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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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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Rushed Reactions: #2 Arizona 69, #7 Saint Mary’s 60

Posted by RJ Abeytia on March 18th, 2017

Arizona endured Saint Mary’s deliberate pace as well as their incredible discipline to advance to the West Region semifinals next weekend in San Jose.  Ultimately, a strong second half on both ends of the floor sent the Wildcats to Sweet Sixteen.

Arizona Was All Smiles After a Tough R32 Win Over St. Mary’s (USA Today Images)

Three Key Takeaways.

  1. Arizona can win in many different ways. After scoring 100 points in their opening round game, Arizona conceded the pace to Saint Mary’s and beat the Gaels at their own half-court game. The Wildcats pounded the ball inside relentlessly, relied on their superior athleticism on the wing, and then finally rode Lauri Markkanen to the winner’s circle.
  2. Saint Mary’s fell out of character just enough to be vulnerable. The Gaels had stretches, especially in the first half, when they looked to be in vintage form. They used their usual array of ball screens, precise spacing and exquisite ball movement to produce some gorgeous baskets. But their 5-of-21 performance from beyond the arc and inability to stop Arizona in the second half (the Wildcats shot 59 percent with an Offensive Rating of 114.3) was too much to overcome.
  3. The Dusan Ristic Experience Returns. Ristic was an important contributor for the Wildcats during the first half of Pac-12 play, but he took a step back as Chance Comanche and Keanu Pinder emerged. Tonight he again played a starring role as part of the clear Wildcat game plan to pound the post all game long. Ristic scored 13 points on 6-of-9 shooting and really helped Arizona fully exploit the size and depth they had. Long NCAA Tournament runs always feature contributions from unexpected sources, and Ristic’s performance was an example of what it’s going to take to get Arizona through the next weekend of NCAA Tournament play.

Star of the Game. Lauri Markkanen, Arizona. After taking some lessons from Saint Mary’s senior standout Jock Landale, Markkanen carried the Wildcats on both ends of the floor down the stretch. He stood tall in defending Landale, and he scored from all over the court like no other college basketball player quite can. He scored 16 points, grabbed 11 rebounds, and had huge blocks on both Landale as well as a game-sealer on Joe Rahon. It’s not like his draft stock was low headed into this week, but Markkanen is skyrocketing up draft boards after two very strong outings under pressure in Salt Lake City.  

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Getting to Know the Pac-12: Arizona

Posted by Mike Lemaire on March 16th, 2017

The footprint of the Arizona fan base is vast and the program’s history and prestige mean few teams on the West Coast get more media attention. But these Wildcats don’t have the same brand names and star power as some of their teams of the past. Casual college basketball fans in fact might have trouble naming more than two players in Arizona’s rotation. But Sean Miller‘s club is a fashionable Final Four pick right now, so there is plenty of time to get acquainted.

Who are the stars?

Allonzo Trier hasn’t missed a beat in his return from a steroid suspension. The sophomore is averaging better than 17 points per game and shoots more than 40 percent from downtown. He also chips in five rebounds per game and has more than doubled his assist rate (16.9%) this season. In short, Trier is becoming the all-around monster many expected him to become after a stellar freshman campaign in Tucson. He has scored at least 19 points in seven straight games and is clearly the team’s best all-around player.

Allonzo Trier is back and better than ever since his suspension. (James Snook/USA TODAY Sports)

Trier is not, however, the best future professional on the roster — that honor belongs to Finnish sensation Lauri Markkanen. After averaging 15.6 points and 7.1 rebounds per game and shooting an eye-popping 43 percent from behind the three-point arc, Markkanen is one of the hottest NBA prospects in college basketball. A college basketball unicorn, Markkanen is a legitimate seven-footer who Arizona utilizes as a matchup-wrecking gunner.

Rawle Alkins probably doesn’t belong in the same “star” category as Trier or Markkanen, but he gets a pass here. The Brooklyn native is the offensive opposite of Markkanen — a bruiser who is at his best attacking the rim with his physicality. Alkins shoot  37 percent from three-point range, so his shot is far from broken, but his time is better spent bullying weaker opponents on the blocks. He is also an excellent defender and wing rebounder.

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Pac-12 Tournament Prospectus

Posted by RJ Abeytia on March 15th, 2017

The Pac-12 ended up with fewer seeds in the NCAA Tournament than the ACC, Big 12, SEC, and Big 10.  Of course, it was always quality (Arizona, Oregon, UCLA) and not quantity for the Conference of Champions this season. Outside of the ACC, no conference has three teams being hailed as legitimate Final Four threats.  The questions this time of year focus on where you’re trending and your presumptive path. By the time you get to a National Semifinal you are certainly going to be playing a great team, or at the very least a team playing like one. Those games match up as coin tosses in most cases, so let’s focus on which of the four Pac-12 teams who qualified has the best shot of reaching Glendale.

Do Allonzo Trier and Arizona own the Pac-12’s best chances of reaching the National Semifinals? (Photo: USA Today Sports)

USC

  • Trending Up:  Jordan McLaughlin is averaging nearly 17 points a game over his last four and has a stellar A/TO rate of 31/6 over those four games. Guard play takes center stage in the NCAA Tournament, and if the Trojans are to make more than a cameo in the round of 68, they’ll need McLaughlin to keep playing at a high level this week.
  • Trending Down:  Since posting a stellar 156 ORtg against Washington State in March 1, Bennie Boatwright has slumped to games with offensive efficiency ratings of 88, 102, and 83 amidst an 8-28 field goal shooting stretch.  USC is not a great offensive team and they struggle in the halfcourt; without Boatwright at max efficiency working to stretch defenses and convert in the paint, USC isn’t long for this week.
  • Final Four:  The Trojans were on a three-game winning streak before UCLA dispatched them in the quarterfinals of the Pac-12 Tournament. USC didn’t make it easy for the Bruins, however, and in the last four games found an offensive groove, posting efficiency ratings well over national average in its three wins. The loss to UCLA showed they could hang with an elite team despite subpar performances from Boatwright, Chimezie Metu, and De’Anthony Melton. Coming off a loss, it’d be wrong to say the Trojans are streaking, but they are playing good ball.

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NCAA Tournament Instareaction: Pac-12 Teams

Posted by Adam Butler on March 12th, 2017

We thought that the Pac-12 Tournament champion would be rewarded with the West Region’s best available seed. The release of the committee’s bracket confirmed as much and here we are. With the Pac-12 represented by only four teams this season, let’s react to their seeding.

Arizona Rode the Wave to the Pac-12 Title (USA Today Images)

  • #2 Arizona, West – The Wildcats stormed through Las Vegas over the weekend and were rewarded for the effort. What will be interesting in the upcoming days, however, is how Arizona will be evaluated. The advanced metrics like KenPom rate Sean Miller‘s squad as the nation’s 20th best team, loosely correlating to a #4 or even #5 seed. Subsequently, the Internet has instareacted by noting that Saint Mary’s (Arizona’s potential Second Round opponent) in fact has fantastic odds of making the Elite Eight. Of course, Saint Mary’s (14th) rates ahead of the Wildcats, which means that it makes sense that the Gaels are a trendy sleeper pick. But ask yourself, is the team that just beat UCLA and Oregon on successive nights not capable of making the Final Four?

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Rushed Reactions: Arizona 83, Oregon 80

Posted by RJ Abeytia on March 12th, 2017

Arizona left no doubt that it is the most complete Pac-12 team this season. The Wildcats beat UCLA and Oregon on back-to-back nights, and they did it with star big man Lauri Markannen taking only four shots and scoring only 11 points. Oregon may have the most experience and UCLA may have the biggest upside, but Arizona can win at multiple paces and in multiple ways.

Arizona Ran Through Oregon to Claim the Pac-12 Tournament Title (USA Today Images)

Three Key Takeaways.

  1. The game has changed. Arizona came into tonight’s game with a firm commitment to drive Oregon off the three-point line, even if that meant giving up layups as a result. The Ducks were credited with 30 layup attempts, converting only half of them. However, Oregon — a team that gets nearly 40 percent of its points from the three-point line — only notched 19 percent of their points from distance tonight. Oregon adjusted in the second half by driving to the bucket relentlessly and getting fouls. Foul trouble was the monkey wrench that hurt Arizona in the second half, but Sean Miller confirmed that taking away the three was the priority. It’s counterintuitive relative to the long-established philosophy of defending from the inside out, and it reflects just how much the style of the game and the three-point line have revolutionized not just the way teams attack but also the way they defend.
  2. Track Dillon Brooks’ usage in the NCAA Tournament. Dana Altman and Tyler Dorsey were not excited last night about the stagnation that resulted largely because of Brooks’ ball dominance. Tonight Brooks scored 17 of Oregon’s 29 points in the first half and took 12 of their 29 shots. Oregon’s offensive efficiency that half was 85.3. In the second half, foul trouble opened the door for Tyler Dorsey, who took over the lead role and logged a very efficient 21 points on only 10 shots. Oregon’s offensive efficiency in the second half was 141.7. The Ducks are at their most dangerous when they have everybody engaged (most teams are), but with a player as exceptional as Brooks it can be difficult to find that balance. There is not clear evidence of any kind of a rift between Brooks and his team, but the Ducks’ last two games illustrated that making Oregon one-dimensional is a big step towards beating them, even if that one dimension is a player as good as Brooks.
  3. Chris Boucher was missed.  Altman admitted that it was tough to account for the absence of the Ducks’ senior shot-blocker and three-point threat extraordinaire. Make no mistake: Boucher was missed on both ends of the court tonight. His reputation is built on rim protection but his ability to stretch defenses and create mismatches is something Altman must resolve by the time Oregon starts NCAA Tournament play.

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Rushed Reactions: Arizona 86, UCLA 75

Posted by RJ Abeytia on March 11th, 2017

Arizona took all the suspense out of the most anticipated game of the Pac-12 Tournament by dominating UCLA as well as any team has this year. This is the Wildcats’ team that can absolutely play in the Final Four (and with all the talk of UCLA playing in Sacramento followed by San Jose, why has nobody talked about Arizona playing for a National Championship just up the road in Glendale? Such dreams are no longer as far-fetched as they may have seemed before the Pac-12 Tournament started.

Key Takeaways.

Arizona Torched the Bruins (USA Today Images)

  1. Arizona’s defense. There are poor shooting nights and there are nights when a team forces poor shots all night. Friday night’s game was the latter. Yes, the Bruins shot miserably from the floor. UCLA’s 4-of-25 performance from three-point range was every bit as ugly as it seemed, but the vast majority of those misses were contested threes. Arizona was willing to allow penetration off the bounce occasionally, but they closed out on shooters, contested passes and fought through screens all night long. They were also willing to put the Bruins on the line in exchange for banging and shoving them all over the court. UCLA made 23-of-26 from the foul line, but they shot only 41 percent from the field with an offensive efficiency rating of 96.2. No Pac-12 opponent had to date held the Bruins below 101.0 in that category this season.
  2. Lauri Markannen has smashed through the freshman wall. Arizona was forced to send Markannen into the post on its Washington road trip, and that move has really triggered the growth of the rest of his game. Despite a prolonged shooting slump from beyond the arc, Markannen found a physicality that has only made him more lethal now that his shot has returned. Against UCLA, Markannen was the best player on the floor for much of the game. He had 29 points on 10-of-22 shooting to go along with six rebounds in 32 turnover-free minutes. He can hurt teams all over the floor, and he’s becoming a physical and effective defender all as well. It’s somewhat scary to think that we may not have seen his best game yet.
  3. UCLA is Lonzo Ball and T.J. Leaf.  The Bruins as a team have undoubtedly improved from the last year’s group that went 15-17, but they have no answer when both of their talented freshmen struggle against elite competition. Leaf still looked a step slow in dealing with his injured left ankle, shooting 3-of-9 from the field and struggling to find his range in the post. Ball didn’t look like himself for much of the night either, in large part because of the ferocious defense of Allonzo Trier, Rawle Alkins and Kadeem Allen. The superstar freshman logged eight points, six assists and four turnovers, but he did not at any point have control of this game in the same way that he’s controlled so many others. The bottom line is that UCLA is only going as far as its two freshmen take them, and that could be an unsettling thought for Bruins’ fans worried about the NCAA Tournament draw.

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Judging the Seeding Impact of Major Injuries and Suspensions

Posted by Shane McNichol on February 3rd, 2017

The NCAA Tournament Selection Committee faces a number of difficult decisions while building the field for this year’s NCAA Tournament. After sifting through home and road performances, quality wins, RPI and every other tool currently available, the committee faces one particularly difficult task: evaluating teams that were without the services of a certain player because of injury or suspension. Of the myriad criteria the committee considers, no subject is more nebulous as judging a missing player’s effect on games in which he was not involved. The committee does not ignore those games nor does it consider them victories had the player been in action, but the gray area in between those two extremes is where it gets tricky. The injury bug and suspensions have hit quite a few likely NCAA Tournament teams this year, but four in particular could face some upward or downward seeding movement based on those missing players. Those four teams — Creighton, Xavier, Arizona and Duke — will be evaluated on more than just their wins and losses.

The Loss of Creighton’s Maurice Watson Makes the Bluejays a Tough Decision (USA Today Images)

  • Creighton: The Bluejays lost Maurice Watson, the nation’s assist leader and catalyst of Creighton’s high-powered offense, to an ACL injury two weeks ago. In the four-plus games since his season-ending injury, Creighton has been a mixed bag. The next two games were troublesome, with the Bluejays losing a home game to Marquette in which they gave up 102 points, followed by a blowout defeat at Georgetown. Since then, a win over lowly DePaul and an impressive victory over Butler at Hinkle Fieldhouse seems to have steadied the ship. It appears that head coach Greg McDermott is rerouting his team’s trajectory by increasing the offensive load carried by Justin Patton and Marcus Foster. Creighton’s ceiling as a Final Four contender has certainly changed, but its overall resume should be strong enough to place the Bluejays safely in the NCAA Tournament. This team’s performance in its final eight Big East games will heavily impact the committee’s seeding decision, though, especially in crucial games like a February 25 rematch with Villanova.

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For UCLA, It’s Defend or Die…

Posted by RJ Abeytia on January 25th, 2017

The second game of six between the three best teams in the Pac-12 was an undeniably entertaining epic that left Arizona reinvigorated as a Final Four contender and UCLA with a clear ultimatum: Defend or die. It’s not like the Bruins had convinced anyone that they were a solid defensive team to this point in the season — UCLA entered the game hovering around the middle of the Pac-12 in defensive efficiency. The Bruins’ marquee win in Lexington over Kentucky came on the strength of their offense (1.17 PPP) and their only other loss came to an Oregon team they ultimately couldn’t defend (1.24 PPP). The national spotlight tends to expose and crystallize the flaws of even the elite teams in college basketball, and Arizona on Saturday in Pauley Pavilion exposed UCLA’s middling defense as an Achilles’ Heel that may very well short-circuit a deep NCAA Tournament run.

Without a semblance of defense, UCLA’s tourney life might be cut short. (USA TODAY)

The Bruins’ major issue against the Wildcats was defending the paint via the drive. Kobi Simmons, Kadeem Allen and the newly-eligible Allonzo Trier pounded the paint relentlessly, often singularly focused on their easy target, UCLA guard Bryce Alford. Alford is having an exceptional season playing off the ball next to All-Universe Point Guard Lonzo Ball, but the senior was no match for the physicality and athleticism of Allen, who relentlessly attacked the basket when isolated against him. Arizona’s 34 points in the paint was also a result of mediocre post defense. Dusan Ristic contributed 11 points; Chance Comanche 10; and Lauri Markannen, he of the skyrocketing draft stock, repeatedly took TJ Leaf well outside his defensive comfort zone in nailing 3-of-4 from behind the three-point line as well as grabbing the offensive board and ensuing dunk that effectively ended the contest. Read the rest of this entry »

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