One on One: An ACC Preview With Bret Strelow

Posted by Walker Carey on November 5th, 2014

RTC interviews one on one

Rush the Court is back with another edition of One on One: An Interview Series, which we will bring you throughout the preseason with previews of each of the major conferences.

With the college basketball season nearly upon us, we thought it would be a good idea to gather some expert opinions on the nation’s major college basketball conferences. As part of our national preview with the ACC, RTC correspondent Walker Carey (@walkerRcarey) recently had the pleasure of speaking with an ACC expert in Bret Strelow (@bretstrelow), the ACC basketball reporter for The Fayetteville Observer.

Rush the Court: Duke was an extremely talented unit last season, but it was ultimately done in by its defensive deficiencies in its stunning NCAA Tournament loss to Mercer. The Blue Devils once again have a talented roster and are widely projected to win the league. Will this season be any different than last when it comes to the defensive end of the floor?

Bret Strelow: It would be hard to get much worse. The Blue Devils ranked in the 100s in defensive efficiency, which is a far cry from what a Mike Krzyzewski-coached team usually is. With Jabari Parker, defense was not his calling card. Rodney Hood took on some tough assignments and struggled at times. The current thought around the Duke camp is that Jahlil Okafor at 6’11” and 270 pounds is a legitimate rim-protector. Duke can clean up some of its mistakes and pressure the ball a little bit more with Okafor back there. I think Duke should ultimately be a better defensive team, but we will see how much of a difference that will make.

Marcus Paige could be NPOY This Sesason. (credit: Ethan Hyman / Raleigh News & Observer)

Marcus Paige could be NPOY This Sesason. (credit: Ethan Hyman / Raleigh News & Observer)

RTC: Marcus Paige alone can probably keep North Carolina competitive in the ACC, but if the Tar Heels want to compete for the league crown, they are going to need a supporting cast to step forward. What Tar Heels can you see breaking out this season?

Strelow: It really might be a little bit of everybody. If Marcus Paige has to carry the load like he did for much of last season, North Carolina is probably not going to reach the goal that it has of contending for a Final Four and a national title. I think you can expect a little bit from everybody. Brice Johnson was extremely efficient last season in a secondary role behind James Michael McAdoo. If Johnson can stay out of foul trouble and guard well enough, I think his offense will be there. Kennedy Meeks has slimmed down. His offense has never been a problem. With Johnson and Meeks, you have two solid front line guys. When you look at the North Carolina freshmen class, Justin Jackson is a guy who has the uncanny ability to score. He has a way of scoring quickly and scoring in a way that does not require a lot of dribbles. I think he can really have a big year. He is probably more of an offensive threat than fellow freshmen Theo Pinson and Joel Berry II. I think outside shooting might still be an issue for North Carolina outside of Paige and if Jackson can hit a few. When you look at a guy like J.P. Tokoto, outside shooting is not his game. I think the Tar Heels have enough inside and with Jackson coming along, they are going to have enough to help Paige carry the load this season.

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15 Takeaways From ACC Operation Basketball

Posted by Lathan Wells on October 29th, 2014

The ACC’s Operation Basketball on Wednesday experienced the prevailing theme of putting last season in the rearview mirror and starting anew. This included the teams with successful campaigns just as much as those who had disappointing ones. It was clear after speaking with and listening to players and coaches that everyone is eager to make the 2014-15 ACC a more powerful entity than its predecessor of a year ago. Here are some takes on each team, in no particular order, gleaned from the Westin in Charlotte.

Duke: Much of the discussion centered on the Blue Devils’ newcomers, especially Jahlil Okafor and Tyus Jones. Both Quinn Cook and Amile Jefferson were quick to point out that no rotation is set and that there is a ton of competition and talent in practice. Cook said as much when asked about practice: ” Yeah, we don’t have a starting lineup yet.  Different guys, we have like a white and blue team; different guys are put on the white team, different guys are put on the blue team.  So we’ll know soon, but whatever coach wants us to do, I think everybody will buy in because he obviously knows what he’s doing.  We all have to buy in and just put personal sacrifices aside.”

ACC Op BB

Wake Forest: Even when discussing their new coach, it was easy to tell that the Demon Deacons’ players still see him as a former National Player of the Year who enjoyed a long professional career. Manning, however, spoke mostly about his expectations for the team, which he put simply as “win every game.” The Demon Deacons, coming off the uninspiring Jeff Bzdelik era, better not spend their time in awe of their new coach, as they have a lot of ground to make up in order to compete in the ACC.

Miami: Transfers Sheldan McClellan and Angel Rodriguez representing the Hurricanes at this event was emblematic of a new Miami team that has put last year’s lackluster season behind it. Reverence for Jim Larranaga’s paternal style was obvious in listening to the two players discuss their coach. Larranaga immediately referenced them in his comments as well, showing that while the Hurricanes return some holdovers from last year, they will go as far as his two Big 12 transfers take them.

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ACC M5: Operation Basketball Edition

Posted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on October 29th, 2014

morning5_ACC

  1. TheACC.com: Coaches and players from all 15 ACC schools will meet the media in Charlotte for a full day of ACC Operation Basketball, and our own RTC ACC microsite correspondent Lathan Wells will be on hand to take in the entire proceedings. It’s sure to be an eventful day with so many developing stories heading into the season. We have a loaded Louisville team led by legendary coach Rick Pitino joining the league; the nation’s top recruiting class arriving at Duke; a strong defending champ returning many key pieces at Virginia; and, of course, the big-time off the court issues. It will be interesting to hear Commissioner John Swofford’s commentary about the academic scandal at his alma mater North Carolina, as well as the ongoing NCAA investigation into Syracuse’s program. Follow Lathan @rtcACC for frequent live reports throughout the day.
  2. ESPN: Virginia hopes to be more than a one-hit wonder after sweeping both the ACC regular season and tournament titles last season. This ESPN.com article reveals a Tony Bennett who is focused on not letting last year’s success create too big a sense of accomplishment, and with good reason — Virginia became only the fourth school not named Duke or North Carolina to win the ACC Tournament in the last 18 years. In each of the other three instances — which includes Miami and Florida State from the previous two seasons as well as the 2004 Maryland squad — the subsequent year did not include a winning conference record. That shouldn’t happen this year, though, with the Cavaliers returning a solid nucleus.
  3. Notre Dame Media: This is a really neat video that features Mike Brey and his recent foray in a US Navy Blue Angels fighter jet. Fighting Irish Digital Media along with the Blue Angels take you right into the seat with the Notre Dame coach in what he called a “trip of a lifetime, and an honor.” Perhaps all the abrupt twists and turns will prepare Brey for a better second go-round in the ACC, where up and down seasons can come easily.
  4. Andy Katz: In a recent 3-Point Shot segment, ESPN‘s Andy Katz talks about a couple of ACC topics. First of all, he reviews comments from Georgia Tech coach Brian Gregory concerning some of the newcomers that he will need to come through in a big way. Many think that this could be Gregory’s last season in Atlanta if he doesn’t produce an NCAA Tournament team. Katz also brings up an interesting possible fallout issue from the North Carolina scandal that has to do with academic performance incentives in college coaches’ contracts. It’s worth a viewing.
  5. TheState.com: New Boston College coach Jim Christian is preaching a fast paced offense, as many coaches do when taking over a listless program that needs an infusion of energy. It remains to be seen if his words translate to reality when the Eagles take the floor this season — and speaking of “floor,” the head coach won’t be the only thing new this year, as the playing court in Conte Forum will have a new look as well.
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What’s on the Mind of the 15 ACC Programs Right Now

Posted by Lathan Wells on October 17th, 2014

With the start of the ACC college basketball season rapidly approaching, allow us to put on our psychoanalyst’s hat to determine what’s on the mind of each of its 15 member programs right now. Some are of the optimistic variety, while others are fearful at what they see lying ahead. All of them, though, are hoping to contribute to discussions lauding the ACC as the nation’s preeminent college basketball conference this year. Let’s jump into each program alphabetically.

  • Boston College: Blind optimism. The reality is that the Eagles, even with an all-ACC caliber star in Olivier Hanlan, are likely one of the three worst teams in the conference. But there’s a new coach around in Jim Christian, and thanks to the usual roster turnover, few remaining pieces to recall the 8-24 debacle of a year ago. Buying in to a new coach and system may not be a problem, but production on the court will continue to be.
  • Clemson: Loss. That loss is a huge one, in the departure of NBA draft pick K.J. McDaniels, who was their best player on both sides of the ball last year and led the team in four statistical categories. A 10-win improvement from the year before earned Brad Brownell a six-year contract extension, but how will this team score enough to win even if it replicates its defensive success of a year ago?
Jim Christian's hopes a clean slate and overhauled roster reverses BC's fortunes (credit: bostonherald.com)

Jim Christian hopes a clean slate and overhauled roster reverses BC’s fortunes (credit: bostonherald.com)

  • Duke: Motivation. Not just because of a stellar recruiting class that includes their first dominant center in some time in Jahlil Okafor and the overall potential to be in the mix for a championship. There’s also the internal motivation for Quinn Cook to keep a hold on the starting point guard role in light of the arrival of stud freshman Tyus Jones, and Rasheed Sulaimon’s motivation to show that an early-season slump last year (temporarily earning him a place in Coach K’s doghouse) was an aberration. Oh, and that first round NCAA Tournament loss to Mercer could light a fire of some sort, too.

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Reviewing Five Notable ACC Offseason Headlines

Posted by Lathan Wells on October 16th, 2014

The 2014-15 ACC college basketball season is roughly a month away, which means Midnight Madnesses, secret scrimmages and overseas exhibitions are either on the near horizon or recently concluded. With Louisville’s replacement of Maryland in the league this year, it should be another dynamic season of ACC basketball. To further elicit excitement for the upcoming year, here are a few of the offseason storylines that bear revisiting as we build up to the start of games in the middle of November.

Coach K dismisses idea that coaching Team USA helps with recruiting

Jim Boeheim and Mike Krzyzewski Teamed Up to Win Another Gold Medal This Summer (Photo: Raleigh News & Observer / Getty Images)

Jim Boeheim and Mike Krzyzewski Teamed Up to Win Another Gold Medal This Summer
(Photo: Raleigh News & Observer / Getty Images)

Yahoo Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski wrote a piece last month suggesting Coach K’s Duke teams benefit heavily from his status as the coach of Team USA, comprised of the best professional players in America. Krzyzewski dismissed this idea, pointing to all the great players he recruited before assuming the mantle of America’s team and citing the measured success he’s had in the college ranks since. His friend, Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim, came to his defense, pointedly remarking that the main dissenter of Krzyzewski’s side gig was Kentucky’s John Calipari. There’s no need to state how humorous a complaint about recruiting that comes from a guy running an NBA combine at his practices happens to be, but this idea is ludicrous to begin with. Duke is going to be good every year because they have a great coach and a program with great tradition, and if Krzyzewski’s coaching the U.S. Men’s National Team also provides him more face time in high school stars’ living rooms? Well, deservedly so.

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Morning Five: 06.04.14 Edition

Posted by nvr1983 on June 4th, 2014

morning5

  1. If you’re a regular reader, even in the offseason, you may have noticed that we have decided to cut back the national M5s a bit during the long summer months. The objective is to get a couple of them published each week, but we might go for three if we’re feeling a little frisky. The biggest news of the last several days in the college basketball universe was the weekend announcement that the settlement between video game maker EA Sports and over 100,000 former and current student-athletes for the unauthorized use of their likenesses was finalized. The settlement calls for $40 million to be divided among a huge number of class action members, but even if the individual payouts will be relatively small (the named plaintiffs would top out in the low five figures, while most would be in the hundreds), the notion that players deserve some sort of recompense for the use of their images is clear. Note that this settlement does not impact the impending lawsuit between Ed O’Bannon and others against the NCAA, set to begin Monday in US District Court in San Francisco, although some of the evidence from this settlement will certainly come to bear in that case as well.
  2. From a coaching comings and goings standpoint, several high-profile names remained in the news over the last several days as NBA teams seek to fill their open positions. Guys like UConn’s Kevin Ollie and Iowa State’s Fred Hoiberg appear to the collegiate coaches du jour, but the biggest names are always floating around the periphery of those conversations. Kansas’ Bill Self and Kentucky’s John Calipari said in separate conversations with ESPN.com‘s Andy Katz on Monday that they were both incredibly happy with their current situations and had not been contacted this offseason about any open positions. Cue Mitch Kupchak on line two, coach? In keeping with the theme, Florida’s Billy Donovan last week basically said “never say never,” but as SI.com‘s David Gardner writes, he could probably satisfy his itch to coach the world’s best players by following the Coach K model with the US Men’s Basketball team. There’s certainly something to be said for capstone jobs in all three of their cases, but the competitive drive and instincts that got them there keeps them looking for even better opportunities, hard as they might be to come by.
  3. One current college coach who has had no problem finding a better opportunity just around every turn for the better part of five decades is SMU’s Larry Brown. The 73-year old who has completely rebuilt the Mustangs’ program in Dallas and will be in everyone’s Top 25 next preseason (especially with Xavier transfer Justin Martin en routeis rumored to be in the running for the open Los Angeles Lakers job. A number of other names are also under consideration — including Scott Skiles, Byron Scott, Alvin Gentry, Lionel Hollins and Mike Dunleavy — but Brown is perhaps the most intriguing given that he already has an excellent thing working at SMU in contrast with the train wreck awaiting the next coach in LA. With nine NBA franchises already on his resume as a head coach (but none with the Lakers’ pedigree), the job would no doubt be attractive to him, but would the Lakers really want to hire someone that the franchise could only expect to have on board for a couple more years? Let’s hope the itinerant LB sticks around to see through the job in DFW.
  4. One coach that we can’t imagine will be thinking NBA anytime soon, or ever, is Virginia’s Tony Bennett. While a brilliant basketball mind, his system involving shutdown defense and a glacial tempo likely wouldn’t translate very well to the League. Irrespective of that, UVA rewarded its head coach for a #1 seed, 30-win, ACC championship season, with a seven-year extension to his current deal. The new contract locks him into Charlottesville through the 2018-19 season and increases his annual salary to just shy of a couple million dollars per year. Not bad for a guy who was projected to have trouble recruiting ACC-caliber players. Ahem.
  5. This is a neat story from the Chronicle of Higher Education about a young man named Marvin Clark, a Kansas City kid who will be an incoming freshman at Michigan State this fall. The story chronicles the many ups and downs of his year-long recruitment, where he rode a roller coaster of ups and downs as schools from Oregon to Seton Hall and everywhere in-between expressed interest before backing off and picking back up on him again. Raised in a hard-knock situation with no father figure and a mother battling addiction, Clark’s story represents how recruiting can go for many of the kids not rated in the consensus top 25 of the rankings (Clark fell in and out of the top 150), and how perception and relationships can drive as much of the decision-making process as anything else. It’s a good, quality read, and a reminder to most of us readers that, no matter how bad your day might have gone, it probably was better than many of those that Clark faced growing up.
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Morning Five: 04.22.14 Edition

Posted by nvr1983 on April 22nd, 2014

morning5

  1. Tennessee did not take very long to move on from Michael White after he decided to stay at Louisiana Tech. Just a few hours after that news came out Tennessee reached an agreement with Southern Miss coach Donnie Tyndall to make him the next coach of the Volunteers. Tyndall is only six years older than White (43 vs 37) and has more experience in Tennessee and the SEC than White does so he is not a bad fallback option for the Volunteers. A formal announcement is expected by the school later today.
  2. Tennessee  school in the state with a new coach as Tennessee State named Dana Ford to be its next coach. Ford has never served as a head coach, but was an assistant at Tennessee State for two years under John Cooper before Cooper left to take over at Miami (OH) and Ford went to serve as an assistant at Wichita State then Illinois State (his alma mater). Ford takes over for Travis Williams, who led the Tigers to a 5-25 record last season so at least Ford does not have a high bar to reach to match last season’s performance.
  3. Elfrid Payton might not be a household name even to college basketball fans, but you will be hearing his name a lot in the coming months as the junior out of Louisiana-Lafayette announced that he will be entering the NBA Draft. Payton averaged 19.2 points, 6 rebounds, and 5.9 assists per game last season while leading his team to a NCAA Tournament appearance, but perhaps more importantly for his draft stock he also started every game for the Under-19 team that won the gold medal at the World Championships. Payton is projected to be a late first round or early second round pick.
  4. As crazy as it sounds out all of the early-entry decisions that we have been linking to in the Morning Five there are still several key decisions that we are waiting for. Jeff Eisenberg points out there are five schools that are particularly anxious as they await decisions. It goes without saying that Kentucky will be one of those schools almost every year, but MichiganConnecticutColorado, and UNLV are also waiting on big decisions that will shape next season. So if you are following any of the way-too-early top 25s you should probably wait until after this deadline before taking any of them too seriously.
  5. One of our bigger frustrations in college basketball is with administrators who try to limit local non-conference rivalries for political reasons. So we were very happy to see that Virginia and George Washington have agreed to a home-and-home series the next two years. Although this is not the biggest potential regional matchup it is still a fairly appealing one and Virginia only leads the series 25-23 with the last game being played in the 2004 NIT. Hopefully we will see more schools follow their lead and create some more interesting regional rivalries.
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Ten Most Pivotal Moments of the 2013-14 Season

Posted by Bennet Hayes on April 16th, 2014

Within every 40 minutes of college basketball, there is a moment or two that sets a tone, shifts momentum, or otherwise dictates the game’s final result. If we think bigger picture, we’ll notice that the five-month college basketball season is also shaped by a number of similarly formative moments. We may not always know their full significance at the time, but these moments conspire to transform the course of a season. In 2013-14, these were those 10 moments – some occurring inside the lines, others far away from the hardwood – that proved most pivotal to the season’s final snapshot.

UConn Felled Florida Back In December In What Would Turn Out To Be The First Installment Of Many  Napier Clutch Shots

UConn Felled Florida Back In December In What Would Turn Out To Be The First Installment Of Many Napier Clutch Shots

  • 10. Tyler Ennis Downs Pitt at the Horn (February 12). The Syracuse freshman’s memorable game-winner extended the Orange’s inspiring perfect start, but might it have ended up wounding both teams? Pitt would never really find its way over the hump, while Syracuse’s continued chase of perfection may have shielded a few critical flaws that would later cause its sharp downfall.
  • 9. Scottie Wilbekin Returns From Five-Game Suspension (November 25). A solid performance (12 points, seven assists, three steals) in a rout of Atlantic Sun also-ran Jacksonville was just the beginning of a redemptive season for Wilbekin, who overcame offseason turmoil to become the unquestioned leader and MVP of a team that, for the better part of 2014, played at a far loftier level than any other squad in the country.
  • 8. Wichita State Comes Back Against Missouri State (January 11). Shockermania hadn’t yet grown into the hysteria it would become, but Wichita State overcame a 19-point second half road deficit in the most improbable of their season-opening 35 victories. Read the rest of this entry »
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2013-14 ACC Season Review – Part III

Posted by Brad Jenkins on April 11th, 2014

Now that the 2013-14 season is all over, let’s take a look back at how each ACC team performed. We will do so in three parts, dividing the league into groups of five teams based on ACC Tournament seeding. For each school, we’ll compare its actual season results with preseason expectations, and point out the surprises in each case — both the pleasant and unpleasant. Finally, we will take a quick peak at the short- and long-term prospects for each program. In Part III today, we’ll look at the top five finishers in the conference. The top four teams were expected to be the class of the league, and they were, even though the final order was somewhat surprising. The big disappointment came in the postseason, when only ACC champion Virginia made it to the NCAA Tournament’s second weekend.

1) Virginia (30-7, 16-2 ACC) – NCAA (L: Regional Semi-Finals)

Virginia claimed the ACC crown. (credit: Robert Willett / Raleigh News & Observer)

Tony Bennett led Virginia to its second ever ACC Championship. (credit: Robert Willett / Raleigh News & Observer)

Led by ACC Coach of the Year Tony Bennett, the Cavaliers had one of the best seasons in school history. They won the ACC regular season race for the first time since 1981, captured their second ACC Tournament title (the other was in 1976), and tied the 1982 team for the highest finish (#3) in the season’s final AP poll. The team was not overly impressive early, as they entered conference play with a 9-4 record and coming off a 35 point pounding at the hands of Tennessee. But at that point, Virginia regrouped and only lost three more times – on the last possession at Duke; in overtime at Maryland; and finally in the Sweet Sixteen to Michigan State in one of the most hard-fought games of the entire Tournament.

  • They were who we thought they were. We knew that defense would be the calling card for this Virginia team and it was in a big way. The Cavaliers only allowed 91 points per 100 possessions in ACC play, which was a remarkable eight points better than anyone else.
  • We didn’t see this coming. The main questions for this team at the beginning of the year concerned the backcourt. Could they find an effective point guard among the young candidates on the roster? And how would Malcolm Brogdon play after missing the previous season due to injury? Freshman point guard London Perrantes played well above expectations, running the team with the savvy of a veteran and making the ACC’s all-Freshman Team. Brogdon was incredibly consistent and his all-around play resulted in a spot on the all-ACC first team, as voted on by the league’s coaches.
  • What the future holds. Joe Harris and Akil Mitchell will be missed for their leadership and production. ACC Sixth Man of the Year Justin Anderson and effective reserve Anthony Gill should move right into the starting lineup, though, so the keys for next season are to build depth and hope to duplicate the great chemistry and unselfish play of this year’s squad. The program looks to be in great shape for the near future, as Bennett has proven that his style can work at the highest level.

2) Syracuse (28-6, 14-4 ACC) – NCAA (L: 3rd Round)

This year was a tale of two seasons for the Orange. Syracuse started the season 25-0 and were ranked #1 in the country for three weeks, winning so many games on the last possession that even Jim Boeheim admitted they were lucky. Their luck ran out in game #26 when lowly Boston College came to the Carrier Dome and knocked off the Orange in one of the shockers of the year. Including that loss, Syracuse would close the year by only winning three of its last nine games. Injuries exposed the team’s lack of depth, and the Orange went into a prolonged shooting slump, probably due to wearing down.

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After Lackluster Season, ACC Must Improve Depth to Have the “Best Ever” Conversation Again

Posted by Lathan Wells on April 4th, 2014

Prior to the beginning of the college basketball season, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski infamously proclaimed that the ACC had the potential to be the greatest college basketball conference of all-time. That was a bold proclamation at the time, as we covered here, and with the 2013-14 season now drawing to a close, it’s become painfully apparent that the conference this year did nothing to stake such a claim. So the question then becomes, what does the ACC need to do in coming years to proudly proclaim itself the best basketball conference ever assembled? Here’s a road map for the league’s coaches and administrators.

Virginia's ascendance will only help the ACC's argument that it's the premier basketball conference (USA Today Sports)

Virginia’s ascendance will only help the ACC’s argument that it’s the premier basketball conference. (USA Today Sports)

The conference’s elite have to dominate the non-conference slate and enjoy copious postseason success. While there were a handful of marquee wins spread around prior to ACC play (North Carolina’s defeats of Michigan State, Kentucky, and Louisville; Duke’s defeat of Michigan; Syracuse handling Villanova), the league’s postseason results were anything but stellar. The conference managed to get six teams into the NCAA Tournament, but the upper tier didn’t produce much success when they got there. Duke lost in the opening round; North Carolina and Syracuse fell in the round of 32. Virginia, the regular-season and ACC Tournament champion, may have drawn a rough match-up in the Sweet Sixteen with Michigan State, but it could not advance (and UConn was able to handle the Spartans in the nexts round). The embarrassing result was that there was no ACC teams in the Elite Eight. These teams have to produce in postseason play in addition to their non-conference victories to help the perception of the conference return to an elite level.

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Rushed Reactions: #4 Michigan State 61, #1 Virginia 59

Posted by Brian Otskey on March 28th, 2014

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Brian Otskey is RTC’s NCAA East Regional correspondent.

Three key takeaways.

Adreian Payne and Sparty advanced to Sunday in a hard fought game. (AP Photo/Al Goldis).

Adreian Payne and Sparty advanced to Sunday in a hard fought game. (AP Photo/Al Goldis).

  1. A heavyweight fight. It was a shame that one of these teams had to go home. This game seemed more like a national semifinal than a regional semifinal when you combine the quality of play and the atmosphere in the arena. The defense from both sides was incredible as neither team took a single play off. It was a great battle between two coaches who have instilled heart, toughness and a commitment to defense into their respective programs. The Spartans were down a possession or two most of the early part of the second half but never once packed it in. They kept going to what was working and that was Branden Dawson in the paint. This relentless attitude was also on display when looking at Virginia. All in all, what a tremendous regional semifinal this was. The Spartans earned this victory.
  2. Michigan State discovered the low post. In a game packed with bruising defense on both sides, the Spartans out-toughed the Cavaliers on the low block. Dawson and Adreian Payne in particular were phenomenal and threw down some thunderous dunks in the process. A second half 13-2 MSU run sparked the comeback and the Spartans guards found their forwards with terrific penetration and interior passing to boot. Sparty scored 30 points in the paint to Virginia’s 22.Tom Izzo’s team had the look of a determined team from the beginning of this game and came up big in a terrific 40-minute effort that looked like the vintage Izzo teams of the past.
  3. Defense is the name of the game in March. Countless times we have seen mediocre defensive teams get bounced out of the NCAA tournament early, including Creighton and Duke this season. There is a reason that, in the Ken Pomeroy advanced statistics era, elite defensive teams win the national championship. Both teams fit that bill tonight but Michigan State was just a little bit better for all 40 minutes. While Michigan State entered the game with an adjusted defensive efficiency ranked No. 40 nationally, the effort tonight shows that if the Spartans are to lose, it likely will not be because of failings on the defensive end.

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Previewing Michigan State vs. Virginia in the Sweet Sixteen

Posted by Alex Moscoso (@AlexPMoscoso) on March 28th, 2014

It’s been an enigmatic season for Michigan State due to a host of injuries and resulting inconsistent play. For seniors Keith Appling and Adreian Payne, it’s been four years without a Final Four, a relative disappointment. Stress the word “relative” here, because compiling a record of 103-40 over four years would be roundly successful in 99 percent of other programs. But in East Lansing, a team that starts the season ranked #2 and ends up as a #4 seed in the NCAA Tournament is viewed as disappointing. As for those seniors — despite two Elite Eight and one Sweet Sixteen appearance — failure to make the Final Four this year would earn this group the distinction of being the only class in the Tom Izzo era without a trip to the NCAA Tournament’s final weekend. Tonight Sparty looks to remove that monkey off its back as it meets Virginia in the Sweet Sixteen.

Adreian Payne has made his presence known in the NCAA Tournament thus far. Virginia stands in his way as he vies for a trip to the Final Four. (AP Photo/Al Goldis).

Virginia stands in Adreian Payne’s way as he vies for a trip to the Final Four. (AP Photo/Al Goldis).

The Cavaliers are not regulars in the NCAA Tournament’s second weekend; it’s the school’s first appearance in the Sweet Sixteen since 1995. This run marks the culmination of all that was expected of head coach Tony Bennett when he was hired from Washington State five years ago. While he had only made one NCAA Tournament appearance in the previous four seasons, a trip back to the Big Dance and a top four finish in the ACC was expected from this squad due to its top five scorers returning. Bennett’s team far surpassed expectations by sweeping the ACC regular season and tournament, which garnered the Cavaliers a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. What may be most shocking is that Bennett accomplished all of this with a system traditionally more tailored for the Big Ten than the up-and-down ACC (although in some ways that is changing there too). Their slow-paced – averaging 61 possessions per game, near the very bottom nationally — and defensive-focused system has stifled some high-powered offenses in that league.

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