Dance Wrap: Bittersweet 16
The clock strikes midnight, and Butler still stands.
by Chris Deaton
In roughly a five-hour span Friday night, the Tournament dropped from bordering on legendary to merely interesting (which is not to say the first two weeks weren’t absurdly good). The Midwest-West side of the bracket is saturated with upstarts, and its opposite, the East-South, comprises Hummers on a 90-mph cruise control.
Before the small-conference storyline is closed, however, there’s something worth visiting to summarize the advancement of lesser-known hopefuls spanning the country. It’s a hackneyed headline in need of modification:
“Butler does it.”
It’s a statement of affirmation, because Brad Stevens is now 4-2 in his 3 for 3 run of NCAA Tournaments, and each of his teams has won 30 games. Exemplary stuff.
Seth Davis tweeted it, Stewart Mandel wrote about it, everybody is thinking it: mid-major has gone the way of the dodo, and “the Butler did it” still implies some sense of shock or awe or both that tiny BU could beat big Syracuse, or by extension, that Northern Iowa could beat Kansas, that St. Mary’s could beat Villanova, and so the drum beats on and on.
Butler does it. Though they were shown the door Friday, Northern Iowa does it and St. Mary’s does it. They all do it nowadays, they being the well-coached, experienced and talented teams from programs outside the Big Six that, make absolutely no mistake, Kansas, Syracuse, Villanova and their powerful partners in college hoops monopolization fear.
* Kentucky’s talent is incomparable, yes. Their cohesiveness is scarier yet. Any doubts I or anyone else had about Cornell’s capacity to make a push into March’s latter stages were silenced, and their ho-hum exit changes none of that. UK’s just that good.
What’s most impressive about the Wildcats’ Thursday performance is, perhaps, that they were completely willing to play at an Ilgauskas jog’s pace. They fell behind 10-2, but unlike Syracuse, made up the deficit early, and used what was really an unfair defensive onslaught to silence Cornell’s every weapon. The cinnamon scored six points in the last 15:17 of the first half.
* Scott Drew has helped engineer something truly dramatic — a turnaround that has seen a school without much basketball tradition endure rock bottom before ascending to new heights. Their annihilation of St. Mary’s was unexpected and as impressive a performance as any this Tournament.
But they haven’t beaten a team of Duke’s caliber all year. Sunday’s game will be their stiffest test, and with the Devils’ defensive pummeling of Purdue, it could be an … oh, 39-37ish affair.
* On the subject of overwhelming D, it was the most recurring theme of the round of 16. It’s no coincidence that Kentucky, West Virginia, Duke and Baylor made it to regional finals by holding their opponents to under 60 points in each of their games, and Butler managed to slide past Syracuse despite shooting only 6-24 from 3.
* That Jordan Crawford 3 at the conclusion of the first overtime was from, what, 30 feet? Nary does a big-time jump shot look like it was made on a Nerf hoop, but that bomb was so unrealistic, I needed two or three replays to be convinced that it didn’t travel home on a string.
Kansas State-Xavier will be a tough one to top, and after an exciting finish in the Butler-Syracuse game preceding it, the fans in Salt Lake left their seats with light heads. It was quite an evening of ball in the West region.
* Thad Matta sent out a thin rotation in Ohio State’s game against Tennessee, but that doesn’t excuse his oversight in failing to play hot-shooting Jeremie Simmons in the second half. Guards John Diebler and Willie Buford combined for just 6-21 from the field — and all of Buford’s five buckets came in the first half — while Simmons, who fired 3-4 from 3 in the first half, was unable to make an impact.
As it was, Evan Turner was forced to do too much. Despite putting up 31 points, his six turnovers proved costly — a weakness that stunted many of Ohio State’s attempts to extend small leads in the final 20 minutes.
* Syracuse’s ball handling was its ultimate undoing against Butler. The Orange turned it over 18 times, and as head coach Jim Boeheim noted with his “loss” for words during the postgame presser, many of those were unforced.
But credit Butler’s gameplan for planting seeds of frustration. Syracuse rarely settled into the game’s tempo, and their clunky offense surely caused a loss of focus.
On tap for the weekend …
1. Michigan State-Tennessee feels like a second-round game, not a regional final, right? Well, maybe not. Ignore the seeding and remember that Sparty and the Vols were both top-ten caliber teams earlier in the year, and their progression in this Tournament may only be a reflection of their rediscovery of form.
2. One potential David v. Goliath-type matchup remains, but Butler must take care of one set of Wildcats first. A Bulldogs-Kentucky final would galvanize the nation, and each school can take a step toward making it happen with victories on Saturday. Of particular interest in the Butler-Kansas State faceoff: the one-on-one between Ron Nored and Jacob Pullen, one of the nation’s best perimeter defenders against the Wildcats’ leading force, respectively.
3. For all of the madness, the East and South finals are pretty chalky. Most expected UK-West Virginia, and Villanova’s struggles entering the Dance prompted many to select a Duke-Baylor match. Both promise to be heavyweight bouts.