Monday, March 29, 2010

Cinderella to the Palace

The Butler Way is defined on the school's website as "teamwork, working hard, giving selflessly, having fun and making a difference."  Idyllic as it sounds, it's not difficult to see those qualities in those who play and coach on the Bulldog basketball team.

Giving selflessly: check. Guards Shelvin Mack and Ronald Nored average a combined 7 assists per game.

Working hard: check. Forward Gordon Hayward collects over 8 rebounds per game in spite of his lean physique (6'9", but only 207 pounds).

Having fun: check.  Head coach Brad Stevens is a willing supporter of showing a little spirit.

As for teamwork and working hard, you would have to be living in a doghouse to not have heard what these Bulldogs have accomplished.  Despite sharing their state with Larry Bird's alma mater, two Big Ten schools and Touchdown Jesus, Butler has built a program that has won its last 24 games in a row (leading the nation) and was ranked in the national Top 25 polls for most of the regular season.  The Bulldogs' small-time conference background (the Horizon League, formerly known as the home of Valparaiso and Bryce Drew), was proved irrelevant when they beat Big Ten champ Ohio State and Sweet 16 qualifer Xavier in back-to-back games in December.  Yet in spite of all they accomplished, Stevens' team still carried the underdog label all the way into March, the "liberal arts university" with only 4,000 students that was still more famous for its historic Hinkle Fieldhouse, the filming location of the sports cinema classic Hoosiers, than for its own team playing in that building.

In the space of 4 games and 11 days, the Bulldogs showed us again, like Davidson and George Mason before them, why this tournament is so much fun.  During the first weekend, they beat No. 12 seed UTEP in the opening round and downed No. 13 seed Murray State in the second round to propel them to their first Sweet 16 in 3 years.  Those wins were not hard to believe, but when senior forward Willie Veasley hit a 3-pointer and tipped in a Mack miss to give his team a six-point lead with under a minute to play against No. 1 seed Syracuse, people started talking.

What if?

It's a question that Stevens simply would not ponder during a wildly successful regular season, one that he managed to stave off until after the win over Murray State. Now that Butler had matched its highest threshold of success seen in this decade, why shouldn't he fantasize about how cool it would be to take out the No. 1 seed in their region?  What did they have to lose?
A minute later, the Bulldogs found themselves two halves of All-American basketball away from a Final Four berth.  Even more astounding was their timing: what are the chances that of all the arenas in the country, this year's host site happened to be Indianapolis, just five miles from their very own campus?  Might that have been extra motivation for their matchup against second-seeded Kansas State? 

Call it luck if you can't believe it.  Call it fate if you can't understand it.  Call it good basketball if you like, for that's what it really is.  Any way you slice it, the Butler Way shines through. At the end of an evening of stifling Bulldog defense, punctuated by two Nored steals in the last 30 seconds of Sunday's game against Frank Martin's Wildcats, you saw the Butler Bulldogs boarding a flight from Salt Lake City to Indianapolis with a West Regional trophy in hand.

It's not an original plot line, at least not in concept, but somehow, that doesn't make this journey any less exciting than the ones before it.  And it's not done yet.

To quote a younger Gus Johnson: "The slipper still fits!"

Mountaineering With a Vengeance
What was it like to watch Kentucky's debacle with West Virginia on Saturday night in a Memphis restaurant? (Shout out to Central BBQ!)

I'll tell you. Righteous euphoria, the kind you haven't seen since Shaq nanny-nanny-boo-booed Kobe by winning the NBA crown with Miami in '06.  In a well-occupied dining area dominated by a projection screen TV, the enthusiasm with which Memphians cheered on the Mountaineers proved just how much hate and hurt was left over from the Calipari era.  Every time Cal appeared on screen, boos and jeers echoed from almost every booth and table, and when West Virginia pulled ahead near the end of the game, there was almost a standing ovation, cheers that didn't celebrate Bob Huggins' crew as much as they applauded Calipari's demise.

Had the John Wall and Wildcats made the Final Four, it would have been a crushing blow for a city that was unfairly stripped of all its basketball success because of one man's transgressions, but thankfully, justice was served, at least for this year. (Watch out Kentucky. I've said it once already - you make the bed you lie in.)  I hope I get to see the same level of enthusiasm for a successful Josh Pastner-led Tigers' squad sometime before I graduate, and my gut says it will be sooner rather than later.  Can't wait.

Spartan Resilience
Michigan State's bid to Indianapolis marked Tom Izzo's sixth trip the Final Four in twelve seasons. My question is, does that really surprise anyone? The guy's only been doing this for fifteen years straight - drawing in a solid group of recruits, teaching them to rebound and play hard-nosed blue-collar basketball in one of the best facilities in America and eventually pushing them to be 20+ win teams.  In his tenure, Izzo has yet to go a full four years without making the Final Four.  That means every recruit signed by Izzo that has continued to play basketball all four years and matriculated academically through his senior year has played in the Final Four.  I don't see how anyone can turn down an opportunity like that.  So, uh, if I all-but-guaranteed you a spot in the Final Four a year or two from now, would you take it?  The real question is why you wouldn't take it.  How man people can say they've played in the Final Four? Not many that I know.  I'm surprised high schoolers haven't started camping outside HIS house, Cameron Crazies-style, just to be able to show him their face.  He's the one with all the talent (pun intended).

As you might have guessed, I'm rooting for whoever wins the Butler-MSU game.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Hurtin' in the Home of the Terrapin

 It still hurts.

If you didn't see Maryland's devastating 85-83 defeat against Michigan State on Sunday, then I know your pain.  I was on a plane when the game ended, and having seen the halftime score, reading the final tally in a text message when we landed was like taking a big gulp of a drink too strongly mixed.  Would I rather see us lose by 8 or 10? No. Hell no. The effort they made in that comeback was worthy of a win. I see where Mike Wise is coming from with the whole "fitting end to an up-and-down career" for the seniors, but poetic justice only goes so far, and I'm not satisfied with that loss.  They deserved better. Vasquez worked especially hard to be the player and floor leader that he showed he was on Sunday (26 pts, 8 assists, 4 rebounds, 3 steals against the Spartans), and for him to go out like that . . . nuh uh. Not a worthy send-off.  I wouldn't care as much if they lost in the Sweet 16, but to not even make it to the second weekend is pretty weak.  It's crummy for Hayes and Milbourne, too, one seriously under-appreciated and the other grossly overshadowed by his backcourt despite having been forced to play out of position for 3 years.  Wise is right that an era of Maryland basketball is ending, just as it did with the graduations of Juan Dixon and Steve Blake, but it sure isn't the ending we wanted.

So what do the Terps have to write home about for this season? They have an ACC championship shared with Duke that was made possible by a signature home win on national television against a team they hate. They are fortunate enough to have had the ACC Player and ACC Coach of the Year.  They won seven in a row to end the season and rallied from halftime deficits for road wins at Florida State, NC State and Virginia Tech in February.  Shoot, there was even a thrilling buzzer-beater finish at home to slay Georgia Tech.  We saw the emergence of a Lonny Baxter-like low post figure in Jordan Williams, something Gary's been missing for years.  None of this even mentions the solid class of recruits slated to arrive in '10.  The future looks bright.

Most of all, these Terps didn't turtle.  They didn't falter after a loss to William & Mary.  They didn't succumb to pity after an embarrassing loss in Durham.  They didn't bring the disappointment of their ACC tournament exit with them on the plane to Spokane.  And staring at a 15-point deficit with less than nine minutes remaining in their tournament life, they clawed and scratched and fouled and swished and stole their way back into the lead after playing their hearts out for 99.75% of the game.  The soul-crushing .25% of the game that remained drove a spike through my chest the size of Vasquez's hair gel bottle, but in no way could I have asked any more from those guys than what they had already given.  Milbourne's pose in the post-buzzer photos speaks to that: hands on the sides of the head, completely (forgive the pun) shellshocked, having no idea what else could have been done to win that game.

Nothin' left to do, Landon.  Y'all gave it your best shot. Sometimes you trick the bull, but sometimes the bull gores you.


Now, having given the Terps their due, I'll try to settle up my bracket. Red indicates airballs, yellow is bricks, and green means count it.

  • Montana led at the half, but the No. 14 Grizzlies couldn't hold off No. 3 seed New Mexico (half credit for saying they would win 1 game).  Anthony Johnson, hero of the comeback against Weber State, went 1-for-12 from the field and missed all four of his 3-point attempts, amassing a lowly six points.  Here's a shocker - averaging 19 PPG in the Big Sky conference is not quite as applicable to the NCAA tournament as you might think! (Springs, you dummy, a kitten could have picked that right!) Yeah, well, no tears shed. Long shots are just that.
  • Oklahoma State point man James Anderson shot 0-for-6 from deep and 3-for-12 inside the arc for a total of 11 points (hang on, there's not a patten here, is there?) in a pillow fight loss to Georgia Tech in which nobody scored more than 14 points.  Disappointing, dude, especially when my buddy A-Dick claims you're a good guy.  I guess it didn't help that the Pokes got outrebounded by 11. That Lawal-Favors combination can getcha, I know. But you forgot. Rule #72: No excuses, play like a champion.
  • UTEP started strong but ultimately underwhelmed a Butler team (jury's still out) I thought to be very beatable.  Derrick Caracter showed well (20 points, 9 boards, 10-13 shooting), but I think the Miners fell victim to their lack of depth in losing a six-point halftime lead. Memphis, where are you?! (Oh, you lost to Ole Miss in the NIT did you? Nice work guys. Yeesh.
  • The fact that I upchucked violently on St. Patrick's Day after one drink (don't ask) was not a good sign for Notre Dame.  When you play on the low block and average a double-double in the Big East for most of the regular season, it's not okay to lay an egg in the first round game of a tournament which you need to dominate in order to have a chance of being looked at by NBA scouts.  Regardless of Tory Jackson's 2-for-11/1-for-7 performance while playing all 40 minutes, Luke Harangody's 2-of-9 shooting performance and 3 personal fouls doomed the Irish as sure as Mike Brey's blazer-and-turtleneck combination cost him 3.1 dates per year in college.  See if I ever pick the Irish to the Elite 8 again (highly improbable unless my next bowl of Lucky Charms turns into a pot of gold).
  • Cal beat Louisvile on the backs of their threesome (Randle, Christopher, Robinson), but the Golden Bears were overwhelmed by Duke's threesome (Smith, Singler, Scheyer). Imitation is a sincere form of flattery, but that doesn't mean it will get you places.
  • BYU continues to fall short for me.  I said they had the best chance to win the MWC and get a No. 3 seed. They didn't. I said Jimmer would be the gas for their Sweet 16 go-cart, and they puttered out.  Fredette scored 21 against Kansas State, one point below his season average, but his 38% shooting from the field was sub-par when the Cougars needed an all-star.  He may have just secured a spot as one of the 15% of BYU students who aren't married by the time they graduate.
  • Gonzaga didn't make the second weekend; still, Mark Few continues to receive (and decline) high-profile job offers.  I admire his loyalty, but he better take his team places soon before people begin writing him off (shoot, I already started).
  • Cornell knocked off Temple and Wisconsin, proving they are stil the upset-minded team that almost took down Kansas earlier in the year (foreshadowing a future Kansas loss to a mid-major).  I'm excited to see the Big Red in the mix and I'll be pulling hard for them against Kentucky.  Look for Louis Dale to make some noise - he's an Alabama native, and they don't take kindly to SEC foe.
  • West Virginia and St. Mary's are both doing well, particularly the Gaels who stunned No. 2 seed Villanova in a Big East arena on the broad shoulders of Omar Samhan (32 points, 7 rebounds).  West Virginia should make the Elite 8, and I wouldn't be surprised if Samhan and Co. does as well - Baylor and Washington are both beatable teams.
Picks for The Second Weekend
I'm still going off of my original bracket, and my Final Four remains intact as of right now (Ohio State, Syracuse, Duke and Kentucky, with 'Cuse beating Duke in the final).

  • Pitt beats Kansas State and 'Cuse tops Butler to set up an all-Big East regional in the West, which the Orange win.  Arinze Onuaku should try to play against Pitt, but I think Wesley Johnson can carry the load against the Bulldogs.
  • Ohio State bests Tennessee and faces whoever dares step on the court (I picked Kansas - oops).  UNI vs. Sparty will be fun to watch, but neither one will take down the Buckeyes on Sunday (although Michigan State would be the greater challenge).
  • West Virginia beats an over-matched Washington team and Kentucky manages to barely stifle a tough Cornell team, and the 'Cats squeak by again in the regional.  Realistically, I can see a UK-WVU matchup going either way.
  • Duke ends Purdue's chip-on-the-shoulder power trip with a dominating performance from Kyle Singler which can't be matched due to the absence of Singler's foil, Robbie Hummel.  I'll go out on a limb and say St. Mary's beats Baylor (I took 'Nova) - I really think they have it in them, and that would set up the ultimate mid-major-vs.-juggernaut rivalry, a fiesta for underdog sympathizers of all ages. Duke wins.
  • I'd love to see Cornell beat Kentucky, even if they get no further (although a Final Four berth that goes went through John Calipari AND Bob Huggins would be insanely cool). It's a simple good-over-evil, straight-over-sleazy fantasy for fans dealing with the ethical dilemmas of modern recruiting, one-and-done prospects and special player privileges.
  • It would be awesome to see UNI Farokhmanesh the daylights out of Michigan State (yeah, I said it), but secretly I'll be waiving a small Sparty flag for Tom Izzo. He does things by the book, and he doesn't take himself too seriously. Gotta love it.  
  • I hope Chris Kramer and Purdue stick it to the Devils, even if that busts my bracket. They have a much better shot than any other team Duke will face except maybe Syracuse.  If Baylor wins the other game (which I wouldn't mind seeing) and Purdue somehow gets by, I would be glued to the TV just as much for Tweety Carter, LaceDarius Dunn and E'twuan Moore as I would be for a Duke-St. Mary's matchup. Those are the best two possibilities in that region.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Drop on the Draw

It is THE most wonderful time of the year. And I'm missing it.

Yes, we've arrived at March once again and all the wild college basketball games that go with it.  Sadly, I'm going to be out of the country for rounds 1 and 2. At this point, you're surely asking yourself if Springs has gone off the deep end; I myself will certainly feel that way on Sunday and all next week.  An island village in Costa Rica, however, is a locale rarely available to the average college student, so I lunged at the chance.  Given that I don't think I'll have access to an international phone, I'm giving my picks to the gracious twin, who has promised that he will submit them on my behalf.  Given that I'm going into Selection Sunday with a significant level of blindness, I'll have craft a gameplan based on seedings and my opinions of already all-but-in teams.  Without further ado...
  • There will be at least two No. 1 seeds in the Final Four. Science, logic, duh.
  • At least one No. 10 seed will beat a No. 7. Again, pure science, aka the completely unquantifiable feeling in my gut.
  • Maryland will make the Sweet 16. I believe they have the potential to reach the Elite 8, but I'm not getting my hopes up. However, anything less than the second weekend will be serious blueballing of a very unfair variety.  Oh, and no other ACC team will make the second weekend, aside from Duke (and they may not even make it).
  • UTEP will make the Sweet 16. Five players average double-digit point totals.  Randy Culpepper is silly athletic, and Louisville transfer Derrick Caracter is a solid inside presence.  Imagine if you had him in the frontcourt together with a guy like Samardo Samuels. Doesn't that sound great? Hey, wait a second. . . . .
  • If Montana gets a No. 14 seed or better, it will pull the upset.  Anthony Johnson went off the map to beat Weber State, and I believe he can do it again.
  • Calipari hasn't won a championship yet, and he won't do it with this crew. (Even if he does, it's just gonna get investigated and forefeited 3 years from now, right? Sorry UK - you make the bed you lie in.) And for good measure, Duke won't win either.
  • Oklahoma State will win its first round game. James Anderson has Stephen Curry-like potential (no one can truly replicate '08, but people will come close), and I can see the Pokes possibly getting to the Elite 8 on his back, but an early KO by K-State in the Big XII tournament didn't help their confidence.
  • California is better than people say. Randle, Christopher and Robinson will show up. They will win their first game.
  • Notre Dame makes the Sweet 16 if it gets better than a No. 7 seed (i.e. No. 6 or No. 5); if not, they might be one-and-done.
  • BYU gets to the Sweet 16 on the basis of good shooting and the fact that every announcer has to love saying "Jimmer" 20 times a game. He's gotta be around at least 3 games!
  • New Mexico will win its first round game. Beyond that, I have no idea. Lack of size has hurt Maryland in past years, but to win 25+ games with two 6'8" guys down low is some brand of amazing. We'll have to see how it goes.
  • Butler and Gonzaga go no further than the sweet 16, if that far. Biggest mid-major teases of all time.
  • Ohio State will make the Final Four. I don't remember the last time I saw confidence like that which Evan Turner displays. He's Greivis Vasquez on steroids, or Greivis is the poor man's Turner. Whichever you prefer. I like the former.
  • West Virginia's hot. Da'Sean Butler probably makes another buzzer beater before people realize they have to cover him. Hello, Sweet 16, how do you do.
  • Cornell is my other waffle team with New Mexico. They hit a ridiculous number of 3-pointers the other night to win the Ivy League. That kind of thing is also extremely hit-or-miss on any given night. They're capable of winning on Thursday/Friday, but it's less likely that they'll do so on Saturday/Sunday. I don't know what to do with them.
  • Saint Mary's will usurp Gonzaga's place as best WCC team - they will make the Sweet 16, and should keep the third game competitive to the end.
To all y'all competing bracketeers: best o' luck. The Madness begins. Here's hoping that if you must get busted, it will be memorable.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Maryland-Duke Retro Diary: Reliving the Shootout

If you’re like me, you’re still living in the past, that being Maryland’s thrilling upset of No. 4 Duke last Wednesday night and their subsequent share of the regular season ACC title. Hungry for some more celebratory Terps stories? Then sit down, read on, and enjoy these next few minutes.  On the eve of the ACC Tournament, I present to you the grossly informal and somewhat lengthy game log that I wrote during last week's contest in College Park. This is what the view looks like from the mountaintop.

Moments before tip-off

Oh man this crowd is loud! The seats are just a wave of pulsing gold all the way up to the roof behind the basket. I feel like I’m on Danny Glover’s toilet in Lethal Weapon 2. This is intense!

Maryland wins the tip, and Eric Hayes starts the scoring with a floater.
We’re on the board! The student section is bouncing off the ceiling right now.

Duke misses their first two threes.
Promising opening. Maybe they won’t hit one all night.

19:02 Greivis Vasquez takes a bad shot and reminds us he can still be the same idiot who called out John Calipari’s Memphis squad before their matchup in last year’s tournament. If you don’t remember how that went down, good.

18:45 Kyle Singler gets blocked by Jordan Williams. Nice. That’s a tone-setter. This kid is really something for a freshman. He’s almost averaging a double-double on the season (9 points, 8 boards), and he’s reached double digit points or rebounds (or both) in each of the last 5 games.

17:46 Jon Scheyer misses an open 3. Is that his 2nd miss in a row? That’s lucky.

16:09 TV TIMEOUT MD 10-2
This is a conspiracy! The refs stopped the game to fix the nets right when we have all the momentum. Unbelievable. Maryland always catches these bad breaks when they’re doing well. I’m steaming like a blue crab. Let’s go!

Singler hits a long 3 right out of the timeout. Hear that? It sounds like the air slowly beginning to trickle out of the Terps’ balloon.

15:04 Hayes with a reverse baseline layup. There we go! Good pass underneath, Greivis.

14:32 Nolan Smith misses at the other end. Rebound Sean Mosley, Terps on the break with numbers. What if I hit the pause button on the Tivo right now? Wouldn’t that suck? Watching it in slow motion might be even worse. . .
Vasquez flips a no-look pass to Williams for the dunk over Scheyer. And 1.
BOOM! Seriously thunderous. He is a steamroller of a man. That’s poster-worthy. Scheyer flopped like a wet noodle; he may have to change his shorts. Williams hits the free throw - off the glass, for good measure. How late is the bank open on Wednesdays?

13:28 Another breakaway. Cliff Tucker gets the putback off the initial miss. We’re running a good transition game so far!

11:43 TV Timeout MD 21-8
By the way, what’s with the patterning on Duke’s jerseys? Very weird. (Apparently it’s supposed to look like the Gothic architecture on Duke’s campus.) Didn’t think Coach K would go for that; then again, it may not have been his call.  Money talks, but Nike money screams like a Scheyer-faced banshee.

8:34 Brian Zoubek takes a charge on Vasquez? C’mon! There’s no way he set his feet!

8:21 Singler travels. ‘Bout time they called that.

8:10 Zoubek called for the foul. That’s 6 on each team.

7:31 Zoubek gets a putback from an offensive rebound that Gregory should’ve had. Guys, we can’t do that! We may win in spite of his play, but let’s try not to let him dominate like he did in Durham (16 points, 17 rebounds).

6:50 Zoubek grabs another board put misses the tip and comes down holding his hand like he jammed a finger. What a puss.

6:42 Hayes hits from deep!
Duke timeout, MD leads 30-19
I don’t like this. Zoubek was way too involved in the last 4 minutes. I won’t wish an injury on anyone, but I’m not gonna complain if he stays out. . .
The replay shows Zoubek’s hand in more detail. Wow, that finger is really crooked. Dislocated. That actually hurts.

6:22 Airball by Smith. He’s gonna hear that all night. Let’s not forget that this crowd once took verbal shots at J.J. Redick’s younger sister. Compared to that, Smith should be happy that he’s being hounded with “AIIIIIIIIIIIIR-BAAAAAAAAAAAALL” calls.

5:53 What’s a Plumlee brother doing hitting a 3? That isn’t in the scouting report. Duke still down by 11.

3:24 Hayes with an overhead soccer-style pass from near midcourt thru traffic to Mosley at the baseline. He’ll shoot 2. Nice dish, dude! That had some mustard on it. TV timeout, MD 36-26
Mosley hits both, exits for Vasquez.

3:10 Singler for 3. Rats.
Is Duke playing a zone defense? Since when do they do that?

2:35 Hayes cuts backdoor, feeds Williams underneath. If Hayes has a signature move, it’s a flawless backdoor cut and a stroke from outside. Pete Carril, are you listening? This kid’s perfect for Princeton!

2:09 Hayes misses a 3. Zoubek’s back and looks awkward.
1:44 Zoubek called for the offensive foul! Two on him, Scheyer and Thomas.

1:11 Smith hits a 3. Timeout Maryland. The lead is five, 40-35.

0:41 Scheyer hits a 3 from the corner. $#!+@%&. Duke within 2.
Duke is still in the 1-2-2 or 3-2, can’t tell which. We’re holding for the last shot.

0:02 Mosley airballs AND it’s a shotclock violation. They’re gonna Give duke the ball. Great. Just peachy. The fans messed him up on that one - they were a second ahead of the actual clock in their verbal countdown. Come on y’all!

Maryland 40, Duke 38
We’re up, and that’s good, but the mo’ is slipping a little. We have to come out strong in the 2nd 20. MD shot roughly 50 percent from the field and 40 percent from 3 in the first half. Everybody on Duke had at least one foul, too. So far, we’re taking care of business. Don’t let up!
FSU beat Wake tonight, which can only help the Terps even though Georgia Tech lost to Clemson last night. 19 Wake turnovers and no points for Al-Farouq Aminu. Yikes.

Duke gets the first 2 baskets. Ughhh.

Blue Devils are back to playing man to man. Vasquez hits a floater to start the MD scoring.

18:15 Singler blocked by Landon Milbourne, but Smith steals it away from Hayes. Their ball. Duke timeout, tied 42-42. We haven’t heard a lot out of Milbourne tonight. As a senior playing in his final home game, I suspect we will soon.

Singler scores, and Duke has their first lead of the night at 44-42.

Offensive foul on Smith. Good work Mosley! He’s been matched up on Singler (giving up 4 inches in height) all night and has done a solid job guarding him so far. Very underrated as a defender.

16:23 Zoubek rebounds a Scheyer miss. We gotta find a way to keep him neutral.
16:05 Another Zoubek rebound, this one from a Singler miss. Aaaaaah!

15:55 TV timeout. Duke 46, MD 44. This is not the fast start that we wanted to have coming back out of the locker room.

15:00 3 straight offensive rebounds for Duke. Guess who? Singler, Singler, Zoubek. Finally a foul is called on them. We just can’t keep letting them do that.

14:40 Vasquez airballs from outside. We are not strong right now. Maryland has only 4 points in six 2nd-half minutes.

14:05 Baseline skyhook off the glass for Williams. And 1! Tied again, 47-47.

12:40 Adrian Bowie steals the inbounds pass from Scheyer, fastbreaks the other way and puts in a lefty scoop shot after switching hands in the air. Sweetness! Are those his first points of the night? You betcha.

12:10 Tucker feeds a driving Milbourne for a one-handed slam! Oh baby that was big! The student section is bananas right now.

11:00 Duke timeout. Terps up by 6, 54-49. Zombie Nation on the loudspeakers, gold shirts bouncin’ – now THIS is Terrapin Basketball!
Vasquez goes to the bench. Gary’s resting him for the final push.

9:11 Smith hits the lean-in jumper and 1. Tied at 54. Vasquez, Hayes and Williams return to the floor. Here we go, boys!
8:39 Smith draws another foul on the drive, no basket. He misses.

8:04 Smith hits the teardrop.

7:51 Timeout MD. Duke leads 56-54. Smith has scored the last 7 for Duke.

7:43 Vasquez draws contact from Smith. He hits both free throws. Tie game. MD runs full court press, but Duke navigates it well. Devils outrebounding the Terps 12-7 on the offensive glass thus far.

6:25 Singler draws the foul on the drive. Timeout Maryland. Duke leads 59-58.
He misses the first, makes the second.

5:58 Mosley to Hayes on a great backdoor cut! He is SO good at that.

3:42 Vasquez runner off the glass! They Terps have lassoed back the lead, 67-65. Timeout Duke.

2:25 Hayes cuts to the basket and gets the friendly home-court roll .

1:09 Smith and Scheyer both miss chances at 3. Rebound Vasquez, who moves the ball slowly into the offensive half. MD up 71-69.

0:39 Vasquez takes Scheyer off the dribble from outside the arc. He drives diagonally, crossing the lane and throwing up an absurd circus-shot runner from the far side with basically no shooting angle at all. It bounces up off the iron and goes down.

MD 73, Duke 69

About half a second later, I lost it.

Regardless of your allegiance as a fan, that shot ignited either raw exhilaration or throw-up-your-hands-in-frustration incredulity. Given the circumstances, it could be considered as a legitimate candidate for Clutch Shot of the Year; in some cases, the game itself has been dubbed as the year's best, due in large part to that play. In fact, that play may have sealed Vasquez's bid for ACC Player of the Year, since Scheyer was the one defending him. In her post-game column on Vasquez, ESPN’s Dana O’Neil described the shot as “sensationally insane,” a “how-in-the-world-did-that-go-in, off-balance, back-footed jumper from deep in the corner” that was, by all accounts, “vintage Vasquez.” In his SportsCenter highlight call, Stuart Scott used just three words (as only Stu can): “Greivis. Vasquez. Ri-DIC-ulous.”

After that, it was a matter of fouls and howls. The game was won there on that play. Of course, that didn’t stop me from worrying through the last 39 seconds, but once it was done, I was so pumped that I couldn’t go to bed for a whole 3 hours. We had beaten Duke, and we had done so in much the same way I had suggested prior to the game.

FINAL: Maryland 79, Duke 72
Nice work, fellas. Let's see if we can't do it again in the ACC tourney. Woo!

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Maryland-Duke: A Plan for the Terps to Take Control of the ACC

These days, there are only two things that even begin to rival the hatred that Maryland students have for Duke University.  One of them is the ridiculous amount of snow left over from recent storms that absolutely refuses to melt.  The other? Mid-term exams.

As you might have guessed by now, the Blue Devils (25-4, 12-2 ACC) are Public Enemy No. 1 this week, and will surely be the center of attention on Wednesday night as they take on the Terrapins (21-7, 11-3 ACC) in College Park with the ACC title and their Top 5 national ranking hanging in the balance.  The Terps lost 77-56 in their first meeting with Coach K's kids in Durham on February 13, but they rebounded from that loss surprisingly well.

The Terps proceeded to win five in a row after the loss, including victories over conference heel-nippers Georgia Tech (on a buzzer beater, no less) and Clemson at home, and Virginia Tech in Blacksburg (in double overtime).  Since the loss at Duke, Maryland has shot 48% from the field and nearly 45% from behind the arc; they have also rallied from deficits of 10 (on the road at NC State) and 15 (against Clemson) to close out two 9-point wins, which speaks to their resilience, perseverance and ability to make adjustments at halftime.
In order to win, they will have to out-shoot the Blue Devils and get them foul trouble in order to put pressure on Duke's shallow bench.

In Duke's last two losses (all four have come on the road, by the way), their opponents (NC State and Georgetown) have shot a laser-like 58% and 71% respectively from the floor, though neither opponent won the rebound battle.  The Blue Devil starters compiled 32 fouls over those two games, an average of 16 per game or just more than 3 per player.  Drawing contact may not keep Duke's best three players off the floor (Nolan Smith, Kyle Singler and Jon Scheyer each average over 17 points and 35 minutes per game), but it will make them play more carefully on defense, which can allow Maryland to be more physical and aggressive on offense.

The knocks on the Terrapins are that they don't have the size to hang with the Blue Devils on the inside, and they can't keep the Big Three from doing significant damage.  It's true that 7-footer Brian Zoubek mauled the Terps inside (16 points, 17 rebounds) in the last meeting. It's also true that Scheyer, Singler and Smith combined for nearly 60% of Duke's points on February 13.

The fact is, if Maryland is lights-out from the floor, none of that will matter.  NC State lost the rebound battle by 15 (no player had more than five) and they won the game by 14.  Georgetown let the Triplets rack up 54 points (70% of Duke's scoring) and won by 12.

This game can be had.  For the Terrapins, it's hit or miss.  If they can take this game and beat Virginia on Saturday, the Terps will be rooting hard for North Carolina to pull the upset against their familiar Tobacco Road foes.  A Tar Heels win would have Maryland take home the regular season crown.