Viewed strictly according to the final scores, yesterday's Elite Eight games were the least competitive of the bunch. That may be, but yesterday also featured the biggest surprise of the weekend, albeit one that perhaps shouldn't have come as a total shock after all.
(2) Michigan State 64, (1) Louisville 52 [56 possessions]. Michigan State was not exactly feared coming into this game. This year, they lost at home to Northwestern and Penn State. They'd advanced to the Elite Eight by winning two close games: one against a 10-seed (USC), the other against an achingly young Kansas team.
All true. Then again, Louisville's own status as the overall one-seed was, from the very beginning, paradoxical. For a team given such a lofty honor, they really hadn't shown they could score points consistently against non-Arizona defenses. Indeed, this was merely the Big East's eighth-best offense this year.
That turned out to be the material point, for Louisville simply couldn't score in the second half of this game. The Spartans were so successful in locking the Cardinals into a half-court straitjacket that just 25 possessions were played after the intermission. Michigan State is better than any defense Rick Pitino's team faced in the Big East because, quite simply, the Cardinals never had to play themselves.
Coming out of halftime Pitino pretty clearly decided his team could get some things going with Earl Clark, whether he was being guarded by Delvon Roe or Draymond Green. Clark was therefore spotting up on the right wing; when fed the ball he'd invariably drive into the paint with his left hand. Who knows, maybe that would have worked. The Cardinals, however, needed contributions from players besides Clark, specifically Terrence Williams and Samardo Samuels. It didn't happen. Williams was just 1-of-7 from the field, but he was a regular Stephen Curry next to Samuels, who went scoreless over 22 minutes before being yanked for good by Pitino with just under seven minutes remaining.
The game was won for the Spartans over a 15-minute span in the second half starting with the under-16 timeout, at which point Louisville led 34-32. Over their next 18 possessions, however, the Cardinals scored just 15 points, at the end of which time Izzo had put in his HVC's (human victory cigars: Tom Herzog, Austin Thornton, et al.). This second half domination was truly a collective effort, thought perhaps Green and Durrell Summers were particularly prominent in their rebounding and shot-making, respectively.
In the first half, conversely, the hero was plainly Goran Suton. His line at halftime read as follows: 17 points on 7-of-10 shooting. The remarkable thing to me about this performance, however, was that it didn't feel remarkable. It was wholly consistent with and presaged by the growth I've seen from Suton over four years.
Speaking of which, Suton's continued total invisibility on mock draft boards baffles me. He's 6'10", 245. He's shown he has three-point range and is a skilled passer, which of course fits the profile. (He's European!) On the other hand he's proven to be a robust banger on the boards at both ends of the floor, which does not fit the profile. (He's European!) Keep in mind that, if anything, Suton's very good offensive and defensive rebounding percentages are actually depressed significantly by having to play alongside Tom Izzo's usual roster full of ferocious glass-eaters. Put this same player on Villanova and watch those numbers shoot up.
Here is a case, surely, where if Suton had merely stayed in Europe, he would today have the cloak of relative mystery which the next level seems to prefer with players from the Continent. If Suton had an exotic "(Bosnia & Herzegovina)" next to his name instead of the rather more prosaic "(Sr., Michigan State)" there is not a doubt in my mind that he would today be projected as a late first-round pick. Or, more likely, he would have been drafted late in the first round last year or two years ago.
(1) North Carolina 72, (2) Oklahoma 60 .. Ty Lawson is healthy and three other teams headed to Detroit should be concerned.
Where every other Final Four team had to sweat at least a little to get to Motown, North Carolina blew through their bracket outscoring opponents by 0.30 points per trip. Even the 12-point win against the Sooners was deceiving, 12 points being OU's nearest approach to UNC at any point over the game's last 14 minutes.
This is the best offense you'll see in Detroit. That doesn't mean Carolina is a sure thing to win it all, of course, but it does mean they have a proven method to do it: score more points than the other guys.
That method worked quite well yesterday. Lawson was Lawson, scoring 19 points with five assists and one turnover. The Heel for which the Sooners had no answer, however, was Danny Green, who scored 18 points on just nine shots by hovering on the periphery of the Hansbrough/Griffin scrum, watching patiently for his opportunities, then draining yet another shot.
For Oklahoma, Blake Griffin recorded a 23-16 double-double on 9-of-12 shooting from the floor, but his teammates were a combined 15-of-42. Willie Warren scored 18 points but needed 16 shots to do so. That being said, the freshman at least went down with his guns blazing, which is more than can be said for his seemingly overawed teammates. Whether Warren enters the draft this year or next, he will plainly be a force to be reckoned with in the NBA.
Watching this game, I was again reminded of how the perception of this North Carolina team, which by now we should all know so well (the Lawson/Green/Hansbrough nucleus has now advanced to three consecutive Elite Eights and two consecutive Final Fours), is still somewhat misunderstood. Fans and even announcers still talk about this team as if Hansbrough has to score 20 points for his team to have a chance. Plainly that is not the case, as Psycho T scored just eight yesterday in a game in which his team was never seriously challenged.
Hansbrough is not your ordinary national Player of the Year. Blake Griffin is your ordinary national Player of the Year: if he's held in check his team is in trouble. (Yesterday Griffin was not held in check but his team was in trouble anyway.) Hansbrough, conversely, is an outstanding player blessed with outstanding teammates, one of whom, by the way, happens to be the 2009 ACC Player of the Year. The most lethal arrow in Hansbrough's quiver is getting to the line, a skill that tends to be somewhat less potent in March, when, Missouri vs. Memphis notwithstanding, whistles are more often swallowed than blown.
To which Roy Williams would rightly reply: No problem. Even if he's not getting to the line, Hansbrough is still a tightly-wound ball of blue-clad fury on the low block, one who's shown increasing range on his shot and absorbs a tremendous amount of attention from opposing defenses--attention which creates the open space in which Lawson, Green, Wayne Ellington and Deon Thompson all thrive so efficiently.
In this case, at least, the traditional "Star and Team" label, as in "Tyler Hansbrough and North Carolina," conceals more than it explains.
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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