How do the four Final Four coaches stand up, in order of pure coaching ability?
Memphis will take on Texas in what should be a great game. I think Texas will pull this one out, with the “home-court” advantage working for them. The big matchup, of course, is Derrick Rose vs. D.J. Augustin. Augustin will have to win the matchup, and I think he will.
2:30PM: The Memphis backcourt has come out strong, with Rose and Chris Douglas-Roberts combining for 11 of their first 13 points, en route to an early 5 point lead. Even against an elite team like Texas, these two still have a distinct size and strength advantage over the opposing team’s guards. But Augustin is the smarter, more experienced player. It really is an interesting matchup.
2:36PM: Timeout Texas, as Rose and CDR now have 15 of Memphis’s 17 points, with CDR headed to the line. CDR just had a steal on a Texas pass that was right at him and Billy Packer claimed the Texas player “underestimated Douglas-Robert’s wingspan”. Take it easy on the star worship there, Billy.
2:49PM: Really poor offensive play by Texas right now. They’re putting up some really bad shots. Memphis has been dominant at both ends.
2:53PM: I love when announcers read these stats like, “When Texas loses, their opponents score more points and shoot a higher percentage from the field”. Wow, that really tells us a lot. I guess the takeaway on that stat is that it’s not good for Texas that Memphis is shooting a high percentage from the field and scoring a lot of points. No way!
3:00PM: Nice show-boating dunk by Joey Dorsey there after not bothering to make any effort to back on defense after a turnover. I have no problem with a dunk like that after you’ve made a steal or something, but I don’t think you should be drawing more attention to the fact that you just got a dunk because you were being lazy. Just lay it in, and get yourself down to the other end of the court.
3:13PM: That push by Texas at the end of the half kept them in this game. 39-28 Memphis.
3:38PM: Augustin just can’t get untracked. He can’t make a jump shot, can’t make a short-range shot. Texas is playing better now but they have no chance unless Augustin steps it up.
3:41PM: Now Packer is reading Dorsey’s mind and then questioning if what Dorsey is allegedly thinking is accurate. OK.
3:48PM: It’s looking over now, as Memphis has responded to Texas’s run with a run of their own and pushed the lead up to 15, with 12 minutes to play. Texas has to respond immediately.
4:18PM: Blowout win for Memphis. I’ll be back in about 45 minutes for Kansas-Davidson.
Kansas vs. Davidson:
Davidson will attempt to continue the “Cinderalla” run here against Kansas. I’ve bought into Davidson as being a legitamately awesome team, but I’ll go with Kansas in this one. Davidson’s offense obviously revolves around Stephen Curry and point guard Jason Richards. Kansas has two guards, Russell Robinson and Mario Chalmers, that are elite defenders and while there’s no way they will stop Curry, they should be able to hold him to under 25 points and win.
5:07PM: Robinson is on Curry to start and Chalmers is on Richards. Both Kansas guards have long arms and quick feet, it will be tough on the Davidson backcourt.
5:13PM: Great start for Davidson here. The fact that they’ve held Kansas to two points over 4 minutes into the game has to have given them an early confidence boost. I’m sure they have plenty of confidence at this point, but in the back of their minds they had to be slightly intimidated by this #1-seeded Jayhawk team. Also, Curry’s had two good opportunites that rimmed out.
5:24PM: Davidson is playing right with them, even with Curry scoreless. Neither team made a jump shot until over 8 minutes in, with Davidson hitting a 3. Richards is doing a Miles Simon impression, beating his defender and then hitting runners in the lane before the help defense gets to him. That’s been the most effective offense so far.
5:31PM: Curry got going in a big way, with a beautiful drive through traffic for a bucket, sandwiched between two nothing-but-net 3’s. I’ve seen some quick releases, but I don’t know if I’ve ever seen one as quick and accurate as this kid.
5:39PM: #24 for Davidson might be the reason they lose this game. He takes bad shots and pretty much never makes them. He has reddish hair, which is probably the problem. Name me a decent red-headed guard in the history of basketball.
6:00PM: Len Elmore has made a big deal about Kansas doing a good job on Curry, but I’m pretty sure he has 15 points here at the half, and that means he’s due for about 30-35 in the second-half, so I’m not going to give Kansas too much credit. Then again, I haven’t seen any evidence that even great defense stops Curry from scoring. Two point Kansas lead and it’s not hard to imagine Davidson winning this game.
6:39PM: This is a crucial point in the game for Davidson. Kansas is starting to pull away a little bit for the first time. The Jayhawk offense is finally starting to resemble the offense you expect. Maybe the Davidson players are starting to get a little worn down. They have to make sure the game doesn’t get away from them right here.
6:47PM: OK, good call by me on #24, apparently his name is Barr. He’s nailed 3 3’s in the last few minutes, and they’ve been huge. Davidson out to a 4-point lead, 8 minutes to play.
7:03PM: Davidson needs to get the ball more in the hands of Richards and Curry here.
7:10PM: Davidson is lucky that Thomas Sander is such a bad free throw shooter. His brick came hard of the rim and let Davidson keep possession, and Curry nailed a 3 off the inbounds, after a few straight misses. 59-57 Kansas, 1 minute left. It’s Madness!
7:13PM: 17 seconds left, Davidson down 2 with the ball. I think if you’re Davidson, you have to have Curry shoot a 3 for the win. Andrew Lovedale is fouled out, I don’t think you want overtime.
7:19PM: They were looking for the Curry 3-pointer, but the Kansas defense had him smothered. Great game, great run by Davidson. I wonder what Curry will end up doing now? He probably wouldn’t be higher than a late first-round pick, so does he leave? Maybe he’ll stay at Davidson for two more years. That could be very interesting. As long as they have him, they’ll be a dangerous lower-seeded tourney team. All set with four #1 seeds, should make for a great Final Four.
Last night’s games were pretty exciting. The West Virginia-Xavier game was a terrific game. Western Kentucky’s run against UCLA was somewhat surprising and exciting. The Louisville-Tennessee game was incredibly sloppy and somewhat disappointing as far as how the Vols did not show up in the second half. And, how good does UNC look right now? Answer: VERY good. That was a good team that they manhandled last night.
As for tonight, it should be another great quartet of high-quality basketball games.
Friday 7:10: #3 Wisconsin vs #10 Davidson
Cinderella, it’s getting close to midnight. Is there one last dance left in the Davidson Wildcats? That will be the question answered tonight. Davidson and Stephen Curry have been, unquestionably, the story of this year’s tournament and probably the one non-champion that will be most remembered from this tournament. They came from behind to knock off two ranked teams, including heavy favorite, Georgetown, in three days, and now their reward is a Sweet Sixteen matchup with the Wisconsin Badgers.
As good as Stephen Curry has been in the first two rounds, the most impressive thing in their two tournament games, for me (someone who, admittedly, did not watch one regular season SoCon game this year) has been the play of point guard Jason Richards. I knew that Richards led the country in assists per game–by a wide margin at 8.0 per game–so he had to be a good player, but he has been terrific. The other standout player for the Wildcats in the first two rounds has been big man, Andrew Lovedale. Lovedale, like Curry and even Richards to a certain extent, does not play like a guy on a SoCon team. At 6’8″, the guy has some solid post moves, a soft touch from as far out as 15 feet and is a tenacious rebounder. He seems like he would be good enough to get a lot of minutes in a major conference. So, this team is not just Curry–though without him, they certainly are not still playing. Curry was absolutely terrific, scoring 70 points in the first two rounds (55 of those 70 were scored in the games’ second halves) and willed his team to victory. It was obvious that he was the man that teams had to stop and two very well-coached teams still could not do it. He may need a third straight career game tonight, though.
As good of a coach as Mark Few or John Thompson III are, I believe that there are a handful of coaches around the country that are head-and-shoulders above their peers in ability to maximize talent and flat-out win basketball games. Bo Ryan is, without a doubt, on this list. Ryan, a Philly guy through and through, has made a real name for himself in Madison. If I were to ask: “What Big 10 school has the most league victories since 2001?” I don’t know how many people would answer Wisconsin with their first guess. In fact, I probably would have said Michigan St. Many may have guessed Indiana, but it actually is Wisconsin. And Ryan (who arrived in Madison in 2001) has done it with how many “stars?” Off the top of my head, I can only think of one Bo Ryan-coached player that is a really good NBA player–Devin Harris. Alando Tucker was drafted by Phoenix, but has only played 12 minutes this year. I don’t think Kammron Taylor is in the league, and Kirk Penny had a cup of coffee. So, Ryan does it without pro talent–and he does it every year.
This year, he is led by seniors Brian Butch and Michael Flowers. I have said many times that I believe Flowers to be one of the five best perimeter defenders in the country–more on this in a minute. The Badgers have also seen production from junior Marcus Landry and sophomores Brian Bohannon (sharp-shooter extraordinaire) and rising-star Trevon Hughes. Hughes, Landry, and Butch provide just enough offense to allow the defense to carry the day. This defense is led by Flowers, a high energy guy who almost always draws the other team’s best perimeter scorer. I wonder where this leads us…
THE PICK: For Davidson to win this game, they are going to need another big-time performance from Stephen Curry. Honestly, I just do not see that happening against Michael Flowers. This matchup is the key to this game, and I give the advantage to the defender. That combined with the fact that Bo Ryan had 5 days to prepare for Davidson leads me to believe that Wisconsin will win this game somewhat handlely, though the score may seem close because the Badgers do not really blow people out. I expect Wisconsin to be playing again on Sunday.
Friday 7:27: #2 Texas vs #3 Stanford
As I said when talking about the Louisville-Tennessee matchup yesterday, if you had told me that Texas and Stanford would meet in this year’s tournament, I would have guessed that it was at least an Elite Eight game, if not in the Final Four. But, we get this game in the Sweet Sixteen. As much as I was looking forward to the big 2-3 matchup yesterday, I have been even more excited for this one.
Stanford comes in with incredibly strong credentials for a #3 seed. They were clearly the second-best team in the best conference. They played a decent non-conference schedule and only tripped up once (a road loss to Siena). They then reached the finals of the Pac 10, before losing a close one to UCLA. They were undefeated at home and 26-7 overall, with two of the losses in overtime. This team is really, really good. Everyone knows about the Lopez twins, particularly Brook (the All-American), but another guy who has been maligned all year is their point guard Mitch Johnson. I watched a good amount of Stanford games and never understood why people were so down on him. He is not a big-time scorer (less than 7 ppg), but he is a great floor general and a very good perimeter defender. He will be tested tonight. They also have some really nice parts other than the Lopez’s, in SG Anthony Goods and swingman Lawrence Hill. This is an experienced, confident team with a superstar and a defensive mindset. They play fundamental basketball and believe in each other–that all adds up to a tough draw.
On the other side, I will say it again–I think Rick Barnes is a fantastic coach. I might be the only one outside of Austin, TX, who thinks that, but I really do. I think he does a lot with not as much talent as people give him credit for. Yes, he recruited Kevin Durant and D.J. Augustin, but as we have seen often, one superstar on the college level is not enough anymore. This team starts with Augustin, who is probably the best point guard in the country, but A.J. Abrams can really light it up, as evidenced by a pair of 26-point games in the tournament so far. They also have incredible athleticism in Damion James (who has really developed into a big-time player in his own right) and Justin Mason. Connor Atchley has also developed under Barnes to become a more than serviceable big man. Atchley exhibits a rare combination of shot-blocking (69 on the year) and three-point shooting (38-87, 43.7%). This team comes at you in all ways and can play different styles. They are not that deep, but Stanford’s methodical offense should allow them to be okay in their 6-man rotation.
THE PICK: In a really, really tough game to pick, I am going to go with the conference that I have been supporting all year–the Pac 10–and pick the Stanford Cardinal to win what is going to be a fantastic basketball game. I obviously would not be surprised either way, but I just think that the experience and the heart of the twins, Johnson and Hill will be enough tonight. I actually picked this team to go to the Final Four when the brackets came out and I am sticking with it.
Friday 9:40: #1 Kansas vs #12 Villanova
The non-Cinderella 12-seed, Villanova, gets a dose of reality as they take on #1 seed Kansas. The Wildcats pulled off a nice come-from-behind upset of Clemson in the first round and then caught a relative break with #13 Siena in the second round (though Siena is a really good team that will be easily the best mid-major next year–expect a 6 or 7 seed for the Saints in 2009). However, I just do not see them with the horses to keep up with Kansas tonight.
As Scottie goes, so goes ‘Nova. Scottie Reynolds is the heart and soul of this team, and the Cats rely on him to carry them–oftentimes they rely on him too much. He takes a lot of shots and makes a lot of shots. The rest of the supporting cast is, in my opinion, either too young or just not that talented. This, the last team in the field, will probably find themselves quite overmatched at times tonight. That being said, Reynolds can easily go off for 40 and Jay Wright gets his teams prepared. They will need all of Reynolds’ points and a big game on the inside from Dante Cunningham , if they want to pull off the upset.
On the other side, not all that many people are talking about Kansas because of the dominating performances of North Carolina. This team might be playing the best basketball in the country right now–at the right time. I have heard several coaches in the field give interviews and just about every one of them, when asked the question, “If not your team, who is the best team in the country?” And, every one that I have heard answer the question, has said “Kansas.” Granted, these are coaches who are often only focused on their teams and the teams they are playing, but that is saying something. With Brandon Rush, Mario Chalmers, Darrell Arthur, Sherron Collins, Russell Robinson, Darnell Jackson, Sasha Kaun……….this team is just too deep and too good. Plus, I think Bill Self is an excellent coach and will have them ready to play both tonight and on Sunday.
THE PICK: I think it would take the game of Scottie’s life and then some for Villanova to pull off this upset. They have had a very successful year, but I am pretty sure that it ends tonight.
Friday 9:57: #1 Memphis vs #5 Michigan State
This is another very interesting game tonight. Michigan St. has incredible talent (I even thought they were a national champion contender in my pre-season analysis), but has struggled at time incorporating the youth into the system. They are finally playing at an incredibly high level and it may be just in time. On the other side, Memphis, as they have for three years now, gone through a season of workman-like dominance. Par for the course: another 33-1 regular season, another Sweet Sixteen appearance, and no one believes in them. This weekend will prove who is right and who is wrong.
For the Spartans, they are led by the inconsistent, but often brilliant, play of Drew Neitzel. Neitzel, another much-maligned player, has put in two very good tournament games thus far. They need him to continue to be that leader because no one else is really taking on that role. Sophomore Raymar Morgan is probably the most talented player on the team and ought to be ready to be the leader of this team, but he does not seem to want that role. Freshman Kalin Lucas is just that–a freshman–albeit, an immensely talented one. Coach Tom Izzo has even said that Lucas is the fastest player he has ever coached, wow. They have also started to get serious inside play from Goran Suton. If he and the red-headed Drew Naimick can give State some bruising inside play, they have a shot tonight.
As I said in the opening paragraph, this Memphis team is a lot like its two predecessors, in that they had a dominating regular season and just kept winning in the tournament. The other two fell a game short of the Final Four, and I am not too sure that this one won’t have the fate, but for now they have to take care of Michigan St. before we find out. A very deep team that has just about everything you need on a basketball team. They have a terrificly talented point guard, in Derrick Rose, who can score, but prefers to pass. They have outside shooters who, on any given night, can range from capable to deadly (Doneal Mack, Antonio Anderson, Willie Kemp). They have two absolutely bruising, defensive-minded bigs, who are skilled offensively as well and who work in tandem, so they can limit foul trouble and fatigue (Robert Dozier and Joey Dorsey). They have a high-energy swingman (Shawn Taggart) and a high-energy point guard (Andre Allen) off the bench. And, to top it all off, they have a superstar who can almost score at will (and often does), but does not need to score to be effective (Chris Douglas-Roberts). This team is stacked and we all know that Coach Cal will have them playing with the requisite chip on their shoulders.
THE PICK: There is so much made of Memphis’s poor free throw shooting (and somewhat deservedly so, since they are the second worst in the country) that you would think that every game comes down to free throws. Yes, Memphis shoots an abysmal and embarrassing percentage from the free-throw line. However, they did shoot poorly all year and still went 33-1. THIRTY-THREE AND ONE! Yes, they played in Conference USA, but they completely rolled through that league and only lost one game in the MOST DIFFICULT non-conference schedule in the country. A few of the teams that they beat this year: Oklahoma, UConn, USC, Cincinnati, Arizona, Siena, Gonzaga, Richmond, etc. If free throws were such a detriment to their ability to win basketball games, then don’t you think they might have lost more than one game against some of the better teams in the country? I am not saying that it won’t be their demise eventually, but I am saying that they made it this far with bad free-throw shooting, so I am not picking against them now. I think Memphis wins tonight, and fairly easily.
Second Games: Louisville vs. Tennessee and UCLA vs. W. Kentucky
10:05PM: Bruce Pearl is sticking with J.P. Prince at the point to start the game. The point guard play (both who and what) will be interesting to track for the Vols.
10:19PM: Louisville is playing great defense at the start here. Tennessee can’t get a good look at all.
10:29PM: It’s a butt-whooping so far. Might be time for Bruce to try a new point guard! 24-11 Louisville.
10:47PM: Wow. This is just chaos. Both teams are just pushing the pace relentlessly, and they’re not doing a good job of it. A game between these two teams could be ridiculously entertaining and awesome, or it could be what it’s been so far. It’s just been a mess. Tennessee came back to cut the lead to 5, but just coughed it up with two bad turnovers. 31-23 Louisville.
10:48 PM: Apparently Louisville has 14 TURNOVERS!? With 3 minutes to play in the half. And they’re LEADING BY 10! That pretty much says it all.
11:04 PM: UCLA is crushing W. Kentucky. I’m gonna check out the Daily Show for a few minutes.
11:34PM: I’m not sure who it was, but one of the Tennessee players just decided to take on four defenders by himself on an always effective 1-on-4 break. Tennessee needs to start playing with some sort of discipline if they want to win this game.
12:12AM: In a shocking turn of events, W. Kentucky has come back from way down and are down 4 to UCLA with 6 minutes to play. How can you beat March Madness?
12:30AM: It looks like UCLA will hold on for the win here, up 6 and going to the line with 1:25 to play. I’m ready for bed. I’ll give this night a solid 7.5 out of 10 for entertainment value.
OK, welcome to the first ever BSB Live Blog! I think these things are all the rage on sports blogs, so why the heck not try it? The first 45 minutes of this will be really bad though because, honestly, I’m more concerned with eating my dinner than posting on here.
First Games: West Virginia vs. Xavier and North Carolina vs. Washington St.
7:19PM: As I write this, Xavier has already jumped out to an 8-0 lead and Bob Huggins has called a timeout to get things under control. The best news so far is that Bill Raftery is calling the game. I must note that Xavier is playing “mantoman” defense.
7:28PM: As expected, CBS is switching us over to the North Carolina-Washington St. game. I’m fine with this. Dick Enberg and Jay Bilas on the call. I’m also fine with this. A lot of people seemed to have decided to hate Bilas this season, but I’m not one of them. He’s ok. I swear this will get better when I’m done eating. This Jamaican Jerk chicken is better than the Sweet 16 right now.
7:48PM: Well played beginning to the game. WSU has forced some turnovers and they look good. Obviously a heavily partisan crowd in favor of the Tarheels, considering the game is in Charlotte. 13-12 UNC at the halfway mark of the first half.
8:00PM: Things have gotten sloppy now and that probably favors UNC. Both teams have had some bad turnovers, but WSU isn’t going to beat many teams if they’re not taking care of the ball. UNC can overcome it and, so far, they have. They’re up 5 even though Hansbrough hasn’t scored yet.
8:08PM: Under 4-minute stoppage, and the WSU turnovers have continued, while UNC got two open looks at 3’s and knocked them down. Danny Green had a WIDE open look, which is the other thing the Cougars cannot let happen in this game. And Wayne Ellington made one of those shots that make him look like an NBA player. With his size and smoothness, he can remind you of Kobe Bryant at times, but he doesn’t go to the rim like Kobe at all. Not many guards do. UNC up 27-18.
8:19PM: Well, I’m gonna call this game over. Washington State gave up another wide-open 3 at the half-time buzzer, this one to Ty Lawson, to put the Tarheels up 35-21. It looks like the WSU gameplan was all about stopping Hansbrough in this game but, unfortunately for them, UNC is certainly no one-man team. You know you have a good team when your sixth man can go out and put up 12 points in the first-half against a defensive team like WSU. Tony Bennett and his staff will have to come up with some changes during half-time, but it looks like they’re beat.
8:39PM: With West Virginia having stormed back from a 28-10 deficit, CBS makes the switch back to that game. CBS has gotten light years better at deciding when to switch games. It turns out people would rather watch two really good teams in close game than watch a great team blow someone out. It took CBS about 20 years to figure that one out. West Virginia had cut it to one point, Xavier now leads 44-40.
8:48PM: Joe Alexander is taking over in the second-half. A lot has been made about how Bob Huggins turned him into a post-player this year, but it really is an indication of how good a coach Huggins is. He sees this 6’8″ face-the-basket player and just knows that he needs that guy to learn how to post up. With his quickness and strength, Alexander is now devastating when he catches the ball near the basket. I think he has 11 points in the half, with 11:39 to play.
8:57PM: Back and forth, back and forth they go in Phoenix! I think WVU and Xavier just changed leads about 5 times in 2 minutes of play. Alexander and the other WVU post players need to go at Josh Duncan with his 4 fouls. They already have the momentum, if they can put Duncan out of the game, they’ll have the clear upper hand.
9:05PM: That was an AWFUL charge call on the baseline just now. I’m sure Bry didn’t like that one.
9:19PM: It’s Madness! This second-half has been great. Josh Duncan has single-handedly kept Xavier in it. He’s been a monster.
9:25PM: I’m not sure what Drew Lavender was doing on that last possession. It looked like he just wanted to be the hero. Why would you not push the ball up and get it to Duncan? And a great shot by Alexander to tie it up. This has really been the Alexander and Duncan show. Whoever plays better in overtime will probably win the game for their team. Both have 4 fouls though, so that could be huge.
9:27PM: Alexander’s out. Advantage Xavier.
9:37PM: Big shot by Lavender. When guys are that short, don’t you just cringe every time they shoot? I’m thinking, “Why not just pass it to that guy a foot taller who can also shoot really well?”.
9:52PM: Great game, obviously. The nail in the coffin was WVU inexplicably leaving B.J. Raymond wide-open for a 3 off an inbounds pass with 2 seconds on the shot clock. Xavier (and the A-10!) is on to the Elite 8. Nice!
With apologies to anyone who is not a college basketball fan, for several reasons. One, they have probably been pretty bored with the content on BSB, and, two, they are missing out on the greatest annual sporting event in the world.
Anyway, we have now arrived to the Sweet Sixteen, where we really get to separate the Cinderellas from their glass slippers and see who is still standing. The following are my own personal takes on the four games tonight.
Thursday 7:10: #3 Xavier vs #7 West Virginia
Though a 7-seed, this West Virginia team is very confident and very well-equipped to make this unlikely run even more unlikely. Their superstar, Joe Alexander, was not impressed by this region’s #2 seed, Duke, saying that they “definitely wouldn’t dominate the Big East” and that “the top six or seven teams [in the Big East] are right on par with Duke.” In another fantastic quote for all the Duke-haters out there, reserve WVU guard Cam Thoroughman asked if Greg Paulus was one of the eight McDonald’s All-Americans on the Duke roster and, when finding out that he was, responded with “Oh my god. Are you kidding?”
All told, though, this Mountaineer team is really talented and really well-coached to go along with their arrogance. Other than superstar Joe Alexander and everyone’s darling, Joe Mazzula (the backup point guard who almost had a triple-double against the Dukies), West Virginia also gets good offensive production from sharp-shooting guards Alex Ruoff and Darris Nichols and the do-everything sophomore forward Da’Sean Butler. With Bobby Huggins at the helm, this team gets after it on the defensive end as well.
The other side of this game is a team that is not getting much press–and that’s just the way they have done it all year long. The Xavier Musketeers have been one of the country’s best teams from day one and still people have difficulty naming one player on the Xavier roster. This team stops and starts with their diminutive point guard, Drew Lavender. Lavender, a transfer from Oklahoma, looks like he may finally be fully recovered from an ankle injury suffered earlier in the year. Other key players on a team that has six guys in double-figure scorers include a defensive-stopper and underrated offensive scorer in Stanley Burrell (BSB’s choice for A-10 player of the year) and an inside-outside threat in forward Josh Duncan. This team wins in the ultimate “team” fashion, which is easy to root for.
THE PICK: I am slightly biased because of my shameless support for the Atlantic 10, as a conference, but I do like Xavier to win this game and move on to the Elite Eight. I would not be surprised to see West Virginia win tonight and then even again on Saturday, but in this one, I like the team style of Xavier to prevail.
Thursday 7:27: #1 North Carolina vs #4 Washington State
This game is one that I think may surprise some people. I do not think Washington State is going to win the game, but I also do not think they are going to get blown out. Either way, you can be sure that UNC’s run of consecutive 100-point games is going to end.
Washington State plays some of the best defense in the country. In fact, given the quality of their conference this year, I might say that their defensive numbers (57 PPG against, 42% FG against, 33% 3-pt against, 13 forced turnovers/game) are the most impressive in the country. On the offensive end, they have a full team approach, but can struggle at times. They do have two incredible talents, in Derrick Low and Kyle Weaver–both of whom played on the Pan-Am under 21-team (UNC only had one player selected for that team)–and decent complements in Taylor Rochestie and Aron Baines. The Cougars finished 4th in the nation’s best conference and went undefeated in a non-conference schedule that was highlighted by wins at Gonzaga and at Baylor. This is a battle-tested, tough, senior-laden team with a great coach. They are not to be taken lightly.
On the other side, however, is arguably the “best team in the country,” and inarguably the “most impressive team in the tournament thus far.” Since they are on ESPN twice a week, most everyone knows this team inside and out, but let us just say that they are VERY good. I think that the injury to Ty Lawson has made UNC much better now than they would be if he had played the whole season. He is fresh and ready to go, while Quentin Thomas’s biggest problem–confidence–has been greatly improved by starting nine ACC games this year.
THE PICK: North Carolina moves on, but not without a struggle. I think they get to 70 points–which should be enough–but it may take them most of the game. I don’t think Washington State is going to win this game, but I definitely don’t think it will be a blowout.
Thursday 9:40: #1 UCLA vs #12 Western Kentucky
The darlings of the first round were the Hilltoppers of Western Kentucky. That shot by Ty Rogers to beat Drake at the buzzer may be the opening clip of this year’s One Shining Moment montage, and now Cinderella had five days to figure out a way to beat the Bruins.
Though Rogers hit the game-winner against Drake, and Tyrone Brazelton has poured in 48 points in the first two tournament games, this team is really centered on the production of senior Courtney Lee–as shown by his 29 points against San Diego in a dominating performance. Many people project Lee to be a first-round pick in the upcoming NBA draft, which combined with their experience on the perimeter and confidence in abundance, means that despite their seed, this team should not be taken lightly and is not all that much of fluke to still be playing. Their meddle will be tested tonight, though.
UCLA, my pick from day one to cut down the nets, has “benefited” from some generous officiating as of late, but I am still not concerned. Most Final Four teams that I can remember have had to avoid a close loss in an early round before moving on. This team has everything you would want in a championship team–they play defense; they have at least one go-to guy (Love); they have a super-talented wing player (Westbrook); they have an incredibly steady, solid and fearless point guard (Collison); and they have a plethora of physical, defensively-talented role players to check other teams’ better players and get big-time rebounds when needed (M’bah a Moute, Mata-Real, etc.). They have it all, and I still think that they will be the champions of this tournament when it is all said and done.
THE PICK: UCLA in a close game, but the score, but in a game that will never really be in doubt. It might be an 8-point win, but at no point will you really think that they might actually lose.
Thursday 9:57: #2 Tennessee vs #3 Louisville
Maybe the best matchup of the tournament to date. These two teams are immensely talented, well-coached and intense. Before the brackets came out, if you had told me that these two teams would meet in the tournament, I would have told you that it was a probably a Final Four game. But, the bracket gods (or devils) gave us this game in the Sweet Sixteen round.
Louisville, before a 3-point loss at Georgetown and an OT loss to Big East champion, Pitt, had been one of the hottest teams in the country, winning 15 out of 17, through the Big East. Then, after the two losses to end the season, wound up (deservedly) as a #3 seed. Other than UNC, the Cardinals may have been the most impressive team in the tournament’s first weekend. In the first round, they beat Boise St. by 18 in a game that was never close, and then, in the second round, they simply hammered a good Oklahoma team by 30–78-48. This team, like a more glorified Xavier team, is extremely balanced on offense. They have eight guys that average between 6 and 12 points per game, led by David Padgett (11.7). Padgett, along with Earl Clark, Derrick Caracter (a blue-chip recruit, who many thought would be a one-and-done guy, but cannot even crack the starting lineup in this his sophomore season) and Juan Palacios, control the middle. They also shoot a lot of threes, with four players having made at least 45 three-pointers this year–Jerry Smith, Edgar Sosa, Andre McGee, and Terrence Williams. Williams, who, in my opinion, is clearly the Cardinals’ best player does a little (or sometimes a lot) of everything. The 6’6″ junior is second on the team in scoring (11.2 ppg), rebounding (7.3 rpg), steals (43), and 3-pointers made (46). He also has 21 blocks on the year and, oh by the way, is far and away the team’s leader in assists at almost 3.5 per game. His one weakness is at the foul line, where he only shoots 56%.
The other side is a team in orange that is one of only a few teams in America that can match the depth of talent that Louisville trots out there. Chris Lofton may be my favorite player in America because of his mental toughness and flair for the dramatic. But despite being the Vols leading scorer and only senior starter, Tennessee gets their leadership and intensity from The Smiths. Incredibly athletic and tenacious, the unrelated Smiths (JaJuan, Ramar, and Tyler) have been leading Tennessee for most of the season. In fact, the newest member of this team, Tyler Smith (a transfer from Iowa), has probably been their best player and emotional leader. And, even past The Smiths and Lofton, Tennessee has some immensely talented players. In particular, the blue-collar forward Wayne Chism and the emerging star, sophomore transfer J.P. Prince. Prince was actually awarded the starting point guard spot for the NCAA tournament. Prince had to sit out the first semester because of academic issues, but burst on to the scene when he became eligible. He scored in double-figures in four of his first six games, including 23 in a win at Xavier. He then spent the rest of the season establishing a better fit within the already successful Tennessee system, until he now is starting in their biggest games of the year. He may be the most important player on the floor tonight because Louisville throws a lot of pressure at opposing offenses.
THE PICK: I am going to, grudgingly, go with Louisville to win this game. I worry about Prince against the pressure (9 turnovers in his two starts in the tournament), and I just think Louisville is slightly more talented. Terrence Williams will be the best player on the floor tonight and should get a lot of help in the likes of Padgett, Caracter, Smith, Sosa, Clark, and McGee, among others. Either way, I expect an absolutely phenomenal nightcap to a great night of basketball. What a tournament!
Which Sweet Sixteen game is the most interesting?
Are the first four days of the NCAA tournament the best four [sports] days of the year?
Way back in November, I wrote a piece outlining the eight teams that I thought had a chance to win the championship. They were (in a relative order): UCLA (the favorite), Tennessee, Memphis, North Carolina, Kansas, Georgetown, Louisville and Michigan St. Now, on the even of the tournament, if you ask me again, my answer will be somewhat similar, with the only exceptions are that I would take out Michigan St. and add Duke and Texas. I would probably change the order to (in my opinion today): UCLA, North Carolina, Kansas, Memphis, Georgetown, Tennessee, Texas, Louisville and Duke. I am not saying this to say how great my predictions were because I did not really go out on a limb with anyone, except Michigan St. (who didn’t pan out) and maybe Tennessee (though it didn’t take long for everyone to catch on). The interesting thing about the fact that the two lists are so similar is that I cannot remember a year that has panned out, for the most part, pretty much exactly as most people would have envisioned. There are no surprise great teams. There are no pre-season top 10’s that missed the tournament. Things kind of held to how everyone thought they would. I was just saying the other day that I cannot recall another college basketball season where if you had asked me every day from October to March who the best team was, I would have answered with the exact same thing, every day. Maybe that is just my blind faith in this UCLA team, but it is still odd that I never questioned it.
If you have never gone to a low-major championship game, particularly one on a participant’s home floor, you are seriously missing out. I had my first opportunity to do just that on Saturday, when I went to the America East Championship between UMBC and Hartford at the RAC, on the campus of UMBC.
I do not want to get into too much detail about the game itself because it is, well, the America East, but regardless of the “level of play” (which is a farse because these guys can play with just about anyone), the game was a thrilling display of pure collegiate emotion. UMBC, on the strength of incredible long-range shooting, jumped out to a 25-6 lead and ran right in halftime, leading 41-23. Out of halftime, Hartford coach–and long-time John Chaney assistant at Temple–Dan Leibovitz made some necessary adjustments and the Hawks went on a run early in the second, getting as close as 10 points. However, the Retrievers would not be denied, turning the outside shooting back on and ended up winning going away, 82-63, as the whole place stormed the court, chanting “We want Tennessee! We want Tennessee!” Pretty amazing scene for someone who went to an undergraduate institution that no one has ever heard of.
Moving forward, the Retrievers drew Georgetown in the first round. As I said in my initial bracket reactions, probably not the best matchup for UMBC. No mid-major (with the possible exception of UNC-Asheville and the 7’7″ dude) can matchup with skilled 7’2″ center, Roy Hibbert. UMBC’s tallest starter is 6’8″ Justin Fry and he is listed at 220 pounds (I am thinking he would be lucky to actually weigh 200). Plus, Georgetown has experience, a great coach and immense talent all over the floor. So, what can UMBC do on Friday?
Well, personally, I believe that they can win. What do they say wins in March?
- 1). Experience. UMBC starts four (yes, FOUR) 1000-point scorers. Cavell Johnson and Ray Barbosa scored 1000 points at James Madison, before transferring this year. Darryl Proctor scored 1000 points for Coppin St. before tranferring this year. And, the leader of this team for the last three years, before this incredible influx of talent is senior SG Brian Hodges, who scored all 1000+ points in a Retriever uniform.
- 2). Guard Play. Barbosa (the America East’s leading scorer this year) and Hodges both play on the perimeter and are very capable ballhandlers and leaders, but this team is driven by the smallest guy on the court. Junior PG Jay Greene is second in the nation in assists, at 7.3 per game and leads the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio at 3.6. Yes, Greene dishes out over seven assists a game and only turns the ball over twice per game. The emotional leader of this team, Greene also pulls down 2.5 rebounds a game, which is not all that impressive, unless of course, you are 5’7″ TALL!
- 3). Regular Season Tests. To win the in the tournament, you have to be “tournament-ready.” UMBC played a difficult non-conference schedule and played it very well. They beat two regular season conference champions, Morgan State at home and American on the road. They were 3-0 against the Atlantic 10, with wins on the road against LaSalle and Richmond and a home win over George Washington. They also played at West Virginia, at Wichita St., and at Ohio St. (a game in which they had multiple late second-half leads before eventually losing by 9).
- 4). Coaching. Coach Randy Monroe is only in his fourth year, but was named America East Coach of the Year, and has done a fantastic job seemlessly incorporating three transfers–albeit, talented ones–into the lineup. Then again, he is no Thompson.
- 5). Best Player on the Floor Theory. Here is where the game may come down to. On defense, can UMBC’s “bigs” contain Hibbert? And, on offense, can someone step up and be the “best player on the floor” for the day? Ray Barbosa is UMBC’s most talented scorer, but will probably be staring at Jesse Sapp’s jersey all day. Sapp, as one of the best perimeter defenders in the country, should be able to neutralize Barbosa, which is why I believe that this game will come down to someone like Brian Hodges. And though I am a UMBC student, I am rooting as much for him as I am for the school he represents because I have gotten to know him personally over the past couple of months, and I can guarantee you that there isn’t a more humble, more dedicated, and a better person on and off the court than Brian Hodges, and after 3 years of being a great player on a bad team, it is about time he gets to revel in being a great player on a great team.