The games were not as anticlimactic as Saturday night was in the Midwest Regional final in Cleveland, or in the case of Mike Greenberg of ESPN Radio. If you have been following his picks, he had Arizona beating Wisconsin in the West Regional and the outcome simply went down in flames as he loses the Sheets of Integrity Challenge to Mike Golic for the fifth straight year.
Sunday afternoon in Syracuse and the 2016 Final Four city of Houston, there were some moments of true ebb-and-flow between the four remaining teams in the Elite Eight. Only one school never made it to college basketball’s Promised Land.
Louisville and Michigan State did five minutes better than the heart-pounding exhilarating affair between undefeated Kentucky and Notre Dame the night before.
The game was at a frenetic, hurry-up pace and Louisville was paced by senior Wayne Blackshear. The Cardinals led 40-32 at the half.
But everyone in the country knew that the Spartans would turn up the defensive pressure and the Cardinals simply could not buy a basket. Except for one hoop late in the half by Montrezl Harrell, Blackshear (the game’s high scorer with 28 points) was the only offense that consisted of three driving layups off Michigan State turnovers in transition.
Travis Trice and Bryn Forbes gave the Spartans the lead that they would not relinquish with back-to-back threes with eight minutes left.
The strangest moment of the day took place prior to the final TV time out. With 3:57 showing on the Carrier Dome clock, Blackshear drove hard to the bucket and was fouled by Matt Costello. After a few seconds, Wayne’s nose was bleeding.
NOTE: This next paragraph is not for the faint of heart–so please read carefully.
While on the bench as the athletic trainer was trying to plug it shut, one of the nostrils spewed out blood like a running faucet. A few minutes after heading into the locker room and putting on a fresh jersey, freshman Dillon Avare hit one of two free throws, but Blackshear managed to return just before the end of regulation time.
In a game which featured 11 lead changes, Louisville nearly completed its’ 12th trip to the Final Four. With 4.9 seconds left, Louisville forward Mangok Mathiang hit his first free throw which the ball hit hard off the heel of the rim and bounced high before settling through the hoop. The second attempt that could have given Louisville a possible victory, also hit the heel but bounced wide left.
Trice then spend up about 45 feet, but he could have taken one more dribble. But by the time he launched his half court shot, there was still 1.2 seconds left. The shot caromed hard off the top part of the backboard and the game went into overtime.
Gang Green did a complete 180 degree turnaround compared to a few weeks ago when they couldn’t dent the scoreboard at the United Center in Chicago during the Big Ten title game.
It started quickly with Forbes hitting a 3-pointer 26 seconds into the extra stanza. The Spartans kept a one to two possession lead most of the five minutes. Sparty managed to finally seal the deal in the final 31 seconds when Brandon Dawson put back a rebound to a missed three point shot as Michigan State went up 74-70.
Denzel Valentine (15 points) on the next possession batted away a interior feed by Quentin Snider, and Trice sealed the win by hitting two free throws with 10.1 seconds left. Michigan State earned the school’s ninth Final Four appearance, and the seventh in 20 years for Head Coach Tom Izzo.
For all of the doubters out there, and yes–I was one of them…guilty as charged–Sparty rose to the occasion when things mattered most.
Besides being the third Number 7 seed to reach the Final Four, Coach Izzo became the first coach in history to take three separate teams to the Final Four with seeds numbered 5 and less.
Gonzaga was trying to make its’ first ever trip to the Final Four, but for Duke–this was old hat to them down Tobacco Road.
But inside NRG Stadium, Gonzaga hung tough for a half only trailing 31-26 after the first 20 minutes.
The No. 2 seed (35-3) had taken a 38-34 lead less than 4 minutes into the second half. This young group of Blue Devils briefly suffered their largest deficit of the tournament. A 9-0 run turned the tide and Duke would turn things on cruise control, just like the 11 other times Coach K would guide his Blue Devils to yet another Final Four. This is Mike Kryzyewski’s 12th overall appearance and that ties him with the legendary John Wooden of UCLA who did his 12 appearances in a much quicker span between 1964 to 1975. This Duke run has been going on as long as the shot clock has been in existence–1986. I hope you can look up those games on YouTube if you want to see how the game was played back then.
However, to Mark Few’s credit–Gonzaga did not flinch.
The Bulldogs got as close as two points with under 5 minutes to go, but could have tied it up before Kyle Wiltjer missed on an open layup.
Sophomore Matt Jones (no relation to Tyus) had 16 points on four 3-point baskets. Senior guard Quinn Cook also finished in double figures with 10 points as Duke won going away 66-52. Justise Winslow also had a nice game with 16 points, but had to miss 8 minutes of game action due to having briefly sprained his left ankle while going for a driving layup.
Just like Michigan State, this will mark Duke’s first appearance on college basketball’s grandest stage since Lucas Oil Stadium first hosted the Final Four in 2010.
We all know the rest of the story.
Lots of tradition coming to Nap Town
This will be the most combined Final Four appearances in tournament history–26 in all:
Mike Kryzyzewski, Duke 12
Tom Izzo, Michigan State 7
John Calipari, Massachusetts and Memphis (both later vacated) and Kentucky 4
Bo Ryan, Wisconsin 2
I am just barely scratching the surface.
In terms of my brackets, the only team I had wrong was Michigan State. The other three Number 1 seeds, I was correct with Kentucky, Wisconsin, and Duke.
This Final Four has lots of tradition, and it promises to be loads of fun (even though things in most of Indiana are very tense at the time I wrote this blog– especially in Marion County, if you have been following the news since Governor Mike Pence signed that very controversial bill into law on Thursday).
Las Vegas oddsmakers have both Duke and Kentucky as 5 point favorites to beat the two Big Ten entrants.
Look for my extensive Final Four preview sometime later this week, as I will examine each team. Not only will I highlight their key strengths, but I hope to also give an X-Factor on the guy you may not think may grab the instant Twitter fodder or blog headline from me and other fellow bloggers on Saturday night which could mean the difference between advancing on Monday night or just being a mere footnote in history, like Larry Johnson passing up on a potential three-point attempt at the former RCA/Hoosier Dome in 1991 when Duke played close to a perfect game and halted the last team to enter the Final Four unbeaten in UNLV.
For Big Blue Nation and all Kentucky fans, 38 is the current record. But it will mean mostly nothing if they don’t get victories number 39 and 40.
But in my next blog, you will get the full roster of announcers that will be hired to do the Bleacher Streams:
Duke and Kentucky will have their in-school feeds supplied by TNT
Michigan State and Wisconsin will have their school colors represented by TruTV.
Even Dennis Miller is part of the three-hour pregame show.
And of course, TBS will give our information straight down the middle with hopefully a good side dish of “onions”–courtesy of one Bill Raftery working his very first Final Four for television after 20 years of doing similar coverage for Westwood One radio.
Finally, please continue to send your well wishes and prayers to the family of Craig Sager of Turner Sports as his leukemia has returned for the second time. Sure hope he does well again during his upcoming treatment and hopefully, if not during the NBA playoffs–we will hope to see him back in a dugout in time for the baseball playoffs come October.