The Story of the 2014-15 College Basketball Season: Unwatchability

Posted by Bennet Hayes on April 13th, 2015

Every college basketball season supplies its share of moments to remember, and in that regard, 2014-15 was no different. We’ll always have the epic regional final between Notre Dame and Kentucky. Coach K’s 1,000th victory at the Garden won’t soon be forgotten, and Peter Hooley’s bid-delivering buzzer-beater for Albany perfectly encapsulated the madness of Championship Week… even before we learned about his emotional story. There was, without a doubt, plenty to cheer about… but those tremendous moments do not mean everything was hunky-dory in college basketball this season. As the game neared its March climax, critics of college basketball’s decreased scoring and slogging tempos found their numbers growing and voices amplified. Despite record-breaking ratings for the Final Four and March Madness, the “watchability” of college hoops was called into question unlike ever before.

Virginia Was One Of Many Slow-Tempo Teams To Thrive In 2014-15 (AP)

Virginia Was One of Many Slow-Tempo Teams to Thrive in 2014-15. (AP)

“You’ve got three kids passing on the perimeter. With 10 seconds on the shot clock, they try to make something happen and two other kids stand around. They don’t look for anything and then run back on defense, so there’s no transition game because two out of five or three out of five or in some cases four out of five kids aren’t involved in the play. It’s uglier than ugly, and it’s evidenced by the scoring going down.”

— Mark Cuban, Owner – Dallas Mavericks, April 8

The Mavericks’ outspoken owner was just one of the most prominent – and recent – voices to lament the current state of the college game, but he was far from alone – and with fair reason: Putting points on the scoreboard proved to be a universally excruciating task. Teams averaged a smidgen over 67 points per contest this season – the lowest team scoring average in over 60 years. The nation’s leader scorer – Eastern Washington’s Tyler Harvey – averaged 23.1 points per game; no national scoring leader had averaged fewer than 25.0 points per game since 1949. The six most efficient offensive teams in college basketball averaged 63.7 possessions per game; if those six merged into one unit, it would be the 233rd-fastest playing group in the land. Recent rule changes intended to enhance offensive freedom, quicken tempos and improve overall efficiency have quite clearly flopped. Points are at an all-time premium, with tempos nearing historic lethargy.

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The 2014-15 College Basketball Season: The Story of 38-1

Posted by Bennet Hayes on April 8th, 2015

The legacy of the this season’s Duke Blue Devils has been affirmed and the record books will forever remember Coach K’s band of youngsters as the 2015 National Champions. His was a talented group that was very good in November and great by April, completing a transformation that left them fully deserving of the esteemed opinions that will forever accompany them. One could even make a case that this team was as good or better than any National Champion in the last decade; the Blue Devils may not have been perfect, but they proved elite in a top-heavy year that included several great teams. The funny thing is, though, that when we think back on the this college basketball season in 20 years, NOBODY will begin the conversation with Duke. From November 14 until April 4, the only story in college basketball was Kentucky. Mike Krzyzewski’s club managed to steal the spotlight just in time for championship Monday, but even the Blue Devils’ historic season will be viewed through the prism of Kentucky’s unfulfilled chase of perfection. It says here that history will be kind to those Wildcats.

The Blue Devils Are Deserving National Champions, But Duke's Title Doesn't Mean Kentucky's Historic Season Will Be Soon Forgotten

The Blue Devils Are Deserving National Champions, But Duke’s Title Doesn’t Mean Kentucky’s Historic Season Will Be Soon Forgotten

Chatter about John Calipari’s platoon system dominated the early November college basketball news cycle in both Lexington and nationally. The early success of his team’s five-for-five substitutions included a 32-point pasting of Kansas and a dominant dissection of UCLA (remember when Kentucky held 28-2 and 43-7 leads against the Bruins en route to a 39-point win?) and did NOTHING to shift the spotlight off of Cal’s ‘Cats. It wasn’t as if compelling storylines weren’t emerging elsewhere — the Jahlil Okafor/Frank Kaminsky National Player of the Year race was well underway by the end of 2014; as was Virginia’s program-validating opening surge (12-0 in 2014 would eventually become 19-0 by late January), while Arizona, Villanova and Northern Iowa were all busy laying groundwork for their wildly successful seasons to come. Interesting things were happening all across the college basketball landscape, but we couldn’t take our eyes off of the doings in Lexington. This Wildcats’ season reeked of history from the get-go.

Kentucky’s season ended somewhere short of history on Saturday night, or at least the kind of history that the Wildcats had envisioned making. Just seven days after winning the most watched college basketball game in cable television history, Kentucky lost the most watched Final Four game in 19 years. The sudden and dramatic presence of a number other than zero in the loss column ended the coupled dreams of both perfect season and national title, but the magnitude of fans following the Kentucky experience made one thing very clear: These Wildcats had already made history. John Calipari certainly thought so: “This season is historic,” he said. “I just can’t believe anybody is going to do what these kids just did to get to this point unblemished with the schedule they played, then how they did it.”

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Final Four Fact Sheet: Kentucky Wildcats

Posted by Bennet Hayes on April 3rd, 2015

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After a week of hype surrounding the most highly-anticipated Final Four in years, let’s do a reset on each of the four teams still standing. Today’s victims: Duke (published this morning) and Kentucky. Wisconsin and Michigan State were published yesterday.

How Kentucky Got Here

Kentucky Stayed Perfect To Reach Indianapolis (Getty Images)

Kentucky Survived Notre Dame To Stay Perfect. Next Stop: Indianapolis. (Getty Images)

Midwest Region Champions. Kentucky opened the NCAA Tournament with a closer-than-expected 23-point victory over #16 seed Hampton, then followed it up with a third-round defeat of plucky #8 seed Cincinnati. The Wildcats had to prove at least one prognosticator wrong to reach the Elite Eight, but did so convincingly against #5 seed West Virginia, improving to 37-0 in a 39-point demolition. Their last hurdle before the Final Four proved to be the toughest. #3 seed Notre Dame did everything it could to end Kentucky’s perfect season, but in an all-time classic quarterfinal matchup, the Wildcats did just enough to squeak by the Irish and into another Final Four.

The Coach

John Calipari. There’s little more to say about Calipari at this point. He’s led a 38-0 team into the Final Four (his fourth appearance in five years), has won multiple National Coach of the Year honors (including our own), and is undeniably atop the profession as his team enters a Final Four that includes three other coaches with a combined 1,866 wins. Coach Cal is dominating college basketball.

Style

Let’s face it: No matter what happens in Indianapolis this weekend, the Wildcats have already put together an historic season. And when you think back on this Kentucky team, the first thing that you will remember will be its defense. The Wildcats rank first in adjusted defensive efficiency (and before Saturday, they were the most efficient defense of the 13-year KenPom era), first in three-point percentage defense, second in two-point percentage defense and second in block percentage. With shot-blockers Willie Cauley-Stein and Karl-Anthony Towns (among others) protecting the rim, Calipari’s guards have been able to extend their man-to-man defense well beyond the three-point line. You could say that the defensive scheme has worked out pretty well. The Kentucky efficiency bonanza has not been limited to the defensive end, however, as the Wildcats also rank fifth nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency. Their aggressive attacking of the offensive glass and frequent trips to the free throw line have paid dividends all season long, while the developing post games of Towns and Cauley-Stein have led to a greater focus on interior touches as the season has progressed. Notre Dame can attest that Towns has developed into a go-to player for the ‘Cats.

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Final Four Fact Sheet: Duke Blue Devils

Posted by Bennet Hayes on April 3rd, 2015

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After a week of hype surrounding the most highly-anticipated Final Four in years, let’s do a reset on each of the four teams still standing. Today’s victims: We’ll start with Duke and finish the day with Kentucky. Wisconsin and Michigan State were published yesterday.

How Duke Got Here

South Region Champions. During the NCAA Tournament’s first weekend in Charlotte, the Blue Devils used friendly surroundings to coast by #16 seed Robert Morris and #8 seed San Diego State; Coach K’s team led the Colonials and Aztecs by double-figures in all 40 second-half minutes of those two games. Advancement was tougher at the South Regional in Houston, but Duke managed to break open close games against #5 seed Utah in the Sweet Sixteen and #2 seed Gonzaga in the Elite Eight, landing the Blue Devils a trip to Indianapolis this weekend.

Coach K And Duke Cut Down The Nets In Houston; Is The Indianapolis Twine Next? (USA Today Sports)

Coach K And Duke Cut Down The Nets In Houston; Is The Indianapolis Twine Next? (USA Today Sports)

The Coach

Mike Krzyewski. Like the other three coaches in this year’s Final Four, you already know Mike Krzyzewski. Unlike the other three coaches in the Final Four, there is no college basketball coach you know better than Mike Krzyzewski. Coach K’s list of accomplishments — 1,016 career wins, 12 Final Fours, four National Championships – leave him with little to prove. Can the longtime Duke head coach, in the twilight of his career, outmaneuver two of college basketball’s best (Izzo and either Calipari or Ryan) this Saturday and Monday nights?

Style

For the seventh season in a row, Duke has an offense that ranks among the top 10 nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency. However, unlike most of those other attacks, this year’s version works from the inside out. Krzyzewski-coached teams have classically thrived from beyond the arc and this group certainly doesn’t struggle there either (39 percent), but Jahlil Okafor has transformed the Duke interior. The freshman All-American is the major reason why the Blue Devils made 56 percent of their two-point field-goal attempts this year (fourth-best nationally) and remains the clear focus of the offense. Defensively, Duke remains a man-to-man team. Midseason struggles in stopping penetration prompted a brief flirtation with a zone (which wasn’t necessarily unsuccessful), but Quinn Cook has spearheaded a significantly improved man-to-man approach during the latter half of the season.

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Rushed Reactions: #1 Duke 66, #2 Gonzaga 52

Posted by Bennet Hayes on March 29th, 2015

RTC National Columnist Bennet Hayes is in Houston this week for the South Regional semifinals and final.

Three Key Takeaways.

Both Jones' -- Tyus And Matt -- Were Instrumental In Duke's Elite Eight Victory Over Gonzaga (Photo: Duke Chronicle)

Both Jones’ — Tyus And Matt — Were Instrumental In Duke’s Elite Eight Victory Over Gonzaga (Photo: Duke Chronicle)

  1. Offenses Fail To Get Going, Again. In Friday night’s regional semifinals, four teams that began the night among the 65 most accurate three-point shooting teams in the country combined to shoot 23 percent from long-range. Much was made of the clumsy dome setup inducing the offensive malaise, but the forecast for Sunday was still for efficient offense by the bucket-load, given the firepower Duke and Gonzaga brought to the table. The two teams got off to a fast start – 22 points in the first five minutes – but things settled down significantly from there on out. Gonzaga and Duke combined to shoot 41 percent from the floor, including just 38 percent for the victorious Blue Devils. Duke did do two things extremely well offensively: shoot the ball accurately from three-point range (8-19) and maximize possessions (an amazing three total turnovers for the game). Gonzaga was less proficient in each category, making only two of 10 three-point attempts and turning the ball over 13 times. There were glimpses of the offensive brilliance we witnessed from both these teams all season, but this regional final never escalated into the explosive matchup many expected.
  2. Matt Jones, Who? Matt Jones. The Duke sophomore supplied the game of his life in this Regional Final. Jones, who entered Sunday averaging just 5.9 points per game, finished with 16 points (one shy of his season and career highs) and converted four of Duke’s eight made three-point field goals. With Quinn Cook and Tyus Jones again struggling to find the range from deep (combined 2-8 on three-point attempts), Jones’ unexpected scoring was crucial in getting the Blue Devils into the final minutes with a lead. Mark Few said afterwards that concerns about guarding Justise Winslow had led to Gonzaga to do a significant amount of cross-matching with Kyle Wiltjer defending Jones, a reasonable coaching decision that devolved into a disastrous result for the Zags. Jones, Duke’s fifth starter and a Texas native (like Friday night hero Justise Winslow) playing in his home state, was as important as any of his more acclaimed teammates Sunday afternoon.
  3. Wiltjer-Winslow Matchup. This was the matchup many fixated on in advance of Sunday afternoon, and with good reason: Winslow was coming off a scintillating Friday night performance, while Wiltjer has been arguably the Zags best player all season. Mixing and matching by both coaches saw both players spend a good deal of time defending elsewhere, but Wiltjer kept Gonzaga close in the first half, scoring 13 points on 5-7 field-goal shooting. Meanwhile, Winslow forced the action early and managed just five points in the opening frame, missing five of his six field-goal attempts. Things changed dramatically after intermission, however. Wiltjer struggled to get touches and was a virtual non-factor in the second half, while Duke’s freshman swingman found his Friday night form, pumping in 11 second-half points. Among the 11 was the biggest shot of the night, a three-pointer with the shot clock winding down and less than three minutes to go that put Duke up nine. Both players finished with 16 points, but Winslow’s big second-half was a key differentiator for Mike Krzyewski’s team.

Star of the Game. Tyus Jones, Duke. None of Duke’s big four – Jones, Winslow, Jahlil Okafor and Quinn Cook – played anything close to a perfect game today. Heck, they combined to shoot 15-45 from the field. Still, it was Jones that catalyzed Duke’s quick start, scoring seven points as the Blue Devils jumped out to a 17-10 lead. The South Region’s Most Outstanding Player finished the day with 15 points, six assists and no turnovers, helping Duke to that minuscule turnover total of three. Matt Jones’ unexpected scoring was a huge boost Sunday afternoon, but it was the more familiar Jones on the Duke roster who dictated this game’s flow from the outset. His ball-handling and all-around savvy will now be put to use in Indianapolis.

Quotable. “It’s meant everything. Best team I have ever been on talent-wise and the best group of guys. We can look back and be pretty happy with what we have been able to do.” –Kevin Pangos, Gonzaga senior point guard, on what this Gonzaga season has meant to him.

“It’s a shot he makes. It’s a shot he makes 499 times out of 500.” –Mark Few, on Kyle Wiltjer’s missed layup with 4:51 to go that would have tied game. Duke went on a 13-1 run to close the game after the miss.

“Our defense the last 16 minutes was spectacular — not (just) good. I love these guys and they came through.” –Mike Krzyewski, Duke head coach

“This team is eight guys. There is not someone hiding in the locker room that is going to come out and appear.” -Krzyewski.

Sights & Sounds. Whether it was the Sunday afternoon time slot, a Final Four bid on the line, or just the anticipation of the region’s top two seeds meeting, there was an urgency in NRG Stadium that never existed Friday night. The Duke faithful significantly outnumbered Gonzaga supporters (rough estimate — 5:1 ratio of Duke to Gonzaga fans), but enough folks from the Pacific Northwest made the journey South to create a back-and-forth feel to the cheering. In the end, however, the final image of NRG Stadium was all too familiar: Thousands of contented Duke fans standing in acknowledgment of a Blue Devil team advancing to face their next challenge.

What’s Next?  Duke advances to the program’s 16th Final Four, where it will take on Tom Izzo and Michigan State in Indianapolis. The fourth overall meeting between Mike Krzyewski and Tom Izzo in the NCAA Tournament will double as the second time they have met in a National Semifinal. Duke has won two of those three prior matchups, which includes a Sweet 16 game two seasons ago. On the other side, the loss to Duke ends what will likely go down as the greatest season in Gonzaga history. The Zags, now 0-2 all-time in the Elite Eight, will finish the year at 35-3. Mark Few loses Byron Wesley, Gary Bell and WCC Player of the Year Kevin Pangos to graduation after an undeniably special year in Spokane.

 

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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.

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

Posted by Bennet Hayes on March 27th, 2015

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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.

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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 »

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Bracket Prep: South Region Analysis

Posted by Bennet Hayes on March 17th, 2015

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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 »

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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

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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.

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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.

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