2015 NCAA Tournament Thoughts & Recaps: East Region

    REGIONAL FINAL Michigan State 76, Louisville 70 overtime It was one of those games you hoped would never end, but Michigan State is thrilled it ended the

    March 21, 2015

    REGIONAL FINAL

    Michigan State 76, Louisville 70 overtime

    It was one of those games you hoped would never end, but Michigan State is thrilled it ended the way it did.

    The Spartans needed overtime to get past Louisville, and they did it with a balanced attack that kept Louisville scrambling. The Cardinals were killed by their inability to shoot from the perimeter – they made just 4-of-11 shots from 3-point range – and because they didn’t use their size advantage to dominate on the glass. MSU fell behind early, going down by eight at halftime, but the Spartans allowed just 30 points after halftime and executed perfectly down the stretch.

    This is a Michigan State team that isn’t supposed to be going to Indy. The Spartans lost to Texas Southern and Illinois and Minnesota at home this season. They lost to Nebraska. But the regular season has nothing to do with March, and few coaches are better at getting the most out of their guys in the NCAA Tournament than Izzo. MSU saw forwards Matt Costello and Gavin Schilling foul out, but Sparty didn’t miss a beat. Denzel Valentine and Travis Trice played like the experienced players they are, and MSU’s unselfishness overcame Louisville’s superior athleticism.

    The Cardinals, meanwhile, close out a season that was promising on paper, but they never seemed to find their stride on the court. When they needed it the most, Louisville simply couldn’t find the next gear to push past the Spartans. Shooting woes have plagued the program all season, and too many Cards went into hero mode in this one. Terry Rozier didn’t need to take 23 shots. Quentin Snider could have dialed back his trigger finger as well. This is a Louisville team that was supremely talented, but when faced with a group that simply worked better on the court, U of L’s five individuals couldn’t match one unit of Spartans.

    SWEET 16

    Michigan State 62, Oklahoma 58

    Some coaches just thrive in March.

    Honestly, if you needed a coach to run a team for six games in March, there really are only two names on the must-have list: Mike Krzyzewski and Tom Izzo. Izzo’s Spartans weren’t supposed to be a Sweet 16 team, weren’t supposed to be playing with enough focus and drive to get to the second weekend. Instead, MSU is playing its best basketball of the season at the right time, and Izzo is learning on his stars hard. Guards Travis Trice and Denzel Valentine, plus swingman Branden Dawson stepped up when the Spartans needed it most vs. Oklahoma, with each bringing something different to the floor. Trice and Valentine sparked MSU in the second half, erasing a four-point deficit at the break and helping Michigan State take control. Dawson wasn’t as effective with the ball, but his 11 rebounds made him a presence inside. MSU’s efficiency and ability to limit mistakes despite shooting poorly gave OU few opportunities to gain momentum.

    Just a few weeks ago everyone was talking about how this wasn’t a usual Tom Izzo team. It shot too many threes. It didn’t get enough inside. It lost its confidence too easily. It’s safe to say those critics have gone into hiding. The Spartans are playing with a lot of confidence, and they’re having fun on the court. OU played its usual game, but it was no match for a loose, driving MSU squad, and Izzo finds himself one win away from the Final Four.

    Louisville 75, North Carolina State 65

    N.C. State had more depth, but Louisville had more defense.

    North Carolina State stayed fresher on the court after going to the bench early and often, and Louisville was in full sleepwalk mode through the first 33 minutes of the game. But the Cardinals finally found their stride down the stretch, using a 14-3 run to turn a one-point deficit into a 10-point edge in the final two minutes.

    The difference was Louisville’s defense, which suddenly stepped up a notch and forced the Wolfpack to make mistakes. The game was a microcosm of U of L’s season. The Cardinals were clearly more talented heading into the game, but it was North Carolina State that played with more heart and energy early.

    Louisville has an extra gear it can turn to, and as much as Rick Pitino would like his team to play at its highest level from the opening tip, the team just don’t seem to have the chemistry to do that for 40 minutes. Still, when the Cards decided to turn it on, it was a team effort, one that saw the team’s balance shut down N.C. State on the offensive end.

    Louisville got a huge night from forward Montrezl Harrell, who finished with 24 points and six rebounds, and Terry Rozier added 17 points and 14 boards. When the Cardinals get that kind of production inside and out, they are tough to beat, and Quentin Snider continues to make an impact in the tournament. Pitino’s team will need those guys to make their presence felt if the Cardinals are going to reach the Final Four.

    SWEET 16

    Louisville 66, Northern Iowa 53

    Louisville might finally be finding its stride.

    The Cardinals have been less than impressive over the past month or so of the season, but they wowed time and time again in their win over Northern Iowa. It wasn’t just the highlight-reel dunks by Montrezl Harrell, which were eye-popping. It wasn’t just U of L’s defense, which kept the Panthers on their heels all night. It wasn’t just the wicked production of guard Terry Rozier, who put up 25 points and seven assists. It was the sum of all of those parts, plus a chemistry that had been missing on the floor. Louisville was intense, but it looked like it was having fun. Northern Iowa didn’t play poorly. Louisville was just better and more efficient on both ends.

    A Cardinals team playing with joy and intensity is bad news for Louisville’s next opponent, North Carolina State. Rick Pitino has to be happy with the performance his team turned in vs. UNI, and if they continue to play the way they did vs. the Panthers, the Cards could be headed to the Final Four.

    Michigan State 60, Virginia 54

    Virginia got a taste of its own medicine.

    The Cavaliers suffered an offensive brownout at the worst possible time, shooting just over 30 percent overall and made only two 3-pointers to fall in the round of 32 to Michigan State. It was an ugly performance by the Cavs. Dario Atkins was the only Virginia player to make more than three baskets, and UVA was beat despite doubling up MSU on the offensive boards. The win was a testament to Tom Izzo’s ability to coach a team in March. The Spartans have steadily improved as the season progressed, and it turned in a virtuoso performance defensively vs. the Cavaliers.

    Michigan State now has a clear shot at the Elite Eight. The Spartans will take on the winner of Oklahoma-Dayton, and MSU will be prepared to beat either of those teams, especially if Izzo has nearly a week to prep.

    North Carolina State 71, Villanova 68

    If you’re going to be a No. 1 seed, you can’t play with any fear. You also have to play defense.

    North Carolina State checked off both of those boxes, setting the tone early by jumping to a quick lead and holding Villanova to just over 30 percent shooting to send the top seed in the East Region home. Yeah, this is the same N.C. State team that needed a buzzer beater just to get past LSU in the second round, but the Wolfpack found a matchup that worked for them and pulled off the upset. ‘Nova made nine threes, but it also shot 28 of them, and N.C. State used an aggressive, attacking offense to get the Wildcats in foul trouble. Controlling the tempo and the paint, N.C. State simply took Villanova out of their game defensively.

    North Carolina State heads to the Sweet 16 as a team that is dreaming of big things. Villanova, meanwhile, goes home. The Wildcats continue to underachieve in March, a fact that will be a point of discussion all summer.

    SECOND ROUND

    Dayton 66, Providence 53

    It took literally all day, but a Cinderella finally stepped up. This time, it didn’t need a homecourt advantage.

    Dayton asserted its will on Providence, clamping down defensively and forcing the Friars completely out of their comfort zone. Nothing came easy for Providence, and it couldn’t get to the free-throw line to try to rally back late. More importantly, Dayton quieted the critics who said the Flyers only survived the First Four because that game was played in its home arena. Dyshawn Pierre made his presence felt early, and Dayton strung together enough stops to score the only upset of Day Two of the tourney.

    Dayton head coach Archie Miller continues to gain respect with each passing game, and this might be a situation where he takes a step up during the offseason, especially if Dayton gets to the Sweet 16.

    Oklahoma 69, Albany 60

    To beat Oklahoma, you have to stop Buddy Hield. But that’s only one part of the equation.

    The Sooners got 18 points from forward TaShawn Thomas and 11 rebounds from forward Ryan Spangler to roll to win over Albany in the round of 64. With Hield getting so much attention, the rest of the Sooners came ready to play. OU was more aggressive from the opening tip, taking a nine-point lead into halftime and cruising the rest of the way. Albany simply didn’t have the quickness or length to deal with Oklahoma, and the Sooners barely broke a sweat.

    Oklahoma has been flying under the radar this year, and the Sooners’ second-round win won’t raise any eyebrows. This is a team with a chip on its shoulder, one that could help it down the road.

    Louisville 57, UC Irvine 55

    Louisville didn’t quiet any critics vs. UC Irvine, but the Cardinals advanced, and that’s all that’s important.

    Still, it didn’t come easy for U of L, which allowed a feisty UC Irvine team to hang around all day, and this one came down to the final few seconds. Ultimately, it was Louisville’s quickness and defensive focus on UC Irvine’s final possession that made the difference. The Anteaters had a chance to tie or win with a last shot, but they couldn’t even get the ball up to the rim. Louisville struggled from the perimeter, it didn’t get to the line often and it was outrebounded, but the bottom line is the Cardinals won. And that’s good enough for now.

    But will it be enough vs. Northern Iowa in the next round? Louisville is likely to be favored, but the Panthers are looking at that as a statement game. Stay tuned.

    Virginia 79, Belmont 67

    Who says Virginia can’t turn up the offense when it needs it?

    Belmont tried to push the tempo vs. the Cavaliers, and the Cavs were willing to play along thanks to their superior quickness and athleticism. It was a bit out of UVA’s comfort zone, but the Cavs seemed to enjoy the change of pace and played with plenty of energy on both ends of the floor.

    Virginia pulled away late, but opponents better take notice. The Cavs are willing and able to play multiple styles, and this outing could be a tune-up for a different UVA squad in the third round.

    Northern Iowa 71, Wyoming 54

    You can’t win 2-on-5. It’s just not possible.

    That’s what Wyoming learned vs. Northern Iowa. Larry Nance Jr. scored 16 points and grabbed seven rebounds, and Charles Hankerson added 15 points, but the rest of the Cowboys gave Wyoming little, and the Panthers rolled into the round of 32. UNI did it by playing the kind of tough defense it is known for, and the fact that the two teams are basically on the same level helped Northern Iowa avoid any sort of drama. It was a methodical win for Northern Iowa, who forced a pile of turnovers and took control early.

    The easy win sets up a possible battle for UNI vs. Louisville, and that game will be all about Northern Iowa’s ability to set the tempo.

    Michigan State 70, Georgia 63

    This isn’t one of Tom Izzo’s best teams, but the Spartans are still going to be a tough out.

    Michigan State didn’t do anything flashy while dispatching Georgia, and MSU survived a late offensive brownout to beat the Bulldogs. They key was MSU’s defense. It hasn’t always been fantastic this season, but the Spartans’ poise was fantastic, and Izzo’s guys turned up the defense when it needed it most.

    Next up for Michigan State will likely be Virginia as long as the Cavaliers can get past Belmont. That one should be a defensive battle, one to warm the hearts of old-school basketball fans everywhere.

    North Carolina State 66, LSU 65

    It’s tough to play basketball with your hands around your neck.

    That’s what LSU found out down the stretch vs. North Carolina State, letting a 14-point halftime lead evaporate by missing its final 12 shots from the field and four straight free throws. N.C. State, meanwhile, just kept battling on both ends, and BeeJay Anya scored the winning bucket at the buzzer on a hook in the lane.

    The Wolfpack used a lot of energy to move past the Tigers, and they’ll have to quickly refocus to battle Villanova. LSU is headed into an offseason that will be filled with regret.

    Villanova 93, Lafayette 52

    Villanova has had the attitude of a confident assassin all year, and nothing changed for the Wildcats in the NCAA Tournament.

    What they did to poor Lafayette was just this side of rude. They humiliated the Leopards, pounding them early and never letting them off the mat. Then again, that’s exactly what a No. 1 seed is supposed to do to a No. 16. More importantly, there wasn’t much celebrating for ‘Nova after the final buzzer. It was business as usual, a team that expected to win in a blowout winning in a blowout.

    Attitude is important in the Dance, and the Wildcats behaved like a team that won’t be satisfied until it is working in Indianapolis.

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