NCAA Game Analysis: Elite Eight Sunday

Posted by Bennet Hayes & Tommy Lemoine on March 29th, 2015

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The Elite Eight is here. Two more games that have a chance to become classics. Let’s break them down.

#4 Louisville vs. #7 Michigan State – East Region Elite Right (at Syracuse, NY) – at 2:20 PM ET on CBS

Denzel Valentine and the Spartans hope to wind up in Indy next weekend. (Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports)

Denzel Valentine and the Spartans hope to wind up in Indy next weekend. (Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports)

Rick Pitino and Tom Izzo are no strangers to this stage, or each other. The Hall of Fame Louisville coach ranks fourth all-time with seven Final Four appearances, including two since 2012. The 20th-year Michigan State head man trails just behind with six, along with four Elite Eight trips since 2009. And for the third time in seven years, their teams will meet in the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament. This is familiar territory. What’s not familiar, though, is the route each team took to reach this point. Unlike in 2009 and 2012 – when both teams were either #1 or #2-seeds – the Cardinals and Spartans enter this afternoon’s contest having endured rocky seasons with somewhat limited expectations. Izzo’s club lost 11 games this year, including a baffling home loss to Texas Southern in mid-December. Pitino’s unit dismissed point guard and top three-point shooter Chris Jones in late February, further exacerbating its offensive woes. Yet here they both are, playing for the right to move on to Indianapolis.

So what should we expect from these resilient teams? For Louisville, this much we know: its defense – ranked fifth nationally in adjusted efficiency – will be stout. As per usual for Pitino-coached squads, it will apply heavy ball pressure and limit good looks from behind the arc (30% 3PT defense). What’s been surprising about its three-game run, however, is the offensive production. Against Northern Iowa and North Carolina State, the Cardinals scored 1.2 and 1.17 points per possession, respectively, and received high-efficiency, high-production performances from both Terry Rozier (25 points; 146 ORtg against the Panthers) and Montrezl Harrell (24 points; 150 ORtg against the Wolfpack). The newfound offensive consistency – especially in the half-court – has turned them into a substantially more well-rounded unit, one that looks much closer to the team that began the year 11-0.

The specific areas of Michigan State’s recent improvement are slightly harder to pin-point but no less impactful. Power forward Branden Dawson has been playing his best basketball of the season – on both ends of the court – since the start of the Big Ten tournament onward. The Spartans have done a better job taking care of the ball, suffering just five miscues against Oklahoma on Friday night. And Travis Trice (20.6 PPG in NCAA Tournament) has emerged as the teams’ consistent, go-to scorer – something it lacked earlier in the year. All of the little things seem to be coming together for Izzo’s group at the right time.

This afternoon’s matchup might ultimately come down to a few key factors: Louisville’s ability to score around the rim against Michigan State’s interior defense (43.6% 2PT), and whether the Spartans can keep their offensive cool against the Cardinals’ various matchup zone and man-to-man defensive looks. Oddly, North Carolina State kept itself alive on Friday by knocking down shots from behind the arc (9-for-20 3FG) against Louisville, but struggled to score in the paint. Izzo’s club will need a little bit of both today, and certainly needs to take care of the ball. Likewise, Dawson, Matt Costello, and the rest of Michigan State’s big men cannot allow Harrell and Louisville’s penetrating guards nearly as many good looks near the basket as they found on Friday. In the end, I like Michigan State’s ability to crash the offensive glass (33.9% OReb) against the Cardinals’ sub-par defensive rebounding (30.9% DReb) to be the difference – not to mention the fact that doubting Izzo on the back-end of an NCAA Tournament weekend seems foolish. Expect a thrilling, hotly-contested and well-coached contest either way.

The RTC Certified Pick: Michigan State

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Rushed Reactions: #1 Kentucky 68, #3 Notre Dame 66

Posted by rtmsf on March 28th, 2015

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Three Key Takeaways.

The Wildcats Survived and Advanced to 38-0 in Thrilling Fashion (USA Today Images)

The Wildcats Survived and Advanced to 38-0 in Thrilling Fashion (USA Today Images)

  1. What a game. That was without question the best game of this year’s NCAA Tournament and if you take a step back it ranks up there in terms of all-time NCAA Tournament games as well. If that desperation three by Jerian Grant had dropped you could make a case for this being the greatest game in NCAA Tournament history and that shot being the greatest as well (only the 1992 Duke-Kentucky game with Laettner would compare). You had a pair of sensational offensive performances from Zach Auguste (20 points) and Karl-Anthony Towns (25 points) who each went 10-of-13 from the field in keeping their teams in contention. Although Notre Dame only went 4-of-14 from three tonight, they seemed to hit nearly every big three except for the final one. On top of that, both teams made huge plays down the stretch. The game, which was already being played at a very high level, ramped up to another level when Aaron Harrison and Jerian Grant hit massive and deep three-pointers on consecutive possessions. In the end, Andrew Harrison was able to step up and hit two clutch free throws followed by Grant’s desperation shot, and the Wildcats survived with their undefeated season intact as they head to Indianapolis.
  2. Notre Dame was not afraid. It sounds ridiculous to say that the ACC champion should be intimidated by anybody, but perhaps the most important thing that Notre Dame did today was to treat Kentucky like any other team on its schedule. Notre Dame is clearly talented, but outside of Grant and maybe Jackson, none of the Irish players would get significant minutes in Kentucky’s rotation (more a reflection of Kentucky’s ridiculous depth than Notre Dame’s lack of talent). For much of the season, the narrative has been that to beat Kentucky you need to hit three-pointers and avoid engaging them in the paint where their size can overwhelm you. Notre Dame did just the opposite of that early, forgoing the three and taking it right at the Wildcats. The final box score will show that Irish hit four three-pointers on the night, but they only hit one in the first half (on just five attempts) and the ones later in the game were the result of penetration and phenomenal ball movement.
  3. You need to be lucky (and really good) to go undefeated. Credit Kentucky for finding a way to win yet again, but this was their stiffest challenge all season long. They have played several tight games over the course of the year, but this was the first time that they were in a game against a team this good and unlikely to beat itself. No matter how good you are, however, you need a little luck to get through these types of games. Kentucky might not have been at its absolute peak tonight, but they played well, and unlike UNLV in 1991, Kentucky found a way to survive its own upset (at least for now). Having said that, the Wildcats could have easily folded or imploded especially when Notre Dame went up by six points with 6:14 left. Instead they showed they are more than just the most talented college team we can remember by showing their mental toughness and finding yet another way to win. There was never really a question of whether they would play together; instead, it was a question of who would step up and they found plenty of players who were capable of making big plays on both ends down the stretch.

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Elite Eight Storylines

Posted by Henry Bushnell on March 28th, 2015

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As we move into a loaded Elite Eight this weekend, here are five storylines to keep an eye on over the next 36 hours of action. Enjoy!

Elite Eight Storylines

Duke, Along With Kentucky, Arizona, Louisville, Michigan State, Gonzaga... It's a Loaded Elite Eight (USA Today Images)

Duke, Along With Kentucky, Arizona, Louisville, Michigan State, Gonzaga… It’s a Loaded Elite Eight (USA Today Images)

Bluebloods. Last year, when Dayton went to the Elite Eight as a #11 seed, it was a nice story. But the Flyers’ regional final game against Florida was no contest. It wasn’t as if Dayton had no shot to win, but it was clear from the opening tip that the Flyers were overmatched. It’s fun to romanticize about underdogs making a long run in the NCAA Tournament, but the reality is that they usually run face first into a reality check (and thus a fairly dull game). For some, it happens later than others — see 2011 Butler, which lost in the national championship game to Connecticut — but it eventually happens. This year there’s no Dayton. There’s not even a Butler or a VCU. We’ve done away with the little guys. The likelihood of one team getting completely overwhelmed from a pure talent perspective is unlikely. There is still a #7 seed on the board, but Michigan State is anything but a plucky upstart. There is also a double-digit point spread in one of tonight’s games, but that says more about Kentucky than the ACC champs. So while it would have been cool to see Xavier knock off Arizona, we have what we want in the end: a bunch of bluebloods and some outstanding matchups.

Coaching Superstars. It’s often said that great coaching triumphs in March, so think about the eight coaches who are still remaining: the least successful of the eight is probably Mike Brey – yes, the same Mike Brey who’s been to 12 NCAA Tournaments and just won an ACC Tournament title in his second year in the league. Statistics aside, everybody knows that Brey is just a darn good coach. He finds himself in quite the elite company this weekend. The aggregate tenure of all eight coaches at their respective schools is 126 years, and between them, they have exactly 4,400 Division I wins. The coaching matchups on the right side of the bracket are especially compelling. Tom Izzo and Rick Pitino are statistically the two best NCAA Tournament coaches of the modern era, and Mark Few and Mike Krzyzewski have combined for 49 conference regular season or tournament titles. Wow.

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Circle of March: Vol. XXIII

Posted by rtmsf on March 28th, 2015

And then there were eight. We now move into the hurry up and wait part of the NCAA Tournament, with long delays between the action. Still, we’re on pace to have only four teams standing in about 36 hours. Enjoy the Elite Eight!

2015_CircleofMarch_V23

Eliminations (03.27.15)

  • Utah
  • Oklahoma
  • UCLA
  • NC State
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NCAA Tournament Game Analysis: Elite Eight Saturday

Posted by Bennet Hayes & Andrew Murawa on March 29th, 2014

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Walker Carey (@walkerRcarey) is the NCAA Tournament’s Midwest Region correspondent, and Brian Otskey (@botskey) is the NCAA Tournament’s East Region correspondent. Make sure to also follow @RTCMidwestRegion and @RTCEastRegion for news and analysis from Indianapolis and New York City throughout the weekend.

#1 Florida vs. #11 Dayton — South Region Elite Eight (at Memphis, TN) — 6:09 pm ET on TBS.

One was an obvious pre-Tournament pick to be in this Regional Final, the other a barely noticeable #11 seed that few expected to escape the second round, but both Florida and Dayton are now just 40 minutes away from a berth in the Final Four. Having convincingly rolled through Albany, Pittsburgh, and most recently, UCLA, the #1 seeded Gators enter this Elite Eight tilt as deserved heavy favorites (our friends in the desert list Florida as 10-point favorites). Dayton turned heads in their efficient ousting of Stanford on Thursday night, but as legitimately solid as the Flyers have looked over the past two weeks (and for that matter, past two months), nobody in their right mind will be picking Dayton to extend their Tournament stay beyond Saturday afternoon. I fall into that “right mind” group (I think) in liking the Gators to move on, but this is not a mission-impossible for Dayton.

Can Devin Oliver And The Flyers -- Some Way, Somehow -- Find A Way To Shock Florida On Saturday?

Can Devin Oliver And The Flyers — Some Way, Somehow — Find A Way To Shock Florida On Saturday? (Getty)

For the Flyers to shock the world, a number of things need to go right. With another bigger, more physically imposing opponent staring Archie Miller’s undersized troops dead in the eye, another competitive effort on the glass is a good place to start. Stanford outrebounded the Flyers by percentages, but Dayton held their own on the backboards, especially on the offensive glass (10 offensive rebounds). Another key to the victory over the Cardinal was the constant harassment of Stanford star Chasson Randle, who was never allowed to get going in what finished as a 5-21 night from the field. Neither Scottie Wilbekin nor Michael Frazier is a perfect Randle clone, but absolutely necessary is finding a way to disrupt the rhythm of the Gators backcourt as they did to the Stanford star. Frazier especially, for my money’s worth, is the most important Gator on the offensive end. When his saccharine stroke is resulting in made three-pointers, the Florida offense is borderline unguardable.

Finally, Dayton needs to arm their slingshot with any heavy underdog’s favorite stone: The three-point shot. You have to make shots to win games like this, and while the Flyers have averaged a respectable seven and a half made threes in their last two wins, their season average of 37.5% from three-point range would indicate that there should be room for inflation in that category. A big effort out of leading scorer Jordan Sibert (43% 3FG) is crucial.

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ATB: Fantastic Final Four – Buckeyes Squash the Orange, Carolina Misses Marshall, and an All-Kentucky Dream Game

Posted by EJacoby on March 26th, 2012

This Weekend’s Lede. The Final Four is set and ready for action with some of the biggest storylines in years. There were no Cinderella stories on this second weekend, as the Elite Eight was comprised of all powerhouse teams that have been the class of college basketball all season. This week will feature numerous awesome back-stories and matchups to look forward to in New Orleans, but first we’ll break down exactly what happened over the weekend that’s led us to the remaining four teams in the Big Dance. Without further ado, here’s how it went…

Your Watercooler Moment. Russ Smith Runs Wild For #4 Louisville as Unlikely Hero

Russ Smith Sparked Louisville to a Comeback and a Final Four Berth (C. Hanewickel, US Presswire)

The top players in the NCAA Tournament proved their worth over the weekend for their heavyweight teams, but the one team that lacks that superstar performer made for the best story of the weekend. Louisville was a slight underdog against #7-seed Florida in the West Regional Final and the Cardinals trailed by eight points at halftime by surrendering far too many open threes to the Gators. But Rick Pitino’s team stayed within striking distance throughout the second half before perhaps the most enigmatic, up-and-down performer in college hoops picked the perfect time to have his best game. Russ Smith, Louisville’s super-sub that provides instant energy, came off the bench to score a game-high 19 points, 13 of which came in the second half. Smith often leaves coaches and fans scratching their heads with his decision-making, but his no-fear mentality was the difference in this game. Making aggressive moves to the basket and taking big shots late, Smith came up huge for his team in its biggest spot of the season. He finished with 19 points, five rebounds, two assists (and four turnovers), and hit two consecutive shots with his team down by six points to cut the Florida lead to one. From there, Louisville closed out the game and sent the Big East Tournament champions to the Final Four.

Also Worth Chatting About. Late-Game Defense Allows #2 Kansas To Defeat #1 UNC

The Jayhawks defeated #1 North Carolina in the Midwest Regional Final by 13 points, but this was one of the most entertaining and close games of the entire NCAA Tournament. The teams were deadlocked 47-47 at halftime in a high-scoring affair, but the defense took over in this game’s second half. Kansas allowed 63.6% shooting in the first half but it was a completely different story after that. The Jayhawks gave up just 22.6% to UNC in the second frame and did not let the Tar Heels score again after a Harrison Barnes free throw cut a Kansas lead to 68-67 with 3:58 to play. Bill Self implemented a surprising ‘triangle and two’ defense that completely threw off UNC offensively, especially limiting what the Heels could do in the paint. Jeff Withey was unable to repeat his 10-block performance from the Sweet Sixteen, but he and Thomas Robinson got the best of Tyler Zeller and John Henson in scoring and rebounding inside. Combine that with the fact that Tyshawn Taylor had an incredible game going up against Stilman White, and Kansas was too tough for a Kendall Marshall-less Carolina team to overcome. There was not enough offense from UNC when it needed it, but Kansas’ terrific defensive effort was a big reason for that.

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A Police Blotter Tuesday

Posted by jstevrtc on August 31st, 2010

As if the start of classes and a looming new season weren’t enough for players and coaches across the nation to think about as we put August behind us, a few players from two of last season’s Final Four squads just added to their own worries and those of their coaches.

Mazzulla, Leaking Through UK's Defense in the Regional Final.

Mazzulla and Lucious were, of course, vital to their teams’ successes in last year’s NCAA Tournament. Lucious hit the buzzer-beater that put paid to Maryland in the second round and Mazzulla stepped in for an injured Truck Bryant and provided an incredible lift in the Mountaineers’ win over Kentucky in the Elite Eight.

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RTC (Sorta) Live: The Elite Eight – Saturday 03.27.10 Edition

Posted by jstevrtc on March 27th, 2010

No doubt, getting to the Elite Eight is an accomplishment…but teams don’t hang banners for Elite Eights (at least they shouldn’t).  All the weights lifted, all the miles run, all the shots hoisted in practice, all the interviews done — tonight is finally one of those occasions where these guys can say, “This is what it was all for.”  They play for national championships, but they also play for the Final Four.  That final destination, the final city on the long road that started back in October.  As if I had to tell you the lineup:

  • 4:30 PM ET — Kansas State vs Butler
  • 7:30 PM ET — Kentucky vs West Virginia

There’s nothing left to say.  This is for the Final Four.  That’s all you need to say.

Can’t wait.  Hope to see you around here for some conversation while we watch the games.

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