Monday, March 28, 2011

Elite 8 Recap

By now, I'm sure everybody has heard just how mad this March has been. The third time since 1979 that none of the 1-seeds made it into the Final Four, and the first time that none of the 2-seeds made it either--that's right, none of the top 8 teams going into the tournament made it to the final weekend. Brad Stevens might have legitimized Butler as the next Gonzaga, getting the Bulldogs to their second consecutive Final Four--an incredibly tough acheivement in this age of parity and talent throughout Division I basketball. What's interesting now is that we're left with four teams--UConn, Butler, Virginia Commonwealth, and Kentucky--that, prior to the tournament, didn't really have any arguments that they should be national champions. 

Calhoun leads an impressive quartet of coaches
UConn, even though they won the Maui Invitational in November (defeating Kentucky and Michigan State in the process), still finished only 9-9 in the Big East, including a 4-7 run in their final 11 games. Butler and Virginia Commonwealth had decent seasons out of mid-major conferences, but there's no way they could have any argument they deserved to be in the national title contender. Kentucky would have been in the top-5 had they had the services of big man Enes Kanter, but they didn't--and so they lost 6 conference road games. So now we're left with a Final Four without Duke, without Ohio State--even without North Carolina, Notre Dame, BYU, Florida, or Pitt, all of whom had national championship aspirations going into the tournament--but instead we'll see a team very few saw coming stand atop the podium to receive the trophy. The one thing that can't be said about these four teams is that they don't have good leadership. Jim Calhoun (above) is the oldest of the four, leading UConn back to the promised land, and he joins Brad Stevens (Butler), Shaka Smart (Virginia Commonwealth), and John Calipari (Kentucky). So what happened in the Elite 8 that saw these four teams get through? Let's take a look at the numbers.

#8 Butler 74, #2 Florida 71
What We Said: I'm finally a believer. After beating Pitt and Wisconsin, I just can't pick against Butler when they're playing a streaky, not-that-great shooting Florida team who just shot 11-for-34 from deep in their last game. The key to this game lies in the play of two players, one for each team: for Florida, Alex Tyus  needs to continue the success he had against BYU (19 points, 17 boards), while Butler needs Shelvin Mack to have the kind of lights-out game he had in the round of 32 against Pittsburgh.

Mack made a key three against Kansas
What Happened: Obviously, Butler pulled it off. Again. Florida, which had been hitting the offensive glass (31.8% for the tournament) about as well as the rest of the Elite 8 (32%), only grabbed 25% of their misses against the Bulldogs. Meanwhile, Butler grabbed 13 offensive boards, including all 7 of Khyle Marshall's rebounds, and shot well enough from the floor, 40%, to stave off Florida. Chandler Parsons ended up having the key game, shooting only 2-9 from the floor without getting to the line for his 5 points. Mack led all scorers with 27 points despite shooting 8-for-20 from the floor, but it was his huge trey with 1:20 to go in overtime that gave Butler the lead for good. If Vernon Macklin (25 points in 24 minutes) stays out of foul trouble, then Florida might have taken this one, but instead the Bulldogs advance to the Final Four for the second year in a row. I would say that head coach Brad Stevens is the hottest young coach in the country with this victory, and he's certainly in the top two, but he's getting some heavy competition from another mid-major coach making a highly unlikely tournament run.

#3 Connecticut 65, #5 Arizona 63
What We Said: The Duke Blue Devils didn't really have anybody who could match up with Derrick Williams, but the Huskies have a few athletic frontcourt players in Jeremy Lamb and Roscoe Smith. Both freshman, the Huskies need one of them to be able to stay on Williams, and try and limit him as much as they can. If that happens, if Kemba Walker keeps doing what he's been doing all tournament, and if UConn can keep Arizona shooting as poorly as their first three opponents (combined 38.5 shooting %), then the Huskies have a shot. 

What Happened:  Well, the Huskies managed to do what Duke couldn't--limit Derrick Williams, at least, as much as they possibly could. Williams still managed 20 points, but it came on 5-13 shooting--including a key one-for-six from beyond the arc, as Williams finished with the seventh-highest 3PT% in NCAA history for one season (.568). Meanwhile, Kemba scored 20 points on 17 shots while Jeremy Lamb chipped in 19, but the key number for the Huskies this game was five. Five was the number of turnovers UConn committed, allowing them to keep the possessions and shots even despite grabbing 6 fewer offensive boards (and 11 overall). UConn's ability to limit Arizona in transition (turnovers lead directly to transition buckets, especially for as athletic a team as 'Zona) and keep Williams in check led them into the Final Four.

#11 Virginia Commonwealth, #1 Kansas
What We Said: Yes, the Rams have had a fantastic run--one of the final teams included, they needed to beat USC in the First Four just to get into the main draw of the tournament, and now find themselves one win away from the Final Four after beating Florida State by taking the game out of the paint. Kansas has something that Florida State doesn't have, however--not just one dominant frontcourt player like Chris Singleton, but two in Marcus and Markieff Morris. In addition, they have something the Seminoles didn't have--length around the perimeter, led by sophomore Tyshawn Taylor and freshman Josh Selby, VCU most likely won't be able to shoot the three as well as they have been doing. Crazier things have happened, I suppose, and an 11-seed in the Final Four isn't unheard of...but this would be quite the upset.

Skeen has shown both shooting touch
(40% from 3) and toughness (7.4 rpg) to lead VCU
What Happened: The Morris twins had their great games: the two combined for 69 minutes, shot 13-31 from the floor for 33 points and 28 rebounds--but also committed 7 fouls and turned the ball over 9 times. The real story for Kansas was their outside shooting--coming into the game shooting the 3rd-best of the Elite 8 from three (22-of-51, 43%), the Jayhawks shot 2-21 from outside, including a 1-for-7 performance from senior Tyrel Reed (38% on the season), and an 0-for-3 from 41% shooter Brady Morningstar. Meanwhile, that length on the perimeter went for naught, as Virginia Commonwealth shot 12-for-25 (48%) from beyond to continue their hot streak this postseason (45.4% from three, a full 8% above their season average). Jamie Skeen, VCU's six-foot-nine senior forward, hit four trey's en route to a double-double of 26 points and 10 rebounds. Skeen will be the key for his team in the Final Four, playing against Matt Howard--though guards Joey Rodriguez and Brandon Rozzell will have to stick close to Shelvin Mack, who's proven he can pull the trigger from anywhere.

#4 Kentucky 76, #2 North Carolina 69
What We Said: Brandon Knight and Terrance Jones have both had fairly impressive freshman seasons, so for both of them to go 3-for-10 in a win over Ohio State shows how tough this Kentucky team can be.  The key difference in this game could be offensive rebounding: both teams have been shooting at a fairly similar pace (48%-46% in favor of Kentucky), holding opponents to very similar 39% shooting against them, but it's North Carolina that has out-rebounded Kentucky, grabbing 38% of their misses compared to Kentucky's 29%. If all other things equal out, as they have thus far in the tournament, then it should be North Carolina with more opportunities, more buckets--and more points.

What Happened: Well, the offensive rebounding did end up in North Carolina's favor--31% to 24%--but that didn't make up for another costly three-point shooting night on Sunday. The Tar Heels only shot 3-for-16 from beyond the arc, while Kentucky went 12-for-22. Jones and Knight, a game after combining to go 6-for-20, went 12-for-27 and 33 points, including the five three-pointers that Knight made. Harrison Barnes, the first ever freshman AP All-American, shot only 2-for-9 from long distance, and steady point guard Kendall Marshall shot only 2-for-10 overall, sealing UNC's fate. The Tar Heels had a great second-half run to tie the game up, but too often against athletic teams like Kentucky those sorts of runs will exhaust a team, and indeed it was the Wildcats who pulled away as the clock wound down.

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