Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.
Tonight’s Lede. Winning the NCAA Tournament requires a fortuitous boost of momentum. Getting hot at the right time is just as important as crafting a gaudy NCAA Tournament resume. The tourney is a sprint, not a long-winded journey, the very essence of the regular season. Teams face 30-game gauntlets of varying difficulty, but getting through unscathed – regardless of schedule strength – is immensely difficult. To go undefeated in the regular season is to survive dozens of potential pitfalls and enormous mounting national pressure. You’re pestered with constant questions about “the streak” and “the goal.” Coaches dedicate extra hours to engineering the foolproof game plan that will slay the giant. Student sections get geeked up beyond reason in the hopes of helping their favorite teams spring the upset. Only special teams can make it without bowing to those pressures. There are no special teams in 2012-13; no one is running the table this year. There are no dominant teams, no 2012 Kentuckys or 2009 North Carolinas – two all-time great teams who couldn’t make it through the regular season without taking at least one loss. Three undefeated teams entered Thursday night’s games, all nationally prominent programs from high major conferences. Two now remain, and the other two will meet their unbeaten doomsday sooner rather than later.
Your Watercooler Moment. A Close Game Arizona Couldn’t Win.
A universal theme in advanced statictical analysis at the team level is skepticism over narrow margins of victory. Over time, close wins balance out, luck turns into late-game misfortune, and all those last-possession victories stacked up early in the season are joined by a near equal number of nail-biting losses. Four of Arizona’s best wins this season – at Clemson, vs. Florida, vs. San Diego State and vs. Colorado – came down to the final moments. It’s most recent closer-than-close triumph against Colorado was the best reminder of the fine-tooth comb that is late-game management. The difference between winning and losing hotly-contested fixtures can be a missed jump shot, a pass thrown out of bounds, an errant dribble off one’s leg, a clanked free-throw. Or, an outdated replay monitor can blur the referees’ review efficacy and rob one Sabatino Chen of a classic buzzer-beating upset. Arizona had the looming specter of karmic reprisal hanging over its heads as it traveled to Eugene to take on a quality Oregon team. The stage was set for the Ducks to dethrone Arizona on the final possession and end the Wildcats’ streak of late-game fortune. Instead, Oregon battled Arizona from the start with physical defense, a hyper-athletic frontcourt, a couple of really intriguing freshmen (Dominic Artis and Damyeon Dotson can really play) and a balanced offensive attack. The victory wasn’t sealed until Nick Johnson committed a crucial turnover near the three-point line with Arizona down just three and less than 10 seconds to go, but the Ducks held double-digit leads for large stretches in the second half. This wasn’t a fluky, home-crafted upset. Oregon was every bit the better team tonight.
Tonight’s Quick Hits.
- About That “Crushing” Reggie Johnson Injury. The prevailing view on Reggie Johnson’s thumb injury was that Miami was really going to miss its senior big man. Johnson isn’t the most skilled or the most athletic frontcourt player around. What he is – and I mean this in a totally positive, not-Josh Smith way – is massive, an immovable force who eats up space and hoards prime positioning under and around the basket. Plus, Johnson really gets after it on the offensive and defensive boards, protects the rim and physically dominates whoever enters the painted area. Since Johnson went on the mend around Christmas, Miami has won four of six games, its only losses coming against Arizona and Indiana State at the Diamond Head Classic. None of its wins (Hawaii, LaSalle, Georgia Tech) really cemented the belief that Miami could thrive without Johnson in the lineup, but Thursday night’s triumph over North Carolina did exactly that (UNC is no world-beater, but a solid win nonetheless) especially because forward Kenny Kadji – an extremely talented but inconsistent frontcourt piece – was excellent. Once Johnson returns, throw him into a frontcourt rotation with Kadji, and this team is as qualified as any to make a run at Duke for league bragging rights. Read the rest of this entry »