March Madness is upon us. Every year, it’s a hoop fans’ dream. College basketball takes center stage over every other sport. Yes. Including baseball even though my Keeper League gets going soon with a Minor League Draft. Then the real thing in April.
Right now, the focus is on the NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball Tournament. Conference tournaments are wrapping up. Among the best were the epic between Notre Dame and Duke in the ACC Championship Game played at Barclays Center in Brooklyn. A terrific back and forth game that had everything.
Duke became the first team to ever win four games in four days to take the ACC Tournament. More impressively, it was how they did it and who they beat in the last three rounds. They came back first to beat Louisville in the quarters. Then mounted an unreal comeback to stun North Carolina in the semis. A game that changed thanks to Roy Williams leaving starting guard Joel Berry II in with three fouls early in the second half. He picked up number four and that swung the momentum. By the time he got back in over 10 minutes later, it was too late.
The Blue Devils are stacked. While everyone talks about cheap but effective two guard Grayson Allen, Luke Kennard and freshman future lottery pick Jayson Tatum are the best players on the team. Tatum and Kennard combined for 44 in a come from behind 93-83 win over their arch rival on Tobacco Road. So, what did Coach K’s team do for an encore? Only show more mental fortitude coming back against Mike Brey’s polished Notre Dame Fighting Irish 75-69.
Trailing throughout with Notre Dame power forward Bonzie Colson killing them inside and out with a game high 29 with nine rebounds, it looked they were finally out of gas with under 10 minutes left in the second half. The Irish were getting strong play also from V.J. Beacham, Matt Farrell and underrated guard Rex Pflueger. But the Blue Devils are never out of a game due to the game’s best coach. Mike Krzyzewski is so good at adjusting strategy.
Duke only goes about seven deep. But the talent and versatility they possess along with athleticism make them a legit candidate to win the national title. It didn’t happen right away for the preseason favorite. They struggled and finished fifth in the ACC. But with the development of Tatum combined with the strong outside shooting of Kennard and Allen, they are explosive. Tatum led them with 19 points and eight rebounds including a huge play in which he went coast to coast for a lay-in. He also went long for a put away off an in bounds finishing off a three-point play to end the game. Amile Jefferson did some good work inside scoring 14 on an efficient 7-of-8 shooting with three blocks. Matt Jones only had one basket but it was a money go-ahead trey off a nice set up in the final minute.
I am not a Blue Devils supporter. But I have the utmost respect for the program Coach K runs. I came away very impressed with Duke. The way they handled themselves in the face of adversity is what’s most impressive. They showed so much resiliency rallying against quality competition to pull out wins. They can score with anyone in the country. They’re well coached and execute. And they won’t miss free throws like what we saw with Arizona, who held off Oregon minus big shot blocker Chris Boucher to win the Pac 12 championship 83-80 in Las Vegas.
Speaking of the Pac 12, between the comical and always entertaining Bill Walton and ESPN sidekick Dave Pasch, they are so much fun. If you want laughs, then there’s no one better than Walton. He took on ESPN Bracketology ‘expert’ Joe Lunardi during the call when Mr. Looney Bin said Gonzaga is a 1 seed over the Arizona/Oregon winner. The exchange is priceless:
Walton must’ve used the Conference of Champions 100 times over the past 72 hours. It was pure comedy along with his classic tie dye Pac 12 t-shirts. One which quirky partner Pasch proudly sported during the final broadcast. Walton is so much fun. He doesn’t care about logic or statistical research. He cares about talent and players. No question the Pac 12 is a better conference than the West Coast Conference which the Zags dominated losing only once when BYU stunned them in Spokane 79-71 on Feb. 25. Otherwise, they’d be entering the NCAA Tournament a perfect 33-0. They ran through the WCC Tournament sweeping through Pacific, Santa Clara and St. Mary’s to finish the regular season 32-1.
It’s not like the Zags are pushovers. This is their best team. They placed five players in double digits and have quality wins over Iowa State and Arizona. It’s more a question is do they play enough quality opponents out of conference. The wins against the Cyclones and Wildcats came early as did a win over Florida. It’s not their fault they play in a weaker conference. They went out and beat who they were supposed to.
The question is is a 32-1 Gonzaga better than a 30-4 Arizona. That is a debate Walton was willing to have with Lunardi at least having the humor to have a UCLA football helmet present in studio as Walton was giving him the business. The Wildcats boast the uber talented Finnish four prospect Lauri Markkanen, who has a great touch from three and can score inside. He only took four shots making all four and didn’t shoot one three finishing with 11. Markkanen has shot up NBA Draft lists and probably will go in the top 10 assuming he leaves school.
Allonzo Trier is the emotional leader of Sean Miller’s Wildcats. He makes them go. A catalyst at both ends, Trier finished strong with 23 points, eight rebounds, three assists and hit on 10 of 11 from the charity stripe. He was money. Markkanen felt the pressure missing a pair of free throws late to give the Ducks a chance. He’s 84 percent from the line but went 3-of-6.
What makes Arizona tough is their size and athleticism. Chance Comache came off the bench for 10 hitting a key baseline jumper off a nice pass. Brooklyn’s Rawle Alkins contributed nine including a big trey from the key. A player St. John’s chased but didn’t land. Kadeem Allen had a strong night going 5-for-9 from the field with 13 points, seven rebounds and four assists. Miller has the ability to play eight which gives him enough options. They’ve been knocking on the door for a while. Maybe this is the year Arizona gets back to the Final Four.
As for Oregon, the Pac 12 regular season champs made it a game despite falling behind by as many as 14. They played scrappy and proved they are capable against anyone. Conference Player of The Year Dillon Brooks kept them in it during the first half with 16 of his 25 points. He certainly made a lot of big shots including three from downtown. It wasn’t until Tyler Dorsey, Jordan Bell and Dylan Ellis woke up in the second half that the Ducks chipped away at Arizona making it a game. Dorsey erupted for 23 including three triples but had a wild miss on a bad possession trailing by three that sealed their fate. Bell finished with a double double (16 and 10) and Ennis scored 12 to become the fourth Duck in double figures.
Ultimately, Arizona had enough of a cushion to hold on despite some nervous moments after misfiring from the line. Oregon showed a lot of grit without Boucher, whose loss was felt. That could impact their seed. They went 29-5 and deserve a 2 seed. But I could see them slipping to a 3 due to the committee. That would be a shame.
Villanova won the Big East Tournament at MSG pretty convincingly over Creighton 74-60. Led by tournament MVP Josh Hart’s 29 on 9-of-18 shooting including four treys and Jalen Brunson’s 17 points and five dimes, the defending champs will enter the tournament as the likely number one overall seed with a 31-3 record. The 31 victories are the most by a defending champ entering the Big Dance.
With Hart doing in Seton Hall in a two-point game they deserved to win with Jay Wright admitting such, he was even more dynamic along with Brunson, who slashed and dashed the Blue Jays while draining three treys on an efficient 5-for-7 from the field. Last year’s buzzer beater championship hero Kris Jenkins was better as expected scoring 14 including two from downtown on 6-of-13. The explosive and experienced trio combined for 60 of Villanova’s 74 or an identical amount to Creighton’s total of 60.
The Blue Jays were no match. Not even with freshman sensation Justin Patton, who did in Xavier in an electrifying semifinal won by daring teammate Marcus Foster. Patton was held to 10 points and five rebounds while fouling out. Foster had 13 and only made one three on five attempts. Cole Huff had 13.
The bottom line with Villanova is once they survived Seton Hall 55-53 in an old school drag it out Big East throwback, they weren’t gonna be denied. The Pirates showed a lot of fight. Angel Delgado had a clean look at a chippy but pushed it too hard watching as it went off the back iron and out. If he and former Lincoln star Desi Rodriguez are the focal points, that will open it up for sharpshooters Khadeen Carrington and Myles Powell to do some damage. They could be a tough out in the tournament. Hopefully, it’s not as an 8 or 9 seed.
Every conference tournament has been enjoyable. The Big Ten is tomorrow with Michigan probably having played itself in by making the championship game versus Wisconsin. But do they need one more win to secure their spot and burst the bubble of another team such as Syracuse, Wake Forest, California or Illinois State? We’ll see.
Kentucky is loaded and probably will beat Arkansas to win the SEC tournament. Led by the talented freshman class of future lottery picks De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk, they’re a handful. Fox and Monk can take over games at any moment while local Newark product Isaiah Briscoe also must be accounted for. When it comes to March, John Calipari’s Wildcats are always a threat.
It really should be an interesting Selection Sunday. Does Syracuse have nine lives? Or will their bubble burst? They made the Final Four last year with a better team. They went 18-14 and lost to St. John’s. It should be fun.