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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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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Rushed Reactions: #1 Gonzaga 83, #11 Xavier 59

Posted by rtmsf on March 25th, 2017

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

Gonzaga is Final Four Bound (USA Today Images)

Key Takeaways.

  1. Gonzaga’s Offensive Explosion From Three. The key number in today’s Elite Eight game is 12, as in 12 made three-pointers on 24 Gonzaga attempts. The Zags started the game with seven of its first nine shots from beyond the arc, which was both surprising and troubling because three-point shooting (both in conversions and attempts) really isn’t the Zags’ modus operandi. But they made three of those seven and it only improved from there as Gonzaga slowly adjusted to figure out Xavier’s zone defenses. An 8-of-13 first half supported a 10-point lead at the intermission, and two more quick threes to start the second half quickly pushed the lead over Xavier to an irrecoverable 16 points. From there, Mark Few’s team never looked back on its way to Glendale. As Chris Mack noted afterward, the Zags do not particularly shoot many threes (256th nationally) nor do they shoot them at an elite level (37.8% after tonight) — but given their impressive frontcourt and consistently strong defense, it is a nearly impossible task to beat them when they’re knocking down outside shots at such a prodigious rate.
  2. Its Defense Wasn’t Bad Either. No doubt some regression to the mean here, but Gonzaga did a great job of shadowing and covering the red-hot Trevon Bluiett everywhere on the floor. The junior wing came into today’s game averaging 25.0 PPG and shooting 13-of-23 from three-point range, but the Bulldogs never let him get comfortable in holding him to 10 points on 3-of-14 shooting. Many of the easy looks that Xavier found on Thursday night against Arizona were no longer there, with the beefy size of Przemek Karnowski, Zach Collins and Johnathan Williams making life in the lane uncomfortable for the much-smaller Musketeers. The Zags own the nation’s top defense for a reason, and a complete start-to-finish performance that included holding Xavier to 13 percent from three-point range and 36 percent for the game is a great example of why.
  3. Xavier’s Fiery Run. Considering that Xavier took its February performance and burned it in a showing of mutual solidarity, the Musketeers should still feel great about how they salvaged what appeared to be a lost season. From the calendar-burning moment on, Xavier won six of nine games including a run to the semifinals of the Big East Tournament and the Elite Eight. Maybe Mack should think about using a similar gimmick every year, but the point remains. The loss of Edmond Sumner in late January ensured that the Musketeers would experience bouts of inconsistency, but not even the most faithful Xavier fan believed that a team basically without a point guard could make a run through Maryland, Florida State and Arizona to reach the regional final. Mack deserves all credit for keeping his team focused in a situation that would have destroyed most squads.

Star of the Game. Johnathan Williams, Gonzaga. The transfer from Missouri certainly could not have asked for a better outcome to his decision to leave the SEC for the WCC. As his former school continues to languish — recently hiring a new coach for the third time in six seasons — the junior forward’s play today ensured that Gonzaga’s season would continue into the final weekend. He contributed early, hitting for 12 easy points (on 5-of-6 shooting) near the rim as the Zags worked to solve the changing Xavier defenses. His final totals of 19 points and eight rebounds allowed Gonzaga to establish its inside game and provide openings for its shooters.

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

Posted by Justin Kundrat on March 25th, 2017

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

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

Three Key Takeaways.

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

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

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Rushed Reactions: #2 Kentucky 86, #3 UCLA 75

Posted by Bennet Hayes on March 24th, 2017

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

De’Aaron Fox knifed through the UCLA defense to the tune of an NCAA Tournament-high 39 points (Photo: Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports)

Key Takeaways.

  1. Battle of the freshmen backcourts. It’s not impossible that three of the top four picks in this June’s NBA Draft occupied three of the four spots in the starting backcourts of this game. All showed flashes of brilliance, but the shine was far brighter on the Kentucky side. De’Aaron Fox darted through the UCLA defense time and time again en route to a career-high 39 points, while Malik Monk caught fire on either end of halftime, scoring 17 of his 21 points in a seven-minute stretch that straddled intermission. UCLA’s Lonzo Ball got teammates involved early and finished with eight assists, but the Bruins’ star never found his stroke in missing five of his six three-point attempts. There’s little doubt that tonight’s 40 minutes will be mentioned often during discussions of Ball and Fox’s draft stock in the coming months, but the trio combined to put on the show everyone had hoped for.
  2. Tempo quickens in second half. With two efficient, fast-paced offenses doing battle, most expected a high-possession, high-scoring game. The first half was not that – only 69 total points were scored, and most of them came in the half-court – but the second half ushered in the uptempo basketball that had been anticipated. Monk and UCLA’s Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton took turns splashing in jumpers during a breathless first four minutes of the frame, and the Memphis crowd channeled the newfound energy on the floor. Ninety-two total second half points later, Kentucky was through to the next round and fans were fully satiated by a dazzling offensive display.
  3. UCLA, Alford’s uncertain future. The Bruins erased memories of a disappointing 2015-16 with a highlight-laden 31-win season, one that may have cooled Steve Alford’s warm seat in Los Angeles yet also made him an attractive hire to one of the few programs he might consider bolting for — Indiana. The Hoosiers’ coaching vacancy is unlikely to be filled without at least a call to Alford, and there’s little indication he wouldn’t listen to an offer from his alma mater. Apathy around the UCLA program has been difficult to fully eradicate, even during this turn-back-the-clock season, and Indiana should be able to provide Alford heavy doses of both cash and nostalgia. It’s far from a certain marriage, but the uncomfortable irony of this unexpectedly successful UCLA season is that it may have been good enough to lead to a new coaching search.

Star of the Game. De’Aaron Fox, Kentucky. The Wildcats’ freshman sensation played the game of his college career, scoring a career-high 39 points. He added four assists against just one turnover and thoroughly controlled a game that featured an even more hyped freshman point guard. Fox’s 39 points also stand as the high point total of the NCAA Tournament (no player had gone over 30 until tonight), and they were more than enough to compensate for a sluggish night from the backcourt’s supporting cast. Fox dominated tonight in Memphis.

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

Posted by Justin Kundrat on March 24th, 2017

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

South Carolina Keeps It Going (USA Today Images)

Three Key Takeaways.

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

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

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