Friday, March 20, 2015

NCAA Tourney Day 1

What an incredible day of games. In lieu of a more comprehensive article, I'll just go game by game in chronological order, talking about things I noticed in each one.

Notre Dame 69, Northeastern 65

I had not been able to do any research on Northeastern until Thursday morning, but as the day got going, the more I became convinced this would be a really good game. You can start with the NE roster - their starting frontcourt is a a 6'8 235 senior (Scott Eatherton) and a 6'8 225 junior (Quincy Ford) and they both can play. They even brought a 6'7 220 senior (Reggie Spencer) off the bench and he could play too. Eatherton was a bruiser with a post game, Ford could step out and shoot and Spencer was an athletic guy who could run, hit the glass and finish around the basket. That's a formidable combination of players and it's an embarrassment of riches for a team from a mid-major conference like the CAA. Any team with that much size you have to take seriously.
That went double for a team like Notre Dame, which didn't have a ton of size for a high major team. They were a four-out team that liked to spread the floor and out score bigger teams in the ACC, but that style of play means they forfeit the traditional advantage that a high seeded team is going to have in a game like this. Do I think it's a coincidence that a coach who loves small ball as much as Mike Brey has struggled in the NCAA Tournament? Not really. And if you look at what happened in this game, for as much as everyone talks about Jerian Grant and Demetrius Jackson, the guy who really saved their bacon was Zach Auguste, their 6'10 240 center.

NE was able to control the game for most of the first half because Auguste was in foul trouble. When he got going in the 2nd half, there wasn't much NE could do. He finished with 25 points, 5 rebounds and 2 assists on 14 shots. It makes sense that NE set up their defense to make the ND big man go 1-on-1 - they were so used to having a size advantage in their conference they didn't want to have to restructure their entire defensive strategy. But while 6'8 235 can shut down the lane in the CAA, there's only so much he can do against an ACC big man like Auguste. That's the type of player Notre Dame hasn't had too often and he's going to have to be the difference maker if Mike Brey is going to put his March struggles behind him.

UAB 60, Iowa State 59

You can see the difference that Auguste makes in the struggles of Notre Dame's comrade in arms - another 3 seed from the Midwest without a lot of size who plays a fan friendly style of basketball based around spreading the floor and hoisting 3's. The idea this year with Iowa State was the presence of Jameel McKay would change things and while McKay did everything in his power to clear the glass and protect the lane (12 rebounds and 6 blocks) he doesn't have the type of offensive game to where you could throw the ball into him and expect production on offense (10 points on 8 shots). What that means is that Iowa State couldn't impose their will on the game on a smaller team like UAB, which was ultimately their downfall.

The big story of the game was the glass, where UAB absolutely crushed Iowa State. UAB ended up winning the rebounding battle by +15, including an absolutely devastating +10 margin on their offensive glass. There's nothing more dispiriting for a team than playing great defense and then giving up an easy putback and then repeatedly came back to haunt Fred Hoiberg's team. You won't find a bigger Hoiberg fan than me but I thought he made some questionable decisions in this one, most notably not giving Bryce Dejean-Jones more minutes. BDJ (6'6 210) was their best perimeter athlete and their best chance to match UAB's physicality and he spent most of the game in his warm-up jacket.

With BDJ watching Hoiberg's beloved shooters getting punked all over the floor, Iowa State was conceding most of the athletic advantage you would expect a Big 12 team to have against a team from Conference USA. It wasn't necessarily a huge deal for the Cyclones since they were used to giving up size and speed to their opponents in Big 12 play, but that means the 3 is playing the underdog style to the 14, which throws a lot of your traditional assumptions about a game like this out the window. The biggest eye-opener was the struggles of Georges Niang, who could just not create any separation against the longer and more athletic UAB defenders.

As it turns out, this loss was the beginning of an atrocious day for the Big 12 and I think you can start to see a pattern for what happened. This goes back to what I wrote on Wednesday about the importance of looking at conference road records. Iowa State was only 5-5 away from Hilton this season. Most of their success came from jumping Big 12 teams in their home gym, a place that is one of the most difficult to play in the country. When they went on the road, their lack of size became more of an issue. And if their biggest scalps were against their conference mates (who struggled greatly today) and against Arkansas at home, that meant that the right opponent on a neutral floor would give them a lot of trouble. If it hadn't been UAB, it would been the next round - both SMU and UCLA had a huge size edge over Iowa State.

Arizona 93, Texas Southern 72

Georgia State 57, Baylor 56

From a national perspective, the big story is obviously RJ Hunter and The Shot and The Chair and The Moment That Will Love Forever. From a Texas perspective, though, it's hard not to make the story about Scott Drew.

The number that jumps out at you is 21 TO's for Baylor compared to only 6 TO's for Georgia State even though A) Baylor is way more talented and B) both teams run gimmick zones designed to create TO's and easy run outs. Did the Baylor coaching staff not watch any film before this one? It's hard to fathom how a team with a senior PG running the show was so disjointed and completely unable to handle such relatively simple ball pressure.

If Drew really does some soul-searching, this loss might cause him to wonder why he plays so much zone, given the amount of talent he has on his roster. Zones are what the Sun Belt champs are supposed to bust out on one of the most talented teams in the Big 12 - not the reverse. Georgia State wants to play a zone-based game with a Baylor team that is bigger and faster than it at almost every position.

There are a lot of different factors involved in why The Deepest Conference In The Country struggled so mightily in the NCAA Tournament and has in the last few but one of the underlying causes is the underachievement of two of the programs - Baylor and Texas - that should be carrying the conference's banner. Those schools have access to some of the best players in the country. There's no excuse for some of the coaching those guys receive and it seems to annually come back and bite them on the game's biggest stage.

Butler 56, Texas 48

The next edition of "Big 12 coaches getting hoisted on their own petards come Tourney time" takes us to Rick Barnes. It this was his last game as a Texas coach, he certainly saved some of his best work for last. To get into the rot of Barnes program, though, you have to go way deeper than the generally inept performance his vastly more talented squad put on display on Thursday.

In a lot of ways, I think the worst thing that could have happened to Rick Barnes was getting a commitment from Myles Turner last summer. I'm not saying this because I don't think Turner is a great player and a fantastic prospect (he is) or that Barnes had any choice about pursuing him (he didn't), just that the confluence of a program-encompassing downward spiral and the skill-sets of the returning players on the team meant that adding Turner put Texas right into the middle of a bear trap that they could never get out of this season.

The basic problem is the Longhorns already had four good 6'8+ guys on their roster - Cam Ridley, Jonathan Holmes, Prince Ibeh and Connor Lammert - and all of them were going to struggle to get enough playing time at the 4 and 5 positions as is. When you added Turner into the mix, the whole thing was completely unsustainable. The only way to divvy out the playing time was to move Holmes to the 3 and play as a super-sized front-line. Even then, you were still dividing a very fixed number of minutes at the 4 and 5 between 5 guys (since Holmes still doubled as a small-ball 4), making it hard for any of them to get in a rhythm.

It's the same problem the Pistons had this season with Josh Smith. As a 4, Holmes is a good floor spacer who can put the ball on the floor. As a 3, he's an inconsistent shooter who can't really take smaller guys off the bounce. In theory he could post them up but because he's playing with a 4 and a 5 who are (at best) iffy shooters, there's no room. Conversely, with Holmes at the 4, there's no room for the other two big men to do their thing either. Everyone is just playing on top of each other and it clogs up the offense. It's not a great defensive alignment either, as Holmes is much more suited athletically to guarding 4's than 3's. Barnes even tried to go with a 2-3 zone for awhile to get all his big men on the floor even though he had never been a zone coach before. A coach who was never known as an X's and O's magician probably shouldn't have been making half-court offense any harder than it had to be. There's just a lot more room on the floor when you play 3 perimeter players as opposed to 2.

Where the situation went from problem to full on catastrophe was the way in which Barnes filled out his perimeter rotation. If you are going to play three big men at the same time, your guards better be able to A) space the floor B) take care of the ball and C) control tempo and enter the ball into the post. On their best day, the Texas guards could maybe do A and B and never do C. When you play three big men who clog up the lane next to two poor shooting guards who want to push the ball and you don't give them any type of offensive structure to work together, the end result is the grisly fireball that was the Texas season.

Things imploded in perfect fashion against a Butler team that was tailor made to exploit a flawed high-major team like Texas. The Bulldogs packed the paint, forced Texas to take tough shots and completely controlled the tempo of the game. The mind blowing part is how little Barnes went with a 3 guard line-up to open up the floor and give his big men space to operate. The sad part is that if you re-distribute the excess Texas big men to other teams around the conference, they might have made the difference in getting someone to the 2nd weekend.
UCLA 60, SMU 59

There was a lot of foolishness on Twitter about that final goal-tending call and I think in this situation a picture really is worth 1,000 words.
These things happen though. The refs weren't the only reason that SMU lost this game.

1) UCLA was a tough match-up for SMU in large part because there was nowhere they could hide Nic Moore (5'9 170) on the perimeter. For as great an offensive player as Moore is (and he was the American Player of the Year), he's a pint-sized guy who really can't contest shots. That's why his counterpart, UCLA PG Bryce Alford, went for 27 points on 9-11 shooting from 3. Alford (6'3 180) was literally shooting over a chair. The Ponies usually slid Moore over to a lesser perimeter player in American play, but there was nowhere to put him against UCLA, who had Norman Powell (6'4 215) and Isaac Hamilton (6'4 185) on the wings.

2) As long as your best players can avoid foul trouble, depth isn't a huge deal in the NCAA Tournament. UCLA's biggest problem all season was their lack of a bench and Steve Alford rectified that by not playing any of them. Alford and Powell played 39 minutes, Hamilton played 36 minutes and Kevon Looney played 32. The only guy who got any real run off their bench was their backup C Thomas Welsh, who filled in for a fairly ineffective Tony Parker. SMU had much superior depth, but they couldn't dictate tempo and impose their will on the game against a UCLA team that had them out-manned physically.

3) This game was where you really saw the importance of Keith Frazier, the Ponies best wing scorer, who was ruled academically ineligible in the middle of February. Without Frazier to run offense through, SMU had to depend entirely on Moore and their big men and considering the challenges those guys would have against the Bruins, Larry Brown's team was going to need scoring from everyone to beat one of his old schools. Markus Kennedy (6'9 245), Cannen Cunningham (6'10 225) and Yanick Moreira (6'11 225) gave SMU the size to compete with a Pac-12 team but they couldn't just destroy UCLA based off size, skill and athleticism like they could with a lot of teams from the American.

Xavier 76, Ole Miss 57

Ohio State 75, VCU 72 (OT)

There were so many D'Angelo Russell highlights in this game it's hard to choose one. I'll go with this one from the final minute - you know it was a nice move when you still want to re-watch it even though he missed the shot:

I'll have much more to say about his play on an NBA draft recap I'll be doing at The Cauldron but suffice to say that he's really, really nice and his game against Arizona will be one of the most anticipated 1-on-1 NBA draft battles in a long time. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Stanley Johnson gave Caris Levert the business in a non-conference game in Tucson so it will be fun to see what they can do against Levert's more heavily hyped Big 10 compatriot.

One other thing I think is worth pointing out is just the general way that teams like VCU tend to play. Let's not have any illusions about them or Butler. They both play a physical, chippy and borderline dirty style of play involved around forcing TO's and contesting shots without fouling and they count on the refs to let shit go on defense. But when they are playing on offense, they are the first team to fall to the ground and exaggerate contact in an effort to get the refs to bail them out with foul calls. It's just hard for me to stomach supporting a team that flops and dishes out cheap shots. You have to pick one or the other - I don't care how appealing an image your head coach cuts on the sidelines.

And I know people will say it looks worse in slow motion (it does) but it's more the generally reckless way in which they play invites those types of things to happen. They are habitual line-steppers and I'm glad Ohio State sent their ass home.

Villanova 93, Lafayette 52

Cincinnati 66, Purdue 65 (OT)

This was the only game today where you saw the team with the big man sent home and the small-ball team move on to the 2nd round. Cincy had absolutely no answer for AJ Hammons (7'0 280) around the basket and they needed a buzzer-beater just to get to OT. Hammons had 17 points and 10 rebounds on 10 shots - the only reason this game was even close was because Purdue couldn't consistently get him the ball in the half-court or run good offense through him, which has been their problem all season. Cincy packed the paint and dared Purdue to shoot from the perimeter and the Boilermakers went 4-26 from 3.

Here's the thing about being a small-ball team though. Cincy's next opponent is Kentucky and if they thought Hammons and Isaac Haas (7'0 300) were a handful, wait until they see what Big Blue Nation has in store for them. In the NCAA Tournament, if you don't have a lot of size it's not going to take very long for you to get exposed.

UNC 67, Harvard 65

Superior size was the story of this game before UNC decided to clinch up and almost choke away the game in the final minutes. The biggest problem for UNC is what it has been all season - they don't shoot the ball well enough to properly exploit their size advantage, as they went 5-7 from 3 on Thursday. (In that case the low # of attempts says it all) That may not be an issue when they play against an Arkansas team that wants to play just as fast and attack the rim for 40 minutes, but you can bet Wisconsin (the 1 seed in their region) will be taking notes if they end up meeting in the Sweet 16. Here's another theme I'll be coming back too over the course of the Tourney - your weaknesses as a team are going to be challenged and exposed the further you get into March.

NC State 66, LSU 65

I'll talk a lot more about this one over at The Cauldron, but this was a fun one filled with a ton of talent. It's about what you would expect for an ACC vs. SEC showdown (the two conferences with the most athletic talent in the country) and I'm hoping for something similar from Arkansas vs. UNC on Saturday.

Utah 57, SFA 50

What's that you say? A high-major team with elite size at the C position (Jakob Poetl at 7'0 235) was able to overwhelm a superbly coached low-major team that didn't start anyone over 6'7? Who would have guessed that would happen?

People were big upping SFA before the Tourney because of their great record and their even better statistics and their history of being a Tourney team, but I watched them for a few minutes in their conference tourney and came away pretty unimpressed. It's a team full of little buddies and they weren't going to have much of a chance against a team that could play big boy basketball, as Utah let them know. Poetl finished with 18 points on 7-7 shooting and that stat probably undersells his dominance. There was just nothing SFA could do and they had to structure their D around Poetl so much that it opened up things for everyone else.

There's a reason these 7'0 are so coveted by NCAA coaches. They are hard to get and when you have one of them you have a huge advantage over 90% of the teams in D1. If you are a low or mid-major team that doesn't have enough size to play with the big boys, you better hope you get a favorable draw against a small-ball team or your ass is almost certainly going home.

Arkansas 56, Wofford 53

1) Arkansas has a 6'11 240 All-American named Bobby Portis.

2) Wofford starts 6'6 220 and 6'6 220 upfront.

3) Care to guess how this movie ended?

Kentucky 79, Hampton 56

Same story, different game. You better be a lot taller than Hampton if you are going to hang with Kentucky.

Georgetown 84, Eastern Washington 74

This is a funny one. The monstrously large Joshua Smith (6'10 350) was in foul trouble so Georgetown just rolled Mikael Hopkins (6'9 240) and Bradley Hayes (7'0 260) off their bench and kept it moving. As Eastern Washington found out, if you don't have the size, your ass is going home.

Beyond how exciting all the games were, that to me was the story of Day 1 of the Tourney. If you don't have enough size, you could lose your Round of 64 games. Round of 32 games tend to be about having the big men and the guards. When you get to the Sweet 16, you start looking at complete teams vs. whoever was able to sneak through an easy bracket while the Elite 8 games tend to be the best in the Tourney. The Final 4 is just a whole different animal we will get too later. In a little over 2 weeks, to be precise. Buckle up because this is going to be fun.

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