Rushed Reactions: #1 North Carolina 92, #4 Butler 80

Posted by Bennet Hayes on March 24th, 2017

RTC is providing coverage from start to finish of the NCAA Tournament for the next three weeks.

Kennedy Meeks and the Heels had a lot to cheer about Friday night (Photo: Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports)

Key Takeaways.

  1. Tar Heels explode in the first half. North Carolina raced out to a 16-point lead in the first 10 minutes and never looked back. The Tar Heels would maintain that edge for the second 10 minutes of the first half, taking a 52-36 advantage to the locker room. Three Tar Heels scored in double figures – Justin Jackson with 17 points, Luke Maye with 14, Joel Berry with 10 – in a quintessential display of Carolina offense. They played fast (43 possessions), made three-point shots (8-of-17 from long-range), and exploited their size advantage inside in outrebounding Butler by 11. UCLA and Kansas each boast offenses as good, if not better, than that of North Carolina, but neither possess the inside-outside balance of the Heels. The first 20 minutes of this game was a potent expression of this reality.
  2. Unexpected and expected Carolina contributors. UNC has relied upon Jackson and Berry all season, and the Tar Heels’ junior duo delivered again tonight. They combined for 50 points, five three-pointers, and committed just three turnovers. However, it wasn’t just Jackson and Berry fronting the load this evening. Maye provided an unexpected spark in leading the first half surge, scoring 14 points and grabbing 11 rebounds in the opening frame. Roy Williams expressed immense appreciation for the contributions and skills of UNC’s very unlikely catalyst, saying he was not surprised by Maye’s night because he sees it every day in practice. Either way, the Heels should benefit from a confident Maye, as his ability to step out and shoot the three provides a nice balance to the bruising interior duo of Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks.
  3. Butler three-point shooting struggles. The Bulldogs were an efficient offensive outfit for the better part of their first 33 games of the season, with top-100 percentages nationally in 3FG, 2FG, and FT%. However, the 21st-most efficient offense in the country struggled to generate the points needed to hang with North Carolina this evening. The origin of the drought was obvious, as Butler made just eight of its 28 three-point attempts. Chris Holtmann couldn’t have had a problem with most of the rest of the offensive stat sheet, as his team shot 55 percent from two-point range, 86 percent from the free throw line, and turned the ball over just nine times in a high-possession game. Missed three-point shots is a familiar killer of seasons this time of year; tonight, Butler’s long-range struggles ensured its season would not continue.

Star of the Game. Justin Jackson, North Carolina. The versatile Tar Heels star had the full arsenal working Friday night. He was confident and effective in shooting the three, lofting floaters in the half-court, and getting out on the fast break for easy buckets. Jackson finished with 24 points, five rebounds, and five assists. Honorable mention goes to Maye, who unexpectedly delivered a career high 14 points and 11 rebounds, and Berry, who finished with a game-high 26 points.

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Rushed Reactions: #11 Xavier 73, #2 Arizona 71

Posted by rtmsf on March 24th, 2017

RTC is providing coverage from start to finish of the NCAA Tournament for the next three weeks.

Xavier’s Cinderella Dance Continues for a Couple More Days. (USA Today Images)

Key Takeaways.

  1. Xavier Just Kept Coming. After starting the game down 7-0… after finding itself facing an eight-point deficit with 3:44 remaining… even after missing the front end of a one-and-one that could have salted the game away with 22 seconds remaining… Xavier kept coming. And it figures, given that this group of Musketeers — left virtually for dead after losing star guard Edmond Sumner to a season-ending injury at the end of January — have stared adversity in the face and laughed. Arizona desperately tried to put Xavier away in the second half, but Chris Mack’s club would never quite allow enough separation. That relentless nature of continually applying pressure ultimately caused Arizona to crack, sending the Wildcats back to the desert without a trip to the Final Four in Glendale attached.
  2. Arizona’s Home Stretch OffenseSay what you want about how Xavier put itself into great position to win with its relentlessness and its clever offensive sets — all true — but Arizona did not help itself by completely forgetting about Lauri Markkanen inside (his last shot came at 11:12 remaining in the second half) and over-relying on the hot hand of Allonzo Trier to carry them home. For an eight-minute period from 13:28 to 5:26 remaining in the game, Trier was cooking with some gas. He nailed six of his seven shots, including three three-pointers, in contributing 15 straight points for the Wildcats. He missed his final three attempts, all of which were jumpers. The problem with the strategy of letting Trier do his thing is that it basically killed the Arizona offense. The Wildcats’ final stretch included several awful possessions, including a post-up by Dusan Ristic that started behind the basket and a handful of other drives that turned into bad misses. During a point in the game when Arizona should have been executing to get fouls to hold its lead, it reeked of desperation to hold on for dear life. It was as if they were trying to wish the clock away rather than continuing to play.
  3. Sean Miller’s Early Career Legacy. There will be a lot written about this topic in Arizona and beyond — some fair, some not — but the fact remains that Sean Miller’s early career at Arizona has been filled with great regular season success, multiple high NBA Draft picks, and a painful legacy in the regionals. Despite receiving some favorable draws in terms of location within the West Region geographic footprint — allowing for its formidable crowd to turn neutral-site arenas into Tucson West or North — it hasn’t seemed to help. Some will argue that Miller’s losses to the likes of Wisconsin in 2015 or Connecticut in 2011 were to outstanding teams that simply were not going to be denied. While a fair point, the fact remains that three of Miller’s four best teams (2011, 2014, 2017) have had the ball with the final possession yet still fell short. In all three of those games, late execution was a factor. At a certain point, a series of close devastating losses begin to weigh on a program as well as a head coach — it’s safe to say that we’re to that point in Tucson. The Wildcats played tight in the final four minutes today, and the fans all around the building could sense it.

Star of the Game. Trevon Bluiett, Xavier. Bluiett carried the Musketeers in the first half, scoring 18 of his game-high 25 points on 7-of-8 from the field including a pair of threes. He was quieter in the second half, but he hit the big three to keep Xavier alive after they had gone down by eight points with just under four minutes remaining. He’s been outstanding in the NCAA Tournament, averaging 25.0 PPG and knocking down 47.8 percent of his three-point shots.

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Rushed Reactions: #1 Kansas 98, #4 Purdue 66

Posted by Brian Goodman on March 23rd, 2017

RTC will be providing coverage of the NCAA Tournament from start to finish. Brian Goodman (@BSGoodman) is in Kansas City this weekend.

Kansas Celebrates a Dominant Sweet Sixteen Victory (KC Star)

Three Key Takeaways.

  1. Explosiveness makes the Jayhawks lethal. Two backbreaking runs did the Boilermakers in tonight. The first was a 21-7 stretch over six minutes to end the first half, and the other was a 21-6 napalming midway through the second half. With shooters and athleticism up and down the roster keying its lethal transition game, Kansas has kicked its offense into a gear that no other team in college basketball can match.
  2. Caleb Swanigan gets his, but Purdue’s other scorers fail to come through. Without a classic rim protector, Kansas has allowed opposing big men to play well this season utilizing a bend-don’t-break defensive style focused on containing secondary weapons. Though Purdue opened tonight’s game with a barrage of three-pointers, it wasn’t built to last. Caleb Swanigan finished with 18 points and seven rebounds, but his teammates buried just 30 percent of their long-range attempts, including an ice-cold 2-of-11 showing in the second half as the game turned into a blowout.
  3. Devonte’ Graham’s hot shooting gives Kansas extra pop. Following a solid sophomore season, there was a reasonable expectation in Lawrence was that Graham would make a big leap forward during his junior year. Graham had a good regular season, but he’s been a completely different player in Kansas’ three NCAA Tournament games, averaging 20.0 points per game and shooting an eye-popping 59 percent from distance, including a 5-of-9 showing against the Boilermakers.

Player Of The Game. Frank Mason III. The Jayhawks didn’t need Mason to make any clutch plays tonight but that didn’t stop him from being the best scorer on the floor. The clear-cut favorite for National Player of the Year scored 26 points on 9-of-11 shooting and poured in seven assists and seven rebounds against one of the tallest frontcourts in college basketball.

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Rushed Reactions: #1 Gonzaga 61, #4 West Virginia 58

Posted by rtmsf on March 23rd, 2017

RTC is providing coverage from start to finish of the NCAA Tournament for the next three weeks.

Gonzaga Survives and Advances (USA Today Images)

Key Takeaways.

  1. The Abominable Mountaineers. West Virginia got the game it wanted. A foul-filled first half full of ugly was followed by more of the same in the second half, ultimately resulting in a gnarly 61-58 abomination of a win by Gonzaga that came down to struggling offense as a result of gritty defense. This game notched a total of 51 fouls, 61 free throws, 29 turnovers and only nine made threes, but it was a bomb by Jordan Mathews from the left wing who provided a glimmer of beauty in a visual disaster. And although Gonzaga clearly did not prefer to play such a physical, rough-and-tumble style, credit goes to the Zags for beating West Virginia at its own game to advance to the Elite Eight.
  2. And It Came Down to Defense. Everyone knows about West Virginia’s pressure defense, and it was certainly a factor tonight — the Zags committed 16 turnovers that included a period in the late second half when it appeared the wheels might be completely coming off. But it was the less-heralded Gonzaga defense that held West Virginia to a moribund 27 percent from the field and 21 percent from three-point range, allowing Mark Few’s team just enough wiggle room to suffer a horrid offensive night and still come away with the win. As Huggins alluded to after the game, there simply weren’t many open looks for his team tonight.
  3. That Final Play Though. The final play of the game — which was really three offensive plays in one — resulted in West Virginia’s Jevon Carter dribbling 22 times (!!!) in an effort to isolate and create space for a pair of long not-close threes. When the Mountaineers grabbed the offensive rebound both times, the ball ended up in his hands again. His final attempt, which Gonzaga had by this point completely sniffed out and covered well beyond the top of the key, resulted in what would have been a blocked shot but ended up being a bailout pass to the wing and no shot at all. It was a disastrous end to a disastrous game, but it felt completely appropriate given all the nastiness that had been displayed over the previous 39+ minutes.

Star of the Game. Jordan Mathews, Gonzaga. In a game where points were at a premium, the most insane play of the game occurred after West Virginia had missed two free throws, Gonzaga corralled the rebound, only to have the ball stolen and a layup attempt blocked (possibly fouled?) and the Zags moving back upcourt. After a tipped 40-foot pass from the right sideline to Mathews standing on the left wing, his three-pointer broke a deadlocked game and allowed the Zags to put together their final stand. Mathews only logged 13 points on 4-of-12 shooting from the field, but his shot will go down in Gonzaga lore in a game that surely felt like it was slipping away.

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Rushed Reactions: #3 Oregon 69, #7 Michigan 68

Posted by Brian Goodman on March 23rd, 2017

RTC will be providing coverage of the NCAA Tournament from start to finish. Brian Goodman (@BSGoodman) is in Kansas City for this weekend’s Midwest Regional.

Oregon Gets To Keep On Dancing (USA Today Images)

Three Key Takeaways.

  • Derrick Walton Jr. shines, but falls just short. Michigan’s senior point guard had elevated his play down the stretch, and he had another terrific game Thursday night, scoring 20 points on 6-of-10 shooting and delivering eight assists against just two turnovers in 37 minutes of action. With the game in the balance, however, Walton hoisted an ill-advised three-pointer that rimmed away sealing the win for Oregon. His excellent play and self-confidence showed why he’s become so magnetic over the last few weeks, but he fell just one play short.
  • Jordan Bell excels on both ends. With Chris Boucher out, Bell has stepped up to provide athleticism and denial of easy looks. He did a terrific job of shutting down Moe Wagner and DJ Wilson, Michigan’s two talented big men. He also helped carry the load on offense, scoring 16 points and carving up the Wolverines’ small frontcourt. Most teams don’t have a player who can lock up a pair of players like that on one end and dice them up on the other, but Bell was just that for Oregon, and he’ll be an X-Factor no matter who he lines up against Saturday night.
  • A storybook chapter in Michigan basketball comes to a close. The Wolverines went through it all in the last few weeks from a potentially disastrous travel incident to an improbable Big Ten Tournament run and conquering two of college basketball’s best units in Oklahoma State’s offense and Louisville’s defense. With just one more fortuitous bounce on Thursday, the Wolverines would be playing for a spot in the Final Four, but just because they fell short doesn’t mean that this wasn’t one of college basketball’s best stories, because it was.

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NCAA Regional Reset: West Region

Posted by Bennet Hayes on March 21st, 2017

Rush the Court is providing comprehensive coverage of the NCAA Tournament from start to finish over the next three weeks.

New Favorite: #1 Gonzaga (34-1). If the Zags were the West region favorite before play started last Thursday, there’s no reason they shouldn’t continue to maintain that status. Sure, there were slow points in each of Gonzaga’s two victories over the weekend — namely, the first half against South Dakota State and the second half versus Northwestern – but Mark Few‘s team ultimately emerged from each unscathed. With West Virginia and possibly Arizona awaiting in San Jose, the road stiffens from here, but there’s no reason Gonzaga shouldn’t still feel like the front-runner.

Gonzaga is two wins away from the program’s first ever Final Four appearance (Photo: Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports)

Horse of Darkness: #4 West Virginia (28-8). The Mountaineers enter the Sweet Sixteen as a scary team. Depth and pressure — two West Virginia hallmarks — carried it through early round victories over #13 Bucknell (86-80) and #5 Notre Dame (83-71). Now those strengths will be relied upon to harass #1 Gonzaga into an uncharacteristically turnover-heavy game. The Zags rank 26th in the country in lowest turnover percentage, but Notre Dame also led the nation in that category before the Irish turned the ball over on 21 percent of their possessions against Press Virginia (seven percent higher than their season average). Gonzaga is also just an average offensive rebounding team, which limits its ability to take advantage of West Virginia’s biggest weaknesses — collecting defensive rebounds behind the press. The match-up is solid, the team is capable, and Bob Huggins is on the bench — in sum, the Mountaineers have a chance to surprise in San Jose.

Biggest Surprise (First Weekend): #11 Xavier (23-13). Less than three weeks ago, Xavier was a sub-.500 Big East team that had lost six straight games. Its star point guard was lost for the season and hopes of another NCAA Tournament appearance flickered with each outing. Now, on March 21, the Musketeers are fresh off a 25-point Second Round rout of Florida State and is back in the Sweet Sixteen. Xavier is a fantastic piece of proof that things can change quickly in March, but the verdict on this Musketeers’ season won’t be altered negatively from here on out: A remarkable turnaround last weekend saved a season.

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NCAA Regional Reset: South Region

Posted by Bennet Hayes on March 21st, 2017

Rush the Court is providing comprehensive coverage of the NCAA Tournament from start to finish over the next three weeks.

New Favorite: #1 North Carolina (29-7). The Tar Heels might have actually had the most unimpressive opening weekend of the four teams remaining in the South, as they needed a kind late whistle to escape #8 Arkansas on Sunday. However, the region’s #1 seed retains its status as a Final Four favorite in large part because of the draw. Butler posted a pair of workmanlike victories in dispatching #13 Winthrop and #12 Middle Tennessee State last weekend, but the Bulldogs’ road to Memphis was far simpler than that of fellow semifinalists UCLA and Kentucky. Second round wins over Cincinnati and Wichita State, respectively, are impressive notches — victories that confirm both the Bruins’ and Wildcats’ status as National Title contenders. Because Butler is simply not that, North Carolina becomes the only team in a balanced region to not need two victories over elite foes in Memphis, which gives the Heels the inside track to Phoenix.

Joel Berry and the Tar Heels are still the team to beat in a balanced region.(Photo: Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports)

Horse of Darkness: #4 Butler (25-8). As noted above, Butler is the only team in the Memphis region that doesn’t qualify as a true contender. That’s no knock on the Bulldogs — a group that put together a nice season and a pair of quality first weekend performances — but there is an obvious drop-off when it comes to program prestige and overall talent against the three blue-bloods in this regional. However, that does not mean Kelan Martin (19 points, six rebounds and four assists in the win over MTSU) and his Bulldogs aren’t capable of winning two games in Memphis. Successfully slowing tempo against the frenetic Tar Heels will be a key to that process.

Biggest Surprise (First Weekend): #8 Arkansas (26-10). The Razorbacks’ season may be over, but in this surprise-less region, their near-upset of #1 North Carolina qualifies as the most sizable surprise of the first weekend. According to KenPom, Arkansas held a 75 percent chance of winning that game with three and a half minutes remaining – a feat few expected before the opening tip. Of course, the Razorbacks proved unable to hold on, but when all four top seeds advance to the regional semifinals, it’s hard to find too many true surprises. More on that below.

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NCAA Regional Reset: East Region

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 20th, 2017

Rush the Court is providing comprehensive coverage of the NCAA Tournament from start to finish over the next three weeks.

New Favorite: #4 Florida (26-8). Florida’s 65-39 drubbing of #5 Virginia on Saturday should put the rest of the remaining field on notice— the Gators are really, really difficult to score against. Mike White’s aggressive group held to Cavaliers to a paltry 0.65 points per possession, limiting its ACC foe to just 1-of-15 shooting from behind the arc and preventing any Virginia player from reaching double figures. Wisconsin, which is somewhat similar to Virginia stylistically, could be in for a rude awakening on Friday night. 6’8” swingman Devin Robinson, a supremely gifted athlete, is playing some of his best basketball of the season (19.0 PPG in the NCAA Tournament), and only West Virginia and North Carolina possess more depth than Florida of the teams remaining. Now ranked third nationally by KenPom, the Gators are as good a threat as any to win the National Championship.

Florida’ Defense Dominated Virginia This Weekend (USA Today Images)

Horse of Darkness: #8 Wisconsin (27-9). Despite being underseeded, Wisconsin outlasted Virginia Tech in the First Round before knocking off the reigning National Champion in the Round of 32. Saturday’s unexpected, high-drama victory over Villanova highlighted the Badgers’ strengths — patience, veteran leadership, stingy defense — and firmly establishes them as a threat in the East Region. Greg Gard’s club, now in its fourth straight Sweet Sixteen, will again enter Friday’s match-up with #4 Florida as an underdog. With a pair of seniors (Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes) and a First Team All-Big Ten forward (Ethan Happ) leading the way, bet against the dark horse Badgers at your own risk.

Biggest Surprise (First Weekend): #7 South Carolina (24-10). #11 USC shocked #6 SMU and #8 Wisconsin upended the reigning National Champion — both huge surprises in their own right. But it was the other USC — #7 South Carolina — that pulled off the biggest stunner in the East, and perhaps the entire Big Dance. #2 Duke entered the Thursday as the betting favorite win the NCAA Tournament, a testament to both its supreme talent and undeniable momentum heading into the event (the Blue Devils had just won the ACC Tournament). The Gamecocks, meanwhile, entered Friday having lost six of its previous nine games, including an 11-point stinker against Alabama in the SEC Tournament quarterfinals. And yet, Frank Martin’s defensive-minded group pounded Duke in the second half on Sunday night, scoring 65 points in the final 20 minutes and knocking off the Blue Devils in front of a home-state crowd filled with South Carolina fans and North Carolina fans (otherwise known as Duke haters) alike. Few people saw this coming.

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NCAA Regional Reset: Midwest Region

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 20th, 2017

Rush the Court is providing comprehensive coverage of the NCAA Tournament from start to finish over the next three weeks.

New Favorite: #1 Kansas (30-4). Despite receiving a 30-minute test from #9 Michigan State on Sunday, Kansas remains the favorite to win the Midwest Region. The Jayhawks smashed #16 UC Davis 100-62 before dominating the last 10 minutes against the Spartans in the Round of 32 — a hard-fought victory that should prepare them well for an even stronger Big Ten opponent, #4 Purdue, on Thursday. If you buy into advanced metrics, this appears to be a fairly even matchup: Kansas ranks seventh in KenPom, while the Boilermakers rank 13th. Unfortunately for Matt Painter’s group, the game will be played in Kansas City, where a sea of Jayhawk faithful is sure to outnumber Purdue fans several fold. Assuming Kansas prevails, it will be a similar story against #3 Oregon or #7 Michigan. Beating Kansas is one thing, but beating Kansas in a semi-road game is something entirely different.

Kansas Rolls Into KC as the Clear Midwest Region Favorite (USA Today Images)

Horse of Darkness: #7 Michigan (26-11). The Wolverines have not lost since that epic defeat at Northwestern on March 1, a nearly three-week stretch which has included a near-plane crash, a Big Ten Tournament championship, and a pair of gutsy NCAA Tournament victories over Oklahoma State and Louisville. Michigan now boasts the third-most efficient offense in college basketball, thanks in large part to blistering performances like the one Moritz Wagner (26 points on 11-of-14 FT) put on against the Cardinals on Sunday. If John Beilein’s group can get past shorthanded Oregon on Thursday, there’s no reason to think it can’t win this region. Heck, the Wolverines have already beaten Purdue twice since February 25, and the last time they played Kansas in the Big Dance, this happened. Look out.

Biggest Surprise (First Weekend): #11 Rhode Island (25-10). Rhode Island entered the NCAA Tournament on an eight-game winning streak, so its victory over #6 Creighton in the Round of 64 was not that surprising. The fashion in which it whipped the Bluejays, though — winning by 14 points and trailing for exactly zero seconds in game time — was quite unexpected. So too was the Rams’ effort against #3 Oregon on Sunday night, a game in which they led by double-figures in the second half before falling victim to a cold-blooded Tyler Dorsey three-pointer in the closing seconds. For a program that had not gone dancing since 1999, Rhode Island was certainly ready for prime time.

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Rushed Reactions: #7 South Carolina 88, #2 Duke 81 (CN)

Posted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on March 19th, 2017

RTC will be providing coverage of the NCAA Tournament from start to finish. Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) is in Greenville this weekend.

Celebrate Rakym Felder, you and your teammates just made school history. (Getty)

Three Key Takeaways.

  1. After a terrible offensive performance in the first half, South Carolina had another second half explosion. It was a repeat of Friday’s win over Marquette when it scored 54 second half points. Despite holding Duke to 30 points in 33 first half possessions, the Gamecocks were still down seven at the break because they shot 20 percent from the floor. But the change of baskets after intermission did wonders for the South Carolina aim. They connected on 20 of their 28 shots in the second stanza for 71.4 percent shooting. Additionally, the Gamecocks were great at the foul line–icing the game away by making 21-of-23 from the stripe in the second half. South Carolina put up 65 points after intermission in a complete turnaround that propelled the Gamecocks to victory.
  2. Overall, South Carolina did a great job containing Duke’s explosive offense. The Blue Devils looked rattled for much of the first half, committing 13 turnovers. About midway through the opening stanza Frank Martin went to a zone, which stood up the Duke offense and forced many of those miscues. It was more of the same after the break. For the game, South Carolina forced Duke into 18 turnovers and 41.5 percent field goal shooting. The result: South Carolina held one of the nation’s best offenses to 1.07 points per possession and the preseason #1 ranked Blue Devils end the year in disappointing fashion.
  3. Sindarius Thornwell is a bona fide stud. Earlier in the week, Mike Krzyzewski called him one of the nation’s least known great players. Maybe America will know who he is now as the senior forward displayed his versatility on both ends of the floor. He finished with a game-high 24 points, six rebounds and five assists. Thornwell, a member of the SEC All-Defensive Team, also deserves praise for his work against Duke’s star Luke Kennard. He was a primary reason that Kennard finished with just 11 points on 1-of-6 shooting from the field. And there’s no question that his play raises the level of his teammates’ confidence as well.

Player of the Game. Sindarius Thornwell. See Above! Read the rest of this entry »