Lady Vols secure No. 3 seed in NCAA Tournament

The No. 12 ranked Tennessee Lady Vols (24-7) received the No. 3 seed Monday night in the Lexington region for the 2018 Women’s NCAA Tournament. They will host the Liberty Flames (24-9) in Knoxville on March 16 at Thompson-Boling Arena for the first round.

Led by Head Coach Holly Warlick, the Lady Vols look to start their tournament run on a high note. Tennessee finished its regular season ranked just outside the top 10 and ended the season at fifth in SEC standings. Although first round games in the tournament usually come as a cake walk for top seeded teams, Liberty will likely give the Lady Vols a tough test.

“What I saw from their tournament is that they are gritty, they are tough, and they rebound,” Warlick said. “They’ve got kids that score, so it will be a tough challenge for us.”

Finishing their season 24-9, the Lady Flames prove they are capable of winning. Clinching their 17th Big South title this season, the ladies from Lynchburg come to Knoxville riding an eight-game winning streak. They look to extend that streak in the NCAA Tournament.

Led by seniors Mercedes Russell and Jaime Nared, Tennessee possesses a large advantage by starting the tournament at home. However, the game will not be a guaranteed victory. The Volunteers looked like a top-notch team during portions of the regular season, while looking lost at other points in the schedule.

The last appearance for the Lady Vols came in the quarterfinals of the SEC Tournament. They fell to eventual conference champions South Carolina by a score of 73-62. Tennessee looks to avenge its loss in their game on Friday. The Lady Vols will need contributions from various players to do so.

Feeding the ball inside to Russell proves to be effective, and if the Vols want to go far in the tournament, they must get their star senior the ball as often as possible. With Russell standing at 6-foot-6 and Liberty’s starting forwards both only standing at 6-foot-1, Russell should have a stout advantage on the boards and easy buckets inside the paint.

If there is one concern for the Lady Vols heading into the NCAA Tournament, it will be whether or not Nared will be able to play valuable minutes. Nared went down with an injury against Auburn in the SEC Tournament.

In the game against South Carolina, Nared played a full 40-minute game when she posted a double-double, but her injury could inhibit her against Liberty. The senior from Oregon will search to end her illustrious career at Tennessee with a bang.

“We had kind of a dry reaction, but I think that’s because we’re focused. We’re excited with playing home,” Nared said. “The team we’re playing, we don’t know much about them, but we’re excited to learn about them and to play hard and give it all.”

Friday’s game will be broadcasted on ESPN 2 and tip-off is set for 2:30 p.m. ET.

Edited by Seth Raborn/Lexie Little

Featured image courtesy of Tennessee Athletics

Vols draw No. 3 seed in NCAA Tournament

No. 13 ranked Tennessee (25-8) dropped the SEC Championship to Kentucky at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis. The Vols found little time to dwell on the defeat as they looked ahead to Selection Sunday.

The Volunteers drew a No. 3 seed from the NCAA selection committee and will face the No. 14 seed Wright State Raiders (25-9) at 12:40 p.m. ET on TruTV. Tennessee will tip-off in Dallas in the South Region of the bracket.

This appearance marks the Vols’ first in the tournament since 2014. Meanwhile, the Raiders enter for their first appearance in 11 years. Tennessee Head Coach Rick Barnes knows his team played hard to get in the tournament all season long. However, he also knows not to take an appearance for granted.

“Hats off to our team. They believed they could do it, they did it,” Barnes said. “Now we are in the big event, you go one game at a time.”

The Selection Sunday anticipation came and went quickly for the orange-and-white. They were announced in the first region of the bracket. Barnes’ last two seasons in Knoxville proved everything but exciting around this time of year.

“(It’s) been a long time. I go back to that first year, guys came in and bought in to it and we knew we were shorthanded,” Barnes said. “Last year we were in a position, couldn’t finish it … This will be a new experience for them.”

This will be a new experience for not only Barnes’ squad, but Wright State Head Coach Scott Nagy. His team looks for its first ever win in the NCAA Tournament.

Preview of Wright State

Nagy and the Raiders won 25 games this season on their way to the Horizon League Championship. The matchup could be like looking in the mirror for Barnes – Nagy’s philosophy matches his own.

The Raiders pride themselves on defense and playing inside-out. Wright State finished its season hot, railing off four-straight wins and winning eight out of its last 10 games.

Nagy’s marquee season win came on the road at Georgia Tech, 85-81. Senior guards Grant Benzinger and Justin Mitchell lead the Raiders. The two combine for 25.6 points and 12.5 rebounds per game. Freshman center Loudon Love brings a down-low presence for Wright State averaging 12.9 points and 9.8 rebounds per game.

Edited by Seth Raborn/Lexie Little

Featured image courtesy of Tennessee Athletics 

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

Raborn: SEC Basketball isn’t getting better, just luckier

To say that the SEC is improving would suggest that there are more than five or six solid teams in the conference. Not only are there few successful teams in the conference, but only two can register as elite programs: Kentucky and Florida. These two teams are as consistent as it gets for the SEC. The rest continue to waiver and change through the years.

Yes, three of the five SEC teams that made the NCAA Tournament advanced to the Elite Eight. No, that does not mean the conference in its entirety is making progress. Three teams making a run in the tournament does not create success for the whole SEC. The NCAA Tournament itself is not a good litmus test of a team’s strength. The teams in the tournament quite literally take it game by game or they are at risk of slipping up and losing to anyone. Also, the way the NCAA Tournament is set up creates an easy road for some teams. Case and point: Florida.

No. 4 seed Florida started off their tournament against No. 13 seed East Tennessee State. Although ETSU was heavily outmatched in talent and size, it still managed to be down just 1 point at halftime. However, junior forward Devin Robinson was hot for the Gators and he tallied 24 points and 7 rebounds. In the end, Florida won 80-65 to move on to its round of 32 matchup with the No. 5 seed Virginia Cavaliers, who were 23-10 coming into the game.

The Gators managed to hold the Cavaliers to just 17 points in the first half and played stingy defense, holding them to just 30 percent shooting from the field. Robinson once again led Florida with a double-double of 14 points and 11 rebounds in the 65-39 blowout. There was a clear reason for the terrible play from Virginia. Their leader in rebounds, blocks and steals for the team, Isiah Wilkins, was out with strep throat. Cavaliers head coach Tony Bennett called him the “heart and soul of the defense.”

The Gators finally met their first through-and-through solid team when they played the No. 8 seed Wisconsin Badgers, fresh off a win over the defending champion Villanova Wildcats. Once again, Florida managed to dodge a bullet by not having to play the No. 1 seed, and the Gators tabbed an 84-83 win in overtime on a buzzer beater. Florida met its fate when they played their fellow SEC member South Carolina, and were victim to the Gamecocks’ swarming defense in the 77-70 loss.

As seen by the path that the Gators had, it is fairly easy to receive an easy road to the Sweet 16 and beyond. A certain amount of the layout in the NCAA Tournament is chalked up to luck. Does that mean that every team in the SEC got lucky this year with their path? No. Kentucky and South Carolina both had pretty tough roads in the tournament, but three teams’ success in the tournament does not spell success for the whole conference.

The SEC is still not improving by any means. The conference is still very top heavy. The top teams in the conference (Kentucky, South Carolina, Arkansas, Vanderbilt and Florida) are seeing improvement, but there is not much to say about the rest of the SEC.

Edited by Robert Hughes

Featured image by Chet White, courtesy of UK Athletics

Making a case for Florida to win the NCAA tournament

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Florida is in the Elite Eight for the first time since 2014, a year in which they made it to the Final Four.

The Gators’ Elite Eight matchup? The South Carolina Gamecocks, a team Florida is awfully familiar with. It’ll be the third meeting this season between Florida and South Carolina, who defeated Baylor 70-50 to advance to the Elite Eight.

In the first meeting, South Carolina won 57-53 in Columbia. Florida bounced back in the rematch, defeating the Gamecocks 81-66 at home.

Florida kicked off the tournament with an 80-65 win over East Tennessee State, a team some experts thought would upset the short-handed Gators. In the round of 32, Florida destroyed Virginia 65-39 to advance to the Sweet 16 where they beat eight-seed Wisconsin 84-83.

Here’s why Florida can win three more games and win the big dance.

Long and Athletic

Eight of the players on Florida’s 14-man roster are 6 feet 8 inches or taller, and most of them have long arms to match. The Gators’ length allows them to clog up opponent’s passing lanes, making it difficult to run an offensive set. Deflections turn into turnovers and turnovers turn into points. Florida isn’t just long and lanky, though. It’s one of the most athletic teams in the country. With their combination of length and athleticism, playing the Gators is a nightmare.

KeVaughn Allen enters the Elite Eight coming off a career-high 35 points against Wisconsin, which is the most points ever scored by a Gator in tournament history. Allen was having a rough tournament until the second half of the game against the Badgers. Against South Carolina, the Gators will need Allen. If history repeats itself, Allen will do just that. Allen had 26 points and seven rebounds in Florida’s win over South Carolina earlier this season.

Senior guard Kasey Hill lines up alongside Allen, forming one of the best backcourt duos in the tournament. Hill is averaging 9.8 points and 4.6 assists per game. While he may not be putting up huge numbers, Hill contributes in other ways through his leadership.

Canyon Barry, known for his granny shots from the free throw line, is averaging 12.1 points per game. Devin Robinson, the Gators’ key cog in the paint, is averaging 11.3 points and 6.3 rebounds per game.

Defense

Florida’s defense has made the difference for the Gators this March. While the Gators play a free-flowing brand of basketball with an emphasis on ball movement, their defense is what gets the team going. Florida does a great job of turning their defense into offense by turning rebounds and blocked shots into fast break opportunities. It’s a fun brand of basketball to watch when it’s clicking.

Against Wisconsin, Florida forced the Badgers into 16 turnovers and compiled seven blocks. The Gators’ top-50 defense is allowing 66.2 points per game, blocking 4.8 shots per game and forcing 14.97 turnovers per game.

 Resiliency

Florida has stood stall during crunch time this tournament.

After struggling for most of the matchup, Barry made one of the greatest plays in Gators basketball history to spark the team. Wisconsin’s Khalil Iverson had a breakaway layup with under a minute remaining in overtime that would have increased the Badgers’ lead to four and would have all but put the game away. Barry managed to chase Iverson down and block his shot, allowing the ball to go the other way and set up a Chris Chiozza layup that tied the game.

Without Barry’s block, Chiozza would have never hit one of the greatest shots in program history. Four seconds were left on the clock when Chiozza took the inbounds pass and proceeded to go the length of the floor and hit a 3-pointer to beat Wisconsin and send the Gators to the Elite Eight.

Florida could have crumbled when the Badgers came back to send the game into overtime. The loss of star center John Egbunu could have hampered their season, but they didn’t allow it. The Gators play with a contagious energy and a strong confidence. They don’t shy away from the moment and they lay it all out on the floor. Between their talent and heart, the Gators are as a good a bet as anyone to win the big dance.

Edited by Quinn Pilkey

Making a case for Xavier to win the NCAA Tournament

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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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