Weekend NCAA Diary From Denver

Posted by rtmsf on March 21st, 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 weekend 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…

Note: for all of the opening weekend diaries, click here.

Location: Denver, CO
Round: Third
Teams: Morehead State, Richmond, BYU, Gonzaga
Date: 19 March 2011

God Bless Jimmerica, Indeed

  • The crowds at the Pepsi Center have been good both days, with stated attendances in the 18,000-19,000 range. The place seemed to be completely full for BYU-Gonzaga tonight, and arguably 75% of that crowd was either a BYU fan or a Jimmer Fredette fan, whichever comes first. Considering that the closest school was in fact BYU (roughly 500 miles away), and that there were no Big 12 schools in town for this weekend’s games, there’s no other way to spin it than to say that the Denver site was a resounding success.
  • In the Richmond vs. Morehead State game, it was clear from the first few minutes that UR wasn’t going to let themselves get rattled by the situation of playing for a trip to the schools’ second-ever Sweet Sixteen. They acted and played like a much higher seed than a #12, while Morehead State was the team that looked considerably more shaky. Kenneth Faried said about the Richmond defense, afterward: “The whole team, we couldn’t get in a rhythm. That’s a credit to Richmond. That defense is great and it’s hard to play against if you never played against it.”
  • Kenneth Faried has impressed the hell out of me in several ways this weekend. First, his motor doesn’t stop for anything. I spent one entire four-minute segment during today’s game tracking his movements, and it was fascinating to see how he reacted to the ball’s position on the floor. The only way to describe his activity underneath the basket is relentless — he never stops moving and as soon as the ball goes up he figures out a way to get as close to the rim as he can., and his second and third jumps are often just as explosive as his first. I also noticed that he sometimes tries to utilize the Dennis Rodman technique of tipping the ball away from the traffic to himself so that he can catch it under control. Second, even at only 6’8, his defensive abilities near the rim are NBA-quality. His hand-on-leather rejection of Justin Harper’s drive at the very peak of his jump was spectacular and had the crowd buzzing about it for a good while afterward. Third, his attitude is a winning one — often smiling, clapping and supporting his teammates, Faried is confident but not cocky. He has the general makeup of a player who came into his talents later in his basketball career, someone who seems to truly appreciate that he’s having the time of his life playing the game that he loves. NBA scouts are going to nitpick his size and his extremely raw offensive game, but his heart and tenacity are characteristics that cannot be taught and will end up serving some NBA team very well in the long run. The kid is a winner.

Faried is a Quality Kid With a Bright Future

  • The way Richmond is playing now, it’s somewhat hard to believe that they were on the bubble until making a run through the Atlantic 10 Tournament last weekend. The Spiders’ talent in no way approximates some mid-major #12 seed — between the speed of Kevin Anderson, the length and shooting ability of Justin Harper, the touch of Dan Geriot and the wowing athleticism of Darrius Garrett, you feel like you’re watching an ACC or SEC team more than an Atlantic 10 squad. Then when you consider that all of these players have been together for at least three seasons, you can understand why they’re peaking so well right now. Not many teams even in those leagues have two 6’9 or 6’10 players like Harper and Geriot who have the ability to make long mid-range jumpers (and in Harper’s case, threes). These kinds of players, inasmuch as they exist, usually end up at places like Maryland or Texas or Florida, not Richmond. Of course the Spiders will have their hands full with Kansas next weekend, but if Boston U. can play with KU for more than a half, there’s no reason to believe that these guys cannot.
  • I love that Dan Geriot had a great Third Round game tonight, with 13/7 and showing a real confidence in his shot from the mid-range (and even knocking down a three in the second half to essentially put the game away). If you’re unaware, Geriot was a rising superstar after his sophomore season (averaging 14/6), but a summer ACL injury in 2008 robbed him of some of the already-marginal athleticism that he had, and he had to sit out the entire 2008-09 season. His redshirt junior year was a struggle, as his numbers fell across the board, and only this year has he been able to find a groove as a sweet-passing center less reliant on scoring than on picking spots to complement his talented colleagues. These are the stories that make college basketball great.

  • Although it feels like it — and Jay Bilas tweeted out that Richmond is a “usual suspect” in terms of making the Sweet Sixteen, the truth is that they’ve been more of a giant-killer than a regular in the regionals. The Spiders have only made one Sweet Sixteen, and that was back in 1988 with Dick Tarrant as their head coach. Naysayers might argue that UR was the recipient of a favorable draw in that Morehead was waiting on them in the Third Round rather than Vanderbilt, but the truth is that I think they would have beaten the Commodores as well. The Sweet Sixteen is usually where runs like these end for teams like Richmond, but the long-term effects on recruiting and exposure are incalculable for Chris Mooney and his program.
  • Donnie Tyndall addressed the state of his program after this, the fifth year of his tenure there. Frankly, it might be the right time for him to jump ship if a good offer comes along. As he said during the presser, when he first got to Morehead State, there were maybe “1000 people in the gym… now they pack the place.” The school’s win total has gone from “12 to 15 to 20 to 24 and now 25,” but with a once-in-a-lifetime type of player like Kenneth Faried leaving campus for the NBA this spring, it’s unlikely that upward trajectory can continue. For Morehead State, earning a #13 seed and winning a first round game over an in-state rival like Louisville to get to the Round of 32… well, that’s a dream season. No doubt Tyndall will get some sniffs from some schools, so it might be worth exploring. He may never be hotter as a coach than he is right now.
  • The BYU-Gonzaga nightcap of course represented Act I of what will become a long-running passion play between new conference rivals beginning in the WCC next season. Both fanbases are extremely loyal and boisterous about their basketball teams, and it will certainly be interesting to note if the WCC member schools eventually turn a cold shoulder to BYU in the same manner that the Mountain West schools have. It was incredibly peculiar to me that, during San Diego State’s double-overtime game versus Temple, the Cougar faithful seemed to have no particular interest in how the Aztecs fared. When the score would be announced, there was barely a ripple through the crowd one way or another. As a longtime attendee of NCAA games, let me tell you to those of you who may not know — this NEVER happens. Almost always there will be some kind of a reaction to a game like that involving a conference rival, but not today, and not with BYU fans. Maybe they’re just over it?
  • Coming into this game today, I thought that Mark Few would tell his players to pound the ball inside to the post players over and over again, because that’s where Gonzaga had a considerable advantage without Brandon Davies available for BYU. They certainly got the message, as 32 of GU’s 37 first-half points came from Robert Sacre, Elias Harris, Sam Dower and Kelly Olynyk. I felt that this strategy backfired a little bit, though, in the sense that the Zags spent so much time looking to get the ball inside that the guards who had played so well on Thursday — Stephen Gray, Meech Goodson, Marquise Carter – got completely out of any offensive rhythm. By the time the threes started raining from the BYU players, Gonzaga had nothing from the perimeter by which to counter.
  • At least for a half, GU’s Elias Harris played like the NBA lottery pick that everyone expected him to be prior to this season, with an 18/8 night. He was active, hitting jumpers and driving the ball to the rim. One dunk was so powerful that the entire basket stanchion rattled around for a good while after, showing just how strong he is when he attacks the rim. He’s certainly dealt with injuries this season that have limited his effectiveness, but the tools are certainly there to become a big-time player in a few short years. Let’s hope he sticks around Spokane for at least one more possibly dominant season.
  • The Jimmer was certainly feeling his shot tonight (34 points on 11-23 FG and 7-12 3FG), and it was easy to tell that he was in the first half when he started taking (and making) the high-degree of difficulty shots that he’s become known for. Perhaps the most ridiculous was a fading to the right three that he hit– shoulders squared, of course — that announced to the crowd that he was not going to be bothered with defense tonight. I’ll say that seeing him do what he does in person versus watching it on television are two different things. He routinely pulls up and takes shots that 99% of Division I basketball players would immediately get pulled from the game for taking — and yet, he makes a fair number of them and even many of his misses are only off by inches. Sometimes your eyes can’t believe that he has the cojones to even take such a shot.

The Legend of Jimmer Only Grows

  • That said, the guy is an absolute rock star. The BYU faithful crowded both sides of the court after the game to get pictures and yell praise at their conquering hero. The last player I remember getting so much adulation from people like this was, coincidentally, Gonzaga’s Adam Morrison. The Jimmer seems to take it well, smiling and waving to the crowd with the knowing confidence of a player who realizes he can regularly drain thirty-footers. A conversation that I overheard after the game between two BYU fans crystallizes what I’m referring to: Fan #1 says to the other one, “I don’t care what Kemba Walker does the rest of the way… Jimmer HAS to be Player of the Year. He’s just incredible. He has to get it. The competition is over after tonight.” Of course, Walker could score 100 points and hit five buzzer-beaters in a row and I’m sure that this particular Cougar fan would still think Fredette was the NPOY, but listening to the strain in his voice when he was talking about it suggested to me that he’s seriously worried about this. His entire day, week, or month will be ruined if The Jimmer doesn’t win the award — that’s the kind of stargazing I’m talking about.
  • This game came down to BYU going 14-28 from outside the arc tonight, and Gonzaga having no way to stop them. As Fredette said after the game, “that’s basketball… BYU-Florida in the regional semifinals will be interesting if for no other reason than the two teams played in the First Round last season, and Jimmer went off against the Gator defense for 37 points. His height and leaping ability on his shot will make for all kinds of problems for (presumably) Kenny Boynton and whoever else is assigned to guard Fredette. A few days ago, I would have said no way to BYU getting to the Final Four, but now… now, I’m not so sure, especially with top seed Pittsburgh already out of the Southeast Region.

Location: Denver, CO
Round: Second
Teams: Louisville, Morehead State, Vanderbilt, Richmond, BYU, Wofford, St. John’s, Gonzaga
Date: 17 March 2011

  • From the “spirited fanbase” collection, a Morehead State fan spent a solid two to three minutes during warmups screaming at Louisville’s Mike Marra in the pre-game warmups about his big miss in the final seconds of the Big East Championship game last weekend. The words “choker” and “loser” and “you suck” were thrown around until, finally, it appeared that his wife or girlfriend reeled him back in. Marra didn’t seem to care, but with a sparse crowd at the time and no band noise, the guy’s voice was ringing throughout the arena. How’s that for southern fried hospitality from the Bluegrass State?
  • Even with the win, I’m not sure how much Kenneth Faried helped himself today in terms of draft stock. The Louisville size really bothered him on the offensive end, repeatedly causing him to force shots up too hard or getting blocked with their length. He started 1-9 from the field, finished 4-17, and although he has very quick feet and can jump out of the gym, he’s confused and hesitant in terms of offensive capabilities. Given that he’s already a senior, I wouldn’t expect his offense to ever really “come around” other than on putbacks and dunks in transition, but he could really become a defensive stopper and rebounding machine off the bench at the next level.
  • I’ve never been a big Peyton Siva fan, but twice in the final moments he sliced the MSU defense and went left to draw two defenders and dumped off to Terrence Jennings for an easy layup/dunk. Had it not been for missed FTs, Louisville would have won this game and Siva’s plays down the stretch would have been the primary reason. His overall performance (3/3/3 assts with 5 TOs and 4 fouls) was poor, but the two assists in the final minute were game-winning type of plays.
  • Just a big time play for Demonte Harper, whom Donnie Tyndall gave the ball with instructions to win the game with a few seconds to go. It was interesting that the coach decided to go with Harper (0-5 from three at the time) instead of Terrance Hill, who had been on fire all game long (5-6 from three). It cannot be overstated just how huge a win this was for the Eagles to beat an in-state powerhouse and a legendary coach like Pitino. In a hoops-crazy state where the Wildcats and Cardinals get all the attention, this will have serious reverberations around the MSU campus for some time.
  • I was able to capture video of the final Louisville possession and the ensuring Morehead State celebration. Utter jubilation on the part of their players and coaching staff.

  • For the second year in a row, Vanderbilt was punished by allowing a lower seed to hang around until the very end of the game, at which time the Commodore defense was unable to get the stops necessary to advance in this Tournament. After a couple of nice runs earlier in his career, Kevin Stallings is starting to feel the heat from Vandy fans for dropping first round games to mid-majors. In three of the last four seasons, VU has been a #4 or #5 seed and gone home on the first day of the Dance — the conquerers were Siena (#13), Murray State (#13) and now Richmond (#12). The Siena loss was a blowout, but in both of the last two meltdowns, Vandy simply wasn’t able to put away teams early, and their defense failed them down the stretch.
  • Everyone in the building was impressed with the size and athleticism of Vandy center Festus Ezeli, who went for 21/8. He had a perfect first half with 5-5 from the field and 13 pts and has feasted (Fest-ed?) on the slighter Justin Harper and Dan Geriot inside. The Richmond defense keyed on him in the second half to slow him down somewhat, but the primary reason Vandy lost this game came on the other end of the floor, not here.
  • Kevin Anderson caught fire and went on a 9-0 run by himself to bring UR back into the game in the mid-second half when it appeared that Vandy might pull away. I couldn’t be more impressed with his play, as he played all forty minutes (scoring 24 points) and basically put the team on his back offensively when they most needed it. In the postgame, he made reference to his 6’0 (ahem) stature with a comment that he’s “been the same size his whole life,” eliciting a few chuckles from the assembled media who no doubt were picturing a three-year old KA who was also six feet tall.
  • If you can get into a zone defensively, Richmond’s Darius Garrett found it in the second half of this game. He came off the bench to record five blocks, but at least two of them down the stretch were poor calls by the referee underneath and it seemed like he had two or three more. He also had six against Arizona State and four against Seton Hall this season, yet only averages 1.6 blocks on the year, suggesting to me that maybe he gets more amped up for paying the power conference teams… to prove something against their big men. I know this much — he can elevate with anybody in college basketball.
  • Kevin Stallings made an NCAA boo-boo in the postgame when he said that there’s a lot of parity and that he actually checked the Vegas lines before the games Thursday to see how close they were. He said that most of the games were all 2-3 points (Vandy was in fact favored by three) and nobody should be surprised that these games are close and #5 seed lost to a #12 seed. Acknowledging some pressure on the higher seed to advance, he said, “we tightened up on a couple of the FTs. That’s the nature of this tournament.”
  • In the BYU-Wofford game, Jimmer Fredette didn’t even attempt a jump shot early; he took it to the hole early with two drives for and-1 opportunities. I was interested to know if Fredette would get any reputation calls here in the NCAA Tournament with non-Mtn West referees, and it appeared to me that he got a couple in the first half. He definitely works the refs for calls when he doen’t get one — he’s not overt, but he does talk to them. It wasn’t a great game for The Jimmer, all in all. He ended up with 32 points, but he was only 2-9 from three, and 10-25 overall. He dished seven assists but also had four turnovers. Clearly he’s going to have to play better for BYU to advance deep into this Tournament.
  • Wofford’s Noah Dahlman is an ugly yet effective player. There’s absolutely nothing I like about his game, including his weird FT motion, and yet he ended up with 22/9 in this game. His head coach, Mike Young, said afterward that playing in the Mile High City didn’t bother him “at all” in an effort to dodge a question about a South Carolina team playing at elevation, but I don’t think there’s any doubt that the Terriers legs gave out in the last 8-10 minutes of this game. As to their strategy, Young stated that they played the odds in terms of trying to defend BYU by focusing all their energies on Fredette and hoping that their big men (Noah Hartsock, Logan Magnusson and Charles Abouo in particular) wouldn’t step up. The problem is that they did, combining for 30/17 among them.
  • One amusing moment from the press conference was when Fredette fielded a question asking what it felt like to finally get a dunk in a game this year. He chafed at the assertion, immediately retorting with an “I’ve had dunks…” response. A quick YouTube search revealed, that yes, in fact, the Jimmer has dunked this year.

  • I was really excited for the St. John’s – Gonzaga game at the end of the day, but that quickly vanished when it became all too apparent that the Zags on this night were the far superior team. I sensed that there was a little bit of Gonzaga wanting to take it at the kids from NYC for daring to think that they could play schoolyard ball with them. To watch the two teams and realize that the size and strength resided with the WCC squad from Spokane and not the Big East team from Queens is a little disconcerting. That’s the truth, though, especially since DJ Kennedy had gotten injured in the Big East Tournament and was not available for Steve Lavin. His absence inside for St. John’s was huge; all night long the Red Storm were reaching for balls that the bigger and longer Zags were getting to. I’m not convinced it would have changed the outcome of this game, but SJU probably wouldn’t have gotten ripped.
  • It amazes me that a very short while ago Gonzaga was in serious danger of not even making the NCAA Tournament, and tonight they simply dominated a Big East team that had a wonderful year. It’s a testament to Mark Few and his ability to develop his team to get these guys to a point where they’re staring at a game one step away from the the Sweet Sixteen this year. If you go back to early January, two teams that looked in danger of not making the NCAAs and breaking long streaks were Butler and these Zags. Now they’re both still dancing. That’s called coaching.

Lavin Not as Happy Go Lucky As Usual

  • Steve Lavin made some interesting postgame comments about the Zags. First, he said that they were the “best offensive team we’ve faced this year,” which sounds like coachspeak but certainly couldn’t be based in reality with all the good teams in the Big East this year. He also made mention that his seniors who he inherited this season “are going to look back and realize that they brought St. John’s basketball back,” a statement that appears to be true but will ultimately rest with how well Lavin continues to do with recruiting and coaching his young players up.
  • Mark Few said that he thought that his team’s previous NCAA experience was important in a game against a team that had none. He went on to say that GU making the Tournament twelve straight times is a feat unto itself, “there’s nothing guaranteed,” he said, noting that a lot of teams don’t make it “from the Carolinas to Syracuses to UCLAs.”
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