(Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

Confident Final Four newcomers Gonzaga and South Carolina focused on limiting distractions

Leave a comment

GLENDALE, Ariz. — After a few days in Arizona, the new car smell of the Final Four still hasn’t worn off for first-time participants Gonzaga and South Carolina.

Both programs are managing the insane pressure of trying to bring home a national championship while the Bulldogs and Gamecocks also try to encompass the magical experience of everything the Final Four festivities have to offer.

The banquets, dinners, media sessions and overall hype surrounding the Final Four dwarfs anything that these players and coaches have ever dealt with. Wide-eyed players and coaches are still figuring out strange Final Four challenges like the shooting backdrop in the cavernous University of Phoenix Stadium or handling all of the random outside distractions.

It can be a daunting task to juggle everything around the Final Four. Gonzaga and South Carolina are managing the best they can. In a Final Four that features three programs who have never been this far in the modern era, at least one of those teams — the Bulldogs or Gamecocks — will be playing for a national championship on Monday night.

“A lot of people that you haven’t talked to in years try to give you advice on what’s going on like they’ve been through it before,” Gonzaga freshman center Zach Collins said. “I mean, we all expected that. I think we’re all really, really good about keeping together in this locker room, focusing on the task at hand.”

Mark Few’s 18-year tenure at Gonzaga has seen the Bulldogs achieve an incredible amount of success considering the program’s West Coast Conference roots. Despite being a perennial NCAA tournament team who has reached the second weekend multiple times, preparing for the Final Four for the first time has involved new challenges for Few and his staff.

The Gonzaga staff spent the week calling other coaches about Final Four preparation while also relying on the guidance of assistant coach Donny Daniels — an assistant on Final Four teams at UCLA and Utah. The varying degrees of answers from other coaches has helped Gonzaga navigate the week.

Gonzaga players were asked to handle everything outside of basketball before Tuesday so that they could focus fully on Saturday’s game but they’re also trying to relish this experience at the same time.

“That’s the thing about athletics: everything is so regimented. Film is at this time and it’s this long. Practice is at this time and it’s this long. We eat breakfast at this time. And for 36 games, essentially everything has been the exact same,” Gonzaga assistant coach Brian Michaelson said. “Then you get here and your schedule really is chopped up. You get five minutes for film here, five minutes for film there. You may have one scheduled [film session] and it may not end up happening. That’s been different for us. But so far the guys have responded to it pretty well.”

Gonzaga’s current roster and coaching staff has far more NCAA tournament experience than South Carolina, but the last few weeks for the Gamecocks have prepared them for everything that is currently happening to them at the Final Four.

Playing the first two rounds in nearby Greenville meant that South Carolina already had to deal with exaggerated off-the-court hype before the 2017 NCAA tournament even tipped. Gamecock fans were just clamoring for the team to earn its first NCAA tournament win since 1973. Things accelerated quickly for South Carolina and its fanbase after they knocked off Duke and advanced to Madison Square Garden for two more wins.

So while the Final Four still has some new wrinkles that the Gamecocks are adjusting to, they’ve already had to deal with a circus-like atmosphere just to reach Glendale. Most of South Carolina’s strategy to limit distractions has to do with making sure that head coach Frank Martin and his staff can handle everything possible to keep the players focused. Players for the Gamecocks maintain that everything has stayed pretty consistent throughout the season as they treat Gonzaga just like every other opponent.

“Honestly, it’s been pretty easy for us. We’re so focused on the game that we have tomorrow,” guard P.J. Dozier said of the week. “I hate to say that everything else doesn’t matter. But we know what we came here to do. We came here to win a national championship and we’re just trying to take it one game at a time.”

Right now, it seems easy for Gonzaga and South Carolina to limit distractions and stay focused for the national semifinals. Historic Final Four runs have a way of instilling confidence in teams that haven’t been there before.

But things also have a tendency to change very quickly once the ball gets tipped. Mistakes are magnified and the pressure of the Final Four can ramp up very quickly.

Gonzaga and South Carolina are both new to this, but one of them is about to play for a title on Monday. And the previous lack of Final Four experience will ultimately mean nothing.

“Experience helps you manage your mindset, your emotions, as you prepare for something. But when the game goes up, everyone’s nervous,” Martin said. “I don’t care how many Final Fours you’ve played in, every time you show up for that game you’re going to be nervous. And anyone who says differently is not telling you the truth. I don’t care how many games you’ve coached. You’re always nervous for the next game on the schedule. It just, it is what it is.”

No. 1 goes down … again; Texas Tech upsets No. 1 Louisville

Emilee Chinn/Getty Images
Leave a comment

NEW YORK — It was the fourth time it’s happened in the first five weeks of the season, the third time it’s happened against an unranked team and the second time that Madison Square Garden played host to the carnage.

The No. 1 team in the country lost.

On Tuesday night, in the opener of the Jimmy V Classic, No. 1 Louisville lost to the unranked Texas Tech, 70-57. That’s the same Texas Tech that arrived in New York City on a three-game losing streak — against Iowa, Creighton and DePaul — and who was forced to play with leading scorer Jahmi’us Ramsey, who missed his third straight game with a hamstring injury.

Davide Moretti led the way for the reigning national runners-up, finishing with 18 points, while freshman Terrence Shannon chipped in with 13 of his own and Chris Clarke added seven points, 12 boards and six assists.

Penn State upsets No. 4 Maryland

Getty Images
1 Comment

Penn State used five double-figure scorers and played consistently hard on both ends of the floor as the Nittany Lions stunned previously-unbeaten No. 4 Maryland with a 76-69 Big Ten win on Tuesday night.

Losing by 30 on the road to Ohio State in their last conference game, Penn State displayed impressive intensity on the defensive end, limited turnovers on the offensive end and received plenty of help for star senior Lamar Stevens when he wasn’t having his best game. For the second straight season, Penn State upset a ranked Maryland team on its home floor as the Nittany Lions proved they’ll be a tough out at home all season.

Penn State (8-2, 1-1) received double-doubles from both Stevens (15 points, 10 rebounds) and big man Mike Watkins (15 points, 11 rebounds, four blocks) as the duo did a ton of damage on the interior. The Nittany Lions also had double-digit scoring efforts from Myreon Jones (14 points), Izaiah Brockington (14 points) and Myles Dread (10 points). With 19 assists and only eight turnovers, Penn State’s offense did an outstanding job of running clean sets and getting good looks from multiple players.

This is a quality win for the Nittany Lions early in the Big Ten portion of the schedule. It gives an unproven team a major boost of confidence — particularly beating a top-five team on a night where Stevens was only 5-for-13 from the floor. The Ohio State road loss shows Penn State still has a long way to go to be considered any kind of major threat. But Pat Chambers’ team is at least balanced and feisty enough to be a really tough out at home this season. A few more wins like this could put Penn State in the NCAA tournament picture with the kind of schedule they’ll play in the Big Ten this season.

But the major story here is the loss for Maryland. Because the Terps have some concerning trends they need to address.

Early in the season, Maryland (10-1, 1-1) has made a habit of falling behind early. It happened multiple times in an early-season tournament. And it’s now happened in back-to-back Big Ten games against Illinois and Penn State. While Maryland has been able to overcome slow starts all season with talent and comeback wins, a bad start came back to really bite them on Tuesday.

Trailing by 10 at halftime, Maryland tried to make second-half runs to stay with Penn State. Ultimately, the Terps were derailed by inconsistent offense, sloppy and careless turnovers (Penn State had 17 points off turnovers in the first half) and an inconsistent effort on the inside.

Maryland’s offense had 20 turnovers to only nine assists for the game as the Terps never seemed to figure out the proper way to run its offense. Alternating between senior Anthony Cowan Jr. (16 points) and sophomore Eric Ayala (15 points) initiating offense, both guards had too many bad passes and unforced errors for a team with Big Ten title aspirations.

It’s very clear that Maryland has the talent to compete with nearly any team in the country. Even on an off night, the Terps made this a one-possession game against a balanced Big Ten team with some veteran players. But Maryland can’t have these kinds of unforced errors if they see themselves making a deep run in the NCAA tournament.

That mainly falls on Cowan. A few of his turnovers were stunningly bad for a senior floor leader. Getting stripped 35 feet from the hoop and throwing lazy passes for interceptions and easy layups can’t happen for Cowan. There’s just too much talent on offense for Maryland to be giving away points in close games.

The good news for Maryland is that there is plenty of time to correct some of these mistakes. Cowan can limit the mistakes. The offense will likely play better and more together. But Maryland’s slow starts are a trend to keep an eye on as it has been a factor for them in multiple games this season.

Bracketology: Cardinals, Buckeyes sit atop latest bracket projection

AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley
1 Comment

At the quarter-turn of our race to Selection Sunday, the Louisville Cardinals lead Ohio State by a nose for the No. 1 overall seed.  Close behind are Michigan, Kansas, Gonzaga and Maryland.  The Buckeyes and Wolverines are the surprise entries among that group, although both have earned their positions with impressive performances out of the gate.

While the first turn provides a quick glance at the Field, we still have three-quarters of the race to run – including a daunting backstretch and the turn for home known as conference play.  Those grueling furlongs tend to separate the pretenders and contenders.

Early brackets are notoriously fluid; margins between teams are thin. Early projections also tend to produce some quirkiness – especially related to conference balance.  Keep those things in mind.  By next month we could see a lot of changes.

UPDATED: December 10, 2019

FIRST FOUR – DAYTON
EAST REGION Iowa State vs. Arizona State
SOUTH REGION Georgetown vs. Oregon State
MIDWEST REGION  SACRED HEART vs. PRAIRIE VIEW AM
WEST REGION MONTANA vs. NC A&T

MIDWEST Indianapolis EAST – New York                       
St. Louis Cleveland
1) LOUISVILLE 1) OHIO STATE
16) NC-AT / SACRED HEART 16) RADFORD
8) West Virginia 8) VCU
9) Penn State 9) Texas
Sacramento Sacramento
5) Arizona 5) SAN DIEGO STATE
12) WESTERN KENTUCKY 12) UNC-GREENSBORO
4) Kentucky 4) Washington
13) LIBERTY 13) YALE
St. Louis Greensboro
6) MEMPHIS 6) Villanova
11) Saint Mary’s 11) Iowa St / Arizona St
3) DAYTON 3) TENNESSEE
14) WRIGHT STATE 14) VERMONT
Albany Greensboro
7) Florida 7) Seton Hall
10) DePaul 10) Indiana
2) Maryland 2) Duke
15) HOFSTRA 15) COLGATE
WEST – Los Angeles SOUTH – Houston
Omaha Cleveland
1) KANSAS 1) Michigan
16) MONTANA / PV-AM 16) SOUTH DAKOTA ST
8) Stanford 8) LSU
9) Marquette 9) Colorado
Albany Omaha
5) Michigan State 5) North Carolina
12) BOWLING GREEN 12) NORTHERN IOWA
4) Virginia 4) Baylor
13) BELMONT 13) S.F. AUSTIN
Tampa Tampa
6) Purdue 6) Auburn
11) Oklahoma 11) Georgetown / Oregon St
3) BUTLER 3) Florida State
14) RIDER 14) GEORGIA STATE
Spokane Spokane
7) Utah State 7) Xavier
10) Creighton 10) Connecticut
2) GONZAGA 2) OREGON
15) UC-SANTA BARBARA 15) NEW MEXICO STATE

BUBBLE NOTES
Last 4 Byes Last 4 IN      First 4 OUT Next 4 OUT
Creighton Georgetown Iowa Arkansas
Connecticut Arizona State Wichita State Virginia Tech
Saint Mary’s Oregon State NC State Houston
Oklahoma Iowa State Richmond Oklahoma State

Top Seed Line
Louisville, Ohio State, Michigan, Kansas

Breakdown by Conference …
Big East (8)
Big Ten (7)
Pac 12 (7)
BIG 12 (6)
SEC (5)
ACC (5)
West Coast (2)
American (2)
Atlantic 10 (2)
Mountain West (2)

N.C. State forward Jericole Hellems released from hospital

AP Photo
Leave a comment

RALEIGH, N.C. — North Carolina State says sophomore forward Jericole Hellems has been released from a hospital and is in “good spirits” after an injury in Saturday’s win at Wake Forest.

The team announced the news Sunday on Twitter. Hellems had fallen on a rebound attempt and banged the back of his head on the court with 28 seconds left. He was alert but had to be carried from the court on a stretcher. Then he was taken to a hospital for precautionary reasons to rule out a possible lower back injury as well as to be evaluated for a possible concussion.

The team says Hellems will meet with NC State doctors in the coming days, while coach Kevin Keatts will address his status later in the week.

NC State travels to UNC Greensboro next Sunday.

AP Poll: Louisville remains No. 1, Ohio State jumps to No. 3

AP Photo/Mark Zaleski
Leave a comment

Louisville and Kansas finally provided some consistency to what has been a volatile Top 25 poll this season, while perennial bluebloods Michigan State and North Carolina continued to tumble after another wave of defeats.

The Cardinals solidified thier place at No. 1 in the AP Top 25 released Monday by routing then-No. 4 Michigan in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge and breezing past Pittsburgh over the past week. The Jayhawks stayed at No. 2 after returning from their Maui Invitaitonal title to thump former Big 12 member Colorado.

“I think it’s two games in a row, where we got stops,” Louisville coach Chris Mack said. “We didn’t allow second shots. We ran the clock on offense. We got great looks. We got layups, and that’s a killer.”

Ohio State jumped from sixth to third following its 74-49 rout of then-No. 7 North Carolina and a Big Ten blowout of Penn State. Maryland dropped one spot to fourth despite continuing to pile up wins, while Michigan slid one spot to round out the top five after Juwan Howard’s bunch ran into the Louisville buzzsaw for their first loss of the season.

The Spartans continued their fall from preseason No. 1 after losing to Duke, this time dropping from 11th to No. 16. The Tar Heels tumbled 10 spots to No. 17 after getting crushed by Ohio State and losing to No. 9 Virginia.

San Diego State joined the rankings at No. 25.

1. Louisville (55)

2. Kansas (4)

3. Ohio St. (5)

4. Maryland

5. Michigan

6. Gonzaga

7. Duke

8. Kentucky

9. Virginia

10. Oregon

11. Baylor

12. Auburn

13. Memphis

14. Dayton

15. Arizona

16. Michigan St.

17. North Carolina

18. Butler

19. Tennessee

20. Villanova

21. Florida St.

22. Seton Hall

23. Xavier

24. Colorado

25. San Diego St.

Others receiving votes: Utah St. 160, Washington 144, Purdue 130, Indiana 13, Marquette 11, Liberty 9, Saint Mary’s (Cal) 8, Texas 6, Florida 5, Penn St. 5, Georgetown 4, West Virginia 3, Richmond 3, LSU 2, Duquesne 1, DePaul 1, VCU 1.