Sunday, March 06, 2005

College Basketball 101: Take the home 'dog!
By Zach

Today was an action-packed day in college basketball, and a great taste of what the NCAA tournament will no doubt be like, with numerous upsets and near upsets throughout the day. A few things became clear to me while watching these games...or at least while thinking about them

First, the Ohio State Buckeyes ended Illinois' hopes of a perfect season, winning 65-64 on a late three-pointer by Matt Sylvester. To me, this game was an almost mirror image of a game last year, when Stanford visited Washington on the last day of the regular season and lost their chance at an undefeated year. In Washington's case, that win probably earned them their ticket to the NCAA Tournament (though reaching the finals of the Pac-10 Tournament probably helped). Ohio State would be in much the same boat at 19-11 had they not placed themselves on probation. Here's the part where I give props to my boy Ryan, who called this game a month and a half ago, much like I called the Washington game weeks in advance. Good work Shafer! Last year's game should have showed that Stanford was perhaps much weaker than some people (like me) gave them credit for being. But the difference between last year's Stanford team and this year's Illinois team is a big one. The Illini, undefeated or not, have shown themselves to be the best team in college basketball. Sure, their lack of size hurt them today. But it took a near perfect game from a desperate home team to beat them, and I'm not sure anyone else will be able to conjure up that effort against them come tourney time.

Next came a pair of upsets that Ben can confirm I called. Florida beat #3 (and overrated) Kentucky 53-52, and Missouri beat #7 (and vastly overrated) Kansas 72-68. During the UF-UK game, I lamented the fact that Florida wouldn't earn a high seed in the tournament, and thus I couldn't guarantee that they wouldn't make it past the second round. Ben asked why certain schools always seem to flame out when they're seeded highly (Florida, Kentucky, Cincinnati) and I told him it was because when you play in a mediocre conference (SEC, C-USA) you just don't get tested in conference. If you don't schedule big out-of-conference games, you never get used to playing with the talent and pressure you face in the NCAAs. Now, Kentucky certainly tried to counteract that this year, playing at North Carolina, at Louisville (though this is a rivalry game they play every year) and home against Kansas. They lost to UNC and Kansas, and beat Louisville. They earned the #3 ranking more because they beat up on bad teams early on in the year, then won a string of games against bad SEC teams (Vandy, @UGA, @Miss, LSU, @Tenn, @Ark, @Vandy, Florida, Georgia) while other teams above them lost. The fact remains that they only have one real non-conference scalp, while they've been scalped twice, including once at home.

Kansas, on the other hand, looked like the real deal early in the year, beating Georgia Tech at home (of course, that was when people though Georgia Tech was good...which they're not) and at Kentucky. Things were looking good until they got smoked at Villanova. They seem to right the ship, helped mainly by a soft Big 12 schedule (is there any other kind), then dropped three straight games, @Texas Tech, home against Iowa State, and @Oklahoma. The road losses are understandable, since winning on the road is the hardest thing to do in college basketball, but a home loss to Iowa State is inexcusable. Kansas has, like Kentucky, been riding a high early-season ranking, and will probably still be in the top 10 tomorrow despite losing four of their last six games. Plus, they'll be without Keith Langford for at least the Big 12 tournament, as he re-injured his ankle during the game.

Next came North Carolina-Duke. Duke actually impressed me, staying in the game on the road agaisnt a very good team. Of course, their utter lack of size up front (beyond the very good but very foul-prone Sheldon Williams) killed them, with Sean May scoring 26 points and grabbing 24 rebounds. Shavlik Randolph fouled out after playing 15 minutes. My thoughts on Duke are the same as everyone else's (besides a few token Duke-whores). They're very talented, but paper-thin. Redick can score (but not do much else), Williams is a beast when he's on the court, and Ewing is a solid point. But they played their starters (besides Randolph) at least 36 minutes each. Redick played 39 minutes. That can, no, will hurt them in the tourney. I think they're a Sweet Sixteen team at best. UNC on the other hand has more talent than anyone else. But they've never fully matured into that talent. I think they'll get deeper than last year's second round ouster, but it's going to be hard for me to pick them to go to the Final Four unless they get a favorable region (with a team like BC as the #2, for example). They make too many mental mistakes to win a tough neutral-court game against a good team.

Last of all was my third home underdog pick, as I took NC State over Wake. Boy, I came real close to getting that one, too. I actually like Wake, but I thought they were primed for an upset. Had NC State shown any intelligence whatsoever, they would have won the game. First, after Wake tied the game on a three-pointer with 12 seconds left, who-dat State guard Engin Atsur airballed a pull-up three-pointer with 4 seconds left. I mean, sure, you could get the ball to Julius Hodge or Ivan Evtimov, but a contested pull-up three is a sure thing. Then, NC State played perhaps the worst end-game transisition D this side of Tyus Edney, allowing Chris Paul to take the ball the length of the court for a pull-up 12 footer as time expired. Inexplicably, no one bothered to challege Paul until he got within 12 feet.

In a situation like that, you want to make someone besides the point guard bring the ball up the court. Paul inbounded it to forward Vytas Danelius, who was jumped by an NC State forward. Why not double Paul instead and make Danelius bring it up the court? Herb Sendek's team has been a major disappointment this year, and its plays like that which illustrate why.

So, as we head into the last week of the regular season, where do we stand?

Here are my quick thoughts:

-The Big East is the deepest conference, but I'd be far from shocked if no team made the Elite Eight.

-Beyond UNC, Wake, and Duke, no ACC team has distinguished itself this year. Of course several of them will get in (Maryland and G-Tech, probably), but they're not particularly deserving.

-This will be they real year of the Mid-Major, as teams like Pacific, Nevada, Southern Illinois, Utah, and Gonzaga (not really a mid-major any more) could all go beyond the Sweet Sixteen.

-Expect this to be the first year since 2000 where the National Champion doesn't come from the Big East or ACC. Only UNC and Wake will have a shot, in my mind, while teams like Illinois, Washington, Gonzaga, and Utah all could be cutting down the nets in St. Louis.

-My bracket will be better than last year's, even though the presence of Washington will of course force me to skew my picks.

So, enjoy the final week, and I'll see you on Selection Sunday.


Blogger Steve said...

Go UW... despite the recent loss I can't wait to actually get to see them play. Everytime CBS is going to show them I have to watch regional Eastern action instead. I'm not sure the champ will come from the Big East or the ACC either... Wake and UConn seem possible though (I can't see UNC stringing together the strong games they'd need... don't ask me why). Illinois has to be the favorite... and now without the pressure of going undefeated I think they'll be even stronger.

4:01 PM  

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