Rushed Reactions: #1 North Carolina 75, #2 Kentucky 73

Posted by Bennet Hayes on March 26th, 2017

RTC is providing coverage from start to finish of the NCAA Tournament for the next three weeks.

Luke Maye capped a phenomenal individual weekend with one of the biggest shots of this, or any, NCAA Tournament (Photo: Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports)

Key Takeaways.

  1. First half foul trouble and questionable officiating. Kentucky clawed its way back into this game in the second half, but early foul trouble and a tough first half whistle greatly imperiled the Wildcats’ bid to advance to another Final Four. De’Aaron Fox watched 75 percent of the first half from the sideline after picking up two early fouls, and backcourt mate Malik Monk joined him there later in the half after also picking up his second foul. There were also a number of questionable first half calls that seemed to go North Carolina’s way every time, including a Bam Adebayo tip-in that was ruled offensive goaltending. North Carolina emerges as a deserving victor, but Kentucky wasn’t helped at all by the first half whistle.
  2. Where was the offense? After the Tar Heels and Wildcats combined for 203 total regulation points in December, there was going to be an offensive come-down. However, few could have expected the drop-off in combined offensive efficiency to be so severe. The two teams combined to shoot just 44 percent from the floor, 29 percent from three-point range, and 67 percent from the free throw line. We have seen far uglier offensive games in this NCAA Tournament, for certain, but the early season wizardry in Las Vegas delivered by these teams allowed us to dream of a more explosive, uptempo battle than what played out.
  3. Justin Jackson and Malik Monk duel. The individual match-up between Monk and Justin Jackson was much discussed before action tipped, and with good reason. These two stars combined for 81 points in the first game, and each player has repeatedly showed the ability to single-handedly take over games. No such dominance was on display today, however, as Jackson harassed Monk into a quiet 12-point afternoon. The UNC star wasn’t at his best today, but his two-way effort (he had 19 points on the other end) gave him the edge in this decisive matchup.

Star of the Game. Luke Maye, North Carolina. Maye posted an unlikely but casual double-double on Friday (16 points, 12 rebounds), yet saved plenty of energy for a memorable encore. He made six of his nine field goal attempts en route to a 17-point night, including the game-winning jumper just before the final horn that won’t soon be forgotten by North Carolina fans. Maye played with swagger and energy all afternoon, and ultimately it was his contributions that pushed the Tar Heels into next weekend’s Final Four in Glendale.

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Rushed Reactions: #2 Kentucky 86, #3 UCLA 75

Posted by Bennet Hayes on March 24th, 2017

RTC is providing coverage from start to finish of the NCAA Tournament for the next three weeks.

De’Aaron Fox knifed through the UCLA defense to the tune of an NCAA Tournament-high 39 points (Photo: Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports)

Key Takeaways.

  1. Battle of the freshmen backcourts. It’s not impossible that three of the top four picks in this June’s NBA Draft occupied three of the four spots in the starting backcourts of this game. All showed flashes of brilliance, but the shine was far brighter on the Kentucky side. De’Aaron Fox darted through the UCLA defense time and time again en route to a career-high 39 points, while Malik Monk caught fire on either end of halftime, scoring 17 of his 21 points in a seven-minute stretch that straddled intermission. UCLA’s Lonzo Ball got teammates involved early and finished with eight assists, but the Bruins’ star never found his stroke in missing five of his six three-point attempts. There’s little doubt that tonight’s 40 minutes will be mentioned often during discussions of Ball and Fox’s draft stock in the coming months, but the trio combined to put on the show everyone had hoped for.
  2. Tempo quickens in second half. With two efficient, fast-paced offenses doing battle, most expected a high-possession, high-scoring game. The first half was not that – only 69 total points were scored, and most of them came in the half-court – but the second half ushered in the uptempo basketball that had been anticipated. Monk and UCLA’s Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton took turns splashing in jumpers during a breathless first four minutes of the frame, and the Memphis crowd channeled the newfound energy on the floor. Ninety-two total second half points later, Kentucky was through to the next round and fans were fully satiated by a dazzling offensive display.
  3. UCLA, Alford’s uncertain future. The Bruins erased memories of a disappointing 2015-16 with a highlight-laden 31-win season, one that may have cooled Steve Alford’s warm seat in Los Angeles yet also made him an attractive hire to one of the few programs he might consider bolting for — Indiana. The Hoosiers’ coaching vacancy is unlikely to be filled without at least a call to Alford, and there’s little indication he wouldn’t listen to an offer from his alma mater. Apathy around the UCLA program has been difficult to fully eradicate, even during this turn-back-the-clock season, and Indiana should be able to provide Alford heavy doses of both cash and nostalgia. It’s far from a certain marriage, but the uncomfortable irony of this unexpectedly successful UCLA season is that it may have been good enough to lead to a new coaching search.

Star of the Game. De’Aaron Fox, Kentucky. The Wildcats’ freshman sensation played the game of his college career, scoring a career-high 39 points. He added four assists against just one turnover and thoroughly controlled a game that featured an even more hyped freshman point guard. Fox’s 39 points also stand as the high point total of the NCAA Tournament (no player had gone over 30 until tonight), and they were more than enough to compensate for a sluggish night from the backcourt’s supporting cast. Fox dominated tonight in Memphis.

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Rushed Reactions: #1 North Carolina 92, #4 Butler 80

Posted by Bennet Hayes on March 24th, 2017

RTC is providing coverage from start to finish of the NCAA Tournament for the next three weeks.

Kennedy Meeks and the Heels had a lot to cheer about Friday night (Photo: Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports)

Key Takeaways.

  1. Tar Heels explode in the first half. North Carolina raced out to a 16-point lead in the first 10 minutes and never looked back. The Tar Heels would maintain that edge for the second 10 minutes of the first half, taking a 52-36 advantage to the locker room. Three Tar Heels scored in double figures – Justin Jackson with 17 points, Luke Maye with 14, Joel Berry with 10 – in a quintessential display of Carolina offense. They played fast (43 possessions), made three-point shots (8-of-17 from long-range), and exploited their size advantage inside in outrebounding Butler by 11. UCLA and Kansas each boast offenses as good, if not better, than that of North Carolina, but neither possess the inside-outside balance of the Heels. The first 20 minutes of this game was a potent expression of this reality.
  2. Unexpected and expected Carolina contributors. UNC has relied upon Jackson and Berry all season, and the Tar Heels’ junior duo delivered again tonight. They combined for 50 points, five three-pointers, and committed just three turnovers. However, it wasn’t just Jackson and Berry fronting the load this evening. Maye provided an unexpected spark in leading the first half surge, scoring 14 points and grabbing 11 rebounds in the opening frame. Roy Williams expressed immense appreciation for the contributions and skills of UNC’s very unlikely catalyst, saying he was not surprised by Maye’s night because he sees it every day in practice. Either way, the Heels should benefit from a confident Maye, as his ability to step out and shoot the three provides a nice balance to the bruising interior duo of Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks.
  3. Butler three-point shooting struggles. The Bulldogs were an efficient offensive outfit for the better part of their first 33 games of the season, with top-100 percentages nationally in 3FG, 2FG, and FT%. However, the 21st-most efficient offense in the country struggled to generate the points needed to hang with North Carolina this evening. The origin of the drought was obvious, as Butler made just eight of its 28 three-point attempts. Chris Holtmann couldn’t have had a problem with most of the rest of the offensive stat sheet, as his team shot 55 percent from two-point range, 86 percent from the free throw line, and turned the ball over just nine times in a high-possession game. Missed three-point shots is a familiar killer of seasons this time of year; tonight, Butler’s long-range struggles ensured its season would not continue.

Star of the Game. Justin Jackson, North Carolina. The versatile Tar Heels star had the full arsenal working Friday night. He was confident and effective in shooting the three, lofting floaters in the half-court, and getting out on the fast break for easy buckets. Jackson finished with 24 points, five rebounds, and five assists. Honorable mention goes to Maye, who unexpectedly delivered a career high 14 points and 11 rebounds, and Berry, who finished with a game-high 26 points.

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NCAA Regional Reset: West Region

Posted by Bennet Hayes on March 21st, 2017

Rush the Court is providing comprehensive coverage of the NCAA Tournament from start to finish over the next three weeks.

New Favorite: #1 Gonzaga (34-1). If the Zags were the West region favorite before play started last Thursday, there’s no reason they shouldn’t continue to maintain that status. Sure, there were slow points in each of Gonzaga’s two victories over the weekend — namely, the first half against South Dakota State and the second half versus Northwestern – but Mark Few‘s team ultimately emerged from each unscathed. With West Virginia and possibly Arizona awaiting in San Jose, the road stiffens from here, but there’s no reason Gonzaga shouldn’t still feel like the front-runner.

Gonzaga is two wins away from the program’s first ever Final Four appearance (Photo: Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports)

Horse of Darkness: #4 West Virginia (28-8). The Mountaineers enter the Sweet Sixteen as a scary team. Depth and pressure — two West Virginia hallmarks — carried it through early round victories over #13 Bucknell (86-80) and #5 Notre Dame (83-71). Now those strengths will be relied upon to harass #1 Gonzaga into an uncharacteristically turnover-heavy game. The Zags rank 26th in the country in lowest turnover percentage, but Notre Dame also led the nation in that category before the Irish turned the ball over on 21 percent of their possessions against Press Virginia (seven percent higher than their season average). Gonzaga is also just an average offensive rebounding team, which limits its ability to take advantage of West Virginia’s biggest weaknesses — collecting defensive rebounds behind the press. The match-up is solid, the team is capable, and Bob Huggins is on the bench — in sum, the Mountaineers have a chance to surprise in San Jose.

Biggest Surprise (First Weekend): #11 Xavier (23-13). Less than three weeks ago, Xavier was a sub-.500 Big East team that had lost six straight games. Its star point guard was lost for the season and hopes of another NCAA Tournament appearance flickered with each outing. Now, on March 21, the Musketeers are fresh off a 25-point Second Round rout of Florida State and is back in the Sweet Sixteen. Xavier is a fantastic piece of proof that things can change quickly in March, but the verdict on this Musketeers’ season won’t be altered negatively from here on out: A remarkable turnaround last weekend saved a season.

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NCAA Regional Reset: South Region

Posted by Bennet Hayes on March 21st, 2017

Rush the Court is providing comprehensive coverage of the NCAA Tournament from start to finish over the next three weeks.

New Favorite: #1 North Carolina (29-7). The Tar Heels might have actually had the most unimpressive opening weekend of the four teams remaining in the South, as they needed a kind late whistle to escape #8 Arkansas on Sunday. However, the region’s #1 seed retains its status as a Final Four favorite in large part because of the draw. Butler posted a pair of workmanlike victories in dispatching #13 Winthrop and #12 Middle Tennessee State last weekend, but the Bulldogs’ road to Memphis was far simpler than that of fellow semifinalists UCLA and Kentucky. Second round wins over Cincinnati and Wichita State, respectively, are impressive notches — victories that confirm both the Bruins’ and Wildcats’ status as National Title contenders. Because Butler is simply not that, North Carolina becomes the only team in a balanced region to not need two victories over elite foes in Memphis, which gives the Heels the inside track to Phoenix.

Joel Berry and the Tar Heels are still the team to beat in a balanced region.(Photo: Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports)

Horse of Darkness: #4 Butler (25-8). As noted above, Butler is the only team in the Memphis region that doesn’t qualify as a true contender. That’s no knock on the Bulldogs — a group that put together a nice season and a pair of quality first weekend performances — but there is an obvious drop-off when it comes to program prestige and overall talent against the three blue-bloods in this regional. However, that does not mean Kelan Martin (19 points, six rebounds and four assists in the win over MTSU) and his Bulldogs aren’t capable of winning two games in Memphis. Successfully slowing tempo against the frenetic Tar Heels will be a key to that process.

Biggest Surprise (First Weekend): #8 Arkansas (26-10). The Razorbacks’ season may be over, but in this surprise-less region, their near-upset of #1 North Carolina qualifies as the most sizable surprise of the first weekend. According to KenPom, Arkansas held a 75 percent chance of winning that game with three and a half minutes remaining – a feat few expected before the opening tip. Of course, the Razorbacks proved unable to hold on, but when all four top seeds advance to the regional semifinals, it’s hard to find too many true surprises. More on that below.

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Rushed Reactions: #4 West Virginia 86, #13 Bucknell 80

Posted by Bennet Hayes on March 16th, 2017

West Virginia‘s press caused chaos often enough to help the Mountaineers advance Thursday afternoon, as Bob Huggins‘ group outlasted Bucknell, 86-80.

The Mountaineers have more to celebrate as they advance to the Second Round (Photo: Getty)

Key Takeaways

  1. Balanced West Virginia attack again successful. West Virginia’s offense has been predicated on balance all season, and Thursday afternoon’s game in Buffalo was no different. Five Mountaineers scored in double figures, led by Tarek Phillip‘s 16 points.  The variety of contributors stressed a relatively thin Bucknell rotation, as nine of the 10 West Virginia players to see the floor entered the scoring column. As this afternoon suggested, no single Mountaineer will dictate this team’s fate over the next couple of weeks.
  2. Hustle point count for Mountaineers. All things considered, Bucknell handled the Mountaineers’ press relatively well. They only turned the ball over 15 times in a high-possession game, but West Virginia was able to create consistent offense with its numerous hustle plays. Nathan Adrian‘s diving steal, assist, and subsequent drawn offensive foul was the sequence of the game, and it was little plays like that within the press and on the offensive glass (17 offensive rebounds for the Mountaineers) that represented the winning difference.
  3. Bucknell acquits itself nicely on significant stage. The Bison may be heading home after one day but they represented themselves well on a national stage. Bucknell’s four double-figure scorers combined to score 72 of its 80 points, all proving up to the challenge that the West Virginia defense presents. The best news for Bucknell fans: No piece of the quartet is a senior. The future is indeed bright for the Bison.

Star of the GameLamont West, West Virginia. The Mountaineers’ freshman was an unexpected contributor this afternoon, scoring 15 points on 6-of-7 shooting from the floor. In typical West Virginia fashion, four other plays scored in double figures, but West outscoring his season average by more than nine points offered an unexpected lift. West scored nine of his 15 points before intermission, closing the first half with a layup at the horn to give his team a nine-point lead they would not relinquish.  Read the rest of this entry »

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Rushed Reactions: #5 Notre Dame 60, #12 Princeton 58

Posted by Bennet Hayes on March 16th, 2017

Notre Dame didn’t play its best game of the season in the NCAA Tournament opener Thursday, but the Irish were able to survive a second-half Princeton push to advance to the second round.

Bonzie Colson, V.J. Beachem, and the rest of the Irish were lucky to survive Thursday afternoon (Photo: ND Insider)

Key Takeaways

  1. Princeton couldn’t find the range from deep. The Tigers’ ineptitude from long range (they made just 8-of-31 three-point attempts) was the defining element of this game. Devin Cannady, who shot 42 percent from long range on the season, made just two of his 10 attempts today. The largest of those eight misses came with just three seconds to play and the Tigers down two; when Cannady’s potential game-winner caromed off the back rim, Princeton’s upset bid was effectively over, and in fitting fashion: on a three-point miss.
  2. Irish dominate the glass. Notre Dame and its undersized roster rarely found an ACC team it could dominate on the glass, but the Ivy League champs proved beatable on the backboards. Bonzie Colson‘s 12 boards paced the Irish, which finished with nine offensive rebounds and a +3 rebounding advantage. On a day when the shots were not falling, those second opportunities were extremely important.
  3. Bonzie keeps grinding. Notre Dame’s gritty leader submitted one more tough performance in a season full of them. Colson had 18 points, seven rebounds, and a pair of blocks — all of which led the Irish. He did leave some points on the board – Colson shot just 6-of-13 from the field and missed four of his 10 free throw attempts — but on a day where Irish three-point attempts (11) and makes (four) were well below their season averages, it was the resourcefulness of Colson that again carried the offense.

Star of the GameMatt Farrell, Notre Dame. The Irish point guard, like every other player in this game, was far from perfect; however, Farrell was a spark for much of the afternoon, finishing with 16 points, four assists, and a pair of steals. He made six of his nine field goal attempts (including three from long-range) and came up with a number of key hoops to maintain the Irish lead early in the second half. Colson was equally effective, but Farrell gets the nod as the most efficient player on this afternoon.

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RTC Bracket Prep: South Region

Posted by Bennet Hayes on March 13th, 2017

All day on Monday we will roll out our region-by-region analysis for the 2017 NCAA Tournament. Here, Bennet Hayes (@HoopsTraveler) breaks down the South Region from top to bottom. Also, be sure to follow our RTC South Region handle on Twitter for continuous updates the next two weeks (@RTCSouthRegion).

South Region

Favorite: #2 Kentucky (29-5, 16-2 SEC). It’s hard to pick a true favorite when examining the top three seeds in this region, as North Carolina, Kentucky and UCLA will all garner buzz as Final Four candidates. However, the Wildcats get the RTC nod as region favorites after a dominant SEC Tournament title run. The Tar Heels are the more experienced unit, but it’s possible that no team in the field can match the talent of these young Wildcats. At the very least, Malik Monk (20.4 PPG) and De’Aaron Fox (16.1 PPG, 4.8 APG) make up the scariest backcourt – freshmen or not – in the entire country, and we’ve heard that guard play matters a little bit this time of year. The Wildcats loom as a favorite in a top-heavy region.

Malik Monk and De’Aaron Fox have Kentucky rolling into this NCAA Tournament (Photo: USA Today Sports)

Should They Falter: #1 North Carolina (27-7, 14-4 ACC). The Tar Heels enter the NCAA Tournament with less momentum than Kentucky, but the ACC regular season champions have proved plenty dominant all season long. Whether it was during a three-game romp to the Maui Invitational title in November, or its perfect campaign at the Dean Dome, North Carolina sprinted past opponents like so many other Roy Williams coached teams have before. Justin Jackson (18.1 PPG) evolved into the go-to offensive weapon many thought he would never become, while Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks have manned an extremely effective frontcourt operation. The Tar Heels’ notation as secondary favorites in the region should not be perceived as a slight; this is a very good team that at worst is the 1B to Kentucky’s 1A.

Grossly Overseeded: #5 Minnesota (24-9, 11-7 Big Ten). If you are trying to make sense of Minnesota’s placement on the #5 seed line, do not look at the committee’s S-Curve for clarification. The Gophers are closer to a #4 seed than a #6 at #18 overall, and the slew of teams right behind them – Notre Dame, Iowa State, SMU, Cincinnati – all feel significantly more deserving/scarier than Minneapolis’ favorite team. As is always the case in situations like these, it’s important to note the merit of Minnesota’s season – Richard Pitino turned last year’s disappointment into success faster than any Gopher fan could have hoped – but a #5 seed this is not. Middle Tennessee State stands to benefit, and you don’t have to dig deep into the memory banks to recall a Blue Raiders’ March takedown of a Big Ten foe.

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RTC Bracket Prep: West Region

Posted by Bennet Hayes on March 13th, 2017

All day on Monday we will roll out our region-by-region analysis for the 2017 NCAA Tournament. Here, Bennet Hayes (@HoopsTraveler) breaks down the West Region from top to bottom. Also, be sure to follow our RTC West Region handle on Twitter for continuous updates the next two weeks (@RTCWestRegion).

West Region

Favorite: #1 Gonzaga (32-1, 17-1 WCC). The Bulldogs still possess their share of skeptics, but 32 wins in 33 games played proved sufficient to earn Mark Few’s team a #1 seed and favorite status in the West Region. Gonzaga rebounded from a Senior Night loss to BYU to win three games in Las Vegas at the WCC Tournament by an average margin of 19.7 PPG and enter the NCAA Tournament poised for a deep run. The Zags also own a neutral court victory over West #2 seed Arizona from early December, and efficiency ratings still love their body of work: KenPom ranks them a comfortable #1 in his metrics. Gonzaga failures of recent March pasts will surely entice many bracket-fillers to look to the #2 line or below for their champion from this region, but on both paper and the hardwood, the Zags are an extremely worthy West favorite.

Nigel Williams-Goss will lead #1-seeded Gonzaga into the NCAA Tournament (Photo: Campus Insiders)

Should They Falter: #2 Arizona (30-4, 16-2 Pac-12). Arizona’s late push for a #1 seed fell short, but the Pac-12 Tournament champion enters the NCAA Tournament as winners of 24 of their last 26 games. Allonzo Trier’s late January reintegration into the lineup was relatively seamless, as the sophomore guard and Pac-12 Tournament MOP has led the Wildcats with 17.3 PPG since returning. The Wildcats are young – three freshmen play key roles and Kadeem Allen is the only senior contributor – and their success this season has been somewhat unexpected, but balance, selflessness, and the steady hand of Sean Miller will present Arizona a real opportunity to make a sustained March run.

Grossly Overseeded: #6 Maryland (24-8, 12-6 Big Ten). Florida State’s seed line (#3) fairly drew the ire of critics after bracket reveal, but Maryland’s placement as a #6 seed should be equally befuddling. Conference mates Wisconsin (#8 seed) and Michigan (#7 seed) each won more games against Big Ten opponents, possessed better non-conference victories, and finished the season stronger than the slumping Terrapins (4-6 in their last 10 games), yet received lower seeds. The exact role of advanced metrics in the committee’s methodology continues to be unclear, but they appeared to have little consequence in Maryland’s case, KenPom’s 45th ranked team. Kudos to Mark Turgeon, Melo Trimble and the rest of the Terrapins for making more out of this season than most expected, but a #6 seed the Terrapins are not.

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2016-17 RTC Top 25: Week Six

Posted by Bennet Hayes on December 28th, 2016

It’s official: Conference play is here. Tuesday’s quartet of Big Ten games may have done little to impact next week’s edition of the RTC25, but it did signal the beginning of college basketball’s second season. Fans across the country shouldn’t be sad about this development, either, after a quiet final week of the non-conference season carried us through the winter holidays. The RTC25 reflects the depth of last week’s college basketball moratorium, as South Carolina (home losers to rival Clemson) was the only team to move up or down more than two spots, sliding out of the poll from #22 last week. The only other game of true consequence was significant in reality, but Louisville’s defeat of Kentucky did more for its NCAA Tournament resume than it did the Cards’ standing in the RTC25. Rick Pitino’s team rose two spots to #7 in this week’s poll, while the vaunted Wildcats dropped past the Cardinals to #8. It was a big game during an otherwise quiet week, but with conference foes lying in wait, consider the silence broken. This week’s Quick N’ Dirty Analysis of the RTC25 is after the jump.

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Quick N’ Dirty Analysis.

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