Starting 5: Coach K’s last dance continues, 3 ACC teams still alive, UNC squeezes past UCLA
Welcome back to the Starting 5. The Starting 5 is written multiple times per week by Adam Spencer to keep you up-to-date on all the news and events in the world of college hoops. You can follow Adam on Twitter at @AdamSpencer4 and @BlueChipGrit.
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1. Opening tipoff
JD Notae led Arkansas with 21 points in Thursday’s win over No. 1-seed Gonzaga. But, he only made 9 of his 29 shot attempts.
I’ve seen quite a bit of criticism out there of Notae’s performance. But, that criticism misses the mark entirely. (For a more accurate look at Notae’s night, check out my guy Connor O’Gara’s column on the Arkansas star here.)
Yes, Notae is a volume shooter. No, that doesn’t mean he’s an “efficient” scorer. And, no, that doesn’t matter to coach Eric Musselman and Arkansas.
If you watch the games, Notae is often the guy with the ball in his hands when a set play doesn’t work and the shot clock is winding down. That leads to him either launching a long 3 or trying to draw a foul in the lane more often than not. Neither of those are high-percentage shots.
But, once again, that’s just fine for Musselman and the Hogs.
It’s about what Notae’s shooting, and simply the threat of him shooting, does for the rest of the offense. Defenses key on Notae (and rightfully so), trying to ensure he doesn’t get hot. What that does is open up the offense for Arkansas’s other perimeter players.
Trey Wade had a huge night against Gonzaga, scoring 15 points and knocking down 3 of his 4 3-point attempts. Does he have that sort of performance if Bulldog defenders aren’t tripping all over themselves trying to close out on Notae every time he touches the ball? Probably not.
It’s important to note that Notae also led the Hogs with 6 assists. So, when double teams come at him, he knows how to find the open shooter.
Heck, even Musselman said he didn’t mind Notae letting it fly 29 times against Gonzaga.
“He only took 29 shots?” Musselman chuckled. “We trust him. I’m going to roll with the guys that have done it all year. He could have missed 10 more shots, and I probably would have still called his number because I had that belief that the next one was going in. So do his teammates.
“I do think that we did a really good job of finding cutters at really opportunistic times. They really, really loaded up on JD. Devo (Davis) had a great pass to a cutter. Au’Diese (Toney) had a great slash, and then we needed to play through JWill when things kind of got discombobulated with JD out there handling it and sending an extra defender. And then, obviously, Trey makes those shots in practice. He’s a lethal 3-point shooter with his feet set, and they sloughed off and helped and over-helped off of him, and he did a great job of shooting the ball with great confidence.”
Basically, what Musselman is saying is that Arkansas’s offense doesn’t work the same way without Notae shooting the volume of shots he attempted on Thursday. Is Notae going to have to convert at a higher rate moving forward if the Hogs are going to get past Duke on Saturday night and reach their first Final Four since 1995?
Of course he is. But, this is March. Notae has been here before. Don’t count out a career performance from him against the Blue Devils.
2. SEC notes
Arkansas is the last SEC team standing, so let’s talk about the Razorbacks some more, shall we?
Keep an eye on the free-throw numbers in Saturday night’s game against Duke. How each team fares at the charity stripe will likely decide the winner. Duke made 15 of its 17 free-throw attempts against Texas Tech on Thursday. Tech only made 5 of its 9 tries. That… yeah, that definitely was a key in a 5-point Duke victory.
Meanwhile, an Arkansas team that averages 22.8 free throws per game (5th in the nation) and makes 17.3 per game (2nd in the nation) only got to the line 14 times against Gonzaga and only made 9.
The Bulldogs, on the other hand, went 15-for-20 from the line. The fact that the Hogs were still able to win despite that free-throw discrepancy was nothing to roll your eyes at.
Clearly, NCAA referees (who are having a miserable tournament thus far) don’t want to be the ones to cause Coach K’s career to end. Expect them to swallow the whistle in key situations. Jaylin Williams’ penchant for drawing charges might work in the first half, but it likely won’t work after the intermission when the game is on the line.
If Arkansas attempts more free throws on Saturday night than Duke, I’ll be even more surprised than I was when Saint Peter’s knocked out Kentucky (the team I picked to win it all) in the first round of this year’s tournament.
Fortunately for Musselman and the Hogs, they’re fresh off a game where they had to find a way to win despite a free-throw disparity. That experience could prove quite valuable with a trip to the Final Four on the line.
3. B1G notes
The Big Ten got 9 teams to the NCAA Tournament this year. Only 2 (Michigan and Purdue) advanced to the Sweet 16. Both of those teams failed to advance to the Elite Eight.
That means the Big Ten has hit a historic low in terms of tournament performance. Per ESPN Stats & Info:
The Big Ten is the first conference ever to get at least 9 teams in a single tournament and have none of them advance to the Elite 8. https://t.co/qJugLGHIj1
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) March 26, 2022
Not great. Michigan falling to No. 2 seed Villanova was understandable. But, for Purdue, a 3-seed, to fall to No. 15 seed Saint Peter’s? That’s an entirely different story.
Saturday Tradition’s Alex Hickey was on-site in Philadelphia for Friday’s game. He wrote an insightful piece about how the weight of Purdue’s 42-year Final Four drought continues to hang heavy on the program.
Meanwhile, the Big Ten hasn’t won the national championship in men’s hoops since Michigan State cut down the nets in 2000. We’ll see if either of those streaks comes to an end in 2023. But, for now, the league bowed out of this year’s tournament with a whimper.
4. ACC notes
All those jokes about the ACC having a down year are being put to rest really quick. There are 3 ACC teams in the Elite Eight – Duke, North Carolina and Miami. Duke and North Carolina are one win each away from meeting in the Final Four. It would be their first-ever March Madness meeting.
If that actually happens, this whole tournament is scripted, right? If a Hollywood producer pitched a movie in which Coach K’s final season ended with him meeting rival North Carolina in the Final Four, it would get shot down for being too unrealistic.
But, here we are. Duke faces Arkansas on Saturday night. UNC takes on feel-good story Saint Peter’s on Sunday evening. If you thought tickets to Coach K’s last game at Cameron Indoor were expensive, just wait to see how expensive things get if UNC and Duke meet in New Orleans.
And, just like that final game at Cameron, the Tar Heels would love nothing more than to spoil what is supposed to be a storybook ending for their biggest rivals.
- Then there were the Miami Hurricanes. They took down Iowa State in convincing fashion in Chicago, 70-56. Speaking of scripts that Hollywood execs would turn down for being unrealistic, how’s this? The Hurricanes and the Cyclones met in the Windy City. Already a bit far-fetched, right? Well, now check this out – the leading scorer was Miami’s Kam McGusty. What’s next? Does Miami have a bench player named Breezy McWinderson or something to use against Kansas on Sunday?
- Anyway, let’s get back to McGusty. He finished with a game-high 27 points and added 6 rebounds and 4 steals in the Hurricanes’ historic win. He was in control in the second half, confidently stepping into a 3 and absorbing contact in the paint on the next possession:
— Audacy Sports (@AudacySports) March 26, 2022
- He looked like a first-round NBA Draft pick on Friday night in Chicago. He’ll need to continue playing at that level, as Ochai Agbaji and the Kansas Jayhawks await.
Next, let’s take a look at the 4 Elite Eight matchups over the next 2 days.
5. Outlet pass
Well, folks, we’ve hit that time of year. There are only 4 games on the NCAA Tournament calendar the next 2 days. But, as March Madness winds down, the games heat up. Here’s how I’d rank the 4 Elite Eight matchups:
- No. 2 Duke vs. No. 4 Arkansas (Saturday at 8:49 p.m. ET on TBS) – Like I said in the last Starting 5 column, when Duke is playing from here on out, it gets top billing. When every game could be Coach K’s last, a nation will be watching. But, even though Duke is starting to be anointed the “Team of Destiny,” count out the Hogs at your own peril. Arkansas is legit. Expect another intense game on Saturday night in San Francisco.
- No. 2 Villanova vs. No. 5 Houston (Saturday at 6:09 p.m. ET on TBS) – I’m done doubting Kelvin Sampson. Seriously. I had the Cougars losing in Round 1 to UAB. I was surprised when they got by Illinois in Round 2. I was shocked they took down Arizona in the Sweet 16. No more. I thought injuries would be this team’s downfall. I thought the Cougars were overseeded as a 5-seed after not recording any Quad 1 wins in the regular season. Boy, what a fool I was. Kelvin Sampson is one of the best coaches of this generation. The problem? Jay Wright is also in that conversation. And, Jay Wright has 2 titles already under his belt. This should be an Elite Eight battle for the ages.
- No. 8 North Carolina vs. No. 15 Saint Peter’s (Sunday at 5:05 p.m. ET on CBS) – Is this when the Peacocks’ magic finally runs out? North Carolina is an 8-seed, but based on the way the Tar Heels have played so far this March, that was definitely too low. Can the Peacocks continue to strut their stuff? Or, will a blue-blood program finally send Saint Peter’s packing? Don’t count Shaheen Holloway’s squad out!
- No. 1 Kansas vs. No. 10 Miami (Sunday at 2:20 p.m. ET on CBS) – The Hurricanes have now reached the Elite Eight for the first time ever. But, they don’t want to go home just yet. Meanwhile, the Jayhawks are the only 1-seed to reach the Elite Eight this year. Can they ensure we have at least 1 top seed in the Final Four? Or, will Miami continue to provide chaos in this year’s tourney?
Enjoy these games while they last, y’all. We might not have much basketball left before a champion is crowned, but there are storylines aplenty and some high-quality matchups left on the board. Who will advance to the Final Four? I can’t wait to find out over the weekend.
Enjoy the Starting 5? Have a question? Want to yell at me about something? Follow me on Twitter @AdamSpencer4 or email me at ASpencer@SaturdayDownSouth.com.