The most tumultuous and unpredictable season in college basketball’s recent memory concluded just as it began, and just as it transpired for four months: With exactly what you didn’t expect.
Duke — preseason No. 1, falling-off-a-cliff January disappointment and NCAA tournament favorite all in the past four months — succumbed to the aggressive and confident South Carolina Gamecocks. The No. 7 seed disrupted Duke’s offense, and disrupted a season that has been intermittently disrupted so often over the past few months.
The Blue Devils’ season began with one of the most talented rosters college basketball has ever seen. It ended with that same roster. But that group only ever came together as it was expected to in a four-game run to the ACC tournament title in Brooklyn. It dealt with sporadic unavailability due to injuries and suspensions. It was hounded by controversy, most of it blown out of proportion.
Throughout January, just when it seemed Duke couldn’t sink any further, it did. It lost three of four. It lost to N.C. State.
But just when it seemed the Blue Devils would never reach their potential, they showed signs. They won seven in a row. Duke was back, or so everybody said.
The seesaw continued swinging in March. Duke ended its regular season with three losses in four games. Then it rumbled through the ACC, and looked like a national title contender. It was a national title contender. It was the favorite in Vegas.
Luke Kennard and Duke were left to rue another unexpected turn. (Getty)
So of course, it did exactly the opposite of what everyone expected it to. The Blue Devils are done. There are no more stories to be written aside from the obits, and it’s a good thing, too, because no forward-looking statements concerning Duke were ever accurate anyway. The tournament goes on without the Blue Devils. Their season ends as it materialized week in and week out: With the unexpected becoming reality.
The Blue Devils weren’t the only story of the final day of the first weekend of the NCAA tournament. But, as they have been all season, they were certainly the biggest.
- Duke lost to an unthinkably hot Gamecock offense
What happened to Duke? The Blue Devils’ top-10 offense ran into a top-five defense, and the showdown on that end of the floor was a split-decision. Duke scored 1.09 points per possession, a pretty good mark. It was the matchup on the other end, featuring South Carolina’s 136th-ranked offense, that decided the game. South Carolina got to the free-throw line 32 times, made 27, and an offense that scores 1.02 points per possession on the season scored 1.18 per trip. The Gamecocks were frigid in the first half, but hit an incredible 20 of their 28 second-half shots, and pulled down 15 offensive rebounds on the night. That, right there, is the anatomy of an upset.
- The ACC is crumbling before our eyes
A week after it placed nine teams in the NCAA tournament, had a 10th barely left out and completed a season as what some believed to be the best conference ever, the ACC is sending one team to the Sweet 16. One (1). Let’s review the carnage:
It began on Tuesday with Wake Forest’s loss in the First Four. Virginia Tech and Miami lost in first-round games on Thursday and Friday. Notre Dame, Virginia and Florida State lost to West Virginia, Florida and Xavier, respectively, on Saturday. Louisville fell to a surging Michigan team on Sunday afternoon. Duke pushed the conference’s collapse to the brink on Sunday night. In fact, North Carolina nearly turned the one Sweet 16 team into a zero; it struggled mightily with Arkansas earlier Sunday evening, but escaped into the second weekend as the conference’s sole representative.
- Kansas-Michigan State quashed your March narrative
Tom Izzo doesn’t lose in March. Bill Self and Kansas always choke as a top-two seed. Right?
Wrong. Those narratives developed based on past evidence, but they were always somewhat silly. There is certainly something to Michigan State’s consistent success in the NCAA tournament and Izzo’s brilliance, of course, but Self is 32-12 in the NCAA tournament at Kansas. He’s made the Sweet 16 nine out of 14 years. He has had really good teams. Every. Single. Year. Did Kansas suffer a few disappointing early losses? Yes. But that wasn’t proof of some flaw in Self’s coaching philosophy or strategy that made him susceptible in March. It was just a few bad performances; a few flukes.
How about these narratives instead? Kansas’ 2017 team is awesome. Michigan State’s was young, inexperienced, and good but very imperfect. The Jayhawks advanced, and are the national title favorite.
- Kentucky-Wichita State was wonderful drama
There were so many storylines heading into the second in Indianapolis on Sunday afternoon. Wichita State’s revenge. Kentucky’s title chase. The selection committee’s under-seeding of the Shockers. The main storyline that should come out of it was straightforward: What an awesome basketball game. It wasn’t inundated with offense or full of fastbreaks and up-and-down action, but it was played at an extremely high level. After all, we shouldn’t have expected anything else from the Nos. 5 and 7 teams in the nation, according to Ken Pomeroy. But the entire 40 minutes met those expectations.
This wasn’t about poor seeding — if Wichita had been slotted in three seed lines higher, it would have played Kentucky, or a team like the Wildcats, anyway. This wasn’t about past matchups. It was about the same thing the NCAA tournament is about: Two really good teams going at it. Wichita State was really good, even in a 65-62 defeat. Kentucky was just slightly better.
- Moritz Wagner and D.J. Wilson make Michigan very dangerous
Derrick Walton has played as well as anybody in March, but it wasn’t Walton who propelled Michigan to the Sweet 16; it was a German forward by the name of Moritz Wagner. The 6-foot-11 sophomore poured in 26 massive points against one of the best defensive frontcourts in the nation to lead Michigan to a 73-69 victory. As good as Walton is, it’s Wagner, a 41 percent 3-point shooter, and fellow sophomore D.J. Wilson, a vastly improved all-around player, who make Michigan a threat to go all the way to Phoenix. Perimeter abilities make the Wolverines incredibly difficult to account for on offense.
PLAYER OF THE DAY
Oregon, down 10 to No. 11 seed Rhode Island in the second half, needed some heroics to stave off elimination. Normally in these situations, it turns to Dillon Brooks. Brooks didn’t necessarily hide — he scored 19 points, including a few crucial ones late, but needed 20 shots to get those 19. Instead, the Ducks turned to Tyler Dorsey. Dorsey needed just 10 shots to pile up 27 points! He made nine of the 10 shots, hit four of his five 3-pointers, and came through in the clutch:
ONE-MAN RUN OF THE DAY
Third-seeded Baylor found itself down two to USC with five minutes left in the second half. How did it respond? It lined up behind a 5-foot-11, 175-pound one-man wrecking crew named Manu Lecomte. Lecomte scored eight straight points to turn a two-point deficit into a six-point advantage — an advantage Baylor would keep to clinch a spot in the Sweet 16.
BACKDOOR COVER OF THE DAY
USC, as has become its ritual, came back from a double-digit deficit for the third game in a row, but this time succumbed to Lecomte. However … down six with under five seconds to play, USC launched a 3-pointer. With the betting line having closed at Baylor -5.5, bettors held their breath. Then they either sighed or breathed a sigh of relief. The shot came up short. Baylor was going to cover.
Except they didn’t, because the shot bounded off the rim and right to Chimezie Metu. Metu pushed it back in the direction of the rim with his right hand. It caught iron, hung in the air and fell through the net. Vegas went crazy/[/restrict]