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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Rushed Reactions: #3 Notre Dame 77 #2 Florida State 73

Posted by Matthew Auerbach on March 10th, 2017

Three Key Takeaways.

It’s Brey Day in Brooklyn (USA Today Images)

  1. Notre Dame was the harder playing, smarter, better team. The Irish were the beneficiaries of its characteristically hot shooting from beyond the arc (13 made threes), but they also impressively took the fight to the bigger, stronger and more athletic Seminoles. Led by fearless floor leader Matt Farrell, Notre Dame was the aggressor in racing out to a 16-point halftime lead, leaving Florida State struggling to match the intensity of the Irish. A flurry of hot shooting from little-utilized Braian Angola-Rodas (17 points, 4-of-7 from three) was all that kept the game moderately competitive, but Florida State never applied any legitimate pressure to Notre Dame.
  2. This is why it’s impossible to trust Florida State. Just 24 hours ago, I sat in the same seat convinced that this version of the Seminoles was somehow different and perhaps worthy of discussion as a potential Final Four participant. Now I’m not so sure… or maybe I’ve just flat out changed my mind. It was not so much the loss but rather the uninspired, listless nature of the Florida State performance that makes trusting it so disconcerting. An illustration of the Seminoles’ substandard effort came early in the second half. After watching Notre Dame drill eight, mostly uncontested triples in the first 20 minutes, there is very little doubt that Leonard Hamilton addressed this point in the locker room. Just 1:15 after the half, though, Farrell found himself with a wide-open look from the corner as a lazy, last-second closeout effort by Dwayne Bacon once again proved late and futile.
  3. Don’t judge a book by its cover. Farrell and Bonzie Colson look like a pair of guys likely to be picked last in some of the more competitive pickup games in Brooklyn. But tonight, in a circumstance that becoming far from unusual, they were the two best players on the floor. The senior point guard (15 points, six assists) controlled the game from the tip, employing his grit and intellect that sometimes tends to unfairly overshadow his ability. The behemoth front line size of Florida State was somehow no match for the undersized Colson (18 points, six rebounds), who at 6’5” continues to amaze with his nose for the ball and penchant for scoring over taller opponents.

Star of the Game: Steve Vasturia, Notre Dame.  While the aforementioned dominated the tilt, Vasturia matched Colson’s 18 points in hitting some big shots to stem the tide and grabbed g a critical offensive rebound in the final minute.

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Rushed Reactions: Creighton 75, Xavier 72

Posted by Justin Kundrat on March 10th, 2017

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

Marcus Foster’s Big Shot Carried Creighton to the Finals (USA Today Images)

Three Key Takeaways.

  1. Consistent play from Justin Patton is a major determinant of Creighton’s postseason success. He’s gotten some flak lately for inconsistent scoring and sub-par defense but the numbers don’t lie. With the 7’0″ freshman on the floor, Creighton allows just 0.95 points per possession — when he’s on the bench, this number stands at 1.06. For a 70-possession game, this amounts to a difference of seven points allowed per game. Moreover, Patton’s impact on the offensive end as a catch-and-finish rim threat and capable three-point shooter have been long admired by scouts, and Friday night’s output was a perfect showcase: Patton poured in a highly efficient 21 points on 10-for-13 shooting.
  2. Xavier’s inexperience at the point guard position is overblown. Obviously, the injury to Edmond Sumner does more harm than good, but freshman Quentin Goodin has come a long way in averaging 7.4 points and 5.2 assists per game in his absence. There are many similarities to their games, notably the ability to channel well-timed passes to the post and a tendency to attack the basket, making Goodin an ideal substitute. As such, while the freshman isn’t nearly the same finisher as his counterpart, his recent bout of confidence has given Chris Mack‘s four-out perimeter offense much more room to run with results following.
  3. Tonight marked a revival of two struggling offenses. Xavier’s turnaround got underway earlier this week after a string of poor performances marked by questionable shot selection and decision-making. Meanwhile, Creighton broke a three-game skid of sub-32 percent three-point shooting, an unusual slump for a team that is averaging 40 percent on the season. Needless to say, confidence plays a vital role in offensive efficiency and both teams are turning things around at the right time.

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Rushed Reactions: Duke 93, North Carolina 83

Posted by Matthew Auerbach on March 10th, 2017

Three Key Takeaways.

Duke’s Second Half Comeback Shocked the Tar Heels (USA Today Images)

  1. No matter the venue, Carolina, Duke gonna Duke, Carolina. The rivalry that almost never fails to deliver traveled north and didn’t disappoint an electrified Brooklyn crowd. North Carolina often appeared in complete control in the first half as the Tar Heels’ lead swelled to 13 points a pair of times, but Duke’s Grayson Allen (four first-half threes, including three in a 95-second span) and Jayson Tatum (18 first half points) managed to keep the Blue Devils within striking distance. North Carolina maintained control in the early second half until point guard Joel Berry picked up his fourth foul at the 15:04 mark with the Heels up nine. What ensued was a 23-7 Duke blitz, sparked by Allen, a rejuvenated Kennard and Jackson. The previously weary Blue Devils ended up being the team that imposed its will down the stretch, and the seemingly punch drunk Tar Heels failed to respond the way anyone expected.
  2. Grayson Allen is back. While the ACC Tournament title has its own cachet and the importance of the rivalry cannot be overstated, North Carolina and Duke always play with an eye toward the trophy awarded in early April. For Duke to become a legitimate contender, though, Allen must perform like an All-American. The junior guard’s travails have been well-documented, but more pertinently from a basketball perspective, his emotional and physical struggles have sometimes made him a marginal player. And after the no-show that was Wednesday’s 12 minutes of scoreless action, he was vital in keeping Duke alive early before spearheading the victory late. He looked healthy, focused, determined and generally back to his peak self. In short, the Duke team we thought we’d see in November simply waited until mid-March to show up. This is a major problem for the other 67 teams hoping to join the Blue Devils in Phoenix.
  3. Joel Berry is the most valuable Tar Heel. While Justin Jackson was deservedly tabbed as the ACC Player of the Year, it is Berry who is the Tar Heels’ most valuable player. He is the only pure point guard on the roster, and North Carolina simply looked lost while he was in foul trouble on the bench. Kennedy Meeks, who dominated Duke on the interior in the first half, became largely uninvolved without Berry on the flo0r. The team just appeared totally discombobulated with its junior floor leader on the pine, with a litany of out of whack possessions.

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Rushed Reactions: Iowa State 84, TCU 63

Posted by Brian Goodman on March 10th, 2017

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

Iowa State Seems to Have this Big 12 Tournament Thing Down Pat (USA Today Images)

Three Key Takeaways.

  1. The long ball propels the Cyclones to a laugher. Friday night was classic Hoiball, as the Cyclones scorched the nets to the tune of a 48 percent clip from deep. Iowa State connected in transition, in half-court sets, off the bounce and on catch-and-shoots. Steve Prohm‘s use of forward Solomon Young in the starting lineup also continued to pay dividends. While he’s hardly an offensive force, he pulled TCU’s defense inward just enough to provide space for the likes of Naz Mitrou-LongMonte’ Morris and Matt Thomas to fire away with plenty of clean looks. Iowa State was also highly efficient inside the arc, but the three-ball continues to be the Cyclones’ bread and butter. They will enter Saturday’s championship game shooting a mind-blowing 47 percent from deep over their last 11 games.
  2. Deonte Burton was at his best. Burton won’t ever be mistaken for Georges Niang, but he’s similarly difficult for opponents to match up with. He scored nine of Iowa State’s first 11 points and carried that confidence through the rest of the night, sinking jumper after jumper on his way to a game-high 22 points. The senior transfer also made some smooth passes in transition and was active on the glass, displaying his usual versatility. Burton is just as capable of shooting his team into losses as he is of shooting them into wins, but Iowa State didn’t need his ‘A’ game to beat a gassed TCU team tonight. He brought it anyway and his contributions played a key role in building a lead big enough for Prohm to comfortably pull his starters down the stretch.
  3. TCU builds a strong foundation in Jamie Dixon’s first year. The national media didn’t pay much attention to TCU before the Horned Frogs upset Kansas on Thursday afternoon, but to be fair, there wasn’t much reason for them to. TCU played a lax non-conference schedule and went just 1-9 against teams in the top half of the Big 12 standings this season. The development on its roster was apparent, however, as the core of Kenrich Williams, Alex Robinson, Jaylen Fisher and Vladimir Brodziansky made tremendous strides throughout the season. The Horned Frogs won’t be anonymous for much longer. This season’s starting lineup has no seniors and reinforcements are on the way in the form of a recruiting class headlined by four-star signees Kevin Samuel and R.J. Nembhard.

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Rushed Reactions: Villanova 55, Seton Hall 53

Posted by Justin Kundrat on March 10th, 2017

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

Seton Hall’s Angel Delgado Expressed His Agony After the Buzzer (USA Today Images)

Three Key Takeaways.

  1. Villanova’s defensive versatility once again saved the day. Even though the team’s 1-2-2 full court press hasn’t been as effective as last season, Wright still successfully employed it interchangeably with a 2-3 zone and its patented switching man-to-man tonight. Throwing out different looks not only forces opponents to re-adjust their offensive sets, but it also takes valuable time off the shot clock. Despite a lack of height and Eric Paschall’s lingering foul trouble, the Wildcats’ defense challenged Seton Hall’s paint-dominant and relentless style of play, holding the Pirates to just 0.90 points per possession and ultimately curtailing Angel Delgado‘s 13-game double-double streak.
  2. Seton Hall’s half-court offense has come a long way since November. Much has been said about the post-Isaiah Whitehead adjustment period, but over the last few weeks this team looks radically different in its half-court execution. Even though forward Desi Rodriguez is still struggling with his outside shot, his dribble-drive threat remains the team’s most reliable source of scoring opportunities. Being able to attack the rim with his 215-pound frame also provides the benefit of room and rebounding chances for Delgado, the nation’s leading rebounder. Seton Hall’s lack of a true passing point guard is unquestionably overcome by its penchant for attacking the rim in one-on-one situations.
  3.  At the end of the day, playmaking abilities won out. At the risk of sounding too cliché, this could not have proven truer on Friday night. In a game between two down-tempo, physical teams, the total score barely eclipsed the century mark. The 59-possession affair put a premium on making the most of limited opportunities in the closing minutes; supported by both Josh Hart and Jalen Brunson, Villanova simply had the better playmakers.

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