Saturday, March 26, 2011

NCAA East Region -- Looking Ahead While Looking Back

What have We Learned?
Five hours of basketball matching the four best teams in the East Region leaves the fans in Newark looking at the last two standing in a field of sixteen that included five regular season conference champions, the Big Ten Tournament champion and #1 team in Division 1, the the Southeast Conference Tournament Champion. The evening started with a gutty, but doomed comeback attempt by Marquette that was the very personification of their coach, and as the clock struck midnight in New Jersey, Ohio State, the third #1 seed in this tournament, fell and a Kentucky team as paradoxical as it is young, stepped up to be the last contender, opposite North Carolina, for the last ticket to Houston.

X's and O's, Lacking Jimmys and Joes?
Marquette's Head Coach Buzz Williams approached the dais in the interview room on Thursday to Meet the Press..."What did you say? I was joining you on what?" he asked the moderator in an accent that was neither "true Southern" nor "true Western", the drawl and twang spoken and understood best in the northern and eastern corners of Texas and eastern Oklahoma. "The dais". "How do you spell it?". "D-a-i-s" and as the assembled media chuckled, Buzz slipped comfortably into an Awwww Shucks personna I suspect he assumes everyone east of the Mississippi believes folks from Texas and Oklahoma to be. On the third question however he slipped ever so temporarily out of that role. In response to a question about how the Golden Eagles would deal with the Tar Heels' athletes, Buzz threw off another self-deprecating line about not knowing. Perhaps his ego got the better of him at that point however, and in a slightly lower tone he rattled off a series of statistics that confirmed to anyone paying attention, that he had given the problem of besting North Carolina quite a lot of thought. "I think our offense has to help our defense, similar to how we had play against Syracuse...". If North Carolina took only two more possessions per game than Marquette, the Golden Eagles scored more efficienctly. Smart offense "Live ball turnovers end up being dunks...quick long shots end up being dunks...", would limit North Carolina breakouts and keep Marquette defenders in front of North Carolina runners...

Marquette's Coach Buzz Williams Can Only Watch
As North Carolina deconstructs his defense

I doubt that any of the 17,000+ assembled fans, a cohort that included a healthy sample of Marquette gold, anticipated the 40-15 Tar Heel blitz that blew the Golden Eagles out of the tournament. As Ray Floriani noted (Semi-Finals Recap), Marquette converted at a nightmarish, 0.44 points per possession, rate. To comeback, Marquette would need more than an offensive blitz of their own, they would also have to shut the Heel offense down as well. Extremely difficult to do both without active cooperation by the opponent. Offensively, the Golden Eagles made a game run that saw them post 48 points of their own, but defensively they made no progress at all, yielding 41 points, one more than in the first half, to the UNC juggernaut. Who, outside of the Tar Heel back court, can shutdown the Tar Heel front court?

North Carolina's Runnin' Frontcourt
"I love the way (Roy) Williams uses Barnes" shouted the writer next to me midway through the first half "he can play him anywhere from the #2 to the #4, with his length and speed...". Indeed, all three of the Tar Heel front court starters, 6-8 freshman Harrison Barnes, 6-10 sophomore John Henson and 7-0 Tyler Zeller are fast enough to play to play one spot down while long enough to play one spot up, covering anywhere from the #2 to the #5. If Roy Williams wants to go taller he can move Barnes into the back court (wing) -- as the freshman's 3-7 shooting from beyond the arc hints -- and insert a beefier front court player. Or move Barnes to the low post and...

Justin Knox (25) and Harrison Barnes (40) finish at the rim

...let him go to the cup. John Henson has the length to play the #4, but can also fade to the perimeter and take a three point attempt...

Though he missed the shot this time
forward John Henson (31) has the
requisite form to hit from that distance

The sophomore "utility" front court player logged a double-double (14 & 12) while switching between Jae Crowder and Jimmy Butler on defense.

Note the eye contact between Henson (31 holding the ball)
who gathers the rebound as guard Dexter Strickland (1 far left)
prepares to sprint the length of the floor. The guard finished at the rim

At 7-0 Tyler Zeller can also dominate on the backboards, but is comfortable facing the basket as he shoots. His 1.18 PPWS on 10-19 shooting from the field (all two point attempts) and 7-8 from the line suggest he can be accurate. The Euro-style forward logged a double-double (27 & 12) while dishing four assists and gathering three steals.

Marquette's freshman Davante Gardiner (42) uses his
arms and legs to box out Zeller (44) effectively
A physical player may be needed to neutralize
Zeller's length and mobility

Who the ?/#@!$#$! Is That Player?
From Coach John Calipari's 1:00 am post game press conference...

I think it was November he (#55 Kentucky forward Josh Harrellson) twittered some stuff about me, and I about threw him off the team...I thought better of it and...said, 'You are going to condition for 30 minutes before every practice and then you are going to practice or you can quit.' He worked so hard and all of a sudden his body changed. It's not what I did, it's what he did. His body changed. The extra work got his skills better. And it also got him to think differently. I tell players all the time, if you're going to do the same thing over and over and then expect a different result, that's the definition of insanity. You have to change, your habits, your work habits, your mentality...

Ohio State Coach Thad Matta pleads ineffectually
for a miss as Harrellson releases
his free throw attempt. No such luck Coach

When everyone else on the Kentucky squad was still warming to the task of shutting down Jared Sullinger's Party in the USA, Harrellson's 12 first half points kept Kentucky in the game. The senior supplied ½ of Kentucky's made field goals before the intermission, offsetting a huge advantage (12 vs. 4 made FTs) the Buckeyes gathered at the free throw line. Harrellson finished with 17 points and 10 rebounds, just a tick behind OSU's stud Jared Sullinger's 21 and 17.

OSU's Jared Sullinger (00 left) and UK's Josh Harrellson (55 right)
exchange play lists as they separate under the OSU basket?

The Myth of Youth
Kentucky's heralded freshmen class, Terrence Jones, Brandon Knight and Doron Lamb went a combined 8-25 (5-12, 3-13) and 2-2 from the line to contribute 23 points to the Wildcats' winning effort, while veterans Harrellson, DeAndre Liggins and 6-7 sophomore guard Darius Miller combined for 39 points on 14-23 (1-5, 13-18) shooting and 10-12 from the line. Brandon Knight hit the game winner, a jumper from 12 feet with 9.5 seconds left in regulation. "...they are not freshman anymore at this point..." -- John Diebler, Ohio State.

(Left to right) Brandon Knight (fr), Josh Harrellson (sr) & DeAndre Liggins (jr) break front of a roomful of witnesses no less

Between them, these two programs have won 12 National Championships. Can Kentucky keep up with North Carolina? Can Liggins, Jones, Eloy Vargas (6-11 junior) and Harrellson neutralize the Tar Heel front court? The two teams met earlier this season, North Carolina taking a two point decision 75-73 (in a 76 possession game) in Chapel Hill in December. The teams have met 33 times, North Carolina holding an 22-11 edge, and twice in the NCAAs, again North Carolina holding a 2-0 edge.

Ray Floriani and I will be live from the Rock as Rush the Court will host live blogs from San Antonio, TX and Newark, NJ tomorrow.

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