The college basketball season comes to a close tonight as Louisville and Michigan square off at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. In case you’ve been living under a rock — or on the off chance you took the demise of your bracket too hard — here are the storylines you need to know.
Kevin Ware: Louisville’s sophomore guard suffered a gruesome broken leg during the Elite 8 against Duke, bad enough that his bone was protruding through his skin. But after telling his teammates not to worry about him and to just win the game, they did.
And then they rallied to beat Wichita State.
And now here they are, in the national title game.
And Luke Hancock, too: Hancock’s story is just as good as Ware’s, to be honest. Hancock, a George Mason transfer, was named captain of the Cardinals before he even played a game. He was the first player by Ware’s side when he suffered the injury. He made all the big plays down the stretch during the comeback against the Shockers. And he did it all in front of his terminally ill father.
Mitch McGary’s emergence: McGary was inconsistent throughout his freshman season, but in the five games of this NCAA tournament, the Michigan power forward turned into a potential lottery pick. How? By averaging 16.0 points and 11.6 boards. He also handed out six assists in their win over Syracuse on Saturday. Right now, he’s the front runner for NCAA tournament MOP.
The Unicyclist: Mitch McGary, all 6-foot-10, 255 pounds of him, can ride a unicycle. Seriously.
John Beilein vs. Rick Pitino: You’d be hard-pressed to find two coaches whose career-paths have differed as much as Pitino (who has Louisville in the Final Four for the third time since 2005) and Beilein’s have (who’s in his first Final Four). But they’re both here, and they both have the talent to win. I’d go deeper into this, but there’s a reason that Joe Posnanski gets all the good writing assignments. It’s because he’s the best.
What if Pitino never went to the NBA?: If he had never coached the Knicks and never coached the Celtics, would he be the best coach in the history of college basketball? At the very least, there’s an argument to make there. (Also, he just got elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame. So he’s not exactly hurting for honors.)
Trey Burke, Player of the Year: Over the last couple of days, Michigan’s sophomore point guard has won every one of the major Player of the Year awards. That’s good. That means that people were paying attention to me. But outside of a three minute stretch against Kansas, Burke has not played all that well during the tournament. In fact, I think that McGary is far and away the most valuable Wolverine to day.
Can he handle Russ Smith and Peyton Siva?: The biggest reason this matchup is so intriguing is because we’ll get to watch Burke, the nation’s best player, go up against Smith (pictured below) and Siva, the nation’s best backcourt. The only person on the court faster than Siva is Smith. So good luck to Burke.
Xavier, the No. 11 seed in the West region, needed a few break to go its way in order to stay with top-seeded Gonzaga in the first half of the Elite Eight matchup from San Jose on Saturday evening.
Just before halftime, the Musketeers got the ball to bounce their way. Literally. Gonzaga’s Johnathan Williams and Xavier’s RaShid Gaston battled for a rebound. Williams inadvertently spiked the ball off the basket, off himself and off the backboard for a two-board bucket for Xavier.
The bucket was awarded to Gaston. It was two of Gaston’s five first half points.
Less than 30 seconds later, J.P. Macura tried to top Gaston’s unlikely field goal with a bank shot of his own. Following a bucket from Nigel Williams-Goss, Macura heaved a three-quarters court at the buzzer. However, after reviewing the play, it was waved off.
NEW YORK — Frank Martin is at South Carolina for one reason: He and his boss did not get along when he was at Kansas State.
There were other factors at play — South Carolina had an opening, he was offered a raise, he is back on the East Coast — but at the end of the day, Frank Martin is probably still coaching in Manhattan, Kansas, if his athletic director hadn’t forced him to hold star forward Jamar Samuels out of a second round NCAA tournament game against No. 1 seed Syracuse in 2012 after accepting a wire transfer of $200 from his former AAU coach.
“Please don’t ask me any questions on it,” Martin said after the game, his displeasure over the decision hidden about as well as Gregg Popovich hides his disdain for sideline reporters. “Because I had nothing to do with the decision. Any questions pertaining to this matter, please direct to John Currie, my boss.”
Why else would Martin, who had been to four NCAA tournaments and an Elite 8 in five years as the head coach of the Wildcats, jump ship for a program that had been to four NCAA tournaments since 1974 and had never won back-to-back NCAA tournament games? When the Gamecocks hired Martin, they were coming off a 10-win season where they finished dead last in the SEC.
It wasn’t exactly a destination job when Martin took over.
And Mike White may have had it worse at Florida.
Regardless of the sport, the hardest thing to do in coaching is to be the guy that replaces The Guy. Billy Donovan, with his two national titles and four Final Fours and ten total SEC championships, was unequivocally The Guy. Those are the shoes that White, who had never been coached an NCAA tournament game until he squared off with East Tennessee State on March 16th of this year, had to fill.
On Sunday night, in the unlikeliest region of this NCAA tournament, one of those two men will rise to the pinnacle of their profession, winning their way to the Final Four, a place not everyone thought was a possible when they signed their contracts.
If Frank Martin didn’t win this season, if he had missed the NCAA tournament for the fifth consecutive season after taking over in Columbia, it would have been time for us to start wondering just how long he was going to last.
He didn’t save his job by winning 25 games and earning a No. 7 seed on Selection Sunday, but he certainly kept himself from having to answer some tough questions heading into next season. Going five years without a tournament appearance at a Power 5 school is not the best way to earn a contract extension, even at a school like South Carolina, which doesn’t exactly have much in the way of basketball tradition.
“I dreamt of South Carolina being in this moment,” Martin said. “But I don’t go about my job every day acting like we’re getting there right now, this is the day, this is the year.”
The difference now is that this may actually be the year for the Gamecocks, but it certainly didn’t look that way a month ago, when, as Martin puts it, “we slipped a little bit.” It started with a four-overtime home loss to Alabama where the Gamecocks mustered all of 86 points. They would go on to lose three of their next four games and entered the NCAA tournament having lost six of their last nine games, their offensive efficiency dipping into the 150s on KenPom.
Put another way, South Carolina didn’t have the look of a team that was getting ready to take the college basketball world by storm.
They had the look, frankly, of every SEC basketball program not named Kentucky or Florida: Good enough to make noise in their league but not good enough to put together a run in a tournament featuring the best basketball programs in the sport. That characterization of #SECBasketballFever may not be fair, but it’s the truth. There’s a reason everyone is surprised by the presence of three SEC programs in the Elite 8, that the league is one win from Kentucky away from fielding half of the Final Four, and it’s not because the conference has made a habit of outperforming their already-middling expectations.
Florida, however, doesn’t fall into that same category, and that’s part of the reason that White was is such a difficult spot when he took the job over. The Gators have won national titles. They were in the Final Four in 2014; senior point guard Kasey Hill played in that game. They expect to win in Gainesville, even if they only pay attention to those wins once football season comes to a close, and Donovan is the one to thank for that.
“I always said ‘poor guy,'” Martin joked. “Whoever replaces Billy. Oh my God, poor guy.”
To his credit, White says that he hasn’t thought about the bigger picture, what it means to be replacing a future Hall of Famer, what it means to be able to maintain the success of a program with annual Final Four aspirations. The job is the job, whether you’re replacing a guy that got fired or a guy that left to coach Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.
He does, however, concede that the job wasn’t quite as easy as it may seem from the outside. Before he was even introduced as Florida head coach, White got Donovan on the phone to talk about the team that was about to be his, and Donovan told him precisely what he was going to be dealing with.
“I inherited a group that struggled under a Hall of Famer, that Coach Donovan struggled with,” White said, “and told me that I would struggle with, in terms of some entitlement and some immaturity.”
“They have come a long way. We have developed, our guys have developed, they have really matured. Some of it is natural, some of it is just natural maturity because sophomores are juniors now and juniors are seniors. … And then some of it is a little bit abnormal.”
“Mike’s been unreal,” Martin said. “He’s got those guys playing through his eyes. That’s powerful stuff.”
The result is that just two years into his tenure with the Gators and in the first NCAA tournament that he’s ever been a part of, White has a chance to get to his first Final Four.
Just like Martin.
And on Sunday, one of them will be headed for Phoenix.
Indiana is expected to hire Dayton head coach Archie Miller, the school announced.
The deal will be for seven years, according to The Vertical. Miller had spent the last six seasons as the head coach at Dayton, getting to four straight NCAA tournaments, including the Elite 8 in 2014, while winning the last two Atlantic 10 regular season titles.
Miller had been targeted by seemingly every high major program with an opening since he reached the Elite 8, but similar to Shaka Smart when he left VCU, Miller simply waited for the right job to come long.
Indiana is the right job.
There had been some speculation that Miller wouldn’t want to take Indiana, that his dream job is Ohio State and that the idea of coaching in a fishbowl like Bloomington is not something that would be all that appealing to him. But Indiana is an elite job. It’s the kind of opening that happens once every four or five years, and if Miller had said no to the Hoosiers now, it’s very possible that an opportunity like this wouldn’t come along for years, if ever.
This hire is surprising, not because it’s the wrong hire — I think they got this right — but because Indiana actually made the right decision.
The overwhelming sentiment since Tom Crean was fired was that UCLA head coach Steve Alford would be named the next head coach at Indiana because the Hoosiers wanted an “Indiana Guy”. Alford was born in New Castle, he played at IU for Bobby Knight, he won a national title with the program. The goal was to get the Indiana fan base back, a fan base that was so estranged from the program that Indiana had to play an NIT game on the road as a higher seed because they were reportedly afraid of allowing ESPN’s cameras to see the empty seats.
But just because a hire appeases the fans doesn’t make it the right hire.
Miller was the right hire.
If they really want to get the fans back, winning is the best way to do it. Archie is as good of a bet to win at Indiana as anyone.
Elite 8 Preview: Saturday’s picks, predictions, betting lines and channels
And all that came after De’Aaron Fox took out what felt like a season’s worth of frustration out on Lonzo Ball.
What is on tap for tonight?
No. 1 GONZAGA (-8) vs. No. 11 XAVIER, 6:09 p.m., TBS: Someone is going to be making their way to the Final Four for the first time on Saturday night, as Xavier’s Chris Mack and Gonzaga’s Mark Few square off for the right to play on the final weekend of the season.
And in a way, this is the perfect Final Four game. Both the Zags and the Musketeers are basketball schools in basketball leagues. They come from outside the power structure and have head coaches that have spurned jobs from within the power structure to remain there. They are built for a run like this, even if they were both overlooked on the way here.
Xavier was obvious. Playing without Edmond Sumner and Myles Davis, the Musketeers just haven’t been the team that they were supposed to be this season. That’s why they lost six straight games in February, but things have turned around in March, as Trevon Bluiett has put the program on his back and willed them to the Elite 8. Gonzaga is the opposite. They went 29-0 to start the season, but they have yet to be accepted as a legitimate title contender by most of the people that watch the games.
My guess on Saturday night is that the Zags make their statement and emphatically get into the Final Four.
PREDICTION: Gonzaga (-8)
No. 1 KANSAS (-7) vs. No. 3 OREGON, 8:49 p.m., TBS: This matchup is a lot tastier on paper than it is likely going to end up being on the floor. As good as Oregon has been this season, they are, essentially, Kansas light. They play two lead guards together and they play small-ball, with a natural wing lined up at the four.
The Kansas guys are just better. Josh Jackson is a better player than Dillon Brooks. His length and athleticism should give the Oregon star fits. Frank Mason III and Devonte’ Graham are better than whatever combination of Payton Pritchard, Tyler Dorsey and Dylan Ennis the Ducks opt to use.
And, for that matter, no team is playing better right now that they Jayhawks, who beat Michigan State by 20, Purdue by 32 and became the first team to score 90 points in their first three NCAA tournament games since 1995. I think that trend continues on Saturday night.
PREDICTION: Kansas (-7)
Sunday’s NCAA Tournament Elite Eight schedule, tip times, and announcer pairings