Rushed Reactions: NCAA Tournament, Championship Game

Posted by rtmsf on April 8th, 2019

RTC continues its coverage of the NCAA Tournament to its conclusion tonight. Using social media to share information, we produced a Rushed Reactions thread in Twitter for the National Championship game. Click within the tweet below to see the entire RR thread.

#1 Virginia 85, #3 Texas Tech 77 (OT).

Eight Questions: National Championship Edition

Posted by Matt Eisenberg on April 8th, 2019

After five grueling rounds of NCAA Tournament action, we are finally down to the final two. Texas Tech and Virginia have each navigated 37-game schedules to get to this point, where the only thing standing between themselves and a National Championship is 40 minutes of action. Here are eight questions I have ahead of the title game.

Texas Tech

Texas Tech Plays for Its First National Championship in Basketball Tonight (USA Today Images)

1) Will Matt Mooney continue his recent hot play? After beginning the NCAA Tournament 11-of-30 from the field in Texas Tech’s first three games, Matt Mooney has found his groove in converting 14 of his last 28 shots. The senior’s hot shooting in the second half against Michigan State is what opened the game up and ultimately allowed the Red Raiders to hang on. Texas Tech is 10-4 when Mooney is held to single-figures and 21-2 when he scores 10 or more points.

2) Will Tariq Owens be at 100 percent tonight? The bouncy Owens collapsed to the ground early in the second half against Michigan State, before eventually returning to the game. Questions loom about his potential swelling and discomfort moving forward, however, which is very important to Texas Tech’s defense as he is one of the nation’s best rim protectors.

3) Will Texas Tech be able to create those key turnovers which lead to easy points? In five NCAA Tournament games, the Red Raiders have forced 12.3 turnovers per game and are averaging 15.2 points off of those miscues. Virginia, however, remains one of the most difficult teams from which to force turnovers. After turning the ball over 15 times in its opening round game against Gardner-Webb, Virginia has coughed up the ball just 5.4 times per game since.

4) Will Jarrett Culver be able to get the best of De’Andre Hunter on the offensive end? Culver, a second-team AP All-American, will almost certainly see a whole lot of De’Andre Hunter tonight. Hunter, a third-team All-American, was the ACC’s Defensive Player of the Year and has a keen ability to play excellent defense while staying away from fouls. While Culver woke up just in time to ice the game against the Spartans, he has gone a mere 25.8 percent from the field over his last two games.

Virginia

Virginia Plays for Its First National Championship in Basketball Tonight (USA Today Images)

1) Which De’Andre Hunter shows up? In the first half of Virginia’s Final Four game against Auburn, De’Andre Hunter scored five points on 2-of-6 shooting, passively settling for jump shots repeatedly. After halftime, Hunter poured in nine points on a perfect 5-of-5 shooting from the field. A dynamic Hunter opens the floor and lessens the required offensive load on teammates Ty jerome and Kyle Guy.

2) Can Virginia find any production from its bench? Dating back to the Cavaliers’ Sweet Sixteen game against Oregon, Virginia’s bench has scored a grand total of seven points — its bench is -37 in points over that period. Texas Tech’s suffocating defense has been particularly tough on opposing reserves throughout this tournament, having held the benches of Michigan, Gonzaga and Michigan State to a combined 11 points.

3) Will Virginia be able to play Jack Salt? After starting in 28 of Virginia’s 32 games prior to the NCAA Tournament, Salt has been replaced in the starting lineup by Mamadi Diakite in Virginia’s last four games. The 6’10” senior played a big role against the frontcourt size of Purdue, but otherwise his minutes have dramatically shrunk. If Texas Tech goes big with both Tariq Owens and Norense Odiase on the floor at the same time, Salt could see more time this evening. While unassuming in the box score, heis a terrific screener and someone who can help free Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy for open looks.

4) What else could Virginia possibly face in the closing minutes of a game? Virginia has been living on the brink of its season ending in the final seconds of each of its last two games. From the Diakite basket against Purdue to the foul on Kyle Guy against Auburn, good fortune has been on the side of Tony Bennett’s squad. After dealing with the disaster of a season ago, nothing has yet flustered this Cavaliers’ team. With a National Championship on the line, will the trend continue?

Rushed Reactions: NCAA Tournament, Final Four

Posted by rtmsf on April 6th, 2019

RTC continues its coverage of the NCAA Tournament into the Final Four this weekend. Using social media to share information, we produced Rushed Reactions threads in Twitter for both games tonight. Click within each tweet to see the entire RR thread for each. Have a look below from this evening’s pair of thrilling contests.

#1 Virginia 63, #5 Auburn 62.

#3 Texas Tech 61, #2 Michigan State 51.

2018-19 Rush the Court National Coach of the Year: Chris Beard

Posted by Walker Carey on April 5th, 2019

The 2018-19 RTC National Coach of the Year Chris Beard took a circuitous path to becoming the head coach at Texas Tech — and when considering that route, the fact that he guided his Red Raiders to a regular season Big 12 championship and to the Final Four seems too far-fetched to believe.

Beard began his high-major coaching career working as an assistant under the legendary Bob Knight at Texas Tech while the Red Raiders were experiencing a period of prolonged success. After subsequent head coach Pat Knight was relieved of his duties at the end of 2011, Beard began a stretch of employment that took him to the ABA, McMurry University, Angelo State and Arkansas-Little Rock. It was while in the state capital of Arkansas during the 2015-16 season that Beard became a rising star in the coaching world. In his lone season at the school, the Trojans stunned #5-seed Purdue in a double-overtime thriller. Following that season, Beard took the UNLV head coaching job in late March, holding it for about three weeks before Memphis hired Tubby Smith from Texas Tech, leaving the Red Raiders job vacant. Beard then spurned his new position with the Runnin’ Rebels and returned to Lubbock to try to finish what he had started a decade prior.

After a transition year when the Red Raiders finished a solid 18-14, Beard really got things moving forward during the 2017-18 season. Led by senior guard Keenan Evans and dynamic freshman Zhaire Smith, Texas Tech advanced all the way to the Elite Eight — pushing eventual national champion Villanova for 35 minutes — before the Wildcats ultimately pulled away with the victory.

It would have made sense for the Red Raiders to take a step back this season given that Evans had exhausted his eligibility and Smith had left early for the NBA. That was not the case, though, as Beard landed South Dakota transfer Matt Mooney and St. John’s transfer Tariq Owens, while developing sophomores Jarrett Culver and Davide Moretti to take on bigger roles. Those offseason maneuvers paid immediate dividends, as Texas Tech began this season 10-0 and never looked back. Ultimately, Beard’s club ended Kansas’ streak of 14 consecutive regular season Big 12 championships before entering the NCAA Tournament as a #3 seed and steamrolling Northern Kentucky, Buffalo and defending national runner-up Michigan. In Saturday’s Elite Eight, the Red Raiders used their suffocating defense and timely shooting to get past top-seeded Gonzaga and advance to the first Final Four in program history.

Texas Tech has a legitimate chance to take home the national title on Monday night in Minneapolis. It might not be the favorite, but Chris Beard has never been the favorite at any point in his career — and that has turned out just fine.

Eight Questions for the Final Four: Michigan State vs. Texas Tech

Posted by Matt Eisenberg on April 5th, 2019

The other side of the bracket features the East Region champion Michigan State and West Region champion Texas Tech. In a match-up of the Big Ten and Big 12, here are four questions I have for each team regarding the upcoming game.

Michigan State

Michigan State Has Its Eyes Set on One More Celebration (USA Today Images)

1) Will Michigan State limit its turnovers? On the season, Michigan State has turned the ball over at nearly the national average. The Spartans ranked 12th in Big Ten play in turnover rate, however, and they logged a 22-turnover performance in the Second Round against Minnesota. During the regional, Texas Tech pestered Michigan and Gonzaga into turning the ball over at a much higher rate than which they were accustomed.

2) Might the Spartans look to push the pace? While Michigan State’s pace of play ranks slightly below the national average, the Spartans tend to score with great success when they run. According to Hoop-Math, Tom Izzo’s squad owns the ninth-best effective field goal conversion rate while in transition. Texas Tech, on the other hand, has the second-best non-transition effective field-goal percentage defense in the country. A strategy that centers on beating Texas Tech in the half-court could make for a long night for Sparty.

3) Can Michigan State’s bench provide help for the Spartans offensively? The Spartans will be up against a Texas Tech defense that allowed just six total bench points in its two regional wins against Gonzaga and Michigan. Throughout the NCAA Tournament, Michigan State’s bench has primarily consisted of contributions from Nick Ward and Gabe Brown. Ward could provide second-chance opportunities against a Red Raiders’ defense that at times can be suspect in cleaning up its defensive glass.

4) Will the rest between the Elite Eight and Final Four be enough time to help Nick Ward return to his earlier form? In Michigan State’s first 15 Big Ten games, Nick Ward averaged 15.3 points per game. Since returning from an injury late in the year, however, the junior has averaged just 5.9 points per game. Ward, now coming off of the bench, has the potential to give Cassius Winston some much needed offensive help against the stout Texas Tech defense.

Texas Tech

Chris Beard is on the Fast Track to Coaching Superstardom (USA Today Images)

1) Will Texas Tech be vulnerable against Michigan State’s offensive rebounding ability? Through four NCAA Tournament games to date, Texas Tech has surrendered 46 offensive rebounds to its opponents. This weekend’s game against Michigan State will be the Red Raiders’ seventh game against an opponent with an offensive rebounding ranking of 25th or better. In those six games, the Red Raiders went just 3-3.

2) Can Texas Tech’s bigs stay out of foul trouble? In Saturday’s win over Gonzaga, Texas Tech’s Norense Odiase picked up two quick fouls within the opening three minutes. Fellow big Tariq Owens went on to pick up a pair of fouls in the first half as well. Michigan State’s trio of Cassius Winston, Xavier Tillman and Nick Ward all draw fouls at a high rate. After Odiase and Owens, Chris Beard is very limited in available bigs to put on the floor.

3) Which Davide Moretti shows up for the Red Raiders? The sophomore guard from Italy is shooting 46.3 percent from beyond the three-point line and led the Big 12 by shooting 53.5 percent in league play. Moretti made five of his eight attempts during the Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight, but he had gone 0-for-7 in the opening two rounds.

4) Will Jarrett Culver bring his A-game to the table? Culver, a second-team AP All-American, is averaging 21.5 points per game in the NCAA Tournament. A year after shooting a robust 38.2 percent on three-point attempts, Culver is converting just 31.6 percent this season. In Texas Tech’s six losses this year, Culver has made only 20.6 percent of his attempts.

2018-19 Rush the Court National Player of the Year: Zion Williamson

Posted by Walker Carey on April 5th, 2019

Recruiting rankings are always fun to review after the fact. You get to see which players lived up to their ranking, which players underwhelmed, and which players emerged from relative obscurity to turn into a star. The most prevalent question that will come up when reviewing the 2018 college basketball recruiting rankings will be how in the world was 2018-19 RTC National Player of the Year Zion Williamson considered the fifth-best prospect entering college basketball?

That question was apparent from Duke’s very first game of the season, when the Blue Devils eviscerated Kentucky by a preposterous 34 points. In the dominant opening night victory, Williamson announced his presence to the college basketball world by tallying 28 points on an efficient 11-of-13 shooting. From that game forward, the 6’7″ power forward (and so much more) became the story of the year in college hoops. It definitely seemed like every time you tuned into a Duke game, Williamson would do something spectacular. There was the awe-inspiring 360 dunk in the conference opening win over Clemson; there was the jaw-dropping block of a De’Andre Hunter three-point attempt in an impressive victory at Virginia; and there was Williamson leading the charge in fighting back from a 23-point second half deficit to notch an improbable win at Louisville.

Williamson’s season took an unexpectedly brutal turn in Duke’s February 20 loss to North Carolina, when he injured his knee less than a minute into the action. That injury resulted in him being sidelined for the rest of the regular season and allowed for many media outlets to question if Williamson should risk his NBA future to return to college. The freshman phenom decided to return for the ACC Tournament, where he turned in a performance for the ages — averaging 27 points and 10 rebounds per game in wins over Syracuse, North Carolina and Florida State — in leading Duke to the title. After the title game victory over the Seminoles, Williamson emphatically responded to a question about why he risked further injury by stating:

“Those six games I sat out, when you see your brothers going to war battling and there’s nothing you can do but sit on the sideline and cheer, there’s nothing wrong with that, but I’m not that type of person. I want to be out there with them, and I made a commitment to them, and I would be a bad person if I went back on my commitment.”

While Duke came up just short in an epic Elite Eight battle with Michigan State last weekend, Williamson still left his mark on the NCAA Tournament by averaging 26 points and 8.5 rebounds in the Blue Devils’ four games. The loss to the Spartans marked the probable end to Williamson’s collegiate career, but his sensational performances and the manner in which they captivated the college basketball world in the Year of Zion will not soon be forgotten.

2018-19 Rush the Court All-America Teams

Posted by Walker Carey on April 4th, 2019

Compiling preseason All-America teams is a difficult task because nobody knows what will come during the regular season. There will always be several players who fall short of expectations and there will always be several relative unknowns who unexpectedly emerge to stardom. When our unit of RTC pollsters selected their preseason All-American teams in November, nobody could have guessed that 10 of the 15 players chosen would live up to that lofty standing: Purdue’s Carsen Edwards; Duke’s R.J. Barrett; Duke’s Zion Williamson; Tennessee’s Grant Williams; Marquette’s Markus Howard; Virginia’s Kyle Guy; LSU’s Tremont Waters; Virginia’s De’Andre Hunter; Kansas’ Dedric Lawson, and Wisconsin’s Ethan Happ.

Here are the 2018-19 RTC All-America Teams.

First Team All-America

  • Zion Williamson, Freshman, Duke (consensus) (22.6 PPG, 8.9 RPG, 68% FG). He may only be one player, but make no mistake about it, this college basketball season belonged to Williamson. You could not go one day without hearing something new about the freshman phenom — and with good reason — he made every Duke game this winter appointment television with his numerous highlight reel dunks and spectacular defensive plays. When the freshman was not busy igniting the internet with viral videos of his jaw-dropping plays, he was calmly and confidently leading his young Duke team to the ACC Tournament title and the overall #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Williamson was the most important cog in a Blue Devils squad that finished the season with a 32-6 record, and his importance was never more evident than when he was sidelined for six games late in the season and Duke went just 3-3 during that stretch. While it is certainly disappointing that Williamson will not participate in this weekend’s Final Four, he definitely used his time in college basketball wisely and cemented that the name Zion Williamson will live on in college basketball lore.
  • Carsen Edwards, Junior, Purdue (24.3 PPG, 2.9 APG, 1.3 SPG). Purdue was picked fifth in the preseason Big Ten poll, largely because — other than the returning Edwards — not much was known about a club facing the tall task of replacing four starters from last season’s Sweet Sixteen team. That challenge was tough at first, as Purdue sat at just 6-5 following a rough loss to Notre Dame on December 15. That loss ended up being a turning point for the Boilermakers, as they rode the heroics of Edwards and figured out their personnel en route to a 26-10 overall record and a share of the Big Ten regular season title. While Edwards certainly had a wonderful regular season, his place on the first team was guaranteed with an amazing effort throughout Purdue’s run to the Elite Eight. The junior point guard tallied 26 points in a First Round win over Old Dominion and it only got better from there, catching fire in a Second Round mauling of defending champion Villanova, and finishing with 42 points on a smoldering 9-of-16 performance from behind the three-point line. His exploits then reached another level in the South Regional, going for 29 points in leading Purdue to an upset overtime win over Tennessee in the Sweet Sixteen, before reaching an apex in an all-time performance of dropping 42 points (10-of-19 from three) in a heartbreaking overtime loss to top-seeded Virginia. While Purdue fell short of its ultimate goal of the Final Four, Edwards did his part in carrying the Boilermakers to a place the program had not been since 2000.
  • Ja Morant, Sophomore, Murray State (24.5 PPG, 10.0 APG, 5.7 RPG, 49.9% FG). Becoming a must-see attraction while playing in the Ohio Valley Conference is difficult to do, but Morant accomplished that feat this season with flying colors. The dynamic sophomore guard became the first player since the NCAA began tracking assists in 1983-84 to finish a season averaging 20+ points and 10+ assists per game. He also led Murray State through the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament gauntlet to propel the Racers to their second straight NCAA Tournament. Along the way Morant caught the eyes of NBA Draft connoisseurs, firmly establishing himself as a top prospect for this summer’s annual selection meeting. In the postseason, the explosive sophomore gave his program a final lasting memory, as he recorded the NCAA Tournament’s first triple-double since 2012 in the Racers’ First Round upset victory over Marquette. Morant’s collegiate career may have only lasted two seasons, but he certainly made his mark as one of the all-time greats to pass through the Ohio Valley Conference.
  • R.J. Barrett, Freshman, Duke (22.6 PPG, 7.6 RPG, 4.3 APG, 45.4% FG). Barrett may have been Duke’s “other freshman star” this year, but that did not keep him from establishing himself as one of the country’s best players in addition to Williamson. Known mostly for his scoring prowess, Barrett also showcased his passing and rebounding talents throughout the season. The freshman swingman twice tallied double-figure assists and grabbed 10+ boards nine times. Barrett’s premier performance came in Duke’s victory at Virginia when he turned in a game-high 26 points on a smoldering 6-of-10 performance from the perimeter. While Barrett put up big statistics throughout the regular season, his most noteworthy contribution during his freshman campaign came in Duke’s Second Round NCAA Tournament victory over UCF when he rebounded a missed free throw and converted a layup with 14.4 seconds to play to give the Blue Devils a 77-76 lead that they would not relinquish.
  • Grant Williams, Junior, Tennessee (18.8 PPG, 7.5 RPG, 3.2 APG, 56.5% FG). Williams followed up a terrific sophomore season with an even more outstanding junior campaign in Knoxville. Tennessee tied a program record with 31 wins this season and Williams’ contributions were the leading factor in the Volunteers accomplishing that feat. The big man tallied double-figure points in 19 of his 21 SEC games and his ability to hurt opponents both from the mid-range and finish through contact around the rim made him a nightmare match-up. Williams’ most noteworthy performance came in Tennessee’s overtime win over intrastate rival Vanderbilt when he saved the Volunteers by delivering a career-best 43 points while draining all 23 of his free throw attempts. The junior’s excellent season led to him earning AP First-Team All-America honors, becoming Tennessee’s first player to garner that honor since way back in 1983 (Dale Ellis).

Second Team All-America

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Eight Questions for the Final Four: Virginia vs. Auburn

Posted by Matt Eisenberg on April 4th, 2019

The right side of the bracket features the South Region champion Virginia and Midwest Region champion Auburn. In a matchup of ACC and SEC powers, here are four questions I have for each team regarding the upcoming match-up.

Virginia

Virginia Overcame Its Demons to Get to the Final Four (USA Today Images)

1) Should Virginia be concerned with its recent three-point defense? While on the season Virginia owns the third-best three-point defense (28.7% 3FG) in college basketball, eight of the Cavaliers’ last nine opponents have shot better than 30 percent from distance. Even more startling, opponents have made 39 percent of their long-range shots over the last five games.

2) Will De’Andre Hunter regain his shooting touch? While De’Andre Hunter is shooting a robust 42.4 percent on 99 three-point attempts this season, the sophomore has made just five of his last 22 attempts from beyond the arc. In Virginia’s two wins in Louisville last week, Hunter combined for 21 points on 8-of-23 shooting from the field. For a player that was among the ACC’s most efficient and effective scorers this season, things have not been easy for Hunter lately.

3) Does Virginia’s offensive tendencies create a glaring mismatch against Auburn’s defense? According to Synergy Sports, Tony Bennett’s squad creates 12.5 percent of its offense coming off of screens, nearly three times as much as the national average. Auburn, on the other hand, gave up 0.99 points per possession in those situations — a mark that ranked 295th in the nation.

4) Can Mamadi Diakite continue his recent hot play on the offensive side of the ball? Virginia’s hero of the Elite Eight, Mamadi Diakite, is averaging 13 points per game in the NCAA Tournament. Prior to the start of the event, Diakite was averaging just 6.8 points per game. The junior forward led the ACC in blocked shot rate during conference play and was a constant threat on the offensive glass this season, but as teams have geared their defensive strategies toward Ty Jerome, Kyle Guy and De’Andre Hunter, Diakite has stepped up to help his team’s offense.

Auburn

Auburn Heads to Its First Ever Final Four (USA Today Images)

1) Will Auburn dominate the three-point line? In Auburn’s 30 wins this season, the Tigers have made on average four more three-pointers than their opponents. In their nine losses, Auburn does not even make one more three than its opponents. Bruce Pearl’s team takes nearly 50 percent of their shots from behind the arc and the Tigers make a high percentage of them (38.3% 3FG). Defensively, Auburn has generally allowed teams to shoot a high volume of threes against it, something that could prove costly against a Virginia team that owns a top 10 three-point shooting percentage of 39.4 percent.

2) Will Auburn’s defense be able to create turnovers from Virginia? No team in the country has created turnovers at a higher rate than Auburn (24.9% TO), and the Tigers have forced 14 or more turnovers in each of their four previous NCAA Tournament games. Virginia is one of the toughest teams to force into miscues, however, having turned the ball over just 8.5 times per game so far in the NCAA Tournament.

3) How much will Chuma Okeke be missed in this game? The emotional jolt gained by Auburn in its desire to win for Chuma Okeke was certainly unmeasurable. But while Bryce Brown and Jared Harper were able to carry Auburn to an overtime victory against Kentucky, losing the 13.8 points per game that Okeke was averaging in March could prove very tough against the stingy Virginia defense.

4) Can Auburn find a way to speed up Virginia? Auburn’s offense thrives in transition — only American had a higher effective field-goal percentage in transition this season than the Tigers. In 20 Auburn games where the possession total was 70 possessions or higher this season, Bruce Pearl’s club logged an effective field-goal percentage of 56.6 percent that included 39.7 percent from three-point land. In nine games where Auburn was held to 63 or fewer possessions, the Tigers logged an effective field-goal percentage of just 50.1 percent and their three-point percentage dropped to just 33 percent.

What’s Trending: A Wild Weekend in the NCAA Tournament

Posted by Matt Eisenberg on April 1st, 2019

What’s Trending is a column examining the week that was in college basketball social media. Matthew Eisenberg (@matteise) is your weekly host.

After a relatively chaos-free opening two rounds of the 2019 NCAA Tournament, the madness arrived in earnest over the weekend. Taking a look back at the memorable moments begins in the East Region where Virginia Tech and Duke found themselves in a battle to the very end.

While Zion Williamson marvels those that watch Duke play with his dunks, it is plays like this that truly show how unique he is. With Duke nursing a narrow three-point lead, Williamson gets crossed-up by Virginia Tech’s Justin Robinson. Despite the blow-by, Williamson recovers like few others playing high-level basketball can…

Just days after surviving at the buzzer against UCF, Duke found itself in a similar situation again. The Blue Devils were up two points with just over one second to go when Virginia Tech drew up this perfect play to send the game to overtime… minus the finish.

The East Region Sweet Sixteen also featured Michigan State’s 80-63 win over LSU. In that game, the Spartans’ Aaron Henry scored a season-high 20 points, grabbed eight rebounds and dished out six assists. This performance by Henry came on the heels of Tom Izzo’s outrage at the talented freshman in Michigan State’s opening round win. After the win against LSU, Izzo was quick to credit young Henry and his teammates…

The Elite Eight match-up between Duke and Michigan State was a game that many were looking forward to the second the bracket came out. With the lead going back and forth throughout much of the second half, Michigan State’s Matt McQuaid pushed the Spartans back in front with this layup that will not be forgotten…

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Rushed Reactions: NCAA Tournament, Elite Eight

Posted by rtmsf on March 31st, 2019

RTC continues its coverage of the NCAA Tournament through the regionals this weekend, at each of the four sites. Using social media to share information, we produced Rushed Reactions threads in Twitter for each game in those locations. Click within each tweet to see the entire RR thread for each game. Have a look below from all of this weekend’s games.

#3 Texas Tech 75, #1 Gonzaga 69.

#1 Virginia 80, #3 Purdue 75 (OT).

#5 Auburn 77, #2 Kentucky (OT).

#2 Michigan State 68, #1 Duke 67.