Peacocks Dancing into History

In one of the greatest Cinderella stories of all time, the 15-seeded Saint Peter’s Peacocks have shocked the college basketball world, not once, not twice, but three times. After pulling a stunning upset in the first round over blue-blood 2-seeded Kentucky, the Peacocks raced past 7-seeded Murray State en route to the Sweet 16. If the run ended there, it would still have been incredible, improbable, and historic. It was already one of the most unlikely stories in the history of the NCAA Tournament and then they did something no 15-seed has ever done: won in the Sweet 16 over 3-seed Purdue and moved on to the Elite Eight. The first ever 15-seed to advance to the Elite Eight is the Saint Peter’s Peacocks.

Let’s take a look at just how unlikely the Saint Peter’s story really is in NCAA Tournament history. The odds of a 15-seed beating a 2-seed in the first round are miniscule. They became just the 10th team to accomplish the feat in the 37 years of a 64-team field, compared to 138 losses. The odds of the 15-seed advancing to the 2nd game is just 6.3%. Then taking it one step further, in the round of 32, the odds of a 15-seed making the Sweet 16 before the tournament starts are 1.4%. The Peacocks became just the 3rd 15-seed to make the Sweet 16. That alone puts them in an elite category and cements their place in history. Taking it one step further, pre-tournament there was a 0.0% chance of Saint Peter’s making the Elite Eight because it had never been done. Now, after upsetting 3-seed Purdue, Saint Peter’s is in a tier unlike any team in history and they aren’t satisfied.

The drive and determination of the David vs Goliath story is inspiring. In their post game press conference following the win over Purdue, guard Doug Ebert said “We’re happy… We aren’t satisfied.” The team doesn’t play like they’re just happy to advance this far, the Peacocks are playing to win it all. The little program from Jersey City, NJ is on the biggest stage and performing with the bright lights shining. Why shouldn’t they be confident? They’ve taken down 3 very strong teams thus far and haven’t shown signs of slowing down. Their defensive effort has been strong and their head coach Shaheen Holloway believes they have another level they can reach. If that’s true, we could be talking about this team setting even more “firsts” over the next few days.

When looking at finances, Saint Peter’s is at an incredible disadvantage compared to every other team. Their 2019 men’s basketball operating expenses were just over $250,000, which is miniscule in college basketball. That number is 60% of Murray State’s expenses which are already small and a tiny fraction of every major program in the country. That essentially means the recruiting budget is tiny, the coach’s salary is tiny, and the facilities budget is severely lacking. They are the perfect example of money doesn’t always dictate success.

Roll on Peacocks!!

Hard Fought Battle Leads to the Sweet 16

The UConn Women’s basketball team faced one of their toughest battles on Monday night as they faced off against 7-seed UCF at Gampel Pavilion. The record 4,000 students were loud and raucous while they watched the best defensive team in the country, UCF Knights, muck up the game in an extreme way. The low-scoring, foul-filled contest was a true test for the Huskies, and in the end, the UConn Women’s basketball team set a new NCAA record as they punched their ticket to the 28th consecutive Sweet 16. It was ugly, but the Huskies did just enough to survive and advance.

UCF is the best defensive team in the country and they showed that tremendous strength on Monday night. They jumped into passing lanes, used the double-team liberally, and made physical plays in the paint on every single trip down the floor for the Huskies. The forced turnovers and bad shots for UConn and really put them on their heals on the offensive end. On their own offensive end, it was a completely different story. UCF committed 20 turnovers and at times looked completely lost in the half court. That’s partially thanks to the tough UConn defense and their ability to force UCF into mistakes. The Huskies exploited UCF’s offensive weakness and that ultimately was their demise. There aren’t many situations where a team is +7 in turnovers and gets the W.

This game was a tremendous test for the Huskies early in the tournament. They had to scrap and hustle during every possession and had to fight back after being down early. They got in foul trouble, some legitimate and some awful refereeing, and had both Aaliyah Edwards and Olivia Nelson-Ododa foul out in the final few minutes and were able to overcome those losses. They got contributions from up and down the lineup when they needed them the most and were able to pull ahead for the 5-point victory. My hope is that being able to win in a game of this style will give this team confidence that they can continue their deep run into the tourney, especially against a team where the familiarity factor was significant.

Azzi Fudd showed her growth during her freshman season by leading the team with 16 points and 2 rebounds. When they needed her the most, she hit 4 threes and helped UConn reach the 50-point threshold, which was the mark for this type of game. She also was perfect from the free throw line (4-4), showing poise and maturity beyond her years. The only other Husky in double-digits was Christyn Williams, who finished the game with 12 points, 3 rebounds, 1 block and 1 steal. Her senior leadership was key at moments when the team was getting frustrated.

It’s not likely that UConn will face a defensive team quite like UCF in the remainder of the tournament. Their Sweet 16 matchup, 3-seed Indiana, is a middle-of-the-pack defensive team. UConn should be able to hopefully score more than 52 points and play more of their style of basketball. After crushing 14-seed Charlotte in the first round, Indiana struggled to get past #11 Princeton. Indiana has very balanced scoring, with 5 players averaging 10+ points per game. They are led by a senior G Grace Berger who had 18 and 15 points respectively in their first two tournament games.

Fortunately for the Huskies they have a week to rest up and get ready for their matchup with Indiana.

NCAA Men’s Tournament: West Region Preview

The UConn Men’s basketball team is going dancing for the 2nd straight year after a 5-year gap. UConn has earned it’s highest seed since 2011 and was considered by the committee to be the 17th overall ranked team and #1 ranked 5-seed. While all of that is positive and to be in the NCAA Tournament is a goal every year, the committee certainly didn’t do UConn any favors putting them in the West Region. For me it’s the toughest region of them all in 2022 and the top seeds are an absolute gauntlet to run through if a team wants to play the Cinderella role, and there are some interesting Cinderella options. Let’s take a look at what makes this region so challenging.

The top 4 seeds in the region are #1 Gonzaga (#1 overall), #2 Duke, #3 Texas Tech, and #4 Arkansas. The Zags are the #1 overall team, not surprisingly, and they are paired with the lowest #2, #3, and #4, but they are far from easy matchups. There is certainly debate about Duke being a #2 seed and while I can understand the argument, that’s far from a favorable #2 paired with the Zags. The Blue Devils in March are always a tough matchup and know how to win in big tournament games. Whether they were playing their best basketball down the stretch or not seems not to matter, especially when they are playing for Coach K in his final season.

The #3 Texas Tech Red Raiders have had a really strong year in the Big 12, finishing 3rd in the regular season and 2nd in the conference tournament, losing to #1 seed Kansas in the title game. All 9 losses on the season for the Red Raiders were to quad 1 teams (8 wins) and they are ranked 9th in NET out of 358 teams. The Red Raiders are one of the toughest defensive teams in the country, ranking 1st out of all 358 teams in adjusted defense according to KenPom. Texas Tech is a veteran-led team that is a tough matchup for most anyone and certainly not an easy #3.

Not to be outdone, the lowest #4 seed Arkansas, is anything but an easy draw (and would be UConn’s 2nd game opponent if the bracket goes chalk). Arkansas turned themselves into one of the best defensive teams in the country later in the season and went 5-2 down the stretch of the regular season with both losses by a combined 5 points. Led by coach Eric Musselman, an outspoken coach who is known for being strong in the area player development, they will be ready. He already made his feelings known that playing Vermont and having UConn as a team in Buffalo was “interesting” based on geographic location. Arkansas is not an easy matchup for anyone and they are the #4 seed.

Looking at the rest of the region and specific matchups, it doesn’t get any easier. Tom Izzo and Michigan State are the #7 seed and face a really tough #10 Davidson team in their first game. Both teams have had past tournament success, obviously Izzo more than almost anyone, so it should be a fun matchup. I wouldn’t be surprised to see an upset there. Another upset alert game is the 4 vs 13. As much as I really like Arkansas as the #4, they have a really tough matchup against #13 Vermont, closer to Vermont’s home turf. Vermont will slow you down and drain the life out of you, which gives them a chance to be this region’s Cinderella.

The 8 vs 9 matchup is another great game. They usually are tight contests, but this one is especially interesting for me. The #8 Boise State Broncos are underseeded in my opinion, finishing the year with the regular season and conference tournament championship in the Mountain West Conference. Their 27-7 record included 7 quad 1 wins (3 losses) and 6 quad 2 wins (3 losses), which is an impressive feat. Their 1 quad 4 loss certainly hit their resume hard, but overall they were able to beat tournament-level teams. The #9 is Penny Hardaway’s Memphis team who had a rocky season, but made a run to the American Athletic Conference tournament final, losing to 5th seeded Houston. They finished with a 21-10 record (13-5 in the conference) and were just 8-8 against quads 1 and 2, and had 2 bad losses to quad 3 teams. Overall, this will be a fascinating game in terms of tempo, Memphis wanting to move the ball quickly and Boise State wanting to grind you down.

A play-in winner often makes a bit of a run in the tournament each year and the #11 in the West Region will be either Rutgers or Notre Dame. Notre Dame is a team that barely got into the tournament and most believe should have been out, which is just the type of story that leads to a surprising run. Rutgers had some bad losses, but overall faired much better against quad 1 teams compared to ND (Rutgers 6-6, ND 2-8) and frankly neither team was particularly impressive this season. I doubt either gets past the fast-paced #6 Alabama team.

As the #5 in the region, if UConn wants to make a run, it’s going to be a tough path. If, and it’s a big if, they beat #12 New Mexico State in round one and avoid the dreaded 12 over 5 upset, than they likely face the tough Arkansas Razorbacks. If for some reason they are able to make the 2nd weekend, then the #1 overall seeded Gonzaga Bulldogs are likely their opponent. If for some reason they can upset the Zags, then they could play Duke or Texas Tech. While that’s a crazy hypothetical, that’s an absolute gauntlet and makes a deep run damn near impossible for the Huskies this year. That being said, stranger things have happened in the NCAA Tournament…

Missed Layups are Killing the Huskies

Despite being ranked #24 in the AP College Basketball poll this week, there are some obvious and consistent issues with the UConn Huskies men’s basketball team this season. Their return to the Big East has meant tough conference games every few nights and this UConn team has struggled with bad stretches throughout the season. Take this past week for example, the now 17-7 Huskies took care of business at home with an 8-pt win against the then ranked #18 Marquette Golden Eagles on Tuesday, then lost on the road to then #25 Xavier by 6-pts, then squeaked out a 3-pt road win at their home-away-from-home Madison Square Garden against St. Johns. The up and down performances have been framed by a few consistent issues, the most glaring is their horrible efficiency on close shots and layups which is head-scratching.

UConn is ranked #225 in the country in 2-pt field goal percentage (out of 328 total schools). They are shooting just 43.3% on 2-pt tries, which is awful for a team with NCAA Tournament expectations. If they want to make a deep run, for me, this is the #1 thing they need to fix in the next few weeks. When you look at the 7 losses UConn has this season, only 1 was by more than 6-pts and 5 of the 7 were 4-pts or fewer. Just imagine what this team would look like with a respectable field-goal percentage, even just 2 more layups made per game. It’s within the realm of possibility that this team could be sitting at 23-2 and in the top 10 in the country with better offense. The good news for UConn is there is still time to improve this number with an eye toward the postseason and if they can, watch out.

Thus far, the awful layup percentage has been mostly offset by UConn’s ability to pull down offensive rebounds. UConn is ranked 7th in the country in total offensive rebounds at 321 and they are averaging and impressive 13.4 per game. If they continue to struggle inside the arc, this could be their saving grace in close games come tournament time. If Adama Sanogo, Isaiah Whaley, and Tyrese Martin can stay out of foul trouble and continue to pull down offensive rebounds at more than 2 per game, then this team can make up for poor shooting nights against some opponents. As great as the offensive rebound number is, it would be nice if UConn didn’t have to grab an offensive rebound on so many gimmie 2-pt field goals.

Overall, UConn’s defense has been very solid this season and they are continuing the tradition of being a block powerhouse. They are currently 2nd in the nation in blocked shots with 163, behind only the far and away leader in #2 Auburn (who lost to UConn in November). Like offensive rebounding, a staunch defense can compensate (to some degree) for a weaker offensive performance. The frustrating piece is that this team is capable of putting both together and overwhelming opponents, but has, unfortunately, had very few truly complete games all season. When the defense is humming and the layups are falling, UConn can beat any team in the country. Can they put it all together in March?

Sitting at 3rd in the Big East only behind top-10 teams in Villanova and Providence, UConn is poised to make the NCAA tournament barring a catastrophic meltdown. As of today, according to Joe Lunardi at ESPN, UConn is projected as a #6 seed, which can, and will, fluctuate a ton before the tournament begins. With 4 of their last 6 games against projected tournament teams (including current #10 Villanova), UConn has a chance to build on it’s resume and improve it’s seed. Once the Big East Tournament begins at Madison Square Garden, all bets are off for the Huskies because they have some historical magic in that building. A strong finish will quiet a lot of the Husky doubters and give the team momentum going into March.

Yellow Jackets Stung By Big 2nd Inning

Stephen Slade / Courtesy of UConn

Georgia Tech starter Zac Ryan’s day started off well with a quick first inning (line out, single, pop out, caught stealing). It looked like he was on his way to a solid outing against the UConn Huskies, then the 2nd inning happened. It started with a Joe DeRoche-Duffin single and opened up from there until the Huskies had knocked Ryan out of the game after just 1.2 innings and hung a 7-spot on the scoreboard.

The Huskies looked strong behind freshman starter Tim Cate and held the 7-run lead until the 6th inning, then things tightened up inning by inning. Georgia Tech scored 1 run in the 6th and 7th and then 2 in the 8th to shrink the UConn lead to 3 runs. Thankfully, UConn’s closer Patrick Ruotolo finally closed the door after allowing 2 more runs to shrink the lead to just 1 run. The Huskies and Coach Jim Penders walked away with the program’s first NCAA Regional win since 2013 and 7th overall.

With Georgia Tech in the rear-view mirror, UConn moves on to the winner’s bracket and a Saturday evening (6pm) matchup with #1 Florida, the regional host. On the mound for Florida will likely be junior lefty AJ Puk. Puk is projected as a top 5 pick in the upcoming MLB Draft (potentially #1 to the Phillies) and his 6-7, 230 lb frame and 95+ mph fastball (touching 99 at times) are intimidating. Puk had a very good year for Florida with 90 Ks and a 2.88 era.

UConn will counter with their lefty ace, junior Anthony Kay. Kay has had a nice year for the Huskies finishing with a 9-2 record, 2.46 era and 108 Ks. He pitched well in the AAC Tournament, winning MVP after a nice outing in the final against Houston on short rest. Kay didn’t pitch in game one of the NCAA Regional to get an extra day rest, so he should be rearing to go on Saturday night.

This is an incredibly tough game for the Huskies, but they have their best pitcher on the mound. Anything can happen.

Let the NCAA Tournament Begin

Stephen Slade / Courtesy of UConn 

Friday is a special day for Coach Jim Penders and his UConn baseball
squad. After tearing through the AAC Tournament, the Huskies find themselves
making their 4th NCAA appearance since 2010 when they face-off
against #2 Georgia Tech at 1pm in the first game of the Gainsville, FL regional. UConn
is the #3 seed in the region along with host #1 Florida and #4 Bethune-Cookman.

The tournament will be an extremely difficult test for the
Huskies who finished the season with a 35-25 record. The double-elimination format
will guarantee at least two games, but it’s hard to see a real path for UConn to
win the regional, especially with Florida looming. Florida finished the season
with a 47-13 record and have one of the best pitchers in the country in Logan
Shore. Shore finished the season with an amazing stat line in 15 starts: 10-0, 2.41
era, 76 Ks and 13 BBs. He won SEC Player of the Year and is a finalist for the Golden Spikes Award, the national player of the year.

UConn has a strong #1 starter in Anthony Kay, who won the
AAC Tournament MVP after winning his two starts, including the championship
game on short rest. He is expected to be a fairly high draft pick this year,
but will not pitch in the opening game in order to give him an extra day’s rest.

If nothing else, it will be fun to watch UConn play against
top-level competition.