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Tournament Preview (03/29)

March 29, 2010
Erasing Misses
Duke's Back

by John Gasaway


Now that we're down to just four teams, we can revisit the assumption that was current two weeks ago, that Duke was given an easy road to Indy by the selection committee. I trust anyone who saw yesterday's game would grant that Baylor was every bit as good as I said they were. And while it's true Purdue was but a shadow of their former selves, even the Boilermakers performed far better than was expected when these pairings were announced. Granted, the Blue Devils didn't have to beat Syracuse and Kansas State, as did Butler, but neither did they avoid all seeds higher than a four, as did Michigan State. Who you play is determined not only by where you're seeded but also, of course, by who wins. In this respect the Spartans were "given" the softest second weekend. By fate.

(1) Duke 78, (3) Baylor 71 [62 possessions]
I find I'm not satisfied with what I'm reading with regard to this game. First off there are the conspiracy theorists, who think Duke was handed this game by the officials. That charge call on Quincy Acy that went in Brian Zoubek's favor could have gone either way, of course. But if it's your theory that Zoubek, who averages a robust 7.4 fouls per 40 minutes, somehow received special treatment from a ref thinking, "It's Brian Zoubek of Duke, I better rule in his favor," then I've apparently been watching the wrong Brian Zoubek all these years. If you didn't know before tip-off that Zoubek and Josh Lomers would both foul out but that Ekpe Udoh probably would not, you haven't been paying attention this season.

Nor am I satisfied by the It's-Baylor's-Own-Fault chorus. It's not optimal, of course, to be beaten on your defensive glass as badly as Baylor was, but it's not unheard of either. It happens to the best of teams. When you get this far into the tournament, you play the best teams in the country, ones who will hand you some ugly stats in a category here and there. (For instance, Baylor held Duke to 29 percent two-point shooting.) One might call it the cost of doing late-March business.

Here's one observer's version of events. Sure, Duke was great on the offensive glass yesterday, getting to 53 percent of their misses. But this was merely the system at work. The Blue Devils were the best offensive rebounding team in ACC play this season. On the other hand Baylor was middling on the defensive glass this year, but that was just one component of a vastly improved Bears D which, in turn, only had to be pretty good because this team's offense was outstanding. That this "meh defensive rebounding, OK defense, great offense" combination fell seven points short yesterday reflects neither a conspiracy among officials nor a shameful flaw in Baylor's makeup, but rather the fact that Scott Drew's team was up against a 32-5 one-seed.

I was impressed that Nolan Smith was able to expand his game so seamlessly into the space left by a struggling Kyle Singler (0-of-10) and score 29 points on 17 shots. Jon Scheyer making 5-of-10 threes and scoring 20 points was less surprising but no less important. But the unsung hero for Mike Krzyzewski was surely Lance Thomas, who pulled down eight offensive boards in just 19 minutes.

(5) Michigan State 70, (6) Tennessee 69 [59]
The Midwest, lauded two weeks ago as far and away the toughest of the four regions, came down to a tense contest between two teams that no one, and I mean no one, was talking about two weeks ago.

Michigan State was either the third- or fourth-best team in the Big Ten during the regular season, depending on whether you measured the conference with or without a healthy Robbie Hummel. Tennessee, along with Vanderbilt, occupied the second tier in the SEC, far below Kentucky. As such, the Spartans and the Volunteers were supposed to have been sent packing by Kansas and Ohio State, respectively. But it didn't work out that way.

Instead the two surviving teams that no one thought would be here played a tremendous game, one in which the largest lead was a mere eight points. Tennessee drilled its first five threes, which was notable coming from the team that ranked second-to-last in three-point accuracy during SEC play. Rather than object to the implausibility of it all, however, the Spartans simply kept pace, thanks in large part to a tremendous game from Durrell Summers, who scored 21 points on 8-of-10 shooting.

But even with Summers doing all he could for the Spartans, Tennessee had an excellent shot at winning this game. Both teams took care of the ball (though MSU's Korie Lucious committed five turnovers) and did very well on the offensive glass, but the Volunteers shot better from the field. J.P. Prince, Wayne Chism, and Brian Williams fairly wore out the Spartans' interior D, scoring 36 points on 15-of-22 shooting. If the Tennessee offense that emerged in St. Louis had been matched all season long with the Volunteer defense already in place, well, things would have been a lot less smooth for Kentucky in the SEC.

In the end the game was close enough to feature that most quixotic of hoops oddities, an intentionally missed free throw. The score was tied at 69 when Raymar Morgan made the first of two free throws with two seconds remaining. He then missed the second one on purpose, and Tennessee grabbed the rebound and called timeout, which isn't all that customary and, indeed, raises the issue of whether the FT should have been missed in the first place. Might as well be up two instead of just one when they throw their long pass from out-of-bounds, even if they can run the baseline, right? As it happened, however, there was to be no miracle: Prince's halfcourt heave landed well short of the basket as time expired.

You've probably heard that Tom Izzo has been to a Final Four or two in his day (six in 12 seasons), and also that the Spartans are listed as early (and slight) underdogs to Butler in their national semifinal. This may not be the scariest group of Spartans that Izzo has brought to one of these deals, but they have certainly become adept at winning shootouts. In this NCAA tournament MSU has scored 284 points in 253 possessions, achieving a level of prowess on offense that they didn't display in the regular season. Then again the Spartans' tournament opponents have scored 271 points over that same stretch of possessions. I draw two conclusions: Michigan State is headed to Indy, and their games are really fun to watch.

John saves his conspiracy theorizing for tournament expansion on Twitter: @JohnGasaway. College Basketball Prospectus 2009-10 is now available on Amazon.

John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.

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2010-03-29 - Erasing Misses: Duke's Back
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