April 06, 2015
What a great college basketball game, and what a great way to end an excellent tournament overall. I happen to follow a lot of NBA-centric Twitter accounts because "The League" takes up most of my attention span when it comes to basketball, but I couldn't disagree more with anybody that looked down on last night's contest. In the tourney's last three rounds, we were treated to four super-compelling and well-played games. ND-Kentucky, Wisconsin-Arizona, and Kentucky-Wisconsin were the others in my opinion.
Duke captured Coach K's fifth national title primarily because of timely plays from a couple of freshman guards, one that you might've expected to come up big and another that appeared from relative obscurity. Let's go in chronological order and start with the lesser-known of the two. According to KenPom, 6-foot-4 Grayson Allen only played 20.5% of the Blue Devils' minutes this season, but he saved their bacon with a little over 13 minutes remaining in the second half. Down 48-39 and with star freshmen Jahlil Okafor and Justise Winslow both on the bench saddled with foul trouble, Duke was in the Danger Zone (cue Kenny Loggins). Allen responded by submitting the most important 1:30 of the game:
For lack of a better term, his facial expressions were very Duke. Before we rush to judgment, though, Allen doesn't profile as the typical smallish, white, floor-slapping Duke guard of yesteryear. Bobby Hurley, Chris Collins and Wojo weren't capable of providing us with this type of entertainment:
After Allen got the Blue Devils back into striking distance, Tyus Jones took over the reins from there. Despite not possessing off-the-charts size or athleticism, the mental aspect appears to comes so easily to 6-foot-1 freshman point guard from Minnesota. He was their Hurley, not Allen.
Jones started with a circus shot that resulted in an and-one. He then proceeded to hit three of the exact same jumpers coming directly off the pick-and-roll to his right, the last of which was a dagger 3 with a little over a minute remaining. On a court filled with smart and talented players, an 18-year-old guard seized the moment the most. Sports are great sometimes.
I thought these two guys, offensive powerhouses who also play questionable defense, were going to trade buckets all night. Kaminsky isn't a great post defender, and Okafor is already such a polished scorer on the low block. On the other end, Kaminsky stretches all the way out to the 3-point line and is capable putting the ball on the deck, while Okafor struggles to guard in space. I go back-and-forth on where Big Jah should be drafted what seems like every single day, to the point it's eating me up inside. THAT OFFENSE! But that "defense"....
I ended up being completely wrong about the trading buckets part, too. Even though the freshman made a couple of key hoops down the stretch, Kaminsky guarded Okafor well enough in the post. He also got him in foul trouble on the other end, even if one of those calls was super iffy. Not a great night for Okafor's draft stock, although he did play decent defense for stretches (Kaminsky finished 7-16 from the field, which isn't up to his usual standards). I don't know how Harold Lederman scored the fight, but I had it at eight rounds to four for "Frank the Tank," which is a one-star nickname:
Frank the Tank is a horrible nickname that only exists because of rhyme laziness— ☕netw3rk (@netw3rk) April 5, 2015
I enjoyed all of the armchair analysts on Twitter that felt this pairing would be key to the game. "Maybe the two best players in the entire tourney thus far are going to be important." Who would've thunk it! As the game played out, the two wings didn't guard each other and neither made a major impact. To continue with the boxing analogy, let's rule this one a no contest.
Dekker shot 0-6 from 3-point range, which had to be absolute torture for both Arizona and Kentucky fans, whose teams he shot a combined 7-9 from beyond the arc against. Regardless of the sport, there's nothing worse as a fan than watching an opposing player revert to the mean later in the playoffs in an area which he utilized to eliminate your team. For instance, I'm sure Red Sox fans were losing their minds when Melvin (nee B.J.) Upton all of the sudden forgot how to hit in the 2008 World Series only one round after doing a credible Barry Bonds impression against their team.
You're Josh Gasser. You're playing the national championship game, probably one of your dreams as a youngster. You're fired up and make a great offensive rebound/kick-out pass for an open 3-pointer all in the same motion early in the game... and then this happens:
Wisconsin confirmed contact was ripped in half. Half stuck in eye. Got it out and put a new one in.— Tracy Wolfson (@tracywolfson) April 7, 2015
Nope, no thank you, that sounds awful. Gasser returned to play 36 minutes, but he didn't score.
I'd like to preface what I'm going to write by saying that Bo Ryan is someone that I deeply respect. First, there's the local bias: I once wrote a story about Chester High School basketball, which might very well be the best public program in the country, and anyone that cut their teeth at the Clip Joint like Ryan did frankly understands toughness like few others can. Then, there's the grinder angle: Ryan coached for almost three decades at junior highs, high schools, and at Division III Wisconsin-Platteville before getting his shot at the big time, and that type of perseverance is remarkable. Finally, I just love watching his team consistently and comfortably execute in the half-court. The Badgers' Swing Offense is a thing of a beauty.
All that said, I thought he was pretty off the mark last night with pretty much everything after the game.
First off, it seemed that all he wanted to do in the post-game interview was complain about the officiating, saying that the zebras allowed the game to become far too physical:
I watch enough college basketball to understand that the officiating is wildly inconsistent, but making excuses right off the bat isn't a good look. The final foul count was 15-13 in favor of Duke, and both of the Blue Devils' stars (Okafor and Winslow) each picked up four fouls in such a physical game (according to Ryan, anyway) while Wisconsin's two big guns (Kaminsky and Dekker) only combined for two. You would think Wisconsin wins most times when that is the case, but not tonight. Ryan didn't specifically mention the foul disparities, but it comes off as sour grapes to complain about the physicality. If the refs were letting things go, then it's on your team to adjust. John Calipari wasn't blaming the refs to that extent after a poorly officiated game on Saturday night.
(Yes, the two late Winslow calls were bad misses, and the second one was pretty egregious considering the refs had a chance to review it on replay. Two calls do not represent a game's worth of officiating.)
Ryan is human, and it's understandable that he would be so emotional after what had to be a heartbreaking loss. His comments after the game about one-and-done players were more troublesome, though. From SB Nation:
"All the seniors that I've had -- hard to say the word. But every player that's played through the program, okay, we don't do a rent-a-player. You know what I mean? Try to take a fifth-year guy. That's okay. If other people do that, that's okay. I like trying to build from within. It's just the way I am. And to see these guys grow over the years and to be here last year and lose a tough game, boom, they came back."
All college players are rented, for free at that. No reasonable college basketball observer would contend that Duke and Wisconsin's teams were built the same way, but trying to say that yours is the right and just one is problematic. Wisconsin had a great run, but another awesome team slightly outplayed them on the game's largest stage. There's literally no shame in that, which I hope Bo Ryan can eventually recognize. The real shame of the night was him trying to use the officials and other team's one-and-done players to overshadow the end of what was a great run for his group.