by Daniel Jensen
The week-long drumbeat of talking heads and zealous alumni culminated the last couple of nights, and your squad is still dancing. Now this is beginning to feel real. How much are Final Four tickets, anyway? Does Southwest, with their cheap flights and free-flying bags, operate out of my city? I’ll need to bring a lot of bags so I have places to put my “National Champion” oversized Hanes t-shirts. Will I look like a tourist in Dallas if I’m not wearing a cowboy hat? How much ARE cowboy hats? What is the max on my credit card? I should see if I’m eligible for an increase. I know you wanted to go to the Caribbean this year, honey, but it’s not every day your team wins the National Championship, and there’s like a one-in-eight chance that’s one-hundred percent happening. Did you hear those odds? I said one-hundred percent! Have you seen who we’ve beaten? Our boys have that look this year, I’m telling you. It’s a lock! Get packed. At the very least we could use some Lonestar sunshine.
I’m sorry to be the loud stain on your championship shirt but…It’s not a lock. It is so far from it and deep down you know it too. The Elite Eight is an overrated place. It’s Purgatory. You’re good enough to still be around, but not good enough to be remembered by June. Even if you’ve cruised so far, or you’re the #1 overall seed, you’re only halfway there. And the second half is Hell. Maybe you’re going to two-step your way to Dallas, maybe you’re not. Even if you are, don’t bring the scissors.
Dayton: No team has ever won a title after losing to the same team three times in the same season like Dayton did against St. Joes this year. You know how much research I did to come up with that fact? Zero, because teams with enough talent to win titles do not lose to mid-major teams three times. Unlike Syracuse and Stanford, Florida has a power inside game to attack your soft, undersized front line. Patric Young is not interested in finessing his way around Cavanaugh & Co. – he’s going to do serious damage on the glass, giving Florida multiple chances to pour buckets in on enough possessions to keep Dayton scrambling. Let’s face it, had Syracuse or Ohio State had any offensive firepower, UD students wouldn’t be overflowing campus streets or know who their President is. Cinderella is a great story, but let’s not forget the point behind the story, midnight strikes. Chomp. Chomp.
Wisconsin: Much like Dayton, Wisconsin had a rocky January in-conference, losing five of six to teams like Minnesota, Northwestern, and Too-Good-For-Your-Weak-Tournament-Indiana. Despite this, and unlike most Bo Ryan teams, these guys can score a little bit. Frank Kaminsky is explosive offensively, able to beat fellow bigs off the dribble or rise up over smaller defenders, but the buck pretty much stops there for consistency. Overall athleticism is lacking across the board, a weakness that a team like Arizona will pounce on quickly. Arizona will not be content to sit back in a low-pressure defense like Baylor did last night and give Wisconsin fluid ball movement and open looks from deep. Expect to see quick double downs on Kaminsky in the post from the Wildcat guards, forcing him to give it up or finish in traffic. Even if this early strategy doesn’t pan out, Sean Miller has a tight enough grasp on his crew and will stick with the plan until the talent shines through.
Florida: Albany laid-out the gameplan for beating a balanced Florida team by limiting Patric Young’s touches and forcing guys like Prather and Frazier II to beat them with tough, contested shots from outside their range. Luckily for Florida, their worst offensive night of the tournament so far came against a sixteen seed. We can pretend that was just a hiccup, but all it takes is for these guys to have an off night from deep and Florida will be watching this from the desolate swamp that is Gainesville. Throw out last night’s 79 points against the 188th-ranked UCLA defense, and the Gators have become decidedly less potent offensively since tournament play began. Young can get all the offensive rebounds he wants, but he will need those streaky shooters to stay hot to beat better teams than the SEC has offered the last three months.
Arizona: For a team known for high-pressure defense and rebounding, the Wildcats looked overmatched for the majority of the game Thursday. McConnell and York tend to slide underneath screens to avoid getting mismatched on the switch and San Diego State just did not have the shooters to make them pay. Any time a San Diego State player warranted a switch, a quick dump-off to a big on a (very) undersized McConnell resulted in easy shots. Better, balanced teams are going to exploit that and put up enough points to force Arizona into actually scoring like a top-tier squad. Speaking of which, the scoring thing from Arizona is probably not going to happen. For all the quickness McConnell possesses, he’s not much of a threat to score beyond spot-up treys; often times beating his man off the dribble or with a screen only to find himself in a forest that he can’t pass or shoot out of. Aaron Gordon is a terrific finisher inside but lacks any ability to create his own shot off the dribble; allowing teams to sag off of him and keep the focus on Nick Johnson. Depth is a serious issue after their loss of Brandon Ashley and Tarczewski’s penchant for foul trouble. Oh, and free throw shooting. This team does not make their free throws. For Arizona it’ll be death by a thousand cuts.
UConn: Shabazz Napier has fans up in Storrs and media types alike drawing comparisons to Kemba Walker’s tear through the Big East and NCAA tournaments. While Shabazz is surely playing like the driven superstar that Kemba morphed into those four weeks in 2011, the team around him is considerably less talented. The He-Put-The-Team-On-His-Back narrative generates headlines, but it’s not fair to talented college players like Alex Oriaki, Tyler Olander, and Jeremy Lamb to pretend like they never existed. The former two players gave UConn a fearsome defensive and rebounding front line that the 2014 team does not have. Who is going to score when Napier inevitably goes through a cold spell against a better team than Iowa State? It’s not Boatwright, who thrives when getting wide open looks generated by defenses fixated on Napier. No front line player offers much of an offensive threat either. UConn and their fearless leader should be proud to be Elite, but there is no Kemba ending for this team.
Michigan: Greg Anthony took a page out of Skip Bayless’ Troll Book of Logic (check your local library) by trying desperately to conclude why Michigan is a better team without Mitch McGrary. He had so much trouble explaining himself because it’s just not true. On what planet is Greg Anthony living that he can possibly argue that a team losing an athletic, powerful, offensive big man (an absolute unicorn in college basketball) is beneficial? As if Beilein is sitting in Ann Arbor thanking his lucky stars that McGrary got hurt and that opened his eyes to the hidden talents of Just-A-Guy Morgan. Without McGrary Michigan is relegated to a three-point shootout between Albrecht, Stauskas, and Robinson III every night. When the shots are falling this team can feel like Seal Team Six surrounding the Maersk Alabama pirates. What happens when the seas are rough and the shots aren’t falling, though? Big Blue does not have a strong compliment of guys that can get to the rack and generate free throws and garbage buckets when that happens. They’re missing a Trey Burke.
P.S. You’re not going to believe this but I wrote that with about twelve minutes to go in the game. I present the last ten minutes of that game as Exhibit ‘A’.
Kentucky: There’s no questioning the talent down in Lexington as Calipari keeps Rupp Arena stocked with McDonalds All-Americans year in and year out. It’s just that High School All-Star teams usually can’t come together and win against well-coached teams (see season, regular). And at about midnight EST that was true. Yet here we all are at 12:30, shocked, talking about Kentucky in the Elite Eight. In some ways this was a gift from Rick Pitino and the Lucas Oil Stadium hardwood. Pitino steadfastly stuck with his high-pressure defense despite a decent lead and ran star Russ Smith into the ground. A poor decision compounded by that hardy plank in the House That Manning Built, which knocked the Cardinals’ only other ballhandler, Chris Jones, out with an obvious concussion. Without that gift I doubt Kentucky would have been moving on. Looking forward, we can expect a patient Michigan bunch to keep the Wildcats frustrated and scrambling with their crisp ball movement. Julius Randle will get his inside, but the Harrison Boys do not have enough control over their team to beat the more efficient teams that loom in the next rounds. The extra push Kentucky put into the game tonight to play their more successful in-state rival will have faded by Sunday. Tonight was fun and those kids deserve to celebrate for beating the defending champ, but Michigan is there to beat the drum on that hangover.
Michigan State: Who is going to score for this team? Adrien Payne was positively non-existent until the last few minutes of the game. Now, the shots he did take and subsequently make were huge and no doubt saved Sparty from a Louisville-style collapse down the stretch. It’s just odd that a team that looked so smooth and diverse offensively last weekend looked like such a mess tonight. Though Virginia is undoubtedly a great bunch defensively, they should not have been able to completely eliminate any semblance of a mid-range or three-point shooting threat from State. Though Payne’s versatility is terrifying for defenses, his time on the perimeter hurts their offensive rebounding capabilities. Those extra opportunities were swallowed-up by Branden Dawson, who is on fire right now. Coming off of a broken hand, Dawson is playing far above his pay grade right now, if he crashes back to Earth, watch out. Also, if an upcoming opponent like Florida is smart they’ll bait Payne into putting the ball on the deck and Dawson to shoot more pull-ups and finesse shots – this offense could get even uglier. Finally, tonight Michigan State proved that the lapse against Harvard wasn’t a fluke, they are prone to scoring droughts that allow bloodied and bruised opponents up off the mat. What happens when that drought comes in a close game against a team that’s already winning the fight?