Monday, March 26, 2012

Best Game of the Tournament

Yesterday afternoon/evening we were treated to a game that at least in my opinion stands out as the single best one played in the tournament thus far (although it helps that I enjoyed the result more than if the outcome had been reversed).  Yesterday's tilt between North Carolina and Kansas was a war.  Until the very end, it was close throughout, with neither side holding more than a seven-point lead.  Unlike the Indiana-Kentucky rematch, there were spurts of great offense AND great defense.  And unlike Carolina's recent bout with Ohio, both teams took pretty good care of the ball (18 combined turnovers).

Thursday, March 22, 2012

NCAA Tournament: Sweet 16 & Elite 8

It's time to put your dancing shoes back on, because the tournament kicks off again tonight, after most of the pretenders (and some of the contenders) have been weeded out.  There are four games tonight and four tomorrow night, with two each on Saturday and Sunday.  Today I'll be going over the more exciting matchups and potential matchups of the weekend, and an intriguing story or two. 

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

What a Weekend!

Wow.  After a mundane Thursday in which the only upsets were an 11 (Colorado, who seemed to be effectively playing a home game at The Pit) over a 6 (UNLV) and a 12 (last year's Final Four darling VCU) over a 5 (Wichita State - so much for a possible deep run), Friday rewarded us with one of the craziest days in tournament history, with TWO 2-seeds biting the dust in quick succession (Duke and Missouri) to go along with three other wins by double-digit seeds (12 South Florida, 13 Ohio, and 10 Purdue).  So who really emerged, and who has a chance to capitalize the most on their success going forward?  What remaining team is facing the biggest uphill climb?  And how dumb do some of my predictions look? (The answer: very.)

Monday, March 19, 2012

The Most Difficult Call in Basketball

I will get to a recap of the first weekend in another post, but today I want to comment on the block/charge call, and how its current application hurts the game.  Below are the articles of the NCAA basketball rulebook, in the section about fouls, that deal with charging:

Thursday, March 15, 2012

NCAA Tournament: Midwest Region

And here we are, with the last region of the tournament!  If you want to read about the South, West, or East, feel free to follow the links.

NCAA Tournament: East Region

Well, even if they were essentially play-in games, Tuesday night did not disappoint for excitement, with both Western Kentucky and BYU mounting serious comebacks.  After Tuesday's run-through of the South and West Regions, today we will take a look at the East and Midwest.  The real fun starts this afternoon!

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

NCAA Tournament: West Region

For a look at the South Region, click here.


Best Player: Draymond Green, Michigan State - Green is one of the most versatile players in the entire nation, a nearly automatic double-double (16.5 ppg and 10.5 rpg) who can also run the Spartans' offense (3.5 apg) and shoot from outside (40%).  In addition to filling a stat sheet, the Dancing Bear is a vocal leader who has guided Michigan State particularly well this season after chemistry issues dogged them last year en route to an early exit in the tournament.  Because of the schedule that they play every year, the Spartans are rarely a top seed, and Green is a big part of why they claimed the fourth 1-seed this spring.  His coach says he's the best leader that the school has ever had outside of Magic Johnson and Mateen Cleaves, and Green will be itching to match those two point guards with a championship of his own this year.

Most Important Player: Isaiah Canaan, Murray State - The subtitle should say "besides Draymond Green."  Other than Green, no player in this region may be more important to his team's success than Canaan, the 6'0", 190-pound point guard for the one-loss Racers. Basically, Canaan makes Murray State go.  As good as they've been this year, they can't hope for a run to the second weekend unless he's having big games.  Canaan can score (19.7 ppg), dish (3.7 apg) and shoot (47% from behind the arc), and if Murray State wins its opener against Colorado State, he will have an excellent opportunity to show his talents off against a strong, perimeter-oriented Marquette team.  An extra mention here goes to Canaan's teammate Ed Daniel, who has the best hair in the tournament; he's sporting a Ben Wallace afro that has its own Twitter account (@ed_hair).

Most Interesting Player: Ricardo Ratliffe, Missouri - About the only actual forward who plays any serious minutes for the Tigers, Ratliffe has managed to be extaordinarily productive despite being undersized for a major-conference center (6'8", 240).  Ratliffe scores more than thirteen points a game by cleaning up his teammates' rare misses and never taking a bad shot; he leads the NCAA with an absurd 71% shooting percentage from the floor, a rate that is actually better than what he shoots from the charity stripe (69%).  He's a good-but-not-great rebounder, averaging 7.5 a game.  It will be interesting to see how far he can carry the Tigers, although luck is on their side, as Mizzou could very well get all the way to the Elite 8 without facing a true big man (Patric Young and Ivan Aska are similarly sized, and Jae Crowder is smaller).

Most to Prove to the Scouts: Jae Crowder, Marquette - The question is, can he legitimately play in the NBA?  Crowder won the Big East MVP this season by helping lead the Golden Eagles to a surprise second-place finish in the league, averaging 17.6 points and 7.9 rebounds along the way.  Those are great numbers for the power forward-center, but at 6'6" and 235 pounds, Crowder will have to play on the perimeter at the next level.  To be fair, he is a capable long-range shooter (35%) and has quick hands on defense (2.4 steals), but he is not a super-explosive athlete, and needs to prove he can guard big athletes on the perimeter.  Should Iona win tonight, he'll get a chance Thursday against the Gaels' Mike Glover in what should be an exciting matchup.

Most Exciting Unknown Player: Scott Machado, Iona/Casper Ware, Long Beach State/Will Barton, Memphis - I will spare you additional coverage of Machado and Ware, and just talk about Barton.  Now that John Calipari has upgraded to Kentucky, Memphis doesn't spend as much time on national television, but coach Josh Pastner (a walk-on on Arizona's 1997 title team) has kept the Tigers at the top of Conference USA.  Barton is his best player, a string-bean shooting guard (6'6", 175) who is an excellent scorer (18.1) and, shockingly, also the Tigers' best rebounder (8.1).  Barton may be an iffy shooter from outside (34%), but is very effective from anywhere inside the arc (56%), as well as at the line (75%).  He will have great opportunities to prove his toughness against Rick Majerus' Saint Louis team and possibly Michigan State.

Coach With the Best Chance to Land a Bigger Job: Steve Prohm, Murray State - I am sure that the Murray State athletic director's phone has already been ringing for most of the week, since some schools have already decided to move on (Illinois, Nebraska, Tulsa).  Prohm has been incredibly successful in his first season as a head coach, leading the Racers to a 30-1 overall record that includes two wins over top-20 teams (Memphis and Saint Mary's) spaced two months apart.  Prohm might want to be cautious about accepting a bigger offer, as he is only one year removed from the assistant's chair, and might find the astronomically higher expectations hard to deal with at a higher-profile school.  But Prohm is devoted to coaching (he gave up a basketball playing career at the Division III level as a freshman to be a student assistant coach at Alabama), and the guess here is that he'll be fine wherever he lands.

Second Round Selections
1 Michigan State over 16 Long Island - Tom Izzo, a master of March, certainly isn't going to lose in the first round.

8 Memphis over 9 Saint Louis - Pastner's speedy Tigers, led by Barton, will outrun Rick Majerus' Billikens in a close game.

5 New Mexico over 12 Long Beach State - I wanted to go with the 49ers, but Larry Anderson's knee injury leaves them with a big question mark against Drew Gordon and the Lobos.

13 Davidson over 4 Louisville - The Cardinals have had a lot of trouble scoring points this year, which is hard to believe from a Rick Pitino team.  The Wildcats, on the other hand, can score quickly.

6 Murray State over 11 Colorado State - This will effectively be a home game for the Racers in Louisville, and their disciplined defense and excellent transition offense will overwhelm the Rams.

3 Marquette over 14 Iona - This will be a very close game, but Iona, even with Optimus Prime, doesn't have the overwhelming size that is generally necessary to beat the Golden Eagles.

7 Florida over 10 Virginia - This is an "offense vs. defense" matchup, but the Gators will knock down their threes and take advantage of Virginia's shallow bench.

2 Missouri over 15 Norfolk State - The Tigers' offensive machine keeps on rolling in their first tournament game.

Third Round Selections
1 Michigan State over 8 Memphis - The skinny Tigers will find rebounds extremely hard to come by against Green and the Spartans.

5 New Mexico over 13 Davidson - The Lobos will force the Wildcats to try and beat them from deep, where they are not as good as you would expect from a Bob McKillop team.

3 Marquette over 6 Murray State - DJO and Crowder can match up very well with Canaan and Ivan Aska, the Racers' primary offensive threats from inside and out.

2 Missouri over 7 Florida - The Gators are essentially a poor man's version of Mizzou, who will outshoot Florida on their way to the second weekend.

Sweet 16 Selections
1 Michigan State over 5 New Mexico - While the individual matchup between Green and Gordon should be fantastic, Green's leadership will provide the difference here.

2 Missouri over 3 Marquette - The Tigers roll on against another team that can't quite overwhelm their shooters or shut down Ratliffe inside.

Elite 8 Selection
2 Missouri over 1 Michigan State - Nobody is better at cleaning up the defensive glass than the Spartans, but the Tigers make more than enough shots to negate that advantage, and here the loss of Branden Dawson finally hurts Michigan State when they need to run with Mizzou.

NCAA Tournament: South Region

Yesterday I covered some exciting players and matchups, along with previewing the first four games that are taking place tomorrow and Wednesday.  Today we'll take a tour of the two regions on the left side of the bracket, the West and South.  There will be an additional post today about more new players and coaches to watch, and then tomorrow a look at the East and Midwest regions.  And so, without further ado...

Monday, March 12, 2012

NCAA Tournament: The First Four Games

Allow me to begin by saying that I really dislike the new format that we are now subjected to, with eight teams playing in what the NCAA officially calls the "First Round" but what are really play-in games.  I suppose that there's a little less stigma than formerly, when the two lowest-rated 16-seeds had to meet Tuesday in Dayton for the right to get creamed two or three days later by Duke or Kansas or UCLA or Kentucky or whoever.  There was no reason to watch, because there was no way that the game was going to affect anyone's bracket.

Now, of course, there are Tuesday games that DO affect everyone's bracket, something that Virginia Commonwealth proved emphatically last year.  I do believe that as long as the NCAA was going to expand this way, better to throw the worst at-large teams into this field than to force all eight candidates for the four 16-seeds to play.  Those teams are just happy to be there, and at the end of the day don't really mind getting hosed by a top seed, because it's exciting just to play in the tournament.  So how will this year's games go? Let's start with the 16/16 games:

16 Lamar vs. 16 Vermont - Perhaps the most entertaining part about watching this game will be Lamar coach Pat Knight, who rather famously called out his six-strong senior class less than a month ago at a post-game press conference (where did he learn that trick from, I wonder?).  For all the hype about that particular stunt, it worked; the Cardinals have won ever since, including the Southland Conference tournament.  Lamar relies on its guards (Mike James and Anthony Miles) but is not a terribly good three-point shooting team (Bobby Knight never learned to embrace the three; maybe that's another trait he passed on to his son).  They also feature Devon Lamb, who is essentially a 6'2" power forward who scores off of offensive rebounds.  Meanwhile, the Catamounts, who may seem familiar to some readers because of a certain shot by former guard T. J. Sorrentine, are a low-scoring group whose best offensive weapon, Patrick "Four" McGlynn (he goes by the IV that follows his name), comes off the bench.  Brian Voelkel is a point forward of sorts for them, averaging over five assists (and close to nine rebounds) a game while not scoring much on his own.  The call here is that Knight's unconventional motivation continues to work its magic, and the Cardinals earn themselves a date with North Carolina on Friday.

16 Mississippi Valley State vs. 16 Western Kentucky - The most exciting part of this matchup might just be the mascots; Mississippi Valley State boasts one of the best nicknames in college sports (the Delta Devils), while Western Kentucky's Big Red is maybe the most hilarious mascot costume in the country.  The Delta Devils are coached by Sean Woods, who was one of Kentucky's "Unforgettables" when they played in the greatest college basketball game of all time (apologies to all Wildcat fans out there).  They take a lot of perimeter shots, but their frequent use of a 2-3 zone actually allows their opponents to make a higher percentage (39% vs. 33%).  Well-traveled guard Terrence Joyner and forward Paul Murphy both average over thirteen points a game to lead the SWAC champions.  Western Kentucky, on the other hand, won the Sun Belt conference tournament despite a losing record (15-18).  The Hilltoppers are not your average 16-seed. They have an 18-22 record in the tournament and made the Final Four in 1971.  More recently, they were on the winning end of one of the most entertaining 12-5 upsets in the tournament, back in 2008.  This year's team has really turned a corner since head coach Ken McDonald was fired just over two months ago and replaced with Ray Harper, who has two won two national titles in Division II and two more in NAIA.  Then 5-11, the Hilltoppers responded to the change with a 10-4 run.  There is talent on the roster, and young talent at that.  Three freshmen (leading scorers Derrick Gordon and George Fant, plusT. J. Price) start, and two more come off the bench.  They have height in Sudanese center Teeng Akol, a transfer from Oklahoma State, an excellent complement to the bruising Fant around the basket.  Big Red should be dancing in celebration tomorrow, even if the win means that they get to play some other team from the state of Kentucky on Thursday.

14 BYU vs. 14 Iona - These two programs may look a little out of place with a "14" next to their names, but you can thank BYU's no-Sunday games rule for that, as the committee apparently didn't have anywhere else to slot them.  Much of Jimmer's supporting cast is back, including big man Brandon Davies, whom you may remember as the guy that cost the Cougars a potential Final Four run with some premarital nookie.  Davies (6'9", 245) is an athletic big man who averages 15 and 7.  Fellow forward Noah Hartsock has seen his outside shooting dip without Jimmer, but still led BYU with over 16 points a game.  The third key member of the team is point guard (and UCLA transfer) Matt Carlino, and Charles Abuou does plenty of dirty work and provides additional scoring.  The Cougars are a running team, which will happily suit the Gaels of Iona as well.  You may want to catch this one, as it is not improbable for both teams to score more than 80 or even 90 points.  Point guard Scott Machado leads the nation in assists with just a hair under ten a game, and is also a threat to score (13.6 ppg).  But he is not the only pro prospect that the MAAC regular-season champs have in their holster.  Tournament fans may remember guard Lamont "MoMo" Jones from last year, when he was an Arizona Wildcat shredding Duke's defense throughout the second half.  Additionally, the Gaels have 6'7", 215-pound forward Mike Glover (spectacularly nicknamed "Optimus Prime"), who averages 18 and 9 while shooting close to 65% from the floor.  Iona likes to press, and so this game could turn into a track meet.  In the end, though, I think that the Gaels will advance to face Marquette on Thursday, especially considering Hartsock's current knee issues that will slow him down.

12 Cal vs. 12 South Florida - Ugh.  South Florida is one of the slowest teams in the tournament, averaging a mere 59 points a game and lacking a double-figure scorer (although seven players average more than 6.5).  They will walk the ball up and chew clock, and they will bore you to tears.  Coach Stan Heath is a Tom Izzo protege who took Antonio Gates and Kent State to the 2002 Elite 8, eventually landing at USF after failing to return Arkansas to national prominence.  About the only excitement they will generate is if forward Victor Rudd Jr. gets out on the break.  The Golden Bears are the only at-large team from this year's sad-sack Pac-12 (seriously, Colorado won this league's tournament?), and also have good March coaching experience on their bench, in the form of Mike Montgomery.  Cal features Pac-12 Defensive MVP Jorge Gutierrez and three other starters who average double figures in scoring (guard Justin Cobbs and forwards Allen Crabbe and Harper Kamp).  They do score a tick over 70 points per game, but without much in the way of perimeter shooters or guys who can create for themselves, they are vulnerable to tough defense.  But the turnover-prone Bulls are also an easy target for a strong defense, and I like the Golden Bears to prevail and meet Temple on Friday. For your own sanity, don't watch.

Tomorrow will bring a run-through of the South and West regions, and Wednesday the East and Midwest. Stay tuned!

NCAA Tournament: Scanning the Bracket

Alright! Selection Sunday has come and gone, and now we know who can celebrate a little (North Carolina State, Cal, Iona), and who is left shaking their head and wondering what could have been (Miami, Drexel, and for about the fifth year in a row, Northwestern).  Today, in addition to previewing and picking the four glorified play-in games of the "First Round" (in a separate post), I will look at some individual players, potentially interesting matchups, and this year's snubs.

Friday, March 9, 2012

NCAA Tournament - Assorted Thoughts

Since I have now run through four separate groups of teams and my opinions on their chances in the NCAA tournament,  I thought I might spend some time today talking about conference tournaments, possible changes to the Big Dance, etc.  The college athletics landscape is undergoing a major shake-up right now, probably its biggest ever, and it will be interesting to see how that affects the way the tournament is run and played. Let's start with possible expansion.

Tournament expansion - The tournament expanded last year from 65 to 68 teams, and of course the proponents of expansion felt validated when Virginia Commonwealth (one of the last four at-large teams to make the bracket) rolled from the suddenly glorified play-in round all the way to the Final Four, where they finally lost to fellow mid-major darling Butler.  But does that really validate expansion?  VCU got that far because last year's overall talent pool was pretty weak (although they did beat a Kansas team with at least three future first-round draft picks), and last year's Final Four wound up being eminently forgettable.  The original plan was to expand the bracket to include 96 teams, a plan favored by TV execs (more ad revenue), the NCAA (more money from an event that essentially makes up their entire revenue), and the coaches (more opportunities to make the tournament and boost their resumes.  But this would have been too much to stomach at once, and so they sought to remove the stigma of the play-in game by creating three more.  What they should have done, of course, is get rid of the play-in game (created when the unwieldy 16-team Western Athletic Conference split in two in 1999 and the bigwigs did not want to decrease the at-large pool) entirely.  If the objective is to crown a champion and make sure it's one of the best possible teams, enlarging the bracket only creates more opportunities for the best teams to lose, while watering down the quality of the teams participating.  For example, in a 96-team tournament there would be SIXTY-FIVE at-large bids.  Just using the current Ratings Percentage Index as a baseline, that would mean that a team like 97th-ranked Georgia would probably merit inclusion (since several of the automatic bids would be ranked below the top 96 of the RPI), never mind that the Bulldogs are 15-16 overall this year and finished second from the bottom of a weak SEC with a 5-11 record.  Clearly, Georgia does not deserve to play for a national championship; their overall body of work screams that in pretty much every way.  Yet an expanded tournament would conceivably include them.  Please, NCAA, let's not reward mediocrity.

Format changes - Another idea getting tossed around the NCAA offices is that of eliminating the automatic bids, and simply having a committee decide which 68 (or 96, or whatever) teams to include.  There might be some more pushback on this because it would eliminate conference tournaments and the revenue that they generate (more on this in a bit), but it is still a viable option.  In my mind, it would turn what is currently the best event in the American sports landscape and turn it essentially into a bigger version of the BCS.  The small-conference teams would never have their moment in the sun, hurting recruiting and squeezing the number of viable teams for a tournament (since high-major teams don't like to schedule lower-profile schools unless they either have nationally recognized cachet - such as Gonzaga, Davidson, or Butler - or they're an almost automatic win).  That would get rid of a lot of the drama of Cinderella teams knocking off big-name schools, and thus a lot of casual interest in the tournament that helps drive ratings; I mean, would you get more excited about middling ACC team Miami (19-11, 54th in the RPI) advancing to the Sweet 16 with an upset over, say, Georgetown, or NEC champion Long Island University (25-8, 80th) pulling the same trick?  Almost all casual viewers would be more interested in LIU rather than Miami; it is the known versus the unknown, and even if both upsets could be considered equal in terms of relative team ability, Miami's wouldn't FEEL like an upset.  And so Long Island, a good team but not one that any self-respecting big-six program would dare to schedule (their only such game came at Big Ten bottom-feeder Penn State in November), would be denied any chance of glory against the big boys.  Without that carrot of potentially playing in the Big Dance, many of the recruits who drive LIU's success would likely opt to play somewhere where they could win something more meaningful than a league perpetually stuck in no-man's land and only offered up as fodder for more glamorous programs to feast on in November and December.  Even if the interest mostly fades after the fact, we like it when the Long Islands and Lehighs and Weber States of the world slay the bigger giants occasionally, and substituting Miami or Illinois or Oregon for those schools would eliminate much of the drama that makes the tournament's first weekend the best and most chaotic four days in sports.

Conference tournaments - Let me state that I absolutely love the conference tournaments and the entirety of Championship Week.  Sometimes it leads to a struggling team catching fire and winning four games in four days, as this year's Sun Belt champion (15-18 Western Kentucky) did.  Sometimes it leads to a good team persevering in overtime to make their first ever NCAA tournament (27-7 South Dakota State of the Summit League).  And occasionally, it leads to memorable games between great rivals in major conferences that keep you spellbound in front of your television (of course, with Syracuse moving to the ACC, the games of this particular rivalry will soon be no more).  Conference tournaments give the lesser teams in the league something to shoot for beyond playing out the string, and as Connecticut showed last year, can serve as a springboard to bigger things.  Tournaments are one last chance for teams on the NCAA bubble to make it or break it (unfortunately, Northwestern probably fumbled away their chances at their first-ever bid yesterday with a loss to Minnesota).  They mean three to five days of fans from every school in the league converging on one town and creating a fantastic atmosphere (since, for two thirds of the Division I conferences, it's the only chance they'll have at making the Big Dance).  Without conference tournaments, we would have a lot less entertainment in the two weekends leading up to the revealing of the bracket, and thirty towns that host those tournaments (the Ivy League being the only one without) would go without all of the tourism revenue that they currently rake in from those long weekends.  They're a part of March Madness, and hopefully they will remain so.

That's all for today, and with a triathlon and a volleyball tournament this weekend, the next update here will come after the bracket is revealed.  Coming Monday; a look at various teams, players, and coaches you should be excited to watch starting Thursday (well, Tuesday).  And of course, there will be predictions. Stay tuned!

Thursday, March 8, 2012

NCAA Tournament Preview: Visions of "One Shining Moment"

So if the previous three days' posts have highlighted pretenders of various caliber (from the mid-majors to the high-majors to the more serious threats), today's post will actually look at the six teams that I believe have the best chance of cutting down the nets in New Orleans (in a vacuum).  They are ranked in ascending order (least to most likely), just as the other groups of teams more or less have been.  If you think I'm crazy (or maybe even if you think I'm particularly brilliant), feel free to comment with your own thoughts. Here we go...

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

NCAA Tournament Preview: Final Four Dreams

If you haven't read the first two posts about the upcoming Big Dance, feel free to click here and here.  Today's post will focus on teams that likely think they have a strong chance to make the Final Four, but certainly are not championship-worthy outfits.  Tomorrow we will take a look at the teams with perhaps more legitimate championship aspirations. Here goes: 

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

NCAA Tournament Preview: Big-Six Lurkers

Welcome back to the NCAA Tournament preview! Today I'll take a look around at some of the power conference teams that just might have a shot at making it to New Orleans, if they catch a few breaks along the way.*  Later in the week I will look at teams that are stronger potential Final Four candidates, and then the teams with legitimate championship aspirations.  Let's get right into it.

*Pac-12 teams need not apply.

Monday, March 5, 2012

NCAA Tournament Preview: Mid-Major Lurkers

To me, the NCAA men's basketball tournament is the greatest three weeks in sports.  I think there is something inherently perfect about 64 (fine, 68) teams being thrown into one big single-elimination, winner-takes-all championship bracket.  Is it the best basketball in the world?  No, certainly not.*  But it is usually the most entertaining basketball that exists, because of the big stage, the fact that one bad game really is the end of the world (er, season), and the drama that happens every year with the unknowns springing surprises throughout the tournament.  Just two years ago, Butler was three inches away from what would have been perhaps the most incredible David-beats-Goliath story in sports history.