2015 NCAA Tournament Thoughts & Recaps: Midwest Region

    REGIONAL FINAL Kentucky 68, Notre Dame 66 If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. That was the attitude of Kentucky, who went inside to Karl-Anthony Towns over

    March 21, 2015

    REGIONAL FINAL

    Kentucky 68, Notre Dame 66

    If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

    That was the attitude of Kentucky, who went inside to Karl-Anthony Towns over and over and over again, pounding the ball to the freshman forward. He didn’t disappoint. Towns finished with a game-high 25 points on 10-of-13 shooting, and Notre Dame simply didn’t have an answer for him on the low block.

    Sure, Notre Dame’s Zach Auguste was a presence – he had 20 points on 10-of-13 shooting himself – but foul trouble took some of the teeth out of his defense. Towns capitalized, and an offensive brownout in the closing 120 seconds killed the Fighting Irish’s upset bid.

    Notre Dame gave Kentucky everything it could handle, controlling the tempo, going toe-to-toe with the mighty Wildcats, and matching UK with every shot. It wasn’t ND guard Jerian Grant or Demetrius Jackson who did the damage. It was Steve Vasturia, who scored 16 points on 6-of-8 shooting. But UK ultimately had too much athleticism, too much size inside and an incredible amount of ice in their veins. With the season on the line, Kentucky never panicked, never let Notre Dame get too far out ahead.

    Now the Wildcats find themselves on the brink of history. They have reached the Final Four with a perfect record, but they will have to earn it the rest of the way. First up will be Wisconsin, a team that is as disciplined and strong as any in the country.

    If UK gets past the Badgers, one of four teams will be waiting – Louisville, Michigan State, Duke or Gonzaga. None of those are easy outs. All of them will be focused on ending the dream. But first things first. Kentucky slipped by Notre Dame to keep that dream alive, and the Big Blue Nation will be packing Indianapolis next weekend.

    SWEET 16

    Kentucky 78, West Virginia 39

    That whole West Virginia as a possible history-breaker thing didn’t work out so well.

    Kentucky jumped out to a 20-6 lead in the first 10 minutes of the game. West Virginia didn’t score 20 total points until midway through the second half. It was that kind of dominant game for UK with the Wildcats making a statement that they didn’t like the idea anybody even gave any though to the Mountaineers pulling off the shocker. UK stepped on West Virginia’s neck early, easily breaking the “Press Virginia” defense and scoring easy basket after easy basket. Instead, it was Kentucky’s defense that made the biggest impact. Yeah, UK blocked plenty of shots, but the Wildcats also challenged just about every shot. The Mountaineers also missed a lot of shots, and they couldn’t establish their press quite as effectively without making buckets.

    Next up for the Wildcats will be a very confident Norte Dame squad, one that believes it can control every game. The Fighting Irish have a long, proud history as giant killers – they once snapped an 88-game winning streak by UCLA in the 1970s – but the past means nothing. That’s a fun story for the fans and media. Kentucky is playing like a team that doesn’t expect to lose, and with the way UK is clicking, the Wildcats might be right.

    Notre Dame 81, Wichita State 70

    This time around, Notre Dame didn’t need any extra time to show its power.

    The Fighting Irish dominated Wichita State on the offensive end, scoring inside and out to pull away in the second half and move to the Elite Eight. The Shockers never gained traction in the first 20 minutes, but they managed to trail by just three at 33-30 at the break. After halftime, Notre Dame turned up the intensity on both ends, and the Irish’s combination of size, athleticism and depth were too much for Wichita State to overcome. Notre Dame’s balance also managed to overcome a lackluster day from star Jerian Grant, who was held to just nine points, but he did hand out 11 assists.

    Most importantly, Mike Brey’s squad played like a favorite from the opening tip, bringing a swagger to the floor that few teams have shown in the Dance this year. ND is dripping confidence, and it’s a team that clearly is having a lot of fun. It was pressured by Butler in the round of 32, but that win has taken the Fighting Irish to a new level, and they won’t be a squad just happy to be around on Saturday. They’ll expect to win.

    THIRD ROUND

    West Virginia 69, Maryland 59

    The one thing Maryland couldn’t afford was to lose Melo Trimble. Then the Terps lost Melo Trimble.

    Trimble wasn’t around for the end of Maryland’s loss to West Virginia after sustaining a pair of blows to the head that knocked him out of action. But even before Trimble went down, the Mountaineers had been giving the Terps headaches with their swarming, pressing defense, and that D created 21 Maryland turnovers. Those miscues led to easy points, and they sped up the Terps, which led to more mistakes. Dez Wells had eight of the TOs, and Jake Layman added five more as Maryland never adjusted. West Virginia head coach Bob Huggins, meanwhile, turned up the pressure to another level every time Trimble was off the floor, and Maryland’s lack of a ballhandler kept the Terps from rallying.

    Huggins has done a masterful job on the sideline this season. His team is stocked with long athletes who create havoc on defense, and that athleticism was on full display vs. the Terps. Huggins also might have exactly the kind of attack that can disrupt his next opponent, Kentucky, which should make for a fantastic matchup in the Sweet 16.

    Notre Dame 67, Butler 64 overtime

    Notre Dame is the Indiana State Champion. How sweet it is.

    The Fighting Irish won what was probably the best game of the day by battling past Butler in overtime. ND is lucky it has a few days to recover from this one. It was a heavyweight fight between a pair of quality teams, but in the end, Notre Dame had too much Pat Connaughton, too much Jerian Grant and way too much Zach Auguste. Connaughton didn’t shoot well from the perimeter, but it was his block in regulation on a 3-pointer that kept ND alive, and his own 3-pointer – his only one of the game – in OT pushed the Irish to the win. Grant added 16 points, and Auguste had seven points and 14 boards, and guard Steve Vasturia added 20 points.

    This game went beyond the numbers. It was a back-and-forth war between two well-coached teams hungry to get to the Sweet 16, and gutty performances from Butler’s Roosevelt Jones and Kameron Woods left the Bulldogs with little to hang their heads about. Notre Dame simply made more plays in overtime, made an extra stop, and it survived a classic to move on.

    Kentucky 64, Cincinnati 51

    They’re just too big, too quick, too athletic, too good.

    That’s the bottom line for Kentucky vs. most teams, and it played out again when UK took on Cincinnati. Sure, the Bearcats put up a fight for a half, but the Wildcats just demoralized Cincy and made sure the upstarts never found their rhythm. Cincinnati had its opportunities to make a statement, but it could deliver, the pressure of beating the unbeatable team turning the Bearcats’ fingers to butter, their shots to bricks.

    Kentucky didn’t enjoy its best game. The ‘Cats didn’t shoot the ball particularly well, and UK gave up too many second-chance points. But it didn’t make a difference. To beat a perfect team you need a perfect game. Cincy couldn’t do it, and UK rolls on toward history.

    SECOND ROUND

    Maryland 65, Valparaiso 62

    History didn’t repeat, but Maryland was pretty far from impressive.

    Valparaiso had a chance to tie the game with a three in the closing seconds vs. the Terrapins, but Valpo’s Keith Carter had the ball knocked away without ever getting the shot to the rim. Maryland won, but how much longer will the Terps stick around? Mark Turgeon’s team has looked a bit out of sorts in recent weeks, and Maryland did nothing to make fans feel better in the second round. Melo Trimble still is a stud, as is Dez Wells. But this is a Maryland squad that feels like it’s floating a bit and needs to find its focus.

    All of that said, Maryland should have the inside track to reach the Sweet 16 vs. a West Virginia team that doesn’t bring the same kind of balance to the floor. Maryland is going to have the two best players on the floor in that one, so the Terps could easily survive to next weekend.

    Wichita State 81, Indiana 76

    Fundamentals are important, today, tomorrow and always.

    Indiana put up a fight, dropping in a barrage of 3-pointers to push Wichita State to the limit. But the Shockers made their free throws down the stretch and converted 29-of-34 overall to send IU home and move on to the marquee matchup vs. Kansas in the third round. Wichita State was willing to let Indiana’s Yogi Ferrell get his numbers, but the Shockers shut down the rest of the Hoosiers and kept their poise late.

    The looming battle vs. Kansas is going to be special. Wichita has been itching to get at the Jayhawks for years, and with so much on the line, it’s going to have the feel of a Final Four game.

    West Virginia 68, Buffalo 62

    You had to know a Bobby Hurley team was going to play tough, but sometimes toughness isn’t enough.

    West Virginia managed to keep a scrappy Buffalo team at by getting to the free-throw line and limiting its turnovers in a win in the round of 64. Bob Huggins’ return to the NCAA Tournament was prolonged by the Mountaineers’ superior athleticism and the fact West Virginia’s quickness was too much for Buffalo to handle on the perimeter. The Bulls continued to battle late, but WVU had too much experience and didn’t let Buffalo get over the hump.

    West Virginia’s defense will be key for the Mountaineers going forward. If they can continue to create easy baskets, they’re going to be a challenge to beat.

    Kansas 75, New Mexico State 56

    Kansas is pretty good, but it’s also smart enough to learn its lesson.

    Every year it seems there’s a rash of upsets on the first day of the tournament, and by the time Fridayrolls around, the top seeds wake up and realize they heed to be focused from the opening tip. That’s what the Jayhawks brought to the floor, turning in a workman-like effort to cruise to a win vs. New Mexico State. KU didn’t do anything special, it didn’t fill the highlight reel. It just won without really breaking a sweat and keeping the Jayhawks fresh for the third round.

    The whole state of Kansas will be rooting for Wichita State this afternoon vs. Indiana. The Shockers have been itching for a shot at the Jayhawks for years, and everybody in the state wants to see those two play. They’ll probably get their wish.

    Kentucky 79, Hampton 56

    Jesus wasn’t taking calls Thursday night, either.

    Hampton head coach Ed Joyner may have made a tongue-in-cheek phone call to Jesus after winning his First Four game earlier in the week, but the Son of God didn’t answer any prayers for the Pirates. Kentucky dominated from the opening tip, using its blend of athleticism, size and quickness to overwhelm Hampton without really struggling. UK moved one step closer to perfection, and most importantly, the Wildcats got out of the second round healthy and confident.

    UK’s next victim will be Cincinnati, a team that brings plenty of toughness to the floor but will have to play a perfect game to match Kentucky’s depth.

    Cincinnati 66, Purdue 65 OT

    Cincinnati played smart basketball at the end of regulation to force overtime. Purdue played dumb basketball in OT, and the Boilers are going home.

    The Bearcats were smart enough to go for the tie in the closing seconds instead of settling for an unnecessary 3-pointer, and a lay-up by Troy Caupain rolled on the rim before dropping at the buzzer to set up an extra session. Then, in OT, Purdue went away from its power in the paint, ignoring the power of A.J. Hammons in the post and instead firing from the perimeter.

    Given a chance to win with just seconds left, Purdue’s Raphael Davis hoisted a three instead of hustling for a just-as-effective, game-winning two from a couple feet closer.

    Neither team really deserved to win this one, but it doesn’t really make a difference. The next game is vs. Kentucky, and the Wildcats won’t be stopped before next weekend.

    Butler 56, Texas 48

    What Butler lacked in athleticism and quickness it made up for with poise.

    With Texas scrambling to rally past the Bulldogs, Butler’s experienced lineup executed its offense, Kelly Dunham hit a huge three in the final minute, and the Longhorns were sent home. Butler could have fallen apart, and with its best player, Roosevelt Jones, hobbled by a leg injury, it would have been understandable.

    Instead, Dunham, guard Alex Barlow and forward Kameron Woods simply played their game, converting free throws down the stretch and keeping Texas at arm’s length to move on. Butler was outrebounded, but it also took care of the ball, and doing the little things pushed the Bulldogs to the win.

    Notre Dame 69, Northeastern 65

    The NCAA Tournament is all about simply finding a way to survive. Notre Dame did that against Northeastern, winning 69-65, but the Fighting Irish are going to have to get a lot better.

    The Irish didn’t shoot the ball well from the perimeter. They got pounded on the glass. They struggled to defend in the paint. That last point has been an issue for ND all season, but it really created an issue in the second half. Northeastern controlled the lane, and the Huskies almost pulled off the upset.

    The good news is Notre Dame gets a clean slate for the next round. This is a good team, one that doesn’t string together back-to-back rough outings. ND was good enough to win, and if Zach Auguste and Jerian Grant can continue to produce at such a high level while the entire team turns up the defense on critical possessions, the Irish will be in good shape to reach the Sweet 16.

    Kentucky 78, West Virginia 39

    That whole West Virginia as a possible history-breaker thing didn’t work out so well.

    Kentucky jumped out to a 20-6 lead in the first 10 minutes of the game. West Virginia didn’t score 20 total points until midway through the second half. It was that kind of dominant game for UK with the Wildcats making a statement that they didn’t like the idea anybody even gave any though to the Mountaineers pulling off the shocker. UK stepped on West Virginia’s neck early, easily breaking the “Press Virginia” defense and scoring easy basket after easy basket. Instead, it was Kentucky’s defense that made the biggest impact. Yeah, UK blocked plenty of shots, but the Wildcats also challenged just about every shot. The Mountaineers also missed a lot of shots, and they couldn’t establish their press quite as effectively without making buckets.

    Next up for the Wildcats will be a very confident Norte Dame squad, one that believes it can control every game. The Fighting Irish have a long, proud history as giant killers – they once snapped an 88-game winning streak by UCLA in the 1970s – but the past means nothing. That’s a fun story for the fans and media. Kentucky is playing like a team that doesn’t expect to lose, and with the way UK is clicking, the Wildcats might be right.

    Notre Dame 81, Wichita State 70

    This time around, Notre Dame didn’t need any extra time to show its power.

    The Fighting Irish dominated Wichita State on the offensive end, scoring inside and out to pull away in the second half and move to the Elite Eight. The Shockers never gained traction in the first 20 minutes, but they managed to trail by just three at 33-30 at the break. After halftime, Notre Dame turned up the intensity on both ends, and the Irish’s combination of size, athleticism and depth were too much for Wichita State to overcome. Notre Dame’s balance also managed to overcome a lackluster day from star Jerian Grant, who was held to just nine points, but he did hand out 11 assists.

    Most importantly, Mike Brey’s squad played like a favorite from the opening tip, bringing a swagger to the floor that few teams have shown in the Dance this year. ND is dripping confidence, and it’s a team that clearly is having a lot of fun. It was pressured by Butler in the round of 32, but that win has taken the Fighting Irish to a new level, and they won’t be a squad just happy to be around on Saturday. They’ll expect to win.

    THIRD ROUND

    West Virginia 69, Maryland 59

    The one thing Maryland couldn’t afford was to lose Melo Trimble. Then the Terps lost Melo Trimble.

    Trimble wasn’t around for the end of Maryland’s loss to West Virginia after sustaining a pair of blows to the head that knocked him out of action. But even before Trimble went down, the Mountaineers had been giving the Terps headaches with their swarming, pressing defense, and that D created 21 Maryland turnovers. Those miscues led to easy points, and they sped up the Terps, which led to more mistakes. Dez Wells had eight of the TOs, and Jake Layman added five more as Maryland never adjusted. West Virginia head coach Bob Huggins, meanwhile, turned up the pressure to another level every time Trimble was off the floor, and Maryland’s lack of a ballhandler kept the Terps from rallying.

    Huggins has done a masterful job on the sideline this season. His team is stocked with long athletes who create havoc on defense, and that athleticism was on full display vs. the Terps. Huggins also might have exactly the kind of attack that can disrupt his next opponent, Kentucky, which should make for a fantastic matchup in the Sweet 16.

    Notre Dame 67, Butler 64 overtime

    Notre Dame is the Indiana State Champion. How sweet it is.

    The Fighting Irish won what was probably the best game of the day by battling past Butler in overtime. ND is lucky it has a few days to recover from this one. It was a heavyweight fight between a pair of quality teams, but in the end, Notre Dame had too much Pat Connaughton, too much Jerian Grant and way too much Zach Auguste. Connaughton didn’t shoot well from the perimeter, but it was his block in regulation on a 3-pointer that kept ND alive, and his own 3-pointer – his only one of the game – in OT pushed the Irish to the win. Grant added 16 points, and Auguste had seven points and 14 boards, and guard Steve Vasturia added 20 points.

    This game went beyond the numbers. It was a back-and-forth war between two well-coached teams hungry to get to the Sweet 16, and gutty performances from Butler’s Roosevelt Jones and Kameron Woods left the Bulldogs with little to hang their heads about. Notre Dame simply made more plays in overtime, made an extra stop, and it survived a classic to move on.

    Kentucky 64, Cincinnati 51

    They’re just too big, too quick, too athletic, too good.

    That’s the bottom line for Kentucky vs. most teams, and it played out again when UK took on Cincinnati. Sure, the Bearcats put up a fight for a half, but the Wildcats just demoralized Cincy and made sure the upstarts never found their rhythm. Cincinnati had its opportunities to make a statement, but it could deliver, the pressure of beating the unbeatable team turning the Bearcats’ fingers to butter, their shots to bricks.

    Kentucky didn’t enjoy its best game. The ‘Cats didn’t shoot the ball particularly well, and UK gave up too many second-chance points. But it didn’t make a difference. To beat a perfect team you need a perfect game. Cincy couldn’t do it, and UK rolls on toward history.

    SECOND ROUND

    Maryland 65, Valparaiso 62

    History didn’t repeat, but Maryland was pretty far from impressive.

    Valparaiso had a chance to tie the game with a three in the closing seconds vs. the Terrapins, but Valpo’s Keith Carter had the ball knocked away without ever getting the shot to the rim. Maryland won, but how much longer will the Terps stick around? Mark Turgeon’s team has looked a bit out of sorts in recent weeks, and Maryland did nothing to make fans feel better in the second round. Melo Trimble still is a stud, as is Dez Wells. But this is a Maryland squad that feels like it’s floating a bit and needs to find its focus.

    All of that said, Maryland should have the inside track to reach the Sweet 16 vs. a West Virginia team that doesn’t bring the same kind of balance to the floor. Maryland is going to have the two best players on the floor in that one, so the Terps could easily survive to next weekend.

    Wichita State 81, Indiana 76

    Fundamentals are important, today, tomorrow and always.

    Indiana put up a fight, dropping in a barrage of 3-pointers to push Wichita State to the limit. But the Shockers made their free throws down the stretch and converted 29-of-34 overall to send IU home and move on to the marquee matchup vs. Kansas in the third round. Wichita State was willing to let Indiana’s Yogi Ferrell get his numbers, but the Shockers shut down the rest of the Hoosiers and kept their poise late.

    The looming battle vs. Kansas is going to be special. Wichita has been itching to get at the Jayhawks for years, and with so much on the line, it’s going to have the feel of a Final Four game.

    West Virginia 68, Buffalo 62

    You had to know a Bobby Hurley team was going to play tough, but sometimes toughness isn’t enough.

    West Virginia managed to keep a scrappy Buffalo team at by getting to the free-throw line and limiting its turnovers in a win in the round of 64. Bob Huggins’ return to the NCAA Tournament was prolonged by the Mountaineers’ superior athleticism and the fact West Virginia’s quickness was too much for Buffalo to handle on the perimeter. The Bulls continued to battle late, but WVU had too much experience and didn’t let Buffalo get over the hump.

    West Virginia’s defense will be key for the Mountaineers going forward. If they can continue to create easy baskets, they’re going to be a challenge to beat.

    Kansas 75, New Mexico State 56

    Kansas is pretty good, but it’s also smart enough to learn its lesson.

    Every year it seems there’s a rash of upsets on the first day of the tournament, and by the time Fridayrolls around, the top seeds wake up and realize they heed to be focused from the opening tip. That’s what the Jayhawks brought to the floor, turning in a workman-like effort to cruise to a win vs. New Mexico State. KU didn’t do anything special, it didn’t fill the highlight reel. It just won without really breaking a sweat and keeping the Jayhawks fresh for the third round.

    The whole state of Kansas will be rooting for Wichita State this afternoon vs. Indiana. The Shockers have been itching for a shot at the Jayhawks for years, and everybody in the state wants to see those two play. They’ll probably get their wish.

    Kentucky 79, Hampton 56

    Jesus wasn’t taking calls Thursday night, either.

    Hampton head coach Ed Joyner may have made a tongue-in-cheek phone call to Jesus after winning his First Four game earlier in the week, but the Son of God didn’t answer any prayers for the Pirates. Kentucky dominated from the opening tip, using its blend of athleticism, size and quickness to overwhelm Hampton without really struggling. UK moved one step closer to perfection, and most importantly, the Wildcats got out of the second round healthy and confident.

    UK’s next victim will be Cincinnati, a team that brings plenty of toughness to the floor but will have to play a perfect game to match Kentucky’s depth.

    Cincinnati 66, Purdue 65 OT

    Cincinnati played smart basketball at the end of regulation to force overtime. Purdue played dumb basketball in OT, and the Boilers are going home.

    The Bearcats were smart enough to go for the tie in the closing seconds instead of settling for an unnecessary 3-pointer, and a lay-up by Troy Caupain rolled on the rim before dropping at the buzzer to set up an extra session. Then, in OT, Purdue went away from its power in the paint, ignoring the power of A.J. Hammons in the post and instead firing from the perimeter.

    Given a chance to win with just seconds left, Purdue’s Raphael Davis hoisted a three instead of hustling for a just-as-effective, game-winning two from a couple feet closer.

    Neither team really deserved to win this one, but it doesn’t really make a difference. The next game is vs. Kentucky, and the Wildcats won’t be stopped before next weekend.

    Butler 56, Texas 48

    What Butler lacked in athleticism and quickness it made up for with poise.

    With Texas scrambling to rally past the Bulldogs, Butler’s experienced lineup executed its offense, Kelly Dunham hit a huge three in the final minute, and the Longhorns were sent home. Butler could have fallen apart, and with its best player, Roosevelt Jones, hobbled by a leg injury, it would have been understandable.

    Instead, Dunham, guard Alex Barlow and forward Kameron Woods simply played their game, converting free throws down the stretch and keeping Texas at arm’s length to move on. Butler was outrebounded, but it also took care of the ball, and doing the little things pushed the Bulldogs to the win.

    Notre Dame 69, Northeastern 65

    The NCAA Tournament is all about simply finding a way to survive. Notre Dame did that against Northeastern, winning 69-65, but the Fighting Irish are going to have to get a lot better.

    The Irish didn’t shoot the ball well from the perimeter. They got pounded on the glass. They struggled to defend in the paint. That last point has been an issue for ND all season, but it really created an issue in the second half. Northeastern controlled the lane, and the Huskies almost pulled off the upset.

    The good news is Notre Dame gets a clean slate for the next round. This is a good team, one that doesn’t string together back-to-back rough outings. ND was good enough to win, and if Zach Auguste and Jerian Grant can continue to produce at such a high level while the entire team turns up the defense on critical possessions, the Irish will be in good shape to reach the Sweet 16.

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