Happy weekend, Happy Elite 8.
*There was a point last night, down 17-16, when I began to lose a little faith. We were playing Purdue's style to a T. They had us right where they wanted us, in a grinder of a game that seemed like it would be ugly to the finish. "You might as well flip a coin to see who'll win this game," I said to my stepfather, and he agreed. We screamed at Coach K to let Nolan initiate the offense with drives to the bucket, rather than having Scheyer force passes to the wing, where the Boilermakers waited expectantly, overplaying everything.
I didn't need to worry. This team has toughness exceeding anything we've seen since the last title. They were confident about that toughness, confident about their superior skill, and beat Purdue at their own game. Two moments stuck out to me.
1) Zoubek's pick on Kramer. Kramer might be the toughest nut in basketball. He's the kind you absolutely hate to play against. He's tireless, unrepentant, and always verging on dirty. He plays fantastic D. He's muscular, thuggish, and confident. He dogged us for most of the first half, but we gave as good as we got. And then Zoubek rang his bell. Hard. That was a statement. When you saw Kramer sitting on the sideline, blinking and dazed, you knew the game was ours.
2) Nolan Smith's 7-point run. I was waiting for it all game. Scheyer wasn't quite quick enough to create against his man, and Singler had a valiant game and some huge shots, but Nolan was the one who could explode. He'd been very unlucky on some runners early, but you always had a feeling he was going to reel off a stretch like this. It put the game out of reach. And the difference between Nolan and someone like Gerald Henderson, last year, is that Nolan did it within the context and flow of the team's game. It wasn't a matter of "taking over," or "grabbing the reins." It felt natural, and not like he was bailing us out. It was terrific.
That being said, I still feel Coach K played right into their hands. Why did we spend an entire half trying to beat them at their own game? That was literally the one style Purdue could have won at. If we'd run more, let Nolan and even Scheyer drive from the top, or even run things through the post, I really believe that game would have been out of hand much sooner. Purdue overplayed the shit out of the wings, but for some reason we still insisted on forcing that entry pass. It was like watching a boxer walk into a left jab over and over, even though he knows his opponent's right hand is broken and useless. I couldn't understand it.
It could be harmful, too. There's one of two ways Sunday could go.
Worst case: After 40 minutes of body blows from Purdue, we're completely tired and unable to keep up with Baylor, who an easy time with an incredibly disappointing St. Mary's team.
Best case: Baylor's zone is a huge relief after the relentless man-to-man from Purdue, and we're able to hit shots and slow them down with the best defense they've seen all year (yes, even better than Kansas).
I personally think we'll beat Baylor comfortably. But I thought that about Purdue, too, and even though it kinda came true, it took a long time and may have come with a hefty price tag.
Still, as Dana O'Neil points out on ESPN, it's good to see us able to win a slug-it-out type game. Teams that win in this tournament do so because they can overcome bad shooting performances or entire halves played out of rhythm. It's the kind of game that would have buried the Dukies in the past. It's never been more clear that 2010 is the start of a different era, and the past doesn't matter.
I'm back on Monday, and hopefully by then the Devils will all be clutching pieces of a Houston net.