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Cougs’ draw not as tough as you might think

Posted by Jeff Nusser on March 18, 2008

Raise your hand if your thinking on Sunday as the bracket was unveiled went something like this.

“Sweet! We’re a No. 4 seed! That’s even better than I thought. … Winthrop, huh? Didn’t they beat Notre Dame last year? That sounds like a trap waiting to happen. … Crap! We’re in the same region as North Carolina. Bye-bye Elite Eight. …”

Based on the responses I’ve seen over at SportsLink and heard from friends, most believe we didn’t get a favorable draw.

I happen to totally disagree. Let’s start with the opener.

Yes, it’s true that Winthrop upset Notre Dame in the first round of the Tournament last year. But this Winthrop team is not even remotely the same as last year’s Winthrop team. Two of the top three scorers from last year’s team are gone, including the one guy with some beef — 6-10, 245-pound senior Craig Bradshaw — that made it so that the mid-major Eagles could hang with a big conference team.

The contrast between the two teams is stunning, and is a real testament to first-year coach Randy Peele. With Bradshaw as the anchor in 2007, the Eagles were an astounding 10th in the nation in 2-point field goal percentage — a stat that indicates strong interior play — and 144th nationally in 3-point percentage (about average). This year? With guard Michael Jenkins — the returning top scorer from last year — as the focal point, the Eagles are 77th in 3-point percentage but just 224th in 2-point percentage. This team has completely changed its M.O., yet was able to repeat as Big South Champs.

Why is that good news for the Cougs? While we occasionally can have trouble with the 3-point shot, we really only have trouble with it under certain circumstances, particularly in defending teams who can penetrate and kick out. This is not that kind of team. I haven’t seen Winthrop play, but they have one of the lower free throw rates in the country, so we can infer they just don’t attack the basket much, even though point guard Chris Gaynor has a reputation for being very quick. Additionally, while Jenkins is a game changer, he’s facing Kyle Weaver. And we know what that can mean.

A team that plays what we typically would consider a mid-major style of basketball, as Winthrop does, just isn’t going to match up well with what WSU does on defense.

And while Winthrop does play very good defense in its own right, the only teams that truly have been able to contain the Cougs’ offense has been one with an athletic, harassing defense (UCLA) and one with towering 7-footers (Stanford). That is not the case here. Aron Baynes hasn’t seen a team with this little size since December. Remember what he was doing in December? Me too.
Bottom line? I honestly don’t think Winthrop is going to pose as big of a challenge to the Cougs as a lot of people do. Winthrop is a team that probably would have finished ninth in the Pac-10.

In looking ahead, I think the Cougs can beat either Notre Dame or George Mason. I don’t think much of Notre Dame, especially with as overrated as I think the Big East was this year. Only two guys have eaten up Aron Baynes this year, and that’s Kevin Love and Brook Lopez. Luke Harangody is no Love or Lopez. And while Will Thomas is one heck of an active big man for George Mason, I don’t see anything that isn’t beatable there, either.

Now, on to presumed Sweet Sixteen opponent North Carolina. Yes, the Tar Heels are the No. 1 overall seed, and they are undoubtedly awesome. But I also happen to think they are the No. 1 seed the Cougs have the best chance of beating.

North Carolina is the one No. 1 seed that, quite frankly, plays incredibly suspect defense. We know what UCLA can do, Memphis gets after it from baseline to baseline, and Kansas is perhaps the most underrated defensive team in the country. And while the Tar Heels are an absolute offensive juggernaut that finds a way to put the ball in the basket no matter the circumstances, their defense suffers in a lower-paced game — there is a slight correlation between pace and their defensive efficiency. And having watched them play multiple times, that seems right. Any team that makes them defend for 30 or 35 seconds is going to see them get impatient and leave a gap.

Additionally, only two teams have been able to have success in transition on the Cougs — UCLA and Cal (the first time). UCLA’s success was triggered off steals; Cal’s was triggered off sloppy turnovers. If we can keep the turnovers to a minimum, we stand a good chance of at least slowing down UNC.

And if we were able to get past North Carolina, well, anything could happen. Which gets me more and more excited as we lead up to Thursday.

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9 Responses to “Cougs’ draw not as tough as you might think”

  1. Hey, think of it this way. You could be a fan of a team that struggles with fast point guards and projects to face, in succession, Dominic James, DJ Augustin and Derrick Rose.

    Despite the worse seed and the looming Tar Heels, y’all have at least as good a chance of making it to the Elite 8 as Stanford, which is a coin flip at best against Marquette and Texas. I’ve never been a bigger (Kentucky) Wildcats fan… what a sucky draw.

  2. Nuss said

    Marquette does not scare me for you guys. They have absolutely NOBODY who can contend with Brook Lopez. Texas and Memphis are different stories, however.

    I guess the big point I was trying to make is that there are no easy draws in the NCAA Tournament. What you hope for is favorable matchups, and I think the Cougs got them. I think your boys have them for at least the first two rounds.

  3. Ptowncoug said

    I would rather play Memphis than UNC. Sure Memphis is athletic, but they are not a good shooting team. Sure they are up tempo, but we frustrate those types of teams. Hansborough is going to give us trouble. We simply lack inside depth and can only hope that tourney refs allow the boys to bang (which the tourney refs normally do).
    I think we will swallow both Winthrop and ND with our D. They really lack effective 3-pt shooters from what I see, although Win does shoot the 3 they are not Tajuan Porter type 3-pt shooters. We should have beaten Vandy, but they got hot behind the 3 and had the shooters to get hot and stay hot.

  4. Nuss said

    I see where you’re coming from with Memphis. I’m thinking back to how effective USC was in nearly beating them early this year, as the Tigers really got frustrated with the tempo. I guess I was thinking in terms of if every No. 1 seed is going to get theirs on the offensive end, which one is going to give us the most when they’re on defense? That’s clearly UNC. But you might have a point with Memphis.

  5. Ptowncoug said

    If I have to hear one more supposed analyst talk about Jenkins from Winthrop I am going to puke. The kid is essentially Low. Has a good game now and then, and completely disappears in others. If Jenkins is the best Winthrop has to offer they are in for a big surprise come Thursday.
    I call your Jenkins with Low and raise you a Weaver, Baynes and Rochestie, whadda you got Winthrop?

  6. johnnycougar said

    Don’t worry about it Ptown, you know that’s what the analysts are paid to do. A few talking heads have the pull to legitimately say what they think but most of them need to appeal to the audience, and the audience usually likes to see upsets, at least against teams that aren’t national favorites. I bet if we get to play UNC then those same analysts will make Low look like Bayless and Baynes look like Love.

    At the risk of exposing how naive I am, I will admit that I have Stanford in the Final Four. The Texas matchup scares me more than Marquette / Kentucky, and any other potential matchup will be wowed by the size of the Cardinal. Doesn’t the tourney usually show that there’s no substitute for a good big man? When the POY last year couldn’t get his team past the Sweet 16 (Durant) but Oden got his team to the championship? Maybe I’m just being affected by Brook Lopez’s recent absolute dominance of the Cougs, but it seems hard for me to understand how anyone can stop him. Their weakness of course is guard play, specifically quick guards as Precepts mentioned, but as long as Stanford plays patient D they will make penetrating guards pull up for jumpers rather than drive through the twin towers.

    As for the Cougs, trying to look at it objectively I can’t see us getting past UNC. I agree with Nuss on the positives of the matchups, and I’ll add that Hansbrough is no Love or Lopez either. Obviously he’s incredibly talented, but he doesn’t have the size to trouble Baynes (though his quickness will be a problem). I think it’ll be more of a case of each center scoring consistently on the other, Baynes overpowering in the low block and Hansbrough spinning past him or pulling up for short J’s (please call few fouls, mr. ref!). The two keys I would see for actually beating UNC are (1) for them to play inefficient offense (ie turnovers!) and (2) for us to shoot the 3 like we can. We don’t have to be “last two minutes of UCLA game” good, but at least “2nd half vs. Stanford” good. We won’t let UNC run over us, either score-wise or with a faster tempo, and I guess we haven’t seen much from UNC in a half-court game this year, so who knows? I don’t see it happening, but the potential is there.

  7. Nuss said

    I don’t think Stanford to the Final Four is a stretch at all. The Cardinal’s guard play can be suspect, and not having a 3-point shooter can make things tough — imagine how good they’d be if they had just one more sharpshooter? — but I agree with your assessment of the height. You can’t teach tall.

    If you’re curious about the numbers on UNC, here are the kenpom.com efficiency ratings sorted by pace. You’ll see their defense is generally worse when they’re not running up and down the floor with abandon. You’ll also see, though, that they generally turn the ball over less when they’re not running. Not much phases them on offense.

  8. It’s those kenpom numbers (and Sagarin’s, which are similar) which are scaring the bejeezus out of me. Marquette’s #12 in the Pomeroy rankings! As a 6th seed! (And Sagarin’s “predictor” actually predicts Marquette will pull the upset.)

    I have to say, I don’t think Baynes has much of a chance against Hansbrough. The great college bigs share one characteristic in common– they draw tons of fouls on their opponents. Love, Brook Lopez, Hansbrough, DJ White– that’s how they do so much damage. This is why Roy Hibbert, who will be a better NBA player than some of those, is not a great college player– he doesn’t foul out opposing players.

    The inside game is going to be a problem for the Cougs in that matchup. Still, with a low-tempo game, a top effort from Weaver and a 50% 3-point percentage, I could see the upset happening.

  9. Ptowncoug said

    Precept:
    Caveat on Hibbert. He plays in the Big East. I was watching one of their tourney games and it looked like a hockey game. Everything goes in the Big East. We need a little of that in the Pac-10 rather than ticky-tack calls.

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