College Basketball Nation: 2011 NCAA Charlotte

Duke has limits tested by Michigan

March, 20, 2011

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The chatter about Duke being a prohibitive favorite now that Kyrie Irving is back on the court and playing meaningful minutes is just noise now.

Michigan proved Sunday afternoon that Duke can be beaten, even if the Wolverines failed to convert on their final possession to send the game into overtime.

ACC Player of the Year Nolan Smith scored 24 points, but Irving offered a glimpse of the extra dimension he can offer the Blue Devils. He scored only one field goal, but it gave Duke a 72-69 lead with 32 seconds left, and proved to be the decisive score in the Blue Devils’ 73-71 win.

If you’re looking for a reason why good karma is flowing in the Blue Devils’ direction, look no further than Irving, who gives them another scorer to create and finish pressure plays.

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said Irving’s shot was as high-pressure a shot as one can take, especially considering it came in only his second game since returning to the lineup after a toe injury kept him out since Dec. 4.

“I just looked up, saw the time and saw that there was a [Michigan player] coming over to possibly take a charge,’’ Irving said. “It’s been a long time since I was in a pressure situation and end-of-game situation like that.’’

Irving finished with 11 points, nine of which came at the free throw line, in 21 minutes. He played 20 minutes and scored a team-high 14 points in Duke’s rout over No. 16 seed Hampton Friday.

Michigan flustered Duke late in the second half when it switched to its 1-3-1 defense, with Irving failing to get the ball out of his hands on one possession, resulting in a shot-clock violation. He said he wasn’t being aggressive enough. Kyle Singler said the Blue Devils weren’t used to going against a team that had four guards on the floor. In the moments preceding Irving’s only bucket, Duke’s offense had become stagnant.

“Having him back, we definitely need him against the teams we’re going to play,’’ said Smith.

Michigan cut Duke’s lead to two with nine seconds left on a Darius Morris bucket. Smith followed by making only one of two free throws, giving the Wolverines one last chance, but Morris missed an open look in the paint that would have tied the game.

“We won a big-time game and we told our kids it would be like playing Butler in the national championship game, going into this game,’’ Krzyzewski said. “They’re a very tough-minded, good basketball team.’’

Michigan has a chance to be something special next season with its youth, led by Morris, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Jordan Morgan; the latter two freshmen and Morris a sophomore.

“Our confidence is really high,’’ Hardaway Jr. said. “We can get better.’’

Michigan will in 2012.

Duke, meanwhile, can still improve in time for Thursday’s Sweet 16 game in Anaheim, Calif.

Irving will have a few more practices to mesh into the lineup even more. He said he has no restrictions and is good to go from this point forward. This is unchartered territory in college hoops. I’m not sure we’ve seen a situation like this in which a player joins a No. 1 seed and Final Four contender at the start of the NCAA tournament after missing three months.

“For him to be put in that position and make that floater as soft as it can be, that’s a heck of a thing for the kid,’’ Krzyzewski said. “I mean, he’s 9-for-10 from the foul line. We wouldn’t be going forward if he didn’t play. That doesn’t take away from Ryan [Kelly] or anyone else, but you take one of those kids out of the equation and Michigan is going forward because they played winning basketball.’’

Krzyzewski used Irving more as a sub for Smith and other guards against Hampton. But against Michigan, Irving was a finisher. He probably will keep the same role so as not to disrupt any team chemistry, especially with starter Seth Curry. But the Blue Devils know Irving has to be on the court to end games.

“I think a real big reason why we won [Sunday] is that he got 20 minutes against Hampton,’’ said Krzyzewski, who won his 900th game Sunday. “We kept him in the ballgame and he hit those 3s. I don’t care how much you practice, you’ve got to get back on stage and do your dancing or singing or whatever you’re doing in front of people. That was critical for us, the Hampton game.

“We’re in a period of adjusting to Kyrie coming back,’’ Krzyzewski added. “So we got better as the week went along.’’

And Duke may be even more dangerous next week as Irving gets more integrated into the lineup. That doesn’t mean the Blue Devils can’t be beaten in Anaheim or Houston. They can. But having Irving on the court and making game-changing plays makes it even more difficult to push them out of the field.

Rapid reaction: Duke 73, Michigan 71

March, 20, 2011
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Duke got Kyrie Irving back this weekend here in Charlotte and Irving delivered with a bank shot to give the Blue Devils a critical three-point lead late in the game against Michigan.

But having Irving on the court, as much as that makes a difference for the Blue Devils at both ends of the court, doesn’t mean Duke is going to cruise in the NCAA tournament.

Michigan pushed Duke to the final possession, but Darius Morris couldn’t convert a runner in the lane to tie the game and the Wolverines fell 73-71 to the Blue Devils on Sunday afternoon in a West region third-round game at the Time Warner Cable Arena.

Duke got a bit too passive against Michigan’s changing defense, which included a sprinkling of the 1-3-1, and Michigan made plays late, especially from Tim Hardaway Jr., with a mid-range shot and a 3-pointer to cut Duke’s lead to one point with 90 seconds left.

Nolan Smith made 1 of 2 free throws to give Duke the lead at 73-71 to set up Morris’ final shot.

Key stat: Smith was sensational earlier in the game, finishing with 24 points and making 6 of 7 free throws.

Turning point: Michigan going to its changing defense was a difference for the Wolverines. Duke had a shot-clock violation during the run. Great call by Michigan to keep Duke off balance.

What’s next: Duke moves on to play the winner of Arizona-Texas in the West region Sweet 16 in Anaheim. Michigan moves on to be a serious threat to win the Big Ten in 2012.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Harrison Barnes knew from the first day of practice at North Carolina that you don’t try to get the ball over John Henson without some sort of fake.

“I found out you can’t throw a pass over John or shoot straight over him,’’ said the Carolina freshman of his 6-foot-10 teammate. “John makes basketball-savvy plays.’’

And that’s why the Tar Heels are going to be a tough out for the rest of this tournament.

North Carolina can score at all five positions and the Tar Heels are just as giving in allowing opponents to score. The Tar Heels are the first team since 1990 to advance to the Sweet 16 after allowing over 80 points in its first two games.

But Henson is enough of a difference-maker for the Tar Heels to make up for their often-porous defense.

[+] EnlargeJohn Henson
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesJohn Henson came up big, collecting 10 rebounds and four blocked shots.
Washington’s Justin Holiday learned Barnes’ cardinal rule about Henson with six seconds left in Sunday’s East region third-round game in Charlotte. Holiday tried, unsuccessfully, to make an inbounds pass over the top of Henson. His deflection ended up in the hands of UNC's Dexter Strickland, who was fouled and converted two free throws for an 86-83 lead, a score that would hold up and send the Tar Heels into the Sweet 16.

“I was trying to get the ball to Isaiah [Thomas],’’ Holiday said. “I thought he could do something with it.’’

Holiday said he knew about Henson’s length and just didn’t make the right play in trying to throw over the top.

“I was very surprised that he did,’’ Henson said. “I thought it was kind of a bad idea.’’

Holiday’s decision was one of a series of miscues by Washington in the final seconds. Holiday had the ball out of bounds after Venoy Overton drove to the basket and missed. He didn’t have a clear shot at the basket because the Carolina defense came over to help.

“I missed the layup but I was trying to avoid taking a charge and then it was contested,’’ Overton said. “I wish I could take it back and go straight up. I was trying to make an aggressive move.’’

Henson and his frontcourt teammate, 7-foot Tyler Zeller, form an imposing frontline and alter plenty of shots. Washington actually out-rebounded the Tar Heels 40-37 but four blocks by Henson, one by Zeller, and seven steals (three by Barnes), were the kind of key defensive plays that have helped the Tar Heels win games in March.

“A lot of this has to do with our guards getting out and pressuring,’’ Zeller said. “It makes our job easier. John does a great job of blocking shots and if not blocking, altering. He’s great on that baseline inbounds. I’m grateful for him. I don’t know if teams have seen his length before.’’

Washington had another chance to tie the game, but Overton, defended well by Strickland along the sideline, inexplicably hurled up a shot with a second remaining. Overton said he got caught jumping in the air and just threw it up.

“I was anticipating getting fouled,’’ Overton said.

The ball went out of bounds off Henson, though, with 0.5 seconds left. Thomas took his only shot in the final 11 seconds, a 2-pointer at the buzzer that fell short, but wouldn’t have mattered anyway.

“I don’t know, it was Coach’s call,’’ Thomas said as to why he didn’t touch the ball on the last two possessions prior to the shot at the buzzer. “I really couldn’t tell you. I thought the ball would be in my hands. It wasn’t, but that’s not the reason why we lost. It’s very frustrating. I feel like I’m the leader on this team and had confidence in myself and my teammates have confidence in me. I know [Holiday] was trying to get it to me, but Henson got his hands on it and I didn’t get it.’’

[+] EnlargeJustin Holiday
Bob Donnan/US PresswireJustin Holiday, right, shows some frustration as the Huskies let the game get away at the end.
Washington coach Lorenzo Romar said if he had to do it over again he would want the ball in Thomas’ hands. He said Overton won a game against UCLA by taking the last shot, so he wasn’t against Overton looking to be aggressive, but it was Thomas who made the game-winning 3-pointer at the buzzer to beat Arizona in the Pac-10 tournament.

The Huskies were in a position to win this game, playing the game they wanted.

“That’s what’s disappointing,’’ Romar said. “We do everything we want to do, put yourself in position to win but down the stretch we didn’t get it done.’’

And for all of North Carolina’s defensive lapses, the Tar Heels made the plays that mattered most defensively, and in the end, will head to Newark next week for the Sweet 16.

“This means a lot, we’ve struggled at times, going out of the top 25, getting blown out by 20 against Georgia Tech; it’s been a long season,’’ Barnes said. “There was a lot of talk about lack of experience and age, but we make up for it with heart in the end and find a way to win.’’
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- North Carolina’s John Henson has emerged as the most imposing and game-changing defensive player in the NCAA tournament.

Henson deflected an inbounds pass from Justin Holiday that ended up in the hands of Dexter Strickland, forcing Washington to foul and put him at the free-throw line with a one-point lead and 5.4 seconds left.

Henson’s deflection prevented Washington from getting off a shot with an attempt to win the game.

Nearly four minutes earlier, Henson blocked a shot by Washington’s Darnell Gant that resulted in a 3-pointer by Harrison Barnes at the other end for a North Carolina four-point lead.

Henson finished with 10 points and 10 rebounds in the Tar Heels’ 86-83 victory over Washington in an East regional third-round game.

Henson nearly put himself at risk, though, when he almost goaltended a last-second shot by Isaiah Thomas.

Still, Henson’s presence was the difference for the Tar Heels in the best game so far of the Charlotte regional, matching two teams that love to get up and down the court and don’t mind pushing the basketball with little attention to defense -- except for Henson along the back line.

While North Carolina relied on Henson to create opportunities, the Huskies couldn’t have made worse decisions at the end of the game. Thomas’ last shot was the only time he touched the ball in the final 10 seconds when the Huskies had three chances to score and either take the lead or tie the game.

Inexplicably, Thomas didn’t touch the ball as Venoy Overton dribbled the length of the court and put up a forced shot with 7.4 seconds remaining. The shot went out of bounds -- fortunately for the Huskies it went off UNC. Then came Holiday’s mental mistake of trying to pass OVER Henson when Henson is the tallest player on the court.

After Strickland then converted the two free throws for the three-point lead, Overton again took the ball and threw up an errant shot from near halfcourt with over a second left when he still had time on the drive to pass ahead and get a much better shot or at least find Thomas.

Thomas is Washington’s best player and the one you'd want to take a shot in this situation. Or at the very least, Thomas could have created a shot for shooters, which UW had many of during the game like C.J. Wilcox or Terrence Ross. The Huskies played well on the glass but ultimately couldn’t execute down the stretch.

Key stat: Henson had four blocks and two steals. That’s enough for me.

Key player: Tyler Zeller scored 23 and Barnes scored 22 and made buckets when the Tar Heels needed them most.

Shout out: Washington made shots and the 10 3s that the Huskies converted were a difference in this game and put UNC on its heels.

What’s next: Washington goes home after a nice late run. North Carolina moves on to Newark to play the winner of Syracuse-Marquette.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The unspoken secret about the sudden revival of Michigan basketball was John Beilein's bold move to make major changes on his coaching staff in the offseason.

The semantics of whether Jerry Dunn and John Mahoney were forced out or left on their own volition is debatable. Beilein said they chose to pursue other opportunities when they left last season. Multiple sources will tell you otherwise. But the reasoning is now irrelevant -- along with why Mike Jackson made the decision to leave Michigan for rival Purdue.

[+] EnlargeJohn Beilein
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesJohn Beilein's wholesale change of his coaching staff may be the reason behind Michigan's sudden revival.
Beilein has always been lauded for his attention to detail in his coaching and his ability to continue to grow as a coach and make adjustments in style of play, from experimenting with a 1-3-1, to designing more offensive sets for 3-pointers, to various looks at his myriad of stops from LeMoyne College to Canisius to Richmond to West Virginia to Michigan.

But the staff change may have been his boldest and brightest. The decision to promote Jeff Meyer from an administrative position to an assistant, and, more importantly, adding Michigan natives Bacari Alexander and LaVall Jordan as assistants helped changed the direction of the program. The impact of freshmen Tim Hardaway Jr. and Jon Horford and even more reps for sophomore Darius Morris and redshirt freshman Jordan Morgan also contributed.

“The best way to describe what happened is that it’s the dawn of new era,’’ Alexander said. “The elevation of coach Meyer and the addition of me and coach Jordan with the new players, it was like we all got to Ann Arbor together. This isn’t a knock against the previous regime, but there was a natural transition with two guys from the state of Michigan and players that I had recruited [at Western Michigan] and we’ve all embraced this as a partnership.’’

In his second season, Beilein got the Wolverines to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1998. But then Michigan went south. In the fall of 2009, the Wolverines were a top-20 preseason pick but floundered and finished 15-17, 7-11 in the Big Ten.

Beilein had to do something to redirect the program. He might not have known how successful these moves were going to be at the time, but they have proven to be invaluable. After a 1-6 start in Big Ten play, the Wolverines hit a hot streak that not only led to an improbable tourney appearance but also a No. 8 seed. On Friday, they beat Tennessee by 30 points to set up a game against top-ranked Duke on Sunday in Charlotte for a berth in the Sweet 16.

It’s not just the in-state connections of Alexander and Jordan that have benefited UM. The more important aspect is that they were both undersized players during their time at Detroit and Butler, respectively.

“Coach Jordan and coach Bacari did a great job with the guards and bigs,’’ said junior guard Stu Douglass. “Coach [Beilein] knew we needed help in those areas. We’re very fortunate to have assistant coaches like that and to have Beilein as our coach.’’

Wholesale changes on a staff only three years into a tenure is rather unheard of, especially for a coach as established as Beilein. But the veteran coach is quick to say that he has constantly made adjustments to his style of play at both ends, too.

“I’ve prided myself on different approaches,’’ Beilein said. “In my 35 years of coaching, I’ve changed things, like the 1-3-1, I just said ‘let’s do something differently defensively.’ We’ve now added great stuff from Perry Watson at Detroit [where Alexander played] and added a lot of the Butler ideas [where Jordan played].

“It’s been a great blend here. We feed off each other’s strength.’’

Jordan said the different voices have had a positive effect on the Michigan players. That’s his read on the situation and it’s hard to argue.

“A different voice can help,’’ Jordan said. “Coach Beilein is very accepting. That [preseason] trip to Belgium really helped us too. It allowed our staff to connect with the players and to hang with them apart from the game. We grew to trust each other and the credibility with each other was there. It really has worked out.’’

Whether Michigan beats Duke or not, there is a fresh vibe with the Wolverines. Alexander said the new motto is “Team Wolverine.’’ Call it whatever you want, but the staff changes and the influx of new players, can’t be just a coincidence. Beilein didn’t script it exactly this way, but it has revitalized his program in a way he probably never imagined.

Preview: Sunday in Charlotte

March, 20, 2011

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Quick hitters to get ready for the two games on Sunday:

No. 7 seed Washington (24-10) vs. No. 2 seed North Carolina (27-7), 12:15 p.m. ET (CBS)

No. 8 seed Michigan (21-13) vs. No. 1 seed Duke (31-4), 2:45 p.m. ET (CBS)

1. Washington’s Isaiah Thomas is relishing playing North Carolina in Charlotte, where the Tar Heels will be the decided favorite. "The best player to ever play the game went there -- and then they've got a lot of legendary players. It's basically every kid's dream school," Thomas said to a group of reporters Saturday. "I mean, to go to North Carolina or play against them, it's legendary."

2. The Huskies and Tar Heels, who will play in the first game of the day, want to run so expect this game to be in the 80s, if not higher. But the key from Washington’s standpoint is whether or not it can rebound with the Tar Heels’ big three of Harrison Barnes, John Henson and Tyler Zeller.

3. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said Henson could be one of the more disruptive defensive players in the game. Washington coach Lorenzo Romar concurred, saying that the first thing that struck him while watching the Tar Heels in-person on Friday was their length.

4. North Carolina coach Roy Williams heaped plenty of praise on Thomas, saying he was one of the best point guards in the country and that he has a tremendous impact on the game. Thomas will have to be a game-changer to beat the Tar Heels in this environment.

5. Duke guard Kyrie Irving said his right toe felt fine after he played 20 minutes and scored a team-high 14 points in the win over Hampton on Friday. The toe is no longer an issue. And neither are any chemistry issues. Irving is enjoying his new role of coming off the bench. Duke guard Seth Curry, who took Irving’s starting spot once he went down on Dec. 4, said there is now no drop off from the bench.

6. The common phrase from the Michigan assistants in the locker room Saturday was that the Wolverines were playing with house money. Michigan expects a completely different effort level from Duke than the one it got from Tennessee. The Blue Devils will be right up on Michigan’s guards from the outset.

7. The Blue Devils have the advantage inside with Kyle Singler, Mason and Miles Plumlee and Ryan Kelly. If the Wolverines are going to win, they’ve got to somehow negate Duke’s size. The problem is that Duke will make it difficult for Michigan to get more than one shot per possession.

8. Duke is prepared to see a mix of defenses from Michigan. The Wolverines have only flirted with the vaunted 1-3-1 this season. But they will use it during the game to see how the Blue Devils react.

9. This will be a huge test for Michigan guards Tim Hardaway Jr. and Darius Morris. The young Wolverines backcourt hasn’t faced a trio like Nolan Smith, Irving and Curry this season, at least not a trio playing this well.

10. The pressure is clearly on the two ACC teams. Washington had to go on a late regular-season run and win the Pac-10 tournament to ensure a berth and is playing a road game. Michigan wasn’t projected to go to the NIT, let alone the NCAA, in the preseason. North Carolina will have the most decided home-court advantage of any of the eight sites, more so than Ohio State in Cleveland. Duke is now the prohibitive favorite with the addition of Irving. In hindsight, one could argue that the Blue Devils caught a break by being in the West, although they could meet No. 1 overall seed Ohio State in the national semifinals.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- In the regular season, Washington was easy to pick apart and poke at, leaving observers wondering whether or not it could truly be a special team in March.

The Huskies demonstrated an inability to win consistently on the road, and at times a failure to win games played below 70 points.

Yet, something has happened with this team when games matter more -- the Huskies seem to play with more purpose.

Washington has become a postseason team, a squad that can suddenly defend when it needs to, board when it has to, and lean on star junior guard Isaiah Thomas to make the big play when he must.

Criticizing the Huskies was fair and justifiable during the regular season. Washington had chances to prove it was an elite team but couldn’t win two games in Maui, lost at Texas A&M and then couldn’t win slow games at Stanford or Oregon State. It even fell apart down the stretch in its usually vaunted homecourt against Washington State and USC.

[+] EnlargeWashington's Darnell Gant
Bob Donnan/US PRESSWIRESo far, Darnell Gant and the Washington Huskies have been flying high in the postseason.
So why should there have been optimism?

“I just told our guys, ‘Dudes if we don’t win and play well right away, we’re going home,’’’ Thomas said of his pre-Pac-10 tournament conversation.

Well, they must have listened because the Huskies won the automatic berth in thrilling fashion with a 3-pointer at the buzzer to beat the Wildcats in the Pac-10 tournament final. Thomas took that shot. He wasn’t in position to take a game-winner against Arizona in Tucson a few weeks earlier as Derrick Williams blocked Washington from a victory.

And then the NCAA tournament selection committee took the No. 7-seeded Huskies and shipped them farther away than any other team when it sent the Seattle-based school to Charlotte to take on nearby No. 10 Georgia.

Yet Washington’s fans seemed to be in greater numbers than Georgia fans, and were certainly louder. And with good reason. Washington played UGA's halfcourt game and beat the Bulldogs by staying strong on the backboard and running the break effectively, earning a 68-65 win and a date with No. 2 seed and hometown favorite North Carolina on Sunday at 12:15 p.m.

“We understand now that we have to play defense to win games,’’ said Washington senior Justin Holiday. “Sometimes we haven’t been as focused on defense toward the end to win games.’’

Thomas said the momentum from the Pac-10 tournament did have an effect on the Huskies’ confidence here. Washington was the aggressor to start the second half after the two teams were tied 28-28 at halftime, the first close half of any of the three previous games in Charlotte on Friday.

“They’re a team that scores in bunches and they know their strength,’’ said Georgia’s Trey Thompkins. “They like to play the game fast-paced. They came down in the second half and started knocking down shots. They were contested. That just shows the quality of shooters and the quality of team that they have.’’

Georgia extended a great deal of respect to Washington on the postgame podium. UGA coach Mark Fox, a former Nevada assistant and head coach, is familiar with UW’s success in the past six years under coach Lorenzo Romar.

“We got the game we wanted, but we didn’t defend well in the second half,’’ Fox said. “We gave up almost 54 percent and didn’t rebound well enough. Even though we got the game we wanted to, you still have to make the plays at both ends and we didn’t do that. It was frustrating.’’

The balance Washington displayed was the reason the Huskies advanced to play the Tar Heels. Aziz N’Diaye, Matthew Bryan-Amaning and a collection of guards led by the recently reinstated Venoy Overton gang rebounded, according to Amaning, in a way that made it harder for the Bulldogs to focus on one player to keep off the glass.

And, of course, when the Huskies needed a big shot they turned to Thomas. He finished with 19 points, seven assists and two turnovers and made all seven free throw attempts.

Now the trick will be how Washington fares against a UNC team that has length and runs as well as any team in the country. The Huskies will get looks but if they don’t knock down shots and get some putbacks, then the Tar Heels certainly could run them out of the building. And this will be a road game for Washington with Carolina blue dominating the arena.

“I think we have a great chance because we like to get up and down,’’ Thomas said. “We both like to play the same style. It’s going to be a great game.’’
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Washington has proven to be tournament tough under coach Lorenzo Romar.

The Huskies are suddenly the hot team after winning the Pac-10 tournament, and for the second season in a row -- following a much-maligned regular season -- Washington is poised to make a possible run to the Sweet 16. Washington had to travel further than any other team this weekend and pulled off a 68-65 win over a taller, and what appeared to be a stronger Georgia team.

A year ago, Washington went to San Jose and reached the Sweet 16 in Syracuse. The Huskies haven’t always represented the Pac-10 well in the non-conference the past few seasons, but have found the right mix in the postseason to be quite a pest.

Washington looked like it could have been in trouble early against Georgia and had to scrap for a tie game at the half. But the Huskies were able to use their defense to start the break and continued to be the aggressor at the offensive end as Georgia’s offense sputtered.

Georgia hung tough in the final few minutes, pushing Washington to the final possession and forcing the Huskies to make free throws.

Star player: Washington’s Isaiah Thomas has taken over games in the past month. He took and made the shot to beat Arizona at the buzzer in the Pac-10 tourney final. And it was Thomas who was the difference once again for Washington, making shots to silence Georgia runs and energize the Huskies. He finished with 19 points and seven assists.

Welcome back? Washington’s suspended guard Venoy Overton, who missed the Pac-10 tournament for serving alcohol to a minor, gave the Huskies a stable presence off the bench and scored a key basket in the final two minutes to stretch the lead to 10. Romar said that he was going to use Overton (six points, four rebounds) off the bench and it gave the second unit an infusion.

Key stat: I found it rather odd that Washington was able to win this game despite shooting six more 3s than Georgia. The Bulldogs played smart and kept the game in the half court offensively while the Huskies were jacking up too many shots. A difference for the Huskies ended up being the ability to hang with the Bulldogs on the boards. Washington got spirited rebounding from Matthew Bryan-Amaning, Aziz N'Diaye and to some extent Darnell Gant and Justin Holiday. The Husky guards also rebounded well.

What’s next: Washington plays North Carolina in an intriguing third-round game Sunday at 12:15 p.m. at the Time Warner Cable Arena. The Huskies would love to run with the Tar Heels. That’s more their game. Sunday's contest has the makings of being similar to the Huskies' close games with Arizona within the past month.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- North Carolina’s recent run to ACC regular-season title was dominated by the play of Kendall Marshall at the point, Harrison Barnes on the wing and Tyler Zeller in the post.

But if John Henson is suddenly a legit offensive scorer on a consistent basis then the Tar Heels suddenly just got even stronger as a threat to knock off Ohio State in the East Regional.

Henson scored 28 points to control the middle against Long Island University in a 102-87, 2-15 victory in the second round of the NCAA tournament at the Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte.

Henson showed why he has unlimited potential with a wide array of scoring moves. He has always been able to score on the fast break or on the offensive glass, but he wasn’t as aggressive throughout the season, hunting for his shot. He was against the Blackbirds.

But Henson has quietly increased his shot production the past week. Henson had attempted more than 12 shots in a game only one time prior to March 12 -- when he took 15 in a loss at Duke on Feb. 9. Henson took 13 in the win over Clemson in overtime in the ACC tournament semifinals and 15 in the ACC tournament title game loss to Duke. He attempted 16 in the win over LIU Friday night.

Washington coach Lorenzo Romar, watching the game courtside in case the Huskies beat Georgia in the nightcap, said he couldn’t get over the length of the Tar Heel frontline. A lot of that has to do with Henson. He has always been a lanky fellow that needed weight. But he has been able absorb contact at this level and finish.

If he can continue this growth the Tar Heels become an even more difficult matchup with Zeller and Barnes.

Key stat: The Tar Heels won this game despite shooting under 20 percent on 3s. The Tar Heels don’t have a Wayne Ellington-type to consistently knock down 3s. That puts even more emphasis on UNC to score inside or in the mid-range.

Turning point: The Tar Heels never let the NEC’s Blackbirds to get close enough in the second half to feel like the game could really turn. UNC was always able to keep LIU at arm’s length.

Balance: The Tar Heels now have a big four with Zeller scoring 32, Henson 28 and Barnes 24 while Marshall dished out 10 assists and had three turnovers.

What’s next: The Tar Heels move onto the third round to play either Washington or Georgia with a chance to advance to the East Regional semifinals in Newark.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski was quick to say on the postgame podium that his focus wasn’t on Kyrie Irving, but rather the entire team. That’s how it should be in the NCAA tournament.

But for those at the Time Warner Cable Arena Friday afternoon, the attention was solely on Irving.

And Sunday against Michigan will be no different.

Irving is back and the top-seed in the West suddenly got even tougher to punch out, an almost unheard of proposition during the first weekend of the NCAA tournament.

“We’re even more dangerous,’’ said ACC player of the year Nolan Smith. “We’ve just added a player as talented as him [who] can score the ball, and it gives us another weapon.’’

Irving played for the first time since Dec. 4 when he suffered a freak injury on a drive to the basket, tearing ligaments in his right big toe against Butler at the IZOD Center at the Meadowlands in New Jersey. He avoided surgery and had his foot in a cast and then a boot before he wore sneakers again. He practiced for the first time earlier this week after just going through non-contact, shooting drills last week during the ACC tournament in Greensboro.

[+] EnlargeKyrie Irving
Lance King/Icon SMIDuke freshman Kyrie Irving notched 14 points in 20 minutes in his first game since Dec. 4.
Irving paced himself in the first half against Hampton, but didn’t hesitate to look for the openings on the break or hunt for his shot in the second half. He finished with a team-high 14 points in 20 minutes off the bench, making both 3s, all four free-throw attempts and finishing with one assist, two turnovers, two steals and a block in Duke’s 87-45 victory.

“It was a good performance, good to be out there with my teammates,’’ Irving said. “I just wanted to integrate myself into Coach K’s system and fit as well as I could. In the second half, I just had to be more aggressive and Coach said just play my game.’’

His game is to look for the opening in the lane. Granted the competition was the MEAC champ Hampton. But that shouldn’t matter in the assessment. Of course, Michigan will be a tougher opponent Sunday and the openings won’t be as grand. But Irving is finding his comfort zone just as Duke is set to play a potential six-game season.

Remember, Irving was Duke’s leading scorer when he got hurt. He was scoring 17 points per game and lit up Michigan State for 31 on Dec. 1. He would have been a candidate for the freshman and national player of the year awards, let alone ACC player of the year, had he stayed healthy.

Krzyzewski said the Blue Devils were fortunate to get Irving 20 minutes on Friday versus the Pirates. He said that playing with the unit he was on didn’t get in Smith’s way (on the second unit).

“I was really pleased,’’ Krzyzewski said. “I thought he was very confident as it moved along.’’

The Blue Devils were already a No. 1 seed without Irving. But if he can continue to progress this weekend, then they emerge as a favorite, if not slightly ahead of Ohio State and Kansas as the favorites. If Irving can play 25-28 minutes at point guard by next weekend in Anaheim -- assuming the Blue Devils beat Michigan -- then Duke's frontcourt will shine more in a transition game.

“Kyrie helps our team,’’ Duke senior forward Kyle Singler said. “We are a really good team. And now we’ll just have to learn how to play with him again. But he’s easy to play with, and it won’t be too hard.’’

Rapid Reaction: Duke 87, Hampton 45

March, 18, 2011
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- A No. 1 seed rarely adds a star player to the lineup in the first weekend of the NCAA tournament.

Duke freshman point guard Kyrie Irving played for the first time since tearing the ligaments in his right toe against Butler on Dec. 4.

He didn’t disappoint. Irving entered the game roughly five minutes into each half and ended up playing 20 minutes total, as scripted.

He started with a slower step but then picked up the pace and by the second half, Irving was moving quite well laterally. He took the ball to the hoop for a layup and then hit consecutive 3-pointers. Irving scored a team-high 14 points in top-seeded Duke’s 87-45 victory over No. 16 Hampton.

Coach Mike Krzyzewski said Irving would play if he proved he was ready. Now, Irving will likely get even more minutes. Having Irving play 20 minutes off the bench gave the Blue Devils a quality bench scorer and a game changer.

Of course, the shots will be tougher against Michigan’s defense. But this was a good first start for integrating Irving back into the lineup.

Key stat: Irving’s 20 minutes, 14 points, one assist, two steals, two turnovers, 4 of 4 from the line, 2 of 2 at the 3-point line and four rebounds.

Turning point: When the seeds were announced. Hampton didn’t have much of a shot against Duke, especially once Irving was cleared to play.

Balance: Duke shared the ball. The Blue Devils had 17 assists on 32 baskets and there was balance all around on the box score.

What’s next: Duke plays Michigan Sunday in the third round with the right to go to the Sweet 16 in Anaheim. There happens to be another subplot since Duke and Michigan have been in the news lately in reference to the two programs in the 1990s.

Bruce Pearl on Vols: 'We unraveled'

March, 18, 2011
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The postgame chatter from the players was about playing without heart and quitting in the second half.

If that’s the last impression of the Bruce Pearl era at Tennessee, then it would symbolize a sad and pathetic fall.

Pearl made the third-most popular team in Knoxville relevant during his six-year tenure as head coach. His style of basketball was exciting, his enthusiasm for the Volunteers’ program unbridled and raw, and his ability to recruit high-level basketball players was good enough to put the Vols in the NCAA tournament for a school record six straight times.

But if you were here in Charlotte, it was hard to watch Tennessee's season and the way Pearl’s coaching tenure likely ended Friday. And it was probably painful if you’re a passionate member of a Rocky Talk fan club.

[+] EnlargeBruce Pearl
AP Photo/Bob LeveroneBruce Pearl's six-year tenure in Knoxville may have come to a close on Friday.
No. 9-seeded Tennessee collapsed at the hands of No. 8 Michigan 75-45 in a game that was more akin to a 16-1 matchup. The Vols only trailed by four at the half, but it turned into a 33-point deficit with 1:53 left against a Michigan team that is still figuring itself out this season.

“Well, we just didn’t play with any heart out there,’’ said Tennessee freshman Tobias Harris, who is expected to test his NBA draft stock this spring for the brief period allowed under NCAA rules. “I mean, Michigan came out and made shots, and we just did a terrible job of trying to cover them. And on the offensive end we rushed too many shots and basically just quit.’’

Pearl didn’t disagree.

“Well, when you get beat 42-16 in a half of basketball, we didn’t play with heart and obviously we were terribly discouraged by the margin, the quality of Michigan’s play, the poorness of our play and we did let down,’’ Pearl said. “We unraveled.’’

The world of Pearl and his assistants was rocked when Tennessee athletic director Mike Hamilton surprised them by making comments that Pearl’s status wasn’t known after the school had supported Pearl throughout the past year. Tennessee and the SEC had levied serious sanctions against Pearl ($1.5 million docked over a five-year period, a one-year ban from off-campus recruiting, similarly staggered penalties for his assistants coaches and an eight-game SEC suspension for Pearl doled out by commissioner Mike Slive) for misleading NCAA and school investigators about a cookout at his house in 2008 with high school juniors on an unofficial visit.

But the notice of allegations that came from the NCAA in February produced a secondary violation that wasn’t known earlier in the fall. After Pearl had been sanctioned by the school, he and his staff had an unofficial contact with a junior at Oak Hill Academy (Va.). It is a charge that Pearl and his staff say they will contest.

But something has changed with Hamilton and the UT administration over the past week.

Yet, nobody -- the players or Pearl -- was using Hamilton’s comments as a reason for the defeat to upstart Michigan, which now moves on to play top-seed Duke on Sunday in the third round for the right to go to Anaheim in the Sweet 16.

“This game was not indicative of our season in the sense that even when we were struggling down the stretch, we were right there in virtually every game,’’ Pearl said. “The questions are going to be asked whether or not there was a distraction on the team. We tried really hard to have it be just about the basketball and the business at hand.’’

But it’s hard to believe that it was just about the game. Michigan had a surprising season. But the Wolverines had never played that well for a 20-minute stretch. Role player Matt Vogrich didn’t miss a shot (5-of-5) and Evan Smotrycz smoked the Vols for two 3-pointers. The Wolverines had runouts with a Tim Hardaway Jr., flush, and John Beilein looked like even more of a master with his sets.

“I think it’s an understatement to say we were thrilled with our performance,’’ Beilein said.

Pearl couldn’t have been more disappointed.

And now his fate rests with the Tennessee administration. Pearl said he has no timetable to meet with Hamilton, but he is assuming that it will be sometime in the next week. Pearl said he doesn’t have a contract, and he’s hopeful he can still show how much he has meant to the school and what the program has accomplished. He said he’s still confident that he will be the basketball coach when the Vols meet with the Committee on Infractions on June 10-11 in Indianapolis.

“Obviously, this didn’t help and I didn’t help myself in that regard,’’ Pearl said of the 30-point loss. “But I hope that the body of work … I don’t think the people at Tennessee are evaluating me based on whether or not we won or lost this game. I think there’s a lot more to it than that. And I have great trust and faith in our leadership. We have very, very good people in these positions that I hope they still have great confidence in their coach.’’

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- If this was the last game for Tennessee head coach Bruce Pearl then it was not representative of his career with the Vols.

Tennessee under Pearl has been a consistently disruptive team that put opponents on the defensive and was usually the aggressor.

But the Vols were completely outmatched against Michigan in the second half as the Wolverines ran away with a 75-45 win. The early fire that the Vols showed off the opening tip soon evaporated as Michigan ran its sets, was the disruptive defensive team and finished well on the break as well as making 3s.

Michigan looked like a team that enjoys playing together and had a purpose for each possession. Tennessee did not. The Vols weren’t sulking or displaying poor body language but there just seemed to be a lack of overall fight with the crew. There were a few moments later in the second half after the lead grew to 20-plus. But it was too late.

Key stat: The Wolverines were shooting over 50 percent and seemed to be an offensive machine throughout most of the latter stages of the first half and into the second. Michigan is starting to resemble the offensive squad that West Virginia had toward the last few seasons under John Beilein. This team went through growing pains last season under Beilein when it missed the tournament. This season it just took some time to get used to the system and once they grasped the concepts the Wolverines were a tough out.

Turning point: I could go with the start of the second half when the Vols came out flat but I’d say it may have been when AD Mike Hamilton signaled the end of the Pearl era with his comments earlier this week on a Knoxville radio station. The Vols said the right things during the Thursday news conference but it was obvious that they saw the end was near for the staff. The staff couldn’t hide its frustration, either.

The good: Michigan has quite a youth brigade in Tim Hardaway Jr. and Darius Morris, two players who fully grasp the Beilein system and are excelling in it at this stage in the season. The role play from Zack Novak, Evan Smotrycz and Matt Vogrich was solid throughout and the Vols couldn’t hang with supposedly higher level talent.

The bad: Tennessee is usually one of the better traveling teams. It was clear that the Vols' fan base was done with this team considering the turnout. Tennessee gave the Vols’ fans reason to stay home. If they had driven here then there would have been a reason for reimbursements.

Goodbye: The end will likely come for Pearl sometime next week and the entire Vols’ staff and probably for heralded freshman wing Tobias Harris, who is a talent that is probably ready to try the NBA draft.

What’s next: Michigan moves on to the third round to likely play top-seeded Duke, which plays Hampton later Friday afternoon. Duke and Michigan had a regular rivalry going for a spell but that has since been discontinued. Michigan has accomplished plenty so far this season and has nothing to lose going into a game against Duke.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Here’s a quick preview of Friday’s night-session games.

No. 2 seed North Carolina (26-7) vs. No. 15 seed Long Island (27-5), 7:15 p.m. ET


Coach: Roy Williams (640-162 overall, 222-61 in eight seasons at North Carolina)

Last NCAA tournament appearance: 2009

All-time NCAA record: 55-18

Player to watch: Freshman forward Harrison Barnes has found his groove. Barnes was a bit off against Duke in the ACC tournament final, but still managed to score 16 points. He went for 40 points against Clemson in an overtime win in the ACC semifinal. Barnes will still be a tough matchup for Long Island and every other team in this bracket as long as the Tar Heels advance.


Coach: Jim Ferry (225-158 overall in 13 seasons, 125-139 in nine seasons at LIU)

Last NCAA tournament appearance: 1997

All-time NCAA record: 0-3

Player to watch: Julian Boyd. The sophomore forward didn’t play last season due to a heart condition. But Boyd has played like a seasoned vet this season for the Blackbirds. He had 11 double-doubles this season with 12.9 points and 8.8 rebounds on average.


1. The Carolina break: UNC point guard Kendall Marshall is going to be pushing the basketball from the opening tip. LIU can’t run with North Carolina. The Blackbirds are 4th in the country in scoring, but it would be a major mistake if they try to match the speed and quickness of UNC. The Blackbirds also can’t hang with the Tar Heel bigs.

2. John Henson: Tyler Zeller had a solid past few weeks of the regular season. But for the Tar Heels to win a national title they must get more out of Henson. He can be a tough matchup defensively, but he has to do a bit more on the offensive end. Carolina needs one more offensive option.

3. The crowd: Charlotte is UNC territory. This may be the loudest home court of any of the eight-regional sites. North Carolina may have a 99-1 ratio in the nightcap crowd after Duke plays in the afternoon.

No. 7 seed Washington (23-10) vs. No. 10 seed Georgia (21-11), 9:45 p.m. ET


Coach: Lorenzo Romar (287-189 in 15 years, 194-101 in nine years at UW)

Last NCAA tournament appearance: 2010

All-time NCAA record: 17-16

Player to watch: Isaiah Thomas. The Pac-10 tourney’s most outstanding player didn’t hesitate to take ,and then make, a game-winning 3-pointer to beat Arizona in the Pac-10 title Saturday. Thomas has emerged as the Huskies’ go-to player for the big-stage moment. He was the headline player going into the season but it took some time for him to dominate like he did in the Pac-10 tournament.


Coach: Mark Fox (158-71 in seven seasons, 35-28 in two seasons)

Last NCAA tournament appearance: 2008

All-time NCAA record: 7-10

Player to watch: Trey Thompkins. Thompkins was the SEC player of the year -- in the preseason. A high-ankle sprain hurt his development and prevented him from a bust-out season. He still is a force and has a chance to be a double-double performer. But his Bulldogs teammates sometime still forget too often that he’s in the post.


1. Pace. The Huskies are going to want to push the pace. Georgia would rather get the game in the half court, and that would benefit Thompkins much more. If Thomas is running the point and creating havoc, Georgia could be in trouble, even though the Bulldogs have high-flyers like Travis Leslie to finish on the break.

2. Point guard play: Thomas is a scoring point. The Bulldogs have a scoring point as well in Gerald Robinson Jr., but he’s not as explosive as Thomas. The question will be which one of the two will be a better playmaker and get their teams into the offense.

3. Sleepers: C.J. Wilcox has proven to be a break-out scorer for Washington. If he is on his game that could spell trouble for Georgia. The Bulldogs could have a sleeper in Jeremy Price, who is the only Bulldog who has tournament experience.

Previewing Charlotte: The day games

March, 18, 2011

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Let's take a look at the afternoon games set for the Time Warner Cable Arena:

No. 9 seed Tennessee (19-14) vs. No. 8 seed Michigan (20-13), 12:40 p.m. ET


Coach: Bruce Pearl (462-144 in 19 seasons, 145-60 in six years at UT)

Last NCAA tournament appearance: 2010

All-time NCAA record: 16-19

Player to watch: Tennessee’s Scotty Hopson has to have a big-time game for the Vols to win. He’s a difference-maker. The problem is that he’s completely erratic. He can score eight like he did against Arkansas or 27 like he did against Pittsburgh. Hopson may be able to get off some shots against Michigan’s defense, but he must hit them to keep the Wolverines off balance.


Coach: John Beilein (522-335 in 28 years, 66-46 in four years at Michigan)

Last NCAA tournament appearance: 2009

All-time NCAA record: 42-20

Player to watch: Tim Hardaway Jr. can be a game-changer for the Wolverines. He doesn’t have his father’s crossover but he can get to the rack and keep the Vols’ defense off its axis. Hardaway Jr. will push the basketball at will and he has a backcourt mate in Darius Morris who can also challenge the Vols’ guards.


1. The Volunteers’ attitude: How does Tennessee respond with the fate of its coaching staff unknown? AD Mike Hamilton essentially sounded the alarm that the staff is done after the Vols lose. Tennessee has been the most enigmatic team this season. No reason to think this should change now.

2. Michigan’s discipline: The Wolverines have been fundamentally strong this season. If they don’t get bothered by Tennessee’s pressure and can run their sets, then this game could take a decided turn early in favor of the Wolverines.

3. Brian Williams: Williams has been injured at times but he also can be a decisive factor on the offensive backboard. If he stays out of foul trouble and remains active, that could be the difference for Tennessee.

No. 1 seed Duke (30-4) vs. No. 16 seed Hampton (24-8), approx 3 p.m. ET


Coach: Mike Krzyzewski (898-283 in 36 seasons, 825-224 in 31 years at Duke)

Last NCAA tournament appearance: 2010

All-time NCAA record: 94-30

Player to watch: Duke’s Nolan Smith was the ACC player of the year. He showed no signs of an injured toe while torching Virginia Tech for 27 points in an ACC semifinal game and then scoring 20 against North Carolina in the final. Smith will share the role with Kyrie Irving again for a few minutes. It shouldn’t matter. Smith and Irving are selfless players and want to win a championship.


Coach: Ed Joyner (36-26 in second season overall and at Hampton)

Last NCAA tournament appearance: 2006

All-time NCAA record: 1-3

Player to watch: Joyner says senior guard Brandon Tunnell and junior guard Darrion Pellum are two of the better guards in the country. He said on our ESPNU show Monday that the backcourt can hang with anyone. Now is the chance to prove it against Smith, Irving and Seth Curry.


1. Kyrie Irving: When will he get into the game and for how long? Irving will play off the bench. He looked like he didn’t miss a step in light workouts in Charlotte on Thursday. But how does he handle game speed, how will he deal with cutting on the court, blowing by a defender, making a 3-pointer or a mid-range shot?

2. The rotation: How does Coach K deal with the rotation of guards with Smith, Irving, Curry and Andre Dawkins? Does this affect how and where he plays Kyle Singler? Does he go with three guards, Singler and a Plumlee?

3. Hampton’s decision: Do the Pirates run with Duke? Does Hampton try to take the air out and slow down every possession to fluster the Blue Devils? Is this is a game at the half?