ATB: Fantastic Final Four – Buckeyes Squash the Orange, Carolina Misses Marshall, and an All-Kentucky Dream GamePosted by EJacoby on March 26th, 2012
This Weekend’s Lede. The Final Four is set and ready for action with some of the biggest storylines in years. There were no Cinderella stories on this second weekend, as the Elite Eight was comprised of all powerhouse teams that have been the class of college basketball all season. This week will feature numerous awesome back-stories and matchups to look forward to in New Orleans, but first we’ll break down exactly what happened over the weekend that’s led us to the remaining four teams in the Big Dance. Without further ado, here’s how it went…
Your Watercooler Moment. Russ Smith Runs Wild For #4 Louisville as Unlikely Hero
The top players in the NCAA Tournament proved their worth over the weekend for their heavyweight teams, but the one team that lacks that superstar performer made for the best story of the weekend. Louisville was a slight underdog against #7-seed Florida in the West Regional Final and the Cardinals trailed by eight points at halftime by surrendering far too many open threes to the Gators. But Rick Pitino’s team stayed within striking distance throughout the second half before perhaps the most enigmatic, up-and-down performer in college hoops picked the perfect time to have his best game. Russ Smith, Louisville’s super-sub that provides instant energy, came off the bench to score a game-high 19 points, 13 of which came in the second half. Smith often leaves coaches and fans scratching their heads with his decision-making, but his no-fear mentality was the difference in this game. Making aggressive moves to the basket and taking big shots late, Smith came up huge for his team in its biggest spot of the season. He finished with 19 points, five rebounds, two assists (and four turnovers), and hit two consecutive shots with his team down by six points to cut the Florida lead to one. From there, Louisville closed out the game and sent the Big East Tournament champions to the Final Four.
Also Worth Chatting About. Late-Game Defense Allows #2 Kansas To Defeat #1 UNC
The Jayhawks defeated #1 North Carolina in the Midwest Regional Final by 13 points, but this was one of the most entertaining and close games of the entire NCAA Tournament. The teams were deadlocked 47-47 at halftime in a high-scoring affair, but the defense took over in this game’s second half. Kansas allowed 63.6% shooting in the first half but it was a completely different story after that. The Jayhawks gave up just 22.6% to UNC in the second frame and did not let the Tar Heels score again after a Harrison Barnes free throw cut a Kansas lead to 68-67 with 3:58 to play. Bill Self implemented a surprising ‘triangle and two’ defense that completely threw off UNC offensively, especially limiting what the Heels could do in the paint. Jeff Withey was unable to repeat his 10-block performance from the Sweet Sixteen, but he and Thomas Robinson got the best of Tyler Zeller and John Henson in scoring and rebounding inside. Combine that with the fact that Tyshawn Taylor had an incredible game going up against Stilman White, and Kansas was too tough for a Kendall Marshall-less Carolina team to overcome. There was not enough offense from UNC when it needed it, but Kansas’ terrific defensive effort was a big reason for that.
More Weekend Storylines.
- #1 Kentucky Cruises to Set Up In-State Dream Matchup. The ‘Dream Game’ matchup in the Final Four between Kentucky and Louisville is without question the biggest story in New Orleans; probably the most highly anticipated Final Four game in many years. We only relegate this story to the ‘more’ section because there wasn’t a whole lot of excitement in Kentucky’s road to the matchup, which is what we highlight here. The #1 overall seed Wildcats were completely dominant in their win over #3 Baylor in the South Regional Final, jumping out to a 20-point lead by halftime and never looking back. This Kentucky team has an aura of invincibility, and for good reason — it’s the most dominant team in college basketball that will take a near-perfect performance from an opponent to be beaten. UK got that perfect storm from Indiana during the loss on December 10 in Bloomington, and the team fell once more in the SEC Tournament championship game to Vanderbilt. Both losses were important to keep John Calipari’s team grounded, and it has since continued to dominate all competition in the Big Dance. Baylor didn’t stand a chance against the Wildcats’ high-flying offense and Kentucky cruised to an 82-70 victory that was much more of a blowout than the score would indicate.
- #2 Ohio State Too Tough Inside For #1 Syracuse. We figured that the loss of Fab Melo would eventually be the demise of #1 Syracuse, and that finally became at least part of the reason why the Orange were unable to handle Ohio State in the East Regional Final. Questionable officiating was a major factor in this game, as referees called a total of 48 personal fouls in a ridiculous display from the zebras. But the whistles hurt both teams, especially Ohio State when it had to sit Jared Sullinger with two fouls early in the game, but the Buckeyes responded by being tougher inside and hitting their free throws in clutch spots. OSU won the battle of the boards by +13 as Syracuse was clearly missing its starting center. Baye Moussa Keita was the only Orange player who made significant contributions rebounding the ball while Deshaun Thomas, William Buford, and Sullinger all had seven or more boards. It definitely helped the Buckeyes that they shot 17 more free throws, another testament to how poorly this game was officiated.
- Kendall Marshall’s Absence Proved Crucial In North Carolina’s Loss. All the credit in the world goes to seldom-used freshman point guard Stilman White, who was thrust into the starting point guard spot for #1 UNC and exceeded all expectations while playing a total of 60 minutes in the Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight for the Tar Heels. White had a combined 13 assists and zero turnovers (!) in the two games as a steady lead guard to run Carolina’s offense. But he also combined to score just six points in those 60 minutes, and Kansas played a defense that would force only White to be left open during the final few minutes of Sunday’s game. The freshman fell into the trap of taking two crucial shots in the final four minutes and was unable to create for others or convert his shot opportunities. The entire dynamic of North Carolina’s offense was changed without Kendall Marshall, but it showed the greatest during the most important offensive possessions of the season
- #7 Florida Dies By The Three In Loss to Louisville. In the first half of the West Regional Final, the Gators built an eight-point lead by making 8-11 attempts from the three-point arc. But the Cardinals made the necessary adjustments, switching to a man-to-man defense in the second half and making the Gators beat them in another way. Billy Donovan’s team was unable to do so. The Gators shot 0-9 from three in the second half and could have easily won this game if they made better offensive decisions late in the game. Florida led 65-54 with 8:14 to play before Louisville ended the game on an 18-3 run that was sparked by the aforementioned Russ Smith as well as Chane Behanan inside. Both of those players benefitted from playmaking inside the arc, something Florida could not do enough of late in the game. It resulted in many empty possessions while the Cardinals made their charge, and Florida collapsed to lose, 72-68, in a game it controlled for 30+ minutes.
- ‘Player of the Year’ Candidates Proved Why They’re Elite. The two frontrunners for National Player of the Year are both heading to the Final Four. Anthony Davis and Thomas Robinson were both outstanding for their respective teams (Kentucky, Kansas) over the weekend and proved why they’re the first names mentioned when it comes to season awards and future NBA Draft considerations. But don’t forget about Jared Sullinger, another first-team All-American guy that slightly underperformed versus his lofty expectations this season, who was outstanding for Ohio State in the East Regional Final. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, another All-American candidate, was phenomenal for Kentucky alongside Davis, as always, for the Wildcats over the weekend. And Tyshawn Taylor, who has had an up-and-down career filled with tremendous highs and lows, had a spectacular game for Kansas in the Midwest Regional Final to prove his value as one of the best point guards in America. The Final Four is not lacking star power this year, as plenty All-Americans will be in participation.
- Tyshawn Taylor, Kansas (NPOY) – Of all the stars in the Elite Eight, it was the Kansas point guard who shined brightest on the big stage. Coming off a horrible shooting slump in his previous two games, Taylor went for 22 points on 10-19 shooting with six rebounds, five assists, and five steals in a fantastic, gutsy performance against North Carolina. Even with an 0-5 night from three-point land on a couple of ill-advised shots, Taylor was the best player in this game by making crucial plays on both ends of the floor.
- Russ Smith, Louisville – The aforementioned Smith was one of the biggest stories of the weekend and comes in as one of the top overall players with his 19-point effort off the bench on Saturday in just 22 minutes. He added five rebounds and two late assists, as well, and shot 6-7 from the free throw line down.
- Lenzelle Smith, Jr., Ohio State – The least-heralded of Ohio State’s awesome starting five, Smith had a huge game on Saturday with 18 points including 7-9 shooting from the foul line down the stretch with crucial makes when Syracuse was attempting its comeback. He shot 3-6 from three, as well.
- Anthony Davis, Kentucky – The Player of the Year frontrunner’s massive game was slightly overshadowed by the other action of the weekend as well as the fact that he injured his knee late in the game against Baylor that gave fans a huge scare (he wound up being fine). But before that, Davis had 18 points, 11 rebounds, and six blocks in a typically dominant paint performance.
- Jared Sullinger, Ohio State – He was limited to just six minutes in the first half with foul trouble, but Sully played all 20 in the second half and finished with 19 points and seven rebounds in a very characteristic night for the efficient offensive machine.
- Thomas Robinson, Kansas – It was far from his greatest game, but Robinson was still huge for Kansas when it needed him most, finishing with 18 points and nine rebounds while denying North Carolina’s bigs from getting into a rhythm inside.
- Chane Behanan, Louisville – The most consistent player for Louisville throughout Saturday’s game, Behanan was 7-10 from the field with 17 points, seven rebounds, and two blocks for a huge effort inside against Florida.
- Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Kentucky – Gilchrist made the biggest noise with his performance against Indiana in the Sweet Sixteen, but he was also great on Sunday with a team-high 19 points on 7-10 shooting in just 27 minutes, to go along with five rebounds and a perfect 4-4 from the free throw line.
- Quincy Acy, Baylor – His team was dominated by Kentucky on Sunday but Acy remained the most hard-working and productive player on the floor for Baylor, finishing with 22 points, eight rebounds, and two blocks in his final game in a Bears uniform.
- Stilman White, North Carolina – He was unable to make plays for North Carolina in the waning minutes against Kansas, but much praise goes to White for his tremendous effort in both the Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight. Coming in averaging 4.2 minutes per game, White played 60 minutes in the two games with 13 assists and not a single turnover as the unexpected point guard of the Tar Heels offense, nearly enough to get the team to the Final Four.
This was just the refresher of the wild weekend action from the Elite Eight Regional Finals. Be on the lookout for much coverage this week, as we bring to you all the stories, facts, and previews of the upcoming Final Four matchups in New Orleans on Saturday!