All posts by Damon Del Rosario

Damon writes about college basketball for the Campus Pressbox.

2017 NCAA Tournament Notebook: Final Four Coastal War

Heading into the NCAA Tournament, not many people could’ve predicted the Final Four cast that will be on display this coming Saturday in Glendale, Arizona.  Two schools arrive from the extreme east coast, both from the Carolinas no less.  It had been since UCLA made it to their third straight Final Four in 2008 that the west coast had representation.  This year the college basketball world was graced with two left coast participants.  Each of the teams in the Final Four has at least one distinct attribute which provides an advantage over their semifinal opponent; and perhaps which will carry over into the title game.  It’s going to be a true coastal war on Saturday evening.

Standing Tall

North Carolina crushes opponents on the boards.  The Tar Heels lead the nation in rebounding margin, and that will serve as a major factor against Oregon.  Jordan Bell was a one man wrecking crew against Kansas in the Elite Eight.  How will he be able to handle UNC’s huge front line of 6-10 Kennedy Meeks, 6-9 Isaiah Hicks, and 6-10 Tony Bradley?  The ability to crash the boards, particularly on the offense end allows Justin Jackson to unleash his quick-release jumper freely, and give the Tar Heels multiple possessions.  If the Ducks can’t neutralize this quickly, it will make for a long night.

Oblivious to the Danger

Right now, Oregon is playing with absolutely no fear.  Tyler Dorsey is flat-out killing it.  Jordan Bell single-handedly terrorized Kansas around the rim, and Dillon Brooks is a willing go-to guy who is unconscious about unleashing some offense.  The Ducks have a pretty light rotation, but what they do have are multiple stars that can rise to the occasion, leaving multiple outlets if a big shot is necessary.  Oregon can play with pace to get out in transition; and have the individual offensive skills to find shots when the game bogs down in the half court.  If anyone can run with UNC, it’ll be the Ducks.

Well-balanced Diet

Mark Few’s team is the most balance team remaining.  Gonzaga can put pressure on opponents from the perimeter, slashing to the paint, or attacking the rim with size in the post.  There’s also a nice blend of veterans and young players; and more than any of the other teams remaining, the Bulldogs are likely playing with the biggest chip on their collective shoulders.  Nigel Williams-Goss is still the key cog in the machine, and he has the chops to carry the Zags for the final two games.  Gonzaga’ capacity to be multi-faceted will be crucial against South Carolina.

Up in Your Grill

Much like their coach Frank Martin, the Gamecocks have been right up in their opponent’s kitchen every single game.  South Carolina has proven to be the most physical team remaining in the field, and that will be their ace-in-the-hole.   Gonzaga struggled with West Virginia’s pressure and physicality in the Sweet 16.  While Martin’s team won’t press heavily, the constant harassment and bumping in the half court is more than sufficient to rattle cages.  Although the Gamecocks don’t have a ton of size on the front line, the guards are powerfully built, and that drives their physicality.  If South Carolina is given the freedom to play as physically as they have all tournament, Gonzaga will be battered, bruised, and possibly go bye-bye.

New Blood vs. Blue Blood

Aside from the east coast/west coast rift, the 2017 Final Four also gives us some upstart programs trying to make a name, versus one legendary program, and coach who is trying to cement his legacy.  Although Dana Altman, Mark Few, and Frank Martin have been around for quite some time, this is the breakthrough opportunity each has been waiting for.  Altman did a nice job at Creighton for many years, but never really gets mentioned among the great college basketball coaches.  Martin gave Kansas State some of its best years in the college basketball landscape, but winning a title at a football-crazed school could propel South Carolina to sustained success in hoops.  Mark Few is Gonzaga basketball.  Whether Gonzaga ascends to the upper echelon of college basketball’s elite programs, hinges upon what Few’s team does this coming weekend.

Predictions

In the first semifinal, I see Gonzaga’s depth and versatility being the deciding factor versus South Carolina.  The whistles will probably be a bit tighter especially early-on in the semifinal games, and that won’t make it easy for the Gamecocks to apply the physicality that Frank Martin’s team is accustomed to.  With a bit more free reign, Mark Few’s team will outlast South Carolina to reach Monday’s final.

As much fun as it would be to see an all west coast National Title game, I think the Tar Heels are going to simply be too much on the boards for Oregon’s slim frontline to handle.  It was one thing to punch Kansas in the mouth, as the Jayhawks only real threat in the paint was Landen Lucas.  North Carolina will pound the paint and the glass until the Ducks are beaten into submission.  Normally the pace that Oregon can play at would be a distinguished advantage, but the Tar Heels love to get out in transition, especially after giving up a basket.  North Carolina will meet Gonzaga for the championship.

Despite a topsy-turvy last few weeks, which provided a less than predictable Final Four, we’ll be left with two #1 seeds squaring off for the National Championship trophy.  Roy Williams, an all-time great, with an opportunity to carve his legendary status into stone.  And Mark Few, a great coach who has stayed the course at a school long considered a mid-major.  Winning a national title will validate not only his status as an all-time great coach, but will permanently remove the mid-major label from Gonzaga University.

Prior to the tournament, I didn’t like Gonzaga to advance past the Sweet 16.  However, the Bulldogs have gotten better as the tournament has progressed, and have the versatility and firepower to go toe-to-toe with North Carolina.  Without a doubt, Roy Williams’ team has the experience and the pedigree.  A year ago most of these same players ended the season with heartbreak against Villanova.  This year the Zags rip the Tar Heels hearts out once again.  Gonzaga 86 North Carolina 82.  The Gonzaga Bulldogs will be College Basketball’s 2017 National Champion.

E-mail Damon at  or follow him on Twitter @DamoKnowsSports.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

NCAA Tournament Midwest Region Notebook: Sweet 16 Preview

Heading into the tournament, the Midwest appeared to “chalk” heavy, with the top four seeds expected to advance to the Sweet 16.  That held true for the most part, but #7 seed Michigan busted up the heavyweight party.  Kansas and Oregon have an opportunity to restore order by advancing to the Elite Eight as the highest seeds remaining in the region, while Michigan and Purdue could set up a B1G showdown, guaranteeing a conference rep in the Final Four.

Blitzed by Moritz

Michigan pulled off the upset over #2 seed Louisville on Sunday by going with a heavy dose of Moritz Wagner.  Whereas the Cardinals chose to go away from everything that was working in squandering a nine point second half lead, Michigan repeatedly went to Wagner.  Time and time again the Wolverines set up pick and roll opportunities to exploit Louisville’s switching defense, leaving Wagner isolated on smaller defenders.  John Beilein executed on the under used mantra of running the same play until the opponent stops it.  The Cardinals never did, and Michigan is now set up for the Sweet 16 showdown with Oregon.  It’ll be interesting if Beilein will be able to utilize as much of Moritz against the athletic frontcourt of Oregon, or if the three-point barrage which was missing for much of the game against Louisville will be the weapon of choice.

Big Man Boiling Over

It’s no surprise that as Purdue has found its way to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament that Caleb Swanigan has by and large been the driving force behind it.  Swanigan has absolutely gone ballistic, displaying all the prowess which made him a blue-chip recruit; and now has him emerging as an absolute star.  After hitting Vermont with 16 points and 14 rebounds in the Round of 64, he dropped 20 and 12 on Iowa State, along with an astonishing 7 assists.  The Boilermakers are facing a different animal in the Kansas Jayhawks.  Bill Self’s team has been playing at a high level which is expected of a #1 seed.  As I mentioned prior to the tournament, the one possible sore spot for the Jayhawks is in the frontcourt.  Swanigan has enough help in the frontcourt to allow him to continue the tear that he’s on.  Don’t bet against the big man from being the difference maker if Purdue upends Kansas.

Putting the Chalk in Rock Chalk

March is the time of year when it can become en vogue for bracket filler-outers to pick against Kansas.  There have been several occasions where it would make sense to do so; and it appeared that with a Round of 32 draw against Michigan State, that 2017 would be one of those occasions.  The Jayhawks have shown through the first two rounds that was not a good idea.  Not only has Kansas won, but the Jayhawks have won big.  Not that anyone expected UC Davis to give Bill Self’s squad any fits, but many (myself included) thought that Tom Izzo’s Spartans would make the Rock Chalk faithful sweat a bit.  Kansas has an awful lot of experience, particularly in the backcourt, where it matters most come tournament time.  Frank Mason III is the catalyst, and he will be critical for the Jayhawks to continue to march on this March.  Facing a Purdue team that has its legs underneath it, after such disappointment in last year’s tournament, will be no easy task.

No Ugly Ducklings

Dana Altman’s Oregon Ducks are the other remaining team in the Midwest, but that does not make them an afterthought.  Oregon was another team that had some questions coming in to the Big Dance, and seemed susceptible to being bounced early.  The Ducks are another example of experience paying off in large measure.  Tyler Dorsey has been a beast in the first two games, and Dillon Brooks has been a steady star.  Despite being on the ropes against Rhode Island much of the game on Sunday, the veteran Oregon crew found a way back, and wiggled into the Sweet 16.  One of the biggest concerns – the loss of Chris Boucher – has not come back to bite the Ducks to this point.  The players seem to have taken the route of motivation as opposed to desperation regarding their fallen teammate.  The Ducks have the firepower and are more than capable of dispatching Michigan’s team of destiny.

The Elite Eight will be set in the Midwest by the close of business on Thursday night.  The guard play of Kansas will provide enough of an edge to outlast Caleb Swanigan’s heroics, and the Jayhawks will send Purdue with some nice memories, but nothing more.  Michigan on the other hand continues their path to destiny, at least for right now.  Seniors Derrick Walton Jr. and Zak Irvin will provide the steady guidance, and Beilein will blitz the Ducks with more Moritz to shoot down Oregon.  After getting their revenge on Louisville from the 2013 tourney, Michigan will give Kansas a crack at their own form of revenge from that same tournament.  The Jayhawks and Wolverines will battle for a spot in Phoenix.

E-mail Damon at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @DamoKnowsSports.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

2017 NCAA Tournament: Midwest Region Notebook

Good fortune finds that the region that I happened to be covering turned out to be the only part of the bracket I predicted 100% correctly after the Round of 64.  No real surprises, as the top seeds took care of things in a business like fashion; and the only higher seeds to advance – #9 Michigan State and #11 Rhode Island – were anticipated.  The Round of 32 presents some intriguing match-ups as the first weekend of the Big Dance commences.

Close but no Cigar

I mentioned in my tournament preview on Thursday that the Midwest felt like a bracket that would not have much in the way of double-digit upsets.  The teams I felt were most likely, if any, to pull off upsets were Vermont and Nevada.  I make the mistake every year of picking a few too many of the 11-13 seeds to advance out of the Round of 64.  In customary fashion, both of these schools played very well, and hung tough for the majority of their respective games, but in the end Purdue and Iowa State were able to outlast the upstarts.  No surprise that Monte Morris led the way for the Cyclones, and B1G player of the year Caleb Swanigan did the most damage for the Boilermakers.  This sets up a 4/5 tilt between two schools recently plagued by early tournament failures, and something’s gotta give.

Wolverines continue their tear; have a shot at Revenge

The #4 seed Michigan Wolverines kept on rolling, outlasting Oklahoma State 92-91 in one of the more entertaining opening round games.  Senior Derrick Walton Jr. led the way with 26 points and 11 assists, setting up a Sunday afternoon showdown with Louisville.  The Cardinals once again got off to a shaky start, allowing themselves to fall into a 10-2 hole, before taking the lead permanently with just under seven minutes left in the first half.  The Cards got surprisingly strong contributions from big men Mangok Mathiang and Ray Spalding in order to outlast Jacksonville State.  Michigan has an opportunity to grab a little revenge, as John Beilien’s Wolverines fell in the 2013 National Championship game to Rick Pitino’s Cardinals.

Ram Tough

Dan Hurley’s Rhode Island team handily dispatched #6 Creighton, lining up one of the match-ups I was most looking forward to in this tournament, a date with the #3 seed Oregon Ducks.  All five starters scored in double figures, led by freshman Jeff Dowtin, who along with E.C. Matthews, went 10-10 from the free throw line.  The Rams will need every bit of toughness they have in them, as Oregon handled their business the way the tops seeds should, running up 55 points in the first half, and cruising to victory.  When Dana Altman’s team exerts all of their talent, the Ducks are elite.  This will be a fun game on Sunday.

This is Sparta!

The 2016-17 instillation of the Michigan State Spartans isn’t the typical powerhouse that Tom usually has at his disposal.  Coach Izzo knows how to pull the right strings at the right times, and now is presented with a golden opportunity to knock out top-seeded Kansas.  The Spartans thumped the Miami Hurricanes, and now await the Jayhawks, who, as expected, destroyed UC Davis to move into the Round of 32.  What was expected was the performance of Michigan State’s powerful freshman Miles Bridges and Nick Ward.  The keys on Sunday will be how Izzo’s club deals with the Kansas backcourt, particularly Frank Mason III, and whether the Jayhawks have enough support for senior Landen Lucas on the interior, in order to keep him on the floor.  I like Bill Self’s team to get through, but it may be a battle of attrition.

The Midwest Region is set up to have an outstanding Sweet 16.  Purdue or Iowa State will grab the first slot as that game caps off the action on Saturday night; then everyone else will fill in the gaps on Sunday.  Here’s hoping I can keep one clean region, and have each of my picks roll through, including #11 seed Rhode Island, there to upset the apple cart, and close out the opening weekend of the 2017 NCAA Tournament.

E-mail Damon at  or follow him on Twitter @DamoKnowsSports.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

It’s not a Homer Pick if my Team can Win it All

As much as I love the Louisville Cardinals basketball team, I always muse that it’s much easier to remain objective picking my March Madness bracket if the Cards don’t make the field.  Now, that’s typically a rare occurrence, and fortunately, over the last decade or so, UofL has been in the discussion as a national title contender, so picking them to win isn’t an outlandish proposition.  This past Monday, I rapidly completed my bracket, and immediately tweeted my prediction that Louisville will win it all.  Within minutes of making announcing my choice, I had several friends drop the “Homer” label on me.  So, I ask the question, is it really a homer pick if the team you root for is a legitimate contender?  I say no.  Ponder that as you read through my predictions for the entire bracket.

East Region

The defending Champion Villanova Wildcats reside here, and it’s their region for the taking.  Jay Wright’s team is battle-tested, and looks more than capable of a repeat.  Let’s not be too hasty, as there are a number of hazards on the road to Phoenix.

Dangerous on Day 1:

Watch out for the UNC-Wilmington Seahawks.  Kevin Keatts is from the Rick Pitino coaching tree, and he has put together a dangerous squad.  In last year’s tournament, the Seahawks pushed Duke to the limit in the Round of 64 before losing a hard-fought game by just eight points.   The Seahawks will push the pace and play pressure defense, which will be in direct contrast to Virginia, as they get another ACC foe this year.  If UNCW can dictate tempo, it could spell early round trouble for the Cavaliers.  While Tony Bennett’s team is always one of the toughest defensively, their style keeps opponents within striking distance, which could play right into Wilmington’s hands.

Early Exit:

Baylor ripped off 15 straight wins to open the season, and looked like an elite team.  While the Bears aren’t completely abysmal, an early disappearing act may be on its way.  Baylor is 5-5 over its final 10 games; and is scuffling enough that a loss to New Mexico State in the opening round, or a run-in with a powerful and hungry SMU team in the Round of 32 should be the demise of Scott Drew’s club.

Pivotal Match-Up:

The most critical match-up to affect this region will be Virginia vs. Villanova, part two.  Part one on January 29 was an absolute classic, as the Cavaliers led most of the way, on the road no less.  The Wildcats scratched and clawed their way back into the game late, and won 61-59 on Donte DiVincenzo tip in as time expired.  I suspect round two will be just as grinding as the first meeting, only with a trip to the Elite Eight on the line.  I have Nova surviving it, but no matter which team comes out of it, they’ll be in prime form to make it out of the East Region.

Dark Horse:

Fittingly, the SMU Mustangs are the dark horse in the East.  A bit under the radar, and under -appreciated coming out of the AAC, Tim Jankovich’s team has something to prove.  The Mustangs have an awful lot of length, and a ton of experience, led by the powerful Semi Ojeleye.   The Ponies haven’t lost since January 22 at Cincinnati 66-64, and the Bearcats finished just a game behind SMU in the standings.  Facing a favorable #3 Seed in Baylor, and then a Duke team which is heavily reliant on young players, there’s a strong chance the Mustangs can aptly fulfill the dark horse role.

Who Wins the East?

I’ve gotta stick with the Villanova Wildcats.  Whether the Cats have it in them to repeat once they arrive at the Final Four, I can’t say, or at least won’t say just yet; but this team has enough talented pieces to chase a mini dynasty.  With a rock-solid backcourt of Jaylen Brunson and senior leader Josh Hart, along with last year’s hero, senior Kris Jenkins, it would be a good bet to book a reservation for Nova in Phoenix.

West Region

The OCD in me loves that we actually got two western teams as the top seeds with #1 Gonzaga and #2 Arizona.  It feels like there’s a real opportunity for the west coast to get some representation in the Final Four; and in the case of Zona, have a distinct home court advantage.

Dangerous on Day 1:

The West has many double-digit seeds that I think can stop some hearts in the Round of 64.  Xavier is one, although they’re not an under-the-radar candidate.  The same goes for VCU.  However, the 12, 13, 14 seeds, Princeton, Bucknell, and Florida Gulf-Coast may also pose some problems.  My personal pick is Bucknell.  The Bison have the mid-major formula of solid veteran guards, along with sufficient frontcourt size, which leads to upsets.  Guys like Zach Thomas, Nana Foulland, and Stephen Brown may inject themselves into the American consciousness with a win of West Virginia, and potential battle with Notre Dame.  The West may be blown up by day two.

Early Exit:

West Virginia is my odds-on favorite to get bounced.  Naturally, as I picked Bucknell, as my double-digit danger choice; and the Bison face the Mountaineers.  Not that there’s anything particularly wrong with West Virginia.  Bob Huggins’ team got plucked in the Round of 64 last year, and feel like a good candidate to get bounced, in what could be a topsy-turvy region.  If I had to pick another top seed that may be at peril, it would be Florida State.   Leonard Hamilton has put together a talented group led by sophomore 6-7 guard Dwayne Bacon.  However, these Seminoles haven’t experienced the tournament yet.  If the Noles get past Florida Gulf Coast, the Round of 32 could be the end of the road.

Pivotal Match-Up:

A Sweet 16 tilt between Gonzaga and Notre Dame is my key match-up for this region.  Mark Few has had the Bulldogs on the precipice of the Final Four in the past, only to have his talented, expectation-laden teams fall short.  This rendition of Gonzaga has a go-to star in Nigel Williams-Goss, and plenty of heft manning the middle with Przemek Karnowski.  Many feel like this is the year for the Zags to finally break through.  Not so fast.  The Golden Domers are essentially the same team that has been to the Elite Eight the past two seasons.  Mike Brey’s team is led by the versatile Bonzie Colson, and has plenty of exterior firepower as well with Steve Vasturia and V.J. Beachem.  I think the Irish make a third consecutive trip to the Elite Eight, and leave Gonzaga fans longing for that elusive Final Four run.

Dark Horse:

The aforementioned Notre Dame Fighting Irish team is my dark horse.  Yes, the Irish are a #5 seed, but certainly are not considered favorites to escape the region.  The experience on hand, along with the tournament success this team has gained over the previous two seasons, makes Brey’s team extremely dangerous.  Assuming Notre Dame gets past Gonzaga, there’s no reason that Arizona, or whichever opponent finds their way to the Elite Eight, can’t be eliminated by the Fighting Irish.

Who Wins the West?

I’ve barely mentioned the Arizona Wildcats up until now, but Sean Miller’s squad is my choice to win the West.  The Wildcats are at the top of their game heading into the NCAA Tournament, having won nine of their last 10 games, including capturing the Pac-12 tournament title.  6-5 sophomore Alonzo Trier is a do-everything type of player and 7-0 super frosh Lauri Markkanen is rapidly becoming one of the best players in the country.  Miller just missed the Final Four in 2015.  This year he’ll get Zona to Phoenix for a shot at the National Championship.

Midwest Region

The Midwest Region seems to have laid out fairly well for my Louisville Cardinals.  Without a doubt Kansas can’t be taken lightly as the #1 seed.  However, #3 seed Oregon just lost a key player.  #4 Purdue is good, but definitely not elite, and the Cardinals have already beaten the Boilermakers.  And #5 seed Iowa State has been a huge disappointment the last few years come March.  Of course, I say this, and the entire region could blow-up in my face.

Dangerous on Day 1:

When I look at the Midwest, I think chalk.  It just feels like a section of the bracket that will end up staying to form, as few of the double-digit seeds feel like a huge upset threat.  If I had to guess which teams have a shot, I’d point out Nevada and Vermont.  The Wolfpack won the Mountain West regular season, and tournament titles, and closed the season winning eight in a row.  The Catamounts haven’t lost a game since December 21, closing out the regular season with 21 wins in a row.  Both teams face opponents – Iowa State and Purdue – which have displayed the propensity to get clipped early in the tournament.  Beware.

Early Exit:

I referenced in my Midwest Region Preview yesterday, that Oregon’s biggest challenge heading into the NCAA Tournament is the loss of Chris Boucher to injury.  Most teams that suffer loss of key personnel typically either rally around it, or sulk and lose focus.  My bet is on the latter.  Top player Dillon Brooks can be a star, but he also has his own meltdowns and antics which distract from the team.  Round of 64 opponent Iona played NCAA tourney participants Florida State and Nevada early in the year; and knocked off Nevada in the second match-up.  The Ducks will likely get past the Gaels, but my prediction is that Oregon will run into red-hot Rhode Island, and get shot down quickly.

Pivotal Match-Up:

It may seem a bit early to be considered a pivotal match-up, but the potential Kansas/Michigan State game will play a major factor in this region.  The Spartans have been down this season.  So down, that for a while it felt like Tom Izzo’s team wouldn’t make the Big Dance.  Well, here come the Spartans, landing at a #9 seed, just in time to bug the hell out of top seeded Kansas.  Honestly, there’s no reason the Jayhawks shouldn’t knock off MSU.  However, the one major weakness for Kansas is in the frontcourt where Bill Self’s team is a bit thin.  That just happens to be a strength of the Spartans.  If Kansas escapes, it will likely propel the Jayhawks to great fortune.  If not, the Midwest Region really opens up.

Dark Horse:

#11 seed Rhode Island is the sleeper in this region.  The Rams closed strong, winning eight of nine; and have a win over Cincinnati under their belts early in the year.  Undoubtedly, URI starts with a difficult contest against #6 Creighton, and would likely have to take on #3 Oregon in the Round of 32.  With the way the Rams are playing, solid inside-outside balance, and up-and-coming Dan Hurley at the helm, Rhode Island has the look of a Cinderella.  I envision the Rams riding that late-season success into an Elite Eight appearance.

Who Wins the Midwest?

I have the Louisville Cardinals coming out of the Midwest.  As I mentioned in my preview of the Midwest, the Cardinals have their flaws.  Most of those flaws however are self-inflicted.  This is a team that can play multiple defenses, get out in transition, and pick teams apart.  Focusing on applying the death blow is what Louisville needs to add to the repertoire to advance deep into the tournament.  Rick Pitino will adjust the rotations, and as usual, have some tricks he kept hidden all season, which will put UofL on the right path toward the Final Four.

South Region

There’s always one region which seems to have a lion’s share of top programs, and could almost be considered a “Group of Death”.  The South is it this year.  Arguably the top three college basketball programs of all time – KentuckyNorth Carolina, and UCLA – all reside in the South.  What makes this region really fun though, is that in addition to all that tradition, some of the most dangerous double-digit seeds also found their way here.

Dangerous on Day 1:

This one is easy; the most dangerous high seed is #12 Middle Tennessee State.  The Blue Raiders pulled off the biggest upset in NCAA Tournament history last year, knocking off #2 seed Michigan State.  Much of that squad is back for a second helping, and now they have 6-8 senior JaCorey Williams.  The Arkansas transfer leads MTSU in scoring at 17 points per game.  In the Round of 64, the Blue Raiders get Richard Pitino’s #5 Minnesota Golden Gophers.  The Gophers are back in the tournament field after having a miserable 2015-16 season, finishing 8-23.  Without a doubt, Pitino did a masterful job turning this team around, but the visit to the tournament may be short-lived.

Early Exit:

Once again John Calipari has an uber-talented group of freshmen, forecasted for greatness, which captured the SEC regular season and tournament titles.  Kentucky has won 10 games in a row, and may possibly be hitting their stride.  Like most of Calipari’s teams, in-game focus, and reliance on physical ability over substance, are the most glaring flaws.  On most nights, the Wildcats can overcome those.  Enter Wichita State as the foe in Round 2.  Greg Marshall’s team has reeled off 15 wins in a row, and has faced tournament teams, Louisville, Michigan State, and Oklahoma State this season.  The Shockers were also woefully under-seeded by the tournament committee.  That sounds familiar.  Like 2014 familiar when Wichita State was undefeated and a #1 seed, and had to face a Kentucky team that ended up with a peculiar #8 seed.  Turnabout is fair play.  Wichita gets revenge on Kentucky, and sends the Cats packing.

Pivotal Match-Up:

It has to be Kentucky vs. Wichita State.  If my forecast is correct, and the Shockers knock off the Wildcats, then things open up for UCLA.  Not that the Bruins can’t take down Kentucky, they’ve done so the last two years in row.  This year, Steve Alford’s team traveled to Rupp Arena and did it.  Despite my prediction, it will take everything Wichita has to defeat the Wildcats.  Many times, that type of effort leads to a let-down the following game.  If Kentucky gets through the Shockers, then Calipari’s team has vengeance on the mind, and a more talented opponent for the Bruins to have in their way.

Dark Horse:

The Cincinnati Bearcats haven’t been able to recapture the success experienced under Bob Huggins in the 1990’s.  Now relegated to the AAC after the Big East restructure several seasons ago, UC doesn’t garner a lot of respect.  Mick Cronin’s team could punch some teams square in the face and take back respect.  Cincy plays a physical brand of basketball, particularly on the defensive end.  That has been Cronin’s hallmark.  Senior point guard Troy Caupain runs this team with aplomb.  Juniors Gary Clark and North Carolina State transfer Kyle Washington provide a strong frontcourt, to go with the scoring punch of 6-6 sophomore Jacob Evans.  Assuming the Bearcats get by Kansas State in the opener, UC could present a tough match-up for UCLA in the Round of 32.

Who Wins the South?

Although I’m never sold on Steve Alford coached teams, I’ve got the UCLA Bruins getting out of the South, and giving the Final Four its second west coast rep.  There’s an awful lot of talent on board for the Bruins, particularly super freshman Lonzo Ball and T.J. Leaf.  Ball does just about everything, and Leaf leads the UCLA in scoring.       Blend that with veteran contributions from senior Isaac Hamilton and junior Thomas Welsh, and the Bruins have the arsenal available to make a run at the NCAA title.

THE FINAL FOUR:

The first semifinal pits a couple of Wildcats against each other.  Defending champion Villanova against traditional power Arizona.  Nova has all the moxie, veteran experience, and the championship in their hands until someone rips it away.  Josh Hart is one of the toughest players around, and always seems to make the necessary play to win.  I think the biggest difference will be up front.  Lauri Markkanen is getting better by leaps and bounds every game.  The size issue that Zona presents will be the difference as Arizona gets back to the NCAA title game for the first time since 2001.

On the other side of the bracket, Louisville and UCLA square off.  It’s been some time since the Cardinals and Bruins have played, so it’ll be nice to see these traditional powers, and rivals of the 70s and 80s get back together.  The Bruins can put up some serious points, and have an edge in overall depth of talent, but that gap isn’t as large as you’d think.  Getting out in transition is just what Donovan Mitchell and Deng Adel want to do for the Cardinals, and if UofL doesn’t have to settle for jump shots, it’s for the best, as that runs hot and cold for the Cards.  The biggest difference here is coaching and experience.  Rick Pitino is a far superior strategist than Steve Alford.  The Cardinals also have several holdovers from the 2015 Elite Eight run, including Quentin Snider and Mangok Mathiang.  After having to miss out on the Big Dance last year, the Cardinals are hungry for more, and get through to the Championship game.

THE NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP:

Arizona Wildcats.  Louisville Cardinals.  This is a National Championship game that I crave.  Sean Miller’s star continues to rise, as he brings Arizona back to the prominence.  Rick Pitino continues his master craftsmanship of molding elite basketball teams.  Alonzo Trier and Donovan Mitchell will be the showstoppers.  Much of the talent position by position will be crossed out.  Louisville has the big men to throw different looks at Lauri Markkanen, and limit the freshman’s impact on the game.  The X-factor will be junior point guard Quentin Snider.  Q can very quietly step up in the biggest moments, and his control of the game, and perhaps a big shot or two, will decide this one.  Rick Pitino gets his third, and the Louisville Cardinals grab their fourth National Championship.

E-mail Damon at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @DamoKnowsSports.

NCAA Tournament: Midwest Region Preview

At first blush, the Midwest Region seems to be destined to have the top seeds represented in the Sweet 16 and Elite 8; but questions abound for Kansas, Louisville, and Oregon as the opening rounds approach.  Although most of the double-digit seeds in this region don’t appear to pose a serious threat, there’s at least one that may knock heads with the big boys.

Jayhawks are going to Kansas City, Kansas City here they come!

There’s no reason to suspect that the Kansas Jayhawks shouldn’t find their way to KC, but will they be able to go any further?  Bill Self’s team had another incredible season, scattering four losses throughout the year, including bookends in the season opener, and to close the season in the Big 12 semifinals.   Despite their immensely talented backcourt led by Frank Mason III, Devonte Graham, and Josh Jackson, the Jayhawks frontcourt is a bit thin.  Could a potential matchup with Michigan State and the Spartan’s tough frontcourt combo of Miles Bridges and Nick Ward be too much for Landen Lucas to handle on his own?  This is the time of year that Tom Izzo starts working his magic, but if he can’t, top seeded Kansas should be bound for Kansas City, and a shot to advance out of the Midwest Regional Final.

Cardinals need more Dr. Jekyll, less Mr. Hyde

Louisville may be the one of deepest and most talented teams in the Midwest region, and perhaps the country.  However, the biggest issue this team has shown has been its wild personality swings.  Particularly glaring during late season losses to Wake Forest and Duke, the Cards have displayed a propensity to squander big leads.  UofL can dominate the vast majority of a game, only to completely go away from everything that is working.  Those lapses are what terrify and infuriate the Louisville fan base.  What is most shocking is that this tendency manifested early in the season during Louisville’s first loss of the year to Baylor.  The Cardinals let a 22 point lead slip before falling to the Bears in the Bahamas.  That may just be the identity of this year’s version of the Louisville Cardinals.  I suspect that Rick Pitino will tighten up the rotation, which should provide more cohesiveness; and Donovan “Spida” Mitchell is the type of player that can carry a team into early April.  If the Cards are Dr. Jekyll, they could win it all; if they’re Mr. Hyde, it could be a very early exit.

Rough Rhode ahead for the Ducks

Oregon has spent the entire 2016-17 season among the nation’s elite teams, and still has a loaded roster, and excellent coach in Dana Altman to lead them deep into this tournament.  Much will depend on the way the Ducks respond to the loss of versatile 6-10 senior Chris Boucher.  While Boucher was important, this team goes as junior Dillon Brooks goes.  However, the injury essentially cost Oregon a seed line, which is ridiculous since seeding should be based on a team’s body of work.  Will the Duck’s be ultra-motivated by the injury and a little bit of a slight by the committee, or will these late season factors lead to a bit of a malaise?  I’m leaning toward the latter.  Assuming Oregon survives the Round of 64 against Iona, the Ducks may be in for a rude awakening in the Round of 32 against Rhode Island.

Rams are a dark horse?

Don’t sleep on Rhode Island.  As mentioned above, URI could be a serious stumbling block for Oregon should they run into each other in the Round of 32.  The Rams were sitting squarely on the bubble, and then ripped off eight wins in a row, and took the Atlantic 10 Tournament title to ensure a spot in the field.  Dan Hurley’s squad has solid inside-outside balance with E.C. Matthews and Hassan Martin; and has shown a ton of grit down the stretch.  In a region that appears to be set up for the chalk to advance, Rhode Island is poised to make a run.  Certainly the opener against the Creighton Blue Jays will be no cakewalk, but if the Rams escape, there’s no reason that Hurley’s club can’t bounce the 3 seed Oregon, and find themselves in the Sweet 16.

Perfect storm for the Cyclones

Over the last few seasons, Iowa State has been a huge disappointment (I know they’ve killed my bracket), but the path the Cyclones face may be tailor-made to make amends.   I loved the Steve Prohm hire when Fred Hoiberg bolted for the NBA; and although it took some time to come together, ISU has the pieces in place to do some damage this year.  A rare senior-laden team in college basketball, the Cyclones are in great hands, particularly with Naz Long and Monte Morris.  After several bitter tournament showings, look for Iowa State to get past #4 seed Purdue, to set up another Big 12 showdown with rival Kansas in the Sweet 16.

North Carolina Central and UC Davis will square off on Wednesday for the right to be the first roadblock for the Jayhawks on their way to a cozy spot in Kansas City.  There should be a lot of answers about the Midwest Region when the Round of 32 wraps up on Friday evening, but don’t be surprised if there are even more questions.

E-mail Damon at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @DamoKnowsSports.

Photo via Flickr/Brett Hurd

Strong Recruiting May Propel Non-Traditional Powers onto National Scene in ‘17

As we move toward summer, and the quiet period for college basketball, there is still some work to be done before things settle down until the fall.  A few Top 100 recruits remain uncommitted, the NBA pre-draft combine is coming up, and of course, a number of early entry candidates will make a decision to stay in the NBA Draft, or return to school.

While most of the big-name schools pepper the top of the recruiting class rankings again this year, there were a handful of non-traditional hoops schools that secured top classes.  Here’s an early look at four schools which aren’t typically among the hoops elite, but may be set up to make some noise during the 2016-17 college basketball season.

Mississippi State Bulldogs

When Ben Howland landed at Mississippi State, I immediately thought it was a great hire for the school, and a chance for a solid coach to revive his career.  Going into his first season, Howland was able to secure one of the top recruits in the nation when he landed Malik Newman.   Although year one wasn’t a huge success, finishing 14-17, 7-11 in the SEC, Howland has shown in his previous stints at Pittsburgh and UCLA, that he knows how to craft a team.

This year, Coach Howland was able to secure the seventh ranked recruiting class.  The Bulldogs landed four players ranked in the top 100, headlined by big-man Schnider Herard, and combo forward Mario Kegler.  Herard is positioned nicely to have an immediate impact replacing Gavin Ware on the interior, while Kegler can provide the inside-outside versatility which is key to today’s game.

MSU will return one of its leading scorers in 6’4″ sophomore Quinndary Weatherspoon; and most importantly, could see Newman return for at least one more year.  Although he put his name into the pool for early NBA Draft entry, currently Newman is projected as a mid-second round pick, so it may be in his best interest to return to school.  If Newman returns and has the breakout initially expected of him, Mississippi State could improve by leaps and bounds.

Miami Hurricanes

Sure, the Hurricanes made it to the Elite Eight this past season, but Miami isn’t consistently able to keep itself among the nation’s top programs.  Perhaps this will be the beginning, as Jim Larranaga has picked up the #10 recruiting class this year, and can build on last season’s success.

Now, the Canes are losing a ton with the departures of seniors Angel Rodriguez, Sheldon McClellan, and Tonye Jekiri.  However, Davon Reed and Ja’Quan Newton will be back in the fold.  Reed and Newton averaged 11 and 10 points per game respectively.  In addition to the returnees, Miami has two top 40 kids coming on board in Dewan Huell and Bruce Brown.

Huell should bring a ton of skill and athleticism to the Hurricanes’ frontcourt.  He’ll also have an immediate impact on the defensive end, an aspect of the game which usually keeps freshman off the floor.  That shouldn’t be an issue for Huell.  Brown is known for his aggression and confidence on both ends of the floor.  That mentality will serve him well in the uber-competitive ACC.  It’s always difficult to remain at the top of the conference in the ACC, but Larranaga should have Miami right in the mix to continue their winning ways with this group.

Florida State Seminoles

Undoubtedly, most of the folks in Tallahassee are focusing on what the Noles will be doing on the gridiron this fall, but they may be in for a treat come winter time as well.  In 2015, Leonard Hamilton’s crew was a bit up and down, missing the NCAA Tournament, and getting ousted in the second round of the NIT.  Looking forward to the 2016-17 season, FSU has already gotten some good news.

After initially testing the waters for the NBA Draft, last year’s top recruit and leading scorer Dwayne Bacon has decided to return.  The 6’7″ Bacon averaged nearly 16 points and six rebounds per game last year, and could be poised for an even bigger sophomore season.  Along with Bacon, junior Xavier Rathan-Mayes announced he would be heading back to school as well.  His return bodes well for the Seminoles’ backcourt for the upcoming season.

Probably the best news this offseason came when top 15 recruit Jonathan Isaac decided to stick with Florida State, rather than try his luck in the NBA Draft.  Isaac is a skilled and athletic big man, but is a bit of a beanpole at 6’10”, 205 lbs.  With Bacon and Rathan-Mayes back, along with a number of guys who saw important minutes last season, Isaac will have a chance to develop, without all of the pressure being heaped on him.  There’s also still a chance that Hamilton gets one more helping of good news, if freshman Malik Beasley decides to come back.  As of now he’s projected as a late first round pick, but if Beasley returns, Florida State could have a big year.

Texas Longhorns

Unlike Leonard Hamilton at Florida State, Shaka Smart’s second installment at Texas took a bit of a hit this offseason.  After leading the Longhorns in scoring as a freshman, Isaiah Taylor made the decision to not only enter the NBA Draft, but to immediately hire an agent.  That closed the book on the 6’1″ Taylor’s career at Texas.

Don’t feel too bad for Coach Smart though.  Even though his first season ended on a brutal buzzer beater to Northern Iowa, Shaka overachieved a bit getting his squad to the NCAA Tournament.  Now with a top 15 recruiting class, he’s well on his way to getting the Longhorns back in the national picture.

Shaka can look forward to increase contributions from three returnees from last year’s freshman class.  Kerwin Roach Jr., Eric Davis Jr., and Tevin Mack all played significant minutes in 2015-16, and should make further progress this year under Smart’s tutelage.  Senior Shaquille Cleare will be the only big man returning who played double figure minutes.

All of the departures should pave the way for what is tabbed as the 15th rated recruiting class in the nation.  At the top of the list for Texas is versatile guard Andrew Jones.   At 6’4″, Jones can play both guard spots, can create for others, and attack the basket.  The backcourt will get additional help from Jacob Young, a 6-foot point guard prospect who was ranked near the top 100.  Given the lack of frontcourt depth, James Banks will have an excellent opportunity to play right away, and an instant impact will be needed.  Banks is the kind of big man Shaka Smart likes, as he has the athleticism to run the floor, and should be a contributor on defense right away.  If Coach Smart continues to grab recruiting classes like this, it’s not going to take long for havoc to take hold at Texas.

Year in and year out, we have a good idea of what the Kentuckys, Dukes and Michigan States of the world will do not only in recruiting, but during the college basketball season as well.  Keep an eye out as the 2016-17 season gets into full swing, as these historical football powers put their stamp on the hardwood.

E-mail Damon at or follow him on Twitter @DamoKnowsSports.

Photo via Flickr/Kenneth Banks

New NBA Early Entry Rules are a Good Thing, but will they Change Anything?

The NCAA took a step in the right direction, when they implemented a new rules allowing college basketball players additional time to decide whether or not to enter the NBA Draft.  In the new environment, players will be able to wait until 10 days after the NBA combine to determine if they will stay or go.  In theory, this should provide ample time to get valuable feedback from scouts, NBA teams, college coaches, along with family and advisors, in order to make the best decision.  The question is whether or not the players will do just that?

Immediately after the college basketball regular season ended, a significant number of players (both expected and unexpected), put their names into NBA Draft consideration.  Sam Vecenie from CBSSports.com began ranking all of the early entrants this past Friday.  It makes sense that just about anyone and everyone should test the waters.  With the ability to withdraw after the NBA Combine, as opposed to the previous set up which required a decision to be made a month before, players should have all the information they need.

However, one of the first things college underclassmen need to do – or not do – is hire an agent.  Year after year we see players who really have no business doing so, not only enter the draft, but immediately hire an agent.  You would think that with more time at their disposal, players will be more likely to wait until they’re confident in their draft status before taking that step.  Will they though?  Looking at Vecenie’s list, there are 20 players who have already hired agents.  Now some of those will definitely be drafted in the first round, but many are listed as “second round to undrafted” status.  The rules are designed to provide options, and hiring an agent completely removes those options.

It will be interesting to see how the new rules impact players’ evaluations of the sheer draft numbers.  There are only 60 draft slots, and with the additional time to assess draft status, before the deadline, everyone will know whether or not they are among those 60.  This should lead to many players rushing back to campus.  Will that actually happen?  Similar to the practice of hiring an agent, it always seems that underclassmen either ignore the numbers or simply choose not to look at them.

Prior to the new rules, assessing the numbers should’ve been a pretty simple exercise.  Check out a couple of NBA Mock Drafts like this one from Draft Express and see if your name is listed.  If your name isn’t listed in the first round, head back to school.  Or, if your goal was simply to be drafted, check the second round as well, and if not listed, head back to school.  Again, this doesn’t happen.  New-found patience is unlikely to be learned via the updated rules.

With all of the critical feedback which should be coming the way of the players, hopefully it will sink in and lead to clearer thinking.  So few draft slots are available that the math should be first grade simple.  The underclassmen rankings alone should provide a stark reality.  Add in the fact that those rankings, along with the mock drafts, don’t account for 15-20 college seniors who will be in the mix, along with 10-15 international players who will also be drafted.  Prior to the deadline, there should be plenty of information available to any player testing the waters, whether or not they fit into one of those draft slots.  It will be interesting to see if they use it to their advantage, or completely disregard the numbers.

There’s a real opportunity for both the college and NBA games to improve because of the new early entry rules.  Hopefully, given the additional time to assess players, NBA organizations will be able to more accurately project which players are ready for the jump, and provide honest feedback to those who aren’t.  This, in turn, should lead to players, and their circle of support, honestly evaluating their draft stock.  In theory, if more underclassmen return to school for further development, the college game will benefit not only from their skills, but also from their experience.  This year’s NCAA Tournament showed that experience is critical to success.

In the long run, the NBA should benefit as well.  First, with more “draftable” players available, teams will be getting better quality right away, rather than drafting projects and waiting on development.  Second, those players who returned to school should be that much better when they do enter the draft in two to three years.  With more finished products being drafted in the future, NBA rosters will be made up of more substance and less potential.  This won’t stop NBA front offices from mis-evaluating players based on hype, but it should reduce how often it occurs.

My hope is that this will lead to a higher quality NBA.  One which more closely resembles the glory of the 1980’s and ‘90’s.  This will all be contingent however, on whether or not all parties involved actually maximize the value of these changes.  More than ever, the ball will be in the court of the college underclassmen to use the information provided, and be honest with themselves when they make their draft decisions.

E-mail Damon at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @DamoKnowsSports.

Photo via Flickr/Brent Soderberg

NCAA Tournament Notebook: The Greatest National Championship Ever

What. A. Game!  The #1 seed North Carolina Tar Heels and #2 seed Villanova Wildcats were the rightful owners of the final two spots in the tournament, and didn’t disappoint.  In what may be the greatest National Championship game in history, Kris Jenkins ripped the hearts out of the Tar Heels at the buzzer, to bring the trophy back to Villanova.  Here’s how they did it.

Cats Camouflaged the Defense:

From the outset of the game, Villanova continuously ran varying defensive looks at North Carolina.  The Wildcats deployed a light three-quarter court press periodically, just to keep the transition in check.  By mixing up man-to-man and hybrid zone looks, the Tar Heels could never really get into a great rhythm.  Even when North Carolina would get a guard defending Brice Johnson, or Kennedy Meeks, they struggled to get the ball inside.  The Villanova guards pulled the old trick of not making body contact.  Post players hate that move.

Lettin’ Them Play:

In a season in which several rule changes were implemented, and there was heavy concern about the competency of referees across college hoops, these officials did a solid job of letting the game play out.  They were inconspicuous for much of the first half and allowed a lot of bumping, and physical play, while at the same time, not rushing to call the travels which resulted from the bumping.  Credit the refs for not taking center stage.

Flip the Script:

Early on, Villanova inverted its guards on a number of opportunities.  They focused on posting up Ryan Arcidiacono and Josh Hart, taking the Carolina bigs away from the paint, and allowing paint touches.  This took pressure off of the perimeter, and freed up some clean looks.  Late in the game the Tar Heels did a solid job of taking that away, and blocked a number of shots on Villanova drives, which put them in position to tie the game late.

Uber Efficiency:

Joel Berry and Justin Jackson displayed extreme efficiency at the start, going 6-6 from three-point range in the first half.  Nova did a solid job of limiting the offensive boards that UNC got, almost eliminating the threat of the put-back, but it did provide opportunities for open threes.  Although Carolina dropped off slightly in the second half, it still came up with enough big shots, including Marcus Paige’s ridiculous double-clutch to tie the game with less than five seconds to play.

Crisp Offensive Sets:

The Wildcats were extraordinarily patient all game.  They never went away from what got them to this point.  Drive and kick action, dribble penetration leading to backdoor cuts, and avoiding challenge shots allowed them to shoot at a high percentage once again.

On the flip side, you could see the frustration on the faces of the Tar Heels in the second half when they got behind.  North Carolina played into the Nova game plan on offense, forcing challenged shots and attempting to create faux transition chances in order to jump-start a run.  It’s a credit to how talented the Tar Heels are that they were within seconds of winning, despite the execution of Villanova.

Man Up on the Glass:

The glaring weakness heading into the game was Villanova’s lack of size and depth compared to North Carolina.  I pictured a load of offensive put-backs by the Tar Heels as I analyzed this match-up.  The Wildcats completely nullified that.  Aside from the constant changing of defensive looks, Villanova’s energy and physicality outmatched Carolina.  Surprisingly, Josh Hart was one of the most important guys on the glass, snaring seven defensive rebounds.  The inability of North Carolina to be effective on the offensive glass was a deciding factor.

The Closing Sequence:

After going up by three with a couple of free throws from Hart, the Wildcats simply had to defend for one possession to claim the title.  It appeared that they would foul UNC to avoid a game-tying three-point shot, but chose not to, which I absolutely agree with.  Despite the result, Nova played some solid defense.  There’s no way you can account for what Marcus Paige was able to do with that insane double-clutch three.  And, if they had fouled, the College Basketball world would have been denied a legendary finish.

With barely more than four seconds left, it appeared Arcidiacono would simply pull up for a long triple.  Instead he showed tremendous patience, teeing up Kris Jenkins for as clean a look as you can ask for, and he absolutely laced it.  Thank you Kris for making me look like a genius.

What may have been the greatest National Championship game in College Basketball history ended in the best possible fashion.   I don’t care what anyone says, this was an unbelievable season, and it culminated with an outstanding NCAA Tournament.  Next season can’t come soon enough.

E-mail Damon at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @DamoKnowsSports.

Photo: NCAA

2016 NCAA Tournament Notebook: Final Four Recap

 

Although it’s always fun for the National Semifinal games to be heart-stoppers; you do have to admire and respect it when teams dominate their opponents with efficiency.  That’s exactly what we got in both Semifinal match-ups on Saturday night at the Final Four in Houston.  While an easy win was predictable for North Carolina over Syracuse; I don’t think that anyone expected Villanova to completely bottle up Buddy Hield, and an Oklahoma offense which had been on fire all tournament.

Defense was the Difference for the Wildcats:

Coming into the game on Saturday, Villanova and Oklahoma appeared to be eerily similar teams, practically mirror images of one another.  Both like to push the pace offensively, and rely heavily perimeter shots.  Both teams start three guards who can all handle the ball, and provide plenty of offense.  And both teams lack a go-to post presence they can truly lean on.  The difference last night, and throughout the tournament for Villanova, has been their defense.

The Wildcats made things very uncomfortable for the Sooner guards right from the start.  Applying pressure beyond the arc forced Oklahoma into attempting a lot of one-on-one drives to the basket, leading to early turnovers.  Too often the Sooners would find themselves caught in the air looking for a teammate to pass to.  This impacted Hield the most, as he had spent the majority of this tournament catching and shooting in rhythm.  Josh Hart being right up in his grill didn’t allow that to happen all night.

Due to the constant pressure, and lack of clean looks at the basket, Oklahoma looked desperate to get out in transition.  This led to a number of sloppy outlet passes where the Sooners were simply trying to force the action.  The Sooners didn’t get anything out of those fast-break attempts, other than additional turnovers of their own.

Villanova did a tremendous job of manufacturing interior scoring in this game.  This is something they’ve keyed on throughout the tournament this year.  Their ability to work inside-out by driving to the basket and kicking out to wide-open shooters like Kris Jenkins facilitated their ridiculous 71-percent field goal percentage for the game.  As expected, there was no glaring big-man advantage for either team.  However, Daniel Ochefu was an efficient 4-5 from the field, while the Sooners big men appeared unwillingly to even look at the basket.  Ryan Spangler passed up a number of lay-up attempts after pulling down offensive rebounds, or receiving passes within a couple of feet of the rim.

I’m not sure there were any adjustments Lon Kruger could’ve made at halftime which would’ve changed the result last night.  Villanova was a well-oiled machine both offensively and defensively.  Give the Wildcats credit for completely derailing one of the best players in the country in Buddy Hield; and shooting the proverbial lights out.  If they can replicate this effort one more time, there’s no reason they can’t be National Champions.

Tar Heels have the Formula to Break the Syracuse Spell:

The run that Syracuse has made to the Final Four has been nothing short of magical.  Despite their shortcomings, and being in some extremely difficult spots, the Orange kept finding ways to come back and win.  Well, North Carolina was having none of it on Saturday night.  The Tar Heels not only cracked the code of the Syracuse zone, they held off the brief run by the Orange in the second half, and cruised to victory.

Roy Williams and crew attacked the Syracuse zone in textbook fashion.   Rotating Justin Jackson, Brice Johnson, and Isaiah Hicks into the high post area, the Tar Heels continually found 10-15 foot jump shots available, which they cashed in.  Marcus Paige and Joel Berry did an excellent job of working the perimeter, until the high post flash came open.  Having multiple options to handle the high post who are 6-8 or taller, made breaking down the zone look simple.  It also allowed high-low action for Kennedy Meeks, who took full advantage, shooting 7-9 from the field, finishing with 15 points.

Syracuse did try and institute the full-court pressure which led to Virginia’s meltdown last week in the Elite Eight.  The difference was the way North Carolina handled it.  Rather than attempting to throw long passes over the top of defenders who were fronting the Tar Heels, North Carolina focused on simply getting the ball in-bounds; and then used crisp passing in the backcourt to take apart the press.  The rest was easy.  Getting out in transition is what the Tar Heels want to do, and the Orange gave them the opportunity to do it.  While Virginia flubbed a number of fast-break chances, Carolina finished them off for scores.

When Syracuse did make their one attempt at a comeback with about 12 minutes to go, cutting the lead from 17 down to seven after a Trevor Cooney three; Marcus Paige came right back with a three-pointer of his own, and the Tar Heels were off and running once again.  Syracuse was never able to pose the serious comeback threat that they did against Gonzaga and Virginia.  The Tar Heels will now go head-to-head with a Villanova team which may be clicking even more than they are right now.

Villanova vs. North Carolina: The National Championship:

You couldn’t ask for two teams to be playing better basketball than North Carolina and Villanova are, heading into Monday Night’s National Championship.  There are a couple of key factors that will decide which team captures the Title.

Of most concern for Villanova will be, can they keep North Carolina off of the offensive glass?  The Wildcats frontcourt is significantly undersized compared to the Tar Heels.  Brice Johnson feeds off of put-back dunks and lay-ups.  Unfortunately for Nova, he’s not the only big hitting the glass.  Hicks, Meeks, Jackson, and even Joel James and Theo Pinson will attack the backboards.  Daniel Ochefu can’t do it alone even when healthy, and he’s still a bit hobbled.  Everyone else, including the guards for the Wildcats, will have to be sure to put a body on the crashers.  If they don’t they’ll be overwhelmed.

Villanova can’t be expected to shoot the way they did on Saturday night, but they must have a solid night shooting the ball.  Hart and Ryan Arcidiacono will need to continue driving at the lane; despite the shot-blocking threats which North Carolina will have waiting for them near the rim.  Not only will this present opportunity for some paint touches, but also spring the drive-and-kick shooting options which have worked so well for them this tournament.  If shots continue to fall anywhere near the clip they have thus far for Villanova, they’ll be in position to win at the end of the game.

North Carolina will have to be sound with the ball against the varying defensive schemes Jay Wright will throw at them.  I suspect we’ll see some of the three-quarter court press that Villanova used so effectively against Miami; along with some hybrid zone looks to accompany their aggressive half-court man-to-man.  The Tar Heels have the ability to snap that press, and get transition buckets, but they’ll need to do so without forcing the action so much, that they turn the ball over.

Arcidiacono, Hart, and Jalen Brunson will be able to get right up in the faces of Paige and Berry.  How will the Carolina guards handle it?  If they can withstand the pressure, and find Jackson and Johnson in the free throw line extended areas for 12-15 foot jumpers, the Tar Heels will be in business.

Ultimately I think the size, and depth of talent that North Carolina has, will be the undoing of Villanova.  Too many opportunities for easy baskets from offensive rebounds, and the ability to get out in transition will be the driving force for the Tar Heels.  Villanova hasn’t had a scoring drought all tournament, and it may not happen on Monday.  However the Wildcats can’t expect to shoot 70 percent again; and bottling up the perimeter will only take them so far against Carolina.  The Title game should be much closer than either of the Semifinals, but in the end the Tar Heels should come away with the trophy.  North Carolina 86, Villanova 77.

Email Damon and [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @DamoKnowsSports.

NCAA Tournament: Sweet Sixteen Thursday Games Notebook

The NCAA Tournament got back into the swing of things Thursday night with four games in the South and West Regions.  Despite all of the craziness which took place over the first four days of the tournament, these two regions made it through essentially true to form, with Maryland as a No. 5 seed being the only “outlier.”  Although there was late-game drama, each of the winners displayed an impressive imposition of their will power.

Wildcat Supernova

Villanova exploded out of the gates, and despite some first half resistance from the Hurricanes, the Wildcats ended Miami’s season in dramatic and catastrophic fashion.  This is the Villanova team that can be devastating to just about any opponent when they hit shots, and disrupt defensively.  Miami was rattled early by the three-quarter-court press applied by Nova.  While they did get back in the game temporarily, they couldn’t withstand the pure fire produced by Kris Jenkins and Ryan Arcidiacono.  Those two combined for 9-13 from beyond the arc; and when the Wildcats shoot like that, there’s simply no defense for it.

The Cats set up that shooting perfectly, by making a concerted effort early to get paint touches, which is typically outside of their character.  I’ll admit I didn’t trust this Villanova team coming in to the tournament based on recent history, along with their style of play.  It appears that Jay Wright’s team is hell-bent on torching their path to the Final Four.  If their play continues without a cold shooting night, they will be terrifying.

Sooners Lay the Boom on A&M

Unfortunately, both of the early games on Thursday turned out to be blowouts, but Oklahoma’s demolition of Texas A&M was nearly as impressive as what Nova did to Miami.  The Aggies were able to jump out to a decent lead in the opening minutes, with Alex Caruso bothering Buddy Hield defensively.  Once the Sooners worked the kinks out, they showed America why they’re so good, and why Texas A&M spent 39 minutes on Sunday being outclassed by Northern Iowa.  A&M spent much of the first half settling for perimeter jumpers, and trying to match the pace of Oklahoma.  That was a horrible idea.

Even though Buddy Hield didn’t light them on fire, his running mate Jordan Woodard picked up the slack.  The Sooners got bonus points from Khadeem Lattin, and little used Christian James who combined to contribute 22 points.  Although an emotional comeback can sometimes serve as a catapult, it certainly did not tonight for Texas A&M.  Once Oklahoma got rolling, they couldn’t provide any serious response.  The Sooners are going to be a tough out.

Experience and Fundamentals Matter

After a very entertaining, hard-fought first half, which ended with Kansas leading by just two points; the Jayhawks utilized fundamentals and defense to put the clamps on Maryland.  Perry Ellis displayed his usual array of solid if unspectacular offensive skills, cruising to 27 points to lead the way for Kansas.  Ellis, along with Wayne Selden, led the methodical breakdown of Maryland in the second half.  Time after time, the Jayhawks worked the ball until they found the cleanest looks at the basket.

On the defensive end, they forced the Terps into long drawn out offensive sets, which led to a lot of perimeter shots, which just weren’t dropping.  Unlike the game on Sunday in which Maryland was able to get Diamond Stone involved, he was simply unable to get going this evening.  Early on it looked as though Melo Trimble and Rasheed Sulaimon would control the offensive tempo, but in the second half they were forced into a lot of panicked over-dribbling, leading to poor shots.  The Jayhawks put on a clinic tonight, and have a crisp look to their execution.  Their balance and surgical precision versus the hot-shooting Wildcats of Villanova should produce some fireworks on Saturday.

Oregon’s Athleticism Runs Duke out of the Gym

This half of the bracket had an interesting dynamic to it, in that several of the teams were considered untrustworthy tournament contenders.  Oregon’s lack of basketball pedigree, and questionable No. 1 seed put the Ducks in that category.  Well, they showed on Thursday evening that they’re for real and can make it out of the West Region.  Oregon leveraged their superior depth and athleticism, to simply push Duke to its limit.  The Ducks spread out the Blue Devil’s zone defense, and were able to slice into the gaps, creating easy buckets.

While Dillon Brooks did the most offensive damage, they also got huge contributions from Jordan Bell off the bench.  Not only did he chip in 13 points, but he sent Duke shots back at them on several occasions, causing a ton of havoc defensively.  As the game wore on, the Ducks simply wore out the Blue Devils.  By the end Duke looked like they were exhausted and just chasing the game.  Oregon put the rest of the bracket on notice.  They are a legitimate threat to make it to Houston.

Once again, even after all the high-drama of the first weekend, it’s all chalk in the South and the West.  Saturday will bring us No. 1 Kansas vs. No. 2 Villanova, and No. 1 Oregon vs. No. 2 Oklahoma.  That’s some serious firepower and up-temp action for sure, and two primo matchups for two spots in the Final Four.

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Photo via Flickr/Phil Roeder