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Identifying this season's Butler; Thoughts from "Upset" Saturday

Jared Trexler
College Basketball Contributing Editor


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Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - How would college basketball be different if Gordon Hayward's half-court heave had gone in?

In its concrete form, the national title would be in Butler's Hinkle Fieldhouse instead of Duke's Cameron Indoor Stadium. Butler head coach Brad Stevens may be coaching somewhere else. The injury to Kyrie Irving would have brought more unrest to Durham without hardware already in the trophy case.

Going forward, not much would have changed. Butler broke down the perception barrier for mid-major programs just by going toe-to-toe with the Blue Devils no matter the outcome. It was a giant leap forward even from George Mason's stunning journey to the Final Four in 2006. The Bulldogs knocked off the Tysons and Alis of the sport then came an inch or two short of slaying one of the game's ultimate Goliaths.

We have increased our standards for mid-majors with hoops junkies surveying the game's landscape for the next "Butler." With the season two-plus months old, it seems an appropriate time to sift through the resumes of several teams and determine their chances of running with the mid-major mantle and pulling off the NCAA Tournament's next great Cinderella story.

SAN DIEGO STATE (17-0)

Resume to Date: Already three impressive true road victories at Gonzaga, California and Utah. Long and athletic Aztecs love to attack the rim, which makes prolonged shooting slumps rare. They have a great mix of youth with leading scorer Kawhi Leonard, a sophomore, followed by three seniors who have been around the block in Malcolm Thomas, D.J. Gay and Billy White.

Numbers, Numbers, Numbers: The Aztecs are a well-rounded outfit. Their effective field goal percentage, according to kenpom.com, is 53.5 percent -- almost five percentage points above the national average. They rarely turn the basketball over by today's standards and attack the offensive backboards. If there is one weakness it's a 31.4 shooting percentage from beyond the arc, ranking 253rd nationally. Over 61 percent of the Aztecs' field goals come from inside the three-point line.

Games to Watch: Two games with BYU, the first in Provo on January 26; February 12 at UNLV.

How Much Like Butler: Aztecs have the physicality to compete with the nation at-large and a trio of seniors who aren't awed by the biggest stage's bright lights. I only see two or three losses on the schedule, maybe four if an injury or two strikes. That sets the Aztecs up for a top-four seed, minimal travel and a solid path to the Sweet 16. But I question this unit's ability to reach the next level with suspect perimeter shooting and a short bench (194th nationally in bench minutes).

CENTRAL FLORIDA (14-1)

Resume to Date: Wins over three in-state power conference schools: Florida, South Florida and Miami. A true road win over Massachusetts is another notch in the belt.

Numbers, Numbers, Numbers: I have talked in past weeks about Marcus Jordan and Keith Clanton's offensive efficiency, but Donnie Jones' team gets in your face and guards just as well. The numbers don't lie. According to ken.pom, UCF's effective defensive field goal percentage (40.8 percentage) ranks fourth nationally. Its opponents don't even make 30 percent of their long-range shots. Offensively, UCF gets to the foul line with 26.1 percent of its points coming from the charity stripe.

Games to Watch: Two games with Memphis, the first a home date on January 26 (should I call that mid-major Wednesday?); always dangerous road date at UTEP on February 2.

How Much Like Butler: Using the comparison game, Jordan is UCF's Hayward and Clanton is much like Butler's Matt Howard. But who does UCF have to play the roles of Shelvin Mack and Ronald Nored. I question UCF's explosiveness beyond the top two players, which is many times a limitation for an upstart mid- major. UCF is likely looking at a five-seed as the high ceiling, which means a matchup with a tournament-tested team in round two. I see a tournament victory in the crystal ball, but not much past that unless matchups fall its way.

BRIGHAM YOUNG (16-1)

Resume to Date: Home victories over Utah State and UTEP; wins over Arizona, St. Mary's and UNLV.

Numbers, Numbers, Numbers: The 12th-best adjusted offensive efficiency thanks to kenpom.com. The Cougars average just 15.4 turnovers per game, the third best rate in the country. They don't pound the offensive glass, 155th nationally in that department, but limit their opposition's offensive rebounds as well.

Games to Watch: Two games with San Diego State discussed above; New Mexico's Pit is a tough destination, and the Cougars go there on January 29.

How Much Like Butler: Maybe not as athletic as last year's Bulldogs but just as proficient on both ends of the floor. Like Butler with Hayward, the Cougars have a star in Jimmer Fredette and a supporting cast that knows its roles. With some preferred matchups and the ability to stay out west (possible with a top-three seed), these Cougars have the best shot of any mid- major to reach Houston.

OTHERS TO WATCH

UNLV (the ugly step-sister to the two Mountain West teams discussed above, the Rebels' ability to run and play in the half court makes them a dangerous out); St. Mary's (sixth most efficient offensive team in the country); Temple (10th best defensive team in the country according to the numbers; and it helps to have Lavoy Allen and Juan Fernandez); Richmond (read the December 20 column for an in-depth look at the Spiders); Wichita State (good shooting team from inside and out, blew out all but one opponent since narrow early December loss to Aztecs then dropped nail-biter to equally dangerous Missouri State on Sunday).

WHAT WE LEARNED LAST WEEK (AKA "UPSET" SATURDAY):

1. Colorado beats Missouri, 89-76: For all of Missouri's offensive firepower, it ran into a buzzsaw against a team that values possessions and chooses shots wisely. The Tigers thrive off opposition impatience, but they have to get better defensively in the half court.

2. Georgia beats Kentucky, 77-70: The Wildcats ran into a red- hot team. Georgia won its ninth straight, the most since its 1983 Final Four squad. It didn't help that DeAndre Liggins made just 2-of-9 shots.

3. West Virginia beats Georgetown, 65-59: The blueprint is out on beating the Hoyas. Suffocate their three guards and force more than adequate post play. Hollis Thompson and Julian Vaughn combined for just 10 points.

4. Oklahoma State beats Kansas State, 76-62: The Wildcats have no post presence while Curtis Kelly continues to serve his suspension. Again, Kansas State made less than 35 percent of its shots. I've been repeating the Wildcats' obvious deficiencies for weeks.

5. Penn State beats Michigan State, 66-62: How many more creative explanations can Spartans head coach Tom Izzo come up with? Now, the "preparation" was great, but the veterans didn't turn it into game production. That is just inexcusable. Draymond Green and Delvon Roe should be embarrassed by their effort in getting handily outplayed by guys named Jeff Brooks and Andrew Jones.

WHAT YOU SHOUKD NOW BEFORE FILLING OUT YOUR HOOPS BRACKET Each Monday from now through tournament time, I will provide an excerpt or two from my new book, "99 Things You Wish You Knew Before...Filling Out Your Hoops Bracket" so you can navigate the roadblocks set up by March's madness. The book is now available in paperback at Amazon.com and www.99-series.com. I am also donating part of personal profits to The Catie's Wish Foundation (www.catieswish.org). So you can help a good cause while making money on your selections.

#6: Guards Have the Ball Early and Often

Many experts will give convoluted reasons why guard play is more important in the NCAA Tournament. Yet, the reasoning is actually an exact science in basketball terms: they have the ball more. Guards control tempo, dictate offensive sets, and feed the post. They also do most of the passing and the bulk of the shooting. This is not to discredit post play, which is also an important factor when it comes to controlling the backboards and setting a physical tone. However, in a single-elimination setting, guards rule the day. No statistical evidence is necessary. It is just science.

FINE 15

1. Duke (15-0): Ken Pomeroy's statistical algorithm puts Duke and the team right below them at the head of the class. Duke is making 43.8 percent of its three-point shots, good for third nationally. Imagine the wide open looks that could (would) come if Irving ever returns.

2. Ohio State (16-0): Offense is sexy, but Ohio State's defensive supremacy is what makes it a legit title contender. Teams don't dare challenge Jared Sullinger's wide frame inside, and a rotating line of guards suffocate opposing backcourts.

3. Kansas (15-0): So many options can be a double-edged sword, but Bill Self's team is so unselfish, illustrated by a 60 percent effective field goal percentage. That number ranks first nationally, and if Kansas continues to make the extra pass, it should sit atop the Big 12.

4. Syracuse (16-0): The beat goes on in central New York. The one knock on the Orange is their failure to get to the foul line, but that could be a statistical anomaly considering 54.5 percent of their points come inside the arch.

5. Pittsburgh (13-1): The Big East is balanced, but very top heavy. The Panthers and Orange are the head of the class because each team plays really good defense, right? Well, yes, that is true in part. But do you know the nation's most efficient offensive team through nearly half the season? Yes, the Panthers.

6. San Diego State (15-0): They play like a Big East team with athletes at every position. Big game on Wednesday night versus underrated UNLV.

7. Villanova (12-1): Even in the midst of the Philadelphia Eagles playoff run, the city and its fans are excited about the Wildcats. I learned several valuable points to store in the memory bank from Villanova grad Kathleen Eager on Saturday. Corey Fisher has trouble finishing at the rim. And the most valuable Wildcat may be Maalik Wayns. The statistics indicate both are truths. This team's ceiling rests on Wayns' health and Fisher's ability to return to past success.

8. Purdue (13-1): Matt Painter's team guards. And that is essential with an offense limited beyond its two stars. However, could a third option be blossoming? Ryne Smith backed up his 13-point outing with 20 against Penn State and 18 versus Iowa.

9. Washington (12-3): Carnage up above brings massive amounts of subjectivity to this ranking. Huskies shoot into the Fine 15 because the computers love them, and my first two looks at them since Maui left me impressed. This team isn't just Isaiah Thomas anymore.

10. Missouri (14-2): I'm still a fan despite defensive meltdown versus Colorado, but I reserve the right to give a harder look in the weeks ahead. Offense is extremely efficient in transition. Defense looks a lot like North Carolina's 2007 title team (amoeba, turnover-causing group with fundamental lapses).

11. Connecticut (12-2): Bullish belief in Huskies hasn't changed, but Kemba Walker is keeping them afloat with an otherworldly game of H-O-R-S-E. However, his belief in his teammates is at an all-time low, illustrated by a sharp increase in forced shots and a dwindling number of assists. That is a bad omen not just for Walker's individual success but the efficiency of a many times stagnant offense.

12. Notre Dame (14-2): The 16th-most veteran team in Division I does not beat themselves and makes it hard for others to run a fluent offense. A thin bench and little explosiveness still leave some hesitancy, but this may be Mike Brey's best overall outfit in quite awhile.

13. Brigham Young (14-1): Fredette put in a lot of work this offseason, improving his lateral quickness and overall basketball body -- leaner yet broader to withstand contact in the lane. He is standing up to heavy minutes, averaging nearly 25 points per game and shooting almost 40 percent from deep.

14. Kentucky (12-3): Wildcats mimic Missouri's speed and low turnover numbers. The long-term difference between the two may be Kentucky's defense, which ranks 22nd nationally in overall effectiveness.

15. Texas (12-3): Didn't handle the end-game situation well (in regulation or overtime) versus Connecticut. It was a learning experience for a young team.


Trexler is the author of "99 Things You Wish You Knew Before...Filling Out Your Hoops Bracket." Click HERE to purchase the Kindle version...and stay tuned on an updated hardcopy edition this winter! Trexler also wrote "Penn State Football: An Interactive Guide To The World of Sports", a detailed look at the Nittany Lions' storied football history. It can be purchased HERE.

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Jared Trexler at jtt128@comcast.net.

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