Thursday, April 2, 2015

And Then There Were Four

After an exciting first day of the tournament that saw two three-seeds get upended early in the day, including many people's sleeper Final Four team in Iowa State (Baylor took a much less surprising pratfall), this year's NCAA tournament has gradually settled into a chalky affair (with the exception of the East regional, which lost its top two seeds) that in all likelihood will lead to the first undefeated season in almost forty years. And so the world turns. Some notes from the first two weekends:

Most Surprising Upset: Only five double-digit seeds lived to fight a second day, and two of those teams were UCLA (they of the eleven national titles) and Ohio State (a perennial Big Ten favorite under Thad Matta). Dayton was practically playing at home in nearby Columbus against Providence, and Georgia State outlasted a Baylor team that has a penchant for folding like a cheap suit. Therefore, by default the most surprising upset was a UAB team that finished fourth in a weak Conference USA and hadn't won away from home since January (they hosted the conference tournament) out-muscling the Big 12 Tournament champions in Louisville. Iowa State is an extraordinarily well-coached team, and they never seem to panic even when things aren't going their way, but they also never appeared to recognize that they needed to make adjustments, specifically allowing UAB guard Tyler Madison to grab as many offensive rebounds (nine) as their whole team, and allowing the Blazers in general to out-rebound them by fifteen. That was really the difference in the game, as otherwise both teams' stat lines looked remarkably similar across the board. The Cyclones also could have done with a better game from star Georges Niang, who finished with as many fouls (four) as made baskets.

Least Surprising Upset: In a reprise of last year's Sweet 16, Virginia got stuck with a difficult matchup in Michigan State in the second round, with the added disadvantage that their most explosive player (Justin Anderson) was still working his way back from a broken finger and appendicitis. The Cavaliers, always prone to scoring droughts, have been even more so without a healthy Anderson, and in the second half they went almost ten minutes (12:21 to 2:32) without making a single field goal. Michigan State point guard Travis Trice, meanwhile, had an out-of-body experience to begin the game, canning his first five shots for thirteen of the Spartans' first fifteen points, and played well throughout the game. Virginia shot under thirty percent for the game, and once again a Tom Izzo-coached team made the second weekend, for the thirteenth time in the last eighteen years.

Silliest Prediction: Will all those who thought that West Virginia could upset the Kentucky machine please acknowledge yourselves? Yes, Bob Huggins entered that game 8-2 against John Calipari, including a takedown of John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Eric Bledsoe and company in the 2010 Elite Eight. Yes, the Mountaineers have a great press. Pressing, however, relies a team's ability to execute offense and make shots. Given that West Virginia is a poor shooting team, that meant getting to the basket as the principal means of scoring. And getting to the basket meant dealing with the armada of defensive behemoths in Kentucky's frontcourt; a quintet of athletes who all stand at least 6'10" and who all have vertical leaps north of thirty inches (with the possible exception of Dakari Johnson). It didn't even matter that Kentucky's best player picked up four fouls in just thirteen minutes and spent the majority of the game on the bench. A scrappy pressing outfit is not going to bother these Wildcats.

Best Rebuttal of the Haters: People love to point out that Gonzaga is soft, plays in a bad conference, is always overrated, etc. The haters rejoiced when the one-seeded Zags got upended by Wichita State two years ago in the second round, and many, I think, expected more of the same this year. But Gonzaga (playing serious defense for the first time in, well, ever) played to seed, reaching the Elite Eight before falling to Duke. That game could have been closer in the end but for Kyle Wiltjer gagging on a bunny that would have tied it up at 53 with about five minutes to go. When you're 6'10", you really need to just go up and dunk that ball. Anyway, Mark Few has a top-shelf program, and even though he loses three senior starters (Kevin Pangos, Gary Bell Jr., and Byron Wesley) plus a couple of bench guys, do not be surprised when the Zags enter March at something like 27-7 next year and are, as usual, a second-weekend threat.

Biggest Draft Stock Rise: Duke's Justise Winslow has been a one-man wrecking crew throughout this tournament, averaging nearly a double-double (14 and 9.5) and probably leading the tournament in "end-to-end fast breaks where no defender wants to stop the ball." Winslow was already a likely lottery pick, but now appears to be a solid top-five pick. Given that he can shoot threes, handle the ball, and get to the rim almost at will, the best comparison appears to be James Harden, only with actual defensive skills.

So now, what happens this weekend? Wisconsin, who lost in the national semis to Kentucky a year ago thanks to a big-time Aaron Harrison three-pointer, gets another crack at the Wildcats, while two of the more ubiquitous March programs in Michigan State and Duke (a combined nineteen Final Fours for Tom Izzo and Coach K) square off on the other side of the bracket. I expect both games to be excellent. Kentucky may be the biggest team in the college game, but Wisconsin won't be intimidated by their size with Frank Kaminsky, Sam Dekker, Nigel Hayes, and Duje Dukan. I would expect John Calipari to give Karl-Anthony Towns and Dakari Johnson principal responsibility for Kaminsky while siccing Willie Cauley-Stein on Dekker. If the Wildcats don't have to help too often on defense, I think they will win.

On the other side, the Spartans will scrap and claw as they always do, but there is no one on their roster who can offer much more than token resistance against Jahlil Okafor. That means either a big day from Okafor or a lot of double teams leading to rim runs and open threes from the shooters around the floor. Michigan State also has the distinct disadvantage of being a very poor free throw shooting team, with only Denzel Valentine and Bryn Forbes shooting eighty percent from the line (Travis Trice is the only other Spartan who shoots above seventy percent). In a close game, that will doom them even if they resort to fouling Okafor, whose Achilles heel is also the charity stripe. The Blue Devils, meanwhile, have two closers in Tyus Jones and Quinn Cook, their two principal ball-handlers who both knock down almost ninety percent of their free throws.

That would give us a Duke-Kentucky final, which would make for must-see TV. It would be the SIXTH tournament meeting between the two schools, and the second for a national title. Would you believe that the previous five meetings have been decided by a total of fourteen points? Of course you would! Let's rank the games from least to most exciting, just to get us all pumped up for this potential tilt on Monday night:

5) Kentucky 83, Duke 79, 1966 national semifinal - This first meeting in the NCAA tournament between the Wildcats and Blue Devils gets the lowest billing because it is completely overshadowed by what happened two nights later, when Adolph Rupp's all-white Kentucky team lost to the all-black starting five of Don Haskins' Texas Western team. "Rupp's Runts" had no player taller than 6'5", and their best player was a fellow by the name of Pat Riley. Jack Marin led the Blue Devils with 29 points in a losing effort, and thanks to what transpired in the final, no one remembers this game apart from the people who were there.

4) Duke 55, Kentucky 54, 1980 Mideast regional semifinal - I'm pretty thankful that I wasn't around to see college basketball before a shot clock. In this game, the two teams combined to take 87 shots, or one roughly every twenty-nine seconds (remember, that's counting transition opportunities). Ugh. No, thank you. Kentucky stars Kyle Macy and Sam Bowie were held to a combined eight points (they averaged twenty-eight), while Duke got the majority of its offense from its big three of Mike Gminski (seventeen points), Gene Banks (eleven), and Vince Taylor (fifteen). They also got zero points off the bench from reserve guard Chip Engelland, better known now as one of the preeminent shooting coaches in professional basketball. The Devils lost in the regional final to sixth-seeded Purdue.

3) Kentucky 94, Duke 88, 1978 national championship - You're saying to yourself, "What? This barn-burner of a national title game only gets third place?" You're damn right it does. This happened to be my mom's senior year, so I'll let her explain: "Jack Givens destroyed us. The cover of SI was a picture of him making a layup with the headline: The Goose was Golden, “Goose” being Givens’s nickname. I used to have the issue, but evidently it’s been recycled." Givens had 41 points in one of the all-time great championship performances, with Rick Robey chipping in an additional twenty. Four Blue Devils ended up in double figures in the losing effort: Banks, Gminski, Jim Spanarkel (whom my mom describes as "the world's most awkward-looking guard. Guy was knock-kneed and pigeon-toed, but nothing slowed him down") and Kenny Dennard.

2) Kentucky 86, Duke 84, 1998 South regional final - As a Duke fan, this game was a stomach punch; the Blue Devils led by ten with only a few minutes left, but then backup point guard William Avery (a freshman) called the team's last timeout with something like three minutes and change left, and Kentucky made a furious comeback the rest of the way. Wildcat fans will remember this was the team that Tubby Smith took to a national title in his first year, an excellent team that nonetheless had very little in the way of actual NBA talent (Jamaal Magloire had the best pro career of any Kentucky player). Duke got nothing from star freshman Elton Brand (four points, two rebounds, and five fouls in twenty-one minutes), which was marginally understandable since he had to deal with Magloire and Nazr Mohammed all night. Five players from both Duke (Trajan Langdon, Steve Wojciechowski, Chris Carrawell, Roshown McLeod, and Shane Battier) and Kentucky (Scott Padgett, Wayne Turner, Jeff Sheppard, Allen Edwards, and Heshimu Evans) scored in double figures.

1) Duke 104, Kentucky 103 (2OT), 1992 East regional final - Not only was this the greatest Kentucky-Duke matchup, this was the greatest college basketball game of all time. Everybody is familiar with "The Shot," but the most impressive part of that play, in my mind, was that Grant Hill threw an absolute strike to Laettner in double coverage, where only he could catch the ball. Of course, any Kentucky fan will be happy to point out that Laettner shouldn't even have been in the game after stomping on a prone Aminu Timberlake earlier in the contest, and they're right; today the refs would have looked at some replays and ejected Laettner promptly. As it was, he stayed in the game and made the most famous college basketball shot in history. It was a fitting capstone to a day that saw the Duke center make all ten of his field goals (including a three-pointer) and all ten of his free throws, overshadowing an almost as impressive game from Kentucky star Jamal Mashburn (eleven for eighteen, twenty-eight points and ten boards). In fact, both teams were unconscious from the floor that day; Kentucky shot 57% as a team, which was topped by Duke's utterly ridiculous 65% (not a single Duke player hit less than half their shots that day, and Laettner was joined by Antonio Lang and Cherokee Parks - each two-for-two off the bench - in the perfection column).

So there you have it, the glorious history of Duke and Kentucky in the NCAA tournament. Of course, now that I've written all this, watch Wisconsin or Michigan State ruin the potential matchup. In any case, both Saturday and Monday night should be highly entertaining.