We’re down to the final two of the RTC Big Four State Tournament, and this is pretty much where we all expected to be when the brackets were released, right? #1 Indiana will take on #2 North Carolina in a classic battle of roundball states chock full of schools who take their hoops very seriously. There are several interesting storylines here, not least of which is the unusual circumstance that Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski and Butler’s Brad Stevens will once again face off with a national title on the line and several of the same players in tow (Duke’s Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler; Butler’s Shelvin Mack and Matt Howard). Look at these lineups! There are potentially five to seven 2010-11 all-america candidates on these rosters — wouldn’t you pay top dollar to see this game? Our current bracket is below, so let’s tip this one off…
Championship Game (Semifinal fan vote pct. listed)
#1 Indiana (76%) vs. #2 North Carolina (78%)
These two teams come into the final having not really been tested much throughout this tournament. #2 North Carolina has won its three games by an average of 18.7 points, while #1 Indiana sports a 13.7 point scoring margin, although the Hoosier State had a tough semifinal game against an athletic and scrappy #4 Texas squad. Nevertheless, no one will argue that these two teams shouldn’t be here — it’s fitting that the two most talented teams have generally bulldozed their way to the championship game. As for venue, both coaches eschewed the sellout crowd of 75,000 fans in a football stadium they could have filled for this game, instead agreeing to meet in a seedy high school gym on the south side of Chicago with three refs and a couple of television cameras.
Stevens’ team draws first blood, as Mack and Robbie Hummel work the two-man game to perfection for a couple of early threes, and for the first time in the tournament, future NBA lottery picks Harrison Barnes and Kyrie Irving appear a little rattled by the pressure of the situation. Coach K, always tuned into his players’ emotions, senses their nervousness and decides to go primarily with his experienced guys for the remainder of the half. That helps stem the tide somewhat as Smith, CJ Harris and Singler start finding their spots, but Indiana has figured out that the interior defense of Tracy Smith and Tyler Zeller is not fleet-footed enough to deal with several quick catch-and-shoots by Matt Howard and JaJuan Johnson in the post. The rest of the half falls into a back-and-forth affair where both teams have trouble consistently scoring, but Indiana heads into halftime with an eight-point lead.
The second half opens in a reversal of the first, with North Carolina’s Barnes and Irving showing that missing confidence and exploding to the rim on drives for several easy buckets off turnovers. Before you know it, when Tracy Smith corrals an offensive rebound and powers back up through a sea of arms for a basket and-one, NC has tied the game and has all of the momentum. The problem for Coach K’s team is that his big men simply cannot stop Howard and Johnson in the post. Every time it appears that North Carolina is putting together a big run, Stevens smartly calls for the ball to go inside to one of his post players and good things continue to happen. As a result of this strategy, Smith and Zeller find themselves in serious foul trouble with four each heading into the last ten minutes of the game.
The game tilts back and forth throughout the remainder of the second half until Indiana has the ball in Shelvin Mack’s hands with just under a minute to play, down two. Working the high-screen and roll with Tim Abromaitis, Mack finds a seam in the lane and floats a runner through the net as the shot clock expires to tie the ballgame. Coach K has been here a million times, so he calls timeout and sets up his final possession. He looks at his offensive options and his first inclination is to go with one of his own tried-and-true stars in Singler; but he also remembers his experiences with USA Basketball and, recognizing that Barnes has come on strong in the second half, he gives the ball to rival Roy Williams’ player (and the most talented on his team). Smith will run the play — the first option will be Barnes on the wing, looking to create, with Singler ready for the kickout and everyone else crashing the boards.
The plan to kill clock until around six seconds remaining works perfectly, although Stevens surprises K by throwing a matchup zone at North Carolina, perhaps hoping and anticipating an overpenetration mistake by the still-wet-behind-the-ears Barnes. The UNC freshman receives the ball on the right wing and wastes no time in using his explosive first step to get into the lane. As the Indiana defense predictably collapses, Barnes elevates and somehow twists his body in the air to avoid slamming into Howard and Hummel, who had created a wall of long arms, pasty skin and hair to stop the soaring Barnes. He adjusts his shooting arm to recover from the mid-air change of direction, and gently lofts a lefty layup over the outstretched arms of Abromaitis coming over to help. Bodies hit the floor in unison as the ball falls through the net, and everyone across America watching the game on television waits for the inevitable block/charge call. But there is no call to be had today — the refs let them play, and North Carolina takes a two-point lead with a mere 1.2 seconds remaining.
Brad Stevens is no dummy. He knows that 1.2 seconds is an eternity if executed correctly. After Indiana’s timeout, Hummel throws a strike to his teammate E’Twaun Moore just beyond halfcourt on the right side, who immediately calls timeout again. With 0.8 seconds remaining, Indiana has a reasonable attempt to put up a good last shot. Who do they go to? Stevens draws up a clever play that nobody, not even Coach K, seems to have ever seen used before. He runs Mack off of a triple-screen to get him open for the final shot, but when the ball is entered into play, he is only the decoy — as everyone for North Carolina rushes to stay with Mack and Hummel as the secondary option on the perimeter, the ball sails over everyone’s head into a camped-out Howard (the original screener who had leaked away in the maelstrom) who has a wide-open twelve-footer from the left baseline. The shot looks pure in the air, but maybe he was a little shocked to be so open at that juncture, because it ultimately rattles out, giving North Carolina the two-point win and the championship.
What a game, and what a tournament. How do you see it turning out?
Ed. Note: thanks to everyone who participated in this feature. We had a blast putting it together and playing it out. Maybe we’ll bring it back next year, although we suspect that Indiana and North Carolina will be two of the top several seeds just about every year.