Tuesday, April 8, 2014

NCAA Tournament, Day 10

Connecticut 60 - Kentucky 54

I believe it was after the Connecticut-Michigan State game when I started asking around to friends better plugged into the college basketball scene than I just what had happened in that game. Michigan State was not an elite offensive team, far from it, but UConn harassed them into easily their worst offensive showing of the season. The feedback I got was, yes, UConn is good defensively but they aren't that good and that MSU played a big part in their own struggles.

Then UConn plays Florida, the #1 overall seed in the tournament, owner of a 30-game winning streak, and touted as the most balanced team in the country. Surely it will be different this time, no? After all, Florida had been using its size much more effectively than the Spartans (read: their big man doesn't just camp out at the three-point line and lunch threes, even if he hits quite a few of them). And UConn holds the Gators to their worst offensive showing of the season.

Back to last night, okay, Florida had good size but Kentucky lives off of its size. UConn's guards throttled Michigan State's guards and Florida's guards, and it showed in teach team's three-point shooting and turnovers. Enter the Wildcats, who knocked off Wisconsin shooting just 5 threes (making just 2), and turning the ball over a whopping 4 times.

Of course, they shot 16 threes in this game (making just 5, 31.3%) and turned the ball over 13 times.

And I have my answer, yes, UConn is that nasty defensively. Congratulations, Huskies, you now have your 4th National title in the last 15 seasons.

Let's close out March Madness 2014 with a few bulletpoints:

  • I don't fully understand how UConn so effectively neutralized the bigs of MSU, UF, and UK. Their guard play was elite, no question, but their bigs (at least in this game) were foul-prone and didn't seem to match-up well with UK's bigs, especially Julius Randle. Which begs the question, why did Randle only shoot the ball 7 times last night?
  • Did anyone else (read: John Calipari) get flashbacks to his title game loss with Memphis every time UK bricked another free throw? That Memphis team made 12/19 (63.2%) free throws (but they missed 4/5 in the last 75 seconds of regulation). This Kentucky team made 13/24 (54.2%). That's awful. 
  • Shabazz Napier had a couple of interesting comments after the game.
Ladies and gentlemen, this is what happens when you banned us.
Translation: If we graduate so few players that even you, the NCAA, feels compelled to slap us on the wrist, watch out, because we'll use that as fuel and use that slight to come back better (on the court, not the classroom) than ever!
We do have hungry nights that we don’t have enough money to get food in
Translation: I see you, NCAA, making hundreds of millions of dollars on the basketball tournament alone. Oh, and making money off of selling my jersey. Maybe we should be getting a little bit of that. Maybe this whole "student-athlete" designation is a sham. Maybe you, the NCAA, should think about making some changes before the system comes crashing down around you as you bury your heads in the sand piles and piles of money.

On one final note, the vast majority of you emerge from March Madness with your bracket busted. Take heart, you could have been this guy instead.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

NCAA Tournament, Day 9

Connecticut 63 - Florida 53
UConn's guard play is simply much better than everyone else's. The Huskies attack you with their guards on the offensive end, getting into the paint with relative ease. Then on the defensive end they harass your guards into turnovers, bad shots, and frustration. Lots and lots of frustration. 

Florida held teams under 40% shooting for the season. Connecticut shot over 55% for this game. But that includes the first 10 minutes of the game where the Huskies scored all of 4 points while turning the ball over 6 times. But then something clicked, as UConn immediately went on a 17-2 run on their way to taking a 25-22 halftime lead. 

After that Florida could never get back even, because they couldn't put successful offensive possessions together. A team that gobbled up assists and eschewed turnovers all season long went the other way today, with only 3 assists and 11 turnovers tonight. 

Kentucky 74 - Wisconsin 73
Wow. What. A. Game.

Kentucky overwhelms you with their size inside, and they did, out-rebounding Wisconsin 32-27 (inlcuding an 11-6 edge in offensive rebounds). That size also allowed the Wildcats to shoot 50% from the field, mainly because the bulk of their shots came from inside the paint.

Wisconsin spaces you out (all 5 of their starters can make threes), which forces the defense to either stay home on the long-range shots and give up some easy drives, or collapse on the drives and yield open threes. The Badgers hit 8/20 from downtown, allowing them to stay in the game while losing the turnover battle 8-4 and with Kentucky hitting 50% from the field.

This game came down to the final 3 possessions:

Possession 1 (71-71, 0:52 remaining)
Wisconsin sets up their offense, but Kentucky's defense is equal to the task. Finally point guard Traevon Jackson gets the ball with the shot clock winding down, pump fakes with 3 seconds left to shoot, and he gets his defender in the air, draws contact on his shot, and earns 3 free throws. Jackson makes 2/3, which includes the first (and only) Wisconsin free throw miss on the night on 20 attempts.

Possession 2 (73-71 UW, 0:16 remaining)
Aaron Harrison gets the ball on the wing, far behind the three-point arc. This is the guy who beat Louisville (Sweet 16) and Michigan (Elite 8) with three-pointers in the final minute. But Kentucky is just 1-for-4 on threes tonight.

So Harrison takes the loooong three...and drains it.

Possession 3 (74-73 UK, 0:05.7 remaining)
Jackson drives the ball into the frontcourt, releases an attempted bank-shot at the buzzer, and he misses it. A good look, he just wasn't able to make it.

And so we end up with a 7-seed playing an 8-seed for the national championship, because of course we do. 

Sunday, March 30, 2014

NCAA Tournament, Day 8

Connecticut 60 - Michigan State 54
This is starting to feel like 2011 all over again, where UConn storms through the bracket behind terrific guard play to reach the Final Four on their way to a national title. I don't think they'll get there, as I don't think they'll beat Florida. But then again, I didn't believe they would beat Michigan State, let alone look like the better team in the game. 

And that's the real shocker for me. Connecticut was the better squad, partly because the Huskies played a terrific game, and partly because the Spartans played like...well, manure. Michigan State had almost as many turnovers (16) as made baskets (18). And frankly, many of the turnovers were ones you'd expect from a group of pick-up players who we're playing together for the first time. 

But just as important was MSU's complete inability to get good looks around the paint. Aside from the occasional put-back, The Spartans got nothing close to the basket. Their guards couldn't penetrate, and their bigs couldn't establish themselves on the blocks. Essentially, their offense was swinging thr ball around and hoping they could hit at least 40% of their threes (not quite: 37.9%). 

Conversely, UConn consistently got into the paint, leading to points at the rim and free throws. UConn shot 22 free throws (and made 21 of them) to Michigan State's 8 attempts (making 7). In a game where the winners shot 34.1% from the field! free throws and turnovers were the difference. 

Here is where not watching college basketball pre-tournament hurts me. I can't tell you whether UConn is just that good defensively, whether Michigan State is that pathetic offensively, or whether Michigan State simply picked an inopportune time to have a Turrible game. 

Kentucky 75 - Michigan 72
Michigan is a terrific shooting team, they will put up offense against most everyone in the country. But their ability to spread the floor so we'll comes at a cost, as traditional big men don't usually fit well in their offense. They're athletic, but they can be attacked with size and strength. 

And that is exactly what Kentucky did, went after Michigan in the paint. It helped them shoot 53.4% from the field and set up good long range looks (they equalled Michigan's three-point makes on 7 fewer attempts, including the game-winner with 2.3 seconds remaining). Only heir free grow shooting was below par 6-for-11). 

And in the interests of a good semi-final matchup, I believe this was the optimal result. Kentucky is better-equipped to take on Wisconsin with their 7-footer, Frank Kaminsky taking over games both in the paint and from behind the arc. 

Saturday, March 29, 2014

NCAA Tournament, Day 7

Florida 62 - Dayton 52

Dayton shot the ball well from behind the arc (8-for-18), and this weapon allowed them to take an early lead and stay tight for most of the first half. Florida's size was giving the Flyers problems, but the Gators weren't able to assert themselves on offense.

That all changed with about 3 minutes to play in the first half, as the floodgates finally opened. What was a 3-point UF lead with 3:11 to play in the first half became a 14-point advantage by halftime.

In the second half, Florida's size took over. The Gators kept Dayton out of the paint, leading to a 28-to-8 UF advantage in free throw attempts, and they pounded the Flyers on the offensive glass (12-to-5 edge for Florida). In fact, if Florida had anything resembling rhythm offensively in the second half, the second half would have been a Gator walk in the park. At least twice in the last 3 minutes of the game, Florida had 3+ shot attempts on a possession that ended in zero points.

Fortunately for the Gators, their defense kept Dayton from taking advantage of their frequent cold spells. And so Florida is the first team to punch its ticket to the 2014 Final Four.

Wisconsin 64 - Arizona 63 (OT)

Well, Sean Miller has now lost to a lower seed in the NCAA Tournament.

This felt like a Wisconsin game for at least the last 30 minutes of game time. Wisconsin executed their sets and got good looks. Arizona needed their athleticism to keep their offense off of life support, whether it was via offensive rebounds or pushing the pace.

At the beginning of the game it looked like Arizona was going to be the first Wisconsin opponent to have any sort of answer for UW's 7-footer with three-point range, Frank Kaminsky. But that wasn't true, as Kaminsky ended the game with 28 points and forced Arizona's coach to try all sorts of matchups to slow him down. It didn't work, which made Wisconsin's decision to not get him the ball on the last possession of regulation curious.

This is the first close game I can remember in this tournament where the referees really weren't up to snuff. I thought Wisconsin got the short end of the stick all night with the calls. Then the referees ended Arizona's second-to-last offensive possession in OT (with AZ down by one), with a very debatable offensive foul call. And then they took over 5 minutes to decide an out-of-bounds play (where they admittedly had no clear view) with 2.3 seconds left in the game, and it's debatable whether or not they got the call right. This isn't meant to say Arizona got robbed, they didn't. But the officials were too big a part of the story in this otherwise classic matchup.

NCAA Tournament, Day 6, Part 2

Wow, what a pair of games.

Kentucky 74 - Louisville 69

Unbelieveable game. At the beginning, it looked like Louisville was going to run Kentucky right out of the gym as they jumped out to an 18-5 lead. But Kentucky weathered that storm and got back within 3 at halftime. And they simply kept grinding down low against Louisville.

Louisville was swarming around the ball, but Kentucky limited the damage (12 turnovers is a respectable number against the Cardinal defense).

Two big reasons UK pulled the upset?
1) Three-point shooting: UK wasn't good (4-14), but Louisville was worse (4-15)
2) Free-throw shooting: UK was 22-27, Louisville a putrid 13-23

Michigan State 61 - Virginia 59

This was a great defensive, physical battle. Michigan State hit just a couple of extra shots in this one, and they made their free throws. That was the difference.

Adrian Payne gets MVP honors for this game. He was a consistent presence in the paint at both ends, and came up with a huge three-pointer followed by an assist to push Michigan State ahead to stay in the final minute.

Friday, March 28, 2014

NCAA Tournament, Day 6, Part 1

Michigan 73 - Tennessee 71

This game was going according to script for about 85% of the game: Tennessee was playing well, and couldn't keep pace because Michigan was shooting out of their minds. But in the last 4 minutes, Tennessee started getting stops, and that allowed them to get within 10....within 7, within 6, within 5.

At this point Tennessee was pressing and denying the inbounds pass. Michigan (up 72-69 at this point), subs in guard Spike Albrecht to be the designated inbounds player. I find this interesting, as Albrecht is pretty clearly the smallest player on the floor in this game. But what do I know?

The next three inbounds passes go as follows:
- Pass leads teammate right to the sideline boundary, teammate forced to throw ball wildly, which leads to a turnover. Tennessee cuts the lead to 72-71.
- Pass leads teammate right back to end-line, teammate steps on end line corralling pass, turnover.
- Timeout called before 5-second violation

Albrecht inbounded all 3 of those balls, AND the next one. At this point, I'm thoroughly confused:

So what does Tennessee do with the ball facing a one point defecit? Give it to their big man and have him charge into the paint. Unfortunately, he does this through his defender and is called for an offensive foul. It's a very close call.

Michigan escapes by the skin of their teeth and presumably will spend the next 48 hours diagramming new inbounds plays.

Connecticut 81 - Iowa State 76

For 90% of the game, Iowa State couldn't chain stops together. Their offense wasn't bad (it wasn't as good as it was last round against North Carolina) but they couldn't keep UConn's penetrating guards out of the paint. It was just too easy for the Huskies offensively.

I'd like to tell you more about Iowa State's comeback to make things interesting, but Michigan was busy trying to give their game away which a) made it difficult to switch over and b) kept the UM-UT game going and going Energizer bunny style so by the time that game finally ended there was less than a minute to go in UConn-ISU.

But while Iowa State made the game interesting, they could not get it within one possession. Why?
2nd half free throw shooting:
UConn: 19/20
Iowa State: 0/5

That's not a recipe for success.

Now if you will excuse me, I'm going to watch the state of Kentucky go to war with itself.

NCAA Tournament, Day 5, Part 2

Florida 79 - UCLA 68

UCLA put up a really good fight, but in the end Florida was too good and too deep. Despite some substantial foul trouble in their front line, the Gators used a balanced attack to keep the Bruins at bay. Florida imposed their will at both ends, shooting 50% from the field at one end, and holding UCLA to 16.7% from behind the arc at the other end.

But again, give UCLA credit. Florida started the game running, gunning, and hitting from behind the arc. Michael Frazier had three 3-pointers before we were halfway through the first half, but UCLA never let the game get away from them. Whether it was through stops or shots, they managed to hang around right until the very end. Unfortunately, they were never able to put enough of either together to take the lead in the second half.

One note: even though Florida has now reached their fourth straight Elite Eight berth, they do not yet have a Final Four appearance during this stretch.

Arizona 70 - San Diego State 64

This game was exactly what was expected on paper: two terrific defensive teams making each other's life miserable on the offensive end. The expectation was Arizona would eventually pull away, thanks to their superior offense, but that never really happened.

The main reason for that was their main scorer, guard Nick Johnson, was 0-fer on his first 10 shots from the field. That all changed with just under 3:00 remaining in the second half, when Wildcats point guard TJ McConnell stole the ball. In the loose ball scrum, McConnell got the ball to a teammate, who passed it to Johnson, who made a layup. Finally untracked, Johnson proceded to score the next 13 Arizona points, and 15 of their final 17 (mostly at the free throw line).

Finally, I found this interesting:

1-seed Arizona will face 2-seed Wisconsin on Saturday for a berth in the Final Four.