Ten crazy things to expect from March Madness

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All of sports are somewhat unpredictable. If they weren’t, nobody would watch. And most certainly nobody would fill out brackets if the outcome were that easy to determine. Athletes would play sports just to – ugh – stay healthy, and there would be no need for competitive fire or excellence.

So why is March singled out for the sobriquet “Madness”? Let me count the ways.

1. The three-pointers will fall: The three-pointer has become the great equalizer that makes even the lowliest team incredibly dangerous. Can’t entice a 7-foot behemoth to play at a small agricultural college in the sticks? No problem. Get three or four small, quick guys and let them bomb away. Example: Ali Farokhmanesh and Northern Iowa gunned down top seed Kansas in 2010, earning a Sweet 16 berth.

2. Players will forget the rules of basketball: This happens so often in college hoops that it drives NBA fans crazy. In the heat of the moment, 17-22 year olds make mistakes, often drastic mistakes, like shooting an off-balance three-pointer when an easy inside two-pointer would have tied the game. It’s really more situational awareness than ignorance of the rules, but it’s definitely the sort of thing that makes us potato-chip eating spectators shout invective from the couch. The most famous example is Chris Webber calling a timeout Michigan did not have in a 1993 title-game loss to North Carolina.

3. Referees will forget the rules of basketball: Again, nobody’s literally forgetting the rules, but we’ve all seen violations called unevenly. It’s bound to happen again this year. The calls most fraught with danger for a ref are blocking and charging, in which a high-speed collision between two players must be assessed as a foul for one team or the other. Excessive touch-fouls (light contact that is technically a foul, but slows the game down and effects the outcome disproportionately), lane violations and figuring out whether a defensive player made a clean block or committed a goal-tending violation are also matters of national outrage at this time of year.

4. Full-court pressure will cause chaos: If you’re an old-ish guy like me, this brings to mind the “Forty Minutes of Hell” deployed by Nolan Richardson’s Arkansas teams of the 90s. UNLV also tended to play this way in the Tarkanian years. These days, the finest example is practiced by Shaka Smart’s VCU Rams, who rode “Havoc” all the way to the Final Four a couple of years ago, and are a threat to do so again. When the press is on, it’s bewildering to opponents and exciting to watch.

5. Crazy players will light up the screen: Colorful characters can be hard to come by in college hoops. Coaches tend to tamp down the outrageous antics, but some guys are just irrepressible. This year, the guy you need to watch is Marshall Henderson, who absolutely loves being on television, and has become an internet star for trolling opposing fan bases with abandon. Most recently, he did a smarty-pants version of the Gator Chomp in the waning moments of the SEC title game. We may have to rename 2013 “Marsh Madness” if Henderson takes his team on a run.

6. Colorful coaches will say stuff they probably shouldn’t: Only in sports are grown men allowed – nay, encouraged – to act like toddlers. NCAA coaches will stomp, scream, swear and even get physical as the tension ratchets up. And that’s just during the game. Some coaches make headlines by showing off during organized practice sessions, or sounding off from the podium afterward. Quotable coaches abound in this field of 68, with Marquette’s Buzz Williams joining legends like Tom Izzo, Roy Williams, Rick Pitino and Bill Self. Heck, even nice guy Tom Crean might give someone a talking-to when he gets his dander up.

7. Games will end on thrilling defensive plays: We talk so much about the buzzer-beaters, which gives short shrift to the guys who put in the extra effort to snuff them out. Think Hakim Warrick laying out and just getting his fingertips on a three-point try to preserve Syracuse’s lone national title in 2003.

photo courtesy Middle Tennessee State Spirit Teams

8. Mascots will amuse and baffle you: You’ve probably seen the likes of Sparty, Albert E. Gator, and Willie the Wildcat. They’re on constant display during football season. The inclusiveness of the NCAA tournament brings some lesser-known doozies into the public eye. The St. Louis Billiken may frighten children. Wichita State’s Wushock is the meanest bundle of wheat I’ve ever seen. Here, there be Jackrabbits. The pinnacle, though, is Lightning (pictured): the Middle Tennessee State mascot is a blue Pegasus who shoots thunderbolts out of his nose. Top that.

9. Student sections will cut up: Some kids take spring break in Florida, California or South Texas. Others combine the unofficial college holiday with college basketball, with all that entails. Student sections are somewhat corralled in neutral venues, but often, they’re the only thing keeping the whole shebang from becoming a bloodless corporate sponsorship opportunity. Laugh at their chants, signs and attempts to get on television. Relish them.

10. A mystery player will make a star turn: Many, many players are well-kept secrets, known only to college-hoops obsessives like the staff of CollegeBasketballTalk. We get to play the hipster role (“I noticed him when nobody knew who he was”) when those guys get to the tourney and dazzle. Last year, Damian Lillard was socked away at Weber State – now he’s a Rookie of the Year candidate in the NBA. This year, we’ve got our eyes on the likes of Mike Muscala (Bucknell), Nate Wolters (South Dakota State) and Jamaal Franklin (San Diego State). And there may be others lurking, just waiting to show us what we’ve been missing.

Eric Angevine is the editor of Storming the Floor. He tweets @stfhoops.

Bill Self’s least impressive Kansas team is 40 minutes away from the Final Four

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OMAHA, Neb. — Kansas is vulnerable, exploitable and limited. The Jayhawks have no depth, are without a superstar and possess a middling defense.

They are Bill Self’s worst team.

And they have won the Big 12 regular season and tournament titles, secured a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament and are a win away from the Final Four.

The Jayhawks shrugged off some late sluggishness to dispatch No. 5 Clemson 80-76 on Friday night in the Midwest Regional semifinal at CenturyLink Center to put themselves in the Elite Eight for the third-consecutive year with a date with Duke on Sunday.

This year has often been about what this Kansas team couldn’t do after the losses of Frank Mason and Josh Jackson and then the ineligibility of Billy Preston. Early-season losses to Washington and Arizona State, the latter at the usually impregnable Allen Fieldhouse, were the proof this Kansas team might finally be the one not to win a Big 12 title. Then Texas Tech beat the hell out of them in Lawrence and it looked like the streak was on its way to over.

Devonte Graham was a poor imitation of Mason.  Svi Mykhailiuk was too timid and inconsistent. Udoka Azubuike was foul-prone and unproven. The supporting cast was a rung or two lower than a team with national-championship aspirations could carry.

Those problems are real. Those issues are troublesome. Those deficiencies are critical.

In spite of it all, Kansas won the Big 12 by two games, ripped through the conference tournament and are on the doorstep of playing for a national championship.

Bill Self’s worst team has a chance to be the country’s best.

“I’m so proud of our team because I think of all the teams that we’ve had here, this would be the team that everyone would have thought would not be in this game,” Self said Friday. “And so, hey, we’re in this game. We’ve got a legitimate shot to go to San Antonio.

“You prepare the whole year to play in this game. So I think we’ll play with no what-ifs. I think we’ll let it go. I think we’ll be as loose as we can be and still you’ve got to make shots.

“I’d like nothing more than to take my team this year to San Antonio and let them experience what the best of the best is in college basketball.”

The key to Kansas’ season has been embracing its shortcomings. Azubuike is the only big they’ve got that can give them both scoring and defense consistently. It’s a 180 for a program that’s featured Thomas Robinson, Cole Aldrich, the Morris Twins and Jeff Withey. Kansas almost always plays through its bigs. This year, they’re playing around one.

“I never played like this,” Self said. “It just goes against the grain from the teams that we’ve had in the past, but these guys have figured it out. They’ve learned how to play through it, and we’ve had unbelievable guard play and unbelievable leadership from our vets, and had some guys have some outstanding seasons.

“There’s less margin for error but these guys have certainly rallied around that.”

Kansas’ shooting is why they’re in the Elite Eight. The Jayhawks are 10th nationally with a 40.5 3-point shooting percentage. It’s Azubuiike, though, that makes so many of those good looks possible. The man makes 77.5 percent of his shots from the floor. That demands defensive attention. And that means defenders aren’t shadowing shooters.

“He’s a guy we can throw the ball into and he can go get a basket,” Malik Newman, who had a team-high 17 points Friday, said. “I think his passing is underrated. That’s another big key for him. When we’re able to throw it in and the defense collapses on him, he is able to kick it out and find an open shooter.

“It just opens up the whole game for us.”

It’s opened up a whole world of possibility for Kansas and a world of hurt for their opponents.

“Most teams have somebody that you can kind of scratch off,” Clemson coach Brad Brownell mused. “So one of the reasons they’re so hard to guard is they’ve got a center that scores if he catches it deep, and he’s bigger than everybody on the floor so he does get position. And then you’ve got guards that can all make shots and drive by you and they play with great spacing.”

Now, Kansas isn’t full of slouches. Graham was the Big 12 player of the year, Azubuike’s talent was apparent even if it was raw before injury robbed him of a freshman year. Mykhailiuk is all-Big 12 while Malik Newman and LaGerald Vick were heralded prospects. Still, there’s not a lottery pick among them. No Andrew Wiggins or Ben McLemore or Josh Jackson. The fit is strange and the depth is zilch.

All that has eroded Kansas’ wiggle room for mistakes, but when they operate within their comfort zone, it can make for great offense. The first two minutes of the second half when the Jayhawks hit back-to-back 3s was a thing of beauty, ball movement and shot making. It was the blueprint for a buzzsaw.

Maybe Self’s worst team is pretty damn good.

Keenan Evans closes strong (again) as Texas Tech advances past Purdue to Elite Eight

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BOSTON — Second Half Keenan struck again on Friday night.

Keenan Evans scored 12 of his 16 points and handed out three of his four assists in the final 10 minutes of the game as No. 3-seed Texas Tech held off No. 2-seed Purdue, 78-65. Zach Smith and Justin Gray paced Tech early, combining for 26 points that helped the Red Raiders build a lead that reached as high as nine before Evans went into takeover mode. Zhaire Smith added 13 points of his own, while the Red Raiders forced 17 Purdue turnovers.

And with that, Texas Tech will to advance past the Sweet 16 for the first time since … ever.

This is uncharted territory for for the Red Raider program that has never been to an Elite Eight and will be playing for their first-ever trip to the Final Four.

“To build a program there has to be a lot of firsts so myself and Keenan have only been together for two years, so we’ve never been to the Elite Eight in two years,” Beard said. “That’s more accurate.”

It’s also fitting, really.

Because it more or less sums up what makes this Texas Tech program so interesting.

On a night where their three-leading scorers never really got going, the Red Raiders advanced on the stretch of two things: Their defense, and the fact that they can stay in a game on the nights when their best players don’t play their best.

With just over 10 minutes left in the game, when Purdue was getting ready to make one final run at advancing to the Elite Eight, is when Evans took over. And there’s no question about it: He closed out this game. Everything that the Red Raiders got on the offensive end of the floor came through Evans down the stretch, even the stuff that doesn’t show up in the score book; for example, the Red Raiders executed a pick-and-roll to perfection with three minutes left, but the lob that Evans threw to Zach Smith ended up as a missed dunk that Zhaire Smith was able to put right back in. Evans doesn’t get the assist, but he made that bucket possible.

I saw all that to say this: With 10 minutes left, the three leading scorers in the Tech program — Evans, Zhaire Smith and Jarrett Culver — were a combined 4-for-16 from the floor with just 11 points.

And Texas Tech held a 50-41 lead. If Evans is Texas Tech’s closer, this was a save that he earned with a three-run lead.

“It’s our identity,” Beard said. “We have a lot of faith in our whole roster, we use a lot of different guys and tonight was fitting. That is the way we have played all year.”

If that doesn’t sum up Chris Beard’s program, I don’t know what does.

No. 2 Duke goes inside to defeat No. 11 Syracuse

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OMAHA, Neb. — Second-seeded Duke made just 5 of its 26 3-point attempts against No. 11 Syracuse on Friday in the two ACC programs’ Sweet 16 matchup.

So the Blue Devils just went inside.

Marvin Bagley III and Wendel Carter, Jr. both had big games to help the Blue Devils outlast the Orange, 69-65, to put themselves in the Elite Eight on Sunday against top-seeded Kansas.

“This was a heck of a game,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “I thought both teams played their hearts out. A great game to win, a really difficult game to lose, because Syracuse played such winning basketball.”

While Duke couldn’t beat the zone that took Syracuse from the First Four to the second weekend with its outside shooting, its two big underclassmen provided plenty of production. Bagley had 22 points and eight rebounds while Carter added 14 points and 12 boards.

“It was a hard fought game. We knew they were going to compete every second of the game,” Bagley said, “and we just tried to compete as well. We had a little point in the game where we started turning it over, and things weren’t going our way, but we stayed tough mentally and we finished it out.”

Bagley was on the receiving end of a number of lobs behind the Syracuse zone that helped the Duke offense stay out in front.

“We practiced it all week,” Bagley said. “We try to look for different things and different ways to score against that zone, and we did a great job at that and got the win.”

Tyus Battle had 19 points to lead the Orange. Oshae Brissett added 15 points and seven boards while Marek Dolezaj had 13 points.

Syracuse shot 53.8 percent from the floor in the second half while Duke shot 36.4 percent (and 11.1 percent from distance), but it wasn’t enough to overcome the Orange’s 16 turnovers or Duke’s 17 second-chance points.

Grayson Allen had 15 points and eight assists for Duke. The Blue Devils had 32 points in the paint.

Duke will now turn its attention to the Jayhawks, who defeated Clemson earlier Friday to make it to their third-straight Elite Eight. The game will tipoff Sunday at 5:05 p.m. (ET).

“We just got to come out ready to play from the beginning,” Bagley said. “We were kind of slacking in this game. I think we’ll be ready for that game. Everybody’s going to be up. We should be coming out strong.”

VIDEO: Allen-to-Bagley oop beats the Syracuse zone

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Usually, you’ve got to shoot a team out of a zone.

Duke might be able to dunk Syracuse out of it.

Grayson Allen and Marvin Bagley connected for a beautiful alley-oop Friday in the second half of the Blue Devils’ Sweet 16 contest against the Orange.

That will work as a zone-buster.

VIDEO: Duke slaps the floor on defense…while playing zone

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Slapping the floor on defense has its advocates and its detractors.

Some applaud the old-school, hard-nosed nature of putting hand to floor. For others, its a bit corny.

What everyone agrees on is that you don’t drop a floor slap if you’re playing zone.

Unless you’re Duke, apparently.

Presumably, the whole point of slapping the floor is to psyche yourself and intimidate your opponent with aggressive man-to-man defense. Not sit-back-and-guard-this-spot-whether-there’s-a-guy-there-or-not defense.

C’mon, Duke. You’re making it too easy for your haters.