Rushed Reactions: #7 South Carolina 70, #3 Baylor 50

Posted by Justin Kundrat on March 24th, 2017

RTC will be providing coverage of the NCAA Tournament from start to finish. Justin Kundrat (@justinkundrat) is in New York City this weekend.

South Carolina Keeps It Going (USA Today Images)

Three Key Takeaways.

  1. Sometimes, defense can be fun. Following the elimination of both Villanova and Duke, the East Region became the “Region of Defense.” Per KenPom, all four Sweet Sixteen teams ranked among the top 13 nationally in defensive efficiency. Stylistically, the game wasn’t pretty by any stretch of the imagination, but watching even a handful of possessions showed just how far great defense can take a team. Among the remaining group of teams, South Carolina’s offense is the least efficient by far and yet the Gamecocks controlled every aspect of the game — forcing Baylor’s guards to over-dribble, make poor passes and take contested jumpers. Midway through the first half, the Gamecocks held Baylor scoreless for nearly seven minutes in the midst of an 18-0 run.
  2. Sindarius Thornwell is the most underappreciated player of the NCAA Tournament. Sure, he’s been picking up steam as the Gamecocks continue their run, but he’s still a ways off from becoming a bona fide media darling. The 6’5″ senior is responsible for a +0.18 PPP differential when he’s on the floor and could very well be the best two-way player in the country. Thornwell fills up the stat sheet in every way imaginable: he leads his team in scoring, rebounding and steals while also contributing nearly a block per game. Baylor’s backcourt struggled mightily with his on-ball pressure and never looked comfortable initiating the offense in its half-court sets.
  3. Baylor fell victim to its weak spot: turnovers. Even when things appeared to be turning around for the Bears on the tail of a second half run, Baylor simply couldn’t overcome its season-long plague of poor ball handling. Scott Drew’s group committed 16 turnovers, a string of which interrupted its second half momentum. An offense undermined by a 20.5 percent turnover rate (305th nationally) is a recipe for disaster against the pressure-centric defense of South Carolina.

Star of the GameSindarius Thornwell, South Carolina. Thornwell continued his torrid shooting tonight with a 24-point, six-rebound performance against one of the best defensive teams in the country. Outside of Thornwell, the Gamecocks lack consistent breakdown scorers, so his contributions on that end of the floor play a vital role in extending and maintaining leads.

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NCAA Regional Reset: East Region

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 20th, 2017

Rush the Court is providing comprehensive coverage of the NCAA Tournament from start to finish over the next three weeks.

New Favorite: #4 Florida (26-8). Florida’s 65-39 drubbing of #5 Virginia on Saturday should put the rest of the remaining field on notice— the Gators are really, really difficult to score against. Mike White’s aggressive group held to Cavaliers to a paltry 0.65 points per possession, limiting its ACC foe to just 1-of-15 shooting from behind the arc and preventing any Virginia player from reaching double figures. Wisconsin, which is somewhat similar to Virginia stylistically, could be in for a rude awakening on Friday night. 6’8” swingman Devin Robinson, a supremely gifted athlete, is playing some of his best basketball of the season (19.0 PPG in the NCAA Tournament), and only West Virginia and North Carolina possess more depth than Florida of the teams remaining. Now ranked third nationally by KenPom, the Gators are as good a threat as any to win the National Championship.

Florida’ Defense Dominated Virginia This Weekend (USA Today Images)

Horse of Darkness: #8 Wisconsin (27-9). Despite being underseeded, Wisconsin outlasted Virginia Tech in the First Round before knocking off the reigning National Champion in the Round of 32. Saturday’s unexpected, high-drama victory over Villanova highlighted the Badgers’ strengths — patience, veteran leadership, stingy defense — and firmly establishes them as a threat in the East Region. Greg Gard’s club, now in its fourth straight Sweet Sixteen, will again enter Friday’s match-up with #4 Florida as an underdog. With a pair of seniors (Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes) and a First Team All-Big Ten forward (Ethan Happ) leading the way, bet against the dark horse Badgers at your own risk.

Biggest Surprise (First Weekend): #7 South Carolina (24-10). #11 USC shocked #6 SMU and #8 Wisconsin upended the reigning National Champion — both huge surprises in their own right. But it was the other USC — #7 South Carolina — that pulled off the biggest stunner in the East, and perhaps the entire Big Dance. #2 Duke entered the Thursday as the betting favorite win the NCAA Tournament, a testament to both its supreme talent and undeniable momentum heading into the event (the Blue Devils had just won the ACC Tournament). The Gamecocks, meanwhile, entered Friday having lost six of its previous nine games, including an 11-point stinker against Alabama in the SEC Tournament quarterfinals. And yet, Frank Martin’s defensive-minded group pounded Duke in the second half on Sunday night, scoring 65 points in the final 20 minutes and knocking off the Blue Devils in front of a home-state crowd filled with South Carolina fans and North Carolina fans (otherwise known as Duke haters) alike. Few people saw this coming.

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Rushed Reactions: #3 Baylor 91, #14 New Mexico State 73

Posted by Chris Stone on March 17th, 2017

Rush the Court will be providing on-site coverage of the NCAA Tournament from start to finish.

Baylor avoided a first round upset for the first time in three years. (AP Photo/Jerry Larson)

Three Key Takeaways.

  1. Al Freeman came up big for Baylor. The Bears’ guard lost his starting spot in the middle of conference play, but since returning he’s delivered some important performances off the bench. Freeman put together 21 points in the win on Friday afternoon while shooting 6-of-10 from the field, including 3-of-3 from behind the three-point arc. Freeman’s ability to stretch the floor — he came into the game hitting 37.3 percent of his threes — is vital to the Bears’ offense because they play with two traditional big men who don’t space the floor. Baylor needs the threat of Freeman’s outside shooting to create driving lines for point guard Manu Lecomte, and sometimes that three-point threat actualizes itself like it did today against New Mexico State.
  2. Baylor’s man-to-man defense stifled the Aggies. New Mexico State actually led by two points at the half on the back of 6-of-13 shooting from behind the three-point arc, but a defensive change from the Bears put a quick end to the Aggies’ hopes. Head coach Scott Drew had his team play strict man-to-man defense in the second half, which allowed his team’s length and athleticism to overwhelmed New Mexico State. This is one of the most frustrating things about Drew as a head coach. He’s consistently had the talent, athleticism and size to play man-to-man, but he often defaults to a 1-3-1 zone. That zone got shredded for the first 20 minutes, though, and the man-to-man defense brought the Bears back. Credit Drew for being willing to make the switch.
  3. The first half must have terrified Baylor fans. Since making the Sweet Sixteen in 2014, the Bears have failed to advance past the opening round of the NCAA Tournament. In each of the following two seasons, they lost to double-digit seeds in the Round of 64, first to an R.J. Hunter buzzer beater by Georgia State in 2015, followed by Makai Mason and Yale last year. With Baylor trailing at halftime and its opponent hot from deep, there was a definite sense of deja vu around Tulsa. Luckily, with strong performances from the bench and a switch up on the defensive end, the Bears were able to avoid a repeat of recent history.

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Big 12 Survival Guide: Keys to Each First Round Matchup

Posted by Brian Goodman on March 16th, 2017

Despite Oklahoma‘s Final Four run last season, the Big 12 continues to fight a public relations battle for reasons both earned and not when it comes to NCAA Tournament success. Kansas State‘s win over Wake Forest in Tuesday’s First Four started things off on a positive note, but the league still has plenty of work ahead. Here are the keys to each of the conference’s six games taking place over the next couple of days.

Frank Mason looks to end his career with a national title (Getty).

  • #1 Kansas – Show up. The Jayhawks have had plenty of rest over the last couple of weeks, so Friday’s game is about shaking off the rust. A handful of #15 and #16 seeds over the last decade have hung with Kansas for 20 or so minutes, but UC Davis wasn’t competitive in its only game against a Power 5 school this season — an 86-61 loss to California in November. Additionally, the Aggies have only won their last three games by a combined nine points, so they’ve beaten long odds to even get to this point. There’s no need to overthink this.

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Beware the Polls: Overperforming Teams Regress in NCAA Tournament

Posted by Will Ezekowitz on March 14th, 2017

Preseason rankings may seem irrelevant when it comes to college basketball, but history has shown that their predictive value are surprisingly important. For example, as we have shown in this space before, the preseason poll is in fact just as predictive of a run to the Final Four as the current AP Poll. The reasoning behind this phenomenon is that the preseason polls take into account all of the changes that the mathematical models have more difficulty accounting for (i.e. coaching changes, big recruiting classes, injuries, etc.). The conventional wisdom entering the season is actually fairly sophisticated and smart.

Are You Sure You Want to Choose Michigan? (AP)

Given this intuition, let’s examine the teams that defied that wisdom throughout the season and went from unranked in the preseason to ranked in the final AP poll before the NCAA Tournament. Had the preseason polls gotten something wrong? Or did these over-performing teams regress back to their expectations in the postseason? Using the last 10 years of data that includes seed win expectation data from fivethirtyeight.com, I investigated. Of the 97 teams who qualified for analysis, 32 (33%) of those teams outperformed their win expectations in the NCAA Tournament while 65 (67%) underperformed. As a whole, a group that was expected to win 138.8 games over the 10-year sample won just 107. A statistical T-test found this difference statistically significant. In fact, only one team — Kemba Walker’s 2011 National Championship team, Connecticut — even made the Final Four.

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RTC Bracket Prep: East Region

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 13th, 2017

All day Monday we will roll out our region-by-region analysis for the 2017 NCAA Tournament. Here, Tommy Lemoine (@hoopthink) breaks down the East Region from top to bottom. Also, be sure to follow our RTC East Region handle on Twitter for continuous updates the next two weeks (@RTCEastRegion).

East Region

The Champs Are Ready to Defend Their Title (USA Today Images)

Favorite: #1 Villanova (31-3, 15-3 Big East). Sure, Duke’s ACC Championship run over the weekend was impressive, a sign that perhaps its unreasonably-high preseason expectations weren’t so unreasonable after all. But Villanova—the reigning National Champion, let’s not forget—has been more consistent, more dominant, an outright better team from start to finish. Senior Josh Hart (18.9 PPG, 6.5 RPG) has arguably been college basketball’s best player, making key plays in key moments for an offense that ranks second nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency. Former five-star recruit Jalen Brunson (14.8 PPG, 4.2 APG) is realizing his potential at point guard. Mikal Bridges, whose effort against Kansas last March helped propel the Wildcats to the Final Four, has helped Jay Wright’s club hold Big East opponents to a paltry 0.98 points per possession this season. And, oh yeah, Kris Jenkins (86 made three-pointers) is still on the roster. Remember him? Balanced, experienced, and tough-as-nails, Villanova has all the pieces for a trip to Glendale.

Should They Falter: #2 Duke (27-8, 11-7 ACC). Equipped with one of the most talented rosters in recent memory, the injury-plagued and controversy-laden Blue Devils bungled their way through ACC play, only to rediscover their mojo just as the calendar flipped to March. That’s bad news for the bottom half of the East Region. Preseason All-American Grayson Allen seemed to recoup some confidence in the ACC Tournament after struggling through the month of February. As did soon-to-be lottery pick Jayson Tatum, who averaged 22.0 PPG in Duke’s four-game championship run in Brooklyn. Luke Kennard (20.1 PPG), the ACC Tournament MVP, continued his season-long excellence, while even Harry Giles—a hyper-talented forward beset by knee injuries—showed why he was once considered the future #1 overall pick. With a remarkably talented supporting cast to boot, there’s no reason the Blue Devils can’t vie for a National Championship—especially if Villanova stumbles up top.

Grossly Overseeded: #7 South Carolina (22-10, 12-6 SEC). Non-conference victories over Michigan, Syracuse, Vermont and Monmouth are nice, and South Carolina did beat Florida, but a #7 seed? The Gamecocks went 3-6 over their final nine games of the season, failing to beat a team better than Georgia (at home) from February 1 onward. This team lost to Alabama twice—including an 11-point defeat in the SEC Tournament quarterfinals—fell at Ole Miss, and was down by 16 points in December to a Memphis team that had just ended its season in historically bad fashion. Meanwhile, Wisconsin—a team with fewer losses and a higher volume of quality wins—was slapped with a #8 seed.

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NCAA Tournament Instareaction: Big 12 Teams

Posted by Brian Goodman on March 12th, 2017

The Big 12 will send six teams to the NCAA Tournament, down from seven in each of the last three seasons. Kansas State may have missed the cut if not for its win over Baylor on Thursday night, but the Wildcats took care of business and the committee rewarded them with a bid despite a soft non-conference schedule. In other relevant news, Kansas lost its grip on the #1 overall seed after its quarterfinal defeat to TCU, while Baylor slipped to a #3 seed due to a 5-6 stretch entering Selection Sunday. Below is a quick look at the Big 12’s lot, including best-case and worst-case scenarios for each team over the coming weeks.

Frank Mason gets one last shot to deliver a national title for Kansas. (Aaron Doster/USA Today Sports)

Kansas (#1 Midwest) – Bill Self‘s team opens on Friday against the winner of North Carolina Central and UC Davis. Assuming a win there, the Jayhawks will either face Miami (FL) or Michigan State, a familiar foe from the Champions Classic rotation.

  • Best Case: Powered by a deathly combination of hot three-point shooting, Josh Jackson‘s dynamic athleticism and Frank Mason‘s knack for closing games, the Jayhawks compartmentalize their off-court issues and cut down the nets in Glendale on April 3.
  • Worst Case: Foul trouble from Landen Lucas and a poor shooting night lead to the Jayhawks underperforming versus their seed for the fifth straight NCAA Tournament.

Baylor (#3 East) – Baylor’s sputtering finish definitely cost them. Not only did the Bears drop from a #2 to a #3 seed, but they received a very tough potential draw in the form of SMU in the second round. That match-up would neutralize (to some degree) the advantage the Bears gain by playing in nearby Tulsa.

  • Best Case: The Bears put the last two seasons of disappointing finishes in the rearview mirror, stifling offenses with their amoeba zone and riding Johnathan Motley‘s all-around game to the team’s third Elite Eight appearance under Scott Drew.
  • Worst Case: With Manu Lecomte compromised by ankle problems, Motley faces constant double-teams and the Bears once again fail to beat a double-digit seed in the opening round.

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Big 12 Quarterfinal Takeaways

Posted by Brian Goodman on March 10th, 2017

Thursday’s quarterfinal round of the Big 12 Tournament in Kansas City had a little bit of everything. While #1 seed Kansas wasn’t at full strength with Josh Jackson out of the lineup, TCU pulled off what could be the upset of the week in college basketball in moving to the semifinals. The other afternoon game featured Iowa State’s Monte’ Morris and Oklahoma State’s Jawun Evans putting on an entertaining show as the Cyclones treated their big contingency of traveling fans to a win. In the evening session, West Virginia wore Texas down in the only game that lacked significant drama, but Kansas State made up for it by winning a game it absolutely needed to stay alive for an at-large bid. Let’s get to the biggest takeaways from the day that was.

TCU guard Desmond Bane hit three decisive free throws after being fouled by Svi Mykhailiuk with the game tied in the closing seconds. (Nick Krug/KUSports.com)

  • TCU stuns Kansas, but the Jayhawks are still in position for a #1 seed. Prior to Thursday afternoon’s upset, Jackson’s suspension didn’t seem like a deal-breaker. Kansas had swept TCU in the regular season, including a December 30 win in Fort Worth where the freshman wing scored four points and fouled out in 12 forgettable minutes. As it turned out yesterday, however, Kansas sorely missed Jackson’s presence, especially on the offensive glass. The Horned Frogs, playing for the second day in a row, rebounded 78.8 percent of Kansas’ misses, about 10 percent above their season-long rate. Still, despite the shock factor, this isn’t a devastating loss for Kansas. The Jayhawks won the nation’s top-rated conference by four games, beat Kentucky, Baylor and Iowa State on the road, and outlasted Duke on a neutral court. One thing to keep in mind, however, is that when Kansas begins its NCAA Tournament appearance on March 17, it will be playing in just its fourth game in 19 days, and Jackson will be playing his first game in almost two whole weeks. The Jayhawks could benefit from some rest and a #16 seed will provide a chance to shake off any rust, but it’s a very different stretch from what the team has grown accustomed to.

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Four Storylines Heading into the Big 12 Tournament

Posted by Brian Goodman on March 8th, 2017

While the Big 12 figures to take a step back from 2016 in terms of NCAA Tournament participation, the league has once again enjoyed a stellar season. You could certainly look at Kansas winning the regular season championship by four games and conclude that it wasn’t all that great, but a look under the hood reveals a different stance. Of the 90 league games that were played this season, 43 were decided by five points or fewer (or in overtime) and just two were decided by 20 points or more. Although the majority of the league’s NCAA Tournament fates are already sealed, we should be in for more several more exciting finishes over the next four days. Here are the four biggest storylines worth following this week in Kansas City.

Frank Mason takes his POY campaign to Kansas City for the Big 12 Tournament (Reed Hoffmann/Getty Images)

  1. Kansas State has everything to play for. After losing eight of 10 games, the Wildcats rejoined the bubble conversation by closing its regular season with victories in must-win games against TCU and Texas Tech. Bruce Weber also appears to have received a temporary reprieve from the hot seat with athletic director John Currie stepping down, so things are trending in the right direction in Manhattan. A win over Baylor in Thursday’s quarterfinals should remove any lingering doubts over an NCAA Tournament bid, and senior D.J. Johnson is the most important piece of that puzzle. The injury-prone big man was healthy and, more importantly, productive in the team’s regular season finale, scoring 19 points on an efficient 8-of-11 shooting against the Red Raiders. He also helped contain standout Bears forward Johnathan Motley to 6-of-17 shooting in the Wildcats’ win over Baylor in early February.
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Assessing the Race for #1 Seeds Two Weeks Out

Posted by Shane McNichol on February 24th, 2017

With a little more than two weeks until Selection Sunday, the battle for #1 seeds in this season’s NCAA Tournament is coming into focus. The specific teams that will sit atop each region have yet to completely crystallize, but the available scenarios are starting to make sense. As regular season conference champions are crowned and the conference tournament brackets are set, the variables in each candidate’s resume fade away and the pathways to a top seed become more clear. Looking around the college basketball landscape leads us to 10 teams remaining with a legitimate chance at the top line. Let’s review.

Kansas and Villanova Appear Locked In as Top Seeds (USA Today Images)

Kansas and Villanova are almost certainly locked into #1 seeds in the Midwest and East regions, respectively. Both schools have already clinched at least a share of their conference championships and sport resumes worthy of a top seed, barring absolute disaster (i.e., multiple losses) down the stretch. Gonzaga, 29-0 against the 147th-ranked schedule in college basketball, is likely to earn the top seed in the West region. When the Selection Committee provided its sneak peek of the top 16 seeds a couple weeks ago, the Zags occupied the fourth overall #1 seed. Those rankings were released prior to Gonzaga’s decisive victory that evening at St. Mary’s as well as consecutive losses by Baylor, the third overall seed If Mark Few’s club loses its regular season finale against BYU or the WCC Tournament championship game to St. Mary’s, they’d still be in good position to earn a top seed. A loss to any other team in the conference tournament, however, would definitely knock Gonzaga to the #2 seed line.

The fourth available #1 seed is where things get tricky. The likely front-runner for that slot as of today is North Carolina, which is leading the ACC by two full games. An outright regular season title would likely include victories over Duke or Virginia, sealing up a regular season resume well-situated to earn a #1 seed. Assuming a decent performance at the ACC Tournament in Brooklyn, the Tar Heels would head to the South Region. If North Carolina slips down the stretch, ACC colleagues Louisville and Duke would be in best position to gain. Even though both teams lost on Wednesday night, a strong closing push that results in an ACC Tournament championship could elevate the Cardinals or Blue Devils to the top line. In the end, the ACC is so strong that any of these three teams can earn a #1 seed by making it clear to the committee that they own the league’s best resume.

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