Wednesday, April 8, 2015

2015 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament: Top 10

I'm not going to wax poetic about Jusise Winslow's NBA draft position or Coach K's ridiculous ability to win titles 25 years apart. Others have written all you need to know about that. Instead, here are 10 things I’ll remember from the 2015 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.

1.       The Hunters and Georgia State. Like many, I was at work during much of the round of 64, constantly refreshing gamecast, listening on radio, and occasionally tuning in to good games on the March Madness app. I turned on Georgia State – Baylor with about 1 minute left thinking the Bears would probably win with FTs but hoping for some magic. That was a good decision. Gamecast failed to convey how much the atmosphere had changed in that game over the last several minutes, how Georgia State’s press and shot making started to transcend into the mythical. That’s why, when R.J. Hunter pulled up from deep, my first feeling was of trepidation. This is a tough shot – he’s going to be lucky to draw iron. Then, as the ball hung in midair, I thought differently: if this team goes down, this ain’t bad way to go. Turns out I was right. The ball didn’t draw iron. It did send the team and stadium into a frenzy, the coach off his stool, and the GSU (insert name) into the second round. That was the shot of the tournament.

2.       Close Games. Out of the 32 round 1 games, 5 were decided by 20 or more points. 7 were 15 differentials. On the other end, there were 10 one-possession games, of which 5 were decided by a single point (and this excludes Dayton’s one-point win over Boise State in the first four). The trend continued into the 2nd round where only 3 of the 16 matches were blowouts and nearly all of them were entertaining. It was just a ridiculous tournament for those that love exciting finishes.
I know some of this is the effect that NBA departures have on major programs. But I have to give credit to the dogs, especially the mid majors, who consistently showed that they belong. It seems that with every Lehigh, Mercer, Davidson, VCU, Wichita State, Butler, Florida Gulf Coast, Northern Iowa or Belmont that come along, others feel emboldened on the big stage. Even Hampton showed a ton of fight in their first round match against undefeated Kentucky (see the Kentucky section below). The parity is real and it is getting stronger.

3.       Fireworks in the ACC. The Iowa State Cyclones were the most fun team I watched this year. Their roller coaster ride ended in a first round loss to UAB (the game was emblematic of their season), but they had the most ridiculous comebacks and games through the regular season. But the most watchable league? That had to be the ACC. No, this isn’t a measure of conference strength, which is an exercise in futility. The ACC had the most potential for craziness: from Duke losing by double digits at home, an improbably squad of Wahoos coming out on top, crazy offensive performances from the likes of Marcus Paige and Jerian Grant – the ACC was definitely a ton of fun this year.  The additions (Irish and Cardinals) outweighed the subtractions (s good but forgettable Terapins squad).
All of that craziness carried over to the tournament. Teams went on crazy runs – the NC State vs. Villanova match was haywire. UNC and Notre Dame gave Wisconsin and Kentucky serious runs for their money. Jerian Grant threw the entire Irish team on his back, went for broke, and nearly pulled it off. Sure, his shot selection was crap, but those shots are what you need to beat Kentucky, as Sam Dekker demonstrated a round later. On the other side of the bracket, the Cardinals bullied their way to the Elite Eight and of course, the Blue Devils won it all.  It was a crazy fun ending for a crazy fun conference.

4.       Duke’s Role Players. Speaking of the ACC – it seemed like through much of the conference schedule, Coach K was determined not to let having 8 scholarship players limit his team – he did that himself by playing, essentially, a 6 man rotation. That changed in the tournament. Whether by necessity or design, Duke found major contributions from up and down its roster. Everyone will remember Grayson Allen going nuts in the final game, and he deserves time in the spotlight. I think he’ll turn out to be a special player. But how about Amile Jefferson setting great screens and playing fantastic defense against the National Player of the Year? How about Matt Jones coming out of nowhere to hit 3 after 3 after 3 in the win against Gonzaga? How about Marshall Plumlee’s utter Plumleeness? I don’t think Duke will ever be the same without a huge, active, awkward looking big man flying around clownishly, looking like he’s on ice skates. Are we sure there isn’t another Plumlee brother?
Duke’s season was always going to ride on its heralded freshmen and their senior guard leader. But it’s the other rotation guys that really made this team fun, with an atmosphere almost like that of a mid-major. And the Duke role players dominating their Wisconsin counterparts was what brought the championship home.

5.       The Battle for Kansas. I didn’t really have a dog in the fight, but I was hoping these two teams would deliver, and they did. I was hoping Kansas wouldn’t wilt like they’d done so many times in the past – imagine my delight when I saw Bill Self making actual in-game adjustments to help his team win? But in the end, no matter how Kansas tried to adjust, this was as Shocker game. From the herky-jerky pace to the tenseness of the situation, this seemed like a game we’ve seen a thousand times from the Shockers. This was the game they came to play. A dash of speed followed by suffocating half court possessions. Hero ball from Fred Van Vleet mixed with crafty passing. This may have been the most highly anticipated second round matchup of all time.

6.       Spartans Throwing Haymakers. I really should have respected Tom Izzo more. I looked at his Spartan lineup and though: “everything is going to have to go right for these guys to make a run.” Well, everything did. Travis Trice played outside his mind. Dawson and Valentine took turns beasting all over the floor. Sure, they ran into Duke and its buzzsaw named Jahlil, but this was another major program with heritage and pageantry acting like a Cinderella.

7.       Gonzaga Cracking the Code. I’ve picked March Madness brackets for over a decade. I still haven’t figured out what to do with the Zags. Some years they lose early as a high seed (even a 1 seed). Other years, they surprise with their shooting and surge into the second weekend. Never do they seem to have fully put it together, found out what it takes to win game by game. No matter how far I pick them to go, they always seem to do the opposite.
This year I picked them to lose to Iowa State. I loved how the Cyclones were coached, loved their style, and thought they could go up and down with the Zags. That ended in the 1st round. And when the dust settled after the first weekend, the Zags were there. They had great balance and players that didn’t shy away from the moment. They were right there with the Blue Devils until a few uncharacteristic misses did them in down the stretch. But the Zags and coach Mark Few seemed to have cracked the code. Instead of the tight mid-major powerhouse with expectations, they were just a mid-major. They were loose and they played and celebrated with aplomb. Well done.

8.       Kentucky’s Historic Season. 40-0 was the storyline of March. It would have made this tournament unforgettable. Quick – who played for the title 7 years ago (5 years ago, the 2010 tourney, is too easy for Duke fan)? That would have been 2008. North Carolina? Was that the year UNC beat MSU? Ok – what about 17 years ago? Who won against whom in 1998? Unless you’re a fan of one of the final few participants, past tournaments, exciting as they are, inevitably fade into memory. But 40-0 would stand as truly remarkable.
An aside about Coach Cal – there are a lot of opinions about him. People wonder at the one-and-done model or the lack of film study. Maybe that’s why Coach of the Year went to Tony Bennett. But let me posit two things: 1) Coach Cal is one of the best recruiters. Yeah, others (including Coach K) will beat him sometimes. But you can’t argue the results, and recruiting is half the game in college coaching. Calling Bennett the Coach of the Year is like naming Jahlil Okafor Player of the Year – defensible, fantastic on one end, meh on the other. 2) As far as actual coaching, nobody knows how Calipari gets all these freshmen, all these All-Americans, to play together. Nobody knows how hard it is except him. I’m not saying his methods are sound – what I’m saying is nobody knows what methods will work. Maybe film study would overload these guys – you don’t know. What I do know is that, all year, Kentucky played with a sense of identity – defense, inside-out offense, defense, more defense, and then in the last few minutes, throw it inside to Karl Anthony-Towns. Yeah they got rattled and the Harrisons hijacked the game against Wisconsin. But remember – Wisconsin took that game largely as a result of a step-back three pointer. An incredibly tough shot against an incredible opponent.
That’s best thing about this Kentucky team: it brought out the best and the worst in its opponents. The first round game against 16th seeded Hampton was a gem despite the blowout final score. Hampton came to play. They threw haymakers. They tried their best to not be intimidated by Kentucky’s size. They played a great game because they knew the odds. Same thing for Cincinnati, and Notre Dame, who got successively closer to knocking the ‘Cats off. Of course, there was a game against West Virginia sandwiched in there, a game where the Mountaineers looked like a high school team. Kentucky can do that too – just ask Kansas. The Final Four game against Wisconsin was all we wanted it to be – the best of Badgers was just barely enough. Kentucky were the most interesting top overall seed of my lifetime. Yeah, they missed their goal, but don’t let anyone tell you this season was not historic.

9.       Frank Kaminsky. The expectations heaped on this guy were unreal. From bench scrub to starter, and now unquestioned star. He handed it swimmingly. He never changed who he was off the court and dominated on it. I was afraid of a little Hakeem/Robinson karma for him after CBS showed all that footage of Frank accepting the Player of the Year award. Then he went out on the biggest stage in basketball (literally) and showed us why he won it. He and Nigel Hayes kept the Badgers afloat in the second half as their lead started to dwindle. He hit a monster three after a would-be Tyus Jones dagger. He is just an uncanny player – from his ability to shoot, drive, post, spin, and make crazy, awkward, reaching shots. Frank Kaminsky is unique and it will be a while before we see anybody like him.

10.   Quinn Cook and Tyus Jones. I don’t have to say much about Tyus. He is a coach on the floor. He balances running the offense with creating the offense to a degree that is unheard of for a freshman. He may never be a star in the NBA, but he is certainly a starter, with that ability to influence the way games are played.
Tyus Jones was also Quinn Cook’s salvation. The Blue Devils can talk all they want about Quinn’s leadership, how he’s the heart of their team – because he is. But Quinn Cook is also one of the most frustrating Due players I’ve ever watched. For three years, he ran the point and almost drove me crazy. He had all the tools – a good handle, crafty at getting in the lane, the ability to get hot from 3. He just seemed to never put it all together. Time after time, I would complain to my friends about a 3/10 or 4/11 shooting night, or a night where his assist total fell flat. I couldn’t understand why Duke’s point guard wasn’t running the team.
When Tyus came and moved Quinn off-ball, it was like an anchor had been lifted from the seafloor. All of a sudden, it was okay to shoot 4/11, to jack shots from deep – that is what a shooting guard is supposed to do. All of a sudden, the nice dimes to Jahlil or Justise became cherries on a shooting guard sundae instead of the meat and potatoes work of pass-first point guard. All of a sudden he was free to leak out on darn near every possession because if the outlet wasn’t there, someone else would go collect the ball and initiate the offense. Quinn Cook was free and the results speak for themselves. He’s had a roller coaster career at Duke, but I’ll remember him as the captain of a national title team. Together with Tyus, he formed one of Duke's all-time best backcourts. This transformation is a credit to Coach K, sure, for putting his players in positions to succeed and never giving up on a talented athlete. But it's also a serious credit to Quinn. I am proud for him for his career at Duke and will miss him when he's gone.

What were your favorite moments? Comment below! #YMTCSports

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