NCAA Split Ticket: UNC men advance past Vermont; Duke shocked by Lehigh (bonus season postmortem) | Sports
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Saturday, March 17, 2012

NCAA Split Ticket: UNC men advance past Vermont; Duke shocked by Lehigh (bonus season postmortem)

Posted by on Sat, Mar 17, 2012 at 1:59 PM

GREENSBORO COLISEUM/ GREENSBORO, N.C.—Let me take the second part first, and via this very convenient (though unfortunate) metaphor. I was just getting to my truck to drive home to Durham from Greensboro last night, around 11:30 p.m., when I got a text from my fiancée. There had been a huge crash in the house, and when she went to investigate, with some trepidation, she discovered that the kitchen light fixture had mysteriously fallen off of its pendant and shattered on the floor.

This particular light fixture was something of a pet piece of hardware for us, chosen and installed when we bought and renovated the house about two and a half years ago. Stylish but understated, pleasantly bright, in harmony with the rest of the kitchen—yet somehow, for reasons we'll likely never deduce, it came to an abruptly early end, with a crash heard only distantly. All Heather could do was sweep up the shards by lamplight. She lined up some of the more evidentiary parts for me to look over when I got home, and although I might hazard a few guesses, I really don't know. We weren't close enough to the incident to do more than that, and the intricacies of electricity can be hard to puzzle out anyway if you aren't an expert in how it works. For all we know, the damn thing just fell of its pendant.

And so with the shattered fixture and extinguished light that was Duke men's basketball, 2011-12.

After the jump, some initial thoughts about North Carolina's relatively easy 77-58 win over outmanned Vermont, which could just as well have been a 29-point rather than a 19-point win. Also, a few notes on the Creighton-Alabama game that started the day; the winner, Creighton, plays UNC tomorrow at 5:15 p.m. for the right to go to the Sweet Sixteen.

And then onto Duke's loss yesterday and its season as a whole.

There was actually a benefit from John Henson's absence from action since he sprained his wrist a week and a half ago in ACC Tournament. Freshman James Michael McAdoo, all oversized paws and floppy ears so far this season, has stepped into the Tar Heels' starting lineup and has begun finally to get comfortable with the college game. Sure, he misses open shots from all over the place, and his defense is something that is not really quite defense yet, but the kid yesterday against Vermont gave UNC the one thing it has consistently found periods of time to lack completely this season: energy.

McAdoo's tip-slam follow dunk of a missed three-pointer by Reggie Bullock in the first half got the crowd (and McAdoo) all riled up yesterday, and McAdoo's general high-energy, spring-loaded, gimme-the-ball-I'ma-score eagerness provided what little pulse the cool-customer Heels mustered against a team that had absolutely no chance of beating them. Probably 12,000 of the 16,000 in Greensboro Coliseum were Tar Heel fans—the local partisanship will come back later on in this post—and they serenely watched their team leave Vermont in the dust, like a Lamborghini in third gear will do to a Fiat at flat-out. (And I don't mean that new smart-Fiat with the soft-porn cappuccino ad on TV; I mean the one we had when I was a kid.)

No real need to bother you with the details of the game, except to point out that UNC's generally ugly three-point shooting is very likely to be their undoing in the NCAA Tournament unless they, you know, shoot it better for the next five games. North Carolina went 5-18 from beyond the arc yesterday, with P. J. Hairston (1-6) the worst offender, pun intended, and apparently back to the bricklaying, air-balling ways that have summed up most of his freshman year. It was doubly unfortunate that, after showing signs of life last Sunday against Florida State in the ACC Championship game (3-7 three-pointers, 13 points, some good defense), Hairston regressed in Greensboro, which is his hometown.

In other words, try to complete this sequence: Michael Jordan, Donald Williams, Rashad McCants, Wayne Ellington, ____________. When UNC wins national championships, somebody is out there going swish from 20 feet. Who is going to do that for the Tar Heels in March? Harrison Barnes seems like he should be the guy, but Barnes' aloofness—or something—gets the better of him sometimes. He plays like he has one eye already focused somewhere else, as Jason Zengerle's recent Atlantic Monthly article about him suggests.

Well, you can pick apart any team, of course, so let it be said (and admired) that UNC lost to injury the reigning, two-time ACC Defensive Player of the Year—who also happens to be a formidable offensive presence (14 points, 10 rebounds per game)—and went to Atlanta and beat an NCAA Tournament-bound N.C. State team for the third time this season, then narrowly lost to eventual No. 3 seed Florida State. After that, they rolled comfortably to victory over Vermont. The Catamounts' only real hope was a super-sixth-man by the unlikely name of Four McGlynn. That is a shamrockingly well-timed, luck-of-the-Irish, four-leaf clover of a name to bring to the bright lights of the one-shining-moment stage, but yesterday was March 16th, not the 17th, and McGlynn, a day off of his target and clearly pressing, shot a dismal 2-13, missing all six of his three-point shot attempts. Well, as his ancestral countryman might have put it had he lived a century later and been a college basketball fan, the centre (Ben Crenca—he was big enough that you can go ahead and call him Ben and Jerry Crenca if you want) can hold (Tyler Zeller) all he wants, but the worst are full of passionate intensity, and the ceremony of innocence is drowned in the blood-dimmed tide. If only Vermont had lost to Alabama.

But no, the Crimson Tide lost yesterday, too, to Creighton, 58-57. Well, football school: their fans were outnumbered by Creighton's, and for that matter Lehigh's. (Also, given that the fourth and last of Friday's games stretched past midnight and into Saturday, St. Patrick's Day, you'd have thought the Fighting Irish would have prevailed over Xavier. But no, the luck they got was bad—busted for the second out-of-nowhere, obscure lane violation penalty that marred the end of a 2012 NCAA Tournament game.)

Creighton boasts the nation's best field goal percentage and are second assists, averaging 80 points per game coming into yesterday's assignment against defense-first Alabama. The Tide got the game they wanted, a slowdown affair, but Creighton started making some shots in the second half, and then watched Alabama head coach Anthony Grant do a strange thing at the endgame (speaking of the Irish). With his team down by a point and just under five seconds left to play, Creighton committed a deliberate foul because they had one to give and wanted to disrupt Alabama's final play, whatever it was.

My memory tells me that here Grant called a timeout to set up another play from the sideline, but the game log refutes the memory. It is apparently the case, though, that Creighton switched up its defense just before the inbounds play, going from man-to-man to their seldom-used lane-plugging zone, which had helped them erase an 11-point second-half deficit. There is some good video of Creighton head coach Greg McDermott talking about the zone and the game here, (plus an advertisement, of course).

Creighton's switch was crafty enough to look like it was still man coverage until the ball was inbounded, whereupon the Bluejays dropped quickly into their zone. Alabama coach Grant saw it and called his timeout, but not until a couple of seconds had elapsed: a bit of a panic move. Now the Tide were down to 2.5 seconds, which meant their play had to be perfectly run, and that there would likely be no time for a putback off of a miss. McDermott had outfoxed Grant.

Ramping up the pressure out of Grant's timeout, McDermott called another one when he saw what Alabama was going to try to do. (He said later that he had seen them try to run the same play they wound up trying earlier in the season.) Sure enough, they tried it—a play for Trevor Releford at the top of the key—and Creighton snuffed it out. Releford's shot was partially blocked, and the Bluejays had their first NCAA Tournament win in a decade. Well, soccer school.

I go down this Creighton-Alabama leprechaun rabbit-hole in order to show how well coached the Bluejays are. Commentators have had fun with tomorrow's pitting of two former high-school teammates against one another: UNC's Harrison Barnes and Creighton's Doug McDermott, the coach's son. Both are elite players, although Barnes at his best outpaces McDermott. The thing, Barnes doesn't always summon his best, sometimes going a bit wayward or soft-focus, whereas McDermott has that tireless, coach's-kid doggedness that makes him an All-American.

For my money, though, the more interesting matchup will be between these two coaches. Ordinarily, tactical maneuvering would probably not be all that important, because for all of Creighton's gaudy offensive numbers, Carolina's are as good or better in almost every case, and the fact is that the Tar Heels have bigger, faster, stronger, better players than Creighton does. At full strength, North Carolina ought to be expected to win this game without too much trouble.

Except that North Carolina is not at full strength. John Henson is still in doubt for Sunday's game, and without him, UNC could be vulnerable against McDermott—well, against both McDermotts. Henson can not only make the lane a dangerous place, he also fouls up coaching strategies with his sheer freakish length and with his ability to step out for the 17-foot jumper. And his potential absence tomorrow could also somewhat neutralize Tyler Zeller, who would be going more or less solo against the Bluejays' large, double-zero-wearing center, Gregory Echenique, who is every bit of his listed 270 pounds.

In any case, it will be interesting to see which Tar Heel(s) guard(s) McDermott. Reggie Bullock is Roy Williams' favorite rabbit's foot cat's paw for such a task, but he gives up height to McDermott. Harrison Barnes is the natural choice, for many reasons, but Barnes isn't much of a defender, and covering McDermott would tire him and probably affect his shooting.

That could leave our freshman friend James Michael McAdoo with the job, and McAdoo's further development as a rising star—which he has all the tools and upside to become—could advance a long way if he draws the assignment on McDermott and limits him. McDermott was held well under his season scoring average on Friday; he's stoppable.

And we'll also see if Roy Williams finds himself matching wits with Greg McDermott. If there's no Henson, McDermott may go back to the zone he used against Alabama. How will UNC react to that? Creighton has surely seen plenty of North Carolina on film—it was telling how much McDermott revealed knew about Alabama in just a few minutes of postgame interview time—and probably has devices at the ready to try to disrupt the Tar Heels' high-octane offense. My hunch is that Creighton simply doesn't have the stallions to run with Carolina, in the end, Henson or no Henson, but they are a team that can score the basketball, which is the essential requirement in beating UNC. The rest, to borrow from Henry James, is the madness of March.

Josh Hairston, Quinn Cook and Miles Plumlee after the game

So, now to pick up the pieces of the startlingly shattered light of Duke's season. It turns out there was no slouching towards Bethlehem (Penna.) for the Lehigh Mountain Hawks. It was pretty clear early in yesterday's game versus Duke that they were not the least bit cowed by coming into Duke's home state as a No. 15 seed versus a No. 2. They were active, aggressive and, as Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski put it afterwards, "They were bold throughout, and the bold won."

This fortune-favored, male-pattern boldness from Lehigh was not so much surprising in itself as it was in contrast with Duke's tentativeness. Especially on offense, which was Duke's strength for much of the year, the Blue Devils frequently looked out of sync, missing open teammates (open Plumlees were frequently ignored, even though Lehigh didn't have the interior players to stop them—Mason went 9-9, with many dunks—forcing shots, and failing to find open space on the floor in reaction to Lehigh's purposeful closing out on the three-point line.

And what of that three-point line? We've been hearing for a while (and I myself have written it) that Duke essentially became a live-by-die-by three-point-shooting team as the season wore on, and the easy thing is to say that they mysteriously lost their touch or that cumulative fatigue hurt their shooting ability late in the season (see Redick, J. J.) or that opponents simply defended them better on the perimeter. There is something to each of those arguments, but Duke has too many good shooters—even without Ryan Kelly, sidelined by a foot sprain—for them to hold water for weeks on end, which is how long the team's collective shooting slump went on: after the Blue Devils beat Florida State in Tallahassee on February 23, the last time they looked like a legitimate Final Four-caliber team, they finished the season by making less than 29 percent (36-126) of their three-pointers over six games.

When an entire team stops making shots it normally makes, it could signal simply that the offense that's producing them, its total flow and operation, isn't in sync. Krzyzewski discussed that in his postgame remarks. "At this time of the year, you should be as instinctive as possible," he said, adding that his team's instinct—that ineffable quality that propelled them to their dramatic comeback wins over North Carolina and North Carolina State—seemed to desert them toward the end. They often appeared to be fighting themselves. (At one point, Tyler Thornton barked at Miles Plumlee after a busted play.) As the season goes on, it grows more difficult, of course, and it was as though that external difficulty infected Duke's corpus: rather than an outside adversity to overcome, it became the contagion that got into Duke's bloodstream and did them in. After the home loss to North Carolina two weeks ago, Krzyzewski said that his team was fighting itself, and apt diagnosis for much of Duke's season.

Somehow, it doesn't seem likely that Ryan Kelly would have helped at a time like this, and Krzyzewski did not give much credit to the suggestion that he would have. "We weren't shooting well when Ryan was in," he noted, right after observing that "we've just been kind of of mucking it out offensively," as though he was talking about stables, not basketball. And so we can turn to Yeats again, whose chokingly cut-short sonnet (at least, I think that's what's going on there) "The Fascination of What's Difficult" aptly sums up Krzyzewski's late-season predicament in 13 lines. It would take me 130, probably, so here is Yeats:

The fascination of what's difficult
Has dried the sap out of my veins, and rent
Spontaneous joy and natural content
Out of my heart. There's something ails our colt
That must, as if it had not holy blood
Nor on Olympus leaped from cloud to cloud,
Shiver under the lash, strain, sweat and jolt
As though it dragged road metal. My curse on plays
That have to be set up in fifty ways,
On the day's war with every knave and dolt,
Theatre business, management of men.
I swear before the dawn comes round again
I'll find the stable and pull out the bolt.

Some notes, and reflection on the season:

The media room at Greensboro Coliseum seats 200, and its stage could comfortably accommodate whatever Yeats-cursed plays might "have to be set up in fifty ways." You could probably get Troilus and Cressida to come off up there if you had to, or at least Camino Real. It is gloomily dim in the auditorium, which is never more than an eighth full, thus cavernous and funereal. It is also even colder in there than it is in the rest of the chilly building, and so overall makes for a bizarre, uncomfortable place in which bizarre, uncomfortable postgame press conferences seem to unfold as a result. Roy Williams enjoyed making another introductory dig at the spot of trouble he got himself into for committing the offense of bringing a Coke can (I think) up to the table where only Powerade-emblazoned drinkware is permitted. The irony, of course, is that Powerade is owned and manufactured by, yes, the Coca-Cola corporation. What knavery and doltishness.

Later, when a longtime Tar Heel beat writer tried to bait him with a question about why Williams was displeased that his team was ordered by officials to sit down on the bench just before the game started—apparently in contravention of the rules—Williams gave an annoyed answer in which he made it clear that he took umbrage not only vis a vis the violation of the rule in the name of the ungenerous NCAA Tournament but also with the question itself. Finally, he asked if he could "get the crap out of here," and did.

Later, Lehigh head coach Brett Reed gave his comments, and his answers to our questions, in such a way as to suggest that someone else wrote them and he was reading them off of a teleprompter. That suggested, more than anything, that he had envisioned winning the game before it was played—"Act like you've been here before," he adjured his players in the final seconds, as Lehigh's win grew imminent—and planned his later remarks. This environmentally-appropriate antiseptic stiltedness was in direct contrast to Reed's personable, almost waggish players—not surprising, given the upset they had just pulled off. Star guard C. J. McCollum, who poured in 30 points (although it took him 24 shots to do it), spoke candidly about having been a scrawny, short high-schooler who almost quit basketball, so despairing was he of a growth spurt. Point guard Mackey McKnight got choked up talking about his old high-school friend, who was shot and killed at age 18 in a gang-related murder—and a Tar Heel fan, wouldn't you know.

Ah, yes, that. The Lehigh players were asked what sort of boost they got from North Carolina's fans, many of whom stayed on after UNC beat Vermont and cheered enthusiastically for the Mountain Hawks against Duke. You might expect players trying to "act like you've been here before" to downplay such a thing, but senior forward Jordan Hamilton was eager to answer the question. "Yeah, I'll take that one," he jumped in. "Being a smaller school, we really appreciated the North Carolina fans and all the support we got from them. I think we were able to feed off that energy and that propelled us to—" here he caught himself—"helped propel us to this win."

In that sense, it wasn't really a home game for Duke, whose fans were frequently drowned out by the rest of Greensboro Coliseum, and whose student Cameron Crazies were shoved up under the mezzanine, far from the action, making them a non-factor. It's nice not to have to travel long distances to play in the NCAA Tournament, but there's no doubting that Duke might well have preferred a flight to Nashville or, heck, even Albuquerque, to avoid the indignity of playing what was ostensibly a home game before a largely hostile crowd. It was the worst of both worlds, because Duke was favored and near Durham yet in a sense far from their comfort zone. They haven't thrived in front of their fans this season, losing three times at Cameron Indoor Stadium, and they seem to prefer underdog situations, as when they came back to beat UNC and NCSU—and, way back in November, when they ran the table at the Maui Invitational Tournament, beating a more talented Kansas team to take home the trophy.

As for Duke in the media room, it was Krzyzewski and the two Plumlees, who were probably the only two Blue Devils to have earned the right to represent the team after a dispiriting (and spiritless) performance by the rest of the players. While Austin Rivers ran on at the mouth, including some complimentary profanity, in Duke's unhappy locker room, the Plumli were stoic and stony. We managed to ask them some stupid and/or awkward questions (including one of my own; sorry about that), and they had almost nothing to say in response before departing. It is always tough to watch a senior lose his final game, and Miles Plumlee had the bitter eyes and toneless voice that accompany the moment. I would have been curious to ask him what he thought of Krzyzewski's decision to bench him for all but one 10-second possession during the game's final four minutes, when Plumlee's career hung in the balance. But surely he would have deflected such a question, offering instead the sort of party line one expects from college cagers (or, as the NCAA stubbornly and pedantically persists in calling them, "student-athletes.")

In any case it seemed suggestive of Krzyzewski's level of faith in his lone senior that he didn't put him into the game's biggest minutes. Well, masterminds can't be sentimental. Ask Dean Smith, who probably lost the 1977 NCAA title game because he didn't call a late timeout to get his best player, Mike O'Koren, back into the game, apparently reluctant to embarrass the reserve on the court in O'Koren's place. Ask Grady Little whether he wishes he'd taken Pedro Martinez out of that playoff game against the Yankees. And so on. Mason Plumlee is a better player than his older brother Miles. Mason played. Miles didn't.

And as another little piece of potential evidence about Krzyzewski's unsentimental ways, this little detail did not go unnoticed. In his opening comments following the loss, Krzyzewski said all the right things: that Lehigh played better, bolder; that they had the game's best player, C. J. McCollum; that Duke's offense, its strength most of the season—the defense was just catching up at season's end—was poor. And he might have added that Duke was plagued by guards getting into foul trouble, a season-long problem—they weren't quick enough on the ball, and frequently got beaten off the dribble.

Krzyzewski also said, "This game is a great game. It takes you to incredible highs. And it also takes you to incredible lows. And tonight's one of those lows." The thing is, he smiled when he said that, and it seemed less the smile of a rueful man who must smile in order not to cry, but of a man who may not have been quite as low as he claimed to be. Krzyzewski knew that "we're not a juggernaut or anything like that. We have known that throughout the whole season." He was under no illusions that his team in 2011-12 was among the very top teams in the country, and while losing to a No. 15 seed an hour from home is a rattling and disastrous way to crash out of the NCAA Tournament, Krzyzewski gave the sense that he wasn't entirely surprised. He never took Lehigh lightly, of course; but, more to the point, he may have sensed that his team this year was a little light. What weight did they lack? What sense of gravity and force?

Well, speaking of light, you can line up the snapped filaments and scorched sockets and shattered glass all you want, but unless you are inside the current, you can't know how the light went out, especially if you weren't in the room when it happened. I suspect that what really ailed these colts, by year's end, was the fascinating difficulty not of shooting, rebounding, passing and so on—the road metal that great teams learn how to drag all the way to the Final Four. Rather, it was the difficulty of a center that not only did not hold but never really formed in the first place. There was never a sense that Duke's players were really playing together, that they trusted each other. There was a lot of mere anarchy on the court with them this year, a chaos of crossed and frayed wires. In the media theater, there was a lot of frankly tiresome invoking of "family," "brotherhood," "unity," and so on—including by Miles Plumlee—but it may be that that set of bromides applies precisely to Duke this season. From Krzyzewski's constant lineup tinkering to a poor assist rate and often poor help defense; from weak defense of their Cameron Indoor Stadium home to the revealingly rushed, almost frantic mid-season decision to stop using Twitter; to having to resort to individual heroics as a means of undertaking great comebacks; and from a failure to give Mason Plumlee the ball enough yesterday to his failure to acknowledge it, justifiably, when asked about it later—yes, he might have said, I should have had the ball more; I was open—the light was at times blindingly bright but always inconstant for Duke this year.

I'm going to replace the light in the kitchen, of course, but I'm thinking of doing more than that. I'm thinking of putting in additional fixtures to replace ones in other rooms in the house that were already broken when I bought the place. Sometimes, the best way to deal with breakage is not just to repair it but to go beyond repair and into rejuvenation, to make things better than they were before the crash. Duke not only has all but one of its players eligible to come back next year, it also has some shiny new incoming freshman fixtures on the way. You can be sure, in any case, that Mike Krzyzewski and his staff are already sweeping up the debris of yesterday's loss, doing the appropriate damage control, and looking around the house to see what else can be renovated.

I'll be tweeting at you from courtside tomorrow at Greensboro Coliseum, where North Carolina looks to advance to the Sweet Sixteen against Creighton.

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