2017 NCAA Tournament

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After Monday’s unwatchable title game the NCAA should make one simple change

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GLENDALE, Ariz. — This year’s national semifinals were the second most watched Final Four of the last 12 years. Overall interest in college basketball was up significantly during the NCAA tournament this season as the nation eagerly anticipated Monday’s national championship game between No. 1 seeds Gonzaga and North Carolina.

But even though the Zags and Tar Heels played a back-and-forth game that was pretty close throughout, with North Carolina winning the title with a 71-65 victory, basketball wasn’t the main discussion surrounding the game.

It was the officiating and how brutal the game was to watch.

Combining the nerves of a title game, the matchup of two teams that like to throw a lot of weight around on the interior and an overzealous officiating crew that was quick to blow whistles for touch fouls and it made for a near disaster.

Much of the second half, in particular, was completely unwatchable despite the close score.

Of the night’s 43 fouls, 26 of them came in the second half. Both teams were in the bonus with 14 minutes left. Foul trouble plagued big men on both teams as neither side could establish any kind of rhythm offensively. With seven minutes left, the two teams had combined to shoot 11-for-42 from the field in the second half.

And the national championship game, college basketball’s biggest showcase game, became a free-throw contest.

America should have been talking about two of the best teams in the country — a fun clash of a new-school upstart against an old-school powerhouse. Instead they complained about the horrible calls and how awful the play was on the floor. The national title game usually leads to a lot of casual NBA fans tuning in and complaining about college basketball. Those people had every right to lob grenades at college hoops after Monday night’s miserable outcome.

Games like this aren’t going to keep fans coming back for more. Monday’s game showed exactly why college basketball needs to make serious changes to move the game into modern times.

Changes need to be looked at when it comes to the referees but there isn’t a simple solution that can magically fix things overnight. Overhauling the officiating of college basketball would be incredibly difficult and time consuming. It just isn’t the type of thing that is fixed by snapping your fingers.

There is, however, a simple solution that the NCAA should use to enhance the quality of play and watchability for next season.

It’s time that the NCAA seriously examines implementing the experimental rule that they used in this season’s Postseason NIT that resets team fouls at the 10-minute mark of each half.

Moving to four quarters instead of two halves would seem like a natural play for college basketball since the NBA and the international game already abide by that common set of rules. There are also a lot of purists who don’t want college hoops to have an identical, four-quarter structure to the NBA.

The compromise is to keep 20-minute halves while still resetting team fouls during the middle of each half.

In the experimental NIT format, teams shot two free throws after a four-foul limit was reached during each 10-minute segment. Team fouls then were reset for each team when the clock hit the 9:59 mark of each half.

Resetting team fouls isn’t going to stop bad calls from happening. It’s not going to prevent basketball players from making silly mistakes and committing dumb fouls. But it takes the game out of the hands of referees and prevents people from watching 10-plus minutes of bonus basketball. Nobody wants to watch a free-throw fest.

But it happens way too often with the way the modern college basketball is being officiated. Watch a physical, pressing team like West Virginia play and you might be in for a game that is loaded with free throws that lasts closer to three hours instead of two. When two interior-oriented teams with multiple big men like Gonzaga and North Carolina go to battle it often ends in a similar fate like we saw on Monday night.

The Gonzaga and North Carolina game wasn’t some strange outlier where the basketball was randomly bad. This sort of unwatchable game happens way too often throughout the course of the season when there is minimal game flow and it becomes a parade of free throws.

As the NCAA strives for more freedom of movement for off-the-ball players while emphasizing certain touch fouls, it leads to some long and miserable games if a certain style of play might be involved. And one of the best parts about college basketball is how many unique ways teams can play basketball and still be effective.

Attention spans are too limited now to ask people to watch games like that. Potential fans are simply going to change the channel and fixate on the hot-button political landscape or another sport that has a more consumable overall product.

Foul-riddled games that feature a lot of free throws are still going to happen regardless of when team fouls might get reset. But resetting team fouls would also be a progressive step in the right direction for a sport and a governing body, the NCAA, that is often too slow to react to things that everyone else can plainly see.

Major professional sports regularly make rule changes to enhance the quality of their product for a consumer-based audience while also improving overall game flow. It’s time for the NCAA to adopt some changes to its rule book so it can continue to increase its audience during the best sporting event of the year.

People want to watch basketball.

They’re sick of referees continuing to steal the spotlight from what really matters.

Watch: North Carolina fans rush Dean Dome floor

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The celebration wasn’t limited to Glendale. Or even Franklin Street in Chapel Hill.

No, the Dean Dome also helped house a party on the night North Carolina won the sixth national championship in program history with a triumph Monday over Gonzaga.

Given the Tar Heels are almost always favorites in this building, it’s not often subjected to a good old fashioned floor rushing.

A national championship, though, is a fitting moment to hit hardwood and appreciate the pinnacle of the sport.

WATCH: ‘One Shining Moment’ pays tribute to 2017 NCAA tournament

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Sure, the game was…less than crisply played, but by the end of it, we got the one thing that always delivers in the national championship game.

‘One Shining Moment.’

Here’s the iconic song and video to commemorate the 2017 NCAA tournament and the national champion North Carolina Tar Heels.

Midnight hike helps unite vagabond Gonzaga team

(Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
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GLENDALE, Ariz. — For Gonzaga, the road to a national title started five months ago, in the middle of the night, on a dock near a secluded lake in northern Idaho.

Five of their eight rotation players didn’t play for last season’s Sweet 16 team, and a sixth — Przemek Karnowski — played six games before undergoing back surgery to remove staph from inside a bulging disc in his back. Camping trips aren’t the norm for the Bulldogs’ preseason ritual, but head coach Mark Few and strength and conditioning coach Travis Knight figured it would be a new way for this roster to get to know each other.

So they set out on a camping trip before the season started just north of Hayden Lake at Farragut State Park.

Most of the team bonded early in the trip over their pure, unfiltered hatred of camping and the outdoors. Some players puked after eating the food on the trip. Others struggled to pitch a tent or build a fire. Hiking and dealing with nature didn’t come very naturally for some of the roster that came from major cities. It was a team-building trip. There’s no better way to build a bond with your teammates than to vent over the things your coaching staff is making you do.

After finally getting over the outdoor obstacles that come with camping, late into the night, the decision was made to hike through the pitch black Idaho wilderness because what could go wrong? There were no coaches. The group’s outdoors expert leading the trip wasn’t with them. It was just the Bulldogs and the starry night as they talked about everything they wanted to do during the 2016-17 season.

“We walked, like, two miles at night with no lights or anything. We just all walked around,” Gonzaga forward Johnathan Williams III said. “And we came to a dock. And we all just laid there and talked about what we wanted to do, what we wanted to accomplish this year. A lot of individual goals, a lot of team goals. And our team goals were to win a national championship.

“It was pitch black. They have big bears out there and stuff. We didn’t care. We were just out there walking, building relationships that will last a lifetime.”

Gonzaga’s 2016-17 roster was uniquely built because they had a lot of transfers and true freshmen coming into the equation that didn’t play for them the previous season. Besides the talented newcomers, Karnowski was also given the additional year of eligibility by the NCAA.

Guards Josh Perkins and Silas Melson returned from last season’s Sweet 16 rotation, but transfers like Williams, Nigel Williams-Goss and Jordan Mathews were talented and experienced transfers coming from power-conference programs. Then there was the addition of freshmen big men like Zach Collins and Killian Tillie — players who weren’t expecting to compete with Karnowski for minutes since his additional year of eligibility came unexpectedly.

With so many new pieces entering the roster, and heated competitions for minutes at nearly every position, Gonzaga’s staff wanted to make sure everyone was on the same page before starting the journey of a long season.

So after class on a Friday afternoon, the team drove about an hour for the trip before returning back to campus by Sunday. Team-building exercises can certainly build camaraderie, but sometimes those sentiments don’t last beyond a few days. Gonzaga has taken the principles that they learned on the trip and used it over the course of the season when they’ve faced adversity. The trip has been brought up during locker-room talks as a reminder of everything Gonzaga has been through over the past few months.

Karnowski’s journey into the wilderness was another intriguing subplot. After dealing with the horrifying ordeal involving his back the previous season, the trip to Idaho was the first time Karnowski slept away from a normal bed in a controlled environment. Sleeping on a special bed that the team brought with to make sure his back was okay in the wilderness, Karnowski made it through the trip with no issues — a positive sign for his health and the upcoming season.

Gonzaga’s players made the outdoors excursion sound much tougher than it might have actually been, but they certainly took something from the trip that has helped propel them to the best season in school history.

“It’s always easy on something like that to come out of it and be good for two days or a week,” Gonzaga assistant coach Brian Michaelson said. “But is that going to continue for a month? For two months? Throughout the season, especially when times get tough, and you have to harken back on it? And that’s what I thought was amazing with this group. They really were able to do that. And what they did on that trip has stuck with us for five months and 40 games. It’s been remarkable.”

Gonzaga has stayed together after the trip because each player on the roster was fixated on reaching this point in the season. Sacrifices needed to be made when it came to shots and minutes. Throughout the season, the Zags have made things work using different lineups and unique go-to players depending on the game. For a team full of new pieces, the Zags gelled as quickly as they could have possibly hoped.

Part of the reason is the “36 hours of hell” (as one player put it) that helped Gonzaga grow together before things really got tough during the season.

“I just think we give it all for each other. The message before the season was when we got the pieces, that we have to sacrifice a lot to get to where we want to go,” Perkins said. “I think we gave up a lot for our common goal and it paid off for us.”

The biggest criticism of Roy Williams is actually proof he’s one of college basketball’s best

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GLENDALE, Ariz. — It was a joke.

Mark Few was quite clearly kidding.

He and Roy Williams have been friends and rivals and gambling buddies for years, and even if the pair were mortal enemies, Few is not the kind of person that would sit on the dais in the one of the biggest press conferences of the year in college basketball and start firing shots at anyone, let alone the man he will be coaching against on Monday night.

But when Few was asked where there was a clear advantage for Gonzaga against North Carolina, two teams that matchup with each other almost too perfectly, his answer was simple, concise and direct: “Coaching,” he deadpanned.

The room erupted in laughter, and Williams himself would chuckle and grin when the story was recounted to him an hour later, the irony being that the general public wouldn’t get the joke.

Williams never get mentioned among the greatest coaches of all-time. He’s not on the same level as Dean Smith, or John Wooden, or Adolph Rupp, or even his Tobacco Road counterpart, Mike Krzyzewski. He’s not a great basketball mind, his critics will tell you, he’s a recruiter that wins because he gets the best players and rolls the ball out.

Only one of those statements is factual.

What makes Roy Williams great, the reason that he may very well be the greatest college basketball coach of this generation, is that he’s good enough at what he does that he can just roll the ball out and let his guys go.


(Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

All you need to do to know just how good, and just how under-appreciated, Roy Williams is as a head coach is to look at the numbers that he’s put up in his career.

He’s been to nine Final Fours. Only Wooden, Krzyzewski and Smith have been to more. Monday night will be the sixth national title game that he’s played in, and if the Tar Heels win, it will be the third national title that he’s won. Only wooden, Rupp and Krzyzewski have won more than him. He’s won eight of the last 13 ACC regular season titles; Krzyzewsi has won two in that time frame. He’s been a head coach for 29 seasons, and he’s won a regular season title — ACC, Big 12 or Big Eight — in 17 of them.

Williams has more NCAA tournament wins than anyone since 2000, and it’s really not all that close. He has 55. John Calipari has 40. Bill Self has 42. Tom Izzo has 43. It would take the Tar Heels losing on Monday and in the first round of the tournament for the next two seasons while Duke wins back-to-back national titles for Krzyzewski, who is second on that list with 44 tournament wins, to surpass him.

Williams also has the second-highest winning percentage of any active head coach, and the only guy that is ahead of him on that list is Few, who is terrific in his own right but whose numbers are inflated by playing in the talent-deficient WCC.

“You don’t do that if you can’t coach,” Sean May, who won a title with Williams before becoming a member of his coaching staff, said.

Which is why the knock on him is that he’s a recruiter, a guy that simply goes out and gets the best players, relying on their natural ability to lead him to glory, except that’s not exactly the way that this thing has worked. Williams hasn’t had a one-and-done player since 2007, and it may be hard for you to figure out who, exactly, that player is. (Brandan Wright.) Marvin Williams, who bounced after winning a title in 2005, is the only other one and done that has spent time in Chapel Hill under Williams’ watch.

“Coach always says when he was at Kansas, they said he could coach and couldn’t get elite guys,” said former Tar Heel Marcus Paige. “And now he’s at Carolina, and he can recruit, he’s just not as good of a coach.”

(Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

His bread and butter are the kids that are elite prospects but that fall just short of that one-and-done threshold, the four- and five-star kids that need a couple of years on campus before they turn into NBA-caliber prospects. Think Justin Jackson, a top 15 player that needed to develop the confidence and the strength to be able to play on the wing in the NBA. He may end up being a lottery pick once his junior year comes to an end. Brice Johnson was a four-star recruit who grew into a late-first round pick and an all-american after four years of schooling under Williams. Marcus Paige, Joel Berry II, Kennedy Meeks, Tyler Zeller, John Henson.

“He’s arguably been the best coach of the past 15 years if you go off of success,” Paige said, “instead of just media perception.”

And it’s that media perception that keeps Williams out of the conversation for being one of the very best to ever do it.

Which is silly.

Because the very thing that is used to criticize him is what makes him great.

North Carolina’s offense is fairly unique in the college ranks. They don’t run many set plays at all; players and staff estimate that about 70 percent of their half court possessions are what the Heels call ‘freelance,’ which is exactly what it sounds like: “Everybody does what they want,” Paige said.

But freelance is so much more complicated than simply showing up and playing, like walking into the Dean Dome is the same thing as picking your five, calling next and getting on the court at the park on a Saturday afternoon.

“It’s definitely not just a roll the ball out and let the guys play kind of deal,” Nate Britt said. “It’s not like we’re playing pickup.”

Freelance, typically, starts out of North Carolina’s secondary break. When the Tar Heels gain possession on the defensive end, the first thing they are going to look to do is beat their opponent down the floor, a layup or an open three before the defenses gets being the goal. This is scripted. The shooting guard sprints to the right wing. The small forward sprints to the left wing. The four-man sprints to the block, what’s called a rim-run, and Berry, who is drilled to receive the outlet with his momentum taking him up the floor, first looks to see if one of those three will be open or if he can get all the way to the rim for a layup of his own.

That’s the primary break. The secondary break offense that Williams is famous for comes out of that. Plays aren’t scripted. Every player on the floor has a read to make based off of what a teammate does. Within the system, there are actions designed to create ball-screens, or pin-downs, or post-ups, or whatever.

But the calls are seldom made from the sideline.

It all is based off of where Berry’s first pass goes, where he cuts to after making that pass and how the defensive is playing. From there, North Carolina gets into their freelance, continuity offense.

The coaching doesn’t come in the game.

The coaching comes when he’s drilling into these players what is and what isn’t a good shot in this offense.

(Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

“You have to teach the system,” May said. “It’s hard [to learn], but once you get it? I can go right now and run everything these guys run because I played in it, but you still have to go out there and teach guys how to make the right plays, how to be in the right spots at the right moments. All that is coaching. That doesn’t just happen because you’re there.”

“As much as it looks like we may be in freelance and doing our own thing,” added Jackson, “Coach has taught us the principles that we need to use for that.”

That’s part of the reason North Carolina is so hard to guard. Scouting at this level has reached the point where every team knows every set and every call for whoever they’re playing. There are no secrets.

With North Carolina, there also isn’t a blueprint. You don’t really know what they’re going to do because they don’t even know what they’re going to do.

It’s not an easy thing to coach against, but it may be more difficult to coach.

Williams is turning over the decision-making power to his players, and that’s not an easy thing to do in a sport where coaches tend to be control freaks. But he does that knowing that he’s put in the work in practice, that he’s taught them — coached them — to do more than run a basketball play.

He’s turned them into basketball players.

And that’s why he can have success a higher rate than anyone else since the turn of the century by simply rolling the ball out.

South Carolina beats Mississippi State to capture first women’s basketball national title

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South Carolina captured its first national championship in women’s basketball by knocking off SEC rival Mississippi State, 67-55, on Sunday night.

The Gamecocks (33-4) beat the Bulldogs for the third time this season as they were led by junior forward A’ja Wilson with 23 points. The win also marks the first national championship for South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley. Besides coaching the Gamecocks to the Final Four two seasons ago, Staley also played in three Final Fours when she went to Virginia but she was never able to win a championship until Sunday.

Mississippi State (34-5) was riding high after Friday night’s shocking overtime win over previously-unbeaten UConn but tournament standout Morgan William was held to only eight points. The Bulldogs were paced by junior guard Victoria Vivians with 12 points while senior guard Dominique Dillingham added 11 points.

South Carolina once again played without starting senior center Alaina Coates after she injured her ankle during the SEC Tournament but others picked up the slack for the Gamecocks on Sunday. Junior guard Allisha Gray finished with 18 points for South Carolina while junior guard Kaela Davis chipped in 10 points.

With only three seniors on the roster, the Gamecocks will be in strong position to make another deep tournament run next season as they’ve advanced to at least the Sweet 16 in four consecutive seasons. While UConn and head coach Geno Auriemma will once again be a major factor next season, Staley has built South Carolina into one of the strongest programs in women’s college basketball as this title is a major step for the Gamecocks.