Saturday, April 6, 2013

2013 March Madness: Elite Eight Review and Final Four Picks

Louisville over Duke: First: let’s all hope that Kevin Ware’s recovery from one of the worst injuries I’ve seen is quick and effective, and hopefully he becomes a better player from this experience. Now to the game: I wrote in my preview that Seth Curry may struggle in this game after only getting one day to rest his sore shin, and that the Duke secondary stars and role players would have to play the game of their lives for the Blue Devils to have a chance. Turns out, Seth may have been hampered by the shin, but even at full strength, I don’t know that it would have mattered against this great Louisville defense.

A lot of people will tell you how strong Louisville’s press is, how it has helped them throughout the tournament, and how it will be key against the smaller Wichita State guards in the Final Four (more on this in a bit). Rubbish. Sure, the press has helped them, especially in the early rounds, but theirs is a disciplined press, much more so that the Havoc system that VCU uses. They cover guards full-court, but only send a trap in the backcourt when the opposing big isn’t in a position to help. Against Duke, they bothered Quinn Cook and Tyler Thornton in the backcourt, but Duke didn’t have inordinate difficulty getting the ball into the frontcourt.

What the Louisville defense really showed was tenacity defending in the halfcourt. All game, Hill and Siva played bigger than they measure, bothering Duke’s ball handlers on the perimeter, making pocket passes difficult and spot-up opportunities almost nonexistent. Again and again, Duke shooters would catch the ball hesitant about how Louisville’s length would affect the shot. Even on screen/pop opportunities, the Cardinals would bother both shooters, blocking a few Ryan Kelly threes and ultimately making this game a microcosm of his disastrous tournament. Gorgui Dieng held his own against Mason Plumlee, and though Duke found a few plays here and there to creatively screen Dieng and otherwise get Mason alone under the rim, he wasn’t able to consistently attack Dieng one-on-one, allowing the Louisville defenders to stay at home on the perimeter.

On offense, Louisville’s Russ Smith did what he has done all tournament: take the ball to the rim. Hard. I actually thought that Cook and especially Thornton had done a passable job on the perimeter, but a player with Hill’s mindset and ability will eventually get to the rim, and that opens up the game for everyone else. To me, that was the difference in the game. Duke relied on players getting the ball on the perimeter, going away from the rim to hit threes, while Louisville relied on Smith and Siva taking the ball to the paint. I know that Duke has played this way for ages, but even when you live by the three, there needs to be a strategy to not die by it. The 2010 title team had a guy that could do that: Jon Scheyer. It seemed that every time that Duke team could let a game get away from it, there was Scheyer making a smart play to get the ball in a good spot. I completely trusted him with the ball and the decisions he would make, and I just didn’t have that same faith in Quinn Cook, who can be somewhat volatile. That 2010 team also had in Brian Zoubek and Lance Thomas two relentless rebounders, essential for corralling long rebounds from missed threes (key in the game against Butler). This Duke team just came up a few plays short.

Wichita State over Ohio State: The Shockers punched the Buckeyes in the mouth. The Shockers have surprised me with their defensive tenacity all tournament, especially against Gonzaga, who they threw entirely out-of-rhythm. In this game, the Shockers added to defense some tremendous rebounding, a hallmark of this team throughout the season. It isn’t surprising that with their size in Carl Hall and Cleanthony Early that they would overwhelm other teams in the Missouri Valley Conference, but the Buckeyes are a Big 10 school. And the Shockers didn’t care. They came into this game with attitude, and out-played the Buckeyes on the interior, with all 5 Shockers helping to rebound on offense and defense.

Defensive rebounding was important because in the first half, Ohio State was absolutely cold from the field. They were getting good offense out of Aaron Craft penetration, even though he had a terrible shooting night from the field and from the line. Buckeye shooters got the ball in rhythm and in good spots on the court, but just couldn’t by a basket from midrange or beyond the arc. That led to a lot of rebounding scrums and fouls on the Buckeye bigs, which kept Wichita State’s offense rolling through the end of the first half.

In the second half, Shockers’ shooting expanded the lead to 20 points, leading certain analysts to conclude that the Shockers had all of the “momentum.” Rubbish. In this definition of momentum, the Shockers gained momentum by hitting shots while the Buckeyes lost momentum by missing wide-open shots. Such analysis is anathema to process-based coaching and analysis, where outcomes can differ, but the process is of utmost importance. The Buckeyes were playing well, and were beginning to understand that rebounding would be a battle. Just because they couldn’t buy a shot means they didn’t have momentum? Rubbish.

I believe in momentum in certain situations. In today’s stats versus old-school universe, there is often a binary between the two. The stat-geeks often claim that momentum doesn’t exist, for similar reasons as I described. Momentum can be something as fickle as a contested 3-point shot made/or missed, ignoring the process by which that shot was created. If a player jacks a three early in the clock, that is a terrible process. But late in the clock where there is limited ability to create offense, a contested three is preferable to a mid-range attempt. The point is: there is far more to learn from this situation than simply where if the ball went in. In other case, however, momentum can be useful for examining the psyche of a team and how well they can execute the processes that their coaches put in place.

For example, the Super Bowl: the power outage was a turning point in the game. Even though the direct result of the power outage (re: the next play) was a failed 49ers turnover, it is clear when watching tape of the second half that the 49ers offense was different before the outage and after. After the outage, the line played much better, moving Ravens linemen and opening running lanes much more effectively than before. The line needed the break to collectively get back to a run-the-ball mentality, and make the adjustments necessary to execute that game plan.

In any case, momentum can often be ascribed to something else that changes the way a team performs. In the 49ers example, it could perhaps be more accurately described as mental execution by linemen. In the Wichita State/Ohio State game, the difference was who was hitting shots. Later in the second half, when the Buckeyes started hitting the same shots they were missing in their first half, they began to cut into the lead. They also tightened on defense, especially against penetration by Malcolm Armstead and Fred Vanvleet, but again, this isn’t necessarily momentum. I attribute the aggression to OSU guards, like Craft, who were no longer afraid of contact/fouling, with the end of the game near. A high foul count early in the game creates uncertainty because of the amount of time left: coaches/players don’t know how long a player will be unavailable if he fouls out. Late in the game, with more certainty, players can afford to be more aggressive with a better risk/return calculation.

Anyway, the Buckeyes started closing and Wichita State started running very simple offensive sets. Again, this can be called “momentum” (just like @YahooNoise did on Twitter, for which I called him out for), but is more accurately the way teams play with a lead. They try to run 20-25 seconds off the clock and then use a simple pick-and-roll/guard penetration to get some sort of shot off. Buckeye defenders were ready for this, and that helped them contain penetration more effectively. In addition, the Buckeye athleticism finally found an outlet in the press Thad Matta decided to go to, which the smaller Wichita State guards seemed to have trouble with (Vanvleet inbounding? Maybe someone taller…).

At the end of the game, it came down to a matter of a few possessions, and at a key juncture, Wichita State got a huge offense board from Tekele Cotton and Ohio State missed some perimeter shots. With only a couple of ticks left, Wichita State drew a gorgeous play where Cotton slipped a screen and got the ball on the run in the front court, with Craft in pursuit. He should have dribbled away and soaked up the seconds, but instead went for the layup, allowing Craft to foul him (it was already a 4-point, two –possession game). This turned out to be pretty moot, as the Buckeyes just didn’t have any time left.
Many people will have you believe that this was a shock, Wichita State knocking out a Big 10 school to make the Final Four. It wasn’t. They were athletic, skilled, and well-coached. This is a good team that plays well together and knows each other. They can beat any team remaining, and have as good a shot as the other three schools at winning it all. It’s against the odds for any school to win (67/68 schools end with a loss), no matter what conference they’re from.

Final Four Pick: Wichita State over Louisville: I’ll admit. This is a pick influenced by the Shockers’ great story as a 9 seed within a win of the final. I think this will be the hardest game they are playing all season, and think they will have a tremendously difficult job cracking this tough Louisville defense. But this is why they will win: First, guards Armstead and Vanvleet are smaller guys, even smaller than the Duke guards Louisville just eviscerated, but they both rely more on penetration than shooting. I think they will be more successful against Louisville than Duke did. Second, I think Carl Hall can at least match Gorgui Dieng inside. I love Dieng’s game, his way of blocking without fouling, a smartness with the ball on offense. But Hall is no slouch, and has beaten bigger/tougher/more athletic players all tournament. Third: this is kind of like a first round giant versus Cinderella matchup, and one thing that consistently predicts Cinderella success is rebounding. Wichita State is the number 7 rebounding team by rebound %; Louisville is 57th. If the Shockers are to win it all, they have to remain hot and rebound well.

Michigan over Florida: This game was a joke. Florida didn’t look very interested in showing up. Trey Burke didn’t have a great shooting game, but he set up guys all over the court, including Nik Stauskus, who scored 22 points on 8 shots, including 6-6 from three. I thought that Florida’s offense looked stagnant for long periods against FGCU, and that showed up in this game with 15 turnovers, 41% shooting, 65% shooting from the stripe, and 20% beyond the arc. Mitch McGary certainly had something to do with that with his constant activity on the perimeter, and I can’t say how much of a difference he has made for the Wolverines this postseason. With him and Burke, they have a shot against anybody.

Syracuse over Marquette: Indiana tried to attack Syracuse’s zone by passing the ball around the perimeter—that didn’t work. Marquette tried to attack Syracuse’s zone by going one-on-one and taking the ball into the teeth of the trapping, helping defense. That didn’t’ work either. The whol time watching this game, I thought to myself: “Marquette is a Big East school? They look totally unprepared for this!!!” Granted, this is kind of the way the Golden eagles have played all season, with a heavy reliance on Vander Blue. I thought that they relied a bit too much on him against Miami, though they got a win, and it came back to bite them. He had more turnovers that makes in this game, and while at times in the second half he looked like he was the only one keeping Marquette in the game, his mistakes were costly, especially for a team whose other four starters shot 2-13. In fact, only 3 Marquette starters scored at all.

On offense, all five Syracuse starters scored and they collectively shot 19-47. Triche and Carter Williams, the two Syracuse stars, actually didn’t have an outsized impact. I was incredibly impressed by Carter Williams’ ability to run his team and get them in good situations with his decision making and patience. He showed that ability to influence the game without dominating offensive possessions, and his defense was also key at the top of that zone. He is one of the rare Syracuse products that I’m genuinely enthusiastic about at the next level, someone perfect for a team like the Utah Jazz.

Syracuse over Michigan: This will be a very interesting game of two teams that both rely tremendously on their starting five. Here’s why I think Syracuse wins: Michigan has not played a backcourt as talented and disciplined as Syracuse’s. Kansas’ duo of Elijah Johnson and Ben McLemore is good, but Johnson is streaky (and had bad voodoo in that game, you know why) and McLemore can disappear in big moments. In Michigan’s loss against Wisconsin, Badgers guards Ben Brust and Traevon Jackson found range and scored 30 of the team’s 68 points. Penn State’s three guards scored 51 of 84 points in that surprising win, with Jermaine Marshall going for 25 on 17 shots. I know sample size is small, but I still think that Triche and Carter Williams will play well offensively and be disruptive defensively.

That brings us to the zone: I’ve heard from numerous coaches, analysts, and even players that this Syracuse zone is unlike any before it. It moves and changes in unpredictable ways, and though Trey Burke has been incendiary, easily the player of the tournament and the year, I think he may struggle with the dual burden of containing either Syracuse guard on D and then running good offense against the 2-3. The one caveat: Mitch MicGary has played out of his mind for Michigan this whole tournament, and may have a beast of a day on the offensive boards if Syracuse’s zone defenders can’t locate him and box out correctly. And as he’s shown time and time again, Trey Burke can win games all by himself. Regardless of the outcomes, I believe we’re in for a great Saturday’s worth of games.

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