NCAA Regional Reset: West Region

Posted by Bennet Hayes on March 21st, 2017

Rush the Court is providing comprehensive coverage of the NCAA Tournament from start to finish over the next three weeks.

New Favorite: #1 Gonzaga (34-1). If the Zags were the West region favorite before play started last Thursday, there’s no reason they shouldn’t continue to maintain that status. Sure, there were slow points in each of Gonzaga’s two victories over the weekend — namely, the first half against South Dakota State and the second half versus Northwestern – but Mark Few‘s team ultimately emerged from each unscathed. With West Virginia and possibly Arizona awaiting in San Jose, the road stiffens from here, but there’s no reason Gonzaga shouldn’t still feel like the front-runner.

Gonzaga is two wins away from the program’s first ever Final Four appearance (Photo: Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports)

Horse of Darkness: #4 West Virginia (28-8). The Mountaineers enter the Sweet Sixteen as a scary team. Depth and pressure — two West Virginia hallmarks — carried it through early round victories over #13 Bucknell (86-80) and #5 Notre Dame (83-71). Now those strengths will be relied upon to harass #1 Gonzaga into an uncharacteristically turnover-heavy game. The Zags rank 26th in the country in lowest turnover percentage, but Notre Dame also led the nation in that category before the Irish turned the ball over on 21 percent of their possessions against Press Virginia (seven percent higher than their season average). Gonzaga is also just an average offensive rebounding team, which limits its ability to take advantage of West Virginia’s biggest weaknesses — collecting defensive rebounds behind the press. The match-up is solid, the team is capable, and Bob Huggins is on the bench — in sum, the Mountaineers have a chance to surprise in San Jose.

Biggest Surprise (First Weekend): #11 Xavier (23-13). Less than three weeks ago, Xavier was a sub-.500 Big East team that had lost six straight games. Its star point guard was lost for the season and hopes of another NCAA Tournament appearance flickered with each outing. Now, on March 21, the Musketeers are fresh off a 25-point Second Round rout of Florida State and is back in the Sweet Sixteen. Xavier is a fantastic piece of proof that things can change quickly in March, but the verdict on this Musketeers’ season won’t be altered negatively from here on out: A remarkable turnaround last weekend saved a season.

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NCAA Regional Reset: South Region

Posted by Bennet Hayes on March 21st, 2017

Rush the Court is providing comprehensive coverage of the NCAA Tournament from start to finish over the next three weeks.

New Favorite: #1 North Carolina (29-7). The Tar Heels might have actually had the most unimpressive opening weekend of the four teams remaining in the South, as they needed a kind late whistle to escape #8 Arkansas on Sunday. However, the region’s #1 seed retains its status as a Final Four favorite in large part because of the draw. Butler posted a pair of workmanlike victories in dispatching #13 Winthrop and #12 Middle Tennessee State last weekend, but the Bulldogs’ road to Memphis was far simpler than that of fellow semifinalists UCLA and Kentucky. Second round wins over Cincinnati and Wichita State, respectively, are impressive notches — victories that confirm both the Bruins’ and Wildcats’ status as National Title contenders. Because Butler is simply not that, North Carolina becomes the only team in a balanced region to not need two victories over elite foes in Memphis, which gives the Heels the inside track to Phoenix.

Joel Berry and the Tar Heels are still the team to beat in a balanced region.(Photo: Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports)

Horse of Darkness: #4 Butler (25-8). As noted above, Butler is the only team in the Memphis region that doesn’t qualify as a true contender. That’s no knock on the Bulldogs — a group that put together a nice season and a pair of quality first weekend performances — but there is an obvious drop-off when it comes to program prestige and overall talent against the three blue-bloods in this regional. However, that does not mean Kelan Martin (19 points, six rebounds and four assists in the win over MTSU) and his Bulldogs aren’t capable of winning two games in Memphis. Successfully slowing tempo against the frenetic Tar Heels will be a key to that process.

Biggest Surprise (First Weekend): #8 Arkansas (26-10). The Razorbacks’ season may be over, but in this surprise-less region, their near-upset of #1 North Carolina qualifies as the most sizable surprise of the first weekend. According to KenPom, Arkansas held a 75 percent chance of winning that game with three and a half minutes remaining – a feat few expected before the opening tip. Of course, the Razorbacks proved unable to hold on, but when all four top seeds advance to the regional semifinals, it’s hard to find too many true surprises. More on that below.

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NCAA Regional Reset: East Region

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 20th, 2017

Rush the Court is providing comprehensive coverage of the NCAA Tournament from start to finish over the next three weeks.

New Favorite: #4 Florida (26-8). Florida’s 65-39 drubbing of #5 Virginia on Saturday should put the rest of the remaining field on notice— the Gators are really, really difficult to score against. Mike White’s aggressive group held to Cavaliers to a paltry 0.65 points per possession, limiting its ACC foe to just 1-of-15 shooting from behind the arc and preventing any Virginia player from reaching double figures. Wisconsin, which is somewhat similar to Virginia stylistically, could be in for a rude awakening on Friday night. 6’8” swingman Devin Robinson, a supremely gifted athlete, is playing some of his best basketball of the season (19.0 PPG in the NCAA Tournament), and only West Virginia and North Carolina possess more depth than Florida of the teams remaining. Now ranked third nationally by KenPom, the Gators are as good a threat as any to win the National Championship.

Florida’ Defense Dominated Virginia This Weekend (USA Today Images)

Horse of Darkness: #8 Wisconsin (27-9). Despite being underseeded, Wisconsin outlasted Virginia Tech in the First Round before knocking off the reigning National Champion in the Round of 32. Saturday’s unexpected, high-drama victory over Villanova highlighted the Badgers’ strengths — patience, veteran leadership, stingy defense — and firmly establishes them as a threat in the East Region. Greg Gard’s club, now in its fourth straight Sweet Sixteen, will again enter Friday’s match-up with #4 Florida as an underdog. With a pair of seniors (Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes) and a First Team All-Big Ten forward (Ethan Happ) leading the way, bet against the dark horse Badgers at your own risk.

Biggest Surprise (First Weekend): #7 South Carolina (24-10). #11 USC shocked #6 SMU and #8 Wisconsin upended the reigning National Champion — both huge surprises in their own right. But it was the other USC — #7 South Carolina — that pulled off the biggest stunner in the East, and perhaps the entire Big Dance. #2 Duke entered the Thursday as the betting favorite win the NCAA Tournament, a testament to both its supreme talent and undeniable momentum heading into the event (the Blue Devils had just won the ACC Tournament). The Gamecocks, meanwhile, entered Friday having lost six of its previous nine games, including an 11-point stinker against Alabama in the SEC Tournament quarterfinals. And yet, Frank Martin’s defensive-minded group pounded Duke in the second half on Sunday night, scoring 65 points in the final 20 minutes and knocking off the Blue Devils in front of a home-state crowd filled with South Carolina fans and North Carolina fans (otherwise known as Duke haters) alike. Few people saw this coming.

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NCAA Regional Reset: Midwest Region

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 20th, 2017

Rush the Court is providing comprehensive coverage of the NCAA Tournament from start to finish over the next three weeks.

New Favorite: #1 Kansas (30-4). Despite receiving a 30-minute test from #9 Michigan State on Sunday, Kansas remains the favorite to win the Midwest Region. The Jayhawks smashed #16 UC Davis 100-62 before dominating the last 10 minutes against the Spartans in the Round of 32 — a hard-fought victory that should prepare them well for an even stronger Big Ten opponent, #4 Purdue, on Thursday. If you buy into advanced metrics, this appears to be a fairly even matchup: Kansas ranks seventh in KenPom, while the Boilermakers rank 13th. Unfortunately for Matt Painter’s group, the game will be played in Kansas City, where a sea of Jayhawk faithful is sure to outnumber Purdue fans several fold. Assuming Kansas prevails, it will be a similar story against #3 Oregon or #7 Michigan. Beating Kansas is one thing, but beating Kansas in a semi-road game is something entirely different.

Kansas Rolls Into KC as the Clear Midwest Region Favorite (USA Today Images)

Horse of Darkness: #7 Michigan (26-11). The Wolverines have not lost since that epic defeat at Northwestern on March 1, a nearly three-week stretch which has included a near-plane crash, a Big Ten Tournament championship, and a pair of gutsy NCAA Tournament victories over Oklahoma State and Louisville. Michigan now boasts the third-most efficient offense in college basketball, thanks in large part to blistering performances like the one Moritz Wagner (26 points on 11-of-14 FT) put on against the Cardinals on Sunday. If John Beilein’s group can get past shorthanded Oregon on Thursday, there’s no reason to think it can’t win this region. Heck, the Wolverines have already beaten Purdue twice since February 25, and the last time they played Kansas in the Big Dance, this happened. Look out.

Biggest Surprise (First Weekend): #11 Rhode Island (25-10). Rhode Island entered the NCAA Tournament on an eight-game winning streak, so its victory over #6 Creighton in the Round of 64 was not that surprising. The fashion in which it whipped the Bluejays, though — winning by 14 points and trailing for exactly zero seconds in game time — was quite unexpected. So too was the Rams’ effort against #3 Oregon on Sunday night, a game in which they led by double-figures in the second half before falling victim to a cold-blooded Tyler Dorsey three-pointer in the closing seconds. For a program that had not gone dancing since 1999, Rhode Island was certainly ready for prime time.

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Rushed Reactions: #7 South Carolina 88, #2 Duke 81 (CN)

Posted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on March 19th, 2017

RTC will be providing coverage of the NCAA Tournament from start to finish. Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) is in Greenville this weekend.

Celebrate Rakym Felder, you and your teammates just made school history. (Getty)

Three Key Takeaways.

  1. After a terrible offensive performance in the first half, South Carolina had another second half explosion. It was a repeat of Friday’s win over Marquette when it scored 54 second half points. Despite holding Duke to 30 points in 33 first half possessions, the Gamecocks were still down seven at the break because they shot 20 percent from the floor. But the change of baskets after intermission did wonders for the South Carolina aim. They connected on 20 of their 28 shots in the second stanza for 71.4 percent shooting. Additionally, the Gamecocks were great at the foul line–icing the game away by making 21-of-23 from the stripe in the second half. South Carolina put up 65 points after intermission in a complete turnaround that propelled the Gamecocks to victory.
  2. Overall, South Carolina did a great job containing Duke’s explosive offense. The Blue Devils looked rattled for much of the first half, committing 13 turnovers. About midway through the opening stanza Frank Martin went to a zone, which stood up the Duke offense and forced many of those miscues. It was more of the same after the break. For the game, South Carolina forced Duke into 18 turnovers and 41.5 percent field goal shooting. The result: South Carolina held one of the nation’s best offenses to 1.07 points per possession and the preseason #1 ranked Blue Devils end the year in disappointing fashion.
  3. Sindarius Thornwell is a bona fide stud. Earlier in the week, Mike Krzyzewski called him one of the nation’s least known great players. Maybe America will know who he is now as the senior forward displayed his versatility on both ends of the floor. He finished with a game-high 24 points, six rebounds and five assists. Thornwell, a member of the SEC All-Defensive Team, also deserves praise for his work against Duke’s star Luke Kennard. He was a primary reason that Kennard finished with just 11 points on 1-of-6 shooting from the field. And there’s no question that his play raises the level of his teammates’ confidence as well.

Player of the Game. Sindarius Thornwell. See Above! Read the rest of this entry »

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Rushed Reactions: #3 UCLA 79, #6 Cincinnati 67

Posted by rtmsf on March 19th, 2017

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

UCLA Soars Into the Sweet Sixteen (USA Today Images)

Key Takeaways.

  1. UCLA Plays Its Game. As written in Friday night’s Rushed Reactions after UCLA had dispatched Kent State, the Bruins will go as far as their supernaturally-good offense takes them. Many pundits before the NCAA Tournament and leading into tonight’s game with Cincinnati suggested that the Bearcats’ grinding, defense-first style would ultimately frustrate UCLA into a bunch of bad shots and an early loss. Didn’t happen. It says here that a team’s best bet to beat Steve Alford’s team is simply hoping that UCLA’s shots are off and finding a way to outscore them. The nation’s 11th-best defense coming into tonight’s game gave up a 63.3 percent second half that included 7-of-14 from three as the Bruins took control and ultimately ran away with the game.
  2. The Diversity of Options Makes Runs Impossible to Fully Contain. It’s basically pick your poison. UCLA clearly came into the game thinking that it had the interior size advantage and sought to punish the smaller Cincinnati front line with Thomas Welsh and TJ Leaf. Neither guy is a very comfortable post-up player, however, which allowed for a series of empty possessions for Cincinnati to stick around. But eventually the Bruins’ shooters — Bryce Alford (3-of-7 3FG in the second half), Lonzo Ball (3-of-4) and Isaac Hamilton (1-of-2) — found the range and opened up opportunities for Welsh and Leaf driving to the basket. The pair converted four dunks in the second half alone. Pick your poison.
  3.  Cincinnati Needed Troy Caupain. Given that the Bearcats were going to have to out-offense UCLA in order to win this game, they needed a monster day from Troy Caupain. And when he nailed an early three it appeared that he might be ready to continue his stellar play from Friday against Kansas State He didn’t hit another three-pointer for the rest of the game, going 1-of-8 from distance, and finally settling on a line of nine points on 3-of-11 shooting, five rebounds and four turnovers. UCLA clearly prioritized him in its defensive schemes, but sometimes it’s also just not your night. That appears to be what happened to Caupain tonight, who finishes an excellent four-year career at Cincinnati.

Star of the Game. Lonzo Ball, UCLA. The multifaceted Ball got himself going in the second half today, ultimately providing the fuel for a run that pushed UCLA’s lead to double-figures and ultimately the win. His game totals of 18 points, seven rebounds and nine assists were all team-highs, and yet it actually felt during most of the game that he was quiet. This is an extremely talented player who knows how to pick his spots.

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Rushed Reactions: #3 Baylor 82, #11 USC 78

Posted by Chris Stone (@cstonehoops) on March 19th, 2017

RTC will be providing coverage of the NCAA Tournament from start to finish. Chris Stone (@cstonehoops) is in Tulsa this weekend.

Johnathan Motley, who was stellar defensively, put up big numbers in Baylor’s win over USC. (J Pat Carter/Getty Images)

Three Key Takeaways

  1. Baylor dominated the interior. The Bears did what they always do and took care of business in the paint on the offensive end. Junior Johnathan Motley finished with 19 points and junior Terry Maston added 19 of his own. As a team, Baylor finished with 40 points — nearly half of their total — in the paint. The Bears also managed to grab 14 offensive rebounds to help extend possessions and create extra scoring opportunities. USC’s zone defense helped open up opportunities for their opponent to crash the offensive glass. This is the second big performance for Maston — he also put up 19 points in Baylor’s opening round game against New Mexico State.
  2. USC made up for it with threes. The Trojans didn’t go away quietly, though, finding opportunities to exploit Baylor’s defense — whether zone or man — from behind the three-point arc. As a team, USC finished 9-of-22 (40.9%) from deep and it was Bennie Boatwright and Elijah Stewart who led the way. Boatwright hit 4-of-9 triples while Stewart made three of his six attempts. The three-point shot can be a great equalizer in basketball as it opens up the game offensively and puts an extra point on the board. Against Baylor, Chimezie Metu was the beneficiary of the extra spacing. He finished with 28 points.
  3. Manu Lecomte was the hero. With Motley on the bench with four fouls, Baylor coach Scott Drew made a surprising decision to play a smaller lineup. The Bears have spent most of their time on the court this season with two traditional bigs, so this was a big departure for their norm. Drew was rewarded by point guard Manu Lecomte. The junior had struggled for most of the game, but found an extra gear during its most crucial stretch. He scored eight of his 12 points during a 46 second stretch to help build Baylor’s lead.

Star of the Game. While Motley’s stat line was a bit better, this award has to go to Terry Maston for his second straight important performance off the bench. In addition to his 19 points, the junior grabbed nine boards and collected a pair of steals. Read the rest of this entry »

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Rushed Reactions: #3 Oregon 75, #11 Rhode Island 72

Posted by rtmsf on March 19th, 2017

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

Tyler Dorsey Carried the Ducks to the Sweet Sixteen (USA Today Images)

Key Takeaways.

  1. Come Aboard the Brooks & Dorsey Train. Everyone knows that Dillon Brooks and Tyler Dorsey mean everything to the Ducks’ offense, but from about the 14-minute mark through the end, EVERY Oregon possession went through one of those two guys. And they came through. When Oregon was down by six in the mid-second half, it was Brooks who put together his own personal 9-0 run to regain the lead. Later, when it appeared that the Ducks were cooked after some missed free throws and a bad shot, it was Dorsey who hit back-t0-back three pointers to both tie the game (with 1:47 remaining) and win it (with 0:37 left). The two players combined for 46 of the Ducks’ 75 total points, and they needed every bit of it.
  2. The Loss of Chris Boucher Was Apparent. At the risk of Debbie Downing what was certainly a gutty win by Oregon, it was clear as day how much the Ducks miss injured center Chris Boucher — at one point in the first half, Rhode Island had converted 16 of 20 shots inside the three-point arc. The Rams repeatedly got to the basket for layups or short jumpers, and they hardly ever missed. That 80 percent figure dropped to a more reasonable 65 percent by the end of the game, but it put so much pressure on Oregon to stay in contact — largely through Brooks and Dorsey — that you wonder how they can possibly manage his loss any better going forward.
  3. Rhode Island is Full of Tough, Tough Kids. Call it the Northeastern swagger of whatever you like, but it was crystal clear today that the ferocity and grit of head coach Danny Hurly has rubbed off on his players. They didn’t care that they were playing 3,000 miles away from home in Pac-12 country against a Pac-12 team. They expected to win and they were devastated when they didn’t. For much of the night, frankly, Rhode Island was the better team with the superior game plan. But they didn’t have a Tyler Dorsey, and that’s ultimately what made the difference. Hurley seems tailor-made for this kind of underdog program, but you can be certain he’ll get some calls from power conference teams very soon.

Star of the Game. Tyler Dorsey, Oregon. It’s funny because it was Brooks who decided to put the team on his shoulders to allow for the Ducks’ second-half comeback today, but Dorsey’s 27 points, five rebounds and threes assists were simply too much to ignore. Not to mention that he hit the back-breaking threes that effectively won the game.

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Rushed Reactions: #1 North Carolina 72, #8 Arkansas 65

Posted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on March 19th, 2017

RTC will be providing coverage of the NCAA Tournament from start to finish. Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) is in Greenville this weekend.

Roy Williams leads North Carolina back to the Sweet 16 for the ninth time in his 14 years at the helm. (Lance King/wralsportsfan.com)

Three Key Takeaways.

  1. What a turnaround we had. After the first 16 minutes of action North Carolina was in complete control of the game or so it seemed. The Tar Heels built a 17-point lead by dominating Arkansas on the defensive end of the floor as the Razorbacks committed 10 turnovers and were shooting close to 25 percent from the floor with four minutes before intermission. Suddenly things changed dramatically and Arkansas closed the half on a 16-6 run. That momentum carried over into the second half as Arkansas surged past the Tar Heels before North Carolina rallied to win a game that it appeared to have in the bag long before. With the game in the balance the Tar Heel defense came up big again as Arkansas failed to score on its last five possessions.
  2. For some reason, this North Carolina team doesn’t finish games very well away from home. For most of the year the Tar Heels have struggled to beat good teams when they aren’t playing in the Smith Center, which is surprising for such a veteran team. Fortunately for Roy Williams, they managed to make enough plays to win a tight game tonight, but the way they almost melted down is still concerning. As Arkansas made its comeback, the Hogs were greatly aided by the Tar Heels’ sloppy play – 10 second half turnovers that became 17 Arkansas points. Perhaps this year’s North Carolina team misses the steadying influence of departed guard Marcus Paige. As the competition improves, the Tar Heels must be a better 40-minute team to make it to Phoenix.
  3. Arkansas shot well enough to win after a slow start. To have a chance to upset the Tar Heels, Arkansas needed to have an effective shooting night from the perimeter. That was certainly not the case early as the Razorbacks clanked their first five shots from deep. But after that cold beginning, they heated up considerably – making eight of their next 13 from behind the arc and ended the night at 38.1 percent on three-pointers. JUCO transfer Daryl Macon led the Arkansas shooting comeback, coming off the bench to make 3-of-5 from behind the arc.

Player of the Game. Kennedy Meeks, North Carolina. The Tar Heels’ senior center led his team with 16 points and collected a game-high 11 boards. His putback basket in the last minute gave his team a three-point lead and basically clinched the game. Meeks was also instrumental to North Carolina’s defensive effort, blocking three shots and helping to hold Moses Kingsley to 4-of-12 shooting. Read the rest of this entry »

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Rushed Reactions: #1 Kansas 90, #9 Michigan State 70

Posted by Chris Stone on March 19th, 2017

Rush the Court will be covering the NCAA Tournament from start to finish over the next three weeks. 

Miles Bridges and Josh Jackson battled it out on Sunday. (Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press).

Three Key Takeaways:

  1. Nick Ward’s foul trouble played an important role. Michigan State found success against Kansas by dumping the ball inside to the freshman big man. Over the second half of the season, Ward had evolved into a go-to post threat for the Spartans and it was no different today as he finished with 13 points on 5-of-9 shooting. The problem is that Ward was on the floor for just 20 minutes as he spent much of the game saddled with fouls. In those 20 minutes, Michigan State outscored the Jayhawks by five points. In the 20 minutes with Ward’s replacement, Ryan Goins, on the court, the Spartans were outscored by 25 points. That’s the difference.
  2. Kansas hit its free throws. The Jayhawks have struggled from the foul line all season long, shooting just 67.1 percent (284th nationally) from the charity stripe — still, there always seemed to be some unshaken faith that the team would make them when they needed to. Well, Kansas today finished 14-of-15 from the free throw line with senior guard Frank Mason going a perfect 8-of-8. Even freshman Josh Jackson, a 55.9 percent free throw shooter, made all three of his attempts, including converting a crucial one-and-one late in the contest.
  3. The threes eventually fell for the Jayhawks. Michigan State kept this game close in large part because the Spartans held Kansas in check from behind the arc. They did well fighting over screens and getting out to challenge shooters on the perimeter, but eventually, the shots started falling and Kansas pulled away. The Jayhawks finished 8-of-20 from behind the arc as they nailed several threes down the stretch. Guard Devonte’ Graham led the way, scoring 12 of his 18 points from deep. The Jayhawks are at their best when they’re knocking down outside shots. It just took them a bit more time to get that part of their game going against Michigan State.

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