Sunday, March 25, 2007
Friday, March 16, 2007
17 hours. That’s how long it takes to drive to Winston Salem from Raleigh, sit through four NCAA tournament games and drive back home. It’s 11:30 on Friday morning and I’m just waking up. I’m exhausted. I could sleep for two or three more hours. But it’s 11:30. I have to eat before the games start again. Today, instead of being in the LJVM Coliseum, I’ll be in the Eaves’ living room. I’m tired, but I’m ready for more.
For me, it’s been this way as long as I can remember. You can’t live in the Triangle region of North Carolina and NOT follow basketball. If you can, you didn’t grow up here. Yesterday, like the first day of the ACC tournament, was a holiday. People call in sick to work, take two hours lunches, and just HAVE to pick their kids up early from daycare. There’s BASKETBALL ON FOR CRYING OUT LOUD!
Needless to say, yesterday was fantastic. Picture Bobby Knight, not throwing chairs, but consoling a player after his team lost to Boston College in the first round. Picture Tyrese Rice, who had to be one of the most dazzling players yesterday scoring 28 points, breathing a small sigh of relief as the time wound down in their defeat over the Red Raiders.
Now, picture Belmont, the musically-inclined college from Nashville, Tennessee, entering the Coliseum yesterday to thunderous one-handed, high-flying dunks by the Georgetown Hoyas. They were meant to intimidate the Bruins. It didn’t work...for the first four minutes.
Hear the thunderous applause in your head? That was the ENTIRE crowd, minus the Hoya fans, cheering for Belmont at the first TV time-out as they led 11-4. The energy was so thick you could feel it in the air. This Belmont team has a shot.
Fast-forward to the next TV timeout. The energy…GONE. Tie game…11-11. End of the road for the Bruins. But it was fun, even for only four minutes.
Then, it got REAL fun. The night session, after an overpriced order of chicken fingers and fries from a bar across the street, was a mere ten minutes from starting. But, the scoreboard was on and Duke had fallen behind early. I heard the cheers as we walked to our seats, but I didn’t see the score.
I asked our neighbors in the seats beside us, “What was that all about?” “Duke’s losing early,” he said.
“Hope they're losing in an hour-and-a-half,” someone replied from two rows back.
OK, on to the next game. Marquette-Michigan State. U-G-L-Y. I have NEVER seen, nor heard, of a team not making a two-point shot, for an entire half…at least, not in the modern era of college basketball. I WATCHED IT WITH MY OWN EYES LAST NIGHT! The Golden Eagles fell behind 11-0, trailed 30-18 at the half, made 4 3’s and six free throws. No two-point shots. AMAZING!!
Needless to say, this game was over. Back to the scoreboard. Time is winding down. They flash the Duke score again. Duke down 1. And the largest applause of the day comes from the crowd. After all, with the exception of the first 30 minutes of the Boston College/Texas Tech contest, we hadn’t seen, nor heard, of a close game in about 7 hours.
Ten seconds later, the score changes. Duke UP 1. The crowd boos…ANGRILY. 14,000 people in Winston Salem are mesmerized by a scoreboard as much as my two-year old is mesmerized by Elmo. There is a break in the action as the Marquette/Michigan State game has finally ended after about ten very unnecessary fouls by Marquette. A Golden Eagles fans scream from a few rows back after the fourth foul, “COME ON!! WE’VE HAD ENOUGH!!”
Again, back to the scoreboard. The score shows VCU 77, Duke 77 for about two minutes.
Then the PA announcer...
“FINAL SCORE FROM BUFFALO...VCU 79, Duke 77."
I thought for a moment the roof was going to blow off the place. The loudest roar of the night was saved for a game from played around 1,000 miles away.
But wait...North Carolina plays in ten minutes. We’re not done yet. UNC jumps out to a 36-13 lead over Eastern Kentucky in the first 11 minutes. The Colonels are extra crispy. Done. Game, set, match.
Back-door cuts start to be more precise. Threes start falling. Turnovers become more frequent for UNC.
16 minutes to go…TV timeout. UNC 48, EKU 44.
Could a number one-seed lose? Really? Come on. I didn’t wait my whole life to buy NCAA tickets to see my team make history in the worst way, did I?
I didn’t. UNC, sparked by senior Reyshawn Terry, opened up another 23 point lead and finally sent the Colonels home 86-65. It was one of the very few times I’ve seen a team have to beat another twice to get only one win out of it.
“Survive and advance,” Jimmy V said a thousand times.
I did, but I’m ready for more. It’s 12:10 now. Pizza (“It’s not delivery…”) is done. Game starts in ten minutes.
I’ve survived. Now, I’ll advance. To my couch.
Thursday, March 15, 2007
Right now, NCAA Bracket pools are being filled out by friends and co-workers alike. Many sheets of paper are wasted printing out brackets and carefully studying which teams will make the Final Four and most importantly, who will be this year’s George Mason. If you know that, it could score major bucks for you in your office pool.
The sexy picks to play Cinderella are Davidson, Winthrop and perhaps George Mason’s Colonial Athletic Association rival Virginia Commonwealth. Good solid picks and all low seed from Mid-Majors. My mid-major pick to go to the Elite Eight and perhaps pull a George Mason is the Salukis of Southern Illinois.
Yes, I know the Egyptian Dogs have been nationally ranked and are a 4 seed out of the West Region. Technically they don’t qualify for Cinderella status but the Salukis have a legitimate shot in not only reaching the Elite Eight, but going to Atlanta and the Final Four. SIU doesn’t score a lot however, their defense is stifling only allowing 56 points per game that’s good for 3rd in the nation. Another thing the Salukis have going for them is their top players are upperclassman. Senior Jamaal Tatum leads the team in scoring with 15 points per game, good for 5th in the Missouri Valley Conference. Junior Randal Falker averages double figures in points (12.5) and 3rd in the MVC in rebounding grabbing 7 boards per game. SIU has talent and experience which might be the way to San Jose for the West Regionals and possibly carry the Salukis to Atlanta.
OTHER NCAA TOURNAMENT NOTES:
My Arkansas Razorbacks was one of the last to get in the NCAA Tournament and I like their draw. The Hogs are a hot team and can get by Southern California and could reach the sweet 16 though getting by Texas with all-world Kevin Durant would be a tall order. One things is certain, getting the in the Big Dance saved Stan Heath’s job.
Winthrop will beat Notre Dame and head coach Gregg Marshall will parlay that win into a job in a major conference. Perhaps one in South Carolina if it opens up.
The other budding head coaching star to come out of this tournament is Oral Roberts’ Scott Sutton. He has the bloodlines, his dad is Eddie Sutton and his brother is Sean Sutton. Scott’s turn at a major school is coming soon plus ORU should win a game or 2 at the NCAA’s.
The East sets up great for Georgetown to reach the Final Four. If Ohio State’s talented freshman withstand the pressure of March Madness their in. Florida is on a mission to repeat and to me they are the best “TEAM” in the NCAA Tournament. I would like to see Ohio State and Florida (Just like the BCS Title Game in Football) to meet for the title at the Georgia Dome. Unfortunately Buckeye fans, the might Gators will win this, too.That's it...I'm spent.
Wednesday, March 14, 2007
Despite his recent statements about possibly staying in college another year, the facts and the money are clear: without the NBA mandate that a player be at least one-year removed from college before he can drafted, Greg Oden never would have stepped foot on a college campus in a basketball uniform. But, we are the lucky ones. We are seeing the emergence of one of the most dominant big men in the last twenty years.
While struggling with a wrist injury that forced him to miss Ohio State’s first ten games or so, as hard as it is to believe, Oden actually improved his shooting touch. He practiced only with his left hand and, as a result, has become even more dominating offensively. He is ALREADY the best defensive center since Ewing.
The Buckeyes open their tournament title hopes with Central Connecticut State. The Blue Devils tallest player is 6-7. Oden is 7-0. Any questions?
Texas A&M is one of the nation’s best defensive teams and their guard tandem of Acie Law and Josh Carter are as good as any tow you can find in the country. Law can single-handedly take over a game and Carter is the nation’s best 3-point shooter at a 52 percent clip from long range. They are sixth in assists in the country and, as a team, average a sizzling 42 % from three-point land.
Memphis has won 22 consecutive games. That would normally be very impressive. But, the Tigers play in Conference USA. I think Brother J-Dub, Phil, Jon, Wilkie, and I could beat ECU twice a year. Memphis is also 1-3 against top-tier teams with losses to Georgia Tech, Tennessee, and Arizona. Their play will depend on the play forward Chris Douglas-Roberts and guard Antonio Anderson. Their play will be the difference in a Final Four run or a second round exit to Nevada or Creighton.
A five seed has defeated a number 12 seed six years in a row in the NCAA’s. I’ve predicted one twelve seed (Old Dominion) to advance already. Make it two.
Tennessee has shown a tendency this season to play to the level of their competition. The do have one of the nation’s best players in Chris Lofton (20.6 ppg, 42% 3-FG) but the Vols ranked last in the SEC in scoring defense and only shoot around 65 percent form the foul line.
Long Beach State, on the other hand, runs a 3-guard offense and has 4 players averaging 13 points a game. They are fast and, if taken lightly, can pull off the upset. Tennessee has defeated Florida and Memphis this season…at home. Surely they can beat Long Beach State. Right? RIGHT?
BYU and Xavier come into the tournament starting three seniors apiece. Find me ten major conference teams that can make the same claim. BYU shoots about 50 percent from the field on the year and 40 percent from behind the arc. Xavier has five players that average 10 points a game but, at times, this team can really go cold from deep. Xavier has an excellent chance to pull of the mid upset, if the threes are falling.
Don’t overlook the Stanford Cardinal against Louisville, either. Stanford has the 7 foot twin towers (they REALLY are twins) Brooke and Robin Lopez and Louisville has shown a tendency to struggle with size this year. But, for the first time all year, Louisville is healthy. They’ll be led by forward Juan Palacios and Terrence Williams, a freshman averaging almost 13 a contest. Even though the Cardinal-s are healthy, I see Stanford asserting that size down low and dominating on the boards. The singular Cardinal gets the upset in this one.
Despite their recent struggles, I see Virginia easily advancing over Albany. A lot of people think this could be an upset in the making, but I’m just not buying into that argument. Sean Singletary and J.R. Reynolds can knock it down from anywhere inside half-court when they’re hot and they get decent enough play from their frontcourt to dispatch of Albany in the first round. One stat to watch, however, is turnovers; the Cavaliers average more turnovers than assists. Should they start giving the ball away, the Great Danes could have a chance. As a 16 seed last year, they led Connecticut by 12 in the second half, so they won’t be intimidated.
I like Nevada in the 7/10 game. Nick Fazekas is an All-American who averages 21 and 10 a night and guard Marcelus Kemp lights it at a 41% clip from 3-point range. Their three-guard offense will be just potent enough to survive a Creighton team that allows a mere 60 points a game but also ranked last in the MVC in field goal percentage.
There are only two teams in my mind that have a legitimate shot at Atlanta in two and a half weeks: Texas A&M and Ohio State. The regional final will be played in San Antonio. I’ll give the home court advantage to the Aggies as Texas A&M rounds out my Final Four picks.
We hope these looks at the brackets have provided you enough information to win the office pool and, if you feel so inclined, we’ll be glad to take ten percent. Enjoy the games. I certainly will as I will be headed to my very first tournament games. Should anything Madness-worthy happen in Winston Salem, I’ll be there to tell you all about it.
Tuesday, March 13, 2007
The “home cooking” in this bracket starts with the top 2 seeds…North Carolina and Georgetown. The Tar Heels open up play in Winston Salem, a mere 80 or so miles from the Chapel Hill campus. Georgetown will also play in Winston Salem and, should they advance to the Sweet 16, play in the Meadowlands where they are sure to be heavily represented with a Hoyas contingent.
Plain and simple, this bracket is LOADED. The fourth seeded Texas Longhorns could easily have been a number 3 or even a 2 seed and not many people would have cried foul. Soon to be national Player of the Year Kevin Durant leads a four freshmen, one sophomore starting five that averages over 80 points a game. One concern for the Longhorns will be defense; they allow over 70 points a game. An off-shooting night could lead to an early tourney exit. One early exit is a lock…Durant will take his talents to the NBA next year.
North Carolina has all the tools to make it to Atlanta and win it all. Three freshmen, led by ACC Rookie of the Year Brandan Wright, and All-Amercian candidate Tyler Hansborough seemingly found their early season form in the ACC tournament. Questions still remain about this team’s toughness but, make no mistake, no one in powder blue will answer any more “tough” questions if they make it out of this region. By far the most arduous trail to the Final Four runs along the eastern seaboard.
UPSETS A PLENTY?
Outside of North Carolina, Georgetown, and Texas, every team with a higher seed in this bracket could be out after one round.
The most compelling match-up of all in the first round lies with Marquette and Michigan State. Teacher-Student. Tom-Tom. Crean-Izzo. These two have almost identical styles (go figure), almost identical teams, and almost identical stats to back it up. Marquette enters the NCAA’s losing five of eight and Michigan State, as with any Tom Izoo-led team, has saved its best basketball for late in the season, knocking off Wisconsin twice in less than two weeks. Marquette has done a better job of rebounding throughout the course of the season but you can NEVER count out Izzo, who has sent his Spartans to the Final Four4 times since 1999. If Drew Neitzel has a big day for the Spartans, it’s an early exit for Marquette.
Boston College gets great senior leadership from ACC player of the year Jared Dudley yet, at times, seems to only play well when they’re down 10-12 points. Tyrese Rice, a sophomore, averages almost 18 points per contest, and, hung 32 on Miami in the second round of the ACC tournament. They will miss the inside play of Sean Williams, who was dismissed from the team in January. If this team comes in focused and ready for a game-one challenge from Texas Tech, they should live to play on Saturday. If they play like they did in the ACC tournament, Bobby Knight and his long-range shooters (42% - 3FG, 4th in the country) could send the Eagles soaring home quickly. The one question for the Red Raiders: rebounding. They currently rank 285 in rebounding margin…OUCH!
USC advanced to the finals of the PAC-10 tournament, only to get shellacked by Oregon. The Trojans find themselves with a moniker they may have never seen: overachievers. This season was supposed to happen next season when highly-touted recruit OJ Mayo hits campus (if he can stay out of trouble). Freshman Taj Gibson, who shoots almost 60 percent from the field, will try to prevent the first round exit as they face an Arkansas team that comes into the tournament with 5 wins in six outings and start four juniors, making them one of the most experienced teams in the region. This will be a close, competitive contest but, I’ll take the Trojans based on the play of Lodrick Stewart. A big three by Stewart late in the game will, send Coach Tim Floyd on to face Texas in the second round. Careful what you wish for, USC fans.
It all comes down to the play of two men for Oral Roberts if they’re to pull off the biggest upset of the tourney this year…Caleb Green and Ken Tutt. Green is averaging almost 21 points a game and Green lights up the scoreboard for 16 a contest. Washington will try a more balanced attack. All five starters for the Cougars drop in at least 8 points per game. The Cougars finished second in the PAC-10 and they led the league in turnover margin. A lot of experts think that Oral Roberts could pull off the upset, and I’m in that pack. The Golden Eagles will not be intimidated by their surroundings (they beat Kansas earlier this year). If they continue their hot shooting, Cinderella has wings this year. And, I think they could also beat Vanderbilt or George Washington.
It’s hard for me not to take North Carolina to the Final Four but, with the best player in the country standing in the way, I just can’t do it. Texas will climb on the shoulders of Kevin Durant, narrowly escape over Georgetown in the Elite 8, and move on to Atlanta.
Monday, March 12, 2007
The first thing that stands out when you look at the West bracket is UCLA essentially staying at home until the Final Four, provided they do their job and win. Their first two games will be played Sacramento and the regional matchups, should they advance, will be held in San Jose. UCLA will never have to leave the state of California if they advance to the Final Four. Not bad for a team that lost their last two games.
Kansas comes into the tournament on a high after winning the Big 12 Tournament against Texas over the weekend. Let’s remember, however that Kansas has exited the big dance in the first round the last two years. Certainly, a third exit that early would be historic as no number one seed has ever lost in the first round and it’s not happening here either. Kansas does have an interesting second round match-up with Kentucky or Villanova.
Tubby Smith is on the proverbial “hot seat” in Lexington, but just yesterday we learned that it will be up to Tubby to decide if want to return to the pressure cooker that is Kentucky basketball. For Wildcats fans, anything less than a Final Four appearance in any year is considered a disappointment.
Another interesting team is Duke, losers of six of their last 10 games, placed as a 6 seed in the West? A 6 SEED? Talk about riding your reputation into a higher seed. This Blue Devil team is no better than an eight seed, at best, and a Sweet 16 appearance would be a miracle.
It’s hard to think of Gonzaga again as an underdog with their successes the last years. Nevertheless, they find themselves in that position when they take on Indiana. Coach Mark Few has said that is team is better without Josh Heytvelt. Now’s his chance to prove it and I believe they will. They are better shooters than Indiana, better rebounders, better free-throw shooters, and turn the ball over less. Additionally, Indiana really struggles away from Assembly Hall. The Bulldogs will upset the Hoosiers and get ANOTHER shot at UCLA over the weekend.
A trendy upset from other sources seems to be Illinois over Virginia Tech. Quite simply, I’m not buying it. Illinois finished last in the Big Ten in field goal percentage and free throw percentage this year, not good stats when it comes to advancing in March. I like the senior leadership that the Hokies bring to the floor with Coleman Collins and All-ACC section Zabian Dowdell. And Deron Washington is a human highlight reel…just do a search for him on YouTube and enjoy.
Another potential first round upset brewing is VCU over Duke. Everyone in the country is aware of Duke’s recent struggles and, unless they can give a better defensive performance, they WILL be out in the first round of the tournament. VCU is ranked 12th nationally in 3-point percentage but they do lack depth. I don’t think that will be a big factor in this game, though, as Duke never plays more than seven players. Whether Duke lives to the weekend will rest on the shoulders of Greg Paulus. Usually, as he goes, Duke goes. At most, however, it’s a one-win tournament for either team as a stellar Pittsburgh team will await the winner.
REST OF THE WEST
While it could be considered a mild upset, an 8/9 match-up is usually a toss-up. The battle of the Wildcats will be determined by the senior leadership of Villanova. Seniors Curtis Sumpter, Mike Nardi, and Will Sheridan are the backbone of this team. Nardi has recently been suffering through a left ankle injury and his health is key to this game. If he’s healthy and “on,” Villanova’s Wildcats should take care of the Kentucky Wildcats without a problem. Kentucky comes into the tournament having lost 6 of 9 and haven’t defeated a ranked team all year. Villanova finished the season ranked 14th in the RPI index. Kentucky's string of 16 straight opening round victories in the NCAA tournament is in serious jeopardy.
Southern Illinois should have no problem with Holy Cross as long as long it stays a half-court game…and it will. The Salukis are the fourth best defensive team in the country, allowing opponents a paltry 56.2 points per game. And, like many mid-majors, Southern Illinois starts four upperclassmen.
Another heavily experienced squad that will have no problem in the first round is Pittsburgh. Three seniors starts for the Panthers and that, combined with all-Big East center Aaron Gray is enough to get Pittsburgh to the Sweet 16 without a problem.
They had championship weekend to rest and re-focus and they’ll never leave home until they take a charter to the Phoenix city. UCLA is my pick to advance out of the West region and advance to the Final Four.
Sunday, March 11, 2007
When Florida lost three of four games a few weeks ago, many people (including myself) thought this team had peaked early and were in for an early exit in the upcoming NCAA Tournament. But, let’s remember Florida did this last year, too, dropping 3 straight in mid-February before running the table to claim last year’s National Championship.
The big question now is: Can they be the first team since Duke to repeat?
Looking at the Midwest bracket, ANYTHING short of the Final Four would be a HUGE disappointment.
The number two seed in the region is Wisconsin, who will be without the services of Brian Butch due to an elbow injury. Granted, the Badgers still have Alando Tucker, one of the nation’s best players, but without Butch, I don’t see this team making a serious run in the tournament. Ohio State exploited that interior weakness in the Big Ten finals and I expect each team they play to continue that trend. In fact, I believe the winner of the Georgia Tech/UNLV game will have a serious shot at knocking off Wisconsin in the second round.
Two upsets are a possibility as I see it in the Midwest…first let’s take a look at the Winthrop/Notre Dame contest.
Notre Dame comes into the dance winners of six of their last seven contests, the sole defeat by tow-points to Georgetown. The Irish can put up points in bunches like Oregon, shooting almost 40 percent from behind the arc for the season. They are also eighth in the country in scoring at 81.3 points per contest.
Winthrop, earning the automatic bid by winning the Big South Tournament, has never won a NCAA tournament game. But, they’ve never had this much talent. Big men Phillip Williams and Craig Bradshaw provide excellent post-play for the Eagles allowing all-conference guard Michael Jenkins to really bring the heat from the outside (15.4 ppg, 47.3 FG%, 42.6 3-pt.%).
The bottom line is this Winthrop team knows how to win and I believe if they can slow down the Irish from behind the arc, we’ll all be singing the praises of Winthrop by the weekend.Also, watch out for the Davidson Wildcats over the Maryland Terrapins. Maryland has played some outstanding basketball down the stretch, particularly DJ Strawberry and PG Greivis Vasquez. They beat Duke twice and UNC down the stretch but, off their home floor, they really struggle (losing to Miami in the opening round of the ACC tournament).
Davidson really hasn’t beaten anyone to write home about this year but watch the play of guard Stephen Curry in this game. He’s the son of former NBA star Del Curry and, like pops, can turn on the afterburners from 3-point range, averaging 21 points per game and shooting an amazing 45% from the land of the three. Also, Davidson shoots around 75% from the free throw line as a team, which is always important come tourney-time.
The play of DJ Strawberry will be key in this one. If he is on, Maryland should advance. If he struggles, the Wildcats could live to play another day.
THE REST OF THE MIDWEST...
In the other matchups, a dangerous Arizona team takes on Purdue team that brings a 1-2 punch with guard David Teague and Forward Carl Landry. Arizona is not that deep, but the five they start have enough firepower to take down Purdue.Butler and Old Dominion give us a match-up of two mid-major at-large teams. Butler, with junior AJ Graves, will win or lose with their defense, ranked sixth nationally. Old Dominion brings a veteran lineup into the tournament and a deep one, too. Ten players average almost ten minutes a game and they start three seniors and two juniors. Don’t knock experienced “teams” when it comes to March (remember George Mason?).
Georgia Tech comes into the tournament winners of seven of its last nine games. But, like their ACC counterparts Maryland, struggles mightily away from the home cookin’.
UNLV and GT are very similar in athleticism but Georgia Tech shoots the ball a little better overall. UNLV will force some turnovers in this game against a freshmen-laden team. An intriguing match-up here, but I’ll give a slight edge to the Yellow Jackets.
FINAL FOUR BOUND
Overall, I believe that Gators are overwhelming favorites to advance out of the Midwest and make it to Atlanta. If Florida should stumble along the way, I’ll take the Oregon Ducks to advance to the Final Four.