Day At The Dance: Big Blocks, CAA Power
The things we learned on the second day of the "second" round of the NCAA tournament ...
1. This tournament has been as much about clutch blocks as it has clutch shots.
Kenneth Faried clinched Morehead State's stunner of Louisville on Thursday with a ballsy block of a Mike Marra three-point attempt at the buzzer, and on Friday, Mr. Game-Saving Block himself, Derrick Williams, helped No. 5 Arizona thwart No. 12 Memphis' upset bid by swatting Wesley Witherspoon's point-blank put-back with 0.4 seconds left. Wildcats coach Sean Miller employed the foul-up-three strategy (more on this later) once his team had a 77-74 lead, and after making the first free throw, the Tigers' Joe Jackson intentionally missed the second, then tipped the offensive rebound into Witherspoon's hands. Controversy erupted over the no-call on Williams' block by infamous official Jim Burr, who was involved in the walk-off debacle at the Big East tournament last week, but Burr made the right decision. There was only a slight amount of body contact on the play, and it was a clean swat.
Both of Williams' big blocks this season have been controversial: When he saved an 87-86 home win over Washington on Feb. 19 by erasing Darnell Gant's shot with 0.2 seconds left, Huskies fans were irate that there was no whistle for goaltending. Watch the YouTube, judge for yourself, and be amused by Williams' post-block scowl, which he also made against Memphis:
Oh, and refs? The nation's best shot-swatters are on to your whistle-swallowing ways in endgame situations. When asked about their defensive decisions, one day apart, Faried and Williams offered identical rationales:
Faried: "I said, they're not gonna call this foul, because it's the last shot. I've learned over the years that they don't call that foul."
Williams: "Late in the game most refs don't call that. That's why I went up so hard to try to block it and save the game."
2. A pet-peeve about the perception of late-game strategy: After Witherspoon managed to get the offensive rebound of Jackson's intentional miss at the end of the Arizona-Memphis game, we heard announcers talk about how "risky" Miller's foul-up-three decision was. I wrote many words about this before the season started, and firmly believe that the strategy is NOT risky. Before you call it risky, consider the following scenarios:
• If you choose not to foul in that situation, that means you're willing to give one of the Tigers' most qualified three-point shooters -- both Antonio Barton (42.9 percent, 3-of-4 in the game) and Wes Witherspoon (39.4 percent, 1-of-2 in the game) were on the floor -- an unmolested attempt at tying the game. Considering they were 4-of-6 combined on the day, and are around 40 percent shooters on the season, let's conservatively put the odds on them making a three at 40 percent.
• On the other hand, you foul Joe Jackson, a 72.5 percent free-throw shooter. If you put the odds of him "perfectly missing" on the second free-throw at 30 percent; the odds of getting an offensive rebound with a 4-on-2 personnel disadvantage in the lane at 20 percent; and the odds of a made putback at 60 percent ... you're looking at a 2.6 percent chance Memphis ties the game -- compared to allowing a 40 percent three-point shooter a launch a decent shot. How, again, is fouling risky?
3A. For once, a George Mason tournament victory didn't register as an upset.
The CAA's Patriots pulled off a killer comeback against Villanova, going on a 13-3 run to close the game. But whereas the wins in their magical 2006 run were as a No. 11 seed over Nos. 6, 3, 7 and 1 in succession, this year's came as a No. 8 over a 9. Not that it lacked entertainment value: Luke Hancock's dagger three and Mike Morrison's game-ending breakaway jam, narrated by Gus Johnson's gold-standard screamery, were the shot(s) and call of the day, respectively. Hancock's postgame honesty was also refreshing; rather than insist he had full confidence in his decision to launch the step-back trey that would put Mason up 59-57 with 21 seconds left, he said he "was kind of hoping and praying" that the shot would go in.*
* I'd like to believe that Hancock and Morrison's heroism odds were improved by their choice in footwear. Hancock hit his game-winner while wearing a slick pair of Air Jordan 6 Rings "3M" edition kicks, and Morrison's dunk was executed in a pair of electric-heeled Nike Air Max Fly Bys. Their neon green was reminiscent of early '90s Andre Agassi models, and although it didn't match with Mason's jerseys, it still made a serious fashion statement (photos from Getty Images):
The Mason shirt du jour. (SBNation.com)
The Patriots may not be done making noise in this tournament, either. Their fan base has taken to wearing shirts that say, "We ARE this year's George Mason" -- a play on the annual search for the next Final Four Cinderella. But what if the Patriots are actually "This year's Northern Iowa" instead, in that they're on the verge of knocking off the pre-tourney favorite, Ohio State, in the second round, just like the Panthers did to Kansas in 2010?
Efficiency-wise, Mason is the strongest team (ranked No. 27 on kenpom.com) a No. 1 seed has to face this weekend, and it has a reasonable amount of momentum, having won 17 of its past 18 games. It also happened to beat Northern Iowa in a BracketBusters game during that stretch, if you assign significance such things. As dominant as the Buckeyes looked in their Friday rout of UT-San Antonio, they best be on upset alert against the Patriots.
3B. You know who really might be This Year's George Mason? VCU. Like the Patriots in '06, this year's Rams were one of the final at-large teams allowed into the dance, as a No. 11 seed -- and the selection committee faced harsh criticism from the punditry for choosing the CAA school ahead of Colorado or Virginia Tech. All Jamie Skeen & Co. did was go out and throttle USC in the "First Four" on Wednesday in Dayton, then travel to Chicago and put a 74-56 beating on sixth-seeded Georgetown on Friday.
In Skeen they have a scoring star with major-conference athleticism -- he was an ABCD camper alongside Greg Oden and Kevin Love back in the day, and transferred away from Wake Forest -- and as a team they're extremely adept at creating steals and converting them into transition points. Purdue, which awaits on Sunday, will be a much tougher test than the Hoyas, who failed to be revived by the return of point guard Chris Wright from a hand injury. But if this VCU team stays as hot from long-range as it was on Friday, making 12 of its 25 attempts, there's no reason it can't reach the Sweet 16 or beyond.
4. Long-armed Texas freshman Tristan Thompson went for volume, not timeliness, with his blocks -- and recorded a season-high seven against Oakland. The 13th-seeded Golden Grizzlies were Friday's best Cinderella candidate, but they were dominated on the interior by Thompson, who double-doubled with 17 points and 10 rebounds, and held 6-foot-11 Oakland star Keith Benson to 6-of-15 shooting. NBA scouts are perhaps more excited for Sunday's showdown between Thompson and Arizona's Derrick Williams than they will be for any Final Four game; Williams is a top-five pick already, and Thompson is rapidly ascending first-round boards. Looking ahead to a potential Sweet 16 battle between Texas and Duke -- what would be by far the best Sweet 16 game in the whole bracket -- Thompson is exactly the kind of rangy big man who could give the Blue Devils trouble. The Brothers Plumlee are athletic, but they can't match Thompson's length, ability to alter shots, or level of energy on the offensive glass.
5. While we're getting around to mentioning Duke ... were you by any chance aware of a certain superstar freshman point guard's return to the court after a three-month injury hiatus? The re-unveiling of Kyrie Irving lent intrigue to the Blue Devils' 87-45 rout of Hampton, and he came out looking great in the box score, putting up a team-high 14 points in 20 minutes. His first half was clunky (he committed a charge on his second possession, and badly missed a layup soon after that), while his second half was more impressive (he scored 12 of the 14 in that period). Backcourt mate Seth Curry said of Irving, "Once he got the jitters out, it was like he hadn't missed a beat, which is going to be huge for us moving forward."
I wouldn't go as far as to say Irving "hadn't missed a beat"; he built most of his stat line in garbage time, and still wasn't capable of the ultra-quick, knife-like penetration that arguably made him the nation's best player over the first 4-5 weeks of the season. His teammates are adamant that the Full Irving will be back soon -- as backup point guard Tyler Thornton said, "You haven't seen anything yet," -- but can that happen in a week? I don't expect Michigan to give Duke much trouble on Sunday, but potential back-to-back battles with Texas and San Diego State in Anaheim will be tougher than anything the Devils faced in the ACC. With Full Irving, they make the Final Four. With Half Irving, it's still a toss-up.