First things first — you might notice there's been a bit of re-branding in these parts. I've been using "epiphanies" as a catch-all term for the recap column this season (as in, "15 Epiphanies from the weekend in college basketball!"), but it gets tough having so many epiphanies every week. Eventually your brain begins to hurt from all that sudden insight and joy, and you start to think, hey, maybe I can fake an epiphany or two. Then you catch yourself typing things like, "EPIPHANY: Bo Ryan is secretly the most exciting man in college athletics," and it gets so bad you can't even look at yourself in the mirror. Such guilt!
So no more epiphanies. From now on, this is The Hardcourt Shuffle. Here are my two reasons for choosing the name:
A. It sounds like an old-timey, basketball-themed dance craze. I like to imagine the song was written by young basketball fans in the 1930s, probably in Indiana, and it swept the nation. In my mind, it sounded like that "Joe Joe DiMaggio" song, and the dance looked like the "Moses Supposes" jam. Then all the crabby old people came out against it because it was young and hip and sexy, and across the small towns of Indiana a Footloose situation played out. You'll never stop The Hardcourt Shuffle, old man!
(By the way, if anyone writes lyrics for the song, I'll make a gold statue of your likeness and harass the Hall of Fame until they put it on the front lawn.)
B. In the '50s, Bruce Drake invented the "Shuffle Offense" at Oklahoma. The basic idea was that if you had a team of good ball handlers and not much height, every player could play every position, and your team would be like an attacking amoeba with loose roles. It was the original equivalent to the "Total Football" of the Dutch soccer teams from the '70s, and we've obviously seen a lot of variants since Drake's Eureka moment. At its core, it represents a free-flowing, fast, fun game, and it rejects regimentation and control-freak coaches. What could be better?
If you're curious, here are the names it beat out: The Cherry Picker, The Chucker, The Double Nickel, The Blindside Screen, The Outlet, The Cager, The Redshirt Gunner. My favorite Twitter suggestion was "The Picket Fence." Feel free to let me know how stupid I am in the comments for not thinking of the awesome name that you came up with in 1.4 seconds.
Let's do this! Weekend highlights:
Indiana-Butler: I Still Can't Breathe
It's hard to know where to begin on this one, so let's start with the facts: The Butler Bulldogs, led by boy wonder Brad Stevens and cold-hearted assassin Rotnei Clarke, somehow managed to take down the no. 1 team in the nation. Before we get into the specifics of what happened and why, I just want to take a moment to acknowledge how much fun it was to watch these teams duel for 45 minutes, each trying to impose a very different style on the other. Essentially, this was a two-hour argument for college basketball's philosophical variety. The debate about whether the shot clock should be lowered has become more persistent with the ongoing decline in scoring, but even as someone who falls on the side of a 24- or 30-second shot clock, I have to admit that Saturday's clash between a slow, physical team, and a fast, transition team produced a game that was intriguing from the opening tip. Opponents of lowering the clock think that it will kill the strategic diversity that differentiates college from the NBA, and they have a pretty great Exhibit A in IU-Butler.
Moving on to the game itself. … First, we had to know that a Butler win would trigger an avalanche of praise for Brad Stevens. The 36-year-old is already the toast of the coaching world after making two straight NCAA finals, and beating the top team in the country only bolsters his unbelievable résumé. (He's also the only person who makes my wife even mildly interested in college basketball, but that's neither here nor there.) And there's no doubt that he deserved a lot of the credit Saturday. His game plan wasn't complicated, but it didn't have to be; he knew that Indiana was vulnerable to defensive physicality — and when I say "physicality," I mean the aggressive, borderline illegal kind that referees with different interpretations could have nipped in the bud by calling contact fouls early — and a slow pace.
On offense, the Bulldogs played patient and had a lot of success on the dribble-drive late in the shot clock. Roosevelt Jones was able to score with surprising ease on the inside, and Rotnei Clarke hit some big 3’s after running roughly six miles’ worth of banana cuts on every possession with Victor Oladipo hot on his heels. On defense, Jones and Andrew Smith and Erik Fromm bodied Zeller all over the lane, dared Yogi Ferrell and Jordan Hulls to create on the drive, and prayed that the spectacular Oladipo wouldn't beat them all by himself. It worked well enough to keep things close, and they survived a late 3 by Ferrell that sent the game to overtime ("you have to step out on that screen, Erik Fromm," said the entire world), got huge 3’s of their own from Clarke and Chase Stigall, and turned to the unlikely Alex Barlow for the winning bucket. More on that later.
After the game, a modest Stevens told the Indiana players that they were still the team to beat in the country (unfortunately, it's almost impossible to find video highlights for CBS games, but you can watch Stevens's postgame comments here). On Twitter and TV, that sentiment was echoed; the environment was like a huge tournament game, went the consensus, and both teams were Final Four caliber. I won't quibble about the atmosphere; that's as good as it gets in mid-December. But if anyone really believes that either team belongs in the upper echelon, they're deluding themselves.
This is where things get negative. Indiana coach Tom Crean was, frankly, outclassed by Stevens from the jump. You could point to almost any aspect of the game for evidence, but let's focus on the fact they didn't make Zeller an offensive priority in the final 10 minutes. I mean, did they look at the foul totals? Every big man on Butler's roster had four! Zeller finished with 14 free throws, but only four of them came inside the last 10 minutes of regulation. By the time they started feeding him in overtime, it was too late; Indiana settled for long perimeter jumpers all game, and the end result was that Zeller finished with just nine field goal attempts. Meanwhile, Hulls had 10, Ferrell had 13, and Sheehey had eight. How can you explain that? Somebody needs to remind Crean that Zeller is supposed to be one of the country's best players.
There were two offensive options for IU that seemed to bear fruit: Oladipo on the drive, which resulted in 18 points, and dumping the ball inside to Zeller, which produced fouls. Instead, Crean focused on running after every miss in an effort to make Butler play a transition game. It was the equivalent of trying to build a sand castle on a sinkhole, because from the very first possession, Stevens had three players bolting back on defense after a shot went up. You weren't going to outrun them. (Speaking of which, the fact that Butler came down with 17 offensive boards to Indiana's 12, despite racing back on defense, is a pretty huge red flag.) Oladipo driving or Zeller posting up, on the other hand, drew extra defenders, freed up the shooters, and resulted in fouls. But Crean, who apparently took strategy lessons from General George Pickett, kept running his guards straight into the Stevens snare. And since we're throwing stones, here's another — it took Crean way too long to put on the full-court press that UNC used against Butler to erase most of a 27-point deficit in Maui. Do they have film rooms in Bloomington?
But it wasn't all his fault. Cody Zeller is soft. Yogi Ferrell is young. Christian Watford is in the middle of one of the most puzzling disappearing acts in college basketball. Jordan Hulls can't guard anybody. To that last point, everyone wanted to give Stevens credit for the unorthodox choice of putting the ball in Alex Barlow's hands on the final possession. But I'd be willing to bet my lunch — and I really love lunch — that he simply wanted to isolate Hulls. Whoever Hulls guarded was going to take the last shot. That happened to be Barlow, and it worked.
For Indiana, the result raises some difficult questions: How will Zeller hold up against teams with physical big men, like ... oh, I don't know, half the Big Ten? When Indiana plays Michigan, who's going to guard Trey Burke? It can't be Ferrell or Hulls, but if you assign Oladipo, that means Hulls draws Tim Hardaway Jr. or Nik Stauskas. Yikes.
Here's the problem: Butler is a very tough team with a lot of fun players and a smart coach, but they aren't a great team. Not by a long shot. They lost to Xavier by 15 and Illinois by 17, and they dodged bullets against atypically weak Marquette and UNC teams. But Saturday's win was no fluke, because the truth is that the Hoosiers aren't all that hot either. The first real sign of trouble came against Georgia and Georgetown in Brooklyn, and they can no longer blame those performances on Zeller's flu. We know better. Their defense is porous, their Player of the Year candidate looks like he spent the offseason on a supermodel diet, and they have exactly one guy (Oladipo) who can create his own shot against physical opponents. So forget a no. 1 ranking; the Hoosiers are about to take a lot of abuse in the country's best conference, and they're having trouble staying inside the top 10.
Florida-Arizona: GAH, NOW I CAN'T BREATHE AGAIN
The odd paradox here is that while this game wasn't nearly as fun to watch as IU-Butler, at least until the very end, it was clear that both teams were better. Proving, yet again, that aesthetic enjoyment is rarely rewarded with titles in the cruel world of sports. Anyway, I want to take you to the 1:01 mark, with no. 5 Florida up six on no. 8 Arizona's very loud home floor:
Here's the story of the game — Florida played a stellar first half, but they let Arizona out of the Gator chomp by conceding an 8-0 run in the final 1:17 before halftime. Then, as you see in the video above, they suffered a 7-0 run to end the game over the last 1:01. Here's some unhappy math — for almost 38 minutes, the Gators outscored Arizona 64-50 and showed that they were the superior team. Then they blew it.
Arizona deserves its share of praise. Aside from the runs, they had trouble finding their offense, but they got some huge 3’s from Nick Johnson and a classic final drive from Mark Lyons, who's proving to be one of the toughest crunch-time players in college basketball (see no. 13). And they did a passable defensive job against one of the best offenses in the country, with Solomon Hill's work on Erik Murphy as a highlight.
But like it or not, the focus here is going to be on yet another Florida meltdown. They're still one of the best teams in the country, and I believe they'll be fine in the long run, but the trademark of the team in the Boynton Era has been the late collapse. For two years in a row, we've seen the Gators lose big leads in Elite 8 games- against Butler and Louisville, they led by 11 points at about the 10-minute mark- and the growing perception is that they crumble under pressure. Even if those results were down to bad luck or coincidence, it must take a psychological toll to keep faltering late. Saturday's loss hurt a little less because it didn't cost them a trip to the Final Four, but there's a definite image problem in Gainesville.
The Derrick Williams Theory Is Back
Fair warning: There may be some serious selection bias going into what I'm about to say, but have you ever noticed that when a struggling team closes out the first half with some dramatic buckets, they tend to play really well in the second half and go on to win? It's almost like the mental boon of finishing strong stays with them in the locker room, pumping them up, while it eats at the other team who knows they missed a chance to take a crushing lead.
I've been talking up this theory for a while, and on Saturday, Twitter's Andrew Grochal came up with the horrible, perfect name you see above. It pains me to explain, but in the 2011 Sweet 16, Arizona's Derrick Williams made a stupid fall-away 3 at the end of the first half against Duke. It changed a nine-point deficit to six, and instead of feeling down and out, the 'Cats roared into the locker room feeling like they finally had some momentum. Then they came out and played one of the best offensive halves in NCAA tournament history to run Duke right off the floor (55 points on roughly 35 possessions = a remote control dent in my wall).
In the two marquee games this weekend, the Derrick Williams Theory was on full display. We talked about Arizona closing on an 8-0 run to turn a 32-31 deficit into 32-29, and Butler's Erik Fromm hit a 3 at the buzzer to pull his team within four. And both came out and played strong second halves that ended with a win. The ghost of D-Will abides.
This Week's Awkwardly Long Camera Shot of an Uncomfortable Coach
The camera loves Matt Painter:
The CoachShake of the Week
Mike Brey struts his stuff with three types of handshakes. With him, it's all about the left hand. He can either:
1. Pat you on your right elbow as you shake. This is a gesture of respect.
2. Blow by with a quick handshake and NO contact from the left hand.
3. Do the Coach K "reach-across-and-somehow-pat-the-left-shoulder" move, a sign of deep admiration. Brey was an assistant at Duke from '87 to '95, so he clearly learned from the master.
Jams of the Week
First off, the real dunk of the week goes to Marshall's Elijah Pittman. The quality is rough, but check out what he did to Cincinnati in the Herd's Saturday loss:
The secondary dunk of the week goes to Ohio State's Slammin' Sam Thompson, for this windmill throwdown.
And the partnership of the year, to date, goes to Detroit's Ray McCallum and Doug Anderson, who have hooked for some insane alley-oops. There's this one, and this one, but my favorite is what I'm calling the Halfcourty Shorty. You've got to check it out from the basket camera:
I would watch entire games from the basket camera. I wish they had seats on top of the backboard.
My Favorite Hypothetical Name for the New Conference of Catholic School Defectors From the Big East
"The Big Priest."
This Week's College Basketball Parable
Since taking over at VCU from Anthony Grant in 2009, Shaka Smart has reached a Final Four, turned himself into a household name, and trademarked a style of play called "havoc." Since leaving VCU for Alabama, Anthony Grant has ... well, he's done OK, actually, and probably made a lot of money, but he hasn't won an NCAA tournament game, and when was the last time you heard his name?
The contrast came to a head on Saturday, when the Tide rolled into Richmond and got havoc-slaughtered. The moral? Maybe think twice in the current landscape before you jump ship from a mid-major to a BCS school. It's not necessarily a step up.
The Jahii Carson ‘Almost Famous’ Team
Last week I asked you guys to help me come up with a starting five of players with names that sounded like famous people, but had slight, comical variations. The idea came from Arizona State's Jahii Carson, who happens to be a potential star, but whose name always makes me laugh because I picture Johnny Carson strutting up and down the court cracking jokes. Reader Sean Dotson rose to the challenge in a big way by scouring rosters and sending me a list of about 30 near-miss names. I winnowed it down from there, and added some coaches. Here now is your 2012 Jahii Carson "Almost Famous" Team:
Honorary Captain: Jahii Carson, Arizona State
Coach: Andy Newman, Cal-State Fullerton
Myles Davis, Xavier
Will Nelson, Texas A&M-CC (Sean points out that he's the Mike Bolton of college hoops)
Rob Loe, St. Louis
Tab Hamilton, Appalachian State (Sean: "Can’t quite win a date with him in a movie")
Kris Brown, Norfolk State
Can you imagine the collective chip on this team's shoulders? They've endured a lifetime of annoying comments about their names. They'd win every game by 30, guaranteed. See you Friday.