Anatomy of a comeback … and collapse

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When Kansas led Michigan by 11 with four and a half minutes left, the Jayhawks seemed to be just about the least likely team in America to blow the lead. This was a team that started four seniors. This was a team hardened and forged  by years of winning tough road games in the Big 12. This was a team coached by Bill Self, who has been on both sides of this situation so many times there seemed no surprises left.

Anyway, Michigan did not seem capable of a comeback, not on this day. The Jayhawks had held a steady lead from the start. The Wolverines had done surprising work just keeping the game relatively close — all game they had seemed like the little brother swinging punches at the air while the older brother holds him off with one arm. It just seemed a matter of the clock running out.

Of course, it didn’t happen that way.

4:04 left: Kansas’ Travis Releford had ball stripped away by Michigan freshman Mitch McGary.

There was something off about the way Kansas came in. Heck, the game began with senior Elijah Johnson committing a flagrant foul by hitting McGary in the general groin area. People will argue, I suppose, whether Johnson fully intended to hit McGary in the general groin area — it was only that sliver of doubt that prevented Johnson from being kicked out of the game. Before the game, senior Jeff Withey had apparently talked about how small McGary was (he’s 6-foot-10) and how he expected Kansas to dominate inside. It was all very strange and not very helpful at all.

It’s as if they didn’t understand that McGary, though only a freshman, shows the sorts of tendencies that have already made him beloved at Michigan and will, over time, make him one of the most despised and feared players in the Big 10 — he does all sorts of little things that tear out opponents hearts. It’s the Bill Laimbeer stuff, the Dennis Johnson stuff, in baseball the A.J. Pierzynski stuff, — he strips away a pass, he grabs a loose ball, he steals an offensive rebound, he tips in a ball, he already seems to have a particular knack for staying in the moment and making the winning play.

Remember that scene in “The Usual Suspects” when Chazz Palminteri says to Kevin Spacey, “I’m smarter than you. I’ll find out what I want to know, and I’ll get it from you whether you like it or not?” Yeah, poking at McGary kind of felt like that.

3:55 left: Michigan’s Trey Burke missed a three-point shot. Teammate Glenn Robinson III grabbed the rebound. Robinson missed a shot. McGary grabbed the offensive rebound (another play!), the ball was passed around and it ended up in the hands of Tim Hardaway Jr. He was fouled and made one of two free throws. KANSAS 70, Michigan 60.

Michigan was beginning to out hustle Kansas. This would play a major role in the final four minutes.

3:29 left: Elijah Johnson had ball stripped away by McGary (yet another play!). Michigan quickly worked the ball around and McGary got the ball underneath and scored (we’ll stop putting stuff in parentheses for McGary). KANSAS 70, Michigan 62.

2:54 left: Kansas passed the ball around beautifully and found senior Kevin Young underneath the basket. It looked like he would try a reverse layup but instead he made a brilliant little tip pass to Withey who slammed. KANSAS 72, Michigan 62.

Looking back, I suspect Kansas’ players thought this would be the clincher. It sort of felt that way. They had a double-digit lead, less than three minutes left, the huge Kansas crowd in Cowboys Stadium was roaring (Michigan players talked about this feeling like a road game), this thing seemed to be over from the outside looking in. The way Kansas played the last three minutes, you can’t help but wonder if it looked that way on the inside looking out too.

2:31 left: Hardaway missed a jumper. Robinson got the offensive board — Michigan was playing with the energy of the desperate — and the ball worked back to Hardaway who missed another jump shot. This time Elijah Johnson got the rebound. You could almost hear the deep breath release on the Kansas side. Here Johnson made what I think was the single most devastating play of the game for Kansas.

2:24 left: Johnson dribbled the ball too far in and then tried to pass the ball back out. The ball was tipped away by Robinson, who outran Kansas players for it and dunked on the breakaway. KANSAS 72, MICHIGAN 64.

Everything Elijah Johnson did here — absolutely everything — seemed wrong. He dribbled fast into the Michigan front court, even though Kansas needed only to take some time off the clock. He dribbled into the teeth of Michigan’s defense, even though there was clearly no opening there. He did not call timeout when he got in trouble, even though Kansas had timeouts. He passed the ball back toward the half court stripe, even though it was a reckless pass that could not lead to anything good.  This single play was pure panic and it led to a dunk and a Michigan sense of hope. Bill Self probably should have realized this and called timeout. Instead …

2:02 left: Johnson, perhaps still in a fog from his turnover, seemed to lose all sense of time. He was caught by a 10-second violation when he could not get the ball across half court in time. You almost never see THIS kind of 10-second violation. Michigan didn’t trap him. They didn’t double team him. He simply let precious seconds tick away, and then, there was some tough defense that stopped him before he could make it across the line. It was as if the batteries on his inner alarm clock had run out.

Elijah Johnson is a good player. He has been through pretty much everything in his four years at Kansas, he has played just about every role, he has made many big plays in big moments. But something about this moment overwhelmed him.

1:55 left: McGary again — this time he was open under the basket he made a little layup. KANSAS 72, MICHIGAN 66.

And now, yes, everybody understood that it was a game. One minute of clock-time earlier, it was not a game. Not a competitive one. But Michigan’s hustle, the Wolverines playmaking along with Kansas’ trepidation and lack of energy had turned everything around. Bill Self called a timeout. You could lip-read his word: “Unbelievable.”

1:22 left: Travis Relaford got fouled by McGary as he drove hard to the basket. This was a break for Kansas. McGary definitely got all ball on the block — Steve Kerr thought it was a clean play, and Marv Albert tended to agree. You could argue that McGary did hit Relaford pretty hard with the body. The point is not whether it was a good call, though. The point is that it could have gone either way. This one went Kansas. Relaford made both free throws. KANSAS 74, MICHIGAN 66.

1:16 left: Burke made a long three-point shot. KANSAS 74, MICHIGAN 69.

No comeback/collapse of this magnitude can happen with one or two plays. It has to be an astonishing series of heroics and mishaps, good and bad bounces, big plays that nobody will remember later. Carlton Fisk’s homer would never have happened except for Bernie Carbo’s three-run homer, and George Foster’s great throw to the plate and numerous other things. But, inevitably, someone will have to step up and do something extraordinary. Trey Burke, the Big 10 player of the year, seemed to understand that this last bit was his job. He did not make a single shot in the first half. Michigan coach John Beilein had told him to look for his shot. It was his time.

41 seconds left: Kansas Ben McLemore missed a driving shot.

There are many people who believe McLemore will be the first pick in the NBA Draft. He will definitely be a very high pick. He has amazing talent — Self calls him the most talented player he’s ever coached. He glides. He can get off his shot seemingly whenever he wants. When his confidence soars (and there were times in this game when his confidence was soaring) he’s an absolute force of nature.

But throughout this tournament, McLemore had often looked lost and discouraged. People offered numerous theories about it, but nobody really knows — not even McLemore. Everything happens so fast in college basketball. McLemore’s father was a playground legend in St. Louis … but he disappeared from Ben’s life. His older brother, Keith, is in jail serving a long sentence after two shooting incidents. Ben grew up in a tiny home often without heat. He followed his basketball talents. He played at three different high schools, was declared ineligible for his freshman season as a partial qualifier, and not long after that told the Lawrence World Journal’s Tom Keegan that his best day is every single day he’s on campus at Kansas.

Then, suddenly, he’s on national television, he’s playing in front of millions, he’s got NBA scouts breaking down his every move, he’s got countless people relying on him, he’s got countless critics looking to call him a fraud, he’s driving to the basket with a chance to put the game away. Of course, a player can’t think about these things or they’ll never succeed. They must remove all this from their minds. They must live inside the moment. They must try, anyway.

33 seconds left: Tim Hardaway missed a three-point shot. There was a scramble for the ball. McLemore seemed to have the best chance to simply fall on the ball — Kansas had the possession arrow. Instead Robinson took the ball away, and he hit a difficult reverse layup. KANSAS 74, MICHIGAN 71.

“Seasons,” Bill Self would say, “usually come down — if you have a pretty good team — to one possession.”

21 seconds left: Johnson made two free throws. KANSAS 76, MICHIGAN 71.

Even with all the fury on the Michigan side and all the panic on the Kansas side, it STILL seemed like the Jayhawks would win when Elijah Johnson stepped to the line and swished two free throws.

14 seconds left: Burke drove to the basket and made an open layup. KANSAS 76, MICHIGAN 73.

The Jayhawks were clearly defending the three-point shot. Burke realized that and pierced through the defense and scored easily.

I think this was a brilliant and game-saving play by Burke … and another blunder by Kansas. It is often said by announcers that the worst thing you can do here is foul because it stops the clock. I’ve heard that so many times that I never really questioned it — now I will. I don’t think it’s true, at least not in this situation. i’m not saying you WANT to foul. I am saying, though, that allowing an uncontested layup in seven seconds seems worse to me than fouling. An uncontested layup also stops the clock and it gives the team two easy points. At least if you foul the player has to make both free throws.

13 seconds left: Elijah Johnson was fouled. He missed the front end of a one-and-one.

Everything about the way Michigan ran the final minute was perfect — John Beilein is one of the best chalkboard coaches in America, and it showed. Michigan only allowed one second to expire after Burke’s made layup before the Wolverines fouled Johnson. They had not used up their fouls earlier in the game, so Johnson was forced to shoot a one-and-one. When he missed, Hardaway grabbed the rebound and got the ball into the hands of Burke. It was, as the cliche goes, just the way you draw it up.

4 seconds left: Trey Burke made amazing 28-foot three-pointer. KANSAS 76, MICHIGAN 76.

When the game ended, many people would blame Bill Self for not fouling before Burke could get off the shot. This seems to me classic second-guessing and, I think, wrongheaded. Let’s say Kansas fouls Burke with eight or nine seconds left, which is what we’re talking about here. OK, now what? Burke is an 80% free throw shooter, and he was locked in, so let’s just assume he makes both free throws.

And … now what? Kansas STILL was in the one-and-one. You assume Michigan fouls immediately, and would you REALLY want a Kansas player on the line with six or so seconds left shooting a one-and-one with the Jayhawks up only a point? I wouldn’t. A foul there and Kansas legitimately could have lost the game in regulation.

That’s not to say that Kansas and Self escape second-guessing. Self admitted afterward — the Jayhawks defended the play terribly. One defender got picked out of the play, another did not switch and Burke got a good look. It was a very long look, sure, and this is not to take away anything from Trey Burke making a ridiculous 28-foot shot to tie a game with four seconds left.

But you can’t give him a clean look at that shot. You just can’t. Burke might be the best player in America. He’s a great shooter.  You don’t want to give him a comfortable look from 25 feet or 30 feet or 40 feet or 50 feet away. You don’t want to let him get his feet set, basket clear sight, no way. You don’t want to just hope he misses. Not Trey Burke.

Of course, he didn’t miss. When Kansas’ Nadir Tharpe missed his three-pointer — it wasn’t a bad look either, actually, but he missed it — the game went to overtime. Kansas wouldn’t play well in the overtime. Burke would play great. And then game ended in more chaos when Kansas, trailing by two, had Elijah Johnson drive toward the basket. He seemed to realize that he was too far behind the backboard, he passed the ball wildly back to Tharpe for a wicked off-balance three pointer and Kansas lost. “Obviously we didn’t do a very good job on that last possession,” Self said, knowing he was understating things.

But the game wasn’t lost on that one play just like the game wasn’t won when Burke made his long three-pointer (or his even longer three in overtime). It was, instead, a stunning series of plays made by Michigan and not made by Kansas.

John Beilein would say: “The ball bounced our way down the last few minutes, and we keep on playing.”

Bill Self would say, “This will be a tough one to get over for a long time.”

That’s the NCAA Tournament.

NBC Sports Top 25: Duke back to No. 1, Tennessee hops Gonzaga

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Here’s the conundrum that is going to face voters in the top 25 this week: What do you do with Kansas?

When it comes to resume, Kansas probably has the strongest one of any team in the top seven. They’ve beaten Michigan State on a neutral court. They’ve beaten Tennessee on a neutral court. They’ve beaten Marquette on a neutral court. Every win they have in Phog Allen Fieldhouse this year comes against teams ranked in the top 135 on KenPom.

And then there is this: Kansas has beaten Tennessee. Tennessee has beaten Gonzaga. Gonzaga has beaten Duke. Duke, according to some, can beat the Cavs, which officially means that Kansas is a playoff team in the Eastern Conference.

Or something like that.

The point is that it makes total sense to rank Kansas No. 1 based on what they’ve accomplished this season, but I think that even the most irrational Kansas fans will cop to the fact that these Jayhawks haven’t come close to hitting their stride yet this season, and that’s before you factor in the loss of Udoka Azuibuike to an ankle injury.

The difference between the top seven teams this season is marginal, particularly if you are not as high on Duke as I am, and while that means there really isn’t all that much difference between Nevada at No. 7 and whoever it is that you are going to rank No. 1, it does mean that a team like Kansas — who is in a bad run of form — drops to sixth in this ranking.

And to be frank, as long as your top seven is, in some order, the same as my top seven, your ranking is probably going to be just fine. I’d quibble with ranking Nevada in the top four, and I think it’s probably silly to have Duke, Tennessee or Gonzaga outside the top four, but there are arguments to justify it all. I’m sure Kansas fans will call me a Duke homer and say that Bill Self must ignore my calls, but the truth of it is that there are a lot of really good teams at the top this year. Parsing through a jumbled mess like that is never easy.

I dropped Kentucky all the way out of the top 25, as I did Kansas State, but I’ll go more in depth on that in the Monday Overreactions column.

Here is the full top 25:

1. Duke (9-1, Last week: 2)
2. Michigan (10-0, 3)
3. Tennessee (7-1, 6)
4. Gonzaga (9-1, 1)
5. Virginia (9-0, 4)
6. Kansas (8-0, 5)
7. Nevada (10-0, 7)
8. Auburn (8-1, 8)
9. North Carolina (7-2, 9)
10. Florida State (8-1, 10)
11. Texas Tech (8-0, 11)
12. Michigan State (8-2, 13)
13. Virginia Tech (8-1, 14)
14. Wisconsin (8-2, 15)
15. N.C. State (8-1, 17)
16. Ohio State (8-1, 19)
17. Arizona State (7-1, 20)
18. Purdue (6-4, 18)
19. Villanova (8-2, UR)
20. Syracuse (7-2, UR)
21. Marquette (8-2, UR)
22. Buffalo (9-0, UR)
23. Mississippi State (8-1, 25)
24. Iowa (7-2, 23)
25. Nebraska (8-2, 24)

New Additions: 19. Villanova, 20 Syracuse, 21. Marquette
Dropped Out: 12. Kentucky, 16. Kansas State, 21. Creighton

Virginia point guard to undergo wrist surgery

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Virginia’s starting point guard Kihei Clark will undergo surgery on his left wrist on Monday, head coach Tony Bennett told reporters after the No. 4 Cavaliers knocked off VCU in Charlottesville, 57-49, on Sunday.

Clark played 33 minutes in the win. He held VCU’s star Marcus Evans to three points on 1-for-10 shooting. He changed the game when he forced a 10-second violation in the backcourt all by himself, a play that came after Virginia had knotted the game up at 43; they had been trailing 43-38. By the time VCU came to again, UVA had pushed the lead to 53-45, and the game was all but over.

Should I mention that Clark actually suffered the hairline fracture in his wrist on Dec. 3rd, that he spent a week practicing and 33 minutes on Sunday playing with a cast on?

That sums up everything that you need to know about the Virginia freshman. He’s the first wave of Virginia’s defense, the kind of tough and aggressive point guard and on-ball defender that Tony Bennett loves. He’s also the piece that allows Ty Jerome to play off the ball for extended periods, and his presence in the backcourt means that Kyle Guy can slide over to the three and De’Andre Hunter, Virginia’s resident all-american and future lottery pick, can play the position that fits him best — the four.

The good news is that this does not appear to be a season-ending injury, although Clark told reporters that he was not given a timetable for a return. The Cavs have also gotten through the most difficult part of their non-conference schedule; they play at South Carolina and get William & Mary and Marshall at home before league play kicks off on Jan. 5th.

That’s four weeks away.

Four Takeaways from No. 7 Tennessee’s win over No. 1 Gonzaga

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Sunday afternoon gave us another early-season instant classic, as No. 7 Tennessee ended Gonzaga’s unbeaten run and likely knocked them out of the No. 1 spot in the polls with a thrilling, 76-73 win in Phoenix

In a back-and-forth affair that featured some unbelievably athletic plays and some high-level shot-making coming from unexpected sources, the Vols set themselves up as the early favorite in the SEC and made a statement to the rest of the college basketball world that they are for real. 

There is a lot to take away from this game. 

Let’s dive into it:

1. THE WORLD HAS BEEN INTRODUCED TO ADMIRAL SCHOFIELD

Schofield had a career-high 30 points on Sunday afternoon. He scored 25 of those 30 points in the second, including the final 11 points of the game for the Vols. His three with 22.1 seconds left was the game-winner. Those points were made all the more important because Tennessee was without Lamonte Turner for this game and lost Grant Williams with three minutes left to his fourth foul of the game.

There is so much to like about the way that Schofield plays, and like Grant Williams, he is the guy that sets the tone for Tennessee. He’s an undersized wing that can defend up and down, he can make threes and there isn’t a possession that goes by where Schofield does anything other than play his tail off. Tennessee has proven themselves to be one of the best programs in the country at developing talent, but that’s something that is helped by the fact that the two best players on the roster — Schofield and Williams — also happen to be the two hardest workers.

The other thing that this performance does is shoot Schofield up NBA draft boards. Playing against Gonzaga means that there are going to be plenty of NBA scouts with their eyes on the game, and there should be little doubt that playing like this is going to garner Schofield — who was already a potential second round pick — more attention. He does all the things that we look for out of a role-playing wing in the NBA. He shoots it. He’s versatile defensively. He plays hard. He knows that, at his core, he’s a role player.

What else are you looking for?

Admiral Schofield (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

2. TENNESSEE CAN WIN A NATIONAL TITLE

There is a clear-cut top tier in college basketball this season.

Duke is part of that group. Gonzaga, too. Michigan probably belongs in that conversation, as does Virginia. Kansas is in the mix. Nevada is in the mix. And, yes, Tennessee belongs there as well.

The reason for that is Tennessee just doesn’t have many holes. If they need to play big, they can put Kyle Alexander out there with Williams and Schofield and they have enough size to matchup with anyone. If they need to play small, they can put Lamonte Turner in the backcourt with Jordan Bone and Jordan Bowden. If they want to go with a switchable lineup, they can play Yves Pons with Williams and Schofield. They have good guards. They can make threes. They have a guy in Williams that can score on the block and who Kansas head coach Bill Self said could end up being the best player that the Jayhawks face all season long.

That makes them a very, very dangerous basketball team.

3. BRANDON CLARKE IS GONZAGA’S BEST PLAYER

Rui Hachimura is the guy that gets all the plaudits, and it’s certainly deserved. He’s the leading scorer for the No. 1 team in the country. He is the guy that made the game-winning shots against both Duke and Washington. He’s a future lottery pick and a player that is an icon in his home country of Japan. He deserves all the recognition that he gets, and going for 21 points and eight boards on Sunday doesn’t change that fact.

That said, Clarke is the best player for the Zags for the simply fact that he is arguably the best defensive player in the country. He’s an unbelievable athlete and rim protector that can switch onto smaller defenders and jumps passing lanes. He’s going to be a first round pick in the NBA because of it.

He also averages 16.4 points and 8.2 boards. On Sunday, he led Gonzaga with 21 points and nine boards. He had what may go down as the best block of the college basketball season:

The thing that makes Gonzaga so good is that picking their best player is like picking your favorite flavor of ice cream. They’re all good. Hachimura is an all-american. Zach Norvell Jr. makes more big shots that anyone in college basketball and will, by the end of the season, become known for what he does in the second half of games. Corey Kispert is an elite role player. Josh Perkins will finish among the league leaders in assists.

But for my money, Clarke is their best player.

4. SUNDAY SHOWED US WHY JOSH PERKINS IS A CONCERN FOR THE ZAGS

The irony, however, is that Clarke isn’t the most important player on Gonzaga.

That title belongs to Josh Perkins, the only point guard currently on Gonzaga’s roster and a guy that just so happens to have a reputation for being consistently inconsistent.

We saw the full Josh Perkins Experience on Sunday. He had a number of flashy assists, finishing with nine in total against just a single turnovers, but he was 0-for-6 from the floor, scoreless and nowhere to be found down the stretch when Gonzaga needed some big buckets.

Guy, Jerome lead No. 4 Virginia over VCU, 57-49

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CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome combined to score 29 points as No. 4 Virginia held off Virginia Commonwealth 57-49 on Sunday.

Guy scored 13 of his 15 points in the first half, while Jerome put up 11 of his 14 after the break.

Virginia (9-0) missed 13 of its first 15 shots after the break and VCU (7-3), coming off its road upset of Texas on Wednesday, led 37-36 midway through the second half.

Isaac Vann led the Rams with 10 points as VCU played its closest contest with Virginia since its 59-56 victory in 2013. Since then, the Cavaliers have won three straight.

Kihei Clark played with a cast on his injured left wrist but still started the game and logged 33 minutes, scoring nine points and dishing out four assists for Virginia.

BIG PICTURE

Coming off its upset of Texas and former coach Shaka Smart, VCU impressed again, sticking close to Virginia for much of the afternoon. While the Rams lost for the third straight time to the Cavaliers, this was the closest of those matchups. … Virginia struggled offensively, but its defense and two stars lifted it to what should be considered a quality win on its NCAA resume come March.

No. 1 goes down as No. 7 Tennessee, Schofield upset Gonzaga

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PHOENIX — Admiral Schofield hit a 3-pointer with 24 seconds left and scored 25 of his 30 points in the second half, helping No. 7 Tennessee knock off top-ranked Gonzaga 76-73 in the Colangelo Classic on Sunday.

Tennessee (7-1) jumped on Gonzaga early and fought back from a nine-point, second-half deficit.

Reigning SEC player of the year Grant Williams fouled out with 2:30 left, but the Vols went up two when Schofield banked in a 3-pointer with 80 seconds left.

After Rui Hachimura tied it with two free throws, Schofield hit a long 3 and Tennessee held on for its first win over a No. 1 team — fifth overall — since beating Kansas in 2010.

Gonzaga (9-1) had two shots at a tying 3-pointer, but Zach Norvell Jr. and Hachimura missed.

Hachimura and Brandon Clarke had 21 points each for the Bulldogs.

The Zags passed every previous test despite playing without injured forward Kevin Tillie.

Gonzaga blew out Texas A&M in Spokane, then knocked off Illinois, Arizona and then-top-ranked Duke to win the Maui Invitational. The Bulldogs beat Washington in their last game on Hachimura’s last-second jumper.

Tennessee, a popular preseason Final Four pick, took No. 2 Kansas to overtime before losing and beat Louisville by 11 in its closest win of the season.

Hachimura had no trouble against one of the nation’s best defensive frontcourts, effectively using his mid-range jumper to score 14 points by halftime.

Williams had 12 and the Vols led 34-33 after Jordan Bowden hit a last-second jumper.

Gonzaga built a quick seven-point lead in the second half, let Tennessee claw back, then went up 58-50 on a pair of Norvell 3-pointers as he traded baskets and trash talk with Schofield.

Schofield brought the Vols back, tying it at 68l with a 3-pointer from the wing with just over three minutes left.

BIG PICTURE

Tennessee looked every bit a Final Four contender, knocking off the nation’s No. 1 team with its best player on the bench the final 2:30.

Gonzaga had passed all its previous tests, but not having Tillie hurt the Zags against the talented Vols.