2021 NCAA Tournament: First Four Preview

So, BSB might actually be back this time.   Doogan and I started this as an alternative to sending each other overly wordy, unabridged emails about sports.  And, since it’s been a long, hard winter for all of us, Doogan and I and our master admin, J, are in need of an outlet for “thoughts.”  So, let’s fire up the BSB machine again and even if it’s just a glorified email exchange, it will be cathartic for the three of us.

And,  is there a better time of year to start back up?  The NCAA Tournament, a Sixers playoff chase, the start of an interesting Phillies season…and, a ton of tennis tournaments and the Summer Olympics for me to write really long posts about to no one but myself!!!

So, let’s get this started with a preview of Thursday night’s First Four games.  I’ll get another one up tomorrow previewing Friday’s First Round games and then we’ll go from there.

#16 Mount Saint Mary’s (+1) vs. #16 Texas-Southern
 5:10 pm, truTV
Alright, alright, I recognize that these 16v16 games are kind of like tennis or the biathalon in that I care about and enjoy them WAYYY more than most of even the most ardent sports fans.  So, I’ll try and be short on them…I will probably fail at that attempt.  This game is one of those classic First Four games (if that phrase even means anything) with a (SWAC/MEAC) team vs. a non-champion from a bad league.  The winner of this game gets to get destroyed on national TV by Michigan on Saturday.

Mount Saint Mary’s
The best story from this game is the 5’7″ point guard on Mount St. Mary’s, Damian Chong-Qui.  Chong-Qui, who turned into the go-to guy just 6 games into the season when they lost Jalen Gibbs for the season, has a ridiculous backstory.  The Sun article is really good, but in summary, when Qui was 4, his family was the victim of a home invasion where his dad was shot once and stabbed five times and lost the use of his left hand.  Just TWO MONTHS LATER, his mother was randomly murdered, being mistaken for someone else.  When he was twelve, Qui’s dad dropped Qui off and went to get dinner for them.  While waiting for food, someone fired shots into a crowd and one of the random bullets struck the older Qui in the back and he is now paralyzed from the waist down.  And, a just year later, his son Damian, won the starting point guard job for powerhouse McDonough despite being only a freshman and standing a mere 4-feet-9-inches tall.  Qui, who says he “doesn’t believe in height” is now a budding star for MSM, averaging 14.9 ppg, 4.1 rpg (again, at 5’7”), and 5.6 apg.  He’s incredible!  They also have a strong, athletic frontline of 6’9″ JR Nana Opuku (10.3 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 2.0 bpg), 6’9″ JR Malik Jefferson (8.4 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 58% FG), and 6’8″ JR Mazie Offurum (9.4 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 2.0 apg).

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Sweet Sixteen Picks – Thursday

I can’t remember a better first weekend of the tournament (though, I expect I say something to that effect every year, but this one seemed different), and now I can’t explain how great this Sweet 16 is looking.  There isn’t one total mismatch and all 16 of these teams are playing very well and none should be just “happy to be there.”  And, yet, there is not a clear favorite or underdog.  Obviously, Dayton and Stanford are surprises to be here, but they play each other and both are playing really well.  There is only one team that is more than a 5-point underdog and that San Diego State, who spent most of the year in the Top 10 in the country and even cracked the Top 5.  At least a dozen (maybe even 13 or 14) of these teams are legit Final Four contenders where we wouldn’t look back and think it absurd that they made it.  And, about half of them are legit title contenders.  This is going to be spectacular.  So, let’s make some picks, shall we?  The stars rate my confidence – going by a 5-star scale where 5 stars is a mortal lock.

Memphis, TN – Thursday, 7:15 – Dayton vs Stanford (-3)

These are the two “Cinderella” teams of the bunch and they happen to play each other in the region that holds the #1 team in America possibly waiting for them in the Elite Eight.  But, these two teams (particularly Stanford) are not your typical “happy-to-be-here” underdogs that we see in most years (Florida Gulf Coast in 2013, Ohio in 2012, Richmond in 2011, Cornell in 2010…well you get the idea).  Dayton is a legitimately solid team that earned an at-large bid from a 6-bid league, while Stanford has top-level talent, even though they muddled through various parts of the season.  I might be the only one, but I really like this Stanford team and think they have the talent to play with the best teams in the country.  Chasson Randle is a special point guard, and Dwight Powell is a borderline star.  Plus, when they added Josh Huestis to the starting lineup, they got INCREDIBLY big.  Their starting lineup is 6’2″, 6’6″, 6’7″, 6’10”, and 6’11”.  That’s NBA size that I think will overpower Dayton here.  A game like this usually begs me to take the points, but I am going to lay the 3 here.
The Pick:  Stanford -3 (**)

Anaheim, CA – Thursday, 7:47 – Baylor vs Wisconsin (-3.5)

Did any team in the tournament look any better than Baylor last weekend?  They pounded a good Nebraska team before absolutely annihilating Doug McDermott and Creighton in the second round.  And, this after a blisteringly hot February that led into a run to the Big XII title game.  I am not sure anyone wants to play this Baylor team right now, but you know Wisconsin won’t be scared.  Bo Ryan’s teams are always prepared (though, they seem to underachieve a bit in the tournament) and this team, in particular, does something that Bo’s teams of the past didn’t do – score.  They do give it up defensively more than usual, but the Badgers can spread you out with all 5 guys showing long-range potential, even their 7-foot center Frank Kaminsky.  This should be a fantastic game, but I am not sure that Wisconsin can keep up with the athletes that Baylor has – if the Baylor of the past month shows up…which is still a question mark.  But, with Baylor playing so well, I feel you have to take the 3.5 here, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see them win outright.
The Pick:  Baylor +3.5 (***)

Memphis, TN – Thursday, 9:45 – UCLA vs Florida (-5)

As good as the Baylor-Wisconsin game should be, this is probably the game of the night.  A game of contrasting styles to the max, as UCLA loves to get up and down the floor, as the 15th fastest team in the country on offense without sacrificing any efficiency, as they rank 12th in the country with 1.17 points per possession.  This team is so gifted offensively with matchup nightmares all over the court, most notably their 6’8″ point-forward Kyle Anderson, who is averaging a ridiculous stat line of 15 points, 8.5 boards, and 6.5 assists per game.  Those are outlandish numbers in a 40-minute game with a :35 second shot clock.  And, what makes this game so great is that this incredibly fast and efficient UCLA offense is going up against maybe the best defensive team in the country (they are actually ranked #2 behind Arizona in adjusted dEff).  When UCLA has the ball, this is going to be unbelievably intriguing.  However, the other side is where the mismatch occurs and probably where the game will be decided.  Florida – known for their suffocating defense – is actually a very efficient offensive team – which will be going up against UCLA defense that has taken its lumps publicly this year.  The fast-paced tempo of the Bruins offense actually belies the relative effectiveness of their defense, so I think they are very underrated on that end of the court, but it is still hard to make the case that they are any better than “decent” on the defensive end.  Because of this, I think Florida makes just enough plays to win the game, but, personally, I think the right side of this is to take the points.
The Pick:  UCLA +5 (**)

Anaheim, CA – Thursday, 10:17 – San Diego State vs Arizona (-7.5)

If you like defense, take a nap this afternoon so you can stay up and watch this one.  These two teams really get after it on the defensive end.  They don’t just hold teams down because they are slow and plodding and conservative.  These two teams have long, athletic defenders all over the court and they seem to absolutely love to play straight-up man-to-man, in-your-face defense.  And, the numbers reflect this, as both teams are ranked in the top 10 in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency (Arizona is #1, SDSU is #7).  The problem for the Aztecs is that they really only have two scorers that they can rely on – Xavier Thames and Winston Shephard – and if you could pick any two guys in the country to take and matchup against those two, you might pick Nick Johnson and Aaron Gordon, who both happen to play for Arizona.  So, the two big questions for this game are (1) can SDSU find offense from their gritty, hard-nosed role players like Josh Davis and J.J. O’Brien (or off the bench from guys like Dwayne Pollee), and (2) will the defensive efforts of Johnson and Gordon still allow them to contribute on the other end or will the offensive load fall on UA’s secondary scorers like Kaleb Tarczewski and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson?  Whatever ends up happening, this is another fascinating game and, as maybe the ultimate sign of how great this tournament continues to be, is the largest spread of the round…at only -7.5.  At the end of the day, I do think Arizona will win the game, but I don’t think I can possibly give 7.5 when the game is likely to be in the 60’s.
The Pick:  San Diego State +7.5 (***)

The New Year Report: Conference Previews – Part One

New Year’s Eve is right around the corner.  Some people think of resolutions.  Others think of champagne corks.  Still others reflect back on another year gone by.  But, for me, one of the things I think of first when I think of the calendar changing is the start of the college hoops conference season.  We have almost 2 months of non-conference play in the books (some of which has been spectacular), and now we get to go into the meat of the season.  And, not to leave any stone unturned, we are going to give quick previews of all 32 D-1 conferences as to what has happened in the noncon schedule, as well as what to possibly expect going forward for the next 3 months.  This will be a 4-part series with 4 conferences previewed in each.  So, with 32 conferences to do, let’s get started with the 4 best basketball conferences in America this year – the Big Ten, ACC, Big XII, and Pac-12.

Big Ten

The best league top to bottom in America last year – by a somewhat wide margin – is, again, the best league in America this year.  With several legit national title contenders, the Big Ten goes at least 8-deep as far as tournament-caliber teams.  But, possibly the real strength of this league is that there is never a night off.  All 12 teams are solid, with tough styles of play and strong homecourt advantages.  The Big Ten may have fallen off on the gridiron, but it is thriving on the hardwood.

  • Preseason Favorite:  Michigan State
    The Spartans were everyone’s pick to be the class of this league from the jump and when they beat Kentucky at the Champions Classic, it looked like they were the clear-cut best team in the country.  But, they struggled against some inferior competition (Columbia and Oakland, in particular) and were soundly beaten on their home floor by UNC.  This is still a team that should be right there in the end, but they have shown some alarming signs, particularly lack of leadership (which is odd considering they are a veteran team with a Hall of Fame coach) and lack of frontcourt depth.
  • Most Impressive:  Ohio State, Wisconsin
    Both the Buckeyes and Badgers are undefeated so far and #3 and #4, respectively, in the AP Poll.  Whether they have supplanted MSU as the Big Ten favorites or not, these two teams have certainly added some real intrigue to the Big Ten race
  • Most Disappointing:  Michigan
    The disappointment in Ann Arbor is because of other people’s expectations.  I, honestly, am not surprised by the Wolverines apparent struggles because they have played a rough schedule and aren’t really all that good.  Remember they had to replace two NBA draft picks, including the national POY (who was their point guard).  Despite the apparent “experience” from bringing back most of the team that played for a national title last year, the Wolverines are much younger than people think – #336 out of 351 in experience.
  • “My” Favorite:  Iowa
    This is the spot where I will just spend time on the team I like most in any particular conference.  I love this Hawkeye team and honestly think that they are Sweet 16 good.  They have a TON of depth and are very, VERY well-coached.  I’m not sure they can win this league, but I’m also not sure they should be completely ruled out.
  • Potential Sleepers:  Minnesota, Indiana
    No one is talking about this Gopher team, but they do have talent.  The Hollinses are special and now that Tubby is gone, maybe they won’t underachieve.  As for the Hoosiers – it’s strange to think they are a “sleeper,” but they are under the radar and still VERY good (I am smitten for both Yogi Ferrell and Noah Vonleigh, so I might be biased here).
  • Also Relevant:  Illinois
    The Illini are doing again what they did last year – flying under the radar and winning, despite little to no hype.  I’m not entirely sure it will sustain itself, but I wouldn’t rule them out of national relevancy just yet.
  • Dregs: None
    That is what makes this conference so good.  While Northwestern, Penn State, and Nebraska won’t be competing for any conference titles, they are still really solid teams that could beat anyone on any given night.  Northwestern is probably the worst of the bunch, as they are in total rebuild mode, but Coach Collins should turn them around quickly.  Penn State is the typical cellar-dweller here, but they have Tim Frazier, who is one of the best players in the country.
  • The Pick:  Ohio State
    It is hard for me to pick against Tom Izzo, particularly with the level of talent he has there, but I see alarming signs from the Spartans and am totally sold on the OSU defense.  I think MSU is the better Final Four contender, but OSU is the better pick for Big Ten champ…if that makes any sense.

ACC

The self-proclaimed “best conference ever” might be just that next year when they add Louisville to the fold and currently down programs like Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech, and freshman-laden programs at N.C. State and Miami continue to rebuild.  As for this year, they’re knocking on the door, but I still think they are second to the Big Ten.

  • Preseason Favorite:  Duke
    Ho-hum…another year, another ELITE team for Coach K down in Durham.  But, being elite isn’t the only familiar feel to this Blue Devil team.  They also have a very familiar flaw – they are so top-heavy on athletic wings…yet again…without a dynamic point guard or big man.  I’ve heard this comment (I think Doogan may have made it actually) – “Duke is so good this year that Rasheed Sulaimon comes off the bench.”  That is a good point, but one that is a little weakened by the fact that they have to start Josh Hairston or Amile Jefferson at the 5.  Sulaimon is clearly one of their 5 best players, but his skills are totally overlapped by guys like Parker and Hood.  Even Dawkins and Thornton are rendered somewhat useless because Hood and Parker are so good.  Now, this is a total nitpick because this team is fantastic.  But, another concern might be greater – they have been pretty bad defensively (#101 in DefEff).  Now, that is partially inflated because of the atrocious performance against Vermont, but still it’s very un-K-like.
  • Most Impressive:  Syracuse
    If you take the Duke flaws seriously, then you have to consider Syracuse a real threat to the Devils in the Orange’s first ACC campaign.  They are special.  I don’t understand why no one is talking more about C.J. Fair because he is as good an all-around scorer as there is in the country.  And, with the incredible breakouts of freshman Tyler Ennis and, to a lesser extent, sophomore Trevor Cooney, this team is loaded for bear.
  • Most Disappointing:  Boston College
    I considered putting Noter Dame here, but only briefly because it’s pretty obviously who the biggest ACC disappointment is so far.  The Eagles were supposed to be on the brink of contention here, but are just 4-6 right now.  Granted, their losses to UMass, UConn, and even Toledo don’t look as bad as they did at the time because all three of those teams are better than advertised, but still this team should not be 4-6 right now no matter what.  Even their wins were unimpressive (a 3-point win over a bad FAU team, an overtime win over a worse Sacred Heart team, and an unimpressive win over an NAIA school). 
  • “My” Favorite:  Pittsburgh
    Jamie Dixon is on that short list of coaches that I believe in implicitly.  Now, it’s hard to tell just how good this team is because the only tough game they’ve played was their 1-point loss to Cincinnati.  But, I expect this team to be right in the thick of things all year.
  • Potential Sleepers:  Virginia
    It was hard to pick a sleeper here because I think the top of the league is clearly at the top, and there probably won’t be much challenge from the “others.”  But, I like the Cavs here because I love Coach Bennett, and I think they will cause issues all year.
  • Also Relevant:  North Carolina, Florida State, Notre Dame, Maryland, Clemson
    This conference has a ton of relevant teams, including the Jeckyll & Hyde Tar Heels, the gigantic Seminole team, the disappointing-but-talented Irish, the incredibly-well-coached Terrapins, and the sneaky Tigers.
  • Dregs: Virginia Tech, Miami
    Total rebuilds in Blacksburg and Coral Gables will lead to some bad basketball in each place.  Last year’s Miami season seems like a strange blip in the program’s trajectory, but maybe Larranega can make that not so.
  • The Pick:  Duke
    I thought long and hard about taking the ‘Cuse, but I think that the Dukies come through in the end and win this conference.  It’s just so hard to make all these road trips for the first time, so that might catch up to Boeheim’s team.  Then again, many guys in this conference are seeing that zone for the first time, so the edge might actually be with the Orange.  I still trust the talent in Durham, though, to win this league.

BIG XII

Just a solid all-around league yet again this year, the Big XII has it all – multiple championship contenders, depth (almost) top to bottom, and what should be a great race all year.

  • Preseason Favorite:  Kansas
    All of the talent that descended upon Lawrence this year bolstered them to not just Big XII favorites, but potential championship favorites.  But, KU being the “team to beat” in the Big XII just comes with the season.
  • Most Impressive:  Oklahoma State
    Kansas has sputtered and OK State – who actually received as many 1st-place votes from Big XII coaches as Kansas – has played the best ball in the league so far.  For a while, Marcus Smart looked like far and away the best player in the country.  He has come back to Earth a little, but the rest of the team continues to roll.  With the exception of a Memphis team taking revenge after being dominated two weeks prior, the Cowboys have been VERY impressive.
  • Most Disappointing:  Kansas State
    The Wildcats weren’t really supposed to challenge for a Big XII title, but they have made themselves almost entirely irrelevant.  It is too early to count them out, but there is very little evidence that his team will be anything but an also-ran in the conference race this year.
  • “My” Favorite:  Iowa State
    This team is fantastic.  Mayor Hoiberg has done such a great job assembling talent in Ames and really employing them in a way that completely maximizes his personnel and minimizes his exposure to poor matchups.  It won’t be long until Hoiberg is coaching in the Association, but the Cyclones should enjoy this ride while they’ve got it.
  • Potential Sleepers:  Texas
    Just when it looked like Rick Barnes may go the way of Mack Brown, the Longhorns are putting together quite an impressive non-conference slate here, highlighted by a win in Chapel Hill on Wednesday.  They probably aren’t Big XII title contenders, but they could play themselves into Tournament discussions at this rate.
  • Also Relevant:  Baylor, Oklahoma
    Baylor actually looks really good and should really make that middle-to-top area of the Big XII race incredibly interesting.  And, don’t look now, but the Sooners are 10-1 with their only loss coming to Michigan State.
  • Dregs: TCU, Texas Tech
    Texas Tech is bad, but TCU is utterly dreadful – as evidenced by a HOME loss to LONGWOOD (who will appear in the “Dregs” section of one of the worst conferences in the country).
  • The Pick:  Oklahoma State
    “The Fire Swamp?  We’ll never survive…” 
    “Nonsense, you’re only saying that because no one ever has.”
    Beating Kansas in the Big XII?  That is about as tall an order as dragging Princess Buttercup through the fire swamp, but Marcus Smart may just be the Dread Pirate Roberts, and I am going to go out on a limb and take the Cowboys here to more consistently navigate the murky waters of Big XII play than the youthful (and excessively talented) Jayhawks.

PAC-12

The Pac is back, folks.  I think that you could easily make the case that this is the 3rd-best (and possibly the single deepest) conference in the country – all of a sudden.  There won’t be a single easy game this year out West and any number of teams could make a tournament run.  All that said, there is one clear favorite.

  • Preseason Favorite:  Arizona
    The “forgotten” Top-6 team in the preseason because they weren’t invited to the Champions Classic.
  • Most Impressive:  Arizona
    And, it’s not really that close.  The ‘Cats have been the best team in the country, let alone the Pac-12.
  • Most Disappointing:  Washington
    When do we start talking about Lorenzo Romar the same way we talk about Rick Barnes and Tubby Smith?  The dude can flat-out recruit (look at the NBA careers of Romar’s alums – Brandon Roy, Klay Thompson, even Sixers rookie Tony Wroten – just to name a few), but he really struggles to win games.  This team, while very talented all around, doesn’t have that one transcedent talent and might be the worst team in the league.
  • “My” Favorite:  Arizona
    In a strange twist, I am actually picking “the” favorite as “my” favorite because this team is that good, #1 in the polls, and still underrated.  Their frontcourt is off the charts good, and I still believe that Nick Johnson is the most valuable player on that team.  Throw in the enormously underappreciated T.J. McConnell (who I’ve watched a ton of times as a Duquesne Duke) and you have yourself the best team in the nation.
  • Potential Sleepers:  Utah
    I considered pretty much every other team for “sleeper” worthy, but kept coming back to the Utes mainly because of just how under-the-radar they are, as opposed to the other possibilities.  Maybe I’m basing this too much on one single result (an 81-64 pummelling of a really good BYU team), but I am ready to say that the one team that is consistently overlooked in this league that will come up and bite you might be the Runnin’ Utes.
  • Also Relevant:  Oregon, UCLA, Arizona State, Cal, Stanford
    This upper-middle portion of the Pac is sensationally interesting.  Oregon is probably the best of the bunch with transfers James Young and Mike Moser seemlessly folding into this team.  But, UCLA looks exceptional, as well.  ASU has possibly the league’s best player, while Cal has possibly the nation’s best coach, and Stanford is talented enough to save Johnny Dawkins’ job this year.  What a race this is going to be.
  • Dregs:  None
    I’m not a huge fan of the teams in Washington, but it would be hard to characterize them as “dregs.”  Outside of Tempe, this conference doesn’t have the top-notch firepower to really join the conversation of best conference, but in terms of top-to-bottom quality, only the Big Ten even has an argument and they might actually lose it.
  • The Pick:  Arizona
    I would probably pick the ‘Cats in any conference in the country, but here in the Pac, I didn’t even have to think about it.

COMING SOON:  PART TWO (which includes the SEC, Big East, American, and A-10)

Tuesday’s Top Twelve – Best Matchup/Potential Matchups of the Weekend

The best sports weekend of the year–hands down–begins in earnest in less than 48 hours.  Yes, I am like little-kid-on-Christmas excited.  No, I’m not embarrassed by it.  Looking over the  brackets, there are a bunch of first-round matchups and potential second-round matchups that I am looking forward the most, so I figure this is a good topic for Tuesday’s Top Twelve.

#12).  3-Kansas vs. 14-North Dakota State (first round on Friday at 12:30 in Minneapolis).  In sort of a scan for “potential madness,” this one hit me right away.  I think the Jayhawks are vulnerable, and the Bison of North Dakota St. might be the perfect team to pull off the big upset of KU (ironically, Kansas was a 3-seed in 2005 and lost to a 14-seed nicknamed the Bison–Bucknell).  I contemplated putting Mississippi St vs. Washington here because I like that upset also, but it wouldn’t be nearly as fun/MAD as North Dakota St., in their first year of D-1 eligibility, taking out the defending champs.

#11). 4-Xavier vs. 5-Florida State (potentially second-round on Sunday in Boise).  This is just a potential game because they both have to get through their first-round opponents (which I think they both will), but if it happens, it should be very, very good.  I love the contrasting styles that this game presents.  The athletic, defense-oriented, extremely balanced-scoring Musketeers against the HUGE and athletic Seminoles who rely on one guy for a large portion of their offense.

#10). 1-North Carolina vs. 8-LSU or 9-Butler (potentially second-round on Sunday in Greensboro).  This might have been even more interesting had it been anywhere but in the state of North Carolina.  Then again, it would have been rather uninteresting if Ty Lawson were 100%.  UNC could probably beat Radford without any starters.  And, even if it’s close, there are so many things that go into a 1-16 game to glean anything about the top-seed.  So, Sunday’s game (against either LSU or Butler, because they’re both pretty tough as a 8/9) will be the real test to see if UNC is healthy and running on all cylinders.

#9). 6-West Virginia vs. 11-Dayton (first round on Friday at 3:00 in Minneapolis).  I think that this West Virginia team could really do some damage in this tournament.  But, then again, they might not make it out of the first round.  That is what makes this tournament so fascinating.  Dayton, who can be either overrated or underrated, depending on who you talk to, is indisputably a solid test for the Mountaineers.  Plus, if you buy into my belief that Kansas is vulnerable (either in the first round or beyond), there is a good chance that we will see the winner of this game playing next week in Indianapolis.

#8). 7-Boston College vs. 10-USC (first round on Friday at 7:20 in Minneapolis).  This is a fantastic first-round game between two relatively under-the-radar teams this year.  BC made some noise in the ACC, but was never really talked about nationally.  USC’s lack of national presence was warranted because they flat-out played poorly for much of the season and were not going to be included until they won the Pac 10 tournament.  There is also a lot of star power in this game with Tyrese Rice, Daniel Hackett, and Taj Gibson are all still in school (even though I seem to remember them all playing in the 90s).  Also, DeMar DeRozan is a flat-out stud freshman for the Trojans.

#7). 1-Michigan State vs. 7-Boston College or 10-USC (potentially second-round on Sunday in Minneapolis).  The winner of #8 (no matter who it is) will set up an even better matchup on Sunday against 2-seed Michigan St.  Either opponent for the Spartans presents a true test for a team that could only surprise me if they lost in the first round.  Anything else, from a bad second-round exit to a national championship is in the cards this year for this talented, but inconsistent team with a phenomenal coach.

#6). 3-Syracuse vs. 6-Arizona State or 11-Temple (potentially second-round on Sunday in Miami).  The winner of the first-round game between ASU and Temple will get to play in a very interesting game against Syracuse.  So much has been made of all the minutes that The Orange logged in their captivating trip to the Big East finals, but does it really matter?  Can top-flight athletes really be “tired” from anything (other than a marathon) that they did a week ago?  We will see because if Syracuse beats Stephen F. Austin, they are in for a battle, regardless of which team they are playing.

#5). 8-Oklahoma State vs. 9-Tennessee (first round on Friday in Dayton).  This is a big-time first round matchup.  These two teams should probably be playing in at least the second round, if not later.  But, they both struggled more than expected, then turned their seasons around and now find themselves across the battle lines from each other in a brutal first-round matchup.  It will be interesting on both ends, as a solid OSU defense tries to stop an awesome Tennessee offense, while a painfully awful Tennessee defense tries to stop a frustratingly inconsistent OSU offense.

#4). 1-Pittsburgh vs. 8-Oklahoma State or 9-Tennessee.  Whoever comes out of the great matchup listed at #5 will have another fantastic, must-see game against top-seeded Pitt.  The only real question mark surrounding the Panthers is will DeJuan Blair get into foul trouble or not.  And, it really all depends on how tight the officiating is because he is certainly not going to change his game.  Either way, this second-round matchup has the feel of a Sweet 16 or later game, especially if it’s immensely talented Tennessee.

#3). 2-Oklahoma vs. 7-Clemson (potentially second round on Saturday in Kansas City).  If you had told me a month ago that OU would play Clemson in the tournament, I would have said that it must have been at least a Sweet 16 game, if not an Elite 8 game.  But, OU slipped out of #1 position, and Clemson slipped all the way to #7 (personally, I think this is a pretty low seed for the Tigers, who have been in the top 15-20 all year long).  But, this game (which might not even happen, as Michigan has a real shot in the first round against Clemson) is going to be fantastic!  The up-and-down, pressing style of Clemson against The Griffins and a host of underrated perimeter players (led by the super frosh, Willie Warren).  I hope it happens.

#2). 6-UCLA vs. 11-VCU (first-round on Thursday at 9:50 in Philadelphia).  Just a fantastic first-round clash between two very good teams who I probably would have picked to beat almost anyone else, had they not wound up playing each other.  An experienced, defense-oriented UCLA team that has been to three straight Final Fours against a guy named Eric Maynor and the VCU Rams.  Anyone remember Maynor?  Yes, he was that freshman who single-handedly beat Duke in the tournament three years ago.  Now, he’s a senior, and even though he hasn’t been in the forefront of college hoops lately (because VCU hasn’t made the tournament since), he has gotten a lot better.  He is, in my opinion, the third best point guard in the country, behind Fields and Lawson, and will probably make a better pro than either of them.  The Rams also have a guy named Larry Sanders who has a 91-inch wingspan to complement his incredible athleticism.  As soon as this matchup came out, I got excited about it.  I don’t want to wait until Thursday night for it–can’t this be the play-in game tonight?

#1). 6-Arizona State vs. 11-Temple (first-round on Friday at 2:55 in Miami)Bias?!?  What does bias mean?  No, I’m not biased–this is a great game!  Okay, maybe I’m a little biased, but even thinking objectively (which I probably cannot do), this would have made the Top 12 list.  I love James Harden and have been saying for weeks now that ASU is my sleeper pick for the Final Four.  I even gave a professional presentation last week on March Madness and picked ASU to accompany UNC, Louisville, and Michigan State to the promised land.  But, now they get to face my beloved Owls in the first round.  Ugh!  I spent the whole selection show chanting “Give me Illinois,” thinking that Illinois would be a 5 and Temple a 12.  Then, when we got to the last bracket and Illinois came up on the 5-line, I went nuts, thinking Temple would be 12.  But, alas, they rewarded us with an 11-seed and a dreadful matchup with the Sun Devils.  Well, at least it gave me justification to put the Temple game in a Top 12 list.

College Basketball Preview: The Contenders

[DISCLAIMER:  most of this was written before the preseason tournaments, so I apologize if some new developments were not addressed.  Oh, and one of these teams is written facetiously–see if you can figure out which one.]

I wrote a column last year, as a preview of the college basketball season, that picked out the teams that I thought had a chance to win the title when it was all said and done. The intro talked about all the questions that arise at the beginning of every college basketball season–so many, in fact, that it is almost a immaterial to even discuss most of them. Conferences rarely turn out as predicted; superstars emerge throughout the season; and, even Joe Lunardi does not know, at this point, even remotely what the field of 64 is going to look like. However, college basketball is unlike the other major sports in one interesting way–success is defined very differently across teams. For instance, in the NFL or MLB or the NBA, you can rationalize a “successful” year as one without winning a title, but not really. Every professional team in these sports defines success by winning championships–not NFC Championships or National League pennants, but World Championships. Not so, in college hoops. I was a student at UMBC last year, during their incredibly successful season, which ended in a blowout loss in the first round of the tournament. Davidson College had, by all accounts, a very successful year last year, even though they lost in the Elite Eight. On the other hand, North Carolina and UCLA, who both made it a round further than Davidson would not consider their seasons successful because they did not win the title. That is one of the many things that makes college hoops so incredibly interesting–there is a group of top-tier teams vying for the national title, and they just have to survive a minefield of “successful” teams from UMBC to Davidson to Villanova, on their way to earning the right to duke it out with other top-tier teams for the title. And, though the season always ends up flipped over and over again throughout the season, the eventual champion almost always comes from a group of teams that can relatively easily be identified before the season even starts. In fact, last year, all four of the final four teams were teams that I mentioned in my preseason column (not that that is difficult because they were all #1 seeds, but the point remains). So, here are the teams that I feel are capable of cutting down the nets this year, as the 2009 NCAA Champion:

THE FAVORITE:  NORTH CAROLINA

It is not going out on a limb here to say that the preseason #1 will also be the postseason #1, especially when they were easily one of the best teams in the country last year and have everyone back of any import.

Strengths:
-Uh…everything. 
Yes, this team is completely loaded.  I am foreseeing a future Question of the Day comparing this team to the Florida championship team of two years ago.  Personally, I think that the starting five for Florida was slightly better than this UNC starting five, but this team, on the whole, is better.  They have Tyler Hansbrough, last year’s national player of the year who should break JJ Reddick’s all-time ACC scoring record, Ty Lawson, one of the two or three best point guards in the country, Wayne Ellington, a guy who could go for 30 any given night, Danny Green, a superstar in the making, and a plethora of supporting players, like rebounding machine Deon Thompson, talented freshmen Ed Davis and Tyler Zeller, and returning do-it-everything guard Bobby Frasor.  WOW!

-Coaching.  Roy Williams is a great coach, who demands a lot from his players.  He has been there with both Kansas and UNC, and will certainly not be outcoached very often.  He also seems to be the exact type of coach that is needed on a team with so much talent–he plays a run-and-gun style, which enables him to get a lot of guys into the rotation, and he communicates very well with his players, so they always know where they stand.  Though, I must say, if he doesn’t win in three tries with this nucleus, the old questions of “can he win the Big One” that were so prevalant in Kansas may resurface.

-Experience.  This whole team remembers the feelings of losing in devastating fashion to Georgetown in the Elite Eight two years ago and to Kansas in the Final Four last year.  That should give them the needed drive to stay hungry during a season in which tough games may not come all that often.

Question Marks:
-Expectations? 
It seems like the only team that can stop UNC is UNC.  The expectations are so high this year that there is a chance that they wilt under that pressure, especially come tournament time.  They have those guys that want it SO bad, which is usually a good thing, but can sometimes have the opposite effect, if the chips are down.

-Injuries?  Hansbrough has a stress fracture that could flare up at any time.  Danny Green has had injury problems and Ty Lawson missed 9 games last year.  Bobby Frasor was granted a medical redshirt last year, so that he could return for this, his senior year, but there are questions about how strong his knee really is.

-Randomness?  Not to be overly dramatic, but chances are that if this team doesn’t win the title in April, it will be because the NCAA tournament, like all sports, is just very unpredictable (remember the Super Bowl?).  They are that confident, that experienced, and most importantly, that talented.

Continue reading “College Basketball Preview: The Contenders”

Live Blog: Sweet Sixteen

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.

The Sweet Sixteen: Day One

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.

lavenderThursday 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 d. lowmight 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.

k. loveThough 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 t. williamsteams 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!

An Interesting Season

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.

College Basketball Preview: The Contenders

At the beginning of the college basketball season, there are so many questions and so few answers. Even the most involved fan has to wait at least a month to really know a little of what to expect for this season of college hoops. However, the one question that can probably be, at least, discussed is which teams have a legitimate chance to win the whole thing. As Memphis coach John Calipari always says, at the beginning of every year, there are about 30 or so teams that think they can make the Final Four, but only about 6 or 7 that think they can win the national title. We here at Broad Street Believers have picked 8 that we think have a legitimate shot to cut down the nets in San Antonio next March.

THE FAVORITE: UCLA

If Kevin Love becomes the force in the paint that many people predict, this team will be 2008 NCAA National Champions. With that said, I think he will be and I think that this team is going to cut down the nets in San Antonio in April.STRENGTHS:

Balance. The Bruins are the most balanced team in the country. Despite the loss of Arron Afflalo to the Detroit Pistons, the backcourt is one of the best in the country. The sharp-shooting son of two world-class sprinters, Darren Collison (who actually ran a 40-yard dash faster than the fastest time at the NFL draft combine) may be the best point guard in the nation and a healthy Josh Shipp (which has rarely been seen) is a certifiable star at the SG or SF position. And, if Love can collisoncarry the scoring in the frontcourt, the rest of the Bruin bigs will take care of everything else. Cameroonian native, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute might be the nation’s best defender and Lorenzo Mata-Real (the center formerly known as simply Lorenzo Mata, I guess he got married in the offseason and kept his name) is a blue-collar rebounder, shot-blocker and presence in the middle.

-Depth. Coming off the bench, UCLA has guys like Michael Roll, Alfred Aboya, Russell Westbrook and highly-touted Nikola Dragovich. And, most of the major players on this team can play a variety of positions. Not only does this give Coach Howland great in-game flexibility, but he can juggle his starting lineup and crunch-time lineup depending on situation and matchups.

Experience. UCLA is probably the most experienced team in the country this year. Yes, the loss of Afflalo hurts, but most of the pieces are back from a team that has won 9 NCAA tournament games in the last years en route to their back-to-back Final Four appearances.

Coaching. Though I am not ready to make this claim myself, I would not argue vehemently with anyone who wanted to tell me that Ben Howland is the best coach in the country. The man simply wins. He won Big East titles at Pittsburgh with marginal talent and now he is on his way to winning national titles with great talent at UCLA. He preaches a methodical, calculated defensive brand of basketball, but somehow does it without sacrificing efficient offensive sets. Despite his slow, defensive-minded approach, somehow Howland keeps offensive stars bought-in to the system and keeps them happy on both ends of the court—something that is not easy to do with this generation’s superstars.

 QUESTION MARKS:

  –Freshman Love? Quite possible the biggest question mark of the entire season in college basketball this year revolves around the #1 ranked high school recruit, Kevin Love. If Love can adjust to the college game as well as everyone seems to think, this team has no holes and no real reason not to win the title. Love is not only a great scorer (33 points per game his senior year of high school in Lake Oswego, OR), but his passing ability has drawn comparisons to Wes Unseld and Bill Walton. Apparently, this kid is a can’t miss player. If so…wow, this team is good.

Lacking a True Small Forward? As it stands right now, it looks like the most probable starting lineup will be Collison, Shipp, Mbah a Moute, Mata-Real and Love. This means that Mbah a Moute will have to play the small forward position. This is not a problem on defense because he can guard just about any position on the floor, but offensively if really limits UCLA’s ballhandling ability. Collison is terrific and Shipp is adequate with the ball, but if a team can press effectively and get the ball into the hands of Mbah a Moute or Mata-Real, there are possibilities for turnovers.

Free-Throw Shooting? Aside from Collison and Shipp, this team has seriously struggled at the charity stripe, particularly Mbah a Moute (57%) and Mata-Real (37%–yes, 37%). This could really hurt them in tough games down the stretch. Continue reading “College Basketball Preview: The Contenders”