Big East proves Sir Charles prophetic; more thoughts on the Madness
College Basketball Contributing Editor
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
The city of Richmond will represent as many teams in the Sweet 16 as the almighty Big East Conference.
The biggest takeaway from the tournament's first weekend comes from the some- would-say improbable journeys by a pair of third-place teams in mid-major conferences, Richmond and Virginia Commonwealth, to the regional semifinals while the Big East dropped teams like flies to outfits from the Horizon League, Colonial Athletic Association and Ohio Valley Conference.
The nation's heavyweight conference, which garnered a record 11 bids into the 68-team field (or for mathematicians a staggering 27 percent of the at-large pool), has not lived up to its lofty billing, with the only two teams left standing winners over fellow conference members in the third round.
What warranted the precipitous fall from the high ground to the murky middle, proving Charles Barkley's dubbed nickname, "The Small East" prophetic? Barkley may have hit the nail on the head when he, in less eloquent terms, talked about the Big East's lack of NBA-ready talent with its success predicated on veteran coaching and defensive fundamentals.
No one save Connecticut's Kemba Walker blows a scouting report out of the water the way Kentucky's athleticism, Duke's perimeter shooting, Ohio State's perimeter size and North Carolina's NBA frontline tend to do.
Notre Dame's Ben Hansbrough, the conference player of the year, is a high- energy, tough-nosed guard with a solid stroke but remains undersized and not as fleet-footed as others off the dribble. The same holds true of Louisville's Peyton Silva or four-fifths of Pittsburgh's starting five, and the Panthers won the regular-season conference title.
The conference's strength rested in its Hall of Fame coaching and its style of play, one that doesn't necessarily translate well to a tournament environment that puts a premium on efficiency. Pittsburgh shot 55 percent from the floor on Saturday night, yet lost because it couldn't get out on Shelvin Mack's jump shot or stop Butler's dribble penetration. Georgetown had no answer for Joey Rodriguez's quickness or VCU's defense-to-offense opportunism with turnovers leading to easy run-outs.
The Big East couldn't match quickness. It couldn't match outside shooting. And in the NCAA Tournament's one-and-done bubble there is little time for a physical, slow-down, drag-out fight, and even when a game turned into one, it was Florida State's girth that pummeled on-its-heels Notre Dame. "All it takes is one or two players, one to penetrate and another to shoot. It's really all about playmakers," one assistant coach from a tournament team told me on Thursday afternoon.
The problem is the Big East's stable of players matching those skills is small, and ironically enough, two of the conference's best playmakers, Walker and Marquette's Darius Johnson-Odom (or as Gus Johnson fondly nicknames "DJO") are still wearing dance shoes.
While the Big East was getting picked off and picked upon left and right, two mid-majors from Virginia's capital city were putting on performances of their own. Richmond's Spiders, the third fiddle in the Atlantic 10, knocked off perennial March underachiever Vanderbilt, 69-66, behind the stat lines of its two best players, heady point man Kevin Anderson and NBA prototype frontline stud Justin Harper, and the long-range marksmanship of Francis Cedric-Martel, a 39 percent three-point shooter who drained four big ones on Friday.
The Spiders' efficiency and balance on both ends of the floor is what drives trains like the one they are currently aboard. They have committed just seven turnovers (11th nationally in that statistic on the season) to 32 assists, a nearly 4-to-1 ratio that highlights the sharing necessary to successfully run a Princeton-style offense. The Spiders then put the clamps on Kenneth Faried and Morehead State, holding the Eagles to 38 percent shooting and a 2-of-14 performance from three-point range. Richmond's balance, and most importantly its ability to hold on to the basketball have afforded Anderson and Harper time to put in their standard performances without feeling extra weight.
In the case of VCU, part of its success is psychological, playing the disrespect card to fuel its aggression and defensive intensity in upsets of Georgetown and Purdue. Certain talking heads from Bristol spent the better part of an hour on Selection Sunday dismissing the Rams as an unworthy entry, incorrectly funneling part of its astonishment to the CAA member when, as I pointed out last week, it all should have been thrown at truly undeserving UAB. The Rams proved they could play way back in November, beating UCLA and playing Tennessee to a near standstill. Yet, a late-season swoon left Shaka Smart's team well off the Cinderella radar, when in truth, the anatomy of his team was always complete with the pieces that necessitated this machine-like run to the Sweet 16.
The hot-and-cold Rams didn't always play up to their athleticism and talent, but the dismissive tone of college basketball experts around the country proved to be more than enough motivation to create a tunnel vision that has translated into impressive results. The Rams came out of the first-ever "First Four" by holding USC to its lowest point-per-possession average of the season (0.78) then used its breakneck defensive pressure to fuel transition opportunities, leaving Jamie Skeen open at the rim and Bradford Burgess free and clear on the wing. The result was an 11-assist, zero-turnover by Rodriguez against Purdue's Top-10 defense, a unit that only allowed even 80 points once this season (87 in a loss to Ohio State) before getting shredded for 94 on Sunday.
SIZING UP THE SWEET 16
Setting the Table: "DJO" kept Newark from housing the powerhouse regional, yet members of four power leagues still make up the East Regional beginning Friday at the Prudential Center. The tournament's top overall seed played two low mileage games in Cleveland and now takes its inside-outside combination against the length and athleticism of Kentucky, which showed its youth in a survival against Princeton and for the first 20 minutes against West Virginia before demonstrating its superior talent in the final half. The Wildcats will need to bring their A-game for 40 minutes on Friday, because defensive lapses and turnovers will lead to easy baskets for the more experienced Buckeyes. Marquette is in Newark thanks to its defensive game plan to take away Syracuse big man Rick Jackson (seven points on just six shots) and undercut passing lanes. The go-for-broke plan worked to the tune of 18 Syracuse turnovers, which is the main reason the Orange lost despite making 55 percent of their shots. It remains to be seen if the Golden Eagles employ the same game plan against the Tar Heels, doubling the low block with Dexter Strickland's defender. You may see more of Leslie McDonald, if he can hold up defensively, to negate Marquette's ability to suffocate and trap the post. North Carolina is in Newark thanks to its frontline and point guard Kendall Marshall, who set a tournament program record with 14 assists against Washington. Yet, North Carolina's success comes when it receives contributions from Strickland and McDonald, who scored a combined 18 points in what is looking like a six-man rotation for head coach Roy Williams.
What to Watch For: Kentucky's length can disrupt Ohio State's over-sized perimeter play, but the Wildcats must do a better job of getting out on shooters and cutting off David Lighty's penetration. The Buckeyes, who rained 16 threes against George Mason, are deadly off dribble-drive-kick action, so Kentucky must force the guards, especially William Buford and Jon Diebler, to shoot on the move. On the flip side, Jared Sullinger has done a great job staying out of foul trouble this season, and with Ohio State's limited depth, he must play wise against Terrence Jones and Josh Harrellson, who will try to go right at the Buckeyes' lone low post threat. In the first game, North Carolina can be exploited off dribble penetration, so Johnson-Odom must attack the defense to find Jimmy Butler and Jae Crowder on the wings. Offenses get into trouble when they over-penetrate into the Tar Heels length, so Marquette's smaller guards must use discretion and take advantage of the seldom-seen mid-range game. North Carolina's length was an issue for the smaller Huskies, and the same will hold true in Newark with Marquette dressing just one player taller than 6-foot-8. The Tar Heels will likely see some zone from the Golden Eagles, and they must still probe the post before settling for long-range jump shots.
East Champion: Ohio State. The Buckeyes have four sharpshooters so one or two can still afford to have an off night. Their weakness lies in post depth, and Sullinger's maturity and smarts will be tested against two big, physical frontlines. Ohio State will move past Kentucky then use its experience to force a costly mistake or two from the younger Tar Heels, who will bow out in the regional final just one season after missing the tournament.
Setting the Table: Duke reverted back to some bad habits in its second-round victory over Michigan, launching 20 of its 49 shots from three-point range and becoming complacent in attacking the Wolverines' extended 1-3-1 zone with a double-digit lead. The result was near collapse, and the Blue Devils would be wise to attack the rim as they did during the ACC Tournament. The Wildcats Jekyll-Hyde act from long range is disconcerting for head coach Sean Miller, who didn't receive two solid performances from any of his perimeter players in Tulsa. Kyle Fogg, who made a team-high 47 threes on the season, missed all four attempts against Memphis and has attempted just seven shots in two games. The Wildcats mustered only five makes against Memphis then connected on 8- of-14 in the victory over Texas. In the region's lower half, Connecticut's play continues to be reminiscent of its road through Maui back in November, but now Walker has a maturing supporting cast he can trust. Jeremy Lamb scored 14 big points to help hold off Cincinnati in the third round. San Diego State should feel fortunate to escape Tucson, where Kawhli Leonard was nearly non- existent until late in regulation and during both overtimes. Leonard is a far more effective scorer turning and facing the rim, when he can use his quickness and upper-body strength to score in traffic and get to the charity stripe.
What to Watch For: Kyrie Irving's integration back into the offense has been anything but smooth, as the Blue Devils looked out of sync with Smith playing off the ball when both were in the game. Duke is playing with fire going back to its early-season dynamic and would be better served using Irving more as a creator on the wing while letting Smith control the ball. Both should try to penetrate against Fogg and Lamont Jones to set up wing shooters and give Kyle Singler some space to work against Williams. On the flip side, Arizona must take care of the ball and feed Williams, who is much more assertive when he is involved offensively from the outset. The UConn-San Diego State bout will come down to D.J. Gay and Chase Tapley's ability to disrupt Walker's rhythm and force Lamb and Jamal Coombs-McDaniel to beat them. Alex Oriakhi does not need to handle an offensive load, but if he disappears like he did against the Bearcats, he must at least disrupt the Aztecs deeper, stronger frontline.
West Champion: Duke. Mike Krzyzewski will head to Houston with the all-time wins mark in his sights. The Blue Devils survived their wake-up call and should return to a more attack-first, shoot-second philosophy against Arizona, which has far too inconsistent guard play to stand up against the veteran Smith and the dynamic Irving. Triggerman Andre Dawkins is still a key figure if Duke expects to repeat, and he will play an important role in the regional final against San Diego State as head coach Steve Fisher focuses on slowing down Smith. Don't be surprised if Singler breaks out of his shooting slump by drawing Leonard far away from the basket and getting the big man in early foul trouble.
Setting the Table: The table is in fact set for Kansas, which can reach Houston without beating a team seeded lower than ninth. The Jayhawks have rode the Morris twins to the Sweet 16 with Marcus and Markieff scoring 16 and 15 points respectively in a victory over Boston University then pouring home 17 and 24 points (with each grabbing 12 boards) in the win over Illinois. The Jayhawks ceiling rests in getting just enough outside shooting to keep defenses honest on the interior duo. Brady Morningstar and Tyrel Reed were a combined 2-of-8 from long distance against the Illini and Josh Selby didn't score in 10 minutes. Richmond and VCU's paths to the Sweet 16 were discussed above, as the Spiders used error-free offense and the Rams swarming full-court pressure and hot shooting to the regional semifinals. Florida State's defense will be the talk of San Antonio this week, and rightfully so after the Seminoles put the clamps on Notre Dame's No. 1 half court offense in the third round. FSU was the nation's most efficient defensive team all season, but the majority of that work was accomplished with Chris Singleton in the lineup before injury. He played sparingly against Texas A&M in the second round then saw just 10 minutes of action and didn't score against the Fighting Irish. It didn't matter as the Seminoles harassed Notre Dame into 31 percent shooting, a 7-of-30 effort from long range and received a surprising offensive contribution from 26-year-old Iraq war veteran Bernard James, who posted 14 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks.
What to Watch For: Someone, anyone, must step up and make some long-range shots to give the Morris twins more room to work. Selby's invisible act is not a good sign if the Jayhawks get a step up in competition in Houston, but for the time being they must feed the post early and often. Kansas will use Tyshawn Taylor on Richmond's Anderson and attempt to force the levelheaded point guard into uncharacteristic mistakes. The Spiders must receive a solid offensive game from Dan Geriot similar to the one he played against Morehead State with 13 points and seven rebounds. The Rams-Seminoles contest with a clash in tempo. Florida State's length and strength is most effective in the half court, where it can work inside-out offensively and bother shooters in tight windows defensively. Virginia Commonwealth will want to play the game in space, creating passing lanes on the break and forcing Florida State's unsettled ball handlers into mistakes. The more easy baskets the Rams can create, the easier it will be over 40 minutes. VCU may tire playing in the half court against the Seminoles' more physical defense.
Southwest Champion: Kansas. The Jayhawks' outside shooters will need to step up in a regional final matchup with the Seminoles, who can bother the Morris twins and push them away from the basket. Look for the duo to display their vastly improving mid-range games early to spread out the packed-in defense. Still, Reed, Morningstar or Selby will need to make a few shots and create turnovers to control the game's tempo.
Setting the Table: Talk about an eclectic mix of personalities and skill sets with Butler's playing experience and youthful-faced head coach, Wisconsin's grind-it-out style and all-everything point guard, Florida's off-the-radar SEC Player of the Year who the nation will soon learn about and some guy named Jimmer. Butler is back in the Sweet 16 for many reasons, but the main two are the outside shooting of Mack and the ability of big men Andrew Smith and Matt Howard to play with foul trouble. Both players commit plenty of fouls, but surprisingly Smith has been whistled for the most fouls on the team and has not fouled out this season. The Bulldogs won their second-round game because both forwards were on the floor late in the game to somewhat negate Old Dominion's offensive rebound advantage and pick up loose balls on the offensive end, including Howard's look-what-I-found game-winner. Mack was the star of the third-round win, making seven of Butler's 12 three-pointers in the 71-70 victory. To say the Bulldogs are tournament tested is an understatement, as seven of their eight tournament games over the last two seasons have been decided by seven points or less. Wisconsin was dismissed as a tournament also- ran (even in this space) after two clunkers to end its regular season against Ohio State and Penn State. The Badgers' tournament success is due in part to their supporting cast. Mike Bruesewitz has scored 19 points in the two games after averaging 4.5 points per game during the regular season. It is a good sign the Badgers edged Kansas State despite Jordan Taylor's 2-of-16 shooting performance, but they are playing with fire unless he finds his stroke. Jimmer was Jimmer in the impressive thumping of Gonzaga, but Fredette received plenty of help from his teammates. Jackson Emery scored 16 points, Noah Hartsock added 13 and Stephen Rogers, the thin-as-a-rail big man responsible for guarding Gonzaga's Robert Sacre for extended stretches due to foul trouble, added 10 in 11 minutes. Florida and UCLA played perhaps the tournament's cleanest game, as each team executed at a high level from the tip. The end- to-end contest featured just 16 turnovers, and the Gators made 50 percent of their shots. Erving Walker played big with 21 points during a quiet game for Parsons, but Florida's main concern will be Kenny Boynton's left ankle after he sprained it against the Bruins.
What to Watch For: Butler will likely spread the floor and use their frontline speed advantage to create avenues to the rim. Taylor will likely draw Mack, and scouting reports show the best way to guard the Butler guard is to press him out top and make him drive left. A key to the game will be Jon Leuer, the Wisconsin forward who is more comfortable away from the hoop, but may venture in to create foul issues on Howard and Smith. Florida has a rotation of guards to use on Fredette, so Jimmer may again turn into the creator instead of the scorer in the game's early stages. Look for Hartsock and Parsons to both play more on the perimeter, especially the Florida star forward who will be used to hedge out when Fredette tries to use ball screens to create room.
Southeast Champion: Butler. These Bulldogs flip a switch in March, have more tournament experience than any other team in the region and have the inside- outside offensive balance to exploit Wisconsin's 61st-rated defense in the Sweet 16 then Florida's perimeter-oriented attack in the regional final. Can head coach Brad Stevens' stock get any higher?
Trexler is the author of "99 Things You Wish You Knew Before...Filling Out
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