Raborn: The NCAA Tournament was perfect this year

The 2017 NCAA Tournament was one of the best tournaments in recent years for one simple reason: there was a lack of early upsets. Upsets are the staple of the NCAA Tournament, no? However, an excess of upsets is damaging to the layout of the tournament and prevents viewers from seeing the matchups they really want to see.

This year, there was one No. 10 seed over No. 7 seed upset as well as a couple of No. 11 seed wins over No. 6 seeds, and one No. 12 seed over a No. 5 seed. Outside of that, the first round was clean and made some great second round matchups. People got to see Kentucky and Wichita State in the rematch from 2016 and an improbable win with Wisconsin defeating the defending Champion Villanova Wildcats. Viewers also got to see one of the best matchups in the whole tournament when South Carolina’s stingy defense played against one of the most dangerous offenses in the nation in Duke. Upsets in the first round like were seen in in 2015 and last year would have prevented these matchups from happening.

The Sweet Sixteen featured a matchup between arguably the two best players in the nation: Malik Monk of Kentucky and Lonzo Ball of UCLA. The Sweet Sixteen was the highlight of the tournament this year when No. seed 11 Xavier upset No. 2 seed Arizona and No. 4 seed Florida stunned No. 8 seed Wisconsin on a buzzer-beating circus shot.

The Elite Eight did not feature any close matchups other than the No. 1 and No. 2 seed game between North Carolina and Kentucky. However, it forged one of the most interesting Final Fours in recent memory.

This year’s Final Four was one of the best I have seen in my lifetime. Two of the four teams, No. 1 seed Gonzaga and No. 7 seed South Carolina, had never been to a final four in their history as a basketball program. Also, No. 3 seed Oregon made its first Final Four appearance since the first NCAA Tournament in 1939 and No. 1 seed North Carolina returned to the Final Four in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 2008-2009.

South Carolina nearly managed to complete a legendary comeback, but fell short in a close four-point loss to send Mark Few and Gonzaga to the national championship game. North Carolina won in a thriller as Oregon was unable to box out during the final free throws of the game. This made for the first matchup between two No. 1 seeds since 2015 when Duke and Wisconsin squared off.

Is this not what everyone wants to see? The best teams in the nation playing each other on the biggest stage?

Fans got to see the best Gonzaga team in history with guard Nigel Williams-Goss and two massive 7-footers in Przemek Karnowski and Zach Collins take on guard Joel Berry and North Carolina, who returned to the championship game for the second year in a row. The result was exactly what you would expect from such a great matchup. It’s the kind of quality product that is produced when the NCAA Tournament plays out like it did this year. North Carolina clearly deserved the national championship because it had one of the toughest roads to the championship of any team. There was a perfect mix of Cinderella teams like Xavier and South Carolina, yet there were plenty of elite matchups that were noteworthy.

Until next year, folks.

Edited by Robert Hughes

Featured image from wikimedia.org, courtesy of Creative Commons

Gonzaga: the Boise State of men’s basketball

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Gonzaga, despite only losing one game this season, has been somewhat of a sleeper thus far in the NCAA Tournament. A weak conference schedule led many to believe that the Bulldogs weren’t a legitimate contender, but a Final Four run has silenced most, if not all, of the doubters.

The Bulldogs’ run has been spectacular, but their future beyond this season remains uncertain. Will they be a powerhouse from here on out, or are they just a flash in a pan? Are they still going to be viewed as David, or are they Goliath?

Only time will tell what kind of program they’ll be, but so far, they’re a lot like Boise State football. Here’s why:

Weak conference play

The Bulldogs’ biggest flaw hasn’t been their play; it’s been their schedule. Gonzaga is the only school in the West Coast Conference with a win over an AP Top-25 team, and only one of two NCAA Tournament teams from the conference.

Perhaps the most notable moment in all of Boise State athletics history is the famous “Statue of Liberty” play executed against Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl that won the Broncos the game.

That play is arguably one of the best plays in the history of college football. Boise State deserves a lot of credit for winning that game, and especially for going undefeated in the 2006-2007 season. But that 8-0 conference record and 13-0 overall record is slightly less impressive when viewed with the fact that Boise State played in the WAC at the time.

Perhaps if the Broncos had played in a Power Five conference, they would’ve been selected to play for the national championship. Instead, they were competing for a Fiesta Bowl championship.

The first championship in school history is still within reach for Gonzaga, but perhaps if its schedule were a bit beefier, the Bulldogs would have been awarded the No. 1 overall seed for the 2017 NCAA Tournament instead of Villanova, a team that had two more losses than Gonzaga.

No significant accomplishments

Sure, Boise State went 13-0 in 2006 and 14-0 in 2009. Yes, Mark Few has an .818 winning percentage in nearly two decades of coaching at Gonzaga.

Neither team has a national championship, however, and that’s what matters in sports. Neither team has sustained greatness for more than a handful of seasons, even. Especially in recent years, both teams have been great, but never the greatest.

Weird quirks

Yes, the fact that both Boise State and Gonzaga have been trendy teams that don’t win championships is worth noting. The most glaring similarity between the two programs, however, is that both have strange traditions.

Boise State has had a blue turf field since 1986.

It’s beautiful, it’s trendy, but it’s weird.

What’s even weirder is that it was installed in 1986, well before the Broncos began consistently winning games. It is worth noting, however, that Boise State defeated Humboldt State 74-0 in the first game played on the blue turf.

The biggest question for Gonzaga is not its ability to win a Final Four game. The biggest question surrounding the Zags is that nobody knows what a “Zag” is.

The official mascot of Gonzaga is the Bulldogs, but fans of the program call their beloved team the “Zags.”

Apparently, fans just started calling their team “Gonzos” and “Zags,” and it appears “Zags” has stuck.

What sticks even more than nicknames, however, are championships, and the Zags just need two more wins if they want to call themselves “champions,” too.

Gonzaga faces South Carolina in Phoenix at 6:09 p.m. ET on Saturday in the first game of the Final Four.

Featured image by SD Dirk, courtesy of Creative Commons

Making a case for Xavier to win the NCAA Tournament

Submitted Photo

Being Cinderella has to be pretty great. One day, you’re getting ridiculed by everyone. The next, you’re going to the ball with Prince Charming. The only problem is that the clock has to strike midnight eventually.

Xavier plays Gonzaga in the Elite Eight. Neither team has ever made the Final Four, so something’s gotta give. Here’s why Xavier will not only make the Final Four, but win the whole darn thing.

Midnight is Over

For the Xavier Musketeers, midnight has already come and gone. They’re just waiting for their happy ending.

With a record of 18-6 in early February, things were looking great for the Musketeers. A No. 1 or No. 2 seed may have been unlikely, but it certainly wouldn’t have been the No. 11 seed Xavier was eventually granted by the NCAA Tournament committee.

Then the bell rang.

A slew of losses began on Feb. 11 with a 73-57 defeat against the eventual overall No. 1 seed Villanova Wildcats and didn’t stop until nearly a month later.

Losing six games in a row is bad, especially when there are only seven regular season games left. Using the conference tournament to build some momentum, however, is good.

Creighton defeated Xavier in the semifinals of the Big East Tournament, 75-72, but Xavier had picked up three much-needed wins in a row just before narrowly getting knocked out.

In the NCAA Tournament, the Musketeers made quick work of their first two opponents by beating Maryland 76-65 and bludgeoning Florida State, 91-66.

No. 2 seed Arizona tested Xavier, but couldn’t remove the glass slipper and lost, 73-71.

Balanced Scoring

Three players average more than 14 points per game for the Musketeers, including Edmund Sumner, J.P. Macura and Trevon Bluiett, who leads the squad with 18.7 points per game.

Bluiett has upped his scoring even more in the NCAA Tournament, and is averaging 25 points per game in the Big Dance.

It hasn’t been just Bluiett shouldering the load for the Musketeers, however. Xavier is getting help elsewhere, including the bench.

Macura is pitching in 11.3 points per game in the first three rounds of the NCAA Tournament, and bench player Sean O’Mara is adding 12.3 points per game from the post.

Bluiett might be the star of the show, but every Cinderella needs a little help from friends to find a happy ending.

Problems

The Musketeers are statistically average in relation to the rest of the country. Xavier is 127th in in scoring, putting up 75.1 points per game, and 140th in scoring defense, allowing 71.0 points per game.

In the NCAA Tournament, however, stats don’t really matter, but they are a good indicator of how a team will perform. And when the next opponent is 15th in the nation in scoring with 83.1 points per game, it raises a question mark. Gonzaga is an experienced team with the ability to score frequently and from anywhere on the court.

If the Musketeers can stall the Bulldogs’ scoring attack, then things will be looking up for the Cinderella of the tournament. If not, midnight may strike yet again.

Edited by Nathan Odom

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Forman Files: Way too early 2015-16 Lady Vols basketball preview

If you are a Tennessee fan already wondering how this year will fair for the Lady Vols basketball team, you are in luck.

We all know that Tennessee missed out on a trip to Tampa and the Final Four last season. However, it is now time to move past the disappointment of how the season ended for the Lady Vols and look to 2015-16 as Tennessee steps back on “The Summitt.”

Pat Summit Statue, University of Tennessee, Knoxville. //Photo by Ryan McGill
Pat Summit Statue, University of Tennessee, Knoxville. //Photo by Ryan McGill

Now don’t get me wrong, last year’s team should never be forgotten for a number of reasons. They made it to the Elite Eight and won 30 games for the first time since the 2010-11 season. The class of 2015 accomplished more than most and cemented their legacy, but they may be remembered most for being the last class recruited by legendary coach Pat Summitt.

While we should always remember them, it is time to start looking at this upcoming season. It’s early, but everyone loves to look at the upcoming season to try to figure out what’s going to happen.

So, here is what you can expect from the 2015-16 Lady Vols basketball team.

First off, let’s look at what we can pretty much guarantee will happen. The Lady Vols pep band will be in the stands and will play a lot, A LOT, of Rocky Top (which everyone in orange will be perfectly fine with). Holly Warlick will be the head coach. The court will still be called “The Summitt.” The Lady Vols will wear Nike gear for the first time and will have a Smokey Grey alternate uniform. But outside of that list, is anything else mostly a guarantee? Probably not.

Here is a list of things that could happen, in my opinion:

Bashaara Graves will become part of the heart and soul of the team along with Andraya Carter (taking over for Isabelle Harrison, Cierra Burdick and Ariel Massengale). Speaking of Graves, she will be a double-double threat every game and will be the No. 2 scorer on the team. Carter will lead the team in steals and minutes played. She also will be in the top four on the roster in scoring.

Mercedes Russell will start the season healthy and play in 90 percent of Tennessee’s games. She will average a double-double and lead the Lady Vols and the SEC in rebounding, all while making first-team All-SEC.

Jamie Nared will pick up were she left off at the end of the season and be a go-to player in clutch moments. She will average double digits in points and have at least six double-doubles.

Alexa Middleton will become one of the nation’s top three-point shooters and has the potential to become the next Shanna Zolman, Kara Lawson or Angie Bjorkland (take your pick of the three).

Kortney Dunbar will become a better overall player and get more minutes this season. She could be a massive threat from three-point range, moving into a role similar to what Burdick was for Tennessee the last four years. She will be a fan favorite and will be the best at getting the team hyped up.

Nia Moore will average double-digit minutes in 2015-16 and average eight points and eight rebounds per game. Jordan Reynolds will see a decreased role, but will be one of the best momentum changer in the country when she comes off the bench and puts up around ten points per game. Jasmine Jones will come off the bench and average at least six rebounds per game.

But possibly, Tennessee’s biggest weapon in 2015-16 will be someone that was on the team last season, but couldn’t play after transferring from North Carolina. Diamond DeShields is a name Tennessee fans should get used to and a name everyone in the SEC should fear.

DeShields was the USBWA National Freshman of the Year in 2014 and claimed the same award from espnW. Additionally, she was the ACC Rookie of the Year in 2014 and made the ACC All-Freshman team. Her performance in the postseason led to her being named to the All-ACC Tournament team.

DeShields will lead Tennessee in scoring and assists, garnering All-American status and helping lead Tennessee back to the promised land.

At 5′ 8,” Te’a Cooper was the No. 7 ranked point guard in the ESPN Top 100 in the class of 2015. She might just be the SEC Freshmen of the Year in 2015-16.

The Lady Vols also added 5′ 11″ wing player Jamesha Jackson to the class of 2015 with Cooper. Jackson was the No. 35 overall player in the class and the No. 7 best wing. The Murfreesboro native will bring aggressive play near the rim for the Lady Vols, most likely coming off the bench.

That’s a lot to take in. But assuming all that happens, your 2015-16 NCAA Women’s Basketball National Champions will be the Tennessee Lady Volunteers and this time next year, we will be talking about the ‘grind for 10.’

In all reality, Tennessee will have one of the most talented rosters in the country and will compete for the SEC and a national title in the 2015-16 season. The Lady Vols are equipped to win 30-plus games.

There is at least a shot that this year’s squad could look a lot like last year’s Connecticut team. At the end of the day, Warlick has the program trending upward once again and it should be a great season for Tennessee.

Edited by Cody McClure

 

Top-seeded Maryland trumps Lady Vols 58-48, advances to Final Four

For the second year in a row, the Maryland Terrapins knocked the Lady Vols out of the NCAA tournament. Maryland’s 58-48 victory Monday night advanced them to the Final Four and ended Tennessee’s season at 30-6.

Head coach Holly Warlick opened the post game press conference by saying, “Just congratulations to Maryland.”

When asked about missed opportunities, Warlick added, “We had a lot. It was a physical game, and we had our chances.”

Indeed, the game was physical. It was a defensive struggle with both teams unable to knock down shots. Tennessee shot just 32.4 percent on the night, with Maryland coming away only slightly better at 39.6 percent.

The simplest way to sum it up for Tennessee is that they had trouble affecting Maryland in the paint. The Lady Vols shot only one free throw – a miss – while Maryland hit 11-13 from the stripe. Ultimately, the disparity in foul shots could be attributed as the difference in the game.

Seniors Cierra Burdick and Ariel Massengale played in their final game for the Lady Vols. Massengale led Tennessee in scoring with 16 points, while Burdick nearly scored another double-double. She finished with nine points and six rebounds.

“They’re outside of basketball. They’re just outstanding young women. We don’t have to worry about them academically. They do a lot in the community. They’re just solid kids. They’re the type of kids we want at Tennessee,” said Warlick about Burdick and Massengale.

Lexie Brown led the way in scoring for Maryland with 15 points – helping the Terrapins finish the game on a 14-2 run.

Tennessee finished the season with 30 wins, despite injuries and setbacks. “This team, I mean, we just had to overcome a lot of obstacles, and this team has really hung together, and they’re a very close knit team, and I’m really, really proud of them,” said Warlick.

This season was Warlick’s first 30-win season as a head coach.

In regards to moving forward to next season, Warlick added, “We’ll take some time off, and then we’ll go back to work … That’s what you do. There’s only going to be one team, one set of players and one set of coaches that are going to be happy next week. Just one. So, we’re not going to stop saying that [getting to the Final Four] is our goal, because it is.”

Edited by Maggie Jones 

Rocky Topics: How will Harrison’s absence impact Lady Vols in NCAA tournament?

Co-written by Sam Forman

This week on Rocky Topics, Cody McClure and Sam Forman discuss how the Lady Vols’ loss of Isabelle Harrison to a torn ACL could impact a potential run to the Final Four.

FORMAN: Before the loss of Isabelle Harrison, I would have guaranteed 100 percent that the Lady Vols would return to the promised land that is the Final Four. While they may have less of a chance, the Lady Vols can still make it to Tampa and return to the Final Four this year. They still have plenty of offense without Harrison in the line up. Jaime Nared has come on to play a key role for Tennessee in their last few games – even before the injury to Harrison. The Lady Vols still have an abundance of players capable of three point shooting. A team that can consistently knock down shots behind the arc could be dangerous when tournament time comes.

MCCLURE: Tennessee has made strides this season, finally putting a veteran squad with size on the floor in the post-Pat Summit era. They have several quality wins over top ten teams on their resume. On a good night, I think the Lady Vols can play with anybody in the country – besides UCONN. ESPN’s bracketologist Charlie Creme currently has Tennessee as a No. 1 seed in the Oklahoma City region, but the bracket has not been updated since their loss to South Carolina. That loss to South Carolina can be attributed to the Lady Vols being out-rebounded and dominated on the glass – an area in which Harrison’s presence certainly would have helped. Another loss to the Gamecocks in the SEC tournament almost certainly puts the Lady Vols as a No. 2 seed, but the seeding is not necessarily the problem. The problem, assuming they are in the Oklahoma City region, is a potential matchup with Baylor – a team that averages 46.1 rebounds per game, good for third in the country.

FORMAN: I will give you the fact that Tennessee may be a No. 2 seed after the loss to South Carolina on Monday. If you look at Creme’s bracket, it has Baylor as the No. 2 seed setting up that match up anyway. You can make a good case that if Tennessee is a No. 2 seed, then they will be the highest ranked No. 2 seed. Yes, Baylor is a team that can give the Lady Vols problems. However, Nina Davis is really the only offensive weapon for the Bears – averaging 20.8 points per game. While Tennessee may not have anyone averaging that many, they do have more players averaging double digits in scoring than Baylor. The Lady Vols also have more firepower off the bench. Though it is a likely match up, there is no guarantee Baylor and Tennessee will even meet up before the Final Four. For this Lady Vols team, all it takes is getting hot at the right time. Let us not forget they found themselves in almost the same spot last year and got hot, and they where nowhere near as complete of a team.

MCCLURE: They also lost by double digits to Maryland in the Sweet 16 last year. I am actually arguing that they will go further in this year’s tournament. I don’t think there are many teams that can beat Tennessee, especially in their projected region. They are more talented and deeper than last year’s team. And yes, they have some shooters that will give Baylor problems should that match up arise – which it likely will. However, without Harrison, the Lady Vols lack the size to keep them in the game with Baylor. Having great shooters is nice, but there is always a possibility of a cold night when shots just don’t fall. A reliable, consistent “big” presence is a better formula for winning in the NCAA tournament. Baylor is very familiar with contributing “bigs.” I do think the Lady Vols will get to the Elite Eight, but the Final Four is not happening.

Edited by Maggie Jones