Point Blank – March 23
The Tourney Journey #8 – Eight more spoons full of Sugar (none helping San Diego State’s shots go down)…The legacy guys bring their membership cards…Archie Miller was right, it just worked out wrong…”Rock, Shock, Jayhawk” becomes the new Sunflower State chant…
Sunday did not bring much drama, with five of the eight games decided in double figures, but part of that is because some of the savviest coaches around had their teams playing at high levels. Would it really be a Sweet 16 without Mike Krzyzewski (#13), Tom Izzo (12 times, four straight), Rick Pitino (12 times, 11-1 SU in this round), Bo Ryan (the seventh appearance coming up), Bob Huggins (like Ryan, #7 on the way), Mark Few (this will be #6, though off of five straight seasons of losing in the Round of 32), and Lon Kruger (making it with the fourth different team, after getting here with Kansas State, Florida and UNLV). They all won yesterday, and get to coach the current rosters at least one more time.
This is good for both the handicapper, and the fan. For those heading to the windows to wager, having guys that are well-known and can be trusted means a consistency in play, regardless of whether your are going to play on or against them. And for the fan it means some entertaining press conferences ahead – it would be worth paying scalpers prices to listen to Huggins this week, as he turns the showdown with Kentucky into the Hatfields vs. McCoys.
So time to get ready for those eight matchups coming up, and that means another journey back through the last session, to find what can be useful going forward…
MICHIGAN STATE 60 VIRGINIA 54 - Virginia was to Sunday what Villanova was to Saturday. You can not fault the Cavalier floor game, which had seven more rebounds, one fewer turnover, and effectively had 13.7 more FG attempts in the game (using .475 x FT attempts as a base part of the equation). But they only made 29.8 percent of their shots, including a wretched 2-17 from 3-point range, and it sends a classy team home earlier than the merit of their 2014-15 body of work would have called for. But part of that just happened to be running into Michigan State again, after the Spartans also sent them back to Charlottesville after a 61-59 Sweet 16 win in Madison Square Garden last March.
Sunday’s game was result was eerily similar to LY – the last time around it was Virginia getting 9.5 extra FG attempts, but losing because not enough of them went in then as well. Credit the Cavalier floor game for getting more opportunities, but credit the toughness of Michigan State for not being frustrated the way that many Virginia opponents are over the course of 40 grinding minutes. You want it to be slow and physical? Sparty is fine with that. The Cavs missed a lot of shots because they were tough looks, and only five assists in 57 FG attempts speaks volumes.
After seeming to underachieve through much of the season, State led Wisconsin in double figures deep into the second half last Sunday, and then never trailed yesterday. This time it was some big early shooting from Travis Trice to establish the lead, and it has to be huge for the collective team psyche when they can beat this class of opponent on a day that Denzel Valentine only contributed four points over 21 minutes, on 1-6 shooting. Perhaps we have not seen the best basketball this group has to offer yet, which has been the Izzo way in the past. You keep working, and keep building, and sometimes really good things happen.
DUKE 68 SAN DIEGO STATE 49 – Not a big surprise here – as noted in THE TOURNEY JOURNEY #6 (link in the archives below), that San Diego State offense box score vs. St. John’s in Friday’s win was not meaningful – the Aztecs took advantage of the Chris Obekpa absence, while a pair of early treys by Dwayne Polee hit the backboard before the rim. On Sunday folks that had not seen Steve Fisher’s bunch much this season got a chance to view what had been painfully obvious on the west coast all season – this really was a gang that could not shoot straight.
Although they won’t play again, make your takeaway on this team a proper one – they played terrific defense (#4 in the nation), were solid on the boards, and in truth ran good offense. It was the latter part that will not be appreciated, unless you actually watched often. Fisher had them running stuff that consistently brought good shots; it was simply a group that could not make them. It was the shooters, not the playbook, and it was magnified when having to play from behind vs. a team like Duke – they could only connect on 19-58 from the field, with 2-13 triples.
Meanwhile Jahlil Okafor may have played his best game of the season, scoring 26 points on only 16 FG attempts and a pair of FTs, showing maturity beyond his years in dealing with that Aztec defensive interior. It also lends some perspective as to what can be expected in the rounds ahead – the talent and balance of this offense has made them difficult for even the nation’s best defenses to guard. They faced three of the nation’s top five on Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive ratings, two on the road and one on a neutral, and handled them with relative ease. And there also should be a reminder of what happened at Wisconsin – while the Badgers have not been a great defensive team, to do what the Blue Devils did in Madison was rather remarkable -
Team Rank PPP Duke PPP
Virginia 2 86.8 1.17
San Diego St 4 88.7 1.13
Louisville 5 89.7 1.05
Wisconsin 36 95.0 1.30
Use that as a forewarning, because much of the talk this week will be about the Utah defense, which is #7 on those Pomeroy tables. That may make the Utes attractive because of what it might seemingly entail in this matchup, but some really good defenses have already tried against this bunch, and failed.
By the way, yet one more time there was a Coach K Second Half Under ticket available with a double figure lead in a tourney game, which came in again. But damn you have to be quick – the betting markets have enough of an awareness that once again money showed up quickly, and the Total dropped.
OKLAHOMA 72 DAYTON 66 – From a distance, it would be easy to call this one a case of the Flyers ultimately running out of gas, with a 56-49 lead at 9:30 getting turned around by 13 points. Depending on the play-by-play source that you use, it can look that way. But did this come down to one of those magic moments, a case in which a coach did the right thing, only to have it turn out wrong? And it is something that will not be noted in many of those play-by-plays.
With 8:25 remaining, Oklahoma called a time-out, not waiting for the under 8:00 automatic media stoppage. Archie Miller then did something that made a whole lot of basketball sense at the time - he pulled Scoochie Smith out. Smith had played the full 40 minutes vs. both Boise State on Wednesday, and Providence on Friday, and had also gone the distance to that point vs. the Sooners. So with the likelihood of two timeouts in short succession, there was a chance to give a pretty substantial break to a guy that may have needed one. But it did not work. It was Miller himself that had to call the next timeout, at 6:23 after it had been cut to 56-55, and in that cycle Dayton lost a rhythm that never returned, in what morphed into a 13-0 Oklahoma run. The Under-8 media timeout did not happen until 4:56. The Flyers went 9:04 without scoring, turning the ball over five times through that stretch. One can only wonder what might have happened, had Smith never left the floor.
One need not feel sorry for Dayton – the Flyers competed hard, but were given a luck of the draw by the tournament committee that was undeserved. Instead the focus needs to go to Oklahoma, and for a group that had not won a single NCAA tourney game until Friday night, the best that can be said about the Sooners is that their showing in Columbus was uneven. They hit their first three shots, all triples, for a quick 9-0 advantage, but then got outplayed to a 56-40 tune for a substantial game stretch, until that late turnaround.
The Sooners controlled the boards 35-23, with TaShawn Thomas and Ryan Spangler nearly combining for as many (21) as the Dayton team, but a lot of that was more size than technique, comparable to the Albany win in round one. For the season they graded out as a below average rebounding squad, which becomes one of the primary issues with Michigan State on deck.
WEST VIRGINIA 69 MARYLAND 59 – Yet another game in Columbus had a turning point involving a key PG right around the 8:00 mark of the second half, this time with Melo Trimble having to leave the game for Maryland with a possible concussion. But while that did not help matters for the Terrapins, at that point they were down 53-46, and it was going to be difficult to turn the game around even with Trimble on the floor. The key is that without him, there was no chance.
In reviewing the Friday action to set this one up there was a take on how vulnerable Maryland could be when the ball was not in Trimble’s hands – even with him they posted a negative assist-to-turnover ratio for the season, and it was a disastrous 20 turnovers vs. six assists from players other than Trimble on Sunday. Sure, they shot well when they could get shots off – 47.7 percent from the field and 8-19 triples, but when you turn the ball over on 35.3 percent of your possessions, there is almost no degree of accuracy that can overcome it.
Consider what those turnovers, and the offensive rebounds that also come out of scrapping and hustling of the Mountaineers, do – West Virginia had 16 more FG attempts and six more FTs. Creating that many more advantages has a significant scoreboard impact, and it is why Huggins has his team here despite the fact that they can be so dismal when it comes to shooting. How about a Sweet 16 team that is #272 in effective 3-point percentage, #250 on 2-pointers, and #271 at the FT line? But they are #1 in forcing turnovers, and #4 on the offensive boards, and that creates the opportunities.
But now the problem. Huggins does not have shot blockers protecting the rim for his presses, and when Big 12 teams learned to throw the ball over the top and attack the basket, they converted easily at times – West Virginia rates a lowly #304 at defending 2-point shot attempts. And that may well be the Kentucky way come Thursday. But the Mountaineers will absolutely not back down in that matchup, with a deep rotation that will keep attacking aggressively, and another big game from Devin Williams yesterday is worth noting. At 6-9/255 he will need to play to his size against the Wildcats, and over the last four games he has averaged 18.3 points and 9.8 rebounds.
WICHITA STATE 78 KANSAS 65 – The Shockers waited a long time for this one, and instead of complaining about being snubbed in attempts to schedule the Jayhawks in the past, perhaps they should relish the fact that the draw came when it did – Gregg Marshall’s veteran cast got to play Bill Self when his team arguably had the worst floor game of his tenure in Lawrence. And after an early case of nerves for the Shockers, it played to form.
Wichita was a little too high early, taking some bad shots that were out of character, but once Fred VanVleet and his teammates settled down, it was a +21 over the final 24:12 of play, nearly a point-a-minute domination through that stretch. The patience was there to probe the more fragile than usual Kansas chemistry and find openings, leading to 10 made triples (most of them wide open), and the defense was fundamentally sound enough to make the Jayhawks have to work for what they were going to get. That was not a strength this season, and note that the Kansas starting five had the awful ratio of 11 turnovers vs. only three assists.
The Shockers are not going to wow casual observers with anything spectacular, but if you are a student of the sport, you develop a great admiration for the way they play. They won going away despite no player getting to 20 points, but all five starters were in double figures, with particularly good ball movement in the second half (16-27 shooting, with nine assists, after intermission). But while there is the spectacle of that possible rematch with Kentucky looming out there, State gets thrown a difficult matchup first – a Notre Dame team that will bring so many of the same savvy elements of the floor game. The contrast between the street brawl that Kentucky/West Virginia could turn into, and the fencing duel between Marshall and Mike Brey, makes for an interesting evening in Cleveland come Thursday.
WISCONSIN 72 OREGON 65 – A year ago Oregon brought the athleticism to throw a major scare into Wisconsin in this same round, holding the lead with l1:10 remaining until coming up a bit short. With a lot of the same faces on the court this was more of the same, with a triple by Dwayne Benjamin knotting the score at 52-all with a little under 6:00 to play. But once again the Badgers were just a little too good, and the Ducks were only able to get three stops the rest of the way.
Joseph Young ended his Oregon career in style, with 30 points, four assists and only one turnover, and he showed the kind of matchup problem that Wisconsin can face in the games ahead – it is a good Badger defense, not a great one, and staying in front of talented guards is a particular challenge, especially as it looks more and more like Traevon Jackson will not be able to play his way back into shape. Remember how they were exploited by Duke early in the season, and now comes North Carolina and Marcus Paige.
But what Wisconsin does well is done so very well. Four of the five starters scored at least a dozen points, there were only six turnovers, and so few fouls that Oregon could only get to the line for seven FT attempts. The Badgers do not leave anything in the X’s and O’s arsenal that can be exploited, and there just is not any way to speed them up out of their preferred pacing. They are #346 in tempo this season, while North Carolina checks in at #12, but give Bo Ryan a victory in that “game inside the game” already – the Tar Heels can compete and win, but they are going to have to do it at the Wisconsin pace.
GONZAGA 87 IOWA 68 – No team has had a better offensive showing through this tourney so far, given the quality of the opponent, than what Mark Few’s bunch turned out yesterday, a 1.32 PPP in which they did just about everything right. The ball movement was outstanding, with six different players having at least two assists, and they were effective both inside (22-36 on 2-point attempts) and out (10-16 triples). Four players reached double figures, keyed by 24 from Kyle Wiltjer that was a monument to efficiency – he only had 12 FG attempts, and did not take a free throw.
The precision of the Bulldogs took Iowa out of the game early, and after being knocked down the Hawkeyes could only wobble around on their feet the rest of the way, failing to land many counter punches. They had been in the role of bullies against smaller Davidson on Friday night, but while they showed the size on paper to compete with Gonzaga, the toughness was not there. It was not just a case of the defense being exploited, but the Hawkeyes were also handled 34-22 on the boards.
While Sunday’s showing was a case of the Bulldogs reaching a high level, it was not all that new for an offense that rates #4 overall this season, and #1 for effective FG percentage. The inside-out game is well-designed, and Wiltjer may be the single most difficult one-on-one matchup in the nation, with Few able to use him as a #4 at times to draw bigger opponents away from the basket, or as a #3 to shoot over teams that play three-guard lineups. All of which makes the next few days difficult for Steve Alford.
As noted in THE TOURNEY JOURNEY #7 (link below), a lack of size and depth on the perimeter has made it difficult for UCLA to both take the ball away (#230 in turnover rate), or guard the three-point line (#259). In Norman Powell there is actually a reasonable counter against Wiltjer, but checking Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell, who have combined for just three turnovers in 138 tourney floor minutes, will be extremely problematic. Good luck with that, Coach.
LOUISVILLE 66 NORTHERN IOWA 53 – I did not see this one unfolding the way that it did – a Louisville team lacking the ability to press as usual, was going to have to play in the half-court, run offense, and make shots, something that Cardinals were having trouble doing with Chris Jones on board, and were absolutely struggling to accomplish without him. But then came Sunday and something unexpected – they made shots. That 45.8 percent will not jump off the table but it should – it was almost all out of the offense, with the defense only coming up with two steals, with few opportunities to get out on the break.
Terry Rozier was the key, shooting with confidence in going 8-13, but also looking for his teammates, dishing seven assists while only having one turnover. How about this for some perspective – Rozier nearly out-scored the entire Northern Iowa starting lineup (he had 25, they had 27), and nearly had as many assists (the Panthers had nine). Part of that is the deep UNI rotation, which limited the starters to 118 game minutes, but take nothing away from Rozier, who was one of the best players on any court on Sunday.
Now the question becomes whether this is a newly-found Louisville confidence, or if it was simply a one-off in which the shots fell. Of concern going forward is the bench, which only produced five points and five rebounds, and the fact that no one other than Rozier had more than a single assist. Quentin Snyder is listed as the PG in the lineup, but he only has three assists over 72 tournament floor minutes, and of the 20 dishes that the Cardinals have in the tourney, 14 are from Rozier.
Make the PG play one of the key starting points for Louisville/N.C. State at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse. The Wolfpack won 74-65 in Freedom Hall back in January when Jones was still in uniform, with Anthony Barber scoring 21 points. One of the intriguing subplots this week is that Pitino had been heavily recruiting Barber, but backed off at the end to give a scholarship to Jones instead. He lost round one against his former recruit, and faces a difficult matchup element at that position this time as well.
Recapping the Round of 32 –
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)…
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