The NCAA tournament is the greatest sporting event in the United States, and if it wasn’t for the unification of ‘Murica in support of the stars and stripes at the World Cup this past June, I think that you would be hard-pressed to find anything that can hold a vice-grip on the ever-dwindling attention span of an entire nation of sports fans for a month like March Madness can.
But while you are filling out your brackets and wildly cheering on that No. 13 seed, hoping a team without a single player that you can name pulls off the upset, the one-and-done nature of the NCAA tournament can be a fickle beast for the people participating in it.
One tough draw, one off night, and an entire season’s body of work can be forgotten in the annals of history. Deep tournament runs and early tourney exits are remembered much more vividly than, say, a regular season conference title. A 25-win season might get a coach a raise. A trip to the Sweet 16 will get him a better job. The tourney is always holding trump cards.
This past season, the Shockers put together arguably the single-greatest regular season of all-time. They entered the NCAA tournament at 34-0 after steamrolling through league play with very few real challenges while posting the best regular season record in the history of college basketball. But thanks to No. 8-seed Kentucky, a preseason top five team that didn’t figure out how to play together until the night before the SEC tournament, the Shockers were sent packing without reaching the second weekend of the tournament.
All it took was one game — one game where Wichita State played as well as they had all season, losing one of the best-played, most entertaining games you’ll watch — to turn a historical year into a footnote for a team that didn’t make the Sweet 16.
“It was really great to go 35-0, that’s a really great accomplishment,” star guard Ron Baker told NBCSports at the Kevin Durant Skills Academy last month. “But the regular season is kind of a season in itself. When you get to the tournament, it almost feels like a whole nother year. A different season. And for us, that result was pretty disappointing.”
Wichita State had gone almost a full year in between losses, and for Baker, it was difficult for him to process that such a successful season had come to such an abrupt halt. “I reflected on it a lot,” he said, adding that it wasn’t until the sting from the upset wore off that he was truly able to appreciate what he and his team were able to do. “Once the season’s over and you sit down for a couple days, you slow down and think about what you accomplished.
“And it’s pretty phenomenal, especially when you look back in history. We’re the only team to go 35-0. It’s been special.”
“We had an amazing year,” point guard Fred Van Vleet told NBCSports during a break in the action at the Point Guard Skills Academy in New Jersey in June. “We don’t really define our season off of that game.”
That appreciation wasn’t there while the Shockers were in the middle of their run, however. They weren’t thinking about what an undefeated season would mean historically or how they had a chance to get their names in the record books. They were focused on winning, on doing the things that it took to make sure that they kept that ‘0’ in their loss column.
They were on a mission.
“It was really hard to enjoy it during the season,” Baker said. “There’s practice every day. Weights, lifting. And we’re all competitive. [We did our] best to have fun with it.”
The season before Wichita State made a run at perfection, they were the latest in a long line of cinderellas from the mid-major ranks that traipsed their way through their region and into the Final Four.
And they did it despite the fact that their regular season ended in frustration.
In 2012-2013, the Shockers started the season 19-2, going 8-1 in Missouri Valley play and climbing to No. 15 in the country before losing three straight and five of their last ten regular season games. They wound up in the 8-9 game in the same bracket as Gonzaga, the No. 1 overall seed. But between a hot-shooting second half that sparked an upset of the ‘Zags and a beneficial draw in the later rounds that gave the Shockers matchups with La Salle and Ohio State, Marshall’s band of misfits made it all the way to the Final Four. And if it wasn’t for Louisville guard Tim Henderson’s heroics, they might have found themselves in the national title game.
It creates a weird dynamic, as the Shockers may end up being better remembered for a season in which they struggled through February and early March than for the year where they won their first 35 games. Maybe I’m wrong, and I hope I am, but the casual fan will likely put more stock in winning four games on national television in the NCAA tournament than they will 34 games on ESPN3 in places like Des Moines, Iowa, and Springfield, Missouri.
It also creates expectations. Baker is a redshirt sophomore. He’s entering his fourth year in the program, during which time the Shockers have made three NCAA tournaments, won two regular season titles and a MVC tournament title, reached a Final Four and earned a No. 1 seed with an undefeated regular season. Prior to his arrival, the Shockers had made one NCAA tournament since 1988.
What happens if the Shockers “only” win the conference and fail to make it out of the first weekend of the NCAA tournament this season?
“If we would’ve done that six years ago at Wichita State, they would have been really pleased,” Baker said. “Now, to make the tournament, it’s expected of us,” but to listen to the two Shockers stars speak, those expectations and that notoriety are what drive them.
“[Success brings] a little bit more popularity, people recognize you. Respect as well,” Van Vleet said. “Those two things are nice. With that comes a lot more work that you’ve got to put in to keep getting better. You don’t want to plateau out.”
What “a lot more work” includes has been early morning workouts for Van Vleet, Baker and senior guard Tekele Cotton, as they spent part of their summer waking up at 6:30 a.m. to workout before coaching at Wichita State’s summer basketball camp. And that would be just the first or two or three workouts on a typical day.
“I’ve never done that before,” Van Vleet said with a laugh. “I’m not a morning guy.”
For Baker, that work included improving his mid-range game, floaters and 8-10 foot finishes, as well as his ability to create separation off the bounce and get to the rim on straight line drives. For Van Vleet, he’s been focused on improving his athleticism and his ability to be a scorer, which is something that both players will need to improve upon without Cleanthony Early around to shoulder the scoring load.
And if they can do that, the Shockers should once again be a team capable of making the Sweet 16 and advancing further, but that won’t leave them satisfied.
“Honestly, we look at [Gonzaga, Butler and VCU] and see what they’ve built, and I’m sure Coach Marshall feels that he wants to build something like that, but the goal is always a national championship,” Van Vleet said. “Make it to that game, play in that game, win that game.
“I would be lying to say that wasn’t our goal at the beginning of the season.”
This is recency bias at it’s very finest, I can fully admit that, but I find it very hard to believe that you can find an example of a more heart-wrenching roller coaster ride of emotions than what Purdue fans experienced in Louisville during the second weekend of the NCAA tournament in 2019.
Let’s start with that Sweet 16 game against Tennessee. Purdue blew a 17-point second half lead before Ryan Cline made four straight threes in the final six minutes to put the Boilermakers in a position where a controversial foul sent Carsen Edwards to the free throw line. He made two of three to force overtime, where Purdue pulled away. After putting the Volunteers to bed, Matt Painter’s boys advanced to the Elite Eight to face Virginia, owners of the nation’s best defense, where Edwards went nuts, scoring 24 of his 42 points – and hitting six of his ten threes – in the final 13 minutes before a missed box out and this heads up play from Virginia’s Kihei Clark forced overtime and, eventually, cost the Boilermakers a trip to their first Final Four in 39 years:
My fingernails and voice were gone by the time Tony Bennett and Virginia officially advanced to the Final Four, and all I had on the line was a couple of bets.
(For the record, I took Tennessee in the Sweet 16 and Purdue in the Elite Eight. I lost both bets.)
But beyond my degeneracy, both of these games had something else in common – a Purdue player going absolutely bonkers to close out the game.
Against Tennessee, Cline scored 22 of his 27 points in the second half, hitting four straight threes in a five minute stretch to get the game to the extra period. Cline didn’t even end up as Purdue’s leading scorer on that night. Edwards, who had 29 points and fired up 14 threes, was. Those 29 points came in between back-to-back 42 point outbursts by the 33rd pick in the 2019 NBA Draft. In total, Edwards found a way to get up 61 threes in four NCAA tournament games. Cline was able to get off 34 threes in four games, and those two stats serve as a pretty fair summation of what Purdue basketball was during the 2018-19 season.
Purdue attempted 977 threes last year. Since 2010, only four high major teams have shot more threes in a single season than Purdue did last year – Villanova in each of the last two seasons, Auburn in 2018-19 and Michigan in 2017-18; the latter played in an NCAA record 41 games that season and averaged 2.5 fewer threes attempted per game than Purdue did this past season. The Boilermakers set a record for the most threes attempted in a Big Ten season with 501.
Edwards and Cline were the two guys that led the way. They took 646 threes combined last year, which is two-thirds of their team total. Edwards led the Big Ten in three-pointers attempted during league play. Cline finished second. Combined, they shot more threes – 327 in total – than Minnesota’s entire team.
And that’s fascinating to me.
Because just four years ago, the Boilermakers finished 12th in the Big Ten in three pointers attempted with just 332 as a team. That season, the first in a four-year stretch where Purdue has been arguably the best program in the Big Ten, 24.8 percent of Purdue’s offense came via post-ups.
For the record, that number is insane.
Oral Roberts finished second nationally in that stat in 2016, finishing with just over 18 percent of their offense coming via post-ups. Since the 2007-08 season – which is as far back as I’m willing to trust Synergy’s data – only three teams have finished the season running more than 21 percent of their through the post: Purdue in 2015-16, Purdue in 2016-17 and Stanford in 2007-08, the final year that the Lopez twins were in Palo Alto.
But there’s more.
This past season, just 7.4 percent of Purdue’s offense came via post-ups. In 2011-12, Robbie Hummel’s final season with the program, that number was just 2.9 percent.
In the span of seven years, Matt Painter went from running a program that played Hummel, a 6-foot-8 small forward, at the five to one that paired Caleb Swanigan with Isaac Haas to one that rode Edwards going full YOLO to within a Mamadi Diakite buzzer-beater of the Final Four.
That is not normal.
And it should tell you all you need to know about the man running things in West Lafayette.
Robbie Hummel remembers it like it was yesterday.
It’s early December in 2011, just nine games into his senior season, and Purdue is fresh off of blowing a 19-point second half lead in a loss in Cincinnati to No. 11 Xavier. He’s with the rest of his team in the film room, watching as Painter is going over everything that went wrong on that Saturday in the Cintas Center. When you blow a 19-point lead in less than 11 minutes, a lot went wrong.
Hummel’s not looking forward to it. He scored 17 points, but it took him 21 shots to get there. He didn’t play great, but there is one shot in particular that he’s dreading. He knows it’s going to be in the edit that Painter shows. With more than 20 seconds left on the shot clock, he waves off not one but two different Purdue guards. He squares up Xavier’s Travis Taylor. He goes between his legs, he crosses over, he puts the ball back between his legs, takes one dribble to get into a rhythm and lets loose with a 24-foot three that hits nothing but air.
It’s not even close.
When it shows up on the screen, he knows what’s coming.
“Robbie,” Painter says, without a hint of sarcasm in his voice, “that’s the worst f***ing shot in the history of basketball.”
And Painter is right.
The announcers on the broadcast point out how bad the shot is. His teammates at the time know it’s an awful shot. Watching the clip now, Hummel says it’s “just a horrific possession and shot,” laughing with the benefit of hindsight.
I’m telling you that story because it’s funny. Anyone that knows Painter has a story like that, he’s just that kind of a guy. Maybe one day I’ll share the one I heard about the time Pat Knight hosted him on a recruiting visit at Indiana, but first I’ll need to iron out what’s fact, what’s legend and what is forever off the record. Again, that’s the kind of guy he is.
But it also serves to drive home a point, one that I kept hearing from people is what makes Painter so damn good as a coach: His ability to identify what, specifically, his players can do great, how to put them in a position to take advantage of those skills and – this is the important part – convincing them that they need to fully understand their own scouting report and play within their own abilities.
“Everybody looks at ‘talent,'” Painter told me last month, “but talent is overrated if someone is not going to play within the limits of what they can and cannot do. The more guys embrace that, the more productive they can be.”
And, in turn, the better the team can be.
The story I told you?
It’s the perfect example of this.
As a senior, Hummel was an All-American. As a junior, before suffering a pair of torn ACLs within the span of nine months, he averaged 15.7 points for a team that was one of the five best in America. As a senior two years later, he averaged 16.4 points before becoming a second round pick. He was a damn good college player, one of the best to ever set foot in Mackey Arena.
And that shot?
The worst f***ing shot in the history of basketball?
It looks an awful lot like these, doesn’t it?
Ask guys that have played for Painter about him, and they’ll tell you that he is very much a believer in the idea of confidence. He doesn’t want his players to be thinking when they are on the floor. If they have a chance to make a play or take a shot, he wants them to let it fly without being concerned that they’ll get yanked if they miss. But that comes with the caveat that his guys understand that what is a good shot for them differs from what is a good shot for him.
Edwards was the best in the country at what he did last season. He’ll spend a decade playing in the NBA specifically because of his ability to score, to make tough, deep, contested shots. “He’s got the juice,” Painter said. Likewise, Cline was one of the Big Ten’s very best shooters, and when he gets into the kind of rhythm that he was in against Tennessee, Painter is going to let him go. He has the ability to make those shots.
Hummel, as good as he was, is not a guy you want going 1-on-1 35 feet from the rim and settling for a contested, pull-up three. That’s not his game, but it is a good way to blow a 19-point lead on the road.
Which brings me back to the top.
In 2015-16, Purdue laid claim to the biggest and strongest frontline you’re ever going to see. They started 6-foot-9, 250 pound Caleb Swanigan at the four alongside either A.J. Hammons – who stood 7-foot, 250 pounds – or Isaac Haas – who checked in at 7-foot-2, 282 pounds. The following season, after Hammons graduated, Swanigan and Haas started together.
In 2017-18, Purdue ran out a lineup that looked different but played the same. Instead of using lineups predominantly featuring a pair of posts playing together, the Boilermakers put four perimeter players around Haas. That season, “only” 16 percent of their offense came via post-ups, which was sixth nationally.
“We had some really good big guys,” Greg Gary, who ran Purdue’s offense for the last four seasons, said. “That was our advantage. Our guards would get mad because we threw it in so much.”
The advantage for the Boilermakers lay in the fact that they forced the defense into making a decision. There were few, if any, players in the college ranks that were capable of slowing down any of those three Purdue bigs 1-on-1 in the post. If they got the ball where they wanted it, they were going to score. They were probably going to draw a foul. They would get your frontline into all kinds of foul trouble. You had to double, but doing so meant leaving someone that was a very good three-point shooter, because every perimeter player on the Purdue roster in recent seasons was a good three-point shooter.
Over the course of the last four seasons, even with a roster that featured the best post-up play in the country in three of those four seasons, Purdue has shot 36.7 percent, 40.2 percent, 42 percent and 37.4 percent from three. At worst, they were in the 80th percentile nationally from beyond the arc.
There is no better example of this than in 2017-18. That was the best offensive team Painter has ever had. They were the second most efficient offense in the country that season, trailing only national champion Villanova, who set a KenPom era record for efficiency that season. Your choice was either allowing Haas – who shot 61.7 percent from the floor, drew seven fouls per 40 minutes and made better than 75 percent of his free throws – to go 1-on-1, or you double-teamed him by leaving one of Carsen Edwards (40.6% 3PT), Vincent Edwards (39.8% 3PT), Dakota Mathias (46.6% 3PT), Ryan Cline (39.6% 3PT) or P.J. Thompson (44.1% 3PT).
So you tell me.
How do you stop that?
Everything changed this past season.
Matt Haarms took over as the starting center. He may be 7-foot-3, but he is not the post presence of his predecessors. Trevion Williams is going to be good, but he was a 280 pound freshman that just wasn’t ready. What that meant was that the Purdue coaching staff had to figure out something different.
Purdue has one of the biggest playbooks in college basketball.
Painter estimates that they have roughly 50 plays, but each one of those plays can be initiated from multiple different looks and they all have counters to the counters that are countering a counter.
“We would get a stapled booklet with all the plays every year during preseason,” Cline said, adding that often times offseason pick-up games would double as playbook study halls, because “if you don’t know the plays, you don’t play.
“There’s so many different play calls, five word sentences where one word changes [the play].”
Edwards used to joke with Gary that the play book “was my toughest class at Purdue.”
As a result, so much of Purdue’s success on the offensive end of the floor comes down to execution and deception. They don’t win off of raw talent. They win because the players excel at doing what the coaching staff asks them to do, and the coaching staff excels at figuring out exactly where they have an edge.
From 2015-2017, the answer was pounding the ball into the paint as much as humanly possible. When every post touch turns into David vs. Goliath, and you have Goliath, you give him the rock.
In 2017-18, it was forcing defenses to choose between guarding Mr. Incredible with one guy or playing 4-on-3 against four of the best shooters you’ll find in the college ranks.
This past season, the coaching staff figured out that there were three things they could build an offense around:
1. Edwards’ speed. He is not only one of the fastest players on any basketball court he steps foot on, he’s an absolute nightmare to chase around screens because he’s small, he’s compact, he can maneuver around screens better than anyone chasing him and he’s capable of rising up and drilling a catch-and-shoot three at top speed, especially when running to his left.
2. Haarms’ mobility. He can really move for a man his size. He can also handle the ball, he thrives in dribble-handoff actions and he has an innate understanding of when he can slip a screen and get a free run at the rim.
3. Cline’s awkward release. He has something of a slingshot motion that he fires from behind his head with a natural fade. That makes it very difficult to contest, especially when he is sprinting around screens to his right. He also proved himself an excellent passer and decision-maker, capable of hitting a big man rolling to the rim.
The result was an offense that, quite literally, turned into Edwards and Cline running circles around the court.
“We just had so much more movement because of not having a low post guy down there,” Gary said. “When you throw it to a guy in the post it gets stagnant. You try to get the big guy as much space as possible. We weren’t going to overpower anybody, so we had to have movement to occupy both sides of the floor.”
Imagine trying to guard this.
Imagine chasing Carsen Edwards off of a triple-screen. Imagine being a center 22 feet from the rim knowing that if you don’t help, Ryan Cline might bang a three in your face, but if you do help, Matt Haarms will slip the screen and find himself all alone in the paint without anyone within 10 feet of him.
And now imagine doing all of that knowing that one word is all it takes to change what action Purdue will be looking for, or that they can run the same thing out of three different looks.
Here’s the perfect example. Purdue ran the same action – a dribble-handoff in the middle of the floor that acts as a double-pindown for a shooter – 10 times in the Tennessee game. Look at how many different options they have, and how many ways they can get into it:
Perhaps the most frustrating part, at least if you are a member of that Purdue coaching staff, is that you’re going back to the drawing board next year.
Edwards is gone. Cline is gone. Gary is gone, too. That’s a huge chunk of their offense, the two guys they built the way they played around, not to mention the guy that was in charge of building it. What’s left is … well, it’s different.
But it’s also familiar.
Of Purdue’s five best players next season, there’s a reasonable argument to make that four of them will be bigs – Haarms, Williams, Aaron Wheeler and Evan Boudreaux – and the fifth will be a guard – Nojel Eastern – that has shot 3-for-13 from three in two years.
Bringing in Jahaad Proctor from High Point, a grad transfer lead guard, will help, and sophomore guards Sasha Stefanovic and Eric Hunter did have their moments last season. Frankly, Painter seems to like what he has in his program, and their new offensive coordinator – Micah Shrewsberry – has already spent time on Purdue’s staff, in between spending time with Brad Stevens at Butler and in Boston.
They’re in good hands.
“There’s a really big sophomore jump with talented guys,” he said, “and we had four freshmen come off the bench that will now be sophomores. I think all four of them will have good years, and Nojel and Matt will be able to expand what they’re doing.
“I think the one think we have to make sure is that we don’t try to make anyone Carsen or Caleb. Allow guys to be the best version of themselves and play through that.”
It’s Painter’s job to figure out what, exactly, “the best version of themselves” is.
Duke lands D.J. Steward, third commitment in the Class of 2020
Duke landed their third commitment in the Class of 2020 on Wednesday, as Chicago shooting guard D.J. Steward pledged to play his college ball for Coach K.
A high-volume scorer and potent shot-maker, the 6-foot-2 Steward visited Duke over the weekend before committing.
“Me and my family were amazed on our official visit, we loved the principals of Duke, and how united Duke is as a basketball program,” Steward told Rivals.com. “At Duke I will be able to get the best of both worlds; education wise and on the court playing on the biggest stage possible night in and night out.
“I will get to chase my goals and be one step closer to achieving my dream of playing in the NBA. Also I will be able to develop as a person off the court and as a ball player while playing under the most winningest coach in history, Coach K.”
Steward joins five-star forward Jalen Johnson and five-star point guard Jeremy Roach in Duke’s 2020 recruiting class. Johnson is the quintessential small-ball four that we have seen arrive in Durham in recent classes, while Roach appears to be the heir apparent to Tre Jones at the point guard spot. Steward should fit in nicely playing off the ball for the Blue Devils, who can always use some excess shot-making.
Duke is far from done here, as they are in the mix for the likes of Walker Kessler, Ziaire Williams and Henry Coleman.
New York senator the latest to propose bill to abolish amateurism
A second state now has legislation in the works that would make it legal for college athletes to profit off of their name, image and likeness.
Kevin Parker, a New York state senator from Brooklyn, has proposed a bill similar to California’s Fair Pay To Play act, not only giving college athletes the ability to sell their NIL rights but also requiring athletic departments to give a 15 percent share of their annual revenue to the student-athletes. California’s bill, which will go into effect in 2023 if it is signed into law by Governor Gavin Newsom, would make removing a student-athlete from their scholarship for accepting endorsement money illegal.
“It’s about equity,” Parker told ESPN. “These young people are adding their skill, talent and labor to these universities.
“You don’t need the shortcuts and the end-arounds because now we’re providing some real support for these student-athletes.”
New York joins the growing list of organizations that are pushing back against the NCAA’s rules on amateurism. South Carolina, Maryland, Colorado and Washington have had legislators discuss whether or not to make similar changes to the law, while Congressmen from North Carolina and Connecticut have made pushes at the federal level. Democratic Presidential candidate Anrew Yang has blasted the NCAA over their amateurism rules, while just last week, NBA agents made public the fact that they will be refusing to register for the NCAA’s proposed certification process.
The University of Louisville and former head coach Rick Pitino have reached a joint agreement to drop their lawsuits against each other.
The two sides “have mutually agreed to dismiss their legal claims against each other, designate his departure as a resignation and move forward,” according to a joint statement that was released by the University and Pitino. Pitino will not be paid any money as a result of this settlement, but he departure will now be classified as a resignation, effective Oct. 3rd, 2017.
Pitino had sued Louisville for somewhere around $40 million.
“For 17 years, Coach Pitino ran a program that combined excellence on the court with a commitment to the program’s student-athletes, their academic achievement, and their futures in and out of basketball,” the state said. “Nevertheless, there were NCAA infractions during his term which led to serious consequences for the university. Although these infractions may not have occurred at Pitino’s direction or with his knowledge, the problems leading to NCAA infractions happened under his leadership. We thank Coach Pitino for his years of service to the University of Louisville basketball program and wish him well.”
“Today I move on to a new chapter in my life,” a statement from Pitino reads. “Against my lawyer’s advice, I’m dropping my lawsuit with ULAA. I am very proud of the many accomplishments my teams achieved at Louisville. I’m so thankful and honored to coach such dedicated athletes. I’m also disappointed in how it ended. But as head coach I am held responsible for the actions of all team members. I still have so much passion for the game and so many goals I want to achieve. From this day forward I start my climb.”