RTC Rewind: Celebrating the Life of a Legend, Duke-Kentucky, Arizona’s #1 Seed Hit…

Posted by Henry Bushnell on February 9th, 2015

One thousand. Two weeks ago, this column and many more around the country led with that number. Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski had just become the first men’s college basketball coach to reach the 1,000-win plateau on an historic Sunday at Madison Square Garden, and in the aftermath, Coach K and that number were the talk of the sports world.

The Basketball World Paused on Sunday to Honor Dean Smith's Passing (USA Today Images)

The Basketball World Paused on Sunday to Honor Dean Smith’s Passing. (USA Today Images)

Today we celebrate another ACC legend. But we do so for a different reason, and in a different tenor. We’ll get to the basketball soon enough, but as you’ve probably heard by now, legendary North Carolina coach Dean Smith — a former rival of Krzyzewski’s — passed away on Saturday. He was 83. Since the news broke Sunday morning, messages extolling Smith’s many virtues have come from far and wide. They’ve come from former players and adversaries, columnists and commentators, even from the President of the United States. Many of us have mourned college basketball’s loss, but even more have celebrated a life that so special to so many people. And that’s what this should be: a celebration.

Like Krzyzewski, Smith was obviously an outstanding basketball coach. He was innovative, sharp and bold — and, without question, driven by his competitiveness. He too set a number of records while at the helm in Chapel Hill, but those accomplishments are only the subtext to the discussion. That’s because Smith wasn’t defined by his numbers, as good as they were. Ask anybody who knew the man, and they’ll tell you the same thing: Dean Smith was defined by the way in which he impacted the lives of others. He was defined by stories of grace, loyalty and sincerity. Smith coached before my time. But it’s through those stories that I have gotten to know him, and it is those stories that allow everybody — well beyond the entire college hoops community — to recognize how truly wonderful a man he was. I can’t relate those anecdotes myself, but others — like ESPN‘s Dana O’Neil and The Washington Post‘s John Feinstein — have. And they’re beautiful.

In an era when many college coaches brand themselves as “teachers” and “educators,” they do a disservice to Smith. No modern coach mimics the impact Smith had on his players’ lives. One of the phrases repeated many times over the past 24 hours has been “socially conscious,” and that’s exactly what separated Smith from others. He was genuine and forthright in his belief system, doing what he always thought was right and never holding anything back because of status. He didn’t just care about the his players as a head coach; he cared about everyone he came into contact with — demonstrating it with actions rather than words. And what’s more, Smith never asked or even wanted any acclaim for it. As Roy Williams and many others have said over the years, Smith thought it odd that he would be thanked for doing something that was right.

In coming days, many coaches will talk a big game about trying to emulate the lessons of Smith. But none ever will. College basketball hasn’t just lost a legend. It has lost an incredibly unique one. RIP, Coach Smith.

Revisiting the Dream Match-up

Alright, on to this past weekend of action… Back in pre-conference play, two teams dominated the college hoops discussion: Kentucky and Duke. Both appeared dominant, and perhaps more importantly, had done so in very different fashions. Kentucky had won big using its relentless depth and athleticism — but without a true star — and Duke had pounded its opponents with a delicious mix of youthful talent and experience, surrounding a superstar with a perfectly complementary supporting cast. Naturally, Duke-Kentucky was the dream match-up. Thoughts of the Wildcats and Blue Devils, Krzyzewski and John Calipari, Indianapolis, and Monday, April 6 were tantalizing.


But then Duke slipped up. Questions arose about the Blue Devils’ worthiness. Coach K’s team lost two straight games to second-tier ACC foes, and all of a sudden, some panic ensued. However, the comeback win at Virginia a little over a week ago nipped all of that in the bud, and Saturday’s win at home took things a step further. Duke’s 30-point demolition of Notre Dame reminded us of those dreams. There are several other top teams, of course, and some, like Virginia, that may even be better than the Blue Devils. But Duke’s prolific offense, which reappeared in earnest on Saturday, would be the perfect foil for a perhaps undefeated and on the brink of history Kentucky team’s stifling defense. For the sake of the sport, and regardless of whether it comes during a regional final or in Indianapolis… please, oh college basketball gods, please treat us to Duke-Kentucky.

Virginia May Need to Evolve

It was another awesome week for ACC-leading Virginia. Coming off the collapse to Duke and facing the latter two-thirds of a murderous three-game stretch, the Cavaliers responded stoically with wins at North Carolina and Louisville. But the news that broke on late Saturday put a major damper on those victories: Justin Anderson is expected to miss four to six weeks with a fractured finger. Anderson, who exploded onto the scene this year as a dead-eye shooter and the team’s leading scorer, was a big reason why Virginia has emerged as such an elite offensive team in addition to its stalwart defense. This is a massive loss for Tony Bennett’s team, and therefore Virginia might have to evolve over the next month of play.

Justin Anderson Provides Excellent Scoring Punch From the Wing (USA Today Images)

Justin Anderson Provides Excellent Scoring Punch From the Wing (USA Today Images)

Even before Anderson’s injury, you could argue that an evolution has already begun. Over the season’s first two months, the Cavaliers wowed us on both ends of the floor. But Virginia had already been trending back toward its common identity: a slow pace bolstered by a suffocating defense. In their last five games, the Cavs only once surpassed 1.10 points per possession (North Carolina); and five of their last eight games featured 55 possessions or fewer (with all but the North Carolina game featuring fewer than 60 possessions). By comparison, their first 14 games featured only one contest with fewer than 55 possessions (Rutgers). Without Anderson in the lineup — a good defender, but whose absence will be felt more on offense — it’s reasonable to expect this trend to continue. Virginia may have been overachieving somewhat offensively earlier in the year, and as the Cavaliers regress ever so slightly — with Anderson’s injury a compounding issue — they will have to increasingly rely on their defense. Whether that’s enough to allow them to defend their ACC regular season and tournament championships will be answered in the next few weeks.

A Costly Loss for Arizona

Arizona had been cruising. The Wildcats had won six straight — five of the six by double-figures — and had asserted their Pac-12 dominance with an 18-point home drubbing of Utah. But Saturday, after a full week off to prepare, Sean Miller’s team was upset by intrastate rival Arizona State. It is by no means time to panic in Tucson — Arizona should be just fine from a basketball perspective — but the loss represents a big hit to the Wildcats’ No. 1 seed hopes. In a weak Pac-12, Arizona’s margin for error on that notion was already slim. Whereas Duke, Virginia and Kansas have opportunities for quality wins at least every other week, those opportunities for Arizona are limited. So while, for example, Kansas can easily make up for its loss at Oklahoma State — not a bad loss, mind you — with wins over Baylor and at West Virginia this week, Arizona will not have that luxury. It would have been tough for the committee to leave a two-loss Arizona team off the top line, but there’s a very good argument for, say, a six-loss Kansas group getting seeded above a three-loss Arizona. With this weekend’s loss to the Sun Devils, the Wildcats may have just initiated that debate.

VCU in Trouble Without Briante Weber

VCU Appears to Really Miss Briante Weber

VCU Appears to Really Miss Briante Weber

One of this season’s most tragic injuries took place a week ago when VCU point guard Briante Weber, 11 steals shy of the NCAA all-time record, suffered a career-ending ACL injury. It was impossible to not feel for the kid, and it was also clearly a huge loss for VCU. Still, you may not have expected it to disproportionately impact the Rams — Shaka Smart has a deep rotation, and Weber, while really good, wasn’t a superstar. But if we take Saturday’s game against St. Bonaventure as evidence, the magnitude of his loss as a defensive leader is very significant. VCU forced just nine Bonnies’ turnovers — tying a season-low — and clearly missed Weber’s steal rate of 8.8 percent at the point of attack. The senior was VCU’s defensive catalyst and the lead engineer of Havoc, but without him in the lineup, VCU’s separation from the A-10 pack appears diminished. VCU could be in trouble.

Quick Hitters: The Good

  • Oklahoma has responded nicely to a rough mid-January stretch during which it lost four of five games. The Sooners won at TCU on Saturday after trouncing West Virginia last Tuesday, and are only a game and a half out of first place in the Big 12 with Kansas’ recent loss to Oklahoma State providing a sliver of hope.
  • After losing four straight, Texas picked up a critical win Saturday at Kansas State. With home games against TCU and Texas Tech up next, the Longhorns should be able to fully steady the ship and prepare themselves for a postseason run.

Quick Hitters: The Bad

  • This is one of the worst Michigan State teams in quite a while. KenPom’s ratings system still likes them, but the Spartans have only beaten one top-50 team all season long and fell at home to Illinois over the weekend. This roster is strikingly thin, especially in the frontcourt, and if Tom Izzo’s team can’t find a groove soon, it could find itself in some bubble trouble.
  • On this edition of ‘remember when’… Remember when Seton Hall was a Top 25 team? It doesn’t seem like it was all that long ago. But nowadays, the Pirates, with recent losses at DePaul and at home against Marquette, seem determined to play their way into the NIT.

Player of the Weekend: Kyle Collinsworth, BYU

Kyle Collinsworth Continues Filling Up the Stat Sheets (BYU)

Kyle Collinsworth Continues Filling Up the Stat Sheets (BYU)

Collinsworth might not have had the best individual performance of the weekend, but the BYU senior set an NCAA single-season record with his fifth triple-double of the campaign, posting 23 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists against Loyola Marymount. Incredible.

Henry Bushnell (39 Posts)

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