Saturday, March 22, 2014

Tournament Thoughts: First Round Friday

I had no time to take notes today, and if I had I would have no time to compile them into coherent thoughts. I'm lucky I even had time to watch the games, which I barely did, doing a lot of recording and scanning.

What follows is just the most important things of the games of the day. But I'm trying a new way, using the final score so when I read these 5 years from now I'll remember what the hell I was talking about.

#14 Mercer 78 #3 Duke 71
And there is our first major upset. I really thought Duke was good enough to go to the Final Four. I wouldn't even say they flamed out here, Mercer just played an incredible game. But this is the second time in 3 years that Duke was a huge favorite and lost in the first round (remember Lehigh?)

If I had to put a finger on what went wrong I would say they didn't play good defense, allowing Mercer to shoot 55%.

But also Duke fell in love with the 3-pointer, 37 attempts. But maybe a bigger problem, and a harder one to explain is how they made only 7 out of 25 2-pointers.

No one is ever going to say Coach K is not a good coach but he may be falling victim to a couple things here. First, he is such a great recruiter and his program has so much tradition that he consistently gets the best players in each incoming class. But, those guys leave after 1 maybe 2 years. And he's not having time to teach them a team game.

So they don't play great defense and they stand outside shooting 3s because to do otherwise might require more years in the system, so they go back to individual skills. And a team like Mercer more experienced is able to beat them.

But is he supposed to say no to Jabari Parker?

#6 Baylor 74 #11 Nebraska 60
Nebraska may have played the worst first half of any team in the tournament. They scored only 16 points and made only 6 field goals. They came back with 44 in the second half but Baylor was coasting at that point.

#3 Creighton 76 #14 Louisiana-Lafayette 66
This game was closer than the final score would indicate. ULL led 50-46 with 12 minutes left, but Creighton stayed true to themselves, passed the ball around made some 3s and went on a 22-10 run, which pretty much sealed it.

#2 Kansas 80 #15 Eastern Kentucky 69
This game was also much closer than most of us thought it would be. They were actually tied 32-32 at the half. But eventually Kansas's size took over, they dominated on the offensive glass and EKU ran out of gas.

But Kansas went 0 for 7 from 3. If they have to go up against a zone team like say, Syracuse, and they can't hit outside shots, the zone can pack it in and clog up the middle.

I still think Kansas is an excellent team with or without Embiid, with a good chance to win it all.

#8 Gonzaga 85 #9 Oklahoma State 77
This game was completely marred by bad officiating. They called 61 fouls, resulting in 78 free throws of which the teams made only 62 percent. At times it seemed like the refs were mad at Oklahoma State, particularly Marcus Smart. Some of those calls were ridiculous.

Smart is definitely leaving after this year and if he can control himself and behavior like a professional I think he is going to be a great pro. I don't like him and the way he behaves but his talent is unquestionable. 23 points, 13 rebounds, 7 assists and 6 steals.

At the end of the game Oklahoma State employed the strategy to foul Gonzaga big man Przemek Karnowski. Announcer Andrew Catalon called this "Hack a Polack." Karnowski actually is from Poland. But I guess the PC thing to call people from Poland is Poles. He was sitting with another Polack, Mike Gminski, who immediately pointed it out. Catalon apologized, he probably didn't realize it can be seen as derogatory. I don't think this is a big deal. Nails is furious and expects Catalon to be fired.

#6 North Carolina 79 #11 Providence 77
Another case of a smaller team building a lead and having it snatched away by a larger team's offensive rebounding. With 4:30 to get Providence led 71-66. On its next two possessions UNC missed shots, got the rebounds, made shots and tied the game. But that wasn't all, with the score tied at 77 James Michael McAdoo grabbed not one, but two offensive rebounds leading to the two game-winning free throws (which he needed 4 attempts to make).

#12 Stephen F. Austin 77 #5 VCU 75
This is probably the game I will remember most from this first round. JeQuan Lewis will go down in history as one of the biggest goats. How do you foul a 3-pointer shooter ever? But especially with a 4 point lead and 5 seconds left in an NCAA Tournament game. Don't even contest the shot, don't even try to rebound a miss, just get out of the way. Horrible.

But because these are college kids and not paid professionals it does make you sad to see a guy walk off the floor like this, knowing he cost his team the game.

#11 Tennessee 86 #6 Massachusetts 67
Another one for the play-in game teams. Seems like at least one of them every year plays on Tuesday or Wednesday then wins again in the first round.

#1 Virginia 70 #16 Coastal Carolina 59
This game was close much longer than it should have been but eventually Virginia's defense clamped down. With 8:52 left CC hit a 3 to tie the game at 47. Over the ensuing 8 minutes they scored 7 points and UVA scored 23.

Evidently a Chanticleer is some kind of rooster.

#8 Kentucky 56 #9 Kansas State 49
This game had the weirdest start to any game I've ever seen. Kentucky got a technical free throw because Kansss state walk-on Brian Rohleder, who played only 31 minutes all season, earned a technical foul for dunking in warmups before the game. NCAA rules prohibit dunking with less than 20 minutes until tip, and Rohleder's dunk came with 19:58 showing on the clock.

A rule is a rule and I don't really blame the officials for enforcing it, though it would have been easy to look the other way because it was only 2 seconds into the no dunk time. But this rule makes absolutely no sense. Why oh why is it on the books? I bet it will be abolished this offseason, though the NCAA is so provincial they may keep it just out of spite.

#4 UCLA 76 #13 Tulsa 59
So the first round didn't end with another major upset. Duke was the only one of the top 12 teams to lose. But 5 of the 5s and 6s lost. In each of the previous 6 years a 13 has beaten a 4, for a total of 7 times. 6 of those 13 seeds went on to play a 12 seed in the second round. There is no real reason why upsets like that should be bunched together, but they seem to be. Stephen F Austin did it's part and Tulsa kept it close for a while, but UCLA starting hitting some shots, getting some runouts, and now they get SFA in round 2.

As much as I like the fact that Danny Manning is the coach of Tulsa, by the end of this game I was sick of hearing about him too.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Tournament Thoughts: Syracuse 77 Western Michigan 53

I don't want to get too excited about a blowout victory over a #14 seed but for a team that limped into the tournament on a major shooting slump this was certainly a welcome result.

The biggest bright spot was Trevor Cooney who had been 10-51 from 3 since his explosion against Notre Dame in the beginning of February. He made 4 of 8 from deep and led the team with 18 points. And he showed some confidence, which he had probably lost because of his prolonged slump. SU needs him to be a threat from deep in order to keep the middle open for drives by Ennis and Fair.

Jerami Grant was another bright spot, showing no lingering effects from his back injury, leaving Western Michigan's bigger slower defenders in the dust on several nice moves to the basket.

Tyler Ennis was back to his steady self, making the team run and setting up other guys. He had 6 assists and only one turnover. He also had 16 points on 7 of 11 shooting.

CJ Fair was also great getting 14 points and 11 rebounds despite frequent double teams which forced him into 5 turnovers.

As is often (but not always) the case, a team that doesn't see a zone like ours played by a team with athletes like ours, Western Michigan was completely flummoxed in the first half and by the time they settled down it was too late.

As is always the case, the cameras caught Jim Boeheim making a stupid face.

Syracuse may have caught a break with Ohio State getting knocked off though Dayton is a pretty good team as well. In 2011, SU was in a similar situation, a 3-seed, having beaten Indiana State in the first round. #11 Marquette (then a conference opponent) knocked off Xavier, and beat Syracuse as well, before losing to #2 North Carolina in the Sweet 16.

We'll see what happens tomorrow at 7:10 PM.

Tournament Thoughts: Late Thursday

We begin the evening session with a look at the adorable grandson of St. Joseph's coach Phil Martelli who sits (stands) behind the bench, wearing a suit, emulating his grandfather's mannerisms and even diagramming plays.

Here he is being interviewed by our favorite sideline hottie Allie LaForce:

Beautiful designed play by Kevin Ollie at the end of regulation. He got Shabazz Napier an open shot to win the game, it didn't go in but St. Joe's almost got caught watching the paint dry.

St. Joe's's DeAndre Bembry has a serious Afro. And a cool beard.

I hate the way UConn plays. They do way too much one-on-one, reckless drives to the basket, contested jacks, bad defensive reaches and stupid unnecessary fouls. That would never happen if Jim Calhoun were still alive.

But they have the talent to overcome those shortcomings.

UConn sealed the victory by making 15 free throws in a row to seal the game, including one from an unexpected source, Brimah, to tie the game late in regulation.

The same could not be said of NC State which gave up one of the biggest choke jobs in recent tournament history. With 5 minutes left, TJ Warren hit a layup to make it 59-45. He had an and-1 opportunity that he missed. From that point on St. Louis outscored NC State 25-11, thanks to 9 of 21 from the line for NC State. That's right, with a big lead in a tournament game NC State shot 43% from the line. They also missed a couple more in overtime (so did St. Louis) which cost them any chance to recover the win that had slipped through their fingers.

Rob Loe (no, he's Rob Lowe) had a huge game for St. Louis, 22 points and 15 rebounds on 8 of 11 shooting.

The two teams combined to make 32-63 free throws for 51%, the second worst percentage (min. 50 attempts) in tournament history.

But North Dakota State is the plucky underdog that did pull off the second 12-5 upset of the tournament. They had a big lead, blew it, then clawed back to tie it and then won it in overtime.

It couldn't have happened without Isaiah Cousins who committed an idiotic foul with 4-point lead and 32 seconds to play. That gave ND State two free points. Cousins compounded his error by missing a free throw to make it a one possession game which the Bison took advantage.

Best game of the day: Arizona State versus Texas. First true buzzer beater and well played by both teams. Both teams have good big men, Jordan Bachynski (25 points, 10 rebounds) for Arizona State and Cameron Ridley for Texas (17 and 12 plus 4 blocks) including the game winner he scooped off the ground and flipped in over the outstretched arm of Bachynski just a few tenths of a second before the red light went on.

95 points were scored in the second half as both teams used their big men and dribble penetration to get the defense moving and then used great ball movement to find open shooters. That's the kind of basketball I love to see.

What a great game, even though when I did my bracket I noticed I picked all 4 7 seeds so I changed one, Texas.

It always amazes me when a college player not on BYU is married. But they kept showing Bachynski's wife and mother in the stands. But it does make sense because he is a Mormon, he did a two year mission and he turns 25 later this year, a few months after he and Malia celebrate their third wedding anniversary.

Villanova beat Milwaukee by 20, but the game was much closer than that through most of it. Now they have one of those interesting matchups we're going to see over the next few years, former conference rivals who can now be paired up in the early rounds of the tournament. I'm still sticking with UConn to knock them off.

I hate all the talk about teams being experienced, and veteran, and Louisville is defending champs. Manhattan looked like the more composed team that entire game. But Luke Hancock, MOP of last year's Final Four, single-handedly ended any Manhattan upset bid with 8 points in a row.

I would still worry about Louisville though if I had them in the Final Four. They should beat St. Louis and who knows after that if they have to play Wichita State and Duke or Michigan. Would be interesting if to get to the Final Four they had to beat both teams they beat in the Final Four last year.

Of all the first round games, the one I wanted to see most was last, New Mexico State-San Diego State. I've been reading and hearing a lot about Sim Bhullar for NMSU. He's 7'5" and 330 pounds. Obviously he is a monster on defense, first shot of the game he blocked flat-footed. And on offense he did more than just stick his arms up in the air. He's a very intriguing NBA prospect. He's only a sophomore so hopefully he will stay and work on his game.

They also have his brother, Tanveer, who is 7'2" and a redshirt freshman this season.

And they have 6'10" 265-pound Tshilidzi Nephawe from South Africa. That makes NMSU the only team I've ever seen start 2 centers and 3 guards.

Kevin Aronis onions!!!!!!!!!!! Could have been the biggest shot of the night, he missed one, got it back made a move and nailed a 3 to send the game into overtime.

I'm really sick of hearing so much about the coaches. The Louisville Manhattan game was dominated by talk about Pitino and his former assistant. Similarly but to a lesser extent, SDSU vs NMSU.

A great first day, 4 overtime games, the most ever in one day of the tournament. They were all in the evening session (UConn-St. Joe's, North Dakota State-Oklahoma, San Diego State-New Mexico State and St. Louis-NC State) plus two buzzer beaters (Dayton-Ohio State and Texas-Arizona State) one other big upset (Harvard-Cincinnati) throw in Manhattan putting a major scare into Louisville and you have a 50% awesomeness ratio. Let's hope that keeps up for 3 more days.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Tournament Thoughts: Early Thursday

First game of the tournament was a doozy, Ohio State vs. Dayton.

We started off by learning that Thad Matta won't play in-state schools in non-conference. I guess it's win and you were supposed to lose and they use it against you in recruiting. Does Jim Boeheim know about this?

Bill Raftery and Verne Lundquist doing the game with hottie Allie LaForce on the sidelines. They showed pictures of them from 1988. Raf and Verne looked much as they do know. LaForce was an infant.

Raf was on his game, dropping a great Irish accent for Cavanaugh, and then doing a great whine to imitate Jim Boeheim.

Aaron Craft almost cost his team the game with a stupid intentional foul. But he hit a 3-point play to tie it back up at 55, then made a great pass to give OSU the 57-55 lead.

Ohio State's Shannon Scott committed an even dumber foul, fouling the 3-point shooter with a 2-point lead and the shot clock winding down.

Craft is one of those players who gets too much credit. He isn't all that talented but he gets a lot of credit because of his style of play and skin color. He should have gone to Duke.

He did play a great game though, and hit what could have been the winning shot.

Great play by Vee Sanford. First game, first exciting game winner. A great start to the tournament.

American took a 17-10 lead over Wisconsin early. After that Wisconsin went on a 56-11 run. I'm not kidding. American scored 4 points in the first 12 minutes of the second half. Wisconsin scored 28.

The Pitt-Colorado game was a similar blowout. 46-18 at halftime? For Pitt?

Talib Zanna had 16 points in the first half. Colorado had 18. Pitt had 13 assists. Colorado had 0. Colorado attempted 17 field goals. Pitt made 18 field goals.

Cincinnati got a weird administrative technical for using a player who was not in the book. Not sure how the hell that happens. Did they just forget to write a player's name in?

Harvard does it again. Big upset for the second year in a row. If you include Cornell in 2010, the Ivy League has pulled off first round upsets in 3 of the past 5 years.

I wanted to pick this as my 12 over 5 upset but I was talked out of it by people who said Cincinnati was too physical. But this game comes down to shooting. Harvard can shoot, Cincinnati couldn't.

Cincinnati plays a physical brand of defense but Harvard never let it affect them.

Oregon can really score. BYU got within 3 then Oregon just blew their doors off.

That will be an interesting matchup against Wisconsin. Every year a 2 seed loses in the second round (almost every year) this could be the one.

Not the start you wanted to see if you picked Florida to win it all, but they eventually pulled away and booted Albany back to upstate New York.

I wouldn't take anything from this performance and project forward as to what it means for Florida's ability to go to the Final Four or win it all. It was 20 bad minutes and has no bearing on what will happen next.

But I am surprised it happened. Florida has so much size and athleticism that I wouldn't expect a team like Albany to be able to keep up with them.

Albany acquitted themselves well in this tournament except for those ugly shorts, purple in front, yellow in back.

Even though Michigan State didn't blow out Delaware you can see why so many people are picking them for the Final Four, and to win it all. Adreian Payne was absolutely dominant, and they have a bunch of other good players as well.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Song of the Week

"Into the Night" - Benny Mardones
This is a rare song (one of 10 in history) to have two separate runs in the top 40. Most of the time it happens to old songs re-released on movie soundtracks like "Unchained Melody", but this one apparently just got some airplay in 1989, 9 years after it first hit the charts. And people loved it all over again. The song plays in the convenience store when Walt and Jesse meet after being escaping Tuco in Season 2 of Breaking Bad.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Bracket Breakdown: Syracuse's Chances

Not Good!
I am usually pessimistic going into the NCAA Tournament, often with good reason, but I was actually kind of hopeful this year, until I saw the region SU got placed in.
Florida is the best team in the country based on performance, and if healthy Kansas is the best team in the country based on talent.
The odds of beating both those teams, or having one or both get knocked off before we get to them are very slim. I would feel a lot better about Syracuse's chances if the teams in their way were the caliber of Wichita State, Virginia, Villanova and Michigan.
The other problem, is that Syracuse just isn't playing very well right now. Starting with the Boston College game their team-wide shooting touch has gone south (Cooney especially) and the lack of scoring has been exacerbated by defensive lapses and the key injury to Grant.
Many SU fans hoping for a deep run point out that SU similarly stumbled at the end of last season, and rebounded to make the Final Four.
There is a key difference, SU won 3 games in last year's Big East Tournament, and zero in this year's ACC. I don't believe in momentum, but confidence does play a role, especially in shooting, and if you want to compare this year to last, you have to consider that.
Second, even if the two situations were identical, does that make this year's team more likely to get hot after a bad stretch just because last year's did? No.
Teams get hot, go cold, get hot again all the time. What they did last year has no impact on when and if this team will rediscover it's game.
That said, this team has two excellent players in Fair and Ennis and two good players in Grant and Cooney (if he's making shots). Combine them with Christmas and Baye Moussa-Keita as purely low-post defenders and this team should definitely beat Western Michigan and Ohio State.
After that who knows, but I don't like their chances.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Bracket Breakdown

The first post of the most wonderful week of the year. March Madness is back and as always, The Poop will have you covered.

I think the Committee got the #1 seeds correct. Florida and Arizona are obvious on all aspects of their resumes, and Wichita State definitely deserved a #1 with their performance. Virginia was a deserving top seed because they won a tough conference in the regular season and in the tournament. Clearly they were the 4th #1, and got credit for finishing strong after 5 early losses (though 3 were to top 15 RPI teams, VCU, Wisconsin and Duke).

But why didn't Louisville get the same respect for finishing strong? Because they have a week resume, only 19th in the RPI, no top 20 wins, their best wins are UConn 3 times and Cincy once. Most of the teams they were competing with played and won tougher games out of conference and in.

The American Athletic Conference had 5 strong teams, but also 5 very weak ones. And the 8th place conference ranking clearly cost SMU an at-large berth. Their only big wins are UConn twice and Cincy, and had no other wins to speak off. Not only that, the bad losses piled up, South Florida, Temple (they went 9-22 this season, worst in school history) and Houston in the conference tournament.

One of the last teams in, and most controversial was NC State, because they had 13 losses. But 7 of those were to top 30 teams.

But it keeps the Committee's trend of rewarding teams with worse records and tougher schedules, in and out of conference.

Southern Miss and Toledo got left out with RPIs in the 30s and SOS in the 130s. Xavier and Iowa made it in however. Iowa was the lowest RPI team (#64) to get an at-large bid. But they will play in the play-in games.

Note: This is a good time to mention that until they expand to 96 teams I will never call the first round the first round. It will be play-in games. I hope you will join me in my silent protest of the NCAA's assault on tradition, common sense logic and everything that makes filling a bracket out fun and easy.

I think the South is the strongest region, at least up top because Florida is the best #1 and if Joel Embiid is healthy, and he may be by week 2 of the tournament, Kansas is the toughest #2 seed.

Everyone thinks the Midwest is murder because of Duke and Louisville as a 3 and 4 but I think Wichita State and Michigan are vulnerable top seeds.

The East with Virginia and Villanova is definitely the weakest, so much so that #4 Michigan State is the 2nd choice in Vegas to win the whole thing.

Stephen F. Austin over VCU is the popular 12 over 5 upset pick. If you believe the extra game helps teams, then maybe you like the NC State/Xavier winner over St. Louis. I would also keep my eye on North Dakota St. vs Oklahoma. But Cincinnati probably has too much size to let Harvard win a second straight first rounder.

A 13 has beaten a 4 six straight years. If we love Michigan State and Louisville then our choices are New Mexico State over San Diego State or Tulsa over UCLA. 20 years ago Tulsa beat UCLA in a 12/5 game and then beat the 4 seed too to make the Sweet 16. Tulsa was coached by Tubby Smith. The current coach of Tulsa, Danny Manning.