To some extent- to some small, merciful extent- the universe has settled into a pattern we can accept. Thursday's painful anomaly will always be on the books, marveled at by historians and celebrated by our enemies, but the karmic wheel of the universe swung back to smite the perpetrators before the dust had even settled.
Here, now, are the acts of mercy from Saturday and Sunday:
Against Duke, they were 9-15 from three. Against UConn? 4-21. If you add those together, you get 13-36, or 36.1%. Arizona's season average is 39.7%. Welcome to the land of corrections, Zona.
They still grabbed offensive boards at an absurd rate (48.7% compared to 47.1% against Duke compared to a 34% team average),* but their effective field goal percentage fell from 61.1% to 42.6%. Most important of all, their offensive efficiency, which at 134.8 was the best single-game effort Duke had ever faced since they started keeping stats in 1997, fell to a reasonable 108.6.
Sure, we had to watch a few more Momo moments, with the chest pounding and the overwrought stare-downs, and the entire game was full of Derrick Williams' distraught supplications every time a call went against him. But now they're gone. Good riddance.
Serious question: is there a succession plan at Duke? We all know that, like a kingdom, a college basketball program is highly dependent on the strength of the monarch/coach. And like a kingdom, we need to have a plan for when ours is gone. Why not Brad Stevens?
Because, seriously, how the hell did Butler make the Final 4 again? Everywhere you look, these guys are barely on the good side of mediocre. The 32nd best offense? The 59th best defense? And these numbers were accumulated in the Horizon League, meaning they're probably a little inflated? I mean, those numbers are okay, but they're not Final 4 good. They're not even Sweet 16 good.
I hate to give too much credit to a coach, but clearly Brad Stevens is able to do things with inferior talent that surpasses the capabilities of all other coaches. Not only is he a master of teaching; he has a definite charisma that infuses a team with self-belief and ensures that they peak at exactly the right time.
In a two-week stretch from late January to early February, Butler dropped 4 of 5. Their opponents weren't exactly forces of nature- Wright St., Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Valparaiso, Youngstown St. Immediately after the last game, they had to play on the road at Cleveland St., one of the best teams in the conference. The timing couldn't have been worse.
Somehow, they won that game by 12. And they kept going, winning their last seven regular season games, two in the Horizon tournament, and four in the NCAAs to make their second straight Final Four.
Along with everything else, Brad Stevens is an excellent game coach. In four games against high-ranked opponents since the tourney began, he had to fight for every small advantage on the way to winning by 2, 1, 7, and 3. Against Florida, he brought on seldom-used freshman guard Crishawn Hopkins late in the game, knowing his team needed a spark. Hopkins hit a huge three and a nice assist in four pressure packed minutes. It was a slight touch from Stevens, but it made a huge difference. He and his team also managed to shut down Florida's inside game in the last 10 minutes, allowing them to overcome a double-digit deficit and send the game into overtime.
Point is, the man is young and awesome. He seems to have 5 main strengths:
A- He loves pinpointing another team's weakness. Using advanced stats and knowledge of his own team's strengths, he's mind-blowingly good at making close games of potential blow-outs. And let's face it, last year's national title game was a great example.
B- He's a natural leader. If his players didn't believe in him, they would not have made the runs they made this year and last.
C- He has a sense of the rhythm of a season. Those bad losses in January don't matter; he knows how to get a team to peak when it matters.
D- He's preternaturally calm. Which is an echo of his leadership; his teams will never panic.
E- Despite being limited by his school, he recruits brilliantly, with a focus on defensive-minded players who will stay at least a few years.
He was interviewed at halftime of yesterday's early game, and apparently he told Billy Donovan in the post-game handshake that Donovan had outcoached him. Which is blatantly wrong, but it was a nice gesture. The truth is, Donovan looked panic-stricken and out of his element in the last 10 minutes, and his team was no different. Butler, meanwhile, was a reflection of the coach; tough, calm, and resourceful.
At a time when a lot of Duke fans, myself included, are questioning the game coaching and recruiting abilities of Coach K (because let's be honest with ourselves; the Michigan and Arizona games were a low point in Coach K's career), it's time to start thinking successor. Stevens is signed with Butler through 2021, but there has to be an opt-out clause somewhere. Is it too early to reach out to him? Shouldn't Coach K want to get on board for the good of the program? Why can't he give a reasonable end date for his career; say...2016? He'll have a thousand wins by then and hold every longevity record in the books. And then we can bring in Stevens, and the Duke program can march on uninterrupted.
I know it's big to bring in former players and alums as coaches, but none of Coach K's proteges are really setting the world on fire. And we shouldn't forget that Coach K himself was an outsider. In fact, most Dukies are outsiders in general, from students to faculty to players to coaches. We're not like Carolina; this isn't a family legacy. Stevens, a former hard-working guard who worked his way up from volunteer duties in a small Indiana school, is a natural choice.
Sound off in the comments if you have an opinion on this. Is it better to go outside the school, or should we bring a Dukie back? If so, who?
I don't have any special hate for Kansas, but their loss was a reflection of Duke's loss. The Jayhawks' offensive efficiency, 88.6, was their second-lowest of the entire season (87.9 against Texas). Their effective field goal percentage, 37.1%, was their lowest single-game effort since March 4, 2009, against Texas Tech. VCU, a team that normally shoots 37% from 3, made 12 of 25 for 48%. Kansas was 2-21.
I'm not saying the quality of VCU's play had nothing to do with Kansas' failure. But the truth is, it could only matter so much. Kansas is the best field-goal shooting team in the country, and they couldn't make anything on Sunday. Unlike the Duke loss, their own poor play was more responsible for the loss than the excellent play of their opponent, but the result was the same. In the end, they picked the exact wrong day to have a horrible game.
That's what makes the NCAA tournament so difficult to win. Bad luck is always waiting, and if it bites you, there's no second chance.
It feels good, in a weird way, to have all the #1 seeds gone. It proves that we've entered the age of parity, and somewhat diminishes the pain of the Arizona loss. I said this on twitter yesterday, but it bears repeating: the combined total of the Final 4 seeds (26) sets a new record. The previous high was 22 in 2000, when Wisconsin and Carolina both made it as 8-seeds. This is also only the third time in history that no #1 seed has made the Final 4, and it's the first time ever that we won't have a #1 or #2 seed. It's a new day in college basketball.
I have a prediction. VCU is really riding a hot streak right now. They've played some great ball, but they've also been lucky. They benefited from an historically bad Kansas game yesterday, and against FSU they had to shoot 12-26 from three and shoot 56.6% from the field just to eke out a 1-point win. In both games, they were badly out-rebounded but survived due to excellent shooting.
Corrections are coming. I think they're going to run into an experienced Butler team this Saturday that will not only out-rebound them, but also won't miss shots. And they'll play solid defense, and the pressure of big stage combined with the law of averages will reduce VCU to normal or below-average output. I think Butler wins a grind of a game by 8-12 points.
The bad shooting that's plagued the Heels all year finally did 'em in. 3-16 from three just doesn't cut the mustard, and it didn't help that Kentucky had their best shooting performance in over a month. It absolutely killed Carolina to lose Henson for so long; all the Flopsy charges in the world weren't going to make up for the lost defense.
Two generalizations about UNC fans:
1- They don't appreciate Zeller. Granted, I hate the guy, but UNC fans seems to give him a lot of hell for being soft on defense and not tough enough in general. I know this isn't universal, but I've heard it enough from friends and seen it on enough message boards to spot a trend. Guys, he's a dynamo on offense. He's ranked 92nd in the offensive player ratings, and he never misses when he has the ball on the block. This is a valuable dude, and he deserves recognition. Without Zeller, Carolina would have been nowhere near the elite 8.
2- They can't enjoy any success without contextualizing it in terms of Duke. Seriously, the number of Carolina fans whose first instinct after beating Marquette was to say something like "Where's Duke?!?!" was downright pathetic. Here's a tip, gang: when you've advanced further than your rival in a playoff system, it's not about your rival anymore. It's about you. The possibility of meeting your rival again is officially null and void. You can enjoy it without worrying about Duke.
Now that both seasons are over, though, I'll indulge the rivalry and take a look back. The balance of the season could have gone two ways on Sunday:
A- Carolina beats Kentucky. They make the Final Four, which gives them rivalry bragging rights despite Duke's 2-1 season edge. The status of the Final Four, like it or not, puts them over the top.
B- Carolina loses to Kentucky, and the only difference in the tournament is that they got to face an 11-seed in the Sweet 16 while we ran up against a blitzkrieging 5-seed. Our season, on the merit of the 2 victories, is superior.
See you next year, fellas.