The RTC Podcast: There’s Still Time Edition

Posted by BHayes on January 22nd, 2016

Welcome back to another edition of the RTC Podcast, hosted each week by Shane Connolly (@sconnolly114). In this week’s show, the guys talk about many still-evolving teams’ best friend: time. With more than six weeks left before Selection Sunday and elite teams difficult to find, we dig in to which teams are building towards March success and, on the other side of things, those squads who need to right the ship quickly. The full rundown is below, and make sure to subscribe to the pod on iTunes so that you’ll have it as soon as it releases each week.

 

  • 0:00-10:54 – Big 12 Madness
  •  10:54-16:37 – ACC Concerns
  •  16:37-22:28 – Michigan  State losing streak/Big Ten Talk
  •  22:28-29:02 – Lack of Great Teams
  •  29:02-38:25 – Weekend Preview
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The Champions Classic Lesson

Posted by Bennet Hayes on November 18th, 2015

Let’s get it out there: Kentucky and Michigan State collected MAJOR wins at the Champions Classic on Tuesday night. If Kansas and Duke turn out to be anything close to the top five teams that they are expected to be, these are the type of victories that can separate #1 seeds from #2 seeds come March. For teams closer to peril (not that either Kentucky or Michigan State is likely to fall into this category), wins like these can redirect NIT-bound seasons into the field of 68. Nevermind that it’s only November, or that all four of these teams will evolve dramatically over the course of the season: These results will still matter in March. But with that note out of the way, we can also admit something that all four coaches seemed to know last night: These games don’t matter all THAT much. There’s no realistic way that last night’s results will define any of these team’s seasons, and all four coaches, given a chance to improve over the next five months, trust their own ability to mold a team — no matter how dysfunctional they may appear in November.    

Denzel Valentine Was Tuesday Night's Show-Stopper (Photo: The Sporting News)

Denzel Valentine Was Tuesday Night’s Show-Stopper (Photo: The Sporting News)

But that isn’t to say that any of these four teams looked especially bad last night. Duke’s leading scorer, sophomore Grayson Allen, did look bad, but expectations should have been restrained in his first take in a starring role against elite competition. Allen and the other young Blue Devils — Brandon Ingram (1-of-6 from the field, four turnovers, four fouls), Derryck Thornton (3-of-7 FG, four turnovers) and Luke Kennard (0-of-5 FG) — are all good bets to steadily improve in the months to come. Kansas was the other team that left the United Center a loser last night, but Bill Self’s team displayed no signs of panic in the aftermath of Michigan State’s victory. Jayhawks junior Wayne Selden admitted that early season struggles had worried him in years past, but he said the more experienced composition of his current team quelled any such concerns this time around. Kansas handed away a game they held complete control of for 33 minutes — Bill Self admitted as much afterward — and the ball screen defense (or lack thereof) that enabled Denzel Valentine (29 points, 12 rebounds, 12 assists) to repeatedly break Kansas down will need significant revisions. However, the Jayhawks have the talent, experience and coaching to cure their November ills, not to mention plenty of time in which to do so.

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Rushed Reactions: #13 Michigan State 79, #4 Kansas 73

Posted by Bennet Hayes on November 18th, 2015

RTC National Columnist Bennet Hayes was in Chicago for the Champion’s Classic.

Three Key Takeaways: 

Denzel Valentine Stole The Champion's Classic Show Tuesday Night (Photo: Spartan Avenue)

Denzel Valentine Stole The Champion’s Classic Show Tuesday Night (Photo: Spartan Avenue)

  1. Denzel Valentine Is Really Good. The Spartan senior delivered the individual performance of this young college basketball season, producing a 29 point, 12 rebound, 12 assist triple-double. Valentine had the ball in his hands in the crucial moments of almost every Spartan possession, particularly in the second half. His final shooting numbers don’t dazzle (10-23 from the field), but you can’t underemphasize Michigan State’s reliance on their do-it-all senior leader. Tom Izzo completely abandoned his offense down the stretch to give Valentine the ball and run him off of ball screen after ball screen, a strategy that paid massive dividends on this night. Demanding this much out of Valentine may prove sketchy as a long-term offensive solution, but for now, Michigan State is 2-0 and has Valentine to thank for it.
  2. Kansas’ Champion’s Classic Struggles Continue. If Bill Self wants to look on the bright side, the Jayhawks are probably leaving Chicago feeling better about themselves than they were this time last year. And really, a neutral site loss to a team likely to be very relevant come March will hardly cripple the Jayhawks’ season. Still though, Tuesday night’s result has to be extremely disappointing. Kansas had this game under control for the better part of 35 minutes and lost largely out of an inability to control one player on the other side. Redemption for Champion’s Classic failures of years past was well within reach. Once again, KU fell short.
  3. Michigan State Controls Backboards. With Spartan forward/center Gavin Schilling out again Tuesday night with turf toe, Kansas’ talented corps of big men had to enter the United Center with designs on dominating the glass. If they did have that plan, it didn’t come to fruition. Tom Izzo called his team’s first half performance “very soft”, but Michigan State had collected 10 more rebounds than the Jayhawks by the time the final buzzer sounded. Kansas must be tougher – and has the personnel to do so – moving forward. On the Michigan State side, continued success on the backboards, perhaps paired with a heavy dose of Valentine, could be a nice recipe for success moving forward.

Star of the Game: Denzel Valentine, Michigan State. No surprise here, as Valentine delivered a personal masterpiece that may not be topped anytime soon in 2015-16. One statistic that may be lost in the recounting of his heroics: Valentine finished with just one turnover. It may be the most telling statistic of any, as Valentine seemed to control nearly every second of the last ten minutes.

Quotable:

  • “I didn’t think he was going to hit them. He showed some nuts on that one.” –Valentine on freshman forward Deyonta Davis knocking down two key free throws with 23 seconds to play
  • “I felt stupid at halftime for telling everyone this was one of the better shooting teams I’ve had, shooting 33 percent. Of course that may be true, we’ve shot 28 percent some years.” –Izzo on his teams’ opening half offense
  • “He is like Draymond. There’s a million things he’s not good enough at, but winning he is good enough at.” –Izzo, comparing Valentine to former Spartan star Draymond Green
  • “We did some good things to get control of the game the first 33 minutes or so, then they made a ton of plays late.” –Bill Self
  • “I always thought he was a good player. Tonight I think he proved to everyone that he is an exceptional player.” –Self on Valentine 

Sights and Sounds: Things quieted down a bit for the second game of the Champion’s Classic, but the United Center stayed noisy throughout. Kansas fans impressively invaded Big Ten country, with Jayhawk supporters outnumbering their Spartan counterparts. Still, Valentine’s second half heroics kept a healthy back-and-forth going between fan bases. November did a very good March impersonation in Chicago tonight.

What’s Next: The Jayhawks get six days off before their next contest, a first round game in the Maui Invitational against host Chaminade. The Silverswords should offer KU little resistance, but tricky matchups could arrive on the following two days. Either UCLA or UNLV will be the Jayhawks’ opponent in game two, while possible finals opponents include Vanderbilt and Indiana. Michigan State will also be making a journey west for an in-season tournament, but not before a quick stop in East Lansing for home dates against Arkansas Pine Bluff and Eastern Michigan. The Spartans open the Wooden Classic with Boston College on Thanksgiving; probable opponents in later rounds of the event include Boise State and either Arizona or Providence (on Friday and Sunday, respectively).

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Rushed Reactions: #2 Kentucky 74, #5 Duke 63

Posted by Bennet Hayes on November 17th, 2015

RTC National Columnist Bennet Hayes was in Chicago for the Champion’s Classic.

Three Key Takeaways:

Tyler Ulis And Jamal Murray Had It Going Tuesday Night Against Duke (Photo: Staff Herald-Leader)

Tyler Ulis And Jamal Murray Had It Going Tuesday Night Against Duke (Photo: Staff Herald-Leader)

  1. Kentucky Veterans Step Up. Nowadays, in a Kentucky-Duke matchup that takes place in November, you’re a veteran if you’ve played more than a handful of college games. Kentucky freshmen (most notably Skal Labissiere) have dominated early headlines in Lexington, but a trio of UK returnees delivered invaluable contributions tonight. Tyler Ulis’ floor game was solid as ever, and the sophomore captain pitched in 18 points and 6 assists, all without a turnover. Up front, it was Marcus Lee and Alex Poythress that keyed Wildcat surges in the late first half and early second with energy in transition and on the backboards; the duo finished with a combined 19 points and 17 rebounds. College basketball will be as dominated by freshmen as ever this season, but this trio of Wildcats displayed the value of having veterans capable of major contributions.
  2. Grayson Allen struggles. Allen has had the college hoops world buzzing for quite awhile. His 16 point effort in Duke’s title game victory started the noise, and a combined 54 points in Duke’s pair of opening weekend victories only raised the volume. Things might quiet down a little bit now, however, after Allen finished two for 11 from the field in scoring just six points against the Wildcats. He missed all nine of his first half field goal attempts, failed to score a point in the first 28 minutes of game action, and looked generally defeated for most of the second half. The fearless attacks of the rim that proved successful against Siena and Bryant over the weekend were easily neutralized by the Kentucky front line, and Allen took far too long to adjust to the elevation in competition. The sophomore may be best suited playing off the ball, which makes Derryck Thornton (who showed flashes of ability tonight) only that much more important.
  3. Tempo And Turnovers. Kentucky showed a willingness to play fast and frequently capitalized in transition on Duke’s 16 turnovers, scoring 17 points off them. Kentucky didn’t play at any sort of breakneck pace last season (251st nationally in possessions per game), but a trio of savvy ballhandlers – Ulis, Jamal Murray and Isaiah Briscoe – could make this year’s Wildcats more dangerous in transition. They showed glimpses of it tonight.

Star of the Game: Tyler Ulis, Kentucky. It was the smallest man on a court filled with with tall, long athletes who proved most important. Ulis orchestrated the Kentucky offense beautifully all evening, pushing tempo when Wildcat numbers were favorable and managing the halfcourt offense when circumstances demanded a dose of patience. Kentucky turned the ball over just nine times all night (none of which were attributed to Ulis himself), and the Cats were generally in control of this game from the start, in no small part due to Ulis. He finished with 18 points, six assists and four rebounds, but the pretty stat line is almost superfluous – Ulis dictated the outcome of this game in every little way a point guard should.

Quotable:

  • “We’re gonna be trouble in a fast-paced game like that…we’re very unselfish with each other…we play well off each other.” -Ulis
  • “He’s kind of like a baseball player that watches the ball and he can see the seams. The game happens slower for him.” –John Calipari on his point guard, Tyler Ulis
  • “I don’t want him to be a bully. I want him to be an elite athlete. See a bully’s easier you can just stay on the floor and push around and be a lug…You know he hit his tooth, like, on the rim? You hit your tooth on the rim? So why don’t you do that all the time?” –Calipari on his expectations for Alex Poythress
  • “God was good to him. The gene pool was good. They didn’t give him height, but they gave him a heart that is probably five times bigger than most people…he’s just a heck of a player.” –Mike Kryzewski, on why Ulis is so effective
  • “I admired his face and his presence throughout the game. It was the face of a winner and a leader.” –Coach K, again talking about Ulis
  • “We weren’t who we should be tonight. From the start.” –Coach K

Sights and Sounds: Blue. Lots of it. If not for Michigan State, the Champion’s Classic would be an annual blue-out, and both Kentucky and Duke brought their share of the event’s official color to the United Center Tuesday night. There was little doubt which team had more of it, however, as Big Blue Nation lived up to its reputation as the best traveling fans in the sport. The Wildcat faithful also had more to cheer about, of course, but it’s a testament to the power of these two programs that this opener significantly outdrew the second game of the night, despite Michigan State and Kansas’ relative proximity to the Windy City.

What’s Next: Things get easier for Kentucky, as three of their next four are at home against mid-major foes. The fourth is a neutral site matchup with South Florida and former Calipari assistant Orlando Antigua, but the Bulls already own home losses to Troy and NJIT. No such lull awaits the Blue Devils, as Duke heads to New York City to face VCU Friday and either Wisconsin (in a national title game rematch) or Georgetown on Sunday. Potentially pesky home dates against Yale, Utah State and Indiana await the Blue Devils upon their return from the Big Apple.

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West Coast Bias: Pac-12 Media Day Happenings

Posted by Adam Butler on October 16th, 2015

They say the media doesn’t pay attention to anything that happens out West, but no such claim could be made yesterday. Here is a team-by-team breakdown of the 2015 edition of Pac-12 Media Day, in order of their appearance.

USC Trojans

You only take the podium first if you’re the commissioner or the last place team in the conference. Andy Enfield isn’t Larry Scott. His squad is the latter. Andy Enfield is interesting to me in that Enfield “won the presser.” He was the flashy hire meant to breathe life into a stale program. And then he spouted off about UCLA! Of course those remarks were “off the record” and not meant to be disseminated anywhere beyond his practice. Two years ago we thought he was every bit the flashy hire Pat Haden promised. They’ve won six conference games since and Enfield really hasn’t had a ton to say. This year, however, he seemed to receive more questions and have more to say. It was a refreshing change from the previous platitudes. And while he didn’t say much – and distinctly promised nothing – there seems to be optimism inside this program. They’re older, wiser, stronger, and presumably better. Enfield has a talented roster: How will it translate?

Washington Huskies

Another program with the allusion of optimism, but I maintain it’s going to be a long one in Seattle. They’re bringing in a top recruiting class and return a senior point guard, but the Huskies feel another year away to me. Which of course is not the seat you want to sit in when you’ve had four progressively worse seasons. It’s the seat of a team predicted to finish 11th by the media. But let’s talk about the important stuff: #Globalization. The PAC is sending its Dawgs to China for the first ever regular season game – collegiate or professional – in China. LoRo’s squad will square off against Shaka Smart’s first Longhorn team in an overseas battle. The Huskies, in fact, are taking classes in prep for this trip. Fact: Andrew Andrews seamlessly spoke Mandarin during Pac-12 Media Day. Fact: Malik Dime is bilingual and the best Mandarin speaker on the team (according to Andrews). And while these are all admirable things, they might not be enough to create a particularly good basketball team.

Lorenzo Romar's Team Will Begin A Do-Or-Die Season For Their Coach In China Against Texas (Photo: Seattle Times)

Lorenzo Romar Will Begin A Do-Or-Die Season In China Against Texas (Photo: Seattle Times)

Colorado Buffaloes

Tad walked in all smiles and I loved it. At Media Day, while there isn’t anything particularly stressful, it isn’t everyone’s favorite day. There are logistics, entrances, platitudes, smiles for the camera, and a lot of ‘hey howya doings.’ Media Day is polite. But Tad Boyle waltzed onto the stage with his senior leader, Josh Scott, and a genuine grin on his face. He said, “I was just sitting down with Josh in the waiting room right there, and I’m not sure I have a lot to say. I’m just ready to play.” And doesn’t that make sense? Colorado closed last season in joyless fashion, watching a plethora of players transfer and a senior – Askia Booker – decline an invitation to play in the CBI. About five months ago, there was little to smile about surrounding Colorado basketball. “Looking at last year, I think me and my teammates kind of had to evaluate where we went wrong as a group, and in looking at it, we were afraid to call each other out,” Scott said. Now winning doesn’t necessarily demand a bunch of guys telling each other they’re out of position or screwing up, but it doesn’t hurt to have the kind of trust where teammates work together towards a common goal. The Buffs might not be great this year, but it seems they might be working towards cohesion. And that’s got Tad smiling.

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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

RTC_NCAA15

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

RTC_NCAA15

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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