Wednesday, March 14, 2007

The Million Dollar Bracket, Year 2

So there I was Sunday night, poised at the keyboard, ready to write my 10,000-word thesis on the Drexel snub, the fellating of the Big 10, whether Jay “Puppy Kicker” Bilas is pure, undiluted evil or if, like Darth Vader, there’s still a few tiny specks of good still in him. (The answer: he’s from Duke. So no.)

Then I get this tap on my shoulder.

The JCCW: Oh, Real Life. Hey, how you doing? Could we make it quick? I’ve got this post I want to write and …
REAL LIFE: Let me just stop you there. I’ve got an awful lot of work I need you to do over the next couple of days, and if you could help me out with that it would be really appreciated.
THE JCCW: Oh, um, sure. But, uh, could you maybe just cut me a little bit of slack on this one, Real Life? You know I’m a college hoops blogger, and with this being the biggest week of college hoops season and all, it’s really important that …
REAL LIFE: Oh, is that what do you call it … Tournament, thing, that you like so much … is that this week? I’m not the biggest sports fan. Still, if you could just do V, W, X, and Y, and if you could get to Z that would just be great. Thanks so much!
The JCCW: *Siiiiiiiigh*

So the Million Dollar Bracket: Year 2 is arriving too late for it to be of any use to anyone. (Except maybe, after this weekend, as an archeological document on how not to pick a bracket.) In the exceedingly likely prospect that you’re unfamiliar with or have forgotten the Million Dollar Bracket project, here’s last season’s version. Basically, what the JCCW is attempting to pull off is nothing less than the greatest feat of sports prognostication in the history of man: a perfect NCAA Tournament bracket.

It will happen when pigs not only fly, but do so by ditching the commonly illustrated cherub wings* for a rocket ship made of corn cobs and mud. I know that. But aiming for anything less (like, say, winning the office pool) just feels like resorting to conservative pragmatism and general half-assery … like a dozen people’s senior quotes in my high school yearbook said, you shoot for the moon, you end up amongst the stars, right?

So here’s how, in theory, you pick a Million Dollar Bracket:

1. Rule out any 1 seeds that will lose in the second round. Up until last year, a top seed had lost in the second round every even-numbered year (but never in an odd-numbered year) every tournament since 1990. It didn’t happen, but in the JCCW’s view that only makes it more likely it’ll happen this year—there’s only been one three-year stretch in the 64-team tournament era without one, and that was ’87-89.

So who? There’s two candidates: Arizona (after bludgeoning Purdue) over a potentially sleepwalking Florida, and Michigan St. or Marquette over UNC.

In the first possibility, the way the Gators rolled through the SEC tourney and the way Arizona just doesn’t seem to have enough defense even when playing their best ... it's a game that looks competitive, but also looks very much like it's Florida’s.

On the other hand, Carolina is a team a) whose best player flailed through the ACC tourney thanks to his unfortunate and ongoing Phantom of the Opera impression b) that is very, very young and like young teams does things like lose to lesser foes c) is coached by the same coach that brought you both 9-seed UTEP over 1-seed Kansas in 1992 and 8-seed Rhode Island over 1-seed Kansas in 1998.

Michigan St.? Wonk says they’re Ohio St. or Wisconsin in disguise if they just hold onto the damn ball. Also, the last two times Michigan St. lost in the first round, Tom Izzo took them to the Elite Eight as a 7-seed and the Final Four as a 5-seed the following seasons. As you’ll recall, the Spartans were upset by George Mason last year. Expect more big things—as in a win over wounded Marquette and an upset of the Tar Heels.

2. Pick a Final Four of one or two 1-seeds, one or two 2-seeds, and a sleeper. With no 1-seeds in last year’s Final Four, it looks like a good year for two to make it. The Midwest doesn’t offer any serious threats to Florida, so there’s one. Kansas has been on the JCCW’s Final Four list for months, so there’s two.

In the South, Memphis was supposed to be vulnerable last year as a 1 and laughed all the way to the Elite 8, where they would have beaten UCLA if not for a damn-near-impossibly bad shooting night. Sure, the C-USA sucks, but they dominated it in a fashion they didn’t even manage last year. They’re the Final Four’s 2-seed.

Everybody loves them some Georgetown in the East (and those that don’t love them love the Heels) but while the Hoyas were rolling through a mediocre Big East (and the Heels were busy looking bored against N.C. State), Texas was busy twice taking Kansas down to the very wire. The Horns have gotten progressively better all season, and by the Elite 8, they’ll be better than Georgetown. They’re the sleeper.

3. Pick one or two first-round upsets of protected (i.e.1-4) seeds. There’s been 37 of these in 21 years, so that’s around 1.75 a year, or about five every three years. With two each of the past two seasons and a few solid Cinderellas biting the dust in their conference tourneys, I think there’s only one this year.

The semi-candidates are TAMU-CC over Wisconsin (slow game plus Christi’s 3-point bombers could be gold), Albany over Virginia (Virginia isn’t any good, Albany’s Jamar Wilson is), and Wright St. over Pitt (Dashaun Wood! Dashaun Wood!). But those are still pretty unlikely, in TAMU-CC’s and Wright’s case because Wisconsin and Pitt are well-coached and solid, and in Albany’s case because they’re still Albany.

So the real candidates are Holy Cross over Southern Illinois, Oral Roberts over Washington St., and Davidson over Maryland. The Oral Roberts upset is a carbon-copy of last year’s Winthrop over Tennessee pick: experienced, savvy multi-tournament team going against overseeded, fading, first-time-in-the-NCAAs-in-forever team and gets plenty of analyst love (Seth Davis predicted a Roberts win the moment the brackets were revealed). It’s so, so tempting. But I think it ends like the Winthrop game: with the high seed just awake enough to just edge the Cinderella.

That leaves Holy Cross and Davidson. Both have veteran coaches. Both have major-conference talent. Both are due as hell after some close calls over the past several years. But Davidson has the weaker opponent—and one much more likely to look past a mid-major. After the unconscionable cruelty of Maryland’s escape past UNC-Wilmington in 2003—on what has to be the luckiest shot in NCAA history—karma has some wicked payback in store for the Terps.

4. Pick two or three 5-12 and 6-11 upsets. There’s an average of 2.6 of these a year, or around five every two years. After four last year, two is probably the smarter call, but … I just happen to think USC and Butler are awfully ripe, and playing teams in Arkansas and Old Dominion that have shown some ability to win away from home.

And I’m picking Winthrop again. Notre Dame is a good team, no question. They looked very good against Georgetown, no question. But Winthrop has to win this game. They have to. Or they are cursed, and will never get over the hump, and are unworthy of the hype and blah blah blah. Gregg Marshall's not ready to hear all that, and that should make the difference. (Also? Winthrop still defends 3’s pretty well—and 3’s are a big, big part of the Notre Dame offense.)

5. Find six or seven protected seeds that will fall before the Sweet 16. You know what drives me bonkers? Experts that to a man (or woman) don’t seem to understand how frequently protected seeds lose in the first weekend. There hasn’t been any fewer than six gone by the round of 16 for a decade, but here’s an alleged “expert” telling us there’s going to be two and another saying three. This guy has the stones to call Oral Roberts for the Sweet 16 … but then only two other non-protected seeds in the rest of the bracket?

My feeling is that the conference tourney upsets and a stronger set of 2 seeds that usual means we’re looking at six upset favorites, same as last year. We’ve already evicted (1) UNC and (2) Maryland. Let’s add (3) Oregon, who doesn’t play defense, surely peaked at the Pac-10 tourney, and (like Notre Dame) gets a lot of points from deep. Winthrop can take them. (4) Washington St. will fall to a streaking Vandy, who made the Sweet 16 as a late-charging 6 a few years back. (5) Virginia sucks and will lose to Tennessee, who will surely thank their deities of choice they were handed patsies like ridiculously overseeded Long Beach and the Cavaliers. And Louisville will take advantage of their unfair home court advantage by toppling (6) Texas A&M, who has somehow become a consensus Final Four favorite despite the fact they lost two of their last three games.

6. You need a Cinderella. First, it’s no fun if you don’t. Second, defining a bona fide Cinderella as “a double-digit seed mid-major (A-10 and MWC excluded) that advances to the Sweet 16,” there’s been at least one Cinderella each of the last 10 seasons and 17 of 21. If you’ve been paying attention, you know Winthrop’s one. But by the happy coincidence of Old Dominion and Davidson facing each other in the second round, ODU becomes a second. No less a personage than Gregg Doyel is on board with Davidson in this game, but I think you have to take the Colonial team over the SoCon team after what Mason did last year.

7. Fill in. We’ve got our Final Four, our Sweet 16, and our first-round upsets. What’s left? In the East, Texas Tech takes advantage of better coaching to beat Boston College. Georgetown dumps Vandy to advance to face Texas in the Elite 8. In the South, BYU beats Xavier and Creighton ousts “We didn’t beat anyone the RPI ranks higher than 45th, and that was at home, but for whatever reason people still think we were underseeded” Nevada. Ohio St. makes shorter work of Tennessee this time around in the regional semis, before losing to Memphis. In the West, Duke has too much coaching (dammit) for VCU, Gonzaga wreaks vengeance for the Committee’s Big 10 fascination on Indiana, SIU sees off Virginia Tech, and Pitt earns the JCCW’s gratitude for dumping Duke before getting dispatched itself by a just-plain better UCLA in the Sweet 16.

Now, in the Midwest, there’s a dilemma. UNLV will take out their seeding frustration on Ga. Tech before getting bounced in the second round by Wisconsin, who’s a lot closer to home than the Rebels. But does Wisconsin or Winthrop advance to the Elite 8? The ol’ gut says Winthrop can’t pull a third straight upset, even over a team that had to go to overtime to beat them the first time around at home and at full strength. The Badgers won’t have either of those advantages in a rematch. But just as important—really, more importantly in the Million Dollar Bracket’s eyes—is the fact that with Ohio St. meeting Memphis and Kansas facing UCLA, a Florida-Wisky match-up would mean three 1-vs.-2 contests in the Elite 8. That’s never happened. Plus, a Wisconsin win would mean the lowest seed in the round of 8 would be Texas’s 4—and all 21 Elite 8’s have had at least a 5 or 6. In fact, no Elite 8 since 1996 has gone without at least one team seeded 7th or lower. The only candidates for that qualification the JCCW can see are the Ga. Tech/UNLV winner, the Creighton/Nevada winner, Gonzaga, Mich. St., maaaaaaaaybe Texas Tech or Arizona … or Winthrop. Of all those nominees, I like Winthrop’s draw (every other 2-seed, or Texas, or Florida, are too strong) and Winthrop’s massive cache of karma best. I think they beat the Badgers and make the Elite 8.

Is that likely at all? No. But some team seeded 7th or lower is going to get that far. If you’re trying to win your office pool, you pick Wisconsin and don’t sweat it. If you’re trying for a Million Dollar Bracket? You take your best guess and hope.

8. Finally, pick your winner. I like Texas’s athletes even better than I like Memphis’s, so the Longhorns win one semifinal. In the other, the run simply has to end sometime for Florida. Winning 12 straight NCAA Tournament games in today’s college basketball is, in the JCCW’s opinion, all but impossible. Kansas advances.

And because Kansas has already proven they’re just a touch better than Texas, they score just a touch more in yet another classic between the two. The Jayhawks have looked like the best team in college hoop to the JCCW for a while, and while the best team doesn’t always win the NCAAs, I think this time it will.

So there you go. Worth a million dollars? No. Evidence that it’s probably time to think about investing in a shrink? Probably. Fun as hell to put together, research, and write up? Oh yeah. Here’s hoping your NCAAs are just as fun.

*You'll have to scroll a bit.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

JCCW Bracketology

Two quick things before my bracket guess:

--Boy, spoke just a wee bit too soon about the success of conference tourney favorites, didn't I? Akron, Delaware St., and Vermont all went down yesterday, all in excruciating fashion. The result is that the bottom of the bracket is gutted. Barring some seeding wackiness from the Committee (always a possibility) TAMU-CC (which itself survived a huge scare from Northwestern St. just a few seconds ago) looks like the only potential giant-killer at either the 14 or 15 lines.

--Will be fascinated to see what the Committee does with the play-in game. The obvious candidates are Jackson St. and Florida A&M, but shunting both representatives from the HBCU conferences out of the bracket proper could cause an impressive amount of sh*t to hit the fan. But to stick either school into the bracket proper will be a riotous injustice to whatever team does wind up in the play-in. It's a catch-22 ... and I'm hoping like hell it's the kind of catch-22 that results in the game being put out of its sparsely-attended, viewer-ignored, absurdly-unfair misery.

The Bubble

The JCCW thinks 14 teams have reasonable arguments for being either slipped in or left out. That's a lot. Though every year people say "This was the hardest bracket to pick ever," there's actually some truth this season, methinks. With 31 autos and 27 locks, that means the first seven of those 14 get in. The ranking:


1. 2. Texas Tech, Georgia Tech: Too many wins over teams like Kansas and North Carolina to leave out.
3. Drexel: Every year the Committee preches road wins. How can you leave out a team that is all but the pure embodiment, the Walking Avatars, of the solid road win?
4. Syracuse: Not as good a profile as some think, since the Georgetown win is cancelled out by some questionable losses. The win at Marquette saves them.
5. Stanford: Oregon's surge gives them a lift, and they did beat UCLA.
6. Old Dominion: I'm worried, but that late-season winning streak is impressive.
7. Kansas St.: The last team in, basically on the strength of having accomplished something in their conference tourney and having a quality road win (at Texas) that the next team down does not.


8. Purdue: As pointed out before: Zero RPI top 100 road wins. The JCCW was shocked at the reaction to their Big 10-tourney win over Iowa. How does beating Iowa on a neutral court prove anything?
9. Air Force: Absolutely horrible on the road in-conference and obviously the four-game losing streak suggests they're not going to compete even if invited.
10. Florida St.: No bad losses and a handful of good wins (including a road win at Duke) should equal a bid and I wouldn't be surprised if they make it. But there's just so many losses.
11. Arkansas: The Committee is simply not going to spend too much time looking at a team that had no case when the selection process started. Plus, a below-.500 record in the SEC West?
12. Missouri St.: Covered this a couple posts back. Too many squandered chances.
13. Appalachian St.: Vandy's tumble didn't help.
14. Illinois: Their best win is a neutral-court win over Indiana. Gimme a break.

So, the bracket, complete with bad guesses at sites and whatnot. I tried to observe most bracketing procedures, but did happily ignore BYU's no-Sunday restriction:


1. Ohio St. vs. 16. FAMU/Jackson St., 8. Nevada vs. 9. Xavier (Lexington)
5. Virginia Tech vs. 12. Wright St., 4. Lousiville vs. 13. Holy Cross (Buffalo)
6. Boston College vs. 11. Syracuse, 3. Texas A&M vs. 14. Texas A&M-Corpus Christi (New Orleans)
7. Vanderbilt vs. 10. VCU, 2. Memphis vs. 15. Belmont (Lexington)



1. UCLA vs. 16. Weber St., 8. Kentucky vs. 9. Winthrop (Sacramento)
5. Maryland vs. 12. Gonzaga, 4. Pitt vs. 13. Davidson (Buffalo)
6. Notre Dame vs. 11. Drexel, 3. Southern Illinois vs. 14 Penn (Columbus)
7. Duke vs. 10. Arizona, 2. Kansas vs. 15. Niagara (Chicago)


1. North Carolina vs. 16. CCSU, 8. Villanova vs. 9. Michigan St. (Winston-Salem)
5. Tennessee vs. 12. New Mexico St., 4. Washington St. vs. 13. Long Beach St. (Spokane)
6. Marquette vs. 11. Stanford, 3. Texas vs. 14. Albany (Columbus)
7. Butler vs. 10. Georgia Tech, 2. Wisconsin vs. 15. Eastern Kentucky (Chicago)



1. Florida vs. 16. North Texas, 8. USC vs. 9. Indiana (New Orleans)
5. Virginia vs. 12. Kansas St., 4. UNLV vs. 13. Oral Roberts (Sacramento)
6. Creighton vs. 11. Old Dominion, 3. Oregon vs. 14. George Washington (Spokane)
7. BYU vs. 10. Texas Tech, 2. Georgetown vs. 15. Miami (OH) (Winston-Salem)

Getting all 34 at-larges will result in some serious gloating later this evening. Stay tuned.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

The deep sleepers

If I had the kind of time to put together clips for YouTube, and was also the sort of person who would spend said time putting together clips for YouTube, I would have put together the following clip this week:

RECE DAVIS: So which of that list of automatic qualifiers do you think has a chance to make some noise in this year’s Tournament?
DIGGER PHELPS: Well, I think Winthrop …
DICK VITALE: Winthrop, baby!
RICK MAJERUS: When you look at Winthrop …
JAY BILAS: North Carolina.
RECE: Uh, Jay, Carolina’s not …
JAY BILAS: You’re inviting these teams to play for a championship.
RECE: ... Right.

Suffice it to say, if we were voting mid-majors into a high school yearbook, Winthrop would win “Most Likely To Succeed” in a landslide. And despite the previous fate of similar honorees (somewhere, Western Michigan is crying into its beer and muttering “Like we asked Vegas to make us a favorite”) Winthrop is so good and so experienced and so incredibly overdue it may not matter.

Still, the discussion of Cinderellas-in-waiting shouldn’t both begin and end with Winthrop. Here’s five more, all flying at various levels under the radar, one of which I all-but-guarantee will be good for an upset next week:


The MAC is due. The one-time year-in-year-out giant slayer (think about it … Kent St in the Elite Eight. Central Michigan and the Hulkster dumping Kyle Korver’s Creighton. Miami (OH)’s Wally Sczerbiak beating Washington and Utah one-on-five.) hasn’t scored an upset since 2003. And the Zips are the far-and-away the best bet to snap that streak. Point guard Dru Joyce (4.4 apg) and forward Romeo Travis (15.1 ppg, 5.8 rpg) form a sweet senior inside-outside duo and juniors Cedrick Middleton and Nick Dials round out the MAC’s best backcourt. The Zips have the 12th-best shooting percentage in the country. They just flattened Central Michigan 82-53, beat back a good Kent St. team, and saw the 1-seed (Toledo) fall in the other semi. If this team survives the final, the MAC will be back.

Texas A&M-Corpus Christi

Ladies and gents, if you’re looking for the next Winthrop or Davidson—i.e., a mid-major who will basically contend for their auto-bid every single year for the foreseeable future—this is it. The Islanders have crazy mid-major size (7-0 center Chris Daniels averages 15.3 and 6.8), crazy efficient guard play (senior Josh Washington shoots 46.8 from three), and a seriously crazy giant-killing pedigree from their days as an independent. They wiped the floor (14-2) with the same Southland that sent Northwestern St. to glory last year. If the two-year return of the 14-over-3 upset is to continue, this is the team that will do it.

Wright St.

To this point, Wright St. has just been “that team that kept Butler from winning the Horizon.” No one’s seemed to notice this team has an excellent shot at upsetting teams other than Butler. First, consider that the Raiders won a regular-season title in a league that’s won five NCAA games the last four years. Second, consider Dashaun Woods, and the fact that he could win a game all by his scrawny self. Third, consider that Brad Brownell has NCAA experience from his time at the Dub. Wright was a better team than Butler in Horizon regular-season play, better in the Horizon tournament, and it shouldn’t surprise anyone if they're better in the NCAAs as well.

Delaware St.

If there’s going to be the national holiday, ticker-tape parades, and days of feasting that will surely, surely accompany the first 16-over-1 upset in history, it’s going to come courtesy of the Hornets. Yes, they’re a MEAC team, yes, they may very well be a 16. But how many 16 seeds boast an NBA prospect (6-6 guard Jasha Blunt), a 6-6 Cincinnati transfer that also averages 15 a game (Roy Bright), and a wicked slow-down game (this is the 334th-fastest team in the country) that could throw the right opponent (go-go-go North Carolina?) way off-kilter. Plus, two of the four 15 seeds to ever pull upsets (Coppin St. 1997, Hampton 2001) were from the MEAC—and Delaware St. is every bit the equal of those squads.

Holy Cross

Ralph Willard and the Crusaders might be the only coach and team more due than Gregg Marshall and Winthrop. 2001: the 15th-seeded Cross leads Tayshaun Prince and Kentucky midway through the second half, loses by four. 2002: the 16th-seeded Cross leads Kansas and their boatload of NBA players early in the second half, loses by 11. 2003: the 14th-seeded Cross leads Dwyane Wade’s Marquette team midway through the second half, loses by four. With Keith Simmons and Tim Clifford, Willard has more than enough tools to finally get his team over the hump.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Belly buttons, excuses, and ...

Opinions. Everyone who follows college hoops at all’s got one these days. (They also have Winthrop pegged as their tournament sleeper. All of them.) Opinions on who gets in, who should get in, who’s got a Sweet 16 run in them, who’s got a Final Four run in them, whether South Carolina will get a chance for their unprecedented third consecutive NIT championship … it’s just one giant water cooler in college hoop these days. (As an aside, I’m going to watch every minute I can of the NBA playoffs. But the hot topics in NBA-land right now? Next year’s free-agent class and the top centers of all time. What a brutal ass-kicking. The Association needs to cut its regular season in half, honestly.)

The JCCW’s got ‘em too, of course. Here they are, with just three days to go to Selection Sunday:

Missouri St. had their chances. An underrated method of evaluating NCAA candidacies is a team’s record against teams in the at-large field. (Well, I don’t know if it’s underrated. I don’t know if it gets discussed by the Committee or not. But it should be.) The Bears’ 12-6 record in the MoVal is costume jewelry--looks nice, but with Bradley’s and Wichita’s demise none of those 12 wins is over a serious at-large candidate. Following the Bears’ (admittedly terrific) neutral-court win over Wisconsin in November, they’ve had six chances against at-large quality teams, three at home and one on a neutral court—and lost every one of them. Twice to SIU, thrice to Creighton, once to Winthrop. Much as I would love to see another MVC team at the expense of mediocrities like Purdue or Florida St., especially after the Bears got the snub from the Worst Committee Ever last season, those teams have taken advantage of at least one or two of their opportunities. The Bears haven't. They're toast.

This is the best Championship Week in memory. Can’t say “Best C-Week Ever,” since I don’t really remember the ones from my junior high years well enough. But the Big South, OVC, Horizon, MAAC, Mid-Con, Colonial, and NEC have all produced outstanding games while the Sun Belt, MoVal, SoCon, and Big Sky have been competitive or slightly better than that. The Atlantic Sun (boo!) has tossed up the only clunker, and that was just because Belmont was so hot they could have thrown a camel through the eye of a needle, figuratively speaking. And Holy Cross-Bucknell is next up. It’s only going to get better.

Neither Purdue nor Illinois deserve bids. Drexel does. The best wins RPI-wise for both the Big 10’s bubble boys are identical—Indiana and Michigan St., neither of which is nearly as good as beating, oh, either Creighton or Villanova on the road. Sure, Purdue has also beaten Virginia (and Illinois) so they’re a notch ahead of the Illini, but Drexel will see those wins (both at home) with a road win over Syracuse and raise them with road wins over Hofstra, St. Joseph’s, and a half-dozen other decent teams. Bottom line: Drexel has six road wins over the RPI top 100. Purdue and Illinois have zero combined. It’s not even close.

For whatever reason, the NIT auto-bid policy has resulted in better tourney performance from mid-major favorites. No clue why this is the case—maybe the NIT bid removes the slightest bit of win-or-you-get-jack pressure?—but it is. Since the NIT decided last season to award auto-bids to any regular-season champ that didn’t make the NCAAs, precisely two mid-major conferences have sent less than their most dangerous team or an equally dangerous team to the Tournament. Those conferences are the 2006 MEAC, won by play-in fodder Hampton, and this year’s MAAC, which saw Marist go down in the semis. (You could make a case for this year’s Sun Belt, won by the five-seed North Texas, but regular season champ South Alabama was in total collapse by the end.) The upshot is that solid teams like 2006 Oral Roberts ends up as a 16 and 2007 Weber State—regular-season and tournament champs of the RPI No. 24 conference—can get projected into the play-in game. And the up-upshot is that a team like Northwestern St. can bring the long-thought extinct 14-over-3 upset back into the tourney. So, yeah, the JCCW’s more than a little pleased with this development.

No one knows how good Butler is anymore. On the one hand: Butler went 3-4 in their final seven DI games and won one of those three in overtime on some questionable calls. It’s not exactly a record that screams “future NCAA success.” On the other hand: three of those four losses came down to the wire, and they came to a) a very good and well-coached Wright St. team on the road b) the RPI No. 6 team in the country c) a decent Loyola-IL team with arguably the conference’s best player, again on the road d) Wright St. again, again on the road. None of those come close to being “bad losses”—in fact, taken individually, each falls under the category of “perfectly explainable losses.” So is Butler an overrated, tired, peaked-too-early bust waiting to happen? Or are they the same team that rose as high as a 3-seed in bracket projections, just with an ill-timed stretch of bad luck and feeling a target on their back that won't be there next week? Who knows? We won’t until the Tournament, and anyone who tells you they know otherwise is lying.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

One of my favorite Saturdays

The heart attack-serious, no-exaggeration list of the JCCW’s top six favorite annual days* of the year:

6. “Fall back” Night of One Hour of Extra Sleep
5. New Year’s Bowl-o-Rama
4. First Full Saturday of College Football Extravaganza
3. Opening Saturday of Championship Week Joy
2. Christmas
1. Two-Day First Round of NCAAs Festivus

OK, so maybe No. 6 is an ever-so-slight exaggeration. But No. 3 is not. And Saturday and its four back-to-back-to-back-to-back mid-major conference championship games (eight precious hours worth!) proved why once again. Here’s a collection of scattered observations from each:

Big South: Winthrop 84, VMI 81

--I suppose it’s hopeless to expect ESPN’s 14th-string announcers to come in from calling the Great Outdoor Games and not be a complete train wreck. But just for the record, the team assigned to this game was a complete train wreck. First, they only gave the slightest indication that VMI’s numerous statistical landmarks (NCAA record for team steals in a season, Reggie Williams’ DI-leading scoring total, etc.) were a function of the Keydet’s espresso-fueled freakshow pace. Pretending that the 2007 VMI Keydets are better tat stealing the ball than Billy Tubbs’ ’88 Oklahoma team (which oh-by-the-way made the national championship game) without even mentioning the context of VMI’s pace practically redefines “disingenuous.” The play-by-play clown also called Gregg Marshall “one of the best young coaches in the country that no one knows about.” All right, first of all, Marshall’s been at Winthrop since the mid-90s; he’s not John Wooden, but I really think he’s a few years past “young” by now. Secondly, the announcers had made a big deal just a few minutes earlier about Winthrop’s massive USA Today spread. I don’t think “no one knows about” coaches whose teams just headlined the USA Today sports section … especially when, I swear, their picture has shown up on the ESPN college hoops page more often over the last month than Coach K’s.
--I’m not sure the Eagles were really, really ready for VMI to play as well as they played. That’s understandable since Winthrop beat them by a combined 3,245 points in their two regular season meetings (approximately). But there were a few too many 3’s jacked up against the zone (even by the likes of the usually heady Torrell Martin) and a few too many difficult passes attempted under the “Hey, these guys are going to fall apart any second now, we’ll save our discipline for when we truly need it” heading.
--The bright side of that? Maybe this will tone down a little of the all-but-overwhelming “Winthrop is this year’s George Mason!” talk emanating from, well, just about anywhere you care to look on the Internets these days. It’s not likely, since mostly just former Big South geeks like me actually watch these games and very few members of the mainstream media know how bad VMI was this season … but Marshall can only hope. Having every bracket in the country settle on his team as their Cinderella won’t help them actually become that Cinderella.
--Speaking of Marshall … a five, Gregg? Come on. Have you forgotten last year already? You’ll be lucky to get that 10 you turned your nose up at. Remember that despite your close calls you’ve still only beaten two top 50 RPI teams and that the Committee just saw you survive a terrible team by three with your season on the line at home. Take your 11 and quit yer’ bitching.
--Of course, if the Committee was actually watching, they might notice that VMI played a hell of a game. 1.22 points-per-possession against a team with Winthrop’s D? Dizzamn! And where has that Travis Holmes been the last couple of seasons. What I was expecting to be a savage blowout ended up being far-and-away the best—and best-played--game of the day. The Keydets’ sudden transformation into an efficient offensive machine has gotten Duggar Baucom some national credit (mostly deserved), but I have to ask: if Baucom is such a genius, why didn’t he try having them slow the pace down in the regular season? Was he visionary for realizing that his team needed to try something different, or a stubborn coot for not realizing it earlier?
--Kudos to the Winthrop and VMI cheering sections for producing an atmosphere so insane you could feel the insanity leaking from the JCCW’s television. But these kudos come with a bitterness so bitter you can probably feel it leaking from your monitor. Because they come from a fan of a deceased Big South program who once swore on everything holy that if his Panthers ever played for an NCAA bid, he would be there in person come hell or high water. Last year, it would have been ludicrous to suggest that a VMI fan would be able to live that dream before a Birmingham-Southern fan. And yet there the Keydets were Saturday, cheering like lunatics and living the game of their lives, while my team twiddles its thumbs before rebooting in D-III next year. Sigh. Sigh, sigh, sigh.

Atlantic Sun: Belmont 94, East Tenn. St. 67

--I feel gypped. Both the regular-season meetings between these teams ended up in overtime. This one was over, oh, right about the time six minutes in when both teams realized Belmont was never going to miss a three and ETSU’s comeback strategy was a series of12-foot fallaway jumpers from an AI-wannabe named Courtney Pigram. Bleah.
--The announcing was barely better for this one. The color guy told us at one juncture that ETSU had a huge advantage playing at home in front of their too-awesome-to-be-believed fans. Later, Tweedle Dum subtly suggested that the fans at ETSU were very demanding and their unhappiness with the Bucs’ performance might create pressure on the team. In the end, though, the contradicting of himself is secondary to the fact that I seriously doubt ETSU’s fans are especially unique one way or the other.
--If Belmont shoots as well as they did against ETSU and can sneak into a 15 seed, they’ll have a shot in their first-round game. Unfortunately, what’s more likely is that they’ll be a 16 seed and shoot much, much worse. Sorry, Bruins.

SoCon: Davidson 72, College of Charleston 65

--This game was U-G-L-Y, it ain’t go no alibi, it's UGLY … it's UGLY! One team (Davidson) couldn’t shoot for crap. The other team turned the ball over every time their opponents looked at them cross-ways. The SoCon has long considered itself several haughty degrees above the Big South. Last year’s RPI poked one hole in that balloon, and even if the Big South’s RPI collapsed this year, the quality of the conferences’ title games (or lack thereof in the SoCon’s case) suggest there’s still not too much difference (if any) between the two leagues.
--Stephen Curry’s obviously a good player, but the announcers (and maybe Pat Forde) should hold off on the “Curry for President!” chatter. Yes, he scored 29 points, but he did it on 24 shots—many of which would have been quickly labeled “ill-advised” by an announcing crew that wasn’t busy suggesting Curry was capable of solving world poverty. (Admittedly, the eight boards and positive assist-to-turnover ratio were nice.)
--Charleston’s Dontae Drayper singlehandedly ended Appy St’s at-large hopes with a career-high 38 points in the semis. He then scored all of eight on 2-of-11 shooting in the final. If I’m a Mountaineer fan, right now I’m mulling over a serious decision … whether Dontae Drayper’s car deserves to be egged or keyed.
--The ESPN crew argued at length that Davidson had a bid locked up on the basis that all of their losses came on the road to major-conference teams except for their home loss to Appy St. Uh, guys? That’s a mighty big “except” and it’s not like two of those major-conference teams (Michigan and Missouri) have set the world on fire. Davidson wasn’t just not a lock—they didn’t have a prayer of an at-large.
--Ironically, as awful as they looked, I think Davidson’s doink-fest against the Cougars might actually improve their chances of pulling a first-round upset. Because I can’t imagine they’ve got too many bricks left. Better to save your best performance for later if you can help it, I’m thinking.

Ohio Valley: Eastern Kentucky 63, Austin Peay 62

--Terrifically entertaining game. What Championship Week is all about—two teams with absolutely everything on the line giving it their all and having it come down to the wire, where a guy who hadn’t hit a basket all game drives for the winning finger-roll (!). God bless college hoops.
--My biggest (only?) pet peeve about Championship Week: idiot ESPN directors who instead of giving us the off-the-charts celebrations that inevitably accompany every automatic bid, show us the two coaches shaking hands. We got a morsel of EKU’s dogpile on the floor, but not enough—and we saw more of the Colonels celebration than any of the other four. Wake up, ESPN.
--EKU is going to be a 16 seed and they are going to get crushed. No shot at an upset. No biggie—they’ve got what they came for this season.

*Auburn football would be on here, but those days sort of change in excitement each year--and even getting up on the day of the Iron Bowl is sometimes a reason for worry rather than real excitement.