Just another night in the always-crazy NCAA Tournament.
Both of the early games were washouts, as UNC and Kansas obliterated their competition with ease. It was, quite frankly, a little boring at times. "Boring" and "March Madness" almost never go together this late in the tournament. But the late games gave us all something special- two close games won on last second baskets by underdogs, one of them in OT.
Before we get to UK-OSU and VCU-FSU, some obligatory reactions from the early games:
North Carolina- 81, Marquette- 63
It's official- we are down to just 1 Big East team remaining in the Dance (UConn) after the Golden Eagles played their worst half of basketball in this 2010-11 season in the first half against the Tar Heels. Marquette was clearly bothered by the length of UNC, especially down low, where John Henson and Tyler Zeller dominated Chris Otule, Davante Gardner and company so thoroughly, you were left wondering whether Marquette had completely and totally lost their confidence. Zeller denied the post like a gatekeeper intent on keeping all orange objects out of the paint, while Henson deflected and/or blocked every errant pass thrown in his vicinity with his freakish length.
The score at the half was 40-15, and it got worse before it got better. Marquette came out after halftime flat and playing the same mistake-filled ball they did in the first half- bad passes, bad shots, forced drives, turnovers. You name something bad to do on a basketball court, and Marquette did it in the first half. Free throws ended up being a non-issue.
It was over before it began, as the Golden Eagles couldn't shake the Prudential Center hex.
Kansas- 77, Richmond- 57
Here's a lesson everyone should know already- don't get a great team angry before a game. If you do, you are doomed. Before the game, there was a little skirmish between one/two Richmond and Kansas players (I honestly have no idea why), and because of it, Kansas came out with tremendous energy and focus, opening the game on a 31-9 run.
Brady Morningstar (18 PTS) and Thomas Robinson (12 PTS, 14 REB) led the way for the Jayhawks as they cruised the entire way. Justin Harper scored 22 PTS for Richmond, but Kevin Anderson struggled with his shot. The Spiders could have competed in this game, but because of that can of Raid they gave Kansas in pre-game, they didn't stand a chance. Kansas looked every bit the top offense in college basketball this year, which they were.
Memo to VCU- don't mess with Kansas before the game. Actually, CC everyone else on that memo as well, just in case they happen to meet in the Final Four.
Follow the jump for analysis of Kentucky-Ohio State and VCU-Florida State, plus predictions on tonight's heavyweight matchups.
And now to the good games-
VCU- 72, Florida State- 71 (OT)
No one will ever call this game pretty. That much is certain.
But exciting? You betcha.
Everyone's tournament darling VCU ran up against the nation's best defense in the Seminoles, and didn't blink. Fortunately for VCU, they also were playing one of the worst offenses in the nation.
FSU was able to bottle up Joey Rodriguez and Jamie Skeen, options 1 and 2 for Shaka Smart's Rams, so they needed a great performance from somewhere else. They got it from Bradford Burgess- 26 PTS, including a whopping 6-7 from deep. The Rams made 12-26 deep balls on the night, which greatly helped their cause because they got absolutely killed on the boards by the longer, taller, and more athletic Seminoles (45-28 total, including 20-5 in offensive rebounds).
Florida State got 20 offensive rebounds, and finished with 18 more shot attempts, yet lost the game because they just could not capitalize off those rebounds, missing putback after putback. They showed some terrible offense down the stretch of the game- in regulation, they had a chance to win it, but didn't even get a shot off. In the OT session, Derwin Kitchen (who had a pretty nice game with 23 PTS and 12 REB) drove the baseline and seemed to have a shot at a floater with just seconds remaining. Instead he passed it up to a teammate in the lane, who also couldn't get his shot off. It was a pretty sad sight to see after Chris Singleton made a huge 3 to send it to OT and also drove the baseline for a layup late in OT that gave FSU a 1-point lead.
But on a night where the FSU offense flailed so badly, on the crucial possession of the game, it was the defense that blinked. VCU was able to find Burgess off an inbounds pass right under the basket for the winning layup. Shaka Smart's stock rose even more, and the Rams (who have already won 4 games in this tournament) will now face the mighty Jayhawks for the right to go to Houston.
Kentucky- 62, Ohio State- 60
Newark was rocking for this late contest, as both schools had plenty of fans in the stands at the Rock. The atmosphere was charged and every minute of this game was exciting.
In the first half, both teams looked like they were trying to one-up each other in "Athletic Defensive Plays Your Team Can't Make If Their Grandmothers Depended On It." Everything was contested, and both teams played good defense, especially Kentucky. The game even got a little chippy between Jared Sullinger and some of the other UK players. After 20 minutes, the score was 30-30 and everyone had their Spidey Senses tingling. "This is gonna be a close game," thought everyone.
Everyone was right. It's really tough to describe the second half other than this- guys just made play after play after play on both ends. It was a clash of the titans no matter which way you slice it- Sullinger and Josh Harrellson had great production down low, with Sullinger throwing up a 21-16 like it was nothing, then saying afterwards he plans to return to OSU next year (how good will he be next year? I shudder to think about it). DeAndre Liggins contributed an unexpected 15 points off the bench and a very much expected defensive gem. Aaron Craft was all over the floor, agitating the Wildcats' backcourt of Brandon Knight and Doron Lamb into sub-par games. Jon Deibler and David Lighty did what they always do.
Down the stretch, Kentucky was just making better plays than the Buckeyes were. Everyone must have stood for the last 4 minutes or so. It was that good. After David Lighty got a steal and layup that put OSU up 57-56, Liggins made two free throws (always an issue for a John Calipari-coached team), and then made a huge jumper 60-57 Kentucky ahead.
The Jon Diebler did what Jon Diebler does- he hit a big shot, a straightaway 3 from deep range to tie the game. Just when you thought there would be a flurry of timeouts, there weren't
Kentucky never called timeout. It led to the freshman Knight driving left, stopping and putting up a tough jumper over the perfect defense of Craft. The ball went in, even with Craft playing perfect defense. Just the breaks of the game.
Ohio State tried to burn the Wildcats with a quick shot right back, opting not to call time after they got it into the halfcourt. William Buford missed a three off the side of the rim, and Kentucky pulled off the upset over the number 1 overall seed.
My question down the stretch was- why did Buford shoot the ball? In the last 6 minutes, he took four shots, missing them all, after going 2-12 before that. TWO OF TWELVE. Buford has been streaky his entire career, really, although this year, he's been less streaky. But at that point, as a player, you have to know whether it's your night or isn't your night. It wasn't Buford's night by any stretch of the imagination, and none of the 4 shots he took were particularly good shots- mainly jumpers off-balance from just inside the arc. You have to be smarter than that if you're Buford.
On to tonight's power-packed matchups-
Butler vs Florida, 4:30 PM, CBS
Elite 8 matchup number 1 pits the Mid-Major-no-longer Bulldogs and the athletic Gators. For Florida, it's simple- they have to be able to score the ball. Chandler Parsons is their only real perimeter threat, so they need Erving Walker and Kenny Boynton to play well and shoulder some of the scoring load. Alex Tyus can score down low, but he'll need some help against the stout Butler D. For the Bulldogs, they can't let Florida use their athleticism to force turnovers and run-outs. They also need Matt Howard to stay out of foul trouble against the big front line of Florida. With Andrew Smith a question mark heading in, it puts more pressure on Howard. Shelvin Mack and Ronald Nored can definitely hold their own with Boynton and Walker, and they could also use a good game from Shawn Vanzant.
Prediction- Florida. Butler is a very good team, but the Gators outsize them and have better athletes. I think that will be the key in this game. Expect a low-scoring game with these two good defenses, though.
Arizona vs UConn, 7:05 PM, CBS
Must-see TV. Period. Kemba Walker and Derrick Williams are worth the price of admission by themselves. For the Wildcats, they have the athleticism to make this a very good game. They can use that athleticism to stay with the Huskies on defense and offense. They must make everything difficult for Kemba Walker on defense, and don't forget about Jeremy Lamb, who has officially emerged. MoMo Jones will need to take care of the ball against ball-hawks Walker and Shabazz Napier. But Arizona will need contributions from the supporting cast to win this game, as I'm fairly certain that Derrick Williams will get his. They also need to continue that effort they gave in the second half against Duke into this game.
For UConn, they have to use that tandem of Walker and Lamb to its full potential, as no one else really did much in the game against San Diego State. A motivated and focused Arizona team is nearly as good defensively as SDSU, and Arizona has been both lately. This will be a stiff test for both teams.
Prediction- UConn. I've been picking against them all season, and got burned for it most of the time. But this time I'm going with the KembaLambs because there is a chance that Arizona put a little too much into beating Duke. They gave maximum effort in that game, and could have a letdown.