Rushed Reactions: #7 Michigan State 76, #4 Louisville 70 (OT)

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 29th, 2015

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Three Key Takeaways.

Michigan State is headed to Indianapolis. (Dennis Nett / Syracuse.com)

Michigan State is headed to Indianapolis. (Dennis Nett / Syracuse.com)

  1. Overtime giveth, overtime taketh away. Michigan State went 2-5 in overtime games prior to today, including a six-point home loss to Richard Pitino-coached Minnesota in February and an 11-point defeat against Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game. Louisville had only played one overtime contest before this afternoon – a 10-point victory over North Carolina. Yet, despite that recent history – with the stakes higher than ever – the basketball gods looked favorably upon the Spartans during the extra period. Bryn Forbes (14 points) knocked down a three-pointer to tip things off. The Cardinals, on the other hand, missed two early shots, including a layup. Branden Dawson found himself in perfect position for a late, game-clinching offensive rebound and putback that essentially sealed the win. “Sometimes it can be a cruel game,” Louisville coach Rick Pitino said afterward, referring to the fickle nature of bonus basketball. In another tight game with razor-thin margin for error, good fortune finally went the way of Michigan State.
  2. Michigan State clamped down in second half. Louisville shredded Michigan State’s interior defense in the first half, shooting 13-of-27 from two-point land and scoring 31 of its 40 points from inside the arc or at the free throw line. Cardinal forward Montrezl Harrell – who scored 24 points against North Carolina State on Friday – scored 12 in the game’s opening 11 minutes, helping his team grab an eight-point lead at the break. Then the Spartans clamped down. Over the final 25 minutes of regulation and overtime, Louisville shot just 6-of-32 from the field and mustered only an additional 30 points. Michigan State shut down the lane – limiting the Cardinals’ dribble penetration and collapsing on Harrell (who only scored four points the rest of the way) – and did a better job extending on shooters. That defensive stinginess enabled Izzo’s club to climb back in the game and ultimately wind up on top.
  3. Another Elite Eight thriller. As if last night’s Notre Dame-Kentucky game wasn’t enough, the Elite Eight delivered yet another thrilling finish in Syracuse today. The back-and-forth second half was filled with momentum swings and fraught with drama, including Mangok Mathiang’s game-tying free throw at the end of regulation that seemingly hung in the air for minutes before falling through the net. All told, the lead changed 11 different times and was tied on nine different occasions before Michigan State grabbed the final edge in overtime. If regional weekend is a sign of things to come, then next week’s Final Four should be nothing short of excellent.

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NCAA Game Analysis: Elite Eight Sunday

Posted by Bennet Hayes & Tommy Lemoine on March 29th, 2015

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The Elite Eight is here. Two more games that have a chance to become classics. Let’s break them down.

#4 Louisville vs. #7 Michigan State – East Region Elite Right (at Syracuse, NY) – at 2:20 PM ET on CBS

Denzel Valentine and the Spartans hope to wind up in Indy next weekend. (Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports)

Denzel Valentine and the Spartans hope to wind up in Indy next weekend. (Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports)

Rick Pitino and Tom Izzo are no strangers to this stage, or each other. The Hall of Fame Louisville coach ranks fourth all-time with seven Final Four appearances, including two since 2012. The 20th-year Michigan State head man trails just behind with six, along with four Elite Eight trips since 2009. And for the third time in seven years, their teams will meet in the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament. This is familiar territory. What’s not familiar, though, is the route each team took to reach this point. Unlike in 2009 and 2012 – when both teams were either #1 or #2-seeds – the Cardinals and Spartans enter this afternoon’s contest having endured rocky seasons with somewhat limited expectations. Izzo’s club lost 11 games this year, including a baffling home loss to Texas Southern in mid-December. Pitino’s unit dismissed point guard and top three-point shooter Chris Jones in late February, further exacerbating its offensive woes. Yet here they both are, playing for the right to move on to Indianapolis.

So what should we expect from these resilient teams? For Louisville, this much we know: its defense – ranked fifth nationally in adjusted efficiency – will be stout. As per usual for Pitino-coached squads, it will apply heavy ball pressure and limit good looks from behind the arc (30% 3PT defense). What’s been surprising about its three-game run, however, is the offensive production. Against Northern Iowa and North Carolina State, the Cardinals scored 1.2 and 1.17 points per possession, respectively, and received high-efficiency, high-production performances from both Terry Rozier (25 points; 146 ORtg against the Panthers) and Montrezl Harrell (24 points; 150 ORtg against the Wolfpack). The newfound offensive consistency – especially in the half-court – has turned them into a substantially more well-rounded unit, one that looks much closer to the team that began the year 11-0.

The specific areas of Michigan State’s recent improvement are slightly harder to pin-point but no less impactful. Power forward Branden Dawson has been playing his best basketball of the season – on both ends of the court – since the start of the Big Ten tournament onward. The Spartans have done a better job taking care of the ball, suffering just five miscues against Oklahoma on Friday night. And Travis Trice (20.6 PPG in NCAA Tournament) has emerged as the teams’ consistent, go-to scorer – something it lacked earlier in the year. All of the little things seem to be coming together for Izzo’s group at the right time.

This afternoon’s matchup might ultimately come down to a few key factors: Louisville’s ability to score around the rim against Michigan State’s interior defense (43.6% 2PT), and whether the Spartans can keep their offensive cool against the Cardinals’ various matchup zone and man-to-man defensive looks. Oddly, North Carolina State kept itself alive on Friday by knocking down shots from behind the arc (9-for-20 3FG) against Louisville, but struggled to score in the paint. Izzo’s club will need a little bit of both today, and certainly needs to take care of the ball. Likewise, Dawson, Matt Costello, and the rest of Michigan State’s big men cannot allow Harrell and Louisville’s penetrating guards nearly as many good looks near the basket as they found on Friday. In the end, I like Michigan State’s ability to crash the offensive glass (33.9% OReb) against the Cardinals’ sub-par defensive rebounding (30.9% DReb) to be the difference – not to mention the fact that doubting Izzo on the back-end of an NCAA Tournament weekend seems foolish. Expect a thrilling, hotly-contested and well-coached contest either way.

The RTC Certified Pick: Michigan State

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Elite Eight Storylines

Posted by Henry Bushnell on March 28th, 2015

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As we move into a loaded Elite Eight this weekend, here are five storylines to keep an eye on over the next 36 hours of action. Enjoy!

Elite Eight Storylines

Duke, Along With Kentucky, Arizona, Louisville, Michigan State, Gonzaga... It's a Loaded Elite Eight (USA Today Images)

Duke, Along With Kentucky, Arizona, Louisville, Michigan State, Gonzaga… It’s a Loaded Elite Eight (USA Today Images)

Bluebloods. Last year, when Dayton went to the Elite Eight as a #11 seed, it was a nice story. But the Flyers’ regional final game against Florida was no contest. It wasn’t as if Dayton had no shot to win, but it was clear from the opening tip that the Flyers were overmatched. It’s fun to romanticize about underdogs making a long run in the NCAA Tournament, but the reality is that they usually run face first into a reality check (and thus a fairly dull game). For some, it happens later than others — see 2011 Butler, which lost in the national championship game to Connecticut — but it eventually happens. This year there’s no Dayton. There’s not even a Butler or a VCU. We’ve done away with the little guys. The likelihood of one team getting completely overwhelmed from a pure talent perspective is unlikely. There is still a #7 seed on the board, but Michigan State is anything but a plucky upstart. There is also a double-digit point spread in one of tonight’s games, but that says more about Kentucky than the ACC champs. So while it would have been cool to see Xavier knock off Arizona, we have what we want in the end: a bunch of bluebloods and some outstanding matchups.

Coaching Superstars. It’s often said that great coaching triumphs in March, so think about the eight coaches who are still remaining: the least successful of the eight is probably Mike Brey – yes, the same Mike Brey who’s been to 12 NCAA Tournaments and just won an ACC Tournament title in his second year in the league. Statistics aside, everybody knows that Brey is just a darn good coach. He finds himself in quite the elite company this weekend. The aggregate tenure of all eight coaches at their respective schools is 126 years, and between them, they have exactly 4,400 Division I wins. The coaching matchups on the right side of the bracket are especially compelling. Tom Izzo and Rick Pitino are statistically the two best NCAA Tournament coaches of the modern era, and Mark Few and Mike Krzyzewski have combined for 49 conference regular season or tournament titles. Wow.

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Rushed Reactions: #7 Michigan State 62, #3 Oklahoma 58

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 28th, 2015

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Three Key Takeaways.

The Spartans came up big down the stretch against Oklahoma. (Elsa / Getty Images North America)

The Spartans came up big down the stretch against Oklahoma. (Elsa / Getty Images North America)

  1. Michigan State did the little things down stretch – which isn’t always the case. Michigan State entered tonight’s contest ranked 339th nationally in free throw percentage (63%). Against Minnesota on February 26, the Spartans missed several key shots from the stripe, committed a number of silly fouls and blew a five-point lead with less than 20 seconds remaining. They nearly did the same thing at Indiana two weeks later. Late-game execution hasn’t exactly been their forte. But tonight was different. Branden Dawson and Matt Costello ripped down several huge offensive rebounds when Tom Izzo’s club needed them most. No one committed bone-headed fouls or careless turnovers. And despite going just 9-of-16 from the stripe as a team, Travis Trice and Denzel Valentine hit six free throws in a row in the game’s final two minutes to seal Michigan State’s four-point victory.
  2. Travis Trice carried the load (again); Denzel Valentine stepped up. After scoring 15 points against #10 Georgia and 23 points against #2 Virginia – including a late, dagger triple – senior guard Travis Trice once again carried the offensive load for Michigan State, pouring in 24 points on 50 percent shooting and knocking down several huge free throws down the stretch. Meanwhile, forward Denzel Valentine – who mustered just four points against the Cavaliers – finally woke up in the second half, scoring 13 of his 18 points in the final 20 minutes and keeping the Spartans on top late.
  3. Oklahoma went cold. Izzo said of Oklahoma, “They gave it to us in every way it could be gotten” early on. And he’s right. For the first eight-plus minutes of the game, the Sooners blasted Michigan State on both ends of the court, using a flurry of layups and dunks to jump out by a score of 18-8 before the Spartans even knew what hit them. Then, the offensive melee came to a halt. Dawson, Costello and the rest of Izzo’s frontcourt shored up the interior, and Oklahoma shot just 4-of-17 from behind the arc (including Buddy Hield’s 3-of-10 3FG). The Spartans weren’t exactly scorching the nets, either, but their offensive surge to start and end the second half proved enough to win.

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Rushed Reactions: #4 Louisville 75, #8 North Carolina State 65

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 27th, 2015

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Three Key Takeaways.

Louisville game up big with the big plays down the stretch. (Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports)

Louisville came up big with big plays down the stretch to beat the Wolfpack. (Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports)

  1. In game defined by runs, Louisville went on final spurt. North Carolina State took an early 10-6 lead, which was followed by a 10-2 Louisville run. Shortly thereafter, the Wolfpack went on a 14-5 spurt, at which point the Cardinals responded with 14 of the next 16 points and…you get the point. After back-and-forth momentum swings and scoring bursts throughout the first 30-plus minutes of game time, Louisville’s late 12-3 run made the difference. Over the course of four minutes – shortly after the under-8 media timeout – Anton Gill, Montrezl Harrell and Terry Rozier broke North Carolina State’s zone and generated enough stops to grab the final advantage.
  2. Louisville dominated the paint. If North Carolina State’s 9-of-20 three-point shooting kept the game close, then Louisville’s 24-of-42 mark from inside the arc (57% 2FG) decided it. For most of the night, the Wolfpack had no answer for Montrezl Harrell on the block (24 points) and could not stop the Cardinals’ guards from penetrating; Rozier, Quentin Snider and Wayne Blackshear scored 35 of Louisville’s 75 points near the basket or at the free throw line. Even Mark Gottfried’s decision to play zone late in the contest could not stop Pitino’s unit from finding looks inside. Louisville’s defense also did a good job down low; North Carolina State shot just 35 percent from two-point land.
  3. Out of nowhere, Anton Gill became a hero. Entering tonight, Louisville’s Anton Gill was averaging just over two points per game and had not graced the scoring column since February 28. And it didn’t look like he was going to score against North Carolina State, either, until the sophomore guard – which the Wolfpack once tried to recruit – reeled off seven quick points late in the contest to put the Cardinals up for good. Afterwards, Gottfried basically said that Gill’s unexpected offensive outburst decided the outcome: “He made a couple tough shots there, and I thought that little cushion was the difference in the game.”

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Sweet Sixteen Storylines: South and East Regionals

Posted by Henry Bushnell on March 27th, 2015

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Tonight the Sweet Sixteen moves to Syracuse and Houston, so let’s take a look at the top five storylines in the East and South Regions.

South Storylines

1. Is this finally Gonzaga’s year? Mention Gonzaga to a casual college basketball fan, and more often than not, the word ‘overrated’ pops into his head. The Bulldogs have had some really impressive regular seasons under Mark Few, making the NCAA Tournament every year since he took over in 1999. But time after time, the Zags have come up short in March. Few has never taken Gonzaga past the Sweet Sixteen as a head coach, but this could be the year that the drought ends. This year’s team is more complete and well-rounded than most previous editions, and the final hurdle on the path to the Elite Eight is a #11 seed — albeit a strong one — in UCLA. A program-first Final Four might also be within reach, but let’s not put the cart before the horse just yet — for many reasons, the Zags need to win tonight.

Is this finally the year for Mark Few and Gonzaga? (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Is this finally the year for Mark Few and Gonzaga? (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

2. Duke’s recent Tourney hiccups. Since winning the 2010 National Championship, Mike Krzyzewski’s postseason record has actually been pretty lackluster. He came into this year 5-4 in the NCAA Tournaments from 2011-14 and he has been on the wrong end of some stunning upsets — losses to #15 seed Lehigh in 2012 and #14 seed Mercer a year ago. Even the 2011 Sweet Sixteen loss to #5 seed Arizona was unexpected. It’s exactly that kind of loss that Duke will be hoping to avoid this time around against a dangerous Utah squad.

3. Back aboard the Utah bandwagon? The Utes faded from the spotlight late in the season. They lost three of their last five games and exited the Pac-12 Tournament by losing to Oregon for the second time in less than a month. But they were businesslike last weekend in handling Stephen F. Austin and Georgetown, and come into tonight’s contest as only a five-point underdog against Duke. Utah has been a top 10 KenPom team since early January, and after a methodical but strong second half dispatching of the Hoyas, it seems like everybody has fallen back in love with the Utes as a Final Four sleeper. Read the rest of this entry »

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NCAA Tournament Tidbits: 03.27.15 Edition

Posted by Griffin Wong on March 27th, 2015

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March Madness is finally upon us, and we here at RTC are here to make everything a little bit easier for you. From the First Four until One Shining Moment, we’ll be dropping daily tidbits of knowledge regarding the teams in each region.

Midwest Region

These guys absolutely rule the college basketball world at the moment. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

These guys absolutely rule the college basketball world at the moment. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

  • West Virginia’s Daxter Miles talked the talk but it was Kentucky that walked the walk. After Miles declared that Kentucky would be “36-1″ after playing the Mountaineers, the Wildcats proceeded to beat his team into submission by 39 points. The Kentucky players had some responses to share with the world via Twitter.
  • Last night, Kentucky showed what it could do when you make the Wildcats angry. After a historic Sweet Sixteen  beatdown of West Virginia, Ben Cohen asks the question we’ve been asking all year long: Can anyone beat Kentucky?
  • Not only did Daxter Miles‘ team lose the game despite guaranteeing victory, but he finished with no points and just one rebound. Tough day.
  • Notre Dame gained control early and took every punch Wichita State threw at it en route to an 11-point victory last night.
  • Notre Dame could have the offensive firepower to keep up with Kentucky if the Irish are able to hit their threes. But will it be enough to give the Wildcats’ their only loss of the season?
  • Could Gregg Marshall have just coached his last game at Wichita State? Having done wonders for the Shockers’ program over the last several years, will Marshall leave for a bigger job this off-season?

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NCAA Game Analysis: Sweet Sixteen Friday

Posted by Bennet Hayes & Tommy Lemoine on March 27th, 2015

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The Sweet Sixteen continues with four more compelling games tonight in Houston and Syracuse. Here are this evening’s previews.

#2 Gonzaga vs. #11 UCLA – South Region Sweet Sixteen (at Houston, TX) – 7:15 PM ET on CBS

A new year brings new players like Kyle Wiltjer, who no doubt will play a huge role in Friday's matchup. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)

A new year brings new players like Kyle Wiltjer, who no doubt will play a huge role in Friday’s matchup. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)

Nobody forgets the tears. Nine years and three days ago, UCLA induced a very public display of emotion from Adam Morrison. The circumstances that led to the devastation were far from ordinary – the Bruins erased a 17-point second half deficit and scored the final 11 points to down the Zags and advance to the Elite Eight – but it’s the singular image of Morrison, keeled over on the floor with blue Gonzaga jersey pulled over his face, that has persisted longest in the memory banks of March. Now, almost a decade later, the two teams renew March pleasantries for the first time since Morrison’s college career came to that tearful end. The differences between this matchup and the last are too numerous to list, but there is one key similarity: Gonzaga again has a team widely perceived to be capable of winning a national title.

Mark Few’s team has made just one Sweet Sixteen since 2006, and that team (in 2009) needed only to beat a #12 and a #13 to get there. Needless to say, Gonzaga Final Four prospects haven’t been this bright since Morrison was in uniform. This Bulldog team is nearly as explosive as the ’06 bunch (emphasis on nearly: that team was #1 nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency), but points now originate from a wider variety of sources. Six Zags average at least eight points a game, and every Gonzaga regular owns an offensive rating in excess of 110. In the first two rounds, Gonzaga averaged 86.5 points per game and posted points per possession marks of 1.23 and 1.30 against North Dakota State and Iowa, respectively. Unlike in past years, the Zags we see this March look remarkably similar to the ones we watched all season. Good news for Mark Few; bad news for UCLA. Read the rest of this entry »

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ACC Must End Final Four Drought to Claim Best Conference Status

Posted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on March 25th, 2015

With a record-tying five schools in the Sweet Sixteen, the ACC has received a lot of praise this week as this year’s best conference. There’s no doubt that tying the 2009 Big East with the most teams to advance to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament is quite an impressive feat. But it’s also not totally unexpected either, considering that the league placed five teams among the top four seed-lines of the bracket. The only real surprise is that the ACC’s regular season champion, Virginia, is not among the quintet still playing, replaced instead by #8 seed N.C.State (which knocked off #1 seed Villanova). There are many different metrics that are used to rank leagues: overall average team rankings (RPI, KenPom); head-to-head results between the major conferences; NCAA Performance (teams in the Big Dance, total wins, Sweet Sixteen schools, Final Four teams, Championships); and combinations of them all. And while the ACC has historically outperformed every other conference in most if not all of those categories, the league has slid in what we feel are the most important areas — Final Four appearances and national championships — over the last nine years.

35 Years

The table above shows how well the ACC has done over the past 35 years in getting to the Final Four and winning the National Championship. We used 1980 as the starting point in our analysis because that was the first truly “open” tournament. Up until 1975, only conference champions were invited to the NCAA Tournament, and for the next five years (1975-79), the maximum number of teams allowed from a single league was limited to two. In addition to results from actual conference membership at the time, just for fun, we also added results from a current league affiliation perspective. For example, in the current membership column, the ACC loses Maryland’s two Final Four appearances but gains the many earned by Syracuse and Louisville as members of the Big East and other leagues. Now let’s look at just how far the ACC has fallen in recent NCAA Tournaments, starting with the first 26 years of the open tournament era.

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NCAA Tournament Tidbits: 03.25.14 Edition

Posted by Griffin Wong on March 25th, 2015

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March Madness is finally upon us, and we here at RTC are here to make everything a little bit easier for you. From the First Four until One Shining Moment, we’ll be dropping daily tidbits of knowledge regarding the teams in each region.

Midwest Region

This guy is not intimidated by John Calipari and the Wildcats. (Getty)

This guy is not intimidated by John Calipari and the Wildcats. (Getty)

  • Though he’s struggled thus far in the NCAA Tournament, John Calipari’s message to Devin Booker is simple. “We told him after the game, ‘Hey, you’ve got to keep shooting,’ because there’s going to be a game we need him to make shots or we can’t win,” Calipari said. “You can miss all these. It doesn’t matter. The next one’s coming up and we may need you to make some shots.”
  • Bob Huggins has had John Calipari’s number historically, but Kentucky certainly has the advantage by the numbers this time. Here’s what Kentucky blog A Sea of Blue has to say about Thursday’s battle.
  • West Virginia is fast and physical, but Huggins is concerned about Kentucky’s defense, particularly inside the three-point line. “Probably the closest one was Kentucky in 2010. We led by one [actually two, 28-26] at halftime and did not have a two-point field goal (eight three-pointers and four foul shots). I think every time we took it inside the three [point line] we got our shots blocked. I can’t remember anybody who would be as close to this team other than that team,” he said.
  • The odds are against him, but Bob Huggins has a chance to improve on his 8-2 record against his buddy John Calipari on Thursday.
  • The public seems to be praising Wichita State after its upset over Kansas, but don’t sleep on Notre Dame just yet.
  • Pat Connaughton has been huge for Notre Dame on the court, but his leadership away from it is what sets him apart.
  • Alabama is reportedly looking to make a run at Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall. Here‘s why Matt Bonesteel thinks Marshall should stick around in Wichita.
  • Wichita State is the lowest-seeded team left in the Midwest Region, but the Shockers have several qualities that previous Final Four teams have possessed.

West Region

Two old friends go at it in the Sweet 16. Will Chris Mack the Pupil get the upper hand? Or will Sean Miller the teacher still show who's boss? (Getty)

Two old friends go at it in the Sweet Sixteen. Will Chris Mack the Pupil get the upper hand? Or will Sean Miller the Teacher still show him who’s boss? (Getty)

  • It’s no accident that Bo Ryan’s Wisconsin teams rarely foul. Averaging around 12 fouls per game, the Badgers rank among the lowest in the country in that metric. Much of this is due to the emphasis put on it by the head coach. “There are a few pillars of the program or things that have been consistent through the years and helped us be successful,” associate head coach Greg Gard says. “And that’s one of them. They understand if they want to get on the floor and play, they’re going to have to be able to play without fouling.”
  • Despite having a reputation as a very well-respected academic institution, Wisconsin hasn’t exactly wowed people with its recent graduation rates.
  • Though he was reportedly doubtful to play earlier this week, Kennedy Meeks worked out briefly on Tuesday and he is still a possibility to play on Thursday night.
  • For Marcus Paige, North Carolina’s Sweet Sixteen game on Thursday will be a bit of a family affair. His sister, Morgan, played at Wisconsin, and now plays professionally in Europe.
  • Xavier big man Jalen Reynolds is being investigated by the school for a recent incident outside of a Xavier dorm. However, Reynolds is still scheduled to play for the time being.
  • Thursday’s Sweet Sixteen battle will be special for Xavier coach Chris Mack. Mack served as Arizona coach Sean Miller’s top assistant for five years before he left Xavier for the desert. “The fact is that it’s hard to play against someone who gave me such an opportunity. We spent so much time in the trenches and he trusted me so much as an assistant coach. I enjoyed my time with him,” Mack said.
  • Both Arizona freshman Stanley Johnson and others surrounding the program seem open about Johnson only being in Tucson for one year, but that isn’t stopping both parties from making the best of the situation.
  • For Sean Miller, coaching against his former team, Xavier, will be tough. “It’s kind of one of those things that when you’re watching the selection show, you’re kind of watching and cheering for them [Xavier coach Chris Mack and former Xavier coach Thad Matta] to go off your board,” [Arizona Director of Basketball Operations Ryan] Reynolds said. Reynolds came with Miller from Xavier to Arizona six years ago.

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NCAA Regional Reset: East Region

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 24th, 2015

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Your bracket is busted and the Sweet Sixteen is set. Let’s do a Regional Reset. Follow @rtceastregion for reporting from Cleveland this week. Check out all of the regional resets for the Sweet Sixteen here.

New Favorite: #3 Oklahoma. There was mayhem at the top, and now Oklahoma – the highest seeded team remaining – becomes the team to beat in Syracuse. The Sooners were in control from start to finish against #14 seed Albany on Friday, then flexed their defensive muscle in a comeback victory over #11 seed Dayton on Sunday, holding the close-to-home Flyers scoreless for a nine-minute stretch late in the game. Make no mistake – Lon Kruger’s group was never dominant – but it also didn’t rely on any one, dominant offensive performance in order to win. The contributions were across-the-board (Frank Booker even dropped 12 points off the bench on Sunday) and big men TaShawn Thomas and Ryan Spangler provided key physicality down low. Michigan State, Oklahoma’s upcoming foe, also made a good case for ‘favorite’ status after beating #10 seed Georgia and #2 seed Virginia, but it’s about time we give the Sooners their due.

Oklahoma is the new favorite in the East. (Jamie Sabau/Getty)

Oklahoma is the new favorite in the East. (Jamie Sabau/Getty)

Horse of Darkness: #8 North Carolina State. Dayton looked well on its way to becoming the Horse of Darkness (yet again) before Oklahoma laid down the defensive hammer in the second half in Columbus. So now we turn to North Carolina State, whose last-second, comeback victory over LSU on Thursday seemed to light a fire under a team that’s often struggled to play up to its potential. The Wolfpack didn’t merely ‘upset’ top-seeded Villanova on Saturday; it controlled the game. It played with confidence. Its modest frontcourt played as well as it has all year. It looked like the better team. Mark Gottfried’s group held the Wildcats – among the most explosive and efficient offenses in college hoops – to just 1.06 points per possession on 31.1 percent shooting (9-of-28 3FG), outmanning the Big East champs on the perimeter and outmuscling them in the paint. The effort was so rock-solid that it makes you wonder just how high this team’s ceiling is. With wins over Duke, North Carolina, Louisville and now Villanova under its belt, perhaps a trip to Indianapolis isn’t out of the question for Mark Gottfried’s Pack.

Biggest Surprise (First Weekend): #8 North Carolina State. Look, we knew North Carolina State had talent – you don’t beat Duke and North Carolina without it – but I’m still not sure anyone saw this coming. The Wolfpack entered the Dance fresh off a 24-point beatdown against the Blue Devils in the ACC Tournament, just two weeks after losing by 16 points to Boston College. To call the team ‘mercurial’ would have been giving it too much credit; Gottfried’s bunch looked downright mediocre. And it looked something less than mediocre for the first 30 minutes against LSU, struggling to contain the Tigers’ loaded frontcourt and digging itself a big hole. Then Kyle Washington exploded with a flurry of points off the bench. And Abdul-Malik Abu went to work down low (13 points). And BeeJay Anya happened. Despite its heavily relied-upon guard trio of Cat Barber, Trevor Lacey and Ralston Turner combining on a 4-of-21 three-point shooting night, Noth Carolina State survived and advanced. Two nights later, it came out more confident than ever, jumped on #1 seed Villanova early and never conceded control, upending the Wildcats 71-68. And now the once-middling Wolfpack are just two wins away from reaching the Final Four. Where did that come from? Read the rest of this entry »

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Rushed Reactions: #4 Louisville 66, #5 Northern Iowa 53

Posted by Andrew Murawa on March 23rd, 2015

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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.

All Smiles as Louisville Advanced to Its Fourth Straight FInal Four (USA Today Images)

It Was All Smiles as Louisville Advanced to Its Fourth Straight Sweet Sixteen (USA Today Images)

  1. Four-Point Swing. With 3:45 remaining on the game clock and Northern Iowa still hanging around, sophomore guard Jeremy Morgan was racing upcourt with the ball and a clear path to the basket. With Louisville’s athletes chasing him and their spectacular blocked shots surely in the back of his mind, Morgan opted for a nice dump off pass to teammate Wes Washpun. Washpun’s layup attempt was caught up to and rejected from behind by Louisville’s Wayne Blackshear, leading to a transition opportunity the other way and a Montrezl Harrell dunk to complete a four-point swing that extended the Cardinals’ lead back to eight points. From that point on, the game was never again in doubt.
  2. Athleticism. Northern Iowa is a very good basketball team with a spectacular leader in senior Seth Tuttle. But Louisville’s athleticism and length were definitely something the Panthers hadn’t seen a whole lot of. It had a massive effect on that fast break attempt mentioned above and it was a factor throughout the game. The Panthers think they’ve got an open look at a three? Not so fast, as a long and athletic player in white comes swooping in to challenge the attempt. The final numbers show just four Louisville blocked shots for the game, but clean looks were hard to come by for the Panthers. In the first half, the Cards’ defensive pressure forced Northern Iowa into eight turnovers (they average 10.8 turnovers per game) in large part because that athleticism bothered them. The Panthers adjusted and got used to it in the second half, but by then much of the damage was done.
  3. Three-Point Shooting. Louisville came into the game shooting 30.5 percent from three on the season, good for 312th in the nation. Northern Iowa’s defensive strategy all year long has been to take away something that its opponent does really well and give up the things it doesn’t do that well. The goal tonight was to pack it in and encourage the Cardinals to shoot a bunch of those threes that they’ve struggled with all year. But when the Cards started the game 5-of-8 from three, it appeared like that decision was backfiring. The Cards cooled down, missing their final three attempts from behind the arc, but still wound up shooting 45.5 percent from three for the game. On the other end, Northern Iowa came in shooting 40 percent from three, good for 10th in the nation. Tonight? Just 6-of-19, or 31.5 percent. This kind of noise in a single-elimination setting is hard to make up for.

Star of the GameTerry Rozier. On a team without a bunch of guys who can create their own offense, Louisville puts a lot of pressure on Rozier to score. Against a far less athletic team that those typically found int the ACC, Rozier was mostly unstoppable. He notched 25 points for the game and his early offensive explosion caused the Panthers’ defense to divert another defender to stymie his penetration. He used that newfound attention to dish to his open teammates, leading to seven assists, the second-highest single-game total of his career.

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