A much, much better weekend of hoops after a ho-hum first two days of the tournament.
Quick catch up for Saturday. Although I lost my runner-up, I was just fine with Villanova going out. I’m in a weird place with ‘Nova. I’ve watched them quite a bit since Butler joined the Big East, and I’ve always been impressed with the Wildcats’ incredible toughness. They just hang in, wear down, and wear out their opponents. They don’t get rattled by runs or calls or the score. They just out-work their opponents for 40 minutes. I admire the hell out of the program for the way Jay Wright seems to get all his players to buy into that concept. I hated that they knocked KU out of the tournament last year, but they were one of those teams I didn’t mind losing to.
For as much as I admire their toughness, though, watching them play isn’t always the most exciting way to spend a couple hours. They aren’t quite Virginia dull, but neither are they electric. The thing that bugs me the most about them, though, is how similar they are to West Virginia on defense. They don’t do the crazy, full-court pressing for 40 minutes that WVU does. Rather, it’s how intensely physical they play, and how they force the refs to decide early on whether to call the game tight and foul out their entire team, or let them just hammer people and swallow the whistle. All these changes in defensive rule interpretations in recent years have been aimed at keeping the defense off their opponents. You have to move your feet, not grab and tug. And Villanova grabs and tugs all night. It’s tough to watch when you know other games are called completely differently.
I’m no fan of Wisconsin, and the loss wrecked my bracket, but I was just fine with Villanova being the first #1 seed to get ousted.
I missed almost all of the other Saturday action between running around during the day and going out to dinner in the evening. Sounds like the Purdue – Iowa State game was kind of awesome. I could not believe the Xavier – Florida State score. I did not see the controversial end of the Gonzaga – Northwestern game. And I only saw bits of the Notre Dame – West Virginia game. My big takeaway from all those games: big time props to West Virginia for having the entire team wear one kind of shoe! That just doesn’t happen anymore, and I thought it was awesome. Even better, they were very distinctive shoes.
Oh, I guess the biggest thing Saturday was the shocking news that Brad Underwood was leaving Oklahoma State for Illinois. Apparently it all came down to respect and money. Man, if I’m OSU, I’m doing all I can to keep that guy happy and in charge of my team. I know, theoretically, Illinois is a better job. It’s not a football school, so if you get that program rolling you’re going to be king of the campus. You’re set squarely in the middle of three large cities that should be filed with talent in Chicago, St. Louis, and Indianapolis, and can realistically stock your team with talent without ever getting on a plane.
But Illinois hasn’t been good for awhile. Chicago doesn’t seem as deep with talent as it once was. St. Louis isn’t a great basketball town. And, at the very best, you’re going to be the 5th or 6th choice of kids in Indy. I wonder if it’s as good a job as we assume it is.
I think I’d take my chances at OSU. Hey, OSU, I’m fine with $2.9 million/year!
Sunday, Sunday, Sunday. Man, what a day!
First off we had Michigan and Louisville. I, like a lot of folks, thought Michigan had done their thing in the Big 10 tournament and were cooked. I had them losing to Oklahoma State, which admittedly was a homer pick. But the Wolverines are becoming scary. John Beilein is one of the most underrated coaches in the country. When he gets the talent to match his system, his teams are awesome. I’m not sure what took them so long to click this year, but they look incredible right now. I was worried that, should KU win three games, they would have to face a long, fast, athletic Louisville squad. Maybe I should have been more worried about Michigan.
Then we got Wichita State – Kentucky. Just a fantastic game. For a lot of reasons, I do not like Gregg Marshall. But that guy can coach. Much like Jay Wright, he’s set that program up so regardless of who is on the roster, the team always plays with the same mentality. And they are never scared of the opponent, no matter what their pedigree is. That guard from KC had himself a hell of a day.
You have to give Kentucky credit, though, for how they played the last two possessions defensively. No matter what the Marshall family might say, those were awesome efforts.
Despite their talent, I can’t decide how good this Kentucky team really is. I kind of love that the 2012 team has ruined all these one-and-done teams for Kentucky fans. Well, the 2014 team was awesome, of course. But they lost before completing the perfect season, and will forever be seen as disappointments. Aside from them, these teams always feel like failures if they don’t live up to the preseason hype completely. This team could make it to Glendale, they could win the whole thing. But they feel like a team you just keep expecting to NOT make the plays they need to win tough games. Maybe Sunday was a moment where they develop the confidence to do that.
Hey, speaking of disappointments, let’s jump to the night session and South Carolina – Duke. You know, Duke, the most talented team in the country? The hottest team in the country? The team that no one wanted to play? The team that had a gilded path to the title game? Yep, that team got its ass kicked in the second half by a school that had just won its first tournament game in over a generation on Friday. Every second of that game was thoroughly satisfying to watch.
I know, I know, Henry Giles was never healthy this year. I feel sorry for that kid, who came in with so much hype and seems more like the next Greg Oden or Joel Embiid and will never be healthy enough to fulfill his promise. And Duke had a couple other players who didn’t live up to their recruiting rankings. But they were still immensely talented even with those losses. South Carolina has some really nice parts, and you know Frank Martin’s team is going to guard the hell out of the ball. Not a game Duke should have lost, let alone by the final margin.
Weird how Coach K, who was once the most consistent tournament coach in the game and never lost early, has become a feast or famine guy. I think that’s way more a reflection of the spread of talent through the game, the risks that come with stocking your team with one-and-done kids, and the pure chance of the tournament than anything K is doing wrong. But I enjoy it and will mock him for it regardless.
Jumping back to the early game in Greenville, North Carolina was incredibly lucky to advance. I think most of the blame goes to Arkansas, who had a series of absolutely dreadful possessions on offense late in the game. You can’t stand around for 25 second, throw up a guarded 23-footer, and hope to close out a team like Carolina. But that sequence where the referees blew two calls that went against Arkansas was huge, too. I have no idea how they could spend three minutes looking at a replay that clearly showing a Carolina player touching the ball and then give it to the Heels. Were they not looking at an HD monitor? And then the no-call when Joel Berry charged, travelled, and then passed for a basket was massive. You have to call something there. I would have even been fine with a block on Arkansas. But to have three refs stand there and watch a kid take four steps after he put his shoulder into a defender’s chest and not blow their whistles was terrible.
Carolina was immensely lucky.
This seems like a pretty solid start, so I’ll save the KU words for a separate post.