By Lenn Robbins
I’m done. Stick a fork in me.
My Final Four “sleeper,” No.4 Florida State, got dusted by No.1 Michigan. While the national media has been yearning for a Gonzaga-Baylor showdown like an infant crying for its bottle, the Wolverines showed they are certainly capable of winning it all.
“That’s a team that really, really knows who they are,” said Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton after getting trounced by the Wolverines, 76-58. “They know how to play to each other, and it wouldn’t surprise me at all for them to be standing there on Monday night with their finger up saying they’re number 1.”
It gave us pause when Michigan’s Juwan Howard was voted Coach of the Year. What about Mark Few, the only coach in the nation to go undefeated – and in the most challenging season in history? But Sunday’s win over the Seminoles removed any doubt that Howard deserves the honor.
When Michigan lost one of our favorite players in college basketball, Isaiah Livers, to a stress fracture, we thought it was just a matter of time before losing his senior leadership, no less his 13 points and 43-percent shooting on 3’s, would doom Michigan. In comes Brandon Johns Jr., averaging 4.8 points and 2.4 rebounds and he goes for 14 and six against FSU.
“Well, we don’t make excuses here at Michigan,” said Howard. “We feel so sorry for Isaiah with the injury. During any time of the season when a player goes down with an injury, it’s very unfortunate, and you feel, and your heart breaks for that player.”
Johns did what all the Wolverines have done this season – play with a confidence and unselfishness that makes them easy to root for. They run legitimate high-low offense to take advance of the height of Hunter Dickerson (7-1) and Franz Wagner (6-9) who reminds us of a slightly shorter version of Domantas Sabonis (6-11) and they scored 29 field goals off 19 assists.
When asked how his players feel so confident to play free, Howard had one of those responses that can be used in a recruiting brochure.
“Why not give them confidence?” said the former NBA star. “That’s what we’re here for, to empower these young men who’s put in a lot of hard work and effort each and every day in practice, games.”
KODAK MOMENT: With 1:10 left in the game, Howard’s son, Jace, was fouled on a layup. Jace made the free throw for an old-fashioned three-point play. That brought an old-school response from dad.
“As a father, it was beautiful to witness it because I see the hard work he’s put in, and he deserved to be here, and his teammates have really embraced him, and he’s embraced them. It also put a big smile on my face to see that he made the free throw.”
THE TIDE GOES OUT: My second Elite Eight team to be ousted was No.2 Alabama. It wasn’t a shock to see the Tide get taken down by Mick Cronin’s UCLA team, despite its No.11 seeding. Having covered Cronin’s Cincinnati teams, you knew these Bruins were going to be well-coached and as tough as dislodging a supertanker stuck in the Suez Canal.
Junior forward Cody Riley certainly caught the eye of NBA talent scouts after his 10-point, five-rebound, four-blocked shot performance in UCLA’s 88-78 OT win over Alabama. Riley has played down low for Cronin, which explains why he hadn’t made a three since his freshman year when he hit 6-of-20 (30-percent). Since then he’s 0-for-7.
If the 6-foot-9 Riley, 23, comes out – and it’s likely he will because of his age, he’ll have to convince NBA types that he can consistently knock down 3’s. But he is a beast inside as has 6-11 wingspan. For now, there’s more basketball to played. UCLA, which faces Michigan for the East Region championship, is waking the echoes, which could be a dangerous thing.
This, of course, is the program that established the greatest dynasty in college hoops history under John Wooden, who won 10 national titles. Wooden’s successor, Gene Bartow, compiled a 52-9 record and made two appearances in the national semifinal game but stopped reading the newspapers and listening to radio stations in L.A. because they skewered him for not being Wooden. He left to start the athletic department at Alabama-Birmingham.
“You’re going to have pride, and we’re going to win games, but it will not be easy because it’s hard to win, Cronin told his players. “A lot of great coaches in our business, and there’s a reason they always win, because the standard is the standard, and you have to demand so much commitment.”
Can the Bruins upset the Wolverines? They’ve already won two overtime games to get here, which means there isn’t a scenario that’s likely to rattle the Bruins.
As for the Wolverines, one red flag arose in the FSU win. They shot 65.2-percent (15-of-23) from the line. This simply could be an aberration. Michigan was 25th in the nation from the line, making 75-percent. But what if as the pressure mounts the rim has gotten smaller for Michigan.
“Free throws are always a mental thing,” said Alabama coach Nate Oats after his team went 11-of-25 from the line in an 88-78 loss to the Bruins. “It’s the same distance. There are zero variables in free throws other than the pressure you put on yourself mentally.”
Let’s look at the flipside. The Bruins were a 71.5-percent team from the line. They went 20-of-25 (80-percent) in the Bama win. Again, aberration or not? If UCLA mucks it up and Michigan sees ghosts when it steps to the line, well, stranger things have happened in this tournament.
That was the Bruins third straight trip to the Final Four. Coach Ben Howland compiled a 97-17 record over that three-year span. Five seasons later he was fired. Welcome to UCLA.
EARLY LINE: Michigan -7.5; Over/Under 136 – Taking Michigan; give the points. Taking the over.
No.1 Gonzaga vs No. 6 USC
Not to put too much pressure on any one player but Gonzaga center Drew Timme, he of the magnificent facial hair, is going to have to bring is “A” physical game and stay out of foul trouble against USC’s Mobley Twins. Evan is a 7-foot future first round draft pick. His brother Isaiah, 6-10, gives the Trojans a Twin Towers of college basketball.
Gonzaga’s two terrific forwards – Corey Kispert (6-7) and Joel Ayayi (6-5) also will have to step up on the glass and the defensive end. Ayayi is the team’s second-best rebounder, grabbing 7.1 per game. Oregon actually outrebounded USC, 33-30, with the 6-6 Eugene Omoruyi grabbing a game-high 10 boards. Kispert can pull one of the USC bigs out of the paint.
Look, we know how these things work, but it doesn’t pass the smell test when a coach hires the father of a star or star players. Coach Andy Enfield hired Eric Mobley as an assistant. Mobley is the father of Evan and Isaiah. We’re not suggesting something underhanded transpired here. We’re also not sure it did.
KODAK MOMENT: Every time Drew Timme drains a 3, he wipes his mustache and raises both arms, index fingers pointed skyward. But his mother, Megan, stole the show in the Zags win by wearing her silver dollar-sized Drew Timme earrings, complete with a picture of her bearded son. Not yet available on EBay.
EARLY LINE: Gonzaga – 9; Over/Under 155 – Taking USC and the nine; Taking the over.
STICK A FORK IN ME: The only teams I have left in my Final Four is Gonzaga, along with two-thirds of the free world. Illinois exited in the second round, reminding me that even a team is playing well down the stretch, this one and done format (simply the best!) can bite you. See: Illinois 44.9-percent shooting from the field; 28.6-percent on 3’s. See ya!
FSU, as mentioned above, didn’t play to its strengths, getting outrebounded, 37-31, and committing more turnovers (14) than it forced (9). Our hope was that the big, physical, deep Noles would wear down the Wolverines. Apparently not.
Previous Final Four: Gonzaga, Illinois, Arkansas, FSU
Revised Final Four: Gonzaga, Michigan, Baylor, Houston.