North Carolina Off and Running Out of the Gate

Posted by Matt Auerbach on November 14th, 2018

Two weeks ago, when asked to submit my preseason national rankings, I knew the decision to place North Carolina as my top-rated squad would draw some raised eyebrows. Three games into the season, however, I have seen nothing from the Tar Heels (maybe something from Duke) that has given me reason for pause — in fact, their performance in this small sample size has been even better than anticipated. For the first time in more than three decades, North Carolina opened its season with two true road games, a challenge rarely taken by the sport’s elite (Duke, for example, won’t play its first road game until January 8!). And while not tested by the strongest of competition, Elon and Wofford, which beat Roy Williams‘ team at the Dean Dome a year ago, provided difficult road environments that helped prepare the Tar Heels for what will be a conference schedule littered with those affairs.

North Carolina Has Been Quietly Humming Along Through Three Games (USA Today Images)

After rolling Stanford at home on Monday night for the third victory of the season, North Carolina now ranks third in the KenPom ratings, a product of strong performances on both ends of the floor (currently ranking fifth in both offensive and defensive efficiency). Rarely does Williams fret over his offense, but he must be reveling in the elite defensive potential that this year’s team has already shown. Freshmen Nassir Little and Leaky Black are the type of long, athletic and versatile wings whose sole purpose seems to be to disrupt the flow of opposing offenses. Little, for all of his natural ability, also appears to check all of the intangible boxes to boot — toughness, strength, desire. Those areas have not always been North Carolina’s calling cards, but this year’s squad has shown a willingness to be first to the floor and it seems to play harder than its opponents.

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ACC Conversation: Preseason Projections – Part 2

Posted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on November 6th, 2018

Rush the Court’s ACC microsite writers Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk), Matt Auerbach (@mauerbach24) and Mick McDonald (@themickmcdonald) recently got together to chat about the upcoming 2018-19 season and share their thoughts on all 15 ACC schools. Here’s Part 2 of that conversation. Part 1 can be found here.

Justin Robinson returns to lead Virginia Tech after being a Second Team All-ACC selection in 2017-18. (AP Photo)

  • Brad Jenkins: Let’s discuss Florida State. I was a little surprised at ACC Media Day to hear Leonard Hamilton and his players talk about coming up short last year — as if the Elite Eight wasn’t good enough. That impressed me (if they really believe it). How good can the Seminoles be this season?
  • Mick McDonald: I think they are being overrated somewhat thanks to the NCAA Tournament run. They’ll be solid — Leonard Hamilton teams usually are. They’ve got good depth and guys like Terrance Mann and Phil Cofer (when he returns) who are proven ACC players, and a guy in MJ Walker who could be in for a breakout year. But I see them much more as a solid sixth-eighth place team versus one that can compete for the league title.
  • Matt Auerbach: Which is essentially what they were a year ago. But we tend to remember how teams finished and apply our expectations based upon that. I think Florida State will be good, in fact better than a year ago, but that puts the Seminoles at around 11-7 in the league.
  • Brad Jenkins: Florida State does have a pretty decent ACC schedule, as the Seminoles will play the bottom four teams on the road, which could help them place higher than expected. Buzz Williams did a good job last year of hiding Virginia Tech’s size disadvantage by going to a pack-line defensive philosophy. Can the Hokies get away with that again? It feels like this is the year that Buzz has been building for.
  • Mick McDonald: Count me all-in on Buzz. I think you can make an argument the Hokies have the best backcourt in the league with Justin Robinson and Nickeil-Alexander Walker. Chris Clarke is a poor man’s Jae Crowder from Williams’ awesome Marquette teams, and they have a few other guys who shoot the lights out. I have them fourth in the ACC and a borderline top-10 team nationally. If Kerry Blackshear can stay out of foul trouble, this team can beat anyone. (Editor’s note: This conversation took place before Wednesday’s announcement that Clarke had been suspended indefinitely from the Hokies’ squad.)
  • Matt Auerbach: Agreed. I love Robinson and that’s a great comp for Clarke. Ty Outlaw can also really shoot it. Blackshear is the X-factor here. When he plays well, this team will be nearly impossible to deal with in Blacksburg and will be able to compete with anyone on the road.

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ACC Burning Questions, Part 5: Duke, North Carolina & Virginia

Posted by Mick McDonald on November 2nd, 2018

To wrap up our ACC team previews, Mick McDonald (@themickmcdonald) brings us home by reviewing league favorites Duke, North Carolina and Virginia.

Duke Burning Question: How will Duke’s talented freshmen gel on the court?

The Duke Freshmen Are Ready to Roll (USA Today Images)

Duke has the most talented roster in the country, but as we know, talent alone doesn’t always mean championships. After losing almost his entire roster from last year’s Elite Eight squad, Mike Krzyzewski reloaded with four of the very best prospects in the country. The question is how those pieces will fit together. While Zion Williamson (who is basically a cross between Justin Bieber and LeBron James on YouTube) is the Blue Devils’ biggest star, R.J. Barrett is the best player on the team. He dominated for Team Canada in the FIBA U19 Basketball World Cup last year and is likely be the top pick in the 2019 NBA Draft. The smooth lefty likes to have the ball in his hands, so it will be interesting to see how he interacts with expected starting point guard Tre Jones.

Will fellow freshman Cam Reddish accept not being the lead banana on a team with plentiful options? Will anyone outside of sophomore Alex O’Connell (48.9% 3FG) make any three-pointers? Will juniors Marques Bolden and Javin DeLaurier be able to stay out of Krzyzewski’s doghouse to support the talented freshmen? Whether you believe that Duke will figure it all out and win the national title or if you have concerns about egos overtaking the team en route to an early exit in March, Duke is without question the most fascinating team in college basketball this season.

North Carolina Burning Question: What lineup does Roy Williams want to use?

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Several Takeaways From ACC Operation Basketball

Posted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on October 26th, 2018

Charlotte’s Spectrum Center was the site of this year’s ACC Operation Basketball and we were in the Queen City earlier this week to cover the annual event. In this post we present some of the primary takeaways we observed and interesting quotes we heard over the course of the day (links to the coaches’ and players’ press conferences can be found here), and at the bottom we also present the preseason award results as voted on by participating media.

STILL LOOKING FOR SOLUTIONS TO COLLEGE BASKETBALL’S PROBLEMS

Notre Dame’s Mike Brey had a lot to say about the current state of college basketball as well as the ACC’s new scheduling changes at ACC Operation Basketball in Charlotte.
(dailypress.com)

A major topic of discussion at ACC Operation Basketball once again this year was the fallout from the ongoing FBI investigation into college basketball recruiting. At last year’s event, the FBI probe had just revealed incriminating allegations involving two ACC schools, Louisville and MiamiN.C. State was later added to the naughty list. Coincidentally, the first criminal trial of individuals involved in some of these pay-for-play schemes wrapped up on Wednesday with guilty verdicts for all three defendants. But the big fallout has yet to come, possibly in the form of NCAA sanctions against the schools (“victims”) complicit in those nefarious recruiting activities. In his morning address, ACC’s commissioner  John Swofford was very supportive of the NCAA reforms based on last spring’s Rice Commission recommendations, while acknowledging that “I don’t think it’s going to be perfect. I think we’re going to have to test some of the things that are being changed, tweak them as we go along.”

Given the timeliness of the verdicts, many ACC coaches were asked to chime in on the topic. Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski and North Carolina head coach Roy Williams had been highly criticized for comments they had previously made on the matter, so both Hall of Fame coaches spent time on Wednesday clarifying their points of view. Kryzyzewski repeated the explanation he gave following Duke’s exhibition game on Tuesday night, claiming that his use of the term “blip” to characterize the revelations was not meant to be dismissive on their importance. Likewise, Williams explained what he meant when he claimed to be “dumbfounded” by the new information: “A very intelligent person one time told me there’s a difference between being indifferent or having a lack of knowledge. And my problem is I have a lack of knowledge about those things. I’m not very indifferent about it at all.” Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey showed that he was willing to go deeper with his comments in saying, “But certainly there’s some NCAA issues here. There’s no question about that. […] We’ve got some guys that aren’t amateurs, let’s handle that.”

CHANGES COMING FOR CONFERENCE SCHEDULES

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ACC M5: Offseason Storyline Edition

Posted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on October 16th, 2018

morning5_ACC

We are now just three weeks away from opening night in college basketball, so it’s time to start our preseason coverage here at the ACC microsite. Over the next several weeks we will provide key question previews of all 15 ACC schools and we will also be reporting from ACC Operation Basketball in Charlotte a bit later this month. But first, let’s catch up on some of the most important storylines affecting ACC schools since the season ended last April.

  1. FBI Trial. Perhaps the biggest offseason story in college basketball is taking place right now in a New York City federal courtroom. The FBI’s investigation into the shady world of big-time recruiting has led to a criminal trial of several former Adidas employees who are accused of defrauding colleges by paying recruits (and their families) to sign with certain schools. Not surprisingly, the riveting testimony has generally revealed that college basketball programs are not really “victims” in this process; rather, as CBSSports.com’s Gary Parrish points out, they are co-conspirators. Two ACC schools are mired in this web as former assistant coaches at Louisville and NC State have been accused of paying recruits. The oddest reaction to the evidence that has been released so far came from North Carolina’s Roy Williams, who claimed that he was “dumbfounded” by the recent revelations. This is the same coach that has publicly stated he once turned Florida in to the NCAA for its recruitment of Mike Miller nearly 20 years ago.
  2. NCAA Reform. After receiving a number of recommendations last spring from the Dr. Condoleezza Rice-led Commission on College Basketball, the NCAA Board of Governors and Division I Board of Directors announced some reform measures — such as giving athletes more flexibility in professional opportunities — in how the sport operates. Unfortunately, none of these incremental changes will really address the root cause of the behavior that has been uncovered in the ongoing FBI investigation. As long as the antiquated model of student-athlete amateurism exists, there will continue to be a market for talented high school players to receive money and benefits from interested parties.
  3. New Regimes Begin. The ACC’s two new head coaches — Louisville’s Chris Mack and Pittsburgh’s Jeff Capel — spent the late spring and summer restocking and preserving their respective rosters. When Mack took over the Cardinals’ program, he inherited just six returning players (including only one starter), one redshirt transfer and no incoming freshmen. Mack responded by signing three graduate transfers, two of whom, Christen Cunningham (Samford) and Khwan Fore (Richmond), should see major backcourt minutes in his first season. For Capel, job one was to convince several holdovers from the disastrous Kevin Stallings era to remain with the program — the longtime Duke assistant not only managed to perform that task, but he also signed some highly-rated freshmen to fill out the squad in his initial campaign in the Steel City.
  4. Bye Bye, RPI. Finally! Believe it or not… Ronald Reagan was sitting in the Oval Office when we last had an NCAA Tournament field selected without using the RPI. As the guiding metric for the Selection Committee since way back in 1981, the RPI has been an outdated tool for at least a decade in the era of advanced analytics. But as this article from SBNation.com points out, plenty of mystery surrounds the replacement rating system being called the NCAA Evaluation Tool (NET). As with the RPI, the NET will be used primarily as a sorting tool in the hope that Quadrant results – part of the evaluation system put in place a year ago – will better reflect actual team strength. There will be no shortage of discussion, and we shall see how it works when March rolls around.
  5. Conference Hype. The ACC is receiving considerable preseason love from the national media heading into the 2018-19 season. Seven league members are in both the CBSSports.com and ESPN.com preseason Top 25 ratings while NBCSports.com places eight ACC teams in its version. As expected, each of last year’s top three teams in the league – Virginia, Duke and North Carolina – are once again regarded as consensus top-10 squads. Several ACC players are showing up on preseason All-America teams as well, led by North Carolina senior Luke Maye and Duke superstar freshmen R.J. Barrett and Zion Williamson. We got an early peek at Coach K’s talented young duo in August, when the Blue Devils played three exhibition games in Canada.
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ACC Conversation: NCAA Tournament Opening Weekend

Posted by Mick McDonald on March 21st, 2018

Rush the Court’s ACC microsite writers Brad JenkinsMatt Auerbach and Mick McDonald chatted this week to recap a wild opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament and preview the chances of the four remaining ACC schools making the Final Four.

The Answer to Your Trivia Question is Virginia (USA Today Images)

Brad Jenkins: OK guys. Before we look ahead to the Sweet Sixteen, let’s recap the crazy first weekend of the NCAA Tournament. I guess we have to start with the surprising outcomes that I witnessed in Charlotte. Mick, we’ll go ahead and let you give your take on what happened to Virginia.

Mick McDonald: Do I have to? I haven’t had the stomach to go back and watch it, and frankly, most of the game feels like a haze. Sort of like a bad dream you try to forget. That said, it was a collection of things, all of which were a worst case scenario for Virginia. Early foul trouble for Devon Hall and Isaiah Wilkins, plus Tony Bennett’s refusal to play Marco Anthony, meant they had to play the same five guys (including Nigel Johnson and Jack Salt, who aren’t scorers) most of the first half. Secondly, their jump shots weren’t falling. Third, UMBC hung around long enough to get their confidence up. All of that still led to a halftime tie. Most Virginia fans were having Coastal Carolina flashbacks to 2014, still thinking they’d put it together. When the first play of the second half was an and-one to give Wilkins his third foul, things felt different. Then UMBC couldn’t miss, Virginia lost its composure and it was over. And yes, not having DeAndre Hunter hurt. But it was by no means the lone reason they lost.

Matt Auerbach: Obviously we’ve been beaten to death with every talking head, captain obvious rationale: Virginia isn’t built to play from behind; its style lends itself to keeping inferior teams in the game; and so on. But the truth remains that this tournament is a one-and-done scenario, and for that reason, remains random at its core. If they play 10 times, the Cavaliers win the other nine with a few of those games by 30-plus points. There’s no reason to attempt to explain it. It’s one of the reasons we love this event so much, unless, as in this case, you’re on the Virginia end.

Mick McDonald: Well said, Matt. Pat Forde, a columnist I usually respect and enjoy, published a column hours after the game calling the entire Virginia/Tony Bennett program fraudulent. That’s insane (and certainly trolling clickbait, but that’s another discussion). Bennett will keep winning and will eventually get to a Final Four. Just like every other great coach who “couldn’t win in March” before him.

Matt Auerbach: That article was written about Mike Krzyzewski 30 years ago, and was written about Jim Boeheim and his zone for a long time too. The antithesis was said about Tom Izzo; how’s that been working out?

Mick McDonald: People just have such a hard time accepting that events can be random and not need some massive underlying reason why they happened. This event breeds wild one-time results.

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Rushed Reactions: #7 Texas A&M 86, #2 North Carolina 65

Posted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on March 18th, 2018

RTC will be providing coverage of the NCAA Tournament from start to finish. Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) is in Charlotte this weekend.

Three Key Takeaways.

Tyler Davis and Texas A&M pulled off another shocker in Charlotte by taking down #2 North Carolina.
(Bob Donnan/USA TODAY Sports)

  1. This game suddenly turned halfway through the first half. North Carolina looked like it was rolling when it led by seven points after almost nine minutes of play, but then a series of events occurred that changed the course of the game. Tyler Davis began to assert himself in the paint — he logged 13 points and seven rebounds before intermission — Luke Maye went to the bench with two fouls, and North Carolina went ice cold from the field. The result was a 19-2 run that gave Texas A&M an insurmountable 14-point edge at the break. It was only more of the same in the second half. The Tar Heels kept missing jump shots — they finished a dismal 6-of-31  from three-point range — and the Aggies cruised to a surprisingly easy victory.
  2. The Texas A&M size and length bothered the Tar Heels. Not only did North Carolina struggle to score from distance, the Heels were not able to get much going with their bread and butter in the paint either. The imposing frontline of Texas A&M — led by Davis and Robert Williams — blocked eight shots (seven in the second half) and held North Carolina to 42.6 percent shooting on two-pointers. Additionally, the Aggies did a great job in keeping North Carolina off the glass. For the season, the Tar Heels have grabbed 38.2 percent of their misses (third nationally), but today they only managed to claim nine offensive boards for a very low rate of 17.3 percent.
  3. Once again TJ Starks shined against a senior point guard. After playing well on Friday against Providence’s Kyron Cartwright, the freshman Starks more than held his own against Joel Berry tonight. Starks scored 21 points and handed out five assists while also forcing Berry into a subpar shooting night (7-of-17 FG). What was supposed to be a weakness for Billy Kennedy’s squad has actually been a strength so far in the NCAA Tournament. For Berry (21 points) and fellow senior Theo Pinson (11 assists), it’s a tough way to close out their brilliant careers. They played in two straight National Championship games — winning one — but this simply wasn’t their night.

Player of the Game. Tyler Davis, Texas A&MIt was Davis’ surge in play in the first half that helped turned the tide of this game. He was instrumental in the Aggies’ domination in the paint, and finished with 18 points (7-of-9 FG), nine boards and three blocks.

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Rushed Reactions: #2 North Carolina 84, #15 Lipscomb 66

Posted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on March 16th, 2018

RTC will be providing coverage of the NCAA Tournament from start to finish. Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) is in Charlotte this weekend.

Three Key Takeaways.

Joel Berry II and North Carolina struggled early but eventually cruised past Lipscomb.
(AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

  1. It took North Carolina awhile to get going but the game ended up like we thought it would. North Carolina did not look good for the first 16 minutes of this game. At that point, Lipscomb led the Tar Heels by two points and had outplayed them by forcing a number of turnovers (eight). But a 12-1 North Carolina run to close out the first half changed the game for good. Lipscomb never seriously threatened to make it a game again as North Carolina methodically pulled away. However, Roy Williams knows North Carolina can’t afford to play so poorly for another half in this NCAA Tournament or that will be the end of their dream of back-to-back National Championships.
  2. The Tar Heels got solid performances from their secondary players. For North Carolina to make it to San Antonio, the Tar Heels’ stars — Joel Berry, Luke Maye and Theo Pinson — must play well, obviously. But Roy Williams will also need major contributions from their supporting cast each game. Today, the Tar Heels got offensive production from Kenny Williams (a game-high 18 points) and Cam Johnson (12 points) as well as encouraging play from their young bigs. Sterling Manley took advantage of his size  to post six points and 10 boards, while fellow freshman Garrison Brooks tallied seven points on 2-of-3 shooting.
  3. Lipscomb acquitted itself well in its first ever NCAA Tournament appearance. The Bisons gave North Carolina all it could handle early, even holding a lead late into the first half. Lipscomb hurt the Tar Heels from three-point range, sinking four of its first eight attempts, but after that initial burst from deep, the Bisons missed their last nine tries of the first half. The smaller Lipscomb competed well on the boards too, holding the taller Tar Heels to just three offensive rebounds in the first half. In the end, North Carolina’s talent was just too much, however, for the Bisons.

Player of the Game. Theo Pinson, North CarolinaAs usual, Pinson did some of everything, scoring 15 points, snatching 10 rebounds, dishing seven assists and recording a block and a steal.

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Rushed Reactions: Virginia 71, North Carolina 63

Posted by Matt Auerbach on March 10th, 2018

RTC’s Matt Auerbach (@mauerbach24) is providing on-site coverage of the ACC Tournament this weekend.

Three Key Takeaways.

Virginia Won Its Third ACC Championship in Five Years Tonight (USA Today Images)

  1. Crown them. Despite being picked a middling sixth in the ACC preseason poll, Virginia pulled off the season sweep by comfortably cruising to the regular season title and backing it up with an impressive three-day run to capture the school’s third ACC Tournament crown. Detractors may still remain given the Cavaliers’ methodical style of play, but given the sheer dominance in which Virginia has owned a league filled with Hall of Fame coaches and NBA Draft choices, omitting Tony Bennett‘s group from your short list of national title contenders in San Antonio would be complete folly.
  2. Luke Maye and Kenny Williams kept the Tar Heels afloat. After Cameron Johnson and Joel Berry II opened the scoring column for North Carolina, nary a Heel other than Luke Maye or Kenny Williams made a field goal from the 18:07 mark in the first half until the 17:41 mark of the second half. Without the duo’s combined 23 of the team’s 30 points in the first, Virginia could have very easily run North Carolina right out of the building instead of only leading by four at the intermission.
  3. Kyle Guy is an unabashed shot taker and maker. Guy, Virginia’s leading scorer and most frequent shooter by a wide margin (117 more attempts than Ty Jerome coming into tonight) seized control on many of the important possessions in the second half. When the Virginia lead had been whittled down to just a bucket with 10 minutes left to play, Guy responded with a jumper to stretch the lead to four. And with North Carolina still within three points at the eight-minute mark, Guy knocked down a pull-up, and scored on a set play off a double screen on the following possession to push the spread to seven. While Virginia is a team in every sense of the word, Guy is the player who has the stones to hunt and convert critical buckets when such things are necessary.

Star of the Game: Kyle Guy, Virginia. Despite another evening of exceptional floor games from Ty Jerome (12 points, six assists, six rebounds) and Devon Hall (15 points, five rebounds, four assists), Guy’s willingness to take and make the biggest shots of the night ultimately earned him the tournament MVP. With a team-high 16 points, Guy has now reached double figures in 27 of Virginia’s 33 games this year.

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Rushed Reactions: North Carolina 74, Duke 69

Posted by Matt Auerbach on March 9th, 2018

RTC’s Matt Auerbach (@mauerbach24) is providing on-site coverage of the ACC Tournament this weekend.

Three Key Takeaways.

It Wouldn’t Be a UNC-Duke Game Without Some Controversy (USA Today Images)

  1. Sweet Revenge. In winning this season’s rubber match in convincing fashion, North Carolina also exacted some revenge for a semifinal loss one year ago to its archrival. Coincidentally, that was also the last game the Tar Heels dropped in 2017 on its way to the school’s sixth National Championship. And while not many pundits expected this year’s version of the Tar Heels to make a third consecutive trip to the Final Four, you’d have to be crazy to dismiss their prospects at this juncture. Senior point guard Joel Berry II (13 points, six assists, three steals) is playing with the swagger of a reigning Final Four MOP — continuing a career that in many ways is synonymous this type of season. Versatile classmate Theo Pinson (eight points, seven assists and three steals while defending Marvin Bagley for most of the night) is playing unquestionably the best basketball of his career, while All-ACC forward Luke Maye (17 points, 10 rebounds) continues a remarkably productive junior campaign. Head coach Roy Williams, in perhaps the best coaching job of his illustrious career, has his team humming once again at just the right time. Sharing the ball, trusting in teammates and giving maximum effort on both ends, this team is a far cry from the same group that lost to Wofford at home three months ago, and a very legitimate threat to repeat as national champions a few weeks from now in San Antonio.
  2. Duke played young. While it’s presumed as a matter of fact that Duke is the most talented team in the country, it is undeniably also true that its elite talent is also very green. Despite a late charge to cut the lead to just three points inside the final minute, the preceding eight-minute stretch had been dominated by North Carolina, ultimately proving to be the difference in the game. Loose balls, 18 offensive boards from the Heels and countless hustle plays all tilted the momentum in North Carolina’s favor. Visibly frustrated, Duke dug itself a hole too deep to emerge from. That is something to keep an eye on heading into the NCAA Tournament. In a knockout scenario, a few lost precious moments of focus can lead to a team’s ouster, as Duke learned a year ago at the hands of South Carolina.
  3. Getting Defensive. While raggedy, the first half illuminated the improvement of both teams on the defensive end. The second- and fifth-ranked offenses in terms of efficiency both struggled mightily in the first 20 minutes, and their opposition had a lot to do with it. While Duke’s shift to becoming an exclusively zone team has garnered all the recent headlines, the Heels have also made great strides in getting stops. Duke shot just 36 percent from the floor in the first half, turning it over 10 times, while the Heels weren’t much better, connecting on 37 percent from the field with six miscues. No one questions whether these teams have the offensive chops to make a run at the Final Four, but becoming more balanced on both ends of the floor will serve both well when they inevitably endure an offensive dry spell.

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