Triangle Basketball Apocalypse: A RetrospectivePosted by Matt Patton on March 24th, 2014
NC State, Duke and North Carolina all lost over the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament in excruciating fashion: NC State led essentially the whole game before slowly relinquishing a 99 percent safe (according to kenpom.com) lead in the final four minutes to Saint Louis; Duke’s stars failed to produce en route to also blowing a 90 percent safe lead in the final five minutes to a double-digit underdog; North Carolina made the round of 32, but never got a last shot (presumably to win the game) because of a hesitant clock operator. Let’s take a deeper look at all three.
There’s no sugarcoating the NC State loss. It was brutal to follow. Drawn out and essentially feeding on itself (each missed free throw made the following ones even more difficult), it was just the toughest collapse to watch. Truthfully it was the worst collapse in a very long time. No one finished watching that game thinking that the better team (at least at this moment) had won. The Wolfpack dominated the first 37 minutes before Saint Louis got desperate and reached into the well-worn halls of NC State history for Jimmy V’s relentless fouling strategy. It worked. The Wolfpack made eight of 18 free throws in the final 2:44 of the game, while the dormant Billikens offense jumped to life, scoring 16 points over the same span (19 points if you count Jordair Jett‘s and-one with three minutes left that started the comeback). That was just shy of a third of Saint Louis’ offensive production over the first 37 minutes. Unsurprisingly, Jim Crews’ team went on to win in overtime after Tyler Lewis rattled out the would-be game winner at the buzzer from (gulp) the free throw line. Good luck finding a more drawn-out collapse.
Then there was Duke on Friday, where the better team, Mercer, clearly won the game. The Blue Devils were simply outplayed by the veteran Bears. That said, while people expected a lot from this year’s team, its lack of defense all season long made the NCAA Tournament a riskier than average place for a #3 seed (so much so that this was a fairly popular upset pick). Mercer started a hungry group of seniors who played like they had nothing to lose. Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood combined to go a Kobe-esque 6-of-24 from the field, which meant Duke had to settle for jumpers that weren’t falling late in the second half. Around that same time, Duke’s defense allowed Mercer to score on eight of its final nine possessions (although to be fair, the final three possessions were intentional Duke fouls).
When it came down to it this season, something was missing for Duke, and it’s probably best to use Occam’s razor to explain it here: the Blue Devils just didn’t have a post presence on either end of the floor. All of Mike Krzyzewski‘s great Duke teams have had a true post player, but this year, Parker was forced to play in the post. Coach K’s over-playing man-to-man defense requires an eraser in the paint or incredibly gifted defensive guards and wings. Otherwise there are just too many easy shots given up on the inside. That was the case this year. And when it came down to it, Mercer’s seniors hit the shots they needed to in order to win the game. As an aside, I thought it was very cool for Coach K to visit the Mercer locker room after the game. I don’t think that’s something he would have done 10 years ago, and probably representative of how he views the arc of his career.
Lastly, there was North Carolina. This was the best game of all three over the weekend. But that ending was ludicrous. Spare me the frame-by-frame recaps proving that Nate Britt had the ball for more than 1.6 seconds. Even ignoring the fact that Roy Williams wanted a timeout during the made basket dead-ball, what’s the point of having game clocks? Seriously. It’s obvious that you don’t give a team a “redo” if the shot clock doesn’t go off because the operator accidentally reset it when the ball didn’t hit the rim. But Britt saw that there was over a second remaining on the clock when he crossed half-court, which probably played into his calling a timeout there instead of forcing up a heave. Now, with 1.6 seconds remaining, you can certainly argue that he should have known he had one or two dribbles followed by a long shot. But that’s a slippery slope. Say there were 10 seconds: Do you still expect the player to keep track of the game clock because the operator didn’t start it on time? That’s ridiculous. Also, what advantage does either team have if you simply reset the ball to the baseline and put 1.6 seconds back on the clock? It’s just like you reviewed how much time should be left after DeAndre Kane‘s layup — which probably should have been done anyways. So props to Roy Williams to being a much better man than me, because I would have lost it.
That said, the bizarre ending — which, in all likelihood, had no effect on the outcome — obscured what was a terrific game. North Carolina and Iowa State threw haymakers left and right, but Kane proved he was the best player on the floor. As a fan, it was awesome to watch, at least for 39 minutes and 58 seconds.