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Buzzer-beaters, beatdowns — Big Dance’s second weekend had it all

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As much as I love the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament, I think that the second weekend — the Sweet 16 and Elite 8 rounds — are actually my favorite part of the dance.

The chaos, coast-to-coast madness, and desire to be able to watch and listed to all four games at once makes that first weekend wild and fun and entertaining, but the second weekend is when every game becomes a heavy weight battle. It only helps when the results are as memorable as they were this past weekend.

Six No. 1 and No. 2 seeds went down over the past four days. A No. 11 seed made the Final Four. A No. 8 seed out of the Horizon League made its second consecutive Final Four. Two of college basketball’s elite advanced to the Final Four despite what most assumed to be a down year.

There were buzzer beaters and there were beatdowns, all exciting and shocking and memorable in their own right. Here’s my attempt at recapping that madness:

Game of the Weekend: Butler 74, Florida 71 OT

This game was Butler basketball at its finest. The Bulldogs were outplayed fairly thoroughly in the first half, but thanks to some tough defense and timely shot-making, Butler was able to cut the deficit to 33-32 at the half. In the second half, Florida continued their terrific play, pounding the ball inside and flustering the Bulldogs with a zone that they switched to man with less than 10 seconds left on the shot clock.

But with the score 51-42 midway through the half, Brad Stevens put in Chrishawn Hopkins, a seldom-used freshman point guard that had played well in practice, and Hopkins delivered. On the first possession he was in the game, he threw a gorgeous, no-look pass for a layup. 30 seconds later, he drilled a three that cut the lead to four. He didn’t do much the rest of the game, but those five points were enough to tip the momentum into Butler’s favor. The game would eventually end up in overtime, where we had one of the most exciting four possessions of the tournament. Butler had opened up a 67-64 lead with Erving Walker found Kenny Boynton for a three with just over two minutes left. After Ronald Nored gave Butler the lead back with two free throws, Walker drilled a three to give the Gators the lead. But at the other end, Shelvin Mack — who had 27 points in the game — answered with a three of his own, and Florida was never able to get the lead back. Walker and Boynton both misfired on threes in the final minute.

Studs of the Weekend: VCU Rams

What the Rams did this weekend cannot be understated. Hell, what they have done in this tournament deserves massive amounts of credit. On Friday, VCU took on a Florida State team that was a terrible matchup for them. They were obliterated in the paint, to the tune of 21 offensive boards and 20 second chance points, but still managed to hit enough from beyond the arc to take the game to overtime. With 7.9 seconds left, Joey Rodriguez found Bradford Burgess for a layup to give the Rams the win.

On Sunday, however, is when the Rams made history. VCU played a nearly perfect game, knocking Kansas off-balance early, to beat Kansas and advance to the Final Four. VCU tied a season high (that they set in the tournament) with 12 threes, got 26 points and 10 boards from Jamie Skeen, and saw Rodriguez make three huge plays down the stretch as they beat the tournament’s most talented remaining team to advance to the Final Four. It was a perfect storm of opportunity and execution.

They showed out too:

  • Kentucky Wildcats: Believe it or not, the Wildcats were a bit of a cinderella story in this tournament. Not in the way that Butler and VCU are, but because this team was not supposed to be Final Four good this year, especially with Enes Kanter sitting out. But Josh Harrellson and DeAndre Liggins stepped up to play their best basketball of the season while Coach Cal’s trio of talented freshmen combined to hit some timely shots as the Wildcats played their way to the Final Four.
  • Kemba Walker and Jeremy Lamb, UConn: Kemba was just as good as he has been all season long. He had 36 points in the Sweet 16 win over San Diego State and followed that up with 20 points and seven assists in the win over Arizona. But UConn woudl not be where they are right now without Jeremy Lamb. The freshman averaged 23.0 ppg in the two games, but it was his play down the stretch in both that made the difference.
  • Derrick Williams, Arizona: Despite losing in the West Regional Final, Williams may have been the most impressive player of the tournament. He had 25 first half points against Duke, finishing with 32 and 13 boards, as the Wildcats knocked off No. 1 seed Duke. Against UConn, he got into foul trouble early, but his strong second half gave Arizona a chance to win. Unfortunately, his decision to hoist a couple of threes late in the UConn loss will be what he is remembered for in this tournament.
  • Shelvin Mack and Matt Howard, Butler: Howard was the hero against Wisconsin, scoring 20 points and grabbing 12 boards while shutting down Jon Leuer as the Bulldogs dominated the Badgers. Against Florida, it was Mack’s 27 points that carried Butler to the overtime win.

Dud of the Weekend: Tyrel Reed and Brady Morningstar, Kansas

Its tough to place the blame for a loss on any one player, especially when a team combines to go 2-22 from three and 15-28 from the free throw line. But its also difficult to ignore just how poorly Reed and Morningstar played in the loss to VCU. The two senior started combined for just 11 points in the loss to the Rams, shooting a combined 2-16 from the floor and 1-10 from three. There were multiple other factors in the loss, but that shooting performance — many of those misses came late in the game as Kansas was trying to make a comeback — may as well have been the nail in the coffin.

They didn’t show up:

  • Nolan Smith, Duke: You can blame it on team chemistry if you want, but there is no denying that Smith struggled mightily in Duke’s Sweet 16 loss to Arizona. He finished just 3-14 from the floor for eight points while turning the ball over six times.
  • Chandler Parsons, Florida: In the Gator’s overtime loss to Butler, Parsons disappeared. He finished with just five points on 2-9 shooting with just two assists and not a single free throw. He didn’t score in the final 34 minutes of the game.
  • Derwin Kitchen, Florida State: I really don’t want to pile on the kid, but his late game blunders probably cost Florida State a trip to the Elite 8. He dribbled out the clock with a chance to win the game in regulation and overtime, and as also the guy that got beat by Brad Burgess for the game-winning layup.
  • Marquette Golden Eagles: Known for being a scrappy team that is never out of a game, the Golden Eagles picked the absolute worst time to have their worst performance of the season. Against North Carolina in the Sweet 16, Marquette allowed the Tar Heels to go on a 38-5 run that turned a 10-8 lead with just under 12 minutes left in the first half to a 46-15 deficit a minute into the second half.
  • Jon Leuer, Wisconsin: Leuer was downright awful in Wisconsin’s 61-54 loss to Butler. He finished the game shooting 1-12 from the floor and was a non-factor on either end of the floor.

Biggest Shot: Brandon Knight vs. Ohio State

After Jon Diebler hit a three with 20 seconds left in the game to tie it at 60, Brandon Knight hit a ridiculously tough pull-up over Aaron Craft, who had held him to just seven points on 2-9 shooting prior, for his second game-winner of the tournament.

Biggest Shot Part Deux: Bradford Burgess vs. Florida State

With VCU down 71-70 in overtime and just 7.9 second left on the clock, Burgess managed to lose Derwin Kitchen on an out-of-bounds play under the basket.

Biggest Shot Redux:

  • DeAndre Liggins, Kentucky: UNC had just made a run to cut what was once an 11 point lead down to a single point. With the shot clock winding down, Liggins got a pass in the corner and knocked down arguably the biggest shot of his career, a three to give Kentucky a three point lead less than 30 seconds left in the game.
  • Jeremy Lamb, UConn: Lamb hit a shot that was almost exactly the same in nature. SDSU had just gone on an 8-0 run to cut the UConn lead to 65-64 when Lamb knocked down a three with less than a minute to go. On the ensuing possession, he stole a pass and finished with a dunk at the other end that all but sealed UConn’s win.

Safe Travels: Jimmer Fredette, BYU

On Thursday night, Florida knocked off the Cougars in overtime, ending the career of one of the most entertaining players in the recent history of college basketball. And as only The Jimmer can do, he went out with a 32 point performance which drew criticism from the experts.

That criticism was probably fair. Fredette was just 11-29 from the floor and 3-15 from beyond the arc, missing a number of shots that he has hit all season long. But that one poor performance should not sully the reputation of the guy that became college basketball’s hero this season. Jimmer lit up scoreboards all season long. He hit jumpers from 30 feet on a consistent basis. He scored 29 points a night and carried a BYU team that was thoroughly mediocre without him all the way to the Sweet 16.

Fredette was going to lose at some point. He simply did not have the supporting cast to make a run at a national title. The shame is that immediately after his career ended, the talk started about what kind of pro he would become. The kid was a hero this season. Before we go discussing what he’ll be at the next level, let’s all sit back and remember just how good he was at this level.

Jimmer, it was a pleasure, my friend. You will be missed.

#POSTERIZED: Donovan Mitchell caps Cards win with an oop

LOUISVILLE, KY - JANUARY 19:  Donovan Mitchell #45 of the Louisville Cardinals reacts after making a three point shot to end the first half against the Clemson Tigers at KFC YUM! Center on January 19, 2017 in Louisville, Kentucky.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
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Louisville used a huge first-half run to pull away from Syracuse, and a Donovan Mitchell slam to put the icing on the cake.

The Cardinals sophomore caught a pass one-handed and seamlessly threw it home to deliver the signature moment of Louisville’s 88-68 win over the Orange on Saturday

LaVar Ball walks back statement on Lonzo’s Laker future

LEXINGTON, KY - DECEMBER 03: Lonzo Ball #2 of the UCLA Bruins reacts after making a three-point basket against the Kentucky Wildcats in the second half of the game at Rupp Arena on December 3, 2016 in Lexington, Kentucky. UCLA defeated Kentucky 97-92. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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The only person better at generating headlines than Lonzo Ball seems to be his father, LaVar. The elder Ball managed to do so again this weekend, once for saying something wild and then again for walking those comments back.

LaVar told KCUB Sports Radio 1290 in Arizona that UCLA star Lonzo would play for the Lakers and that he would discourage other teams from taking the stellar point guard at the top of the draft. Later, he said he was only posturing.

“I’m not trying to say he won’t play for a different team,” LaVar told ESPN. “But I’d like him to play for the Lakers because it’s home, and I’d love him to learn from Magic [Johnson]. He’s the best guard ever to me, and nobody better for Lonzo to learn from than Magic Johnson.”

Lonzo is averaging 14.8, 7.6 assists and 6.8 rebounds per game for the Bruins, who stand at 26-3 on the season. He’s in the mix to be the potential No. 1 pick in June’s NBA draft.

LaVar has already stated on multiple occasions that Lonzo is better than two-time MVP Steph Curry of Golden State. He’s clearly supremely confident – and outspoken – about his son’s talent. With two younger sons, LaMelo and LiAngelo, set to soon begin their own college careers, LaVar’s exuberant proclamations may just be getting started.

Duke and Krzyzewski have “a decision” to make as injuries linger

DURHAM, NC - NOVEMBER 26:  Amile Jefferson #21 talks with Grayson Allen #3 of the Duke Blue Devils during the game against the Appalachian State Mountaineers at Cameron Indoor Stadium on November 26, 2016 in Durham, North Carolina.  (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
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Duke missed the production of veterans Grayson Allen and Amile Jefferson on Saturday in its 55-50 loss to Miami, the Blue Devils’ second-straight loss after falling to Syracuse earlier in the week. It also missed their influence on the offensive end.

Allen missed the game with an ankle injury while the foot problem that sidelined Jefferson for a pair of games in January continues to be an issue and limited to minor second-half minutes Saturday. Without the pair, Duke shot 31.8 percent from the floor and had 13 turnovers against the Hurricanes.

We need those guys to calm people down on the offensive end,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said after the game. “The continuity on the offensive end is not up to par with the defense.”

Both players will be re-evaluated before Tuesday’s home contest against Florida State, but Jefferson’s injury would appear to be the most concerning given it has lingered for well over a month now.

“I’ve got to make a decision with Amile,” Krzyzewski said. “He’s not running. He is not running at all.”

Duke could likely make it work in the short term if it was short just one of the Allen-Jefferson duo, but without both it stresses the ballhandling, playmaking and inexperienced frontcourt all at the same time. Luke Kennard was the only Blue Devil to crack double figures scoring against the ‘Canes while freshmen Marques Bolden and Harry Giles, who both have had their injury issues, were relatively ineffective in player fewer than 20 minutes apiece. Both Kennard and Jayson Tatum played a full 40.

At the start of the season, Duke had the look of a juggernaut, but given the multitude of issues they’ve faced seemingly from the jump, it has a bit of a slog with only a seven-game winning streak to have eased their pain all year.

What made the Blue Devils look so formidable before the season was their sheer level of talent. With Allen and Jefferson ailing, the move for Krzyzewski might be to just bet on that talent in the NCAA tournament rather than jockey for seeding position. He could keep Jefferson and Allen on the shelf as they heal, give Giles and Bolden a ton of run and then just make a go of it in the Big Dance, betting on the talent overcoming the inconsistency of the season.

Like Krzyzewski said about Jefferson, he’s got a decision to make.

VIDEO: Indiana’s Hartman proposes to girlfriend on Senior Night

OMAHA, NE - MARCH 20: Collin Hartman #30 of the Indiana Hoosiers reacts against the Wichita State Shockers during the second round of the 2015 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at the CenturyLink Center on March 20, 2015 in Omaha, Nebraska.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
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Indiana’s Collin Hartman hasn’t appeared in a game this year after suffering a torn ACL in the offseason. Still he managed to make one heck of a highlight this weekend.

The Hoosier senior took the opportunity of his senior night speech to propose to his girlfriend, an Indiana cheerleader.

She said yes.

Hartman’s night wasn’t the only one that was a success, as Indiana snapped a five-game losing streak with a win Saturday over Northwestern.

Is Gonzaga a fraud? Did Gonzaga need to lose? Answering key Zags questions after BYU loss

SPOKANE, WA - FEBRUARY 25:  The BYU Cougars celebrate their 79-71 victory over the Gonzaga Bulldogs at McCarthey Athletic Center on February 25, 2017 in Spokane, Washington.  (Photo by William Mancebo/Getty Images)
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There are going to be a lot of questions asked about Gonzaga following their loss to BYU late on Saturday night

We answer all of those questions for you right here:

Is Gonzaga a fraud?: So let me get this straight: You think that Gonzaga is a fraud because, after winning 29 straight games and totally outclassing everyone in their conference for two months, they lost to a program that has beaten them four times in the last four years? Come on.

The Zags are still sitting atop KenPom’s efficiency ratings. They’re still sitting atop Sagarin’s ratings. They’re still the second-favorite team to win the national title, according to Vegas Insider’s futures. The team at the top of that list, Duke, took a similarly awful loss at home earlier this year, falling to an N.C. State team that has won one game in the six weeks since. You might have asked if Duke was a fraud then. You would’ve been wrong about that, too. West Virginia lost at home to Oklahoma earlier this year. Are they frauds, too?

The fact of the matter is that the Zags blew a 16-point lead at home to a team that lost to San Diego earlier this year. That’s really bad. No one is trying to sugar coat it. It’s also the first time this season that they’ve put out this kind of a performance. The first time in 29 games. The first time in four months.

Weird things happen in college basketball. This is probably one of them.

Did Gonzaga need to take a loss before the start of the tournament?: No.

I hate that line of thinking. Taking a loss is not some kind team-defining wake-up call, especially not when it’s a program like Gonzaga, a program that is defined as much by their lack of March success as anything. Fair or not, that’s how the Zags are viewed nationally, even if that perception — as my buddy Gary Parrish of CBS Sports detailed here — is inaccurate based on the actual tournament results. But the fact remains that this program has never been to a Final Four. Wichita State has. Butler has. VCU has. Those are the teams from outside the establishment that have played in April.

Gonzaga has not

And that is the monkey on this team’s back.

Yes, having a ‘1’ in the loss column is going to take some of the attention and some of the pressure off in March, but that’s not going to change the fact that this is the best Gonzaga team that Mark Few has ever had. That’s going to be the narrative enveloping this team in March, and heading into the tournament with a loss isn’t going to change that.

SPOKANE, WA - FEBRUARY 25: Head coach Mark Few of the Gonzaga Bulldogs works from the sideline in the second half against the BYU Cougars at McCarthey Athletic Center on February 25, 2017 in Spokane, Washington. BYU defeated Gonzaga 79-71. (Photo by William Mancebo/Getty Images)
Head coach Mark Few (Photo by William Mancebo/Getty Images)

Are they still going to be a No. 1 seed?: Probably.

The Zags would have been a lock to be a No. 1 seed out west had they entered Selection Sunday without a loss to their name. Barring some kind of insanity, they will probably still be a No. 1 seed if they can win the WCC tournament, especially if that title includes another win over Saint Mary’s. Where things get tricky is if the Zags drop a game in the WCC tournament. In that case, whoever ends up winning the Pac-12 tournament will probably have a strong argument to be seeded above the Zags.

Can they be trusted to win a national title?: This is where things get tricky.

I think the idea of needing to take a loss late in the season is dumb, but I do subscribe to the thinking that Gonzaga needed to be tested in a close game before taking a loss means that their season is over. The Zags hadn’t trailed in the second half for 15 straight games before Saturday, and it showed. They lacked poise down the stretch. They made defensive errors. They turned the ball over. They struggled to find good shots in their offense. For lack of a better way to phrase it, the Zags looked overwhelmed by the moment.

Will they learn from this? Because they need to.

But there’s more to it than just having to learn. The concern with this Gonzaga team is whether or not they have the guard play to be able to create offense down the stretch against a set, elite defense. BYU’s defense is not what one would call elite. If the Zags cannot score against them down the stretch, what are they going to do against some of the best back courts in the country?