NCAA Tourney: What Just Happened?
VCU, Butler, Connecticut and Kentucky? Why even play in these stupid bracket pools anyway.
Let's take a look at what on Earth just happened, and draw some conclusions from what has been one of the most exciting and unpredictable tournaments in recent memory.
Brad Stevens knows what he's doing
Matt Damon said it best. "Why do you think the same five guys make it to the final table of the World Series of Poker EVERY YEAR? What, are they the luckiest guys in Las Vegas?"
Granted Butler hasn't made the Final Four every year, but arriving here back to back as a 5th seed and 8th seed respectively is more than just a coincidence. Coach Brad Stevens clearly knows how to prepare his troops, and knows which buttons to press once the game is underway. He's put Shelvin Mack, Matt Howard and the rest of the Bulldogs in the best position to succeed without over-coaching, which is exactly what his job should be as the sideline maestro. Pete Thamel of the New York Times whipped out a great stat the other day- Stevens has ten tournament wins in four years as coach of the Bulldogs. Bobby Knight finished with ten wins in 15 years as coach of Indiana and Texas Tech.
Harrison Barnes has regained elite draft stock status
He just looks like a sure thing. Maybe not as a star, or 25 point per game scorer, but as someone who can improve your basketball team. His outside stroke is clean and fluent, and his body control and ability to finish with both hands around the rim prove he's more than just a spot up shooter. A bright freshman with a high basketball IQ, there's just not many question marks surrounding the former top recruit. The way a father would feel safe approving of her daughter's wealthy, well spoken, career focused, family oriented boyfriend, a General Manager would feel safe drafting Harrison Barnes at any pick.
BYU planned on living by the Jimmer, and dying by the Jimmer.
In their overtime loss to Florida, it almost looked as if a teenager was controlling the Cougars offense with an XBox controller, launching up shots from every spot on the floor with the nation's leading scorer. It was clear Jimmer's legs gave out a bit towards the 40 minute mark, which can be attributed to his 29 field goal attempts (15 three point attempts) and his complete dominance of the basketball. It's going to be an interesting transformation for Fredette, whose role at the next level will require him to adapt to player's around him instead of the other way around.
"Us Against the World" is a great motivating tactic
Coach Shaka Smart must have been salivating when he saw Jay Bilas and crew just bash the committee for giving VCU an opportunity to dance. What better tool to motivate a team than by telling them they don't belong? I'll tell you one thing- when a friend tells me a girl is out of my league, you can bet your ass I'm not going home alone that evening without a fight.
With five wins under their belt, one more than any of the other three remaining teams, coach Smart has looked like a motivational genius. His Rams were 11.5 point underdogs in an Elite 8 game- they just weren't supposed to win. But with an opening day victory over USC, the Rams were given a shot of confidence- and when players gain confidence you'll find guys like Jamie Skeen outplaying the Morris brothers, or Bradford Burgess shooting a combined 13-18 from three against Georgetown, Purdue, Florida State and Kansas. You'll get a kid named Joey Rodriguez, who looks like he's on a high school wrestling team, carve through some of the best defenses in the country like it ain't no thang. And of course, you get a bracket so beat up in red ink it looks a New York Mets financial statement.
When you got nothing to lose, you become a whole new level of dangerous- and that's exactly what VCU has become.
Connecticut needs Jeremy Lamb to continue producing
Jeremy Lamb is really making a name for himself while playing the sidekick role to first team All-American Kemba Walker. With an active motor and arms long enough to hug his entire starting lineup simultaneously, Lamb has really been able to make an impact on both sides of the ball.
But in six of Connecticut's nine losses this season, Lamb has scored in single digits. His recent emergence has made the Huskies a lot tougher to beat, adding another weapon to their thin offensive arsenal. Lamb's length creates havoc on the defensive end, clogging passing lanes and forcing turnovers resulting in points in transition. He's shooting a laughable 73% (11-15) from downtown in his four games this tournament, and has easily become the team's second scoring option. Against a Kentucky team that can beat you from almost every position, UConn will need another big game from the freshman who's averaged 18 points on 58% shooting through the first four rounds.
If you can't make shots, you can forgetaboutit...
Sometimes the game of basketball is over-analyzed. Sometimes, it just comes down to putting the ball through the hoop. When you shoot 2-21 from downtown like Kansas did Sunday afternoon, your not going to beat VCU's cheerleaders, never mind their surging, relentless, hungry basketball team. Wisconsin is just not going to win a game against a disciplined Butler squad in the NCAA tournament when they shoot 7-29 from three. This isn't to take away from the defense played by the remaining teams, but c'mon- Arizona shoots 4-21 from downtown against UConn and it's no mystery why they were sent packing. Sunday night, Kentucky defeated North Carolina with timely shot making down the stretch by DeAndre Liggins and Brandon Knight. The Wildcats finished 12-22 from three, while the Tar Heels shot 3-16 from behind the arch. In North Carolina's previous game they watched Marquette build a house on 2-16 from downtown, while Richmond stunk up the building on 4-26 from three against Kansas.
If you can't make shots, forgetaboutit...
Derrick Williams is the real deal
He defines mismatch at the college level. Against Duke, he knocked down five three pointers in the first half, which allowed him to utilize his quick first step in the second half. He's got explosive hops that make the rim look like it's eight feet high instead of ten. Like Blake Griffin at Oklahoma, there's just nobody his size that has the mobility and strength to keep up with him at the college level. Unfortunately for Arizona, he had his worst three point shooting performance of the season against Connecticut. He knocked down 56% of his threes in his sophomore season as a Wildcat, and remains our pick as the top choice in the 2011 NBA draft.
Kyrie Irving's presence affected Nolan Smith
With the ball in his hands, Irving pretty much had his way with the Arizona defense. Playing off the ball, Arizona defense had their way with Nolan Smith. Smith shot 3-14 from the field with six turnovers, looking uncomfortable on the offensive end while failing to find his rhythm. With an ineffective Smith down the stretch, the Blue Devils were hopeless against a fiery Arizona Wildcats.
When Kentucky lost to UConn back on November 24th, both teams were far from where they are today. Brandon Knight and DeAndre Liggins combined to shoot 6-25 that game, including 0-10 from downtown, while Jeremy Lamb scored just 2 points in 12 minutes.
I like Kentucky's revived three point shooting, and Josh Harrellson's physical play down low to overcome Connecticut's two-man attack.
I also expect Butler and guard Shelvin Mack to do his thing against the VCU guards, and pave the way for a Wildcat-Bulldog finale.
When it's all said and done, I like Coach Cal cutting down the nets in Indy, and Brandon Knight to get a serious boost in draft value.
I like how these March Madness pundits, Mr. Wasserman included, like to spew their post-game analyses like they're wise sages after making the wrong predictions and then make the same, safe predictions again.
Seriously, is anybody in sports media not afraid to predict a VCU or Butler championship?
See, their is a reason they are safe. It is because a majority of the time, those teams win those games. You can throw out bold predictions all you want, and seem like a prophet for doing so, but they do not always happen. Butler did not win the championship last year, but would someone seem like a better person for predicting they were going to beat Duke? If they win, than he will be wrong, but he is going with who he thinks is going to win. Did you have Butler and VCU in the Final Four or winning the championship? No, but you sure sound like a wise old sage now, don't you.
Kyrie Irving's return definitely screwed up Duke's chemistry. For a second I thought it would be like when Carlos Boozer came back in 2001 after missing six games, but Boozer was basically a complementary player to Jay Williams and Shane Battier that year, while the whole offense the first 8 games centered around Kyrie.
It seemed like Nolan Smith wasn't sure what his role was when Irving came back; he went from being the center of the team for 26 games to having to step aside and play off Irving, and that threw him off big time.
Another thing is aside from Smith and Kyle Singler, the rest of the team was painfully inexperienced. The Plumlees were backups last year (Miles the last two), Andre Dawkins and Ryan Kelly saw little playing time as freshmen (although Dawkins saw a bit more because Duke was thin at guard last year), and aside from Irving, the freshmen didn't play a ton of minutes either. Seth Curry had his moments, but it's a big jump from small conference star to ACC role player.
Even though a lot of folks (myself included, I must admit) had Duke back in the Final Four, we overlooked their huge lack of experience after Smith and Singler, and it really showed when Smith struggled against Arizona; other than Irving and Singler for a little bit, no one else stepped up.
Enough sour grapes; here's my Final Four predictions:
Kentucky vs. UConn: I love Kemba Walker, but he and Brandon Knight cancel each other out. If Kentucky can contain Jeremy Lamb (they may play Doron Lamb on him; Lamb vs. Lamb) and control the boards, they should win pretty easily. Walker is a winner, and Jim Calhoun is one of the top 10 coaches in the nation, but they don't have enough overall talent to beat Kentucky.
VCU vs. Butler: Intriguing mid-major matchup. VCU will put up a fight, as they always do, but Butler's been there before, and they've been playing with a chip on their shoulder themselves after many doubted they would come back to the Final Four, much less make a deep run in the tournament without Gordon Hayward. VCU will come out gunning, but Butler should find a way to somewhat contain the shooters. This game could be closer and more exciting than Kentucky-UConn, with Butler pulling it out in the end.
Championship: Butler vs. Kentucky
Shelvin Mack and Knight should cancel each other out, so this comes down to if Harrelson can contain Matt Howard and if Terrence Jones shows up. If both those things happen, Kentucky will win it. But it should be a tight ballgame because Butler doesn't quit and Brad Stevens is a phenomenal coach.