ATB: No. 1 Falls, Wolverines Look Fierce and Butler Goes Home…Posted by Chris Johnson on March 24th, 2013
Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.
Tonight’s Lede. Third Round Ahoy! The first weekend of NCAA Tournament play is a refined product. After a second-round customarily filled with upsets and wacky outcomes, the next stage puts sheer team quality over luck and happenstance. This is where the true contenders make their bread. Part one of the third round wrapped up Saturday night, and save for a few surprising results, the best teams by and large validated their putative reputations.
Your watercooler moment. Drop The Revisionist Committee Tongue-Lashings.
There is nothing more casually distasteful than hindsight Tournament declarations and Monday morning quarterbacking. It happens every year. Middle Tennessee got run by Saint Mary’s, they never deserved an at-large birth! New Mexico never deserved to be a three seed! The Mountain West is terrible! All of those proclamations have been uttered in various forms, on various mediums, and all of them are patently false. Trying to argue against a certain team’s Tournament placement or inclusion after the fact is like ordering a manifestly scrumptious steak entrée at a five-star restaurant, leaving disappointed with the way it turned out and advocating the dish’s removal from the restaurant menu during the ride home. It’s not fair or to validate previous logic with future outcomes. That won’t stop anyone from copping to lazy criticisms of Gonzaga’s No. 1 seed status in the wake of Saturday’s upset loss to nine-seed Wichita State. Was Gonzaga tested in the same way as, say, Louisville or Indiana on a weekly basis in conference play? No. Did Gonzaga deserve a number one seed (or at least deserve to be in the argument), after posting a 30-2 win-loss record, a 4-2 record against the RPI Top 50, the No. 4 efficiency offense and No. 18 defense in the country? You’d be forfeiting your credibility as an objective and rational college hoops observer to disagree. The Bulldogs may have lost to a hot Wichita State team, may have blown an eight-point second half lead, may have allowed a physical Shockers group too much room on the perimeter. But they didn’t lose their claim to all of the aforementioned credentials. The selection committee’s vague criteria has offered up decades of case evidence to analyze, and by their admittedly fuzzy standards, Gonzaga deserved to be a No. 1. Their early third-round dismissal does not change that fact.
Also worth chatting about. Michigan Turns Major Third-Round Hurdle Into Cakewalk.
Recent history affects NCAA Tournament bracket intellect in real and influential ways. When paired with commendable regular season results, that team is extremely difficult to ignore – no matter the opponent. It’s part of why VCU beating Michigan Saturday looked like such a cinch “upset” pick, and completely why Michigan’s 25-point demolition of the Rams was more of an “upset” than a VCU win could have ever been. Mitch McGary played the best game of his college career to date (21 points, 14 rebounds), the Wolverines kept turnovers at a manageable level (12), and when the Rams can’t induce cough-ups they can’t get stops. The final product: Michigan has its first Sweet Sixteen appearance since 1994. The Wolverines more resembled their early-season national title-contender form Saturday that at any point this season. When Burke is dishing to open shooters and slashing into the lane, when Tim Hardaway Jr. is presenting matchup problems all over the floor, Michigan is – just as many suspected in November and December – a bona fide national title threat. Throw in the possibility of a potent interior presence in McGary, and John Beilein’s team will give the winner of Sunday’s Roy Williams Bowl (Kansas-UNC) all it can handle and more. Michigan is in the Sweet Sixteen for the first time in nearly two decades, and I wouldn’t be surprised if its journey blows past that minor landmark.
Today’s Quick Hits…
- No One Looks Better than Oregon and Louisville Right Now. It is a real crime that Louisville and Oregon must square off in the Sweet 16 this Friday. The Cardinals and Ducks, who obliterated two of the most physical and well-coached teams in the field Saturday – Colorado State and Saint Louis, respectively – are playing some of the best ent-to-end hoop in the country right now. Colorado State and Saint Louis are not prone to blow-outs; they grind and defend and make you work for every inch of floorspace. On Saturday, they were “blown out” in every iteration of the concept – on the scoreboard, stylistically, strategically, and on down the line. Oregon, after cruising past Oklahoma State Thursday, shot 53 percent and 73 percent from three against the nation’s fifth-rated efficiency defense, and a popular Final Four darkhorse to boot. Louisville outrebounded the best rebounding team in the country, bar none, and received an offensive jolt from Russ Smith, who scored 27 points on 7-for-15 shooting. The Cardinals will be favored in this matchup, as they should be, but Oregon has every right to believe it can hang around, if not topple the Tournament’s consensus frontrunner.
- Orange Move Past Cal. Since that ugly 39-point losing effort at Georgetown, Syracuse has compiled four wins, just one loss thanks to Louisville’s peerless second-half performance in the Big East Tournament final, and an increasingly palpable March headiness that should make Indiana (or Temple) quiver before their upcoming Sweet 16 clash. The Orange have found their stride, and not a moment too soon. Just ask Cal, whose location-aided second-round win over UNLV didn’t lead to further fortune Saturday against Syracuse’s menacing 2-3 zone and James Southerland’s versatile inside-out offensive functionality. At the end of the day, a No. 4 seed was probably a measurably fair reward for Syracuse’s season body of work, which took a number of hits on the back half of the Big East schedule, but as the Orange start to trend back towards something like their true top-10 quality, the East region (and specifically, Indiana) has another one/two-seed-type threat on its hands.
- Humbling Defeat for Two Second-Round Highlights. Seeing Harvard and Memphis win second-round games was, I’d like to think, one of the more positive aspects of second round competition. The Crimson provided a signature upset to cap an otherwise mediocre Tournament-opening Thursday, and in the process picked up their first ever NCAA Tournament win. Coach Josh Pastner finally rid his reputation of the nagging “0-Tournament win” distinction that had long served as a negative commentary on his short tenure. Other than the bracket die-hards who prize potential profit over Tournament drama – seriously: enjoy the games; your bracket is just an ancillary piece of the March experience – it was hard not to come away satisfied with Harvard and Memphis. That satisfaction was short lived. It wasn’t their fault, really – when you come up against experienced Tournament groups like Arizona and Michigan State, opening-round novelties like Harvard and Memphis don’t really have a leg to stand on. Michigan State drilled Memphis, Arizona ran Harvard out of the gym and the fun little stories that were the Crimson and Tigers were snipped in the bud.
- Butler Bounced. The lead-up was picture perfect. Butler was down two with two seconds remaining after miraculously inducing a hellacious Marquette in-bounds pass that was tipped out of bounds. Bulldogs ball. We’ve seen this story before. Butler wins on dramatic last second shot/ Brad Stevens deadpans, calmly walks down sideline/ magical NCAA run captures the national headlines/ Tom Crean sneers in disgust as he anticipates an Elite Eight showdown with in-state rival. Nope: Center Andrew Smith missed a three-point attempt, and Marquette held on for a two-point win. It felt so right, so familiar, that Butler’s inability to convert on a potential game-winning shot will go down as one of Saturday’s biggest surprises. We bid you farewell, Bulldogs. Your incomprehensible March Magic will be sorely missed over the next couple of weeks.
Ball-Screen of the night. Brionte Weber, meet Mitch McGary. ‘Nuff said.
- Mitch McGary, Michigan (NPOY) – A legitimate post force can take Michigan to the next level. McGary is precisely that, and his 21-14 double-double effort gutted VCU’s low-block defense.
- Mark Lyons, Arizona – Questionable point guard play has hurt Arizona at times this season. Lyons was anything but questionable Saturday against Harvard; 27 points on 12-of-17 from the field.
- Russ Smith, Louisville – If Louisville can keep Smith scoring efficiently, like Saturday’s 27 points on 15 shots, the Cardinals are scary tough to beat.
- Damyean Dotson, Oregon – Saturday was a good time for Dotson to churn out his highest scoring output of the season. He canned five threes on six attempts for 23 points in helping the Ducks obliterate Saint Louis.
- Vander Blue, Marquette – It takes 29-point performances and a whole bunch of other things to flat-line Butler in March. Blue provided the former and his team did the rest.
Tweet of the night. It’s not the Spartans that has prevented a Great Lakes State cohabitance in the Sweet Sixteen. It’s the Wolverines. Now Michigan is here, locked-in and poised to advance into the Elite Eight.