Rushed Reactions: #7 South Carolina 77, #4 Florida 70

Posted by Justin Kundrat on March 26th, 2017

RTC will be providing coverage of the NCAA Tournament from start to finish. Justin Kundrat (@justinkundrat) is in New York City this weekend.

South Carolina Keeps Its Cinderella Run Going (USA Today Images)

Three Key Takeaways.

  1. The story of the NCAA Tournament remains the Gamecocks’ offensive turnaround. All season long, Frank Martin’s group subsisted on its stingy defense to compensate for a pedestrian offense. In conference play, South Carolina averaged an average 1.00 points per possession, good for 11th in the SEC. But Greenville and New York City have been much kinder: In its four-game run to the Final Four, this metric has ballooned to 1.16 PPP. This boon can be attributed to a greater degree of success on the offensive glass, thereby generating higher percentage shots around the rim and incremental opportunities at the free throw line. Against a stout defensive team in Florida, South Carolina scored 42 of its 77 points in the paint, with an additional 23 points coming at the free throw line.
  2. In a rare turn of events, South Carolina’s defense was exposed and looked beatable in the first half. The lightning quick Florida backcourt was largely neutralized, something the Gamecocks have been doing all season via ball pressure and jumping the passing lanes. So even though Mike White’s team committed 16 turnovers, Florida’s multifaceted offense proved effective throughout most of the game. The pick-and-roll offense forced South Carolina to send help to the paint, tacking fouls onto Chris Silva and leaving them exposed on the perimeter. As such, Florida wings Devin Robinson and Justin Leon had countless open looks, but could not convert on enough down the stretch to compensate; the Gators went a miserable 0-for-14 from three in the second half.
  3. SEC country is everywhere, and it’s not just limited to football. There were some comments after the first game on the surprising turnout from South Carolina fans for a basketball game in New York City. Naturally, Frank Martin was quick to challenge the surprising nature of it. Bandwagon fans or not, the collective attendance from Gamecock and Gator fans here this weekend certainly changed a common perception about the SEC. Like their football counterparts, they too can bring any basketball stadium to life.

Star of the GameSindarius Thornwell, South Carolina. The senior guard took charge of the game again today on both ends of the floor, compiling 26 points and seven rebounds on 8-for-13 shooting. It’s also no surprise that Thornwell won the East Region Most Outstanding Player award. South Carolina’s time in the spotlight has been a major benefactor for Thornwell’s nationwide recognition as well as his draft stock. Read the rest of this entry »

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Rushed Reactions: #4 Florida 84, #8 Wisconsin 83 (OT)

Posted by Justin Kundrat on March 25th, 2017

RTC will be providing coverage of the NCAA Tournament from start to finish. Justin Kundrat (@justinkundrat) is in New York City this weekend.

The Agony and the Ecstasy of the NCAA Tournament (USA Today Images)

Three Key Takeaways.

  1. In a battle first of defenses and then of hero ball, Florida was just a little bit better. The three-headed trio of KeVaughn AllenKasey Hill and Chris Chiozza flustered Wisconsin’s ball-handlers all night long, picking them up full court and playing with a hand in their jerseys on every screen. It forced the Badgers into an uncharacteristic funk, one in which they committed 16 turnovers and struggled to work their patented inside-out offense to its full effect. Wisconsin is usually a team that dictates its own pace on the offensive end, so being pushed into a higher tempo affair undoubtedly worked to Florida’s advantage. Nonetheless, Wisconsin down the stretch channeled its penchant for late game heroics yet again, overcoming a 10-point deficit that culminated with an acrobatic runner to tie the game… only to be topped with the answer of all answers in overtime. Sometimes, luck bests itself.
  2. Florida’s pick-and-roll offense dismantled Wisconsin’s defense. Simply put, Bronson Koenig and Zak Showalter were not quick enough to stick with Florida’s guards off the screens, and Florida’s roll men are skilled at drawing fouls. Wisconsin forwards Ethan Happ and Vitto Brown found themselves glued to the bench down the stretch with foul trouble, further exposing the Badgers inside. The Gators are highly efficient around the rim, converting on 65.3 percent of their shots, so it should come as no surprise that they were able to take advantage of the undermanned front line.
  3. He might be third on the team in scoring, but Wisconsin’s offense runs on Nigel Hayes. Florida’s first half run coincided with Hayes spending time on the bench in foul trouble. His eventual return quickly righted the ship and reignited the Badgers’ offense. The 6’8″ senior plays a “bully ball” type of offense in which he utilizes his physicality and speed to torture both big and small defenders. He posed an inherent mismatch for the Gators’ front line and capitalized on every opportunity, particularly in overtime, totaling 22 points on 7-of-11 shooting. But to Wisconsin’s demise, his overtime efforts were ultimately undermined by missed free throws.

Star of the GameKeVaughn Allen, Florida. After a rugged start to the NCAA Tournament, the Gators’ leading scorer got back on track tonight. He picked apart the Badgers with a combination of steals, three-pointers and drives into the paint before finishing with 35 points on 11-of-24 shooting.

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Rushed Reactions: #7 South Carolina 70, #3 Baylor 50

Posted by Justin Kundrat on March 24th, 2017

RTC will be providing coverage of the NCAA Tournament from start to finish. Justin Kundrat (@justinkundrat) is in New York City this weekend.

South Carolina Keeps It Going (USA Today Images)

Three Key Takeaways.

  1. Sometimes, defense can be fun. Following the elimination of both Villanova and Duke, the East Region became the “Region of Defense.” Per KenPom, all four Sweet Sixteen teams ranked among the top 13 nationally in defensive efficiency. Stylistically, the game wasn’t pretty by any stretch of the imagination, but watching even a handful of possessions showed just how far great defense can take a team. Among the remaining group of teams, South Carolina’s offense is the least efficient by far and yet the Gamecocks controlled every aspect of the game — forcing Baylor’s guards to over-dribble, make poor passes and take contested jumpers. Midway through the first half, the Gamecocks held Baylor scoreless for nearly seven minutes in the midst of an 18-0 run.
  2. Sindarius Thornwell is the most underappreciated player of the NCAA Tournament. Sure, he’s been picking up steam as the Gamecocks continue their run, but he’s still a ways off from becoming a bona fide media darling. The 6’5″ senior is responsible for a +0.18 PPP differential when he’s on the floor and could very well be the best two-way player in the country. Thornwell fills up the stat sheet in every way imaginable: he leads his team in scoring, rebounding and steals while also contributing nearly a block per game. Baylor’s backcourt struggled mightily with his on-ball pressure and never looked comfortable initiating the offense in its half-court sets.
  3. Baylor fell victim to its weak spot: turnovers. Even when things appeared to be turning around for the Bears on the tail of a second half run, Baylor simply couldn’t overcome its season-long plague of poor ball handling. Scott Drew’s group committed 16 turnovers, a string of which interrupted its second half momentum. An offense undermined by a 20.5 percent turnover rate (305th nationally) is a recipe for disaster against the pressure-centric defense of South Carolina.

Star of the GameSindarius Thornwell, South Carolina. Thornwell continued his torrid shooting tonight with a 24-point, six-rebound performance against one of the best defensive teams in the country. Outside of Thornwell, the Gamecocks lack consistent breakdown scorers, so his contributions on that end of the floor play a vital role in extending and maintaining leads.

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Quantifying the Impact of Kamar Baldwin, Butler’s Unsung Hero

Posted by Justin Kundrat on March 22nd, 2017

As Chris Holtmann’s group of Bulldogs head to the Sweet Sixteen for the first time in six years, the underpinnings of “Butler basketball” are increasingly apparent. Statistically, this is the most efficient offensive unit in the last 16 seasons at the school. The offseason addition of sharpshooter Avery Woodson (42.9% 3FG), the remarkably effective play of point guard Tyler Lewis, and the midseason revival of leading scorer Kelan Martin have caused opponents to struggle with a brand of team-oriented basketball that trots out five legitimate scoring threats at any given time. It is therefore no surprise that such an experienced group comfortably executes its offensive sets at its own pace while minimizing turnovers. The tangential storyline, however, resides on the defensive end of the floor — the virtually unquantifiable impact of freshman guard Kamar Baldwin.

Kamar Baldwin’s Defense Has Helped Butler to the Sweet Sixteen (USA Today Images)

For the uninitiated, Baldwin is a former three-star recruit whose presence in the Bulldogs’ recruiting class was largely overshadowed by that of 6’10” center Joey Brunk, one of the highest regarded incoming big men this season. It was expected that Baldwin would provide backcourt depth alongside the returning starters and incoming transfers Avery Woodson and Kethan Savage, but a more significant impact was felt right out of the gate. Baldwin quickly slid into a role as defensive disruptor, providing relentless on-ball pressure and using his lateral quickness to cut off driving lanes and reroute passes. In fact, the Bulldogs rank 11th nationally in defensive assist rate — opponents assisting on just 43.7 percent of their baskets, compared with the national average of 52.1 percent — in large part because of Baldwin’s efforts.

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NCAA Tournament Instareaction: Big East Teams

Posted by Justin Kundrat on March 12th, 2017

Below is a review of how the selection process concluded for each Big East team and what they should expect in the first few rounds of the NCAA Tournament.j

The Champs Are Ready to Defend Their Title (USA Today Images)

  • Villanova, #1 seed, East Region. The Wildcats got what everyone was expecting: a trip to Buffalo followed by a short commute to Madison Square Garden, the venue of their recent Big East championship, if they can notch two more wins this week. In terms of specific match-ups, Jay Wright‘s team should have no problem disposing of its #16 seed play-in-game winner. The more intriguing game would come next against Wisconsin, a team that opened the season 21-3 before stumbling down the stretch in February and March. The Badgers could give Villanova a run for their money, given their propensity for slowing the pace and playing tenacious defense — not to mention their NCAA Tournament chops and outstanding coaching.
  • Butler, #4 seed, South Region. A #4 seed usually gets the treat of a #13 mid-major that has dominated its conference — Winthrop from the Big South fits the mold. The Eagles finished 15-3 in conference play, but the league ranked 28th of 32 Division I conferences this season (per KenPom). The Eagles’ uptempo style of play, while entertaining, should falter against Butler’s deliberate defensive schemes. The only potential downfall is if Winthrop, a top 50 team nationally in three-point shooting, gets hot early and forces Butler to play from behind.

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Rushed Reactions: Villanova 74, Creighton 60

Posted by Justin Kundrat on March 11th, 2017

RTC’s Justin Kundrat (@justinkundrat) is providing on-site coverage of the Big East Tournament all week long.

Villanova Just Keeps Winning (USA Today Images)

Three Key Takeaways.

  1. It’s going to take a confluence of factors for Villanova to lose. As Butler proved this season, Villanova is beatable only under a perfect set of circumstances. Namely, an off shooting night from the Wildcats and opposing personnel that are capable of slowing the game to a crawl and turning it into a rock fight. Villanova struggles with defensive-minded teams that successfully clog the paint and force them to settle for jump shots. Across its three losses this season, Villanova attempted a significantly higher than average number of three-pointers. But few teams have the personnel to warp the driving lanes of Josh Hart and Jalen Brunson, a critical source of scoring and ball movement.
  2. Josh Hart has cemented his place as National Player of the Year. With the ever-improving play of Brunson and the emergence of Donte DiVincenzo as a lights-out shooter, Hart’s NPOY campaign took a back seat for a while. But he always seems to show up at the right times, whether by forcing his way into the lane to generate offense or coming up with a loose ball on the defensive end. Given Villanova’s strong play lately and Hart’s “do-it-all” role, it’s difficult to argue against him winning the award. And if there was a good guy of the year award, Hart would probably win that too.
  3. For better or worse, Creighton remains highly match-up dependent. On one end, the Bluejays’ spread offense is well-equipped to deal with a variety of opposing defenses (although its effectiveness lately has been tied to streaky shooting). However, the team has struggled on the defensive end, particularly against perimeter-oriented teams that rely heavily on ball movement to exploit out of position defenders. Xavier, Marquette and Villanova all fit this mold, and perhaps unsurprisingly, all have posted highly efficient games in their battles with Creighton.

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Rushed Reactions: Creighton 75, Xavier 72

Posted by Justin Kundrat on March 10th, 2017

RTC’s Justin Kundrat (@justinkundrat) is providing on-site coverage of the Big East Tournament all week long.

Marcus Foster’s Big Shot Carried Creighton to the Finals (USA Today Images)

Three Key Takeaways.

  1. Consistent play from Justin Patton is a major determinant of Creighton’s postseason success. He’s gotten some flak lately for inconsistent scoring and sub-par defense but the numbers don’t lie. With the 7’0″ freshman on the floor, Creighton allows just 0.95 points per possession — when he’s on the bench, this number stands at 1.06. For a 70-possession game, this amounts to a difference of seven points allowed per game. Moreover, Patton’s impact on the offensive end as a catch-and-finish rim threat and capable three-point shooter have been long admired by scouts, and Friday night’s output was a perfect showcase: Patton poured in a highly efficient 21 points on 10-for-13 shooting.
  2. Xavier’s inexperience at the point guard position is overblown. Obviously, the injury to Edmond Sumner does more harm than good, but freshman Quentin Goodin has come a long way in averaging 7.4 points and 5.2 assists per game in his absence. There are many similarities to their games, notably the ability to channel well-timed passes to the post and a tendency to attack the basket, making Goodin an ideal substitute. As such, while the freshman isn’t nearly the same finisher as his counterpart, his recent bout of confidence has given Chris Mack‘s four-out perimeter offense much more room to run with results following.
  3. Tonight marked a revival of two struggling offenses. Xavier’s turnaround got underway earlier this week after a string of poor performances marked by questionable shot selection and decision-making. Meanwhile, Creighton broke a three-game skid of sub-32 percent three-point shooting, an unusual slump for a team that is averaging 40 percent on the season. Needless to say, confidence plays a vital role in offensive efficiency and both teams are turning things around at the right time.

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Rushed Reactions: Villanova 55, Seton Hall 53

Posted by Justin Kundrat on March 10th, 2017

RTC’s Justin Kundrat (@justinkundrat) is providing on-site coverage of the Big East Tournament all week long.

Seton Hall’s Angel Delgado Expressed His Agony After the Buzzer (USA Today Images)

Three Key Takeaways.

  1. Villanova’s defensive versatility once again saved the day. Even though the team’s 1-2-2 full court press hasn’t been as effective as last season, Wright still successfully employed it interchangeably with a 2-3 zone and its patented switching man-to-man tonight. Throwing out different looks not only forces opponents to re-adjust their offensive sets, but it also takes valuable time off the shot clock. Despite a lack of height and Eric Paschall’s lingering foul trouble, the Wildcats’ defense challenged Seton Hall’s paint-dominant and relentless style of play, holding the Pirates to just 0.90 points per possession and ultimately curtailing Angel Delgado‘s 13-game double-double streak.
  2. Seton Hall’s half-court offense has come a long way since November. Much has been said about the post-Isaiah Whitehead adjustment period, but over the last few weeks this team looks radically different in its half-court execution. Even though forward Desi Rodriguez is still struggling with his outside shot, his dribble-drive threat remains the team’s most reliable source of scoring opportunities. Being able to attack the rim with his 215-pound frame also provides the benefit of room and rebounding chances for Delgado, the nation’s leading rebounder. Seton Hall’s lack of a true passing point guard is unquestionably overcome by its penchant for attacking the rim in one-on-one situations.
  3.  At the end of the day, playmaking abilities won out. At the risk of sounding too cliché, this could not have proven truer on Friday night. In a game between two down-tempo, physical teams, the total score barely eclipsed the century mark. The 59-possession affair put a premium on making the most of limited opportunities in the closing minutes; supported by both Josh Hart and Jalen Brunson, Villanova simply had the better playmakers.

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Highlighting the Changes that Revived Xavier’s Lost Season

Posted by Justin Kundrat on March 10th, 2017

Staring into the abyss of a lost season appears to have sent a message bleak enough to stir Xavier. The problems were numerous: the loss of star point guard Edmond Sumner, inconsistent contributions from interior players, a confused defensive identity, and an increasingly frustrated fan base. Riding a six-game losing streak into this week’s Big East Tournament put Chris Mack’s group dangerously close to the NCAA Tournament cut line, all but demanding an immediate and drastic turnaround if the season was to be saved. While a reversion to its earlier form remains somewhat unlikely, three strong performances (the latest coming in a momentous defeat of #2 seed Butler on Thursday night) have offered glimpses of a team not yet ready to end its season. Perhaps the most confidence-inspiring aspect of the three-game role reversal is that it isn’t attributable to streaky hot shooting performances. Instead, Xavier’s strong play has resulted from three areas: a renewed focus on attacking the paint, more frequent defensive switching, and the improved play of graduate transfer Malcolm Bernard.

Xavier Has Started Looking Like Xavier Again (USA Today Images)

The injury to Sumner has already been discussed at length, and the result, aside from the obvious loss of a key playmaker, has been a reduction in high efficiency shots around the rim. As the below table shows, the 6’6″ guard led the team in shot creation opportunities in the paint, taking a whopping 54 percent of his shots at the rim.

 

In Sumner’s absence, Xavier’s tendencies have, quite understandably, drifted toward the preferred scoring methods of Bluiett and Macura: jump shots. The overlooked problem with this arrangement is that it significantly simplifies things on the defensive end for opponents, especially given Xavier’s lack of low post scoring options. Accordingly, since Sumner’s injury, Xavier’s shooting rate around the basket and free throw rate have notably declined.

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Previewing the 2017 Big East Tournament

Posted by Justin Kundrat on March 8th, 2017

Here we are again: four straight days of Big East basketball in the world’s most famous arena, Madison Square Garden. The conference is likely to follow up last season’s five-bid NCAA Tournament mark with seven teams this year, all of which will be vying for better seeding this week in New York. The other three teams are looking at a frenzied series of as many as four straight games, their only avenue to the Dance in what would be a surprising run to the Big East Championship.

Here’s a printable version of the bracket: 2017 Big East Tournament Bracket

And the Winner is: Villanova

The obvious but boring pick. Even amid a slew of injuries and an undersized but shockingly effective lineup, the Wildcats have again found their way to the top of the Big East totem pole. Few teams have been able to slow down an offense churning out 1.23 points per possession — as a matter of fact, games at Butler (0.99) and at St. John’s (0.99) were Villanova’s only two instances under 1.0 PPP. Sophomore star Jalen Brunson is arguably the most underrated point guard in the country, embracing an old-school style of play that lulls defenders to sleep before blowing by them. Every rotation player with the exception of one is a capable three-point shooter, and the incessant ball screen switching on the defensive end has remained effective because entry passes are such a persistent headache. There are some chinks in the armor, however, as Butler has demonstrated. Crowding the paint on drives and staying down on ball fakes can slow the offense, occasionally causing this team to lose its mojo.

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