Final Four Storylines: Michigan State Edition

Posted by Henry Bushnell on April 4th, 2015

The Final Four is set. This week we’ll continue our NCAA Tournament Storylines series focused on each of the remaining four teams. We’ve already covered the three top seeds, Kentucky, Wisconsin and Duke. Finally, here’s Michigan State.

Tom Izzo (USA Today Images)

Is Tom Izzo’s Group a Team of Destiny? (USA Today Images)

What a turnaround. There are so many specific December and January days to which to point. Think back to December 20 and the stunning loss to Texas Southern. Recall January 24 and the defeat at Nebraska that resulted in a 13-7 (4-3 Big Ten) record. Consider February 7 and the ugly loss at home to Illinois. All of those days tell the same story: Michigan State just wasn’t very good. It’s that simple. The Spartans didn’t look at all like a Tom Izzo-coached team. They lacked talent, cohesiveness and an identity. But more than anything else, cohesiveness and an identity is exactly what they’ve found, and it’s what has enabled this run. Michigan State isn’t stocked with NBA prospects or McDonald’s All-Americans, but every contributing player has learned over the course of the season to excel in his role, and that’s why Sparty is here.

Izzo in March. Frankly, it has ascended to the level of an indisputable phenomenon. Tom Izzo just wins in March — there’s no two ways about it. And not only is the idea firmly entrenched in the minds of fans, and not only does it appear on any show or in any article that discusses Michigan State, it is also backed up by numbers. Izzo’s teams consistently outperform their seed in the NCAA Tournament, more so than any other program in the modern era. What makes the success even more impressive is that Izzo has done it as both a favorite and an underdog. Michigan State reached the Final Four three straight years as a 1-seed from 1999-2001, and then twice got there as a 5-seed in 2005 and 2010. This year, Izzo is back as a 7-seed. Now, technically it’s not March anymore. But in the college basketball world, it’s still March through Monday. And it’s still Izzo in March. And it’s going to take an exceedingly good performance to disrupt the Spartans’ record of postseason success.’

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Final Four Storylines: Duke Edition

Posted by Henry Bushnell on April 3rd, 2015

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The Final Four is set. This week we’ll continue our NCAA Tournament Storylines series focused on each of the remaining four teams. We kicked things off with Kentucky on Tuesday, and followed with Wisconsin yesterday. Today, it’s Duke‘s turn.

Coach K's 12th Final Four (USA Today Images)

Coach K’s 12th Final Four Ties Him With the Legendary John Wooden For Most All-Time (USA Today Images)

Coach K in the record books. It’s been a pretty special year for Mike Krzyzewski, highlighted by his 1,000th win and an NCAA Tournament run resulting in his 12th Final Four appearance, tying former UCLA legend John Wooden for the most of all-time. And Coach K might not be done. He has a chance to improve his impressive 8-3 record in National Semifinal games this weekend in Indianapolis, the best such record of any coach. And with two more wins, he is poised to move into sole possession of second place in all-time national championships with five (his current mark of four is tied with Kentucky’s Adolph Rupp). Coach K’s long career means that he’s also experienced his fair share of postseason disappointments, but those exits more than anything speak to just how tough it is to win in March. The consistency with which Krzyzewski’s teams have gone deep into the second and third weekends of the Big Dance is astounding.

Duke is here because of its defense. Much has been made of Duke’s struggles on the defensive end of the court this season. The Blue Devils had an especially rough stretch in January and February during which they gave up more than a point per possession in eight of 10 games. Conventional wisdom suggests that it was Duke’s offense that carried it to a sterling 28-3 regular season record. But since the onset of the NCAA Tournament, Duke’s defense has been the driver behind its Final Four run. The Blue Devils have held all four of their opponents to fewer than 0.90 points per possession and, as a result, have now cracked the top 20 of KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency. Their performance in crunch time of the Elite Eight win over Gonzaga exemplified that improvement. Duke held the Zags to a single Byron Wesley free throw over the final 5:43 of the game. There hasn’t been a discernible difference in Krzyzewski’s philosophy — he’s always stressed the importance of team defense — but perhaps Duke’s young players have developed a better understanding of his defensive principles and it is translating now more than ever, a dangerous proposition for the rest of the Final Four.

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Final Four Fact Sheet: Kentucky Wildcats

Posted by Bennet Hayes on April 3rd, 2015

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After a week of hype surrounding the most highly-anticipated Final Four in years, let’s do a reset on each of the four teams still standing. Today’s victims: Duke (published this morning) and Kentucky. Wisconsin and Michigan State were published yesterday.

How Kentucky Got Here

Kentucky Stayed Perfect To Reach Indianapolis (Getty Images)

Kentucky Survived Notre Dame To Stay Perfect. Next Stop: Indianapolis. (Getty Images)

Midwest Region Champions. Kentucky opened the NCAA Tournament with a closer-than-expected 23-point victory over #16 seed Hampton, then followed it up with a third-round defeat of plucky #8 seed Cincinnati. The Wildcats had to prove at least one prognosticator wrong to reach the Elite Eight, but did so convincingly against #5 seed West Virginia, improving to 37-0 in a 39-point demolition. Their last hurdle before the Final Four proved to be the toughest. #3 seed Notre Dame did everything it could to end Kentucky’s perfect season, but in an all-time classic quarterfinal matchup, the Wildcats did just enough to squeak by the Irish and into another Final Four.

The Coach

John Calipari. There’s little more to say about Calipari at this point. He’s led a 38-0 team into the Final Four (his fourth appearance in five years), has won multiple National Coach of the Year honors (including our own), and is undeniably atop the profession as his team enters a Final Four that includes three other coaches with a combined 1,866 wins. Coach Cal is dominating college basketball.

Style

Let’s face it: No matter what happens in Indianapolis this weekend, the Wildcats have already put together an historic season. And when you think back on this Kentucky team, the first thing that you will remember will be its defense. The Wildcats rank first in adjusted defensive efficiency (and before Saturday, they were the most efficient defense of the 13-year KenPom era), first in three-point percentage defense, second in two-point percentage defense and second in block percentage. With shot-blockers Willie Cauley-Stein and Karl-Anthony Towns (among others) protecting the rim, Calipari’s guards have been able to extend their man-to-man defense well beyond the three-point line. You could say that the defensive scheme has worked out pretty well. The Kentucky efficiency bonanza has not been limited to the defensive end, however, as the Wildcats also rank fifth nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency. Their aggressive attacking of the offensive glass and frequent trips to the free throw line have paid dividends all season long, while the developing post games of Towns and Cauley-Stein have led to a greater focus on interior touches as the season has progressed. Notre Dame can attest that Towns has developed into a go-to player for the ‘Cats.

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On Duke’s Timely Defensive Turnaround

Posted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on April 3rd, 2015

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What was once thought to be Duke’s weakness has suddenly become its strength in NCAA Tournament play. In fact, the Blue Devils have been so defensively stifling that none of its four opponents in the South Region were able to crack 60 points against them. So what’s behind Duke’s big turnaround on that end of the floor? Let’s take a look at some key defensive numbers from the last two weeks and compare those with its previous 21 games — beginning with when conference play tipped off on January 3. Duke DefenseIn its four NCAA Tournament games so far, Duke has reduced its opponents’ scoring by a whopping 15.0 points per game and 16 percent fewer points per possession. Duke’s sudden surge of defensive stinginess is related to two improvements: 1) better success in forcing opponents to miss shots (from both two- and three-point range); and 2) keeping teams from getting to the free throw line. At first glance it would appear that a markedly slower tempo (four fewer possessions per game) might be helping the Blue Devils’ defense, but that assumption could be somewhat deceiving. NCAA Tournament opponents are attempting only one fewer field goal per contest and turnovers and offensive rebounds have remained about the same as they were before. That means that the slowdown is almost entirely caused by the Blue Devils move from rarely fouling to almost never fouling. Opposing teams are averaging fewer than 10 free throw attempts per outing in the NCAA Tournament.

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Texas Brings HAVOC to the Big 12

Posted by Brian Goodman on April 3rd, 2015

Less than a week after the firing of Rick Barnes, Texas has hired its next head basketball coach. And as we speculated on Monday, VCU’s Shaka Smart is packing his bags for the Lone Star State. Once he’s introduced, Smart will be expected to immediately breathe new life into a program that had fallen into a lull over the last four seasons. Given its resources and location, the Longhorns have no legitimate reason to not be a force in the Big 12 and nationally on an annual basis, and Smart’s track record, enthusiasm and unique style of play make him Texas’ best bet to restore and possibly exceed its basketball peak from a decade ago.

As the new head coach at Texas, Shaka Smart will look to bring postseason success back to Austin.

As the new head coach at Texas, Shaka Smart will look to bring deep postseason runs back to Austin.

The first thing that comes to mind when thinking of Smart is his vaunted “Havoc” defense. His Rams led the country in defensive turnover percentage every year between 2012-14 and turned in a top-10 performance again this season. Had Briante Weber stayed healthy, the Rams may have ended up leading the nation again in that category. Smart’s teams also excel on the other side of the turnover column, giving the ball away less than 18 percent of the time in every season under his watch.

As with any coach making the jump from a mid-major to power conference, though, Smart will face the challenge of competing with consistently good teams on a regular basis. The Rams famously beat #3 seed Purdue and #1 seed Kansas on their way to the 2011 Final Four, but in the four seasons that followed, VCU went just 16-19 against teams rated in the KenPom top 50 and failed to return to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament. In fairness, many of those games came on the road or in neutral settings as the college landscape provides little incentive for power conference teams to travel to places like VCU, but Smart’s results against top-notch competition suggest that immediate success isn’t a given at Texas no matter how good a fit he is.

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2014-15 Rush the Court All-America Teams

Posted by Walker Carey on April 3rd, 2015

Compiling preseason All-America teams is a difficult task because nobody knows what is going to occur during the season. There will always be players who will fail to live up to expectations and there will always be under the radar types who will unexpectedly emerge to stardom. When our group of seven RTC pollsters selected their preseason All-America teams back in November; nobody could have guessed that only five of the 15 names on that list would be able to live up to the hype: Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky, Duke’s Jahlil Okafor, Wichita State’s Fred VanVleet, Gonzaga’s Kevin Pangos, and Kentucky’s Karl-Anthony Towns. The only two players who were projected to be a first team All-American and finished there were Kaminsky and Okafor. The 10 players who we selected as preseason All-Americans who did not make our team: North Carolina’s Marcus Paige, West Virginia’s Juwan Staten, Louisville’s Montrezl Harrell, Wichita State’s Ron Baker, Michigan’s Caris LeVert (spent much of conference play injured), Wisconsin’s Sam Dekker, Arizona’s Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Arizona’s Stanley Johnson, Iowa State’s Georges Niang, and Nebraska’s Terran Petteway. They all had very productive seasons, but they were surpassed in achievements by the names that rose to the top of our list. Here are the 2014-15 RTC All-America Teams.

First Team All-America

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  • Frank Kaminsky, Senior, Wisconsin (consensus) (18.7 PPG, 8.0 RPG, 54.9% FG, 41.5% 3FG). Kaminsky wrapped up his collegiate career in dynamite fashion. The RTC National Player of the Year and Big Ten Player of the Year has been the best player on a Wisconsin team that won the outright regular season Big Ten title, the Big Ten Tournament title, and the NCAA Tournament West Region. As the Badgers prepare for their final matchup with Kentucky on Saturday, it should be noted that Kaminsky has been excellent throughout March, recording 31 points in a March 1 win over fellow Final Four participant Michigan State, 27 points against Coastal Carolina in the round of 64, and 29 points against Arizona in the regional final.
  • Jahlil Okafor, Freshman, Duke (consensus) (17.5 PPG, 8.7 RPG, 66.8% FG). The ACC’s first-ever freshman to win league Player of the Year has been a sensation from the day he stepped foot on Duke’s campus. The top recruit from the Class of 2014 did not disappoint in what will almost absolutely be his only season in Durham. Okafor was a dominant offensive post presence during the Blue Devils’ 28-3 regular season, as he scored in double figures in 30 of the team’s 31 games. Duke enters the Final Four with national title aspirations — and with a player like Okafor at its disposal, it is easy to see how those dreams could come true.
  • D’Angelo Russell, Freshman, Ohio State (19.3 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 5.0 APG, 41.1% 3FG). Russell burst on to the scene in incredible fashion in what will likely be his only season in Columbus. The Big Ten Freshman of the Year topped 25 points five times during conference play, and along with his prolific scoring, he showcased some exceptional distribution skills. Ohio State was inconsistent as a team this season, but it always could rely on Russell to fill the stat sheet and act as a terrific playmaker.
  • Jerian Grant, Senior, Notre Dame (16.5 PPG, 6.7 APG, 1.7 SPG, 47.8% FG). Grant’s return from an academic suspension that cost him the second semester of his junior season to lead the Irish to the Elite Eight was one of the stories of the year in college basketball. The senior guard lifted Notre Dame to a new level with his knack for hitting big shotsincredible passing, and overall leadership skills. Grant saved his best for the biggest games, which was evident by his 23-point, 12-assist performance in a January 28 victory over Duke and a 24-point, 10-assist effort in the ACC Tournament championship game victory over North Carolina.
  • Delon Wright, Senior, Utah (14.5 PPG, 5.1 APG, 4.9 RPG, 2.1 SPG, 50.9% FG). Utah advanced to its first Sweet Sixteen since 2005 this season, and the biggest reason for that was Wright’s play. The Utes epitomized team basketball with their style, but it was Wright who was routinely called on to make the big play late in the big game. While Wright has exhausted his eligibility, his consistency and leadership will be etched into Larry Krystkowiak’s program for many years to come.

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Final Four Fact Sheet: Duke Blue Devils

Posted by Bennet Hayes on April 3rd, 2015

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After a week of hype surrounding the most highly-anticipated Final Four in years, let’s do a reset on each of the four teams still standing. Today’s victims: We’ll start with Duke and finish the day with Kentucky. Wisconsin and Michigan State were published yesterday.

How Duke Got Here

South Region Champions. During the NCAA Tournament’s first weekend in Charlotte, the Blue Devils used friendly surroundings to coast by #16 seed Robert Morris and #8 seed San Diego State; Coach K’s team led the Colonials and Aztecs by double-figures in all 40 second-half minutes of those two games. Advancement was tougher at the South Regional in Houston, but Duke managed to break open close games against #5 seed Utah in the Sweet Sixteen and #2 seed Gonzaga in the Elite Eight, landing the Blue Devils a trip to Indianapolis this weekend.

Coach K And Duke Cut Down The Nets In Houston; Is The Indianapolis Twine Next? (USA Today Sports)

Coach K And Duke Cut Down The Nets In Houston; Is The Indianapolis Twine Next? (USA Today Sports)

The Coach

Mike Krzyewski. Like the other three coaches in this year’s Final Four, you already know Mike Krzyzewski. Unlike the other three coaches in the Final Four, there is no college basketball coach you know better than Mike Krzyzewski. Coach K’s list of accomplishments — 1,016 career wins, 12 Final Fours, four National Championships – leave him with little to prove. Can the longtime Duke head coach, in the twilight of his career, outmaneuver two of college basketball’s best (Izzo and either Calipari or Ryan) this Saturday and Monday nights?

Style

For the seventh season in a row, Duke has an offense that ranks among the top 10 nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency. However, unlike most of those other attacks, this year’s version works from the inside out. Krzyzewski-coached teams have classically thrived from beyond the arc and this group certainly doesn’t struggle there either (39 percent), but Jahlil Okafor has transformed the Duke interior. The freshman All-American is the major reason why the Blue Devils made 56 percent of their two-point field-goal attempts this year (fourth-best nationally) and remains the clear focus of the offense. Defensively, Duke remains a man-to-man team. Midseason struggles in stopping penetration prompted a brief flirtation with a zone (which wasn’t necessarily unsuccessful), but Quinn Cook has spearheaded a significantly improved man-to-man approach during the latter half of the season.

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Final Four Fact Sheet: Wisconsin Badgers

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on April 2nd, 2015

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Midway through a week before the most highly-anticipated Final Four in years, let’s do a reset on each of the four teams still standing. Today’s victims: Michigan State (published this morning) and Wisconsin.

How Wisconsin Got Here

West Region Champions. The West Region’s top unit began its NCAA Tournament run by downing #16 seed Coastal Carolina, then fighting off pesky #8 seed Oregon in the round of 32. Wisconsin headed out to Los Angeles the following weekend, where it overcame a seven-point deficit to beat #4 seed North Carolina before pouring in 1.33 points per possession against #2 seed Arizona to reach its second straight Final Four.

Wisconsin is the most efficient offensive team in a long time. (Hans Gutknecht/Los Angeles Daily News)

Wisconsin is the most efficient offensive team in a long time. (Hans Gutknecht/Los Angeles Daily News)

The Coach

Bo Ryan. Wisconsin has made the NCAA Tournament in each of Ryan’s 14 seasons in Madison and never once finished worse than fourth place in the Big Ten standings. He’s been an enormously successful head coach from the get-go, and yet until recently the prevailing narrative was that his ‘system’ – tailoring recruiting to fit his swing offense instead of the other way around – precluded any deep March runs. So much for that. The 67-year-old has now led the Badgers to back-to-back Final Fours, developed unheralded recruit Frank Kaminsky into a legitimate NBA prospect, enabled blue-chipper Sam Dekker to fully realize his talent, and put the Badgers in position to compete for its first National Championship since 1941.

Style

Ryan’s swing offense is predicated on floor spacing, good perimeter ball movement, off-ball screening and cutting. It’s incredibly slow – the second-slowest in college basketball (21.7 seconds per possession) – and also incredibly effective. Wisconsin leads the country in adjusted offensive efficiency. The Badgers take 37.5 percent of their shots from behind the arc, the highest rate among Final Four teams, while earning trips to the free throw line at the second-lowest rate ahead of only Michigan State. On the other end, Wisconsin focuses on playing tough, half-court man-to-man defense without fouling. Read the rest of this entry »

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The Pac: Way Back?

Posted by Andrew Murawa on April 2nd, 2015

Three Sweet Sixteen teams. One in the Elite Eight. And yet when the Final Four rolls around this weekend, it will commence without an entrant from the West Coast’s major conference, the Pac-12, for the seventh consecutive season. Arizona has nothing to be embarrassed about from its loss to Wisconsin on Saturday. Utah and UCLA both put up good fights before going down to clearly superior teams. But this is turning into something of an issue. Since the last time a Pac-12 team advanced to the Final Four (UCLA, 2008), four different Big Ten schools have earned a total of seven spots in the sport’s final weekend. The Big East has earned seven as well, although all of those but Villanova have scattered in the wind to different conferences (the new Big East does have Butler, however, which earned two Final Four appearances as part of the Horizon League). Even conferences like the Colonial (VCU, 2011), the Missouri Valley (Wichita State, 2013) and the newly formed American (Connecticut, 2014) have Final Four appearances since the last Pac-12 appearance.

Not Only Is Arizona A Player's Program, It Is The Pac-12's Best (AP)

Not Only Is Arizona A Player’s Program, It Is The Pac-12’s Best. (AP)

Furthermore, if you throw out UCLA’s three straight appearances from 2006-08, you have to go all the way back to 2001 to find another Pac-12 school (Arizona) with a Final Four appearance. In the history of the conference that starts with the word “Pacific” and ends with a number, only three schools (UCLA, Arizona and Stanford) have made the Final Four. Current member Utah got to the final weekend back in 1998 (and in 1966, for that matter) as a member of the WAC, and had previously earned spots as a member of the Mountain States conference in 1944 and 1961. Refer to the bottom of the page for the complete list of when teams in the conference last reached that level of success. So, really, I didn’t sit down expecting to write the above. I was just going to write a simple season wrap-up and wound up diving down a rabbit hole. Now I’m left with these burning questions: 1) Why does the Pac-12 find itself in such dire straits? And 2) is there any hope of significant change? Let’s dive right into the first one with the caveat that, even after thinking about this for 24 hours, I’m not sure I have a great answer. So, we’ll leave it open for further discussion. Feel free to shoot down any of my theories and propose your ideas along the way.

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A Column of Enchantment: The Final Chapter of the Steve Lavin Story

Posted by Joseph Nardone on April 2nd, 2015

(Ed. Note: The first chapter of the Lavin story can be located here. Also, quotes may or may not be verbatim. Or accurate.)

The dark clouds have parted over the St. John’s campus. Despite much speculation regarding a possible extension, the Red Storm athletic department has parted ways with head coach Steve Lavin. Different reports have stated that Lavin was looking for more money and an extension, but that doesn’t matter now — the Johnnies have gone in another direction. One which they hope will bring much shine back to the program. That direction is going to be led by the greatest player in the history of their program, Chris Mullin. Still, Lavin has one last (short) adventure left in his story.

As he parts, Steve Lavin leaves Chris Mullin with some words of wisdom ... kinda. (ESPN)

As he parts, Steve Lavin leaves Chris Mullin with some words of wisdom … kinda. (ESPN)

———————-

Lavin is cleaning out his office. Unlike most other college basketball coaches, though, his office isn’t filled with film, game plans, or any other type of traditional coach’s office fillers. Instead it has a desk filled with restaurant menus, a calendar on the wall with the dates filled in with reservation times, and a coffee cup filled with a weird, green looking juice. This was Lavin’s home. Not anymore, though, as he has to leave it clean for the person who is taking his job. As he is cleaning out his office he makes a decision to be a good man. Lavin, as he often does, decides that he should leave Mullin a note that has some positive reinforcement in it. As with all things Lavin, though, the note becomes less of a good look memo and more of a watch your back warning.

Dear Chris Mullin,

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2014-15 RTC Awards: NPOY, FrOY & COY

Posted by Brian Otskey on April 2nd, 2015

Perhaps it is no coincidence that all three of our individual award recipients this year will play in the upcoming Final Four. It is a remarkable achievement to be the best of your peers at what you do, but we are sure that the following three men would give all the credit to their incredible teams before offering a word about themselves. Here are the 2014-15 RTC individual award winners, chosen by a panel of Rush the Court‘s national columnists and contributors.

Player of the Year: Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin

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There is something to be said for how Frank Kaminsky arrived to the position he is in today. Now a senior and the leading scorer on a Wisconsin team that has lost just three games this season, Kaminsky shunned the fame and fortune of the NBA last spring in order to return to Madison to help lead the Badgers to a National Championship in his final year of eligibility. “Frank the Tank” is unique in the college game today. Standing at a cool seven feet tall, Kaminsky is the definition of a matchup nightmare. The Lisle, Illinois, native is not afraid to get physical in the post but could easily drop a three-pointer on you the next time down the floor. His versatility is off the charts and it shows up in his numbers: 18.7 PPG, 8.0 RPG, 54.9 percent field goal percentage, and a 41.5 percent mark from three-point range. In his final season under Bo Ryan, the senior increased his production across the board and does not get the credit he deserves for his outstanding defense — averaging 1.5 blocked shots per game and altering many more. Fitting a NPOY winner, he has saved his best production for March, recording a season-high 31 points against Michigan State on March 1, 27 points against Coastal Carolina in the round of 64, and 29 points against Arizona in the West regional final. There were many terrific players in college basketball this year but Kaminsky was a cut above the rest and a very deserving winner of this season’s RTC Player of the Year honor.

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Freeze Frame: Neutralizing Kentucky’s Big Men

Posted by Brian Joyce on April 2nd, 2015

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Thirty-eight teams have taken their best shots at Kentucky this season but none have come away with a victory. Last Saturday night, Notre Dame became “another test” for coach John Calipari’s team en route to its fourth Final Four in the last five years. Much has been made over nothing regarding Calipari’s postgame comments following the 68-66 win (the guy just moved to 38-0 on his way to another Final Four; what do you expect him to say when asked questions about the Irish?), but while the Cats have had a few games that were as closely contested, none were more meaningful.

The most efficient offenses this season against Kentucky.

The most efficient offenses this season against Kentucky.

Notre Dame’s defense last Saturday night was nothing particularly special. The Irish played with great toughness on that end of the floor, but so did every SEC team the Wildcats faced during the regular season. Notre Dame’s offense, however, was a completely different story. The Wildcats’ defense had only allowed five teams to score above a point per possession against it all season long, and Mike Brey’s team moved directly to the top of the list with its 1.16 PPP performance. In this edition of Freeze Frame, we analyze the three ways in which the Irish were able to neutralize Kentucky’s big men and do something that few other teams have been able to consistently do: score.

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