Circle of March: Vol. XXIII

Posted by rtmsf on March 28th, 2015

And then there were eight. We now move into the hurry up and wait part of the NCAA Tournament, with long delays between the action. Still, we’re on pace to have only four teams standing in about 36 hours. Enjoy the Elite Eight!

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Eliminations (03.27.15)

  • Utah
  • Oklahoma
  • UCLA
  • NC State

Rushed Reactions: #7 Michigan State 62, #3 Oklahoma 58

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 28th, 2015

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Three Key Takeaways.

The Spartans came up big down the stretch against Oklahoma. (Elsa / Getty Images North America)

The Spartans came up big down the stretch against Oklahoma. (Elsa / Getty Images North America)

  1. Michigan State did the little things down stretch – which isn’t always the case. Michigan State entered tonight’s contest ranked 339th nationally in free throw percentage (63%). Against Minnesota on February 26, the Spartans missed several key shots from the stripe, committed a number of silly fouls and blew a five-point lead with less than 20 seconds remaining. They nearly did the same thing at Indiana two weeks later. Late-game execution hasn’t exactly been their forte. But tonight was different. Branden Dawson and Matt Costello ripped down several huge offensive rebounds when Tom Izzo’s club needed them most. No one committed bone-headed fouls or careless turnovers. And despite going just 9-of-16 from the stripe as a team, Travis Trice and Denzel Valentine hit six free throws in a row in the game’s final two minutes to seal Michigan State’s four-point victory.
  2. Travis Trice carried the load (again); Denzel Valentine stepped up. After scoring 15 points against #10 Georgia and 23 points against #2 Virginia – including a late, dagger triple – senior guard Travis Trice once again carried the offensive load for Michigan State, pouring in 24 points on 50 percent shooting and knocking down several huge free throws down the stretch. Meanwhile, forward Denzel Valentine – who mustered just four points against the Cavaliers – finally woke up in the second half, scoring 13 of his 18 points in the final 20 minutes and keeping the Spartans on top late.
  3. Oklahoma went cold. Izzo said of Oklahoma, “They gave it to us in every way it could be gotten” early on. And he’s right. For the first eight-plus minutes of the game, the Sooners blasted Michigan State on both ends of the court, using a flurry of layups and dunks to jump out by a score of 18-8 before the Spartans even knew what hit them. Then, the offensive melee came to a halt. Dawson, Costello and the rest of Izzo’s frontcourt shored up the interior, and Oklahoma shot just 4-of-17 from behind the arc (including Buddy Hield’s 3-of-10 3FG). The Spartans weren’t exactly scorching the nets, either, but their offensive surge to start and end the second half proved enough to win.

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Rushed Reactions: #1 Duke 63, #5 Utah 57

Posted by Bennet Hayes on March 27th, 2015

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Three Key Takeaways.

Justise Winslow Starred In Duke's Sweet Sixteen Victory Friday Night (USA Today Images)

Justise Winslow Starred In Duke’s Sweet Sixteen Victory Friday Night (USA Today Images)

  1. Duke’s Dominant Defense. The Blue Devils made their way to Houston largely on the backs of a prolific offense but it was a disruptive defensive effort that fueled Friday night’s victory. In the Utah backcourt, Duke extended pressure and forced 15 Utes’ turnovers; when Utah managed to settle into the half-court offense they found the going no easier, as they made just 34.6 percent of their field goal attempts, including only 4-of-16 from behind the arc. Over the course of the last two months, an improving Duke defense has often gone unnoticed while the hyper-efficient offense has whizzed on the other end. Today, however, there is no chance it goes overlooked — this was a varied and dynamic defensive effort against a good offensive team that earned Duke a trip to the Elite Eight. If similar efforts continue, that defense could take them even further.
  2. Delon Wright Never Gets Going. Utah’s indispensable senior star was whistled for an extremely questionable third foul with 4:59 to play in the first half, relegating him to cheerleading duties for the remainder of the period. In 13 first-half minutes, he managed only two points (on 1-of-5 field-goal shooting) without an assist. Wright was far more involved in the second half – he finished with 10 points, six rebounds and three steals – but his final contributions were still insufficient for the Utes to seriously challenge Duke. He missed 10 of his 14 field goal attempts, turned the ball over as many times as he set up teammates for buckets (two), and generally failed to penetrate the Duke defense. In totality, Wright’s senior season was spectacular – he was THE catalyst for Utah’s revival. But on Friday night, much like he was in other games down the stretch, Wright just didn’t measure up to the lofty standards his early brilliance helped set.
  3. Okafor Was Contained, But No Problem For Duke. Utah did a good job containing Duke’s freshman All-American, limiting Okafor to 3-of-6 shooting from the field while forcing him into four turnovers. Jakob Poeltl and Dallin Bachynski took turns as the primary defender on Okafor, but the Utes also brought a double-team immediately upon any Okafor touch, which served well in minimizing his impact. The good news for Duke: The Blue Devils learned they could win without a standout performance from Okafor. The bad news: Future opponents could replicate the Utes defensive plan of attack to make life difficult for him. Thinking to Sunday: Will Gonzaga leave Karnowski and Sabonis to battle Okafor one-on-one?

Star of the Game. Justise Winslow, Duke. Winslow’s stellar first-weekend play carried over to tonight as the Duke freshman again stuffed the stat sheet. His final line: 21 points, 10 rebounds, two blocks and a steal. It wasn’t all good for Winslow – Brekkott Chapman beat Winslow for a layup while he was celebrating a made three-point field goal, much to the chagrin of Coach K – but the versatile wing again proved his immense value on Friday night. In an unusual twist, it was Winslow who hit all three of the Duke three-point field goals, finding the range on a night where teammates Quinn Cook and Tyus Jones could not. Fearing his athleticism, Utah dared him to shoot perimeter jumpers – Winslow made them pay.

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Rushed Reactions: #4 Louisville 75, #8 North Carolina State 65

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 27th, 2015

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Three Key Takeaways.

Louisville game up big with the big plays down the stretch. (Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports)

Louisville came up big with big plays down the stretch to beat the Wolfpack. (Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports)

  1. In game defined by runs, Louisville went on final spurt. North Carolina State took an early 10-6 lead, which was followed by a 10-2 Louisville run. Shortly thereafter, the Wolfpack went on a 14-5 spurt, at which point the Cardinals responded with 14 of the next 16 points and…you get the point. After back-and-forth momentum swings and scoring bursts throughout the first 30-plus minutes of game time, Louisville’s late 12-3 run made the difference. Over the course of four minutes – shortly after the under-8 media timeout – Anton Gill, Montrezl Harrell and Terry Rozier broke North Carolina State’s zone and generated enough stops to grab the final advantage.
  2. Louisville dominated the paint. If North Carolina State’s 9-of-20 three-point shooting kept the game close, then Louisville’s 24-of-42 mark from inside the arc (57% 2FG) decided it. For most of the night, the Wolfpack had no answer for Montrezl Harrell on the block (24 points) and could not stop the Cardinals’ guards from penetrating; Rozier, Quentin Snider and Wayne Blackshear scored 35 of Louisville’s 75 points near the basket or at the free throw line. Even Mark Gottfried’s decision to play zone late in the contest could not stop Pitino’s unit from finding looks inside. Louisville’s defense also did a good job down low; North Carolina State shot just 35 percent from two-point land.
  3. Out of nowhere, Anton Gill became a hero. Entering tonight, Louisville’s Anton Gill was averaging just over two points per game and had not graced the scoring column since February 28. And it didn’t look like he was going to score against North Carolina State, either, until the sophomore guard – which the Wolfpack once tried to recruit – reeled off seven quick points late in the contest to put the Cardinals up for good. Afterwards, Gottfried basically said that Gill’s unexpected offensive outburst decided the outcome: “He made a couple tough shots there, and I thought that little cushion was the difference in the game.”

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Rushed Reactions: #2 Gonzaga 74, #11 UCLA 62

Posted by Bennet Hayes on March 27th, 2015

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Three Key Takeaways.

Przemek Karnowski Was The Key Figure In Gonzaga's Sweet 16 Victory Over UCLA

Przemek Karnowski Was The Key Figure In Gonzaga’s Sweet 16 Victory Over UCLA

  1. NRG Stadium Problems. Two normally explosive offensive teams struggled to put the ball in the basket for much of this game, particularly in the first 20 minutes of action. Neither team managed even 40 percent field goal shooting for the opening half, and they combined to miss 12 of 14 three-point attempts in advance of intermission. For the game, the two teams combined to shoot under 40 percent from the field and a meager 19 percent from long-range, making just six total three-point field goals all night. Among onlookers, cavernous NRG Stadium seemed to receive much of the blame for the shooting woes. We’re not ready to chalk the struggles up solely to the lack of a backdrop for shooters in the dome (and lets revisit this after Duke and Utah torch the nets later tonight), but the setup did feel clumsy and uncomfortable. Given that Gonzaga had made 41 percent of three-point attempts on the year and UCLA 37 percent, it does seem likely that the NRG Stadium layout had something to do with the errant efforts tonight.
  2. Alford and Alford. Father-son duos were all the rage this March, but unfortunately for those who enjoy a good family narrative, those storylines are now closed for the season. Both father and son failed to do their part tonight for the Bruins: Bryce didn’t make a three-point field goal in the first 37 minutes of the game, finishing with just eight points on 3-of-11 field goal shooting; Steve’s failure was less salient, but the Bruins never showed the preparedness and energy necessary to stop the prolific Gonzaga offense. If last weekend was the Alfords at their best; tonight caught father and son at their near-worst.
  3. Few, Zags Break Through. It’s hard to believe, but this will be Mark Few’s first trip to the Elite Eight. America first became acquainted with Gonzaga when the Zags made the national quarterfinals in 1999 under Dan Monson, but Few had been 0-4 in Sweet Sixteen games before this evening. Most notable among those losses was the 2006 defeat at the hands of these very Bruins, which famously ended in a jersey-full of Adam Morrison tears. There is another significant milestone available for Few’s team on Sunday afternoon, but the closing-seconds elation on the Gonzaga bench hinted at a team – and a coach – who had finally chucked a monkey off the back.

Star of the Game. Przemek Karnowski, Gonzaga. The biggest man on the floor was the best player in this game. Karnowski physically dominated Tony Parker, Kevon Looney and a fairly well-regarded UCLA frontcourt, scoring 18 points and grabbing nine rebounds on the evening. But Karnowski’s contributions went beyond his work near his offensive rim, as he blocked two shots and dished out a pair of no-look passes to Domantas Sabonis, both of which ended in dunks. On a night where Gonzaga’s perimeter shots were not falling (3-of-19 from three-point range), a big effort from their big man was much needed in getting them past UCLA and into the Elite Eight.

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Sweet Sixteen Storylines: South and East Regionals

Posted by Henry Bushnell on March 27th, 2015

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Tonight the Sweet Sixteen moves to Syracuse and Houston, so let’s take a look at the top five storylines in the East and South Regions.

South Storylines

1. Is this finally Gonzaga’s year? Mention Gonzaga to a casual college basketball fan, and more often than not, the word ‘overrated’ pops into his head. The Bulldogs have had some really impressive regular seasons under Mark Few, making the NCAA Tournament every year since he took over in 1999. But time after time, the Zags have come up short in March. Few has never taken Gonzaga past the Sweet Sixteen as a head coach, but this could be the year that the drought ends. This year’s team is more complete and well-rounded than most previous editions, and the final hurdle on the path to the Elite Eight is a #11 seed — albeit a strong one — in UCLA. A program-first Final Four might also be within reach, but let’s not put the cart before the horse just yet — for many reasons, the Zags need to win tonight.

Is this finally the year for Mark Few and Gonzaga? (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Is this finally the year for Mark Few and Gonzaga? (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

2. Duke’s recent Tourney hiccups. Since winning the 2010 National Championship, Mike Krzyzewski’s postseason record has actually been pretty lackluster. He came into this year 5-4 in the NCAA Tournaments from 2011-14 and he has been on the wrong end of some stunning upsets — losses to #15 seed Lehigh in 2012 and #14 seed Mercer a year ago. Even the 2011 Sweet Sixteen loss to #5 seed Arizona was unexpected. It’s exactly that kind of loss that Duke will be hoping to avoid this time around against a dangerous Utah squad.

3. Back aboard the Utah bandwagon? The Utes faded from the spotlight late in the season. They lost three of their last five games and exited the Pac-12 Tournament by losing to Oregon for the second time in less than a month. But they were businesslike last weekend in handling Stephen F. Austin and Georgetown, and come into tonight’s contest as only a five-point underdog against Duke. Utah has been a top 10 KenPom team since early January, and after a methodical but strong second half dispatching of the Hoyas, it seems like everybody has fallen back in love with the Utes as a Final Four sleeper. Read the rest of this entry »

NCAA Tournament Tidbits: 03.27.15 Edition

Posted by Griffin Wong on March 27th, 2015

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March Madness is finally upon us, and we here at RTC are here to make everything a little bit easier for you. From the First Four until One Shining Moment, we’ll be dropping daily tidbits of knowledge regarding the teams in each region.

Midwest Region

These guys absolutely rule the college basketball world at the moment. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

These guys absolutely rule the college basketball world at the moment. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

  • West Virginia’s Daxter Miles talked the talk but it was Kentucky that walked the walk. After Miles declared that Kentucky would be “36-1″ after playing the Mountaineers, the Wildcats proceeded to beat his team into submission by 39 points. The Kentucky players had some responses to share with the world via Twitter.
  • Last night, Kentucky showed what it could do when you make the Wildcats angry. After a historic Sweet Sixteen  beatdown of West Virginia, Ben Cohen asks the question we’ve been asking all year long: Can anyone beat Kentucky?
  • Not only did Daxter Miles‘ team lose the game despite guaranteeing victory, but he finished with no points and just one rebound. Tough day.
  • Notre Dame gained control early and took every punch Wichita State threw at it en route to an 11-point victory last night.
  • Notre Dame could have the offensive firepower to keep up with Kentucky if the Irish are able to hit their threes. But will it be enough to give the Wildcats’ their only loss of the season?
  • Could Gregg Marshall have just coached his last game at Wichita State? Having done wonders for the Shockers’ program over the last several years, will Marshall leave for a bigger job this off-season?

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NCAA Game Analysis: Sweet Sixteen Friday

Posted by Bennet Hayes & Tommy Lemoine on March 27th, 2015

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The Sweet Sixteen continues with four more compelling games tonight in Houston and Syracuse. Here are this evening’s previews.

#2 Gonzaga vs. #11 UCLA – South Region Sweet Sixteen (at Houston, TX) – 7:15 PM ET on CBS

A new year brings new players like Kyle Wiltjer, who no doubt will play a huge role in Friday's matchup. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)

A new year brings new players like Kyle Wiltjer, who no doubt will play a huge role in Friday’s matchup. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)

Nobody forgets the tears. Nine years and three days ago, UCLA induced a very public display of emotion from Adam Morrison. The circumstances that led to the devastation were far from ordinary – the Bruins erased a 17-point second half deficit and scored the final 11 points to down the Zags and advance to the Elite Eight – but it’s the singular image of Morrison, keeled over on the floor with blue Gonzaga jersey pulled over his face, that has persisted longest in the memory banks of March. Now, almost a decade later, the two teams renew March pleasantries for the first time since Morrison’s college career came to that tearful end. The differences between this matchup and the last are too numerous to list, but there is one key similarity: Gonzaga again has a team widely perceived to be capable of winning a national title.

Mark Few’s team has made just one Sweet Sixteen since 2006, and that team (in 2009) needed only to beat a #12 and a #13 to get there. Needless to say, Gonzaga Final Four prospects haven’t been this bright since Morrison was in uniform. This Bulldog team is nearly as explosive as the ’06 bunch (emphasis on nearly: that team was #1 nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency), but points now originate from a wider variety of sources. Six Zags average at least eight points a game, and every Gonzaga regular owns an offensive rating in excess of 110. In the first two rounds, Gonzaga averaged 86.5 points per game and posted points per possession marks of 1.23 and 1.30 against North Dakota State and Iowa, respectively. Unlike in past years, the Zags we see this March look remarkably similar to the ones we watched all season. Good news for Mark Few; bad news for UCLA. Read the rest of this entry »

Circle of March: Vol. XXII

Posted by rtmsf on March 27th, 2015

One half of the Elite Eight was established last night, and we’ll get to the other half in merely hours. Twelve teams remain on the Circle of March. Onward and upward.

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Eliminations (03.26.15)

  • North Carolina
  • Xavier
  • West Virginia
  • Wichita State

 

Rushed Reactions: #2 Arizona 68, #6 Xavier 60

Posted by Andrew Murawa (@AMurawa) on March 27th, 2015

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Three Key Takeaways.

Despite Early Struggles, Senior Point Guard T.J. McConnell Came Up Large Late (Greg Wahl-Stephens/AP)

Despite His Early Struggles, T.J. McConnell Came Up Large Late (Greg Wahl-Stephens/AP)

  1. Wake-up Time. About 30 minutes into tonight’s game, Xavier led by four points and looked very much like the better team. The Musketeers were quicker to most loose balls. They were controlling the paint. They were running their offense through Matt Stainbrook with impunity. Dee Davis was beating his man (T.J. McConnell) off the bounce just about whenever he wanted, and McConnell, the Wildcats’ senior leader, looked nothing like the gutsy, scrappy veteran that we’ve gotten accustomed to. Arizona looked lost on offense and disinterested on defense. The large number of Arizona fans in Staples Center was quiet. And then, against Xavier’s tough 1-3-1 zone, T.J. McConnell found himself with a good-looking 15-foot baseline jumper. He missed it, but the Musketeers couldn’t corral the defensive rebound. The senior recovered it and banked in a hoop, prompting Chris Mack to call a timeout. A couple possessions later, Kaleb Tarczewski grabbed an offensive board and put it back in. On the other end of the court, he helped trap a Musketeer ball-handlers near midcourt, forcing a timeout. Following that timeout, McConnell swiped a steal from Myles Davis and, in the blink of an eye, the momentum of this game had shifted, Arizona fans were back into it, and the rest is history. A 21-9 game-closing run for the Wildcats following that McConnell second-chance bucket sealed the game.
  2. Zone Defense. The bad news is that Arizona again struggled mightily against a zone defense for large stretches of a game against a team from Ohio. Nobody but Gabe York could knock in the occasional long-range jumper. McConnell looked confused and frustrated. And whoever the Wildcats tried to turn into a play-maker in the middle of the zone had trouble finding open teammates. So, again, that’s the bad news. Here’s the good news: It is very likely that the Wildcats have seen their last zone defense for the year. Wisconsin isn’t going to zone them. There’s not a chance Kentucky would zone them. And we’d have to see the matchup in the final but it’s probably unlikely. Xavier stayed in the game tonight by throwing as many as four or five different defensive looks at Arizona. It uglied things up for the ‘Cats, but, hey, survive and advance.
  3. Kaleb Tarczewski. Of all the players in college basketball, there are very few that take the kind of abuse from average college basketball fans (even including Arizona fans) that Tarczewski does. But as Sean Miller puts it, “he just does his job.” Xavier’s Matt Stainbrook seemed to be getting the best of him early, using a number of pretty post moves against his single coverage on the way to a double-double of 17 points and 10 boards. But Miller views Tarczewski’s ability to guard frontcourt bigs like Stainbrook one-on-one as a key to the Wildcats’ defensive success. “Stainbrook had his moments, but he had one offensive rebound. And one of the strategies for us is we didn’t want him to provide 10 to 20 points for his teammates. Because they do a great job of throwing it into him and he’s such a terrific passer that all of a sudden, the floodgates open from three or they get the ball moving and the reason it starts to move is because you had to help on Stainbrook. And then it’s both: He’s not only scoring inside, but their perimeter attack is thriving because of him. The reason we won, in my opinion, is Kaleb’s double-double and his very good defense. He did what we asked him to do.” To summarize: Tarczewski limited Stainbrook on the offensive glass, grabbed his own offensive boards on the other end, and because he was able to battle the Xavier big man to an individual draw, stifle Xavier’s half-court offense.

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Rushed Reactions: #1 Kentucky 78, #5 West Virginia 39

Posted by rtmsf on March 26th, 2015

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Three Key Takeaways.

Kentucky Flexed Its Muscles Tonight (USA Today Images)

Kentucky Flexed Its Muscles Tonight (USA Today Images)

  1. Don’t poke the bear. To be honest it wouldn’t have mattered. And maybe it didn’t matter. Kentucky was going to win this game anyway and perhaps the Wildcats playing about as well as they can (except for Karl-Anthony Towns) was just a coincidence, but we got to see what the Wildcats can do when they are firing on all cylinders. It is both beautiful and scary. If the Wildcats play like this, there isn’t a team in the country that is going to give them a legitimate challenge the rest of the way. That’s not meant to be disrespectful to any of the remaining teams; it is just the truth. For much of the season, Kentucky’s offense lagged well behind its defense, but now that it has caught up teams are basically left to hope the Wildcats have an off night. Tonight was not one of those nights.
  2. This was complete meltdown by West Virginia. Kentucky played great, but West Virginia embarrassed itself with its performance tonight. Outside of a few mini-runs that the Mountaineers put together thanks to some sloppiness from Kentucky (like Marcus Lee trying to break the press), Bob Huggins’ team couldn’t put anything else together. It was a rough end to an outstanding career in Morgantown for Juwan Staten, who deserved a better ending than this. West Virginia rarely has elite level talent coming to Morgantown, but we have learned over the years that Bob Huggins doesn’t need that to succeed. This may have been the lowest low of a storied career for the longtime head coach.
  3. Competition or coronation? It might seem premature to already hand the national title over to Kentucky, but it has been a long time since we have seen a team this dominant. Actually, the last team was 1991 UNLV… and we all know how that worked out. The fact is that there is no 1991 Duke waiting around the corner this year (people forget that one year later that lovable underdog became one of the great teams of all-time). Barring a collapse by Kentucky, which is much less likely given their ridiculous depth, we cannot see anybody beating them. So you might as well crown them now.

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Rushed Reactions: #1 Wisconsin 79, #4 North Carolina 72

Posted by Andrew Murawa on March 26th, 2015

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Three Key Takeaways.

The Badgers Took a Hit For Most of the Game But Clamped Down Late to Move to the Elite Eight (USA Today Images)

The Badgers Took a Hit For Most of the Game But Clamped Down Late to Move to the Elite Eight (USA Today Images)

  1. Just Needed A Spark. At the 11:11 mark in the second half, the whistle sounded a media timeout with Frank Kaminsky, having taken a hand to the face, laying on the ground in pain. With North Carolina slowly but surely extending a lead (att this point up to 53-46), this appeared to be an ominous sign. Kaminsky was helped off the court, bypassing the Wisconsin huddle in favor of a meeting with the trainer on the bench. After just one possession without him, the All-American re-entered and the Badgers reeled off a 10-4 run over the course of the next four minutes to finally build some momentum and get back within a point. From that point forward, the Badgers outscored the Tar Heels by 14 points; over the course of the 16 possessions from then until North Carolina went to its late-game fouling strategy, the Badgers scored 27 points, good for 1.69 points per possession.
  2. Not Vintage Kaminsky. Frank the Tank would up with 19 points and eight boards, basically his season averages, but tonight was by no means a great performance. He had some trouble with North Carolina’s size, but his early struggles (2-of-7 from the field for four points) had more to do with missed opportunities. He missed at least three layups in the first half and was getting beat up on the boards. In the second half, he worked on getting to the line (all eight of his free throws were after the break) and he spent some time dragging defenders out to the three-point line in pick-and-roll situations, opening up the interior for the rest of his team.
  3. Wisconsin’s Rebounding. The Badgers are not a team that kills people on the offensive glass. They’re a great offensive team because they shoot it really well, never turn it over, and run great offense. Offensive boards are usually an afterthought. However, tonight, when things weren’t coming easy, the Badgers pulled down 38.7 percent of offensive rebounding opportunities, extending possessions and earning 10 second-chance points. The Badgers were then able to exploit the type of matchup problems that they can create. As Roy Williams pointed out afterward, when the Tar Heels had a big lineup on the floor, Kaminsky could pull guys like Kennedy Meeks or Joel James away from the hoop. If UNC responded by going small, the Badgers then killed them on the glass. It takes a special collection of athletes to match up with these Badgers in a 40-minute game.

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