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.