Duke’s getting scary good at perfect time & Wichita St. over Kansas was no upset
The first weekend is the weekend of fun. We get wacky stories like the coach with the torn Achilles tendon who fell of his chair when his son hit the buzzer-beater, or the coach who phoned up Jesus Christ to find a game plan to beat Kentucky. Unless you’re a diehard fan of the 52 tournament teams who have bowed out, you had a blast the first weekend.
The second weekend is when things get serious.
An appearance in the NCAA tournament is one thing, but hey, lots of not-so-great basketball teams get into March Madness. The Sweet 16, however, is validation. You’re not just in the Big Dance; you’re really dancing. We can whittle down the chaos of the first weekend to a more manageable 16 teams, and we can really focus on them, picking apart their basketball skills and their storylines.
But before we turn ahead, let’s look back at the final day of a first weekend that had its share of madness to go with its share of predictability.
1. Duke is putting everything together at the right time. When the Blue Devils play like they did on Sunday against San Diego State, I’d call them the best non-Kentucky team in the country. Against the nation’s fourth-ranked defense, Jahlil Okafor had 26 points, six rebounds and, perhaps most surprisingly, three blocks. Justise Winslow had a double-double. We all know what that talented backcourt can do when the 3’s are falling. Those January stumbles that had people worrying about Duke are so far behind this team.
2. If anyone had doubts Jahlil Okafor will be the consensus No. 1 pick in the next NBA Draft, I hope they watched him Sunday. I feel like we’ve all put Okafor in a box as the best offensive post player in a generation. On Sunday, he proved he is much, much more than that. He scored on the block with his mind-bending moves as he always does. But he also scored in transition, and he scored driving from the perimeter, and he passed out of double-teams. I remember watching this kid in high school, bringing the ball up the court like a point guard, dribbling between his legs, nailing 3’s. It didn’t seem fair. As a kid, Okafor spent untold hours with his father, studying tape of players like Hakeem Olajuwon, Tim Duncan, Shaquille O’Neal. That’s why we look at him operate near the basket and wonder how in the world he’s only 19 years old. But on Sunday he reminded us there’s more to his game than just back-to-the-basket. I thirst for a Duke-Kentucky final this year because I’d love to see Kentucky’s wall of 7-footers against Okafor.
3. This might be the last time I get to talk about the Dayton Flyers. So I’d like to heap a final bit of praise on this program and the Dayton’s Flyers’ season. Look: I voted for John Calipari as Coach of the Year. To vote for anyone other than Calipari is silly, because recruiting is part of coaching, and managing egos is part of coaching, and no one has done a more impressive job of both of those things than Cal. Also, he’s chasing history. But if you look at the set of difficult circumstances a coach was given during his season, no one has done a better job than Archie Miller and his Flyers, who lost a close one to Oklahoma on Sunday. The quick recap: Miller’s tallest player was deemed ineligible before the season, then two players were kicked off the team for their alleged involvement in an on-campus burglary, then another player’s career ended after a concussion. Miller’s team was a couple buckets away from making the Sweet 16 despite having only six scholarship players and zero players taller than 6-6. He told me this was his hardest season as a coach. It’s also his most impressive, more impressive than even last year’s Elite Eight run. Miller’s name will continue to be one of the hottest young names in college coaching.
4. How about some props to Dana Altman, too? And not just because Oregon was in the game against 1 seed Wisconsin until the final few minutes. Leading into this season, any talk about Oregon centered around Altman being on the hot seat because of accusations of mishandling a sexual assault case with three players on last season’s team. Those three players were kicked off the team, which left Altman with a serious dearth of talent and lack of depth heading into this year. This high-scoring, fun team ended up finishing third in the Pac-12 and winning a game in the NCAA tournament. That will cool the critics.
5. Wichita State over Kansas wasn’t an upset. That’s because Kansas probably got the single worst draw of the second round. Wichita State was a 7 seed with the resume of a 5 seed that looked like a 2 seed on Sunday. Then there was the added motivation of the overlooked little brother finally getting its chance to shine against its big, bad in-state non-rival for the first time in more than two decades. Kansas ran into a Wichita State team that probably isn’t as good as last year’s team — but is damn close. The backcourt of Fred VanVleet, Ron Baker and Tekele Cotton may just be the best backcourt in the nation, and the trio scored 48 of Wichita State’s 78 points against Kansas. There aren’t more than a handful guards in the country who do what they do best as well as these three: VanVleet as a heady, aggressive leader of a point guard, Baker as a gutsy and dead-on shooter, and Cotton as an elite athlete who can defend just about any player he’s tasked to defend. Call me crazy, but here’s what I think happens with Wichita State: The Shockers give Notre Dame all sorts of fits in the Sweet 16 (remember that Notre Dame went to overtime with Butler, and Wichita State is like Butler on steroids). Then the Shockers push Kentucky deeper into the game than anyone expects, and it’ll be a five-point game with four minutes left before Kentucky’s depth finally wears them down.
6. If a Wichita State/Kentucky rematch is the best possible storyline in the Elite Eight, Kentucky/West Virginia is the best storyline of the Sweet 16. Maybe West Virginia’s non-stop full-court press gives Kentucky’s backcourt trouble, but I doubt it’s trouble that sustains throughout the whole game. The best storyline in the next several days will be the fact that two coaches who may have been the most hated coaches of their era — Bob Huggins in his heyday at Cincinnati, and John Calipari now — face each other. What strikes me about these two is that both are cast as villains, but each of them is a nuanced, fascinating, brilliant person who in my opinion get a pretty raw deal from drive-by pundits. I’ll admit it: I like both of these guys personally. Huggins explained his reputation to me this way. “You watch Westerns? You got the good guys and the bad guys, right? You got the guys in the white hats and the black hats. I got chosen to wear a black hat.” It’s the same deal with Calipari: Once you get a bad reputation, it sticks, no matter what reality says. I love these two personalities facing off. And by the way, Huggins-coached teams are 8-2 all time over Calipari-coached teams.
7. Is Bill Self not well-suited for one-and-done players? A buddy of mine who is a rabid Kansas basketball fan (aren’t they all?) texted me in despair Sunday after Kansas lost to Wichita State. “Self can’t do one-and-dones well. Will have mostly juniors and seniors next year. Hoping for the best.” I’m not sure I agree with his sentiment that Self can’t do it, but it’s thought-provoking. What we’ve always said about Self is how remarkable he has been at developing players so that they become stars in their junior or senior seasons. The past two years, Self has had top-three picks Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid (out in the Round of 32) and likely first-rounders Kelly Oubre and Cliff Alexander (out in the Round of 32). Next year’s team could go back to the roots, and has the potential to be a classic Bill Self team.
8. Stop being dumb, and never doubt Tom Izzo. I’m sorry, was I being harsh? I wasn’t talking to you. I was talking to me. If you asked me two months ago whether Michigan State had a better shot at going to the Sweet 16 or missing the tournament altogether, I would have said the Spartans were NIT-bound. This is Izzo’s least talented team in recent memory, and yet here he is again, in his 13th Sweet 16 since 1998. He has missed on a few big-time recruits the last couple years, but Izzo simply got the absolute most out of this group of defensive-minded grinders. There’s no star on this team. Honestly, I can’t tell you one thing this team does really, really well. But there isn’t anything they do poorly, either (except free-throw shooting). I will never doubt a Tom Izzo team again.
9. Anyone can make the Final Four out of the East Region. The region is blown to smithereens, and so are many brackets, mine included. (Still love my Northern Iowa Final Four pick, but Sunday was not the Panthers’ day.) Between NC State upsetting Villanova and Michigan State knocking off Virginia, the top two seeds in that region are gone. I’m not sure what Vegas will say, but I would give every team left in that region about the same chance of being in Indianapolis in two weeks. All four — NC State, Louisville, Oklahoma and Michigan State — are flawed. All four can look great at times. Gun to my head? I’m taking Oklahoma, and the kid with the biggest smile in college hoops, Buddy Hield, a.k.a. “Buddy Love,” one of the best nicknames in hoops.
10. I love the postgame locker room dances. Is there any better expression of pure joy than coaches and players getting their dance on in the locker room after winning an NCAA tournament game? Two years ago it was Andy Enfield and the dancin’ Florida Gulf Coast Eagles. Last year it was Fred Hoiberg strutting his stuff in front of his Iowa State team. This year, Roy Williams — Roy Dadgum Williams! — decided he had some moves. I know it’s intrusive, but I love the locker room cams. And they also gave us an inspired Wichita State locker room, with Gregg Marshall yelling to his players, “Who’s satisfied? Is anybody satisfied?”
Email Reid Forgrave at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter @reidforgrave.