Big Ten Wrap-Up: Lasting Impressions and an Early Top Five

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on April 6th, 2018

Has Donte DiVincenzo stop hitting shots yet? Okay, good. Now that Monday is behind us, let’s take a moment to reflect on the season that was and look ahead to 2018-19.

Michigan had another year to remember. (PHOTO BY AP/DAVID J. PHILLIP)

  • Michigan is an elite basketball program. Before John Beilein took over in Ann Arbor in 2007, Michigan hadn’t reached the NCAA Tournament since 1998, a nine-year drought that made the historically great football school seem like just that — a football school. But that’s changed. Since the drought ended in 2009, Beilein has led the Wolverines to eight NCAA Tournaments, including finishes in the Sweet Sixteen (2017), Elite Eight (2016), and twice in the National Championship game (2013, 2018). After years of mediocrity, Michigan basketball now represents offensive efficiency, outstanding player development and clutch play in March. This season, Beilein — always considered an offensive mastermind — took an unproven collection of talent and won big with his defense, suggesting that the 65-year old coach is still evolving both as a tactician (he recently moved away from the 1-3-1 zone) and manager: His hiring of Illinois State assistant Luke Yaklich as “defensive coordinator” was crucial to the Wolverines’ run. With a decade of excellence under its belt and plenty of talent returning next season, Michigan has firmly established itself among the Big Ten’s elite programs.
  • This season will forever sting for Michigan State and Purdue fans. Michigan State went 30-5 and won the outright regular season Big Ten championship. Purdue finished at 30-7, at one point winning 19 straight games. And yet, this season will probably leave a bad taste in both programs’ mouths for some time. For the Spartans, 2017-18 was a Final-Four-or-bust kind of year, with the return of Miles Bridges alongside future NBA lottery pick Jaren Jackson ostensibly giving Tom Izzo his best chance at a National Championship from a talent perspective since 2000. Instead, a season of offensive inconsistency led to an offensively-inept loss to Syracuse in the Round of 32. For the Boilermakers, bad luck prevailed when 7’2″ center Isaac Haas fractured his elbow in the First Round against Cal State Fullerton, his absence proving too much for Purdue to overcome against Texas Tech in the Sweet Sixteen. On paper, both seasons appear successful. In actuality, postseason disappointment will likely overshadow their 60 combined wins.

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Rushed Reactions: #1 Villanova 79, #3 Michigan 62

Posted by rtmsf on April 3rd, 2018

RTC will be providing coverage of the NCAA Tournament from start to finish.

Five Key Takeaways.

Villanova Won Its Second National Title in Three Years (USA Today Images)

  1. Villanova Won the National Title Without All-American Performances From Its All-Americans. NPOY Jalen Brunson and All-American Mikal Bridges have been outstanding all season long, but Michigan managed to give both of them trouble during the key stretches of tonight’s game — essentially, the first half. As Michigan came out swinging haymakers led by the early charge of Moritz Wagner, Brunson and Bridges’ shots that normally drop were rimming out. The pair combined for just 11 first half points on 5-of-14 shooting that included only one three-pointer in six attempts. Luckily for Villanova, a secret weapon came off Jay Wright‘s bench to pick up the slack (more on Donte DiVincenzo below). That gave the Wildcats the cushion they needed heading into the break, allowing for Bridges to join DiVincenzo’s coming-out party in the second half to the tune of 15 points on 5-of-6 shooting. Brunson finished with nine points and two assists on the evening, but that shows just how balanced Villanova was this year — The NPOY had a rough night and his team still won a title game by 17 points.
  2. Rather, the Michael Jordan of Delaware Stepped Up. To most of America watching tonight, the rise of Donte DiVincenzo to log 31 points and five rebounds on 10-of-15 shooting (5-of-7 3FG) must have seemed like another Grayson Allen moment, where a talented but relatively unknown bench player came out of nowhere to lead his team to the National Championship. The truth, however, is a little more nuanced this time around. Despite being an unheralded recruit out of Wilmington, Delaware (where else?), three years ago, Wright admitted after the game that DiVincenzo was plenty good enough to be his starter on the wing. The wrinkle in the redshirt sophomore coming off the bench is that he still played starter’s minutes (72.5%) this season and logged five games of 20 or more points. He was obviously a key cog all year long, and given Michigan’s defense was so keyed on stopping Brunson and Bridges, DiVincenzo had his chance to step up and he met the call with full throttle.
  3. Jay Wright Joins Select Company. Not even the most optimistic Villanova fan could have seen this coming a little over two years ago. Jay Wright had experienced so many disappointing NCAA Tournaments since his last run to the Final Four in 2009 that there were some grumblings in Philadelphia about him keeping his job. Two years forward and now Wright is one of only 15 coaches in NCAA history (and two active) to hold more than one National Championship. That he did it with two distinct teams with some overlap perhaps makes it even more impressive. Wright’s 2016 team was certainly outstanding, but it wasn’t a #1 seed nor did it win the Big East Tournament. This group won everything possible — Big East regular season; Big East Tournament; NCAA Tournament — and it did so by demolishing every team in its path during the postseason. Over nine games in the Big East and NCAA Tournaments, the Wildcats won each by an average of 17.7 points per game. Wright is a wonderful narrative in what can happen if a school gives the right coach time to find his own niche and growth curve after some early disappointments.
  4. Historical Perspective. Not many schools can lay claim to winning two National Championships in a three-year window, and most of those schools won back-to-back titles with largely the same cores. The Kentucky teams of 1996-98 won a pair of titles with vastly different teams (and head coaches). UCLA bookended its 10-in-12 years run of the 1960s and 1970s with similar 2-in-3 successes. Kentucky’s original dynasty had a similar in the early 1950s. But that’s it. What Wright has done at a school that was often considered a second-class Big East citizen behind the likes of Syracuse, UConn and Georgetown is simply phenomenal. Villanova now has more championships than the Orange and Hoyas combined, and is only one behind the Huskies. Conference realignment has hurt a lot of programs in varying ways (hey, Pitt), but perhaps the biggest basketball success story has as a result of all the league movement has occurred right on the Main Line in Philadelphia.
  5. Basketball Schools Doing Basketball Things. People can quibble about which schools are most closely defined as basketball schools or football schools (and they do), but it’s really not that hard to determine in almost every case. The key question is which sport the fan base tends to most identify with, which in part fuels support and expectations for success in that sport, working in a continuous feedback loop. Villanova defines itself by its basketball program. Michigan — while very successful in both major collegiate sports — most assuredly defines itself on the gridiron. With Villanova’s second title in the last three years tonight, basketball schools have won the last 11 championships and 22 of the last 24 titles. The lone exception during that period was Florida’s back-to-back run in 2006-07. There are plenty of reasons for this kind of run that involves resources, coaching, motivation and luck, but the fact remains that the football schools as a general rule haven’t been able to break through the plexiglass ceiling just yet.

Player of the Game. Donte DiVincenzo, Villanova. DiVincenzo produced one of the best championship game performances in modern college basketball history tonight, dropping 31 points, five rebounds and three assists on 10-of-15 shooting. He also nailed five back-breaking threes (in seven attempts), two of which came in succession when Villanova earned the lead for good and wrested control of the game away from Michigan. Per the NCAA, DiVincenzo’s effort represented just the sixth time in the last 40 years when a player in the title game has topped the 30-point barrier. That he did so from the bench makes it even more impressive.

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Rushed Reactions: #1 Villanova 95, #1 Kansas 79

Posted by rtmsf on April 1st, 2018

RTC will be providing coverage of the NCAA Tournament from start to finish.

Three Key Takeaways.

Villanova Advances to the Title Game for the Second Time in Three Years (USA Today Images)

  1. Three-llanova. It was 9-2 before most people had even started their mid-session hot dog. 14-4 by the first TV timeout. 22-4 seven minutes into the game. And everyone in the building, including Kansas head coach Bill Self, knew it was over. Villanova was simply too good to blow an 18-point lead, even if 80 percent of the game was still to come. At that point in the game, Villanova had already nailed six threes, but the Wildcats were far from done. Over the course of the next 13 minutes, Villanova dropped another seven threes, totaling a Final Four record-tying 13 in the first half alone. The Wildcats did so on 26 attempts (50%), effectively eschewing its patented drive game in favor of a number of long-range heat checks that dropped. Furthermore, Villanova only attempted seven two-point field goals for the half and took zero foul shots. All of this goes to show that Jay Wright‘s team was absolutely scorching, feeling it and playing to their hot hands. It was a first half performance for the ages and Kansas never really had a chance after the opening few minutes. Going into the break down 15 points, the Jayhawks never saw a single-figure deficit again.
  2. Villanova is on the Cusp of Greatness. Win a single National Championship at any school in America and you drink for free in the area for the rest of your life. But the truth is that there have been a number of one-hit wonder championship teams that are generally forgotten beyond their localities. If Villanova cuts down the nets on Monday night in San Antonio, however, Wright’s program will ascend to greatness. Three-year runs that include a trio of 30-win seasons and two banners don’t exactly grow on trees. In fact, only Kentucky from 1996-98 can make that claim in the modern era. For a program that doesn’t pile up all of the elite recruits but rather cultivates and grows the ones it gets, this run is nothing short of astonishing. There is still another game to be played, of course, and Michigan is a worthy and capable opponent, but all signs point to Villanova achieving something that perhaps only Wright and his closest supporters saw coming three years ago.
  3. Kansas Did Its Job For America. Bill Self alluded to this after the game, but given the number of issues that Kansas has faced this season — from losing Billy Preston to running a four-guard set — the Jayhawks have nothing of which to be ashamed. Beating a loaded Duke team in overtime of the Elite Eight is what this team will be remembered for, and even though the Kansas program plays for banners, it will be a very nice memory for the Jayhawks and the rest of America for years to come. We made light of Self having his “least impressive team” ever — which is still hogwash, but it certainly had more weaknesses than most of his teams over the last decade in Lawrence. That said, Kansas will continue to recruit great players; Self will continue to coach ’em up; and Kansas will continue to get to Final Fours. Eventually he’s going to win another one of these tournaments.

Player of the Game. Eric Paschall, Villanova. Take your pick on the Villanova roster for this award, but it’s yours when you drop 24 points in 29 minutes with only one missed shot on the entire evening. Paschall is one of the lesser-known players among the Wildcats’ regulars but he was All-American level tonight, draining a couple of threes for eight points in the first half and effectively ensuring Kansas would not make a run with 16 more points in the second stanza.

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Rushed Reactions: #3 Michigan 69, #11 Loyola (Chicago) 57

Posted by rtmsf on March 31st, 2018

RTC will be providing coverage of the NCAA Tournament from start to finish.

Three Key Takeaways.

Michigan Heads to the National Championship Game for the Second Time in John Beilein’s Career (USA Today Images)

  1. Loyola’s First Half Was a Microcosm of Its Run. Neither team came out of the gates hot, but Michigan at least was able to get a few things going well enough to jump out to an early 12-4 lead. It was fool’s gold. The Wolverines were being baited into three-pointers from the wrong players (e.g., Zavier Simpson) and they were depending too much on Moe Wagner to bail them out with offensive putbacks (typically not a strength of his). Needless to say, it didn’t last. Loyola started chipping away at the lead and eventually found its groove to make a 25-10 run throughout the rest of the first half, building a seven-point lead that the Ramblers took with them into the break. John Beilein noted after the game that it was the Ramblers’ defense — keyed by ball-screen switching and interesting looks — that really bothered the Wolverines in the first half. Just like the previous four teams that Loyola had vanquished.
  2. Michigan Eventually Responded in Kind. When Loyola hit a layup with 12 minutes remaining to go back up by nine points while Michigan continued to look flummoxed on the other end, it seemed as if this actually might happen. Then a pair of threes sandwiching a layup led to an 8-2 run for the Wolverines, but that was only the precursor to the much larger tidal wave 24-10 run that was coming. By the time Loyola recovered from a Michigan barrage fueled by tired legs, turnovers and even more putbacks (led by Wagner), Sister Jean’s Easter goose was cooked. The Wolverines have won several different ways through this tournament — three-point shooting, defense, offensive rebounding, turnovers — but the point is that they keep on winning. John Beilein is probably the most underrated coach in college basketball, and he has his team poised to win a championship that nobody saw coming a month ago.
  3. What a Run It Was. A #11 seed that beat an ACC team, an SEC team, the Mountain West regular season champion and a Big 12 team in succession doesn’t come around very often. Throwing in a certifiable national sensation like Sister Jean and her uplifting messages (and fandom!) couldn’t have made for a better story in these otherwise trying times. Porter Moser has had a middling career to this point but sometimes all it takes is a special team to lift a coach up and give him the opportunity he deserves. And while Loyola may have to regroup for another 50 years before its next trip to the sports final weekend, college basketball remains better for the chance it provides schools like the urban Jesuit school from Chicago to achieve its own One Shining Moment.

Player of the Game. Moe Wagner, Michigan. The German import had the game of his life on the sport’s biggest stage, going for 24 points and 15 rebounds in a diverse floor game that often propped up the Wolverines when they needed something to go in the basket. His production in the Final Four has only been equaled by Hall of Famers Larry Bird and Hakeem Olajuwon.

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Final Four Fact Sheet: Loyola-Chicago Ramblers

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 26th, 2018

Now that the Final Four is set, our writers have put together a fact sheet on each of the four teams still remaining. First, #11 Loyola-Chicago, from the South Region.

How Loyola-Chicago Got Here

Seriously: #11 Loyola-Chicago is in the Final Four. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

South Region Champions. In arguably the most chaotic region ever, the Missouri Valley Champion emerged as this NCAA Tournament’s team of destiny. The Ramblers began their unexpected run with a buzzer-beating victory over #6 Miami (FL), followed by an equally dramatic takedown of #3 Tennessee in the Round of 32. After edging #7 Nevada by a single point in the Sweet Sixteen — its third straight win by two points or fewer — Loyola shot 50 percent from behind the arc en route to a lopsided win over #9 Kansas State on Saturday. The Ramblers now join LSU (1986), George Mason (2006) and VCU (2011) as the only #11 seeds to reach the Final Four in NCAA Tournament history, a remarkable feat for a program that went 7-23 in the Horizon League just six seasons ago.

The Coach

Porter Moser. After middling coaching stints with Arkansas-Little Rock (2000-03) and Illinois State (2003-07), Moser took over a Loyola program in 2011 with just one 20-win season on its record since 1985. In a matter of just four years — including a 7-23 campaign and a move from the Horizon League to the Missouri Valley — the former Rick Majerus assistant led the Ramblers to the College Basketball Invitational title in 2014-15, their first postseason appearance in 30 years. Three seasons later, Moser has taken the program to its greatest heights since winning the National Championship in 1963.

Style

As a Majerus disciple, Moser stresses hard-nosed, meticulous team defense that’s enabled Loyola to rank among the top 20 nationally in efficiency for the first time in the KenPom era. The Ramblers do a masterful job of switching and hedging ball screens, closing out on shooters, and providing help defense near the rim, which has forced opponents into an 18.3 second average possession length this season — the longest of any remaining NCAA Tournament team. Offensively, Loyola runs a four-out, one-in system predicated on quick ball-movement, good floor spacing and versatile personnel. In Moser’s system, all four perimeter players should be able to dribble-drive and knock down perimeter shots, while the lone paint presence — often Cameron Krutwig — is expected to be a capable post passer. Among the slower-paced offenses in the country, Loyola works patiently to find the best possible shot on each trip.

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Rushed Reactions: #3 Michigan 58, #9 Florida State 54

Posted by Andrew Murawa on March 24th, 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 is Headed to Its Second Final Four Under John Beilein (USA Today Images)

  1. A Game of Runs. After a first half that was like a tired slog through thick mud, Michigan followed up a Seminoles’ hoop on the first possession with an 11-0 run that spanned two Florida State timeouts and a media timeout and gave the Wolverines 10 points worth of breathing room. The Seminoles then spent most of the rest of the half digging out from that hole, finally getting back within three at the six-minute mark. But just a couple minutes later, a gorgeous hoop by Charles Matthews was followed by a Zavier Simpson layup and a Duncan Robinson three, making a 7-0 run that put the Wolverines back up 10 with just over two minutes remaining. Michigan had to withstand a late Florida State run fueled by their problems at the free throw line, but barring those two runs, the Wolverines would be headed back to Ann Arbor instead of on to San Antonio.
  2. Defense Doesn’t Lose Championships. Michigan’s Sweet Sixteen win on Thursday night was highlighted by beautiful offensive basketball. Tonight? Well, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. In a much punchier game, both teams sold out on the defensive end and made things difficult for their opponents. Florida State’s defense forced 11 turnovers, swatted seven shots and forced Michigan into just 31.4 percent shooting from the field, including just 4-of-17 on shots from deep. But as good as Florida State was defensively, the Wolverines were even better. The Seminoles earned seven second chance points and eight points off turnovers. But when forced into the half-court, the Wolverines made them earn every point, forcing drawn-out possessions that often ended in poor looks. And while all this defense may sound like the recipe for a terribly ugly game, it was a hard-fought and high-wire contest that ultimately delivered.
  3. Foul Shooting Issues. Michigan is headed to the Final Four behind a great defense and an offense capable of exploding. But if they have a possible Achilles’ Heel, it was on display in the final two minutes when they struggled to put the game away due to missed free throws. Simpson, in particular, struggles mightily from the line to the tune of 51.8 percent on the season, a serious issue from a guy who handles the ball so often and well. He missed the front-end of a one-and-one and went just 1-of-3 down the stretch. Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman also missed a front-end and it took Robinson knocking down a pair with 21 seconds left to finally put away the Seminoles for good. But, as the stakes increase again next weekend, Michigan’s free throw challenges could be a looming problem.

Star of the Game.  Charles Matthews. While I’m torn about putting anyone’s name other than Michigan catalyst Zavier Simpson here, Matthews had a truly incredible game. Against the long and athletic Seminoles, he stood toe-to-toe with them, playing above the rim when needed, pulling down seven boards and even swatting away a couple of shots. He was a force in transition, both on the offensive break and in helping to slow down Florida State’s manys advances. And his beautiful jump-stop and fadeaway jumper in the lane with 3:51 remaining put the Wolverines up 49-44 and sparked a 7-0 run that just about put the game away.

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Rushed Reactions: #9 Florida State 75, #4 Gonzaga 60

Posted by Andrew Murawa on March 23rd, 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.

Florida State Was All Smiles After Outlasting Gonzaga (USA Today Images)

  1. It Doesn’t Have to Be Pretty. And this game certainly wasn’t. The stop-and-start pace of the game because of all the fouls (22 in the first half led to 38 overall) didn’t help matters. Neither did the forced offense on both ends. Or the cold shooting from deep (a combined 11-of-40 from deep). Let’s face it, after the offensive beauty that Michigan displayed in the first game of the evening, this was not a game for the faint of heart. But years from now, all that will matter was that Florida State won and advanced to just its third Elite Eight in program history.
  2. Depth. Even on its best days this season, Gonzaga, which basically plays seven players, was not a deep team. When sophomore Killian Tillie became a late scratch after re-aggravating a hip injury during warmups, it became even more of an issue. Against a Florida State team that has no problems going 10 deep, the Zags were simply outmanned. The Seminoles subbed early and often (those 10 players all played at least 10 minutes each) and used physical switching defenses to their advantage, not worrying so much as the fouls piled up. Early in the second half, the Zags looked like they were going to crawl back into the game, but the Seminoles never let their foot off the gas as the Bulldogs faltered late.
  3. Balance. Terance Mann wound up with 18 points to lead all scorers, but no one else on his team scored in double figures. However, six other Florida State players scored at least six points each. The team combined for nine blocks, led by freshman Mfiondu Kabengele; but six other guys chipped in to reach that number. Likewise, six Seminoles combined to swipe nine steals. Long story short, this team is built around the idea of every player on the team picking up for every other player and every guy having everyone else’s back. It worked tonight.

Star of the Game.  Terance Mann. After suffering a groin injury in the Seminoles’ first round win over Missouri, the junior wasn’t expected to play in the round of 32 against Xavier. He toughed it out for 24 minutes of less effective play than normal. But tonight, that injury appeared to be a thing of the past, as evidenced by four dunks on the night and non-stop energetic play. After a quiet first half with just six points on five attempts, the upperclassman picked up the pace in the second half, pouring in 12 on eight attempts, including four dunks on the night.

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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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Rushed Reactions: #5 Clemson 84, #4 Auburn 53

Posted by rtmsf on March 18th, 2018

RTC will be providing coverage of the NCAA Tournament from start to finish.

Three Key Takeaways.

Clemson Will Not Soon Forget This Performance (USA Today Images)

  1. Sheer Dominance. Not even the #1 vs. #16 match-ups earlier this weekend were this lopsided. Chalk it up to Clemson’s outstanding defense combined with Auburn’s inept offense, but the point remains that a run that started with a 13-13 tie at the 12-minute mark of the first half became a 40-point lead 20 minutes later. FORTY. Not even Cincinnati can blow that kind of advantage. The statistics are marvelous in their ugliness (e.g., Auburn’s 26 percent shooting), but the key stretch was really the last 10 minutes of the first half when Auburn missed 18 consecutive shots while giving up 25 points in a series of layups and three-pointers on the other end. It was a blitzkrieg, magnificent in its efficiency and domination. And it propelled Clemson to the Sweet Sixteen for just the fourth time ever.
  2. Is Clemson Good? Obviously, yes, but just how good? Today’s victory was a real eye-opener for a lot of people wondering if the Tigers were capable of making a deep run. New Mexico State was a trendy upset pick on Friday, and Clemson manhandled the Aggies without too much concern. Today’s game was 32 minutes of curb-stomping. The question with Clemson has never been with its defense, which ranks among the top 10 in college basketball this season, but rather whether they had enough play-makers to get past the likes of elite programs. Their best win this season was over North Carolina in Littlejohn Arena, but it they lost relatively close games to Duke and Virginia (the ACC Tournament game). The Tigers may get their chance to prove themselves in the Midwest Regional next weekend, as Kansas awaits next followed by ACC brethren Duke or Syracuse. In a ball-control kind of game where the shots aren’t falling (a typical Jayhawks loss scenario), it wouldn’t be impossible to see Clemson advance two more rounds just like its Palmetto State rival from a season ago.
  3. Auburn Still Had a Great Season. No team likes to go out of the NCAA Tournament like Auburn did today, but sometimes the forces align and there’s not much a team can do to manage the buzzsaw. Still, Bruce Pearl put together a fantastic season that included a first-place finish in the SEC (the Tigers were projected ninth in the preseason by SEC media), the school’s first NCAA appearance (and win) in 15 years and a buzz that had been missing around the basketball program for a very long time. Depending on how the FBI thing shakes out, Auburn is poised to get back to the NCAA Tournament for years to come — only hopefully with better performances than the Tigers gave today.

Player of the Game. Elijah Thomas, Clemson. Thomas set the tone in the first half with 11 points on 4-of-4 shooting as the Tigers simply overwhelmed the other Tigers. He finished with a highly-efficient 18 points, 11 rebounds and a pair of assists on 7-of-10 shooting. But really, the entire Clemson team was the player of tonight’s game.

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Rushed Reactions: #2 Purdue 76, #10 Butler 73

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 18th, 2018

RTC will be providing coverage of the NCAA Tournament from start to finish. Tommy Lemoine (@hoopthink) is in Detroit this weekend. 

Three Key Takeaways.

Vincent Edwards came up big for the shorthanded Boilermakers. (Photo: Raj Mehta/USA TODAY Sports)

  1. Without Isaac Haas in the lineup, Vincent Edwards stepped up. Purdue suffered a devastating blow on Friday when 7’2″ center Isaac Haas, the team’s second-leading scorer (14.7 PPG) and premier post threat, fractured his elbow against Cal State Fullerton. First reports indicated that he would miss the entire NCAA Tournament; subsequent reports revealed he might see limited minutes. But after his arm brace failed to clear NCAA safety standards over the weekend, the Boilermakers were officially left having to fill the void. Vincent Edwards did exactly that. In just 27 minutes of action because of foul trouble, the senior forward scored 20 points on 6-of-8 shooting — including a couple of timely triples — and came up with a lead-preserving block on Butler’s Kamar Baldwin in the closing minutes. After a late-season ankle injury and two subpar performances in the Big Ten Tournament, Edwards stepped up in a big way for the shorthanded Boilermakers.
  2. Matt Haarms and Purdue’s frontcourt reserves exceeded expectations. No Haas in the lineup meant more minutes for freshman Matt Haarms and the rest of Purdue’s frontcourt reserves. And they made good on that extra playing time. Haarms, a 7’3″ Dutchman, was a defensive force in the paint, blocking a couple shots, drawing a charge and preventing easy Butler looks around the rim (especially in the first half). Junior Grady Eifert — who played sparingly during the regular season — tracked down five rebounds in 17 high-energy minutes. Forwards Nojel Eastern and Jacquil Taylor, who had played just four minutes total since January 20, also helped fill the void. “I’m proud of those other guys who had to increase their roles,” Purdue head coach Matt Painter said afterwards.
  3. Kelan Martin did not get enough help. As he did against Arkansas, Kelan Martin — an all-Big East first teamer and Butler’s top offensive weapon — did his part (and then some) on Sunday, scoring 29 points on 9-of-18 shooting. During the second half especially, his ability to attack the rim at-will proved to be the Bulldogs’ best and most consistent form of offense. Painter called him “fantastic” afterwards, and he was. But unlike on Friday, he did not receive enough help from his teammates — most notably Kamar Baldwin. After putting on a show against Arkansas (24 points on 9-of-17 FG), the sophomore guard scored just 14 points on 5-of-16 shooting. And his teammates weren’t much better, considering no other Bulldog finished in double figures. In a game that was decided by a few key possessions, Butler needed someone other than Martin to step up offensively.

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