Boy did Tuesday night sneak up on me. It had some intriguing games on paper, but the games were way above and beyond expectations. Let’s start with Kentucky vs Alabama. I was not surprised that Alabama could shut Kentucky down. Like Florida St., they are one of those sneaky good defensive teams. And when you play elite defense, you can surprise anyone. But to get a near 20 point lead and then blow a near 20 point lead made for great TV. When Kentucky pulled with four points with 5 minutes left, this looked like it was going to be a Wildcat rout. The crowd had surprisingly few Kentucky fans in attendance, but those in attendance started a loud “Let’s go Big Blue” chant, and it seemed like there was no way Alabama could hang on for the final stretch.
During this time, the focus on Kentucky’s Terrence Jones fascinated me. He had two fantastic head fakes leading to wide open finishes. And then they showed a close up of him and Alabama’s JaMychal Green bumping each other the entire way up the floor. I was impressed they could give that much contact and not get into a fight.
And then there was John Calipari yelling at Jones for not being tough enough when all Jones had done was put the team on his back. What is Calipari thinking? Tough love for his best player? I honestly don’t think there is a freshman in the country as tough as Jones, and that includes Jared Sullinger of Ohio St. (Sullinger is really benefiting from the fact that he has a super-talented team around him. He faces far fewer double-teams and he usually does not handle them well. Jones gets mugged on a regular basis, and just takes it in stride.)
So of course, after all this focus on Jones, he was irrelevant in the final decision. Kentucky turned it over twice trying to drive into the paint (once on a charge call, and once on a live ball turnover.) And in the end, Alabama hung on for victory. But this game was so intense that even that 2.5 second remaining full-court heave seemed dramatic.
Then we had the Illinois vs Michigan St. game. One of the universal laws of basketball is that if you are shooting lights out, and you have a small lead, you are going to lose. Eventually, all teams have a cold stretch. And Illinois had that cold stretch after shooting 60% for most of the game. But for Illinois, the fact that they only made one FG in the last 10 minutes did not matter. That’s because Michigan St. refused to take the ball to the basket and extend the game. They took three after three, and despite a lot of long rebounds, they could not catch back up.
What has happened to the Big Ten inside games? Ohio St. has Sullinger, but is principally a spread attack. They rely on great spacing to get good looks at the bucket, but no one would confuse Ohio St.’s offense with a 1980’s physical inside attack. Purdue’s JaJuan Johnson has become a lights out mid-ranger gunner, but with him on the perimeter, we are reminded that he is the only true inside presence for the Boilermakers. Wisconsin’s bigs are all better three-point shooters than inside players. And Illinois’ bigs have been soft for so long, it isn’t even a story anymore. So Michigan St.’s move to the perimeter is somewhat distressing. Yes Michigan St. crushed Illinois on the boards in this one, but where has the inside focus gone?
Is this some sort of Big Ten conspiracy or are the teams just adapting? I.e., interior defenses are too good, so they move to more perimeter-oriented attacks? I find this all a little bit of a riddle. (And yes, I’m conveniently ignoring Minnesota, the one true inside-oriented attack in the Big Ten.)
But, I want to go back to the rules of shooting logic for a moment. Georgetown games often violate the laws of shooting logic. That’s because when the Georgetown-offense (don’t call it Princeton offense around JT3), can create so many lay-ups that a 70% shooting rate can be sustainable for long stretches. But in the Seton Hall game, it was Seton Hall taking advantage of lay-ups. By earning 17 transition points (and about 11 in a row at one point), Seton Hall was maintaining a ridiculously high shooting percentage in the second half. And were it not for a bunch of odd free throw misses, they would have won the game. That’s because the Hoyas could not stop Seton Hall from scoring or getting to the line.
But ignore Herb Pope's foul out, and Georgetown's fine free throw shooting in the final seconds. Georgetown vs Seton Hall had one of the most bizarre end of game situations I had seen this year. Seton Hall appeared to hit the game tying three with 10 seconds left, but the Seton Hall player had his foot on the line, so it was only a two. The arena went crazy for about 8 seconds, until it slowly sunk in. "We’re still behind. Rats." That's a tough way to lose a game.
But that ending was topped moments later, when I saw the highlights of Georgia vs Tennessee. Brian Williams, the big bulky Tennessee center practically throws a Georgia player to the ground while grabbing an offensive rebound and putting in the game winning bucket as time expired. I’m pretty sure if he tried to do that again 100 times, he couldn’t time it like that. Forget all the arguments about whether he went over-the-back (which should not be a foul) or through-the-back. I’m sure opinions will vary depending on whether you bleed red or orange. But as a college basketball fan, I live for weird endings. That’s why I watch 14 games a Sunday and hate days like this last Saturday where 2/3rd of the games are blowouts. Celebrate the unusual. Tuesday was special.