Yeah, the weekend games are long over now and have been rehashed to death by everyone with a keyboard … but I’m gonna have a quick go at them too. Better late than never, right?
First of all, I think I’ll point out the obvious – that was a quality collection of regional finals! Incredible. That was the best group I can ever remember watching. If there’s been a better set ever, I haven’t heard about it.
In the first game on Saturday, West Virginia did their best Villanova (’85 edition) impersonation, but without the cocaine (I’m guessing this is more of an OxyContin group, ya know?). Actually, the Mountaineers were shooting way more often and from farther out than those Wildcats did. With no shot clock or three-point line in those days, Nova attempted just ten shots in the second half (making nine) and most were from close in. In the first half alone, WVU hit 10 of 14 three pointers. That’s nuts!
The thing is, big leads can do something funny to an underdog’s psyche. When a favorite goes up big early, they tend to roll, as both teams just assume it’s the natural order of things. When the two teams are fairly evenly matched or if the hot team is the underdog, things are different. The hot team starts getting cautious, worried that they are gong to lose their big lead. Meanwhile, the favorite gets mad, insulted even, and starts playing harder. When one team is cautious and the other is aggressive, you know what happens. The lead dwindles and dwindles and now the early leader starts playing even worse, because failure is on their minds. They don’t want to be a team that blows a huge lead.
So, that’s pretty much what happened here. Louisville maintained their composure and nipped and nibbled at the lead until it was gone. The Neers never really went away – I was very impressed with their play all tournament – but they just weren’t able to stop the Cardinals when it counted.
Who would have thought that a 20-point comeback game that went to overtime wouldn’t be the best game of the day? Arizona and Illinois put on an even better show. The two teams are each among the most talented teams in the nation and for most of the game put on a show that matched their talent. Illinois fans might dispute that, saying that they were a bit ratty until the end, but man, what an ending.
Illinois’ comeback from 15 points down with only four minutes left will go down in NCAA lore. It may not quite match that great Duke-Kentucky regional final, but it was close. All year, I’ve been impressed with the Illini’s mental toughness. They are usually more talented than their opponents, but they don’t let that physical advantage make them lazy. They play hard and smart. The end of that game was a perfect example. When they needed to make plays, they did. On the flip side, Arizona, a team that has underachieved most of the year, fell apart at the end. That last play when they had the ball down one in overtime and never really got a look was emblematic of their struggles all year.
So, on Saturday we got two huge comebacks and two overtime games. We also got the better team winning in each case, making a solid first half of the Final Four (and matching my pool picks, I might humbly add. OK, maybe not humbly.)
For the Sunday games, I’ll start with the second one and do the Carolina game last. Michigan State’s win over Kentucky was possibly the best game of the weekend. There was no big comeback, but you had two excellent teams fighting back and forth the whole game. While it appeared to me that the Spartans were the better team, it was only slightly so. Neither team was able to establish a clear advantage over the other. They banged inside, they attacked from outside, they shot jumpers, they pressed, they brought swarms off the bench – each team did everything they could. It was everything you’d want a regional final (hell, a national final) to be.
And then it all came down to one last prayer. That shot by Sparks was amazing for all the elements it contained. First, you had a guy who had just earlier missed a critical free throw that could have cost his team the game. You had the clock running down to zero. You had contact on the shot that easily could have been whistled for a foul. You had the ball hitting the rim, the backboard, the rim, and then the rim again, before dying in the bucket long after the buzzer – it was like one of those shots you see in a movie where they show the ball in slow motion along with crowd shots, views of the coaches screaming and the players’ hopeful gazes. And then you had his feet. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a foot so close to the line. At first, my opinion was that his toe was barely on the line, but that since it wasn’t conclusive, the refs should give him the three. But they waited. And waited. They looked at it again and again. I can’t imagine a ref having the stones at that point to overrule the call and say it was a two, ending Kentucky’s season (the man would have had to have his death threats delivered by tractor trailer), but obviously the refs were considering exactly that. Finally, CBS did a great job of blowing up the image, giving us a very clear view that had not stepped on the line. Overtime.
In the overtime, it seemed like maybe Kentucky was spent. They had poured out all their passion on that one last play and the long, wrenching decision that followed. They just couldn’t match Michigan State’s intensity.
Which brings me to the Carolina game. Close as it was throughout, it was a relative blowout compared to the other three games. Wisconsin fought admirably, but just could never quite compensate for the Tar Heels’ talent advantage. Like in the Villanova game two nights earlier though, one or two shots going the other way could have ended the Heels’ season.
Overall, I liked the Heels’ effort against the Badgers much more than what they showed against Nova. Sean May was unstoppable, turning in the best performance I’ve seen in the tournament. He seemed determined to personally carry the team to the Final Four. Raymond Felton and Rashad (don’t call me Raymond, Vern Lundquist) McCants also played much better, and that was the difference. When those three were on the court, Wisconsin couldn’t stop them.
But that’s the thing. Those three weren’t always on the court. Specifically, Felton wasn’t always there. Roy Williams took Felton out with just a few minutes left in the first half because Felton had two fouls. When he sat, UNC had an 11 point lead. At the half, the game was tied. Later in the second half, Felton sprained his ankle during a play. The Badgers scored on that possession and then again on the next (and maybe a couple more) after he sat to attend to his ankle.
Basically, when Felton wasn’t playing, Wisconsin killed the Heels. The UNC offense was not as sharp, but the real problem was on the defensive end. Melvin Scott couldn’t keep Terri Schiavo from taking the ball to the hole. He was beaten off the dribble time and again, leading to easy layups.
The same thing had happened to the Heels in the Villanova game. After Felton fouled out, they couldn’t keep the Wildcats from scoring. After the game, all the newspaper articles raved about how Scott didn’t turn the ball over in his few minutes at the helm (talk about damning with faint praise), but they failed to notice that he played defense like that old guy at the gym who just wants to shoot.
And that’s why I’m not optimistic about Carolina’s chances this weekend. Michigan State may not have the best point guard in the world, but they have a good, aggressive offense and if Felton isn’t on the floor, they will kill the Heels. UNC has a single point of failure and everyone in the country has seen it now. Don’t think that Tom Izzo (and maybe even Rick Pitino and Bruce Weber) isn’t working on a plan to attack Felton and get him in foul trouble. If they can scare Ole Roy into sitting Felton for a while or foul him out, the Heels will lose. As good as Wisconsin was (and they were good. If Virginia is really shopping for coaches from whatever school they want, they should add Bo Ryan to their wish list.), Michigan State is better. They play a similar style, but with mostly better players.
I hope I’m wrong, but I see the Heels losing on Saturday (don’t tell my wife).
And now for the conference performance update.
Obviously the big story is the outstanding late play by the Big Ten. They’ve now passed the ACC for winning percentage in the NCAA tournament and maintained their advantage for the whole postseason. There are still some games to be played that could change that, but I expect the Big Ten to keep their lead. I think Illinois is the best team left and Michigan State might well be the next best.
Postseason conference performance through 3/28/2005:
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