The Double Bonus: The Final Countdown

TIM: Four more days of lousy basketball, am I right, John? We lose all our Cinderellas by Friday, and then the refs giftwrap a Duke win on Sunday. I can’t wait for the Tournament to be ruined next year with 96 teams.

JOHN S: I hope you’re kidding. Duke’s in the Final Four! At least be excited about that. And we did get some great games last week. Michigan State and Tennessee was decided by one point, Butler upset Syracuse, West Virginia upset Kentucky in a game that can only be described as very weird, and the Duke/Baylor game was exciting throughout. But we should probably discuss the best game of the Tournament at least little, despite so much already being said about K-State vs. Xavier. I’ll ask you this: Does that game lose any of its cache because K-State lost its next game? I mean, I think if the Wildcats had managed to beat Butler and then steal the championship, that game would be put in the Pantheon with the Laettner shot. As is, it probably won’t even be as remembered as Farokhmanesh’s shot by this time next year.

TIM: You saw right through me. I totally wanted to start with K-State and Xavier, and not just because I got into a brief commenting war with a fellow named “Mikey” on Joe Posnanski’s blog about it. I, for one, thought this was the best Tournament game since 2005; if I were one of those weird people who thought the decade ended in 2010 and not 2009 and my list of the Top 10 College Basketball Games of the Decade were pushed back a year, Kansas State and Xavier likely would have fit in nicely at No. 4. Even before the game went to overtime, I remember thinking that it had been particularly well-played and was shaping into one of the Tournament’s most memorable games.

That status will be challenged by a few things: 1) It was between Kansas State and Xavier, two programs that don’t resonate on a national scale; 2) Kansas State lost its next game, as you point out, and one of the main reasons the Wildcats lost was fatigue from the win two nights prior; 3) The team that made the game’s signature play still lost (Jordan Crawford’s shot, obvs).

For those reasons, I do think the game won’t be as remembered as it should be in wider circles; for real basketball fans, though, I think it will stick in the mind, much like that Arizona-Gonzaga game from 2003 (No. 5 on my aforelinked list), which shared some of the same qualities (Arizona didn’t make the Final Four; the memorable buzzer beater was by Gonzaga to force overtime, etc.). I know I’ll remember it for a long time. When Crawford nailed that 35-footer, I mean, even my mom realized how ridiculous that was.

(However, the Farokhmenesh shot will be remembered more and deservedly so. It was the shot that reshaped the Tournament more than any other [Korie Lucious is second on that list] and will remain, barring anything equally awesome happening this weekend, the Tournament’s signature moment.)

JOHN S: Agreed on almost all counts. In the brief moment when Crawford’s shot was in the air, I thought–similar to my thought when Scott Brosius was up in Game 5 of the 2001 WS–that “there’s no way this shot will go in because THINGS LIKE THAT DON’T HAPPEN IN REAL LIFE.” Having that thought and then being proved wrong is, in a nutshell, why I watch sports. But I agree that Farokhmanesh’s shot was more important because of its impact on the landscape of the Tournament.

Speaking of changing the landscape of the Tournament, can we talk again about how great Tom Izzo is? His best player gets hurt, forcing his sophomore backup to play basically the whole game twice in a row, when that backup had played more than 30 minutes in a game exactly NEVER. Thrust into the spotlight, the backup makes a huge play to win the game, and then coaching savvy and ad hoc adjustments by a brilliant coach allow the team to beat two teams coming off wins against much better opponents. Then, just days before the semifinals, rumors come out that the brilliant coach is being offered a more lucrative job, causing inevitable distractions and questions before the biggest game of the season. Exchange basketball for football and I’ve just given the EXACT PLOT of Season One of Friday Night Lights. Has anyone checked to see if Kalin Lucas can still walk? Is his girlfriend now cheating on him with his best friend? Will Lucious start dating Izzo’s daughter? I just know it’s going to suck when Michigan State introduces a ridiculous murder plot next season to boost ratings.

Anyway, back to the main point: Tom Izzo’s pretty good, huh?

TIM: Way to make a series of allusions to a show I’ve never watched. And come on, John, if this were FNL, Korie Lucious’ game-winning shot would have come from behind his own basket.

Yeah, the know-it-alls at FiveThirtyEight just did a statistical analysis on Michigan State’s performance in the Tournament based on seed expectations with the conclusion that Tom Izzo is really, really good. He’s made the Final Four six times in his 13 Tourney appearances, and only twice has his team not lived up to its seed (once losing to a 10 as a 7, which I consider a toss-up anyway; the other when it lost to 11-seed George Mason). If Izzo wins his first-round game, he makes the Final Four 60% of the time. He’s lost the second game of a Tournament weekend–when the quick turnaround places a premium on the ability to quickly break down film and prep your team strategically–just three times, and always to a 1-seed (Texas in ’03, UNC in ’07 and ’09). By any metric, he is remarkable.

Getting back to Lucious’ shot, though, how bad do you think Maryland feels about all this? The Terrapins had Michigan State on the ropes with their great second-half comeback, and if Lucious doesn’t hit that shot, it might be the Terps en route to Indianapolis this weekend.

JOHN S: How do I think the Terps feel about this? I’m going to say ‘bad’ to ‘very bad.’ How do you think Kentucky felt in 1992?

But I don’t think Maryland would be here right now, anyway; I would have taken Tennessee over the Terps in that matchup, and I’m not even convinced the Terps would have topped Northern Iowa. Gary Williams is no Izzo.

What is slightly bothering me about Michigan State’s run, though, is the belittling of that side of the bracket now that we’ve reached the Final Four. Both MSU and Butler (especially Butler) are being unjustifiably treated like guests invited to the Final Four. People really like the Bulldogs’ story, but people really seem to be denigrating their chances. I actually heard someone on ESPN clarify that Butler “wasn’t George Mason.” Oh really? A borderline pre-season Top 10 isn’t the same as the lowest seed to ever make a Final Four? Thanks for clarifying. There seems to be this desire to turn Butler into a Cinderella, which they really are not.

TIM: Oh man, did you touch a nerve. I’ve heard “This isn’t George Mason” said ad infinitum about Butler, and it bothers me more every time I hear it. Like you said, Butler started the season eleventh in the AP poll; it ended the season eleventh in the AP poll. It was a part of the ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll all 19 weeks of the basketball season. The Bulldogs have not lost since Dec. 22, 2009. They were a VERY trendy Final Four pick at the start of the season, and they have the Final Four’s best NBA prospect in Gordon Hayward. They are the favorites against Michigan State. Not one of those sentences could have been written about George Mason.

Furthermore, Butler beat the team I had picked to win it all (Syracuse) and a strong 2-seed in Kansas State, and neither felt like a fluke. It led for most of each game and survived late runs by the other team each time without imparting a sense that it would have lost if the game had lasted another 60 seconds (i.e. Northern Iowa). In terms of seeding, the Bulldogs had by far the toughest road to the Final Four.

And this doesn’t even start on all the Hoosiers talk. People understand that it was just Butler’s gym (Hinkle Fieldhouse) that was used in the film, right? Like, Hoosiers isn’t about Butler University. People know that, right? They don’t think Hickory was a stand-in for Butler? They understand that the arena is used to emphasize how big and urban it is compared to the rural smallness of Hickory High (real-life Milan High)? Is this getting across?

JOHN S: But Tim, their coach is so young! And it’s Indiana! Come on: UNDERDOGS!

No, I agree. Someone told me this week that if either MSU or Butler won, then “that would be as surprising as anything that has happened in the Tournament so far.” What?! As surprising as Ohio dismantling Georgetown, or Jordon Crawford raining 35-footers? I just don’t see it. Butler’s wins have been ugly, so maybe that’s contributing to the bias against them, but they’ve come over some very impressive competition.

So what’s more surprising, peoples’ dismissal of Butler, or how playing Duke has managed to turn Bob Huggins–Bob Huggins!–into a likable guy?

TIM: I’ll be honest: Brad Stevens definitely seems like my kind of guy. He even uses stats!

The dismissal of Butler isn’t nearly as surprising as it is frustrating; in fact, part of the reason it’s so frustrating is how unsurprising it is. This whole Bob Huggins Redemption Tale is nothing short of despicable. How exactly has Bob Huggins redeemed himself? Sure, he did a nice coaching job with a talented team, but the problem with Huggins was never that he was a bad coach. It was that he was a bad human being! And have we seen any evidence to change that?

You said it last week: His matchup with John Calipari contained two of the most detestable coaches in sports. That just meant that as fun as it was to see Cal’s ‘Cats try three after three, it came at the expense of elevating Huggins (who was “bold enough” to play his predecessor’s defense all day).

JOHN S: Yeah, one of the more comical elements of the Redemption of Huggins has been commentators trying to give him credit for “sticking with” Beilein’s zone. Because the mark of a great coach: Inaction!

I was, half-heartedly, rooting for West Virginia against Kentucky, if only because Demarcus Cousins added to Calipari makes the Wildcats almost wholly detestable (save John Wall). Also, any time a team can go an entire half without a two-point field goal and still win, you’ve got to root for that.

Watching Kentucky and Syracuse struggle last weekend, though, made Duke’s resolve more impressive. They still haven’t had a game in this Tournament where everything clicked, but they’ve managed to will themselves to a win each time. The other #1s, however, all seemed to go from “struggling” to “panicking.” Something the WV-UK game showed is that games in the Tournament aren’t always whose better at their best, but which team can best maintain its poise

TIM: I was rooting for West Virginia in spite of Huggins because it’s always nice to see the established flaws of a John Calipari team come back to bite it at the worst possible moment. It was also enjoyable to watch another team “die by the three” in the Tournament, which was particularly fun because Kentucky never really got to live by the three this season.

You hit on a good point with Duke’s resolve. If you made a list of the “Most Impressive Performances by a Team” in this Tournament, Duke doesn’t make it. Neither does Michigan State for that matter. It seems as if several teams have looked more or less unbeatable before losing in a subsequent game. I’m thinking here of Syracuse (post-Gonzaga), Kentucky (post-Wake and, to an extent post-Cornell), and Baylor (post-Saint Mary’s). In cliched terms, the Tournament is about surviving and advancing, and these four teams have all found ways to win games when they weren’t at their best. I’d even go so far as to say that none of these teams have played their best game yet, and that should make the weekend very interesting for the first time in a while.

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One response to this post.

  1. […] really a good idea. But it ended on that high note, that “Hey, it could happen” hope. As John S said in our review of that game: “In the brief moment when Crawford’s shot was in the air, I thought–similar to my thought […]

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