Virginia and Texas Tech will play for the national championship on Monday. Who shined the most in the Final Four? Let’s dive into a special edition of Winners and Losers.
Winner: A Clutch Guy
Do you know how hard it is to hit three free throws in a row? It isn’t a question about clutchness or focus. It’s a math question, and I’m guessing the answer is “harder than you’d think.”
Let’s say a player is a pretty good free throw shooter—picking a number at random, 81.2 percent. The probability of that shooter hitting one free throw, of course, is 81.2 percent. The probability of that shooter hitting two consecutive free throws, though, is lower—81.2 percent of 81.2, or 65.9 percent. The probability of hitting three consecutive free throws is 53.9 percent. (Maybe it’s a bit higher since players are proven to adjust at the line and shoot better on their second and third free throws.) My point is, for even a good shooter, the odds of hitting three attempts in a row are barely better than half.
Every once in a while, a player gets sent to the line in a critical scenario and needs to drill all three free throws, and we assume they’ll make them because you’re supposed to make free throws, right? But making three free throws is hard. A famous example is Memphis’s Darius Washington Jr., whose choke job with a chance to win his conference tournament in 2005 was so famous that it inspired a Phish song—even if, statistically, it wasn’t that much of a choke job. Twice in this tournament, a player had to make three free throws in a game’s closing moments—and neither pulled it off. New Mexico State’s Terrell Brown missed two of his three in the first round, and his team lost. Purdue’s Carsen Edwards had a chance to beat Tennessee from the line in the Sweet 16 but only made two of three to send the game to overtime.
Saturday, in Virginia’s Final Four game against Auburn, Kyle Guy was put in the same scenario. With the Cavaliers trailing by two, Guy got off a 3-pointer with .6 seconds left but was fouled in the act of shooting.
We just talked about the strict mathematical probability of a player hitting three shots in a row. As it turns out, I didn’t pick 81.2 percent randomly—that’s Guy’s free throw shooting percentage. But honestly, we know there’s more than math at play. Guy stepped to the line with a chance to send his school to its first-ever national championship game, or a chance to be remembered forever for his failure. (Does Phish still make new songs?) Guy had to tune out a vigorously booing crowd which was completely convinced that the officiating decision that sent him to the line was bogus. “Kyle Guy” is the most anonymous name I’ve ever heard—it sounds like something a particularly uncreative and stupid person would tell a cop, or a name a cheating husband would use to book a motel room—but from the moment Guy stepped to the line, he would never be anonymous again. He could hit three free throws and become famous, or miss some and become a failure.
After the game, Guy admitted he was “terrified” when he started shooting. But he hit the first two, and then Auburn called a timeout, giving Guy a shot for the game. (Remember that earlier parenthetical aside about how players improve over the course of a trip to the line? Yeah, that goes out the window when the opponent calls a timeout to freeze the shooter.)
But Guy drilled all three. Virginia won and will have a chance to win their first national championship on Monday. Hitting three free throws in a row is actually much harder than we think—but the way Guy handled it will convince us for the rest of time that it’s as easy as he made it look.
Loser: Auburn’s Last-Second Fouling Problem
Can you remember the first round of the NCAA tournament? I know, it’s a tough ask—it happened almost three weeks ago. But try to remember it. Try to remember the first Thursday afternoon of the tournament—you were at work, or in class, and trying to sneak in glances at the game on your phone, watching every game because, back then, your bracket was still alive.
Back then, something happened that was awfully relevant. Auburn was playing against 12-seed New Mexico State and held a 78-76 lead in the closing seconds. The Aggies had a look at an open two, but decided to shoot a 3-pointer for the win. The shot missed, but Auburn’s Bryce Brown fouled NMSU’s Terrell Brown, giving the Aggies three shots with under a second remaining.
NMSU could’ve tied or won the game, but Brown missed two of three free throws. The Tigers survived, and went on a memorable March Madness run. As they knocked off Kansas and North Carolina and Kentucky, their close call against NMSU was forgotten.
Auburn’s players and coaches, though, shouldn’t have. Saturday, the Tigers found themselves in the same scenario—leading by two in the closing seconds of the game. While they got the result against New Mexico State, they should’ve learned that referees will blow the whistle if a 3-point shooter gets jostled while attempting a late 3 in a tight game, and taken extra care when closing out. Against NMSU they dodged a bullet, but dodged bullets should turn into learned lessons.
Somehow, Auburn managed to make the same critical mistake twice in the same tournament. The first time, they lucked out and advanced. The second time cost them a shot at a national championship.
Winner: The Under
The first game of the Final Four was won by Virginia—the slowest team in college basketball, which averages just 59.3 possessions per game. (The national average: 67.8 possessions.) The over/under was 131—pretty low!—and Auburn-Virginia squeaked under it, combining for 125 points.
The second game of the Final Four was won by Texas Tech—the best defense in college basketball, which allows just 84.0 points per 100 possessions. (The national average: 104.3 points.) The over/under was 132.5—again, pretty low—and Texas Tech-Michigan State went way under, combining for 112 points.
Saturday was the first Final Four since the invention of the shot clock in which all four teams failed to score 65 points, and the two teams most responsible for the low-scoring dreariness, glacial Virginia and stingy Texas Tech, are moving on. I don’t know what the over/under will be Monday night in the national championship, but it should be aggressively low, and I won’t bet the over no matter how low it is.
The Red Raiders and Cavaliers have mascots representing violent men from different eras, but Monday night’s game won’t look like a Wild West shootout or an old-timey sword fight. It will resemble violence from another historical era: World War I trench warfare. There will be violence, primarily based on how each team plays defense, and little advancement from either side. Give the scoreboard operator the night off. It’s time for everybody to be miserable.
It’s always bad for refs when people are talking about them. And after Auburn-Virginia, everybody’s talking about refs!
The good news is that officials definitely made one good call. Samir Doughty absolutely should’ve been whistled for the foul committed on the 3-pointer by Guy. Doughty altered Guy’s shot by sliding under him as he elevated, essentially hip-checking him while Guy was in mid-air.
The bad news is that officials also blatantly missed a call. As former referee Gene Steratore quickly noted on the CBS broadcast, Ty Jerome clearly committed a double-dribble on this play with under five seconds to go.
Of course it’s a double dribble. But even the most obvious ones, like this, are rarely whistled. pic.twitter.com/kA4WsVYznf— Don Van Natta Jr. (@DVNJr) April 7, 2019
Jerome accidentally kicked the ball, then picked it up off the ground with both hands, and then began dribbling again, which is illegal. If Jerome had retrieved the ball with a live dribble, he would’ve been fine. Or If an Auburn defender had touched the ball in any way, that would have given Jerome the option to legally start a new dribble. But neither happened. He discontinued his dribble, then started dribbling again, which is a definition double-dribble. No official blew his whistle, because it was an unusual play—but that doesn’t mean it was legal. This should’ve been a turnover, and Auburn should’ve gotten the ball with a lead with four seconds to go.
It’s predictable that everyone blames referees for everything regardless of what happens. People are rightly furious at the missed non-call, but there are also people wrongly furious about the correct made call. (Doughty barely touched Guy! It’s the last seconds of the game, let them play!) I’m not sure referees could make us happy by getting every call right. And they definitely didn’t do that Saturday night.
Winner: Bruce Pearl’s Final Four Makeover
The Final Four is college basketball’s biggest stage, and Auburn’s Bruce Pearl finally made his first appearance. His team’s performance in Minneapolis could be the thing he’s remembered for forever. (Well, not in Illinois or Tennessee, but, maybe elsewhere.) One problem: 40 years of coaching will turn a man’s hair gray. In fact, Pearl’s hair looked downright … pearly.
So in between the Elite Eight and the Final Four, Pearl got a bit of a glow-up:
It's not your imagination. Bruce Pearl's hair has changed color since last weekend. pic.twitter.com/MVRF5ajxLY— Jeff Eisenberg (@JeffEisenberg) April 6, 2019
Pearl didn’t just listen to Clyde and Keith and Just For Men his hair into oblivion. He actually matched his hair to his suits. Gray hair—gray suit. Newly dark hair—new dark suit. Pearl’s team may have fallen short, but his innovation in the Coaching Fashion game on the sport’s biggest stage will be remembered.
Loser: Premature Tree Decoration
For a second, it really seemed like Auburn had won. The Tigers led by two, an opposing player attempted a 3, and it didn’t go in. Time for Auburn fans to celebrate in bars too loud for anybody to hear the referee’s whistle!
This bar in Birmingham didnt realize a foul was called. pic.twitter.com/qaTIqYyAV3— Jake Query (@jakequery) April 7, 2019
In Auburn, fans began throwing rolls of toilet paper into the famed Toomer’s Corner oaks. (It’s a thing.)
Auburn fans roll Toomer's Corner and chant S-E-C, not having realized they called a foul and Virginia won the game pic.twitter.com/l4L2WlpbxK— RedditCFB (@RedditCFB) April 7, 2019
This guy dumped a beer on his head. (That’s … not a thing.)
An Auburn fan next to me poured beer on his head thinking they won.— Master (@MasterTes) April 7, 2019
When they eventually lost, he was arrested. pic.twitter.com/ZgbTg63bGX
Unfortunately, throwing toilet paper on a tree or dumping beer on your head does not, in the NCAA’s eyes, confer official status on a game’s final result. Only the refs can do that. And the refs did, in fact, call a foul, and Guy did, in fact, hit those free throws. The scene at Toomer’s got grim:
According to Bleacher Report’s Master Tesfatsion, the Auburn beer-dumper was escorted out of the stadium by cops. (Dumping beer on your own head isn’t a crime last I checked, but maybe something he did after realizing Auburn lost tipped the scales.)
Nothing can take away from how brutal this loss. I just hope Auburn fans can find a way to build a home and spend the rest of their lives living in the 3.8 seconds when they genuinely thought the Tigers were headed to the national championship game.
Winner: Wakanda, Illinois
One thing has tickled me all tournament long: The utter confusion when Texas Tech’s Matt Mooney, a native of Wauconda, Illinois, is announced as one of the Red Raider starters:
Did Jim Nantz just say Matt Mooney is from... Wakanda, Illinois— Katherine Miller (@katherinemiller) April 7, 2019
Wait.... they just said that guy is from where in Illinois?— Dianne Gallagher (@DianneG) April 7, 2019
Did I hear that right? Wakanda?
WAKANDA, Illinois? pic.twitter.com/2jclmKEq7P
This confuses viewers, who are surprised to learn that (a) the fictional vibranium-rich African kingdom depicted in Marvel’s Black Panther exists, (b) that it is located in Illinois, and (c) that one of its inhabitants is a white shooting guard who somehow manages to have a buzzcut and a part in his hair. “Matt” doesn’t exactly sound like a Wakandan name—is it short for “W’Matt?”
It turns out, this is a bit of a problem for Wauconda, a Chicago suburb that has been beset with prank callers since Black Panther hit the big screen last year. But Saturday night, Mooney made it all make sense, leading all scorers in Texas Tech’s win with 22 points, including four 3s:
MATT. MOONEY.— Texas Tech Basketball (@TexasTechMBB) April 7, 2019
ALL THE WAY FROM ST. PAUL. pic.twitter.com/mrT4pISHAY
Mooney’s had a really interesting career—he didn’t get many offers out of high school, just Air Force and UMass-Lowell. He picked Air Force, but quickly realized life at a military academy wasn’t for him, and transferred to South Dakota, where he became the Coyotes’ leading scorer, and was twice named first-team all-Summit League. When he graduated from South Dakota, he opted to use his final season of eligibility at Texas Tech, and that’s been a pretty good call. The Red Raiders needed him on Saturday night—Michigan State is no slouch defensively, and it clamped down on the Red Raiders’ best player, future NBA lottery pick Jarrett Culver. But Mooney is a great shooter and an offensive bulldog. When a future NBA player struggled, a former unrecruited player shined.
Winner: Some Well-Paid Curtain Company
This year’s Final Four is in Minneapolis, at U.S. Bank Stadium, where the Vikings play. If you’ve ever seen a Vikings game, you’d know that the roof of U.S. Bank Stadium is primarily made of see-through glass, which results in beautiful natural light for football games and massive amounts of bird casualties.
But basketball games aren’t supposed to have natural light. We’re used to them being played indoors. So the people putting on the Final Four purchased blackout curtains to cover the glass roof, ensuring that the Final Four would have consistent lighting for all games and practices.
The cost of those curtains? Almost $5 million.
Let me say that again: THEY SPENT ALMOST FIVE MILLION DOLLARS ON CURTAINS. I would’ve guessed, I dunno, like $100,000 for stadium-covering curtains. Maybe $1 million? I guess I just don’t understand the value of high-performance sports curtains.
Regardless, the curtains were installed. They were needed for Saturday’s early game, which tipped at roughly 5 p.m. local time. They probably were not needed for the later game, which tipped at 7:49 p.m., after sunset, or for Monday night’s championship game, which will tip at 8:20 p.m. And honestly, they probably weren’t needed for Saturday night’s first game, because it was cloudy.
I never even noticed that Saturday night’s game was played in a stadium covered in $5 million curtains—so maybe that means the $5 million curtains did their job? Congratulations to the people who made and sold those $5 million curtains.