Eight Questions for the Final Four: Virginia vs. Auburn

Posted by Matt Eisenberg on April 4th, 2019

The right side of the bracket features the South Region champion Virginia and Midwest Region champion Auburn. In a matchup of ACC and SEC powers, here are four questions I have for each team regarding the upcoming match-up.

Virginia

Virginia Overcame Its Demons to Get to the Final Four (USA Today Images)

1) Should Virginia be concerned with its recent three-point defense? While on the season Virginia owns the third-best three-point defense (28.7% 3FG) in college basketball, eight of the Cavaliers’ last nine opponents have shot better than 30 percent from distance. Even more startling, opponents have made 39 percent of their long-range shots over the last five games.

2) Will De’Andre Hunter regain his shooting touch? While De’Andre Hunter is shooting a robust 42.4 percent on 99 three-point attempts this season, the sophomore has made just five of his last 22 attempts from beyond the arc. In Virginia’s two wins in Louisville last week, Hunter combined for 21 points on 8-of-23 shooting from the field. For a player that was among the ACC’s most efficient and effective scorers this season, things have not been easy for Hunter lately.

3) Does Virginia’s offensive tendencies create a glaring mismatch against Auburn’s defense? According to Synergy Sports, Tony Bennett’s squad creates 12.5 percent of its offense coming off of screens, nearly three times as much as the national average. Auburn, on the other hand, gave up 0.99 points per possession in those situations — a mark that ranked 295th in the nation.

4) Can Mamadi Diakite continue his recent hot play on the offensive side of the ball? Virginia’s hero of the Elite Eight, Mamadi Diakite, is averaging 13 points per game in the NCAA Tournament. Prior to the start of the event, Diakite was averaging just 6.8 points per game. The junior forward led the ACC in blocked shot rate during conference play and was a constant threat on the offensive glass this season, but as teams have geared their defensive strategies toward Ty Jerome, Kyle Guy and De’Andre Hunter, Diakite has stepped up to help his team’s offense.

Auburn

Auburn Heads to Its First Ever Final Four (USA Today Images)

1) Will Auburn dominate the three-point line? In Auburn’s 30 wins this season, the Tigers have made on average four more three-pointers than their opponents. In their nine losses, Auburn does not even make one more three than its opponents. Bruce Pearl’s team takes nearly 50 percent of their shots from behind the arc and the Tigers make a high percentage of them (38.3% 3FG). Defensively, Auburn has generally allowed teams to shoot a high volume of threes against it, something that could prove costly against a Virginia team that owns a top 10 three-point shooting percentage of 39.4 percent.

2) Will Auburn’s defense be able to create turnovers from Virginia? No team in the country has created turnovers at a higher rate than Auburn (24.9% TO), and the Tigers have forced 14 or more turnovers in each of their four previous NCAA Tournament games. Virginia is one of the toughest teams to force into miscues, however, having turned the ball over just 8.5 times per game so far in the NCAA Tournament.

3) How much will Chuma Okeke be missed in this game? The emotional jolt gained by Auburn in its desire to win for Chuma Okeke was certainly unmeasurable. But while Bryce Brown and Jared Harper were able to carry Auburn to an overtime victory against Kentucky, losing the 13.8 points per game that Okeke was averaging in March could prove very tough against the stingy Virginia defense.

4) Can Auburn find a way to speed up Virginia? Auburn’s offense thrives in transition — only American had a higher effective field-goal percentage in transition this season than the Tigers. In 20 Auburn games where the possession total was 70 possessions or higher this season, Bruce Pearl’s club logged an effective field-goal percentage of 56.6 percent that included 39.7 percent from three-point land. In nine games where Auburn was held to 63 or fewer possessions, the Tigers logged an effective field-goal percentage of just 50.1 percent and their three-point percentage dropped to just 33 percent.

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ACC Conversation: NCAA Tournament Regional Recap

Posted by The ACC Team on April 3rd, 2019

Rush the Court’s ACC microsite team of Brad Jenkins, Matt Auerbach and Mick McDonald chat about the ACC’s lone Final Four participant, as well as the losses suffered by ACC squads in the regionals.

Zion Williamson’s Collegiate Career Ended in Washington, DC, on Sunday (USA Today Images)

Brad Jenkins: Welcome to April, fellas! Although it’s a little disappointing that only one of the ACC’s trio of top seeds made it through regional play, we still have the league’s best team, Virginia, heading to Minneapolis. But before we look ahead, let’s recap the amazing regionals action we just saw. Before we look at the individual ACC squads that perished, what are your overall thoughts on what we witnessed? Was this the best Elite Eight ever?

Mick McDonald: The 2005 NCAA Tournament is the standard bearer for amazing Elite Eights, and I think this year’s crop rates right up there with it. All four games featured two excellent teams playing at high levels in close games. We got two overtime games, a heavyweight battle between two legendary coaches, and one of the best individual performances in the history of the tournament from Purdue’s Carsen Edwards. Top it off with the amazing buzzer-beating scramble by Virginia to lock in an all-time moment, and I think you can make a pretty good argument for it being the best.

Matt Auerbach: All things being equal, the one that could rival this Elite Eight was, as Mick referenced, the one back in 2005. But, given the epic nature of the finish between Virginia and Purdue — with a backdrop of the performance of Edwards and the redemption of the Cavaliers — to highlight a weekend where another game went to overtime, another was decided by a point and another — Texas Tech vs. Gonzaga — was perhaps the best played of them all. It was an exhilarating set of games, and undeniably one of the best set of Elite Eight games ever.

Brad Jenkins: I’ve been watching this tournament since… well, let’s just say for quite a while. I can’t recall a better four games to get to the Final Four. And the Virginia-Purdue classic is on the short list of the best college games I’ve ever watched. Now, let’s talk a little about the ACC teams that bowed out in the Sweet Sixteen, beginning with Florida State and Virginia Tech. Tough losses for both programs, but historic seasons nonetheless.

Matt Auerbach: Yeah, I think Florida State just kind of ran into an off night situation with Gonzaga. It felt as though the Zags kept them at a comfortable distance throughout the contest, and the Seminoles could never get a spark to surge into the lead. As for the Hokies, you can’t get any closer than that!

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What’s Trending: A Wild Weekend in the NCAA Tournament

Posted by Matt Eisenberg on April 1st, 2019

What’s Trending is a column examining the week that was in college basketball social media. Matthew Eisenberg (@matteise) is your weekly host.

After a relatively chaos-free opening two rounds of the 2019 NCAA Tournament, the madness arrived in earnest over the weekend. Taking a look back at the memorable moments begins in the East Region where Virginia Tech and Duke found themselves in a battle to the very end.

While Zion Williamson marvels those that watch Duke play with his dunks, it is plays like this that truly show how unique he is. With Duke nursing a narrow three-point lead, Williamson gets crossed-up by Virginia Tech’s Justin Robinson. Despite the blow-by, Williamson recovers like few others playing high-level basketball can…

Just days after surviving at the buzzer against UCF, Duke found itself in a similar situation again. The Blue Devils were up two points with just over one second to go when Virginia Tech drew up this perfect play to send the game to overtime… minus the finish.

The East Region Sweet Sixteen also featured Michigan State’s 80-63 win over LSU. In that game, the Spartans’ Aaron Henry scored a season-high 20 points, grabbed eight rebounds and dished out six assists. This performance by Henry came on the heels of Tom Izzo’s outrage at the talented freshman in Michigan State’s opening round win. After the win against LSU, Izzo was quick to credit young Henry and his teammates…

The Elite Eight match-up between Duke and Michigan State was a game that many were looking forward to the second the bracket came out. With the lead going back and forth throughout much of the second half, Michigan State’s Matt McQuaid pushed the Spartans back in front with this layup that will not be forgotten…

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Rushed Reactions: NCAA Tournament, Elite Eight

Posted by rtmsf on March 31st, 2019

RTC continues its coverage of the NCAA Tournament through the regionals this weekend, at each of the four sites. Using social media to share information, we produced Rushed Reactions threads in Twitter for each game in those locations. Click within each tweet to see the entire RR thread for each game. Have a look below from all of this weekend’s games.

#3 Texas Tech 75, #1 Gonzaga 69.

#1 Virginia 80, #3 Purdue 75 (OT).

#5 Auburn 77, #2 Kentucky (OT).

#2 Michigan State 68, #1 Duke 67.

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Eight Questions For The Elite Eight

Posted by Matt Eisenberg on March 30th, 2019

The Road to the Final Four has one final stop for the eight remaining teams in this year’s NCAA Tournament. As the weekend advances, here are the eight questions I have for the match-ups ahead.

The Zags Push For Their Second Final Four Appearance in History (USA Today Images)

Gonzaga vs. Texas Tech

Gonzaga: Will Gonzaga’s offense solve a Texas Tech defense that dominated Michigan for 40 minutes? Mark Few’s Bulldogs rank first in the nation in offensive efficiency, effective field goal percentage and two-point field goal percentage. According to Hoop-Math, Gonzaga also owns the fifth-best shooting percentage on attempts at the rim, an area that could be tested by a Red Raiders defense that blocks a lot of shots inside.

Texas Tech: Do the Red Raiders have enough size to compete against the large Gonzaga front line? Gonzaga’s bigs of Rui Hachimura, Brandon Clarke and Killian Tillie will be up against a Texas Tech squad that will play just two players 6’8″ or taller in Tarriq Owens and Norense Odiase. Texas Tech’s ability to stay out of foul trouble on its front line will be imperative in attempting to slow the Bulldogs’ interior game.

Virginia vs. Purdue

Virginia: Can the Cavaliers snap out of their shooting woes? Over Virginia’s last four games, the Cavaliers are shooting a woeful 26.9 percent on 104 three-point attempts. In the five games prior to that stretch they converted 54.2 percent on 107 attempts. Kyle Guy has most notably found himself in a staggering slump, having made just five of his last 31 attempts after shooting 42.7 percent on the season.

Purdue: Will Purdue’s recent struggles at the free throw line keep it from reaching the Final Four? While the Boilermakers have shot 71.9 percent from the line on the season, they have made just 63.4 percent from the stripe in seven March games. Purdue survived in its win on Thursday night against Tennessee despite missing 17 of its 33 attempts. And remember, points always come at a premium against Virginia.

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Eight Questions For the Sweet Sixteen

Posted by Matt Eisenberg on March 28th, 2019

The lack of major upsets in the opening two rounds of the NCAA Tournament has created numerous intriguing match-ups for the upcoming Sweet Sixteen. Here are the questions I have for each match-up:

Thursday Games

Brandon Clarke Has Been Putting on a Show for the #1 Zags (USA Today Images)
  • Florida State vs. Gonzaga: Does Gonzaga have a Rui Hachimura problem? While Hachimura is averaging 19.7 points per game this year, he is coming off of a season-low six-point performance against Baylor. Hachimura scored in double-figures in each of the first 32 games of the season, but has failed to eclipse 10 points in two of his previous three games. What’s going on with the junior All-American? The 6’8″ forward will be put to the test against the length of the Florida State front line.
  • Purdue vs. Tennessee: Will Carsen Edwards’ shooting be the difference? Carsen Edwards is coming off of an explosive 42-point performance against Villanova — a game in which he went 9-of-16 from beyond the arc. Tennessee’s three-point defense ranks below the national average and the Volunteers allowed Colgate to shoot 51.7 percent from distance in the First Round.
  • Texas Tech vs. Michigan: Which offense will be more dynamic in a match-up of elite defenses? According to KenPom, this game features the top two defenses in college basketball, as both teams have held their Tournament opponents under 60 points. The Wolverines are led offensively by freshman Ignas Brazdeikis — who scored just five points on 2-of-8 shooting against Florida — while Texas Tech is led by Jarrett Culver, who is averaging 25.5 points per game over his last four outings. The Red Raiders’ All-American, however, has shot only 20.6 percent from beyond the arc in games Texas Tech has lost.
  • Oregon vs. Virginia: Can Oregon’s defense stifle the immensely efficient Virginia offense? Since being blitzed for 90 points in a loss at UCLA, Oregon has given up an average of just 54.2 points per game over its last 10 contests. During that stretch, the Ducks have held their opponents to a sterling 20.9 percent on three-point attempts. While Virginia has shot over 40 percent from distance on the season, the Cavaliers have gone just 29.8 percent so far in the Tournament.

Friday Games

Duke Survived the UCF Push (USA Today Images)
  • LSU vs. Michigan State: Will LSU be able to put together a full 40-minute performance against Michigan State? Through two NCAA Tournament games LSU is +25 in the first half and -18 in the second half. That disparity features a 30.8 percent field-goal percentage in the second half and an even worse 16.7 percent from beyond the arc. Over their last five games, the Spartans, on the other hand, have outscored their opponents by 36 points in the second half.
  • Auburn vs. North Carolina: As hot as Auburn can get offensively, can its defense slow down North Carolina? Auburn has played 13 games against opponents with adjusted offensive efficiency rankings of 40th or better, and the Tigers have gone just 5-8 in those games. Additionally, the Tigers are just 2-6 in games against an opponent with an offensive rebounding rate that ranks among the top 20 in college basketball. For your consideration, North Carolina owns the nation’s eighth most efficient offense and has a top 20 offensive rebounding rate.
  • Virginia Tech vs. Duke: Can Virginia Tech replicate its winning formula against Duke? The Hokies defeated Duke, 77-72, back in late February in a game both Zion Williamson and Justin Robinson missed. Kerry Blackshear had a season-high 23 points to lead the Hokies in an all-around balanced effort. The return of the point guard Robinson will give Buzz Williams’ squad an extra ball-handler to deal with the pressure defense of Tre Jones.
  • Houston vs. Kentucky: What will the status of PJ Washington be come tip-off time? Kentucky’s PJ Washington missed the first two games of the NCAA Tournament and his availability remains unclear for Friday night’s game. Washington was the SEC’s second-best three-point shooter in conference play and is a player that would help spread the floor for a Wildcats’ team that has made just 25.9 percent of its 27 three-point attempts in the NCAA Tournament.
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Handicapping the SEC’s Final Four Chances

Posted by David Changas on March 27th, 2019

The first weekend of the NCAA Tournament was quite a success for the SEC. Four of the league’s seven teams advanced to the Sweet Sixteen, and each did so in a different fashion — there was the dominant (Auburn), the methodical (Kentucky), the dramatic (LSU), and the confounding (Tennessee). The question now becomes whether the conference’s remaining teams can take it any further. Today we look at each remaining squad’s chances of advancing to college basketball’s biggest stage.

Jared Harper and Auburn will need to continue their superb play to have a chance of toppling top-seeded North Caroline (247sports.com)

Auburn: The Tigers were sensational against Kansas, scoring 1.27 points per possession against a solid Jayhawks’ defense that was simply overwhelmed by Auburn’s attack. We would like their chances a bit better if they weren’t going up against a team in North Carolina that can and will run with them. If Bruce Pearl’s team were to pull off an upset in the Midwest Region semifinal, it would still likely have to get by a Kentucky team that handled it twice during the regular season. So even though this is arguably the hottest team in the NCAA Tournament at the moment, this is realistically an order that might be too tall for a team that lives and dies by the three. We put Auburn’s chances of a Final Four appearance at 15%.

Kentucky: We were higher on the Wildcats’ chances to reach the Final Four than we were any other SEC team prior to the NCAA Tournament, and nothing has changed that. Of course, if Wildcats’ star P.J. Washington is again unavailable for Friday’s tilt with Houston, all bets are off. Assuming the sophomore big man returns from his sprained foot, however, we still think John Calipari’s team is the favorite to come out of this region –notwithstanding how well Auburn and North Carolina are playing. Accordingly, we think the Wildcats’ chances of advancing to the Final Four are 40%.

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ACC Conversation: Sweet Sixteen Preview

Posted by The ACC Team on March 27th, 2019

Rush the Court ACC microsite writers Brad Jenkins, Matt Auerbach and Mick McDonald got together this week to take a look back at the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament while also looking ahead to this week’s regional action.

Tony Bennett hope that Kyle Guy regains his shooting touch and leads Virginia to its first Final Four since 1984. (Amber Searls/USA TODAY Sports)

Brad Jenkins: Here we go. The ACC proved its strength at the top by putting five teams in the Sweet Sixteen. But before we discuss the outlook for those schools, any thoughts on the league’s two early exit squads — Louisville and Syracuse?

Mick McDonald: I was surprised Louisville lost the way it did, but who could have counted on Minnesota shooting the ball like that? I’m not sure the Gophers will EVER have another shooting night like that.

Matt Auerbach: Let me just reiterate for the eleven hundredth time how disappointing Syracuse’s season was. The Orange were never the team I expected them to be, and maybe that’s just on me. Certainly the absence of Frank Howard was an issue against Baylor, but this year was just wildly uneven for them from start to finish. As for Louisville, despite the tough finish to the year, I would call Chris Mack’s first year a success. With a strong recruiting class coming and the development of his young players — particularly Jordan Nwora — I expect a big year two for the Cardinals under Mack.

Mick McDonald: And yes, the future is very bright for the Cardinals. Chris Mack will have them in the top 10 in the next two years.

Brad Jenkins: Agreed. The Orange and Clemson must be the biggest disappointments in the league this year after returning their cores from a pair of Sweet Sixteen clubs a year ago. And Louisville is certainly headed for great things soon. Now on to the survivors. Let’s take a look at the ACC teams in action on Thursday this week, starting with Virginia in the South Region in Louisville. Thoughts on the Cavaliers’ chances there?

Mick McDonald: Look, Oregon wasn’t very good this year. Once Bol Bol got hurt, the Ducks didn’t really have an identity. But give Dana Altman credit. He figured out that they just needed to become a super-athletic, defensive freak type of team, with a great point guard in Payton Pritchard. They are the type of big, athletic club that can give Virginia’s offense trouble. Can Oregon score on Virginia? Not very likely. First to 50 wins?

Matt Auerbach: I still think Virginia is the favorite to win the Tournament, but I’m really a little worried about the Oregon match-up. The Ducks had a really poor overall season, but there is no denying they are currently playing some of the best basketball out there, particularly on the defensive end of the court. This game is tricky for me, because if both teams play their best, Virginia definitely wins — if not, Oregon may get them. I think if the Cavaliers win convincingly, they will rout the winner of Tennessee and Purdue on their way to the Final Four.

Mick McDonald: I’d like to see a statement game from De’Andre Hunter. He looked a little tentative in the Oklahoma game, and this is the type of game that will lend itself to taking over the offense at points. Also, Mamadi Diakite apparently finally putting all the tools together could not have happened at a better time. He looked fantastic in Virginia’s first two games and has given it that interior scoring option they have so badly needed.

Brad Jenkins: I admit that I was really worried when Virginia got down 14 points in the first half to Gardner-Webb. All I could think about was dreading having to go to the postgame presser and seeing those kids crushed again. Thankfully they pulled it together. And like Tony Bennett said, they defended like Virginia for 40 minutes against Oklahoma. I see them doing the same in Louisville and coming out OK. Any concerns about Kyle Guy’s sudden shooting slump?

Mick McDonald: Not really. He got some good looks against Oklahoma — they just didn’t go down. I worry a bit about him getting bullied and not being able to get open against Oregon, but if he gets enough open looks, he will knock some down. Shooters shoot, as the saying goes.

Matt Auerbach: I wouldn’t be concerned about Guy, but with the way Kenny Wooten is throwing shots back, Guy will need to make some perimeter shots — something he did better than just about anyone all year.

Brad Jenkins: Now on to the West Region semifinal rematch between Florida State and Gonzaga. Can the Seminoles pull off the upset again?

Mick McDonald: Florida State is good enough to beat any team in the country and I actually think they match up as well as a team can against Gonzaga. They have sufficient athletes to throw at Rui Hachimura and Brandon Clarke that should be able to rattle them. The key for me: Can Josh Perkins handle physical athletes like Trent Forrest, Terrance Mann and David Nichols that Leonard Hamilton? If he turns the ball over more than a normal rate, I like Florida State’s chances.

Matt Auerbach: Why not? They’ve been about as impressive as anyone else after the first weekend. Eleven deep, with that length and experience. I can certainly see it happening again, but not easily. People will focus on Killian Tillie playing this year, but the X-factor is Brandon Clarke — he’s almost a Seminole prototype on the other side, and I think he presents a lot of issues for Leonard Hamilton’s team on both ends.

Mick McDonald: Great point on Clarke, Matt. He is such a force on the inside, most teams have to be very worried about getting their bigs in foul trouble against him. The Seminoles have less of a worry because they are so deep.

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Oregon is Incredibly Hot: Does it Matter?

Posted by Adam Butler on March 26th, 2019

In the general realm of sport, we are often quick to relegate a team’s temperature. A team is – often obviously – HOT if they’ve won a series of consecutive games. Of course they are COLD if the opposite is true. In this time of survival and advancement, the latter is mostly irrelevant, the former, however, is heavily debated.

Oregon Has Been Blasting the Competition Over the Last Month (USA Today Images)

Take, for example, the famed 2011 Kemba Walker Connecticut Huskies. They wrapped regular season play, losers of four of their last five games, seven of their past 11. They were frigid before they were scalding, famously sweeping through the Big East and NCAA Tournaments over the last month of the season. They finished hot. Conversely, Gerry McNamara’s 2006 Syracuse team heroically get heated up in the Big East Tournament, winning four games in four days. Their season salvaged, the darlings of the sport promptly lost in the first round of the NCAAs. In March, you’re perhaps only as good as your last game.

These Oregon Ducks, however, they’re hot. Are they the UConn kind of hot or the Syracuse kind? That’s difficult to say and is ultimately rooted in results. Focusing on process – and I suppose temperature, if that’s the case – the Ducks are on fire. They’ve won 10 straight games and have improved their defense by an astounding 20 points per 100 possessions. Over this streak, the Ducks are yielding just 0.82 points per possession. Extrapolated across the whole season that would place the Ducks a significant five points per 100 possessions better than the next best defense (Texas Tech). Of note, these are raw rather than adjusted numbers, but what is March but raw?

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Rushed Reactions: NCAA Tournament, Second Round

Posted by rtmsf on March 25th, 2019

Over the weekend RTC had correspondents reporting in real time from the Columbus, Columbia, Hartford, San Jose and Salt Lake City pods. Using social media to share information, we produced Rushed Reactions threads in Twitter for each game in those locations. Click within each tweet to see the entire RR thread for each game. Have a look below.S

#12 Oregon 73, #13 UC Irvine 54.

#1 Virginia 63, #9 Oklahoma 51.

#2 Tennessee 83, #10 Iowa 77 (OT)

#3 Purdue 87, #6 Villanova 61.

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