Monday, March 12, 2007

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 - ?

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