NCAA Tournament Instareaction: SEC Teams

Posted by David Changas on March 11th, 2018

For the first time ever, the SEC has placed eight teams into the NCAA Tournament field. Here are some quick impressions of the draws each of those teams received.

Tennessee

Admiral Schofield has been a beast for Tennessee down the stretch. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

  • Seed: #3, South
  • Quick First Round Preview: The Volunteers draw Horizon League champion Wright State. The Raiders are solid defensively, ranking 53rd nationally in defense, per KenPom, but struggle mightily on the offensive end (#248). Tennessee needs to get guard Jordan Bowden going, but the Vols should be able to take care of business here.
  • Intriguing Potential Matchup: Texas in the Sweet Sixteen. Sure, the Longhorns would have to upset both Nevada and Cincinnati to get to the regionals, but who wouldn’t want to see Rick Barnes take on the school he led to 16 NCAA Touranment bids in 17 seasons.
  • Final Word: The Volunteers need to be more efficient offensively, especially inside the arc, but they are a threat to make a deep run as they rarely play themselves out of games.

Auburn

  • Seed: #4, Midwest
  • Quick First Round Preview: The Tigers open with College of Charleston and should be able to exploit the Cougars’ shoddy three-point defense to find immediate success.
  • Intriguing Potential Matchup: Kansas in the Sweet Sixteen. Bruce Pearl had his fair share of success at Tennessee against Bill Self, and if the Tigers can right the shaky ship to make it to the second weekend, they could be dangerous upon arrival.
  • Final Word: Auburn has struggled mightily on the offensive end down the stretch, and may have run out of gas this season. An early exit from the SEC Tournament this weekend might have been a blessing in disguise.

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NCAA Tournament Instareaction: Big 12 Teams

Posted by Brian Goodman on March 11th, 2018

Every passing postseason where a Big 12 team gets bounced in embarrassing fashion or fails to maximize its potential by way of an otherwise-excusable loss becomes another pock mark on the conference’s reputation. Oklahoma got the Big 12 off the schneid with a Final Four Run in 2016, but it hasn’t been enough. There’s never been more pressure on the league to produce than there is this year, and seven teams will get a bite at the apple. Another Big 12 team has to break through eventually… right?

Kansas (#1 Midwest)

Behind senior guard Devonte’ Graham, Kansas will aim to cut down the nets in San Antonio. (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

  • Best Case: The recent breakouts of Malik Newman and Silvio De Sousa continue into the NCAA Tournament, buying additional time for Udoka Azubuike to recover from his MCL injury. With the Jayhawks’ starting center at full strength for the second weekend, Bill Self makes his third Final Four as the Kansas head coach.
  • Worst Case: Foul trouble and a cold shooting night around the perimeter spell another early exit, this time in the Round of 32.

Texas Tech (#3 East)

  • Best Case: Keenan EvansZach Smith and Justin Gray take advantage of a nearly week-long break and get healthy, and the Red Raiders channel the best version of themselves to their first ever Elite Eight appearance.
  • Worst Case: The Red Raiders continue to slide and are defeated at the hands of Stephen F. Austin, a team that bears some striking similarities to the West Virginia team that bested Tech in two of their three meetings.

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NCAA Tournament Instareaction: ACC Teams

Posted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on March 11th, 2018

The ACC received nine bids to the NCAA Tournament today — the same number as a year ago — and is well-represented at the top of the bracket. Virginia rode its superb regular season and ACC Tournament championship all the way to the top of the field as the NCAA Tourney’s #1 overall seed. Tobacco road rivals North Carolina and Duke each landed on the #2 seed line with the Tar Heels earning the preferred Charlotte pod for the first weekend. Some late bid-stealers (Davidson and San Diego State, notably) burst the bubble for two ACC teams — Louisville and Notre Dame didn’t make the cut — but Syracuse somehow squeaked into the field. Here are some quick best- and worst-case scenarios for each of the nine ACC teams in this year’s field.

Virginia (#1 South)

Virginia players celebrate with the championship trophy after defeating North Carolina in the ACC tournament. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

  • Best Case: The Cavaliers ride the nation’s top defense all the way to San Antonio, giving Tony Bennett his first Final Four appearance and a shot at the school’s first-ever National Championship.
  • Worst Case: Virginia’s offense bogs down against a team that has enough NBA-level talent to make shots against the pack-line defense. Both Arizona and Kentucky fit that description, and one of them will likely play the Cavaliers in the Sweet Sixteen.

North Carolina (#2 West)

  • Best Case: Joel Berry turns into Mr. March again, leading the veteran Tar Heels back to the Final Four for the third consecutive year.
  • Worst Case: The threes don’t connect for North Carolina and they can’t get enough stops against a hot Michigan squad in the Sweet Sixteen.

Duke (#2 Midwest)

  • Best Case: Duke plays to its potential on offense and opponents continue to struggle against the Blue Devils’ zone defense, giving Coach K a chance to win his sixth National Championship.
  • Worst Case: Duke’s prize freshmen succumb to postseason pressure, and once again, a talented Blue Devil team underachieves in the Big Dance — perhaps as early as the Second Round.

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Rushed Reactions: Virginia 71, North Carolina 63

Posted by Matt Auerbach on March 10th, 2018

RTC’s Matt Auerbach (@mauerbach24) is providing on-site coverage of the ACC Tournament this weekend.

Three Key Takeaways.

Virginia Won Its Third ACC Championship in Five Years Tonight (USA Today Images)

  1. Crown them. Despite being picked a middling sixth in the ACC preseason poll, Virginia pulled off the season sweep by comfortably cruising to the regular season title and backing it up with an impressive three-day run to capture the school’s third ACC Tournament crown. Detractors may still remain given the Cavaliers’ methodical style of play, but given the sheer dominance in which Virginia has owned a league filled with Hall of Fame coaches and NBA Draft choices, omitting Tony Bennett‘s group from your short list of national title contenders in San Antonio would be complete folly.
  2. Luke Maye and Kenny Williams kept the Tar Heels afloat. After Cameron Johnson and Joel Berry II opened the scoring column for North Carolina, nary a Heel other than Luke Maye or Kenny Williams made a field goal from the 18:07 mark in the first half until the 17:41 mark of the second half. Without the duo’s combined 23 of the team’s 30 points in the first, Virginia could have very easily run North Carolina right out of the building instead of only leading by four at the intermission.
  3. Kyle Guy is an unabashed shot taker and maker. Guy, Virginia’s leading scorer and most frequent shooter by a wide margin (117 more attempts than Ty Jerome coming into tonight) seized control on many of the important possessions in the second half. When the Virginia lead had been whittled down to just a bucket with 10 minutes left to play, Guy responded with a jumper to stretch the lead to four. And with North Carolina still within three points at the eight-minute mark, Guy knocked down a pull-up, and scored on a set play off a double screen on the following possession to push the spread to seven. While Virginia is a team in every sense of the word, Guy is the player who has the stones to hunt and convert critical buckets when such things are necessary.

Star of the Game: Kyle Guy, Virginia. Despite another evening of exceptional floor games from Ty Jerome (12 points, six assists, six rebounds) and Devon Hall (15 points, five rebounds, four assists), Guy’s willingness to take and make the biggest shots of the night ultimately earned him the tournament MVP. With a team-high 16 points, Guy has now reached double figures in 27 of Virginia’s 33 games this year.

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Rushed Reactions: Villanova 76, Providence 66 [OT]

Posted by Justin Kundrat on March 10th, 2018

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

Three Key Takeaways.

Villanova Adds Some More Big East Hardware to Its Trophy Case (USA Today Images)

  1. With Mikal Bridges playing his A game, Villanova is nearly impossible to beatJalen Brunson may have accumulated all the National Player of the Year accolades, but it was Bridges who made the key plays in overtime tonight. The 6’7″ swingman knocked down two critical three-pointers in the extra period to maintain Villanova’s tenuous lead over the Friars before making the game-winning play — with 25 seconds remaining and Providence then down six, he notched a block that the Wildcats were able to corral and correspondingly ice the game. Brunson is unquestionably the leader of this team, but Bridges’ play, when aggressive, is nearly impossible to contain. His release point is too high to contest from the perimeter; his long arms are too difficult to manage around the basket; and his oft-discussed defense is simply menacing.
  2. Providence is playing its best basketball of the season. When watching the Friars as recently as two weeks ago, a run like this was unforeseeable. Providence had dropped three of its last five games and had skirted by St. John’s and Georgetown on the coattails of its defense. Given the Friars’ length and interchangeable parts, though, their defense, particularly in crowding the lanes, has been solid for most of the season. But the starters’ offensive contributions were too inconsistent to give hope for a deep NCAA Tournament run, much less a bid. So this week, between Ed Cooley‘s masterful game-planning and the outbursts of point guard Kyron Cartwright, the scale has tipped in the opposite direction.  As a likely #8 or #9 seed, Providence will be a tough out if it can control the game’s tempo.
  3. The Big East Tournament never fails to disappoint. If there was ever a question about the institution of the Big East Tournament, it no longer exists. Providence amazingly played three consecutive overtime games, in addition to a number of other nail-biters here at Madison Square Garden. It seems like there’s a tweetstorm during the event’s semifinals and championship games demanding that everyone tune in because of the atmosphere combined with quality of play. Undoubtedly the whole country was watching tonight as a fury-laden, fire-breathing Providence squad took what might be the best team in the country down to the wire. It doesn’t seem to matter which teams are playing or who graduates from season to season, the Big East Tournament remains must-watch TV.

Star of the GameMikal Bridges (25 points) has always been the Villanova player with the highest ceiling and tonight it showed in spades. He was disruptive with his on-ball defense of Cartwright and his off-ball help defense when contesting shots. He also won the Big East Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player award.

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Rushed Reactions: West Virginia 66, Texas Tech 63

Posted by Brian Goodman on March 10th, 2018

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

Three Key Takeaways.

Daxter Miles Gets a Third Shot This Season at Kansas (USA Today Images)

  1. Not Your In-Laws’ Mountaineers. West Virginia’s trademark press didn’t generate the same results as usual, as the Red Raiders turned the ball over on just 15.6 percent of their possessions Friday night. On most nights, that would cause trouble for the Mountaineers since they have such a hard time scoring in Bob Huggins‘ motion offense, but they scored an even 1.00 points per possession in the winning effort. After the game, Huggins acknowledged that the grind of the conference tournament environment led him to pull back the reins, but the adjustment clearly worked. The Mountaineers actually relinquished their Big 12 defensive turnover percentage crown to Kansas State this season as conference opponents have grown accustomed to West Virginia’s brand of havoc; while it would be silly to expect the Mountaineers to completely abandon their hallmark defensive style, their ability to create offense without relying as heavily on turnovers is a positive sign moving forward.
  2. Texas Tech’s offense regresses. Chris Beard‘s team appeared to find its footing over the back half of conference play, as it entered Friday night’s game having scored at least 1.09 points per possession in its previous five outings. West Virginia, however, made frontcourt offense a struggle for the most surprising team in the Big 12. Keenan Evans and Tommy Hamilton IV were the only players who were able to get into any semblance of rhythm, and even then, it was fleeting; Evans uncharacteristically — and unsuccessfully — played hero ball on the game’s decisive possession, and the half-court heave on the next trip looked good out of his hand but rimmed out at the buzzer. Credit is also due to the Mountaineers’ interior defense, as Sagaba KonateEsa Ahmad and Wesley Harris frequently met the Red Raiders at the rim and emerged victorious more often than not.
  3. Jevon Carter and Daxter Miles are looking to go out with a bang. It’s strange knowing that Carter and Miles have just one more game left at the Sprint Center, and on Friday night the senior duo made sure to leave an imprint, combining for 39 points and an atypically hot 9-of-16 clip from distance. The Mountaineers were unusually competent in the half-court, and their leaders needed to be as they didn’t get very much help from their supporting cast.

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Rushed Reactions: North Carolina 74, Duke 69

Posted by Matt Auerbach on March 9th, 2018

RTC’s Matt Auerbach (@mauerbach24) is providing on-site coverage of the ACC Tournament this weekend.

Three Key Takeaways.

It Wouldn’t Be a UNC-Duke Game Without Some Controversy (USA Today Images)

  1. Sweet Revenge. In winning this season’s rubber match in convincing fashion, North Carolina also exacted some revenge for a semifinal loss one year ago to its archrival. Coincidentally, that was also the last game the Tar Heels dropped in 2017 on its way to the school’s sixth National Championship. And while not many pundits expected this year’s version of the Tar Heels to make a third consecutive trip to the Final Four, you’d have to be crazy to dismiss their prospects at this juncture. Senior point guard Joel Berry II (13 points, six assists, three steals) is playing with the swagger of a reigning Final Four MOP — continuing a career that in many ways is synonymous this type of season. Versatile classmate Theo Pinson (eight points, seven assists and three steals while defending Marvin Bagley for most of the night) is playing unquestionably the best basketball of his career, while All-ACC forward Luke Maye (17 points, 10 rebounds) continues a remarkably productive junior campaign. Head coach Roy Williams, in perhaps the best coaching job of his illustrious career, has his team humming once again at just the right time. Sharing the ball, trusting in teammates and giving maximum effort on both ends, this team is a far cry from the same group that lost to Wofford at home three months ago, and a very legitimate threat to repeat as national champions a few weeks from now in San Antonio.
  2. Duke played young. While it’s presumed as a matter of fact that Duke is the most talented team in the country, it is undeniably also true that its elite talent is also very green. Despite a late charge to cut the lead to just three points inside the final minute, the preceding eight-minute stretch had been dominated by North Carolina, ultimately proving to be the difference in the game. Loose balls, 18 offensive boards from the Heels and countless hustle plays all tilted the momentum in North Carolina’s favor. Visibly frustrated, Duke dug itself a hole too deep to emerge from. That is something to keep an eye on heading into the NCAA Tournament. In a knockout scenario, a few lost precious moments of focus can lead to a team’s ouster, as Duke learned a year ago at the hands of South Carolina.
  3. Getting Defensive. While raggedy, the first half illuminated the improvement of both teams on the defensive end. The second- and fifth-ranked offenses in terms of efficiency both struggled mightily in the first 20 minutes, and their opposition had a lot to do with it. While Duke’s shift to becoming an exclusively zone team has garnered all the recent headlines, the Heels have also made great strides in getting stops. Duke shot just 36 percent from the floor in the first half, turning it over 10 times, while the Heels weren’t much better, connecting on 37 percent from the field with six miscues. No one questions whether these teams have the offensive chops to make a run at the Final Four, but becoming more balanced on both ends of the floor will serve both well when they inevitably endure an offensive dry spell.

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Rushed Reactions: Villanova 87, Butler 68

Posted by Justin Kundrat on March 9th, 2018

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

Three Key Takeaways.

The Maestro of the Villanova Juggernaut (USA Today Images)

  1. Villanova’s offense is back to textbook form. The skids were widely observed this season and gave pundits some momentary pause, but if there was ever any doubt, the Wildcats are officially back on track. They followed up a 94-point, 1.43 points per possession domination of Marquette last night with a 19-point rout of Butler in the semifinals. The shocking part was that the Bulldogs didn’t even play badly, they were just never in the game — literally, falling behind 19-0 from the opening horn. With 12 steals leading to open transition baskets and a 14-of-34 perimeter display from the Wildcats, there was no shot at slowing their offense. This kind of domination of quality teams feels like 2016 all over again…
  2. Perhaps more importantly, Villanova is finally playing like a cohesive unit on the defensive end. The passing lane gambles have been better timed, offensive rebounding opportunities are shored up and close-outs on perimeter shooters were noticeably less frenetic. Jay Wright‘s group held Marquette’s high octane offense to 70 points, just the sixth time this season they have failed to eclipse that mark. Then they followed that up tonight by holding Butler to 68 points and just 0.99 points per possession, its seventh lowest of the season. Freshman center Omari Spellman has greatly improved in taking up space in the paint and is no longer routinely exposed in the pick-and-roll.
  3. Butler remains overly match-up dependent. The Bulldogs’ offensive output is highly correlated to the performances of Kelan Martin and Kamar Baldwin, who account for 46 percent of their scoring. When they’re able to exploit opposing guards (like against Seton Hall last night), ball movement is fluid and players are quick to attack the rim. But when matched up with longer defenders, it stagnates. Baldwin dealt with the 7’0″ wingspan of Mikal Bridges for most of the night and struggled to get into the lane and find open looks. Similarly, Martin faced ball denial defense all night and notched just 13 points as a result.

Star of the Game. Villanova’s entire starting lineup. When each starter totals between 12 and 17 points, it’s hard to identify just one who contributed most to the team’s success. Instead it was a collective team effort with each Wildcat starter knocking down at least two three-pointers.

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Rushed Reactions: Kansas 83, Kansas State 67

Posted by Brian Goodman on March 9th, 2018

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

Three Key Takeaways.

Kansas Cruised Past K-State in the Big 12 Tournament Semifinals (USA Today Images)

  1. Kansas’ bomb squad lifts team to victory. With center Udoka Azubuike recovering from an MCL sprain, the Jayhawks knew what they had to do to maintain control and they went out and did it. Twenty-eight of Kansas’ 60 attempts from the field came from beyond the arc, and they connected on 39.3 percent of their tries. Devonte’ Graham was relatively quiet (3-of-11 FG), but he still found a way to approach his season averages, scoring 15 points and dishing out eight assists against just three turnovers. It wasn’t always pretty, as Kansas State at one point cut a 16-point deficit down to two, but it was enough to move on to the championship game tomorrow night.
  2. Personnel issues set Kansas State back. Already without the services of first team All-Big 12 forward Dean Wade, Kansas State was further hampered just a minute into the game when guard Barry Brown took an inadvertent shot to the eye from Graham. Trainers quickly took Brown to the locker room for evaluation and he warmed up on the court prior to the start of the second half, but he never re-entered the contest. Without its two best playmakers, offense quickly became a chore for Bruce Weber‘s team. Forward Makol Mawien was incredibly efficient in the post on his way to a game-high 29 points, but his night was more of an indictment of Mitch Lightfoot‘s interior defense than it was an endorsement of his own game. The Wildcats’ jump shooters had trouble producing all night, which only underscores Wade’s importance to the team.
  3. Kansas needs Udoka Azuibuike healthy in order to make a deep NCAA Tournament run. Between Wade, Azubuike and Mohamed Bamba, Big 12 big men have been dropping like flies, but no team has as much at stake in the health of its frontcourt centerpiece as Kansas. While Silvio De Sousa pitched in with 11 rebounds in 19 minutes of action, he was frequently lost on offense, leading Bill Self to look down his bench knowing that it offered little in the way of solutions. Meanwhile, Lightfoot helped free up Kansas’ shooters and cleaned up a couple of misses, but couldn’t keep up defensively with an average post player in Mawien. With Azubuike, the Jayhawks have Final Four potential. Without him, their season could be over in the blink of an eye.

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Rushed Reactions: Virginia 64, Clemson 58

Posted by Matthew Auerbach on March 9th, 2018

RTC’s Matt Auerbach (@mauerbach24) is providing on-site coverage of the ACC Tournament this weekend.

Three Key Takeaways.

They’re Not Brand Names, But All They Do Is Win (USA Today Images)

  1. Virginia can flip a game quickly. Trailing 20-13 midway through the first half and looking like anything but the overall #1 seed heading into next week’s NCAA Tournament, the Cavaliers held Clemson without a field goal for the final 9:33 of the first half in converting a seven-point deficit into a nine-point advantage. The 19-3 spurt was sparked by De’Andre Hunter on both ends and punctuated by a pair of Kyle Guy triples, but it was the trademark Virginia defense that was most responsible for the game-seizing run. Clemson missed its last 10 field goal attempts of the half and was coaxed into a period in which the veteran team appeared both flummoxed and demoralized.
  2. De’Andre Hunter is a game-changer. Hunter, despite being on floor for less than half of the game, is the only other Cavalier besides Guy who qualifies as a major contributor, per KenPom, with a team-leading usage rate of 25.4 percent. After a Mamadi Diakite floater cut the Tigers’ lead to five, Hunter singlehandedly put the lead back in Virginia’s possession for good. A made three, a steal and hit-ahead to Guy for a dunk, followed by another bucket, gave the Cavs a lead they would never relinquish. A lethal combination of size and athleticism with a rapidly improving set of skills, Hunter’s presence on the floor presents a unique problem for opposing defenses. While Virginia’s offense generally is predicated on crisp ball movement and screening action to get a shot for the open man, Hunter provides a wrinkle that can wreck a defensive game plan, with the ability to score or create in pick-and-pop and isolation sets.
  3. Clemson will be fine.  No need to panic if you’re a Clemson fan. The Tigers will hear their name called on a Selection Sunday for the first time since 2011, and while this game will leave a sour taste in Brad Brownell’s mouth, the hard acceptance here is that Virginia has done this to just about all of its opponents this year. And while it is not debatable that the ceiling for this team was significantly lowered with the season-ending injury suffered by Donte Grantham seven weeks ago, Clemson has the grit, experience and defensive aptitude to find its way into the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament with the right draw.

Star of the Game: Ty Jerome, Virginia. It is the ultimate compliment for a team like Virginia when the task of choosing just one player as the star seems equally as impossible as it is to consistently score on its defense. While Guy led the team in scoring and Hunter’s surge flipped the game, arguments could also be made for the efforts made by big men Diakite (10 points, four rebounds) and Jack Salt (eight points, eight rebounds). Ultimately, though, it was the defense in holding Clemson to 34.7 percent shooting from the field, led by Jerome and Devon Hall, in limiting the high scoring backcourt tandem of Marcquise Reed and Gabe Devoe to 14 points on a combined 5-of-23 shooting. Jerome, being the primary point of attack defender, and for dishing out a career-high 10 assists, gets the nod here — but again, it could’ve been any of this entire squad.

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