College basketball is the ultimate gray-area sport. Everything about it, from the big picture to the small details of the game itself, is full of contradictions and absurdities, along with the emotional highs and lows that always keep us wanting more.
We saw just about all of the above in a week where four of the top five teams lost (just par for the course in the 2012-13 season). This weekend in particular was filled with everything we both love and hate about the game, with several thrilling finishes and upsets and a Saturday that proved no down-to-the-wire finish is alike.
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The Marathon: Notre Dame 104, Louisville 101 (5 OTs)
This game was thrilling because of its length, mostly. The Fighting Irish and the Cardinals threw everything they had at each other, combining for only 51 points in the first half, 69 points in the second half and then building to 85 points in the 25 minutes of overtime. By the time it was over, eight players had fouled out, including five starters, among them Notre Dame star forward Jack Cooley , who had to watch all five overtime periods from the bench.
*Earlier in the broadcast, ESPN's Dick Vitale reiterated his proposal for the elimination of fouling out. Instead, he suggested, once a player reaches the maximum (the current five, or perhaps six, like the NBA), each subsequent personal foul should result in two shots AND the ball. I would not be opposed to this. Why should five fouls in regulation disqualify a player from 25 minutes of extra time?
From period to period, the second-to-last possessions were much more thrilling than the sloppy final tries:
Regulation: After Notre Dame completes a dramatic three-point play to tie the game with 16.2 seconds left, Louisville loses the ball in the paint and fails to get a shot off.
First OT: Louisville's Russ Smith dribbles in place for several seconds, then pulls up from 10 feet behind the arc and misses.
Second OT: After Notre Dame hits a game-tying three with 15.1 seconds left, four Louisville players stand around and watch as Smith dribbles in place again, then drives into traffic with five seconds left and misses badly on a contested runner.
Third OT: After Louisville hits a game-tying free throw with 16.2 seconds on the clock, Notre Dame dribbles wildly into the lane and loses the ball with a few seconds left. Louisville gets the ball on alternate possession, and Smith misses a runner from the three-point line at the buzzer.
Fourth OT: After Notre Dame hits a wild tip-in to tie the game with 5.1 seconds left, Smith loses control and has to heave a prayer three-point attempt that has no chance of going in. At this point, we've reached the all-you-can-do-is-laugh portion of the night.
Fifth OT: Smith bricks a really long three-pointer off the front of the rim and the ball falls out of bounds, the students storm the court and Notre Dame walks away with an exhausting and exhilarating 104-101 victory.
Unquestionably, Notre Dame-Louisville will go down as one of the most memorable games of a season flush with dramatic finishes, but with the game on the line six times, not one shot was made on a final possession. Most of those were spent with Louisville operating the extremely sophisticated "stand around and hope Russ Smith lives up to the positive connotation of his Russdiculous nickname" offense. He did not.
That's not to say it wasn't exciting, as Notre Dame came up with big plays on second-to-last-possessions. For a classic, five-overtime game, it was just amazing how maddening the last-second attempts at scoring were.
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The Answered Prayer: Wisconsin 65, Michigan 62 (OT)
It seems that more post-game time was spent debating the to-foul-or-not-to-foul questions prevalent in the latest thrilling finish to a matchup between Big Ten heavyweights.
With the game tied near the end of regulation, both teams had fouls to give. Instead of disrupting the Wolverines' rhythm and forcing them to pass the ball in multiple times, Wisconsin let Michigan play, and Tim Hardaway Jr. drained a three to give Michigan the lead with just three seconds left. It's a shot that should have never happened.
Then, the situation was reversed, only Wisconsin had just three seconds left to tie the game, down by three. The last thing you want is to foul in the act of shooting, and Michigan could do little as Ben Brust caught the ball at midcourt, turned to run and launched a contested prayer that somehow went in. It was the shot of the year, but it was also one of the luckiest. It happens. In a perfect world, Michigan would have fouled beforehand, but that's a small window with a lot on the line.
So to overtime it went, where Brust made the go-ahead three-pointer with 43 seconds left, and nobody scored the rest of the way. Wisconsin, again, could have fouled in the closing seconds up 65-62, but the teams played on, and Trey Burke got off an off-the-mark three-pointer to close out the game and send Wisconsin students into a court-storming frenzy. To Wisconsin's credit, its defense was tight, and Burke's three wasn't a high-percentage shot.
Aside from taking a delay of game penalty to give the punter more room, there aren't many cases in sports where breaking the rules on purpose to give your team an advantage is encouraged. It's terribly annoying when teams refuse to give up and foul down 10 points with 15 seconds to go, but the strategy also allows for more dramatic finishes and is usually smart. Perhaps on an encouraging note, this game didn't need any intentional fouling to result in one of the best finishes of the season. Fouling when up three makes sense, but I think we'd all rather watch teams play with no whistles.
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The Anti-Classic: Temple 72, Dayton 71
Temple and Dayton did everything they could to ruin a perfectly thrilling basketball game. While not in the national spotlight like the others, this one did have importance attached to it because Temple is on the tournament bubble. Temple star Khalif Wyatt didn't make a field goal until he hit a three-pointer at the buzzer in the first half. But then he helped the Owls overcome a 10-point deficit in the final five minutes, finishing things off with the go-ahead three with seven seconds left after Dayton's Kevin Dillard was called for a walk, up two.
In those final seven seconds, nearly everything that can happen in a basketball game happened, except for someone actually scoring. The last minute on the clock took about 20 real-time minutes. The last seven seconds took about half that time. Dillard turned it over again, losing control in the backcourt. Temple passed the ball in, Dayton tried to foul, and the refs gave the Flyers the foul even though nobody was touched. Temple proceeded to miss both free throws. Dayton got the rebound and called timeout, giving them the ball out of bounds with 1.3 seconds left. Before the Flyers passed it in, the Owls got called for a questionable hold, giving the Flyers two free throws with no time coming off the clock. Of course, Josh Benson missed both free throws. So Temple got the ball again, and Jake O'Brien was fouled with a second left. He missed the first, then attempted to intentionally miss the second to run out the clock -- only he missed the rim entirely, giving Dayton the ball out of bounds. Finally, after the longest second in college basketball history, Dayton couldn't get a shot off, Temple won, and we all died a little bit inside.
Even if the ending looked promising -- a 10-point comeback, a game-winning three by a star player who overcame a rough start -- it managed to feature many of the worst things about college basketball: over-coaching with five full timeouts in the final 1:01, no flow, sloppy play, bad officiating and, somehow, six botched free-throw attempts in the last one second of the official play-by-play.
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So here we are after another thrilling week of an unpredictable season. Nobody has any idea who should be ranked No. 1, let alone who the four No. 1 seeds in the tournament should be.
There was, of course, only one way for a weekend filled with love/hate to finish: Erasing a five-point deficit late Sunday evening at Boston College, Duke became the only top-five team to survive the week unscathed. Yes, America, meet your favorite new No. 1.