Looking Back at Kentucky’s Remarkable Run

Posted by David Changas on April 11th, 2014

On March 1, Kentucky‘s season hit its lowest point when the Wildcats lost to SEC bottom-feeder South Carolina, 72-67. Talk of a 40-0 season was a distant memory, and an early exit from the NCAA Tournament seemed likely. After that loss, Kentucky went on to lose twice to SEC champion Florida, but it was during the second of those losses – a one-point SEC Tournament Championship Game thriller that the Wildcats had a chance to win – that gave coach John Calipari’s team confidence that all was not lost. Kentucky received a #8 seed from the selection committee, and the path ahead of it would consist of games with the region’s top seed and the first team to enter the NCAA Tournament with an undefeated record in 23 years, Wichita State, as well as a possible rematch with arch-nemesis Louisville. The regional final projected as a game against the team that lost to Louisville in last year’s national championship game, Michigan, or SEC rival Tennessee. The Wildcats were able to beat Kansas State with relative ease in the opening round, and then proceed to win thrillers against the Shockers, Cardinals, and Wolverines to advance to their third Final Four in Calipari’s five years at the helm of the program.

Kentucky Will Play For The Program's Ninth National Title On Monday Night

Kentucky Celebrated Its Way to the National Title Game

At the outset of the season, Kentucky was the nation’s consensus No. 1 team, and there was some serious talk in the Bluegrass State that the Wildcats could reach 40-0. That dream was dashed with an early-season loss to Michigan State at the Champions Classic, and then Kentucky followed that with pre-conference defeats to Baylor and North Carolina. If those losses didn’t cause significant concern, the Wildcats’ play in the lowly SEC did. They were swept by the Gators and by Arkansas, and narrowly avoided a sweep by LSU. By the time the SEC Tournament arrived, many wondered whether it was too late for the club to figure things out and salvage their season. After dominant wins over LSU and Georgia, the Wildcats appeared headed for another blowout loss in the title game to Florida. They trailed the Gators by 16 early in the second half, but eventually cut the lead to one point with the ball before James Young slipped and lost control, costing the Wildcats a chance to win. While Kentucky wasn’t able to complete the comeback, that game was the impetus for the turnaround. Willie Cauley-Stein called the performance “a big confidence-booster” afterward, and said that the Wildcats were a “new team” coming out of Atlanta. While winning the daunting Midwest region appeared to be a near-impossible task for a team that entered the NCAA Tournament with 10 losses, the 78-76 second-round win over Wichita State in what many considered the best game of the Big Dance served notice that the Kentucky team many had expected had finally arrived.

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After Fourth Title Since 1999, UConn Has Proven Its Blood is Pure Blue

Posted by Bennet Hayes on April 8th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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Rushed Reactions: #7 Connecticut 60, #8 Kentucky 54

Posted by rtmsf on April 8th, 2014

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Rush the Court is covering the Final Four from Arlington, Texas, this weekend.

Three Key Takeaways.

Kevin Ollie is a First Time Participant and National Champion

Kevin Ollie is a First Time Participant and National Champion

  1. Shabazzketball. Shabazz Napier said after the game that he told his teammates back in a January home loss to Louisville — the first of three to the defending national champs, none of which were close — that he believed in his team and that they were going to make a run to eventually win the National Championship. While there’s no way to know if Napier is joshing us or simply retelling a tidbit that the team probably repeated many times during the season, the salient point is that Connecticut fulfilled the prophecy to once again raise the gold trophy for the fourth time in 16 seasons. The brash, cocksure point guard from the Boston area is the primary reason why. Napier’s 22 points (including four big threes), six rebounds, and three steals have become par for the course throughout Connecticut’s run to the title, but on a night when the team needed a first half lift because DeAndre Daniels was slow getting started, Napier’s 15 points allowed the Huskies to build an early cushion to put the pressure on Kentucky to make yet another second half comeback. The comeback happened twice, but each time that the Wildcats had whittled the lead down to one point, Napier had an answer. His first response was right out of the half, when he drove into the lane to earn two free throws (both makes, of course); the more important second instance was with six minutes remaining, when it appeared that UConn was wearing down and the Cats were surging forward. Napier put an end to that notion with a calm and accurate three-pointer to push the lead back up to four. After a subsequent Randle two and Giffey three, Kentucky never got closer than four points for the rest of the game. There aren’t many players these days who stick around long enough to win two national titles, and especially three years apart, but Napier has certainly proven that he belongs among the list of greats for his performances in March Madness.
  2. Kevin Ollie Bum Rushes the Tourney. The last time a coach won the national title in his first appearance in the NCAA Tournament, the year was 1989 and Michigan’s brand-new head coach Steve Fisher led Glen Rice and friends on a magical run to victory. Kevin Ollie had a little more experience coming into this year’s Dance than Fisher was awarded some 25 years ago, but he should absolutely be commended for the belief that he instilled in his players and the resolve that they exhibited on the court during this Tournament. They beat teams bigger than them, more physical than them, deeper than them, better shooters than them, and more experienced than them. What you’re going to read about a lot in the next 24 hours is how it was UConn’s defensive commitment and resolve that won the school its fourth championship. While the Huskies played excellent defense in the gut-check games against the likes of Michigan State, Florida and Kentucky over the past 10 days (holding the three teams to 0.90, 0.93 and .90 points per possession), it was actually the hyper-efficiency of UConn’s offense that made the difference. Over the six-game NCAA Tournament run, Kevin Ollie’s team never dipped below a 1.00 PPP average (vs. Michigan State and Kentucky), and it maxed out with a necessary 1.24 PPP mark against St. Joseph’s and a 1.23 PPP mark against Iowa State. It’s not a true calculation because every game is different, but some back-0f-the-envelope math suggests that the Huskies averaged about 1.11 PPP in its six wins while holding opponents to 0.99 PPP on the other end. And it did so against five of KenPom’s top 20 teams, with the strange outlier the game against St. Joseph’s that UConn very well could have lost. Crazy.
  3. Kentucky’s Magical Run Ends One Game Short. This Kentucky basketball season was without question one of the strangest that we’ve ever experienced. The highs and lows of it were simply astonishing. From a preseason #1 ranking and at least mild entertainment of the idea of an unbeaten 40-0 season, to the harsh reality of non-conference losses to Michigan State, Baylor and North Carolina, to head-scratching but not awful SEC losses to Arkansas, LSU and Florida, to end-of-season disasters vs. Arkansas in Rupp and on the road at South Carolina and Florida, to The Tweak before the SEC Tournament and a solid performance there, to the subsequent three weeks of phenomenal play — especially at the end of games against high-quality competition — that ran all the way to the verge of a National Championship. Life is stranger than fiction, and it certainly felt coming into tonight that all the jabbering about 1-and-done and right way/wrong way and the rest of the related nonsense surrounding John Calipari and how he runs his program was going to be finally put to rest. Alas, UConn had other ideas. Regardless of tonight’s outcome for the Wildcats, there’s absolutely no shame in a runner-up finish, and most Kentucky fans would have taken that in a heartbeat in early March. As for Calipari, this was without question one of his finest coaching jobs — he very nearly lost this team at the end of the season, but he was able to use his magic wand to get their attention, buy into his conceptual framework of team and selflessness, and damn near ran his team to another National Championship. Because of his recruiting prowess, he doesn’t get the credit he deserves, but he’s a top-five coach in this game no matter how you slice it.

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Opportunity Missed, But a Season to Cherish for Wisconsin

Posted by Bennet Hayes on April 7th, 2014

Saturday night’s wild finish between Kentucky and Wisconsin offered yet another poignant display of the vast range of emotions that this Tournament is capable of causing. While the Wildcats celebrated another stirring victory, the Badgers saw their season end in the most sudden, grief-inducing of fashions. Bo Ryan’s team was seconds away from heading to the National Championship game as favorites. One seismic moment later, and both season and dream were finished. So is life in the emotional rollercoaster that is the NCAA Tournament, but less-than-glorious conclusion notwithstanding, the Badgers accomplished plenty this season. In the wake of Saturday night’s classic, here are three thoughts on Wisconsin’s 2013-14.

After Saturday's Crushing Final Four Defeat, Bo Ryan, Traevon Jackson And The Rest Of The Returning Badgers Will Seek A Happier Ending Next Winter

After Saturday’s Crushing Final Four Defeat, Bo Ryan, Traevon Jackson And The Rest Of The Returning Badgers Will Seek A Happier Ending Next Winter

  1. Even after a brilliant season, to ignore the Badgers’ missed opportunity would be both near-sighted and disrespectful. Of course, Kentucky had much to do with seizing victory from the Badgers on Saturday night, but Wisconsin should not be misconstrued as a “had a great run, was just happy-to-be-here” type of team. Final Fours don’t grow on trees, especially during those chilly Madison winters (this was just the program’s third national semifinal appearance), but this Badger team was talented, well-coached and legitimately elite. They had every right to believe that they could leave Dallas as champions – especially after Florida fell in the first semifinal. Wisconsin should be lauded for a fine season, but frustration is only fair when visions of a National Championship were as salient as they were for the Badgers.
  2. Next season, the Badgers’ senior backcourt tandem of Traevon Jackson and Josh Gasser may be the toughest, most experienced pair of guards in America. The duo will be forever frozen on the wrong end of Final Four history – Jackson for his missed jumper on the game’s final possession, Gasser for his contest of the Harrison jumper – but both Badgers were integral pieces of this run, and will be cornerstones for Wisconsin success next winter. Wisconsin diehards had to know who would be taking the final shot before it happened, as Jackson has developed into a late-game go-to guy for Bo Ryan over the past two seasons. Clutch and accurate (he shot 38 percent from behind the arc this season), Jackson’s three seasons of experience have also aided his development as the perfect conductor for Ryan’s swing offense. His classmate Gasser is equally learned in the intricacies of the Badger system, although Gasser’s main value is on the defensive end of the floor. That’s saying something after a season in which he posted an O-rating of 128.6 (24th-best in the country), but Gasser will be back next year to continue his harassment of the best wings in the Big Ten.
  3. Kaminsky! So, yea, the hype surrounding Frank the Tank may have been slightly outsized after his scintillating 28-point, 11-rebound Elite Eight performance. I’m not sure how much of this has to do with the fact that Turner has a studio crew that has watched exactly zero college basketball before March (hi Charles!), but Kaminsky appeared to have become the second-coming of Dirk Nowitzki for the past seven days. Dirk he is not, but Kaminsky’s presumed return to Madison is a game-changer for the Badgers. His offensive versatility makes him a unique weapon in the college ranks, and with Nigel Hayes’ rugged athleticism offering a nice complement, Wisconsin’s interior (especially offensively) will be difficult to handle in 2014-15.
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NCAA Tournament Game Analysis: The National Championship Game

Posted by Brian Otskey (@botskey) on April 7th, 2014

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#7 Connecticut vs. #8 Kentucky – National Championship Game (at Arlington, Texas) – 9:10 PM ET on CBS

History will be made in some form tonight at AT&T Stadium no matter which team wins this game. Connecticut is bidding to become the first #7 seed to ever win the national championship while Kentucky is looking to become the first #8 seed since Cinderella team Villanova toppled top-seeded Georgetown in 1985, the first year of the 64/68-team era. Kevin Ollie could become the first coach to win a championship in his first tournament appearance since Michigan’s Steve Fisher accomplished that feat a quarter-century ago in 1989 at Seattle’s Kingdome. John Calipari could win his second title in three seasons, this time with the nation’s most inexperienced team (according to Ken Pomeroy’s statistics). Something has to give in this game between what some observers have said are teams of destiny. Connecticut is going for the Texas triple play, so to speak, having closed out two previous Final Fours in the Lone Star State (2004 in San Antonio and 2011 in Houston) with championships while Kentucky has three players from the state on its roster, including hometown favorite Julius Randle. Connecticut is seeking its fourth national championship while Kentucky would earn its ninth with a win.

Coach Cal is looking for his second title in three seasons tonight against Connecticut. (NYDN)

Coach Cal is looking for his second title in three seasons tonight against Connecticut. (NYDN)

Kentucky has had some of its best offensive games of the season in this tournament. The Wildcats have not been defensive juggernauts, but timely stops and consistent offensive output have been the keys to their success over the last couple of weeks (along with clutch Aaron Harrison shots, of course). Going up against yet another strong defensive team in Connecticut (UK has already faced Kansas State, Wichita State and Louisville, all terrific on the defensive end) will be a test for the “Cardiac Cats.” At the point guard position, Andrew Harrison has to do a better job taking care of the basketball against the undersized, but quicker and pesky Huskies guards. He is averaging four turnovers per game in the tournament and making him uncomfortable needs to be part of the game plan for Ollie’s team. Daring Andrew Harrison shoot has been fairly successful for Kentucky’s opponents as he is just 18-for-52 (35 percent) from the floor in five tournament games, which even includes a solid 6-for-9 performance against Wichita State in the round of 32. By contrast, making his brother Aaron put the ball on the floor and drive is the best strategy for Connecticut. Aaron Harrison has made 14-of-25 threes (56 percent) in the tournament but he is just 8-for-27 (30 percent) when it comes to two point shots. Chasing him off the three point line and making him put it on the deck has to be a point of emphasis for Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright defensively. Kentucky is at its best when Andrew Harrison is moving the ball well, Aaron Harrison is open on the wing and James Young is either knocking down triples or slashing through the defense, opening up the lane for Randle in the post. Of course, Randle is so good and so strong that he can do a number of things on the low block. The freshman has 50+ pounds on Connecticut’s four man DeAndre Daniels and nearly 40 pounds on Phillip Nolan and Amida Brimah, both of whom are good defensively but also quite raw by the same token. Ollie may very well wrinkle in some zone to keep Kentucky out of the lane and dare it to make shots. However, that is still risky because of the ability of Aaron Harrison and Young to connect from the three point line. The Huskies are sneaky good when it comes to interior defense, allowing just 42.2 percent field goal shooting inside the three point arc. That will be tested against the stronger Randle and Dakari Johnson, who is very difficult to guard when he catches the ball deep in the post. Great interior defense is a staple of the Jim Calhoun era and a part of the Connecticut culture that Ollie has carried over while building the program his way.

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The RTC Podcast: National Championship Edition

Posted by rtmsf on April 7th, 2014

It’s here. For the better part of five months, teams around the country have worked their tails off to prepare for and compete in the NCAA Tournament. Sixty-eight hopefuls were invited three weeks ago; only two remain standing today. It’s all about getting a chance to play on Monday night, and Kentucky and Connecticut, two of the top basketball programs in America for decades running, have earned the right to compete on that stage. In this week’s RTC Podcast, the guys reflect on the Final Four games — what went right, what went wrong — for each of the four teams, take an aside to investigate the final outcome of #cheerfortheears, and break down the National Championship that will played in Arlington, Texas, later tonight. It’s a long but worthwhile listen this week, and we hope, as always, that you’ll join us.

  • 0:00-15:17 – Kentucky Wins Another Thriller
  • 15:17-28:53 – UConn Hands Florida Another Loss
  • 28:53-32:40 – #CheerForTheEars
  • 32:40-37:42 – Postgame Reactions From the Winners And Losers
  • 37:42-46:23 – What a Win Means For Each Program’s History
  • 46:23-1:07:51 – Championship Game Preview
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NCAA Tournament Tidbits: 04.07.14 Edition

Posted by Griffin Wong on April 7th, 2014

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March Madness is finally upon us, and we here at RTC are here to make everything a little bit easier for you. From the First Four until One Shining Moment, we’ll be dropping daily tidbits of knowledge regarding the teams in each region.

Kentucky

  • Kentucky entered the NCAA Tournament unranked, but the Wildcats now find themselves playing for their second national championship in the last three years. With all the blows it took this season, it’s incredible that Kentucky is still playing. ”It’s nuts,” [coach John] Calipari said. “We’re still standing.”
  • With Final Fours at three different programs and on the fringe of his second National Championship, Kentucky coach John Calipari has a shot to cement himself as arguably the best coach in the game right now.
  • Kentucky center Willie Cauley-Stein will be on the sidelines tonight, but he’s trying his best to accept his new role as a coach/cheerleader. He added, ”I think that’s kind of my role now: staying in somebody’s ear. When you see something, make sure you let them know. It could help them. If they take the advice, cool. That’s really all I can do.”
  • Starting five freshmen, the similarities between Kentucky and Michigan’s Fab Five are uncanny. Coach John Calipari sees the similarities between his team and the Fab Five not in appearance, but rather in the manner that both teams handle themselves. ”What they did and how they came together, anything you ever watch on that [the Fab Five], can’t you just feel the brotherhood?” Calipari said. “These guys are the same way. They’re fighting for each other. They closed ranks as things got ugly. They were there for each other.”
  • It’s been a wild road for Kentucky, and not even Coach Calipari can know what is coming next. However, what he does know is that his team can perform when it really counts. ”Late in the game, they have an unbelievable will to win,” Calipari said.

Connecticut

  • UConn All-American Shabazz Napier  added another honor to his long list: the 2014 Bob Cousy Award for the Nation’s best point guard.
  • Florida was arguably a better all-around team that UConn, but the Huskies excecuted a brilliant strategy to shut down the Gators. Behind its “Ace of Spades” strategy, UConn harassed Florida star Scottie Wilbekin and held him to just 4 points. In describing the his game plan, UConn coach Kevin Ollie kept it simple: ”We wanted to take him [Wilbekin] out.”
  • Kemba Walker led the way during UConn’s 2011 National Championship run, but now it’s Shabazz Napier’s turn. Napier may be his own man, but there’s no doubt he wants to end his career the same way Walker did. ”A lot of comparisons are going to be thrown around. I’m not going to shy away from it. But at the end of the day, I’m not him. I want to do what he did and win the championship, but we’re walking our own path. We all want to get to the same promised land.”
  • Check out some of the anecdotes that UConn players gave about their leader Shabazz Napier.
  • UConn coach Kevin Ollie has a long way to go if he wants to measure up to his predecessor, Jim Calhoun, and his three National Championships, but winning tonight would be a good way to start creating his own legacy. “I’m not trying to be Coach Calhoun; I can’t fill those shoes,” Ollie said. “But I am trying to be the best Kevin Ollie I can be, and that’s what I am trying to do each and every day.”

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Circle of March: Championship Monday Edition

Posted by rtmsf on April 7th, 2014

From 340 teams a month ago to just two remaining. Kentucky and Connecticut will tip it off tonight in the unlikeliest of championship games, but the beauty of March Madness is that the unpredictable is often the only predictable thing. It’s been five weeks since we debuted this year’s Circle of March, and 338 teams have dropped off in the interim. There’s definitely some magic surrounding this year’s NCAA Tourney, and we’re really starting to wonder if the position of the “C” somewhat randomly in the eye of the Circle has some supernatural meaning. We’ll find out soon; the rest of Monday  can’t pass quickly enough — let’s get this thing started!

circlemarch_4_6Eliminated From National Title Contention (04.07.14)

  • Florida
  • Wisconsin
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Rushed Reactions: #8 Kentucky 74, #2 Wisconsin 73

Posted by rtmsf on April 5th, 2014

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Rush the Court is covering the Final Four from Arlington, Texas, this weekend.

Three Key Takeaways.

Aaron Harrison, Redux.

Aaron Harrison, Redux.

  1. Stone. Cold. Aaron. Harrison. Wow, just wow. Every time you think that these Cats have run out of lives, they just continue to make just enough plays, often in astonishing fashion, to survive and advance. One Wildcat in particular — freshman guard Aaron Harrison — has taken the notion of clutch to a whole new level. One week after drilling a long contested three to send the Wildcats to the Final Four, he drilled another from very near the same spot to push his team into a National Championship game that few would have anticipated several weeks ago. After the game, he said that he didn’t feel like he has a clutch gene, but we’d beg to differ. The fact of the matter is that Harrison, along with many of these Kentucky kids, are supremely confident in their gifts, which gives them the requisite swagger to both take and make these big shots.
  2. Calipari’s Tweak Has Worked. For any number of reasons, whatever Calipari and his staff were doing for the first three-quarters of this season only marginally worked. The Wildcats only had one five-game winning streak all season long, and that was from mid-November to early December against the likes of Robert Morris, UT-Arlington, Cleveland State, Eastern Michigan and Providence (average KenPom rank = #131). Kentucky’s current five-game winning streak includes wins over Kansas State, Wichita State, Louisville, Michigan and Wisconsin (average KenPom rank = #13). Even accounting for a four-month lapse in time from those games, it’s not like the Wildcats set the world on fire in the SEC either, with a 12-6 league mark. Since the postseason began, though, Calipari has seemed to successfully remove the pressure from the heads of his kids by simplifying the game for each of them at an individual level and referring to sorcery and magic to keep the media at bay. No matter the reason, it’s worked and it’s still working. After all of the ups and downs throughout the season, Kentucky finds itself exactly in the position that many expected before the realities of a long and growth-filled regular season came to pass. Calipari is many, many things, but his best attribute is simply getting players to believe.
  3. Wisconsin is Crushed, But Has No Reason To Hang Its Head. The Badgers did everything required to win this game, as it held a two-point lead with six seconds left against a team running an isolation play for a mediocre shooter beyond the three-point line. In most scenarios, Bo Ryan’s team walks away with a win there and we’re not talking about the Wisconsin players being crushed (and they were absolutely heartbroken, make no mistake about that). But considering that Ryan’s program made the leap this season by getting to his first Final Four and eschewing some of the (deserving) reputation that the Badgers were a defense-only grind-it-out team, he is poised to start making these events more frequently. Hopefully tonight’s game, where the Badgers proved it could go toe to toe offensively with a boatload of NBA prospects, will help to combat some of that perception. Even better for Wisconsin, Ryan expects everyone except for Ben Brust back next season. Expect a top five national spot in the 2014-15 preseason polls for the Badgers.

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Rushed Reactions: #7 Connecticut 63, #1 Florida 53

Posted by rtmsf on April 5th, 2014

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Rush the Court is covering the Final Four from Arlington, Texas, this weekend.

Three Key Takeaways.

Calhoun

Former Connecticut head coach Jim Calhoun Was All Smiles After the Game

  1. Tale of Two First Halves. The tone for this game was set in the first half, with Florida running out to a seemingly dominant 16-4 lead with 10 minutes gone. At that time, the Gators looked nothing less than dominant on both ends of the floor — bigger, stronger, and methodically having their way with the Huskies. The problem was that the lead needed to be bigger than it was, because from the 8:49 point of the first half UConn closed to take a 25-22 halftime lead and kept it up to ultimately double up one of the nation’s best defensive teams by a margin of 59-37 the rest of the game. UConn did it by making some timely shots, of course — DeAndre Daniels’ pair of early threes in particular — but where the Huskies were really able to stifle the Gators was in completely shutting down Florida’s starting backcourt of Scottie Wilbekin and Michael Frazier (3-of-12 FG for seven points). The backcourt duo had essentially taken turns leading Florida offensively through the South Region, but without either capable of getting anything going tonight, it was left to Patric Young (19/5) and Casey Prather (15/6) to carry the load. In a game where points were at a premium, the Gators’ defense wasn’t going to be able to manufacture enough to compensate for a rough 39 percent overall and 1-of-10 from three shooting performance.
  2. On Florida’s Go-To Guy. With 49 seconds remaining, the game was all but final when Florida’s senior leader, Scottie Wilbekin, shot a horrifically off three-point airball that caused a shot clock review. There were a couple of notable moments related to that miss. First, it iced the game for the Huskies and all of the Gators’ body language afterward clearly exhibited that fact. But it also served to illustrate why Florida spent all year gambling in its reliance on a crafty, steady, solid point guard like Wilbekin to become its bona fide go-to guy. Billy Donovan’s team had a magnificent college basketball season, ending a 30-game winning streak with a 36-3 record and a loss in the Final Four — there’s no shame anywhere in those numbers. But as he noted after tonight’s game, “Given our talent level, we played way better than our potential.” And he’s right, with Wilbekin as Exhibit A to that notion. The NCAA Tournament is a cruel mistress, and many players far better than him have been eliminated much earlier than the Final Four, but it’s really difficult for a really good collegian with no professional prospects to have so many good offensive performances in a row (against high-quality competition).
  3. The Huskies Won Without a Huge Night From #shabazzketball. So if you were told before the game that Shabazz Napier would have a pedestrian 12-point, six-assist performance in the Final Four, there’s no way that you pick the Huskies to win, right? That’s what is somewhat scary about how well some of the other UConn players are performing right now, particularly DeAndre Daniels. In a low-possession game (57), a quiet night from Napier is perfectly fine so long as Kevin Ollie also gets 11 points from Niels Giffey, 13 from Ryan Boatright, and 20 from Daniels, all coming in an efficient manner. What he can’t have is guys spraying wild shots all over the place, and I for one can’t remember more than a couple of questionable takes from Ollie’s group all night. The proof is in the pudding, too — the Huskies hit 77 percent of their foul shots, 61 percent of their twos, 41 percent of their threes, and lit up the Gators’ defense for 1.11 points per possession. That kind of full-team performance is how you beat #1 seeds.

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Three Lessons Wisconsin Should Leverage from the Michigan vs. Kentucky Game

Posted by Deepak Jayanti (@dee_b1g) on April 5th, 2014

Wisconsin can’t score when needed in the postseason. Wisconsin can’t handle athletic teams in the postseason. Wisconsin tries to slow the game down too much, which doesn’t work in the postseason. In addition to not having great luck, the aforementioned reasons had conspired to keep Bo Ryan from a Final Four. But after the Badgers’ wins over powerhouses such as Arizona, Baylor and Oregon in the first two weekends of the NCAA Tournament, the Badgers have proved that they belong in the Final Four and can beat anybody. Having said that, a peaking Kentucky team took down the AAC and Big Ten champions on its way to North Texas, so they will pose issues for the Badgers. If it hopes to play on Monday night, Wisconsin could stand to leverage a few lessons from last Sunday’s Elite Eight thriller between Kentucky and Michigan.

The following are three areas where Wisconsin should have paid close attention to Kentucky’s win over Michigan.

Frank Kaminsky needs to take Julius Randle off the dribble.

Frank Kaminsky needs to take Julius Randle off the dribble. (AP)

  1. Force Julius Randle and Dakari Johnson to move laterally on defense. While these forwards can dominate the paint on the offensive end, they should be challenged on the defensive end. If both are on the court at the same time, one of them will have to defend Frank Kaminsky or Sam Dekker. During certain possessions when Michigan’s Glenn Robinson was aggressive with the ball, he comfortably drove into the lane, which forced Randle and Johnson to pick up a foul because the freshmen are not used to defending wings who can put the ball on the floor. Kaminsky has been masterful with his ball-handling over the past month and his main goal ought to be to put Randle into uncomfortable positions defensively. Pump-fakes off the pick-and-roll and driving the lane going to his right should be a play that will be easy for the Badgers to execute, but the key will be to stick to it consistently throughout the game. Robinson settled for the jumper too much and gave the Kentucky forwards a pass here, but this is an area of the half-court offense that Wisconsin can and should definitely try to exploit. Read the rest of this entry »
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NCAA Tournament Game Analysis: Final Four

Posted by Brian Otskey on April 4th, 2014

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#1 Florida vs. #7 Connecticut – National Semifinal (at Arlington, TX) – 6:09 PM ET on TBS

The Final Four tips off with a Florida team that has won 30 consecutive games facing the last team to beat it, Connecticut. The Huskies knocked off the Gators in Storrs way back on December 2 on a Shabazz Napier buzzer-beater. Although it was four months ago, much can be learned from that game. Contrary to popular belief, Florida’s top six rotation players suited up for it, although Scottie Wilbekin left the game with about three minutes to play due to injury. In that contest, Florida absolutely dominated the paint by holding Connecticut to 41.4 percent shooting from two-point range and winning the rebounding battle by eight. However, the Gators lost the game at the three-point line, where they allowed the Huskies to make 11-of-24 attempts. Sixteen Florida turnovers also didn’t help matters for Billy Donovan’s team.

Napier Has His Eyes Set on Another Title (Credit: UConn Athletic Communications/Stephen Slade)

Napier Has His Eyes Set on Another Title (Credit: UConn Athletic Communications/Stephen Slade)

Fast forward to April and the Gators’ front line is formidable as ever. While Connecticut’s interior play has improved and its rebounding has been terrific in the NCAA Tournament, facing Patric Young and the nation’s top-ranked defense will be a tall task for the Huskies. Connecticut is talented but young and raw up front. Amida Brimah and Phillip Nolan are just a freshman and sophomore, respectively, while DeAndre Daniels loves to drift away from the paint and is not a back-to-the-basket kind of player. For Kevin Ollie’s team to have success, Napier must continue his dominant performance and Daniels has to make jump shots. Napier and Ryan Boatright are the two constants on this team, but it is Daniels who takes it to another level when playing well. He will likely be guarded by Will Yeguete, Dorian Finney-Smith or Young, or any combination of the three. If Daniels cannot get anything going, Napier will have to score 30+ points and Connecticut will have to have another terrific night from the three-point line in order to advance to Monday night’s national championship game.

Defensively, there is no doubt that Connecticut can match Florida. The Huskies’ defense has been phenomenal all season long and doesn’t get the credit it deserves with Napier stealing the spotlight most of the time. Connecticut ranks 10th in adjusted defensive efficiency and actually has a slightly stronger interior defense than Florida when you look at opponents’ two-point percentage (one percentage point better than Florida). An important part of Ollie’s game plan will be to limit Scottie Wilbekin and prevent him from easily getting Florida into its sets and taking over the game. Easier said than done, of course.

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