Get inside March Madness with SI.com's Luke Winn in the Tourney Blog, a daily journal of college basketball commentary, on-site reporting and reader-driven discussions.
3/17/2007 08:54:00 PM
Playing at a Bulldogged Pace
Pete Campbell (34), Julian Betko and the Bulldogs are in the Sweet 16 for the second time in four years.
BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Win the pace war against Maryland, Butler figured, and it would win the game. All season long, the Bulldogs have witnessed the implosions of impatient opponents; the Horizon League's powerhouse takes the air out of the ball, waits for a defensive lapse, and then shoots daggers with the shot clock running down. It's a formula that always works: Heading into Saturday, when fifth-seeded Butler had monopolized time of possession and held its foes to under 60 points, it was 20-0.
The fourth-seeded Terrapins only managed 59, as the Bulldogs' sub-60 resume hit 21-0 and they sealed their second trip to the Sweet 16 of this decade. If one were to dwell only on athletic aesthetics -- comparing the Average Joe frontline of Brandon Crone and Brian Ligon against the highlight-reel duo of James Gist and Ekene Ibekwe; or the spindly, Chitwood-esque A.J. Graves against the prep phenom Mike Jones -- Butler's victory might seem like a fluke. But the truth is, it has this methodical style down to a science; early-season victims Notre Dame, Indiana, Tennessee, Gonzaga and Purdue can provide references for its effectiveness. In kenpom.com's pace rankings, the Terps were the 10th fastest team and the Bulldogs were the 330th, and on Saturday the Turtle was ground to a halt by the NCAA tournament's most dangerous tortoise.
"We work on being patient and keeping our poise -- especially against teams like Maryland that like to get up and down," said forward Julian Betko. "Our plan was not to get in their tempo, and play our tempo instead. I'm not saying they can't guard, but they don't want to guard. They just want to steal it, or get a rebound and go. So what we did was work the shot clock and get the best looks we could possibly get."
Butler's veteran lineup of three seniors (Betko, Crone and Ligon) and two juniors (Graves and Mike Green) had the poise to make big plays down the stretch. Graves' three with 2:11 left was clutch, and Green's offensive rebound with seven seconds to go and the Bulldogs up 61-59 clinched the game. The moments that truly displayed the power of coach Todd Lickliter's system, however, were stashed earlier in the second half.
With 12:55 left, and the Bulldogs up one, 42-41, Ligon rebounded a missed Graves jumper. Programmed not to force a quick shot, they instead went through a 25-second sequence that ended with two quintessential "Butler Passes:" Betko turned down a semi-open 3 from the top of key to hit Ligon on the left block; then Ligon passed up a contested layup but drew the attention of defender Gist, and wrapped the ball around to Drew Streicher for what was indeed the best possible look -- a one-foot bank shot.
The second masterpiece possession came at the 6:53 mark, when Butler, which plays in Hinkle Fieldhouse, the state tournament site in Hoosiers, went into full Norman Dale Mode. The ball touched no fewer than six sets of hands -- from Green, to Crone, to Betko, to Graves, back to Crone, and finally, back to Betko -- before he drilled a three-pointer from the left wing to put the Bulldogs up 51-46. Crone, the assist man there, would later knock down two jumpers in the final five seconds of the shot clock that demoralized the comeback-minded Terps. "It's a tough task to guard 30 seconds side to side," said Green. "We drill that in practice ... and we're pretty good with the shot clock under 10."
Despite its crunch-time savvy, Butler is the rare mid-major who entered the dance feeling slightly unloved. The NIT Season Tip-Off champs sat in the AP poll's Top 10 in February, but were banished from the rankings altogether after three late conference losses. "It's a small league, so [the nation] did kind of forget about us," said Crone. "But we don't care, to be honest."
The Bulldogs just keep on rolling in the dance, and keep on being called "smart" and "quaint" and "old-school" as they pick apart more modern opponents. Even Philly product Green, the player on Butler's roster who looks the most like he belongs in the ACC, is comfortable with the fact that any conversation about his team tends to gravitate toward words like "Basketball IQ" rather than, say, "high-wire act." "We're challenged a little bit physically, but as far as thinking," he said, "we might be one of the best teams in America."
Smart enough -- and patient enough -- to win a potential matchup with Florida next week? For an underdog that rose from being picked sixth in the Horizon League preseason poll, to finishing the regular season as a No. 5 seed in the NCAA tournament, that will be the ultimate battle of wits.
Stephen Curry scored 30 points to help Davidson give Maryland a scare on Thursday.
BUFFALO, N.Y. -- The nightmare scenario was playing out for Maryland. The nation's hottest team from two weeks ago, winners of seven straight to close the ACC regular season, had tanked in the first round in its conference tournament against last-place Miami, and on Thursday at HSBC Arena was flirting with the dubious honor of First Upset Victim in the NCAA tournament.
The fourth-seeded Terps, a team of chiseled, mature-looking ACC athletes, were letting a Davidson freshman with the body of a 13-year-old light them up from every conceivable angle. Stephen Curry, the Doogie Howser of the NCAA tournament, actually turned 19 on Wednesday, and as Wofford coach Mike Young said earlier this week, "scores like he's 28." Curry's pedigree -- he's the son of former NBA gunner Dell Curry -- counteracts his slenderness, as he averaged 21.2 points per game this season and had poured in 23 by the 18:56 mark on the second half on Thursday. He had come out of the break on fire, hitting a 3-pointer in D.J. Strawberry's face, blowing by Strawberry for a layup, and then assisting on a Max Paulhus Gosselin bucket to put the 13th-seeded Wildcats up 52-44 with 17:32 to go. Davidson was knocking on the door of the second round. But would it only be a tease?
For Maryland coach Gary Williams, that stretch -- as well as the backdoor lay-in Curry had scored on late in the first half -- was a continuation of an actual nightmare. The previous evening, Williams had tormented himself by watching an ESPN Classic marathon of first-round upsets that included the UCLA-Princeton game [from 1996]. "I didn't want to sleep last night, so I watched that," Williams said. "I probably should have stopped watching it and watched more Davidson tape."
Most Davidson tape includes prolific scoring performances from Curry, the Charlotte, N.C.-born recruit who didn't get a scholarship offer from his father's alma mater, Virginia Tech -- or any other ACC teams -- and became a mid-major sensation instead. Strawberry, the long-armed lockdown specialist who was assigned to defend him, had said the day before that Curry was "not overly quick." That was obviously not the case early on, and Wildcats fans were yelling, "Hey, Strawberry, do you think he's slow now?"
Complications began to arise in Curry's upset quest, though, just as Davidson had the Terps on the ropes. Maryland pulled off its full-court pressure, which had broken down and given Curry open looks in transition, and went into a traditional halfcourt man-to-man. Strawberry, a senior with the end of his college career looming, rediscovered his defensive mojo at the right time. "I knew that they were going to continue to go to [Curry], and I either had to step it up or he was going to beat us by himself," he said.
As Strawberry -- himself the son of a pro athlete, the ex-Mets slugger Darryl -- picked up the pressure, Curry began to wilt, going 12 minutes and 24 seconds without a basket in the second half. "It was a little frustrating," Curry said of Strawberry's ball-denial D, "because not many people have done that to me all year." The Wildcats fell behind midway through Curry's drought; a layup by Bambale Osby put Maryland up for good at the 9:53 mark, 60-59, and the Terps went on to win 82-70.
Curry fouled out with 21 seconds left, and walked to the Davidson bench, clutching the loose edges of his baggy red jersey, as he so often does during breaks on the floor. He seemed oblivious to the standing ovation he was receiving from the Wildcats crowd, among them his father and mother. The kid, who wears his dad's old number 30, had proven he could play in the ACC; Williams would tell him exactly that in the handshake line. The 30 points Curry scored were little consolation, though, after his Cinderella bid had sputtered out. Player Who Impressed: Bambale Osby, reserve forward, Maryland. The afroed Osby looks like he was cross-pollinated with the DNA of Ben Wallace and Lou Ferrigno, but he's neither as defensively talented as Big Ben or as scary as the Hulk. Enough criticism, though: On Thursday Osby was the unsung hero of the Terps' first-round escape. With starting forward Ekene Ibekwe in foul trouble, Osby came off the bench to score 11 points and grab six rebounds -- 5.2 points and 2.2 rebounds above his average. His back-to-back buckets in the ninth minute of the second half helped alter the momentum of the game. "Bambale has been big in a lot of big games for us," Williams said. "He seems to play the best when we really need him."
Courtside Confidential: With 2:18 left in the first half, the Maryland band broke into a rendition of Gnarls Barkley's Crazy. As ubiquitous as that song is right now -- I heard it in on the PA in a grocery store and a CVS earlier this week -- it was a nice break from the standard fight-song fare. ... Davidson fans borrowed from Duke's Terp-taunting playbook, breaking out the Cameron Crazies' "Sweat Gary Sweat" chant on multiple occasions early in the game. Williams appeared to be sweating profusely. ... The last-minute exchange between the Davidson rooting section and Maryland freshman Greivis Vasquez was my personal highlight. The notoriously brash Vasquez, wearing an evil grin, made a gesture toward the fans with his hands that basically said, "bring it on." With the game out of hand, this riled the Wildcat faithful, who shouted such insults as, "No class, Vasquez!," "Did you shave your legs today, 21?" and, in what I think was a reference to Horatio Sanz' idiotic Saturday Night Live character, "Vasquez Vasquez!" Greivis kept on staring at them, showed his palms again, and then fixed his gaze to the scoreboard. Classic.
Big Picture: The Terps looked far from invincible. They may have pulled out a 12-point win, but this still isn't the same team that tore through the ACC -- racking up two wins over Duke and one over North Carolina -- to close the regular season. Thursday's victory was only a moderate step up from the debacle against the Hurricanes in the ACC tournament. While Davidson put up a good fight, the bottom line is that the Terps let a highly inexperienced, one-dimensional mid-major hang around for nearly 35 minutes. A more disciplined and balanced Butler team could give them trouble on Saturday, and unless Williams' boys bring back their February magic, there's little chance of them striking fear into top-seeded Florida in the Sweet 16.
Gary Williams' Terrapins had a seven-game winning streak snapped by Miami.
TAMPA, Fla. -- The ACC tournament is only five hours old, and already fifth-seeded Maryland has lost the desirable label of "nation's hottest team" and replaced it with a big, fat question mark. An ugly, 67-62 loss to last-place Miami has a swift way of altering how you're perceived by the rest of the nation.
The Terrapins (24-7, 10-6 ACC) arrived at St. Pete Times Forum this week with reason to be optimistic. A seven-game winning streak, which included two victories over rival Duke and one over North Carolina, had catapulted them off of the road to the NIT and into discussions over whether they'd be seeded third or fourth in the NCAAs. They had gone from left for dead after a 2-5 start in the ACC to being a popular darkhorse Final Four pick. And then somewhere in between their last victory -- a season-ending, 20-point rout of N.C. State on March 3 -- and the postgame locker room scene here on Thursday, with the exquisitely afroed Bambale Osby slumped over in his chair, sulking, and coach Gary Williams grimly fielding questions near the door, Maryland lost either its mojo or its motivation, or both.
"We thought we earned the right to win this game without going out and doing it," said Williams, whose team was outrebounded by a margin of 42-34. "We had to fight so hard to get back into the conference [race], and then once we got there, it was like we relaxed."
The nature of the loss to the 'Canes -- the fact that Miami only shot 35 percent, and committed 18 turnovers against four assists yet still managed to come out on top -- should be troubling for Terps fans. Maryland, which was an aggressive team during its streak, looked tentative against Miami's zone ("We had no patience whatsoever to attack it," Williams said) and settled for an inaccurate barrage of three-pointers, shooting 3-of-18 on the day.
In the big picture, what does this mean? For NCAA tournament seeding, it means that Maryland -- projected as a No. 4 heading into the day -- could drop down to the No. 5 line and miss out on getting a geographical advantage in the first and second rounds. (Goodbye, Buffalo; hello, Spokane?) For Williams, it means he'll have to refuel the fire that the Terps had on their seven-game run, which may not be all that hard to do, seeing that the Terps are only 11 days removed from their upset of the Heels, and eight days past their second beatdown of the Blue Devils. And for all the rest of us, who have brackets to fill out in three days, it means we now have to reconsider just how dangerous this darkhorse really is.