Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Wild First Weekend

Wow. That was one hell of a first weekend, and I'm going to assume that not only are you out of the running for Warren Buffett's billion dollars, you're also out of the running for your office/online pool unless you are a) incredibly lucky or b) Nostradamus. Double-digit seeds won ten games (discounting the four they won in the opening round on Tuesday and Wednesday), and three of them (Stanford, Dayton, and Tennessee) will play in the Sweet 16. Six games required overtime to complete, and a whopping twenty-two of the fifty-two games played so far have been decided by single digits, nine of them by a single possession. Six of the twelve highest-seeded teams will be watching the rest of the tournament from their couches. Let's recap some stories.

The Old Mid-Major Debate
Pat Forde put it quite well in his column for Yahoo, that just because Wichita State lost in the round of 32 does not mean that they were overrated. They got the toughest draw of any top seed in getting Kentucky, finally playing up to something close to their considerable potential, in that round. It is ironic that this year's John Calipari Traveling Freshman All-Stars, who inspired www.40and0.com, was the same outfit that ended the season of the one team with a chance to go 40-0. It was a terrific basketball game, and although Fred VanVleet didn't hit that three at the buzzer, that doesn't invalidate Wichita State's tremendous accomplishment this year. It's not like they folded when the Wildcats kept attacking; Shocker forward Cleanthony Early was the best player on the floor facing an opponent with seven future NBA players, and guard Ron Baker was right behind him. As for the final play, I like that Gregg Marshall called for a set with three different options for the in-bounder, but he had to know that the chances of getting a lob to Early were very, very small, especially with Willie Cauley-Stein likely to be given the assignment of protecting the rim. Why not give Early the final opportunity from the top of the key, particularly as he was 12-17 from the floor (4-6 from behind the arc)? I think that's a situation where you just have to get the ball into the hands of your best player. In any event, Wichita State deserves to be congratulated on a fantastic season, even if they didn't make a return trip to the Final Four.

Curtains for Creighton
While I always knew it was possible for Creighton to have a bad shooting game and bow out early, I certainly didn't expect that game to come against a Baylor team that has a well-deserved reputation for defensive indifference and a tendency to show up flat for big games. They showed up for this one, and in addition to poor shooting the Blue Jays had no answers on defense, allowing the Bears to shoot an incredible 64% for the game. This has to be a loss that will eat at Greg McDermott for awhile. After all, it's not very likely that he'll ever again get to coach a veteran squad with the undisputed national player of the year, and certainly not when that player happens to be his son. That blowout was hard to watch. It was touching to watch Coach McDermott, when he waved the white flag with about two minutes to go in the game, replace his starters and give them all big hugs. One by one Austin Chatman, Jahenns Manigat, Ethan Wragge, Grant Gibbs, and Doug McBuckets walked off the floor into their coach's arms, all of them but Chatman for the final time in their collegiate careers. Everyone's season has to end, but it's hard when it ends that way.

High Flyers
Two of the aforementioned one-possession games belonged to the University of Dayton, who went to the wire twice in beating Ohio State and then Syracuse. The first game led to one of the greatest trolling headlines in the history of journalism from the Dayton newspaper, which read "THE University of Dayton." Two days later Tyler Ennis couldn't come up with another magical shot for the Orange, and now Dayton has an excellent opportunity at getting to the Elite Eight thanks to Stanford's upset of a Joel Embiid-less Kansas team. The Flyers have become the most exciting Cinderella in the tournament, both because of their two last-second wins over premiere programs and because the other two remaining double-digit seeds are a pair of BCS conference outfits (Stanford and Tennessee).

The Demise of Duke?
I didn't have Duke losing to Mercer, but I can say that I strongly questioned whether or not they would get out of the first weekend, and I was certain that they would not be able to handle Michigan in a rematch. I don't know how much you've watched this particular Blue Devils outfit this year, but two things really stood out; they had two superlative offensive weapons in Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood, and they had an atrocious team defense that was very unlike a Coach K team. Duke, coached by the man with the most wins in NCAA tournament history, has now been bounced in their first game twice in the last three years by low-major teams, and it has a lot of people wondering what the future will be like.

This seems to have been a trying season, particularly for Coach K, who lost his brother (his last surviving close relative) in December, and there seems to be a pattern of loose focus and conflicting agendas. Duke may have been the second-most efficient offensive team in the nation, but they were in no way as aesthetically pleasing as, say, Creighton; the offense was predicated on letting the best weapons go one-on-one a lot, with no true point guard to facilitate things and no true big man to provide any kind of interior presence whatsoever. Defensively, due to a lack of size, there was no rim protection, which allowed even mediocre opponents to shoot 50% from the floor.

Now, one could point to next year's incoming class (which includes the top-rated big man AND the top-rated point guard) and say that things will be better. But will they? After all, Duke gets top-five classes almost as a matter of course at this point, and there are still foundational erosions. Case in point; if you discount Kyrie Irving and the nine games he played around a broken toe before going to the NBA, the last guy that was unquestionably a point guard was Greg Paulus; the last who was a championship-level point guard was probably Chris Duhon. The rest have been scorers masquerading in the role (Nolan Smith, Austin Rivers), scrappy defenders with marginal to mediocre offensive ability and floor vision (Tyler Thornton, Sean Dockery), or inconsistent enigmas who are a blend of the other two styles (Quinn Cook). Perhaps Tyus Jones will be the answer to that problem; but then again, perhaps not.

Of greater concern is the lack of growth shown by pretty much any big man in the Duke program over the past fifteen years, Carlos Boozer and Shelden Williams excepted. They quite simply don't get better over time, and unless you're going to be the starting center from day one, it's more likely than not that you will either get buried on the bench by mid-January of your freshman year, never to return barring an injury to the starter. Boozer's injury was the only thing that rescued Casey Sanders from obscurity back in 2001, and his increased minutes played a big role in that team winning a national title. Perhaps Coach K should look into hiring an actual big man as an assistant coach for a change; the only assistant this century with any experience inside was Chris Carrawell, a natural small forward who was forced into the middle as a freshman thanks to Greg Newton's suspension, and he was only an assistant strength coach and administrator. Steve Wojciechowski has been coaching the big men for the past several seasons, and the results speak for themselves.

Lastly, there is the trend of first burying guys on the bench, ruining their confidence, and then running them out of town. Here is a list of players that have transferred away from Duke since 2000: Andre Sweet (2001, Seton Hall), Michael Thompson (2004, Northwestern), Eric Boateng (2006, Arizona State), Jamal Boykin (2006, Cal), Taylor King (2008, Villanova), Elliot Williams (2009, Memphis), Olek Czyz (2010, Nevada), Michael Gbinije (2012, Syracuse), Alex Murphy (2013, Florida). That's nine guys in fifteen years, and none of them except Williams (who transferred home to be near his ailing mother) saw more than the occasional light of day while in Durham. During the same timeframe, Coach K has accepted three transfers into the program (Dahntay Jones, Seth Curry, and Hood), so it's also not like they balance out. If the transfers were recruiting "misses," it's not like any of them wound up going to weak programs after transferring out. And if the coaching staff is whiffing on that many recruits, maybe they need to reevaluate their approach. All of those players got more opportunities after leaving Duke, and only King threw his career away entirely. Don't be surprised if Semi Ojeleye, Matt Jones, or even Amile Jefferson departs this summer after being told that they're probably going to get replaced or not have an opportunity to earn a larger role.

I don't think Coach K is washed up by any means (his work with Team USA is rather strong evidence to the contrary), but he certainly has to be nearing retirement. I do think that the Team USA experience has given him a lot of extra recruiting firepower (endorsements from LeBron and Kobe go a long way), but I do think that there are ways in which he could reevaluate his approach and change what isn't working. Maybe Tyus Jones and Jahlil Okafor (along with Justise Winslow and Grayson Allen) turn out to be the right prescription. Maybe they don't, and maybe one of them joins the long line of Duke recruits who wind up playing elsewhere. In either case, a convincing loss to Mercer shortly after a convincing loss to Lehigh should be a clear signal that some sort of organizational change is necessary.

Enjoy the week, and let's hope that the second weekend is as entertaining as the first!