College Basketball Notebook: New Year’s Eve Conference Play

College Basketball Notebook: New Year’s Eve Conference Play article feature image

ETSU @ Mercer

Two SoCon contenders square off in Macon on New Year’s Eve in what should be a fairly interesting schematic matchup, especially with the fact that these two are rivals dating back to their days in the ASun together.

Bob Hoffman starts 5 seniors at Mercer, and I’m sure they all remember that ETSU has swept them the past two seasons. Offensively, the Bears have always run outstanding ball screen motion under Hoffman, and Mercer currently has KenPom’s 21st most efficient offense, and that number was built against a fairly decent OOC schedule that saw them nearly knock off Memphis and Alabama. The primary beneficiaries of Hoffman’s offense are PG Jordan Strawberry and off guard Ria’n Holland. Holland in particular has been lethal off of ball screens and fake motion, scoring at a ridiculous 1.32 points per possession as the PnR ball handler, per Synergy. Toss in the fact that Holland is also shooting 60 percent (!!!) from three, and you’ll understand why he’s currently holding KenPom’s top ORtg at 148.5. While Holland has been phenomenal, the key to Hoffman’s motion has been the shooting of his 3 and 4 Demetre Rivers and Stephon Jelks, respectively. Jelks is a bit undersized at the 4 but can exploit less nimble 4s in pick and pop situations facing the basket. Mercer’s motion offense is a saber dream, as they shoot 43.4 percent from three as a team (the third-best mark in the country), but also attempt field goals at the rim at the 27th highest rate in the country, and attempt the dreaded two-point jump shot at the ninth lowest rate (all per Essentially, Mercer’s offense is a well-oiled machine run by five seniors that works to get either an open look at a three, or an open look at the rim. With that philosophy and subsequent execution, you can understand why they’re an efficiency monster on that end.

So how does ETSU combat that efficient Mercer offense? Steve Forbes is an excellent game planner off the Gregg Marshall tree, and he’s quickly whipped the Bucs into ferocious man to man defenders in just 2.5 years. The Bucs currently grade out in the 94th percentile in half-court defense, allowing just .76 points per possession, per Synergy. The Bucs are especially stout defending at the rim, where Forbes can rotate between 7 foot IU transfer Peter Jurkin and frosh Mladen Armus. With their excellent post defense, Forbes rarely, if ever, sends a double team on the block, which allows him some versatility against PnR and dribble drive offenses, and Desonta Bradford, Devontavius Payne, and Jalan McCloud are all plus defenders on the perimeter. Additionally, Forbes can go small with versatile David Burrell at the 4, negating the advantage of Jelks on the perimeter. ETSU has all the pieces necessary to grind Mercer’s motion to a halt, and accordingly they held the Bears to their worst and third worst offensive performances in SoCon play last year.

Mercer’s defense is almost the polar opposite of their offense, as you can score both inside and out against Hoffman’s extremely saggy man to man and 3-2 zone. The good news for Mercer is that ETSU has really struggled to shoot the ball from the perimeter this year, firing at just 31.8 percent, and Forbes isn’t willing to sacrifice his defense to get better shooters like Jason Williams and Kanayo Obi-Rapu on the floor (although Williams has been getting more run of late). ETSU has been much less efficient in their zone offense, and Hoffman likes to try to mask Strawberry’s issues at the point of attack with more zone this year, so the Mercer defense at least stands a chance. Mercer could also be down one of their better overall defenders in wing Ethan Stair, who is questionable (ETSU is also potentially down a versatile wing of their own in touted frosh Bo Hodges, who is also a game-time decision with a knee injury).

MAACtion Notes:

  • John Dunne has King Rice’s number, as St. Peter’s should have swept a very good Monmouth team last year. Rice runs a lot of Roy Williams secondary break offense, and that’s just not a good strategy against an extremely disciplined Peacock defense. The question as always with Dunne’s club is can they score enough? The Peacocks’ backcourt is small and foul prone, and that’s an area attack heavy Micah Seaborn and Austin Tilghman can exploit for the Hawks.
  • Rider and Niagara are two extremely similar teams, as both are looking to attack the rim in transition as much as possible. Rider is a slightly better transition defense and ball screen defense (as good as Kahlil Dukes and Matt Scott are on offense, they’re liabilities defensively), and Fred Scott is a matchup nightmare for the Purple Eagles. If Scott could hit free throws, he’d lead the MAAC in scoring. Niagara is looking to rebound after a heartbreaking OT loss to league favorite Iona, while Rider is looking to avoid a sweep on the Buffalo trip.
  • Zach Lewis makes his return to Canisius, as Iona looks for the Buffalo sweep. You can’t press the Griffs and you can’t zone them either, so Tim Cluess’ matchup zone press is likely out the window today, which means we’re going to see two porous man to man defenses against two very good offenses.

Bullet Points:

  • South Alabama’s offense exploded against Georgia State’s tricky matchup zone, which was a surprise. What wasn’t surprising was their stout ball screen defense, which is key against a Georgia Southern team that runs Tookie Brown off high screens as much as any team in the country.
  • Typical MVC grindhouse fare with UNI traveling to Peoria to take on Bradley. These are two elite defenses with major offensive concerns. UNI could have really used Spencer Haldeman’s sharp shooting in a shocking home loss to SIU, and he’s doubtful with a back injury that hasn’t even allowed him to go through walk-throughs. First and foremost against UNI’s compact defense, you have to hit jump shots, and Bradley has improved dramatically on that front this year. First and foremost against UNI’s offense, you have to shut down Bennett Koch in the post, and Bradley’s defense has been outstanding on the block, allowing just .59 points per post possession, per Synergy.
  • Missouri State’s post-heavy offense around Alize Johnson is a better matchup for Valpo than Indiana State’s guard-heavy lineup. Jaume Sorolla was basically useless against the Trees, but he’s an outstanding post defender. The question is can the Valpo bigs guard Johnson when he’s facing the basket? Offensively, the Crusaders have been lethal with Bakari Evelyn and Tevonn Walker off ball screens, and the Bears have had some issues defensively in that regard. There’s going to be a lot of interesting offense for defense substitution patterns on both sides today, and I’m not sure that’s a strong suit of Paul Lusk’s.
  • Idaho is making arguably the most arduous quick turnaround trip in college basketball, going from Grand Forks, ND to the altitude of Greeley, CO. Every Big Sky coach complains about the 14 hour trip on a day’s rest. Schematically, Northern Colorado has to prove someone other than Andre Spight can hit jump shots against Don Verlin’s myriad zone and pack line defenses. UNC runs PnR as prolifically and efficiently as any team in the country (only three teams in the country run more PnR per Synergy), and Idaho’s perimeter defenders aren’t spectacular.
  • Troy is exceptionally poor in ball screen defense, and that was magnified by ball-screen heavy Georgia Southern. No rest for the weary, as the Trojans welcome in another ball screen reliant offense in Georgia State. The good news for Troy is that they have Jordon Varnado back (how many effective minutes he can play on a quick turnaround is a question though), and they typically shred Ron Hunter’s 1-3-1 matchup zone.
  • There’s some bad blood between SEMO and Tennessee State, especially after TSU blew a double-digit second-half lead in last year’s OVC tournament. That said, SEMO has been shredding zones to the tune of 1.14 points per possession, per Synergy, and Dana Ford typically has the Tigers in an extended 3-2. Additionally, TSU’s turnover prone offense has struggled with SEMO’s up the line traps defensively. A 45 percent turnover rate in the second half of the aforementioned OVC tournament game allowed the Redhawks to come back and win. Ford has a lost a lot of depth due to injury and defection, and the Tigers are on the quick road turnaround from Martin to Cape Girardeau after an OT loss.
  • A few things working against Kentucky tonight: 1) Georgia is an outstanding transition defense. Mark Fox’s team will make you execute in the half court, and UK is scoring at .91 points per possession in that regard, which is decent, but not nearly as good as their 1.12 mark in transition. 2) UK’s offense is surely due for a regression after pasting rival Louisville. They’re a young, inconsistent team off a major win. 3) Uncharacteristically, UK’s Achilles’ heel defensively has been in the post, where they grade out in just the 9th percentile, per Synergy. That’s asking for trouble against Yante Maten.
  • Familiarity with Syracuse’s 2-3 zone is always key, and of course Virginia Tech is, having posted 1.19 points per possession in a win over the Orange last year. Additionally, the Hokies’ penetrate and kick offense is absolutely killing zones this year (thanks to shooting the three at the highest percentage in the country), scoring at 1.12 points per possession per Synergy. Defensively, Justin Robinson has been outstanding in PnR defense, which is a must vs the Orange, and the Cuse have struggled against extended pressure, which Buzz Williams is bringing more of this year. There is some dual regression to the mean expected from both offenses, as I’m doubtful the Orange continue to shoot the ball this poorly, and I’m equally doubtful the Hokies remain on fire, especially in a hostile environment.

Sunday’s Top Picks (YTD: 174-170-3):

Monmouth/St. Peter’s under 134

Rider -1

Bradley PK

ETSU +3.5

SEMO +1.5

Missouri St/Valpo under 137.5

Illinois State -5.5

USA +4.5

GSU/Troy over 144

ULM -1

EWU/UND over 156

Ole Miss -2.5

Georgia +9

*all lines via Pinnacle at time of publication

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