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Slim Margins

One of the things that stood out in Lance Armstrong’s interview with Oprah Winfrey was how he rationalized doping under a “win at all costs” mentality. As a sports fan, it is hard not to slip into that mentality at times. In the end, you want your opponent’s best player to foul out. You want your opponent to miss their free throws. You want things to break your team’s way. You don’t just root for your team to be good, you root for them to be lucky too.

(After all, almost no one wins a national title without a few breaks along the way. This is the reason Arizona’s streak of beating three #1 seeds in the 1997 tournament remains so special. Almost everyone gets lucky and faces a few weaker teams at some point.)

But I also think it is fair to say that the more sports one watches, the more important it is to not just win, but to also win the right way.

For example, there is nothing more frustrating in college basketball then when a player gets hit with an elbow and exaggerates their reaction. It is perfectly smart to do so, because any elbow is an automatic flagrant foul, two free throws and the ball. But if a team wins or pulls away in a game because of this call, especially when the elbow contact was incidental, it certainly feels wrong.

Similarly, if a team wins after a bank-shot, that is less satisfying. (The Arizona – Colorado game from Jan. 3 might have been the first time that neither team could pick up a truly satisfying win. Colorado would have won the game with a banked shot at the end. But instead, Arizona won in OT when the refs waived off the shot, breaking the NCAA rule about indisputable video evidence in the process.)

This is also why so many fans find Kentucky’s recent success so frustrating. They view it as unseemly to recruit so many one-and-done players. Whether anyone proves John Calipari has done something wrong recruiting players to Kentucky is not the point. For many people, the perception will always be that his style is not the right way to win.

And that is why Gonzaga vs Butler on Saturday night was the perfect summary of what people feel is right about college basketball. The game was being playing in Indiana, where the movie Hoosiers defined team sport. And the game featured two programs that define winning the right way. Neither team wins by engaging in ugly recruiting battles. Both teams have done a fabulous job graduating four year players. And despite offers to coach in BCS leagues, both coaches have chosen to stay with their programs. Both coaches have realized that there is more to sports than just trying to maximize money and maximize their ability to recruit NBA draft picks.

And of course with this backdrop, it was the ultimate hustle play that decided the game. Butler’s 6’4” Roosevelt Jones had been defending Gonzaga’s 7’0” Kelly Olynyk all day. Jones had even blocked an Olynyk shot down the stretch (which sort of defies the laws of physics). And on the games ultimate play, Jones fought for space, stole the ball from Olynyk, and drove for the game-winning shot.

Sure, maybe in a few years, we’ll be complaining about how Brad Stevens teams do not win the right way. We’ll say they mug teams and ruin the game of basketball. (And if you watch the steal in slow-motion, Gonzaga fans may have reason to be upset about the contact that preceded that steal.) But for now, the world will continue to view it another way. An under-sized player made the ultimate hustle play leading to his team’s upset win. It was just two points, but it symbolized so much more.

One other game note: I loved the similarity between these two teams. With 1:24 and 24 seconds left in the game, the two teams scored on plays that were mirror images of one another. With 1:24 remaining, Kelly Olynyk backed Roosevelt Jones deeper into the lane and sealed off a crease for Elias Harris to drive for a lay-up. Then with 24 seconds left, Butler ran the exact same play.  Andrew Smith backed Olynyk into the paint allowing Alex Barlow to drive for a lay-up. With two teams this evenly matched, you cannot make this stuff up.

There are plenty of things worth discussing after this weekend. Is this the first time North Carolina looked like a Top 25 team? Did Washington’s home loss to Utah prove that the Huskies fast Pac-12 start was fool’s gold? Has Florida St. finally hit rock bottom after scoring 36 points against Virginia? And there were lots of critical injuries that deserve more examination. What has happened to Missouri without Laurence Bowers? But that analysis (particularly the injury numbers) will be saved for another week.

On a Saturday with 154 games and numerous dramatic endings, I am going to stick to the action. And with so many games coming down to the wire, I am not even going to have time to recount the drama of Texas leading Kansas, or Connecticut nearly coming back against Pittsburgh. Today I am only going to focus on games decided by the slimmest of margins.

Quantity leads to Quality

-Rutgers has never started 4-2 in Big East play, but they had a chance on Saturday. After a driving lay-up by Rutger’s Eli Carter cut the lead to one point, Rutger’s Mike Poole tied up Notre Dame’s Eric Atkins. The possession arrow favored the Scarlet Knights, and that meant that Rutgers had a chance to win the game. Rutgers once again fed Eli Carter, but this time Carter over-penetrated, was called for an offensive foul for running over Notre Dame’s Scott Martin, and Carter saw his shot blocked away by Notre Dame’s Jack Cooley for good measure. And Rutgers once again failed to achieve a 4-2 market in conference play.

-I’m going to continue to curse the limited television distribution of the Pac-12 Network by pointing out this one stat. In the Oregon St. vs USC game, the lead changed hands 8 times in the final 2:52 of the game. Aaron Fuller gave USC the lead for the last time with 5 seconds left.

-In an nearly equally dramatic game, Texas A&M’s Fabyon Harris hit a jump shot to give the Aggies a one point lead with 19 seconds left, but Alabama’s Trevor Lacey hit an even tougher jumper to retake the lead seconds later.

-And what about what happened in Blacksburg, Virginia? Virginia Tech’s Marquis Rankin, Wake Forests’s Travis McKie, and Virginia Tech’s Robert Brown all hit shots to give their team the lead in the final 45 seconds. And then it looked like Wake Forest would take the lead one more time. Wake placed its shooters on the left side of the floor, and using a rub-screen, Wake Forest’s CJ Harris seemed to have a wide-open drive for a lay-up. But several Virginia Tech players drove in defensively at the last minute which caused Harris to miss the lay-up. And when Wake Forest’s Tyler Cavanaugh missed the put-back, Virginia Tech held on for a one point win. (I still cannot believe Wake Forest didn’t make either the first lay-up or the put-back.)

-And failures were common in other games. Trailing Nebraska by two points at home, Penn St.’s Jermaine Marshall missed two free throws with 16 seconds left and Nebraska hung on for the narrow victory.

-Trailing Michigan St. by two with 30 seconds left, Ohio St.’s DeShaun Thomas missed a three, and the Spartans hung on to win. Ohio St. stayed in the game by hitting ten threes, including six by Thomas, but despite 28 from Thomas on the day, he couldn’t hit the go-ahead shot.

-Creighton’s Ethan Wragge had two three point shots to tie in the final seconds against Wichita St., but missed both. A lot of people are going to criticize Creighton for not getting Doug McDermott the ball in those situations, but Wragge has shot over 40% from beyond the arc as a freshmen, sophomore, and junior, and he already has 46 threes this season. Wragge certainly was not a bad choice for the last second shot.

-Meanwhile, Georgetown’s Otto Porter had 21 in the game, but lost control of the ball in the final seconds, and didn’t get off a shot while his team trailed by one at South Florida. Porter’s turnover allowed the Bulls earned their first Big East win on the season.

-And so it would appear that the rule was that hot shooters were not the place to go late in the game. But that wasn’t the case in Cincinnati where Cincinnati’s Sean Kilpatrick drove coast to coast at the end of overtime to break the tie and give his team the narrow win. Kilpatrick had 36 in the game in leading all scorers. Marquette came back after shooting 18% in the first half to score 50 in the second half, but even Davante’s Gardner’s old fashioned three point play at the end of overtime was not enough for Marquette thanks to Kilpatrick’s heroics.

Quality leads to Quality

Without question the endings were magical on Saturday. And I’ve often said that college basketball’s best asset is the sheer number of games, not the elite matchups. But just to make sure there was a cherry on top, Saturday’s featured game lived up to the hype too.

#6 Syracuse travelled to #1 Louisville for one of two meetings between the Big East favorites. Syracuse had won two of the last three Big East regular season titles and had won 26 of their last 27 Big East regular season games. The Orange featured possibly more depth in the front-court than any team in the nation, and by playing their traditional zone defense, they once again had a top five defensive team.

But if anyone was going to challenge Syracuse for the Big East crown, Louisville looked like the perfect candidate. The Cardinals went to the Final Four last season and had the best Points Per Possession (PPP) defense in the nation heading into Saturday’s game. But what was making Louisville into the possible Big East favorite was the emergence of Russ Smith. The former inconsistent sixth man had emerged as the Cardinal’s surprise national-player-of-the-year candidate by increasing his scoring average from 11 PPG to 19 PPG, increasing his shooting percentage, maintaining his incredible steal rate, and by continuing to pass the ball at a special rate for a score-first player. Clearly Saturday’s matchup had Final Four implications.

And the game started strong. For most of the first half on Saturday, it seemed like Louisville’s system might be Syracuse’s kryptonite. While Syracuse’s zone defense is as good as ever, by forcing 11 first half turnovers and pushing the ball in transition, Louisville was attacking the basket before Syracuse even had a chance to set up their zone. And when Louisville was forced into half-court situations, Louisville’s Gorgui Dieng emerged as the perfect zone beater. Dieng’s passing from the top of the key led to several beautiful lay-ups and dunks. Meanwhile Louisville was also using shot-fakes and other aggressive plays to drive the ball and carve up the zone in a way few teams had done this season.

But as well as Louisville was playing, Brandon Triche had every answer. The Syracuse guard put his team on his back making 8 of 8 first half shots including 4 of 4 shots from beyond the arc. I have never been a huge fan of Triche because I feel like people always mischaracterize his game. People raved about his point-guard play early in his career, but running an offense has never been his best trait. But now with freshman Michael Carter-Williams emerging as the team’s clear PG, Triche is free to become the elite scorer he was always meant to be. And on Saturday, by driving to the basket, and knocking down open threes in transition, Triche proved why fans have been praising him for all these years. Triche put his team on his back and refused to let Syracuse fall behind. Despite Louisville playing a seemingly perfect first half, the game was tied at 38 at the intermission.

And then in the second half, Triche’s teammates picked him up. Michael Carter-Williams started taking better care of the ball, Syracuse started forcing turnovers and blocking shots (even when Louisville made beautiful post-feeds), and in the final minute Syracuse had the lead. It wasn’t that Louisville had played poorly. Other than Louisville’s Peyton Siva missing some shots he normally makes (threes from the top of the key), Louisville never played flawed basketball.  But with time running down, Siva’s bad pass that led to a transition basket, and then a tough Dieng turnover under the basket, proved the difference in Louisville’s two point loss.

Syracuse now has the early lead in the Big East title race, but this game confirmed that both teams are legitimate Final Four contenders. Dieng’s passing and Triche’s scoring showed that if these teams continue to develop at a high rate, the top of the Big East may be better than we imagined.

 

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