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
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
Three Key Takeaways.
Three Key Takeaways.
The Elite Eight is here. Two games that have a chance to become classics. Let’s break them down.
#1 Wisconsin vs. #2 Arizona – West Regional Final (at Los Angeles, CA) – at 6:09 PM ET on CBS.
Three-hundred-and-sixty-four days ago, about 40 miles away (by Los Angeles-area freeways), the Badgers and the Wildcats engaged in an epic 45-minute battle to decide the West Region’s entrant into the 2014 Final Four. For the final 18 minutes of the game, no more than a single possession separated the two teams. On the final possession of regulation, Traevon Jackson missed a jumper that would have won it for Wisconsin. Arizona had two possessions in the final 30 seconds of the game and strung together a T.J. McConnell miss, a Nick Johnson offensive foul and, on the final possession, Johnson unable to get a shot off before the final buzzer. The Badgers danced. Roughly a month ago, the possibility of this very rematch began to rear its head. And now, here it is. Sub out Ben Brust, Aaron Gordon and Nick Johnson. Sub in Stanley Johnson and Brandon Ashley. Bump up Bronson Koenig, bump back Traevon Jackson. Other than that, this thing should look awfully familiar. A year ago, Frank Kaminsky scored 28 points on 11/20 shooting with three threes and recorded just his second-ever double-double. Also, Bo Ryan’s team held the Wildcats without a single fastbreak point. And on the other side of the court, McConnell was limited to 2/10 shooting with just two assists and couple turnovers. Those three things right there are the areas Arizona needs to change in order to have a chance to flip the script today. Let’s start with Kaminsky. Junior center Kaleb Tarczewski will be the guy mostly charged with checking Frank the Tank. And in the post, Tarczewski will hold his own. However, Kaminsky’s ability to drag a big guy out to the perimeter and either knock in shots out there or get to the rim off the bounce will present problems. Let’s put it this way: if Kaminsky is again able to knock in three threes against the Wildcats like he did last season, that may force Sean Miller’s hand into an adjustment. The other area where the Arizona needs to adjust slightly is in making a priority of getting out in transition and getting some easy hoops. They’ve struggled with their halfcourt offense in their past two games, mostly against zone defenses. While Wisconsin won’t zone them, it would be a major boon to Arizona’s confidence if they could see the ball go in the basket early on some relatively easy transition looks. Lastly, there’s McConnell, the Wildcats’ senior leader. In that game a year ago, he had an offensive rating of 88. Since that time, in the 37 games that Arizona has played, McConnell has only three times had that poor of an offensive game. McConnell will certainly want to make up for his performance a year ago, but he needs to play within himself, make the smart play on offense, the tough play on defense and let the game come to him. If Wisconsin can get him out of his game, Arizona doesn’t stand much of a chance. But if the Wildcats’ leader is the same T.J. McConnell we’ve come to know this season, that could be enough to flip the final score.
The RTC Certified Pick: Arizona
#1 Kentucky vs. #3 Notre Dame – Midwest Region Elite Eight (from Cleveland, OH) – at 8:49 PM EST on TBS.
Kentucky and Notre Dame advanced to the Elite Eight after both teams put together very impressive performances Thursday night. The Wildcats completely outclassed West Virginia on their way to a thoroughly dominant 78-39 victory. Notre Dame displayed its incredible offensive efficiency throughout its 81-70 victory over a Wichita State squad that had built much of its reputation on the defensive end of the court. Saturday night is going to be a different story for Mike Brey’s group. The Irish use a four guard line-up and have been using 6’5″ senior swingman Pat Connaughton as their power forward all season. While Notre Dame lacks a lot of size, unbeaten Kentucky’s size might just be its greatest strength. The Wildcats start three mammoth forwards in freshmen Trey Lyles and Karl-Anthony Towns and junior Willie Cauley-Stein. John Calipari also has the luxury of having two additional gargantuan forwards that he can bring off the bench in sophomore forwards Dakari Johnson and Marcus Lee. Kentucky’s massive frontline might be its greatest asset, but it should be noted that its backcourt is also pretty stellar. Sophomores Aaron Harrison and Andrew Harrison and freshmen Devin Booker and Tyler Ulis provide the Wildcats with strong shooting and ball distribution skills. For Notre Dame to stand a fighting chance in this one, it is going to need its strong backcourt of sophomores Demetrius Jackson and Steve Vasturia and seniors Connaughton and Jerian Grant to hit shots at an extremely efficient clip. The Irish are second in the country in field goal percentage at 51%. They will need to shoot at least that against the Wildcats if they want to be in it late in the game. Expect Notre Dame to hit some shots and for this one to be pretty close for the first 30 minutes, but Kentucky’s size and sheer talent advantage will take over in the final 10 minutes. The Wildcats will end up winning by a fairly comfortable margin as they will move to 38-0 on the season and advance to next weekend’s Final Four in Indianapolis.
The RTC Certified Pick: Kentucky
As we move into a loaded Elite Eight this weekend, here are five storylines to keep an eye on over the next 36 hours of action. Enjoy!
Bluebloods. Last year, when Dayton went to the Elite Eight as a #11 seed, it was a nice story. But the Flyers’ regional final game against Florida was no contest. It wasn’t as if Dayton had no shot to win, but it was clear from the opening tip that the Flyers were overmatched. It’s fun to romanticize about underdogs making a long run in the NCAA Tournament, but the reality is that they usually run face first into a reality check (and thus a fairly dull game). For some, it happens later than others — see 2011 Butler, which lost in the national championship game to Connecticut — but it eventually happens. This year there’s no Dayton. There’s not even a Butler or a VCU. We’ve done away with the little guys. The likelihood of one team getting completely overwhelmed from a pure talent perspective is unlikely. There is still a #7 seed on the board, but Michigan State is anything but a plucky upstart. There is also a double-digit point spread in one of tonight’s games, but that says more about Kentucky than the ACC champs. So while it would have been cool to see Xavier knock off Arizona, we have what we want in the end: a bunch of bluebloods and some outstanding matchups.
Coaching Superstars. It’s often said that great coaching triumphs in March, so think about the eight coaches who are still remaining: the least successful of the eight is probably Mike Brey – yes, the same Mike Brey who’s been to 12 NCAA Tournaments and just won an ACC Tournament title in his second year in the league. Statistics aside, everybody knows that Brey is just a darn good coach. He finds himself in quite the elite company this weekend. The aggregate tenure of all eight coaches at their respective schools is 126 years, and between them, they have exactly 4,400 Division I wins. The coaching matchups on the right side of the bracket are especially compelling. Tom Izzo and Rick Pitino are statistically the two best NCAA Tournament coaches of the modern era, and Mark Few and Mike Krzyzewski have combined for 49 conference regular season or tournament titles. Wow.
Three Key Takeaways.
Three Key Takeaways.
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.
Three Key Takeaways.
Three Key Takeaways.
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.
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.
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.
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 »