Duke was knocked out of the NCAA Tournament on Sunday, losing 68-67 to Michigan State in their Elite Eight clash. While the game was close for nearly the entire second half and thrilling to watch, the Blue Devils made a baffling decision on their final possession.
Duke was down 68-66 with just under six seconds remaining. The Blue Devils were taking the ball out from the baseline after a review showed that Michigan State had knocked the ball out of bounds. I thought for sure the ball was going to Zion Williamson, but instead he drifted away from the passer, while the ball went into RJ Barrett, who was closer to the side where the inbounds pass was.
Barrett drove to the basket and went up in traffic for a shot and got fouled. Just a 66.5 percent free throw shooter, Barrett missed the first attempt. He tried to miss the second attempt, but it actually bounced in. Duke fouled Michigan State on the ensuing inbound and lost when the Spartans dribbled away with the ball.
Duke’s big mistake was not going to its best player, Williamson. He’s the guy who has carried the Blue Devils through their toughest moments and closest games. He delivered late against UCF. He’s the one you want with the ball with the game on the line.
After so many close calls at the end of Duke’s previous games, it’s not really surprising that the Blue Devils’ luck ran out. You can’t have so many games come down to the final play and expect each one to go your way. But you also have to give yourself the best chance to win, and by not going to Zion, Duke didn’t do that.
There’s always a ton of pressure during the first two days of tournament play. The years full of shocking upsets and buzzer-beaters have spoiled us. We expect that every year on the first Thursday and Friday of tournament play.
When a day like this Thursday comes along, you’ll hear some complaining the action didn’t quite reach chaotic levels. Even without the wildest surprise upsets or heroic game-winners, we saw 16 basketball games, all of which taught us something about this tournament and the teams in it.
We also saw a ton of close calls, one-possession games, and some mind-boggling performances. Here’s what we learned from the action.
Until March, Ja Morant received more attention as an NBA Draft prospect than as a college star. He was ready for the spotlight Thursday, leading Murray State to a blowout over Marquette. Morant recorded the 17th triple-double in NCAA Tournament history and the first since Draymond Green in 2012.
Morant drew attention for a monster two-handed flush in the second half, but the real story was how well he played all over the floor against a strong high-major team. Morant finished with 17 points, 11 rebounds and 16 assists, playing great defense and essentially controlling the pace of the game. It was the best performance of the day.
2. Minnesota starts things off hot
The first game of Thursday’s action provided our first surprise as Minnesota beat Louisville handily. Richard Pitino had his team ready to play against the school that fired his father a year ago. Every Gopher in the starting lineup provided double-figure scoring and, as a team, Minnesota turned the ball over just five times.
The Golden Gophers had been stumbling toward the end of the Big Ten schedule, putting themselves directly on the bubble. They earned their bid to the tournament by beating Purdue twice in a 10-day span. In recent weeks, this team has look renewed. Now they’ll get a crack at Big Ten rival Michigan State, which Minnesota played once this season, an easy Spartans victory in East Lansing.
3. Long shots fall short in upset bids
The afternoon saw three low seeds give top dogs a real test before fading late. Bradley was the most notable, pushing second-seeded Michigan State to the brink. The Braves led with under seven minutes to play before an 8-0 Spartans run changed the outlook of the game. Bradley benefited from hot shooting in the first half but simply didn’t have an answer for Cassius Winston or Michigan State’s size.
Vermont also fought late into the second half, courtesy of some sharp shooting, making 16 of 32 from beyond the arc against Florida State. Despite making enough long balls to stay competitive, the Catamounts could not contend with the Florida State frontline. America East Player of the Year Anthony Lamb was overmatched by the Seminoles size and shot just 4 of 13 from the field.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Yale was able to handle the size and speed of a high-major opponent, yet forgot to pack their jump shooting on the flight out of New Haven. The Bulldogs, a strong outside shooting team this season, managed to shoot just 8 for 37 from outside the arc, with many of the makes coming too late to matter. Yale’s best player, Miye Oni, failed to score in double figures for just the second time this season, shooting a miserable 2 for 16 from the field. Oni made just one of his 10 long-range attempts as the Bulldogs failed to keep pace with LSU.
4. Belmont and New Mexico State hurt by bad decisions
Two of the day’s better opportunities for an upset were foiled by questionable decision-making down the stretch.
New Mexico State cut into an Auburn lead, giving itself a chance to tie the game late. The Aggies trailed by two in the final seconds. AJ Harris split through the defense in the paint but passed up a chance to finish at the rim for a wild hook pass out to the perimeter. Auburn bailed Harris out by fouling Terrell Brown as he attempted a 3-pointer. Although Brown missed two of three from the line, the Aggies had yet another chance as the third free throw bounced off of an Auburn player and out of bounds. The Aggies inbounded to Trevelin Queen, who air-balled the potential game-winner. New Mexico State had ample chances and time after time didn’t take advantage.
Belmont had a double-digit lead in the first half but saw that disappear late. The Bruins had possession, down by one point, with under 20 seconds to play. Inexplicably, Belmont chose to hold the ball for the final shot to win the game. The Bruins’ possession ended with a backdoor pass being stolen. By the time Belmont could foul, less than three seconds remain. With no timeouts, Belmont’s last gasp came from beyond half-court.
5. Kentucky and Gonzaga look great
Unlike Michigan State, other top seeds had no problem running away. Both Kentucky and Gonzaga dominated both ends of the floor in easy victories.
Kentucky held Abilene Christian to just 13 first-half points and 32 percent shooting for the game. Big Blue owned the glass, grabbing 44 rebounds to Abilene Christian’s 17. Keldon Johnson made up for the absence of PJ Washington by scoring 25 points.
Gonzaga was just as impressive, ripping off a 19-0 run before the half. The Zags recorded 22 assists on their 34 field goals, sharing the ball to find scoring chances. Gonzaga’s lead ballooned above 40 as Fairleigh Dickinson struggled to score against the Bulldog defense. The Knights shot just 15 for 50 from the field.
6. Kansas puts together strong showing
No team saw as much drama and adversity as Kansas did this year. Bill Self lost players to injuries, personal reasons and NCAA suspensions. The Jayhawks did not win the Big XII regular-season title for the first time in 14 years and were blown out in the Big XII Tournament final in front of a pro-Iowa State crowd in Kansas City. It was nearly impossible to calibrate tournament expectations for this team.
Kansas came out against a Northeastern team which could have presented problems and soundly defeated the Huskies. Northeastern fell behind early and was never able to keep pace with this rebuilt Kansas club. Dedric Lawson played like an All-American, and Devon Dotson has stepped to become a legitimate star.
If Kansas plays like it did on Thursday, the Jayhawks will be a tough out moving forward.
7. Florida bounces Nevada
In a matchup of two similarly skilled teams, the Florida Gators upended a talented Nevada team. The game pitted two teams with radically different paths to the tournament.
Florida needed to upset LSU in the SEC Tournament just to get off the bubble and into the field, with a record of 19-15 entering the Big Dance. The Gators were aided by their strength of schedule, making up for their raw number of losses.
Nevada was quite the opposite. The Wolf Pack had only four losses this season but only played three games against teams in the NCAA Tournament. The teams had also been moving in opposite directions, with Florida winning eight of 12 games and Nevada losing three times since Feb. 20.
On Thursday, Nevada’s isolation heavy offense simply stalled against Florida’s defense. The Wolf Pack were forced into contested jump shots throughout the game and shot just 5 for 24 from outside the arc. Even when the game was close late, Nevada couldn’t find the answers to make shots.
What offseason? At least, that’s got to be the mentality of our list of coaches facing the most pressure this year. Some are recent, high-profile hires for whom anything less than instant success will be considered a failure. Some have had time to develop their programs but have fallen short of expectations. Across the board, a lot of eyeballs — and not all friendly — will be on this group when it’s time to take the gridiron this fall.
This December, after a 5-7 finish to the season, Trojan fans and college football pundits alike were mystified when USC athletic director Lynn Swann hitched his wagon to Helton for another season. It was the worst finish for the Trojans since 2000 (the year before Pete Carroll went to Los Angeles) and one of only four seasons with fewer than six wins since 1961. In three full seasons as USC’s head coach, Helton has taken the Trojans to a Rose Bowl and a Cotton Bowl. For almost any other program, that would be considered coaching success, but USC is a program accustomed to being in the national title conversation every year. Anything short of a playoff berth in 2019 will be viewed as an abject failure (especially in light of the Kliff Kingsbury debacle that kicked off the Trojans offseason).
Chris Ash, Rutgers
The prospects for Rutgers couldn’t be more different than those at USC, and yet Ash hasn’t lived up to the comparatively meager expectations. The Big Ten is a tough conference — one which the Scarlet Knights joined fewer than five years ago — and to be sure, it can take a while for football programs with lesser pedigrees to catch up. But under Ash, Rutgers has looked like it barely belongs in the FBS, let alone the Power Five. Coming off a 1-11 season in 2018 and with just five FBS wins in his three years as head coach, Ash is in dire need of an uptick. This is a case where a multimillion-dollar buyout is likely keeping the coach in place for the time being, but if Ash doesn’t make great strides in turning the program around in Year 4, Rutgers will surely cuts its losses.
Jim Harbaugh, Michigan
After a season in which his team only narrowly missed a playoff berth, Harbaugh may not quite be on the proverbial hot seat…but the noise from the rafters is getting harder and harder to tune out. In 2019, Harbaugh will have to prove he can “win the big game,” a task that has often eluded the head coach since he led the Stanford Cardinal to an Orange Bowl win to end the 2010 season. Specifically, the Wolverines need to beat rival Ohio State for the first time in Harbaugh’s tenure. A 41-15 shellacking in the Peach Bowl, courtesy of Florida, left a stench that will carry over into next season unless Harbaugh can finally prove that he’s more than just a fixer — that he has what it takes to guide a team to a championship finish. Nothing less than a playoff spot will do in Ann Arbor.
Jeremy Pruitt, Tennessee
The stink of the Greg Schiano debacle, in which Tennessee fans railed so hard against his hire that Vols administration was forced to renege on the deal, still lingers in Knoxville. When Jeremy Pruitt got the gig a few weeks later, the same fans were supportive and seem to remain so despite a disappointing 5-7 finish in Pruitt’s first year. That will all evaporate quickly if the ex-Alabama defensive coordinator doesn’t produce a winning season in 2019, especially because the pieces are in the place. The Volunteers lost only a couple of seniors, return key performers at a multitude of positions and had an impressive signing day — so expectations will be high. Fair or not, SEC fan bases can turn on a dime, with the Volunteers’ among the most passionate.
Scott Frost, Nebraska
Frost is another second-year coach with something to prove. The Cornhuskers’ 0-6 start in 2018, which was the worst in program history, had some fans calling for Frost’s head despite the fact the ink on his contract had hardly dried. Considering the dismal inauguration to the Frost era, the fact that Nebraska finished 4-8 left a sense of optimism for the year ahead. The 2019 schedule is much more favorable — the Huskers will get their two toughest opponents, Ohio State and Wisconsin, at home. But this is a program with a proud tradition, big expectations and a definite sense of impatience in the wake of Mike Riley’s tenure. Should Nebraska suffer another slow start, or fail to show up for the midlevel Big Ten opponents, Frost’s favor will dry up in a hurry.
Gus Malzahn, Auburn
When Malzahn guided the Tigers to a BCS Championship berth in his first season, hype for the coach reached a fever pitch. Unfortunately it appears Auburn’s skipper may have peaked early. Subsequently, the Tigers have been, well, just OK. Sure, they’ve played in two New Year’s Six bowl games and won the SEC West in 2017. They’re also 2-6 in the postseason under Malzahn and followed up that stellar 2017 campaign with a dud this past year. After 2017, Auburn signed Malzahn to a reported seven-year, $49 million contract extension — a number that all but precludes a buyout. But this is the SEC. Stranger things have happened than an expensive coach getting the boot following a winning season. Malzahn should be ready for a 2019 in which his every move, every play call and every final score will be scrutinized.
Mack Brown, North Carolina
But, you say, Brown is a living legend who’s already proved he can win in Chapel Hill! That, of course, is exactly why Brown is under a fair amount of pressure before he’s even donned the Tar Heel colors for his second stint. Since Brown departed for Texas in 1998, after leading one of the most successful eras in North Carolina football history, the Tar Heels have struggled to stay relevant in the increasingly competitive ACC. Brown’s hiring isn’t just about the X’s and O’s — it’s a sentimental one as well. North Carolina’s fans and administrators alike are hungry to recapture the magic of Mack Brown, Part 1. There are plenty of hurdles to overcome. Brown hasn’t coached since 2013, and his final years at Texas weren’t successful ones. Additionally, this a full-blown rebuild: The Tar Heels have won a total of five games over the last two seasons. No one is predicting an overnight turnaround, but this was easily one of the most high-profile hires of the offseason, so a lot of eyeballs will be on Brown.
The college football season is officially over. But that won’t stop some of us from watching Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney’s post-national championship press conference on repeat while listening to “Sweet Home Alabama” and gorging ourselves on South Carolina BBQ.
It was a wild ride with an ending that absolutely no one expected, and you are kidding yourself if you didn’t love every moment of it. From the upsets, to the underwhelming performances, to the GIF’s for the ages — the 2018 college football season will forever be trapped in a glass case of emotion.
Here are 10 things we learned from it all:
1) You will never love anything as much as Swinney loves football. And his faith. The newly minted national champion Clemson head coach isn’t afraid to let people know that the Tigers final victory was due in large part to God working through them. “Only God could do this,” exclaimed Swinney in the postgame press conference. “A Hollywood movie Steve Spielberg or whoever one of them producer people are, they couldn’t write this script. They really couldn’t. Only God can do this.” Surely a higher power is at work, as the Tigers are the first 15-0 champion in 121 years.
2) Texas is back. I know. We have said this a few times over the course of this tumultuous season, but this time it’s for real. The Longhorns capped their first double-digit winning season this decade with a 28-21 Sugar Bowl win over Georgia. Quarterback Sam Ehlinger, who ran for three touchdowns and threw for 169 yards, had a message for Longhorn Nation after the game:
3) But Jim Harbaugh isn’t. I mean physically he is; he vehemently denied rumors yet again that he would be leaving for the NFL. Fans were less than thrilled this time around with the news that Harbaugh intended to stay. Might it be because that 11th win continues to elude the Wolverines? Or was it the 41-15 smackdown they received at the hands of Florida in this year’s Peach Bowl? One thing is for sure: That 62-39 loss to Ohio State is harder to explain now. Harbaugh is struggling to change Michigan’s ability to perform well on a big stage. Luckily, there’s always next year.
4) The Playoff format is fine. Dabo said it, so therefore it’s undeniably true. But I agree with him, mostly because as it turned out we didn’t need a bigger field — all the best teams were exactly where they were supposed to be. Swinney spoke out about how expanding the Playoff could diminish the value of non-Playoff bowl games. He also said that expanding the Playoff would put less meaning on the regular season, and to some degree he’s right. There are those who would argue that because he is on the inside looking out, his words don’t carry as much weight — or that Playoff expansion is really about the fans. But this year was proof that the fans got exactly what they deserved.
5) The Pac-12 wheel of death will never stop turning over. The Conference of Champions went a dismal 3-4 in this year’s bowl season, which is a far cry from last year’s 1-8 record but is still not impressive enough to win anybody over. Oregon defeated Michigan State with ONE fourth-quarter touchdown, Stanford beat Pittsburgh with an end-zone fumble and Washington State put down Iowa State in the Alamo Bowl with three touchdowns and nearly 300 yards from quarterback Gardner Minshew. The conference is a mess, top to bottom. From the Larry Scott issues to the cannibalistic tendencies of the teams, it is clear that some major changes need to be made:
6.) People just need to stop trying to make Notre Dame happen. It’s not going to happen. Not in the capacity that everyone thinks, at least. Yes the Fighting Irish made the College Football Playoff field, but after one quarter against Clemson it was clear that Brian Kelly’s squad left a lot to be desired. In fact, the Tigers went 27-0 in the remaining three quarters against Notre Dame. Quarterback Ian Book was off rhythm, and the Clemson pass rush proved too much. So next time you want to say Notre Dame is ready for a national title, just don’t.
7.) Mascot Fights are the new Twitter feuds. And yes, I’m talking about Bevo charging Uga prior to the Texas vs. Georgia Sugar Bowl. The 1,600-pound longhorn bull went after Uga X during what was supposed to be a friendly photo opp. This exchange sparked PETA to revive its argument against universities using live mascots. But at the end of the day, live mascots are part of the rich tradition woven into the college football tapestry and the animals are well taken care of. Uga has his own air-conditioned doghouse at Sanford Stadium for goodness sake:
Another weekend, another all-you-can-eat buffet of surprises and flip-flops in college basketball. If February is this good, imagine what March will be like. But what to keep the public occupied until then? More about that in a minute.
Consider this latest crescendo. Ten ranked teams lost Saturday. There were 12 overtime games, and 31 decided by one possession — three points or fewer – over the weekend. Seven games were settled by someone scoring in the final two seconds.
You didn’t need to be a powerhouse to share in the tumult. Take Alcorn State. The Braves hit a 3-pointer with one second left to force overtime against Mississippi Valley State, then buried another jumper with one second left in the extra period to win 72-71, meaning Mississippi Valley State twice led with two seconds left on the clock, and lost.
Meanwhile, home winning streaks became an endangered species. Wichita State’s was stopped at a nation-leading 43, Maryland’s at 27, Valparaiso’s at 25 (on a tip-in at the buzzer), Oklahoma’s at 19, by its old friends from Kansas, whose own 39-game streak is now the nation’s longest.
So the landscape looks as volatile as ever. Now, about the future. The conference tournaments are just down the road, but there are still some regular-season games that should make the intrigue meter click.
Such as …
North Carolina versus Duke in Chapel Hill on Feb. 17, and in Durham on March 5
Yes, this season has steamed up the windows, and the most ballyhooed rivalry of all hasn’t even tipped off yet. Duke went three months without a win over a ranked opponent. And now two in six days, including Grayson Allen’s last-second winning bank shot against Virginia on Mike Krzyzewski’s 69th birthday, just after he had missed two free throws. You can’t make this stuff up.
The Blue Devils have had the better of Tobacco Road lately, winning three meetings in a row and 10 of the past 13. But the Tar Heels are supposed to be positioned for a reversal. We’ll see.
Wisconsin at Michigan State, Feb. 18
No, neither team is leading the Big Ten, but they might be the two hottest teams in the conference. Wisconsin, for example, has gone from 9-9 to 16-9, after blowing through Maryland. Let’s see who keeps Big Mo.
Coming into conference championship week, we now have a clear picture of what SHOULD be the College Football Playoff.
Oklahoma won the Big 12 Championship with its blowout 58-23 victory over in-state rival Oklahoma State. That gives them an all but for sure ticket to the second College Football Playoff. The committee values a conference championship, check. Oklahoma also made use of its back loaded schedule with Baylor, TCU, and OK St. in the final three weeks. They made it through the season 11-1, despite not playing a true conference championship game, they should be in.
We have one lock for the playoff.
Lock number two comes from the Big 10 Championship Game. Iowa, who is currently undefeated, and Michigan State, with one loss, will meet to decide who is going to the playoff.
Who wins? Michigan State. The Spartans looked great in a decisive victory over Penn State. They avoided the post-upset letdown by beating the Nittany Lions 55-16. Iowa has had a really fun year and will likely take a trip to the Rose Bowl for its efforts. But the old school ground and pound won’t be enough to stop Connor Cook, who looked electric last week. Cook played his best game of 2015 in his biggest moment. One win from reaching the college football’s version of the final four, Cook gets it done and positions himself nicely for next year’s NFL Draft.
Now we have Oklahoma and Michigan State in the CFP.
See that photo above? That’s Saban taking the team picture with the 1998 Michigan State Spartans.
The 1998 Spartans did not possess championship aspirations, and they did not fulfill them. Michigan State lingered in — if not obscurity — “second-class status” for quite some time following the 1988 Rose Bowl win over USC under George Perles. Mediocre in some seasons and teasingly “almost there” in others, Michigan State established an identity as a member of the “not yet” club in college football.
In 1998, that’s where Saban stood himself.
Then a less-than-remarkable coach, Saban had not yet moved to Baton Rouge, where he launched his ascendancy at LSU. “The Hound” (if Alabama has “The Bear,” Saban is The Hound) was toiling in the middle tiers of college football; he had not left any sort of imprint on the sport…
… not until November 7, 1998, that is.
Saban’s Michigan State team waltzed into Columbus and defeated what might have been John Cooper’s best and most talented team at Ohio State. This was the only game the Buckeyes lost in 1998; they steam rolled Texas A&M in the Sugar Bowl, but in a pre-playoff world, they didn’t get to play their way into a national championship game.
Whoever said patience is a virtue apparently wasn’t a college football junkie, or a sports fan in general.
Finally, mercifully, the big one is almost here. We’ve been looking forward to the Ohio State-Michigan State game since the kickoff of the college football season, and although it’s lost a little of its mojo because of the Spartan loss to Nebraska a couple of weeks ago, there are still a lot of dangling carrots for both teams to grab.
OSU and MSU both sit in the penthouse of expectations this year, and the game could go either way on Saturday, but there’s reason to believe that one team has the upper hand over the other.
Here are five reasons Ohio State will take care of business on Saturday:
5. J.T. Barrett: Ohio State’s offense hasn’t been nearly as explosive as last year’s version, but a lot of that can be traced back to the musical chairs at the quarterback position. Despite a run-in with some of Columbus’ finest and a resulting suspension, Barrett is now clearly the guy. With him under center, opposing defenses now have to pull their hair out over a more accurate passer that can also make some plays with a little Nike action.
In addition to that, the entire team just seems to be a more confident bunch with the leader of the team calling the shots. There’s something to be said about everyone knowing the team has a better chance of moving the ball and getting everyone involved. I know, you know, and Mark Dantonio knows Ohio State is a much more dangerous team with No. 16 performing feats of strength and dexterity in these high-profile athletic endeavors.
A month ago, I wrote about the ball-spotting problem in college football, one of the most underreported yet significant flaws in the sport as an on-field product. This severe deficiency continues to receive very little attention from media outlets, at least when viewed through the prism of saturation coverage.
“The media” can be a vague and generalized reference, but it is meant to refer to the collective ecosystem in which a wide range of outlets exist across various platforms (principally television, radio and blogs). These outlets can (and do) choose to focus their attention on one topic if they think it will become a conversation piece, or when the conversation is essentially thrust into the media realm, giving said outlets no real choice but to continue the debate.
We have not yet come upon a moment in the existence of football when “the media” have seen fit to launch an urgent discussion of ball-spotting.
However, Saturday’s Michigan State-Michigan game — which was instructive and revealing for so many different reasons BEFORE the unforgettable, one-of-a-kind conclusion — should lead college football to drag the NFL into a new age of game administration and officiating.
One person — one great American — has banged the drum on the topic of ball-spotting longer than I have. Tim Hyland, a gifted essayist and commentator who is one of the best thinkers in the college football community, has said for years that college football officiating is based on complete guesswork when ball-spotting is the issue at hand:
Whenever an all-time blunder with game- and season-changing significance occurs in a major sport, you can count on human beings to criticize the coach or (in a solo-athlete sport) the thought process of the athlete. Naturally, football is a team sport, so the focus here belongs on Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh.
Did Harbaugh make the wrong decision at the end of Saturday’s game against Michigan State?
Some people thought — and still think — that throwing a Hail Mary pass to the opposite end zone is what the Wolverines should have done. The idea is equivalent to a basketball player, with four or five seconds left, throwing the ball high in the air to the other end of the court, especially if no player on the opposing team is particularly close to the baseline near his own basket. That’s a way to drain time without giving the opponent a realistic chance of scoring.
Was this the path Harbaugh should have taken?
In a slightly different circumstance, yes… but we didn’t have a slightly different circumstance on Saturday evening in Ann Arbor, which is precisely the point.