Coach's Corner: Rebounding, Free Throws Make a Difference

PJ Carlesimo P.J. Carlesimo (image: NBAE/Getty Images). P.J. Carlesimo is no stranger to March Madness. The veteran basketball coach led Seton Hall University to “the big dance” six times, taking the Pirates all the way to the NCAA Championship Game in 1989. A former NBA head coach, he has also been a head coach and an assistant coach for medal-winning USA national teams, including the legendary 1992 USA Dream Team.
The NCAA men’s basketball tournament is down to the Final Four – Florida takes on Connecticut and Kentucky meets Wisconsin next weekend, with the winners playing for the national championship on Monday, April 7.

As we pointed out last week, young basketball players can learn a lot while they’re watching these games.

Once again, we’ve asked veteran coach P.J. Carlesimo – who has experience at the college, NBA and USA Basketball levels – to point out some of the things you should be looking for in the tournament to help you raise your game.

“Kentucky is such a good rebounding team, especially on the offensive glass,” said Carlesimo. “It’s one of the primary reasons they are in the Final Four. It’s a good point for young players to watch. They’re not just getting rebounds because they’re tall. They’re getting rebounds because they work at it. They really attack the boards.”

Carlesimo noted that a big part of Kentucky’s win on Sunday was thanks to a player who was only in the game because one of the starters was injured.

“Marcus Lee was really the difference in the game against Michigan,” said Carlesimo. “The only reason he played was because Willie Cauley-Stein was hurt. Lee came off the bench and had 10 points and seven offensive rebounds. Four of his baskets were offensive rebound dunks.”

As a team, Kentucky had 17 offensive rebounds against Michigan and 17 second-chance points (meaning they scored after getting the offensive rebound).

“This is what they do all the time,” said Carlesimo. “They are an excellent rebounding team. They did the same thing against Louisville, when they had 15 offensive rebounds and 18 second-chance points. And it’s a good thing to watch, because it will happen again this weekend.

“The ball doesn’t just come to you. You have to pursue it. And I don’t think there’s a team in the country that pursues the offensive glass better than Kentucky does.”

Kentucky faces an interesting challenge on Saturday when its offense matches up against a very good Wisconsin defense.

“The Badgers are truly one of the best defenses in the country,” said Carlesimo. “It will be an interesting matchup, because Kentucky is an excellent offensive team. Can Wisconsin slow down Kentucky,? Can they contain them in the half-court? It will be fun to watch.”

Wisconsin’s win over Arizona on Saturday was an example of how making free throws can be the difference between winning and losing. The Badgers made

10 of 12 free throws – 83 percent – while Arizona made 12 of 17 free throws – 71 percent. “Wisconsin won by two points in overtime,” noted Carlesimo, “so you can make a case free throws made a big difference in that game.”

In the other Final Four game, Connecticut plays Florida. Connecticut’s big win over Michigan State on Sunday was an even more impressive example of free-throw shooting making the difference.

“Free throws can be the deciding factor in any game,” said Carlesimo, “and it certainly was a primary reason for Connecticut’s win over Michigan State. The Huskies made 21 of 22 free-throw attempts – a 96 percent success rate – and Shabazz Napier made all nine of his free throws, including big shots down the stretch that sealed the win.”

Now Connecticut gets to play Florida, the top-ranked team in the tournament. Florida has won 30 games in a row dating back to Dec. 2. The last team to beat them? Connecticut.

“Florida literally has been the best team in the country, and the reason is that they are so good at both ends of the floor,” said Carlesimo. “Connecticut is coming off as good a defensive performance as you’re going to see – really an incredible defensive performance.”

Carlesimo’s tip for watching the Connecticut-Florida game: “Keep an eye on a great guard matchup between Scottie Wilbekin of Florida and Shabazz Napier of Connecticut,” he said. “I don’t know if they’ll be guarding each other, but they are both really good players.”

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