Saturday, March 24, 2007

These Refs Suck

I figured I would put it in simple terms. Is anyone else getting tired of the officials dictating the games? Enough already. Today in the first regional final, Ohio State was given the game on a silver platter when the officials decided to suddenly call two different games - one for each end of the floor. The worst part is that once again, the egregious officiating will go overlooked by the mainstream media, because it came in the middle of the second half rather than right at the end of the game. Sportswriters are pretty obvious creatures, so unless a ref blows the final call of the game, they won't pick up on it. But go back and watch this thing on your TiVo's. This was a back-and-forth game until about nine minutes left in the contest. It was at this point that the refs suddenly started calling every little touch foul on Memphis (including a truly terrible call on Joey Dorsey on a rebound) while swallowing their whistles at the other end as Memphis players were being knocked down and hacked with nary a call. All you can ever really ask for is consistency from the refs (if your expectations are higher than that, you are in for many disappointments), but in this game they didn't even come close. It was literally as if they had two different crews at each end of the court. I don't blame Coach Cal for looking forlorn late in the game - they were going 5-on-8 out there.

And as always, the imprint made on the game by the refs takes away from the players. Conley was amazing, Oden showed a real spark, and both Butler and Lewis hit ridiculous threes. But it is hard to appreciate that when one team is allowed to foul as a means of playing defense and the other is not. I am so sick of this.

(By the way, how was Chris Douglas-Roberts foul on Oden today an intentional, while Oden's foul against Xavier was not? That was the play that took Ohio State from a 60-59 deficit to a 62-60 lead and turned the game around. Pretty ironic, no?)

Underdogs Outlined in Chalk

Like my ESPN-esque, pun-tastic headline? It's only fitting to use something cheesy and generic for this post, since it will become a generic story real quick. That said, it is worth mentioning that this tournament is going chalk in a way that I can't recall ever seeing. Oregon is the only team in the Elite Eight that isn't a 1 or 2 seed, and they are a 3 and were considered to be better than Wisconsin by most people anyway. It seems that no matter how far down a top seed gets, they find a way to win. Ohio State and North Carolina were down by huge scores, Georgetown needed a miracle shot (and no call) to advance, and Kansas and Florida nearly narrowly survived against mid majors. This might be the most truly mad tournament of all. And while none of the top seeds have any easy game this weekend, it seems possible that all of them could advance to the Final Four for the first time in the 64-team era. And this just one year after George Mason was dancing. Madness indeed!

(This message has been brought to you by Tajuan Porter is Sick and Associates.)

Thanks, Guys (You Too, Refs)

Someone get Tyler Hansbrough a box of stationary because he's got a lot of thank you notes to write. Completely outclassed by freshman Taj Gibson on Friday night, Hansbrough lived to play another day only because his teammates bailed him out and the refs protected him like he was that pregnant girl in Children of Men. The series of foul calls on Gibson early in the second half were an absolute joke and they completely altered the game. You can say the USC was worn down or the UNC turned it on or that Brandon Wright was a beast, and all those things are true. But the biggest reason North Carolina came from 16 down to beat the Trojans is that Gibson had to go to the bench with four fouls midway through the second half. Period. End of story.

Not only is this the reason I hate the five-foul limit in college hoops, but it was also a prime example of the refs dominating the game below the radar. Because Gibson's fourth foul wasn't a terrible call, nobody really noticed how bad USC got screwed. You have to go back to the previous call to get the full effect, as Gibson was whistled for #3 on a total phantom foul. It was a situation in which Hansborough was looking as clumsy as ever and the refs bailed him out. If this sounds familiar it is because it happened about 4,000 times this year. I've never seen a college player with such mediocre skills get protected like this. Well, except for half the guys that played for Duke in the last 25 years, but other than that ...

Anyway, it was a shame. I would have liked to have seen what the Heels could have done against USC's full compliment of players, rather than a bunch of stiffs in the post and then a version of Gibson that was a passive shell of his former self. No wonder they had like 25 second chance points down the stretch.

(By the way, it seems that Tim Floyd's frustrations from today's PTI interview carried over to the game as he effectively ended the contest with a hilarious notecard tossing incident that resulted in a technical foul and one of Billy Packer's patented tongue lashings. High comedy.)

(Last thing: I know it seems odd to discuss the zebras and not mention Jeff Green's Traveling Willbury's move, but my belief is that he was hammered on that play anyway. Yes, he traveled, but he also should have been shooting free throws. So it's a draw.)

Friday, March 23, 2007

Butler-Florida: In the Year 2000

Given that there were 422,119 stories about UCLA's Ben Howland and Pitt's Jamie Dixon this week (capped off with a truly horrific basketball game between the two teams), I was surprised that more people weren't tackling the Butler-Florida angle. Specifically that the two teams played an epic contest back in "the year 2000" (you have to say it like the old Conan O'Brien sketch to get the proper effect).

Consider the following:

- It was a classic 5-12 matchup in a year in which all the five seeds won (the first time that had happened in over a decade and the last time it happened until this year).

- Butler nearly had a victory against a more talented Florida team.

- Mike Miller hit a buzzer beater to lift the Gators to victory; a shot that was arguably the most memorable in school history, up to and including last year's title run.

- Florida used that win to propel themselves on a fabulous tourney run that included an upset of top-seeded Duke in the regional semis and an appearance in the national title game.

If you ask me, that makes the 2000 Florida-Butler matchup arguably one of the five best and most important first round games of the last decade. And here they are playing each other again, under similar circumstances (the perceived talent disparity, the chance for Butler to preempt a deep Florida run), and nobody even mentions it! Sometimes I just don't quite understand the sports media.

Kansas' Fate: In the Hands of Zebras

This will be a rare quick post. I just wanted to go on record as saying that Kansas' Final Four and title hopes rest squarely in the hands of the three officials. Who these men are appears to be a state secret, as I can't find the information anywhere on the World Wide Web (please get on that, Al Gore). But whoever it is, they control the outcome of the game. That is because UCLA plays a simple style of basketball: absolutely foul as much as the refs will allow. Southern Illinois employs the same strategy and were able to play like a squad full of hockey goons on Thursday night. If the SEC crew from that game is back on Saturday, the Jayhawks are probably done. You see, when a skilled team is allowed to move and cut and shoot and, you know, PLAY basketball, they usually prevail. But when the hacks they are playing against get away with damn near assault and battery on the court, then all bets are off. I don't even really like Kansas that much, but I'm sick and tired of seeing lesser teams prevail just because they turn the game into a rugby match. So we should probably all be hoping that we get some decent refs for tomorrow's game. At least, that's what Kansas should be hoping.

Tim Floyd Hearts OJ Mayo: A PTI Thriller

Not only did Mike Tirico fill in admirably today on Pardon The Interruption (normally PTI is unwatchable if either Tony or Wilbon are missing), but we had some hot interview action with USC's Tim Floyd. It seemed a little odd that Floyd would submit to an interview on the day of a regional semifinal, but about halfway through the "five good minutes," it became clear why he would do so: my man had a bone to pick.

On Wednesday, Tony and Wilbon discussed the latest OJ Mayo "controversy" which occurred when Mayo threw the ball to himself off the backboard, dunked it, and then unleashed a jai alai-esque ball toss into the stands. He was then ejected, but still managed to parade around for a few minutes, soaking up the adoration of the crowd. Oh yeah, and he went for 41-11-10 as his Huntington HS team won its third straight state title, clinched the mythical national title, and finished the year 41-1. But I digress. Anyway, Wilbon in particular was all over Mayo for his behavior and Floyd for recruiting him (particularly the part about Mayo not giving out his cell phone number). I thought it was a little harsh, especially when you consider how incredibly aggressive the media has been in painting Mayo as an uber villain (the infamous referee head butt was nothing but a hilarious and shameful acting job on the part of the ref - a guy who should absolutely be mocked at the same level as that weeping judge from the Howard K. Stern hearings). That said, we all know that Wilbon is a sports moralist and a bit old school and to be honest, I almost always agree with him.

One person who didn't agree with him on this one? Tim Floyd. The former laughingstock of the NBA (what is it with USC being able to turn crappy pro coaches into college geniuses? First Pete Carroll and now Floyd) was all kinds of fired up today. He tolerated questions about North Carolina with a modicum of charm, praised his players, and even gave a nod to Henry Bibby. But the minute that Mayo came up, he turned into a cold-blooded killer. He ripped Wilbon even though he wasn't even there. He argued with Tony. He got up on his soapbox and rambled about four minutes past the interview cutoff point. It was remarkable.

And what struck me about the whole thing is that he really meant it. This wasn't just a guy trying to set the record straight or looking to put a positive spin on things; Floyd was honestly pissed off. He clearly sees Mayo as a kid that has been victimized by the adults in his life and vilified by the hypocritical media and he was out to defend him. He barely knows the guy, yet he displayed the kind of righteous anger that would normally be reserved for a fifth year senior or a blood relative.

The whole thing was so abnormal (PTI interviews are normally pithy, humorous and certainly never double the allotted time) that it left me reeling. Is Tony secretly seething inside? Is Wilbon now on a warpath? Is Tirico looking to get away from the set as quickly as possible? Finally, is OJ Mayo actually one of the "good guys"? I have many questions and I can't wait to get the answers.

Great stuff.

Gotta Love Memphis

Normally when one of my tourney favorites is dispatched, I find myself hating the team that eliminated them. But when Texas A&M (my title game pick and home to tourney favorite Acie Law) lost a heartbreaker to Memphis last night, I found myself strangely happy for the Tigers. Some theories on how this could happen:

1. Residual from last year's tourney when I had Memphis going to the Final Four and rooted passionately for them to beat UCLA in the regional final.

2. Respect for the way they handled their business in front of a frothing, partisan crowd in San Antonio. That was like playing a road game in the Pit back in the late 90's.

3. Admiration for the way that Antonio Anderson shook off a 1-4 day at the line (and the knowledge that he was a 64% shooter) to calmly drain a pair of free throws to win the game.

4. The knowledge that in 48 hours, the Tigers would be playing the insanely lucky Ohio State Buckeyes. Kind of a "hey, I'm going to be rooting for them in two days anyway" argument.

5. The fact that they run the Vance Walberg AASAA (attack, attack, skip pass, attack, attack) offense. Walberg is the current coach at my alma mater Pepperdine University, so there is a bonus point right there. But more than that, this is exciting basketball. It's not "foul as often as possible because the refs can't call them all," which is the popular strategy being employed by UCLA, Pitt, Wisconsin, Miami of Ohio, Southern Illinois (the refs allowed the Salukis to turn that Kansas game into a schoolyard brawl - that was NOT basketball), and others. Texas A&M was one of the few "defensive" clubs that actually played honest defense, which is why I liked them so much. But the brand of ball Memphis plays is thrilling. And while they are a shooter or two short on the perimeter, they run, they finish, they try wild forays into the lane. It's good stuff. A Memphis-Tennessee game would have blown the lid off of the gym. Alas (see #4).

6. Mid-Major power. I loved UNLV back in the day and I love Memphis now for the way they shed any labels that experts try to put on them because of conference affiliation. When are we finally going to learn that while conference affiliation may play a role in preparation (quality of the competition), it has nothing to do with the talent level of the team. This was a big, fat "suck it" to the power conferences, and especially to the Big East (the conference that decimated Conference USA).

7. The anticipation of things to come. As noted in my previous post, I think Derrick Rose is going to be something special next year and that Memphis will have a shot at going undefeated. So jumping on the bandwagon now makes a lot of sense.

All that to say: Memphis, I forgive you for beating my Aggies, and you have my full support going forward.

Go Tigers.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

2007-08 Top 25

Is it ridiculous to pick a college hoops top 25 for next season while this one is going on? Yes. But since I know that Dickie V is going to be screaming out his pick for next year the moment the nets are cut, I figured I should get out in front of this. Plus, it is low risk/high reward. If my picks are way off, I just leave the post buried. But if they are right on? Well, then I can trot this thing out over and over. Hey, at least I'm honest.

The hardest thing about picking this sort of thing is knowing who is coming back and who isn't. I've made some guesses and assumptions when needed, but I'm focusing on teams who will be good either way. And even though Oden and Durant both sound like kids who want to stay in college (and really who doesn't want to stay in college after a fun freshman year?), I believe they will both wind up in the league.

1. Kansas Julian Wright is probably gone and Brandon Rush might follow him out the door, but a team with Mario Chalmers, Sherron Collins, Darrell Arthur, and Sasha Kahn is still a terrific core. Not only that, but Rush might need to stay to boost his draft stock and Wright has said he wants to stay a third year and get his degree. Either way, KU is going to be loaded.

2. Memphis I know this seems a little crazy, but I honestly think Memphis can make a run at going undefeated next year. With most of their best players returning and the addition of absolute stud point guard Derrick Rose, the Tigers could resemble the old UNLV teams that used to rank #1 coming out of the Big West.

3. North Carolina If everyone was coming back, I would probably put them at #2, right behind Kansas. But Hansborough might be gone and Brandon Wright is sure to be in the rookie-sophomore game a year from now. That said, Lawson will probably be back (unless he keeps playing like he has been in the tourney - he might play his way right out of Chapel Hill) and Wayne Ellington could emerge as a monster scorer next year.

4. USC I know O.J. Mayo is equal parts crazy prima donna and media punching bag, but right now he plans on playing his freshman year in L.A. And the guy is sick, make no mistake. Plus, while Nick Young is probably a lottery pick, Tim Floyd is getting back Gabe Pruitt, Taj Gibson, and a host of solid role players. The Trojans are suddenly quite good at basketball. Other than brief flares during the Harold Minor and Sam Clancy eras, this is the first time SC has been a basketball power since Paul Westphal played there.

5. Kansas State From left out to top five? Believe it. Not only do the Wildcats have the right coach in Huggins, but he also has a host of freakish athletes committed to playing for him. This team will be incredibly talented next year, led by possible 2008 #1 pick Michael Beasely and sophomore swingman Bill Walker (who looked great in his six games before hurting his knee).

6. UCLA I hate their style of play, but the Bruins are going to be good for quite a while, especially with Darren Collison coming back and stud power forward Kevin Love coming in. If nothing else, the battle for LA is going to be intense.

7. Indiana Kelvin Sampson should have his program in full swing next year and D.J. White will have matured a bit. However, the real reason I have the Hoosiers this high is because they have frosh Eric Gordon coming in next year. He's not the NBA prospect that some other high school stars are (a Ben Gordon-esque 6'2" combo guard, so kind of a tweener right now), but this guy was born to play college basketball. He is going to be AWESOME.

8. Louisville Between many Big East powers looking at a down year and the Cardinals coming of age this winter, I think Louisville stands to be the class of the conference next year. Edgar Sosa will only learn from the tough finish to his amazing game (seriously, the guy was 22-for-22 on field goals and free throws before missing three straight shots. 22-for-22!) and Derrick Caracter should be a legit post option by next year, with Palacios rebounding like a madman.

9. Georgia Tech They probably won't make this big of a leap next year, but if Young and Crittenton come back, I expect the Jackets to take a huge step forward. They should challenge UNC for the ACC crown.

10. Mississippi State There is room for a new top team in the SEC with Florida going into reloading mode. Most probably have Tennessee filling this spot, but if you saw the Bulldogs play in the NIT, you know what I'm talking about. They are going to be good. Jamont Gordon is a legit All-American candidate.

The Next 15:
11. Arizona (I know they looked like crap this year and that I've loaded this list with Pac-10 teams, but Zona will have Budinger, Jordan Hill, and Marcus Williams coming back, with new stud point guard Jerryd Bayless at the controls)
12. UConn (they are closer than people think)
13. Ohio State (no Oden, but plenty of talent coming back)
14. Maryland
15. Virginia Commonwealth (no, seriously),
16. Florida (I know they can reload, but top 10 is asking a bit much)
17. Tennessee
18. Duke
19. Georgetown (Green and maybe Hibbert are gone, but Summers is back)
20. Washington (the Huskies are going to grow up fast next year)
21. Nevada (the Pack still has Sessions and Kemp)
22. Pittsburgh
23. Michigan State
24. Oregon (Porter, Taylor, and Hairston are back, but the loss of Brooks is huge)
25(tie). Arkansas and Texas

Ohio State: Team of Destiny or Team Destined to Lose?

Warning: This is going to be a long blog post.

Over at WIS I examined Oregon’s first round escape against Miami of Ohio in light of recent trends. Here on the blog (why on the blog? Because I am driving my editors crazy with the overload of March Madness columns) we are going to look at second round nail biters and what they mean to a team going forward. Once again, the question is this: is a close win more likely to propel a top team to a title run, or reveal them as flawed and doomed?

It seems appropriate to shift this analysis to second round games involving higher seeded teams (top seeds are narrowed from 1-5 seeds to 1-4 seeds) because this has already been the Year of the Favorites in the NCAA Tournament. When VCU was vanquished by Pitt in an overtime thriller and Winthrop was pummeled by Oregon, the last of the Cinderellas were gone … and the tournament was only 96 hours old.

That said, the arguments for parity in college hoops really didn’t take too much of a hit. Other than Kansas, all the top seeds had a difficult time advancing past the second round and popular Final Four picks like Georgetown, Texas A&M, and UCLA all survived harrowing contests over the weekend. Heck, you could have swapped the seeds for Wisconsin and UNLV and no one would have known the difference. Just because the favorites often survived doesn’t mean the games – and the teams – weren’t close.

No greater example of that can be found than the Ohio State-Xavier game. The Buckeyes were outplayed by the Musketeers and only won after receiving the Golden Sombrero of College Basketball Luck: Bad Call, Missed Free Throw, Bad Coaching, and Miracle Three. Without that exact sequence (all in 10 seconds), Ohio State is done.

No sooner had the final horn sounded when approximately 7,422 sportswriters were all online, arguing that Ohio State’s scare was the best thing that could have happened to them. True statement? As with Oregon and first round scares, we are going to take a look at the close second round games involving top seeds this decade. Using the five points or less (or overtime) as the measure for a close game and looking at 1-4 seeds, we can look to 17 such games played over the past seven seasons.

Sweet 16 Losers

As with first round teams, top seeds that squeak out second round games often go down in flames the very next time out; in this case, the loss comes in the Sweet 16 round. Of the 17 teams that survived close second round contests, eight of them lost in the regional semis.

2000 - (1) Duke edged (8) Kansas in round two before losing to (5) Florida
2000 - (4) Syracuse beat (5) Kentucky before getting drilled by (1) MSU
2000 - (4) Tennessee defeated (5) UConn and then lost to (8) North Carolina
2000 - (4) LSU snuck past (5) Texas before being crushed by (8) Wisconsin
2001 - (3) Ole Miss defeated (6) Notre Dame and then lost to (2) Arizona
2002 - (4) Kentucky edged (12) Tulsa and then was bounced by (5) Maryland
2004 - (3) Pittsburgh beat (6) Wisconsin before losing to (2) Oklahoma State
2004 - (3) Texas defeated (6) UNC and then lost to (7) Xavier

The list above shows that just under half the second round survivors were immediately knocked off in the Sweet 16, but the other nine were able to advance. So far, this gives Ohio State just over a 50% chance of getting past Tennessee. But what about the rest of the tournament?

Ability to Advance

In the column about Oregon, we saw that a top seed that survives a first round scare and then wins in the Sweet 16 tends to go all the way to the Final Four. Granted, only five of the 27 qualifying teams even made it past the Sweet 16, but all five of those advanced out of the region. The opposite effect seems to occur with teams surviving second round scares.

Of the nine teams in this decade that snuck by in round two and then won against in the Sweet 16, only three of them managed to win the regional final. They are:

2004 - (3) Georgia Tech (title game)
2006 - (2) UCLA (title game)
2006 - (4) LSU (final four)

As for the six teams that reached the Elite Eight, only to lose, the list reads like this:

2002 - (2) UConn and (2) Oregon
2003 - (1) Arizona
2004 - (1) St. Joes’s
2006 - (1) Villanova and (1) UConn

These two lists tell a pretty interesting story. For starters, we arrive at an interesting breakdown when looking at various seeds. Here are some key records:

Sweet 16 Games
(1) 4-1
(2) 3-0
(3) 1-3
(4) 1-4

Elite Eight Games
(1) 0-4
(2) 1-2
(3) 1-0
(4) 1-0

Here, as with the research in the Oregon column, we see that the higher seeds tend to fare better in the Sweet 16. However, beyond that, seeding doesn’t seem to help at all, and if anything, lower seeded teams tend to do better. The lone 3 and 4 seeds both gained more momentum as the tournament unfolded, while the top seeds couldn’t get it revved up. This seems to indicate that the 1 seeds that barely survive in the early rounds are unlikely to get things figured out as they go along. Given this information, recent history suggests that Ohio State, as a top seed, has an 80% chance of defeating Tennessee, but almost no shot of beating the winner of the A&M/Memphis game.

Quality of Opponents

It is also helpful to look at the quality of the teams these survivors are facing as opponents. Since we are assuming probable success for Ohio State in the next round, let’s look at the Elite Eight winners and losers and see who they had to play.

2004 - (3) Georgia Tech over (4) Kansas
2006 - (2) UCLA over (1) Memphis
2006 - (4) LSU over (2) Texas

2002 - (2) UConn lost to (1) Maryland
2002 - (2) Oregon lost to (1) Kansas
2003 - (1) Arizona lost to (2) Kansas
2004 - (1) St. Joes’s lost to (2) Oklahoma State
2006 - (1) Villanova lost to (3) Florida
2006 - (1) UConn lost to (11) George Mason

Until last year, the Elite Eight losers were being defeated by the highest possible seed they could face in that game, but then Nova and UConn both went down to lower seeds. Meanwhile, among winners, only Georgia Tech got to play against a lower seed than expected. On average, winners have defeated a seed of 2.33, while losers have been defeated by a seed of 3.33. Even if you took out the George Mason game, the 1.80 seed average faced by the previous five losers still doesn’t indicate that big of a difference in the level of competition, This is particularly true when you note that all three of the winning teams also beat the highest possible seed in the Sweet 16 round.

Impact on Top Seeds

Since the level of seeding doesn’t seem to matter much – and since Ohio State will be playing either a 2 or 3 seed anyway – we have no choice but to rely on the raw data above: that 1 seeds typically don’t recover from a shaky early round game. When you consider that no top seed has had a win of less than five points in this decade, the above data represents all of the “close” wins on the first weekend. One, Duke in 2000, lost in the Sweet 16, and the other four all lost in the Elite Eight.

In fact, even if you go back further to include a larger sample size, top seeds don’t fare much better. Only one top seed from the last 20 years has won a close game during the opening two rounds and gone on to win it all – UCLA in 1995. It was that game, featuring the famous Tyus Edney shot, that I believe causes people to buy in to the mythology that “a bunch” of number one seeds have survived an early scare only to go on to a title. Going back to 1986, we find 12 additional top seeds that survived such a scare; 10 teams had their brush with disaster in the second round, one in the first, and one (Michigan State in 1990) in both. Of those 12, only UCLA won it all, while Michigan (1993) and Kentucky (1997) reached the title game and UMass (1996) and North Carolina (1998) reached the Final Four. Three teams lost in the Elite Eight and four lost in the Sweet 16.

Therefore, folding in the last 20 years, here is how top seeds have fared after dodging a close one during the opening weekend:

Sweet 16

Elite Eight

Final Four

Title Game

Even if we give Ohio State the benefit of the doubt by going back further in history, they still seem to face difficult odds. While they have a 71% chance of winning their next game, the Buckeyes historically have only a 29% chance of reaching the Final Four, and a 6% chance of winning it all. And considering that this decade features more parity than ever before, you have to believe that the more recent trends (80%/0%/0%) will hold even stronger, which means that Ohio State's odds are probably 75%, 20%, and 5%, or something along those lines. You will note that the Buckeyes' odds of winning based on this analysis are actually lower than the odds of them winning based simply on the number of teams remaining. As one of four left in the South region they have a 25% chance of reaching the Final Four and as one of 16 in the field, they have just over a 6% shot of winning it all.

Ohio State’s lucky win over Xavier might have seemed like destiny and brought back memories of UCLA in 1995, but according to the record books, the Bruins are the only top seed that Ohio State is going to want to compare themselves too. It is far more likely that the Buckeyes will wind up like one of the other 16 on that list and come up short of a national title.

Based on the research, a narrow win in an early round is not a stroke of good fortune on the paved path to a title, but rather the first glimpse of fatal flaws soon to be exposed.

Of course, that shouldn’t stop Ohio State from trying. After all, there is a second time for everything.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Tourney Challenge Update: Through Two Rounds

Another tourney challenge, another beating on the way for yours truly. Despite assembling a bracket through careful calculations (primarly seeding trends and point differentials), I opted to use my "gut instinct" picks to compete against my brother Drew. Big mistake. Through two rounds he is already putting great distance between us, leading 183 to 158.

There is a lot to dislike about my bracket, but I will focus on Gonzaga, Nevada, and Illinois. I thought the Zags were going to return to their double-digit seed glory of yesteryear, but unfortunately, as Rick Patino would say, "Matt Santangelo was not walking through that door!" The Zags played horrendous basketball against Indiana (who then played horrendous basketball against UCLA) and my big Elite Eight upset pick was toast. I also overestimated Nick Fazekas' ability to not be a big wuss, so my Nevada-over-Memphis pick backfired. Finally, my 5-12 analysis tool assured me that Illinois was a lock against Virginia Tech, but apparently the tool only works for the first 35 minutes of games. The Hokies did indeed suck, but Illinois found a way to blow a 12-point lead (in a game with barely 100 total points!) in the final moments. Just brutal.

Of course, it isn't all roses for Drew either. He had North Carolina going out early and Texas going to the Elite Eight, so the top half of his East region is decimated. Since I knew Rick Barnes would crush the Horns, I still have UNC alive, which could help me gain ground if they can knock off USC. Other than that, he is looking pretty good. Since we both have Georgetown, Oregon, and Kansas in the final four, my only hope is that Texas A&M comes out of the South. Should be interesting.

Monday, March 12, 2007

"The Next George Mason?" Don't Bother Looking

It seems people are spending an inordinate amount of time looking for another double-digit seed to go to the Final Four, as if Mason's improbabe run last year was the start of some sort of trend. This is lunacy. It was a once in a generation experience and we shouldn't be sullying it by assuming it can be replicated. As my man G.O.B. from Arrested Development used to say, "Come on!"

(Man do I miss that show.)

Anyway, my suggestion is to scale things back a bit and start looking for the next Bradley instead. The Braves made a huge splash in last year's tourney by advancing to the Sweet 16 and ruining the seasons of Kansas, Pitt, and Golden State (who fell hook, line, and sinker for Patrick O'Bryant) in the process. Folks are keying in on teams like Winthrop because they have some Mason, deep-tourney-run qualities, but this is fool's gold. Taking WInthrop to the Elite Eight ignores the fact that they are looking at first and second round matchups with Notre Dame and Oregon, respectively. Those two teams just happen to be two of the best shooting and scoring squads in the country. You like Winthrop to beat both of them? Hey, more power to you.

You are far better off looking for an 11-14 seed in a bracket with some overachieving teams that can be beat as long as the underdog just plays well, or some overrated teams that have no real advantage despite their higher seed. Based on these factors, I am intruiged by Davidson (but am picking Maryland), like the chances of either Wright State or VCU coming out of that Duke/Pitt debacle in Buffalo (but am avoiding it, since I don't know which underdog to back), and also think Long Beach State has the chance to win a couple of games.

However, my pick for "The Next Bradley" is Oral Roberts. I went to Allen Fieldhouse earlier this year and watched this team beat down Kansas and I remember taking note of what a great tournament team they would be. They have a star interior player in Caleb Green that can carry teams several rounds. He can score, pass, get to the line, you name it. Plus, while Oral Roberts' guards are a bit streaky and careless with the ball, they have a lot of team speed and some guys with serious stones. Ken Tutt, in particular (I like to call him King Tutt) is the type of guy that can shake off a 1-for-12 game to make a tying three as time expires.

Not only do I like what ORU is bringing to the table, but I also like where they are seeded. No disrespect to Singing Tony Bennett and his Washington State Cougars, but I watched this team play four games in the past two weeks and they are NOT a three seed. In fact, if you switched their jerseys, people wouldn't be able to tell which team was the 3 and which was the 14. I'm not saying WSU is a mortal lock to lose, just that if they don't play really well, they probably will. And if Oral Roberts gets by WSU they will face either an overrated Vandy team or an undisciplined George Washington squad. Either matchup looks pretty ideal for the Golden Eagles.

But that's just me. If you like VCU or Stanford or even Winthrop, I can see that. Just make sure you are looking for good, old fashioned Sweet 16 Cinderellas, rather than a one-in-a-lifetime underdog.

Pass Durant the Ball!

I've seen Texas play at least 10 times this year and about fives times in the past two weeks. And the same problem keeps coming up in each and every game: Texas doesn't pass the ball to the best freshman I've ever seen. It's absurd, it's ridiculous, it's the college hoops equivalent to Nixon wiretapping a presidential opponent that he was beating by 40 points in the polls.

I know Durant still winds up taking a ton of shots, but when you watch the game, you can't help but be struck by how dumb this team is. They run almost no plays for the best player in the country. They let A.J. Abrams bomb away with impunity. They allow D.J. Augustin to dribble for 25 seconds at a time and then heave fadeaways. I'm telling you, this is Crazy Town. And all of this ignorning takes a massive toll on Durant, who always seems to look worse as the game goes on. In fact, while I don't have the stats to back this up, I would say that his stats during the first 10 minutes of the second half are by far his worst splits. Because this is the time of the game where all the other greedy bastards in burnt orange start jacking up shots. So when Durant finally gets a touch, he is getting frustrated and he can almost feel the expectations of the entire crowd pressing down on him. He knows he must score and be aggressive for his team to win, so after he runs up and down the court seven straight times without a look (while blocking shots and rebounding like a madman all the while), he is getting pretty antsy. That is when he tries to do too much and throws up those hideous airballs or falls down like a colt that can't run quite yet.

If Texas would just run a freaking offense and make sure to get Durant a touch, he wouldn't feel that way. The offense would run through him and he could concentrate on making reads and taking what is there. The Longhorns could isolate him on the block and work off the double-teams that are sure to come. They could get him in the high post ala Dirk Nowitzki. They could even just hand him the ball and get out of the way, which is pretty much the Cavs' whole offense when the fourth quarter rolls around. There are a million ways to get him the ball and keep him from pressing and feeling pressure to do something magical every time he touches it.

The whole thing is such a shame, becuase Rick Barnes is wasting the greatest talent some of us have ever seen in the college game. He's allowing this incredible player to get worn down, frustrated, and exploited during virtually every game he plays. It is downright tragic. And I promise you that this is going to end badly. There is no way that the team I saw blow a 32-10 lead to Kansas today can beat North Carolina. And frankly, I'm not even sure they can get that far.

Maybe in some weird act of Texas state pride, the Mavericks can lone Avery Johnson to the Horns for the next three weeks. It's not like Dallas needs him - it doesn't seem that they can be defeated even if they started up a "coach the team for the day" fan contest.

Beware of the Ducks

Ever since Syracuse pulled off arguably the most improbable title run of the past 20 years (only Arizona in 1997 was more surprising to me) in 2003, I've been on the lookout for teams that fit the Cuse mold. The next year I saw Georgia Tech look a lot like Syracuse when they got off to a fast start, struggled in the middle of the conference season, closed strong, and landed a #3 seed. I decided to pick them to reach the Final Four and they wound up doing me one better and going to the title game before losing to the UConn juggernaut. 2005 lacked an appropriate team (Arizona was the closest as a #3 seed, but didn't have the required ebb and flow), but last year I was all over the Gators when they started fast and finished strong and landed a #3 seed. While many were picking Florida to flame out in round two, I had them going deep. As we all know, they won the whole thing.

Needless to say, I've spent the whole year keeping close tabs on teams that might join this list of #3 seeds. Arizona, Oklahoma State, West Virginia, Alabama, and Oregon all got off to the kinds of starts and had the sort of midseason struggles that would fit the pattern, but I had to wait and see which team closed strong. Obviously, that question has been answered (decisively). Now the Ducks are looking like a very dangerous team in this tournament. Like the previous three Cuse Teams (Syracuse was first, so they get to be the namesake), Oregon got off to a hot start, faded, and then rallied. They also have an established star as well as a rising star. And they are a matchup nightmare, in this case because of their four-guard lineup and ridiculous team speed. All their key players can handle the ball, shoot, run the floor, and play the sort of attacking defense that masks some of their size issues. If the Ducks had a few more able bodies coming off the bench, I might pick them to win it all. Seriously. As it stands, I feel like they are going to reach the Elite Eight and if they weren't headed for a showdown with Florida (the worst possible matchup for them), I'd take them even further.

(By the way, as much as I love Tajuan "The Next Earl Boykins" Porter and was awed by Bryce Taylor's 11-for-11 performance in the Pac-10 title game, my favorite Duck is Aaron Brooks. He is fast, skilled, gutsy - everything you want from a senior point guard. It is a travesty the way he has been ignored by various postseason awards. He should absolutely be a first-team All-American over Arron Afflalo of UCLA. Watch them play - it isn't even close.)

Anyway, if history is any sort of guide, Oregon is a team to watch. Check out the similarities (finishing records obviously do not include the NCAA Tournament):

2003 - Syracuse
11-1 start in non-conference
Rough 5-3 stretch (looked worse than the numbers) in middle of Big East season
8-1 to finish (lost in Big East semis)
#3 seed
(Extreme) Rising star - Carmelo Anthony
Established star- Hakim Warrick
X-Factor - Gerry McNamara's threes
Preparation Nightmare - the 2-3 zone
Result - National Title

2004 - Georgia Tech
12-0 start
7-8 stretch in ACC play
4-1 to finish (including reaching ACC title game)
#3 seed
Rising star - Luke Shenscher (sort of)
Established Star - Jarret Jack
X-Factor - Will Bynum being a matchup nightmare and posting big scoring totals
Preparation Nightmare - The high post offense with Shenscher
Result - National Title Game Appearance

2006 - Florida
17-0 start
5-6 stretch in SEC play
5-0 finish (including SEC title)
#3 seed
Rising star - Joakim Noah
Established star - Corey Brewer (had a big freshman season)
X-Factor - Shooting of Lee Humphrey and Taurean Green
Preparation Nightmare - Big guys leading the fast break, matchup zone
Result - National Title

2007 - Oregon
18-1 start
3-6 stretch in Pac-10 play
6-0 finish (including Pac-10 title)
Rising star - Tajuan Porter
Established star - Aaron Brooks
X-Factor - Mismatches created by Bryce Taylor and Malik Hairston at the "forward" positions
Preparation Nightmare - The small ball lineup that creates matchup problems all over the court
Result - ?

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Another Round of “Championship Blueprint”

Get ready for a blitz of columns. March Madness is just a few days away and the old laptop is about to get a workout. There will be picks, analysis, guest Insiders, commentary, rants (most of them aimed at the selection committee), raves, recaps, and plenty of opinion. Yes indeed, it’s the most wonderful time of the year. And to be honest, March Madness is really the last sporting event left that I can still muster up the energy to write a lot about. Every other aspect of sports is oversaturated with opinion and drama and hype, and the joy has been sucked right out of it. But with the NCAA Tournament, there is a purity to the action and things move so fast that it is impossible for the media to outshine the games themselves. And I love that.

Anyway. To get things started, we will revisit a successful column idea from last year (successful in that it didn’t produce much hate mail) in which we use past champions to find a blueprint for success, and then identify the best match in this year’s field. The trick worked pretty well for the 2006 tourney as Florida – the team that fit the 2003 Syracuse mold – went on to win it all. Not many people believed in the Gators last year, but the system saw through all the hyperbole and expert opinions and locked on to Florida as one of the top threats to win the title. So we’re doing it again. The one thing missing last year was a way to sort the best matches from the shaky comparisons, so this time around we are using a Match Score to see which teams most strongly resemble old title winners. And we are doing it before the pairings are announced, so as to avoid being swayed by matchups or anything like that. Off we go.

Year: 2000
Champion: Michigan State
Winning Traits: Leadership, Coaching, Experience, Defense, Perimeter Stars, Point Guard Play

The Spartans of 2000 were led by a trio of perimeter players from Flint, Michigan that featured fiery point guard Mateen Cleaves (who went on to become the best male cheerleader in the NBA), defensive stopper Charlie Bell, and primary scorer Morris Peterson. After coming up short in the 1999 Final Four (losing in the semis to Duke), the senior-laden roster rolled through the tournament behind defense, rebounding, and clutch shooting from behind the arc, not to mention the coaching of Tom Izzo. Therefore, to find a team in the mold of the 2000 MSU Spartans, we are looking for a squad with a tenacious defense, a lightening rod point guard, strong perimeter play, experience, and terrific coaching.

Best Candidate for 2007: Texas A&M (Match Score of 8.4 out of 10).
The Aggies aren’t a perfect match, because they do not have a ton of postseason experience, but they did get their feet wet last year with an upset over fifth-seeded Syracuse and a heartbreaking 88-87 loss to LSU in the second round. But everything else is there. Acie Law has the look of a transcendent point guard that can carry a team to a title (he’s got Marcus Williams’ hands blended with Cleaves’ head), Billy Gillespie is a rising star in the coaching ranks, Josh Carter is a perimeter scorer in the Mo Pete mold (52% from three), and the Aggies thrive on playing defense and controlling the pace of the game. They have that grit and toughness that the Spartans featured back in 2000 and as long as A&M can get a decent draw in the Dance and stay out of foul trouble (no easy task), I think they are a threat to win it all.

Year: 2001
Champion: Duke
Winning Traits: Star Player Leadership, High-Powered Offense, Aura

The Blue Devils are always well coached, always play hard, and always get a ton of cheap calls (sorry, couldn’t resist). What really set the 2001 team apart was the fact that they absolutely lit up the scoreboard night in and night out. Jay Williams was the offensive star, Shane Battier was the senior leader and All-American, Carlos Boozer operated in the post, and Mike Dunleavy and Nate James fired from the wings. This team was so good that even Chris Duhon was considered a threat from deep as a freshman sixth man. A quote in a 2001 Tourney preview read, “Sixth man Chris Duhon can shoot from anywhere.” I think in the six years since – three at Duke, three with the Chicago Bulls – it has been proven without a doubt that this is no longer true. Such is the perceived power of an offense putting up over 90 points per game.

Best Candidate for 2007: North Carolina (Match Score 7.9).

The Tar Heels don’t quite have a Shane Battier on the roster, but I guess Tyler Hansborough qualifies as a star player with leadership skills. (Of course, this is just what Josh McRoberts told me.) The rest of the squad compares favorably as UNC scores 88.1 points per game (second in the nation) and has an aura about them that they will run you out of the gym at any time. Like the Devils, North Carolina just has more firepower than most teams. Brandon Wright is just as effective in the paint as Boozer was, Wayne Ellington is probably better than Chris Duhon at that time, Reyshawn Terry fills the Dunleavy role, and I think that there is even more depth on this Tar Heel rosters. That said, their match score suffers because they just don’t have the leadership of that Duke squad. Star point guard Ty Lawson is sick, but isn’t as experienced as Jay Williams was, and Hansborough just doesn’t bring the defense of Battier Still, they are the closest proximity, given that the other high-powered offenses belong to VMI, Eastern Washington (although Rodney Stuckey is sick), and Cal State Fullerton.

(Runner up here is Ohio State. While they don’t score at quite the pace of the Heels, they also have an aura of invincibility, tons of talent, and a driving force in Greg Oden. They get a match score of 7.4.)

Year: 2002
Champion: Maryland
Winning Traits: Singular Star, Inside Scoring, Experience, Coach who is emotional leader

The 2002 Terps were one of my favorite title teams of recent years. They had Juan Dixon taking his game to the next level, Lonny Baxter and Chris Wilcox scoring in the post, Steve Blake running the show, and Byron Mouton keeping everything together. Plus, they had the “win it for Gary Williams” and “avenge last year’s collapse against Duke” storylines going for them. They started four seniors, had a chip on their shoulder, and rode an incredible stretch by Dixon all the way to a title. Does anyone have that look to them this year?

Best Candidate for 2007: Wisconsin (Match Score of 7.0).

The Wisconsin Badgers are a solid match on this one. It all starts with Alando Tucker, who was Durant’s chief rival for national player of the year honors until the award became a runaway. The senior forward drives the Badgers, scoring 20 points a game and has the Juan Dixon, “top off his career with a great tourney run” look to him. Plus, he’s joined by senior Kammron Taylor and junior Michael Flowers to give Wisconsin a very experienced core group. When you throw in the fact that they got blown out by Arizona in the first round last year, note how hard they play, how good Bo Ryan is on the bench, and consider that they are in line for a great seed, the Badgers are looking an awful lot like the ’02 Terrapins. If they had an emerging interior stud like Wilcox to help with the scoring (or even a healthy Brian Butch), they would rate much higher.

(Runner up in this category: Nevada. They are experienced and talented and led by Nick Fazekas, who is averaging almost 21 and 12 a game. The Wolfpack gets a match score of 7.4. Second runner up is Texas, who gets a score of 7.1.)

Year: 2003 and 2006
Champion: Syracuse and Florida
Winning Traits: Hot Start, Crappy Middle, Strong Finish, Emerging Star, Tough to Scout

Syracuse was an unusual champion. They started the 2002-2003 going 13-0 against a weak non-conference slate, before dropping off during Big East play. They were looking like a 4-to-6 seed until they finished hot and landed a 3 seed. All of a sudden, they drew a few good matchups, found their rhythm, and rode Carmelo Anthony all the way to a title. Frankly, I still can’t believe it happened. The very next year, Georgia Tech jumped out to a 12-0 start, struggled in conference play, then reached the ACC title game and nabbed a three seed. I immediately picked them to go to the Final Four on the strength of the “Cuse Corollary,” and won all my pools when they reached the title game. In 2005 I looked hard for a three seed that fit the mold, but couldn’t find anyone (In hindsight, Arizona would have been the only decent option). Last year I went with Florida and it worked like a charm. The Gators started the season 17-0 then went 7-6 over the remainder of the regular season, causing their stock to drop among bracket fanatics. They were considered a disappointment and were looking like a 5 seed when they suddenly gelled and rolled through the SEC Tournament. They wound up looking a whole lot like that ’03 Syracuse team, with a tough game plan to scout, the bookend hot stretches, and the emergence of Joakim Noah. What about this year?

Best Candidate for 2007: Oregon (Match Score 7.7)

Oregon started the year 18-1 before losing six of their next nine and looking like old news. However, they posted impressive wins over Washington State and Washington and won their final three games to build some momentum for the tourney. Then, in the Pac-10 tournament, they obliterated everyone in sight, shooting like 95% from three (okay, that is an exaggeration). Aaron Brooks is a fabulous player (should have been an All-American over Afflalo - that was a joke), Tajuan Porter is turning into a beast (fulfilling the "emerging younster" requirement), and they have skilled X-Factor players in Bryce Taylor (32 points without missing a single shot against USC yesterday) and Malik Hairston. The Ducks are now in line for a three or four seed and are in position to make a deep run with one of the most athletic lineups in the country.

Year: 2004
Champion: UConn
Winning Traits: Size, Experience, Skill, Leadership, Purpose, Being Better Than Everyone Else

This one is going to be pretty quick. The 2004 Huskies were one of the most dominant teams in recent memory. So good, in fact, that even with Emeka Okafor suffering through intense back pain, they still rolled to the title.

Best Candidate for 2007: Florida (Match Score 7.8).

The Gators are the only team that can make this claim. UCLA is good, but not head and shoulders above everyone else (although they do have a ton of experience and, I think, an upgrade at point guard from Jordan Farmar to Darren Collison). Ohio State looks disjointed at times and rarely pummels people. And we’ve already tabbed Wisconsin and North Carolina. Florida has a ton of experience, a distinct style of play, and star power. That said, I pushed their score down just a little bit for a few reasons. First, it is hard to repeat in this day and age. Second, just because they won it all last year and have the same team doesn’t mean they are automatically unassailable. Billy Donavon (or Billy Dunavon, according to Billy Packer) himself said last year that if they replayed the 2006 tournament, a different team would probably have won it all. Plus, the field is far stronger this year than last. I think the Gators are still the best team in the country and they have more purpose and intensity than UConn did last year, but they aren’t a juggernaut like the 2004 Huskies.

(I’m going with Georgetown as my runner up in this category. They are the sleeping giant of this field (no Roy Hibbert pun intended). I give them a 7.3.)

Year: 2005
Champion: North Carolina
Winning Traits: Talent, Redemption, Go-To Player, Athleticism

The Tar Heels were the top overall seed in 2005 and saw four players go in the first round of the NBA draft, so you could make a case that they were just “better than everyone else” like UConn was the year before. However, it never felt like that during the journey. They barely escaped Villanova in the Sweet 16 and had to scratch and claw their way to Roy Williams’ first title. Nevertheless, pure talent was a big factor, there is no doubt about that. They also were on a mission to get Roy a title and to validate the hype that had surrounded both the McCants-Williams and May-Felton recruiting classes. They were balanced, athletic, and had Sean May in the post. Needless to say, this is a good blueprint to emulate, if you can pull it off.

Best Candidate for 2007: Kansas (Match Score 8.5).

This whole college season started for me at Allen Fieldhouse where I witnessed a Kansas loss to Oral Roberts. I was thrilled to see an upset, but remained impressed with Kansas’ roster. They have strength inside, talent on the perimeter, and plenty of athleticism that will allow them to force turnovers and shut teams down for long periods of time. They also fit the redemption bill as they look to bounce back from consecutive first round losses (to Bucknell in 2005 and Bradley in 2006). They might also finally have a go-to player in Brandon Rush, who has been elevating his game in recent weeks. They have the do-everything guy in Julian Wright (a much better version of Jawad Williams), the lightening fast point guard in emerging freshman Sherron Collins (helping Russell Robinson fill the Raymond Felton role), and the freshman scoring star in Darrell Arthur (ala Marvin Williams). They even have a streaky scoring guard in Mario Chalmers, who gives them some of the same things Rashard McCants provided the Heels. There is also the weird Roy Williams connection to Kansas and the way Bill Self needs to silence the critics. The only missing piece is that Sean May player – a guy that can provide the big points when they are most needed. I think Rush can be that guy. He’s the key.

Here is the total list of my contenders, based on the Match Score index:

1. Kansas (8.5)
2. Texas A&M (8.4)
3. North Carolina (7.9)
4. Florida (7.8)
5. Oregon (7.7)
6. Ohio State (7.4)
(tie) Nevada (7.4)
8. Georgetown (7.3)
9. Texas (7.1)
10. Wisconsin (7.0)

We'll see what the brackets come up with, but know that I'll be making my picks off of this list.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

The Tourney Beat: Cuse-Huskies

I'm doubling up here because while Syracuse was the victor (78-65) and the team going to the tournament, UConn had the most intruiging player in this game.

Syracuse had a typical game for them where their big men were mired in foul trouble, Eric Devendorf made a bunch of great players a few terrible ones, and Demetris Nichols drained threes from all over the court. Even with Nichols' scoring and the vaunted 2-3 zone, the Orange aren't going to do a whole lot in the Dance this year. Especially if they keep sporting those hideous uniforms.

Moving on ... no one will talk about it for at least five months, but UConn's Jerome Dyson is going to be legit. He has a phenomonal shooting stroke and seemed to get better in every game this season. I fully expect him to be the next great UConn player and a candidate for Big East Player of the Year honors. He's legit.

Looking forward to seeing what West Virginia can do with the pressure on, facing an underrated Providence team.

The Tourney Beat: Villanova

With plans to TiVo about 47 conference tournament games in the next five days and then zip through them in 40 minutes each, I've been trying to decide the best way to absorb what I'm watching and then organize my thoughts. Using the blog is an obvious solution, so every time I see something compelling, I will file a "tourney beat" entry.

The first one is for Villanova, who beat DePaul this morning to kick off the Big East Tournament (always my favorite conference tourney). The Wildcats are considered to be safely in the field of 65, but I wanted to get a good look at them to see if they had some staying power. The verdict: probably not.

Positives - Scottie Reynolds clearly has the ultimate green light from Jay Wright, which makes Nova dangerous. He's very quick, has good ball skills (Reynolds throws a fantastic one-handed bounce pass, with either hand), and possesses a pretty jump shot with almost unlimited range. He is the type of lead guard that could go for 35 in a game and carry his team to a win. The Wildcats are also tough defensively and well coached, so they should be able to avoid blowout losses. Perhaps most importantly, they finally have former high school phenom Curtis "ACL" Sumpter healthy. The fifth-year senior is a good rebounder and a very efficient scorer and looks like he could be particularly effective running the high screen and roll with Reynolds. Nova is also one of the best free throw shooting teams I've seen in a while.

Negatives - This team has no depth and no balance. With 12 minutes to go in the game, Reynolds and Sumpter had taken all but three field goal attempts. This is the definition of a two-man team. There's no bench, no offensive punch, no reinforcements whatsoever. And even worse is the fact that both of Nova's big guns have question marks. Reynolds is a freshman with a tendency to play on extreme ends of the spectrum - either he is out of control or he is too passive. His talent is amazing and I could see him scoring 30, but in the process committing key turnovers and shooting a low percentage. As for Sumpter, he is very prone to foul trouble. Without both of these guys on the floor and playing great, the Cats can't win.

Conclusion - Unfortunately, Villanova’s positives are the type that allow them to beat virtually anyone in any given game while the negatives are the type that prevent them from stringing many wins together. In other words, Villanova might make for a scary opponent, but it seems impossible that they could win multiple games in this tournament, let alone three or four in a row.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

The Lost Money All-Stars

the 2006 Draft was, by all accounts, a weak draft. The lack of breakout performances (only Brandon Roy and Andrea Bargnani have been truly impressive, although guys like Rajon Rondo, Rudy Gay, Paul Milsap, and LaMarcus Aldridge have shown a lot of potential) confirms this assessment. And then there is the 2007 Draft, which has been projected to be the strongest since the 2003 class (LeBron, Wade, Melo, Bosh, et all) for several years now.

So why in the world would top prospects have stayed in school last year? There was a dearth of quality picks and the hype was there - it was basically bird in hand. Yet a host of players pulled a Matt Leinart and decided that being the BMOC was worth sticking around for another year. And like Leinart, a whole bunch of these guys are going to take a hit in their draft status and subsequent paychecks. Here is the Lost Cash all-star squad:

PG - Ronald Steele. Last year Steele was right there with guys like Jordan Farmar and Kyle Lowery (both went in the first round) and now he's falling off of draft boards faster than his Alabama team has fallen out of the NCAA Tournament picture. Last year was a decent point guard class which might have played a factor in his decision to return to 'Bama, but it seems he made a terrible choice. Luckily he can do it all over again and take his chances in 2008.
SG - Brandon Rush. His stock wasn't really that high last year, but his failure to grow as a player is going to doom him. Rush is one of those guys that should have gone pro as early as possible when his potential made teams scared to pass on him and before the holes in his game were exposed.
C - Joakim Noah. So far the damage doesn't look too severe, as most project him to be the number three pick in the draft. But that is still down from the #1 pick which he probably would have been last year, and honestly, I think his stock could drop some more by the time he gets worked out by individual teams. By the way, this guy has been front and center for over a year now, so why can't anyone say his name correctly? I was quite sure that that it was simply pronounced Jo-kim, but now I'm not even sure anymore. Wilbon calls him Yo-kim, Gus Johnson today called him Jo-quim, I've heard Yo-quim, Joy-kim. I mean, how is it possible that we don't have this figured out? It is kind of like how Dirk Nowitski was still being called No-wit-ski even though it was evident that No-vit-ski was the correct way. This never ceases to amaze me.
SF - Corey Brewer. Whatever Noah winds up losing will be nothing compared to his Florida teammate. It was widely reported that Brewer needed the financial security as his dad has diabetes and was working multiple jobs to pay the bills. Yet he got sucked into returning to school and went from a probable lottery pick to a late first rounder. I felt bad for Brewer last year and now I feel worse.
PF - Josh McRoberts. It seems pretty certain that McRoberts would have been taken #7 by the Hawks last year - if not higher - and now he will be lucky to be a lottery pick. He hasn't looked good at all this year for Duke.

Not one of these guys is a senior, so if all else fails, they can return to school again and take another shot at the process. But it seems that they all passed up a golden opportunity last year, when their stock was at an all-time high.

I'm guessing that this will never be part of the stay in school campaign.

With the Clock Winding Down ...

Your college basketball team is down by two with 16 seconds left. You have the ball with a chance to tie or win. Which player would you most want to have taking that shot?

If you've been watching a lot of college hoops this year (hopefully you have, because the game is as good as it has been in years), then your answer is probably either Kevin Durant or Acie Law. These two Lonestar State studs seem to be at the head of the class when it comes to making big baskets (with apologies to Alando Tucker of Wisconsin, Drew Neitzel of Michigan State, and Aaron Brooks of Oregon). Law is one of those guys that just wills in the ball in the basket and plays with ice water in his veins, while Durant is a once-in-a-generation talent that can get any shot at any time. They are 1A and 1B on any list I would make regarding last second shots.

That's why the difference between Texas A&M and Texas is so striking. The former goes to Law every single time they need a big play, without fail. The latter seems to be selecting that day's go-to guy by drawing names out of a hat.

Watching Texas play wild, thrilling games against A&M and Kansas last week, I was struck by several things: the brilliance of D.J. Augustine, the quiet emergence of Damion James, the inept coaching of Rick Barnes, and, of course, the freak of nature that is Kevin Durant. However, the thing that stood out the most is the way the Longhornes handle late-game situations, which is to say, not very well.

Texas has absolutely no plan of attack for getting points in the late moments of games. I counted six shots that would have either tied the game or given the Longhorns the lead in those two games and Durant didn't take a single one of them. Not only that, he never even touched the ball. D.J. Augustine jacked up a few (including the one that made it about 18 inches before Julian Wright nearly ate it), but the main culprit is A.J. Abrams. The sophomore Mos Def lookalike has deep range and can make shots, but every time he fires one up, it is a lost opportunity for a superior talent. I don't know how Texas has come to believe that Abrams is the go-to guy late in the game (or, more importantly, how he came to believe that), but they need to reverse their thinking. Because unlike Michigan State and Oregon and (obviously) Texas A&M, the Longhorns aren't letting their best player take the biggest shots.

Texas is 6-3 in games decided by four points or less, but unless they start going through Durant at the end of games, they won't be replicating that success in the Big Dance.