Tourney Thoughts: Butler, K-State gives us another incredible night
Syracuse was out of sync offensively against Butler the whole night
Jacob Pullen made several big plays to help Kansas State pull out a win
Kentucky appears to be the best team remaining after dismantling Cornell
SI.com caught up with Seth Davis, who's serving as a CBS studio analyst during the tournament, to get his quick thoughts on Thursday night's action.
Opening Salvo: You just never know what the tournament is going to bring next. Just when you think it can't get any better, we get yet another Cinderella, quote-unquote mid-major (though Butler's not really a mid-major) upset. And then just an epic, historic game in Kansas State-Xavier. You don't often get a double-overtime game at the NCAA tournament. It was just an incredible game and a great night.
That K-State-Xavier game was as good as it gets, especially when it came to the guard play. We expected we would get an entertaining, up-and-down game, and it didn't disappoint. Both teams really shot it well. There's nothing like watching great guards play. Jacob Pullen and Denis Clemente combined for 53 points and Jordan Crawford and Terrell Holloway accumulated 58.
Most Shocking Development: Clearly Butler beating Syracuse. That really surprised me. Similar to Northern Iowa, Butler was in control for the majority of the game.
Syracuse was just so out of sync offensively ... I've been saying for a long time that, for all the attention that is paid to Syracuse's zone defense, really they were just fabulous offensively this year. They led the country in field goal percentage. Butler did a really good job in the half-court defense, but I think the real problem for Syracuse was the absence of Arinze Onuaku. Without Onuaku in there, the Orange offense was totally out of sync -- you could really see it. They were trying to post up Wesley Johnson in the block, and he's not comfortable doing that. Rick Jackson was awful. The question was, Could Syracuse still win a title without Arinze Onuaku? Well, these guys certainly can win games without him -- when they're playing well. But when Syracuse isn't playing well, that's when the Orange need Onuaku. And tonight they didn't play well, and it seemed pretty apparent that they missed him a lot.
The other big problem for the Orange tonight was their carelessness with the ball, as evidenced by the 18 turnovers. They have been a little careless with the ball this season, and 18 isn't that far above their average, but in a game with so few possessions, that is a damaging number. Butler plays aggressive, smart man-to-man defense, but it's not like they're a pressing team that jumps into passing lanes and creates a lot of steals. They only ranked sixth in the Horizon League in steals per game, and they had 13 tonight, which was about twice their average.
Memorable Moment: We had a plethora of options from that classic Xavier-Kansas Sate game. But one that really stood out was Crawford's game-tying three-pointer toward the end of the first overtime. That had to be over 30 feet and it hit nothing but net. That's what they call "in-the-gym" range.
A close second would be the foul at the end of regulation on Xavier's Holloway. That whole sequence was crazy. First, Kansas State was trying to commit the foul before Chris Merriewether actually drew a whistle (while Holloway was attempting a desperation three-pointer). It looked liked Clemente was trying to foul Holloway before he was ready to shoot, but it happened so fast and it wasn't that blatant, so I can't completely condemn the ref. I think it's tough to rip an official in that situation; I guess I'm kind of sympathetic to the refs. Yes, as evidenced by the slow-motion replay, he missed the call, but it wasn't as flagrant as some folks will make it out to be after the fact. But what really stood out to me was the poise of Holloway displayed in making all three free throws to (eventually) send the game into overtime. He makes the first two, and then K-State calls the timeout. Then he calmly comes out and hits the third. I know he's a stellar free-throw shooter, but in that situation with everything that was on the line ... my goodness. That was incredible
Player of the Day: Jacob Pullen, Kansas State. Pullen filled up the stat sheet with 28 points (hitting 6-of-12 from downtown) and he made the biggest shot of the game for Kansas State in the second overtime on an amazing individual effort. It was a play when he was running on the baseline, and he comes off a screen and he sprints to the top of the key, catches, turns and faces the other way and shoots up the game-defining three. This was at the end of a second overtime in a high-octane game in the NCAA tournament -- imagine what kind of condition he had to be in. That's why you work hard. He made that shot last September in an empty gym after a grueling practice.
Unsung Hero of the Day: Kevin Jones, West Virginia. He's been an unsung hero for West Virginia all season, and tonight he ended up with 18 points (including a 3-for-4 clip from beyond the arc) and eight rebounds. When you bring up West Virginia, a lot of people talk about Da'Sean Butler and Devin Ebanks, but not many folks mention Kevin Jones. He's one of those tough-matchup guys, with his ability to play inside and out. He's a defender, he's a rebounder -- he really embodies a lot of what Bob Huggins likes to teach. Da'Sean Butler had an off game, shooting 5-for-16 and turning the ball over four times, but Jones really gave them a lift and kept Washington at bay.
Most Impressive Team: I'll go with Kentucky. When Kentucky is at its best, there's nobody better. Cornell is a good team, and when the 'Cats went on the 30-6 run to end the first half, they made Cornell look like a JV team.
Now, we've always known that the Kentucky have the highest ceiling. The concern with the Wildcats is they just tend to lose focus at times. For some reason, they came out in the second half and thought it was a good idea to start jacking up three-pointers. That's one thing they don't do all that well, and you can see the temptation when Cornell is just sitting back in a zone, but Cornell was so overmatched in the interior that there was no excuse not to work the ball into the paint. Did they forget that they have a guy named DeMarcus Cousins on their team? One thing that doesn't get said enough: DeMarcus Cousins has a very high basketball I.Q. He just has a really good feel in the paint. He has phenomenal footwork and he makes good decisions with the ball; he really doesn't take bad shots.
That Kentucky-West Virginia game is really going to be special. Truthfully, that appears to be the national championship. Those are the two best teams in the tournament right now, and they're playing in the regional final. If I were doing an AP ballot tonight, I guess I may put Duke at No. 2 (behind Kentucky), but I think you can definitely make the case that Kentucky and West Virginia are the two best teams remaining right now.
Most Disappointing Team: Syracuse. I give Butler all the credit in the world, but Syracuse just really played poorly tonight. The Orange were up 54-50 with 5:30 left, and you have to close that out. You just have to. They had so many turnovers and were so out of sync offensively, and yet they still had a chance to win the game. But they couldn't close it out -- that's a major disappointment.
Sign Of A True Contender: West Virginia lost its starting point guard (Truck Bryant) and didn't receive the best effort from its star (Butler), and still beat a pretty good Washington team.
One Thing I Learned: I learned Butler is a very good defensive team. Syracuse was a prolific offense all season long and regularly eclipsed 80 points, but the Bulldogs held them below 60. Very impressive.
What To Look Forward To Friday: We have a couple of Cinderellas in Northern Iowa and St. Mary's. Can either team continue its magical run? Maybe we have another George Mason this year, and one of them can make it to the Final Four. Personally, I think Northern Iowa has a better chance to be that team, considering the Panthers' matchup against Michigan State. Baylor is a very tough matchup for St. Mary's. Having said that, it's apparent that St. Mary's is a really good team. One thing we know: There really aren't any true underdogs at this point in the tournament. All of the teams still playing have proven their worth. No matter how good you are, you have to play well to win at this juncture, bottom line. You cannot earn a victory simply by showing up at this stage of the tournament, no matter who you are.
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