Philadelphia, PA – It hasn't always been Duke-North Carolina competitive, but the Border War has come close to matching the intensity, the hatred and the emotion.
That makes the conclusion of the Border War so disheartening. In the face of more money and more power, fans across the country are losing something, a big something, from the sport's conscience. We could go on and on, railing against the "man," the entities that one by one are taking away small parts of this game's nostalgia, but the place for that rant isn't the final Monday before March.
No, this column is a reflective celebration of the last chapter, an epic collision of titans, perhaps the season's best showcase. And while there was a determined winner and loser on the court, we were all winners in the moments after for watching, and we will soon be all losers for missing out on a Top-5 rivalry.
The Jayhawks and Tigers are built schematically different. Kansas' heart and soul resides in Player of the Year candidate Thomas Robinson, a man's man with legs twice the size of my arms, yet a natural finesse around the basket that gives the appearance of a 250-pound dancer. On the other hand, Marcus Denmon, Kim English and Michael Dixon are gifted marksmen who excel at one of the game's most difficult crafts -- making more shots than they miss. Missouri is built around its guards, and for 35 minutes on Saturday at the Phog (which by the way is one of sports' greatest arenas), they were the stars of the show.
They controlled the tempo, attacked the paint and saddled Robinson and Jeff Withey with early foul trouble, and as is their M.O., they made shots, more than enough to put the Tigers in complete control. They were less than 20 minutes from their biggest win of the season, and all they had to do was salt away the final minutes with a 19-point lead.
If only it was that easy, if only the opponent was that relenting, if only the Phog didn't provide the apparent vanquished with the psychological boost that transformed them into victors. The comeback was gutsy, even somewhat methodical, yet it seemed to happen so fast, culminated by Robinson's three- point play that tied the game at 75-75 with 16.1 seconds left.
Then Phil Pressey, faster with the ball from Columbia to Lawrence than perhaps any guard in the country, dribbled the length of the floor with what looked to be an open window of opportunity. That is until it was closed quickly and emphatically by Robinson's right hand, swatting away Pressey's last-second layup in a snapshot that may prove pivotal in his race with Kentucky's Anthony Davis for Player of the Year honors.
As it always does, overtime began on an even scoring ground, but the playing ground and the momentum that came with it couldn't have made the odds more lopsided. With the crowd's vitriol still spewing after 40 on-the-edge-of-your- seat minutes (signs mocking the Tigers' move to the SEC and blaming them for the end of the rivalry were littered throughout the house), and a 19-point comeback in their holster, the Jayhawks were firing on all cylinders. And they had the fans to thank.
"It's so loud," said Dixon. "When they scored a basket, it felt like they scored 10 baskets."
That sort of advantage is tough to overcome. Yet, give the Tigers credit, they nearly pulled it off. In the end, it may have been fitting that one of the most maligned Jayhawks, guard Tyshawn Taylor, drained two foul shots, including the game-winner, with eight seconds to go. Missouri had one last chance, but never got off a shot before the buzzer.
And with the buzzer's piercing sound of finality, the comeback was complete. The joy was evident on every Jayhawk. The sorrow was apparent on every Tiger, including a crying and crouching Dixon. And the Border War, after 105 years, was over... for now.
THOUGHTS FROM THE WEEK THAT WAS
Two teams recently in the news for suspensions to key players are now in the news for big weekend wins that solidified tournament berths. Purdue dismissed guard Kelsey Barlow, and suffice it to say, his teammates let the door and their verbal jabs hit him on the way out. Guard Ryne Smith curtly surmised the dismissal was "addition by subtraction." And maybe he was right. Purdue exploded past Michigan, 75-61, with a great game by veteran forward Robbie Hummel and an encouraging, albeit unexpected, 22 points from guard Terone Johnson. The Boilermakers should feel good about their play and their position coming down to the last week of the season. Alabama was an afterthought after head coach Anthony Grant suspended his two leading scorers, Tony Mitchell and JaMychal Green. The latter is back after a brief absence, and the Crimson Tide have won three straight, including an impressive 67-50 victory over fellow bubble-sitter Mississippi State on Saturday.
More quick bubble hits: Northwestern is still breathing after escaping Penn State, 67-66, but the Wildcats need to beat Ohio State this week; Seton Hall didn't lock up a bid thanks to an overtime home loss to Rutgers, but the Hall gets another chance next week against DePaul; Miami FINALLY got a sought-after quality W with a 78-62 drubbing of Florida State. The Hurricanes are now very much in the bubble discussion after an impressive victory without star forward Reggie Johnson; Who knows what to make of the Cincinnati-South Florida situation after the Bulls downed the Bearcats, 46-45, in an ugly showcase for both. Regardless, it was a W, and it's now looking like South Florida will finish at least 12-6 in the Big East, a tough mark to ignore despite the lack of quality Ws and below average computer metrics. We will have more on this situation in the Friday Bubble Breakdown.
As a member of Ken Pomeroy's statistical efficiency service, From The End of the Bench will provide a few nuggets in this space leading up to the NCAA Tournament, and you can bet a heavy dose of empirical evidence in deciding tournament winners and losers will be drawn from this model. Are you looking for a mid-major Final Four pick? Look no further than Wichita State, which wrapped up the Missouri Valley regular-season title last week. The Shockers have the nation's seventh most efficient offense and the 20th most efficient defense. They control the defensive backboards, don't turn the basketball over and have been around the block before. Wichita State is the nation's third most experienced team with its lineup averaging 2.51 years of playing experience.
FINE 15 (and each team's weakest link)
1. Kentucky (28-1): The Wildcats play great team defense, but unlike years past, they really don't turn teams over. Kentucky ranks 251st nationally in forcing opponents' turnovers, yet still excels defensively due to Davis' and the rest of the front line's ability to alter shots at the rim.
2. Syracuse (29-1): It survived at UConn despite a big second-half letdown that hopefully teaches Jim Boeheim's crew a lesson. The Orange's weakest link is their ability to keep opponents off the offensive glass. Perhaps a zone defense breeds long offensive rebounds, but Syracuse is 338th nationally in opponents' offensive rebounding percentage (38.3% of their shots).
3. Kansas (24-5): The Jayhawks foul too much. Kansas' weakest link almost cost it against Missouri, as both Robinson and Withey were in early foul trouble, allowing the Tigers to build a big lead. The Jayhawks allow their opponents to reach the charity stripe at an alarming rate, and when there, they take advantage, shooting 71.3 percent.
4. Michigan State (24-5): Perhaps the nation's most impressive team by the numbers, Michigan State's opponents attempt three-pointers at a 36.5 percent clip, which makes sense considering the Spartans' formidable interior defense. Yet, they make just 28.2 percent of those long-range shots, placing the Spartans fifth in three-point percentage defense. Michigan State's lone statistical blemish is similar to Kentucky's low percentage of forced turnovers. The Spartans play a similar "hands-up, ball-you-man" defense that doesn't allow points, but rarely picks a team's pocket.
5. North Carolina (25-4): When comparing profiles, Duke definitely belongs in this spot. Yet, anyone who saw the two teams play in Chapel Hill came away thinking the Tar Heels were the better team despite the Blue Devils' last- second victory. That battle will be settled this Saturday night in Cameron, where an ACC regular-season title could be on the line. One of the Tar Heels' weakest links is its effective free throw percentage (66.8), but one you wouldn't figure is a low defensive turnover percentage. North Carolina only forces turnovers on 18.5 percent of its defensive possessions, which isn't a good sign for a team that likes to create pace and score in transition.
6. Duke (25-4): The numbers back up the claims. The Blue Devils are not a great defensive team, ranking 55th in defensive efficiency and 101st nationally in opponents' effective field goal percentage (47.1 percent).
7. Missouri (25-4): The Tigers are very similar to the Blue Devils, except their lone big man is a better scorer but worse rebounder than the Plumlees. Missouri sports the nation's most efficient offense, but ranks 204th nationally in opponents' effective field goal percentage (49.7 percent).
8. Marquette (22-5): The Golden Eagles are manufacturing 40 minutes of winning basketball with smarts, toughness and two main scoring options. It doesn't hurt to have a coach (and dancer) the caliber of Buzz Williams, who did a little waltz on the West Virginia court after his team's victory last Friday night. The Golden Eagles do have difficulty keeping their opponents off the boards, ranking 303rd nationally in opponents' offensive rebounding percentage (35.9 percent of shots).
9. Ohio State (23-5): I've already discussed this issue, but the Buckeyes have serious shooting issues, which were again on display in the home loss to Wisconsin. Ohio State is 218th nationally in three-point percentage and 330th in the percentage of points coming off three-point shots (just 19.7 percent).
10. Baylor (24-5): The Bears' guards have received many accolades this year for exceeding expectations, and deservedly so, but one issue they need to clean up is ball security. The Bears rank 216th nationally in turnover percentage (coughing it up on 21.1 percent of possessions).
11. Murray State (29-1): The Racers are a small bunch, which can work as a positive that accentuates their speed and is a main reason I discussed Ivan Aska's importance in last Monday's space. The Racers thumped Tennessee State, 80-62, last week as a matter of revenge from their only loss of the season. Now, Murray State needs to clean up its turnover issues (227th nationally with turnovers on 21.3 percent of its offensive possessions) if it's to be considered a serious March threat.
12. Wichita State (26-4): I'll admit, I slept on the Shockers for far too long before taking a closer look in a BracketBusters victory over Davidson and again this past week when they clinched the Missouri Valley regular-season crown. The statistical evidence puts the Shockers in the upper echelon thanks to a well-balanced approach. The Shockers' lone blemish (similar to several teams above them) is their inability to force turnovers, ranking 254th nationally in defensive turnover percentage.
13. Wisconsin (20-8): The big road win at Ohio State was a by-product of the nation's third most efficient defense, which frustrated the Buckeyes into forced shots and out-of-sync possessions. One of Wisconsin's worst metrics is its offensive aggression and ability to score and draw fouls off the dribble. The Badgers rank 332nd nationally in free throw-to-field goal attempt percentage (for example: one free throw attempt to every field goal attempts is NOT good. The Division-1 average is 36.5 percent or a little more than three free throws for every eight field goal attempts).
14. Georgetown (21-6): The Hoyas responded from the loss to Seton Hall with one of their most complete games of the season, a 21-point rout of a Villanova team that had been playing much better lately. The Hoyas have no glaring red marks on their statistical sheet, however they do rank 139th nationally in three-point percentage (35 percent).
15. Michigan (21-8): The Wolverines went through an emotional roller coaster in the last week-plus, upending Ohio State, beating Northwestern in overtime then falling to Purdue. Like the Badgers, the Wolverines need to be more aggressive in attacking the rim and the glass. They rank 282nd nationally in offensive rebounding percentage and 339th in free throw-to-field goal attempt percentage.
For more information on these metrics visit www.KenPom.com. I will be using them often over the next several weeks. I believe a team's efficiency highlights strengths and weakness that are main indicators of success or failure by the end of a long season that includes approximately 35 games of data.
From the End of the Bench will be back Friday with another Bubble Breakdown. You can read last Friday's effort in the column archive. If you agree or disagree with your team's position, let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.