I'm not sure I have ever seen a team endure as many highs and lows in the course of one 40-minute basketball game as Michigan State did on Sunday.
-(High) The Spartans storm out of the gate, building up a double-digit lead after just ten minutes.
-(Low) Kalin Lucas crumples to the floor towards the end of the half. The team would no longer have its leader.
-(Low) Maryland begins to chip away in the 2nd half, cutting the lead to just 5.
-(High) Durrell Summers to the rescue, scoring 11 points in three minutes. Men in Green by 15.
-(High) I enjoy a perfectly toasted egg bagel with a nice glass of C-Milk (Chocolate, for the uninformed).
-(Low) ACC Player of the Year Greivis Vasquez will simply not go quietly into the good night. He rips off 10 points in the final 1:54, capped off by a feathery floater with 7 ticks left, putting his Terps up by one.
-(Ultimate High) Draymond Green (suddenly a flawless ball handler) dribbles up the floor, and exhibiting as much patience as you will ever see in a last-second, down by one situation, turns and lasers a pass to Korie Lucious at the top of the key. And I think you know what happens next...
It was a wild day with an even wilder finish. The Spartans' best player went down, his replacement stepped in, and canned the game-winning trey with nothing but zeros showing on the clock. Spielberg couldn't have scripted it better.
But now, reality sets in. Tom Izzo and his merry band of followers must continue their voyage through the bracket without Kalin Lucas. Opposing teams promise to have no sympathy.
Fortunately, the team awaiting them is not big, bad, Kansas, the tournament's #1 overall seed. Instead, it is little Northern Iowa, from the little town of Cedar Falls, led by their little point guard Ali Farokhmanesh. But this team is no pushover.
They play devastating defense in the half-court, holding high-powered Kansas to just 67 points, its lowest total in 10 games. They start three seniors and a junior, a rarity in today's one-and-done world of college hoops. They bring an actual circus freak off the bench in 6'6" forward Lucas O' Rear. (Rumor has it that O' Rear is the bastard love child of Birdman Andersen and Amy Winehouse.) So this team pretty much has it all. Except one thing became painfully clear in the win over Kansas.
This team doesn't like being pressed. Not one bit.
The Panthers had maintained a steady lead throughout the game. They shot better than Kansas, they played better defense than Kansas. They were simply the better team on that day. But, when Bill Self finally decided to unleash the hounds and attack these guys using all 94 feet of hardwood, the momentum shifted in the blink of an eye. Northern Iowa couldn't get the ball past half court. They threw long cross-court passes that were easily picked off and taken for quick layups. Sometimes, they couldn't even get the ball inbounded at all. Quite honestly, I've never seen a team so spooked to be facing a little full-court pressure.
But alas, it was too little, too late. Had Bill Self unveiled this pressure earlier in the contest, would the final result have been different? In all likelihood, yes.
Much like Kansas, Michigan State will have the advantage athletically over the kids from Upper Iowa. After all, we are talking about a top tier Big Ten school against a group from the Missouri Valley Conference. It's not quite apples and oranges, but it's something like it. If guys like Raymar Morgan and Durrell Summers can tap into their superior athletic ability and let loose on Friday night, I don't think the Panthers can keep up.
Now, if the game becomes a slogging half-court war of attrition, that's a different story. Kalin Lucas' absence will be spotlighted and the Spartans will struggle mightily to put points on the board. It is imperative that Izzo get his troops to push the pace, pressure the UNI ball handlers, and force the Panthers into an unfamiliar early deficit.
The Midwest Regional opened up wider than a clown's mouth at a miniature golf course when the Jayhawks got bounced from the proceedings. Now it's time for Raymar, Durrell, Draymond, and Korie to step on through.
Everything about the Kentucky Wildcats screams "sure thing." They have a point guard (John Wall) that is the odds-on favorite to be the #1 overall pick in this summer's NBA Draft. They have another likely lottery pick in 6-foot-11 DeMarcus Cousins, a freakish athlete who could rack up double-doubles in his sleep. There's Eric Bledsoe, the freshman sniper, knocking down 15-of-24 shots in the first two rounds, including a sparkling 9-of-12 from downtown. And just for good measure, they throw in Patrick Patterson, the seasoned veteran of the group, and another player destined for the Association. But something just doesn't feel quite right. Try and stay with me here.
The most famous fan of UK hoops is the lovely and talented Ashley Judd. She has starred in countless movies over the years, one of which was the 2002 military thriller/drama High Crimes. Judd plays an attorney that has her life turned upside-down when her seemingly perfect husband (Jim Caviezel) is taken into custody for the murders of nine innocents that he may or may not have committed as a Sergeant with the U.S. Marines years ago.
Caviezel insists that he was not part of the killings, that he did nothing wrong. We are introduced to multiple characters that all seem to be working together to frame this man, and pin the blame on him for something he had nothing to do with. There are conflicting stories, sketchy eyewitnesses, and attempts at a cover-up whenever Judd seems to be getting close to the truth.
Finally, with the help of a drunken Morgan Freeman, Judd convinces the jury they have the wrong man and Caviezel is set free. All is well in the world as Ashley and her man drive off into the sunset.
He'd proclaimed his innocence throughout, the loyal wife did all she could to get him off, the final verdict was 100% in their favor, and here they were, just two lovebirds in some remote cabin celebrating the victory. But you just couldn't shake the feeling that something was off. It all just seemed too easy. About five minutes later, every one of those suspicions came true.
Caviezel pretends he is going out for a bottle of champagne, only to return a minute later with a crazed look in his eye that tells us all we need to know; "This guy has been guilty the whole time." He turns on Judd and tries to choke her out. Thankfully, he is gunned down during the scrap and our beautiful heroine survives.
What this story illustrates is that sometimes things just seem too perfect.
Caviezel was the perfect man with the perfect wife with the perfect alibi. But there was this huge, dark, secret just waiting to be exposed the whole time. In the end, it was.
Just like Ashley Judd's perfect 2010 Kentucky Wildcats basketball team. They have the all-world point guard, the silky-smooth 2-man, the Powers of Pain up front, and the slickest coach in the business, John Calipari, leading the troops. Their record sits at a near-flawless 34 and 2, with both losses coming in super-tight road affairs where they were either tied or within one point in the last two minutes of the game. They coasted through their first two tournament games, smashing East Tennessee State by 29 and Wake Forest by 30. There really isn't an obvious chink in the armor.
But something's missing. I just don't know exactly what it is. Maybe they rely too much on their freshmen. Maybe they don't have enough threats from three-point land. Maybe Calipari is just snakebit when he gets deep in the tournament.
When you have a feeling, sometimes you gotta go with it. And something about this Kentucky squad just feels funny. I'm not saying they'll lose to Cornell, and I'm not even saying they won't make it to the Final Four; but somewhere along the line, just like Jimmy Caviezel at the end of High Crimes, the truth will come out and this squad will go down.
Ashley Judd just can't catch a break...
The Big Fella
The most dominant player thus far in the tournament has undoubtedly been man-mountain Omar Samhan, the senior from Saint Mary's. Through just two games, Samhan has tallied an astounding 61 points to go with 19 rebounds. He is relatively nimble for a guy his size (listed 6'11", 260) and has an extremely soft touch around the basket. The free throw line has also become Samhan's friend this year, where he has converted on 74% of his attempts (he was just a 59% shooter as a sophomore). And even though he possesses the foot speed of Babe Ruth and the leaping ability of Ruth Riley, Samhan has still become an almost unstoppable force on the offensive end. But the way opposing coaches have chosen to defend him during the tournament has boggled my mind.
In the first two rounds, Samhan and the Saint Mary's Gaels faced off against Richmond and Villanova. Neither team is blessed with a ton of size. One would think that this lack of height and bulk would force these coaches to bring plenty of help on Samhan, to double him repeatedly on the catch and then do your best to rotate out to shooters when the ball is kicked out. Yes, one would think. But that is not at all what happened. Instead, both Chris Mooney and Jay Wright gambled that they could handle the big fella one-on-one, thinking that staying home on the shooters was more important. Hmm...I always thought that canning a long 22-footer was more difficult than a near 7-footer popping in little baby hooks from right around the rim, but apparently some coaches disagree. And the funny thing is, I haven't seen Samhan prove that he's a legitimate passer out of a double team.
On the rare occasion that one of these teams would bring help to their helpless post defenders, Samhan looked uncomfortable. He telegraphed passes and made silly turnovers. As a matter of fact, through two games, Samhan has attempted 32 shots, taken 18 free throws, but has yet to record a single assist. In his last eight games, he has a grand total of three helpers. That means teams are not doing a good enough job getting the ball out of his hands and forcing everyone else to beat them.
If you remember, when Hakeem Olajuowon was at his most dominant for the Rockets in the mid-90's on the way to back-to-back titles, it was often guys like Robert Horry, Mario Elie, and Kenny Smith knocking down clutch 3s in the closing minutes. This isn't to suggest that Olajuwon was unable to make big buckets down the stretch. In fact, just the opposite. Teams knew they had no chance of stopping Dream one-on-one, so they did their best to double down, rotate, and hope the shooters missed. It was the only chance they had.
Saint Mary's won the West Coast Conference tournament this year, knocking off Gonzaga in the finals. The Zags kept it close for about 35 minutes before Samhan and Co. pulled away late. But at least Mark Few and his staff had the right idea. They surrounded Samhan, whether or not he had the ball. They bothered him throughout the night, and he never got into a good rhythm. He attempted just nine shots, and scored just nine points (the only time in 33 games he was held to single digits). Unfortunately for Gonzaga, the Gaels' shooters were on fire. They shot nearly 50% from outside the arc and knocked down 10 treys by game's end. It's like a poker hand where you make the right read, but get drawn out on the river. You may have lost some coin, but least you can leave the table knowing you played it right.
Reach the High Socks Legend at firstname.lastname@example.org