Point Blank – March 22
The Tourney Journey #7 – Sweet 16 sugar to the winners, while a Top Seed shoots its own foot…Has Calipari shortened his rotation...Survive and Advance, the Sequel?...Tokoto, took control…Irish eyes were smiling (though some had to hold back tears)…
UCLA 92 UAB 75 – OK, so the goaltending call vs. SMU can be logged into the memory banks any way that you choose, but after 80 minutes of tournament basketball the case can absolutely be made that the Bruins belonged, despite the Sports Mediaverse objections after the draw. The run now goes to 11-4 over the last 15 games, two of those defeats on the road by two points each, the other two away from Pauley vs. Arizona, when they led with 10:00 to play each time. Thursday’s win may have been uneven, relying too much of Bryce Alford’s hot hand; vs. UAB it was a different story – this was good basketball.
The Bruins did a much better job of working inside-out on offense, with 49 of 58 attempts coming from inside the arc, and 30 of them going through. Tony Parker came up big with 28 points, 12 rebounds and three blocks in 30 minutes. Kevon Looney had a double-double in 31. Alford’s hot hand continued with 22 points and 3-5 triples. Norman Powell’s floor game continues to be an under-the-radar story, with 34 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists through the first two rounds. And Isaac Hamilton made up for his miserable tourney debut (more turnovers than points vs. SMU), making six of seven shots, and dealing seven assists vs. a lone turnover.
It was not perfect – the perimeter defense was soft, only generating eight turnovers and allowing the Blazers enough space to knock down 12-26 from 3-point range. That is a problem that will not go away – a small back-court lacking depth was #230 in the nation at forcing turnovers this season, and #259 at guarding the 3-point line. That can not be fixed, so make sure to note that in your matchup breakdowns for Houston. But they will bring a dangerous mentality, a loose and confident team playing with “house money” at this stage, which can make them a tough out.
KENTUCKY 64 CINCINNATI 51 - There just was not any way that this one was going to be pretty – most Cincinnati games are not, and when the Bearcats have to step up in class their intensity and scrappiness usually has them competing with grit, rather than finesse. So they were who they were, working hard enough to win the boards by a surprising +7, but unable to do the other things you need to do with the ball in hand (31.7 percent shooting, 2-14 triples, and 14 turnovers vs. only five assists).
But who are the Wildcats now? The proceedings begin to get serious now, and John Calipari’s rotation got shorter – only seven players got at least 10 minutes of court time. The defense came up with nine blocked shots and seven steals, and the .81 PPP count that was impressive enough could have easily been better, with Cincy scoring on each of the last three possessions, at 1:03, 0:33 and 0:21, when the intensity had lessened greatly (much to the chagrin of any chalk players).
As for the offense, you might want to consider the grade a favorable one. Yes, a team rarely wins in double figures when no player scores more than 13 points, and they only shot 37.0 percent. But it was a 1.03 PPP against a terrific defense (the Bearcats were #15 at 93.1 coming in), largely through an aspect that John Calipari had to be pleased with – only seven turnovers, including just one from the Harrison’s and Tyler Ulis combined, over 89 floor minutes. They went from 3:47 of the first half, until 7:31 remaining in the game without a single giveaway, altering the scoreboard from down 22-21 to ahead 50-39 over that stretch. That clean handling by the guards is something that should particularly be noted if West Virginia becomes the opponent in Cleveland.
Perhaps the biggest focus takeaway was that rotation. Dakari Johnson had been averaging 16.8 minutes per game, but played less than half of that. Marcus Lee was at 11.5 per game, but was only on the court for two minutes. For those in play, the shooting rhythm of Devin Booker remains in issue – his 0-5 beyond the arc dropped him to 6-27 on triples. The Wildcats are capable of winning without his stroke being on, but ATS margins are another matter – it would have only taken one make to turn the tickets around on Saturday.
XAVIER 75 GEORGIA STATE 67 – In a game that brought a stunning level of offensive efficiency, it was ultimately the size and strength of the Musketeers on the boards that takes them to the Sweet 16 for the second time in four seasons. Xavier managed 1.37 PPP in the game, but the Panthers also checked in at 1.19, and it is most rare for a team to lose a tourney game when scoring at that rate. But while Ryan Harrow did return, and knocked down half of his triples, he was only able to play 19 minutes, on a day when having him at full health might have kept them in the hunt to the end.
It was the board work that told the tale – in a game that remarkably had only 35 rebounds in play, the Musketeers grabbed 23 of them. Matt Stainbrook and Jalen Reynolds combined for 12 caroms in 61 floor minutes; that matched the number that the Panthers could come down win in 200. Those two were also efficient around the basket offensively, scoring 30 points on 12-14 from the field, and Stainbrook has 29 tournament points on 12-15. More on that in a moment.
Helping to keep things calm for Chris Mack’s team was senior Dee Davis, who was discussed in THE TOURNEY JOURNEY #3 (link at the bottom of the page) after Xavier sent Ole Miss home. Davis was a part of that Sweet 16 run in March of 2012, and because of that brings a steadying influence. He played the full 40 minutes on Saturday, with 15 points, five assists, three rebounds and two steals, and as the nerves of the others now have to face with a level of pressure they were not expected to reach this season, Davis will be a key.
But now about Stainbrook’s play and all those rebounds. Xavier was a better than average team on the boards this season, not good, and certainly not great. Do not let the Saturday count mean more than it should,it had a lot to do with the opposition. And the battle inside is about to change in a major way against Arizona.
NORTH CAROLINA 87 ARKANSAS 78 - After 40 minutes of occasionally frenzied and often sloppy basketball, with 48 fouls, 37 turnovers and 74 missed FG attempts, including a stretch for the ages from 6:11 to 15:53 of the second half in which there were four turnovers in 18 seconds, the Tar Heels ultimately pulled away not because they played better, but because they had better players. And just enough of them to survive through foul trouble.
In the games closing stretch, Roy Williams was without Kennedy Meeks, who saw his playing time limited first by fouls, and then a knee injury, and Brice Johnson and Isaiah Hicks, who had each fouled out (the latter managing to do that in only 12 floor minutes). But despite having four players with three or more turnovers, they got shots off enough to bring a big advantage into play, something that was alluded to here earlier in the week – they went hard to the offensive glass against a team that does not clear the defensive boards well, nearly having as many offensive rebounds (17) as the Razorbacks had on defense (19). And that was with foul trouble limiting those key rebounders. Where the fouls did matter was at the other end, when Arkansas also grabbed a high percentage of misses, coming up with 20, vs. 25 Carolina defensive boards.
Those presses of Mike Anderson accomplished one of the prime goals going in – get the ball out of the hands of Marcus Paige, who was only 5-14 from the field, and did not have a single assist over 29 minutes. But Paige did come up big when it mattered most, knocking down three triples in the second half, going 9-9 at the FT line, and also contributing six rebounds and five steals. It was J. O. Tokoto, however, that was the player of the game for Carolina.
One of the Tar Heel issues that had been a recurring theme this season was the inability of players other than Paige to be careful with the ball. Against those aggressive Razorback presses Tokoto stepped his game way up – he consistently attacked down the middle of the floor, and turned in a clean count of eight assists without a single turnover. Add in 13 points, five rebounds and two steals over 26 minutes, and it was a game that may not set off fireworks to those that only glanced quickly at the box score, but should have.
Now the next couple of days focus on Meeks, and how well that knee will have heeled, before the Tar Heels have to take a long plane ride to the west coast.
N.C. STATE 71 VILLANOVA 68 – Naturally anyone that had N. C. State vs. LSU in the first round, a ticket that was in this pocket, can lament as to “where the hell was this Wolfpack team when I needed them?” But after seemingly hitting the snooze button when the alarm clock for the tourney opener, Round Two brought the loose and aggressive bunch that had recorded some significant ACC scalps over the past couple of months, scalps that only matter more as the conference shows well through these brackets. But just as big of a story was the other side – Villanova relied on perimeter shooting this season, and it is a long way to April when you do that, running the risk of having a day in which those shots were not falling. On Saturday, they weren’t.
Part of it was bad shooting, which is the only way you can get to 19-61, but making a contribution to that was Jay Wright’s team settling for the perimeter options far too often. 28 of those 61 attempts were beyond the arc, and they only generated 14 points in the paint. The offense was not running inside-out, which it needs to do to be effective, with front-court players JayVaughn Pinkston, Daniel Ochefu and Kris Jenkins not having a single assist over their 67 floor minutes. Of course when those three did shoot themselves, they were not much better than the long-range bombers.
State brought a different approach, taking 42 of 53 shots from 2-point range, able to make a plan work on a day in which Ralston Turner was essentially a non-factor (0-4 from the field, with one rebounds and two assists in a 24-minute stint curtailed by foul trouble). By working inside it settled down their floor game, and enabled both Lennard Freeman and Abdul-Malik Abu to grind their way to double-doubles. That was not a part of this matchup that they were supposed to win, yet they not only won the boards, they controlled them to a 45-32 tune.
Now Mark Gottfried’s team is allowed to take a little swagger to the Sweet 16 in Syracuse – "Survive and Advance" has been a theme on this campus for over three decades, and this bunch already owns two wins over teams seeded #1 in this tourney, a statement no one else can make yet.
NOTRE DAME 67 BUTLER 64 - I absolutely hate to fall on the old sportswriter’s cliché of a game in which it was “a shame that either side had to lose”, but damn that fits here. A draw at the end of regulation was appropriate; had it been a boxing ring the fighters would have been sent home that way, with a rematch to come. Ultimately Notre Dame advanced, for the second straight time not because the Fighting Irish reached the level of last week’s run through the ACC tourney, but because they did just enough.
For Butler the disappointment came from the back-court, where Alex Barlow and Kellen Dunham combined for just 10 points on 3-19 shooting. To their credit they did not turn the ball over despite logging 81 game minutes, but as part of Barlow’s frustrating evening, he picked up his fifth foul when Jerian Grant pump-faked him on a 3-point attempt in overtime, something that a Bulldog player rarely does. It was their fundamentals and tenacity, and not overwhelming talent, that got them this far – at this stage, a mere blink from the fundamentals and you are gone.
Credit Mike Brey for keeping his composure during an intense game, having lost his mother to a heart attack earlier in the day. But this also becomes an awkward transition time for him – he will be going to Orlando to be with the family, before then having to draw up a game plan for Thursday in Cleveland. Fortunately he has a savvy veteran cast on the court that makes such a situation easier from a purely basketball standpoint. On Saturday is was Steve Vasturia emerging from the shadows with 20 points, including some clutch triples, and the ability of the Fighting Irish to spread the floor makes this offense one of the tougher matchups of the remaining teams.
ARIZONA 73 OHIO STATE 58 – This one was good for the pockets, without a lot of drama, even with a wild card thrown in. In placing this Under ticket “In the Sights”, there were two focus points, both of which matter going forward. So time to reviews - first was that one of the best defensive teams in the nation was likely to bring their “A” game, after being embarrassed because of their sloppy effort vs. Texas Southern. Arizona did that. The Wildcats harassed D’Angelo Russell into a 3-19 afternoon, and even though Sam Thompson had a solid game, when Russell is not scoring, the Buckeyes do not flow.
Arizona will continue to defend well through these brackets. But one of the other notions in breaking down yesterday’s game was that they are going to struggle to score against athletic defenses, and they certainly did. The scoreboard and PPP counts may register well, but be careful with them – the starting five only shot 34.0 percent, including 1-8 triples, but it was the roll of the dice from Gabe York off of the bench that bears scrutiny. York knocked down five triples en route to 19 points, more than double his per-game average. While that gives future opponents a wrinkle they have to game-plan for, this is not something that Sean Miller wants to rely on – the nine triples taken by York were the single-game high for him this season. Meanwhile the Wildcats were only 16-44 on 2-point attempts, a 36.4 percent clip that shows their discomfort at finishing around the basket when they are not out in transition.
While the two defenses did their thing on this day, the biggest story, literally, was the rebounding dominance – it was a 43-26 control in which Arizona was simply the tougher team. I have not seen a game yet this season in which the Wildcats were not the tougher bunch inside, and that is worth putting in the back of your mind as those potential showdowns with Wisconsin and Kentucky lurk later on their side of the bracket.
UTAH 75 GEORGETOWN 64 – Toughness had been a question for Utah entering this tournament, not necessarily physical, but perhaps mental. The Utes lost the physical battle in each meeting vs. Arizona this season, and some uninspired performances after the second defeat raised an issue about their ability to recharge the batteries to their psyche for this season. The first round win over Stephen F. Austin did not bring an affirmative answer – it was an ugly grinder of a game in which they did not play very well. But perhaps this time they passed a test that they needed to in their own minds.
The Utes took a big early punch, falling down by 11 as the Hoyas shot well through the opening stages, but they kept their composure and went on a run of their own. And when it as 53-53 at 7:00, and time for the nerves to show, they executed with poise and precision down the stretch. There were two key elements of that execution that matter to a team’s confidence – first having five players score between 10 and 12 points shows a special balance and sense of purpose, leading to a sparkling 1.29 PPP.
But now the second element – they played a great offensive game despite Delon Wright going 2-7. When your key cog has a bad game and you win, that is a big boost for the others. Now Utah has had two such boosts, after he went 2-7 in Thursday’s opening-round win. Imagine advancing to the Sweet 16 despite the fact that your offensive catalyst had more than twice as many turnovers (9), as made baskets (4), through those games? Entering the tourney, Wright had 157 made baskets vs. only 57 turnovers. Overcoming his surprisingly poor play is big, because the environment in Houston is going to be something new for Larry Krystowiak and his roster, but not for their next opponent.
One of the unexpected positives so far has been the confidence boost to Jakob Poetl, who has scored 30 points in two games on 12-13 shooting. With Dallan Bachynski also playing well vs. Georgetown when Poetl was in foul trouble, the size is there to be able to play tough against anyone. The question has been whether there is enough will to enforce that toughness. It was yes on Saturday, but the next spotlights will be much brighter.
The Tourney Journey Series -
Wednesday – The Tourney Journey, #1 (The Meek shall inherit Kentucky)…The Oddsmakers were “Totally” wrong in the NIT…Taking advantage of Silly Seeding Suppositions…
Thursday – The Tourney Journey #2 (cue Dorothy, “There’s no place like home”)…Aiming for the calm, during the storm…It was more bad North Florida Defense than great Robert Morris offense…The sad saga of a team snubbed…
Friday – The Tourney Journey #3 – Dog Day Afternoon…There are no cures for hangovers…The Big 12, wasn’t…
Friday – The Tourney Journey #4 – The Gangs that Couldn’t Shoot Straight (too many of the thrills, came from spills)…The Values of the Venues…
Saturday – The Tourney Journey #5 – Some familiar Old Faces take a bow (perhaps the last time this season, for a few)…The #12’s went 0-4 vs. the #5’s (and the cow jumped over the moon)…A little Pete Townshend is never a bad thing…
Saturday – The Tourney Journey #6 – What a difference a day makes (cue Sara Vaughan or Dinah Washington)…The Special K almost got soggy…The Value of the Venues, for the Sunday round…Some Saturday defense, “In the Sights”…
The full Point Blank Archive.