Weekend NCAA Diary From Charlotte

Posted by rtmsf on March 22nd, 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: Charlotte, NC
Round: Third
Teams: Duke, Michigan, North Carolina, Washington
Date: 20 March 2011
Correspondent: Frank Barrows

Tar Heel Fans Get Into It vs. Washington Sunday (CO/D. Foster)

I spent the weekend covering the NCAA tournament games in Charlotte. When I trudged out of the arena Sunday night, my briefcase bulging with hundreds of pieces of paper — stat sheets, team brochures, transcripts of interviews, rosters, etc. — that I had acquired over four days, here’s what I was thinking about:

* A year ago, Kyrie Irving and Harrison Barnes were two of the country’s very top high school basketball players, Nos. 1 and 2 or Nos. 2 and 1 in the eyes of many, excepting the Jared Sullinger partisans.  However, both had rocky starts to their college careers. After eight excellent games for Duke, Irving injured a ligament in his right big right toe and was put in a cast. From the outset, Barnes shot poorly, as if he hadn’t worked on his jumper for weeks before enrolling at North Carolina, and, worse, he played with neither assertiveness nor confidence. The only consolation for Blue Devils’ fans who were mourning the loss of Irving was that Barnes, who had famously and surprisingly chosen North Carolina over Duke in a photo-finish announcement on national televison, was playing so badly. They drowned their sorrows in schadenfreude.

Now, unimaginable as it was at the end of December, Irving and Barnes are central figures, perhaps their team’s central figures, in the week of the Sweet Sixteen.  Irving, a 6’2 point guard, played for the first time in months in the Charlotte NCAA rounds and has recaptured his form nearly as quickly as his slashingly acrobatic drives carry him from beyond the key to the rim.  In total, in the two games, he was on the court for 41 minutes, scoring 25 points and sinking all but one of 14 free throws. He hit the game-winning basket with 19.3 seconds left as Duke downed Michigan 73-71 Sunday, a close-in driving bank shot as he slipped along the baseline with the Blue Devils leading by just one. He appeared to suffer no lingering effects, physical or psychological, from his injury. He was more than fit as a fiddle; he looked like a Stradivarius.

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski had lots to say about Irving. Listen to some remarks from his post-game interview: “We wouldn’t be going forward if he didn’t play. … Kyrie is a heck of a pentrator. … If he plays the whole year, he might be the best player in college basketball. … I think a real big reason why we won today is that he got 20 in (the Hampton game). … You’ve got to get back on stage. I don’t care how much you practice, you got to get back on stage and then do your dancing and singing or whatever … in front of people … We now know that Kyrie will play, and he can play extended minutes. We knew he could play; we didn’t know rusty he would be. … He kept getting better, hit the big shot, and we know that he wants to be there with pressure. That’s a big thing, going forward.”

Barnes, a 6’8 forward, has improved steadily over the course of the season. He started taking important shots in the middle of January, then began making them more and more consistently and spectacularly, and, recently, peaked with such demonstrations as a 40-point showing in the ACC tournament against Clemson and a 24-point-and-16 rebound effort versus Long Island in the Tar Heels’ second-round NCAA matchup. His field-goal percentage, once as low as a good batting average, is now up to 42.3 and rising. The tentativeness that marked his game early in the season is gone, replaced by something that is as far short of swagger as it is well above hesitancy. For example, with North Carolina ahead of Washington 84-80, he missed a jump shot and a drive with in a few seconds; in December he wouldn’t have attempted the second after missing the first.

Barnes, averaging a team-leading 15.5 points, is the best three-point shooter in the Tar Heels’ starting lineup, and because outside scoring is their weakness, he is indispensably vital. Irving, despite the presence of the always remarkable Nolan Smith and the often remarkable Kyle Singler, is, as Krzyzewski pointed out, a guy who wants the ball in the waning minutes. What’s more, even if he continues as a substitute, he gives the Blue Devils a depth they have been lacking for months.  Plus, as his team’s most instinctive playmaker, he can help overcome the late-game problems Duke encountered with Michigan’s 1-3-1 zone, difficulties that surely have been replayed on tape in the offices of every coach who might face the Blue Devils the rest of the way.  For Irving and Barnes, that rest of the way, their path to the Final Four, is growing shorter and shorter.

* Mine has been a life marked by bad timing. Trust me; I’m not going into the details here. They are, at the least, embarrassing, and, I fear at worst, legally actionable. However, in the best blind-pig-and-acorn tradition, I lucked into a streak of prescience while live-blogging from the tournament.  Here’s what I sent out during North Carolina’s victory Friday over Long Island: “…the Tar Heels’ John Henson demonstrated once again that he is a master at guarding inbound passes. Although he’s 6’10, the length of his arms and his quick springiness make him lethal if you’re trying to throw the ball in.”   I followed that up Sunday with this early-game observation: “…Henson does not look on his game today, and, understandably, appears frustrated. For instance, when towering over Washington’s 5’9 Isaiah Thomas while guarding an inbounds, he wasn’t his usual bundle of leaping springiness and energetic arm action. Thomas got the ball in easily, which doesn’t happen often when Henson is defending a pass from out of bounds.” 

Finally, this came right after North Carolina slipped past Michigan 86-83 Sunday: “And as Washington, trailing by just 84-83 with 7.4 seconds left, worked from the baseline underneath its basket to go for a game-winning shot, Henson deflected the inbounds pass at the peak of his energetic jump, and teammate Dexter Strickland came up with it. Strickland was fouled, hit the one-and-one free throws, and that was it.”

* Henson, although only in his sophomore year, is now firmly on my all-time North Carolina defensive squad, along with Bobby Jones (class of ’74), Dudley Bradley (’79) and Derrick Phelps (’94). The fifth spot goes to Michael Jordan (left school in ’84), not only because he was a stifling defender but also because you can’t pick any sort of all-time North Carolina team without him. Henson averages 3.2 blocked shots and has been named national defensive player of the year by two organizations.)

* I’ll stick this in now so I don’t forget it: The Tar Heels play Marquette on Friday in Newark, N.J., in the East Regional. I’m emptying the pages of my notebook page by page, and that’s what’s on the next one.

* Duke guard Seth Curry has had a rough time in two recent games that were fraught with emotional significance for him. The first was a February 26 defeat at Virginia Tech, in which Curry went 0-for-the-whole-night and the Blue Devils fell 64-60. Curry, of course, wanted to go there yet was not offered a scholarship by coach Seth Greenberg, even though his father Dell was the school’s all-time leading scorer before going on to a splendid 16-year NBA career, and there have been hard feelings.

The other difficult outing came over the weekend, when he went 0-for-the-entire-afternoon as Duke edged Michigan 73-71 in the second part of his homecoming weekend. Curry, who played high school ball at Charlotte Christian, was respectable with nine points as the Blue Devils beat Hampton 87-45 Friday in their NCAA opener.  Sunday, however, was a different story. In 23 minutes, he missed the three shots he managed to get up and wasn’t a factor. It left me wondering how he will respond to the Thursday’s West Regional matchup with Arizona, the biggest test of his career.  Curry has performed well in this season’s three major-pressure games against uber-rival North Carolina, scoring 22, 20 and 12 points.  He’s Duke’s No. 4 scorer at 9.2, but his record is distressingly spotty when the stakes, emotional or otherwise, are at their highest.

* You’ll recall that, back at the beginning, I mentioned the massive amounts of paper that I lugged out of Time Warner Cable Arena. I love that stuff, the sheets of information that college sports information directors put out (“Joe Leeper is now the only player in the history of the Middle Mountain Valley Conference with 1,250 points, 500 rebounds, 200 steals, 150 blocks and 15 technical fouls…) and the slick brochures that tell you all you would want to know about players, including their junior high school French Club achievements.  Of course, there’s plenty that I love even more about basketball. The squeak of rubber-soled shoes on a wood court, as a handful of players shoot an hour and a half before tipoff. The quiet excitement of seeing an exceptional talent for the first time, or a great one for the umpteenth. The pep bands and crowd noise at the under-four play stoppage during a tense game. The beauty of a well-executed screen. The big and bold call by a referee.

I’ll stop there, and get to the point. As I was walking toward the floor for Sunday’s Duke-Michigan game, I saw a sportswriter who was a colleague of mine decades ago when I covered important games on a regular basis, before my journalism career took me in other directions.  He nodded at me, and then, shaking his head, he spoke with a tired frustration, undergirded by an edge of cynicism, even anger: “Another day, another game.”  I know he saw the game; I saw him settling into his press row seat a minute later.  I also know, and it makes me sad for him, that he missed all the joy.

Location: Charlotte, NC
Round: Second
Teams: Duke, Hampton, Michigan, Tennessee, North Carolina, Long Island, Washington, Georgia
Date: 18 March 2011

Ed. Note: Frank’s diary from Friday focused prospectively on the Sunday games in Charlotte, so we went ahead and published it on Sunday morning.  It can be located here

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