Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Hoosier Hysteria is back on top?

The 2012-13 collegiate basketball season, is still considered to be in its infancy stage but an old power seems to be rising from ashes. Indiana University just six seasons ago was mired in the ugly resignation of Mike Davis despite an overall record of 115-79 in six seasons including a trip to the 2002 NCAA Championship Game. Following Davis, the Kelvin Sampson scandal hit where he was forced to resign due to allegations of serious NCAA violations after just one and half seasons. Most Hoosier fans wanted to see former I.U. great Steve Alford handed the gig but instead the unpopular choice of hiring Tom Crean formerly of Marquette was made. Sometimes the unpopular choice turns out to be the right choice as Crean is proving this season. After graduations, early departures for the NBA and dismissals from the team during his first three seasons at the helm, his recruiting classes have finally come of age. Last year’s squad proved his overall ability posting a record of 27-9 with a trip to the sweet 16 in the tournament. Now, the rebuilding job is complete. Crean had Indiana ranked as a pre-season number one in both the Associated Press and USA Today polls and the Hoosiers have proven to be worthy. Off to a 9-0 start, Indiana has beaten Georgia, Georgetown and North Carolina to date. Keeping home grown talent, 7-footer Cody Zeller in state was arguably Crean’s biggest recruiting success since taking over the program and the sophomore has lived up to his 5-star billing. The center averages 15 points and nine boards per game to lead the Hoosiers. But Indiana is balanced with four others scoring in double-figures including seniors, guard Jordan Hulls and forward Chris Watford. The Hoosiers also sport equal scoring both inside and out. Zeller, Watford and junior Will Sheehey pound the paint and glass, while Watford, Hulls and Remy Abell all shoot the rock at over 50% from beyond the 3-point line. Indiana basketball is once again all the rage in the hoop capital of the country as it should be. So after a trip to the sweet sixteen last year, only a run to the final four will probably keep the I.U. faithful happy with the once again high expectations on the hardwood. With experience, Crean’s leadership and the backing of the Hoosier Nation, a run to Atlanta could be the next stop in Indiana’s return to college basketball prominence. As always though in the competitive world of division one college basketball, there will be challengers, many challengers. Once again, just two seasons removed from Head Coach Mike Krzyzewski’s fourth NCAA title at Duke, the Blue Devils appear ready to make another run for the final four. Duke is ranked second in the nation and this really should come as no surprise. While losing guard Austin Rivers to the Association draft in June, the Blue Devils have reloaded simply with talent that played behind Rivers in the headlines last year. Mason Plumlee, Ryan Kelly and Seth Curry have been around what seems like for ages. The three seniors were all part of Duke’s last title team but mostly watched the action. Now the time is theirs and so far, the threesome appears to be making the most of it. Like Indiana, the Dukies are 9-0, with signature wins over Kentucky, #2 Louisville and #4 Ohio State. Along with the three seniors, freshman guard Rasheed Sulaimon and sophomore Quinn Cook round out the five Blue Devils averaging in double-figures, also like the Hoosiers balanced attack. Like all of Coach K’s teams, this edition of the Blue Devils can shoot the rock from beyond the arc. Only Plumlee out of the starters doesn’t fire from downtown and do so, knocking down at least a 36% clip from the three-point line. Where this Duke team could fall short however is its bench play. Right now they are running basically six deep with spot time for just two others. Once March comes around and tournament games test the defensive ability and depth of all clubs, these Blue Devils might end up a little exposed if foul trouble occurs. Back to the Big-Ten as Michigan joins the 9-0 club, as the 3rd ranked team in college basketball. John Beilein has Wolverine fans reminiscing of the 1988-89 season when Big Blue last started the year with nine victories and went on to its first and only national title under Steve Fischer, who took over for Bill Frieder during the Big Dance after Frieder was named as the future Arizona State coach before the NCAA tournament started. This Michigan team is led by some familiar basketball names. How about Tim Hardaway Jr. and Glenn Robinson III for a little basketball pedigree? Hardaway Jr., averages over 15 points a game so far with almost six boards a night. Robinson III, only a freshman, is already playing like his father the former Purdue great Glenn. He averages 12 points and seven rebounds in his early career. Michigan is led by super-sophomore Trey Burke who can do it all! 17 points, three boards and seven assist make him one of the top guards in the entire nation. While the Wolverines can fire away from long range, knocking down 42% of their three point shots as a team, they do have a glaring weakness. Only one Michigan senior on the squad plays double-digit minutes. Matt Vogrich averages just over ten per game. The heavy lifting on this team, done by Burke, Hardaway Jr., Nic Stauskas, Robinson III and Jordan Morgan are all underclassmen. Stauskas, Robinson III, and Mitch McGary, who all log double-digit minutes as a matter of fact are freshman! So far with wins over Pitt, #18 N.C. State and Arkansas, youth has been no issue for the Wolverines, but you have to feel at some point of the season, they young guys will hit the proverbial wall and then this team’s age will show. For 4th ranked Syracuse and Head Coach Jim Boeheim, the 2012-13 season, appears to be a year of milestones. Entering his 37th campaign in charge of the Orangeman, Boeheim has already picked up eight wins, putting him just 12 away from 900 career victories and 15 away from breaking Bobby Knight’s all-time division-one mark of 902! That’s not to say Boeheim’s work will be easy this year, as he’s forced to replace four players from last year’s 34 win team. Three of those names were taken in last June’s NBA draft. But the cupboard is never bare under the Carrier Dome. Back to help Boeheim possibly cap off his record setting season with maybe a second national championship is guard Brandon Triche. The senior was a major player on last year’s squad and has picked up the scoring load dropping in almost 15 points a game to go with four assist and rebounds in 30 minutes a night. The Cuse’s other leader is another senior who played descent minutes last year in James Southerland. He also drops 15 per game with four boards. Sophomore Michael Carter-Williams and junior C.J. Fair, round out the other two Syracuse players scoring in double-digits, early in the season. One advantage come tourney-time that Boeheim is always known for, having deep teams with several players logging minutes night in and night out. This can be seen already in the Orangeman’s wins over #20 San Diego State, Princeton and Arkansas. So far, nine players hit the floor for at least double-digit minutes each game. If The Cuse can come up with a go-to player for crunch-time, possibly Triche, expect another deep run into the NCAA Tournament, which would be fitting in a record setting year for college basketball’s longest tenured division-one head coach. Rounding out our top-five college hoop preview are the long-range bombing Florida Gators. Former sharp-shooter turned very successful coach Billy Donovan has another group of Gators that love to take a bite out of the three-ball. U.F. is off to a flying start of 7-0, signature wins over #22 Wisconsin, Marquette and rival Florida State. In this young season the Gators have hoisted up 151 three-point shots, knocking them down at a 35% clip as a team which probably needs to go up for Donovan’s crew to be real successful over the course of the entire season. The senior trio of guards Kenny Boyton, Mike Rosario and forward-center Erik Murphy lead Florida in the scorebook, all averaging double-figure, while Murphy is the team’s best long-distance specialist dropping 12 of his 28 long range shots. Junior center Patric Young is Donovan’s muscle man on the inside pulling down eight caroms a game to go with 10 points per game. Beyond the three seniors however the Gators are young with the rest of the squad all underclassman. They do run deep however with eight players logging double-digit minutes on the roster. This team is molded in the form of Donovan’s playing style from his days at Providence when he led the Friars to the final-four in 1987. The Gators love to full court press and create an up-tempo atmosphere of transition and total chaos! This is the only style Florida will be successful at over the course of the year. The Gators aren’t manned properly to get into a half-court battle with the likes of senior-laden teams such as Duke or a super-physical squad like Indiana. Pressure defense with a run and gunning offensive style will be how Florida lives and dies during the 2012-13 campaign. The other teams rounding out the top-ten to date, Louisville, Ohio State, Arizona, Kansas and Illinois.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

There promises to be plenty of Blues on Monday in Naw'lins

When filling out my March Madness bracket each year, there are certain teams and coaches who I never trust to win a title. I'd rather take my chances on "the field" than put my ten bucks on Kansas, Ohio State or any John Calipari-choached team to win it all. Well, looks like that theory just bit me in the ass! Waving a big, white flag, I now endorse the Kentucky Wildcats for National Champion. It was a wave of Blue that swarmed the Blood Red (new orange day glo)of Louisville, and a 2nd half tidalwave of Rock Chalk Blue that drowned out the Buckeye scarlet.

Finally, this is Coach Cal's year to win it all. It has to be.

Sure, the Championship might just be vacated, Reggie Bush-style a few years from now, but hey, Lexington should live it up while they can!

The Cats looked absolutely fantastic on Saturday as Kentucky dismantled in-state rival Louisville and former Wildcat coach Rick Pitino for the 69-61 victory and a trip to the Championship game on Monday. Kentucky dominated throughout, minus a second-half surge that saw the Cardinals tie the game, never to actually take the lead as the Wildcats weathered the storm quite well.

Anthony Davis and his mega-unibrow played in a different stratosphere, as the Cats' forward clogged up the stat line with 18 points, 14 rebounds and 5 blocks. I don't know that Calipari even coaches the X's and O's really, as I see him as more of a personality/ego manager who knows how to recruit the most talented kids in the country, regardless of how long they will actually stay in school.

I can't see any team beating Kentucky, not even Kansas, who will face the Wildcats in Monday's title game. The Jayhawks squeaked by the Buckeyes in the nightcap, beating Ohio State 64-62 after rallying from a 13-point first-half deficit.

One could easily argue that close finish was the result of Kansas facing a tougher opponent in Ohio State than Kentucky did in Louisville, but I don't think that will make a big difference come Monday night.

After the game, Kansas forward Thomas Robinson told sideline reporter Tracy Wolfson that there is something about trailing in a game that gets his team fired up, implying that they need to be down to play hard.

Well Jayhawks, that strategy ain't gonna work against Kentucky. The victory over Louisville marked the 40th straight game in which a Kentucky lead at halftime resulted in a win for the Wildcats. No team is mentally tougher than Calipari's Wildcats so using a deficit to light a fire under your butt probably won't be enough to get a win.

Then again, remember the last time Bill Self and Kansas trailed late against a Calipari-coached team in the National Championship game? Derrick Rose and his Memphis Tigers missed several free-throws down the stretch, as they watched a 9-point lead with less than two minutes to play slip away and leaving the door wide open for Mario Chalmers and the Jayhawks to walk right through, which they did. At the end of an overtime period, Kansas was crowed National Champion.

The bad news for Calipari is that, like his former Tigers team, his Kentucky Wildcats are also lack strength at the free-throw line. The good news is that Kansas is even worse at the charity stripe.

While I am hoping for a close game, I expect a performance more like Duke vs. Arizona in 2001, where the Blue Devils held a lead that was sizable - hovering around the 10-point mark - but small enough to keep the game interesting until the final minutes.

Just like in the food chain, I think the cat gets the best of the bird on Monday.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Simply the (second) biggest game ever played in the Blue Grass State

For all of the success, first round draft choices, and history of dominance the Kentucky Wildcats are about to embark on their biggest game in 46 years. Not since the famous 1966 game between UK and Texas Western has there been so much anticipation about a game where the external repercussions might actually equal the importance of the outcome of the game. Not only is a trip to the finals waiting for the winner but a victory in the heated interstate rival series on the biggest stage in which it has ever been played. The school that comes out on top could drop the next ten in the series and still take solace that they won the game with the most chips in the center of the table. It’s the ultimate game of Texas holdum and it looks like the Wildcats are holding a pocket pair going into the flop as they have yet to play a game that wasn’t won by double digits and are the overall number one seed. They’re stacked both offensive and defensively and are the clear favorite to win the whole thing at -150 (Louisville has the longest odds at +850). But that might just be the very thing that causes the iron cats to crack just enough for the Cards to slip in and steal one. There isn’t one team that can intimidate Kentucky in this tournament, except themselves and the colossal failures of other UK teams that seemingly just needed to go through the motions until it was time to sing “one shining moment”. If they start focusing on what the rest of the state will think if they lose and don’t focus on the school in red across the hardwood that has nothing to lose they just might have the second biggest upset loss in the school’s history.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Elite 8 - The Top Seeds move on but the armor is exposed

The round of 16 was sweet for some and sour for others, but by night's end on Friday, the men's college basketball field was narrowed yet again, providing what has the potential to be an epic Elite 8.

7. Florida vs 4. Louisville
Pick: Florida. Sure, my bracket had the Gators losing in the first round, but hey, I've since changed my tune! Bill Donovan and his kids have looked fantastic since this tournament started, killing their opponents with little fanfare to go along with their stellar performances thus far. The Gators have outscored their opponents 223-153 but Louisville should make this game much more difficult for Florida. Rick Patino's Cardinals play outstanding defense which will make it interesting. The match up between big men, Florida's Patric Young and 'Ville's Gorgui Deng gives this contest an old-school feel, taking us back to the days when centers dominated the game. I'm going with Florida because there is something to be said for momentum and while both teams have obviously won the same number of games in this tournament, I see Florida winning bigger and doing so with ease, probably because the only people with expectations for the Gators are themselves.

2. Ohio State vs 1. Syracuse
Pick: Ohio State…Begrudgingly. Despite being the lower seed, Ohio St. is the favorite to win this game as the Buckeyes beat Cincinnati badly in the Sweet 16 while Syracuse has struggled throughout the tournament. As if being without 7-footer Fab Melo for the Orangemen's first three games wasn't bad enough, going up against the Buckeyes' Jared Sullinger is going to be the biggest challenge yet for 'Cuse who is playing without their center, ruled academically ineligible for the duration of the Tournament. It seems like Syracuse has played down to their opponents (which I also think was the case with UNC against Ohio on Friday), a luxury they will be unable to afford against Ohio St, which might inadvertently kickstart their game. A statistic that makes me worry for Syracuse is the fact that Ohio St. out-rebounds opponents by nearly eight boards per game, while the Orange are the exact opposite, averaging almost two fewer rebounds than opponents. Even without Melo, I think Syracuse is the more talented team and if they have the heart to match, can pull an "upset" over Ohio St. Will Syracuse beat the odds? I'm not picking them to do it but they are certainly more than capable of punching their first ticket to the Final Four since 2002-2003, back when a different Melo ruled the roost.

3. Baylor vs 1. Kentucky
Pick: Baylor. Part of me thinks this may FINALLY be John Calipari's year to win it all. The other part of me won't believe until I see it, which is part of the reason I'm picking against Kentucky. The primary reason for choosing Baylor to pull the upset is because their ridiculously bright neon uniforms blind opponents, surely giving the Bears an advantage. Okay, no, not really, but kind of. Like Florida, I think there is something special about Baylor. They aren't the most popular kids in school, but they are plugging away, working on something big and might just end up as the biggest winners of all, Mark Zuckerberg style. Can Quincy Acy and Perry Jones III possibly play as well as they did against Xavier AGAIN, much less repeat the performance against a team like Kentucky? I think they can. It's going to be tough as hell, but I think the Bears can do it. They'll have their work cut out for them in trying to slow Doron Lamb, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Anthony Davis but it can be done. Baylor is on a roll and if there is anyone who can roll over the Wildcats right now, it's the Bears.

2. Kansas vs 1. North Carolina
Pick: Kansas. This one is simple. If Kendall Marshall were healthy and playing in this game, I would pick UNC in a heartbeat, but that isn't the case, so I have to go the other. I think the main reason for the Tar Heels' struggles against No. 13 Ohio on Friday was the nerves and the learning curve of playing without Marshall, their injured star point guard. Although they escaped with a win over the Bobcats, doing so while being only one free-throw away from losing to a 13-seed probably won't instill the kind of confidence necessary to beat Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor. Yes, Tyler Zeller was on another planet, keeping his Tar Heels from spinning into a hoops Black Hole with a 20 point and 22 rebound performance, but the likelihood of finding that kind of success on the boards against the Jayhawks is slim. Kansas will get the best of UNC this time around.

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Monday, March 19, 2012

You must have an acquired taste for this Sweet 16

Before we break down how they got there, lets first look at the match ups we'll see next week:
South Region
4. Indiana vs 1. Kentucky
10. Xavier vs 3. Baylor
West Region
4. Louisville vs 1. Michigan State
7. Florida vs 3. Marquette
East Region
4. Wisconsin vs 1. Syracuse
6. Cincinnati vs 2. Ohio State
Midwest Region
13. Ohio vs 1. North Carolina
11. North Carolina State vs 2. Kansas

Not surprisingly, all four No. 1 seeds moved on to the Sweet 16. The weekend games were relatively painless for the number ones, figuratively speaking, as none of the top seeds needed a buzzer beater or last-second action to move on but unfortunately for UNC, point guard Kendall Marshall broke his right wrist en route to a win over Creighton. Marshall filled the stats sheet in Sunday's game, logging 18 points (on 7-8 shooting) and 11 assists, and even continued to play after suffering the injury to his wrist on his non-shooting hand. We'll have to wait for a medical update from UNC but how many guys have you seen play basketball with a cast? Yikes. Given medical technology, surely it could happen but logic says his effectiveness would be significantly reduced.

No. 1 over-all Kentucky looked great with freshman Marquis Teague dropping a career-high 24 points on Iowa State as the Hawkeyes fell victim to a well-balanced Wildcat attack. Michigan State survived several runs by a Rick Majerus-coached Saint Louis squad who just couldn't do enough to pull off the upset against the Spartans.

The Wildcats of Kansas State had some nice moments against Syracuse but at no point did we ever think the Orangemen would let up enough to lose.

The surviving 2-seeds from the first round both excelled over the weekend. Ohio State looked good although they had to work pretty hard to beat a pesky Gonzaga team, but what they went through on the court was nothing compared to Kansas.

The Jayhawks broke the hearts of Robbie Hummel and his No.10 Purdue in stunning fashion. Leading throughout the game, the Boilermakers relinquished an 11-point advantage as Kansas took it's first lead with 3:01 to play. The remaining minutes would be a back-and-forth battle that Hummel (who scored 26 points in the first half) and Purdue would ultimately lose. Calling this a "scare" would be an injustice as Purdue was fantastic, but Kansas just happened to pull out the big guns at the right time for the victory.

Faring well in the tourney thus far as the No. 3 and No. 4 seeds who will be well-represented in the round of 16. No. 3's Marquette and Baylor both went on late runs to keep their opponents at bay, crushing the dancing dreams of Murray State and Colorado, respectively.

The Golden Eagles of Marquette got back on track in the second half after slipping up defensively early on and the Bears took down the Buffaloes by way of the 3-pointer thanks to the hot-hand of Brady Heslip. This kid lost his freakin' mind, scoring 27 points assassin style, shooting 9-for-12 on the night, all from 3-point range.

A No. 3 that didn't fare as well was Georgetown as the Hoyas got worked by N.C. State in a game that came down to the wire (and lots of free throws) resulting in a Wolfpack win. In another ACC vs. Big East battle, No. 3 Florida State met up with No. 6 Cincinnati in an absolute barnburner from start to finish. Watching this game was like watching Olympic-level ping pong match with both teams going full force until the finish. The Bearcats pulled away (and by that, I mean lead by a few points) with less than a minute to play while fending off fouls, steals and some rough plays while trying to in-bound the ball. I this game, the Big East won out as Cincy pulled the minor upset over FSU. Watching the Bearcats evolve from a controversial "nuisance" team to a resilient, smiling group of Sweet 16-bound players is awesome and your classic Tourney redemption story.

No. 4 seeds Indiana, Louisville and Wisconsin all had to either fight off the opposition tooth and nail or rally from behind to live another day in the Tourney, each truly earning their way into the Sweet 16. Missed three-pointers at the buzzer saved the Cardinals and Badgers from an overtime period while Indiana would've lost the game had VCU's final shot went down. These three games were some of the most exciting of the weekend.

Speaking of exciting, Norfolk State and Lehigh each had a chance to be the first No. 15 seeds in Tourney history to advance to the Sweet 16. Sadly for the Spartans and Kyle O'Quinn, the Gators chomped all over Norfolk State as Kenny Boynton scored 20 points leading Florida to the win.

In an underdog duel, No. 13 Ohio went on a 10-0 run semi-late in the second half of their game against No. 12 South Florida, landing the Bobcats a trip to the Sweet 16, as a 13-seed.

Lehigh, the other No. 15 squad trying to make history had an up-and-down game against No. 10 Xavier. Lehigh built up a 15-point lead in the first half, only to squander nearly all of it as the Mountain Hawks went to the locker room clinging to a 4 point lead over Xaiver. In the second, Lehigh suffered a near-eight minute field goal drought leaving them high and dry facing a five-point deficit around the 12-minute mark of the half. Kenny Frease (25 points, 12 rebs) and the Musketeers never looked back as they kept on Lehigh's heels, forcing the Mountain Hawks into multiple scoreless streaks. History would not be made as Xaiver sent Lehigh - the final 15-seed standing - home to watch the Sweet 16 from the couch.

A new record was in fact written Sunday night though with Cincinnati, Xavier, Ohio St. and Ohio all advancing, making it the first time in tourney history that four teams from the same state will appear together in the Sweet 16.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

A tournament that defies the numbers

Where does one even begin when recapping what went down on the basketball court on Friday? How can the second day of the 2011-2012 NCAA Championship Tournament possibly be explained? It was a day chalk full of "you had to see it to believe it" moments.

After a less-than-thrilling opening day, the hoops gods made up for a quiet Thursday by dropping some major basketball bombs on Friday, consisting of down-to-the-wire finishes and upsets of the rarest breed.

While we still have yet to see the ultimate upset, a 16-seed beating a 1-seed, we got the second best thing on Friday… TWICE!

The last time a #15 toppled a #2 was in 2001 when Hampton got the best of Iowa State in an absolute shocker, beating one of the tourney favorites 58-57. That was one of my favorite tournament games of all time, with perhaps the best celebration I've ever seen as one of the huge players picked up his tiny coach who pumped his fists and flailed his legs while being hoisted in the air.

Friday was somewhat of a throwback to that 2001 game as #15 Norfolk St. (representing the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference in which Hampton is also a member) gave #2 Missouri a serious run for their money, sending the Tigers home packing, super-duper early. The game was hard-fought by dueling point guards, Pendarvis Williams for Norfolk St. and Phil Pressey (and his amazing haircut) for Mizzou.

But the "darling" of the game, and perhaps the Tourney in general (should his team wear the glass slipper for a while longer and make it to the Sweet 16) was senior Kyle O'Quinn who stole the show with his play and personality alike. The big man was spectacular in the Spartans' first-ever trip to the Tourney, logging 26 points, 14 rebounds, two assists, two blocks and one steal while wearing his heart on his sleeve and a huge smile on his face.

Sure, he almost blew it with some missed free throws at the end of the game, but it was all good for Norfolk St. who kept their composure and did the little things to win the game. The statistics were evenly matched for the most part, with the Spartans edging out the Tigers in 3-point shooting, hitting an impressive 52 percent of shots from beyond the arc (Mizzou shot 44.8 percent from 3-point range) and also out-rebounding Mizzou 35-23.

Fun fact alert: A 15-seed has only beaten a 2-seed six times in NCAA Tourney history (since the tourney expanded to a field of 64). Three of those six teams were from historically black colleges and universities. I think that's interesting, but I digress…

On one hand, I was shocked by the outcome of the game. After all, we hadn't seen a #2 suffer an opening-round loss to a #1 in 11 years. But if it was going to happen, Missouri would be that team. Mizzou is a school I never trust in the tourney. Sure, I had them getting out of the first round in my bracket, but I had them out in the Sweet 16. If it was going to happen, it was going to happen to Missouri.

I sure as HELL didn't expect it would ALSO happen to the DOOKIES. Seriously Duke??? I mean, wow. The Norfolk St. victory lessened the shock value of #15 Lehigh's win over #2 Duke, but not by much. Last season, I was in the stands with my Dad watching my Arizona Wildcats beat Duke in the Sweet 16. Back in 2001, I watched Coach K, Shane Battier, Mike Dunleavy Jr., Jason Williams and Co. dismantle Arizona en route to an NCAA championship, and I never imagined we could beat them in a meaningful game, especially in the tournament. Watching Derrick Williams and Zona WHOOP Duke's behind in person last year, my eyes got a bit watery because for me, it felt like David beating Goliath. Duke is a team who I find hard to imagine losing.

A la the Honey Badger, Lehigh didn't care or "give a s^&%" about the Duke mystique as the Mountain Hawks beat the Blue Devils IN NORTH CAROLINA, less than 60 miles from Duke's campus. Like the Norfolk St. game just a couple of hours earlier, the favorite nearly crushed Cinderella's dreams on multiple occasions, but a few plays down the stretch kept the underdogs on top for good.

C.J. McCollum dropped 30 points on the Dukies leading the Blue Devils to a first-round demise for only the second time in 16 seasons. In a strange twist of fate, North Carolina fans who had watched the #1 Tar Heels handily beat #16 Vermont earlier in the day stuck around the arena just long enough to blast their Tobacco Road rivals. The UNC faithful threw their full support behind Lehigh, turning what should've felt like a home game for Duke into hostile, enemy territory which may have played a role in the outcome. Either way, UNC fans are cold-blooded for that, and very smart indeed as their second favorite team, Lehigh took Duke down 75-70.

Meanwhile Michigan State, Kansas, Georgetown and Florida beat their lower-seed opponents with relative ease. The same cannot be said for Cincinnati, Creighton and Florida State who squeaked past the first round and onto the weekend games. The #6 Bearcats surrendered a 19-point lead but thanks to guys with two of my favorite names in sports, Yancy & Cashmere, were able to gut out a slim victory over the #11 Texas Longhorns. #3 Florida State was on the verge of losing its ACC membership had the 'Noles lost to a feisty #14 St. Bonaventure team, but luckily for FSU, they hung on for a 66-63 win. Then we have #8 Creighton who won its first Tourney game in 10 years after overcoming an 11-point deficit and two heinous free-throw misses with under nine seconds to play, which was just enough to send #9 Alabama rolling back home to Tuscaloosa. It sure was tight though as Creighton escaped with a 58-57 win.

Temple, Memphis and San Diego State should all be embarrassed as they didn't come close to bringing their "A" game on Friday, each losing to a lower seed in ugly fashion. For the record, I had all three of them moving on to the weekend games, so, thanks for nothin guys!

#13 Ohio provided another shocker taking down the #4 Michigan Wolverines who are so desperately longing for hoops glory once again. Unfortunately the fine folks in Ann Arbor will have to wait another year. #10 Purdue managed to fend off #7 Saint Mary's, hanging on for a 72-69 win and boy, #10 Xavier and #7 Notre Dame played one heck of a nightcap.

Down by 10 in the second half, the Musketeers kicked it up a notch and with the help of a Zebra calling a lane violation on the Fighting Irish in the final seconds of the game, Xavier did just enough to pull off the upset.

Obviously, the two 15-seeds taking care of business against the 2-seeds was dramatic and the talk of the Tourney thus far. But this particular Friday was one of the best we've seen in recent years because it not only had history-making games like Norfolk St. and Lehigh, but there were plenty of other upsets, photo finishes and good, old fashioned blow-outs.

Friday was about as well-rounded as one day of competition could be as Day 2 of this year's Tourney officially brought the Madness we had all hoped to see this March.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Must See Madness

The 2012 version of March Madness opens up with a chance for everyone to see if all the hype surrounding The Murray State Racers was for real! The Racers were you could say the darlings of the college hoop season, going undefeated before falling February 9th in Ohio Valley Conference play. Murray State finished 30-1 overall but that probably won’t mean much to Colorado State. The Rams are making their first trip to the dance since 2003 and haven’t made it past that initial game in 22 years. But the odds will be against them as the West Regional game has the showdown taking place in Louisville, Kentucky… which will make it a virtual home game for the Racers. 6th seeded Murray State sports one of the country’s most exciting back-courts in Donte Poole and Isaiah Canaan, who averages 20 points per game. The Racers average 74 a game, but the Rams put up 71 a contest so this one should be full of scoring and possibly a close finish.

In the afternoon, Portland’s Rose Garden is the place for what will be an up and down, shoot the lights out affair between 12th seed Long Beach State and 5th seeded New Mexico in the West Region. The 49ers, who finished up 25-8, are battle tested! Leader Casper Ware and company played road games this year at Pitt, Louisville, Kansas and North Carolina. They beat the Panthers and hung late in all the other match-ups. The Lobos roll into March Madness red-hot! They’ve won 12 of 14 including the Mountain West Tournament last week. Long Beach State could be at a disadvantage as guard Larry Anderson has still not recovered from a knee injury and might not play for Coach Dan Monson. Steve Alford’s team is hungry! The Lobos haven’t advanced past the first weekend of the tourney since 1974. Many like New Mexico to reach the Sweet Sixteen!

Starting a half hour later is the unique battle of smart guys, who happen to be able to ball a little bit as well! Vanderbilt…. The Harvard of the South takes on the real Harvard! The Commodores and Crimson meet at the Pit in Albuquerque, New Mexico. It’s one of those five versus twelve match-ups that can give you bragging rights on the first day of your office pool.
Vandy rolls into this first round match-up full of emotion. Kevin Stallings club is coming off the signature win of his tenure; the 71-64 win over Kentucky in the S-E-C Tournament final. The tournament championship was the first ever for the school and ended Kentucky’s 24-game win streak. The Commodores have all the pieces to make a deep run into March and they are due. This same group led by shooting sensation John Jenkins and swing-man Jeffery Taylor has been eliminated in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in each of the last two seasons. Harvard has been gaining notice since the beginning of the year. Tommy Amaker’s team finished 26-4 winning the Ivy League title while averaging 65 points a night. On paper this has Vandy written all over it. But throw in their win over Kentucky and the always dangerous seeding match-up and you just never know. The Commodores only being a five point favorite says volumes about the competitive nature this one should have.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Idiot’s Guide to Bracketology

Have you ever, in your personal history of March Madness, thought to yourself after filling out your bracket, "Wow, I NAILED it this year!"

--- *crickets* *crickets* ---

Part of the fun in filling out a bracket for the NCAA Division 1 Basketball Championship tournament are the overwhelming feelings of excitement, mystery and utter helplessness while painstakingly trying to pick an entire playoff outcome from start to finish.

It makes no sense and its not even logical -- what we do with brackets and office pools -- because unpredictability is intrinsic to sports and most games in that the result is isn't predetermined (unless you're points shaving at Auburn).

Sure, you can make a failed attempt at watching every single Division I basketball game during the regular season and you probably still won't get it right, at least not all of it.

I've been filling out brackets since I was in high school. I never entered a pool until I was a few years out of college, so for many years, I was filling out brackets for the sheer fun of it and the thrill of being right!

I have participated in March Madness pools for only the last few years and I'm happy to say I won it all last season. In a pool of 130 people, most of whom are ESPN employees living in Bristol, CT., I was somehow the only person to pick UConn as the National Champion.

Did I have any "inside information?" No. Did I know something other people didn't? Certainly not. All I knew was the feeling I had filling out the bracket, round after round, which was that I couldn't envision Kemba Walker and the Huskies losing to each pick I had selected as their opponent. Plus, the last time I picked UConn to win it all in my bracket, Emeka Okafor and friends made it happen in 2004. At the end of the day, I knew the team was talented and I got damn lucky.

Luck and superstition play a big part for most fans who fill out brackets. Sure, there are some people who choose at random, or pick winners based on team colors or mascots. Then there are others who read up on every team, study Bracketology and its pundits like its a final exam. Because there are so many variables in sports (record, injury, eligibility, rivalry, travel time, partying players, etc) I usually find myself in the middle of that spectrum.

Here's my ritual for filling out a bracket:

1) Watch as many games as possible during Conference Championship weekend.
2) Watch the "Selection Sunday" show for picks and analysis.
3) Sleep on it… I don't touch my bracket on Sunday.
4) Monday morning, I read the LA Times tourney preview. Yes, the actual newspaper hard copy, not online. The preview gives statistics and nuggets about each team which can help get a feel for good vs. bad match ups.
5) Fill out my brackets at some point before the first play-in game.
6) Cross out the wrong picks on my bracket using a nice, bright red pen to help me keep track of my picks visually. This can either boost your self-esteem or bust it, but it's pretty fun to "grade" your paper, Elementary School-style.

Some rules I live by when filling out brackets:

Go With What You Know: As an Arizona Alum, I watch a lot of Pac 12 basketball which typically helps me when I make picks. Unfortunately for me, the Pac is poorly represented this year (and deservedly so) with only two teams heading to the Big Dance, so my season-long research there is basically going to waste. BUT, I did watch the Pac 12 tournament and watch the Colorado Buffaloes play impressive basketball en route to the conference championship. You'd better believe I'm going to pick Colorado to win a few games (depending on each matchup, of course). I've also seen plenty of Long Beach St. this year, so I'll likely pick them as a possible "Cinderella" as a 12-seed.

Speaking of Cinderellas and the 12-seed, that leads me to our next rule…

Pick Your Upsets Wisely: George Mason, VCU, Saint Mary's, and Butler. Sure, each team played the role of Cinderella recently making for great memories but low-seed tourney streaks are rare and as demonstrated by the list above, almost NEVER result in a National Championship.

Remember when 15-seed Hampton beat 2-seed Iowa State several years ago? Well, like a total dumbo, I took an anomaly and used it as a reason to continuously pick a 2/15 upset every year for the following five seasons (in hopes of getting major bragging rights in the event I struck gold with an upset that big). Is it possible? Of course. Some are even picking Detroit to upend Kansas in this year's tourney. But randomly picking a 2/15 upset isn't a great idea. It took me a while, but I learned my lesson. Just the same, history tells is there is almost ALWAYS a 5/12 upset at least once every tournament.

To me, this is the most fun match up to pick since you know you have at least a 1-4 chance of being right if you pick any one of those 12-seeds over the 5-seed. I'm definitely taking Long Beach St. over New Mexico this year.

In general, I tend to pick too many upsets. Yes, the underdog factor is the best part of this tournament, but lower seeds can't win 'em all, so choose your upsets sparingly.

Team Over Player: In a regular season game, it's safe to pick a team with a star player. With coaches always scouting and studying for the "next" team on the schedule, I think star players can will their teams to victory over what might be a better all-around team. I don't think that is the case in the Tournament. The pressure is so great, with the stakes so high that I think a star player without the right support system is bound to fail before making it to the Championship game. I will ride a team with a star player for the first weekend, but usually won't pick them beyond the Elite 8.

Go Big Or Go Homer: Either you go with your team all the way, or you pick with as much objectivity as you are humanly capable of when deciding your school's paper fate. It is respectable to have the Montana Grizzlies as your bracket's National Champion if that is your school or home team. It's okay to go with heart over reality in times like these. But don't do it half-assed. Picking your 16-seed Alma Mater to make it to the Sweet 16, then lose, well, that's just lame and manes ZERO sense.

And finally…

HAVE FUN!!! Listen, if you are going to bet on sports, put up $10 or $20, not a mortgage payment. If you win a bunch of money at the end of the tourney, that's just icing on the cake. If you don't have physical assets on the line, it makes the tournament so much more fun as you can cheer for underdogs, or root against your own bracket without feeling torn or guilty. Unless you are a player, family member or alumni of a team in the tourney, the whole purpose of March Madness is to enjoy one of the most entertaining and suspenseful competitions in the world. Have you guys seen the show "Luck" on HBO? Watching Pete, the degenerate gambler, is one of the most depressing things I've ever seen. That's not what this tournament is all about.

Spend a few hours tops to research and make your picks. Throw in a few upsets, choose a team or two you've never seen to win a game and then sit back, relax and enjoy the show.

-- Jackie Pepper

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Clock is about to strike midnight for many

The Madness is mere moments away. The conference tournaments have provided a suitable preview to the big dance as we've seen some top teams go down. That said, I tend not to judge those big and powerful teams that lose in the conference tournament (ie: Syracuse, Kansas, Georgetown, etc.) because I'm convinced the extra rest is more important to teams that are already a lock to go dancing than a conference "title." Plus, remember what they say… it's tough for college teams to win that third straight game against that one opponent in the same season. Sometimes we indeed see the higher seed lose to a team they beat twice in regular season play. I wouldn't read into it too much.

Speaking of locks for the tournament, here's how they stand as of Saturday morning:

Automatic Qualifiers by way of the Conference Championship
Belmont (Atlantic Sun)
Montana (Big Sky)
UNC Asheville (Big South)
Detroit Mercy (Horizon)
Harvard (Ivy)
Loyola (MD) (Metro Atlantic)
Creighton (Missouri Valley)
Long Island (NEC)
Murray State (Ohio Valley)
Lehigh (Patriot)
Davidson (SoCon)
South Dakota State (Summit)
Western Kentucky (Sun Belt)
St. Mary’s (CA) (West Coast)

Will Call
TBD (Big West)
TBD (Southland)
TBD (America East)

There are plenty of bubble teams (NC State, Mississippi St., Seton Hall, Drexel, UMass, Miami, FL, Marshall, etc.) that are desperate to make the Tourney, but as always, the limited number of spots always leaves several teams high and dry (and watching from home). 31 teams get in automatically as conference champions leaving 37 at-large berths chosen by the selection committee.

The biggest problem for the bubble teams could be the Pac12. As an Arizona Alum, I am the first to admit the Pac has had a down season this year. Some call it parody, which I think is a euphemism at this point, but regardless, somebody from the Pac12 will be dancing this year, it's just a matter of who… or whom.

Washington and Berkeley finished No. 1 and No. 2 in regular season play, but failed to answer the call in the conference tournament putting them in quite a predicament. The top-dog Huskies lost to 9-seed Oregon St. in the first round (oops!) and the Golden Bears went down in the semis to Colorado, who I must say, looked impressive in that game.

Saturday's final is between Colorado and Arizona, and this one is a toss up. Interestingly enough, the fate of today's winner is far less interesting than that of the conference tourney's losers, Washington and Cal. Will they, or won't they make the tournament as an at-large team?

In what could be a cruel coincidence, the Huskies might find themselves in a place familiar to their forefathers. The last time the conference's regular season champion was not invited to the national tournament was in the 1943-44 season when Washington was left out in the cold. OUCH.

Do Washington and Cal deserve to go dancing? Based on their play, I'm not sure but the Pac12 tourney champ, either Arizona or Colorado is no more deserving in my opinion. I think Cal and Washington would be good for the tournament in general as their fans travel well and they have both had tourney success in the past.

As always, the selection committee has its work cut out for them Sunday, especially considering the fact that you can never make everyone happy.
Likely Locks based on Regular Season play:

North Carolina
Florida State
St. Louis
Notre Dame
West Virginia
Ohio State
Michigan State
Kansas State
Iowa State
Wichita State
New Mexico
San Diego State
Colorado State
Southern Mississippi

Saturday, March 3, 2012

March Has Arrived With The Madness On Its Heels

Early tickets for the Grand Ballroom

UNC Ashville
Murray State
Loyola (MD)
St. Mary's

In front of the TV with the masses, and praying that our teams win, but more importantly, that our crumpled up piece of paper proves that we were right all along!

In this final weekend of regular season play, college basketball perfectly sets the table for conference tournaments with classic rivalry games across the board. In a week from now, the conference tournaments, while really not entirely necessary, will build the drama and anticipation for Selection Sunday which will in turn, kick-start the true Madness of March in an instant.

Unlike college football, collegiate basketball gets it right.

The Olympics and World Cup may be the most-watched international contests, but to me, the NCAA Tournament is the most exciting sporting event in the world.

As previously mentioned, NCAA basketball has a schedule that is precisely designed to build up to the Tournament. Every single game from the Midnight Madness scrimmage on, has its place and serves a purpose of getting teams from practice and conditioning mode all the way to full on ratings-bonanza, butt-kicking Tourney play.

In the next week, we'll get a taste of what many of these teams are made of. Not so much the Top 25 teams who we know will make it to the Big Dance regardless of what happens in conference tournaments, but the "bubble" teams, mid-majors and dark horses that nobody has watched play all season (because they are rarely nationally televised, if ever), who finally get a chance to shine and show us A) if they can even make it to the Tourney and B) what we can expect to see from them on basketball's biggest stage.

The Tourney is a time where loyalties fly out the window and rooting against the favorite is the popular thing to do. It's the one time when the big boys get bullied and the little guys play the hero.

So turn on your TV this weekend and start picking your favorites, both the powerhouses and unknowns and by next weekend, you'll be ready to select the bracket busters and wrongly choose the next National Champion right along with the rest of us.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Welcome to the first of many “Bracket Buster” weekends

If you haven't gotten into college hoops yet this season, this weekend is the time to jump in, head first! Several ranked teams are playing each other including two mid-major teams that could end up in Cinderella's shoes come March, making this weekend all the more exciting. Why fly blind into your office pool a few weeks from now when you can watch a great preview and go into March Madness actually knowing a thing or two about several of the teams in your bracket?

To a casual fan, the match-up of Saint Mary's and Murray State. would exactly scream "excitement" but for those of us who know better, this is in fact the marquee match-up of the weekend!

Who would've guessed that No. 16 Saint Mary's (23-4, 12-2 WCC) and No. 14 Murray St. (25-1, 13-1 OVC) would be top teams this late in the season? Sure, some may think this pairing has lost some luster as both teams suffered surprising losses recently, but that disappointment makes this game all the more important moving forward.

Aside from the nostalgia of true March Madness that comes to mind when thinking of these two teams, the Gaels and Racers each have exciting playmakers on their rosters this year. Saint Mary's junior point guard Matt Dellavedova leads the Gaels, averaging 15.7 points per game and 6.4 assists. Dellavedova is hampered by an ankle injury with head coach Randy Bennett calling him a game-time decision. Hopefully he'll play so we can watch him go up against the Racers' junior point guard Isaiah Canann, averaging 19.2 ppg, 3.8 apg and shooting a whopping 47.3 percent from 3-point range.

As if Dellavedova's injury wasn't bad enough, the Gaels will definitely be without sophomore guard and top defender Stephen Holt who partially tore his MCL in St. Mary's home loss to Loyola Marymount on Wednesday. This one hurts the Gaels, both literally and figuratively.

Both teams are expected to receive an at-large bid to the Tournament, but if either team drops a few games, they could find themselves forced to win their conference tournament in order to make it to the Big Dance. Obviously, nobody wants to play under that kind of pressure when you can secure a Tourney spot with strong regular season play. In other words, both Murray St. and Saint Mary's will play their hearts out in front of a national audience at 6pm EST on ESPN. Expect a close and exciting game, especially if Dellavedova is healthy enough to suit up. I'm taking Murray St. in this one as the Racers are still likely pissed after losing their only game of the season to Tennessee St. last week and should use that as fuel. Plus, the Gaels should experience a bit of a learning curve in adjusting to playing without the injured Holt.

There's another point guard match-up worth watching, and it comes in the big boy conference, the Big Ten; It's a classic duel between rivals Ohio State. and Michigan. Sure, it doesn't sound as compelling as a football game in the Big House, but these two institutions have proven themselves to be formidable opponents on the hardwood as well.

Yes, the No. 6 Buckeyes (22-4, 10-3 Big Ten) SMASHED the 19. Wolverines (19-7, 9-4 Big Ten) when they played in Columbus last month, and OSU has won its last six straight games against Michigan. But here's the thing, Michigan is 14-0 in Ann Arbor this season, which is where Saturday's game is being played. The Buckeyes need the win to stay atop the conference alongside Michigan State. Although OSU beat Michigan by 15 points in that last meeting, the Wolverines defense showed promise playing Jared Sullinger tough and I would imagine, the D will kick it up a notch given the importance of the game and playing it in front of their home crowd.

If Tim Hardaway Jr. and Trey Burke play well, I can't see Michigan losing in Ann Arbor. Watching point guards Burke for the Wolverines and Aaron Craft for the Buckeyes go at it should be a lot of fun. The fact that Michigan is finally a contender again after all of these years just adds to the excitement of college hoops this season. Even though the Wolverines stunk in their last meeting with OSU, I'm picking Michigan at home the second time around. You can catch this one following St. Mary's vs. Murray St. on ESPN (scheduled at 9pm EST).

An at-large match-up worth watching is Long Beach State at Creighton. Both teams are intriguing for different reasons, plus both squads might be dancing come March. Creighton (22-5, 12-4 MVC) will play host to Long Beach St. (19-6, 12-0 Big West) in hopes of building upon their last game (a victory which snapped a three-game skid) while attempting to spoil the 49ers 12-game winning streak.

The Bluejays and 49ers both put a lot of points on the board (averaging 79.9 and 74.1 ppg respectively) so we can expect to see plenty of offense and for Creighton, the man leading the way is Doug McDermott averaging 22.7 ppg. The Bluejays entire starting lineup is well-balanced, comprised of unselfish players who enjoy logging assists, rebounding and letting Ethan Wragge (off the bench) shoot 3-pointers at a solid rate of 45 percent.

In the visiting 49ers, we'll see a team that has played the most difficult non-conference schedule this season with most of those games coming on the road. Long Beach St. beat then-ranked Pittsburgh away from home and Xavier at a neutral site but lost to San Diego State, Louisville, North Carolina and Kansas on the road. To me, this team screams "Cinderella" having experience against some top programs heading into the Tourney.

Then again, the 49ers have to make it to the Tourney before they can wear the glass slipper, something they haven't done recently, losing the Big West title game the last two seasons. A win over over Creighton would get the 49ers one step closer to an at-large bid which would remove the pressure of having to win the Big West tournament to get in to the NCAA's.

The 49ers have three players averaging double figures in scoring (senior guard Casper Ware leads the way with 17 ppg) and has two others following close behind averaging nearly 10 ppg. Senior forward T.J. Robinson averages over ten boards per game as well.

LBSU is holding teams to 65 ppg while Creighton allows 68.6 ppg. The 49ers will need to bring their "A" game defensively as Creighton's 79.9 ppg ranks 10th in the nation. The Bluejays are a solid 12-2 at home while the 49ers are 8-5 on the road, but as we mentioned earlier, they have played one hell of a road schedule.

Creighton leads the nation in field goal percentage (shooting 51 percent) and ranks third with 18.4 assists per game. Stats say Creighton should win this game but I'm going with Long Beach St. The 49ers are due to win this one on the road, plus, they start four seniors and a junior. That is a lot of experience to counter the Bluejays who have only one senior and and two juniors in their starting five.

In the ACC, I'm taking No. 21 Florida State (18-7, 9-2 ACC) over North Carolina State (18-8, 7-4) in Raleigh. Both teams played Thursday, with FSU ending up on the right side of a comeback and the opposite being the case for N.C. State. I think the Wolfpack are worse for the wear, probably still exhausted from being mentally wounded by Duke's come-from-behind victory.

Also in the ACC, No. 22 Virginia hosts Maryland. This game doesn't do much for me considering neither team can manage to beat Duke, UNC or Florida St. I give UVA the edge here as they are 12-1 at home while the Terps are a dismal 1-5 on the road.

Yes, New Mexico has won six straight games heading into Saturday's showdown against Mountain West rival UNLV. Yes, UNLV stinks on the road, the Rebels are just 5-6 away from home. Yes, the Lobos now sit atop the conference coming off a win at No. 15 San Diego St., and their last loss came a lonnnng time ago, at UNLV on Jan 21.

Having said all of that, I'm taking No. 11 UNLV. I feel like this is the week the Rebels get back on track on the road. Could this prediction go up in flames? Sure. But my gut tells me Vegas comes up a winner on Saturday.

And finally, in the Big 12, we've got Kansas State visiting No. 10 Baylor. If anyone in the Big 12 aside from Kansas or Missouri can beat the Bears (22-4, 9-4 Big 12), it's probably the Wildcats (17-8, 6-7 Big 12), but I don't see it happening Saturday. Baylor is too good at home (12-2) and this team is on a mission. From Brittney Griner and the women's hoops team to RG III and the football team to men's basketball, I'm convinced 2011-2012 belongs to Baylor athletics. The men's basketball program has overcome such heinous corruption and heartbreak in a relatively short amount of time with this last year being truly special . Despite losses to the cream of the crop Kansas and Missouri, I see Baylor getting a running start heading into the Tourney. I think Perry Jones III, Pierre Jackson and Quincy Acy will be too much for the Wildcats to overcome in Waco.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

College Basketball Ready for Some Hoopla

Well it didn’t take long for the college basketball season to step right up and knock down a huge night of jumpers and excitement in it’s first real season spotlight. With the NFL season now history and the NBA campaign barely a third of the way through a strike shortened year, with some fans still angry, college hoop delivered on its first real big stage.

The appetizer was one of the final Big East battles between Georgetown and Syracuse with the Orange’s pending move to the ACC next year. The schools could still plan to play each other in the future but it won’t be the same as their conference battles over the last three decades. Almost 28-thousand crammed into the Carrier Dome for the 87th meeting between the rivals and they, as well as the television audience weren’t disappointed! The second-ranked Orangeman survived shooting just 35 percent to rally and force overtime with the 11th ranked Hoyas. In the extra period, they would outscore Georgetown 9-6 despite trailing by four in the OT, for the 64-61 victory. With the win, Jim Boeheim passed Dean Smith into third place on the all-time Division One win list with 880 victories. Afterwards Boeheim said he was just happy to get the win, in a game where the largest lead for either team was just six points.

After the Syracuse win, only one match-up could surpass the previous game and that of course had to take place on Tobacco Road. Duke and North Carolina have been playing each other since 1920 and 92 years later the rivalry is still the greatest in the sport. Wednesday’s game was not hurt by the fact the host Tar Heels were ranked 5th while the Blue Devils came in at number nine. None of that matters of course when these foes meet on the hardwood. As a matter of fact nothing seems to make sense other than the team that plays the hardest for the longest period of 40 minutes, usually gets the win. UNC found that out the hard way at the Dean Dome. The Tar Heels led almost the entire evening while shooting just under 50 percent for the game. Duke, who was coming off a loss to Miami in their last game, appeared to being doing just enough to avoid being blown out as the Blue Devils teetered on the verge of multiple double-digit deficits for most of the second half. But the inconsistent visitors had one thing working in Chapel Hill last night, the three point shot. While Carolina only made just one of six, Coach K’s crew fired up 36 and knocked down 14, that’s almost 39 percent. So even though they trailed by ten with just two and a half minutes left, there was still hope. Hope was enough when super-frosh Austin Rivers had the ball with less than ten seconds and the Devils down only two. Forget driving to the hoop and maybe dishing after the defense collapsed. Off the pick and role with the seven-footer Tyler Zeller in his face, he let his tenth three-point shot of the game fly and the result was pure pandemonium for the Duke faithful that made the short drive from Durham. Nothing but net for the stunning 85-84 win at the buzzer, as the Blue Devils stormed the court in front of 21,750 stunned Tar Heel faithful. A career high of 29 points on six of ten from long range for the son of Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers.

If you weren’t picking a side in either of these elite tussles it didn’t matter. College basketball is ready to capture, engage and awe any fan who enjoys drama. After all, that’s what makes sports, true reality television at its best; the drama is real. Now that the time of the year has come for college hoops to gather its attention, it appears more than ready to hold the spotlight.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Kids are alright

In a world where college basketball has become a training ground for the National Basketball Association as much as a place to receive an education and develop as a person, John Calipari and the University of Kentucky have seemed to succeed so far in navigating the waters of one and done. At 22-1 the Wildcats once again sit on top of the polls as the nation’s number one ranked team. This really isn’t that big of a deal considering the pedigree of the Kentucky program over the years. But it’s the way Calipari continues to get it done since his arrival in April of 2009 that amazes and states this guy can not only recruit but he can flat out coach! If you take a look at the Kentucky roster, just two of the 13 players are seniors. Now this tends to happen every now and then at some schools but for the Cats, it has become the norm. It’s also a strategy that continues to pay dividends season after season with Big Blue in the National Championship picture every March despite the lack of senior leadership, which used to be important to winning in the Big Dance.

Of Kentucky’s top six players, only guard Darius Miller is a senior. Leading scorer Doron Lamb at over 13 points per game is a sophomore. The Cats number two scorer and big presence inside in Anthony Davis is just a freshman. He also tallies 13 a game to go with 10 rebounds. Michael Kidd-Gilchist is another freshman averaging over 12 points per contest. Next to him, Terrance Jones another sophomore chipping in 12 points a night. Add in freshman guard Marquis Teague with his 10 points and four assist and the balance of this young group is amazing. The only blemish on their record so far is a 73-72 loss at Indiana back on December 10th. At 8-0, atop the Southeastern Conference, Kentucky is averaging a winning margin of 18 points per game. So just how good are these Cats? Well in terms of legacy we’ll have to wait until someone cuts down the nets in New Orleans. But another measuring stick could be June’s NBA Draft. Nobody would be surprised if all six of the Wildcats are taking in the first two rounds, even the freshman Teague and Davis.

This of course is really nothing new for the Calipari receipt for success, since his arrival in Lexington. If you run down a list of Calipari’s professional players from UK, check out their total playing time at Rupp Arena. John Wall, first overall pick in 2010 played just one season. DeMarcus Cousins the fifth overall pick that draft, just one season. Patrick Patterson the number 14 selection in 2010, three years at Kentucky. Eric Bledsoe, number 18 in 2010 played just his freshman season. Daniel Orton, the 29th selection in 2010, just one season under Calipari. Center Enes Kanter was ruled ineligible in 2011 and was still drafted 3rd overall. Brandon Knight, the 8th overall pick from 2011, stayed at Kentucky for one season. Both Josh Harrelson and DeAndre Liggins second round picks in 2011 wore the Kentucky blue for three years.

But even with the turnstile for the Association moving quickly at Kentucky, it hasn’t hurt the product on the court. Calipari’s first team finished 35-3 overall was the top seed in the East and reached the elite eight. Last season, Kentucky went 29-9, was seeded second in the East and made it to the final four. So here they are again loaded with young talent that doesn’t seem to be fazed by big moments or the overall collegiate hoop hot seat. They already handled Kansas, North Carolina and Louisville all ranked in the top 11 when the Cats put them in the loss column. They also have eight more SEC games to prepare themselves for a deep tournament run into early April.

While Syracuse, Ohio State, Missouri, North Carolina and Baylor are all older more experienced and chasing the youngsters, don’t be worried about their youth being exploited come March. There are reasons the Wildcats are number one and there is no mistake it’s where they should be.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

A very exclusive fraternity

The last team to come close to finishing a regular season undefeated was St. Joe's back in 2004. In fact, they did technically go unbeaten in the regular season (27-0), before losing the quarter-final round game of the A-10 conference tournament heading into March Madness.

As talented as Syracuse, Baylor, Missouri and Murray State may be, all four of the nation's currently undefeated teams have just started conference play and have a ways to go in terms of proving themselves.

16 teams have finished the regular season undefeated but lost in the NCAA Tournament (or a different post season playoff) and only seven have gone unbeaten throughout the season and playoffs to win the national championship. Bob Knight's Indiana Hoosiers were the last team to accomplish that feat back in 1976.

I'm giving you the history lesson because I don't know if we will EVER see an undefeated college team in men's basketball again. Could it happen? Sure, of course it could, but I'll believe it when I see it.

For discussion's sake, lets take a look at the four (of 345) remaining Division I unbeaten men's basketball teams. We'll go in order from lowest to highest AP poll ranking.

No 19. Murray State 15-0, Ohio Valley

Should Murray State go undefeated, nobody will give them any credit for it anyway because they are in a mid-major conference. The truth is that undefeated is undefeated, whether its in the NFL, college hoops, synchronized swimming or little league baseball, it should always be regarded as a major accomplishment. If anyone can do it at this point, it's probably the Racers given their schedule. But even in the Ohio Valley conference, going unbeaten won't come easy for Murray State.

The Racers beat Eastern Kentucky on Wednesday in their first game without the team's leading rebounder, forward Ivan Aska. The senior is out indefinitely with a broken right hand. The Racers will have to account for his 12.6 points and 6.0 rebounds per game. In fact, Aska is one of only three Racers who averages double figures in scoring.

Murray state is among the country's best in terms long-distance shooting, hitting 43.7 percent from 3-point range. But you know what they say; Live by the 3, die by the 3.

While losing Aska indefinitely worries me a lot, the good news for the Racers is that not only are the other teams in the Ohio Valley conference not "big name" programs, but many of their OVC opponents look horrendous this season. Only 7 of the 11 teams are .500 or better, but most are on the lower end of that spectrum.

No. 7 Missouri 14-0, Big 12
I feel like Missouri will always let you down when it counts so several years ago I decided never to count on them. But damn, they look good this season! Whoa. They rank first in D-1 in field goal percentage (shooting 52%) and second overall in scoring, averaging 86.2 points per game. The Tigers also dish the ball out around 17 times per game, good for 16th in the nation in assists. This Mizzou offense is FOR REAL.

The Tigers dropped 92 points on then-ranked No. 18 Cal, and held the Golden Bears to only 53 pathetic points. To humiliate another ranked team 92-53 is mighty impressive (even if it was Berkeley, coming from a weak Pac-12 conference).

I like the Tigers because they have been somewhat tested in playing two ranked teams thus far (Mizzou squeezed out a four-point win over then-No. 24 Illinois), which cannot be said for Murray State, Baylor or Syracuse. Then again, neither Cal nor Illinois are currently ranked.

It's hard to know just how good their defense is because to use the phrase, "they held Niagra to 52 points" would be an oxymoron; I could probably hold Nigara to 60 by myself. I can't gauge their defense just yet, but once the Tigers have more than one conference game under their belt, we'll get a much better picture of the D.

I would say that Saturday's game against No. 23 Kansas State should be a great measuring stick for the Tigers since the Wildcats has showed such strong defense all season. Unfortunately, KState got hammered by Kansas on Wednesday, allowing the Jayhawks the freedom to do whatever they desired in a 67-49 win over the Wildcats. Should Missouri beat Kansas State this weekend, it might not mean as much as we thought it would have before the Kansas game.

The Tigers' problem will be the same as Baylor and Syracuse; they play in a strong conference that will make an undefeated regular season incredibly hard to pull off. Mizzou reminds me a little bit of the Patriots in that you really aren't sure what you'll get on the defensive end, but you can't really root against them because of the strength of the Tigers offense.

No. 4 Baylor 14-0, Big 12
What a year for Baylor University. First, Robert Griffin III goes berserk, leading Baylor to only its second 10-win season in school history en route to a bowl game victory AND the school's first ever Heisman Trophy. Who thought there would be room for another top team within the same school? Apparently, there's plenty of room at the top as Baylor is the only D-1 school currently ranked in the coaches polls in football, men's and women's basketball.

If the Baylor men's basketball team goes deep into the tournament, much less finishes the regular season undefeated, the Bears would easily be the best story of a young 2012 year.

It feels like just yesterday when I first heard the news that Baylor forward Patrick Dennehey went missing and was subsequently found murdered at the hands of his friend and Bears teammate Carlton Dotson, who is now serving a 35-year prison sentence. Investigations into the 2003 incident uncovered drug use among the men's program, cover-ups by then-head coach Dave Bliss, illegal payments from coaches to players and other violations resulting in several sanctions (probation, loss of non-conference games, reduced scholarships and recruiting visits, etc.) levied by both the university itself and the NCAA.

Had this scandal occurred at a school with a more storied basketball program in this age of the internet and social media, it would've taken on a magnitude of Penn State/Sandusky proportion.

Thankfully for Baylor, the only small, private school in the Big 12, the worst is behind them and the men's basketball program has recovered in a truly incredible fashion.

From RGIII on the football field to Perry Jones III on the hardwood, Baylor basketball is now off to its best start in school history to match it's highest poll ranking ever at No.4 AP.

For whatever its worth, Jones, a 6'11 sophomore, was voted the Big 12 preseason player of the year and hasn't disappointed as he leads the team in scoring with 13.4 points per game in nine games (he served a six-game suspension for taking improper benefits before arriving at Baylor) and ranks second in rebounding with 7.3 per contest.

The great thing about Baylor is that they aren't a one-trick pony as FIVE guys on the team are averaging double figures in scoring and no player is averaging more than 14 minutes per game. The team is pretty well-balanced in most areas.

The problem here is that the Big 12 is quite competitive this season with three other teams ranked in the top 25 (including unbeaten No. 7 Missouri, as mentioned above), none of which Baylor has faced yet. Even the unranked teams are decent, if not pretty good, which has my instincts telling me the Bears could easily suffer an upset by Texas or Oklahoma.

If any team were to finish the season undefeated, or come close to doing so, Baylor would be at the top of my wish list.

No. 1 Syracuse 16-0, Big East

For starters, the 'Cuse is second to none in the name game as the Orangemen have the nation's best-named team with a roster full of gems like Christmas, Fab, Scoop and Mookie

The team is deep in great names and solid ability, with ten players averaging between 15 and 16 minutes of playing time per game. No player averages more than 16. That's pretty impressive and tells you that with every point scored and every rebound grabbed, "there's more where that came from." The Orangemen might not have the most talented roster pound-for-pound, but they are deep as hell with a second unit just as strong as their starters which is a rare luxury to have.

If you're a stats junkie, this team sure look good as it's ranked in the top 15 nationwide in points, assists and field goal percentage per game. The Orangemen have hot hands, shooting nearly 50% from the field.

Unlike Murray State, Syracuse plays in the Big East, a perennial power house year in and year out. Thing is, they've only played 3 conference games thus far and only played one ranked school, Florida.

Sure, against crappy programs (sorry if that sounds harsh, but you guys know what I mean), the Orangemen have won by a fairly large margin, but the same cannot be said in games against more reputable teams. At the end of the day, a win is a win, but yes, margin of victory does help me gauge where a team is in it's development and how it's evolving throughout a season.

Is the margin of victory smaller to begin the season, and larger toward the end, proving that a team is gelling and running like a well-oiled machine? Or are the wins harder to get, perhaps indicating stamina issues, health problems, etc.?

Assuming the Orangemen are still undefeated by February, perhaps their real test will come with a three-game stretch at the start of the month playing No. 9 Georgetown and No. 8 Connecticut at home followed by No. 10. Louisville on the road. If Syracuse can make it through that, they would be at 26-0 with only four games to play, including rematches with UConn and Louisville. With an experienced coach like Jim Boeheim, if the Orangemen do make it to 26-0, I would give them a pretty damn good shot in finishing the regular season unbeaten.