Big Ten Wrap-Up: Lasting Impressions and an Early Top Five

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on April 6th, 2018

Has Donte DiVincenzo stop hitting shots yet? Okay, good. Now that Monday is behind us, let’s take a moment to reflect on the season that was and look ahead to 2018-19.

Michigan had another year to remember. (PHOTO BY AP/DAVID J. PHILLIP)

  • Michigan is an elite basketball program. Before John Beilein took over in Ann Arbor in 2007, Michigan hadn’t reached the NCAA Tournament since 1998, a nine-year drought that made the historically great football school seem like just that — a football school. But that’s changed. Since the drought ended in 2009, Beilein has led the Wolverines to eight NCAA Tournaments, including finishes in the Sweet Sixteen (2017), Elite Eight (2016), and twice in the National Championship game (2013, 2018). After years of mediocrity, Michigan basketball now represents offensive efficiency, outstanding player development and clutch play in March. This season, Beilein — always considered an offensive mastermind — took an unproven collection of talent and won big with his defense, suggesting that the 65-year old coach is still evolving both as a tactician (he recently moved away from the 1-3-1 zone) and manager: His hiring of Illinois State assistant Luke Yaklich as “defensive coordinator” was crucial to the Wolverines’ run. With a decade of excellence under its belt and plenty of talent returning next season, Michigan has firmly established itself among the Big Ten’s elite programs.
  • This season will forever sting for Michigan State and Purdue fans. Michigan State went 30-5 and won the outright regular season Big Ten championship. Purdue finished at 30-7, at one point winning 19 straight games. And yet, this season will probably leave a bad taste in both programs’ mouths for some time. For the Spartans, 2017-18 was a Final-Four-or-bust kind of year, with the return of Miles Bridges alongside future NBA lottery pick Jaren Jackson ostensibly giving Tom Izzo his best chance at a National Championship from a talent perspective since 2000. Instead, a season of offensive inconsistency led to an offensively-inept loss to Syracuse in the Round of 32. For the Boilermakers, bad luck prevailed when 7’2″ center Isaac Haas fractured his elbow in the First Round against Cal State Fullerton, his absence proving too much for Purdue to overcome against Texas Tech in the Sweet Sixteen. On paper, both seasons appear successful. In actuality, postseason disappointment will likely overshadow their 60 combined wins.

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Final Four Fact Sheet: Villanova Wildcats

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 27th, 2018

Now that the Final Four is set, our writers have put together a fact sheet on each of the four teams still remaining. Next up is #1 Villanova from the East Region.

How Villanova Got Here

Villanova is headed back in the Final Four. (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

East Region Champions. In a March defined by massive upsets, close games, and wild finishes, Villanova cruised to San Antonio without too much trouble. On opening weekend, the Wildcats beat #16 Radford by 27 points before hammering #9 Alabama, 81-58, two days later. In its Sweet Sixteen tilt with West Virginia, Jay Wright’s group used a 22-6 second half run to overcome a two-possession deficit and beat the Mountaineers by 12 points. On Sunday, Villanova put forth one of its best defensive efforts of the season, limiting Texas Tech to 0.89 points per possession in another 12-point win. The Wildcats now head to their second Final Four in three seasons, this time as the odds-on favorites to win it all.

The Coach

Jay Wright. The sharply dressed 56-year-old is working his way on to the Mount Rushmore of active head basketball coaches, and its hard to argue otherwise. Wright became the winningest coach in school history earlier this month and is currently in the midst of his fourth-straight 30-win season, which gives him as many such campaigns (five) as Syracuse’s Jim Boehiem and one more than Michigan State’s Tom Izzo (four). In fact, he has gone a remarkable 163-21 over the past five seasons, never once losing more than five games during that span. Now with three Final Four appearances under his belt, Wright is tied with Kansas’ Bill Self and Mississippi State’s Ben Howland for sixth-most among active coaches, and has a chance to join Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski and North Carolina’s Roy Williams as the only active head coaches with multiple National Championships.

Style

Villanova runs a four-out, one-in motion offense that relies on floor spacing, crisp ball movement, dribble-penetration and great perimeter shooting. The Wildcats, in fact, take 47.1 percent of their shots from behind the arc, which is substantially more than even the three-point reliant Jayhawks (41.4%) or Wolverines (43.1%). And there’s nothing excessive about it. Since every player on the floor is capable of penetrating, all it takes is one help defender to free up an open man somewhere on the court. And considering how well Villanova moves the ball — perhaps no team makes the “extra pass” as often as the Wildcats — that open man often finds the ball in his hands. The result is college basketball’s most efficient offense since 2015. Defensively, Villanova mixes defenses, sometimes running a zone press that’s proved effective throughout Wright’s career. The Wildcats also guard the perimeter aggressively, one reason they rank 29th nationally in three-point defense (32.2% 3FG).

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Final Four Fact Sheet: Loyola-Chicago Ramblers

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 26th, 2018

Now that the Final Four is set, our writers have put together a fact sheet on each of the four teams still remaining. First, #11 Loyola-Chicago, from the South Region.

How Loyola-Chicago Got Here

Seriously: #11 Loyola-Chicago is in the Final Four. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

South Region Champions. In arguably the most chaotic region ever, the Missouri Valley Champion emerged as this NCAA Tournament’s team of destiny. The Ramblers began their unexpected run with a buzzer-beating victory over #6 Miami (FL), followed by an equally dramatic takedown of #3 Tennessee in the Round of 32. After edging #7 Nevada by a single point in the Sweet Sixteen — its third straight win by two points or fewer — Loyola shot 50 percent from behind the arc en route to a lopsided win over #9 Kansas State on Saturday. The Ramblers now join LSU (1986), George Mason (2006) and VCU (2011) as the only #11 seeds to reach the Final Four in NCAA Tournament history, a remarkable feat for a program that went 7-23 in the Horizon League just six seasons ago.

The Coach

Porter Moser. After middling coaching stints with Arkansas-Little Rock (2000-03) and Illinois State (2003-07), Moser took over a Loyola program in 2011 with just one 20-win season on its record since 1985. In a matter of just four years — including a 7-23 campaign and a move from the Horizon League to the Missouri Valley — the former Rick Majerus assistant led the Ramblers to the College Basketball Invitational title in 2014-15, their first postseason appearance in 30 years. Three seasons later, Moser has taken the program to its greatest heights since winning the National Championship in 1963.

Style

As a Majerus disciple, Moser stresses hard-nosed, meticulous team defense that’s enabled Loyola to rank among the top 20 nationally in efficiency for the first time in the KenPom era. The Ramblers do a masterful job of switching and hedging ball screens, closing out on shooters, and providing help defense near the rim, which has forced opponents into an 18.3 second average possession length this season — the longest of any remaining NCAA Tournament team. Offensively, Loyola runs a four-out, one-in system predicated on quick ball-movement, good floor spacing and versatile personnel. In Moser’s system, all four perimeter players should be able to dribble-drive and knock down perimeter shots, while the lone paint presence — often Cameron Krutwig — is expected to be a capable post passer. Among the slower-paced offenses in the country, Loyola works patiently to find the best possible shot on each trip.

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NCAA Regional Reset: South Region

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 20th, 2018

Rush the Court is providing comprehensive coverage of the NCAA Tournament from start to finish over the next three weeks. Today and tomorrow we reset each of the four regions. 

New Favorite: #5 Kentucky (26-10). Not only is Kentucky the favorite to win the South Region, it has better odds to reach the Final Four than any team left in the NCAA Tournament, per FiveThirtyEight. Who could have foreseen that on Selection Sunday? Then again, who could have foreseen virtually anything that happened in the South? For the first time in college basketball history, the four top seeds from a single region failed to reach the Sweet Sixteen, leaving the Wildcats standing as the clear-cut favorite in Atlanta. And really, they might have been the favorite anyway. After edging Davidson in the opening round, Kentucky continued playing its best offensive basketball of the season against #13 Buffalo, scoring 1.28 points per possession against a defense that had just baffled #4 Arizona two nights earlier. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (more on him below) was great yet again (27 points on 10-for-12 shooting). Hamidou Diallo (22 points) had his best game in months. Wenyen Gabriel (3-of-5 3FG) continued hitting shots. Since losing to Florida on March 3, Kentucky has looked like an entirely different team — an efficient team — on the offensive end. And that should scare the daylights out of every team left in the Dance.

Kentucky is peaking at the right time. (Kentucky Sports)

Horse of Darkness: #11 Loyola-Chicago (30-5). It speaks volumes about this region that a #11 seed advanced to the Sweet Sixteen and there’s even a debate here, but #7 Nevada and #9 Kansas State both have solid arguments. Still, the Ramblers are the worst remaining seed and no team has taken on that Cinderella “feel” quite like Porter Moser’s group. For Loyola to advance, it took a pair of dramatic (near) buzzer-beaters and some prayers from Sister Jean to upend #6 Miami and #3 Tennessee, the program’s first NCAA Tournament victories since 1985. At no point have the Ramblers looked physically outmatched, though, and it’s doubtful they will against Nevada. Don’t be shocked if this team winds up playing for a trip to San Antonio on Saturday.

Biggest Surprise (First Weekend): #16 UMBC (25-11). Biggest surprise (first weekend)? How about biggest surprise (ever)? In perhaps the greatest upset of all-time, UMBC knocked off #1 overall seed Virginia to become the first #16 seed in NCAA Tournament history to reach the Second Round. Even with several days for that to soak in, the accomplishment remains astounding. Consider that Virginia owned the best record in college basketball (31-2) and won the ACC by four games. And that UMBC lost by 44 points to Albany on January 21. And that Virginia’s defense hadn’t allowed a single opponent to score 70 points this season. Or that UMBC’s offensive efficiency ranked fifth in the America East and didn’t even crack the top 150 nationally. And yet, led by a pair of senior guards with enough swagger to last a lifetime, the Retrievers ripped off 53 points in the second half alone en route to a shocking 74-54 victory, the most total points and points per possession the Cavaliers had surrendered all season. It was the upset to end all upsets.

Completely Expected (First Weekend): Nothing. We’re not trying to be cute here — virtually nothing went as expected in the South Region. A #16 seed beat the #1 overall seed. The #9 seed, Kansas State, reached the Sweet Sixteen without its leading scorer. The #13 seed beat the #4 seed — don’t forget about Buffalo! — and the #11 seed advanced to the second weekend. Oh, and as for #2 Cincinnati? It only blew a 22-point second-half lead against #7 Nevada, giving the Wolf Pack its first Sweet Sixteen berth since 2004. Even #5 Kentucky was far from a sure thing: according to KenPom, the Wildcats had just a 36.7 percent chance of reaching Atlanta before the tournament started.

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NCAA Regional Reset: East Region

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 20th, 2018

Rush the Court is providing comprehensive coverage of the NCAA Tournament from start to finish over the next three weeks. Today and tomorrow we reset each of the four regions. 

New Favorite: #1 Villanova (32-4). The Wildcats did nothing to put their ‘favorite’ status into question over the weekend. In fact, they may have actually established themselves as the new odds-on favorite to win the whole thing. After handling #16 seed Radford by 27 points in the First Round, Villanova put on a second half clinic against #9 Alabama in the Round of 32, outscoring the Crimson Tide 49-21 over the final 20 minutes and finishing the game with 17 made three-pointers. On the weekend, in fact, Villanova shot a combined 31-of-68 (46%) from long range, its spread offense looking more lethal than ever. Now ranked #1 by KenPom with the most efficient offense in America, the Wildcats roll into Boston looking Final Four ready — especially considering the season-ending injury to Purdue center Isaac Haas in the other half of this bracket.

Meet the new favorite, same as the old favorite. (Yahoo Sports)

Horse of Darkness: #5 West Virginia (26-10). We had to put someone here, right? In an overall bracket riddled with chaos, the East Region remained more uniform than most, leaving #5 West Virginia as the “dark horse” if there is one. Entering the NCAA Tournament, KenPom gave the Mountaineers only a 42.6 percent chance of reaching the Sweet Sixteen, odds that changed dramatically once Marshall upset #4 Wichita State on Friday. West Virginia now heads to Boston where it will be a clear underdog against #1 Villanova, which is probably just how Bob Huggins and his aggressive group likes it.

Biggest Surprise (First Weekend): #13 Marshall (25-11). Hunter became the hunted in San Diego, where #4 Wichita State — usually the one busting brackets — fell victim to Marshall’s high-powered attack. Entering Friday, the Shockers had won at least one game as a lower-seeded team in five of the last six NCAA Tournaments, including a run to the Final Four as a #9 seed in 2013. Simply put, Wichita State feels comfortable wearing the underdog hat — even in games in which it is favored, like that 2014 classic against #8 seed Kentucky. But this time around, Gregg Marshall’s group felt like Goliath, and perhaps that unfamiliar pressure wore on the Shockers down the stretch. While Wichita State tightened in the second half, the Thundering Herd just kept on shooting. The result was an upset we did not see coming.

Completely Expected (First Weekend): #2 Purdue. We fully expected Purdue to reach the Sweet Sixteen. What we did not expect was how much uncertainty it would endure to get there. After pounding Cal State Fullerton in the First Round, the team announced that senior Isaac Haas — the Boilermakers’ second-leading scorer and premier post-threat — would miss the remainder of the NCAA Tournament with a fractured elbow. Subsequent reports revealed that he might see limited action. Finally, his arm brace failed to clear NCAA safety standards, meaning the Boilermakers would have to beat Butler without him. They did, thanks in large part to the brilliance of Vincent Edwards (20 points), but not before two days filled with doubt.

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Rushed Reactions: #11 Syracuse 55, #3 Michigan State 53

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 18th, 2018

RTC will be providing coverage of the NCAA Tournament from start to finish. Tommy Lemoine (@hoopthink) is in Detroit this weekend. 

Three Key Takeaways.

Syracuse was all smiles after pulling off the upset. (Paul Sancya | The Associated Press)

  1. Syracuse mucked this game up to perfection. In order for Syracuse to win this game, it was going to have to slow down the pace, force Michigan State to run its half-court sets, and hope the Spartans missed shots from behind the arc. And that’s exactly what happened. The Big Ten champs were completely flummoxed by Jim Boeheim’s 2-3 zone, unable to exploit gaps inside and unconfident from the perimeter. Were it not for a few difficult made threes immediately before and after halftime, in fact, Michigan State’s final box score would have looked even uglier — which is remarkable when you consider that the Spartans finished 8-of-37 from three-point range. Despite getting hammered on the glass, Syracuse’s length inside was too much for big men like Nick Ward (10 points) and Jaren Jackson (two points). Even when Michigan State began passing out of the high post with Ben Carter — its best interior passer — the team’s go-to shooters like Josh Langford simply couldn’t hit. Afterward, Tom Izzo put it simply: “I thought we’d have a little easier time getting it in the middle.”
  2. Michigan State’s offense was atrocious. And it’s not a complete surprise. Michigan State boasted the ninth-most efficient offense in college basketball entering Sunday, largely the product of excellent outside shooting and a great running game. But there were times this season — Michigan, Rutgers, and others — in which the Spartans looked rhythmless and inept in the half-court. That issue reared its ugly head again on Sunday. Against an opponent built to slow teams down, Michigan State wasted far too much shot clock dribbling and handing-off instead of running clear offensive sets. When the pick-and-roll didn’t work — and it generally did not — Cassius Winston (4-of-12) and the Spartan guards were apt to either force a bad shot or hope Miles Bridges (4-of-18) could make something out of nothing. Following Michigan State’s home loss to Michigan on January 13 — a game in which it struggled mightily from the field — Izzo noted, “we have to do some soul-searching.” If Sunday’s performance was any indication, it’s clear that the Spartans never found their soul — at least not offensively.
  3. Jim Boeheim’s system works, no matter what you feel about it. There’s been plenty of chatter this weekend about whether Tony Bennett’s ‘system’ will ever result in March success for Virginia. Meanwhile, Boeheim’s 2-3 zone defense — very much a system in its own right — has enabled the offensively-limited Orange to make yet another deep run. For the second time in three seasons, Syracuse is finding the perfect level of cohesion at exactly the right time with an extremely shallow roster (351st nationally in bench minutes). How? Opponents facing Boeheim’s team for the first time simply don’t know how to breach that zone, especially with Syracuse’s length all over the court. The 73-year-old’s success should give those doubting Bennett a moment of pause.

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Rushed Reactions: #2 Purdue 76, #10 Butler 73

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 18th, 2018

RTC will be providing coverage of the NCAA Tournament from start to finish. Tommy Lemoine (@hoopthink) is in Detroit this weekend. 

Three Key Takeaways.

Vincent Edwards came up big for the shorthanded Boilermakers. (Photo: Raj Mehta/USA TODAY Sports)

  1. Without Isaac Haas in the lineup, Vincent Edwards stepped up. Purdue suffered a devastating blow on Friday when 7’2″ center Isaac Haas, the team’s second-leading scorer (14.7 PPG) and premier post threat, fractured his elbow against Cal State Fullerton. First reports indicated that he would miss the entire NCAA Tournament; subsequent reports revealed he might see limited minutes. But after his arm brace failed to clear NCAA safety standards over the weekend, the Boilermakers were officially left having to fill the void. Vincent Edwards did exactly that. In just 27 minutes of action because of foul trouble, the senior forward scored 20 points on 6-of-8 shooting — including a couple of timely triples — and came up with a lead-preserving block on Butler’s Kamar Baldwin in the closing minutes. After a late-season ankle injury and two subpar performances in the Big Ten Tournament, Edwards stepped up in a big way for the shorthanded Boilermakers.
  2. Matt Haarms and Purdue’s frontcourt reserves exceeded expectations. No Haas in the lineup meant more minutes for freshman Matt Haarms and the rest of Purdue’s frontcourt reserves. And they made good on that extra playing time. Haarms, a 7’3″ Dutchman, was a defensive force in the paint, blocking a couple shots, drawing a charge and preventing easy Butler looks around the rim (especially in the first half). Junior Grady Eifert — who played sparingly during the regular season — tracked down five rebounds in 17 high-energy minutes. Forwards Nojel Eastern and Jacquil Taylor, who had played just four minutes total since January 20, also helped fill the void. “I’m proud of those other guys who had to increase their roles,” Purdue head coach Matt Painter said afterwards.
  3. Kelan Martin did not get enough help. As he did against Arkansas, Kelan Martin — an all-Big East first teamer and Butler’s top offensive weapon — did his part (and then some) on Sunday, scoring 29 points on 9-of-18 shooting. During the second half especially, his ability to attack the rim at-will proved to be the Bulldogs’ best and most consistent form of offense. Painter called him “fantastic” afterwards, and he was. But unlike on Friday, he did not receive enough help from his teammates — most notably Kamar Baldwin. After putting on a show against Arkansas (24 points on 9-of-17 FG), the sophomore guard scored just 14 points on 5-of-16 shooting. And his teammates weren’t much better, considering no other Bulldog finished in double figures. In a game that was decided by a few key possessions, Butler needed someone other than Martin to step up offensively.

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Rushed Reactions: #11 Syracuse 57, #6 TCU 52

Posted by Tommy Lemoine (@hoopthink) on March 17th, 2018

RTC will be providing coverage of the NCAA Tournament from start to finish. Tommy Lemoine (@hoopthink) is in Detroit this weekend. 

Three Key Takeaways.

Syracuse’s defense was all over TCU on Friday night. (Carlos Osorio / Associated Press)

  1. TCU’s super-efficient offense struggled against the Syracuse zone. TCU was hands-down the most efficient offense in the Big 12 this season, ranking 7th nationally in adjusted efficiency and shooting nearly 40% from behind the arc. But it struggled mightily against Syracuse’s patented 2-3 zone. The Horned Frogs shot just 3-of-17 from behind the arc, the Orange defense using its size — Syracuse is the tallest team in college basketball — and length to prevent good looks. TCU also turned the ball over at an uncharacteristically high rate, which may have been the difference (extra possessions) considering both teams shot nearly identical from the field and the free throw line. “This was just a defensive game, and we didn’t give them good looks from the three-point line,” Syracuse Jim Boeheim said afterwards.
  2. Marek Dolezaj’s career night couldn’t have come at a better time. Slovakian freshman Marek Dolezaj entered Friday averaging 5.2 PPG. He scored 17 points on Friday night, including 11 of his team’s first 23 points. He was so on point, in fact, that even his sole three-point attempt — just his ninth of the season (2-of-9 3PT) — went in, helping Syracuse jump out to an early lead. For an offense that can at times look inept, Dolezaj’s contributions (he scored 20 points against Wake Forest on March 6) could be the spark Syracuse needs for another March run.
  3. Jim Boeheim out-performing expectations in March once again. Two years ago, Syracuse was a double-digit seed and one of the last teams to sneak into the Dance. Sound familiar? That team wound up making a completely unexpected Final Four run, the fifth appearance of Boeheim’s career. This year’s team — tall, methodical, defensive-minded — has plenty of similarities, if not a player as dynamic as Michael Gbinije. With two NCAA Tournament wins now under its belt, Boeheim is once again making lemonade out very bubbly lemons.

Star of the Game. Marek Dolezaj, Syracuse. The 6-9 Slovakian couldn’t miss on Friday, knocking down every type of shot you can imagine on his way to 17 points. Had Dolezaj not fouled out midway through the second half, he may have posted a career high. For Syracuse to upset Michigan State on Sunday, it’s going to need role players like Dolezaj to step up in similar fashion. Read the rest of this entry »

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Rushed Reactions: #3 Michigan State 82, #14 Bucknell 78

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 16th, 2018

RTC will be providing coverage of the NCAA Tournament from start to finish. Tommy Lemoine (@hoopthink) is in Detroit this weekend. 

Three Key Takeaways.

Miles Bridges was high NBA-caliber Friday evening in the Spartans’ tournament opener. (Raj Mehta/USA TODAY Sports)

  1. Miles Bridges took over down the stretch. After a back-and-forth first half that ended with Michigan State up just four, the All-American and future lottery pick asserted himself when Michigan State needed him most. In a three-minute period midway through the second half, Bridges ripped off 10 straight points, including a monstrous tip-slam over Bucknell center Nana Foulland. The sophomore finished with 29 points in all — 19 in the second half alone — in the type of performance Spartan country envisioned he would upon announcing his return last summer. Everything from Bridges’ talent to his assertiveness has been questioned by someone at some point this season, deserved or not. But on Friday, there was no questioning his excellence, and no denying that Michigan State is scary when he plays this well.
  2. Zach Thomas’s effort shouldn’t be forgotten. The Patriot League Player of the Year was awesome on Friday night (27 points), despite fouling out on a technical foul with six minutes remaining and despite playing with cotton swabs in his nose. The 6’7″ senior scored 20 points in the first half alone, drilling cold-blooded three-pointers and taking advantage of mismatches when Tom Izzo sat his best bigs. In a world where one-and-done players often rule the conversation, it’s great to see talented. little-known  four-year players put on a show against top-notch competition. “There wasn’t much of one. I mean, we didn’t defend him,” Izzo said of his team’s game plan for Thomas.
  3. Jaren Jackson needs to stay out of foul trouble. While discussing Zach Thomas’s skillset after the game, Bucknell coach Nathan Davis made a point of saying that the senior could post-up anyone on the floor “except maybe Jaren Jackson.” The rest of his statement had nothing to do with Jackson, but that comment spoke volumes — there simply aren’t many players in college basketball with Jackson’s length and defensive ability. And that’s why the freshman can’t afford to find himself in foul trouble like he did on Friday, or like he did in Michigan State’s two Big Ten Tournament games. Jackson, who has a 7’4″ wingspan, is an elite rim-protector capable of defending multiple positions; when he is on the floor, opponents becomes far more one-dimensional. And that’s not even taking into account his offensive versatility. Though the Spartans were able to overcome his absence against Bucknell, they might not be so lucky against better, bigger opponents in future rounds.

Star of the Game. Miles Bridges, Michigan State. The super-sophomore had one of his best performances of the season on Friday, finishing with 29 points and nine rebounds in 35 minutes of action. Izzo spoke after the game — as he has before — of always wanting Bridges to be more aggressive. If he he keeps playing like this, Michigan State will go very deep into March. Read the rest of this entry »

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Rushed Reactions: #10 Butler 79, #7 Arkansas 62

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 16th, 2018

RTC will be providing coverage of the NCAA Tournament from start to finish. Tommy Lemoine (@hoopthink) is reporting from Detroit. 

Key Takeaways.

Kelan Martin and Kamar Baldwin came up big against Arkansas. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

  1. Butler’s two best players were at their best when it counted. All-Big East first teamer Kelan Martin scored 27 points, including several big shots to set the tone for Butler early in the second half. Sophomore guard Kamar Baldwin (24 points, nine rebounds, five assists) was even better, making a pair of and-ones, a huge corner three, and a game-sealing layup all within the game’s final eight minutes. Butler’s top two offensive weapons — both of whom averaged more than 15 points per game this season — stepped up when it mattered most. Some players would become tentative after squandering a 19-point first half lead, especially in the face of a relentless full-court press like Arkansas. Not these guys.
  2. The first half was chaos. Butler jumped out to a 21-2 lead to start the game, making mincemeat of Arkansas’ press. The Razorbacks then responded with a 27-6 run of their own. After briefly losing the lead, the Bulldogs counterpunched with an 8-2 run to end the half, taking a five-point lead into the locker room. All the while, bodies were hitting the floor, the ball was being deflected every which way, and neither fan base really knew what to do with themselves. “With our team, it’s a game of runs,” Arkansas coach Mike Anderson noted afterwards, perhaps understating just how wild the first half was. The flow of the game settled when Butler took control in the second half, but not before one of the more wild opening stanzas in recent memory.
  3. Butler could be in position to make another unexpected run. Butler is no stranger to shocking the world in March. Brad Stevens took the program to Final Fours as a #5 seed and a #8 seed in 2010 and 2011. In 2003, the Bulldogs reached the Sweet Sixteen as a #12 seed. Now, in LaVall Jordan’s first season as the Bulldogs’ head coach, Butler is in great position to exceed March expectations once again. Not only does Jordan’s team rank #23 overall on KenPom — meaning it was vastly under-seeded based on advanced metrics — but the news of Isaac Haas’s season-ending elbow injury greatly increases the Butler’s chances of upsetting #2 Purdue. The 7’2″ center scored a ridiculous 15 points in 16 minutes in the Boilermakers’ runaway victory over the Bulldogs back in December. Without him, Sunday’s matchup may simply come down to guard play — where Butler has much friendlier matchups.

Star of the Game. Kamar Baldwin, Butler. Baldwin single-handedly put Arkansas away, scoring 11 of his 24 points over a five-minute stretch late in the second half. He also played a huge role in neutralizing Jaylen Barford (15 points) and Daryl Macon (12 points), the Razorbacks’ highly-touted guard duo.

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