On an evening when the other three games were decided by an average of 24 points each and, anyway, the hoops world was being distracted Billy Gillispie's exit at Kentucky, Michigan State and Kansas managed to provide something last night that was both timely and unique: an excellent basketball game.
(2) Michigan State 67, (3) Kansas 62 [66 possessions]. The play of the evening took place a little before 11:30 p.m. Eastern, at cavernous Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. Michigan State and Kansas were playing for the chance to face overall one-seed Louisville in the Elite Eight. The game was tied at 60, less than a minute remained and the Spartans had the ball. In a coach's ultimate show of respect for his point guard, Tom Izzo called for a 1-4 set and put the ball in Kalin Lucas' hands.
Lucas was guarded by Sherron Collins, who, in the accelerated time lines of college basketball, has gone from Russell Robinson's youthful understudy to grizzled veteran in the span of a few short months. Collins glanced over both shoulders to check for any ball screens, but none such were forthcoming. It was just one-on-one hoops. Lucas drove Collins down into the lane and shot-faked. For reasons only he will ever be able to explain, Collins left his feet. Why? Beats me. Collins entered this game having played almost 1,200 minutes this season. His total number of shots blocked over that time? That would be zero. Nevertheless, he left his feet. Foul, swish, and one. The Spartans took a 63-60 lead and successfully navigated the last 48 seconds for the five-point win.
Give the Spartans credit. They closed this game on a 14-4 run on a night when Cole Aldrich effectively shut down the paint and MSU wasn't getting much from outside. How, then, did they score? Mostly with Goran Suton hovering effectively just on the edge of Aldrich Land, sticking some nice jumpers and even a three. Suton scored 20 and Lucas added 18. Kansas entered this game with the reputation as having the two-man offense, but last night Lucas and Suton looked a lot like the MSU version of Collins and Aldrich.
Speaking of Aldrich, he may not have big publicity, but I swear he has (well, had) the biggest shoulders in this tournament. He was able to deny the non-transition paint to the Spartans all night, while also taking care of the defensive glass. That was visually jarring, coming from a Michigan State opponent. On many nights it might even have been enough for a win.
Alas, KU absolutely hemorrhaged turnovers, most notably early in the second half. Giving the ball away 19 times in a game of average pace, like this one, means the Jayhawks committed a turnover on 29 percent of their possessions. It's no particular mark against Aldrich and Collins to say that the bulk of the turnovers were their doing. Of course they were--those are the two Jayhawks who handle the ball. (The coup de grace here came with a little more than a minute left, when Collins, laboring much too hard to preserve a play that Bill Self had diagrammed in a preceding timeout, tried to force the ball into Aldrich instead of taking what was available.) More than any other single factor, turnovers ended this team's defense of their national championship.
(1) Louisville 103, (12) Arizona 64 . In a Sweet 16 otherwise made up exclusively of high seeds, Louisville got lucky, drawing 12-seed Arizona as their opponent. The Cardinals should be rested and ready for Michigan State, having scored a confidence-inflating 1.48 points per trip against the Wildcats.
(2) Oklahoma 84, (3) Syracuse 71 . Even though I was on the record as thinking the Sooners would have no problem scoring against the Syracuse zone, I have to say I was really impressed with their offense in this game. Time after time Jeff Capel's team patiently carved up that zone with excellent ball movement. Future opponents of the Orangemen could do worse than study this tape--Oklahoma's execution was that good.
Of course, not every future opponent is going to have a player like Blake Griffin on their team. You could see that the zone was packed in pretty tight to account for Griffin's whereabouts at all times. That made his teammates more open but they still had to hit those shots. They did, to the tune of 9-for-21 three-point shooting. Give most of the credit there to Tony Crocker, who made 6-of-11 threes while scoring 28 points, all but overshadowing yet another ho-hum 30-14 double-double from Griffin.
(1) North Carolina 98, (4) Gonzaga 77 . This wasn't a good tournament for teams that put up glittering numbers outside the six "major" conferences. Memphis is the locus classicus here, of course, but teams like BYU and Utah also outscored their conference opponents by very healthy per-possession margins, only to look sickly while making early tournament exits.
Gonzaga's exit wasn't early, goodness knows, but they were pushed to the limit in the second round by Western Kentucky, a data point that did not bode well for a team about to face North Carolina. Tyler Hansbrough recorded a 24-10 double-double, while Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington had 19 points apiece.
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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