NCAA Day Wrap-Up: One Big Scare and Lots of Favorites

Duke had never lost 1st Round NCAA tournament games in two consecutive years, and that streak was likely to continue drawing 15-seed Belmont in the 2008 opener. Yet, with under 30 seconds left, the Bruins stood with the ball up 70-69, Duke’s backs firmly against the wall, streak and season on the line. Trying to run the clock out, Belmont never got into a solid offensive set, missing a contested layup with 19 seconds left. Gerald Henderson snatched the rebound, then went coast to coast, unimpeded for a finger roll to give the Blue Devils a one-point lead. Belmont rushed up the court, missed a quick jumper, grabbed the rebound, and called timeout. With 4 seconds left – plenty of time for a catch and shoot – Belmont tried to throw a lob pass near the basket, the cutter never turned his head to look towards the basket, Duke ball. After DeMarcus Nelson missed the front end of the one-and-one, Belmont got a heave from half court, but it was not meant to be on this night.

Duke’s experience in big games showed in the final minute. Belmont, both players and coaches, let the moment of the tournament, the one chance to shine in the spotlight, get the better of them. With possession and the lead, the Bruins never ran a play, opting to milk the entire 35 second clock and throw up the best shot as the shot clock expired. In that situation, DUke was going to get the ball back with 15-20 seconds no matter what happened, Belmont needed a basket to extend the lead to three, or even make it a two-possession game with another three. After not giving themselves any chance to score, Duke was smart to push the ball hard up the court, Belmont was on is heels, nobody stepped up to step the ball, nobody wanted to foul, nobody contested the shot. Henderson, a sophomore who played in countless pressure ACC contests the past two seasons, coasted for an easy basket. Finally, after the missed jumper, Belmont’s coach ran a lob play in the lane with four seconds left – an eternity on an inbounds play.  Lacking size and athleticism, the tip play does not fit Belmont’s profile. They had plenty of time to inbounds the ball and run the inbounder, or another shooter, off a screen or two, for a quick shot on the wing, their bread and butter all night. After 39+ minutes of free flowing play, Belmont played the end of the game not to lose, Duke played to win.

Before reigning praise on the Blue Devils, their goal is the Final Four, not a win over Belmont. Thursday night gave further proof, if you needed any, that Duke is susceptible to a bad shooting night, no matter who they play. 28% from behind the arc will not get it done, without any semblance of an inside game, Duke must shoot better and minimize the 15 turnovers. Nelson, the senior leader, had an off night, finishing with two points and four turnovers. He needs to play much better for Duke to have a chance. Coach K, battling illness, looked and sounded like a beaten man, calling it one of the Top 3 or 4 pressure tournament games of his illustrious tenure, realizing this edition of the Blue Devils probably lacks the weapons to go deep.

Outside of Belmont’s attempt to become the fifth 15th seed to pull a first round upset, favorites prevailed Thursday, the higher seed winning 14 of 16 games.  Here’s some reflection on the day:

  • Surprise of the Day : Billed as the OJ Mayo-Michael Beasley freshman showdown, the game took a backseat to the individual showdown, along with fellow Wildcat freshman Bill Walker’s squaring off with lifelong friend Mayo. The aforementioned trio did not disappoint, all eclipsing 20 points, but the Trojans failed to show up. With Beasley in early foul trouble, Walker torched USC for 17 1st half points sparking a 17-6 rally in the first half to grab a 10 point half time lead. A chic pick for the Final Four or Elite Eight, the immensely talented Trojans made a run early in the second half, but succumbed to inconsistency and a heavy dose of Beasley, who dominated the second half. When K-State gets contributions from Walker and Jacob Pullen they are much better than an 11-seed, evidenced by the mid-season win over Kansas. Still USC’s performance may be the biggest disappointment of Day One. Just don’t sleep on the Wildcats.
  • Clock Strikes 12 for Georgia: Georgia’s miraculous exploits in last week’s SEC tournament are well-chronicled, the upstart Bulldogs drew the early game on Thursday – so much for rest – against a Xavier team struggling of late. It looked like the Bulldogs run may continue, carrying a double-digit lead early in the second half, led by Senior do-it-all star Sundiata Gaines, but the pixie dust ran out. Xavier went on a big second half run, stepped up the defense, behind senior guard Stanley Burrell, who shutdown Gaines in the second half. Georgia ran out of gas down the stretch, unable to keep up the Musketeers on either end of the floor, losing 73-61, outscored 47-26 in the second half.
  • The Upsets That Wasn’t:Temple entered the tourney hot after winning the A-10, playing in that upset favorite 5-12 game, but Michigan State unleashed a defensive scheme that took Owl star Dionte Christmas out of his game, forcing others to beat them, and nobody could. The Spartans also held second-leading scorer, Mark Tyndale, in check until a second half spurt pushed his point total to 16. Despite Spartan Senior Drew Neitzel finishing with only five points, Michigan State was never really challenged in this game, holding a big lead most of the second half, winning 72-61. Raymar Morgan led the attack with 15 points, but the difference was the defense. State would not make it easy for Christmas to even touch the ball, and the Temple star showed frustration by hoisting bad shots all night, finishing with two points on 1-12 shooting. Tom Izzo and the scrappy Spartans did it again.
  • Historic Matchup: Marquette and Kentucky tangled for the 10th time in an NCAA tournament game, an NCAA record. Joe Crawfoed single-handedly kept the depleted Wildcats in the game with 35 points. In the end, the Golden Eagles balanced guard attack proved too much, grabbing Marquette’s first NCAA tournament win since the 2004 Dwayne Wade led team beat these same Wildcats in the Elite Eight. A well-played game, enjoyable to watch. Marquette can do some damage, with a unique, very athletic guard oriented team.

Notre Dame, Washington State, Pittsburgh, and Wisconsin were barely contested in the second halves of their games, each cruising into the second round. Yes, Stanford beat Cornell, save the smart jokes for the college admissions officers.

Baylor and Kent State, two lower seeds that I expected strong showings from, were both blown out of the building in the first half. The Golden Flashes posted 10 points in the first half. Ten Points! That game was over early, a disappointing finish to an excellent season, but also a blown opportunity to perform in a rare national showcase game.  While the Bears, a great story, earning a bid only five years after unprecedented tragedy and violations in the basketball program, played like just making it was sufficient. Purdue blew the doors off in the first half with a balanced attack. The young Boilermakers contributed to a 3-0 day for the much maligned Big 10. Maybe some of the dissenters – like myself, who picked all three to lose – should start believing.

On to Friday, will any high seeds emerge? It’s still great no matter what.

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