Friday, March 26, 2010
Wrapping up Sweet 16's glorious first night
By Eamonn Brennan
Denis Clemente (21) and Kansas State celebrated a double-overtime victory over Xavier on Thursday.
OK. Deep breaths.
The first night of the Sweet 16 is officially in the books, and it was officially awesome. Four games, one upset, one truly dominating performance by the tournament's new prohibitive favorite, and this year's best postseason game -- a Gus Johnson-narrated double-overtime thriller you can expect to see replayed more than once in the coming years. Let's see: Yep. That pretty much sums it up.
Where to start? At the beginning, I suppose: Kansas State rushed out to an early lead, and for the first 12 minutes it looked like the Wildcats would handle X easily. But the Musketeers, led by Jordan Crawford, came storming back, drawing the game even at the half. Things didn't separate much after that, leading to a final sequence that would baffle even the most hardened of college basketball watchers. Up by three with a few seconds left, Kansas State tried to foul Xavier point guard Terrell Holloway. By the time the referees called the foul, Holloway was in the act of shooting, giving him -- yes, this was as unbelievable as it sounds -- three free throws to tie the game and send it into overtime. He made all three.
In overtime things got even crazier. Down three with 10 seconds left, Crawford made an absolutely nuts 35-foot 3-pointer to tie the game. Denis Clemente's speed drove him to a great look at the buzzer, which missed, sending the game to another overtime -- the first 2OT game in the Sweet 16 since 1997. XU guard Dante Jackson had a chance to tie the game late before Kansas State finally pulled away thanks to two clutch Jacob Pullen 3s and a couple of key defensive stops. Just like that, the best game of the tournament was over.
The statistical wreckage: 83 possessions each. Offensive efficiency ratings of 119.1 and 118 for Xavier and K-State, respectively. Thirty-two points for Crawford; 26 for Holloway. Twenty-eight points for Pullen; 25 for Clemente; 21 for Curtis Kelly, whose low-post efficiency kept the Wildcats alive in the first overtime. All together, one very special win for Frank Martin and his team, who will advance to face the aforementioned Butler Bulldogs on Saturday night.
John Wall had eight points and eight assists in Thursday's win.
OK. More deep breaths. Does that about cover it? Barely.
Then there was Kentucky-Cornell, which was, despite the gulf in final score, entertaining in its own way. The Big Red, buoyed by a rowdy crowd just 50 or so miles down the road from their home in Ithaca, N.Y., opened up a 10-2 lead in the first five minutes against the heavily favored Wildcats. For just a few minutes, it looked like Cornell could do to Kentucky what it did to Wisconsin and Temple before them.
Then reality set in. The reality was that Kentucky was ready for Cornell, ready for the Big Red's perimeter-reliant offensive attack. UK hedged every screen high, overplayed on every shooter, and was so much more athletic than Cornell that it could recover and prevent interior shots and drives even after playing the Big Red out to 30 feet. In 20 minutes of first-half basketball, Cornell scored 16 points, the victims of a 30-6 Kentucky run to close the half. Cornell finished with 45 points, the third-lowest total in the Sweet 16 since expansion in 1985. It was one of the best and most complete defensive performances you'll ever see, and it wasn't just thanks to athleticism and talent. The Cats were prepared. They executed a gameplan. They were much more than an amalgamation of talent. They were a team.
Tonight's late results mean a few things going forward. First among them: No. 1 Kentucky will play No. 2 West Virginia in the Carrier Dome Saturday night. Kentucky will have to finish much better against West Virginia, and it won't be able to get away with shooting 16-of-26 from the stripe. Likewise, WVU will have to clean up its turnovers. The Mountaineers are the first team since 1970 to win a game in the round of 16 or later despite committing at least 20 turnovers and shooting 40 percent or less from the field. It was a testament to Washington's own sloppy play that West Virginia wasn't challenged more Thursday night. That won't happen Saturday.
Of course, there's also the Kansas State-Butler matchup, which will be as great a contrast in styles as we've seen in the tournament so far. Butler prefers to slog it out; Kansas State loves to get up and down. It'll be a good one.
While we're here, a quick lament: Tonight's loss means we have to bid a fond tournament farewell to Crawford, who -- had his team won -- might have locked up tournament MVP honors after just three games. Crawford scored 28, 27, and 32 points, making big shot after big shot and beautiful play after beautiful play. What's more, Crawford's style is as freewheeling and fun to watch as any player's in the country. You never know what you're going to get -- a pretty pass, an icy old-school finger roll, or an double-onions-order 30-foot 3 to tie the game in overtime. Losing Crawford is a major blow for the sublime enjoyment of this tournament. It's a shame.