It feels as though college basketball has been criticized this season for a lack of fluid, skillful, and enjoyable style more than ever in recent memory. The games this weekend didn’t exemplify the sport in its purest form, but the NCAA Tournament continues to provide great basketball moments full of talent, entertainment, and emotion.
At first glance a Final Four of Duke, Kentucky, Michigan State, and Wisconsin is hardly surprising, but none of these teams had a straightforward path to Indianapolis. Let’s take a look back at the Elite Eight and see how these four teams became the last ones standing.
Down five with 50 seconds to play, Arizona elected not to foul. Wisconsin played out the possession as long as it could, and as the shot clock wound down, Sam Dekker hoisted up a moon ball over Rondae Hollis-Jefferson:
I don’t know what’s better, the shot or the post-shot strut that started before the ball even went through the hoop. Dekker knew it was going in, and why would he have any doubt? That shot capped a perfect second half for him; he hit all six of his shots from the field (five from three) and all three free throws for 20 points.
Jerian Grant Duels Aaron Harrison
These two hit only six of a combined 21 shots, but as they often have for their respective teams, they made two of the biggest shots of the game. Aaron Harrison hit his only three-pointer with 3:18 left in the game to give Kentucky its first lead since the 15:32 mark of the second half. Not to be outdone, Jerian Grant hit his only three of the game on the very next possession:
The Wildcats kept things balanced down the stretch. Five different players combined to hit the team’s last nine shots over the final 10:24 of the game. After Aaron Harrison’s three, Karl-Anthony Towns got a bucket inside to tie the game, and then Andrew Harrison got to the line and hit two free throws for the win.
Unfortunately for the Fighting Irish, Grant fell in love with his shot, taking the team’s final four shots, missing three in a row after that three, including this potential buzzer-beater:
Was he the leader of the team who earned the right to take the big shots? Sure. But he also had an off shooting night while guys like Steve Vasturia Zach Auguste shot a combined 16-for-21. And if they were going to shoot threes, why not go with one of the three guys on the team who hit over 40 percent of theirs?
Maybe I’m being harsh on a team that came so close to handing Kentucky its first loss, but only because it was frustrating to see Notre Dame’s offense stagnate down the stretch after playing so well a majority of the night. Grant isn’t your typical superstar; he does a great job of getting his teammates involved (33.6 percent assist rate) and doesn’t even lead his team in possessions used. But his decision to play hero ball may have cost his team a spot in the Final Four.
Branden Dawson Goes the Distance
Before yesterday’s game between Louisville and Michigan State, Montrezl Harrell wondered if Branden Dawson could hang with him for an entire game. “If [Dawson] has as much energy as me, it should be a good game tomorrow,” Harrell said Saturday. “I don’t see him running with as much energy as I have.”
However, Harrell would’ve been better served to save his breath; literally. He missed all five of his shots in the second half and overtime and five of his nine free throws. Of those misses, four of his foul shots were noticeably short—indicating some fatigue, perhaps—as were two of his field goal attempts.
On the other hand, Dawson hitting only one shot in the opening 20 minutes but going 3-for-6 from the field and 1-for-2 from the line after halftime. And to really drive home how much energy he had, Dawson made the clinching play in overtime, soaring above everyone else for a putback:
Tom Izzo has questioned Dawson’s motor throughout his career, but Dawson has made it a non-issue for most of this season and it’s a big reason why his team is still playing.
Bulldogs Roll Over Against Duke
Sometimes a missed shot can be bigger than a made shot. Just think back five years ago: the iconic image of the 2010 national championship is Gordon Hayward’s last-second heave almost going in.
This wasn’t nearly as dramatic, but Kyle Wiltjer will be seeing this shot in his sleep for a long time:
First of all, that was a great play by Prezemek Karnowski, seeing Matt Jones come in for the steal and wisely slinging the ball over his head to an open Wiltjer. But Wiltjer pushed it a bit too far. He put it a bit too high on the backboard. And it bounced off the far side of the rim.
The shot was significant not only because it could’ve tied the game with less than five minutes to play, but also because it started a run of five straight misses by Gonzaga to close out the game. Duke went on a 13–1 run over that period to run away with it, 66–52.
Gonzaga haters will feel validated, thinking that because the Zags didn’t make the Final Four it proves that they’ve always been frauds and always will be. I couldn’t disagree more with that statement. The fact that previous Gonzaga players never made the Final Four doesn’t mean this current group couldn’t have.
And for all the talk of Gonzaga choking in the postseason, Mark Few has only lost to a lower seed five times in 16 NCAA Tournament appearances. If you watched the Bulldogs over the course of the season it was pretty clear that they were capable of winning a national championship. They just ran into a more talented team that executed better on the day. With the Blue Devils closed out the game, Wiltjer’s miss may not have even mattered. Still, it’s impossible not to wonder what might have been.