March 29th, 2006
What many believe is the greatest NCAA Tournament ever
couldn’t get any better, could it? With the likes of Bradley, George Mason
and Wichita State advancing to the second weekend, fans throughout the
nation were captivated by the close games and the sheer unpredictability of
the 2006 edition. But historically, this weekend is dominated by the
“Goliath”, teams who hail from larger leagues where the revenue and big men
also come in larger sizes. Some skeptics felt that while the runs of teams
from the Missouri Valley and Colonial Athletic were “cute” little tales that
can entertain us all, they won’t be here for long. But luckily for us fans,
these teams didn’t see it that way. With Mason and Wichita State playing
each other, one of these teams would go to sleep on Friday night finding
themselves one game away from the promised land that so many had told them
would be impossible to reach: the Final Four.
But don’t forget about those teams who were going up
against college basketball royalty in these two days. When the brackets came
out, some were excited for a possible J.J. Redick/ Adam Morrison
confrontation in Indianapolis. Well, you’ll have to play that on your XBox
or Playstation 2 console, because of the excellent defense of a
third-generation LSU Tiger, and a team in UCLA that didn’t quit. Old Big
East foes Boston College and Villanova put together a game worthy of an
audience on an early March night in Madison Square Garden. And two proud
sets of Huskies fought for forty minutes- then went five more in a game that
despite its greatness, some will remember for some “interesting” whistles in
crunch time. But don’t forget about an emerging star in the post for the
Florida Gators, who plays with the same fire and passion (not to mention
athleticism) that we grew accustomed to seeing from his father on the tennis
court back in the eighties. Below is a roundup of the Sweet 16.
- Duke says
goodbye to five seniors, thanks primarily to an LSU freshman.
their ninth straight Sweet 16, some wondered aloud if the Duke Blue Devils
were a modern-day UCLA. The Bruins’ run of national titles is something that
will never be duplicated, so I guess that some will take anything that seems
close. Not to say that this run hasn’t been outstanding, but the fact is
that Duke only has one national title during that run. Thursday posed a
monumental challenge for the Devils, going up against an athletic team in
LSU that had multiple ball handlers and a few bodies they could throw at
Shelden Williams down low. But the real question was how were the Bayou
Bengals going to slow down, or dare I say stop, J.J. Redick.
Turns out that
John Brady had the answer: freshman guard Garrett Temple. In addition to
having to bring the ball up the court for the majority of the game (Duke
pressured Darrel Mitchell from baseline to baseline), this third generation
Tiger was given the tough task of guarding the nation’s second leading
scorer, and the highest scorer in ACC history. The results were amazing.
3-for-18 from the field, including 0-for-9 from inside the arc, totaling
eleven points. This was not the way in which Redick, or the legions of Duke
fans throughout the nation, envisioned their team going out. Tyrus Thomas
added five blocks to the LSU defensive effort, which advances to meet Texas
despite going 12-for-23 from the foul line. Shelden Williams closed out his
career with 23 points and 13 rebounds.
ends Bradley’s dream run.
A thirteen seed in the Sweet 16…hard to believe,
especially when they had to get through a trendy pick to get to Indianapolis
(Kansas), and a tournament-tough and experienced team (Pittsburgh) followed
that one up. But Bradley was able to get it done, relying on the likes of
Daniel Ruffin and Patrick O’Bryant. But they ran into a well-oiled machine
in the form of the Memphis Tigers. The Tiger Express has been running so
well this year that many people have either ignored, or simply not heard,
their accomplishments. Memphis, knowing that they were in a weakened
Conference USA, took on all comers in their non-conference schedule, facing
the likes of Duke, Gonzaga, UCLA, and Texas in order to build their profile.
They’re deep, athletic, and know a thing or two about how to play this game.
Rodney Carney, the lone senior that makes a major
contribution to this team, led the way with 23 points, including some
thunderous dunks that seemed to take the air out of the Braves in the
process. The 80-64 win moves Memphis on to the Elite 8, a place they haven’t
been to since a man affectionately known as “Penny” led the Tigers that far
in 1992. There they will face a UCLA team that after Thursday night’s
comeback over Gonzaga has to be thinking that they could be a team of
by the three, die by the three.
West Virginia experienced this first hand in their game
against Texas in Atlanta. The Mountaineers nearly shot themselves out of the
game, only to shoot themselves back into the game to the point of a 71-71
tie with five seconds remaining. The Kevin Pittsnogle three-pointer came
after trainers struggled mightily to get his nose to stop bleeding, and had
the Mountaineers seemingly headed to overtime. But Kenton Paulino had other
ideas. Receiving a pass from freshman A.J. Abrams, Paulino let fly from a
couple of feet beyond the arc. And as the horn went off, the ball hit
nothing but net.
The key in this one was the rebounding, an area in which
the Longhorns dominated by a final tally of 43-15, a margin that was thought
to be unheard of at this level of basketball. P.J. Tucker (14 rebounds) and
LaMarcus Aldridge (13 rebounds) outrebounded the Mountaineers by themselves
in this one, a feat that will be much harder to accomplish against LSU. Mike
Gansey led the Mountaineers with five rebounds. But this game shouldn’t take
away from West Virginia’s two-year run, something that hasn’t been seen in
Morgantown for a long time.
-UCLA storms back from nine down to defeat Gonzaga.
The first thirty minutes were the worst that UCLA had
played all season. Instead of attacking Gonzaga’s 2-3 zone defense, they
were happy with throwing up long shot after long shot to no avail. Then,
freshman Darren Collison got an idea: maybe we should drive to the basket
and look for shots that way. Well, it worked. The Bruins got back into the
game thanks to this new and improved strategy, not to mention the inside
efforts of Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and Ryan Hollins. And there was a third
factor that you never thought you’d see from Gonzaga: they took the air out
of the ball. A usually aggressive offense became tentative, dribbling around
with no true purpose until late in the shot clock, and then hoping for
either Adam Morrison or J.P. Batista to bail them out. A nine point lead
(71-62) with three minutes to go suddenly became one with seconds remaining,
and the Bulldogs inbounding the ball.
Morrison’s cross-court pass landed safely in the hands of
Batista, who was then swarmed by guards Jordan Farmar and Cedric Bozeman.
Farmar swiped the ball clean, and then found Mbah a Moute under the basket
for the game-winner. In the ensuing mayhem, Mbah a Moute then made a diving
steal from behind on Bulldog point guard Derek Raivio, getting a held ball
with the arrow going to the Bruins. Arron Afflalo made one of two from the
foul line, which was followed by a Batista miss at the buzzer, giving UCLA
the 73-71 win. An amazing game, one which took a turn away from the bottom
line of winning and losing when Ryan Hollins and Afflalo went over to help a
distraught Morrison up. They could have run around the whole time, beating
their chests in triumph, but they didn’t. And for a storied program that’s
on its way back up, maybe this is the true measure of how far they’ve come.
Friday March 24th
survives the defensive play of the tournament to defeat Boston College.
Nothing would fall for the top seed Wildcats in the first
half of their game against former Big East foe Boston College in the
Metrodome. While neither team was setting the nets on fire, Villanova’s
half-long slump had to make people wonder if this would be the end of their
season. However, their emotional sparkplug, sophomore guard Kyle Lowry,
wasn’t going to go down without a fight. He went for steals, loose balls,
and fed teammates, giving ‘Nova the spark that the Nova Nation has become
accustomed to seeing on a nightly basis. Add to this the offensive effort of
Randy Foye (he finished with 29 points), and the Wildcats were right back in
But the Eagles were no slouch either, holding onto the
lead until the later stages of the second half, and then tying the game in
regulation on a Jared Dudley three with 28.4 remaining. Then, it what has to
be the defensive play of this tournament, and one of the best ever, BC
center Sean Williams went from the paint all the way out to the wing and
blocked Lowry’s three point shot that would have won the game at the buzzer.
Foye continued to work his magic, which was even more important with the
poor performances of fellow guards Allan Ray (3-for-15) and Mike Nardi (he’s
lost some confidence and only played 11 minutes last night). A Will Sheridan
basket (goaltended by Williams) was the difference, scored on a play that
also won them a game at Cincinnati last month. And despite their size
advantage, forwards Dudley and Craig Smith were kept quiet (by their
standards) by Villanova, who will play Florida on Sunday.
Mason continues their run.
This past week has been utter mayhem for the non-BCS
conference members who found themselves in the Sweet 16. But I doubt that
Bradley and Wichita State received the level of attention given to George
Mason. ESPN, USA Today…and the list goes on. Everyone wanted a piece of Jim
Larranaga and his boys, or at the least a picture of the statue of George
Mason modeling his own basketball jersey while holding a shaker. You would
think that the Patriots would have a tough time focusing on the task at
hand…but they didn’t. With many supporters in the stands, Mason soundly
defeated the Shockers 63-55, a score that doesn’t do this effort justice.
Folarin Campbell led GMU with sixteen points, and a team
that some felt did not deserve to be in the tournament is now one game away
from the Final Four. No Colonial Athletic Association team has been this far
since David Robinson and Navy back in 1986. And to think, Mason had never
won a tournament game before this season. With UConn up next, the
“kryptonite” quote will be used over and over before tip, but the Patriots
and their fans won’t mind that one bit.
Noah, not Roy Hibbert, becomes the premier post presence and Florida
The question for Florida’s athletic post players, Noah,
and Al Horford, was how do you slow down seven-foot-two Roy Hibbert? Hibbert
arrived in Minneapolis having played arguably his two best games (back to
back) of the season, and the Gators would have a hard time matching up with
that size. So Billy Donovan went to a zone in the first half, getting mixed
results. While Georgetown struggled from the field and only tallied thirty
points for the half, the passive defense took away some of Florida’s
aggressiveness. So he went back to their staple, the man-to-man defense.
And Joakim, son of tennis great and reggae singer Yannick
Noah, decided to take over the paint himself. Noah finished with 15 points,
10 rebounds, and 5 blocks, and Corey Brewer’s lone field goal (an improbable
flip after being fouled with less than 30 second left) was the difference in
Florida’s 57-53 win over the Hoyas. Now they meet a Villanova team that
pushed them around in the second round last year on their way to a 76-65
win. With this Gator outfit more receptive to the ideas of team play and
selflessness, it’s going to be a lot tougher to push this team around.
No one will accuse the Connecticut Huskies of playing
their best basketball in the first three games of the tournament. There have
been stretches of excellence, either preceded or followed by stretched of
indifference. Sleepwalking through the NCAA Tournament is an act usually
rewarded with an early trip home, but UConn has found a way to “survive and
advance”, as Jim Valvano once said. Their 98-92 overtime win over their
namesakes from Washington was an interesting affair to say the least.
Whether you focus on the suspect officiating (okay, those guys were
downright terrible), the outstanding play of Washington’s Jamaal Williams
(27 points, 7 rebounds), or the clutch play down the stretch of UConn’s
Marcus Williams and Rashad Anderson is up to you. But this was a game that
will be seen on ESPN Classic for years to come.
Connecticut tallied a season-high 26 turnovers, but it
was Washington’s foul trouble that made the difference in the end. Five
Washington players fouled out by the time this game was over, including
defensive stopper Bobby Jones and Pac-10 Player of the Year Brandon Roy.
Down 80-76 with 21 seconds left, Marcus Williams went to the basket and was
fouled on a made layup. His made free throw was followed on the other end by
two Roy free throws to move the lead back to three, 82-79.
Williams then found Anderson on the right elbow, and
despite good defense from Ryan Appleby, Anderson nailed the three. Overtime.
But UConn nearly threw the game away late in overtime, up 94-92. Rudy Gay
inbounded the ball, which was stolen by Appleby. Instead of taking the open
shot, he passed it off to Joel Smith, who had his cross-court pass picked
off by Marcus Williams. Williams, who hit all eleven of his foul shots, hit
two more, and Craig Austrie closed the game out with two to get the 98-92
final. Rarely does a team win in spite of 26 turnovers, but dogs don’t have
“nine lives”, cats do. So they’d better clean up their act in time for
Sunday’s regional final against George Mason.
A tournament that was crazy enough last weekend has
become even more bizarre. But as Clark Kellogg said on CBS last night, “You
can’t script this stuff. This isn’t wrestling.”