Rushed Reaction: #10 Xavier 70, #15 Lehigh 58

Posted by mpoindexter on March 18th, 2012

Three Key Takeaways.

  1. A sea change. With six minutes to play in the first half, Lehigh was up 31-16, with everything going their way. But by halftime, Xavier had cut the lead to only four points. The momentum stayed with the Musketeers the entirety of the second half as they quickly surpassed Lehigh, and the Mountain Hawks never could quite catch up. The difference between the Lehigh team that started the game and the Lehigh team that started the second half was night and day. Shots that rattled around and went in before now rattled around and popped out;  loose balls they got to against Duke suddenly were in the hands of Xavier’s players. This Mountain Hawks team that so many in Greensboro adopted never stopped playing hard, the breaks just stopped falling their way halfway through the game.
  2. Xavier’s redemption. First it was the brawl. Then it was two months of up-and-down, uninspired play. It’s hard to believe that this Xavier team that couldn’t get any momentum after December is finally gaining steam now, in the NCAA tournament. As the last few seconds ticked off the clock, Musketeer fans cheered as much in relief as in celebration, happy that this season which felt so derailed before now seems to be exactly where they want it to be. Xavier’s players, however, want more: many played on Sean Miller’s and Chris Mack’s Sweet 16 teams in 2009 and 2010. It would be truly remarkable for this team, counted out by many, to surpass those prior teams’ accomplishments.
  3. Everybody loves Lehigh. If you polled the state of North Carolina this weekend on who their favorite NCAA basketball team was, Lehigh would probably come in third after UNC and NC State. Both the team and their fans were embraced by the locals after their defeat of Duke. A group of Lehigh fans who made the trip to Chapel Hill over the weekend reportedly ate and drank for free during their entire visit. One media member in Greensboro who usually covers Duke basketball commented during the middle of tonight’s game, “Man, I may be neutral on the outside, but I’m cheering like hell for Lehigh to get back into this game. I want history.” They were a pleasure to cover, and incredibly fun to watch on the court–always moving, tenacious, and incredibly fast. Though they were undersized and less talented than their opponents, the Mountain Hawks were more exciting than any number of major conference teams. The college basketball world should look forward to any chance they get to watch this team in the future.

Star of the game. Kenny Frease, Xavier. Though Lehigh had players nearly as tall as Frease, they had no one as big as the Xavier center. Dwarfing his opponents, Frease shot an astounding 11-for-13 from the floor, wracking up 25 points and 12 rebounds, with four coming off the offensive glass. “Exploit Lehigh’s size” is a good strategy, but as Duke showed, it’s a difficult one to implement. Kudos to the 7’0″, 275-pound Frease for doing what the Plumlees couldn’t. He wasn’t flashy, but he was utterly unstoppable tonight.

Sights & Sounds. The word that best describes the ambiance during tonight’s game is “surreal.” On one side of the court, Lehigh fans packed their entire seating section. On the other side, Xavier fans did the same. The more than twenty section between the two warring factions were sparsely populated with seated North Carolina Tar Heels fans, all seemingly in shock at the news of Kendall Marshall’s injury. For much of the first half, press row was nearly empty due to all the media members who were trying to get any information they could about the UNC point guard. Only twice did the neutral spectators make considerable noise: first booing when a fan held up a sign reading “NC State: 1983 All Over Again,” and later joining in when Lehigh’s fans started a “Let’s go Tar Heels!” chant late in the second half, returning the favor for the support UNC fans gave their team on Friday.

Quotable. ”I sit here in front of all of you disappointed, but very proud, proud of the young men that I’ve had the opportunity to coach throughout the course of this season, proud of the young men who have grown and developed through the course of their career in our program, proud of the development of underclassmen as they have become stronger and greater leaders. And I’m proud to be able to represent Lehigh University in the NCAA tournament.” – Lehigh head coach Brett Reed

What’s Next? Xavier moves onto the Sweet 16 in Atlanta, where they will meet #3 seed Baylor. At first glance, the Musketeers have the height and firepower to hang with the Bears, but Chris Mack has to worry that Baylor might be just slightly better at everything than his team. Xavier does many things well, but Baylor does all those same things very, very well. Xavier’s next challenge will be a tough one.

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Rushed Reaction: #1 North Carolina 87, #8 Creighton 73

Posted by mpoindexter on March 18th, 2012

Three Key Takeaways.

  1. Kendall Marshall likely done for the year. In the midst of another fantastic performance, the sophomore who has lately been the best Tar Heel on the court came down with a scaphoid fracture to his right wrist. Though it isn’t his dominant hand, and UNC said that they don’t know Marshall’s range of motion yet, the medical literature does not offer a good prognosis. Much of the commentary will focus on how greatly this diminishes North Carolina’s odds of winning a title in 2012, but the real focus should be on Marshall, a player who seems as vocally committed to his teammates’ success as any in college basketball.
  2. John Henson is back, and healthy. After missing the last three games with a wrist injury, John Henson came back to the Tar Heels in full force. Henson was good for 13 points and 10 rebounds plus four blocks. It was Henson’s technical early in the game that sparked a gargantuan run from the Tar Heels, and his team played inspired ball for the first time since beating Duke at the end of the regular season. Henson was still tentative early on using his left hand, preferring to tip the ball to his right hand on a rebound and opting to lay in a ball he normally would have slammed home with authority. But by the second half he was back to his old self, using his left hand to emphatically swat away a Doug McDermott shot.
  3. Hats off to a great Creighton team. The Jays played hard today, but simply met a team that was bigger, more talented, more athletic. Doug McDermott tried his best, scoring 20 points, but the Tar Heels’ duo of Henson and James Michael McAdoo made life difficult for him. In the end, North Carolina’s players were too fast for the Jays to guard, and the Heels were able to get almost any shot from 10+ feet wide open. Creighton, though, was a pleasure to watch this year. If McDermott sticks around, then there’s no reason they can’t improve upon what was already a fantastic ride.

Star of the Game. Kendall Marshall, North Carolina. Marshall was quiet for most of the second half, but it was his play that initially put the Creighton Bluejays in a hole from which they couldn’t climb out. During North Carolina’s big run in the first half, the Tar Heel point guard scored nine straight points at one point, beating the Jays from inside and out. Marshall led the Heels in points (18), assists (11), and minutes played (36), going 7-of-8 from the floor. Multiple times, Creighton left him open and dared him to shoot, something that worked for teams last year. It doesn’t work any longer. The bad news is that the left-handed Marshall fractured his right wrist toward the end of tonight’s game, making his status uncertain for any games the Heels play for the rest of the NCAA Tournament.

Quotable. “It was a great win for our team, great win for our kids, and it was a team game to say the least. We got help from everybody. But it’s sort of overshadowed by what’s happened to a wonderful young man right now.” - Roy Williams

Sights & Sounds. The Greensboro Coliseum is an easy 45-minute drive from North Carolina’s campus in Chapel Hill, and the crowd for today’s game against Creighton overwhelmingly favored the Tar Heels. Combined, those made for a de facto home game for Roy Williams’ team. The Greensboro crowd, though, may have been so loud and energetic that it was more imposing for Creightonthan if they had played a regular season game in Chapel Hill. Tar Heel crowds at the Dean E. Smith Center have a reputation for being populated by the “wine and cheese” demographic — older donors who prefer to stay seated and clap politely before leaving with five minutes left on the clock. The crowd tonight was more like “beer and nacho cheese,” constantly screaming, jeering, and chanting. If the same people who came out for UNC in Greensboro follow them to St. Louis, the Tar Heels’ opponents are in for a long, loud night.

Wild Card. Who plays the point in Marshall’s absence? UNC head coach Roy Williams said after the game that the duty would go to freshman reserve Stilman White or senior do-everything Justin Watts. Both pale in comparison to Marshall offensively, though Watts is comparable, if not better, as a defender.

What’s next? The Tar Heels head to St. Louis, where they’ll meet the winner of #12 South Florida and #13 Ohio. UNC will have a size advantage regardless of who they play, and would cause huge problems for either team’s middling offense. If Kendall Marshall’s right wrist fracture keeps him from playing, as expected, UNC may be in for a low-scoring dogfight on the Mississippi.

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Four Thoughts From Greensboro…

Posted by mpoindexter on March 18th, 2012

Looking back at Friday’s action in Greensboro, what was most illuminating was sitting only a few feet behind the bench used by Alabama, North Carolina, Duke, and Xavier. Television broadcasts have given us an intimate view of almost every aspect of the game, but they still haven’t provided an insider’s experience of what goes on in the huddle (and due to the likelihood of FCC fines, they probably won’t). Here are four observations of Greensboro’s benches up close.
  1. Despite losing in the last seconds to Creighton, everything is looking up for Anthony Grant at Alabama. Significantly, Grant was able to take one of the youngest teams in America from of a basketball-apathetic state to the NCAA Tournament. Even down the stretch, leading up to Alabama’s last-second shot, Grant was soft-voiced and encouraging with his team. During timeouts, Grant would briefly consult with his assistants before relaying the plan to a group of players who sat quietly hung on his every word. Of all the coaches I saw up close on Friday, Grant was by far the closest thing to a teacher. Currently, it doesn’t appear that Grant has anyone on his roster that is likely to bolt for the NBA ahead of schedule. Expect the Crimson Tide to compete near the top of the SEC very soon.
  2. In local media, North Carolina’s John Henson is often portrayed as a goofy, baby-faced manchild. In North Carolina’s blowout win against Vermont, though, Henson showed himself to be a cerebral and intuitive future coach. Sidelined with a wrist injury for the third straight game, Henson was constantly stepping off the bench to give freshman big men James Michael McAdoo and Desmond Hubert instructions when they were on the court. It would be easy for Henson to get down, missing out on some of the most important games he’s ever played, but he’s finding a way to contribute to the Tar Heels even without playing.
  3. Each March, for as long as the NCAA tournament is played, we will see Lehigh beat Duke over and over again. What is likely to go unmentioned, though, is how remarkable it is that Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski got his team to the position of a #2 seed. While the Blue Devils are undeniably talented, they are far from being anything close to a balanced team. Despite lacking a true point guard or small forward, Duke was able to beat teams like Michigan State, Kansas, and North Carolina. In the huddle, Krzyzewski was just as he is billed to be: in the first half, trying to wake his sluggish team up, profane and angry; in the second half, morphing into stirring motivational speeches that made me even believe I could accomplish anything. Sure, Mike Krzyzewski’s biggest advantage at Duke is that he can bring in superior talent every year. Never, however, will Krzyzewski get anything less than the optimal performance out of that talent.
  4. With six minutes to play in their win against Notre Dame, Xavier forward Andre Walker caught a blow to the face that laid him flat on the court. Walker eventually made his way to the end of the bench, where he received constant attention from the Xavier medical staff. At times, Walker was doubled over in pain, barely able to lift a cup of water to his lips. By the game’s end, Walker sat, head in hands, with a towel draped over his head as his shoulders shook slightly. Walker is expected to play against Lehigh, but his scary injury is a prime example of just how physical college basketball really is. Viewed up close, as opposed to on television, big time college basketball is almost violent: players are scratched, gouged, elbowed, and slapped on every single play. As fast and powerful as today’s players are, it’s a miracle that more players don’t suffer severe injuries.
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Rushed Reaction: #10 Xavier 67, #7 Notre Dame 63

Posted by mpoindexter on March 17th, 2012

Three Key Takeaways.

  1. Don’t try to Get Away with Anything at the end of a close Game. Officials in this year’s NCAA Tournament games have made a point of calling small violations in the final seconds of games. Down by two with 2.8 seconds left on the clock, Notre Dame’s Eric Atkins went to the line for a 1-and-1. His first shot went in, but an official erased it and the following attempt by calling a lane violation on Notre Dame. Then, on the ensuing play, the official called a flagrant foul on Notre Dame for tugging on a Xavier player’s jersey before the ball was put into play. Xavier’s Dezmine Wells took his foul shots, icing the game. We weren’t as likely to see these calls in previous years, but it’s obvious that the NCAA is making an effort to have their officials call the games consistently start to finish, regardless of the score. This may initially lead to some head-scratching, but it’s better for college basketball in the long run.
  2. This was the Tu Holloway We’ve Been Waiting For. Xavier’s star senior Holloway has been solid this year, but he hasn’t played quite as well as the All-American season many expected. Holloway lived up to the hype against Notre Dame though, putting in 25 points with a 10-for-15 shooting performance.
  3. Offense, Offense, Offense. The Musketeers and Fighting Irish played hard on defense, but today’s contest was really a slow-paced shootout. Notre Dame would usually win scoring 1.09 points per possession, but Xavier managed a stunning 1.22 points per possession. The Musketeers took 44 shots on the night, and 22 of them went in. That type of efficiency will get you a long way in March.

Star of the Game. Tu Holloway, Xavier. As stated above, Holloway hasn’t lived up to the very high expectations set for him this year. However, he carried the Musketeers down the stretch, most importantly hitting a late-game running floater over two Notre Dame players while fading away from the basket to put his team up by one with 22 seconds left. The NCAA Tournament is about narratives almost as much as it is about wins and losses, and today’s performance against Notre Dame may be the first step to Tu Holloway reversing the negative one that he and his team have dealt with since the Cincinnati brawl.

Sights and Sounds. Notre Dame and Xavier played a fantastic, competitive game, but most in attendance seemed exhausted after experiencing Lehigh’s prior victory over Duke. The Lehigh cheering section went off to celebrate, the large Duke contingent went off to forget, and what was left was a sparsely-populated coliseum that felt more like a high school crowd than anything else. The 10:15 start time was late, and the basketball was slow and methodical. Yet, at the end, well after midnight in Greensboro, as the two teams traded baskets and the clock wound down, the crowd rose and the Greensboro Coliseum, once again, became electric.

What’s Next? The Lehigh Mountain Hawks. And if today’s UNC Tar Heel favoring crowd is any indication, the Musketeers will be playing against a team that has the crowd behind them. Lehigh is playing with tons of confidence at the moment, but Xavier should look to use their slight size advantage to their benefit against the Mountain Hawks. Xavier could be a man down, though, as starting forward Andre Walker spent much of the second half at the end of the bench. Walker caught an errant forearm to the face before hitting the floor hard. Walker and his 28 minutes per game would be a huge loss for Xavier on Sunday.

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Rushed Reaction: #15 Lehigh 75, #2 Duke 70

Posted by mpoindexter on March 16th, 2012

Three Key Takeaways.

  1. The Mountain Hawks may be the Most Fun Team in the Tournament. Lehigh’s players didn’t just want to win, they wanted to do it with style, with bravado. Few players can be as artfully aggressive on the court as C.J. McCollum. Few can grin wide and shuffle their feet — almost dancing — in a tense late-game situation like Mackey McKnight did when he got a perimeter mismatch against Miles Plumlee. Few players are as constantly vocal on the court as Justin Maneri. The result is a team that may play with more attitude and panache than any other team in the title hunt.
  2. This Wasn’t Totally Unexpected. Some basketball tea leaf readers saw this coming. First among them was stats guru Nathan Walker, who was already basking in a Lehigh victory back on Selection Sunday. Others, like the fellows over at SCACCHoops, saw it being a 50/50 tossup. Add in Ryan Kelly‘s absence due to injury, and you have a Lehigh win that some people saw happening, as improbable as that seems.
  3. Duke’s Guard Defense Hurt Them. Duke is missing the lockdown defensive guard this year that Mike Krzyzewski seems to clone annually in the university’s biology labs. As a result, Lehigh’s guards ate them alive. Duke couldn’t stop McKnight from penetrating in the half court; they couldn’t stop the perimeter pick and roll; they couldn’t trap in the full-court press; this led to a number of transition dunks. The Blue Devils’ guard-trio of Austin Rivers, Seth Curry, and Andre Dawkins may be lethal shooters, but they’re a liability on the other side of the ball.

Star of the Game. C.J. McCollum, Lehigh. He didn’t just score 30 points and play all but one minute of the game — he did it and made it look easy. Every Duke defender — from Josh Hairston, to Austin Rivers, to Miles Plumlee–tried, and failed, to keep the 6’3″ Lehigh junior away from the basket. All of them failed. At times it seemed as if McCollum could do everything — jump, dribble, defend, shoot — better than everyone else on the floor.

Sights and Sounds. Lehigh’s fans, relegated to a single seating section near center court, were as entertaining as the game. The Mountain Hawk faithful have fully bought in to the “large cardboard head” phenomenon. What’s more as the game progressed, they passed out dozens of “GO LEHIGH” signs to “neutral” fans in attendance (read: UNC fans). They were easily the loudest fans so far per capita, and the most involved. When McCollum hit a free throw with one second left to make it a four-point margin, the Lehigh seating section let out the most relieved cheer one can imagine. They earned it.

Quotable. “This game is a great game. I’ve been in it for 37 years and it takes you to incredible highs. And it takes you to incredible lows. And tonight’s one of those lows.” – Mike Krzyzewski, Duke.

Wildcard. “But it was basically a home game for Duke,” you may say, but you’d be partially wrong. Sure, Duke was only 50 miles from the friendly confines of Cameron Indoor Stadium, but any Duke game outside of Cameron in the state of North Carolina is bound to have more people who’d like to see the Blue Devils lose than ones who’d like to see them win. In reality, Duke would probably find a more sympathetic crowd in Madison Square Garden than in Greensboro Coliseum.

What’s Next? Lehigh awaits the winner of tonight’s Notre Dame/Xavier game. And after watching the performance the Mountain Hawks put on tonight against Duke, no one should doubt their ability to win a game against either of those teams. Their only glaring weakness — size in the post — would make a meeting with Notre Dame a problem, but who really wants to count out this team now?

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Rushed Reaction: #1 North Carolina 77, #16 Vermont 58

Posted by mpoindexter on March 16th, 2012

Three Key Takeaways

  1. The Tar Heels Need Henson. While James Michael McAdoo has shown flashes of inspired play, North Carolina is a significantly better team with John Henson on the floor. McAdoo and fellow freshman Desmond Hubert are much less physically imposing when defending opposing big men. What’s more, UNC’s usually stunning rebounding takes a hit without Henson. They can get by a 16-seed without him, but Roy Williams needs John Henson on Sunday.
  2. Slow Start for UNC. Harrison Barnes wasn’t shooting well. McAdoo was missing point-blank layups. Kendall Marshall made a couple of sloppy passes. It looked like UNC came out trying to get by the Vermont Catamounts with minimal effort, and the score for the first ten minutes–small 2 to 3 point leads–reflected that effort. Tepid starts have been somewhat of a problem for this UNC team, but it’s an especially dangerous way to play in March. If an opponent comes out firing, UNC could find themselves playing catch-up in a sudden death tournament.
  3. No Shame for the Catamounts. Despite the score, Vermont actually looked better than an outsized #16 should look against North Carolina. They played smart, sound basketball, and only unraveled due to North Carolina’s superior size and talent. The game wasn’t close, but it was a promising sign for a young team that should have expectations of dancing again in 2013.

Star of the Game. Tyler Zeller, North Carolina. When his teammates started sluggishly, Tyler Zeller put the Tar Heels on his back, leading all players with 13 points and nine rebounds in the first half. In the second half, when Vermont trying to cut the deficit to single digits, Zeller made two outstanding blocks near the rim, bringing new energy to a quiet North Carolina crowd.

Sights and Sounds. James Michael McAdoo shot 1-for-6 in the first half, looking lost at times. That’s why the standing ovation sounded so sweet for his second half performance: 5-of-8 from the floor, getting him to a new career high of 17 points. As he came back to the UNC bench with a little more than three minutes left in the game, each UNC teammate wore broad smiles, congratulating him on a game well played.

What’s Next? The Heels meet Creighton on Sunday, which means a matchup between former high school teammates Doug McDermott and Harrison Barnes. The big question is: does John Henson play? Today was the first time in the past week Henson wasn’t wearing a wrist brace on the bench. If Roy Williams has him in the rotation against the Jays, the Heels should be safe. If not, anything could happen given Creighton’s talented front line.

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