Final Four Fact Sheet: Michigan State Spartans

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on April 2nd, 2015

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Midway through a week before the most highly-anticipated Final Four in years, let’s do a reset on each of the four teams still standing. Today’s victims: Michigan State and Wisconsin (later this afternoon).

How Sparty Got Here

East Region Champions. Michigan State beat #10 seed Georgia in its NCAA Tournament opener before using superb defense and key coaching adjustments to stun #2 seed Virginia in the Round of 32. From there, it was off to Syracuse where the Spartans edged #3 seed Oklahoma in the Sweet Sixteen and overcame an eight-point halftime deficit by beating Louisville in overtime to punch a surprising but well-earned ticket to Indianapolis.

For the second-straight season, a #7-seed won the East Region. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

For the second straight season, a #7 seed won the East Region. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

The Coach

Tom Izzo. Izzo’s remarkable run of March success has been well-documented. He’s now tied with Rick Pitino and Roy Williams for fourth all-time with seven Final Four appearances – three of which came as a #5 seed or worse. His .742 NCAA Tournament winning percentage and 46 total victories rank fifth among active coaches. By defeating Louisville last Sunday, Izzo notched his 13th win over a higher seed in the Big Dance – the most such victories all-time – while improving to 20-4 in the second game of an NCAA Tournament weekend, also one of the finest marks ever. Simply put, Michigan State’s 20th-year leader is masterful in the third month of the year.

Style

At 17.8 seconds per possession, Michigan State is among the more uptempo offensive teams in the country and ranks second behind only Kentucky among Final Four units. The Spartans are more than willing to get out in transition, finish near the rim or locate open shooters – like transfer Bryn Forbes (43.5% 3FG) – on the wing. In the half-court, Izzo’s club moves the ball very well (seventh-highest assist rate in college basketball), takes a healthy number of perimeter jumpers and likes to run ball-screen and pick-and-roll action as the shot clock wanes. Defensively, Michigan State applies some man-to-man ball pressure and tries to limit both easy looks in the paint and second-chance opportunities (72.9% DReb). Only three teams in college basketball forced its opponents into longer offensive possessions this season (20.1 seconds per trip).

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Final Four Storylines: Wisconsin Edition

Posted by Henry Bushnell on April 1st, 2015

RTC_NCAA15

The Final Four is set. This week we’ll continue our NCAA Tournament Storylines series focused on each of the remaining four teams. We profiled Kentucky yesterday. Today: Wisconsin.

Sam Dekker's Ascent Assured Wisconsin of Its Second Straight Final Four Appearance (USA Today Images)

Sam Dekker’s Ascent Assured Wisconsin of Its Second Straight Final Four Appearance (USA Today Images)

The Badgers are back. Just one year after head coach Bo Ryan snapped his Final Four drought, the Badgers are once again two wins away from the program’s first National Championship since 1941. What has always been impressive about Ryan’s teams is the consistency with which they finish among the Big Ten’s top echelon, but the last two campaigns have elevated the notion of sustained success to another level. Wisconsin is not yet a top-five basketball program, but Ryan has found a group of players that have both the talent and the know-how to effectively run his system. This year’s senior-laden team is even better than last year’s group, and it has a real chance to do something special with Kentucky waiting in Indianapolis.

An historically good offense. Wisconsin is dangerous because of its offense. Coming into this season, no team in the KenPom era (since 2002) had finished with an adjusted offensive efficiency rating higher than 124.1 (2013-14 Michigan). Barring something astonishing occurring this weekend, however, the Badgers will shatter that record. Wisconsin’s current mark of 127.5 ORtg is significantly higher than Notre Dame’s 123.1, the second-best in college basketball. To put that into perspective, that differential of 4.4 adjusted points per 100 possessions between #1 Wisconsin and #2 Notre Dame is roughly equivalent to the difference between the offenses of #65 Louisville and #148 Maryland-Eastern Shore. The Badgers don’t put up eye-popping point totals because they also run the second-slowest offense in Division I basketball (a concept Kenny Smith apparently doesn’t understand), but that’s one of the reasons they are in fact so good. Their determination to get excellent shots on each possession down-court make that number possible. Of course, so does an ability to record a second half effective field goal percentage of 105.3, as the Badgers did last Saturday against Arizona. But it all starts with Ryan’s philosophy and the way his players understand and fit into it.

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Who’s Got Next? McDonald’s All-American Preview

Posted by Sean Moran on April 1st, 2015

Who’s Got Next? is a weekly column by Sean Moran, the RTC recruiting guru. Once a week he will bring you an overview of what’s going on in the complex world of recruiting, from who is signing where among the seniors to discussing the recruitment of the top uncommitted players in the country. We also encourage you to check out his contributions at The Intentional Foul dedicated to recruiting coverage and analysis. You can also follow Sean at his Twitter account @Seanmohoops for up-to-date news from the high school and college hoops scene. If you have any suggestions as to areas we are missing or different things you would like to see, please let us know at rushthecourt@yahoo.com.

Note: Scout.com used for all player rankings.

The 38th annual McDonald’s All-American game tips off at the United Center in Chicago tonight at 8:00 PM ET. With the Final Four just around the corner, this star-studded game provides an inside look at the players that will impact the college game as freshmen next season. For example, there are four freshmen on each of the Duke and Kentucky rosters that participated in this game last year. While the diehard recruitnik already knows all about the players who populate the East and West teams, here is a high-level overview of what to watch for tonight for those who are more focused on the college game.

No. 1 Recruiting Class

Arizona currently has the No. 1 recruiting class but only one of its four signees is playing in the game. Kentucky is ranked No. 2 and it only has one player playing as well. What gives? For starters, Arizona has signed three five-star prospects but only shooting guard Allonzo Trier is playing in the game. Trier is an electric scorer who is certain to get his fair share of points tonight. The other future desert Wildcats are small forward Ray Smith, who is the No. 15 prospect in the country, 6’5” point guard Justin Simon (No. 20) and 6’11” forward Chance Comanche (No. 44). Power forward Ivan Rabb (No. 5) has also narrowed his choice down to California and Arizona. As for Kentucky, combo guard Isaiah Briscoe (No. 18) is the lone representative in this year’s game and the physical New Jersey product will do his best tonight by attacking the basket and creating for his teammates. The crown jewel of the Kentucky recruiting class is currently the No. 3 recruit in 6’11” forward Skal Labissiere. The Haitan native has immense long-term potential but he also has the NCAA interested in his background. Guard Charles Matthews, who is not currently ranked in the top 50, rounds out the class. Once the Final Four is over and several current Wildcats announce their NBA decisions, expect this class to grow by several more names and for Kentucky to once again lay claim to the top recruiting class in the nation.

Unsigned Players

A common refrain from both parents and NBA scouts attending the McDonald’s All-American practices was that it is in the best interests of the players to wait as long as they could before making a commitment. That way the families would have an opportunity to see what was going on with the coaching carousel in addition to learning which players are declaring for the NBA. As a result in this shift of thinking, there are a record number of unsigned seniors in this year’s class. Keep an eye on the below names.

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NCAA Tournament Tidbits: 04.01.15 Edition

Posted by Griffin Wong on April 1st, 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.

Michigan State

Tom Izzo Is Loving This Team (USA Today Images)

Tom Izzo Is Loving This Team (USA Today Images)

  • Of all people, Duke’s Coach K is perhaps least surprised to be facing Michigan State coach Tom Izzo in the Final Four. “Nothing surprises me that he and his program would do,” Krzyzewski said. “They don’t have a team; they have a program. As he develops each team, I don’t know what the time frame of it is until that group understands what the program is about, whether it be offense, defense or just character-wise, but they’re going to keep improving because it’s a program. It’s a program of excellence.”
  • For Michigan State, the emergence of freshman LouRawls ‘Tum Tum’ Nairn Jr. has been paramount to the Spartans’ turnaround this season. He hasn’t scored much so far in the NCAA Tournament, but that’s not what makes him so valuable. “He does so much for our team that doesn’t show up in the stat sheet,” said senior guard Travis Trice. “He helps break the press, he gets other guys involved. Tum’s also that energy guy. There are times [before or after practice] where guys are kind of tired and Tum’s there with all the energy and boosts everybody up. Tum does a lot of things for us that people really don’t see.”
  • Michigan State may not have as much individual talent as it usually does, but this bunch has played very well as a team. “This is some of the things that has separated this year’s team: from top to bottom there is a – I don’t know if you can use the word, but there is a true love for one another,” Izzo said, “and that is a powerful, powerful thing, so I’m appreciative of those upperclassmen.”
  • Check out Tom Izzo‘s postgame speech to his team after the Spartans punched their ticket on Sunday to the Final Four.
  • With a BCS Bowl victory and another Final Four appearance, it’s a good time to be a Michigan State fan.

Duke

  • No matter the year, the moment, or the personnel on his team, Coach K is consistently great. “There’s not just one way,” [assistant coach Nate] James said. “Some coaches are stuck in their ways, like ‘I want to do it this way, the way I’ve always done it.’ No. If you do it that way, it may hurt this group. He adjusts.”
  • Even though Duke is a mainstay at the top of college basketball, Krzyzewski insists that this team has worked its way to a “magical season,” just like everyone else. “It’s not a birthright; it’s earned each year,” he said.
  • From losing Rasheed Sulaimon to hitting some midseason lulls back in January, this Duke team has learned to be resilient.
  • Is Coach K the greatest college basketball head coach of all time? Chris Chase seems to think so.
  • Duke may be in the Final Four, but Jahlil Okafor hasn’t exactly dominated in March. Is the freshman standout somewhat overrated?

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NCAA Tournament Tidbits: 03.31.15 Edition

Posted by Griffin Wong on March 31st, 2015

RTC_NCAA15

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.

Kentucky

38-0 and Still Standing. (USA Today Images)

38-0 and Still Standing. (USA Today Images)

  • Duke handled Michigan State in November’s Champions Classic, but a “true” champions classic would see the Blue Devils face undefeated Kentucky for the National Championship game on Monday night. Luckily for college basketball fans, that potential matchup is just one spectacular round away.
  • Big Blue Nation is notorious for traveling to games, but John Calipari isn’t so sure that the Wildcats will have a boost from the crowd in Indianapolis. “My hope is our [fans] have figured out how to get the tickets more than the other people, but you just don’t know,” he said.
  • Despite having a historic level of amateur talent, Kentucky has benefited from keeping that talent grounded off the court. Sports psychologist Bob Rotella visits Lexington every so often to keep the Wildcats loose and motivated. “The challenge, ultimately, is to get really talented people to go after it that intensely, with that much energy,” he said.
  • Kentucky walk-ons Sam Malone and Brian Long may not be heading to the NBA, but after this season, they’ll have played with possibly 21 future and current NBA players.
  • When it comes to getting his players to the professional ranks, John Calipari goes above and beyond the call of duty. Not only does he showcase each of his 10 (nine after junior Alex Poythress’ midseason injury) rotation players, but he even set up a pseudo Pro Day for his players before the season.

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Final Four Storylines: Kentucky Edition

Posted by Henry Bushnell on March 31st, 2015

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The Final Four is set. This week we’ll continue our NCAA Tournament Storylines series focused on each of the remaining four teams. Today: Kentucky.

Two to Go. (USA Today Images)

Two to Go. (USA Today Images)

Pursuit of Perfection. Where else to start but with those three inescapable words. The Wildcats are two wins away from becoming the first team since 1976 Indiana to get through an entire Division I men’s basketball season undefeated. And if they get those two wins in Indianapolis — especially if they do so convincingly — it would be awfully tough to refute Kentucky’s case as one of the greatest college basketball teams of all-time. It’s difficult to compare teams across eras and there’s a tendency to describe current teams in great hyperbole without a sense of historical context. But should John Calipari’s crew finish the job, it would be really tough to find any faults with what Kentucky has done. The record of 40-0 alone would be unmatched historically.

It’s better that Kentucky is here. It would have been a truly amazing story if Notre Dame had slain the giant last Saturday night. It would’ve been even more incredible if the Irish had done so via Jerian Grant’s corner shot at the buzzer. Many fans may still be agonizing over that final minute and still wondering what could have been had a bounce or two gone the other way. But whether you were rooting for Kentucky or not — and the overwhelming majority of fans nationally were not — having the Wildcats in Indy this weekend is for the best. Sure, people hate the Kentucky aura; they hate the fans’ sense of entitlement; they hate that Kentucky is so darn good. But that’s exactly why the Final Four will be so much more gripping with Kentucky participating. The Wildcats are polarizing. They’re also historic. The combination of the two will keep everybody engrossed for as long as the Wildcats are still standing. Every great story needs a villain — and Kentucky is the baddest on the block.

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Who’s Got Next? Elite Big Man Diamond Stone Selects Maryland

Posted by Sean Moran on March 30th, 2015

Who’s Got Next? is a weekly column by Sean Moran, the RTC recruiting guru. Once a week he will bring you an overview of what’s going on in the complex world of recruiting, from who is signing where among the seniors to discussing the recruitment of the top uncommitted players in the country. We also encourage you to check out his contributions at The Intentional Foul dedicated to recruiting coverage and analysis. You can also follow Sean at his Twitter account @Seanmohoops for up-to-date news from the high school and college hoops scene. If you have any suggestions as to areas we are missing or different things you would like to see, please let us know at rushthecourt@yahoo.com.

Note: Scout.com used for all player rankings.

Maryland exceeded expectations by going 28-7 in its first Big Ten season and now Mark Turgeon’s club is doing the same on the recruiting front with the unexpected weekend commitment of five-star center Diamond Stone, the No. 4 prospect in the senior class. The 6’10” big man from Milwaukee committed to the Terps on Friday night and in turn significantly raised expectations for Maryland next season.

Stone’s name first popped on the radar in 2012 as he established himself as an overpowering freshman. He won a Wisconsin Division 4 championship that year and didn’t stop from there, having just capped off his fourth title in a row at Dominican High School with a 23-point, 15-rebound performance. Through it all, Stone maintained his status as one of the top players in his class and at times held down the overall No. 1 ranking. Over the past two summers, Stone was a regular with the USA basketball program, winning gold medals at the U-16 FIBA Americas event and at the U-17 FIBA World Championships. He started all 12 games for Team USA and averaged 13.6 points and 7.2 rebounds and 13.4 points and 9.7 rebounds, respectively, during those international events.

Recruitment

Stone’s recruitment has been a long and winding road with many twists and turns. Local powers Wisconsin and Marquette established themselves early with the Golden Eagles rumored to be the leader with Stone taking numerous unofficial visits to the campus right next door. Schools from all over the country soon joined that pair in the race as Stone received offers from Georgetown, Indiana, Duke, North Carolina and UCLA. When Buzz Williams left for Virginia Tech a year ago, Marquette received a commitment from Henry Ellenson and dropped out. The four schools that remained were Wisconsin, Connecticut, Oklahoma State and Maryland, with the College Park school seeming like the longest shot. UConn was discussed as the leader as recently as last summer (and a package deal with Malik Newman was supposedly in play), but Stone took official visits to all four schools in October and liked Maryland the best.

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Circle of March: Vol. XXV

Posted by rtmsf on March 30th, 2015

And then there were four, as in Final Four. What a weekend of basketball. We were gifted with several fantastic games that resulted in one of the best fields that we’ve seen on the sport’s biggest stage in quite some time. The Circle of March may be looking a little stark, but Duke, Kentucky, Michigan State and Wisconsin will more than compensate with their oversized games. Is it Saturday evening yet?

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Eliminations (03.29.15)

  • Gonzaga
  • Louisville

Rushed Reactions: #1 Duke 66, #2 Gonzaga 52

Posted by Bennet Hayes on March 29th, 2015

RTC National Columnist Bennet Hayes is in Houston this week for the South Regional semifinals and final.

Three Key Takeaways.

Both Jones' -- Tyus And Matt -- Were Instrumental In Duke's Elite Eight Victory Over Gonzaga (Photo: Duke Chronicle)

Both Jones’ — Tyus And Matt — Were Instrumental In Duke’s Elite Eight Victory Over Gonzaga (Photo: Duke Chronicle)

  1. Offenses Fail To Get Going, Again. In Friday night’s regional semifinals, four teams that began the night among the 65 most accurate three-point shooting teams in the country combined to shoot 23 percent from long-range. Much was made of the clumsy dome setup inducing the offensive malaise, but the forecast for Sunday was still for efficient offense by the bucket-load, given the firepower Duke and Gonzaga brought to the table. The two teams got off to a fast start – 22 points in the first five minutes – but things settled down significantly from there on out. Gonzaga and Duke combined to shoot 41 percent from the floor, including just 38 percent for the victorious Blue Devils. Duke did do two things extremely well offensively: shoot the ball accurately from three-point range (8-19) and maximize possessions (an amazing three total turnovers for the game). Gonzaga was less proficient in each category, making only two of 10 three-point attempts and turning the ball over 13 times. There were glimpses of the offensive brilliance we witnessed from both these teams all season, but this regional final never escalated into the explosive matchup many expected.
  2. Matt Jones, Who? Matt Jones. The Duke sophomore supplied the game of his life in this Regional Final. Jones, who entered Sunday averaging just 5.9 points per game, finished with 16 points (one shy of his season and career highs) and converted four of Duke’s eight made three-point field goals. With Quinn Cook and Tyus Jones again struggling to find the range from deep (combined 2-8 on three-point attempts), Jones’ unexpected scoring was crucial in getting the Blue Devils into the final minutes with a lead. Mark Few said afterwards that concerns about guarding Justise Winslow had led to Gonzaga to do a significant amount of cross-matching with Kyle Wiltjer defending Jones, a reasonable coaching decision that devolved into a disastrous result for the Zags. Jones, Duke’s fifth starter and a Texas native (like Friday night hero Justise Winslow) playing in his home state, was as important as any of his more acclaimed teammates Sunday afternoon.
  3. Wiltjer-Winslow Matchup. This was the matchup many fixated on in advance of Sunday afternoon, and with good reason: Winslow was coming off a scintillating Friday night performance, while Wiltjer has been arguably the Zags best player all season. Mixing and matching by both coaches saw both players spend a good deal of time defending elsewhere, but Wiltjer kept Gonzaga close in the first half, scoring 13 points on 5-7 field-goal shooting. Meanwhile, Winslow forced the action early and managed just five points in the opening frame, missing five of his six field-goal attempts. Things changed dramatically after intermission, however. Wiltjer struggled to get touches and was a virtual non-factor in the second half, while Duke’s freshman swingman found his Friday night form, pumping in 11 second-half points. Among the 11 was the biggest shot of the night, a three-pointer with the shot clock winding down and less than three minutes to go that put Duke up nine. Both players finished with 16 points, but Winslow’s big second-half was a key differentiator for Mike Krzyewski’s team.

Star of the Game. Tyus Jones, Duke. None of Duke’s big four – Jones, Winslow, Jahlil Okafor and Quinn Cook – played anything close to a perfect game today. Heck, they combined to shoot 15-45 from the field. Still, it was Jones that catalyzed Duke’s quick start, scoring seven points as the Blue Devils jumped out to a 17-10 lead. The South Region’s Most Outstanding Player finished the day with 15 points, six assists and no turnovers, helping Duke to that minuscule turnover total of three. Matt Jones’ unexpected scoring was a huge boost Sunday afternoon, but it was the more familiar Jones on the Duke roster who dictated this game’s flow from the outset. His ball-handling and all-around savvy will now be put to use in Indianapolis.

Quotable. “It’s meant everything. Best team I have ever been on talent-wise and the best group of guys. We can look back and be pretty happy with what we have been able to do.” –Kevin Pangos, Gonzaga senior point guard, on what this Gonzaga season has meant to him.

“It’s a shot he makes. It’s a shot he makes 499 times out of 500.” –Mark Few, on Kyle Wiltjer’s missed layup with 4:51 to go that would have tied game. Duke went on a 13-1 run to close the game after the miss.

“Our defense the last 16 minutes was spectacular — not (just) good. I love these guys and they came through.” –Mike Krzyewski, Duke head coach

“This team is eight guys. There is not someone hiding in the locker room that is going to come out and appear.” -Krzyewski.

Sights & Sounds. Whether it was the Sunday afternoon time slot, a Final Four bid on the line, or just the anticipation of the region’s top two seeds meeting, there was an urgency in NRG Stadium that never existed Friday night. The Duke faithful significantly outnumbered Gonzaga supporters (rough estimate — 5:1 ratio of Duke to Gonzaga fans), but enough folks from the Pacific Northwest made the journey South to create a back-and-forth feel to the cheering. In the end, however, the final image of NRG Stadium was all too familiar: Thousands of contented Duke fans standing in acknowledgment of a Blue Devil team advancing to face their next challenge.

What’s Next?  Duke advances to the program’s 16th Final Four, where it will take on Tom Izzo and Michigan State in Indianapolis. The fourth overall meeting between Mike Krzyewski and Tom Izzo in the NCAA Tournament will double as the second time they have met in a National Semifinal. Duke has won two of those three prior matchups, which includes a Sweet 16 game two seasons ago. On the other side, the loss to Duke ends what will likely go down as the greatest season in Gonzaga history. The Zags, now 0-2 all-time in the Elite Eight, will finish the year at 35-3. Mark Few loses Byron Wesley, Gary Bell and WCC Player of the Year Kevin Pangos to graduation after an undeniably special year in Spokane.

 

Rushed Reactions: #7 Michigan State 76, #4 Louisville 70 (OT)

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 29th, 2015

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Three Key Takeaways.

Michigan State is headed to Indianapolis. (Dennis Nett / Syracuse.com)

Michigan State is headed to Indianapolis. (Dennis Nett / Syracuse.com)

  1. Overtime giveth, overtime taketh away. Michigan State went 2-5 in overtime games prior to today, including a six-point home loss to Richard Pitino-coached Minnesota in February and an 11-point defeat against Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game. Louisville had only played one overtime contest before this afternoon – a 10-point victory over North Carolina. Yet, despite that recent history – with the stakes higher than ever – the basketball gods looked favorably upon the Spartans during the extra period. Bryn Forbes (14 points) knocked down a three-pointer to tip things off. The Cardinals, on the other hand, missed two early shots, including a layup. Branden Dawson found himself in perfect position for a late, game-clinching offensive rebound and putback that essentially sealed the win. “Sometimes it can be a cruel game,” Louisville coach Rick Pitino said afterward, referring to the fickle nature of bonus basketball. In another tight game with razor-thin margin for error, good fortune finally went the way of Michigan State.
  2. Michigan State clamped down in second half. Louisville shredded Michigan State’s interior defense in the first half, shooting 13-of-27 from two-point land and scoring 31 of its 40 points from inside the arc or at the free throw line. Cardinal forward Montrezl Harrell – who scored 24 points against North Carolina State on Friday – scored 12 in the game’s opening 11 minutes, helping his team grab an eight-point lead at the break. Then the Spartans clamped down. Over the final 25 minutes of regulation and overtime, Louisville shot just 6-of-32 from the field and mustered only an additional 30 points. Michigan State shut down the lane – limiting the Cardinals’ dribble penetration and collapsing on Harrell (who only scored four points the rest of the way) – and did a better job extending on shooters. That defensive stinginess enabled Izzo’s club to climb back in the game and ultimately wind up on top.
  3. Another Elite Eight thriller. As if last night’s Notre Dame-Kentucky game wasn’t enough, the Elite Eight delivered yet another thrilling finish in Syracuse today. The back-and-forth second half was filled with momentum swings and fraught with drama, including Mangok Mathiang’s game-tying free throw at the end of regulation that seemingly hung in the air for minutes before falling through the net. All told, the lead changed 11 different times and was tied on nine different occasions before Michigan State grabbed the final edge in overtime. If regional weekend is a sign of things to come, then next week’s Final Four should be nothing short of excellent.

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Circle of March: Vol. XXIV

Posted by rtmsf on March 29th, 2015

What a fun couple of games in the first half of the Elite Eight tonight. Here’s hoping for two more on Sunday afternoon. Six remain!

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Eliminations (03.28.15)

  • Notre Dame
  • Arizona

NCAA Game Analysis: Elite Eight Sunday

Posted by Bennet Hayes & Tommy Lemoine on March 29th, 2015

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The Elite Eight is here. Two more games that have a chance to become classics. Let’s break them down.

#4 Louisville vs. #7 Michigan State – East Region Elite Right (at Syracuse, NY) – at 2:20 PM ET on CBS

Denzel Valentine and the Spartans hope to wind up in Indy next weekend. (Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports)

Denzel Valentine and the Spartans hope to wind up in Indy next weekend. (Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports)

Rick Pitino and Tom Izzo are no strangers to this stage, or each other. The Hall of Fame Louisville coach ranks fourth all-time with seven Final Four appearances, including two since 2012. The 20th-year Michigan State head man trails just behind with six, along with four Elite Eight trips since 2009. And for the third time in seven years, their teams will meet in the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament. This is familiar territory. What’s not familiar, though, is the route each team took to reach this point. Unlike in 2009 and 2012 – when both teams were either #1 or #2-seeds – the Cardinals and Spartans enter this afternoon’s contest having endured rocky seasons with somewhat limited expectations. Izzo’s club lost 11 games this year, including a baffling home loss to Texas Southern in mid-December. Pitino’s unit dismissed point guard and top three-point shooter Chris Jones in late February, further exacerbating its offensive woes. Yet here they both are, playing for the right to move on to Indianapolis.

So what should we expect from these resilient teams? For Louisville, this much we know: its defense – ranked fifth nationally in adjusted efficiency – will be stout. As per usual for Pitino-coached squads, it will apply heavy ball pressure and limit good looks from behind the arc (30% 3PT defense). What’s been surprising about its three-game run, however, is the offensive production. Against Northern Iowa and North Carolina State, the Cardinals scored 1.2 and 1.17 points per possession, respectively, and received high-efficiency, high-production performances from both Terry Rozier (25 points; 146 ORtg against the Panthers) and Montrezl Harrell (24 points; 150 ORtg against the Wolfpack). The newfound offensive consistency – especially in the half-court – has turned them into a substantially more well-rounded unit, one that looks much closer to the team that began the year 11-0.

The specific areas of Michigan State’s recent improvement are slightly harder to pin-point but no less impactful. Power forward Branden Dawson has been playing his best basketball of the season – on both ends of the court – since the start of the Big Ten tournament onward. The Spartans have done a better job taking care of the ball, suffering just five miscues against Oklahoma on Friday night. And Travis Trice (20.6 PPG in NCAA Tournament) has emerged as the teams’ consistent, go-to scorer – something it lacked earlier in the year. All of the little things seem to be coming together for Izzo’s group at the right time.

This afternoon’s matchup might ultimately come down to a few key factors: Louisville’s ability to score around the rim against Michigan State’s interior defense (43.6% 2PT), and whether the Spartans can keep their offensive cool against the Cardinals’ various matchup zone and man-to-man defensive looks. Oddly, North Carolina State kept itself alive on Friday by knocking down shots from behind the arc (9-for-20 3FG) against Louisville, but struggled to score in the paint. Izzo’s club will need a little bit of both today, and certainly needs to take care of the ball. Likewise, Dawson, Matt Costello, and the rest of Michigan State’s big men cannot allow Harrell and Louisville’s penetrating guards nearly as many good looks near the basket as they found on Friday. In the end, I like Michigan State’s ability to crash the offensive glass (33.9% OReb) against the Cardinals’ sub-par defensive rebounding (30.9% DReb) to be the difference – not to mention the fact that doubting Izzo on the back-end of an NCAA Tournament weekend seems foolish. Expect a thrilling, hotly-contested and well-coached contest either way.

The RTC Certified Pick: Michigan State

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