From the top of the bracket to the bottom of the bubble watch, we break down the final push for placement into the 68-team men’s March Madness tournament.
Wednesday night was history that someone was bound to make. This was significant because Syracuse had a perfect regular season in their sights. At some point we thought Syracuse had to hit a speed bump on their road through ACC Country, get pulled over and lose a conference game. They outdrove Pittsburgh and NC State, but not many foresaw them running out of gas against Boston College.
Their record stood unblemished longer than all but one team in the nation. They were one of six teams remaining with a perfect record in conference. Upstate New York is used to being buried underneath a foot of snow this time of year, but BC’s 62-59 win hammered the dagger into the heart of Syracuse’s invincibility on Wednesday night.
There was a lesson to learn here. Beware the eye of the storm. Thursday night against Boston College was a typical trap game.
After surviving boobie traps at Pittsburgh, then at home against NC State, BC was a brief respite from the dangerous ACC streets until they race into the Blue Devils beehive on Saturday.
Duke’s improved rebounding prowess and three-point shooting snipers could cause trouble for the Orange. The best way to disrupt the tranquil 2-3 zone defense. They’re second nationally in three-point shooting percentage and only 14 teams nationally score a higher percentage of their total team points from behind the arc.
By not remaining stuck in the moment Syracuse got unstitched from their perfect record. The Orange aren’t out of the woods yet though. The way Duke has elevated their game in the month of February is a testament to Coach K’s ability to course correct a team that was on a nosediving trajectory in the month of January.
Duke was the first team all season to truly threaten Syracuse and poke a hole in their steel armor when they stepped into the Carrier Dome, scored 78 points on a team that rarely allows 60, outrebounded their hosts on the boards and drained 15 treys–a season high against the Orange defense.
It’s a matchup that mixes Duke’s strength against Syracuse’s vulnerabilities and features the only two members of college basketball’s 900-win club.
On the other hand, Boston College picked the lock, snuck up on Syracuse in their own home and ransacked the place. Tyler Ennis couldn't make a heroic play on this night. He lost possession of an offensive rebound he corralled under the basket off of Trevor Cooney’s desperation three.
Night in and night out teams elevated their energy levels, effort and focus for an opportunity to defeat the undefeated No. 1 ranked team in the country. The BC Eagles were uplifted on the wings of their late sports information assistant Dick Kelley whose funeral was held on Tuesday following his two-year battle with ALS.
Next thing you know two unmatched teams were even on the scoreboard late.
Syracuse wasn’t ready and shot worse from the field than they had in any previous game this season. Boston College may have began the night with a .240 winning percentage this season, but 32.3 was the number of the night. That was Syracuse’s shooting percentage. Their previous-low was a 35.3 percent shooting performance against UNC on January 11th. This came out of nowhere. Boston College’s defense was allowing the 292nd highest field goal percentage in the nation.
In 68 Man March Recap, I mentioned that SMU’s loss to No. 184 South Florida was the worst of the season for a top-25 team. Syracuse’s loss to No. 159 Boston College topped it. Syracuse will still be No. 1, but that’s only if they can bounce back and withstand the hail of threes Duke will rain upon them in Durham.
CLIMBING THE LADDER – Top Five Coach of the Year Candidates Power Rankings
A few weeks ago, I realized the futility of ranking five Player of the Year candidates. There is only one. But just in case you want to know, Doug McDermott scored a measly 25 against Marquette three nights after dropping 39 on Villanova for the second time in a rout. He scored 64 points on 29 shots this week and shot 75 percent from the field. Calling him the Durant of college hoops is an understatement. By next week he needs a nickname.
Doug McDermott's 25 points (2,888) moves him past Elvin Hayes (2,884) and Tyler Hansbrough (2,872) into 11th place on the career list.
— ESPN College BBall (@ESPNCBB) February 20, 2014
But back to the coaches rankings.
1. Tony Bennett – Washington State: (see below)
2. Larry Brown – SMU: Despite this Sunday’s crushing loss to match their monumental upset the week prior, SMU is still in great position to make the tournament for the first time in 21 years.
3. Roy Williams – UNC: He recently became the quickest coach to reach 300 wins in the ACC after just 386 games at UNC. UNC’s seven-game winning streak has come on the heels of P.J. Hairston’s suspension and a 10-6 start to the season.
4. Steve Fisher – San Diego State: The Aztecs were expected to be the Mountain West Conference Champion, but a top-10 ranking and a 23-2 start to the season with wins over Kansas have them in national title discussions.
5. Jim Crews – Saint Louis: He’s no longer the interim after last season. Following Rick Majerus’ untimely death, the visions of being a top-25 team could have easily vanished for Saint Louis. Not only did they make the tournament after clinching the A-10 regular season and conference tournament titles, but they feature the nation’s best man-to-man defense, are 24-2 and ranked in the top-10..
GAME RECOGNIZE GAME
(5) Duke at UNC
The matchup which was snowed out last week features two teams on upward trajectories since hitting rough patches earlier in the season. James Michael McAdoo and Marcus Paige’s explosion has UNC on a seven-game winning streak and back on the bracket, but defense isn’t a strong suit of theirs while Duke has too many potential scoring options in their lineup.
(1) Syracuse at (5) Duke
Duke is running through the gauntlet. In the locker room after they play UNC on Thursday night, they’ll have the Syracuse film queued up. Duke’s perimeter shooting reliant offense is the perfect foil for Syracuse. They took the ‘Cuse to the brink three weeks ago on the road. With the Cameron Crazies rocking the arena this weekend while Amile Jefferson and Jabari Parker are much more physical in the paint.
(19) Texas at (8) Kansas
Rick Barnes’ star-laden teams had an inexorable tendency to disintegrate beneath the expectations. Texas was picked to finish eighth in the Big 12 during the preseason while Oklahoma State was expected to share the conference title with the Big 12 pharaohs in Lawrence, Kansas.
Texas is slated to finish second, but a win over Kansas would inch them closer to first. Texas’ blue collar roster is the mirror opposite of Kansas’ All-American roster which contains as many as four 2014 lottery picks.
Embiid has an issue staying out of foul trouble while Texas gets to the line better than all but 13 teams in the nation, rebounds extremely well and defends the paint. The Jayhawks will have to win this one with their swingmen. Luckily, they have the guns to get it done.
(16) Wisconsin at (15) Iowa
The Big Ten is more treacherous than a season of Game of Thrones and this weekend is the Red Wedding. Before Michigan and Michigan State squash their beef, Iowa has an opportunity to nestle into a tie for No. 2 in the race for the Big Ten title. Iowa should have fresh legs after their matchup with Indiana was cancelled.
(13) Michigan State at (20) Michigan
Michigan State is like my niece’s LEGO set. Every time you try to build a spaceship, there’s a new piece missing from the box. Adreian Payne is back in the lineup for Michigan State, but as he re-enters the fold, Keith Appling is sitting out for the foreseeable future. Payne has a skillset similar to Frank Kaminsky, whom Michigan could not defend on Sunday.
Pick: Michigan State
Texas Tech vs. Oklahoma State
Marcus Smart returns to the floor for an Oklahoma State team that is hemorrhaging points and can’t score efficiently without Smart on the floor. If they can’t beat Texas Tech on their own home floor, Travis Ford might as well schedule a U-Haul moving day on his way to the locker room.
Pick: Oklahoma State
IN THE BONUS
Syracuse’s loss had one side effect that deserves mention. After going undefeated for nearly three months, the loss tied them with Virginia for first place in the ACC. This isn’t a fluke or a result of creative scheduling by Virginia either.
VCU’s Shaka Smart isn’t the only elite coach attracting attention in the commonwealth. Cavaliers head coach Tony Bennett is one of the best coaches in the country not at a major powerhouse program. Five years ago, he was doing the same thing with Washington State’s hopeless hoops program. Father-son succession plans rarely end well, but not all apples fall far from the coaching tree.
Unlike Pat Knight’s abridged stay at Texas Tech following his dad, Tony unexpectedly vaulted the Cougars into a spotlight after Dick Bennett handed the reins to his son. It was especially unusual because Dick only spend four three seasons coaching Washington State. To earn enough clout to exhibit blatant nepotism coaches usually have to earn a little cache by winning at a high level for at least a decade. Bennett never finished above .500, but quickly put the Cougars on a winning track. His 69 percent winning rate is No. 1 in that program’s history.
He turned down overtures from Indiana and Marquette before doing an about face and taking the lackluster Virginia opening. It was perceived to be a preemptive move to escape Pullman, Washington before once in a generation star Klay Thompson went pro and crammed Washington State back into the Pac-10’s basement.
Since arriving in Charlottesville, Bennett has has won at least 22 games twice, but has only made the tournament once at a program that's been dormant for the past 20 years. Bennett still owns the highest career three-point shooting percentage for a single player in NCAA history.
Likewise, his Washington State teams were remembered for Thompson’s pinpoint shooting and awe-inspiring scoring ability. However, the essence of his success at Washington State was soul-crushing defense. In his three seasons at Washington State they were 16th, 3rd and finally first in points allowed per game.
Other coaches took notice of his defensive coaching acumen.
“The biggest thing about Tony’s team is that defensively, they’ve consistently been one of the leaders in the Pac-10 conferencce in scoring defense. They do not give you easy shots. You have to work … you’re going to have to earn everything you get against them. We’ve called Washington State abend but not break’ defense. You just knew they were not going to beat themselves. I’ve used the analogy that playing against Tony’s teams was like hitting a tennis ball against the wall … it comes right back at you. And, you know, the wall usually wins those battles." Arizona interim coach Russ Pennell beamed after Bennett was hired in 2009.
His predecessor at Virginia, Dave Leitao went 63-60 in four campaigns. Bennett is 97-58 as he nears the end of his fifth season.Five years ago, Virginia was reeling from its worst season in 40 years.
There's no Ralph Sampson on the roster and that hasn't mattered thus far. Their leading scorers Malcolm Brogdon and Joe Harris average just 23 points between them, but this is the best Virginia team since the 1995 Elite Eight group and as expected, they decimate opponents with a defense Syracuse should be envious of. They allow the fewest points in the nation, rank fifth in defensive rebounding percentage, a stat which tracks what percentage of opponents misses they rebound and allow the nation’s ninth lowest field goal percentage.
If they can clear Notre Dame and Miami this week, it sets up a monumental clash with Syracuse in their penultimate game of the regular season. Don't let Virginia sneak up on you this March like Boston College did on Syracuse.