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.