Rushed Reactions: #1 North Carolina 92, #4 Butler 80

Posted by Bennet Hayes on March 24th, 2017

RTC is providing coverage from start to finish of the NCAA Tournament for the next three weeks.

Kennedy Meeks and the Heels had a lot to cheer about Friday night (Photo: Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports)

Key Takeaways.

  1. Tar Heels explode in the first half. North Carolina raced out to a 16-point lead in the first 10 minutes and never looked back. The Tar Heels would maintain that edge for the second 10 minutes of the first half, taking a 52-36 advantage to the locker room. Three Tar Heels scored in double figures – Justin Jackson with 17 points, Luke Maye with 14, Joel Berry with 10 – in a quintessential display of Carolina offense. They played fast (43 possessions), made three-point shots (8-of-17 from long-range), and exploited their size advantage inside in outrebounding Butler by 11. UCLA and Kansas each boast offenses as good, if not better, than that of North Carolina, but neither possess the inside-outside balance of the Heels. The first 20 minutes of this game was a potent expression of this reality.
  2. Unexpected and expected Carolina contributors. UNC has relied upon Jackson and Berry all season, and the Tar Heels’ junior duo delivered again tonight. They combined for 50 points, five three-pointers, and committed just three turnovers. However, it wasn’t just Jackson and Berry fronting the load this evening. Maye provided an unexpected spark in leading the first half surge, scoring 14 points and grabbing 11 rebounds in the opening frame. Roy Williams expressed immense appreciation for the contributions and skills of UNC’s very unlikely catalyst, saying he was not surprised by Maye’s night because he sees it every day in practice. Either way, the Heels should benefit from a confident Maye, as his ability to step out and shoot the three provides a nice balance to the bruising interior duo of Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks.
  3. Butler three-point shooting struggles. The Bulldogs were an efficient offensive outfit for the better part of their first 33 games of the season, with top-100 percentages nationally in 3FG, 2FG, and FT%. However, the 21st-most efficient offense in the country struggled to generate the points needed to hang with North Carolina this evening. The origin of the drought was obvious, as Butler made just eight of its 28 three-point attempts. Chris Holtmann couldn’t have had a problem with most of the rest of the offensive stat sheet, as his team shot 55 percent from two-point range, 86 percent from the free throw line, and turned the ball over just nine times in a high-possession game. Missed three-point shots is a familiar killer of seasons this time of year; tonight, Butler’s long-range struggles ensured its season would not continue.

Star of the Game. Justin Jackson, North Carolina. The versatile Tar Heels star had the full arsenal working Friday night. He was confident and effective in shooting the three, lofting floaters in the half-court, and getting out on the fast break for easy buckets. Jackson finished with 24 points, five rebounds, and five assists. Honorable mention goes to Maye, who unexpectedly delivered a career high 14 points and 11 rebounds, and Berry, who finished with a game-high 26 points.

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Quantifying the Impact of Kamar Baldwin, Butler’s Unsung Hero

Posted by Justin Kundrat on March 22nd, 2017

As Chris Holtmann’s group of Bulldogs head to the Sweet Sixteen for the first time in six years, the underpinnings of “Butler basketball” are increasingly apparent. Statistically, this is the most efficient offensive unit in the last 16 seasons at the school. The offseason addition of sharpshooter Avery Woodson (42.9% 3FG), the remarkably effective play of point guard Tyler Lewis, and the midseason revival of leading scorer Kelan Martin have caused opponents to struggle with a brand of team-oriented basketball that trots out five legitimate scoring threats at any given time. It is therefore no surprise that such an experienced group comfortably executes its offensive sets at its own pace while minimizing turnovers. The tangential storyline, however, resides on the defensive end of the floor — the virtually unquantifiable impact of freshman guard Kamar Baldwin.

Kamar Baldwin’s Defense Has Helped Butler to the Sweet Sixteen (USA Today Images)

For the uninitiated, Baldwin is a former three-star recruit whose presence in the Bulldogs’ recruiting class was largely overshadowed by that of 6’10” center Joey Brunk, one of the highest regarded incoming big men this season. It was expected that Baldwin would provide backcourt depth alongside the returning starters and incoming transfers Avery Woodson and Kethan Savage, but a more significant impact was felt right out of the gate. Baldwin quickly slid into a role as defensive disruptor, providing relentless on-ball pressure and using his lateral quickness to cut off driving lanes and reroute passes. In fact, the Bulldogs rank 11th nationally in defensive assist rate — opponents assisting on just 43.7 percent of their baskets, compared with the national average of 52.1 percent — in large part because of Baldwin’s efforts.

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NCAA Regional Reset: South 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 North Carolina (29-7). The Tar Heels might have actually had the most unimpressive opening weekend of the four teams remaining in the South, as they needed a kind late whistle to escape #8 Arkansas on Sunday. However, the region’s #1 seed retains its status as a Final Four favorite in large part because of the draw. Butler posted a pair of workmanlike victories in dispatching #13 Winthrop and #12 Middle Tennessee State last weekend, but the Bulldogs’ road to Memphis was far simpler than that of fellow semifinalists UCLA and Kentucky. Second round wins over Cincinnati and Wichita State, respectively, are impressive notches — victories that confirm both the Bruins’ and Wildcats’ status as National Title contenders. Because Butler is simply not that, North Carolina becomes the only team in a balanced region to not need two victories over elite foes in Memphis, which gives the Heels the inside track to Phoenix.

Joel Berry and the Tar Heels are still the team to beat in a balanced region.(Photo: Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports)

Horse of Darkness: #4 Butler (25-8). As noted above, Butler is the only team in the Memphis region that doesn’t qualify as a true contender. That’s no knock on the Bulldogs — a group that put together a nice season and a pair of quality first weekend performances — but there is an obvious drop-off when it comes to program prestige and overall talent against the three blue-bloods in this regional. However, that does not mean Kelan Martin (19 points, six rebounds and four assists in the win over MTSU) and his Bulldogs aren’t capable of winning two games in Memphis. Successfully slowing tempo against the frenetic Tar Heels will be a key to that process.

Biggest Surprise (First Weekend): #8 Arkansas (26-10). The Razorbacks’ season may be over, but in this surprise-less region, their near-upset of #1 North Carolina qualifies as the most sizable surprise of the first weekend. According to KenPom, Arkansas held a 75 percent chance of winning that game with three and a half minutes remaining – a feat few expected before the opening tip. Of course, the Razorbacks proved unable to hold on, but when all four top seeds advance to the regional semifinals, it’s hard to find too many true surprises. More on that below.

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Rushed Reactions: #4 Butler 74 ,#12 Middle Tennessee 65

Posted by Brendan Brody on March 18th, 2017

Butler started the game off perfect on its first four threes and ended up shooting 8-of-15 for the game, keying its 74-65  victory over Middle Tennessee tonight in the Second Round of the NCAA Tournament.

Butler Pulled Away From MTSU to Advance to the Sweet Sixteen (USA Today Images)

Three Key Takeaways.

  1. It truly is a” make or miss” game . The major difference in the result of tonight’s game was that Butler simply shot the ball from distance at a much better rate than Middle Tennessee. The Bulldogs shot 53.3 percent from three-point range while Middle Tennessee was only able to muster 21.1 percent. The Blue Raiders ran their offense effectively in getting a number of quality looks, but they simply couldn’t get anything to fall. Most of the other stats on the day were relatively even, but shooting — makes and misses — was the difference-maker.
  2. Butler played like an experienced team. With three graduate transfers in its rotation and a starting lineup that starts all upperclassmen but one — freshman Kamar Baldwin — Butler doesn’t lack for experience. The Bulldogs played like a team that doesn’t easily rattle tonight, taking every punch that Middle Tennessee threw at them and combating it with a key play or basket. The Blue Raiders made several short runs, but Butler and its bevy of veterans always had a counter.
  3. Antwain Johnson was the best player on the floor. Despite the loss, Antwain Johnson put together an outstanding effort tonight. Without getting big games from its three best players except for JaCorey Williams, Johnson kept the Blue Raiders in the game with his ability to get to the basket and attack from the mid-range. It was almost enough to offset a goose egg in the scoring column from Giddy Potts.

Star of the Game. Kelan Martin gets most of his recognition for being Butler’s best offensive player. He contributed a team-high 19 points today, grabbing six rebounds and dishing four assists to boot. He also did a quality job in guarding both Williams and Reggie Upshaw. The junior was mostly quiet in the First Round, so getting more games from him like this one bodes well for the rest of the NCAA Tournament.

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Rushed Reactions: #4 Butler 76, #13 Winthrop 64

Posted by Brendan Brody on March 16th, 2017

Butler never really had to sweat in its 76-64 victory over Winthrop in the First Round today, playing like the higher-seeded team in holding the Eagles to 27 first-half  points on 34.5 percent shooting. After Winthrop got the neutral members of the crowd on its side by cutting the Butler lead to seven with 13:28 left, Butler took control of the game and never looked back.

Butler Was Never Really Threatened in Today’s First Round Game with Winthrop (USA Today Images)

Three Key Takeaways.

  1.  The seniors showed up for Butler. Whether it was Avery Woodson putting on his own personal three-point shooting contest by going 5-of-7 in the first half, Andrew Chrabascz simply being solid in a number of areas on both sides of the floor, or Tyler Lewis doling out eight assists and only committing one turnover, Butler’s upperclassmen all played really well today without any particular lulls in production or intensity.
  2. Xavier Cooks and Keon Johnson were fun to watch. It wasn’t enough to carry Winthrop to a win today against a Big East opponent with a burgeoning postseason pedigree, but it’s easy to see how Winthrop won the Big South. Cooks and Johnson didn’t maintain their level of production all game, but they both had a couple of “wow” moments apiece. Cooks showed a versatile inside-out game with some nifty and crafty moves in getting to the rim and finishing; Johnson meanwhile was obviously the fastest man on the court, exhibiting this attribute when he went on a personal 7-0 run early in the second half.
  3. Kelan Martin needs to do more. What happened in today’s game was fine for Butler because the Bulldogs held a 28-9 advantage in bench points. But in future games, Kelan Martin must be more aggressive. He was barely noticeable in the opening stanza before contributed something late. Another no-show from the Bulldogs’ leading scorer might lead to the end of the season.

Star of the Game. Avery Woodson, Butler. Woodson broke things open early with his hot shooting, making it difficult for Winthrop to put much pressure on the Bulldogs. The senior graduate transfer entered the game shooting 41.7 percent from behind the arc, but he finished by making 6-of-10 on the afternoon. He also added a respectable five rebounds from the guard spot and committed zero turnovers. Sometimes a hot shooter can carry a team a round or two in March, and Woodson showed he has that capability.

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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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Previewing the 2017 Big East Tournament

Posted by Justin Kundrat on March 8th, 2017

Here we are again: four straight days of Big East basketball in the world’s most famous arena, Madison Square Garden. The conference is likely to follow up last season’s five-bid NCAA Tournament mark with seven teams this year, all of which will be vying for better seeding this week in New York. The other three teams are looking at a frenzied series of as many as four straight games, their only avenue to the Dance in what would be a surprising run to the Big East Championship.

Here’s a printable version of the bracket: 2017 Big East Tournament Bracket

And the Winner is: Villanova

The obvious but boring pick. Even amid a slew of injuries and an undersized but shockingly effective lineup, the Wildcats have again found their way to the top of the Big East totem pole. Few teams have been able to slow down an offense churning out 1.23 points per possession — as a matter of fact, games at Butler (0.99) and at St. John’s (0.99) were Villanova’s only two instances under 1.0 PPP. Sophomore star Jalen Brunson is arguably the most underrated point guard in the country, embracing an old-school style of play that lulls defenders to sleep before blowing by them. Every rotation player with the exception of one is a capable three-point shooter, and the incessant ball screen switching on the defensive end has remained effective because entry passes are such a persistent headache. There are some chinks in the armor, however, as Butler has demonstrated. Crowding the paint on drives and staying down on ball fakes can slow the offense, occasionally causing this team to lose its mojo.

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Big East Bubble Watch: Volume II

Posted by Justin Kundrat on March 2nd, 2017

A positive resulting from the recent struggles of Creighton and Xavier is the opportunity it has afforded the conference’s bubble teams. At the beginning of the season, five was a fair benchmark for possible NCAA Tournament bids coming out of the Big East this season. Now, with just one regular season game remaining for each team, as many as seven teams could hear their names called on Selection Sunday. At the expense of quality seeding has come quantity, which might prove to be a boon given the unpredictable nature of March Madness. Here is where those seven teams stand as we head into of the final weekend of the regular season. RPI and strength of schedule (SOS) figures are from RPIForecast.com.

Locks

  • Villanova: 27-3 (14-3); RPI: 1; SOS: 24
  • Butler: 23-6 (12-5); RPI: 10; SOS: 11
  • Creighton: 23-7 (10-7); RPI: 24; SOS: 44

Analysis: These three teams have made things pretty easy for themselves — even losing out would not be enough to destroy their NCAA Tournament hopes. Villanova is a virtual lock for a #1 seed, probably in the East Region; Butler has climbed its way up to the #3 seed line; and Creighton should find itself in the #5 to #6 range. With the right match-ups, all three are Sweet Sixteen contenders.

Should Be In

Xavier Has Lost Six Games in a Row and is Reeling as March Arrives (USA Today Images)

  • Xavier: 18-12 (8-9); RPI: 35; SOS: 7

Analysis: The Musketeers’ awful slide has continued with the once 18-6 team having now lost six games in a row. A home loss to Marquette does not help matters but it alone is not yet enough to knock the Musketeers to the fringe. Xavier has gone 0-6 vs. the RPI top 25 this season, but it has avoided any bad losses and still boasts a total of eight top 100 wins. The concern for Chris Mack‘s team at this point isn’t so much its seeding but just how poorly it might perform in the NCAA Tournament. The Musketeers’ last six games have been a disaster on the defensive end.

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2016-17 RTC Top 25: Week 15

Posted by Walker Carey on February 27th, 2017

The penultimate week of the college basketball regular season is in the books, and it was a week marked by a few top teams suffering surprising defeats. First, #2 Villanova saw its seven-game win streak end Wednesday when #12 Butler went into Philadelphia and used an 18-0 second half run to catapult itself to a 74-66 victory. An even more stunning upset took place Saturday when previously undefeated #3 Gonzaga saw an early 16-point home lead disappear in being vanquished by a plucky BYU squad, 79-71. Not only did this loss end Gonzaga’s bid at a perfect regular season, but it also began conversations regarding if the Bulldogs are actually worthy of a number one seed in the upcoming NCAA Tournament. This season has been defined by the unexpected, so it is only reasonable to assume that more craziness will occur during the final week. Hopefully we will also see some of it carry over into the postseason. This week’s Quick N’ Dirty after the jump.

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Big East Bubble Watch: Volume I

Posted by Justin Kundrat on February 23rd, 2017

Selection Sunday is fast approaching and remaining schedules provide dwindling opportunities to make the cut line for the NCAA Tournament. Given how wide open the Big East has been this season (thanks in large part to a number of injuries affecting Xavier and Creighton), there is an unusually large number of conference teams still with a fighting chance. Here is where those teams stand as we head into one of the final weekends of the regular season. RPI and strength of schedule (SOS) figures are from RPIForecast.com.

Locks

Villanova and Butler are Two of the Big East’s Mortal Locks (USA Today Images)

  • Villanova: 26-3 (13-3); RPI: 2; SOS: 29
  • Butler: 22-6 (11-5); RPI: 11; SOS: 12
  • Creighton: 22-6 (11-7); RPI: 26; SOS: 48

Analysis: These three teams have made things pretty easy for themselves — even losing out would not be enough to diminish their NCAA Tournament hopes. Villanova is a near-lock for a #1 seed even after last night’s home loss to Butler, while the Bulldogs and Bluejays should find themselves on the #4 or #5 seed lines.

Should Be In

  • Xavier: 18-10 (8-7); RPI: 22; SOS: 8

Analysis: Even accounting for the season-ending injury to Edmond Sumner, Xavier shouldn’t have needed to worry about which tournament it would take part in at the end of the regular season. But an ankle injury to leading scorer Trevon Bluiett has changed that perspective. Bluiett was back in action on Wednesday night, but the Musketeers regardless dropped their fourth consecutive game in ugly fashion at Seton Hall, and their upcoming schedule isn’t favorable. Still, three more losses would put Chris Mack‘s team at 18-13 with an RPI of ~38, which likely means squarely in the field. On the plus side, Xavier has been getting much better contributions from its post players, especially RaShid Gaston, which was a major concern earlier this season.

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