Teams that make the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament are usually so close in talent and execution that the smallest plays make the difference between advancing to the Final Four and falling short.
The small differences in Saturday’s quarterfinals matchups were touch fouls or, as the great Bill Raftery refers to them, little nickel-dimers. This was most evident in the Syracuse-Ohio State regional final where three players fouled out and seven others finished with at least 3 PF’s to their name. A large number of these were collected thanks to dubious foul calls. Players are taught to adjust to the way an official is calling a game. If a ref is calling everything real close in the first half, players on both sides should take it into account for the second 20 minutes. However, it is hard to adjust when every glancing hint of contact results in a whistle. To the officials’ credit, they were calling this ridiculousness both ways. The most egregious nickel-dimer was probably in Syracuse’s favor, when Ohio State point guard Aaron Craft fouled out on what can only be deemed breathing too heavily on the player with possession.
The final box score showed fouls and foul shots in the favor of the Buckeyes though. Although not every whistle resulted in Bill Raftery hitting that high octave, there were 48 personal fouls and 67 foul shots in the game. The lasting image of this Elite Eight contest will not even be Jared Sullinger battling down low or Craft knocking away a pass; it will be player after player raising his hands high, mouth agape in disbelief at the call that had just been made.
In Saturday’s other regional final, the ticky-tack foul calls went against the eventual victor. Louisville star guard Peyton Siva got called for his fourth personal very early in the second half. Siva’s coach Rick Pitino seemed to agree that it wasn’t warranted, drawing the ire of an official and drawing a technical foul. Siva lasted until less than four minutes remained until he fouled out. Perhaps Russ Smith, Louisville’s other playmaking guard, took this as his cue to take over. Smith was tremendous, especially down the stretch, scoring some key points during the Cardinals’ massive run to finish out the game.
Even with the start of Sunday’s matches resembling the previous day’s slate (namely with a bogus flagrant foul called right at the beginning of Kentucky-Baylor), the ending results were anything but close. However, this does not mean there weren’t a few plays here or there which changed the tide in favor of one side. While Kentucky’s slaughtering of the Baylor Bears was way worse than even the final score indicated, the Bears took a commanding lead in the game right from the tip. Throwing in 10 points before John Calipari settled into his seat on the sidelines, Baylor looked to be every bit as talented as Kentucky. Then, something changed. Kentucky called a timeout, during which I am sure Coach Calipari said something resembling a string of dialogue that would be censored by the FCC. But, more importantly, Baylor’s defensive whiz A.J. Walton went on to pick up two personal fouls in a span of eight seconds. It is arguable whether Walton is one of Baylor’s best five players. What is not arguable is his specific importance to this club, namely on the defensive end. He was forced to sit out the rest of the half and, upon returning, his ensuing three contributions to Baylor’s play by play were picking up his third foul, turning the ball over and then picking up his fourth foul.
At this point, the game seemed in hand. It had for a while. But up until Walton was charged with two fouls with 35 minutes still to play in the contest, Baylor had not only been winning, but had been seriously hanging with the Kentucky Wildcats. Alas, even the smallest segments of game action can swing the tide so dramatically a team cannot recover.
As for the one seed Carolina Tar Heels, their one moment happened days prior to their game even happening. During their game against Creighton, in the prior round, UNC lost their starting point guard and most important player, Kendall Marshall, to a fractured hand. If he had been healthy enough to go against Kansas (a decision they left until right up to game time to the squirming annoyance of Tar Heel fans everywhere), there is little doubt the outcome would have been different. Although the game was close throughout, Kansas went on a huge run in the final few minutes, buoyed by Carolina turnovers and the inability of the Tar Heels to run consistent offense in the key moments of the game.
Bill Raftery ended up announcing just one of the Elite Eight contests, to the dismay of college basketball fans everywhere. However, his quick, reactionary phrases still hold water in games he has nothing to do with. In the Final Four matches, there will be many players taking it to the tin, and throwing up a little kiss but the outcome of the games will most certainly be determined by many little nickel-dimers.