decided) even as he was catching the game-winning touchdown against in October.  That kind of thing is probably more common than is ever reported, especially in basketball, but it's rarely admitted.

-- Lacrosse season is here sooner than you think, so it's a good time to loosen up for it by starting with opinionz on the newest rule changes:

* Faceoff rule changes: They'll be just about transparent to the vast majority of everyone watching the game.  Former FOGO guys might get interviewed by Inside Lacrosse or something, and air their gripes or praises, but nobody else will see a difference.  Cleaning up faceoff play is generally always welcome, but most of the time when a faceoff violation is called, nobody ever sees what happened anyway.  This won't change anything.

* Timeout changes: If the ball is to be restarted from inside the field of play, such as on an offside call, only the team with the ball can call timeout.  Nobody really was complaining about that, but it's a small positive tweak nonetheless.

* Phase-in of a requirement to have a 30-second shot clock displayed for when stall warnings are given out; previously, the refs kept the time themselves and the players were left to guess.  I emphatically don't want a shot clock in lacrosse, but "some schools can't afford them" was always one of the lamest arguments against them.  Spend a couple hundred dollars, man.  Not having the clock on the field was like having basketball's block-charge arc in the rulebook but not on the court, and the same bullshit poverty reason was given for not painting them on.  This is both a positive step for the rules as they're written now, and a huge negative step in that it smells strongly of a precursor to having the full-time shot clock instituted for good.

* You can now land in the crease after scoring, provided you didn't leave your feet before you shot.  Fine, good, dandy, because invariably you'd see about three to five perfectly good goals a year called back for that, and they shouldn't be.  Good compromise between not letting people just launch themselves and not forcing them to make like the Flying Wallendas around the crease.

* Addition of an over-and-back rule.  Used to be they'd either require you to go through the clearing clock again, or put on a stall warning if you were just being stubborn about sitting on the ball.  Now you lose the ball right away, like in basketball, and this is suddenly a really dangerous thing to do because it's a quick restart and the ball is already in your defensive half with a wide-open field to play with.

* Last year for these jerseys, because in 2016 your numbers will have to contrast.  Never liked those.

-- With a big basketball game this Saturday and lacrosse and baseball fast approaching, I feel a few midweek posts coming on.

Monday, January 19, 2015

recruiting reform

Basketball is settling into a calm-before-the-storm stretch of the season, with four of the ACC's worst teams on the slate before a three-game Season-Defining Stretch that's looking more like a tough four-game run when you tack on a trip to Raleigh to the end of it.  Efficiently grinding a couple bad teams into the floor is fun in its own not-stressful way, but it makes for a minimum of writeable moments.  Instead, I think I'll react to some of the news trickling out of the NCAA's decision-making echelons.

Specifically, the fact that a football early signing period appears to be all but done at this point.  This "formally recommended" thing is a formality; the discussions have all taken place by now and they're almost dead certain to do it.  Stupid.  This is happening for two reasons: one, the NCAA has the creativity of earthworms and thinks it has only one tool in the box.  And two, coaches are eager to do anything they can to exert more control over the process, which is another way of saying take some control out of the hands of the recruits.

Early signing periods - championed by some because they would supposedly let recruits stop being bombarded with mail and social media messages - do a great job of taking control out of their hands instead.  A recruit would no longer be able to:

-- Switch schools because the head coach got fired
-- Switch schools because he doesn't like the new head coach
-- Switch schools because a favorite assistant landed a promotion elsewhere (Chris Beatty being the perfect example here)
-- Switch schools because a school he wanted an offer from, hired a new head coach willing to give him one
-- Switch schools because he blew up his senior year

The one saving grace is the December 16 date.  The ACC wanted August 1, which was beyond stupid.  The SEC wanted the Monday after Thanksgiving, which still doesn't help.  Most coaches who'll be fired, are fired before December 16, so at least that part of carousel season won't affect recruits.  I always go back to the story of Roy Roundtree, though.  Roundtree spent a year openly pining for an offer from Michigan and not getting one.  He committed to Purdue when it looked like he'd never get the Michigan offer.  When Lloyd Carr retired and Rich Rodriguez was hired, Rodriguez decided that Roundtree was a terrific fit in his offense and flipped Roundtree in February.  Roundtree would never have gotten his dream-school offer if an early signing period had existed.

Oh, I suppose you could say that Roundtree shouldn't sign early, then.  Human beings at that age have brain chemistry that prevents them foreseeing that driving 110 miles an hour is going to end with their car wrapped around a tree, but they should foresee that a coach will retire and the new one will give them an offer.  Right.  Here is the conversation that every football coach will have with all their committed players: "Sign early or you're not committed and we'll recruit around you."  It's that control thing.  No recruit is going to risk their spot in the class by not signing early - and thus, as in basketball, the "early signing period" will become "the signing period."  How much football recruiting goes on between December and February?  Tons.  How much basketball recruiting goes on between the early period and the regular period?  Zip.

Let's say you need to mount a picture to your wall with a couple screws.  That represents the problem of recruiting reform.  The NCAA has decided to use a baseball bat to pound the screws in.  Good choice of tool.  Maybe the picture can cover up the huge new holes in the drywall.  I have some better ideas.  All of them should be implemented yesterday.

Letters of intent

Ah, the LOI.  Occasionally maligned, and not without reason: the LOI binds the player to the school, but is much less binding on the school itself.  As Les Miles has proven, you can sign an LOI and still show up on campus in the fall and be told you're not on the team right now because oops we oversigned.  (Asshole.)  You'll need to move out of that dorm room.  See you in January.

There need to be some fixes to this thing, first and foremost.  It's a contract, basically, and it doesn't always work.

-- Fortunately, the Power 5 conferences have just passed mandatory four-year scholarships.  Signing the LOI in February should also require that those scholarships begin in the school's next academic semester.

-- And since we're going to be stuck with this early signing period, there should also be some changes to the early-signed LOIs: specifically, the recruit should get to specify an assistant coach, who, along with the head coach, is required to still be employed by the school on the regular NLOI day.  If either leave or are fired, the LOI is dissolved and the player has the option to look around.  He can, of course, stick with it and sign the regular LOI in February.

I'd offer some fixes that help the schools, too, but they're not necessary - the LOI is so airtight and binding on the player that there's a real good reason the coaches are drooling at the idea of getting their recruits tied up with them as early as possible.

Centralize the process

One supposed advantage of an early signing period is it would save recruits the hassle of dealing with a flood of communication when they're already committed.  Well, for a month and a half, I guess, with this solution.  But this is exactly what I mean by using a baseball bat to pound a nail.  Sure, if a recruit knows where he's going in June and doesn't want to deal with the process after that, it makes sense for him to be able to shut it down entirely.

So set up an NCAA clearinghouse to keep track of all these verbal commitments.  Allow a recruit, starting the day the signing period ends during his junior year, to register a verbal commitment with the clearinghouse.  Doing so then means the school he's committed to can have unlimited contact with him, and other schools none at all.  No letters, no emails, no Facebook or Twitter shout-outs, nothing, unless they can show it was initiated by the recruit (which he'd be allowed to do.)  They can visit on the high school campus, and that'd be the extent of what they can do (it'd be hard to prevent contact at the high school, because there's no reason coaches shouldn't be able to recruit other players on the team.)

Illegal contact would be a secondary violation; repeated contact a major one.  The NCAA would have to rely on the player to report it, but that's fine; the idea is to prevent the player from being harassed, and if he doesn't really mind, what can you really do?  You'd have to think coaches would really like this too.  They'd have theoretical peace of mind, knowing that there isn't some annoying slimy weasel trying to get in the good graces of their recruits.

And of course, registering a verbal commitment would be totally rescindable.  By the player.  Not the school.

Written offers

The NCAA forbids written offers until after September 1 of the player's senior year.  This had the commendable goal of trying to stem the tide of earlier and earlier recruiting, but predictably was a huge failure.  The old date was August 1 of junior year.  Somewhere in the middle would be best - like, the same date mentioned above for registering a commitment.  I'm all about trying to keep recruiting out of middle school, but it's probably best not to have players not truly knowing where they stand.  Sometimes an offer isn't really an offer.

Better would be for offers to be able to be sent out February of junior year, and requiring the school to make good on them once sent.  Formalize the language so that it's the same for every school, or rather, write a special legalistic paragraph that must be included.  That paragraph would say something to the effect of this is a formal NCAA-approved offer of grant-in-aid for the period 2015 to 2019 to play football at University of Whatever contingent on you being academically eligible and not being a shithead and getting arrested bla bla bla and would mark the letter as official and binding on the school, if the player accepts.  The recruit wouldn't be allowed to formalize a commitment with the clearinghouse without this letter in hand, but schools wouldn't be able to say "well we're offering you but we want to see you at camp or we want to see how this other guy shakes out first" or whatever.

And of course, once sent, a written offer wouldn't be rescindable unless a guy got arrested or something.

Official visits

This is another thing that's passed the NCAA by while they whistle in the dark.  These can't be taken until senior year begins; ostensibly, that's again to keep recruiting from starting too soon, but the reality of the thing is that the further south a school is, the more likely they are to fight to keep the status quo.  Southern schools, SEC ones in particular, want these visits to happen while it's cold and nasty up north and nice and pleasant down south.  Should they happen while it's nice and pleasant up north and disgustingly hot and humid down south, it might be slightly detrimental to SEC hegemony.

But it makes no damn sense to force a recruit to spend all his own money during the peak recruiting season.  Official visits are generally impractical in the fall because the recruits are busy playing football on the weekends.  Duh.  So they can't happen in the summer, don't happen in the fall, and as a result many recruits never even take one.  Extremely rare is the recruit that takes his limit of five.  Small wonder Mike London likes to line everyone up in January for one big official visit extravaganza.  Besides the fact that it does wonders for convincing a few remaining uncommitted recruits, it's just plain practical - and damn near required.

Let's face it: there's no reason not to have them in the summer.  And the limits need to be changed.  Instead of limiting the recruit, limit the schools.  Let the recruit take as many as he's offered.  I'm not real worried about abuse of that system; rare would be the player who just spends every weekend all summer on official visits.  Give the schools an allotment of, oh, say, 80 or 100 to hand out, and let them spend them as they please, as long as the recruit has finished the equivalent of five semesters of high school and, again, it's after the previous signing period is over.  Let them pay for kids to come to camp weekend if they choose.  And for players who've registered their verbal commitment, one free official that doesn't count against the school's limits.


I don't think this quite addresses everything, because recruiting is still a little rough around the edges when it comes to trying to deal with academically iffy students, and I don't have any good ideas about that.  Obviously there's also the issue of bagmen to deal with, but I think a future post may have some things to work on that.  And the one really big question is: how to keep recruiting from working its way into freshman year?  Football is a bit self-limiting there, because most coaches are pretty versed in the ways of physical development of high schoolers, and there aren't a whole lot of them that look ready to go at age 15.  But still, if there are any measures that would actually work, I'd be all about them - it's just that everything the NCAA has tried has failed and I don't have any better suggestions except to say that formalizing the process into a clear and obvious one-year cycle might help.

I do think that an early signing period will accelerate the forward-creep quite a bit.  Coaches do a lot of their head-start work in December and January when they're not coaching a team and most of their class is sewn up.  They're dealing with not just juniors, but sophomores and even the occasional freshman.  But they can't zero in on the younger kids while the seniors are still technically not locked down yet and there's still work to do on that class.  Take away all that work they have to do on the senior class and they get a lot of time freed up for future classes.  So the NCAA is really not helping itself here.

But hopefully, this is something like 90% comprehensive here.  We've imposed some order on a chaotic process - sure to be appreciated by the coaches, even if most of what we've done here is to make the process more recruit-friendly.


This doesn't take into account anything that's happened Monday or Tuesday, because that's for next week.  But here's the latest iteration of the ACC season sims:

At this juncture, KenPom is essentially guaranteeing a #1 seed.  And leaping into the driver's seat for 2nd place: UNC, which is rounding into form somewhat at the exact same time Duke took a couple helpful losses.  Personally I'm holding off on getting too excited until after the four-game stretch of doom, and if we come out of that in good shape, then......

Monday, January 12, 2015

pack-line rising

The week 9 AP rankings didn't change much from the week before.  The top 5 was static; you have to go to 13th before you find anyone who'd moved so much as three spaces, and 17th before you found anyone moving more than that (Iowa State dropped 8 spots for losing to South Carolina.)

That was last week.  This week is week 10.  And because there's nothing quite so humbling as the midwinter conference grind, and because the grind apparently got an early start this year, not a single team in the rankings is where they were last week.  Except Kentucky, and not even them exactly, because as the ESPN headline put it, "Virginia lands two of Kentucky's No.1 votes."  (And because the word "lands" is most often used in recruiting, my heart raced happily for just a quick split second until I finished reading it.)

Well, I'm happy anyway.  Somewhere out there are two writers who think UVA is the best team in the country.  Actually, I'll tell you exactly who: John Feinstein in DC and Zach Osterman of the Indy Star.  (And Marcus Jackson of the News-Gazette in Champaign, IL had the nerve to keep the Hoos in third behind UK and Gonzaga.  Boo this man.)  Osterman explained his vote in a column, which basically sums up as he weights recent results more heavily than most, and UK has been all about the overtime lately.  When the Blogpoll was a thing and I had a vote in it, recency mattered not even a speck (and it still wouldn't with me, resulting in a vote for UK), but it's also at least a little bit compelling to say, look, this is the ranking for this week, and this week, this is the team playing the very best basketball.

Further UVA awesominity: The Hoos are eight thousandths of a point out of first in the KenPom ranks, a gap small enough that it could disappear just by one of Kentucky's opponents having a bad game.  ESPN's Jeff Goodman asked various coaches who they like between UK, UVA, and Duke, and one asshole anonymous coach responded, "Kentucky over Virginia?  Please.  Talent level isn't even close.  Zero Virginia guys would start for Kentucky."  KenPom would disagree there, too; of his top ten players in the country, three are UVA's.  And three are Kentucky's.  Wait, no, recount: it's just two.  Hold on a sec, it's actually just one.  Oops, wrong again: the truth as of right now is that Kentucky has zero of the nation's KenPom-top-ten players.  UVA's so unathletic.

So the ascension continues.  How did this happen?  Exact same way the Hoos earned a pair of 1 seeds last year.  Choke yourself if you said "unbalanced schedule."  Taking care of business when other teams do not.  Top ten teams kept running into bug zappers this weekend.  Duke, Arizona, Wisconsin, Louisville - it was a top-ten bloodbath.  Kentucky was thisclose to being on that list.  UVA - well, it was close, too, but not, like overtime-close, and it was on the road, and the opponent was ranked, and so on and etc.  Give another round of applause to Mike Curtis, I'd say, but save the biggest cheer for Tony Bennett and his "play every game the same" mantra, because that's what you're seeing play out.


-- In a strange way, I think I'm going to miss Karl Hess, exiled from ACC games as a result of saying something kinda dumb to a fan, but also, supposedly, "accumulated incidents."  I'd brush that last one aside as the ACC's attempt to leak something that put them less on the spot for the decision, if it were any ref but King Karl.  Hess made all his assignments a game of referee Russian roulette, but sports are less interesting with fewer villains to kick around.

-- I'm sure a lot of folks saw the study about referee bias that concluded ACC refs - football ones, not basketball - are biased toward home teams and "long-time conference members such as Duke and North Carolina."  I wonder if UVA is a "long-time conference member" in that context, or if you have to reside in the state of North Carolina.  At any rate, they picked the wrong sport.  I'm sure everyone loves to hear that the refs love Duke, but might raise an eyebrow about finding that it's a football study.  I'd like to see one for basketball - not that they haven't happened, as exampled by this one from a few years ago concluding that hoops refs do indeed favor home teams and call make-up fouls - but I don't know that anyone's really studied ACC hoops long-term.

-- Sort of a boilerplate article on UVA's 2016 commitment Kyle Guy, but one thing stuck out: "Interestingly, the 6-foot-2 Guy said he has been deluged with letters from Virginia Tech and Notre Dame since choosing Virginia."  Notre Dame, I kind of understand; Guy is from Indiana.  But I find it adorable that Buzz is of the opinion that Guy can be convinced to make that switch.

-- This week has been something of a microcosm of the football team's struggles.  Since 2015 began, UVA has lost three defensive ends: Max Valles to the NFL (ok, he's technically a linebacker, but still), and former commits Brandon Wilson and Rasool Clemons - the former to Indiana and the latter to the fact that he and academic qualification are a long way from becoming acquainted.  How have they been replaced?  With wide receivers!  Warren Craft is the latest commitment, yet another result of Mike London's incessant digging for unmolded instate athletes, and UVA also announced the incoming transfer of T.J. Thorpe from UNC (like, ten minutes after I hit "publish" last week.)  Actually, Thorpe, if healthy, does have the potential to add a bit of a different dimension to the offense, for one year at any rate.  Regardless, next year UVA will have eight wide receivers with some kind of on-field experience, and three such defensive ends.  Or, put another way, if London succeeds in landing Gary Jennings (who he's pursuing with all expedience and urgency) he'll have as many scholarship WRs on the roster as scholarship D-linemen.

-- Per Coaching Search, UVA is bringing back Dave Borbely to coach the offensive line.  Borbely was Al Groh's last O-line coach before his removal, and memory is hazy but I don't recall being unhappy with the job he was doing.  Borbely put a few linemen in the NFL, to be sure.  Maybe, if London pulls off the comeback of the ages and sticks around long term, Borbely can remind him that he used to have a few more players under his purview than he has now.


I told you KenPom loves him some UVA, and the proof is in the season simulations:

That's UVA with a 91.8% chance to snag the top seed.  KenPom gives the Hoos a 95% chance or better in seven of the remaining fifteen games, and the toughest remaining game from this vantage point is the last one: the road match against Louisville, where UVA has a 60% chance of pulling out a win.  UVA also has an awfully significant chance of going undefeated: 12.3%.

That's what the math says, anyway.  Keep in mind the arbitrariness of the tiebreaker: UVA wins all ties against everyone for having the highest KenPom rating, because I don't have a way to make a spreadsheet remember who beat whom.  In the ten thousand different seasons that go into this, I doubt that 9,178 of them actually featured UVA beating Duke and earning that tiebreaker.  It's probably closer to 8,000, since KenPom is giving Duke a probably-too-low 20% chance of winning at the JPJ.  So take this with many grains of salt.  Even so, even if the simulator is more than 40 percentage points off and it's a coinflip as to whether UVA earns the #1 seed or not, that's still what you'd call "heavily favored."

You can find all three of the sims so far piled up at the original post.

Monday, January 5, 2015

let the games begin

PHEW.  I was planning on writing about four paragraphs on how this basketball team will lose at some point and we should enjoy this undefeated stuff to the fullest while it lasts but understand that it's coming to an end eventually and that's OK.  Miami drove home the point for me pretty well, though.

It's a lesson that now doesn't have to be learned the hard way, because UVA out-gutted and out-gunned the Hurricanes after Miami ran out of ammo.  I had forgotten, for a second there, that going on the road in the ACC is never to be taken for granted.  Shame.  Won't make that mistake again.  At least not this year.

For at least a little while longer, though, we still get to enjoy the goose egg in the one place you really want to see it.  It's not to be sneezed at; the Hoos survived on a night when half the remaining undefeated teams in the country took a loss.  That leaves just UVA, Duke, and Kentucky.  The SEC is a putz league, the weakest of the Power 5 and probably worse than the Big East as well, and very likely to leave UK unblemished for a good long time.  But I sort of hope Duke stays unbeaten til January 31 (and obviously, I hope we do too) to set up a matchup for the ages.

-- Marial Shayok deserves a ton of credit.  Forced into crunch-time minutes when Brogdon fouled out, his defense made a huge difference.  Not just in the two blocks that he had after that point; he also did a masterful job limiting Angel Rodriguez.  I suspect having much fresher legs had a lot to do with it; nevertheless, it was a huge game for him.  Perrantes and Anderson hit the shots and played 45 minutes apiece, and Atkins, very quietly, had a terrific game too.  But if defense comes first, Shayok gets the first nod.

-- Speaking of fresher legs, Mike Curtis certainly gets a nod for that game too.  "They look tired all of a sudden," I thought as Miami brought up the ball; the announcers were all over it at the same time.

-- One way to tell your team has arrived?  Besides all the other really obvious ones, I mean.  When the announcers assume you have a "senior-laden team" even when you don't.  Sorry, Shane Battier, only one senior here - but they sure do play like they were, don't they?

-- Yes, that was a foul on Justin Anderson at the end there.  But also, yes, he was fouled pretty blatantly in OT, too.  The announcers made a thing about him kicking his legs out, which was stupid because a flying defender landed on his arm.

-- Against Davidson, the defense gave up some easy layups, and on those plays it was perfectly highlighted why Tony's post defense philosophy is "ball-me-man."  The Wildcat post men managed to seal out their defender and prevent any help, which is poison to the pack-line defense; any time you see plays like that, the defender is out of position.  Most man defenses emphasize fighting for position in the post and having defenders try and prevent the opposing bigs from gaining position too close to the rim.  Tony doesn't much care where the opposing bigs post up - as long as the defenders are in the right position, they can deny entry passes, help on drives (and usually stop them before they start), switch to the other side to help a helper, and throw a quick double-team.

-- ESPN has been spreading the UVA love far and wide these past couple weeks.  Anthony Gill and Justin Anderson on the Wooden Watch.**  A #1 seed in bracketology.  Articles about how awesome the offense is and how the rest of the ACC will give UVA a run for its money.  Notice how that last one is not the other way around.  UVA is the hunted.

Why should we care what the WWL thinks?  Because perception is reality in the recruiting world.  The ultimate goal is not to be able to win the battle of the recruiting rankings (even though, for now, UVA sits atop the 24/7 rankings after winning the commitment of Sacha Killeya-Jones).  The ultimate goal is for Tony to be able to walk into any gym in the country, say, "I want that guy right there," and be at the top of that guy's list immediately.

That Medcalf article, by the way, the second one linked, I feel like it's part of a slightly disturbing trend, which is to forget that Louisville is a major contender just because they lost to Kentucky.  I would not like to see that team unleash its considerable athletic talent upon a perception of being disrespected.  It's not Duke and UVA and everyone else; it's Duke, UVA, Louisville, and maybe UNC if they get their shit together, and if they don't, Notre Dame.

**Unless someone else totally runs away with the award, Jahlil Okafor will win because he wears the tiebreaker on his chest.  But some All-American selections are not out of the question.

-- You know how I said we should drop Maryland from our schedules and add Georgetown just for spite, because Maryland won't play Georgetown?  Bwa-ha-ha the lacrosse schedulers listened.  Maryland is no more, and UVA will host the Hoyas as the final game of the season.

Actually, it's best looked at like this: Maryland is not replaced on the schedule.  There are only 13 games instead of last year's 14, but that's to be expected because the ACC was temporarily larger last year.  Georgetown - which hasn't been good at all lately - is Bellarmine's replacement, and UVA also dropped longtime OOC opponent Mount St. Mary's in favor of the recently-not-shitty St. Joseph's Hawks.  St. Joe's was once a laughingstock and is now very middle-of-the-road.  I'd still say, it's an easier schedule than last year, a bit.

That's OK, I still prefer to think we replaced Maryland with Georgetown, and if Georgetown had a football team of any consequence I'd start the Put-Them-In-The-ACC bandwagon in a hot minute.

-- One thing that will sting and make that road harder is the loss of Greg Danseglio to Maryland.  All the more reason to be glad they're gone, I suppose; Danseglio was half of a veteran long-pole duo that would've formed the core of the defense.  Now it's Tanner Scales and inexperience.  UVA also looks to be missing their one over-.500 face-off guy from last year, Mick Parks; knee surgery is the message-board chatter.  This is a very young team this year and the leading candidate to finish 5 of 5 in the ACC.

-- Speaking of which, sharp-eyed watchers noticed this earlier, I didn't but I think it's fair to be excused because I don't think the ACC even bothered to announce it - placing 5th of 5 in the conference this year earns you a trip to the tournament in Philly anyway, only you'll be playing Penn.  Creative.  And no doubt an easy sell to Penn - no travel expenses and an RPI-booster against an ACC team that you'll have a decent shot at beating.

-- I finally got off my ass and finished a game highlight, and there's another one on the way very shortly.  I randomly picked last year's Maryland game off the considerable backlog.  It's linked in the video library there.  I don't think that backlog will be fully addressed til the summer, but I'm settling into a routine of working on them and I can at least get you new stuff on a steady basis.