Rushed Reactions: #3 Michigan 99, #7 Texas A&M 72

Posted by Andrew Murawa on March 22nd, 2018

RTC will be providing coverage of the NCAA Tournament from start to finish. Andrew Murawa (@amurawa) is in Los Angeles for the West Regional this weekend.

Three Key Takeaways.

Michigan Could Not Miss For Long Periods on Thursday Night (USA Today Images)

  1. When Michigan is Clicking… The Wolverines can play with anyone. You look up and down the roster and there are some nice pieces and all, but on paper they’re not super scary. Yet under the masterful direction of John Beilein, this is the type of team that maxes out its talent. For example, they’re playing the best team defense (by a wide margin) of any team in Beilein’s coaching career. Sophomore pest Zavier Simpson may be the star on that end of the court, but everybody on this team is adept at being in the right place at the right time to make life difficult for opponents. And offensively, while the season-long numbers aren’t to the level of some of the elite Beilein teams, they are plenty capable. Tonight it was Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Mo Wagner leading the way with 24 and 21 points, respectively, but five Wolverines scored in double figures and eight hit at least one three in the game in their blistering and highly efficient pace. Sure, Texas A&M didn’t provide much of a test for the Wolverines tonight, but when Michigan is playing like this, look out world.
  2. Bombs Away. While this team isn’t quite as dangerous from deep as the best-of-the-best under Beilein (think Burke, Stauskas, Hardaway or Pittsnogle, Gansey, Beilein), they are still very dangerous. They space the floor, move the ball as a way of life and they’ve got four guys on the roster who have hit more than 20 threes this year at better than a 37 percent clip. Tonight’s 14 threes (on just 24 attempts) combined with their style of play everywhere else meant the Aggies never had a chance.
  3. Take the Fight Out of Them. Texas A&M came out of the gates tonight a little flat. Maybe it was nerves or perhaps a little hangover effect from their big win last weekend in Charlotte over North Carolina. Whatever the case, after three turnovers and some sleepy defense they found themselves down 9-4 when the first media timeout rolled around. But rather than find an alarm clock during the respite, they hit the snooze button as the Wolverines reeled off a 12-2 run over the next three-plus minutes to take a 13-point lead. The game was never close again, and somewhere in the middle of the first half, the Aggies seemed ready to throw in the towel — visibly shaken and regularly caught giving less than their best effort. While Billy Kennedy got his guys to give some better effort in the second half, there was no point after that first Texas A&M timeout when this game was ever remotely in doubt.

Star of the Game.  Zavier Simpson. There were a lot of stars in maize and blue tonight, but Simpson was the catalyst on both ends of the court. Defensively, he is an ever-present pest that makes even the simplest offensive maneuvers for opposing guards difficult. When he’s got the ball in his hands, he is quick, decisive, smart and dangerous. Tonight he contributed 11 points, five assists and six steals, numbers that only begin to describe the positive impact he had on the game.

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RTC Bracket Prep: West Region

Posted by Andrew Murawa on March 12th, 2018

Today and tomorrow we will be rolling out our region-by-region analysis for the 2018 NCAA Tournament. 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 over the next two weeks (@RTCWestRegion).

WEST REGION

Favorite: North Carolina, #2, 25-10. At first glance, this is a wide open region with no dominant team. The Tar Heels are the highest rated KenPom team in this group at #7, but they are just one of six teams in the region that fall between #7 and #17 in that metric. In other words, this region is anybody’s ballgame. What sets Roy Williams‘ squad apart from the rest of the contenders fighting to come out of the Staples Center is the level and quality of the experience on this team. All five players who average double figures in scoring (Luke Maye, Joel Berry, Cameron Johnson, Kenny Williams and Theo Pinson) are upperclassmen, and three of the four saw significant action in last year’s National Championship run. In March, offense wins championships, and this Tar Heels team is an elite offensive squad with the experience and savvy to make a return trip to the sport’s final weekend.

Roy Williams’ Team is the Favorite Here, Whether He Likes It or Not (USA Today Images)

Should They Falter: Michigan, #3, 28-7. If you’re looking for a hot hand to ride, look no further than the Wolverines. Since an ugly road loss to Northwestern in early February, John Beilein‘s squad has reeled off nine straight wins, including an impressive one-two punch in the last two games of the Big Ten Tournament to earn the automatic bid. Balanced scoring and an uncharacteristically stingy defense are the hallmarks of this group, but Michigan is highlighted by veterans who take care of the ball, can knock down the three and do all the little things on defense. However, beware of the team’s week-plus layoff after an early Big Ten Tournament along with a slow pace which could allow lesser teams to stick around deep into the game.

Grossly Overseeded: Xavier, #1, 28-5. Sorry Musketeers fans. It’s bad enough that we made it through those first two bullet points without mentioning the #1 seed in this region, but to have them show up here must seem like adding insult to injury. Nothing against Chris Mack‘s clearly talented and accomplished club, but some team has to go in this spot and Xavier doesn’t possess the traditional metrics of a top seed. For instance, try digging through KenPom‘s historical rankings to find another #1 seed ranked as low as Xavier defensively (59th) and you’ll find that Nate Robinson and Brandon Roy in 2005 were the most recent distinction — and that tourney didn’t exactly end well for Washington (lost to Louisville in the Sweet Sixteen). That’s not to disparage this squad. Trevon Blueitt is among the best players in the nation. J.P. Macura is an elite college basketball villain (depending on who you root for). And Mack has lined up his next wave of program leaders with the likes of Quentin Goodin and Naji Marshall. But no one would be surprised to see the Musketeers suffer an early exit either.

Criminally Underseeded: Houston, #6, 26-7. It’s hard to get too worked up about a seven-loss AAC team only getting a #6 seed with blemishes like Drexel, Tulane and Memphis on its resume. But Kelvin Sampson‘s Cougars are a tough, balanced and veteran team. They feature five upperclassmen in their rotation, defend like crazy and have a fearless trio of guards – Armoni Brooks, Corey Davis and Rob Gray – who can get hot from three at any moment — each player has hit at least five threes in a game on multiple occasions this season. A #6 seed is probably an appropriate seed for Houston, but you can bet Michigan isn’t in love with seeing the Cougars as a potential first-weekend opponent.

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NCAA Tournament Instareaction: Big Ten Teams

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 11th, 2018

Below is a review of how the selection process concluded for each Big Ten team and what they should expect in the first few rounds of the NCAA Tournament.

Can Michigan stay red-hot in the Big Dance? (SI.com)

  • Purdue, #2 seed, East Region. Fatigue played a role in Purdue’s late-season slide, which makes its first-round draw — a Friday match-up against Cal-State Fullerton — especially beneficial. While the Titans are the most aggressive squad in the country, scoring nearly 25 percent of their points at the free throw line, no team in the NCAA Tournament surrenders fewer points at the charity stripe than the Boilermakers. Isaac Haas and the rest of his front line should have no problem limiting Fullerton’s paint production. A potential second-round game with Arkansas could be a different story. The Razorbacks play an uptempo brand of basketball and have the size up front — 6’11” freshman Daniel Gafford (11.9 PPG, 2.1 BPG), in particular — to compete. Still, whether it winds up being Arkansas or Butler, expect Purdue to reach the East Regional in Boston.
  • Michigan State, #3 seed, Midwest Region. Despite a 29-4 record and regular season Big Ten title, Michigan State fell to the #3 line because of its dearth of Quadrant 1 wins. As a consolation prize, the Spartans get to play in Detroit, where they’ll take on Patriot League champion Bucknell. The Bison are a balanced, cohesive group that nearly upset #4 West Virginia in last year’s Dance. They also have size up front (namely 6’10” all-league center Nana Foulland) and considerable depth. Michigan State’s size and talent should ultimately overwhelm the Bison, but a harder-than-expected match-up could make the Spartans’ Second Round game a bit more interesting. Arizona State and TCU are two of the best offensive units in the country, while Syracuse boasts the tallest lineup in college hoops.

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Rutgers’ Garden Party to Michigan’s Run: Big Ten Tournament Postmortem

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 7th, 2018

Now that we’ve had a few days to digest what happened in Madison Square Garden last weekend, let’s examine some of the biggest surprises and takeaways from the early Big Ten Tournament.

Michigan dominated the Competition in Madison Square Garden. (Nicole Sweet-USA TODAY Sports)

  • Michigan established itself as a legitimate national threat. We knew Michigan was playing its best basketball of the season entering postseason play, and we knew it would probably make some noise last week in Manhattan. What we did not foresee was the Wolverines establishing themselves as a serious Final Four threat en route to a second straight conference title. After escaping Iowa in the second round, Michigan put together three of the most complete performances any Big Ten team has displayed this season. The Wolverines hammered bubble-dwelling Nebraska by 19 points. They beat Michigan State by double-figures for the second time in a row. They limited Purdue’s explosive perimeter game to just 4-of-17 three-point shooting. In all, Michigan’s defense — which now ranks sixth nationally in efficiency — held opponents to just 0.96 points per possession over the four-day run, which is remarkable considering that two of those offenses ranked among the nation’s top 10. The Wolverines’ offense, led by Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman (15.0 PPG), executed John Beilein’s low-turnover, pick-and-pop offense to perfection. With its most balance in years and a profile good enough to now warrant a #3 seed, Michigan should no longer be viewed as a Big Ten “other”; the Wolverines are as much a Final Four contender as the Boilermakers and Spartans.

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The 2017-18 RTC16: FINAL

Posted by Walker Carey on March 5th, 2018

The Big Ten deciding to host its conference tournament to New York City was widely derided, but after a week filled with mostly thrilling games and a surprise team emerging to take home the title, many are now wondering what it will take to have the tournament there again. By winning four games in four days, #8 Michigan took home the Big Ten hardware on Sunday at Madison Square Garden. The Wolverines are playing their best basketball of the season right now (unbeaten since February 6), and their keen ability to score points in bunches and get after teams defensively should make John Beilein‘s team a popular pick to reach the Final Four later this month. This week’s Quick N’ Dirty analysis is after the jump.

Quick N’ Dirty Analysis.

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The Big Ten Tournament’s Most Burning Questions

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on February 28th, 2018

It’s not even March yet and here we are, Day One of the Big Ten Tournament. It’s a strange feeling. Perhaps the only stranger feeling will be watching these predominantly Midwestern schools battle it out in Madison Square Garden, the venue where Willis Reed was immortalized and Frazier beat Ali and no Big Ten school outside of Rutgers sits within easy driving distance. Jim Delaney be damned, let’s examine the most important questions to be answered this week in Manhattan.

Crazy as it sounds, the Big Ten Tournament is in the Big Apple. (scarletknights.com)

  • Can Nebraska do enough to earn an NCAA Tournament bid? After losing to Illinois on February 18, Nebraska took care of business by beating Indiana and hammering Penn State on Sunday in a veritable NCAA Tournament elimination game. Which is to say, the Cornhuskers — currently among Joe Lunardi’s First Four Out — still have life. Yet, with a 1-5 record against Quadrant 1 opponents and a 2-3 record against Quadrant 2, they will probably need to beat at least one NCAA Tournament-bound opponent this week in order to have a legitimate case come Selection Sunday. Luckily, Tim Miles’ group should get that opportunity on Friday against Michigan — the lone Quadrant 1 opponent they managed to beat this season. Another win over the Wolverines will give the Huskers an argument; a victory over Michigan State in the semifinals would probably make them a lock. Key number: 29.7% 3FG. Nebraska did a masterful job taking away the three-point line this season, holding opponents to a Big Ten-best 29.7 percent mark from behind the arc — among the best of any power conference team in America.

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The 2017-18 RTC 16: Week Fifteen

Posted by Walker Carey on February 26th, 2018

Amid all the sordid details related to the ongoing FBI investigation that has cast an ugly cloud over the college basketball season, this weekend’s action on the hardwood still gave fans a reminder of why we remain enamored with this troubled sport. The most noteworthy result of the week came on Saturday when #6 Kansas locked up at least a share of its astounding 14th consecutive regular season Big 12 championship with a thrilling 74-72 road victory over #12 Texas Tech. The Jayhawks will have a chance to clinch the outright title this week, either beating Texas at home tonight or winning at Oklahoma State on Saturday. College basketball is a fickle beast and it is completely reasonable to assume even the most consistent national powers will experience a down year from time to time, but it must be noted how amazing the Kansas Big 12 title streak has been. Just pencil in Kansas as your Big 12 pick when making your preseason predictions from now until Bill Self retires. This week’s Quick N’ Dirty analysis is after the jump.

Quick N’ Dirty Analysis.

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Michigan State’s Turnover Bug is a Real Problem

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on January 26th, 2018

If you glance only at the final score, Michigan State’s performance at Illinois on Monday was an unqualified success: The Spartans won by 13 points and trailed for only 1 minute and 51 seconds of game time. Dig deeper, though, and it’s clear that the preseason Big Ten favorite should have probably won by more — perhaps a lot more. The Spartans shot a ridiculous 68 percent from the floor (to Illinois’ 43 percent) and doubled up the Illini at the free throw line. They also crashed the offensive glass at their highest rate yet in conference play (60% OReb). Unfortunately, turnovers — a whopping 25 of them — prevented Michigan State’s ‘good’ performance from being great. It’s been a recurring issue this season, and one that could wind up the Achilles’ Heel for an otherwise complete National Championship hopeful.

Tom Izzo and Miles Bridges Have to Clean Up the Turnover Issue (USA Today Images)

To be sure, the Spartans’ eye-popping turnover figure on Monday — their most since 2005 — was in part due to Illinois’ aggressive style — the Illini force miscues at the sixth-highest rate in college basketball. But it was also the result of Michigan State’s often-stagnant half-court offense. When the Spartans don’t score in transition (where they’re especially lethal), their attack often devolves into a lot of dribbling around the three-point line with limited off-ball movement. For point guards Cassius Winston and Tum Tum Nairn, that’s often been a recipe for disaster. Case in point:

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The Big Ten’s Biggest Early Surprises

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on January 19th, 2018

Now that we’re roughly one-third of the way through the Big Ten slate, let’s take a look at the biggest surprises and storylines taking shape in the Midwest.

Who had Ohio State pegged as a Big Ten title contender? (Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports)

  • Chris Holtmann, Keita Bates-Diop, and the Buckeyes. Forget the Big Ten for a moment — Ohio State might be the biggest surprise in the entire country. The Buckeyes began the season ranked 74th overall by KenPom and picked to finish 11th — yes, 11th — in the conference. And after getting blasted by Gonzaga in the PK80 on Thanksgiving Day, those projections appeared to make sense. That is, until Big Ten play rolled around. Since losing to Clemson on November 29, Ohio State has gone 11-1 overall and 5-0 in league play, including a 25-point road drubbing of Wisconsin and dominant win against top-ranked Michigan State. Its KenPom ranking has skyrocketed as a result to 12th overall nationally. Junior forward Keita Bates-Diop (19.8 PPG, 8.8 RPG) has emerged as the frontrunner for Big Ten Player of the Year — highlighted by a 32-point effort against the Spartans — while his coach, Chris Holtmann, may be on track for conference (if not national) honors in his own right. Perhaps Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith put it best: “None of us, including me, expected to be here.”
  • Purdue is the clear Big Ten favorite. Who would have expected to be saying that in mid-January? It’s not that Purdue wasn’t expected to be good — the Boilers were picked to finish second, after all — it’s just that Michigan State was supposed to be that much better. Roughly one-third of the way through Big Ten play, however, that’s clearly not the case. Whereas Michigan State has lost two of its last three games, both by double-figures, Matt Painter’s club has been on an absolute tear. Since November 24, Purdue is 14-0 (7-0 in Big Ten play) with eight wins by 25 or more points — including wins against Arizona, Minnesota and Wisconsin. The Boilermakers rank among the top six nationally in both offensive and defensive efficiency while boasting the third-highest three-point shooting mark (42.6%) in America. 7’2″ center Isaac Haas has been more efficient than ever (122.7 ORtg); sophomore guard Carsen Edwards (17 PPG) has been the breakout player some thought he could be; put simply, Purdue has looked infallible. With home games against Ohio State and Michigan left, Painter’s group is in great position to win the conference outright — even if it were to stumble in East Lansing on February 10.

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Five Reasons Why Michigan is For Real

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on January 15th, 2018

After losing three of its top four scorers from last year’s Sweet Sixteen team — including point guard Derrick Walton, Jr. — Michigan was a mystery heading into this season. An NCAA tournament bid seemed likely but debatable; a Big Ten title seemed out of the question. After upsetting Michigan State in East Lansing on Saturday and nearly toppling Purdue earlier in the week, though, expectations have changed. Now 15-4 (4-2 Big Ten) with wins over the Spartans, Texas and UCLA, Michigan — ranked higher in KenPom now than it finished last season — is in position to compete for a conference championship and a favorable seed on Selection Sunday. The Wolverines have come a long way fast, and here’s why they’re legit.

Moritz Wagner shredded the Spartans on Saturday. (UM Hoops)

  • They play defense. Michigan is playing some of its best defense in years, ranking 15th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, which — if the season ended today — would be the second-best ever under head coach John Beilein. His stingiest team wound up as the 2013 National Runner-Up. Against the Spartans over the weekend, the Wolverines fought through ball screens, rotated consistently and limited Michigan State’s looks from the three-point line (especially Cassius Winston and Joshua Langford, who attempted just three triples). Down low, the Michigan big men prevented Nick Ward (four points) from catching the ball in the deep post, where he’s been nearly unstoppable this season. Perhaps most importantly, Beilein’s group limited transition buckets and forced the Spartans to work hard in the half-court. Even while Beilein’s offense is somewhat less efficient this season, the Wolverines’ improvement on the defensive end could ultimately make them more complete.
  • They finally found a point guard. If there was any question left as to who had won Michigan’s point guard battle, it was put to rest this week. After averaging just 18 minutes per game prior to January 2, Zavier Simpson saw 30-plus minutes of action for the fourth straight game on Saturday, scoring 16 points and dishing out five assists in the win over Michigan State. In Michigan’s near-miss against Purdue on Tuesday, the sophomore scored 15 points and secured a career-high six rebounds. In both games, Beilein’s offense was firing on all cylinders. “Zavier Simpson has been key for us,” the coach said on Saturday. “He’s been able to make plays. Especially in the second half.“ Not only is Simpson playing his best basketball of the season, but he’s doing so against the best teams in the conference — if not the country. What began as a dead-even three-man race between Simpson, Ohio transfer Jaaron Simmons and freshman Eli Brooks has now become Simpson’s job to lose. And Michigan’s the better for it.

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