NCAA Regional Diary From Anaheim

Posted by rtmsf on March 28th, 2011

After another weekend of scintillating and shocking NCAA Tournament results, it’s time to check back in with our various correspondents who were in Anaheim, San Antonio, New Orleans and Newark reporting on the games this weekend. 

Location: Anaheim, CA 
Round: Regional Final
Teams: Connecticut, Arizona 
Date: 26 March 2011
Correspondent: Andrew Murawa

  • In the preview for this game, I talked about the idea that it wouldn’t necessarily be the stars that determined the outcome of this game, but the role players. While Kemba Walker and Derrick Williams led the way with 20 points each, the two All-Americans combined to make just two of their 13 attempts from beyond the arc and to shoot a combined 12-30 from the field. The big difference between the two is that Walker was able to take advantage of all the defensive attention that was being paid to him and trust his teammates to make big plays. Walker wound up with seven assists as teammates like Jeremy Lamb (19 points, two threes) and Shabazz Napier (ten points, two threes) came up big when called upon.  “Arizona did a great job of throwing two guys at me and I realized it kind of late,” said Walker. “But I was able to get Jeremy involved and he was able to make so big plays for us. Jeremy was on tonight, and I wanted to keep going to him.”
  • According to Jim Calhoun, it was Walker’s suggestion to repeatedly run Lamb off baseline screens in several late-game possessions. “Kemba says, ‘We got to get the ball to Jeremy!’ Now, I’ve had a lot of great players, and great players want the ball in their hands and he did some great things down the stretch obviously, but he’s saying to the coaches let’s not run cage, let’s run circle for Jeremy, and obviously it paid off great. And he looked at Jeremy and he said, ‘And you’ll make those shots, too.’ I don’t think there is any kid in America doing that. He’ll carry us and take over the game but as good as it has been, his play was great, his leadership even better.”
  • Jeremy Lamb was asked in the postgame press conference to comment on a UConn assistant coach’s statement that the freshman had been so great in the Tournament that it was like he didn’t even know where he was. What followed next proved beyond all doubt that Lamb really didn’t know where he was, as he turned to Coach Calhoun and Walker with a confused look on his face, prompting both of them to begin cracking up, then responded to the reports with “you mean like — what do you mean?” Alex Oriakhi cleared things up a bit, telling Lamb, “he wants to know if you have a pulse.” Lamb responded: “Well, no, I mean, I haven’t thought about it sinking in yet, I just like to go out there and play. I don’t like to think about where we’re playing and how big the stage is. Right now I’m just having fun playing basketball.”
  • Some 27 years ago, Jeremy Lamb’s father, Rolando Lamb, hit a game winning buzzer-beater to beat a Calhoun-coached Northeastern team in the NCAA Tournament. According to Calhoun, all is now forgiven. “I think that after his shot that beat us when he played for VCU I told him he owed me one and he certainly has – he’s paid me back ten-fold. That was just one game.”
  • For the second straight game, the Huskies were the beneficiaries of their opponent’s star forward getting in early foul trouble. And in both games, after taking a solid lead into the halftime locker room, UConn had to withstand numerous second-half charges, playing in what was essentially a road game. “When teams make runs, we don’t let it get to us because I guess we know we’re going to make runs back with Kemba and Jeremy Lamb being able to score the ball the way they’re able to,” said sophomore center Oriakhi.

  • It’s not like the Wildcat supporting cast played poorly, however, as junior Jesse Perry played arguably the best game of his career, going for 14 points and seven rebounds on seven-of-nine shooting and throwing down at least a couple major dunks in transition. Junior guard Kyle Fogg was equally important for Arizona, adding 11 points, a couple of threes, and 33 minutes of harassing defense as good as Walker has seen all season.
  • While Arizona head coach Sean Miller will have to wait on Williams’ decision on whether to declare for the NBA Draft or return to school (the consensus is that he is as good as gone and ready to be a very high pick), the future is looking glaringly bright for the Wildcats. “As the new coach, as the new staff, you want to restore order, so to speak, to allow our program to experience the great success that we’ve had for decades under Coach (Lute) Olson,” he said. “This is a trampoline and a springboard, I hope, for future runs in this tournament. That’s the goal. It’s hard to do, but this season and the things that we accomplished no question will feed toward us being able to do that in the future.”

Location: Anaheim, CA 
Round: Regional Semifinals
Teams: Connecticut, San Diego State, Arizona, Duke
Date: 24 March 2011

  • In the past 14 days, I’ve had the opportunity to watch Jimmer Fredette drop 52 points on New Mexico and Jacob Pullen go nuts in his final college game for 38 amazing points. Mixed in there were great performances by various Aztecs, Badgers, Owls and even Nittany Lions. On Thursday night, I got to watch three more surefire first team All-Americans, and there was plenty more drama and a couple truly special performances by a couple great college players. Unfortunately, mixed in there was a complete bust of a performance by Duke’s Nolan Smith in his final game in Blue Devil uniform: 3-14 from the field and six turnovers just two stats that fail to encapsulate how little the Nolan Smith that played on Thursday looked like the Nolan Smith we’ve seen all season.
  • The other two All-Americans on the court on Thursday night lived up to the high standards they have set from themselves all season long. Kemba Walker got off to a slow start early, but turned on the gas late and wound up with 36 points, wearing San Diego State guard Chase Tapley out as the game progressed, then feasting on bigger and slower Billy White when Steve Fisher turned to another option.
  • Later, it was Derrick Williams putting on a clinic in the first half against Duke, going for 25 points, five threes (including one right at the halftime buzzer in his defender’s face), six rebounds and a least a couple monster finishes in keeping his Wildcats around for 20 minutes. Williams added just seven more points  and seven more rebounds in the second half, but was no less effective, as his mere presence opened up space for his teammates who helped put together one of the most impressive halves of basketball I’ve seen this season.
  • SDSU had a major home court advantage in the first game Thursday, as not only did they bring along the most fans, but the Arizona fans jumped on the Aztec bandwagon early and often. After the Huskies ended the first half on a 19-5 run to take a nine-point lead into the half, SDSU got a boost from its fans early in the second half and put together a 21-9 run of their own to get back into the lead, in large part inspired by the rocking arena. Later, after UConn had fought back to another nine-point lead, again the Aztecs came charging back (with two D.J. Gay threes leading the way), but they were never to get back over the top again.
  • Two big technical fouls played major roles in SDSU’s eventual loss. First, sophomore Kawhi Leonard picked up a tech after committing a personal less than two minutes into the game, giving him two early fouls and limiting him to 13 first half minutes. Later, freshman Jamaal Franklin got teed up for bumping Kemba Walker as he was walking off the court after Jim Calhoun had called a timeout in an effort to stop the big 21-9 SDSU run. In the end, the timeout coupled with the Franklin technical did stop the run, and gave the Huskies a good start on their own 11-1 run to regain control. Head coach Steve Fisher was none too pleased with the way the referees handled either call.  On the Leonard call: “Both players were talking to one another, and Kawhi Leonard got hit with a technical foul and my comment was ‘at this level, at this stage could you not say something to them about?’ To me both guys were talking, and unfortunately for us, obviously, we get the technical and it’s Kawhi’s second foul early and he came out. But I was watching both of them as they were going and it was not one man talking, it was two.”
  • While Kemba Walker rightfully gets the most attention after this game, the Huskies don’t advance without the play of freshman Jeremy Lamb, who went for 24 points, knocked down all three of his threes and came up with a big leaping steal in the closing moments that lead to an easy dunk on the other end to just about seal the game for UConn. While some of the UConn youngsters seemed to tighten up in the second half when the crowd came alive, Lamb was the first to come back to life, and in doing so, he seemed to calm Shabazz Napier and Roscoe Smith down as well. He’s got one heck of a future ahead of him in Storrs.
  • Steve Fisher has gotten criticism in the past for his failure to make adjustments in close games, but he made a major one in the second half on Thursday that allowed the Aztecs to get back into the game. He had his team pick up the pace, apply more defensive pressure and even rush the ball upcourt following made UConn baskets. Doing so not only helped bring the crowd back into the game, but it allowed SDSU to take advantage of their superior athleticism in the open court. Now, Fisher’s decision to try to guard Kemba Walker with Billy White late in the game? Yeah, that he can be criticized for.
  • After 20 minutes of the second game, I was just amazed by what I had watched Derrick Williams do. And yet I harbored no illusions that Arizona had any chance in the second half. Duke would continue to extend the defense on Williams beyond the three-point line (as they had begun doing late in the first half) and they would keep a second pair of Plumlee eyes on Williams to help prevent any drives. In doing so, Williams would be contained (if not stopped ), the Wildcat role players would have to step up and win the game – and fail in their attempt – and Nolan Smith would come alive in the second have and Duke would romp. Yup. It was all as clear as day to me.
  • The difference on the boards in the second half was just the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen. Duke had seven total rebounds in the second half. Derrick Williams had seven himself. Arizona had been good on the glass in the first half (43.8 offensive rebounding percentage, 68.8% on the defensive glass), but in the second half it was domination. Arizona grabbed 61.1% of all of their available offensive rebounds, and 87.5% of Duke’s offensive rebound opportunities. Just stunning, and reflective of the fact that Duke didn’t just get outplayed last night. They got outworked.
  • I haven’t even begun to say enough about what Derrick Williams did last night. He started out by knocking down three threes, and not against bad defense, but Duke amped up the pressure against him, and he hit even another one. He was feeling it, so he forced one up (forcing shots is something he rarely does), just to do a heat check, and it was off, but with time running down in the half, he took the ball beyond the line on the wing, lazily dribbled the shotclock down, letting everybody in the gym know that he was going to let fly at the buzzer, and still drilled it with a hand right in his face. He then turned and walked off the court with his teammates without beating his chest or yelling into the crowd or anything. There was more work to be done. Interspersed with all those threes were post-up scores through Duke double-teams, a massive finish on the fast break, a spectacular athletic finish on a shot coming off the rim, rejecting shots on the defensive end and just willing his team into the game.
  • There’s the old saying about how shooting is contagious. Williams’ outburst in the first half clearly infected his teammates something awful. But we also learned on Thursday night that apparently dunking on the opposition’s face is contagious also, as Jamelle Horne, caught that disease from Williams and showed all the classic symptoms in the second half.
  • Mike Krzyzewski on Williams: “Williams, he’s just a superb player. He’s as good as anybody we’ve played, or I should say better than anybody we’ve played. He just gives you a presence all the time, that kid. He looks like he never gets tired. He can handle the ball. I think he’s actually their second-best ball handler, the way they were playing, to take nothing away from their other kids, but he is a unique player and as a result — like I thought Kyle did a decent job on him in the second half, but that means our bigs are guarding a little bit away from the basket and you’re spread out — when they did miss a shot — I thought their offensive rebounds were key in the second half to stop some momentum. And part of that is how he plays. He just — he’s a very unusual player to guard. He’s a great player. Great kid.”
  • Soon after unleashing that comment, Krzyzewski was asked about the potential for Kyrie Irving to leave for the NBA draft in the offseason, and he did not take kindly to the timing of that question. “Let’s not talk about that. I mean, that’s uncalled for right now. Let’s just talk about the game and the beautiful way that Arizona played and not future decisions.  You can call my office later, you know. How would we do that? You think I just grabbed him and talked to him about that? I just hugged him because he’s crying. I’m not talking to him about him going pro. Those things will happen in due course.”
  • Irving was spectacular in the game, going for 28 points in 31 minutes, but afterward there was some talk around college basketball circles of whether or not his presence provided Duke with distractions and a loss of chemistry on the floor. In the end, that’s sort of a silly discussion. Certainly, bringing Irving back did cause Nolan Smith to have to adjust his game with Irving on the floor, but if the goal for the Blue Devils was to win a national championship (and it most certainly was), then they had to bring him back. As good as Smith was this year (and he was great, not just good), bringing Irving back gave the Devils their best chance to win a national championship. It didn’t work out, but that’s not Irving’s fault, it’s not Coach K’s fault, it’s not even Smith’s fault. They were beaten by a better team. It happens.
  • Finally, Thursday night saw the end of the careers of several great college basketball players. Not only did Nolan Smith play his final game with Duke, but so did Kyle Singler. And in the early game, D.J. Gay, Malcolm Thomas and Billy White (among others) wrapped up their careers at San Diego State. While college basketball is not all about seniors anymore, it is worth recognizing these kids for the great joy they’ve brought us college basketball fans over their course of their careers. Guys like Kyrie Irving and Kawhi Leonard (to name just a couple who may be leaving their respective schools with eligibility remaining) may be superior talents, but those upperclassmen represent everything that is great about college athletics.
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