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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.

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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.

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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.

NCAA Tournament Day 4

After what I thought was the most dramatic day of the tournament so far (and please go back and relive it with my recap), I entered Sunday exhausted. And Sunday’s tournament games seemed exhausted too. There were a few too many mismatches and a few too many blowouts. But before we get to those, let’s start with the good stuff:

#3 Iowa St. defeated #6 North Carolina

There are a lot of ways I expected North Carolina’s season to end.

-I expected the Tar Heels to have a game where they missed a bunch of threes and couldn’t compete. But Leslie McDonald nailed a late three to give the Tar Heels a 79-76 lead.

-I expected the Tar Heels to miss some key free throws and have that cost them a tournament game. But North Carolina wasn’t even in the bonus until the final seconds, and when James Michael McAdoo went to the line, he buried both shots in crunch time.

Instead we got the unexpected.

-Marcus Paige, a brilliant ball-handler, threw the ball away in the final minutes.

-North Carolina, a team that loves to run, was out-run by Iowa St.’s Naz Long, who snuck behind the defense for a three in the final minute.

-And a North Carolina team that has played better defense than offense, couldn’t keep the opposing team out of the lane in the final seconds of a tie game. DeAndre Kane unexpectedly cut to his left, and cut through a double team for the go-ahead lay-up.

Perhaps for North Carolina, the unexpected only made sense. The Tar Heels this year beat the teams ranked first, second, third, and fourth in the preseason AP poll. They also lost to multiple teams outside the Top 100. They started ACC play 1-4 and ended ACC play 12-1. So of course, the moment Iowa St.’s Georges Niang went out with a foot injury, and North Carolina became the presumptive favorite, they went down. The moment Steve Kerr began discussing how Iowa St.’s team had nothing left in the tank, the Tar Heels played their worst stretch of basketball. In this season, it only made sense.

North Carolina fans will and should complain about the clock operation on the final possession. The fact that the clock did not start on time may have impacted whether the player put up a prayer shot or Roy Williams called timeout. But Kane’s shot was the difference, and on an afternoon where he scored 24 points, Kane was the hero.

#8 Kentucky defeated #1 Wichita St.

Experience vs talent.

The world’s greatest mid-major vs a power conference blue blood.

An undefeated record vs a decorated history.

A Final Four club from last year still looking for respect vs an underachieving team still looking for redemption.

Many people wanted to see one of the two teams go down in flames. But neither team seemed overmatched. No one was exposed. No one was overrated.

For a time, the game seemed to swing on experience. Wichita St. did a fabulous job anticipating where Kentucky would pass the ball and converted several live ball steals into fast-break baskets. This gave Wichita St. the early lead.

For a time, the game seemed to swing on talent. At the start of the second half, Julius Randle had a monster dunk, a beautiful assist on a three, and he muscled for an offensive rebound to get his team back in the game.

Sometimes the two themes swung in contrast. Wichita St. had been killing Kentucky by sneaking players along the baseline for alley-oops or back-door cuts. Then Julius Randle decided he had seen enough. At 9:10 left he made an amazing block to stop Ron Baker from sneaking behind the defense one more time.

And then a funny thing happened down the stretch. The game stopped being about a contrast in styles, and started being about who would make more plays. James Young drove the lane for a gorgeous basket. Cleanthony Early hit an impossible turn-around jumper along the baseline. James Young nailed a three. Ron Baker nailed a three. And the game came down to a shot at the buzzer that was off the mark.

I don’t think the game quite lived up to the immense hype. (This wasn’t quite Duke vs Syracuse for the first time in ACC play.) But it came close.

#10 Stanford defeated #2 Kansas

I want to apologize to Stanford fans. I have never believed in this team because I have never believed in the lineup rotation. After Aaron Bright was declared out for the season, Johnny Dawkins decided that he was going to run three forwards out on the floor at all times, with much of the offense running through point forward Dwight Powell.

In 2014, I don’t believe in that philosophy. It is just too hard to get the right spacing with three big men on the floor. More distressingly, despite a tall front line, Stanford’s defense has often been porous. They effectively had the 13th tallest lineup in the nation (according to Kenpom.com), and often had four players 6’6” or taller on the floor, but with the team getting shredded by Arizona, Arizona St., and UCLA late in the season, it didn’t quite seem like the right formula.

But in the NCAA tournament, Dawkins lineup choice has proven to be brilliant. His tall wing players frustrated New Mexico’s Kendall Williams in the first round. And his tall front line put up a wall against Kansas. Much like San Diego St. had done against the Jayhawks, by simply holding their position, Stanford kept the Jayhawks from getting buckets inside.

(Stanford’s ability to get back defensively and keep the game in the half-court was also remarkable. Even when Kansas got steals late in the game, the Jayhawks couldn’t turn those steals into lay-ups, and still had to work half-court sets.)

But having said all that, I still can’t get enthusiastic about this upset because of what we missed out on. Because Kansas went out so early, we never got to see Joel Embiid in the NCAA tournament. And because this game got caught up in the half-court, Andrew Wiggins was not able to show his full-court athleticism to the nation.

Stanford had the right plan, but as a viewer I still felt cheated. I think it says a lot when the key sequence of the game might have been a series of inside baskets by Stanford’s Stefan Nastic. Nastic is a solid college post-player. But as the announcers noted, he isn’t the kind of player who can make a shot beyond three feet. And you couldn’t help but feel that if Joel Embiid had been in the game, Nastic might not have got those inside looks. Nastic’s baskets gave Stanford a 7 point lead early in the second half. Normally, that wouldn’t be much, but given the half-court game and tempo, it was actually too much for Kansas to overcome.

But I also have to point some of the finger at the Kansas players who were in the game. Despite playing in a friendly environment in St. Louis, the Jayhawks never did enough to create energy and get the fans in the game. There was a sequence in the second half where Kansas turned the ball over, saved it from going out of bounds, and then no one on Kansas made a real effort to run and get the ball. The Jayhawks seemed like they were sleepwalking.

Whereas Duke lacked the personnel on defense, and Syracuse hit a huge rut offensively, Kansas had a versatile lineup that should have been able to compete in any situation. But on Sunday, they showed almost none of that. Besides Conner Frankamp’s late threes and Tarik Black’s key baskets, all the Kansas players that played meaningful minutes had ORtgs below 75. Given the talent on this team, that sort of execution left a bit of an empty feeling.

- The Land of Blowouts

#4 UCLA defeated #12 SF Austin

On Friday I raved about UCLA sharing the ball, and that was even more on display in this mismatch. The Bruins had 21 assists and even Travis Wear got in the act with six dimes. According the announcers, the Bruins also went a full 30 minutes without a turnover.

#1 Virginia defeated #8 Memphis

Rachel Nichols shared this nice anecdote: Virginia’s Joe Harris not only talks in his sleep, he sleepwalks. But given how well he is playing this season, his teammates/roommates told him he can do whatever he wants.

#1 Arizona defeated #8 Gonzaga

The turnover differential (21 for Gonzaga, six for Arizona was highlighted all game long), but it is worth noting that until garbage time Arizona was also shooting over 50%.

#6 Baylor defeated #3 Creighton

I picked Baylor to advance to the Sweet Sixteen in part because of their amazing late season splits. And after Creighton struggled with Providence’s zone defense in the Big East tournament, I thought the Blue Jays would have trouble against Baylor’s zone. But I never expected that Doug McDermott would score only three points in the first half of a game.

The most touching moment in this game was probably head coach Greg McDermott pulling his starters off the floor, one at a time, for a series of embraces. I think we sometimes forget that not only was this Doug McDermott’s final game, this was also the final game for play-maker Grant Gibbs, and shot-maker Jahenns Manigat. And Ethan Wragge’s career also comes to a close. Wragge, who shot better than 41% in every year of his career, and made at least 66 threes in every year of his career, was the perfect three point shooter to play off of McDermott’s double teams. Creighton had a Top 10 offense for three straight years, and this was more than just Greg McDermott.

#11 Tennessee defeated #14 Mercer

Tennessee held a 24-4 rebounding advantage at the end of the first half. Sometimes we talk about how the raw rebounding numbers are misleading. Offensive rebounding percentages say a lot more. But this is a case where the counting stats speak emphatically. Rebounding differentials like that aren’t supposed to happen after middle school.

When Tennessee is clicking, their length and athleticism can be suffocating. They started out the game against Mercer with a steal and easy fast-break basket. The next possession, Tennessee forced a shot-clock violation. Tennessee also ended the first half by forcing a shot-clock violation. (This is almost impossible to do but there was a 0.6 second differential between the shot-clock and game clock.)

This is a team that absolutely blew Virginia out of the water in late December.  This is a team that has absolutely been crushing teams in March.

And that’s why I am always surprised when I look up the Volunteer’s stats. They rank near 250th in the country in the rate of turnovers forced. They don’t actually get out and run much, as they have one of the slower paces in the country. Tennessee is one of those teams where the eye test doesn’t really match the recorded stats.

Or maybe Tennessee is simply this tournament’s biggest enigma. On the one hand, they barely qualified for the tournament. They were lucky to draw a slumping UMass team. They were also lucky to draw an underdog Mercer team. On the other hand, their margin-of-victory stats now suggest they are one of the top teams in the country. The Sweet Sixteen will provide a fine litmus test.

NCAA Tournament Day 3

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.

Act 1

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.

Act 2

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.

Act 3

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.

Act 4

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.

Epilogue

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.

Bullets

-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.

NCAA Tournament Day 2

Baylor's late season surge continues, why this year's UCLA team is not last year's UCLA team, and other Day 2 observations.

NCAA Tournament Day 1

Aaron Craft, NC State's missed FTs, the irony of Cameron Ridley, and important facts like the worst graphic of the day.

Stats To Pick Apart The Bracket

The right way to measure hot teams, a different way to measure March coaches, and how teams have performed against the rest of tournament field.

Major Conference Tournaments Underway

How good would Duke, Kentucky, Kansas, and Arizona be if their freshmen stuck around? I also check in on some seniors and the first day of the major conference tournaments.

The RPI Organizational Tool, Conference Tournament Nitty Gritty

Who would gain the most if we used the Kenpom rankings to organize opponents instead of the RPI rankings?

Injury Splits - March Edition

How well has Arizona played without Brandon Ashley? What about Pittsburgh without Durand Johnson? What about Colorado without Spencer Dinwiddie?

Year Four to Six (The Hot Seat Years)

Today I present the probability a D1 college basketball head coach survives in his job for six years and I show the efficiency numbers for 4th through 6th year head coaches.

Experience Is Not A Guarantee

Oklahoma St. (89% of minutes back), Boise St. (89% of minutes back), and Boston College (95% of minutes back) have struggled, but experience does not guarantee that a team will win.

Upsets, Adjustments, And The Game The President Missed

Discussing a weekend of upsets, Clemson's new defensive approach, and a detailed look at the game the President wanted to watch prior to the State of the Union address.

College Basketball Injury Splits Part 1

How has Notre Dame performed without Jerian Grant? How has Georgetown done without Joshua Smith? How did Ole Miss fare without Marshall Henderson? 32 injury splits in one column!

College Basketball Injury Splits Part 2

How has Notre Dame performed without Jerian Grant? How has Georgetown done without Joshua Smith? How did Ole Miss fare without Marshall Henderson? 32 injury splits in one column!

The Top 100 Recruits After Two Months, Part 1

Wayne Selden, Tyler Ennis, Josh Hart, and a full look at how the Top 100 freshmen have performed to date.

The Top 100 Recruits After 2 Months, Part 2

The College Basketball Week in Review

Kentucky may have won, but Louisville will always have that dunk. I also examine what it means for FTs to cost a team a game, and I update the weekly Harvard watch feature.

Do Freshmen-Filled Teams Get Better In-Season?

Is Colorado's youth a long-run problem? Also, why Notre Dame was the worst possible matchup for Ohio St.

In Season Improvement, Part 1

What Arizona, Wisconsin, and Syracuse have that Kansas does not have, hope for Michigan fans, and the Top 10 coaches at improving their teams in-season.

In Season Improvement, Part 2

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