Thursday, March 12, 2009

Championship week diaries, day 4

I'm a day behind. You'll forgive me, I hope.

Goodness gracious goshamighty was Tuesday night an incredible evening of hoops. Two absolute classics, starting with the ...

Summit: North Dakota St. 66, Oakland 64

--In nearly every Championship Week game where a clearcut league champion, No. 1 seed, best-hope-for-an-NCAA-upset is taking on some less-qualified team, I'm in the corner of the top seed. They deserved it by winning the regular season, they have the best chance of giving me even more joy next week. Usually, I'm screaming when a team like Oakland is beating a team like NDSU and delirious when a team like NDSU pulls it out over a team like Oakland.

But not here. Sure, some of it is that Oakland is a plainly likeable, mostly local team. But a lot of it is that they played out of their minds for the first 30 minutes of this game. They were great. They were perfect. And they did not lose deserve to lose this game, and they certainly didn't deserve to lose in such hopelessly cruel fashion. Keep your heads up, Grizzlies. You've got nothing to hang 'em for.

--I wondered in my Summit preview if maybe there wasn't too much at stake for NDSU's squad of seniors, whose five-year careers had collectively built up to this one single game to make the entire run either a success or failure. Who's not going to be tight under pressure like that? I think that's how it played out--those four starting seniors went 13-of-41 from the field and got real, real jumpy when the Bison were down two possessions and the clock under 10 minutes. Sophomore Michael Tviedt saved the Bison pretty well singlehandedly--21 points on 11 shots? 4-of-4 on threes? Ben Woodside hit the winner, but Tviedt won the game.

--Too bad for Oakland that they suffered some of the same effect--Erik Kangas is one of the best pure shooters in all mid-majordom, but he tried to pull off some NBA-style drive-and-fadeaway-jumper kind of moves that neither play to his strengths nor to his team's advantage inside. Some of the Oakland fade down the stretch was simple regression to the mean--the Golden Grizzlies shot above 65 percent for most of the game, and that's just not sustainable. But Kangas's freewheeling didn't really help.

--Man alive, Will Hudson and Keith Benson, 14-of-18? 30 points? Solid. I liked the game Johnathon Jones had, too--hit some nice jumpers and ran things to precision during those first 30 minutes.

--This was my first look at NDSU and even as they weren't having their best night, you could see why they've had so much success--Woodside has a nice-looking shot and is one of those PGs whose court sense is sharp enough that he can get where he needs to go on the court even without the quicks. They got the shots they needed, they just missed them. Add in some size and plenty of other shooters and I think they're an excellent candidate for an upset next week, particularly given the giant-killing reputation they already developed a couple seasons back vs. Marquette and Wisconsin.

--As for Oakland, despite the loss of Kangas the future's nothing but bright. Every other starter is back, they'll add Derick Nelson, their leading scorer and rebounder in 2008 who missed this year with a foot injury. It's possible Nelson's injury is a blessing in disguise--with the NDSU batallion gone, OU should be the prohibitive favorite entering 2009-2010.

Horizon: Cleveland St. 57, Butler 54

--Holy hell, what a game. In a few days UConn and someone like Louisville will play for the Big East title, and it'll be a great game and the announcers will be hyping it past hype and everyone will watch and all that ... but it will not be more intense than either this game or the one above, the stakes will not be higher, and it won't be a better game than this one. End of story.

--The pressure on Cleveland St. had the opposite effect on the Vikings that it had on the Bison. For the season, senior point Cedric Jackson has shot 30 percent on 3's: Tuesday he went 4-of-8. Jeremy Montgomery shot 32 percent for the year: Tuesday, 3-of-4. How's that for focus?

--I *heart* the way the Vikings play BEAT YOU DOWN defense and the physicality guys like J'Nathan "Antonio Gates's Long-Lost Brother" Bullock play with on both ends, but they have got to keep playing offense at the end of these games. It's not often a team has a six-point lead at the 4:55 mark, goes scoreless for all but the final 14 seconds, and still manages to win. It's by design, too--every possession down the stretch, Gary Waters had his guys dribble the air out of the ball before trying to run one play at the end of the clock. Points, guys! The goal is to score points! Keep running your offense! If they do this next week and let some power-conference team off the ropes, I can't even tell you how angry I'm going to be.

--Digger Phelps naturally took the opportunity after this game to rip Butler a new one, harping on the Loyola and UW-Green Bay losses. Nevermind that UWGB is a really good team that played a great game at home, that Butler took on nearly all other comers, that their best players are a sophomore and two freshmen and they're obviously going to be a little more vulnerable to inconsistency. F you, Digger, as always.

--As for their chances next week, I'm not sure Butler quite has the goods to get into the Sweet 16 if they're not really on their game ... but as with the last couple of years, if they take on a team that doesn't defend the perimeter and needs turnovers to power their offense, they'll be in good shape.

I'd love to see CSU take on some lo-fi Big 10 or Pac-10 team: the Vikes could easily keep the game in the high-40s or 50s and turn it into a coinflip down the stretch.

Sun Belt: Western Kentucky 64, South Alabama 56

--Weird, weird game. The Hilltoppers sprinted out to a 15-point lead and made it look like we were going to have one of those games where the announcers (who included the excellent Bob Valvano, always a highlight) spend the entire second half talking about the Bubble and their favorite coaches. Then South went on a looooooong run that ended with Domini Tilford both hitting a three to put the Jaguars up 43-39 with 14:39 to play and screaming like a total lunatic in front of the WKU bench. And then the Toppers realized "Oh yeah, we're better than they are," actually started playing the way they're capable of, and cruised to the win. Unlike the two games above, this one never felt particularly intense or even meaningful--whether it was the wavering focus of the teams or the barren neutral gym with no one in it or something else, it just never really seemed like a game that had an automatic bid at stake. Weird.

--What was up with Tilford? He only took 10 shots, which is waaaaay on the low side for him. He hit four of them, all from 3. All due respect to LaShun Watson and Bryan Sherrer (who hit 2 of their 8 shots), but Tilford was the Man on this team for a reason. Not sure why he was so low-profile in such a high-profile game. Not that this really hurt the Jaguar offense--they finished the game shooting 50 percent from the field and 5-of-10 from 3. What hurt them was just 5 offensive boards on 23 missed shots and 14 turnovers. It's not easy to shoot 50 percent and still finish under a point-per-possession, but South managed it.

--WKU, on the other hand, shot only 42 percent and 35 percent from downtown ... but hauled in 12 offensive rebounds and hit 14 (of 14) free throws to South's 5 (of 8). Voila, eight-point win despite the fact their two best players--guards Sergio Mendez-Valdez and A.J. Slaughter--went 7-of-22. Actually, that's sort of the best recommendation for the 'Toppers NCAA chances you could ask for--they played indifferently for long stretches of the game, had their best players have an off-night, had one of their best post guys (Jeremy Evans) in foul trouble the entire game ... and they still won without even breaking too much of a sweat. If they're on, yes, they could repeat last year's heroics.

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