Rushed Reactions: #11 Loyola-Chicago 69, #7 Nevada 68

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.

Loyola-Chicago celebrates its Sweet Sixteen win over Nevada.
(Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

  1. What a game! It was billed as perhaps the least appealing contest of the Sweet Sixteen — some at Phillips Arena were calling it the JV game — but the excitement level more than made up for fact that two mid-major schools were involved. As is often the case in competitive tournament games, it was a game of big runs. Nevada stormed out of the gate and led by double-figures in the first half. Then Loyola responded with a major run of its own, outscoring the Wolf Pack by 24 points over a 17-minute stretch overlapping both halves to lead by 12. But Nevada wasn’t finished. Just as they had done against Texas and Cincinnati in the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament, Nevada came storming back to tie things up. Finally, behind Marques Townes, Loyola was able to respond and come out on top — winning its third straight nail-biter to advance to Saturday’s regional final.
  2. Loyola’s defense turned the game around. It looked like Nevada was going to blow the Ramblers out of the building in the early going. The Wolf Pack made five layups in the game’s first five minutes and led by 12 points after 13 minutes of play. But Loyola tightened up defensively and things shifted dramatically. One of the top three-point shooting teams in the country, Nevada made just 2-of-12 deep shots in the first half. The Ramblers also forced the nation’s best ball-handling team (lowest turnover percentage) into seven first half miscues. The Ramblers’ defense was the story of the first half, but Loyola’s offense took over after intermission. It looked like the 1985 championship game performance by Villanova, as the Ramblers were on fire — connecting on its first 13 field goal attempts after the break, mostly on layups.
  3. Nevada’s versatility causes match-up problems all over the floor. Eric Musselman only plays six guys for significant minutes, but all but one of those players is between 6’6″ and 6’7″. Most of them (especially Caleb and Cody Martin) are adept at ball-handling, passing and shooting. Also, Musselman — using his coaching experience at the professional level — is great at analyzing defenses in real time to create match-up advantages for his guys. Defensively, Nevada is able to switch almost all ball screens and to use its perimeter length to bother shooters from deep.

Player of the Game. Marques Townes, Loyola-Chicago. Townes led the way with 18 points, four rebounds and five assists this evening. His dagger three with seven seconds left and the shot clock winding down put the Ramblers up by four and basically ended the game.

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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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Untrustworthy: Caveat Emptor on These 10 Teams

Posted by Will Ezekowitz on March 14th, 2018

Preseason rankings — they are, in most sports, completely irrelevant when the postseason rolls around. But not in college basketball. When projecting Final Four teams, as we have covered in this space before, the preseason AP Poll is just as predictive as the current AP poll. The rationale for this is that preseason rankings account for things that the mathematical models struggle with (for example, coaching changes, big recruiting classes, injuries and suspensions, etc.), making them a surprisingly accurate projection system. So what about the handful of teams each year that are excluded from these rankings but go on to do great things in the regular season? Is it safe to assume that if you can’t crack the preseason Top 25, you won’t cut down any nets in March?

Can Virginia Break the Trend? (USA Today Images)

To answer this question, I looked at historical NCAA Tournament teams that were unranked in the preseason but were ranked in the final regular season poll (this one) to examine whether they came crashing down to earth when it mattered most. My findings indicate that these teams have in fact underperformed as a group in the NCAA Tournament. Since 2007, 106 teams fit the criteria. Just 37 of that group (35%) exceeded their seeds’ average win expectation (based on average wins for each seed since 2002), and the group as a whole won just 120 games. That mark is 30 below an expected aggregate total of 150 victories, a statistically significant difference at the five percent level. Furthermore, just one of 51 top-four seeds ultimately made the Final Four (Kemba Walker’s 2011 Connecticut squad), although they have collectively produced 11 Elite Eight appearances with Florida‘s run last year being the most recent example. The conclusion here is that, although a handful of teams in this group may turn out to exceed expectations, it is likely as a whole to underperform.

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RTC Bracket Prep: South Region

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 13th, 2018

Yesterday and today we will be rolling out our region-by-region analysis for the 2018 NCAA Tournament. Here, Tommy Lemoine (@hoopthink) 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: #1 Virginia (31-2, 17-1 ACC). Oh, how far Virginia has come. After beginning the season outside of both the AP and USA Today/Coaches Poll Top 25, the Cavaliers have won a school-record 31 games en route to the the #1 overall seed on Selection Sunday. In the process, they posted the second-best adjusted defensive efficiency mark in the KenPom era and didn’t allow a single opponent to break 70 points. This is also Tony Bennett’s second-most efficient offensive team since arriving in Charlottesville in 2009, thanks in large part to sharpshooter Kyle Guy (14.1 PPG, 39.5% 3FG). The notion that Virginia would be overwhelmed by Kentucky or Arizona’s athleticism seems particularly far-fetched considering that the Cavaliers beat Duke in Cameron Indoor Stadium and handled North Carolina twice this season. The idea that a stout defensive club like Cincinnati or Tennessee would out-grind the ACC champs seems equally questionable. Virginia is the South Region favorite, and there’s no really no argument otherwise.

Kyle Guy and the Cavaliers are the best bet to reach San Antonio. (Photo: Geoff Burke, USA TODAY Sports)

Should They Falter: #2 Cincinnati (30-4, 16-2 AAC). Were it not for Virginia, Cincinnati’s defense would have probably received a lot more national recognition this season. The Bearcats held opponents to just over 0.86 points per possession, a mark which — not adjusting for competition — hasn’t been topped since 2008-09 Memphis. Mick Cronin’s team is tough in every sense of the word, just as willing to pound the offensive glass (third nationally in Offensive Rebounding rate) as it is to grind opponents down on the other end. In senior Gary Clarke (13.0 PPG, 8.5 RPG), Cincinnati has a player who manages to serve as both its star and its “glue guy,” the type of scrappy weapon you want on your team when the game’s on the line in March. The Bearcats don’t have many great wins this season, but fresh off of beating Wichita State on the road and winning the AAC title, Cronin’s team looks primed for a deep March run.

Grossly Overseeded: #8 Creighton (21-11, 10-8 Big East). While the seeding was fairly well done in this region, Creighton’s landing spot at #8 came as quite the surprise. Most bracketologists had pegged the Bluejays as a #9 or #10 seed, with some placing them as low as a #11. Its home win over Villanova notwithstanding, Creighton finished just 1-9 against Quadrant 1 opponents this season and failed to win a single road game against teams that finished above .500. Then again, perhaps the Bluejays actually got a raw deal when you consider that instead of a possible Second Round matchup against #2 Cincinnati, they’ll have to face Virginia.

Criminally Underseeded: #13 Buffalo (26-8, 15-3 MAC). According to BracketMatrix.com, the vast majority of projections had atabbed Buffalo as a #12 seed (average: 12.08). Instead, the 26-win Bulls were given a #13 seed and tasked with handling future #1-overall NBA Draft pick DeAndre Ayton way out in Boise. And if you think seeding at this level doesn’t matter, consider this: Historically, #12 seeds have a 35.6 percent chance of advancing to the Second Round compared with just 19.7 percent for #13 seeds.

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Crucial Week Ahead for Several O26 At-Large Contenders

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on December 5th, 2017

For mid-major NCAA Tournament hopefuls, non-conference play offers the only realistic chance to notch marquee, resume-building wins. Teams able to capitalize on those opportunities may put themselves in position for a bid next March even if they stumble during Championship Week. With only a few weeks of non-conference action remaining, let’s examine the important week that lies ahead for a few O26 at-large hopefuls:

Big opportunities lie ahead for Nevada and Rhode Island. (John Byrne, Nevada Wolf Pack Athletics)

  • Gonzaga (7-1) This week: vs. #4 Villanova, 7:00 PM ET, ESPN, Tuesday. With another talented roster and early wins over Texas, Ohio State and #25 Creighton, Gonzaga should be in fine shape to reach its 20th-straight Big Dance, even if it slips up in the the WCC Tournament. Still, tonight’s Jimmy V Classic match-up against #4 Villanova — the best team in college basketball, according to KenPom — offers the Zags an important chance to significantly strengthen its profile. A win over the Wildcats would give Mark Few’s group a neutral court victory against a potential power conference champion. A loss, and Gonzaga — without any match-ups remaining against likely NCAA Tournament teams — will be left hoping those wins over the Longhorns, Buckeyes and Bluejays age well. It’s not an exaggeration to suggest that this specific outcome could bump the Bulldogs up or down multiple seed lines come Selection Sunday.

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Mid-Major Regional Quick Guide, Part II

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on November 10th, 2017

With the season now upon us, here’s a region-by-region look at the mid-major players, coaches, teams, and storylines you need to know entering 2017-18. Here’s Part I, focused on the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic and Southeast regions of the country.

Midwest

  • Oakland. Returning talent, you ask? Seniors Jalen Hayes (15.9 PPG, 8 RPG) — perhaps the Horizon League’s best forward — and Martez Walker (17.8 PPG) are both back. Fresh blood? Former Illinois standout Kendrick Nunn (15.0 PPG in 2015-16) joins the fold. Coaching? Greg Kampe, alive and well, is simply one of the best. If the Grizzlies can avoid another conference tournament letdown, they could definitely be a Cinderella in March.
  • Offseason Realignment. Wichita State’s jump to the American Athletic Conference created a mini-domino effect in O26 land: Valparaiso joined the Missouri Valley, prompting IUPUI to fill the Crusaders’ spot in the Horizon.The Summit League, now down to eight members, wound up the ultimate loser here.
  • Alize Johnson – F – Missouri State. Wichita State’s departure aside, there’s a reason Missouri State was picked to win the Missouri Valley this season: Johnson — who averaged 14.8 points and 10.6 boards last season — is really, really good. The athletic forward logged 17 double-doubles and could be a first-round NBA Draft pick next summer.

  • Mike Daum. Put simply, Daum is one of the best players in college basketball. The 6’9″ junior ranked second nationally in scoring last season (25.3 PPG), a product of remarkable efficiency: Daum shot 42 percent from behind the arc, 87 percent at the free throw line, and posted a true shooting percentage of 65.5 percent — sixth-best in the country among players who played at least 80 percent of his team’s minutes. He scored 30+ points 12 times — including a 51-point, 15-rebound effort against Fort Wayne — and should do more of the same this season.
  • James Whitford – Head Coach – Ball State. After two straight 21-win seasons, Whitford’s  reclamation project is nearly complete. Expect the former Arizona assistant to become a household name — and hot commodity to boot — if he leads lead Ball State to its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2000 this season. With a dependable point guard and powerful center back, Whitford might just have the roster to do it.
  • Old faces, new places in the Buckeye State. Former VCU and Alabama coach Anthony Grant takes over for Archie Miller at Dayton following an assistant coaching stint with the Oklahoma City Thunder. John Groce, fired from Illinois, is now back in the MAC at Akron.

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Rushed Reactions: #5 Iowa St 84, #12 Nevada 73

Posted by Brendan Brody on March 17th, 2017

Iowa State won the most entertaining of the four-game session today in Milwaukee, doing so behind the stellar play of its senior class. Every time Nevada made a run, one of the Cyclones’ four senior starters had an answer.

Iowa State (USA Today Images)

Three Key Takeaways.

  1. This was the highest level and most fun game of the day. It actually wasn’t even close. Between the multiple comeback attempts from Nevada every time the Wolf Pack would get behind by double-figures to the high level plays above the rim, it was the most entertaining game by a landslide. There were multiple tweets that went out from this writer telling people at home to switch over and watch.
  2. Iowa State is going to be a really difficult team to beat. The team that ends up removing Iowa State from the bracket (and this is certainly not meant to rule them out of the National Championship picture) will have to figure out how to bend the will of four extremely mentally tough seniors — Monte Morris, Naz Mitrou-Long, Matt Thomas and Deonte Burton — who simply do not crumble in the face of pressure. This team has confidence and experience in spades right now, which is a dangerous combination in March.
  3. Nevada lived up to its billing. Nevada’s talented trio of Cam Oliver, Marcus Marshall and Jordan Caroline exhibited their talent and resilience in how they kept coming back. Had the Wolf Pack not missed a number of easy shots in the first half, things might have turned out differently in the end. This was a fun team with several multi-skilled athletes who played at a fast tempo.

Star of the Game. Monte’ Morris didn’t have his best game of the season, but he nearly notched a triple-double tonight on his way to 19 points, eight rebounds and eight assists. As mentioned at the top, his quartet of Cyclone seniors were there to get a key bucket each and every time Nevada made some kind of run. A seven-point working margin was officially stretched and finished off when the floor general drew a foul shooting a three with 2:00 remaining.

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O26 Programs on the Rise: Eight Teams Poised to Break Out

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on October 28th, 2016

On Monday, we brought you a list of under-the-radar O26 players primed for big seasons in 2016-17. This time around, we’re examining several programs on the cusp of making serious moves upward, either within their respective conferences or on the postseason stage.

  • Cal State Northridge – 2015-16 Record: 10-20 (5-11 Big West): Cal State Northridge (CSUN) may not have been very good last season, but it was certainly better after Kendall Smith became eligible in December. The UNLV transfer led the club in scoring (15.3 PPG) and was among the league’s best at drawing fouls. He, along with the team’s next four top weapons, all return — a fact which would alone be enough to portend improvement. Then consider what the Matadors added. Along with his intact roster, head coach Reggie Theus lured four high-major transfers—Darin Johnson (Washington), Dylan Johns (Texas A&M), Rakim Lubin (Connecticut), and Reggie Theus, Jr. (South Carolina)— each of whom bring positional size and talent to a squad already known for scoring points in the paint. If the pieces gel, CSUN can reverse its conference record and finish among the top four in the Big West.
One of the nation's top defensive units, College of Charleston may be smiling a lot in 2016-17. (kingkresse.com)

With one of the nation’s top defenses, College of Charleston could have a lot to smile about in 2016-17. (kingkresse.com)

  • College of Charleston – 2015-16 Record: 17-14 (8-10 Colonial Athletic): College of Charleston was defensively elite last season, and not just in the CAA—its adjusted defensive efficiency (93.3 AdjD) ranked 20th in the country, ahead of teams like North Carolina, Michigan State, and Oregon, among others. Then again, its offense ranked dead-last in the conference and among the 100 worst nationally. The return of nearly their entire roster, including CAA Rookie of the Year Jarrell Brantley (11.6 PPG, 7.3 RPG), should help the Cougars improve in that department, especially with an entire offseason to gel without the expectation of Canyon Berry’s return. If Earl Grant’s crew can put up just a few more points to complement that suffocating defense, look out. A conference title is within reach.

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O26 Stars in the Making: A Non-Comprehensive Guide to Breakout Candidates

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on October 24th, 2016

If you’re reading this post, chances are you already know about Alec Peters, Justin Robinson, E.C. Matthews, and a number of Other 26 players who have cemented themselves among the nation’s best. Look past those names, though, and you will find another tier of players on the fast-track to (relative) stardom. Whether because of increased minutes, increased visibility or both, here is a list of guys outside the power conferences poised to break out in 2016-17.

  • Jeremy Morgan, G – Sr., Northern Iowa – 2015-16: 11.3 PPG, 1.9 SPG: There’s no two ways about it: Northern Iowa’s collapse against Texas A&M last March was a brutal, all-time debacle that will not soon be forgotten in Cedar Falls. If there was a silver lining, though, it’s the fact that Morgan (36 points) accounted for a whopping 41 percent of his team’s scoring that night. In an MVC that saw many of its best players graduate (including the Panthers’ top two scorers), the 6’5″ senior—whose Valley-leading steal rate already earned him All-Defensive Team honors—should see his offensive numbers increase and his national profile rise.
Northern Iowa's Jeremy Morgan should become a household name in 2016-17. (Credit: Getty Images/ Ronald Martinez)

Northern Iowa’s Jeremy Morgan should become a household name in 2016-17. (Getty Images/ Ronald Martinez)

  • Markis McDuffie, F – So., Wichita State – 2015-16: 7.4 PPG. 3.3 RPG: McDuffie is a true breakout candidate in the sense that his minutes and usage are almost surely going to skyrocket this season. The 6’8″ wing showed flashes of brilliance in limited action last year, using his versatility and athleticism to impact nearly every facet of the game. Among Missouri Valley Conference players, McDuffie finished among the top 15 in offensive rating, offensive rebounding percentage, and two-point percentage. As a defender, his length enables him to defend several positions. Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet may be gone, but McDuffie—who will be relied on heavily to help fill that void—has the talent to become another Shockers legend.
  • Cameron Oliver, F – So., Nevada – 2015-16: 13.4 PPG, 9.1 RPG, 2.6 BLK: As a freshman, Oliver logged 12 double-doubles and earned Mountain West All-Defensive Team honors before nearly turning pro. His game-changing ability on both ends of the floor helped Nevada turn in its first winning season since 2012, including a CBI championship run on which Oliver averaged 19.0 points, 10.0 rebounds, and 4.0 blocks per contest. Now in his second year, the powerful, athletic forward will be the unquestioned anchor for a Nevada club with its highest expectations since the Mark Fox era ended in 2009. Expect Oliver to shine, the Wolfpack to contend, and the basketball world to take notice. Just don’t count on him returning to Reno next season if he lives up to expectations.

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Checking in on… the Mountain West

Posted by Andrew Murawa (@Amurawa) on February 9th, 2016

It’s a week of callbacks in the Mountain West check-in because a lot of the things we talked about last week at this time proved particularly relevant in the interim. Before we jump into team-by-team breakdowns, however, let’s hit the big story: San Diego State going a long way toward wrapping up at least a share of the regular season title for the fifth time in the last six seasons. The Aztecs knocked off New Mexico on Saturday night, bumping their conference record to 11-0 and establishing a three-game lead over the Lobos in the loss column with seven games remaining. It wasn’t a dominant win and the Aztecs needed a fortunate (but not egregious) call with 12.9 seconds left to have a chance to tie the game. But, credit to Steve Fisher’s bunch, they made the most of the second chance by nailing a three from Malik Pope to send the game to overtime and then taking care of business from there. With the win, San Diego State continued its ascension up to #44 in the RPI and #64 in KenPom. What this all means is that there is some lingering hope around the conference that a second NCAA Tournament bid is possible. That would of course have to mean some team will knock off the Aztecs in the conference tournament, but six of those 11 conference wins have been decided by only one possession. In other words, if the luck factor in close games reverts to the mean, the Aztecs will have some losses coming between now and Selection Sunday.

With Saturday Night's Win, The Aztecs Again Have Full Control In The Mountain West (USA Today)

With Saturday Night’s Win, The Aztecs Again Have Full Control In The Mountain West (USA Today)

Power Rankings

  • San Diego State (18-6, 9-0) – Last week we dug into the Aztecs’ ongoing streak of what was then 159 straight wins (and 224 out of 225) when leading games with five minutes left to play. Since that post, the Aztecs found themselves ahead two more times with five minutes left, and in both games, with the outcome with a minute to go was severely in doubt. Against Colorado State, it was the Rams turning it over on three consecutive possessions and a contested layup at the buzzer that came up short. Against New Mexico it was a poorly executed in-bounds and a technically incorrect (but completely understandable) call. But here we stand with the streak now at 161 games. It’s not exactly on par with UCLA’s 88-game winning streak. Or DiMaggio’s hitting streak. But it is sort of mind-boggling. And I’ll certainly take it over the Globetrotters. One other note from the week: big men Skylar Spencer and Angelo Chol combined to play 85 minutes and between them went 10-of-13 from the field, scored 20 points, grabbed 21 boards and blocked five shots. However, despite 13 feet and five inches of frontcourt goodness, the pair earned exactly zero free throw attempts.

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