In low-scoring tourney, playmakers still matter
They say defense wins championships.
Friday's results belied that notion. Wisconsin was the Big Ten's top scoring defense in conference play (55.8 PPG allowed). Its abrasive man-to-man style anchors Bo Ryan's philosophy. Force tough shots on defense, work for smart shots on offense -- even if that means using all 35 seconds on the shot clock for each attempt.
And in the first half, the strategy worked. Marshall Henderson, the SEC's top scorer, made just one of his first 13 shots. And then, he began to feel it. A few 3s, a floater, a drive. The most polarizing figure in college was suddenly a hero after halftime.
The Badgers couldn't identify a similar offensive star. They recorded just one field goal in the final 6:52 of the loss. Once the Marshall Henderson Show began after halftime, Ryan needed his own initiator to counter the Ole Miss star.
Not just another stop.
When Dr. James Naismith invented the game, he didn't start with a 1-3-1 zone. His idea began with a peach basket and a ball. The goal? Score more than your opponent.
Offense is still the great equalizer in college basketball. There's the 3-point line, the layup, the dunk, the hook, the free throw, the jump shot, the runner, etc. Success via any combination of the aforementioned methods can lead to victory. Something that a man-to-man or zone scheme can't achieve on its own.
The alley-oop is not just a play. It's a statement. Any squad that throws one -- whether designed or spontaneous -- aims to score and embarrass its opponent. That's why men and women cover their mouths, scream and jump when they see one. They understand its intentions.
So the college basketball world rose, yelled and gasped in unison when Brett Comer threw a picture-perfect lob to Chase Fieler for a one-handed dunk in the final minutes of Florida Gulf Coast's upset of 2-seed Georgetown on Friday night.
Defense is a pivotal component of any team's success, especially in the postseason. But the day's results also suggested that playmakers are equally essential.
The Eagles, a 15-seed, won their first NCAA tournament game in just their second season of eligibility. Their school (founded in 1991) is younger than some of their players.
Their head coach, Andy Enfield, is married to a former cover model. He reportedly makes $150,000 a year. John Thompson III's seven-figure salary tops the $971,000-plus sum that Florida Gulf Coast pays all of its head coaches each season, per the U.S. Department of Education. Enfield has three Europeans and a trio of Division I transfers on his roster.
Sherwood Brown, a senior from Orlando, wasn't even rated by ESPN.com's RecruitingNation in the class of 2009. His profile is blank.
But the Atlantic Sun -- not the Atlantic 10 or even Sun Belt -- player of the year led the Eagles to the third 15-over-2 upset in the last two seasons. He scored 24 points. He hugged cheerleaders. He shook the hands of analysts on the sideline before the game clock had expired. He took pictures with his new fans after the game.
The unlikely victory is even more fascinating when Georgetown's defensive numbers are considered. The Hoyas entered the game fourth nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, while the Eagles were 149th in adjusted offensive efficiency, according to Ken Pomeroy.
But Florida Gulf Coast played relaxed and loose. Once Georgetown's offense began to stall and future lottery pick Otto Porter (5-for-17 on FGs) couldn't pull the Hoyas forward, Thompson's team was doomed.
The Bearcats, another defensive force at this level, couldn't keep Creighton quiet. The Bluejays shot 45 percent from the field and 46 percent from the 3-point line. Doug McDermott made shots inside and outside the arc (7-for-15 overall, 2-for-4 from the 3-point line). He was perfect at the charity stripe (11-for-11).
Cincy kept it close. But its missed shots were just as significant as its late stops.
Down in Texas, Illinois' Brandon Paul (17 points) hit a critical late 3-pointer and went 5-for-6 from the free throw line in the final minute of a win over Colorado. The Buffaloes scored just five points in the final 9 minutes, 30 seconds of the loss.
The difference between NC State and Temple? Khalif Wyatt (31 points).
P.J. Hairston dropped 23 points in North Carolina's win over Villanova.
Freshman Georges Niang (19 points, 9-for-13 on FGs) was the best player on the floor when Iowa State defeated Notre Dame by 18 points.
For every highlight, however, there have been many lows in the NCAA tournament thus far.
The Badgers' hockey team had a higher shooting percentage (25.9) in a Thursday matchup than its men's basketball team had against Ole Miss (25.4 percent) on Friday. In all, the 32 squads that played in the round-of-64 games on Thursday shot a combined 41.1 percent from the field, second-worst in round-of-64 history per ESPN Stats & Information. It was also this round's lowest scoring team average (64.5 PPG) since the shot clock became a part of the game more than a quarter-century ago (1986).
There were many bricks, air balls and awkward attempts on Friday. Angel Rodriguez took a shot from behind his own backboard on Kansas State's final possession in its loss to La Salle. Even the game's most convincing evangelists could not have used most of the material that was produced on Friday to convince any doubters.
The defense of the day wasn't that compelling, either. Any team that will win it all will need balance. That's what Thursday's and Friday's results emphasized.
Nine teams ranked among the top 25 of Ken Pomeroy's adjusted defensive efficiency ratings have already exited the Big Dance (22 made the NCAA tournament). Some of the game's toughest teams were searching for complimentary contributors on the other end of the floor when their defensive efforts weren't sufficient.
That's why playmakers are the separators, especially in March.
Five years from now, we won't remember Andy Kennedy switching defenses to confuse Wisconsin's offense. We'll remember Henderson and his bizarre 19-point effort.
We'll remember McDermott and Wyatt and Hairston and Brown.
Plus, one dunk that exemplified the offensive freedom that our latest Cinderella enjoyed on a special night.
And, of course, the teams that scored more than their opponents.
Roundup From Philadelphia
MVP: Seth Curry. The guard, who was awful against Lehigh a year ago, made the most of a new opportunity. Curry shot 1-for-9 from the floor and 1-for-7 from behind the arc for seven points in the upset stunner to the Mountain Hawks in 2012. This time, slightly better results: 10-of-14 from the floor, 2-of-2 from behind the arc, 26 points.
X factor: Albany had no real answer for Mason Plumlee. Well of course not. He was a national player of the year candidate. Those guys don't stroll around the Albany campus. Still, the Duke big man took advantage of his advantage, if you will. Playing like he had stickum on his hands, he caught everything tossed his way to finish with 23 points and eight rebounds.
That was a load off Duke's mind: No matter how much Duke achieved this season, it was going to be dogged by its 2012 albatross, the loss to No. 15 seed Lehigh. A fair percentage of the Blue Devils' questions in Thursday's news conference were about that loss -- if they wanted to erase it, if they had forgotten it and so on. Now it's time for a new story line.
MVP: Doug McDermott. The Wooden Award candidate finished with 27 points, but that's not what made him so important. It's when he scored -- time and place. With Cincinnati threatening, the Bluejays got the ball in his hands and he wisely drove from the right to the basket, knowing he'd get fouled. He did and he sunk both free throws -- and hit two more in final minute. He was a perfect 11-for-11 from the line.
X factor: The free throw line. Creighton, a good shooting team, not surprisingly went 22-of-25 from the stripe, including 9-of-10 down the stretch. Meanwhile Cincinnati only hit 4-of-9 for the game, missing three critical freebies in the last minute.
That was ... proof Creighton isn't just one guy: Sure, without McDermott the Bluejays aren't here, but because he preoccupies the opponent's attention, it gives his teammates chances. And they can take advantage of them. Gregory Echenique and Ethan Wragge were the beneficiaries in this game, scoring 13 and 12, respectively.
MVP: In the biggest upset of the tournament thus far, Florida Gulf Coast's Sherwood Brown finished with 24 points, nine rebounds and a steal. He went 9-for-12 from the free throw line.
X factor: We all wondered how Georgetown would respond if star Otto Porter struggled. Well, he did (13 points, 11 rebounds, 5-for-17 from the field, 2-for-6 from the 3-point line).
That was March Madness: The numbers didn't predict that. But sometimes, crazy things happen in the NCAA tourney and we're just blessed to witness it. That's what happened when FGCU outplayed Georgetown.
MVP: Jamaal Franklin came into the tournament with a sour taste in his mouth -- self-inflicted as it might have been. The junior went 3 of 13 against New Mexico in the Mountain West Conference tournament semifinals. He shot 6 of 13, plus 7 of 7 from the free-throw line to lead the Aztecs with 21 in this win..
X factor: The boards. Oklahoma is a tough inside team and while Romero Osby still got 22, the Aztecs 36-28 advantage on the boards (especially 10 offensive rebounds) proved to be huge for SDSU.
That was a much-needed shot in the arm for the Mountain West Conference. The league, which has lauded itself and been lauded, as one of the best in the country, had a rough start to the NCAA tournament. New Mexico, UNLV and Boise State all lost in their opening games, the Lobos and Runnin' Rebels as upset victims. The Aztecs and Colorado State are the lone league winners.
Roundup From Kansas City
MVP: Marshall Henderson started 4-for-19. He couldn't hit a shot in the first half but warmed up in the second half, which is all that mattered. He finished with 19 points (3-for-12 from the 3-point line).
X factor: Wisconsin's scoring droughts have affected it all season. The Badgers recorded just one field goal in the last 6 minutes, 52 seconds of their loss to Ole Miss.
That was bizarre: Henderson couldn't find the rim for 20 minutes. And then he switched gears and became the most important player on the floor. How does that happen?
MVP: Jerrell Wright was a star for the Explorers, who won their second NCAA tournament game. He was 6-for-6 from the field. He finished with 21 points, eight rebounds and two blocks.
X factor: Kansas State applied the pressure in the second half. A La Salle squad that scored 44 points in the first half registered just 19 points after halftime.
That was exciting: It's been a so-so day thus far. But the finish to this game really felt like genuine March Madness. Great stuff.
MVP: The small lineup worked for the Tar Heels, because they were so effective from the field. P.J. Hairston finished with 23 points, five rebounds, three assists and three steals. He was also shot 5-for-8 from beyond the arc.
X factor: With 7:01 to go in the first half, the Wildcats were down 32-12. They spent the rest of the game trying to close the gap, which they did four minutes into the second half. But they were clearly exhausted.
That was ... a great setup: With Kansas winning, Roy Williams will face Bill Self on Sunday. Not a bad storyline, even if we've seen the two coaches battle in the past.
MVP: Jeff Withey had 17 points, 7 blocks and 6 rebounds for Kansas. The 7-footer was one of the few reliable options for a Jayhawks team that didn't make a single 3-pointer Friday, becoming the first team since 2001 to win a tourney game without a 3. Kansas scored 24 of its points from the foul stripe.
X factor: KU's Kevin Young turned in the play of the night when he rebounded his own missed 16-foot jumper near the free throw line and drove in for a two-handed backwards dunk. The basket gave Kansas a 32-31 lead early in the second half and, more importantly, ignited a crowd of 18,000-plus Jayhawks fans that remained on their feet for the rest of the game. Kansas needed all the help it could get Friday.
That was ... almost a history-making game: A No. 16 seed has never upset a No. 1 seed, but it easily could've happened Friday. Western Kentucky led 31-30 at halftime and was still within four points with 28 seconds remaining. KU won mainly because it held WKU to 20 percent shooting after intermission.
The Perfect Storm
AUSTIN, Texas -- Ben Howland made it way too easy.
The embattled UCLA coach was supposed to scratch, claw and fight for the remaining two years on his contract and, perhaps, have his team -- a group of players assembled with the most hype this side of Kentucky -- ready to play, rather than resigned to play, in the NCAA tournament.
But instead of playing like they were backed into a corner, the coach and his sixth-seeded Bruins decided to exit stage left, losing rather haphazardly to previously struggling 11-seed Minnesota 83-63 in the round of 64 on Friday at the Erwin Center. Now the wonder around Westwood is whether Howland will be shown the door after 10 seasons.
That's been the speculation. Howland has certainly provided enough kindling to fuel the rumors with less-than-stellar NCAA showings since 2008, the last of three consecutive Final Four runs -- and, this season, less-than-stellar results with what was the nation's second-rated recruiting class.
To read the rest of Strickland's take on UCLA's 83-63 loss to Minnesota, click here.
Don't miss anything from Friday's's Round of 64 action. Here's a roundup of our coverage at each of the four sites.
Roundup From Dayton
MVP: Khalif Wyatt was unstoppable. He finished with 31 points, five assists and three steals. He went 9-for-22 from the field.
X factor: NC State refused to play defense for the majority of the game. That's why the Owls shot 48 percent from the field and committed just five turnovers.
That was ... so NC State: If the Wolfpack could play to their potential, they could make a Final Four run. But it just hasn't happened under Mark Gottfried. Why? The defense is too inconsistent.
MVP: Yogi Ferrell. The Indiana point guard played perhaps his best game of the season Friday, scoring 16 points and adding 8 rebounds, a statistic Tom Crean said takes IU's preferred method of offense -- secondary break -- "to another level."
X factor: The Hoosiers are the nation's most efficient, and have been for most of the year, and on Friday they showed why: ball movement and balanced scoring at every position. Five players ended the game in double figures.
That was...how you want a 1-seed to play: The Hoosiers didn't suffer any of the woes fellow top seed Gonzaga faced against Southern Thursday; IU dominated the game from start to finish, and left no doubt about the outcome from the opening tip.
MVP: Sam Thompson. The Buckeyes' lanky wing has been an inconsistent scoring option for Thad Matta for much of the season, but he was all over the court against Iona, scoring 20 points (most of which came on dunks) and grabbing 10 rebounds in Ohio State's cruise of a win.
X factor: The Buckeyes are always going to defend, and Deshaun Thomas is almost always going to score the ball efficiently (which he did Friday, with 24 points on 12 shots). But if Ohio State can get some secondary scoring -- whether from Aaron Craft or Lenzelle Smith or Thompson, as was the case Friday -- then it becomes a truly frightening outfit.
That was how you want a 2-seed to play: On a day when second-seeded Georgetown was run off the floor by No. 15 Florida Gulf Coast, the Buckeyes dominated throughout, save a brief stretch in the first half when Iona cut the lead to six. Much like Indiana, there was no doubt here, and for the would-be Cinderella, very little hope.
MVP: Georges Niang. The Iowa State center-in-name-only is a handful to handle: He can play on the perimeter or on the low block, where he chips away at defenders with old-school footwork. He finished with 19 points on 13 shots Friday, with four assists, three rebounds and two steals, and he was the lynchpin in an offensive attack that utterly dismantled Notre Dame.
X factor: Much of the pregame discussion revolved around the clash of styles -- Notre Dame's slow-paced, size-oriented interior attack versus Iowa State's five-out, 3-point-happy attack. But Hoiberg flipped the script, and used his team's quickness to attack the rim. Iowa State got easy bucket after easy bucket, and the Irish never found an answer.
That was a tough way to go out. Notre Dame forward Jack Cooley used to be a Luke Harangody lookalike who, by his own admission, played too much "Skyrim" on his Xbox; by the end of his four years, he had transformed himself into one of the best rebounders in the country. It was tough to see him end his career so with such a whimper.
Roundup From Austin
MVP: Miami's Durand Scott took over the game in the second half, scoring 18 of his 21 in the final 20 minutes. But it was the tempo set by point guard Shane Larkin that set the stage for Scott's performance and really the Hurricanes' win. Larkin was able to use his speed and agility to get anywhere he wanted on the floor and had five first-half assists along with 10 points. Larkin led all scorers at the half. He didn't score anymore points but finished with nine assists against just two turnovers. He also had three steals.
X factor: Miami had the size advantage inside and that allowed the Hurricanes to take advantage of wide-open shots on the outside. With Pacific jammed inside the 3-point line in a zone defense, the Hurricane shooters were able to get clean looks and knocked down plenty of those shots. Miami finished with 12 made 3-pointers and shot 55 percent from behind the arc. Scott was particularly lethal, hitting five of eight from 3.
That was ... entirely expected: Miami was just too deep and talented for an undersized and undermanned Pacific team. The Hurricanes' performance is one that will make everyone who did not pick Miami to go deep into the tourney to reevaluate their brackets.
MVP: Brandon Paul (17 points, 3-for-12) hit a late 3-pointer that gave the Illini a critical four-point lead in the final minutes. He also went 5-for-6 from the free throw line in the final 66 seconds of the win.
X factor: After entering the break with a 16-point deficit, Colorado scored 23 points in the first 10:30 of the second half on its way to a 44-39 lead with 9:30 on the game clock. And then, the Buffaloes recorded just five points the rest of the way.
That was bizarre: I know teams go through scoring droughts. But Colorado's momentum shift was uncanny. The Buffaloes went from "can't miss" to "can't make anything" in a matter of minutes.
MVP:Erik Murphy was a force. The forward finished with 18 points (8-for-11), eight rebounds and two steals.
X factor: Northwestern State entered the game with the top-scoring offense in America (81.0 PPG). The Demons scored just 47 points overall and 15 points after halftime.
That was Florida: The Gators are a very strong defensive team. And they're also balanced. Four Florida players recorded double figures.
MVP: Minnesota's Andre Hollins took over the game when UCLA tried to make it close in the second half. The guard, who led all scorers with 28 points, hit back to back 3s after the Bruins had closed to within five, 44-39. Hollins also had 9 rebounds and 4 assists.
X Factor: With its length and ability to get into the lane and create, there was the thought UCLA might be able to dominate the paint. That proved not to be the case. Minnesota was able to outscore UCLA 34-24 in the middle despite giving up 17 offensive rebounds. The constant effort inside forced UCLA into easy foul trouble as starting post player Travis Wear picked up three early fouls and a fourth two minutes into the second half. Tony Parker, his replacement, fouled out.
That was...quite possibly the last time anyone will see Ben Howland on the UCLA sideline: The 10-year Bruin coach has been at the center of much job speculation lately and did not help his chances at all with the lopsided loss to Minnesota. In the last four seasons, Howland's team has only twice made it to the NCAA tournament and has not advanced past the second round. He has two years left on his current contract and a buyout of $2.3 million.