ATB: A Huge Michigan Comeback, Dunk City’s Swan Song and Duke Holds Off Sparty…Posted by Chris Johnson on March 30th, 2013
Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.
Tonight’s Lede. Sweet 16 Part Deux. At the risk of sounding blunt or insensitive, there is no shame in calling Thursday night’s Sweet 16 match-ups exactly what they were: dry, boring, dull, a monotonous combination of the three. The most surprising outcomes of the night – Syracuse’s win over Indiana; Marquette’s blowout of Miami – disrupted the Miami-Indiana Elite 8 match-up forecasted on most bracket sheets, but the nature of said disruption was never in doubt. The Golden Eagles and Orange were in control from the start; folks spent much of both games lamenting the reasons behind the top seed carnage and ruing their teams’ demises on Twitter and saying the sorts of irrational things irritant fans are wont to say at times of sudden grief. Wichita State and La Salle was just as one-sided – the Shockers’ battered John Giannini’s team on the glass and corralled its guard-oriented attack into an aimless game of roadrunning hot-potato. The only game of any real entertainment value was Ohio State-Arizona, with LaQuinton Ross providing the buzzer-beating highlight of the night. We entered Friday night’s prospectively titillating slate with hopes of widespread competitiveness and high-strung tension, and with Florida Gulf Coast pitted against Florida in the most unlikely of in-state bragging rights games, Michigan State and Duke meeting in a Hall of Fame coaching legacy grudge match, the forecast showed promise. So, did Friday night redeem the Sweet 16 after Thursday night’s plainly mediocre lineup?
Your watercooler moment. The Best Game Of The Season?
Late in the second half, as Kansas spread its scoring output among all five starters in almost equal measure, it began to look as if the Jayhawks’ veteran lineup was going to hold off Michigan’s young charges for a trip to the Elite 8. That prediction looked safer than ever with just under four minutes remaining and Kansas leading by 11. The rest seemed academic – all Kansas needed to do was play sound and turnover-free basketball over the final minutes, shepherd home a comfortable victory, carry out a quick locker room celebration and rest up for a Final Four entry game Sunday. Nice season Michigan, you had your fun, now go home and enjoy the rest of this Tournament from a nice, comfortable, TV-appointed couch. Hand shakes and bro hugs. All that good stuff. Or so Kansas thought: Trey Burke did not subscribe to that logic, nor did the rest of his teammates, as the Wolverines erased KU’s lead on a 22-8 run powered and concluded by Burke’s overtime-inducing, ice-cold, 30-foot jumper with five seconds remaining. The blown lead was just as much a product of Kansas’ own mistakes as it was Burke’s sheer brilliance, but the unquantifiably crucial momentum advantage had fallen towards the Wolverines, and the overtime period played out much the way you’d expect. A questionable last-possession drive-and-dish from Elijah Johnson sealed Michigan’s win, along with its first appearance in a regional final since the Fab Five heyday. If One Shining Moments can be had in advance of the National Championship game, Burke’s came in the second half and overtime Friday night (he went scoreless in the first half). His game-tying three was the most visible highlight of a 23-point, 10-assist performance that will forever be remembered in Wolverines lore as the most willful single-half effort of Michigan’s 21st century hoops resurgence. Burke is the best player left in this field, and he couldn’t have made a stronger statement to validate that title than what he did Friday night.
Your quick hits…
- That No “Dominant Team” Thing. This college basketball season’s macro evaluative theme was repeated seemingly after every upset of even minor import. “There are no dominant teams,” fans and media types would casually and widely say. The motif was raised as a fallback for NCAA Tournament predictive indecision: I don’t know which team to choose! There are going to be so many upsets! My bracket stinks! No one’s good enough to trust! Louisville was the overwhelming favorite to the National Championship, and any consensus bracket polling would confirm that prevailing logic, but no one seemed willing to admit the obvious. Louisville isn’t a wasn’t a “dominant” team throughout the regular season, but it was “dominant” enough to rise to almost unquestioned frontrunner status in the tourney lead-up, and its performance in three games thus far has been nothing but “dominant.” That continued Friday night with the Cards’ eight-point win over Oregon. The Ducks made Rick Pitino and company sweat things out in the second half, closing to within six around the nine-minute mark, but Louisville firmed up, tightened the screws on defense and allowed Russ Smith – who tied his season-high 31 points Friday – to carry them to a second consecutive Elite Eight.
- Seth Curry Was Unconscious. Hall of Fame pedigrees consumed the pre-game Duke-Michigan State discussion, almost consummately, and why not? Two of the greatest coaches of all time meeting in the Sweet 16, each equipped with teams well positioned to win a National Championship, is a March Madness match-up crafted in heaven. The game within the game was obscured by the sideline matching-of-wits, and everybody seemed just fine to accept that the heavy coaching interest would likely supersede whatever the players – the guys who, you know, actually score and defend and rebound – did to decide the outcome of the game. Seth Curry wasn’t overshadowed. In fact, he made whatever Tom Izzo or Mike Krzyzewski schemed up completely beside the point. His 29 points on 8-for-17 shooting (6-of-9 from downtown) raised the stakes well beyond Michigan State’s offensive capabilities. The Spartans couldn’t counter with anything more than sporadic resistance from Keith Appling (16 points) and Adreian Payne (14). The Blue Devils stretched the Spartans’ No. 6 efficiency defense to a breaking point, and Michigan State – for all its gritty defensive physicality – couldn’t match Duke’s output on the other end.
- The End of Dunk City. For the casual Tournament-viewing fans, those who either a) don’t follow the sport year-round and exclusively prefer to soak in the game’s season-ending single-elimination climax or b) watched their team eliminated in the earlier rounds, Friday night brought a disappointing yet foreseeable end to one of the most remarkable Tournament runs in recent memory. Florida Gulf Coast carried its high-flying style into a Sweet 16 tilt with Florida, the top efficiency team in the land (per Kenpom). The Gators simply couldn’t lose this game – not to a team who gained full Division I postseason eligibility just this season. Billy Donovan is as seasoned a Tournament coach as you’ll find in this field, and he reaffirmed his March expertise by stamping out FGCU’s acrobatics Friday night. The Eagles were competitive for most of the game, particularly during a game-opening 15-4 run, but Florida quickly regained composure, protected the rim, closed out on perimeter shooters and allowed its superior athletic capabilities and tactical precision to take over on offense. FGCU ran into an opponent it could not conquer, and that’s totally fine by me (and presumably by everyone else), because the Eagles didn’t just give us a couple of nice upsets. They became a national sensation, and their work in this Tournament will not soon be forgotten.
Three-point bomb of the night. If there were any doubts about Burke’s ability to transition into the NBA, this three – as qualified on the college hardwood as it is by NBA dimensions – should have cleared things up.
Tonight’s All Americans.
- Trey Burke, Michigan (NPOY) – The above-embedded three highlighted the best game of Burke’s college career: 23 points, 10 assists and a whole lot of late-game moxie to lead his team back from probable defeat.
- Seth Curry, Duke – With a 29-point game that offered (dare I say) shades of brother Stephen’s 2008 Davidson Cinderella run, Curry pushed the Blue Devils past Michigan State and into Sunday’s huge showdown with No. 1 overall seed Louisville.
- Russ Smith, Louisville – When Smith is scoring this well and this efficiently (58 points on 16-for-31 shooting over his past two games), Louisville is unbeatable.
- Mike Rosario, Florida – It wasn’t always fun to look at, but Florida survived the prospect of bitter state humiliation, and Rosario’s 15 points were a big help in that effort.
- Mitch McGary, Michigan – No player has elevated his game more in this tournament than McGary. After scoring 21 points and grabbing 14 rebounds in the third round against VCU, McGary dropped a 25-14 double-double, along with three steals – all while butting heads all night with the nation’s best shot blocker (Jeff Withey).
Tweet of the night. This Tournament hasn’t always offered the most crisp or well-executed brand of basketball. Michigan-Kansas was both and more, and the Wolverines’ furious second-half rally (and the Burke-created magic within) is probably the most dramatic late-game spurt we’ve seen all season.