Blogging Through the NCAA Tournament (Day Four)

Blogging Through the NCAA Tournament (Day Four)
Mar 22, 2009, 04:42 am
9:50 A long, but incredibly entertaining weekend of 48 games has come to an end, and the field has officially been narrowed down to 16. The teams can now regroup back in their home cities, catch their breath, and get ready for next weekend’s matchups. There are a couple of very intriguing games on the schedule, including Syracuse against Oklahoma in Memphis, Arizona against Louisville in Indianapolis, Memphis against Missouri in Glendale, and especially Gonzaga against North Carolina in Memphis.

Check back with us tomorrow and Tuesday as we’ll be publishing articles updating the scouting reports of some of the top performers of the first two rounds, particularly those who were eliminated.

9:35 Michigan State managed to knock off Southern Cal 74-69 in possibly the most physical game of the tournament thus far. It was a very well coached, well-played matchup between two tough, defensive oriented teams that executed extremely well for the most part. In the end, USC just didn’t have the firepower to score enough points to hang with Michigan State’s well-oiled squad, getting very little in particular from their frontcourt, where Taj Gibson came up incredibly flat with 3 points and 0 rebounds in 23 foul-plagued minutes, a performance eerily similar to the opening round of the tournament last year against Kansas State. Travis Walton was the unlikely hero for the Spartans, scoring 18 points to help eliminate the effectiveness of Tim Floyd’s triangle and two and box and one defense.

DeMar DeRozan had yet another very strong showing, proving that his last-season emergence is anything but a fluke, and even showing some new wrinkles to his offensive game that leave plenty of room for optimism. DeRozan was typically smooth from mid-range, knocking down a number of catch and shoot 18 foot jumpers and a few pull-ups as well, but it was his slashing game that really left the strongest impression, including one great dunk in transition. DeRozan was very aggressive putting the ball on the floor in this contest, take the ball to the rack confidently and either getting to the line or finishing well around the rim. He had 18 points in this contest and attempted 7 free throws (making 6), shooting 6-13 on the day, with two of those attempts being desperation 3’s at the end of the game. Defensively he competed as always, being taken advantage on a few possessions, but generally leaving a positive impression here too. DeRozan really did a great job turning around his season over the last 10 games or so, and without a doubt helped his stock tremendously thanks to his production and the way he managed to help his team win games. We’ll see what he decides to do in the next few weeks regarding whether or not to enter the draft, but all indications are that he’s one and done.

9:05 We’re going to have comprehensive write ups covering Sherron Collins and Chris Wright posted in the next couple of days, but we also can’t ignore how well Cole Aldrich has played lately. The Minnesota native has been exceptionally productive in the Jayhawks’ two games in Minneapolis. After posting—3142 against an overmatched North Dakota State front line on Friday, he notched a triple-double this evening against an equally undersized Dayton post rotation. While Aldrich held a clear physical advantage in this contest, it is hard to overlook how well he exploited it.

From the opening tip, Aldrich asserted himself on the offensive end, establishing deep position on the block and effectively utilizing his size to pull down a couple of offensive rebounds. Aldrich displayed good hands on a number of occasions, handling a handful of very tough passes in traffic and finishing deftly off glass. Aldrich’s size, tremendous wingspan, and the intensity he showed, coupled with his developing offensive skills down low, allowed him to quickly set the tone for his team. Aldrich finished the game with 6 offensive rebounds, but also tallied 5 turnovers, most of which came on forced high-low feeds and ill-advised outlet passes. Outside of a few poor decisions, Aldrich could do almost no wrong today.

The sophomore prospect was nothing short of dominant on the defensive end. Despite having a little trouble preventing Dayton’s quicker (and smaller) post players from getting open when they made quick flashes across the lane, Aldrich showed great fundamentals after his man received the ball –going straight up immediately and using every inch of his frame to suffocate his man. He proved equally effective defending the weakside, showing enough quickness to effectively utilize his timing and wingspan to come up with 10 blocks. While some of those blocks came when he was defending the ball, Aldrich bailed out his teammates with impressive frequency.

When Dayton did manage to get a shot up, Aldrich was as aggressive on the glass as we’ve seen him. He did a fantastic job riding his man out of the paint and pursuing the ball off of the rim. His wingspan allows him to rebound a big area, and he showed terrific anticipation when cleaning the glass today. Finishing with 20 rebounds, Aldrich really couldn’t have done much more for his team than he did today. Perhaps he could have finished a couple more of his shots inside, but outside of a few tough misses, Aldrich made full use of the opportunity to showcase his game and boost his stock that this game presented.

6:00 A pretty awful game between Arizona and Cleveland State thankfully came to a close. Two bad teams, playing in a half-empty gym, combining to shoot 6/24 from beyond the arc—the Stephen Curry/Patrick Mills NIT showdown tomorrow night can’t come fast enough as far as we’re concerned.

Chase Budinger and Jordan Hill both had solid, unspectacular games that helped their team advance, but surely won’t be Fedexed overnight by their future agents to all 30 NBA teams. Budinger continued to look aggressive, which has been the trend this season, but it’s hard to get overly excited about that considering that he really doesn’t have any other choice with the type of talent (Jordan Hill/Nic Wise aside) that he has alongside him. He had a couple of nice drives, converted one excellent alley-oop finish, hit a pretty pull-up jumper and knocked down an open 3-pointer. Defensively he was average at best and offensively his lack of fluidity and polish was fairly obvious.

Jordan Hill had another productive game that did a good job highlighting his strengths as a prospect, as well as his shortcomings. One on hand he displayed his excellent athleticism with a number of terrific finishes off pick and roll plays and in transition, running the floor extremely well and exploding off the ground in impressive fashion. He also knocked down a 20 foot jump-shot, the most range we’ve seen him show thus far, and converted on a decent looking turnaround jumper in the post.

On the other hand, Hill’s poor skill-level was very much evident in this game, as he looked very raw and mechanical trying to post up Cleveland State’s undersized defenders in the post, being stripped on one possession and also throwing up some ugly looking bricks. You would have expected him to dominate this game considering the huge advantage he holds in terms of size/athleticism against the 6-5 and 6-6 big men he went up against, but he really wasn’t able to consistently take advantage of his natural gifts. Defensively, Hill has potential but clearly is lacking in the fundamentals department, having a hard time rotating over effectively to guard the paint and picking up some questionable fouls. His basketball IQ is clearly nothing to write home about, and unless he’s able to significantly improve his skill-level over the next few years (not out of the question considering how far he’s come), he looks a lot more likely to develop into a solid energy guy/role-player rather than the game-changing presence you might expect from a potential top-5 pick. With that in mind, the fact that his rebounding rate has fallen significantly recently, going from over averaging over 12 boards per contest in the first 20 games, to just 9.3 rebounds in last 12 games, is not a great sign.

The best thing you can say about this game is that Arizona managed to live to see another day, as a big matchup with Louisville (should they defeat Siena) looming on the horizon.

3:45 Not exactly what you would call a barn burner to start off the day, with Syracuse knocking off Arizona State 78-67. Syracuse’s 2-3 zone is starting to round into form it looks like, and Herb Sendek really didn’t show a great deal of imagination attacking it. The key to this game was obviously the 3-point shooting of Syracuse’s wing players Eric Devendorf and Andy Rautins against Arizona State’s matchup zone. The two combined to score 38 points on 8-18 shooting from beyond the arc, and got solid contributions from the big men Rick Jackson and Arinze Onuaku inside, with 25 points.

Jonny Flynn played exactly the way Syracuse needed him to, which just happens to correspond with how NBA types wanted to see Flynn play. He was steady and under control for almost the entire contest, playing the game at a nice pace, getting the ball to where it needed to be on the floor, and doing a good job knowing when to pick his spots. Unlike in the first round against Stephen F. Austin (7 turnovers), Flynn kept the mistakes to a minimum today, throwing a shutout until the last few minutes of the game where he committed his lone two turnovers. The best stat of the day was Flynn’s six shot attempts, showing that he’s willing to sacrifice a bit for the greater good of the team, which is something we’ve questioned at times with him because of his propensity to excessively hunt out the highlight reel play. Flynn knocked down a couple of shots, which helped keep the defense honest, and did a good job putting the ball down and attacking the zone from time to time rather than just being content moving the ball around the perimeter. It was good to see this more solid, under control version of Jonny Flynn, and this was a major reason why Syracuse was able to comfortably advance to the Sweet 16 against Oklahoma.

On the other hand, James Harden had yet another underwhelming NCAA tournament performance, concluding a weekend that will raise eyebrows even amongst his biggest supporters, and clearly opening up the discussion for who the third best prospect in the draft is after Blake Griffin and Ricky Rubio (if he declares). The concerns around Harden have always revolved around whether or not he has enough of a go-to mentality to warrant being picked in the top-5, as most teams would obviously like to get a franchise caliber talent that high in the draft. This weekend put those questions right back onto the table.

Harden had yet another passive, lethargic start, similar to the way he performed in the first half against Temple. He actually finished the first half without a single point, and wasn’t able to pick up a field goal until the 9:30 mark in the second half. There is no question that Syracuse’s defensive game-plan had a lot to do with the way Harden played, as they adjusted their 2-3 zone significantly to try and deny him the ball, at the risk of leaving other players—such as Rihard Kuksiks (6/13 3P) and Ty Abbot (6/10 3P) wide open.

It was a little bit concerning to see the lack of aggressiveness Harden showed trying to overcome that, though, as he gave up the ball quite easily on numerous possessions without even looking at the rim, and just didn’t display much urgency trying to make things happen. Late in the game (just like against Temple) Harden got a lot more aggressive and immediately started making things happen on the floor, putting the ball on the floor and getting to the free throw line a few times, picking up a nice steal, grabbing a crucial offensive rebound and making some great passes. It was too little, too late, though, and you have to wonder why it took him so long to get going. He also had problems finishing around the basket, which is not surprising considering that he’s not terribly explosive.

Harden’s resume speaks for itself, and there is no question that he is the top shooting guard prospect in this draft. Considering that he’s only 19 years old, he’s only going to improve as he continues to gain experience and understands how to better utilize his incredible all-around talent. His performance here in the NCAA tournament didn’t help his draft stock, though, and definitely opens up the door for him to be leapfrogged by other players. At the end of the day, that might not be the end of the world, as he’s clearly the type of player who needs to find the right fit.

1:51 PM Afternoon Links:

• Jrue Holiday Contemplating Future

Although it’s never too smart to put much stock into the first comments made by underclassmen about their future immediately after seeing their season ended, it’s still interesting regardless to hear what they have to say. While there is some good news from Holiday’s end, it looks like he is going to seriously look at the possibility of entering the draft.

According to Brian Dohn of the Daily Breeze:

"Right now, I'm leaning toward coming back here, most definitely," Holiday said. "I want to finish what we started off. We have a great freshman class coming in and I love these guys. They're my brothers now. I don't want to leave the freshmen that are here now. We have a great bond, a great chemistry. It's going to be good next year.

However, Holiday admitted his mind could change once research of his draft status begins.

"There's certain things that if I hear, and they're good deals and all that," Holiday said, "some stuff you just can't back down from." I'm saying I'm coming back because I really haven't [thought] about it," he said. "I'm telling you I really don't know. I actually have no clue because my season just ended."

The most recent scuttlebutt we’ve heard from NBA scouts and agents is that Holiday is very interested in entering the draft. Thing is, his stock can’t be anywhere near what it was a few months ago, and thus he’s one of those players who really does need to strongly consider returning to school. And that’s ignoring the fact that he’s a long ways away from contributing.

• Howland's philosophy questioned by freshman Drew Gordon

This one is really unbelievable, making me wonder a bit about the context of Gordon’s comments. If he really intended it to come out like this, then the kid has some nerve…

Mark Saxon of the Orange County Register:

Freshman forward Drew Gordon said Howland should reconsider his offensive approach to suit the talents of his team. Gordon said he would like to see UCLA turn into an "up-and-down" team along the lines of the Villanova squad that pounded out an 89-69 victory in the second round of the NCAA Tournament on Saturday.

"In all honesty, I think he's going to have to change a couple of things," Gordon said. "I think the mentality of the team next year is we don't work well in the half-court set. We're used to the run-and-gun. We're not programmed into slow-grinding it out there."

Wow…Gordon must not have done much research about Ben Howland before he committed to UCLA.

And by the way, Villanova is not THAT up-tempo of the team. They play strong defense first and foremost, and are very efficient and disciplined offensively. UCLA’s problem this year was NOT their offense, it was their defense. In fact, they were the third most efficient offensive team in college basketball, but ranked just 44th on defense. Last year they ranked 3rd in the country in defensive efficiency and 7th on offense. They actually sped up their pace this season as well.

Gordon needs to suck it up this summer, get in the weight room, become a better defender, improve his 47% shooting from the free throw line, and keep his philosophies on coaching to himself.

• More Wake Forest Early-Entry Talk

Wake Forest’s local paper, the Winston-Salem Journal, published an article written by Dan Collins discussing, among other things, the future of James Johnson, Jeff Teague and Al-Farouq Aminu. Coach Dino Gaudio’s stance is obviously very clear on this issue:

Sophomores Jeff Teague and James Johnson and freshman Al-Farouq Aminu have all been projected by various sources as first-round picks -- if not lottery picks -- although Gaudio says the NBA officials he's talking with are telling him all three need another season of college.

Johnson and Teague are both on record as saying they plan to return next season. Aminu has said he wants to return, if he doesn't feel compelled by financial considerations to make himself available to the Draft.

Friday night, Johnson at least talked like a player coming back.

"For our season to be over, it's not over," Johnson said. "It's what we do in the off-season that's going to help us build this program and make it as strong as we can."

But Teague, when asked a direct question Friday concerning his plans, hedged.

"I'll be back hopefully," Teague said. "Hopefully I'll be back.

"I mean I don't want to say nothing and then look like a liar or anything like that."

Gaudio expressed confidence that next year's team will have all three…"From what I hear from those kids, and their parents, all of them know they need to come back," Gaudio said. "All of them know. When I talk to their parents, none of them told me that (the player is leaving). Nothing shocks me anymore, but I have a very good feeling about all of them."

• Unpredictable James is Texas' big enigma

A candid look at the uneven junior season that Damion James has had, with an interesting note: “(Rick) Barnes expects James to return for his senior season.”

After their loss last night, James had this to say to Mike Jones of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram “ "I’m not really thinking about anything [like that] right now but this team," James said Saturday night after the 74-69 loss to Duke. "It’s just sad that we ended our season like this. I’m really look forward to coming back and playing with this team, but I’ve got to look at my future. I have an opportunity to do some things."

• Cole Aldrich is avoiding speculation on NBA

Cole Aldrich, Kansas’ star center, and a sure-fire NBA rotation player whenever he decides to end his college career, is saying all the right things for now.

I haven't thought about it at all," Aldrich said. "The one thing that I really just try to do is just get better as a player. There are numerous things, just for example after today -- I've got to move my feet a little better. There's going to be guards just as good as, if not better than, [NDSU's Ben] Woodside at the next level, and that's one thing that I want to prepare myself [for]. Whenever the time comes. Just to be successful. I'm just having fun."

Sid Hartman of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune is hearing similar things to what we are: “The word among NBA scouts is that Aldrich will stay in school for another year.”

• The Griffin Problem (and four things we learned from Day 3 of the NCAAs)

Luke Winn of SI blogs about the long, but typical day Blake Griffin had against Michigan.

• Early Exit Leaves DeAndre Jordan Plenty of Time for Regrets

An excellent article by the New York Times (who has really stepped up their basketball coverage this year) that every underclassmen considering entering the draft should read. Jordan wasn’t the only prospect projected as a lottery pick for most of the year that ended up falling badly on draft night—the same can be said about Donte Greene, Darrell Arthur, Nicolas Batum and others. The bottom line is—things change quickly in this business.

• Allonzo Trier Is in the Game

Another excellent article by the New York Times, this time about 6th grade phenom Allonzo Trier, who everyone is trying to get a piece of right now.

On to Arizona State-Syracuse for us...

Late: A terrific weekend comes to a close with eight more games that will decide the final participants in next Thursday and Friday's Sweet Sixteen.

all times EST
#6 Arizona State vs #3 Syracuse, Miami, 12:10 pm
#12 Wisconsin vs #4 Xavier, Boise, 2:20 pm
#11 Dayton vs #3 Kansas, Minneapolis, 2:30 pm
#13 Cleveland State vs #12 Arizona, Miami, 2:40 pm
#8 Oklahoma State vs #1 Pittsburgh, Dayton, 2:50 pm
#6 Marquette vs #3 Missouri, Boise, 4:50 pm
#10 Southern California vs #2 Michigan State, Minneapolis, 5:00 pm
#9 Siena vs #1 Louisville, Dayton, 5:15 pm

Many questions will be answered tomorrow, including:

-Who’s zone defense will be shot to shreds, James Harden’s or Jonny Flynn’s?
-Can Derrick Brown have a breakout NCAA tournament game?
-Will Chris Wright continue to move his way up 2010 mock drafts?
-Can Jordan Hill and Chase Budinger take care of business against the giant killers from Cleveland State?
-Can James Anderson make enough 3’s to knock off Pitt?
-Will Marquette’s guards Jerel McNeal and Wesley Matthews be able to withstand Mizzou’s press?
-Can DeMar DeRozan continue to sizzle against Tom Izzo’s outstanding half-court defense?
-Will Terrence Williams get his long-overdue breakout March performance?

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