By Ray Glier
GREENVILLE, S.C.___Jayson Tatum, the splendid Duke freshman, quick-bounced South Carolina’s Maik Kotsar with a slick move and got Kotsar off balance. Tatum then rose up and hit a three-pointer. He turned to run down the floor obviously pleased with himself. It was a big mistake to be so self-assured, as if it was going to be this way the whole game, because these NCAA Tournament are not just about talent, they are about relentlessness and a hungry-dog spirit. USC had more of that than Duke.
I give you Sindarius Thornwell and Duane Notice. Seniors.
Duke could never match the drive in these two guys on Sunday as (the other) Carolina beat Duke. Keep that in mind next year when you have your bracket in front of you. For all its young talent, Kentucky has one title (2012) and Duke has one title and they have dominated the recruiting battles the last several years. Kansas, another program that relies on one-and-dones, has no titles recently.
I keep wondering that if Kentucky fails again the next two weeks if the Wildcats need to change their approach. Their freshman are just not combative enough to stay with a senior playing his days of basketball.
The teams that stay old like South Carolina___and Villanova and North Carolina___have this extra gear that blows away freshmen like Tatum and Frank Jackson and sophomore Luke Kennard. Matt Jones and Grayson Allen tried to put their veteran’s drive out there for Duke, but it wasn’t enough.
You just watch it up close and you see these wide-eyed seniors coming back from a bad play to make a good play. They out-hustled Duke for so many 50-50 balls. Carolina made just 7 of 35 shots the first half. I walked out of the post-game press conference with Thornwell and he told me USC had Duke just where it wanted them. Sid said his team played so badly and was down just 7 and it was really quite uplifting. It gave us confidence, Thornwell told me.
It was unfair also that Duke, as the No. 2 seed, had to play a road game, but the Blue Devils can thank the North Carolina General Assembly, which passed the discriminatory House Bill 2. The NCAA Tournament was moved out of Greensboro to Greenville and delighted USC fans took over the Bon Secours Wellness Arena. Plenty of times I heard on Sunday that if Arkansas had beaten North Carolina the law would have been repealed….not so much about Duke losing.
Needless to say, HB2 needs to come off the books, no matter who wins and loses.
But what really doomed Duke was the fierce play of Thornwell and his teammates.
I was at the tournament for the New York Times. I went to the top deck of the parking garage to talk to the South Carolina Secessionist party members who had draped a Confederate flag over the top wall. Earlier they had a massive flag flying from a car (if a flag is attached to a vehicle it is legal). The parking deck was public property, they said, so they could have their flags.
They asked me what I thought of their flag. Have at it, I said. I have a job as a Journalist because of the 1st Amendment. I don’t like the flag, of course. These guys insist it is a heritage thing. It was 30 minutes to tip-off and I was working, so I didn’t get into the whole thing with them about black folks looking at that Confederate flag and seeing slavery. The flag is offensive, but the flaggers see heritage.
Greenville and Columbia are going to share North Carolina’s NCAA Tournament bounty. I think Richmond and Knoxville would be wise to jump in also because the next five years North Carolina is going to be off limits to pre-selected NCAA events.
I waited off and on five hours outside the suite of NCAA President Mark Emmert on Friday in Greenville. The door was locked and I couldn’t just walk in. I wanted to find out, for sure, just how far the NCAA was going to go with this ban on states that pass these onerous social bills like HB2. It was worth the wait.
If Texas passes a ban similar to HB2 the Final Four will not be in San Antonio in 2018. I think Emmert sent a clear message in the NY Times story I did that day that the NCAA is not backing down. Arkansas better heed the same warning.