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Counting Down To Four

#8 Kentucky defeated #2 Michigan

No head coach has embraced one-and-done recruiting quite like John Calipari. And many folks have viewed this season as a referendum on that approach. This season was proof that it takes teamwork, continuity, and experience to reach the highest levels of performance. Kentucky played mediocre basketball for much of the year and limped to an 8-seed in the NCAA tournament.

But a funny thing happened once the tournament was underway. It turned out that you could win big games with talented freshmen.

-It turned out that next-level size mattered. Even with a big athletic guard, Caris Levert, perfectly positioned to contest the shot, Kentucky's Aaron Harrison got off the game-winner.

-It turned out that next-level skill mattered. With all due respect to the all-around skill of Frank Kaminsky, no one in this tournament can catch the ball in the paint, and score with such ease as Kentucky's Julius Randle. He truly is the most talented back-to-the-basket player left in the tournament.

-And it turned out that even for your bench, it didn’t hurt to recruit next-level athletes. A lot of people had asked whether Kentucky would be better off with some less-skilled, multi-year players on the bench. But former Top 20 recruit Marcus Lee was more than happy to be the equalizer in this game. His four put-back dunks were special. But Lee also showed the importance of athleticism on defense with a tremendous block on a three point shot.

That three-point defense, was also the most interesting strategy in the game. John Calipari challenged his team to hug three point shooters in this game. At times, that seemed to back-fire. With the floor spread, Michigan was smart enough to attack off the dribble for easy inside baskets. (Kentucky’s season-long problem with pick-and-roll defense was also evident.) But against a Michigan team that lives with the three, forcing contested inside baskets was clearly the best strategy. And in a game where both teams grabbed a crazy number of offensive rebounds, the Wildcats prevailed.

Like it or not, the referendum against young talent has failed. Kansas may have bowed out early, but Joel Embiid was injured. Duke may have bowed out early, but Duke lacked the interior defenders for a long tournament run. Arizona may have lost to Wisconsin, but Wisconsin played brilliant basketball and Arizona lost a heart-breaker in OT. The era of one-and-done players dominating college basketball is not over.

#2 Wisconsin defeated #1 Arizona

Bo Ryan no longer has to hear that phrase, “Best Coach never to make the Final Four.”

But why did he have that reputation? People have different reasons for that statement, but the following table is how I made the argument. For all active coaches, this table shows their per possession performance in the 12 years Ken Pomeroy has been tracking the stats. In that time frame, Bo Ryan has been the fourth most dominant coach. And for the first time on Saturday, he made the Final Four.

NT = National Titles in Last 12 Years

FF = Final Fours in Last 12 Years

Rnk

Coach

Current Team

Avg Off

Avg Def

Avg Pyth

NT

FF

1

Bill Self

Kansas

113.6

90.2

0.930

1

1

2

Mike Krzyzewski

Duke

116.2

92.8

0.926

1

2

3

Roy Williams

N. Carolina

114.9

92.6

0.911

2

4

4

Bo Ryan

Wisconsin

112.5

92.2

0.903

0

1

5

Rick Pitino

Louisville

111.1

90.7

0.902

1

3

6

Thad Matta

Ohio St.

113.3

92.5

0.901

0

2

7

John Calipari

Kentucky

112.7

91.8

0.896

1

3

8

Billy Donovan

Florida

115.1

94.5

0.894

2

3

9

Jamie Dixon

Pittsburgh

113.8

93.9

0.892

0

0

10

Tom Izzo

Michigan St.

112.6

93.2

0.891

0

3

11

Jim Boeheim

Syracuse

112.5

93.7

0.884

1

2

12

Rick Barnes

Texas

113.1

95.4

0.863

0

1

Note: By taking the average, this type of calculation does not reward coaches who started the decade at smaller schools. Scroll to the bottom of this post for a list of the top per possession coaches over the last 5 years.

Having said all that, I do think this table is a little misleading. Bo Ryan’s biggest strength is that his teams are consistently good. But he has never been able to put together that one super-elite team that dominated college basketball. The next table shows the peak Pythagorean Rating for active coaches in the last 12 years.

Bo Ryan’s best team by this measure was the 2008 squad that went 16-2 in the Big Ten. But that was a largely defense-oriented team. And when they ran into Steph Curry in the NCAA tournament, they simply lacked the offense to keep up.

Based on this measure of peak performance, Sean Miller is now the one who should complain. Despite having a dominant team this season, he still has no Final Four trip to show for it.

Rnk

Coach

Current Team

Best Pyth

Year

1

Bill Self

Kansas

0.976

2008

2

Rick Pitino

Louisville

0.971

2013

3

John Calipari

Kentucky

0.969

2012

4

Bruce Weber

Kansas St.

0.968

2005

5

M. Krzyzewski

Duke

0.967

2010

6

Thad Matta

Ohio St.

0.966

2011

7

Roy Williams

N. Carolina

0.964

2005

8

Billy Donovan

Florida

0.958

2007

9

Sean Miller

Arizona

0.952

2014

10

Tubby Smith

Texas Tech

0.952

2003

11

Jamie Dixon

Pittsburgh

0.949

2004

12

Tom Izzo

Michigan St.

0.948

2012

13

John Thompson

Georgetown

0.948

2007

14

Tom Crean

Indiana

0.943

2013

15

Tony Bennett

Virginia

0.943

2014

16

Phil Martelli

St. Joseph's

0.943

2004

17

John Beilein

Michigan

0.943

2013

18

Bo Ryan

Wisconsin

0.942

2008

19

Mark Few

Gonzaga

0.941

2013

20

Gregg Marshall

Wichita St.

0.938

2014

21

Jim Boeheim

Syracuse

0.936

2012

22

Bob McKillop

Davidson

0.936

2008

23

Rick Barnes

Texas

0.932

2011

24

Frank Martin

S. Carolina

0.932

2010

25

Scott Drew

Baylor

0.930

2010

For my detailed take on Wisconsin's win over Arizona, click here. I scouted Aaron Gordon from the opening tip to the closing horn. But while I focus on Gordon, Wisconsin deserves all the credit for making Gordon look like a bad defensive player. This was truly a game where outstanding offense beat outstanding defense. One possession was probably symbolic of the whole game. From 11:16 to 10:08 in the first half, Arizona played incredible defense. And the Badgers still scored.

#7 Connecticut defeated #4 Michigan St.

In November, the Spartans were a heavy favorite to go to the Final Four. A string of injuries appeared to derail those plans. But after an impressive run in the Big Ten tournament, most people anointed Michigan St. as the heavy-favorite again.

But if you followed the the Spartans all year, there were signs that this type of loss could happen. This Spartans squad was explosive in transition, but beatable in the half-court. You saw the first signs of concern in the Champions Classic. Michigan St. blitzed Kentucky by getting behind the young Kentucky back-court for lay-ups. But when Kentucky made it a half-court game, the Spartans struggled.

Then the Spartans went 5-6 down the stretch in the Big Ten. This included a tough home loss to Nebraska. Most people assumed you could not learn anything from those games, because Michigan St. had so many injuries. But even on the night Branden Dawson returned from his injury and Michigan St. was at full strength for the first time, the Spartans lost at home to a struggling Illinois squad. In that game, the Spartans lost because they could not score in the half-court. In fact, Michigan St. had so little success scoring in the half-court against Illinois, that they basically gave up fouling with 30 seconds left.

Flash forward to Sunday at Madison Square Garden. Michigan St. was dynamic at the end of the first half because they were able to get out and run and take shots before the defense was set. But in the second half, Connecticut took that away, and the game flipped.

Give Bill Raftery credit. At some point when Michigan St. still had the lead, he commented that the Spartans were not getting any inside touches. And that was a season-long issue. Michigan was 10th in Big Ten games in free throw rate, and 316th in all games nationally. This was not a team that could consistently get easy paint touches in the half-court.

(Consistently is the key word. They could do this at times, but they also would have puzzling droughts.)

And then there were the turnovers. This has been a career long problem for Tom Izzo’s squads. They tend to take a lot of chances. But in 2014, that area was significantly cleaned up. Heading into Sunday, Tom Izzo’s club ranked 89th nationally in turnovers which was the best rating of Izzo’s whole career. And yet this game was full of dumb plays. There was Gary Harris with a totally unnecessary travel beyond the three point line. There was Adreian Payne inbounding the ball to Keith Appling with zero pressure, and Appling not even paying attention as the ball ricocheted off him and went out of bounds. And of course, Denzel Valentine, the one Spartan who Izzo continued to yell at game after game for making two or three bad decisions, had a completely unnecessary travel with 12:58 left in the game.

When turnovers happen in the process of trying to get an easier basket, they hurt. But when you make the kind of unforced mental errors the Spartans were making on Sunday, it is inexcusable.

And given the opportunity, Shabazz Napier did what he has done all season. In a close game, he made the decisions his team needed to win. Despite a bloodied nose from an accidental arm slap across the face, Napier was nearly perfect down the stretch.

They call UCLA’s Kyle Anderson “slo-mo” because he is so deliberate. But for Napier, when the pressure is on, the other team moves in slow motion. He gets to his spots, and he executes with precision. I hate the Kemba Walker comparison’s because I don’t think Napier has nearly the same athleticism. But he makes all his free throws. He knows exactly where he can get on the floor. And he knows exactly what is the right shot.

(Napier may not have Walker’s athleticism, but at 6:55 of the first half, he had a drive around three Spartans which was truly jaw-dropping.)

And because the Huskies were able to keep Branden Dawson from getting any post-touches, (Amida Brimah had one of the most impactful nights you can have with a club trillion stat-line), the Huskies prevailed. Despite an off-shooting night by several players, UConn is headed to the Final Four.

But I don’t want to hear any revisionist history that we should have seen this coming. Connecticut had more than their fair share of head-scratching losses this season. And the Huskies nearly lost to St. Joseph’s in the opener of the tournament. They caught a break when they faced an Iowa St. team without Georges Niang. And they played in a familiar building. This was not an obvious path to the Final Four. But the Huskies players over-achieved to get here and made it happen.

And for the trainloads of fans who made the trip down into the city, they had reason to celebrate. The Kevin Ollie era has made its first mark, proving that the UConn tradition is alive and well even without Jim Calhoun on the sideline.

#1 Florida defeated #11 Dayton

Florida’s win was not without drama. It was a joy to see Patric Young make the Final Four for the first time after three straight losses in the Elite Eight. I was also enthralled with the sequence after Dayton cut the lead to 58-50. Florida held the ball for over a minute thanks to a flurry of offensive rebounds, and that possession crushed the Flyer’s momentum.

But with the game becoming a blowout late in the first half, I spent more time thinking how wise the Turner channels are to use the multi-channel simulcast approach at the Final Four next weekend. When ESPN rolled it out for college football’s national title game, it was fabulous to be able to hear the different voices and opinions call the game. And I think we need as many channels as possible in these single game situations.

I wanted a full channel dedicated to those fans sitting in Dayton, Ohio and watching the game on a big screen in an auditorium. Early on they cheered when Scoochie Smith hit a rare three. Later they were shown holding their arms up in free throw position when Matt Kavanaugh went to the line. When the game was beyond double digits, I would have rather watched that fanbase cringe at every moment then watch Dayton continue to fail to get the ball inside against the Florida defense.

Top PPP Coaches Last 5 Years, Minimum 3 Seasons

Coach

Current Team

Avg Off

Rank

Avg Def

Rank

Avg Pyth

Rank

Bill Self

Kansas

114.7

4th

90.4

2nd

0.936

1st

Thad Matta

Ohio St.

115.2

2nd

90.9

3rd

0.932

2nd

M. Krzyzewski

Duke

118.5

1st

94.9

24th

0.921

3rd

Jim Boeheim

Syracuse

113.2

13th

91.7

4th

0.916

4th

Bo Ryan

Wisconsin

113.8

8th

92.5

8th

0.915

5th

Rick Pitino

Louisville

111.7

21st

89.8

1st

0.911

6th

Billy Donovan

Florida

114.7

3rd

93.3

13th

0.905

7th

John Calipari

Kentucky

114.7

5th

93.0

10th

0.897

8th

Tom Izzo

Michigan St.

111.6

22nd

91.8

5th

0.896

9th

Gregg Marshall

Wichita St.

112.3

19th

94.2

16th

0.871

10th

Jamie Dixon

Pittsburgh

113.1

14th

94.8

21st

0.871

11th

Mark Few

Gonzaga

112.4

18th

94.8

22nd

0.868

12th

Roy Williams

N. Carolina

110.4

29th

93.2

12th

0.867

13th

John Beilein

Michigan

114.4

6th

96.3

38th

0.866

14th

Steve Alford

UCLA

111.3

24th

95.1

28th

0.857

15th

John Thompson

Georgetown

110.6

28th

94.1

15th

0.856

16th

Steve Fisher

S. Diego St.

107.9

58th

92.1

7th

0.850

17th

Scott Drew

Baylor

113.8

9th

96.9

49th

0.846

18th

Shaka Smart

VCU

109.7

36th

94.6

20th

0.843

19th

Buzz Williams

V. Tech

110.7

26th

95.4

32nd

0.840

20th

Sean Miller

Arizona

111.3

23rd

94.9

25th

0.838

21st

Mick Cronin

Cincinnati

106.3

73rd

92.1

6th

0.834

22nd

Jay Wright

Villanova

110.4

30th

95.9

36th

0.824

23rd

Rick Barnes

Texas

109.8

35th

95.0

26th

0.823

24th

Dave Rose

BYU

110.9

25th

96.3

40th

0.822

25th

Fred Hoiberg

Iowa St.

113.1

15th

98.4

78th

0.818

26th

Frank Haith

Missouri

114.2

7th

99.6

99th

0.816

27th

Mike Brey

Notre Dame

113.7

11th

99.1

93rd

0.815

28th

Matt Painter

Purdue

109.6

37th

95.4

30th

0.813

29th

Bruce Weber

Kansas St.

107.5

60th

94.3

17th

0.811

30th

This last table speaks for itself, but I want to point to one fact that might be missed. Look at the gap in average offense between Mike Krzyzewski and the rest of the coaches! He is not only the top offensive coach of the last five years, he is the top offensive coach by a wide margin.

Sweet Sixteen Day 2

#2 Michigan defeated #11 Tennessee

Virginia fans feared the end of one of the most successful seasons in school history. Michigan St. fans knew that every four-year Spartan player under Tom Izzo has made the Final Four, and feared that the streak could be broken this year. Louisville fans feared that Russ Smith, one of the best players in school history, would see his career come to an end. Kentucky fans feared that the preseason #1 team would bow out to its bitter rival. Iowa St. fans feared that this might be Fred Hoiberg’s last game, given all the noise about NBA teams contacting him this off-season. Connecticut fans feared that if Kevin Ollie lost in the Garden, it would be a sign that the Connecticut program could no longer reach the heights it reached under Jim Calhoun. Friday night was a night where the fanbases had a lot on the line.

But oddly, the Michigan vs Tennessee game had the least tension. John Beilein is on an incredible roll, and if he can have this much success with this young group of players, the Wolverines future is incredibly bright. And while Tennessee fans wanted their team to advance, this NCAA tournament run has already been special.

Almost every NCAA tournament game is filled with tension, but to my eyes, Michigan vs Tennessee was all about the lack of tension. It was about the comfort that the players had on the floor.

In the first half, Michigan calmly ran their offense. They hit five of their first six threes. They ran around picks at the free throw line and drove for easy lay-ups. They played with such freedom in the first half that at one point Nik Stauskas threw the ball off the backboard, got it back, and kicked it out to Derrick Walton for a three. Walton was fouled and made all three free throws. It was backyard basketball and the Wolverines were playing like a team without a care in the world.

There were a few signs of concern. Michigan had some uncharacteristic puzzling turnovers in the first half. But with basically every shot dropping, they eventually built a 15 point lead.

Late in the second half, things changed. That is when the Volunteers started playing like a team with nothing to lose. They suddenly looked more comfortable on the court, and executed on offense and defense. They attacked the basket with reckless abandon. They reached for steals and knocked the ball off the Michigan players. And out of nowhere, the big Michigan lead was erased.

With Tennessee down three and needing to foul, we saw one of those perfectly amusing basketball plays. Michigan tried to push the ball ahead to beat the pressure, but the ball ricocheted off of several players. And as you watched the replay, you could just see all the players on both teams leaving it all on the floor, trying to reach for the ball. The Volunteers grabbed it, scored, and then caused one more turnover. This set up the games’ deciding play.

Michigan’s Jordan Morgan made a reputation in last year’s tournament as an outstanding interior defender. He drew a huge charge to get Michigan past Syracuse and into the title game. And anyone who has watched a Big Ten game and heard Dan Dakich on commentary is probably sick of hearing how great Morgan is at moving his feet defensively and holding his position.

But a funny thing happened this year. Because of the rule changes, Morgan has not had the same dynamic defensive season. There have been plenty of times when he’s been called for a foul instead of drawing the charges that he drew last year.

But on this night, Morgan was ready for the defensive challenge. Jarnell Stokes caught the ball in the corner, lowered his shoulder into Morgan, and the offensive foul was called. A few plays later, the Wolverines prevailed.

Final Random Note: I’ve talked before about how Michigan games don’t have whistles. At the end of the first half, we almost didn’t get the under 4 minute timeout. But eventually the ball was kicked out of bounds with 4.2 seconds left in the half. This begs the question: What happens if there is no under 4 minute time out in the first half? Does the game stop on the first whistle of the second half?

#7 Connecticut defeated #3 Iowa St.

Grantland’s Brian Phillips wrote a beautiful essay on Verne Lundquist and Bill Raftery this week.

“Lundquist and Raftery treat college basketball games like they’re important. But they always locate the games’ importance in the human beings who make them happen… Lundquist and Raftery project [that] the game is worth watching … because for the 25 or so players and six or eight coaches and handful of officials and timekeepers and cheerleaders and moms and dads and clarinetists, the game was worth having in the first place.”

And after reading that piece, I couldn’t help but watch UConn playing Iowa St. through that lens.

-Early in the game two players fell to the floor after a blocked shot. And Lundquist and Rafter reacted with genuine concern for the health of both players. That may seem minor, but it is too rare.

-Lundquist raved about Dustin Hogue’s haircut (chiseling Hogue in the back of his head.)  Raftery joked that Lundquist should copy Hogue. But as Lundquist put it, to carve Lundquist in the back of his head would require the barber to go “from ear to ear”.

-Lundquist praised Iowa St.’ DeAndre Kane for turning his basketball career around. After leading the NCAA in technical fouls at Marshall and having his scholarship revoked, Kane became a star player under Fred Hoiberg.

-And Raftery was lavish in his praise as always, “This is the best game I’ve ever seen DeAndre Daniels play.”

Statistically, there were a ton of key factors that swung the game. Iowa St. had a terrible night at the free throw line while Connecticut made almost every free throw attempt. Iowa St.’s superstar scorer Melvin Ejim couldn’t make a shot from anywhere on the floor. And Connecticut was incredibly hot from three point range early in the game.

But as in almost every Lundquist/Raftery game, it wasn’t the stats that mattered. The game was about the players who left it all on the floor.

#4 Michigan St. defeated #1 Virginia

Early in the game, Virginia forced a shot-clock violation. It sent a clear message. No matter how patient the Spartans were offensively, no matter how much they tried to attack in transition, Virginia was not going to go away. The Cavaliers play such fantastic defense at such a slow tempo, that it was virtually impossible for this game not to come down to the wire.

When Virginia tied the game at 23, at that point eight different Cavalier players had scored. Perhaps they lacked star power, but Virginia truly had the ultimate “team” this season. Everyone was capable of contributing offensively, and everybody was locked down in a stance defensively.

And for Michigan St., we finally got our litmus test. Could the Spartans find ways to score in the half-court in the final minutes of a close game with Keith Appling limited?

First, Appling did his best. He had an amazing drive for a bucket with the shot-clock winding down near the 6:50 mark. But Appling missed a key FT late in the game, and he could have been called for a push-off offensive foul late in the game. Appling was clearly giving his all, but it was also clear that he will never be 100% again this season.

And with Appling limited, Tom Izzo elected to yell at Adreian Payne in the huddle. Faced with that pep talk, the Spartan big man decided to be the closer. Payne nailed a clutch three. He fed Branden Dawson on a beautiful high-low pass to extend the lead. And then he knocked down some clutch free throws to seal the game. For Michigan St., Payne’s late play was the difference.

This game also showed that sometimes talent beats teamwork. Michigan St. clearly had the better athletes. Besides Payne, Branden Dawson was a beast again in the paint. Even when his shot was blocked, he was there corralling the rebound and putting it up again. And Travis Trice, whose three point shooting has reached new heights this year, hit a huge three in transition late. Against that athletic execution, Virginia had no chance.

The Spartans are still learning what it means to be a team. They’ve practiced little together this year because of all the injuries. But given their explosive ability in the half-court and in transition, if they ever do build perfect chemistry with one another, the sky is the limit.

#8 Kentucky defeated #4 Louisville

I thought there was something interesting in the difference in the reactions when Louisville’s Montrezl Harrell and Kentucky’s James Young fouled out. While Harrell was emotional and distraught, throwing his towel to the ground, Young seemed calm and observant.

In many ways, this shows why Kentucky will never be as sympathetic a team to most fans. For Young, a talented athlete who plans to play in the NBA soon, he has never been to the NCAA tournament before. He has never experienced the regret of losing in the tournament and seeing his season end. And he knows he will soon have professional opportunities to do more great things. Winning may be very important to Young, but he doesn’t view this moment as fleeting.

For Harrell, who spent most of last year coming off the bench, he knows that this was his window for success. Even if his team won a title last year, he knows the regret of not being able to make plays in tournament games. The off-season is long. The moment in the spotlight is short.

But even if many fans feel like they cannot relate to the one-and-done players, there are always stories of redemption. Alex Poythress was once an elite athlete. He initially expected to go to Kentucky, win lots of games, and become an NBA lottery pick. Instead he spent his freshman season on a team labeled as a failure. That was a lot to live down, but he was an efficient scorer, John Calipari wanted him back, and he accepted a bench role this season. And again, he had to live down the criticism that this team was a disappointment. Poythress started at the top of the mountain, and became the poster-child under-achiever.

Thus when Poythress got a key block late, and got a key offensive rebound that helped put the game away, it was more than just a few crucial plays by a bench player. It was a story of redemption. And that’s why Calipari was so emphatic in high-fiving and embracing Poythress in a late game time out. However demonized this squad may be by people who hate the one-and-done culture, these are still young adults struggling to find success in the world.

Russ Smith will go down as one of my favorite college basketball players of the decade. And in his final game, he played fantastic basketball. Smith attacked with such a frenetic pace in this game, that I personally found this game to be even more compelling than the Wichita St. vs Kentucky game that preceded it.

But it was crazy how this became a much bigger war of attrition than I would have ever expected. In the NCAA tournament, normally tight rotations and short benches dominate. But while Kentucky lost Willie Cauley-Stein to injury and James Young to foul trouble, they still had a Top 10 recruit in Dakari Johnson ready to step up his minutes and score big points. And they still had the aforementioned Alex Poythress.

But Louisville, usually one of the deepest teams in the land, seemed like the team more impacted by the foul situation. For the first time since early January, I found myself wondering how much this team missed Chane Behanan’s play as an inside scorer. No one really has an answer for Julius Randle, but this Louisville line-up seemed particularly ill-equipped to match the inside play of Randle and Johnson together. And no matter how well Smith and Luke Hancock played, their dream of back-to-back NCAA titles, came to an end.

Sweet Sixteen Day 1

#11 Dayton defeated #10 Stanford

I am very happy that Dayton advanced in the NCAA tournament this season. If you looked at the last round of conference re-alignment, Dayton is absolutely one of those programs that should have been invited to join the Big East. Even in 2013, when the program went 17-14, the Flyers had fantastic attendance.

(And in my opinion, Dayton has one of the Top 10 pep bands in college basketball. Sadly, demonstrating this is a little tough. For whatever reason, I’m not finding a Youtube video that really shows how much fun this group has. This video shows the energy of band director Dr. Willie Morris, his jacket, and some weird hats, but it doesn’t really capture the spirit of the group. This video kind of captures the idea, as the Dayton band sneaks up behind a VCU fan cheering for the wrong team. I see nothing mean-spirited about the encounter; this is exactly what college fandom is all about. But perhaps I can explain it best in words. In the NCAA tournament in 2009, Dayton was playing Kansas and there were plenty of Michigan St. fans in attendance in the other half of the bracket. So in order to get the Michigan St. fans cheering for the Flyers, the Dayton pep band played the Spartan’s fight song.)

The only thing holding Dayton back from Big East selection was the fact that the team hasn’t really had a deep NCAA tournament run in recent seasons. Butler was selected for the Big East based on its recent history, and even a program like VCU seemed to be ahead of Dayton for future expansion based on what Shaka Smart had done. But I’m not sure I agree with that logic. The reason Dayton should be one of the next top expansion candidates, is because the Dayton fans turn out whether the team wins or loses. Coaches can come and go, but a passionate fanbase is a very valuable commodity.

As for the game, we got our first Cole Aldrich moment of the round. (Cole Aldrich was a Kansas freshman who barely played during the regular season but who broke out in the tournament.) In this case it was Dayton’s Kendall Pollard who had a career high 12 points coming off the bench. On Tuesday this week, I labeled Pollard as a defensive stopper, as he had scored less than 70 points on the full season. So of course on Thursday he had eight points in the first half, and really provided the key spark to give Dayton the lead.

The other key factor was obviously that Dayton played a ton of players, got Stanford in foul trouble, and got Stanford to go deep into its bench. While the Flyers were getting 34 points from their bench, Stanford played guys a bunch of minutes and only got two points.

The worst part for Stanford was that Dayton could not figure out a way to guard Stefan Nastic in the game, and yet Nastic kept committing dumb fouls. The most egregious was his fourth where he lost the ball and then grabbed a Dayton player around the neck while they were both on the ground. It was the kind of move you cannot make when you are in foul trouble.

I also thought that when Stanford went on its run and cut the lead early in the second half, the Cardinal were not playing great basketball. They took two or three bad shots in transition that really prevented the team from grabbing full momentum.

Thus despite the presence of Condaleezza Rice and Richard Sherman (who appeared to be chatting with each other), Stanford did not have enough to reach the Elite Eight.

#2 Wisconsin defeated # 6 Baylor

Baylor supporters were out again this week to claim that this Sweet Sixteen run means we cannot criticize Scott Drew. But they continue to miss the point. Scott Drew is a complicated coach whose impact cannot just be explained by saying he wins in March or his teams underachieve relative to their talent levels.

In my opinion, Scott Drew is basically a younger version of Roy Williams. I say this for a few reasons. First, Scott Drew is an outstanding recruiter. Second, he gives his players a large amount of freedom on the court. Baylor players have the freedom to be successful and the freedom to fail. Mike Krzyzewski likes to say he gives his players the freedom to grow, but that’s not how he coaches. If a Duke player makes a dumb decision, he is going to spend plenty of time sitting on the bench. But Roy Williams and Scott Drew are the kind of coaches who let their players get on the floor and play through their mistakes.

By not forcing former players like Perry Jones and current players like Isaiah Austin to focus on their strengths, those players have actually seen their draft stock plummet under Drew. But like Roy Williams Drew knows that if you let elite recruits work through their issues on the court, they often become elite performers.

It is fair to say that Drew is not a great in-game adjuster. We saw that in the Sweet Sixteen when Wisconsin absolutely shredded the Baylor zone. And by taking good shots and controlling the tempo, Wisconsin made sure Baylor never got any rhythm.

Drew never really adjusted when the zone wasn’t working. His team seemed to play a few possessions of man, but it mostly seemed to give up when nothing was working.

In-game adjustments are harder than they sound. Some coaches like Rick Pitino are great at making in-game adjustments in strategy. Pitino’s team can press or play straight defense; they can play zone or man; they can respond to the opponent.

But you might say that there are not very many Rick Pitino’s in college basketball. You might also argue that Jim Boeheim doesn’t switch out of his zone just because the opposing offense is shredding it. But if you watch Syracuse, they do make adjustments. Syracuse’s zone changes throughout the game. Sometimes it hugs three point shooters, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes the forwards lay back, sometimes they attack the player at the high post.

Scott Drew at this point in his career is not a coach who can match those legends. But he is still an outstanding teacher. He took a Baylor team that was playing horrible defense for a stretch this year, and got them to play the kind of zone defense that shut Doug McDermott down completely.

And this is all a long way of saying that Drew is a bit of an enigma. He absolutely deserves a ton of credit for turning Baylor from one of the worst power conference schools into a consistent winner. But he also deserves some blame for the times when his team looks lost on the court.

But give Wisconsin credit for winning this game too. The Badgers almost never turn the ball over, and that was a huge reason they controlled this game. The Badgers had four turnovers in the first half. They had a travel, they had two odd throw-aways, and the ball also was dribbled off a Baylor leg and the officials got the call wrong. But the beauty of all four of those plays is that even when the Badgers turned the ball over, they weren’t live ball turnovers. They didn’t allow Baylor to get out in transition and get some confidence. To not have any live-ball turnovers against a zone defense is a truly impressive feat.

#1 Florida defeated #4 UCLA/#1 Arizona defeated #4 San Diego St.

These games happened nearly simultaneously, so let’s talk about them together.

Which was the better dunk in the losing effort? Was it Dwayne Polee’s steal and emphatic throw-down to make it 27-22 San Diego St? Or was it UCLA’s Norman Powell with the coast-to-coast semi-posterization of Patric Young?

The insanity of these two games was that the two best offensive players, Florida’s Scottie Wilbekin and Arizona’s Nick Johnson were playing equally terrible basketball and almost cost their teams the game. The evening seemed particularly cruel for Johnson. Not only did he have a buzzer beater disallowed before the half, he hit a shot that rolled around the entire rim before popping out near the 10 minute mark of the second half. It seemed like it wasn’t the night for either of these guys. But then Wilbekin hit a step-back three for Florida. Johnson caught a fast-break pass for a lay-up and nailed a three. And Wilbekin hit a ridiculous bank-shot while being guarded by one of the Wear twins in the post. By the end of the night, the two goats were heroes once again.

....

The UCLA game drove me the most insane because UCLA kept leaving Michael Frazier open for three. I know Frazier had been in a mini-slump, but when a player has over 100 threes on the year, you don’t leave him open for any reason. Even if you are playing zone, you never help off that kind of player. But as I thought about it later in the game, this is the story of the Bruins season. UCLA gives up more points from three point range than any team left in the tournament, by far.

The real issue was that when Kyle Anderson went out, UCLA fell apart. As Kevin Harlan noted late in the game, UCLA was +6 with Anderson on the floor and -14 with Anderson on the bench.

It wasn’t that the UCLA subs were terrible. Zach Levine’s draft stock probably got a little too high with his play early in the season. He slumped late in the year and had just 6 points in UCLA’s last 4 games. But Levine was aggressive in the first half, taking the ball to the basket on numerous occasions.

The problem is just that you cannot replace Anderson’s production in all areas of the floor. And you have to think that the turning point in the game might have been when he picked up two fouls early in the first half. Granted, Steve Alford was smart enough not to make Anderson sit for the whole first half with the two fouls. But the two deficits when Anderson was out were the difference in the game.

On the flip side, Florida’s impressive depth was on display. It must feel wonderful to bring a PG as skilled as Kasey Hill of the bench. When Wilbekin sat down, Florida was still aggressive at attacking the basket.

....

As for the Arizona game, I said last week that San Diego St. might be the toughest matchup Arizona faces all tournament. It isn’t that I don’t believe in Wisconsin. This is a dynamic Badger offense. And I certainly like a bunch of the teams that will make the Final Four. But from the opening tip, Arizona was never going to see a team as physical and dominant on the glass as San Diego St. When the Aztecs scored on their fifth shot of the opening possession, you knew it was going to be a tough game.

Josh Davis hit that shot and I loved Craig Sager’s feature on his recruitment. Apparently Steve Fisher did not fly to Tulane to recruit Davis as a graduate student. Instead Fisher met with Davis’ mom, a math teacher, and shared his own background as a math teacher. Mom told her son that Fisher was a “nice old man” and that Davis should go and play for him. That’s just a wonderful story.

Even though I think this is the only truly physical team left that can manhandle Arizona like this, it was concerning how little depth the Wildcats had after Rondae Hollis-Jefferson fouled out. Had Kaleb Tarczewski picked up his fifth, it could have been a dangerous situation for the Wildcats. But oddly San Diego St. started jacking up three pointers very early. Since many of them went in, it wasn’t terrible strategy, but against a foul-plagued team, it seemed like the Aztecs should have considered attacking the basket more in the final minute.

But probably my final words of praise should be saved for Arizona’s Aaron Gordon. He hit a rare three to give his team a 22-20 lead in the first half. And he had a crazy tip for a bucket to make it 52-50 Arizona in the second half. His video in the second half said it all. Gordon doesn’t care about the stats, he is playing to win a national title. Every team should want an elite recruit with priorities like that.

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NCAA Tournament Day 1

Harvard's win might not quite be Princeton in 1996 but it was still special, plus Dixon's latest failure, the lack of NBA talent, and the days change in tournament odds.

The Right Way To Measure The Hottest Teams

Want a Margin-of-Victory based stat that doesn't put Florida so close to the top? Click here to see the details.

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And Then There Were Four

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Beating The Top Teams

Which teams have the best and worst performance against other NCAA tournament teams? And which teams have the best and worst performance in the last 10 games?

Initial Bracket Thoughts

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Looking Back, Looking Ahead To Tournament Week

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YABC Column For Feb. 27th (POY Races, Improbabilities & More)

As Draymond Green locked up the Big Ten POY award and Kansas battled Missouri for a likely No. 1 seed, Saturday afternoon encapsulated everything that is great about the NCAA regular season.

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