Day At The Dance: A Cruel, Cruel Ending
TUCSON, Ariz. -- What we learned on the first day of the third round of the NCAA tournament ...
1. It was the cruelest of endings. It was the most incomprehensible of sequences. It was the most dramatic NCAA tournament game since Gordon Hayward's heave rimmed out in Indianapolis last April. First, the nation rejoiced as Butler's Shawn Vanzant found Andrew Smith for the layup that should have sunk No. 1-seeded Pittsburgh, giving the Bulldogs a 70-69 lead with 2.2 seconds left. Then we screamed in disbelief and felt the agony of Shelvin Mack, who committed what he called the "dumbest foul in Butler history," by pushing the Panthers' Gilbert Brown over the sideline on the inbounds pass. Brown made the first to tie it, then missed the second, with the rebound falling into the hands of Matt Howard, the hero of Butler's second-round win over Old Dominion.
It was here that one had to speculate the endgame was playing out inside a Bizarro bubble, that the absurdity of Mack's foul rendered everyone on the floor -- and specifically Pitt's Nasir Robinson -- incapable of making rational basketball decisions. Because we were soon screaming in disbelief again, and feeling the even more acute agony of Robinson, who committed what no doubt was the dumbest foul in Pitt history by grabbing Howard's arms with 0.8 seconds left in a tie game.
Howard won it at the free-throw line, 71-70, and all involved were left in shock: As Smith said, "I thought we were going to win ... Then I thought we were going to lose ... Then I thought we were going to win again." Butler coach Brad Stevens was gracious in his postgame TV interview, saying the game should not have ended that way. Soon after, Robinson sat at his locker, dejected, and said the only thing he could say: "I take the blame, man."
The beauty of the modern NCAA tournament, where locker rooms are equipped with DirecTV, is that one drama can flow seamlessly into the next, even if they unfold 2,200 miles away. San Diego State was in its locker room after its own less-than-poetic ending -- a double-overtime game in which it had the ball for the last possession of regulation and the first OT, and failed to score, but saved a victory over Temple with a clutch Malcolm Thomas block -- watching the Butler second half. When the score was 62-60, a DVR prompt came up to record Jersey Shore; the digs belonged to Arizona's hoops team, and apparently they'd set a season pass for the appalling MTV series. An Aztecs player stood up and asked, "Jersey Shore? Anyone? Yes? No?" before rectifying the situation.
They were shocked by Mack's foul, and even more by Robinson's, with reserves Tim Shelton and James Rahon debating the merits of each call. No. 2 SDSU was well aware of how fragile life as a high tournament seed can be; it had just nearly been bounced from the West Region by No. 7 Temple. The Aztecs were relieved the reaper had not come for them on Saturday, and as Shelton exited the locker room, he said, gleefully, "I'm OUT -- like PITT!"
2. The next thing Shelton said was, "Can I say that now?" -- apparently worried that media would be listening. Well, I was, but it's fine; printing it just means I'm obliged to write about who, now that Pitt is out, is the new favorite to reach the Final Four out of the Southeast. The answer is No. 4 Wisconsin, which weathered a 38-point Jacob Pullen Storm in the Tucson nightcap to win 70-65 and advance to meet Butler in New Orleans. The Badgers will only be the third-highest seed in the Big Easy (after No. 2 Florida and No. 3 BYU), but they'll be the most efficient team there, ranking seventh overall in kenpom.com's standings. They've played incredibly sound in their first two tourney games; on Saturday they committed just five turnovers against Kansas State -- with ultra-steady point guard Jordan Taylor giving the ball away zero times against six assists, padding his national-best assist-to-turnover ratio to 4.18-to-1. The fact that Taylor shot 2-of-16 from the field was immaterial; he managed the game and came up with a monster defensive play when it was needed most, stuffing Pullen on his final three-point attempt. Senior forward Keaton Nankivil would say that this was vintage Taylor: "He just makes winning plays."
Because of Taylor's steadiness, Jon Leuer's efficiency (19 points on 6-of-12 shooting), and overall toughness* of their frontline (both Leuer and Nankivil needed stitches after the game, and Mike Bruesewitz heroically hustled despite a knee injury), the Badgers need to be rebranded as a Final Four favorite. They were an afterthought in most brackets after losing back-to-back games in ugly fashion (to Ohio State and Penn State) to close the regular season, and as senior Tim Jarmusz said, "I don't think anyone was picking Wisconsin for the Final Four." Inside the UW camp, they've been talking about Houston since the offseason -- Nankivil said he could tell this team was dangerous since it started workouts -- and it now seems like a realistic destination.
* If you need proof of the Badgers' scrappiness, take a look at Nankivil's eye in this iPhone shot I took:
3. And what about San Diego State, the other team to emerge from Tucson? The Aztecs' 71-64, double-overtime win over Temple can be interpreted in two ways. The nice way: It's an extremely meaningful victory for the program, which had never before won an NCAA tournament game, and is in the midst of a historic, 34-win season. SDSU's players celebrated on the McKale Center in a way that far exceeded the game's seeding situation -- they were the 2, Temple was the 7 -- and their fans chanted, "We Want Kemba," in reference to UConn's Kemba Walker, whom they'll be facing in the Sweet 16 in Anaheim, with either Duke or Texas awaiting in the Elite Eight.
The harsher interpretation: The Aztecs are a shaky No. 2 seed. They mismanaged the game down the stretch, failing to get quality shots at the end of regulation and overtime, and star Kawhi Leonard seemed both flustered and exhausted, going just 5-of-14 from the field on the game while finishing with 16 points. Although they were 9-of-9 from the free-throw line on the game, they earned just two free-throw attempts in regulation -- and charity-stripe production has been an issue all season, with them ranking 302nd in free-throw rate. They're capable of overwhelming people athletically -- there really isn't a more awe-inspiring frontline than Leonard, Billy White and Malcolm Thomas, and they outscored Temple 38-24 in the paint -- but they'll need to play much, much better in Anaheim to get past UConn, much less Duke.
Meanwhile, BYU, which looked like the far more suspect Mountain West team coming into the tournament, steamrolled Gonzaga in Denver, 89-67, and may now have a better shot at the Final Four than the Aztecs. That's mostly because of how the Southeast developed: Jimmer (who scored 34 against the Zags) & Co. now only need to get through Florida and either Wisconsin or Butler to reach Houston.
4. With apologies to Hakim Warrick, this is the Tournament of the Clutch Block. First it was Kenneth Faried on Thursday, then Arizona's Derrick Williams on Friday, and two more crunch-time swatters solidified the theme on Saturday, with Thomas stuffing Lavoy Allen in the lane when the Aztecs were up three in the final minute, and Taylor -- who had eight blocks all season! -- shutting down Pullen's final attempt at a game-tying three.
When I interviewed Thomas on Saturday night, he was coincidentally standing three lockers down from the one Williams uses in the regular season, because SDSU was occupying Arizona's normal team locker room at the McKale Center. Leonard had claimed Williams' locker spot* -- "A pro gets a pro's locker," Thomas said of the future first-rounder -- but Thomas was well aware of the bar Faried and Williams had set earlier in the dance. "I felt like it was my time to make a game-changing block," said Thomas, who was second in the Mountain West in block percentage at 6.22. "Because blocking shots ... is kind of like what I do."
* An iPhone shot of Leonard, sitting under Williams' nameplate, eating chips:
5. Two locker-room videos from Saturday that are must-view material:
First, Temple, which was Team Tourney Blog in Tucson, gave us an exclusive look into their final pregame breakdown of San Diego State. Watch as assistant coach Matt Langel -- who was assigned the Aztecs scouting report -- talks personnel, and head coach Fran Dunphy passes along points of emphasis. What's interesting, viewing this after the game, is that the kicker to his speech was "Focus for Forty," telling his team to stay on task for the entire game. Little did Dunphy know that they'd need to Focus for Fifty instead.
[wpvideo z0s5Vv3m w=590]
The second features Butler coach Brad Stevens, making his postgame entrance to the locker room in rock-star fashion, doing the signature flying body-bump that he made famous on the floor in Salt Lake City when the Bulldogs clinched a Final Four trip last season. Stevens' tourney feats are making him the new Tom Izzo; this Butler team isn't nearly as strong personnel-wise as last year's, yet Stevens' kids knocked off the beast of the Big East -- just as they did in 2010 with Syracuse -- and are now two wins away from a highly improbable repeat Final Four. Will they be re-enacting this scene in New Orleans?