Monday, March 31, 2008

The best Final Four ever?


Unfortunately, I'm not a college basketball historian. While I do know basic things such as every national champion and every Final Four team dating back to 1980, my overall knowledge of the game is weak.

I've heard that Walton — Bill Walton — made 21 of 22 shots in a national title game. I've read that Lew Alcindor — known to most kids as "Kareem" — won three most outstanding player awards in three years at UCLA.

I know about the triple-overtime thriller between UNC and Kansas in '57, the Magic-Bird showdown in '79, M.J.'s shot in '82, the Cardiac Pack in '83.

I've watched the replay of Syracuse-Indiana in '87 and and Seton Hall-Michigan in '89. I've Youtubed Laettner's shot in '92 many times.

I've seen live every Final Four game for at least the past 10 years...

But I don't consider myself qualified to make a statement such as, "This is the best Final Four every assembled." No, I'll leave that to the experts, the historians, the Dick Weisses of the college basketball universe.

But I will say this — the four No. 1 seeds set to tangle with each other come Saturday resemble the four most eminent teams I can recall still being alive come the NCAA Tournament's final weekend. I guess there's a reason they're all No. 1 seeds.

It's not just about the seeding, however. The reason I chose North Carolina, Kansas, Memphis and UCLA to make the final weekend is because I truly believed they were the best four teams in college basketball. Sure, anything could happen — Texas had a favorable geographic draw, Tennessee was a dangerous team, Bill Self's teams had a tendency to tank in the Elite 8.

But I felt that if all four No. 1 seeds played up to their potential, none of them would lose in their first four games. And now we're here. Sure, Memphis almost blew its second-round game in the final minute because it couldn't hit a free throw. Sure, UCLA decided it'd be fun to wait until the very end to defeat No. 9 seed Texas A&M. Sure, UNC let Louisville turn a 12-point halftime deficit into a tie before pulling away. And, sure, Kansas played not to lose almost the entire 40 minutes in its 59-57 heart-pounder against Davidson.

Still, all four No. 1s survived, and we're in for a treat beginning Saturday. The games are almost impossible to pick, but I'll take a stab at them anyway:

No. 1 Memphis vs. No. 1 UCLA:
A rematch of a regional final two years ago, when the Bruins absolutely shut down the Tigers. But Memphis didn't have Derrick Rose then. Now they do. Rose proved against Texas Sunday, at least in my mind, that he's the best point guard in the country. He gets it done on both ends of the court, and he doesn't allow the Tigers to become stagnant on offense. And did I mention his ability to finish plays in transition? He'll be the difference in this game, outplaying the smaller, weaker Darren Collison.

The Tigers showed their ability to shred a zone Sunday, using Chris Douglas-Roberts and Shawn Taggart in the middle of Texas' 2-3 setup. It'll be interesting to see how the Bruins defend the Tigers. On the other end, the Tigers have to be smart against Kevin Love, who has been the Bruins' best player in March. If he gets Joey Dorsey and Robert Dozier into foul trouble, Memphis will be in trouble. UCLA absolutely needs Josh Shipp to shake off his shooting slump in order to win. Otherwise, Memphis will be able to pack it in defensively, daring Shipp and his fellow guards to beat the Tigers from the perimeter.

My pick: Memphis 71, UCLA 66

No. 1 North Carolina vs. No. 1 Kansas:
One thing is certain: If the Jayhawks play like they did Sunday, they'll get run out of San Antonio. I'm not taking anything away from Davidson, which played a great game, but Kansas played not to lose. Only Sasha Kaun seemed to sense the urgency of the game, making big play after big play and converting all six of his shot attempts. I do expect the Jayhawks — the likely underdog — to come out more relaxed now that they've gotten Self to his first Final Four.

Kansas will need to make outside shots, especially Brandon Rush, Russell Robinson and Sharon Collins. The trio combined to hit two of 10 from downtown against the Wildcats. Another key? Attack Tyler Hansbrough. All season, teams haven't made Hansbrough work hard enough on defense, haven't tried diligently enough to get him into foul trouble. Kansas' post players have the skills and size to go right at the probable player of the year. Whoever is being checked by Hansbrough should call for the ball.

One thing I ascertained from watching Hansbrough last weekend? He's going to get his. If he doesn't score his 20-plus points on post-up moves, he'll do it through second-chance points and his much-improved 15-foot jump shot. One thing Hansbrough still struggles with, however, is passing out of double-teams. Kansas should hit him hard with weak-side traps every time he touches the ball, forcing him to make cross-court passes. Of course, if he successfully finds an open Wayne Ellington or Danny Green, the Jayhawks could be in trouble. But it's worth the risk. Ultimately, Carolina's supporting cast will decide the game. If they keep playing like they have the past couple weeks, Kansas won't have quite enough firepower in what figures to be a high-scoring affair.

My pick: North Carolina 82, Kansas 76

Could this get any better? Roy Williams taking on his former team. UCLA trying to finally break through after two years of Final Four disappointment. John Calipari's crew trying to prove the critics — including myself — wrong. Kansas attempting to show that no superstar is needed to win it all.

It should make for some great Saturday-night drama, with CBS' coverage get better ratings than FOX's back-to-back episodes of "Cops."

Then again, I'm just a writer, not some Nielsen Ratings guru.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Baseball already??


I heard a rumor Tuesday morning.

Sitting at the dining room table, eating some blue corn chips, I opened the sports section to read that it was "Opening Day." Wait ... Opening Day? On the 25th of March?

I continued reading to find out that not only was it opening day, but it was taking place across the world in Japan, and it featured just two major league teams — Boston and Oakland.

The next day, while browsing the paper and eating some Raisin Bran, there was the box score from the Red Sox' win over Oakland — right next to a whole bunch of exhibition linescores. I encountered the same confusion when I opened up today's paper.

And now — another rumor — Boston and Oakland will go back to playing exhibition games with the rest of the teams?

Listen, I love baseball as much as any other 1980s baby. I grew up listening to every Tigers game on the radio — even though the team was terrible. I don't go a year without making it to a few Tigers game even though they're tearing down the stadium they should still occupy.

Without baseball season, I don't know what I'd do all summer.

But baseball in March makes as much sense as sailing in January. Yeah, not a good idea.

Not only did no one care about Opening Day, which was on T.V. at 6 in the morning here, but the actual first game of the season in the U.S. is just that — a single game. Atlanta will play Washington Sunday night in an ESPN national telecast. On the same day, the A's and Red Sox — who are both 1-1 — will play their final exhibition games?

My head is spinning.

Finally, the legitimate Opening Day — as in, where almost every team plays in ballparks across the country — will take place next Monday (March 31). Only problem is, not only will it be anticlimactic, well, the climates in certain places might just be too chilly/snowy to handle baseball.

Detroit. Chicago. Philadelphia. Cleveland. The list goes on...

Does not anyone remember what happened in Cleveland a year ago? If my memory serves me right, the Indians and Mariners were doing snow angels on Jacobs Field (which, apparently — after a scan of the Web site — is now Progressive Field). And then they played a baseball game in Milwaukee! Yet, Bud Selig and his cohorts has this idea that we should start baseball season in March. And if sports weren't such a huge part of my life, I wouldn't pay one bit of attention to the first week of baseball season.

That's because the beginning of baseball season is trying to steal some magic from the end of March Madness. On Final Four Saturday April 5, there will be a plethora of baseball games. Ditto on championship-game Monday.

Now, baseball fans might say that the end of college basketball season is infringing on the beginning of their season. After all, it's "March Madness," not "March-April Madness," right?

But c'mon, people. Isn't baseball season long enough as is? Just this past fall, the World Series was pushed back to reach November. Including spring training, that's eight and a half months of baseball. I love the game — really do — but even that's overkill.

This is an easy solution: Start baseball season the Tuesday after the national title game. This year, that would mean April 8. It would also mean less of a chance of a snow-out, which I can all but guarantee will happen in some northern city next Monday.

Of course, my proposal has no chance of happening. That was so, like, 10 years ago.

Today's sports world is all about globalization and primetime audiences. That means flying the Red Sox and A's 15 to 20 hours across the world for a period of a few days. I don't blame Josh Beckett one bit for not wanting to go, regardless of his injury. I wouldn't.

I wouldn't have had as big of a problem with the teams flying to Japan during the middle of March for a week of exhibition games. That way, the Japanese fans still would get to see some Major League Baseball. They would still get to watch their hero Daisuke Matsuzaka in person. But it wouldn't take away from Opening Day back here.

Now, I couldn't care less about Opening Day I, Opening Day II or Opening Day III. They're all too early for me. My main focus will be on college hoops until "One Shining Moment" a week from Monday.

Even if my Tigers are 6-0 at that point.

Monday, March 24, 2008

NCAA tourney first weekend review, Sweet 16 preview


I've never liked Bob Huggins — and probably never will — but I give him this: The man can coach.

I watched in person Saturday as Huggins smartly played his backup point guard Joe Mazzulla 30-plus minutes in West Virginia's 73-67 upset win over No. 2 seed Duke.

Huggins, clearly, had watched Duke's 71-70 win over Belmont, when the Blue Devils struggled to contain the Bruins' quick guards. So he let Mazzulla do the same thing. He spread the floor and Mazzulla created for his teammates.

Huggins is just one of many excellent coaches who will guide their teams beginning Thursday. Here's my region-by-region Sweet 16 breakdown:


No. 1 North Carolina vs. No. 4 Washington State: On Sunday night, Roy Williams was asked whether he's concerned that his Heels coasted to two blowout wins in the first two rounds. His answer was a resounding "No," and I agree with him. The Heels are playing as well as they have all season. Tyler Hansbrough didn't need a big game Sunday to demolish Arkansas. Rather, his frontcourt mates Deon Thompson and Alex Stepheson played extremely well. Additionally, Ty Lawson is starting to look more like his old self. All good signs.

But don't pencil in a victory for the Heels. Washington State is the type of team that could pull off this upset. For starters, the Cougars' staple is defense — and they held offensive juggernaut Notre Dame to 41 points. Secondly, they have a veteran backcourt made up of Derek Low and Kyle Weaver. This is an experienced team that also boasts two easy wins from the opening weekend.

My call: North Carolina 70, Washington State 62

No. 2 Tennessee vs. No. 3 Louisville: These teams had vastly different opening weekends. The Vols survived a scare against 15th-seeded American and needed overtime to dispose of Butler. Louisville, meanwhile, cruised to wins in its opening two games.

I still like the Vols, however. You can view close wins in two ways — either they're a big concern; or, your team knows how to pull out the tough games. Earlier in the year, I was disgusted by Tennessee's end-game decisions in a loss at Vanderbilt. Obviously, the Vols have improved in that area. The key for the Vols will be to play as physical as they did in their win over then-No. 1 Memphis. Led by David Padgett, the Cardinals are a very bruising team. They'll look to score down low and on second-chance points. Tennessee needs to control the boards and get out and run.

My call: Tennessee 76, Louisville 73


No. 1 Kansas vs. No. 12 Villanova:
Give the Wildcats credit for getting this far. A week ago, I didn't even think they deserved to be in the tournament. But Scottie Reynolds is a great leader at the guard position, and you can't count out a team with strong guards.
Kansas, however, has a pickup truck full of of talented guards, and better forwards than the Wildcats. As long as the Jayhawks do a good job guarding the 3-point arc and don't take the Wildcats lightly, they'll be fine.

My call: Kansas 83, Villanova 70

No. 3 Wisconsin vs. No. 10 Davidson:
Davidson is obviously the Cinderella pick, and I'm sure the CBS executives are praying for a Wildcats victory. Remember the last time Wisconsin made the Final Four, when they and Michigan State scored about 80 points — combined? Yeah, Stephon Curry is a little more exciting.

But style be darned, the Badgers get the job done — with great coaching, great defense and timely offense. Expect the same Friday night. Wisconsin will shut down Davidson's perimeter shooters — including Curry — for most of the night and dominate down low with its big bodies.

My call: Wisconsin 61, Davidson 54.


No. 1 Memphis vs. No. 5 Michigan State: Of the four No. 1 seeds set to play in the Sweet 16, the Tigers are the most likely to lose. On Sunday, they again showed how vulnerable they are because of their atrocious free-throw shooting. If the Spartans can keep the game close until the end, I like their chances. They don't face any pressure.

And I think they'll be there because of their guard play. Senior Drew Neitzel has been up and down this season, but I'm betting on him being up, and freshman Kalin Lucas is a jitterbug player who will stay in front of Derrick Rose all night long. Memphis is the more talented team — and has more depth — but if the Spartans can slow the game down and keep it tight, they can pull off the upset in crunch time.

My call: Michigan State 64, Memphis 63.

No. 2 Texas vs. No. 3 Stanford: This is the battle of the Bigs vs. the Littles. Brook Lopez showed he's capable of taking over a game in Stanford's overtime win over Marquette in the second round. Meanwhile, Texas' duo of guards A.J. Abrams and D.J. Augustin has been steady all season, and I expect the same in this game.

The difference will be the Longhorns' ability to bother B. Lopez and his brother, Robin, in the post. Damion James is a very underrated bruiser, and he n' his mates will defend well enough to get Texas the win in front of a large gathering of 'Horns fans in Houston.

My call: Texas 77, Stanford 67


No. 1 UCLA vs. No. 12 Western Kentucky: It's been a great story for the Hilltoppers and their NBA prospect, Courtney Lee, but the Bruins are too good to end their title push here. Expect a big game from big man Kevin Love, who will be well-rested by Thursday night. Also expect another stifling defensive performance by a Bruins team that doesn't seem to give up much more than 50 points in any game.

My call: UCLA 70, Western Kentucky 55

No. 3 Xavier vs. No. 7 West Virginia: A very intriguing regional semifinal, with the teams matching up pretty equally. But I give a slight edge to the Mountaineers. For one, they have the best player on either team in Joe Alexander, who has been on a tear of late and can score from both inside and out. Secondly, Mazzulla is quick enough to stay with Xavier speedster Drew Lavender. Finally, WVU has better outside shooters than the Musketeers.

Expect a back-and-forth tussle for most of the night, but when the smoke clears, WVU will be the highest seed left in the field of 16.

And did I mention that Huggins can coach?

My call: West Virginia 69, Xavier 67

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

My bracket -- picking the Jayhawks


A year ago, I knew who I thought would win the national title. There was no parcel of doubt in my mind that Florida — if it played up to its potential — would win its second consecutive title.

This year is a different story. UCLA? North Carolina? Kansas? Memphis? Tennessee? Texas?

It's a crapshoot.

Here goes — my picks from the first round through the final.


First round
No. 1 UNC def. play-in winner: Um, yeah.
No. 8 Indiana def. No. 9 Arkansas: Forget the fact that the Hoosiers have lost three of four. It's a new season and they're much better than an 8 seed.
No. 5 Notre Dame def. No. 12 George Mason: Luke Harangody is a beast down low.
No. 4 Washington State def. No. 13 Winthrop: WSU's guards handle the Eagles.
No. 11 St. Joe's def. No. 6 Oklahoma: The Sooners are seeded too high. St. Joe's is overflowing with confidence.
No. 3 Louisville def. No. 14 Boise State: No three-overtime miracle for the Broncos here.
No. 7 Butler def. No. 10 South Alabama: Possibly the best seventh seed I've ever seen.
No. 2 Tennessee def. No. 15 American: The run for American ends quickly.

Second round
No. 1 UNC def. No. 8 Indiana: A scary game for the Tar Heels, but with the arena full of their fans, they put together a late run to pull away for the win.
No. 4 Washington State def. No. 5 Notre Dame: Cougars kill the slower Fighting Irish with dribble penetration.
No. 3 Louisville def. No. 11 St. Joe's: In low-scoring battle, David Padgett is the difference.
No. 2 Tennessee def. No. 7 Butler: I hate the fact that these two teams play in the second round. Hate it, hate it, hate it!

Regional semifinals
No. 1 UNC def. No. 4 Washington State: Heels have too much firepower for Cougs, who have to play in Charlotte.
No. 2 Tennessee def. No. 3 Louisville: Another tough choice, but when the Vols play their game, they're clearly the better team.

Regional final
No. 1 UNC def. No. 2 Tennessee: The main reason to make this pick? The Vols' tough road to this game. I feel much more comfortable picking UNC — playing in its home state — to get here than the Vols. As far as the game, it's hard to give the Heels much of an edge. They did, however, show how to beat a full-court pressure team like Tennessee this past weekend in their ACC Tournament title-game win over Clemson.


First round
No. 1 Kansas def. No. 16 Portland State: The first trip to the Big Dance for Portland State ends abruptly.
No. 9 Kent State def. No. 8 UNLV: When in doubt, pick the 9 seed.
No. 5 Clemson def. No. 12 Villanova: Tigers are playing as well as anyone and they get the late game on Friday — a good fit for a team that played Sunday afternoon.
No. 4 Vanderbilt def. No. 13 Siena: Vandy's a team that can beat anyone and get beat by anyone. It's too risky to pick this upset.
No. 6 USC def. No. 11 Kansas State: The difference between these two teams? O.J. Mayo has much more help — much more consistently — than Michael Beasley.
No. 3 Wisconsin def. No. 14 Cal State Fullerton — The Badgers got disrespected by not getting a 2 seed. Now, it's time to shut people down.
No. 10 Davidson def. No. 7 Gonzaga: Another matchup that I hate to pick. But Davidson is playing in Raleigh. Can't really say more. This could go either way.
No. 2 Georgetown def. No. 15 UMBC: Another first-time team's dance ends quickly.

Second round
No. 1 Kansas def. No. 9 Kent State: No way the Jayhawks lose this game in Omaha. Too much depth. Too much firepower.
No. 5 Clemson def. No. 4 Vanderbilt: Great second-round matchup. In the end, the Tigers have too much depth for Shan Foster to handle.
No. 3 Wisconsin def. No. 6 USC: Badgers shut down Mayo, get timely baskets in game played in the 50s.
No. 2 Georgetown def. No. 10 Davidson: Here's why you don't pick Davidson — because there's a 50 percent chance the Wildcats could be done by this game. Take the team you know is going to be playing.

Regional semifinals
No. 1 Kansas def. No. 5 Clemson: The difference in this game? Free-throw shooting. Kansas makes more than Clemson. Kansas advances.
No. 3 Wisconsin def. No. 2 Georgetown: In front of Badgers-pro crowd in Detroit, Wisconsin shuts down Hibbert, ekes out victory.

Regional final
No. 1 Kansas def. No. 3 Wisconsin: Finally, Bill Self gets over the hump and into the Final Four. Wisconsin has to focus defensively on every Jayhawk on the floor, spreading the Badgers out. Kansas hits big 3s down the stretch.


First round
No. 1 Memphis def. No. 16 UT-Arlington: It's all business for Tigers this season.
No. 8 Mississippi State def. No. 9 Oregon: Ducks have hard time scoring in lane over shot-blocking Bulldogs, who have advantage playing in Little Rock.
No. 5 Michigan State def. No. 12 Temple: Good to see the Owls back in the tournament, but the young Spartans play lock-down defense and are led by senior point guard Drew Neitzel.
No. 13 Oral Roberts def. No. 4 Pittsburgh: I know this isn't a popular pick, but the Panthers are worn out. They won four games in four days at the Big East Tournament. Now, they play Thursday at 3 p.m. It all adds up to an early exit.
No. 11 Kentucky def. No. 6 Marquette: Wildcats have rallied together since loss of Patrick Patterson. Now, they take advantage of at-large berth.
No. 3 Stanford def. No. 14 Cornell: Be weary of the Big Red. I saw it play Duke tough inside Cameron. But the Lopez twins will carry the Cardinal.
No. 7 Miami def. No. 10 St. Mary's: ACC vs. West Coast toss-up game — I'm going with the ACC.
No. 2 Texas def. No. 15 Austin Peay: This is a dangerous first-round game for the Longhorns, who rely so heavily on a couple players. But I don't have the guts to make a 15-over-2 call.

Second round
No. 1 Memphis def. No. 8 Mississippi State: Tigers have too much depth in this one.
No. 5 Michigan State def. No. 13 Oral Roberts: More lock-down defense played by the Spartans.
No. 3 Stanford def. No. 11 Kentucky: Without Patterson, Wildcats can't handle the Lopez twins down low.
No. 2 Texas def. No. 7 Miami: A.J. Abrams matches Jack McClinton 3 for 3. Longhorns have advantages elsewhere.

Regional semifinals
No. 1 Memphis def. No. 5 Michigan State: Tempted to pick the upset, but Chris Douglas-Roberts is the difference for the Tigers.
No. 2 Texas def. No. 3 Stanford: Texas' guards trump Stanford's big men.

Regional final
No. 1 Memphis def. No. 2 Texas: I don't care that this game is in Houston. Derrick Rose is almost as good as D.J. Augustine, and the Tigers have advantages elsewhere. Tigers' defensive presence in the paint and versatility on offense are enough for hard-fought victory.


First round
No. 1 UCLA def. No. 16 Mississippi Valley State: Jerry Rice's school can't quite pull off the upset (OK, they don't come close).
No. 8 BYU def. No. 9 Texas A&M: If the Aggies show up, they might win — but they've been too inconsistent all year to pick here.
No. 5 Drake def. No. 12 Western Kentucky: Another battle of mid-majors in the first round, which drives me crazy. I haven't seen a minute of Drake basketball this season, but I've heard and read very, very good things.
No. 4 Connecticut def. No. 13 San Diego: Toreros' Cinderella run comes to a halt against balanced Huskies.
No. 11 Baylor def. No. 6 Purdue: Bears are riding high after being the last team shown when CBS revealed the brackets. Youthful Boilermakers have struggled down the stretch.
No. 3 Xavier def. No. 14 Georgia: Bulldogs finally show fatigue during Thursday afternoon matchup.
No. 7 West Virginia def. No. 10 Arizona: Mountaineers always play with a chip on their shoulder this time of year. Arizona should be questioning why it's even in the field.
No. 2 Duke def. No. 15 Belmont: Both teams shoot a ton of 3s. Duke, however, also can score at the basket and in transition.

Second round
No. 1 UCLA def. No. 8 BYU: Bruins are healed by this point, and when everyone's healthy, there's no way they're losing to BYU.
No. 5 Drake def. No. 4 Connecticut: Great run continues for Keno Davis' bunch.
No. 3 Xavier def. No. 11 Baylor: Musketeers don't blow second-round game this time around. They're more experienced and Drew Lavender is a good backcourt leader.
No. 2 Duke def. No. 7 West Virginia: Devils outrun Mountaineers with their depth and conditioning.

Regional semifinals
No. 1 UCLA def. No. 5 Drake: Too much power inside for the Bruins, with freshman Kevin Love leading the way.
No. 2 Duke def. No. 3 Xavier: Tough choice here, but I'll go with Devils because they have more offensive options.

Regional final
No. 1 UCLA def. No. 2 Duke: Third straight Final Four birth for the Bruins, who lock down the Devils and show off their brute force against Duke's weaker front line. Plus, the Bruins — minus Love — have plenty of big-game experience.

So there you have it — for the first time, four No. 1 seeds will make the Final Four. Well, at least according to me.

Kansas def. North Carolina 82-76: This could change if Ty Lawson gets himself back to the old Ty Lawson, but I'm banking on that not happening. He still lacks that quickness he used to have. Because he's slower, the Jayhawks guards will be able to penetrate and dish against the Heels and will limit Wayne Ellington's open looks on the perimeter. Tyler Hansbrough will have a big game, but it won't be enough against the deeper Jayhawks.

UCLA def. Memphis 60-53: For the second time in three years, the Bruins eliminate the Tigers. Finally, Memphis' poor free-throw shooting catches up to it at the end. Veteran point man Darren Collison outplays Rose and Russell Westbrook contains CDR. The big men negate each other.


Kansas def. UCLA 69-67: In a rematch of last year's Elite Eight, we get a different result. The bottom line is that Kansas has too much backcourt depth for the Bruins. They'll wear down Collison with their array of versatile guards and turn UCLA miscues into easy transition baskets. It will go down to the very end, with Brandon Rush making the game-winning shot in the final minute. What a blessing in disguise it was that he tore his ACL a year ago. Otherwise, he'd be sitting on an NBA bench instead of winning the national title.

So there you have it. Again, I'm more unsure of these picks than last year's, when I won a few pools. Follow my suggestions at your own peril.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Revisiting my preseason 65


OK, time for the embarrassment. As a college basketball reporter, I put my reputation on the line four and a half months ago when I took on the unenviable task of predicting the NCAA Tournament's 65 teams.

At this moment, I have no idea whether I picked 20 teams right or 50. I'll take a wild guess of 30.

Here goes....

(I'm doing it be conference.)

Big East Conference TITLE PREDICTION:
— Georgetown: Big man Roy Hibbert will have an All-American year, making his decision to return well worth it.
— Louisville
— Marquette
— Pittsburgh
— Syracuse
— Connecticut
— Providence

TRUTH: Hibbert didn't have a big year and the Hoyas lost in the Big East title game, but they're certainly in. Syracuse blew it and Providence was terrible. But to not get Notre Dame and West Virginia is a disgrace. I'm not disappointed with missing on Villanova.


Atlantic 10 Conference TITLE PREDICTION:
— Xavier: The Musketeers, led by diminutive guard Drew Lavender, could be even better than last year, when they were a last-second 3-pointer away from beating Ohio State and advancing to the Sweet 16.

TRUTH: Xavier was dominant all year, but lost in the tournament. I'm very pleased with the St. Joe's prediction. My mom won't be happy that I didn't choose her alma mater Owls, but they were a long shot.


— Loyola (Md.): The MAAC's leading returning scorer, Gerald Brown, averaged 22 points last season.

TRUTH: Siena won and Loyola finished tied for third.


— Cornell: Pennsylvania and Princeton have won or shared the title every season since 1962. Expect a big shift in power this season.

TRUTH: Wow, I got one exactly right. The Big Red dominated the league.


— Albany: The Great Danes will repeat despite the loss of conference player of the year Jamar Wilson. Vermont, as always, will be their top challenger.

TRUTH: What I learned? Never bet against UMBC. It's going to the dance for the first time.


— Holy Cross: This is becoming a two-team league, with Holy Cross and Bucknell meeting in the conference tournament title game the past three seasons. Expect it to happen again.

TRUTH: I honestly don't blame myself for this. American won a league that was completely backward. Nothing that happened made sense.


Northeast Conference TITLE PREDICTION:
— Robert Morris: No team has made back-to-back appearances in the NCAA Tournament from this conference. Expect the same this season as the Colonials unseat Central Connecticut State.

TRUTH: Robert Morris was clearly the best regular-season team, but Mt. Saint Mary's crashed the conference tournament. What's a man to do?


Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) TITLE PREDICTION:
— North Carolina: Duke might challenge the Tar Heels, but there is simply too much talent and depth, and Tyler Hansbrough is the most determined player in the country.
— Duke
— N.C. State
— Clemson
— Virginia
— Georgia Tech

TRUTH: Horrible, just horrible. For someone living on Tobacco Road, I am ashamed of myself. I only chose two at-large teams correctly, and I guessed wrong on three of the league's bottom-dwellers. Then again, this league was about as predictable as a pigeon race. I'm sure I wasn't the only one.

MISSED: 1 (Miami)

— Hampton: Rashad West, who led the league in scoring with 17.8 points per game, will help the Pirates back to the Big Dance.

TRUTH: Nobody predicted Coppin State pulling off the miracle in the tournament. Hampton finished second during the regular season. I'm not crying about this bad call.


— Virginia Commonwealth: Eric Maynor, who hit the game-winning shot against Duke in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, is back for another run at it.
— George Mason

TRUTH: Well, I kinda got this. VCU was the best regular-season team, but bombed out in the conference tournament and just missed out. George Mason, meanwhile, won the tournament. I'll take a .500 average.


— High Point: Led by Arizona "AZ" Reid, who led the league in scoring with 21 ppg, the Panthers are ready to take over the top spot in the conference from Winthrop, which lost coach Gregg Marshall.

TRUTH: Note to self — never pick against Winthrop.


Southern Conference TITLE PREDICTION:
— Davidson: No doubt about this. Led by Stephon Curry, the son of former NBA sweet shooter Dell Curry, the Wildcats should spend some time in the Top 25.

TRUTH: While the Wildcats didn't get the job done against the big boys, they didn't lose a game in the conference. Solid pick, Jake.


— Tennessee: With Florida down and Kentucky rebuilding under Billy Gillispie, this is the Volunteers' season. Scoring point guard and All-America candidate Chris Lofton will lead the charge.
— Florida
— Kentucky
— Arkansas
— Mississippi State
— Georgia

TRUTH: I can't believe I'm saying this, but I almost aced this test. Missing Vandy was idiotic and I got lucky with Georgia winning the conference tournament, but I'm not blaming myself for thinking Florida would play enough defense to make it as a 12 seed.


Ohio Valley Conference TITLE PREDICTION:
— Austin Peay: Buoyed by the return of all their key players, the Governors will try to get the OVC its first Big Dance win since 1989.

TRUTH: Straight cash, homey!


— Western Kentucky: The league should be strong thanks to the return of 80 percent of its top players, but the Hilltoppers will be the best of the 13 teams.

TRUTH: I got Western Kentucky, but South Alabama also got in as an at-large. I guess all those players coming back really helped out the league. Nobody could have guessed the Sun Belt would get two and the ACC just four.


— Belmont: Expect the Bruins to make their second straight NCAA Tournament appearance.

TRUTH: Straight cash, homey! But I was wrong. It's actually their third straight appearance.

— Indiana: A week ago, I would have picked Michigan State, but after watching freshman Eric Gordon play in an exhibition game, I'm convinced he'll be special. And alongside D.J. White, he'll make the Hoosiers the league's best team.
— Michigan State
— Ohio State
— Wisconsin
— Minnesota

TRUTH: Indiana might have been on track to win the title if not for its head coach going phone-crazy. I jumped on Tubby Smith's bandwagon a little prematurely. OSU not making it was a surprise. As was Purdue almost winning the conference from out of nowhere.


— Butler: Sure, the Bulldogs lost their coach Todd Lickliter (to Iowa), but Brad Stevens inherits four of the Sweet 16 team's top five scorers.

TRUTH: Anyone who didn't make this pick is, as Seth Greenberg would say, "certifiably insane."


— Oakland: The league, formerly known as the Mid-Continent Conference, has a new name, and it will feature a different team in the NCAA Tournament, as the Golden Grizzlies take Oral Roberts' spot.

TRUTH: Took a chance on the Grizzlies. It didn't pay off. Oral Roberts was clearly the league's best team.


— Ohio: This might be the toughest league to predict, but I'm going with the loaded Bobcats, who will be led by forward Leon Williams, who averaged 14.4 points and 8.8 rebounds last season.

TRUTH: To not even pick a top 3 team is disheartening. Kent State rolled to the title and Akron was pretty good, too.


— Memphis: The biggest no-brainer. The Tigers could be the No. 1 team in the country, and if their first two games are any indication, freshman guard Derrick Rose is as good as advertised.

TRUTH: UAB was a three-point play away from beating Memphis, and that might have been enough — plus a couple conference tournament victories — to get it in. Oh, well.


— Kansas: Frank Martin's young Wildcats will give the Jayhawks a scare, but ultimately experience will prove vital as Brandon Rush and a trio of steady guards lead Kansas.
— Kansas State
— Texas A&M
— Texas
— Oklahoma

TRUTH: One of my best calls. Baylor was a huge surprise. No pain in not predicting its uprising. Otherwise, perfect picks, including the automatic birth.


— Southern Illinois: You know the Salukis will always play strong defense, and forward Randal Falker is a beast down low.
— Bradley

TRUTH: Believe me when I say, I didn't even know Drake was in the conference back in October.


Southland Conference TITLE PREDICTION:
— Texas-Arlington: With every key player back, expect the Mavericks, who were just 13-17 last season, to make a surprise Big Dance showing.

TRUTH: Easily my best choice. I am so proud of this one, I might run for president.


— Grambling: The Tigers, who haven't won a share of the league title since 1989, return seven of their top eight scorers.

TRUTH: What happened, Grambling? A seventh-place finish? And Mississippi Valley State makes Jerry Rice proud.


— Montana: Jordan Hasquet, who is the lone all-conference returning player, will take the Grizzlies to the tournament.

TRUTH: Montana tied for fourth and watched Portland State win its first ever birth. Not a good pick by yours truly.


— New Mexico State: No Reggie Theus, no problem for the Aggies, who return loads of talent.

TRUTH: What can I say? The Aggies lost in three overtimes to Boise State — the king of OTs in both football and basketball. No hanging the head here.


— BYU: All-conference Trent Plaisted will lead the Cougars in a down year for the conference, which lost several of its marquee players.

TRUTH: Well, BYU got in ... but as an at-large. Utah wasn't even close to getting in. And UNLV won the tournament. Good idea, bad execution.


— UCLA: This conference is absolutely loaded, but there's no doubt who the top team should be. Keep an eye on freshman giant Kevin Love. He could be special.
— Washington State
— Oregon
— Stanford
— Arizona

TRUTH: Jake, you did it again. Not only did you get the conference champion right, but you got all five at-larges correct, although there is a lot of bickering today that ASU should have gotten Arizona's spot. Life ain't fair, folks (hahaha).


— UC-Santa Barbara: Alex Harris, who averaged 21.1 points and 8.3 rebounds per game last season, will lead the Gauchos, who will take advantage of the recruiting violations that have negatively transformed the Long Beach State program.

TRUTH: My team won the regular-season title but flamed out in the conference tournament. That opened the door for Cal State Fullerton. Another good pick gone awry at the end.


— Gonzaga: Another easy pick. The 'Zags were able to make the tournament without suspended star Josh Heytvelt a year ago. Now a remorseful Heytvelt is back, along with several other key parts of that team.
— St. Mary's

TRUTH: I was one game away from getting this right. Then San Diego crashed the party, making this a three-bid league (unbelievable). Still a good showing.


OK, time to tally up the results.

I predicted 40 of the 65 teams.

I will certainly take that and run with it. My Big 12 and SEC predictions made up for many of my misses in the smaller conferences. So my main lesson learned? Pay more attention to the little guys, do some research.

Well, now it's time to look forward. I've got a bracket to fill out.

Unlike with these predictions, I've got a past result to live up to. Last year, I predicted three of the final four teams, and I aced the championship game teams and result. I've got a lot to live up to.

Stay tuned...

Thursday, March 13, 2008

You can't dance without the "Big Dance"


It has become the ultimate scale of success weighed against failure.

Late Friday night, Maryland senior James Gist sat devastated. His Terrapins had just lost to Boston College, dropping them to 18-14. Yeah, they're not getting into the NCAA Tournament.

So the season's over, right?

Well, yeah, except that they'll probably get into the NIT, a tournament they could actually win. But who really cares? You can't dance if you're not invited to the Big Dance, right?

March Madness has become a national phenomenon — I didn't need to remind you of that — and the NIT ain't invited. As well as whatever the name of that new postseason tournament is (I'll look it up later).

What's funny to me is how much weight a team like, say, St. Mary's puts on making the NCAA Tournament. Does anyone in this country — or Australia, the homeland of a few of the Gaels' players — believe St. Mary's can win the whole dang thing? Highly doubtful. Sure, they can point to the George Mason Miracle two years ago, but that was one team, one season.

The lame truth for most "bubble teams" who don't get their bubble popped is that their season will end before many of the teams whose bubbles were burst.

The only consolation I've been able to take from Michigan's Big Dance drought, which dates back to 1998, is that the Wolverines have had great success in that other tournament. It won't happen this season, but over the course of the past nine seasons, I've gotten to continue watching my team play while many of the bubble survivors' fans focused solely on their brackets.

And isn't that what fans enjoy doing — unless you're a New Jersey Institute of Technology follower? Watching their team play? Or is it all about getting in? About seeing their school's name when the brackets are announced, even if it will be crossed out four days later?

I'm not trying to diminish the accomplishment of reaching the NCAA Tournament. For conferences that only send their tournament winner to the dance, that's a huge deal. It always gets glossed over, but they're not only celebrating making the tournament, but winning their conference tournament.

Besting the rest of your league is a big deal. So Portland State's fans should be burning sofas after their team earned its first ever birth to the big stage (even if it'll go on to get juiced by 50 against Memphis). For an unknown school like that — I didn't know Portland was a state — the excitement of that moment will never be forgotten.

But for your usual array of major and mid-major bubble teams, March can't be all about madness. Face reality. Sure, try to win your conference tournament, try to get in, but if you don't, accept that NIT bid and keep playing. You might be ballin' a lot longer than your bubble partners who made the cut.

As usual, the media should take some of the blame. And, of course, the brackets. People who don't even know what goaltending is fill out a bracket — or multiple brackets. The matchups are talked about incessantly on TV, on the radio, in the papers.

And the bubble losers get plenty of attention, too. Last season, Syracuse's Jim Boeheim was all over the place criticizing the selection committee for leaving his Orange out of the tournament. Maybe he should have spent that time preparing his team for the NIT.

Everything in America is about image. The NCAA Tournament is your name-brand polo shirt while the NIT is the $1 shirt at the thrift store.

So what if it's often a one-game exhibition for overmatched teams. Players often say it's better to go one-and-out in the real tournament compared to winning four games in ignored one.

Guess there's only one good side of the bubble.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

There's no clear No. 1 in college hoops


It was a good weekend for the probable No. 1 seeds.

Well, at least for the front-runners. Duke was considered a possible top seed entering its game against North Carolina, but it had an outside shot. Besides the Blue Devils, all the other highly ranked teams bolstered their chances of being the top dog of a region.

There were the top-ranked Tar Heels holding the Devils scoreless over almost the final six minutes to take the rivalry game and the ACC title. I'm no "bracketologist," but I'm pretty certain the Heels will be a No. 1 seed regardless of what goes down at the ACC Tournament.

There was No. 2 Memphis absolutely recking UAB's chance of gaining an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. No one cares anymore about the Tigers' loss to Tennessee two weeks ago. They're playing great basketball at the right time of the year.

Speaking of an obliteration, there was No. 4 Tennessee deciding it was sick of living on the edge. The Volunteers completely spanked hapless South Carolina Sunday, emphatically sending Chris Lofton out on a good note heading into the SEC Tournament.

There was no dominating finish to the regular season for No. 3 UCLA, which needed an improbable, controversial over-the-backboard floater by Josh Shipp to survive senior day against California Saturday. And two days earlier, the Bruins needed overtime to clinch the Pac 10 with a win over Stanford. Still, UCLA showed that it can win the close games.

Finally, there was No. 5 Kansas ending the season with a flourish after a pair of losses in a 13-day span that had everybody questioning its candidacy for an ultimate seed. Now, the Jayhawks are fighting for, more than likely, the third or fourth spot.

Five teams. All with momentum.

But all full of flaws.

Picking the tournament winner this season is going to be as difficult as ever. A lot of guesswork will be involved.

That wasn't the case a year ago. One of the reasons I rose from the dead to win a few office pools was that I knew Florida was the best team in the country. That didn't mean there was a chance the Gators wouldn't lose one of six games. What it did mean, however, was that when Florida played well, it was practically invincible. I rode the Gators, and they played to their potential.

This season, any of the above-mentioned teams could play a good game and get bounced from the tournament. They all have noticeable flaws, and they're all capable of losing even on a relatively rosy night.

Let me put my analyzing cap on:

No. 1 North Carolina — The Tar Heels survived at Duke Saturday night despite uncharacteristic performances by several of the Devils, who shot poorly the entire game. It's hard to find a Heel who had a bad game Saturday, yet they had to pull off the amazing defensive end-of-game feat to get the win. Wayne Ellington and Danny Green both hits their outside shots — not always a sure thing. It is clear that the Heels will need both shooters finding the basket as well as inspired defensive performances to make it through March.

No. 2 Memphis —
Free-throw shooting, free-throw shooting, free-throw shooting. Yes, I'll emphasize it. The Tigers' poor shooting from the stripe is a huge vice. It cost them in their only loss to the Vols, and it easily could punish them again in a close tournament game. Additionally, the Tigers have too many shooting slumps from the outside for their own good. When they're on, they're on. But when they're off, they're extremely vulnerable.

No. 3 UCLA — Anyone who saw the Bruins' survival week to close out the regular season knows they are far from a dominant conference champion. Any run to the championship game would be earned. Like the Tigers, they can go extremely cold from behind the perimeter — especially when Shipp doesn't feel like shooting. In fact, their offense appears downright pathetic at times. They stay in games thanks to their defense — and they've put together several comebacks this season — but come-from-behind wins in March are risky propositions.

No. 4 Tennessee — I know I'm getting repetitive here, but the Vols — like the above-mentioned teams — can go through periods where they throw up brick after brick. Without a consistent low-post threat, that can be a problem. Also, like the Heels, their defense is spotty, especially when their pressure is ineffective. And as I wrote about after their loss at Vandy, they don't have the smartest decision-makers — an underrated but key attribute needed for the Big Dance.

No. 5 Kansas —
I said back in January that the Jayhawks are the best team in college basketball, and I still think they are ... when everyone is one the same page. They have great balance offensively. Good ball-handlers. Good on-ball defenders. They make free throws. But their recent history is bothersome. They always hit a wall during the NCAA Tournament, with enough players not showing up for a game, that they lose. One has to question whether they have the mental makeup under Bill Self to finally make the Final Four. Plus, they lack a true leader who has that ultimate desire to take his team to San Antonio. UNC, for instance, has Tyler Hansbrough. I don't see that player on the Jayhawks roster.

The No. 1 seeds are still in the air. More than likely, four of the five mentioned teams will get the spots, but it's possible that a conference tournament title by Duke or Texas could get them a top seed.

Whatever happens in the next week, this much will be true come Selection Sunday:

Choosing upsets won't be the only difficult task when filling out your bracket. Choosing a winner — and a runner-up — will be even harder.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Questioning the Suns' trade


The more I watch the Phoenix Suns play basketball, the more I can't help but question the blockbuster trade that sent Shawn Marion to Miami for Shaquille O'Neal.

I hate to say this, but the Suns are no longer the NBA team I enjoy watching the most. They're not even in my top five.

Not that G.M. Steve Kerr or anyone within the organization cares about my viewing interests, but they do care about finally getting to the NBA Finals. If I were them, I'd worry first about making the playoffs in the brutal Western Conference.

Phoenix has lost its identity. If it wants to make the postseason, it better rediscover it or create a new one ASAP. That's where the trade gets in the way.

Think about it: What, before the trade, made the Suns such a dangerous team?

1. Their ability to run. Steve Nash would get the ball with four options spaced to his right and left. Now, when O'Neal is on the floor, there are just three players racing downcourt in front of Nash. Big difference. The Suns' transition baskets have dipped big-time.

2. Room to work for Nash in the half-court offense. This is huge. Nash used to be able to dribble from the top of the key down to the baseline, along the baseline, and then back out top -- all the while looking for the open man. Now, "The Diesel" gets in the way. He's simply too big, and he's not nearly as agile as Amare Stoudemire. Phoenix's half-court offense -- which pundits said would improve with O'Neal -- has gotten worse.

The Suns say they made the deal for defense. But here's the problem, and I'm surprised that the former champion Kerr didn't realize this: Defense is more about a team's attitude and mentality than its makeup. Sure, the Pistons haven't been nearly as good defensively sans Ben Wallace, but the reason for this has been that Flip Saunders doesn't stress "D" to the extent that Larry Brown did.

As long as coach Mike D'Antoni doesn't make defense a huge priority -- something I don't see happening -- the Suns are not going to be a good defensive team. Period. They certainly haven't been since O'Neal's arrival.

Phoenix is 2-4 with O'Neal, and five of their opponents have scored at least 113 points. Only an anemic 77-point showing by the Celtics made the Suns' defense look good. Otherwise, it's appeared even more vulnerable than pre-Diesel. In other words, very bad.

The Suns' ability to stop people has been so poor, the Grizzlies scored 113 points and the 76ers put up 119. Any time you allow Willie Green 17 points, you know you're doing something wrong.

The Suns are giving up 104.9 points per game this season. I'm sure this number has gotten a ripe boost over the last two weeks.

Kerr n' company might not admit it, but they might be realizing just how much the team misses Marion's versatility. O'Neal is the opposite of Marion. At his old age, he is limited in what he can do. He's slow to run up the court, you can only post him up on offense, he can't shoot free throws, and on defense he's not a great shot-blocker.

Marion, on the other hand, is a high-flyer who can do it all -- finish on transition, shoot the 3-pointer, guard shooting guards and power forwards, rebound.

Most important, Marion was a perfect fit in Phoenix's system. He and Nash had a great working relationship, and the rift between him and Stoudemire was overblown. Plus, he was young. At 29, Marion probably has another good six or seven years in the NBA. O'Neal, 35, might be out of the league by 2010.

I don't question O'Neal's desire. I know he truly wants to prove that he can be the man to push Phoenix over the top. And come playoff time -- if there is a playoff time in the desert -- he'll do whatever it takes to make that happen. But whether that's enough is another question.

The more I see the Suns play, the more I view the trade as a panic move. The Lakers had taken a huge step forward by acquiring Pau Gasol for close to nothing. The Spurs are, well, the Spurs. Kerr thought that a change was needed. I tend to disagree.

It's not as if the Suns haven't come close -- really close -- to getting to the finals. Consider last season. If not for the suspensions of Stoudemire and Boris Diaw for Game 5 of the conference semifinals against the Spurs, there's a decent chance Phoenix would have won that game and the series. Then, they certainly could have beaten the Jazz in the conference finals.

Go back two years. If not for a huge Dallas comeback in the Mavericks' clinching Game 6 victory, the Suns would have taken the Mavs to a winner-takes-all Game 7 with a finals appearance on the line.

The Suns have been on the brink of making the finals -- so close that a personnel shift wasn't needed. All they needed was a few more big plays. A block by Stoudemire here, a few more midrange jumpers by Diaw there (which he's provided this season), a little more defense by Nash everywhere.

It's still too early to write off the new-look Suns. We'll likely have to wait until April or May to do that.

But early indications are that they made an unnecessary trade that not only will hurt them in the long run, but isn't paying off in the present either.