Tuesday, March 25, 2008

"...If the rule you followed brought you to this, of what use was the rule?"

NCAA Tourney Impressions: The First Four Days

Having watched all 48 games (literally), I can safely say: I'm an idiot, as, once again, I've gotten far too cute with my tourney picks. Not that this would ever stop me from analyzing the events of the past four days..

65. Coppin State (16):
64. Mount St. Mary's (16):
63. Mississippi Valley State (16):
62. University of Texas-Arlington (16):
61. Portland State University (16):
60. Austin Peay (15): no comment for any of these six teams. They got beaten soundly, as anticipated. See you in twelve months, MEAC, Big Sky, America East, and Ohio Valley Conferences! It's been real...

59. Belmont (15): hmmm.....seems as though I was wayyyyyyy off with my projection that it was impossible for Belmont to hang tough with Duke. My bad. Good for Belmont, I say. Though, not getting a shot off when inbounding under Duke's basket with 4.2 seconds to go? Inexcusable. Terrible, terrible pass.

58. University of Maryland Baltimore County (15): held their own against a GTown team that would be exposed as horrible, horrible frauds two days later. Still...

57. American University (15): really could've ("could've," Ryan) beaten Tennessee.

56. Boise State University (14):
55. Cal State Fullerton (14):
54. Cornell (14):
53. Oral Roberts (13): No comments here either, except to say: what the hell, Cornell? 17% from the field in the first half?? Thank God I didn't end up picking them.

51. Winthrop (13): grrrr....this was such a clever pick, too. Let the record show that they were tied with Washington State at 29-all at halftime...and then completely shit the bed in the second half, where they were outscored 42-11. That's right, 11 second half points (and it should've been 8, since they hit a meaningless three with seconds to go). Brutal. If CBS is looking to spice up their coverage, might I suggest a webcam trained on my increasingly-reddening face as I watch non-televised game go sour on the ticker? I even promise to keep my pants on.

50. Siena (13): This rank is a little deceiving, since I ended up picking them to go the Sweet 16. They didn't, but beating Vandy was reward enough.

49. George Mason (12): phew.

48. Western Kentucky (12): rot in hell, Hilltoppers. Rot in hell.

47. Texas A&M (9):
46. Miami (7): both teams screwed me over in the 1st round (and A&M almost blew up my bracket altogether Saturday night.)

45. Georgia (14): For much of Thursday afternoon, it looked as though they were going to pull it off against Xavier, which made me furious, since I ended picking against them. In the end, playing five games in seven days seems to have gotten the best of them, as Xavier won going away.

44. West Virginia (7):
good for them.

43. Marquette (6):
impressive showing, as they were oh so close from knocking off two top 15 programs (Kentucky and Stanford). Gutting OT loss.

42. Clemson (5): nailed it!

41. South Alabama (10): the team that everyone was clamoring for to be in the tourney went out like lambs against Butler. I believe this proves the axiom--which I just made up--that "any team that loses to North Texas should not, at any point, be taken seriously." I'll need to remember that one for '09.

40. Oklahoma (6): bah...they were about as bad as I thought they were....just not as lousy at St. Joe's.

39. Oregon (9): I won't lie, I called SI.com's Luke Winn every name under the sun when Oregon jumped out to an early lead (most were variations on the following: "you [string of expletives deleted] idiot, I wanted to pick U of O but you talked me out of it with your [expletives deleted] statistics!"), but he redeemed himself in the end. Sorry about what I said about your wife.

38. UNLV (9):
They've screwed me yet again, since I always pick them to lose in the first round and yet they never seem to. OK, I promise to pick you next year. Now...couldn't you have at least beaten Kansas? I ask for so little...

37. USC (6): nailed it. What made this extra sweet was that so many people--insanely, I might add--had USC advancing to the Final Four (including Bill Simmons and his wife, who, for writing purposes, I'm increasingly convinced are the same person. I'm not alone on that front).

36. Gonzaga (7): Not to brag, but I was really, really bang on with my analysis of this program.

35. Purdue (6): better than I thought. After they clobbered Baylor, I was convinced they'd beat Xavier. They didn't, but they did reveal themselves as a team to watch next year (their starting five this year featured two freshman, two sophomores, and a junior).

34. Michigan State (5): From last Wednesday's post:

Sigh...they're my boys, but I just don't think they're very good this year. Temple is not a great matchup for them. (Note: I'm fully prepared to retract all of this two weeks from now, after they miraculously land in the Final Four.)

The second thing. (When will I learn never to doubt Tom Izzo? After four trips to the Final Four in the past nine years, he's probably earned it.) Let's just move on...

33. Indiana (8): again, spot on. Worst 25-8 team from a major conference I've ever seen. Like the appropriate Wizard of Oz character (tin man? lion? I can never remember...and I've never seen the movie) they have no heart. Also like the appropriate character (Dorothy? Just kidding!), their coach (Dan Dakich) has no brain. A technical foul in the first five minutes of the game when you're team is already fragile? Were you concerned that your "interim coach" label wasn't tenuous enough? Why not just show up drunk, a la Dennis Hopper in Hoosiers?

32. St. Joseph's (11): thanks a lot, jerks.

31. Kansas State (11): As relieved as I was that they prevailed over USC, my anxiety was about ten times worse when they played Wisconsin. Despite the fact that K-State never got within 10 in the second half, I was positive they would make a late run. Thankfully, Beasley--the presumptive #1 pick in this summer's NBA Draft--was cold/flustered most of the game.

30. Arkansas (9): their run ended about as I expected, mainly: decisively, at the hands of UNC.

29. Temple (12): not this year.

28. Mississippi State (9): played Memphis very tough and had a makeable shot to tie it at the end of regulation. While I'm sure they're disappointed, they had a good week.

27. Villanova (12): [pumping my fist]

26. Arizona (10): Flamed out. Lesson: if you're consistently insulting the team that you're about to pick, you should probably go the other way. Though, I will say, right upset (over Duke), wrong team (West Virginia).

25. Baylor (11):
24. BYU (8):
23. Kent State (9):
22. Kentucky (11):
21. St. Mary's (10):
Five misfires, but only one carryover error (Kentucky, whom I had advancing to the Sweet 16). Two quick comments. Kent State: 10 points in the first half?? I stand by my original statement. BYU: to the two guys shooting in the low 40s from the line: there is absolutely no excuse for you two to not be shooting underhand. Honestly. There's no way you'd be below 60% using that method. And for anyone that will argue that it's embarrassing to granny your FTs, I'll ask: more embarrassing than 43%? Not possible.

20. Butler (7): I so wanted them to beat Tennessee...(suggested headline: "(The) Butler Did It!")...and, frankly, they should've gotten a better shot off at the end of regulation. Mark my words, no team will be pleased to be facing Butler next March....even if they are losing A.J. Graves.

19. Washington State (4): 0-2 with these guys. Whoops.

18. Connecticut (4): looks good on them.

17. Xavier (3): tough squad.

16. Davidson (10): My only legitimate genius moment in this year's tourney, as only about 5% of participants (according to ESPN's National Bracket) had mighty Davidson in the Sweet 16. I [insert heart emoticon] Stephen Curry, who has put up 70 points in two games, and was absolutely money from the line down the stretch against GTown.

15. Drake (5): Groan...I love this team...and I'm sad to see them go. Their OT loss against Western Kentucky led to my only angry shower of the first four days (over/under: 1.5).

14. Georgetown (2): I told you! By the way, Roy Hibbert (who was in foul trouble) played 16 minutes, was 3-3 from the field, scored 6 points, nabbed one fucking rebound, and busted roughly 200,000 brackets. It drives me crazy that Hibbert is projected to go 14th in the draft (to Denver), ahead of Hansbrough, Douglas-Roberts, and Hasheem Thabeet (...and to that future Nuggets club: I'm sorry).

13. Vanderbilt (4): I should've known better.

12. Pittsburgh (4): I should've known better.

11. Louisville (3): From Wednesday's post:

[there's] seemingly no buzz at all about this year's team, which is kind of confusing.

I stand by this, as the Cardinals--who've won their two tourney games by a combined 48 points--seem lightning hot at the moment, and I'm not surprised in the slightest that they're a 2.5 point favorite against a Tennessee team that's looked very beatable of late.

10. Stanford (3): I was going to open with a rant about Stanford coach Trent Johnson who--inexcusably, in my mind--got himself ejected from their 2nd Round game against Marquette, but SI's Grant Wahl has convinced me that power-tripping ref Clark Shaw is to blame. Fine then. The Lopez brothers (Brook in particular) really showed me something Saturday night...

9. Notre Dame (5): ...as opposed to these guys, who, by all accounts, shit the bed Saturday against a middling Washington State squad. I blame myself, since I assumed that a team that averaged 80.7 points a game would be able to hang with a more offensively-challenged Pac-10 team. Instead, they scored 41 points...or slightly more than a point a minute (GOD!). I'm trying to work up the energy to be annoyed that this game was barely televised (CBS aired about two minutes from the first half), but, truthfully, I wouldn't have wanted to watch this trash. Disappointing.

8. Tennessee (2): I dunno. Either they learn from their mistakes (sloppy play, poor shot selection, ragged D) or they flame out. I'm leaning towards the latter.

7. Duke (2): Exposed. Misha, a diehard Duke fans, thinks they should blow-up the whole Duke model (athletic players; offensively minded; heavily reliant on perimeter shooting--and thus quite streaky; no inside presence--aka "the donut system") as they're not capable of winning a title with what they have right now. Let's put it this way: I don't disagree.

6. Kansas (1): wishing I was approximately 30% less smug in condemning the Jayhawks last week, but I'm still not sold on them.

5. Texas (2):
Rick Barnes--the occasionally dim but generally competent Texas coach--ought to take the tape of the final four minutes of Sunday's game against Miami, jazz it up with some star wipes, then sell it online. Suggested title: "How Not to Close Out a Game." Yes, they won, and yes they were up by 15 in the second half...but the final margin--2--has got to be a bit disconcerting. That Miami team isn't very good. They're just not.

4. Wisconsin (3): Looked awful against Cal State Fullerton, but handled K-State with (what was in retrospect) relative ease. (And--sorry in advance for getting a little wonky here--kudos to Bo Ryan for realizing what coaches now seem to forget: that fronting a dominant post player is an effective way to neutralize the threat...provided you have weak side help. Beasley got his 23...but was clearly rattled.) A potential showdown with Kansas is looming. If they can control the tempo, they'll win.

3. Memphis (1): You're right, totally a dead issue. I promise to stop harping on Memphis's shoddy FT shooting as soon as coach John Calipari stops being an asshole about the whole thing. At last night's press conference, he had these two gems:

“We made more free throws [Memphis made 15 of 32, versus MSU hitting 14 of 20] than them,” Calipari said. "We beat them at the free-throw line.”

“The free throws we need to make, we’ll make,” Calipari said. “I’ve got absolutely no issues. There are three, four other issues I worry about. It’s not free-throw shooting.”


2. North Carolina (1): underreported story: Roy Williams being a total dick and playing his starters against Arkansas until they got 100 points...even though they. Real classy. And yet he's routinely hailed as a fantastic guy because...why, exactly? He doesn't swear? He's folsky? He's got a--and I find this super-creepy, btw--picture of a bloodied Tyler Hansbrough on his desk, reinforcing the whole "loving father" image? I don't get it.

1. UCLA (1): Survived a very real scare...and I know it won't be easy from here on in (except for--fingers crossed--the Western Kentucky game), but they're mentally tougher than anyone else left and I'm sticking with them.

What I Liked About the First 48 Games

1. great games:
so far, we've had five classics this year (Duke-Belmont, WKU-Drake, USD-UConn, Texas A&;M-UCLA, and Stanford-Marquette), plus six more very good games/near-classics (Davidson-GTown, Butler-Tennessee, Gonzaga-Davidson, Clemson-Villanova, West Virginia-Duke, Memphis-Miss. St). That's about 25% of the games (hell, you could probably throw in American-Tennessee on Friday to make it an even twelve), which isn't too bad. True, Thursday, Duke game aside, was a bit of a dud, but the next three days delivered some ridiculously compelling basketball. Good times.

2. sexy upcoming matchups: Louisville-Tennessee, Michigan State-Memphis, Davidson-Wisconsin, and Stanford-Texas...and those are just the ones that are guaranteed to happen in Round 3.

3. At the moment, my Elite Eight is still intact: I know. I'm frightened too.

4. This.

What I Didn't Like

1. Reliance on the 3:
I know I say this every year, but they really need to move the 3 point line back in college basketball. Yes, it is the great equalizer and it's probably the single biggest reason why lower seeds can hang and bang with the major programs, but, my God, do these people chuck. From watching the games and skimming a dozen or so box scores, I can safely say that you'll be hard-pressed to find a team that attempted fewer than 33% of its shots from behind the arc...and many are creeping up (or exceeding) the 50% barrier. (And, no, I don't feel the need to back this up with empirical evidence. Just trust me.) That's just scary, as it discourages teams from running true five man offenses. And, to head you off before you raise this point, for every game with incredibly impressive shooting (witness Drake and Western Kentucky going a combined 30 of 70 from 3PT range), there's a cover-your-eyes-awful performance from someone else (see Oregon and Mississippi State, who were a tepid 13 of 55 from downtown).

2. Dumb rules: Much as it would have satisfied me to see Memphis get taken down by Mississippi State, I have to admit that MSU relied on a fairly underhanded tactic. Looking to foul with less than two minutes to go on a dead ball, MSU fouled Joey Dorsey--who is lucky to knock down 4 out of 10 on a given day--intentionally while the clock was stopped. This accomplished two things: it put a notoriously poor shooter on the line and, because no time elapsed, extended the game for MSU. But, here's the thing: these fouls weren't deemed intentional (which would mean two shots plus the ball back for Memphis). Now...not to get to technical, but last time I checked, intentional meant "done with intention or on purpose." Furthermore, there can be no doubt that MSU was handpicking the shooter.

Look, you can't have that rule on the books. You just can't. More to the point, I can't for the life of me understand why the NCAA would want to reward teams for exploiting something that's patently unfair. Unless, you know, they like the idea of keeping the games close. (Ohhhhhh.)

(Also, I'm dying for the NCAA powers that be to eliminate the whole Scottie Pippen-esque "I'm going to pump fake and get the defender to jump, then immediately jump into him and half-heartedly attempt a shot in a effort to get a shooting foul called." Terrible for the game. Look, 85% of the time I bitched about a no-call in a game, I was told that it was because I wasn't going up under control (i.e. they didn't want to bail me out). Fine. I hated it then, but I understand the logic now. So why can't they incorporate this in college ball? I'm mystified.)

3. Chalk picks: I know I say this every (or most) year(s), but it continues to bother me when picking chalk (i.e. all favorites)--which an infant or a semi-competent monkey could easily do--yields better results that an informed (i.e. my) set of picks. Well, this is one of those years, as, under the Yahoo! format, you'd have 47 points (out of a possible 64) right now, and, in my Canadian law school pool, would be comfortably positioned in a tie for 25th out of 483 participants. I, on the other hand, with my 39 points, am languishing in a tie for 312th, behind 18 people who picked Duke to win it all, 7 who went with Georgetown, one who chose UConn, and another who--improbably--made no National Champion selection whatsoever. To which, all I can say is: goddammit.

4. There's roughly a 50% chance that Carrie's parents think I'm absolutely fucking insane at this point:
...most likely because I planned four days entirely around watching the games, including taping six hours of coverage Saturday night while we were out at theatre, putting post-it notes on the TV screen so I could watch the last two minutes of the UCLA-Texas A&M game without having the other scores spoiled for me by the Score's ticker, then watching the rest of the games on tape until 3 in the morning. Jim, Carrie's dad, observed on Sunday: "You know, most people watch basketball for one or two hours, but you've watched it for one or two days." I think he was impressed, but he could easily have been horrified.

A brief Round 3 and 4 preview should be up by Thursday night...

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