NCAA Diary From Charlotte: Previewing Sunday

Posted by rtmsf on March 20th, 2011

As you’re no doubt aware, we’ve had our cadre of correspondents traveling around the country to each of the eight NCAA sites over the weekend.  We’ve asked the guys to produce a diary of the games they witnessed including analysis, commentary and opinion concerning the sights and sounds at their venues.  Our hope is that the diaries will give you insights into the games that you may not have otherwise had from watching them on television or catching the highlights package afterward.  Let us know how we do…

Location: Charlotte, NC
Round: Second
Teams: Tennessee, Michigan, UNC, Long Island, Duke, Hampton, Washington, Georgia
Date: 18 March 2011
Correspondent: Frank Barrows

Looking ahead, first from Friday’s second- and third-round NCAA games in Charlotte to Sunday’s competition here, and to the remainder of the tournament, and even to what’s going on in Knoxville:

* No game in Charlotte, and possibly no game staged so far in the tournament, had more implications for the rest of the month than Duke’s 87-45 victory over Hampton. It marked the return of Blue Devils’ point guard Kyrie Irving, who has been out of action since he injured a ligament in his right big toe in a December 4 contest with Butler. His reappearance on the court, and the way he performed against Hampton, significantly changes how Duke can play from here on out and increases the possibility that it can win a second consecutive national championship.

Before Irving, a 6’2 freshman, saw his foot put into a cast December 10, he had in just a few weeks impressed all of basketball with his ability to create shots for himself and others, his capacity for seizing control of a game, his blend of high talent and high smarts. He was beyond precocious. Some said he was the nation’s best at his position. Some projected that he would emerge as the NBA’s first draft choice if he chose to go the one-and-done route. And with Irving driving Duke so magnificently, discussion ensued on the chances of the Blue Devils putting together an undefeated season.

The injury ended all that. Game after game, as Irving sat on Duke’s bench, his foot the subject of endless television close-ups, speculation mounted about whether he would play again this season. One fan website, Duke Basketball Report, has a thread entitled “The Kyrie Irving Toe Rehab Vigil.” It has had more than 372,000 views; most threads there collect a couple thousand, at the most. When the cast came off on February 4, anticipation soared. Word leaked out that he was practicing, at least a little.

So now he’s back, probably not in peak game condition, understandably a bit tentative, maybe a smidge rusty. But against Hampton, especially in the second half, he made several breathtaking plays that indicate he’s not that far from playing as he did in November, when he averaged 17 points and five assists. For example, he swooped in on a long defensive rebound, instantly revved himself into overdrive, sped past two defenders, and blitzed 75 feet for a fastbreak layup that created an eruption in the crowd and among his teammates. All told, he spent 20 minutes on the court, entering the game as a substitute in both the first and second half, and had 14 points on four-of-eight shooting, including two-of-two from three-point range.

Here’s part of what Blue Devils’ coach Mike Krzyzewski had to say afterwards about Irving: “I was really pleased. I thought he was very confident as it moved along.” More from Krzyzewski: “I thought our team was sharp, and I thought Kyrie was sharp. You can’t come on the court after being out for three months and … expect to be fluid. But I thought as the game went along, we were fortunate we got him to play 20 minutes.” And this: “We were trying in the first half to see what kind of rotation we might have using Kyrie, and then in the second half we weren’t worried about a rotation.”

Said Duke star Nolan Smith: “Kyrie looked good today. When he’s on the court, he brings, obviously, another talented guard. … He played a great game. In the second half, he looked a lot more comfortable. Just expect him to get better and better with more time.”

What does it all mean? It’s fair to assume Irving’s performance will improve game by game if Duke continues to advance, and it’s more likely to stay alive with Irving. His return allows Smith, who has been an excellent point guard in the interim, to play more without the ball. As well as Smith has done, Irving is much better at involving everyone in the offense, especially 6’10 Mason Plumlee. In addition, with more depth at guard, the Blue Devils can intensify the frequency of their fullcourt pressure defense.

Without Irving, Duke has been an excellent team, good enough to beat North Carolina twice and win the ACC Tournament. Now, it might develop again into a great team. The talk of an undefeated season, back in the giddy days of November and December, wasn’t realistic; that simply doesn’t happen in college basketball anymore. But the Blue Devils could go unbeaten in their next five, and that would be a joyful plenty.

* If Duke-Hampton was the game Friday with the most sweeping national impact, Michigan vs. Tennessee was by far the strangest. You’d never predict that a 19-14 Big Ten team would so overwhelm one with a 20-13 record from the Big Ten; going in, it certainly seemed like a matchup of equals. But the Wolverines trounced the Volunteers 75-45, and even though Duke now moves on to play Michigan, it’s impossible to tell if the Blue Devils are in for a real battle in that one or if the margin of victory is misleading as an indicator of anything.

Of course, the reason it’s so difficult to assess the Wolverines’ lopsided victory is that Tennessee is laboring under some of the most dispiriting circumstances imaginable — the uncertain future of coach Bruce Pearl, which, of course, is of his own making, is unfolding in the media and in the minds of his players. Pearl’s status has been a distraction all season, and, since a set of remarks Wednesday by Volunteers’ athletic director Mike Hamilton, it has emerged as a full-blown sideshow.

In an interview with a Knoxville radio station, Hamilton was asked whether Pearl will coach Tennessee next season. “We don’t know the answer today,” he said. “We’ve done a lot of soul searching about the direction of our program, and we’ll continue to do that, and we’ll decide after we’re out of the NCAA Tournament what direction it is that we’re going to go next.”

That obvious lack of commitment to Pearl, though hardly surprising given the recruiting transgressions to which he has admitted, has echoed back and forth throughout the state of Tennessee and no doubt in his players’ psyches. For sure, it looked as if they were simply overwhelmed by it all in the second half of their game with Michigan. After trailing by a mere 33-29 at the end of the first 20 minutes, the Volunteers appeared to just give up and were outscored 42-16. Outrun, outshot, outplayed, outrebounded, outhustled.

Freshman forward Tobias Harris was asked during post-game interviews to explain what happened. “We just didn’t play with … heart out there,” he said. “I mean, Michigan came out, made shots, and we just did a terrible job of trying to cover them, and on the offensive end we rushed too many shots, and, you know, basically you just quit.”

Pearl acknowledged much the same: “We didn’t play with heart and … we were terribly discouraged by the margin, the quality of Michigan’s play, the poorness of our own play, and we did let down. We unraveled.”

Pearl has confessed wrongful recruiting contacts and lying to the NCAA during its investigation of them, prompting the SEC to suspend him for Tennessee’s first eight regular-season games and Hamilton to slash his pay $1.5 million over four seasons. So if Hamilton has decided to fire Pearl, it won’t surprise anyone.

All of which makes it impossible to tell if Michigan is as good as it looked. Was the Wolverines’ dominance a sign of the type of hot streak that middling at-large teams occasionally hit during the NCAA Tournament, a signal that Duke will encounter a true test when it faces the Wolverines, or was it nothing more than a case of the motivated vs. the unmotivated?

The answers to those questions will emerge in Sunday’s game. The answer about Pearl’s status probably won’t take a whole lot longer.

* Washington guard Isaiah Thomas, he of the iconic and evocative name, was the primary difference Friday between his team and Georgia, the main reason the Huskies came out on top 68-65. He could have a similar effect Sunday when Washington plays North Carolina, which defeated Long Island 102-87.

Although the Tar Heels were in front nearly all the way, the Blackbirds trailed by just 97-87 with 1:54 to go. Stranger things have happened than 10-point collapses; despite its 27-7 record and No. 2 seed in the tournament, North Carolina is a team with flaws that opponents can exploit. For example, Long Island, a No. 15 seed, scored more fastbreak points (30-23), got more from its substitutes (30-23) and nearly matched the much bigger Tar Heels in the paint (44-46). North Carolina won because of remarkably powerful performances by forwards John Henson (28 points, 11 rebounds, six blocks) and Harrison Barnes (24 points, 16 rebounds) and center Tyler Zeller (32 points).

But Henson, Barnes and Zeller are unlikely to exert the same dominance against Washington, which is a significantly better team than Long Island. And that puts the pressure squarely on the Tar Heels’ guards, who are, in tournament-level competition, a mixed bag.

Kendall Marshall is a breathtaking playmaker and passer who has righted the ship for North Carolina since taking over at the point midway through the season; however, he is not fleet of foot and probably can’t keep up with Thomas. Starter Dexter Strickland, playing with an injured knee, is nevertheless the Tar Heels’ best backcourt defender and their only real option at the point, but he is an abysmal shooter from anywhere other than close to the rim; in his two years at North Carolina, he has hit 24.6 percent of his three-point attempts. Backup Leslie McDonald, the best outside scorer other than Barnes, was 0-for-7 from the floor against Long Island.

If Thomas’ quickness and speed limit Marshall’s minutes, a guard tandem of Strickland and McDonald is apt to struggle. In the ACC Tournament championship game, when Duke’s Nolan Smith was too much for Marshall, the Blue Devils took a comparatively easy 75-58 win.

Make no mistake; Thomas, even if not quite as good as his namesake, is a stunning talent. A 5’9 junior, he absolutely controlled the decisive phases of the second half against Georgia. He finished with 19 points and seven assists, and was the stabilizing presence his teammates needed as the Bulldogs’ desperate late-game rally made it close.

For Washington, he’s a real advantage. For North Carolina, he’s a problem.

rtmsf (3954 Posts)

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