Morning Five: 04.28.14 Edition

Posted by nvr1983 on April 28th, 2014

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  1. Mitch McGary‘s early-entry departure from Michigan might be the most controversial ones that we can remember. McGary’s decision to leave after his sophomore season was not particularly shocking from a basketball perspective as he would have been a first-round pick had he not been injured this season and even now he is a borderline first-round pick. The reason that McGary’s decision is so controversial (and will be for quite some time) is that he was essentially forced out when he tested positive for marijuana on a random test. If McGary had stayed he would have had to sit out the upcoming season. As a result, McGary will be waiting anxiously on Draft night and John Beilein will have a much tougher task keeping Michigan competitive in the Big Ten next season.
  2. The good next keeps on coming in for John Calipari. After learning that most of his frontcourt was returning, Calipari also found out that Aaron and Andrew Harrison would be returning for their sophomore seasons. This does not necessarily make Kentucky the national title favorites, but certainly puts them on the short list of contenders. The one issue for Kentucky is that for all of their depth on the inside they will have surprisingly lack of backcourt depth. The one interesting aspect of this is that Kentucky might end up being more experienced than their opponents for the first time in several years.
  3. The news at Connecticut was more mixed. The Huskies already knew that they were going to take a hit with Kemba Walker leaving Storrs, but they had hoped that both DeAndre Daniels and Ryan Boatright would return for the senior seasons. Boatright decided to come back to Storrs for one more year while Daniels decided to cash in on a big NCAA Tournament run to enter the NBA Draft. While Boatright will help stabilize the Huskies next year the loss of an athletic presence like Daniels is a big blow. At this point, Daniels is projected as a borderline first-round pick although with his athleticism and skill set he is the type of player who could move up or down a Draft board fairly quickly.
  4. One of the problems with many of the earliest versions of the way-too-early top 25s is that they are based on conjecture and occasionally statements about who is and is not leaving. On April 17, Jordan Adams announced that he was staying at UCLA saying that he was “really excited about the team we’re going to have next year”. On Saturday night, Adams changed his mind and announced that he would be entering the NBA Draft. His reasons for leaving are unclear as he is probably an early second round pick although maybe he assumes that he can work his way into the first round and get guaranteed money or that some team or agent told him that he had that first round guarantee. Or perhaps he figured that going pro was better than spending another year in Westwood. In any event, it puts Steve Alford and the Bruins in a hole as they attempt to replicate the success that they had in Alford’s first season.
  5. We are not used to seeing Wisconsin at the top of preseason rankings as they tend to be underrated, but next year we do not think that should be an issue. The Badgers already have a loaded team and the one piece that we felt might declare for the NBA Draft–Frank Kaminsky–announced that he would be returning for his senior season in Madison. Kaminsky showed tremendous growth this season, but he was still projected to only be a borderline first round pick. His size and skill set would have made him an interesting late first-round pick. Instead he will return to Madison and should make Wisconsin one of the title favorite next season.
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After Fourth Title Since 1999, UConn Has Proven Its Blood is Pure Blue

Posted by Bennet Hayes on April 8th, 2014

Elite societies are exclusive societies, and the true blue-bloods of college basketball have long been a part of a near-impenetrable coterie. They are the programs that need no introduction, the schools that we expect to see in preseason Top Tens, midseason games-of-the-week, and on the final lines of the bracket in March and April. With apologies to UCLA and Indiana (it has been too long since either school ended their season with a National Title), conventional wisdom would tell you that this dignified collection has included just four teams for quite some time now – Duke, North Carolina, Kentucky and Kansas. It has been a nice run boys, but it’s time to welcome another member to your group. After winning its fourth national title in 15 years on Monday night — twice as many as any other school during that time — Connecticut deserves mention in any conversation of the elite college basketball programs in America. With Jim Calhoun watching from the stands and Kemba Walker on a television set far away from Dallas, Kevin Ollie, Shabazz Napier and the rest of the Huskies proved – against perennial power Kentucky, no less — that the UConn program is as elite as any in college hoops.

In Capturing Another National Title For The University Of Connecticut, Kevin Ollie's Huskies Proved That The UConn Program Is As Elite As Any College Basketball Has To Offer

Kevin Ollie’s Huskies Proved That The UConn Program — Now Winners Of Four Of The Last 15 National Championships — Is As Elite As Any In College Basketball  (Getty)

Jim Calhoun has long been synonymous with UConn basketball. After all, Calhoun took a program that was nearly devoid of basketball history when he got to Storrs in 1986 and turned it into a national power, winning 12 times as many NCAA Tournament games in his 26 years (48) as the program had in the 85 years that preceded his arrival. Among those four dozen Tournament victories were three national titles – a nearly unthinkable feat when viewed within the greater picture of Connecticut basketball history. Many even called the Hall of Famer’s work in Storrs underappreciated when he retired in 2012, citing that blank program history and the bleak winters in tiny Storrs as major obstacles to a perennially elite college basketball program. Yet, somehow Calhoun was able to create precisely that.

However, all good things must come to an end, and the Jim Calhoun era was most certainly a good thing. His departure in 2012 brought a fork in the road for the program. One route would have been a trip back to a quiet, defeat-ridden past, where three decades of sustained brilliance would have ultimately come to reveal little more than the immense proficiency of one fantastic head coach. The other fork was more intriguing, one where continued success might actually show that Calhoun had done more than just coach a bunch of great teams. If UConn continued their winning ways, Calhoun’s legacy would be that of a program builder; he would have taken a bad job and turned it into one of the sport’s best.

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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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SEC M5: The National Title Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell on April 7th, 2014

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  1. Of all the accolades that can rightfully be given to people connected to Kentucky, the man in charge should be first in line. Though I don’t agree with it, I do understand the vitriol John Calipari receives from often random places. But what do his detractors have left to point to, other than simple dislike? We’re still waiting for that 2011-12 title, or 2010-11 Final Four, to be vacated. And the “he can’t coach” sentiment probably needs to be put to rest. He just improved to 18-2 in the tournament at Kentucky, and five weeks ago the Wildcats lost at South Carolina and looked dead in the water. The players are still the same, but the situation is far different. I’m not smart enough to know exactly what happened, but the change has to begin with Calipari.
  2. Willie Cauley-Stein’s situation is the one sour note in the Wildcats’ run to the title game. Deep in this Louisville Courier-Journal article is a sad, sad quote from the sophomore when he was asked about giving advice to the team. “I can’t really speak to them like I’m a player,” Cauley-Stein said softly, “because I don’t feel like a player anymore.” Cauley-Stein was one of the lone bright spots for Kentucky late last season, and it’s frustrating to see a guy not be able to fully enjoy a run like this after sticking around. Will missing out in playing in the Final Four enough to pull him back for a third season in Lexington? It wouldn’t be the smart business decision, but you never know.
  3. Despite a roster loaded with top nationwide talent, Kentucky’s 2013 Mr. Basketball contributed 11 minutes Saturday night against Wisconsin. Dominique Hawkins wasn’t the typical Calipari recruit, carrying only three stars from Rivals, and offers from Murray State, Western Kentucky and Morehead State. But in what was surely, at least in part, a shrewd move to appease the fan base, Calipari got himself a valuable piece going forward. Hawkins only scored two points against the Badgers, but he’s gaining important experience and by the time he is an upper classman should be, at the least, a productive defensive player.
  4. DeAndre Daniels will get a rare opportunity tonight against Kentucky: facing the team he nearly signed with in the national championship game. John Calipari mentioned in his postgame interview that he had recruited some of the Huskies’ players, and one of those was Daniels. Surprisingly, the 20 points and 10 rebounds Daniels recorded against Florida was the first double double in the Final Four since Carmelo Anthony did it over ten years ago. Considering the track record Julius Randle has in that department this year, we may not have to wait as long for the next double double.
  5. Alligator Army has a comprehensive look back, and look ahead, after the Florida’s disheartening loss to Connecticut. One interesting question is what the legacy of this Florida team will be. Will they be remembered as one of the greatest SEC squads of all time? As Andy Hutchins points out, the undefeated conference season the Gators pulled off is a rarity in this era. Each of their three losses came to a Final Four team, and they may end up owning three wins over the eventual national champion. That’s a heck of a resume for a team, even if it did fall short of winning it all.
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NCAA Tournament Tidbits: 04.06.14 Edition

Posted by Griffin Wong on April 6th, 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.

Kentucky

  • Yet again, Kentucky freshman Aaron Harrison advanced the Wildcats with a late three-pointer. Harrison also hit the game-winning three in the Elite Eight against Michigan.
  • With Kentucky’s big win last night, the Wildcats will meet UConn in what is definitely an “unlikely title game.” With Kentucky as an 8-seed and UConn as a 7-seed, this is the all-time highest combined seed total in the National Championship Game.
  • They love their basketball in Lexington, and the students were sure to celebrate after their Wildcats reached their second championship game in the past three years.
  • Kentucky has gone from one of the most frustrating teams in Wildcats history to one of the most loved. Especially considering how this season went until March, winning it all would be incredible for the Wildcats. “It makes me feel good, because last year we were considered one of the worst teams that ever came through Kentucky,” [sophomore Willie] Cauley-Stein said. “Having to be here through the worst and then coming out on top as the best would be crazy.”
  • The Harrison Twins got (and deserved) a ton of credit for Kentucky’s run to the National Title Game, but coach John Calipari is looking at another freshman to step up on Monday. The leading scorer on Saturday night with 17 points, James Young could be the X-factor for the Wildcats going forward. “James Young has had 25-point games, which I’ll predict he’ll have in this Monday night’s game,” Calipari said.

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How Connecticut Advanced to the National Championship Game

Posted by Walker Carey on April 6th, 2014

Seven-seed Connecticut completed its incredible run to the National Championship game by defeating favored Florida, 63-53, in Saturday night’s first national semifinal. The following are three factors that led to the Huskies advancing to its fourth appearance in the title tilt since 1999.

DeAndre Daniels is Taking the Challenge Upon Himself

DeAndre Daniels is Taking the Challenge Upon Himself

  1. DeAndre Daniels has picked the right time to play the best basketball of his career. The junior forward had a nice regular season, averaging 13.0 points and 5.9 rebounds per game, but there were several times when he failed to produce when Connecticut needed his production. The most notable of Daniels’ poor games were in a January 8 loss to Louisville where he scored just three points on 1-of-9 shooting, and in a February 23 loss to SMU when he finished with just six points on 2-of-10 shooting. Since the NCAA Tournament has began, though, Daniels has shown those phantom nights are things of the past. In the Huskies’ overtime victory over Saint Joseph’s in the round of 64, the junior turned in 18 key points on a very efficient 6-of-11 shooting. In the Huskies’ next win over Iowa State, Daniels was the best player on the floor and his 27 points and 10 rebounds were instrumental in helping Connecticut fend off a late Cyclones run. After a steady 12-point, eight-rebound effort in the Elite Eight victory over Michigan State, Daniels again showed he can be the best player on the floor in Connecticut’s stunning semifinal victory over Florida. He finished with 20 points and 10 boards, while being part of a strong defensive effort that held the Gators to just 53 points on 38.8 percent shooting. It is completely unexpected that Kevin Ollie’s squad will be playing for the national title on Monday night, but considering how good Daniels has been in this Tournament, it makes a lot more sense. If the junior can turn in another game-changing effort Monday, there is no reason to think the Huskies will not cut down the nets at the end of the night. Read the rest of this entry »
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UConn and Cincinnati: Trading Places in the Postseason

Posted by Will Tucker on April 5th, 2014

On March 8, 2014, Cincinnati and UConn looked like two teams headed in opposite directions. Having just hung 97 points on Memphis to complete a sweep of Josh Pastner’s team, the Bearcats went on the road and clinched a share of their first conference championship since 2004. That same day, Connecticut suffered an 81-48 drubbing at the hands of Louisville – the kind of humiliating end-of-season defeat that might spell doom for a team’s postseason.

AAC Men's Basketball Championship

Mick Cronin and Kevin Ollie: diverging paths (Richard Messina / Hartford Courant)

To the Huskies’ credit, they had just beaten Cincinnati a week before, capping a 6-1 stretch that followed a road loss to the Bearcats in February. But Kevin Ollie’s team exhibited red some flags even before being massacred in Louisville. They had eclipsed 70 points during regulation only once in the past seven games. DeAndre Daniels, who in January I predicted was poised for a breakout season, scored in double figures only twice during the same time frame. UConn had been outrebounded in their previous six games by an average margin of 8.3 boards per game.

Cincinnati, conversely, looked like a physically imposing, battle-tested, and veteran squad that was prepared to usher the program beyond the Sweet Sixteen for the first time since 1996. Rebounding from consecutive close losses to Louisville and UConn, All-American Sean Kilpatrick was firing on all cylinders in his subsequent two games, averaging 29 points on 68 percent shooting. Fellow seniors Justin Jackson and Titus Rubles appeared up to the task of complementing Kilpatrick in the frontcourt. And after winning the number one seed in the AAC Tournament by way of a coin flip, the Bearcats seemed destined for a rematch with de facto home team Memphis, whom they had already twice beaten soundly.

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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: Connecticut Huskies

Posted by Brian Otskey (@botskey) on April 2nd, 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. Kentucky has already released. Today: UConn. Brian Otskey (@botskey) is the NCAA Tournament’s East Region correspondent.

Where did this come from? I am not sure anyone out there had this #7 seed, which suffered a humiliating 81-48 defeat at Louisville on March 8, as a Final Four contender. Yet here they are. The Connecticut Huskies are here, and boy, did they earn it. After trailing Saint Joseph’s for a large portion of its opening round game, Connecticut manhandled Villanova to get to Madison Square Garden where it then dispatched Iowa State and Michigan State in thrilling fashion over the weekend. The Huskies are the underdog team in Arlington this week, but make no mistake; they too have a chance to win a pair of games at Jerry World.

Regardless of how they got here, Shabazz Napier and UConn are now as dangerous as ever. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Regardless of how they got here, Shabazz Napier and UConn are now as dangerous as ever. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Pre-Tournament Capsule. Connecticut played a mediocre non-conference schedule this season as games against Maryland, Boston College, Indiana and Washington looked good on paper but those teams all turned out to be not so good after all. The Huskies, as you will hear about a lot this week, hosted Florida on December 2 at Gampel Pavilion, a game they won thanks to a freakish last-second play. Shabazz Napier’s first shot attempt was so poor it hit the backboard and bounced back to him where he proceeded to drain an open jumper to hand the Gators their second loss of the season. Florida has not lost another game since then. Who had that game as a Final Four preview at the time? Nobody. Kevin Ollie’s team hosted Stanford a week before Christmas in another key non-conference game. This was a strange contest as the Huskies built a 13-point lead with 16:48 to play but could only manage an astounding eight points over the rest of the way in falling by two points to the Cardinal. Conference play saw the Huskies get off to a slow 0-2 start before returning home for a non-conference tilt against Harvard, which they won. Including the Harvard game, Connecticut won 13 of its next 15 games before a humiliating 81-48 defeat at Louisville on the final day of the regular season. The Huskies were swept by SMU and Louisville, but took two of three against Cincinnati (including a win in the AAC Tournament) and swept Memphis (three games). In the American championship game, Connecticut fell to Louisville for the third time this season. A 26-8 (12-6) record was good enough for this team to earn a #7 seed from the Selection Committee.

How They Got Here. For all intents and purposes, Connecticut should have lost to St. Joe’s in the #7/#10 game. Ken Pomeroy, in his game recap, gave the Huskies just a 16.3 percent chance of winning (down three with 49 seconds left). However, the Huskies survived and advanced thanks to tremendous rebounding and Amida Brimah’s three-point play. In fact, rebounding has been one of the main reasons why the Huskies are in this position right now. A poor rebounding team all year long has outboarded two of its four NCAA Tournament opponents and been competitive on the boards in those other games, including Sunday against fearsome Michigan State where Connecticut was +1 on the offensive glass and only -2 overall. After knocking off the Hawks, the team’s offense turned into the Napier show as he absolutely steamrolled Villanova before setting his sights on Iowa State and Michigan State in front of what was, for the most part, a jubilant home crowd at the Garden. This home court advantage undoubtedly helped the Huskies (the players admitted as much), but do not be fooled. This team is legitimate, having now taken out the #2, #3, and #4 seeds in the East Region.

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Rushed Reactions: #7 Connecticut 60, #4 Michigan State 54

Posted by Brian Otskey on March 30th, 2014

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Brian Otskey (@botskey) is RTC’s NCAA East Regional correspondent.

Three key takeaways.

  1. Vintage Connecticut. Kevin Ollie only took over the Connecticut job last season but he has wasted no time in carrying on Jim Calhoun’s legacy of hard-nosed defense. The Huskies limited Michigan State to 39.1 percent shooting and, more importantly, kept them out of the paint and off the free throw line. It was a game of runs with Connecticut jumping out to an early lead, Michigan State firing back and the Huskies eventually closing the door. The Huskies did a great job limiting any dribble penetration by the Spartans and swarmed Adreian Payne any time he touched the ball deep in the post. In the end, it was consistent defense and a great game plan by Kevin Ollie and his players that carried them to the win.
  2. Michigan State couldn’t get anything inside.  For the game, Michigan State was limited to six points in the paint. With Gary Harris (who had a great game) content to shoot jumpers and Keith Appling still bothered by a nagging injury, the Spartans got very little, if any, dribble penetration. When they looked for Payne in the post, he was double or even tripled teamed at times. After a great game against Virginia on Friday night, Branden Dawson (five points) was a non-factor against the physical Huskies. With Michigan State content on shooting jumpers (29 of its 46 shots were three pointers), it also had great difficulty getting to the free throw line. The inability to score inside and get to the line was Michigan State’s downfall in this game.
  3. The free throw line made the difference. Coming into the game, more focus was on the great perimeter shooting both teams featured. That proved not to be the deciding factor in any way as Michigan State was 15 percentage points better than Connecticut from deep. However, it was the free throw line that won this one for the Huskies. Connecticut made 21-of-22 free throws (95.5 percent) while Michigan State only made eight trips to the charity stripe. The Spartans, who entered today’s action ranked an abysmal No. 316 in free throw rate, simply shot too many jumpers and never adjusted to what the Huskies were doing defensively in the paint. With Appling’s injury still being a factor, Michigan State just could not get any dribble penetration and their half court offense looked rather stagnant. Give the Huskies credit for not fouling, too. They recorded only 12 fouls for the game.

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East Region Final Analysis: Michigan State vs. Connecticut

Posted by Brian Otskey on March 30th, 2014

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#4 Michigan State vs. #7 Connecticut – East Regional Final (at New York, NY) – 2:20 PM ET on CBS

Cinderella story Connecticut is on the precipice of its fifth Final Four in school history, but to get there the Huskies will have to get past a focused group of Spartans. Michigan State outlasted Virginia on Friday evening in what was a good old-fashioned slugfest. Should the Spartans get past the Huskies on Sunday afternoon in New York, Tom Izzo’s streak of sending every four-year player he has coached at Michigan State to a Final Four will continue.

Can Izzo Lead The Spartans To Another Final Four?

While Connecticut has rebounded the basketball very well in this tournament, it has to be a concern for Kevin Ollie ahead of this game. The statistics show Michigan State is a much better rebounding team and that will result in crucial bonus possessions for the Spartans if it proves to be the case. As always, Izzo’s teams pride themselves on toughness, defense and rebounding. On the boards, the athletic Spartans have a significant edge. The Huskies will need DeAndre Daniels to have a similar game to the one he had against Iowa State on Friday, although going up against Adreian Payne and company will be much more difficult than an undersized and shorthanded Iowa State group. Offensively, Connecticut must shoot the ball well from the perimeter and get good dribble penetration from Ryan Boatright and Shabazz Napier. A combination of those two things is the only way the Huskies can open up the floor and break down Michigan State’s defense. Napier, who has been turnover-prone over his career, must take good care of the basketball as to not fuel the lethal Spartans transition game.

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Rushed Reactions: #7 Connecticut 81, #3 Iowa State 76

Posted by Brian Otskey (@botskey) on March 28th, 2014

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Brian Otskey is RTC’s NCAA East Regional correspondent.

Three key takeaways.

Shabazz Napier had a big night, and the Huskies are heading to the Sweet Sixteen. (Credit: UConn Athletic Communications/Stephen Slade)

Shabazz Napier and the Huskies are heading to the Elite Eight 

  1. Defense and length. Connecticut set the tone for this game from the opening tip. The Huskies, who sport three players 6’9” or taller, clearly bothered the smaller Cyclones all game long. Iowa State had tremendous difficulty getting anything to fall around the rim, where it shot 7-for-23 (30.4 percent) in the first half. Kevin Ollie’s team made a concerted effort to limit DeAndre Kane and Melvin Ejim and it did just that. Iowa State’s usually dynamic duo combined for only 23 points on 9-for-31 shooting. Dustin Hogue had a terrific night but it was not nearly enough for Fred Hoiberg’s team to advance. Combating Connecticut’s efficient and stingy defense was a concern coming in for the Cyclones and it proved to be among the deciding factors in the outcome of the game.
  2. DeAndre Daniels was the difference maker. Nobody ever questioned Daniels’ talent, it was just a matter of his consistency (or lack there-of). On this night, Daniels decided he was going to be the game changer. The junior forward poured in 27 points and grabbed 10 rebounds in perhaps his best overall game of the season. Daniels and his large, wiry frame played a major role in clogging up the middle where Iowa State could not get anything going.
  3. Connecticut won the game at the three point line. For the game, the Huskies shot 47.4 percent from beyond the arc but it was the major difference in the first half and allowed them to build their lead. Connecticut shot the three ball at a scalding 58.3 percent in the first half en route to building a 10-point lead at the break. Iowa State’s three point defense (ranked No. 9 in Big 12 play) had to be a concern for Hoiberg coming into the game and it proved to be the case. Connecticut has been one of the nation’s best three-point shooting teams all year long and showed it tonight in front of a relatively local crowd at Madison Square Garden.

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