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.

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