This is my opportunity to riff a little bit on the season that Duke has had thus far. Simply put, there is no way that Duke can be ranked any lower than second in your ballot, and they probably deserve quite a few first place votes. Why? Well, they’ve now beaten two of the top three teams heading into the season — Kentucky and Louisville — and supported that with quality wins over VCU and Minnesota. I still think Indiana is the best team in the country, and they’ve done nothing to prove otherwise so I’ll keep them there for now, but the Blue Devils have made a strong case for the top spot.
That said, three of their four wins have an asterisk. Kentucky was without Ryan Harrow and playing their second game of the season. Louisville was without Gorgui Dieng, who broke his wrist against VCU. Minnesota was playing with half of Trevor Mbakwe. There’s nothing Duke can do about that, they can only beat the team that’s on the floor in front but it is worth noting.
Now let me be clear: this isn’t meant as a shot at Duke. They’ve been much more impressive than I thought they would be this season. Mason Plumlee has looked like a top five pick. Seth Curry’s toughness and leadership is invaluable. Quinn Cook has been a revelation at the point, and Rasheed Sulaimon is one of the most underrated freshman in the country right now. Seth Davis made a great point over the weekend that Duke is a veteran team that has roles established early in the season, meaning that they are more prepared to play in November than a team like Kentucky.
It’s too early to make any conclusions other than this: the Blue Devils are playing the best basketball in the country as of November 26th.
Teams Deserving of a Shoutout
Cincinnati: The Bearcats had a strong showing out in Vegas this weekend, as they beat both Iowa State and Oregon, who was fresh off of an upset of UNLV in the Thomas & Mack Center. Sean Kilpatrick and Cashmere Wright look like they might be the best back court duo in the Big East outside of Louisville.
Colorado State: So the Rams are now 4-0 on the season, with wins over Big Sky favorite Montana at home and WAC contender Denver and Washington on the road. Not many teams anywhere in the country, regardless of conference affiliation, can boast three wins of that caliber. More importantly, Minnesota transfer Colton Iverson is averaging 16.5 points and 10.3 boards. Watch out, MWC.
Illinois: The Illini almost blew their impressive performance out in Maui, needing to be saved by a last-second Tyler Griffey three against Gardner-Webb, but I’ll gladly chalk that game up to jet-lag and the distraction that comes with missing holiday time with family. On the island, Illinois beat USC by 30 and, after rolling over Chaminade, beat down a Butler team that was fresh off of a blowout win over North Carolina. This looks like a different team under John Groce.
Wichita State: VCU looked terrific despite going 1-2 at the Battle 4 Atlantis, to the point that they may be the best 3-3 team that I can remember. The other loss the Rams have? To Wichita State. At home. And after the Shockers rolled through the Cancun Challenge, capped off by a win over an improved Iowa team, this looks like a group that could end up legitimately challenging Creighton in the Missouri Valley.
Alaska Anchorage: For the seventh time in the history of the program, UAA finished in fourth-place at the Great Alaska shootout. How did they manage that? By beating both UC-Riverside and Loyola Marymount. The win over UCR isn’t a major surprise, but LMU is one of the better teams in the WCC with one of the best point guards on the west coast in Anthony Ireland. Impressive work from the Seawolves.
NEW YORK — It was after he finished watching South Carolina cut down the Madison Square Garden nets, after he had spent the better part of 30 minutes giving interviews on the court, after he was spotted by the CBS cameras, with a fist raised and tears pooling under his eyes, that the enormity of what he had just witnessed hit Darius Rucker.
“Gosh,” he said to everyone and no one in particular as he left the arena floor and made his way through the bowels of the Garden, “I can’t believe that just happened.”
The ‘that’ that Rucker, South Carolina’s most famous and, quite possibly, biggest fan, was referring to was a 77-70, come-from behind win over No. 4 seed Florida that jettisoned the seventh-seeded Gamecocks through the Elite 8 and into the Final Four. Prior to this season, the Gamecocks hadn’t been to the NCAA tournament in 13 years. They had been to four NCAA tournaments in the previous 43 seasons, and they had never won back-to-back tournament game.
As in not ever.
“We’re in the Garden, watching the Gamecocks play to go to the Final Four,” Rucker said. “If you’d have told me that ten years ago I’d have told you that you were on crack.”
That’s the program that Frank Martin inherited in 2012, when he left Kansas State following a falling out with his athletic director, John Currie. Like South Carolina, Kansas State was hardly considered a destination job when Martin was at the helm, but he was able to build off of a foundation created by Bob Huggins. Martin had been to four NCAA tournaments in five years with Kansas State when he made the decision to leave. Nothing is more important to Martin than loyalty. “He’s always had a core group of people that he’s counted on,” his agent, Bret Just, said, and Currie was not one of those people.
The straw that broke the camel’s back came during the 2012 NCAA tournament. Kansas State was a No. 8 seed, squaring off with No. 1 seed Syracuse when Martin was informed by Currie that Jamar Samuels, one of his best players, would not be allowed to suit up. The school had stumbled upon information that Samuels had received a wire transfer for $200 from his AAU coach, and he was going to be suspended.
And that was that.
Martin was off to South Carolina.
“It was a situation where we had to go,” associate head coach Matt Figger, who has been with Martin for the last decade, said, and it wasn’t exactly the easiest or smartest decision to leave. Most understood why Martin had to make the change that he made — he was offered a hefty raise and he had the chance to leave a place of employment where he did not get along with his boss — but it wasn’t as if Martin was climbing the ladder. If anything, South Carolina was a step backwards, as Martin took over a program with less pedigree and with a significant building job in front of them.
“I didn’t really know until I got into it. It was a much different deal. It looked easier on the surface than what it really was,” Figger said. “The best players transferred. Bruce Ellington, he’s with the 49ers now, he was the one guy that we could trust and he played football half the year. Couple of the guys that were the holdovers, I don’t think they believed in what our vision was. After a year, some of them left.”
“We had to start this from scratch.”
The process was slow in the early stages. Martin replaced Darrin Horn, who had won just 10 games and finished dead last in the SEC in his final season on campus, and didn’t post a .500 record until his third season in Columbia. Even then, that team went just 17-16. He won 15 SEC games in his first three years combined. After a late season swoon cost South Carolina a shot at the 2016 NCAA tournament, there was speculation that another year without a trip to the Big Dance could spell the end of Martin’s time with the Gamecocks.
“It was hard!” Martin’s wife, Anya, said. “You see he’s losing his hair. It’s all turning white. It was tough in the beginning. I had to ask him a couple of times, ‘Why here?’”
The easy answer is that it wasn’t Kansas State, but the truth is more complicated than that.
Martin is not a man that is afraid of a challenge. He’s not intimidated by a job that isn’t easy to do, not when you come from where he’s come from, when you’ve coached on the path that he has coached.
Martin got his first job when he was 12 years old, working at a Dairy Queen to help his mom pay the bills when his dad walked out on them. His coaching career started a year after he graduated high school, when he was just 19 years old.
“I tore my ACL the year before,” Martin said, “and my high school coach asked me to come help him, because the kids in the neighborhood respected me so much.”
He was nothing more than an assistant with the team at Miami Senior High School, helping out when and where he could, when the head coach of the JV team didn’t show up for work one day. Shakey Rodriguez, a legend in the Miami High School basketball community, told Martin he would be coaching that day, and he hasn’t looked back since.
“By his second season,” Martin’s mother, Lourdes, beaming as she held back tears of joy, said, “he was 22-0.”
Even as Martin was coaching, he was still working on the side, most famously as a bouncer in Miami’s nightclub scene. He needed a degree, so he took night classes at Miami-Dade College before enrolling part-time at FIU. His future was capped if he didn’t graduate.
“He made it out,” she added, holding on to her grandson to steady herself as the moment washed over her. “He had many, many jobs, and then God was up there and blessed him.”
Martin would go from the high school ranks to Northeastern, taking a paycut just to get his foot in the door. He spent four years as an assistant and met his wife — “My wife turned me down seven times to go out on a date,” he said. “Seven. Seven. And the day she made the mistake of going out on a date with me, I never let her go.” — before moving on to Cincinnati, where he joined forces with Bob Huggins, spending two seasons with the Bearcats before following Huggins to Kansas State. He replaced Huggins as Kansas State’s head coach a year after joining the program and just seven years after he joined the collegiate coaching ranks. He would take the Wildcats to more NCAA tournaments in his five seasons at the helm than they had been to in the previous two decades combined.
“Frank’s never steered away from a challenge as long as I’ve known him,” Anya said. “He’s overcome any obstacle in his way, just ‘I’m going to make it work.'”
“He’s a builder,” Just said.
And he’s done just that at South Carolina.
“I’m happy as any mom could be,” Lourdes said. “Speechless, but not all the way. I have to talk to him about my air ticket.”
Martin spoke many times about the dream of leading this team to this moment, but he didn’t always believe that the dream of taking the Gamecocks to the Final Four was a realistic possibility.
“When we beat Duke, Frank said ‘Why not us?’” Figgers said, a motto that had become something of a rallying cry for the Gamecocks during the East Regional. “That’s the first time we really talked about [winning a title].”
The team and the coaching staff weren’t the only ones that never really gave this possibility much thought. College basketball at large — the fans, the media, opposing coaches — all had the same thought: “South Carolina in the Final Four? The same team that put up 86 points in four overtimes against Alabama? Lulz.”
They showed us.
Over and over again.
South Carolina’s star guard Sindarius Thornwell, who was named Most Outstanding Player in the East Region, mentioned in every press conference this weekend that no one paid attention to or respected the program prior to this run. Martin ranted earlier this year about the lack of local media coverage his team gets, particularly when they play on the road.
At this point in the season, most players get burned out of the media attention they get, answering the same questions over and over and over again.
I don’t blame them.
On Sunday evening, after spending 25 minutes up on the dais for a postgame press conference, Thornwell was finally en route back to the locker room to celebrate with his team when he was pulled aside by a television reporter that needed just a couple more minutes of his time.
Thornwell, decked out in a East Regional Champs shirt and hat with the remnants of a net dangling around his neck, didn’t mind.
“You gotta talk a lot,” Thornwell said, “when you win.”
Drake hires Furman’s Niko Medved to be new head coach
The 43-year-old Medved has led the Paladins to back-to-back CIT appearances as he’s been the head coach there for four seasons. Also an assistant coach at Minnesota and Colorado State, Medved is a noted recruiter.
“I am ecstatic about the opportunity to be the next men’s basketball coach at Drake University,” Medved said in the release. “Drake University’s tremendous reputation partnered with its strong leadership and the thriving Des Moines community make this a special place. I was born and raised in the Midwest and have so many strong roots in this part of the country. My family and I can’t wait to get started.”
Medved was named the Southern Conference’s 2017 Coach of the Year for helping lead Furman to the regular-season title in the league.
The Bulldogs are coming off a last-place finish in the Missouri Valley Conference as former head coach Ray Giacoletti was relieved of his duties in January. Drake only has one NCAA Tournament appearance since 1971 (coming in 2008) as the Bulldogs have struggled to remain relevant in a tough league.
VIDEO: North Carolina and Roy Williams dance in locker room after advancing to Final Four
North Carolina and Kentucky ended in legendary fashion on Sunday.
After freshman Malik Monk buried a heavily-contested three-pointer to tie the game at 73-all for Kentucky with under 10 seconds left the Tar Heels didn’t use a timeout as Theo Pinson found forward Luke Maye for the game-winning jumper.
These 10 seconds will go down as one of the greatest finishes in NCAA Tournament history.