Category Archives: ACC

Watching the NCAA Championship…

With all due respect to Butler, the NCAA championship was played in the late game on Saturday night when Duke defeated West Virginia, 78-57.  The Blue Devils will dispatch of Butler’s Bulldogs quickly and without mercy when the two teams meet on Monday night.

However, the game will be a great showcase of the kind of underdog everyone seems to love against everyone’s favorite college basketball team to hate.  Coach K and Duke will face a difficult crowd in Indianapolis against the real-world Hoosiers story of Butler.

But, looking back at this Final Four, the thing I will remember will be the match-ups on Saturday night.  There were so many things in those games that reminded of what I love about college basketball and what I hate about what’s become of it.

In the Butler-Michigan State match-up, we had pure basketball played by two well-coached teams.  For the first 30 minutes, the game was full of beautiful offensive plays with defensive brilliance from both teams.  Butler held a slim lead going into the final ten minutes.  But for a game that ended with such a small margin of victory, most viewers would have loved to see clutch shots from both sides down the stretch.  Instead, we saw Butler go dead cold and Michigan State continued to be unable to crack the Bulldog defense.

In the same game, we got the Cinderella/Hoosiers story of Butler, but it is becoming a tired one and I have to say it: the shoe doesn’t fit.  This is not a George Mason.  Butler was ranked in the top 25 throughout the year and ranked in the top 15 for a good chunk of the season.  They earned a five seed, which many thought could have been higher.  Their coming out of the Horizon League probably hurt them in that regard.  Going in to the tournament, the committee decided that they were in the top 20 teams in the nation and were in the top five of candidates to come out of their region and advance to the Final Four.  Not bad in the expectations department. 

On the contrary, George Mason was an 11 seed.  During their run to the 2006 Final Four, the Patriots defeated Michigan State (seeded 6th), North Carolina (3), Wichita State (7) and Connecticut (1).  In contrast, Butler faced teams seeded 12th, 13th, 1st, 2nd and 5th.

If one looks a little deeper, the Bulldogs had a lot of things fall their way on their way to Indianapolis.  They dispatched of UTEP in convincing fashion in Round One.  Then they caught a break by playing 13th seeded Murray State who pulled the upset on Vanderbilt.  In the Sweet Sixteen, the Bulldogs played a Syracuse squad without Arinze Onuaku.  Then they got Michigan State with no Kalin Lucas, the Big Ten’s player of the year.

That brings me to one of the things I hate about this year’s Final Four: too few of these teams played quality opponents in the tournament to get here.  We already broke down Butler’s path.  Duke had the easiest bracket by the estimation of most analysts.  The highest seeded team Michigan State played in the tourney was Maryland, a four seed.  At least West Virginia beat a number one seed (Kentucky) and lost to another when they fell to Duke on Saturday.

While the WVU-Duke game wasn’t as competitive of a match-up as Butler-MSU, several things caught my eye.  First and foremost was the focus and determination of the Duke team.  The three S’s: Kyle Singler, Nolan Smith and John Scheyer showed what upperclassmen leading your squad from the outside can do for a team in the tournament.  The three combined for 63 of the 78 points scored by the Blue Devils.  Brian Zoubek and Lance Thomas were an inside presence with determination and heart, playing defense and rebounding like their careers depended on it.  As I wrote about earlier in the tournament (see HERE), Coach K has taken Duke away from the one-and-done philosophy of many college programs and gone back to what worked: developing talent for the long haul, regardless of how the players are rated while being recruited.

Going back to Singler, Scheyer and Smith, it was a pleasure watching three players work together and play unselfish basketball.  The three also combined to dish out 17 assists, more than the entire West Virginia team (11).  They knew how to play the game, were prepared by a brilliant coach and executed the game plan they knew would bring them a win.  They played smart and handled the ball well.  Smith and Scheyer, the team’s two primary ball-handlers had zero turnovers and Singler committed just three miscues (Duke only had a total of five).

But perhaps the most touching moment of this game came from the West Virginia side of things.  With nine minutes remaining in the game and West Virginia fighting for their championship lives, the Mountaineers senior and second team All-American, Da’Sean Butler went down with a gruesome knee injury.  Writhing in pain on the floor, it was clear Butler would not return to the game.  After being tended to by trainers, Butler was clearly injured physically but even more so mentally and emotionally. 

Enter Mountaineer head coach Bob Huggins. 

Huggy Bear came onto the court during the break in action as the trainer tried to adjust Butler’s knee.  Suddenly, the senior was in more agony, all but confirming that his game, season and college career may be ending in that moment.  Tears began to flow freely from Butler’s eyes and Huggins reacted by laying on top of Butler, consoling him.  Words were shared between the two and at one point viewers could clearly see Butler say “I’m sorry” to the Huggy Bear.  In post game press conferences, the two relayed part of what was said.  Huggins told Butler, “Not to worry about it.  You’ll be fine.”  Butler replied, “It hurts right now, but if I can get back out there, then I’ll get back out there.”

The scene ended with both faces showing depths emotion not normally on display in professional or collegiate athletics.  It was touching to see Huggins in that light, his gruff exterior usually the dominant trait that shines through.  Butler meant a lot to this program since Huggins arrived at West Virginia and the two share a special bond that the general public does not usually see on display between player and coach.  I wish more moments like this happened and were captured on live television.  After watching it several times on highlight packages the day after, tears came to my eyes.  Let’s hope this isn’t the end of the road for Butler and that his basketball skills are on display in the NBA next year.

Duke went on to win the game going away, with WVU not able to recover from the deep deficit they found themselves in without their star, which leads to the game on Monday between Duke and Butler. 

On Saturday night, CNBC reported that the Duke basketball program spent more money in their program per player, on average, than the Butler program spent all year on the program as a whole.  Duke comes from Dick Vitale’s beloved ACC, while Butler hails from a conference most have never heard of: the Horizon League.  But for all the things that are different about these two programs, it’s the things that are the same that make me want to watch it.

Both teams are dominated by players that, as I stated earlier, want to win a title.  For Duke, Scheyer, Zoubek and Thomas are seniors; Smith and Singler are juniors.  For Butler, their two best players are sophomores (Hayward and Shelvin Mack), Matt Howard is a junior; and Willie Veasley is a senior.  The Dukies seem like they are committed to the championship path because most of their stars will not have success at the next level and a title would mean the most to them in their basketball careers.  Butler has the aura of a team on the outside that has been banging on the walls to be let in and finally has that opportunity.  A title for them would kick the door in for the Gonzagas, George Masons and Valparaisos of the world, doing what those schools could not.

However, as stated earlier, I feel Butler is overmatched and that Duke is hitting their stride at the perfect time.  They looked so sharp on Saturday that I think the title is inevitable.  The drama on Monday will be thick with depth, however, as the Hoosiers story comes full circle against widely disliked Duke.  But I think this story ends with Coach K cutting down the nets and Butler driving the six miles back to campus from Lucas Oil Stadium.

PREDICTION: Duke 75, Butler 53

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Filed under ACC, Basketball, Butler University, College Basketball, Duke University, Final Four, Horizon League, NCAA Tournament

Watching Duke Survive…

Once upon a time, there was a commercial where an imposter thirsty for Bud Light tries to impersonate everyone’s favorite basketball coach with the funny name.  His  response of “Yes.  I’m Coach Crih-jah-new-ski” is infamous in beer commercial lore.  But for the last half decade, Coach Mike Krzyzewski has been holding the empties of coaches like Roy Williams, Tom Izzo, Thad Matta, Ben Howland and other final four competitors.

Coach K and Duke University haven’t appeared in a NCAA Final Four since 2004.  In fact, they hadn’t advanced past the Elite Eight since then.  This season, Duke was the team that least deserved a number one seed.  They were at the top of a weak Atlantic Coast Conference that saw Maryland, Wake Forest and Georgia Tech struggle while North Carolina and NC State fell off the college basketball map.  Many thought West Virginia, their opponent on Saturday, deserved the last number one seed over the Blue Devils from Durham, North Carolina.

Before the tournament began, ESPN’s conglomerate of 12 college basketball experts picked their Final Fours.  In the South Region, just three analysts picked Duke to advance into the Final Four.  Four experts took Baylor and the remainder jumped on the Villanova bandwagon.  So much for being a number one seed and a favorite.  It’s too bad Hubert Davis didn’t follow his Carolina blue blood and pick against the Devils, then it would have been even more stacked against Duke.  Although, Duke grad Jay Bilas did pick Nova, so it would  have all balanced out had allegiances been followed.  That was what viewers were expecting from Duke entering the first weekend of the tourney.

But then Kansas fell to Northern Iowa in the 2nd round, Syracuse stumbled against Butler in the Sweet Sixteen, Kentucky was outshot by West Virginia in the Elite Eight and Duke became the highest seeded team remaining.  They survived while the other “ones” fell.  They outlasted all but one number two seed, every number three seed and every number four seed to round out an improbable Final Four.  They survived.

The mainstream media wrote the Devils off, citing recent tournament struggles, the weak ACC and the lack of a standout player like the J.J. Redicks, Christian Laettners and Elton Brands of the past.  Analysts talked about the stumbling blocks ahead of Duke with strong teams like Villanova and Baylor waiting to take them and punch their own ticket to Indianapolis.  But Duke survived.

And why should we have doubted them?  They are coached by one of the best in the country.  Coach K is the chosen leader for USA Basketball, the man who turned down the Lakers and the emperor of a basketball institution.  After all the talk about Izzo and Williams, he was shuffled into the background of coaches that have had more success in recent years.  But Coach K survived.

This Blue Devil team doesn’t have Bobby Hurley or Grant Hill.  They don’t have Jay Williams or Shane Battier.  What they do have is a trio of stars that play unselfish basketball.  Three players that are upperclassmen in the age of one-and-done.  They have a senior point guard, the trademark teams want when tournament time rolls around.  While other player jumped ship, Duke players stuck around and survived.

Senior Jon Scheyer runs the show from the point, flanked by junior Nolan Smith, who poured in 29 points in the regional final against Baylor.  Duke’s third “S” is junior Kyle Singler, a lanky small forward with a high basketball IQ and a great all-around game.  All three averaged better than 17 points a game during the regular season.  Mix in role players like senior big men Brian Zoubek and Lance Thomas and the young Plumlee brothers and the recipe that Coach K used for years suddenly turned out another successful dish, right under our noses.  The taste may not have been there for the last half decade, but the recipe survived.

Kudos to Duke for doing it again when no one thought they would.  The darling story of the tournament may be Butler, the top coach in the world may be Izzo and the hottest team may be West Virginia, but the team no one thought should be a number one seed may just have the right formula to win the whole thing and survive.  This isn’t Coach K’s first rodeo and while pre-Final Four press conferences will focus on the amazing story of newcomer Brad Stevens of Butler, the enigmatic Bob Huggins and the all-everything Izzo, Krzyzewski will wait, surviving the press conferences before putting his product on the floor.

The predecessor to the famous Bud Light commercial with Coach K featured the same freeloader trying to pass himself off as Dr. Galakiewicz, only it comes out as “Gally-week-its”.  When asked if he’d ever been in a limo before, he replies, “In a limo this small.”  Certainly, Coach K and Duke have been in the Final Four limo before, but maybe not one with such a small amount of hype.

I get the feeling they like it that way.

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Filed under ACC, Basketball, College Basketball, Duke University, Final Four, NCAA Tournament

Watching ESPN’s college basketball bias…

Last night I watched SportsCenter on ESPN at 8 PM as my pregnant wife snoozed away (I wrenched the remote away stealthily and changed it from some housewife show).  Midway through the show, Scott Van Pelt and Steve Levy were rattling through highlights of college basketball games.  Following a Maryland basketball package where Van Pelt showed how much of a homer he is, they transitioned to show 90 or so seconds of footage from last night’s University of North Carolina vs. North Carolina State game.  I immediately thought to myself, “Self, why is UNC getting this much press on SportsCenter?  Didn’t they just drop WAY out of the top 25 in both polls?”

So I did some research.  Carolina got a combined one vote in both poll.  That one vote came in the ESPN/Coaches Poll, meaning not a single Associated Press writer voted the Tar Heels into the top 25 this week.  I wonder what coach voted for UNC?  Do you think he collects paychecks from an ACC school?

North Carolina, a school that has unmistakable ties to ESPN seeing that the network broadcasts ACC games and the annual ACC tournament, happened to win their game over NC State, a team they usually pummel.  UNC has reeled since the turn of the new year, going 2-4 since 2009 passed.  They had been 11-3.  They’ve started 2-3 in the ACC and are 13-7 overall.  They don’t deserve a top 25 spot and seeing that ESPN rarely shows highlights of games that feature no top 25 teams, they don’t deserve the coverage they received on SportsCenter last night.

But what will Dick Vitale have to talk about if North Carolina isn’t in the top 25?  Who will he get to promote?

Well, let’s look at some other schools that Dickie V can take a look at.  There is a litany of schools that have received votes or are in the top 25 that get little to no press and certainly aren’t given two minutes of coverage on SportsCenter.

How about Northern Iowa?  That squad is currently 17-2 and ranked 25th in the ESPN poll.  

Or what about Baylor?  They are from a big conference where their up-tempo play has led them to a 15-3 record and a number 24 ranking in the AP poll.  

Looking for someone a little more stable?  How about BYU?  The Cougars have one loss this year and are ranked tenth in the ESPN poll out of the impressive Mountain West Conference (more on the MWC later).  

Or maybe UAB catches your fancy.  They’re number 25 in the AP poll, sporting a 17-2 record.

So why don’t we hear about these great stories?  Who is reporting on these teams?  There are so many amazing seasons underway for schools that are impressing a lot more voting writers and coaches than UNC.  The following teams from big conferences are outside the top 25, but got more votes than Carolina in the most recent polls: Florida State, Clemson, Wake Forest, Mississippi State, Texas A&M, Oklahoma State, Missouri, Maryland, Virginia, Northwestern, Cal and Notre Dame.

And how about the little guys?  College basketball is built on the backs of the small schools that make March so exciting.  Where are their stories?  The following small conference schools are outside of the top 25 and have drawn more votes than the Heels: Butler (#18 in coaches poll, not ranked in AP), Cornell, Old Dominion, Xavier, UNLV, Siena, Saint Mary’s, Louisiana Tech, and Harvard.  Coastal Carolina has the same number of votes as UNC, which is one.

That’s right, Coastal Carolina has as many votes as UNC, and Cornell, Harvard and Old Dominion have significantly more ballots cast.  So where are the 90-second highlight packages on their seasons?  Oh that’s right, ESPN needs to make sure everyone knows the Tar Heel players so they are more recognizable when they have their first matchup with Duke on February 10th.  Duh.

ESPN’s alliance with the ACC and other big conferences runs deep.  Jay Bilas went to Duke.  Hubert Davis went to North Carolina.  So did Stuart Scott.  Dick Vitale praises anything that has to do with ACC basketball, especially if it takes place on Tobacco Road.  The network carries their games and the tournament, as previously mentioned.  Unfortunately, ESPN has such an effect on the landscape of college basketball that poll results may be swayed by their coverage.

Take the Mountain West Conference.  Home to the likes of BYU, Utah, San Diego State, UNLV and New Mexico, the conference has continually made strides, but seems to stay out of the national conscience.  MWC teams consistently downed big conference powers in pre-conference play.  Arizona lost to three Mountain West teams (BYU, UNLV and SDSU).  BYU also beat Arizona State.  Louisville lost to UNLV.  Utah took down Illinois, Michigan and LSU.  New Mexico defeated Cal, Texas A&M and Texas Tech.

The conference currently boasts two teams in the top 25 (BYU and New Mexico), with a third (UNLV) having spent time there and still receiving votes.  The MWC also boasts big name coaches like Steve Alford (UNM), Lon Kruger (UNLV) and Steve Fisher (SDSU).  So what’s keeping them from getting more attention?  Could it be partially because of ESPN’s lack of coverage while they are too busy giving time to ACC teams that are well out of the top 25?

UNLV only has four losses and two are to teams currently ranked in the top 15 (BYU and Kansas State).  The others are to USC in a Christmas tournament championship and Utah in a tough MWC matchup.  There are eight other teams currently in the top 25 that have four or more losses.  The Rebels have only two conference losses and one is at BYU.   The Cougars come to the Thomas & Mack center for the Vegas rematch on February 6th.

The MWC has television contracts with CBS College Sports and The Mountain, a network created by the conference.  ESPN has no vested interest to show their highlights, promote their games or make fans (and potential voters) aware of the brand of basketball being played in the conference.  One could laugh at ESPN for their fair and balanced coverage the way the general public does when someone talks about Fox News Channel.

The Mountain West is not the only conference being slighted as there is plenty of great basketball being played that the majority of the viewing (and voting) public knows little to nothing about.

The “Mothership” owes the legions of sports fans better than this.  Let’s drop the coverage of a floundering UNC team just a tad (you can still report on it and promote their games) and up the ante by talking up the big games in other conferences that have teams receiving significantly more top 25 votes, regardless of who their TV contract is with.

Let’s start with this: Cornell hosts Harvard on Saturday night.  Let’s cover that like you did the two unranked teams you gave pub to last night when UNC vs. NC State was pushed upon us.  At least Cornell and Harvard have more combined poll votes (18) than the Heels do (1).

Let’s all hope for a Big Red win over the Crimson to push them over the edge in the ESPN/Coaches Poll.  They are ranked number 27 now.  A top 25 berth would make ESPN cover them.  One can only wish…

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Filed under ACC, Basketball, BYU, College Basketball, ESPN, Journalism, Mountain West Conference, University of North Carolina, UNLV