Rushed Reactions: #1 Duke 66, #2 Gonzaga 52

Posted by Bennet Hayes on March 29th, 2015

RTC National Columnist Bennet Hayes is in Houston this week for the South Regional semifinals and final.

Three Key Takeaways.

Both Jones' -- Tyus And Matt -- Were Instrumental In Duke's Elite Eight Victory Over Gonzaga (Photo: Duke Chronicle)

Both Jones’ — Tyus And Matt — Were Instrumental In Duke’s Elite Eight Victory Over Gonzaga (Photo: Duke Chronicle)

  1. Offenses Fail To Get Going, Again. In Friday night’s regional semifinals, four teams that began the night among the 65 most accurate three-point shooting teams in the country combined to shoot 23 percent from long-range. Much was made of the clumsy dome setup inducing the offensive malaise, but the forecast for Sunday was still for efficient offense by the bucket-load, given the firepower Duke and Gonzaga brought to the table. The two teams got off to a fast start – 22 points in the first five minutes – but things settled down significantly from there on out. Gonzaga and Duke combined to shoot 41 percent from the floor, including just 38 percent for the victorious Blue Devils. Duke did do two things extremely well offensively: shoot the ball accurately from three-point range (8-19) and maximize possessions (an amazing three total turnovers for the game). Gonzaga was less proficient in each category, making only two of 10 three-point attempts and turning the ball over 13 times. There were glimpses of the offensive brilliance we witnessed from both these teams all season, but this regional final never escalated into the explosive matchup many expected.
  2. Matt Jones, Who? Matt Jones. The Duke sophomore supplied the game of his life in this Regional Final. Jones, who entered Sunday averaging just 5.9 points per game, finished with 16 points (one shy of his season and career highs) and converted four of Duke’s eight made three-point field goals. With Quinn Cook and Tyus Jones again struggling to find the range from deep (combined 2-8 on three-point attempts), Jones’ unexpected scoring was crucial in getting the Blue Devils into the final minutes with a lead. Mark Few said afterwards that concerns about guarding Justise Winslow had led to Gonzaga to do a significant amount of cross-matching with Kyle Wiltjer defending Jones, a reasonable coaching decision that devolved into a disastrous result for the Zags. Jones, Duke’s fifth starter and a Texas native (like Friday night hero Justise Winslow) playing in his home state, was as important as any of his more acclaimed teammates Sunday afternoon.
  3. Wiltjer-Winslow Matchup. This was the matchup many fixated on in advance of Sunday afternoon, and with good reason: Winslow was coming off a scintillating Friday night performance, while Wiltjer has been arguably the Zags best player all season. Mixing and matching by both coaches saw both players spend a good deal of time defending elsewhere, but Wiltjer kept Gonzaga close in the first half, scoring 13 points on 5-7 field-goal shooting. Meanwhile, Winslow forced the action early and managed just five points in the opening frame, missing five of his six field-goal attempts. Things changed dramatically after intermission, however. Wiltjer struggled to get touches and was a virtual non-factor in the second half, while Duke’s freshman swingman found his Friday night form, pumping in 11 second-half points. Among the 11 was the biggest shot of the night, a three-pointer with the shot clock winding down and less than three minutes to go that put Duke up nine. Both players finished with 16 points, but Winslow’s big second-half was a key differentiator for Mike Krzyewski’s team.

Star of the Game. Tyus Jones, Duke. None of Duke’s big four – Jones, Winslow, Jahlil Okafor and Quinn Cook – played anything close to a perfect game today. Heck, they combined to shoot 15-45 from the field. Still, it was Jones that catalyzed Duke’s quick start, scoring seven points as the Blue Devils jumped out to a 17-10 lead. The South Region’s Most Outstanding Player finished the day with 15 points, six assists and no turnovers, helping Duke to that minuscule turnover total of three. Matt Jones’ unexpected scoring was a huge boost Sunday afternoon, but it was the more familiar Jones on the Duke roster who dictated this game’s flow from the outset. His ball-handling and all-around savvy will now be put to use in Indianapolis.

Quotable. “It’s meant everything. Best team I have ever been on talent-wise and the best group of guys. We can look back and be pretty happy with what we have been able to do.” –Kevin Pangos, Gonzaga senior point guard, on what this Gonzaga season has meant to him.

“It’s a shot he makes. It’s a shot he makes 499 times out of 500.” –Mark Few, on Kyle Wiltjer’s missed layup with 4:51 to go that would have tied game. Duke went on a 13-1 run to close the game after the miss.

“Our defense the last 16 minutes was spectacular — not (just) good. I love these guys and they came through.” –Mike Krzyewski, Duke head coach

“This team is eight guys. There is not someone hiding in the locker room that is going to come out and appear.” -Krzyewski.

Sights & Sounds. Whether it was the Sunday afternoon time slot, a Final Four bid on the line, or just the anticipation of the region’s top two seeds meeting, there was an urgency in NRG Stadium that never existed Friday night. The Duke faithful significantly outnumbered Gonzaga supporters (rough estimate — 5:1 ratio of Duke to Gonzaga fans), but enough folks from the Pacific Northwest made the journey South to create a back-and-forth feel to the cheering. In the end, however, the final image of NRG Stadium was all too familiar: Thousands of contented Duke fans standing in acknowledgment of a Blue Devil team advancing to face their next challenge.

What’s Next?  Duke advances to the program’s 16th Final Four, where it will take on Tom Izzo and Michigan State in Indianapolis. The fourth overall meeting between Mike Krzyewski and Tom Izzo in the NCAA Tournament will double as the second time they have met in a National Semifinal. Duke has won two of those three prior matchups, which includes a Sweet 16 game two seasons ago. On the other side, the loss to Duke ends what will likely go down as the greatest season in Gonzaga history. The Zags, now 0-2 all-time in the Elite Eight, will finish the year at 35-3. Mark Few loses Byron Wesley, Gary Bell and WCC Player of the Year Kevin Pangos to graduation after an undeniably special year in Spokane.

 

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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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Rushed Reactions: #2 Gonzaga 74, #11 UCLA 62

Posted by Bennet Hayes on March 27th, 2015

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Three Key Takeaways.

Przemek Karnowski Was The Key Figure In Gonzaga's Sweet 16 Victory Over UCLA

Przemek Karnowski Was The Key Figure In Gonzaga’s Sweet 16 Victory Over UCLA

  1. NRG Stadium Problems. Two normally explosive offensive teams struggled to put the ball in the basket for much of this game, particularly in the first 20 minutes of action. Neither team managed even 40 percent field goal shooting for the opening half, and they combined to miss 12 of 14 three-point attempts in advance of intermission. For the game, the two teams combined to shoot under 40 percent from the field and a meager 19 percent from long-range, making just six total three-point field goals all night. Among onlookers, cavernous NRG Stadium seemed to receive much of the blame for the shooting woes. We’re not ready to chalk the struggles up solely to the lack of a backdrop for shooters in the dome (and lets revisit this after Duke and Utah torch the nets later tonight), but the setup did feel clumsy and uncomfortable. Given that Gonzaga had made 41 percent of three-point attempts on the year and UCLA 37 percent, it does seem likely that the NRG Stadium layout had something to do with the errant efforts tonight.
  2. Alford and Alford. Father-son duos were all the rage this March, but unfortunately for those who enjoy a good family narrative, those storylines are now closed for the season. Both father and son failed to do their part tonight for the Bruins: Bryce didn’t make a three-point field goal in the first 37 minutes of the game, finishing with just eight points on 3-of-11 field goal shooting; Steve’s failure was less salient, but the Bruins never showed the preparedness and energy necessary to stop the prolific Gonzaga offense. If last weekend was the Alfords at their best; tonight caught father and son at their near-worst.
  3. Few, Zags Break Through. It’s hard to believe, but this will be Mark Few’s first trip to the Elite Eight. America first became acquainted with Gonzaga when the Zags made the national quarterfinals in 1999 under Dan Monson, but Few had been 0-4 in Sweet Sixteen games before this evening. Most notable among those losses was the 2006 defeat at the hands of these very Bruins, which famously ended in a jersey-full of Adam Morrison tears. There is another significant milestone available for Few’s team on Sunday afternoon, but the closing-seconds elation on the Gonzaga bench hinted at a team – and a coach – who had finally chucked a monkey off the back.

Star of the Game. Przemek Karnowski, Gonzaga. The biggest man on the floor was the best player in this game. Karnowski physically dominated Tony Parker, Kevon Looney and a fairly well-regarded UCLA frontcourt, scoring 18 points and grabbing nine rebounds on the evening. But Karnowski’s contributions went beyond his work near his offensive rim, as he blocked two shots and dished out a pair of no-look passes to Domantas Sabonis, both of which ended in dunks. On a night where Gonzaga’s perimeter shots were not falling (3-of-19 from three-point range), a big effort from their big man was much needed in getting them past UCLA and into the Elite Eight.

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Sweet Sixteen Storylines: South and East Regionals

Posted by Henry Bushnell on March 27th, 2015

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Tonight the Sweet Sixteen moves to Syracuse and Houston, so let’s take a look at the top five storylines in the East and South Regions.

South Storylines

1. Is this finally Gonzaga’s year? Mention Gonzaga to a casual college basketball fan, and more often than not, the word ‘overrated’ pops into his head. The Bulldogs have had some really impressive regular seasons under Mark Few, making the NCAA Tournament every year since he took over in 1999. But time after time, the Zags have come up short in March. Few has never taken Gonzaga past the Sweet Sixteen as a head coach, but this could be the year that the drought ends. This year’s team is more complete and well-rounded than most previous editions, and the final hurdle on the path to the Elite Eight is a #11 seed — albeit a strong one — in UCLA. A program-first Final Four might also be within reach, but let’s not put the cart before the horse just yet — for many reasons, the Zags need to win tonight.

Is this finally the year for Mark Few and Gonzaga? (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Is this finally the year for Mark Few and Gonzaga? (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

2. Duke’s recent Tourney hiccups. Since winning the 2010 National Championship, Mike Krzyzewski’s postseason record has actually been pretty lackluster. He came into this year 5-4 in the NCAA Tournaments from 2011-14 and he has been on the wrong end of some stunning upsets — losses to #15 seed Lehigh in 2012 and #14 seed Mercer a year ago. Even the 2011 Sweet Sixteen loss to #5 seed Arizona was unexpected. It’s exactly that kind of loss that Duke will be hoping to avoid this time around against a dangerous Utah squad.

3. Back aboard the Utah bandwagon? The Utes faded from the spotlight late in the season. They lost three of their last five games and exited the Pac-12 Tournament by losing to Oregon for the second time in less than a month. But they were businesslike last weekend in handling Stephen F. Austin and Georgetown, and come into tonight’s contest as only a five-point underdog against Duke. Utah has been a top 10 KenPom team since early January, and after a methodical but strong second half dispatching of the Hoyas, it seems like everybody has fallen back in love with the Utes as a Final Four sleeper. Read the rest of this entry »

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NCAA Game Analysis: Sweet Sixteen Friday

Posted by Bennet Hayes & Tommy Lemoine on March 27th, 2015

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The Sweet Sixteen continues with four more compelling games tonight in Houston and Syracuse. Here are this evening’s previews.

#2 Gonzaga vs. #11 UCLA – South Region Sweet Sixteen (at Houston, TX) – 7:15 PM ET on CBS

A new year brings new players like Kyle Wiltjer, who no doubt will play a huge role in Friday's matchup. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)

A new year brings new players like Kyle Wiltjer, who no doubt will play a huge role in Friday’s matchup. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)

Nobody forgets the tears. Nine years and three days ago, UCLA induced a very public display of emotion from Adam Morrison. The circumstances that led to the devastation were far from ordinary – the Bruins erased a 17-point second half deficit and scored the final 11 points to down the Zags and advance to the Elite Eight – but it’s the singular image of Morrison, keeled over on the floor with blue Gonzaga jersey pulled over his face, that has persisted longest in the memory banks of March. Now, almost a decade later, the two teams renew March pleasantries for the first time since Morrison’s college career came to that tearful end. The differences between this matchup and the last are too numerous to list, but there is one key similarity: Gonzaga again has a team widely perceived to be capable of winning a national title.

Mark Few’s team has made just one Sweet Sixteen since 2006, and that team (in 2009) needed only to beat a #12 and a #13 to get there. Needless to say, Gonzaga Final Four prospects haven’t been this bright since Morrison was in uniform. This Bulldog team is nearly as explosive as the ’06 bunch (emphasis on nearly: that team was #1 nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency), but points now originate from a wider variety of sources. Six Zags average at least eight points a game, and every Gonzaga regular owns an offensive rating in excess of 110. In the first two rounds, Gonzaga averaged 86.5 points per game and posted points per possession marks of 1.23 and 1.30 against North Dakota State and Iowa, respectively. Unlike in past years, the Zags we see this March look remarkably similar to the ones we watched all season. Good news for Mark Few; bad news for UCLA. Read the rest of this entry »

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NCAA Tournament Tidbits: 03.25.14 Edition

Posted by Griffin Wong on March 25th, 2015

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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.

Midwest Region

This guy is not intimidated by John Calipari and the Wildcats. (Getty)

This guy is not intimidated by John Calipari and the Wildcats. (Getty)

  • Though he’s struggled thus far in the NCAA Tournament, John Calipari’s message to Devin Booker is simple. “We told him after the game, ‘Hey, you’ve got to keep shooting,’ because there’s going to be a game we need him to make shots or we can’t win,” Calipari said. “You can miss all these. It doesn’t matter. The next one’s coming up and we may need you to make some shots.”
  • Bob Huggins has had John Calipari’s number historically, but Kentucky certainly has the advantage by the numbers this time. Here’s what Kentucky blog A Sea of Blue has to say about Thursday’s battle.
  • West Virginia is fast and physical, but Huggins is concerned about Kentucky’s defense, particularly inside the three-point line. “Probably the closest one was Kentucky in 2010. We led by one [actually two, 28-26] at halftime and did not have a two-point field goal (eight three-pointers and four foul shots). I think every time we took it inside the three [point line] we got our shots blocked. I can’t remember anybody who would be as close to this team other than that team,” he said.
  • The odds are against him, but Bob Huggins has a chance to improve on his 8-2 record against his buddy John Calipari on Thursday.
  • The public seems to be praising Wichita State after its upset over Kansas, but don’t sleep on Notre Dame just yet.
  • Pat Connaughton has been huge for Notre Dame on the court, but his leadership away from it is what sets him apart.
  • Alabama is reportedly looking to make a run at Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall. Here‘s why Matt Bonesteel thinks Marshall should stick around in Wichita.
  • Wichita State is the lowest-seeded team left in the Midwest Region, but the Shockers have several qualities that previous Final Four teams have possessed.

West Region

Two old friends go at it in the Sweet 16. Will Chris Mack the Pupil get the upper hand? Or will Sean Miller the teacher still show who's boss? (Getty)

Two old friends go at it in the Sweet Sixteen. Will Chris Mack the Pupil get the upper hand? Or will Sean Miller the Teacher still show him who’s boss? (Getty)

  • It’s no accident that Bo Ryan’s Wisconsin teams rarely foul. Averaging around 12 fouls per game, the Badgers rank among the lowest in the country in that metric. Much of this is due to the emphasis put on it by the head coach. “There are a few pillars of the program or things that have been consistent through the years and helped us be successful,” associate head coach Greg Gard says. “And that’s one of them. They understand if they want to get on the floor and play, they’re going to have to be able to play without fouling.”
  • Despite having a reputation as a very well-respected academic institution, Wisconsin hasn’t exactly wowed people with its recent graduation rates.
  • Though he was reportedly doubtful to play earlier this week, Kennedy Meeks worked out briefly on Tuesday and he is still a possibility to play on Thursday night.
  • For Marcus Paige, North Carolina’s Sweet Sixteen game on Thursday will be a bit of a family affair. His sister, Morgan, played at Wisconsin, and now plays professionally in Europe.
  • Xavier big man Jalen Reynolds is being investigated by the school for a recent incident outside of a Xavier dorm. However, Reynolds is still scheduled to play for the time being.
  • Thursday’s Sweet Sixteen battle will be special for Xavier coach Chris Mack. Mack served as Arizona coach Sean Miller’s top assistant for five years before he left Xavier for the desert. “The fact is that it’s hard to play against someone who gave me such an opportunity. We spent so much time in the trenches and he trusted me so much as an assistant coach. I enjoyed my time with him,” Mack said.
  • Both Arizona freshman Stanley Johnson and others surrounding the program seem open about Johnson only being in Tucson for one year, but that isn’t stopping both parties from making the best of the situation.
  • For Sean Miller, coaching against his former team, Xavier, will be tough. “It’s kind of one of those things that when you’re watching the selection show, you’re kind of watching and cheering for them [Xavier coach Chris Mack and former Xavier coach Thad Matta] to go off your board,” [Arizona Director of Basketball Operations Ryan] Reynolds said. Reynolds came with Miller from Xavier to Arizona six years ago.

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NCAA Tournament Tidbits: 03.24.15 Edition

Posted by Griffin Wong on March 24th, 2015

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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.

Midwest Region

Can Huggins Use His Press to Get WVU Back to the Final Four? (USA Today Images)

Can Huggins Use His Press to Get WVU Back to the Final Four? (USA Today Images)

  • Kentucky may not be 1991 UNLV, but they’re looking pretty darn tough at 36-0.
  • Kentucky has been tested a couple times this season, but West Virginia may provide the Wildcats’ most physical battle yet. The “relentless” Mountaineers are not only strong, but they will also keep up the pressure all game long.
  • For West Virginia, the formula to beating Kentucky will have to involve the press. The Mountaineers have forced 40 turnovers over their past two games, and will need to force a bunch on Thursday to have a chance against the undefeated Wildcats.
  • West Virginia had a huge win over Maryland in the second round of the tournament, but much was made after the game about the way in which coach Bob Hugginsdaughters behaved during and after the game. The daughters were particularly harsh towards Maryland senior Dez Wells, taunting him with references to rape allegations he faced at Xavier. Wells’ case was never taken to court and he received a settlement from Xavier for a wrongful expulsion in 2013.
  • Notre Dame may have one of the best offenses in the country but the Irish wouldn’t have reached the Sweet Sixteen without its defense. Down late against Butler, the Irish came up with a couple huge stops to send the game into overtime. “Everybody talks about our offense,” said senior captain Pat Connaughton. “But to be able to get that stop on the defensive end to send us into overtime and send us to the Sweet Sixteen is something I’m very proud of these guys for.”
  • Steve Vasturia may only be Notre Dame’s fifth leading scorer, but he’s played a huge role in the Irish’s run so far. With much of the defense’s focus on Jerian Grant, Pat Connaughton, and Zach Auguste, Vasturia exploded for 20 points against Butler.
  • Kansas may be the blue blood, but Wichita State earned the title of Kings of Kansas for 2015. Making a Sweet Sixteen is always great, but doing so against Kansas made it even sweeter for the Shockers.
  • Kansas Governor Sam Brownback was given resounding boos when showed on the jumbotron at the Kansas/Wichita State game on Sunday. Whether it was the fact that he had both teams on his shirt or his new policy on education funding, Jayhawks and Shockers’ fans came together for that one moment this past weekend.

West Region

  • Check out Wisconsin’s Nigel Hayes having some fun with an NCAA stenographer during a media session. Yes, like a court stenographer.
  • Wisconsin is looking forward to Thursday’s matchup against North Carolina. With UNC’s size and athleticism, the Badgers are expecting a fun game.
  • It’s looking more and more like North Carolina big man Kennedy Meeks will be out against Wisconsin. Given Wisconsin’s outstanding front line, this could prove especially problematic for the Tar Heels.
  • Even though coach Roy Williams has a resumé that includes two National Championships, seven Final Fours, and 16 Sweet Sixteens, he’s not taking this most recent trip for granted. However, it can be tough to do so, considering the degree to which excellence is demanded at UNC. “Let’s not have a misconception. These kids have had a pretty doggone good run for the last three years,” Williams said. “We’ve won 25, 24, and 26 [games], and … a lot of teams would like that.”
  • Xavier big man Matt Stainbrook is known for his play on the court, but he’s not actually on scholarship. To make a little cash on the side, Stainbrook drives part-time for the popular mobile application Uber.
  • Though the Musketeers have seemingly flown under the radar, this is Xavier‘s fifth Sweet Sixteen in the past eight years. The only other teams to achieve that level of sustained success are Michigan State, Kansas, Duke, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Kentucky and Arizona. That’s not bad company.
  • Other than Kentucky, Arizona may just be the hottest team in college basketball. The Wildcats haven’t lost since February 7 and have cruised into the Sweet Sixteen. If the Wildcats can keep it up, things may come full circle with a potential Elite Eight matchup against Wisconsin, the team that knocked them out in the same round just a year ago.
  • Arizona sophomore Rondae Hollis-Jefferson has played extremely well for the Wildcats thus far. In addition to his ability to lock down just about anyone, Hollis-Jefferson has the athleticism and skill to be a force on the offensive end.

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NCAA Regional Reset: South Region

Posted by Bennet Hayes on March 23rd, 2015

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Your bracket is busted and the Sweet Sixteen is set. Let’s do a Regional Reset. Follow @rtcsouthregion for reporting from Houston this week. You can find all four regional resets here.

New Favorite: #1 Duke. The Blue Devils are well-positioned to make their first Final Four since 2010. Two wins in Charlotte (by an average of 24.0 PPG) did little to diminish their status as the South Region favorite, even with Gonzaga and Utah also impressively advancing en route to Houston. Duke, 31-4 and trending upwards, has made clear the crown will go through them.

Quinn Cook And Matt Jones Helped Duke Cruise By San Diego State And Into The Sweet 16

Quinn Cook and Matt Jones Helped Duke Cruise by San Diego State and into the Sweet Sixteen. (Getty)

Horse of Darkness: #11 UCLA. The only double-digit seed left standing in this NCAA Tournament is the South Region’s darkest horse, despite that double-digit seed owning more national titles than any program in the history of college basketball. UCLA’s serendipitous March has been well-documented, but 80 minutes of solid basketball earned the Bruins a trip to Houston and the second weekend. The impediment to advancement (Gonzaga) will be significantly greater in Houston; can UCLA’s mutation into Cinderella maintain itself for another weekend?

Biggest Surprise (First Weekend): #3 Iowa State. It was the quick departure of a pair of #3 seeds from the Big 12 that supplied this year’s NCAA Tournament an early jolt on Thursday afternoon. Baylor’s demise on the other side of the bracket was surprising in its own right, but Iowa State’s loss to UAB was legitimately shocking. Fresh off a takedown of Kansas in the Big 12 Tournament championship game, the Cyclones had entered this tourney with engines revving. The draw was favorable in the South – many believed a Final Four run was in the cards. At worst, a second round victory over 14-point underdog UAB felt like a certainty. But the impossible becomes possible very quickly this time of year; before anyone knew it, Iowa State had become the first casualty of the Madness of March. Read the rest of this entry »

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Rushed Reactions: #2 Gonzaga 87, #7 Iowa 68

Posted by Andrew Murawa on March 22nd, 2015

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Rush the Court will be providing wall-to-wall coverage of each of the NCAA Tournament from each of the 13 sites this year. Follow our NCAA Tourney specific Twitter accounts at @RTCeastregion, @RTCMWregion,@RTCsouthregion and @RTCwestregion.

Three Key Takeaways.

Gonzaga Rolled into the Sweet Sixteen Today in Seattle (USA Today Images)

Gonzaga Rolled into the Sweet Sixteen Today in Seattle (USA Today Images)

  1. Skilled Bigs. In order to have a chance to beat Gonzaga, you’ve need size to deal with their trio of bigs – Kyle Wiltjer, Prezemek Karnowski, and Domantas Sabonis. But simply having size is not enough to slow down this group. Wiltjer, as he showed tonight, has the ability to step out well beyond the three-point line and rain jumpers from deep. Karnowski’s nimble feet and deft passing ability belie his 288 pounds and brick-wall defensive ability. And Sabonis’ intelligence and polished post moves are impressive for an 18-year-old freshman. The left-handed Karnowski and Sabonis present a different look for defenses. Oh, and these guys go 6’10”, 7’1”, 6’10”, respectively. They fouled out Iowa bigs Adam Woodbury and Gabe Olaseni and got three fouls on Aaron White. They scored 40 points in the paint and dominated on the glass. There aren’t a lot of teams in the nation outside of Lexington, Kentucky, that can match the Zags’ imposing and talented size.
  2. Useful Parts. You know all about those Gonzaga bigs. You also know about senior guards Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell. But something that will serve the Bulldogs extremely well from here on out is some of their bit pieces deeper down their bench. Kyle Dranginis has been described by head coach Mark Few as a “Swiss Army knife,” a guy who can do a little bit of everything. Tonight, after Iowa forward Jarrod Uthoff got off to a hot start draining sevearl mid-range jumpers, Dranginis earned that assignment for large stretches for the final three-quarters of the game, challenging his shots and generally making him uncomfortable. Vanderbilt transfer Eric McClellan only played 12 minutes but he served as an athletic defensive stopper on the perimeter, a tertiary ball-handler and another veteran leader. And then there’s USC transfer Byron Wesley who, although a starter and a double-figure scorer, flies under the radar. He’s another guy who Few can rely on as a lockdown defender on the perimeter against teams with strong guards. The stars on this team are one thing, but this Gonzaga roster checks off every box you look for in a Final Four contender.
  3. Defensive Questions, Still. Look, the Zags were phenomenal on offense today. The final numbers – 1.28 points per possession, 13-of-21 from three, 74% eFG. Those are ridiculous offensive statistics. But we know this is a talented team offensively. If this team is going to get to a Final Four, they’re going to need to get some stops. Iowa tonight did not have a lot of things go well for it, but they still shot a better than 50% eFG and averaged a point per possession. Gonzaga has some nice defensive pieces but they’ve also got some liabilities. How far they will go may depend on how well they can mask those issues.

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NCAA Game Analysis: Third Round, Sunday

Posted by RTC Staff on March 22nd, 2015

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For the majority of programs around the country, making the Sweet 16 is the start of what would be considered a “successful” season. While many of the programs set to participate in today’s Third Round have aspirations that extend well beyond the final 16, making it to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament has always been a mark of accomplishment. After today, eight teams will punch their ticket to next week. Here are eight preview’s of Sunday’s games.

#2 Virginia vs. #7 Michigan State – East Region Second Round (at Charlotte, NC) – 12:10 PM ET on CBS

Virginia faces Michigan State for the second-straight March. (Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports)

Virginia faces Michigan State for the second-straight March. (Jeremy Brevard/USA TODAY Sports)

The good news for Virginia is that Justin Anderson – still recovering from a broken finger – looked more like his old self against Belmont on Friday, scoring 15 points on 4-for-6 shooting and earning several trips to the free throw line. The bad news is that its vaunted defense allowed the #15-seeded Bruins to shoot 59 percent from two-point range and hang around for most of the afternoon. Michigan State, meanwhile, made relatively easy work of Georgia. Which makes one wonder: Is an upset a-brewin’ in Charlotte? Belmont found success by using its three-point barrage to spread out the Cavaliers’ Pack-Line defense, then exploiting the resultant lanes. The Spartans – while not quite as deep-ball oriented – attempt over one-third of their shots from behind the arc and hit nearly 39 percent of the time. On top of that, Tom Izzo’s club is very effective on both the offensive and defensive glass, led by rejuvenated forward Branden Dawson (12 PPG, 9 RPG). If Michigan State can stretch the defense, penetrate those openings and create second-chance opportunities, it might be able to find success against America’s second-most-efficient defense. Unfortunately, if Anderson takes another step forward, that might not be enough. With the 6’6” wing knocking down perimeter jumpers and attacking the lane on Friday, Virginia scored 1.22 points per possession – its most since February 28th – and looked much closer to the patient-but-efficient offense that dominated opponents in December and January. No matter how well the Spartans spread the floor, they are never going to score at will against Tony Bennett’s defense – no one does – so their ability to get stops will become crucial. But if Anderson is earning trips to free throw line and scorching from behind the arc, I’m not sure Izzo’s bunch can get enough stops to win this game. Expect Michigan State to stay within striking distance for 35-plus minutes, but count on Anderson to make the difference in the end.

The RTC Certified Pick: Virginia

#1 Duke vs. #8 San Diego State — South Region Third Round (at Charlotte, NC) — 2:40 pm ET on CBS

Steve Fisher is Leading This Year's Aztecs to Unexpected Success (Getty Images/K. Horner)

Steve Fisher vs. Coach K? Sign me up! (Getty Images/K. Horner)

Duke and San Diego State will play for the first ever in what highlights as an extremely intriguing matchup. The Aztecs were clinical in discarding St. John’s Friday night, even showing an unusual accuracy from three-point range (9-of-22 on threes). When Steve Fisher’s team can find ways to score the basketball – from three-point range or elsewhere – they become a difficult team to beat. There is little inconsistency to the Aztecs’ efforts on the defensive end, where they regularly cause intense trauma to opponents. That defensive activity is what should have Coach K’s attention right about now. Duke guards Quinn Cook and Tyus Jones stand 6’2” and 6’1”, respectively; no Aztec guard is shorter than 6’3”, and wings like Winston Shepard (6’8”) and Dwayne Polee (6’7”) will also take turns harassing Duke’s pair of star guards. The Blue Devils did manage well against Virginia and their bigger group of guards, but San Diego State presents a longer, more athletic challenge than even the Cavaliers. Of course, the question on the flip side is one that has long plagued the Aztecs: How will SDSU score points? Duke’s defense has taken nights off this year, sure, but there should be some trust that Coach K can devise a game plan capable of removing easy-bucket opportunities. The Aztecs’ best bet may be a continuation of the long-range prowess they displayed Friday night. There are guys on the roster who can knock down those deep shots – Quinn, Shrigley and Polee prime among them. Can they hit enough to complement the terrifying SDSU defense?

San Diego State would be a more appealing pick to pull the stunner if this game were not being played in Charlotte. As is, they are faced with defeating a #1 seed in a virtual road game, a proposition that even the strongest of stylistic matchups can fail to enact. Duke should be scared – the Aztecs are a truly scary matchup in this spot – but expect San Diego State to fall a shot or two short of swinging the upset. Duke will leave the home cooking behind in advancing to Houston.

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NCAA Tournament Tidbits: 03.21.15 Edition

Posted by Walker Carey on March 21st, 2015

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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.

Midwest Region

Goodness Gracious. (USA Today Images)

Goodness Gracious. (USA Today Images)

  • Kentucky expected more out of itself in Thursday night’s win over Hampton. It is possible that the Wildcats need the edge back from last year when they advanced to the national title game as a #8 seed?
  • Cincinnati interim coach Larry Davis traces his roots back to Kentucky.
  • After earning a thrilling victory over Buffalo on Friday afternoon, West Virginia coach Bob Huggins acknowledged in his postgame remarks that he does not understand ESPN analyst Jay Bilas’ Young Jeezy-inspired Twitter schtick.
  • Maryland walk-on defensive specialist Varun Ram saved the day for the Terrapins on Friday when he locked down on Valparaiso guard Keith Carter and produced a turnover as the buzzer sounded to ensure  a 65-62 Maryland win.
  • Valparaiso coach Bryce Drew will always have his March Madness memories from his miracle run as a player in 1998, but he was unable to produce new memories as a coach in Friday’s narrow loss to Maryland.
  • Butler coach Chris Holtmann acknowledged Friday that junior forward Roosevelt Jones will play Saturday night against Notre Dame after suffering a knee injury in Thursday’s win over Texas.
  • Notre Dame coach Mike Brey is expecting senior captain Pat Connaughton to have a big game Saturday night when the Irish take on Butler.
  • Indiana showed that it has talent on the perimeter in Friday’s close loss to Wichita State, thus it seems like the next move for the Hoosiers is to find a big man capable of leading the team to greater heights.
  • With Friday’s victory over Indiana, Wichita State earned its shot to play Kansas – a shot the program has been craving for years.
  • Kansas forward Perry Ellis said his previously injured knee “felt great out there” in Friday’s sizable victory over New Mexico State.

West Region

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Rushed Reactions: #2 Gonzaga 86, #15 North Dakota State 76

Posted by Andrew Murawa on March 21st, 2015

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Rush the Court will be providing wall-to-wall coverage of each of the NCAA Tournament from each of the 13 sites this year. Follow our NCAA Tourney specific Twitter accounts at @RTCeastregion, @RTCMWregion,@RTCsouthregion and @RTCwestregion.

Three Key Takeaways.

Dexter Werner: Unlikely March Hero (USA Today Images)

Dexter Werner: Unlikely March Hero (USA Today Images)

  1. Physical Mismatch. Gonzaga has three guys taller than 6’10”; North Dakota State has three guys taller than 6’6”. By halftime, those three Bison had accumulated seven fouls and it could have been worse. The Bison are a quality team with fun guards that had a great season, but they never should have had a chance tonight even as Dexter Werner was putting in improbable second half buckets to get the Bison back within six down the stretch. Whenever the Bulldogs wanted to turn it on, they could just pound the ball inside and either draw fouls or get easy buckets. And hey, you wanna double any of those big guys? Good luck, as they’re all adept passers out of the post to find spot-up shooters. Gonzaga will run into teams that can bang with them down low, but tonight was not one of those times.
  2. Defense Is A Concern. The biggest concern that has been expressed about the Zags’ chances this March is on the defensive end. Tonight, North Dakota State, a team ranked 194th in offensive efficiency nationally, scored 1.35 points per possession in the second half against the Bulldogs. Now, there were some extraordinary circumstances here and Gonzaga wasn’t exactly giving a terrific effort. But that in and of itself is a concern. This is a game that Gonzaga should have won easily without breaking a sweat, but instead they gave their fans more heartburn than anybody ever expected.
  3. Veteran Leadership. With the physical mismatch readily apparent right out of the gate, attendees were expecting a chance to get to their cars early tonight. In fact, it looked like the Zags thought they had somewhere else they would rather be too. But whenever the Bison made it too close for comfort, there was either Kyle Wiltjer or Kevin Pangos there to turn the tide. When the Bison cut the Zags’ lead to six points with 11 minutes left, Wiltjer drilled a jumper to spearhead a quick 6-0 run. Then the Bulldogs relaxed again, Werner went to work, and you looked up at the six-minute mark and it’s a six-point game again. Pangos then stepped into a three. An overexuberant Werner runs into Pangos. The three falls, Pangos completes the four-point play, and the outcome is never seriously in doubt again. Wiltjer and Pangos combined for 41 points on a highly-efficient 22 field goal attempts.

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