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Elite Eight Recap: Kentucky Survives, Wisconsin Catches Fire and Two Coaching Legends Return to the Final Four

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Survive and advance.

Even for the mighty, the invincible, the undefeated, the season can wane in a single moment as possible history clings to life and championship aspirations venture into the unknown. For an instant, fans, coaches, players and every other basketball soul bond together sharing the same dramatic seconds as the ball rotates through the air.

And in the next moment, Kentucky celebrates in jubilation as Notre Dame encounters heartbreak. It is the reality of March.

Notre Dame fought and battled for 40 minutes. They managed to duck every UK haymaker, and even landed their own fair share of blows, but Kentucky’s undefeated for a reason. It can go the full 15 rounds and still emerge victorious.

Kentucky’s isn’t undefeated because of their eight active McDonald’s All-Americans. They aren’t undefeated because of their outrageous collection of talent, they aren’t undefeated because of their uber shot-blocking, shutdown defense. That’s why they are good, but they are undefeated because even as an alpha-mega dog, they fight, scrap, battle and do all of the things associated with the magnificence of the underdog.

NDNotre Dame showed their mettle, and in turn forced Kentucky to show theirs. The Fighting Irish’s collection of 3-point bombers allowed Notre Dame the appropriate spacing to shred Kentucky in Jerian Grant-Zack Auguste pick-and-rolls. Pat Connaughton lured the defensive juggernaut that is Willie Cauley-Stein away from the paint with his shooting, and exposed the big man’s offensive ineptitude on the block while holding his own on the glass to the tune of nine combative rebounds. Steve Vasturia craftily poured in 16 points, and gallantly defended the taller and superior athletic Trey Lyles. Mike Brey perfected his offensive gameplan of backcuts and ball screens revealing a previously undiscovered mortality to the Wildcat defense.

However, Kentucky clung to its one saving light of consistent offensive production that existed with the distinguished post game of block bully, Karl-Anthony Towns. The inexplicably never-doubled teamed Karl-Anthony Towns. For all of the fantastic preparation, in-game adjustments and offensive townsschematics deployed by Brey to submerge the Wildcats, the decision to repeatedly leave Towns unattended by a doubling-down guard was baffling. To be fair there were a few times when the Fighting Irish did bring help on Towns, one of which resulted in a crucial Tyles Ulis 3-pointer, but the majority of the time Towns punished Auguste in one-on-one situations with his Hulkian strength on his way to a game-high 25 points. Despite Towns’ low-post domination, the game and Kentucky’s undefeated season hung in the balance with about three and half minutes remaining, still awaiting the ultimate climatic March moment.

After Aaron Harrison launched his now-casual tourney dagger, Grant responded with his act of solo heroism that has seemingly become more of a regularity than a rarity. Grants deeeeep three, however, were the last points the Fighting Irish could muster as the UK defense led by its ace, Cauley-Stein, conformed to its usual style. Kentucky forced Grant to shoot a contested stepback three on the next possession, followed by another Grant 3-point attempt which was blocked by Cauley-Stein and eventually resulted in a shot-clock violation. After Andrew Harrison’s two go-ahead free throws at the other end, came Grant’s desperation double-clutch heave that went long after he guided down the sideline by the nimble Cauley-Stein with Andrew Harrison and Lyles serving as shot-blocking reinforcements. The shot went long and the Wildcats narrowly escaped still alive.

Cats are said to have nine lives, but come tournament time they, like every other team, have only one. Good thing it’s protected by the ‘Cat whisperer, John Calipari.

Michigan State vs. Louisville 

Tom Izzo has his Spartans heading to yet another Final Four, sparking a public outcry as to how Michigan State warranted just a seven seed from the Selection Committee with Izzo as the program’s yearly overseer.

“This is Tom Izzo and Michigan State, they are always legitimate contenders even when they’re not. They should be higher than a seven seed.”

“Virginia got ripped off. You’re a two seed and you have to play Tom Izzo before the second weekend. That’s ridiculous and unfair.”

Similar opinions and comments have flooded the college basketball landscape in regards to the Spartans, but in retrospect they are nothing more than an assertion of support pertaining to Tom Izzo’s coaching wizardry.

tom izzoBased on their resume, the Spartans may have had a case for a six seed, but certainly nothing higher. However, because of Izzo’s past wins over higher seeded teams in the tournament, and the continuation of wins in this year’s postseason, Izzo has inspired the rise of whether his tournament success alone should garner a higher seed for his Spartans on an annual basis. Simply because Izzo patrols the sidelines with his glaring stare downs and frantic pleas for better effort from his players, the Spartans deserve a considerably higher seed no matter what their resume suggests. It comes off as outrageous, yet seems completely justified. Behold the power of Izzo. Not even late coaching legends like John Wooden and Dean Smith, or modern-day masterminds such as Coack K and Jim Boeheim have been lauded with such impactful and respectful praise. Now that’s a hell of a resume, Mr. Izzo.

Thus, it was ordinary and almost expected when the Spartans stormed back from an eight point halftime deficit to sink Rick Pitino’s Cardinals [1] in overtime. Inspired by customary Izzo war chants at halftime, the Spartans put the clamps on the miraculous Terry Rozier and energy-infused Montrezl Harrell with lockdown defense. Harrell was swarmed on every touch, and Rozier struggled throughout the contest, repeatedly watching mid-range jumpers go awry.

Meanwhile, Izzo continued his usual halftime maintenance of senior forward Branden Dawson, somehow combining his physical gifts with heightened energy levels to create a second-half terminator. Matt Costello put on his gameday attire, which includes a hard hat, and continued his junkyard dog duties of fighting to keep second-chance opportunities alive offensively and battling Harrell underneath on the defensive side. triceBryn Forbes took up occupancy in the corner, and made the Cardinals pay with four 3-pointers. Denzel Valentine was his typical self, providing a handful of No, No, YES! plays that leaves fans smiling in the end. And, of course there was the clutch-driven competitive successes of Travis Trice who poured in 17 points with five rebounds and five assists. Trice is the heart of the Spartans and his confidence and sheer determination to dictate the final outcome of a game, be it good or bad, has been one of the true delights of the Tournament.

Michigan State is in the Final Four, and although it doesn’t surprise anyone, even as a seven seed, it doesn’t mean it’s any less glorious.

Duke vs. Gonzaga 

matt jonesI HAD a running joke with my brother this year revolving around Matt Jones’ inability to make a shot when I watched Duke this season.

It wasn’t that I thought Matt Jones wasn’t a solid player or a decent contributor, it was just every time I engaged myself in a Duke game, he seemingly could never make a shot. That joke is now dead, although it still holds true for Grayson Allen, as Jones scored 16 points and knocked down four 3-pointers in Duke’s Elite Eight victory over Gonzaga.

On Sunday, it wasn’t the possible number one pick in June’s NBA draft, the human-wrecking ball that is Justise Winslow, the experienced Quin Cook, or even the godsend of freshman maturity that exists in Tyus Jones, it was Matt Jones that lifted the Blue Devils with key buckets as Mark Few’s Bulldogs attempted a comeback.

winslowWith Jones keeping the Blue Devils steady in the heat of battle, Winslow eventually shook off an ankle injury he suffered earlier in the game and continued his NCAA Tournament mission to destroy the souls of his opponent with zero regard for his own personal safety. He began maliciously attacking the basket, made Kyle Wiltjer invisible for the final 10 minutes and energized a Duke defense down the stretch that in no ways mirrored the one that ranked 90th in defensive efficiency this season. Winslow was dominant at both ends, willing the Blue Devils to the Final Four through pure competitive adrenaline as he was once again the best player on the floor, a lofty title he has carried diligently throughout the Tournament.

The Blue Devils, as they have done throughout the tournament behind the detail-oriented adjustments of head coach Mike Krzyzewski, modified their style of play and turned the game in their favor by utilizing the terrific guard play of Cook, Tyus Jones and Winslow to attack Gonzaga off the dribble after a series of weaving handoffs and curl screens. Defensively, despite the Zags constant punishment of the flimsy Blue Devil interior defense for much of the evening, Duke’s defense stiffened in crunch time allowing just two total points and no field goals in the final six minutes as the Bulldogs post combination of Wiltjer and Pzemek Karnowski were rendered ineffective.

The Blue Devil defense baffled the Zags into 13 turnovers, capitalizing from off-and-on full-court pressure and strong interior defense down the stretch that forced Karnowski’s entry into a bumbling state of charge calls and illegal feet shuffling. Offensively, despite the altered emphasis of featuring attacking guards instead of Jahlil Okafor postups, the Blue Devils adhered to their disciplined ball possession, totaling just three turnovers for the entire game. Once the emergence of Matt Jones and the amazement of Winslow’s play dissipated, the masterful genius of Coach K’s gameplan began to reveal itself as did the realization that he’s heading to his record-tying 12th Final Four.

Welcome back Coach K.

coach k

Wisconsin vs. Arizona 

Wisconsin somehow cut down the nets in Cleveland, Ohio which remained miraculously intact and still hanging after becoming inflamed.

dekkerSam Dekker entered a self-induced sauna of heat-check 3-pointers as Wisconsin’s unprecedented second-half perimeter shooting culminated in the team’s second consecutive Final Four berth. The Badgers drained 10 3-pointers after halftime, five of which, came courtesy of Dekker, the new Human Torch. Dekker’s flurry of outside spirit-crushing threes were too much for Arizona to overcome, even after the Wildcats unleashed an outbreak of attacks on the rim and aggressive postups.

In addition to Dekker and similar to last year’s Elite Eight matchup, the contest, starred Frank “the Tank” Kaminsky. Kaminsky was aggressive from the outset drawing Arizona’s Brandon Ashley and Kaleb Tarczewski out to the 3-point line only to backpedal them into the paint through an initial pump fake followed by a series of spinning pivots until the rim stood within an arm’s reach.

Wildcats’ coach Sean Miller, having painfully recalled Kaminsky’s domination of Tarczewski from last year’s game, gave Ashley the initial assignment of guarding Kaminsky due to his length and superior athleticism over the plodding Tarczewski. kaminskyAshley, however, picked up two quick fouls defending Kaminsky, and Tarczewski was forced back into the nightmare he encountered last season. Kaminsky was an offensive force throughout the contest and for much of the first half everything the Badgers were doing on that end was going through him in postups, perimeter faceups and even driving and kicking to shooters when the help defense collapsed on him. Not only did the Kaminsky-centric offense garner production, but it also forced Sean Miller into a game of musical chairs with his lineups due to the foul trouble of his forwards.

However, Miller’s small ball lineups featuring Rondae Hollis-Jefferson at the four and Gabe York as a plus shooter in a three guard set exposed Wisconsin’s lack of athleticism as defenders and the Wildcats led by three at the half.

Not Miller, or any other coach in the country, could withstand the incoming onslaught of long-range shooting as the Badgers poured in triples with uncanny efficiency in the second half. Yes, some of those threes were due to Tarczewski’s unfamiliarity and confusion of guarding Kaminsky and Nigel Hayes who have fully-equipped 3-point strokes in their arsenal, but there were no measures that could be taken, short of playing an additional three guys at all times, that could cool off the blaze that encompassed Dekker’s hand. Dekker didn’t miss a 3-pointer in the second half connecting on all five, and they were backbreaking for Arizona which on more than one occasion had clawed their way back within a possession or two just to see Dekker reheat from deep. He was knocking down high-arcing, off-the-dribble, desperation-looking 3-pointers all the while with a confidence and chirpy demeanor that KO’ed the Wildcats.

I feel for Sean Miller. I feel for T.J. McConnell[2]. I feel for all of Wildcat nation after bowing out for a second consecutive season to nearly the same Wisconsin team.

Sam Dekker, he doesn’t feel for them, all he feels is the scorching flame he’s taking with him to Indianapolis.


[1] During this game I joked to my dad and my brother that if Rick Pitino got this Louisville team to the Final Four he should rightly pry the Coach of the Year award from the hands of John Calipari. The problem, of course is the award went to Virginia’s Tony Bennett. Who votes for this award? The Selection Committee? But seriously what a coaching job by Pitino this season.

[2] When I saw McConnell’s emotion walking off that court, I couldn’t help but feel for him. As much as the media makes such a big spiel about paying student-athletes, NCAA investigations and everything else that’s wrong with college athletics, it’s times like seeing McConnell’s tear-filled eyes that emblemize everything we love about college sports. Seeing the passion and heartfelt emotion these kids have for the game is something worth cherishing and it sucks when it all ends for them.


For more from Bradley Heltzel check out his blog on WordPress

Credit all authors of images used in both article and as cover image : Bradley Heltzel

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