NCAA Regional Reset: South Region

Posted by Bennet Hayes on March 21st, 2017

Rush the Court is providing comprehensive coverage of the NCAA Tournament from start to finish over the next three weeks.

New Favorite: #1 North Carolina (29-7). The Tar Heels might have actually had the most unimpressive opening weekend of the four teams remaining in the South, as they needed a kind late whistle to escape #8 Arkansas on Sunday. However, the region’s #1 seed retains its status as a Final Four favorite in large part because of the draw. Butler posted a pair of workmanlike victories in dispatching #13 Winthrop and #12 Middle Tennessee State last weekend, but the Bulldogs’ road to Memphis was far simpler than that of fellow semifinalists UCLA and Kentucky. Second round wins over Cincinnati and Wichita State, respectively, are impressive notches — victories that confirm both the Bruins’ and Wildcats’ status as National Title contenders. Because Butler is simply not that, North Carolina becomes the only team in a balanced region to not need two victories over elite foes in Memphis, which gives the Heels the inside track to Phoenix.

Joel Berry and the Tar Heels are still the team to beat in a balanced region.(Photo: Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports)

Horse of Darkness: #4 Butler (25-8). As noted above, Butler is the only team in the Memphis region that doesn’t qualify as a true contender. That’s no knock on the Bulldogs — a group that put together a nice season and a pair of quality first weekend performances — but there is an obvious drop-off when it comes to program prestige and overall talent against the three blue-bloods in this regional. However, that does not mean Kelan Martin (19 points, six rebounds and four assists in the win over MTSU) and his Bulldogs aren’t capable of winning two games in Memphis. Successfully slowing tempo against the frenetic Tar Heels will be a key to that process.

Biggest Surprise (First Weekend): #8 Arkansas (26-10). The Razorbacks’ season may be over, but in this surprise-less region, their near-upset of #1 North Carolina qualifies as the most sizable surprise of the first weekend. According to KenPom, Arkansas held a 75 percent chance of winning that game with three and a half minutes remaining – a feat few expected before the opening tip. Of course, the Razorbacks proved unable to hold on, but when all four top seeds advance to the regional semifinals, it’s hard to find too many true surprises. More on that below.

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Rushed Reactions: #2 Kentucky 65, #10 Wichita State 62

Posted by nvr1983 on March 19th, 2017

Rush the Court will be covering the NCAA Tournament from start to finish over the next three weeks.

Kentucky marches on with a gutty performance (Credit: USA Today Sports)

Three Key Takeaways.

  1. The pace favored Wichita State from the start. Wichita State came out firing, and firing, and firing…. The Shockers controlled the pace in the first half and it seemed to throw Kentucky off their game. Wichita State started out by shooting 1-13 from the field and were down only 8-6 early despite all the errant shots. Kentucky didn’t capitalize on the drought as much as they should have, and Wichita State kept the game close throughout. Kentucky finally opened up a 58-51 lead with four minutes remaining, but the furious pace of the Shockers brought them back within one point inside of a minute. Though they came up short on a last ditch three-point shot, the Shockers kept it close against a more talented Kentucky team all game.
  2. Kentucky finally figured out they had an overwhelming advantage on the inside. With about 10 minutes remaining Kentucky began a series of post-up plays inside to Bam Adebayo and opened up a 45-41 lead. They continued to feed him and he won the physical battle inside, slipping past Shaquille Morris on two consecutive possessions with around seven minutes remaining to open up a 52-46 lead. His emphatic dunk with 7:11 remaining turned the momentum in Kentucky’s favor. The dominance the Wildcats established inside late in the second half spread the defense, allowing for several key open looks and drives for De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk.
  3. The Wildcats need to grow up a little before their Sweet Sixteen. This game was a little too close for comfort for Kentucky. Athletically the Wildcats were clearly the better team. However, the game ended up very close in both score and statistics. Kentucky shot 42% and Wichita State 39% overall. Wichita State led in rebounds by a margin of 38-36. Wichita States’ 11 turnovers may have been the key stat as Kentucky only had 7. Watching the game live made one wonder how Wichita State was even keeping up with Kentucky on the floor. The Wildcats need to gain valuable experience from this game that they barely squeaked out and come ready to play in the round of 16. Another repeat performance could spell problems for Calipari’s young team.

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RTC Bracket Prep: South Region

Posted by Bennet Hayes on March 13th, 2017

All day on Monday we will roll out our region-by-region analysis for the 2017 NCAA Tournament. Here, Bennet Hayes (@HoopsTraveler) breaks down the South Region from top to bottom. Also, be sure to follow our RTC South Region handle on Twitter for continuous updates the next two weeks (@RTCSouthRegion).

South Region

Favorite: #2 Kentucky (29-5, 16-2 SEC). It’s hard to pick a true favorite when examining the top three seeds in this region, as North Carolina, Kentucky and UCLA will all garner buzz as Final Four candidates. However, the Wildcats get the RTC nod as region favorites after a dominant SEC Tournament title run. The Tar Heels are the more experienced unit, but it’s possible that no team in the field can match the talent of these young Wildcats. At the very least, Malik Monk (20.4 PPG) and De’Aaron Fox (16.1 PPG, 4.8 APG) make up the scariest backcourt – freshmen or not – in the entire country, and we’ve heard that guard play matters a little bit this time of year. The Wildcats loom as a favorite in a top-heavy region.

Malik Monk and De’Aaron Fox have Kentucky rolling into this NCAA Tournament (Photo: USA Today Sports)

Should They Falter: #1 North Carolina (27-7, 14-4 ACC). The Tar Heels enter the NCAA Tournament with less momentum than Kentucky, but the ACC regular season champions have proved plenty dominant all season long. Whether it was during a three-game romp to the Maui Invitational title in November, or its perfect campaign at the Dean Dome, North Carolina sprinted past opponents like so many other Roy Williams coached teams have before. Justin Jackson (18.1 PPG) evolved into the go-to offensive weapon many thought he would never become, while Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks have manned an extremely effective frontcourt operation. The Tar Heels’ notation as secondary favorites in the region should not be perceived as a slight; this is a very good team that at worst is the 1B to Kentucky’s 1A.

Grossly Overseeded: #5 Minnesota (24-9, 11-7 Big Ten). If you are trying to make sense of Minnesota’s placement on the #5 seed line, do not look at the committee’s S-Curve for clarification. The Gophers are closer to a #4 seed than a #6 at #18 overall, and the slew of teams right behind them – Notre Dame, Iowa State, SMU, Cincinnati – all feel significantly more deserving/scarier than Minneapolis’ favorite team. As is always the case in situations like these, it’s important to note the merit of Minnesota’s season – Richard Pitino turned last year’s disappointment into success faster than any Gopher fan could have hoped – but a #5 seed this is not. Middle Tennessee State stands to benefit, and you don’t have to dig deep into the memory banks to recall a Blue Raiders’ March takedown of a Big Ten foe.

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Three Takeaways from Kentucky’s Big Win Over Florida

Posted by Brian Joyce on February 27th, 2017

The SEC regular season championship was most likely on the line Saturday when SEC co-leaders Kentucky and Florida met in Lexington. Both teams entered the game at 13-2 in conference play (23-5 overall), but somewhat trending in opposite directions. The Gators entered Rupp Arena on a nine-game winning streak, including an 88-66 shellacking of the Wildcats in Gainesville. Kentucky, on the other hand, had lost three of four in late January and early February before putting together a shakier five-game winning streak that included tougher than expected games against SEC doormats LSU and Missouri. In the end, the blue mist of Rupp Arena worked its magic, as Kentucky rode Malik Monk to the 30 second-half points to prevail with a 76-66 victory. With one week left in the regular season, this game effectively decided the SEC regular season crown, but it also told us a lot about what we can expect from the SEC’s best this postseason. Here are three takeaways from this weekend’s game.

Malik Monk is heating up (photo via The Big Lead).

1. Malik Monk can shoot Kentucky into the Final Four. It is rare for the Big Blue Nation to be critical of its Wildcats, but Kentucky fans have been overly pessimistic lately about the likelihood of John Calipari advancing to his fifth Final Four in the last seven years. It is easy to see why. Kentucky’s tendency to become offensively stagnant because of its inconsistent three-point shooting means even its wins are not coming easily. The first half on Saturday was more of the same, with the Wildcats shooting less than 30 percent from the field. Then Monk happened. The gifted freshman blew up to score 30 of his game-high 33 points in the second half, proving once again that Kentucky is never out of a game so long as he is on the floor. The scary part for the rest of college basketball is that Monk has gotten even more dangerous since conference play began. His three-point shooting percentage has increased to 45 percent in SEC play (from 42 percent on the entire season) and he is drawing an absurd 6.0 fouls per game. Monk’s rapidly developing arsenal as more than just a catch-and-shoot player could make him unstoppable down the stretch. Calipari would love to find some additional offensive consistency outside of Monk (Bam Adebayo could be the answer), but the freshman is already good enough to carry the Wildcats for long periods as it is.

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Freeze Frame: Kentucky’s Reboot

Posted by Brian Joyce on February 16th, 2017

Late in conference play is usually the point when young teams start to click. John Calipari’s latest edition of a young team at Kentucky, however, appeared to be regressing during a recent five-game stretch where the Wildcats lost three games. Over that period, his team was held under a point per possession three times — after doing so only twice to that point in the season — and gave up more than a point per possession to all five opponents. It wasn’t a very good run of play, but perhaps the predicted demise of Kentucky came far too soon.

Will Calipari’s latest reboot work to turn around the Wildcats? (image via CBS Sports)

Calipari’s defense came together on the road against Alabama on Saturday (holding the Tide to 0.83 points per possession), and his team followed that up with its most complete performance in almost a month against Tennessee earlier this week. What did Kentucky recently change that Calipari hopes to ride into March? In this edition of Freeze Frame, we examine several factors that will help the Wildcats keep their winning streak alive.

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Freeze Frame: Kentucky’s Early Offense

Posted by Brian Joyce on January 6th, 2017

During this week’s television broadcast of the Kentucky-Texas A&M game, viewers could hear Wildcats’ head coach John Calipari yell “Go! Go! Go!” at the top of his lungs seemingly every time the Wildcats touched the ball. Calipari is simply exhorting his team to play to its strength, which, as you may have noticed, seems to be working. The Wildcats are currently the ninth-fastest team in college basketball (average possession length of 14.0 seconds), but what Calipari knows is that his team runs much better offense the faster it goes.

Kentucky’s early offense in SEC play.

As the above table shows, when Kentucky shoots the ball in the first 10 seconds of the shot clock, its offensive efficiency comes in at a blistering 147.8 points per 100 possessions (over the 153 total possessions I have charted during conference play). However, if the Wildcats’ offense runs past the 10-second mark on the shot clock — effectively dropping back into the half-court offense — it drops to an an offensive efficiency rating of 107.7; effective field goal percentage drops over 20 percentage points; turnover percentage increases; offensive rebounding percentage decreases; and, free throw trips drop. In other words, outcomes are a lot better for the Wildcats when they get a shot up within the first 10 seconds. In this edition of Freeze Frame, we analyze Kentucky’s offensive efficiency by possession length.

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Can Kentucky Shoot Well Enough to Win It All?

Posted by RJ Abeytia on December 16th, 2016

What does it all mean?

Whether we want to admit it or not, that’s the question we ask all season long in college basketball, where meaning is defined by crystal clear implication. We watch these games because we want to know before the rest of the sports world puts college basketball up on the biggest and brightest stage. Which of these teams can really win six straight in the NCAA Tournament? We’re inclined to believe that a number of teams can win, and they usually comprise the usual suspects. Take a look at the KenPom top 10 and who do we see? Duke, Villanova, Kentucky, Kansas, Virginia, North Carolina, Louisville, Wisconsin, West Virginia, and Baylor. UCLA is just on the fringe at #11. That’s a pretty comprehensive list of blue-bloods, and blue is the color of focus here. Kentucky sits at #3 despite a loss to UCLA in Lexington. Nobody questions the roster John Calipari has once again constructed. It’s another one-year baby full of basketball talent, as it has been annually since he took the throne in Lexington.

Kentucky Has No Problem Finishing... (USA Today Images)

Kentucky Has No Problem Finishing… But What About Shooting? (USA Today Images)

Four seasons have passed since Kentucky won the National Championship. Two years ago, the Wildcats won 38 straight games before falling to Wisconsin in the Final Four. In that game, the Wildcats went only 3-of-5 from behind the three-point line and ended up ceding a net of 12 points to Wisconsin from behind the arc. This ultimately provided the margin and then some in a game most pundits expected to be a Kentucky appetizer before a main course dinner two nights later against Duke, itself full of one-and-done talent. Last year Kentucky was stopped well short of the Final Four by Indiana in large part because the Wildcats’ 4-of-16 performance from three-point range. Against Wisconsin, Kentucky knew it couldn’t hit outside shots and therefore simply refused to take them. Last year, they accepted Indiana’s dare and couldn’t hit the shots. The net of six points that went the Hoosiers’ way ended up as the final margin.

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Freeze Frame: Kentucky’s Achilles Heel

Posted by Brian Joyce on December 7th, 2016

We may look back in March at last weekend’s match-up between Kentucky and UCLA and recall that the Bruins were the first team to outline the blueprint to beat the Wildcats. But while John Calipari‘s defense conceded 1.17 points per possession against the red-hot Bruins (which represents the worst non-conference home defensive effort in the Calipari era), it was the offensive end of the court that proved more concerning. Yes, Kentucky’s young defenders looked a little lost at times, and Calipari even pointed to his team’s woeful defense after the game. “For us, this wasn’t about offense,” he said. “We weren’t a disciplined enough team defensively.” But we all know that Kentucky’s defense will look much different in March than it does now, with different being code for improved.

John Calipari was not happy with Kentucky's defense, but it's the offense that is more concerning in the long run. (cbssports.com).

John Calipari was not happy with Kentucky’s defense, but it’s his offense that is more concerning in the long run. (cbssports.com)

Even though the Wildcats scored 1.11 points per possession against the Bruins, the bigger concern exhibited in that loss was about a half-court offense that struggled mightily against a mediocre defense. The Wildcats, one of fastest teams in the country at 75.2 possessions per game, are virtually unstoppable in the open court. However, UCLA’s hot shooting forced Kentucky to operate the majority of its offense in the half-court, ultimately exposing the Wildcats’ fatal flaw – its inconsistent three-point shooting.

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Rushed Reactions: #2 Kentucky 69, #13 Michigan State 48

Posted by Brian Otskey on November 15th, 2016

RTC’s Brian Otskey (@botskey) and Justin Kundrat (@justinkundrat) are providing on-site coverage of the Champions Classic this evening.

Three Key Takeaways.

Malik Monk (USA Today Images)

Malik Monk (USA Today Images)

  1. Kentucky’s defensive ceiling is very high this season. John Calipari has had plenty of elite teams over the years but it was typically the offensive prowess of his players that grabbed the headlines. This group of Wildcats is long and athletic across the board, and Calipari seems truly energized about coaching this team and watching it grow. After the game he complimented his players for all their hard work and unselfishness, saying how excited he is to come to the gym every day and work with them.
  2. Michigan State needs to find its offense. Sparty’s 0-2 start to the season is not cause for concern for Tom Izzo, who noted after the game that he has lost a bunch of games in the non-conference and still made seven Final Fours over the years. Still, an average of 55.5 points per game against top competition in Arizona and Kentucky is not going to get the job done. Izzo is happy with his defense, which held both sets of Wildcats to only 38 percent shooting, but he added that the Spartans need to find an offensive spark somewhere. Miles Bridges can’t do it all by himself, so he needs to look to Matt McQuaid and Eron Harris for complementary scoring. Michigan State’s November schedule will provide ample opportunities for growth, as trips to the Battle 4 Atlantis and Cameron Indoor Stadium to face Duke still loom before the calendar flips to December.
  3. This game was a snoozer. Let’s be honest here. Given the fair amount of hype that this annual event generates, everyone in the building expected better. One could argue that the travel hangover for Michigan State — after playing a hard-fought game against Arizona in Honolulu on Friday night — played a major role, but the Spartans just had nothing in the tank offensively. Kentucky’s defense certainly played a part in that, but it was also clear that the Wildcats were a step quicker than the Spartans all night.

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SEC Team Capsules: The Top Tier (#4-#1)

Posted by David Changas on November 11th, 2016

Per usual in the SEC, there is very little question that Kentucky is once again the prohibitive favorite to win the league. While there is always some early-season speculation about how things will turn out, there is often little doubt that the Wildcats will roll into Nashville as the #1 seed at the SEC Tournament. We finish our capsule-sized preview of the league with a look at of course Kentucky, but also the three teams with the best shot of dethroning the SEC giant. Within the last week we published capsules on the SEC’s bottom tier of teams (#14-#10) as well as the middle tier (#9-#5). Today we tackle the top tier.

No. 4 Texas A&M Aggies

Billy Kennedy Looks to Build Off a Sweet Sixteen Appearance (USA Today Images)

Billy Kennedy Looks to Build Off a Sweet Sixteen Appearance (USA Today Images)

  • 2015-16 overall record (SEC) – 28-9 (13-5)
  • Key returnee – Tyler Davis, 11.3 PPG, 6.2 RPG
  • Key newcomer – J.C. Hampton, graduate transfer from Lipscomb
  • Team Analysis: The Aggies lost quite a bit from last year’s Sweet Sixteen team, including their two leading scorers, Danuel House and Jalen Jones. But along with Davis, a preseason all-SEC selection who has a great chance to break out, and guard D.J. Hogg, expectations remain high in Aggie-land. Anything short of a return to the Big Dance this season will be a disappointment.
  • Burning QuestionCan Davis make the jump? Texas A&M had the luxury of two great scorers in House and Jones last season, but the 6’10” center Davis benefited most from an experienced point guard (Alex Caruso) who could deliver the ball to him in positions that allowed him to be effective. Much more will be expected from the sophomore this year, and for Texas A&M to come through on expectations, Davis will have to become one of the elite players in the SEC.

No. 3 Georgia Bulldogs

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