Friday, February 26, 2010

Done and Done. And I Mean Done

Vanderbilt 96 Georgia 94 OT I'll be honest, the whole team of the current moment thing was a bad idea. Not my best writing and certainly not incredibly insightful. To make matters worse, the teams I tried to highlight as darkhorses, I really don't have that much faith in. That goes double for Vanderbilt after they needed overtime, at home, to put away Georgia. The same Georgia team they lost to at Georgia. The truth is, with Robbie Hummel out for the rest of the season, it's hard to look at more than a handful of teams and muster any confidence that they have what it takes to win a championship. Some think Kansas and Kentucky are the odds on favorites. When it comes down to it, I still like Syracuse. Outside of those 3, I truly believe it's a crapshoot. I'm not whining. They're are about 15 teams with very little seperation between them right now. So once the bracket is unveiled, gauging the match ups is going to be as fun as it's been in years. Or frustrating, depending on how you look at it. Either way, the team of this current moment thing is done. And I mean done.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Couldn't Think of a Nicer Guy

I'm playing with sarcasm in the title here, because I'm talking about Roy Williams. Just to give the script up early, I'm not a huge Roy Williams fan. Thus, the fact that North Carolina is 14 and 14 right now isn't moving my hand towards the tissue box. Even basketball royalty isn't immune to a down year and good ol' Roy needs a dose of humility about as much as anyone in the sport. Before you think me too harsh, let's review the case:

Exhibit 1: Williams has come to lack perspective. Yes, the "earthquake" comment was a little overblown by the media. The full context of the quote isn't entirely out of touch with reality. Yet, the man did claim that because it's his life, this season feels like a catastrophe in reference to the tragedy that befell Haiti. The kicker is that the exchange took place between him and the team's massage therapist. You're getting paid millions to coach at one of the most storied programs in college basketball. You just won a second national title, last year. And, oh yeah, you're talking to your massage therapist. Nothing about that situation should feel anything like a catastrophe.

Exhibit 2: Williams has come to lack perspective part deux. In his latest book, coach calls out a 19 year old student athlete as a liar. In so many words, Roy William's describes the recruiting process of Delvon Roe. In the book's rendition, Roe is painted as deliberately misleading Williams prior to his commitment to Michigan State. After learning of the news, he describes his feeling as one of incredible dissapointment. I don't know what happened on the recruiting trail. I wasn't there. What I do know is that Williams is old enough to be Delvon Roe's father twice over. As such, he should display maturity and not disparage a young student athlete's name or reputation. After the December win over State, he wasn't even finished with the matter. When the press inquired about it, Williams replied that Roe had said he was coming to North Carolina and despite looking for him every day at practice, he never saw him show up. Let it go, Roy.

Exhibit 3 Last year, Roy Williams was the Pete Carroll of college basketball. North Carolina deliberately ran up scores when it wasn't necessary. Their average margin of victory last season was over 20 pts. It wasn't just because North Carolina was simply that good. They were that good. But, he wasn't exactly quick to call the dogs off in 45 point victories against teams like Chaminade. It's not exactly like it was neccessary to impress the selection committee either. Their 1 seed was never really in doubt last year. At least Carroll had the defense of "needing" to impress voters, flimsy as it was.

So while I'm not advocating for full scale reveling in another's misfortune, it is hard to feel bad for Roy Williams. I'm sure he knows this. Just like I'm sure that next year, with a fresh crop of All-American recruits, he'll be back. I'm simply saying that if it had to happen to someone this year, I can't think of a nicer guy.

Bad News, Bad Time

Robbie Hummel went down in the first half of the Minnesota game last night with what looked like a pretty serious knee injury. The Boilermakers still won the game and I don't see them losing the Big Ten title down the stretch, even if Hummel doesn't come back. But, if he isn't back by the tourney, the tourney is losing out. Not just Purdue and not just Purdue fans, but the whole dance will be that less special without a healthy Robbie Hummel. Purdue can rally. They're still capable of making it to Indy without him. I'd still rather watch a fully healthy Purdue squad than a rally story.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

My Team (Of This Current Very Precise Moment)

The last time I attempted to make a case for a national title contender outside of the top 4 in the AP and Coaches’ Poll, they went ahead and lost that same night to UConn. You know who you are, West Virginia. This time, it’ll be different. Instead, I’m picking a team that freshly lost, and doesn’t play again until tomorrow: Vanderbilt. Take a jaunt with me down Vanderbilt boulevard, sip some of the Commodores’ Kool-Aid and together we’ll explore why they could be legit.

Let’s address the obvious elephant in the room first. It would have been much easier to make this case if they could have beaten Kentucky at home on Saturday. Instead they fell just short, 58 to 56. John Wall came up with a timely block towards the end and then iced a pair of free throws for the Kentucky win. Still, there were a lot of positives for Vandy. They held the wildcats to 35% shooting from the field. They beat Kentucky on the boards. And they were a missed Ogilvy runner away from beating the number 2 team in the nation. They just happened to shoot 2 for 20 from 3-point range. That’s 10% shooting. That’s what you call a fluke. Kentucky played them tight, but it wasn’t all defense that led to that abysmal percentage. If Vanderbilt could have sunk just one more 3, then it’s a different story.

The story that is for Vanderbilt is balance. At the head they have Jermaine Beal, who can score and is a decent distributor. He’s averaging less than 3 assists a game, but Brad Tinsley, who also adds a nice 3-point threat, lends a hand in that department. In addition, Vanderbilt has a tremendous pair they can play at center in A.J. Ogilvy and Festus Ezeli, both at 6’11. If Ogilvy can get deep on a team, he’s almost a sure thing. They are incredibly efficient as a whole on offense, and shoot over 53% from the field. There isn’t a true facet for opposing defenses to zero in on with the Commodores.

Their RPI ranking is 13, better than their showing in the AP and Coaches’ poll, and they’ve won 5 games against teams in the RPI top 50. They’ve beaten Tennessee handily, twice. They have an eyesore in their loss to Western Kentucky, but that was back in December. Since then, it seems like they’ve figured a thing or two out.

So why might Vanderbilt not be a team to pencil in at the end of the bracket? Because even though their loss to Western Kentucky was back in December, their loss to Georgia was just a few weeks back. And while they have good guard play, Jermaine Beal is not a floor general, more of a facilitator. Then there’s the matter of 3 point shooting. The 2 for 20 performance was a fluke, but on the season they’re only averaging 30 percent. That’s nothing spectacular and not a fluke.
Yet, going into the tournament Vandy seems bound for a 4 seed. I like them as a 4 seed. They’re going to be undervalued and dangerous. This team is likely to make some waves and maybe come up with a few upsets. Will that take them all the way? I don’t know. For this very current and precise moment, I’m willing to consider it.

A Matter of Defense

I don’t want to beat a dead horse, because I’ve written plenty on Syracuse’s defense. And the Orange's defense does not require the defense of a random know-nothing blogger. Not at 26 and 2. But after reading Jeff Goodman’s latest article at Fox Sports, I can’t help myself.* The title is “Danger Zone.” One of those not so subtle plays on the 2-3 zone and it’s common sense Achilles’ heel, the trifecta. The Providence Friars shot 14 for 33 from 3-point range the other night against Syracuse and held the lead at halftime. Ultimately, the Friars folded and Syracuse won by 14. Still, the troubles from 3-point land led Goodman to conjecture that a team like Utah State could spell trouble for the Orange in the tourney. I’m not buying.

Don’t get me wrong; there is plenty to fear from a team like Utah State. Behind the arc, they’re shooting the ball at 43%. That can give a defense fits. Any defense. Jim Boeheim’s club, however, is no more susceptible to the danger than the next team. Yes, the 2-3 zone is traditionally weak against the 3 point shot. But, in case you haven’t been watching, this isn’t a traditional 2-3 zone. Syracuse’s guards have done a tremendous job of closing on the ball all year long. They’ve held opposing offenses to 31% percent 3 point shooting on the season, 3% lower than the national average. The low percentage of made 3s on the Orange isn’t a result of no one testing them. In fact, in their last win over Georgetown, the Hoyas took 20 3-point shots, but only made 5 of them.

Focusing on the 14 made 3s is also a bit of a smoke a mirrors act. It distorts the fact that Syracuse won handily. In most cases, if you can get a team to fall in love with the 3, you’ve already won. No matter how good a team is from 3-point range, it is a low percentage shot compared to possessions that end in the paint. If the majority of the opposing team's shots are coming from 20 ft or farther, you typically have an advantage. Conversely, if your opponent believes they have an advantage from behind the arc, all the better. If they’re hot, they’re hot. But then any defense is at a disadvantage, not just the zone.

The Amazing Race to 2000 Wins

It really isn't all that amazing of a race. Kentucky has already been there, done that. And in North Carolina's case, it's more like an inept, stumbling walk of a race to 2000. But, in case you're interested, they're is some intrigue to who is going to be the second program to reach the vaunted 2ooo mark: Kansas or North Carolina. My money is on Kansas.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Tuesday Morning Musings

Kansas 81 Oklahoma 68 I wasn't excited about the prospect of watching Kansas vs. Oklahoma Monday night before the game started and nothing happened during the course of that game to alter my level of enthusiasm. It was a simple formality on the way to the Jayhawks sixth straight Big XII title. Xavier Henry had one of his best performances of the season, scoring 23 points, and doing pretty much anything he wanted to in the first half.

At the beginning of the season, this is a game I would have thought would have meant something. The Sooners lost Blake Griffin, but they still had Willie Warren, a hyped recruit, with a sweet name in Tiny Gallon and one of the hottest names in coaching, Jeff Capel. Now, Willie Warren is past tense, Oklahoma is 13 and 14 and 4 and 9 in the Big XII. This is only the third time I've watched an Oklahoma game this season, so I'm not going to sit here and pretend I know how to speculate on the why. But, I do wonder at the possible impact one poisonous player's attitude can have on a team and on a season.

Willie Warren was still on my fantasy league's draft board in the 3rd round, and I contemplated picking him up. Instead I picked up Greivis Vasquez, which brings me to my next musing:

Greivis Vasquez is awesome. The kind of intensity he plays with is the reason I watch college basketball. He's averaging 18.8 points a game and 6.2 assists. Sometimes he can get a little loose with the ball and ends up turning it over oh, let's say 9 times, like in Maryland's loss at Clemson. But even when he is coughing it up like it's cold and flu season, he's always trying to make up for it on the very next play.

In Maryland's win over Georgia Tech on Saturday, he played 39 minutes, scored 18 points, recored 8 assists and five rebounds. For some players, that would be the game of the season. For Greivis, he's had better. Despite all of this, he isn't projected as a first round pick in the draft next year. He might not find an NBA team who will take a chance on a great all around hustle player, who happens to have a horrible verticle and the strength of a small woman chilid.

Which is too bad, because I would watch the NBA a lot more than I do if their rosters were full of players like Vasquez. Guys who want to play and love to play. That's the reason I do watch college. Because even though Maryland doesn't win every game, they're always fun to watch.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Well That Was Embarrassing

Connecticut 73 West Virginia 62 If you take a look at my last post, fresh in this blog's memory, I posited that West Virginia might be a team to take a look at. No sooner do I say so, then do they prove me wrong. Here, I thought West Virginia would win and my post would be timely in a good way. That wasn't the case. The good thing about writing about a team tongue in cheek is that you don't have to own the shame as much as you normally would. In any event, I'm going to use this to launch a mini series for the coming week: My Team (Of This Current, Very Precise Moment). Read along, laugh at my foolhardy statements, and remember that I'm putting myself out there...tongue in cheek.

My Team (Of This Current, Very Present Moment)

We're all guilty of trying to find a too little hyped team that we think can do great things in March. At least, I know I am. It's the same tendency that would lead someone (again me) to not pick North Carolina as national champs last year. Because no matter how cut and dry something appears, we like to think we know better. This year things look pretty cut and dry. I don't think there is any arguing that Kansas, Kentucky, Syracuse and Purdue are the four best teams and the four likely Final Four candidates. Unless something mind-bending happens in the next 3 weeks, and some team drastically alters the perception, you would do well to have one of those four winning your bracket.

But what fun is that? Let the guy who just started watching hoops last week after tuning in from a fresh curling match on MSNBC pick Kansas to win it all. The bragging rights will be all the sweeter for you when your team that no one was thinking about, because no one should be, wins it all. My team is West Virginia. Not as crazy a pic as it could be, and I certainly contemplated crazier *cough*Gonzaga*cough* But, Kansas they are not.

If you have a moment, allow me to convince you why West Virginia is going to win it all. They have size. Bob Huggins has been starting 4 forwards, and his starting lineup averages 6'6 in height. In an age where most teams start 3 guards, the look West Virginia gives can be difficult to gameplan for, especially on offense. It doesn't hurt that two of those starters are the tremendous duo of Da'Sean Butler and Devin Ebanks.

They have a great come from behind win against Ohio State, and they don't have any truly bad losses to speak of. Notre Dame is a bit of a guffaw, but their other four losses were against teams in the top 10 of the RPI. They're own RPI ranking is 5th in the country. And, according to, they are the number 3 tempo free team in the country right now.* So what's not to love about the Mountaineers?

You know, other than the fact that they don't have any truly big wins to speak of. And that they play so many forwards because they're kind of the inverse of Villanova: lot of really good forwards, not so many guards and not a true point to speak of. They also play a little like Michigan State this season, where sometimes they decide the first half doesn't matter. Oh, and while four of their losses were to teams in the top 10 of the RPI rankings, they were also to teams like Syracuse and Purdue, teams that have made their own cases for why they should get Final Four love. In fact, Purdue made them look pretty silly. But what did playing it safe ever get anyone? Other than the 200 bucks in the office pool.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Death of the Northwestern Watch

Penn Stat 81 Northwestern 70 I shed a tear last night for Northwestern's tournament hopes and dreams. Losing at Iowa and to Penn State at home pretty much seals their NIT fate. It's finally over folks. Time to pack it in and move on. You know that scene from Rudolph on the Island of Unwanted Toys, where it's Christmas Eve and it's getting late and everyone thinks Rudolph forgot them? The jack in the box chimes in with "there's always next year" right before Santa's sleigh pulls up to save them. Well, there's no Santa's sleigh for Northwestern. But there is always next year for the only team from a BCS conference to never make a tourney. Assuming Shurna doesn't pull a Coble and go down with a season ending injury before their season really starts...Go Cats!

A Tale of Two Ds

There are as many variations to defense as there are coaches coaching. Everyone has their own spin to zone defense, to man defense, to zone defense with man principles, to man defense with zone principles, switching man to man, run and jump, 2-3 zone, 3-2 zone, 1-2-2 zone, 1-3-1 zone, forever and ever it goes on. They all have the same basic emphasis in the end. Stop the opponent from scoring. But there are two fundamental ways of accomplishing this. The first is to contest their shots. The second is to stop them from ever taking a shot. There the emphasis can differ.

Recently, The Only Colors did a piece on “the most important statistic in basketball.”* The argument is for defensive effective field goal percentage. To illustrate the point, TOC examines Michigan State’s six game stretch that began at Minnesota on January 23, and ended in their third straight loss to Purdue on February 9. During that time, the Spartans allowed five of their opponents to shoot over 50%, where they held their first six Big Ten opponents under this mark. According to TOC, that is why State struggled so much during this period.

There is no denying that the defensive effort was lacking from Izzo’s club, but I do have a fundamental philosophical disagreement with TOC: defensive effective field goal percentage is not the most important statistic in basketball. At least it doesn’t have to be. TOC notes that offensive field goal percentage shows you how good a team is at shooting the ball, when they get to shoot it. The inverse is just as true. Defensive effective field goal percentage shows you how good a team is at shooting the ball against you, when they get to shoot it. It doesn’t show how good you are at keeping them from taking shots.

The article readily admits that contesting shots is of critical importance to the Spartan’s D, because they’re not particularly adept at turning their opponent over. As TOC acknowledges, the Spartans stress contesting shots and getting rebounds to eliminate second chances. They have a “war” drill for rebounding. There’s no “war” drill for forcing turnovers. It just isn’t Tom Izzo’s emphasis. When his defense is run effectively and with hustle, it can be amazing. You don’t need to see a better example of it than last year’s run to the national title game. But, when a team is shooting hot, red hot, NBA Jam on fire style, Tom Izzo’s club can be beat even when his defense is firing on all cylinders.

That may seem like a silly statement. Just about any defense can be beat when an opposing offense is shooting lights out. Michigan State, though, is particularly susceptible to it. Exhibits A and B are the losses last year to Northwestern and Penn State. At home. Kevin Coble shot over 60% from the field for Northwestern, on his way to a 31-point performance. The kick is, MSU contested most of his shots. And a good deal of them came from 18 ft. or farther. Kevin Coble was just on and if you allowed him the opportunity to shoot, contested or not, it was going in. Penn State and Talor Battle did the same thing. The whole team shot over 60% in that one, but Battle was 6 for 12 from beyond the 3-point arc. Most of those were NBA 3s and most of them were contested. Even though Penn State lost the match-up this year at home, Battle still put in the same type of performance.

Teams like Northwestern and Penn State shouldn’t be able to beat a team like last year’s MSU squad at home, but they did. When a team shoots over 60%, even when their shots are being contested, the defense fails. It fails because when opponents aren’t missing, MSU can’t rebound and the lynchpin is pulled. Because, even when you are contesting shots, you’re still allowing the opposing team to run its offense. My firm belief is that this is why Wisconsin gives the Spartans fits. State lets Wisconsin run its offense, and Wisconsin is patient enough to do so for 30 seconds until someone falls asleep. Bo Ryan’s squad is perfect at picking their moments.

I’m not suggesting that Izzo, a highly successful coach with 5 Final Fours to his name, needs to change anything about his defense. But, I am suggesting that there are other ways of getting the job done. And those ways decrease the importance of defensive effective field goal percentage. The key is turning your opponent over, which is what Jim Boeheim emphasizes with his 2-3 zone and the proof is in the results. Syracuse steals the ball on almost 15 percent of their opponents' possessions. That’s 5 % higher than the national average and Sparty. It’s also the highest of anyone in the Top 25. That’s 5% fewer possessions that result in shots against Syracuse, just off of steals.*

In the end, 9 times out of 10, if either one of these defenses are run at the height of their capabilities, they’ll be successful. And then these debates about statistics become meaningless. But on that 10th time, when a team just can’t miss, it helps if you can take away a few more of their opportunities.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Big Ten Recruiting Commandment Number 1: Lock Down Thy States

The Big Ten’s junior class this year is amazing. It’s easily one of the best in the country. Taking a spin around the league, you find Evan Turner, Kalin Lucas, E’Twaun Moore, Robbie Hummel, JaJuan Johnson, Manny Harris, Talor Battle, Demetri McCamey and John Leuer. That’s the short list. Credit the junior class for all of those high preseason expectations for the Big Ten. If you’re curious why they have come up a little short on those, you may want to look at the underclassmen. Neither the sophomore nor the freshmen class can boast that caliber of player. You could even politely describe the freshmen class as exceptionally underwhelming, especially since Maurice Creek went out with an injury. Creek or no Creek, however, the Big Ten has not recruited particularly well the past 3 years.

In the world of college football, the media has been attempting to convince us for a long time now that there is a talent gap between the Big Ten and the rest of the country. To get specific, in a broad and hazy sort of way, southern athletes are faster and more athletic than northern ones. This explains why the Big Ten has trouble competing against top tier SEC teams and Pac 10 teams. Just to be clear, by Pac 10 I mean USC. Whether you buy into this theory or not, it does not apply to college basketball.

If you look at the ESPNU top 100 for college basketball recruits since 2008, Big Ten states have been turning out more than their fair share of elite talent.* From the class of 2008 to 2010, 55 of the recruits on the ESPNU 100 have come from Big Ten territory. So while they only make up 16% of this great union of ours, these 8 states have produced almost 1 out of every 5 recruits on these lists. Knowing this the Big Ten should have no trouble turning out fantastic freshman classes year in, year out. And yet, they do.

It would appear that the Big Ten has trouble keeping their talent in the family. While their respective states turned out 55 of the top recruits the past three years, they’ve only managed to keep 25 of them in the conference. That’s less than half, in case you were reaching for a calculator. Most major conferences don’t keep the bulk of their high school talent in conference, but the Big Ten really should.

If you look at a conference like the ACC, the state of Florida turns out umpteen top recruits in any given year. It’s impossible to keep that much talent in the ACC, especially since Florida State and Miami compete with Florida in recruiting. Same logic can be applied to Georgia Tech. In the Big East, you have Louisville competing with Kentucky, Pitt competing with Penn State, Cincinnati competing with Ohio State and so on. The Big Ten is different. In most Big Ten states, the conference school is either the biggest university around, or they have the two biggest in the same state (see Michigan and Michigan State, Indiana and Purdue, Illinois and Northwestern). They have less reason for letting these recruits slip away.

The fact that they aren’t very good at stealing talent from other states exacerbates the issue. In the past three years, only six of their top recruits have come from outside the Big Ten. To go back a little further, while they’re letting guys like Derrick Rose get away, they aren’t gaining ground elsewhere. That’s how you turn out sub-par freshman classes.

2010 is a prime example. This year is one of the best groups of Midwest recruits in a long time. 20 of the ESPNU 100 come from Big Ten States. Only 10 are committed to Big Ten schools right now. U of M and Michigan State are both still purportedly on Trey Ziegler’s list, the no. 30 prospect and one of the few uncommitted. It’s possible that number could jump to 11. But it isn’t likely.

Admittedly, Big Ten coaches have always been more about player development and program guys than landing the biggest recruits. Guys like Tom Izzo and Bo Ryan aren’t dependent on one and done players to accomplish their goals. Still, imagine how much better the conference could be if it kept just a few more recruits close to home.


Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Kansas State a 1 Seed?

If you weren't thinking about this possibility, you're not alone, because I wasn't either. If you were, give yourself a pat on the back for foresight (something I lack). I was innocently watching Kansas and Texas A & M ugly it up in a slugfest last night when Brent Musburger dropped this bomb on my tourney seed thinking. Listeners were politely informed, in Musburger fashion, that if Kansas State isn't on your 1 seed radar, they should be. A quick investigation of the matter reveals he's right.

Kansas State is currently 20 and 4 and ranked 7th in the nation. They have three road games left, Nebraska, Missouri and Iowa State. All are very winnable for the Wildcats. They have Oklahoma and Texas Tech on the road, which could be tricky, but both are still very managable. If they take care of business, the make or break date is March 3rd at Kansas. Beating Kansas likely won't affect the Big 12 race. Kansas State has 3 conference losses, to 0 for Kansas. I don't see the Jayhawks losing 2 other times before seasons' end. But winning out, including a victory at Kansas in March, is impressive enough for the selection committee to award a 1 seed. If the Big East taught us anything last year, you don't need to win your conference to get a 1 seed.

There are a few teams standing in the way of Kansas State. Duke has an easier road of getting the 1 seed nod, with their toughest test remaining at Maryland. Not exactly as intimidating as at Kansas. But, if you look at teams like Purdue and Villanova, who still have multiple top 25 opponents left in the coming weeks, Kansas State has a decent shot at this 1 seed thing. That would give us two Big 12 teams with a 1 seed, and two Wildcats (assuming Kansas and Kentucky both get one). Fear the beard and a number 1 seeding.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Georgetown, What Up?

Georgetown is doing all it can to impress the voters for "the most frustratingly inconsistent team of the year." It was a shrewd move blowing away the Blue Devils and then dropping the very next game to the South Florida Bulls. That's a true flair for inconsistent that you just can't teach. But these Hoyas aren't ones to rest on their laurels. Many a team would have thought the previous example was enough to demonstrate a general lack of order in their hoops' affairs. Georgetown knows better. If you want to earn that label, you have to do something crazy; like dominating the Big East conference leader, Villanova, to the tune of a 13 point victory, and then lose to one of the worst teams in the conference, Rutgers, two games later. Bravo, Hoyas...bravo.

In all seriousness, though, Georgetown has a few issues. And while they seem to have little trouble getting pumped for big games, they can't seem to bring it against Rutgers. They have six losses, but only two of them are against ranked opponents, Syracuse and Villanova. Three of their losses are to teams not even in the top 50 RPI, Rutgers, South Florida and Marquette. Against Duke they came out fired up and shot an obscene 71% from the field, while holding the blue devils to just 37%. Against Rutgers, they let Jonathan Mitchell shoot 9 for 12 on them on his way to 24 points. Sometimes it's hard to plan for a breakout game. Except that Mitchell had a break out game the last time he played Georgetown. The Hoyas should have been keyed in and focused this time around. They weren't.

If Georgetown can make it to the Sweet 16, I really like their chances of making it to the Final Four or farther. But in Joe Lunardi's latest bracketology, he has them projected to go up against the College of Charleston.* I don't like their chances against the Cougars.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Ohio State can be Scary Good

Ohio State annihilated Illinois today. Illinois, the hot team that was coming off two huge wins against Michigan State and Wisconsin. The barrage of 3s from Jon Diebler and David Lighty took the fight out of Illinois early. Ohio State hit 11 3s on the day and when Ohio State is more than Turner, knocking off hot teams at the height of their game is just another day at the office. Speaking of, Evan Turner turned in another double double.

This team doesn't qualify as under the rader at number 13 in the nation, but if they can manage a Big Ten Title, they could be primed for an excellent March and awesome April. Their next two games are Purdue at home and then on the road to Michigan State. That two game stretch is big, Big Ten wise. They're shooting almost 57 percent from the field. And, if they can make it past Purdue at home, that could spell bad things for Michigan State, who has had trouble defending elite competition recently. Kalin Lucas did a fantastic job this past weekend of staying in front of Talor Battle, despite his ankle still not being 100%. The Spartans even got one heck of a defensive performance from Mike Kebler on Battle in the second half. As good as Battle is, though, he's no Turner.

The Buckeyes don't utilize their bench much and they're very reliant on Evan Turner. But, as long as he stays healthy, Turner is the kind of player who can give everything to his team. Everything. Make no mistake, the point guard is not his natural position. But, when Thad Matta asked him to take it up this season, he didn't miss a beat. The de-pantsing of Illinois today was a manifestation of what an elite team is capable of doing. Depending on the outcome of their next two games, I'll have them penciled pretty deep in my bracket.

The Syracuse Orange and the Case of the Vanishing Offense

Louisville 66 Syracuse 60 Syracuse is averaging 54 percent shooting. Against Louisville today, they shot 41. That's one way to lose a game at home. Another way is to give up an 11 point first half lead. But, for Jim Boeheim, it was simple: "We lost the game on the offensive end." For Wesley Johnson, it was even simpler: "I'm just missing shots." Nursing a bruised thumb on a shooting hand isn't easy, so missing shots is going to happen. But 5 for 20 is the shooting % of a thumbless man, not Wesley Johnson. And when the other 4 starters only took 23 combined shots, it really is pretty simple. It's your offense.

Next up, Georgetown at Georgetown. They had some issues today losing to Rutgers. All is not well in the Big East at the moment. One of them gets to rebound on Thursday.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Zoubek, You're That Rugged Inside Man This Lately Dainty Duke Team's Been Missing

Duke 77 Maryland 56 It's one game. It's just one performance. Heck, it's his first start. But, Brian Zoubek, where have you been the past six or so years for this Duke team? Despite the non-stop slew of high seedings (think 2 or 1), that sweet sixteen mark has been a hard one to break. And Duke has taken no small amount of crap from the media for this. Duke's tendency to take it on the chin typically corresponded with the punishment they endured in the post. Today, Zoubek fought back.

With Lance Thomas down and out with an injury, most people thought Coach K had no choice but to go with talented freshman Mason Plumlee. While Plumlee got no love, Coach K got plenty from his decision to start Zoubek on his 63rd birthday. Zoubek had 16 points, 2 blocks, and 17 rebounds in the kind of performance that gives any Dukie the vapors. Could he be the answer? Could this be the missing link? The straw that stirs these devil's coffee? It was just one game...and maybe a fluke. One shouldn't get too carried away. But there's always room for hope.

For a reenactment of Brian Zoubek stealing the nation o'Duke's heart, click here:

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Big Game, Big...Heart?

MSU vs Purdue 9pm ESPN This is a battle for first place in the Big Ten. It's a battle for a possible 2 seed, or better, come tourney time. It's the chance to end a two game losing skid for MSU, or for Purdue to extend it. All this with the added ankle twist from Lucas. Yeah, it's big.

I've been pouring over the analysis and it is as varied as it is abundant. A brief compendium of web wisdom condensed into one written shot of diarrhea:
-Can Purdue lay off the 3s and get the ball to JaJuan Johnson?
-Purdue's ability to create to's vs. MSU's propensity to give it away like the Chili Peppers ?
-Will Lucas play/is he 100%?
-Will MSU sag off the perimeter too much and let Hummel and Moore rip into them?
-Is Korie Lucious a liability at the point?
-The Spartans dominance on the boards vs. Purdue's lack there of?
-Can Raymar Morgan and Draymond Green guard Hummel without getting into foul trouble?

On, and on and on ad nauseum. This game has been looked at from every angle. Me, I like Draymond Green's angle the best: "It's not going to be about xs and os at all. It's just gonna be a dogfight."* I think that pretty much sums everything up. You have two hard nosed, desire driven Big Ten contenders stepping into the ring tonight. Who wants it?

Monday, February 8, 2010

Monday Night Musings

Villanova 82 West Virginia 75 First and foremost, for all of West Virginia's student section's antics, they didn't bring it tonight. There is a much more effective way to alter a game in your team's favor. More effective than throwing things, calling people out for extramarital affairs and cussing like your mother taught you not to. It's called making noise. Lots of noise. It's making noise even when your team is down 7 to 10 points with a few minutes left. It's making noise when its been a long, disheartening night. The Mountaineers were in the game the whole time, even when it looked like they weren't. The crowd wasn't in it, even when it looked like their team was.

Kansas 80 Texas 68 For Texas, Dogus Balbay isn't a particularly stunning point. Avery Bradley, their best perimeter player, is a true freshman. Dexter Pittman is prone to disappearing acts. Their only consistent threat is still Damion James. Despite all that, I thought Texas was a much better team than the sum of their flawed parts. I thought there was too much talent and too much size for them to not be a serious threat. Methinks I was wrong. As for Kansas, they're better than I've given them credit for. Sure, I thought they were one of the top teams. But, I wasn't quite ready to buy the number 1 ranking (even though they've been here before). They sure played like number 1 tonight. They dominated. And even a Cole Aldrich foul out wasn't enough to save Texas in Austin.

Kansas scored 27 points off turnovers. They were taking Texas out of their offense, flustering their guards and forcing the Longhorns to foul on defense, or give up the easy bucket in transition. On the other end of the soiree, Texas was changing point guards in and out like they were going out of style. Rick Barnes just couldn't find someone to effectively run his team. Although, J'Covan Brown did show glimpses into why he might be the future. He and Damion James were the bright spots to what was otherwise a dismal offensive outing for the horns. 52 of their 68 points came from one of those two.

Random Musing Trey Zeigler is one of the top prospects for 2010 who hasn't landed on a school yet. He apparently tweeted recently about U of M and how "tight" it would be to have another Fab Five...either I am way behind on the vernacular of kids today, or Trey Zeigler and I seriously disagree on the definition of tight. Sure, coming up short for two national titles was probably pretty cool, right up to that phantom time out. But the close to seven hundred thousand in borrowed money from Ed Martin, the shame, the sanctions, the suspension from the NBA, the marred legacy???? Yeah, Zeigler, real "tight."*

The Abridged List of Things Jim Delaney is Against

Recently, ESPN blogger Eamonn Brennan explored Jim Delaney's stance on the expansion of the NCAA Tournament.* Old man Delaney, as Joe Paterno has affectionately taken to calling him, is the current commish of the Big Ten. In case you don't know Jim Delaney's stance on everything, I'll catch you up real quick. He's against it! In this case, and it's probably the only case, I agree with him. The NCAA tournament is perfect the way it is. And, it likely would further dilute the importance of the regular season to expand the tourney. Just for fun, though, I'm going to hike up my pants, wag my finger and do my best Delaney impression as I give you a rundown of an abridged list of things he has likely been against at some point in his life:

1) The three point line
2) Dunking
3) The pass
4) Basketball shorts that can't more accurately be described as skivvies
5) Larry Bird's hair circa 1979
6) A Shot Clock
7) Offense
8) Dribbling
9) The New Deal
10) The end of Prohibition
11) The Wright Brothers first flight (Delaney has always believed any place you can't get to with the power of a horse's hooves isn't worth getting to)
12) Children's laughter
13) Anybody who sides with team Jacob (Delaney is an Edward man himself)
14) The end of the Nixon administration
15) Improvisational Jazz
16) Taylor Swift
17) Texting
18) Any abbreviations involved with texting
19) Definitely against Sexting
20) LOL is right out
21) Joe Paterno
22) Joe Paterno (he hates him with twice the power of his normal hatred. That's Jim Delaney hate squared for those keeping track at home.)
23) The state of New Jersey
24) Chuck Norris jokes
25) Kids on lawns (not just his lawn, it irks him when they are having fun on any lawn. Also typically involves laughing. See no. 12.)
26) A lack of good old fashioned canings
27) Hot Topic
28) Anything foreign
29) Anything French (worse than foreign)
30) Singing
31) Dancing
32) Smiling
33) Christmas (especially in Whoville)
34) Musicals (they involve singing, dancing and smiling. See no.'s 30 to 32)
35) Hippies (see Larry Bird's hair, circa 1979)
36) World Peace (he'd be all for it, if it wasn't for the hippies)
37) New Coke
38) Old Coke
39) Rainbow suspenders (he takes his plain brown, thank you)
40) Snapping suspenders (they're there for one reason, holding up pants. Snapping is too ostentatious.)
41) Jimmy Carter (also considered to be a hippy by Delaney standards)
42) Disney World (along with anything else that elicits children's laughter)
43) The use of the word "bro"
44) The Protestant Reformation
45) The Enlightenment
46) Lady Gaga
47) East Coast/West Coast Beef
48) The rise of Conan O'Brien to the Tonight Show
49) The fall of Conan O'Brien from the Tonight Show
50) Anyone who disagrees with him ever

Phew! That was more like an abridged version of the abridged version of things Delaney is against, but you sort of get the idea.


This Isn’t a News Flash: Villanova Lacks Balance

Georgetown 103 Villanova 90 Villanova probably has the best group of guards in the country. Any team with Scottie Reynolds is going to be good and Villanova is very good. Good and balanced, as we found out this weekend, are two different things. Balance is this team’s missing link to greatness. In Saturday’s loss, Villanova started 4 guards and 1 forward, Antonio Pena. Pena, by the way, measures in at 6’8. Villanova’s guards played 132 minutes. Their forwards and centers played only 68 minutes.

That’s Jay Wright’s thing, I realize. Throw a lot of really good guards on the floor and win some games. At 20 and 2 it may seem silly to knock it. Until you come up against a team like Georgetown. On Saturday their frontcourt scored 47, and their backcourt 56. Greg Monroe was a handful down low, going to the free-throw line seven times for 11 points. When they weren’t getting punished in the post, there was Jason Clark with another 3, on his way to a remarkable 6 for 7 from behind the arc. Georgetown came with a balanced, almost methodical attack, and they tore into Villanova just like they tore into Duke the week before.

Georgetown is shaping into a very capable team down the stretch and showing why they should be taken seriously as a Final Four contender. Other serious contenders: Kansas, Kentucky, Syracuse, West Virginia and Texas (yes, I’ve seen the losses). They all have formidable front and backcourts. Even Michigan State, which has been primarily a jump shooting team this year, has the potential to develop a presence down low with guys like Raymar Morgan, Delvon Roe and Derrick Nix. Villanova doesn’t have that capability. They have no frontcourt to grow. With dates still to come at West Virginia, Pitt and Syracuse, Villanova is going to live and die by their guards.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Northwestern Watch: NCAA Tourney or Bust

Just to recap, Northwestern has never been to the NCAA Tournament. Ever. The only team from a power six conference to hold this distinction. Only one. That's why I've been rooting hard for the Wildcats this season. Sure, John Shurna looks goofy, Bill Carmody always looks a little too well kept on the sidelines and the Princeton offense isn't on a list of the top 10 things I love about college ball. Still, you have to love the pluck of a team that lost their star, Kevin Coble, to injury before the season ever started. It's almost like a disney movie, with cats instead of ducks. And basketball, not hockey. And no Emilio Estevez. Actually, it's better than a disney movie.

But the man is still trying to keep these tenacious cats down. And by the man, I mean Joey Brackets, of course.* Joe Lunardi is giving Nothwestern no tourney love in his latest bracket projection, again. They're only 15 and 7. And they only have one win against a team in the top 50 RPI. But, come on. First tournament appareance ever!

Northwestern's stretch of games coming up is incredibly winnable: Indiana at home, Iowa on the road, Minnesota at home and then Penn State at home. If they can control those four match ups, a date in Madison is waiting at the end of the road. That is their last chance for a second tourney worthy win. I'm pulling for them. You should be too. (Unless your a Wisconsin fan, but even then. First tournament appearance ever! Come on.)

Syracuse and the 2-3 Zone That Loved Them Or, Why Syracuse Doesn’t Have to Play Man

I like Syracuse to win it all. I’ve been saying that to anyone who will listen to me (there aren’t many, for the record). Every time I do, the common response has been “they look awesome, but they can't play man.” They didn’t play man in their run to the 2003 national title either, for the record. When I bring this up, the obvious rebuttal is Carmelo Anthony, and then I’m back to square one. Turns out, common perception is that if you’re unable to play man to man, your deficient on defense. When Syracuse plays man, they are deficient. They’re give up 50 points in the second half of exhibition games and lose to teams like LeMoyne, deficient. You know when they aren’t deficient? When they play their 2-3 zone.

To push the argument in reverse, the knock on straight man to man defense over the years is that it allows teams to run their offense. Straight man is typically not as adapt at forcing turnovers as other defensive variations. Syracuse’s 2-3 zone doesn’t allow opposing teams run their offense. Their zone disrupts an opposing team’s offense like Dick Vitale would disrupt your local library. Syracuse is currently stealing the ball on over 15 % of their opponents’ possessions. That’s the best of anyone in the Top 10 right now. They’re also blocking a staggering 19.2 % of their opponents’ shots, 10 % higher than the national average. That means almost 1 of every 5 shots taken against Syracuse results in a blocked shot.*

It’s not like the Orange are running this because they don’t have athletes. Syracuse has athletes perfectly suited to the 2-3 zone’s strengths. They’re long and they’re quick, which allows them to be incredibly aggressive. More importantly, it erases one of the zone’s traditional weaknesses. Common wisdom tells you to shoot over the top of the 2-3 zone, and make your shots. Guards like Brandon Triche, Scoop Jardine and Andy Rautins close on the ball so swiftly that the 3-ball is typically neutralized. Opponents are shooting under 31 percent from the 3-point arc against Cuse. They’re below the national average by almost 4 % on that one.*

The key addition that makes this zone scary good this year is Wesley Johnson. His wingspan is one of the reasons Syracuse is a blocking machine, but he does so much more than that. He’s smart and can play post to perimeter and back again without missing a beat. Paired with Arinze Onuaku and Rick Jackson, every position has the athlete it needs to make it work.

Which brings us to Jim Boeheim. This isn’t his first rodeo, as the saying goes. Coach Boeheim has been running this for years. And, contrary to popular belief, the 2-3 zone had as much to do with Syracuse’s 2003 national title as Carmelo Anthony did. Remember the Elite Eight against Oklahoma? Syracuse held the Sooners to 47 points on 31 % shooting from the field. That team was very similar to this year’s version in athletic make-up. And, for anyone who doesn’t like the two-headed point guard situation with Scoop Jardine and Brandon Triche, they’re like 2003 in that way too. Except, the 2003 team had two freshmen at the point in Gerry McNamara and Billy Edelin.

When it comes time for the tournament this year, no coach is going to want the nightmare of prepping for this defense, especially not in a two-day turnaround situation. I’m sure teams would love it if Syracuse played man to man. But, at the end of the day, Syracuse can’t play man. They proved that before the season ever started. They’ve been proving they don’t need to ever since.

*All Averages Were Found at

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Ed Hightower: Awful Referee, or the Awfulest?

In case you missed it, Michigan State took a trip to the wood shed, otherwise known as the Kohl Center, last night. They came out of it looking more like something I would use to bed my garden with than a basketball team. That translates to a 67 to 49 Wisconsin W for those of you who have no use for colorful metaphors. To rub salt in the Spartan fans' wounds, their very favorite ref was in attendance: Ed Hightower. The Only Colors, an MSU hoops' blog, did a piece highlighting Eddie's decision to get up in Izzo's grill for a good 30 seconds.* It really is kind of an embarassing moment.
As much as MSU fans hate Hightower, they aren't the only ones. The bleacherreport last year had a piece entitled, "One Fan's Plea that NCAA Referee Ed Hightower Must Go!!"* This was a Purdue fan's perspective. The basic premise was that a good referee should regulate without being noticed, one way or the other. Don't let the players get away with obvious fouls and control the tone, but don't draw attention to yourself. Ed Hightower draws attention to himself like a lightning rod. Even the most casual of Big Ten fans know who Hightower is.
If you want to temper this with the perspective that it's hard out there for a ref, you're probably partially right. Nobody likes refs, especially when their team looses. But, just for fun, check out facebook sometime for groups related to Ed Hightower. No ref should get that much publicity. But, for the record, if your looking for an agent Eddie, my commission is 10 percent.


Manny Harris is Coming Back: Why I'm Not Surprised

After Michigan got treated to a Northwestern nut kicking last night, in a 67 to 52 loss, Manny Harris announced that he plans to return to college next year. No jaws dropped, no hats blew off, and no ties comically rolled up like a shot from a shoddy pull up window blind. At this point, it just makes sense for Manny to come back. To kick off the season, he was phenomenal, logging triple doubles, double doubles, and eye popping point totals. The Wolverines were 15th in the polls. Life was good. Then, Michigan lost three in a row to Marquette, Alabama and Boston College and Manny's wild ride soured into the current mess that is U of M's season.

John Beilein has publicly questioned his star guard's leadership. That's not what NBA scouts want to hear in the middle of a sub par season. Nor is anyone going to take a game suspension, imposed by the coach, for unsportsmanlike conduct in a practice as a good sign. That game was Purdue on the road. A coach wouldn't sit his star player for spilling the gatorade. Given Manny's inconsistency and apparent behavorial issues, this isn't the season to launch oneself into the NBA draft.

ESPN currently has Manny projected as a late second round to undrafted prospect.* Some of the players they have going ahead of Harris are Tomas Satoransky and Durrell Summers. No disrespect to either of those players, but if you're projected to go behind those two, don't be a fool, stay in school. Things could still change. Crazier things have happened. Manny could play like Mike for the rest of the season. 40 or so of the players projected ahead of Manny could all decide to come back next year. Who knows. But at this point, I'm not surprised that Harris is planning on staying.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

You Don't Need an Extra Practice, Mike Brey You Need a Team

So, after loosing to Rutgers, the previously winless team in the Big East, Notre Dame is sitting at 4 and 5 in coference play.* And Mike Brey has decided that it's time for the old 8 am practice. Messing with a college kid's sleep is never a thing to be taken lightly, so I'm sure Brey is really hoping to drive a point home...with one extra practice. Are we being serious here? I guess he did this last year. I guess after the extra morning practice Notre Dame went on to beat Louisville 90 to 57. Notre Dame then went on to play in the NIT.

If you want to get serious about why your team is 4 and 5 in the Big East and why they've lost to the likes of Loyola Marymount and Rutgers, there is a pretty simple way to address it. Sit Harangody against Cincinatti. He won't. Not when Notre Dame still has some bubble hopes left. But, for the past two years Mike Brey hasn't had a team. He's had Luke Harangody. Maybe he thought that was enough. It isn't.

Other than Harangody, only two other players average in double digit scoring. Tim Abromaitis at 16.7 points per game and Ben Hansbrough at 11.7 points per game. Harangody is a gaudy 24.2 points a game.

Against Rutgers, Notre Dame actually had a pretty balanced scoring attack. Ben Hansbrough and others have been stepping up this season. Still, it seems this team's identity is too wrapped up in one man: Luke Harangody. He's a great player and a great player to build a team around. The key is to not forget the building a team part. Maybe Brey and the fighting Irish truly understand that. I'm not convinced. If they sat Harangody and found a way to win without him, that might be just what the Irish need.

Pure Funny

I'm sure I'm way late to this funny bandwagon, but junior forward Matt Pilgrim plays for the Oklahoma State Cowboys. It could really only be more perfect if his parents had named him John Wayne. For the record, I'm naming my child the Sundance Kid, or Butch Cassidy depending on how the fancy strikes me, injecting him with growth hormones to ensure his career in basketball and starting a scholarship fund for him at OK State. Matt Pilgrim...

Monday, February 1, 2010

Who Killed College Basketball's Super Conference? College Football. A Futurespective

There is nothing I love more in this world than irrational mass panic and rampant speculation. Anything I can do to stir the pot, give me a spoon. So, in the interest of setting thought cogs down completely baseless and irresponsible paths, I’m going to take a stab at one of the most wild, far-reaching and fantastical Big Ten expansion scenarios out there.

The New York Times recently came out with a piece examining the “ripple effects” of possible Big Ten expansion plans.* Unless you haven’t been interwebbing in the past month, you know that the Big Ten Conference is looking to add at least one and maybe more than one member institutions into their fold. But not until after a lengthy, behind the scenes, good old fashion wheeling and dealing session. Imagine a man trying to sell a prize horse, and the buyer saying maybe, but not until you upgrade your horse’s football and basketball facilities and promise a larger television market, say in the New York area. Now, replace the seller with university athletic directors, administrators and presidents and the buyer with the Big Ten and you get the picture.

Some of the names bandied about in the New York Times, and a dozen other places are: Syracuse, Rutgers, Missouri, Pittsburgh and even Nebraska and Texas, believe it or not. None of those names are new to the table. The fun part resides in pondering how much havoc can be wrought on the current college sports’ landscape. There are some other issues at stake, like academic prestige, the Association of American Universities and the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, but all that stuff is about research, or something, and as a sports fan I largely don’t care. I assume you don’t either? Good. Moving on.

Let’s commence speculating. Assuming the Big Ten goes with 3 teams, and makes itself the Big XIV, let’s further assume the three teams they take, in no particular order, are Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Rutgers. All three are possibilities; all three are from the Big East. Jamie Dixon went on record as saying he’s against it, which is understandable given his perspective: the men’s basketball coach at Pitt. The Big East is a super-conference in basketball. The Big East counts 40 Final Four appearances and 10 national titles at the moment. With sixteen teams, even if six to eight of them suck in a given year, you can still debate whether or not the Big East is the best basketball conference with the dawn of each new season. It’s a numbers game.

Sadly for Jamie Dixon, the men’s basketball program doesn’t call the shots at athletic departments that aren’t Duke, North Carolina or Kentucky. Football does. And Big Ten football is good business. Big Ten member institutions took home over 20 million in revenue sharing from football last year. The Big East? Not so much. If the Big Ten had the mind to take all three of the aforementioned Big East teams, they’d probably be interested. Very interested.

That sucks for Big East basketball, right? Syracuse is huge in the hoops’ prestige department. As of late, Pitt has been too. Rutgers we’ll toss out as largely irrelevant at the moment (sorry Scarlet Knights). But you would still have UConn, Villanova, Georgetown, Louisville, West Virginia and Notre Dame along with a smattering of other worthy b-ball programs. It’s conceivable to think that the Big East could still be the bad boy on the block. But don’t think they won’t miss Syracuse and Pitt. Especially when the yearly debate of who is the best conference begins and the Big Ten can throw in with Syracuse, Pitt, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Purdue, Illinois (maybe) and Indiana (someday). Beyond that general annoyance, however, there is still a nagging detail that could derail everything for east coast basketball as we know it. College football still rules all. I hate it as much as the next hoophead, but we all know the truth of it.

As the New York Times points out, if the Big East actually lost Pittsburgh, Syracuse and Rutgers that would be a huge hit not just to basketball, but to football as well. At that point, teams like West Virginia, Cincinnati and maybe even UConn might start looking for greener football pastures. Especially if a conference like the ACC decides that if the Big Ten has added three shiny new schools, they might as well top it off at 14 teams too. Imagine a Big East where you have Villanova, Georgetown and…Marquette?

On the other side of the coin, the Big Ten/ACC Challenge would become a monolith. The Pac Ten would have to scramble not to be outdone. Who might they take? Gonzaga? BYU? The SEC, which never cared much about basketball, would probably be relegated to fourth fiddle at best on a permanent basis. Small conferences would collapse. March Madness would see even fewer mid majors. College Basketball would never be the same again.

It’s not all doom and gloom, though. At least Jamie Dixon won’t have to lose to the likes of Seton Hall and South Florida anymore. Jamie Dixon, meet Iowa.