Tuesday, March 31, 2009

College basketball in a football stadium? Bad fit


I experienced the most thrilling moment of the NCAA Tournament to date first-hand Saturday night in Boston.

Sitting two rows behind the Villanova bench, I watched as the Wildcats' Scottie Reynolds drove the ball all the way to the hoop for the game-winning layup, sending the 'Cats to their first Final Four since the miracle season of '85 with a 78-76 win over Pittsburgh.

I didn't care who won the East Region's final — I like both 'Nova and that team of grinders from the Steel City. But what I loved was the atmosphere in the T.D. Bankworth Garden (I'll just call it the Gawden from here on out) throughout the game.

Heck, the place was even electric during Thursday's pair of regional semifinals that didn't exactly demonstrate the best, most exciting competitive basketball.

I wasn't in the Gawden all weekend, however. I also got the chance to watch the other regional finals in Glendale, Ariz., Indianapolis, Ind., and Memphis, Tenn. None of the three games were close to as exciting as the final I witnessed, but there was another diminishing factor that I noticed from watching on TV.

While there seemed to be a good atmosphere in Memphis, at the FedEx Forum, where the Tar Heels fans created a din and filled the place up, the same couldn't be said of Glendale and Indianapolis.

It's not that the Midwest and West regional finals didn't have intrigue. Rather, it's that they were played in huge, unfit-for-hoops football stadiums. Connecticut and Missouri battled in the Arizona Cardinals' 21st-century stadium; Michigan State and Louisville went at it in the Indianapolis Colts new, spanking stadium.

Nice places ... for a football game.

But not for hoops. All I needed to see were all the empty seats the CBS cameras caught — unintentionally, I assume. It's not like they were way in the upper deck, either. There were thousands of unused seats in the lower level.

Crazy, right? Well, actually not that inane, considering that they still couldn't be considered good seats. The fact is, a basketball court is much, much smaller than a football field (think 94 feet vs. 360 feet). Thus, a quality seat for a Colts game was a crappy seat for the Spartans' conquest of the Cardinals Sunday.

And when a stadium isn't full, it's not as loud. The cheering is more disparate, less unified. Even when one team's section becomes gregarious, they cover too small a portion of the stadium to greatly increase the stadium's noise meter.

Here's what the NCAA should do (but, obviously, will never do). Stipulate, quite simply, that all tournament games up until the Final Four should be played in actual basketball arenas. I know that's not plausible these days for the Final Four — and that's fine.

They'll actually be able to fill up Ford Field this weekend with roughly 60,000 fans. We can thank the Michigan State fan base for that.

But watching Sweet 16 games and Elite Eight games played in quarter-empty stadiums doesn't exactly promote the sport's best month so well.

What does is an atmosphere like I encountered in Boston. The Gawden isn't a football stadium, but it still packed in 18,871 fans (official attendance) for the Pitt-'Nova game. That's quite a good haul, and just 15 fans short of the attendance out in quiet Glendale (18,886)

And the arena was filled to capacity. That lent itself to a great environment, in which both teams' cheering sections made plenty of noise in addition to scattered fans throughout the arena. And because of the shape of the Gawden — not as wide and open as a footballs stadium — the noise was contained and heard from one side of the Gawden to the other.

Of course, the great game helped. But even without the memorable finish, people who participated in the regional would have left Beantown saying good things about the din the Gawden created.

I doubt that was the case out in Arizona or even in Indy, which had much better attendance numbers (33,084 on Sunday).

Next season, the regional sites include Salt Lake City, St. Louis, Houston and Syracuse. Only Salt Lake City and Syracuse use their gyms for basketball on an annual basis.

That's where I want to be.

If you're looking for plenty of available tickets, however, book your flight for St. Louis or Houston.

There should be plenty of get-the-binoculars-ready seats available.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Big Ten continues to prove haters wrong


It's a funny concept, isn't it? The fact that the merry-go-round keeps returning to the same position no matter how many pushes you give it.

Excuse the bad analogy, but here we are again: After a season of being constantly called, basically, a non-major conference, of being laughed at for low-scoring, turtle-paced games ... the Big Ten is holding its own in the NCAA Tournament.

Yes, the Big East is clearly the nation's best conference. Its teams proved that during the first and second rounds.

But after it, the Big Ten has to be talked about — right up there with the ACC and Big 12 — as this season's next-best conference.

Just look at what transpired over four days of basketball.

The Big Ten put seven teams in the Big Dance, which irked some of the other conferences. In my mind, it easily could have gotten eight (anyone see Penn State win in Gainesville Tuesday night to advance to the NIT semifinals? The Nittany Lions could have been a legitimate NCAA team).

Anyway, the league went 4-3 in the first round — with lower seeds Michigan (a No. 10) and Wisconsin (12) winning in addition to higher seeds Purdue and Michigan State. Ohio State, a No. 8, lost in a double-overtime thriller to Siena. And as disappointing as No. 5 seed Illinois' loss to Western Kentucky was, the Illini simply weren't the same without their starting point guard. Minnesota's loss to a better Texas team was expected.

The conference was just as solid in the second round, with MSU and Purdue surviving tough tests and Michigan and Wisconsin just falling short against No. 2 seed Oklahoma and a well-coached Xavier team, respectively.

So the league is 6-5 heading into the Sweet 16, with two teams remaining.

Now reality tells us that it's unlikely either team will make the Final Four and even more of a shot in the dark that one will play for the national title.

But, hey, that's the case for almost any league this March with how scary good the Big East is. The only other league that you can say has a pretty good chance of landing a team in the last four is the ACC, and that revolves around arguably the nation's best team, North Carolina, (and maybe Duke).

Even if the Big Ten doesn't advance a team that far, however, it's still been just as successful as any league this decade – and probably the most balanced league of them all.

Consider that it's had five different teams — Michigan State (2000, '02 and '05), Wisconsin ('00), Indiana ('02), Illinois ('05) and Ohio State ('07) — reach the Final Four this decade. No other league has done that; the ACC and Big East have both had four teams do it.

OK, so the league lacks the national titles. (It has one this decade, compared to three for the ACC, two for the Big East and two for the SEC's Gators.) This isn't a hardware comparison, however.

A league shouldn't have to win national championships to get a little respect. The Final Four stat should be enough.

Of course, it isn't.

Here's what hurts the Big Ten: People watching the made-for-TV ACC-Big Ten Challenge in early December. They see the ACC win the event every year — although it was decided by just a game this season — and they judge the Big Ten inferior.

In early December.

Of course, with the likes of Bo Ryan, Tom Izzo, Thad Matta, and now John Beilein and Tubby Smith, the league's teams become much better over the course of the season. But casual fans remember the showcase of the challenge, and that helps them rip the Big Ten when they watch a game like Penn State's 38-33 win over Illinois.

Of course, they pretend to be asleep when the Nittany Lions go to Florida and win in the crazy atmosphere down there, 71-62, as they did Tuesday.

The fact is that people are repulsed by lower-scoring games, by more defense and less offense, by more halfcourt sets and less fast-breaking. I get that. Fine, we be cool.

But that doesn't make the Big Ten a league full of bad, undeserving teams. One need not look further than the numbers.

Take the past two NCAA Tournament and how the Big Ten has fared compared to the higher-scoring, more entertaining ACC.

In the 2007 tournament, the Big Ten sent six teams to the Dance, went 9-6 and sent the Buckeyes to the Sweet 16 and on to the title games. The ACC had seven teams, went 7-7 and had one Sweet 16 team but no Final Four squad.

In the 2008 tournament, the Big Ten had just four teams but still went 5-4 and sent two teams to the Sweet 16. The ACC also had four teams, but only North Carolina — which reached the Final Four — made it out of the second round.

Now look at what happened last weekend. While the Big Ten proved its worth as a whole, four of the ACC's seven teams went packing after the first round — and they were all higher seeds, including No. 4 seed Wake Forest and No. 5 Florida State, which lost in an overtime heartbreaker to none other than Wisconsin.

By Saturday night, only perennial powers Duke and North Carolina were moving on to the Sweet 16.

And, yes, that pair has a better chance of giving the ACC a Final Four than the Michigan State-Purdue combo has of doing likewise for the Big Ten.

But anyone who continues to believe the myth that the Big Ten is a rung below the other major conferences is living in a Cinderella world.

In case you haven't noticed, the tournament's survivors are all big boys.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

My bracket -- picking the Pitt Panthers


Wow, I actually have a good reputation to uphold.

Somehow (luck?), someway (more luck?) I have picked the last two winners of the NCAA Tournament and also done pretty well with the rest of my last two brackets.

So should I be trusted to pick the winner this year? Of course not. Don't be inane.

I, for one, have no idea whom I'm about to pick. That's how crazy this college hoops season has been.

Here goes -- my picks from the first round through the final (making bold decisions as I go).


First round
No. 1 Louisville def. No. 16 Morehead State: I love Morehead as much as the next guy, but it faces a tough task.
No. 9 Siena def. No. 8 Ohio State: Everything points to the Buckeyes winning in Dayton, which is why I've got to go the other way.
No. 5 Utah def. No. 12 Arizona: As usual, the Wildcats don't really belong here. And as usual, they'll get beaten by a hungrier team.
No. 4 Wake Forest def. No. 13 Cleveland State: I'm assuming the Demon Deacons will figure out how to use all (or at least half) of their talent in this one.
No. 6 West Virginia def. No. 11 Dayton: Don't expect the Flyers to get more than 60 points against WVU's stingy D.
No. 14 North Dakota State def. No. 3 Kansas: In virtual home game, experienced Bison make first Big Dance one to remember against inexperienced Jayhawks.
No. 7 Boston College def. No 10 USC: Tyrese Rice isn't ready for pro ball ... quite yet.
No. 2 Michigan State def. No. 15 Robert Morris: It's March, which means Tom Izzo's Spartans are playing their best ball.

Second round
No. 1 Louisville def. No. 9 Siena: The Saints will scare the Cardinals by running up and down the court with them, but the Cards will be too big and get the big boards.
No. 4 Wake Forest def. No. 5 Utah: The Demon Deacons throw body after body at the Utes, who don't have the depth to stay with them.
No. 6 West Virginia def. No. 14 North Dakota State: The Bison's dream season comes to end, as the battle-tested Mountaineers make a second straight Sweet 16.
No. 2 Michigan State def. No. 7 Boston College: Defense, defense, defense.

Regional semifinals
No. 1 Louisville def. No. 4 Wake Forest: Rick Pitino outcoaches Dino Gaudio, confuses the young Demon Deacons with an array of defense. Terrence Williams' experience proves vital.
No. 2 Michigan State def. No. 6 West Virginia: The Spartans are perfectly tested for this kind of game: physical, low-scoring and all about defense. In ugly affair, Kalin Lucas is the difference. It's all about the point guard.

Regional final
No. 1 Louisville def. No. 2 Michigan State: Tough one to call, but the Cardinals have a little more experience and more upperclassmen to make this happen. They're back in Final Four for first time since 2005.


First round
No. 1 Connecticut def. No. 16 Chattanooga: These schools' names have lots of letters in common. But one's much better at basketball.
No. 9 Texas A&M def. No. 8 BYU: Somehow, these teams got matched up again after facing off in an 8-9 game a year ago. What a trip, same result.
No. 5 Purdue def. No. 12 Northern Iowa: Boilermakers are playing up to preseason hype -- finally.
No. 4 Washington def. No. 13 Mississippi State: Bulldogs have to fly out to Portland to play run-and-gun Huskies on Thursday. Sounds tiring to me.
No. 6 Marquette def. No. 11 Utah State: Something tells me the Golden Eagles will get it together despite losing five of their last six.
No. 3 Missouri def. No. 14 Cornell: Run, run and run some more. Should be exhausting for the Big Red.
No. 10 Maryland def. No. 7 Cal: In this season, the ACC trumps the Pac-10.
No. 2 Memphis def. No. 15 Cal State Northridge: Yeah, not happening.

Second round
No. 1 Connecticut def. No. 9 Texas A&M: Huskies dominate the interior in this one.
No. 5 Purdue def. No. 4 Washington: The Huskies haven't seen a defense like this out west.
No. 3 Missouri def. No. 6 Marquette: This should be a fun, high-scoring affair. Safer to go with the better seed.
No. 2 Memphis def. No. 10 Maryland: Tigers absolutely dominate the boards against Maryland's undersized lineup.

Regional semifinals
No. 1 Connecticut def. No. 5 Purdue: It's temping to take the Boilers here, but they'll have had a much harder road to this point. And they'll have a hard time scoring against Hasheem Thabeet down low.
No. 2 Memphis def. No. 3 Missouri: The Tigers' 40 Minutes of Hell will run into precocious Memphis guard Tyreke Evans, who will rudely say hello with an array of dazzling plays.

Regional final
No. 1 Connecticut def. No. 2 Memphis: As good as Evans is, I'll take the experienced A.J. Price in this one. And with UConn's interior D, I'm not relying on the Tigers' outside shooting.


First round
No. 1 Pittsburgh def. No. 16 East Tennessee State: Going with the safe pick, folks.
No. 8 Oklahoma State def. No. 9 Tennessee: I'll take the Big 12 over the SEC ... at least this year.
No. 5 Florida State def. No. 12 Wisconsin: This should be a brutal bloodbath, but the Seminoles have the x-factor in Toney Douglas -- a guy who should be an All-American.
No. 13 Portland State def. No. 4 Xavier: I could be completely wrong on this, considering how good of a coach Sean Miller is. But PSU is playing in Boise and was in the Dance a year ago. Its players won't be satisfied.
No. 11 VCU def. No. 6 UCLA: Very tough call, considering UCLA's experience. But give me Eric Maynor and Larry Sanders any day. This combo is dangerous, this combo is dangerous...
No. 3 Villanova def. No. 14 American: This is a very saucy game for the Wildcats, who might relax playing in Philly against a scary American team that's making its second straight appearance. I'm guessing they'll survive.
No. 7 Texas def. No. 10 Minnesota: I picked the Longhorns to win the Big 12, then they went out and underachieved big-time. It's time to play up to their potential.
No. 2 Duke def. No. 15 Binghamton: There will be no taking a No. 15 seed lightly this time around for the Blue Devils.

Second round
No. 1 Pittsburgh def. No. 8 Oklahoma State: Panthers are simply too big, too strong for runnin' Cowboys.
No. 5 Florida State def. No. 13 Portland State: Bigger, more physical 'Noles wear down Portland State.
No. 3 Villanova def. No. 11 VCU: In front of home fans, Scottie Reynolds outdeuls Maynor in a classic.
No. 2 Duke def. No. 7 Texas: Lonhorns put a scare in Devils, but Duke makes 3s over slower 'Horns to advance to Sweet 16 for first time since 2006.

Regional semifinals
No. 1 Pittsburgh def. No. 5 Florida State: Get your hard hats on, people. Lots of physical play, lots of fouls, lots of good defense. The Panthers slow down Douglas, and Sam Young, as usual, is the unsung hero.
No. 2 Duke def. No. 3 Villanova: Very good matchup, but the size of Duke's perimeter players bothers Wildcats enough for Devils to survive with win in Beantown.

Regional final
No. 1 Pittsburgh def. No. 2 Duke: As long as DeJuan Blair stays out of foul trouble, the Panthers should have the advantage down low. Big shots by Young and Levance Fields finish the deal.

No. 1 North Carolina def. No. 16 Radford: Even without Ty Lawson, the Heels survive by 30.
No. 8 LSU def. No. 9 Butler: What, you thought I wasn't going to give the SEC a single win?
No. 5 Illinois def. No. 12 Western Kentucky: Not exactly a juicy matchup, but the Illini are a gritty bunch that'll hold WKU around 50 points.
No. 4 Gonzaga def. No. 13 Akron: You won't find a squad playing better, right now, than the Zags.
No. 11 Temple def. No. 6 Arizona State: In a battle of stars, Dionte Christmas outplays James Harden as Owls put up much better effort than a year ago.
No. 3 Syracuse def. No. 14 Stephen F. Austin: Johnny Flynn can't get fatigued. That's enough for me to put the Orange through to the second round.
No. 7 Clemson def. No. 10 Michigan: Rewind just two weeks, and Clemson is probably two seeds better. If the Tigers get it together, they'll handle the awestruck Wolverines (10 straight seasons without dancing).
No. 2 Oklahoma def. No. 15 Morgan State: This will be closer than you might anticipate, but Blake Griffin won't let the major upset go down in the history books.

Second round
No. 1 North Carolina def. No. 8 LSU: The Tigers might have the advantage at the guard position -- but no one to stop Tyler Hansbrough and his boys in the paint.
No. 4 Gonzaga def. No. 5 Illinos: Way too much firepower for the Illini to defend.
No. 3 Syracuse def. No. 11 Temple: Not sure about this, but did I mention that Johnny Flynn can't get fatigued?
No. 2 Oklahoma def. No. 7 Clemson: I changed my pick 13 times on this one, just thinking that maybe the matchup won't happen. Maybe Michigan will get the best of Clemson...

Regional semifinals
No. 4 Gonzaga def. No. 1 North Carolina: Call me an idiot, but I love the Zags right now. Sure, I love the Heels too. But if Lawson's not completely right, I think this can happen. And if it does, I'll look like a genius. For that, it's worth the risk.

No. 3 Syracuse def. No. 2 Oklahoma: I can't really explain this pick, either. I guess I just like the way Flynn wears his orange headband.

Regional final
No. 4 Gonzaga def. No. 3 Syracuse: And, finally, the Zags make a Final Four a decade after arriving on the scene.

I guess I just couldn't bring myself to predict all four No. 1s making it for a second straight season. Anyway, this would make for a Big East-dominated final weekend.

Connecticut def. Louisville 76-68: They got them during the regular season. They can get them again here. I think A.J. Price is the key, with Jeff Adrien and Stanley Robinson the guys who do the dirty work. The Huskies get back to the title game for the first time since winning it in '04.

Pittsburgh def. Gonzaga 72-65: The Zags finally run into a team that can slow down their high-octane attack. And they have no answer for Sam Young, who scores from all over and is a force on both ends.

Pittsburgh def. Connecticut 70-66: The third time is not the charm for the Huskies, who simply can't figure out the Panthers -- going 0-3 against them this season. Blair get the best of Thabeet yet again. Fields plays Price to a draw. And UConn's stationary big men (other than Thabeet) play below Young.

It all adds up to Pitt's first national title, and the second championship for the city in about two months.

Not bad, Pittsburgh. Not bad.

Now how about it, Pirates?

Monday, March 16, 2009

Revisiting my preseason Field of 65


My favorite time of year has finally arrived. After witnessing several nail-biters at the ACC Tournament in Atlanta, I can only hope that the NCAA Tournament provides us with similar drama.

Only 59 hours left until the Dance.

But before I immerse myself in the bracket-filling-out process, it's time to see just how wrong I was about this college hoops season before it began.

In November, before the games began, before Dicky V started screaming and well before anyone mentioned "bubbles" without referring to those actual spheres you blow, I tried to look like an "expert" by predicting what 65 teams would dance come, well, now.

Without even looking at my prognostications, I can safely assume that I missed at least 20 teams.

Let's do the ugly math:

(I'm doing it by conference.)

Big East Conference
— Louisville: The Cardinals will hold strong in this absurdly loaded conference, led by four returning starters who came so close against UNC in the Elite Eight a year ago.
— Connecticut
— Notre Dame
— Pittsburgh
— Marquette
— Georgetown
— West Virginia
— Syracuse
— Villanova

TRUTH: Back in January, I never would have thought Louisville would win the conference outright. But the Cardinals came through for me. I was money with the at-large predictions outside of Notre Dame and Georgetown. Don't blame myself for either of those picks.


Atlantic 10 Conference
— St. Joseph's: The Hawks will take advantage of a depleted Xavier squad to win a tight title race, led by all-conference forward Ahmad Nivins.
— Xavier

TRUTH: I grossly overestimated St. Joe's and underestimated Xaiver. The Musketeers are clearly the class of the league with Sean Miller running the show. I also glossed over Dayton. Temple came out of nowhere to win the A-10 tourney.


Metro Atlantic
— Siena: A no-brainer. The Saints knocked off four-seed Vanderbilt in the Big Dance and return the goods to have an even better season this time around.

TRUTH: Straight cash, homey! Niagra was tough, but the Saints are heading back to the Dance.


Ivy League
— Cornell: Yep, expect the Big Red to repeat as conference champs after winning all 14 league games a year ago. It has Ivy League player of the year Louis Dale back to lead the way.

TRUTH: Straight cash, homey! And this wasn't even a contest. The Big Red should have a gum named after it. (Wait, didn't that already happen?)


America East
— Hartford: The Hawks appeared in their first conference title game a year ago, losing to UMBC. Now, with all five starters back, they take the next step to the Big Dance.

TRUTH: Wow, someone throw me under a bus. The Hawks didn't even sniff the title, with Binghamton dancing instead for the first time ever.


Patriot League
— American: Who knows what will happen in this upside-down league. The Eagles were supposed to be at the bottom of the league a year ago, then went out and won it. Now they've got guys like first-team all-league Garrison Carr back. They should win, right?

TRUTH: Well done, sir. The Eagles make it two in a row.


Northeast Conference
— Central Connecticut State: After a one-year hiatus, expect the Blue Devils to come out of the Northeast again thanks to the return of a trio of double-digit scorers.

TRUTH: Not a good showing here, as the Blue Devils (no, not those Blue Devils) didn't even get to the title game. Robert Morris, instead, represents the NEC.


Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC)
— North Carolina: Hey, anything can happen, and don't pencil this in. Duke, Wake Forest and Miami could make runs at the Heels, who will get everyone's best game. But if everyone gets healthy and there are no personal agendas, there's no stopping the country's consensus No. 1.

— Wake Forest
— Duke
— Miami
— Virginia Tech
— Clemson

TRUTH: Miami largely underachieved with everybody back. So did Virginia Tech. Florida State came out of the woodwork to surprise everybody. I shouldn't have underestimated B.C. with Al Skinner running the show and Tyrese Rice back. Maryland just snuck in the back door. Still, should have done better with the league I cover.


— South Carolina State: I know it's a risky pick choosing a 13-20 team to turn things around and win its league tourney, but the Bulldogs return three double-digit scorers plus College of Charleston transfer Josh Jackson. Make me proud, Bulldogs

TRUTH: Suffice to say, my prediction didn't work out. Instead, Morgan State is dancing. Lesson: never pick a 13-20 team from a small conference to turn it around.


— Virginia Commonwealth: Rarely do you see a team from a conference such as the CAA face such great pressure to reach the NCAA Tournament, but after being left out of the NCAAs and the NIT despite a 24-8 record, Eric Maynor won't let the Rams be on the outside again.

TRUTH: Bingo. Maynor led the way, and look for a possible upset of UCLA in the first round.


Big South
— VMI: I wanted to pick Winthrop to advance to the Big Dance for a sixth straight season, but with nobody back from their core, the Eagles simply don't have the makeup. So I'm going with the Keydets, who not only have a cool name but led the nation in scoring.

TRUTH: Not too disappointed here. VMI made the final, losing to Radford. At least I stayed away from the Eagles, who were awful.


Southern Conference
— Davidson: Every once in a while, it's nice to get a pick so obvious, I'd bet my house on it (if I had a house). Barring a bad injury to Stephon Curry, the Wildcats will win out in the league.

TRUTH: Yeah, me and everybody else were wrong. What can I say? Chattanooga pulled a shocker.


Southeastern (SEC)
— Florida: Anyone who saw how inspired the Gators, revved up by Billy Donovan's tongue-lashing, played in the NIT knows that they'll be a much-improved team. Nick Calathes will lead the way to the title in a down year for the SEC.
— Tennessee
— Kentucky
— South Carolina
— Alabama

TRUTH: Oh, boy. This is rough. The league was atrocious, only getting three teams, and I even missed one of those squads. I should have known, right, that Kentucky would miss the Dance for the first time in 583 years?


Ohio Valley Conference
— Tennessee-Martin: I'm basing this prediction on the ability of one man — Lester Hudson. The All-America candidate passed up the NBA to return, and he's the only NCAA player to record a quadruple-double.

TRUTH: Not too upset with myself here. Hudson's squad got upset and Morehead State ending up shocking the universe. What's a man to do?


Sun Belt
— South Alabama: The Jaguars' 26-7 record was good enough to get them an at-large berth in the tournament, a rarity for a team from such a low-profile league. This year, they'll have to win the conference tournament to go dancing, and they have enough talent to do just that.

TRUTH: Again, I came close. But the Jags simply weren't as good as Western Kentucky (and didn't have near the at-large season of a year ago). This is a winning business. I didn't win here.


Atlantic Sun
— Belmont: I was in Washington when the Bruins came within a basket of knocking off No. 2 seed Duke. Now, with almost everybody back, they'll make their fourth straight tournament appearance and, no doubt, scare another high seed.

TRUTH: Ouchie. Belmont couldn't get it done for a fourth straight year and it'll be East Tennessee State dancing (at least for a couple days).


Big Ten
— Purdue: The safe pick is to go with Tom Izzo's team in East Lansing, but I love what the Boilermakers have coming back, which is everybody. This team — and I emphasize team, because everyone contributes — won't settle for anything less than a Big Ten title.
— Michigan State
— Wisconsin

TRUTH: All I can say is, "Wow. I am an idiot." I mean, seriously. This dude picked three teams. The Big Ten placed seven! Yes, Michigan was a surprise. But leaving out Illinois and Ohio State, both well-coached teams with recent tournament success, was unacceptable. And the same can be said of leaving out Tubby Smith and Minnesota.


Horizon League
— Wright State: It looks like Butler's strong run will end — at least for a year — with all of its key cogs off in the real world. That leaves the door open for the Raiders, who return all-league guard Vaughn Duggins.

TRUTH: Like with Xavier, I underestimated a mid-major that has really established itself as an annual tournament team. That's Butler, which received an at-large berth after getting beaten by Cleveland State in the title game.


Summit League
— Oakland: I picked the Grizzlies a year ago ... and they let me down. I'll give them one more chance. They return all of their key players, and Oral Roberts — winners of three straight titles — has a depleted roster.

TRUTH: No embarrassment here. The Grizzlies were just minutes away from beating North Dakota State and getting the invite. But those Bison are gritty champions. That's what -7 degree weather will do for ya.


Mid-American (MAC)
— Kent State: When I realized that the Golden Flashes have won at least 20 games in each of the last 10 seasons, I jumped on the bandwagon. With MAC player of the year Al Fisher returning, I'm certainly not jumping off.

TRUTH: This league became a ridiculous crapshoot at the end, with Akron getting in. Who could have known? Kent State's still the most consistent MAC program.


Conference USA
— Memphis: The Tigers won't be as dominant as a year ago, but don't fool yourself — they're still, easily, the best team in this conference. It will be interesting to see who develops into the team's leader.

TRUTH: This had to be the most boring league, because no one could touch Memphis. And no one else was close to deserving of an NCAA bid. Snooze.


Big 12
— Texas: For the second straight year, the Longhorns lost an All-American, this time point guard D.J. Augustin. But with everyone else back, and Kansas down after losing almost every key player, the Longhorns have the makeup of a conference champion.
Big 12 (4)
— Oklahoma
— Baylor
— Kansas
— Missouri

TRUTH: Well, at least Texas made the tournament. That would have been the ultimate red-cheeks moment: picking a major-conference champion that ends up in the NIT. Baylor finally played to its potential in the Big 12 tourney — way too late for a bid. Texas A&M and Oklahoma State made late charges. No red cheeks there.


Missouri Valley
— Creighton: In a mid-major conference that is feeling the losses of coaches to bigger programs and the graduations of its top players, the Bluejays return seven of their top nine guys and should ascend back to the top of the standings.

TRUTH: Nothing here that should make me bang my head against the desk. Creighton was on the bubble despite getting cremated in the tourney's semifinals. Northern Iowa is dancing. Life goes on.


Southland Conference
— Stephen F. Austin: Expect another stellar season from the Lumberjacks, who finished 26-6 but faltered in the league tournament. They bring back six of their top seven scorers.

TRUTH: Straight cash, homey!


— Alabama State: The Hornets came out of nowhere to finish 20-11 and receive an NIT invitation. Now, with SWAC player of the year Andrew Hayles leading the way, there are higher expectations that will be achieved.

TRUTH: Straight cash, homey!


Big Sky
— Portland State: I'm expecting league MVP Jeremiah Dominguez to lead the Vikings to their second consecutive Big Dance appearance (and also just the school's second appearance ... ever).

TRUTH: For 3 (in a row)????? Onions!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


— Nevada: The Wolf Pack figure to remain the class of the league despite losing another pair of standout performers. That's because they reeled in McDonald's All-American Luke Babbit and bring back a pair of double-digit scorers.

TRUTH: And the fun stops here. The Utah State program should get some more love (talking to myself). In fact, I could see it knocking off Marquette in the first round.


Mountain West
— UNLV: This league should be absolutely loaded, and the Rebels should lead the way thanks to a trio of returning seniors, including all-league guard Wink Adams.
— San Diego State
— New Mexico

TRUTH: Wow, I really bombed here. Obviously, I need to educate myself on the MWC. It was loaded — I was right about that. But none of the three I predicted made it, with Utah and BYU in the field of 65. Ouch.


Pac 10
— UCLA: What's new? Another season, another Pac-10 title for the Bruins. They might get a challenge from in-city rival USC, but senior point guard Darren Collison will keep them on the right path.
Pac 10 (4)
— Arizona State
— Washington State
— Washington

TRUTH: I don't blame myself for picking the Bruins to win another one. They have, after all, done that Final Four thing the past three seasons. USC saved my prediction in the conference tournament. Cal came out of nowhere to make it, and Arizona probably shouldn't have made it.


Big West
— Cal State Northridge: In a tough conference to predict, the Matadors — great name, by the way — return a pair of double-digit scorers plus the league's leading assists man in Josh Jenkins.

TRUTH: One final ... straight cash, homey!


West Coast
— Gonzaga: I don't know if the Zags have entered a season with heavier expectations. They'll certainly be challenged by Patrick Mills and St. Mary's, but with WCC player of the year Jeremy Pargo, not to mention Mr. Great Potential Austin Day, back in the mix, (and I'm not even mentioning other key returnees), this team is destined for great things.
— St. Mary's
— San Diego

TRUTH: First off, the bad. It was silly to think this league could put three teams in for a second straight year. San Diego won't be playing anywhere in the postseason (I guess the beach will have to do). But St. Mary's was straddling the bubble, so I have no qualms about picking the Gaels. The Zags are playing extremely well right now.


OK, let's tally them up (and likely weep).

For comparisons sake, last season — my first time covering college hoops — I predicted 40 of the 65 correctly. Hopefully, I did that this time around.


Not good. I PICKED JUST 35 RIGHT, struggling mightily with most of the major conferences (Big Ten, SEC, ACC). My 0-for-3 showing in the MWC was also a killer.

Obviously, I need to pay more attention to the big boys instead of studying Big Sky game tapes during all my free time.

Speaking of that, it's time to prepare for something I've been much better at recently. Another predicting exercise.

I believe there's a tournament coming up...

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The media's impact on the selection committee


As we near the pseudo American holiday we like to call "Selection Sunday," the prognosticators are out in bunches.

I turn on ESPN, and there's an analyst saying "who's in" and "who's out." I flip over to ESPNews and — waddya know? — there's another guy yapping about two other bubble teams and breaking down the prospects of two "blind resumes."

I turn off the tube and bring up ESPN.com. And right there, on the front page, is Joe Lunardi's beaming face — how does he look so happy this time of year, considering he can't get more than four hours of sleep a night? His "bracketology" has become an obsession for many college hoops fans.

And projecting the field of 65 has become a daily exercise for sports writers and analysts from Berkeley to Tallahassee.

Which begs the question: Does the media have any effect, any at all, on the decisions made by the selection committee?

While no member would ever say yes to this question, I happen to think it must be yay — if just a mild one.

Here's the thing to consider: The athletic directors and administrators who make up the committee are, believe it or not, human. And, no, they're not secluded in a cold, dark dungeon from November until they determine the field.

In fact, they have jobs and they're out in the real world during the entire college basketball season. While I have no hard evidence, I'd be surprised if they're able to avoid reading people's opinions on teams during their process of selecting the 34 at-large squads.

And as much as a man might say he's not influenced by others' opinions, that simply is not true. By just reading, for instance, that St. Mary's is one of Lunardi's "first four out," that idea will be planted in the member's mind.

He might not agree with the assertion, but when the big day arrives he'll think of it. It's just how the brain works, folks. You can't block out an experience. It always comes back to you, especially when it's related to your current line of thinking.

Perhaps that's why Lunardi is always so accurate with his projections. Not to take anything away from the guy, but he's almost always too good with his picks.

The truth, at least I think, is that Lunardi has become such a household name that his choices for the field of 65 unconsciously find their way into the minds of the selection committee's members.

They'll never say so publicly.

But just check how Lunardi's final projections stack up against the actual field.

My money is on him picking a near-perfect 65. And he'll keep earning the big bucks.

Perhaps he should thank the selection committee afterward. Privately, of course.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Michigan guts out biggest win in a decade


It looked like the same old story.

The story of the past 10 seasons.

A Michigan basketball team that isn't bad and can win big games in front of a home crowd, but simply doesn't have the focus and drive — the will to win — to pull out must-win games in hostile environments.

The Wolverines were following the script early in the second half Saturday at Minnesota's Old Barn. They allowed the Gophers to get the ball in the paint whenever they pleased — which was often. They allowed the Gophers to get all the loose balls.

And just like that, Minnesota was up by 12 points and well on its way, it seemed, toward an NCAA Tournament berth while the Wolverines appeared like a team that, quite frankly, shouldn't play in the tourney.

Then the improbable happened, and it wasn't a fluke. The Wolverines, perhaps sensing the desperation of the situation, perhaps thinking about how they'd feel to have to settle for yet another NIT invitation, dug deep and mounted a run that shocked the ready-to-celebrate Gophers crowd.

It all started with Laval Lucas-Perry, which is strangely appropriate. After all, the transfer from Arizona didn't play his first game in the Maize and Blue until December. He hasn't been around long enough to be polluted by all the losing, by all the disappointments.

And so Perry wouldn't just accept another tough loss, another botched chance to get the Wolverines over the hump and into the Big Dance.

Instead, the freshman — who had been very quiet and unproductive in recent games — did what none of his teammates would do. He stepped up and hit one big 3-pointer (and the deficit was down to seven). Then another from long range (and it was down to ... seven, again).

But his third 3 in less than 2 minutes got the Wolverines within four. And when he added two free throws – giving him 11 consecutive Michigan points — the margin was suddenly down to two. And his teammates could smell a comeback victory.

From there, it was a team effort. Unlike in close losses in the past, the Wolverines didn't become stagnant when the opportunity presented itself to grab the lead that had long eluded them.

DeShawn Sims' pair of free throws gave them a 60-58 lead. Then, when Minnesota answered right back to tie the game, Sims coolly sunk a baseline jumper to regain the advantage. You could tell, on those two possessions, how much the junior wanted the win and a chance to put the past behind him.

He played like a man all early afternoon, leading Michigan with 24 points. And when Manny Harris assertively dished him a bounce pass in the final minute, Sims made the aggressive, you're-not-stopping-me play that has been nonexistent from Michigan players in the past decade.

He soared to the rim and jammed the ball home while being attacked by a Minnesota defender. That gave the Wolverines a five-point cushion, and when Lawrence Westbrook's last-ditch 3-point attempt fell wide left the Wolverines had their biggest win of the season.

Yes, bigger than beating UCLA. Yes, bigger than beating Duke. No, Minnesota isn't as good as either of those teams, but the importance of Saturday's win revolves around the date and location.

In March. On the road.

In recent years (excluding last season's loss-infested campaign), the Wolverines haven't had problems winning games in November, December and even January. But they've flailed down the stretch, when the games gain importance and the players sense what's at stake.

That looked to be the case for about 30 minutes on Saturday. But then the Wolverines showed me something new. They showed that they'll no longer accept defeat — no matter how close they come — when the deck is stacked against them.

They showed, in a gutsy 10-minute stretch of basketball, that they're an NCAA Tournament-worthy team.

Now, they have to close the deal. That means taking care of business in the first game of the Big Ten tournament (likely against Iowa) — a win that would almost definitely put them in the tournament. And it also means staying hungry and not settling; going out and winning games they're not supposed to pull out.

If Michigan goes on to Dance, the players will point to the conclusion of Saturday's game as the defining moment when they finally moved forward off of the bubble.

And, hopefully, erased the curse of a decade filled with nothing but disappointments.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Pistons rediscover winning formula minus the 'Answer'


These are the Detroit Pistons we know, the group of players we'd grown accustomed to watching win 50-plus games a season.

Yeah, Chauncey Billups made sure to play one of his best games on Tuesday in his return to The Palace of Auburn Hills as a Denver Nugget — a "You shouldn't have let me go" performance.

But his team lost the game, 100-95. And it was Detroit's third straight victory, getting it back to above .500 at 30-29.

In the grand scheme of the past several years, of successful regular seasons piled on top of each other, three straight wins should be nothing to this franchise.

But not these three. By beating Orlando and Boston on the road and the Nuggets at home, the Pistons proved that they're still a team to be reckoned with in the Eastern Conference.

As long as they're aligned right, that is.

Because what the trio of W's has made crystal clear, more than anything else, is that Detroit is at its best not like, well, it was previously constructed (if that makes any sense).

During the franchise's darkest days since the early '90s, which culminated last week with an eighth consecutive loss, rookie head coach Michael Curry made the grand error of starting future Hall-of-Famer Allen Iverson.

Seems like a smart move, right? Putting the four-time NBA scoring champion in the lineup couldn't hurt, right?

Very, very wrong.

Because, for one, that meant sending Richard "Rip" Hamilton to the bench for the first time, probably, since he was a skinny kid hoopin' in Coatesville, Pa.

On the surface, Curry's move is mildly understandable. Iverson is, after all, the more explosive player, the guy who can do more things. To simplify, the better overall player.

But what Curry didn't realize in making the move is what the effect on the team's synergy would be. And that, folks, was his big mistake.

As good as Iverson is, he doesn't fit with the Pistons' other starters. Too often in games, Iverson would be on the perimeter dribbling the ball through his legs 1,097 times while the other four guys watched. There'd be no on-court chemistry, a lack of movement and team basketball.

In L.A. that might work, but not in Detroit. The Pistons have always won with team basketball.

Which brings me back to Hamilton, who knows the tendencies of starters Tayshaun Prince, Rasheed Wallace and Antonio McDyess like he knows the roads of Coatesville. They've been winning, after all, for several seasons together.

Rip is not as familiar with the bench players he often took the court with during his stint as a bench player — youngsters like Arron Afflalo and Amir Johnson.

So what the move did was weaken the Pistons' starting lineup and their bench rotation.

The losses followed.

And they might have saved a going-nowhere-fast season.

Last week, with the L's mounting — and some critics already calling for Curry's ouster — Iverson made the coach's decision easy by hurting his back in Detroit's 90-87 loss at New Orleans.

And, just like that, Hamilton was back where he belonged.

Of course, Curry hasn't actually done anything yet, because Iverson is still hurting. But it's clear that when he returns, he'll be coming off the bench. Rip is back in the starting lineup for good.

And if A.I. accepts his role, he has a chance to become the most dynamic sixth man in the league. No other team has any player close to Iverson's caliber starting games sitting.

That's what could make Detroit dangerous. It's already proven during this three-game stretch how good it can be sans Iverson. It could cause some serious havoc if Iverson embraces running with the second-tier guys, acting as their leader.

No, I don't see the Pistons getting by both Cleveland and Boston to the Finals. But compared to the destination I had them pegged for just a week ago, their prospects are now rosy.

Iverson has said repeatedly the past few years that all he's missing is an NBA championship. He also knows that he'll be gone after this season, dumped into the free agency market when teams are stuffing their pockets for 2010.

So there is plenty of incentive for him, just like Stephon Marbury, to make the most of his new niche on a team capable of doing some pretty big things.

And even if the end of the season is another disappointing playoff exit, these Pistons should be able to look forward and feel confident with the future's pillars — Hamilton, Prince and point guard Rodney Stuckey — in the starting five and playing well together.

Trading Billups still might have been a mistake. The past week hasn't completely erased the trade's effect.

But it's shown that maybe, just maybe, these Pistons — present and future — will by successful without their former Mr. Big Shot.