Emptying the Notebook: Elite 8

What the hell just happened? Was last night real? The early games looked like they were both going to be blowouts and all of a sudden chaos down the stretch. Iowa State ran out of time. Tennessee they were out of time too. Until Michigan gave them time back. Inbound the ball and make a free throw or two and you win 100% guaranteed. They couldn’t inbound the ball! That game largely was sealed on a questionable call. Twitter freaked out. Twitter was wrong. That's all below.

Then we got to the night games.

Holy cow the night games! The only thing wrong with them is they were going on at the same time. They were different and both great for very different reasons. I thought Doug Gottlieb said it perfectly afterwards - the Virginia/Michigan State game was this technical clinic of back and forth between two senior laden teams with no real history, but both a desire to execute and win. The Louisville-Kentucky game was a little, to use Doug’s word, erratic at times (and that’s a great word for it) but the compete level in that game was off the charts. Those two teams played so hard. They don’t like each other. There is history. That was incredible.

Baylor vs Wisconsin

In hindsight, we should’ve seen the Baylor-Wisconsin result coming. In order to beat a zone you have to be patient. It’s one thing to go in with that mindset, but to sustain it for 40 minutes, possession in and possession out is a whole different story. That’s how Wisconsin plays every night. It wasn’t even a thought for them. Move the ball. Find a good shot. That’s how they would describe their play no matter what. Perfect matchup.

That’s only half the battle though. The other part is having versatile size and multiple decision makers as the talent to execute that plan. Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker are absolutely that. They’re tall guys who can shoot it from the outside, over the top of the zone and put the ball on the floor with the length and athleticism to finish over and around the length of Baylor.

The way to beat Wisconsin is to speed them up. It’s exactly what Oregon did in the first half. The pressured and forced a few turnovers. It led to 19 fast break points for the Ducks in the first half. The second half? They had none. Zero. Zilch. The game became a half-court game and Wisconsin came back and won.

Baylor never got the transition game started. The entire game was dominated by Wisconsin because it was played at their pace. It was a great run by the Bears. They didn’t have a shot. And we should’ve seen it coming.

Stanford vs Dayton

Didn't watch a ton of this game because by the time I got home, Dayton had already started pulling away. It was simple. Stanford's deep. Stanford got into foul trouble. Stanford was screwed. Dayton's a veteran team that executes. You've got to beat them. Florida will.

Florida vs UCLA

Experience can be really overrated. In the end there is a requisite level of talent, skill and know how required to do any task and there is no set amount of time that says someone will have those things. People learn and develop at different rates. So why does experience matter?

The more experience you have, the more situations you've seen and if you've encountered a situation before, you're more likely to react properly. That’s Florida. They’ve seen everything. You’re going to have to out-execute them with better talent and they haven’t played a team capable of doing that yet. Kentucky got close in the SEC Tournament final because they do have superior raw talent. 

Kentucky could beat them. Michigan State could beat them. But them getting to the Final Four was basically a lock when Syracuse and Kansas lost. Dayton’s had a great run. The most shocking result of the tournament would be the Gators going down this afternoon.

San Diego State vs Arizona

Aaron Gordon was more impactful Saturday than any other game I’ve seen him play this year. I’ll fully admit I haven’t watched as much as Arizona as I would’ve liked, but it wasn’t even close. He’s an incredibly raw offensive player who thrives in transition, but he did more than that Thursday night. He had some enormous offensive rebounds and some tough, contested rebounds on the defensive end. He hit some threes. But he still had some of those transition plays and those are huge because they give you energy. That alley-oop he threw down? You know the one! There may be ten guys in America that can go get that ball. That was ridiculous, and the energy of that play helped swing the game.

A huge reason it needed to be swung was because Nick Johnson was terrible for about 36 minutes. There's something to be said for a guy keeping his confidence despite struggle, but there's also a time to know your struggling and a stand still three from three feet behind the line isn't what you were looking for with plenty of time on the shot clock. Johnson gets credit for keeping the faith in himself and coming up huge down the stretch, but if they had lost some of the bad shots he took would have been a huge reason why. That's the ups and the downs of the sport when played by 18-22 year olds.

Tennessee vs Michigan

Let's just fast-forward to the end of this game because that's what mattered. Michigan was dominant early and Cuonzo Martin must've given one hell of a halftime speech.

Late in the game Michigan was trying to kill time so they ran 20 seconds off the shot clock before calling timeout and setting up a multiple action set. In the NBA they have 4 seconds. College? 15. The shot clock is too damn long. By the way - they didn’t get a shot off because of tremendous defense by Tennessee on both ends of the play. On the backend there was the terrific shot block after a pump fake, but the play was made by ball denial on Nik Stauskus. That wasn’t Michigan’s first option.

So Tennessee had life. Then Michigan gave them super life. Getting the ball inbounds shouldn’t be that hard. Sure, you’ve gotta fight but if you execute, you can get the ball in bounds to a person that’s not falling out of bounds!! That turnover is completely inexcusable. Albrecht's gotta do a better job of running the baseline and Lavert has to be under control. Those are the details of execution that separate in big games.

Tennessee gets the ball, calls an iso for Jarnell Stokes. He took one dribble into the lane and Jordan Morgan cut him off. You lower your shoulder, you get called for a charge. I’m the most anti-charge person on earth. I’d like a no-call there, but if a call was to be made it was a charge.

It's important to clarify that Morgan doesn't have to set his feet. In college, the primary defender is allowed to move laterally and as long he is in legal guarding position (Morgan was), he can take a charge. He did. He kinda flopped as he did, but he did. For all the bad calls and bad officiating, I'll save my outrage for another call.

With all that said - Lavert knocked the ball out clean and chased it down. We're probably yelling about nothing because it definitely wasn't a block. It was a charge or a no call and a no call meant a steal. It’s a chance to yell at refs, so people will. It’s a chance for people to point out NCAA officiating stinks. It does. That said, we’re probably making too much about nothing.

Iowa State vs UConn

Iowa state immediately tried to go inside and exploit their size advantage with Uconn's guards in the post. Syracuse used this strategy a couple of years ago with Dion Waiters, Brandon Triche and Scoop Jardine and beat UConn with it twice. Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright were younger than. They learned. They also had help and UConn's size at every other position made life miserable for the Cyclones inside (except for Dustin Hogue, who gets some love below). 

Invoking Kemba comparisons aren’t done lightly, but Shabazz Napier is 100% earning that label. He’s been dominant so far and to do that as a sub 6 foot guard is ridiculous. It means you’re doing it with all skill. You’re not physically overpowering anyone at that size. It’s all speed, quickness, technical skill and having supreme confidence in what you’re doing. He stared down a 24 year old grown man. Deandre Kane is older than James Harden and he’s a grown man at 6 foot 4. Napier didn’t care. He balled out. He was a freshman for Kemba. As a senior, it’s him at the center of an equally as unprecedented run.

If Deandre Daniels plays well, there’s not many teams that can beat UConn. The junior has always had super potential, but had never developed. He had games here and there, but has been far more consistent as of late. He's not gonna drop 27 on a regular basis, but if he can play at a high level, UConn can hang with Michigan State tomorrow.

In March we talk about teams playing smart and playing together. It's worth mentioning this UConn group stayed after they were banned from the post-season (thanks to APR, which is one of the bigger crocks the NCAA pulls) so playing for each other is nothing new. That's all they had to play for. 

Last but not least, some love for Dustin Hogue. I covered his brother, Doug, at Syracuse where he was a linebacker on Doug Marrone's first Pinstripe Bowl winning team. The Hogues are from Yonkers and when I talked with Dustin in San Antonio after Iowa State's win over North Carolina, he couldn't wait to go home. For a New York City kid, there's nothing like playing in Madison Square Garden and he left every bit of his heart and soul on the Garden floor. MSG brings out the best and that was certainly his best, albeit in a losing effort and he got to do it in his own backyard in front of family and friends. Pretty cool.

Louisville vs Kentucky

12:31 in the 2nd half and Louisville starts to go on a run. John Calipari calls timeout. When Louisville gets going, no one can stop them, nevertheless a team that's at times mentally fragile. UK responded with a run.

This happened a few times throughout the game, which again confirmed what most in basketball know and those that just think he's a good recruiter refuse to acknowledge. Cal can flat out coach. From modifying his x's and o's to the new talent he brings in each year to having a great pulse for his players, Cal can flat out coach. This year, it took a lot longer for him to find that pulse but he's seemed to figure it out.

That allows him to unlock the immense talent he does bring in, which separates Kentucky from other schools. They just have so many guys. Willie Caulie-Stein leaves with an injury? Fine. Dakari Johnson was playing like a man possessed. He was all over the offensive glass. He's also a legit NBA prospect coming off their bench.

Another step in Kentucky's sudden discovery that they're good is the evolution of Julius Randle. His vision is terrific. I noticed it in the Baylor game at AT&T Stadium early in the year. Last night that vision turned into production as he had the assist on Andrew Harrison's game winner. He’s also evolved defensively. Cal could barely play him at the beginning of the year because he was so putrid against the pick and roll. Last night, Randle had two perfect defensive possessions, one of which he got called for a bogus foul and the other in which he challenged Russ Smith’s game-tying attempt, which fell short because he out to arc it over the freshman’s outstretched arm.

Last few notes:

  • For the 2nd straight game, UK's freshman acted like anything but down the stretch. They were total money from the free throw line including two from Randle late.
  • That was Rick Pitino's first ever loss in the Sweet 16. He's been coaching for 30+ years at three different schools. That's absurd.
  • Since Calipari got to UK, he's owned Pitino. They've met in the tournament twice including last night. The other was the 2012 National Championship game.
  • I still don't know what to make of Kentucky, but this number makes me belive they're legit. Vegas knows things. UK was 30-1 to win it all on March 10th. They're now 5-1.
Virginia vs Michigan State

This game is the one high school coaches will show their teams. It was a clinic. Great defense forced good execution if you wanted a good shot and there weren't a ton to be had. This game came down to the end though and a decision Tom Izzo made that I loved.

Adreian Payne made a mistake. The senior had a look at a three and he decided to give it up trying to get a better shot. It was too late in the shot clock. Virginia scrambled perfectly and forced a turnover and hit a three to tie the game on the ensuing possession. Timeout Michigan State.

Izzo lit into Payne. When every possession matters, you can't pass up a good shot. He then drew up a play for him and he responded by draining a three pointer. The next possession he threw a lob to Brandon Dawson. He later knocked down two free throws. Payne's an NBA player and could've easily left after last year. He's back to win it.

The Zebras vs The World 

There were some awful calls in the last two days. Luckily most of them didn't wind up changing the outcomes of games but there was a possibility of one in nearly every game. I discussed the charge call in Michigan/Tennessee already. There as a no-call at the end of Michigan State/Virginia that UVA fans didn't like. Michigan State's player pushed off, but it was after a Virginia hold. I'm fine with the no call. If they call the first foul, the second one never happens.

Kentucky would've had a real gripe if they lost as Julius Randle had a textbook block called a foul. Verticality needs to be given to bigs. Randle went straight up. If an offensive player jumps into you, that's on him.

My biggest gripe however was replay. To me, replay is designed to fix the obvious. If you can't tell whether a call was right or not, stay with the original. If it's obvious it needs to change, change it. If a ball goes out of bounds and you can't tell who it was out on, call it a jump ball. The end of these games are disastrous. Referees are taking way too long to look at replays where there's either an obvious call or obviously no chance of making a determination. If you can get it right, get it right. If you discover you're not going to be able to do anything, just walk away and get back to the game. Flow and rhythm matter in basketball. Quite destroying it.

SMU in the NIT

If you are in the Dallas area and weren’t at Moody Coliseum Wednesday night, you missed out. I’ve been to a lot of games in a lot of places. Allen Fieldhouse is in a galaxy by itself. Outside of that place, I’ve never been in a place better than Moody on Wednesday. Some equal. None better. Nick Russell had an enormous play in that game and the SMU guard joined me on ESPN Dallas College Gameday.