Now down to the Sweet 16, the 2009 NCAA Tournament has a rather impressive list of teams still alive. Only two teams move on that are not on the top four seed lines (five-seed Purdue and twelve-seed Arizona), with the Wildcats being the lone double-digit seed. The argument of whether or not Russ Pennell’s team deserved to be in the tournament was rendered moot once their name showed up on the TV screen Selection Sunday; they were in whether critics liked it or not. March is all about matchups and it didn’t take a genius to realize that Arizona got a favorable draw even before a game was played in Miami.
The Wildcats took another positive step in a rocky season, beating Cleveland State 71-57 to move on to the Midwest Regional in Indianapolis, where they will take on top seed Louisville. The three main reasons for the Wildcats’ ability to set aside the turmoil and simply play basketball are juniors Nic Wise, Chase Budinger and Jordan Hill. Wise led the way with twenty-one points and eight assists, with Budinger, Hill and Jamelle Horne all reaching double figures. Leadership is a key factor come tournament time, whether you’re favored to win it all or simply trying to prove the doubters wrong. Playing for three coaches in three seasons wasn’t expected but it’s made this group far tougher than many expected them to be.
“I don't think anybody signed up for what has happened, especially me, Nic and Jordan coming here three years ago,” said Budinger after the game. “We thought we would be playing for one coach our whole college career. You know, things change on you. You just have to go with it and stay positive, and I think that's what we've done.”
The Arizona pressure forced just eleven Cleveland State turnovers, but when compared to just three assists for the game that number becomes quite impressive. The Vikings shot just 37.3% from the field and were absolutely ice cold from distance, making just three of twenty-three (13.0%) three-point attempts. Arizona’s zone defense was the difference, forcing a team that hasn’t played well against zone looks all season to make perimeter shots.
“Arizona's, I thought, zone was really tough today,” said Cleveland State head coach Gary Waters. “That's been our nemesis all year, the zone, because when people play us man-to-man, we really execute well.” The Vikings (26-11) have nothing to be ashamed of, but that doesn’t make up for the fact that the Horizon League Tournament champs have to go home. As for the Wildcats they’ve got a week of preparation (and handling the inevitable storyline of their job opening and Rick Pitino’s connection-if any- to it) before taking on Louisville. Here are some of the other key happenings on the final day of the first weekend.
1. A “pinch shooter” seals a win for Missouri.
Missouri, thanks to a superb regular season capped by a Big 12 Tournament title, came into this weekend in the role of favorite in Boise. It didn’t help their cause today that Marquette’s Dominic James was cleared to play; although scoreless in seventeen minutes it would have been a storybook ending for the senior had the Golden Eagles won. But with the game tied and just 5.5 seconds remaining freshman Kim English came off the bench to make two free throws for an injured J.T. Tiller, giving the Tigers’ first Sweet 16 berth since 2002. Following those foul shots, Marquette’s Lazar Hayward was ruled to have stepped over the end line while inbounding the ball and Leo Lyons iced the game with a pair of foul shots.
The fact that Tiller returned to the game shortly after leaving angered the Marquette fans in attendance, but it was well within the rules for him to return once time ran off the clock. Ironically Tiller (76 percent) is better from the line that English (68 percent), but the freshman rewarded head coach Mike Anderson’s confidence in him. As for the Tigers’ history in Boise, there’s a new final line with this win replacing that painful loss to UCLA in 1995. Missouri was dominated on the boards by the smallish Golden Eagles (38-27) and had a margin of -14 in points from the foul line but their field goal percentage defense (38.3%) gets them a meeting with Memphis on Thursday night in Glendale.
2. Terrence Williams bails out Louisville.
Siena did more than simply hang around with the top-seeded Cardinals; thanks to a 10-0 run in the second half they led 63-59 with just over seven minutes remaining. But that’s when T-Will took over, ending the Saints’ upset bid with a variety of big plays. Rebounds, baskets, assists and defensive gems were supplied by the Seattle native, showing exactly why he’s one of the best players in the country. Williams finished with 24 points, 15 rebounds and four assists in the 79-72 win, advancing Louisville on to a game with Arizona next Friday.
“He's our leader and he's a great player, one of the best forwards in the country,” said Earl Clark of Williams. “You all [saw] it out there today with his shooting ability and rebounding. When we needed big shots, he delivered.” The trademark full-court pressure didn’t succeed in turning over the Saints, who had just nine turnovers for the game. In fact, Siena forced seventeen Louisville turnovers and outscored the Cards 24-9 in points off turnovers. Edwin Ubiles (24 points) and Alex Franklin (19 points) led the way for Siena, nearly making up for a cold shooting night from Kenny Hasbrouck and Ronald Moore (combined 5-for-27). But the difference was the fact that Louisville had Terrence Williams and Siena didn’t.
3. Pittsburgh survives Oklahoma State.
Louisville was the second top seed from the Big East to survive an upset bid in Dayton; for a while it looked like Pittsburgh could be on their way home as well. Travis Ford’s Cowboys shot the lights out in the first half, shooting 63% from the field and 62.5% from three. But all that got the smallish Pokes was a 49-49 tie at the half; the final twenty minutes saw the Panthers buckle down defensively (33.3% FG defense, 16.7% 3PT defense) while Sam Young continued to torch Oklahoma State to the tune of thirty-two points. Pitt will now see a familiar face in Boston on Thursday, with Pitt alum Sean Miller leading Xavier into Beantown. The Cowboys were actually even in points in the paint (22-22) and outscored the Panthers by ten (21-11) in points off turnovers. But the combination of Young and points in the paint (21-7 Pitt) spelled doom for OK State.
“I was in the zone. I shot it well from 3 last game, and I wanted to come back out and try to piggyback off of that,” said Young. “And I started taking a couple of shots and everything started opening up for me. So it all just came together.” Pitt went into this game hoping not to fire up as many threes as Tennessee did on Friday, but they took twenty-eight due in large part to their hot shooting in the first half. The finishing play was a DeJuan Blair putback with thirty-nine seconds to go, giving the Panthers an 81-76 lead. Outside of the second-chance points Oklahoma State played Pittsburgh even, but in March that’s all you need to move on.
4. Kansas and Xavier clamp down on defense and advance.
The first line describing the Jayhawks’ 60-43 win over Dayton will be the impressive triple-double posted by Cole Aldrich (13 points, 20 rebounds and 10 blocks). But right under that should be the fact that Kansas held the Flyers to 22.2% shooting from the field to make up for seventeen turnovers. Dayton attempted nineteen more field goals but made seven fewer that Kansas, the primary reason why their season is now over. “I think we guarded them well, and when big fella started blocking the shots, I think he was the whole key to the game,” said Collins after the game. “He changed us around and we got a lot of blocks down there.” Sherron Collins led all scorers with twenty-five points while Dayton’s Chris Wright and Mickey Perry scored ten apiece.
The Musketeers also struggled on the offensive end, but they were able to supplement their comeback win over Wisconsin with a superb defensive effort. Wisconsin shot just twenty-five percent from the field in the second half and 28.6% for the game, and a frigid 3-for-20 from behind the arc. Wisconsin also had just one offensive rebound in the second half (five in the first), a stat that loomed large given their poor shooting. Defense is the calling card for the regular season champions of the Atlantic 10, and it’s the main reason why they’ll be playing next weekend. “Like I said, Coach puts us in a position where we do it every day,” said forward Derrick Brown. “If we give up offensive rebounds to the other team, it's going to be a problem with him. And we just wanted to give it all we had, especially on the defensive end. And defense rebounding is part of defense.”
5. Experienced guards come up big for Syracuse and Michigan State.
Their games are worlds apart, but the impact that Eric Devendorf (Syracuse) and Travis Walton (Michigan State) today cannot be overstated. Just when the Orange seemed to be losing control of a game they led by a comfortable margin all afternoon, the redshirt junior from Bay City, Michigan knocked down a pair of threes to regain that separation. Devendorf finished the game with twenty-one points, and fellow sharpshooter Andy Rautins (17 points) also came up big late in the 78-67 win over Arizona State. They were the difference on a day that saw two Sun Devils (Rihards Kuksiks and Ty Abbott) score twenty points apiece, but the fact that James Harden struggled doomed Arizona State. Hate him or love him you cannot disregard the shot making ability of Devendorf, a quality (along with his confidence) that could come up big against Oklahoma next week.
As for Walton, the senior that averages less than five points per game made his way to the basket for eighteen points on an afternoon that saw both Raymar Morgan and Goran Suton struggle from the field. “Somebody has to step up and somebody has to do something they're not capable of doing in some people's minds,” said head coach Tom Izzo, and that’s exactly what Walton accomplished in the win over USC. The Spartans finished with twenty assists on twenty-two field goals, and the defensive work of Suton on Taj Gibson (0-for-2, three points) can’t be overlooked either. But the story in Minneapolis was the offensive work of a senior that USC was more than willing to take a chance on leaving open. Unfortunately for the Trojans, Travis Walton stepped up.
6. Sunday Superlatives
Players of the Day: Kansas C Cole Aldrich (13 points, 20 rebounds and 10 blocks) and Louisville F Terrence Williams (24 points, 15 rebounds)
Team of the Day: Arizona (who really expected this team to reach the Sweet 16?)
Clutch Performance of the Day: Syracuse G Eric Devendorf’s two three pointers within a minute to take the Orange from up five (64-59) to eleven (70-59)
Quote of the Day: “And I don't know that, I think that we'll always be able to recruit guy that is can dribble, pass, and shoot. But I don't know that collectively the class that these four guys have meant, on the floor, off the floor, academically, they have been arguably as a group the best ambassadors of our institution over the last four years, whether they were players of our team or not.” - Marquette head coach Buzz Williams on seniors Dominic James, Jerel McNeal, Wesley Matthews and Dwight Burke
Boise: #4 Xavier 60, #12 Wisconsin 49
Dayton: #1 Pittsburgh 84, #8 Oklahoma State 76
Dayton: #1 Louisville 79, #9 Siena 72
Miami: #12 Arizona 71, #13 Cleveland State 57
Minneapolis: #3 Kansas 60, #11 Dayton 43; #2 Michigan State 74, #10 USC 69
Miami: #3 Syracuse 78, #6 Arizona State 67
Boise: #3 Missouri 83, #6 Marquette 79