Gray Friday

Man, what a great long weekend of basketball! We had it all – upsets, heartbreakers, buzzer-beaters, great individual performances, comebacks, etc. Basically, last weekend served as an example of everything that is great about college basketball.
The thing is, there was so much goodness, that I couldn’t find time to write about it. I’ll try to catch up now.
Gray Friday
Back before last weekend, I wrote about the doom I felt for the Sunday’s slate of four ACC games. I was genuinely worried that one or no ACC teams would survive. I was pleasantly surprised when three made it through.

Then came Friday.
The situation was pretty similar – all three Triangle teams playing in one night. One team, NC State, was a bit of an underdog and the other two were wobbly favorites. I said then that I expected State to lose and I was very concerned about Duke. I figured that the Heels would win, but I had a gnawing feeling that they were due for a letdown.
I was pretty much right all around.
State built a nice lead in the first half of their game against Wisconsin, but it never felt safe. The Badgers looked like the better team, but State was just hot for a while. Once the shots stopped falling, the Pack was in trouble. Wisconsin is such a tough team, both physically and mentally, and they wear you down. One thing this State team has proven over the last few years is that they are not mentally tough. Sure, they have great stretches that sometimes last for multiple games, but bad play is always just around the corner. When the Badgers got hot and seized control in the second half, it seemed like the Wolfpack had no answer. It was a tough end to a mixed-bag of a season. I’m sure Pack fans are disappointed, but a loss in the Sweet Sixteen really seems about right for that squad.
The Duke game also went exactly like I feared. I wrote in the Sports Shack that I had concerns about the way Duke had been playing. They looked tired late in the season, even while they were winning the ACC Tournament. Lee Melchionni’s shot turned back into a pumpkin a few weeks ago, leaving the Blue Devils with only three scoring options. Without another outside shooter, teams could focus on Redick and have one guy always ready to help, while pestering Ewing (who isn’t a great ballhandler and can be rattled) and collapsing on Williams. That’s pretty much exactly what Michigan State did.
Early in the game, it was obvious that the Spartans’ strategy was to attack Shelden, using their size and depth to wear him down. He looked great for a while, doing a very nice Emeka Okafor impersonation, but eventually playing 1 on 3 got to him. Meanwhile Redick couldn’t get free, leaving Ewing to try to do it all himself. That’s too much to ask against a good, well-coached team like Michigan State.
One side story about this game was the budding rivalry between coaches Krzyzewski and Izzo. With the win, Tom Izzo exactly matched Coach K’s NCAA Tournament winning percentage. It’s a great accomplishment, but a tough one to hold onto. For one thing, K has three times as many wins (66), meaning Izzo (22) needs to maintain his current pace for twice as long as he’s already coached. Think about that – for every great year Izzo’s had, he’ll need two more just like it! Also, due to the nature of the tournament, the Spartans need to win the whole thing to maintain his lead. If he loses any game this year, his percentage will dip back below Krzyzewski. Bet you won’t read that anywhere else.
Friday was going poorly. Two games, two ACC losses – both to Big Ten schools. Then the Carolina game started and things got even worse. The Heels came out cold and uninspired and quickly found themselves down by double figures. Villanova was playing hard and loose and was really taking it to Carolina.
Not one player, other than maybe Marvin Williams, had a good game for UNC. Sean May scored 12 of their first 14 points, but ended the game with 14. Raymond Felton was often out of control and never seemed to grab control of the game like he usually does. Rashad McCants had a good scoring game, but took a lot of bad shots and often looked like he didn’t really want to be there. I don’t think Jawad Williams even made the trip to Syracuse.
The Heels slowly chipped away at the lead over the course of the game and eventually Carolina’s size and talent advantage won out over the pesky Wildcats. One or two shots here and there in the last couple of minutes could have changed the overall outcome though. Obviously, there was one huge call too. Perhaps you’ve heard mention of it? For the record, I thought the traveling call on Allan Ray was absolute crap. He didn’t take three steps (although it did look a little funky) and a ref has no business making a call at that point unless he’s absolutely sure of it. One thing about it though – they showed the replay a zillion times and you’ll notice that Ray didn’t travel and he also wasn’t fouled. So, if we’re correcting the call, let’s just give him the two points, not three as many critics seem to want. If the refs hadn’t screwed the call, Carolina would have had the ball and a one-point lead with 12 seconds left. Certainly that would have given Villanova a better chance than being down 3, but they were by no means in position yet to win.
With Carolina dodging a bullet, we avoided a reprise of the fabled Black Sunday – a Black Friday. Instead it was just Gray Friday – a tough night when the ACC was fed some cold revenge by the Big Ten but still managed to keep the conference alive for one more game.
I’ll cover the weekend games in a later entry, along with the updated conference standings.

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