Reflections from a reporter born in 1987

March Madness 2011: Further thoughts on the afternoon session

March 17, 2011 - 06:56 PM
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After a slow start against UNC-Asheville, Jamie Dixon's Pitt Panthers pulled away in the second half. (Photo: Associated Press)

In very broad terms, the first two games of the Verizon Center's 2011 NCAA Men's Basketball Championship went according to plan and prediction. The game between the 8 and 9 seeds in the Southeast Region, Butler and Old Dominion, was a physical game that appealed to basketball purists (though not necessarily neutrals), and came down to the final second.

On the other hand, the No. 1 seed in the Southeast Region, the University of Pittsburgh, had very little trouble with UNC-Asheville, outscoring the Bulldogs 44-26 in the second half to roll to victory.

After the jump, my thoughts on the action in both games.

(8) Butler 60, (9) Old Dominion 58

Old Dominion coach Blaine Taylor put things in perspective soon after his team fell to Butler, last year's NCAA Finalist, on a buzzer-beating layup by Matt Howard.

"If that's the worst thing that happens to [my players] in their life," Taylor said, "They're going to have a hell of a life."

Apart from taking the long view, Taylor's bon mot summed up the action itself. It could very easily have been his opposite number, Butler coach Brad Stevens, facing the music after a disappointing first-round exit that snapped a nine-game overall winning streak. If they awarded ties in college basketball, it might have been the fairest outcome for that particular game. But someone has to win, and it was the Bulldogs who did it.

"Two really good teams played a really hard-fought game," Stevens said. "I think that's kind of what you envision the eight-nine game to be ... We were fortunate to win because we had the last possession."

Both teams played a flawed game, but Old Dominion will look back at its 5-for-22 (22.7%) shooting line in the second half with particular regret. Likewise, senior Frank Hassell will look at the stat sheet and see 20 points on 7-for-13 shooting, but will no doubt ask himself how he managed to grab only five rebounds.  "They were fronting the play, kind of physical with me the whole game," said Hassell. "We were looking at first side a lot, and they were kind of pushing me out. Once coach could call some plays to get the ball moving from side-to-side and pass more, I could reposition and get the ball deep, and that's what we did."

Butler's win was a tribute to its depth as well, as the duo of Howard and Andrew Smith played much of the game with at least three fouls (four in Smith's case after he fouled Hassell with 15:56 to go).

"Our bench was huge," said Howard. "I mean Garrett [Butcher, who scored six points and grabbed six rebounds in 13 minutes off the bench] did a great job. Five offensive rebounds is huge, and that may in itself be separator in this game."

In fact, it was the difference in the offensive rebounding stats, where Butler beat out the Monarchs 18-13. "We were missing numerous box-outs, and they were just chasing the ball down," was how Taylor explained it.

But of course, the biggest rebound of the game fell to Howard himself. "I actually thought Andrew [Smith] was open on the duck-in," said Stevens. "Shawn [Vanzant] tripped, Shawn made an extraordinarily high-IQ play to throw the ball in the air, Andrew's guy had shown Andrew, tips the ball, keeps it alive, he's jumping with Matt [Howard]'s guy, Matt lays it in."

Cue pandemonium. Cue madness.

(1) Pittsburgh 74, (16) UNC-Asheville 51

This one was much more straightfoward. While I do believe that at some point in my life, a 16-seed will beat a 1-seed in the NCAA Tournament. I can say with complete confidence that the hypothetical 16-seed will not have played a grueling overtime game less than 48 hours before, as UNC-Asheville had to do. Nor will it had to have flown to its sub-regional site on a red-eye charter from Dayton, Ohio, as UNC-Asheville had to do. Not coincidentally, the Bulldogs played a fine first half, but were gradually ground down by the Pitt Panthers.

In some respects, it was a miracle that UNC-Asheville was in this game at all. The Bulldogs shot 17-for-55 from the field for the game (30.9%), making just nine field goals in the first half, and eight in the second half. The only saving grace that kept the score 30-25 at halftime was the fact that Pittsburgh made just 11 of their 29 field goal attempts (37.9%) in the first 20 minutes. But the second half, was a different story. Pitt's shots began to fall, UNC-Asheville's stayed out, and that, as the poet said, made all the difference.

"We really just missed some open shots early [in the game]," Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said. "Some finishes around the rim on some offensive rebounds, and some open threes. Ashton [Gibbs] obviously shot much better in the second half [Gibbs went 7-for-10 from the field and 4-for-5 from beyond the arc after halftime]. I think it just kind of opened up."

And what about that 81-77 overtime win on Tuesday night by UNC-Asheville over Arkansas-Little Rock? "I think we probably got a little tired," said Bulldogs guard Matt Dickey. "But I wouldn't say that had an effect for us losing the game."

"College kids stay up later than I do," Coach Eddie Biedenbach said. "Until they come up with a better way to do it, and I'm sure everybody has their opinions, but I'm pleased with the reception we got in Dayton and in Washington, D.C. I thought the way everything was handled was great on [the NCAA's part].

"We had to play better here today." Given the circumstances, I'd say Biedenbach's team, who cut their deficit to three on two occasions early in the second half, played very well indeed. But, as is often the case in the 1 vs. 16 match-ups, they didn't play nearly well enough. 

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