ATB: Shockers “Shock”, The 2-3 Baffles and The Big Ten’s Dwindling Final Four HopesPosted by Chris Johnson on March 30th, 2013
Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.
Tonight’s Lede. Getting To A-Town. Two Final Four berths were on the line when four teams tipped off Saturday. By the end of the night, the dream had ended for two others, half of next weekend’s pool of Final Four competitors had been decided and Sunday’s two games, the Final Four opponent-supplying complements to Saturday’s tilts, loomed large. The paths to a national championship have been laid; we know the winner must survive two highly competitive games at the Georgia Dome. Now that specific teams are being applied to set up the match-up contours of Atlanta’s Final Four gauntlet, the net-cutting ceremony feels a step closer. Now, on to Saturday’s games..
Your Watercooler moment. And then there was one. The first three rounds of Tournament play reaffirmed everything we came to know about the Big Ten over the course of its dominant 2013 season. The league offered a more formidable allotment of teams than any other, and the layout of the Sweet 16 field – with one Big Ten team planted in each region – raised the possibility, however faint, of an All Big Ten Final Four. It was always a long shot, and I’m not sure anyone viewed the idea with anything more than weak confidence, but the opposite – the possibility of the Big Ten getting shut out of Atlanta – was just as predictably outrageous at the time. The Big Ten not receiving an invitation to Atlanta’s most elusive college hoops party? No way! With a team conveniently slotted in each region, and no path looking overly hazardous (Louisville was the most obvious roadblock out of the Midwest, but the other regions looked completely reasonable), surely at least one Big Ten team would make it to Atlanta, right?
If the Big Ten does receive an invitation to the Tournament’s Final quartet, it will be because Michigan upset the No. 1 ranked efficiency team in the country, Florida, on Sunday. That is the gloomy outlook the Big Ten now faces after Ohio State, its most likely Final Four participant – thanks to an easy draw, Big Ten Tournament championship momentum, a rapidly improving offense – fell to Wichita State Saturday night after a furious second-half rally failed to erase a 20-point second half deficit. The Shockers had already taken down No. 1 seed Gonzaga and wiped the floor with First Four upstart La Salle. They didn’t fear the Buckeyes, and their performance on the court plainly backed it up. DeShaun Thomas finished with 23 points and LaQuinton Ross added 19, building off his magnificent Sweet 16 performance against Arizona, but neither was particularly efficient in their shot selection (combined, Thomas and Ross finished 12-for-32 from the floor), and with no other Buckeye scoring more than nine points, Ohio State’s offense became too one-dimensional and stagnated at the worst possible time.
One of the biggest factors behind Ohio State’s 11-game, regular season-closing win streak was its uptick in offensive output. After months of Thomas-or-bust offense, of rolling out a remedial one-man attack, all of a sudden secondary scoring options were doing their part – from Craft to Ross to Lenzelle Smith Jr. On Saturday, against a physical Shockers defense whose bruising style ruffled the Buckeyes much in same way Ohio State had locked down its previous three Tournament opponents, the offensive improvements that had many believing the Spartans could march their way into Atlanta were nowhere to be found. Ohio State’s scoring dried up, Wichita battered the Buckeyes in the paint and by the time Ohio State tried to dig its way out of a deep second half hole, it was too late. The Big Ten is on the brink of having its best season in years end without a representative in college basketball’s hallowed Tournament stage. Four-seeded Michigan is the only potential source of salvation.
Also Worth Chatting About. The 2-3 Zone Is An Absolute Bear.
Somewhere between that ugly 39-point performance at Georgetown, and the beginning of NCAA Tournament play, something clicked for Syracuse. The Orange have only lost one game since that March 9 stinker in DC, and amidst all the rumors of NCAA violations and Boeheim’s impending retirement, the Orange have gone back to their roots. Syracuse is playing defense again, playing it better than it has all season, and man, when that 2-3 gets is invading opponents’ personal space, siphoning off passing lanes contesting every long range shot and challenging everything at the rim – everything falls into place. The Orange lock you down, worry about scoring later and force you to make contested shots. You can understand a team losing its composure against something as historically effective and unique as Syracuse’s 2-3, locked and loaded with some of the longest and most athletic players in the country. Montana was helpless. Cal struggled to get unencumbered looks. Even Indiana’s 1.21 points per-possession offense, ranked behind only Michigan, was completely out of sorts against the Orange’s D.
But you sort of expected Marquette to know what was coming. After all, the Golden Eagles have been scheming against Jim Boeheim’s mechanically predictable defensive style ever since they joined the Big East in 2005, and after having beaten and scored 74 points on the Orange this season, Marquette had the recency of competition (and the benefit of years of practice) to combat the defense that’s suddenly pushed the Orange to the forefront of the National Title conversation. It didn’t help. Syracuse smothered the Golden Eagles into 39 points, 22 percent shooting and 3-for-24 (3-for-24!) from beyond the arc. The Orange zone has always been a difficult defense to prepare for, but in this NCAA Tournament, Boeheim’s patented scheme is ratcheting up the intensity, and no one has been able to counter its overwhelming disruptiveness. Now the Orange march on to Atlanta toting the early-season form that gave Syracuse the look of a top-five outfit. Boeheim’s team has harnessed its immense potential at this critical juncture, and it’s going to take an equally hot outfit – not to mention an offensive game plan capable of operating under the pressure of Boeheim’s trademark 2-3 zone executing to perfection – to halt this dominant defense-driven surge.
Off-balanced jumper of the night. Before VanVleet’s insane jump stop leaner bounced high off the rim, kissed the glass and and smacked iron twice more before finally falling through, Ohio State was rallying, Wichita was crumbling under the pressure and a huge second-half lead appeared as if it would dissipate completely in the game’s waning moments. Van Vleet’s shot gave the Shockers the momentum they needed to hold on for the win.
Tonight’s All Americans.
- Michael Carter-Williams, Syracuse (NPOY) – No team will be able to match MCW’s length at the point guard position from here on out. Marquette didn’t have an answer, and Carter-Williams used his physical advantages to power one of his most complete performances of the season: 12 points, eight rebounds, six assists and five steals.
- James Southerland, Syracuse – If Marquette’s shooting was pitiful, Syracuse’s was below-average (19-for-50), but Southerland did manage to score a team-high 16 points.
- Malcolm Armstead, Wichita State – One of the main questions for Wichita State heading into this game was how Armstead would deal with Aaron Craft, quite possibly the best on-ball defender in the game. Armstead responded with 14 points, seven rebounds and three assists.
- Cleanthony Early, Wichita State – Trying to find someone both long enough and quick enough to defend Early, a 6’8’’ forward with legitimate guard skills, is a confounding dilemma. Early was attacking again Saturday night: 12 points, seven rebounds.
- Fred Van Vleet, Wichita State – His composure in winning time, as the Buckeyes cut into the Shockers huge lead and nearly came all the way back, saved Wichita State from a disappointing loss. He finished with 12 points and three rebounds off the bench.
Tweet of the night. It’s important to note that Marquette itself wasn’t blameless in Saturday night’s blowout. The Golden Eagles missed a handful of decent to favorable looks, and any number of makes could have shifted momentum and brought Buzz Williams’ team within range to pull off another miraculous last-minute win. In a single-elimination format, there are no condolences for an off-shooting night. Marquette’s flameout – a harrowing product of both poor shooting and maniacal zone defense – is yet another case in point.