Stop complaining about college basketball


I’m not sure when or why it happened, but it seems that in the past few years a new March tradition has arisen to accompany the NCAA tournament. On blogs and Twitter—recently, even at major outlets — it has become commonplace for hoops fans to bag on the college game with smug, joyless abandon. College players can’t shoot, I hear, or most of them can only drive one way. While these brave critics are doing the world a great service—I would never have realized that amateur, younger basketball players are less proficient than trained and tenured professionals without them — I’m unusually salty about it this year, for a few reasons.

I get the sense that NBA fans consider themselves the urbane, enlightened denizens of the hoops world. I also get the sense that there is a slack-jawed straw man pro fans are still responding to. College fans are treated as perspective-free provincials, yokels too blinded by tribalism to consider whether they’re watching decent basketball. But of course, there are Sacramento Kings fans whose passion matches any University of Kentucky graduate, and while the Kings of course have more talent than UK, you could hardly argue their play is the more pleasing product.

I believe further that NBA partisans see themselves misguidedly as on the right side of race relations; the college game has for so long been associated with culturally white signal words and white figures of authority that I can see why this would be the case. You know, “hustle,” “playing for something bigger than yourself;” I readily concede that the tradition of infantilizing college athletes, and particularly college athletes of color, is beyond tiresome. But all sports, and really almost all American institutions, have been built around the “virtues” of white signal words, and it’s unusual to see potential fans throw the baby out with the bath water on this account. Certainly pro football, baseball, hockey, and even basketball have struggled in similar ways. We’re still not ten years removed from the NBA instituting a dress code, after all.

But perhaps the most annoying thing about college detractors pointing out the flaws in the game is that they’re already perfectly visible. I won’t speak for too many others, since I’m sure on the right message boards there are still plenty of “college players hustle more” mouth-breathers, but most people watching college basketball are aware of its warts. Let me make this point again: it is thoroughly laughable to constantly point out how much worse college athletes are than older, full-time, more talented and more experienced professionals. Stop doing it. We can tell.

And most of us are watching anyway. College basketball is not exciting for the same reasons that the NBA is. The NBA is exciting because even when the stakes are lowest — when exhausted players meet on a back-to-back in mid-March — there is a potential for some really beautiful basketball. College, however, is exciting precisely because the environment is less conducive to excellence, and because the rawness of its players changes how we feel about the game.

Take the recent explosion of North Carolina’s P.J. Hairston for example, because I am an immense North Carolina homer. Playing his third game in three days with 8 stitches on his injured non-shooting hand, Hairston poured in 28 points while hitting 6 threes. It was exciting for the reason any great play is, yes, but also because it was emerging talent showing itself despite all the constraints placed on it. 35 second shot clocks, relentless zone defense, the differences in physical maturity between players — these are all things preventing the college game from aesthetic fulfillment, but sometimes nascent talent breaks through anyway.

Amateurism infuses the NCAA the way professionalism the backbone of the NBA. The idea of a professional, the man who finds an appropriate measure of dedication and humility, is the standard by which most NBA players are judged. But in the NCAA, youth and imperfection rule the day. When certain people say that college players “hustle” more, they’re mistaking hustle for the mania of youth. In college, and not just for athletes, everything is life and death. Players cry. They mock other fan bases. They get to school eighty pounds too heavy or too light. The whole point of the enterprise is that these are not only unformed talents but unformed people, competing on an extremely visible stage and under tremendous pressure. If that’s not at least as compelling as watching the Pistons in springtime, then you and I have irreconcilable differences as fans.

So listen, we know. We college fans do not need you to describe to us what we’re watching. Save your self-satisfied critiques, because they aren’t addressing the real reasons we watch. We have not mistaken a 6’1” point guard who can only dribble one way for Chris Paul. We understand that they miss a lot of open jumpshots. But the college game provides a different context, one in which an open jumpshot is a small fraction of the objective.


HoopSpeak Network

Summer viewing: Slippin’ screens

The video above was put edited by Iona College assistant Zak Boisvert and is essentially a compilation of great screening-slipping sets. “Slipping a screen” is a ball screen read in which the screener flashes to the basket before he even sets the screen.

Unlike the “roll” in a pick-and-roll, in which the screener’s goal is to bodily dislodge the dribbler’s defender then head to the rim, a slip preys on the defense’s anticipation of a ball screen.

As the the help defender slides into position to hedge on the ball handler his man dives to the rim before the on-ball defender has time to complete the switch.

A few things to note here:

  • Watch how many of these screeners approach the ball handler not from the basket, but from the side. This forces the hedging defender into a more awkward position and makes it easier to slip quickly.
  • Also important: how many of these slippers/screeners receive a screen themselves before they approach the ball handler. Again, the idea is to put the help defense in the worst possible position even before the pick-and-roll is initiated. Many NBA teams with great pick-and-roll attacks, like the Miami Heat, set a screen for the screener to start the play.
  • There are a couple of high post-to-high post screens in this compilation. I wonder if the Lakers will try that out of the Princeton offense.


Kentucky talk primes NBA snobbery

Stan Van Gundy had a rant, one that decried Gary Williams’ Kentucky choice in a “Wildcats vs. Wizards” hypothetical. The dismissive response was cheered by NBA writers the world over, as so many thanked him for putting to rest an obviously “absurd” idea with the derision such supposed blather deserves. Though I would certainly bet on a Nene-Wall team to win such a matchup, I think the backlash is overblown, and more ridiculous than anything Gary Williams said.

While I love the hypothetical of “UK vs. an NBA team,” I’m surprised that the topic has gotten such traction. I’m also a bit shocked by the uniform resistance among NBA lovers to even entertain the notion, and I especially don’t get why this money quote from Van Gundy received so much praise:

“’Oh, Kentucky, you know, has got four N.B.A. players.’ Yeah, well the other team’s got 13.”

SVG’s a smart guy, but this isn’t an entirely intelligent argument. It’s specious reasoning, based on the idea that the NBA has a higher level of aggregate play, so therefore, 13 NBA players must trump a college lineup. It’s a tautology of, “NBA players are better because they are NBA players, so obviously NBA players would be better than college players.”

Here is my issue: Van Gundy and others are bestowing a special, lofty status on “NBA player,” per a league where only a few guys really matter at all. And, as Doug Gottlieb put it on the NBA Today podcast: “It’s easier to make the league than we think.”

I’ll cite my hometown Warriors. The team is taking a flier on Jeremy Tyler, hoping that he can parlay physical prowess into eventual NBA skills. Tyler is fresh from Japan’s second best league, and has struggled mightily, even hilariously, at the NBA level. He’s also Golden State’s starting center now that Andris Biedrins is out and Ekpe Udoh’s been traded. Mickell Gladness of Alabama A&M fame and Keith Benson of Oakland (not that Oakland) College have also been getting minutes in the Golden State rotation. Gladness shot 44% as a college center, numbers Benson would scoff at, had he not compiled his superior stats in the fightin’ Summit League. These guys are all technically “NBA players,” but would any see more than spot minutes on the UK roster? This gives lie to the notion that “the worst NBA player would kill it on the best college team.” The NBA is comprised of a few megawatt actors and many, many extras.

GSW’s current starting point guard is a rookie out of Hofstra, and nobody’s quite sure if he’s NBA-caliber yet. Klay Thompson, another rookie starter for Golden State, is doing his best Monta impression by averaging 14.5 field goals in March. Thompson wasn’t named to either Rising Stars challenge team, by the way. This is not to say that either rookie is bad, but simply to point out that both are receiving big minutes a short while after leaving respective college campuses.

Golden State is not the worst team in basketball, and they have more than a few players who might not start on the Kentucky roster. Absorb that for a moment. Once that seeps into your pores, then the prospect of Kentucky beating an NBA team becomes not so preposterous.

I’ve suggested the Bobcats as possible fodder for Kentucky, only to keep hearing that Kemba Walker was a great college star who looks pretty ordinary in the NBA. This is an argument made by those who wish to demonstrate how supposedly great UK players might get exposed in the pro game. One problem, there: Shaky rookie Kemba might be Charlotte’s best dude. Walker currently leads the team with a 15.38 PER, the only above average efficiency mark on the whole roster. Once you posit that Charlotte’s franchise face might be the guy who looked feeble against Butler last year, Kemba’s flaws become less a cudgel against Kentucky and more a teardown of Charlotte’s edifice.

Statistics-able Warriors blogger Evan Zamir added some analytical perspective on this hypothetical battle. Keep in mind, five Kentucky players are projected to be drafted in 2012. Marquis Teague is not among this lot, though he was projected as a first round prospect in the preseason. Anyway, here is Zamir:

“If we look at Charlotte’s power rating of -7.4, determined by using Las Vegas spreads (as reliable a predictor as you’re likely to find anywhere), and we assume that a team full of rookies would have an average rating of roughly -10 (based on estimates of average rookie rating over the years), we can hypothesize that on a neutral court Charlotte would be about a 2 1/2 point favorite. At Rupp Arena, it’s possible that such a game might even be called a push. It should be noted that not every UK player is going to be an actual NBA rookie (although it feels that way). If UK doesn’t play it’s top 6 the entire game, we would need to take into account the relatively worse rating of the bench players on the current team, which could make the spread more in Charlotte’s favor.”

I find that to be an interesting, informed take, though it can only be consumed by those who don’t reject the premise as absurd and idiotic. So why the widespread anti-intellectual rejection? Why kill a fun topic before it can even be broached? Why act like an NBA snob, insisting that only ignorance can compel somebody to believe a college team could hang with a drecky pro squad?

My suspicion is that UK vs. (NBA team) became such an emotional issue for the NBA-connected, in part, because they want to believe that the league exists on an ethereal plan, that they’re part of something uniquely spectacular. The good news? They are indeed part of something uniquely spectacular. You can see that whenever Wade throws an alley oop to LeBron, whenever Durant pulls up from deep, and whenever DeMarcus Cousins manages to optimize and squander all of his talent within a single possession. You just can’t see it whenever Derek Fisher trudges down the court slower than a standing man on an airport walkway.

The league is defined by its stars, but that does not mean all who play in it are transcendent by definition. A lot of bad NBA players stay on rosters because they’re well-liked, well-known, well-connected, not exposed yet, or just tall. A lot of bad NBA players stay on rosters because it really doesn’t matter who fills those spots. And there are, when you add it all up, a lot of bad NBA players. So while we love this league, let us not overrate or flatter it. “NBA player” is often more a temporary job description than signifier of uniquely unassailable talent.


Introducing HoopSpeakU

Today was scheduled to be the opening day of the NBA season. But instead of watching Derrick Rose duel with Dirk Nowitzki, we’re reading more bad news about stubborn people who seem all too willing to go down with the gilded ship. NBA fans feel like they’re stuck on a plane parked out on the tarmac, waiting indefinitely to take off. No one can go to the bathroom, babies are everywhere.

But there is hope for the die-hard hoop enthusiast. College ball is tipping off in earnest during the next week, and it’s with that bright news that I announce HoopSpeak’s expansion into the world of college basketball with the start of HoopSpeakU (hoopspeak.com/college for those lookin’ to bookmark).

HoopSpeakU
is far more than a lockout diversion, though I am as excited as a JaVale McGee dribbling in the open court that I’ll definitely be writing about actual basketball this year. The blog will have a separate staff and editorial team, headed by former Stanford Daily Editor Zach Zimmerman. Check out his slick introduction of the site’s very first posts.

I’m thrilled with the quality of writers and thinkers that will be contributing regularly to this new project. From scribes you already know and love like NBAPlaybook star and Mad Ant impersonator Sebastian Pruiti to relatively unknown talents like Fred Katz and Josh Parcell, HoopSpeakU will be your place for top quality writing and thoughtful, nuanced coverage of the college game.

When I first started HoopSpeak, it wasn’t an NBA blog so much as it was simply a basketball blog. In fact, if you check out the ol’ archives, you’ll find a ton of words on the NCAA tournament, including an exclusive (in that no one read it) interview with some role players from Cornell’s surprise Sweet Sixteen squad.

I once even entertained a debate over whether I enjoyed watching the NBA or NCAA more. After a season spent glued to TNT on the tube and League Pass on my laptop, my heart (and HoopSpeak) now belongs to the NBA. But I still get caught up in the college game each year, and plan to contribute to the new site when Zach will let me.

So, fellow NBA fans: whether you are a basketball bigamist, as Ian Levy aptly put it, or simply find yourself stranded without hoop on lockout island, head over to HoopSpeakU and enjoy an awesome collection of posts from our first day!

-Beckley


“The moral logic is hard to fathom”

Lurking in the background of the CBA negotiations is a debate over increasing the age limit to play in the NBA. Most proponents of a raise argue that the product will be better, or that it’s best for the kids.

Both are highly debatable. Derrick Rose and Kevin Durant would still be years from their current ability if they had stayed in the NCAA (see: three year Arizona vet Jordan Hill). Shuffling through three years of college basketball and academic tutors instead of  one–when the athlete’s sole intention upon arriving at college is to play professionally–isn’t a significant or systemic improvement.

So let’s follow the money. Certainly NBA teams would pay less to scout players who play on TV for a couple years rather than those who are hidden in high school gyms around the country. But the NCAA will be the obvious winner in terms of moolah should the age limit be raised. TV revenues associated with the NCAA tournament are climbing, but when top talent flees after one year it calls the NCAA’s time honored “student-athlete” paradox into the harsh glare of public scrutiny.

Just how did the NCAA get all this money and power? Taylor Branch goes a long way to answering that question in this phenomenal history of the NCAA (in October’s The Atlantic).

There are some myths floating around about Teddy Roosevelt and safety and amateurism. But really, it came down to money, TV, and college football.

Among other highlights, Branch traces the etymology of the NCAA’s most powerful phrase “student-athlete”:

Today, much of the NCAA’s moral authority—indeed much of the justification for its existence—is vested in its claim to protect what it calls the “student-athlete.” The term is meant to conjure the nobility of amateurism, and the precedence of scholarship over athletic endeavor. But the origins of the “student-athlete” lie not in a disinterested ideal but in a sophistic formulation designed, as the sports economist Andrew Zimbalist has written, to help the NCAA in its “fight against workmen’s compensation insurance claims for injured football players.”

“We crafted the term student-athlete,” Walter Byers himself wrote, “and soon it was embedded in all NCAA rules and interpretations.” The term came into play in the 1950s, when the widow of Ray Dennison, who had died from a head injury received while playing football in Colorado for the Fort Lewis A&M Aggies, filed for workmen’s-compensation death benefits. Did his football scholarship make the fatal collision a “work-related” accident? Was he a school employee, like his peers who worked part-time as teaching assistants and bookstore cashiers? Or was he a fluke victim of extracurricular pursuits? Given the hundreds of incapacitating injuries to college athletes each year, the answers to these questions had enormous consequences. The Colorado Supreme Court ultimately agreed with the school’s contention that he was not eligible for benefits, since the college was “not in the football business.”

The term student-athlete was deliberately ambiguous. College players were not students at play (which might understate their athletic obligations), nor were they just athletes in college (which might imply they were professionals). That they were high-performance athletes meant they could be forgiven for not meeting the academic standards of their peers; that they were students meant they did not have to be compensated, ever, for anything more than the cost of their studies. Student-athlete became the NCAA’s signature term, repeated constantly in and out of courtrooms.

Indeed, much of the age limit debate centers around the idea that the NBA presents a gold-plated (yet hollow) finish line to young men–many brought up poor–and thereby sullies their early manhood. They should be learning in a university, becoming well-rounded, not spending all their time thinking about and working toward making millions to play ball. The NCAA experience represents pure sport, before it becomes all about money, the thinking goes.

In another signature passage, Branch takes issue with that idea by spotlighting hypocritical free-speech restrictions placed on the players. They can’t put bible verses in their eyeblack, but they must wear the NCAA’s corporate sponsors on their chests.

The moral logic is hard to fathom: the NCAA bans personal messages on the bodies of the players, and penalizes players for trading their celebrity status for discounted tattoos—but it codifies precisely how and where commercial insignia from multinational corporations can be displayed on college players, for the financial benefit of the colleges. Last season, while the NCAA investigated him and his father for the recruiting fees they’d allegedly sought, Cam Newton compliantly wore at least 15 corporate logos—one on his jersey, four on his helmet visor, one on each wristband, one on his pants, six on his shoes, and one on the headband he wears under his helmet—as part of Auburn’s $10.6 million deal with Under Armour.

One of the many strands interwoven in the debate of the age limit is whether the NBA has any obligation to protect the young men who forgo other opportunities for a shot at fame and fortune. Be sure to read this entire story before falling back on the increasingly strained myth of the NCAA as a trusted promoter of education and morality.

Follow Beckley on  Twitter.

Pat Summit, moms, and mortality

I doubt I’ll ever forget catching “The Stare.” The soul-scorching gaze was diluted by a thousand miles of cables and filtered through my TV screen, but there on “60 Minutes” was Pat Summitt, glaring straight into the camera and the core of my being.

It was then I understood the force of personality she carries. There would never be an issue of authority on a Pat Summitt team. She could coach any age, any gender. She could have Kobe Bryant slapping the floor at mid court in a pick-up game.

I imagined what it would be like to play for someone who could summon so much genuine feeling about basketball, about your team and about you as a player and person. I assume every Lady Vol who has donned a Tennessee uniform since 1974 wakes up every few months or so in a cold sweat, The Stare boring through her consciousness.

Pat Summitt is reasonably fit and at the top of her exceptionally demanding profession—a brilliant and tireless recruiter, teacher and motivator. Yesterday it was announced she has early onset dementia, a precursor to Alzheimer’s.

How could this be?

There’s a genetic component here: Summitt’s family has a history of the disease. Yet it hardly seems logical that the very embodiment of willpower could be claimed by this insidious illness. That inevitability creeps darkly into the equation for one who has shaped such a singular and important existence is deeply disturbing.

I’m not sure exactly why learning of Summitt’s condition so affected me. I typically have difficulty connecting with the distant tragedies of strangers or celebrities.

Summitt is certainly a stranger, but upon hearing the news I immediately think of my obsessively healthy mother who is almost the exact same age. Her short, highlighted hair is not unlike Summitt’s. She’s another woman who lead a successful career while raising a single son. I turn over our recent phone conversations and interactions during my last visit back to Seattle: was there anything I missed? Anything  I can or should do?

Dementia can be unspeakably cruel. At first, small, odd things are outwardly apparent, like leaves falling before the season changes. But dementia does it’s damage internally, and the victim and his or her people soon recognize that an unstoppable rotting is at work.

The juxtaposition of Summitt’s strength and impact on women’s basketball and the human frailty laid bare by the announcement of her illness is halting.

Everyone says and writes that she doesn’t want anyone’s pity. I’m sure she won’t get it from her bitter rivals in the Southeastern Conference or around the country. Not because they’ll revel in the opportunity to kick her while she’s down or settle a score after years of UT dominance. No, everyone will give Pat Summitt’s team their best shot because that’s how you pay respect to someone who truly cherishes competition.

In a perverse way, yesterday’s upsetting announcement humanizes a living titan. The compelling mythology that sings of Summitt’s stare or the way she drives her players to exceed all expectation is certainly well-deserved. But when we remember—or are reminded—that all these columns and statues were erected in honor of an essentially vulnerable human, we truly appreciate all it takes to be Pat Summitt.

Twitter: @BeckleyMason

Pro development in college? Think again…

For the second consecutive spring, the “mid-major” Bulldogs captured the attention of the basketball world. Showing grit, resourcefulness, and unparalleled composure, they gave college basketball fans another series ofdramatic moments to add to their March Madness memories vault.

In games against Florida and VCU, a spry young freshman gave us a glimpse of who would be the next unheralded stud to carry on the Butler Way. Khyle Marshall combined 16 points, 16 rebounds, and an immeasurable amount of energy in the most important 46 minutes of his young career. Brad Stevens praised, TV announcers fawned, and national writers penned articles about his promise.

Brad Stevens and Khyle MarshallDespite guards like AJ Graves, Mike Green, and Shelvin Mack coming through the program, Brad Stevens has built Butler’s offensive system to revolve around their four man. Gordon Hayward blossomed into a lottery pick 2010 while Matt Howard filled that role more than admirably this past season. Marshall, boosted by his selection to the U-19 team this summer, is next in line to carry the torch.

While manning the interior for his college years at Butler may continue to help Stevens and the program achieve unrivaled mid-major success, Marshall’s 6’7”, 210lb frame project him to be a three at the highest level of the game. This paradox is where the player development debate between the pro-college and anti-college groups rages. Khyle Marshall isn’t alone in his predicament; he simply gives a name to the endless number of players currently in this situation.

To do what is best for Butler and the team, Stevens will develop Marshall in the ways that most benefit his system in order to generate more wins and, hopefully, more Final Four appearances. Thankfully, Butler’s continuity ball screen offense requires their four to play on the perimeter in heavy doses, so Marshall would be better off in that offense than being caught in a 3 out, 2 in motion system (like Kansas has run in past seasons) that keeps him chained to the block possession after possession.

Matt Howard was able to develop a serviceable 3-point shot in his four years with the university, so through hard work, Marshall could theoretically do the same. But standing on the perimeter and being able to make standstill 20ft jumpers hardly complete the skill set of an NBA 3. While at Butler, Marshall will be asked to screen on and off the ball, perform dribble handoffs on the perimeter, make rim runs in transition, and crash the offensive glass. Stevens, being the excellent coach that he is, will spend his limited skill development time drilling the techniques Khyle needs to succeed in his role. That means relatively little instruction will be devoted to improving his ball handling and ability to attack the rim from the perimeter, reading screens, or wing movement in transition.

That is just a brief glimpse at how Marshall’s college years affect his offensive development. Guarding the post for Butler will also stunt his development defensively. Marshall will spend very little time defending explosive wings on the perimeter and little to no time improving simple nuances like fighting through the screen on and off the ball. Renowned skill development trainer and ESPN.com senior writer David Thorpe explains what a difficult transition this can be for players who transition from the four in college to a three in the pros.

While “tweeners” have begun to find more and more places in today’s currently locked out NBA, a player like Thaddeus Young illustrates the problems most have in finding a consistent role. The 6’8”, 220lb. 23 year old Young, just completed his fourth season in the NBA. His per minute numbers since entering the league have been solid with three of his four season ranking above league average in John Hollinger’s PER rankings. But despite appearing in all 82 games for the 76ers last season, Young only averaged 26 minutes a game because he’s too unskilled offensively to function as a full-time three and too small to effectively defend most NBA fours.

The gap in skill and production between Marshall and Young at age 19 is obviously pretty vast. A better comparison to Marshall’s career projection is probably Tony Gaffney, formerly of UMass. Gaffney has a prototypical NBA small forward body at 6’8”, 205lbs but spent his career with the Minutemen manning both post spots. Quite possibly due to spending his time training as a post during his years with UMass, Tony has yet to stick on an NBA roster despite an unwavering work ethic. If Gaffney’s four years in college were spent developing the things he’d need to succeed as a professional, there is a good chance his story would be different today.

Did four years of being miscast in college ball hurt him? Hard to say. But it’s clear that his college experience didn’t line up with the perfect way to develop the skills he’d need to succeed at the NBA level.

It must be pointed out that this isn’t an attack on Brad Stevens. In fact, as a young coach still looking for a place in this industry, being an assistant under Stevens would be at or near the top of my wish list. Khyle Marshall will still acquire skills while at Butler and, most importantly, will be taught the attention detail, work ethic, and focus it takes to be involved in a winning culture. He also has the chance to be mentored by a man that has the reputation as one of the nicest, most genuine people in college basketball.

This is more an exploration of the assumption that more college basketball produces better NBA players, not an essay condemning everything about the current system.  But for those that advocate players are best served honing their skills at their institutions of higher learning, remember this fact: college coaches are paid by the universities that employ them, not by the potential employers of their athletes.  So when we consider what’s best for the college ball players, keep in mind that those with the most to gain from playing for the university may be the ones most negatively impacted by the current system.

Follow Brett on Twitter: @BKoremenos

Duke's Big Three Too Big for Hayward, Butler

If you read my preview of this game, you know I predicted Duke to be too big and skilled for Butler. Obviously, I was wrong. If not for Kyle Singler playing like a lottery pick, Butler (4,100 undergrad) is your National Champion.

In my previous post, I threw out some seemingly improbable conditions that would allow Butler to keep it close and perhaps win. I wanted to see how these guesses matched up to actual game events, so here’s a rundown of why Butler almost won.

To win, Butler must score more than 52 points…

Check. It wasn’t by much, but Butler did get four players into double figures.

And Matt Howard can’t be in foul trouble…

Not really. Although it looked like he could get to his shots early against Zoubek, the flying ‘stache only played 19 relatively ineffective minutes. He was an awkward match up for Duke, but he just didn’t have it when it mattered.

And Duke has to miss 70% of their threes…

Check, Duke shot 29%. Blue Devils not named Singler shot a combined 2-11 from three. They also attmepted 8 less threes than in their bulldozing of West Virginia. There were some open misses, but Butler can guard anybody. That much is abundantly clear.

And Hayward has to go off against Singler and Thomas (something Da’Sean Butler couldn’t manage)…

Nope. Hayward struggled from the field, missing a number of very makeable twos and threes. He never looked on balance with his jumpshot, though he remained active all game. Some of this is due to excellent defense by Singler, Miles Plumlee and Lance Thomas. You can’t chalk his poor shooting up to nerves, as he made all 8 of his free throws.

And Shelvin Mack will have to be 100% after sitting out the second half of Saturday’s game with leg cramps…

Check. Mack looked very good. He hit some big shots early in the game to keep Butler close and handled Duke’s pressure effortlessly. Unfortunately for Butler, he had trouble finishing amongst Duke’s tall front line.

And Butler must hold Duke to less than 12 second chance points…

Shockingly, Check! By my count, Duke only got 11 points off offensive rebounds. Through sheer hard work, Butler even snatched more offensive rebounds than Duke. What’s more, they never gave up the back-breaking, kick-out threes that did in so many other Duke opponents.

And a Bulldog besides Mack and Hayward has to make a few three pointers…

Check. America, meet Avery Jukes (2-3 3pts)! Ronald Nored and Zack Hahn each tossed in a three as well—though their contributions were muted by Hayward’s inability to connect from deep.

And Coach K has to pursue a terrible game plan…

Half Check. A little more full court pressure may have been effective, especially against Nored. In fact, Duke was pleased to play the grind-it-out style that Butler loves. Keep in mind that if Sheyer or Smith had gotten hot from three, Duke could have pulled away from the unbreakable Bulldogs.

Instead, Duke found themselves leading by 1 point with 3.6 seconds left and Brian Zoubek at the line.

What happened next doesn’t exactly qualify as a boneheaded game plan, but it was potentially very costly coaching. Coach K’s mind locked up and he decided to give Butler the ball back with a chance to win instead of allowing the suddenly clutch Brian Zoubek a chance to at least force overtime by draining the second free throw.

I understand missing for the possibility to grab the offensive rebound or at least delay Butler gaining possession. But if you are OK missing, you might as well let Zoubek shoot and send everyone back after the shot. If he makes it, the worst you can do is overtime. If you miss while trying to make it, you are in the same position as if you intentionally miss. Why not take this chance? Either way the Bulldogs had no timeouts and were sure to be disorganized.

When asked if he was surprised by Coach K’s decision, Butler coach Brad Stevens said, “A little bit.” For the calmest man in America, that’s a pretty big statement.

Luckily for Coach K, there argument is moot. The final outcome, predictable.

A Recap of the National Semifinals and a Look Ahead to Monday's Championship Game

Heading into this weekend, I wondered whether this would be the worst final four in recent memory. How many first round draft picks do the four participants share? Just Duke Freshman Mason Plumlee (who played 8 minutes last night), WVU’s Devin Ebanks (11 pts, 3 rbs), and Butler’s Gordon Hayward crack the top 32 in Draft Express’s list of the top 100 NBA prospects.

DE’s 2010 Mock Draft predicts Kyle Singler and Ebanks to go at the very end of the first round, and Da’Sean Butler midway through the second. I think Hayward and the injured Kalin Lucas would also get drafted if they decided to come out. But with a ruptured achilles tendon, I would expect Lucas to come back, and can anyone see Hayward leaving his coach and lookalike Brad Stevens early?

Compare this talent pool to the 2008 Final Four that featured NBAers Darren Collison, Russel Westbrook, Kevin Love, and Luc Richard M’bah a Mute all on one team.

So we knew there were going to be fewer highlight reel plays, but these teams must be pretty good to get this far, right? Ball control offense and stingy defense is just as entertaining as high-flying dunks and dead-eye shooting, right?

Ehhh, not so much.

There are games like 2008’s epic final between Kansas and Memphis in which, as the cliché goes, no one deserved to lose. In Saturday’s first game, both teams deserved to lose, Michigan State just wanted it more.

Down by one point with twenty seconds on the clock, the Spartans got the ball to overachieving Draymond Green (who I secretly love and think is a super smart player). He missed the shot badly, but the bottom line is that if Draymond Green is shooting your last shot, there isn’t a lot of talent on the floor.

Now State probably wins that game by 15 with Kalin Lucas healthy, especially if Butler point guard Shelvin Mack couldn’t play in the second half. They desperately needed a player who could create off the dribble, and that’s where Butler won this game.

State’s post-Lucas offense relied on timing and brutal screens to get players open for jump shots and the occasional lay up. Butler’s motion offense is built around the dribble handoff and reading options out of the pick and roll. By virtue of this style, there are more dribble drives and opportunities to get fouled going to the basket, or kick out to an open three point shooter.

In the last eleven minutes of the game, there were a combined 17 points scored by the two teams. The defense was good, but not THAT good—lots of open shots were bricked by both teams.

I’m happy Butler won, it’s an awesome story. But let’s be honest, it was a poorly played game and I don’t want to talk about it anymore.

After that stinkfest, I was excited to watch two teams many people thought would be here when the tournament started.  I was also selfishly interested to see if my “keys to the game” would hold up. Let’s see how my predictions did:

1-    Duke Shooting the Three vs. West Virginia Defending the Three.

Duke shot lights out from three and West Virginia gave up plenty of open looks. That was pretty much the one thing the Mountaineers couldn’t allow happen. Even worse, the Blue Devils hit about six of their fifteen threes off of kick-outs from offensive rebounds. Singler, Smith and Sheyer all shot often and accurately from deep (combined 12 for 23). Advantage Duke.

2-    West Virgnia’s Motion Offense vs. Duke’s Man-to-Man Defense.

West Virginia had a lot of trouble getting their curls and rubs to produce anything worthwhile. Clark Kellog even commented on it midway through the second half when the Mountaineers finally snuck a cutter past Duke’s defense for an easy lay up. Coach K had his team well prepared for these “actions,” and there was always plenty of very tall help awaiting the cutting Mountaineers. Advantage Duke.

3-    Nolan Smith vs. Joe Mazzulla (+12)

Early in the game, Nolan Smith played the consummate point guard, assisting on three of Duke first five field goals. Even more impressive, all three dimes were for easy layups, which helped Duke’s bigs feel comfortable and confident early on.  Smith shot the ball well from three (4-9) and did not turn the ball over once in 34 minutes of court time. Think he was ready to play?

Mazzulla did a nice job of blowing past defenders and getting into the middle, but could only convert his penetration into layups once. His quickness and strength allowed him to get past the first defender, but he was unable to produce even assists against Duke’s stout help defense.  Combining points and assists, he accounted for 10 points while Nolan Smith accounted for 33. I predicted Mazzulla would need to be within 12 points of Smith’s production for the Mountaineers to have a chance, so advantage Duke.

4-    Battle on the Boards

There was a debate over which would be more powerful: Duke’s size or West Virginia’s length. Consider that debate settled. Brian Zoubek (5 offensive rebounds) has transformed from benchwarming sideshow to potential professional. He won’t get drafted, but there are only so many human beings who are 7’1,” 270 lbs.  Add to that a willingness to learn and a scrappiness that belies his years as a nobody, and you’ve got a potential 12th man on an NBA team.

Duke may have only won this statistical category by only three, but they got 19 second chance points. Advantage Duke.

Duke dominated these four keys and, as a result, won the game easily. You can argue he Mountaineers were within range of staging a comeback when Butler went down and their emotional energy was permanently drained.

There’s a lot to dislike about Bob Huggins, but you would have to have a permafrost heart not to love what he did for Butler.  A collision with Brian Zoubek left Butler writhing on the floor in pain, no doubt contemplating not only the end of his college career, but how a torn knee ligament would affect his future earning ability and position in the upcoming NBA draft.

Huggins, nearly in tears himself, got down on the floor above Butler and cradled his star’s face, whispering comforts until a calmed Butler could be helped off the floor. It was as touching a scene as I have witnessed in any live event, forget just sports.

After Butler left for the locker room, it was only a matter of letting the clock wind down.

Duke moves on to face a Butler team that has about the same chance of winning as I do of getting in a game at Rucker Park. Not only is Butler small, but two of Butler’s four post players are freshmen. Zoubek and the Plumlees much be licking their chops.

For Butler to win and complete its relatively remarkable run (remember folks, they began the year ranked #10 in the country), they are sure as heck going to have to score more than 52 points.

And Matt Howard can’t be in foul trouble.

And Duke has to miss 70% of their threes.

And Hayward has to go off against Singler and Thomas (something Da’Sean Butler couldn’t manage).

And Shelvin Mack will have to be 100% after sitting out the second half of Saturday’s game with leg cramps.

And Butler must hold Duke to less than 12 second chance points.

And a Bulldog besides Mack and Hayward has to make a few three pointers.

And Coach K has to pursue a terrible game plan.

ALL of these things need to happen in order for Butler to win. Improbable as it may be, the Bulldogs will get their chance to slay the Philistine. This is why this tournament is so special. All of these things could happen.

Butler’s real life Hoosiers could topple a Duke team that has become an absolute juggernaut, having just turned in their best performance of the season. The Bulldogs could have the antidote to the combination of Singler, Sheyer and Smith that put a combined 63 points on WVU.

I’ll be surprised if Monday’s championship game isn’t a blowout in Duke’ favor. I’ll be shocked if it’s entertaining. And I’ll wander the streets in an ecstatic daze if Butler pulls off the greatest tournament upset in over twenty years.

HoopSpeak.com Goes to the Four Corners to Preview West Virginia and Duke’s Final Four Matchup

I’ll be honest: I don’t have any idea how Butler vs. MSU is going to turn out. Those are two teams I hadn’t really watched until the Tournament and for all I know Gordon Hayward and the Bulldogs might beat down on the Spartans like they have every other opponent in 2010.

Or, Kalin Lucas’s stunt double, Korie Lucious, might carry coach Tom Izzo to another championship game. I am completely lost when it comes to this matchup.

But, I believe that the winner of this whole thing is going to be either Duke or West Virginia anyways (like everyone else, maybe I’ve just seen more of them), so I’ve decided to preview that match up.

Both teams are mature and tough. I don’t think we’ll see a blowout either way, these teams are too well coached and disciplined. I’m getting way more excited for this game than I thought I would a few days ago.

Here are four major keys to this game that will decide who heads to the finals.

1. Duke Shooting the Three vs. West Virginia Defending the Three

It’s no secret that Duke loves to shoot threes. Who can blame them with gunners like John Sheyer and Kyle Singler, who can shoot over most opponents. And when you have big men that dominate the glass, you are protected against run outs off of long misses and able to generate wide open threes from kick outs after offensive rebounds.

As Bill Raftery will tell you six times a game, that’s as good of a time as any to tee up a three-ball.

So maybe the most important thing that West Virginia can do to win this game is limit the number of offensive rebounds that lead to Duke kick-out threes. These shots buried Baylor in the final six minutes last Sunday. To do this, WVU might have to sacrifice its fast break a bit so that the Mountaineer guards can stay with their box outs for a few extra beats and prevent wide open looks.

In any case, I don’t think WVU can just count on Duke going cold. We know that Bob Huggins is willing to craft his game plan to fit his opponent, so you can bet that West Virginia will give Duke some looks they haven’t seen.

How cognizant is Huggins of his opponent’s three point shooting? Against Washington, Huggins put the 6’9’’ Devin Ebanks on 5’8’’ scoring guard Isaiah Thomas to ensure that Thomas would have to go inside to find his points. Ebanks pushed Thomas a few feet beyond the arc, and the diminutive dynamo did not feel comfortable launching from there.

Against Marquette and New Mexico, UW shot 31 threes combined, making 18. Against West Virginia, they only got off 11, making 3. Kentucky was able to fire the threes (as per Huggins’s game plan) but missed their first 20. Yuck.

Unlike WVU’s previous two opponents, Duke works hard in their sets specifically to create three point opportunities. They are disciplined and relentless.  It will be much more difficult for the Mountaineers to close down their looks from deep.

2. West Virginia’s Motion Offense vs. Duke’s Man-to-Man Defense

West Virginia’s offense is as rugged as the coalmines into which play-by-play of Mountaineers basketball is pumped. Win or lose, after playing against Huggins’s squad, you will be the color of the WVU jerseys: blue and yellow. There are two cuts in particular that provide a consistent flow of open looks close to the basket: the elbow curl and the block to block screen.

The elbow curl starts with Joe Mazzulla, De’Sean Butler, or Devin Ebanks rubbing their defender off of a screen at the weak-side elbow and then curling down the ball-side of the lane to the basket.

The block to block is just a nasty screen between the two biggest Mountaineers on the court. It’s not complicated, they just run it hard and run it well over and over.

These two cuts may only provide 12-16 points a game, but they are easy points that come from the flow of their offense.

If I were Duke, I would run some sort of zone at least some of the time. The zone would allow them protect the middle and ignore Joe Mazzulla, who, despite banging one home against Kentucky, should be left to wander freely beyond the arc. A nuanced zone would allow Duke to go basically five-on-four with Mazzulla on the court.

Despite this advantage, I’m pretty sure Saturday’s game will feature only Coach K’s brand of pressure man-to-man. The key will be whether Duke’s bigs can protect the middle and Singler can stay with Butler, who is an awkward cover for any of the Blue Devil’s personnel.

One last point: West Virginia’s 3s and 4s: Ebanks, Jones, Butler, are their best shooters. Will Duke’s bigs be able to match up on the perimeter with these explosive scorers? WVU does not score like a conventional team, but Duke wants to guard like a conventional team.

3. Nolan Smith vs. Joe Mazzulla (+12)

Nolan Smith has to play well and get into the middle against who ever is covering him. I assume that they will match Mazzulla on him, go with Ebanks on Sheyer to limit his shooting, and crowd Singler with Butler. Ebanks’s length and Butler’s strength and quickness might fluster and neutralize Duke’s top scorers.

However, the point guard match up holds a huge advantage for the Blue Devils. Nolan Smith is playing aggressively and is big enough to avoid getting muscled off his path to the basket by Mazzulla.

On the other hand, Mazzulla has only one hand.

Due to shoulder surgery he practically cannot shoot the ball with his right hand. If Duke pays attention to him in transition, as Kentucky failed to do, he should be a nonfactor offensively. Nonetheless, he will get plenty of minutes as Huggy Bear trusts him to conduct the Mountaineer offense.

Nolan Smith should be good for about 12-15 more points than Mazzulla, either by scoring himself or creating opportunities for others. If this matchup is played anywhere close to a draw, advantage WVU.

I would look for Smith to challenge Mazzulla all over the court on defense and go wherever he pleases on offense.  But don’t count Mazzulla out; they don’t come any tougher than him. He will fight with every fiber to keep this matchup close.

4. Battle on the Boards

Under the backboards, WVU is deep and Duke is very deep. WVU is going to have to get some kind of production from unknowns like Turkish monster (265 lb Freshman!) Deniz Kilicli, and an inspired performance from Wellington Smith to contend down in the trenches.

I already gushed about how hard Duke rebounds and how huge they are (6 players over 6’8’’), so suffice it to say that they are going to bring the wood.

And here’s where I think the game turns for Duke. If they can attack the glass relentlessly on both ends, I think WVU wears down, picks up fouls and has a tough time protecting their defensive boards down the stretch.

To beat Duke, West Virginia has to get big performances out of Butler, Jones and Ebanks, and hope that Sheyer and Singler go cold—either from choking or great D. I think that WVU’s defense really has to push the Blue Devils away from the basket and make the catches tough on the wings. This pressure might result in a few bad Duke turnovers and easy buckets for the Mountaineers.

The Mountaineers straight bullied Washington. They employed experience and superior coaching to stun the Wildcats. But they can’t bully Duke, and I don’t see Coach K’s seasoned crew getting schooled like Kentucky’s did—the Dukies have looked mature and unflappable all tournament.

Here’s my prediction: WVU comes out hot and finishes the half up by 4-7, let’s say 34-27 (like that precision?!). However, in the second half, foul trouble (these games are usually called tightly) for a key big man exposes the lack of depth on the Mountaineers front line. Midway through the second half, Duke hits a few threes and evens the score.

Down the stretch, Duke calmly executes and get’s easy buckets off of O-Boards while WVU can’t maintain their hot shooting.

Duke’s scoring and rebounding depth prevails: 70-62.

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