NCAA Tournament Tidbits: Championship Edition

Posted by Griffin Wong on April 8th, 2014

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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.

Connecticut

  • Senior leader Shabazz Napier called his UConn squad the “Hungry Huskies.” The Huskies showed the drive to thwart any Kentucky comeback attempts, as UConn led the entire game and won its fourth National Championship in program history. Napier said about his team: “We worked so hard for it.”
  • UConn coach Kevin Ollie entered a tough situation in Storrs, as the Huskies faced a postseason ban for lackluster graduation rates. Few expected him to succeed, but Ollie proved his doubters wrong as he led his team to the Promised Land in his first-ever NCAA Tournament as a head coach. “I’m just trying to keep proving everyone wrong,” Ollie said amid the postgame celebration Monday night. “Everyone said our program was going to go down after the sanctions and people left, but we’re still here. Somebody the other day called us a “Cinderella.” We’re UConn. UConn is always going to stay here.”
  • Shabazz Napier will surely go down as one of the greatest to ever put on a UConn jersey after last night, but what will the Huskies do without him next year? It will be tough to replace an All-American, but the Huskies aren’t worried about that right now. “I’m going to enjoy this as much as I can,” [junior Ryan] Boatright said after the game. “I’m not thinking about my future right now. I’m enjoying the present. And we’re going to celebrate with my team and my family. And I’m just blessed to be here in this situation. It’s an honor to be a national champion and to play for this university.”
  • Shabazz Napier had some interesting comments directed at the NCAA on the podium after UConn won it all last night. “Ladies and gentlemen, you are looking at the hungry Huskies,” the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player said. “This is what happens when you ban us.”
  • UConn coach Kevin Ollie isn’t seeking to replace both his predecessor and mentor, Jim Calhoun, but is rather seeking to build on what Calhoun built at UConn. After winning UConn’s fourth title in just his second year as the head coach, Ollie is doing what he set out to do. “I don’t look at it like a lot of people look at it, that I’m replacing Jim Calhoun,” Ollie said the other day. “Coach Calhoun is still beside me. He’s in front of me. He’s behind me. I’ve locked arms with coach because of what he’s put inside of me and his belief system. I think that’s what gets us through.”
  • After his second National Championship, Shabazz Napier has surely reached “Legendary Status” at UConn. In particular, the way in which he carried UConn to this year’s title is what cemented his legacy. “He’s going to go down in history as one of the best players to ever play at UConn,” [sophomore] Omar Calhoun said. “Not a lot of people have gone to a national championship and won it, so I feel like he just led the way.”

Kentucky

  • With the season now behind them, Kentucky’s freshmen have some decisions to make about their futures. Though he doesn’t like to discuss the NBA during the season, coach John Calipari is now ready to help out his players. “Now that the season is over, it’s about the players. It’s no longer about the program,” he noted.
  • With rumors circulating that John Calipari could be the next coach of the Lakers, he was sure to quickly dismiss those rumors. When asked, Calipari refused to “dignify” the that discussion.
  • Kentucky had a tough loss, but the Wildcats had nothing but good things to say about UConn’s guards. “They were the best guards, definitely, that we played against,” [freshman James] Young said. “Shabazz and Boatright did a good job of just running their team and getting big shots for them.”
  • Kentucky was able to get to the free throw line, but what did it in was its inability to convert when there. The Wildcats made just 13 of 24 free throws. “We had our chance but missed the free throws and shots,” [coach John] Calipari said.
  • With five freshmen in the starting lineup, Kentucky reminded many of Michigan’s Fab Five. Ironically, Kentucky’s group of freshmen met the same fate that the Fab Five did, losing in the National Championship Game (although Michigan’s group lost there twice). Though his team fell, Calipari was still proud of his young guns. “Even in that loss, I can’t believe what these guys got done together,” Calipari said. “Talking about a bunch of young kids that just went out there and believed and believed in each other and just kept fighting.”
  • The Harrison Twins, particularly Aaron, carried the Wildcats to the National Championship Game, but unfortunately, they were not able to take them all the way. The twins began the season by failing to live up to expectations, but by the Tournament’s end, they proved that they were as good as advertised.
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NCAA Tournament Game Analysis: The National Championship Game

Posted by Brian Otskey (@botskey) on April 7th, 2014

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#7 Connecticut vs. #8 Kentucky – National Championship Game (at Arlington, Texas) – 9:10 PM ET on CBS

History will be made in some form tonight at AT&T Stadium no matter which team wins this game. Connecticut is bidding to become the first #7 seed to ever win the national championship while Kentucky is looking to become the first #8 seed since Cinderella team Villanova toppled top-seeded Georgetown in 1985, the first year of the 64/68-team era. Kevin Ollie could become the first coach to win a championship in his first tournament appearance since Michigan’s Steve Fisher accomplished that feat a quarter-century ago in 1989 at Seattle’s Kingdome. John Calipari could win his second title in three seasons, this time with the nation’s most inexperienced team (according to Ken Pomeroy’s statistics). Something has to give in this game between what some observers have said are teams of destiny. Connecticut is going for the Texas triple play, so to speak, having closed out two previous Final Fours in the Lone Star State (2004 in San Antonio and 2011 in Houston) with championships while Kentucky has three players from the state on its roster, including hometown favorite Julius Randle. Connecticut is seeking its fourth national championship while Kentucky would earn its ninth with a win.

Coach Cal is looking for his second title in three seasons tonight against Connecticut. (NYDN)

Coach Cal is looking for his second title in three seasons tonight against Connecticut. (NYDN)

Kentucky has had some of its best offensive games of the season in this tournament. The Wildcats have not been defensive juggernauts, but timely stops and consistent offensive output have been the keys to their success over the last couple of weeks (along with clutch Aaron Harrison shots, of course). Going up against yet another strong defensive team in Connecticut (UK has already faced Kansas State, Wichita State and Louisville, all terrific on the defensive end) will be a test for the “Cardiac Cats.” At the point guard position, Andrew Harrison has to do a better job taking care of the basketball against the undersized, but quicker and pesky Huskies guards. He is averaging four turnovers per game in the tournament and making him uncomfortable needs to be part of the game plan for Ollie’s team. Daring Andrew Harrison shoot has been fairly successful for Kentucky’s opponents as he is just 18-for-52 (35 percent) from the floor in five tournament games, which even includes a solid 6-for-9 performance against Wichita State in the round of 32. By contrast, making his brother Aaron put the ball on the floor and drive is the best strategy for Connecticut. Aaron Harrison has made 14-of-25 threes (56 percent) in the tournament but he is just 8-for-27 (30 percent) when it comes to two point shots. Chasing him off the three point line and making him put it on the deck has to be a point of emphasis for Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright defensively. Kentucky is at its best when Andrew Harrison is moving the ball well, Aaron Harrison is open on the wing and James Young is either knocking down triples or slashing through the defense, opening up the lane for Randle in the post. Of course, Randle is so good and so strong that he can do a number of things on the low block. The freshman has 50+ pounds on Connecticut’s four man DeAndre Daniels and nearly 40 pounds on Phillip Nolan and Amida Brimah, both of whom are good defensively but also quite raw by the same token. Ollie may very well wrinkle in some zone to keep Kentucky out of the lane and dare it to make shots. However, that is still risky because of the ability of Aaron Harrison and Young to connect from the three point line. The Huskies are sneaky good when it comes to interior defense, allowing just 42.2 percent field goal shooting inside the three point arc. That will be tested against the stronger Randle and Dakari Johnson, who is very difficult to guard when he catches the ball deep in the post. Great interior defense is a staple of the Jim Calhoun era and a part of the Connecticut culture that Ollie has carried over while building the program his way.

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Kentucky’s Improbable Journey Rolls On: Three Takeaways

Posted by Bennet Hayes on April 6th, 2014

The cardiac ‘Cats did it again. Aaron Harrison continued to make the late-game extraordinary look routine and Kentucky’s unlikely NCAA Tournament run lived to see yet another day. The only thing now standing between the Wildcats and the program’s ninth National Championship is UConn on Monday night, but the #8 seeded Wildcats will be a favorite to knock off the Huskies and complete the six-game sweep. With an eye towards Monday night, here are three quick takeaways from Kentucky’s semifinal victory over Wisconsin.

Kentucky Will Play For The Program's Ninth National Title On Monday Night

Kentucky Will Play For The Program’s Ninth National Title On Monday Night

  1. James Young was aggressive and effective attacking the basket. Young is far from a one-dimensional player, but with more three-point attempts than two-point attempts to his name this season, there have been times when the freshman’s role has been reduced to that of a jump shooter, almost exclusively. This was not the case against the Badgers. Young scored a game-high 17 points, and only three were earned from behind the arc. Nine of his 11 field goal attempts came from two-point range, and Young showed off a more varied offensive game in getting into the lane often and to the free throw stripe almost as frequently (he went 6-of-7 on free throws). His floor-stretching ability will again be crucial on Monday night, but a Young capable of manufacturing points in different ways is a scary proposition moving forward.
  2. Alex Poythress may never be the player everyone hoped he would be when he arrived in Lexington, but he has become a key role player on this team. Poythress played 29 minutes last night, had eight points (4-of-4 FG) and seven rebounds, and even did a nice job defending Wisconsin big man Frank Kaminsky when called upon. His offensive game is still unrefined, but as an athletic energy guy off the bench who can guard almost every position, Poythress has real value for the Willie Cauley-Stein-less ‘Cats. Expect another heavy dose of the sophomore on Monday night, as he would appear to be a perfect defensive match-up for UConn’s DeAndre Daniels. Read the rest of this entry »
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Conducting a Reset on Kentucky’s National Championship Aspirations

Posted by Brian Joyce on April 4th, 2014

I have been wrong before. Many times actually, but the most recent time was a real doozy. Just a couple of weeks ago, I was playing basketball in the gym after work. I was doing my best Willie Cauley-Stein impression when I landed on one of my teammate’s foot and my ankle rolled onto its side. I knew instantly this was a reasonably bad injury. My best guess, based on my experience and susceptibility to reading Web MD, was to diagnose myself with a high ankle sprain.  I went about my entire weekend, standing on my feet to do some yard work, went grocery shopping, and walked 12,000 steps each day based on the Fitbit around my wrist. I did what I normally do on any given weekend because I am stubborn and had already determined that I had a high ankle sprain, and nothing more.

Was I also wrong about John Calipari's Wildcats?

Was I also wrong about John Calipari’s Wildcats?

Of course, the bruising and swelling in my right foot worsened from the activity, and the pain became excruciating. My ankle and toes had almost turned completely purple (I will spare you the pictures I was tempted to include). Based on the appearance and the pain, I finally succumbed to my wife’s pressure to go to the doctor about 72 hours after the injury occurred. To make a long story short, after a couple of x-rays and a CT scan, I found out I fractured my distal fibula and cracked my tibia. My certainty of a high ankle sprain could not be more untrue.

The self-diagnosis of my ankle is vaguely familiar to my erroneous analysis of Kentucky.  I did not anticipate the tweak working. I did not envision Aaron Harrison learning to shoot in the season’s last six games. I never imagined Andrew Harrison would become a pass-first point guard with vision and leadership. I did not foresee Julius Randle getting away from back to the basket post moves where he has not been as effective this season, and instead focus on putting himself in positions where he is efficient. In short, I did not predict Kentucky making a huge splash in the NCAA Tournament.  I certainly knew the Wildcats had the talent and interior presence to compete with Wichita State. I realized they had beaten Louisville before and could certainly do it again. I recognized Kentucky could dismantle Michigan’s porous defense if it played to its potential. But who knew it would all come together for four straight games in the manner it did? It was just too late for all of these elements to come together, I told myself, but you know I have been wrong before. Now that I have admitted the error of my ways, it is time to do a reset on Kentucky’s prospects of a national championship.

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NCAA Tournament Game Analysis: Final Four

Posted by Brian Otskey on April 4th, 2014

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#1 Florida vs. #7 Connecticut – National Semifinal (at Arlington, TX) – 6:09 PM ET on TBS

The Final Four tips off with a Florida team that has won 30 consecutive games facing the last team to beat it, Connecticut. The Huskies knocked off the Gators in Storrs way back on December 2 on a Shabazz Napier buzzer-beater. Although it was four months ago, much can be learned from that game. Contrary to popular belief, Florida’s top six rotation players suited up for it, although Scottie Wilbekin left the game with about three minutes to play due to injury. In that contest, Florida absolutely dominated the paint by holding Connecticut to 41.4 percent shooting from two-point range and winning the rebounding battle by eight. However, the Gators lost the game at the three-point line, where they allowed the Huskies to make 11-of-24 attempts. Sixteen Florida turnovers also didn’t help matters for Billy Donovan’s team.

Napier Has His Eyes Set on Another Title (Credit: UConn Athletic Communications/Stephen Slade)

Napier Has His Eyes Set on Another Title (Credit: UConn Athletic Communications/Stephen Slade)

Fast forward to April and the Gators’ front line is formidable as ever. While Connecticut’s interior play has improved and its rebounding has been terrific in the NCAA Tournament, facing Patric Young and the nation’s top-ranked defense will be a tall task for the Huskies. Connecticut is talented but young and raw up front. Amida Brimah and Phillip Nolan are just a freshman and sophomore, respectively, while DeAndre Daniels loves to drift away from the paint and is not a back-to-the-basket kind of player. For Kevin Ollie’s team to have success, Napier must continue his dominant performance and Daniels has to make jump shots. Napier and Ryan Boatright are the two constants on this team, but it is Daniels who takes it to another level when playing well. He will likely be guarded by Will Yeguete, Dorian Finney-Smith or Young, or any combination of the three. If Daniels cannot get anything going, Napier will have to score 30+ points and Connecticut will have to have another terrific night from the three-point line in order to advance to Monday night’s national championship game.

Defensively, there is no doubt that Connecticut can match Florida. The Huskies’ defense has been phenomenal all season long and doesn’t get the credit it deserves with Napier stealing the spotlight most of the time. Connecticut ranks 10th in adjusted defensive efficiency and actually has a slightly stronger interior defense than Florida when you look at opponents’ two-point percentage (one percentage point better than Florida). An important part of Ollie’s game plan will be to limit Scottie Wilbekin and prevent him from easily getting Florida into its sets and taking over the game. Easier said than done, of course.

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Final Four Previews In-Depth: Kentucky Wildcats

Posted by Walker Carey on April 1st, 2014

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As part of our ongoing NCAA Tournament coverage, RTC is unveiling a detailed look at each of the Final Four teams throughout the week. Today: Kentucky.

Kentucky was ranked #1 in the preseason polls and that was with good reason. The Wildcats were bringing in one of the most highly-acclaimed recruiting classes in recent memory and were returning sophomores Willie Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress, both of whom were also highly-regarded recruits before they arrived in Lexington the year before. Soon after the season began, it became clear that ultimate success was going to be quite the process for John Calipari’s young Wildcats. It would have been easy (and possibly logical) to count out Kentucky after a few confounding late regular season losses had one well-respected national pundit openly questioning the way in which Calipari was handling his squad. But things began to turn as Kentucky moved through play in the SEC Tournament. The Wildcats easily dispatched LSU and Georgia before giving Florida everything it could handle in a one-point loss in the SEC championship game. What’s happened since the Wildcats began the NCAA Tournament? This in-depth Final Four preview, the first installment of our four-part series, should give you a pretty good idea. Kentucky is to be taken seriously as legitimate threat to cut down the nets next Monday evening, and this, in long form, is the explanation why.

Kentucky's Aaron Harrison Joined Wildcat Lore on Sunday (David E. Klutho/SI)

Kentucky’s Aaron Harrison Joined Wildcat Lore on Sunday (David E. Klutho/SI)

Pre-Tournament Capsule. Kentucky showed its youth in its non-conference slate, as the young Wildcats dropped their first three games when pitted against premier competition. In the Champions Classic in Chicago on November 12, Michigan State was able to fend off a late Kentucky run to earn a 78-74 victory. Playing at Cowboys Stadium on December 6, the Wildcats were handed a five-point loss at the hands of a talented Baylor squad. Eight days later, John Calipari’s squad dropped another game, this time in Chapel Hill against an enigmatic squad in North Carolina. Prior to the start of SEC play, Kentucky was able to grab at least one marquee victory when Louisville visited Rupp Arena on December 28 when it appeared like things were taking shape for the talented team. However, when SEC play commenced, the dominance that was expected from the team did not come to fruition. Playing second fiddle to Florida saw Kentucky finish SEC play with a 12-6 mark, and of those 12 victories, only an eight-point January victory over Tennessee was a win over an NCAA Tournament team. When the bracket was released on Selection Sunday, Kentucky was given an eight-seed, and due to its uninspiring résumé, arguments were generally dismissed about the Wildcats being underseeded.

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What’s Trending: #BBN (again), Tucson “Riots,” Mid-Majority and More…

Posted by Nick Fasulo (@nickfasuloSBN) on March 31st, 2014

What’s Trending is a column examining the week that was in college basketball social media. Nick Fasulo (@nickfasuloSBN) is your weekly host.

Lots, LOTS of incredible moments from the last four days of the NCAA Tournament. Maybe the best collection of regional semifinal and final games in years, and below may be the greatest snapshot of the bunch.

andrew harrison michigan elite 8

Following the Cardiac Cats’ improbable win over Michigan (following equally improbable wins against Wichita State and Louisville… seriously, what a run from these young Wildcats), Coach Cal spoke to the team. He also gave Marcus Lee a hug. Coach Cal loves Marcus Lee.

“Riots” in Tucson

I’ll never understand why fans riot in defeat. This one, after Arizona missed two shots to win with seconds remaining, makes the scene in Tucson from Saturday night even more baffling. Also, this #riotselfie captures the current sad state of our country right now.

Gators Eat Bruins

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Rushed Reactions: #8 Kentucky 75, #2 Michigan 72

Posted by Walker Carey on March 30th, 2014

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 Walker Carey (@walkerRcarey) is RTC’s NCAA Midwest Regional Correspondent.
Three Key Takeaways.
  1. This was an unbelievable game. Just one week after Kentucky beat one-seed Wichita State in what, at the time, was considered to be the best game of the tournament, the Wildcats were once again locked in another epic. In a game that saw seven ties and three lead changes, both Kentucky and Michigan showcased some excellent basketball. The Wolverines exploded out of the gates and built a 10-point lead with 5:10 to play in the first half. The Wildcats then roared back to end the half on a 15-5 run to tie the game at the break. Soon after the second half began, it was Kentucky that stormed out the gates, but Michigan had an answer for every Wildcats run. Kentucky led by seven with 6:31 to play, but the resiliency of John Beilein‘s squad was on display, as it stayed the course and eventually tied the game at 72 with 27 seconds to play. From there, the game belonged to Kentucky freshman guard Aaron Harrison, who hit a very difficult and contested three-pointer with 2.6 seconds remaining to give the Wildcats the 75-72 lead (which turned out to be the final score).
  2. Marcus Lee was a revelation. Aaron Harrison, Andrew Harrison, Dakari Johnson, Julius Randle, and James Young are the Kentucky freshmen that everyone knew about and with good reason, as those five have played a ton of minutes and made a lot of plays that helped Kentucky have the opportunity to even play Sunday. One freshman, however, who had not received much attention this season was forward Marcus Lee. The McDonald’s All-American did not see too much playing time during his freshman season in Lexington. His last points before Sunday came on February 22 and he did not even play in the tournament wins over Kansas State and Wichita State. With Willie Cauley-Stein sidelined with an ankle injury, John Calipari turned to Lee to play big minutes Sunday and that paid off in a big way. Lee gave the Wildcats 10 big points off the bench, while collecting eight rebounds (seven offensive) and being part of an interior defensive attack that made things very difficult for Michigan inside all game. Considering how highly touted Lee was coming out of high school, his production in Sunday’s victory should not be all that surprising. It was just a matter of a talented player getting a chance to make an impact and Lee took full advantage of that chance.
  3. Aaron Harrison is Mr. Big Shot. Aaron Harrison was struggling. At halftime, the freshman had zero points, two fouls, and was having a hard time stopping Nik Stauskas on the defensive end of the court. Instead of losing confidence in himself and letting the poor play continue, Harrison rose to the occasion in the second half, by knocking down four of his five three-point attempts and hitting the game-winner with 2.6 seconds to play. While that shot got Kentucky to the Final Four, it was not the only important shot Harrison hit during the weekend. In Friday’s regional semifinal victory over Louisville, Harrison nailed a three with 39 seconds to play that gave Kentucky a lead it would not relinquish. Having a clutch performer is very important in the postseason and Aaron Harrison has shown that he is very capable of hitting the big shot.

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Rushed Reactions: #8 Kentucky 74, #4 Louisville 69

Posted by Walker Carey on March 29th, 2014

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Walker Carey (@walkerRcarey) is the NCAA Tournament’s Midwest Region correspondent. He filed this report after #8 Kentucky’s 74-69 win over #4 Louisville. RTC will be providing wall-to-wall coverage of the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight.

Three Key Takeaways.

Julius Randle has been as advertised this season (sportsillustrated.cnn.com).

Julius Randle has been as advertised this season (sportsillustrated.cnn.com).

  1. The atmosphere was unbelievable and the game lived up to the hype. The build up for the Sweet 16 edition of the Battle for the Bluegrass rightfully garnered a ton of national attention leading up to the tip. And boy, was it worth it. Lucas Oil Stadium was overtaken by Louisville and Kentucky fans. Red and blue were all over the place and both factions were loud and involved throughout the night. The game, itself, was a nail-biter to the very end. Both sides were living and dying with every possession and that made for an amazing atmosphere. When Kentucky emerged victorious, the Kentucky section acted as if a weight had been lifted from its shoulders. On the other hand, the Louisville fans were heartbroken over the close lose to their bitter rivals.
  2. Free throw shooting and rebounding did Louisville in. In a close game like Friday night, you can often pinpoint factors that played a big role in deciding the game. Those two factors in Louisville’s loss were its poor free throw shooting and inability to keep Kentucky off the offensive glass. The Cardinals were just 13-of-23 (including 6-of-15 in the first half) from the free throw line. Included in that statistic was that senior standout guard Russ Smith went just 4-of-10 from the charity stripe. Louisville also struggled keeping Kentucky’s bigs off the rebounding glass. The Wildcats out-rebounded the Cardinals 37-29 and gathered 15 offensive rebounds that led to 18 second chance points. A huge Kentucky offensive rebound came at the 2:11 mark when sophomore forward Alex Poythress grabbed a putback and converted a three-point play to turn a 66-63 deficit into a 66-66 tie – and that helped set the stage for the Wildcats to ultimately grab the lead and get the victory.

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Battle of the Bluegrass: Previewing Kentucky vs. Louisville

Posted by C.D. Bradley & Brian Joyce on March 28th, 2014

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The most intense rivalry in college basketball renews Friday night in Indianapolis when Louisville and Kentucky square off in the NCAA tournament for the second time in three years. C.D. Bradley, who writes about the American for RTC, and Brian Joyce, who covers the SEC, preview the showdown and what it means to the basketball-mad bluegrass state.

C.D. Bradley: A lot of people will tell you that Duke and North Carolina is the top rivalry in college basketball, but it’s impossible to convey the ever-present antipathy between red and blue. A big part of it is the usual once-a-year nature of the rivalry, but this will be the sixth time Louisville and Kentucky have met in the NCAA Tournament. For Louisville, which had snatched the advantage over the past year, winning a national title and ending this season in the top five of the national rankings while the Wildcats struggled, the possibility of having their potential repeat title run ended by their neighbors to the east is a doubly unpleasant notion. What does this game mean for UK fans?

Rick Pitino clashes with in-state rival Kentucky and its coach, John Calipari yet again (AP).

Rick Pitino clashes with in-state rival Kentucky and its coach, John Calipari yet again (AP).

Brian Joyce: One might assume that Kentucky fans would be relieved to make a Sweet Sixteen appearance after losing to South Carolina and Arkansas a month ago, but a person with that theory must not know Kentucky fans very well. A win over Wichita State has the Big Blue Nation in a frenzy over the potential of their Wildcats if things come together like they did on Sunday afternoon in Saint Louis. It may even be possible that Kentucky fans are slightly overlooking Louisville. Julius Randle played all of four minutes in the second half of the Wildcats’ victory in December after dominating with 17 points during the first 20 minutes. The Cards struggled with Randle and Kentucky’s length, and while Louisville is a much different team at this point in the season the challenge of stopping the Cats’ imposing front line remains. Since John Calipari arrived in Lexington he has beaten his rival in five of the last six meetings, and Kentucky fans expect that trend to continue.

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NCAA Tournament Game Analysis: Sweet Sixteen, Friday Night

Posted by Walker Carey (@walkerRcarey) & Brian Otskey (@botskey) on March 28th, 2014

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Walker Carey (@walkerRcarey) is the NCAA Tournament’s Midwest Region correspondent, and Brian Otskey (@botskey) is the NCAA Tournament’s East Region correspondent. Make sure to also follow @RTCMidwestRegion and @RTCEastRegion for news and analysis from Indianapolis and New York City throughout the weekend.

#2 Michigan vs. #11 Tennessee – Midwest Region Sweet 16 (from Indianapolis, IN) – at 7:15 PM EST on CBS

Tennessee was not supposed to be in this position. It barely found its way into the NCAA Tournament. In fact, the Volunteers had to travel to Dayton last Wednesday to take on Iowa to even advance to the round of 64. Tennessee got by the Hawkeyes in overtime and that was only the beginning of its winning ways. In Raleigh, Cuonzo Martin’s squad was able to throttle Massachusetts and take advantage of Duke’s stunning loss to Mercer by dismantling Bob Hoffman’s Bears in the round of 32 to advance to the Sweet 16. Leading the way thus far for Tennessee has been the spectacular play of forward Jarnell Stokes. The junior has been nothing short of dominant in the team’s recent run, as he is averaging 20.3 points and 15 rebounds in his last three games. The Volunteers have also received a lift from guard Josh Richardson. The junior, who averaged 10.1 points per game in the regular season, has stepped up his play in the tournament, as he is averaging 19.3 points per contest. As a team, the Volunteers’ performance on the rebounding glass has aided tremendously in taking them to the Sweet 16. Tennessee has been an excellent rebounding team all season and its rebounding prowess was never more on display than in Sunday’s victory over Mercer. The Volunteers had a sensational 41-19 rebounding advantage over the Bears in the winning effort.

Expect plenty of fireworks between these two guys Friday night. (Getty & USA TODAY Sports)

Expect plenty of fireworks between these two guys Friday night. (Getty & USA TODAY Sports)

Michigan will take the court in Indianapolis after a relatively easy first weekend in Milwaukee. The Wolverines cruised to a 17-point victory in the round of 64 over an undermanned Wofford squad before wearing down Texas in a 14-point victory. John Beilein’s team has been an outstanding perimeter shooting offense and that has carried over into the postseason. The Wolverines hit a combined 21 three-pointers in the two victories. Big Ten Player of the Year Nik Stauskas hit seven of those 21 triples an was the team’s leading scorer in each victory. Michigan’s frontcourt has been seen as a concern since sophomore big man Mitch McGary was lost to a back injury in late December, but forward Jordan Morgan showed he is a capable post presence with his performances in Milwaukee. The senior averaged 12.5 points and 10 rebounds against Wofford and Texas, while living up to his reputation as a solid interior defender. In Friday’s game, it should be expected that both teams will play to their strengths. Tennessee will try to use its size advantage to the dominate the interior and Michigan will attempt to get its perimeter shooting going early and often. Texas had a great advantage over Michigan in size too, but the Wolverines were able to wear the Longhorn bigs down through a terrific transition effort and solid offensive spacing. It would be wise to expect Michigan to do the same Friday. Tennessee will keep close throughout much of the game, but the shot-making ability of Stauskas, Caris LeVert, and Glenn Robinson III will ultimately be too much for the Volunteers to overcome. Two-seed Michigan will win the game to advance to its second straight Elite Eight.

The RTC Certified Pick: Michigan

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Rushed Reactions: #8 Kentucky 78, #1 Wichita State 76

Posted by Adam Stillman on March 23rd, 2014

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Rush the Court will be providing wall-to-wall coverage of each of the NCAA Tournament from each of the 13 sites this year. Follow our NCAA Tourney specific Twitter accounts at @RTCeastregion@RTCMWregion,@RTCsouthregion and @RTCwestregion.

Three Key Takeaways.

Cleanthony Early was outstanding for the Shockers. (AP)

Cleanthony Early scored 31 points in a losing effort. (AP)

  1. It was the best game of the year. Kentucky and Wichita State played an absolute classic. Not only was it the best NCAA Tournament game this season, it will likely stay that way. And it easily topped any regular season game simply because all that was on the line. The Wildcats and Shockers threw punch after punch, made run and after run, until Fred Van Vleet’s three clanked off the rim at the buzzer. It’s unfortunate that one of these teams had to lose. This game was fitting of a national championship game rather than a round of 32 game, and it may have been the best round of 32 game in the history of the Big Dance.
  2. Wichita State belongs among the nation’s elite. The Shockers were counted out all year long. It seemed like half the nation thought they weren’t good enough. Well, the detractors need to close their mouths. I don’t care that they were the first #1 seed to lose. They played a magnificent basketball game they certainly could have won, and it’s a real shame the Shockers will be going home early. A brilliant season that started with 35 straight wins ended in disappointment. But that shouldn’t take anything away from what the Shockers accomplished this year. Wichita State can play with anybody.
  3. Kentucky played like 40-0 Kentucky. Remember before the season began when there was all that conversation about preseason #1 Kentucky going 40-0? Well, the Wildcats finally played like the team they were expected to be on Sunday afternoon. They were focused, they competed unbelievably hard for 40 minutes, they defended, and they hit shots. The heralded freshman class lived up to its preseason billing. They were absolutely terrific in scoring 68 of Kentucky’s points. From Julius Randle to the Harrison twins to James Young, they were magnificent — if, and it’s big if, but if Kentucky can continue to play at this level, there’s no reason the Wildcats can’t cut down the nets in Arlington, Texas, as national champions two weeks from now.

Star of the Game: Cleanthony Early, Wichita State. Yes, even in a losing effort. The senior forward poured in a game-high 31 points on 12-of-17 shooting. He went 4-of-6 from beyond the arc and 3-of-3 from the free-throw line. Early pulled down seven rebounds, didn’t commit a turnover, and recorded a steal and a block. Early hit big shot after big shot in the second half, and threw down a monster posterizing dunk in the opening half. The only thing he did wrong was a missed layup with three minutes remaining in the tight contest that would have given Wichita State a three-point lead.

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