Final Four Daily Diaries: Championship Monday

Posted by rtmsf on April 5th, 2011

RTC is at the Final Four in Houston, our sixth as a fan but our first as a member of the working media. What that means, exactly, we’re still trying to figure out, but we think it has something to do with wearing a rectangular piece of plastic with our mug on it and nodding approvingly at the people in the NCAA blazers walking around the innards of Reliant Stadium. Or maybe it means dropping dime on one of the coaches at the dais for one thing or another — we’re not sure. Anyway, over the next four days of collegiate basketball activity here in H-town, we’ll be providing a daily diary in much the same way we’ve done with our correspondents throughout this year’s Tournament — equal parts observation and analysis, with a hint of the absurd.

Monday, April 4 – Houston, Texas

Connecticut Huskies: 2011 National Champions

  • The Sunday between Final Four Saturday and Championship Monday night is always a relative snooze.  Fans tend to walk around aimlessly not really knowing what to do with themselves, and the media events at the venue seem a little anti-climatic after the drama of the previous night.  Hence, there wasn’t much to write about given that we were stuck so far from the action in Houston (a proposition which seems tenuous already, that there actually is some action in this town).  So let’s jump right into Monday night’s title tilt.
  • Fill in the blanks: Butler threw up more bricks than a _____ in a _____.  The numbers are stark — worst shooting percentage in a title game for a single team ever; fewest points scored by a team in the title game in a hundred years (or thereabouts); fewest two-point field goals, etc., etc., etc.  The Bulldogs went 12-64 from the floor for a putrid 18.8% tonight, and it felt worse.  Nine of those makes were threes, which means (doing the math) that Butler only managed a total of THREE two-point field goals in the entire flippin’ game.  Three of 31 from inside the arc amounts to 9.7%, and the last time we remember something this bad in a Final Four was the 3-33 stinker that Kentucky threw up in a half during the 1984 Final Four versus Georgetown.  Yuck.
  • Brad Stevens and the players all pretty much said the same thing after the game: the shots were there, they just didn’t fall tonight.  And there’s truth to that.  Sometimes missing becomes contagious, and when Andrew Smith (2-9 FGs) and Matt Howard (1-13 FGs) were blowing easy layups and short jumpers that they normally make, we wondered if the pressure of shot after shot clanging off the iron had started to creep into their heads.  After a 22% first half where we thought, ‘surely this will improve,’ it didn’t.  Butler proceeded to hit a marginally worse 16% in the second, eliminating any chance of a comeback after taking a short-lived lead a minute or so into the second half.  When Stevens is tossing and turning in his bed in Indianapolis later this spring, he’ll surely be awakened with recurrent nightmares of his team’s shooting tonight.  What with the blown layups, the threes rattling out, even the mediocre foul shooting (8-14 FTs), he’ll look back at a major opportunity lost.  During a stretch from the 16:00 mark of the second half to the 7:30 mark, Butler tried just about everything and nothing would drop for them.  It turned out to be the defining period of the game, as UConn went from up a single point to essentially putting the game away (up thirteen).

Kemba Shows Off the Net He Earned

  • When I saw Connecticut win the Maui Invitational back in November, I thought that they had a chance to be pretty good but would struggle against the familiarity of the Big East schedule.  I never envisioned just how much they would struggle (9-9 in the conference), nor how well they would perform against everyone else on their schedule (23-0, including 14-0 in knockout tournament situations).  The Huskies may not be the proverbial “best” team in America, but I’m not sure you can argue that anybody else is more clutch.  When I asked the players on Friday about being 12-0 in tournaments this season, they answered that they play better when they know that it’s a “win or go home” situation, and every time they were faced with that scenario all season long, they beat the team put in front of them.  In the sport of basketball at every level from peewee up to the NBA, that’s how champions are crowned, and UConn proved over and over again that they were more than capable.
  • The development and growth of Kemba Walker from cocky NYC penetrating point guard with little knowledge of how to run a team to cocky NYC shooter with a knack for making his teammates better has been a remarkable transformation to observe.  I’m not sure I’ve seen a player like him make such drastic strides in such a short period of time.  But there should be no question after the last month of basketball (all due respect to The Jimmer), Walker is the best player in America and deserves the NPOY trophies to go along with the national championship one headed to Storrs.  I admit that I fell for the Jimmer’s long-range bombs and must-see television when I put my USBWA ballot in a month ago, but for the RTC awards which will be coming out later this week, I had no choice but to vote for Kemba.  He’s been that good, enough to surpass Jimmer in my mind.
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Final Four Daily Diaries: Saturday

Posted by rtmsf on April 3rd, 2011

RTC is at the Final Four in Houston, our sixth as a fan but our first as a member of the working media. What that means, exactly, we’re still trying to figure out, but we think it has something to do with wearing a rectangular piece of plastic with our mug on it and nodding approvingly at the people in the NCAA blazers walking around the innards of Reliant Stadium. Or maybe it means dropping dime on one of the coaches at the dais for one thing or another — we’re not sure. Anyway, over the next four days of collegiate basketball activity here in H-town, we’ll be providing a daily diary in much the same way we’ve done with our correspondents throughout this year’s Tournament — equal parts observation and analysis, with a hint of the absurd.

Saturday, April 2 – Houston, Texas

  • For my money, of which I will have very little after this trip to Houston, the moments prior to the start of the first game at Semifinal Saturday are the absolute best of the entire season.  The anticipation, buzz, nervous vibe, whatever you want to call it… is off the charts, as all four schools dare to dream the impossible.  Bands are playing, fans are screaming, media are flittering, and the whole place contains an electricity that is only captured in my opinion at the collegiate level of sports.  There’s something peculiar about schools and fandom that makes this so, and it’s different than what you see with fans in the various professional sports leagues around the country and world.  At any rate, if I could bottle that energy in the air in those fifteen minutes prior to the first tipoff, I’d strap a nipple to that thing and drink it down as a part of my daily regimen.  No question.

VCU Fans Were More Amped Than Anybody Here Tonight

  • That said, my seating arrangement in the pressbox of Reliant Stadium (remember, this is a football stadium by design) left a little to be desired.  The worst part actually wasn’t the view — I could see the players and the ball going through the hoop fine, and so forth — rather, it was the giant windows that kept the noise of the stadium below from reaching all of us within the box.  It muffled everything to the point where I felt I wasn’t actually watching the game live inasmuch as viewing it as a tourist observes the sharks as the local aquarium.  It was more like watching the game on television rather than being there, even though I didn’t have a high definition screen in front of me and the PA announcer was clear as day (piped into the room).

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Final Four Daily Diaries: Friday

Posted by rtmsf on April 2nd, 2011

RTC is at the Final Four in Houston, our sixth as a fan but our first as a member of the working media.  What that means, exactly, we’re still trying to figure out, but we think it has something to do with wearing a rectangular piece of plastic with our mug on it and nodding approvingly at the people in the NCAA blazers walking around the innards of Reliant Stadium.  Or maybe it means dropping dime on one of the coaches at the dais for one thing or another — we’re not sure.  Anyway, over the next four days of collegiate basketball activity here in H-town, we’ll be providing a daily diary in much the same way we’ve done with our correspondents throughout this year’s Tournament — equal parts observation and analysis, with a hint of the absurd.

Friday, April 1 – Houston, Texas

  • Houston sucks.  I’ve never been to a place that angers me more than this city.  Ok, maybe Vegas after a specific trip to the Luxor Hotel & Spa a few years back, but nowhere else I’ve been in this country enjoys such a harmonious mixture of horrendous traffic, non-walkability, preponderance of bad chain restaurants, paucity of natural beauty, unbearable heat, and a culture-less culture than this place.  I’ve been to most major US cities before, and there’s a reason I’d yet to make it to this one — now I know why (as I prep for my credential to be rendered invalid around 4 pm CDT tomorrow).  Credential or not, you’ve got three more days, Houston — my poison pen is raring.  Other than that, it’s great.

There Are a Lot of Roads That End Here, Not Just This One.

  • On to Final Four Friday, as it’s called in the local parlance.  Not to go all Negative Nancy on you all in this diary, but the four practices this afternoon couldn’t  have been more sleep-inducing.  I was lucky enough to bring the RTC Babe along for the ride this weekend, and she put it rather succinctly when asked about her impressions of the four-hour snorefest — “It was boring, but I did get to see Jimmer,” her voice lilting at the end.  That she did, and as she’s somehow managed to convince herself in the last three weeks that BYU’s Jimmer Fredette possesses a hotness that most mere mortals cannot reach, we say bravo.  After all, The Jimmer is in fact the guy we all want to be anyway, and it could be worse — she could have mentioned somebody like, ugh, Chandler Parsons.

Jimmer, Clearly Awkward But Playing Along...

  • Back to the practices, though, and although it was cool to be in the building and to look around, enjoy the decorations and speak with some colleagues, the practices were by and large worthless.  A few light drills, a lot of jump shooting, coaches and players taking it all in — these were the activities of the day.  No Big Country tearing the backboard down or Kevin Love hitting 100-footers or a horrific injury to a notable player today — just a lot of quiet.  Even the Kentucky fans were largely muted, a completely unexpected occurrence given that it’s been 13 long years since the BBN last saw a F4 Friday practice.
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NCAA Regional Diary From San Antonio

Posted by rtmsf on March 29th, 2011

After another weekend of scintillating and shocking NCAA Tournament results, it’s time to check back in with our various correspondents who were in Anaheim, San Antonio, New Orleans and Newark reporting on the games this weekend.

Location: San Antonio, TX
Round: Regional Final
Teams: VCU, Kansas
Date: 27 March 2011

To read all the diaries throughout the NCAA Tournament, click here.

The San Antonio Riverwalk is Always a Hit.

  • This is the second time in this Tournament that I’ve personally witnessed this happen (Gonzaga vs. St. John’s being the other).  Kansas’ strategy from the opening tip was to get the ball inside early and often to their big men, Marcus and Markieff Morris.  It worked in the beginning as the twins got KU off to a 6-2 start, but VCU started to figure out the entry passes, and before long the Kansas guards were trying to throw the ball into a quadruple-team underneath.  The perimeter players weren’t looking to score at all, and I sometimes wonder if a focused strategy to take advantage of a strength (as here) actually backfires in the sense that the perimeter players don’t have an opportunity to play offensively.  In the Richmond game, as a contrasting example, the KU perimeter players got going early and UR as a result was out of the game by the second television timeout.
  • I love Shaka Smart for many reasons, not least of which is his bulldog mentality of taking on all comers, but watching him get down into a defensive crouch on the sidelines as his players guard the ball on that side of the floor is phenomenal.  He moves his feet very well for his advanced age of all of 33 years old.  With Brad Stevens Lambeau Leap into the team circle after beating #1 Pitt last week, and Smart acting as a sixth defender for the Rams, youth in the coaching ranks is most definitely served.
Shaka Can!
  • Whew, Markieff Morris (eight turnovers) and Tyrel Reed (1-9 FGs) would like to have this game back.  Through the first twelve minutes of action, Markieff had already turned the ball over six times to VCU, including a ridiculous Ewing-step-through travel that he damn well knows better than to do in the college game.  Reed suffered a miserable game, and he never looked less comfortable than when Kansas was in desperate need of someone — anyone — to hit some threes down the stretch, but he was badly off on all of them.  It was pretty clear to me from my vantage point that both of these guys were feeling the pressure of expectations, and they were generally crushed by it.
  • I liked Self’s decision to try to get Josh Selby into the game early to combat the scoring woes of his team on the perimeter.  Other than Selby, none of the KU guards are elite talents capable of scoring on demand.  It didn’t work out today, as Selby went 1-5 for two points and clearly wasn’t feeling it, but it was still worth the gamble.  He couldn’t have done much worse than the pair of Reed and Brady Morningstar (2-16 FGs).
  • Speaking of Selby, has any freshman in America been a bigger disappointment this season?  Hailed as the possible missing piece to a dominant KU team, he looked good in December before tailing off completely the rest of the way to become nearly a late-season afterthought.  It’s not very often that high school players good enough to rate #1 in the nation by at least one scouting service will suffer such a weird diminishment of his playing time and influence.  Yet, had he been akin to a John Wall or even a Brandon Knight, Kansas might still be playing.  The perimeter absolutely killed the Jayhawks today.

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NCAA Regional Diary From New Orleans

Posted by rtmsf on March 29th, 2011

After another weekend of scintillating and shocking NCAA Tournament results, it’s time to check back in with our various correspondents who were in Anaheim, San Antonio, New Orleans and Newark reporting on the games this weekend.

Location: New Orleans, LA
Round: Regional Final
Teams: Florida, Butler
Date: 26 March 2011
Correspondent: John Stevens

To read all the diaries throughout the NCAA Tournament, click here.

Back to Butler…

There are only two possible options, and either one makes Brad Stevens look like a genius.

Here’s the situation. There are nine and a half minutes left in the Butler/Florida game and the Gators are starting to separate themselves a little. The Butler faithful — many of whom comprise the entire section behind the Bulldogs’ bench and have stood far more than they’ve sat in their seats during the game — haven’t been up for a while, and they’re starting to squirm in those chairs because they can feel it getting out of hand. So naturally, if you’re Brad Stevens, this is the time you saunter down to the end of the bench and put in — who else? — a kid who had scored a grand total of 29 points all season, had only played in 19 of the team’s games, and who averaged less than half an assist. If the sarcasm isn’t coming through, here, what we really mean to say is…are you kidding with this? And yet, what did Crishawn Hopkins do when Stevens tapped him with this most improbable of opportunities? Hit a cutting Matt Howard down the middle for a beautiful assist — immediately contributing more than twice his average in that category — and then hit a huge three, raising his yearly scoring output to 32 points. Sure, he committed a turnover moments later, and he was subbed out, but he changed everything. He provided that lift that comes when a kid who you never expected to come through ends up playing well; when that happens, the crowd gets back into the game and teammates who play the majority of minutes start playing with higher confidence. So, hands up, who predicted Crishawn Hopkins would turn out to be one of the most important players of the NCAA Tournament? When Hopkins sat down after being subbed out, he received a pretty loud ovation from the crowd. In fact, there was only one other player in this region who enjoyed a similar applause when he was removed from his game. It was Jimmer Fredette ending his career.

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NCAA Regional Diary From Newark

Posted by rtmsf on March 28th, 2011

After another weekend of scintillating and shocking NCAA Tournament results, it’s time to check back in with our various correspondents who were in Anaheim, San Antonio, New Orleans and Newark reporting on the games this weekend.

To read all the diaries throughout the NCAA Tournament, click here.

Location: Newark, NJ
Round: Regional Final
Teams: Kentucky, North Carolina
Date: 27 March 2011
Correspondent: Joe Dzuback   

The UK Defense Was Aggressive From the Start

 

  • And the word at the Rock all afternoon was “matchups.” This is a game of matchups. A strong team on Friday can look very bad on Sunday…why? The matchups. Kentucky Coach John Calipari found a way to neutralize Carolina’s heretofore dominant frontcourt trio. He did it by calling on veteran DeAndre Liggins to start the game – “It wasn’t no big deal. Coach say he was going to start me, no disrespect to Doron or anything like that,” replied Liggins to a question about the switch-up – and told the junior veteran to shut down freshman point guard Kendall Marshall. Liggins embraced his assignment, giving the freshman little room to pass or drive, forcing him to take shots when the clock ran down, or resort to the basketball equivalent of sending the puck into the corner and letting the wings – or in this case UNC’s forwards — dig it out. Though it worked on occasion, as Tyler Zeller and Harrison Barnes were able to score on a few put-backs, that tactic, combined with John Henson’s foul trouble, disrupted the Tar Heel offensive rhythm to the point where the Heels went into the locker room at the half down eight, 38-30, and their high octane, highly efficient offense, in shambles. So disruptive was Kentucky’s guard and forward pressure that North Carolina turned over 24.5% of their possessions and converted 28.6% of their three point attempts (2-7). Matchups.
  • At times the Heels appeared confused, falling back on attempted threes to draw iron and extend their possession. Barnes and Marshall combined for 14 three-point attempts, uncharacteristic for North Carolina Coach Roy Williams’ offense, and converting on only three (21.4%), unfortunately very much a characteristic of this Tar Heel team this season. “Their team (Kentucky) averages 39.6% from the three-point line and we don’t have anybody shooting better than 39.6%…it’s hard trying to overcome some things that are that big advantage. They scored 36 points from the three-point line and we scored nine.” When asked about the Kentucky game plan, Josh Harrellson responded, “the first five minutes of each half really dictates the game, you know, the first five minutes of the game we came out and we played aggressive, played together as a team…and I think we did a good job…running our stuff and keeping them out of their basketball game.” Keeping them out of their game involved keeping Zeller out of the low post – trapping big-to-big, “but the whole point was Josh (Harrellson)…you have to play this guy and don’t expect help,” and when Zeller posted on the left side, a guard would slide over to double. Matchups.

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NCAA Regional Diary From Anaheim

Posted by rtmsf on March 28th, 2011

After another weekend of scintillating and shocking NCAA Tournament results, it’s time to check back in with our various correspondents who were in Anaheim, San Antonio, New Orleans and Newark reporting on the games this weekend. 

Location: Anaheim, CA 
Round: Regional Final
Teams: Connecticut, Arizona 
Date: 26 March 2011
Correspondent: Andrew Murawa

  • In the preview for this game, I talked about the idea that it wouldn’t necessarily be the stars that determined the outcome of this game, but the role players. While Kemba Walker and Derrick Williams led the way with 20 points each, the two All-Americans combined to make just two of their 13 attempts from beyond the arc and to shoot a combined 12-30 from the field. The big difference between the two is that Walker was able to take advantage of all the defensive attention that was being paid to him and trust his teammates to make big plays. Walker wound up with seven assists as teammates like Jeremy Lamb (19 points, two threes) and Shabazz Napier (ten points, two threes) came up big when called upon.  “Arizona did a great job of throwing two guys at me and I realized it kind of late,” said Walker. “But I was able to get Jeremy involved and he was able to make so big plays for us. Jeremy was on tonight, and I wanted to keep going to him.”
  • According to Jim Calhoun, it was Walker’s suggestion to repeatedly run Lamb off baseline screens in several late-game possessions. “Kemba says, ‘We got to get the ball to Jeremy!’ Now, I’ve had a lot of great players, and great players want the ball in their hands and he did some great things down the stretch obviously, but he’s saying to the coaches let’s not run cage, let’s run circle for Jeremy, and obviously it paid off great. And he looked at Jeremy and he said, ‘And you’ll make those shots, too.’ I don’t think there is any kid in America doing that. He’ll carry us and take over the game but as good as it has been, his play was great, his leadership even better.”
  • Jeremy Lamb was asked in the postgame press conference to comment on a UConn assistant coach’s statement that the freshman had been so great in the Tournament that it was like he didn’t even know where he was. What followed next proved beyond all doubt that Lamb really didn’t know where he was, as he turned to Coach Calhoun and Walker with a confused look on his face, prompting both of them to begin cracking up, then responded to the reports with “you mean like — what do you mean?” Alex Oriakhi cleared things up a bit, telling Lamb, “he wants to know if you have a pulse.” Lamb responded: “Well, no, I mean, I haven’t thought about it sinking in yet, I just like to go out there and play. I don’t like to think about where we’re playing and how big the stage is. Right now I’m just having fun playing basketball.”
  • Some 27 years ago, Jeremy Lamb’s father, Rolando Lamb, hit a game winning buzzer-beater to beat a Calhoun-coached Northeastern team in the NCAA Tournament. According to Calhoun, all is now forgiven. “I think that after his shot that beat us when he played for VCU I told him he owed me one and he certainly has – he’s paid me back ten-fold. That was just one game.”
  • For the second straight game, the Huskies were the beneficiaries of their opponent’s star forward getting in early foul trouble. And in both games, after taking a solid lead into the halftime locker room, UConn had to withstand numerous second-half charges, playing in what was essentially a road game. “When teams make runs, we don’t let it get to us because I guess we know we’re going to make runs back with Kemba and Jeremy Lamb being able to score the ball the way they’re able to,” said sophomore center Oriakhi.

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Weekend NCAA Diary From Cleveland

Posted by rtmsf on March 22nd, 2011

As you’re no doubt aware, we’ve had our cadre of correspondents traveling around the country to each of the eight NCAA sites over the weekend. We’ve asked the guys to produce a weekend diary of the games they witnessed including analysis, commentary and opinion concerning the sights and sounds at their venues. Our hope is that the diaries will give you insights into the games that you may not have otherwise had from watching them on television or catching the highlights package afterward. Let us know how we do…

Note: for all of the opening weekend diaries, click here.

Location: Cleveland, OH
Round: Third
Teams: Ohio State, George Mason, Marquette, Syracuse
Date: 20 March 2011
Correspondent: John Stevens

It Wasn't To Be This Time Around

  • My goodness, what a difference 48 hours makes for George Mason. They went from the heights to the depths so fast that I hope they adjusted their gas mixtures. On Friday, after their victory over Villanova, people were talking about GMU as an Elite Eight sleeper and I even heard some radio chatter about how they looked like a team who could rekindle the magic from that Final Four season in 2006. They even got a great call from Gus Johnson in that game. Then they ran into Ohio State. And for about nine minutes, they actually played Ohio State. It was a bloodbath thereafter. In the post-game talk, GMU players Ryan Pearson and Cam Long looked like victims of a brainwashing, like two fellows who has just been abducted by aliens and then had their memories erased. They knew something had happened to them, but they still weren’t sure what. Their expressions were a mixture of confusion, disbelief, and anger regarding how they could run into a team that good AND that hot on this night. Everyone in the gym knew that the talent disparity between GMU and OSU wasn’t THAT big, but, as Long said, “We scouted David Lighty as their FOURTH option, ‘a likely shooter.’ But sometimes when you have that night, you have that night.” That’s the most disappointing thing for GMU and their fans. At WORST, you hope to catch OSU on an average night, or hey, maybe you’ll luck out and run into them when they’re off. But when you catch that Ohio State team on a night in which it seemed they could not miss even if they tried, well…you feel like you’ve been cheated something. And Gus got to rest those pipes.
  • I think that serves as further evidence that Ohio State, despite being the best team in the country for the entire second half of the season (and probably most of the first half of it), has improved, themselves. They haven’t remained static at the top, they’ve gotten better as the season progressed. What I’m specifically talking about is that, before the Buckeyes’ game against the Patriots, there was a buzz in Quicken Loans Arena. The Buckeye fans with whom I spoke were fearful of Mike Morrison on the inside and they thought the GMU guards might have been quick enough to stay in front of their own (they didn’t know that Luke Hancock had been declared a scratch). They liked their squad’s chances, obviously. But on the other side, you could also see the Mason fans licking their chops and rubbing their hands together as if anticipating something miraculous. Even a few of the media types I spoke with wondered if this was setting up like Northern Iowa/Kansas. Well, after about nine minutes of game time, that buzz in the arena was replaced with the droning hum of the well-maintained and well-oiled OSU machine. There were reasons the Ohio State players could have felt vulnerable and/or lost focus. Pittsburgh, a 1-seed, had been sent home the night before. It would have been easy to look past Mason to a waiting Kentucky team. Take your pick of several others. Lose focus, though? Yeah. You saw the result.
  • I can’t wait until next year for Aaron Craft. I know there are still some excellent Aaron Craft moments to come this year, but even without fellows like Diebler, Lauderdale, and probably Sullinger around, Ohio State will still be a solid team and Craft will have plenty of people to pass to. He’ll start, and he’ll likely take on more of the scoring load. There has been no Buckeye, and few players at all, who I’ve enjoyed watching more this season. I was happy to see and hear the Craft-love steadily increase throughout the year, though I still maintain it’s still not at the level it should be. For my money, there’s your 1st team All-American point guard for next season. After the win over George Mason, fans and media alike were dizzy over Craft’s 15 assists, especially two of them — a 35-foot strike out of a double-team to an open teammate, and a roll-sling to another Buckeye from a ball he dived for after losing the handle, a pass he made from his backside. It’s an amazing number, but I guess when your teammates are drilling everything you set up for them, it shouldn’t come as that big of a shock.

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Weekend NCAA Diary From Charlotte

Posted by rtmsf on March 22nd, 2011

As you’re no doubt aware, we’ve had our cadre of correspondents traveling around the country to each of the eight NCAA sites over the weekend. We’ve asked the guys to produce a weekend diary of the games they witnessed including analysis, commentary and opinion concerning the sights and sounds at their venues. Our hope is that the diaries will give you insights into the games that you may not have otherwise had from watching them on television or catching the highlights package afterward. Let us know how we do…

Note: for all of the opening weekend diaries, click here.

Location: Charlotte, NC
Round: Third
Teams: Duke, Michigan, North Carolina, Washington
Date: 20 March 2011
Correspondent: Frank Barrows

Tar Heel Fans Get Into It vs. Washington Sunday (CO/D. Foster)

I spent the weekend covering the NCAA tournament games in Charlotte. When I trudged out of the arena Sunday night, my briefcase bulging with hundreds of pieces of paper — stat sheets, team brochures, transcripts of interviews, rosters, etc. — that I had acquired over four days, here’s what I was thinking about:

* A year ago, Kyrie Irving and Harrison Barnes were two of the country’s very top high school basketball players, Nos. 1 and 2 or Nos. 2 and 1 in the eyes of many, excepting the Jared Sullinger partisans.  However, both had rocky starts to their college careers. After eight excellent games for Duke, Irving injured a ligament in his right big right toe and was put in a cast. From the outset, Barnes shot poorly, as if he hadn’t worked on his jumper for weeks before enrolling at North Carolina, and, worse, he played with neither assertiveness nor confidence. The only consolation for Blue Devils’ fans who were mourning the loss of Irving was that Barnes, who had famously and surprisingly chosen North Carolina over Duke in a photo-finish announcement on national televison, was playing so badly. They drowned their sorrows in schadenfreude.

Now, unimaginable as it was at the end of December, Irving and Barnes are central figures, perhaps their team’s central figures, in the week of the Sweet Sixteen.  Irving, a 6’2 point guard, played for the first time in months in the Charlotte NCAA rounds and has recaptured his form nearly as quickly as his slashingly acrobatic drives carry him from beyond the key to the rim.  In total, in the two games, he was on the court for 41 minutes, scoring 25 points and sinking all but one of 14 free throws. He hit the game-winning basket with 19.3 seconds left as Duke downed Michigan 73-71 Sunday, a close-in driving bank shot as he slipped along the baseline with the Blue Devils leading by just one. He appeared to suffer no lingering effects, physical or psychological, from his injury. He was more than fit as a fiddle; he looked like a Stradivarius.

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski had lots to say about Irving. Listen to some remarks from his post-game interview: “We wouldn’t be going forward if he didn’t play. … Kyrie is a heck of a pentrator. … If he plays the whole year, he might be the best player in college basketball. … I think a real big reason why we won today is that he got 20 in (the Hampton game). … You’ve got to get back on stage. I don’t care how much you practice, you got to get back on stage and then do your dancing and singing or whatever … in front of people … We now know that Kyrie will play, and he can play extended minutes. We knew he could play; we didn’t know rusty he would be. … He kept getting better, hit the big shot, and we know that he wants to be there with pressure. That’s a big thing, going forward.”

Barnes, a 6’8 forward, has improved steadily over the course of the season. He started taking important shots in the middle of January, then began making them more and more consistently and spectacularly, and, recently, peaked with such demonstrations as a 40-point showing in the ACC tournament against Clemson and a 24-point-and-16 rebound effort versus Long Island in the Tar Heels’ second-round NCAA matchup. His field-goal percentage, once as low as a good batting average, is now up to 42.3 and rising. The tentativeness that marked his game early in the season is gone, replaced by something that is as far short of swagger as it is well above hesitancy. For example, with North Carolina ahead of Washington 84-80, he missed a jump shot and a drive with in a few seconds; in December he wouldn’t have attempted the second after missing the first.

Barnes, averaging a team-leading 15.5 points, is the best three-point shooter in the Tar Heels’ starting lineup, and because outside scoring is their weakness, he is indispensably vital. Irving, despite the presence of the always remarkable Nolan Smith and the often remarkable Kyle Singler, is, as Krzyzewski pointed out, a guy who wants the ball in the waning minutes. What’s more, even if he continues as a substitute, he gives the Blue Devils a depth they have been lacking for months.  Plus, as his team’s most instinctive playmaker, he can help overcome the late-game problems Duke encountered with Michigan’s 1-3-1 zone, difficulties that surely have been replayed on tape in the offices of every coach who might face the Blue Devils the rest of the way.  For Irving and Barnes, that rest of the way, their path to the Final Four, is growing shorter and shorter.

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Weekend NCAA Diary from Tulsa

Posted by rtmsf on March 22nd, 2011

As you’re no doubt aware, we’ve had our cadre of correspondents traveling around the country to each of the eight NCAA sites over the weekend. We’ve asked the guys to produce a weekend diary of the games they witnessed including analysis, commentary and opinion concerning the sights and sounds at their venues. Our hope is that the diaries will give you insights into the games that you may not have otherwise had from watching them on television or catching the highlights package afterward. Let us know how we do…

Note: for all of the opening weekend diaries, click here.

Location: Tulsa, OK 
Round: Third
Teams: Kansas, Illinois, Texas, Arizona 
Date: 20 March 2011
Correspondent: Eli Linton

The Wildcats Escaped Twice This Weekend (Getty/T. Pennington)

 

  • There is a lot you could say about the Arizona and Texas game, but really what it comes down to is an old cliché: Arizona really did want it more. We could point the finger at Rick Barnes, or the poor play of Tristan Thompson, or the terrible referees who tried their best to ruin it–but Arizona should have never been in that game and they ended up winning. A huge effort from the bench kept Arizona above water while Williams struggled. Arizona’s superhero was just 4-14 from the field, But he stepped up when it mattered most…again. He was the best player in Tulsa–at least as good as the Morris twins—and it showed late in both games when Arizona needed him to survive.
  • A lot of people will make a big deal about the officiating this weekend, and I want to say that the crew in Tulsa that did the Memphis-Arizona and Texas-Arizona games (both the same three officials) were absolutely the worst of the year. Five seconds? Really? The NCAA needs to fire these guys. They are taking away from the games. I guarantee, if they do any of the Sweet Sixteen games, they will for sure make a costly call that could have been avoided.
  • Also, this game made me lose respect for Kansas Jayhawk fans. Nearly the entire arena was bought out by Kansas fans who were waiting for their Jayhawks to play that night. For the entire Arizona game , they sat on their hands doing NOTHING. No cheering, no expression. I couldn’t believe it. This was one of the best games I have ever seen live, and these Kansas fans didn’t even care. It made me so mad. So I officially declare Kansas fans the dumbest in college basketball. They know nothing about the sport.
  • I really felt bad for the Texas players after the game. The one bad thing about fantastic games like this is that there is always a loser. Jordan Hamilton and J’Covan Brown had 41 of Texas’ 69 points, both of them had career games, yet their heads were down during the press conference—they couldn’t even look at the press. They should be proud of how they played. It was a shame.
  • No matter how you slice it, Texas underachieved in the NCAA tournament again. Rick Barnes is now 20-19 in the Big Dance, and like Jamie Dixon in Pittsburgh, has a lot of angry fans who believe he can’t win big games–especially in the tournament. The Longhorns are a very talented team, and falling embarrassingly short YET AGAIN would be unacceptable at a basketball school. Lucky for Rick Barnes, Austin just cares about football
  • Kansas was handed a treat, playing so close to home. The BOK center was packed to the rafters with KU fans, and it really gave Kansas a home court advantage all weekend. The Jayhawks were not particularly impressive against either Boston or Illinois, but they got the job done. What was impressive was the play of the Morris twins; I guess you could say they had the opposition seeing double all weekend (bam!). But in all seriousness, they were phenomenal to watch in person. They shut down Illinois from driving inside, and I don’t see a team right now, other than Ohio State, that can match their big men.

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Weekend NCAA Diary From Chicago

Posted by rtmsf on March 21st, 2011

As you’re no doubt aware, we’ve had our cadre of correspondents traveling around the country to each of the eight NCAA sites over the weekend. We’ve asked the guys to produce a weekend diary of the games they witnessed including analysis, commentary and opinion concerning the sights and sounds at their venues. Our hope is that the diaries will give you insights into the games that you may not have otherwise had from watching them on television or catching the highlights package afterward. Let us know how we do…

Note: for all of the opening weekend diaries, click here.

Location: Chicago, IL
Round: Third
Teams: Notre Dame, Florida State, VCU, Purdue
Date: 20 March 2011

Joey Rodriguez Believes VCU Can Go All the Way

 

  • JaJuan Johnson and E’Twaun Moore’s careers ended before they could get the finish that they and their coach wanted. Moore, who became Purdue’s all-time leading three-point shooter on Friday against St. Peter’s, couldn’t get into a groove with only 10 points on 5-15 shooting, including 0-3 from beyond the arc. Johnson scored 25 points and grabbed 14 boards, but he was forced to watch a layup line go to the basket around him on defense. “You want those guys to go out with a bang,” Matt Painter said. “They deserved better than this.” To his credit, Painter took the high road when discussing the difficulties his team faced this season, including the loss of Robbie Hummel to injury and the suspension of Kelsey Barlow right before the start of the NCAA Tournament. “I don’t think that had anything to do with it,” Painter said about Barlow’s suspension. “Obviously, he gives you athleticism and length. He’s a versatile guy you can put on a lot of different people. We still get beat with him. There’s no question. They were very good. They were beating a lot of people tonight.”
  • Joey Rodriguez is VCU’s little engine that can. The 5’10 senior point guard has been as enigmatic as his team this season. On Sunday he played almost perfectly with 12 points, 11 assists and no turnovers. “I thought Joey Rodriguez was excellent,” said Matt Painter. “I thought he was the difference in the game. He ran the team. He found shooters. He found guys diving. He was persistent, very determined.” Shaka Smart went even a step further, “These guys are hungry guys. Joey’s nuts. He wants to win the whole thing, I guarantee you. And he kind of leads the way for everybody. So I’m not worried about there being a letdown.” If Rodriguez plays like he did on Sunday the Rams have a chance.
  • The Florida State Seminoles are that elusive extra something that the ACC has been looking for since the 2006 Boston College Eagles: a team besides North Carolina and Duke that makes the Sweet Sixteen. Leonard Hamilton’s crew will be joining those two blue bloods in the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament after two convincing wins over Texas A&M and Notre Dame. “For me personally as a coach I’ve felt all along that we could get to this point,” said Hamilton. “Our goals are to be a program of significance in the ACC and on a national basis.”

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Weekend NCAA Diary From Tampa

Posted by rtmsf on March 21st, 2011

As you’re no doubt aware, we’ve had our cadre of correspondents traveling around the country to each of the eight NCAA sites over the weekend.  We’ve asked the guys to produce a weekend diary of the games they witnessed including analysis, commentary and opinion concerning the sights and sounds at their venues.  Our hope is that the diaries will give you insights into the games that you may not have otherwise had from watching them on television or catching the highlights package afterward.  Let us know how we do…

Note: for all of the opening weekend diaries, click here.

Location: Tampa, FL
Round: Third
Teams: Florida, UCLA, Kentucky, West Virginia
Date: 19 March 2011
Correspondent: Collin Sherwin

The Gators Advance to S16 First Time Since Back-to-Back (GS/A. Daye)
  • Brandon Knight and Terrence Jones from Kentucky are expected to head to the NBA, and they’ll both be high enough picks in a lousy draft that they probably should leave (assuming there’s no lockout that takes an entire year away). Tyler Honeycutt from UCLA really impressed me as well. He really controls the game for a smaller forward, and can fill it either off the bounce or on the perimeter. His comparable is probably a lesser Stephen Curry, and the rumor is he’s going to the League as well. If there was ever a year to justify leaving early, this is it.
  • I don’t see how Florida does it. It took some miracle shots from Erving Walker to get them past a more talented UCLA that dominated them inside. Reeves Nelson and Josh Smith were having their way with the Florida bigs, but somehow didn’t seem to be getting the ball enough. The Gators had no answer for the tandem inside, and are the classic “donut” team without a legitimate big. Patric Young for UF really looks like a manchild out there, and has a huge motor, but he’s still a bit raw. He could be a solution in the future, but I was honestly surprised that UCLA didn’t pull that game out. On most nights, the 7th seeded Bruins would advance, but Walker picked the right day to have possibly the best game of his career. The shot he hit from his rear end with about a minute to go left me with two images; the ball going in and the roar from the crowd, and a UCLA assistant coach slamming his portfolio into the chair next to him in frustration.
  • At halftime of UK-WVU, with the Wildcats down 41-33, I had no doubt Kentucky would win. No team that athletic and strong can be held down forever. John Calipari isn’t known as an X’s and O’s guy, but his adjustments to the WVU matchup zone were what led his team to a 9-0 run to start the second half. And I’m not sure why against inferior opponents he continues to call set plays. With the talent he has on the floor, their basic dribble drive motion offense is more than enough for teams to deal with by itself. Why waste some shot clock on a set when if you stick to your pattern you’re most likely going to get a good look in 35 seconds?
  • I think Chandler Parsons is almost too unselfish, and needs to assert himself more as a scorer. He’s 6’10 with unlimited range and clearly a good basketball IQ. I wouldn’t mind seeing him attack more, even if to help free up more space for his teammates. Would like to see him gain more of that killer instinct, but part of the problem is Kenny Boynton and Erving Walker have the ball in their hands a very high percentage of the time. I think the Gators have to find him a way to get more touches in spots where he can score.

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