NCAA Game Analysis: Sweet Sixteen Thursday

Posted by Walker Carey & Andrew Murawa on March 26th, 2015

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While the early round upsets and Cinderella stories are what make the NCAA Tournament unique to any other sporting event in the country, there is always something to be said about the best competing against the best. No more might that be true than this season’s Sweet 16, which feature arguably a legitimate “Top 16″ team pool … and it all gets started today. Here are four previews of Thursday’s games:

#3 Notre Dame vs. #7 Wichita State – Midwest Region Sweet 16 (from Cleveland) – at 7:15 PM EST on CBS

Compared to the Pantheon of coaches, Gregg Marshall and Mike Brey aren't often thrown in the discussion. But, both have their teams playing at the highest of levels at the moment. (AP & Getty)

Compared to the Pantheon of coaches, Gregg Marshall and Mike Brey aren’t often thrown in the discussion. But, both have their teams playing at the highest of levels at the moment. (AP & Getty)

The Irish and Shockers will meet Thursday night in what should be a very entertaining battle between two of the country’s best perimeter teams. Notre Dame and its four-guard lineup boasts one of the best scoring offenses in the country. USBWA first-team All-American Jerian Grant is one of the best offensive guards in the country. His scoring ability and ball distribution skills definitely makes him a player to watch each time he takes the court. For Notre Dame, sophomore point guard Demetrius Jackson and sophomore guard Steve Vasturia have each made a name for themselves this season. Jackson has greatly matured as Notre Dame’s floor leader on offense and his ball pressure on defense has been a greatly under appreciated facet of his game. Vasturia is the only Irish starter that does not have a scoring average in double figures, but his knack for hitting big shots coupled with some tenacious defense against some very good players (see his performance from last Saturday against Butler’s Kellen Dunham) has contributed to Notre Dame reaching its first Sweet 16 since 2003. When you think of the great glue guys in the country, Irish swingman Pat Connaughton has to be one of the first players who comes to mind. The captain has been an essential asset all season from his three-point shooting to his defensive rebounding to his overall leadership, Connaughton has been the heart of the Irish attack.

Wichita State is equally as talented on the perimeter. Junior point guard Fred VanVleet has had as good of an NCAA Tournament as anyone thus far, as he thoroughly outplayed Indiana’s Yogi Ferrell in the round of 64 before having his way with Kansas guards’ Frank Mason and Devonte’ Graham in the round of 32. The other two Shockers perimeter players — Ron Baker and Tekele Cotton — each bring a unique skill set that have lifted the team all season. Baker has a knack for leading the scoring effort and hitting big shots. Cotton is an elite defender and his athleticism results in him constantly being a slashing threat on the offensive end. This is going to be a very fun game and you have to figure that both team’s perimeter groups will get theirs. Read the rest of this entry »

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Rushed Reactions: #4 North Carolina 67, #13 Harvard 65

Posted by Matt Patton on March 19th, 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.

Wesley Saunders and Siyani Chambers couldn't quite will Harvard to victory. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

Wesley Saunders and Siyani Chambers couldn’t quite will Harvard to victory. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

  1. Harvard had a shot to win. In the final 20 seconds Harvard had multiple shots to win. It’s fitting that those shots came from Siyani Chambers and Wesley Saunders. They didn’t drop, of course, but after being down as many as 14 points in the second half, it showed serious resilience on Harvard’s part to get back into the game and have a realistic chance to win. Harvard did it by valuing possessions and making free throws. That sounds simple, but by not making mistakes, Harvard kept the game close down the stretch. In the second half, Harvard also did a much better job in crashing the offensive glass (amazingly, without also hemorrhaging points in transition). After a disappointing middle of the season this year, Tommy Amaker’s team looked every bit the Top 25 squad it were projected as early in the year.
  2. Rebounding. Following a slow Harvard run to cut a double-digit deficit to a single possession, North Carolina looked like it might win by 20 points. The turn came with 2:03 left in the first half, as Isaiah Hicks (who quietly had a terrific game) got fouled and made a jumper to put North Carolina up by seven. He missed the free throw, but the Tar Heels got the offensive board and Kennedy Meeks was fouled as well. Meeks made one of two, but JP Tokoto grabbed an offensive board and Hicks hit another shot to push the lead out to 10. Without Harvard so much as touching the ball during that series, North Carolina went on a 5-0 run.
  3. Justin Jackson and Marcus Paige play hero. After onions from Chambers put the Crimson up two, it looked like North Carolina might wilt under the pressure. Instead, Jackson hit a beautiful floater to tie it up at 65. After Chambers missed his shot on the other end, Paige pushed it ahead for a Jackson dunk that turned out to be the game-winning shot. Even before that run, Paige had hit a shot that looked like the dagger when he sank a contested three to put North Carolina up by four with 3:21 left. People will say North Carolina tried to lose this game, but the fact is that the Heels had to make plays to win it. And they did.

Star of the Game: Wesley Saunders finished the game with 26 points, five assists and four boards. He played all 40 minutes, making plays off screens and off the dribble. JP Tokoto had the unfortunate assignment of trying to guard him. The Tar Heel excelled in keeping Saunders from getting the ball, but he struggled when Harvard ran screens for him. In the last game of Saunders’ career, I’m not sure there’s a player in the country who could have held him under 20 tonight. Saunders’ play was especially amazing in the first half of this one.

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Bracket Prep: West Region Analysis

Posted by Andrew Murawa on March 17th, 2015

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Throughout Tuesday, we will roll out our region-by-region analysis on the following schedule: East (10:00 AM), South (11:00 AM), Midwest (1:00 PM), West (2:00 PM). Here, Andrew Murawa (@amurawa) breaks down the West Region from top to bottom. Also, be sure to follow our RTC West Region handle on Twitter for continuous updates the next two weeks (@RTCwestregion).

West Region

Stanley Johnson And His Arizona Teammates Have To Be Considered Co-Favorites In The West Region

Stanley Johnson And His Arizona Teammates Have To Be Considered Co-Favorites In The West Region. (Getty)

Favorite: Arizona, #2, 31-3. Wisconsin fans won’t like this, so let me first cover my butt: The Wildcats are the second-best team nationally according to KenPom and the Badgers are the third-best. Still, for my money, they’re co-favorites and the spread will likely not be larger than a point if they meet in the regional final. The other advantage that the Wildcats will have in a potential meeting with the Badgers is that their fans will make the easy drive from Tucson to Los Angeles and pack the Staples Center, giving Arizona a relative home court advantage. And then there’s this: Arizona is very, very good. Senior point guard T.J. McConnell is Aaron Craft with an offensive game. Junior power forward Brandon Ashley is finally back at the top of his game after breaking his foot last year. Freshman phenom Stanley Johnson is among the best first-year guys in the nation and is a grown man physically. And his fellow wing Rondae Hollis-Jefferson is a dynamic individual defender capable of taking even the best offensive players – from point guards to power forwards – out of their games. If the Wildcats have a weakness, it is that they can at times go for long stretches at a time without scoring. UCLA held them without a single point for six minutes at the start of their matchup in mid-February. It’s certainly true that the Wildcats have improved since then, and even given that handful of struggles, they are still rated as the 11th-most efficient offensive team in the nation. It will take a near-Herculean effort for anybody in Arizona’s half of the bracket to beat them prior to the regional final. But assuming the two favorites get there, it is a toss-up.

Should They Falter: Wisconsin, #1, 31-3. Let’s throw out the Badgers’ head-scratching loss to Rutgers without National Player of the Year favorite Frank Kaminsky in the lineup. Aside from that, the Badgers lost at home to Duke (another #1 seed) and at Maryland in late February. On Sunday, they were taken to overtime in the Big Ten championship game by Michigan State before turning it on in the extra period and taking out the Spartans. Beyond that, they’ve been on cruise control throughout most of this season. Kaminsky has put together one of the most stupendous offensive seasons in recent history. Nigel Hayes and Sam Dekker have taken huge leaps forward. And even after losing senior point guard Traevon Jackson to a foot injury in that same mid-January loss to Rutgers, sophomore Bronson Koenig stepped in and may have even improved upon Jackson’s level of play. The senior could be back for the Badgers as early as their opening round matchup with Coastal Carolina, providing quality veteran depth. But even if that never happens, this is the best offensive team in the nation and a group, as Michigan State learned on Sunday, very capable of turning into a very tough defensive team at the drop of a hat as well.

Grossly Overseeded: Oklahoma State, #9, 17-13. Okay, the RPI is flawed, that’s a given. But the Selection Committee uses it. And at #48 in the RPI with an 8-11 record against top 100 teams that includes losses to sub-100 RPI teams in both TCU and Texas Tech, the Cowboys are one of several examples of major conference teams with lousy records getting in over mid-major teams. Sure, the fact that the Cowboys were able to sweep Baylor and handle Kansas at Gallagher-Iba Arena means that they’re still a team that probably deserved to be in this NCAA Tournament. But their resume looks a lot more like a team that should have been headed to Dayton rather than in an #8/#9 game with a very favorable geographical placement.

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Rushed Reactions: Notre Dame 90, North Carolina 82

Posted by Matt Patton on March 15th, 2015

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Three Key Takeaways.

Mike Brey celebrates Notre Dame winning its first ever conference tournament. (Photo by Liz Condo, theACC.com)

Mike Brey celebrates Notre Dame winning its first ever conference tournament. (Photo by Liz Condo, theACC.com)

  1. Holy Run, Batman! Down nine with less than 10 minutes to play, Notre Dame looked like its goose was cooked. But the Fighting Irish rolled out a 26-3 run over the next seven minutes of action, scoring on 11 of their next 13 possessions (for those keeping score at home, their offensive efficiency over the run was a ridiculous 200 points per 100 possessions) to take control of the game and win its first ACC championship. Five players scored during the run, and Jerian Grant, who had carried the team to that point, only made one shot. The Irish’s only empty possessions were a Bonzie Colson travel and a missed three from Grant, and don’t forget that this went on in front of a crowd that looked and felt much like the Smith Center. Mike Brey’s team hit its open looks but their ball movement was impeccable and North Carolina’s offense simply couldn’t keep pace. No team could have kept pace tonight. Notre Dame’s offense was one of the most efficient in the country all season long, but this was the first stretch that inspired true fear. The Irish looked like a championship team ready to beat anybody in college basketball, and given the context, that run was the most impressive display of team basketball that I have seen this season.
  2. North Carolina Panicked. Not that you can blame them. As soon as I had a chance to tweet that the Fighting Irish were in trouble, the Tar Heels were already down by three. North Carolina had a lot of success in the first half by just putting up jumpers and letting Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks clean up the glass. Brice Johnson was also virtually unstoppable whenever he caught the ball within 10 feet of the basket. But here’s how North Carolina’s possessions ended when Notre Dame mounted its blistering comeback: Hicks free throws (made one, missed one); Joel Berry turnover; Hicks turnover; quick missed layup from Marcus Paige; Justin Jackson turnover; Meeks turnover; and Brice Johnson turnover. That’s five turnovers in six possessions after leaving a point on the board. The Heels only committed eight turnovers for the entire rest of the game. Just as Notre Dame’s run wasn’t the result of a single player’s play, the Tar Heels’ meltdown was a team effort.
  3. This Really is the New ACC. When the ACC completed its most recent expansion by snatching several Big East members for the second time, it was thought that Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Louisville were best equipped to challenge the ACC bluebloods. But with this remarkable tournament run in Greensboro, it is Notre Dame that has become the first of the recent league additions to break through with an ACC championship. In fact, this is the first conference tournament title in school history for the Irish, a program which first joined a major conference in basketball some 20 years ago. Notre Dame’s title has some other historical significance as well. To capture this year’s trophy, Notre Dame had to beat both ACC bluebloods on back-to-back nights, and do it in the heart of Tobacco Road — a fact not lost on Brey, who mentioned it in both of his postgame press conferences. Only two other teams have ever beaten both Duke and North Carolina in Greensboro in the same ACC Tournament, exhibiting just how rare and difficult this feat was to pull off. This also marks the fourth consecutive year that neither the Tar Heels nor Blue Devils have won the ACC Tournament — the longest such drought in conference history. Interestingly, three of those four other champions were schools that are not part of the traditional ACC membership. Maybe we really are seeing a subtle changing of the guard in this conference, and with the next three ACC Tournaments held outside of the state of North Carolina, this is a trend that is likely to continue.

Player of the Game. When North Carolina went up by nine points in the second half, Jerian Grant was the only reason the Tar Heels’ lead wasn’t more than that. Of Notre Dame’s first 17 points in the second half, Grant was responsible for (directly or indirectly) 12 of them. He attacked the basket, going to the line three times in the first 10 minutes of the second half (and assisting on two of Notre Dame’s made field goals). His activity ensured that the game would not get out of reach, setting the stage for the game-changing run down the stretch. Grant finished with 24 points, 10 assists and just two turnovers. That’s outstanding. If you want to know why North Carolina only finished with 12 fast break points, you should credit Grant and backcourt mate Demetrius Jackson — other than one Brice Johnson dunk, North Carolina never managed to get out on its patented secondary break. Pat Connaughton also deserves some credit here. He ended up with 20 points on just nine shots. But with Grant’s heroics, Connaughton felt more like a supporting cast member who shone just outside of the spotlight.

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Notre Dame Looks for History Against North Carolina

Posted by Matt Patton & Brad Jenkins on March 14th, 2015

Notre Dame takes on North Carolina tonight in Greensboro for its first conference championship in program history. The game tips at 8:00 PM ET on ESPN. If the previous matchup — a 71-70 Irish win in Chapel Hill — was any indication, we’re due for a great game. Both teams are playing their best basketball of the season right now.

Jerian Grant needs an All-American performance for Notre Dame to beat North Carolina. (Grant Halverson, Getty Images)

Jerian Grant needs an All-American performance for Notre Dame to beat North Carolina. (Grant Halverson, Getty Images)

Brad: In the first meeting, North Carolina held a 21-6 edge in offensive rebounds. How can the smaller Irish avoid Tar Heel domination in the paint?

Matt: I’m not sure they can. North Carolina will have an even bigger size advantage than Duke did last night. Zach Auguste has to stay out of foul trouble and the Fighting Irish will need to send all five players to the glass on every North Carolina shot. The fact is that the Tar Heels are one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the country. Notre Dame needs to take care of the ball and try to force the Tar Heels into jump shots with long rebounds. On the other end of the floor, the mismatches may swing the other way. Auguste and Bonzie Colson are both much more comfortable playing away from the basket than any of North Carolina’s bigs. They should try to spread the floor to open up the driving lanes for Jerian Grant and Demetrius Jackson.

Notre Dame really limited Duke’s three-point shooting Friday night. Can the Tar Heels continue their hot shooting from behind the arc? 

Brad: The game plan will obviously be to attack the Irish interior, so Roy Williams hopes the Heels continue to be selective when taking shots from deep. By selective, we mean only open looks for Marcus Paige and maybe Justin Jackson. Unlikely to make 50 percent of its threes again tonight, North Carolina should probably keep its attempts in the 10-to-12 range.

Back in early January, Notre Dame prevailed in the Smith Center primarily due to its 10-of-23 shooting performance on threes. Can they repeat such accuracy when playing their third game in three days?

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ACC Stock Watch: 01.30.15 Edition

Posted by Lathan Wells on January 30th, 2015

This week was an eye-opening one for ACC teams, with several marquee match-ups that shed greater light on the haves and have-nots of the conference race. Now moving into February, the teams with staying power are starting to emerge and those that are disappointing are showing their true colors as well. This is this week’s ACC Stock Watch.

Trending Up

  • Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish keep beating good teams and are a stellar 8-1 in ACC play at the turn. They withstood a 10-point deficit from Duke on Wednesday night and never lost their composure. This is starting to look like a team that has major potential come NCAA Tournament time.
  • North Carolina. The Tar Heels’ six-game winning streak has put them in the thick of the conference race through four weeks. Marcus Paige seems to have regained some of his missing star power, and some timely shots falling for Justin Jackson and Nate Britt make the team more dangerous from the perimeter. Don’t forget Joel Berry and Theo Pinson are expected to return before year’s end, too.
  • Virginia Tech. Hokies’ fans had been waiting to see some early returns on Buzz Williams’ hiring, and this may have been the week they got a glimpse of what he’s building. Virginia Tech nearly knocked off undefeated Virginia last weekend before bowing out by just three points, then procured an overtime win over Pittsburgh on Wednesday for Williams’ first ACC win. Progress, people.
Adam Smith's game-winning three in OT gave Virginia Tech its first ACC win under Buzz Williams (USATodaySports)

Adam Smith’s (far left) game-winning three in OT gave Virginia Tech its first ACC win under Buzz Williams and reason for hope in the future (USATodaySports)

  • Nate Britt, North Carolina. After learning of the emotional state Britt was in prior to North Carolina’s ESPN Big Monday match-up with Syracuse, his performance became that much more admirable. Britt set a career high with 17 points, but perhaps more importantly for Roy Williams’ team was his 4-of-5 shooting from three. Could he finally be the long-range complement to Paige the Tar Heels desperately need?
  • Jerian Grant, Notre Dame. No need to talk too much about how outstanding Grant’s season has been as the national media has that pretty well covered, but anyone who watched his performance live against Duke had to be amazed. He was the best player on the court in that game (yes, including Jahlil Okafor) en route to a stat line of 23 points, six rebounds, 12 assists, three steals and two blocks. Yes, he’s for real.
  • Louisville’s Backcourt. The much-maligned Cardinals’ offense has shown signs of life, largely because of the clearly improved shooting of their guards. Terry Rozier and Chris Jones had an especially dominant week in wins over Pittsburgh and Boston College on the road; combined, they scored 94 points in the two contests on 65 percent shooting from the field and 67 percent from three.

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ACC Stock Watch: 01.23.15 Edition

Posted by Lathan Wells on January 23rd, 2015

Some of the ACC’s squads righted the ship in a relatively quiet week, while still others affirmed their descent to the cellar of the conference standings. With six weeks remaining in the regular season, there is still plenty of time for teams to ascend or plummet, and we’ll continue to track their progress on a week-to-week basis. Below is this week’s ACC Stock Watch.

Trending Up

  • North Carolina. While the Tar Heels’ win over Virginia Tech was less than enthralling, their more impressive road win over a Wake Forest team that was competitive with both Duke and Louisville at home lends credence to the notion that they may be hitting their stride. However, mounting injuries in the backcourt are a concern for Roy Williams.
  • Duke. After the entire college basketball nation wondered what was wrong with the Blue Devils with consecutive losses to NC State and Miami, Duke responded with an impressive road win over Louisville and an easy dismantling of Pittsburgh on Monday night. Coach K may have found some defensive relief with the zone he’s employed much more heavily in the past two contests.
  • Justin Jackson, North Carolina. Jackson’s emergence over the last week has finally given everyone a glimpse into the player he can become: an efficient offensive threat to complement Marcus Paige on the perimeter. In wins over Virginia Tech and Wake Forest this week, he scored 33 points on a combined 11-of-18 shooting (3-of-6 from three).
Justin Jackson continued his impressive stretch for the Tar Heels in a win over Wake Forest (espn.com)

Justin Jackson continued his impressive stretch for the Tar Heels in a win over Wake Forest (espn.com)

  • Tyus Jones, Duke. The Blue Devils’ freshman point guard endured a rough initiation to ACC play but rebounded with two strong efforts this week. His 10-point, eight-assist performance in a hostile environment at Louisville was steady and important, but he really broke out with a 22-point effort against Pittsburgh, including four three-pointers. Jones made his recent freshman jitters appear to be just that, rebounding individually very nicely along with his team.
  • Rakeem Christmas, Syracuse. His week began by being named ACC Player of the Week on January 19 and ended with a demonstration on just how important he is to this Syracuse team. Riddled with foul trouble and available for only 23 minutes, the Orange’s big man still contributed 12 points and seven boards against Boston College. His absence made it possible for the Eagles to hang around in that game, showing once again that Jim Boeheim doesn’t have many options outside of his star center.

Flat

  • Clemson. Holding serve against Syracuse at home was nice, but losing to Florida State was something the Tigers couldn’t afford. Clemson still appears to be a team trending towards the bottom of the standings as its inconsistent offense remains a major issue.
  • Syracuse. 5-1 in the ACC and not trending up? Get back to me when the Orange actually beat a good team. While it was nice that Jim Boeheim’s team held on against Boston College with Rakeem Christmas barely on the floor (see above), this team had better improve dramatically before it enters the final phase of a lopsided schedule (its final seven games include Duke twice, Louisville, Virginia, and Notre Dame). Having one of the least productive benches in the country doesn’t bode well for the Orange’s NCAA Tourney chances.

Trending Down

  • Louisville. Perhaps the loss to Duke wasn’t unexpected with the Blue Devils coming off of consecutive defeats, but the Cardinals’ continued offensive struggles is a major concern. They’re still only shooting 42.7 percent as a team, and Rick Pitino can’t seem to find consistent shot-making from Chris Jones or Wayne Blackshear. Their admittedly outstanding defense can only carry them so far in a conference this loaded with offensive talent.
  • Virginia Tech. The Hokies’ 8-10 overall record and 0-5 ACC start aren’t a surprise, but with the recent announcement that leading rebounder Joey Van Zegeren is leaving the team, their outlook for the remainder of the season became even more bleak. The notion was that Buzz Williams could perhaps coax some surprises out of this roster, but that doesn’t appear to be the case.
  • Georgia Tech. Now 0-6 in the ACC. And yes, Virginia is a great team, but scoring a mere 28 points for an entire game (12 in the second half)? Brian Gregory’s team may not be able to recover from such an awful start to the conference season. The Yellow Jackets are at or near the bottom in the ACC in both scoring and stopping their opponents from doing so. That translates to 0-6.
  • Montrezl Harrell, Louisville. As we noted last week, it’s not just that his shots and productivity are down; but now the junior has been stripped of his captaincy by Rick Pitino (later clarified, to some extent, by Pitino on his radio show). Even if this maneuver was a mutual decision or some kind of motivational ploy, it’s not a good sign for the Cardinals if their star needs to tone down his act. Coupled with his earlier suspension for throwing an elbow, Harrell is on the precipice of becoming a bit of a malcontent to the detriment of his team’s success.
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ACC Stock Watch – Week One

Posted by Lathan Wells on November 21st, 2014

Each week here at the microsite we’ll take a look at which ACC teams and players are trending up, down, or remaining flat. It’s still very early in the season, but there are some trends to be gleaned from the first week of opening games. Let’s take a look below:

Trending Up

  • Duke. Despite all of the preseason hype placed on Duke’s freshmen (Jahlil Okafor in particular) and speculative questions about overall team chemistry, the Blue Devils have looked the part of a title contender thus far. Their blowouts over Presbyterian and Fairfield may not have convinced anyone, but their wire-to-wire victory over Michigan State showed that Duke is already in top form.
  • Miami. The Hurricanes’ early returns on their big-name transfers have been outstanding. Sheldon McClellan (from Texas) is putting up 11.0 points and 5.3 rebounds per game through two contests, and former Kansas State point guard Angel Rodriguez is not only averaging a team-high 18.3 points per contest, but he also hit the game-winning three over rival Florida that ended the Gators’ 33-game home winning streak. Pretty solid start for Jim Larranaga’s newcomers.
Angel Rodriguez has brought pleasant early returns for Miami (USA Today Sports)

Angel Rodriguez has produced pleasant early returns for Miami (USA Today Sports)

  • Virginia Tech. Why are the Hokies trending up when they only have wins over Maryland-Eastern Shore and Liberty? Well, go back in time one year ago and Virginia Tech had just lost its season opener to South Carolina Upstate. At a minimum, Buzz Williams has his team beating the teams it should beat, something last year’s group couldn’t boast. Freshman Justin Bibbs’ solid start to the season has been a pleasant surprise as well.

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North Carolina Shows Off Its Depth on Opening Weekend

Posted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on November 17th, 2014

After having to answer questions all preseason dealing with the school’s “paper class” scandal, there’s little doubt that North Carolina’s players and coaches were even more excited than usual to tip off the 2014-15 season over the weekend. The program needs something positive to rally around, and with two games now under the team’s belt, there’s something to be excited about. On Friday night at the Smith Center, North Carolina defeated North Carolina Central by a score of 76-60, in a game that Roy Williams described as “not the prettiest in the world.” Things came much easier for the Tar Heels in Sunday afternoon’s 103-59 beatdown of Robert Morris. It should be noted that each of North Carolina’s first two opponents were not the traditional cupcakes that some may believe — in fact, both schools won their respective conference regular season championships last season.

Kennedy Meeks (left) and Brice Johnson (#11) give North Carolina a Powerful Inside Game. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

Kennedy Meeks (with ball) and Brice Johnson (#11) give North Carolina a Powerful Inside Game. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

So let’s look at some of the takeaways from the Tar Heel’s first two games.

  • North Carolina has a dynamic duo in the post. In the opener, Kennedy Meeks and Brice Johnson were solid (combining for 22 points and 17 rebounds), but they were dominant against Robert Morris, combining for 44/20. We had heard reports in the preseason that each player had undergone a physical transformation, and we can confirm that the change in both is striking. The sophomore Meeks has lost approximately 50 pounds and is now listed at a solid 270, while the junior Johnson has done the opposite, gaining about 20 pounds to get to his current listed weight of 228. The result is that Meeks is able to run up and down the court much easier and is more explosive around the basket, and undoubtedly will be able to log heavier minutes. Johnson, on the other hand, will no longer be so easily knocked off-balance on the blocks, capable of holding his position defensively without having to foul.

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The Freshman 15: Preseason Freshman of the Year Watch List

Posted by Alex Joseph on November 12th, 2014

The 2013-14 NCAA freshman class was packed with stars. Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Joel Embiid, Aaron Gordon, Julius Randle and Noah Vonleh were all top 10 picks in the 2014 NBA Draft. Not far behind that group were Zach LaVine (No. 13), James Young (No. 17) and Tyler Ennis (No. 18). Will the 2014-15 NCAA freshman class deliver nine first-round draft picks? While it’s doubtful, it’s certainly possible. This is a deep class full of talented players with completely different skill sets. RTC has compiled a list of 15 hopeful freshmen that have a solid shot at winning this upcoming season’s INTEGRIS Wayman Tisdale Freshman of the Year award.

Let’s start with the player most pundits believe will hold up the trophy at the end of the season.

The Favorite

Duke's Jahlil Okafor is the favorite (left) but the guys on the right (Arizona's Stanley Johnson,

Duke’s Jahlil Okafor is the favorite (left) but the guys on the right (Arizona’s Stanley Johnson, Kansas’ Cliff Alexander and Kelly Oubre and UNLV’s Rashad Vaughn) will also be right in the mix.

Jahlil Okafor, Duke – 6’11”, 272 pounds: If it weren’t for Emmanuel Mudiay (who chose to play overseas in lieu of a year of college), Okafor might be the consensus No. 1 NBA draft pick in 2015. Okafor has the size and length (7’5” wingspan) to not only be an interior force on offense, but he’s going to be a solid rim-protector on defense. Don’t be fooled by his weight, either. At 272 pounds, Okafor has surprisingly great mobility and athleticism. His ability to run the floor and his soft hands will make him a prime candidate to receive transition lobs on the fast break. As of now, Okafor is strictly a back-to-the-basket player who needs to develop a consistent mid-range jumper to round out his game. He also needs to work on his free throw shooting, as he figures to spend a lot of time there this season.

In the Discussion

  • Stanley Johnson, Arizona – 6’7”, 235 pounds: Johnson might actually be the most complete player in this class. He is a polished, two-way player and an above-average ball-handler for his size. He uses his high motor skills and never-ending energy to produce in transition, absorbing any and all contact as he makes his way to the rim. The knock on Johnson right now is that he needs to become a more consistent shooter and develop more range. Depending on what Arizona head coach Sean Miller wants to do with him, Johnson could find himself as the starting shooting guard in the Wildcats’ lineup. His versatility allows him to play multiple positions, but if he starts at the two, then he is going to need to become a floor-spacer with consistency. It will be interesting to see how Johnson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson play next to each other, as they have very similar size and playing styles.

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RTC’s ACC Preseason Awards

Posted by Lathan Wells on November 11th, 2014

With the 2014-15 ACC season just about to tip off, our esteemed panel of micrositers has come together to release our preseason individual superlatives. It was a close race for most of these positions, but those who were close to making the cut will earn honorable mention below. Feel free to comment on where we went horribly awry or how accurately you think we’ve nailed it.

Player of the Year: Marcus Paige, PG, North Carolina. It might be a good thing if Paige’s scoring numbers drop this year, as that would probably mean more offensive production from his peers. North Carolina has a promising group of freshmen in the backcourt and on the wing, but a more mature and seasoned frontcourt could help Paige excel as the team’s primary ball-handler. Jahlil Okafor and Montrezl Harrell are two others who could easily claim this award by season’s end.

Marcus Paige is RTC's pre-season ACC Player of the Year (newsobserver.com)

Marcus Paige is RTC’s preseason ACC Player of the Year (newsobserver.com)

Freshman of the Year: Jahlil Okafor, C, Duke. We didn’t stray far from public opinion on this one. Okafor gives Duke its most formidable post player in many years, and his exhibition performances have done little to dampen the enthusiasm for his talent in Durham. Justin Jackson (North Carolina), Shaqquan Aaron (Louisville) and Kaleb Joseph (Syracuse) are dark horse candidates worth keeping an eye on.

Coach of the Year: Leonard Hamilton, Florida State. Louisville’s Rick Pitino, Virginia’s Tony Bennett and Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski were the others we considered, but the potential for Florida State to make some noise in the ACC race this year means Hamilton is the preseason choice. Florida State will continue to play its trademark smothering defense, but we think that the offense will be vastly improved. It says here that the Seminoles will improve on their 9-9 ACC record and return to the Big Dance after an NIT semifinals appearance a year ago.

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ACC Preview: North Carolina’s Burning Question

Posted by Lathan Wells on November 10th, 2014

This team preview is part of the RTC ACC microsite’s preseason coverage. You will find a list with links to all the team previews on the ACC Microsite Preview Page, located here.

Can North Carolina’s frontcourt live up to its potential?

North Carolina underwent a major roster re-shuffling last season due to the dismissal of P.J. Hairston and the late insertion of Leslie McDonald into the lineup. The team was all over the place in the season’s first half, notching impressive wins over highly-ranked teams while suffering several head-scratching losses to lesser opponents. The Tar Heels finally found their footing come conference play, however, and finished 24-10 overall (13-5 ACC) en route to the NCAA Tournament’s Third Round, where they lost to Iowa State. This year’s edition is projected as a better team, but the Tar Heels’ chances of making a deep run in March will directly tie to the success of its deep but sometimes inconsistent frontcourt.

Johnson will need to use his added bulk to help him bang with the bigs in the ACC this year (gettyimages)

Johnson will need to use his added bulk to help him bang with the bigs in the ACC this year (gettyimages)

Brice Johnson was a sort of super-sub for North Carolina last year, spelling enigmatic James Michael McAdoo at power forward and occasionally filling in at the center position. He averaged 10.3 points per game, largely on transition baskets and buckets around the rim. Johnson’s biggest weaknesses were his lack of bulk, causing him to struggle playing against bigger, stronger opponents, and his propensity for foul trouble. He has reportedly added about 20 pounds to his frame, so the Heels hope that his improved strength will allow him to handle the night-in, night-out pounding in the paint. If he can also become a more well-rounded defender by tempering the tendency to send every opponent’s shot into the fifth row, Johnson can better remain on the floor and become a very dependable contributor on both ends of the court.

Johnson’s running mate in the paint, Kennedy Meeks, was a polar opposite of Johnson. Meeks came into Chapel Hill as a freshman needing to lose weight, and he has done so to the tune of a whopping 50 pounds in the last year-plus. Meeks is not a prototypical center at 6’8″, but he has excellent offensive moves around the basket and understands his limitations in playing below the rim. He is also an exceptional passer, helping to ignite fast breaks and finding open men from the post. Like Johnson, Meeks needs to stay on the floor with McAdoo no longer in the mix, but if his conditioning has greatly improved that will prove much easier for the sophomore. Meeks and Johnson also showed great chemistry in executing the high-low game when they shared court time last year, which bodes very well for the team when they are operating together in the Tar Heels’ starting lineup.

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