The Week That Was: From Sixteen To FourPosted by jstevrtc on March 29th, 2011
David Ely is an RTC contributor.
What We Learned
Throughout the regular season a lot was made about the lack of an elite team in college basketball. For about a month Duke fit the bill, but then Kyrie Irving hurt his toe and the Blue Devils lost their aura of invincibility. As the season wore on, Ohio State and Kansas emerged as the top two teams in the nation. They had all the elements of an elite squad — size, skill, experience and NBA talent — but no one would have confused the Buckeyes and Jayhawks with, say, 2009 North Carolina, 2007 Florida, or 2001 Duke. This year’s versions of KU and OSU were very good teams, but neither was at that usual level of “great” that at least one team achieves during a season. The NCAA tournament certainly has reinforced the good-but-not-great trend in college hoops this year. For the first time ever, there won’t be a single #1 or #2 seed represented in the Final Four, and the group of #3 Connecticut, #4 Kentucky, #8 Butler and #11 VCU comprises the highest combined seeding of any quartet in Final Four history. The games from the past two weeks show just how little difference there was from #1-20. Kentucky and Arizona looked every bit as talented as Ohio State and Duke, and neither victory felt like an upset. Yes, Butler needed a number of breaks to go its way to advance to the Final Four, but time and time again the Bulldogs made the necessary plays to win, and they never looked overmatched against any one of their higher seeded opponents.
The only real shocker of the bunch is VCU’s unbelievable run from
play-in game First Four to Final Four. As Luke Winn pointed out in his Final Four primer, the Rams are the first team to fail to fit his Final Four Statistical Profile in the seven years of Kenpom.com. But here the Rams are, winners of five straight games over teams from five different power conferences.
Speaking of VCU, are the Rams more Butler than Butler? Few expected either school to mount a run to the Final Four, but VCU shouldn’t have to share the title of Cinderella with the Bulldogs. Like it or not, the Bulldogs are closer to joining college basketball’s establishment. Butler is in its second consecutive Final Four (joining programs like North Carolina, Florida, Michigan State and UCLA to achieve that feat this past decade), and Brad Stevens, Shelvin Mack and Matt Howard are known figures to anyone who pays the slightest bit of attention to college basketball. VCU, on the other hand, is an unknown. Two weeks ago the Rams were the team that didn’t deserve to be in this tournament, and few people outside Virginia had heard of Shaka Smart, Joey Rodriguez or Bradford Burgess. Now, they’re crashing the party in Houston, one win away from a national championship game appearance. TWTW can’t wait for the VCU-Butler semifinal. This is a game that seems like it should be played during a bracketbuster weekend in February, but instead they’ll square off for the right to play UConn or Kentucky in the championship game. VCU and Butler might lack the cache of a Kansas-Florida semifinal, but in our opinion this should be the most anticipated Final Four game ever. This game is what’s so great about college basketball and the NCAA Tournament. It embodies the excitement inherent in March Madness and the truth that anything is possible from the moment of the first tip. The only hard part on Saturday will be figuring out for whom to cheer.
The NCAA tournament is slowly turning into a mirror image of playoffs in the NFL, NHL and MLB. The only downside of all the upsets and early exits by #1 and #2 seeds is that it shows how little value you can assign the regular season anymore. It doesn’t matter if you won 20 games and barely made the field of 68 or if you won 30+ and were an unquestioned #1 seed, all that matters is that you get into the Tournament and get hot at the right time. VCU isn’t that different from the Green Bay Packers or the San Francisco Giants. All three got into the their respective tournaments on the last day of the season, and all three made the most of the opportunity provided. Just like the Packers played their best football in the months of January and February, some switched was flipped for the Rams starting against USC. VCU is in the midst of its second longest winning streak of the season (five games), and just knocked off teams from the Pac-10, Big East, Big Ten, ACC and Big 12. As the talent level continues to become more evenly distributed across college basketball, the regular season will be less about who’s the last remaining undefeated squad and instead about which teams are doing just enough to book a ticket to the Dance. For better or worse, it will be more important to make sure you’re healthy and fresh for when the games really matter, while seeding will become secondary.
Hero of the Week
Kemba Walker. Walker’s play the past three weeks defies explanation and simply amazes. Here’s a junior guard that’s listed as a generous 6’1, 172 pounds, who has put his team on his back since the Maui Invitational way back in November. Walker’s usage rate of 31.1% ranks 24th in the nation and is the highest of any player left in the tournament. The next highest player is Kentucky’s Terrence Jones at No. 86 (28.6%). You’d think that Walker would have worn down by now, but instead he’s playing his best, most inspired basketball of the year. Walker is averaging 26.8 PPG in the tournament and he ripped San Diego State for 36 points on 12-25 shooting in the Sweet 16.
Goat of the Week
VCU and Butler owe a piece of their championship nets to Florida State’s Derwin Kitchen and Florida’s Erving Walker. Saturday’s dream Cinderella matchup wouldn’t be possible without the end-of-game performances by these two guards from the Sunshine State. Let’s start with Kitchen. It’s tough to knock him given that his 23 points and 12 rebounds nearly propelled the Seminoles into the Elite Eight, but his lack of clock awareness overshadows all the good work he did. Kitchen failed to get a shot off on an iso at the end of regulation, and then he made the unthinkable decision to pass the ball as the clocked ticked to zero in overtime. While Walker managed to get all of his shots off in time, he showed his own poor judgment against Butler. On the two most pivotal possessions of the game, Walker launched threes from well beyond the arc in a vain attempt to recreate his heroics against Georgia earlier this season. Both shots had little chance of going in, and Gator fans everywhere now face an offseason wondering what could have been if Walker simply drove to the cup or dumped it down low where UF had enjoyed so much success on the day.
Three Things We’re Looking Forward To
John Calipari’s quest to get a ring. We’ve seen this before, Calipari is no stranger to the Final Four, and now he’s taken three different schools to college hoops’ ultimate destination. But for all of his past success, a national championship has eluded him. His 2008 Memphis squad chocked away the title against Kansas, and the 1996 Massachusetts squad lost to eventual champ Kentucky in the national semifinals. While Cal certainly is a controversial feature because of his penchant for relying on one-and-done players, we here at TWTW don’t view a Kentucky championship as a bad thing for the sport. The Wildcats are fun to watch, they’re well-coached, they play a disciplined brand of basketball and they’ve steadily improved throughout the season. And those who believe it’s all freshmen for Cal should just watch the tape of Kentucky’s win over North Carolina. Two of the most important players in that game were senior Josh Harrellson and junior DeAndre Liggins.
Jeremy Lamb. Kemba Walker gets all the hype at UConn, and deservedly so, but Walker isn’t the only Husky who’s come alive in the postseason. Lamb has scored in double figures in UConn’s nine tournament games, proving a very capable Robin to Walker’s Batman. Lamb lit up San Diego State for 24 points on a 9-11 shooting night in the Huskies’ Sweet 16 win, and then he dropped 19 on Arizona in the Elite Eight. Lamb is 11-15 (73.3%!) from three in the NCAA tournament, and at 6’5 he has the size to get off his shot against just about any two-guard in college basketball. If Liggins (Kentucky’s top perimeter defender) draws Walker, it’ll be interesting to see whom Calipari assigns to check Lamb.
Shelvin Mack vs. Joey Rodriguez. The guard matchup in the Butler-VCU game should be the best battle of the weekend. Both Mack and Rodriguez are the hearts of their respective squads, but TWTW loves the contrast in games between the two floor generals. Mack’s at the best when he’s attacking the basket and pouring in shots from the perimeter, like he did in Butler’s win over Pitt. Mack has attempted at least 10 shots in his past eight games, and the Bulldogs will need him to score to top VCU. Rodriguez, on the other hand, is more of a facilitator with eight games of at least eight assists this year compared to just one for Mack. Rodriguez also keys the Rams’ intense pressure defense. He had five steals this weekend in San Antonio, and he’ll be in Mack’s hip pocket all game long Saturday if the two are matched up. At first glance, though, TWTW gives Mack the edge. Mack’s got five inches and 35 pounds on Rodriguez and should be able to shoot over Rodriguez and muscle his way past VCU’s senior guard to the hoop.