If you're an average college basketball fan, you spent the last five months or so focusing in on your team and its scheduled opponents. For Xavier fans, this meant spending November and December wading through another challenging non-conference slate made up of Mario Mercurio's best work, the locking in on the Atlantic Ten through an up and down conference season. Now Xavier fans have burst forth from the labyrinth of mid-week conference games streaming on questionable websites and into the glare of center stage in the NCAA tournament. As your eyes adjust to the light, you'll notice the Greensboro pod that Xavier will be calling home also hosts three other teams. While they range in terms of exposure from the unavoidable media darlings (Duke) to the almost entirely unknowns (Lehigh), a little information on them all would no doubt be greatly welcome. We're here to provide you with just that.
Notre Dame (22-11, RPI: 38, KenPom: 40)
You're going to hear a lot about the Fighting Irish's loss of Tim Abromaitis over the next few days, but don't think that has any affect on the team that's coming to the tournament. He played only two games for Notre Dame before going down injured; the squad showing up in Greensboro is the same team that built the resume that got them there. Notre Dame staggered to an 11-8 start - including beating Louisville and losing to Georgia, Maryland, and Rutgers - before reeling off nine straight wins. The Irish looked good in beating Syracuse, Seton Hall, UConn, Marquette, and West Virginia (twice) in that run, but have dropped three out of their last five heading into the tourney.
Notre Dame's greatest ability on offense is keeping care of the ball. They turn it over on only 16.1% of their possessions; nobody in the nation does it better. They're not a great shooting or offensive rebounding team, but they are going to get their shots at the bucket rather than wasting possessions with turnovers. Defensively, they are awful at forcing turnovers, but they only allow an EFG% of 45.5%. They also are fourth best in the nation at not allowing their opponents to get to the free throw line.
Notre Dame likes to play really slowly. Prepare yourself to hear the word "burn" about twice per possession in every game they play. Beyond that, they like to shoot the three a lot (37% of their shot attempts) despite being relatively ineffective (33%). Defensively, they deny the perimeter (only 24% of opponents points come from beyond the arc) and force everything inside. Only four teams in the nation give up a higher percentage of their point on two-point baskets than Notre Dame.
Jack Cooley is a 6'9", 244 lb forward who is one of the most efficient scorers in the game. He averages 12.4/9.0/0.8 on .612/.000/.691 shooting. Sophomore guards Jerian Grant and Eric Atkins combine to post 24.5/6.1/9.0 from the one and two, though neither of them shoots 40% from the floor. Grant is a slightly more effective penetrator, but Atkins is connecting on 37% of three-point attempts.
Notre Dame earned their way in to the tournament at a seven thanks to a torrid stretch in the middle of the conference season. If they can keep the pace slow and establish an early lead, the Irish are an incredibly difficult team to come back against. We'll go more in-depth on this particular team on Thursday, when we preview the matchup between Notre Dame and Xavier.
Duke (27-6, RPI: 5, KenPom: 17)
The Blue Devils are a team you've probably heard of, especially if you happen to have access to any of the ESPN family of networks, their website, or their magazine. Duke has had a really good season, with their worst loss coming against tournament snub Miami (FL) in OT. Other than that, Duke lost to Florida State (twice), Temple, and UNC. The Blue Devils also boast wins over Belmont, Michigan State, Michigan, Kansas, UNC, and Florida State, with only two of those victories coming in true home games. This is a team that has been tested both in and out of conference and answered the bell at almost every juncture.
Duke's number one strength is the ability to score the basketball from almost anywhere on the court. They are a great shooting team (EFG 53%), rarely turn the ball over (17.6% of their possessions), and rebound 35% of their own misses. This all adds up to one of the top ten offenses in the nation. If they have a weakness, it's their 70.2% mark from the free throw line, which is still better than average. Defensively, Duke is below average at forcing turnovers and barely average at defending the glass. Their defense smothers the three-point arc, allowing only 24% of opponents' shots to come from deep. That mark is second-best in the country, and their 31.7% opponents' 3P% is nothing to sneeze at, either. Teams shoot 47% from inside the arc against the Devils, which is basically average.
Duke plays slightly up-tempo ball, but not to the point at which you would really define them as a running team. Offensively, they are focused on guard play, with 38% of their attempts coming from behind the arc. Interestingly, they have a relatively stagnant offense, averaging only 13 assists per game and sitting in the bottom 50 in the country in assists per made basket. Defensively, they don't let teams score from deep. Only one team in the nation allows a higher percentage of its points from inside the arc.
The offense focuses on the guards - Austin Rivers and Seth Curry. Rivers gets 15.3/3.2/2.2 on .442/.383/.642 and showcased his icy nerves by first knocking down the game-winning three against UNC and then later shooting an interview about it with a hickey prominently visible on his neck. Curry is also a good shooter, firing a line of .435/.399/.869 on his way to 13.5/2.5/2.4 per game. Mason Plumlee is a bruiser (6'10", 235) with limited offensive range who gets his 11 and 9 by virtue of doing work on the glass at both ends. Ryan Kelly is a 6'11" sharp shooter (.444/.408/.807) whose availability is in question due to a sprained foot. If his 11 and 5 are missing, Duke suddenly becomes an easier target.
Duke is a proven team this year, having knocked off tough squads both at home and on the road. There's no question that they are able to get buckets with the best programs in the nation, but their defense has been spotty. Rivers and Curry are both susceptible to giving up points at the guard positions, which puts a lot of stress on the bigs to cover effectively. Finally, I would ignore the talk about Kelly's foot for now. It seems likely that Coach K was being cautious in the ACC tournament so as to ensure the big man's health in the NCAAs. This is a team that has the potential to make a run if they got hot and the potential to go home very early if they get a little lazy and a little unlucky.
Lehigh (25-7, RPI: 94, KenPom: 86)
The Patriot League champions dropped their first two games, at St. John's and at Iowa State. They've gone 26-5 since, though - like the similarly hot Drexel - they didn't beat anyone of note on that run. Unlike Drexel, Lehigh took care of business in the conference tournament. Losses to Holy Cross and American don't reflect very well on Lehigh, but they did play Michigan State close on the road before falling by nine. They've gone 17-3 in their last 20, but the most impressive team they took down in that time was Bucknell.
Much like the rest of the teams in the pod, Lehigh protects the ball, turning it over on less than 17% of their possessions. They are also deadly from the line, converting 77% of their attempts as a team. Slightly better than average shooting from inside the arc (49.7%) and beyond it (35.5%) put the team in the top 100 in the nation in EFG%. Defensively, their numbers are just about average across the board. They do defend the glass superbly, allowing rebounds on only 29.5% of opponents' misses (64th in the country). Of course, this is all tempered by the fact that they played the 309th toughest schedule in the nation.
Lehigh likes to get the ball out and run, ranking just outside the top 50 in the country in adjusted pace. This high tempo makes their ability to control possession even more impressive. Defensively, they do their best to keep the tempo high by trying to force turnovers from the other team. The offense focuses on the perimeter, with 36% of the team's shots coming from behind the arc.
Much to do will be made in the coming days about the scoring prowess of 6'3" junior guard CJ McCollum, and for good reason. He takes more than a third of his team's shots when he's on the floor (which is more than 80% of the time) and shoots .455/.356/.821 on his way to 21.9/6.5/3.5 with 2.6 steals per game. It will be interesting to see if he can play up with the big boys or if he's just a flat-track bully. Six-foot-nine forward Gabe Knutson is actually almost as efficient a scorer as McCollum, but he "only" takes 23% of the team's shots when he's on the court. His 12.1/5.5/1.2 on .502/.400/.800 shooting is nothing to sneeze at. He also grabs almost three offensive boards per game, which could be huge for Lehigh if they want to play twice this weekend.
Lehigh is a good team, and there is some scuttlebutt around the internet about their ability to give Duke a run. Before you pencil in a 15 over 2 upset, though, consider the fact that there's a reason the teams were given their respective seed, and that Lehigh's admittedly nice numbers came against the kind of competition that gets Duke's walk-ons onto the floor. There's certainly a chance McCollum gets hot and shoots his team into history a la Harold "The Show" Arceneaux, but it's more likely that he posts decent numbers in a forgettable first-round blowout.
Those are the three teams that will be featured in the Greensboro pod with Xavier. With any luck, Xavier will have played two of them by this time next week. We'll go more in-depth on Notre Dame when we preview the game on Thursday, and hopefully do the same for the Lehigh/Duke winner on Saturday. Stay tuned.
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