Finish Line » March Madness Finish Line's Blog Fri, 03 Jul 2015 18:46:34 +0000 en-US hourly 1 March Madness: Love and Basketball Tue, 07 Apr 2015 20:40:15 +0000

With the score of Monday’s Duke-Wisconsin championship game tied at halftime, I paced back and forth in my apartment. My wife had fallen asleep on the couch; there was nobody left to hear me mutter to myself about Jahlil Okafor’s early foul trouble.

Frankly, I was not used to caring this much. I’ve loved sports since I was a kid, but as I’ve written here, my priorities have changed as I’ve gotten older and started a family. Nearly 14 years removed from my final days at Duke, it’s difficult to justify dropping everything to watch them play, say, Virginia Tech in January. (And forget about my favorite pro team, the Knicks. No, really, just forget about them.)

And yet, while watching Duke fall nine points behind Wisconsin in the second half, I was stunned by how much I needed them to rally. I inched closer and closer to a 50-inch TV screen I could literally see from outside my apartment. I pumped my fist when precocious freshman guard Grayson Allen came out of nowhere to score crucial baskets. And I actually cheered when first-year point guard Tyus Jones hit dagger after dagger.

This sort of visceral reaction is the essence of why we love sports: When you allow yourself to become truly invested, there really is no more compelling form of entertainment. It’s no mystery why TV sports contracts have become increasingly lucrative. You can cut the cord on cable and not feel like you’re losing very much — except for the spontaneous nature of sports, which you simply can’t replicate.

Thanks to its myriad storylines and do-or-die drama, March Madness in particular is easily the best representation of college basketball, not to mention the finest version of reality television we’ve got. That’s why virtually everyone you know fills out a bracket, even if they didn’t watch a single game all year. You want to feel a part of something like this.

In the end, despite Frank Kaminsky’s best efforts, Duke’s brigade of freshmen was simply too good and too gutsy for a very good Badgers team. As the Blue Devils cut down the nets, I woke up my wife to share the good news; she gamely celebrated with me before promptly falling back asleep. I then called my dad, up way past his bedtime for a man in his ’70s, but it was after all a special occasion. Finally, I indulged in a celebratory Cadbury egg, admittedly an incongruous vice for a Jewish guy.

I’d always thought there was no topping Duke’s 2001 championship victory, which I watched on an enormous projection screen in Cameron before celebrating literally all night with my friends.

But 2015 was still pretty damn cool in its own right. Sports may no longer be the most important thing in my world, but I like that I can sometimes find occasion to revisit my proverbial stomping grounds.

“You know,” I said to my wife during the 30 seconds she was awake, “in certain ways, this is even better than the 2001 title.”

She smiled and said, “Because you have me to share it with.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself.


When elite senior forward Justise Winslow committed to Duke back in November 2013, it completed a three-man package deal with point guard Tyus Jones and center Jahlil Okafor as part of the best recruiting class in the country.

Overlooked a bit was the fourth member of Duke’s class, Florida shooting guard Grayson Allen.

“I am very comfortable being around and playing with Jahlil and Tyus,” Winslow said on the day he committed. “And I don’t know Grayson as well but we follow each other on Twitter, and I know Coach K only recruits good players and people.

“I am very excited about what we can do.”

Fast forward a year and a half, and Duke was on the ropes. Wisconsin had a nine-point lead, and Winslow and Okafor were on the bench with three fouls each. That’s when a player who averaged four points this season became bigger than the moment.

Allen drilled a three-pointer, stole the ball and was fouled, and then converted a three-point play. Suddenly, Duke was within three without arguably its two best players on the court. And Allen was well on his way to writing his own chapter in Duke lore.

“We were dead in the water,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “We’re nine points down, and he put us on his back.”

Jones took it from there, dominating down the stretch en route to being named the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player. And despite a difficult, foul-plagued game, Okafor came up big with a couple of key baskets down the stretch. In total, Duke’s freshmen scored an overwhelming 60 of their 68 points.

Krzyzewski long had targeted this recruiting class and this season as potentially special. He’d recruited Jones — and only Jones — to be his point guard for years before his commitment, and the fact that Okafor and Winslow came along with him set up a potential championship squad. Allen, a good shooter who won the McDonald’s All-American dunk contest, was icing on the cake.

Gradually heading toward the twilight of his career, Krzyzewski might have had his final golden season, though we’ve learned to never put anything past him.

But none of it is possible without the forgotten member of Duke’s ballyhooed recruiting class, who fearlessly brought them back from the brink.

“It doesn’t feel real right now,” Allen said while basking in the afterglow. “For me, dreaming of being here, to have this my first year at Duke, it’s amazing.”


At times on Monday night, Duke point guard Tyus Jones (bottom right) appeared Jordan-esque with his ability to rise to the occasion. As such, it made perfect sense he wore a pair of Air Jordans — specifically Steel X’s — on his way to the stadium.


Thanks for joining us throughout the college basketball season at Finish Line, it’s truly been a blast. It’s not a perfect sport, but when it’s at its best, it’s pretty tough to beat.

Comments and criticism are always welcome, and if you’d like to commemorate Duke’s big win, Finish Line has got you covered with all the official championship gear.

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College Hoops: Few and Far Between Sat, 28 Mar 2015 14:18:32 +0000

It’s difficult to think of a team that more typifies the unforgiving nature of the NCAA Tournament than Gonzaga. The Bulldogs’ Cinderella run to the Elite 8 took place way back in 1999, when I was a sophomore in college. I’m currently 35.

Since taking over that summer, Mark Few has had good-to-great teams every single year. Including this year, Gonzaga has averaged 27.5 wins the past 14 seasons. It’s amazing to think of the talent that passed through this nominal mid-major, most notably the loaded 2006 team with unorthodox scoring machine Adam Morrison. And yet, as Few’s facial features gradually transmogrified from boyish to world-weary, Gonzaga never found its way back to the Elite 8.

Until this year, that is.

It wasn’t pretty, but Gonzaga wore down UCLA in the Sweet 16 primarily using its formidable front court of Polish powerhouse Przemek Karnowski, Kentucky transfer Kyle Wiltjer and Finish Line favorite Domantas Sabonis, son of Arvydas.

Just like that, their drought was over. But rather than savor his long-awaited first trip to the Elite 8, Few was already thinking ahead.

“The players that have been here and we can feel them from all across the world, either playing in the NBA or playing overseas or working and raising families, they’re all behind us,” Few said after the game. “They’ve all reached out to us. They know — it’s the one accomplishment we haven’t done, you know, go to a Final Four, and now we finally have an opportunity to do that.”

In a way, it’s perfect that this somewhat maverick program is battling an NCAA blueblood for the right to go to the Final Four. Duke obviously won’t be a pushover, but with the Elite 8 monkey off their back, perhaps the Bulldogs perform like they’re playing with house money.

And in that sense, perhaps that trait epitomizes the Tournament most of all. You don’t let down just because you reach a certain milestone. You keep going until you have no more games to play, one way or another.

And just maybe, when the dust clears, Gonzaga’s deep run will be 100 percent worth the wait.


Justise not denied

Duke has been buoyed all season by its four elite freshmen, with center Jahlil Okafor stealing the majority of the headlines. But quietly, Justise Winslow has been nearly as good. In Duke’s win over Utah on Friday night in Winslow’s native Houston, the dynamic swingman was the primary driving force. With Okafor doubled at every turn, Winslow had a career-high 21 points, 10 rebounds and two emphatic blocks. His three-point play with time running out also served to stop the Utes’ 9-0 run and basically ice the game. The Blue Devils and Gonzaga seem pretty evenly matched, but Winslow serves to provide an X-factor few teams can match.

“He gave us his trust and just believed in us,” Winslow said after the game, referring to Coach K. “When you have that, you play like yourself.”

When icons collide

Michigan State coach Tom Izzo did it again, as his Spartans came from behind to beat Oklahoma and move on to the Elite 8. They’ll find waiting another coach who gets the best out of his players as the season progresses, Rick Pitino, who steered Louisville to victory over a game NC State squad. It’s a shame either one of these previously dead in the water teams will have to go home on Sunday, but it’s fitting that one of these two elite coaches will add a relatively improbable Final Four to his Tournament resume.


West No. 2 Arizona (34-3) vs. No. 1 Wisconsin (34-3), 6:09 p.m. ET, TBS

All things considered, Saturday is the most anticipated day of the Tournament since the first Thursday, featuring two big-time matchups. Most people circled this rematch from last year’s Elite 8 on Selection Sunday, and the Wildcats and Badgers did their part.

Both teams are loaded, but Arizona looked pretty ragged at times against Xavier. Wisconsin, meanwhile, just executes so well. Expect Kaminsky to take Arizona’s solid but less multifaceted big men outside and create havoc, while Sam Dekker has been playing out of his mind. Arizona is favored by 1.5, but we’d lean Wisconsin; truth be told, it’s anyone’s game and a classic in the making.

Midwest No. 3 Notre Dame (32-5) vs. No. 1 Kentucky (37-0), 8:49 p.m. ET, TBS

If you could poke one hole in Kentucky’s march to an undefeated season and a National Title, it’s that they haven’t truly been tested in quite some time. Since Dec. 27, when they beat then-No. 4 Louisville, the Wildcats have only played ranked teams twice (Arkansas, both times).

Though Kentucky absolutely destroyed West Virginia, Notre Dame didn’t exactly have much of a problem with Wichita State. This game will be the ultimate styles clash, with Kentucky’s waves of big men taking on Notre Dame’s gritty three-point gunners. It will take an enormous effort for the Irish to win, but it’s not out of the question for a team with the third-most efficient offense in the country.

“You can’t rely on history to play its course,” Notre Dame forward Pat Connaughton said. “You need to write your own history.”



Photo: courtesy of Angel Nunez

Gonzaga coach Mark Few’s celebratory handstand following his team’s Sweet 16 win was pretty sweet, but we prefer Angel Nunez’s effort, primarily for his sweet pair of Air Max Uptempo 2’s.

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This Week in College Hoops: The Memory Remains Mon, 16 Mar 2015 15:37:39 +0000
March Madness 2015

Photo: courtesy of ESPN

Ten years ago this March, I made a 10-minute pilgrimage to Teaneck, N.J. — home to my Hebrew school, the coolest sushi restaurant ever, and the greatest college basketball upset that never was.

When 16th-seed Fairleigh Dickinson took the court against top-seeded Illinois in the first round, I watched with keen interest. That was primarily because of my father, who had attended FDU as an undergrad, affectionately calling it, “Harvard on the Hackensack River.”

To our delight, despite entering as 27-point underdogs, the Knights actually held a small lead with about seven minutes to go in the first half, and they trailed by just one point at halftime. Though the Illini predictably pulled away and won by 12, there was that brief moment in time when you started to think Fairleigh had a legit shot at shocking the world. Pretty damn cool.

While the world followed Illinois to the next round, I found myself more interested in getting FDU’s perspective. About a week later, I took advantage of my proximity to the school to chat with guard Mensah Peterson, a masters student in clinical psychology on his way to becoming an educator. But even if his basketball career was pretty much winding to a close, it was obvious his brief fling with March Madness was going to stick with him.

“That’s something that not many people can say, that they played the No. 1 team in the NCAA tournament, or even that they got to the tournament,” Peterson told me with a smile. “A lot of players aren’t as fortunate as we are to experience that, or even to have a winning season.

“It was just great, man! It’s definitely something I’m going to tell my grandkids, and my great grandkids about, and I hope they get to experience that for themselves, if they choose to play basketball.”

That encapsulates the allure of the NCAA Tournament, and why it’s such wonderful theater: It allows every team involved — and us, vicariously — to dream for a little while. That’s why Selection Sunday’s most compelling moments is watching the Hamptons of the world wildly celebrate their bids, and it serves to explain why we champion the cause of tournament committee snub Murray State, even if we’ve never actually seen them play.

There’s little more satisfying than watching an underdog live out a dream. And if that dream lasts for just 40 minutes, so be it: Sometimes, simply showing up is a victory in itself.



Photo: Courtesy of

Photo: Courtesy of

Shock treatment

Last year, so much of the talk was about undefeated Wichita State having to deal with a potential second-round game with super-talented Kentucky. Sure enough, the Wildcats won an all-time classic and rolled on to the championship game.

This year, however, the hunted has become the hunter. Midwest No. 7 seed Wichita State has a potential second-round game against No. 2 Kansas, whom they’ve clamored to play in a home-and-home series for some time. With nothing to gain, the Jayhawks have heretofore turned them down, but they’ll likely have no choice but to play the Shockers this weekend. Dealing with a couple of injuries and eligibility concerns for freshman forward Cliff Alexander, Kansas is no sure bet to get past a Wichita team anchored by seasoned junior guards Fred Van Vleet and Ron Baker.

Is Duke’s best defense a good offense?

One of the few teams anyone thinks can give a game to Kentucky, Duke has one of the most potent offenses in the country, led by three impact freshmen and senior sharpshooter Quinn Cook. But it’s their ability to defend that gives us serious pause. According to Pomeroy, Duke has the 57th-most efficient defense in the country. In the 12-year history of his ranking system, just one National Champion has had a defensive efficiency worse than 20th. (North Carolina ranked 21st in 2009.)

It’s hard to count out the Blue Devils, who went on the road and beat both Wisconsin and Virginia, two of the absolute best teams in the country. But their ACC title loss to Notre Dame showed a blueprint to beat them: Resist the urge to double-team freshman sensation Jahlil Okafor in the post, don’t give up threes and attack the basket. Duke’s defense isn’t nearly as sieve-like as last season’s, so don’t expect them to lose in the first round again. But a potential Elite 8 matchup with red-hot Iowa State or solid Gonzaga looms large.

Bracket thoughts

I’ll offer up the same disclaimer as last year: I haven’t actually won a bracket pool since eighth grade, so you’re nuts if you base your picks off anything I say.

But if you’re interested regardless, here’s what I think:

– “Wisconsin could have won the National Title a year ago, but we hit a shot at the buzzer,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said on ESPN on Sunday night. “That’s why this tournament is what it is. It is a one-game shot, everyone’s record is the same.”

Right, but …

“I’m going to focus on my team. Can I say this? I think I have the best team, and I have the best players. I do! Does that mean we’ll win? No, it doesn’t.”

Coach Cal knows what everyone does: It’s going to be very difficult to knock off Kentucky, which excels at pretty much all facets. The Wildcats can shoot from deep, they have playmakers and they sport one of the most impressive front lines in NCAA history, led by certain Top 3 pick Karl-Anthony Towns. (You should know by now how we feel about him.)

If anything is going to get in Kentucky’s way, it’s that they really didn’t face much of a test in their conference. But they also waxed Texas, Kansas, North Carolina and Louisville. There are teams that can potentially beat them, but it would take a monumental effort.

– Two such teams that could give Kentucky a hassle are Wisconsin and Arizona, the top two teams in the West. This, of course, assumes Baylor doesn’t take out one or both of them, which is possible. But we like Arizona’s stifling defense (No. 3 according to KenPom) and precocious freshman Stanley Johnson to avenge last year’s one-point loss to the Badgers in overtime.

— How good exactly is Virginia at this point? The No. 1 defensive team in the country didn’t exactly finish strong, losing games to Louisville and UNC. Star junior Justin Anderson wasn’t the same in the ACC Tournament, looking like he returned too promptly from his appendectomy. Solid Villanova learned from last year’s misstep against Connecticut, and the possibility that UVA is vulnerable against either Michigan State or Providence leads us to think Nova has the best shot at the Final Four of anyone in the East.


Last year in this space, we clued you in to Louisiana-Lafayette’s Elfrid Payton, who’s now holding his own in the NBA. This year, make sure to check out Eastern Washington guard Tyler Harvey, the nation’s leading scorer and the reason his squad has a real shot to upset Georgetown. Only given a walk-on spot as a favor to his referee father, Harvey’s story is worth reading before you watch him write a new, exciting chapter.

Would you believe someone who didn’t play for Kentucky ended up SEC Player of the Year? Amid guys like Jabari Parker and Andrew Wiggins, Bobby Portis mostly blended in at the McDonald’s and Jordan All-American Games. As a sophomore, however, he truly came into his own. Take advantage of this last opportunity to watch this exciting big before he heads to the NBA.


Photo: Courtesy of @AaronKnows.

Photo: Courtesy of

How sweet it was for Notre Dame, who served notice over the weekend to conference institutions Duke and North Carolina that they will be a force to be reckoned with. Fittingly, they did so while wearing the Under Armour Curry One “Candy Reign”.

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This Week in College Hoops: Shades of Blue Mon, 16 Feb 2015 16:33:28 +0000


No. 12 North Carolina (18-7) vs. No. 4 Duke (22-3), Wed., 9 p.m. ET, ESPN

Despite sub-zero temperatures, New York City was figuratively as hot as ever over the weekend. Between NBA All-Star festivities — check out Finish Line’s coverage! — Fashion Week, Valentine’s Day and Kanye West popping a wheelie on a zeitgeist, it seemed like all roads led to the Big Apple.

That said, not every significant event in the Empire State occurred in the five boroughs, especially for our purposes. About 400 miles northwest, a record-tying 35,446 fans packed the Carrier Dome on Saturday night to watch Duke secure an eight-point win over Syracuse.

While they didn’t equal the intensity and drama of last year’s two thrillers, the two ACC heavyweights played a tight, entertaining game worthy of their burgeoning rivalry. In doing so, they served notice: If the intensity is this substantial in mid-February, in less than a month, college basketball won’t have to take a back seat to anyone — as usual.

In terms of major sporting events, the NCAA Tournament is surpassed in its ubiquity only by the Super Bowl; virtually everyone you know will fill out a bracket or have some sort of rooting interest. But the sport does a pretty good job of assuming the spotlight on a couple of occasions before that, most notably when Duke plays North Carolina, which they do for the first time at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Wednesday.

While Duke reeled off five straight wins since dismissing guard Rasheed Sulaimon from the team, the Tar Heels have lost three of four while mourning the loss of legendary coach Dean Smith. The Blue Devils feature perhaps the best player in the country in center Jahlil Okafor, and their most recent home game constituted a demolition of a good Notre Dame squad by 30 points.

That said, as current Duke assistant coach Jeff Capel would tell you, strange things tend to happen in this biannual grudge match. And though the deck seems stacked against them, North Carolina still possesses junior guard Marcus Paige, who positively torched Duke down the stretch in last season’s win in Chapel Hill.

I must admit some critical bias: As I’ve mentioned here before, I went to Duke, so I’ve seen my share of Tobacco Road Rivalry games in person. The thing is, more often than not, the game really does deliver something genuinely special, or at the very least eminently watchable. I may be totally subjective in terms of which team I’ll pull for, but I feel I’m being objective when I advise you to make some time for the game.

After all, before college basketball breaks into a full-out sprint next month. the Blue Devils and Tar Heels generally help the entire sport put its best foot forward.


Yesterday was fun! #statebasketball #spartans #msu

A photo posted by Michigan State Basketball (@statebasketball) on

We sang the praises of Ohio State freshman DeAngelo Russell, but he scored a quiet 10 points in a loss to Michigan State. That said, if you took our advice and checked out the game, you saw a headline-writer’s dream: Denzel Valentine nailing the game-winning three-pointer for the Spartans on Feb. 14.


Seton Hall (15-10) vs. No. 6 Villanova (23-2), Mon., 7 p.m. ET, FOXS1

A lot can change in a month and a half. When the Pirates knocked off unbeaten Nova in overtime back in January, they improved to 12-2. Since then, they’ve won just three of 11, while the Wildcats and exciting senior Darrun Hilliard have righted the ship.

No. 8 Kansas (21-4) vs. No. 21 West Virginia (19-6), Mon., 9 p.m. ET, ESPN

Last year, the Jayhawks fell in Morgantown despite Andrew Wiggins’s 41-point masterpiece. With the Mountaineers having lost three of four entering their conference showdown, smart money is on Kansas and red-hot Wayne Selden getting revenge.


Trust me, I’m aware Bryce Harper plays baseball. But Spring Training is around the corner, and I’m a huge fan of the Nationals phenom — even more so now, after the Las Vegas native’s thoughtful tribute to legendary UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian, who passed away last week.


Marshall assistant coach Chris Duhon, a former NBA point guard and a genuinely good guy, has created a movement to help collect sneakers to distribute them to homeless people. Duhon has handed out more than 10,000 pairs of sneakers to people in need over the past five years. Now that’s a sneaker campaign we can get behind.

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This Week in College Hoops: Must See! Kentucky vs. Texas Tue, 02 Dec 2014 20:37:23 +0000


A photo posted by Kentucky Basketball (@kentuckybasketball) on

Every March, like clockwork, seemingly everyone you know reveals himself to be a closet bracket expert, regardless of whether they’ve watched a single game that season. If you’re a year-round fan of the sport, it’s both annoying and endearing at the same time, kind of like when the garage band you’ve followed since the beginning blows up in the mainstream.

For those of us who begin watching pre-Thanksgiving, March Madness is more a culmination than a fascination. It’s like anything, really: If you take a little time to invest, you’ll reap the dividends.

That said, I’m not about to admonish you if you spend your leisure time doing something other than watching sports. I often have to work on Sundays, and on the occasions that I don’t, I generally opt to do anything but watching football on television. It certainly doesn’t take away from my enjoyment of the Super Bowl.

But if you’re going to spend an entire month obsessing over your brackets anyway, I do feel like having watched the occasional game prior to that can offer you a richer, more layered experience. That way, when the next Shabazz Napier shows up slaying all sorts of dragons, you’ll be able to say you knew him way back when

That’s where Finish Line comes in. Last season, we instituted a weekly college basketball primer to single out the games each week that offer the most potential intrigue, ramping up to expanded coverage during the NCAA’s. Hopefully this becomes your weekly check-in to see which games to watch, or even just to DVR — I’m a proponent of skipping every commercial I possibly can. 

With a ton of March-quality matchups, this is a perfect week to jump right in. Let’s start with …



No. 6 Texas (6-0) vs. No. 1 Kentucky (7-0), Thurs., 7 p.m. ET, ESPN

@specialk44 #bbn

A photo posted by Kentucky Basketball (@kentuckybasketball) on

A few years back, coach John Calipari famously said at Kentucky’s Big Blue Madness event, “We don’t just play college basketball. We are college basketball.” The statement seemed overambitious at the time, fittingly a bit Drake-like. But perhaps more than any other program in the country, Cal can stake a legitimate claim.

Kentucky is annually one of the best teams in the country, last year stunning everyone with an unexpected run to the NCAA Finals as an 8 seed. But this year might turn out to be Calipari’s finest hour.

With the Harrison twins back to anchor the backcourt, frontcourt stalwarts Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein and a loaded freshman class led by multitalented big man Karl Towns, Kentucky has been the talk of college basketball early on. Calipari has so much talent, he’s taken to using a platoon system akin to hockey line changes. Deride that strategy if you’d like, but what other team can credibly go 10-deep?

No, Kentucky won’t go undefeated; they’ve had a couple of close calls already. But the Wildcats remain as good a bet as any to cut down the nets this spring, and with a lineup full of future pros, it’s high time to begin getting acquainted with them.

Their game on Thursday against Texas would be a good place to start. The Longhorns are fresh off a one-point win against defending champion Connecticut in Storrs on Jonathan Holmes’ clutch three-pointer. Not to mention, big man Myles Turner, the No. 2 recruit in the Class of 2014, is an interesting foil to UK’s frontcourt phenoms.


1 title down, 3 to go.

A photo posted by Wisconsin Basketball (@badgermbb) on

No. 4 Duke (7-0) vs. No. 2 Wisconsin (7-0), Wed., 9:30 p.m. ET, ESPN

The jewel of the ACC-Big 10 challenge features two teams expected to play deep into March this season. The Blue Devils feature a slew of talented guards and freshman center Jahlil Okafor, a solid bet to be the No. 1 pick in the 2015 NBA Draft. The Badgers return four starters from a Final Four team, including center Frank Kaminsky. Both of these teams are deep and talented in general, but the Okafor-Kaminsky matchup alone is worth the price of admission.

No. 9 Gonzaga (6-0) vs. No. 3 Arizona (6-0), Sat., 5:15 p.m. ET, ESPN

Always a great regular-season team yet a disappointment in March, could this finally be the year Gonzaga gets over the hump? Kentucky transfer Kyle Wiltjer and Bulldogs backcourt sharpshooters Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. hope to make it so. Meanwhile, the Wildcats replaced departed freshman phenom Aaron Gordon with Stanley Johnson and hasn’t missed a beat, surviving an early test from San Diego State last week.

No. 14 Ohio State (5-0) vs. No. 5 Louisville (5-0), Tues. 9:30 p.m. ET, ESPN

In their first year in the ACC, Louisville hasn’t played as well as its record indicates; Cardinals’ coach Rick Pitino said Monday, “I don’t like how we’re passing the basketball. We’ve worked very hard this week on that.” Perhaps they can take a cue from Ohio State senior Shannon Scott, whose 10.4 assists per game lead the nation. It’s no wonder the Buckeyes have shot almost 57 percent this season.


The Jayhawks got humiliated by Kentucky at the Champions Classic, 72-40. Since then, they’ve won four straight, including a tough victory over Tennessee and a hard-fought win over Michigan State to take the Orlando Classic. Most likely, their recent performances are a better representation of what they’re capable of this season than their debacle against Kentucky. “To me winning the tournament is OK,” a perhaps relieved Kansas coach Bill Self said after downing the Spartans. “But beating a quality team is more important to me.” 


You rarely see sneakers the caliber of the Air Jordan 14 Ferrari actually on court. Props to San Diego State’s Dakarai Allen for breaking out a fresh pair against Arizona.


Check back in on Monday for the next This Week in College Hoops: Must See! here on the Finish Line Blog.

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College Hoops: Destiny’s Child Sun, 06 Apr 2014 16:41:30 +0000
With 52 seconds left and Kentucky beating Wisconsin by two points, Andrew Harrison put up a three-pointer and missed. I instantly thought, “Wrong Harrison.” Right on cue, the right Harrison showed up with just less than six seconds left. If you could script this Tournament any better than how it’s actually played out, I think you have a future as a screenwriter. Every single night, it seems like we’ve had something truly amazing happen, usually from Kentucky, and more specifically from Aaron Harrison. How can you possibly fathom three straight game-winning three-pointers from arguably the fourth-most heralded freshman on this team?

This latest demonstrations of Harrison’s “onions,” with Kentucky down two and time dwindling, took place in front of nearly 80,000 people, the biggest crowd in college basketball history. This is, of course, fitting; a game like this deserves to be seen by as many people as possible. Harrison had been just 2-for-7 before his huge three-pointer. No matter. “You can’t be scared to miss,” Harrison said, “and you want to be that guy that wants to take the big shots.”

The crazy part of the Wildcats’ run to the championship game is that for a team that’s shaping up to potentially be an all-timer, they’ve had to scratch and claw at every turn. In beating Wichita State, Louisville, Michigan and Wisconsin – mind you, four excellent teams – Kentucky won with skill, but more so with resilience. The Harrison daggers are what will be remembered, but they serve as an avatar for a team that time and again took some very good shots from some very good opponents, and got up off the mat.

And yet, they’re not the only can’t-miss story in this title game. Kevin Ollie’s Connecticut squad beat Florida, who last lost over four months ago to – Connecticut. (There’s that winning script again.) The Huskies were tougher, savvier, and had Shabazz Napier – not to mention DeAndre Daniels (see below). At this point, the Huskies’ run to the title game has easily rivaled that of the 2011 Kemba Walker team for sheer improbability. That team won the National Title, of course, but it came against Butler in one of the ugliest college basketball games in recent memory. The way this tournament is going, we’re in little danger of that happening again.

So in the end, what happens when these two teams of destiny meet? The only down side to finding out is the six months we’ll subsequently have to wait before college basketball tips off again.


The overshadowed Shabazz Napier gets all the headlines for UConn, but DeAndre Daniels has been positively enormous in his March Madness star turn. Daniels was one of the final top recruits in the Class of 2011 to sign, picking Connecticut over a host of top programs, including – ironically – Florida. Daniels toiled in relative obscurity until this year’s Tournament, when he’s caught fire as a tremendous X-factor.

For Kentucky, Alex Poythress was somewhat of a disappointment as a freshman, and then was buried under an avalanche of blue-chip freshmen as a sophomore. However, in the past four games, he’s made the absolute most of his time on the court, going a combined 12-for-13 in the past four games. (He appeared to injure himself celebrating Saturday night’s win, but he claims he’s fine for Monday.) The point is, even in a college game more and more reliant on instant-gratification freshman phenoms, it still sometimes takes some time for certain players to marinate. And when they do, the benefits reaped can be huge.

Worst Behavior


Drake might not have been able to #YOLO his way into the Miami Heat’s locker room last June, but he had better luck with Kentucky on Saturday. It doesn’t mean it wasn’t a little awkward.


No. 8 Kentucky (29-10) vs. No. 7 Connecticut (31-8), CBS, 9:10 p.m. ET

I’ll be honest, the Monday Night Raw the night after WrestleMania is always one of the best of the year. But that’s what they make DVR for. Considering how great this Tournament has been, UK-UConn is an absolute must-watch – especially if it’s anything like last year’s classic Louisville-Michigan game.

As for the game itself, Kentucky has the definitive edge down low, but Connecticut has that tough-as-nails Napier-Ryan Boatright backcourt that gave Florida fits. If anyone can derail the Harrison train, it would be them.


The Nike Zoom Crusader is mostly known for being on James Harden’s feet. Shabazz Napier is endeavoring to change that, though the way he’s played this March, it wouldn’t matter if he were wearing the boxes.

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College Hoops: Fresh to Death Mon, 31 Mar 2014 15:35:31 +0000

In many ways, the 2013-14 college basketball season was the year of the one-and-done, though the narrative has changed multiple times.

The first month, literally all you heard was Jabari Parker this and Andrew Wiggins that. Kansas’ Joel Embiid threatened to steal the show – and the No. 1 draft position – from his Canadian cohort. Tyler Ennis, a precocious freshman point guard, steered a Syracuse team that was undefeated well into February. Aaron Gordon was a highlight factory for Arizona, albeit one that hit only half his free throws, and Noah Vonleh got off to a nice start for Indiana.

And then you had Kentucky, the preseason No. 1 on the strength of five of the top nine recruits in the country. It was to be expected the Wildcats would have their share of growing pains with an all-freshman starting lineup, but it was widely assumed their talent would rule the day once they gelled.

The problem was, as the losses piled up – including three to upperclassman-powered Florida – it seemed like there weren’t enough games in the season for that to happen. Critics of John Calipari’s one-and-done modus operandi had a field day in particular after their loss to 10-18 South Carolina.

Over time, the other heralded one-and-done types steadily began to lose their luster a bit. Embiid’s body couldn’t hold up during conference play. Ennis and Syracuse started losing all their games. Wrongly rooted in the post, all-around talent Vonleh was unable to fully shine, while his Hoosiers were mediocre. Wiggins cratered with four points in Kansas’ second-round loss to Stanford, while Parker was exposed on defense in Duke’s loss to senior-laden Mercer.

Meanwhile, however, Kentucky somehow clicked at just the right time, with a one-point loss to No. 1 Florida in the SEC Final a harbinger of better days ahead. Julius Randle, as is his wont, has been a walking double double in the Tournament. The Harrison Twins, inconsistent all year, have became major threats. James Young has been solid, hulking Dakari Johnson has emerged and sophomore Alex Poythress has filled in ably for injured Willie Cauley-Stein.

To make their third Final Four in four years, the Wildcats beat 35-0 Wichita State, defending champion Louisville and 2013 runner-up Michigan, each game more compelling than the last. The coup de grâce was Aaron Harrison’s cold-blooded three-pointer with 2.3 seconds left, a veteran-style shot from a 19-year-old kid.

The flaw in thinking that coaches can’t win with one-and-done talent is that those players are rare talents. The idea is to have the best players, and these are the definition of the best players. Once Kentucky added a little chemistry to all of its talent, the sky’s the limit. It takes a good coach to make that happen – in the nick of time, no less – and make no mistake, Calipari is a very good coach.

“Every year it’s a process,” Calipari said after the game. “Some guys get it quicker than others. It took these guys a little longer, and it took me a little longer to figure them out. It’s not all them. They were trying. Loving the grind, learning to work, becoming self-disciplined, counting on one another, all that stuff.

“When they all just settled in and lost themselves in the team, the game became easier.”

Win or lose the rest of the way, Kentucky might just have changed the way people think about one-and-dones. Even vaunted Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski came under some criticism for relying too much on one-year players. As it turns out, maybe everyone but Calipari doesn’t rely on them enough.


Wicked Garden

The prevailing thought before the Tournament was that if Villanova could make the Sweet 16, they’d have a nice home-court advantage at Madison Square Garden. It was the right idea, but the wrong team.

As deep, talented and big as Michigan State is, they couldn’t deal with a raucous Garden crowd, which helped UConn sustain its momentum while rallying from nine down in the second half. And they couldn’t handle Shabazz Napier, who scored 17 of his 25 points in the second half, eerily similar to Kemba Walker, his teammate three years ago.

Florida will be favored over Connecticut on Saturday, and they might have the guards to go toe-to-toe with Napier. Texas is also pretty far from MSG. But sometimes, there’s simply no arguing with March magic. At least, that’s the Huskies’ hope.

“I’ve been through a lot and I’ve succeeded in some of them and failed in some of them, many, many times,” Napier said. “But it doesn’t hurt to try. You never know how successful you can be until you try.”


No. 7 Connecticut (30-8) vs. No. 1 Florida (36-2), 6:09 p.m. ET, TBS

The Gators haven’t lost since Dec. 2. Of course, that loss was to Connecticut, who won when – who else? – Napier hit a ridiculous buzzer-beater. Florida has won all four of its games by double digits and now owns the best defense in the country, leading us to believe they’ll get revenge and end the Huskies’ improbable run.

No. 8 Kentucky (28-10) vs. No. 2 Wisconsin (30-7), 8:49 p.m. ET, TBS

Frank Kaminsky was magnificent against Arizona, slicing and dicing an elite defense. But Kentucky has plenty of length they can send at Kaminsky to frustrate him. We like their chances to set up a fourth meeting (!) with Florida.


The only thing more perfect than Aaron Harrison’s game-winner was that he was wearing a crisp pair of Air Jordan XI’s. Timeless.


Sports enthusiast, Bryan Horowitz, has written for Dime Magazine, The Classical, and Vice. Give him a follow @SportsAngle.

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College Hoops: Best of the Best Sun, 30 Mar 2014 16:10:15 +0000
The first week of the NCAA Tournament is all about the upsets, with teams like Dayton and Mercer busting brackets and making thrill-seekers feel like geniuses.

By the time we get to the second week, however, it’s kind of refreshing when the bigger programs start to separate themselves and sort out the cream of the crop. Say what you will about college hoops’ skill level relative to the NBA, but put two elite programs with great coaches in a one-and-done situation, and sit back and watch the drama unfold.

In the early game on Saturday night, the final resident of Upset City cleared out of town, as Florida relatively easily sent Dayton packing. This isn’t to take away from the Flyers’ run, which was thrilling, and Final Four Cinderellas actually tend to do pretty well in the ratings.

The second game of the night, however, was continued evidence that when two of the best teams in the country collide, magic often happens. In a Tournament with more great moments than any in recent memory, West No. 2 seed Wisconsin’s one-point overtime victory over No. 1 Arizona stacked up with any of them. The Wildcats seemed to have everything going for them – a solid backcourt, a decent center, exciting freshman Aaron Gordon and the best defense in the country.

But Wisconsin had Frank Kaminsky. One of the most improbable Final Four centerpieces in recent memory, the lanky center scored just 4.2 points per game last year before blossoming big-time as a junior. Time and again, Kaminsky pierced the heart of Arizona’s fearsome defense en route to 28 points, even notching a trio of three-pointers.

The only disappointing aspect is that once again, the refs were unable to let the teams play down the stretch. Down one, Arizona’s Nick Johnson was called for a controversial offensive foul on a play that looked 50-50 at best. Somehow, Wisconsin then lost the ball out of bounds on an inbounds play that was reviewed for an interminable amount of time, giving Arizona back the ball with 2.3 seconds left.

This time, Johnson was unable even to get a shot off before the buzzer, as the Badgers made their first Final Four since 2000, and the first trip at all for 69-year-old coach Bo Ryan.

Let’s not mince words: The referees should never be as involved to the degree they have been in the end of games as good as this one, and it’s not the first time this has happened.

But that doesn’t take away from how enjoyable games between big-time programs have been all month. With four historic programs colliding tomorrow, there’s no reason not to expect more of the same. To paraphrase noted philosopher Terrell Owens, get your popcorn ready.


East No. 7 Connecticut (29-8) vs. No. 4 Michigan State (29-8), 2:20 p.m. ET, CBS

Michigan State has all those big names – Appling, Payne, Dawson, Gary Harris – and one of the best coaches of all time in Tom Izzo.

But there’s just something about these Huskies, who have three huge things going for them. They have young and savvy coach Kevin Ollie, who studied under Hall of Famer Jim Calhoun. They have Shabazz Napier, the best guard in the country. And the game will be in Madison Square Garden, where Connecticut will have an enormous home-court advantage, and where they’ve had so many great moments over the years.

Michigan State is favored by 5 ½ points, and logic dictates they have the best team. But as Kaminsky showed, sometimes one dominant player can make all the difference in the Tournament. The Spartans had better bring it against Napier.

Midwest No. 8 Kentucky (27-10) vs. No. 2 Michigan (28-8), 5:05 p.m. ET, CBS

With two of the biggest brand names in the sport jockeying for a spot in the Final Four, this has the feel of a classic, especially after Kentucky’s last two games tore the house down. The Wildcats’ precocious freshmen will try to overwhelm a Nik Stauskas-led Michigan squad that easily has enough left to return to the Final Four. Flip a coin.


Florida wore some Final Four-caliber sneakers on Saturday night. Will Yeguete wore those great PE LeBron XIs, and even though Lexx Edwards didn’t actually play, his neon KD VI’s lit up the postgame celebration.


Sports enthusiast, Bryan Horowitz, has written for Dime Magazine, The Classical, and Vice. Give him a follow @SportsAngle.

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College Hoops: Everything In Its Right Place Sat, 29 Mar 2014 16:15:18 +0000

Friday night presented a couple of perfect scenarios: Bitter in-state rivals Kentucky and Louisville squaring off in Indianapolis, and the first NCAA Tournament games at Madison Square Garden in 53 years. There are no guarantees in sports, but in a Tournament filled with special moments, Friday night fit right in.

A five-decade buildup is hard to live up to, but the games at the Garden were an excellent way to make a grand return. Say what you will about the building’s NBA tenant, but MSG itself still has a certain mystique when it comes to its basketball history.

A Big East institution until this season, Connecticut continuing its surprising run to the Elite 8 at the Garden just felt right. And the rough-and-tumble Virginia-Michigan State main event fit right in with a cherished legacy of gritty Big East-style basketball. The Cavs’ bulldog defense gave absolutely no quarter, while the Spartans selectively pushed the tempo and rode a thankfully healthy Branden Dawson, who went for 24 and 10.

Over in Indianapolis, Michigan fended off a hard-charging Tennessee squad down the stretch, a fine appetizer for the marquee game of the night. The Cardinals rode their upperclass trio of Russ Smith, Luke Hancock and Montrezl Harrell, who combined for 57 points. But Kentucky stayed with them right to the end, the Harrison Twins growing up before our eyes.

At exactly 12 minutes after 12, with a little more than a minute left in each game, March Madness reached peak levels of awesomeness. Kentucky’s Alex Poythress converted a three-point play to tie Louisville at 66, while at the very same time, UVA’s Justin Anderson nailed a three-pointer to tie MSU at 51. I had no idea which game to focus on.

In the end, Aaron Harrison hit an enormous three and Russ Smith’s game-tying three-pointer was off its mark, as precocious Kentucky came from seven down to knock off the defending champs. About two minutes later in New York, Michigan State simply had too much – barely – for Virginia, whose desperation crosscourt three fell short.

Crystallized in those final critical minutes is March Madness is the absolute best that sports has to offer, escapism at its finest. Quite simply, there’s no other form of televised entertainment that keeps you this riveted and offers such organic suspense. (True Detective comes close.)

At times, to me at least, sports can seem somewhat inconsequential relative to all the day-to-day things we have to deal with. Long ago, I stopped losing sleep over losses by my favorite teams; it admittedly probably factors in that the teams I root for are mostly pretty lousy.

But while I was wearing out the “last channel” button on my remote going back and forth late Friday night, it reminded me just a bit why I grew up loving sports so much. After all, when you cut away all the nonsense, the truth is that March Madness, for lack of a better description, is just pretty damn cool.


Young and peerless

If one-and-done players are ruining the college game, don’t tell Kentucky. The Wildcats have prevailed in two of the absolute best games in the tournament, and are one win against Michigan away from the Final Four. They’ve done it solely because of their five elite freshmen, who combined for 69 of Kentucky’s 74 points against Louisville.

A couple weeks ago, those freshmen still hadn’t gelled, and Kentucky seemed dead in the water after losing three of their final four regular-season games. Since then, they’ve miraculously clicked in a big way. Perhaps you don’t need senior leadership if you have elite young talent and athleticism, and add a dash of chemistry.

The right call

Generally, I’m in the camp of having referees swallow the whistle at the end of games, but I had less of a problem with the referees’ charge call on Tennessee’s Jarnell Stokes than most. If you watch the video, it’s a very borderline call whether Jordan Morgan was in position before Stokes trucked into him. But Stokes didn’t really have a specific goal in mind for his drive, and he had the ball poked away by Caris LeVert at the same time. I think it probably should have been a no-call given the circumstances, but in that case, I still don’t think Tennessee scores.

“I knew that the play was going to be for [Stokes],” Morgan said. “And I just know he likes to play bully ball, he’s in a stance ready. … I don’t know. I just was there. It’s just something I do. I take [charges]. That’s what I do.”


South No. 11 Dayton (26-10) vs. No. 1 Florida (35-2), 6:09 p.m. ET, TBS

The fundamentally sound Flyers have knocked off three big-name schools, but their wild ride most likely ends against the Gators, who haven’t lost in this calendar year and have the No. 2 defense in the country.

West No. 2 Wisconsin (29-7) vs. No. 1 Arizona (33-4), 8:49 p.m. ET, TBS

A classic matchup between Wisconsin’s No. 4 offense and Arizona’s No. 1 defense. Playing in Anaheim should help the Wildcats, but after watching the Badgers smoke Baylor on Thursday, if they win, it would hardly be an upset.



We know LeBron James is a de facto member of BBN – witness his tweet on Friday night – and he had to have been proud of Alex Poythress’ stellar performance while wearing a pair of iD XIs.


Sports enthusiast, Bryan Horowitz, has written for Dime Magazine, The Classical, and Vice. Give him a follow @SportsAngle.

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College Hoops: Can’t Get No Satisfaction Fri, 28 Mar 2014 16:23:35 +0000

On the court, this year’s NCAA Tournament has been terrific, from the early upsets to the riveting Kentucky-Wichita State game. I spent the majority of the first week of the tournament waxing poetic about how eminently satisfying March Madness was.

Yet, put aside the on-court product, and nobody seems satisfied at all. The several days in between the second round and the Sweet 16 were dominated with bloviating about various issues with the college game:

Players should be paid.

Players shouldn’t be paid.

Some players should be paid, but not others.

One-and-done players are killing the college game and/or the NBA.

The current age limit of 19 is too low.

There shouldn’t be an age limit at all.

And so on. I found much of this discourse a bit tiresome, but it would be foolish to dismiss it. Such is life as a sports fan in 2014: There’s simply too much information at our disposal to allow ourselves to always accept things at face value.

It’s kind of like how everyone enjoys the Super Bowl – I mean, it’s the Super Bowl – while in the back of our minds, the drumbeat of misgivings about the debilitating effects of NFL football on the human body and brain grows a bit louder every year.

Likewise, college basketball captivates the masses every March like no other non-Super Bowl sporting event, but the underlying sense is that change has been a long time coming. I remember when I was a student at Duke over a decade ago, the campus bookstore sold No. 31 jerseys with the code SBAT31, or something similar to that, on the price tag. You didn’t need a name stenciled on the back to know these were clearly intended to be Shane Battier jerseys. Is it any wonder Battier campaigned for NCAA athletes to receive stipends?

The landmark ruling classifying Northwestern football players as employees of the school, potentially allowing them to unionize, further showed the NCAA’s gravy train in its current form is on borrowed time. At some point, players will have to be compensated in some way for the astronomical revenue they bring in for their schools and for the NCAA.

We’ll touch on one-and-done players here another time; Kentucky, after all, is still writing its 2014 story. But suffice it to say we’ll watch the rest of the Tournament with the knowledge that the drumbeat is getting louder and things are probably going to change, it’s likely just a matter of when.

That said, just because certain things need fixing, it doesn’t mean the NCAA Tournament is broken. The organic passion that makes March Madness so special has been more evident than ever. Tonight’s Kentucky-Louisville game is practically guaranteed to be amazing.

And if certain things need to be torn down in order to build a more solid foundation? It would seem that’s for the best.


Top dogs hang in there

Arguably the two best teams in college basketball all year, Florida and Arizona advanced to the Elite 8, but not without some tense moments. The Gators benefited from five Michael Frazier threes and pulled away from UCLA and its unique offense. Out West, the Wildcats were nearly beaten at their own game by the stingy defense of San Diego State. But Arizona tightened things up and prevailed in a game it trailed the majority of the way. Dayton has proven Florida should not sleep on them, while Wisconsin should be a tough out for Arizona, but for the time being at least, we remain on a collision course for a potentially perfect title game.

Flyers hardly fly by night

After their narrow victories over Ohio State and Syracuse, Dayton’s win over Stanford was comparatively a breeze. But take nothing away, the Flyers looked polished and hyper-efficient in their victory on Thursday night. The bet here is their game against well-balanced Florida on Saturday is the end of the road, but you never know; perhaps this year’s answer to last year’s Wichita State has a little more bracket busting left in it.


Kentucky Coach Calipari and Coach Pitino of Louisville. Photo via @GoodmanESPN

Kentucky Coach Calipari and Coach Pitino of Louisville. Photo via @GoodmanESPN

Midwest No. 8 Kentucky (26-10) vs. No. 4 Louisville, 9:45 p.m. ET, CBS

This is the stuff March Madness dreams are made of: John Calipari’s Wildcats vs. Rick Pitino’s Cardinals in a grudge match for the right to go to the Elite 8. Kentucky’s elite freshmen are starting to click; when they beat Louisville earlier this year, the Harrison Twin backcourt combined for 28. But the Cardinals have lost just once since January. If you watch one game this weekend, trust us, make it this one.

East No. 4 Michigan State (28-8) vs. No. 1 Virginia (30-6), 9:57 p.m. ET, TBS

Forget about Wichita State – Virginia is by far the most disrespected No. 1 seed. Nobody is talking about the Cavs, and yet they’ve won 18 of their last 19, powered by the No. 5 defense in the country. But the Spartans are favored by two points, and it’s hard to imagine them losing given their elite talent and multitalented big man Adreian Payne.

Side note: The game itself is intriguing, but so is the venue. Friday will see the first NCAA Tournament games in Madison Square Garden in 53 years.


One of the best-kept secrets in the country, San Diego State has nothing to be ashamed about after it took Arizona to the limit. Sneakers-wise, too, the Aztecs brought it; witness Xavier Thames’ Air Jordan VII Bordeaux and Winston Shepard’s Air Jordan XI Concords.


Sports enthusiast, Bryan Horowitz, has written for Dime Magazine, The Classical, and Vice. Give him a follow @SportsAngle.

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