… and Four Teams Down

Posted by rtmsf on November 3rd, 2010

David Ely is an RTC contributor.

Every year teams come out of nowhere and burst into the top 25, while sports writers run to their keyboards to type the requisite “Where Did Team X Come From” story. I mean how many people saw Cornell coming last year? Who said last October that Butler would go on to lose the national championship game by just a couple of inches?  Conversely, there are teams that look great on paper in the preseason but fail to live up to the hype once the season starts. Think North Carolina last season. Why did the Tar Heels begin the year in the top 10 again?  Allow us to sort through the mess and pull out this year’s Cornells and North Carolinas for you. Missouri fans, get ready to be excited. West Virginia fans, start thinking of things to say in your hate mail.

On Monday we took a look at four teams that will be up this season.  Today we’ll examine four teams that will be down as compared to where they were last year.

#1) West Virginia

There's a Lot of Pressure on Kevin Jones to Produce This Year

No Devin Ebanks. No Da’Sean Butler. All kinds of problems for the Mountaineers, who are the only team from last year’s Final Four to begin the season outside of the AP top 25. Bob Huggins’ squad lost a lot of what made last year’s team so tough to handle with the depatures of Ebanks and Butler. The 2009-10 Mountaineers got by on their ability to suffocate opponents with their brutally physical play combined with Butler’s brilliance on the offensive end. Now much of the responsibility falls to forward Kevin Jones, who averaged 13.5 points per game as West Virginia’s third option. Can Jones step up his game this year when defenses single him out as the guy they have to stop? If Jones struggles, then the Mountaineers will have a hard time duplicating even some of the success they enjoyed last year.

Reports coming from preseason practices aren’t too encouraging. Huggins recently told the Charleston Gazette that freshmen Kevin Noreen and Noah Cottrill “look lost” at practice. And that was after Cottrill sparked rumors when he was introduced but didn’t participate in West Virginia’s Midnight Madness. There also was the case of Casey Mitchell, who was suspended for a violation of team rules but is now back with the team. These aren’t the kinds of stories that equate to success in the regular season. This year might be one to forget in Morgantown.

#2) Cornell

Such is the Life of a Mid-Major -- Seasons Like Last Year Come Around Once in Generation

The Big Red was the last year’s feel good story, upsetting Temple and Wisconsin en route to an unprecedented run to the Sweet 16. And what was the reward for America’s favorite brainiacs turned basketball stars? A return to obscurity.

Cornell lost its X&Os wizard in Steve Donahue when he opted for the greener pastures of the ACC, taking the head coaching gig at Boston College. The Big Red lost all-time leading scorer and 2010 Ivy League Player of the Year (Ryan Wittman), the sparkplug and catalyst of its NCAA Tournament run (Louis Dale) and six other seniors from last year’s squad.  That would be a lot of attrition for even a team like Duke to endure, and there’s no doubt Cornell and new coach Bill Courtney are headed for a big step backward this season.

The Big Red was predicted to finish third in the Ivy League, which would require a number of players to step up fill the voids left by the likes of Wittman and Dale. Cornell needs big seasons from proven players like point guard Chris Wroblewski and forwards Adam Wire and Mark Coury. Then the Big Red will need some of its unknown pieces (one if its four freshman or maybe junior transfer Anthony Gatlin) to emerge if Courtney & Co. hope to compete for a fourth straight league title.

#3) Purdue

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Official RTC 2010 NBA Mock Draft

Posted by zhayes9 on June 23rd, 2010

Zach Hayes is an editor, contributor and bracketologist at Rush the Court.

I love the NBA Draft.

The Stage Rarely Changes, but the Players Do

There’s something gratifying and enjoyable about seeing the college players that we discuss, watch and evaluate move on from the collegiate game and find a home at the next level. There are no cliffhangers when it comes to the NBA Draft. Barring late summer dealings or undrafted snubs, Thursday will be the day we’ll find out where each of our favorite elite college players are going to play pro ball next winter, almost like watching your kids go off to school for the first time. It’s a grand conclusion to a celebrated (albeit, in plenty of cases, very short) college career and a transition to the riches of the NBA.

We’re all prognosticators and experts on Draft night. Opinions are thrown around as David Stern announces each choice. Emotions are prevalent when your favorite NBA squad picks, those moments and heartbeats before the selection that could change the course of a franchise forever. Or it could be Renaldo Balkman. Either way, Draft night for us hoops nerds is one of intrigue and interest.

Here’s my best shot at forecasting how the first round will play out. As someone that has watched these players intensely at the college level, someone that pays attention to the strengths/weaknesses of each NBA club and has been soaking in all of the Draft info since the Final Four ended in April, I’m honored to bring you the official Rush the Court 2010 NBA Mock Draft (RTC draft profile linked to each name):

1) Washington Wizards – John Wall, PG, Kentucky

The Consensus #1 Pick (WaPo/J. Newton)

This was a lock the moment the Wizards won the Lottery in mid-May, a stroke of unexpected luck for a city on the sports rise and the perfect face of the franchise-type player to lead this team out of the cellar. Wall could pair with a focused Gilbert Arenas in a potent backcourt and the Wiz may even shell out some money to bring in an intriguing free agent wing. He may be a top-five point guard in the NBA in only three years time if the jump shot improves. He’s that skilled and talented.

2) Philadelphia 76ers – Evan Turner, SG, Ohio State

I’m hearing the Sixers front office is enamored with Turner while newly minted coach Doug Collins would prefer big man Derrick Favors. In the end, I see Turner as the surer prospect emerging as the pick, and even the Sixers website prepared for that very possibility last Friday. Philly won’t trade the pick unless some team agrees to take on Elton Brand’s contract, an unlikely scenario. Turner could be the next Brandon Roy, a prospect just too mouth-watering to pass up on.

3) New Jersey Nets – Wesley Johnson, SF, Syracuse

Nets fans were positively crushed on Lottery night when they lost a chance to nab Wall. An underwhelming workout for Derrick Favors, one in which he was thoroughly outplayed by DeMarcus Cousins, gave the Nets brass pause after it was assumed for months Favors would be the selection at #3. The Nets have needs at both forward spots, so it would make sense for them to peg Johnson here and go after one of the big free agent power forwards with new owner Mikhail Prokhorov’s checkbook- Amare Stoudemire, Carlos Boozer or Chris Bosh.

4) Minnesota Timberwolves – Derrick Favors, PF, Georgia Tech

This is a tricky situation for the Wolves. With Al Jefferson and Kevin Love already in the fold, the last thing Minnesota needs is another power forward. They covet both Turner and Johnson, so it’s extremely likely they try to persuade either Philly or New Jersey to let them move up a few spots in exchange for their pick at #16. It’s rumored the Minnesota brass isn’t too high on Favors, but Cousins has publicly expressed displeasure with playing in the Twin Cities.

5) Sacramento Kings – DeMarcus Cousins, C, Kentucky

Cousins has sent hinted messages that he wouldn’t be too thrilled if Sacramento (or Minnesota or Golden State) calls his name and he’d much prefer to end up in Detroit. The Pistons could very well move up a few spots to grab Cousins, but the workout Cousins just finished in SacTo apparently convinced ownership that his game outweighed any character concerns. I would take Cousins over Monroe (and maybe even Favors) in a heartbeat, and it’s my feeling that the Kings agree even with the recent Sam Dalembert acquisition.

6) Golden State Warriors – Greg Monroe, PF, Georgetown

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RTC NBA Draft Profiles: Devin Ebanks

Posted by rtmsf on June 14th, 2010

Player Name: Devin Ebanks

School: West Virginia

Height/Weight: 6’8, 208

NBA Position: Small Forward

Projected Draft Range: Late 1st round

Overview: Devin Ebanks’ value to the Final Four-qualifying West Virginia Mountaineers can’t necessarily be valued in points scored. The former Indiana commit was an important cog in the stellar Mountaineer defensive attack that vaulted Bob Huggins’ team to lofty heights during Ebanks’ final campaign. There were games where Ebanks’ mid-range jumper and soft touch around the basket contributed in the scoring column, prime examples being his 15 points in a home win over Georgetown, 19 points in a squeaker over Marquette and even 20+ point displays against the soft defenses of Providence and Seton Hall. There were also a handful of contests in which Ebanks simply could not be relied on to provide scoring punch, including five single-digit outputs in Big East play and even an embarrassing 19-minute donut in a discouraging road loss to Notre Dame. Ebanks’ rebounding capacity (8.1 per game), long wingspan, defensive prowess and gifted passing ability were certainly vital components of a wildly successful season in Morgantown, but if any NBA team is searching for a consistent scoring thump from the enigmatic Ebanks, they may need to search elsewhere late in the first round. Teams working out Ebanks likely fell in love with those secondary (albeit just as important to a winning cause) skills, giving the 6’8 Long Island native enough assurance of a first round selection that his final two campaigns in Morgantown were deemed unnecessary.

Ebanks' Defense and Rebounding Make Him an Intriguing Prospect

Will Translate to the NBA: There’s plenty that Ebanks brings to the table for any NBA squad. He’s truly one of the most gifted rebounders we’ve seen in the Big East in the last five years. His body and strength fail to overpower, but Ebanks has a knack for reading misses and exploding off the floor to snatch the rebound, especially for second chance opportunities. Ebanks averaged around eight rebounds per game in each of his two seasons at West Virginia and that incredible wingspan makes the task undoubtedly easier. Ebanks has a chance to thrive in a more up-tempo system because of his prowess in transition. His athleticism and gazelle-like strides in the open floor often conclude in powerful dunks or accurate pull-up short jumpers. We could see his mid-range game developing into a weapon in the next 4-5 years. His mechanics are sound, the elevation is evident and Ebanks is already a 75% free throw shooter. Since West Virginia’s offense is largely based on cutting rather than penetration, Ebanks was able to show his passing gifts on more than one occasion last season. He can also be a versatile defender that shuts down a scoring small forward or utilizes his wingspan/athleticism to contain bigger power forwards.

Needs Work: Just ask any West Virginia diehard who followed Ebanks during his two seasons in yellow and blue: it’s impossible to tell what you’re getting from Ebanks on any given night from a scoring perspective. Scouts will have a difficult time determining where Ebanks really succeeds on that end of the floor. He has no reliable go-to move, lacks the ball control to penetrate effectively and gives the defense nothing to respect on a shot with any range. Most of his points and shot attempts in college were a result of offensive rebounds or broken garbage plays, and even with that he only averaged just above nine FG attempts per game as a sophomore. Just ask Ron Artest whether a small forward in the NBA needs to have at least a somewhat respectable outside jump shot in his arsenal. Ebanks is a fantastic free throw shooter but rarely is able to draw fouls because of his complete lack of individual offensive capabilities. He absolutely must learn how to take defenders off the dribble and add some strength to finish through contact at the rim. Character is also a mild concern as Ebanks was suspended early in the 2009-10 season by Huggins.

Comparison Players: Although Ronnie Brewer is a bit shorter, we see a lot of his game in Devin Ebanks. Both are likely forever destined to playing a secondary role in the NBA and have certain discernable skills that should keep them in the league. Both players are abominable outside shooters but make up for that negative with outstanding defense on the other end. They’re also athletic and Ebanks even played point-forward on a handful of occasions at West Virginia.

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Impact Of Undecided Early Entries On The College Hoops Landscape

Posted by zhayes9 on April 30th, 2010

With the NBA Draft deadline moved up to May 8 this year, we’ll be able to formulate next year’s college basketball landscape sooner than ever before. The decision of many on the fence could dramatically alter the style, roster and makeup of everyone from Kentucky to Richmond. For many of these super-talents such as North Carolina’s Ed Davis, the decision was probably made a long time ago. But for those like fellow ACC foe Malcolm Delaney of Virginia Tech, their status is very much up in the air for 2010-11. He’s just one of many upcoming decisions that could change the outlook of an entire conference.

Many columns dealing with early entries dissect whether the decision was smart or short-sighted, whether the choice to enter their name was the proper call for their careers. Personally, I don’t care so much about their personal career paths, but about how their decision affects college basketball. Instead, the focus of this column will be on how each early entry to put their name in the draft changes their respective schools’ chances when winter approaches.

Daniel Orton and Eric Bledsoe (Kentucky)- Many around the Kentucky program believe Orton and Bledsoe are history, but refraining from signing with an agent leaves the door slightly ajar. If one or both return to Lexington, the Wildcats vault ahead of Tennessee as the SEC favorites. Returning to school would be even more beneficial to Orton, a player that didn’t establish himself playing behind Cousins and Patterson, but only showed glimpses of his superb athleticism, defensive prowess and developing low-post moves. Pair Orton in the post with Swiss import Enes Kanter and John Calipari is in business. Put Bledsoe with Brandon Knight, Doron Lamb or Darius Miller and the same holds true. Calipari’s loaded class certainly screams reload rather than rebuild, but the returns of Bledsoe and/or Orton would vault expectations even higher.

Gordon Hayward (Butler)- The “babyfaced assassin” (h/t Gus Johnson) might have the toughest call of any early entry this spring. A relative unknown to casual fans just one year ago, Hayward burst onto the scene with a stellar NCAA Tournament, leading the charge behind Butler’s miraculous run to the national title game. Thanks to a late growth spurt, Hayward possesses guard skills in a 6’9 frame and may even go in the latter half of the lottery should he keep his name in the field. Butler would also drop to a ranking similar to the one they enjoyed in October last year. If Hayward returns, it would be a crying shame if Butler isn’t the #2 team ranked preseason behind Duke. The only starter departing is glue guy Willie Veasley. That’s right: Hayward, Shelvin Mack, Ronald Nored and Matt Howard would all return to school for another March push.

Avery Bradley (Texas)- Sources told Fox Sports’ Jeff Goodman that Bradley was likely to stay in the Draft, and quite honestly I can see why. Teams that are looking for a backup point guard with the ability to defend and attack the basket will be flocking towards Bradley near the mid-first round. Findlay Prep point guard Cory Joseph committing to Texas last week takes some pressure off of Rick Barnes if Bradley should opt to stay in the draft. The Longhorns grossly underachieved with Bradley, Dexter Pittman and Damion James; with all three departing, expectations can’t possibly be sky high for Texas, although Kansas, Texas A&M and Baylor should all take steps back this season. Texas is a top-15 team regardless of last season should Bradley, Joseph, Dogus Balbay, J’Covan Brown and Jai Lucas round out a loaded backcourt. I suspect Bradley has played his last game in burnt orange, though.

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Comings & Goings: Early Entry Madness

Posted by rtmsf on April 12th, 2010

Lots of goings today…

  • Syracuse all-american forward Wes Johnson will enter the NBA Draft after one season with the Orange.  He burst onto the national scene with two scintillating performances in Coaches vs. Cancer games versus California and UNC at Madison Square Garden, and for a few fleeting moments in November and early December he was considered the frontrunner for NPOY.  Prior to February injuries to his back and shooting hand, Syracuse was playing as well as anyone in the country.  He will sign with an agent, a good move considering that he will likely become a high lottery pick in June.  He also expects to graduate later this summer.
  • UNC forward Ed Davis will also enter the NBA Draft.  After a superb freshman campaign where he was a key contributor to the 2008-09 national championship Tar Heels, Davis had an up-and-down sophomore year that ended with a broken wrist suffered in a game against Duke.  He averaged 13/9/3 blks per game prior to that injury, but there was a lingering feeling among folks that he could be doing more with his ample athletic gifts.  Nevertheless, he is still viewed as a lottery pick in the draft.  Finally, remember the flap about Davis supposedly signing with an agent back in February?  Trust us, today’s news shocked nobody.
  • It’s draft day for forwards apparently, as West Virginia’s Devin Ebanks also declared his intention to go pro today.  The 6’8 swing player who averaged 12/8 in his sophomore year really distinguished himself as an elite defender this season, and could probably play at the next level on that talent alone for many years.  Mock drafts have Ebanks falling into the middle of the first round at this point.  He plans to sign with an agent.
  • In a mild surprise, Purdue center JaJuan Johnson is reportedly planning to announced that he too will enter this year’s NBA Draft but he will not sign with an agent, leaving the door open for a return to school next season.  Boiler Nation awaits his final decision (by May 8) with baited breath.  Unless JJJ is dead-set on going pro, he’s a likely candidate to return because most experts have him as a late first-rounder at this point.
  • Mountain West POY and New Mexico guard Darington Hobson also plans on evaluating himself over the next few weeks before making a final decision as to whether to enter the draft, as ESPN.com reports that he will make a formal announcement tomorrow.  He has some work to do, as he’s considered a second rounder by most experts, and could stand to spend another season honing his game (particularly strength) in Las Cruces.
  • Memphis guard Elliot Williams‘ strong sophomore season (18/4/4 assts) has resulted in his decision to declare for the draft today as well.  We suppose it was not only a good decision to leave Duke for his family concerns but also for his professional career — he is projected as a mid-first rounder.
  • Finally, Illinois junior guard Demetri McCamey also declared today, but he is expected to be only testing the waters as he will not sign with an agent.  He is currently projected as a late first/early second round pick.

Another going involves two Missouri playersMiguel Paul and Tyler Stone — who are transferring out of the program.  Neither player saw much run for Mike Anderson, averaging sixteen minutes per game combined in 2009-10.  With the spring signing period starting later this week, we’re sure Anderson has a couple of athletic replacements already in mind.

It’s not a coming or a going, rather a staying, but Mississippi State’s Rick Stansbury has reportedly turned down the Clemson job vacated by Oliver Purnell.  This is interesting given that the ACC is more prestigious in basketball than the SEC West, but Stansbury has built a solid program in Starkville and he may have the services of Renardo Sidney next year at his disposal.

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Final Four Game Analysis

Posted by rtmsf on April 2nd, 2010

RTC will break down the Final Four games using our best analytical efforts to understand these teams, the matchups and their individual strengths and weaknesses.  Our hope is that you’ll let us know in the comments where you agree, disagree or otherwise think we’ve lost our collective minds.  Here are Saturday evening’s national semifinals…aka…THE FINAL FOUR!

6:07 pm – #5 Michigan State vs. #5 Butler The winner of this game will have a built-in motivational mechanism, since this game is popularly considered the “Who will lose to West Virginia or Duke on Monday?” game.  Best be careful, because as we know, there’s almost no better way to get your guys ready to play than to tell them that it’s them against the world.  That nobody respects them.  That everyone expects them to lose and lose big.  In the case of Butler, I know I wouldn’t want to face a team playing in their home city and with that motivational tool.  A lot is being made of the home crowd advantage that Butler supposed to enjoy this weekend, but I ask you: because people love the storyline of a mid-major getting to the Final Four, in what city could you play this thing where Butler wouldn’t have most of the fans in the arena rooting for them?  I’ll tell you — East Lansing, Durham, and Morgantown (or anywhere else in West Virginia).  Well, we’re not in any of those towns.  Let me just add this…walking around this downtown area, I see mostly Butler fans, which is understandable.  But it’s not like the Duke, Michigan State, and West Virginia fans stayed home.  It’s Lucas Oil Stadium, people.  It seats over 70,000 (it must, to qualify to host this thing).  The freakin’ Colts play here.  The Butler cheers might be loud, but the other squads will have their supporters, too.  As to what’s going to happen on the floor, watch the boards.  This will be a rebounding battle for the ages, because it’s the biggest disparity between the two teams.  It’s not something Butler does particularly well, and it’s Michigan State’s greatest strength.  Brad Stevens knows his boys have to swarm the glass to have a chance.  They’ve done everything else he’s asked of them in each tournament game, not to mention the rest of the season, and I wouldn’t doubt that you’ll see them turn in their biggest effort on the boards this whole year on Saturday evening. Can Butler do it but still stay out of foul trouble?

We only picked against you three times, Coach Izzo. And we're sorry. (AP/Al Goldis)

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Final Four Team-By-Team Previews: West Virginia

Posted by zhayes9 on March 30th, 2010

Rush the Court’s Zach Hayes will deliver a breakdown of each Final Four team every day this week. Yesterday’s Butler preview is here and tomorrow we’ll dissect Michigan State.

It's been a dream season for the senior Butler

Crucial Tourney Moment(s): The Mountaineers have experienced mostly smooth sailing thus far in the NCAA Tournament, facing three double-digit seeds and then maintaining a comfortable lead during the second half in their regional final bout with top seed Kentucky. It was a driving layup from offensively challenged Joe Mazzulla that extended the West Virginia lead to 11 and forced a John Calipari timeout midway through the second half when the Mountaineer diehards could see the Final Four in their sights. Mazzulla led the team in scoring with 17 points, extremely impressive for a kid that hadn’t scored more than eight points in a game all season.

Advantage Area: West Virginia is one of the most efficient teams in the nation when it comes to offense, defense and rebounding. The Mountaineers rank #12 in offensive efficiency, #10 in defensive efficiency and #2 in offensive rebounding percentage. Bob Huggins runs an offense that is largely dependent on running cuts to the rim and methodically wearing down an opponent for 40 minutes rather than dribble penetration, a reason why West Virginia often lets inferior teams hang around for 30 minutes before pulling away. They also boast the best late-game assassin in college basketball in Da’Sean Butler. Nobody in the Final Four will be trusted taking a crucial shot under a minute more than Butler. Duke, Michigan State and Butler also can’t come close to matching the height of West Virginia across the board.

Potential Downfall: West Virginia isn’t a particularly good jump shooting team. They don’t rank in the top-100 in two-point, three-point or free throw percentage on the season. Although they do have forwards such as Wellington Smith and Kevin Jones that can step out and drain a three, there’s no consistent long-range shooter on the roster to trust other than Butler. JC transfer Casey Mitchell was supposed to be that weapon but never truly emerged and Huggins doesn’t trust him for long stretches. Even after Mazzulla’s stunning performance in the regional final, I’d still label point guard a weakness for the Mountaineers. It was a weakness before Darryl Bryant injured his foot, and even though he may return, the sophomore point was mired in a terrible scoring slump. As long as defenders keep Mazzulla in front and don’t allow penetration to the rim, there’s no need to respect any sort of jump shot from him.

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Elite Eight Game Analysis: Saturday Night

Posted by zhayes9 on March 27th, 2010

Over the next two days, RTC will break down the regional final games using our best analytical efforts to understand these teams, the matchups and their individual strengths and weaknesses.  Our hope is that you’ll let us know in the comments where you agree, disagree or otherwise think we’ve lost our collective minds.  Here are Saturday night’s games from the East and West Regionals.

4:30 pm – #2 Kansas State vs. #5 Butler  (West Region)

This is an unusual regional final, in that two teams that are not typically in this position are facing off for a right to go to the Final Four next weekend.  Which is not to say that either team is undeserving or somehow less worthy, it’s just to point out the uniqueness of it.  The last time the Wildcats were playing this far into the NCAA Tournament, Ronald Reagan was still governing the country and the four letters USSR actually meant something to people under thirty.  The last time Butler played this deep into March?   Well, they haven’t.  As in, this is the Bulldogs’ first trip to the Elite Eight.  So from the perspective of seeing some new blood pushing through to the game’s grandest stage in Indianapolis, this should be compelling theater.  And the hoops ain’t half bad either.  K-State brings an athletic, gritty, defensive-minded team into this game, led by their duo of electrifying guards, Jacob Pullen and Denis Clemente.  They don’t always shoot the ball well and they sometimes utilize questionable shot selection, but when the game is on the line as it was on Thursday evening against Xavier, Clemente (25/5/5 assts) and Pullen (28/4) made the plays necessary to win the game.  Butler, on the other hand, is a bit more balanced in their offense with scoring threats at every position, but the Bulldog defense is really what defines Brad Stevens’ team.  Riding a 23-game winning streak on the backs of the stickiness of it, there simply are no completely open looks against this team.  When Pullen and Clemente come off their curls and screens, they’ll find a Butler player waiting for them in much the same way that Andy Rautins and the other Syracuse shooters did on Thursday.  Correspondingly, the one area where SU held a significant advantage over Butler — powerful inside players — ended up being neutralized by the extreme difficulty that the Orange had in getting the ball into those players on the blocks.  K-State’s inside trio of Dominique Sutton, Curtis Kelly and Jamar Samuels are all talented but not the offensive threats posed by Syracuse’s bigs, so we think that this game will ultimately be decided on the perimeter.  If the Butler team defense can force a relatively poor shooting night from the Wildcat guards, a combined 11-30 or so, we think that the game will be low-scoring enough for the Bulldogs to sneak through and head back home to Indy with a regional championship in tow.  Butler can get enough points from their options of Gordon Hayward, Shelvin Mack, Matt Howard, or Willie Veasley, so if any one player is off, another is capable of stepping up.  All they really will need to score is in the 60-70 point range.  Similar to the Syracuse game, if they can hang with KSU until the end, they’re poised enough to pull the victory out.

The Skinny:  Call us crazy or just plain sentimental, but we’re going Norman Dale with the upset. The rims are still only ten feet tall no matter who you’re lined up against, and there’s no telling when Butler will have another shot like this.  We think the Bulldogs will shock the world with its own personal Cinderella story by heading back home to Indianapolis, a mere five miles from their campus.

7:05 pm – #1 Kentucky vs. #2 West Virginia  (East Region)

The best regional final this season will take place in Syracuse, where chalk prevailed to bring us a 1 vs. 2 matchup of Kentucky and West Virginia. Of course, if the Selection Committee had any sense two weeks ago, this game wouldn’t have happened until Indianapolis. One can make the argument that these are the two best teams remaining in the field. West Virginia methodically dispatched of red hot Washington in their semifinal while Kentucky amassed one of the more impressive Tournament in-game runs in recent memory to vanquish Cornell’s season. The two teams meet on the Carrier Dome floor playing their best basketball of the season- Kentucky running and gunning behind their three lottery picks and West Virginia molding into an elite rebounding and defensive squad that simply wears you out.

This should be an ultra competitive and physical game, especially in the post. The key for the Mountaineers on the defensive end will be containing John Wall. Darryl Bryant is injured and Joe Mazzulla isn’t quick enough to hang with Wall for an extended period of time, so look for Huggins to plug 6’8 point forward Devin Ebanks and his incredible wingspan on the future #1 pick. The problem that poses for Huggins is that decision keeps Ebanks out of the post where Kentucky can play both DeMarcus Cousins and Patrick Patterson. It’s going to take a stellar effort from Wellington Smith, Kevin Jones, Deniz Kilicli and John Flowers to keep the two Kentucky behemoths in check. With four serviceable big men, they shouldn’t be afraid to foul and send Cousins to the free throw line to earn his points. Also, analysts talk about how no team works harder than West Virginia. They’ll need to work as hard for 40 minutes as they have all season, most notably on the backboards.

The other question: can West Virginia score enough points to match Kentucky? The Wildcats scored just over seven points per contest more than the Mountaineers during the regular season and numbers on defense are about identical. If Kentucky defends similarly to their effort against Cornell, I have a hard time seeing West Virginia stay with Big Blue, especially if Darius Miller replicates his stalwart defense on Da’Sean Butler. John Calipari’s UMass and Memphis teams that were successful always gave 100% on the defensive end of the floor. With so many young and hyped players, that was a constant question mark. If anyone has watched their three games in this NCAA Tournament, though, that question has turned into a statement.

Skinny: Kentucky is the prohibitive favorite remaining in the Dance, but West Virginia is more than capable of crashing the party. It will take their best performance of the season on both ends, from neutralizing the stronger Cousins and Patterson on the glass to dismissing Kentucky’s transition game to keeping John Wall in front of them to Butler scoring at least 25 points. I believe Kentucky will impose their style of play about midway through the second half, go on one of their patented runs and pull away for a spot in Indianapolis. The way Kentucky is playing right now, how can anyone pick against them unless you bleed blue and gold? But that’s the beauty of the NCAA Tournament. Everything can change in the blink of an eye.

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ATB: Where to Begin? Another Tremendous Thursday…

Posted by rtmsf on March 26th, 2010

Another great Thursday night, with the West Region in particular providing loads of excitement with another #1 seed falling by the wayside and arguably the best game of the entire Tournament in the nightcap.

J. Pullen and J. Crawford Went Back and Forth Down the Stretch (AP/C. Braley)

West Region

What.  A.  Game#2 Kansas State 101, #6 Xavier 96 (2OT).  With around four minutes remaining in this game and K-State up three points at 64-61, a public service announcement flashed across the jumbotron in the middle of the arena.  Paraphrasing, it stated that the regional final game between Kansas State and Butler would begin at 2 pm on Saturday afternoon.  Read that again: between Kansas State and Butler… with four minutes remaining in a three-point game.  Notwithstanding whether some gun-jumping intern was immediately drawn and quartered by the Energy Solutions Arena staff, the Xavier fans unilaterally roared their disapproval at such a public slight, and within a minute the game was tied again.  Whether this scoreboard mishap actually energized the XU players is up for debate, but there should be no debate about whom the two best players on the floor were tonight.  KSU’s Jacob Pullen (28/4/3 assts including six treys) and Xavier’s Jordan Crawford (32/2/2 assts) played a game of who can top whom in the last few minutes of regulation and through two overtimes before it was finally decided that K-State would meet the unanticipated scoreboard premonition and move on to face Butler on Saturday afternoon.  From the moment mentioned above, the two players combined to score 31 points, including several clutch threes that kept the game alive for longer than anyone imagined possible.  After K-State fouled Terrell Holloway (26/4/6 assts and 4 treys himself) as he dribbled into a long jumper with six seconds remaining and XU down three, the sophomore guard nailed all three to send the game into overtime.  Back and forth each team went and again K-State looked like they were safely in position to win the game with a single stop.  Instead, Jordan Crawford failed to find room near the three-point line, so he dribbled far enough away until there was space at which time he rose and fired from 35 feet to send Gus Johnson on CBS into a fit of apoplexy.

From there it was back and forth again until KSU’s Jacob Pullen decided enough was enough, hitting back to back bombs in the final minute-plus of the second overtime to finally create enough separation to make the fouling game work for Frank Martin’s team.  The Wildcats will move on to face Butler on Saturday after all.  This was only the second double-overtime game in the last thirteen years of Sweet Sixteen action, and the fans who attended the West Region tonight surely got their money’s worth.  It’s not often that Kansas State gets outbattled on the boards, but tonight Xavier was +2 in that category.  This was probably the game of the Tournament so far, and we wonder if the physical battle with a Xavier team that just would not quit will impact the Wildcats in their next game with Butler.  As we saw tonight, Butler isn’t the kind of team you want to get down early to — they know how to play with a lead.

Butler Survives and Advances to One Win From Indy (Indy Star/S. Riche)

Butler One Win From Home#5 Butler 63, #1 Syracuse 59.  We’re now left with two #1 seeds as Kentucky advanced to the Elite Eight in the East Regional and Duke plays for that prize tomorrow night, but Jim Boeheim’s Syracuse Orange will be heading home after an uncharacteristic scoring drought at the end of the game did them in tonight.  With a little more than five minutes remaining in the game, Syracuse looked to have regained control of a low-scoring closely contested battle, 54-50.  Cuse would not score again until there were thirty-four seconds left and Butler had effectively put things away.  It was Willie Veasley’s  “HORSE” style three from the corner that put the Bulldogs in control with 1:50 left as the strong crowd of orange-clad fans stood and watched in amazement.  For Brad Stevens’ team, this is the kind of victory that can define and sustain a high-mid like Butler for a long time.  His recruiting for the next five years is already done — what can a program like Indiana give a player that Butler cannot at this point?  A chance to play in the NCAAs?  A chance to advance?  How about a chance to go to the Final Four?  Because that’s the cusp upon which his team is standing, merely forty more minutes of superb defense away from returning home with games still to play.  And when we say home, we really mean it.  Not like ‘Cornell home’ tonight or ‘Baylor home’ tomorrow night, but really, actually home — the Butler University campus is a mere 5.4 miles in Indianapolis from Lucas Oil Stadium, site of the Final Four.  Talk about Hoosiers on the grandest scale of all.  It’s so ridiculous we can hardly comprehend it.  As for Syracuse, the Orange struggled with unforced turnovers all night long (18 total), and many of those were expended in trying to get the ball inside to Rick Jackson and Kris Joseph.  It’s easy to place the blame for SU’s ‘early’ loss on the injury to Arinze Onuaku and his missing three games in this year’s Tournament, but  we wonder if his offensive production would have helped take some of the pressure off Wes Johnson (17/9) and Andy Rautins (15/5) tonight had he been available.   We also wonder if Boeheim’s team didn’t wear down a little at the end of this year — even prior to Onuaku’s injury in the Big East Tournament, the Orange had dropped two games to rather pedestrian Louisville in previous weeks.  He was only playing seven players substantial minutes, and with Onuaku out of the lineup, he was forced to surrender minutes to unproven and untested DaShonte Riley (0/1 in 5 minutes) tonight, for example.  His six ‘starters’ played every other minute of the game.  Were the Orange players spent during those last five minutes?  You won’t hear Boeheim use that crutch, but it would certainly be a reasonable excuse.

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Sweet Sixteen Game Analysis: Thursday Night

Posted by rtmsf on March 25th, 2010

Over the next two days, RTC will break down the regional semifinal games using our best analytical efforts to understand these teams, the matchups and their individual strengths and weaknesses.  Our hope is that you’ll let us know in the comments where you agree, disagree or otherwise think we’ve lost our collective minds.  Here are Thursday night’s games from the East and West Regionals.

7:07 pm – #1 Syracuse vs. #5 Butler  (West Region)

We’re starting to worry about this Arinze Onuaku situation.  Sooner or later, Jim Boeheim’s team is going to need the 11 points, five rebounds and general defensive anchor support on the front line that the 6’9, 260-pound big man provides.  Rick Jackson is a serviceable replacement, but the fact that Onuaku reportedly hasn’t even suited up in practice since his injury against Georgetown on March 11 is cause for alarm.  Even if Syracuse survives to advance to next weekend’s Final Four, how productive could he possibly be?  So far, Syracuse hasn’t shown a need for him yet.  The Orange ran over Vermont and Gonzaga without breathing all that hard thanks to the superb play of Wesley Johnson and friends, but there will be a team in the very near future where they’ll need more than Jackson alone can provide.

That team will not be playing SU in the Sweet Sixteen, however.  Butler is an excellent team and Brad Stevens has gotten players other than Gordon Hayward and Matt Howard to step up this season, most notably Shelvin Mack who went 9-12 from long range in the San Jose pod against UTEP and Murray State.  Syracuse is not UTEP or Murray, though, and the wide-open looks that Mack was getting in those games will no longer be as readily available thanks to the length and quickness of the Orange’s perimeter defenders.  Furthermore, Butler center Matt Howard has enough trouble staying out of foul trouble against Horizon League teams; it’s not realistic to think that he’ll be able to play 30+ effective minutes against Jackson, Johnson and Kris Joseph inside.  The main problem we foresee is that Butler is not a very good offensive team in general — when Hayward and Mack aren’t firing on all cylinders, the Bulldogs have trouble scoring points.  Add that to the fact they’ll be facing one of the best offensive teams in America, and you have a situation where numerous things need to go exactly right for Butler to get this win tonight.  Even without Onuaku on the floor for another game, we just don’t see Butler finding enough offense to win this game.

The Skinny: The last time the Bulldogs made it this deep into the NCAAs, they ran into a long, athletic team by the name of Florida in 2007.  They played the defending and future national champions as closely as they were played in that tournament thanks to their control of the tempo, strong defense and  attention to detail, but it still wasn’t enough because the Florida offensive attack was simply too good.  We think the same thing will happen in this game.  Syracuse has too many weapons for the Butler defense to key in on all of them, and even if they catch SU on an off night, where will the Butler points come from?

7:27 pm – #2 West Virginia vs. #11 Washington  (East Region)

Most prognosticators felt that Washington had Sweet 16 talent coming into this season. Lorenzo Romar was returning reigning Pac-10 Freshman of the Year Isaiah Thomas, defensive stalwart Venoy Overton and a forward named Quincy Pondexter ripe for a breakout season. While Pondexter’s prediction panned out, guard play was shaky, road wins were hard to come by, and the Huskies found themselves on the NCAA bubble with seven losses in a weak Pac-10. A conference tournament win punched their ticket, though, and the Huskies have taken advantage of the opportunity, erasing a double-digit second half lead to beat Marquette and wiping the floor with Mountain West champion New Mexico. Their toughest test yet will come Thursday against Big East Tournament champion West Virginia. Washington needs to produce a near carbon copy of their performance against New Mexico. In other words, they need to play a near-perfect game. Thomas must keep his head on straight and continue to make outside jumpers. Overton must frustrate Da’Sean Butler, Elston Turner must continue to produce offensively and Pondexter must out-duel Devin Ebanks.

For West Virginia, Washington seems like a favorable matchup. They may have preferred Joe Mazzulla guarding Isaiah Thomas more than the sidelined Darryl Bryant anyway. Mazzulla is the superior defender and Bryant has been woeful shooting-wise the last three weeks. They also match up well with the length of Washington. Bob Huggins can throw a lineup out on the floor of players 6’6 or above with huge wingspans, meaning the long WVU defense could fluster Pondexter and force him into difficult shots. One possible negative to the Bryant injury is that it increases the likelihood that the Mountaineer offense will become too reliant on Butler to bail them out. He’s done it time and time again this season and in postseason tournament play. Does he have more magic up his sleeve?

The Skinny: West Virginia has a plethora of defenders that can frustrate Pondexter and they boast the best late-game scorer in the nation in Butler. That combination should prove enough to take care of Washington in fairly methodical fashion. Avoiding their typical slow start would be prudent.

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West Virginia Loses Darryl Bryant To Broken Foot

Posted by jstevrtc on March 24th, 2010

West Virginia will be without starting sophomore point guard Darryl “Truck” Bryant for the rest of the NCAA Tournament.  X-rays taken on Tuesday revealed that Bryant has fractured a bone in the fifth toe of his right foot.  It’s not exactly clear when Bryant sustained the injury, but the cited ESPN.com report above says that he had noticed increased pain in the foot during a recent practice, then today’s imaging showed the broken toe.

The Mountaineers are famous for being chock-full-o-forwards, often playing four forwards and a guard at any given time (they have no true center).  Bryant — who averages 9.3 PPG and 3.1 APG in 24.3 MPG — will most definitely be missed, but he’s not a traditional dime-dishing point guard.  He’s known more for the mental and physical toughness he brings to the table for his team, not so much for his high yield in terms of assists or forcing turnovers.  Da’Sean Butler, Kevin Jones, and Devin Ebanks — the only three Mountaineers who average more than 30 minutes per game — do most of the ball-handling, and will only see a slight increase in touches, which they probably won’t mind.

The Truck, unfortunately, has a bum wheel. (AP/Mel Evans)

WVU also has a ready replacement in Joe Mazzulla, a 6’2 junior point guard averaging 2.2 PPG and 2.3 APG.  Mazzulla redshirted last year after injuring his shoulder, but has seen steadily increasing minutes throughout the season.  Mazzulla actually played more minutes than Bryant in the Mountaineers’ second-round game against Missouri, and the two had no problem with the Tigers’ vaunted full-court press.  His assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.5 is higher than Bryant’s 1.5, though Mazzulla did average ten fewer minutes per game.  Any further minutes at the guard position will go to 6’4 junior Casey Mitchell (3.8 PPG, 0.4 APG in 8.3 MPG), who only played three minutes against Missouri but did contribute six points, four assists, and two steals with only one turnover in 11 minutes in WVU’s first round 77-50 win over Morgan State.

There’s been no mention of how severe Bryant’s injury is, but most fifth metatarsal fractures do not require surgery and heal on their own over time with the “conservative” therapies — ice for swelling, no weight-bearing on the foot, and immobilization with a splint or cast.

WVU chief Bob Huggins is certainly no stranger to tournament-time injuries when he’s got a team poised for big things.  Back in 2000 — another year in which the Final Four was held in Indianapolis — his #2-seed Cincinnati squad was a favorite to win it all before Kenyon Martin broke his leg in the Conference USA Tournament, and the Bearcats were subsequently dispatched in the second round by Tulsa.  The next time the Final Four is in Indianapolis and Huggins has a highly rated team, don’t blame the man if he sequesters his whole team in a padded room and locks the door, opening it only for games.

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Second Round Game Analysis: Sunday Games

Posted by rtmsf on March 21st, 2010

Over the next two days in a series of separate posts, RTC will break down all 16 of the second round games using our best analytical efforts to understand these teams, the matchups and their individual strengths and weaknesses.  Our hope is that you’ll let us know in the comments where you agree, disagree or otherwise think we’ve lost our collective minds.  Here are the Sunday games.

12:10 pm – #1 Syracuse vs. #8 Gonzaga  (Buffalo pod)

In the CBS national game to start the day, everyone will get this very enticing game between Syracuse and Gonzaga.  Given the way this year is winding up, it wouldn’t surprise anyone if the Orange without their big man Arinze Onuaku found itself on the short end of the score around 2:30 pm today.  But we still have faith in Syracuse even without the talented center and we think that Jim Boeheim’s team is too good to fall short of the Final Four this early.  The primary problem that the Zags are going to have is one they didn’t have to worry as much about with Florida State, and that is in stopping the powerful SU offense.  With offensive scoring threats at all five positions, Syracuse is in a far more advantageous position than FSU was (with their limited offense) when Gonzaga caught fire on Friday — if the Zags want to get into a shootout with Syracuse, that’s not likely to end well for them. Still, with the way the Big East has had so many early round troubles, and the WCC looking great with St. Mary’s already in the Sweet Sixteen, we’re not ready to dismiss the Zags based on that alone.  The Syracuse zone is likely to be something that Mark Few’s team has not seen with such athletes all season, so even with their ability to put the ball in the hole, we hesitate to think the Zags can consistently score on it.

The Skinny: Gonzaga will push the Orange, but we still like this team to advance and make a serious push for the national title in coming weeks.

2:20 pm – #2 Ohio State vs. #10 Georgia Tech  (Milwaukee pod)

You might not see it on their faces, but the Buckeyes are smiling.  Northern Iowa’s removal of Kansas puts Ohio State in the driver’s seat in the Midwest region.  That said, there’s still no way Thad Matta and Evan Turner are going to let the rest of that team look past their opponents and assume an open road to Indianapolis.  Good thing, because Georgia Tech showed us that they’re not just made up of Derrick Favors and Gani Lawal and a bunch of suckers.  The Yellow Jackets shot 2-10 from the three point line but balanced that by holding Big 12 player of the year James Anderson to a 3-12 shooting night, 0-6 from beyond the three-point arc, and an overall 11 points.  But the most impressive aspect of Georgia Tech’s performance on Friday night — by FAR — was the fact that they went to the free throw line 25 times — and hit 24 of them!  It wasn’t just Lawal and Favors.  Tech played nine players, and eight of them shot at least one free throw.  Evan Turner isn’t just the player of the year in his conference, though — he’s likely the national POY, so the Tech task is that much tougher.  Turner wasn’t himself in their first round game against UCSB, going 2-13 and posting only nine points (though he did contribute 10 boards and five assists).  He’s looking to break out, and knows he’ll have to be at his best.  Lawal and Favors, though, will be looking to get Dallas Lauderdale, Jon Diebler, and Turner in foul trouble early and open poke some holes in that OSU front line.

The Skinny:  You probably don’t want to go with our Midwest picks, since yesterday we took Kansas and Ohio.  It’s not exactly going out on a limb to say that this will be a great second round game, but that stat line of Turner’s shows you that he can play such an important role on the team even when he’s not scoring.  For Tech to win, they’d have to turn in a similar performance at the free throw line, keep Turner under wraps and coax him into a supporting role again, and cool down Jon Diebler.  That’s a tough trifecta to pull off.  We don’t see it happening.  But we didn’t see Northern Iowa dismissing Kansas, either.

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