Pac-12 NCAA Tournament Regional Prospectus

Posted by RJ Abeytia on March 23rd, 2017

And then there were three. USC did the Pac-12 no shame in winning two games during the NCAA Tournament’s first weekend, but the Trojans were felled by the neon shine of Baylor on Sunday, leaving the Conference of Champions with three teams in the Sweet Sixteen (as most had predicted). Oregon, Arizona and UCLA begin their second weekend of NCAA Tournament work this evening, so it’s time to check in with each and focus on a  key issue to resolve if they are to rendezvous in Glendale.

Oregon Advanced to the Sweet Sixteen On a Tyler Dorsey Three (USA Today Images)

  • #3 Oregon:  #TeamTyler or #TeamDillon? Postseason play has brought this particular debate to the fore in ways many may have not anticipated. After Oregon’s semifinal win over Cal in the Pac-12 Tournament, Dana Altman pulled no punches in critiquing what had been an uneven performance from Pac-12 Player of the Year Dillon Brooks, going so far as to suggest that Brooks had taken the Ducks out of their offense. The senior is a fantastic player, but Oregon’s offense has at times sputtered on Brooks possessions, allowing for Tyler Dorsey to emerge as an effective alternative for the Ducks in crunch time. Consider: In postseason play, Brooks is shooting 42.0 percent whereas Dorsey is converting a red-hot 67.0 percent. Brooks has outshot his teammate at the foul line, but not by nearly enough to eclipse Dorsey’s phenomenal streak of productivity. It’s always good to have multiple closers on the same team, and this isn’t necessarily about a fatal choice for Altman in the endgame. The big issue is that Dorsey is playing within the flow of the offense and outproducing Brooks at the same time. To win two more games this weekend, Oregon may have to either re-incorporate Brooks into the natural ebb and flow of its offense or elevate Dorsey to a more featured status.

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Quantifying the Impact of Kamar Baldwin, Butler’s Unsung Hero

Posted by Justin Kundrat on March 22nd, 2017

As Chris Holtmann’s group of Bulldogs head to the Sweet Sixteen for the first time in six years, the underpinnings of “Butler basketball” are increasingly apparent. Statistically, this is the most efficient offensive unit in the last 16 seasons at the school. The offseason addition of sharpshooter Avery Woodson (42.9% 3FG), the remarkably effective play of point guard Tyler Lewis, and the midseason revival of leading scorer Kelan Martin have caused opponents to struggle with a brand of team-oriented basketball that trots out five legitimate scoring threats at any given time. It is therefore no surprise that such an experienced group comfortably executes its offensive sets at its own pace while minimizing turnovers. The tangential storyline, however, resides on the defensive end of the floor — the virtually unquantifiable impact of freshman guard Kamar Baldwin.

Kamar Baldwin’s Defense Has Helped Butler to the Sweet Sixteen (USA Today Images)

For the uninitiated, Baldwin is a former three-star recruit whose presence in the Bulldogs’ recruiting class was largely overshadowed by that of 6’10” center Joey Brunk, one of the highest regarded incoming big men this season. It was expected that Baldwin would provide backcourt depth alongside the returning starters and incoming transfers Avery Woodson and Kethan Savage, but a more significant impact was felt right out of the gate. Baldwin quickly slid into a role as defensive disruptor, providing relentless on-ball pressure and using his lateral quickness to cut off driving lanes and reroute passes. In fact, the Bulldogs rank 11th nationally in defensive assist rate — opponents assisting on just 43.7 percent of their baskets, compared with the national average of 52.1 percent — in large part because of Baldwin’s efforts.

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Analyzing Kentucky’s Improved Defense

Posted by Brian Joyce on March 22nd, 2017

Kentucky scored at least 100 points five separate times this year so it is no surprise that the Wildcats’ offense has grabbed most of the headlines. When the season was on the line on Sunday afternoon, however, it was instead a strong defensive performance that propelled John Calipari‘s club into the Sweet Sixteen. In a season-low 62-possession grinder with the Shockers, the Wildcats proved they can win with defense by shutting down one of the 10 best offenses in college basketball.

For reference on the defensive score sheet, refer to this previous post — http://rushthecourt.net/2012/04/10/charting-kentuckys-defense-in-the-championship-game/

Kentucky quietly owns a top 10 team defense (eighth in adjusted defensive efficiency, per KenPom), and it will need it to continue improving if this season is going to be extended. With UCLA looming and a potential Elite Eight matchup with North Carolina beyond that, the Wildcats will need to do better than allowing 97 points and 1.17 points per possession (PPP) to the Bruins and a season-high 100 points and 1.27 PPP to the Tar Heels.

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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: #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: #4 Purdue 80, #5 Iowa State 76

Posted by Brendan Brody on March 19th, 2017

Purdue advanced to the Sweet Sixteen for the first time since 2012 by beating Iowa State in one of the best games of the NCAA Tournament so far.

Biggie Swanigan Dominated the Inside For Purdue (USA Today Images)

Three Key Takeaways. 

  1. Purdue was large and in charge, and this carried the day. It was fairly well-known by anybody who watches the sport that Purdue was going to have an advantage in the post this evening, and it did so by scoring 40 points against the undersized Cyclones in the paint. Caleb Swanigan, Vincent Edwards and Isaac Haas were the team’s top three players in scoring, combining for 55 of the team’s 80 points on 56.1 percent shooting for the game.
  2. Tournament Vincent is the best Vincent. Edwards has yet to have a poor effort in thefour NCAA Tournament appearances over his career — the junior forward now boasts averages of 20.0 PPG, 9.0 RPG, and 3.8 APG on 54.2 percent shooting from the floor. He led the Boilermakers in scoring again tonight, doing most of his damage at the rim. Were it not for Swanigan’s heroics at the end of the game, Edwards would have easily been deserving as the best player on the floor.
  3. This was a brutal way for the career of Iowa State’s seniors to end. Even as a neutral party on press row, watching the careers of four seniors end with such a tough loss was difficult to watch. The foursome of Monte’ Morris, Matt Thomas, Nazareth Mitrou-Long and Deonte Burton will go down as one of the best senior classes in Iowa State history, and they deserve to be commended for the way they fought back to put the heat on Purdue in the second half.

Star of the Game. Edwards was extremely good in this game, but it’s hard not to give Purdue’s Caleb Swanigan the nod here. It wasn’t his best or most efficient offensive game, but he still scored 20 points, grabbed 12 rebounds, and offered a team-leading seven assists. He’s been a solid passer all season long for the Boilermakers, but he really did a nice job feeding Edwards and Haas from either the high post or down on the blocks.

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Rushed Reactions: #1 Gonzaga 79, #8 Northwestern 73

Posted by RJ Abeytia on March 18th, 2017

Ultimately, Gonzaga did just enough today in Salt Lake City to survive and advance.  A dominant first half bought enough equity for the Zags to withstand a furious and relentless Northwestern comeback attempt that ended with some officiating controversy.

No Matter Your Opinion of the Call, Gonzaga is Moving On (USA Today Images)

Three Key Takeaways.

  1. Playing less than a 40-minute game is playing with fire. Gonzaga was in total control of this game at halftime, but then came out and had very little second half answer for a Northwestern team that went all-in on trapping its posts and cheating into the passing lanes. In the second 20 minutes, the Bulldogs committed a staggering 11 turnovers and allowed 17 points off those miscues. On the other end of the floor, the Wildcats shot 50 percent from the field in the second half and posted an offensive efficiency of 129.3. As the competition level increases in coming games, Gonzaga is going to need to bring a lot more if it’s going to be as happy at the end of the NCAA Tournament’s second weekend as it is right now.
  2. Gonzaga’s frontcourt isn’t just big, it’s deep. Everyone knows about Przemek Karnowski inside but freshman center Zach Collins carried the Bulldogs in the second half, scoring 12 points on 3-of-3 shooting and 6-of-8 from the line. He regularly absorbed triple-teams and still scored, showing a great touch and an ability to finish off screen-roll dives. He wasn’t alone, however. Fellow freshman Killian Tillie also had a solid eight points, combining for 10 rebounds and five blocks on the afternoon.
  3. Officiating needs to improve significantly in the second weekend. In a game that had 150 possessions, it’s a tough case to convincingly make that a single call or play was the difference between winning and losing the game. That said, the blown goaltending combined with the subsequent technical foul on Chris Collins really diminished what was shaping up to be a legendary finish. The officiating from the notorious Pac-12 crew left much to be desired, and blowing that call — if it didn’t decide the game — at least, significantly impacted the game. Northwestern was deprived of an opportunity, and that should never happen simply because of an egregious mistake by the officials.

Star of the Game. Nigel Williams-Goss, Gonzaga. The WCC Player of the Year was the best player on the court today, blitzing Northwestern to the tune of 20 points, eight rebounds and four assists in addition to hitting a cold-blooded three to silence Wildcat fans during one of their second half runs. He can score from every spot on the floor; he is an active participant in the rebounding effort; and he’s got plenty of moxie.

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