Thursday, March 23, 2006

The Wrist or the Headlines?

Something is messing with Dwayne Wade's game, the question is whether it is his tender wrist or the sudden MVP hype that he has been receiving over the last week. For the past two months, D-Wade has been destroying people while leading Miami on a torrid run. Then, suddenly, he was being discussed as a leading MVP candidate for the first time all season. He also crashed hard to the floor and seemed to re-injure his sore wrist. In the four games after those two things happened, he has struggled mightily. His scoring is down almost 5 points per game, his boards are down 2, his turnovers are at an all-time high (4.8 per), and his normally terrific shooting (.504 for the season) has been abysmal (.375). Plus, the Heat are 2-2 over that span with a win over New York and a one-point victory over the Bulls. What is going on? It is clear that Wade is either hurt, or is not responding well to all the MVP talk. I would guess the former, because he seems too down to earth to let hype go to his head, but either way, if he can't shake off this recent slump, the MVP chatter will be gone just as quickly as it came.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

All-Tournament Team (First Two Rounds)

PG - Marcus Williams, UConn. You don't normally see guys from top-seeded teams truly shine in the first rounds, but UConn was in a couple of dog fights (pun totally intended), and if it weren't for Williams, they might be the answer to a pretty rough trivia question. As it stands, Williams averaged 20.5 points, 8 assists, almost 4 boards, a block, and a steal per game, while dropping 5 threes, shooting 62% from the floor, and hitting 10-of-11 free throws.

SG - Brandon Roy, University of Washington. Not only did Roy carry UW back to the Sweet 16, not only is he going to be the best NBA shooting guard to come out of college since Dwayne Wade, Roy also averaged 24.5 points, 5 boards, 4 assists, 2 steals, and a block, while shooting 53% from the floor and 81% from the line. (Apologies to Allan Ray, who bounced back from a gruesome eye injury to score 44 points and hit nine threes in the first two games.)

SF - Joakim Noah, Florida. I know that he doesn't play small forward (an equally deserving Corey Brewer mans this post), but his play on the wing was incredible against UW-Milwaukee. Besides, I needed to get Craig Smith on this team as well. As for Noah, he has been everything I hoped for and more. He has the second highest assist total in the entire Minneapolis regional (13, one behind Mustafa Shakur) and is creating matchup nightmares for Gator opponents. Not only that, but he is a stat sheet stuffer extraordinaire. He's shooting 58% from the floor and 78% from the line (despite shooting from the wrong side of his head) while averaging 16.5 points, 7.5 rebounds, 6.5 assists, 4.5 blocks, and 2.5 steals. Those are Andrei Kirilenko numbers.

PF - Craig Smith, Boston College. He's going for 23.5 and 14.5 a game despite wearing two defenders as a second uniform. Not only that, but he made the two biggest free throws of the tournament to get BC by Pacific.

C - Sheldon Williams, Duke. I like Roy Hibbert (who my dad compared to a 6'5" third grader) and Bradley's Patrick O'Bryant as much as the next guy, but Williams' numbers speak for themselves. 25 points, 16 boards, and 5.5 blocks a game on 59% shooting from the field and 82% from the line. Wow. So what if he fouls on every play?

Top Seeds Look to Make This the Craziest March Yet

By all accounts, this has been a fantastic NCAA Tournament. After two rounds we have the Missouri Valley Conference staking its claim as a national power, the Pac-10 salvaging an off year, and two double-digit seeds reaching the Sweet 16. It all fits with the concept that this is the most "wide open field yet."

In fact, the prevailing feeling about this year's field is that anything can happen. You hear coaches talking about parity and experts saying that anyone can win it and after a while, you become convinced that this is the year that a team will come out of nowhere to cut down the nets. While this could certainly happen, the truth is that the giants are still lurking. UConn, the heavy favorite, has played poorly but remains in the field. Duke seems to be growing stronger every game. Memphis is wowing with its athleticism and depth, quickly turning into the kind of bully that UNLV was in the early 1990's (meaning: coming out of a middling conference, flying under the radar, and then blowing people away). Texas is still around. So is UCLA. The truth is that the Final Four will probably feature three of those five teams, in addition to the survivor of the Nova-BC-Florida-Georgetown bloodbath in the Minneapolis region.

The fact that some sense of order will probably be restored this coming weekend got me thinking about the possibility of all number one seeds reaching the Final Four. Wouldn't that be the ultimate irony? 2006 seems to be the pinnacle of parity in college hoops, and this tournament is being hailed as the most wide open ever. So wouldn't it be the craziest development yet if, after all of the upsets and buzzer beaters, this thing went chalk into the Indy?

For more, click on the link.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Major Statement by MVC

Unless you have been trapped under a rock for the past 48 hours or just don't like sports, you probably know that the Missouri Valley Conference has validated the selection of four of its teams for berths in the NCAA Tournament. You know that despite having only one higher seed, the MVC placed two teams in the Sweet 16, went 4-2 over the first two rounds of the tournament, and made CBS' bullying, badgering lead analyst Billy Packer eat his words.

Click on "Major Statement by MVC" link on the right side of the page for the rest of the article. You can also access this piece by viewing it on Blog Critic.

Officials: Please Take Charge

The offensive foul calls in the NCAA Tournament have reached a ridiculous level. Any contact is now a charge. Players are flopping, arriving late, sliding under airborne players, turning sideways ... all offensive fouls. I am still for whistling a guy when he goes out of control or runs over a stationary player or even tries to get away with a push-off. But this is ridiculous. Not only is it very damaging to the style and flow of the game (seriously, just watch how many charge calls there are), it has also made games a three-point shooting contest, because the incentive to drive has been all but eliminated. Threes are already worth more and are ridiculously easy to shoot (move the line back!), so why risk a turnover by going in the lane, where any contact is going to go for an offensive foul? Not to mention the fact that the refs/rules are creating an incentive for players to slide under guys when they have already left the ground (see: the horrendous charging call on Corey Brewer of Florida yesterday, which resulted in a turnover and a concussion for the Gators swingman), which is going to get some people very badly injured. This is out of hand and somebody needs to step in and right the ship before it ruins the game, or worse, ends someone's career.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Day Two Recap

Yesterday's gimmick seemed to work pretty well, so we'll do that again. Here are the 16 games, ranked in order of MY preference, with an accompanying sentence of insight (I use that word loosely).

1. Northwestern State with the win of the opening round, coming back from a 17-point deficit with 8:30 to go and winning on a fadeway heave from three as time expired.

2. North Carolina should thank their lucky stars for two things: A) The fact that they have Tyler Hansbrough (24 points, 9 boards), who carried them to victory, and B) The fact that Murray State lost its leading scorer eight minutes into the game, because without those two facts, it is the Racers moving on.

3. I've become a Bradley believer as the tenacious Braves outlast a very good Kansas team in a game that became a contest of which team could just avoid turning it over and at least take a field goal attemept.

4. UConn nearly suffered the worst defeat in the history of college basketball, but in the end, they managed to turn that into a positive, as there is no zero chance that they will be caught flat-footed in round two on Sunday.

5. Ohio State dodges a huge upset as Davidson did everything but get a good game from its leading scorer, Brendan Winters (5-16 from the field) in a 70-62 loss.

6. Ronnie Brewer's stat line was okay (14-5-5 with 2 steals), but he did not do enough to prevent Bucknell from riding incredible three-point shooting (11-21) to their second straight opening round win.

7. Georgetown advances by beating Northern Iowa, but more importantly, produced one of the best gambling moments of the tournament when Ashanti Cook threw down an unnecessary dunk with 2 seconds left to cover the spread.

8. Memphis shoots 62% and knocks down 11 threes on their way to 94 points in an impressive offensive display against an underrated Oral Roberts team.

9. Arizona pulls off one of the biggest shockers of the tournament so far in that they hung 94 points (on 59% shooting) against the supposedly tough Wisconsin defense.

10. Penn gets the "good try" award for making Texas play their style of game and staying within striking distance throughout, but in the end, LaMarcus Aldridge made a big statement by scoring 19 points and carrying the Longhorns to victory.

11. The George Mason win over Michigan State was a pretty good game, but it was too depressing for me personally to put any higher than this (RIP former Director of CTU George Mason).

12. West Virginia makes a big statement by running their offense with ease (11 threes) against a very tough Salukis defense.

13. A rough game between NC State and Cal was decided by which team finally made a big shot, something Cameron Bennerman did twice in the final minute for a 58-52 win.

14. Pittsburgh joins Arizona as a "statement team" from Friday: the Panthers shot a school-record 67% from the field and saw big man Aaron Gray go 6-for-6 from the field on his way to 17 points, 13 boards, 4 blocks, and a probable first round selection in the NBA Draft.

15. Kentucky is going to need to play a lot better than they did in a 69-64 win over UAB to have any chance against a UConn that now looks destined to go on a torrid run through the Washington bracket.

16. Villanova wins an ugly - no, hideous - game against 16th-seeded Monmouth, but can take heart in the fantastic shooting of Allan Ray, who seems to have recovered fully from having his eye nearly removed from its socket.

Bracket Challenge Update

Over at Whatif, we are running "The Great Tournament Challenge," a showdown between WIS legend Elliot Schwartz and me that uses an intricate scoring system and features copious amounts of meat for the winner.

After Round One, E has a rather large lead over yours truly, totalling 103 points to my 80. Elliot correctly picked 23 of 32 first round games and went 3-for-4 on the crucial 8/9 matchup, outscoring me 25-8 on that particular game alone. I only got 20 of 32 (my worst first round in recent memory) and went 1-for-4 on the critical 8/9 part of the bracket.

Not only that, but he also has a slight edge going forward. E has 14 of his 16 "Sweet Sixteen" teams left in the running, having lost only Iowa and Seton Hall (yikes) up to this point. I have already lost Kansas, Marquette, and Michigan State, leaving me with 13 teams elgible to advance beyond round two. Beyond that, we both lost one Elite Eight squad, as E's Iowa team suffered that crazy defeat to Northwestern State while my MSU Spartans crapped the bed against George Mason. I can't figure out how a team that went to the Final Four failed to defeat one man. Granted, this is the guy that saved LA when he flew the bomb into the Mojave during season two of "24," but still. Safe to say that the Big 10 gets the Big Loser award for Friday.

Day One Recap

With a glorious Thursday in the books it is time to take a quick look at the day's action. Feel free to drop any thoughts about the tourney, your own brackets, Billy Packer rants, or anything else you feel like mentioning.

I'm ranking the contests in order of how fun they were to watch and how good of a game it was, and offering one sentence on each game. Speed round!

1. Boston College got screwed by the tournament with a four seed, a 10 a.m. start time, and a trip to Salt Lake City, but they overcame all that and a tough Pacific team as they rode some clutch free throws by Craig Smith and a huge three from Jared Dudley to the type of victory that so often seems to be the precurser to a Final Four run.

2. The sensational play of Indiana point guard Earl Calloway (8-9 from the field, 18 points, 4 boards, 3 assists, and 6 steals) led a remarkable comeback by the Hoosiers, who managed to beat a San Diego State team that thoroughly outplayed them all night.

3. Nobody was happier than me to see GW get a victory despite having to play a valiant UNC-W team in what amounted to a road game, albeit a thrilling one.

4. Marquette looked like a team poised for a big tournament run, but despite a great performance from frosh point guard Dominic James, they are one-and-done thanks to downright absurd shooting from the Crimson Tide of Alabama, who were led by Jean Felix with an incredible 8 threes.

5. Oklahoma sucks (aplogies to Terrell Everett), so it was good to see the gritty UW-M Panthers do their thing behind Joah Tucker (24 points) and Boo Davis (26 and 6 with 3 steals) to the tune of an 82-74 "upset" victory that was anything but.

6. The crazy Chris Lofton turnaround J (ala MJ in the 2003 NBA All-Star Game) spares Tennessee from going down as the worst 2 seed of all time, as they barely beat a Winthrop team that shot 39% from the floor and 59% from the line.

7. LSU could be a force in this tournament as they played terrible basketball and still dominated a tough Iona team behind 22, 13 and 6 blocks from "Big Baby" Davis.

8. There must be some kind of power in the name Laws as Texas A&M's Acie Laws drew upon the power of past namesakes (I'm referring to little known Andre Laws of San Diego, who had some of the biggest shots I've ever seen during the 2003 West Coast Conference Tournament - an abscure reference, I know, but there is a great story attached to it) to post 23 points, 7 boards, and 5 dimes in leading the Aggies to the "uspet" over a tired and ragged Syracuse team.

9. Gonzaga should have lost once again but not for an extremely gutsy and weird (slamming the ball against his forehead over and over) performance by Adam Morrison, who dropped 35 while leading the Zags to a come-from-behind over an Xavier team that honestly felt like the better sqaud in this one.

10. I feel VERY good about calling Brandon Roy this year's Dwayne Wade as he sliced up the supposedly dangerous Aggies of Utah State by going 11-for-19 from the field on his way to 28 points with 5 dimes and 3 steals.

11. I also feel VERY good about calling Joakim Noah the next Antonio McDyess as he went out and blew minds by nearing a triple double (would have had it in a closer game) with 16 points, 8 boards, 7 assists, 5 blocks, and 3 steals ... get him on my fantasy team!

12. I think it is safe to say that Nevada needed more balance (not to mention defense) when you consider that they got 34 points from Marcelus Kemp (on 14-20 shooting) and another 24 from Nick Fazekas yet still got throttled by a Montana team that hung 87 points on 58% shooting.

13. Wichita State was so much better than Seton Hall that it almost became comical, and ultimately, led to only one thought ... suck it, Billy Packer!

14. The Illinois-Air Force game was so excruciating to watch (and I was stuck with it since I like in Chicago right now and my building can't support the Comcast On Demand tourney package - a rant for another day) that I watched NBA basketball and The OC instead (during March Madness!).

15. Duke won as expected but looked pretty brutal.

16. UCLA killed Belmont in the game that won the elusive "most boring game of the day" title.

There you have it. Let's all get a good night sleep and be back for another strong day tomorrow.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

On the Eve of the Tourney

I feel like a little kid getting ready for Christmas morning. There is nothing like the first day of the NCAA Tournament. Nothing. In honor of this exciting time, I am handing out some special awards. These are for individual players to watch out for over the next few days:

The "Julius Hodge" Award - Ronnie Brewer, Arkansas. The Hodge Award goes to the veteran player on a mediocre team that is most likely to dominate an early round game despite having no jump shot whatsoever. Hodge carried NC State to the Elite Eight last year and willed his team to a win over UConn while leaving his mark on the tournament. I don't see Arkansas going that far, but I think they will beat Bucknell and give Memphis a great run behind Brewer.

The "Chris Thomas" Award - Dominic James, Marquette. A few years back, Notre Dame's Chris Thomas came out of nowhere as a freshman to set the tournament field on fire. Last year, Daniel Gibson of Texas and Kyle Lowrey of 'Nova did the same thing, but Lowrey got the hardware since his team went further. As you might guess, this award goes to the frosh point guard that lights up the field. This year I've got Dominic James of Marquette. The Golden Eagles are poised to make a surprise run in this tournament, and if they do, it will be behind this explosive guard.

The "Antonio McDyess" Award - Joakim Noah, Florida. This goes to the underclassman forward that goes from "potential lottery pick" to "top five pick" in a week. McDyess took the tournament by storm back in his day and I expect Noah to have a similar ascension this time around.

The "Mateen Cleaves" Award - Darius Washington, Memphis. This goes to the point guard most likely to channel emotion into leading his talented team on a deep run. Give me the guy that is still fueled by the memory of two missed free throws in the C-USA title game a year ago. Plus, Washington has the skill to back up the fire.

The "Dwayne Wade" Award - Brandon Roy, Washington. To the player most likely to throw up a triple-double while leading his team to an upset win. If the Huskies can get past Utah State, I could see Roy pulling a D-Wade and hanging some huge numbers on Illinois in the second round. (By the way, I've also got Roy as the guy that everyone wishes they had drafted in the 2006 NBA Draft, ala Wade.)

Feel free to post your own awards and get ready for some madness.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Artest Puts the Smack Down

In the days leading up to a suddenly important Kings-Lakers showdown, Ron Artest stated that he was going to "shut Kobe down." It got some play on PTI and seemed to spark some renewed interest into what was the league's best rivarly a few years ago. Until Artest made that statement, this was just a battle for the seventh seed in the Western Conference playoffs. Big deal. Now though, it is the start of a fued between arguably the best offensive and defensive players in the league. Now that is worth talking about.

Not only that, but the first round results are in. The Kings won 114-98 and continued to sky rocket up the Western Conference standings. As predicted weeks ago on this very blog, Sacramento is emerging as the "hot second half team" of 2006 and appears likely to grab the coveted sixth seed out West. They are 15-8 since Artest arrived and 9-2 over their last 11 since Brad Miller got back into the linuep. Not to toot my own horn on this one, but "beep, beep." (I guess I'm obligated to also mention that this very blog also correctly predicted that Edge would sign with Arizona, also in a post make several weeks ago. Hey, I'm just reporting the facts.)

So advantage Kings in this matchup, but the question remains: did Artest "shut Kobe down"? Considering that Bryant went for 30, 7, and 7, it is hard to call that shutting someone down. But when you consider that Artest scored 28 points of his own on almost half the field goal attempts (Kobe was 12-for-28, Artest 8-for-15), there is no doubt that Round One goes to Artest. Lets hope this is the first of many great battles.

Monday, March 13, 2006

We Interrupt This Program ...

Allow me to interject a post about 24 into the sports talk. I know it doesn't fit on this blog, but I had to post it somewhere. It felt irresponsible to write an entire column about it and I'm not reducing myself to going on some message board somewhere. So here it is: the writers of 24 are playing with fire. Here they have a fabulous show that hooks everyone who gives it a try. They have the greatest American action hero since John McLain in the form of Jack Bauer, CTU agent extraordinaire. They have the real time format, the 35 million viewers for the Season Five two-hour premier, all the momentum in the world. So what are they thinking killing off all the good characters? First, they gun down Palmer and blow up Michelle Dessler. Then they kill of Edgar. Now, Tony Almeida, who is and always has been the second most recognizable and iconic character on the show. What in the world? It is one thing to be an edgy show that keeps people guessing, but it is another thing to turn a show that balanced intricate, complex relationships and characters with relentless action into a formulaic death-fest that more closely resembles a "vote them off the island" reality show like "Survivor" than a real show. I know people die in real life, but this is just ridiculous. I will keep watching "24," but I wouldn't be surprised if thousands, maybe millions, of fans throw up their hands and say, "I've had it." I think the writers and producers are making a big, big mistake. Alright, rant is over.

A New Form of March Madness?

Every year the brackets are announced for the NCAA Tournament, and every year the selections are met with criticism, second guessing, insults, and jabs. This year though, things are going to the crazy next level. Billy Packer and Jim Nantz openly ripped committee chairman Craig Littlefield by throwing around ridiculous statements. Packer (quite possibly the most negative human being on the face of the earth) went so far as to say that he hadn't seen anyone from the Missouri Valley Conference play that year, but that he knew they were inferior to teams from the ACC. He also used horribly flawed logic like, "By putting four MVC teams and four ACC teams in the field, the committee is saying that the two leagues are equal." Um ... no. Considering the MVC got seeds of 7, 11, 12, and 13, and the ACC got seeds of 1, 3, 4, and 7, it is safe to say that no, the committee did not say the two leagues were equal. In fact, for all the "mid major loving" that the committee is being accused of, they really didn't do mid major teams any favors. They might have put them in the tourney, but they put them in positions to fail. Now it is: pull upsets or be accused of blowing your chance. Nice.

The fact is, the committee really did do a poor job with this field. The inclusion of Air Force was a joke. Leaving of Missouri State is inexcusable. And the seedings, my word, the seedings. Cal goes from the bubble to 7. Indiana somehow gets a 6. Tennessee loses four of six and lands a 2 seed. Gonzaga goes 27-3 and falls behind said Tennessee team for a 3. Southern Illinois gets shafted with an 11 seed, which in turn screws over West Virginia, who shouldn't have to play a team that good in the first round. Pacific got a 13 seed despite being arguably the fourth best team in the West (behind UCLA, Gonzaga, and UW), while Montana got a 12. How is that in the realm of possibility? Anyway, this is the place to break it all down. How did the committee do? Who is the bigger villain now, the committee or the CBS jackals who attacked them on the air? Hurry and get your thoughts in, because in three days, no one will care anymore. Once the ball goes up on Thursday morning, thoughts of omissions and seedings and Littlefield-Packer duels will be nothing but a forgotten subplot.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

World Baseball Classic

Don't look now, but the WBC is awesome. The crowds are bringing the energy, the players are loving it, the quality of the games has been good ... what's not to love? I think a lot of people had their doubts about how effective this tournament would be, but most of those doubts were wiped away with one swing of the bat when David Ortiz hit his first home run yesterday and sent the small crowd into hysterics. With numerous teams able to win it all and each of them carrying a strong fan base regardless of location, the games are poised to get even better as we move along. Consider this the place to post any thoughts on the games, ranging from the Dominican's big bats, the effect of the low pitch count rules, the fact that every Cuban pitcher is built like a pear, and the improbability of Brian Schneider being Team USA's starting catcher in game one.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Alternatives to "The Duke Plan"

The newest column should be going up any minute over at WhatifSports and I'm already anticipating the anti-Duke feedback. In the column, I brought back an old idea to field an all Duke Olympic team. Be sure to check it out. No doubt the chief concern with the plan (other than the fact that I am insane) is that people hate Duke. They wouldn't want a team of Blue Devils representing our country, they wouldn't want Duke to get the recruiting advantage that would come with such a system, and so on. I can live with that. Therefore, I am looking to get out in front of the system by throwing out a few alternatives. If you look at the last thread, you know we are having fun with the idea of putting together Olympic rosters. However, I am serious about the Duke Plan. Not because it is Duke, but because the idea of bringing a roster together full of guys that played in the same system, for the same coach, in college is the perfect way to overcome the huge "familiarity" advantage enjoyed by the national teams from other countries. So this thread is about finding other colleges that could provide good alternatives to an all-Duke squad.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

AI Gets the Shaft

The invitees to the US Olympic teama training camp have not been solidified yet, but the word is out and the chatter is rampant. My man Dritz brought it up in the previous post where he pondered the exclusion of AI and the snub of Hinrich in favor of Ridnour (mystifying). Consider this the post for all things US Olympic team.

I'll start things off explaining why they are idiots for leaving off Iverson. First, he was the only guy that actually brought it in Greece two years ago. He played with heart and determination and now has Olympic experience as well as a thirst for victory. Not only does that come in handy on a roster, but it is also a nice way to reward someone for actually caring. Coming off a Winter Olympics that saw freaks like Bodie Miller talk about how they didn't even care about winning, I personally don't need any more of that. Give me someone that wants to win.

Here is the bigger issue. After taking enormous heat for screwing up the last roster, the architects of the new team got too far inside their own heads. Yes, we want a roster that features role players, ball handlers, shooters, and defensive stoppers. And yes, Iverson is a tough guy to slot into a lineup. However, they are selecting 22 guys. You can't leave one spot for our best '04 Olympian? You can't think about marketing and presence and the media long enough to realize that this is the one player you can't snub? Idiots. They took seven of the top eight scorers in the league, the only left off is Iverson. It looks personal, feels personal, and when you consider that Gilbert Arenas made the team, what other assumption could one make?

At this point, I don't what you do to fix it the situation, but that was a big mistake.