Monthly Archives: March 2010

Watching Duke Survive…

Once upon a time, there was a commercial where an imposter thirsty for Bud Light tries to impersonate everyone’s favorite basketball coach with the funny name.  His  response of “Yes.  I’m Coach Crih-jah-new-ski” is infamous in beer commercial lore.  But for the last half decade, Coach Mike Krzyzewski has been holding the empties of coaches like Roy Williams, Tom Izzo, Thad Matta, Ben Howland and other final four competitors.

Coach K and Duke University haven’t appeared in a NCAA Final Four since 2004.  In fact, they hadn’t advanced past the Elite Eight since then.  This season, Duke was the team that least deserved a number one seed.  They were at the top of a weak Atlantic Coast Conference that saw Maryland, Wake Forest and Georgia Tech struggle while North Carolina and NC State fell off the college basketball map.  Many thought West Virginia, their opponent on Saturday, deserved the last number one seed over the Blue Devils from Durham, North Carolina.

Before the tournament began, ESPN’s conglomerate of 12 college basketball experts picked their Final Fours.  In the South Region, just three analysts picked Duke to advance into the Final Four.  Four experts took Baylor and the remainder jumped on the Villanova bandwagon.  So much for being a number one seed and a favorite.  It’s too bad Hubert Davis didn’t follow his Carolina blue blood and pick against the Devils, then it would have been even more stacked against Duke.  Although, Duke grad Jay Bilas did pick Nova, so it would  have all balanced out had allegiances been followed.  That was what viewers were expecting from Duke entering the first weekend of the tourney.

But then Kansas fell to Northern Iowa in the 2nd round, Syracuse stumbled against Butler in the Sweet Sixteen, Kentucky was outshot by West Virginia in the Elite Eight and Duke became the highest seeded team remaining.  They survived while the other “ones” fell.  They outlasted all but one number two seed, every number three seed and every number four seed to round out an improbable Final Four.  They survived.

The mainstream media wrote the Devils off, citing recent tournament struggles, the weak ACC and the lack of a standout player like the J.J. Redicks, Christian Laettners and Elton Brands of the past.  Analysts talked about the stumbling blocks ahead of Duke with strong teams like Villanova and Baylor waiting to take them and punch their own ticket to Indianapolis.  But Duke survived.

And why should we have doubted them?  They are coached by one of the best in the country.  Coach K is the chosen leader for USA Basketball, the man who turned down the Lakers and the emperor of a basketball institution.  After all the talk about Izzo and Williams, he was shuffled into the background of coaches that have had more success in recent years.  But Coach K survived.

This Blue Devil team doesn’t have Bobby Hurley or Grant Hill.  They don’t have Jay Williams or Shane Battier.  What they do have is a trio of stars that play unselfish basketball.  Three players that are upperclassmen in the age of one-and-done.  They have a senior point guard, the trademark teams want when tournament time rolls around.  While other player jumped ship, Duke players stuck around and survived.

Senior Jon Scheyer runs the show from the point, flanked by junior Nolan Smith, who poured in 29 points in the regional final against Baylor.  Duke’s third “S” is junior Kyle Singler, a lanky small forward with a high basketball IQ and a great all-around game.  All three averaged better than 17 points a game during the regular season.  Mix in role players like senior big men Brian Zoubek and Lance Thomas and the young Plumlee brothers and the recipe that Coach K used for years suddenly turned out another successful dish, right under our noses.  The taste may not have been there for the last half decade, but the recipe survived.

Kudos to Duke for doing it again when no one thought they would.  The darling story of the tournament may be Butler, the top coach in the world may be Izzo and the hottest team may be West Virginia, but the team no one thought should be a number one seed may just have the right formula to win the whole thing and survive.  This isn’t Coach K’s first rodeo and while pre-Final Four press conferences will focus on the amazing story of newcomer Brad Stevens of Butler, the enigmatic Bob Huggins and the all-everything Izzo, Krzyzewski will wait, surviving the press conferences before putting his product on the floor.

The predecessor to the famous Bud Light commercial with Coach K featured the same freeloader trying to pass himself off as Dr. Galakiewicz, only it comes out as “Gally-week-its”.  When asked if he’d ever been in a limo before, he replies, “In a limo this small.”  Certainly, Coach K and Duke have been in the Final Four limo before, but maybe not one with such a small amount of hype.

I get the feeling they like it that way.

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Filed under ACC, Basketball, College Basketball, Duke University, Final Four, NCAA Tournament

Watching Cornell ease their pain…

For so many colleges and universities, March Madness is a time of excitement where conference tournaments can lead to dancing and high hopes can lead to a date with cinderella.  For the Cornell Big Red, it was an oppportunity to think about something else besides the six suicides on the school’s campus this school year.

The Ivy League’s champion and the NCAA tournament’s cinderella saw their historic run come to an end on Thursday night in a 62-45 loss to Kentucky, after having advanced to the sweet sixteen for the first time in the school’s history.  They won their first two games of the tournament over Temple and Wisconsin, the first two tourney victories for the prestigious university.  But perhaps the biggest victory for this proud team was their ability to take the student body’s mind off of the sad reality that the term “suicide school” has resurfaced, returning from the dark part of the university’s legacy.

Six students have taken their own lives at the Ithaca, New York campus in the last six months.  The rash of suicides came to a head in mid-March when police recovered the body of engineering major William Sinclair, a sophomore who plunged off of a bridge that goes over one of the many gorges near campus.  The very next day, Matthew Zika jumped from a different bridge near campus.  Zika was a junior who was also studying engineering.

In February, another student jumped from a bridge.  In the fall semester, three other Cornell scholars did the same.  Combining that with five other members of the Big Red family who lost their lives due to illness or accident, and the Ithaca campus has been sent reeling, leading to officials stationing police officers at all bridges around campus and extending counseling hours for those students who need the support.

Beyond that, campus personnel has taken upon themselves to knock on every door of students living in Cornell residence halls and instructing the faculty at the school to “put the academic rigor that [they] know is part of Cornell in proper perspective,” according to Susan Murphy, vice president of student and academic services.

The rash of suicides are the first on Cornell’s campus since 2005, but the school has a dark history that led to its being tagged as a “suicide school.”  Between 2002 and the spring of 2009, there were five suicides at Cornell.  In the six years prior, there were 11 students who took their lives.  

The university has taken their reputation as a rigorous school and learned from what those drastic consequences can be.  Their student services and mental health programs are models for colleges across the country.  The administration changed their interpretation of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act to enable them to contact parents and family without a student’s consent when a pupil’s grades slip or indicators of mental health problems arise.  Students quickly learn to ask for help and are encouraged to constantly take a mental inventory as they head into difficult academic periods.

For the Big Red basketball team, those rigors are compounded by playing a sport and competing within the Ivy League’s weekend-dominated schedule.  The league competes only on Fridays and Saturdays, allowing for student-athletes to focus on schoolwork during the week.  This makes for weekend-long road trips that saw the Big Red play at Penn and Princeton in successive days in February and at Brown and Yale on a Friday and Saturday in March.

But the team became a rallying point for the Cornell campus this season.  After defeating schools like Massachusetts, Alabama, St. Joseph’s and St. John’s, the Big Red traveled to Lawrence, Kansas and gave the Jayhawks everything they could handle before falling, 71-66.  The strength of that performance eventually led to the team being ranked in the top 25 for a brief stretch.

The calendar turned, the out-of-conference season transitioned into the Ivy League schedule and the spring semester began in Ithaca.  Then the suicides came, culminating in the March deaths of Sinclair and Zika in consecutive days.

On Selection Sunday, the Big Red drew Temple in the first round, a team from a conference they knew well, led by a coach that Cornell’s Steve Donahue knew very well.  Many (including me) picked Fran Dunphy’s Temple Owls to take out his former assistant and the Big Red, but Cornell fans knew better.  This team was good, not just Ivy League good, but NCAA tourney good.  It wasn’t even close: Cornell 78, Temple 65. 

In the second round, the team would face another slow-down team, this one from the Big Ten in Wisconsin.  The pundits talked about how this was another team Cornell could handle, and they did: Cornell 87, Wisconsin 69.  This meant a Sweet Sixteen trip to Syracuse, New York of all places.  The Carrier Dome sits just 55 miles from the Ithaca campus.  The opponent: Kentucky.  Could it be?  Could the Big Red take down Calipari’s freshmen sensations?

Cornell took an early 10-2 lead, getting the red-wearing crowd at the dome excited.  Then the Wildcats finished the half on a 30-6 run to take control at halftime, 32-16.  The Big Red had their moments in the second half, cutting the lead to six with 5:42 left after a Louis Dale three-pointer, but Kentucky pulled a way in the end, winning by 17.

The run was over.  But the impact this team had on the university is immeasurable.  They went 2-1 against three top 25 teams that all the experts deemed to be superior.  They took the focus of the school off of homework, exams and suicide and let them dive into three amazing college basketball games in a seven-day span.  They were the darlings of the sports world for a week and received media attention for something that wasn’t the half-dozen tragedies from this school year. 

No matter what the score against Kentucky was, this tournament was a win for Cornell’s Big Red.  We can only hope that the future of the Ithaca school holds more celebrations than funerals.

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Filed under Basketball, College Basketball, Cornell Big Red, Ivy League, NCAA Tournament

Watching a national columnist slam UNLV…

I don’t usually play the role of a “homer” in my columns.  I try to write about what I know and what I’m passionate about.  Often times that ends up being the Mountain West Conference.  For the record, I live in Las Vegas, went to UNLV, have a wife who went to BYU and have a rooting interest in those two teams and the MWC.  Even in columns like ones where I stick up for the MWC getting squeezed by ESPN (see HERE), observe the Pac-10’s decline at the hands of the Mountain West (see HERE) or make predictions on the outcome of the NCAA tournament (see HERE), I keep the Rebels and UNLV out of it.  But one thing I will not do, is stand by and watch the Rebel basketball program and coach Lon Kruger get criticized by a national columnist at CBS, especially when the Mountain West and UNLV are two of the best stories of the year in NCAA basketball.  So, please allow me this one opportunity to act as a “homer” and defend the program I know best.

Last night, CBS Sportsline posted a column by Gregg Doyel, one of the network’s national columnists working NCAA basketball.  The article titled “UNLV’s choice not to call timeout ends its season” can be read HERE and I encourage all to do so.

In the column, Doyel rehashes the final minute of the UNLV-Northern Iowa game.  In a nutshell, here is what happened in that first round matchup’s final moments:

  • UNLV’s Oscar Bellfield hit a three-pointer to tie the game at 66 with 37 seconds left.
  • Northern Iowa brings the ball up and runs clock with tight pressure and trapping defense from UNLV.
  • With about five seconds left, the ball makes it to Ali Farokhmanesh who hits a three to put UNI up 69-66.
  • Bellfield runs the ball up court and has it knocked out-of-bounds with about two seconds left.
  • UNLV’s Tre’von Willis misses a three-pointer at the buzzer that wasn’t even that close and UNI wins it to advance to round two against Kansas.

Doyel identifies the fatal flaw of the Rebels to be Kruger’s ignorance in not calling at timeout following Bellfield’s converted three-point field goal.  He proposes that had this been done, the Rebels would have been in better shape to win the game by setting up their defense.  The Rebels played frantic defense in those final seconds, sending double teams at point guard Kwadzo Ahelegbe, trying to force him to give up the ball (Ahelegbe had scored UNI’s last eight points).  Several passes went around the court, some good, some bad and some nearly forced into a turnover.  Eventually the ball swung to Farokhmanesh who made the improbable three with nary a defender in sight.

Was the ball rotation poor on UNLV’s part?  Yes.  Did the kid make an amazing shot.  Absolutely.  If you told Kruger that the shot to put UNI ahead would be from 35-feet away as opposed to a drive to the hoop where a foul could be called or a mid-range jumper, I’m sure the coach would have taken those odds.  And that’s what UNLV got.  A frantic scramble, that Doyel infers Northern Iowa intended to have happen, followed by a crazy deep shot that went in.

Doyel postulates that had a timeout been called where Kruger and staff could set up the team’s defense, they would have undoubtedly known to get a hand in Farokhmanesh’s face.  I contend that the team may have played a similar defense with or without a timeout.  If pressure wasn’t thrown in the face of Ahelegbe, he would have held his dribble at midcourt until the shot clock was exhausted to five or ten seconds and then drove the basket.  The Rebels’ defense got the ball moving, gave them a couple of opportunities at a turnover and forced Northern Iowa to take a shot from just inside the parking lot.  I don’t see what’s wrong with that.

Furthermore, UNI had no timeouts.  Had Kruger taken his final timeout it would have given him an opportunity to set up a defense but would also have given UNI the chance to design a play and get their offense ready for the final 37 seconds. 

Would Doyel have criticized Kruger and the Rebs if they called a timeout and that led to a great set of back picks and an open shot?  Would he declare that UNLV handed Northern Iowa the win because Kruger put the time in their hands to design a play?

Would Doyel praise UNLV for letting the flow of the game come to them had the shot from Farokhmanesh clanged off iron and been rebounded by the Rebels, leading to a game-winning shot from Willis or Bellfield? 

Basketball is a game of inches and the Rebels poured their heart into a game where the last few inches belonged to the other team.

Perhaps the worst part about Doyel’s attack on the Rebels yesterday were the words he had about the UNLV program in general. He wrote:

“[UNLV] does silly stuff like let Tre’Von Willis and Chace Stanback jack 3-pointers when they can’t make them. It has defensive lapses. It loses focus, and boom! Trouble. I don’t know who to blame for it. Maybe nobody. Maybe Kruger’s choice of personnel.

Kruger has made UNLV relevant again, but he has done it by turning UNLV into Transfer U. The best three or four players on roster are from somewhere else, including leading scorer Willis (from Memphis) and No. 2 scorer Stanback (UCLA) and versatile, but injured, wing Derrick Jasper (Kentucky). Kansas transfer Quintrell Thomas will become eligible next season. Terrific. More people from elsewhere. It’s not the most stable way to run a program, and when games come down to a final play, a final second, building on such an unstable foundation might be a problem.”

Wow. An “unstable” program with unstable players. Does this guy not know Lon Kruger and his track record? Kruger has won Big 10 (with Illinois), SEC (Florida) and MWC (UNLV) conference championships and finished second in the Big 12 at Kansas State in a year where he took the Wildcats to the Elite Eight. Kruger took Florida to the Final Four in 1994 and has revitalized a UNLV program where they were left for dead after Jerry Tarkanian left town, being coached by cast-offs like Rollie Massimino and Charlie Spoonhour. Kruger’s overall record at the collegiate level is 455-295.

The fact that UNLV takes transfers from other schools is both common in NCAA schools and a testimony to the type of program Kruger runs. Willis came from John Calipari’s Memphis program where he averaged 2.6 points a game as a freshman and wanted a fresh start where he could play more. He red-shirted one year and has started for the Rebels for the past two, putting him in the UNLV program for a total of three years. Stanback has a similar story. He was a freshman on the 2007-2008 UCLA Final Four team that lost to Memphis in the national semifinals. After his freshman year he too opted for a fresh start and landed in Vegas, red-shirting the 2008-09 season and playing his first year with UNLV this season. Jasper came from Kentucky the same year Stanback did, though he hadn’t played since a mid-season knee injury.

What did all these players have in common? They wanted to play basketball in a system they could excel in for a coach that has had success everywhere he’s been. The fact that they left top programs shows that the common denominator here is playing time. They wanted to be at a school where they got some run. How horrible is that?

As Doyel puts it, UNLV is now “Transfer U.” That connotation makes it a negative thing, but one could also see it as a positive since so many good players gravitate to a program where their talents can be used and they feel at home. Do we cheapen the draw of a New England Patriots squad because they get players through free agency that want to play for Bill Belichick? Do we downgrade a San Antonio Spurs team that attracts free agents for the chance to be on a contender where the players put team first? So why knock UNLV for accepting transfers that want to play ball?

An even more asinine comment is that the Rebels’ perceived erratic and “unstable” play at the end of the UNI game was a by-product of there being so many (two) transfers on the floor. Does Doyel really believe that the reason this miracle shot connected was because Chace Stanback and Tre’von Willis are transfers? Come on. Kruger runs a well-prepared team in which where you come from matters very little. Any team that makes the tournament plays smart enough and is well-coached enough to maintain a defensive set in a close game.  Can we really blame this on transfer players at this point in a season?  Besides, Stanback was on the bench in defensive sets because of foul trouble against UNI late in the game.  So the one transfer, Willis, cost his team the game because -wait for it- he’s a transfer?

What Doyel overlooks is that UNLV also recruits players out of high school. The other three starters in the first round game against Northern Iowa (Bellfield, Anthony Marshall and Brice Massamba) were all Kruger recruits. Bench players Justin Hawkins, Kendall Wallace and Matt Shaw were also recruits brought in by the UNLV program.

I challenge Doyel to find successful programs in NCAA basketball that don’t accept top transfers from other programs. Is it better to have players that come to your school for one year prior to jolting the NBA?

Ask UCLA, USC and North Carolina how they feel about that strategy.

Doyel surely knows that NCAA tournament time is tough and that games are decided in an instant and often by plays of supernatural legend.  UNLV was beaten by uch a play.  They didn’t lose because of a timeout that wasn’t called or for having too many transfer players on their roster.  The Rebels and the MWC are two of the biggest stories in the NCAA this year and Doyel would know that had he covered them for more than just a single game.

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Filed under Basketball, College Basketball, Mountain West Conference, NCAA Tournament, UNLV

Watching the first round of the NCAA tournament…

High seeds, low seeds, upsets, cinderellas and erasers are spinning sports fans’ heads this week, but everyone’s bracket will have to be in ink by Thursday morning when the madness begins in earnest. 

Looking at this year’s field, I am widely uninspired by most of the high seeds beyond those on the top line, making it an interesting year to pick a posh team lower down on the list of seedings.  The first round is rife with high seeds that have  tough matchups, top teams limping into the tourney, low seeds on fire and underdogs that could sneak into round two or beyond.

Here are the games I’m watching closely this Thursday and Friday:

MIDWEST REGION

The Midwest has largely been analyzed as the region loaded with strong teams on the top five lines, with critics saying #1 seed Kansas got jobbed when they were named the tournament’s number one overall but were placed in the toughest region.  The next three seeds after KU are killers with Ohio State, Georgetown and Maryland waiting in the wings.  Each of those schools are popular sleeper picks to make a deep run.  But what I like in this region are some of the middle seeds and how they match up.

#5 Michigan State versus #12 New Mexico State seems like a cut-and-dry matchup with Tom Izzo and his tournament success, but MSU has not looked right all year and I get the feeling that they are ripe for an early exit.   The Spartans better not sleep on the Aggies’ guard combination of Jahmar Young and Jonathan Gibson as both can fill it up, averaging nearly 40 combined points a game.  MSU seems like they aren’t on the ball and haven’t really dominated any team in the second half of the season.  I see NMSU as a nice 12 vs. 5 upset pick with low risk as I feel Maryland and Greivis Vasquez take out the Spartans if they sneak by the Aggies.

#6 Tennessee against #11 San Diego State is deceiving if one looks just at the seeding of these two squads.  After starting 16-1, the Vols finished 10-6 including some blowout losses that weren’t even close.  In contrast, the Aztecs come in on fire, winning the Mountain West Conference and nine of ten games going into the dance.  The Vols will have trouble with Kawhi Mitchell, the MWC’s freshman of the year, who will give Wayne Chism all he can handle. Additionally, D.J. Gay and Billy White will be formidable matchups defensively for UT.  I like SDSU in this game and to make it to the Sweet Sixteen.

#7 Oklahoma State and #10 Georgia Tech present maybe the best matchup of any first round game in the field of 64.  If you haven’t seen OSU’s James Anderson yet, he is a scoring machine and the kind of player who can lead a team deep into the tourney on his own.  Anderson averages over 22 points a game and nearly six boards a contest.  He’s been on a tear down the stretch, scoring 25 or more in six of the Cowboys’ last eight games.  GT is one of the more disappointing teams in the country, sneaking into the tourney on the heels of an ACC championship appearance.  But Tech is one of the most talented teams in the field and it wouldn’t be a shocker if they put it together and made a deep run behind coach Paul Hewitt and studs like Derrick Favors and Gani Lawal.  No matter who wins this game, Ohio State is going to have its hands full in the second round and may not make it to the second weekend.

WEST REGION

This region is the one with the most question marks.  Many are hesitant to move Syracuse all the way to the Final Four until the team shows they can play at full strength with the return of Arinze Onuaku.  The rest of the region is tenuous at best.  Kansas State (#2) is a nice pick to go far, but aren’t overwhelmingly impressive as a two-seed.  Pittsburgh has gotten by on great coaching from Jamie Dixon and overachievement up and down their roster, but how will they fair in the dance?  Fourth-ranked Vanderbilt stumbled down the stretch and isn’t steeped with tourney history.  The fifth (Butler), sixth (Xavier) and seventh (BYU) seeded teams are all from mid-majors, though the Musketeers from Xavier and BYU’s Cougars are nice picks to make deep runs…

#5 Butler takes on #12 UTEP in an intriguing 5-12 matchup from mid-major conferences.  I see Butler as a Gonzaga-type program that is now a perennial participant but the mystique of cinderella has faded away.  UTEP is a tough squad that earned their at-large bid and I think they will keep this game very close.  The Miners’ loss to Houston ended a 16-game winning streak and I see them as looking to prove their worth in this matchup.  UTEP’s Derrick Caracter is going to give Butler all it can handle and the Bulldogs may not have an answer for the Miners’ Randy Culpepper.  This will be a tough game for Butler and I see them getting knocked off in this first round.

#7 Brigham Young faces #10 Florida, who has a twelve-game tournament winning streak dating back to their consecutive championships in 2006 and 2007.  Florida was awarded a controversial at-large bid and draws a team in BYU who is under-seeded. The committee seems to seed the Cougars a couple of slots lower every year because they have to play in a bracket that competes on Thursday and Saturday, since the religious school will not play on Sundays.  This is bad news for Florida as BYU is my favorite pick for a team seeded below a four to get to their regional final and I would not be surprised to see them in the Final Four, especially since the West plays their games next weekend in Salt Lake City, Utah, an hour’s drive from Provo.  BYU’s Jimmer Fredette is similar to OSU’s Anderson as a player who can carry his team through a tournament.  Fredette shoots lights out and needs to be guarded once he crosses the half court line.  The Cougars don’t make mistakes, run up-and-down the court and play incredibly cerebral basketball.  I’ve watched them all year as they are in the Mountain West Conference and I see them taking out the Gators, moving past K-State and into the Sweet Sixteen.

EAST REGION

This region sets up to have the best potential showdown between one and two seeds, as Kentucky and West Virginia may be on a collision course.  Those two may be playing the best ball of anyone in the country right now and if they were in different regions they may have been a popular pick to meet in the Final Four or the national championship game.  The rest of the region bores me for the most part with some struggling teams (Missouri, Wake Forest, Texas) and some “blah” teams from the middle pack of their conferences (Marquette, Wisconsin, Clemson).  There are two games, however, that I really look forward to watching.

#5 Temple faces #12 Cornell in a matchup of coaches that have more history than any other two in the first round.  Temple coach Fran Dunphy was head coach at the Ivy League’s Pennsylvania University from 1989-2006 before moving to another Philly college, Temple.  Cornell’s coach, Steve Donahue, was an assistant for Dunphy for over a decade at Penn.  Needless to say, the two know each other well.  Dunphy has never lost to a team coached by a protegé.  The unfortunate thing for both of these teams is that they are both under-seeded.  Temple could easily have earned a spot as a three or four seed and Cornell, who was ranked in the top 25 at one point this year and gave overall number one Kansas a run for their money, would have made sense as a nine or ten seed.  In a perfect world, these teams would meet in the second round instead of the first.  Because of their history, I see the Owls running over Cornell’s Big Red.  Temple has won ten in a row and 12 of 13.  They won a tough Atlantic-10 conference this year and I believe the backcourt of Juan Fernandez and Ryan Brooks will be too much for Cornell and whomever the Owls play in round two.

#6 Marquette and #11 Washington play in San Jose, California this week and at a glance, the Golden Eagles are the clear favorite after navigating through a wicked hard Big East conference.  But which team will show up?  The Marquette that beat Villanova in the Big East quarterfinals or the team that got boat-raced by Georgetown in the conference’s semis?  The Eagles are a tough team with a great lead player in Lazar Haywood, but beyond him there isn’t much left in the cupboard.  I see UW keying on him, especially with the time they’ve had this week to break down film.  The Huskies won the Pac-10 tournament after getting hot down the stretch.  They haven’t lost in a month, riding a seven-game winning streak to the dance.  Quincy Pondexter and Isaiah Thomas are the real deal and may be one of the best one-two punch combinations in all of college basketball.  But the real question is this: despite the noted struggles by the Pac-10 this year (see HERE), is their tournament champion and second best regular season team really that much worse than the Big East’s fifth or sixth best team?  They are still a major conference and I’ll take the hotter team with the better stars in this one.  Give me the Huskies.

SOUTH REGION

Every time I fill out a bracket, this region looks different  for me.  Duke appears to be the weakest one seed, but something tells me that Coach K has a fighting chance with Jon Scheyer, Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith who are all averaging over 17 points a game.  #2 Villanova seems like they just aren’t right, but a senior point guard like Scottie Reynolds can change anything.  Baylor is an intriguing three seed, but something tells me the Bears won’t be in the Final Four.  Perhaps my favorite story is that of #16 Arkansas-Pine Bluff (see HERE), winners of the play-in game last night over Winthrop, who will surely exit the tourney when Duke takes care of them later this week.  Beyond that, here’s what I’ll be watching in the South Region on Thursday and Friday:

#4 Purdue faces #13 Siena in a matchup focused on the Boilermakers’ loss of Robbie Hummel late in the season.  Siena has won their first round game in two consecutive NCAA tournaments, beating Vanderbilt by 21 as a #13 seed in 2008 and taking down Ohio State as a nine seed in 2009.  The Saints have tournament experience and will not be surprised by the atmosphere against Purdue.  The Boilermakers haven’t been the same without Hummel and seem ripe for an upset in this game.  Take Siena.

#5 Texas A&M is a popular pick to be upset against #12 Utah State as everyone tries to find the magical 12 seed that will ride their way into the Sweet Sixteen.  However, I don’t see it that way.  A&M is better than their seeding indicates and even though they’ve had stumbles in past tourneys, I see them handling USU.  Donald Sloan is one of the best point guards in the country, B.J. Holmes is a sharpshooter and Dash Harris (who should be back from injury for the first game) is a shutdown defender.  Utah State didn’t look like anything special against New Mexico State in the WAC final and I think they will be over-matched in this one.  I see A&M moving on, then defeating Siena or Purdue on their way to a Sweet Sixteen game in Houston, just under 100 miles away from A&M’s campus.

Enjoy the first round games.  May all your 12 seeds win and may your Final Four be intact come Saturday.

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Filed under Basketball, College Basketball, NCAA Tournament

Watching the play-in game of the NCAA tournament…

Workflow is down, Dick Vitale’s blood pressure is up and just about everybody is filling out brackets this week in preparation for the NCAA tournament, which kicks off with the infamous play-in game between Winthrop and the University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff.

ARPB is making their first ever tournament appearance this year and therein lies the problem.  The selection committee never should have put them in the play-in game out of respect for the tournament and giving this school their first true experience at The Big Dance.

Tonight’s game will be played in Dayton, Ohio at the University of Dayton Arena, not at an NCAA tournament site.  The winner will advance to have the distinct pleasure of losing to Duke University in Jacksonville, Florida on Thursday. 

Winthrop has a deep tournament history, shocking college basketball two years ago as an 11-seed when they defeated sixth seeded Notre Dame in a 74-64 upset. 

Now, both these teams are fairly even and ARPB certainly has as good a chance as any to take down the Eagles of Winthrop and move on to actual tournament play in Jacksonville, but putting them in a situation where they would be denied that opportunity is something the selection committee should be ashamed of.

For their first time in the dance, the Golden Lions should be at an actual tournament site, getting schmoozed and treated like NCAA darlings, the cinderella of the South region and the Jacksonville site.  They should be exalted as the team that gets first shot at mighty Duke and be asked “what if” questions for the day leading up to the tournament.

“What if the #16 seed can take out a #1 for the first time?”

“What if Duke really is the weakest #1 seed and maybe the Golden Lions will be in the right place at the right time?”

“What exactly is a Golden Lion?  Aren’t all lions kind of golden?”

The ARPB story is actually a fantastic and inspirational one.  The Lions started the season by losing eleven straight games.  They finally broke into the win column on January 4th, their first game of the new year.  On that day, they squeaked by Mississippi Valley State University in a 69-68 overtime win.  Two days later, they beat Alabama A&M before losing their 12th game out of 14 on January 11th to Alabama State.

But the most significant thing about the first 14 games on the Golden Lions’ schedule was not the 12 losses.  It was the fact that all fourteen were played on the road, away from the cozy confines of H.O. Clemmons Arena in Pine Bluff, Arkansas where the team plays its home games.

Imagine having a basketball team on campus that begins a season in earlier November, but never plays at home until three and a half months later in mid-January?  Talk about road warriors.

After starting 0-12, ARPB won five of six and then finished season by winning 11 of 12, including the Southwestern Athletic Conference championship in the final against Texas Southern last Saturday.

Their story as road warriors takes on new meaning when considering the schedule they played, traveling to NCAA tournament teams Kansas State, Missouri, Oklahoma State, UTEP and Georgia Tech.  ARPB also played big time programs like Michigan, Oregon, Arizona State and Colorado.  Why was everyone so afraid to play at Clemmons Arena?  Is ARPB really that big of a giant killer, having never played in the NCAA tournament?

The Golden Lions finished the season having played a whopping 20 of their 29 games on the road.  Having just nine home dates would have to be debilitating to any fledgling program.  Too bad for the people of Pine Bluff.  They were denied plenty of good basketball from a NCAA tournament qualifier.

Nothing against Winthrop or any other team in the tournament, but why couldn’t the other three 16-seeds be in the play-in game over first time dancer ARPB?  East Tennessee State (8 appearances), Lehigh (3) and Vermont (3) surely wouldn’t mind giving the Golden Lions a true NCAA tournament experience.

The real problem with this unfortunate situation lies with the decision the NCAA made a few years ago to go to 65 teams just to get in one last bubble team.  The bi-product ended up being that team 65, the loser of the play-in game, doesn’t really go to the tournament at all.

The SWAC should proud to cheer on their representative tonight and hopefully the rest of America is behind those Golden Lions.  I know I will be.

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Filed under Basketball, College Basketball, NCAA Tournament

Watching the Pac-10 lose the West…

As the NCAA Selection Committee prepares to finalize their brackets on Sunday night, the scene will shift from the conference tournaments to the Big Dance, but we should all be reminded that this season -above any others in recent memory- has seen a shift in power out West, one that members of the Pacific-10 conference should be mindful.

The Mountain West Conference (MWC) and the West Coast Conference (WCC) currently stake more claims at NCAA berths than the Pac-10.  Those aren’t combined figures, individually the two conferences have better outlooks on Selection Sunday than the Pac-10. 

The MWC has four teams (New Mexico, BYU, UNLV, San Diego State) that have legitimate claims at the NCAA tournament.  The WCC will get two in the dance after Saint Mary’s beat Gonzaga in the conference championship,

The Mountain West begins tournament play in Las Vegas’ Thomas & Mack Center on Wednesday.  BYU and New Mexico are locks to make the tourney.  UNLV is close to a lock as long as there aren’t too many bubble busters this year.  If the Rebels can take down Utah in their first round game (something they haven’t done this year, losing in Vegas and in Salt Lake), they should all but punch their ticket.  SDSU probably has some more work to do, but a deep run into the MWC tourney should solidify their resumé for the selection committee.  Four teams in the dance is a real possibility for the Mountain West.

The West Coast Conference also played their tournament in Las Vegas, at The Orleans Arena.  Saint Mary’s blew Gonzaga out of the arena and into The Orleans’ casino, cruising to a 81-62 win.  The Gaels had been 0-2 against Gonzaga this year.  The Zags are sure to get an at-large bid and Saint Mary’s will not have to sweat it out as a bubble team this year, although their resumé would have been pretty impressive.

How about the Pac-10? Most experts believe that the University of California will be in after winning the conference’s regular season title, going 13-5. Washington and Arizona State are firmly on the bubble, making for great drama in the conference tournament this week. The conference had a down year and getting only one team (if Cal wins the Pac-10 tourney) is a real possibility, especially if at-large bids continue to be stolen by schools like Saint Mary’s.

The one thing the Pac-10 has going for it is that their top three teams have ended the regular season on streaks. Cal won seven of their last eight, UW has won four in a row and ASU was victorious in six of their last seven. It’s no secret that the selection committee likes schools that are playing their best ball in March, but the stage has been set to see a power conference get just their tournament champion in the dance like most mid-majors are used to every year.

However, one down year does not a crisis make, right?  Think again.  The MWC in particular has finally begun to steal the western showcase as the premier conference in the last few years.

This year’s edition of the Pac-10 went 4-5 against the MWC and 6-6 against the WCC.  Modest numbers for the lesser conferences and embarrassing for the Pac-10, one of the premier conferences in the country.  Many of these games were in Pac-10 arenas, as big schools continue to be weary when it comes to going into a rabid environment as a favorite against a potential giant killer.

Need more evidence to show that the Pac-10 is no longer the dominant force in Western college basketball?  Check the rankings.  Currently the MWC has two teams ranked: BYU (#15 in the AP Poll/#14 in ESPN’s Coaches Poll) and New Mexico (#8 in both polls).  UNLV is receiving votes in the Coaches Poll.  The WCC’s Gonzaga is ranked #18 in the AP Poll and #14 in the Coaches Poll.  Saint Mary’s is receiving votes in the Coaches Poll.

The Pac-10?  The conference has zero teams in the top 25 in both polls and only one team (Cal) is receiving votes.  Even the WAC (Western Athletic Conference) has Utah State receiving more votes in both polls than the Pac-10’s Cal Golden Bears.

Clearly, better basketball is being played in the lesser conferences out west than in the Pac-10.  ESPN’s bracketologist, Joe Lunardi has four MWC teams in the NCAA tournament, two in from the WCC and two in from the Pac-10 with Cal and ASU making the cut, though ASU is listed as one of the last squads in.  Washington is among Lunardi’s first four out of the dance.

The news gets even worse when one starts talking about the Pac-10 and the Mountain West in college football.  In 2009, three MWC teams finished in the top 25 of the AP Poll.  Texas Christian University finished ranked #6, BYU earned a #12 ranking and Utah finished at #18.  The Pac-10 had only two teams in the final poll, with Oregon ranked #11 and USC finishing at #23.

In the last two years, the MWC has done exceptionally in head-to-head matchups against Pac-10 schools.  In 2008, the MWC dominated the Pac-10, going 6-1 in the regular season and losing in the only bowl game the conferences played against one another (an Arizona win over BYU).  In 2009, the MWC went 2-3 against the Pac-10 with both wins coming in bowl games. 

Combine the last two years and the MWC can boast a 8-5 record against the Pac-10 in football, including a 2-1 record in head-to-head matchups in bowl games.

Is it time for the Pac-10 to panic?  Probably not.  It’s unlikely that historically strong basketball programs like UCLA and Arizona won’t recover with strong recruiting and superior coaching.  In football, no one thinks USC will stay down for long and certainly programs like Oregon, Washington and Stanford are strong teams that are on the up-and-up.

However, the success of the Mountain West should not be ignored as the conference is making a bid to be the second major conference from the west.

Is it any wonder that the Pac-10 is talking about expansion?  Furthermore, if the conference does add more schools, some of the teams being mentioned include MWC members Utah, BYU, San Diego State, Colorado State and UNLV.

If you can beat ’em, join ’em (or in this case, invite them to join you).

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Filed under Basketball, Championship Week, College Basketball, College Football, Football, Mountain West Conference, MWC, NCAA Tournament, Pac-10, Pacific-10 Conference, West Coast Conference

Watching the NFL Scouting Combine (part 2)…

This is the second of a two-part column.  The first part can be read HERE.

The combine needs to be a way to look at raw physical skills and athletic potential.  Rarely will someone need to run a 40-yard dash in a straight line during a game.  Or make a vertical leap from a standing position.  Or perform consecutive reps on a bench press with weights equaling 225 pounds.

What NFL teams should want are football players.  Athletes that have tremendous track records with great film of them playing exceptional football.  The graveyard of draft busts is littered with guys who had great combine performances.

College performance and film footage should be the first thing steams look at prior to drafting players.  The next thing to look at is character, followed by the combine results, which should just solidify the front office’s thoughts on a player, not create them.

Let’s take a look at a few players who are considered top picks in April’s draft.  C.J. Spiller (Clemson RB) was one of the best all-around offensive players in college football, tearing up an underrated ACC this year.  His ability to catch passes and return kicks in addition to run the ball effectively makes him a niche player in the mold of a Reggie Bush without the #1 pick price tag and with a better knack for finding holes as a runner.  He is considered the top rated running back by Scouts, Inc. and falls somewhere in the top 15 of most everyone’s big board.  Spiller goes out to the combine and turns in 4.28 40-yard dash to impress scouts.  This should solidify to NFL teams that he has the raw skills to connect to his exceptional performance at Clemson.  Should it vault him to the number one pick?  Probably not.  It probably shouldn’t vault him anywhere.  Where he goes will depend on team need and with a lot of teams not looking at running backs early because of the amount available through other means and how of all positions in the NFL, backs break down faster, somewhere in the top 15 is still where he will go.

Now let’s check out Joe Haden, a cornerback from the University of Florida.  Haden was a lock down corner for the Gators, a team that was atop the toughest conference in college football, the SEC, while he was in school.  He was always matched up against the other team’s best receiver and produced with great ball skills and exceptional tackling ability for a corner.  He even blitzes off the corner well for his position.  He was widely considered by Scouts, Inc. and others as the best cornerback in a defensive back-heavy draft.  He grades out as the next Darrelle Revis and has been projected as a top 10 pick, a top 5 pick by others and should be the first corner off the board in April.  Then he comes out to the combine and whiffs on his 40 times, running a 4.57 and a 4.60, not the typical speed of your NFL shutdown corner.  So now all the scouts are curious about whether Haden can be what everyone thought he would be in the NFL.  Questions of if he may slip down in the draft have been asked and anyone who is anyone says that he must have a good 40 time when Florida hosts scouts on its pro day later this month.  Like Spiller, however, the truth about Joe Haden can be seen when watching his film.  Haden comes as advertised when you watch him cover the best wideouts in the SEC and it is my belief that he should still be the first corner off the board.

And then there’s Bruce Campbell.  No, not the guy from Evil Dead, the offensive lineman from the University of Maryland.  Campbell was a mediocre lineman at College Park who wasn’t a full-fledged starter until halfway into the 2008 season, only started 17 games in his college career (only 9 last season), received one vote for the All-ACC Conference team, missed multiple games due to turf toe, underwent minor brain surgery to drain fluid in 2008 and was described by head coach Ralph Friedgen as a player who would go to study hall as opposed to taking the field when spring practices begin.  Campbell went to Indy for the combine and tore things up, having the best 40-yard dash time (4.85) amongst offensive lineman, finished sixth in bench press repetitions (34) and fifth in the vertical jump (32 inches).  Now he is the buzz name as his physical traits have shot him up the board where Scouts, Inc. currently has him listed at 30th with a grade of 91 out of 100 (remember, the top prospect Suh is a 97).  How does this happen?  A guy who has an injury history, hasn’t started that long, has not been honored with any collegiate awards, shows a lack of quality work ethic and is slammed by his head coach is a first round pick because of his combine numbers?  If my Dolphins take this guy, I’ll be furious.

The combine does way too much in determining the viability of these players.  They shouldn’t downgrade athletes who had great college careers like Haden nor upgrade those who had mediocre seasons in school but had great combine workouts like Campbell.  Picks should be made based on the team’s needs and how the organization feels a certain player will fit into a system, along with his viability as a contributor.

If Tim Tebow is drafted it will be because someone believes he will make a good NFL player at the quarterback position or somewhere else.  Will it be because he had a ridiculous vertical leap for a QB (38.5 inches) or a solid 40-yard dash time (4.7 seconds) at a non-speed position?  Hopefully not.  Hopefully it will be because someone loved the fire he showed and the desire he has to make it.  If a team has faith that he will succeed and if the general manager and coach have job security enough to develop him at the next level, then he will be picked higher and have a job somewhere next year.

Did his combine performance change any of that?

What we need to do is to stop relying on this exhibition of track competitions as a tool for evaluating players who have three or four seasons of work to break down.  The NFL and its network have done a great job of having the combine and the free agent period bridge the gap between the Super Bowl and the draft, making it so that we never stop talking about pro football (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

But shouldn’t the best way to judge football player’s value be how he plays. . .I don’t know -FOOTBALL?  Let’s judge players based upon on-the-field performance, not on-the-track performance.

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