Weekend NCAA Diary From Cleveland

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: Cleveland, OH
Round: Third
Teams: Ohio State, George Mason, Marquette, Syracuse
Date: 20 March 2011
Correspondent: John Stevens

It Wasn't To Be This Time Around

  • My goodness, what a difference 48 hours makes for George Mason. They went from the heights to the depths so fast that I hope they adjusted their gas mixtures. On Friday, after their victory over Villanova, people were talking about GMU as an Elite Eight sleeper and I even heard some radio chatter about how they looked like a team who could rekindle the magic from that Final Four season in 2006. They even got a great call from Gus Johnson in that game. Then they ran into Ohio State. And for about nine minutes, they actually played Ohio State. It was a bloodbath thereafter. In the post-game talk, GMU players Ryan Pearson and Cam Long looked like victims of a brainwashing, like two fellows who has just been abducted by aliens and then had their memories erased. They knew something had happened to them, but they still weren’t sure what. Their expressions were a mixture of confusion, disbelief, and anger regarding how they could run into a team that good AND that hot on this night. Everyone in the gym knew that the talent disparity between GMU and OSU wasn’t THAT big, but, as Long said, “We scouted David Lighty as their FOURTH option, ‘a likely shooter.’ But sometimes when you have that night, you have that night.” That’s the most disappointing thing for GMU and their fans. At WORST, you hope to catch OSU on an average night, or hey, maybe you’ll luck out and run into them when they’re off. But when you catch that Ohio State team on a night in which it seemed they could not miss even if they tried, well…you feel like you’ve been cheated something. And Gus got to rest those pipes.
  • I think that serves as further evidence that Ohio State, despite being the best team in the country for the entire second half of the season (and probably most of the first half of it), has improved, themselves. They haven’t remained static at the top, they’ve gotten better as the season progressed. What I’m specifically talking about is that, before the Buckeyes’ game against the Patriots, there was a buzz in Quicken Loans Arena. The Buckeye fans with whom I spoke were fearful of Mike Morrison on the inside and they thought the GMU guards might have been quick enough to stay in front of their own (they didn’t know that Luke Hancock had been declared a scratch). They liked their squad’s chances, obviously. But on the other side, you could also see the Mason fans licking their chops and rubbing their hands together as if anticipating something miraculous. Even a few of the media types I spoke with wondered if this was setting up like Northern Iowa/Kansas. Well, after about nine minutes of game time, that buzz in the arena was replaced with the droning hum of the well-maintained and well-oiled OSU machine. There were reasons the Ohio State players could have felt vulnerable and/or lost focus. Pittsburgh, a 1-seed, had been sent home the night before. It would have been easy to look past Mason to a waiting Kentucky team. Take your pick of several others. Lose focus, though? Yeah. You saw the result.
  • I can’t wait until next year for Aaron Craft. I know there are still some excellent Aaron Craft moments to come this year, but even without fellows like Diebler, Lauderdale, and probably Sullinger around, Ohio State will still be a solid team and Craft will have plenty of people to pass to. He’ll start, and he’ll likely take on more of the scoring load. There has been no Buckeye, and few players at all, who I’ve enjoyed watching more this season. I was happy to see and hear the Craft-love steadily increase throughout the year, though I still maintain it’s still not at the level it should be. For my money, there’s your 1st team All-American point guard for next season. After the win over George Mason, fans and media alike were dizzy over Craft’s 15 assists, especially two of them — a 35-foot strike out of a double-team to an open teammate, and a roll-sling to another Buckeye from a ball he dived for after losing the handle, a pass he made from his backside. It’s an amazing number, but I guess when your teammates are drilling everything you set up for them, it shouldn’t come as that big of a shock.

  • After Marquette’s win over Syracuse on Sunday night, it was watching Buzz Williams’ life change right before my eyes. Following the Golden Eagles’ first victory over Xavier, Williams admitted that he paused for a few seconds in the moments just after the final buzzer to gaze into the crowd, take a deep breath, and soak it all in. He did the same thing after his boys dispatched the Orange. I was directly behind him the entire evening, and when the buzzer sounded, he froze. He didn’t move for a good two seconds until forced by the hug of an assistant coach. It was almost like he wasn’t totally sure they had won, and he didn’t want to celebrate prematurely. In his post-game press conference, when reminded that his regional would consist of his Marquette team plus North Carolina, Kentucky, and Ohio State, Williams said, “It’s four junior college guys up here, D.J. [Odom], Jae [Crowder], Jimmy [Butler], and Buzz. Four jukes. We were trying to figure out if we could eat at McDonalds or Burger King.” The win wouldn’t have meant any less to Syracuse’s fans, players, or coaches, but this is new territory for Williams, and he couldn’t hold back both his enjoyment and his emotion. Twice in the post-game he paused to collect himself, once when talking about his wife and family “making sacrifices, living a coach’s life,” and once while he recalled how his players were enjoying this. At the same time, he used the phrase “It’s not about me” several times, and even managed to quote Albert Einstein (“Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted”), and paraphrase Robert Frost (“Two roads diverged in a wood, those three guys and myself, we took the road less traveled”) when speaking about how he and the three aforementioned players came up through the junior college ranks. He even threw what I assumed to be some of his own material in there (“As you progress through life, whatever your goals may be, make sure you keep your eye on the doughnut and not on the hole”). I only got to watch him for the better part of two evenings, but considering the passion he brings to this, and how much he openly cares for his players and the program as a whole, well…I’m not here to shill for the Marquette program, but if you were one of his players, how could you not want to eat nails or walk through fire for this guy?

Location: Cleveland, OH
Round: Second
Teams: Ohio State, UT-San Antonio, George Mason, Xavier, Marquette, Villanova, Syracuse, Indiana State
Date: 18 March 2011

  • If I didn’t see a big lake and a lot of Cavaliers stuff around here — and I don’t mean on the inhabitants — I would have assumed that these NCAA 2nd and 3rd Round games were being played in Columbus. This whole long weekend it’s been a steady diet of scarlet, gray, and that ubiquitous cheer where someone yells “O-H!!!” and the response comes back from anywhere between three feet and 200 yards away, “I-O!!!” Every hotel lobby, every pub, every restaurant. I know, the NCAA bestows this geographical advantage on the top four seeds of every region, but there’s taking advantage and then there’s how the Buckeye failthful have taken advantage. It’s silly. I saw one establishment — one — that seemed to be dedicated to Syracuse fans, and I’ll admit, they appeared to be enjoying themselves with the Mumford & Sons pumping and everyone singing as I walked past after a stroll through the downtown area. Just because we’re between two and three hours north of Columbus, though, don’t make the mistake of thinking that the OSU effect is diminished. I’m not kidding. If I hadn’t known better, I would have mistaken the Cuyahoga for the Olentangy, there was so much scarlet and gray here.
  • I’m not afraid to tell you that I knew Marquette was going to beat Xavier about five minutes into that game. The Marquette coaching staff and players were up and applauding every good thing that happened to them — every made shot, every call that went their way, every nice cheer by the cheerleading squad. Everyone knows how tough Buzz Williams can be on his boys during practice, but during games, aside from the normal in-game admonishments from the coaches, there’s a lot of positive energy on that MU bench. The Xavier sideline was as silent as outer space, by comparison. Musketeers walked or, at best, shuffled in and out of the locker room and into and out of huddles. And that was before Jimmy Butler and Dwight Buycks had begun the systematic frustration of Tu Holloway. That’s what happens in March. After dedicating yourself all season, if you don’t commit yourself in March, you go home. Jimmy Butler had a great quote about how the whole team focused on stopping Holloway, and the likely effect it would have on the rest of the Musketeers: “When you have a guard like Tu Holloway on the opposing team, you kind of focus in on him like he’s Kemba Walker, because he’s the key to their team; he can do everything. You’ve got to be able to take him out of his game.”
  • Is there Mason Magic in store for this Tournament? Because of that amazing run in 2006, the mere mention of that school’s name will make any prospective opponent pay a little more attention in preparing to play against them in the Tournament. But even with that extra notice, Villanova still couldn’t summon the emotional maturity to finish off their game against the Patriots. They had a lead and they had experienced players, players who had played in a Final Four. Not only was Mason playing better basketball than Villanova at the end of the season (they were the higher-seeded team in this game, after all), they were the side that seemed more comfortable and calm in the later reaches of that game. When Luke Hancock hit that three from the corner with 21 seconds left, I thought Gus Johnson was going to stand on his chair during the call. A great moment for the Colonial, and another Big East team falls.
  • It’s tough to find things to write about from Ohio State’s 75-46 dismantling of Texas-San Antonio, though one thing that needs to be pointed out is that your leading Buckeye scorer on this day was not Jared Sullinger (11/9 in 28 minutes), nor was it Jon Diebler (14/4/5 asst). It was William Buford (18/6/5 asst). And when you see guys coming off the bench like Deshaun Thomas (13/8/3 asst) and the STILL underappreciated Aaron Craft (seven assists in 24 minutes), the thing to take home from this is that OSU has not only that vaunted third-scorer that you hear people crow about and insist that teams need to be successful in the Tournament, but they’ve got second and third assist guys, second and third rebounders, and so on; in other words, so many weapons who can perform numerous tasks as individuals. But you already knew OSU had a lot of weapons. That doesn’t surprise anyone to hear; what I think is remarkable is how they can get various tasks performed by any of them. They aren’t interchangeable parts, yet none of them are specialists.
  • Some people took a chance and quietly penciled in Indiana State to upset Syracuse in the first, er, second round of the Dance this year. At the 7:49 mark in the second half of their game on Friday the score was 56-46, and ISU was still playing with confidence. From that point on, you saw the effect of experience. You saw the effect of being tested in Big East games night after night. And you definitely saw a team that still stings from the loss to eventual finalist Butler in last season’s Tournament, and that ended any shot at an upset. But my goodness, this game ended after 12:30 AM ET on Saturday. When asked about the hour, Jim Boeheim — seemingly struggling to fight sleep with his head resting on his hand during the entire press conference — quipped, “I don’t think it effects the guys. It’s me. I had to watch the entire game before us in the back just to stay awake. The players, no. I don’t think we have too many guys going to bed at 9:00.”
  • One of my favorite players from Friday about whom I knew almost nothing: Indiana State freshman point guard Jake Odum. The Terre Haute native averaged 9.3 PPG and 4.1 APG on the year. On Friday he played five minutes longer (34) than he averaged per game during the season, and even with guys like Scoop Jardine, Brandon Triche, and Dion Waiters in his face all night at the top of that zone, Odum still fearlessly penetrated when he could, passed the ball beautifully, and contributed seven points and six assists. Not a bad Tournament debut at all. After the game, ISU coach Greg Lansing said of his PG, “I thought some of our guys, especially Jake Odum, I thought he showed that he belonged tonight. And with him, and the ball in his hands for the next three years, I certainly like our team.”
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