2018-19 RTC 16: Week One

Posted by Walker Carey on November 26th, 2018

The college basketball season really got cooking during a Feast Week that featured two top-five match-ups that could easily be played again at the Final Four in Minneapolis. #1 Gonzaga and #3 Duke tipped things off Wednesday evening in what was an extremely entertaining Maui Invitational title game. The veteran Bulldogs led by as many as 16 points before withstanding a furious Blue Devils rally to escape with a thrilling 89-87 victory. Not to be outdone, #2 Kansas and #5 Tennessee turned in their own early season classic on Friday in the title game of the Preseason NIT. The Jayhawks used a dynamite performance from star forward Dedric Lawson — coupled with the good fortune of Tennessee star big man Grant Williams fouling out prior to overtime — to emerge victorious with an 87-81 result. The college hoops regular season is much more of a marathon than a sprint, but these early season treats serve as a good reminder of how compelling it can be when we have the pleasure of watching some of the best teams in the country face off against one another.

Quick N’ Dirty Analysis.

  • Gonzaga is the new #1 team. Following its impressive win over #3 Duke in the Maui Invitational title game, Gonzaga is the new #1 team in this week’s RTC16. Mark Few‘s squad is loaded with the talent all over the court, highlighted by sophomore guard Zach Norvell Jr. and junior forward Rui Hachimura. What might be the most impressive aspect of the current Bulldogs is that they have emerged to these heights without the services of excellent junior forward Killian Tillie, who remains sidelined with an ankle injury. Gonzaga’s non-conference slate does not get much easier this week, as it faces a good North Dakota State program on Monday before hitting the road to play in what will be a raucous environment at Creighton on Saturday.

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Big 12 Feast Week Catch-Up

Posted by Brian Goodman on November 21st, 2018

We’re halfway through Feast Week and even though much of the conference has faced strong competition for the first time this season, we aren’t that much closer to determining a pecking order than we were on Sunday. That’s a credit to the league’s performance rather than a detriment, though, with strong impressions being made throughout. Idle until later today, Kansas still has the inside track, but whereas before the season when Kansas State was thought to be the sole challenger, the battle for second is a jumbled mess at this juncture with not only the Wildcats but also Texas Tech, Texas and even Iowa State joining the fray. Further down, even Oklahoma isn’t looking like an easy out, which is another good sign for the league’s overall strength

Udoka Azubuike and the Jayhawks stare down their next challenge in New York City. (Getty)

  • Kansas (NIT Season Tip-Off) – The Jayhawks look to collect more marquee wins in their second neutral-court event of the season. Tonight’s semifinal pits Bill Self’s team against a Marquette squad eager to make a splash after finishing seventh in the Big East a season ago. While the Jayhawks are deservedly favored, they’ve been getting cooked from beyond the arc, ranking 331st in defensive 3PA/FGA and allowing opponents to hit 46.9 percent of their tries. Their weakness for going over screens and over-helping hasn’t cost them yet, but although the Golden Eagles haven’t truly heated up, they have the firepower to make the Jayhawks pay with an arsenal of shooters led by Markus Howard, Sam Hauser and Joey Hauser. If they don’t connect, there won’t be much to fall back on with Kansas having the skill and bodies down low to keep Marquette honest on the blocks. Offense hasn’t been much of a problem for the Jayhawks, but it could be against the Volunteers if that matchup materializes Friday night. Rick Barnes has always fielded stingy defensive teams as long as his players have bought in, and it’s been no different this year. Tennessee hasn’t forced turnovers or blocked a ton of shots, but they’ve been forcing tough attempts, which is almost as beneficial. Louisville’s no slouch, either, but the jury’s still out with Chris Mack working to establish the habits that made him a must-have to the Cardinals’ administration and donor base.
  • Kansas State (Paradise Jam) – For Wildcat fans, watching this team in its first four games was kind of like eating Chinese food for dinner. It achieved the desired result, but it was never anything to write home about and you were hungry for something better just a short time later. A decisive 20-2 run against Missouri en route to the Paradise Jam title in Game 5 doesn’t mean that Kansas State’s offense is fixed, but it’s certainly a start. Dean Wade and Barry Brown leading the way with strong support from Xavier Sneed and Cartier Diarra putting in yeoman’s work off the bench is exactly what Bruce Weber needs from his squad to sufficiently complement its heady, efficient defensive play. Now comes the hard part of sustaining it against the rest of a solid non-con slate and into league play.
  • Texas Tech (Hall Of Fame Classic) – The Red Raiders had a successful week in Kansas City, using big second halves to defeat USC and Nebraska on their way to the Hall of Fame Classic championship. Chris Beard made frequent substitutions in search of a rotation that could get the best of Tech’s opponents, but the constant was Jarrett Culver, who averaged 22 points and 7.5 rebounds in the event. Culver struggled to get going early in both games, but made increasingly better decisions as the individual games wore on. By the end of the event, he cemented his role as the team’s leader with Matt Mooney, Tariq Owens and Davide Moretti making for a solid supporting cast. I maintain that Tech’s drop-off from 2018 won’t be as steep as many around the landscape feel, but one thing that gives me pause relates to the way the offense stagnated when Culver wasn’t fully engaged, so while it’s still early and trusting Beard feels like a safe bet, I do worry a bit about the team being able to pick up the slack against better opponents when Culver isn’t at his best.
  • Iowa State (Maui Invitational) – Beating superior competition when you’re short-handed is challenging enough in a normal setting, but when you’re slated to play three games in three days with just eight scholarship players, you just want to have a decent showing and not return to the mainland any worse off than you were when you arrived. A fully healthy Cyclone team might have have been able to finish the job against Arizona on Monday night, but they’re certainly making the best of it in the consolation bracket. Steve Prohm had Brad Underwood’s number in the latter’s lone season at Oklahoma State with the Cyclones sweeping all three meetings in 2017, and that continued Tuesday afternoon with an 84-68 trouncing. Iowa State’s effort epitomized basketball in 2018, with 47 of their 53 shot attempts coming on dunks, layups or three-pointers. With Marial Shayok and Talen Horton-Tucker showing out and the team playing free-flowing, efficient basketball, re-working Lindell Wigginton, Cameron Lard and Solomon Young into the rotation will make for a fascinating storyline they get closer to returning.
  • Oklahoma (Battle 4 Atlantis) – Picked to finish eighth in the league, the Sooners have shown some moxie, undefeated with three of their four wins coming away from Norman and a chance to make the week a big one assuming they meet favored Wisconsin in Friday’s semifinal. As I discussed last week, the calling card of Oklahoma’s defense has been their ability to defend without fouling, but that risk-averse nature hasn’t yielded many turnovers. That may need to change against a Wisconsin team that really values the ball and has largely made the most of their possessions. Jamuni McNeace was highly effective defending the Gators, but stopping Ethan Happ will be one of the biggest challenges he’ll face all year if the matchup comes to fruition. Continuing to get standout offensive play from Christian James (21.5 PPG, 2.5 TO/40) will be vital as well.
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Big 12 Observations After One Week

Posted by Brian Goodman on November 14th, 2018

Eight of the 10 Big 12 teams have played at least two games (Oklahoma State squares off at Texas-San Antonio tonight and West Virginia meets Monmouth tomorrow), so while it’s still too early to draw sweeping conclusions, it is a good time to take a look at some early revelations with Feast Week just around the corner.

Two games has been enough for Kansas fans to be treated to the full Dedric Lawson experience. (Nick Krug/Lawrence Journal-World)

  • Dedric Lawson’s been just okay. Just one week in and we’ve already seen some of the inconsistency for which the preseason All-American became known during his two years at Memphis. Even though Lawson struggled to a 5-of-18 shooting night against Michigan State, he was good enough to contribute 20 points along with 14 rebounds, two blocks and a pair of steals. In his Allen Fieldhouse debut against Vermont on Monday, however, he was a total non-factor from start to finish as the Catamounts pushed him around and held him scoreless for the first time in his career. Among his many skills, Lawson is a tremendous passer out of the paint, but Kansas’ insistence on running so much of its offense through Udoka Azubuike presents challenges in terms of fit and strategy when they’re both on the floor. The junior shouldn’t have any problems on Friday against Louisiana, whose rotation includes just one player taller than 6’6″, but it’s fair to have expected a little more from the big man in his first two games in Lawrence.
  • It might be a while before we know how good West Virginia is. There isn’t much shame in losing to mid-major darling Buffalo in overtime, but the fact that the Mountaineers put up a defensive turnover rate of just 12.8 percent at home and were fairly mediocre on the offensive glass in allowing a 13-point second half comeback should dispel any notions that this season will be business as usual in Morgantown. Bob Huggins‘ team will have opportunities to clean things up, but with this weekend’s Myrtle Beach Invitational lacking top-end competition and just one meeting against a KenPom top-50 team remaining (Florida in Madison Square Garden) before conference play, determining where this team belongs in both the Big 12 and national picture might take some time.

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Previewing Opening Week in the Big 12

Posted by Brian Goodman on November 6th, 2018

It’s been a long offseason, but we made it, everyone. Tonight is the night the 2018-19 season gets under way. As per usual, preseason #1 Kansas will own the marquee as one of the four elite teams competing in the Champions Classic, but half the conference will be in action this evening with Texas, Iowa State, Texas Tech and Baylor beginning their seasons as well. TCU will tip its season off on Wednesday, and following an idle Thursday, Kansas State, West Virginia and Oklahoma open the weekend with Friday jumps while Oklahoma State takes the caboose on Saturday afternoon. KenPom likes all 10 Big 12 teams to win their openers, with only the Jayhawks favored by fewer than 10 points (vs. Michigan State) and just one other game (West Virginia vs. Buffalo) coming in at fewer than 15 points. Still, you never know when a team might unleash a surprise, and even if not, there’s always something to keep an eye on as the curtains open. Here’s what to watch for around the Big 12 over the next few days.

Tuesday

Look for Dedric Lawson to make a strong first impression in Indianapolis tonight. (Orlin Wagner/AP)

  • Kansas vs. Michigan State – As mentioned in last week’s team preview, Kansas will feature two bigs in Dedric Lawson and Udoka Azubuike one year after going very guard-heavy. On the other side of this specific frontcourt match-up, Michigan State lost Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson to the draft and Gavin Schilling to graduation, so the Spartans will counter with junior Nick Ward and sophomore Xavier Tillman, who aren’t bad, but don’t hold a candle to a pair of lottery picks and a useful program guy. While I like Kansas to win this one in large part because of the mismatches up front, don’t be surprised to see Michigan State’s Cassius Winston expose the Jayhawks’ new-look backcourt on more than one occasion.
  • Texas vs. Eastern Illinois – Watching the Longhorns try to run offense last season was the ultimate test of will, as they finished dead last in the Big 12 in offensive efficiency. With four starters back this season, they absolutely have to get better. Their non-conference slate includes a neutral site date with Arkansas in addition to tilts against North Carolina, Purdue and Providence, so improved offensive cohesion will be important in the early going.

Get to know Lindell Wigginton before the rest of the country catches up. (Andrew Dieb/USA Today Sports)

  • Iowa State vs. Alabama State – There ought to be plenty of reps at the point guard position for both Nick Weiler-Babb and Lindell Wigginton. The Cyclones will be thin up front to start the season, though, with Solomon Young (injury) and Cameron Lard (suspension) both expected to miss tonight’s game. As a result, newcomers Michael Jacobson and George Conditt will be thrust into major minutes earlier than Steve Prohm would have liked. I don’t think that will be enough for the Hornets to make this game interesting, but it could make for a rockier ride than expected.
  • Texas Tech vs. Incarnate Word – Chris Beard faces off against one of his former employers tonight and it will be next man up with Keenan Evans, Zhaire Smith, Zach Smith and Niem Stevenson all having moved on to the next stages of their careers. A game against one of the 30 worst teams in the sport won’t decide whether Jarrett Culver is ready for the spotlight, but how he starts the season will tell us a lot about the Red Raiders’ fortunes in 2018-19.
  • Baylor vs. Texas Southern – The Bears will start the season as any rebuilding team of their caliber should, with four straight cupcakes. The first two weeks will be a great opportunity for Scott Drew’s squad to sharpen its defense after losing two of its best frontcourt defenders in Nuni Omot and Jo Lual-Acuil as well as an underrated perimeter defender in Manu LecomteBaylor’s going to feature smaller looks this year than what many are used to, which shouldn’t present any significant hurdles against the Tigers tonight, but is noteworthy going forward.

Wednesday

  • TCU vs. Cal State Bakersfield – The Horned Frogs’ backcourt doesn’t get a lot of headlines, but that could change soon, because there’s a lot to like about the trio of Alex Robinson, Jaylen Fisher and Desmond Bane. They’re experienced, they can create for themselves as well as others, and they can shoot it from deep. Their defensive chops aren’t where you’d like them to be, but there’s some untapped potential that will show itself this time around. Keep an eye on TCU’s frontcourt too, as it picks up the pieces from Vladimir Brodziansky and Kenrich Williams’s departures.

Friday

  • West Virginia vs. Buffalo – Aside from the Champions Classic, this is the only game of Opening Week whose outcome isn’t completely foregone, so it should be an interesting watch for those waiting to get back into the swing of things after the short Thursday break. You have a Mountaineer team that should be plenty good but not as good as last year’s edition facing the Bulls, who won the MAC by a country mile, embarrassed Arizona in last season’s NCAA Round of 64 and return nearly everyone, making themselves a strong favorite to repeat in conference. Will Bob Huggins‘ team be ready?
  • Kansas State vs. Kennesaw State – The Wildcats have a strong non-conference schedule that they’ll hope to parlay into a favorable seed come March, but their first two weeks will be more manageable and should offer Bruce Weber opportunities to explore the limits of his rotation. Dean Wade and Barry Brown are the names everyone knows and will be excited to see, but JuCo transfer Austin Trice will look to make his case for minutes as a strong rebounder off the bench.
  • Oklahoma at UT Rio Grande Valley – The Sooners are doing something a little different by starting the season on the road against two mid-majors. It’s admirable on Lon Kruger‘s part, but there isn’t much more to be said. Oklahoma will be among the league’s dregs despite being one of the oldest teams in the league, and they’re scheduled to play just two home games over the season’s first five weeks and won’t play their fifth home game until January 5. It’s setting up to be a long year in Norman.

Saturday

  • Oklahoma State at Charlotte – The Pokes also start the year on the road against a mid-major and aren’t projected to be very good this season. There’s not a lot returning on this team, so Mike Boynton will look to Cameron McGriffLindy Waters and Thomas Dziagwa to keep the ship from sinking early.
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Big 12 Previews: Kansas & Kansas State

Posted by Brian Goodman on November 2nd, 2018

With tip-off now mere days away, we’re continuing our 2018-19 Big 12 coverage by going around the league team-by-team. Be sure to check in throughout the season and follow Big 12 correspondent Brian Goodman on Twitter @BSGoodman.

Kansas

Bill Self and Kansas want nothing more than to roll out the ball. (USA Today Images)

A few misses on the recruiting trail and Billy Preston’s compromised eligibility led last season’s Jayhawks to field one of their thinnest teams in recent memory. With Bill Self’s hand forced, he leaned into his team’s strength of perimeter play like never before. Svi Mykhailiuk, Malik Newman and Devonte’ Graham each buried at least 85 three-pointers last year, and all three connected at a 40 percent or better clip in pacing the nation’s fifth-best offense, which also helped mask the worst defensive group of the Self era (47th nationally). There were a number of moments that Kansas fans would rather forget, such as losing to NIT-bound Washington in Kansas City and dropping three home games for the first time since boy bands dominated the Billboard charts, but the Jayhawks still won 31 games, still notched their 14th consecutive Big 12 title and still made the Final Four for the first time since 2012 without a single first-round pick, so they handled the adversity just fine.

Who’s Gone:

  • G Devonte’ Graham: 17.3 PPG, 7.2 APG, 40.6% 3FG
  • G Svi Mykhailiuk: 14.6 PPG, 44.4% 3FG
  • G Malik Newman: 14.2 PPG, 5.0 RPG

Who’s Back:

  • C Udoka Azubuike: 13.0 PPG, 7.0 RPG, 1.7 BPG
  • G Lagerald Vick: 12.1 PPG, 4.8 RPG, 37.3% 3FG
  • G Marcus Garrett: 19.2 MPG, 4.1 PPG
  • F Mitch Lightfoot: 14.0 MPG, 3.8 PPG, 3.1 RPG
  • F Silvio De Sousa*: 20 GP, 4.0 PPG, 3.7 RPG

*suspended indefinitely

Who’s Coming In:

  • F Dedric Lawson (transfer from Memphis): 19.2 PPG, 9.9 RPG, 2.1 BPG in 2016-17
  • G K.J. Lawson (transfer from Memphis): 12.3 PPG, 8.1 RPG, 2.8 APG in 2016-17
  • G Charlie Moore (transfer from Cal): 12.2 PPG, 3.5 APG, 35.2% 3FG in 2016-17
  • G Quentin Grimes (five-star recruit)
  • G Devon Dotson (five-star recruit)
  • F David McCormack (four-star recruit)

Outlook: Even if De Sousa were available, he’d be no better than the team’s third-best big man (if that), so while a cloud of suspicion stemming from alleged improprieties revealed over the last several months may surround this team, it’s more likely to manifest itself in the form of increased vitriol from opposing fanbases and in local and national talk than in any real way on the court. That isn’t nothing, but the point is that this year’s team should be just fine, barring any new revelations. That’s a credit to the group of talent that Self has assembled in spite of any doubts circling its construction. Kansas is positioned to return to a classic two-big look, with Memphis transfer and preseason All-American Dedric Lawson and Udoka Azubuike possessing the strength, skill and experience to overpower most of their match-ups, and Mitch Lightfoot and David McCormack behind them. Whether it’s optimal to feature two bigs as prominent as Lawson and Azubuike in the era of pace and space is a conversation worth having, but we’ll leave it for another time. Another interesting question in Lawrence is how the point guard position will shake out after Devonte’ Graham and Frank Mason gave the team so much production and consistency over the last four seasons. Charlie Moore has experience and some scoring ability, but Marcus Garrett has the defensive-mindedness and toughness that Self loves so much and Devon Dotson is the most decorated point guard prospect to come through Lawrence since Josh Selby. There shouldn’t be many problems at the two-guard slot, though, with Lagerald Vick returning and a blue-chip freshman in Quentin Grimes ready to contribute as well. The Jayhawks are a melting pot of program guys, transfers and stud recruits, making them an excellent bet to win their 15th consecutive conference title followed by another deep postseason run. 

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Big 12 Wrap-Up and Early 2018-19 Outlook

Posted by Brian Goodman on April 10th, 2018

Despite Villanova beating three Big 12 teams in decisive fashion on its way to the national title, the 2017-18 campaign was another strong one for the league. Here are some takeaways from the year that was and a handful of early thoughts on the main storylines as summer draws near.

Kansas was no match for Villanova’s three-point barrage, but the Big 12 still enjoyed a successful postseason. (Bob Donnan/USA Today)

  • The league began the process of rehabilitating its March reputation. After some disappointing results in the last few NCAA Tournaments, the Big 12 took a step forward this year in sending four teams to the Sweet Sixteen, three teams to the Elite Eight and one to the Final Four. Perhaps most notable was Kansas State‘s head-turning voyage to the Elite Eight, which put Bruce Weber on steadier ground from a job security perspective entering next season. We also watched Texas Tech break into the second weekend with star guard Keenan Evans playing on a broken toe, and West Virginia gave Villanova the toughest game of the Wildcats’ championship run. The league’s national perception won’t change significantly until a team other than Kansas makes the Final Four, but Villanova’s victory over the Jayhawks became easier to swallow when they cut down the nets last Monday night in San Antonio. All told, the conference logged one of its best postseason runs in recent years.
  • What will Kansas do with its last scholarship? When the buzzer sounded on their national semifinal loss to Villanova, the Jayhawks were already one over the scholarship limit for the 2018-19 season. That potential dilemma, however, worked itself out when Malik Newman and Lagerald Vick both opted to forgo their remaining eligibility and pursue professional careers. With one scholarship now available, fans can expect Kansas to ramp up its pursuit of five-star wing Romeo Langford to round out its roster, but the Jayhawks will likely be the preseason #1 team in the country regardless of what happens on that front. If Langford signs elsewhere, Kansas could scour the graduate transfer market for some outside shooting to pick up some of the slack left by Newman and Vick as well as the graduations of Svi Mykhailiuk and Devonte’ Graham. In that light, bringing in a proven three-point threat from the existing market seems to make good sense unless Udoka Azubuike surprises the college basketball world by declaring and staying in the 2018 NBA Draft.

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Rushed Reactions: #11 Loyola-Chicago 78, #9 Kansas State 62

Posted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on March 24th, 2018

RTC will be providing coverage of the NCAA Tournament from start to finish. Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) is in Atlanta for the South Regional this weekend.

Three Key Takeaways.

Loyola drove past Kansas State and is going to its first Final Four in 55 years.
(Brett Davis/USA TODAY Sports)

  1. This South Regional bracket may have been the wackiest quadrant in NCAA Tournament history. This year’s South Region has produced some historic results: the first #16 Seed (UMBC) beating a #1 Seed (Virginia); the first Sweet Sixteen without any top four seeds; lower-seeded teams winning more than 50 percent of the time (9-6). So it’s fitting that not only did we have the first regional final between a #9 seed and a #11 seed, but the mid-major Ramblers run Kansas State out of the building just like UMBC had done to top-rated Virginia a little over a week ago. Loyola was clearly the better team from the start, shooting 55.6 percent from the floor en route to a 12-point halftime lead. It was more of the same after intermission as Loyola sank 10 of its first 12 shots to build an insurmountable 23-point lead. The Wildcats made a gutsy comeback attempt but could no closer than 11 points the rest of the way as Loyola cruised to its first regional title in over 50 years. The Ramblers simply shredded the Wildcats’ defense — something that no other K-State opponent had been able to do in the tournament.
  2. All the standard cliches apply to this Loyola team. (1) “They are a very balanced team.” On the season, five Ramblers average double-figure scoring, but none comes in above 13.5 points per contest. (2) “Experience matters.” Among the top six in Porter Moser’s rotation, five are in their fourth year of college — three seniors, two redshirt-junior transfers. (3) “They have a winning mentality.” According to Moser, seven of his current players won state championships during their high school days. All three of these applicable cliches are represented by the fact that three different Ramblers nailed game-clinching jumpers in their first three tourney games — Donte Ingram (versus Miami), Clayton Custer (Tennessee) and Marques Townes (Nevada). No last-minute heroics were necessary tonight, though, as the confident Ramblers put together their most complete performance of the NCAA Tournament with a trip to the Final Four as a result.
  3. Kansas State’s Barry Brown is a tremendous defender. Brown is probably the most versatile shut-down perimeter defender we’ve seen in the NCAA Tournament since Butler’s Ronald Nored handcuffed opposing guards during the Bulldogs’ back-to-back trips to the title game in 2010 and 2011. In the first two rounds of this year’s tourney, Brown stymied Creighton’s Marcus Foster (5 points, 2-11 FG), and Jairus Lyles (12 points, 4-15 FG) of UMBC. Coming into the Sweet Sixteen, Kentucky’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was on fire, but Brown effectively doused his flames — Gilgeous-Alexander finished with 15 points, but only shot 2-of-10 from the field and committed five turnovers. And when three of his teammates fouled out late in that game, Brown (6’3″) moved over to check 6’9″ Kevin Knox and more than held his own. Tonight Brown guarded Custer for most of the night, holding the Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year to just seven points and 2-of-8 shooting from the floor. But it didn’t really matter against the balanced Ramblers — others stepped up for Loyola and Brown couldn’t guard but one of them at a time.

Player of the Game. Ben Richardson, Loyola-Chicago. As we mentioned above, Loyola gets production from a number of different players with new guys stepping up game to game. Tonight it was the Richardson show from start to finish. Primarily known as a defensive stopper, the senior exploded for a career-high 23 points behind a blistering 6-of-7 from three-point land.

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Rushed Reactions: #9 Kansas State 61, #5 Kentucky 58

Posted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on March 22nd, 2018

RTC will be providing coverage of the NCAA Tournament from start to finish. Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) is in Atlanta for the South Regional this weekend.

Three Key Takeaways.

Xavier Sneed led Kansas State in its upset over Kentucky in the Sweet Sixteen.
(Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports)

  1. The South Region delivers again. Kentucky was a heavy favorite in Atlanta and had heavy crowd support throughout the game, but the Wildcats were in trouble most of the way tonight. Kansas State exploded for an early 13-1 lead and took a four-point lead into the break. Then when it looked like Kentucky would blow past them midway through the second half, Kansas State spurted back ahead by nine. But to Kentucky’s credit, John Calipari’s youngsters kept fighting and clawed their way back yet again. The final push led to a riveting game-ending few minutes, with the lead going back and forth between Wildcats. With under 20 seconds to go and the score tied, Barry Brown made a clutch driving layup to put Kansas State ahead by three, but the game wasn’t decided until Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s three clanged off the back iron at the buzzer. That leaves us with the most improbable Elite Eight matchup we could ever imagine, which is par for the course in this year’s South Region.  
  2. Kansas State is a really good defensive team. It’s not a coincidence that every team that plays the Wildcats struggles on the offensive end of the floor. Kentucky came into tonight’s contest averaging 86.5 points per game in the NCAA Tournament, but the Wildcats couldn’t crack the 60-point mark against Bruce Weber‘s defense. For the game, Kentucky shot just 38.1 percent from the floor and went 3-of-12 from three-point land. The Wildcats in purple were giving up almost four inches per man against Kentucky, however, and it took its toll in the form of foul trouble. Three Kansas State players fouled out and two others finished with four violations, but the tough-minded Big 12 Wildcats hung on to win.
  3. Kentucky’s youth finally caught up with them. Against a physically inferior squad, the Wildcats wearing white made too many mistakes to beat a Kansas State bunch intent on not giving in. In the key moments down the stretch of this game, Kentucky may have felt the pressure of being the favorite — missing free throws (23-of-37 in the game), committing ball-handling mistakes (15 turnovers) and taking a number of questionable shots. Kentucky had been playing great over the last month of the season, but they looked young in the late parts of tonight’s game — failing to get a decent look on either of its last two possessions.

Player of the Game. Xavier Sneed, Kansas State. Sneed led the way with 22 points and nine rebounds despite fighting foul trouble for much of the night. He was particularly effective from deep, sinking more than half of his team’s threes by going 5-of-8 from behind the arc. 

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Big 12 Keys to Sweet Sixteen Success

Posted by Brian Goodman on March 21st, 2018

Last weekend, the Big 12 propelled four teams into the Sweet Sixteen for the first time since 2002. That year, two of those teams  (Kansas and Oklahoma) went on to make the Final Four, although neither prevailed in their respective National Semifinal game. As KansasTexas Tech, West Virginia and Kansas State prepare for their second weekend action, here are each team’s keys to surviving to play another game.

Kansas guard Malik Newman is shooting a scorching 57 percent from deep over his last nine games. (Nick Krug/KUSports.com)

  • Kansas: Avoid a cold shooting night. Kansas has been one of the most prolific and consistent three-point shooting teams in the country this season. As a team, the Jayhawks have shot 40.3 percent from distance with only one outing at less than 35 percent over their last nine games. Clemson doesn’t have a ton of length and is perfectly fine in letting opponents fire away while they focus on forcing tough angles inside, so while Udoka Azubuike starting is a positive development, Friday’s outcome will likely hinge more on whether the Jayhawks hit their threes early. A hot-shooting Kansas team will cause problems for the Tigers very quickly, but if they start off cold and lose confidence, the Jayhawks will be as vulnerable as they’ve been on their worst days of the season.
  • Texas Tech: Capitalize on the injury to Purdue center Isaac Haas. The Red Raiders have been a tremendous defensive team all season, but have had trouble containing highly efficient big men, so the elbow injury that Purdue’s Isaac Haas suffered in the Round of 64 should be a boon to Chris Beard‘s team whether he plays or not. Matt Haarms will alter some shots, but the key for Texas Tech will be to not let his presence keep them from attacking closeouts and drawing contact. The Red Raiders will also need to discourage Purdue’s shooters on the defensive end, an area in which they haven’t excelled despite their athleticism and depth. Still, I like their chances.

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NCAA Regional Reset: South Region

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 20th, 2018

Rush the Court is providing comprehensive coverage of the NCAA Tournament from start to finish over the next three weeks. Today and tomorrow we reset each of the four regions. 

New Favorite: #5 Kentucky (26-10). Not only is Kentucky the favorite to win the South Region, it has better odds to reach the Final Four than any team left in the NCAA Tournament, per FiveThirtyEight. Who could have foreseen that on Selection Sunday? Then again, who could have foreseen virtually anything that happened in the South? For the first time in college basketball history, the four top seeds from a single region failed to reach the Sweet Sixteen, leaving the Wildcats standing as the clear-cut favorite in Atlanta. And really, they might have been the favorite anyway. After edging Davidson in the opening round, Kentucky continued playing its best offensive basketball of the season against #13 Buffalo, scoring 1.28 points per possession against a defense that had just baffled #4 Arizona two nights earlier. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (more on him below) was great yet again (27 points on 10-for-12 shooting). Hamidou Diallo (22 points) had his best game in months. Wenyen Gabriel (3-of-5 3FG) continued hitting shots. Since losing to Florida on March 3, Kentucky has looked like an entirely different team — an efficient team — on the offensive end. And that should scare the daylights out of every team left in the Dance.

Kentucky is peaking at the right time. (Kentucky Sports)

Horse of Darkness: #11 Loyola-Chicago (30-5). It speaks volumes about this region that a #11 seed advanced to the Sweet Sixteen and there’s even a debate here, but #7 Nevada and #9 Kansas State both have solid arguments. Still, the Ramblers are the worst remaining seed and no team has taken on that Cinderella “feel” quite like Porter Moser’s group. For Loyola to advance, it took a pair of dramatic (near) buzzer-beaters and some prayers from Sister Jean to upend #6 Miami and #3 Tennessee, the program’s first NCAA Tournament victories since 1985. At no point have the Ramblers looked physically outmatched, though, and it’s doubtful they will against Nevada. Don’t be shocked if this team winds up playing for a trip to San Antonio on Saturday.

Biggest Surprise (First Weekend): #16 UMBC (25-11). Biggest surprise (first weekend)? How about biggest surprise (ever)? In perhaps the greatest upset of all-time, UMBC knocked off #1 overall seed Virginia to become the first #16 seed in NCAA Tournament history to reach the Second Round. Even with several days for that to soak in, the accomplishment remains astounding. Consider that Virginia owned the best record in college basketball (31-2) and won the ACC by four games. And that UMBC lost by 44 points to Albany on January 21. And that Virginia’s defense hadn’t allowed a single opponent to score 70 points this season. Or that UMBC’s offensive efficiency ranked fifth in the America East and didn’t even crack the top 150 nationally. And yet, led by a pair of senior guards with enough swagger to last a lifetime, the Retrievers ripped off 53 points in the second half alone en route to a shocking 74-54 victory, the most total points and points per possession the Cavaliers had surrendered all season. It was the upset to end all upsets.

Completely Expected (First Weekend): Nothing. We’re not trying to be cute here — virtually nothing went as expected in the South Region. A #16 seed beat the #1 overall seed. The #9 seed, Kansas State, reached the Sweet Sixteen without its leading scorer. The #13 seed beat the #4 seed — don’t forget about Buffalo! — and the #11 seed advanced to the second weekend. Oh, and as for #2 Cincinnati? It only blew a 22-point second-half lead against #7 Nevada, giving the Wolf Pack its first Sweet Sixteen berth since 2004. Even #5 Kentucky was far from a sure thing: according to KenPom, the Wildcats had just a 36.7 percent chance of reaching Atlanta before the tournament started.

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