The second weekend of the NCAA tournament is in the books. We’ll address the Final Four as the week unfolds, but here are all the stories worth identifying (and explaining) from the Sweet 16 and the Elite Eight.
10 – SIX FOULS PER PLAYER: IT’S TIME
You might have heard this said once or 24 billion times over the past few weeks: Officiating is inconsistent and hard to pin down (often with much harsher or more profane words).
Therefore, players deserve a sixth foul. It’s time.
Yes, there will be occasions when players commit a series of obvious fouls, but what about when a star player gets whistled for a foul he didn’t commit, and has to sit for extended minutes in a high-stakes NCAA tournament game?
Friday night against Duke, Delon Wright — Utah’s best player — appeared to have done nothing more than reach to the ground to get a held-ball call. He did nothing that would suggest a foul — no clear shove to his opponent’s chest or arms, no upper-body movements that rooted the Duke player out of his spot on the floor. Yet, he was tagged with a third foul.
One recalls the 2007 Final Four semifinals, when the much-anticipated big-man meeting of Georgetown’s Roy Hibbert and Ohio State’s Greg Oden fizzled because of mutual foul trouble. Six fouls were needed then, and Delon Wright reminded us that they’re needed next season.
Critics will say that since the college game is 40 minutes and the pro game is 48, we shouldn’t give the same amount of fouls to each set of players.
The basic counter to that reasonable claim? College players shouldn’t be assumed to be at the same skill level of NBA players. They deserve more leeway… especially since this is such a hard sport to officiate, leading to lots of dubious whistles in the whirl of competition.
9 – ROY AND THE RESUME
Roy Williams’ ability to land so many McDonalds All-Americans at North Carolina has made him the number one target of any high-profile coach in college basketball. Not a majority, but certainly a vocal minority, of Tar Heel fans are deeply upset by three seasons without an Elite Eight appearance. For many in college basketball, it just seems automatic that North Carolina is supposed to dominate on an annual basis, especially if Burger Recruits are always flowing to Chapel Hill.
A couple of things need to be said about Roy and his resume at Carolina:
First, shouldn’t we know by now that individual recruits cannot be assumed to be great, and that they must earn their credentials? North Carolina’s 2012 team had players who became great, or at least very good. That team was loaded with legitimate and substantially realized talent. The past three Carolina teams just haven’t existed on that same standard — can we acknowledge that the quality of Roy’s recruiting has fallen off instead of making the Burger Recruit label an indictment of his coaching ability? Roy needs to not miss on the recruiting trail — that’s the issue more than coaching. James Michael McAdoo, for instance, was a talented player, but an enigmatic and erratic one. Mr. Williams needs to find players who have consistency in their competitive DNA,
Now, on the matter of Williams’s accomplishments at North Carolina:
Are we really going to say that Roy’s two national titles, three Final Fours, and six Elite Eights are not worthy of the Carolina name? That’s as many national titles as Dean Smith won in his 36-year career. That’s as many Final Fours as Duke has made over the past 14 seasons. That’s more Elite Eights than what Bill Self — Williams’ successor at Kansas — has attained in Lawrence (5).
Coach K and Tom Izzo both needed five years to get back to the Final Four. Are we going to go crazy over Roy not making a Final Four in six years, keeping in mind that without the Kendall Marshall injury in 2012, he probably gets there?
Only three men in college basketball history have made more Final Fours than Roy Williams. It is enduringly fascinating how much heat Roy catches compared to his colleagues in the profession.
8 – TENTHS OF SECONDS ON SHOT CLOCKS: THE NOTRE DAME-KENTUCKY MOMENT
With just under 35 seconds left in the Notre Dame-Kentucky game, we all saw a ball land out of bounds while tenths of seconds bled off the game clock. This occurrence clearly showed why tenths of seconds are needed on shot clocks. Commentators on Twitter referred to “0.5 seconds on the shot clock.” Well, if only we really knew…
Did Notre Dame have only 0.3 seconds on the shot clock, or did it have 0.9? That stuff matters, especially since one needs at least 0.4 seconds to perform a catch-and-shoot action. At 0.3 or lower, one can only tip the ball into the basket.
The smaller schools will be pressed in terms of budgets to purchase shot clocks with tenths of seconds. Surely, the NCAA’s gob of NCAA tournament revenue can be redistributed or modified to cover expenses for schools that would like to request financial assistance in this regard. Leaders at the NCAA can figure this out… or at least, one would hope so.
7 – YEARS IN THE SALT MINES REWARDED
Mark Few of Gonzaga and Mike Brey of Notre Dame have both been at their respective schools for at least 15 years (16 for Few, 15 for Brey). That’s a combined 31 years of coaching.
Within roughly 24 hours of each other this past Thursday and Friday, both men reached the Elite Eight for the first time as Division I head coaches. They didn’t make the Final Four, but that shouldn’t take away from seasons in which two coaches managed to meet expectations while quieting their critics as well.
One could take the critical view that these Elite Eight runs magnify the failures of previous seasons — perhaps. Yet, the point of emphasis here should certainly lie with the ability of Few and Brey to find new paths in the pursuit of improvement. For Few, it was the ability to attract transfers that didn’t fit in at other programs while also bringing in European players. That mixture worked marvelously for the Zags this season. Brey was able to polish his team’s offense to the point that it made Kentucky’s normally imposing defense look vulnerable.
Mark Few might feel that what he does in March still doesn’t matter. Well, you can’t look at what Tom Izzo does nearly every year and say that doesn’t matter. Mark, take some credit for what you finally achieved this season, and realize that refuting a bunch of commentators (this one included) with a deep NCAA run, you have a better insight on how to get to the Final Four for the first time in your head-coaching career.
6 – DUKE IS THE BEST IN THE SOUTH… AND THE WEST
The Duke Blue Devils came through a South Regional in Houston to move to a Final Four in Indianapolis.
2015? Yes, but this is also the path Duke traveled in 2010, when it won its most recent national title.
What was unique about this year’s road to the Final Four for Duke — Mike Krzyzewski’s record-tying 12th at the school — is that it went through the West. Duke beat San Diego State, Utah, and Gonzaga to win the Western Invitational, giving Coach K yet another milestone in a career overflowing with them.
5 – THE INIMITABLE TOM IZZO
On Twitter, one astute commentator put it this way: “We wonder why nobody takes the college basketball regular season seriously. Tom Izzo is the answer.”
That’s one answer. The other equally valid answer is the combination of 2011 Connecticut and 2014 Connecticut. Had Louisville beaten Michigan State, we’d be citing Rick Pitino as well, for the body of work he’s put together in March over the years.
It really is true that certain coaches and programs manage to make things right in March. It’s uncanny how many times specific men or schools are able to find consistency and structure in this month after being disjointed and not quite fully “there” from November through February. Of these men and schools, Izzo and Michigan State top the list.
Need more facts beyond those provided in our write-up of Michigan State’s win over Louisville? Consider this: Izzo — even if he had not beaten Louisville to make his seventh Final Four — had already led a No. 7 seed to the Elite Eight for the second time. He did so in 2003 as well, losing to the just-fired Rick Barnes and Texas in San Antonio.
But wait, there’s more: Izzo is now 2-0 against Pitino in regional finals, having also beaten Louisville in the 2009 Elite Eight. He’s also 7-2 in regional finals overall, a testament to his ability to prepare for opponents in that short span of time between the Sweet 16 and the Elite Eight. Izzo is the short-term preparation king in this sport, and that’s why he’s first in line behind Coach K on the list of the sport’s best modern-day coaches.
4 – THE REAL STORY ABOUT THE BIG 12
The Big 12 did play the best college basketball during the regular season. The Big Ten struggled, very much including Michigan State, the No. 3 seed in that league’s tournament. The Pac-12 was thin. The Big East was almost as good, but its bottom four teams were worse than the Big 12’s bottom four. The ACC had three great teams; three dangerous but inconsistent teams that made the NCAAs (and made noise); and a lot of flotsam and jetsam in the lower half of the 15-team league. The SEC was a one-team conference.
The Big 12 really did stand out, albeit not by a huge margin.
Yet, this is the NCAA tournament reality staring at the conference after West Virginia and Oklahoma were knocked out of the Sweet 16:
3rd straight season the Big 12 is shut out of the Elite 8. No Final Four teams in 6 of the last 7 years.
— Ryan S (@rys1324) March 28, 2015
How can one reconcile the Big 12’s regular season with its postseason?
Here’s the basic answer. Perhaps it’s a slight oversimplification, but it remains an answer with a fundamental component of truth:
Plenty of teams maximize their abilities in the regular season, such that in the flow of regular competition against familiar opponents, they are more often prepared to handle situations than said opponents. There might be slight degree of luck involved — a team might catch an opponent on a downturn — but for the most part, overachieving teams are able to replicate superior performances. This act of replication gets them into the tournament with decent seeds.
However, in the one-and-done world of the tournament — with opponents that are focused in ways that didn’t apply to the regular season — these overachieving teams suddenly find themselves outgunned. They earned their higher seeds over four months, but in a one-game scenario, they just don’t match up well, and they often have fewer skills. There have been plenty of times throughout the history of the tournament when a 10 seed flexes its muscles against a 2 seed and the seeds feel as though they should have been reversed. The same applies to a 7-versus-3 matchup, as shown in Michigan State’s win over Oklahoma. The lower-seeded teams might have underachieved for four months, as Michigan State did this year and as eighth-seeded Kentucky did a year ago, but when they get to March and they don’t want to go home, they live up to their abilities, and the numbers attached to seeds quickly vanish in significance.
This, in short, is what has happened with the Big 12 over the past few years in March.
3 – NOTRE DAME CREATES A CLASSIC
Unless it is eclipsed by one of the upcoming Final Four games, the best game of the 2015 NCAA Tournament will be the Notre Dame-Kentucky Midwest Regional final. Kentucky won it by keeping its cool, but Notre Dame made the game great by playing to the full extent of its resources and capabilities.
The Fighting Irish had been physically overwhelmed in the vast majority of their recent NCAA tournament losses, and even when they gained a No. 2 seed in 2011 — their highest seed under coach Mike Brey — they were easily wiped off the map by Florida State in a round-of-32 game. This time, though, Notre Dame took concepts of floor spacing and ball movement and made them a real advantage. It is painfully ironic that Notre Dame abandoned those concepts in the final two minutes against Kentucky, but years from now, the Irish will smile at how well they played versus Big Blue, creating a happy memory that emerges when you participate in one of the better games your sport has ever seen.
2 – WISCONSIN’S ACCURACY
The great ones — teams and athletes — don’t miss when they have to be accurate.
Tiger Woods did not miss those 10-foot par putts on the final Sundays of majors in which he had a lead to protect on the back nine.
Rafael Nadal, when facing a break point against Roger Federer in numerous major semifinals and finals, would not miss that wide lefty can-opener serve to the ad court, forcing Federer to hit a low-percentage backhand return he’d often hit into the net.
Tom Brady doesn’t miss that third-and-13 pass in the fourth quarter of a Super Bowl when the New England Patriots need a touchdown.
The Wisconsin Badgers — the new and improved version, a far cry from past teams that flamed out early in the NCAA tournament — do not miss when facing Arizona before a partisan Wildcat crowd in Southern California.
Our write-up of the Badgers’ win is here.
1 – KENTUCKY’S COMPOSURE
The 1983 Philadelphia 76ers really weren’t tested en route to their NBA world championship. That’s the exception that proves the rule in sports. Almost every champion gets tested at some point along the line. For 2009 North Carolina, it was LSU in the round of 32. For 2012 Kentucky, both Indiana (Sweet 16) and Louisville (national semifinals) stayed close late into the second half.
For 2015 Kentucky, Notre Dame provided the test of the team that hopes to reach college basketball Nirvana.
No, Kentucky would not beat (or even come close to) a single NBA team. Yet, the thing worth celebrating about these Cool Cats is that unlike many NBA teams, they put together uncomplicated possessions and remained able to do the few things they were supposed to do when their moment of truth arrived. Plenty of basketball teams go away from their strengths when faced with endgame pressure, and Notre Dame fell victim to that very dynamic in the final minute, forsaking ball movement for hero-ball hoists.
Kentucky’s ability to simplify the game (in the right way) is the number one virtue for Big Blue, the foremost reason this team will head to the Final Four with glory in its sights.
Our write-up of the Wildcats’ win over Notre Dame is here.