Rushed Reactions: #1 North Carolina 71, #1 Gonzaga 65

Posted by rtmsf on April 4th, 2017

RTC is providing coverage from start to finish of the NCAA Tournament, including this weekend’s Final Four in Phoenix.

North Carolina Won Its Sixth National Championship Tonight (USA Today Images)

Key Takeaways.

  1. North Carolina Won the Game in the First Half. A Gonzaga fan might argue that is when the Zags lost it. Irrespective of which team is responsible for what, though, the crucial stretch of the game occurred near the end of the first half. The Zags had opened up a seven-point lead on a Josh Perkins three — his third of the half — when Tony Bradley missed a subsequent shot on the other end. An offensive rebound by Justin Jackson led to a foul on Zach Collins — his second — and that’s when the Tar Heels began to make their move. Just like against Oregon on Saturday, North Carolina closed the gap to only three points by halftime, and then bridged the intermission with a run to take a quick second half lead. By the time the 19-7 run was over, Collins had committed his third foul and the Zags seemed completely out of sorts. The game was mostly back and forth for the remainder of the half, but the prevailing sentiment was that a close game down the stretch would ultimately turn toward the Tar Heels. And that’s exactly what happened. North Carolina made a habit of closing strong in the year’s NCAA Tournament, and another late run — this time 8-0 over the last 1:53 — finished off the game and the Tar Heel’s sixth National Championship.
  2. Again, Survive. North Carolina certainly showed its moxie in repeatedly surviving and advancing throughout this year’s NCAA Tournament. First, the 12-0 run that vanquished Arkansas in the Round of 32. Survive. Next, another 12-0 run, followed by a wild Kentucky answer to tie the game but was subsequently rendered moot by Luke Maye’s Elite Eight dagger. Advance. Then there was the wild sequence of missed free throws and offensive rebounds that eliminated Oregon. Again, survive. And tonight’s whatever-that-was kind of game, which ultimately was the sort of slugfest that softer teams than these Tar Heels typically lose. After six wins, there’s no further advancement available other than to fly back to Chapel Hill and put some more hardware in an already overflowing trophy case. Survive and advance.
  3. Ugly, Ugly, Ugly. It’s unfortunate that one of the top storylines exiting a National Championship game is just how poorly both teams played. The officiating was also once again an issue, with multiple missed calls and a surplus of fouls (44) whistled, grinding the game to an ugly halt (27 in the second half). Still, much of the visual pain came from the teams’ non-championship caliber product on the floor. The Zags shot 33.9 percent from the floor; the Heels 35.6 percent; and despite all the fouling, both teams combined to leave 20 points at the free throw line. Gonzaga’s usually sure-handed offense — ranking among the top 40 nationally in turnover percentage — gave the ball away 14 times, several of which were completely unforced. Perhaps the most fitting bookends to a second half as ugly as tonight was that North Carolina both started and ended the half with a breakaway bucket coming from a Gonzaga turnover. North Carolina proved to be the better team and their fans partying on Franklin Street certainly don’t care how they got there, but it wasn’t a virtuoso performance by either team befitting a title bout.
  4. Roy Williams’ Legacy. When North Carolina gave Matt Doherty the boot in 2003 after three shaky seasons, the school’s hope was that prodigal son Roy Williams would return to Chapel Hill and rebuild the legacy of the proud program — Dean Smith’s program. It’s safe to say that the 66-year old has exceeded all expectations. With his third National Championship in the last 14 seasons, he has not only doubled the total number of titles residing in Chapel Hill, but he has also exceeded the total of his mentor and all-around deity in the Tar Heel State, Coach Smith (two). Just like his former boss, there was a time when Williams “couldn’t win the big one.” From 1989-2003, Williams’ Kansas teams were always very good — going to the Final Four on four separate occasions but failing each time to bring the hardware back to Lawrence. My, how things have certainly changed. With his third title tonight, Williams has joined a group of only five other coaches — John Wooden (10), Mike Krzyzewski (5), Adolph Rupp (4), Jim Calhoun (3), and Bobby Knight (3) — at the top of the coaching heap. Furthermore, he has the strongest resume of any coach of the last 15 years — Coach K included — and he has done so on the backs of players who are not considered talented enough to become one-and-done material. His energy and fire suggests that he’s not done yet, either.
  5. Gonzaga’s Legacy. Duke lost its first four National Championship games before finally breaking through in 1991. Georgetown lost its first two before getting it done in 1984. North Carolina’s own Dean Smith lost his first three title bouts before Michael Jordan’s jumper dropped through the net in 1982. The point here is that a number of the titans in our sport have had to wait their turns before they captured the brass ring. Gonzaga’s Mark Few is 54 years old and has given no indication that he wants to coach anywhere else. He has made the NCAA Tournament in all 18 years of his career, and there’s no reason to believe that will change anytime soon. Gonzaga will carry a heavy heart for some time over its numerous missed chances tonight, but the Zags are a powerful high-major level program that can recruit and play with anybody. It’s completely reasonable to expect that Few’s team will be back on the Monday night stage sooner than later. For this kind of program, that should be our expectation. It certainly is theirs.

Star of the Game. Joel Berry III, North Carolina. No player on either side had impressive numbers tonight, but it was the timeliness of Joel Berry III’s work on Monday night that was the difference between championship and runner-up. His 22 points and six assists were inefficient (7-of-19 FG; 4-of-13 3FG), but his four long-range bombs represented the only makes on the North Carolina side (4-of-27 3FG) during a very rough shooting night for everyone. Most importantly, three of the four came at key points of the game when his team seemed to just need something to drop through the hoop — after getting down seven points in the first half; to regain the lead after Gonzaga had recovered from its rough second half opening; and again to regain the lead when it appeared the Zags were surging with four minutes remaining. As the junior point guard shared afterward: “Some of them were short, but the ones that we needed went in.”

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Rushed Reactions: #1 North Carolina 77, #3 Oregon 76

Posted by rtmsf on April 1st, 2017

RTC is providing coverage from start to finish of the NCAA Tournament, including this weekend’s Final Four in Phoenix.

North Carolina Advances to Its Second Straight National Championship Game (USA Today Images)

Key Takeaways.

  1. North Carolina Survived, Part I. With a little more than four minutes remaining in the first half, Oregon hit a three-pointer to go up by eight points. North Carolina’s offense to that point was sputtering with a shooting percentage in the high 20-percent range, and nobody other than Kennedy Meeks seemed to be able to find the range. From that point over the next eight game minutes spanning the halftime break, North Carolina went on a 26-8 run to take the lead and never relinquished it. The feeling around the building was that the Tar Heels — which has more offensive options on its roster — had dodged a bullet. Oregon stars Dillon Brooks and Tyler Dorsey were a combined 2-of-11 from the field for just 10 points, and although several other players (most notably, Dylan Ennis) had stepped up, it was clear that the Ducks had wasted a golden opportunity. Once the Tar Heels’ offensive machine got rolling on the back of Justin Jackson along with Meeks, Oregon was in big trouble.
  2. North Carolina Survived, Part II. Until it wasn’t in big trouble. After spending most of the second half nurturing a working lead in the 5- to 10-point range, the Ducks kept chipping away at it until the Tar Heels finally relented. A late Oregon run — punctuated by perplexingly awful decision-making on both ends — cut the North Carolina lead to a single point with seven seconds remaining, setting in motion a seemingly impossible finish. Two missed free throws by Kennedy Meeks led to an offensive tip-out and the Tar Heels retaining possession, followed by another foul and two more missed free throws from Joel Berry, an offensive rebound by Meeks, and the Tar Heels again retaining possession. With four seconds remaining, there was more than enough time for Oregon to make a push up the court and find a decent shot, but that idea was quashed by North Carolina’s relentlessness on the glass. After the Heels had gifted the Ducks two incredible opportunities to win, it seemed a fitting way to end a game that had gotten very ugly down the stretch. Survive and advance comes in many different forms, but four missed fouls shots followed by consecutive offensive rebounds was a first.
  3. Oregon Needed a Productive Dillon Brooks and Tyler Dorsey. The Ducks were only going to go as far as their two offensive stars took them in this NCAA Tournament, and both Brooks and Dorsey were clearly bothered by the North Carolina defense tonight. In a contest where few outside shots were falling, the Heels forced the pair into a 5-of-22 disaster (3-of-10 from three-point range) that caused the Ducks too many empty offensive possessions. Compare that with the 9-of-18 from three-point range the pair hit against Kansas, and it’s easy to see why Oregon spent most of tonight playing from behind. Excellent efforts by Ennis (18 points) and Bell (13 points) kept the Ducks within range, but North Carolina was simply too good to force the Oregon stars into a tough night and not take advantage. The Tar Heels are moving on because they were able to contain these guys.

Star of the Game. Kennedy Meeks, North Carolina. Meeks went into Beast Mode tonight against an Oregon front line that basically consisted of Jordan Bell and the aura surrounding him. His 14 points and five rebounds in the first half kept the Tar Heels afloat while awaiting the arrival of Justin Jackson (who finished with 22 points), and it seemed as if he was in the right spot at the right time every time Oregon appeared to be making a push. Perhaps this was illustrated no better than in the final sequence when, after missing a pair of his own free throws, he secured the game-winning offensive rebound after Berry’s misses, unloading the ball quickly into the backcourt before Oregon could foul yet again. His 25 points and 14 rebounds were both team-high totals, and it’s an accurate statement to say that Oregon would have won tonight if not for Meeks’ contributions.

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Rushed Reactions: #1 Gonzaga 77, #7 South Carolina 73

Posted by rtmsf on April 1st, 2017

RTC is providing coverage from start to finish of the NCAA Tournament, including this weekend’s Final Four in Phoenix.

Gonzaga Advances to Its First National Championship Game in History (USA Today Images)

Key Takeaways.

  1. Balance, Balance, Balance. There are many good reasons why Gonzaga is now sitting at 37-1 and heading to the National Championship game on Monday night, but one of the best is because of its offensive balance. Nigel Williams-Goss is the proverbial star, but he is truthfully only one of roughly six players who can take the reins for large swaths of a game. The stat sheet shows that four Zags finished tonight’s game in double figures — led by Williams-Goss’ 23 points, five rebounds and six assists — but he, Przemek Karnowski (13 points, five rebounds), Jordan Mathews (12 points on four three-pointers), Zach Collins (14 points, 13 rebounds, six blocks) and even Silas Melson (six points on two three-pointers) all had their moments carrying the team. For the game, the Zags consistently got to their spots against the nation’s second-best defense, shooting 48.3 percent from the field and nearly the same (47.4%) from beyond the arc. In the late second half, Gonzaga was definitely in “hold on” mode as South Carolina made its charge, but for the majority of the game, Mark Few’s preparation and coaching ensured that they would find excellent shots. Despite a gutty 16-0 run by the Gamecocks to create all kinds of pressure, they made just enough to advance.
  2. Get to Know Zach Collins, America. There’s a reason that the seven-footer has been on NBA Draft boards all season long despite the freshman’s limited usage (43% of available minutes). Seeing a significant opportunity against South Carolina’s undersized frontcourt, Mark Few directed his team to pound the ball inside early and often. With Collins and Przemek Karnowski repeatedly frustrating the Gamecocks’ interior defense with post moves and kickouts to open shooters, the Zags were able to build a large lead that turned out to be just enough to hold on. Collins has an advanced post game for his age and his six rejections shows that he’s certainly no slouch on the other end of the floor either. With a showing like this, expect the freshman to become the first one-and-done player in Gonzaga history.
  3. Frank Martin’s Postgame Press Conference. Normally we leave it to the Quotable section below to describe the key moments from the postgame press conference. Not tonight. During Frank Martin’s time on the dais, he was asked a question by a reporter about how impactful his team’s run had been to the youngsters watching back in the Palmetto State. Martin immediately went quiet, not saying a single word for a long 10 to 15 seconds. You could hear a pin drop in that room as the normally stoic head coach was clearly moved to tears. When he finally spoke, all eyes were on him. He spoke like a proud but hurt father speaking about his children — a poignant and revealing moment for a man who loves his players that way, but has had a reputation for fire and brimstone throughout his career.

Star of the Game. Zach Collins, Gonzaga. Collins made a comment earlier in the day that he wouldn’t want to be playing himself tonight, and he was certainly prescient in his observation. His 14 points, 13 rebounds and six blocks were felt all over the floor tonight, and it’s unlikely that Gonzaga would still be playing if not for his outstanding effort.

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Final Four Fact Sheet: Gonzaga Bulldogs

Posted by Bennet Hayes on March 30th, 2017

Now that we’re down to the Final Four, let’s take a deep dive into each of the four remaining teams. Today: Gonzaga.

How Gonzaga Got Here

Gonzaga’s maiden voyage to the Final Four was worth the wait (Photo: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports)

West Region Champions. Gonzaga’s road to the program’s first ever Final Four wasn’t especially treacherous, at least as Final Four roads tend to go. Both South Dakota State and Northwestern competed with the Zags for a half, but neither team was built for sustained postseason success. Gonzaga’s most impressive win was surely its Sweet Sixteen triumph over a fourth-seeded West Virginia team good enough to be a #2 seed, as the Bulldogs monopolized key plays down the stretch to escape the Mountaineers. Finally — and with no disrespect to Xavier’s inspired run to the Elite Eight — Gonzaga was handed as easy a regional final match-up as possible, taking care of the 11th-seeded Musketeers in short order. All this isn’t to say Gonzaga’s Final Four appearance is undeserved or not historic – when the best team in the country earns the program’s first appearance in the National Semifinals, it is surely both – but it is also worth noting the relative ease of the Zags’ arrival.

The Coach

Mark Few. Monkey. Off. The. Back. Few can deny the importance of this Final Four appearance all he wants, but if nothing else, he will value it for its ability to remove Final Four drought-related questions from the media’s playbook. If Xavier had beaten the Bulldogs on Saturday, Gonzaga would still be one of the premier programs in America, and Few one of the sport’s greatest coaches. However, a dose of validation is good for anyone every once in a while, and Few now has an amazing opportunity to join an even more exclusive coaching fraternity: National Champions.

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Final Four Fact Sheet: North Carolina Tar Heels

Posted by Bennet Hayes on March 29th, 2017

Now that we’re down to the Final Four, let’s take a deep dive into each of the four remaining teams. Today: North Carolina.

How North Carolina Got Here

North Carolina is back in the Final Four (Photo: Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports)

South Region Champions. This North Carolina run to the Final Four was equal parts exceedingly easy and excruciatingly difficult. The Tar Heels posted the largest margin of victory in the opening round against Texas Southern, but needed to overcome a five-point deficit in the final three minutes to escape Arkansas just two days later. The Sweet 16 brought a return to relaxation for Heels fans, as UNC exploded out of the gate en route to an “it-wasn’t-even-that-close” 12-point win over Butler. The final step was the hardest, however, as familiar Elite Eight foe Kentucky played the Heels even for 39 minutes and 59.7 seconds. Those finals tenths of a second are now history, of course, as Luke Maye propelled Carolina to another Final Four with his dramatic game-winner.

The Coach

Roy Williams. The UNC head man owns all eight of the career Final Four appearances (prior to this one) among the quartet of coaches still alive. He also earned a rare bit of praise for his timeout-avoidant tendencies last weekend, as it was Roy’s reticence to stop his offense that allowed Carolina to race down the court and beat an unsettled Kentucky defense for Maye’s game-winner. Few, Altman, and Martin have all been around and are respected coaches, but Williams’ experience sets him apart from his peers on the opposing sidelines in this Final Four. Whether or not it proves decisive is anyone’s guess, but Carolina fans should feel comfortable in the knowledge that Williams knows both his team and this stage better than anyone.

Style

The speed and efficiency of Carolina’s offense is well known as a Tar Heel strength, and deservedly so. UNC ranks 6th nationally in overall offensive efficiency, leads the country in offensive rebounding percentage, and has no problem playing fast, finishing possessions in an average of 15.4 seconds (22nd quickest in the country). The balanced Tar Heel offense is headlined by AP All-American Justin Jackson (18.2 PPG, UNC-record 99 3PM), but fellow upperclassmen Joel Berry II, Kennedy Meeks, and Isaiah Hicks all join Jackson in averaging double-figure points per game. It’s an explosive offense, surely, but UNC’s success has been predicated off work on both ends of the floor. Amazingly, Williams’ bunch has been able to slow opponents down even while playing offense at a breakneck speed: Carolina foes average 17.8 seconds per possession, good for 272nd slowest in the nation. The underrated Tar Heel defense was on display in the South regional final against Kentucky, as Jackson and company harassed Malik Monk and De’Aaron Fox into a combined 9-23 shooting from the field. A similar assignment will await in Phoenix, as Dillon Brooks and Tyler Dorsey are likely to draw the bulk of the Carolina defensive attention. On paper, there’s no reason why Carolina, the 17th most efficient defensive team in the nation (one slot above Oregon), won’t be up to the challenge.

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Final Four Fact Sheet: South Carolina Gamecocks

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 28th, 2017

Now that we’re down to the Final Four, let’s take a deep dive into each of the four remaining teams. Today: South Carolina.

How South Carolina Got Here

South Carolina is headed to its first Final Four ever. (Photo Credit: Elsa/Getty Images)

East Region Champions. Despite entering Selection Sunday having lost six of its previous 10 games, South Carolina was given a surprisingly-high seed (#7) in a surprisingly-favorable location: Greenville, South Carolina. The Gamecocks took full advantage, crushing #10 seed Marquette before pulling off one of the biggest upsets of the NCAA Tournament against #2 Duke, scoring 65 points in the second half en route to an 88-81 runaway victory against the National Championship favorite. In its first Sweet Sixteen since appearance since 1973, South Carolina then held #3 Baylor to a season-low 0.76 points per possession; two days later, the Gamecocks put the finishing touches on their Cinderella run by upending SEC rival #4 Florida, limiting the Gators to 0-of-14 three-pointers in the second half on their way to a seven-point triumph.

The Coach

Frank Martin. In just five short years, Martin — a former nightclub bouncer and perhaps the scariest man in college basketball — has lifted a program from the depths of irrelevance to its first Final Four in school history. And he’s done it with the same hard-nosed, defensive-minded coaching style that made him successful in his first Division I coaching stint at Kansas State (2007-12). The former Bob Huggins assistant has clear stylistic similarities to his mentor, employing an aggressive, relentless brand of basketball intent on wearing down opponents mentally and physically. In eight of his 10 years as a college head coach, Martin’s teams have ranked among the top 40 nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency. The Miami native spent 15 years coaching high school basketball in his hometown before joining Northeastern as an assistant in 2000, so his decision to take the South Carolina job in 2012 — a program with only three Sweet Sixteen appearances in its long history — was not overly surprising. Martin knows how to be patient. After missing the NCAA Tournament in his first four seasons, that patience is finally paying off.

Style

For South Carolina, success starts on the defensive end. The Gamecocks rank second nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, fourth in defensive turnover rate, 12th in effective field goal percentage defense, and perhaps second to only West Virginia — Huggins’ group — in sheer physicality. Led by a pair of elite defenders in 6’5” Sindarius Thornwell and 6’6” PJ Dozier, South Carolina presses and traps all over the court, making it difficult for opposing ball-handlers to cross the timeline, much less comfortably run offensive sets. In the half-court, the Gamecocks aggressively extend on shooters, preferring to commit fouls over allowing open shots from the perimeter. Their length and knack for swarming to the ball (often employing a half-court trap) makes clean interior looks nearly as difficult, especially with 6’9” Chris Silva — a good per minute shot-blocker — manning the paint. They simply deny everything. Offensively, aggression remains the name of the game: South Carolina scores a whopping 23 percent of its points from the free throw line and another 50 percent from inside the arc, attack the basket at will, often off of turnovers. Having big, physical guard/forwards like Thornwell and Dozier helps.

Strengths

Sindarius Thornwell has been Superman for the Gamecocks this season. (Getty Images)

  • Limiting three-pointers. South Carolina does an exceptional job of taking away perimeter jumpers, allowing opponents to score just 25.6 percent of their points from behind the arc. The Gamecock guards relentlessly press up on shooters, sometimes resulting in fouls, but often resulting in forced jumpers or haphazard drives late in the shot clock. Really, the same reason opponents have such a difficult time shooting three-pointers is the same reason South Carolina forces turnovers at a higher rate than all but three other teams in the country: opposing guards simply can’t breathe once they cross half-court.
  • Attacking the basket. Thornwell is in a class of his own when it comes to attacking the rim. The senior ranks 13th nationally in fouls drawn per 40 minutes, a testament to his bullish aggressiveness in the lane and willingness to push the ball as far and as fast as back-peddling defenders will allow. When South Carolina forces turnovers (which is often) he and his teammates waste no time getting downcourt—the Gamecocks average just 16.6 seconds per offensive possession. They also pound the offensive glass, cleaning up misses at the third-highest rate among SEC teams. Between free throws, offensive rebounds, and plain strong drives to the hoop, South Carolina is able to sustain itself offensively despite its poor shooting numbers.
  • Endurance. According to this account, South Carolina full-court presses during the majority of practices and often plays five-on-seven (advantage to the offense) in order to whip its dogged defense into shape. That grueling work ethic clearly pays off on game day. The Gamecocks are +54 in the second half during the NCAA Tournament, wearing down opposing offenses to such a degree that their offense — which, again, thrives on attacking the rim — can flourish. South Carolina’s second-half blitzes against Duke, Marquette, and Florida are shining examples. Conditioning, both mental and physical, seems to matter.

Weaknesses

  • Shooting. At 47.4 percent eFG, South Carolina ranks 299th nationally in effective field goal percentage. That’s not good. Outside of Thornwell (39.4% 3FG), there really aren’t any serious outside shooting threats on the roster. Guard Duane Notice (10.2 PPG) is capable of getting hot, but he’s also very streaky. Dozier (13.8 PPG) takes a lot of shots, but he’s usually not all that efficient. If Thornwell is off and Silva isn’t going to work inside, the Gamecocks can become very stagnant very fast.
  • Foul trouble. That aggressive defense has one glaring downside: free throws and foul trouble. Not only do South Carolina’s opponents score almost 27 percent of their points from the charity stripe, but several crucial Gamecock players — most notably Silva —are often forced to take a seat early. The 6’9” forward has fouled out 10 times this season, seven of which South Carolina lost. Dozier, another superb defender, also runs into similar trouble from time to time. Against talented offenses like Gonzaga, North Carolina and Oregon, free points and foul trouble could become an issue.
  • One-dimensionality. It may be oversimplifying things to say that South Carolina’s success boils down merely to defense and Sindarius Thornwell, but it’s not that far from the truth. Fact is, the Gamecocks must continue dominating on defense, and the senior sensation must continue to playing at a high-level offensively in order for Martin’s team to have a chance in Phoenix. If one of those two elements slips — say, the defense sputters like it did against Arkansas in Feburary, or Thornwell struggles like he did against Alabama in the SEC Tournament — it’s hard to envision South Carolina recovering.

Go-To Scorer

For South Carolina to succeed in Phoenix, PJ Dozier must keep performing offensively. (fansided.com)

Sindarius Thornwell (21.6 PPG, 7.2 RPG, 2.2 SPG). Before Duke’s Round of 32 loss to South Carolina, Mike Krzyzewski called Thornwell “the best, unheralded, great player in the United States.” And even that might be an understatement. The 6’5” in-state product is averaging nearly 26 points per game during NCAA Tournament play, showcasing his relentless aggression (he’s already attempted 39 free throws), shooting ability (42% 3FG over four games), and superb defensive skills. He’s also an outstanding offensive rebounder, once ripping down 10 offensive boards en route to a ridiculous 44-point, 21-rebound stat line against Alabama on February 7. Among players who have attempted 250+ free throws this season, only a handful of players boast a higher free throw percentage than the senior (83% FT). Thornwell also led the SEC in steal percentage during the regular season. There’s a reason he was the coaches’ choice for Conference Player of the Year (not to mention 7th in KenPom National Player of the Year rankings)—Thornwell is great.

X-Factor

PJ Dozier (13.8 PPG, 4.7 RPG). For better or worse, the talented sophomore takes a staggering 31 percent of his team’s shots while on the floor, which is roughly 70 percent of the time. That shot rate is higher than Thornwell’s (28.7%). When he shoots 50 percent or better from the field, South Carolina is 11-0; when he shoots under 40 percent, Martin’s team is 10-6. That seem like “picking and choosing” statistics, but it’s hard to deny that the Gamecocks’ offense is markedly better when Dozier is efficient. Silva, and bench production from players like forward Maik Kotsar (12 points vs. Florida), will also be key.

Outlook

When are we going to learn? South Carolina has entered each of its last three games as the underdog, yet won each contest by an average 11.3 points. It hadn’t scored over 1.1 points per possession since February 15 prior to Selection Sunday; in the four games since, Martin’s group has surpassed that mark three times. Tough, confident, and afraid of nobody, the Gamecocks now face their most difficult opponent yet: a Gonzaga team that boasts the nation’s most efficient defense with nearly an offense to match. Still, count South Carolina out at your own risk.

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Final Four Fact Sheet: Oregon Ducks

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 27th, 2017

Now that we’re down to the Final Four, let’s take a deep dive into each of the four remaining teams. Today: Oregon.

How Oregon Got Here

Oregon hopes to continue riding high in Phoenix (Getty Images).

Midwest Region Champions. After receiving a lower-than-expected #3 seed on Selection Sunday, Oregon rolled past #13 Iona 83-67 in its NCAA Tournament opener. Two nights later, it required a pair of clutch Tyler Dorsey three-pointers for the Ducks to survive #11 Rhode Island, which led by as many as 10 points in the second half. Oregon’s late-game execution continued against #7 Michigan in the Sweet Sixteen, where it held the Wolverines scoreless over the game’s final two minutes en route to a 69-68 victory. Finally, despite facing #1 Kansas in Kansas City on Saturday—a road game by almost any standard—the Ducks drilled 11 three-pointers, held the Jayhawks to their worst offensive output of the season (0.94 points per possession), and advanced to their first Final Four since 1939.

The Coach

Dana Altman. The 58-year-old Nebraska native has quietly had one of the most successful careers among active Division I basketball coaches — a career now punctuated by his first Final Four appearance. Altman ranks 10th on the all-time wins list among working head men (597 wins), joining Jim Boeheim, Mike Krzyzewski, Roy Williams, Bill Self and Tom Izzo as the only active coaches with 20+ consecutive winning seasons. After spending 16 years at Creighton (and becoming the Bluejays’ all-time winningest coach in the process), Altman has turned an inconsistent Oregon program into a perennial threat to win the Pac-12. Prior to his arrival, the Ducks had reached the Sweet Sixteen three times in program history, and won 30+ games only once; since Altman took the job in 2011, Oregon has doubled that number of Sweet Sixteen appearances and won 30+ games twice. He may well be a future Hall of Famer.

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Rushed Reactions: #1 North Carolina 75, #2 Kentucky 73

Posted by Bennet Hayes on March 26th, 2017

RTC is providing coverage from start to finish of the NCAA Tournament for the next three weeks.

Luke Maye capped a phenomenal individual weekend with one of the biggest shots of this, or any, NCAA Tournament (Photo: Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports)

Key Takeaways.

  1. First half foul trouble and questionable officiating. Kentucky clawed its way back into this game in the second half, but early foul trouble and a tough first half whistle greatly imperiled the Wildcats’ bid to advance to another Final Four. De’Aaron Fox watched 75 percent of the first half from the sideline after picking up two early fouls, and backcourt mate Malik Monk joined him there later in the half after also picking up his second foul. There were also a number of questionable first half calls that seemed to go North Carolina’s way every time, including a Bam Adebayo tip-in that was ruled offensive goaltending. North Carolina emerges as a deserving victor, but Kentucky wasn’t helped at all by the first half whistle.
  2. Where was the offense? After the Tar Heels and Wildcats combined for 203 total regulation points in December, there was going to be an offensive come-down. However, few could have expected the drop-off in combined offensive efficiency to be so severe. The two teams combined to shoot just 44 percent from the floor, 29 percent from three-point range, and 67 percent from the free throw line. We have seen far uglier offensive games in this NCAA Tournament, for certain, but the early season wizardry in Las Vegas delivered by these teams allowed us to dream of a more explosive, uptempo battle than what played out.
  3. Justin Jackson and Malik Monk duel. The individual match-up between Monk and Justin Jackson was much discussed before action tipped, and with good reason. These two stars combined for 81 points in the first game, and each player has repeatedly showed the ability to single-handedly take over games. No such dominance was on display today, however, as Jackson harassed Monk into a quiet 12-point afternoon. The UNC star wasn’t at his best today, but his two-way effort (he had 19 points on the other end) gave him the edge in this decisive matchup.

Star of the Game. Luke Maye, North Carolina. Maye posted an unlikely but casual double-double on Friday (16 points, 12 rebounds), yet saved plenty of energy for a memorable encore. He made six of his nine field goal attempts en route to a 17-point night, including the game-winning jumper just before the final horn that won’t soon be forgotten by North Carolina fans. Maye played with swagger and energy all afternoon, and ultimately it was his contributions that pushed the Tar Heels into next weekend’s Final Four in Glendale.

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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: #3 Oregon 74, #1 Kansas 60

Posted by Brian Goodman on March 25th, 2017

RTC will be providing coverage of the NCAA Tournament from start to finish. Brian Goodman (@BSGoodman) is in Kansas City this weekend.

Oregon Shocked Kansas in Kansas City Tonight to Advance to the Final Four (USA Today Images)

Three Key Takeaways.

  1. Oregon rides explosive first half and timely second half shots to Glendale. The Ducks made every kind of shot you could think of in the early going, but unlike Purdue in its hot start against Kansas on Thursday night, Oregon was able to make it stick. The Ducks then proceeded to pour it on the Jayhawks to the tune of 1.42 points per possession in the first half, topped off by a Tyler Dorsey three-pointer from beyond NBA range just before the buzzer sounded. Though the offense regressed in the second half when the Ducks worked on killing the clock, they made shots seemingly every time Kansas appeared to go on a run.
  2. Jordan Bell stops Kansas silent at the rim. The Ducks’ hyper-athletic forward controlled the paint on defense, blocking eight shots and altering several more in addition to pulling down 13 rebounds. Bell’s presence inside was so intimidating that Kansas seemed to either think twice before attacking the lane or made costly mistakes whenever they got close to the bucket. The Jayhawks shot an uncharacteristic 8-of-17 on layups and were significantly influenced by the work inside of the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year.
  3. Frank Mason gets little from his supporting cast. The leading candidate for National Player of the Year came to play tonight (21 points, four rebounds, four assists), but his teammates came well short of expectations — especially considering their performance to this point and the location in a familiar environment. Josh Jackson picked up two early fouls and didn’t crack the box score until midway through the second half. Devonte’ Graham was similarly quiet after coming into Saturday’s game on an absolute tear, and frontcourt stalwart Landen Lucas was outrebounded by every Oregon starter save for point guard Dylan Ennis. The Jayhawks had their share of looks from long range in the second half, but went just 1-of-15 from deep after halftime, sending Kansas home earlier than the Jayhawks had planned.

Star Of The Game. Tyler Dorsey (27 points, 9-of-13 FG, 6-of-10 3FG). There’s a very good argument for Bell in this space, but Dorsey’s shot-making and the confidence he inspired lifted Oregon in the closest thing this NCAA Tournament had to a true road game. He gets extra points here for his execution in the second half, as he became the go-to guy whenever Kansas started to get the crowd involved.

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