State of the Dance: An Extravaganza, With An Epidemic
"I think it is what it is. I think it's a tremendous extravaganza, in all honesty."
-- Temple coach Fran Dunphy's parting words on the NCAA tournament
I. What we experienced over the past four days was an extravaganza, with a tremendous first act that stuck to the themes of buzzer-beaters and Cinderellas. Our old friend Butler won its 8-9 game at the gun on Matt Howard's putback; our even older friend George Mason won its 8-9 game on Luke Hancock's stepback dagger. Our new friend Morehead State shocked Louisville in a 4-13 game on Demonte Harper's dreamt-up three. Team Tourney Blog, Temple, beat Penn State in a 7-10 pairing on Juan Fernandez's out-of-options leaner with four-tenths left on the clock. The tournament delivered on early drama.
II. The second act is when it got weird: An epidemic of endgame insanity -- the bad kind, not the Gus Johnson kind -- swept through the bracket, with Butler knocking out the first No. 1 seed, Pitt, on the cruelest of conclusions. Shelvin Mack's inexplicable foul with a one-point lead was followed by Nasir Robinson's even more inexplicable foul with a tie score, all in the final two seconds, and those horrific mistakes were the defining moments of the third round.
The sickness seeped into Sunday, as Washington's Venoy Overton outsmarted himself in the final five seconds with the Huskies down three to North Carolina; he incorrectly anticipated that the Heels would foul intentionally, and attempted a wrong-handed halfcourt heave that went out of bounds off of Carolina's John Henson. Overton's condition being highly contagious, it spread to the referees, who failed to review replays that would've added at least a half-second to the clock (from 0.5 to 1.0 or 1.1), and then to Henson, who nearly goal-tended Isaiah Thomas' errant shot on the ensuing inbounds play.
The endgame epidemic also reached Cleveland, where refs called a dubious backcourt violation on No. 3 Syracuse -- that seemed to defy the NCAA rulebook -- in the final minute of a loss to No. 11 Marquette; and Tulsa, where No. 4 Texas' Jordan Hamilton called the most unneeded of timeouts after grabbing a rebound with 14 seconds left and a two-point lead over No. 5 Arizona. His teammate Cory Joseph proceeded to earn a five-second call on the post-timeout inbounds play, despite asking for timeout before the ref waved his arm to signify the fifth second. The Wildcats won on a huge and-one play by All-America Derrick Williams, but the discussion that followed was almost exclusively about officiating. The NCAA's head of officials, John Adams, appeared on CBS to explain calls and his name was mentioned more than Williams' on Twitter. While it was nice of Adams to lend his expertise to the broadcasts, it was unfortunate that we needed him.
III. Our third act was the tournament's redemption, as its true surprise heroes emerged late on Sunday night. With apologies to No. 12 Richmond, which engineered a fine Cinderella run to San Antonio, its RVA brethren, No. 11 VCU, is the real darling of this dance. Fueled by the slights of the punditry, some actual (certain ESPN analysts' belief that the Rams shouldn't be in the bracket, or couldn't defend) and some fabricated, VCU emerged from the First Four on fire, reeling off three straight convincing victories (over No. 11 USC, No. 6 Georgetown and No. 3 Purdue) to reach the Sweet 16. Our bracket picks left something to be desired, but the Blog had one thing right on Friday when it proclaimed that George Mason isn't this year's George Mason, because the Rams are this year's George Mason.
Should we have seen this coming, envisioned that rising coaching star Shaka Smart would be standing in front of a jubilant VCU locker room on Sunday, shouting to his players, "What do the guys who were talking about us have to say now? NOTHING!" No. The truth is that the Rams are playing out of their minds. This is a team that ranked in the high 60s in efficiency on kenpom.com before the weekend, and had a defense that ranked outside the top 100. It proceeded to hold USC to its lowest points per possession of the season (0.78), and Georgetown to its fifth-lowest (0.91). Then the Rams, powered by the shooting of Bradford Burgess and the assistability of Joey Rodriguez (11 dimes, no turnovers), went into a new gear offensively against Purdue, shredding the Boilermakers' top-10 D to the tune of 1.48 PPP. It was the most PPP Purdue had given up all season by a wide, wide margin -- the second-most successful team was Ohio State at a mere 1.23 PPP. If the numbers confuse you, we'll put it in layman's terms: VCU's offense was an absolute joy to watch.
Our other heroes also hail from the Southwest Region, and will meet the Rams in the first 10-11 game in the history of the NCAA tournament. That would be No. 10 Florida State, which laughed in the face of the nation's most efficient halfcourt offense, holding No. 2 Notre Dame to 23.3 percent long-range shooting in a 71-57 upset in Chicago. That the 'Noles could defend was not a shock; they ranked No. 1 in defensive efficiency. That the 'Noles could defend that well while only getting 10 minutes of playing time from their star, Chris Singleton, was improbable. Singleton, who's regarded as one of the nation's most versatile and effective defenders, missed six games after suffering a broken foot on Feb. 12, and made a limited return in FSU's second-round win over Texas A&M. The 'Noles were throttled by Maryland and (to a lesser degree) North Carolina in his absence, but had little trouble taking the life out of the Irish on Sunday. Junior Bernard James, a 26-year-old Iraq war veteran, stepped up in a big way, with 14 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks in 21 minutes.
FSU was one of four double-digit seeds to reach the Sweet 16 -- the others being No. 11s Marquette and VCU and No. 12 Richmond -- but the way the 'Noles got there, by scrapping without Singleton, their highest possession-user (at 23.7 percent) and highest-impact defender, was amazing. Just like VCU, no one expected them to still be alive ... and yet here they are, survivors at the center of the extravaganza. The script gets wiped clean for the second weekend; the new one, we can only hope, will have just as much drama, but a tighter middle act.
• Ohio State and Kansas appear to be on a collision course for the title game. The Buckeyes have sweated the least of any team in the tournament thus far, beating UT-San Antonio 75-46 and George Mason 98-66 in Cleveland. They by no means have an easy road through Newark, with Kentucky and either North Carolina or a sneakily good Marquette team in the Elite Eight, but OSU is playing some of its best basketball of the season, having just put up 1.48 PPP on the Patriots -- an offensive performance that equaled what VCU did to Purdue. Kansas, on the other hand, can't be more pleased about the havoc in the rest of the Southwest: As well as Richmond (the Jayhawks' Sweet 16 opponent), VCU and Florida State have played, KU would much rather see them in San Antonio than Notre Dame or Purdue.
Not that we're allowed to re-pick brackets, but my new Final Four matchups would be Ohio State-Duke and Kansas-Wisconsin, with the best regional final being staged between the Blue Devils and San Diego State. The Dukies who showed up on Sunday wouldn't be capable of beating San Diego State in an Anaheim final ... but they are capable of getting past the Aztecs if Kyrie Irving makes progress over the next week. SDSU's front line is unreal, but it doesn't have the guard-play to match what the Blue Devils can potentially get out of Nolan Smith and Irving.
• The Venoy Overton Ploy -- his attempt to counter North Carolina's up-three, intentional foul by attempting a shot from halfcourt -- warrants further discussion. From the Seattle Times, we can confirm that he was trying to foul ("I misjudged [Kendall Marshall's] reach," Overton said) and that UNC coach Roy Williams had ordered a foul ("On that shot attempt of theirs from about the center line -- that was a good play by Lorenzo because we were going to foul," he said).
This is of particular interest to me because of a story I did on up-three, under-seven strategy in September; Overton's shot reminded me of part of a conversation with Butler coach Brad Stevens that didn't make it into the article. Stevens, despite the prodding of his former coach at DePauw, Bill Fenlon, who's a huge proponent of the up-three fouling odds, was hesitant to commit to fouling every time in that situation. Stevens made the point to me that if a coach became too predictable in those scenarios -- if everyone knew he was going to foul -- then opponents' reactions to those situations would inevitably evolve, with players anticipating contact and attempting threes from anywhere on the court to draw three free throws, rather than two. Overton, after taking advice from teammate Isaiah Thomas, tried to trick the Tar Heels into sending him to the line for three -- and it would've been a legendary move had his timing not been off.
(This is why, in my mind, it's important to force an inbounds catch by a player moving away from the basket in those situations, and foul before he can switch gears and get into any kind of shooting position. Easier said than done, but it's a much safer move than attempting to grab a guy who's moving at full steam upcourt, even if he's 50 feet away from the rim.)
• High-def screen-grabbing -- in particular, the work of @bubbaprog on Twitter (real name: Timothy Burke) -- has furthered forensic investigation of questionable calls in this NCAA tournament. On Friday, Burke's site Gifulmation served up conclusive evidence that Arizona's Derrick Williams chest-bumped the right arm of Memphis' Wesley Witherspoon before making the block that saved the Wildcats in the 5-12 game. On Sunday, Burke posted a screengrab of the moment just before the five-second call on Cory Joseph -- an image that has to make Texas fans irate. Below is a zoomed-in version of Joseph asking for a timeout while official Dick Cartmell has yet to extend his right arm to signal the fifth second ... and yet Cartmell did not award Joseph a timeout:
(There's also a YouTube of the sequence here, if you prefer moving images.)
Our own Joe Posnanski blogged about the end of the Texas-Arizona game, taking offense to the announcers' focus on officiating errors rather than the Longhorns' mental errors. He was right to call Jordan Hamilton's decision to call timeout with 14 seconds left "as bad a timeout as I can ever remember in a college basketball game." (Well, other than Chris Webber's timeout.) And it is more than reasonable to suggest, as Joe did, that the 'Horns "cost themselves the game" with a series of very questionable moves down the stretch. But is it really wrong to suggest that Texas' players/coaches screwed up, and the refs might have screwed up, too? The former should never excuse the latter.
There are plenty of things we lament losing from this NCAA tournament after the first weekend, among them neck-bearded scoring prowess of Jacob Pullen, the flailing-braid shot-blocking of Kenneth Faried ... and the power of Doc Nix and the George Mason band. The GMU crew will have to live on through our videos; the Tourney Blog's Man in Cleveland, Pablo Torre (follow him on Twitter at @SIPabloTorre), came through with footage of them performing Kanye West's Power ...
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... and Rage Against The Machine's Killing in the Name:
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Band-wise, the Tourney Blog advises you to turn your attention to the CAA team that's still standing in the dance. VCU's pep band -- and its stripper/director Ryan Kopacsi -- is going to own the Alamodome:
Previous Tourney Blog Days in Review:
Saturday: A Cruel, Cruel Ending in D.C.