Refs are 2011 NCAA tourney theme
Here are 10 impressions formed during the first weekend of the 2011 NCAA tournament, in which there are at least four teams you really, really don't want to play right now.
Those four teams? Ohio State, Kansas, VCU, Butler. To the impressions:
1. The crush-all-comers excellence of the Ohio State Buckeyes is a thing to behold. Early Monday morning, as I was returning from the United Center after surprising wins by VCU and Florida State over Purdue and Notre Dame, respectively, I flipped on ESPN in an attempt to get my download of highlights from the rest of Sunday's non-Chicago tournament action. After Rece Davis & Co. got through with highlights of Ohio State's they-did-what? win over George Mason, Jay Bilas quipped that the highlight package required little editing, because nearly every minute of Ohio State's 98-66 win over the Patriots looked like a highlight reel. He was right. The Buckeyes were practically perfect against their upset-minded second-round foe. After Mason built a quick 11-2 lead in the opening minutes, the Bucks proceeded to outscore Jim Larranaga's team 96-55; OSU posted a 74.2 effective field goal percentage and scored 1.49 points per possession in a rout that, yes, looked like a nearly 40-minute highlight reel. Ohio State still has the toughest challenges of any remaining No. 1 seed ahead -- this weekend's Sweet 16 matchup with Kentucky will be tough -- but if the Buckeyes play even 75 percent as well as they did Sunday, they will steamroll their way to Houston.
2. Kansas couldn't ask for a better draw. The Jayhawks' region was always kind -- Pittsburgh was the only No. 1 seed to get an easier path. The only apparent KU roadblocks in this region came in the form of No. 2 seed Notre Dame and No. 3 seed Purdue. (No. 4 Louisville looked intriguing, but how many really thought the undersized Cardinals could take down these Jayhawks in the Sweet 16?) It's now four days later, and Kansas could well get to Houston without shifting out of cruise control. Kansas will play No. 12 seed Richmond in the Sweet 16, and that could be followed by a matchup with another double-digit seed -- No. 10 Florida State or No. 11 VCU. If the Jayhawks reach the Final Four, they will do so without playing a team seeded above No. 9. Nothing is guaranteed, of course, but if Kansas fans liked their region on Selection Sunday, they officially love it now.
3. Still, Kansas has to be wary. The otherworldly force that is the Virginia Commonwealth Rams is merely one game away. With the possible exception of Ohio State, no team in the country is as hot as Shaka Smart's; no team in the country has transformed itself quite like this one. In the regular season, VCU's offense ranked among the top 60 or so units in the country on a per-possession basis. It was OK but not great. In the regular season, VCU's defense ranked well outside the top 100, according to Kenpom.com, Ken Pomeroy's website of college basketball ratings. There was a reason the selection committee's decision to include VCU at the expense of Colorado and Virginia Tech was pilloried; with the exception of a run to the CAA tournament final, the Rams spent all season looking good but not great in a good-but-not-great mid-major conference. One week and three games later, the Rams look like a national-title contender.
That was Purdue coach Matt Painter's assessment Sunday night, and Painter would know: His team's vaunted defense -- the best in the Big Ten all season long -- was scorched to the tune of 1.48 points per possession by the Rams on Sunday night. VCU point guard Joey Rodriguez administered a clinic in an efficient half-court offense, and Purdue was left flailing as VCU's forwards got easy rim-runs and scored layup after layup and dunk after dunk in the second half. Combine that offense with a sudden turnaround on the defensive end -- VCU shut down USC and Georgetown in quick succession, and much of Purdue's efficiency Sunday came thanks to garbage buckets after the game was out of hand -- and, yes, it wouldn't be a surprise to see the Rams in the Final Four in two weeks. They are historically hot and they're playing defense for the first time all season. Until one or both of those things change, this team is as dangerous as any other in the Sweet 16.
4. Butler just finds a way to win. Lost in the shuffle of Butler and Pittsburgh's dumb-foul-littered ending Saturday is this: The Bulldogs actually won the game on their penultimate possession. That's when guard Shawn Vanzant drove down the right side of the Pitt defense, forced Pitt forward Gary McGhee to help and found Butler forward Andrew Smith for a quick dump-off layup that likely would have sealed the game had Shelvin Mack and Nasir Robinson not committed the silly fouls heard 'round the world. The Bulldogs are dangerous. They've improved their defense immensely since their ugly run through the early portions of Horizon League play, and they're scoring as well as they have all season. Guard Ronald Nored is back to his relentless defensive ways; Nored hounded Pitt guard Ashton Gibbs for all 40 minutes Saturday. And if the intangibles matter, this team is also experienced, driven, focused and uniquely skilled at finding unlikely paths to victory against more talented teams late in games. Like the three teams above, Brad Stevens' is not a squad you want to see on your way to the Elite Eight and beyond.
5. Unfortunately, some of the excellence of the four teams listed above was lost in the fray this past weekend. Instead, the hottest topic of discussion was the NCAA tournament's national collective refereeing crisis. If that seems harsh, maybe it is; not every controversial late call was necessarily a bad one. And there was plenty of poor execution to boot. But consider the following:
• Butler's win over Pittsburgh was decided by not one but two late calls that, although probably correct, ended up robbing a classic game of the classic finish it deserved. (And although many have agreed that the referees were correct, Pitt fans could argue that there is a major difference between Mack riding a plausible final shot out of bounds and the referee's decision to call a loose-ball foul on Robinson 90 feet from Butler's rim with less than a second remaining. Sure, Robinson fouled but the idea that because one foul was called the other had to be is a little too simplistic. The two calls were not created equal.)
• Arizona's win over Texas came thanks to some brilliant play from Derrick Williams and a really bad timeout by Texas forward Jordan Hamilton, but it also came thanks to a too-quick five-second call by official Richard Cartmell that Cartmell blew just as Texas guard Cory Joseph signaled for a timeout. Video proved that Joseph asked for a timeout before Cartmell's arm ticked off that all-important fifth second. Arizona received the ball out of bounds, Williams finished one of the most amazing clutch plays in tournament history and the Longhorns were dealt another disappointing NCAA tournament loss.
• With 51 seconds left in Marquette's 66-62 win over Syracuse, Orange guard Dion Waiters floated a sideline inbounds pass a foot too deep for Cuse guard Scoop Jardine to handle. Jardine caught the ball but stepped on the half-court line. He was whistled for a backcourt violation. In fact, according to the NCAA rulebook, Jardine didn't commit a violation; the ball is allowed to travel into the backcourt even if the ball is being inbounded in the frontcourt, and Jardine had never established himself in the frontcourt once he had possession of the ball.
• North Carolina-Washington was likewise decided by some skittish late-game officiating, this time regarding how much time the Huskies should have received after Venoy Overton's heave from half court -- Overton was anticipating Carolina's foul -- glanced off UNC forward John Henson's hands and out of bounds. The replay clearly showed that the ball landed out of bounds with 1.4 seconds left. Instead, the referees (who said they asked for a monitor review and were told there was no need, which hardly makes sense) left only 0.5 of a second, enough time for Isaiah Thomas to hurl a feckless 2-point attempt that wouldn't have changed the outcome anyway.
All these calls were the product of poor execution, bad decisions and questionable late-game clock management by the teams afflicted. All the outcomes might have been unchanged without these controversies. Taken as a whole, however, bad calls by referees became the theme of the 2011 NCAA tournament this weekend. The old cliché says that when the referees are doing a good job, you don't even notice they're there. Needless to say, America noticed.
6. Florida State's defense is a major weapon. It's nice to know that even if you can't score -- and the Seminoles frequently can't -- one thing will remain a constant: defense. Florida State has the stingiest defense in the country, according to Pomeroy, and that defense carried the Seminoles to wins over Texas A&M and Notre Dame in the first two rounds in Chicago this past weekend. FSU even found some unlikely offense in its blowout of the Irish on Sunday night, but even if it hadn't, that might not have changed the outcome much.
7. Low turnovers equal tournament success. Last season's common denominator among Elite Eight teams was offensive rebounding. If there is one among this season's Sweet 16, it's turnover rate. Ten of this year's 16 second-weekend teams rank in the top 32 in turnover rate, and with Marquette, 11 rank in the top 51. The ability to maintain and maximize possessions is a major advantage in the topsy-turvy tournament, in which shooting can go cold and betray otherwise-lights-out squads. In other words, this is no surprise. But it is something worth watching this weekend.
8. Derrick Williams is determined to become a star. Williams was mentioned above in his role in Arizona's late win over Texas, but we should take note of the Wildcats forward before he receives a major payday in the NBA draft lottery this summer. Frankly, Williams has dominated his team's first two games, and he seems to do his best work when his team needs it late. His block of Memphis' Wesley Witherspoon in the first round saved the Wildcats from falling prey to a frisky No. 12 seed, and his miraculous finish against Texas -- in which the sophomore forward somehow made a no-look bank layup, drew a foul and used all three points to give Arizona the decisive margin -- is likely to become the stuff of tournament legend.
9. Michigan fans have a lot to look forward to. Say you had a time machine. Say you used this time machine to go back in time to October. (Just go with it.) Say that while you were there, you told Michigan fans that in a few short, unlikely months, their team not only would make the NCAA tournament but once there would make a 15-point second-half comeback against the defending national champion and be within a five-foot floater of forcing overtime in the second round of said tournament. You would have been arrested for insanity. And not just because you claimed to be from the not-so-distant future. But that's exactly what happened Sunday. Wolverines coach John Beilein has emphatically answered any and all questions about the future of his program, and with his system in place and young talent thriving ahead of schedule, the Wolverines have more reason for optimism now than at any point since the Fab Five.
10. Predicting the NCAA tournament is just really, really hard. In the span of a few hours Saturday and Sunday, yours truly lost one of his Final Four teams (Pittsburgh), one of his Elite Eight sleepers (Washington) and one of his Final Four value picks (Texas), all thanks to a varied mix of dramatic finishes and questionable officiating. In the Southwest region, a No. 10 and No. 11 seed will meet in the Sweet 16 for the first time in history. In the Southeast, the No. 8-seeded Butler Bulldogs, a team that lost five Horizon League games (including one to Youngstown State six weeks ago) now look as likely to make the Final Four as any other team in the region. In other words: If you don't come into the tournament with the expectation that you don't know anything -- if you genuinely think you'll ace your bracket thanks to nothing more than sheer hoops knowledge -- the NCAA tournament will humble you. Fast.
The good news? That humble pie will be the most delicious you've ever tasted. Savor the flavor, folks.
Eamonn Brennan covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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