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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 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 ESPN’s college basketball bias…

Last night I watched SportsCenter on ESPN at 8 PM as my pregnant wife snoozed away (I wrenched the remote away stealthily and changed it from some housewife show).  Midway through the show, Scott Van Pelt and Steve Levy were rattling through highlights of college basketball games.  Following a Maryland basketball package where Van Pelt showed how much of a homer he is, they transitioned to show 90 or so seconds of footage from last night’s University of North Carolina vs. North Carolina State game.  I immediately thought to myself, “Self, why is UNC getting this much press on SportsCenter?  Didn’t they just drop WAY out of the top 25 in both polls?”

So I did some research.  Carolina got a combined one vote in both poll.  That one vote came in the ESPN/Coaches Poll, meaning not a single Associated Press writer voted the Tar Heels into the top 25 this week.  I wonder what coach voted for UNC?  Do you think he collects paychecks from an ACC school?

North Carolina, a school that has unmistakable ties to ESPN seeing that the network broadcasts ACC games and the annual ACC tournament, happened to win their game over NC State, a team they usually pummel.  UNC has reeled since the turn of the new year, going 2-4 since 2009 passed.  They had been 11-3.  They’ve started 2-3 in the ACC and are 13-7 overall.  They don’t deserve a top 25 spot and seeing that ESPN rarely shows highlights of games that feature no top 25 teams, they don’t deserve the coverage they received on SportsCenter last night.

But what will Dick Vitale have to talk about if North Carolina isn’t in the top 25?  Who will he get to promote?

Well, let’s look at some other schools that Dickie V can take a look at.  There is a litany of schools that have received votes or are in the top 25 that get little to no press and certainly aren’t given two minutes of coverage on SportsCenter.

How about Northern Iowa?  That squad is currently 17-2 and ranked 25th in the ESPN poll.  

Or what about Baylor?  They are from a big conference where their up-tempo play has led them to a 15-3 record and a number 24 ranking in the AP poll.  

Looking for someone a little more stable?  How about BYU?  The Cougars have one loss this year and are ranked tenth in the ESPN poll out of the impressive Mountain West Conference (more on the MWC later).  

Or maybe UAB catches your fancy.  They’re number 25 in the AP poll, sporting a 17-2 record.

So why don’t we hear about these great stories?  Who is reporting on these teams?  There are so many amazing seasons underway for schools that are impressing a lot more voting writers and coaches than UNC.  The following teams from big conferences are outside the top 25, but got more votes than Carolina in the most recent polls: Florida State, Clemson, Wake Forest, Mississippi State, Texas A&M, Oklahoma State, Missouri, Maryland, Virginia, Northwestern, Cal and Notre Dame.

And how about the little guys?  College basketball is built on the backs of the small schools that make March so exciting.  Where are their stories?  The following small conference schools are outside of the top 25 and have drawn more votes than the Heels: Butler (#18 in coaches poll, not ranked in AP), Cornell, Old Dominion, Xavier, UNLV, Siena, Saint Mary’s, Louisiana Tech, and Harvard.  Coastal Carolina has the same number of votes as UNC, which is one.

That’s right, Coastal Carolina has as many votes as UNC, and Cornell, Harvard and Old Dominion have significantly more ballots cast.  So where are the 90-second highlight packages on their seasons?  Oh that’s right, ESPN needs to make sure everyone knows the Tar Heel players so they are more recognizable when they have their first matchup with Duke on February 10th.  Duh.

ESPN’s alliance with the ACC and other big conferences runs deep.  Jay Bilas went to Duke.  Hubert Davis went to North Carolina.  So did Stuart Scott.  Dick Vitale praises anything that has to do with ACC basketball, especially if it takes place on Tobacco Road.  The network carries their games and the tournament, as previously mentioned.  Unfortunately, ESPN has such an effect on the landscape of college basketball that poll results may be swayed by their coverage.

Take the Mountain West Conference.  Home to the likes of BYU, Utah, San Diego State, UNLV and New Mexico, the conference has continually made strides, but seems to stay out of the national conscience.  MWC teams consistently downed big conference powers in pre-conference play.  Arizona lost to three Mountain West teams (BYU, UNLV and SDSU).  BYU also beat Arizona State.  Louisville lost to UNLV.  Utah took down Illinois, Michigan and LSU.  New Mexico defeated Cal, Texas A&M and Texas Tech.

The conference currently boasts two teams in the top 25 (BYU and New Mexico), with a third (UNLV) having spent time there and still receiving votes.  The MWC also boasts big name coaches like Steve Alford (UNM), Lon Kruger (UNLV) and Steve Fisher (SDSU).  So what’s keeping them from getting more attention?  Could it be partially because of ESPN’s lack of coverage while they are too busy giving time to ACC teams that are well out of the top 25?

UNLV only has four losses and two are to teams currently ranked in the top 15 (BYU and Kansas State).  The others are to USC in a Christmas tournament championship and Utah in a tough MWC matchup.  There are eight other teams currently in the top 25 that have four or more losses.  The Rebels have only two conference losses and one is at BYU.   The Cougars come to the Thomas & Mack center for the Vegas rematch on February 6th.

The MWC has television contracts with CBS College Sports and The Mountain, a network created by the conference.  ESPN has no vested interest to show their highlights, promote their games or make fans (and potential voters) aware of the brand of basketball being played in the conference.  One could laugh at ESPN for their fair and balanced coverage the way the general public does when someone talks about Fox News Channel.

The Mountain West is not the only conference being slighted as there is plenty of great basketball being played that the majority of the viewing (and voting) public knows little to nothing about.

The “Mothership” owes the legions of sports fans better than this.  Let’s drop the coverage of a floundering UNC team just a tad (you can still report on it and promote their games) and up the ante by talking up the big games in other conferences that have teams receiving significantly more top 25 votes, regardless of who their TV contract is with.

Let’s start with this: Cornell hosts Harvard on Saturday night.  Let’s cover that like you did the two unranked teams you gave pub to last night when UNC vs. NC State was pushed upon us.  At least Cornell and Harvard have more combined poll votes (18) than the Heels do (1).

Let’s all hope for a Big Red win over the Crimson to push them over the edge in the ESPN/Coaches Poll.  They are ranked number 27 now.  A top 25 berth would make ESPN cover them.  One can only wish…

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Filed under ACC, Basketball, BYU, College Basketball, ESPN, Journalism, Mountain West Conference, University of North Carolina, UNLV