Tag Archives: Villanova Wildcats

Farewell, Rollie Massimino

When news broke that Rollie Massimino died, the basketball world was understandably heartbroken. The passing of the famed head coach who led Villanova to the NCAA title in 1985 came on the heels of the death of another coaching legend, Michigan State’s Jud Heathcote.

To be sure the Wildcat faithful and the fans at Keiser University, the NAIA school where Massimino spent his final years coaching, have naturally paid their respects. And so, too, have those who remember Massimino’s tenure at Cleveland State, where he was head coach from 1996 to 2003.

And rather than dwell on his final two seasons with the Vikings, which ultimately led to him stepping down, I’d much rather hearken back to 1996, when Massimino was hired to take over a Cleveland State squad that had languished under the final season of Mike Boyd, both in the win-loss column and in the stands.

Here’s a snippet of what I had written that May after he hosted a Select-Your-Seat night at the Wolstein Center (then the Convocation Center):

The Cleveland State basketball team hasn’t played a single game yet under new head coach Rollie Massimino. and yet, they have finally stepped into the big time.

It made no sense to me at first how one small head coaching change could vault the Vikings’ sad hoops team into national recognition. But in one fell swoop, it has.

The name and the energy of Massimino has brought CSU to the limelight. Why? Because Massimino has something that no coach in a 250-mile radius, including Cincinnati’s Bob Huggins has, a Division I basketball championship ring.

Now, to the uninterested person on the street, that wouldn’t even get a dull roar. But for the basketball-hungry fans of CSU, or basketball fans in general, it means everything.

While the Massimino’s debut campaign in 1996-97 showed a modest improvement in terms of wins and losses for the Vikings, he did, however, provide enough starpower to get the likes of Georgetown and Michigan to come to Cleveland. And CSU also notched a surprised win against Detroit Mercy in the Midwestern Collegiate Conference tournament that years as well.

Even long after his departure from Cleveland State, Massimino’s influence could be felt at all levels of the basketball coaching ranks. In fact, at least four the players on that 1996-97 squad, Derrick Ziegler, Dean Rahas and Malcolm Sims, all currently coach at the high school level.

Of course, there’s the well-heralded Massimino coaching tree in college, that includes, among others, Villanova’s Jay Wright and recently-hired Youngstown State head coach (and former CSU manager and player) Jerrod Calhoun.

And that influence will be more of Massimino’s legacy than anything else. Despite the 90-113 record at Cleveland State, there was never any shortage of that contagious enthusiasm he brought on the sidelines for every game. And what seems like a bygone era in which high-major schools shied away from traveling to mid-majors, Massimino delivered, from his first year bringing in the Hoyas and Wolverines and all throughout his tenure, hosting, among others, Cal and Florida State.

When I first heard about Massimino’s death, I wasn’t entirely sure how I was going to write this column that would inevitably going to happen. As it’s been well-chronicled, my role in the latter years of the Massimino era at Cleveland State was that of an enemy combatant, to be honest.

But, like all things, the passage of time makes us all think of the good more than the not-so-good. And that’s truly why when I sit back and remember Massimino, I think back more than anything to the man who openly embraced the college kid trying to make his way as a sports writer.

Good-bye, Coach Mass. I, like so many others, will miss you.

Email Bob at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @bobmcdonald.

Image via CSUVikings.com

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: The Sun Rises In The East

The East is a beast featuring last year’s champion Villanova, the team everyone loves to hate in Duke and four teams which aren’t getting enough respect heading into the tourney (SMU, Wisconsin, Virginia & Florida).

There’s an argument to be made (rightfully so) for the South being the hardest region (UNC, UCLA, Kentucky, Cincinnati), but the East gives us three teams that were ranked 1st in the nation at some point this season, another that is arguably the best in the B1G in Wisconsin and a team in Virginia that can shut down any offense at any time.

If Villanova can get past Wisconsin and Virginia, and Duke doesn’t stumble against Baylor or SMU we may end up with a Villanova vs Duke matchup in Madison Square Garden for a trip to the Final Four on the line.

Even if you don’t care about the basketball you can spend your time waiting to see if Grayson Allen has another meltdown, what custom suit Jay Wright is wearing, what fun things Wisconsin senior’s Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes will say and if Frank Martin has a complete meltdown on the South Carolina bench.

On the court your attention should be focused on Duke, who after winning four straight games against big time competition in the ACC Tournament comes into the NCAA Tournament finally looking like the team most national media members picked to win it all preseason. Harry Giles is starting to look like Harry Giles again, Jayson Tatum looks like the guy who’s the safest bet to succeed in the NBA in all of college basketball and Luke Kennard can get his shot off from any spot on the court at any time.

Even if the basketball turns out to be a bust there’s three letters that make this region better than any of the others…MSG. Anytime high level basketball leads to The Garden it automatically brings a level of excitement unrivaled by any other venue…hey, if the Mecca can prop up the overrated Big East Tournament it can surely do the same for some of the premier programs in college basketball.

(KenPom ranking in parenthesis)

(2) Villanova vs (212) Mouth St. Mary’s

Nova survived losing Arcidiacono and Ochefu from their national championship team and ran the Big East sweeping both the regular season and conference tournament on their way to a 31-3 record head into the NCAA Tournament. Josh Hart has been that dude while Jalen Brunson has blossomed into the floor leader during his sophomore campaign.

The NEC happens to be headquartered in my hometown so I’ll be pulling hard for MSM (to little or no avail). The Mountaineers won the regular season, going 14-4 before taking down the conference tournament. A 1 point win over New Orleans in the First Four earned them a date with Villanova, quite the reward. Three of their players score in double digits per game, led by sophomore Elijah Long at 15.1 (14.9 in conference). They don’t do anything particularly well that would make you think they have a shot in this one.

Time/TV: 7:10pm ET Thursday, CBS

Prediction: Villanova by 27

 

(23) Wisconsin vs (44) Virginia Tech

Wisconsin was my favorite to win the B1G before they hit a skid, losing 5 of 6 between February 12th and March 2nd. They have three players averaging double digit points, led by Bronson Koenig at 14.1 per game. Expect Koenig and Hayes to turn it up for the NCAA Tournament, both seniors have big time tournament experience. I not only like them to win this one but to also defeat Villanova in the round of 32. If anything, their soft seed hurt Villanova, who as a 1 will have to face such a good team in their second game of the tournament. The Badgers enter the tournament with the 8th best defensive efficiency in the country.

Va Tech finished the ACC regular season 10-8 with some nice wins over Duke, Virginia (2OT), Miami and a sweep of Clemson. They failed to beat up on any of the other ACC heavyweights and got their three largest wins (Duke, VA, Miami) at home. They have a shot at the upset due in part to their ability to knock down the outside shot (40.3% as a team), but in the end Wisconsin should end up being too much for them. The LeDay’s lead them in scoring (Zach 16.3 PPG, Seth 14.0 PPG) while four other Hokies also average double digit point totals per game. Their offense is legit, I just don’t think their defense makes enough stops to win.

Time/TV: 9:40pm ET Thursday, CBS

Prediction: Wisconsin by 9

 

(7) Virginia vs (59) UNC-Wilmington

Virginia enters the tournament touting the nation’s best defensive efficiency, and boy can they be boring to watch if you don’t appreciate grind it out basketball. Their adjusted tempo of 58.5 is dead last in the country, making them the slowest team in the nation. The Cavaliers are led in scoring by senior London Perrantes at 12.5 point per game and he’s the only Virginia player to have a double digit scoring average. Wilkins availability is up in the air for the UNCW game as of this writing.

UNC-Wilmington likes to play faster and touts the nation’s 18th best offense when it comes to efficiency.  They excel taking care of the ball and at shooting a high percentage from two-point range, but have had issues on the defensive end. The Seahawks are led in scoring by C.J. Bryce (entertaining dude to watch) who comes into the tournament averaging 17.6 points per game. Four total UNC-W players score in double digits per game, with three averaging at least 14.5 points per game. Kevin Keatts is a hot name in coaching circles right now, but in the end the Virginia defense will be too much for them to overcome.

Time/TV: 12:40pm ET Thursday, truTV

Prediction: Virginia by 12

 

(9) Florida vs (64) East Tennessee St.

Florida enters the NCAA Tournament coming off back to back losses to Vanderbilt. Prior to those losses, they had won 10 of their last 11 with the only loss coming on the road at Rupp. It’ll be interesting to see if they find their groove again, while they’ll get past ETSU, Virginia awaits in the round of 32. They do a nice job protecting the three-point line and enter the tourney with the nation’s 4th best defense based on efficiency. The Gators are led in scoring by KeVaughn Allen at 13.9 points per game, while Canyon Berry (12.1) and Devin Robinson (10.9) are also in double figures.

ETSU will rep the Southern Conference after winning both the league’s regular season and conference tournament. They shoot a healthy percentage (38.2%) as a team from deep, but expect Florida’s defense to negate their outside scoring. The Buccaneers will have to get to the line and do some damage inside to have any shot at the upset. The good news for anyone looking for the upset is their roster is experienced, boasting 13 upperclassmen. They’re led in scoring by T.J. Cromer at 19.1 points per game, while Desonta Bradford (10.6) is the only other ETSU player in double figures.

Time/TV: 3:10pm ET Thursday, truTV

Prediction: Florida by 9

 

(11) SMU vs (59) USC

The NCAA decided SMU couldn’t play in the NCAA Tournament last year so one would expect they’d come in hungry and on a mission. Their offense is legit and they boast two wins over a Cincinnati team with a stifling defense, including a 15-point victory in the AAC championship game. Their offense is balanced and they come into the tourney hitting 40.6% of their threes, good for 5th best in the nation. The Mustangs are led in scoring by Duke transfer Semi Ojeleye at 18.8 points per game, while three other players averaged double digits this season. SMU finished AAC play at 17-1 before running through the conference tournament, their only stumble a two-point loss at Cincinnati on January 12th. They sport length on the perimeter but lack it inside and will go small every occasionally, with Ojeleye at 6’7’’ their tallest player on the court.

USC overcame a double-digit deficit to defeat Providence in Dayton during the First Four. Their last win over a top 50 program came on January 25th as they took down UCLA at home. All year they’ve looked to be a couple of pieces short, and that should be the case again in this one. Not much stands out for them statistically on either side of the ball, just ball security where they only turn it over 15.6% of their possessions, good for 16th best in the nation. The Trojans are led in scoring by sophomores Bennie Boatwright (14.6 PPG) and Chimezie Metu (14.5 PPG). It’s interesting that the Trojans top two scorers are listed at 6’10’’ and up yet they only get 49% of their points from two-point range.

Time/TV: 3:10pm ET Friday, truTV

Prediction: SMU by 11

 

(12) Baylor vs (87) New Mexico St.

Baylor has mastered being more talented than most of their opponents and outplaying them for 35 minutes. They should have enough to get into the round of 32, but they have a lot of toughness questions to answer if they plan on advancing beyond their expected opponent of SMU. As usual, they excel on the offensive glass and do most of their scoring on the inside. They play at a slow pace and do an awful job taking care of the ball, but their talent alone should carry them in this one after a quick exit last year in the NCAA Tournament. Motley who hurt his finger in their last contest is probable for their first tourney game.

NMSU enters the tourney representing the WAC (which had a down year) after finishing in second during the regular season and defeating Cal St. Bakersfield (regular season champion) by 10 in the title game. The Aggies get a large percentage of their points from the free throw line and will have to get there a ton to have any shot against Baylor. The Aggies are led in scoring by Ian Baker (16.6 PPG). It’ll be tough for them to take down Baylor without Sidy N’dir who they’ve been missing for all but 9 games this season.

Time/TV: 12:40pm ET Friday, truTV

Prediction: Baylor by 7

 

(32) South Carolina vs (29) Marquette

South Carolina comes into the tourney riding a two-game losing streak, a loss at Ole Miss and a first-round SEC tournament loss to Alabama. Senior Sindarius Thornwell leads them at scoring with 21 points per game, while two other Gamecocks averaged double digits this season. They make their living on the defensive end, as they enter tourney play with the 3rd most efficient defense in the nation. Their issues have been on the offensive end as they’ve shot poor percentages from both three point and two-point range.

Marquette enters the tournament with some nice wins (vs Vanderbilt, at Xavier, at Creighton, vs Villanova) and some head scratching losses (at St. John’s by 14, at Georgetown by 18). The Golden Eagles shot a nation best 43% from deep this season, and are top 50 in two-point field goal percentage, but have allowed their opponents to shoot high percentages from both as well. They’re led in scoring by freshman Markus Howard (13.2 PPG) and sport a balanced offense as 4 other Golden Eagles averaged double digits this season. Their offense is the 8th most efficient in the nation, it remains to be seen if they’ll get enough from it to carry their defense against South Carolina. Center Luke Fischer is listed as probable for the South Carolina matchup.

Time/TV: 9:50pm ET Friday, TBS

Prediction: South Carolina by 2

 

(13) Duke vs (136) Troy

Duke comes in as hot as can be having won four straight (including wins over Louisville, UNC and Notre Dame) to win the ACC Tournament. Harry Giles is close to returning to the player everyone touted pre-injury and Jayson Tatum seems to have finally realized how good he is. Their offense has been fine, it’s the defensive end where they tend to slip up, especially against athletic guards who can drive. Luke Kennard (20.1 PPG) led them in scoring while 4 other Blue Devils averaged double figures. I have them going to the championship game, but it’ll depend largely on Tatum and Giles and whether Grayson Allen has re-found his stroke.

Troy won the Sun Belt tourney after only finishing 10-8 in conference play during the regular season. They avoided UT Arlington in the conference tourney, but did defeat 2 seed Georgia St. on their way to the championship. Keep an eye on sophomore Jordon Varnado (16.5 PPG) and junior Wesley Person (14.8 PPG) for the Trojans. They don’t do anything extraordinarily well, and should have a tough time with all the weapons the Blue Devils possess.

Time/TV: 7:20pm ET Friday, TBS

Prediction: Duke by 28

 

Overall Predictions:

Round of 64

Villanova over Mount Saint Mary’s

Wisconsin over Virginia Tech

Virginia over UNC-Wilmington

Florida over East Tennessee St.

SMU over USC

Baylor over New Mexico St.

South Carolina over Marquette

Duke over Troy

 

Round of 32

Wisconsin over Villanova

Virginia over Florida

SMU over Baylor

Duke over South Carolina

 

Sweet 16

Wisconsin over Virginia

Duke over SMU

 

Elite 8

Duke over Wisconsin

 

Champion

Duke

 

The Real Madness of March

Every year, I spend far more time and energy than I should filling out my NCAA Tournament March Madness bracket.  I debate whether chalk or Cinderella’s will prevail.  I agonize over which 12-5 upsets are ripe for the picking.  I look at strength of schedule and see who beat who, as if that matters.  Then, I spend the entire tournament second guessing myself.

Inevitably, I get caught in between rooting for my bracket and cheering for those Cinderella’s that capture our hearts.  It ends up being a very stressful month and at the end, I never feel like I have fully enjoyed what is truly an amazing sporting event.

I like to act as if I know what I’m talking about when predicting these games.  Really, I don’t.  None of us do.  Why bother pretending?  It’s not like I’m a big college basketball fan anyway.  I mean, sure, I watch the tournament religiously.  The first Thursday and Friday of games are days that I believe should be national holidays.  Why play the charade of going to work and acting like I’m not watching online?  I am.  #SorryNotSorry (I am, however, sorry I just used that expression. #NeverAgain)

Anyway, when it comes to regular season college basketball, I never watch many games.  This season though, that’s never been truer.  Confession: I watched a grand total of three full college basketball games this winter.  The complete list: Mt. St. Mary’s vs. Michigan (I was actually in attendance), Xavier vs. Cincinnati (Go Bearcats! #BeatX), and Tulsa vs. Cincinnati (Again, I was in attendance).

So, yeah, I don’t really have any idea what went on this college basketball season.  (Though, I hear tripping people has become a hot button issue.)  What I do know, from hardly following along, is that there was a lot of movement in the Top 25.  It seems to me that this is one of those years where there are a ton of good teams in the field, but not many great ones.  Is that a fair assessment?  Honestly, I’m asking.

Let’s highlight some things as I take my first look at the bracket.  (That’s right; I didn’t watch the selection show either.)

East

Hey!  Mt. St. Mary’s made the field… sorta.  The only first round upsets I have here are Marquette over South Carolina and New Mexico State over that Baptist school in Waco, Texas.  Give me Virginia over Florida in the second round.  Other than that, there’s nothing too exciting.  Looks like an easy path to the Final Four for defending champion Villanova.

Midwest

Woo, lots going on here.  First, Michigan State got lucky.  The Spartans are bad but the Hurricanes sound beatable.  The rest of the first round seems pedestrian but man, look at these possible second round matchups.  Kansas vs. Michigan State is enough said.  Iowa State meets Purdue in a battle of teams with high hopes.  Creighton vs. Oregon will be fun.  And Michigan gets a shot at revenge against Louisville.  I’m still upset about 2013 and, as a result, I’m going into full homer mode.  The Wolverines beat the Cardinals, the Ducks, and the Jayhawks on their way to Phoenix.  (#SorryNotSorry… Damnit, that didn’t last long.)

West

Smart guy alert in the 8-9 matchup as Northwestern and Vanderbilt get together.  Wait, the Northwestern Wildcats made the NCAA Tournament!  Congrats to them.  I’ll even pencil in an opening round win for them before getting smacked by Gonzaga.  Give me the other smart guys at Princeton to pull the upset on Notre Dame.  On the bottom half, I’m going a little upset crazy.  Florida Gulf Coast makes another run to the second weekend with wins over Florida State and Maryland.  And St. Mary’s finds its way to the Elite Eight for a fourth try at besting West Coast Conference rival Gonzaga.  You know what they say, “it’s tough to beat a team twice, thrice, four times in the same season.”  Well, Gonzaga will.

South

I’ve got Seton Hall beating Arkansas for the same reasons I have Marquette beating South Carolina.  I’m Catholic and the SEC is still a terrible basketball conference, until proven otherwise.  Middle Tennessee State earns its second tourney win over a Big Ten opponent in as many years, my second 12 over 5.  Cincinnati will beat UCLA with a superior defense the likes of which the Bruins have never come up against.  Unfortunately for my adopted school, the Kentucky Wildcats will be waiting in the Sweet Sixteen.  North Carolina will be able to handle Coach Cal’s bunch en route to yet another Final Four.

Final Four

Last year’s championship game was so phenomenal, why not have a rematch?  Michigan and Gonzaga fall victim to destiny.  This time around, Villanova won’t need a buzzer beater.  The Wildcats will repeat, beating North Carolina quite easily.

There you have it.  Now all that’s left to do is wait until Thursday so I can hide my internet browser behind some important-looking work stuff and enjoy this damn thing for once.

I recommend you do the same, but don’t expect many of you to.  That chance at glory is too tantalizing to pass up, isn’t it?  Yes, you’d rather drive yourself crazy trying to arrive at the perfect bracket that you’ll literally never achieve.

And to you all I say have fun losing your group for the umpteenth time to your aunt who bases her picks on the team mascots.  After all, this is the real madness of March.

E-mail me at [email protected] and I’ll send you back an invite to my bracket group.  Should be easy to beat me since I’m not trying, right?

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Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Hoosiers Fall as Soon as They Rise

The Indiana Hoosiers were finally back on top.  They had beaten Kansas in their opener, and after a few years of mediocrity (relative to Indiana basketball history) Tom Crean finally had his boys headed in the right direction.

Even ESPN couldn’t ignore the hype, placing the Bloomington Basketball Boys at the very top spot of its latest power rankings (by the way, Indiana was in the 14 spot the week before).  That’s right, it was Indiana first, then Kentucky, Villanova (defending National Champs), Kansas, Duke, Louisville, North Carolina. That’s a big list of big programs.

You know what big time programs have in common? They don’t lose regular season games to mid-major opponents.

If you haven’t heard, the same week Indiana jumped 14 spots to number one on ESPN’s power rankings, they lost to the Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne Mastodons, more commonly known as IPFW, in overtime.

What a way to solidify your spot at the top, right?

Well, it was an away game for Indiana, which had to shift the odds just a little bit, right?

Please.

Indiana basketball is to Indiana what Kentucky basketball is to Kentucky, or what Ohio State football is to Ohio. If Kentucky were to travel to Newport to play Northern Kentucky, the stadium would be full of blue and white.  If Ohio State were to travel to Bowling Green, you would be hard pressed to find any orange and brown in the crowd.

It was no different for the Hoosiers last night in Fort Wayne’s Allen County War Memorial Coliseum.  Bloomington, the home of Indiana University, is around a three-hour drive from Ft Wayne, so fans from the far eastern part of the state that don’t generally get a chance to see their beloved Hoosiers gobbled tickets up. In fact, tickets to the game sold out in less than an hour.

How did this happen?

Indiana’s starting five included a former three-star recruit, three former four-stars, and a five-star.

IPFW’s starting five consisted of three guys that weren’t ranked as high school recruits, plus a two-star, and a three-star transfer.

That three-star transfer, Fort Wayne native Bryson Scott, shot 50 percent from the field while scoring 18 points and grabbing 12 rebounds (he’s 6’1”).  It was the first time Scott had ever amassed over 10 rebounds in a game.

As you can expect from a 71-68 game, the numbers in each statistical category were pretty similar.  Indiana had a slight edge in rebounds, free throw percentage, and field goal percentage.  The most lopsided categories fell IPFW’s way as the Mastodons accumulated 11 steals to Indiana’s four and seven blocks to the Hoosiers’ three.  Indiana finished with 15 turnovers, seven more than IPFW’s eight.

As far as Indiana and its fans are concerned, though, none of that matters.

Indiana has been revealed as a phony and we’re only a few weeks into the season.  With a non-conference schedule that includes North Carolina, Butler and Louisville, plus a tough Big Ten slate, you can probably expect quite a few losses from the Hoosiers, and don’t even think about a national title.

This is a knee-jerk reaction based on one bad result.

No it’s not.  This is an educated prediction based on NCAA history.  I’m not claiming the Hoosiers won’t win the Big Ten or make the tournament, but you’d be hard pressed to go back in history and find a team, ANY TEAM, that has lost to a mid-major opponent and proceeded to prove itself a championship contender.

That’s my challenge to you, actually. Find me a team that matches that description and tweet it to me @evanskilliter or email me at [email protected].  I’ll be happy to hear from you.

E-mail Evan at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @evanskilliter.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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.

2016 NCAA Tournament Notebook: The Final Four Preview

The pinnacle of college basketball is here, the Final Four. All the hard work and dedication of four teams will be cemented into college basketball lore. Come Saturday night in Houston, two teams will earn the right to play for a national championship on Monday night. What do we know? Well, all teams have gotten to this point in various ways, some predicted and others a complete surprise. Let’s see how each of these teams got to the coveted Final Four:

No. 1 North Carolina Tar Heels

Defeated No. 16 Florida Gulf Coast 83-67

Defeated No. 9 Providence 85-66

Defeated No. 5 Indiana 101-86

Defeated No. 6 Notre Dame 88-74

A common pick among many brackets before the tournament started, the North Carolina Tar Heels are once again in the Final Four. It seems like they and Duke are switching off every year. Anyway, North Carolina steamrolled all of its opponents and had a cake-walk to Houston. The Tar Heels won all of their games by double digits, and really did not have a real test until meeting Notre Dame in the Elite Eight. Even then, the Tar Heels pulled away in the second half to rout the Irish. Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson are leading the destruction, both players scoring in double figures in every game of the tournament so far. This team seems like it’s destined to play on Monday night and have a great shot at cutting down the nets that night as well. The only concern is that the Tar Heels haven’t really been tested yet in this tournament. That will change when they see Syracuse in the semifinal game. If North Carolina get past Syracuse, then its biggest test of the season will come facing either Oklahoma or Villanova.

No. 2 Oklahoma Sooners

Defeated No. 15 Cal State Bakersfield 82-68

Defeated No. 10 VCU 85-81

Defeated No. 3 Texas A&M 77-63

Defeated No. 1 Oregon 80-68

Another very common pick to get to Houston, the Oklahoma Sooners make it to the Final Four as a two seed. “The Buddy Hield Show” was in full effect this March, his last outing being a 37-point onslaught of the Oregon Ducks. The Sooners got by Bakersfield easily, but they did get a test from the VCU Rams. Hield did score 36 points in that game, but the team as a whole only shot 30 percent from three. Hield made six from behind the arch in that game. The rest of the team made two combined threes. Oklahoma got itself together the next two games by shooting 44 percent and 50 percent from three, respectively. The concern for this team is if Buddy Hield is the only person scoring for the Sooners, then the game could be close. Oklahoma is going to need all hands on deck if they are to take out Villanova.

No. 2 Villanova Wildcats

Defeated No. 15 UNC Asheville 86-56

Defeated No. 7 Iowa 87-68

Defeated No. 3 Miami 92-69

Defeated No. 1 Kansas 64-59

Did anyone give this team a chance to make the Final Four when it was placed in the same region as Kansas? Most likely not, but we should have. Villanova was easily the best team in a good year for the Big East, and they flat out destroyed opponents up to the Elite Eight, including the likes of Iowa and Miami, each of whom were top 10 ranked teams this season. Villanova was overlooked, and it made everyone’s brackets pay. The Wildcats have the most team-oriented style of play among the Final Four teams. They all rely on each other on the court as well as their leader in Ryan Arcidiacono, and they don’t panic under pressure. They needed every bit of that mannerism against mighty Kansas, and it worked to perfection. It may take a squad like Villanova to take out Buddy Hield and the Sooners. The one concern that many have forgotten about is that these two teams actually played earlier this season, and Oklahoma flat out went to town on Villanova, 78-55. Oklahoma had five players score in double figures, making Villanova look silly. Can the Wildcats put that behind them Saturday night?

No. 10 Syracuse Orange

Defeated No. 7 Dayton 70-51

Defeated No. 15 Middle Tennessee 75-50

Defeated No. 11 Gonzaga 63-60

Defeated No. 1 Virginia 68-62

Of course Syracuse found a way to the Final Four. Of course. But hey, they earned it.  They were the underdog in almost every game, except for the second round game. Syracuse was not supposed to be in the tournament, as least that’s what the bracketologists said. Maybe they were right, or maybe they were wrong. The only thing that matters is that thry made it to the Final Four. Syracuse is a prime example of a team that got the right draw, the right match ups, and took care of business in the one that mattered most, against Virginia. There is no real reason to put this team through to Monday night, but there is no real reason to count it out either. The Orange play with heart, have more than one guy who can contribute, and seem to play with a chip on their shoulder. The concern for this team is hard to find because the Orange seem to prove the experts wrong each game. Mainly, Syracuse shoots the three a lot, and if it’s hitting them, watch out. If not, then who knows? This team still finds ways to win. Ask Virginia.

No. 2 Oklahoma vs. No. 2 Villanova

As stated earlier, Oklahoma downed Villanova by a significant margin. That was then. This is now. Villanova is a much different team now than at the beginning of the season. The Wildcats got way better defensively, and also found out a lot more about themselves, mainly key players and role players. A leader has emerged in Ryan Arcidiacono. Josh Hart has stepped up his game and improved throughout the season. And a monster post player has ripened in Daniel Ochefu. With that, you insert some role players like Kris Jenkins, Jalen Brunson, and Mikal Bridges, and you got yourself a complete basketball team. All of these guys got themselves together at the right time, to face Oklahoma again in the Final Four.

Looking at Oklahoma, it has been the same team all season long, but Buddy Hield has improved greatly. Hield is averaging 29 points a game during this season, and has scored over 30 points the past two tournament games, which is very impressive to say the least. Isaiah Cousins and Jordan Woodard have contributed nicely next to Hield, and Ryan Spanger has produced some very good games down low. This team is good when Hield scores a ton, but the Sooners are even better when they all contribute and have multiple scorers and let Hield be the dagger in the heart. Nobody can stop Buddy Hield. It’s just not going to happen. If Villanova can stop everyone else, and let Buddy try to do everything, it has a good shot at beating the Sooners on Saturday night.

Prediction: This is a tough call. Both of these teams are playing their best basketball all season. I really like Oklahoma in this one. They have started to play collectively as a team the past few games, and that is with Buddy Hield scoring 30+ points. That’s scary. Villanova keeps it close, but Oklahoma wins by 5.

No. 1 North Carolina vs. No. 10 Syracuse

On the other side of the bracket, you have the ACC, a conference whose heavyweights and middleweights both crashed the tournament. This matchup has both of those kinds of teams in North Carolina and Syracuse. North Carolina came into this tournament winning the regular season ACC title and the ACC conference tournament. With the ACC clearly being the best conference in college basketball, this team might now be the actual best squad in the country. They rode those championships right into the Final Four, making every one of their opponents look amateur. The Tar Heels are the only number one seed left in the tournament, and they look every part of it, scoring over 80 points a game in each of their four games. Brice Johnson has been a monster down low, and Marcus Paige has been unstoppable from three-point land. North Carolina is just wearing teams down from start to finish, and the Tar Heels don’t look to stop any time soon.

These teams played each other twice this year with North Carolina winning both contests. Both games were close. North Carolina won the first game by 11 and the second by five. Syracuse is not afraid of big, bad North Carolina. In both those games, Syracuse shot below 30 percent from three, and yet the Orange still kept it close. That’s not bad. In order for Syracuse to pull off the upset of the century, they need to get active on the boards. North Carolina thrives on offensive rebounding and second chance opportunities, so if the Tar Heels miss, the Orange better crash the glass, especially with Tyler Roberson. He is a rebounding machine, but he might have met his match in Brice Johnson. That should be a fun matchup to watch.

Prediction: Syracuse has had a magical run, but the fun ends on Saturday night. Out of all the double-digit seeded teams to make the Final Four in the past, none of them have made it to the championship game. I don’t see that happening this time, although this would be the best chance that a double-digit seeded team has had to make the title game. Unfortunately, that chance is against an ACC rival and the best team from that conference. North Carolina wins by 10.

Email Chris at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @chrislvsketchup.

Picture via Wikipedia

Stats provided by ESPN.com

2016 NCAA Tournament Notebook: Elite Eight Recap

West Regional Final: No 1. Oregon 68  – No 2. Oklahoma 80

If you bought a ticket for this game expecting to see a show, you got one. It was called the “Buddy Hield Show”. Hield was nothing short of dominant in this one, taking control of the game from start to finish.  He finished with a astounding 37 points on 13-20 from the field and 8-13 from three.  Hield was just too good, and nobody on the Ducks could stop him.  Isaiah Cousins and Jordan Woodard chipped in nicely, finishing with 11 and 13 points, respectively.

Oklahoma jumped out to an early lead, and lead by 18 points at halftime.  Oregon tried to get back into it, but the Ducks could not get within anymore than 10.  Elgin Cook had a nice game for Oregon, scoring 24 points on 6-13 from the field, and Chris Boucher posted a double-double.  But it was too much Buddy for the Ducks to handle.  The stat of the game was three-point shooting: Oklahoma as a team shot 50 percent while Oregon shot 19 percent. That is not going to win you most ball games. Oklahoma looked like every bit of the team that America saw play early on this season. This team has its eyes on the prize.  Boomer Sooner is headed to the Final Four.

South Regional Final: No 1. Kansas 59  –  No 2. Villanova 64

Do you believe what we just watched? Believe it now, because Kansas is gone. Kansas did not look like the most dominant team in the country in this one.  Give all the credit in the world to Villanova. It played with so much tenacity and so much heart that Kansas really had no plan to overcome it. The first half was primarily controlled by Villanova, with the Wildcats leading at half by seven. The team’s exchanged blows throughout the second half and traded 8-0 and 9-0 runs.  The last five minutes would show both squads trading leads over each other, before Villanova would come up with a huge offensive foul on Devonte Graham that gave him five fouls, taking him out of the game. Kris Jenkins would hit two free throws, Kansas would miss on their following possession, and Jalen Brunson would put the icing on the cake with two more free throws with 3 seconds left.

Bill Self is undoubtedly one of the best coaches in the country, but tonight is a night he would like to forget. Anything that Self tried to do, Jay Wright had an answer to it.  This game was not a chance to see whose star player could outperform the opponent’s star player. It was about which team wanted it more. Sure, we can talk all day about stats, where the Wildcats had four starters score in double figures and the Jayhawks had three starters in double figures.  Really, it was the leadership of Ryan Arcidiacono and Josh Hart that kept their team calm and poised every time Kansas looked like it was about to make a run.  And with that, the Villanova Wildcats have a date in the Final Four with Oklahoma.  Plus, it is only fitting that it was Ryan Arcidiacono’s birthday.

Midwest Regional Final: No 1. Virginia 62  –  No 10. Syracuse 68

In what appears to be the biggest upset in the Elite Eight so far, the Syracuse Orange made an epic 15 point comeback to take down yet another number one seed.  The game appeared to be all Virginia, with the Cavaliers flexing their muscles defensively and from the three-point line en route to a 14 point lead at halftime. The rout appeared to be on early in the second half with the Cavaliers up by at least 15 at one point. The magical run by No 10. Syracuse appeared to be over. Then, insert Malachi Richardson.  The freshman shooting guard put the team on his back, helping Syracuse go on a 20-4 run and a couple key three pointers late in the contest. Richardson would finish with 23 points on 3-7 shooting form behind the arch. Syracuse would knock down last second free throws to cement the upset victory. As a result, Virginia lets another Final Four opportunity walk away, and this one will haunt Tony Bennett and the Wahoos for a long time. And for Jim Boeheim, this will be his best coached team yet and his best run in his tenure at Syracuse. From sitting on the bubble to a Final Four birth, the Syracuse Orange can beat anyone and can be considered a legitimate threat to take down two more giants to win a national championship.

East Regional Final: No 1. North Carolina 88  –  No 6. Notre Dame 74

Finally, we have a number one seed that lives up to expectations. North Carolina wore down Notre Dame throughout the second half to a 14 point victory.  Early on, it looked like another giant could possibly be taken down, with the Irish and Tar Heels exchanging leads and runs.  It would be North Carolina, though, to take a five point lead into halftime.  North Carolina would start off with a run in the second half with Notre Dame coming back down 10 to take a lead. The Tar Heels would later lead again by 10, but then a key technical foul called on Brice Johnson would give the Irish some momentum, but clearly not enough, as North Carolina would go on a large run  and never look back. During that run, North Carolina would rack up offensive rebound after offensive rebound to wear down Notre Dame on the glass. In fact, this was the largest detail of the game with North Carolina destroying Notre Dame on the boards 32-15. Offensive rebounds were a big story with the Tar Heels tallying a 13-5 advantage over the Irish.  Demetrius Jackson did all that he could for Notre Dame with 26 points. But it was Brice Johnson that would rack up his 23rd double-double this season, with 25 points and 12 rebounds.

Notre Dame played well, but not well enough to beat mighty North Carolina for a second time this season. Roy Williams had his team ready to go, and they looked all the part of a number one seed Sunday night. With the Tar Heels playing like this, there is no doubt that they will be the favorites to play next Monday night for a national championship. Make no mistake, Roy Williams will make sure his guys do not look past the hot and surging Syracuse Orange; they are too experienced for that. As for Mike Brey, the Irish apparently can lose on Easter Sunday. What a good run for the Irish nonetheless.

 

Stats provided by ESPN.com

Image provided by creativecommons.org

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.

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

Photo via Flickr/Phil Roeder