Kentucky Rides Post-Play, Late Emergence of Shooters to Outlast Michigan

It took a half for the Kentucky to truly realize its paint-presence potential, amidst a horrid performance by its shooters for the better part of the game. But domination of all that surpassed near the basket–on both ends of the court–in the second half set Wildcat shooters loose. One of them was star freshman guard Aaron Harrison, who blossomed in the final 10 minutes of play and drained a go-ahead three in the waning seconds to give Kentucky a 75-72 victory over the Michigan Wolverines, and an unexpected berth in the Final Four.

Before any last-second heroics though, the Midwest Regional final was determined by in-game developments in the low block, and with particular respect to how the Wildcats functioned in it. Going into the game, Kentucky seemingly possessed an advantage in the paint, but the absence of Willie Cauley-Stein (ankle injury) called this notion into question. Though Kentucky’s highly touted big man primarily makes his presence felt most around the basket, his athleticism gives him the ability to close out on opponents’ jump-shots–a skill that could have been especially useful against Michigan and its fantastic shooters.

But the emergence of the unheralded and lanky forward Marcus Lee–fittingly another freshman factor for the Wildcats–quickly dispelled any doubts about Kentucky’s potential for low-block supremacy. In filling the void created by Cauley-Stein, Lee first asserted himself with a put-back dunk at the 14:16 mark, that proved particularly important as Kentucky was already in a 11-4 hole. The rest of his scoring followed in similar fashion, as Lee tallied 10 points, four offensive boards, and a block at the half, and added four more rebounds and another block in the final 20 minutes of play.

Marcus Lee (00) converts one of his several powerful dunks. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Marcus Lee (00) converts one of his several powerful dunks. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Lee’s first put-back dunk stimulated his team, as it continued to fight back against early-game deficits with effective scoring in the post; by 11:05, all eight of Kentucky’s baskets had come around the hoop, and the team did not even convert a shot outside the paint until 12 minutes and 48 seconds into the contest.

Yet in a 15-5 run by the Wildcats in the final five minutes of the half, the team relied on more than just its scoring in the paint to fuel a game-tying surge. A multifaceted approach to netting points–comprised of free throws, jumpers inside and beyond the arc, and of course post-scoring–showed early signs of the dominant post-game’s positive effect on other aspects of the offense.

Trailing for all of the opening half, Kentucky now entered the break knotted with the Wolverines at 37, and held advantages in rebounding totals (17-12) and momentum. A pivotal moment then occurred within the first minute of the next half, as Michigan’s top big man–Jordan Morgan–picked up his third foul at 19:35 and took a seat on the bench. Michigan knew well before the game that it could not afford such a loss due to its lack of size, and for the remainder of the first 10 minutes of the second half, its weaknesses were exploited, and worries realized.

During this span of time, Kentucky asserted itself in the paint stronger than it ever had before in the contest: the stretch consisted of 12 points in the paint, eight defensive rebounds, seven offensive boards, and three blocks. The Wildcats appeared to be on the brink of definitively pulling away at several points in this time, but Michigan’s shooting ability far from the low block allowed it to stay close and even grab a lead for 3:31.

After the Wolverines possessed a 55-53 lead, and what would eventually be their last one at the 8:54 mark, a basket by Julius Randle (who finished with a valuable 16 points and 11 rebounds) incited a 9-0 run that lasted for nearly three minutes. The streak was broken up by a three-pointer by Wolverine Glenn Robinson III, who played the central role in Michigan’s comeback charges, scoring eight points in the final six minutes.

Yet as the game winded down, it was Michigan’s defense that faltered more than any other unit on the floor, and in effect negated any productive efforts and surges by the team’s offense. Moreover, it became more than just yielding uncontested shots near the basket.

Aaron Harrison (2) rises up for the game-winning three.

Aaron Harrison (2) rises up for the game-winning three. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

As Kentucky’s post players affirmed their stranglehold in the paint, the team’s shooters–notably the Harrison twins, Andrew and Aaron–consequently settled into a shooting groove, and dictated the game’s flow late. Of course it’s impossible to truly quantify such a correlation, but it’s not far off to think that as Kentucky controlled the paint with an even greater force as the second half progressed, the team’s shooters were positively influenced and played more freely as a result.

As such, Andrew and Aaron Harrison appeared much more comfortable in the late stages of the game, and they combined for 14 points in the final 10 minutes. Aaron had the much more significant impact on the game of the two brothers, as in the final 8:08 he drained four three-pointers, none bigger than the one with three seconds left to win the game for his team. The cliched phrase “cool, calm, and collected” would not quite suffice for depicting Aaron late in the contest; only the highest form of basketball praise–the characterization as “clutch”–would do justice.

Florida vs. UCLA- Second Half Notes

Wilbekin (5) powered his team towards the end of the contest.

Wilbekin (5) powered his team towards the end of the contest.

-Gator guard Michael Frazier II lead the way for his team in terms of point-scoring (nine points) in the opening half, but as his sharpshooting performance translates into the second half, Frazier’s play takes on even greater significance; draining two threes within the first three minutes of the half pushed the lead to seven for the Gators, but in the greater scheme of things, Frazier has helped his team consistently retain a comfortable advantage over the Bruins throughout the game

-the Bruins have displayed great resolve in their first encounter with a double-digit deficit (at the 15:53 mark)

  • after a Bruins timeout, top regular season scorer Jordan Adams converts a layup and a three-pointer in a span of thirty seconds, cutting the Gator lead to six
  • this instance also highlights UCLA’s overall style of play and mentality in this matchup: continually playing from behind, but not allowing Florida to develop too much of a rhythm and hot streak in order to pull away–now the Bruins must pounce on an opportunity to further tighten this contest

-Florida’s foul trouble–center Patric Young and guard Casey Prather each a foul away from fouling out–really puts the squad out of its comfort zone; around the time of the absence of the two aforementioned players from the court, UCLA cuts Florida’s lead to 56-55 at the 10:04 mark, going on a 9-2 in a 2:05 span

-but the Gators respond in the most powerful of ways, jump-starting a 10-0 run themselves, stretching from the 10:04 to 5:34 marks in the second half

-Gator point guard Scottie Wilbekin leads the way in this impactful effort, as well as beyond the run and for the remainder of the game:

  • the experienced and tested senior has undoubtedly taken command late in the contest, beginning at 6:19, when he knocks down a triple; he then follows it up by converting a layup and free throw on the contact
  • Wilbekin then banks in a circus-shot in heavy traffic–that makes him 3-3 on field goals with eight points in the final seven minutes of the game
  • there cannot be a more auspicious sign for the Gators than for a senior like Wilbekin to rise up and ice the game; perhaps a newfound sense of mental strength of the senior core–unlike Florida’s previous Elite Eight teams–can now will the Gators further in the tournament than in the past seasons

Final Score: Florida 79 UCLA 68

 

Florida vs. UCLA- First Half Notes

Florida's Patric Young and UCLA's Travis Wear battle to win the opening tip in Thursday's Sweet Sixteen matchup. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

Florida’s Patric Young and UCLA’s Travis Wear battle to win the opening tip in Thursday’s Sweet Sixteen matchup. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

-both teams start the game off playing very sloppy, indicated by the boxscore in terms of turnover numbers but also by a simple “eye test’; watching the game, one can observe the dysfunctional and messy play–it’s a frantic pace, that in the early-going, appeared more detrimental than productive for both teams (by the end of the first half, the teams have seven turnovers apiece)

-yet both the Gators and Bruins begin to settle into, and attain a feel for, the stage shortly after a sloppy set of opening minutes

  • UCLA composes itself first, even in time to grab a three-point lead at about seven minutes into the first half
  • effective and sharp ball movement on offense keys a Florida surge, allowing the Gators to impose themselves as the stronger team and the one which will seemingly possess the lead for the most part in this game; they embark on a 13-2 run in a 4:10 span midway through the opening half

-both UF and UCLA extremely willing to hoist up shots from seemingly anywhere near the three-point line; fits the “free style” exhibited by both squads in the opening half–UCLA starts to shy away from this tendency towards the end of the half

-despite a mid-first half surge by Florida, UCLA shows the ability to remain close with their opponents and fighting back from deficits it has faced; a balanced effort across the entire Bruin squad–six players have at least four points–has allowed it to keep pace with the tournament’s number one overall seed

-as the first half is in the books, Florida’s six-point advantage going into intermissions has come in large part due to three-point shooting–launching 13 shots from beyond the three-point line and converting five of them (compared to UCLA’s two), and a rebounding edge (a +7 margin in Florida’s favor)

-foul trouble (ten personal fouls for UCLA and eight for Florida) has also served as a hindrance to both teams’ tempos, possible bottling up explosiveness on both ends of the court

Halftime score: Florida 36 UCLA 30

March Madness 2014 Round of 32: #1 Seeds in Danger?

It’s now Day 6 of the 2014 NCAA tournament, and the common regular season theme of parity has already made its way into the postseason. Though a total of eight upsets in the Round of 64 is actually a low number in historical terms, the first two true days of the tourney featured a 14-seed shock a 3-seed, 12-seeded teams go 3-1 against 5-seeded teams, and 11-seeds also compile two wins. The madness did not cease as the field narrowed down to 32 squads, as in the first day (Saturday) of the Round of 32 the Dayton Flyers showed early signs of a  ‘Cinderella’ status by trumping #3 Syracuse, and #7 UConn used a second-half surge to topple second-seeded Villanova.

Yet as the last pre-Sweet 16 tournament day has arrived, the real stunner of March Madness–the fall of the targeted number-one seeds–may be imminent. Of the previous four years of the tournament, three included #1 seeds faltering to either eight- or nine-seeds. And if these top seeds emerge in the Sweet Sixteen unscathed, there’s still a chance at least one sees its last days very soon, as six #1 seeds have been upset in this round during this four-year span. So with three #1 seeds in action on the final day of the Round of 32, here’s a look at those whose seasons could be in peril.

1 Arizona vs. 8 Gonzaga

The Bulldogs–unlike in last year’s tourney–certainly entered March Madness under the radar, and outlasted Oklahoma State in what felt like an upset in their first game. Gonzaga maintained their fantastic shooting efficiency and rode junior guard Kevin Pangos’s 26-point performance en route to the victory. Thus, if Arizona wishes to extinguish any possibility of a Zags upset, then its defensive focus must be keyed on Pangos, whose play often serves as a microcosm for his team’s as a whole. Pangos averaged a modest 14.5 PPG and shot 42.9% from the field during the regular season, but does numbers dipped to 12.8 and 34.4%, respectively, when the Zags lost. Furthermore, Gonzaga posted a 49.8 FG% in the regular season–fifth best in the country–but in its six losses, that percentage dropped down to 46.1. Arizona should be able to combat and restrain the Bulldogs’ efficiency on offense, as the Wildcats rank third in defensive efficiency, and will have more than enough offensive firepower themselves to advance to the Sweet Sixteen. 

1 Wichita State vs. 8 Kentucky

Though often erratic and inconsistent, Kentucky possesses loads of NBA-ready talent which could pose a threat to and potentially overwhelm their small-school opponents. Yet going into the matchup, the Shockers unequivocally remain the better team, with more balance and efficiency on both sides of the ball. Furthermore, Wichita State surprisingly matches up well with Kentucky (as a program) in terms of pedigree in recent years. In the last four seasons, the Shockers have won an NIT championship, made a Final Four appearance, and completed an undefeated regular season, a notch down from  the Wildcats’ two Final Four berths and one championship in that time period. To sum it up, Wichita State is the more experience-laden and tested team in terms of players (as opposed to Kentucky’s freshman-dominated squad), and does not lose an edge at broader level of comparing programs. So don’t expect the Shockers to get a taste of their own medicine, as they were the last team to knock a #1 seed in the Round of 32, occurring one year ago.

1 Virginia vs. 8 Memphis 

Time after time again in the history of the NCAA tournament, a poor showing by a top seed always seems to precede its elimination. And no #1 team appeared more shaky–and for most of the contest on “upset alert”–than the Virginia Cavaliers, who despite completing a surprising sweep of the ACC regular and tournament titles, struggled against sixteenth-seeded Coastal Carolina, eventually needing a 14-point second-half swing to defeat the upset-minded Chanticleers. It will undoubtedly be a clash of styles when Virginia and its slow and methodical ways face off against Memphis and its fast pace on Sunday. Though the Cavaliers’ excellent transition defense (which allows seven points a game) could slow down the Tigers’ top-notch transition game (good for second in the nation with 21.2 PPG), several of UVA’s defeats in the regular season have come to explosive and fast-paced offenses like that of Memphis. And while the Cavs could slow down the Tigers on the defensive side, if they continue their struggles on offense–as their top two scoring options showed signs of weakness in the last game–they will fail to keep pace and will be sent home packing.

—Update—

Just for the record, and so I don’t appear completely foolish after writing that Kentcuky would not be the first team to knock off a one-seed, I did feel that Wichita State would be the first #1 seed to fall at one point in my thinking process.

Baseball’s Pathetic Acceptance of Barry Bonds

Bonds was back in a Giants uniform for the first time in seven years.

Bonds was back in a Giants uniform for the first time in seven years.

Perhaps my disgusted reaction to Barry Bonds’s week-long return to the baseball world is exacerbated due to how the course of his playing career left me, and I’m sure many other young, credulous baseball fans, utterly heartbroken. But even if I put aside my biases, the decision of the San Francisco Giants to re-introduce Bonds into their clubhouse still remains disgraceful and egregious, and reflects the baseball world’s pathetic attitude towards, and handling of, the sport’s PED scandal.

On Monday earlier this week, the Giants brought Bonds–who retired in 2007–into their spring training facility in Scottsdale, Arizona as a guest hitting instructor. As part of a group of former players that rotates every year, Bonds was tasked to instruct the team’s hitters, but his presence alone proved more noteworthy: the Giants were welcoming him back into the game after having been ostracized from it for the past seven years.

As Keith Olbermann effectively puts it, Bonds is the “symbol of [baseball's] worst crisis and darkest time since the era of the Black Sox scandal.” He played the biggest role in the BALCO scandal, was indicted for perjury and obstruction of justice, and remains one of the few high-profile PED-users to have not confessed to his crimes. 

So while any backlash to this seemingly minuscule one-week stint initially appears overblown, it’s the idea of Bonds’s acceptance that bears greater significance than however many days he was involved with the team.

The situation illustrates yet another whitewashing scheme on the part of the “baseball world” (what I mean here is a consensus of sorts and general common attitude of fans, players, organizations, and figures linked to baseball) regarding its once heralded, but now disgraced, steroid users. It shows the inability for the baseball world to rise up as a whole and courageously confront this issue as it now spreads into another decade of the sport’s rich history; the baseball world pathetically shies away from the glaring problem–and away from the necessity of acting boldly in response to it–and instead opts for purposeful ignorance, choosing to be complacent rather than proactive.

Furthermore, this unwillingness to set a bold precedent–perhaps starting by banning anyone connected to steroids from Major League Baseball–will undoubtedly continue to tarnish the sport. Rather, the baseball world has done the exact opposite: it has allowed PED-users to be involved in baseball, whether still on the field, like Ryan Braun and Jason Giambi, or in dugout roles, such as Mark McGwire and now Barry Bonds.

It’s also important to reiterate and re-establish the severity and detrimental effect of steroid usage, as another event linked to it has come up. Simply put, the use of performance-enhancing drugs destroys the integrity of the competitive game. The establishment of a set of rules for all to follow provides stability and control. In turn, the violation of these rules produces a destructive effect, and impairs those who actually abide by the standards, a phenomenon that stretches beyond the smaller scale of the baseball world into the greater level of society.

Bonds’s alma mater, Arizona State University, also seemed to capitalize on the Giants’ naive push to welcome Bonds back into baseball. Before the Sun Devils’s game on Saturday, Bonds–as well as other 1980s ASU stars–threw out the first pitch at Packard Stadium, five miles from San Francisco’s Scottsdale Stadium where Bonds had been working the past week. Though a less egregious decision than that of the Giants, as Bonds was an All-American legend in Tempe presumably before any PED usage, ASU still appeared keen on ignoring Bonds’ past misdeeds and receiving him as untainted baseball hero. Thus, the team’s decision displayed yet another questionable choice by the general whole of the baseball world with respect to its steroid dilemma. 

And while this stance may seem callous and unforgiving, it’s important to note that before we can give the slightest of pardons to Barry Bonds, he must be the one taking the first steps to asking for forgiveness, starting by the most humbling of acts: plainly accepting his fault.

Patriots Offseason 2014: Thoughts

In the early parts of the 2014 offseason, it appears that the New England Patriots will let more key players go, such as Aqib Talib and eventually Vince Wilfork, than they will retain, such as Julian Edelman. Yet in these decisions, and also by adding two new faces to the secondary, the Patriots brass have handled the offseason period fairly well for the time being.

Parting ways with two defensive anchors in an already mediocre unit seems questionable in theory. But allowing Talib to sign with the Denver Broncos and eventually releasing Wilfork after his refusal to restructure his contract only makes financial sense. Perhaps these moves can now give leverage to Robert Kraft and Bill Belichick in either pursuing offensive weapons for Tom Brady or bolstering the defense.

And while New England has not yet acted on the potential loss of Wilfork, it responded within days to not resigning Talib by inking Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner to two- and three-year contracts, respectively. The additions of these two former Pro Bowlers–and for Browner after he serves a 4-game suspension at start the season–will certainly shore up a usually suspect pass defense, and can help fill the void created by Talib’s departure. Furthermore, these signings reveal a proactive approach to the offseason by the Patriots front office, one that if continued for the rest of the offseason could pay dividends.

On that point, the Patriots cannot let up now: bringing Julian Edelman back on board was the right move, but beyond that, plenty of work has yet to be done if the Pats want to make the most of their championship window. It starts by maintaining their aggression with this free agency period, and continues into the upcoming draft, which holds several enticing offensive options.