Friday was an exciting day in the NCAA tournament. Duke lost. We saw a crazy comeback by Stephen F Austin. We saw Virginia avoid the 16 vs 1 upset.
But if Friday’s games were fun, Saturday’s games were art. If you wrote a Shakespearean play, this is exactly the format you would use.
The day started with familiar faces (Luke Hancock, Russ Smith) to set the stage and introduce the format. There are favored teams and there are underdogs, and the favored team usually wins in the end.
We also paused for a moment of performance art. Michigan played an absolutely flawless first half of basketball against Texas. There were so few whistles at the start of the game that we didn’t get the under 16 minute timeout until under 12 minutes. The Wolverines did not commit a foul until 4:12 left in the first half. Michigan made almost every shot and committee almost no turnovers. This is how James Naismith intended the game of basketball to be played.
Now the drama started to build again. An underdog North Dakota St. team momentarily took an early lead on San Diego St., only to be crushed down. Remember the underdogs don’t win. Dayton held close with Syracuse, but only led by 2 at the break. It was hope, but faint hope.
Off we went to Wisconsin for a different story. Bo Ryan has been in the tournament before. He has 700 career wins. But he’s never had a team quite like this. His team has more offensive skill than ever. It would be a shame to see this skilled team bow out too soon. The only problem was that Wisconsin was going up against an equally talented offensive team in Oregon. The Badgers were favored, but if the game was in Portland instead of Milwaukee, that might not have been the case.
The game started with offensive basketball at its finest. Both teams made huge shots. But Oregon was better at taking the ball inside and getting to the line. And thanks to 19 fast break points, Oregon had 49 points at the break.
The scene shifted back to New York where the underdog Dayton team was playing amazing basketball. At 4:45 in the second half, Dayton displayed some of the crispest, most impressive passing you will ever see. It led to a jaw-dropping three. Later Jordan Sibert hit a three late in the shot-clock that had no business going in. While Syracuse was missing every perimeter shot, Dayton was making just enough to pull ahead by seven.
Jim Boeheim believes in playing a zone defense, because even when his offense is not working in the half-court, the zone defense positions his players to get a head start in transition. And late in the game whenever Dayton turned the ball over, or took one step forward for an offensive rebound, the Syracuse guards leaked out for fast-break buckets. Syracuse could barely make a shot in the half-court, but just when it seemed like the underdog was going to win, the Syracuse system led to a relentless string of fast-break baskets.
Tyler Ennis was the catalyst of the comeback. And the Syracuse guard has been college basketball’s biggest protagonist this season. He hit the season’s most memorable shot (a three to beat Pitt at the buzzer), he made key plays in the season’s biggest game (an OT win over Duke), and he had a reputation as a player who was basically perfect in the clutch this year.
And on Saturday, Tyler Ennis could not be stopped taking the ball to the hole. He scored the last 11 points for the team in Orange. And when Dayton turned the ball over in the final seconds, the comeback felt inevitable.
But suddenly, the story changed. Ennis slowed down his relentless charge to the basket. He settled for a jumper. And everyone in the arena and on TV was shocked. Why did he take that shot? Moments later, Ennis had a chance for redemption. Down two, he got one of the best looks at a game-winning three anyone will ever get. But it bounced off the back rim. The season’s biggest clutch player had failed in his moment.
Meanwhile in Wisconsin, the Badgers were storming back. Even if you didn’t care about the participants, you couldn’t help but get sucked in by the Wisconsin crowd. Every time down the floor Wisconsin made big shots. They hit 10 of 13 to start the second half. And suddenly a 14 point Oregon lead was gone in an instant.
As Charles Barkley said in the post-game, in past year’s Wisconsin never comes back from that deficit. They were too slow, and too offensively challenged. Only this year’s Wisconsin team could put together an offensive surge of that nature.
But it was not over. Joseph Young refused to let Oregon go down. He scored his 29th point of the game with 2:53 left, and his clutch three gave Oregon a one point lead once again. Wisconsin had played well, but they looked like they were out of gas.
And then we had a possession that Oregon fans will not soon forget. The Badgers held the ball for a full 49 seconds. They grabbed three offensive rebounds. And when Ben Brust made a three pointer to give Wisconsin the lead again, the fans in the arena were in ecstasy. Brust had just made the 228th three of his career, the most threes of any player in Wisconsin history, and given the Badgers a narrow two point lead.
The most skilled offensive team in the last 10 years at Wisconsin would not bow out early. It wasn’t an underdog winning, but it was still high drama.
Remember how much Michigan St. dominated in the Big Ten Tournament by forcing turnovers and getting fast-break baskets? They were equally good on Saturday. In the first four minutes, every time a post-player on Harvard touched the ball, Michigan St. was suddenly in a fast-break headed the other way.
Doug Gottlieb was left to utter statements like, “What player on Harvard is better than the player guarding him?” And, “Harvard has a talented team, but Michigan St. is at another level.” Harvard seemingly had no way to score.
And then a funny thing happened in the second half. Harvard kept chipping away. Even though Harvard forward Kyle Casey got more headlines after returning from last year’s suspension, if you’ve followed the Crimson this season, you know that Steve Moundou-Missi has clearly been Harvard’s most consistent interior player. And with the season on the line, Moundou-Missi suddenly started making his own luck. Somehow, possession after possession Moundou-Missi found himself in the right spot for offensive rebounds and put-backs.
When Harvard tied the game at 55, CBS cut to the Harvard student announce team for the dramatic call of the moment. It was sports drama at its finest.
Moments later, the greatest three point shooter in Harvard history, Laurent Rivard caught the ball in the corner and buried a three to give Harvard a 62-60 lead. We were on the verge of an epic, tournament altering upset. The evening was at its peak.
Next Gary Harris hit some timely shots for Michigan St. And just as the day started for the underdog, the narrative turned into a tragedy. But Tom Izzo hit the perfect note in his post-game interview. When asked what Michigan St. did to win, Izzo simply talked about Harvard. The story of the game wasn’t Michigan St.’s clutch play. It was that Tommy Amaker’s club never gave up. Sometimes in sports, there really are no losers in a game.
UConn and Villanova had no chance after all that. UConn was an underdog in about the same way Tom Brady is an under-dog when his team is seeded 5th in the AFC playoffs. The nightcap was more of a movie trailer for next week. UConn gets to make a trip to Madison Square Garden for the Sweet Sixteen. With the Big East affiliation over, it seemed like UConn players would no longer get to have their big moment on basketball’s biggest stage. But Shabazz Napier will get one more trip to the big city, and you cannot write a script more inviting than that one.
If any day in the rest of the tournament lives up to Saturday, we should all count ourselves lucky.
-Mercer’s Monty Brown has no memory of Friday’s shocking win over Duke due to a concussion. That’s the kind of news that makes you re-evaluate life’s priorities. Is it really about the destination or the journey?
-Saul Phillips choked back tears in the North Dakota St. post-game press-conference. And Charles Barkley had a genuinely sympathetic reaction in one of the post-game shows. Losing is difficult. But the truth is, the real loss for Phillips isn’t the NCAA tournament game. The loss is that for a special group of seniors, that won NDSU’s first NCAA tournament game in history, the journey is over. Phillips will never get to work with them again.
-I’m not sure if the DVR is a blessing or a curse. I record as many games as possible and try to watch them in their entirety. On the one hand, I wouldn’t have seen the brilliant Oregon vs Wisconsin beginning or all Harvard’s first-half turnovers without the DVR. On the other hand, I’ve just watched more TV than any human should ever consume.
#1 Arizona defeated #9 Pittsburgh
It seems almost pointless to dissect the day’s opener after everything that followed, but as well as Pittsburgh has played at times this year, Florida seemed like Pitt’s nightmare match-up. Pitt’s perimeter players (James Robinson, Lamar Patterson) couldn’t get any penetration against Florida’s quickness. And even though Talib Zanna has a huge strength advantage against 98% of the forwards in college basketball, he didn’t have that advantage against Patric Young. I feel like if Pitt and Florida played 20 times, Florida would win every game.
That said, if you want to pull an upset, you have to execute. When Pittsburgh had two fouls to give at the end of the first half, and still gave up a clean three to Scottie Wilbekin, you knew it wasn’t Pitt’s day.
#4 Louisville defeated #5 St. Louis
On the flip side, if St. Louis and Louisville played 20 times, I think St. Louis would win its share of games. For elite teams like Louisville, the worst kind of underdog is an opponent that plays elite defense but can’t score. St. Louis disrupted what Louisville wanted to do; meanwhile the Billikens were not distressed by their own inability to score against Louisville.
In this game, it was a few calls that really seemed to make the difference. Jordair Jett got a tough charge call on one of the first possessions of the game. Also, Rob Loe picked up three fouls in the first half, including a very foolish flagrant for swinging his elbows. I think those plays clearly changed St. Louis’ rotation and how those players acted on the court. Jett in particular is so essential to the St. Louis offense, that making him even a hair more hesitant to drive inside was crippling. (And let’s not forget Jake Barnett’s bonus slap for a technical in the second half too.)
Russ Smith, Montrezl Harrel, and Luke Hancock all made huge plays to pull Louisville ahead when St. Louis took the lead. And Louisville is clearly the better team. But that was a nightmare match-up for Louisville, and they deserve credit for escaping with the win.
Bonus Note: CBS was showing a video on Russ Smith’s dad and missed showing the bucket when St. Louis scored to go from 14 to 16 points. Those type of production mistakes happen, but it is inexcusable that they didn’t bother to show a replay of the score on the subsequent timeout.
#4 San Diego St. defeated #12 North Dakota St.
Final notes on NDSU’s Marschall Bjorklund: Doug Gottlieb asked Bjorkland how he can stand the smell of a pig farm. Bjorklund responded, “That’s the smell of money.” Good answer.
San Diego St. won comfortably, so perhaps I should just note that San Diego St. is a lot like St. Louis. They are a nightmare match-up because of their elite defense, and they won’t be phased if they can’t score against Arizona in the next round.
#2 Michigan defeated #7 Texas
I alluded to it above, but I love watching Michigan games because of the complete lack of whistles. Michigan never fouls.
Texas fans might have thought the refs were unfair, but this is just what Michigan players are taught to do defensively. The only call that Texas fans can really cry about is Cameron Ridley’s offensive foul in the second half. Ridley bumped into Michigan’s Jordan Morgan, but didn’t move Morgan and didn’t gain an advantage. I’ve never seen an offensive foul called when the defender was less impacted.
Texas played better in the second half, but give Michigan’s Spike Albrecht credit for helping seal the game for the Wolverines. Albrecht hasn’t become a huge scorer this year, but when Texas was using its late pressure, Albrecht’s ball-handling really saved the day for his team.
#11 Dayton defeated #3 Syracuse
Syracuse fans can take solace in the fact that they won’t have to sit through another horrible shooting night with this team. But the sting of the loss is made worse by the fact that this was a win for Vee Sanford, a transfer from arch-rival Georgetown.
Sanford has had an amazing journey. He was an efficient scorer for the Hoyas, but John Thompson III wouldn’t play him because of his defense. He eventually transferred, but he struggled as a starter for Dayton last year. In a number of late game situations, his defense allowed the opposing team to win, and Dayton had a horrible record in close games last year. This year Sanford has become a 6th man for the Flyers, and even though he’s coming off the bench, his defense seems better. Moreover, he hit the game-winner against Ohio St. On Saturday, all Sanford provided was the key scoring that Dayton needed to take a lead into half-time.
#4 Michigan St. defeated #12 Harvard
I’ve wondered how Michigan St. would do in a close game without Keith Appling playing well, but Appling picked up four fouls Saturday, and the Spartans made their game-saving run with Appling on the bench. That’s a good sign.
Branden Dawson was obviously brilliant. While he is a little under-sized as a forward in the Big Ten, you could really see how well he did when guarded by Harvard’s smaller forwards. His explosive leaping ability led to his best day of the season. I imagine if Dawson played in a league like the MAC or the Horizon League that he could be the conference player-of-the-year.
Michigan St. had zero turnovers until 4:20 left in the first half. That’s just staggering for a team that has often struggled with turnovers in Izzo’s tenure.
#2 Wisconsin defeated #7 Oregon
Why did Oregon’s Jason Calliste have to shove Wisconsin’s Traevon Jackson down at the end of the game after Calliste had played so well. He’s a brilliant player and I hate for that to be the last memory of his career.
#7 UConn defeated #2 Villanova
When UConn’s Terrence Samuel scored on a lay-up late in the game, Verne Lundquist didn’t even call out his name. I’m not sure the announcers knew who he was. But somehow the UConn freshman scored a career high 11 points in the NCAA tournament. It is never too late.