Rushed Reactions: #4 Florida 84, #8 Wisconsin 83 (OT)

Posted by Justin Kundrat on March 25th, 2017

RTC will be providing coverage of the NCAA Tournament from start to finish. Justin Kundrat (@justinkundrat) is in New York City this weekend.

The Agony and the Ecstasy of the NCAA Tournament (USA Today Images)

Three Key Takeaways.

  1. In a battle first of defenses and then of hero ball, Florida was just a little bit better. The three-headed trio of KeVaughn AllenKasey Hill and Chris Chiozza flustered Wisconsin’s ball-handlers all night long, picking them up full court and playing with a hand in their jerseys on every screen. It forced the Badgers into an uncharacteristic funk, one in which they committed 16 turnovers and struggled to work their patented inside-out offense to its full effect. Wisconsin is usually a team that dictates its own pace on the offensive end, so being pushed into a higher tempo affair undoubtedly worked to Florida’s advantage. Nonetheless, Wisconsin down the stretch channeled its penchant for late game heroics yet again, overcoming a 10-point deficit that culminated with an acrobatic runner to tie the game… only to be topped with the answer of all answers in overtime. Sometimes, luck bests itself.
  2. Florida’s pick-and-roll offense dismantled Wisconsin’s defense. Simply put, Bronson Koenig and Zak Showalter were not quick enough to stick with Florida’s guards off the screens, and Florida’s roll men are skilled at drawing fouls. Wisconsin forwards Ethan Happ and Vitto Brown found themselves glued to the bench down the stretch with foul trouble, further exposing the Badgers inside. The Gators are highly efficient around the rim, converting on 65.3 percent of their shots, so it should come as no surprise that they were able to take advantage of the undermanned front line.
  3. He might be third on the team in scoring, but Wisconsin’s offense runs on Nigel Hayes. Florida’s first half run coincided with Hayes spending time on the bench in foul trouble. His eventual return quickly righted the ship and reignited the Badgers’ offense. The 6’8″ senior plays a “bully ball” type of offense in which he utilizes his physicality and speed to torture both big and small defenders. He posed an inherent mismatch for the Gators’ front line and capitalized on every opportunity, particularly in overtime, totaling 22 points on 7-of-11 shooting. But to Wisconsin’s demise, his overtime efforts were ultimately undermined by missed free throws.

Star of the GameKeVaughn Allen, Florida. After a rugged start to the NCAA Tournament, the Gators’ leading scorer got back on track tonight. He picked apart the Badgers with a combination of steals, three-pointers and drives into the paint before finishing with 35 points on 11-of-24 shooting.

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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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Rushed Reactions: #8 Wisconsin 84, #9 Virginia Tech 74

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 16th, 2017

Wisconsin came out on top tonight in an entertaining, back-and-forth affair that saw the two teams combine for 20 made three-pointers.

Bronson Koenig had a huge night in Buffalo. (Photo: The Sports Post)

Key Takeaways.

  1. Bronson Koenig was awesome. Hampered by a lingering leg injury for much of February, Koenig seemed to be trending toward full health late in the season. His performance on Thursday night put any remaining doubts to rest — the senior point guard is back. Koenig scored 28 points on 8-of-17 shooting from behind the arc, including a 5-of-6 stretch from three-point range during the second half that enabled Wisconsin to maintain its slight advantage. Perhaps the most pivotal moment of the night came near the eight-minute mark, when he knocked down a gutsy triple from several feet behind the arc, then stole the ball on the other end before drawing a foul. On a night where star forward Ethan Happ scored just 10 points, Koenig’s effort was essential. Whether he plays at a high level again on Saturday may determine if the Badgers will return to the Sweet Sixteen.
  2. Wisconsin is living and thriving from behind the arc. For the second time in three games, Wisconsin attempted more three-pointers (31) than two-pointers (30). The staggering ratio worked against Northwestern in the Big Ten semifinals — Wisconsin hit 12 threes in that one — and carried the Badgers again on Thursday night (13-for-31 3FG). With players like Happ (13.9 PPG) and Nigel Hayes (13.5 PPG) manning the interior, it’s not like Wisconsin can’t score inside effectively. For an offense that’s struggled to find its groove at times this year, though, perhaps the best tonic is simply the freedom to hoist from long range.
  3. Virginia Tech basketball is (and will remain) exciting under Buzz Williams. In just three short years, Buzz Williams has transformed a Virginia Tech offense that ranked dead last in the ACC in 2014 to one of the nation’s best this season. And it showed on Thursday night. The Hokies — a great three-point shooting team — carved up Wisconsin’s interior defense like butter in the second half, as Zach LeDay (23 points) found himself more than a couple powerful dunks to ignite the Virginia Tech faithful. Whether it was half-court sets or unselfish plays in transition, Williams has clearly done a masterful job on that end of the court. Despite the departures of Seth Allen (13.4 PPG) and LeDay (16.3 PPG), it’s hard to imagine the Hokies falling too far down the ACC standings in 2017-18.

Star of the Game. Bronson Koenig, Wisconsin (21 points, 8-of-17 3FG). Everything was falling for Koenig in the second half, including a spot-up corner three that hit front rim, bounced off the backboard, and fell through the net. His steady hand and timely shooting helped Wisconsin remain ahead despite several momentous scoring bursts for Virginia Tech down the stretch. In order for Wisconsin to advance past Saturday, the senior needs to continue playing at a very high level.

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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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Five Key Storylines in This Week’s Big Ten Tournament

Posted by Brendan Brody on March 8th, 2017

The Big Ten Tournament begins this afternoon in Washington, D.C., when Penn State takes on Nebraska. It will end Sunday afternoon presumably with a postseason picture looking much closer to clarity. In anticipation of the proceedings, here are a handful of quick potential storylines to keep an eye on over the next five days.

Whether or not Malcolm Hill can lead Illinois to a couple of Big Ten victories is one of many questions heading into the B1G Tournament. (Getty)

Bubble Teams: Two of the more fascinating games in the early portion of the Big Ten Tournament will be Illinois vs. Michigan and Iowa vs. Indiana. With late-season surges, both the Illini and the Hawkeyes have moved into bubble consideration. Illinois has improved defensively over the past month but will be tested by Michigan’s sixth-most efficient offense in the country. Iowa has won four in a row (including a win over the Hoosiers) on the strength of 10.5 made three-pointers per game at a 46.7 percent clip. If both teams lose early this week, the number of Big Ten teams heading to the NCAA Tournament will essentially be set. Two wins, however, will keep the debate alive.

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Big Ten Tournament Mission Sheet: What Can Each Team Get From the Event?

Posted by Brendan Brody on March 8th, 2017

There are 14 teams in the Big Ten and although each team is ultimately playing to win a conference championship on Sunday afternoon, there are smaller, somewhat more realistic goals for each school involved in the five-day hoops extravaganza. Here’s a closer look at what each Big Ten team should look to gain from the event.

  • Illinois: The goal for the Illini is fairly obvious. After losing its regular season finale to Rutgers, Illinois likely has to get to Saturday’s semifinals in order to feel truly confident about its chances.
  • Indiana: Indiana needs to find a way to bottle its offense during the first 10 minutes — wherein the Hoosiers scored 32 points — of last weekend’s win over Ohio State. If Tom Crean’s offense can play at that level in Washington, DC, this weekend, Indiana can legitimately win the Big Ten Tournament.
  • Iowa: The Hawkeyes have the same goal as Illinois but with less urgency because of the youth of their roster. The longer Iowa stays in this weekend’s tournament, the more quality experience their underclassmen will have heading into next season.
  • Maryland: Maryland has taken a whopping 24 three-pointers per contest over its last nine games, making only 33.8 percent of those attempts. The key for the Terrapins is to return to attacking the rim for easy looks and foul shots. Continued over-reliance on the three-ball from a team that requires greater balance could spell an early postseason exit in DC and beyond.

Derrick Walton Jr. will look to lift Michigan to multiple wins in the Big Ten Tournament. (Andy Lyons, Getty Images)

  • Michigan: The metrics suggest that Michigan is better than its 20-11 overall record. This means that the Wolverines have a golden opportunity to win the Big Ten tournament and jump a couple of seed lines prior to Sunday’s bracket release.

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Four Big Ten Storylines to Follow in the Final Week of Regular Season

Posted by Brendan Brody on February 28th, 2017

There are now 14 games left in a Big Ten regular season that has been marked by numerous highs and lows throughout. The major takeaway at this point of the season is that almost nothing in terms of the conference standings has yet been settled. That means that every game over the next six days has considerably more meaning than in other conferences where much is already determined. Here are four other Big Ten storylines worth monitoring during the final week of the regular season.

Scottie Lindsey needs to find his scoring touch in the final week for Northwestern to be as though its safely in the NCAA Tournament (USA Today).

  1. Can Northwestern Earn One More Win? The Wildcats appeared to be a near-lock for the NCAA Tournament after knocking off Wisconsin on February 12, but they’ve since lost three of four and are really struggling to put points on the board. Northwestern closes out the Big Ten season with two home games this week against Michigan and Purdue, where a victory in either contest would likely be enough to certify things. Two more losses, however, would result in a 9-9 record in conference play, creating a teetering mountain of pressure on Chris Collins‘ team to win a game or two in the Big Ten Tournament. Read the rest of this entry »
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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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