The March Madness Narrative: About More than the Champion

The NCAA Tournament is known as March Madness for its fast-paced, unforgiving mad rush to the cutting of the nets over an abbreviated three weekend period. There is so much more to the story than just the one team rushing the court and lifting the trophy. Each weekend hits teams like a hurricane. Within moments of their celebrations ending coaches must have players turn on a dime for the next game less than 48 hours away.

At the end of the tournament, we are left with one winner. This year, that is the North Carolina Tar Heels. However, that is nowhere near the full story. The tournament produces things that can supersede even the Final Four or the champion of the season.  This type of environment forges stronger memories that last. It produces magical runs, heart-pounding and tense action as well as singular moments that capture our hearts. What is made in March lasts forever.

Bryce Drew hit one of the more memorable shots in tournament history. (Photo courtesy of usatoday.com)

Throughout the years, many things have surpassed the champions in our memories, but certain moments continue to captivate us. Many people could not name the 1998 Final Four of Kentucky, North Carolina, Utah and Stanford but the vast majority of basketball fans know the phrase “Drew, for the win!” and the Ole Miss loss to Valparaiso that accompanies it. This is now a moment etched in stone. It speaks to the fact that the chaos of March Madness can create a generational memory that lasts far beyond winning a game or the championship.

There are countless examples of this. For small schools, moments such as these can define a program.  They can be the thing that coaches point to when attempting to recruit against bigger schools. Need a better example of this? Look no further than the legendary Davidson run to the Elite 8 with now NBA All-Star, Steph Curry. Big moments for small schools are part of what defines March.

Even Blue Blood programs, however, can also see their drama elevate fan folklore to a higher level. Take what is arguably the most iconic moment in NCAA history: Christian Laettner hits his shot to beat Kentucky in the 1992 championship game…the championship game for the region that is. Duke and Kentucky each have amazing programs in their own respects but every time these two share the court together, this is brought up by fans and broadcasters alike. Laettner had a less than stellar career in the NBA and was a forgotten part of the 1992 NBA Olympic “Dream Team” but he is forever immortalized for one shot in a game that was only to make the Final Four. Making the Final Four is certainly something to be remembered, but that game is referenced far more than the Blue Devils championship victory over the Michigan Wolverine’s “Fab Five.”

It is not just moments that capture our hearts, but runs as well. The 1983 run by Jim Valvano’s North Carolina State Wolfpack is a true story that moves far beyond the 40 minutes on the game clock. That year’s title run was capped by one of the more inconceivable upsets of the Houston “Phi Slamma Jamma” team that featured future hall of famers Hakeem Olajuwan and Clyde Drexler. This Memory of March moved beyond 1983 into the life of the late Valvano and seemed to mirror his outlook on the impossible battle for his life.

March Madness is just prone to stories such as this. With the tense nature of the one and out tournament, drama is sure to elevate the intensity. Yet, time and time again teams put together seemingly impossible roads to the Final Four. Shaka Smart and VCU became the first team to go from the NCAA’s First Four play in game to the Final Four. Though they were unable to bring home the title, this is remembered just as fondly. George Mason’s historic run to the Final Four in 2006 made a career path for Jim Larrañaga much easier to achieve.

Chris Chiozza (11) lets a prayer fly. (Photo courtesy of fansided.com)

This year’s tournament is no exception in either case. Several moments have grabbed our attention. Thus far there are two points in time that stand out the most. The first is The Wisconsin-Florida ending. The game came down to the final second of regulation and eventually led to overtime.  With Wisconsin leading by two points, Florida had one final chance. Enter Chris Chiozza. Going the length of the floor, Chiozza let a leaning, running, impossible shot fly. Buckets. This gives Florida fans that, “Hey, remember when…?” for years to come.

Luke Maye’s shot to beat Kentucky is an example of just how the tournament can become something wholly other than itself. Maye originally was to be a walk on at North Carolina. With some roster shifting, Roy Williams found one for him and he has torn it up in the NCAA tournament. This season he averages 5.8 points and 4.2 rebounds per game. In these past four NCAA Tournament games he sits at 12.5 points and 6.7 rebounds per contest. This includes arguably the most important shot in the tournament thus far.

The Kentucky and North Carolina game was marred by officiating woes but did not lack in end of game drama. The Wildcats surged back from a nearly double digit deficit with two minutes to go. Freshman Malik Monk’s three tied the game with under 8 seconds to go. Roy Williams commented that the team knows to push the ball with this amount of time left.  It worked. Forward Theo Pinson took the ball 80 feet and used his body to create separation for Maye who drained a mid range jumper with Minimal time left.  He showed up to an early class the next morning and received a standing ovation.

In addition to these brief stops in time, there have been more lengthy runs in this tournament that were less than expected. The South Carolina Gamecocks reached the Sweet 16 this year for the first time in school history,  Then they made the Elite Eight. No reason to stop there, so they made the Final Four. This is a team that was off the radar for so many. South Carolina was picked in 0.6% of brackets to reach the last weekend.

Michigan made do with their practice jerseys. (Photo courtesy of sportingnews.com)

There is one more storied run in this tournament that will go down in the history books. The Michigan Wolverines are the epitome of what March Madness is supposed to be. They got hot coming in to the tournament. Considering the fact that they almost did not make their conference tournament, they are a surprise. The Wolverines plane from campus to the Big 10 tournament skidded off the runway and caused some minor injuries. Due to the nature of the investigation, John Beilein’s squad were forced to play in practice jerseys. Their regular equipment remained on the scene of the incident. They did  not just play well, they won the whole thing. They rode that momentum all the way into the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament. Their last win was over a Louisville team that many experts believed talented enough to make the Final Four.

Now, the Wolverines went on to lose in fantastic fashion to the eventual champion of the region, the Oregon Ducks. Even though they were just inches away from continuing the magic, there is still plenty to rejoice in here. You see, faced with a less than ideal situation the team found a way to put a string of wins together and make something out of it. This is nothing short of the stories that March creates each and every year. This year it happened to be Michigan.

For some schools, just making the tournament is the ultimate goal. So when a school like Lehigh takes down Duke there is more magic present than the powerhouse making it all the way. March is beautiful because of things within it, not just because of the last team left standing’s victory. College sports entail a high level of passion whether it is a family tradition or an alma mater. That is why reaching a little higher than expectations or completing that wonderful play at the end of the game often gets remembered longer.

On title night, there is a reason that it does not end with the presentation of the trophy. There is still one last piece of business to attend to. When “One Shining Moment” plays it is different every year.  New images are now engraved in our minds of that year’s tournament. March is the time when the ordinary becomes extraordinary.  Every moment has the potential to become something eternal, and that is what this month is all about.

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Way-Too-Early Top 10 For the 2017-18 Season

The 2016-17 season is officially over after what turned out to be a different season from what most people thought. However, isn’t that always the case?

We expected Duke to rein supreme yet again last year with one of the most talented rosters we had ever seen. They were ESPN’s number one ranked team in the way-too-early top 25 without question. College basketball proved for the millionth time that what is expected to happen never happens.

With seven months until the start of the 2017-18 season, we take a swipe at the way-too-early top 10 for next season.

1. Kentucky Wildcats 

You know the drill. We’ve seen this before. Kentucky’s freshmen stars are going off to the NBA (De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk, Bam Adebayo) and being replaced with another bunch of talented studs. The Wildcats have the number one ranked recruiting class in the country yet again, bringing in five ESPN top 100 recruits. They also will have redshirt freshman Hamidou Diallo.

Even if these new guys don’t turn out to have the same star power as the players they’re replacing, Kentucky has players like Isaiah Briscoe (if he returns), Wenyen Gabriel and Isaac Humphries who could only step into bigger roles.

There’s no reason coach John Calipari and the Wildcats won’t be national title contender with a stacked incoming class and key returning players.

2. North Carolina Tar Heels 

College Basketball

UNC guard Joel Berry II drives in a game earlier this year (Photo/ Google images)

The Tar Heels are losing a significant amount of players, but hold on for a second. They are losing Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks, Nate Britt and most likely ACC Player of the Year Justin Jackson. However, they’re still UNC.

Many believe Joel Berry II will come back as well as forward Tony Bradley, who is one of the best rebounders in the country. If that’s the case, the Tar Heels would be poised for another late tournament run.

They will also have Elite Eight hero Luke Maye and freshman five-star shooting guard Jalek Felton. Both could have a significant impact on their success.

There are a lot of ifs, but as we’ve seen, Roy Williams can do magical things with ifs.

3. West Virginia Mountaineers

Besides losing seniors Tarik Phillip and Nathan Adrian, press Virginia is back. Guard Jevon Carter will take another offensive leading role, while forcing steals on defense. Forwards Esa Ahmad and Elijah Macon will be crashing the boards and running the floor both defensively and offensively.

With a Kansas team that will lose a lot of key players, could this be the year Bob Huggins and the Mountaineers take the regular season Big 12 title away from Kansas? It could be.

4. Louisville Cardinals

College Basketball

Louisville forward Jaylen Johnson celebrates their victory over Kentucky earlier this year (Photo/ Adam Creech)

Don’t be fooled by the Cardinals short stay in both the ACC tournament and the NCAA tournament. They are a prime defensive team and will gain three incoming freshmen from the ESPN top 100 and maintain almost the entire previous group.

 

With the exception of Mangok Mathiang, who is a senior, and Donovan Mitchell and Deng Adel, who could leave for the NBA, Louisville is still poised to have another great season in 2017-18. If Mitchell and Adel stay, Louisville will be in a good place.

5. Gonzaga Bulldogs 

Enough is enough, Gonzaga is for real. The nation’s top defensive team will look to replace fifth-year senior Przemek Karnowski. The Bulldogs will hopefully look no further than Zach Collins, who could potentially leave for the NBA.

If Collins does return along with Wooden Award finalist Nigel Williams-Goss, Gonzaga will be extremely good. Josh Perkins, Johnathan Williams, Killian Tillie and Silas Melson also all return to make a dangerous Bulldog team out for redemption.

6. Wichita State Shockers

The Shockers finished 31-5 and managed to jump all the way up to 15th in the BPI. It looks like they’re just getting started.

After they were given a 10 seed in the tournament, which many believed was highway robbery, the Shockers lost to Kentucky by one bucket in the round of 32. Don’t let that fool you.

Landry Shamet, who could possibly be the most underrated point guard in the country, along side sharp shooter Conner Frankamp, could take the team on another tournament run. This time they won’t be considered a Cinderella.

7. Florida Gators

College Basketball

Florida guard Chris Chiozza hits a game winning shot in Florida’s Sweet 16 victory over Wisconsin (Photo/ Courtney Culbreath)

The Gators are returning one of the best, if not the best, backcourt in the country in KeVaughn Allen and Chris Chiozza. They will look to top their Elite Eight appearance from this year.

Most of the core crew is still intact. They will add a top 10 recruiting class as well as two transfers.

The Gators are dangerous. This could have already been one of the nation’s best teams. With the addition of the incoming freshmen and transfers, they are only getting better. Third-year head coach Mike White doesn’t seem too fazed after following Billy Donovan and the greatest era in Florida basketball.

8. Villanova Wildcats 

Villanova will wave goodbye to a class that helped lift the Wildcats out of their slump in the 2010s, including Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins. Granted, these two are of major importance and have been throughout their years at Villanova.

However, the Wildcats have an ongoing star guard in Jalen Brunson. They also have Donte DiVincenzo, who improved his numbers immensely from his previous year, and looks to improve them next year as well.

Jay Wright’s team is resilient. What many might believe to be somewhat of a rebuilding year could be another year in the limelight.

9. Kansas Jayhawks

The Jayhawks will lose a lot of players, including national player of the year Frank Mason III and potential top five pick Josh Jackson. That gives room for guard Devonte’ Graham to flourish in an even bigger role.

The Jayhawks return sharp shooter Sviatoslav Mykhailuik on the wing and add top prospects Billy Preston and Udoka Azubuike. They will also add Mississippi State transfer Malik Newman, who was one of the top point guards in his class two years ago. Whatever happens, we all know one thing: Kansas will be good. They’re always good.

10. Duke Blue Devils

College Basketball

Duke big man Marques Bolden looks to be the new face of the Blue Devils down low after losing Harry Giles and Amile Jefferson (Photo/ Streeter Lecka)

It won’t be all doom and gloom for the Blue Devils next season. They’re still Duke. However, the Blue Devils are going to lose a lot of players starting with Jayson Tatum and Harry Giles, who were their two top prospects from last year. They will also lose senior captains Amile Jefferson and Matt Jones, who have been a source of stability over the past four years.

The Blue Devils do have some top prospects coming in, including Wendell Carter and Gary Trent Jr. There also rests the possibility of both Grayson Allen and Luke Kennard coming back for another year.

If they both chose to leave, the Blue Devils’ starting line up will most likely have no one older than a sophomore. Either way, don’t ever count out the Blue Devils.

 

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Final Four

A Preview to the Final Four

The Final Four, one of the most celebrated and loved sports events of the year, is finally here. It’s safe to say this year is going to be just as good, if not better, than previous years. It might also be safe to say that not many people actually believed that these four teams would be here.

Out of the 18,797,085 brackets that were filled out for the ESPN bracket challenge, only 657 had Oregon, UNC, Gonzaga and South Carolina in the Final Four. That’s just 0.00003 percent.

South Carolina and Gonzaga are making their first Final Four appearances in program history. Oregon is also making their first since 1939.

Needless to say, UNC has the upper hand in terms of participation and experience. Roy Williams has coached a total of 520 minutes in the Final Four while Mark Few (Gonzaga), Frank Martin (South Carolina) and Dana Altman (Oregon) all have zero minutes.

Let’s take a closer look at the upcoming Final Four matchups for this weekend.

UNC vs. Oregon

UNC is clearly favored by many to win this game and the championship because of their experience.

Final Four

North Carolina forward Luke Maye celebrates his game winning shot against Kentucky this past Sunday (Photo/ Brandon Dill).

The Tar Heels are led by coach Roy Williams and ACC player of the year Justin Jackson. They will look to capitalize after their last-second victory over second-seeded Kentucky in the previous round.

The Ducks are led by senior Pac-12 player of the year Dillon Brooks and coach Dana Altman. They will look to keep their hot streak going after a dominant win against first seeded Kansas.

These two teams are very similar on paper. Each rank in the top 20 in offense and defense. UNC has one of the best transition offenses in the NCAA and the Ducks have one of the best transition defenses.

The one thing that may define this game is on the glass. UNC is the best offensive rebounding team in the NCAA. That doesn’t bode well for Oregon, who is one of the worst rebounding teams in the NCAA.

UNC may be the favorite here, but don’t be surprised if the Ducks make something magical happen. It could go either way.

Gonzaga vs. South Carolina

Well this is a first for both teams. It is a tale of two completely different stories: the underdog vs. the favorite.

Final Four

South Carolina players celebrate their victory over Florida this past weekend to advance to the Final Four (Photo/ Maddie Meyer).

Gonzaga was a heavy favorite coming into the tournament as they are most years. They are led by head coach Mark Few, who became the third fastest coach to reach 500 wins in Division I history early in the tournament.

This game is going to be interesting because the Gamecocks and the Bulldogs preach defense. The Gamecocks defense ranks second in defensive efficiency in the country, and Gonzaga is first.

What many believe to be the deciding factor in this matchup is the offensive efficiency. Gonzaga is top 20 in the country while South Carolina ranks in the bottom portion of the country.

Gonzaga may have the best chance to win on paper. However, if we’ve learned anything from the history of March Madness, it’s that anything can happen.

 

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Tournament Madness for UNC: Luke Maye's Game-Winner

A Closer Look at Luke Maye: North Carolina’s Hero

One name: Luke Maye.

This isn’t the first name that comes to mind when talking about North Carolina basketball. However, it has been for the past 48 hours. Maye made the game-winning shot to send UNC to the Final Four, while simultaneously ending Kentucky’s season.

If you missed the last shot, you can watch it here. It’s well worth watching.

A quick recap: Kentucky comes down the court and Malik Monk hits a 3-pointer in Maye’s face to tie the game. Then Theo Pinson gets the ball up the court for UNC and pitches it to Maye for the last-second jumper. Rarely do you see two miraculous plays back-to-back like that, but it happened on Sunday.

There is normally discussion about Joel Berry II, Isaiah Hicks, Kennedy Meeks or Justin Jackson when talking about UNC. The avid watcher might recognize Kenny Williams or Theo Pinson as well, but not Luke Maye.

Maye madness

Luke Maye isn’t your standout player. The sophomore averaged four rebounds and 1.2 assists in 14.4 minutes per game this season. He averaged 5.6 minutes per game as a freshman.

He might be average at the Division I level. However, he joined Christian Laettner and Scottie Reynolds on Sunday as the only players since 1985 to hit a game-winning shot to get into the Final Four. The kid even got a standing ovation at his 8 a.m. class on Monday.

Tournament Madness for UNC: Luke Maye's Game-Winner

Luke Maye shoots the game-winner for the Tar Heels on Sunday (Photo Courtesy of The Comeback)

His best game prior to the tournament was against NC State on Feb 15 when he scored 13 points and made 6 of his 11 shots from the floor. In other words, he hasn’t been consistently “killing it” for the Tar Heels.

However, he has picked the right games to show up for. Maye had a season high of 16 points against Butler and a new season high of 17 against Kentucky.

He might seem like the most unexpected player to win it for the Tar Heels, but Coach Roy Williams had him in for a reason. He shoots 41 percent from 3-point land (the highest on the team). He has only attempted 39 on the season, but he has made those count. He also shoots the fourth highest field goal percentage on the team.

It’s no accident he was on the court. It also isn’t a miracle he made the shot. Nonetheless, he is still a hero.

the tar heels are right where they need to be

As a team, this moment is everything that North Carolina has been working for. Marcus Paige hit a 3-pointer to tie the championship game last year, only for Kris Jenkins to come down and hit a buzzer beater to win it all for Villanova.

The Tar Heels are simply good at what they do. The are ranked first in rebounds per game (they pull down 43.7 per game). They also average 85 points per game (ninth overall) and dish out 18.2 assists per game (ranked third in Division I).

Roy Williams is confident in his team because they have the experience and the talent. This is their 20th Final Four, and they have all the reason to fight.

Isaiah Hicks was asked about their loss to Villanova last season, and he said: “We [were] four seconds away from that. Just to see your dream taken away right in front of you, that’s all the motivation you need. Of course nobody likes to lose, but that one, when you’re right there, all of us, we just need that second chance.”

Hicks and the rest of his teammates want that second chance. At this point, it is in their hands. Only Oregon stands in their way. The guys are playing some quality basketball and unexpected players like Luke Maye are peaking at the right time.

Catch all the action on April 1, 2017 at 8:49 PM ET on CBS.

 

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North Carolina Controls its own Destiny

What a week of college hoops. Duke has found its groove with a big win over Virginia. Louisville barely beat Virginia Tech. Kansas beat Baylor by just two points and Pitt took one from Florida State.

Let me remind all college basketball fans, it is only Feb. 21st. This means the best is still yet to come. Lately all eyes have been on the ACC, and rightfully so.

The ACC should stand for Always (in) Constant Conversation, instead of Atlantic Coast Conference. College basketball is constantly talking about the competition in the ACC and I am going to jump on that bandwagon. This season if any, is proving why it’s one of the toughest conferences to play in. North Carolina sits at the top, but will they still be there in a few weeks?

acc current standings

TEAM CONF OVERALL
North Carolina 11-3 23-5
Louisville 10-4 22-5
Duke 10-4 22-5
Notre Dame 10-5 21-7
Florida State 9-5 21-6
Virginia 8-6 18-8
Miami 8-6 18-8
Syracuse 8-6 16-11
Virginia Tech 7-7 18-8
Georgia Tech 6-7 15-11
Wake Forest 6-9 15-12
Pittsburgh 4-10 15-12
Clemson 4-10 14-12
NC State 3-12 14-14
Boston College 2-12 9-18

As you can see, North Carolina is in first place, by a single win. Louisville and Duke hold second place, and Florida state dropped with its loss to Pitt over the weekend.

The Tar Heels have earned their top ranking position in the conference. They have consistently bounced back after losses to Kentucky and Georgia Tech early, and more recently Miami and Duke. With Baylor’s recent loss to Kansas, there has been talk of a #1 ranking for North Carolina. The best part is that they control their own destiny from here on out.

north carolina men’s basketball has a lot going for them

Justin Jackson has been outstanding from the beginning. His junior season is nothing short of NBA material and the scouts are noticing. Back in mid-December Jackson scored 34 points in a great effort against Kentucky, despite the loss. Now it’s February and Jackson is still improving and playing better than ever.

Against Virginia this weekend he scored 18 of his 20 points in the first half. Jackson was cranking threes from 30+ feet without reservation. That is the kind of production and confidence you want from a leader.

North Carolina Men's Basketball

Justin Jackson gets excited about a play (newsobserver.com)

When Jackson isn’t putting on a show, it’s usually time for Joel Berry II to shine. In a nail-biter against Clemson, Berry II put up 31 points in addition to Jackson’s 18 to clinch the win. In a close win over Pitt, Jackson scored 20 and Berry II added 19. Against Florida State Berry II continuously answered runs by the Seminoles and finished with 26 points, Jackson had 22.

They are the dynamic duo leading the team, but are often lost in the spot light of duos like Malik Monk and De’Aaron Fox or Jalen Brunson and Josh Hart.

If those two aren’t scoring, they are dishing the ball to Kennedy Meeks in the post or Isaiah Hicks, who are number one and two in rebounding respectively.

Theo Pinson has also been adding some nice numbers the past few games, and starting for the Tar Heels. When the bench comes in, the Tar Heels still have success. Tony Bradley and Luke Maye contribute good minutes when UNC needs it.

Needless to say, as March is fast approaching the Tar Heels are getting better and have all the right pieces.

Who stands in their way

It might seem like the Tar Heels have a cake walk through the rest of the regular season. This is far from the truth. Justin Jackson and his team still have to play Louisville Wednesday, then take on Pitt and Virginia on the road and finish up with Duke at home.

The scary part for North Carolina is they have everything to lose and their opponents are going to bring the heat. It’s not that their opponents have nothing to lose, but North Carolina definitely has a big weight on their shoulders and target on their back.

North Carolina Men's Basketball

Donovan Mitchell throws down a powerful dunk for Louisville (usatoday.com)

Louisville is first up on the four-game tour. The Cardinals are relatively equal with the Tar Heels in most statistical categories. However, UNC is significantly better at sharing the ball (averaging 18.3 assists per game) which leads to 92.3 points per game, which is also higher than Louisville.

Not to mention the Tar Heels also beat Virginia and Florida State whom Louisville lost to. The best part about college basketball is any team can be beaten on any given night, and this game is no exception.

The Tar Heels have the best for last, because Duke will be waiting on a silver platter for them March 4th. This final regular season game is everything that you want in a big game. A historic rivalry, senior night and two of top teams in the ACC going head to head.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves, the Tar Heels still have to take care of business in February before there can be talk about March.

tournament talk for north carolina

At least Dicky V has confidence in the Tar Heels. It is clear they have the offensive weapons and have played tough teams to prepare them for March.

The Tar Heels are very highly ranked on various offensive categories. They lead Division I in points per game and field goal percentage. They are third for assists per game and number one for rebounds per game in the nation. The statistics speak for themselves, this North Carolina team controls their own destiny in their ability to perform.

We can only wait and see how they decide to play and where they will be seated after the completion of regular season games.

 

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Indiana Reestablished as Title Contender with Statement Win

Eight days after losing to Fort Wayne in a stunning overtime upset, Indiana had a chance to hit the reset button. The Hoosiers lost on the road to the Mastadons 71-68. They then quietly defeated Mississippi Valley State 85-52 at home.

Justin Blackmon Jr. (left) and the Hoosiers were eager to get back on track from their loss to Fort Wayne (Photo courtesy of insidethehall.com)

Justin Blackmon Jr. (left) and the Hoosiers were eager to get back on track from their loss to Fort Wayne (Photo courtesy of insidethehall.com)

The Hoosiers dropped from number three in the country to 13 with questions looming about their true capabilities. On Wednesday night they had their chance with a huge test against the newly third ranked North Carolina Tar Heels. On top of the fact that Indiana was coming off the loss, there was the storyline of the ACC taking control in this weeks ACC-Big Ten inter-conference challenge.

However, an electric atmosphere rejuvenated Tom Crean’s team. Isiah Thomas’ presence in celebration of the 1981 National Championship team amplified the atmosphere even further. Every big play for Indiana was met with a ruckus applause.

The Hoosiers had a fast start in the first half. Junior guard Robert Johnson was key in helping the team jump out to a 14-7 lead. He assisted on the first basket of the game and had with seven early points of the team’s 14. Johnson finished with 11 points, ten of which came in the first half and were key to Indiana’s momentum.

The seven point deficit would be as close as it got in the first half. North Carolina was completely out of sorts as the Hoosiers took a huge lead at the start. The Tar Heels were out of control, made poor shot choices and ultimately allowed the surroundings of Assembly Hall overcome them.

The crowd was a definite advantage for the Hoosiers and several plays made by James Blackmon Jr. and OG Anunoby brought them to their feet. Anunoby was a big part of Indiana’s 41-29 halftime lead. This included a highlight dunk following a  North Carolina turnover before crossing half court. Anunoby finished the game with 16 points, 5 rebounds and 2 blocks.

Sophomore Thomas Bryant showed his versatility Wednesday night. (Photo courtesy of indianapolisstar.com)

Sophomore Thomas Bryant showed his versatility Wednesday night. (Photo courtesy of indianapolisstar.com)

The second half opened with much of the same story. Thomas Bryant had a fantastic game with 12 points, 7 rebounds and 2 steals. This included several stealthy moves near the basket, showing his agility as well as versatility with a three-point jumper that gave the Hoosiers a 50-38 lead at the 14:03 mark.

To this point the game was all Indiana but North Carolina began to climb back. Justin Jackson quietly had 21 points and 8 rebounds. A three-point shot by Jackson brought the game within five points at 65-60 with 3:28 to go. However as was the story of most of the second half, every time the Tar Heels began to come back, Indiana found a way to widen the gap. OG Anunoby took a pass from below the basket, maneuvered to the opposite side of the hoop via the baseline and slammed it home. At that point with the score 71-60 and with 1:35 to go the game was all but over.  The Tar Heels attempted to foul to extend the game but were unsuccessful in their efforts.

What this means: Indiana Hoosiers

Indiana jumps back into the top 10 with this win next week, provided they take care of business Friday against SIU Edwardsville and Sunday against Southeast Missouri State. Even considering the debacle that was their contest against Fort Wayne these games should give them no difficulty. Tom Crean’s team showed us yesterday what they are truly capable of even though there is the advantage of the game being on their home court in Bloomington.

The Hoosiers moved the ball well, easily penetrating the Tar Heel defense at times.  They also shot the ball well at 48.1% from the field. The Hoosiers responded well each time that North Carolina seemed to climb back in to the game. James Blackmon’s three with 3:44 to go is a perfect example. The Tar Heels had taken control for a few moments but Indiana settled down and Blackmon’s shot started a run.

The Hoosiers had five players in double figures showing that they are not reliant on just one player for their scoring. There is only one key thing to watch and that is OG Anunoby’s ankle. He landed awkwardly after a dunk that extended the Hoosier lead to 11 and juiced up the crowd. On the sideline he had an ice pack on his ankle. This should be a simple ankle roll. A bad injury would be a huge blow to this team right after making a statement about what they are capable of.

What this means: North Carolina Tar Heels

Roy William’s team was unable to control the tempo at times throughout this game. The only players that seemed unflappable were upperclassman Justin Jackson and Kennedy Meeks. Meeks had a solid game with 10 points and eight rebounds. Yet, even Meeks had his issues this game. He got into early foul trouble and played 25 minutes, the lowest of all starters. Jackson was four of seven from behind the arc. Jackson is the player on this team that has the capability to take over a game if need be.  Everything from his stature to his expressions show that he is the guy, but he was unable to pull his team all the way back.

None of the Tar Heel reserves were able to have a large impact on the game. Luke Maye did return to the floor after missing several games with an ankle injury. He was largely ineffective for the short eight minutes he played. Theo Pinson is still recovering from a stress fracture suffered earlier this offseason. He will provide key minutes to the Tar Heels when he returns.

The team played significantly different from the Maui Invitational Champion Tar Heels. They not only failed to score 70 for the first time all year, but also allowed the most points in a game this year at 76. North Carolina did not shoot well as a team and their defense was weak at times. Offense was frenetic and unorganized at times. There were few attempts to move the ball inside to Meeks or freshman Tony Bradley.

This was the first true road test for North Carolina. Their other games were at home or on a neutral court, the latter including the Maui Championship game they won 71-56 over Wisconsin. The team still has great potential even though they will likely drop out of the top five of the next AP Poll.

An Added Note: Jimmy V Week

As an added note, this game was a part of a series of games in celebration of Jimmy V week.  This celebrates former North Carolina State coach Jim Valvano who passed away of cancer. For more information about the Jimmy V Foundation that benefits from the event you can visit their site.

Five Lessons from Feast Week 2016

Thanksgiving week is a time for family, food, football and of course basketball! Over the past week, dozens of NCAA teams have made apparent their strengths and weaknesses. Here are the five most important insights that fans can pull from the plethora of Feast Week tournaments:

The Tar Heels are Elite

North Carolina won a not so climactic Maui Invitational and moved to 7-0. They won it with an average margin of victory of 30 points. Granted, one of those games was against Division II opponent Chaminade. Despite that, they obliterated the two Division I teams they faced, Oklahoma State and Wisconsin, by 32 and 15 points respectively.

These are not normal, run-of-the-mill teams. Wisconsin was on the preseason top ten list for many behind Ethan Happ and Nigel Hayes. Jawun Evans leads the Oklahoma State Cowboys as an elite scorer at 24.7 points per game. Evans was one of only two Cowboys in double figures against the Tar Heels.

Freshman Tony Bradley (5) is an excellent back-up for Kennedy Meeks. (Photo courtesy of newsobserver.com)

Freshman Tony Bradley (5) is an excellent back-up for Kennedy Meeks. (Photo courtesy of newsobserver.com)

North Carolina currently has five players averaging over ten points per game. They can spread the ball well and do not rely on one player to stay above water. Returnees Kennedy Meeks, Joel Berry II, Justin Jackson and Isaiah Hicks have made it business as usual for Roy Williams. Five star recruit Tony Bradley is a nice addition at 10.7 points per contest and 6.3 rebounds.

This is a very long Tar Heel team that possesses the ability to frustrate defenses by tipping balls away. Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks dominate the boards, keeping teams from getting too many second chance points. Each also possesses the ability to protect the rim with good size and length. North Carolina is not one-dimensional.  They are a threat to the two-headed monster of Duke and Kentucky come Phoenix in April. Their next test is Wednesday against Indiana.

Oregon is a Work in Progress

Dana Altman’s team was elite last year, achieving a one seed in the 2016 NCAA Tournament. With the big three returning for the Ducks, fans and analysts expected much of the same. With the early pre-season injury to Dillon Brooks, that has not been the case.

At the Maui Invitational, the Ducks dropped their first game to the Georgetown Hoyas. Rodney Pryor had 26 points and 10 rebounds for a stellar offensive performance against the Ducks. Despite that, Oregon’s problem has been offense, not defense. With Brooks still not at 100 percent, the team has struggled to put up points while holding every opponent below 70. That is including an overtime game against Tennessee.

Chris Boucher (25) had 13 blocks in three games at tghe Maui Invitational. (Photo courtesy of fox5vegas.com)

Chris Boucher (25) had 13 blocks in three games at the Maui Invitational. (Photo courtesy of fox5vegas.com)

Chris Boucher is the face of Oregon’s defense. He averages a whopping 3.0 blocks per game so far after setting the school record in 2015-16 with 110. As a side note, Boucher also leads the team with 15.0 points per game. That should change as Brooks transitions back into the line-up. As of now, Brooks has only 18.7 minutes per game. The most he has played all year is 25 against Tennessee which included overtime.

The bright spot in all of this is the development for the Ducks players in Brooks’ absence. Freshman Payton Pritchard has amassed a mountain of minutes, getting used to the collegiate game speed. His 29.7% three point mark is not the best but this should rise. As Pritchard’s role decreases and Brooks gets back into the swing of things, the freshman will see better looks with less defensive attention.

Despite the Ducks dropping a game to Georgetown and struggling against the Volunteers they showed some promise during Feast Week. Jordan Bell and Tyler Dorsey are each looking like their old selves, Brooks is settling in, and the Ducks have proven the ability to gnash their way to a win in a physical game. As Altman’s boys continue to mesh, watch for them to climb back up in the rankings.

 

Virginia Maintaining Identity without Austin Nichols

Examples of things that are certain in life: death, taxes and the Virginia Cavaliers as a defensive based team. Tony Bennett coaches this team year after year to the same sort of style. This year he has the added stress of doing it without key transfer Austin Nichols. Nichols played in only one game before being released by the team. He had previously violated team rules in October.

Virginia took down Providence for the Emerald Coast Classic Championship. (Photo courtesy of washingtonpost.com)

Virginia took down Providence for the Emerald Coast Classic Championship. (Photo courtesy of washingtonpost.com)

Regardless of the reasons for his dismissal, Virginia still looks like the top tier team that they have been over the past few years. Since Nichol’s discharge, the Cavaliers have been nothing short of brilliant. The team’s Feast Week exploits consisted of a dominating performance at the Emerald Coast Classic. They held their opponents to 42.3 points over the three game span of the tournament. While Grambling State is lesser competition, Iowa and Providence do not operate in the same category.

Better yet for the Emerald Coast champs are the two contests they played outside of Feast Week show their consistency. Virginia held Yale and St. Francis (NY) to under 40 points. Their points allowed average since Nichol’s left is 39.4 points.

The one detriment to the Cavaliers is that they do not score. Their 72.8 points per game through six games ranks them 214th in the NCAA. The only game which holds that average above water is the 90 point showing against Grambling State. Additionally only one player averages double figures in scoring: Darius Thompson at exactly 10.0 points per game. Virginia does play ten players, but they need someone to step up. Balance is great but they have no go-to player at this point. London Parrentes should turn into that player at some point this season.

UCLA is an Offensive Juggernaut

Okay, so with the exception of Texas A&M, UCLA has not exactly played anyone yet. Still, the offensive accomplishments and efficiency the team has put together is daunting. Putting up the numbers they have against anyone is impressive.

Lonzo Ball (2) has been one of the most impressive freshman in the country. (Photo courtesy of usatoday.com)

Lonzo Ball (2) has been one of the most impressive freshman in the country. (Photo courtesy of usatoday.com)

Lonzo Ball is the major recruit of this class for Steve Alford and he has not disappointed. Nothing short of brilliant, he averages 16.0 points, 9.1 assists and 5.3 rebounds per game.  Nearly averaging a double-double as a freshman is impressive. What about having two freshman nearly averaging a double-double on the same team? T.J. Leaf was the other stellar recruit for the Bruins and he sits at  17.1 points (leading the team), 8.9 rebounds and 2.6 assists.

Additionally, four other players are averaging double-digit scoring figures totaling six for the team as a whole. Bryce Alford is second on the team with 17.0 points per game. He also is first in shots made from behind the arc with 19 and is shooting at 44.2%.

There is a laundry list of personal accomplishments, but the team’s overall statistics are the most astounding. Through six games the team is second in the nation in field goal percentage, sixth in three point percentage and first in total assists. They average 96.9 points per game. UCLA has 249 made field goals and 169 assists meaning they assist on 67.8% of their baskets. Not only are they extremely efficient, but they also share the ball well.  That should be more than apparent with the aforementioned six players in double figures.

NCAA Champions Points Per Game
Year Team Points Forced Points Allowed
2015-16 Villanova 78.0 63.6
2014-15 Duke 79.3 64.2
2013-14 UConn 71.8 63.2
2012-13 Louisville 74.5 58.8
2011-12 Kentucky 77.4 60.6
*UCLA 96.9 Forced, 75.3 Allowed

The one caveat would be the lack of defensive efficiency. Sure, the team does not rely on one player for its scoring. However, they currently allow 75.3 points per game. They may have a high powered offense, but their defense needs to improve when they do hit the tougher schedule. Generally, championship teams do not allow that many points.

The Bruins won a lackluster Wooden Legacy tournament during Feast Week. The only game that caused them any trouble was the grind-it-out match-up Texas A&M. The Aggies have some surprising new faces contributing, but are not of the same caliber as the Bruins. December 3rd they will face Kentucky in Lexington. This will be the first true test for Alford and company.

Michigan State is Still Difficult to Trust

Tom Izzo’s teams are the epitome of March basketball. Right now they are searching for a legitimate identity. Between a rough early schedule and some early individual struggles the Spartans they have yet to establish consistency.

Michigan State started off the year 0-2 after a last second loss to Arizona and a less than stellar performance against Kentucky. After a 100 point performance against Mississippi Valley State, the Spartans won a controversial game against Florida Gulf Coast 78-77.

Miles Bridges (22) is the most dynamic athlete for the Spartans. (Photo courtesy of zagsblog.com)

Miles Bridges (22) is the most dynamic athlete for the Spartans. (Photo courtesy of zagsblog.com)

Tom Izzo’s squad spent their Feast Week at the Battle 4 Atlantis. They took down St. John’s 73-62 to start. They were then dominated by Baylor 73-58. Miles Bridges was the only player in double figures for the Spartans with 15 points. Bridges is the highest rated member of a stellar Spartan recruiting class. Bridges has had some up and down games, including struggles against Kentucky and Florida Gulf Coast, but is still the team’s leading scorer at 17.4 points per game. His dynamic athleticism has him averaging 1.7 blocks per game and defensive win shares. Bridges decision making is still a point of weakness with 3.4 turnovers per contest, also leading the team.

Michigan State finished up with a 77-72 win against Wichita State, but the Shockers nearly willed their way to a win in this one. Bridges led the team with 21 points, but this time four other players also achieved double figures. Senior Eron Harris, a West Virginia transfer, has had the most inconsistent year. In the contests against Arizona, Kentucky and Baylor this year he averaged 4.0 points. On the flip side he had 31 against FGCU. The Spartans will need Harris this year to have a deep tournament run and find some sort of team identity.

Coach Cal’s Crazy Idea: So Crazy It Just Might Work

Kentucky Coach John Calipari was blasted by several outlets last week for his ideas on changes to conference championship tournaments. Coach Cal proposed holding a pre-season or early season event in which each team was guaranteed a certain number of games in place of the end of season tournament.

Kentucky coach John Calipari thinks that the Conference Tournaments could use some major reworking. (Photo courtesy of hoopshabit.com)

Many columnists made this out to be that Calipari wanted the NCAA bid to be determined at the beginning of the season. Calipari was egregiously misrepresented in what he was proposing on several occasions. Therefore, before exploring the details and logistics of the idea, it is important to quickly hash out exactly what Cal’s idea entailed: a gathering in which each team was guaranteed three games.  This figure was not set in stone, just an example to get the ball rolling. The meeting would not determine the automatic bid, but rather each conference would follow the Ivy League structure in which the regular season champ won the trip to the dance.

Now, before everyone’s heads spin, it is important to note what Coach Cal was generating: an idea.  This was not a formal proposal to the SEC, nor was it something that the NCAA cabinet members will have on their desk next week in a 700-page document. It is an idea that Calipari put out there that is worth exploring as to whether or not it could actually work, or would be beneficial for college basketball, even though a proposal like this could help the Selection Committee become more consistent in choosing post season teams. But, before a subcommittee is put together to explore whether or not it is good for the NCAA, there needs to be discussion about whether or not it could even work.

When considering a change this major, the logistics should be the first thing that comes to mind. Can the schools commit to this? Can the venues be reserved? With the power that college basketball has, this should not be very difficult.  Changing the date should not eliminate the school’s ability to make the trip. Having a few guaranteed early regular season games in one place would in all likelihood cut the cost of travel for many programs.

There are other things to consider, though, such as the additional early season events that are already in place. There is nothing preventing a team from doing the preseason conference tournament and then going out to the Maui Invitational in late November.

Another detail would be the deciding of the automatic bid to the Big Dance.  The NCAA Currently gives one automatic bid to each conference.  For most smaller conferences, this is the only chance to get in. Two things could be done: the regular season champion could get the bid or there could be a Conference Championship game between the top two. These are each outcomes that could be put together with relative ease.  For the sake of argument, it could even be a conference by conference decision. At current point, the NCAA seems to fluctuate as to what it values in the selection process, so the elimination of the tournament could possibly eliminate some grey area of the criteria they use.

Now, the question becomes, would this be beneficial for the NCAA? Is this something that would elevate college basketball to a new plane as far as viewership and integrity of the game and season? It is an extremely complex discussion to have that contains a wealth of issues both large and small. The biggest obstacles are the ones that would need to be discussed first and as with anything, money talks.

These changes have the power to greatly help or hinder the constant revenue stream that is College Basketball. Corporate Sponsorships come in wide varieties for the conference tournaments as they currently stand and are a great impetus to continuing the status quo. Changing the time of year would put these preseason tournaments in competition with the Goliath that is the NFL and its understudy in College football. This would affect corporate money being poured into the sport, but how much is lost would take a significant amount of research.

However, scheduling could eliminate this problem by keeping games to days that football is not on. Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday nights have no NFL games and a few NCAA games here and there. These games could get ratings with not many other sports on. Big Monday and Super Tuesday could turn into early season conference encounters. With reasonable certainty it could be concluded, if done right, that the sponsorship money would be down in comparison to end of year tournaments. The other side to this thought is that it would be up form typical early season money, which could mean that the loss is counteracted in a way.

Right now, there is not much significance put on the beginning of the season in college basketball.  Teams face lesser opponents in hopes of being ready for the bigger fish in the sea.  However, wouldn’t a better warm up for young players be to see the competition at its highest level first? If the season were opened this way, teams could have a good gauge of where they are at within their conference and know how they need to prepare, further intensifying regular conference play a month or two down the road. Old rivalries at the beginning of the season could make the beginning of the season much more watchable as well.

In fact, packing healthier competition into the beginning of the season would be excellent for college basketball and team’s attempting to strengthen their schedule. The team’s strength off schedule would rise and with the additional games against conference opponents there would be more separation between teams and less grey area. Currently the NCAA is not consistent in what they value. This change would force them to value the same thing for the whole field: the regular season. And some teams would have drastically different looks to their schedule.

Let’s take a bubble team like Florida.  Their first ten games include “stellar” opponents such as North Carolina A&T, Vermont, Richmond, and Jacksonville among others. Replace one of those games with an extra game against Kentucky, LSU, South Carolina, Vanderbilt, and throw in some other SEC competition and we may be talking a different story about their tournament bid.

The same is true for Final Four participant and bubble team Syracuse. Many thought that this team should not have gotten into the tournament. Had they replaced games against Montana State, Colgate, Cornell, and Elon with something like Duke, North Carolina, Notre Dame, Virginia, Miami or even Louisville perhaps they would have been more than a shoe end into March Madness. This team would have greatly benefited from some changes in the early season format. These are just the possible benefits as scheduling relates to the beginning of the season.

In addition, when we begin to discuss the end of season issues, there are many coaches that complain about what the current structure says about the significance of the season as well as what the conference tournaments do to their teams. With the current structure, this undoes a whole body of work for those teams in smaller, one bid conferences. Teams in the MEAC, OVC and MVC could go undefeated or have great conference records and not reach the tournament.

Monmouth was a great case study for this. They went 17-3 in conference, 28-8 overall but they come from a conference that is typically one bid.  After Iona won the MAAC tournament there was significant discussion about Monmouth as an at large contender. They didn’t get in. They did not get in because they did not win the last game. They even scheduled and beat Power 5 opponents, such as Notre Dame.

Now, there is something to be said about the spirit of March Madness that exists in Conference Championship week. A team like Holy Cross never could have made it into the tournament. That is a true showing of what the spirit of March Madness is, but is that what is best for the players, coaches and the sport as a whole? Coaches like Tom Izzo, Roy Williams, and Calipari himself hate the conference tournaments because they are extremely stressful and draining right before the road to the Final Four begins. As insult to injury, sometimes the NCAA Selection Committee decided that the tournament doesn’t even matter. This was exemplified when a few hours after a decisive win over Texas A&M, Kentucky was seeded below the conference runner-up.

So right now it seems that the regular season is quite meaningless at times and the conference tournament doesn’t always help you either. So what’s the point? If money is the only thing keeping the current structure in place then it cannot be what’s best for the sport.  Sometimes changes have to be made that will negatively affect the bottom line if it is the right thing to do for the players and coaches.

So, there is some depth and reality to the crazy idea that Cal proposed. This could actually happen and big conference coaches would be on board with it.  But let us keep some drama at what would be conference tournament week. Let’s keep a Conference Championship game, much like college football. Send the top two teams in and reward them for their season of work but keep the integrity of the month of March. Heck, it could even be a conference by conference decision as opposed to an overall NCAA regulation.

Coach Calipari may not have solved the ongoing debate in college basketball that is conference post-season play. However, he has definitely created some much-needed attention to the idea and given college basketball fans as well as NCAA officials a realistic proposal to ponder.

Roller Coaster Ride for the Tar Heels

Brice Johnson (right) seen walking off the court with Kennedy Meeks (left) after the National Championship. (Photo courtesy of USAToday.com)

The North Carolina Tar Heels’ offseason began very abruptly after Kris Jenkins took the pass from Ryan Arcidiacono and sunk the game winning shot. Just moments earlier, Marcus Paige made the shot that looked like it would define his career and live in college basketball lore for years to come.The future was extremely uncertain for the school and it began to materialize that perhaps they would have insult added to injury.

NCAA sanctions were not unknown to UNC. For quite some time they have been under investigation by the NCAA for an academic scandal involving academic courses. There were rumors that, after this prolific group of players left the school, they could be in for some penalties that would stunt the reboot effort by Roy Williams and Company.

Another event this off-season was the graduation of Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson. These two seniors made major contributions to the program. Paige was one of the most talented distributors that the school has had in the past decade. Johnson, on the other hand, was a double-double machine averaging 17 points and just over ten rebounds last season. They were a huge part of the team’s road to the Final Four. However, they will be sorely missed as they have no remaining eligibility.

The unknown commodity enters when a discussion is started on players leaving early for the draft.  Justin Jackson and Kennedy Meeks each made the declaration that they would at least look into the NBA Draft as a possibility for their future this off-season.  The loss of both would leave the team with only one of its top five scorers in Joel Berry II.

Then, in mid-April, the school received a notice of allegations from the NCAA that surprised many. The men’s basketball team was not mentioned in the notice. This was quite unexpected from the NCAA and has many people questioning the reasoning behind it, especially after the school voluntarily submitted additional violations to the NCAA. In fact, the voluntary submission may have kept the school eligible for post season contention, due to the fact that it further delayed the investigation.  Without that, we may have never seen the dramatic conclusion to this season in the title game.

Justin Jackson is a very dynamic player whose return is essential for the Tar Heels. (Photo courtesy of USAToday.com)

The next bits of good news come from both players that had originally entered the draft. Kennedy Meeks and Justin Jackson will each return to North Carolina. In Meeks, the school returns its second leading rebounder behind the graduated Brice Johnson. While Meeks is not as dynamic of a player as Johnson, he does bring a strong post presence and strength. His size is off the charts even after he has shed a significant amount of weight in the past academic year.  Justin Jackson is a lanky wing player that brings some unpredictability to the Tar Heels game. His overall field goal percentage is good, but his outside shooting leaves something to be desired. This likely was a factor in his return, as the outside scoring left something to be desired in a transition to the professional level.

Jackson and Meeks’ return should benefit them in improving their games and the school in attempting a second straight run to the title game. Other notable returnees include, Joel Berry II, Isaiah Hicks, Nate Britt and Theo Pinson. Additionally, the Tar Heels have three more ESPN Top 100 recruits to supplement their roster. Tony Bradley will add some size down low to compliment and back up Meeks. Seventh Woods and Brandon Robinson will add explosive athleticism as well as some shooting depth to help replace Marcus Paige’s production.

All in all, there was a lot that could have gone wrong for the Tar Heels.  As is, it will be business as usual for the Tarheels. With their returnees, as well as the recruiting classes of  Florida State and Duke coming in, ACC basketball will be quite interesting in the upcoming season. We still await a few draft decisions, that could shape the conference’s story for the year to come. However, the Tar Heels had a great outcome for the off-season that has prepared them for the next phase of the program.