Virginia Basketball: 5 Most Important Games Remaining for Cavaliers

The ACC in 2014-15 is loaded. Currently, the conference has six schools in the Top 25, including three of the top six teams in the country. That doesn’t include the University of Pittsburgh or Syracuse University, either. 

For the No. 6 Virginia Cavaliers, who improved to 10-0 on Thursday, repeating as ACC champs won’t be easy.

The Hoos have won nine of their 10 games by at least 11 points. Two teams that were supposed to challenge Virginia—Maryland and VCU—lost to the Cavaliers by 11 and 17 points, respectively. 

Things will pick up for the Hoos in January, though. ACC play will open, and it can be brutal. 

Here is a look at the five most important games remaining on Virginia’s 2014-15 schedule.

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Duke Basketball: Amile Jefferson Proving to Be Blue Devils’ Biggest X-Factor

Let the headlines from Duke’s 10-point victory over Connecticut talk about Jahlil Okafor’s double-double or Tyus Jones’ 21 points. The real X-factor in the win—and the season as a whole—for Duke was Amile Jefferson.

Jefferson finished with 11 points, 13 rebounds, two assists, two blocks and a steal on the day and was even 5-of-7 from the free-throw line. He was there on the opposite block any time Connecticut threw one of numerous double-teams at Okafor and helped clean up the glass on both sides of the floor.

He and Okafor also both forced Connecticut’s big man, Amida Brimah, into early foul trouble, which changed the game for the Huskies. Brimah ended up with zero points and a single rebound and eventually fouled out after scoring 40 points and grabbing 12 rebounds in his last game. 

Adam Rowe of 247Sports noted that Jefferson’s efforts were critical in the victory:

Jefferson’s impressive play Thursday night highlighted just how effective the Duke frontcourt can be when he is on his game. Both Okafor and Jefferson ended up with double-doubles and helped the Blue Devils outrebound the Huskies to the tune of 43-27. Duke had a distinctive advantage down low, which helped set the tone for the entire game.

Jefferson’s presence also took some of the pressure off Okafor when those double-teams forced him to get rid of the ball early in possessions.

It is no secret how effective Okafor is going to be all season with an NBA skill set and the ability to score against almost any defender in the country, dominate on the boards or drop in timely passes when double-teams come his way. If Jefferson can play as well as he did Thursday, the Blue Devils will have one of the best one-two punches in all of college basketball down low.

A dominant frontcourt from the Blue Devils should terrify the rest of the ACC, considering how much depth Duke has in the backcourt. Jones, Quinn Cook, Rasheed Sulaimon, Matt Jones and the versatile Justise Winslow are all marquee cogs in the Duke machine and will share plenty of the scoring responsibility with Okafor.

The primary reason why Jefferson is so important to Duke’s national title hopes is the lack of frontcourt depth behind Okafor. That becomes all the more apparent in games when Jefferson struggles because the Blue Devils don’t have many other answers down low.

Marshall Plumlee is the only other big guy on the roster outside of the two starters playing more than 10 minutes a game, and Mike Krzyzewski has used a small lineup at times this season with versatile players like Jefferson and Winslow covering plenty of space and making up for the lack of frontcourt depth.

Jefferson can even play the center spot in those small-ball looks because of his athleticism and size combination. His quickness got him to the free-throw line a number of times Thursday and allows him to get past defenders off the dribble or use his speed to get to rebounds before opponents.

That type of explosiveness next to Okafor’s strength and ability to dominate gives the Blue Devils frontcourt multiple looks and skill sets.

The frontcourt performance was particularly critical Thursday night because the backcourt had serious issues dealing with the pressure defense that Connecticut is known for every time it takes the floor. In fact, the Blue Devils turned the ball over 22 times, including five for Sulaimon, four for Okafor and three each for Cook and Tyus Jones.

Ryan Boatright tallied four steals and hounded the Duke ball-handlers all game, which was at least some good experience before ACC play for Tyus Jones in particular. Still, the struggles with the press were concerning and kept the Huskies in a game that Duke should have easily won.

Alas, Jefferson’s performance helped stop the turnover bleeding and get the win.

What’s more, Duke fans have been treated to some early improvements from Jefferson compared to a season ago. His points per game, field-goal percentage, rebounds, free-throw percentage and minutes are all up from a season ago, which is encouraging and the telltale signs of an upperclassman turning the corner.

Jefferson’s improvements go beyond just the stats, though.

He looks more comfortable on the floor as a natural part of the offense and is also moving around on defense with Okafor stuck on the opponent’s best big man most nights. That is helping Jefferson grab more rebounds almost every night.

Ultimately, Jefferson is the X-factor for the Blue Devils because of the overall roster makeup. He doesn’t get nearly the attention that Okafor, Jefferson, Jones or even Cook or Sulaimon do, but he is incredibly important for a team that doesn’t have much frontcourt depth behind its superstar, Okafor. 

Jefferson gives Duke an all-important second option down low, versatility in the lineup choices and an athletic presence who can take some of the pressure off Okafor. The Blue Devils will need him if they plan on cutting down the nets at the end of the season.

 

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Kentucky Basketball: Do the Wildcats Need a Go-to Scorer?

To numbers junkies and analytics aficionados, what Kentucky is doing with its platoon system is mind-boggling. But numbers and data sets don’t win gamesclutch players do.

Kentucky doesn’t have a true go-to player at this point, partly because it hasn’t needed to and the sermon that head coach John Calipari has preached about balance and benevolence.

Yet at some point during the Wildcats’ quest for perfection, a situation will arise that calls for one player—not five—to put the team on his shoulders and carry it to victory.

Kentucky’s leading scorer is junior Willie Cauley-Stein, who is averaging 10.7 points but is only playing 24.5 minutes per game. That’s also a team high, as the platoon system has resulted in 10 players logging at least 13.7 minutes.

The loss of junior Alex Poythress to season-ending knee surgery seems to have scrapped the two-groups-of-five approach for the time being.

Calipari has been very candid about the platoon, often saying that it will last as long as it needs to and can be scrapped at any time when certain players struggle or prove deserving of extra minutes.

I’m not going to take minutes away from a player just to platoon,” Calipari told Kyle Tucker of the Louisville Courier-Journal on Thursday. “If we get to the point where eight of those guys or seven have separated from the rest, it’ll be pretty cut-and-dried…and those guys will play.”

Those comments are more related to dropping people who aren’t performing well out, but they don’t address the idea of having one or two guys as the primary scorers.

Cauley-Stein has twice tied for the scoring lead and has one outright high individual score when he had a Kentucky season-best 21 points in the 63-51 win over Texas. That was the Wildcats’ toughest game to date, and the 7-footer responded by making nine of 12 free throws and chipping in 12 rebounds, five steals and three blocks.

That performance, as well as a stat-stuffing game last time out against North Carolina, makes Cauley-Stein the best option for being a go-to scorer. There are plenty of other reasons:

  • He’s the veteran. With Poythress out, Cauley-Stein is the lone senior. He’s been through the good (reaching the title game last season) and bad (failing to make the NCAA tournament in 2012-13) and can feed off the experiences of both to influence his play and younger teammates.
  • He can do so much. Cauley-Stein not only leads the team in scoring but also rebounding (6.8). Furthermore, he has a team-high 19 steals and his 62.3 percent shooting is second to Dakari Johnson.
  • He doesn’t run hot and cold. Though he’s scored as few as five points in a game this season, that was against Montana State and the final margin in that contest was 58 points. Every other player to lead or share the team lead in scoring in a game has had an off game, with guards Aaron and Andrew Harrison each having many with their continued struggles shooting from outside.

The beauty of Kentucky’s system is that it doesn’t require one or two players to handle the majority of the scoring, but that option needs to be there.

With the rotation down to nine players due to Poythress‘ injury, only four players were subbed in at a time early on against North Carolina, allowing for a “hot” player to stay on the court longer.

As the season goes on, the opportunity for longer stretches of play for the more dynamic players should increase.

Being able to wear down opponents with constant substitutions of fresh bodies will remain a deadly weapon, but there will come times when an even more effective asset will be one player who can be turned to each and every night for clutch scoring.

 

Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.

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Virginia Basketball: 5 Eye-Popping Stats from Cavaliers in 2014-15

The No. 6 Virginia Cavaliers are off to their best start since 2000-01 after improving to 10-0 on Thursday with a win over Cleveland State. The 70-54 win was UVA’s ninth win by double digits on the season.

As usual, a stingy defense has led to Virginia’s outstanding start. The Cavaliers are at or near the top of several defensive categories.

UVA has been efficient on the offensive end, particularly guard Justin Anderson. Anderson leads the Hoos in scoring, averaging 16 points per game. 

There are several reasons why Virginia is 10-0. Here are five eye-popping statistics that have either led the Cavaliers to their hot start or could cost them at some point during the season. 

All statistical rankings are courtesy of NCAA.com and prior to Virginia’s win over Cleveland State on Thursday.

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UNC Basketball: What’s on the Line for Tar Heels vs. Ohio State?

Ten games into this season, North Carolina still hasn’t shown whether it’s going to be a good team, a great team or one that struggles all year long. It’s actually been all those things, unable to pick an outfit to wear out on the town and instead remains stuck in front of the mirror.

So consider Saturday’s game against No. 12 Ohio Statein the CBS Sports Classic at Chicago’s United Centeryet another dress rehearsal where we can only hope to start getting an idea of what the Tar Heels will look like in 2014-15.

“We do have a lot of things we’ve got to work on,” UNC coach Roy Williams Thursday said during a press conference, per Andrew Carter of the Raleigh News & Observer.

Improving in areas like rebounding, shot selection and pace are only part of what’s on the line for Carolina against Ohio State. It’s also a key chance to develop an identity, in front of a large crowd (that likely will be very slanted toward OSU and Kentucky, which faces UCLA in the opening game of the doubleheader) and against another team still trying to figure itself out. 

Williams had expectations and hopes for this group coming into the season, but a lot of things were uncertain, dependent on how individual players would perform and how the team as a whole would work alongside each other. Much of that hasn’t been there, which has prompted the coach to look at becoming more of a dictator than a pal.

Powell Latimer of the Greensboro News & Record noted as much following Williams’ comments Thursday about his nice-guy approach not seeming to work.

Ohio State provides a perfect opportunity to try a new approach, because the Buckeyes might be feeling far better about themselves than they should. Their 9-1 record includes six victories against teams with RPIs of 100 or worse, according to CBS Sports. The lone loss came in their only clash with a Top 50 team, losing 64-55 at Louisville on Dec. 2 in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge.

That was the same night UNC lost at home, to Iowa, only a few days after returning from the Bahamas with solid wins over Florida and UCLA (but also an unsettling loss to Butler) under its belt.

UNC—which has an RPI of 26, one ahead of Ohio State—is 5-1 against sub-100 teams thanks to the Iowa loss, while 2-2 against those in the top 100. Not exactly the resume of a team that was picked to finish second in the ACC behind Duke at the annual “Operation Basketball” media event.

Ohio State is one of the best shooting teams in the country, hitting 53.7 percent overall and 41.8 percent from three-point range. Much of that might have to do with its opponents, but it will also mean UNC’s field goal defense will get tested. The numbers say the Heels are good in this area, holding foes to 35.6 percent and 25.2 percent, respectively, but Kentucky made 56.3 and 46.7 percent in last week’s 16-point victory.

That prompted Williams to say “we can cure a lot of peoples’ 3-point woes,” per John Clay of Kentucky.com.

UNC doesn’t want to be that team that opponents see on the schedule and consider one that can be used as a confidence-builder, or a chance to turn things around. That’s where things are headed, though, and if Ohio State gets to the line at a better rate than it has to this point, the trend of the Heels being an opponent elixir will continue.

 

Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.

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5 Ways Connecticut Basketball Can Upset Duke

The defending national champion Connecticut Huskies will take on the No. 2 Duke Blue Devils on Thursday evening from the neutral-site IZOD Center in East Rutherford, New Jersey.

After last season’s magical NCAA tournament run ended with them cutting down the nets, this year has been a bit of a difficulty for the Huskies. At 4-3 on the year, Connecticut has been defeated by West Virginia and also lost two one-point games in a row to Texas and Yale. It’s coming off of a 106-85 victory over Coppin State and apparently is gaining its confidence back.

In that game, sophomore center Amida Brimah went off for 40 points and 12 rebounds as he took advantage of his size advantage, going 13 of 13 from the field and 14 of 16 from the free-throw line. The unquestioned leader of the team, however, is senior guard Ryan Boatright, who is averaging 18.9 points, 5.6 rebounds and 4.1 assists per contest.

Duke is off to a perfect 9-0 start to the season and has won each game by double digits. The Huskies will have their hands full with the Blue Devils, since they rank fourth in the NCAA in points per game with 87.6, eighth in assists with 18.4 per game and third in field-goal percentage, shooting 52.7 percent. Any Mike Krzyzewski team plays wise beyond its years, and this team is no exception. Freshman sensation Jahlil Okafor leads Duke by averaging 18.0 points and 9.0 rebounds per contest.

If the Huskies expect to pull off the upset tonight, they must accomplish the following tasks, in no particular order.

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Michigan State Basketball: Bryn Forbes, Matt Costello Keys to Success This Year

Michigan State clicks when Bryn Forbes and Matt Costello are clicking—look no further than the Spartans’ 66-46 victory Wednesday night over Eastern Michigan for proof of that.

Finally without a guard on his left hand/wrist, Forbes shot an efficient 4-of-8 from the field en route to scoring 14 points, his second highest total of the young season.

The 6’3”, 175-pound transfer from Cleveland State tilts the offensive balance in favor of the No. 22-ranked Spartans. The junior fills the role of marksman/stat-stuffer quite nicely; he could develop into one of Tom Izzo’s most impressive scorers.

At 6’9” and 245 pounds, Costello has the frame to control the paint. The junior looked true to form Wednesday night while scoring 10 points, grabbing nine boards and swatting a shot—a solid line regardless of the opposition.

They’re not the stars of the team, but in terms of importance, they’re right there alongside them. In order for Izzo’s team to function at its highest level, Forbes and Costello have to be tuned up accordingly—like they were Wednesday night, for instance.

 

Costello Could Be…

Yeah, yeah, yeah—a win over Eastern Michigan isn’t a big deal.

True enough.

But to be fair, the Eagles didn’t enter the Breslin Center as your standard underdogs; they were on the hunt for their second win over in-state big boys this year, and knocking off the Spartans in East Lansing would have been a great complement to their 45-42 victory over Michigan in Ann Arbor.

Costello didn’t let that happen.

Honestly, he looked just about as good as he ever has. Evidently, he found the same zone he had this past season when he scored 11 points and snagged 12 boards during a 71-69 overtime road win over Iowa.

Costello’s sometimes-aggressive nature suits a team that is looking for a menace in the paint. He doesn’t do it all of the time, but he proved Wednesday night that he could indeed be the big that Izzo needs—someone who can clean the glass and manufacture second, and sometimes third, scoring opportunities.

Generally speaking, Michigan State is starting to gain ground in rebound land. Those gains will multiply once Costello consistently claims his territory each game. Thus far, he’s been a temporary tenant in the paint. However, full-time residency is required in order for the Spartans to reach their peak.

Michigan State is 6-0 when Costello goes for double digits. Interpret as you will.

 

Thanks, Cleveland State

Forbes brings value, plain and simple.

He brings it to the three-point line, where he’s the No. 1-ranked perimeter team’s top gun; through 11 games, the former Horizon League savant is shooting a team-leading 50.9 percent from long range. As a team, the Spartans shoot 45.6 percent.

Forbes plus ball equals three.

He doesn’t get to the line that often, but he’s a lock when he does. Knocking down roughly 90 percent of free throws is a sure way to log minutes. In short, Forbes was exactly the offensive boost Michigan State needed after the dismissal of Kenny Kaminski this past summer.

Forbes’ speed and ability to create shots have made an immediate impact. As far as transfers go, he couldn’t be much better for a team that’s capable of contending for a Big Ten title.

Now that he’s approaching full health, which is at a premium for Michigan State, look for him to continue padding the Spartans’ gaudy average from the perimeter. Forbes has made three or more in a game five times this season.

Costello’s position has always been his for the taking. The door has been open for two years; it’s just been a matter of when—not if—he plans to claim it.

 

Follow Bleacher Report’s Michigan State Spartans basketball writer Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81

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Daily Fantasy Basketball 2014: Best NBA FanDuel, DraftKings Lineup for Dec. 18

Full disclosure: I stay far away from daily fantasy basketball on Thursday nights. 

With only a handful of games—four on this particular Thursday, which isn’t terrible—on the slate, it becomes difficult to pick out a lineup. You’re almost assuredly going to have to pick some players you don’t like, and even when you do, there end up being a lot of similar lineups. 

Still, some like having less options and digging a bit deeper for value, so let’s take a look at a couple potential lineups for the quiet night. 

 

FanDuel ($60,000 Budget)

Since his return from injury, Kevin Durant is averaging 21.5 points, 5.4 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 0.9 steals and 0.9 blocks in 29.4 minutes. Only a player of his caliber could be obviously rusty and average those numbers. 

But he’s starting to show glimpses of returning to MVP form:

A 40-point, 10-rebound outburst is coming, and it wouldn’t be surprising if it came in the biggest game of the season against a Golden State Warriors team that loves to push the pace. 

The New York Knicks are 26th in the NBA in defensive rating and without Iman Shumpert, their best perimeter defender. Jose Calderon and Tim Hardaway Jr. are going to be guarding Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler. 

It’s a tantalizing matchup. Rose has been playing more aggressive lately, averaging 18.5 shots over his last four, while Butler is a strong bet for 40 minutes and a full stat line as he makes the case to be an All-Star. 

Rose put it simply, via Bulls.com’s Sam Smith:

I like players on missions. 

The Knicks frontcourt is similarly soft, so Nikola Mirotic presents solid value as the team’s third big man if Taj Gibson’s newest ankle injury keeps him out. 

On the other side of the ball, it’s tough not to like Tim Hardaway Jr.’s combination of high usage and low price, even in the tough matchup. He’s a chucker, no doubt, but he’s a talented one who is averaging 32.9 minutes, 17.8 points and 4.5 rebounds with J.R. Smith sidelined the last four games. Smith is out again Thursday, making Timmy Jr. a no-brainer at $4,900. 

Milwaukee at Sacramento is a sneaky bet to be a high-scoring game. Jason Kidd’s Bucks are ninth in the NBA in pace, while Pete D’Alessandro and Vivek Ranadive made a sudden midseason firing just so the Kings would play faster.

Moreover, as Rotogrinders.com’s Gabriel Harber noted, Brandon Knight’s offensive role figures to grow without Jabari Parker:

In Parker’s first game out, Knight led the team with 24 points and 19 shots against the stingy Portland Trail Blazers. This is a better matchup. 

Trevor Ariza is one of the safest picks you’ll find on a daily basis because he’s relatively cheap ($6,200) and regularly surpasses 40 minutes. 

Ryan Anderson is back to the bench with the return of Anthony Davis, but his ability to stretch the court will cause problems against interior bigs Dwight Howard and Donatas Motiejunas.

Finally, the center position is thin after the expensive options, and Omer Asik is really the only viable option. He’s a rebounding machine, so that’s nice. 

 

DraftKings ($50,000 Budget)

Similarities: Knight, Butler, Hardaway Jr., Ariza

Draymond Green’s DraftKings price skyrocketed by $1,000 after Tuesday, which is unfortunate, but he’s still well worth his current price. 

There’s just no downside to the third-year breakout star. Against the Memphis Grizzlies, he scored four points and still finished with 36.0 DraftKings points thanks to 10 rebounds, six assists, five blocks and a steal. He’s playing a ton of minutes with David Lee and Andrew Bogut sidelined, and his versatile skill set leads to stacked box scores. 

At power forward, Motiejunas‘ role hasn’t really changed with the return of Howard. He’s still starting and getting around 30 minutes, which is plenty valuable at $5,500. 

The selection of Steven Adams represents the scarcity at center. However, he is quietly averaging 25.5 minutes, 8.8 points, 9.8 rebounds and 1.3 blocks over his last four, and the Warriors are thin up front with Green, Marreese Speights and Festus Ezeli the only available big men. 

Finally, Serge Ibaka‘s price has been dropping, probably because his role has diminished with the return of Russell Westbrook and Durant. But here are his numbers with the two stars in the lineup: 11.8 points, 4.9 rebounds, 3.1 blocks, 25.7 DraftKings points. 

I’ll take that in a heartbeat for $6,600. 

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College Basketball Coaches Whose Stock Is Soaring Early in 2014-15

It’s the holiday season, which is a good time to reflect on the previous year and analyze who has been naughty and who has been nice. This applies to the college basketball world too—particularly the coaches.

Though conference play won’t seriously get underway until the new year begins, there have been enough games so far this season to figure out who is on the right track and who needs to regroup entirely. In this list, we’re going to get into the holiday spirit and only focus on the positive.

Coaches usually don’t receive a lot of attention until March when seasons are on the line (and jobs are up in the air), but there are a handful of men who are already standing out and making a name for themselves early in the season.

Here are a few college basketball coaches who aren’t quite household names yet, but they have a chance to be come March.

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Odds on the Last Undefeated Team in College Basketball: Handicapping the Field

Could we be headed for a second straight college basketball season with an undefeated team at the start of the NCAA tournament?

Perhaps a better question: Are we more likely to have two 34-0 teams or zero?

After a little more than one month of play, only nine undefeated teams are left in the country. Today, we’re ranking those teams by the likelihood that they will serve as the last undefeated team remaining in 2014-15.

It’s a delicate balance of strength of roster and strength of schedule, but it won’t come as any surprise that Kentucky is No. 1 and TCU is No. 9. It’s in between where things start to get interesting. Duke at No. 5, for instance, might surprise some people, but you have to factor in who each team is playing, when and where.

On these slides, we list each team’s percentage of being undefeated on January 1 as well as on February 1. We determined those numbers by their chance of winning each game as calculated on KenPom.com (subscription required).

TCU, for example, has at least a 95 percent chance of winning each of its remaining games between now and New Year’s Day, but it goes downhill in a hurry after that.

We’ll also note which game we think will result in each team’s first loss, list up to five other games that could also result in losses and then provide each team’s odds of lasting the longest without a loss.

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