After the Buzzer: Opening Weekend Edition

Posted by rtmsf on November 11th, 2013

ATB

This Weekend’s Lede. It started somewhat unceremoniously with a nondescript game between Air Force and Army in something called the All-Military Classic in Lexington, Virginia. But after seven long months of quiet, the early afternoon tip between two of the military academies in a tiny gym on the campus of VMI represented the reappearance of the sport we call college basketball. For years we’ve clamored for an Opening Night with the appropriate pomp and fanfare that the game deserves upon its November arrival, and with the excitement around social media and the number of good games available on the various networks, we’re getting there. Some 225 other games involving D-I teams came throughout the weekend, and even though there were no aircraft carrier games scattered about the land, there was still plenty to get juiced about.

Your Watercooler Moment. The Triumphant Return of Joshua Smith.

Josh Smith Showed His Dominant Post Game in the Armed Forces Classic

Joshua Smith Showed Off His Dominant Post Game in the Armed Forces Classic

Approximately one year ago, the last time any of us saw Joshua Smith, we were subjected to this embarrassing crime against basketball. After a transfer year when he traveled cross-country to Georgetown and received a waiver from the NCAA to play immediately, it was hard to say what to expect this time around. We’ve always known that the 6’10”, 300+ pound center has soft hands, quick feet that belie his size and great touch around the basket, but his weight, and correspondingly, his stamina, have remained problematic. He simply couldn’t stay on the floor at UCLA, averaging only 19.3 minutes per game in a little over two seasons. But on Friday, for at least one night, Smith appeared to be a different player. Although Georgetown lost the Armed Forces Classic game to Oregon, the burly center logged 27 fruitful minutes, shot 10-of-13 from the field, and looked downright unstoppable inside on his way to 25 points. The Hoyas wouldn’t have been within 15 points of the Ducks were it not for Smith’s production, and it begs the question: Has the change of scenery allowed Smith to turn the corner in his development? If so, and what we saw this weekend is any indication, Georgetown has found itself with one of the most talented big men in the nation.

Sights & Sounds. Plenty of great stuff from Friday night, so check out the separate post we put together on Saturday to store it all. The top dunks, buzzer-beaters and some other notable videos and images are all over there, but we saved the best buzzer-beater of the weekend for here. Dayton was down two points as IPFW looked to inbound the ball to ice the big road upset. Then, this happened…

Brutal. And in case you’re too lazy to click through, here’s the best dunk of the weekend for good measure. Michael Qualls!

Top Storyline. Four Freshman Phenoms. We’ve been talking about them all offseason, and the debuts of some of the nation’s top rookies was everything we had hoped it would be. On Friday night, Kentucky’s Julius Randle, Duke’s Jabari Parker and Kansas’ Andrew Wiggins were all playing at the same time, and none disappointed. In a dominant win over Davidson, Parker went for 22/6 on 8-of-10 shooting from the floor that included a silky-smooth 3-of-3 from deep. Randle did Parker one better with a 23/15 performance against UNC-Asheville that included an impressive 11-of-13 from the foul line. He followed that up with another 22/14/3 assts against Northern Kentucky on Sunday, becoming the first freshman to go for consecutive double-doubles in his first two collegiate games since Michael Beasley pulled the trick six years ago. Wiggins didn’t have a dominant performance in Kansas’ win over Louisiana-Monroe, tallying 16/3/3 stls in 34 minutes of action. The trio will all be on display tomorrow night at the Champions Classic, and so far, so good. We also shouldn’t forget Arizona’s star freshman, Aaron Gordon, who put up a 13/10/4 blks double-double himself in the Wildcats’ win over Cal Poly.

Four More Weekend Storylines.

  • These Games Are Foul. Well, some of them are, at least. There was an awful lot of preseason discussion given to the new hand-checking rules and how coaches, players and officials would have to adjust on the fly. Results have been mixed. One team that many pundits thought would be most impacted, Louisville, only had 14 total fouls in a 62-possession game against Charleston. On the other hand, a Seton Hall-Niagara game on Saturday resulted in a dreadful 73 fouls in an 81-possession game. In fact, there were more free throw attempts (102) than field goal attempts (101) in that game, which two hours and 28 minutes to complete. A total of 24 teams were called for 30 or more fouls over the weekend, while 18 were called for fewer than 15. The national average last season was 17.7 fouls per team per game (or 35.4 fouls per game), so this is definitely a trend worth watching.
  • ACC Darling Boston College Struggling. BC was a chic pick to make some noise in the ACC this season, and certainly there’s a lot of time left for the Eagles to get things going. But two losses over the weekend revealed that the same issues that Steve Donahue’s team had last season haven’t been solved. They still can’t guard anybody. In losses against Providence and Massachusetts, Boston College gave up 1.04 and 1.20 points per possession, respectively, and an average of 84 points per game. Furthermore, Bryce Cotton (28 points) and Cady Lalanne (27 points) lit their defense up, getting the shots they wanted whenever they wanted. Last season the Eagles finished 192nd in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency; if they don’t figure out a way to limit easy looks from the opposition, they’ll be staring another .500 season in the face not matter how good their offense becomes.
  • Mr. Robinson May Need a New Neighborhood. It was no secret that Oregon State head coach Craig Robinson came into this season on the hot seat. After yet another embarrassing home loss to a low-major team Sunday night, he may want to go ahead and start picking out his moving company. MEAC teams were 1-89 in the last two seasons against power conference schools (the one victory was Norfolk State over Missouri in the 2012 NCAA Tournament), and they were 0-5 so far this season. That is, until Coppin State went into Oregon State’s Gill Coliseum and used its athleticism and timely three-point shooting to lead for much of the game before walking out with a Pac-12 scalp. Robinson has had a history of these types of awful home losses, and adding another one to his resume surely doesn’t help things for him in Corvallis.
  • Other Weekend Upsets. Virginia Tech and Miami (FL) suffered tough home losses over the weekend (to USC Upstate and St. Francis (NY), respectively), but both of those programs were expected to be rebuilding this season. The biggest upset of the weekend instead had to have been Kansas State’s shocking home loss to Northern Colorado on Friday night. The jokes about Bruce Weber losing with some of his own players started in earnest immediately after the game, but it was two holdovers from last season’s Big 12 co-champions in Shane Southwell and Will Spradling who were largely responsible for this one. The duo combined to shoot a miserable 4-of-22 from the field and 2-of-12 from behind the arc.

Your Weekend All-Americans.

First Team

  • Julius Randle, Kentucky (NPOY). Consecutive double-doubles to start a collegiate career for the first time since Michael Beasley did it in 2007-08 makes this an easy choice. Through three days of action, he’s the NPOY.
  • Jabari Parker, Duke. Parker didn’t board like Randle but he scored more efficiently, missing only two shots in his debut.
  • Joshua Smith, Georgetown. As mentioned above, Smith’s 25/4 on 10-of-13 shooting was his best game in nearly two years.
  • TJ Warren, NC State. Warren went off for 27/8/3 assts as the Wolfpack beat Appalachian State to start a season of very low expectations.
  • Khem Birch, UNLV. Birch has the whole frontcourt to himself in Vegas now, and he made the most of it, going for 13/17/4 blks and showing some leadership in the Runnin’ Rebels’ victory over Portland State.

Second Team

  • Kadeem Jack, Rutgers. Jack went for 30/12 to help new head coach Eddie Jordan earn his first collegiate win over Florida A&M on Friday night.
  • Rodney Hood, Duke. Hood had 22/9 in his own Blue Devils’ debut, missing only a single shot from the field as Duke blitzed Davidson.
  • Sam Dower, Gonzaga. Dower had the best games of his career on Friday against Bryant, dropping a 21/17 night in the easy win for the Bulldogs.
  • Drew Crawford, Northwestern. Crawford went for 25/11 on 8-of-14 from the field against Eastern Illinois to give new head coach Chris Collins his first professional win.
  • Le’Bryan Nash, Oklahoma State. Nash began his junior season with a 21/10 performance that the Cowboys would like to see more of to meet their goals this season.
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ATB: Final Four Edition

Posted by Chris Johnson on April 7th, 2013

ATB

Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn

Tonight’s Lede. Four Entered, Two Remain. College basketball teams divide postseason accomplishments into two categories. There are national championships, the crowning light at the end of a season-long tunnel, and there are Final Fours, the penultimate step on the ladderer to net-cutting bliss. The paths teams take to reach these accomplishments vary. Some outfits dominate all the way through, much in the way Kentucky obliterated its 2012 regular season competition en route to a national championship. Others peak at the opportune moment. Still others are just downright inexplicable – hey 2011 Butler!. This year’s Final Four offered none of those extremes, but the characterizations were granted willingly all the same, starting with Wichita State’s Cinderella description; or the sudden realization that yeah, actually, Louisville is the “dominant” team existing in a year where the theme of “no dominant team” and “parity” was rammed down our throats to the weekly rhythm of AP Poll variance. Those liberal generalizations were put to the test Saturday night, and at the end, two teams were left standing, awaiting their shot at a national championship, one step away from eternal hoops immortalization. It’s the Final Four, you know the deal – need I continue and longer?

Your Watercooler moment. Wolverines Survive Syracuse’s 2-3.

Another strong performance in an overall brilliant Tournament from McGary helped Michigan break through Saturday night (AP Photo).

Another strong performance in an overall brilliant Tournament from McGary helped Michigan break through Saturday night (AP Photo).

It took 10 tries for John Beilein to beat one of the greatest coaches of all time, but when it finally happened, the one positive result – Saturday night’s five-point Final Four win over Syracuse – made every ounce of previous negative history feel like a distant memory. Beilein’s Wolverines did just enough over 40 minutes to topple the Tournament’s hottest and most challenging defense to date, and the next step (Lousville) involves an equally perplexing defensive puzzle. Mitch McGary stood tall amongst Syracuse’s unrivaled length and defensive pressure, and in the end, his passing out of the high post and rebounding efforts (12) made all the difference. When McGary wasn’t on the court, the Orange extended their zone and closed out on shooters and consumed any and all free space in the paint. Michigan’s offense stagnated, and just when the situation called for player-of-the-year-award-hoarder Trey Burke to put the game out of reach, his cold shooting (1-for-8) only exacerbated the situation. Michigan deciphered Syracuse’s 2-3 riddle despite Burke playing one of his worst games of the season, but against a team that mixes similarly frightening defensive prowess with a more competent offense (at least in this Tournament), Burke will need to rediscover the all-purpose talents that made him the best player in the country throughout the regular season.

Before Michigan, the nation’s No. 1 efficiency offense, begins to even think about taking on Louisville, the nation’s No. 1 efficiency defense, the Wolverines can bask in the two decades-awaited opportunity to win a national championship. There were plenty of reasons to dismiss Michigan towards the end of the regular season. Its youth and lack of attention to defensive details were glaring flaws. Burke wasn’t good enough to carry everyone on his back. There was no reliable inside scoring presence. The Wolverines have answered all of those questions in a thrilling Tournament run that began with an opening-round slog against South Dakota State and added the latest unlikely chapter Saturday night. And with just one more stepping stone at hand, a strength-on-strength battle that shapes up as one of the most intriguing stylistic bouts we’ve seen all season, Michigan is well-suited to win its first national championship since 1989. All the regular season doubt has long been rendered misguided; Michigan’s here because it deserves to be. Few actually expected the Wolverines to reach this point, but now that they’re here, and McGary has turned into an All American-level star, and Michigan is winning games with Burke scoring two points, every conceivable outcome is officially on the table Monday night.

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ATB: Thanks For Showing Up Florida, Louisville Keeps On Chugging Along, and a Horrific Leg Injury…

Posted by Chris Johnson on March 31st, 2013

ATB

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.

The road to Atlanta couldn't have been much smoother for Louisville (Getty Images).

The road to Atlanta couldn’t have been much smoother for Louisville (Getty Images).

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.)

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ATB: Shockers “Shock”, The 2-3 Baffles and The Big Ten’s Dwindling Final Four Hopes

Posted by Chris Johnson on March 30th, 2013

ATB

Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn

Tonight’s Lede. Getting To A-Town. Two Final Four berths were on the line when four teams tipped off Saturday. By the end of the night, the dream had ended for two others, half of next weekend’s pool of Final Four competitors had been decided and Sunday’s two games, the Final Four opponent-supplying complements to Saturday’s tilts, loomed large. The paths to a national championship have been laid; we know the winner must survive two highly competitive games at the Georgia Dome. Now that specific teams are being applied to set up the match-up contours of Atlanta’s Final Four gauntlet, the net-cutting ceremony feels a step closer. Now, on to Saturday’s games..

Your Watercooler moment. And then there was one. The first three rounds of Tournament play reaffirmed everything we came to know about the Big Ten over the course of its dominant 2013 season. The league offered a more formidable allotment of teams than any other, and the layout of the Sweet 16 field – with one Big Ten team planted in each region – raised the possibility, however faint, of an All Big Ten Final Four. It was always a long shot, and I’m not sure anyone viewed the idea with anything more than weak confidence, but the opposite – the possibility of the Big Ten getting shut out of Atlanta – was just as predictably outrageous at the time. The Big Ten not receiving an invitation to Atlanta’s most elusive college hoops party? No way! With a team conveniently slotted in each region, and no path looking overly hazardous (Louisville was the most obvious roadblock out of the Midwest, but the other regions looked completely reasonable), surely at least one Big Ten team would make it to Atlanta, right?

In a wacky West region, Wichita State has been consistent in knocking out top seeds Gonzaga and Ohio State and now finds itself representing The Missouri Valley Conference in the Final Four for the first time since Larry Bird-led Indiana State in 1979 (Getty Images).

In a wacky West region, Wichita State has been consistent in knocking out top seeds Gonzaga and Ohio State and now finds itself representing The Missouri Valley Conference in the Final Four for the first time since Larry Bird’s Indiana State team got there in 1979 (Getty Images).

If the Big Ten does receive an invitation to the Tournament’s Final quartet, it will be because Michigan upset the No. 1 ranked efficiency team in the country, Florida, on Sunday. That is the gloomy outlook the Big Ten now faces after Ohio State, its most likely Final Four participant – thanks to an easy draw, Big Ten Tournament championship momentum, a rapidly improving offense – fell to Wichita State Saturday night after a furious second-half rally failed to erase a 20-point second half deficit. The Shockers had already taken down No. 1 seed Gonzaga and wiped the floor with First Four upstart La Salle. They didn’t fear the Buckeyes, and their performance on the court plainly backed it up. DeShaun Thomas finished with 23 points and LaQuinton Ross added 19, building off his magnificent Sweet 16 performance against Arizona, but neither was particularly efficient in their shot selection (combined, Thomas and Ross finished 12-for-32 from the floor), and with no other Buckeye scoring more than nine points, Ohio State’s offense became too one-dimensional and stagnated at the worst possible time.

One of the biggest factors behind Ohio State’s 11-game, regular season-closing win streak was its uptick in offensive output. After months of Thomas-or-bust offense, of rolling out a remedial one-man attack, all of a sudden secondary scoring options were doing their part – from Craft to Ross to Lenzelle Smith Jr. On Saturday, against a physical Shockers defense whose bruising style ruffled the Buckeyes much in same way Ohio State had locked down its previous three Tournament opponents, the offensive improvements that had many believing the Spartans could march their way into Atlanta were nowhere to be found. Ohio State’s scoring dried up, Wichita battered the Buckeyes in the paint and by the time Ohio State tried to dig its way out of a deep second half hole, it was too late. The Big Ten is on the brink of having its best season in years end without a representative in college basketball’s hallowed Tournament stage. Four-seeded Michigan is the only potential source of salvation. 

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ATB: A Huge Michigan Comeback, Dunk City’s Swan Song and Duke Holds Off Sparty…

Posted by Chris Johnson on March 30th, 2013

ATB

Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn

Tonight’s Lede. Sweet 16 Part Deux. At the risk of sounding blunt or insensitive, there is no shame in calling Thursday night’s Sweet 16 match-ups exactly what they were: dry, boring, dull, a monotonous combination of the three. The most surprising outcomes of the night – Syracuse’s win over Indiana; Marquette’s blowout of Miami – disrupted the Miami-Indiana Elite 8 match-up forecasted on most bracket sheets, but the nature of said disruption was never in doubt. The Golden Eagles and Orange were in control from the start; folks spent much of both games lamenting the reasons behind the top seed carnage and ruing their teams’ demises on Twitter and saying the sorts of irrational things irritant fans are wont to say at times of sudden grief. Wichita State and La Salle was just as one-sided – the Shockers’ battered John Giannini’s team on the glass and corralled its guard-oriented attack into an aimless game of roadrunning hot-potato. The only game of any real entertainment value was Ohio State-Arizona, with LaQuinton Ross providing the buzzer-beating highlight of the night. We entered Friday night’s prospectively titillating slate with hopes of widespread competitiveness and high-strung tension, and with Florida Gulf Coast pitted against Florida in the most unlikely of in-state bragging rights games, Michigan State and Duke meeting in a Hall of Fame coaching legacy grudge match, the forecast showed promise. So, did Friday night redeem the Sweet 16 after Thursday night’s plainly mediocre lineup?

Your watercooler moment. The Best Game Of The Season? 

Storming back in the final moments to tie Kansas, then win in overtime, Michigan's resolve and determination down the stretch was something to behold (Getty Images).

Storming back in the final moments to tie Kansas, then win in overtime, Michigan’s resolve and determination down the stretch was something to behold (Getty Images).

Late in the second half, as Kansas spread its scoring output among all five starters in almost equal measure, it began to look as if  the Jayhawks’ veteran lineup was going to hold off Michigan’s young charges for a trip to the Elite 8. That prediction looked safer than ever with just under four minutes remaining and Kansas leading by 11. The rest seemed academic – all Kansas needed to do was play sound and turnover-free basketball over the final minutes, shepherd home a comfortable victory, carry out a quick locker room celebration and rest up for a Final Four entry game Sunday. Nice season Michigan, you had your fun, now go home and enjoy the rest of this Tournament from a nice, comfortable, TV-appointed couch. Hand shakes and bro hugs. All that good stuff. Or so Kansas thought: Trey Burke did not subscribe to that logic, nor did the rest of his teammates, as the Wolverines erased KU’s lead on a 22-8 run powered and concluded by Burke’s overtime-inducing, ice-cold, 30-foot jumper with five seconds remaining. The blown lead was just as much a product of Kansas’ own mistakes as it was Burke’s sheer brilliance, but the unquantifiably crucial momentum advantage had fallen towards the Wolverines, and the overtime period played out much the way you’d expect. A questionable last-possession drive-and-dish from Elijah Johnson sealed Michigan’s win, along with its first appearance in a regional final since the Fab Five heyday. If One Shining Moments can be had in advance of the National Championship game, Burke’s came in the second half and overtime Friday night (he went scoreless in the first half). His game-tying three was the most visible highlight of a 23-point, 10-assist performance that will forever be remembered in Wolverines lore as the most willful single-half effort of  Michigan’s 21st century hoops resurgence. Burke is the best player left in this field, and he couldn’t have made a stronger statement to validate that title than what he did Friday night.

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ATB: Hoosiers Bounced, Marquette Cruises and Three-Point Daggers Galore For Ohio State…

Posted by Chris Johnson on March 29th, 2013

ATB

Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn

Tonight’s Lede. Introducing The Second Weekend. The biggest story of the first weekend turned a nation of disenchanted hoops viewers into an almost undivided Florida Gulf Coast cheering section. The dunks, the dance moves, the head coach’s fairy tale wife, and everything else that endeared the country to FGCU was the perfect March story. It was a lot of fun, and it may not yet be over. It also obscured one surprising fact: aside from the wacky West region, the first three rounds played out pretty much according to plan. Wichita State and La Salle were shots out of the dark, but the rest of the field – even Oregon, seed optics aside, by all accounts looks like a top-four or five seed – was qualifiably chalky. Thursday night’s games gave us a little bit of everything: That wholly unpredictable 13-9 matchup out of the West, Indiana tried to crack open the tried-and-true Orange 2-3 zone, Marquette attempted (and succeeded) to win a game without throwing every Golden Eagles fan into cardiac arrest in the closing minutes and Ohio State looked out onto a region of utmost opportunity, with only two putatively favorable games standing in the way of a trip to Atlanta. After a week to collect your first weekend thoughts, we begin anew with more games to breakdown, slice up and analyze with objective eyes.

Your Watercooler Moment. Bye-Bye Hoosiers. 

The Orange zone flummoxed IU all game long (Getty Images).

The Orange zone flummoxed IU all game long (Getty Images).

Setting aside the hegemonically dominant title teams for which matchups – stylistic and individual – don’t negate talent and athleticism advantages, most National Title hopefuls need favorable team-on-team scenarios to keep the dream alive. They need their spread motion offense to churn at high speeds, to swing the ball around at a rapid pace and to not get bogged down into the most unfailingly meddlesome zone defense of all time. Indiana needed all of those things to fall just right in order to get by Syracuse Thursday night, but none of them did. The matchup nightmare that is Boeheim’s zone detonated Indiana’s uptempo offensive attack, and the Hoosiers – as has often been the case against stylistically discordant opposition this season – couldn’t make the right adjustments at the right times. Syracuse dominated from the jump by invading passing lanes and running shooters off the three-point line and never allowing the Hoosiers to dictate the terms of engagement. This was Syracuse’s game, to be played by Syracuse’s grinding half-court style, to the extreme detriment of an IU team many projected to not only advance out of a manageable East region, but also challenge Louisville in the national title game. One part of that equation is off the table, and the Orange – a team that caught lightning in a bottle at the end of the regular season and (save the second half of the Big East tournament championship game) has played well above its four-seed designation ever since – deserve all the credit. Indiana is going home earlier than it (and most fans) ever expected to, and frankly, there isn’t much the Hoosiers could have done to prevent that dour conclusion. Syracuse played like the one-seed it purported to be for large chunks of the season, and Indiana just didn’t hold up its end of the bargain.

Tonight’s Quick Hits…

  • When Season-Long Doubters Are Put To Rest. If Ohio State doesn’t make the Final Four, it will be a disappointment. The favorable draw it was dealt with so much high-seed carnage in the first three rounds laid a golden two-game path to the Georgia Dome, a path that began Thursday with No. 6 Arizona. The Buckeyes are better than Sean Miller’s team, but if OSU was going to fall in Los Angeles, it was going to be because DeShaun Thomas was burdened with too much of the scoring load. This problem isn’t specific to Ohio State’s NCAA Tournament prognosis; the Buckeyes have dealt with this issue all season. And on Thursday, they dealt with it by unleashing LaQuinton Ross for 17 points, 14 of those coming in the second half, and a game-winning three with two seconds remaining that had the same basic set-up as Aaron Craft’s dagger to fell Iowa State in the third round. The only difference? Craft passed it up and Ross stroked it to push the Buckeyes into the Elite Eight.

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ATB: I’m In Love With FCGU, Big Ten Flaunts Superiority and La Salle Quietly Presses Forward…

Posted by Chris Johnson on March 25th, 2013

ATB

Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn

Tonight’s Lede. Florida Gulf Coast Does It Again. Outside of the weak frontrunner status placed upon Louisville after a dominant Big East Tournament run, there wasn’t a whole lot college basketball fans could agree on heading into the NCAA Tournament. Common ground could be found on one particular item: there were going to be upsets. Lots of them. The “no dominant team” theme is a tired headline, but it bears repeating on a night like this, when a No. 15 seed punched its ticket to the Sweet 16 for the first time in Tournament history. We’re down to 16 teams now, but even in a year when chalky, seed-predictable, docile bracket proceedings were far from the main expectation, I don’t think anybody saw this coming…

Your watercooler moment. A Story Everyone Can Get Behind: FCGU.

sodafgcu

Nothing more strongly embodies the spirit of March Madness than high-seeded underdogs. Last season’s edition gave us Norfolk State and Lehigh – on the same day, no less – reveling in the national spotlight, 15-seed brothers-in-arms taking the college hoops world by storm. CJ McCollum was the best and most entertaining star nobody had heard of. Kyle O’Quinn was a wide-grinned big man with NBA aspirations. Fast track one year later, and this season’s captivating March underdog story is nothing like anything we’ve ever seen before. Florida Gulf Coast doesn’t have one leading protagonist (besides maybe its head coach, Andy Enfield, who – for reasons basketball-related and not – is something of a hero for every man not partial to Georgetown or San Diego State) or even a specific stylistic strength to explain its remarkable run into the second weekend. The best way to describe it is a cocky but measured confidence, a newfound flamboyance, a heightened sense of what it means to own the spotlight. And all of it comes together to produce the most thrilling on-court product of recent memory. There are dunks and heel-clicks and impossibly hilarious bird-imitating dances and, of course, dunk city. The Florida Gulf Coast Eagles have stolen the show and I don’t see them giving it back any time soon. Until they meet Florida in this week’s Sweet 16 showdown – and seriously, if they win that game, I give up – stories will be written, lives will be unearthed, and the nation will come to embrace college basketball’s most unlikely March heroes.

Sunday’s Quick Hits…

  • As Expected, The Big Ten is Dominating. All season the Big Ten was drowned in plaudits and glowing recommendations for its upper-tier strength and top-to-bottom quality. The Big Ten was good, and everybody kind of agreed the league was miles ahead of the rest. Now the NCAA Tournament is confirming our suspicions: after Indiana and Ohio State moved past Temple and Iowa State, respectively, Sunday, the Big Ten is 10-3 in tourney competition and can lay claim to one-fourth of the Sweet 16 field. The Hoosiers, Buckeyes, Michigan State and Michigan hovered near the top of the polls all season, and were just as impressive when gauged on per-possession efficiency metrics (as of Sunday, none ranked lower than eighth in Ken Pomeroy’s metrics). To see that play out on the sport’s biggest stage is, for someone who analyzes the game year-round like me, and for fans who have feted their league’s dominance from Midnight madness to March madness, reassuring.
  • The West is Kind of Insane. In a bracket littered with uncertainty and parity, the West region exists in its own province of unpredictability. Ohio State is the only team that has lived up to its seed thus far, and faces as wide-open a path to the Final Four as contender left in the field. The top half of the region will pit Wichita State and – following Sunday’s nail-biting win over Ole Miss – La Salle, who needs just two more wins to go from First Four to Final Four, VCU style, and bring even more wackiness to the field’s weirdest quartile. The Explorers haven’t gotten this far in the Tournament since 1955, but if their stable of talented guards – Ramon Galloway, Tyreek Duren and Tyrone Garland, who skied in the lane with 2.5 seconds left to ice the game with a deft right-handed finish – stay hot, the Final Four is well within their grasps.

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ATB: No. 1 Falls, Wolverines Look Fierce and Butler Goes Home…

Posted by Chris Johnson on March 24th, 2013

ATB

Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn

Tonight’s Lede. Third Round Ahoy! The first weekend of NCAA Tournament play is a refined product. After a second-round customarily filled with upsets and wacky outcomes, the next stage puts sheer team quality over luck and happenstance. This is where the true contenders make their bread. Part one of the third round wrapped up Saturday night, and save for a few surprising results, the best teams by and large validated their putative reputations.

Your watercooler moment. Drop The Revisionist Committee Tongue-Lashings.

The anti-Gonzaga backlash is about to ramp up considerably (Getty Images).

The anti-Gonzaga backlash is about to ramp up considerably (Getty Images).

There is nothing more casually distasteful than hindsight Tournament declarations and Monday morning quarterbacking. It happens every year. Middle Tennessee got run by Saint Mary’s, they never deserved an at-large birth! New Mexico never deserved to be a three seed! The Mountain West is terrible! All of those proclamations have been uttered in various forms, on various mediums, and all of them are patently false. Trying to argue against a certain team’s Tournament placement or inclusion after the fact is like ordering a manifestly scrumptious steak entrée at a five-star restaurant, leaving disappointed with the way it turned out and advocating the dish’s removal from the restaurant menu during the ride home. It’s not fair or to validate previous logic with future outcomes. That won’t stop anyone from copping to lazy criticisms of Gonzaga’s No. 1 seed status in the wake of Saturday’s upset loss to nine-seed Wichita State. Was Gonzaga tested in the same way as, say, Louisville or Indiana on a weekly basis in conference play? No. Did Gonzaga deserve a number one seed (or at least deserve to be in the argument), after posting a 30-2 win-loss record, a 4-2 record against the RPI Top 50, the No. 4 efficiency offense and No. 18 defense in the country? You’d be forfeiting your credibility as an objective and rational college hoops observer to disagree. The Bulldogs may have lost to a hot Wichita State team, may have blown an eight-point second half lead, may have allowed a physical Shockers group too much room on the perimeter. But they didn’t lose their claim to all of the aforementioned credentials. The selection committee’s vague criteria has offered up decades of case evidence to analyze, and by their admittedly fuzzy standards, Gonzaga deserved to be a No. 1. Their early third-round dismissal does not change that fact.

Also worth chatting about. Michigan Turns Major Third-Round Hurdle Into Cakewalk.

The Rams had no answer for McGary Saturday (AP Photo).

The Rams had no answer for McGary Saturday (AP Photo).

Recent history affects NCAA Tournament bracket intellect in real and influential ways. When paired with commendable regular season results, that team is extremely difficult to ignore – no matter the opponent. It’s part of why VCU beating Michigan Saturday looked like such a cinch “upset” pick, and completely why Michigan’s 25-point demolition of the Rams was more of an “upset” than a VCU win could have ever been. Mitch McGary played the best game of his college career to date (21 points, 14 rebounds), the Wolverines kept turnovers at a manageable level (12), and when the Rams can’t induce cough-ups they can’t get stops. The final product: Michigan has its first Sweet Sixteen appearance since 1994. The Wolverines more resembled their early-season national title-contender form Saturday that at any point this season. When Burke is dishing to open shooters and slashing into the lane, when Tim Hardaway Jr. is presenting matchup problems all over the floor, Michigan is – just as many suspected in November and December – a bona fide national title threat. Throw in the possibility of a potent interior presence in McGary, and John Beilein’s team will give the winner of Sunday’s Roy Williams Bowl (Kansas-UNC) all it can handle and more. Michigan is in the Sweet Sixteen for the first time in nearly two decades, and I wouldn’t be surprised if its journey blows past that minor landmark.

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ATB: Florida Gulf Coast Owns The Bright Lights, A Standard Dougie Fresh Master Class and the Wolfpack’s Bitter End…

Posted by Chris Johnson on March 23rd, 2013

ATB

Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn

Tonight’s Lede. Goodbye Opening Round 2013; Our Time Together was Brief but Unforgettable. The funny thing about Harvard’s improbable upset over New Mexico last night is the way by which most fans came to find out about it. Only a dedicated subsection of college hoops fandom was glued to their TV’s in the wee hours for the Crimson’s magical takedown. The rest were hit with the news upon waking up the following morning. “Woah, man, Harvard won? Really?” Something like that. Friday’s upset du jour took place in a prime viewing window, and the big boy on the losing end – well, let’s just say that program has been in this unfortunate position more than a few times over the past few seasons. Without divulging specifics, it is my gracious privilege to sum up another drama-filled day of Tournament action. And for my money, day two trumped day one by a wide margin.

Your watercooler moment. Down Goes Georgetown. Again. 

For the second straight day, we saw a huge upset. On Friday it was Florida Gulf Coast sinking Georgetown (Getty).

For the second straight day, we saw a huge upset. On Friday it was Florida Gulf Coast sinking Georgetown (Getty).

Once you move past the enormity of Florida Gulf Coast’s 2-15 shocker over Georgetown, the alley-oop dunks and And 1 Mixtape schadenfreude, a very alarming and very relevant recent trend comes into clear focus: Georgetown has seen its Tournament life go up in smoke at the hands of a double-digit seed in four consecutive seasons. You probably remember most of the losses: In 2010, 14-seed Ohio felled JTIII’s three-seeded Hoyas; VCU dropped G-Town as an 11-seed in 2011; and last season, red-hot 11-seed NC State pulled out a three-point win in the third round. None of those losses come close to FGCU’s 10-point win – the Eagles punked Georgetown in a year where the Hoyas, after a rugged Big East season, had every reason to believe their stifling defense and national player of the year candidate, Otto Porter, could push them towards a Final Four berth. Instead, FGCU got out on the break, flourished in transition and contained Porter and co. on the other end. The Eagles staged a massive upset against one of the most upset-proof teams – stylistically, not historically – in the entire bracket, with the defensive chops to weather the sort of up-and-down game FGCU thrives on. Here’s the best part: this little Atlantic Sun upstart took its spot on the big stage and totally owned it. The Eagles had Twitter ablaze with a litany of highlight reel dunks, and an equal accompaniment of bombast to turn the whole thing into what looked like a bunch of running up and down and just plain enjoying themselves on the court against a trendy Final Four pick. It was easily the most entertaining moment we’ve seen in this Tournament so far.

Also worth chatting about.Newsflash: NC State was overrated from the start.

The Wolfpack's performance on the court never reached their national preseason valuation (Getty).

The Wolfpack’s performance on the court never reached their national preseason valuation (Getty).

A few NCAA Tournament wins and a shiny recruiting class can do a few things for a team’s preseason perception. For NC State, it gave the nation – and not just fans, but the ACC preseason media and coaches pollsters – license to elevate the Wolfpack to a No. 6 ranking and a level of expectations unseen in Raleigh for more than two decades. Everybody loved NC State, or at least the idea of NC State using last season’s Tournament success along with an infusion of freshman talent to rip through ACC competition and become a mainstay in the top of the national polls. Those were unreasonably high projections to begin with; I knew it, you knew it and the Wolfpack’s nonconference and ACC opponents who saw them as nothing more than a talented but fundamentally disjointed outfit knew it. Now we can finally put this season to rest. The 2012-13 Wolfpack were nice to look at for a while, but their luster wore off as the season rolled along, and on Friday Temple crunched Mark Gottfried’s team in their opening-round 8-9 game, putting yet another dent in NC State’s supremely talented roster – which, more than anything else, was always about defense. Now this book is closed, and we can go back to never, ever overrating teams in the preseason based off last year’s Tournament performance. Hey, a man can dream, right?

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ATB: The Crimson Are Hot, Zags Survive and Two Dangerous 12s From the Pac…

Posted by Chris Johnson on March 22nd, 2013

ATB

Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn

Tonight’s Lede. Tournament Commencement. Day one of the NCAA Tournament proper, the field of 64, is officially in the books. Games were won, upsets were wrought, careers ended and through it all, bracket hope springs eternal for those who survived their first big test. The second half of “second round” competition will tip off in just a few hours, followed by a weekend of further elimination and refinement. There is no mistaking it: the NCAA Tournament is here and we’ve only barely scratched the surface of the drama to come in later rounds.

Your Watercooler Moment. What? Harvard?

The most shocking result of the day came as an almost unthinkable late-night surprise (Getty Images).

The most shocking result of the day came as an almost unthinkable late-night surprise (Getty Images).

Next year was going to be the year I picked Harvard to not only win its opening round game, but – depending on how the matchups shook out – quite possibly rip off a sweet-16 or even Elite 8 run. The Crimson get seniors Brandyn Curry and Kyle Casey, snagged this offseason in a sweeping academic scandal, back for 2013-14, along with another solid recruiting class and a promising young backcourt in Siyani Chambers and Wesley Saunders. The Crimson have all the pieces to crash the field next season. It is from this backdrop that you can understand why what Harvard pulled off Thursday night at EnergySolutions Arena was a year ahead of schedule. The Crimson downed three-seed New Mexico in the biggest upset of the Tournament’s first day. It was also Harvard’s first ever NCAA Tournament win, and it came thanks to a depleted roster holding one of the nation’s best backcourt duos, Tony Snell and Kendall Williams, to a combined 17 points and two assists. The Lobos were a trendy Final Four pick. They had size and experience and a skilled seven-foot big man to anchor their offensive attack. They had the considerable weight of being the Mountain West’s Tournament entrepreneur. Harvard has its first Tournament win in school history and maybe the most remarkable upset we’ll see this March.

Also Worth Chatting About. A 12-5 Upset Double. You Saw it Coming.

A seeding mismatch left Oklahoma State with a brutal first-round matchup (AP Photo).

A seeding mismatch left Oklahoma State with a brutal first-round matchup (AP Photo).

Because there was so little immediate uproar about teams actually getting in/left out of the Tournament, people channeled their anger towards the bracket itself. Two of the biggest points of contention within were Oregon’s mystifying 12 seed following a Pac-12 conference Tournament championship and Cal’s comfy opening-round location (San Jose). The Ducks deserved more respect than a 12-seed and the Bears, for all their success in conference play, did not deserve the benefit of playing so close to their Berkeley Campus. Oregon’s underseed wasn’t just a slight to Dana Altman’s team, it was a menacing first-round predicament for Oklahoma State, a five-seed criminally burdened with a Ducks team that was in contention for a Pac-12 regular season crown for much of the season. Oregon dominated Marcus Smart and company from start to finish; an innocent observer would have suggested Oregon was the five seed, and OSU the 12. A few hours later, fellow Pac-12 12-seed Cal did not disappoint the hometown crowd in avenging a regular season home loss to UNLV. Neither of these P-12 squads belonged in their respective bracket locations. Oregon is not a 12 seed; it’s just not! And the Rebels, with their putative seeding advantage, never should have had to play what amounted to a road game in their opening-round matchup. None of it was very fair, and all of it confirmed what most instinctively believed upon bracket reveal Sunday afternoon: the committee screwed up.

Tonigh’s Quick Hits…

  • Two One Seeds. Two Totally Different Stories. There are big expectations for Gonzaga this season. The questions aren’t about the Zags’ worthiness as a No. 1 seed so much as they are what follows: can Mark Few’s team finally break through into the deep rounds? Judging by their-opening round game against 16-seed Southern, the answer is an emphatic no. The Jaguars pushed Gonzaga to the brink in Salt Lake City, and were it not for a couple of clutch deep jumpers from point guard Kevin Pangos, Thursday may have brought the first-ever 16-1 toppling. Phew. Louisville’s first-round game was far less interesting. The Cardinals whipped North Carolina A&T, holding the Aggies to 48 points and validating their overall No. 1 seed in every which way.
  • Memphis! Whenever Josh Pastner’s name cropped up in conversation, the impulsive reaction was to spew out the following statistic: 0. As in, tournament wins since Pastner took over the Tigers’ head coaching job in 2009. No longer will Pastner be juxtaposed with Tournament ignominy so immediately – Memphis fans will very much want another win or two before Pastner is off the hook – not after the Tigers fought off Matthew Dellavadova and Saint Mary’s in a highly anticipated 6-11 matchup Thursday. With Memphis headlong into a round-of-32 date with Michigan State this weekend, Pastner’s Tournament run is probably over. But the first one is always the toughest, or so they say, and Pastner and his team managed to accomplish that much in a year where first-round failure would have triggered an unrelenting stream of local fan venom throughout the long offseason.

…and Misses.

  • Three Trendy Upset Picks Fall Short. In any given year, there are a few matchups where you feel confident enough, matchup-wise, to pull the trigger on a brave and courageous high seed victory. I heard a wide selection of suggested first-round knock offs in the lead up to Thursday, and three of the most frequent were (11) Bucknell over (6) Butler, (14) Davidson over (3) Marquette and (11) Belmont over (6) Arizona. All of which seemed very reasonable for different reasons: Mike Muscala can really work the paint; Davidson boasts one of the better frontlines in the country along with an elite in-game coach; Belmont is almost perennially Tournament-worthy under Rick Byrd. I wouldn’t have been shocked in the least to see any of those dominoes fall. None of them did, only Davidson really came close and now those doubted favorites (Butler, Marquette, Arizona) can press forward without the burden of potential first-round upset embarrassment.
  • Not So Efficient Now, Pitt. According to Ken Pomeroy’s win prediction formula, Pittsburgh went into Thursday’s 8-9 game against Wichita State with a 73 percent chance of advancing. Pomeroy’s efficiency ranks have recommended the Panthers all season (they ranked eighth as of Thursday in his per-possession database), and many data-savvy bracketeerists took that as a cue to simply and heedlessly push Pitt on through to a third-round matchup with Gonzaga, where Jamie Dixon’s team would give the Zags all kinds of physicality matchup issues. The only problem? The Shockers, ranked 34th in Pomeroy’s system, were more efficient than Pitt in every conceivable way throughout their 40-minute second-round tussle, and after an 18-point win it is Wichita, not the Panthers, who will get a clean shot at dropping the Zags this weekend.
  • The Point Guard Duel That Wasn’t. More than a genuine interest in seeing whether South Dakota State could pull off an unlikely upset of three-seed Michigan Thursday night, there was considerable buzz about what Nate Wolters – a semi-nationally known lead guard with an alluring all-around game – could conjure up against consensus First Team All-American and projected first-round draft pick Trey Burke. Fans were expecting a back-and-forth, individual, put-the-team-on-my-back kind of PG battle; this was Wolters’ night. It never materialized. Burke finished with just six points on 2-of-12 shooting and Wolters dropped 10 while making just three of 14 field goal attempts. The game itself was competitive going into the half, but without Wolters doing crazy, Wolters-like, 53-point things, the Jackrabbits never really stood a chance. The point guard battle of the Tournament was a dud and the game wasn’t much better.

Game-Winner of the Night. Everyone’s confident Davidson upset pick looked really convincing for about 35 minutes. Then Marquette shifted gears, found its three-point stroke late and Vander Blue did the rest.

(h/t Rob Dauster, CBT)

Thursday’s All-Americans.

  • Derrick Nix, Michigan State (NPOY) – The first game on Thursday was not what anyone would call competitive: Nix poured in 23 points and 15 rebounds as the Spartans controlled Valpo throughout.
  • Dwayne Evans, Saint Louis – A lot of people like Saint Louis as an Elite 8-Final Four-range team. Evans (24 points, six rebounds) gave you no reason to reconsider in Thursday’s stomping of New Mexico State.
  • Arsalan Kazemi, Oregon – Scoring touch aside, Kazemi affects the game exclusively with his defense and rebounding more than perhaps any other player in this Tournament. His 11-17 double-double Thursday is standard issue evidence.
  • Dorian Green, Colorado State – Not all of the Mountain West flopped Thursday. UNLV and New Mexico are good as gone, but CSU, thanks in part to Green’s 26 points against Missouri, are gearing up for an intriguing third-round fixure with Louisville.
  • Kelly Olynyk, Gonzaga – I can’t ignore Olynyk’s 21 points and 10 rebounds – Olynyk has been consistently awesome all season. Whether he can lift the Zags to a win Saturday over Wichita State, I’m not so sure.

Tweet of the night. Beating a rugged three-seed like New Mexico, who many believed actually merited deserved a two-seed, is a huge feat in the moment. It’s even bigger for Harvard in a historical context.

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ATB: Boise Stumbles, Two Baffling NIT Home Losses and JMU Preps For Indiana…

Posted by Chris Johnson on March 21st, 2013

ATB

Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.

Tonight’s lede. ‘Tis the Season. By the time you read tomorrow’s ATB, it will have begun. Indeed: a long and riveting season highlighted by a historically good Big Ten, a flurry of court-rushing upsets, and the official formation of a basketball-only Big East, has winded down its yellow brick road of regular season rising action to the annual apogee of college hoops as we know it: the NCAA Tournament. The first March Madness Thursday is basically a national holiday, but if you do elect to stay true to your respective employment duties, the urge of live internet-streamed games will reduce your productivity to a highly inefficient Pomeroyan work-per-minute rate. Trying to get stuff done on March Madness Thursday is like trying to pick Georgetown’s #2-#15 matchup with Florida Gulf Coast and not even once consider sending the Eagles through to the round of 32, just to raise the probability of a potential TV appearance from coach Andy Enfield’s supermodel wife. Whether you choose to show up at the workplace or not, the joy of the moment, the culmination, should push you through whatever endeavors keep you occupied from 9-to-5, right in time to come home and catch some of the day’s best action. Enjoy.

Your watercooler moment. An Easier Than Expected LaSalle Triumph.

A First Four loss from Boise State was not the way the Mountain West envisioned starting its 2013 Tournament (AP Photo).

A First Four loss from Boise State was not the way the Mountain West envisioned starting its 2013 Tournament (AP Photo).

If there was a team in the First Four with destiny on its side, it was Boise State. The Broncos earned their first NCAA at-large appearance in school history thanks to a credible run through the non-conference season (including a win at Creighton), a steady if plucky presence in a thorny Mountain West and a bevvy of hot-shooting guards. And in a year where fans and analysts nationwide are expecting the Mountain West to finally cash in on a deep-round run, you got the feeling Boise could get the MW off on the right foot with a First Four victory. La Salle made it clear from the start it wouldn’t relinquish its first NCAA Tournament appearance in 21 years without winning at least one game (quibble with round-nomenclature all you want, these games count on the record), and Boise was helpless to stop an explosive Explorers’ offense. But for a few incipient bursts of offensive energy in the second half, La Salle dealt with the Broncos without batting an eye. It was a patently disinteresting affair – which, disappointing as it may be for observers, is a very good sign for the Explorers as they prepare for a tough match-up with Kansas State in the next round. The Wildcats, whose No. 21 efficiency offense ranks more than 20 spots higher than La Salle’s, will offer more formidable resistance.

Wednesday Night’s Quick Hits…

  • The Brashness of JMU. It’s not easy to get excited about James Madison and LIU-Brooklyn. Only the wonkiest mid-major die-hards viewed this as anything more than anything more than a portal to Hoosier-induced destruction. The Dukes will go on to face Indiana in the Round of 64 after handling LIU with leading scorer Raymond Goins, who was arrested over the weekend on obstruction of justice and disorderly conduct charges, serving a one-half suspension. After trading scoring runs throughout much of the game, the Dukes tore off a 10-2 spurt to seal their spot in the next round. No one realistically expects JMU to faze Indiana, or even keep the game close any longer than five or so minutes into the second half. The Dukes aren’t backing down. Here’s what freshman and all-name team candidate Andre Nation had to say about the upcoming match-up: “They’re Indiana. We know about them. We see them on the TV all the time.” The Hoosiers should erase that confidence swiftly and painfully on Friday.
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ATB: An NIT Marvel, Gaels Cruise and a Fitting Conclusion For Florida State…

Posted by Chris Johnson on March 20th, 2013

ATB

Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn

Tonight’s Lede. NIT Invades National Spotlight. For months we’ve awaited the commencement of college basketball’s premier postseason event. Countless sentences were typed in this space praising teams for their pre-tournament momentum or berating them for their postseason urgency, or lack thereof, and all of it comes to a head this week. The ceremonial opening – the one fans across the country yearn for every year around this time – is Thursday. Employees call in sick for work; online game streams become a fixture on desktops and PCs around the country; brackets are ripped and flicked into nearby garbage cans. None of this stuff begins in earnest until Thursday. Tuesday night was the technical commencement of the NCAA Tournament – the first half of the First Four. It is called the “first round,” but that moniker serves more to frustrate and annoy fans and writers like yours truly than actually signify an additional round of games. In what universe does four games constitute a “round” in the same way that the second “round” includes 32? Ugh. Minor complaints. The point is, the tournament we’ve all been waiting for is finally here, and guess what? The biggest college basketball story of Tuesday night had nothing to do with the bracket sitting on your work desk. Don’t worry, a bracket was involved, alright – just not the one you’re thinking of.

Your Watercooler Moment. Down Goes UK. 

Around this time a year ago, Kentucky was relaxing in Lexington, maybe playing a casual game of ping-pong or two in UK’s famed lockerroom-turned-sports-mancave, occasionally turning around to check up on eventual first-round opponent Western Kentucky’s First Four game and cracking jokes about all the doubters who believed the Wildcats’ SEC Tournament championship game loss to Vanderbilt had revealed some sort of exploitable flaw that would lead to an early-round upset. Number one seeds that good don’t lose, and Kentucky didn’t. Things couldn’t be more different one year later. Thanks to one of the NCAA hosting sites being placed in Lexington, Kentucky was forced to travel to Moon, Pennsylvania, for a #1/#8 match-up with Robert Morris. Before we dive in, it’s important to preface the conversation with one important fact: the Colonials are good. They’ve been to the NCAA Tournament in two of the past five seasons, force turnovers at a top-20 rate and have not registered anything worse than a third-place NEC regular season finish since 2006-07. Being good within the NEC and making a few trips to the NCAAs every now and then is admirable for any small-league program. Knocking off Kentucky is a whole ‘nother level of “good” – and not even in the sense that the Wildcats are some national juggernaut. Because they aren’t, not this season. For RMU this win was as symbolic as it was impressive: Kentucky has dropped its share of games badly this season, and RMU can and did pick them off in its biggest game of the season. But it’s the spectacle of not only hosting, but knocking off, court rushing, and showing up John Calipari and his NBA-loaded Wildcats in Cal’s hometown, that makes this an unforgettable experience for the Robert Morris players, coaches and fans. The Colonials didn’t just win an NIT game. They beat Kentucky in their own 3,000-arena gym to add insult (and finality) to a painful UK season. Divorce the competition label from the singular feat. This was as massive (or close to it) as any NCAA Tournament triumph could ever be for RM.

Tonight’s Quick Hits.

  • Saint Mary’s Moves On. A frequent motif in the pre-Selection Sunday discussion was the idea that Saint Mary’s was one of the threshold outfits likely to get left out of the field, that the Gaels hadn’t accomplished much outside of a BracketBusters home win over Creighton, that they missed on all three opportunities to take out WCC king Gonzaga, along with all the usual power conference disdain that comes hand in hand with small-conference at-large discussion. St. Mary’s didn’t have one of the better at-large resumes in the field, and the Tourney rightfully slotted it into a First Four game with Middle Tennessee, another controversial non-Power-Six at-large inclusion. The Gaels proved Tuesday they very much belong in the field, and that if you were ever opposed to seeing Matthew Dellavedova spread the floor and slice into the lane off a high screen to dish to an open man or float a teardrop over two frontcourt defenders– well, you’re just no fun. Delly’s here, at least for one more game, and you should savor every last moment of his brilliant career. Read the rest of this entry »
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