Tag Archives: College Basketball

Watching women’s basketball blow it…

For years I’ve wondered why the men’s NCAA basketball championship is played on Monday and the women’s championship is decided the day after.  In most other sporting events where males and females compete in separate championships, the women precede their male counterparts (think Olympic sports). 

But then this year’s tournaments played out.  The  top men’s teams kept bowing out while the Connecticut women kept winning by 40; men’s teams from small schools in small markets advanced and Brittney Griner blocked shot after shot.  When the Final Four shook out in each tournament, the men’s version was devoid of the top teams (saved by Duke) and the top players (not one first team All-American) and the women’s edition had the top two teams in the final AP women’s poll (UConn and Stanford) and Baylor’s freshman sensation (Griner).

Beyond that, the UConn 76-game winning streak was in tact and the Lady Huskies had a semifinal matchup against Griner and Baylor with the possibility of a rematch with  Stanford.  The Cardinal were the last team to defeat UConn (in the 2008 national semifinals) and were the only team to lead the Huskies at the half this season when they played on Dec. 23.

The opportunity was there for the women to upstage the men.  I wrote about Griner being the star of both tournaments and touted the match-up with UConn as a monumental one.  The two teams delivered a hard-fought game, won by the Huskies.  That set up the rematch with Stanford, and everything seemed to be falling into place.

It was on Monday night, after the Duke-Butler game, that I thought to myself, “This is why the women play after the men.”  Think about it: the men just had an amazing game that many were hoping would eke its way into overtime.  Then you have the women’s final with the fantastic story of UConn’s 77-game winning streak against Stanford, eager for payback.  For basketball fans salivating for more and with UConn being advertised by some as the greatest team in the history of college ball at any level, die-hard hoops fans (like me) would naturally gravitate to this game.  The thought of a team as dominating as John Wooden’s UCLA squads could draw viewers.  People would surely watch.  What an opportunity for the sport of women’s basketball and the NCAA!

But then the teams took the court…and stunk it up.

ESPN sent a text out at the end of the half with a news alert telling subscribers that UConn was losing to Stanford, 20-12.  This probably caught the attention of casual fans who knew about the Huskies’ 77-game winning streak.  The telecast probably gained viewers within minutes of this text going out.  Unfortunately, at the same time viewers who were watching since the opening tip were changing the channel to Dancing with the Stars, American Idol or The Biggest Loser.

Why?  Because it was the lowest scoring game in NCAA championship game history and may have been the worst half of college basketball at any level.

Stanford’s defense was superb and their game plan to slow things down and keep the score low almost had them pulling the upset, but for a fan who was giving the women’s game a shot for the first time, what they witnessed would have had them running for the remote to watch Chad Ochocinco dance the Paso Doble on DWTS

The first half saw 32 total points scored and the team combined to shoot just over 21 percent from the field (13-for-60).  UConn shot 17 percent on their own, making just five of 29 shots.  Even the teams shot poorly when defense wasn’t an issue, making just one of six free throw attempts in the half.  Connecticut missed all four of their free throws in the half.  Fans attempting to buy in to the women’s game must have been thinking they had the wrong channel.

From a gameplay standpoint, the Huskies were completely lost in the first half.  Geno Auriemma so much as admitted that, saying that they really needed a halftime to talk things over.  UConn was so out of sorts that several shots were just throw up there, including air balls, shots that went astray off just the backboard and attempts that clanged off the rim.  Stanford didn’t do much better, but they seemed to be more in the flow of their offense and they had the lead throughout the half, so keeping the status quo wasn’t much of an issue for coach Tara VanDerveer and the Cardinal.

But for a basketball fan who just watched the Duke-Butler game the night before and was still itching for some fundamental hoops, watching this game must have been a travesty.  The women’s game got what it wanted: interest.  People were finally focussing on the UConn story and on the female tournament.  ESPN had the broadcast rights, so the mothership was pouring it on pretty thick.  The stars were aligning.  How many new fans could have been had if the game was played at a high level, with good shooting and a better performance from UConn?

I tuned into the game for the first half and was floored by the bad shots, the lack of scoring and the sloppy play.  What a way to showcase your sport and then see it all go up in flames. 

Hopefully, those who tuned in after the text sent from ESPN stuck around.  They would have seen a much better second half where UConn opened up with a 17-2 run that put them in front for the long haul.  The Huskies eventually won the lowest scoring NCAA championship in history, 53-47.  I’m willing to bet, however, that the broadcast lost more viewers after the first half’s abysmal play than they gained when people found out UConn was actually losing.  I know they lost me.

The sad thing is that this was a magical tournament for the female brand of basketball.  Despite the fact that parity isn’t part of the women’s game at the moment, Griner gave the effort a boost with her stellar play and UConn is a spectacular story as they now aim for Wooden’s UCLA record when the 2010-2011 season gets started in November.  But what could have been will be what organizers and supporters of women’s basketball will now wonder.  What fans saw on Tuesday was brick after brick when they should have seen two rivals and the best teams in America fighting for a trophy. 

Defense wins championships, but in the case of Tuesday night’s women’s final, it lost potential fans.

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Filed under Basketball, Baylor University, College Basketball, Final Four, NCAA Tournament, Stanford University, University of Connecticut, Women's Basketball, Women's College Basketball

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 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 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