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Watching the NCAA Championship…

With all due respect to Butler, the NCAA championship was played in the late game on Saturday night when Duke defeated West Virginia, 78-57.  The Blue Devils will dispatch of Butler’s Bulldogs quickly and without mercy when the two teams meet on Monday night.

However, the game will be a great showcase of the kind of underdog everyone seems to love against everyone’s favorite college basketball team to hate.  Coach K and Duke will face a difficult crowd in Indianapolis against the real-world Hoosiers story of Butler.

But, looking back at this Final Four, the thing I will remember will be the match-ups on Saturday night.  There were so many things in those games that reminded of what I love about college basketball and what I hate about what’s become of it.

In the Butler-Michigan State match-up, we had pure basketball played by two well-coached teams.  For the first 30 minutes, the game was full of beautiful offensive plays with defensive brilliance from both teams.  Butler held a slim lead going into the final ten minutes.  But for a game that ended with such a small margin of victory, most viewers would have loved to see clutch shots from both sides down the stretch.  Instead, we saw Butler go dead cold and Michigan State continued to be unable to crack the Bulldog defense.

In the same game, we got the Cinderella/Hoosiers story of Butler, but it is becoming a tired one and I have to say it: the shoe doesn’t fit.  This is not a George Mason.  Butler was ranked in the top 25 throughout the year and ranked in the top 15 for a good chunk of the season.  They earned a five seed, which many thought could have been higher.  Their coming out of the Horizon League probably hurt them in that regard.  Going in to the tournament, the committee decided that they were in the top 20 teams in the nation and were in the top five of candidates to come out of their region and advance to the Final Four.  Not bad in the expectations department. 

On the contrary, George Mason was an 11 seed.  During their run to the 2006 Final Four, the Patriots defeated Michigan State (seeded 6th), North Carolina (3), Wichita State (7) and Connecticut (1).  In contrast, Butler faced teams seeded 12th, 13th, 1st, 2nd and 5th.

If one looks a little deeper, the Bulldogs had a lot of things fall their way on their way to Indianapolis.  They dispatched of UTEP in convincing fashion in Round One.  Then they caught a break by playing 13th seeded Murray State who pulled the upset on Vanderbilt.  In the Sweet Sixteen, the Bulldogs played a Syracuse squad without Arinze Onuaku.  Then they got Michigan State with no Kalin Lucas, the Big Ten’s player of the year.

That brings me to one of the things I hate about this year’s Final Four: too few of these teams played quality opponents in the tournament to get here.  We already broke down Butler’s path.  Duke had the easiest bracket by the estimation of most analysts.  The highest seeded team Michigan State played in the tourney was Maryland, a four seed.  At least West Virginia beat a number one seed (Kentucky) and lost to another when they fell to Duke on Saturday.

While the WVU-Duke game wasn’t as competitive of a match-up as Butler-MSU, several things caught my eye.  First and foremost was the focus and determination of the Duke team.  The three S’s: Kyle Singler, Nolan Smith and John Scheyer showed what upperclassmen leading your squad from the outside can do for a team in the tournament.  The three combined for 63 of the 78 points scored by the Blue Devils.  Brian Zoubek and Lance Thomas were an inside presence with determination and heart, playing defense and rebounding like their careers depended on it.  As I wrote about earlier in the tournament (see HERE), Coach K has taken Duke away from the one-and-done philosophy of many college programs and gone back to what worked: developing talent for the long haul, regardless of how the players are rated while being recruited.

Going back to Singler, Scheyer and Smith, it was a pleasure watching three players work together and play unselfish basketball.  The three also combined to dish out 17 assists, more than the entire West Virginia team (11).  They knew how to play the game, were prepared by a brilliant coach and executed the game plan they knew would bring them a win.  They played smart and handled the ball well.  Smith and Scheyer, the team’s two primary ball-handlers had zero turnovers and Singler committed just three miscues (Duke only had a total of five).

But perhaps the most touching moment of this game came from the West Virginia side of things.  With nine minutes remaining in the game and West Virginia fighting for their championship lives, the Mountaineers senior and second team All-American, Da’Sean Butler went down with a gruesome knee injury.  Writhing in pain on the floor, it was clear Butler would not return to the game.  After being tended to by trainers, Butler was clearly injured physically but even more so mentally and emotionally. 

Enter Mountaineer head coach Bob Huggins. 

Huggy Bear came onto the court during the break in action as the trainer tried to adjust Butler’s knee.  Suddenly, the senior was in more agony, all but confirming that his game, season and college career may be ending in that moment.  Tears began to flow freely from Butler’s eyes and Huggins reacted by laying on top of Butler, consoling him.  Words were shared between the two and at one point viewers could clearly see Butler say “I’m sorry” to the Huggy Bear.  In post game press conferences, the two relayed part of what was said.  Huggins told Butler, “Not to worry about it.  You’ll be fine.”  Butler replied, “It hurts right now, but if I can get back out there, then I’ll get back out there.”

The scene ended with both faces showing depths emotion not normally on display in professional or collegiate athletics.  It was touching to see Huggins in that light, his gruff exterior usually the dominant trait that shines through.  Butler meant a lot to this program since Huggins arrived at West Virginia and the two share a special bond that the general public does not usually see on display between player and coach.  I wish more moments like this happened and were captured on live television.  After watching it several times on highlight packages the day after, tears came to my eyes.  Let’s hope this isn’t the end of the road for Butler and that his basketball skills are on display in the NBA next year.

Duke went on to win the game going away, with WVU not able to recover from the deep deficit they found themselves in without their star, which leads to the game on Monday between Duke and Butler. 

On Saturday night, CNBC reported that the Duke basketball program spent more money in their program per player, on average, than the Butler program spent all year on the program as a whole.  Duke comes from Dick Vitale’s beloved ACC, while Butler hails from a conference most have never heard of: the Horizon League.  But for all the things that are different about these two programs, it’s the things that are the same that make me want to watch it.

Both teams are dominated by players that, as I stated earlier, want to win a title.  For Duke, Scheyer, Zoubek and Thomas are seniors; Smith and Singler are juniors.  For Butler, their two best players are sophomores (Hayward and Shelvin Mack), Matt Howard is a junior; and Willie Veasley is a senior.  The Dukies seem like they are committed to the championship path because most of their stars will not have success at the next level and a title would mean the most to them in their basketball careers.  Butler has the aura of a team on the outside that has been banging on the walls to be let in and finally has that opportunity.  A title for them would kick the door in for the Gonzagas, George Masons and Valparaisos of the world, doing what those schools could not.

However, as stated earlier, I feel Butler is overmatched and that Duke is hitting their stride at the perfect time.  They looked so sharp on Saturday that I think the title is inevitable.  The drama on Monday will be thick with depth, however, as the Hoosiers story comes full circle against widely disliked Duke.  But I think this story ends with Coach K cutting down the nets and Butler driving the six miles back to campus from Lucas Oil Stadium.

PREDICTION: Duke 75, Butler 53

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

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