Iowa State Riding High on Another Selection Sunday

Posted by Brian Goodman on March 12th, 2017

With just a few hours to go before the brackets are revealed, there are aren’t many programs around the country riding a bigger wave than Iowa StateSteve Prohm‘s team has elevated its play over the last several weeks and is clicking at precisely the right time, downing Oklahoma State, TCU and West Virginia in succession en route to its third Big 12 Tournament crown in four seasons. This isn’t the most talented Cyclones team since Fred Hoiberg resurrected the program, but it may be the most cohesive. Here are three key reasons why.

Iowa State has given its fans plenty to be excited about during their recent stretch of play. (Danny Medley/USA Today)

  • Veteran leadership: The is a cliche rooted in truth — the Cyclones’ core of Monte’ MorrisNaz Mitrou-Long and Matt Thomas comprise the winningest class in program history. Their run started as supporting players on the 2013-14 squad, the first Iowa State team to make the Sweet Sixteen since the Larry Eustachy era. Following their first-round NCAA Tournament loss to UAB a year later and Hoiberg’s subsequent departure to the NBA, a vocal subset of fans questioned the sustainability of the Iowa State program. While Prohm’s tenure hasn’t come without some speed bumps, his team is now in great position based on the combined strength and experience of his nucleus.

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Rushed Reactions: Arizona 83, Oregon 80

Posted by RJ Abeytia on March 12th, 2017

Arizona left no doubt that it is the most complete Pac-12 team this season. The Wildcats beat UCLA and Oregon on back-to-back nights, and they did it with star big man Lauri Markannen taking only four shots and scoring only 11 points. Oregon may have the most experience and UCLA may have the biggest upside, but Arizona can win at multiple paces and in multiple ways.

Arizona Ran Through Oregon to Claim the Pac-12 Tournament Title (USA Today Images)

Three Key Takeaways.

  1. The game has changed. Arizona came into tonight’s game with a firm commitment to drive Oregon off the three-point line, even if that meant giving up layups as a result. The Ducks were credited with 30 layup attempts, converting only half of them. However, Oregon — a team that gets nearly 40 percent of its points from the three-point line — only notched 19 percent of their points from distance tonight. Oregon adjusted in the second half by driving to the bucket relentlessly and getting fouls. Foul trouble was the monkey wrench that hurt Arizona in the second half, but Sean Miller confirmed that taking away the three was the priority. It’s counterintuitive relative to the long-established philosophy of defending from the inside out, and it reflects just how much the style of the game and the three-point line have revolutionized not just the way teams attack but also the way they defend.
  2. Track Dillon Brooks’ usage in the NCAA Tournament. Dana Altman and Tyler Dorsey were not excited last night about the stagnation that resulted largely because of Brooks’ ball dominance. Tonight Brooks scored 17 of Oregon’s 29 points in the first half and took 12 of their 29 shots. Oregon’s offensive efficiency that half was 85.3. In the second half, foul trouble opened the door for Tyler Dorsey, who took over the lead role and logged a very efficient 21 points on only 10 shots. Oregon’s offensive efficiency in the second half was 141.7. The Ducks are at their most dangerous when they have everybody engaged (most teams are), but with a player as exceptional as Brooks it can be difficult to find that balance. There is not clear evidence of any kind of a rift between Brooks and his team, but the Ducks’ last two games illustrated that making Oregon one-dimensional is a big step towards beating them, even if that one dimension is a player as good as Brooks.
  3. Chris Boucher was missed.  Altman admitted that it was tough to account for the absence of the Ducks’ senior shot-blocker and three-point threat extraordinaire. Make no mistake: Boucher was missed on both ends of the court tonight. His reputation is built on rim protection but his ability to stretch defenses and create mismatches is something Altman must resolve by the time Oregon starts NCAA Tournament play.

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Rushed Reactions: Villanova 74, Creighton 60

Posted by Justin Kundrat on March 11th, 2017

RTC’s Justin Kundrat (@justinkundrat) is providing on-site coverage of the Big East Tournament all week long.

Villanova Just Keeps Winning (USA Today Images)

Three Key Takeaways.

  1. It’s going to take a confluence of factors for Villanova to lose. As Butler proved this season, Villanova is beatable only under a perfect set of circumstances. Namely, an off shooting night from the Wildcats and opposing personnel that are capable of slowing the game to a crawl and turning it into a rock fight. Villanova struggles with defensive-minded teams that successfully clog the paint and force them to settle for jump shots. Across its three losses this season, Villanova attempted a significantly higher than average number of three-pointers. But few teams have the personnel to warp the driving lanes of Josh Hart and Jalen Brunson, a critical source of scoring and ball movement.
  2. Josh Hart has cemented his place as National Player of the Year. With the ever-improving play of Brunson and the emergence of Donte DiVincenzo as a lights-out shooter, Hart’s NPOY campaign took a back seat for a while. But he always seems to show up at the right times, whether by forcing his way into the lane to generate offense or coming up with a loose ball on the defensive end. Given Villanova’s strong play lately and Hart’s “do-it-all” role, it’s difficult to argue against him winning the award. And if there was a good guy of the year award, Hart would probably win that too.
  3. For better or worse, Creighton remains highly match-up dependent. On one end, the Bluejays’ spread offense is well-equipped to deal with a variety of opposing defenses (although its effectiveness lately has been tied to streaky shooting). However, the team has struggled on the defensive end, particularly against perimeter-oriented teams that rely heavily on ball movement to exploit out of position defenders. Xavier, Marquette and Villanova all fit this mold, and perhaps unsurprisingly, all have posted highly efficient games in their battles with Creighton.

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Rushed Reactions: Wisconsin 76, Northwestern 48

Posted by Chris Stone on March 11th, 2017

RTC’s Chris Stone (@cstonehoops) is providing on-site coverage of the Big Ten Tournament in Washington, DC.

Wisconsin won the hustle stats against Northwestern. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

Three Key Takeaways:

  1. Is Wisconsin back? All too frequently this season we’ve had to ask ourselves, “Is Duke back?” Maybe it’s time to shift the subject and ask the same thing about the Badgers. Before their home win over Minnesota in the final game of the regular season, the Badgers had lost five of six. They are now on a three-game winning streak with victories over the Gophers, Indiana and Northwestern. Wisconsin’s defense against the Wildcats today was smothering, holding them to a measly 0.76 points per possession. The Badgers also seemed to find a groove offensively. They made 12-of-29 three-pointers en route to 76 total points. Wisconsin’s late season losing streak likely pushed it several spots down the seed ladder, but when the Badgers are playing like this, they are a very dangerous opponent.
  2. Northwestern’s offense is its biggest March limitation. There’s no doubt that Wisconsin’s defense played a role in this, but the Wildcats’ offensive weaknesses were on display Saturday as it delivered its worst performance of the season — the fifth time this year (all losses) that they had scored below 0.90 points per possession. Northwestern’s most valuable offensive pieces are inefficient scorers, with Bryant McIntosh, Vic Law and Scottie Lindsay all logging effective field goal percentages under 51.0 percent. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the Wildcats are doomed to a short stay in their first NCAA Tournament ever, but if they want to win a game next week, they’ll need more out of their offense or a significantly better defensive outing to get the job done.
  3. Wisconsin won the hustle stats and that mattered. Both Northwestern head coach Chris Collins and McIntosh mentioned the Badgers’ work on the offensive boards and getting to loose balls as a turning point in Saturday’s game. “I thought those were the areas where they were able to stretch out their lead,” Collins said. Wisconsin grabbed 12 offensive boards, and while the box score doesn’t keep track of loose balls, it was often the Badgers who seemed to come up with them.

Star of the Game: Nigel Hayes, Wisconsin. Hayes finished with 18 points and 10 rebounds, his fifth double-double of the season. Most importantly, he was a very efficient player today on the offensive end of the floor. Hayes shot 7-of-11 from the field and made a pair of three-pointers.

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Rushed Reactions: Michigan 84, Minnesota 77

Posted by Chris Stone on March 11th, 2017

RTC’s Chris Stone (@cstonehoops) is providing on-site coverage of the Big Ten Tournament in Washington, DC.

Moritz Wagner and Derrick Walton Jr. helped lead Michigan to the Big Ten title game. (AP)

Three Key Takeaways:

  1. Good offense beats out good defense once again. With 12:17 remaining in the second half and the score tied 55-55, Michigan’s Duncan Robinson caught a pass in the left corner, took one shuffle dribble to his right, and rose up to drain a three-pointer over a pair of Minnesota defenders. Robinson’s three was significant not only because Minnesota was unable to close the gap again after it went down, but because it was the latest remainder that in college hoops, good offense beats good defense. The Gophers came into the game with a top 15 defense based on adjusted efficiency, but Michigan’s top 10 offense was simply too good in getting to its desired spots and knocking down shots when the ball got there.
  2. Derrick Walton, Jr. can help carry Michigan in March. If there’s one March mantra that always seems to come true, it’s that good guard play is imperative to a deep run in the NCAA Tournament. Well, Walton could be the latest senior point guard to add his name to a long line of those who have carried their teams into the second weekend and perhaps beyond. Walton was methodical, frequently directing traffic while calling for ball screens to attack Minnesota’s defense, en route to 29 points. He made sure to let the Gophers know about it, too, by talking trash on his way back down the floor.
  3. The Wolverines’ interior defense may still prove to be a problem. For as good as Michigan’s offense can look, its defense does not. For the second straight day, the Wolverines struggled to stop a team inside the arc. Michigan frequently gave up dribble penetration that often resulted in layups or dump-off passes for easy baskets. Minnesota center Reggie Lynch also had a field day, scoring 12 points on 6-of-7 shooting from the field. Add in 15 offensive rebounds for the Gophers and it’s easy to find the thing that could doom the Wolverines in a single-elimination tournament. It just wasn’t enough today.

Star of the Game: This award pretty easily goes to Michigan’s Derrick Walton. In addition to 29 points, he added nine assists and five rebounds. As Walton shot a couple of free throws near the end of the game, one Michigan fan hollered, “That’s the best point guard in the Big Ten right there.” With Maryland at home, there was nobody left to dispute his claim.

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Will Vanderbilt’s Late Season Turnaround Result in an SEC Title?

Posted by David Changas on March 11th, 2017

Coming into the SEC Tournament, most of the discussion surrounding Vanderbilt centered on the 17-14 Commodores potentially becoming the first at-large selection with 15 losses in the history of the NCAA Tournament. By most accounts, they were either on the right side of the bubble or solidly in the field. Given how well Bryce Drew‘s team has performed over its first two games of the tournament, Vanderbilt has erased any doubt about whether they will make next week’s Field of 68. As a matter of fact, many observers are now questioning whether that 15th loss will even come this weekend, as the Commodores winning the SEC’s automatic bid is no longer out of the question.

Bryce Drew has engineered a stunning turnaround in his first season in Nashville (thesportsbank.net)

Vanderbilt’s resurgence over the past month to become the SEC’s fifth NCAA Tournament team has been nothing short of remarkable. After a 20-point beatdown at the hands of lowly Missouri on February 11, the Commodores stood at a middling 12-13 overall (5-7 SEC). Not only did an NCAA Tournament bid seem like a laughable proposition; even the NIT seemed anything but a sure thing. From that point on, though, Drew’s defense has shown dramatic improvement in winning seven of eight games, with the only loss coming at Kentucky in a game they led by double-figures in the second half. This is clearly not the same team that lost four of its first five SEC home games and got taken to the woodshed in Columbia.

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Michigan Has the Look of a March Sleeper

Posted by Chris Stone on March 11th, 2017

After dispatching Illinois in their opening round game of the Big Ten Tournament, Michigan upset top-seeded Purdue on Friday behind 26 points from DJ Wilson and 54.3 percent shooting inside the arc. Now, just two days after an incredibly harrowing incident in which the Wolverines’ plane aborted takeoff, skidded off the runway and nearly ended up in a ravine, the team has the look of a potential NCAA Tournament sleeper. “We’ve been selling the fun of a run,” head coach John Beilein said after Friday’s victory. “You throw in what happened on Wednesday, now they’ve got a lot of memories. We don’t want it to stop.”

Derrick Walton Jr. and Michigan are built to win in March. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Michigan figures to make the NCAA Tournament field come Selection Sunday, likely ending up with a middling seed after amassing a 10-8 record during Big Ten regular season play. Recent history suggests that might not be such a bad thing. Under-seeded major conference teams who are well-respected by efficiency metrics like KenPom have been known to deliver. Last season, Syracuse became the first No. 10 seed to make a Final Four. In 2015, Michigan State made the final weekend as a No. 7 seed, and in 2014, No. 11 Tennessee found its way into the Sweet Sixteen after winning a play-in game. After Friday’s win, the Wolverines rank 24th in KenPom, a placement that would put them in line for a No. 6 seed if the Selection Committee seeded strictly on that ranking. Michigan may end up a couple lines lower than that.

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Rushed Reactions: Arizona 86, UCLA 75

Posted by RJ Abeytia on March 11th, 2017

Arizona took all the suspense out of the most anticipated game of the Pac-12 Tournament by dominating UCLA as well as any team has this year. This is the Wildcats’ team that can absolutely play in the Final Four (and with all the talk of UCLA playing in Sacramento followed by San Jose, why has nobody talked about Arizona playing for a National Championship just up the road in Glendale? Such dreams are no longer as far-fetched as they may have seemed before the Pac-12 Tournament started.

Key Takeaways.

Arizona Torched the Bruins (USA Today Images)

  1. Arizona’s defense. There are poor shooting nights and there are nights when a team forces poor shots all night. Friday night’s game was the latter. Yes, the Bruins shot miserably from the floor. UCLA’s 4-of-25 performance from three-point range was every bit as ugly as it seemed, but the vast majority of those misses were contested threes. Arizona was willing to allow penetration off the bounce occasionally, but they closed out on shooters, contested passes and fought through screens all night long. They were also willing to put the Bruins on the line in exchange for banging and shoving them all over the court. UCLA made 23-of-26 from the foul line, but they shot only 41 percent from the field with an offensive efficiency rating of 96.2. No Pac-12 opponent had to date held the Bruins below 101.0 in that category this season.
  2. Lauri Markannen has smashed through the freshman wall. Arizona was forced to send Markannen into the post on its Washington road trip, and that move has really triggered the growth of the rest of his game. Despite a prolonged shooting slump from beyond the arc, Markannen found a physicality that has only made him more lethal now that his shot has returned. Against UCLA, Markannen was the best player on the floor for much of the game. He had 29 points on 10-of-22 shooting to go along with six rebounds in 32 turnover-free minutes. He can hurt teams all over the floor, and he’s becoming a physical and effective defender all as well. It’s somewhat scary to think that we may not have seen his best game yet.
  3. UCLA is Lonzo Ball and T.J. Leaf.  The Bruins as a team have undoubtedly improved from the last year’s group that went 15-17, but they have no answer when both of their talented freshmen struggle against elite competition. Leaf still looked a step slow in dealing with his injured left ankle, shooting 3-of-9 from the field and struggling to find his range in the post. Ball didn’t look like himself for much of the night either, in large part because of the ferocious defense of Allonzo Trier, Rawle Alkins and Kadeem Allen. The superstar freshman logged eight points, six assists and four turnovers, but he did not at any point have control of this game in the same way that he’s controlled so many others. The bottom line is that UCLA is only going as far as its two freshmen take them, and that could be an unsettling thought for Bruins’ fans worried about the NCAA Tournament draw.

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Rushed Reactions: Oregon 73, California 65

Posted by RJ Abeytia on March 11th, 2017

Oregon and Cal came into the game as the two best defensive teams in the league, and after a fast start for the offenses, the defenses rose up and put a stranglehold on the game. In the end, Cal’s early loss of Jabari Bird proved to be a bridge too far as the NCAA Tournament-galvanizing win the Bears were looking for eluded them and the Ducks moved onto their fourth Pac-12 title game in five seasons.  

Oregon is in Position to Win Its Second Straight Pac-12 Title (USA Today Images)

Key Takeaways.

  • Oregon’s versatility is a big, big deal. The Ducks overcame a subpar (3-of-12 FG) and foul-plagued (he picked up his fourth foul with 18:02 left in the second half) game from Dillon Brooks. Tyler Dorsey picked up his slack with a 23-point performance, but Oregon was not dependent on Brooks to put on his cape at the end. Dylan Ennis posted the key bucket in the final few minutes, curling off a weave handoff and getting to the bucket for the game-sealing three-point play.
  • One of the biggest factors was Oregon’s ability to overcome a poor effort from its freshman point guard and Cal’s inability to do the same. Payton Pritchard was a virtual non-entity on offense (three points) and earned the ire of Dana Altman defensively as well. Cal’s Charlie Moore had a decent overall line with 15 points on 5-of-11 shooting but he also committed seven turnovers and could not get the Bears a good shot when they desperately needed one. With 2:10 to go and the Bears down three, he turned it over with a bad double-dribble possession. Moments later, Ennis hit the and-one that sealed the game for the Ducks. With Dorsey, Brooks and Ennis, Oregon didn’t need Pritchard to organize them and it made the difference.
  • Jordan Bell passes the eye test. Bell had a monster block on a Stephen Domingo drive late where he came from seemingly nowhere (the deep right wing, but you get the idea) to erase what appeared to be an easy layup. He has an endless motor, plays very physically, yet only had two fouls in a game that featured 41 violations. He also contributed 15 rebounds, five blocks and a steal. Oregon is the best defensive team in the conference and Bell is one of the best defenders in college basketball. People want to think Go-Go offense when they think Oregon, but the deeper they go into this season the clearer it is that it’s defense that forms the foundation of this team.

Star of the Game. Tyler Dorsey, Oregon. Bell was a close second, but Dorsey put up 23 points in 32 turnover-free minutes in a game that was effectively played without Dillon Brooks. Cal had nobody who could step up and replace Jabari Bird’s production in the same way that Dorsey did for the Ducks.

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Rushed Reactions: West Virginia 51, Kansas State 50

Posted by Brian Goodman on March 11th, 2017

RTC’s Brian Goodman (@BSGoodman) is providing on-site coverage of the Big 12 Tournament.

West Virginia Pulls Off the Comeback (USA Today Images)

Three Key Takeaways.

  1. Offense was nowhere to be found in first-half slog. In their previous two meetings against the Mountaineers, Kansas State struggled to hold onto the ball, posting turnover rates above 20 percent. West Virginia’s press didn’t frustrate the Wildcats quite as much tonight, as Bob Huggins‘ team generated takeaways on just 18.3 percent of Kansas State’s possessions. Instead, it was poor half-court offense, inaccurate three-point shooting and a lack of offensive rebounds that set the Wildcats back early — scoring just 0.78 points per possession before halftime. Those struggles would have been a much bigger issue had West Virginia scored more than 0.50 points per trip itself.
  2. West Virginia’s defensive adjustment keys second-half rally. The Mountaineers’ defensive identity as a pressing team is firmly entrenched, but it’s tough to set it up if you don’t make shots. West Virginia shot an ice-cold 18.8 percent in the first half and failed to score a single point 0ff a Kansas State giveaway until the second half. Huggins switched things up down the stretch, deploying a 1-3-1 zone that worked all the way down to the final play, when Kamau Stokes picked up his dribble and had nowhere to go with his team needing a bucket to win. The Wildcats connected on just four shots over the final 13:26 of the game, buying just enough time for the Mountaineers to make up a 12-point deficit.
  3. Isaiah Maurice provides another big body. Two years into his career, Dean Wade is still mostly a one-way big man who struggles to defend similarly-sized players. D.J. Johnson can’t do it all down low, so Bruce Weber needs another option. Enter the unlikely Maurice, a redshirt freshman and former Old Dominion commitment. Maurice helped the Wildcats contain Johnathan Motley on Thursday and performed admirably on Friday in 20 minutes of action. West Virginia shot just 2-of-15 inside the arc in the first half, with Maurice holding down the paint and altering shots by Jevon Carter and Nathan Adrian. Until Wade becomes more assertive on the defensive end, expect Maurice to continue to play a key role in the Wildcats’ rotation.

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