The RTC Interview Series: One on One With Grant Hill

Posted by Chris Stone on April 4th, 2016

RTC interviews one on one

Tonight’s National Championship game between North Carolina and Villanova will be televised on TBS, the first time in the event’s 78-year existence that the it will air on cable. Ahead of the finale to March Madness, Rush the Court got a chance to speak with Turner Sports analyst Grant Hill, one of the game’s announcing crew along with Jim Nantz, Bill Raftery and Tracy Wolfson. Hill is a two-time NCAA champion, a three-time Final Four participant and an 18-year NBA veteran. We spoke with the basketball icon about what it means to call this event, his experience playing in the Final Four, and the matchup between the Tar Heels and the Wildcats. This interview has been edited for clarity. 

Rush the Court: You played in three title games while you were at Duke (1991, 1992, 1994) and now you’re calling the first title game to ever air on TBS. I’m curious what that’s like for you and in a broader sense what it’s like for the network.

Grant Hill: For me, it’s great. I’ve really loved everything about the tournament from the time I was nine years old. I still recall the first Final Four I ever watched, which really sparked a love of the game of basketball and a desire to want to play it back in 1982 when North Carolina beat Georgetown. Then to be fortunate enough play in three Final Fours, three championships, and then now to come full circle and be able to broadcast it, it’s just a tremendous honor and privilege. For us, this is history in the making. The first time a cable network broadcast the NCAA Tournament final. I’ve been exposed to it for the last three years in a couple of different roles, but it’s been great and I’ve enjoyed the combination of both networks’ resources in putting these games on, culminating with this weekend’s Final Four on TBS. It’s exciting and I’m really looking forward to tomorrow night.

Grant Hill played in three Final Fours while at Duke. (Credit: Duke Sports Information)

Grant Hill played in three Final Fours while at Duke. (Credit: Duke Sports Information)

RTC: We have a Final Four with a lot of upperclassmen playing in it. How did your experience at the Final Four change from when you were a freshman to when you were a senior? What was that transition like?

Hill: I think I played important roles in both Final Fours, from freshman year to senior year. My freshman year, I was a young pup. I was a neophyte. It was my first experience and I really leaned on the leadership of our coach, but also our upperclassmen. They had a responsibility as leaders to lead, for lack of a better word. Then, I had that same role my senior year. Part of that is it’s not just what you do in the game, but it’s what you do prior to the game, preparation during the weekend, during the Final Four. It’s what you do throughout the season. It’s what you do in the offseason prior to that year. Everything is about living up to the championship standard and that responsibility is really on your shoulders as captains, as seniors, as guys who’ve been through it, good and bad. It’s upon you to help create an environment that is conducive to winning. It was something that we lived with every day and you did everything you could. From the time that we assembled as a team in the summer prior to school starting, everything as a leader is about getting yourself ready for this stage and so understanding that, you only get that from experience. You only get that from success and failures and it’s hard as a freshman to be able to know what that’s about. As much as I watched it, as much as I was able to go to a couple Final Fours as a fan in the 80s, not until you’re in it and not until you get a taste of it do you really understand what exactly it’s all about. So, experience, you can’t teach that and we’re seeing that here. We’ve seen it throughout the season. That’s been the theme of college basketball. You look at both teams. They’re senior-led.

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Rushed Reactions: #2 Villanova 95, #2 Oklahoma 51

Posted by nvr1983 on April 2nd, 2016

RTC is providing wall-to-wall coverage of the NCAA Tournament again this season. Make sure to follow us @rushthecourt throughout Final Four weekend. 

Three Key Takeaways:

Villanova Put Together the Most Dominant Final Four Victory in History (USA Today Images)

Villanova Put Together the Most Dominant Final Four Victory in History (USA Today Images)

  1. This wasn’t going to be a repeat of the December 7 blowout. Any reasonable observer knew not to take too much from Oklahoma’s 23-point win in Pearl Harbor. In that game, Villanova shot an atrocious 4-of-32 from three in a performance that was so bad that even Kobe Bryant would have told them to stop shooting. Tonight they put on a performance that would have made Steph Curry blush. They went 35-0f-49 from the field (71.4%) including 11-of-18 from three (61.1%) while Oklahoma could only muster 19-of-60 (31.7%) and 6-of-27 from three (22.2%). All those numbers led to a record margin of victory in the Final Four (44 points) and the biggest difference in a rematch outcome this millennium (67 points).
  2. Tonight was not Buddy Hield’s night. The RTC NPOY shot only 4-of-12 including 1-of-8 from three-point range for nine quiet points along with just two assists (to his credit he did have seven rebounds). People will point to the dome effect in Houston as a factor, but it’s hard to use that as a crutch when Villanova shot the lights out in the same environment. In the end, this is just what sometimes happens in a single-elimination tournament. Even the best players have bad nights. Unfortunately for Hield, none of the other Sooners stepped up to counter the Wildcats’ performance for the ages. This game shouldn’t (and hopefully doesn’t) diminish what Hield has accomplished in his four years in Norman, nor should it lead to a conversation about the limits of his NBA future. Just take some time to appreciate what he has done for the Oklahoma program and how he conducted himself both on and off the court.
  3. Villanova was relentless. The tenor of the game was a bit unusual. Oklahoma only led for 3:42 with their biggest lead coming just 23 seconds into the game on Hield’s only made three-pointer of the night. After that, it was a series of runs by Villanova that put the game out of reach. The runs weren’t what you saw in some other historic Final Four blowouts like UNLV’s 30-point victory over Duke in 1990; rather, the Wildcats were more methodical in their dismantling of Oklahoma. In the end, Villanova crushed Oklahoma’s spirit, which is not something we expected from such a senior-laden squad.

Star of the Game. Josh Hart. Much like the rest of the Wildcats, Hart was ruthlessly efficient scoring 23 points on 10 of 12 shooting and adding 8 rebounds, 4 assists, and 2 steals with no turnovers. Hart is Villanova’s star, but was widely overlooked this season when the postseason awards and honors were handed out. Now he may get the last word.

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Final Four Previews: Oklahoma/Villanova Will Win If…

Posted by Brian Goodman & Tommy Lemoine on April 1st, 2016

We’re a little more than 24 hours from the Final Four, so it’s time to break down the upcoming games by determining what it will take for each team to win. Let’s start with the early battle between Oklahoma and Villanova, tipping off at 6:09 PM ET on Saturday evening. RTC’s Brian Goodman (Oklahoma) and Tommy Lemoine (Villanova) with the honors.

Oklahoma Will Win If…

Buddy Hield and the Sooners look to reverse the trend of poor shooting at the spacious NRG Stadium. (Getty Images)

Buddy Hield and the Sooners look to reverse the trend of poor-shooting teams at spacious NRG Stadium. (Getty Images)

  • It overcomes NRG Stadium’s reputation as a challenging shooting environment. Though the sample size isn’t overwhelming, teams have historically shot below their averages in the expansive confines of this year’s Final Four venue (as detailed last year by Ken Pomeroy and expanded upon earlier this week by Yahoo!‘s Jeff Eisenberg). The Sooners and Wildcats are notoriously reliant on jump-shooting, but what you may not know is just how eerily similar the two teams are in this fashion. Per hoop-math.com, 67.4 percent of Villanova’s field goal attempts this season have come away from the rim, and Oklahoma is just below the Wildcats in that category at 67.2 percent. Though it’s hardly earth-shattering, sometimes these things are simple: Whichever team solves the puzzle of performing well in spite of a tougher shooting environment will prevail, and with three Sooner regulars connecting from long range at rates of 42 percent or better, Oklahoma should have the slight edge.
  • It wins the battle of the interior. Should both teams struggle to find the range at NRG Stadium, inside play will become much more important to the outcome, and Oklahoma will have to answer some questions there. Ryan Spangler logged 10 points and eight rebounds against Texas A&M, but he hasn’t had a very good NCAA Tournament otherwise. The same can be said for rim-protector Khadeem Lattin, who went for 10 points and a pair of blocks against the Aggies, but has blocked just four shots in the Sooners’ other three tourney games. Though he’s technically a guard, freshman Christian James, a Houston native who emerged with a pair of quality outings in Anaheim, may be called upon to help inside as the Sooners look to best Daniel Ochefu and Kris Jenkins.

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2015-16 RTC National Coach of the Year: Jay Wright

Posted by Walker Carey on April 1st, 2016

The 2015-16 RTC National Coach of the Year Jay Wright has been a winner throughout his 15-year tenure at Villanova. He has led the Wildcats to 11 of the last 12 NCAA Tournaments and the program has taken home four Big East titles under his guidance. Even with all that winning and a Final Four appearance in 2009, the veteran coach has received some criticism in recent years because of several early NCAA Tournament exits. In 2014, Villanova entered the NCAA Tournament with a 28-4 record and was viewed as a dangerous #2 seed. That buzz fizzled out quickly, though, as the Wildcats were sent packing by eventual national champion Connecticut in the Round of 32. The next year it appeared Villanova was in even better shape to make a deep run. Wright’s group compiled a sterling 32-2 regular season that included a 15-game winning streak heading into the NCAAs. That did not matter much, though, as the Wildcats were once again bounced in the Round of 32 — this time at the hands of streaky NC State. With a mostly veteran squad returning this season, Villanova looked once again ready to combine a strong regular season with deep advancement into the NCAA Tournament.

Jay Wright is the 2015-16 RTC Coach of the Year  (AP)

Jay Wright is the 2015-16 RTC Coach of the Year (AP)

Villanova completed its first mission with relative ease, taking home another Big East regular season title and entering the NCAA Tournament with a 29-5 record as a #2 seed. Wright’s Wildcats easily exorcised their first weekend demons two weeks ago in Brooklyn by routing #15 seed UNC-Asheville and #7 seed Iowa. Even with those two impressive wins, pundits still doubted the team’s legitimacy heading into its Sweet Sixteen game with #3 seed Miami (FL). Villanova easily proved those doubters wrong, as it blew the Hurricanes off the floor en route to a 92-69 victory. But even that rousing victory did the Wildcats no favors with their critics. An Elite Eight victory against overall #1 seed Kansas appeared unlikely, but Wright’s veteran squad took the challenge and battled forward to a 64-59 victory. The regional-clinching win sent the Villanova program back to the Final Four for the first time since 2009.

The Wildcats will face a difficult test on Saturday when it faces Oklahoma and NPOY candidate Buddy Hield. The Oklahoma guard is a dynamic scorer with a proven ability to take over a game every time he takes the floor. Villanova is going to have to play a sound defensive game to contain Hield and emerge with the victory. Luckily for Villanova fans, Wright has shown a steady touch with this group all season long and you better believe it will be ready for the challenge. Our RTC National Coach of the Year will know what buttons to push and put his team in a position to win if it executes reasonably well. It is only the latest version of what he has been doing since he began patrolling the sideline at Villanova all those many years ago.

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The RTC Interview Series: One on One With Ernie Johnson

Posted by Chris Stone on March 30th, 2016

RTC interviews one on one

Turner Sports‘ Ernie Johnson is perhaps best known for his role mediating the rambunctious crew on TNT’s Inside the NBA, but this weekend he will host TBS’s coverage of the NCAA Tournament’s Final Four and National Championship. With the event just days away, we had an opportunity to sit down with Johnson to discuss the NCAA Tournament’s first championship on cable, the differences between preparing for the NBA and March Madness, and what advice he has for sports media hopefuls.

Rush the Court: As a longtime employee and icon for Turner, can you give us your thoughts on what it means to have this level of coverage for such a huge event in the college basketball world?

Ernie Johnson: Well, first of all, let’s go with longtime employee and you can hold off on the icon. It means a lot to all of us. It really does. I’ve been there since 1989. I’ve seen this company grow in ways we never thought and then have properties that I didn’t know we’d be covering. We were all excited when we signed the deal with CBS to team up on this for a long time and we knew somewhere down the road this would happen, but now that it’s here, it is very special. It’s certainly a point of pride for all of us that when you want to watch the games Saturday and on Monday night, you’ll be watching it on TBS. Turner’s got the championship game in the NCAA Tournament. We are pumped about that.

ernie johnson 1

Ernie Johnson will host studio coverage of the NCAA Tournament’s Final Four this weekend. (Credit: CSE)

Rush the Court: You also have the Team Streams as well, right?

Johnson: Yeah. They’re going to have the homer broadcasts, for lack of a better word. My hope is that everybody gets that stream, but I know that not everybody will because somebody will think, “OK, let’s watch the game on TNT,” and expect to hear Jim Nantz and Grant Hill and Bill Raftery and Tracy Wolfson on there and they’re going to get somebody that yells and they’re going to be cheering like mad for Villanova and they’re from Oklahoma and they’re ticked. It happened last year, too. We had people on social media going nuts saying, “What are these guys doing? Why don’t they just wave their pom-poms?” Hey, you’re watching the wrong channel. So really, right down the middle, the standard broadcast, TBS. If you’re anywhere but TBS and you’re watching the game, you’re going to hear some cheerleading.

Rush the Court: As we head into the Final Four, we’ve had a couple of weeks to get used to March Madness, so we were curious what storylines you are most interested in now that we’re down to just four teams.

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Final Four Fact Sheet: Villanova Wildcats

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 28th, 2016

Now that the Final Four is set, our writers have put together a fact sheet on each of the four teams still remaining. First, Villanova. 

Villanova hopes to do more celebrating in Houston. (Timothy D. Easley/AP)

Villanova hopes to do more celebrating in Houston. (Timothy D. Easley/AP)

How the Wildcats Got Here

South Region Champions. Villanova handled #15 seed UNC Asheville in its NCAA Tournament opener before crushing #7 seed Iowa in the round of 32. The Wildcats then headed to Louisville, where they posted 1.56 points per possession – the most efficient performance in college basketball all season long – en route to a 23-point drubbing of #3 seed Miami. Two nights later, the Big East champs came up with the necessary late-game stops to grind out a victory against #1 seed Kansas and clinch its first Final Four appearance since 2009.

The Coach

Jay Wright. Before Wright took over for Steve Lappas in 2001, the Wildcats had not reached the Sweet Sixteen since 1987-88. In the 15 years since, Villanova has made five second weekend appearances, including Final Four trips this year and in 2009. The 54-year-old coach, known for his cool demeanor and sharply tailored suits, has elevated the program to even greater heights in recent seasons, posting a 95-13 record since 2013 and earning a #1 or #2 seed in the NCAA Tournament three years in a row. With another Final Four now under his belt, Wright should now be considered among the finest regular season and tournament coaches in college basketball.

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Rushed Reactions: #2 Villanova 64, #1 Kansas 59

Posted by Will Tucker on March 26th, 2016

Rush the Court will be providing wall-to-wall coverage of each of the NCAA Tournament from each of the 13 sites this year. Follow our NCAA Tourney specific Twitter accounts at @RTCEastregion, @RTCMWregion,@RTCSouthregion and @RTCWestregion.

Three Key Takeaways.

And With This Steal, Villanova Was Off to the Final Four (USA Today Images)

And With This Steal, Villanova Was Off to the Final Four (USA Today Images)

  1. Perry Ellis peaked too early in the week. Two days after delivering a memorable 27-point performance that had Bill Self philosophizing about his legacy, Ellis was frustrated all night by the defense of Villanova’s Kris Jenkins, Daniel Ochefu, and Mikal Bridges. He went into halftime scoreless with four turnovers, and remained quiet in the second half even after Jenkins went to the bench with four fouls around the 14-minute mark. After the game he conceded that Villanova did a good job trying to “swarm” him in the paint, but equally costly were a few missed boxouts on the defensive end that led to Villanova baskets. Ellis finished with as many turnovers as points – four – but it didn’t diminish from his accomplishments this season or his decorated career as a Jayhawk.
  2. The South Regional finally delivered a close game. Thursday night’s winners romped to victory by a combined 39 points after taking control in the second half. Tonight finally flipped the script with a neck-and-neck nailbiter that came down to free throws and late-game dramatics after Kansas and Villanova exchanges leads five times. It was a welcome reprieve from the Sweet Sixteen, and likely reassured many fans that their trip to Kentucky was money well spent.
  3. Shoot ‘em up, sleep in the streets (and don’t forget a blanket). It’s getting down to 45 degrees tonight in Louisville, and you might find a few guards from both of these squads seeking shelter under the Second Street Bridge after their teams shot a combined 10-of-40 (25 percent) from beyond the arc for the game. What made the difference was Villanova’s ability to score in different ways: The Wildcats hit 18-of-19 free throws and held a 13-to-6 advantage in points off turnovers. The three-point shooting prowess Kansas demonstrated all season had eluded them during the NCAA Tournament — a concern we noted on Thursday — and that finally came back to bite them when it mattered most.

Star of the Game. Villanova forward Kris Jenkins did a tremendous job shutting down Perry Ellis in the first half and leading the way offensively while Ryan Arcidiacono got it going. He finished with 13 points, four rebounds and three assists, and although foul trouble limited his effectiveness in the second half, his early impact and perfect free throw shooting was enough to earn the Most Outstanding Player award for the South Regional.

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Rushed Reactions: #2 Villanova 92, #3 Miami 69

Posted by Will Tucker on March 24th, 2016

Rush the Court will be providing wall-to-wall coverage of each of the NCAA Tournament from each of the 13 sites this year. Follow our NCAA Tourney specific Twitter accounts at @RTCEastregion, @RTCMWregion,@RTCSouthregion and @RTCWestregion.

Ryan Arcidiacono and Villanova had it going tonight. The Wildcats are headed to the Elite Eight. (Photo: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports)

Ryan Arcidiacono and Villanova had it going tonight — the Wildcats are headed to the Elite Eight. (Photo: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports)

Three key takeaways:

  1. Villanova’s blistering three-point shooting continued to carry them. Ryan Arcidiacono drilled a three less than two minutes into the game, Jalen Brunson sank another a minute later, and it was off to the races. Nova shot a mind-boggling 10 of 15 from beyond the arc for the game (75%), and Miami coach Jim Larrañaga was absolutely right when he said afterwards that it felt like they shot 30 of them. What came as a surprise was the fact that Miami kept pace, hitting 10 of 17, themselves. But the outcome remained the same for the hot-shooting Wildcats.
  2. Once deprived of free throws, Miami’s offense suffocated. The Canes entered the Sweet Sixteen having made 42 free throws through two games — more than their opponents had attempted. But against a stifling and densely packed zone defense that Villanova coach Jay Wright switched to early on, Miami struggled to get to the rim and consequently struggled to get to the free throw line. Villanova flipped the script tonight, hitting 18 of 19 free-throw attempts while the Canes only made nine of their 13 chances at the stripe.
  3. Daniel Ochefu proved he can shoulder the load down low while his guards fire away from deep. Miami began doubling Ochefu after he scored inside with ease on back-to-back possessions in the first half, but seemed to later abandon that strategy to avoid a blowout courtesy of three-point land. It was an encouraging sign against Miami’s physical interior, and perhaps a warm-up for an even bigger test against the Kansas frontcourt.

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Why Villanova’s Offense Is So Lethal

Posted by Justin Kundrat on March 22nd, 2016

Let’s clear the air about something: Villanova is not a three-point reliant team in the traditional sense. A few rare instances aside, this is not a unit that will simply fire shots from the perimeter because three points is worth more than two. There is a logic behind its strategy, one that insists that Jay Wright‘s group is much more balanced than people think. The threes taken are seldom contested, a product of Villanova’s mechanical drive-and-dish offense that forces opponents to make a decision between preventing a layup or a three. And his personnel fits the system perfectly: Josh Hart is an incredibly effective finisher off the dribble; Daniel Ochefu is a deceivingly smart passer out of the low post; and Kris JenkinsRyan Arcidiacono and others are all strong shooters who force defenders to stay honest. There’s a reason Villanova is one of the most effective teams in the country at the rim (68.7%; 12th nationally) despite having only one player standing 6’8″ or taller. The four-out, one-in offense perfected by the NBA champion Golden State Warriors has allowed Villanova to become a lethal offensive group. Let’s take a look at how they run it.

First and foremost are a series of high-screens that puts pressure on opposing big men. Playing off the ball to defend the screener leaves the ball-handler with an open look, certain to be the wrong decision when defending a team full of shooters.

 

Hedging hard, however, forces a third defender to pick up the screener and leaves a different player open. Given how well Villanova spreads the floor, the decision by a defense to hedge is a gamble that the tertiary defender will be quick enough to recover to the perimeter.

 

Post play is also an important part of Villanova’s offense. For all of the talk about the guards, Ochefu and Darryl Reynolds convert field goals at rates in the 60 percent range, and both use a variety of post moves to score. This low-post effectiveness calls for another forced defensive decision: double-down on the post or sacrifice a high percentage shot.

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NCAA Regional Reset: South Region

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 21st, 2016

Rush the Court will be providing wall-to-wall coverage of each of the NCAA Tournament from each of the 13 sites this year. Follow our NCAA Tourney specific Twitter accounts at @RTCEastregion, @RTCMWregion,@RTCSouthregion and @RTCWestregion.

New Favorite: #1 Kansas (32-4). Meet the new favorite, same as the old favorite. Kansas did nothing over the weekend to diminish its stature as the #1 overall seed and clear Final Four favorite out of the South Region, dropping 105 points on Austin Peay on Thursday before handing Kevin Ollie his first NCAA Tournament loss two days later. In that contest, a 73-61 victory over #9 seed Connecticut, the final margin didn’t even do the Jayhawks justice; Bill Self’s bunch led by 20 points at the half and limited the Huskies to just 27.5 percent two-point shooting for the game. The defense has been sharp, focus doesn’t seem to be an issue and Perry Ellis is playing Most Outstanding Player-level basketball (21.0 PPG, 15-of-21 FG). Even with Maryland and (possibly) Villanova looming next weekend, it would be silly to consider anyone else as the favorite to reach Houston out of this region.

Wayne Selden and the Jayhawks look better than ever. (Associated Press)

Wayne Selden and the Jayhawks look better than ever. (Associated Press)

Horse of Darkness: #3 Miami (27-7). Can we really designate a #3 seed as a dark horse? In this case, yes – the Hurricanes were actually underdogs against #11 seed Wichita State on Saturday, and their hopes seemed grim after coughing away a big first half lead. But Miami (FL), led by point guard Angel Rodriguez, came up with enough big shots to hold off the MVC champs, and now stands just two wins away from its first Final Four appearance in program history. Despite finishing tied for second in the ACC this season, Jim Larranaga’s experienced group was not the subject of much pre-NCAA Tournament chatter. That will change if the Hurricanes take down Villanova on Thursday.

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