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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NCAA Regional Reset: Midwest 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: #1 Kansas (30-4). Despite receiving a 30-minute test from #9 Michigan State on Sunday, Kansas remains the favorite to win the Midwest Region. The Jayhawks smashed #16 UC Davis 100-62 before dominating the last 10 minutes against the Spartans in the Round of 32 — a hard-fought victory that should prepare them well for an even stronger Big Ten opponent, #4 Purdue, on Thursday. If you buy into advanced metrics, this appears to be a fairly even matchup: Kansas ranks seventh in KenPom, while the Boilermakers rank 13th. Unfortunately for Matt Painter’s group, the game will be played in Kansas City, where a sea of Jayhawk faithful is sure to outnumber Purdue fans several fold. Assuming Kansas prevails, it will be a similar story against #3 Oregon or #7 Michigan. Beating Kansas is one thing, but beating Kansas in a semi-road game is something entirely different.

Kansas Rolls Into KC as the Clear Midwest Region Favorite (USA Today Images)

Horse of Darkness: #7 Michigan (26-11). The Wolverines have not lost since that epic defeat at Northwestern on March 1, a nearly three-week stretch which has included a near-plane crash, a Big Ten Tournament championship, and a pair of gutsy NCAA Tournament victories over Oklahoma State and Louisville. Michigan now boasts the third-most efficient offense in college basketball, thanks in large part to blistering performances like the one Moritz Wagner (26 points on 11-of-14 FT) put on against the Cardinals on Sunday. If John Beilein’s group can get past shorthanded Oregon on Thursday, there’s no reason to think it can’t win this region. Heck, the Wolverines have already beaten Purdue twice since February 25, and the last time they played Kansas in the Big Dance, this happened. Look out.

Biggest Surprise (First Weekend): #11 Rhode Island (25-10). Rhode Island entered the NCAA Tournament on an eight-game winning streak, so its victory over #6 Creighton in the Round of 64 was not that surprising. The fashion in which it whipped the Bluejays, though — winning by 14 points and trailing for exactly zero seconds in game time — was quite unexpected. So too was the Rams’ effort against #3 Oregon on Sunday night, a game in which they led by double-figures in the second half before falling victim to a cold-blooded Tyler Dorsey three-pointer in the closing seconds. For a program that had not gone dancing since 1999, Rhode Island was certainly ready for prime time.

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Rushed Reactions: #4 West Virginia 83, #5 Notre Dame 71

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 18th, 2017

West Virginia relied on timely shooting and aggressive defense (per usual) to reach its second Sweet Sixteen in the last three years.

West Virginia is headed to San Jose next week. (AP Photo/Bill Wippert)

Three Key Takeaways.

  1. No one is immune to Press Virginia. Notre Dame entered Saturday with the best offensive turnover rate in the country, a testament to its stable of seasoned ball-handlers and deliberate approach. Faced with West Virginia’s relentless, bruising defensive pressure, though, the Irish struggled just as so many of the Mountaineers’ opponents have this season. Mike Brey’s veteran club suffered 10 turnovers in the first half alone, unable to find any offensive rhythm and surrendering easy baskets on the other end. West Virginia — which forces turnovers at a higher rate than any other team in college hoops — jumped out to a 10-0 lead to start the game and never really looked back.
  2. The Mountaineers’ offense was pretty great, too. Much of the conversation surrounding West Virginia focuses on its defense, and deservedly so. But if it was defense that gave the Mountaineers’ an initial edge on Saturday, it was the offense that ultimately carried them home. Bob Huggins’ group shot 50 percent from the field, including 8-of-14 from behind the arc and 21-of-26 at the free throw line. Especially great was West Virginia’s interior passing, which enabled Esa Ahmad (11 points), Elijah Macon (11 points), Daxter Miles (18 points), and others to routinely find easy looks at the rim. Oh, and the timely three-point shooting helped — especially from Jevon Carter (4-of-5 3FG), who drilled a clutch triple with 2:30 remaining that helped stick a fork in Notre Dame.
  3. Bonzie Colson was every bit as good as you’d expect. While Notre Dame lost, it wasn’t because Colson didn’t hold his own. The uniquely-built 6’5″ forward scored 27 points on 10-of-15 shooting, including 4-of-5 shooting from long range along with eight rebounds. Despite picking up his fourth foul with about nine minutes left in the game, Colson remained effective on the offensive end, enabling the Irish to hang around despite facing a superior opponent. Silver lining for Notre Dame fans? The big man is only a junior, and should enter 2017-18 as a front-runner for ACC Player of the Year.

Player of the Game. Jevon Carter, West Virginia (24 points, 4-of5 3FG). For as outstanding as Colson was, Carter make the biggest difference in this game. The 6’2″ junior, known for his tenacious defense and quick hands (2.6. SPG), knocked down big shot after big shot on Saturday, including a long three-pointer from straight-on midway through the second half and that dagger triple with a few minutes remaining. He couldn’t have picked a better time to match his season-high point total.

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Baylor: The Team Nobody Saw Coming…

Posted by Justin Fedich on January 7th, 2017

It’s only January 7, but with Baylor going into tonight’s game against Oklahoma State as one of two remaining unbeaten teams in college basketball, many are wondering where this team came from. The Bears started the season with a grand total of zero votes in the AP preseason Top 25, but through 14 games against an excellent schedule, no opponent has been able to touch them. Under longtime head coach Scott Drew, Baylor has never made the Final Four but his teams have gotten close. During a three-year stretch from 2010-12, the Bears made two Elite Eights but had the misfortune of playing the eventual National Champion on both occasions (Duke – 2010; Kentucky 2012). This year, Baylor is better equipped to make its first Final Four in school history, but it’s not because expectations in Waco will be high. On the contrary, it’s because expectations are not high, which is exactly how Baylor has thrived to this point of the season.

Baylor is Off to One of Its Best Starts Ever (USA Today Images)

Baylor is Off to One of Its Best Starts Ever (USA Today Images)

Baylor had plenty of question marks coming into this season. Senior forward Johnathan Motley was a preseason All-Big 12 pick, but beyond that was mostly unknown. The most notable concern was how Miami transfer Manu Lecomte would fare in his first season with the Bears. The answer is so far, so good. Lecomte is leveraging his additional time in Drew’s lineup by averaging 5.1 assists per game, ranking among the nation’s top 60 in assist rate at 32.3 percent. As outstanding as the possible Big 12 Transfer of the Year has been, he hasn’t even been the most pleasant surprise on the team. Junior center Jo Lual-Acuil Jr. has gone from relative anonymity to averages of 11.0 points and 7.6 rebounds per game, pairing with Motley to create a formidable frontcourt that no team in the Big 12 — not even Kansas — wants to face. The starters have been exceptionally consistent to this point, and a bench of which little was expected continues to get better as the season rolls along. Sophomore wing Jake Lindsey contributed his first double-figure game of the season against Iowa State on Wednesday night.

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Finding a Path to the Madness for Big 12 Bubble Teams

Posted by Shane McNichol on December 29th, 2016

The top of the Big 12 is off to a hot start this season with Kansas, Baylor, and West Virginia all ranked among the top 12 of the AP poll and the current KenPom ratings. These three teams have a combined 34-2 record that includes wins over Duke, Virginia, Louisville and Xavier. The class of the league appears as strong as ever, but if the Big 12 has notions on putting seven teams back into the NCAA Tournament for the third consecutive year, trouble arises further down the standings. With a mix uninspiring victories and troubling losses, the middle of the pack is full of teams that will need to earn their chops in conference play to sufficiently impress the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee. Texas and Oklahoma appear in trouble, so let’s focus on the five teams with the best resumes to date.

Iowa State Hasn't Shined as Much as Hoped This Season (USA Today Images)

Iowa State Hasn’t Shined as Much as Hoped This Season (USA Today Images)

  • Iowa State. The Cyclones entered the season with high expectations given that head coach Steve Prohm returned four key contributors. To date the Cyclones have yet to really impress or disappoint. Iowa State’s three losses have all been understandable — dropping games to Gonzaga, Cincinnati and rival Iowa — but the rest of the schedule has consisted of mostly cupcakes save for a nice win over Miami (FL). The key for the Cyclones in Big 12 play will be their performance on the road. Hilton Magic should result in a minimum of six or seven home wins, but that means Iowa State will need to win three or four road games to feel confident about an NCAA Tournament berth. With no sign of a true bottom-feeder in the conference this year, that will be much easier said than done.
  • TCU. Despite sporting an 11-1 record, Jamie Dixon’s Horned Frogs have yet to create any real buzz in part because TCU’s best wins came in an odd scheduling quirk, beating Washington in back-to-back contests. Aside from those two victories, their next best win came against Illinois State — not exactly something to write to the Selection Committee about. Whereas Iowa State is more concerned with taking care of business and keeping the status quo, TCU needs a big win or two in conference play as well as a plus-.500 Big 12 record. Going 9-9 with six losses to Kansas, Baylor and West Virginia isn’t likely to be enough.

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Texas Won’t Make the NCAAs This Year and That’s Probably a Good Thing…

Posted by Nate Kotisso on December 19th, 2016

The Texas men’s basketball head coaching job is one of the most visible in all of college athletics and Shaka Smart certainly embraced that aspect of the position when he accepted it. After then signing the nation’s fifth best recruiting class, expectations in Austin quickly became that these recruits would walk in to the Erwin Center and take the country by storm. Through the first 10 games of this season, however, it is becoming increasingly clear that the “take the country by storm” part was at best an incorrect forecast. It’s looking a lot more like day-long cloud cover with periods of heavy rain shifting to light precipitation after dark.

Texas freshman Andrew Jones had his best all-around game (17 points, seven assists) in the team's losing effort. (David J. Phillip/Associated Press)

Texas freshman Andrew Jones had his best all-around game (17 points, seven assists) in the team’s losing effort. (David J. Phillip/Associated Press)

While it is true that the Longhorns are getting better, spotting that improvement has been difficult to identify. The last time Texas stepped on to a neutral floor — at the Legends Classic in Brooklyn — Smart’s team was run off the floor in embarrassing double-figure defeats to Northwestern and Colorado. Fast forward to Saturday afternoon’s game against Arkansas and the Longhorns arguably played their best game of the year despite the loss. Jarrett Allen (11 points, 10 rebounds), Andrew Jones (17 points, seven assists) and Tevin Mack (20 points, 12 rebounds) provided Smart with a diversity of scoring options for a team that has often struggled to both find good shots and make them.

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Big 12 Resumes at the Quarter Pole of the Season

Posted by Justin Fedich on December 9th, 2016

The Big 12 has contributed seven of its 10 teams to the NCAA Tournament in each of the past three seasons, but the conference will be challenged to reach 70 percent representation this year. When TCU lost to SMU on Wednesday and Iowa State fell to Iowa on Thursday, it went to show that the middle tier of the league behind Kansas, Baylor and West Virginia probably isn’t as strong as it typically has been. By way of comparison, it was abundantly clear at this time last season that at least six Big 12 teams would make the NCAA Tournament field. Inexperience and a lack of quality wins beyond those three leave a bunch of teams with many questions to be answered. Let’s briefly take a look at the resume of each at the quarter pole of the season.

Locks

Kansas is Looking for More Smiles in March (USA Today Images)

Kansas is Looking for More Smiles in March (USA Today Images)

  • Kansas (99.8% chance of making NCAA Tournament, according to teamrankings.com): No justification is needed to explain why Kansas will be in the NCAA Tournament for the 28th straight season. The bigger question should be whether Bill Self’s Jayhawks can finish the season as the No. 1 overall seed.
  • West Virginia (99%): Aside from a strange slip-up against Temple, the non-conference season has been impressive for the Mountaineers. A huge road win at Virginia and a nearly 50-point win over Manhattan — a game in which West Virginia forced a whopping 40 turnovers — provides enough assurance that Bob Huggins’ squad will make the Big Dance, and likely as a top-four protected seed.
  • Baylor (97.8%): Arguably no team in college basketball has a stronger non-conference resume than Baylor to this point. The Bears have been one of the most pleasant surprises of the young season and would need to seriously falter in Big 12 play to lose its grasp on an NCAA Tournament bid.

Jury Is Still Out 

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Not Every Big 12 Team Has Elevated Itself in Non-Conference Play

Posted by Drew Andrews on December 9th, 2016

The Big 12 has gotten off to a very good start in non-conference play, with several teams already notching important wins for Selection Sunday and the league sitting in the top spot in Ken Pomeroy’s conference ratings and second in the RPI. West Virginia beat Virginia in Charlottesville; Kansas knocked off Duke in the Champions Classic; and Baylor owns six top 100 wins including those over Louisville, Xavier and Oregon. As well as those three teams have represented the conference nationally, another trio of Big 12 schools — Oklahoma State, Kansas State and Texas Tech — are still looking for a signature win.

Oklahoma State's Best Win Came Against a Struggling Georgetown Program (USA Today Images)

Oklahoma State’s Best Win Came Against a Struggling Georgetown Program (USA Today Images)

Oklahoma State has started the season on a scoring tear. As expected, Jawun Evans leads the team in usage but he hasn’t had to go it alone. Phil Forte and Jeffrey Carroll are both top 100 offensive players nationally who can help Evans carry the scoring load. The concern for when the Cowboys get to conference play will be about how an already shaky defense can hold up against stronger competition. North Carolina scored 107 points in a blowout win in Maui, and, while the Cowboys rank fourth nationally in steal rate, that gambling style of defense has led to a surplus of open looks from three-point range (opponents are making 39.2 percent of their threes against the Pokes). A talent advantage has mostly masked these deficiencies to this point, but Big 12 play is likely to expose Oklahoma State if Brad Underwood doesn’t improve his defense.

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A Rising TCU Tide Could Lift Big 12 Boats

Posted by Brian Goodman on December 8th, 2016

While TCU fell from the ranks of the unbeaten on Wednesday night with a 15-point loss at SMU, the Horned Frogs’ ascension under Jamie Dixon has been obvious as the remaining pieces from the Trent Johnson era have blended well with young talents like Jaylen Fisher and Alex RobinsonIntent on leveraging a renovated arena and talent-rich local recruiting base, Dixon has already shored up the long-term stability of the program with commitments from 2017 four-star recruits Kevin Samuel and R.J. Nembhard. As a result, TCU’s future looks quite a bit better than its short term, but unlike with most coaching transitions, its present doesn’t look too shabby either. Dixon obviously did not walk into a Steve Prohm-like situation at Iowa State where the new guy was under pressure to win right away, but his early results in Fort Worth give reason to believe, which bodes well for a program that has gone 8-64 in Big 12 play since joining the league in 2012. Even if this immensely deep conference keeps TCU from climbing out of the cellar in 2017, mere respectability at the bottom of a league with so many NCAA Tournament candidates can be an advantage other middling power conference teams lack.

TCU may no longer be unbeaten, but their improvement can only help the rest of the Big 12. (AP/Bob Haynes)

Alex Robinson and TCU may no longer be unbeaten, but their improvement can only help the rest of the Big 12. (AP/Bob Haynes)

If you take a look around the nation’s Power 5 leagues, you’ll find a lot of flotsam among the dregs. In the ACC, Boston College and Georgia Tech’s seasons were pretty much dead on arrival (the Yellow Jackets’ win over VCU on Wednesday night notwithstanding). In the Big East, Georgetown, St. John’s and DePaul have a combined 1-8 record against the KenPom top 100. Rutgers and Penn State may eventually turn things around in the Big Ten, but neither figure to make much noise this season. And the bottom of the SEC rarely ever makes waves, either. Head west to the Pac-12 and you’ll see uphill battles ahead for Washington (which these Horned Frogs have already beaten twice), Arizona State, Oregon State and Washington State. TCU has its work cut out for it this season, but even if Dixon’s team winds up on the bottom rung of the Big 12 ladder yet again, there are certainly worse places to be. Read the rest of this entry »

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Emerging Frontcourt Providing Michigan With New Ways to Win

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on December 8th, 2016

Michigan’s 53-50 victory over Texas on Tuesday night was anything but vintage John Beilein basketball. The Wolverines—usually an offensive-leaning unit heavily led by guard play—scored 0.87 points per possession against the Longhorns, with its veteran starting backcourt combining for just 13 points on 4-of-19 shooting. Instead, Beilein’s group relied upon two facets of the game seldom mentioned in the same breath as Michigan basketball: stingy team defense and major offensive production from its big men—namely, sophomores Mortiz Wagner and D.J. Wilson. For a team short on depth and struggling to find a consistent scorer, the newfound production in the paint was a welcome surprise. To understand just how uncharacteristic the victory was, consider this: Michigan had not won a game in which it scored fewer than 0.90 points per possession since February 23, 2008—Beilein’s first year on the job. Much like that contest—a 49-43 win over Illinois—Tuesday’s affair came down to which team could eke out enough late buckets without compromising its defensive intensity. For the Wolverines, both the late buckets and the intensity were supplied by Wagner.

Forward Moritz Wagner was instrumental in Michigan's win on Tuesday (AP Photo/Tony Ding)

Forward Moritz Wagner was instrumental in Michigan’s win over Texas (AP Photo/Tony Ding)

“I thought [Wagner] was the best player on the floor tonight,” Texas head coach Shaka Smart said afterwards. “He can shoot, he’s 6’11”, he can put the ball on the floor… Tonight he was constantly in attack mode.” Not only did the German import lead Michigan with 15 points on 7-of-13 shooting, he came up with both the go-ahead putback and the game-winning block in the game’s closing seconds, his emotions pouring out as the clock hit zeroes. The sequence was a testament to both his rare offensive skill set and his improving defensive discipline. “Mo’s blocking shots really for the first time in his life,” Beilein said of Wagner. “He’s learning to be a bigger presence at the rim. I think he’s making major steps defensively right now.” Read the rest of this entry »

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