2014-15: ACC Year in Review

Posted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on April 17th, 2015

The 2014-15 season will go down as one of the most successful campaigns in the ACC’s long and illustrious history. It was the kind of year that commissioner John Swofford must have envisioned when the conference completed its last round of expansion. It was also important for the league to have this kind of performance after an extremely disappointing run last season, its first as a giant 15- team group featuring some of the biggest names in the sport. Before we put a bow on the season, let’s take a quick look at how the season played out with a review of some of the highlights and lowlights.

Highlights

Notre Dame celebrates its first ever conference tournament championship. (Evan Pike/USA TODAY Sports)

Notre Dame celebrates its first ever conference tournament championship.
(Evan Pike/USA TODAY Sports)

Regular Season Excellence. The ACC began the year with four schools ranked in the preseason AP top 10 and the league maintained a strong presence at the top of the rankings all season long, finishing with five of the final poll’s top 17 teams. In addition to Duke’s fine year – which included Mike Krzyzewski’s 1,000th career win, Virginia was also a mainstay at the top of the rankings, getting off to a 19-0 start on the way to the Cavaliers’ second straight ACC regular season title. Perhaps the Cavaliers would have joined Duke in Indianapolis at the Final Four if not for an untimely late season injury to Justin Anderson. The ACC’s surprise team was clearly Notre Dame, as Mike Brey’s program won its first conference tournament in school history in only its second year as an ACC member. The Irish’s near-upset of undefeated Kentucky in the Elite Eight may have been the best game of the entire NCAA Tournament. Read the rest of this entry »

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Mike Krzyzewski Keeps Up With the Times (and Titles)

Posted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on April 10th, 2015

With Monday night’s fifth career NCAA Championship, Mike Krzyzewski’s legacy took another long stride into the history books of the college game. In what he has called the most enjoyable season of his 40-year coaching career, Kryzyzewski showed his versatility as a head coach by leading Duke to the greatest of heights by utilizing a makeup unlike any of his previous champions. The 68-year old deserves all the credit he has received for his prolonged success, winning in three completely different eras of the sport by adapting to the standards of the times. His first two title teams (1991 & 1992) were won when programs could be built around long-term stars like Christian Laettner, Bobby Hurley and Grant Hill. When his 2001 team, led by Shane Battier, Jason Williams and Mike Dunleavy, Jr., won Krzyzewski’s third championship, the lure of the NBA had gutted much of the young talent from the college game. The last decade has brought the one-and-done rule to college basketball, and at least initially, Duke did not seem to be an interested party — Krzyzewski’s 2010 national champs featured five upperclassmen starters.

It was a year of milestones for Coach K - 1000th win and fifth national title. (AP Photo)

It was a year of milestones for Coach K — his 1,000th win and fifth national title.
(AP Photo)

Since that fourth national title, the Blue Devils had crashed and burned with their last two high-profile freshmen — Austin Rivers (2012) and Jabari Parker (2014) were unwilling participants in huge NCAA Tournament upsets of Duke by Lehigh and Mercer, respectively. Theirs were the reference points going into a campaign when Coach K welcomed the nation’s top recruiting class of Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones, Justise Winslow and Grayson Allen by signaling that he was all-in with the modern recruiting strategy focusing on one-and-dones. Krzyzewski masterfully molded the young Blue Devils around an elite offense and a gradually improving defense all the way to another championship run.

We attended a private scrimmage session in Cameron Indoor Stadium back in October and shared our observations on what we witnessed here. While the freshmen’s raw talent was obvious, we came away from the practice session concerned with how the two Blue Devils’ veterans would handle the robust attention and acclaim that the newcomers were already getting. Quinn Cook was one of the players who didn’t play well that day, but he soon morphed into exactly what the Duke coaching staff wanted him to be — a big brother, supporter and go-to teammate for the four rookies. As a result of Cook’s deference, Krzyzewski called the senior “as good a leader as I’ve had in my 35 years at Duke.” Think about what that means from a guy who has coached the likes of Laettner, Ferry, Hurley, Battier and Dawkins. Rasheed Sulaimon, the other veteran who struggled in that October scrimmage, was ultimately kicked off the team, an event that seemed to bring the eight remaining players together down the stretch of the season. Read the rest of this entry »

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Rushed Reactions: #1 Duke 68, #1 Wisconsin 63

Posted by Naveen Reddy on April 6th, 2015

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Three Key Takeaways.

Once again, Duke is on top of the college basketball world. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Once again, Duke is on top of the college basketball world. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

  1. Who needs Kentucky? This isn’t meant to play down what the Wildcats accomplished, which was spectacular, but coming into the final there seemed to be a feeling that the story of the Final Four would be about Kentucky not going undefeated. It is hard to judge these type of things in the moment, but after tonight’s incredible final we doubt that will be the case. The overnight CBS ratings might argue otherwise in the morning, but we cannot imagine how this game could have been any better with the Wildcats in it. You can argue all you want about the historical significance of having an undefeated season on the line, but at the end of the day tonight would have been about a national championship game. What these two teams delivered tonight was the sport played at its highest level. Now if we could only find a way to fix this sport.
  2. Duke’s freshmen came up huge tonight just not the ones you expected. Most of the season the media lavished its praises on Jahlil Okafor and Justice Winslow, but it was a pair of freshmen who got them to the finish line. Okay, maybe we could have seen Tyus Jones doing this, but there is no way anybody could have foreseen Grayson Allen dominating stretches of a national title game. Plenty of people will point out that he was a McDonald’s All-American, but there are different forms of McDonald’s All-American–those that are going to be immediate stars and those that take a while to develop–and Allen was definitely the latter. Okafor (10 points) and Winslow (11 points and 9 rebounds) both contributed, but were limited by foul trouble. Instead Jones (23 points and 5 rebounds) and Allen (16 points in 21 minutes) led the way. Overall the freshmen scored 60 of the team’s 68 points including all 37 points in the second half.
  3. Wisconsin was a phenomenal team. Let’s be clear about one thing: Its win over Kentucky on Saturday night was no fluke. This was a phenomenal team that outside of two losses to Duke only lost two games all season (one a loss at Rutgers that we are going to write off as an aberration with Kaminsky out since we can’t comprehend it otherwise) and had an incredible run nearly being the first team to beat 16-8-4-2-1-1 seeds (the toughest possible route for a #1 seed) en route to a title. It was a remarkable team with Frank Kaminsky being absolutely deserving of his multiple player of the year awards and Sam Dekker finally putting together the complete game we all had been waiting for since he set foot on the Wisconsin campus.

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Final Four Previews: Wisconsin/Duke Will Win If…

Posted by Andrew Murawa & Tommy Lemoine on April 6th, 2015

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Championship Monday is always bitter sweet for college basketball fans. On the one hand, it means the two best teams in the country will finally play for the ultimate crown and go down in the history books. On the other hand, it also means that the college basketball season is finally coming to an end. For this particular 2014-15 season, however, what an ending this is set to be. While the nation didn’t quite get the “dream” finals matchup, tonight’s contest is not a bad consolation prize by any means as arguably the best offensive basketball team in recent memory goes up against arguably the most traditional of traditional powers that the sport has ever seen. We’re just a couple hours away from tip-off, but in the meantime …

No shock here - Frank Kaminsky is the key player in tonight's National Title game. (AP Photo/Chris Steppig, Pool)

No shock here – Frank Kaminsky is the key player in tonight’s National Title game. (AP Photo/Chris Steppig, Pool)

Wisconsin Will Win If

  • It continues to play like the greatest collegiate offense in recent history, which it most assuredly is. For the year, Wisconsin’s adjusted offensive efficiency is 128.5, equivalent to 128 points per 100 offensive possessions against an average defense, the best by a rather significant margin. In the NCAA Tournament, with higher stakes and tougher opponents, the Badgers are still averaging 128 points per 100 offensive possessions, even after playing two of the season’s best three defenses in their past two games. While Duke’s is playing its best defensive basketball of the season (they’re allowing 87 points per 100 defensive possessions in the tournament), at this point doubting the effectiveness of the Wisconsin offense is questionable at best.
  • Frank Kaminsky gets the better of the Jahlil Okafor. The key matchup to watch, of course, will be Kaminsky vs. Okafor (the only two unanimous RTC All-American choices) although of course, it won’t always be a mano v. mano type of thing. However, it is a fascinating matchup. Okafor may be the best post-up big man since Tim Duncan, while Kaminsky’s ability to be equally effective inside or out gives him a great advantage. Much of Wisconsin’s offense is predicated on the ability of its talented big men to step away from the hoop, open up the floor and create opportunities for clean looks. Okafor is in no way foul prone, but if the relatively inexperienced freshman gets frustrated by Kaminsky’s veteran wiles, the Blue Devils could be behind the eight-ball. Read the rest of this entry »
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Rushed Reactions: #1 Duke 81, #7 Michigan State 61

Posted by Naveen Reddy on April 4th, 2015

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Three Key Takeaways.

Talk about a bounce back performance - Jahlil Okafor was outstanding against the Spartans. (AP Photo/Chris Steppig, Pool)

Talk about a bounce back performance – Jahlil Okafor was outstanding against the Spartans. (AP Photo/Chris Steppig, Pool)

  1. Michigan State was simply overmatched. We don’t want to take away anything from the Spartans’ remarkable run. They went from a team that at times this season made us wonder if they would make the NCAA Tournament to one that made the Final Four. The truth is they were not anywhere near the level of the other three teams here. The fact that they got here is a testament to just how good of a coach Tom Izzo is and how tough this team was, but they just didn’t have the talent to compete. Their early hot start (going 5-of-7 from the field including 4-of-4 from three) made things interesting when they jumped out to a 14-6 lead, but then they regressed the mean and reality set in. They proceeded to hit just 3 of their next 20 shots and go 0-of-5 from three to end the half to fall behind 36-25. Denzel Valentine (19 points and 9 rebounds), Branden Dawson (12 points and 7 rebounds), and Travis Trice (16 points and 5 assists) all had solid performances, but it wasn’t enough. While an 11-point lead at halftime is far from insurmountable, when you are this overmatched it essentially is. Once Michigan State cooled off, you knew this one was over.
  2. Duke just took care of business. Nobody on Duke played out of their mind, but everybody chipped in from Jahlil Okafor (18 points and 6 rebounds) to Grayson Allen (9 points including an emphatic dunk in the second half that served as an exclamation mark even if it was early in the second half). It was a total team effort from Duke in a victory that was never in doubt. Coming into tonight we didn’t really see a way that Michigan State could win, but a lot of people have lost a lot of money over the years betting against Tom Izzo in such situations. Justice Winslow was simply dominant and while we is too good and consistent to be considered an X-factor when he is truly “on” he takes them to another level. While Duke is far from a one-man team, he will need to be at his best on Monday night if they are going to win especially against Kentucky.
  3. Monday night is going to be crazy. We normally save this for the last section of these posts, but honestly we can barely contain ourselves right now. We know that Duke-Kentucky is the game that every CBS executive wants (ok, it’s not just them), but Duke-Wisconsin wold be fascinating in its own right with Okafor facing Frank Kaminsky in what essentially will be a head-to-head workout that every NBA executive with a top-5 pick will be keeping track of. On the perimeter, you could potentially have Winslow and Sam Dekker (potentially two of the top perimeter picks in this year’s NBA Draft if they decided to leave) going against each other. If it ends up being Duke-Kentucky, you would have lottery picks all over the court (and for Kentucky some coming off the bench) in a game that might be the most highly anticipated game in college basketball history (we aren’t exaggerating).

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Final Four Previews: Duke/Michigan State Will Win If…

Posted by Bennet Hayes & Tommy Lemoine on April 4th, 2015

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The time has finally come for all the hand-wringing, all the expectations, all the anticipation, and all the office pools between Jim from accounting and Bonnie the receptionist to be decided. In what undoubtedly has evolved into one of the more intriguing Final Fours in recent memory, the story lines bleeding out of Indianapolis this week has been plentiful. Will Coach Cal and the ‘Cats finish off The Perfect Season? Will Wisconsin play spoiler? Will the traditional power in blue once again reign supreme? Will the boys from East Lansing show that a team can win a ‘ship without a boatload of McDonald All-Americans? We’ll all find out soon. In the meantime…

Duke Will Win If…

Tom Izzo’s team has done things this March that Tom Izzo’s teams seem to do every March. One Michigan State postseason streak, however, has yet to continue. In each of the last 14 seasons, Tom Izzo’s Spartans have lost an NCAA Tournament game.

Duke's Leading Trio Of Freshmen (Pictured With Matt Jones, #13) Are The Reason Duke Will Advance To Championship Monday. (The Charlotte Observer)

Duke’s Leading Trio Of Freshmen (Justise Winslow, Tyus Jones, Jahlil Okafor) Are The Reason Duke Will Advance To Championship Monday. (The Charlotte Observer)

Expect that streak to continue Saturday. In a battle of teams with elite coaches and similarly thin benches, Duke’s star power and defense will prove to be difference-makers. By most accounts, Jahlil Okafor has been the second-best player in America this season. He was neither the best nor the second-best player in Houston last weekend, but Okafor is poised for a rebound (or 15) against an undersized Michigan State squad, which has only two regulars taller than 6’6” (Matt Costello and Gavin Schilling). The consensus two best players in that South regional – fellow Blue Devil freshmen Justise Winslow and South Region MOP Tyus Jones – will also feature prominently this weekend. Winslow’s profile has risen as much as any player’s this NCAA Tournament, and with mostly good reason. The enigmatic forward has saved his best basketball of the season for March, averaging 14 points, 8.3 rebounds, 3.3 assists, and 1.8 blocks per game in the Tournament. Throw in Jones, the steady hand guiding the leash on this explosive Duke offense, and the case could easily be made that Duke will have the three best players on the floor in this game. Read the rest of this entry »

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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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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

first_team copy

  • 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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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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Final Four Fact Sheet: Michigan State Spartans

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 and Wisconsin (later this afternoon).

How Sparty Got Here

East Region Champions. Michigan State beat #10 seed Georgia in its NCAA Tournament opener before using superb defense and key coaching adjustments to stun #2 seed Virginia in the Round of 32. From there, it was off to Syracuse where the Spartans edged #3 seed Oklahoma in the Sweet Sixteen and overcame an eight-point halftime deficit by beating Louisville in overtime to punch a surprising but well-earned ticket to Indianapolis.

For the second-straight season, a #7-seed won the East Region. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

For the second straight season, a #7 seed won the East Region. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

The Coach

Tom Izzo. Izzo’s remarkable run of March success has been well-documented. He’s now tied with Rick Pitino and Roy Williams for fourth all-time with seven Final Four appearances – three of which came as a #5 seed or worse. His .742 NCAA Tournament winning percentage and 46 total victories rank fifth among active coaches. By defeating Louisville last Sunday, Izzo notched his 13th win over a higher seed in the Big Dance – the most such victories all-time – while improving to 20-4 in the second game of an NCAA Tournament weekend, also one of the finest marks ever. Simply put, Michigan State’s 20th-year leader is masterful in the third month of the year.

Style

At 17.8 seconds per possession, Michigan State is among the more uptempo offensive teams in the country and ranks second behind only Kentucky among Final Four units. The Spartans are more than willing to get out in transition, finish near the rim or locate open shooters – like transfer Bryn Forbes (43.5% 3FG) – on the wing. In the half-court, Izzo’s club moves the ball very well (seventh-highest assist rate in college basketball), takes a healthy number of perimeter jumpers and likes to run ball-screen and pick-and-roll action as the shot clock wanes. Defensively, Michigan State applies some man-to-man ball pressure and tries to limit both easy looks in the paint and second-chance opportunities (72.9% DReb). Only three teams in college basketball forced its opponents into longer offensive possessions this season (20.1 seconds per trip).

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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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