2021 NCAA Tournament Preview: Friday, Early Afternoon Games

After a year without the Tournament, this is awesome!  So, let’s get right to the games…

#7 Florida (-1) vs. #10 Virginia Tech
12:15 pm, CBS
I love the first game of the Tournament.  It’s always interesting to think of what two teams are gonna tip us off.  And, this year, it’s a pretty good one.  Or, at least a competitive one.

Florida
The Gators come stumbling into this Tournament and, I think, are one of the few major seeding mistakes that the Committee made in what was a rather well-seeded tournament, in general.  This team is not a 7-seed especially after losing 3 of their last 4 with that only win a close one over a bad Vandy team in the SEC Tournament that they easily could have lost.  The big story of the UF season is the loss of Keyontae Johnson after he had a TERRIFYING collapse in a game at FSU in November.  Johnson, the preseason SEC POY, was the best and most important player on this team, and their ceiling is definitely lowered without him.  But, most importantly, it looks like he’s going to be okay.  Before the recent swoon, the Gators had been pretty good considering they lost their best player.  They are top-40 in both offense and defense, and have one of the most unsung stars of the SEC in the 6’5” SO Tre Mann (15.0 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 3.4 apg, 1.5 spg, 45/39/84%), who is a stud on both ends.  He is probably the best player that no one ever talks about.  They also have former McDonald’s All-American in 6’5″ SO Scottie Lewis (7.9 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 1.6 spg), but he has been surprisingly slow to emerge in now his sophomore year in Gainesville.  They have a couple of decent wings in Reisterstown’s own 6’3” JR sharpshooter Noah Locke (10.5 ppg, 41% from three) and 6’1” JR transfer from Cleve State Tyree Appleby (11.2 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 3.4 apg, 1.6 spg),.  And, losing Johnson has forced Mike White to go big and allowed for 6’11” JR transfer from Michigan Colin Castleton (12.7 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 2.3 bpg, 59% FG) to emerge as a really good SEC big.  The Gators are 8-0 this year when Castleton scores 14 or more.

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Oh, What a Day!

So, as of Wednesday night, my semester is over.  With all this newfound time, I was worried that I would not be able to find something to do to keep me busy on a lazy Saturday (you know, other than planning a wedding or packing to move or shopping for Christmas).  So, thank you, college hoops.  There is a quintuple-header on the ESPN family of networks today and it is incredible.  I do not know just how many of the five games I plan on watching (they’re all good), but I will definitely be watching the first two, so I will give my thoughts:

GAME 1:  Memphis 85, Georgetown 71
Each team is, by my account, a legitimate title contender.  This game showed why.  However, this game–maybe because of the opposition–also showed some flaws in the two teams.

First of all, Memphis looked really, REALLY good.  They are so athletic; they played incredible, hard-nosed, pressure defense; and, they controlled the offensive glass.  They would have beaten anyone in the country today.  Plus, as hyped as Roy Hibbert, DaJuan Summers, Derrick Rose and Joey Dorsey are, the underappreciated, Chris Douglas-Roberts, was easily the best player on the floor today.  Easily. 

There are two serious flaws that were on display today for the Tigers, however.  One, they are a really bad free-throw shooting team.  Second, they lack discipline.  They went down early and started looking at each other.  This team is good enough to win most of their games without any adversity, but the few games that they are challenged, it will be interesting to see how they respond.  They responded well today, so they passed test #1.

On the other side, the Hoyas may have displayed more serious flaws in this game.  Granted it was only one game, and it was on the road at the #2 team in the country, but without Jeff Green, they truly lack a go-to guy.  Roy Hibbert will be a lottery pick in the 2008 NBA Draft.  He is a first-team pre-season All-American and may well be a first-teamer at the end of the season.  But, he is not a go-to, put-his-team-on-his-back kind of player.  That was obvious today.  Furthermore, the Hoyas, whose style is not one which will ever blow anyone out, will need to win close games.  They showed today that they really struggle on the free-throw line.  A combination of poor free-throw shooting and lack of a go-to guy will probably lead to a team that struggles to close out close games. 

The good news for Hoya fans, though, is that they have Jonathan Wallace and DaJuan Summers.  They also play incredibe defense and are one of the best coached teams in the country.  They showed today how disciplined they are on both ends of the floor.  They had effective possessions, on both ends, coming out of timeouts and their guards are terrific.  Plus, the future is incredibly bright for this team because of the freshman backcourt of Chris Wright and Austin Freeman.  They are both special players that will step right in for Wallace and Jesse Sapp when they graduate.

Overall, though it is not time to overreact to one December game, but I think we did learn that Memphis is extraordinarily talented and a true threat to win the title.  I also think that we learned that Georgetown is going to be in the discussion and will probably improve with every game they play.  This is the first of a 4-year agreement between these two teams to play non-conference games, so this matchup should be fun for the rest of the decade.

Okay, Game 2 is on.  I’ll be back with a Xavier-Tennessee recap…

GAME 2:  Tennessee 82, Xavier 75
Other than my Temple Owls, my two favorite teams to watch in the 2007-08 college basketball season squared off in Cincinnati last afternoon.  It was an incredibly exciting game between two immensely talented teams.

What this game showed is that, while both are extremely important, there is a distinct difference between balance and depth.  Xavier is an incredibly balanced team.  The five starters plus 6th-man C.J. Anderson all average in double-figures.  They have a lot of talent with Drew Lavender, Josh Duncan and Stanley Burrell.  You need five good defenders on the floor at all times to stop the X’s offense.  However, today, it was Tennessee’s depth that overcame Xavier’s balance.

As I described in choosing Tennessee as the sleeper of this college hoops season, they have so much talent it is scary.  And, in choosing them as “my favorite,” I did not even know that J.P. Prince was such an impact player.  Prince, who has sat out the past 2 seasons because of injuries and transferring from Arizona, scored 21 points off the bench today in only his 3rd game as a Volunteer.  Prince’s 21, coupled with 12 from Wayne Chism, was enough to overcome the relative struggles of leading scorers Chris Lofton and JaJuan Smith.  And, this is all not even mentioning the star power of point guard Ramar Smith and Iowa transfer, Tyler Smith.  Tennessee’s depth clearly wore down the Musketeers today, as they ended the game on a 13-2 run, turning a 73-69 deficit into a 82-75 victory.

Both of these teams have immense talent and each should be considered the favorites to win their respective conferences.  They each have the potential to be second-week participants in the big tournament in March.  They are that good.

Okay, on to Texas Tech versus Stanford…

GAME 3:  Stanford 63, Texas Tech 61
Okay, I have to admit, I was Christmas shopping during a lot of this one, but I do have to say that this g.ame was between two tournament-caliber teams.  The Lopez twins, especially Brook, are phenomenal for Stanford, and Bobby Knight will flat-out coach the “Tech-sters” to the tournament because, well, he’s the best.

Sorry I didn’t see the whole game (remember I don’t get paid for this stuff), but at least I’m done my shopping.  Ya, get jealous.  Another great one is on now–Michigan St. versus Texas…

GAME 4:  Michigan St. 78, Texas 72
We saw today (and have been seeing all year) why Tom Izzo is indubitably the best coach in the country whose name does not start with k-r-z, as his Michigan St. Spartans took it to the previously-unbeaten Texas Longhorns.  Izzo’s teams are perenially the best inch-for-inch rebounders in the country and this year is no exception.  Though they do not have outlandish size, this team averages one offensive rebound in every two offensive possessions.  In fact, over 47% of their missed shots are rebounded by their offensive rebounders.  That is absolutely unbelievable; and, that is coaching.

Above in the recap of the second game of the day, we talked about the difference between depth and balance.  Well, Michigan St. has both, and they proved that today.  They have pre-season All-American Drew Neitzel and highly-touted freshman Kalin Lucas (who had a breakout game with his 18-point career high today).  They also have solid point guard Travis Walton and a pair of big men that can range from “solid” to “exceptional” in Drew Naymick and the much-improved Goran Suton.  But, what people do not realize is that the best player on this team, in my opinion, is Raymar Morgan.  Morgan had 18 quiet points today and is averaging almost 17 points and 8 rebounds per game this year, while shooting almost 60% from the floor.  This team is loaded and they showed it today.

Texas should not be too discouraged by this loss.  They have had a dream start to this season, with wins over Tennessee on a neutral court and UCLA on the road, en route to their 11-0 start, triggering Andy Glockner (probably my favorite college hoops analyst) to talk about them being better without Kevin Durant.  Now, this is a somewhat ridiculous opinion because (as Glockner freely acknowleges) it is not because Durant is gone, but because guys like D.J. Augustin and Damion James are a year older.  Either way, though, this Texas team continues to impress and surprise people with how good they are, and I do not think that today’s game in Detroit against a true Final Four contender is any step backwards.  Oh, by the way, did you know that Rick Barnes has made 12 consecutive NCAA tournaments?  The last time he missed the tournament was his first year at Clemson when he had an over-.500 record and NIT appearance with a team called by some as “the worst team in the history of the ACC.”  Can we officially say that Barnes is one of the 10 best coaches in the country?  I think so.

Expect both of these teams to be playing into the second week (maybe even the second weekend) of the tournament in March.

Okay, after almost 9 hours of hoops, Ina insists on watching something else.  Fortunately, she has reminded me why I asked her to marry me with her insistence on watching the football game.  Sacrifices–they are tough.  So, I will have to bail on assessing the Missouri-Illinois game (a game that I actually think is going to be a terrific game).

After a long, great Saturday of hoops, we saw some really, really good teams.  Throw in the great Pitt-Duke game from Thursday night, we have seen a half dozen teams that will be very difficult outs come March.  This is going to be a GREAT season of college hoops.