Wrapping Up the Pac-12 and Looking Ahead to 2015-16

Posted by Andrew Murawa on April 16th, 2015

The National Championship game is now more than a week behind us and the Final Four is almost two weeks back. Stanford’s “magical” NIT run ended 14 days ago and Arizona’s loss to Wisconsin in the Elite Eight, capping off the last meaningful Pac-12 action of the season, is nearly three weeks ago. With Arizona State’s coaching vacancy filled and early-entry and transfer season fully in swing, that means it is well past time to put a bow on the season and begin to think about what comes next. Below, we’ll review each Pac-12 team and offer up grades on each team’s season. We’ll also take a look at what could be around the bend the next time college basketball rolls around.

Sean Miller, Arizona

Despite Regular Season and Conference Tournament Titles, The 2014-15 Wildcats Came Up Shy Of Their Grandest Goals. (AP)

Arizona (A-)

The goal all year long was a Final Four. Wrapping up some unfinished business and all. Well, that goal was left incomplete. Business is still pending. Still, you’re not going to see me come down too hard on the Wildcats. While their three regular seasons losses were all suspicious in nature, their Elite Eight loss to national runner-up Wisconsin was just one of those things that happens between great teams. Sean Miller’s postgame press conference after the Badgers shot a 105.0 percent eFG in the second half was one long extended verbal shrug, a “what can you do?”, a “sh– happens.” Arizona ended its season playing its best basketball, some of the best basketball being played by any team in the nation. The Wildcats just happened to lose to one of maybe two or three other teams that were capable of playing better. We have to tack a “minus” onto that well-deserved “A” simply because I would guess Miller and T.J. McConnell and Stanley Johnson and all the rest would agree that the overall result of the season was tinged with some disappointment. Without a doubt, though, the Wildcats were the best team in the Pac-12. And were it not for Buzzsaw Badger, they might still be celebrating in Tucson.

What’s next: McConnell is out of eligibility. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Brandon Ashley have said they’re forgoing their remaining eligibility to pursue NBA careers, a decision Johnson is likely to make as well. But this is Arizona. And this is Sean Miller. The ‘Cats will be fine. Kaleb Tarczewski and Gabe York will return and take on bigger roles. Sophomores Parker Jackson-Cartwright and Dusan Ristic will be relied upon to take big steps forward. Boston College transfer Ryan Anderson and junior college transfer (and 2014-15 redshirt Kadeem Allen) will jump right in. And then there’s a recruiting class featuring Allonzo Trier, Ray Smith, Justin Simon and Chance Comanche (ESPN top-100 recruits, all) that may not even be finished yet. Yeah, don’t cry for Miller and his Wildcats; they’ll be back. Read the rest of this entry »

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The Pac: Way Back?

Posted by Andrew Murawa on April 2nd, 2015

Three Sweet Sixteen teams. One in the Elite Eight. And yet when the Final Four rolls around this weekend, it will commence without an entrant from the West Coast’s major conference, the Pac-12, for the seventh consecutive season. Arizona has nothing to be embarrassed about from its loss to Wisconsin on Saturday. Utah and UCLA both put up good fights before going down to clearly superior teams. But this is turning into something of an issue. Since the last time a Pac-12 team advanced to the Final Four (UCLA, 2008), four different Big Ten schools have earned a total of seven spots in the sport’s final weekend. The Big East has earned seven as well, although all of those but Villanova have scattered in the wind to different conferences (the new Big East does have Butler, however, which earned two Final Four appearances as part of the Horizon League). Even conferences like the Colonial (VCU, 2011), the Missouri Valley (Wichita State, 2013) and the newly formed American (Connecticut, 2014) have Final Four appearances since the last Pac-12 appearance.

Not Only Is Arizona A Player's Program, It Is The Pac-12's Best (AP)

Not Only Is Arizona A Player’s Program, It Is The Pac-12’s Best. (AP)

Furthermore, if you throw out UCLA’s three straight appearances from 2006-08, you have to go all the way back to 2001 to find another Pac-12 school (Arizona) with a Final Four appearance. In the history of the conference that starts with the word “Pacific” and ends with a number, only three schools (UCLA, Arizona and Stanford) have made the Final Four. Current member Utah got to the final weekend back in 1998 (and in 1966, for that matter) as a member of the WAC, and had previously earned spots as a member of the Mountain States conference in 1944 and 1961. Refer to the bottom of the page for the complete list of when teams in the conference last reached that level of success. So, really, I didn’t sit down expecting to write the above. I was just going to write a simple season wrap-up and wound up diving down a rabbit hole. Now I’m left with these burning questions: 1) Why does the Pac-12 find itself in such dire straits? And 2) is there any hope of significant change? Let’s dive right into the first one with the caveat that, even after thinking about this for 24 hours, I’m not sure I have a great answer. So, we’ll leave it open for further discussion. Feel free to shoot down any of my theories and propose your ideas along the way.

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Rushed Reactions: #1 Wisconsin 85, #2 Arizona 78

Posted by Andrew Murawa on March 28th, 2015

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Three Key Takeaways.

Sam Dekker's Career Night Was Just One of Many Great Individual Offensive Performances (USA Today Images)

Sam Dekker’s Career Night Was Just One of Many Great Individual Offensive Performances (USA Today Images)

  1. Second-half offensive explosion. The numbers were simply insane for Wisconsin in the second half. To understand just how good those numbers are, we’ll start by looking at Arizona’s numbers: 1.33 points per possession, 59.5% eFG, 20-of-22 from the free throw line. And they were outscored by 10 points. Let that sink in for a second. Now prepare yourself for the Wisconsin numbers: 105.3% eFG. 1.62 points per possession. 10-of-12 from three. Only two players missed shots in the half: Kaminsky missed a few and Josh Gasser missed a corner three. That’s it. Sam Dekker went 6-of-6 from the field and 5-of-5 from three. You can’t even call those video game numbers because video games are far more realistic. Just straight bonkers.
  2. Sam Dekker. Late in the game with two minutes left and Arizona feeling lucky to be down just five, the Wildcats locked in on defense, denied the ball to Frank Kaminsky and the ball wound up in Dekker’s hands in the corner. He knocked in a late shot clock three and when the ‘Cats called a timeout following their possession, head coach Sean Miller went out of his way to give Dekker a head nod for just his latest big shot of the weekend. After turning in a career-high on Thursday night with 23, Dekker went one better tonight, knocking in 27. For the weekend, he played 69 minutes, scored 50 points and shot an 80.7% eFG.
  3. Yes, Wisconsin Can. The question now is can the Badgers exceed last year’s accomplishments. Kentucky could be waiting for them next weekend and will present quite a challenge, but if Wisconsin plays anything like they did today, the Badgers can beat anybody. If it is indeed Kentucky, those Wildcats will have a handful of more size-appropriate matchups for Kaminsky on the defensive end. And certainly the Badgers didn’t blow anyone away with their defensive work today. But when you’re in a spot where it feels like you can’t miss from the field, you can beat anybody.

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NCAA Game Analysis: Elite Eight Saturday

Posted by Andrew Murawa & Walker Carey on March 28th, 2015

RTC_NCAA15

The Elite Eight is here. Two games that have a chance to become classics. Let’s break them down.

#1 Wisconsin vs. #2 Arizona – West Regional Final (at Los Angeles, CA) – at 6:09 PM ET on CBS.

Wisconsin Seeks Its Second Straight Final Four Appearance (USA Today Images)

Wisconsin Seeks Its Second Straight Final Four Appearance (USA Today Images)

Three-hundred-and-sixty-four days ago, about 40 miles away (by Los Angeles-area freeways), the Badgers and the Wildcats engaged in an epic 45-minute battle to decide the West Region’s entrant into the 2014 Final Four. For the final 18 minutes of the game, no more than a single possession separated the two teams. On the final possession of regulation, Traevon Jackson missed a jumper that would have won it for Wisconsin. Arizona had two possessions in the final 30 seconds of the game and strung together a T.J. McConnell miss, a Nick Johnson offensive foul and, on the final possession, Johnson unable to get a shot off before the final buzzer. The Badgers danced. Roughly a month ago, the possibility of this very rematch began to rear its head. And now, here it is. Sub out Ben Brust, Aaron Gordon and Nick Johnson. Sub in Stanley Johnson and Brandon Ashley. Bump up Bronson Koenig, bump back Traevon Jackson. Other than that, this thing should look awfully familiar. A year ago, Frank Kaminsky scored 28 points on 11/20 shooting with three threes and recorded just his second-ever double-double. Also, Bo Ryan’s team held the Wildcats without a single fastbreak point. And on the other side of the court, McConnell was limited to 2/10 shooting with just two assists and couple turnovers. Those three things right there are the areas Arizona needs to change in order to have a chance to flip the script today. Let’s start with Kaminsky. Junior center Kaleb Tarczewski will be the guy mostly charged with checking Frank the Tank. And in the post, Tarczewski will hold his own. However, Kaminsky’s ability to drag a big guy out to the perimeter and either knock in shots out there or get to the rim off the bounce will present problems. Let’s put it this way: if Kaminsky is again able to knock in three threes against the Wildcats like he did last season, that may force Sean Miller’s hand into an adjustment. The other area where the Arizona needs to adjust slightly is in making a priority of getting out in transition and getting some easy hoops. They’ve struggled with their halfcourt offense in their past two games, mostly against zone defenses. While Wisconsin won’t zone them, it would be a major boon to Arizona’s confidence if they could see the ball go in the basket early on some relatively easy transition looks. Lastly, there’s McConnell, the Wildcats’ senior leader. In that game a year ago, he had an offensive rating of 88. Since that time, in the 37 games that Arizona has played, McConnell has only three times had that poor of an offensive game. McConnell will certainly want to make up for his performance a year ago, but he needs to play within himself, make the smart play on offense, the tough play on defense and let the game come to him. If Wisconsin can get him out of his game, Arizona doesn’t stand much of a chance. But if the Wildcats’ leader is the same T.J. McConnell we’ve come to know this season, that could be enough to flip the final score.

The RTC Certified Pick: Arizona

#1 Kentucky vs. #3 Notre Dame – Midwest Region Elite Eight (from Cleveland, OH) – at 8:49 PM EST on TBS.

Notre Dame Seeks Its First Final Four Appearance in 36 Years (USA Today Images)

Notre Dame Seeks Its First Final Four Appearance in 36 Years (USA Today Images)

Kentucky and Notre Dame advanced to the Elite Eight after both teams put together very impressive performances Thursday night. The Wildcats completely outclassed West Virginia on their way to a thoroughly dominant 78-39 victory. Notre Dame displayed its incredible offensive efficiency throughout its 81-70 victory over a Wichita State squad that had built much of its reputation on the defensive end of the court. Saturday night is going to be a different story for Mike Brey’s group. The Irish use a four guard line-up and have been using 6’5″ senior swingman Pat Connaughton as their power forward all season. While Notre Dame lacks a lot of size, unbeaten Kentucky’s size might just be its greatest strength. The Wildcats start three mammoth forwards in freshmen Trey Lyles and Karl-Anthony Towns and junior Willie Cauley-Stein. John Calipari also has the luxury of having two additional gargantuan forwards that he can bring off the bench in sophomore forwards Dakari Johnson and Marcus Lee. Kentucky’s massive frontline might be its greatest asset, but it should be noted that its backcourt is also pretty stellar. Sophomores Aaron Harrison and Andrew Harrison and freshmen Devin Booker and Tyler Ulis provide the Wildcats with strong shooting and ball distribution skills. For Notre Dame to stand a fighting chance in this one, it is going to need its strong backcourt of sophomores Demetrius Jackson and Steve Vasturia and seniors Connaughton and Jerian Grant to hit shots at an extremely efficient clip. The Irish are second in the country in field goal percentage at 51%. They will need to shoot at least that against the Wildcats if they want to be in it late in the game. Expect Notre Dame to hit some shots and for this one to be pretty close for the first 30 minutes, but Kentucky’s size and sheer talent advantage will take over in the final 10 minutes. The Wildcats will end up winning by a fairly comfortable margin as they will move to 38-0 on the season and advance to next weekend’s Final Four in Indianapolis.

The RTC Certified Pick: Kentucky

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Rushed Reactions: #2 Arizona 68, #6 Xavier 60

Posted by Andrew Murawa (@AMurawa) on March 27th, 2015

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Three Key Takeaways.

Despite Early Struggles, Senior Point Guard T.J. McConnell Came Up Large Late (Greg Wahl-Stephens/AP)

Despite His Early Struggles, T.J. McConnell Came Up Large Late (Greg Wahl-Stephens/AP)

  1. Wake-up Time. About 30 minutes into tonight’s game, Xavier led by four points and looked very much like the better team. The Musketeers were quicker to most loose balls. They were controlling the paint. They were running their offense through Matt Stainbrook with impunity. Dee Davis was beating his man (T.J. McConnell) off the bounce just about whenever he wanted, and McConnell, the Wildcats’ senior leader, looked nothing like the gutsy, scrappy veteran that we’ve gotten accustomed to. Arizona looked lost on offense and disinterested on defense. The large number of Arizona fans in Staples Center was quiet. And then, against Xavier’s tough 1-3-1 zone, T.J. McConnell found himself with a good-looking 15-foot baseline jumper. He missed it, but the Musketeers couldn’t corral the defensive rebound. The senior recovered it and banked in a hoop, prompting Chris Mack to call a timeout. A couple possessions later, Kaleb Tarczewski grabbed an offensive board and put it back in. On the other end of the court, he helped trap a Musketeer ball-handlers near midcourt, forcing a timeout. Following that timeout, McConnell swiped a steal from Myles Davis and, in the blink of an eye, the momentum of this game had shifted, Arizona fans were back into it, and the rest is history. A 21-9 game-closing run for the Wildcats following that McConnell second-chance bucket sealed the game.
  2. Zone Defense. The bad news is that Arizona again struggled mightily against a zone defense for large stretches of a game against a team from Ohio. Nobody but Gabe York could knock in the occasional long-range jumper. McConnell looked confused and frustrated. And whoever the Wildcats tried to turn into a play-maker in the middle of the zone had trouble finding open teammates. So, again, that’s the bad news. Here’s the good news: It is very likely that the Wildcats have seen their last zone defense for the year. Wisconsin isn’t going to zone them. There’s not a chance Kentucky would zone them. And we’d have to see the matchup in the final but it’s probably unlikely. Xavier stayed in the game tonight by throwing as many as four or five different defensive looks at Arizona. It uglied things up for the ‘Cats, but, hey, survive and advance.
  3. Kaleb Tarczewski. Of all the players in college basketball, there are very few that take the kind of abuse from average college basketball fans (even including Arizona fans) that Tarczewski does. But as Sean Miller puts it, “he just does his job.” Xavier’s Matt Stainbrook seemed to be getting the best of him early, using a number of pretty post moves against his single coverage on the way to a double-double of 17 points and 10 boards. But Miller views Tarczewski’s ability to guard frontcourt bigs like Stainbrook one-on-one as a key to the Wildcats’ defensive success. “Stainbrook had his moments, but he had one offensive rebound. And one of the strategies for us is we didn’t want him to provide 10 to 20 points for his teammates. Because they do a great job of throwing it into him and he’s such a terrific passer that all of a sudden, the floodgates open from three or they get the ball moving and the reason it starts to move is because you had to help on Stainbrook. And then it’s both: He’s not only scoring inside, but their perimeter attack is thriving because of him. The reason we won, in my opinion, is Kaleb’s double-double and his very good defense. He did what we asked him to do.” To summarize: Tarczewski limited Stainbrook on the offensive glass, grabbed his own offensive boards on the other end, and because he was able to battle the Xavier big man to an individual draw, stifle Xavier’s half-court offense.

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Rushed Reactions: #1 Wisconsin 79, #4 North Carolina 72

Posted by Andrew Murawa on March 26th, 2015

rushedreactions

Three Key Takeaways.

The Badgers Took a Hit For Most of the Game But Clamped Down Late to Move to the Elite Eight (USA Today Images)

The Badgers Took a Hit For Most of the Game But Clamped Down Late to Move to the Elite Eight (USA Today Images)

  1. Just Needed A Spark. At the 11:11 mark in the second half, the whistle sounded a media timeout with Frank Kaminsky, having taken a hand to the face, laying on the ground in pain. With North Carolina slowly but surely extending a lead (att this point up to 53-46), this appeared to be an ominous sign. Kaminsky was helped off the court, bypassing the Wisconsin huddle in favor of a meeting with the trainer on the bench. After just one possession without him, the All-American re-entered and the Badgers reeled off a 10-4 run over the course of the next four minutes to finally build some momentum and get back within a point. From that point forward, the Badgers outscored the Tar Heels by 14 points; over the course of the 16 possessions from then until North Carolina went to its late-game fouling strategy, the Badgers scored 27 points, good for 1.69 points per possession.
  2. Not Vintage Kaminsky. Frank the Tank would up with 19 points and eight boards, basically his season averages, but tonight was by no means a great performance. He had some trouble with North Carolina’s size, but his early struggles (2-of-7 from the field for four points) had more to do with missed opportunities. He missed at least three layups in the first half and was getting beat up on the boards. In the second half, he worked on getting to the line (all eight of his free throws were after the break) and he spent some time dragging defenders out to the three-point line in pick-and-roll situations, opening up the interior for the rest of his team.
  3. Wisconsin’s Rebounding. The Badgers are not a team that kills people on the offensive glass. They’re a great offensive team because they shoot it really well, never turn it over, and run great offense. Offensive boards are usually an afterthought. However, tonight, when things weren’t coming easy, the Badgers pulled down 38.7 percent of offensive rebounding opportunities, extending possessions and earning 10 second-chance points. The Badgers were then able to exploit the type of matchup problems that they can create. As Roy Williams pointed out afterward, when the Tar Heels had a big lineup on the floor, Kaminsky could pull guys like Kennedy Meeks or Joel James away from the hoop. If UNC responded by going small, the Badgers then killed them on the glass. It takes a special collection of athletes to match up with these Badgers in a 40-minute game.

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A Three-Pac of Teams in the Sweet Sixteen Party

Posted by Andrew Murawa on March 25th, 2015

RTC_NCAA15

Four of our friends were invited to this party last weekend along with a bunch of other people. It’s been a crazy, crazy time. If I told you about everything that went down, it would probably burn off both your ears. We’ve got some stories we’ll tell the next time this group gets together, but for now, three of our crowd are still going strong. And the way things are going, there’s a chance at least one of this cast of characters closes this party down. Before we get to those party animals, let’s pay tribute to the one we lost along the way.

Oregon Is The Only Pac-12 Team To Leave The Party Early (USA Today)

Oregon is the Only Pac-12 Team To Leave The Party Early. (USA Today)

Oregon came into the year a complete mess. The offseason was literally scandalous. There was a whole new group of players to meet. Expectations were low. The whole thing could have gone off the rails at any time. Instead, chalk up a Pac-12 Player of the Year award, a Pac-12 Coach of the Year award, a second-place conference finish, an NCAA Tournament win and another chance to throw one hell of a scare into Wisconsin before fading late. By any reasonable measure, this season in Eugene will go down as a resounding success. Joseph Young’s trailblazing two years came to an end, but a fine young group of talented players remain in his stead. And frankly, a changing of the guard could be the breath of fresh air the program needs. Jordan Bell and Dillon Brooks will headline a group of talented sophomores, while Snoop Dogg Dwayne Benjamin will be the scrappy play-making veteran he established himself as this year. As long as Dana Altman returns along the sideline (which, given that previous scandal, is not exactly a 100 percent sure thing), there’s no reason to expect anything less than another strong upper-division finish next year from the Ducks. Read the rest of this entry »

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NCAA Regional Reset: West Region

Posted by Andrew Murawa on March 24th, 2015

RTC_NCAA15

Your bracket is busted and the Sweet Sixteen is set. Let’s do a Regional Reset. Follow @rtcwestregion for reporting from Los Angeles this week. Check out all of the regional resets for the Sweet Sixteen here.

New Favorite: Arizona, #1, 33-3. We’re still going with the Wildcats by a hair over Wisconsin and we’re not just throwing darts; we have our reasons. First, they’re still slightly above Wisconsin in terms of KenPom rankings, especially on the defensive end of the court. Second, they’re going to have a significant home court advantage this week in Los Angeles. Third, instead of facing a #3 seed in the Sweet Sixteen, they “Cats got a slightly easier path with Xavier up next. And fourth, straight up: revenge. However, it will take a lot of work for any of these four teams to come out of this region.

With this guy running the point, you have to like Arizona's chances to get to the Final Four. (Greg Wahl-Stephens/AP)

With this guy running the point, you have to like Arizona’s chances to get to the Final Four. (Greg Wahl-Stephens/AP)

Horse of Darkness: Xavier, #6, 23-13. The only team that has outperformed its seed to advance to this point, the Musketeers aren’t going to just be happy to have made it this far and call it a day. They’ve got enough size along the front line to hang with Arizona, and with senior point guard Dee Davis playing the best ball of his career, crafty scorer Myles Davis and athletic freshman Trevon Bluiett, they’ve got the firepower to spring an upset… Or two.

Biggest Surprise (First Weekend): Georgia State. After 30 minutes of giving #3 seed Baylor all it wanted last Thursday, it looked like the Panthers had run out of gas. Over the course of six possessions starting at the under-12 media timeout, the Bears grabbed five offensive boards, cleaned the glass on the defensive end after forcing four straight missed field goal attempts and put together a 10-0 run to build a 10-point lead. Coming out of the under-four media timeout, Rico Gathers hit a pair of free throws and Baylor’s lead was then at 12. The Bears wouldn’t score again. Coach’s son R.J. Hunter scored 12 of Georgia State’s 13 points down the stretch, including a deep three with three seconds left that sent his dad, torn Achilles and all, sprawling onto the Veterans Memorial Arena floor. It’s the iconic moment of this year’s NCAA Tournament and a play we’ll see for many Marches to come. Read the rest of this entry »

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Putting Herb Sendek’s Firing Into Perspective

Posted by Andrew Murawa on March 24th, 2015

With eight minutes left in Arizona State’s Pac-12 Tournament opening round game, they were up 14 on last place USC and headed for a quarterfinal rematch with UCLA, a team that they had just beaten in Tempe a few weeks before. The Sun Devils needed to win the Pac’s automatic bid in order to earn an NCAA Tournament appearance, but all things considered, the future looked reasonably bright. And then things drastically changed. Arizona State was outscored 21-4 over the final 8:29 of the game by the Trojans, and that seemingly bright future in the desert dimmed significantly. The blown lead a couple of Wednesday nights ago in Las Vegas did not simply mean the end to a season. It effectively meant the end to Herb Sendek’s career in Tempe. After increasing speculation about his position, Sendek was oficially fired on Tuesday. Doug Haller reports that the Sun Devils’ 42-point loss at Utah late in the season opened up the possibility of a change, and the USC debacle cemented it.

After Nine Seasons And Two NCAA Tournament Appearances, Herb Sendek Was Fired At Arizona State

After Nine Seasons And Two NCAA Tournament Appearances, Herb Sendek Was Fired At Arizona State

First, let’s wrap up Sendek’s career in Tempe. Nine seasons; two NCAA Tournament appearances; a record of 154-132; a conference record of 72-90. He landed the best recruiting class in the history of the school in 2007 when he pulled James Harden out of southern California, beating out schools like UCLA and Arizona for the future superstar’s services. He brought five ESPN top 100 recruits to Tempe and won just a single NCAA Tournament game, a win over Temple in 2009. In a vacuum, none of that is particularly impressive. Okay, so let’s remove that vacuum and give you some context about Arizona State basketball. In 1978, this program, along with Arizona, joined the Pac-8 to create the Pac-10. Thirty-seven college basketball seasons have gone into the books since then, and the Sun Devils have posted conference records of .500 or better 16 times. Sendek coached nine seasons in Tempe and recorded six of those. Bill Frieder is the other coach with any significant recent success at Arizona State – he tallied six .500-or-better seasons in eight years (before resigning in the wake of a point-shaving scandal and numerous other off-court issues). In those 37 seasons, Arizona State has made the NCAA Tournament seven times: twice under Sendek; twice under Frieder, once under Rob Evans; and twice, way back in the early 80s under Ned Wulk.**

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Rushed Reactions: #4 Louisville 66, #5 Northern Iowa 53

Posted by Andrew Murawa on March 23rd, 2015

rushedreactions

Rush the Court will be providing wall-to-wall coverage of each of the NCAA Tournament from each of the 13 sites this year. Follow our NCAA Tourney specific Twitter accounts at @RTCeastregion, @RTCMWregion,@RTCsouthregion and @RTCwestregion.

Three Key Takeaways.

All Smiles as Louisville Advanced to Its Fourth Straight FInal Four (USA Today Images)

It Was All Smiles as Louisville Advanced to Its Fourth Straight Sweet Sixteen (USA Today Images)

  1. Four-Point Swing. With 3:45 remaining on the game clock and Northern Iowa still hanging around, sophomore guard Jeremy Morgan was racing upcourt with the ball and a clear path to the basket. With Louisville’s athletes chasing him and their spectacular blocked shots surely in the back of his mind, Morgan opted for a nice dump off pass to teammate Wes Washpun. Washpun’s layup attempt was caught up to and rejected from behind by Louisville’s Wayne Blackshear, leading to a transition opportunity the other way and a Montrezl Harrell dunk to complete a four-point swing that extended the Cardinals’ lead back to eight points. From that point on, the game was never again in doubt.
  2. Athleticism. Northern Iowa is a very good basketball team with a spectacular leader in senior Seth Tuttle. But Louisville’s athleticism and length were definitely something the Panthers hadn’t seen a whole lot of. It had a massive effect on that fast break attempt mentioned above and it was a factor throughout the game. The Panthers think they’ve got an open look at a three? Not so fast, as a long and athletic player in white comes swooping in to challenge the attempt. The final numbers show just four Louisville blocked shots for the game, but clean looks were hard to come by for the Panthers. In the first half, the Cards’ defensive pressure forced Northern Iowa into eight turnovers (they average 10.8 turnovers per game) in large part because that athleticism bothered them. The Panthers adjusted and got used to it in the second half, but by then much of the damage was done.
  3. Three-Point Shooting. Louisville came into the game shooting 30.5 percent from three on the season, good for 312th in the nation. Northern Iowa’s defensive strategy all year long has been to take away something that its opponent does really well and give up the things it doesn’t do that well. The goal tonight was to pack it in and encourage the Cardinals to shoot a bunch of those threes that they’ve struggled with all year. But when the Cards started the game 5-of-8 from three, it appeared like that decision was backfiring. The Cards cooled down, missing their final three attempts from behind the arc, but still wound up shooting 45.5 percent from three for the game. On the other end, Northern Iowa came in shooting 40 percent from three, good for 10th in the nation. Tonight? Just 6-of-19, or 31.5 percent. This kind of noise in a single-elimination setting is hard to make up for.

Star of the GameTerry Rozier. On a team without a bunch of guys who can create their own offense, Louisville puts a lot of pressure on Rozier to score. Against a far less athletic team that those typically found int the ACC, Rozier was mostly unstoppable. He notched 25 points for the game and his early offensive explosion caused the Panthers’ defense to divert another defender to stymie his penetration. He used that newfound attention to dish to his open teammates, leading to seven assists, the second-highest single-game total of his career.

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Rushed Reactions: #2 Gonzaga 87, #7 Iowa 68

Posted by Andrew Murawa on March 22nd, 2015

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Rush the Court will be providing wall-to-wall coverage of each of the NCAA Tournament from each of the 13 sites this year. Follow our NCAA Tourney specific Twitter accounts at @RTCeastregion, @RTCMWregion,@RTCsouthregion and @RTCwestregion.

Three Key Takeaways.

Gonzaga Rolled into the Sweet Sixteen Today in Seattle (USA Today Images)

Gonzaga Rolled into the Sweet Sixteen Today in Seattle (USA Today Images)

  1. Skilled Bigs. In order to have a chance to beat Gonzaga, you’ve need size to deal with their trio of bigs – Kyle Wiltjer, Prezemek Karnowski, and Domantas Sabonis. But simply having size is not enough to slow down this group. Wiltjer, as he showed tonight, has the ability to step out well beyond the three-point line and rain jumpers from deep. Karnowski’s nimble feet and deft passing ability belie his 288 pounds and brick-wall defensive ability. And Sabonis’ intelligence and polished post moves are impressive for an 18-year-old freshman. The left-handed Karnowski and Sabonis present a different look for defenses. Oh, and these guys go 6’10”, 7’1”, 6’10”, respectively. They fouled out Iowa bigs Adam Woodbury and Gabe Olaseni and got three fouls on Aaron White. They scored 40 points in the paint and dominated on the glass. There aren’t a lot of teams in the nation outside of Lexington, Kentucky, that can match the Zags’ imposing and talented size.
  2. Useful Parts. You know all about those Gonzaga bigs. You also know about senior guards Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell. But something that will serve the Bulldogs extremely well from here on out is some of their bit pieces deeper down their bench. Kyle Dranginis has been described by head coach Mark Few as a “Swiss Army knife,” a guy who can do a little bit of everything. Tonight, after Iowa forward Jarrod Uthoff got off to a hot start draining sevearl mid-range jumpers, Dranginis earned that assignment for large stretches for the final three-quarters of the game, challenging his shots and generally making him uncomfortable. Vanderbilt transfer Eric McClellan only played 12 minutes but he served as an athletic defensive stopper on the perimeter, a tertiary ball-handler and another veteran leader. And then there’s USC transfer Byron Wesley who, although a starter and a double-figure scorer, flies under the radar. He’s another guy who Few can rely on as a lockdown defender on the perimeter against teams with strong guards. The stars on this team are one thing, but this Gonzaga roster checks off every box you look for in a Final Four contender.
  3. Defensive Questions, Still. Look, the Zags were phenomenal on offense today. The final numbers – 1.28 points per possession, 13-of-21 from three, 74% eFG. Those are ridiculous offensive statistics. But we know this is a talented team offensively. If this team is going to get to a Final Four, they’re going to need to get some stops. Iowa tonight did not have a lot of things go well for it, but they still shot a better than 50% eFG and averaged a point per possession. Gonzaga has some nice defensive pieces but they’ve also got some liabilities. How far they will go may depend on how well they can mask those issues.

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Rushed Reactions: #2 Gonzaga 86, #15 North Dakota State 76

Posted by Andrew Murawa on March 21st, 2015

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Rush the Court will be providing wall-to-wall coverage of each of the NCAA Tournament from each of the 13 sites this year. Follow our NCAA Tourney specific Twitter accounts at @RTCeastregion, @RTCMWregion,@RTCsouthregion and @RTCwestregion.

Three Key Takeaways.

Dexter Werner: Unlikely March Hero (USA Today Images)

Dexter Werner: Unlikely March Hero (USA Today Images)

  1. Physical Mismatch. Gonzaga has three guys taller than 6’10”; North Dakota State has three guys taller than 6’6”. By halftime, those three Bison had accumulated seven fouls and it could have been worse. The Bison are a quality team with fun guards that had a great season, but they never should have had a chance tonight even as Dexter Werner was putting in improbable second half buckets to get the Bison back within six down the stretch. Whenever the Bulldogs wanted to turn it on, they could just pound the ball inside and either draw fouls or get easy buckets. And hey, you wanna double any of those big guys? Good luck, as they’re all adept passers out of the post to find spot-up shooters. Gonzaga will run into teams that can bang with them down low, but tonight was not one of those times.
  2. Defense Is A Concern. The biggest concern that has been expressed about the Zags’ chances this March is on the defensive end. Tonight, North Dakota State, a team ranked 194th in offensive efficiency nationally, scored 1.35 points per possession in the second half against the Bulldogs. Now, there were some extraordinary circumstances here and Gonzaga wasn’t exactly giving a terrific effort. But that in and of itself is a concern. This is a game that Gonzaga should have won easily without breaking a sweat, but instead they gave their fans more heartburn than anybody ever expected.
  3. Veteran Leadership. With the physical mismatch readily apparent right out of the gate, attendees were expecting a chance to get to their cars early tonight. In fact, it looked like the Zags thought they had somewhere else they would rather be too. But whenever the Bison made it too close for comfort, there was either Kyle Wiltjer or Kevin Pangos there to turn the tide. When the Bison cut the Zags’ lead to six points with 11 minutes left, Wiltjer drilled a jumper to spearhead a quick 6-0 run. Then the Bulldogs relaxed again, Werner went to work, and you looked up at the six-minute mark and it’s a six-point game again. Pangos then stepped into a three. An overexuberant Werner runs into Pangos. The three falls, Pangos completes the four-point play, and the outcome is never seriously in doubt again. Wiltjer and Pangos combined for 41 points on a highly-efficient 22 field goal attempts.

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