NCAA tournament: Survive and advance (and other fun phrases to impress friends/coworkers/pets)

Okay, so everyone has been quick to point out how imperfect my bracket is. Like I always say, "always forward, never back".  Despite that spirit, let's take a look back at some of the points that have stuck through the regional finals.

Before I do a little Region by Region break down, let me point out one thing that might not be obvious, but had a huge impact in this tournament. I’ll call it “Why Villanova is in the Final Four and Missouri Is Not” (really rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it?).

Mizzou and Connecticut was an extremely intriguing matchup because of the differences in styles of play. UConn is big, Mizzou is quick. Mizzou pushes the ball and gets to the rack, and plays smothering, help oriented defense. Uconn matches up and tries to funnel to its big boys down low. Going into this game two things were a given. The first, the Tigers were going to force turnovers. The second, UConn would win the battle of the boards. The key to this game was clearly “could Mizzou’s pressure and guard play stifle UConn and allow the Tigers to run past the Huskies, or would UConn’s size, strength, and glass play rule the day?” Basically this game was going to be about stat pairings. That is, if you took one in the abstract (for instance rebounds) it would tell you a skewed story. So, Mizzou would have to take and make more shots from the field (particularly from three) to offset UConn’s ability to get to the line more often.

Sure enough, UConn dominated the window by out rebounding Missouri 19. Sure enough, Missouri won the turnover battle at +11 (forcing 17, and giving up the rock only 6 times).  So right now, things seem pretty even, right? They were, of course. The final margin of victory for the University of Connecticut was only 7. So what happened? Well, we will come back to that.

The Villanova vs. Pittsburgh matchup was similar in that it featured one team that had superior guard play, and one team that had a superior interior presence. It was similar in that one team was a three seed and the other was a one seed and one time #1 team in the country. Unlike the other game, this one featured a very close rebounding/turnover battle. In fact, The Cats and Panthers featured a stat line that was almost identical, which was somewhat surprising (more on that below).

So now to the moment of truth: What happened? Why in two fairly even games, did one team win and one team lose? The answer is free throws.

One set of cats (the Tigers) shot only 12, the other set (the Wild ones) got to the stripe 23 times. That, in and of itself, is not surprising or a big deal. What IS a big deal is what they did with the opportunity. The ‘Cats of ‘Nova knocked down 22-23 (a 95.7% clip) to escape with a victory. The Tigers, though, wasted their chance to reach a Final Four for the first time in school history by making only 6 of their attempts (or, 50%). The Tigers lost by 7, so it would seem the free throws alone could not make up the difference. That would be true EXCEPT for the fact that UConn got the opportunity late to stretch the lead because they had it and Missouri had to foul. If the Tigers had taken care of business at the line, they might be dancing.

(As an aside, the Tiger mascot might be cursed, as Memphis was abysmal from the line in the National Finals last year costing them a ‘ship…. The NCAA should investigate THAT)

Midwest

It was strange to think of the University of Arizona as a Cinderella, but that's sort of what they were. Like George Mason (an 11 seed) a few years ago, Arizona (a 12 seed) was looking to parlay early success into a Final Four. After the first weekend in 2006, though, all the talk was how George Mason stormed into the tourney and punched their tickets to the Sweet Sixteen. So why didn’t we hear about how Arizona has shocked the world?

Well, the answer is twofold (and really quite simple). Arizona was in a strange position; simultaneously surprising everyone and no one. Despite the fact that there was a ton of talk (or, "run" as I like to call it) that Arizona should not be in the field of 65, it seemed like everyone thought they were a lock to beat Utah, which they did. The 'Cats followed that up by a win over 13-seed Cleveland State. If Arizona had faced Wake Forrest in the Round of 32, it might have been a little different.

But, even if they had played Wake, they're still UofA.  The other side of this lack of chatter is that George Mason is George Mason from the Colonial Athletic Association. Arizona is Arizona, a major power from a BCS Conference. Once you have done the things that Arizona has, do you really deserve ink for beating Utah and Cleveland State after sneaking into the Dance? GM had to be a giant killer, too.  They faced Michigan State and North Carolina in the first two rounds.  Michigan State had been in the Final Four a year earlier. As mentioned above, Arizona went through Utah and Cleveland State. Not to disparage those schools and they seasons they had, they are just not the names that State and UNC are (and were).

Midwest was probably the most exciting and entertaining region.  Ohio State and Sienna provided a tourney classic with a double-OT thriller.  Seriously, all the run has been about how North Carolina and Duke get passes by being able to play in Greensborough, but this was a de facto home game for the Buckeyes. Sienna hung and pulled out a victory against OSU, then pushed Louisville into the last minute of play. This Region gave us the most "tournament" games. Cleveland State over Wake was not a victory, it was pure domination.  "The Cleve", as I like to call them, DOMINATED a Wake team that has, probably, three first round NBA draft selections. Add to that the Ohio State/Sienna game and the Michigan State/Kansas showdown, this bracket certainly had drama early and often, unlike the others.

Michigan State, as they've done all year, found a ways to win. Throughout the season, the Spartans have looked to a different player every game to get it done. That held true in the tournament. Louisville flirted with disaster early in the first round before showing up and coasting late to what turned into an easy W. They then dominated University of Arizona in the Round of 16, entering the Elite 8 Matchup with the aforementioned Spartans of Michigan State.

Louisville started the season as a popular pick for the Final Four. The Cards struggled early in the season, during their non-conference schedule. By the time the conference season started, they decided to turn it on. They stormed through the rest of the season, winning a regular season conference title. In what was considered the consensus best conference, Louisville also won the post season conference championship.

The Spartans were also early picks for the Final Four, but inconsistent play throughout the season left a lot of question marks. State won the regular season conference title by four games, but an early exit in the conference tourney cost them a #1 Seed.

Coming into the game, the biggest question for the Spartans was how would they handle the press from Louisville. The ‘Cards full court pressure had been great all season and throughout the tourney. MSU was loose with the ball all year.

If I had to point to one thing, State won this game because they had an even turnover margin (both teams giving it away 12 times).  State was not bothered at all by the Louisville press, breaking it easily with crisp solid passing and getting set in the half court offense with plenty of time on the shot clock and under control.

There were more factors contributing to victory, but Michigan State won by playing Spartan Basketball. MSU prides itself on rebounding their opponents into submission. In fact, the Spartans finished the season average more than 10 rebounds a game more than their opponents. Even though the rebounding margin was fairly even throughout this game, State dominated the offensive glass in the last five minutes. At 13:32 to play in the game, the Spartans held a slim 1 point lead. Despite getting themselves into foul trouble early in the half,, the game was over at that point. They locked down on defense, eventually holding Louisville to 38.3% shooting, and grab every single board, it seemed.

West

As I said in my last post, Purdue is and was getting healthier at the right time. With a healthy Hummel, they're better than a 5 seed. So, seeing them in the Round of 16 was not exactly a surprise.

The talk of this Region is probably just the health of University of Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun. Coach missed the opening round game, but the team rolled. He was released from the hospital Friday and said he had been treated for "dehydration" and was a-okay. The Huskies rolled in the second round, too. Then, the Huskies rolled some more, over Purdue and into the Elite 8.

Memphis almost imploded in the first round, but dominated Maryland in the second to set up a showdown of Tigers.

Mizzou almost chocked away a SIXTEEN POINT SECOND HALF lead in the Round of 32 against Marquette, only to pull it out (saving my bracket further damage… at the time). Then, against Memphis, Mizzou almost chocked away a TWNETY-TWO POINT SECOND HALF LEAD, only to pull it out (saving my bracket further damage… at the time).

Unfortunately for all of us, and as discussed above, the Tigers fell to UConn… destroying my bracket once and for all

East

In the Dance, the goal is to "survive and advance". This was exactly what Pitt did through three rounds. The last few years scoring points in the NCCA's has been the problem for the Panthers, but they got enough to get into the Elite 8.

In what ended up a chalk bracket, Pitt gave everyone outside of Western Pennsylvania hope that they would indeed be the first #1 seed to ever lose to a 16.  They followed that up with a barn burner against Oklahoma State. An 8 point final margin of victory in that game does not tell the full story.  Let's take a closer look shall we?

Despite Pitt having a +18 rebounding margin overall, and a +13 offensive rebounding margin, Oklahoma State was in the game the whole time and it was locked at 74 with 2:41 to go.

When I look at the stats, I can't figure out how OSU lost this game. They were -5 from the free throw stripe, but they were +3 from beyond the arc. They also had a +4 turnover margin. The only statistic that really stands out as a negative is the rebounding margin. Watching the game, it seemed like OSU just could not keep Pitt, especially Dejuan Blair (who had 12 boards), off the window. Every time Pitt needed to grab a rebound, they did. That's the difference.... survive and advance.

I also heard a lot that Texas would definitely dominate Duke in the Round of 32. While Texas gave Duke a good game, the Blue Devils took care of business.

In the Regional Semi’s, Duke was dominated by a quicker, more physical Villanova squadron. It’s a common misconception that physicality takes place solely on the block. It was actually ‘Nova’s guards that out physicaled the guards of Duke for the victory.

I promised you more on the Nova/Pitt game above and I always deliver. If you told me before the Regional Final that Nova would outrebound Pitt (+2), especially on the offensive glass (+1), have more blocks (+2), and more steals (+3),  I would have said that I thought Nova ran away with the game. I would have said that I thought the ‘Cats would have overcome a negative turnover margin (-2), especially since they were +3 points from beyond the proverbial arc. In fact, when I look at the numbers, it seems like Nova did what they needed to do and beat Pitt at their own game. I cannot figure out how this game was so close , but it was and it was really good. Nova moved on, Pitt was left wanting more for probably the billionth year in a row.

South

There was not really anything to say about this Region. In my humble opinion, a 7 over a 10 or an 8 over a 9 is not an upset (in tourney terms). Western Kentucky beat Illinois. Really, that's a story only becuase 12's were 3-1 this year.  The Hilltoppers then pushed the Zags for one of the more thrilling finishes this year. Gonzaga ended up with the W and the top 4 seeds fill the Sweet 16.

The Regional Semi’s were two non-contests. Carolina rolled  the Zags and Oklahoma took care of business against ‘Cuse. Setting up an Elite 8 showdown with a lot of promise.

Alas, Carolina owned Oklahoma in a game that was never really close. Taking a look at the stat line (as you can tell I’m a fan of) it really comes down to the fact that the Heels just shot a better percentage from the field than did the Sooners. No offense to Boomer, but that was always going to be the case. Oklahoma needed to dominate the interior game and have Blake outplay Tyler. Well, Blake did his part ripping down 16 rebounds and dropping 23 points. Tyler was under control (6 boards, 8 points).

I will be honest and say I was wrong about this game. If you had told me that Griffin had those numbers, I would have said Oklahoma was headed to Detroit. Problem is, the rest of the team wanted to head back to Norman. The Sooners had 10 offensive rebounds, Blake had 6 of those. The Sooners had 27 total boards, Blake had 16. The Sooners had 60 points, Blake had 23. After this game, he is the Player of the Year FOR SURE, but come on team!

Carolina, just as they were early in the season, were just too much even for a very good team.

Check back later this week for some thoughts on this weekend’s Final Four match-ups.

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