Rushed Reactions: #4 Villanova 69, Xavier 52

Posted by Brian Otskey on March 14th, 2015

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Villanova won its first Big East Tournament title since 1995 and all but locked up a No. 1 seed at Madison Square Garden on Saturday night.

Three Key Takeaways.

Villanova Dominated the Big East From Start to Finish This Season (USA Today Images)

Villanova Dominated the Big East From Start to Finish This Season (USA Today Images)

  1. Villanova made a statement tonight. The Wildcats were in control of this game from the start, encouraged by a highly partisan Madison Square Garden crowd. It was a microcosm of Villanova’s season in which it dominated a very good Big East conference with a 16-2 regular season record. Xavier was able to get in a few licks, but tonight was all about the Wildcats. While Jay Wright’s team may be a bit too over-reliant on the three-pointer, it has clearly shown that it can beat anyone in the country. This was also a good tournament for Villanova from an experience perspective. The Wildcats destroyed an inferior Marquette club on Thursday only to be pushed to the brink by Providence the next night. Tonight, Villanova made very quick work of a strong and surging Xavier team.
  2. Jay Wright challenged his team and it responded. After Thursday’s opening win over Marquette, Wright said this was not one of his better defensive teams even after holding the Golden Eagles to just 49 points. Last night the Wildcats limited Providence to 35 percent shooting. Against Xavier, the Musketeers were held to 52 points on 37.9 percent shooting. Whether it was coachspeak or something else, Villanova answered the bell. In watching this team all year, it makes up for a lack of size with an aggressive three-quarter court zone press that falls back into a stifling man-to-man with intense ball pressure. On some night when the threes don’t fall in the NCAA Tournament, it is going to be up to Villanova’s defense to carry it through. And it is capable.
  3. Xavier’s inconsistency was on display again. While Villanova is an incredibly tough opponent to deal with, the gritty play the Musketeers displayed against Butler and Georgetown earlier this week wasn’t there tonight. This loss in particular is not a concern going into the NCAA Tournament, but for a team that has lost 13 times (some against weak competition), it’s worth tracking. Chris Mack’s team is more than capable of reaching the Sweet Sixteen but it is going to have to play more consistently in order to get there. It was a good experience this week in New York for Xavier, but it must get down to business with outstanding focus after the selection show tomorrow night.

Player of the Game:  Josh Hart, Villanova. The Wildcats’ sixth man, of whom Wright said he would not take that role next season, continued to impress. Only a sophomore, Hart totaled an efficient 15 points, making seven of his nine shots in addition to grabbing seven rebounds. His play speaks to the balance and great chemistry of this team. He fits seamlessly in the lineup and his growth is a testament to the incredible player development under Wright’s leadership.

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Rushed Reactions: #4 Villanova 63, Providence 61

Posted by Brian Otskey on March 13th, 2015

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Three Key Takeaways.

Just Another Night in the Big East Tournament (USA Today Images)

Just Another Night in the Big East Tournament (USA Today Images)

  1. That was an old school Big East battle. Some people like to talk about how the “new” Big East just isn’t the same, but they fail to remember the Big East was a small nine-team league when it developed its reputation as one of the top conferences in the nation. Two of those nine teams battled it out in this game and the result was a throwback to classic Big East games of the past. This was as good as it gets. A tough, physical underdog going up against the conference goliath that is playing as well as any team in the nation. The Garden crowd was electric on this Friday night for a game that more than lived up to its billing.
  2. Providence dominated the boards and nearly overcame poor shooting. The Friars shot only 35 percent for the game but outrebounded Villanova 42-30, including a 19-9 advantage on the offensive boards. Freshman Ben Bentil in particular was great, pulling down six offensive boards and scoring 12 points mostly from second chances. Providence held a 19-6 edge in second chance points but just could not overcome a rough shooting night by most of its better players. LaDontae Henton, Kris Dunn and Tyler Harris were a combined 11-of-33 (33 percent) from the floor.
  3. This game was a great test for both teams as they head into the NCAA Tournament. There is no doubt that both Villanova and Providence will be participating in the Big Dance next week. Both coaches commented after that game about how much a tough, close, grinding game like this one gives them valuable experience heading into the NCAAs. NCAA Tournament games always seem to be played at a slower pace; although both of these teams are comfortable in transition, getting a hard-fought experience against a quality opponent like here can only help as they transition into next week’s action.

Player of the Game:  Daniel Ochefu, Villanova. Could reasonably have gone with Kris Dunn or Josh Hart in this spot, but Ochefu was dominant inside tonight, especially defensively. Providence was smothered most of the time when it tried to go in the paint and a lot of that credit goes to Ochefu. His five blocks tied a season high. On the offensive end, the Villanova big man totaled 15 points and 13 rebounds, his seventh double-double of the season. Ochefu plays an important role as a true big man on an otherwise undersized team. He will be a valuable piece as Villanova begins its quest for a national championship.

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Firing on All Cylinders, Villanova Looks Scary Good

Posted by Brian Otskey on March 12th, 2015

After his team picked up its 30th win of the season in convincing fashion in the quarterfinals of the Big East Tournament, Villanova head coach Jay Wright said something that should scare any future opponent this March. “This team is not one of our better defensive teams. It’s good, but we can be a lot better,” he said. What’s ironic is that he said this after his team had held an overmatched Marquette club to just 49 points on 0.77 points per possession (Villanova scored 84). “Not as good as I’d like it to be, really,” Wright said again. Well then… ho hum.

 

JayVaughn Pinkston and Friends Just Keep Chugging Along (USA Today Images)

JayVaughn Pinkston and Friends Just Keep Chugging Along (USA Today Images)

After routing Marquette by 35 points, it is safe to say that Wright’s club is playing as good of basketball as any team in the country, and that includes Kentucky. Defense is only half the story. Ranked third nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency, the Wildcats were able to put that on full display this afternoon. More numbers: Villanova assisted on 22 of 30 field goals and tied a Big East Tournament record with 17 three-pointers. The balance on this team is incredible and Wright has every player buying what he is selling: teamwork, toughness, and high basketball IQ. Chemistry is underappreciated by some people in this sport but Villanova has it in spades. When Ryan Arcidiacono, who averages what appears to be a pedestrian 10.7 PPG and 3.6 APG this season, is chosen as the Co-Big East Player of the Year, you’re doing something right. Individual statistics don’t nearly tell the whole story with this team and nobody embodies that more than the Wildcats’ junior point guard.

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Rushed Reactions: Providence 74, St. John’s 57

Posted by Brian Otskey on March 12th, 2015

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Three Key Takeaways.

Ed Cooley's Game Plan Against St. John's Worked to Perfection (USA Today Images)

Ed Cooley’s Game Plan Against St. John’s Worked to Perfection (USA Today Images)

  1. Providence flipped the script on St. John’s. After getting swept in the regular season by the Red Storm and allowing an average of 79 points per game in those two matchups, the Friars locked down defensively and held St. John’s to 57 points on 31 percent shooting. Providence did not play an outstanding offensive game, but that is not where this game was won. Ed Cooley’s team kept D’Angelo Harrison and Sir’Dominic Pointer in check, as the two combined for only 14 inefficient points. It was an outstanding defensive effort and it took St. John’s out of everything it wanted to do.
  2. Do not be surprised if Providence pushes Villanova. While it would take a lot to beat a team that pounded Providence by 28 points just over two weeks ago, Providence is a team that can do it. The Friars have something that Villanova, aside from Daniel Ochefu, does not have — length. Providence uses as many as four players who stand 6’8” or taller, including two seven-footers. If that length is enough to keep the Wildcats from attacking the rim, it allows Providence to get out on Villanova’s lethal three-point shooters. Either way, it should be a fun game and more competitive than any game we’ve seen so far in this Big East Tournament.
  3. St. John’s could not get its transition game going. Steve Lavin’s team is at its best when it can utilize its quickness and athleticism in transition. Providence deserves credit too, but the Red Storm just could not get anything going on the fast break. For the game, St. John’s tallied just four fast break points and only six points off of turnovers. When this team is forced to play so much in the half-court, it struggles. After the game, Cooley talked about forcing them to play against a set defense — his team executed its game plan almost perfectly.

Player of the Game. LaDontae Henton, Providence. The Friars’ senior swingman totaled 20 points and 12 rebounds, his sixth double-double of the season. Only the second Providence player ever to score 2,000 points and pull down 1,000 rebounds in his career (Ryan Gomes is the other), Henton showed why that is today. The first team all-Big East selection is one of the nation’s most unheralded players, but the rest of the country will find out just how good he is soon enough when Providence plays in the NCAA Tournament.

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Big East Season Superlatives

Posted by Brian Otskey on March 10th, 2015

The Big East had an outstanding season, finishing the regular season ranked as the second-best conference in Ken Pomeroy’s ratings as well as the RPI. Let’s take a look at some of the best players and teams from a league that will likely send six teams to the Big Dance on Sunday.

Player of the Year

Kris Dunn, So, Providence (15.5 PPG, 5.6 RPG, 7.4 APG, 2.8 SPG) – This award could have easily gone to Villanova’s Darrun Hilliard or Dunn’s Providence teammate LaDontae Henton, but the Friars’ sophomore point guard has dazzled us all year long on one of the Big East’s top teams. Originally a part of Providence’s 2012 recruiting class, Dunn had been beset by injuries up until this season. Finally healthy, he played in all but one regular season game and led the country in assist rate at 49 percent. Also an outstanding defender, Dunn ranks fifth nationally in steal percentage. His best performance of the year came in a home win over DePaul on January 29 when he posted a triple-double (27 points, 13 rebounds, 11 assists) — it was the first triple-double ever posted by a Providence player in a Big East conference game.

It wasn't an easy choice, but Kris Dunn earns the nod as RTC's Big East POY. (USA TODAY Sports)

It wasn’t an easy choice, but Kris Dunn earns the nod as RTC’s Big East POY. (USA TODAY Sports)

All-Conference

First Team

  • Kris Dunn, So, Providence (15.5 PPG, 5.6 RPG, 7.4 APG, 2.8 SPG) – Our RTC Big East Player of the Year.
  • Darrun Hilliard, Sr, Villanova (14.2 PPG, 3.2 RPG, 2.0 APG, 1.8 SPG) – As is the case with all of his Villanova teammates, the statistics don’t tell the entire story. The best player on the best team in this league.
  • LaDontae Henton, Sr, Providence (20.1 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 1.4 SPG) – Joined Ryan Gomes as the only other Providence player to score at least 2,000 points and grab at least 1,000 rebounds over his career.
  • D’Angelo Harrison, Sr, St. John’s (17.8 PPG, 5.5 RPG) – The Red Storm’s leading scorer led an experienced team to what is likely to be an NCAA Tournament bid.
  • Sir’Dominic Pointer, Sr, St. John’s (13.7 PPG, 7.6 RPG, 2.0 SPG, 2.5 BPG) – Perhaps the best defender in the conference, Pointer was all over the floor in an impressive senior season.

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In Beating Georgetown, St. John’s Well-Positioned For an NCAA Bid

Posted by Brian Otskey on March 1st, 2015

Sitting at 14-8 overall and 3-6 in the Big East after a blowout loss at Butler on February 3, the NCAA Tournament was the last thing on the mind of the players at St. John’s. The pressure was mounting on Steve Lavin and his senior-laden team, a group that had not earned a ticket to the Big Dance in their collegiate careers. Fast forward to the end of February and this same Red Storm team is sitting pretty at 20-9 and 9-7 in the Big East after a convincing victory over Georgetown in front of more than 13,000 lively supporters at Madison Square Garden on Saturday. This victory was Lavin’s 25th win in the month of February as the head coach of the Johnnies, and the February rise has almost become an annual tradition for St. John’s under his leadership. In 2011, the Red Storm won seven of eight games in February to lock up an NCAA bid. Just last season, St. John’s put together a six-game winning streak to get itself onto the bubble, only to eventually fall a game or two short of dancing. Lavin’s team has again appeared to turn the corner, going 6-2 in the second calendar month of the year to put itself in prime position for a trip to the NCAAs.

Steve Lavin's Group (USA Today Images)

Steve Lavin’s Group Has Used the February Rise to Get Back Into the NCAA’s Good Graces (USA Today Images)

“Our upside is the most intriguing part of our team,” Lavin said afterward. “I don’t think we’ve played our best basketball yet.” If he is right, the rest of the Big East should be put on notice. Playing on its home floor in just over a week, St. John’s should enter the Big East Tournament as one of the hottest teams in the league and a dark horse threat to take home the title. The seniors on this team are playing at a high level, starting with Sir’Dominic Pointer. Including his 24-point performance against the Hoyas, Pointer has averaged a robust 20.0 PPG over his last six games, fueling the team’s late season surge. Pointer was all over the floor on both ends, utilizing his energy, quickness and athleticism to flummox Georgetown all game long. Hoyas center Joshua Smith fouled out in only eight minutes of action, unable to keep himself in front of Pointer. With Smith constantly out of position, St. John’s repeatedly got to the rim, especially in transition. As a result, that opened up the perimeter where fellow senior Phil Greene IV could take advantage. The Chicago product poured in 26 points and made six of his seven three-point attempts on the night. “You have to limit them. You have to make them score in the half-court,” said Georgetown head coach John Thompson III. “We had too many breakdowns defensively when we needed to get stops.”

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Seton Hall’s Problems Start at the Very Top

Posted by Brian Otskey on February 19th, 2015

Ask most people and they will tell you that strong leadership is a prerequisite to success in nearly every organization. There are countless examples of human beings responding positively to great leadership, especially in the sports world. It is simply human nature. People want to believe they are part of something greater than themselves. It is a big reason why coaches like Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski and Kentucky’s John Calipari have such a fantastic ability to get the most from their players. They command respect and require that personal agendas and egos are set aside for the good of the organization. If you do not want to commit to the process and live up to their necessary standards, you are shown the door. Duke junior Rasheed Sulaimon found that out the hard way last month. It is understandable, however, that not every team will have such strong leadership. Exceptional leaders like Krzyzewski and Calipari are rare. But when a complete void in leadership exists, problems can quickly spiral out of control.

Kevin Willard (USA Today Images)

Kevin Willard is Feeling the Heat as This Season Gets Away From Him (USA Today Images)

A little over five weeks ago, the Seton Hall men’s basketball team was riding high after Sterling Gibbs swished a three in the final seconds that allowed his team to come out on top of a pesky Creighton squad that had outplayed the Pirates for most of the game. The win moved the team to 13-3 overall and 3-1 in Big East play, enabling it to stay in the Top 25 after entering at No. 19 the previous Monday. Barring a complete collapse, an NCAA Tournament berth appeared inevitable; after all, Seton Hall’s hot start had also included a résumé-building win over previously unbeaten Villanova, the undisputed king of the new Big East.

Fast forward to the present and Seton Hall is in the midst of a monumental collapse where it appears the only way to gain entry into the NCAA Tournament would be to win the Big East Tournament next month. Once projected as high as a No. 4 or No. 5 seed by reputable bracketologists at CBS and ESPN, the Hall has lost eight of its last 10 games (including five straight) to fall to 5-9 in Big East play with no end to the death spiral in sight. The ugliest moment came on Monday night in a loss to that same Villanova team. The Wildcats blew out the Pirates by a score of 80-54 and Gibbs was ejected after punching a defenseless Ryan Arcidiacono — who was on the floor going after a loose ball at the time — square in the forehead. Swift consequences came quickly for Gibbs, who was suspended for two games by Seton Hall on Tuesday afternoon. Once a candidate for Big East Player of the Year, the junior guard will sit out games at St. John’s this Saturday and home versus Creighton the next weekend. Monday night’s antics were just another symptom of the deeper problem at Seton Hall, which brings us back to leadership.

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Rushed Reactions: #2 Duke 66, Connecticut 56

Posted by Brian Otskey on December 19th, 2014

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Brian Otskey filed this report from the Duke-Connecticut game at the Izod Center on Thursday night.

Three Key Takeaways.

Duke and Connecticut (USA Today Images)

Duke and Connecticut Battled Out in an Ugly Game in New Jersey Tonight (USA Today Images)

  1. Duke found a different way to win. On a night when the shots did not fall at anywhere near the rate they have for most of this season, the nation’s top team in adjusted offensive efficiency won with defense and rebounding. The Blue Devils held the Huskies to 40.7 percent shooting in the second half, snuffing out any possibility of an extended Connecticut run. Duke also turned the ball over much more than usual (19 times), leading to plenty of extra UConn possessions. With Amile Jefferson and Jahlil Okafor combining for 21 rebounds, however, Duke was able to negate the Connecticut advantage in shot attempts. Getting to the free throw line was also key, as the Blue Devils attempted 34 free throws to Connecticut’s 13. Kevin Ollie refused to take the bait from the assembled media after the game, instead placing the onus on his players for committing too many fouls.
  2. It can’t just be the Ryan Boatright show. While Boatright scored 22 points, he was bothered by Quinn Cook for much of the evening. When he did get free, usually through screening action along the three-point line, Boatright knocked down some impressive three-pointers with a quick release. With Shabazz Napier no longer around, though, opposing defenses can key in on the UConn guard and contain him to a degree. You also see that when Boatright gets frustrated, his shot selection suffers greatly. That can’t continue to happen because it results in a wasted possession and can lead to a long rebound and a runout for the opposition. Kevin Ollie touched on it a bit in the postgame press conference, so he knows that his team must find another reliable scoring option besides Boatright.
  3. Jahlil Okafor is not normal. We know this by now, but it deserves to be repeated. From his post-up moves to defense and court vision, Okafor has the complete package. What is most impressive is his ability to immediately recognize a double-team and find an open man in an instant. In a way, his passing reminds you of a good NFL quarterback under pressure. Okafor threw a couple of lasers to teammates tonight, usually resulting in points for Duke. One nice thing about Okafor’s game is he actually “plays big,” so to speak. When he receives a post entry pass, he usually makes a strong move to the basket or keeps the ball in an elevated position where it cannot easily be stolen. Should he decide to make the move and shoot, Okafor has tremendous awareness. He knows when and where to make the move, and it often results in a bucket. Having the presence of mind to know where to go with the ball is one thing, but combing that with the touch and skill level Okafor possesses puts him far and away above any other college big man. I’m sure a few NBA bigs are below his level too.

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Otskey’s Observations: On Duke’s D, Florida’s Struggles & Best Conference…

Posted by Brian Otskey on December 2nd, 2014

Throughout the season, RTC columnist Brian Otskey (@botskey) will run down his observations from across the nation.

Duke’s Defensive Hiatus Is Over

If you’re a Duke basketball fan, you have to be encouraged by your team’s 7-0 start to the 2014-15 campaign. Coach Mike Krzyzewski’s top-ranked recruiting class has made, as expected, an immediate impact. Point guard Tyus Jones has been outstanding, averaging a six to one assist to turnover ratio in 27 minutes per game. When you have a steady floor general like Jones who can set up an offense with boatloads of talent, anything is possible offensively for Duke. But what I’d like to discuss is the Blue Devil defense, an area where we have seen the most change since last year’s Duke team was upset by Mercer back in March. Duke’s adjusted defensive efficiency has improved a whopping 101 spots year over year, from No. 116 in 2013-14 to No. 15 so far this year. The Blue Devils are back to being an elite defensive team, a staple of Coach K’s 34-plus year run in Durham. The biggest reason why is the roster turnover. Last year’s team had a non-traditional lineup, starting two 6’8” players and one listed at 6’9”. Specifically, Rodney Hood and Jabari Parker were primarily offense-oriented players who liked to drift out to the perimeter and provided little on the defensive end of the floor. Once opponents were able to get by Duke’s guards, there was little to resist them in the paint. Without a strong front line to defend the basket, the Blue Devils’ interior defense suffered mightily. Duke allowed opponents to shoot 50.3 percent from two point range last season.

Duke's roster turnover has made it better defensively. (Photo: Grant Halverson/Getty Images North America)

Duke’s roster turnover has made it better defensively.
(Photo: Grant Halverson/Getty Images North America)

Fast forward to the current season and that number has dropped to 45.9 percent as we enter December. That one category is still not elite by any means, but Duke makes up for that by fouling considerably less than it did last year and forcing more turnovers. The result is an overall defense that is night and day from last year. While Jahlil Okafor is more known for his offense, he does provide a more traditional presence in the middle and that alters shots. Duke’s frontcourt that runs 6’6”, 6’9” and 6’11” this season as opposed to last year’s non-traditional lineup makes a big difference defensively. This group has a lot of room still to grow defensively and I expect them to become even better on that end of the floor as the season moves along. You have to have a strong defense to win a national championship and Duke is back to being a contender this year because of it. Last year, we could not say the same despite garnering a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Florida’s Early Season Struggles

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NCAA Tournament Game Analysis: The National Championship Game

Posted by Brian Otskey (@botskey) on April 7th, 2014

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#7 Connecticut vs. #8 Kentucky – National Championship Game (at Arlington, Texas) – 9:10 PM ET on CBS

History will be made in some form tonight at AT&T Stadium no matter which team wins this game. Connecticut is bidding to become the first #7 seed to ever win the national championship while Kentucky is looking to become the first #8 seed since Cinderella team Villanova toppled top-seeded Georgetown in 1985, the first year of the 64/68-team era. Kevin Ollie could become the first coach to win a championship in his first tournament appearance since Michigan’s Steve Fisher accomplished that feat a quarter-century ago in 1989 at Seattle’s Kingdome. John Calipari could win his second title in three seasons, this time with the nation’s most inexperienced team (according to Ken Pomeroy’s statistics). Something has to give in this game between what some observers have said are teams of destiny. Connecticut is going for the Texas triple play, so to speak, having closed out two previous Final Fours in the Lone Star State (2004 in San Antonio and 2011 in Houston) with championships while Kentucky has three players from the state on its roster, including hometown favorite Julius Randle. Connecticut is seeking its fourth national championship while Kentucky would earn its ninth with a win.

Coach Cal is looking for his second title in three seasons tonight against Connecticut. (NYDN)

Coach Cal is looking for his second title in three seasons tonight against Connecticut. (NYDN)

Kentucky has had some of its best offensive games of the season in this tournament. The Wildcats have not been defensive juggernauts, but timely stops and consistent offensive output have been the keys to their success over the last couple of weeks (along with clutch Aaron Harrison shots, of course). Going up against yet another strong defensive team in Connecticut (UK has already faced Kansas State, Wichita State and Louisville, all terrific on the defensive end) will be a test for the “Cardiac Cats.” At the point guard position, Andrew Harrison has to do a better job taking care of the basketball against the undersized, but quicker and pesky Huskies guards. He is averaging four turnovers per game in the tournament and making him uncomfortable needs to be part of the game plan for Ollie’s team. Daring Andrew Harrison shoot has been fairly successful for Kentucky’s opponents as he is just 18-for-52 (35 percent) from the floor in five tournament games, which even includes a solid 6-for-9 performance against Wichita State in the round of 32. By contrast, making his brother Aaron put the ball on the floor and drive is the best strategy for Connecticut. Aaron Harrison has made 14-of-25 threes (56 percent) in the tournament but he is just 8-for-27 (30 percent) when it comes to two point shots. Chasing him off the three point line and making him put it on the deck has to be a point of emphasis for Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright defensively. Kentucky is at its best when Andrew Harrison is moving the ball well, Aaron Harrison is open on the wing and James Young is either knocking down triples or slashing through the defense, opening up the lane for Randle in the post. Of course, Randle is so good and so strong that he can do a number of things on the low block. The freshman has 50+ pounds on Connecticut’s four man DeAndre Daniels and nearly 40 pounds on Phillip Nolan and Amida Brimah, both of whom are good defensively but also quite raw by the same token. Ollie may very well wrinkle in some zone to keep Kentucky out of the lane and dare it to make shots. However, that is still risky because of the ability of Aaron Harrison and Young to connect from the three point line. The Huskies are sneaky good when it comes to interior defense, allowing just 42.2 percent field goal shooting inside the three point arc. That will be tested against the stronger Randle and Dakari Johnson, who is very difficult to guard when he catches the ball deep in the post. Great interior defense is a staple of the Jim Calhoun era and a part of the Connecticut culture that Ollie has carried over while building the program his way.

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NCAA Tournament Game Analysis: Final Four

Posted by Brian Otskey on April 4th, 2014

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#1 Florida vs. #7 Connecticut – National Semifinal (at Arlington, TX) – 6:09 PM ET on TBS

The Final Four tips off with a Florida team that has won 30 consecutive games facing the last team to beat it, Connecticut. The Huskies knocked off the Gators in Storrs way back on December 2 on a Shabazz Napier buzzer-beater. Although it was four months ago, much can be learned from that game. Contrary to popular belief, Florida’s top six rotation players suited up for it, although Scottie Wilbekin left the game with about three minutes to play due to injury. In that contest, Florida absolutely dominated the paint by holding Connecticut to 41.4 percent shooting from two-point range and winning the rebounding battle by eight. However, the Gators lost the game at the three-point line, where they allowed the Huskies to make 11-of-24 attempts. Sixteen Florida turnovers also didn’t help matters for Billy Donovan’s team.

Napier Has His Eyes Set on Another Title (Credit: UConn Athletic Communications/Stephen Slade)

Napier Has His Eyes Set on Another Title (Credit: UConn Athletic Communications/Stephen Slade)

Fast forward to April and the Gators’ front line is formidable as ever. While Connecticut’s interior play has improved and its rebounding has been terrific in the NCAA Tournament, facing Patric Young and the nation’s top-ranked defense will be a tall task for the Huskies. Connecticut is talented but young and raw up front. Amida Brimah and Phillip Nolan are just a freshman and sophomore, respectively, while DeAndre Daniels loves to drift away from the paint and is not a back-to-the-basket kind of player. For Kevin Ollie’s team to have success, Napier must continue his dominant performance and Daniels has to make jump shots. Napier and Ryan Boatright are the two constants on this team, but it is Daniels who takes it to another level when playing well. He will likely be guarded by Will Yeguete, Dorian Finney-Smith or Young, or any combination of the three. If Daniels cannot get anything going, Napier will have to score 30+ points and Connecticut will have to have another terrific night from the three-point line in order to advance to Monday night’s national championship game.

Defensively, there is no doubt that Connecticut can match Florida. The Huskies’ defense has been phenomenal all season long and doesn’t get the credit it deserves with Napier stealing the spotlight most of the time. Connecticut ranks 10th in adjusted defensive efficiency and actually has a slightly stronger interior defense than Florida when you look at opponents’ two-point percentage (one percentage point better than Florida). An important part of Ollie’s game plan will be to limit Scottie Wilbekin and prevent him from easily getting Florida into its sets and taking over the game. Easier said than done, of course.

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Final Four Previews In-Depth: Connecticut Huskies

Posted by Brian Otskey (@botskey) on April 2nd, 2014

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As part of our ongoing NCAA Tournament coverage, RTC is unveiling a detailed look at each of the Final Four teams throughout the week. Kentucky has already released. Today: UConn. Brian Otskey (@botskey) is the NCAA Tournament’s East Region correspondent.

Where did this come from? I am not sure anyone out there had this #7 seed, which suffered a humiliating 81-48 defeat at Louisville on March 8, as a Final Four contender. Yet here they are. The Connecticut Huskies are here, and boy, did they earn it. After trailing Saint Joseph’s for a large portion of its opening round game, Connecticut manhandled Villanova to get to Madison Square Garden where it then dispatched Iowa State and Michigan State in thrilling fashion over the weekend. The Huskies are the underdog team in Arlington this week, but make no mistake; they too have a chance to win a pair of games at Jerry World.

Regardless of how they got here, Shabazz Napier and UConn are now as dangerous as ever. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Regardless of how they got here, Shabazz Napier and UConn are now as dangerous as ever. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Pre-Tournament Capsule. Connecticut played a mediocre non-conference schedule this season as games against Maryland, Boston College, Indiana and Washington looked good on paper but those teams all turned out to be not so good after all. The Huskies, as you will hear about a lot this week, hosted Florida on December 2 at Gampel Pavilion, a game they won thanks to a freakish last-second play. Shabazz Napier’s first shot attempt was so poor it hit the backboard and bounced back to him where he proceeded to drain an open jumper to hand the Gators their second loss of the season. Florida has not lost another game since then. Who had that game as a Final Four preview at the time? Nobody. Kevin Ollie’s team hosted Stanford a week before Christmas in another key non-conference game. This was a strange contest as the Huskies built a 13-point lead with 16:48 to play but could only manage an astounding eight points over the rest of the way in falling by two points to the Cardinal. Conference play saw the Huskies get off to a slow 0-2 start before returning home for a non-conference tilt against Harvard, which they won. Including the Harvard game, Connecticut won 13 of its next 15 games before a humiliating 81-48 defeat at Louisville on the final day of the regular season. The Huskies were swept by SMU and Louisville, but took two of three against Cincinnati (including a win in the AAC Tournament) and swept Memphis (three games). In the American championship game, Connecticut fell to Louisville for the third time this season. A 26-8 (12-6) record was good enough for this team to earn a #7 seed from the Selection Committee.

How They Got Here. For all intents and purposes, Connecticut should have lost to St. Joe’s in the #7/#10 game. Ken Pomeroy, in his game recap, gave the Huskies just a 16.3 percent chance of winning (down three with 49 seconds left). However, the Huskies survived and advanced thanks to tremendous rebounding and Amida Brimah’s three-point play. In fact, rebounding has been one of the main reasons why the Huskies are in this position right now. A poor rebounding team all year long has outboarded two of its four NCAA Tournament opponents and been competitive on the boards in those other games, including Sunday against fearsome Michigan State where Connecticut was +1 on the offensive glass and only -2 overall. After knocking off the Hawks, the team’s offense turned into the Napier show as he absolutely steamrolled Villanova before setting his sights on Iowa State and Michigan State in front of what was, for the most part, a jubilant home crowd at the Garden. This home court advantage undoubtedly helped the Huskies (the players admitted as much), but do not be fooled. This team is legitimate, having now taken out the #2, #3, and #4 seeds in the East Region.

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