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: 5 Most Important Games Remaining

After defeating Elon 75-62, Duke is 9-0 on the season and will look to continue the streak Thursday night against Connecticut. Duke has looked dominant at times this season, and the offense was nearly unstoppable in the road win at Wisconsin earlier this month.

Unfortunately for Duke, Wisconsin is the team’s only big-time win to date this season. Michigan State, which the Blue Devils beat earlier, has already lost three games, and UConn’s early struggles have cost Duke a chance at another big-time victory.

Michigan State is likely to improve—it always does—making Duke’s win look better, but for now, Duke has just the one big-time nonconference trophy head. With Duke looking to pace Kentucky as the top teams in the country, it needs all the big-time wins it can get. Kentucky has already defeated two Top 10 teams in Texas and Kansas.

With conference play coming up, Duke will have more chances to beat highly ranked teams. Here are the top five most important games remaining on the Blue Devils’ schedule.

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UNC Basketball: 5 Most Important Games Remaining for Tar Heels

Through mid-December, North Carolina sits with three losses versus out-of-conference opponents. It was predicted that this team would lose as many as four games prior to ACC play. No matter how bold that seemed at the time, a current 6-3 record is no reason to lose our heads.

With four more contests still to go before conference play commences, it also seems a bit early to try to tabulate which remaining contests are the most important for this team.

Carolina will face another nice test out of conference against Ohio State on Saturday after a solid showing against Kentucky, regardless of what the final score indicated (UK may never shoot 7-of-15 from three again this season).

But the most important tests will come after the new year, when ACC opponents come to Chapel Hill and North Carolina is forced to do battle with the foes that know it best.

The five most important games remaining for this club start right there, at the first conference fight of the 2014-15 season.

 

at Clemson 1/3/15

It’s fortunate that this is Carolina’s first ACC game. Otherwise, Clemson may have sneaked up on the Tar Heels and scrambled away with a victory. Now though, UNC will be ready for the game and ready to make its mark on the expansive new conference.

Prior to the year, Clemson was picked to finish near the bottom of the conference in the ACC preseason poll. With a recent win over Arkansas in which all Razorbacks not named Bobby Portis finished with 47 total points and shot 39 percent, it may be safe to say Clemson has a higher ceiling than many projected.

It would be especially demoralizing for UNC to lose this one considering the pair of ranked foes that immediately follow it.

 

vs. Syracuse 1/26/15

There are a few things we already know about this game even though it sits more than a month away.

Syracuse will be playing a 2-3 zone defense during the game.

North Carolina will struggle to make outside shots during the game.

While the Orange are down this season, they can still play to Carolina’s weaknesses. With ball hawks all over the court, especially freshman power forward Chris McCullough, he of two-plus blocks and two-plus steals per game, Syracuse takes its toll on opposing offenses.

This game will be tough for UNC, perhaps even tougher than Louisville’s pressure the following game. It will be a real litmus test for how North Carolina can prepare and execute against a known quantity on defense that should be able to be game-planned for.

 

vs. Virginia 2/2/15

This will be North Carolina’s only regular-season shot at the defending ACC champs.

It remains to be seen where each team will be in the standings come February, but with UVA’s always-suffocating team defense, there is no way this game will be easy, regardless.

Currently 9-0 with the best scoring defense in the country, Virginia just bottled up Maryland and VCU in back-to-back road games after holding Rutgers to a total of 26 points the game prior.

I can’t say for sure since I didn’t witness the game, but supposedly, Rutgers was on the court for the full 40 minutes in that game and still only scored 26 points.

 

at Duke 2/18/15

vs. Duke 3/7/15

Pretty self-explanatory. It helps that both teams are good, athletic and talented, with aspirations of a championship. But regardless, when UNC plays Duke, it is always appointment television.

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Kentucky Basketball: 5 Most Important Games Remaining for Wildcats

After Kentucky’s 84-70 dismantling of North Carolina on Saturday, many fans in Big Blue Nation started to schedule watch in order to see where Kentucky could slip.

While the talk of an undefeated season is still ludicrous—just think how hard it is to go 40-0there’s plenty of time for this discussion due to the talented Kentucky roster and number of games left to play. The Wildcats still have rivalry games, a neutral-site game and a whole slate of conference games to play.

We’ll take a look at the five most important games remaining for the Wildcats. Whether it’s a tough game or one that could mark a milestone, there’s no doubt Kentucky has circled these games on its calendar. 

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Ohio State Basketball: 5 Most Important Games Remaining for Buckeyes

Anyone with even a third-grade understanding of nutrition knows you cannot eat only cupcakes your entire life and be healthy. After all, mom always pushed the vegetables, not the sweets.

Unfortunately for the Ohio State basketball team, all it has eaten in the 2014-15 season is cupcakes, and it doesn’t have a healthy resume as a result.

The Buckeyes have beaten up on the likes of Sacred Heart, Campbell, Colgate, High Point and others and missed their one opportunity to make a statement in a loss to Louisville. All is not lost, though, because there are plenty of opportunities for Ohio State to add some meat and potatoes to that cupcake diet.

It just has to take advantage of those chances.

With that in mind, here is a look at the five most important games remaining on the Buckeyes’ schedule.

 

Dec. 20 vs. North Carolina (in Chicago)

Unless the Buckeyes simply blow away the rest of the Big Ten, the selection committee is going to look back on their nonconference schedule in March and use it as important grading criteria when handing out those favorable seeds.

A win over a mediocre-at-best Marquette squad is not going to cut it, either. Since Ohio State lost to Louisville, the Dec. 20 showdown with North Carolina on a neutral floor is its only remaining opportunity to make a statement before Big Ten play. 

Marcus Paige will be a handful for Shannon Scott and D’Angelo Russell, but the Tar Heels already lost to fellow Big Ten member Iowa at home. If the Buckeyes follow the Hawkeyes’ blueprint and bring a physical and relentless style of defense to the table for 40 minutes, they can pick up a marquee nonconference win that resonates all year.

 

Jan. 13 vs. Michigan

The importance of an Ohio State and Michigan showdown does not need to be explained in detail, whether it is in football or competitive eating.

The Buckeyes lost twice last season to Michigan, including a game in the Big Ten tournament, and would undoubtedly like some revenge. Considering Thad Matta is a sparkling 17-6 in his Ohio State career against the hated Wolverines, order needs to be restored in Columbus, and the only way to do that is with a win at home over John Beilein’s squad. 

If the Wolverines don’t turn it around soon, the Buckeyes should be able to handle them. Losses to NJIT and Eastern Michigan stain an early resume that is far short of NCAA tournament standards at the moment.

 

Feb. 14 at Michigan State

Even when Michigan State is in rebuilding mode, Tom Izzo has the Spartans in contention for a Big Ten crown. Expect nothing different this season, even if they did lose a few early nonconference games to Duke, Notre Dame and Kansas.

Ohio State plays the Spartans only one time all season, and it is in East Lansing. That is a rough break for the Buckeyes, although the Big Ten scheduling gods returned the favor by slating Ohio State’s one game against league-favorite Wisconsin in Columbus.

If we are to work under the assumption that the Badgers are going to win the Big Ten, which is solely an assumption at this point, then Michigan State and Ohio State will likely battle it out for the No. 2 seed in the conference tournament.

Second place in the Big Ten would be good enough for an impressive seed come March Madness as well, regardless of what actually happened in the conference tournament.

 

March 4 at Penn State

This game against Penn State may seem strange embedded in between marquee showdowns against some of the best teams in the Big Ten, but there is a very specific reason it is on here.

The Buckeyes inexplicably lost to the Nittany Lions twice last season, and those defeats seemed to do something to the team’s overall confidence level. After all, Matta’s bunch climbed as high as No. 3 in the country at one point last season but eventually tumbled all the way to a No. 6 seed in the NCAA tournament.

This game against Penn State is the second-to-last one on the regular-season schedule and comes right before the crucial tilt with Wisconsin. If the Buckeyes somehow lose again to the lowly Nittany Lions, it is difficult to envision them turning right around in the next game and knocking off the Badgers. 

That would mean a losing streak heading into the postseason, which would be particularly difficult on this still rather young group’s psyche.

 

March 8 vs. Wisconsin

If Ohio State has dreams of a Big Ten championship, which is certainly still realistic at this point, it has to beat Wisconsin.

This is the only crack that the Buckeyes have against the Badgers, and they are fortunate enough to get it in Columbus. That means this one game will serve as a tiebreaker if these two teams end up tied at the end of the year and represents a golden opportunity for the Buckeyes to make a loud statement on a national level right before Selection Sunday. 

Wisconsin went to the Final Four and brought the vast majority of its contributors back from a season ago. It is the team to beat in the Big Ten, so the Buckeyes need to do just that March 8.

 

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Kentucky Frontline Gets Headlines, but Harrison Twins Most Important Wildcats

The Kentucky Wildcats looked like an NBA team Tuesday night when they thoroughly eviscerated the Kansas Jayhawks 72-40.

This wasn’t your run-of-the-mill November schedule-filler, either. The Jayhawks were ranked No. 5 and largely considered a Final Four threat out of the Big 12. Kentucky made a statement to the rest of the country, and it was deafeningly loud.

For anyone watching, the first thing that jumped out was Kentucky’s deep and physically imposing front line. Between Karl Towns, Dakari Johnson, Willie Cauley-Stein, Marcus Lee, Alex Poythress and Trey Lyles, John Calipari has an entire roster of big guys who could contribute at the NBA level today if needed and the guards in Aaron and Andrew Harrison to keep them involved.

Johnson finished with 11 points, Towns had nine points, eight rebounds and four blocks, Cauley-Stein tallied seven points and 10 rebounds, Lee added four points, seven rebounds and four blocks, Poythress had four points, three rebounds and two blocks, and Lyles finished with four points and four rebounds.

As a team, Kentucky racked up an incredible 11 blocks and completely dominated the paint on both sides of the ball.

Despite the litany of NBA-ready big guys who will impose their will all season with length, overall size and athleticism, the Harrison brothers are the most important players on Calipari’s roster.

The two sophomore (which constitutes veteran status on Kentucky) guards completely controlled the tempo from the opening tip and proved themselves as the best perimeter threats the Wildcats have at their disposal. For as talented as freshman Devin Booker may be, he never looked comfortable from distance and finished 1-of-6 from three-point range.

The Harrisons were a combined 4-of-5 from downtown and hit some momentum-swinging shots in the early going.

With so many formidable bigs, opposing teams are going to have to utilize double-teams at some point if they dream of stopping the Wildcats. That will leave shots open on the outside, and the Harrisons will be more than ready to knock them down.

However, everything the Harrisons do for this team does not necessarily show up in the box score.

They provide a calming presence on the floor with the ball in their hands and are in complete control of the tempo and the game. What’s more, it is their responsibility as the primary guards and ball-handlers to spread the shots around and keep so many elite pieces happy this season.

An impressive 12 different players scored in the rout against Kansas, and everyone who stepped on the court felt like he was involved on the offensive end at some point.

When you have nine McDonald’s All-Americans on the team, it is easy to envision a scenario in which players are not happy with the number of shots they receive on a game-to-game basis. The Harrison brothers can quell any concerns about that becoming a problem, as they are more than willing to act as distributors who only care about whether the team is winning.

While neither has posted notable assist numbers yet, they are keeping the ball moving. It is important with so much talent that the guards don’t simply pound the ball into the ground until most of the shot clock has ticked away, and the Harrison brothers rarely do. Rather, Kentucky’s offense has kept the ball in motion, allowing a number of guys to touch it.

The real value of the Harrisons, though, follows supply-and-demand principles.

For as incredible as Kentucky’s front line is, the Wildcats could realistically afford to lose up to three big guys to injury or something else and still have more talent in the paint than any team in the country. That is a worst-case scenario, and nobody wants to see injuries in college sports, but Kentucky does have that security blanket.

There is a smaller supply of elite guards on this roster, even if Ulis and Booker do eventually fulfill their potential. Impressive guard play will always be in demand at the college level, and there is simply less room for error from the Harrison brothers because they don’t have the established pieces in the backcourt behind them to pick up any slack.

It is imperative that they both stay healthy all year. 

Sure, the platoon system is working brilliantly now, but you have to figure certain players will separate themselves and earn crunch-time minutes at some point. The Harrison brothers will likely be the ones on the floor in the backcourt down the stretch of March Madness games, especially if platoon No. 1 continues to play like it did Tuesday, via Kyle Tucker of The Courier-Journal:

It is no coincidence that platoon No. 1 features the Harrisons.

Aaron Harrison drilled game-turning shots in the final moments against Louisville, Michigan and Wisconsin in the NCAA tournament and carved a spot out for himself in Big Blue Nation lore forever. Those types of crunch-time contributions are why Calipari needs him on the floor down the stretch of close games.

Experience and leadership from the Harrisons will be critical on a team that is so reliant on production from freshmen. Ideally, they will act as mentors for Ulis and Booker as the year progresses. The Harrisons should understand everything the freshmen go through because they experienced growing pains themselves last season when Kentucky almost didn’t make the NCAA tournament.

They also boast a proven ability to come through in the clutch, which Kentucky will need at some point this season. Every game isn’t going to be as lopsided as the Kansas one was Tuesday.

In fact, the game against Buffalo was surprisingly close for most of the 40 minutes, and the Wildcats even trailed at the half. Every opponent is going to give Kentucky its best shot, so the Wildcats have to be ready to deliver on a nightly basis.

The Harrison brothers sparked Kentucky’s turnaround from a season ago as they gradually improved throughout the schedule. If they consistently act as leaders and go-to options throughout the 2014-15 campaign and deliver a national championship to Lexington, they will be Kentucky legends forever.

 

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How Important Is the 2014-15 Season to the New York Knicks?

Are the New York Knicks biding time, trumpeting patience and process as a way of readying themselves and their fans for another year of feckless basketball? Or are mentions of playoff contention indications of a team legitimately concerned with now, just as much as it is with later?

Different words have been flung around since the end of last season, many of them conflicting with one another. Instead of breeding balance, the Knicks are creating confusion, making it difficult—nigh impossible—to comprehend the importance of now.

Patience. Process.

Playoffs.

Which is it?

For a team so incontestably invested in dissociating itself from failures of years past, the Knicks have not entered 2014-15 with the fixed purpose or definitive direction conducive to redemption.

 

Patience and Process

If nothing else, the Knicks—buoyed by Phil Jackson and Derek Fisher’s candor—have been forthright about their attempt to reinvent themselves. Said reincarnation begins on the offensive end, where they’re implementing a somewhat-doctored version of the storied triangle assault.

This is not a halfhearted installation. Their roster isn’t ideally built for the triangle, but what little control over the cosmetic makeup Jackson had he exploited. He re-signed Carmelo Anthony, mid-range extraordinaire; he acquired Jose Calderon, the ideal off-ball point man; and he signed the triangle-fit Jason Smith.

Commitment to fully triangle-ing has been further evident in repeated acceptance of the lengthy process at hand. No one involved is entertaining instant mastery. If it’s not Jackson preaching patience, it’s Fisher. And if it’s not one of them, it’s someone else.

Including Anthony.

“It’s a work in progress now,” he said ahead New York’s regular-season opener, per ESPN New York’s Ian Begley. ”It’s going to be a work in progress until the end of the season.”

Indeed, the Knicks are facing a steep learning curve, one Doug Eberhardt and Mike Prada, writing for SB Nation, say cannot be skirted or abbreviated:

Combine a willingness to suffer through that transition year with long-term roster stability and extreme patience from management, and maybe a team can succeed going all-in on the Triangle. That is what the Knicks, under Jackson’s tutelage, will be hoping to accomplish. But that’s a tough sell for any owner, general manager or fan base; New York, of course, is not noted for being laid-back.

Triangle advocates believe previous coaches failed because of that lack of patience, and not any inherent problem with the system.

The triangle is complicated and, at its heart, endorses almost everything the Knicks did not last year: selflessness, ball movement, off-ball movement, spacing and reactive decision-making.

Elements of it have been integrated into other offenses over the years, aside from Jackson’s Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers. Those who tried to fully embrace it have failed spectacularly. (Think Jim Cleamons with the Dallas Mavericks and Kurt Rambis with the Minnesota Timberwolves.)

Recently, the triangle’s core tenets have also come under siege as they pertain to today’s NBA. In previous years, it’s called for an onrush of mid-range jumpers and post-ups, two scoring methods that go against the league’s three-point shooting influx.

These Knicks, then, must not only grasp the triangle but manipulate it.

Only three of Jackson’s Bulls and Lakers teams averaged more than 20 three-point attempts per game. Twenty squads, meanwhile, cleared 20 attempts last year. It’s adapt or die for this offense. And after the Knicks adapt, they’ll have to wait some more.

Then some more.

They may, in fact, wait well into 2015-16, since the Knicks of today aren’t the Knicks of tomorrow.

Roster turnover will play a significant part of their ongoing development. The team is flush with expiring contracts and impending cap space, the latter of which it intends to use.

“Carmelo took less money—even though it seems rather minuscule—but it’s enough for us to have flexibility in the coming year and then as the years go on the pie’s going to get bigger, things will happen,” Jackson said, per Begley.

New faces—whomever they are—will need time, just as the current Knicks need time. There’s no telling when the quest for headlining additions will end, either. It could be this summer; it could be next summer. This game of musical free-agency ventures could feasibly last for years.

And if the Knicks of today are merely a makeshift model for that broad, imprecise chase, how can this season itself be anything more?

 

Playoff Aspirations

Most teams in the Knicks’ situation that are struggling with a new system and employing a temporary core would be classified as “rebuilding.” They wouldn’t be expected to make the playoffs or do much of anything at all. Most rebuilding factions would willingly relegate themselves to the draft lottery while evaluating young talent and experimenting with different lineups.

But for all the similarities that can be drawn, the Knicks are not most rebuilding teams.

Anthony makes them different.

Thirty-year-old superstars playing at their peak aren’t typical components of lottery-lost franchises. Anthony returned to the Knicks knowing they wouldn’t become insta-contenders—he’s admitted as much—but his submission to their plan (and dollar signs) hasn’t bought them unconditional time.

It was Anthony who called the Knicks a playoff team in August, per the New York Post‘s Fred Kerber, and the rest of team has followed suit.

“There’s been teams that are learning a system, and once they figure that system out, they win,” Amar’e Stoudemire said, via Newsday‘s Al Iannazzone. ”When Tim Duncan played with the Spurs, his second year, they were somewhat of a new team but they won the championship. I’m sure we can search for that goal.”

Comparing the Knicks to any San Antonio Spurs team of the last 18 years is beyond absurdly ambitious. But the crux of San Antonio’s blueprint is one they are striving to replicate.

Like the Spurs, the Knicks are simultaneously planning for the future while trying to win now. However lofty or deluded that seems, they have no other choice.

 

Mixed Messages

What can we take away from the Knicks’ patience-seeking, playoff-searching ways?

Not much. Not right now.

Some of what they’re saying and doing trivializes this season. In addition to installing a new, complex offensive system, they’ve failed to elevate the ceiling of their 24th-ranked defense from last year. Their ability to lighten the scoring load that’s sat upon Anthony’s shoulders since 2011 is predicated upon ball movement and the shot-making abilities of inconsistent role players. Still-developing talents such as Iman Shumpert, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Cleanthony Early should also see substantial court time.

Next year’s first-round draft pick in hand, developing offense in mind, bottom-feeding defense in tow, it’s easy to say that 2014-15 will be nothing more than an empty, lottery-forsaken year for the Knicks. Not even Anthony’s offensive dominance can completely kill that train of thought.

But so long as they play in the Eastern Conference, such wisdom is not infallible.

The East isn’t built for traditional transitioning teams. Alleged tankers (Philadelphia 76ers) and raw-prospect-packed rotations (Orlando Magic, Milwaukee Bucks) make it implausible for a superstar-led team like the Knicks to count on bottoming out. It would take the most flagrant of tank jobs that, in all likelihood, would draw the ire of fans and perhaps the league.

Missing the playoffs also isn’t an effective sales pitch. If the Knicks want to spend forthcoming cap space on a Marc Gasol or Goran Dragic in 2015, or a Kevin Durant in 2016, they’ll want something of value outside Anthony to sling. They’ll need signs of progress.

And, in this case, there are no better harbingers of transcendent change than wins and playoff appearances.

So, immediately, the Knicks are who they are until injuries, a lack of talent, conference competition or a complete shift of course proves otherwise: the rare rebuilding team with its eyes fixated on tomorrow and its heart invested in today.

 

*Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference and NBA.com unless otherwise cited.

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Who Is Cleveland Cavaliers’ Most Important Player Outside of the Big 3?

The revamped Cleveland Cavaliers may simultaneously employ the NBA‘s best No. 1 option, second fiddle and third wheel this season. That is one of the many luxuries stemming from a summer that witnessed LeBron James’ return, Kevin Love’s arrival and Kyrie Irving‘s max-contract commitment.

But three players does not an NBA champion make—not even if those three have All-World credentials.

The strength of Cleveland’s championship stock may hinge on the diversification of this team’s production. James, Love and Irving can (and have) put the Cavs in title talks, per Odds Shark, but it’s going to take more to close that conversation.

Specifically, it’s going to take consistent and efficient production from a supporting cast featuring a mix of aging vets and still-developing prospects. And those prospects in particularTristan Thompson and Dion Waiters—will be critical to putting an end to The Forest City’s decades-long championship drought.

Sure, the Cavs will need Mike Miller’s three-point cannon and the spacing it creates, but they could lean on James Jones, Matthew Dellavedova and rookie Joe Harris for the long ball if they have to. Plus, Cleveland may yet add Ray Allen’s historically prolific perimeter touch to the mix.

The Cavs will also undoubtedly benefit from the energy and intelligence of veterans Anderson Varejao and Shawn Marion. But it’s hard to peg Varejao for an important role after seeing him miss 166 games over the past four seasons to injury. As for the 36-year-old Marion, he figures to be a part-time player at best as Father Time’s grip tightens around him.

Those guys are Cleveland’s helpers. Waiters and Thompson, though, could be Cleveland’s real difference-makers.

From a statistical standpoint, Waiters has the chance to show as well as any non-Big-Three Cavalier.

The explosive scoring guard erupted for 14.7 points and 3.0 assists as a rookie in 2012-13. For an encore, he bumped his scoring average (15.9), effective field-goal percentage (47.9, up from 45.1) and player efficiency rating (14.0 from 13.7) during his sophomore campaign, according to Basketball-Reference.com.

He can create his own scoring chances66.4 percent of his career two-point field goals have been unassisted—and his ability to wreak havoc off the bounce can keep pressure on opposing defenses even when Cleveland’s talented trio catch a breather. Waiters is also a capable setup man when he’s willing to share the basketball.

All of those are good traits to have, and seeing that he won’t turn 23 until December, the future looks incredibly bright if he can build around them.

As for the present, well, that’s a lot murkier. With Irving, Love and James on board, the Cavs don’t need a lot of what Waiters has to offer. As soon as James signed on the dotted line, Waiters knew this season would be one of adaptation.

“I have to make adjustments,” Waiters told reporters in July. “I have to find ways to impact the game without having the ball. I’m planning to go watch tape to see what [Dwyane Wade] did when he played with LeBron. I need to learn how to be effective out there with him.”

Waiters is on the right track, but the Cavs don’t need him to recreate the role Wade played alongside James with the Miami Heat. The spot set aside for Waiters is much further removed from the spotlight and far more limited in terms of touches. Bleacher Report’s Jared Dubin provided insight on how Waiters needs to improve: 

Whether Cavs coach David Blatt decides to start Waiters or not, the former Syracuse star should see major minutes with the second team. Cleveland’s reserves need his offensive creativity, whereas that gift would feel redundant given the Big Three are better scorers and passers than Waiters.

He’ll still see time with Cleveland’s big boppers, but his responsibilities will change dramatically from what they have been.

“The Cavaliers don’t necessarily need Waiters to drop 15-20 points a game,” wrote Bleacher Report’s Jonathan Wasserman. “They need him to be timely, efficient and consistently threatening.”

Waiters has the tools to succeed in such a role. Last season, he converted 41.6 percent of his catch-and-shoot threes, per SportVU player tracking data, which put him ahead of long-range snipers Danny Green (41.5), Vince Carter (40.1), Dirk Nowitzki (39.9) and the aforementioned Allen (39.9), among others.

But taking full advantage of that talent means leaving behind the ball-dominant skills responsible for getting him to the league. His NBA reality changed this summer as much as anyone on the roster, and it could take him all season (or longer) to catch up.

He has held or shared the lead in field-goal attempts during each of Cleveland’s first four preseason games. While he has made the most of these shots (47.2 percent shooting), the volume is still surprising with all of the weapons now around him.

Eventually, these personnel changes and the adjustments they bring out of Waiters will be a good thing. But for now they could put too many bumps in his road to comfortably consider him Cleveland’s fourth-most important player.

“This should result in a more efficient and less volatile player, but who knows,” SportsOnEarth’s Michael Pina wrote. ”Context is everything here, and a scorer who’s used to having the ball in his hands all the time must adapt when better players are brought into the fold.”

On the surface, Cleveland’s moves seem to negatively impact Thompson as much as anyone. After all, his natural power forward position can now be filled by the greatest player on the planet (James), a perennial All-Star (Love) or a former world champ (Marion).

Yet, this influx of talent actually puts Thompson in position to simplify his task list and focus on areas in which he has excelled in the past. And if he can pull this off, he should easily emerge as the fourth-most important piece of the puzzle.

“James, Love and Irving will grab the headlines, but it’ll be how Thompson controls the paint on defense that could really tell the story of most games,” wrote Bleacher Report’s Greg Swartz. “Cleveland needs Thompson to transform into the elite defender and shot-blocker many believed he’d become in the league.”

The Cavs badly need a rim protector. They have leaks on the defensive perimeter, and Love and Varejao don’t offer much insurance behind them. Brendan Haywood missed all of last season with a broken foot, and he hasn’t posted even an average PER since 2009-10, according to Basketball-Reference.com, so he won’t be much help, either.

To date, Thompson has hardly been a rim deterrent at this level. He averaged 0.4 blocks per game last season. Opponents shot 58.0 percent against him at the rim, per SportVU, which was the second-worst rate of the 75 defenders to face at least five such attempts per game.

This was never supposed to be an issue. In fact, he entered the league overflowing with potential as an interior defender.

Thanks to a massive 7’2″ wingspan, per ESPN Insider (subscription required), Thompson averaged 2.4 blocks during his lone season at Texas and posted a 7.2 block percentage there, according to Sports-Reference.com. To put that second number into perspective, Anthony Davis and Serge Ibaka led the league with a 6.7 block percentage last season (minimum 20 minutes per game).

“Tristan is a high-energy guy that gets his hands on the ball at both ends of the court,” Blatt told reporters earlier this month. “He has a very, very high motor. He’s active.”

If Thompson can rediscover his old shot-blocking form, he could go a long way toward addressing arguably the team’s biggest weakness. And if guys such as James, Love and Marion force him to find most of his minutes at the center spot, he says that it’s even better for him, per Cavs.com’s Joe Gabriele:

I think playing the 5 is an advantage for me. I’m much quicker than a lot of the other centers in our league. So, I’ll give them havoc and at the same time, I’ve got stronger over the summer where I can guard the 5’s and body up against them.

And if you look at it, our league is changing. You don’t really have the prototypical centers anymore—like the Shaqs, the Ewings, the Mutombos. Everyone’s more mobile and athletic, so a 4 or 5 in this league isn’t as big a difference.

Whether at the 4 or 5, Thompson simply needs to stay in his lane. And, unlike Waiters, Thompson should feel extremely comfortable with his role.

The Cavs aren’t looking for more than interior activity out of him. Judging by his production through three preseason games—12.7 points, 10.3 rebounds, 1.3 steals and 0.7 blocks in 23.7 minutes—that is precisely what he is prepared to give.

Thompson doesn’t need the ball to be effective. And his work as an off-ball cutter, above-the-rim finisher and offensive rebounder should all mesh well with the Big Three.

Not only can he coexist with that trio, his length, athleticism and defensive effort should also make it even better.

The Cavs, like any other championship hopefuls, will need everyone to make a successful title run. But Thompson will play the biggest role of Cleveland’s support staff due to the uniqueness of his talents and the way they will complement the rest of this roster.

 

Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.

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Most important moves of the NBA offseason

While LeBron James’ return to Cleveland made the headlines this summer, USA TODAY Sports’ Sam Amick breaks down other transactions that will pay dividends this season.

      
 

 

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UNC Basketball: Most Important Games on Tar Heels’ 2014-15 Schedule

North Carolina lost in heartbreaking fashion to Iowa State in the round of 32 in last season’s NCAA tournament, but there is reason to believe it could be one of the nation’s best teams in 2014-15.

After all, Marcus Paige is a legitimate All-American candidate. J.P. Tokoto, Kennedy Meeks and Brice Johnson provide some stability, and freshmen Justin Jackson and Theo Pinson have particularly high ceilings.

However, North Carolina has to win some critical games during the regular season first to put itself in position for a successful tournament run. Coach Roy Williams certainly thinks the schedule will be difficult, based on comments from GoHeels.com:

We want a great schedule. This is my 12th year (as head coach at UNC). In our previous 11 years our schedule has been in the top 50 in the country every year and in 10 it’s been in the top 25 according to strength of schedule. 

This one may be a little off the charts.

The schedule is quite challenging, but some games are more important than others. Let’s take a look at those.

* Note: While the Tar Heels could play some combination of UCLA, Florida, Wisconsin or Georgetown in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament early in the year, we avoided those contests because we are not quite sure who those opponents will be based on how the games unfold.

 

December 13 at Kentucky

This showdown between two blue-blood programs of college basketball squaring off in a legendary venue is sure to capture the nation’s attention.

The Kentucky Wildcats will be one of the best teams in the country yet again after a number of players came back to school after a run to the national title game. Among those are Willie Cauley-Stein, Andrew Harrison and Aaron Harrison, who give John Calipari impressive options down low and on the perimeter.

Dakari Johnson and Alex Poythress also make this a more veteran group than some fans are accustomed to, which will help with the pressure that comes with playing at Kentucky.

Still, this is a Calipari team we are talking about. Of course, the newcomers are going to play a major role, and this year’s group includes Karl Towns, Trey Lyles, Devin Booker and Tyler Ulis. Calipari has talent, depth, experience and versatility across the court, and the wins are sure to follow.

The Wildcats could be a top-five team all year, which means a victory in a true road game would be astronomically important for the Tar Heels. It would give them serious ammunition come Selection Sunday for seeding purposes and would be a major confidence boost heading into ACC play. 

That may ultimately be asking too much, but there is a lot on the table in this contest.

 

December 20 vs. Ohio State (in Chicago)

This game against Ohio State is on here for a reason, even if there may be a couple of more difficult ones.

We are working under the assumption that the Tar Heels drop the game in Kentucky in front of a raucous crowd. That means they will need a marquee nonconference win to make up for that, and this is a golden opportunity to do just that against a young team that will be much better in March than December.

The Buckeyes lost Aaron Craft, Lenzelle Smith and LaQuinton Ross but brought in a loaded recruiting class that is spearheaded by D’Angelo Russell, Keita Bates-Diop and Jae’Sean Tate. If you throw those guys in with the speedy Shannon Scott, Marc Loving and Sam Thompson, it is rather clear that this team will look to run all year.

Even big man Anthony Lee can get out in transition if needed.

This will be a solid test for the Tar Heels’ transition game on a neutral floor. The advantage here is Paige, who will have the experience edge over Russell and the ball-handling abilities to prevent the defensive-stalwart Scott from racking up too many steals. 

When the Buckeyes freshmen develop over the course of the year and hit their stride, they should make serious noise in the loaded Big Ten. That would make a North Carolina win in this one look even better for the Tar Heels come Selection Sunday.

 

March 7 vs. Duke

No introduction is needed here—a clash between Duke and North Carolina is bound to make any list of the most important games.

However, this one in Chapel Hill is especially important because it is the last game of the regular season and represents North Carolina’s chance to avoid a season sweep if the Blue Devils win in Cameron.

More than just bragging rights could be on the line, though, since both teams have ACC title aspirations and visions of a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Winning a high-stakes rivalry game like this would make a serious impression on the selection committee in March.

The Blue Devils will be one of the best teams in the nation with freshmen Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones and Justise Winslow to go along with veterans Quinn Cook, Rasheed Sulaimon and Amile Jefferson. Mike Krzyzewski has options all over the floor, but having elite players at center and point guard means the Blue Devils are primed for a big season.

Okafor will dominate down low on both sides thanks to his strength, rebounding prowess and array of low-post moves. It will also help having a pass-first point guard like Jones setting the table for the big man, and Okafor’s presence will open up shooters on the outside.

Okafor and Winslow also shore up the defense, which was a serious concern last year. 

Winslow in particular is critical here, as he can guard four different positions effectively. Adam Rowe of 247Sports noted that Winslow caught plenty of eyes on that side of the ball before he even made it to college:

Duke and North Carolina may just be the class of the ACC this year. Just like it’s supposed to be.

 

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