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NCAA Tournament second weekend notes: Duke, Kentucky Final Four regulars, but seldom together

March 31, 2015 Columns No Comments
glatczak

With a group of regional semifinalists that was dominated by historically powerful programs, the second weekend of the 2015 NCAA Tournament was bound to leave us with a touted quartet of teams for the Final Four.

It has done just that, providing us with a mix of the recent and the historic, including two programs that have joined each other at this time of the season more than a time or two before. Duke, Kentucky, Michigan State and Wisconsin is not the most history-rich group of four that we’ve ever had in a Final Four-1991, 1993 and 2008 were more so, to list a few-but it is indeed a group with plenty of roots in this sport.

Kentucky and Duke. It should be no surprise at least one of them are here, though it surprisingly is a surprise that both are.

The two have a combined 33 Final Four appearances between them, and over span of eight decades. In fact, since the 1940’s the Wildcats have been to the NCAA national semifinals in every decade except one (the 2000’s, the main part of a 13-year gap that is the longest the school has ever gone without a Final Four).

Of course, many of Duke’s 16 appearances on this stage have come under Mike Krzyzewski-12 of them in all now. The Blue Devils did make three trips to the national semis in four years from 1963-66, though, as well as a championship game appearance in 1978.

This is not the first time Duke and Kentucky have been in the Final Four together, but it is one of the few. Most notably, it happened in 1966, when the two squared off in the semifinals and an 83-79 Kentucky win led the Wildcats to the championship game against the famous Texas Western team that won the title. Kentucky and Duke also met in the title game in 1978, when Jack Givens memorably scored 41 points in the Wildcats’ 94-88 victory.

It’s incredible these two have not been in the Final Four together more often. Since 1984, either Duke or Kentucky has gotten this far in the tourney 20 times in 32 years.

Wisconsin and Michigan State share more than just Big Ten affiliation. The two have become regulars to advancing deep in the tourney, though for both this is more of a recent development.

The two schools combined had just three Final Four appearances before 1999, the year of Tom Izzo’s first trip to there as head coach at Michigan State. Ironically, two of those three appearances had resulted in national championships-Wisconsin in 1941, in just the third year of the event, and Michigan State in 1979 with Magic Johnson.

Wisconsin is appearing in its fourth Final Four, but its third since 2000, and under its second different coach in that time. Meanwhile, Michigan State has been to nine Final Fours, including this seventh trip under Izzo. The Spartans also have an easily forgotten appearance in 1957, when they lost to North Carolina after getting to the semifinals with a win over…Kentucky.

More tournament notes:

Statistically, it appears that this year’s NCAA Tournament as a whole is going to do down as slightly above average, one that was on fire for a time but actually quite mediocre at other stages by the lofty standards the tourney has established in the past. The 2015 tourney also should be blowing up the myth that games automatically get better as we get down to less teams, as many of this year’s most competitive games were actually in the early rounds.

As a whole, the tourney’s six one-point games is one shy of the record of seven in a tourney, originally set in 1982 and tied three other times. Somewhat surprisingly, not a single one of those games has come after the first round (Round of 64).

The tourney also has had three two-point games, five three-point games and four overtime games  (the latter is not bad, but still well shy of the record of seven set in 1995 and tied in 1997 and again last year).

In the NCAA’s tournament records book, records are tracked for “close games”, defined as games decided by three points or less or in overtime. This year’s total of 15 close games so far ranks tied for 14th among 33 tournaments since the tourney expanded to 52 teams in 1983, the first year at least 50 NCAA tourney games were played.

This year’s tournament tourney really can be broken down into almost two tournaments: the first 36 games, and then the rest. In those first 36 games, 11 games were decided by three points or less, and a total of 15 were decided by five or less and/or in overtime. Twenty-one of the 36 games were decided by single digits, with 15 decided by double figures (including three by exactly 10 points). In other words, a full two-thirds of these games can be roughly deducted to have come down to the final two minutes.

Since those First Four and first round games, though, just four of 28 games have been decided by five points or less. Three of those games were decided by three or less. Thirteen of those 28 games have been decided by single digits, making for 15 decided by double digits, including two by exactly 10 points. That makes for barely more than half of all Round of 32, regional semifinals and final games that meet the approximate two-minute test of above.

(Will also note that, while staunchly against the use of margin of victory or defeat in power ratings, on a personal basis these numbers seem to coincide with the feel of the tournament’s quality in general. The tourney started out with a host of terrific finishes, but with a few notable exceptions has been quite mundane since).

Scoring has remained about the same from the average of the first weekend (67.79 ppg) to the second (67.58 ppg, albeit in a much smaller sample). It is worth a chuckle to notice how there is far less griping from analysts about low scoring as the tournament goes on…apparently low scoring is only bad when it’s done by underdogs?

Finally, it almost goes without saying, but not a single team in this year’s tourney has scored 100 points.

In the eight years the NCAA Tournament used a 45-second shot clock (1986-93), there were 51 occasions where teams scored 100 points or more in an NCAA Tournament game. In the 22 years since with a 35-second shot clock, there have been just 41, including a mere 14 over the last eight years. It’s one thing for casual fans to be misled, but it’s just inexcusable how intelligent people in the sport seem to think the shot clock is the source of problems with the game. History proves that theory holds no water at all.

 

You’re going to hear about the coaches this week. Over, and over, and over. You may get the impression at some point that some on TV aren’t so excited about the games themselves as they are about the thought that the four coaches might play each other in a one-on-one bracket this weekend.

For the record, the four coaches have a combined 27 Final Four…or 25, if you take away two vacated appearances for John Calipari’s teams. Nineteen of those come from Mike Krzyzewski (12) and Tom Izzo (7).

 

There may be no play that haunts one of the four losing teams in this weekend’s NCAA Tournament regional championship games than the one that happened with just under five minutes left in the Duke-Gonzaga South Region final.

Trailing by two points in a game that ebbed and flowed throughout the second half, the Bulldogs’ Przemek Karnowski found Kyle Wiltjer on a high-low pass, with Wiltjer wide open just to the right of the basket. The West Coast Conference’s player of the year caught the pass cleanly in a good spot and just had to go up in one motion to lay it in, similar to drills players have been doing since elementary school age.

The layup missed, and the Bulldogs never got closer to the Blue Devils again.

In the end, Gonzaga lost to Duke by 14 points-66-52 was the final. Anyone who watched the game, though, knows that the score was in no way representative of the closeness of the game.

When Wiltjer missed that shot, Gonzaga was trailing just 53-51. A basket would’ve tied the score, continuing what had overall balanced out into a very even first 35 minutes. Instead, Duke grabbed the rebound, came down and Justise Winslow made two free throws. He made two more on the Blue Devils’ next possession. The Bulldogs did not make another field goal the rest of the game, Duke is on to the Final Four just a year after a stunning loss to Mercer in the first round, and the Zags are still waiting for their first trip to the national semifinals.

As it so often is in evenly matched games, we saw again in the regional semifinal and final games how the little details can make a big difference in results. We hear it time and again that a game never is decided by one play, but that doesn’t mean that small parts of the game-and yes, sometimes even one play-can be a key part of the thin-as-tin-foil difference between winning and losing.

Even in a game that was ultimately decided by 14 points, the South regional final alone provided multiple examples of just how a game can turn on seemingly benign plays. Wiltjer’s missed layup was a microcosm of this (and a flukish play; as coach Mark Few said after, it’s a shot he hits 499 times out of 500), but this was a game that turned on the little things.

If you looked at shooting percentages and a couple other stats that often are indicators of success, you would’ve expected Gonzaga to have beaten Duke on Sunday. The Zags shot 44.0%; the Blue Devils, 37.5%. The Bulldogs also won the rebounding battle (35-31) and finished with a 13-0 advantage in bench points.

Duke got the best of Gonzaga in two key areas, though: turnovers and free throws. The Blue Devils committed just two miscues against the Zags, finishing plus-10 in turnover margin. Even in a game between two high-scoring teams that surprisingly stalled at a fairly slow pace, that’s an incredible job of the proverbial taking care of the basketball.

Duke also shot 10 more free throws than Gonzaga on Sunday. More importantly, the Blue Devils made good use of their foul shots, hitting 16 of 19 (84.2%). And while the Dukies went more than six minutes without a basket late in the game, they also made seven of eight free throws in that stretch. At the same time, the Zags got to the line just twice, making one of two, while also making just three field goals in that span.

Free throw shooting also was a story in Michigan State’s win over Louisville. The Spartans came into the game shooting just 62.8% for the season at the line, yet made 15 of 20 (75%, including all four attempts in the extra session) in their overtime win. Incidentally, MSU also committed just 10 turnovers against the Cardinals’ pressure defense, preventing Rick Pitino’s team from creating the mayhem that could have offset its poor shooting.

 

Another theme of the past weekend was players stepping up their games to new levels. Of course, the A-1 example of that was Wisconsin’s Sam Dekker, setting a career high in two consecutive games. But a much more out-of-nowhere performance was from Duke’s Matt Jones. A sophomore guard averaging less than six points per game and who scored in double figures just six times prior this year, Jones tallied 16 points and hit four three-pointers, including a number of jolts in the second half to spark the Blue Devil offense when it was struggling. His other four teammates starting will get more of the accolades, but Matt Jones played a huge part in his team’s advancing to the Final Four, instead of being locked in a game that went down to the final possession.

 

Notre Dame’s season is done, but a couple final notes about the Fighting Irish and their memorable tournament performance:

First, a question: Why don’t more teams play like them offensively? Mike Brey got about as much as humanly possible out of his team this year, and he did it by coaching offense. He did have a team of versatile, mid-sized players, but he also had little depth and almost no size inside. Of course, part of the answer is that the Irish were a skilled offensive team with a lot of outside shooters, as well as undersized hustlers who could at least fight to a draw on the boards. It’s not nearly as easy for teams to execute offensively when they don’t have players who can knock down shots, inside or outside, or when those undersized players can’t hold their own on the boards. But the longer answer is of course that it’s harder to teach offense than defense. Coaches would rather take the easier way out and spend time teaching defensive rotations than spending a little more time teaching players how to move without the basketball. A salute to coaches like Brey, Bo Ryan, Stephen F. Austin’s Brad Underwood, William & Mary’s Tony Shaver and others who do so, and it can’t be said enough: if people want more offense in college basketball, it’s going to take philosophical shifts, as well as a re-emphasis of rules that give offense slightly more of the benefit of the doubt than they have now.

The other point: what Notre Dame does offensively-an offensive style that might be compared to the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs-is not unique to the NBA or professional basketball in general. National stories after the game were about how the Irish nearly beat Kentucky with “pro-style sets” with “screen and roll action as well as dives to the rim,” among other descriptions. It’s called cutting and moving without the basketball. There’s nothing novel or “pro-style” about it, it’s been around basketball at all levels forever. Teams used to play like the Irish all the time. That they don’t is a commentary on the sport and coaching now more than anything else.

 

Instead of serving the maximum amount of viewers, the NCAA chose to take the money from CBS and the Turner networks, which meant a downright silly decision by the organization to allow a number of its biggest games to now get moved to cable. There’s simply no defensible reason why the Saturday regional semifinals and national semifinals should be played primarily on cable. Saturday night is traditionally a tough night for national networks to find programming, so it’s hard to imagine the NCAA couldn’t have negotiated a way for its main events to remain on national TV and not withheld them from the 10-15% of the country that doesn’t have cable. The NCAA takes a ton of shots, and sometimes they are not deserved, but in this case any grumbling is well-earned.

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