Syracuse entered the ACC Tournament feeling pretty good about their NCAA Tournament chances for the first time since 2013.
Despite being without leading scorer Tyus Battle due a lower back injury, the Orange defeated Pittsburgh, 73-59, in the first round of the ACC Tournament on Wednesday night. Syracuse trailed the Panthers, 36-30, at halftime, but used an 8-0 run with all 8 points scored by Buddy Boeheim to take a 43-39 lead early in the second stanza. The Orange would not relinquish the lead the rest of the way.
After shooting 60-percent from three-point range in the first half, Pittsburgh cooled down and shot just 30.8-percent from deep after the break. Conversely, Syracuse heated up from beyond the arc down the stretch, shooting 54.6-percent from three in the second half.
Jared Wilson-Frame led the Panthers with 24 points, on 8-of-16 from three-point land, and seven rebounds. Sidy N’Dir added 10 points in the losing effort.
Boeheim paced Syracuse with 20 points, on 6-of-13 shooting, six rebounds, four assists, and two steals. Elijah Hughes and Frank Howard scored 18 points apiece. Hughes also grabbed four rebounds, dished out three assists, and came away with two steals.
The Orange squared off with Duke in the quarterfinals of the ACC Tournament on Thursday night. Battle missed his second straight game with a lower back injury. After rallying back from as much as a 17 point deficit in the first half, Syracuse tied the game at 46 on a triple by Boeheim with 13:02 to go. The Blue Devils pulled away down the stretch to win 84-72.
In a turnover plagued affair, Duke outshot the Orange as the Blue Devils shot 53.7-percent from the floor, compared to 48.1-percent shooting for Syracuse.
The real difference in the game was that Duke has the best player in the country and the likely #1 pick in the NBA Draft Zion Williamson. Williamson, who returned after missing five consecutive games with a sprained knee, erupted for 29 points on a perfect 13-of-13 from the floor, 14 rebounds, and five steals. Fellow freshman phenomenon RJ Barrett tallied 23 points, on 8-of-16 from the field, and six rebounds. Freshman point guard Tre Jones finished with 15 points and eight assists.
Howard led the Orange with a career-high 28 points, on 11-of-2o shooting, and three assists. Boeheim poured in 15 points, while Oshae Brissett finished with 15 points and seven rebounds.
Despite the loss, Syracuse entered the NCAA Tournament with a record of 20-13. Howard was named to the ACC Tournament Second Team, while Williamson was named the MVP after Duke won the championship game over Florida State, 73-63, Saturday night.
Battle is expected to return in the NCAA Tournament, but playing without him in the ACC Tournament gave others the opportunity to step up, specifically, Howard and Boeheim.
Player of the Week: Frank Howard
This week’s player of the week for Syracuse was Frank Howard. After a lower leg injury caused him to miss the first four games of the season, Howard did not play to the form he showed he was capable of during his junior campaign. The senior point guard averaged 23 points on 50-percent shooting in Battle’s absence at the ACC Tournament. With Battle back and Howard and Boeheim shooting with confidence, the Orange just might be poised to make another run in the “Big Dance.”
Up Next: The NCAA Tournament vs. #9 Baylor
For the first time since 2013, Syracuse did not have to sweat it out on Selection Sunday. This year, the Orange were firmly in and earned the 8-seed in the West Region. Syracuse will take on the 9-seed Baylor in Salt Lake City, Utah. Tip-off is set for Thursday night at 9:57pm. The game will be seen on truTV. The Bears are 19-13 overall and are coming off an 83-66 loss to Iowa State in the Big 12 Tournament quarterfinals. Baylor is led by Tristan Clark who is averaging 14.6 points and 6.3 rebounds per game.
If the Orange were to defeat the Bears, they would take on the winner of the game between the 1-seed Gonzaga and the 16-seed Fairleigh Dickinson, who defeated Prairie View in the First Four Tuesday night.
Last season, the SEC sent eight teams to the NCAA Tournament. Will the SEC prove they are a premier basketball conference this year?
Let’s take a look at how the SEC will shake out in 2018-19.
John Calipari brings another highly touted recruiting class to Lexington this season as EJ Montgomery, Tyler Herro, Keldon Johnson, Immanuel Quickly, and Ashton Hagans make their way to campus. PJ Washington returns for his sophomore season and is in the conversation for SEC Player of the Year. The Wildcats landed the top graduate transfer in the country, Reid Travis from Stanford. The combination of youth and experience will make Kentucky the favorite to win the SEC and possibly the National Championship.
After a surprising 2017-18 campaign, reigning SEC Player of the Year Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield return to challenge in the SEC and on a national level in the 2018-19 season. After being upset by Loyola-Chicago in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, the Volunteers will look to make a deeper run in March this season.
Another team that surprised the college basketball world a year ago was the Auburn Tigers. Bruce Pearl returns Bryce Brown and Jared Harper. Brown will be joined by Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy who missed the entire season a year ago serving suspensions for violating NCAA rules. The Tigers will look to make it to the Sweet Sixteen for the first time since they lost to eventual National Champion, Syracuse, in 2003.
4.)Mississippi State Bulldogs
Ben Howland will look to get his fourth program to the “Big Dance” as he returns a core nucleus from a team that lost to Penn State in the semifinals of the NIT a year ago. If Mississippi State can get to the NCAA Tournament, it will likely be due to the performance of Quinndary Weatherspoon. The Bulldogs will need to shoot better from beyond the arc as well.
As one of the best programs in the SEC, Florida cannot be left out of the conversation when discussing the top teams in the league. The Gators return Jalen Hudson and KeVaughn Allen to a team that lost in the second round of the NCAA Tournament a year ago. The biggest questions for Florida are frontcourt production and freshman point guard Andrew Nembhard taking over for Chris Chiozza.
Will Wade’s team underwent tragedy this offseason when junior Wayde Sims was fatally shot in September. You can never predict how a team will react to an incident like this, but the Tigers are talented enough to make a run to the top of the SEC and back to the NCAA Tournament this year. Sophomore Tremont Waters and freshman Naz Reid and Emmitt Williams will look to guide them there.
Vanderbilt could be the most improved team in the SEC this year. Freshman Darius Garland and transfers Matt Ryan and Yanni Wetzell will look to make the Commodores relevant in the SEC once again.
8.)Alabama Crimson Tide
Alabama will be without the services of 2018 NBA Draft lottery pick Collin Sexton this year, but Avery Johnson will rely on returners Donta Hall and John Petty, along with Texas transfer Tevin Mack to get them on the right side of the bubble and back in the NCAA Tournament for back-to-back years.
Daniel Gafford decided to return to Fayetteville for his sophomore season. No other returner averaged more than four points per game a year ago. Gafford has a chance to elevate his NBA Draft stock. A lack of supporting cast could keep the Razorbacks on the wrong side of the bubble this year.
Missouri suffered a huge blow to its NCAA Tournament aspirations when sophomore forward Jontay Porter tore his right ACL and MCL in a scrimmage against Southern Illinois on Sunday. It will be difficult for the Tigers to make it back to the “Big Dance” in Porter’s absence. The Tigers will need to improve from deep to have any chance of surviving the SEC.
After a tumultuous 2017-18 season that ended with a surprising trip to the Sweet Sixteen, Texas A&M has a new look this season. Robert Williams and Tyler Davis declared for the NBA Draft after last season. With their departure, the Aggies will not be as dominant in the frontcourt. Guards Admon Gilder and TJ Starks are the new faces of the program. Texas A&M may struggle to remain relevant in the SEC this year though.
It will be a rebuilding year for Tom Crean and company in Athens. The Bulldogs will try to replace Yante Maten, one of the best players in program history. The team lacks star power and will most likely be a bottom dweller in the SEC this season.
13.)South Carolina Gamecocks
Two years removed from an appearance in the Final Four, Frank Martin is in search of production on the perimeter to surround big man Chris Silva. If the Gamecocks are unable to generate backcourt production, they will miss out on the NCAA Tournament for the second year in a row.
14.)Ole Miss Rebels
Kermit Davis takes over for Andy Kennedy in Oxford. Ole Miss only won five conference games a year ago and the Rebels will use this year as a rebuilding year.
It is the first week of fall. The leaves are beginning to change and its getting cooler outside across the country. Yesterday, college teams reported for their first official practice day of the 2018-19 season. Over the summer the NCAA made feeble efforts to address the issues responsible for the ongoing FBI investigation, but alas they seem like they will do little to change the overall state of college basketball. Although there is still over a month to go before the season starts, it is time to take a look at who will be the major players in the college basketball scene this season. For the most part, we’ll see the usual suspects, but it is always fun to look forward to the coming season.
1.) Kentucky Wildcats
John Calipari brings in another top recruiting class to Lexington this season. The difference between last year’s team, which struggled to gel as a unit, and this group of young stars is that this year the Wildcats will have a nucleus of veterans to build around. PJ Washington returns after testing the NBA Draft waters and will look to contend for SEC Player of the Year. Additionally, Calipari landed Reid Travis, the most coveted graduate transfer in this year’s class from Stanford where he was a First-Team Pac-12 performer. Washington and Travis will be joined by the freshman class of EJ Montgomery, Tyler Herro, Keldon Johnson, Immanuel Quickly, and Ashton Hagans. The best Kentucky teams in years past have had a lethal combination of youth and experience. Expect this team to follow suit and have a chance to cut down the nets in April.
2.) Kansas Jayhawks
Bill Self’s group will have a chance to win its 15th consecutive Big 12 regular season title this year. Kansas will have one of the most talented teams in the country. Udoka Azubuike and Lagerald Vick are two key returning players from last year’s team that made a run to the Final Four. Freshman Quentin Grimes will take the reins at point guard and will be joined by Memphis transfers Dedric and KJ Lawson. This could be the Jayhawks best team since the squad that won it all in 2008.
3.) Duke Blue Devils
The Duke Blue Devils will struggle to replace its entire starting lineup from a year ago. Yeah right. Coach K reloads his roster with the top three recruits in the Class of 2018: RJ Barrett, Cam Reddish, and Zion Williamson, and Tyus Jones’ brother, Tre, who will man the point. It may take some time for the Blue Devils to find some chemistry, but this team feels eerily similar to the 2015 National Championship team.
4.) Gonzaga Bulldogs
Last year, the Gonzaga Bulldogs looked well on their way to a second straight Final Four appearance until Killian Tillie sustained a hip injury and they were bounced by Florida State in the Sweet Sixteen. A healthy Tillie and an All-American/potential NBA First Round Draft pick in Rui Hachimura will make Gonzaga the class of the WCC yet again and have them in position for a one seed and a chance at a second trip to the Final Four in three years.
5.) Nevada Wolfpack
After back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances and a run to the Sweet Sixteen last season, Eric Musselman’s team will not be flying under the radar this year. Nevada will be one of the best teams in the country this season as the Martin twins (Caleb and Cody) decided to return for their senior season after testing the NBA Draft process in the spring. In addition, Jordan Caroline returns and the Wolfpack will have the services of Jordan Brown, a McDonald’s All-American from the Class of 2018. The next step in their rise to prominence will be a trip to Minneapolis.
6.) Tennessee Volunteers
After a surprising season in which Tennessee was picked to finished last in the SEC, the Volunteers won the SEC regular season championship. SEC Player of the Year Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield will look to avenge a loss to Loyola-Chicago in the Round of 32 and get Rick Barnes to the Final Four.
7.) Virginia Cavaliers
The 2017-18 season for the Virginia Cavaliers came to a screeching halt when they became the first one seed in the history of the NCAA Tournament to a sixteen seed when they lost to UMBC in March. Tony Bennett will look to turn the tide against his woeful NCAA Tournament performances in the past and lead his team to success in the “Big Dance” in 2019. The Cavaliers return Kyle Guy, Ty Jerome, and the ACC’s Sixth Man of the Year, De’Andre Hunter, a likely first round pick in the 2019 NBA Draft who was sorely missed in their excruciating loss to the Retrievers.
8.) North Carolina Tar Heels
After losing in the second round to Texas A&M in the NCAA Tournament and losing the veteran backcourt of Joel Berry and Theo Pinson, Roy Williams will look to bounce back with a combination of youth, experience and aim for Tournament success in 2019. Nassir Little and Coby White join the Tar Heels as highly touted recruits, while Cameron Johnson and potential National Player of the Year candidate Luke Maye will return to Chapel Hill and look to get back to the Final Four for the third time in four years.
9.) Michigan State Spartans
Amid scandal, Tom Izzo led Michigan State to a 30-5 record in 2017-18 before being stunned by Syracuse in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Cassius Winston and Nick Ward will look to step up and fill the void left by the departures of Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson Jr. to the NBA.
10.) Villanova Wildcats
The defending National Champion Villanova Wildcats round out the preseason top ten. Jay Wright lost National Player of the Year Jalen Brunson, Big East Tournament MVP Mikal Bridges, Final Four Most Valuable Player Donte DiVincenzo, and Omari Spellman to the NBA Draft. The Wildcats return Eric Paschall and Phil Booth and add a recruiting class of Jahvon Quinerly, Brandon Slater, Cole Swider, and Albany transfer Joe Cremo. Villanova should still win the Big East, but has a lot of work to do if they plan to celebrate a National Championship for the third time in four years.
11.) West Virginia Mountaineers
Bob Huggins will be without the services of do-it-all guard Jevon Carter due to graduation this season, but the nation’s best shot blocker, Sagaba Konate, and Esa Ahmad will look to lead the Mountaineers as they try to dethrone Kansas for the top spot in the Big 12.
12.) Auburn Tigers
A veteran backcourt of Bryce Brown, Jared Harper, and DeSean Murray will look to follow-up last year’s surprise result and get Bruce Pearl deep into March.
13.) Kansas State Wildcats
Kansas State advanced to the Elite Eight last year with a late season surge despite playing without their best player, Dean Wade. Wade returns from injury and the Wildcats will look to contest atop the Big 12 and make another deep run through the NCAA Tournament Bracket.
14.) Virginia Tech Hokies
Despite being bounced in the first round of the “Big Dance” by Alabama, Virginia Tech returns deep core of talent from a team that raised havoc in the ACC, taking down North Carolina, Duke, and Virginia a year ago. Look for Nickeil Alexander-Walker to make a big jump from his freshman to sophomore year.
15.) Syracuse Orange
After making the NCAA Tournament as the last team in, the Orange rattled off three wins over Arizona State, TCU, and Michigan State before losing to Duke in the Sweet Sixteen. Syracuse is in a similar situation as they were entering the 2016 season, where a deep run in March fueled high expectations for the 2017 team. The Orange return all five starters, Frank Howard, Tyus Battle, Oshae Brissett, Marek Dolezaj, and Paschal Chukwu. Jalen Carey, Buddy Boeheim, Robert Braswell, and East Carolina transfer Elijah Hughes have been added to the roster to bring some needed depth and shooting to Central New York.
16.) Oregon Ducks
The Oregon Ducks advanced to the Final Four for the first time in eight decades in 2017, but failed to make the “Big Dance” in 2018. Peyton Pritchard returns to Eugene to join a group of highly touted recruits, including Bol Bol, son of Manute Bol, and Louis King. The Ducks are early favorites to win the Pac-12.
17.) TCU Horned Frogs
TCU returned to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in two decades last season. With Victor Brodziansky and Kenrich Williams absent from this year’s roster, Desmond Bane and a healthy Jaylen Fisher will look to dance again for the second time in as many years under Jamie Dixon.
18.) Michigan Wolverines
The National Runners-up will look to continue their success under John Beilein with the return of Charles Matthews and Jordan Poole.
19.) UCLA Bruins
Steve Alford has yet to make it past the Sweet Sixteen in his tenure and after being sent out in the First Four by St. Bonaventure last year, he sits squarely on the hot seat. Kris Wilkes and Jaylen Hands return to campus after testing the NBA Draft waters in the spring; and along with Shareef O’Neal, Shaq’s son, the Bruins are hoping to break through in March.
20.) Washington Huskies
Coach Mike Hopkins brought the 2-3 zone from Syracuse to the Pacific Northwest and brought a team that won nine games in 2016-17 to a 21 win season and a trip to the NIT a season ago. Matisse Thybulle and Noah Dickerson will look to lead the Huskies to the top of the Pac-12 and to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2011.
21.) Mississippi State Bulldogs
Ben Howland will look to take his fourth program to the “Big Dance” after taking Mississippi State to the NIT semifinals a year ago. Quinndary Weatherspoon will need to be an All-SEC performer if the Bulldogs want to hear their name called on “Selection Sunday.”
22.) Loyola-Chicago Ramblers
Though Sister Jean and the Ramblers took the world by storm last March, they are no longer Cinderella. Clayton Custer returns to Porter Moser’s squad. A week non-conference schedule could keep Loyola-Chicago out of the NCAA Tournament if they were to slip up on their way to a Missouri Valley Conference Tournament title.
23.) Marquette Golden Eagles
Marquette had one of the best offenses in the country a year ago, but their defense was one of the worst. If the Golden Eagles can improve on the defensive end, Markus Howard and Sam Hauser will hope to shoot their way into March Madness.
24.) Nebraska Cornhuskers
Nebraska finished fourth in a down Big Ten last year, and a poor non-conference schedule kept them on the wrong side of the bubble. James Palmer Jr. will look to build on his First Team Big Ten selection a year ago and get the Cornhuskers into the Dance.
25.) Cincinnati Bearcats
After blowing a big second half lead to Nevada in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, Mick Cronan will look to regroup in order to make a run in the postseason this year. The Bearcats lost Gary Clark and Kyle Washington to graduation, and Jacob Evans to the NBA Draft from last year’s squad, but Jarron Cumberland and Justin Jenifer will look to take on a larger load and keep Cincinnati atop the AAC this year.
SEC Tournament: March 7-March 11, Scottrade Center, St. Louis, MO
The SEC will host their 2018 men’s basketball conference tournament at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis. The Tourney will feature seven teams destined for a run in the NCAA Tournament and three teams fighting to build their resume for an at-large bid or to secure an automatic bid.
Auburn (25-6,13-5) will be hungry to take home both the SEC Regular Season and Tournament Championships after not having a single player in the SEC First Team. Bryce Brown and Jared Harper were both relegated to the All-SEC Second Team. Auburn will look to hang onto a three seed in the NCAA Tournament with a strong showing in St. Louis. Auburn will begin its quest for an SEC postseason championship when the play the winner of the eight seed Texas A&M and the nine seed Alabama Friday at 1pm.
My pick to win the SEC Tournament is the Tennessee Volunteers. Tennessee (23-7, 13-5) has been the most consistent team in the SEC all year. Led by SEC Player of the Year, Grant Williams, and All-SEC Second Team performer Admiral Schofield, the Volunteers will look to hold onto a top four seed in the NCAA Tournament and the chance to play their first weekend games in Nashville. As the second seed in the SEC Tournament, Rick Barnes’ team will be hungry to claim a conference postseason title. Tennessee will begin its run in March with the winner of the game between 7-seeded Mississippi State and 10-seeded LSU on Friday at 7pm.
Florida (20-11, 11-7) looked to be a team destined for the Final Four early on this season, but found their way closer to the bubble in late February. After winning at home against Kentucky in the regular season finale, the Gators look to be headed to the NCAA Tournament thanks to the leadership of All-SEC First Teamer Chris Chiozza. Florida will open against the winner of the 6-seed Arkansas and the 11-seed South Carolina on Friday at 9pm.
Kentucky (21-10, 10-8) struggled at times during the regular season, but as Coach Calipari’s team’s usually do, the Wildcats are peaking at the right time headed into March Madness. Co-SEC Rookie of the Year Kevin Knox will look to lead the Wildcats to a deep run in the “Big Dance” and that starts with continuing their momentum in the conference tournament. Kentucky will face the winner of the 5-seed Missouri and the 12-seed Georgia on Friday at 3pm.
Missouri (20-11, 10-8) is the most intriguing story of the SEC Tournament. Michael Porter Jr., the top recruit in the Class of 2017, will return to action Thursday for the first time after injuring his back two minutes into his college career. It will be interesting to see how he fits in with his teammates, including All-SEC First Team selection, Canisius transfer Kassius Robertson, who earned the five seed in the SEC Tourney and are destined for a bid in the NCAA Tournament. The goal for Porter Jr. is to be productive and stay healthy as he is touted to be a top five pick in this year’s NBA Draft. Missouri will take on the 12-seed Georgia, who defeated Vanderbilt in a play-in game on Wednesday night, on Thursday at 3pm.
Arkansas, led by All-SEC First Team member Jaylen Barford, will look to improve their NCAA Tournament seeding with a strong showing at the Scottrade Center. The Razorbacks are 21-10 overall, 10-8 in the SEC and will open against the 11-seed South Carolina, who defeated Ole Miss in a play-in game Wednesday night, on Thursday at 9pm.
Texas A&M battled through injuries and suspensions to key players to finish eighth in the league and in position to earn an at-large bid to the “Big Dance.” The Aggies, led by All-SEC First Team performer Tyler Davis, are talented enough to make noise in both the SEC and NCAA Tournaments. Texas A&M is 20-11 overall, 9-9 in league play and will open against Alabama on Thursday at 1pm.
On the Bubble: Alabama, Mississippi State, Georgia
Alabama, led by co-SEC Rookie of the Year Collin Sexton, is on the wrong side of the bubble as of the inception of the SEC Tournament. The Crimson Tide will likely need to make a run to the semifinals of the conference tournament and pick up wins over the eight seed Texas A&M (Thursday at 1pm.) and top seeded Auburn to earn an at-large bid. Any slip-ups before that and Alabama will be destined for the NIT.
Mississippi State has the 212th ranked non-conference strength of schedule and did not do enough in conference play to be in the conversation for an at-large bid. The Bulldogs will likely need to win the SEC Tournament to play their way into the field of 68. The journey begins against LSU Thursday at 7pm.
The same is true for Georgia, who is led by All-SEC First Teamer Yante Maten. The Bulldogs will look to win five games in five days to make their way to the NCAA Tournament after struggling throughout the majority of the conference schedule. Georgia picked up a win over Vanderbilt in a play-in game Wednesday night.