NCAA Regional Reset: East Region

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 20th, 2017

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

New Favorite: #4 Florida (26-8). Florida’s 65-39 drubbing of #5 Virginia on Saturday should put the rest of the remaining field on notice— the Gators are really, really difficult to score against. Mike White’s aggressive group held to Cavaliers to a paltry 0.65 points per possession, limiting its ACC foe to just 1-of-15 shooting from behind the arc and preventing any Virginia player from reaching double figures. Wisconsin, which is somewhat similar to Virginia stylistically, could be in for a rude awakening on Friday night. 6’8” swingman Devin Robinson, a supremely gifted athlete, is playing some of his best basketball of the season (19.0 PPG in the NCAA Tournament), and only West Virginia and North Carolina possess more depth than Florida of the teams remaining. Now ranked third nationally by KenPom, the Gators are as good a threat as any to win the National Championship.

Florida’ Defense Dominated Virginia This Weekend (USA Today Images)

Horse of Darkness: #8 Wisconsin (27-9). Despite being underseeded, Wisconsin outlasted Virginia Tech in the First Round before knocking off the reigning National Champion in the Round of 32. Saturday’s unexpected, high-drama victory over Villanova highlighted the Badgers’ strengths — patience, veteran leadership, stingy defense — and firmly establishes them as a threat in the East Region. Greg Gard’s club, now in its fourth straight Sweet Sixteen, will again enter Friday’s match-up with #4 Florida as an underdog. With a pair of seniors (Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes) and a First Team All-Big Ten forward (Ethan Happ) leading the way, bet against the dark horse Badgers at your own risk.

Biggest Surprise (First Weekend): #7 South Carolina (24-10). #11 USC shocked #6 SMU and #8 Wisconsin upended the reigning National Champion — both huge surprises in their own right. But it was the other USC — #7 South Carolina — that pulled off the biggest stunner in the East, and perhaps the entire Big Dance. #2 Duke entered the Thursday as the betting favorite win the NCAA Tournament, a testament to both its supreme talent and undeniable momentum heading into the event (the Blue Devils had just won the ACC Tournament). The Gamecocks, meanwhile, entered Friday having lost six of its previous nine games, including an 11-point stinker against Alabama in the SEC Tournament quarterfinals. And yet, Frank Martin’s defensive-minded group pounded Duke in the second half on Sunday night, scoring 65 points in the final 20 minutes and knocking off the Blue Devils in front of a home-state crowd filled with South Carolina fans and North Carolina fans (otherwise known as Duke haters) alike. Few people saw this coming.

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Rushed Reactions: #8 Wisconsin 65, #1 Villanova 62

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 18th, 2017

In this NCAA Tournament’s first major upset, #1 overall seed Villanova fell to #8 Wisconsin in a tough, back-and-forth game decided in the closing seconds.

Greg Gard’s veteran group is back in the Sweet Sixteen. (M.P. King, State Journal)

Three Key Takeaways.

  1. Wisconsin showed serious grit. In control for the opening 20 minutes, Wisconsin surrendered its narrow lead midway through the second half before falling behind 57-50 with 5:31 remaining. Its defense, which had been so excellent for most of the game (“They’re good defensively… we’re trying to figure it out,” Villanova head coach Jay Wright said at halftime), let off the pedal to some extent. Meanwhile, two of the Badgers’ best players — Bronson Koenig and Ethan Happ — were saddled with foul trouble. Things began to look dire. So how did Greg Gard’s group respond? By preventing the reigning National Champion from making a single field goal from there on out. It was a tough, gritty performance by Wisconsin — perhaps one you’d expect from a team led by tested seniors.
  2. Remember Nigel Hayes? He’s still really good. Once considered a National Player of the Year candidate, Wisconsin forward Nigel Hayes took a back seat this season to frontcourt mate Ethan Happ, who earned Second Team All-America honors. But Happ, along with point guard Bronson Koenig, were both forced to sit the bench for far longer than expected on Saturday. The sophomore picked up his third foul early in the second half; Koenig picked us his fourth with 13:40 remaining. That’s when Hayes stepped up. The 6’8″ senior scored 14 of his game-high 19 points in the second half, including the game-winning bucket with 14 seconds left. He also grabbed five offensive rebounds and was extremely active on defense. In a game that lacked much rhythm, Hayes provided a confidence and consistency that carried the Badgers to the Sweet Sixteen.
  3. Villanova never hit its stride this Tournament. The reigning National Champion was dominant for much of the regular season, slicing and dicing opponents with its tremendous ball movement and lockdown capabilities on the defensive end. But that team, the dominant one, never made it to Buffalo. After a lethargic effort against #16 Mount St. Mary’s on Thursday, Villanova put forth another sluggish, uneven effort on Saturday. This time, however — against a more evenly-matched opponent — the Wildcats weren’t able to skate by on talent alone. Big East Player of the Year Josh Hart played well (19 points), but it wasn’t enough against a tough, defensive-minded team like Wisconsin.

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Big Ten Survival Guide: The Keys For Each Squad’s First Round Survival

Posted by Brendan Brody on March 16th, 2017

The brackets have been set and all of the Big Ten teams left dancing will begin seven separate quests to bring home the league’s first National Championship since Michigan State did so in 2000. Before anything approaching that level of success can take place, however, each team must win its First Round game. Here’s a brief look at how all seven Big Ten teams can get past their first opponent.

Reggie Lynch has to stay on the floor for Minnesota against Middle Tennessee on Thursday. (AP Photo/Andy Clayton-King)

  • Minnesota: The Gophers have almost no depth now with the season-ending injury to senior wing Akeem Springs, which means Reggie Lynch has to stay on the floor and out of foul trouble. As a result, Minnesota will have to win this game with defense. If Lynch suffers early foul issues, Middle Tennessee and its 54.3 percent eFG rate will be able to score in the paint at will.
  • Northwestern: Northwestern has a dangerous tendency to go through long scoring droughts. For the most part the Wildcats runs their offense well, but when they go cold, they go frigid. This cannot happen against Vanderbilt because a three-minute drought will feel like five or more with in a one-and-done format. Vanderbilt shoots 37.7 percent from three-point range on the season, so long dry spells could be disastrous against a team that can effectively bomb away from the perimeter.

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Rushed Reactions: Michigan 71, Wisconsin 56

Posted by Chris Stone on March 12th, 2017

RTC’s Chris Stone (@cstonehoops) is providing on-site coverage of the Big Ten Tournament in Washington, DC.

Derrick Walton Jr. led Michigan to a Big Ten title. (AP)

Three Key Takeaways. 

  1. Michigan didn’t look like the tired team. If you asked a neutral observer with no knowledge of prior events which of these two teams had played four games in four days, the answer probably would have been Wisconsin. In the first 10 minutes of the second half, however — a time when you might expect Michigan’s weariness to show — the Wolverines went on a 13-4 run while the Badgers sputtered. During that stretch, Wisconsin shot 1-of-10 from the field and committed five turnovers. It helped Michigan open up the lead that carried them to victory.
  2. Zak Irvin showed up huge. The Michigan senior was hyped during the team’s warmups and he delivered a magnificent performance to back up his talk. Irvin finished with 15 points, seven rebounds and five assists, including a backbreaking three-pointer with 5:46 remaining. Irvin’s three followed a five-point Wisconsin run that forced a John Beilein timeout and briefly quieted the largely pro-Michigan crowd. The scary thing about the Wolverines is that they have so many pieces who can heat up in a hurry. Irvin came up big for them today.
  3. This was not Ethan Happ’s best day. Early on in conference play, Happ looked like a serious contender for Big Ten Player of the Year, but Happ’s candidacy went with it as the Badgers suffered a late season slide. The Wisconsin sophomore is a great talent who does a bit of everything, but Sunday simply wasn’t his day. Happ ended up with a double-double (14 points, 11 rebounds), but really struggled to score efficiently around the rim. He finished 6-of-16 from the field and most of his misses came in the paint.

Star of the Game: Derrick Walton Jr., Michigan. Irvin was excellent, but so was Walton for the second day in a row. The senior finished with 22 points, seven assists, six rebounds and two steals en route to the tournament title. Walton was once again terrific in directing traffic and if anyone leads the Wolverines on a March run, it will be him.

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Rushed Reactions: Wisconsin 76, Northwestern 48

Posted by Chris Stone on March 11th, 2017

RTC’s Chris Stone (@cstonehoops) is providing on-site coverage of the Big Ten Tournament in Washington, DC.

Wisconsin won the hustle stats against Northwestern. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

Three Key Takeaways:

  1. Is Wisconsin back? All too frequently this season we’ve had to ask ourselves, “Is Duke back?” Maybe it’s time to shift the subject and ask the same thing about the Badgers. Before their home win over Minnesota in the final game of the regular season, the Badgers had lost five of six. They are now on a three-game winning streak with victories over the Gophers, Indiana and Northwestern. Wisconsin’s defense against the Wildcats today was smothering, holding them to a measly 0.76 points per possession. The Badgers also seemed to find a groove offensively. They made 12-of-29 three-pointers en route to 76 total points. Wisconsin’s late season losing streak likely pushed it several spots down the seed ladder, but when the Badgers are playing like this, they are a very dangerous opponent.
  2. Northwestern’s offense is its biggest March limitation. There’s no doubt that Wisconsin’s defense played a role in this, but the Wildcats’ offensive weaknesses were on display Saturday as it delivered its worst performance of the season — the fifth time this year (all losses) that they had scored below 0.90 points per possession. Northwestern’s most valuable offensive pieces are inefficient scorers, with Bryant McIntosh, Vic Law and Scottie Lindsay all logging effective field goal percentages under 51.0 percent. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the Wildcats are doomed to a short stay in their first NCAA Tournament ever, but if they want to win a game next week, they’ll need more out of their offense or a significantly better defensive outing to get the job done.
  3. Wisconsin won the hustle stats and that mattered. Both Northwestern head coach Chris Collins and McIntosh mentioned the Badgers’ work on the offensive boards and getting to loose balls as a turning point in Saturday’s game. “I thought those were the areas where they were able to stretch out their lead,” Collins said. Wisconsin grabbed 12 offensive boards, and while the box score doesn’t keep track of loose balls, it was often the Badgers who seemed to come up with them.

Star of the Game: Nigel Hayes, Wisconsin. Hayes finished with 18 points and 10 rebounds, his fifth double-double of the season. Most importantly, he was a very efficient player today on the offensive end of the floor. Hayes shot 7-of-11 from the field and made a pair of three-pointers.

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Big Ten Weekend in Review

Posted by Brendan Brody on February 20th, 2017

In the third to last weekend of Big Ten conference play, the stars of the league took over. Wisconsin remained at the top of the standings after beating Maryland behind 20-point efforts from Ethan Happ and Nigel Hayes. Purdue likewise kept pace at the top of the standings behind Caleb Swanigan‘s 23rd double-double of the season in a domination of Michigan State. What follows are the highs and lows from a six-game weekend Big Ten schedule.

Caleb Swanigan did nothing to damage his chances at picking up some postseason hardware, as he led Purdue to another Big Ten win. (Boiledsports.com).

  • Player of the Weekend: Caleb Swanigan did to Michigan State what he always does, scoring 24 points and grabbing 15 rebounds in leading his team to a dominant win. The big man’s passing ability really stood out this weekend, as he led Purdue with five assists against only one turnover. Much of the Boilermakers’ offensive damage came from Swanigan either scoring himself or running the high-low game with Isaac Haas on the interior. The sophomore also made 9-of-10 foul shots, elevating his mark on the season to a robust 78.4 percent. Complete efforts like these are the reason that the burly forward is garnering serious consideration for the National Player of the Year award.
  • Super Sub of the Weekend: One of the biggest what-ifs this season is how Nebraska might look if Ed Morrow, Jr. had not missed seven games with an injury? The Cornhuskers went 1-6 with Morrow out of the lineup, clearly missing the sophomore forward’s energy and work on the boards (even though the injury also allowed freshman Jordy Tshimanga to take some important strides). Despite only playing 15 minutes with foul trouble on Saturday against Ohio State, Morrow scored 10 points, grabbed six rebounds and posted a 141.0 offensive rating for the game. This keyed Nebraska’s first road win since a New Year’s Day victory at Maryland.

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Wisconsin’s Big Ten Title Hopes Depend on a Healthy Bronson Koenig

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on February 17th, 2017

Wisconsin’s exclusion from the NCAA Selection Committee’s recent preview bracket left many analysts scratching their heads, especially those located in the upper Midwest. How could the Badgers — 21-3 and on top of the Big Ten — not even garner a top-four seed? Legitimate gripe or not, the consternation in Madison quickly shifted to a far more meaningful issue plaguing Wisconsin: Its offense simply hasn’t been very good lately, especially since point guard Bronson Koenig injured his calf in late January. After back-to-back losses to Northwestern and Michigan, it’s becoming increasingly clear that, while Big Ten Player of the Year candidate Ethan Happ can keep Greg Gard‘s offense afloat, a fully-healthy Koenig will be critical to their shot at a conference title.

Ethan Happ can only do so much for Wisconsin without Bronson Koenig. (Rick Osentoski / USA TODAY Sports)

Since Koenig tweaked his calf against Penn State on January 24 (a seemingly minor issue at the time), Wisconsin has simply not been the same team. In the seven games leading up to his injury, the Badgers scored more than a point per possession (PPP) in six of those, including a 1.23 PPP effort at Indiana and a 1.33 PPP performance against Ohio State. In the six games since his mishap, Wisconsin has reached that threshold just once, and hasn’t topped 1.03 PPP at all (well below its season average). On Thursday night against Michigan, Gard decided to rule out Koenig in order to give him some extra rest; predictably, Wisconsin’s stagnation continued.

But why, exactly? After all, the Badgers have two all-conference caliber forwards in Nigel Hayes (13.6 PPG, 5.9 RPG) and Happ (14.2 PPG, 9.2 RPG), the latter of whom is undoubtedly the team’s best and most important offensive player. Entering Thursday night, Wisconsin was 16-0 when Happ finished the game with an offensive rating of 100.0 or better, and just 5-4 in games in which he didn’t. The 6’10” sophomore currently ranks among the Big Ten’s top-10 players in both offensive and defensive rebounding rate, assist rate, block rate, steals rate and free throw rate. His 60.6 percent effective field goal percentage is also among the league’s best, and he currently ranks fifth overall in KenPom’s National Player of the Year standings. Put more plainly, he’s a statistical monster, adept at carving out space in the paint and capitalizing on mismatches. “Happ is as good a pure post player as I’ve seen since I’ve been here,” Michigan head coach John Beilein said of the sophomore.

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Media Timeout: College Basketball Gets Political – What Took So Long?

Posted by Will Tucker on December 20th, 2016

College basketball places huge emphasis on individual games — showdowns between top-ranked teams, annual rivalry clashes, single-elimination tournaments — but it’s important from time to time to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. The Media Timeout considers how fans and journalists watch, follow and talk about the sport.


We’re one month into the college basketball season, and mercifully, a month closer to closing the book on 2016. (Is it dead yet? I think I saw it twitch. Poke it again…) But the unrest that this year ignited will continue to flare up long after we’ve replaced the calendar. As political conflict bleeds into the most distant recesses of our day-to-day lives, will college basketball become an unlikely battleground?

The Forecast Calls for Activism

Even before the 2016-17 season tipped off, many commentators predicted that this season would be more politically charged than usual in the days after Election Day. “College basketball likely will launch a new round of athlete protests,” was a headline of a story from Marcus Fuller at the (Minneapolis) Star Tribune, who reasoned that the sport “has had time to prepare for demonstrations as they watched them play out on football fields across the country.” Chicago Tribune columnist Shannon Ryan agreed: “More activism, especially related to racial injustices, in college arenas could be on the way.”

Those forecasts were validated by the offseason activism taking root at Wisconsin, where preseason Big Ten Player of the Year Nigel Hayes quickly cemented his status as the preeminent “woke” college athlete by protesting everything from the NCAA’s interpretation of amateurism to campus racism to police violence. Native American teammate Bronson Koenig, who two seasons ago made waves when he spoke out against the Washington Redskins’ name, traveled to North Dakota to protest the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), subsequently writing an introspective essay about his experience for The Players Tribune. Well before Thanksgiving, the New York Times had already traveled to Madison to profile “College Basketball’s Most Political Locker Room.”

Nigel Hayes

Wisconsin’s Nigel Hayes has challenged everything from amateurism to campus racism in 2016 (Madison265)

A month later, it’s unclear whether this season will be remembered as politically active at the sport’s landscape level beyond the Badgers’ vanguard. Other examples have cropped up here and there: In Duke’s season opener, Marist players wore rainbow socks to protest North Carolina’s discriminatory “bathroom law” – a move supported by its head coach. Weeks later, Maine players made a similar statement when they sported pro-LGBTQ warmups prior to their game at Cameron Indoor Stadium. After his players met with representatives of Duke’s Athlete Ally program, which promotes an inclusive culture across the school’s athletic department, head coach Bob Walsh commented, “I think our guys now understand a little bit more the impact they can have as leaders on campus.”

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Big Ten Weekend Look Ahead: 12.02.16 Edition

Posted by Alex Moscoso on December 2nd, 2016

On Wednesday night, the Big Ten lost five of six games to drop the ACC/Big Ten Challenge for the first time since 2008. This result represented an already disappointing start to the season for the league, but several teams have an opportunity to right the ship this weekend with solid resume-enhancing wins. In this season’s first weekend look-ahead, we’ll discuss how those teams can get big victories Saturday that may prove consequential on Selection Sunday.

For a second straight season, Nigel Hayes is shooting below 30 percent from the three point line. (Getty).

For a second straight season, Nigel Hayes is shooting below 30 percent from the three-point line. (Getty).

  • Oklahoma at Wisconsin (Saturday 1:00 PM ET, BTN). This is the Madison installment of a home-and-home series where the Badgers were run off the court in Norman last year. Of course, the Sooners no longer boast three of the seniors – including Naismith POY winner Buddy Hield – who led last year’s squad to the Final Four. Even with all that attrition, it is foolish to bet on a Lon Kruger team to miss the postseason, which means this game is a golden opportunity for Wisconsin to add another victory over a likely NCAA Tournament team (Syracuse) to its non-conference resume. To accomplish this, Wisconsin needs to establish greater offensive balance against a strong Sooners’ defense (24th nationally). Nigel Hayes would be wise to abandon his burgeoning propensity to shoot threes — where he is only hitting 29 percent on the season — and instead establish himself by geting into the paint and earning trips to the free throw line.

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Wisconsin Smashes Syracuse Zone by Getting Back to Basics

Posted by Brendan Brody on November 30th, 2016

Wisconsin‘s match-up against Syracuse last night represented a particularly concerning challenge on the offensive end of the floor. Despite an experienced core that includes two potential All-Americans in the starting lineup, Greg Gard‘s offense has been inconsistent. The Badgers made only 11 of a whopping 39 three-point attempts in their loss to Creighton. They turned the ball over 18 times against a Tennessee team that is one of the least experienced squads in the country. To bolster that point, Wisconsin has committed at least 11 turnovers in all seven of its games this season. The notion of a Badgers team easily solving Jim Boeheim’s vaunted 2-3 zone and its corresponding top 10 defense should have spelled disaster in Madison. Instead, they won by 17 points and showed that by simply getting back to basics, Wisconsin may very well end up being the team many expected to win the Big Ten this season.

Ethan Happ (right) had a game-high 24 points in Wisconsin's 77-60 win over Syracuse on Tuesday night. (USA Today Images)

Ethan Happ had a game-high 24 points in Wisconsin’s 77-60 win over Syracuse on Tuesday night. (USA Today Images)

The biggest takeaway from last night’s win over the Orange was just how well forward Nigel Hayes played as a facilitator. Because of his size and passing ability, the senior is the perfect player to set up shop in the middle of a zone. His repeated simple yet effective passes in high-low sets with center Ethan Happ led to a multitude of layups and dunks. Hayes has proven that he can make threes, but he’s only shooting 29 percent from beyond the arc on the season. The best move for the Wisconsin offense is to play Hayes mostly in the post with occasional flashes out to the perimeter. As Purdue has shown with Caleb Swanigan and Isaac Haas doing likewise, the Badgers should use this option against man-to-man defensive schemes as well. Read the rest of this entry »

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