#9 Temple vs. #8 NC State NCAA 2nd Round Game Preview

It's been a long time since Temple experienced some postseason glory.

It’s been a long time since Temple experienced some postseason glory.

The Temple Owls kick off their 2013 NCAA tournament Friday afternoon, looking to end a recent string of poor tournament showings.  The Owls have been knocked out in the first round 4 of the past 5 years, with their lone victory a 2-point win over an inferior Penn State team.  To end that stretch of poor play, the Owls will have to go through a talented but inconsistent North Carolina State squad.

The Wolfpack are an incredibly efficient offensive team, rated 11th in the nation on that side of the ball, while shooting 49.4% (5th best nationally).  However, the downfall for them this season, and the reason they did not reach their lofty expectations, has been a lack of commitment on the defensive end.  Temple fits a similar profile, with the Owls also performing much better scoring the rock than stopping the opposition.  However, unlike the Owls, NC State does not rely on the three ball, among the lowest in the nation at only 5.3 made threes per game.  The Wolfpack do the bulk of their damage on the inside behind 6’9″ Junior C.J. Leslie and 6’8″ Senior Richard Howell (12.7 ppg and 10.7 rpg).  Temple’s Rahlir Hollis-Jefferson and Anthony Lee will have their hands full defending the paint against that duo.

Despite its shortcomings defensively, one thing NC State does well is limit its opponents to just 29.9% from behind the arc, good for 18th in the nation.  The main reason behind this is the incredible size on the roster, with all five starters ranging in height from 6’5″ to 6’9″.  With that much length on the perimeter, the Wolfpack can cover a lot of ground and challenge nearly every shot.  This aspect of their opponent could spell trouble for an Owls’ team that relies so heavily on outside shooting.  Khalif Wyatt, especially, may struggle as he generally uses his size and strength to take advantage of smaller guards defending him, which will not be the case here.

Ultimately, the Wolfpack appear to be a terrible match-up for the Owls.  North Carolina State has the size and length to negate the Temple perimeter attack, and the Owls are not built to bang with aggressive scorers in the paint.  Unfortunately for Owls fans, it looks like the bad stretch of tournament showings may continue this year.

Sixers @ Nuggets Game Preview (3/21/13)

The Sixers will run into a buzzsaw as they travel to Denver.

Following a blow-out loss to the Clippers Tuesday night, Philadelphia will board a quick flight to Denver to take on the Nuggets.  Unfortunately for the Sixers, Denver is tied with Miami for the best home record in the NBA at 30-3.  The Nuggets play at the second fastest pace in the NBA, using a deep roster of quick, rangy wing players to jump the passing lanes and get out in the open court.  The mile-high altitude makes this style of play even more dangerous when the Nuggets are at home, as opponents find it even more difficult to keep up with Denver at the Pepsi Center.

Denver has played exceptionally well of late, with Miami’s historic winning streak overshadowing the fact that the Nuggets are on a run of 13 straight of their own.  The run has propelled them into a three-way tie for the 3rd seed in the Western Conference.  Denver knows how valuable home court advantage in the playoffs will be given their dominance at home and are unlikely to take any game lightly.  Denver’s last game was an impressive road over the Thunder; the Nuggets have seemingly figured out things on the defensive end, as their 98.6 defensive rating during the win streak would rank 3rd best in the NBA over the course of the season.  If Denver has figured out things on that end of the floor, the rest of the league should be on watch.

The Sixers defeated Denver in the opening game of the season, but that was a completely different Denver team that was without an injured Danilo Gallinari and still learning how to play with new acquisition Andre Iguodala.  The Nuggets have all hands on deck and Iguodala is putting up his usual stat-stuffing numbers at 12.3 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 5.3 assists per game.  Look for him to step up to try and earn his first win against his former team.

Keys to the Game:

  • Limit the turnovers. If the Sixers hold on to the ball like they did last night in Los Angeles, they’ll be blown off the court.  The way to beat Denver is to prevent them from getting out on the fast break and force them to score out of their half court sets, where they can struggle at times.
  • Keep Denver off the offensive glass.  Denver has the 2nd highest offensive rebounding rate in the league, led by Kenneth Faried and Kosta Koufos.  Thad Young, especially, will need to concentrate on that area of the game to deal with the strength and tenacity of Faried.

Prediction:

Denver is far too dangerous at home, and Philadelphia struggles far too much on the road, for the Sixers to pull out a victory on the tail end of a back-to-back.  Andre Iguodala tallies a near-triple-double against his old team as the Nuggets cruise to a victory.

Sixers Snapped Back to Reality

The Sixers took the red pill and awoke to a harsh reality.

If ever the Sixers were going to beat the Clippers on the road, it was last night.  Los Angeles was coming off a bad loss to Sacramento the night before in which their starters logged a ton of minutes, two key rotation players in Chauncey Billups and Eric Bledsoe were ruled out with lingering injuries, and Philadelphia came in rested following its best week of play all season.  Alas, the alarm clock went off and the Sixers awoke from whatever dream state they had been playing under recently in a 101-72 loss.  Welcome back, 2012-13 Sixers.

Los Angeles came out with an effective strategy, aggressively trapping Jrue Holiday and forcing the ball out of his hands whenever possible.  The young all-star looked flustered by it all evening, shooting just 1-8 for a season-low 2 points, and recording just 4 assists against 4 turnovers.  As Philadelphia fans have seen this season, as Holiday goes, so go the Sixers, and last night was no different.  Without him taking control of the offense, the entire team reverted to hoisting ill-advised jumpers and making sloppy passes.  The Sixers committed 19 turnovers and shot just 36.7% from the field; those numbers aren’t going to bring back a win even against the dregs of the league.

Defensively, the Sixers had no answer for Chris Paul.  The perennial all-star showcased his ability to get anywhere he wanted on the floor, finishing with a game-high 19 points on 8-10 shooting, to go along with 6 rebounds and 9 assists.  Paul also spearheaded the Clippers’ trapping defense, as the NBA steals leaders recorded 5 more to round out another excellent effort.  Philadelphia was also badly outplayed by the Clippers’ bench.  Last season, the Sixers showcased their ‘night shift’ bench unit, regularly sending guys like Lou Williams and Thad Young into the game to lead the team back from some deficit.  However, this season, Philadelphia just doesn’t have that scoring punch off the bench, whereas the Clippers second unit is as good as any in the league, featuring Jamal Crawford, Matt Barnes, Lamar Odom, etc.  On a night where the starters weren’t getting it done for Philadelphia, the bench just made things worse.

The Sixers will continue their road trip tonight in Denver.  Based on the situation and Philadelphia’s performance in last night’s game, the pro-tanking crowd will likely be pleased.

Explorers Find Their Way Into the Second Round

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The Explorers were on fire from the field in dispatching the Broncos.

After going over two decades without playing in an NCAA tournament game, La Salle was determined not to wait nearly as long for the next one.  The Explorers defeated Boise State 80-71 to advance to Friday’s second-round game against Kansas State.  As ESPN Stats & Info reported, it’s been a long time since La Salle experienced success at this level and Explorers fans reveled in the win like the team had won a title, not just a game to reach the field of 64.

On the 59th anniversary of its 1954 national title, La Salle gets its first NCAA Tournament win since 1990.

The Explorers scored at will against a porous Boise State defense, finishing the game 63.3% from the field, including 11-21 from behind the arc.  Tyrone Garland came off the bench to lead the way for the Explorers with 22 points on outstanding 9-11 shooting.  Ramon Galloway and Sam Mills also totaled 36 points on a combined 8-12 three-point shooting.  La Salle did an excellent job taking care of the ball, as they didn’t commit a single turnover until there were eight minutes left in the first quarter.  By that point, the Explorers were already up 11 points; with the way they were shooting the ball, that lead was more than enough for them to cruise to an easy victory.

For Boise State, the Aussie Anthony Drmic did everything he could to keep the Broncos in the game.  Drmic recorded a game-high 28 points, finishing 9-17 from the field and 5-10 from behind the arc.  Unfortunately for Boise State, it’s difficult to chip away at a lead when you can’t get a defensive stop as La Salle never let the lead drop below 5 points in the second half.  With the first round games now out of the way, the real field of 64 can get underway.  The Explorers will look to keep their hot shooting going against a vastly superior Kansas State opponent.

 

#9 Villanova vs. #8 North Carolina NCAA 2nd Round Game Preview

The Wildcats will look to avenge 2 recent tournament losses to the Tar Heels.

In their opening game of the NCAA tournament, Villanova takes on a familiar nemesis in the North Carolina Tar Heels.  These two programs have met twice in the NCAA tournament fairly recently.  Ty Lawson and Tyler Hansborough led a stacked Tar Heels squad as they handily defeated the Wildcats in the 2009 Final Four, on their way to a national championship victory over Michigan State.  The game that really sticks in the craw of Villanova fans across the country, though, was the Sweet 16 matchup in 2005.  It looked like the quirky four-guard line-up of Randy Foye, Allan Ray, Mike Nardi, and Kyle Lowry would take down the #1 Tar Heels, until a controversial traveling call against Ray in the final minute extinguished the last hope for a Wildcats victory.  Once again, the road through to a national championship for North Carolina had led through Villanova.  The current versions of these two teams are not as highly-touted as in those past meetings, but the action should be no less intense.

Without a dominant interior presence, Roy Williams made the great coaching decision to build his team’s philosophy around getting out in the open court and shooting the deep ball.  The Tar Heels thrive on the transition game, ranking among the 20 fastest paced teams in the country, and rely heavily on the three point game, averaging 22 points per game on three pointers.  North Carolina features a trio of players averaging double figures on the season in James McAdoo (14.4 ppg), P.J. Hairston (14.3 ppg), and Reggie Bullock (14.2 ppg).  After their mediocre start to the season, North Carolina has hit their stride down the stretch, going 8-2 in their last 10 games. The biggest reason for the recent surge has been Hairston, who has taken his game to another level in recent weeks.  In the last 10 games, Hairston has reached double figures in every contest while averaging 17.6 points and 3.2 made threes per game.

North Carolina’s excellence behind the arc directly exploits the Wildcats’ biggest weakness, as Villanova ranked just 289th in the nation in allowing opponents to make 7.0 threes per game.  Villanova fans learned time and again this season (especially in the recent Seton Hall loss), that no matter how well the team grinds out points from the free throw line, it doesn’t matter if they give up points from downtown on their other end.  Villanova has beaten a number of teams of North Carolina’s caliber this season but it was almost always within the friendly confines of the Pavilion or the Wells Fargo Center where the Wildcats were a much better team this season.  In Kansas City, where there’s likely to be a larger partisan crowd for the Tar Heels, the offensive firepower for North Carolina will be too much to overcome.  The Tar Heels use their long distance barrage to take down the Wildcats.

Sixers @ Clippers Game Preview (3/20/13)

The Sixers hit the road Wednesday night, where they’ve struggled as much as any team in the NBA.

Philadelphia travels to Los Angeles coming off its best stretch of basketball all season.  In the span of 8 days, they defeated two playoff teams in Brooklyn and Indiana, one scrappy playoff contender in Portland, and took the world champion Miami Heat down to the wire in a four-point loss.  However, all of that recent success came at home in the friendly confines of the Wells Fargo Center.  If the Sixers want to earn only their 5th 3-game winning streak of the season, they’ll have to do so in front of a raucous Staples Center crowd.  Unfortunately, the road has not been a welcoming place to Philadelphia this season, as the team’s 6 road wins (6-23 road record) are tied for the lowest among all NBA teams.

As if the situation on the road weren’t bad enough, the Sixers will have to take on a talented Clippers team which defeated them soundly in Philadelphia last month, in a game Los Angeles led by as many as 30 points.  Every game right now is crucial for the Clippers’ playoff seeding, as Los Angeles is currently in a dogfight with the Grizzlies and Nuggets for the 3rd and 4th seeds, and corresponding home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.  Los Angeles is as well-rounded as any team in the league as they boast top ten ratings in both offensive and defensive efficiency.  Point guard Chris Paul would be an easy MVP candidate in a world where LeBron James and Kevin Durant weren’t having historically great seasons.  Paul is averaging 16.6 ppg on 48.3% shooting, ranks first among active players in assists per gameleads the league in steals per game, and is tied for the league lead in identical twin brothers with the Lopez brothers (the Morris twins are actually fraternal).

Other than having the best point guard in the game running the team, Los Angeles also features all-star big man Blake Griffin.  On top of his highlight-reel dunks and humorous Kia Optima commericals, Griffin has taken great steps this season to become a more complete player.  To complement his excellent finishing around the rim and rebounding, Griffin has also improved his free throw shooting (up to 65.4% from 52.1% last season) and become a more active defender (career-high 1.3 steals per game).  With an overall statistical profile that ranks top ten in the NBA this season, Griffin has proved he’s more than just a one-trick pony.

Besides their two stars, Los Angeles’ depth is truly staggering and their second unit blows opposing benches out of the water on many occasions.  Eric Bledsoe was one of the most coveted trade pieces at the deadline and would start for most NBA teams, but Los Angeles decided to hold on to him to continue backing up Chris Paul.  The Clippers have veteran, former all-stars like Chauncey Billups, Caron Butler, Lamar Odom, and Grant Hill, working as role players to help round out a deep, 9-man rotation.

Keys to the Game:

  • Attack the basket.  Los Angeles is very prone to fouling as they are the second-worst team in the league in opposing free throw attempt rate.  Although it’s a weak part of Philadelphia’s game, they should try to earn trips to charity stripe to get some easy points.
  • Hold on to the basketball.  Led by the thieving Paul, the Clippers lead the league in opposing turnover percentage.  Los Angeles loves to get out in transition and showcase the ‘Lob City’ dunks that are all over Sportscenter.  Philadelphia needs to channel the 2011-12 Sixers and limit the turnovers.

Prediction: The Clippers are simply too talented a team for Philadelphia to try and break out of their shell on the road.  As good as Jrue Holiday has been playing lately, the best point guard on the floor Wednesday night will have the word Clippers written on his chest.  Although the Sixers enter play rested and Los Angeles lost Tuesday night in Sacramento, I feel the loss to the lowly King might just serve to make the Clippers angry.  Chris Paul leads a loaded Los Angeles team to victory, ending the Sixers’ modest two game winning streak.

Hawks Get Caught In a Red Storm

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Some serious brick-laying led to a huge second half collapse for the Hawks.

Things started out well for St. Joseph’s in their NIT opener.  Carl Jones and Langston Galloway were hitting from the floor, scoring 23 of the 32 Hawks points in the first half.  St. Joseph’s was out-shooting and out-rebounding the Red Storm, and only 9 first-half turnovers by the Hawks kept the halftime lead at a modest six points.

The Hawks continued to build their lead in the second half, as Carl Jones remained hot, finishing with a game-high 21 points.  However, St. Joseph’s began to fall in love with the jump shot and stopped attacked the rim.  The poor shot selection initiated a stretch where the Hawks shot just 2 for their next 19 from the field, as they went over 5 minutes without scoring a single point.  St. John’s took advantage, as the Red Storm went on a 20-5 run to take a four point lead with 2 minutes left.

Down the stretch of the game is when things really got interesting.  With nine seconds left and the Hawks down two, Phil Martelli took a timeout and drew up a fantastic play.   With the Red Storm focusing on Jones and Galloway, Ronald Roberts, Jr. went off a nice back screen by Galloway to receive a wide open pass under the basket.  He was fouled to prevent the easy lay-in, and hit both free throws to tie the game.  However, the Hawks seemed to fall asleep defensively, allowing Sir’Dominic Pointer to dribble the length of the court and get off a fall-away 15-footer at the buzzer. Pointer’s shot went in and the Red Storm celebrated their first win in a month in front of a stunned St. Joseph’s crowd.  Final score, 63-61.

The second half collapse was a fitting ending to a disappointing season for the Hawks.  St. Joseph’s had a load of talent and played well at times, but often struggled to put it together for a full 40 minutes against tough competition.  Among the key rotational players, only Carl Jones will be graduating, so hopefully the rest of the Hawks use this brutal loss as a learning experience going into next season.

#13 La Salle vs. #13 Boise St. NCAA 1st Round Game Preview

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Explorers fans are dancing for the first time since 1992.

After dropping their opening game in the A-10 tournament to Butler, La Salle entered Selection Sunday a little nervous about their prospects of making the field of 68.  Fortunately, the selection committee looked kindly on the Explorers’ overall body of work and La Salle will be playing in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1992.  However, the Explorers will have to win one more game than the rest of the field on the road to the championship, as one of eight teams in the First Round “Play-In” games.  First up for the Explorers will be the Boise State Broncos out of the Mountain West Conference.

With Boise State, the first thing that comes to mind for the casual sports fan is the blue ‘smurf’ turf used by the school’s football program.  While the football team gets most of the attention in Boise, the basketball program has put together an excellent season, led by a high-powered offense rated among the top 30 in the nation.  The Broncos weren’t putting up good numbers solely against inferior competition either.  Their schedule was among the 40 most difficult in the country, featuring out of conference games against Michigan State and Creighton, along with the four other conference opponents to make the NCAA tournament.  The Boise State attack is powered by a pair of sophomore wings, Anthony Drmic and Derrick Marks, who lead the team at 17.3 ppg and 16.3 ppg, respectively.  The entire team shoots exceptionally well from the outside, as the Broncos rank 13th in the country at 39.1% shooting from behind the arc.

La Salle appears to match up well with the Broncos, as both teams rely on guard play to propel their high-powered offensive attack.  The Explorers’ biggest weakness is a lack of a strong interior presence, but Boise State is not positioned to take advantage of it.  Ultimately, the game will come down to whether Ramon Galloway, Tyreek Duren, and the rest of the Explorers’ guards can keep up with the Broncos’ wings, both scoring themselves and preventing the Boise State three ball.  Fortunately for La Salle, stopping opponents from behind the arc is something they have excelled at this season, ranking 20th in the nation in opposing 3PT% at 29.9%.  If La Salle can continue that trend and bottle up the Broncos from behind the arc, I would look for the Explorers to move on to face Kansas State.

 

Sixers Stay Hot Against the Blazers

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The Sixers refuse to go down, winning 2 games in a row for the first time since early February.

Stop me if you’ve heard this before; the Sixers performed well the majority of the game before sloppy play and poor offense in the fourth quarter caused them to lose the lead.  Funny thing happened Monday night though, Philadelphia did just enough down the stretch to hold on for the victory, 101-100.

The Sixers came out fast, outscoring Portland 10-0 on fast break points in the first quarter, and looking like they were the team fighting for a playoff spot rather than the other way around.  The one downside was the Sixers’ defense of LaMarcus Aldridge, who abused Spencer Hawes and rest of the front line, accruing a remarkable 16 points and 4 rebounds in the first quarter.

Throughout the game, the Sixers continued to build their lead by sharing the basketball and finding guys for open jumpers.  The team tied a season-high with 31 assists on the game and 5 players finished in double digits in scoring.  That sort of balance was a staple for Philadelphia in their successful playoff run last season.  Then, up 14 looking to cruise to an easy victory, the Sixers took their hand off the throttle and allowed an 8-0 Blazers run to end the 3rd quarter and allow Portland back in the game.

For a while during the fourth quarter, it looked like the old Sixers were rearing their ugly heads with an untimely 7 turnovers in the final frame.  Portland continued their hot shooting from behind the arc, hitting 6 of their 12 three-pointers in the last period to take their first lead since the first quarter.  However, the Sixers all-star stepped up for the hometown squad, scoring 11 of the his team-high 27 points in the fourth to will the Sixers to victory.

Even so, the Sixers wouldn’t be the Sixers if they made things easy on their fans.  With Philadelphia up one with 7 seconds left, Holiday tripped over Dorell Wright’s foot and Thad Young’s pass went straight out of bounds to give Portland a final shot to win the game.  The Blazers attacked the Sixers with their own all-star, as Aldridge was isolated against Hawes in the mid-post.  To Hawes’ credit, he stepped up defensively on the final possession and forced Aldridge into a tough turnaround jumper.  The shot clanged off the rim and the Sixers secured their first winning streak in over a month.  

Holiday really stepped up in the final quarter but was phenomenal for Philadelphia all game with those 27 points, 8 rebounds, and 6 assists against only one turnover.  Thad Young was his usual active self, with 4 steals and 2 blocks to go along with his 19 points.  Finally, Spencer Hawes had another excellent game on the offensive end, tallying 18 points and 13 rebounds.  He may have done a poor job against Aldridge most of the game but he came up big when it mattered most.

For the Blazers, it was a two-man show featuring their all-star big man and presumptive rookie of the year point guard, Damian Lillard.  Aldridge finished with a game-high 32 points and 14 rebounds, even hitting his second three-pointer of the season.  It was a testament to how well Aldridge played that the Blazers went to him on the last play rather than Lillard, who was also outstanding.  Lillard finished with 27 points, 7 rebounds and 7 assists, showcasing the full repertoire of his offensive game by hitting 5 of 7 threes and willing his way to the rim seemingly on command.

So the Sixers finish off a 3-1 homestand that must represent their best stretch of basketball all season.  The team will look to maintain the positive momentum as they hit the road against the Clippers Wednesday night.

#4 St. Joseph’s vs. #5 St. John’s NIT Game Preview

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St. Joe’s looks to prove the Hawk will never die, even if it’s in NIT action.

Although the Hawks missed their goal of making the NCAA tournament, their season marches on as they host the Red Storm Tuesday night in the first round of the NIT.  Playing in the NIT is like going to junior prom with a girl you’re just friends with, after the girl of your dreams turns you down because she’s going with some senior whose family owns a mountain house his parents let him use on weekends.  However, much as you can still have fun at prom with your friend if you just set your initial heartbreak aside, the NIT can be a useful tool for a college basketball program.  The team’s underclassmen gain valuable experience in a one-and-done tournament environment and the program gains some added exposure playing schools they might not normally schedule.

The Hawks enter play following two close games in the A-10 tournament, having defeating Xavier 58-57 before falling to NCAA tournament #5 seed, VCU, 82-79.  St. John’s will play its second consecutive game against a Philadelphia City 6 school, after Villanova easily eliminated them in the Big East tournament, 66-53.  St. Joseph’s appears to have drawn a favorable first round draw in the Red Storm, as they have now gone 0-4 since the program suspended leading scorer D’Angelo Harrison for the remainder of the season.  The team has struggled greatly offensively without Harrison in the lineup, averagine only 54.8 points per game over that stretch, well below their season-average of 65.3 ppg.

The NIT generally comes down to which team has players motivated to make a tournament run to Madison Square Garden, and which team has players too dejected about missing the NCAA tournament to put forth a full effort.  The Hawks certainly have the talent to take down a short-handed St. John’s opponent.  Also, St. Joseph’s has known for a while that they were not making the big dance barring a miraculous run in the A-10 tournament so there should not have been a huge let-down.  Any NIT game will be the final one for the team’s leading scorer, senior Carl Jones; I would look for a big game from him and the rest of the Hawks as the team looks to show why there were such high expectations for this season in the first place.