Monday, March 21, 2011
FSU, VCU find new identities at perfect time
By Eamonn Brennan
CHICAGO -- The NCAA tournament does strange things to teams. Or maybe it's something in the United Center Gatorade.
Whatever it is, the lower half of the 2011 NCAA tournament's Southeast Region witnessed two unlikely and surprising transformations from the two most surprising and unlikely teams to advance to this year's Sweet 16.
Virginia Commonwealth spent all season letting opponents score at will. Florida State received a No. 10 seed because the Seminoles, despite having one of the nation's best defenses, watched shot after shot (after shot after shot) carom off the rim throughout their up-and-down season.
Then, on Sunday night, Florida State watched VCU manhandle the third-seeded Purdue Boilermakers on both ends of the floor. A couple of hours later, the Seminoles came out uncharacteristically -- almost miraculously -- hot against the Irish.
By the end of the night, VCU had run Purdue off the floor in a 94-76 win and Florida State had shot the nearby Irish out of the tournament in a 71-57 victory. The stunned fans in the Second City had seen their two regional favorites fall to double-digit seeds, and both losing coaches were given the unenviable task of explaining what, exactly, had just happened.
The answers did not come easy.
"Florida State just beat us," Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said.
"We just couldn't get them corralled," Purdue coach Matt Painter said. "We couldn't get them stopped."
You can forgive both coaches for their shock. Neither of Sunday night's Chicago games lived up to advance expectations. Not even close.
The Seminoles' stifling defense limited Ben Hansbrough and Notre Dame to 57 points in a season where the Irish averaged 76 per game.
Notre Dame prepared for the Florida State team that scored 57 points in a win Friday over Texas A&M. That FSU team excels at defense, as it has all season. The Seminoles are the nation's No. 1-ranked defense according to Ken Pomeroy's adjusted efficiency, which basically means they allow fewer points per possession than any team in the nation. But there's a reason FSU didn't compete for the ACC title this season. As good as the Noles were on defense, they were just as bad on offense.
So Brey prepared his Irish for the struggles to come on the offensive end. As long as they could ensure that their typically brilliant offense wasn't too hampered by the FSU defense, surely they couldn't fall too far behind the offense-bereft Noles.
Instead, Florida State made seven 3-pointers in the first half and went 9-of-19 from beyond the arc for the game. By the time the Seminoles cooled down in the second half, the Irish found themselves in a deep hole against the nation's most stifling perimeter defense. There was no digging out.
"I thought, if we had to give up anything, we'd give up some jump shots," Brey said. "But they made them. ... You know, they've -- I don't know if they've made [that many 3s] before.
"I really thought we could help in the post more on their big guys and come down, and we started to gain [some momentum] that way, and darn if they didn't knock a couple down."
Indeed, Florida State has made nine or more 3s only five times this season. The Seminoles average 33.3 percent from beyond the arc, which ranks among the worst 150 or so teams in the nation. But if you didn't know any better, on Sunday night you'd have thought Derwin Kitchen, Michael Snaer and Deividas Dulkys were consistent marksmen from beyond the arc.
Of course, Florida State is not likely to become a consistent offensive threat. After all, this was just one game, and FSU had its fair share of offensive struggles in its opening win over Texas A&M. Still, this remarkable turnaround in shooting accuracy came at the perfect time for the Seminoles.
"Very dangerous," said Florida State guard Kitchen, when asked how dangerous the Noles can be if they knock down outside shots. "We've just been so up-and-down and inconsistent on the offensive end, it allowed us to stumble a few times during the season and lose a few games. But if we could stay consistent and execute how we did today on the offensive end, I like our chances because we play so well on the defensive end."
Like Florida State, VCU opened a first-half lead against a favored opponent and never looked back. Like Florida State, VCU won its game Sunday thanks to dominance on both sides of the ball. Like Florida State, this comes as something of a surprise. Yes, the Rams are the hottest team in the country, but they're also the same team -- they have the same personnel, anyway -- that allowed opponents to shoot with accuracy and rebound frequently throughout the season.
On Sunday, then, it was assumed that VCU would cool off. Or, failing that, that Purdue's vaunted defense could slow Shaka Smart's team down. Or, failing that, that the Rams wouldn't be able to stop the always-potent combination of JaJuan Johnson and E'Twaun Moore, not to mention Purdue's bevy of complementary outside shooters.
Instead, the Rams held Purdue to 44.7 percent shooting for the game and 32 percent from beyond the arc. They also forced Purdue into 15 turnovers while thoroughly dismantling the Boilers on the offensive end.
"Our defense and motivation [were the difference]," VCU guard Bradford Burgess said. "We lost focus sometimes on the road, and against certain opponents we weren't as focused as we should have been."
Clearly, that wasn't a problem for the Rams this weekend. They're plenty motivated. They're plenty confident. And when you couple those things with some unforeseen excellence, you get what happened in Chicago this week.
Two double-digit seeds advance. Two regional fan favorites and high-seeded high-majors go home. The unpredictable becomes expected. The pregame previews become pointless.
"That's college basketball," Smart said. "That's the way you play the game. Purdue beat Ohio State a few weeks ago. Ohio State beat George Mason by 30 today. George Mason came to our place and beat us, and we came and beat Purdue in the tournament.
"Unfortunately, we're not coaching robots," Smart added. "We can't push a button and play the same way every time."
No, what matters is how you play this time. That's college basketball. That's why Florida State and VCU advance. That's why Purdue and Notre Dame go home. That's why everybody's bracket is pretty much busted.
Florida State an offensive powerhouse? VCU a defensive stalwart? Strange. But in the NCAA tournament, "strange" is always just a relative term.