Saturday, March 17, 2012

Day Two Thoughts

My reactions to day two of the second round, a.k.a. day two of the first round, a.k.a. the most historic day in NCAA tournament history.

Four times, and only four times, prior to Friday had a #15 seed beaten a #2 seed in the first round. On Friday, it happened twice. Lehigh-Duke got top billing on Sportscenter even though it happened after Norfolk State-Missouri, so we'll start there after the jump.

Lehigh's win over Duke was fairly typical of these admittedly atypical upsets. The Mountain Hawks have a wing scorer, C.J. McCollum, who is about as good at putting the ball in the basket as anybody, and he did it often, scoring 30 points. On the other end, Lehigh locked up Duke's three-point shooters and forced freshman Austin Rivers into an auspicious tournament debut. And with Seth Curry in foul trouble and Ryan Kelly out with the injury that caused him to miss the ACC tournament, the Devils didn't have anywhere else to turn. Lehigh played very well, but they won in part because Duke wasn't.

On the other hand, Missouri played pretty well. Offensively, anyway. The Tigers shot 52% from the field, made 13 three-pointers (on 29 tries), and committed just a handful of turnovers. And yet, they lost. Lost because they played poor defense, sure, lost because they were (as is typical) outrebounded, yes. But mostly, they lost because of how good Norfolk State was. The Spartans, the most inefficient offensive team in the field, matched Missouri shot for shot. They made ten three-pointers on 19 attempts, despite shooting something like 31% from downtown during the regular season. Kyle O'Quinn took advantage of Mizzou's Ricardo Ratliffe and Steve Moore to the tune of 26 points and 14 boards. Pendarvis Williams and Chris McEachin each scored 20 points, combining to go 14-23 from the field, including eight of 12 from deep. The starting lineup scored all 86 points.

Unlike Lehigh's triumph, Norfolk State's was not typical of a major first-round upset. Instead, it was reminiscent of George Mason's Elite Eight victory over UConn all those years ago, the capper to the tournament run that ushered in this era of Cinderella success. In that game, as in this one, both teams executed offensively at an extremely high level. And, incredibly, it was the favorite that blinked first.

Needless to say, I'm crushed by this loss. I loved watching this Missouri team and really thought it would have been fun to seen their small lineup go up against some of the more traditionally constructed teams from the other power conferences, like Michigan State and Kentucky. Reflecting on it hours afterwards, however, I can't be too disappointed; upsets like this one must be savored.

The next question is whether either Lehigh or Norfolk State (or both) can become the first #15 seeds to win two games in a tournament and make the Sweet 16. Both teams have a decent shot at it.

Lehigh plays Xavier, which came back from a double-digit second-half deficit, went ahead on a high, fadeaway bank shot from Tu Holloway, then held on thanks in part to a Ashevillian lane violation on Notre Dame that negated the front end of what could have been the game-tying one-and-one in the final seconds. (If Notre Dame coach Mike Brey did not educate his team on the "no crossing the foul line extended 'til the ball hits the rim" rule after it cost Asheville a chance to tie Syracuse on Thursday, then he has no one to blame but himself.) The Musketeers really aren't that good, but Holloway and Mark Lyons are dangerous perimeter weapons. Holloway in particular has repeatedly proven his shotmaking ability in tough situations, and the Mountain Hawks will probably find their hands fuller with him than they were with Curry and Rivers. But it's a game Lehigh can win.

Norfolk State, on the other hand, will face a Florida team that blew out a slumping Virginia team despite hitting just four of 23 three-pointers. The Gators are a bit more formidable inside than Missouri was, but they aren't quite as talented on the perimeter as the Tigers were, either. And, as SI's Luke Winn pointed out on Twitter, Florida is worse defensively than Missouri. Still, the Spartans wouldn't have won on Friday without pitching close to a perfect game. What are the chances they do it again on Sunday?

Lehigh-Duke and Xavier-Notre Dame takes care of all the South region action for the day. Norfolk State-Missouri and Florida-Virginia were West region games. In other West action, top-ranked Michigan State avoided the upset bug by beating LIU-Brooklyn behind a 24-12-10 triple-double from Draymond Green. (MSU dominated the interior, as you'd expect, as Derrick Nix and Adreian Payne had 18 and 16 points, respectively, in support of Green.) They'll face St. Louis in the second round, whose slow pace seemed to frustrate the easily frustratable Memphis Tigers.

In the South region, Cincinnati jumped out to a big first half lead on Texas and St. Bonaventure, led by the terrific Andrew Nicholson, lead Florida State. The Bearcats were able to barely hang on, while the Bonnies could not. The key to that second-round matchup will likely be Florida State's outside shooting. Cincy has displayed an effective 2-3 zone during its impressive postseason run, and the streaky Seminole perimeter players will need to knock down a few shots. Only a few, though; the Bearcats don't have the weapons to put up big numbers on FSU's stalwart D.

On the Midwest, which had all 16 teams in action on Friday.

The big upset was #13 Ohio over #4 Michigan -- which, on a normal day, would have been a pretty big story. This game was going on at the same time as Duke-Lehigh, St. Louis-Memphis, and Purdue-St. Mary's (Purdue came back to win after blowing a double-digit lead in the second half), and so I didn't catch that much of it. (Note that all four of these games, by the way, as the first "set" of games in the evening session, were won by the underdog.) I did catch the end, however, where the Wolverines squandered opportunity after opportunity in the final two minutes to cut into a three-point Bobcat lead. Michigan relied almost exclusively on freshman point guard Trey Burke to drive into the teeth of the Ohio zone and find teammates for threes. When those didn't go down, he took matters into his own hands from way behind the arc, with similar success.

Ohio moves on to play #12 South Florida, which beat Temple despite trailing 19-15 at halftime thanks to 3-for-27 shooting (I'm pretty sure the Bulls hit their first two shots, too). The second half was a different story entirely for Stan Heath's club, led by freshman point guard Anthony Collins. South Florida, with its tenacious defense and patient offense, is looking like a tougher and tougher out with each game.

Georgetown cruised past Belmont, their length bothering the Bruins' normally potent three-point assault. The Hoyas will take on #11 North Carolina State in the next round. The Wolfpack, which likely needed a couple of wins in the ACC tournament to even make the field, got big games inside from C.J. Leslie and Richard Howell. I wasn't impressed with SDSU; Jamaal Franklin and Chase Tapley put up decent scoring totals, but they needed a lot of shots to do so and nothing about the Aztec offense suggested any real continuity. It looked a lot like the guys had just come together for a pickup game and each was trying to impress someone with their individual skills. Surprising from a Steve Fisher-coached team.

North Carolina beat Vermont relatively handily despite being without John Henson. Next up for the Heels is Creighton, which rallied to beat Alabama. That game happened so long ago, and with so much in between, that I honestly can't remember what I was going to say about it. Carolina should win that one, but tune in to see Creighton's Doug McDermott.

Finally, Purdue will taken on Kansas in the second round. The Jayhawks were the only #2 seed that advanced Friday (Ohio State won on Thursday). It's a bit ironic that KU won on a day when Duke and Mizzou lost, simply because when I saw the bracket, one of the first things that came to my head was that Detroit, the Horizon league champs, was under-seeded as a 15. The truth is that the 15s were tough this year; Detroit won a tough league; Norfolk State nearly won the Paradise Jam, losing by a single point to Marquette in the championship game; and Lehigh's McCollum makes them dangerous. I expected the two-seeds to have a tough time.

But I never expected this.

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