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NCAA March Madness Elite Eight Review

The action was thrilling, the endings were breathtaking, and Gus Johnson reminded us why he’s the voice of March Madness. It wasn’t all roses, though, and despite the exciting finishes, college basketball still leaves me scratching my head.

Butler 74 Florida 71
Prior to the start of the 2011 NCAA Tournament, the NCAA informed Butler that the school’s mascot would not be welcomed at any of Butler’s tournament games until the Final Four. Well, Butler again shocked the college basketball world by reaching the Final Four for the second time in as many years after knocking off the favored Florida Gators. Needless to say, the school’s prized bulldog will be making the trip to Houston as well.

There’s no questioning Butler’s pedigree. The Bulldogs battled harder, played smarter, and earned their spot in the Final Four. However, Florida made it a little easier on Butler with two absolutely horrendous possessions at critical junctures of the game.

The first came at the close of regulation. With the score knotted at 60 and 30 seconds left to play, Florida had the opportunity to milk the clock before attempting a possible game-winning shot. Erving Walker brought the ball up court and then dribbled in place for close to 20 seconds. With about 6 seconds left, Walker made his move. Unfortunately, that move was to hoist a three pointer that found iron.

This drives me crazy. There’s 30 seconds left and Florida never pushed the ball inside of the 3 point line, never passed the ball, and never forced the defense to move. Where’s the logic in that? It’s a tie game. Why take a shot from 30 feet out instead of looking for a higher percentage shot? Isolation plays work for superstars like Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant, and even then I don’t always like them, but college players aren’t NBA superstars. By not forcing the defense to defend, Florida essentially forfeited a shot to clinch the win.

It didn’t stop there. In overtime, Florida found itself down by one with 30 seconds left and possession. Once again, the Gators settled for an awful three and again, missed badly. Butler didn’t force Florida into a bad shot. Florida voluntarily took one. How many times have we seen a foul called in similar situations? Defenses are tentative late in tight games. Attack the defense, find contact and force the officials to call a foul. Don’t give the defense a free pass by launching a prayer from the parking lot.

Believe it or not, I wasn’t rooting for Florida, but it kills me to watch offenses collapse in decisive situations. You know that feeling you get when you hear the obnoxious NAPA commercials? That’s how I felt watching Florida’s offense in key moments. Kentucky knocked off Ohio State on a clinching shot because Brandon Knight attacked the defense, created a clean look, and hit it. Knight didn’t wait around at the three point line as the seconds ticked off.

Make the defense beat you. Don’t beat yourself.

Enough about Florida. Butler won because they were vicious on the offensive glass and because their veteran leaders Matt Howard and Shelvin Mack refused to quit. Howard seemed to wrestle away every important lose ball. Mack always made a play when Butler needed it, including a monster three in overtime that made Gus Johnson’s head explode. As a team, Butler converted its free throws when it mattered most, finishing 7/7 from the charity stripe in overtime. Florida, on the other hand, went 5/8. This just in: Florida lost by three.

All in all, it was an entertaining game, one deserving of Gus Johnson’s golden pipes. In addition to a Final Four berth, Butler also contributed to history (at least I think they did). If Kansas wins on Sunday and then beats Butler, they would be the first team to advance to the NCAA title game without beating higher than an 8 seed. That is amazing.

Parity, meet college basketball. College basketball, parity. Enjoy each other.

Arizona 63 Connecticut 65
By far, my favorite game of the tournament. Two supremely athletic teams bursting with talent going back and forth for 40 minutes with a Final Four berth at stake. Unfortunately, one team had to lose. Let’s review.

Arizona stormed out of the gates to take an early lead but went flat for the remainder of the first half. Heading into the 2nd half I feared UCONN would run away with the game. Arizona is a young team. It wouldn’t be the first time a young team looked in the mirror content with what it already accomplished and checked out.

Sean Miller’s squad was clearly not one of those teams as it relentlessly fought its way back throughout the second half. Derrick Williams overcame a lackluster first half in which he finished with only 6 points and battled foul trouble to lead Arizona to a 55-52 lead with just over five minutes remaining. The Arizona run was triggered by a jaw-dropping Williams dunk over two UCONN defenders that can best be described as Blake Griffin-esque.

As gritty and relentless as Arizona was, Connecticut was up to the challenge… each and every time. On Thursday night against Duke, Arizona made one run and completely took over the game, never relinquishing control. Saturday night was different. The Huskies always fought back, demoralizing Arizona by turning every Arizona run into a run of its own. Until finally, Arizona’s last run ran out of time when the Wildcats missed two three pointers as time expired.

With that said, it’s hard to make sense of Arizona’s execution on its final possession. As great as Derrick Williams played, he forced a contested three with Arizona only down two. Arizona’s forwards were monsters in the second half. Furthermore, Derrick Williams was the best player on the floor for most of the last 20 minutes. Wouldn’t it have made more sense to go to your bread and butter in the paint when you need a bucket most? Obviously, Arizona wanted to win the game right then and there. While I’m all for going for the win, why have Williams take the three?

As for UCONN, Kemba Walker and Jeremy Lamb made play after play when the Huskies needed to stop an Arizona run or jump start a run of its own. Walker’s fade away with just over a minute left to give UCONN a 5 point lead ultimately sealed the win, but not until Arizona hit another clutch three followed by a botched UCONN possession. Lamb made all the intangible plays. He’s a Swiss Army knife, and because of his and Walker’s play, UCONN is one step closer to Jim Calhoun’s third national title.

Arizona, on the other hand, saw its surprising run to the Elite Eight come to a painful end on Saturday. Things are looking up in Tucson, though. Sean Miller appears to have Arizona back to its rightful place among college basketball’s elite. Even though Derrick Williams won’t be back, the Wildcats clearly are.

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