ATB: I’m In Love With FCGU, Big Ten Flaunts Superiority and La Salle Quietly Presses Forward…Posted by Chris Johnson on March 25th, 2013
Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.
Tonight’s Lede. Florida Gulf Coast Does It Again. Outside of the weak frontrunner status placed upon Louisville after a dominant Big East Tournament run, there wasn’t a whole lot college basketball fans could agree on heading into the NCAA Tournament. Common ground could be found on one particular item: there were going to be upsets. Lots of them. The “no dominant team” theme is a tired headline, but it bears repeating on a night like this, when a No. 15 seed punched its ticket to the Sweet 16 for the first time in Tournament history. We’re down to 16 teams now, but even in a year when chalky, seed-predictable, docile bracket proceedings were far from the main expectation, I don’t think anybody saw this coming…
Your watercooler moment. A Story Everyone Can Get Behind: FCGU.
Nothing more strongly embodies the spirit of March Madness than high-seeded underdogs. Last season’s edition gave us Norfolk State and Lehigh – on the same day, no less – reveling in the national spotlight, 15-seed brothers-in-arms taking the college hoops world by storm. CJ McCollum was the best and most entertaining star nobody had heard of. Kyle O’Quinn was a wide-grinned big man with NBA aspirations. Fast track one year later, and this season’s captivating March underdog story is nothing like anything we’ve ever seen before. Florida Gulf Coast doesn’t have one leading protagonist (besides maybe its head coach, Andy Enfield, who – for reasons basketball-related and not – is something of a hero for every man not partial to Georgetown or San Diego State) or even a specific stylistic strength to explain its remarkable run into the second weekend. The best way to describe it is a cocky but measured confidence, a newfound flamboyance, a heightened sense of what it means to own the spotlight. And all of it comes together to produce the most thrilling on-court product of recent memory. There are dunks and heel-clicks and impossibly hilarious bird-imitating dances and, of course, dunk city. The Florida Gulf Coast Eagles have stolen the show and I don’t see them giving it back any time soon. Until they meet Florida in this week’s Sweet 16 showdown – and seriously, if they win that game, I give up – stories will be written, lives will be unearthed, and the nation will come to embrace college basketball’s most unlikely March heroes.
Sunday’s Quick Hits…
- As Expected, The Big Ten is Dominating. All season the Big Ten was drowned in plaudits and glowing recommendations for its upper-tier strength and top-to-bottom quality. The Big Ten was good, and everybody kind of agreed the league was miles ahead of the rest. Now the NCAA Tournament is confirming our suspicions: after Indiana and Ohio State moved past Temple and Iowa State, respectively, Sunday, the Big Ten is 10-3 in tourney competition and can lay claim to one-fourth of the Sweet 16 field. The Hoosiers, Buckeyes, Michigan State and Michigan hovered near the top of the polls all season, and were just as impressive when gauged on per-possession efficiency metrics (as of Sunday, none ranked lower than eighth in Ken Pomeroy’s metrics). To see that play out on the sport’s biggest stage is, for someone who analyzes the game year-round like me, and for fans who have feted their league’s dominance from Midnight madness to March madness, reassuring.
- The West is Kind of Insane. In a bracket littered with uncertainty and parity, the West region exists in its own province of unpredictability. Ohio State is the only team that has lived up to its seed thus far, and faces as wide-open a path to the Final Four as contender left in the field. The top half of the region will pit Wichita State and – following Sunday’s nail-biting win over Ole Miss – La Salle, who needs just two more wins to go from First Four to Final Four, VCU style, and bring even more wackiness to the field’s weirdest quartile. The Explorers haven’t gotten this far in the Tournament since 1955, but if their stable of talented guards – Ramon Galloway, Tyreek Duren and Tyrone Garland, who skied in the lane with 2.5 seconds left to ice the game with a deft right-handed finish – stay hot, the Final Four is well within their grasps.
- Florida Looks Really Good. I know, I know: rolling over Northwestern State and handling Minnesota (Sunday) does not a National Champion make. But Florida is starting to look like the efficiency juggernaut that so ruthlessly ripped through SEC competition earlier this season, and if they can just get by Florida Gulf Coast – A huge if, for sure – a potential Kansas/Michigan matchup sets up well for a manageable Final Four play-in. The Gators have history (three consecutive sweet 16 appearances) and coaching (Billy Donovan has two championships, and an unquantifiable aura of March sagacity) very much on their side, and now they have another scorer – Mike Rosario, who canned 24 points Sunday after an ugly 3-for-9 performance in the opening round – to add to an already potent inside-out attack.
- Experience Nudges KU Past UNC. The difference between Roy Williams’ old team and current team was made plain in Sunday night’s round-of-32 game between Kansas and UNC. As the young Tar Heels pushed KU into a full-on second-half panic, the Jayhawks settled down, rallied around seniors Jeff Withey, Kevin Young and Travis Releford, and pulled away from Williams’ young charges with the sort of calmness and poise that’s essential to any deep-round tourney team. The Jayhawks have uber-talented shooting guard Ben McLemore as a wildcard, but getting through this Tournament will require steady and efficient performances from upperclassmen. Beyond whatever talent advantages Kansas has, the Jayhawks’ experience is its most important asset, and so it will be against Michigan’s young roster in this week’s sweet 16 matchup.
- ACC Two Seeds Stay Clean. It would have been foolish to completely rule out Illinois or Creighton winning their third-round games Sunday. The Bluejays have Doug McDermott, as unguardable a scorer as exists in today’s college game, and Illinois has the fickle propensity to catch fire from beyond the arc at a moment’s notice. Duke and Miami did not tread lightly. The Illini came three points and one preposterous call away from sinking Jim Larranaga’s team despite shooting just 26 percent from three, and Creighton, buoyed by McDermott’s 21 points (on just four made field goals), gave Duke a unique defensive challenge. In the end, the ACC’s year-long powers, both of whom had strong arguments for one-seeds at season’s end, stayed the course, stayed strong and now move on to two of the Tournament’s most interesting Sweet 16 fixtures later this week: Duke-Michigan State; Miami-Marquette.
The Bad Side of Marshall Henderson. More than two seconds remained following Tyrone Garland’s go-ahead layup. Ole Miss had one time-out, a two-point deficit to erase and a player (Marshall Henderson) not afraid to accept the responsibility of a season-deciding last shot. Henderson didn’t get his shot, Ole Miss heaved up a harmless halfcourt Hail Mary and the Rebels season came to a close. Just like that. Henderson was none too pleased about the way Ole Miss’ Tournament run was halted, so he left the Sprint Center crowd with a little reminder of what makes the Rebels’ most polarizing star a precarious duality.
In the aftermath of a loss, emotions run high, tempers flare and players often do things they immediately regret. Henderson has not restrained himself from crowd interaction at any point this season, and he wasn’t going to start Sunday, in the most disappointing moment to date.
Dunkdafied. You can pretty much expect a few highlight-reel slams any time Gulf Coast takes the court. I had a delectable selection to choose from Sunday, but this one-handed rim-rocker is exquisite.
And if that’s not enough, how about a full compendium, courtesy of @bubbaprog?
- Jeff Withey, Kansas (NPOY) – The players change, the scoring distributions vary, but one thing remains constant with Bill Self’s teams: defense. Withey has been central to the Jayhawks’ point-prevention efforts all season, and Sunday he threw in 16 points and 16 boards along with his standard high-list block allocation (5).
- Mike Rosario, Florida – When Kenny Boynton goes cold, and Patric Young has two shot attempts, Florida’s scoring load falls upon stretch-four Erik Murphy and guard Rosario. The latter delivered with 25 points against Minnesota Sunday.
- Ramon Galloway, La Salle – The headlines will go to FGCU, and rightly so, but the Explorers are the second-highest seed remaining in the Tournament, and they look just as dangerous thanks to guards like Galloway, who scored 24 points to help drop Ole Miss Sunday.
- Shane Larkin, Miami – As the game winded down, and Miami needed a bucket to KO the Illini, Larkin drained a step-back three with just over a minute remaining to put the Hurricanes up for good. All told, Larkin’s final line read like this: 17 points, five assists.
- Bernard Thompson, Florida Gulf Coast – Move past all the dunks and endearing party-never-stops demeanor, and FGCU has some really good basketball players. Thompson, who finished with 23 points against SDSU, is one of them.
Tweet of the Day. Because even the PGA Tour needs a small dose of FGCU-esque flair. Sherwood Brown is smiling somewhere.