Louisville clamps down with its choking, exhausting full-court trap defense, and exhausted opponents sputter to a dead halt. It's no wonder they're too tired to escape the trap this time of year. It's amazing that the Cardinals still have the energy to run it. But then you look at their starters' minutes and realize that they have simply played less this year than the typical opponent's.
Ty Garland skitters past defenders like he is in some revved-up video game mode. How can an unheralded La Salle guard be so much quicker that Big-12 or SEC opponents? Perhaps it helps that he was not even on the court for the first month of the season. Cleanthony Early and Carl Hall of Wichita State constantly have a leg up on their opponents; perhaps it is because they only played 3/4ths as many minutes as many big-program starters.
Florida Gulf Coast … good heavens, they are exhausting to watch, let alone defend. When Eric McKnight throws down a one-handed dunk on one end of the court then races back to reject a shot seconds later, while San Diego State and Georgetown move like they are trudging through oyster beds, you have to wonder what effect 13 days off in mid-March had on the Eagles, or whether McKnight's legs had more left in them after 743 minutes of basketball than Jamaal Franklin's had after 1,091 minutes.
These young men have played a lot of basketball since mid-November. Perhaps the Sweet 16 -- and maybe the Final Four -- belongs not necessarily to the best team, but to the freshest.
Ice Bath Season. Sean Kilpatrick and Cincinnati are no longer in the NCAA tournament. The Bearcats guard averaged 34.4 minutes per game throughout a grueling Big East schedule. By the end of the season, his shooting visibly suffered: 1 of 9 on three pointers against Louisville on March 4; 2 of 7 in 42 punishing minutes of overtime basketball against South Florida days later. Kilpatrick shot 0 of 8 on three pointers early in the Big East tournament against Georgetown, spending much of the second half hanging around on the wing, clutching the bottoms of his shorts.
Kilpatrick felt like the early exit from the Big East tournament may have done some good: his Bearcats needed a break. "We were able to take ice baths, massage everything out," he said last week. "It's tough, especially in the Big East, where you're playing at such a high intensity level every night."
Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin made a point of not overtaxing his starters. "I would err on the side of being fresh," he said. "You can over-practice your team." Cronin held only one full practice in the days leading up to the NCAA tournament, and he did not press banged-up players like Cashmere Wright, who has played almost as many minutes as Kilpatrick despite numerous injuries, into taking the court. "We gave him a standing ovation when he decided to practice earlier in the week," Cronin said of Wright.
Cincinnati ended up losing to Creighton, a team that had the advantage of an even longer break between its conference tournament and the NCAA tournament. Twelve days elapsed between Creighton's Missouri Valley Conference victory and its win against Cincinnati, long enough for superstar Doug McDermott to actually lose his conditioning a bit. "I was a little winded to start the game," he said. "But I eased into it."
McDermott had 27 points and 11 rebounds in 36 minutes. He cracked the 1,100-minute mark for the season during the game, but it was nothing new for a player who played more than 1,100 minutes in each of the past two years: the equivalent of 27.5 games per year, about a full NCAA regular season, without a rest. "I will just get an ice bath, get off my feet and drink a lot of fluids, and be ready to go against Duke," he said after the Cincinnati game.
Duke beat Creighton. Duke has the advantage of being Duke: an early loss in the ACC tournament was only a minor disappointment for a team that always stacks its chips with a deep NCAA tournament run in mind. Duke also has Ryan Kelly, whose 13-game foot injury may have been a disguised blessing during a schedule in which fatigue can take a toll. "We used last week to pace ourselves before the ACC tournament, to make sure that Ryan [Kelly] and Seth [Curry] did not get injured," Mike Krzyzewski said. "I tried not to over-prepare them this week."
Few teams have the luxury of using the regular season and a major conference tournament as tune-ups. Minute management is a season-long puzzle with no one right answer. "Cupcake" schedules aren't what they used to be, thanks to preseason tournaments and nationwide parity, so starters for big programs don't spend many second halves relaxing on the bench during December blowouts anymore. Fatigue can accumulate over a long season: four days off (filled with shootarounds and media appearances and travel) only provide short-term relief for legs wobbly from four months of 37-minutes-a-game duty.
Some teams are in better shape than others. Louisville relies on a nine-man rotation to survive its own defensive tactics. Staving off fatigue is sometimes a matter of crisis becoming opportunity: Oregon guard Dominic Artis, like Kelly, came back from a foot injury just in time for his conference tournament. Garland sat out the fall for La Salle after transferring from Virginia Tech.
Mid-majors have it hardest: some rely on one or two superstars like McDermott, and few have a Coach K available, with decades of Sweet 16 experience to draw from when deciding who takes a breather or when practices need to be shortened. The one- or two-star small schools, like Creighton, have already fallen by the wayside. Florida Gulf Coast had nearly two weeks off before its historic run, and while that clearly helped, coach Andy Enfield said that his team spent much of the time fielding both media and personal requests. They are being deluged this week, and their "rest" includes flights from Philadelphia to Florida to Texas, with everyone from ESPN to high school teammates asking for a minute of their time.
"I want all of our players to take a couple deep breaths and say, Wow, we're in the Sweet 16, we've accomplished a lot," Enfield said. But if players are not focused when they step onto the practice court, Enfield warned, "they'll sit down or start running the stairs."
After 34 games and two flights in four days, running the stairs may not be a good idea.
Starter Games. To determine just which Sweet 16 teams may be freshest or most fatigued, let's add up the minutes played by each team's starting five. For example, the starting five of the Kansas Jayhawks has played a total of 5,381 minutes this season. Louisville's starting five has played 4,726 minutes.
A 655-minute difference is a little abstract, and those numbers are pretty big, so let's divide those numbers among five players and 40 minutes per game to create Starter Games, the number of full games that five starters would play if all their minutes were stacked back to back. The Jayhawks have played 26.9 Starter Games, the Cardinals 23.6. Kansas's starters have endured three more games worth of basketball than Louisville's starters. Three more games is the kind of difference you can feel when you get out of bed, even when you are 21 years old.
It's not clear just how predictive Starter Games are. Kentucky rode a six-player rotation to a national championship last year: when you are that good, you can overcome tired legs. For the Cinderella teams, we may be measuring something that helped get them this far, not something that will get them any further. As an "other things being equal" factor, however, it is hard to overlook the simple fact that some teams have just needed fewer ice baths and rubdowns than others.
With that in mind, let's break down the Sweet 16 matchups in terms of Starter Games…
Louisville (23.6 Starter Games) vs. Oregon (23.4 Starter Games)
The Cardinals starters are more rested than those from most of the other major-conference powerhouses; they have to be, because no team burns as much energy on defense as Louisville. With Artis back and a fairly deep rotation, the Ducks should be able to put up a fight for a while.
Michigan State (24.8 Starter Games) vs. Duke (24.8 Starter Games)
These two teams reached the same Starter Games figure two different ways. Other than Kelly, Duke starters have had a long year, with Mason Plumlee and Quinn Cook over 1,100 minutes, Curry not far behind and even Rasheed Sulaimon playing close to 1,000 minutes. The Spartans have a clockwork rotation that makes sure everyone but Keith Appling (1,172 minutes) gets meaningful rest each game. Neither team gains an edge here; the winner will wish it had a deeper bench when it faces Louisville.
Wichita State (20.2 Starter Games) vs. La Salle (23.7 Starter Games)
La Salle's early exit from the A-10 tournament and Garland's early-season breather are offset by a first-round game and heavy reliance on Ramon Galloway (1,095) and Tyreek Duren (1,075). With center Steve Zack hurt, the Explorers bench has effectively been one man deep for weeks. The Shockers lost starters Carl Hall and Ron Baker at midseason but now have both back; only Malcolm Armstead has cracked 1,000 minutes this season, and Wichita State enjoyed 11 days off before the NCAA tournament. In a battle of mid-majors, a fatigue differential like this could have a major impact. (And I am not just writing this to reverse-jinx my alma mater).
Arizona (23.5 Starter Games) vs. Ohio State (24.2 Starter Games)
The Buckeyes ride Deshaun Thomas (1,232 minutes) and Aaron Craft (1,192) hard; everyone else is part of a six-man rotation that shares the load effectively. Arizona goes three deep with Solomon Hill (1,122), Mark Lyons (1,026) and Nick Johnson (1063) before spreading out the playing time. Craft and Thomas played all but two minutes of the Iowa State game on Sunday, while the Wildcats' starters got a little more rest against back-to-back small programs. The difference is not noteworthy in this round, but is worth keeping an eye on as the winner turns to its top players in the later rounds.
Kansas (26.9 Starter Games) vs. Michigan (26.5 Starter Games)
The Jayhawks have four players over 1,100 minutes. The Wolverines have three, plus Nik Stauskas at 1,086. These are two of the best starting lineups in the nation, and neither can be said to have a fatigue disadvantage here. The winner of this game should be watched carefully, however, as it will face fresher, deeper (though not quite as talented) teams in the final rounds.
Florida (25.0 Starter Games) vs. FGCU (24.9 Starter Games)
Eagles starters Sherwood Brown (1,187 minutes) and Bernard Thompson (1,079) have played far more basketball this season than at any time in their lives. The freshness advantage they gained from two weeks off will probably vanish during what will be a more hectic week for them than any other team. Florida rides its starters hard and had a deep SEC tournament run, but it had a lot of coasting opportunities during regular-season blowouts and had an easy second-rounder against Northwestern State. If the Gators were more gassed, or the Eagles as rested as Wichita State, it would be easier to keep believing in miracles.
Indiana (24.9 Starter Games) vs. Syracuse (27.5 Starter Games)
Those hoping for a Syracuse upset must recognize the toll it took on C.J. Fair, Brandon Triche and Michael Carter-Williams just getting this far. Only six players are left in this tournament who have played 1,200 minutes, and three of them play for the Orange. By contrast, Cody Zeller has only played 1,026 minutes. The Syracuse starters barely got a breather in the Montana blowout (why Triche and Carter-Williams were needed for 29 minutes in an 81-34 game is only Jim Boeheim's guess), and the top four Orange starters earned a total of eight minutes of rest against Cal. Somebody refill the ice tub.
Marquette (21.8 Starter Games) vs. Miami (25.1 Starter Games)
Shane Larkin has played a whopping 1,272 minutes for Miami; Durand Scott missed three games but still played 1,107 minutes. The Hurricanes have a deep bench, but their minute totals were upped by playing through the entire ACC tournament. Marquette played just one game of the Big East tournament, and only Vander Blue cracked 1,000 minutes. Players like big man Davante Gardner have been rested judiciously all season. There's a risk of mistaking an edge that got Marquette to this game for an edge that will get them through this game, but look for them to give the Hurricanes a worthy fight.