ATB: Thanks For Showing Up Florida, Louisville Keeps On Chugging Along, and a Horrific Leg Injury…Posted by Chris Johnson on March 31st, 2013
Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.
Tonight’s Lede. The Final Four Is Set. Another week of inter-round boredom awaits after four teams advanced to college basketball’s final weekend. This Tournament hasn’t lacked for upsets, but it also hasn’t totally eviscerated the brand-name blue blood royalty that drives interest and TV viewership. The final grouping is an eclectic mix, filled with just enough Cinderella intrigue and just enough high-seed power to make next weekend’s action in Atlanta a satisfying climax to a memorable college hoops season. The Final Four is the refined product of months of regular season carnage, conference Tournament rigor and, lastly, four rounds of grueling Tournament play. But we made it here, and now, all there is to do is stick along and enjoy the final push for National Championship glory.
Your Water cooler Moment. Cardinals Validate Favorite Status.The best team in the country took the court Sunday with a clear mandate: whatever you have been doing for the past three games, keep doing it. The Cardinals followed through pretty well, I’d say, because if you were to ask any casual sports fan to identify the differences between Louisville’s 85-63 Elite Eight rout of Duke Sunday and the three victories it used to reach the regional final, responses would be terse and mostly inconsequential. Louisville provided yet another thrilling 40-minute sample of the best and most complete basketball being played anywhere right now, and this time, it was Duke – long considered the best team in the country, especially with forward Ryan Kelly in the lineup, with whom the Blue Devils had dropped just two game prior – falling victim to Louisville’s dominating form.
True to the Cardinals’ season-long identity, they won primarily with defense. They forced Duke into 11 turnovers, 36 percent shooting and just 25 percent from beyond the arc. Offensively, the good side of Russdiculous showed up, this time dropping 23 points, and Peyton Siva (16 points, 6-for-10) and Gorgui Dieng (14 points, 11 rebounds) filled in around the margins. Mason Plumlee gave Duke the inside presence it absolutely needed, but Kelly – beset by foul trouble for much of the first half – never got going on the offensive end and Seth Curry finished 3-for-9 with just 12 points, a drastic downturn after his banner 29-point night against Michigan State in the Sweet 16. The Cardinals are the best team left in this field; debating otherwise is silly at this point. There’s a reason Rick Pitino opted not to cut down the nets after winning the Big East Tournament championship. He knew his team was good enough to reach this point on a grander stage – the NCAA Tournament Championship. Sunday offered no reason to believe Louisville isn’t the overwhelming favorite to finish this season with ripped twine securely in tow.
(*I address Kevin Ware’s first half leg injury in the “Tweet of the Night” section below.)
Also Worth Chatting About. So Long, Gators.
For the past two years, Florida has exited NCAA Tournament play on a bittersweet note. Two NIT appearances in 2008 and 2009 followed the back-to-back National Championship group and the Gators, starting in 2011, came painfully close to rediscovering the taste of Final Four glory with two straight Elite Eight appearances. Florida fell short both times – first to Butler (2011) then Louisville (2012). Most fan bases would do anything to see their teams win two national championships, suffer only a brief three-year downturn, then fall three rounds short of two more titles immediately thereafter, and you can rest assured Gators fans will proudly recite their program’s illustrious 21st century pedigree. But can you fault the urge to strive for something better, to aim for a breakthrough past the regional final stage? Florida returned to their previous two seasons’ stopping point Sunday, a favorite to run through four-seeded Michigan en route to a Final Four appearance.
The final outcome was much different from the past two seasons. Not in the sense that Florida actually won, because they didn’t, but in the margin of defeat. After blowing leads in consecutive Elite Eight eliminations, the Gators made it easy on us this time around by skipping the drama altogether. Michigan controlled the game all the way through, leading by double digits for 37 minutes and, but for sporadic evidence to the country, rendering the most efficient offensive team in the country, with a future Hall of Fame coach who excels under the single-elimination heat of March, a lifeless, disjointed and spiritless group. Freshman Nik Stauskas played the game of his college life, Mitch McGary continued his remarkable March breakout, the Wolverines went 10-of-19 from three, and after 40 minutes there was no point in questioning the blatant massacre (final: 79-59) that had just taken place. Michigan bulldozed the SEC regular season juggernaut, made it look exceedingly easy – so much so that Syracuse’s unfailingly suffocating 2-3 zone defense doesn’t feel as impossibly difficult to solve as it did 24 hours ago. Michigan showed it’s more than ready for the Orange in the Final Four.
Three-point barrage of the night. Take this clip, replicate it five times, and you get Stauskas’ first half, in a nutshell. After the first, I don’t know, two or three corner threes, you would think Florida would have though about checking Stauskas out on the perimeter. Guess not.
Tonight’s All Americans.
- Nik Stauskas, Michigan (NPOY) – It felt like all five of Stauskas’ first half threes, as clean and iron-free as made jumpers come, were launched from the exact same left corner location. He added another trey after to reach a perfect 6-for-6 and finished with 22 points total.
- Trey Burke, Michigan – Excellent point guard play is a given with Michigan. Burke delivered again Sunday with 15 points, eight rebounds and seven assists.
- Mitch McGary, Michigan – The reason Michigan has suddenly morphed into a very real national title threat? McGary’s miraculous March star-turn. His line Sunday: 11 points, nine rebounds, five steals.
- Russ Smith, Louisville – Last season, Smith was just as liable to game-turning mistakes as he was productive scoring nights. He’s managed to cloak the lamentable aspects of his game in this Tournament, and Sunday was no different. Smith’s 23 points was a game-high.
- Gorgui Dieng, Louisville – All signs point to this being Dieng’s last run with the Cardinals. They will miss his scoring (14 points) rebounding (11) and shot blocking (4) when he (presumably) declares for the NBA Draft this summer.
Tweet of the night. It was a truly humbling scene to behold at Lucas Oil Stadium Sunday afternoon when Louisville guard Kevin Ware was carted off the court with an absolutely gruesome leg injury. I won’t link the video here – you can find it on your own time, if that’s your thing – but to get a real sense of the mood following Ware’s disturbing fall, this tweet (and many others relaying the same sentiment) conveys the mood-chilling effect the harrowing event had not only on coaches and players on the court, but on fans of both teams. You absolutely hate to see a player end his season in the midst of a heated postseason run, and this particular instance eliminates the possibility for any sort of apples-to-apples comparisons. I cannot remember the last time I have seen tragic injury of this magnitude, on the biggest stage the sport has to offer.
Maybe in football, or rugby, but for college basketball, Sunday offered a harrowing snapshot of the delicate balance these athletes toe every time they step on the court (even in sport some people foolishly dub “non-contact”). I have seen the injury at least five times now, and it feels even more surreal now than it did at first glance. It cast a dreary shadow on an otherwise fun day of college hoops, but in the end, I have only one request – that we never, ever see anything like this again. The one positive takeaway? The response from fans and social media outlets, especially Twitter, was appropriate in its solemnity.