Tag Archives: Nolan Smith

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