Most believe that matchups and magic play big parts in surviving and advancing in the NCAA tournament, but few ever mention another key to staying alive: timing.
History tells us too much of a good thing all at once can haunt a school during March Madness.
If only a few of those made shots wasted in the Virginia blowout had waited until the Kansas State game to fall, UMBC could have advanced to the Sweet 16 and the other 15 schools would spend the first half of this week swallowed by the Retrievers’ shadow.
More than one friend told me that when watching Kansas slaughter Purdue in last year’s Sweet 16, 98-66, including a 51-26 second half, they secretly tried to will shots out of the hoop late in the game so that some good fortune would be left for two nights later in the Elite Eight round. The Jayhawks caught fire and never cooled, making 15 of 28 3-pointers to run the Boilermakers out of the building on the same night Oregon looked so unimpressive in sneaking past Michigan, 69-68.
Two days later, confounded by Oregon’s matchup zone, Kansas made just 5 of 25 3-point shots, and coach Bill Self was denied a third trip to the Final Four.
I’ve always wondered whether the adrenaline generated during dominant performances that result in blowouts has an exhausting hangover effect. If so, Kansas need not worry about that yet.
The Jayhawks were solid yet unspectacular in defeating Penn and Seton Hall to advance to the Midwest Regional in Omaha.
“Well, I think in the NCAA Tournament, you don't worry as much if you played well or if you played poorly,” Self said after the Seton Hall game. “You worry more about did we advance? And I think that's all we did this weekend is we advanced.”
“I don’t think we were good against Penn, except for short stretches, and I don't think we were very good (Saturday), except for short stretches,” Self said. “And, of course, Seton Hall had a lot to do with that. But we put ourselves in a position where hopefully we'll play much better next week and play our best ball.”
If Clemson plays anywhere near at the level it did against Auburn, Kansas will need to play better than it did in Wichita to win — a reasonable expectation, since each day removed from injuring his knee is a day of improvement for center Udoka Azubuike. Plus, Devonte’ Graham surely will shoot better in Omaha than he did against Seton Hall.
In the ideal Kansas world, the Jayhawks would play well enough to get past Clemson and then have the stars align so that its crazy-good game is saved for Duke, because that’s what it will take to defeat the Blue Devils in March.
Next to Kentucky, Duke has the least experience of any Sweet 16 team. The Blue Devils also have the most talented roster, and according to kenpom.com, have the most size in the tournament, other than their Midwest regional semifinal opponent, Syracuse.
As for pure talent, nobody matches Duke. ESPN.com ranks its top 100 draft prospects and all five Duke starters appear in the top 52: 4 - Marvin Bagley, 6 - Wendell Carter Jr., 30 - Grayson Allen, 48 - Trevon Duval, 52 - Gary Trent Jr.
As good as Clemson looked in blasting Auburn, there is no reason to fear that KU could look past the Tigers. But from the outside looking in, Kansas-Duke shapes up as the most intriguing of the 16 potential Elite Eight matchups.
It’s not likely Syracuse can stand in the way of it happening. Bagley and Carter combined for 35 points in Duke’s 60-44 thrashing of the Orange on Feb. 24 in Cameron Indoor Stadium. The Blue Devils are favored by 11-1/2 points in the rematch.
Kansas is a four-point favorite against Clemson, so the oddsmakers like the chances of a Kansas-Duke showdown taking place Sunday in Omaha. The blue-blood programs last clashed Nov. 15, 2016, when Frank Mason III pulled up and drilled a jumper in the final seconds for the 77-75 win in Madison Square Garden. Big moment on a big stage, just not as what potentially is on Sunday's menu.