Rushed Reactions: #1 Duke 63, #5 Utah 57

Posted by Bennet Hayes on March 27th, 2015

rushedreactions

Three Key Takeaways.

Justise Winslow Starred In Duke's Sweet Sixteen Victory Friday Night (USA Today Images)

Justise Winslow Starred In Duke’s Sweet Sixteen Victory Friday Night (USA Today Images)

  1. Duke’s Dominant Defense. The Blue Devils made their way to Houston largely on the backs of a prolific offense but it was a disruptive defensive effort that fueled Friday night’s victory. In the Utah backcourt, Duke extended pressure and forced 15 Utes’ turnovers; when Utah managed to settle into the half-court offense they found the going no easier, as they made just 34.6 percent of their field goal attempts, including only 4-of-16 from behind the arc. Over the course of the last two months, an improving Duke defense has often gone unnoticed while the hyper-efficient offense has whizzed on the other end. Today, however, there is no chance it goes overlooked — this was a varied and dynamic defensive effort against a good offensive team that earned Duke a trip to the Elite Eight. If similar efforts continue, that defense could take them even further.
  2. Delon Wright Never Gets Going. Utah’s indispensable senior star was whistled for an extremely questionable third foul with 4:59 to play in the first half, relegating him to cheerleading duties for the remainder of the period. In 13 first-half minutes, he managed only two points (on 1-of-5 field-goal shooting) without an assist. Wright was far more involved in the second half – he finished with 10 points, six rebounds and three steals – but his final contributions were still insufficient for the Utes to seriously challenge Duke. He missed 10 of his 14 field goal attempts, turned the ball over as many times as he set up teammates for buckets (two), and generally failed to penetrate the Duke defense. In totality, Wright’s senior season was spectacular – he was THE catalyst for Utah’s revival. But on Friday night, much like he was in other games down the stretch, Wright just didn’t measure up to the lofty standards his early brilliance helped set.
  3. Okafor Was Contained, But No Problem For Duke. Utah did a good job containing Duke’s freshman All-American, limiting Okafor to 3-of-6 shooting from the field while forcing him into four turnovers. Jakob Poeltl and Dallin Bachynski took turns as the primary defender on Okafor, but the Utes also brought a double-team immediately upon any Okafor touch, which served well in minimizing his impact. The good news for Duke: The Blue Devils learned they could win without a standout performance from Okafor. The bad news: Future opponents could replicate the Utes defensive plan of attack to make life difficult for him. Thinking to Sunday: Will Gonzaga leave Karnowski and Sabonis to battle Okafor one-on-one?

Star of the Game. Justise Winslow, Duke. Winslow’s stellar first-weekend play carried over to tonight as the Duke freshman again stuffed the stat sheet. His final line: 21 points, 10 rebounds, two blocks and a steal. It wasn’t all good for Winslow – Brekkott Chapman beat Winslow for a layup while he was celebrating a made three-point field goal, much to the chagrin of Coach K – but the versatile wing again proved his immense value on Friday night. In an unusual twist, it was Winslow who hit all three of the Duke three-point field goals, finding the range on a night where teammates Quinn Cook and Tyus Jones could not. Fearing his athleticism, Utah dared him to shoot perimeter jumpers – Winslow made them pay.

Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

Rushed Reactions: #2 Gonzaga 74, #11 UCLA 62

Posted by Bennet Hayes on March 27th, 2015

rushedreactions

Three Key Takeaways.

Przemek Karnowski Was The Key Figure In Gonzaga's Sweet 16 Victory Over UCLA

Przemek Karnowski Was The Key Figure In Gonzaga’s Sweet 16 Victory Over UCLA

  1. NRG Stadium Problems. Two normally explosive offensive teams struggled to put the ball in the basket for much of this game, particularly in the first 20 minutes of action. Neither team managed even 40 percent field goal shooting for the opening half, and they combined to miss 12 of 14 three-point attempts in advance of intermission. For the game, the two teams combined to shoot under 40 percent from the field and a meager 19 percent from long-range, making just six total three-point field goals all night. Among onlookers, cavernous NRG Stadium seemed to receive much of the blame for the shooting woes. We’re not ready to chalk the struggles up solely to the lack of a backdrop for shooters in the dome (and lets revisit this after Duke and Utah torch the nets later tonight), but the setup did feel clumsy and uncomfortable. Given that Gonzaga had made 41 percent of three-point attempts on the year and UCLA 37 percent, it does seem likely that the NRG Stadium layout had something to do with the errant efforts tonight.
  2. Alford and Alford. Father-son duos were all the rage this March, but unfortunately for those who enjoy a good family narrative, those storylines are now closed for the season. Both father and son failed to do their part tonight for the Bruins: Bryce didn’t make a three-point field goal in the first 37 minutes of the game, finishing with just eight points on 3-of-11 field goal shooting; Steve’s failure was less salient, but the Bruins never showed the preparedness and energy necessary to stop the prolific Gonzaga offense. If last weekend was the Alfords at their best; tonight caught father and son at their near-worst.
  3. Few, Zags Break Through. It’s hard to believe, but this will be Mark Few’s first trip to the Elite Eight. America first became acquainted with Gonzaga when the Zags made the national quarterfinals in 1999 under Dan Monson, but Few had been 0-4 in Sweet Sixteen games before this evening. Most notable among those losses was the 2006 defeat at the hands of these very Bruins, which famously ended in a jersey-full of Adam Morrison tears. There is another significant milestone available for Few’s team on Sunday afternoon, but the closing-seconds elation on the Gonzaga bench hinted at a team – and a coach – who had finally chucked a monkey off the back.

Star of the Game. Przemek Karnowski, Gonzaga. The biggest man on the floor was the best player in this game. Karnowski physically dominated Tony Parker, Kevon Looney and a fairly well-regarded UCLA frontcourt, scoring 18 points and grabbing nine rebounds on the evening. But Karnowski’s contributions went beyond his work near his offensive rim, as he blocked two shots and dished out a pair of no-look passes to Domantas Sabonis, both of which ended in dunks. On a night where Gonzaga’s perimeter shots were not falling (3-of-19 from three-point range), a big effort from their big man was much needed in getting them past UCLA and into the Elite Eight.

Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

NCAA Regional Reset: South Region

Posted by Bennet Hayes on March 23rd, 2015

RTC_NCAA15

Your bracket is busted and the Sweet Sixteen is set. Let’s do a Regional Reset. Follow @rtcsouthregion for reporting from Houston this week. You can find all four regional resets here.

New Favorite: #1 Duke. The Blue Devils are well-positioned to make their first Final Four since 2010. Two wins in Charlotte (by an average of 24.0 PPG) did little to diminish their status as the South Region favorite, even with Gonzaga and Utah also impressively advancing en route to Houston. Duke, 31-4 and trending upwards, has made clear the crown will go through them.

Quinn Cook And Matt Jones Helped Duke Cruise By San Diego State And Into The Sweet 16

Quinn Cook and Matt Jones Helped Duke Cruise by San Diego State and into the Sweet Sixteen. (Getty)

Horse of Darkness: #11 UCLA. The only double-digit seed left standing in this NCAA Tournament is the South Region’s darkest horse, despite that double-digit seed owning more national titles than any program in the history of college basketball. UCLA’s serendipitous March has been well-documented, but 80 minutes of solid basketball earned the Bruins a trip to Houston and the second weekend. The impediment to advancement (Gonzaga) will be significantly greater in Houston; can UCLA’s mutation into Cinderella maintain itself for another weekend?

Biggest Surprise (First Weekend): #3 Iowa State. It was the quick departure of a pair of #3 seeds from the Big 12 that supplied this year’s NCAA Tournament an early jolt on Thursday afternoon. Baylor’s demise on the other side of the bracket was surprising in its own right, but Iowa State’s loss to UAB was legitimately shocking. Fresh off a takedown of Kansas in the Big 12 Tournament championship game, the Cyclones had entered this tourney with engines revving. The draw was favorable in the South – many believed a Final Four run was in the cards. At worst, a second round victory over 14-point underdog UAB felt like a certainty. But the impossible becomes possible very quickly this time of year; before anyone knew it, Iowa State had become the first casualty of the Madness of March. Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

Bracket Prep: South Region Analysis

Posted by Bennet Hayes on March 17th, 2015

RTC_NCAA15

Throughout Tuesday, we will roll out our region-by-region analysis on the following schedule: East (10:00 AM), South (11:00 AM), Midwest (1:00 PM), West (2:00 PM). 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: #1 Duke (29-4, 16-4 ACC). The top-seeded Blue Devils are rightful favorites in the South region. Not only are the Blue Devils REALLY good (they are a #1 seed for a reason), but they were fortunate enough to avoid a region with Arizona or Virginia in a year where six teams could stake legitimate claims to #1 seeds. Ignore Duke’s ignominious recent NCAA Tournament history: The Blue Devils are favorites to book the flight from Houston to Indianapolis.

Justise Winslow and Jahlil Okafor have to wonder which way Duke is heading after a tumultuous week (sportingnews.com)

Justise Winslow, Jahlil Okafor and Duke are the favorites to get out of the region. (Getty)

Should They Falter: #3 Iowa State (25-8, 15-6 Big 12). We’ll leap the second-seeded Zags to label Iowa State as the next most likely team to win this region. Frank Hoiberg’s club finished with a flourish, knocking off Kansas in the Big 12 championship game to put the finishing touches on a tidy resume. The bulk of this Cyclones core were contributors when they lost to eventual champion Connecticut in the Sweet Sixteen a year ago. There are some flaws here, particularly on the defensive end, but Hoiberg is undoubtedly anxious to push a team deep into the NCAA Tournament. This bunch could be the one to do it.

Grossly Overseeded: #4 Georgetown (21-10, 13-7 Big East). The Big East got a lot of respect this Selection Sunday. Four of the six league teams to make the field were seeded at least a line above Joe Lunardi’s final projection, while the other two (Villanova and St. John’s) were at the number Lunardi projected. Georgetown received a #4 seed from the committee (two lines above the #6 Lunardi expected) and there’s little about the Hoyas – both on the resume and on the court – that indicates they are that deserving. Their best non-conference victory came in overtime on a neutral court against Indiana. Big East work, although headlined by a defeat of Villanova, was only marginally more impressive. John Thompson III guided the Hoyas to a solid bounce-back season after missing the NCAA Tournament a year ago, but they are overvalued at this seed line. Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

Rushed Reactions: #5 Wisconsin 80, Michigan State 69

Posted by Bennet Hayes on March 15th, 2015

RTC National Columnist Bennet Hayes was in Chicago this week for the Big Ten Tournament Championship.

Three Key Takeaways.

Josh Gasser May Have Saved Wisconsin's Big Ten Title (USA Today Images)

Josh Gasser May Have Saved Wisconsin’s Big Ten Title (USA Today Images)

  1. Hold On, Selection Show. The Spartans and Badgers needed extra time to decide the Big Ten championship game, temporarily preventing the NCAA Tournament committee from finalizing the bracket. Michigan State had briefly seized a double-figure lead with under eight minutes to play, but the separation didn’t last. Wisconsin quickly erased the Spartans’ edge with a 16-5 run, setting in motion a dramatic final three minutes of action. The first 25 minutes of the game had played out much like those final three and overtime did: back-and-forth fashion, as the teams took turns claiming and reclaiming the lead, much to the delight of a United Center divided in their patronage. After Wisconsin dominated overtime, the bracket could finally be completed, and one of the great college basketball games of this season had found its close.
  2. An Aggressive Branden Dawson. Tom Izzo spoke earlier in the week about encouraging Dawson to pick up his offensive aggressiveness. No such request needed to be made after tipoff this afternoon. True to reputation, Dawson terrorized the rim with vicious dunks on multiple occasions, also displaying a nice in-between game at times. He scored points out of both post-ups and dribble drives, finishing the afternoon with 16 points. Dawson also grabbed seven rebounds in one of his strongest performances of the season. His breakaway dunk with 7:44 to play gave Michigan State what would be its largest lead of the day, igniting the Spartans’ faithful in attendance.
  3. Unexpected Contributor. It’s been a challenging season for Duje Dukan, but the senior gave the Badgers a huge boost off the bench in the first half. He knocked down two threes as part of an eight-point effort in the first frame, ultimately finishing with 11 points on 4-of-6 shooting. It capped off a very nice week in Chicago for Dukan. Contributions like today’s from the senior would be much appreciated in the NCAA Tournament, as Wisconsin’s thin bench remains a concern heading into the season’s final phase.

Star of the Game. Bronson Koenig, Wisconsin. The heroes were many for the Badgers. Frank Kaminsky was outstanding (19 points, five rebounds) and Nigel Hayes’ relentless aggression was a key part of the Badgers’ comeback, but Koenig may have made the two biggest plays of the game. The sophomore was fouled and made two free throws to tie the game with 15 seconds to play in regulation, then came up with the biggest bucket of the extra period, hitting a three to put Wisconsin up six with two minutes to play. That final bucket would prove back-breaking for the Spartans and it was delivered by a player who has grown increasingly comfortable in taking the big shot. Koenig finished with 18 points and nine assists.

Quotable.

  • “I thought we played one of the greatest games we’ve played for 32, 32 and a half minutes…And then we made a couple mistakes, and they made a couple of great shots.” –Tom Izzo
  • “He made us look around, look around the gym, and he wanted us to look at that and remember that feeling. Take that all in. That was we don’t want to feel that feeling again.” –Travis Trice, on why Izzo took a time-out with 3.7 seconds left in OT and the Spartans down 11
  • “To go out the way we did and fight back and really take the Big Ten title was awesome. Our fans were great, an awesome environment to play in and it was just a blast.” –Kaminsky, who was named Big Ten Tournament MOP
  • “That was a high level NCAA Tournament game right there, if you ask me, as far as the crowd, the intensity, the swings, the up-and-down. For us to get that one and get the No. 1 seed, these guys are extremely proud to represent the University in that way.” –Bo Ryan

Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

A Love Story: Tom Izzo And March

Posted by Bennet Hayes on March 14th, 2015

After Michigan State won yet another postseason basketball game – this one a come-from-behind, emotionally charged Big Ten semifinal victory over Maryland, a well-known secret was made public: The love affair between Tom Izzo and March is real. “I love March for two reasons: it’s tournament basketball and a chance to win a championship and the weather is getting nicer,” Izzo said. “It’s just a phenomenal time of year.”

Tom Izzo's Team Is Getting Hot In March Once Again. Michigan State Takes On Wisconsin For The Big Ten Title On Sunday. (Photo: USA Today Sports)

Tom Izzo’s Team Is Getting Hot In March Once Again. Michigan State Takes On Wisconsin For the Big Ten Title on Sunday. (Photo: USA Today Sports)

Izzo’s fondness for the calendar’s third month leads us into a familiar story: Michigan State works its way through an inconsistent regular season to find stability and success in March. These Spartans ably fulfilled the opening act of the narrative, putting together a season as uneven as any Izzo has overseen. Michigan State lost 10 regular season games. The Spartans never put together a winning streak longer than four games. And the coup de grace: a startlingly low nadir, a home loss to Texas Southern back in December. But for Michigan State fans, now comes the fun piece of that two-part story. It’s March, and after a gut-check of a win over Maryland, Michigan State has won four in a row entering Sunday’s Big Ten Tournament title game. There’s an especially massive challenge awaiting the Spartans tomorrow, but win or lose against Wisconsin, Tom Izzo has this team approaching the NCAA Tournament at its speediest velocity yet.

The Spartans trailed 12-1 and 23-7 in the first half as a result of both their own spotty shooting and Melo Trimble’s decidedly un-spotty shooting (the Maryland freshman started 5-of-5 from the field). Travis Trice (13 first half points) helped stem that early tide, enabling his team to enter the halftime intermission down just eight points. Michigan State completed the comeback in the second half with a series of emotional surges. No mini-run elicited more sentiment than a 13-0 burst capped by Denzel Valentine’s first points of the afternoon, a three-point field goal with 12:38 to play. They would also wind up being Valentine’s final points, but the burst of Michigan State momentum forced Maryland to take timeout as the Spartan faithful rejoiced in their team’s first lead of the game.

Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

Rushed Reactions: #8 Maryland 75, Indiana 69

Posted by Bennet Hayes on March 13th, 2015

RTC National Columnist Bennet Hayes is covering the Big Ten Tournament this week in Chicago.

Three Key Takeaways.

Melo Trimble And Dez Wells Spearheaded Maryland's Quarterfinal Victory Friday Night (USAT Sports)

Melo Trimble And Dez Wells Spearheaded Maryland’s Quarterfinal Victory Friday Night (USAT Sports)

  1. Maryland In Control. This game was tight throughout, with the Terrapins’ lead never extending beyond seven points until the final seconds. But despite maintaining shouting distance, Indiana’s last lead came with 14 minutes to go in the first half. Maryland’s steady march to the free throw line (33 attempts) was one key factor in Indiana never getting over the hump. More generally, failing to stop its opponent from scoring tends to cause teams to relinquish control of a basketball game: This was the story of Indiana’s night and season. Maryland never felt like they were ready to lose control of this one.
  2. Hoosiers Shooting Struggles. Indiana entered tonight having made 40.7 percent of their three-point field goal attempts, the sixth-best mark in the country. The Hoosiers converted just 7-of-24 of their long-range efforts in defeat tonight – a slight downtick in both production and efficiency from January 22, when they buried 15-of-22 long range attempts in a rout of Maryland. Distilling Indiana’s offensive strategy into making threes is oversimplifying things, but it’s no secret that the Hoosiers heavily rely on making long-range shots. It was their downfall tonight.
  3. Attack Mode. This game began at a frantic pace (20 points in the first three-and-a-half minutes), and while the pace of scoring eventually slowed down (only a bit), both teams’ aggression levels never did. They explored transition opportunities, attacked the rim in both the half- and full-court, and were fearless in pulling the trigger from three-point range. No player attacked more aggressively than Maryland’ Dez Wells, who supplied multiple tomahawk jams in the first period. Both of these squads are accustomed to producing more efficient offense than they did this evening, but neither let that prevent them from continuing their relentless attacks.

Star of the Game. Melo Trimble, Maryland. A case could easily be made for Trimble’s running mate Wells (22 points, six rebounds), but the freshman coolly dictated action on both ends of the floor for the Terps. He scored 17 points (on just nine shots), chipped in three assists (against just one turnover), and held Indiana star Yogi Ferrell to 6-of-16 field goal shooting. Trimble’s matchup with the Hoosiers’ lead guard was a much-discussed element of these teams’ first two games and in the lead-up to tonight’s quarterfinal. Any postgame conversation on the topic would have to describe Trimble as the clearly better player on this night.

Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

Beauty in Eye of Beholder for Tom Crean & Indiana

Posted by Bennet Hayes on March 13th, 2015

Minutes after Indiana defeated Northwestern to advance to the quarterfinals of the Big Ten tournament, Tom Crean was asked if he thought his team was now in the NCAA Tournament. “Well, I don’t know,” Crean said. “You know, I really don’t know. And no one knows. That’s the beauty of it all.”

It was an insight tinged with a bit of both insanity and brilliance. If you have watched Crean coach basketball for the last month, you do not believe he could possibly find any “beauty” in the uncertainty of his team’s current predicament. The cheeks have been too red; the forehead vein too prominent; and most importantly, the Indiana wins too infrequent. And yet, thinking as a college basketball fan, it made too much sense. The beauty is there. We are just two days from Selection Sunday, and in reality, so much has yet to be decided. It’s an uncertainty that catalyzes Championship Week drama every single year; in many ways, it defines the lead-in to the NCAA Tournament. And here was Crean, who in 2015 has been as negatively affected as anyone by the pre-Tournament unpredictability, telling us about the beauty of it all.

Tom Crean, Yogi Ferrell And The Rest Of The Hoosiers Will Take On Maryland Friday Night In A Game That Could Define Their Season

Tom Crean, Yogi Ferrell And The Hoosiers Will Take On Maryland Friday Night In A Game That Could Define Their Season (USATSI)

In the minds of many, Thursday’s victory over Northwestern put Indiana into the field of 68. That belief is founded partially in the strength of the Hoosiers’ profile, which undoubtedly improved by dispatching a Wildcats team that had entered the night winners of five of their last seven. But it’s also a result of bubble carnage elsewhere: Texas A&M, Illinois, Texas, Ole Miss, Miami, Old Dominion and Stanford all suffered crippling losses on Thursday. All in all, it was a day that could not have gone much better for the Hoosiers. That doesn’t mean that they are safely there yet, or that they couldn’t REALLY use a quarterfinal victory over Maryland tonight. But for a team that hadn’t won a game of any kind since February 22, Thursday was a good day.

Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

News & Notes: Day Two at the Big Ten Tourney

Posted by Bennet Hayes on March 13th, 2015

An afternoon of upsets (Michigan and Penn State both toppled higher-seeded foes) gave way to a more predictable evening at day two of the Big Ten Tournament. Meanwhile, the two bubble teams in action may have each punched tournament tickets… to different, less-prestigious tournaments. Indiana may be good to dance after defeating Northwestern, but Illinois is surely NIT-bound after its decisive loss to Michigan. A few other news and notes on Thursday’s action from the United Center:

John Groce’s Seat Warming Up: Thursday’s loss to Michigan means Illinois is almost certainly headed to the NIT, where the Illini will seek to salvage some shred of meaning from a disappointing season. John Groce has recruited well since arriving in Champaign, but the former Ohio University head man has yet to finish a season with a winning Big Ten record. His only NCAA Tournament appearance at Illinois came in 2012-13, and that happened with a team largely constructed by his predecessor, Bruce Weber. Groce is going nowhere this offseason, but if the Illini find themselves in a similar spot next postseason, his job status will be far less certain. The good news for Illinois is that the return of Tracy Abrams and another talented incoming freshman class could, and maybe even should, lead to a happier result in Champaign a year from now. It will be interesting to see how much the Illini miss Rayvonte Rice next year. On the one hand, he was a legitimately efficient volume scorer – a player prototype that doesn’t exactly grow on trees. But Illinois’ 6-3 record without Rice this season raise the question of whether his ball-dominating nature might have often been counterproductive. We’ll find out in a critical 2015-16 campaign for Groce and the Illini.

John Groce, Rayvonte Rice And The Illini Saw Their Tournament Hopes All But Die Thursday Afternoon

John Groce, Rayvonte Rice And The Illini Saw Their Tournament Hopes All But Die Thursday Afternoon (Getty Images)

Nittany Lions Drop Hawkeyes: Iowa was a trendy sleeper pick heading into the action yesterday, but Penn State quickly and effectively ended the Hawkeyes’ Big Ten Tournament. The loss changes little for the Hawkeyes except for the fact that Fran McCaffery’s team is now squarely staring down the barrel of a dreaded #8/#9 game. Things could be worse, though – they seem to be safely in the field, and unlike last year, shouldn’t be headed to Dayton. On the other side, Penn State won its third straight Big Ten game — no small feat considering the Nittany Lions had won just three of 17 league games before embarking on their recent surge. More good news for Penn State fans: Purdue awaits the Lions in the next round. No disrespect to the Boilers and their impressive 12-6 Big Ten season, but they are clearly the easiest option among the four teams that received double-byes. Penn State pushed Purdue to overtime in State College in their only meeting of the season; can the tournament’s most unexpected quarterfinalist find a way to extend its stay in Chicago for at least another day?

Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

Big Ten Tournament Preview

Posted by Henry Bushnell & Bennet Hayes on March 11th, 2015

Henry Bushnell and Bennet Hayes will be in Chicago all week delivering coverage of the Big Ten tournament. In advance of the action tipping off Wednesday night, they sat down to tackle a few questions on the week that lies ahead.

Wisconsin is the clear favorite, but could an upset be in the works for the Badgers?

Wisconsin is the clear favorite, but could an upset be in the works for the Badgers?

Wisconsin enters the Big Ten Tournament as a heavy favorite. Which team besides the Badgers has the best shot at winning it all this week

  • Bennet: Michigan State‘s regular season was no exemplar of consistency, but with Branden Dawson expected to return to the lineup for Friday’s quarterfinal game, they’ve officially made it to March in one piece. Betting against Tom Izzo this month is always a dicey operation — particularly with the experienced Valentine/Trice/Dawson core once again intact. Furthermore, snagging the #3 seed and delaying a potential rematch with Wisconsin until the championship game is another nice coup. The double-bye should also minimize the impact of depth issues that have at times proved troublesome. Michigan State never got the Badgers on its home floor this season; here’s guessing Sparty wouldn’t mind a crack at them in neutral territory. Izzo’s bunch has the chops to win three games in Chicago this week.
  • Henry: I like the Sparty pick, but I’ll take Ohio State. I know a lot of people will be scared off by the beatdown Wisconsin put on the Buckeyes in Columbus in the regular season finale, but that result was a lot more about the Badgers than Ohio State. Thad Matta still has a very talented team, and one that on a per-possession basis has far outperformed its record. And if there’s one player in this tournament who can take over a game and engineer an upset of Wisconsin in the final, it’s D’Angelo Russell.
D'Angelo Russell And Ohio State Could Make A Run In Chicago This Week

D’Angelo Russell And Ohio State Could Make A Run This Week In Chicago. (USA TODAY Sports)

Which player are you most looking forward to watching?

  • Henry: I can’t wait to see Branden Dawson. I know he’s had an up-and-down year with some recent injury issues, but he should be ready to go on Friday. He’s one of those players where a television screen simply doesn’t do his game justice. I’ve seen him play live twice this year from the upper levels and he wowed me both times with his athleticism and sheer power. At the United Center, we should have a front row seat, and I expect his game up close to be even more eye-popping.

Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

As Kentucky Takes Aim at History, Wildcats Have Everyone’s Attention

Posted by Bennet Hayes on March 9th, 2015

It’s not that Kentucky’s perfect regular season was never in doubt, because it often was. It took three overtime periods to dispatch the Wildcats’ first two SEC opponents (Mississippi and Texas A&M). LSU was a Keith Hornsby three away from ending the perfect season (ask Arkansas how that can turn out). And just earlier this week, Georgia had the ‘Cats on the ropes, leading by nine points in Athens with under 10 minutes to play. Kentucky was tested time and time again this season, yet the Wildcats found a way to outscore their opponents 31 times without fail. Fill in your own superlative here, because it’s been a truly historic run: No power conference team has completed a perfect regular season since Indiana did the trick on its way to a national title in 1976.

Kentucky's History-Making Season Continued Saturday. Up Next: The SEC Tournament. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Kentucky’s History-Making Season Continued Saturday. Up Next: The SEC Tournament. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Bids at perfection in college basketball – and in all sports, for that matter — are so often accompanied by a burdensome tension. As the wins pile up, the looming specter of history can turn the games into an exercise in survival. Kentucky has somehow avoided this transformation. No matter how sturdy the challenger or dire the circumstances, the Wildcats have steadfastly maintained control of their season. John Calipari has cultivated a respect for the process rarely found among groups of 18- to 20-year olds. Accordingly, Kentucky has yet to flinch in the face of a challenge — his team has never lost trust in either its coach or the plan. Lately, amid the discussion of Kentucky’s postseason chances, a tired cliché has been making the rounds. Some pundits have said, “the only team that can beat Kentucky is Kentucky.” If missing jump shots is somehow beating yourself, then sure, Kentucky might end up “beating itself.” But anyone familiar with the team’s entire of body of work within this 31-0 regular season will be quick to tell you that, more than anything else, these young Wildcats have always shown up. Expecting a deviation from that standard is silly, particularly when you consider the considerable motivational talents of Calipari.

Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

Sleeping on a Darling From a March Past

Posted by Bennet Hayes on February 19th, 2015

The return to anonymity was as swift as the introduction had been sudden. When Ali Farokhmanesh unleashed his ill-advised three-point attempt with 36 seconds to play in a 2010 round of 32 match-up with Kansas, Northern Iowa was a little known Missouri Valley outfit that had scrapped its way to 29 wins. But seconds later, after the brave long distance attempt found the bottom of the net and the Panthers were done toppling top-seeded Kansas, Ben Jacobson‘s team was a national sensation. It didn’t matter that his team’s season would end six days later against Michigan State — with that one shot, Northern Iowa had suddenly become the story of the 2010 NCAA Tournament.

Seth Tuttle May Be College Basketball's Most Unassuming Star. His Northern Iowa Panthers are now 25-2. (Photo: Associated Press)

Seth Tuttle May Be College Basketball’s Most Unassuming Star. His Northern Iowa Panthers are now 25-2. (Photo: Associated Press)

The Panthers’ 15 minutes of fame extended a bit beyond March that year – they won ‘Best Upset’ at the 2010 ESPYs several months later – but it wasn’t too long before most of the world (and this includes the segment that eats, sleeps and breathes college basketball) had forgotten about them. They won no more than 21 games in any of the four seasons that followed, with a 2012 first-round NIT loss standing as the most successful postseason run since ‘the shot.’ Like so many March darlings before them, they had been forced back to their post in the obscure outer regions of college hoops.

They’re now back. Most college basketball fans have taken note of this season’s Northern Iowa renaissance, but lets take a full inventory of what they have done to this point. After Wednesday night’s 58-39 victory at Loyola (IL), Jacobson’s team has won 14 in a row and sits at 25-2 on the season. On January 31, the Panthers handed Wichita State its worst loss (70-54) in over six years. Their two losses came in double-overtime at VCU and by three points at Evansville. They rank in the top 25 nationally in both offensive and defensive efficiency, and the AP poll and Ken Pom’s rankings list them as the 11th best team in the country. Things are not going badly for this group.

Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story