It has been a strange, surprising, and at times frustrating couple of days of basketball. As they were played:
1. As I said yesterday, I didn’t see this Tennessee win coming. It’s not that I had counted out Tennessee or didn’t like anything in particular coming. It’s just that I couldn’t find a single reason to care about them. They won, though, and they earned it. They played very good defense, and were able to shut down and frustrate everyone not named Evan Turner in the second half. Now they are in their first Elite Eight in team history, and I still don’t feel any affection for them or give them the due they are probably deserved.
2. I obviously really didn’t see the Saint Mary’s Massacre happening. The Gaels didn’t show up from the start. They were tentative and intimidated, and the game was over in shockingly little time. Bizarre. So is Baylor that good? We’ll see tomorrow, I guess.
3. The world started to make sense again with the second games. I was very impressed by Michigan State. Losing Lucas is obviously a major blow, but they just relaxed, stuck to their plan, and exploited their one undeniable advantage – they were the deeper, more skilled team. Northern Iowa was able to beat Kansas because they caught them off guard and never let them settle down. The Spartans weren’t rattled, and that made all the difference. Above all, this game showed one huge thing – Tom Izzo is so freaking good it’s scary.
4. It was tough watching that Purdue game. The Boilermakers gave as much effort as a team can, and they kept it close for a long while, but they just didn’t have enough dogs for the fight, and everyone in the building knew it.
5. Butler is the very real deal. I took some grief putting them into the Final Four in all my brackets, but my faith was rewarded. My path stopped here in my prognostication, but with Kentucky out of the way there really isn’t a team left that is a terrible matchup for Butler. They clearly won’t be favored to win it, but there is absolutely no reason that they can’t win two more in front of a home crowd. This is a stunningly tough team. There are a lot of remarkable things about this team, but none moreso than this – head coach Brad Stevens is 33 freaking years old. He was three years old when Coach K took the job at Duke.
6. I’m going to sound petty and bitter because I had Kentucky going to the Finals in my bracket, and thought they were the clear winner with Kansas out, but I wasn’t that impressed with West Virginia. They get all the credit for the win, and for frustrating a young team, but much more of that result was because of what Kentucky didn’t do that what West Virginia did. The Wildcats were 4-for-32 from three point range, and 16 of 29 from the foul line. Kentucky shot impossibly bad – inconceivably bad – and the Mountaineers just can’t take all of the credit for that. If Kentucky had have been even somewhat decent then they would have won going away. Heck, if they had show just 25 percent on threes – a lousy accomplishment in itself – they would have won the game. My point isn’t that Kentucky was robbed – that’s stupid. What I am saying emphatically, though, is that West Virginia looks better than they are as a result of this game. I’ve read that a few people already view the Mountaineers as the likely champs. First, I don’t see how you can assume anything in this increasingly bizarre tournament. Second, I’m not at all convinced that the Mountaineers have earned that.
One last thought – just think about how truly strange this tournament is shaping up to be. So far the Final Four consists of a No. 5 and a No. 2 which is playing without their point guard. The first game tomorrow will either produce a finalist that has also lost their point guard – and their best player in this case – or one that kicked their best player off the team in January. Out of the second game will come either the most evil of all empires or a team that was left for dead just seven years ago in perhaps the most macabre story in the history of the sport. This could be the first tournament ever to have no No. 1 seeds in the Final Four, and it is one that has seen the two heavy favorites and the two runaway leaders for national player of the year honors go home far sooner than expected. This is far from your typical tourney.