Saturday, March 22, 2008

Round the First

I wouldn't say I was giving up, exactly. But by the end of Thursday night, I was wondering, somewhat seriously, if the NCAA Tournament I knew and loved was gone.

The NCAA tournament I grew up with and loved was a place where the Coppin St.'s and Valparaiso's of the world rising up to dethrone the money-conference bullies wasn't just a frequent occurence, it could be outright expected. In the 16-year stretch between 1986 and 2001, 30 different protected seeds lost in the first round, an average of 1.875 a year--in other words, it was just about as likely three 2, 3, or 4 seeds was lose as just one. 12's were shut out just twice in those 16 years, and one of those years was 2000, in which 10 of 16 second-round games went to the underdog. Outside of a weird two-year stretch in '95-'96, at least one Cinderella (a double-digit seeded mid-major) had carried the torch into the Sweet 16 18 of the other 20 years entering 2007's tournament.

But the three years between 2002 and 2004 were off the usual mid-major pace (just two protected seeds suffered first-round upsets, both of them 4's, and 2004 was just the second time since '86 at least one 11-or-lower didn't make the Sweet 16). 2005 and 2006 (the latter particularly, obviously) were pretty sweet, but goodness did we mid-major fans pay for it last year: for just the second time no one seeded lower than 11th won a game, and unlike in the other instance (2000) the chalk mostly went right ahead and held from there. Butler and SIU were there, but there was no Cinderella to speak of. The lowest-seeded team in the Elite Eight was a 3. Ugh.

Then came Thursday, and, well, double ugh. The only legit "upset" of the day pulled off not by a mid-major but by a Big 12 team toting the No. 1 pick in the draft and a sleazebag coach who likes calling his players 13-year-olds. Mid-majors weren't just losing, they were getting ground into dust: George Mason by 18, Winthrop by 31, Cornell by 24. Kent St. scored 10 points in a half. Mississippi Valley scored 29 for the game.

The exception to that rule was, of course, Belmont. The Bruins, to ironically borrow a pet phrase from their opponent's biggest media supporter, were sensational. But with us all having gone so long without the catharsis of upset, I didn't want another agonizing close call--I wanted a victory, dammit, and all they needed was one more basket. Just one. They had four chances: possession 1 with the lead, possession 2 with the lead, possession 3 behind by a point, and the inbounds with four seconds left. None of those four chances even came close; in fact, the shot that looked like it had the best odds of falling through was the heave from halfcourt. They lost by a point, and like K-Dub (once again writing he sort of thing I'd write, but a hundred times better) I spent the rest of the night in something resembling mourning. It seemed a reasonable question to ask at that stage--was this the end of upsets and mid-majors and these ifrst two rounds being reliably, you know, fun?

Then came yesterday, and it all suddenly felt like such useless melodrama. This is still the NCAA Tournament. Of course Davidson and Gonzaga were going to play the best game of the tournament. Of course a team like American--that on paper should have easily gone the way of O-Rob and GMU--was going to scratch and claw UT every step of the way. Of course San Diego was going to become the only WCC school of the three to advance, mostly on the broad shoulders of the wonderfully-named Gyno Pomare. Of course Siena would win--though I'd have never expected them to crush Vandy's throats like that. And of course--though it was hard to out-and-out celebrate Western Kentucky's victory, given that it came at the expense of a team as absurdly fun and absurdly likable as Drake--the day finished with a guaranteed ticket for Cinderella to be re-admitted to the Sweet 16.

All, in short, is right with the world--and there's still plenty of time for that "seismic" thing I thought might be coming in the last post (Butler in the Final Four? WKU over UCLA? Siena vs. Davidson in the Elite Eight?) to still arrive.

Other scattered tourney thoughts before Duke loses to West Virginia in a few moments:

--If Butler shoots even close to the way they did yesterday, is there any way Tennessee wins their second-round game? The Vols got absolutely abused on the boards by American, they don't shoot as well as the Bulldogs, they're not going to be able to turn Butler over, Butler's pace might throw them off a bit ... I think as long as Green and Graves keep their heads and Lofton doesn't go Stephen Curry on us, the Bulldogs should be more than fine.

--I guess all that talk about how UCLA got the Slip-N'-Slide path to the Final Four turned out to be pretty much dead on target. They're getting either a 12 or 13 seed in the Sweet 16 and both the 2 and 3 seeds in their bracket (Duke, Xavier) looked like the sort of teams that don't survive their second-round matchup against better opposition. I hate when media analysis actually turns out to be accurate. (As do Vandy fans, of course.)

--Let me take a moment to say I can sympathize with the frustration Vandy fans must be going through at the moment. Back in 1999, the universal consensus was that Chris Porter's miracle Auburn team was the weakest of the four top seeds, that their series of runaway blowouts in the regular season against a weak schedule meant that they'd choke in any tight game against a decent team, and that if Oklahoma St. didn't get them in the second round, Ohio St. definitely would in the regional semis. I told everyone I knew that was crap, that Ellis would have them seething at the slaps in the face, that Doc Robinson would hold everything together.

So what happened? Well, the best Tiger team since Chris Morris left the Plains survived OK St. but fell apart, just as predicted, when Ohio St. took the lead late in the Sweet 16. I felt betrayed, bewildered--how could all these stupid national media types have known my team better than me? So I don't blame the 'Dore supporters for feeling supremely let down at the moment. (That said? I doubt I'd be quite confident about Auburn's chances if the same season happened today and the numbers suggested they were vulnerable ... and all the "Why don't people believe in us?" talk out of Nashville in response to the doubters missed that there was a very good reason to doubt the 'Dores: the numbers suggested they were basically a luckier version of Kentucky.)

--I've overheard a lot of stupid, stupid things said very, very loudly in sports bars in my time, but this pair of guys sitting at a booth across from yours truly at A2's Arena (the phrase "Restaurant of Champions" cracks me up) yesterday took the cake. San Diego-UConn is on, and as some Torero gets stuffed inside, Guy A yells "Roy Hibbert with the rejection!" Which is totally understandable ... I mean, who can ever tell all these Big East 7-footers apart, right? UConn, Georgetown, what's the diff?

Guy B corrected him, at least, but Guy B also later excitedly says, as UConn brings up the ball down three with less than 25 seconds to play, "Are they going to hold for the last shot?" Yes, because a frequent tactic of teams down by three with the shot clock off is to create a best-case scenario wherein a low-percentage shot could possibly, maybe, if everything goes according to plan, send them to overtime. Cripes.

I was griping about this later to the Soon-to-be-Mrs. JCCW, who accused me of snobbery, and she's sorta right: yes, I do tend to look down my nose at people like Guy A and Guy B when it comes to Hypothetical Basketball Knowledge, and on just that point I shouldn't. But that's not really my issue: if you don't know what you're talking about, don't talk so freaking loud. Trust me, I'm not about to inform the whole bar of my thoughts if we're watching a Red Wings or Tigers game. It's incidents like this that make me feel like endorsing Kyle's No-Brackets policy": at some point, this whole "For these couple of weeks, Everyone pretend to be a basketball expert!" has simply gotten out of hand.


Wednesday, March 19, 2008

A few final points of interest ...

First, a questionable-quality but nonetheless enjoyable reminder of why I'm not worried about Butler traveling to the 'Ham:

Now, a few items to touch on as the clock ticks closer to noon tomorrow:

The Rotfang Conspiracy? I don't think anyone who's read this blog 'round this time of year would be surprised that I seriously sympathize with the point-of-view expressed in this excellent article from Joe Sheehan (and many places elsewhere) that the Committee should have done more to prevent mid-on-mid crime. The idea that a team like South Alabama might have been able to topple giants and slay dragons if they hadn't have crashed into an equally qualified giant-toppler and dragon-slayer like Butler at the very first hurdle is ... well, "more frustrating than the woman trying to pass off a shady-looking check who has to get three managers to look things over while you stand in line for 17 minutes with a toothbrush and a pack of Skittles" might be one way of saying it. Saying "We deserve better. The game deserves better. The teams that are forced to choose between playing home games or good games absolutely deserve better. The committee failed to serve the game this year," as Sheehan did, is a second and equally valid way.

But try as I might, I can't summon any outrage at the Committee for it. I've tried. But look at, say, Drake. There's only one non-mid 12 in the bracket (if you count Temple as a mid ... I don't, really, but for the sake of the "They're protecting BCS schools!" argument, we'll pretend they are) and that's Villanova. The Wildcats can't be in a pod with any other Big East teams and UConn's 4, Pitt's a 4, and Notre Dame's a 5. There's only one place for them to go, and that's across from Clemson. So Drake winds up with WKU.

Likewise, three mids wound up on the 10-seed line and two on the 7-line--given those seedings it was impossible not to have at least one mid-on-mid matchup and if you account for South Alabama and Davidson both being granted the courtesy of staying close to home, it's hard to see how the Committee can be faulted for not going out of their way to break those particular parties up.

This is what Sheehan's arguing: that since a mid's opportunity to prove itself an equal to a money conference team (on a neutral court and with the nation watching, of course) is the most precious gift it can receive, the Committee should make the extra effort--specifically, adjusting seedings in the 5-12 range--to hand that gift out as often as possible. There's something to this, but the importance of seed line is such that I can't endorse it. 6's are substantially more likely to make the Sweet 16 than 7's, which are substantially more likely to make the Sweet 16 than 8's. 10's make the second round a whole bunch more than 11's. And so on. I think the idea to seed Oklahoma ahead of Butler will go down in the history books as one of mankind's worst (or something like that), but if you honestly arrive at that conclusion, it's simply not fair to Oklahoma to drop to a 10 just because Butler "deserves" the right to take on, say, Kansas St.

As for the argument that it was Butler who got dropped to unfairly make way for Oklahoma, in the effort to eliminate as many mids as quickly and painlessly as possible: I can believe a lot of horrible things about the NCAA Selection Committee, but I'm not ready to believe that quite yet.

Oh boy. Yes, I am on the Siena bandwagon. Yes, I am considering jumping off now that there's no more room to stretch my legs, I can totally smell this heavyset dude right behind me, and the whole thing's just feeling a bit stuffy now, you know? When I got on this bandwagon, no one warned me about the flopsweat.

Actually, that's not true. I had a feeling this was trouble when Seth Davis put the wagon on its wheels right there on the Selection Show itself. So I can't blame Save the Shield's Phillip for pointing out (albeit in an odd location) that there are some serious parallels between this wagon and the Western Michigan one we all rode straight into a gaping canyon against Vandy in 2003. It's more than a little eerie.

But facts is facts: #1 lead-pipe cinch first-round upset candidates struggled for a while in the '90s, but they're doing much better in recent years. For Exhibit A, you don't need to look any further back than the Winthrop win over Notre Dame that sparked a million smug "Yeah, I called that one" remarks last season. In 2006, basically the entire country agreed that if Winthrop didn't get 2-seed Tennessee in Round 1, Wichita St. would in Round 2. Sure enough, the Vols only survived the Eagles on a bona fide miracle and were torn to pieces by the Shockers. Even in 2003, there was an upset pick every bit as popular as Western Michigan over Vandy: 12-seed Manhattan over Florida. Popularity did a good job of locating that one, too.

The point is that just because a bandwagon is overcrowded doesn't mean it's not taking you where you want to go. Does Phillip's Pomeroy research give me pause? Does the fact that Vandy's been called out in every conceivable way over the past few days make me worry? Do I agree that Siena (as I said myself) doesn't leap off the page or screen as a likely bracket-wrecker? Yes, yes, yes. But for starters it's too late to abandon ship now, and more importantly it seems perfectly reasonable to expect this game to be close--and equally reasonable to expect the country's seventh-luckiest team to this point to have a close game go against them.

No drama? Isn't it aggravating when your head and heart violently disagree? Mine came to blows Monday looking over this year's crop of 14, 15, and 16 seeds. My heart's nursing a hell of a shiner and my head's got a band-aid on his cheek and clutches at his ribs when he walks. They look like they've been held prisoner by one faction or another on Lost. It's not pretty.

Their argument goes like this: Head says this is the weakest set of low seeds he can remember, the lamest excuse for a bunch of "shock the world" pretenders he's ever seen. Heart says that's why they're to be feared: for the first time ever, no one is giving any team seeded lower than 13th even the tiniest sliver of hope for an upset. Meaning that times have never been better to catch a giant out-and-out napping.

Head says that's manure. Look: Boise is far and away the most dangerous 14 and they're playing a Rick Pitino-coached team with a better efficiency margin than Carolina. Cal St. Fullerton likes to run and is playing a Wisconsin team that swallows run-and-gun teams whole. Cornell could put one dude on another dude's shoulders and still not stack up with the Lopezes. Georgia's out of miracles and doesn't even count. As for the 15's, UMBC's the only one with a prayer and that's assuming Roy Hibbert doesn't have 27 offensive rebounds by halftime. Sure, Portland St. should have been a 15 and they've got some nice players, but... Kansas. Come on.

Heart says that's the point: Kansas isn't even bothering to think of reasons they might lose to Portland St., but they're there. The Jayhawks have been bombed out of the past two tourneys and whaddya know, the Vikes shoot 40 percent from three and have the country's 11th-best eFG. Self sucks at preparing Kansas for first-round games: ask Bucknell and Bradley. In this any more of a mismatch than UConn and Albany? Remember: they were up 10 with the ball.

OK, maybe that's not going to happen, Heart says, but there's no guarantee American (they did beat Maryland, you know) catch fire at the same time Tennessee starts clanking like mad? Belmont could go nuts, too, and they've got experience galore--sure they've been blown apart the last two seasons, but if you'll recall Winthrop got whipped their first few times. Texas is overrated and even if Austin Peay doesn't look like much, remember that even-sorrier looking Eastern Kentucky making Carolina work last year? I know none of these individually are likely, but if you start adding up Pomeroy's log5 odds, it's like a 10 percent chance per region on average, so it's 40 percent across the tournament, and when you add that to last year's tournament, when the odds were even better weren't any ... you might even say that by now it's likely.

You're deluding yourself, Head says. According to those odds and that thinking, a 16 should have won years and years ago. Dumb-ass.

Heart responds that 1's have been taken to overtime twice and been in two other one-possession games. Odds are the next one that close will go to the 16 seed. I'm telling you, Heart says, things are just too damn quiet for nothing to happen. It's not the way sports works. We're about to see something seismic.

Head says if that's what you need to believe to get yourself excited for Thursday and Friday, be my guest. But there's not going to be that kind of drama.

Me? I know head's right. But I'm going to watch every second anyway.

Monday, March 17, 2008

The Million Dollar Bracket, year 3

Cash money, baby.

The stakes have been raised, folks.

The JCCW has always taken the damn-the-torpedoes approach when it comes to filling out a bracket, partially because it's not like it would ever make any difference--the next pool of any size (including, sadly, the two-person pool made up of "people who live in the apartment I live in") I win will be the first--and partially because, hey, screw that chicken feed hundred bucks you're picking up at the office; I'm looking for the bracket that's going to set me up for life, man. The Million Dollar Bracket. Pick it perfect, all 63 games, and the last few years either CBS or SI would allegedly hand you a million bucks. Those two have apparently backed off, but hey, here's Yahoo, offering an unprecedented 5 million dollars for a spotless bracket. Seriously: why would you go the brainless "All four No. 1's in the Final Four and one No. 12 upset!" route when you could win five million dollars? Live a little, people! Pick that seven-seed whose uniforms you like to make the Elite Eight! Match up a 12 and 13 in the second round because you paid $12.13 after tip for your lunch yesterday! Remember: five million dollars!

Anyways, well aware that a perfect bracket will happen the day before the Earth is sucked into the sun, that's the JCCW philosophy. So here's the third annual attempt at it:

Final Four

Have to start here. First rule is not to be swayed by those fancy-schmancy records, glittering efficiency numbers, that nice shiny "1" beside their names: you don't pick more than two No. 1 seeds to make the final weekend. All four (you know this already) have never made it; three surviving has only happened three times; and all three of those happened in a narrow seven-year frame between 1993 and 1999. Yes, the crop of 1-seeds does look especially imposing this year, but a) after the two 1's and two 2's super-chalky FF last year, we're due for a little more surprise this year b)the "This is the year all four 1 seeds finally make it!" talk reminds me more than a little strongly of 1998, when Kansas, Arizona, Duke, and UNC were all supposedly untouchable--and Kansas was toast by the end of the second round, Arizona got crushed by Utah, and Jeff Sheppard's Kentucky ousted Duke. So: I'm picking two 1-seeds, and that's it.

Which ones? Looking at efficiency margins and Lunardi's Adjusted Scoring Margin ($), it's hard to pick against Kansas and UCLA. Kansas's numbers in both are flat ridiculous and, frankly, you know Self's going to get there one of these years. As for the Bruins, given the strength of the Pac-10, that +.17 margin is probably an even bigger deal than Kansas's +.24 ... and, uh, it's not like anyone else in their region (Xavier, maybe?) exactly looks like the type to haul down a well-coached target like UCLA.

As for the other two teams ... well, Louisville has been the secret best team in the Big East all season, and a three-point loss to Georgetown and overtime loss to Pitt-on-a-mission doesn't change that. Having Pitino at the helm doesn't hurt, either. Finding a good candidate in Memphis's region isn't quite so easy. Texas's efficiency numbers don't scream "underrated Final Four semi-sleeper!" (and quite frankly worry me) but their ASM isn't bad and they seemed to have their biggest problems on the road ... which, as has been pointed out ad nauseum, isn't so big of an issue since they're playing the regionals in Houston. That they saved their best performances for the toughest teams on the schedule (W's over Tennessee, Utah) doesn't hurt, either.

Two 1's, a 2, a 3. Nice and balanced. (Which is why it'll end up a 1, two 6's, and an 11.)

First-round upsets

Generally, there's going to be two or three teams on the 12 and 11 lines to survive the first two days--three seems more likely, after that overabundance of chalk on all levels last year. The guess here is that at least one of those two will come from a 12--2007 was just the third year since the bracket expansion that the 5 seeds swept.

Clemson's underrated as a 5, so I don't see it there; Western Kentucky's not in position to attack Drake's weakness in the post; and hot as they might be, Temple never beat anyone of consequence outside the A-10 and likely won't start against a Michigan St. team that looked good against Wisconsin in the Big 10 semis. So that leaves George Mason to take on a Notre Dame team that lost as a 6 last year and came within the worst missed last-second layup in the history of missed last-second layups of falling to Bruce Pearl's 12th-seeded UW-Milwaukee team in 2004. Mason's last tournament trip, you may have heard, was something of a success. Their post forward is the same, the shooting guard is the same, the head coach is the same. They (mostly) fit Pete Tiernan's remarkable "stats to look for" profile. They're ready.

On the 11 line, Oklahoma was outscored in Big 12 play and sucked on the road (loss to Colorado, anyone?). Good-bye. Tiernan likes Baylor and I hate Purdue and the weak-sauce Big 10--I think that's your third.

Given that at least one team seeded 13th or lower has sprung a first-round upset every year but four and that one of those four was last year, I think we have to pick one of those, too. Tiernan likes Winthrop or Oral Roberts, but for yours truly the easiest way to spot one of these is simply a team that won its conference, won its tournament, has a major pelt on the wall, and is facing an overrated team that's struggled on the road--and whaddya know, here's Siena vs. Vandy, whose efficency rating was the definition of mediocre even in the definitively mediocre SEC. I'm taking the Saints.


The JCCW's permanent and inflexible definition of a Cinderella: a double-digit mid-major who advances to the Sweet 16. Until last year that had been at least one for 10 straight years (and there's still only been four Cinderella-less years in 23), so it should make a triumphant return in 2008. Your nominees are: The aforementioned George Mason Patriots and Siena Saints; the St. Mary's Gaels, who I expect to dispatch outscored-in-the-ACC Miami; and Davidson, whose scoring margin in the SoCon was frightening and who faces a Gonzaga team that looked hella discombobulated in the WCC finals.

And your winner is ... George Mason! Put simply, I think Clemson, Texas, and Georgetown--terrific teams all--are just a bit too out of reach for Siena and the two 10-seeds. Washington St., however, is overseeded, sorta underachieved this year, and got picked off in last year's second round, too. Welcome back, Patriots.

Second-round upsets

On average, 6.3 "protected" seeds lose out before the Sweet 16. Remember this when you see those "expert" brackets later this week in which just two or three bite the dust.

So how many this year? Again, after a year in which just one two-seed and one three-seed lost on the first weekend--record lows for this decade--there should be more chaos. I'm looking for seven.

Let's start at the top. I'm picking Miss. St to beat Memphis. I know, it's insane. But:

1. It's now been four long years since a 1-seed lost in the second round (the three-season drought ties the longest on record). We're due. Good teams, even the best ones, don't go 16-0 (four years' worth of second-round matchups) against other good teams.

2. Miss. St. has been getting pimped by the Unaffiliated Wonk all season and Tiernan gives them the only 8-over-1 semi-approval he gives in this tourney.

3. This is a good matchup for Miss. St. Memphis isn't a good outside shooting team at all and needs to come inside for their scoring, but guess what? The Bulldogs are the best team in the nation in 2-point FG defense. Memphis's nation-best defense means MSU won't score much either, but regardless, this game is going to be a slog, and the longer it goes the more the pressure mounts on Memphis. The drought ends.

So who else? We've already mentioned Washington St.'s (2) and Vandy's demise (3), but there's also:

4. Tennessee. To quote Wonk again, "If you're watching Bruce Pearl's team in the tournament and the other team is making threes and taking care of the ball, the Volunteers just might be in trouble." Butler makes threes and is the eighth-best team in the country at not turning the ball over. Sorry, Vols. Every year some team gets a planet-sized shafting from the Committee; this year, it's you.

5. Duke. West Virginia has a hell of an ASM and looked every bit the part of stereotypical "7-over-2" team in the Big East tourney while Duke looks to be undergoing their near-annual (by now) slow fade.

6. UConn. Drake remains the Mid-Majority computer's favorite team, and that's worth something, particularly after the 2007 Drake (Butler) survived two rounds, including a second against a run-of-the-mill power-conference team much like the strangely anonymous Huskies.

7. Marquette. Like WVU, the ASM numbers love them some Eagles (look, slumming NBA stats guru John Hollinger likes them in his Final Four!) and Stanford isn't anything special.

Filling it out

What's left? For starters, the 8-9 detritus: Arkansas over Indiana, Kent St. over UNLV, Texas A&M over BYU.

In the East, UNC ends GMU's run before falling to the 'Ville. Kansas escapes a Clemson team that scares me before finally getting over the Elit Eight hump against Georgetown, who beats Wisconsin in the round of 16. (FYI: the Badgers have been too good even in the well-water Big 10 to lose to the likes of USC.) In the South, Pitt beats Michigan St. in the Round of 32 and Miss. St. in the Sweet 16 before falling to Texas (winner over Marquette). Out West, West Virginia downs Xavier in the regional semis before falling to Drake-beater UCLA.

The Champions

Don't have much problem picking two teams as dominant as Kansas and UCLA have been to meet in the final, but who wins? In a case like this I think it's best just to pick the team that played the tougher schedule, played in the tougher conference, has been in that Final Four environment before--in short, is just more prepared. That team is UCLA.

Now, hopefully all of that will wind up being a little less embarrassing than the last two attempts. There'll be one more post before the tourney; do check back.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Bracket impressions

In a stunning and unprecedented development, this guy's former program appeared to get favorable treatment from the NCAA Selection Committee.

Snub Sunday. As expected here and most places, VCU got the back of the Committee's hand. And while some stragglers still saw Illinois St. in the field even after Georgia's last-second "smash-and-grab," as the British footie press might have termed it, it's hardly surprising the Redbirds got the shun as well.

It's disappointing, and I don't begrudge any supporters of VCU or ISU their anger over the inclusion of the likes of Oregon or Kentucky, but to be perfectly honest these aren't snubs remotely on par with Drexel's exclusion last year, Missouri St.'s in 2006, and a dozen others over the past decade. Oregon would have been the team I would have expected to have possibly been left out in favor of VCU, but even the Ducks finished with eight top-100 RPI wins to VCU's three and four W's ranked better by the RPI than VCU's best. I personally still think the Ram's regular-season title outweighs those numbers, but only the blindest of optimists would have expected the Committee to think the same way.

Combine that with the fact that I'm not sure I ever remember having quite so few gripes with the seeding--and even those aren't really gripes on mid-majors' behalf so much as a general "Huh?" in the direction of some power-conference seed choices--and I think I generally have less to complain about with this particular Committee than any I can recall. (Not that this represents a huge length of time, but still.)

I do, of course, credit the fact the Committee was chaired by a mid-major guy for this (relative) success.

Missed opportunities. Let's be honest: there should have been more mid-majors in the field. A couple of times I've read/heard the bobbleheads saying that mids hadn't "taken advantage" of the soft bubble, and my knee-jerk reaction was that that wasn't the case: it's hardly every year the Sun Belt, SoCon, Horizon, and MAC all have at-large worthy teams.

But no. It's true. Mids didn't take advantage this year. VCU didn't get the win over either Miami or Arkansas in San Juan that might have made the difference. Illinois St. whiffed on three shots against Drake, any one of which likely would have given them a bid. No one else in the Valley made a charge. The usually reliable WAC completely collapsed. After years of devouring their own, the MAC field (like the Valley) couldn't upset its champion when it needed to. Ditto the Horizon.

Things could have been worse. South Alabama could have dropped another ugly Sun Belt game somewhere along the line. St. Mary's could have dropped that opener vs. Drake. But it's dishonest to say things couldn't have been a lot better, at least in terms of NCAA bids, for mid-majors as well.

Horn-tooting. Is that allowed? Anyway, the JCCW bracket guess below pegged all 65 teams (not that anyone I've seen missed less than one, aside from Stewart Mandel and his inexplicable decision to file his final projection before the SEC/Big-10 finals ... as an aside, do you think anyone at SI ever wonders why they have their asses handed to them number-of-hits-wise?), got 28 teams on their correct seed line, and was off by a line or less on 54. That's one fewer on the right line as Lunardi and one fewer on the "one line or less" metric. Not terrible for just the one full bracket I did this season, no? Of course, there's an excellent chance I miscounted, Lunardi probably did worse than everyone else (I haven't counted anywhere else), and it still doesn't dull the pain of missing on three teams last year. So I should probably do less tooting, actually. (UPDATE: B101 sez Lunardi did indeed do worse than his peers, but I think he did even worse on exact seeding than they think ... I've counted three times now and get 29 every time.)

It's not perfect, of course. There are some things I don't get with this bracket. In fairness to Mandel, I took the same view when it came to Kansas vs. Tennessee for the final 1-seed, but it turns out the Vols weren't even in the running, to judge by their pairing across from UNC. In fact, the Committee apparently despised the Vols: in addition to giving them a 2, in addition to putting them in the same bracket with Carolina, they handed them an atrocious likely second-round matchup against Butler. The Vols love to run and force turnovers; the Bulldogs are of course experts at slowing things to a crawl and turn the ball over never (which is why they handled the Vols with relative ease in their preseason NIT run last season). And, oh, I doubt the Bulldogs are all that worried about having to come to Birmingham--the BJCC just happened to be where they upset Miss. St. and Louisville on their way to the Sweet 16 in 2003. (I was there. It was sweeeeet.)

Last year the Big 10 got all the breaks, both seeding-wise and in getting their patently unqualified teams into the Dance. This year? Not so much--double-champion Wisconsin is of course a 3 while champion-of-nothing Duke gets a cushy 2, but Indiana fell all the way to an 8 seed, clear-cut runner-up Purdue landed as a No. 6, and also under the "duh" heading they thankfully left Ohio St. out of the field.

This year the sun shone upon the Pac-10, which got everyone but Arizona St. in and saw Washington St. and Oregon both way overseeded with Stanford and USC ahead of where I had them and Arizona higher than according to most projections. Boo.

Another thing--it's not necessarily a gripe, but I guess they've abandoned the principle of re-seeding mid-majors by a line (or two, in the mysterious cases of 2006) to lessen their travel. How else to describe why Winthrop is headed to Denver as a 13 while Boise goes to Birmingham as a 14? (And if you think I'm bitter about this because I incorrectly bumped Boise up a line in my projection to get them in Denver, you're right.)

Oh, and there's the things we saw coming. At the start of Championship Week I said someone was going to get the play-in shaft if there was an upset in the MEAC. Sure enough, there was, and sure enough, Mt. St. Mary's is off to Dayton despite ranking 69 places in the RPI ahead of a Mississippi Valley St. team that failed to win the SWAC. There's a time and place for political sensitivity, but this is just unfair. The NCAA needs to either bite the bullet with the criticism that comes with pairing the SWAC and MEAC in the play-in or (much preferably) just get rid of the damn thing.

In that same link I also predicted the Missouri Valley would land three bids, but never mind that: I also added that either Butler or Drake would be handed an unfair 7-seed. And whaddya know? The Committee was better this year, but that doesn't mean they haven't always been predictable in certain depressing ways. (By the way, I'm gloating this much about prior predictions because I know that as soon as the tournament starts said gloating will come to an abrupt and humiliating end as my brackets slip into the kind of percentiles dominated out by octogenarians, sherpas, Antarctic research station employees who speak no English, and blind lemurs. Making hay while the sun shines, and all that.)

The annual worthless Million Dollar Bracket post coming (hopefully) Tuesday a.m.

JCCW Bracketology

This will be updated soon with a full bracket. But at the moment, I think it comes down to three slots to divide amongst Villanova, Oregon and Arizona St., VCU and Illinois St. If Georgia coughs up their current 11-point lead, I'd take 1. Villanova 2. Oregon 3. VCU, in that order, with 4. Illinois St. 5. Arizona St. (who I've decided just has too damn ugly a schedule for the Committee to approve) behind them.

If Georgia wins, VCU gets bounced.

UPDATE: Mid-majors: screwed.

1-seeds: 1. UNC 2. Memphis 3. UCLA 4. Tennessee

Here's my bracket. This was filled out way, way faster than I would have liked. I tried to follow the guidelines as best I could--though I ignored BYU's anti-Sunday provision. That thing's a giant pain.


16. Texas-Arlington
9. Arkansas

5. Mich. St.
12. Villanova
4. Clemson
13. Boise St.

6. Vanderbilt
11. Davidson
3. Louisville
14. Belmont

Little Rock
7. USC
10. St. Mary's
2. Texas
15. Austin Peay



1. Memphis
16. Mt. St. Mary's/Coppin St.
8. Miss. St.
9. Oklahoma

5. Purdue
12. Oregon
4. UConn
13. George Mason

(Oh please give us that last one, Committee)

6.Washington St.
11. Baylor
3. Duke
14. San Diego

7. West Virginia
10. Gonzaga
2. Wisconsin
15. Portland St.


1. UNC
16. American
8. Texas A&M
9. St. Joseph's

5. Notre Dame
12. Western Kentucky
4. Drake
13. Georgia

6. BYU
11. Kentucky
3. Xavier
14. Siena

7. Kansas St.
10. Arizona
2. Georgetown
15. UMBC



1. Tennessee
16. MVSU
8. Kent St.
9. Miami (FL)

5. Marquette
12. Oral Roberts
4. Stanford
13. Cornell

Little Rock
6. Butler
11. Temple
3. Pitt
14. CS-Fullerton

7. Indiana
10. South Alabama
2. Kansas
15. Winthrop

There you go.

Championship Week diaries: day 8

Holy crap, what a day yesterday. I'm sincerely hoping "they" never find a way to distill the last Saturday of Championship Week into an injectable liquid, because otherwise it's hello junkieville, goodbye nice TV and couch and whatnot.

You know, we'd better move on to the games themselves before I find another metaphor with which to disturb the hell out of my parents. There were five mid-major title games yesterday on yours truly's cable system--don't have ESPNU, so I missed Miss. Valley St. beat Jackson for the SWAC bid. That result was fine by me for two reasons: first, because MVSU is a better team and the SWAC's runner-up, so thery're a bit more deserving than defending champs Jackson ... but moreso (it's not like either team or regular-season titlist Alabama St. were about to win more than the play-in) because it gets a team called the "Delta Devils" into the field. That, ladies and gents, is a seriously cool nickname. If we can't get the Ragin' Cajuns in, that's about the next-best thing.

Also: in the great "Is the A-10 a mid-major league or not?" the JCCW takes the position it's not; the personal definition here for a mid is a team from a traditional one-bid conference. So I'm not going to comment on the A-10 final other than to say I'm not too upset by Temple's win. Sure, it hands the league a third bid and squeezes the chances of true mids Illinois St. and VCU (and theoretically South Alabama, though I agree with the rest of the Internet that the Jags really should be safe), but it's one more bid that won't go to the sniveling Va. Tech's of the world, and for that I am grateful.

America East

--Was that really a game between the 144th and 244th-best teams in the country, as ranked by KenPom? 'Cause it didn't look like it. I know you're never going to tune into the America East final for Pitt-like defense, but come on--doesn't matter who's playing, two teams combining for 52.8 percent shooting overall and 46 percent from downtown is pretty damned impressive. Unlike the Patriot final the day before, which suffered from having two relative newcomers to the game, there wasn't a whole lot of difference to the naked eye between Saturday's final and the AE title games the past several years featuring Albany, Vermont, BU, and the like.

--What is it with the America East final and dunks so sick the arena should have gone into quarantine afterward? Last year Vermont's Marqus Blakely went nuts and yesterday Hartford's Warren McClendon threw down a vicious one-hander midway through the second half--easily the best dunk of Championship Week.

--There's not a heck of a lot in UMBC's profile that says "We're a dangerous 15 seed!"--the wins over Richmond and LaSalle aren't bad, but the closest they came to an out-and-out quality upset was a nine-point loss to bubblicious Ohio St. Still, if Jay Greene can distribute the way he did yesterday and the Retrievers shoot that ridiculously well again--the latter a gigantic "if," but still--they could make someone sweat.

--Kudos to a color guy whose name I didn't catch for a rare understanding of tempo-free stats; when a graphic showed that UMBC had way more rebounds than Hartford, rather than knee-jerking into "the Hawks are getting killed on the glass!" he actually pointed out that UMBC was shooting so well Hartford didn't have shots to rebound. Stunning.


--Man, I know the term "pity party" has a lot of negative connotations behind it, but if the MAC wants to throw themselves a celebration in honor of how much sympathy the college hoops world ought to have for them, I'm not going to stop them. Year after year after year, the MAC's top-seed has gone down in a blaze of glory (and even on the occasional banked-in three at the buzzer). Now, for the first time in forever, the conference has a completely legit at-large team at the top, and what happens? They cruise to the title. It's still a one-bid conference.

Don't worry, MAC. I'll come to your party.

--Of course, the biggest reason both these unusual things (the MAC producing an at-large quality team and the top MAC seed winning the tournament) happened is because Kent St. is really, really freaking good. Quaintance down low, Fisher at the point, Rashad Woods bombing away, a capital-S Stout defense. This probably isn't quite the Huffman-Gates glory team from 2002 reborn, but that doesn't mean they're not going to a giant pain in someone's rear end later this week.

--I feel for Akron, what with the back-to-back title game losses, but the cold hard truth is that they didn't have a tournament-quality team this year. Against KSU they looked like pretty much the exact same team that showed up for BracketBusters vs. VCU: hard-working, athletic, couldn't throw it in the ocean. (Knee-jerk representation of Akron's efforts here.) The Zips started the game 3-of-4 from downtown and went 2-of-18 the rest of the way. Jeremiah Wood looked more spry than against VCU, but it didn't make much difference. As Kent pulled away in the ifrst half, the Zips got Wood the ball on three straight possessions to try and stem the tide. The results: missed lay-up, two missed free throws, missed front end of a one-and-one. It wasn't going to happen.


--AAAAARGGGHHHH 14-20 team makes the Dance ahead of the team that could have hypothetically been the first-ever 16 seed to win AAARRRRGGGHHHH AAAARRRGGGGGHHHH

--At least we finally had a game come down to the last possession. Been waiting for a game to make me nervous enough to stand up off the couch all freaking week.

--I don't know what Uniwatch would think of them (actually, yeah I do: thumbs down) but my favorite uniform accent of the week was without question the running gold "CSU"'s on Coppin's black trim.

--Hate to pick on any particular dude, but Morgan's Marquise Kately went 5-of-13 from the free throw line in a 2-point game. The rest of the team went 7-of-8. (To be fair, Kately went 8-of-12 from the field and finished with 21, and the team turned the ball over 21 times, but ... 5-of-13. That's Andris Biedrins-esque.)

--Man, the MEAC hasn't had much luck lately, have they? FAMU wins as the 4-seed last year and Coppin takes it as the 7 ... two years, two play-ins. Tough.

--I know it doesn't really matter NCAA-wise, since there was no way Morgan was actually pulling it off, but ... I'm guessing 41st in the Mid-Majority rankings is mighty high for a potential 16. Maybe next year. Sigh.


--Triple-OT for a single bid on one of the teams' home-court. It honestly doesn't get any better than that.

--So many unbelievable performances in this one. For Boise: Matt Nelson was basically channeling the spirit of Tyler Hansbrough down low. Reggie Larry somehow got his head on straight after airballing the front end of the one-and-one that led to overtime and carried the Broncos through the extra frames. That Tiedeman kid went 5-of-8 from three. For NMSU: it seemed like Herb Pope had three fouls the minute the feed switched over from the MAC final and he ended up playing the whole game. The Aggies rose from the dead more times than [fill in horror movie villain of choice]. 59 percent free throw shooter Hatila Passos stepped to the line for one shot to send the thing into a second overtime and drilled it.

Between this and the overlapping MEAC final, Championship Week made up for its previous lack of drama real, real quick.

--Not only did the Broncos win in triple-overtime, they did it a) on the road b) having lost a 17-point lead c) with their best player fouled out d) having honked up a three-point lead in the first OT with the most braindead foul in the history of fouls. "Toughness" is an overrated and nebulous attribute, but, yeah, it's safe to say Boise has a little bit of it.

--Excellent road team, efficient offense, assortment of deadeye three-point shooters? If Boise can draw a team that doesn't run them off the floor, they'll have a puncher's chance. And hey, never underestimate the strength of narrative, and holy cow, think a Boise upset would be much of a story?

Big West

--I had totally forgotten until the broadcast team reminded me that somehow none of those very good Irvine teams from earlier this decade (back when Utah St. was in this conference and those two bestrode the league like twin colossi) ever got into the Dance. What a shame. Because it just wasn't happening this time either, was it? Thanks to the triple-OT we only got the second half of the game and Fullerton was in control from the moment the feed switched over.

--Fullerton is the top Big West team in the KenPom ratings and it's not too tough to see why: a pair of nice guards in Reed and Akognon and a bruiser like Cutley down low. They looked more balanced than an accountant's checkbook. (Man, am I clever.)

--That said, Irvine was playing their fourth game in four days and kind of looked like, um, what Mr. Casual Hoops Fan might expect the fifth-place team in the Big West to look like playing their fourth game in four days. Hard to put too much stock in Fullerton based on that game and seeing not much in their nonconference profile ... I dunno, this just doesn't strike me as a team with the horses to pull an upset from their likely 14-seed position. Sorry, Marc Stein.

This, of course, means they're going to end up pulling something, just to make me look silly.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Championship Week diaries: Day 7

Mid-major-wise, Friday and the lonely isolation of the Patriot final is the calm before Saturday's storm of auto-bids.

Hope you rested up--that Big West final tonight isn't going to be finished for a long, long time.


--You know what I think would really drive me out of the coaching profession (if, hypothetically, I ever entered it)? Plays like the one that finally sealed Colgate's fate--the Raiders were down three with the shot clock off, their coach calls a timeout, draws up a play, and as the players are starting to execute it the guy with the ball holds it out like Hamlet contemplating the skull of Yorick. Steal, foul, ballgame, play never even run, effort undertaken not to strangle player and resulting increase in blood pressure cuts seven months off coach's life.

--Here's your object lesson this week in the importance of turnovers. American got ourebounded, outshot from both the field (the Eagles went 6-25 in the second half) and the line, and equaled on threes despite taking nine more shots from beyond the arc. But they only committed five turnovers to Colgate's 16--ta da, that's 11 more shots, five more free throws, and there's your bid.

--Obviously American's not entirely chopped liver with a win over Maryland on their resume, but, uh, they're going to have to shoot a lot, lot better from deep (4-of-17 vs. Colgate) to even hang come the tourney. Full kudos for their first bid (and for Garrison Carr hitting several "Wow, that's a bad shot ... nevermind" shots), but this final just wasn't played at the level we saw in the Bucknell-Holy Cross Friday afternoon Patriot classics from the last couple of years. So it goes.


--I've been telling everyone who's asked (well ... OK, just "everyone") that the best bet for a great-big-giant-whopper of an upset this year was going to be Stephen F. Austin. They've got the scoring margin, they've got the quality upset, they've got the league title--the same recipe Northwestern St. took with them from the Southland when they beat Iowa two years ago, the same recipe Winthrop had when they pulled the only quality upset of last year's tourney. It was going to happen.

Well, right up until they turned the ball over 17 times against Northwestern St. and lost by three. Damn it. This would be more acceptable if computer-approved Sam Houston St. or even league co-champ Lamar were still around to collect the auto-bid, but instead it's Southland 7-seed Texas-Arlington vs. the under-.500 Demons for the title. In short: a league with two excellent upset candidates and a third reasonable one is going to instead send a team a) with the kind of shot at an upset that Larry the Cable Guy has at an Oscar b) that's going to bump up some other team that ought be a 16 to a 15, a 15 to a 14, and basically lower the mid-majority's chances for a mega-upset across the board. Robert Morris taking the pipe was bad; this was worse.


Also appropriate under this heading: if Va. Tech gets in because they "looked like a tournament team" against UNC today, I hope Dickie V and Mike Patrick fall down a flight of stairs. A short flight, yes. But still.

All right: the JCCW will be back full-throttle tomorrow.

Friday, March 14, 2008


A quick addendum to the bubble breakdown from last post: Charlotte's very much in the mix, too. You wouldn't know it paying attention to most outlets--how ESPN's Bubble Watch still have UAB and Houston listed and not the 49ers, I'll never know; ditto the "work" being put in by Stewie Mandel at, where Virginia Tech is still an option--but a big tip of the hat to Bracketography for pointing out what ought to be common knowledge by now: Charlotte's a threat. Look at this profile: 4-3 vs. the top 50, 9-6 vs. the top 100, W's at Clemson and vs. Davidson and SIU in nonconference, a split with Temple and a win vs. St. Joe's on their way to 9-7 in the A-10, and now a win over UMass in the tourney. How on earth is this team not even being considered? Frankly, I think they've already passed the UMass/New Mexico level and if they win today, I think they pass Temple and end up right smack against at the cut line--win or lose in the A-10 title game.

Championship Week diaries: Day 5 / 6

Covering Wednesday's title games before we get to the bubble carnage we saw Thursday:


--Poor, poor Sacred Heart. It's tough enough to have a double-digit lead on the top seed on their floor and still see your first-ever auto-bid slip through your fingers (as happened against CCSU in 2007) but to host the conference's 4-seed in your own gym and still lose by double digits ... I can't exactly claim to know what that's like (the closest parallel in the JCCW's competitive life probably being the one-point runner-up finish at the 1997 Alabama state FFA forestry judging competition, which was tough, yes, particularly since the blind-ass, pathetically incompetent judges robbed us by somehow failing to tell the difference between a Scarlet and a Black Oak, I mean, for bleep's sake come on, so hell yeah I'm still a wee bit bitter about it, but ... nah, still not the same). But I'm guessing words like "devastating" and "heart-shattering" and "soul-crushing" would be appropriate here.

Honestly, I think in circumstances like these, the home crowd can be a curse as well as a blessing. If Heart had ever really gotten rolling, it's a huge help, but there was also that moment with around six minutes to play in this game where SHU was still down eight and you could sense every Pioneer fan in the gym suddenly realize Oh crap, we could actually lose this thing ... we could actually miss out ... it's the end of the world ... seriously, holy f'ing crap ... and the entire atmosphere got as tight as piano wire. It's my opinion players can feed off that kind of (CAUTION: NEW AGE-LIKE HOKUM FOR LACK OF ANYTHING BETTER TO FOLLOW) negative energy as well as the good stuff, and I think it helps explain why Heart started turning the ball over and playing desperation jack-a-three a little earlier than they had to.

--I'll be frank: the level of play in this game was multiple notches down the quality-meter from any other title game yet played during this particular Championship Week. The Mount's going to be a 16 (if not in the play-in) and they're going to be down by 254 points at halftime.

But that shouldn't take away what a hell of an accomplishment it was to win this tourney--they go on the road and beat Robert Morris, far and away the best team in this league, then turn around and beat desperate Sacred Heart on their home floor a game later despite their best player sitting virtually the entire game with foul trouble. Salud, Mountaineers! Now if you could just get your coach to skip the creepy-sounding "I want to see your blue, gold and white spilled out all over the floor" pregame speech next time, we're good.

--With all the ridiculous xtreme logos out there at the moment, let's take one second to applaud SHU for just using the school's crest-plus-"Pioneers" banner on their gym floor. (Looks like this but without the school name.) European football fans everywhere (and the JCCW) approve.

Big Sky

--First: how weird was it to watch mid-major college basketball in a 94 percent-empty Rose Garden with all the Trail Blazers stuff blissfully intact over every inch of the floor? The answer: very.

--Let's spare a thought for Northern Arizona's seniors, who lost in the Big Sky title game their final three years at the school and will try to clumsily bandage over that fact in their heads for the rest of their lives. Small consolation, but they do get to enter a bar and say, truthfully, "I'm a lumberjack," which must be nice. So they've got that going for them.

--It's possible it's whiplash from the sloppiness of the NEC title game earlier that night, but I thought Portland St. looked like a mighty, mighty fine basketball team. Good ball movement (how many times did Rodriguez make a sweet kick-out?), accurate shooting, even some high-major athleticism from the likes of Huff. There's a reason they won this tournament on cruise control.

I've said already that looking at the numbers and their Big Sky pedigree, you had to think they could provide some 1- or 2-seed with a tussle. I saw precisely nothing to dissuade me from that thinking Wednesday night. If Wisconsin sneaks up to a 2-seed after winning the Big 10 tournament ... hmm ...

Hope springs eternal

--As Michael Litos pointed out, yesterday was a phenomenally good one for the mids on the bubble. Ole Miss and Florida biting the dust? Not just one or two but all three Pac-10 bubblers failing to pull the upset? The markedly similar New Mexico and Umass both face-planting to inferior competition? Honestly, I'm not sure I remember a single day in bubble history when that many pretenders crashed out. It's more, much more, than the mids could have hoped for. I can't see St. Mary's or South Alabama left out under any circumstances at this point and whatever you think of VCU's or Illinois St.'s merits, there was a chance entering yesterday that they'd be squeezed out of the "serious" argument entirely. That ain't happening now. No one intelligent or unblinded by their love for some BCS punching bag is going to stand there slack-jawed in shock (a la Air Force in 2006) if either of these teams get in.

As for whether they will ... who knows? Every year the Committee does things that either no one or almost no one predicts. But I think VCU, in particular, has a reasonable shot. Have to say I'm surprised at the just about unanimous consensus that ISU is ahead of VCU in the pecking order. I don't see it: VCU has both the better non-conference profile (not even debatable--ISU's best win outside the Valley is home to Cincy) and I have to think the Committee would see winning the Colonial by multiple games as a better in-conference performance than a runner-up finish with an 0-3 record against the one true power team in the league--even if that league is the Valley.

I think that's more clear-cut than the following comparisons, but I think VCU's got a better angle than the following teams, too:

Temple: Getting a lot of love at the moment, but their best nonconference win was home to Ohio. Don't see 11-5 and second in the A-10 (even with a win over Xavier) as so much better than VCU's title run to cancel out VCU's better work in the nonconference slate.

Arizona St., Oregon: These are trickier: they're power-conference teams and have a bevy of top-50 wins (four for OU, five for ASU) while VCU has none. But I think it's worth noting that the Pac-10 is in tiers: Arizona and these teams are in the middle with UCLA, USC, Stanford, and Wazzu in the top tier. Arizona's three wins against that top tier and long list of decent-to-good nonconference wins means they're in, but Arizona St. went 2-7 against the Pac-10 upper crust and Oregon 1-8. Both have much better nonconference victories than VCU but both have blights in that profile as well, the Sun Devils in the form of one of the worst schedules in the country (a big reason they're now an incredible 81st in the RPI, which would set a record low for an at-large) and Oregon in the form of losses to Oakland and Nebraska. One final point is that Pac-10 teams are getting credit for "conference victories" for beating an Oregon St. team that's the RPI equivalent (inferior to, actually) of Stetson. I would expect the Committe to take one of these teams over VCU, but I'd be surprised if it took both.

UMass: 10-7 in the A-10 without a win over Xavier just isn't even close to what VCU accomplished in-conference, and it's not like their marquee out-of-conference win (a road W over Syracuse) is that much better than VCU's over Maryland. Now 1-4 vs. the RPI top 50 ... is that so much better than VCU's 0-2?

New Mexico: Lunardi's been all over these guys for weeks and still has them higher on the S-Curve than the Rams, to which I can only say: WTF? UNM has the No. 265 nonconference schedule and their best NC win was home to Texas Tech. Whoopee! In-conference they went 11-5 and finished third in a mediocre Mountain West without (like ISU) beating the conference's one truly good team ... and that was before they got bounced by Utah in the first round of the MWC tourney. Unless there's 2006-like "We love the West!" prejudice from the Committee, there's just no f'ing way this team gets in ahead of VCU.

Ohio St.: Take a look. There's just nothing in this profile at all except for the two desperation home wins over Mich. St. and Purdue to close the season. If they lose to MSU today and get in over the Rams with their mighty 2-10 mark vs. the top 50--really, Buckeye-lovers, you think VCU couldn't nab at least 2 of those 12 attempts with half of them either home or neutral?--and the same number of losses to teams between 100 and 200 in the RPI as VCU with three less tries ... well, here come the torches and pitchforks. (If OSU wins today ... eh, we'll cross that bridge then.)

As for everyone else ... it's a tossup. I think St. Joe's and Villanova have a slight edge on VCU, but it's debatable. Basically, I've got the final bubble cut like so: IN: 1. St. Joe's 2. Villanova 3. VCU 4. Arizona St. OUT: 5. Oregon 6. Illinois St. 7. Ohio St. 8. Temple 9. UMass 10. New Mexico.

See you tomorrow and go Spartans.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Championship Week diaries: Days 3 / 4

Real Life and his 1,001 paper-cut cruelties demanded a brief JCCW CW diary lapse, but that doesn't mean we're not still been watching obsessively and, ta da, we're back. The seven of you who signed up for this particular ride must be thrilled.

Like that baby shampoo: No Tears.

No point in avoiding the dark-blue elephant in the room from Monday night, so let's get this out of the way: provided the Committee lets South past the velvet rope, I'm psyched about Monday's results. There are two ways mids can leave the money-conference teams outside the door, badgering the bouncer and griping about how much they spent on their fly new suit: there's the "League power has reasonable resume, fails to win auto-bid, and prays" approach or the "League power becomes a freaking all-caps LOCK and leaves the auto-bid to a worthy conferencemate" strategy. The former can have some success (2006 George Mason being the most notable recent example, for obvious reasons) but let's be honest: if we're looking for the best way to cram as many mids into the field as possible, better to do so by auto-bid force rather than applying to the goodwill of a Committee that shows every year that goodwill is best earned by wearing an easily-recognizable name on the front of one's jersey.

So: I have maximum sympathy (actually, maybe "Maximum Sympathy" would better convey the strength of said sentiment, and allow me to point out that you can place the word "Maximum" in front of any noun you choose and have it come out like a movie you'd be interested in seeing ... coming this July, Meryl Streep and Charles Bronson in ... "Maximum Sympathy"! See? ... Wait, where was I ... ) for VCU and Illinois St., and know that watching the vise close on their chances must be more maddening than that Steve Winwood Muzak at the grocery store. But results like Monday's--and, with luck, a Kent St. loss in the semis or later--are for the best, particularly if they're going to send genuinely dangerous teams like San Diego or Western Kentucky to the Dance.

Bottom line, if the Committee is left to choose between Oregon and Illinois St., I'd wager heavily on them taking Oregon, fairness be damned; I'd rather just have the answer be, say, "Akron" and be done with it.

On to the games ...


--My goodness, Rider's alleged beastly beast Jason Thompson was every bit as beastly as advertised. I have to say that more than a few mid-major guys who've gotten the "NBA prospect" tongue-bathing over the last few seasons (where have you gone, Jared Jordan?) may have had their NBA interest exaggerated by those covering them for "Hey, here's a reason to keep watching this team you've never heard of, Championship Week rube!" reasons, but as for Thompson, I think there could be a market for 6-10 dudes who can handle the ball in the open floor, shoot from 15 feet, rebound like mad, and are unselfish (as we saw several times Monday) to a fault. Far be it from me to question the coaching strategy of paid professionals, but I don't understand why the Broncs--particularly with their second-leading scorer out and a hobbled point guard--seemed so blissfully content to dash up and down the court and match jacked threes with the Saints. You have a post player no one on your opponent's team can even contemplate guarding, your opponent clearly prefers a NASCAR pace, and you're facing an overall talent deficit with the injuries--why wouldn't you even try to make it a halfcourt game?

--Kudos to Siena for playing a more controlled game than the full-court press and quick shots made it look like--I was stunned when I found out they were shot 50 percent from the floor in the first half. That Ubiles kid was longer than longerson (a fact I'm still shocked Bilas never mentioned ... that's, like, his thing, right? Well, aside from the whole "godless Communist who kicks puppies for fun and profit" thing), Fisher rather obviously can shoot the ball, and it seemed like basically every kid they threw on the floor had something to offer. Even accounting for Thompson and the absences, I think between last night and the Stanford win it's pretty obvious the Saints were the better NCAA representative.

--That said? I'm not sure I see Siena as a major threat to pull an upset. Faster-paced teams can pull it off ... see Northwestern St over Iowa 2006. But the slower route--see Butler, any MoVal team you care to choose, Vermont vs. Syracuse a few years ago, etc.--usually works out better, and I doubt a team that looked as comfortable with the press as the Saints did last night is going to be comfortable making that transition. You know, speaking of this same issue, let's get to the ...


--Anyone else get the sense the Wildcats never quite pushed the mental hammer all the way to the floor against Elon? I realize it's not "his game," but Curry never even made a halfhearted attempt to get to the rim (13 of his 18 FGAs were 3's); more than once Davidson seemed to push the floor and fire away when it would seem more prudent to set up in the halfcourt; and most damningly, they let a team that clearly had little business being on the same court with them hang around ... hang around ... hang around for just about 35 minutes.

It's very, very easy to forgive Davidson for not being exactly Ginsu-sharp. They were playing their third game in three days and playing it against Elon. It's even worth repeating: against Elon. But if they play at that pace, with that little discipline, and with Curry that passive next week, forget the pie-in-the-sky Sweet 16 dreams--they're going to get crushed in the round of 64. I have faith they can turn into the sensible, sweet-shooting, patient team that advances a coupla rounds, but ... it's more a faith-based than evidence-based belief, at least based on the evidence of Monday night.

--Poor Jason Richards. I get the sense that if his backcourt mate weren't, well, Stephen freaking Curry, he might have gotten just a bit more attention for leading all of Division 1 in assists and generally being the SoCon's answer to Adam Emmenecker, right down to an apparent inability to shoot from deep to go with the mad distribution skills and occasional turnover.

Then again, it's hard to criticize anyone for keeping their eyes glued to Curry. I personally think he's maybe just a touch overrated--every time I see him, he puts up a few shots we could safely call "ill-advised," and as mentioned previously he didn't attack the basket Monday at all--but goodness gracious, his stroke is the college hoops equivalent of Griffey Jr.'s swing. Here's to hoping Gus Johnson calls Davidson's pod, 'cause I can't think of a better use for his "Pure!" call after a made shot than one of Curry's.


--You're a high-level BCS conference coach whose team has had a pretty damn good year and is in line for a 4 or 5 seed, like, say, Purdue. You're Matt Painter. I's Snub Sunday, or as you think of it since you know your team will get the benefit of the doubt by playing in major conference, "Selection Sunday," and Jim Nantz tells you you will be facing the George Mason Colonials Patriots.

The ColonialsPatriots, in their past three Marches, have a) made the Final Four as an 11-seed, an accomplishment so stunning it still boggles the mind to type it b) overcome a mediocre regular season to come within two minutes of supernova-brilliance from Eric Maynor of storming to the CAA autobid c) won three straigh at this year's CAA tourney by no less than nine points. They have both a dominant senior post player in Will Thomas and a dominant senior guard in Folarin Campbell who have been to the Final bleeping Four and will be intimidated by your Big 10 pedigree precisely not at all. They have an assortment of ready-steady complementary players--even lummoxish forward Chris Fleming went 4-5 in 20 minutes in the title game vs. William & Mary. Their coach has more charisma than Obama and, somewhat more importantly, is arguably the best tournament coach alive not already in the employ of the money schools.

So what do you do, if you're Matt Painter? I would imagine you would relieve yourself in your pants, is what you would do.

(As an aside, if the Committee matches GMU up against Drake or Butler, I am going to be simply hella pissed.)

--For all of Thomas's brilliance underneath, GMU won the Colonial with defense. Mason was flying all over the place at the Tribe shooters and when the gentlemen doing the said flying are all as big and athletic as the Colonials, yes, that's a problem. Campbell went 4-14 from the floor, but that doesn't matter quite so much when you're 6-4, 205 and roaming the defensive perimeter at this level.

--If you ever need a good argument for why Native American nicknames really should be put down for good, I suggest pictures of the W&M kid ESPN showed us with the bright green "warpaint," gold "tomahawk," and green feather-headband.

West Coast

--It seems so silly to wonder if Mark Few's really that great of a coach, given that Few is the guy who took Gonzaga from What a Cute Story! to Just Go Ahead and Pencil Those Guys in for a Bid in November, but ... sometimes I wonder if Mark Few is really that good of a coach. There's the frankly atrocious tournament record the last few years given the Zags' seeding, but more than that, it's that every time I see Gonzaga the last couple of years (barring a few good early-season performances) it's that I can't help but feel they should be better than they are.

I mean, look at their rotation: Pargo and Bouldin in the backcourt, a fully functional Heytvelt and Kuso down low, the 6-6 (!) Pendergraft at the 3, versatile gems like Daye, Gray, and Downs coming off the bench. Maybe there's no Adam Morrison or Casey Calvary-esque post force there, but we're talking several blue-ribbon recruits and a handful of NBA prospects there, easily the best on-paper eight-deep rotation at the mid-major level and one that honestly doesn't look to me to be any less talented than those at places like Wisconsin, or Vanderbilt, or Notre Dame.

And yet Gonzaga will slink into the tourney in the 7-8 range after two of the ugliest games I've seen them play since their ascension. Make no mistake: they were Georgetown-level fortunate to beat Santa Clara and were "Quick! Hire a maid!"-level sloppy against San Diego. They've never been keen on defense, but to see the Zags hoist tons of bad shots (seriously, Few, time to tell Downs and Daye they're not the three-point snipers they apparently believe themselves to be) and give seemingly every other pass a direct ticket out-of-bounds or into a Torero's hands ... well, "disciplined" or "focused" weren't exactly the first adjectives that came to mind watching the Zags. And silly as it may be to point the finger at Few, discipline and focus are the things we have to attribute or, uh, unattribute to the head coach.

--Yes, San Diego is going to be a rough, rough team to handle as a 14 or 15 seed. To recap: they swept the non-St. Mary's/Gonzaga portion of their WCC schedule, won in Rupp, and have both beef up front (seven dudes listed 6-6 or taller, starting with Gyno Pomare, who played as hard during the WCC tourney as his first name is unfortunate) and confidence and speed in the backcourt with those two Johnson fellas. If they can handle the ball just a wee bit better, look out look out look out.

--w00t, three-bid WCC.


--This was one of those games where you look back and say "I know basketball is a sport where there are so many plays, it's sort of ridiculous to say a game was decided on a single one, but you know, I think that's the case here." The play in question? Matt Howard's outta-nowhere block on J'Nathan Bullock's fast-break layup attempt with Butler clinging to a 43-41 lead that looked mighty, mighty precarious. Bullock makes that and ties the game, the Vikings have every ounce of momentum and Bullock's kick-ass ponytail is in full flop and the bench is going nuts and ... who knows? Instead the crowd immediately jumps back into it, Howard comes back with a ridiculous jumper a couple of possessions later (he got, like, "trying to send you to the line"-style hacked on the play), and Butler has the lead back to 51-41 before Cleveland St. scores again ... and, basically, with a 10-point lead in Hinkle with 10 to play, the game is over.

One play.

--I'm going to watch a game live in Hinkle before I die. My mind's made up. "Scuba dive off the Great Barrier Reef, or, you know, some other really pretty underwater place," you've been knocked down the list a peg.

--I'm honestly not sure what to make of Butler's NCAA chances. On the roster sheet they're better than last year and when your team has a grand total of three losses by a total of 12 points, it's safe to say they're not bad. But geez, Drake was the only honest-to-God good team on the entire schedule and their Horizon run is littered with four-and-five-point wins over various league detritus that's not usually befitting of a deep NCAA run from a mid-major.

Then again, it's not like last year's Horizon campaign was any more impressive (less so, actually)--part of the reason I picked them to lose to ODU before they dismissed the Monarchs with ease and then got past Maryland. (Good work, me, as always.) So the Horizon performance may not mean much. Also: it's not like Butler whiffed a bunch of chances for big regular-season wins a la 2007. They just didn't have those chances.

My guess at this point is: Sweet 16 if they're handed another less-than-intimidating pod, but the wrong money-conference team could mean problems. (Now there's some cutting-edge analysis for you. Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got a fence to go sit on.)


--One of the things that drives me bonkers is mid-majors that have a sweet-shooting stud and just sort of lazily forget to get him the ball from time-to-time. Check our IUPUI's Pomeroy page: George Hill is 16th in the country in offensive rating, shoots a guard-ridiculous 59.3 percent from 2 and 46 percent from 3, and still uses just 27.9 percent of the Jaguars' possessions--fewer, for example, than Mike Green does for a Butler team still has Graves, Howard, Campbell, etc. IUPUI does not have Graves, Howard, and Campbell ... and still, down the stretch of a close game for an NCAA bid there were possessions where Hill didn't get a sniff of the ball.

Yes, I realize this whole point is sort of stupid when Hill took 21 of IUPUI's 53 shots (40 percent) against Oral Roberts and hit just eight of them. But I think in a game of this magnitude, it's still a good idea to force-feed your star a little more than IUPUI did, and I think if they'd been more used to the idea instead of distributing it the way they did during the regular season, maybe things would have been different.

Than again, I may be an idiot.

--I've written about ORU before, and I'll repeat my conclusion from then: I don't think this team is all that removed from the ORU teams that went to the Dance the last few years. There's a bit more 1-through-5 balance, which helps, and if you assume that every trip gets the coaching staff and players a little more accustomed to the NCAA ride--look at Winthrop--then maybe this is actually their best shot at an NCAA win, whiffs this season at Texas, Texas A&M, and Arkansas be damned.

One caveat: man, they have got to get Robert Jarvis to keep his head on straight. Both this game and the Creighton game followed a similar pattern: Jarvis hits a few early shots, enters "You can't stop me!" Kobe-mode and tosses up ill-advised bricks before finally settling down and hitting some big ones down the stretch. But it's safe to say that if ORU can survive those bricks vs. Creighton (mostly survive, anyway) or IUPUI, something tells me they're not going to be able to against, say, Stanford.

Sun Belt

--All right, I admit: thanks to the magic of DVR (and yes, I mean magic sincerely ... you can't convince me a device so astonishingly useful doesn't run on unicorn poop or some similar fuel) I watched every minute of each of the above games, but finally had to yield one of the tuners to the Soon-to-be-Mrs.-JCCW Tuesday night for that show you may have heard about involving singers. (Weak? Maybe, but given what the next few weeks are like, there's also a good deal of "Discretion is the better part of valor" involved here). So I missed the Belt final, assuming WKU wouldn't have too much trouble seeing off the Blue Raiders. I assumed correctly.

As for the 'Toppers chances in the Dance, Lee obviously should be able to keep them in it if he gets any support and doesn't play as gosh-awful as it appeared he did in the first half of the title game Tuesday. But I dunno ... something tells me that if WKU couldn't handle South on their home floor in what everyone knew was a de facto league title game, I don't see them handling a genuinely good team in the NCAAs, either. (Of course, they may be paired with a not-genuinely good team like Vandy or Purdue, so who knows).

More tomorrow, cross my heart.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Championship Week diaries: Day 2

Missoui Valley

--Four title games through Sunday, four demolitions. I truly, truly love me some mid-major college hoops--yes, I watched all the way to the bitter end of the Drake-ISU blood-letting--but goodness gracious I'm hoping one of tonight's games stays within single digits. At least a little bit of drama would be a nice change-of-pace, ya know?

--I'm well aware of Adam "David Eckstein" Emmenecker's avalanche of awards and feel-good puff pieces, and let me make this clear: Emmencker is one hell of a college basketball player. But let's also make this clear: Emmenecker is a bit turnover-prone and is not the best player on his team. That player, as the Butler game made clear, is Josh Young. Which is what was the single most impressive thing about Drake's scorched-earth, hide-the-women-and-children victory yesterday: Young went an anonymous 3-of-8 for 7 points. And Drake still had the game decided by halftime. There's a reason they ran away with a conference that should not have been, um, runawayable.

--I don't know if I've ever seen a team who takes as many threes from as deep as Drake. They must have taken a dozen shots from [pick your favorite metaphor of distance ... I'll go with the apropos "downtown Des Moines"] and never flinched. It's one thing to be comfortable shooting the three; it's another to be comfortable shooting the NBA three. It doesn't really strike me as a problem (the Bulldogs have shown they've got the range and fer Chrissakes they have a Korver on their team) but I do wonder if that increases the likelihood of the sort of 4-for-25 disaster that ran SIU out of the NCAAs last year.

--You could see where the Osiris Eldridge hype was coming from and I'm quite sure ISU didn't win 13 Valley games by accident, but ... they were brutal yesterday. Two steps too slow on defense, way too many forced shots on offense (with Eldridge a major factor), and no one besides Eldridge making even the slightest impression on the game after the 9-4 start. If I'm a Committee member and this was my only bona fide look at this team ... there's not going to be much benefit of the doubt, is there?

I said Saturday I thought a runner-up ISU would sneak in over an ousted VCU, but after yesterday--and after more carefully considering the Colonial's representation on the Committee--I think I'm leaning the other way now. If it comes to a head-to-head for the final bid, I think the conference title and slightly superior nonconference performance (the Maryland win in particular) swing it for the Rams. More on the bubble in a moment.

--Really like the Sunday afternoon CBS spotlight carved out for this game. It shouldn't sound like a bigger deal just because Dick Enberg is calling it, but ... it sounds like a bigger deal just because Dick Enberg is calling it. And the Valley final deserves to sound like the biggest deal possible.

The Bubble

Both good news and bad news from the mid-major perspective yesterday. The good of course came in the ACC, where Virginia Tech missed again on a top-50 win (they're a lovely 0-6) and Maryland crashed-and-burned at Virginia. Both those teams would be toast if today was Snub Sunday. Kentucky was probably in regardless (a hot team six games over .500 in the SEC named "Kentucky"? Yeah, they were getting a bid), so the 'Cats shoving Florida further down the ladder helped, too.

But Ohio St.'s win over those overrated flunkies from East Lansing really hurt--the Buckeyes shouldn't get in just because they squeaked out a couple of desperation wins at home over a pair of teams that aren't that good to begin with, but they will. Syracuse's win over Marquette Saturday likewise shouldn't have moved their needle so much, but it did--I think the winner of the 'Nova-'Cuse Big East tourney game gets a bid. Oregon's late surge in a conference as stacked as the Pac-10 probably has them in, too.

Where does that leave our current hopeful mid-major bubblers? As I'm not convinced at all by the resumes of the likes of New Mexico or UAB, I'm currently with the guys at Bracketology 101: if the bubble stays exactly where it is, I think both ISU and VCU shoehorn their way in (I think St. Mary's is safe. W's over Drake and Oregon are gold and the only "bad" losses were to a decent San Diego team in an Diego. They're good to go).

But that's the problem: the bubble isn't going to hold. Butler, Memphis, Xavier, Davidson, and Gonzaga aren't all going to win their conference tourneys. Ole Miss, Va. Tech/Maryland, and the mass of A-10 schools aren't all going to fail to make a run.

My current guess? VCU is the last team into the field. ISU is out. I'm hoping I'm wrong about that second one, but it doesn't look good.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Championship Week diaries: Day 1

OK, so I'm going to try and write something about every title game, every day, of Championship Week. This is probably going to last until Tuesday, so enjoy it while you can. But for now...

Overall impressions

--Three tourneys decided yesterday, three total blowouts. The closest of the three was Winthrop's demolition of Asheville, which was a seven-point game with, oh, eight minutes to go but had been decided by the final TV timeout. The bad: I doubt many casual fans were still tuning in by the closing whistles. The good: if you believe scoring margin is the truest mark of a good team, well, you have to like the NCAA chances of the teams that won yesterday a little better than before.

Frankly, as a lover of exciting hoops first and foremost, yesterday left me a little cold.

--The other good news: all four auto-bids handed out so far have gone to the best possible NCAA representative from that respective conference. Three (Cornell-duh-Austin Peay, and Belmont) went to the 1-seed and let's face it, solid as they are, Asheville just isn't the threat Winthrop is. Experience, explosiveness, tourney-quality defense ... the Eagles got it, the Bulldog's don't.

Anyways, the point is that this this is a good start for a loaded bottom half of the bracket, much like we saw in 2006 when, if you're recall, Oral Roberts became the first-ever 16 seed to be taken seriously and Northwestern St. finally grabbed another one of those 14-over-3 upsets that had been dormant for so long. Let's keep our fingers crossed, shall we?

Big South

--On the one hand, Kenny George was kind of underwhelming. Winthrop (as the announcing team pointed out ad nauseum) shoved him far enough away from the basket that he had to go to the hook, and it just wasn't falling. But he really didn't get a lot of help from his teammates--again and again he'd fight for position and get a pass thrown just low enough for Taj MaCullough or the like to swoop in and swat it away. And of course, it's not like the Bulldogs ever made Winthrop pay for focusing so much defensive attention on George; Smithson and Garland combined to shoot--ye gods!--4-of-25.

--When this blog kicked off, it took a few good shots at WU's Michael Jenkins, who as an underclassman tended to be the guy who made up for any lost time on the bench by firing at will the moment he stepped on the court. The result was a series of "1-5, 2 pts., 10 min." lines that didn't really help the team, I thought. But yesterday ... Man, has he come a long way. He was, obviously, sensational (11-of-19 for 33). Winthrop's upset chances basically hinge on Jenkins alone: you know the defense is going to be there, you know Gaynor (I imagine the rest of the conference is finalizing their party plans as we speak now that he's finally exhausted his eligibility)is going to keep things on an even keel, you know Macullough and the Eagles' effort will keep things at least moderately close on the glass ... it's just a matter of whether the shots fall. And that falls on Jenkins.

Ohio Valley

--I'll give Tennessee St. credit for one thing: those team-wide mohawks were friggin' sweet. Too bad after their fast start they decided to play jack-a-three and their alleged star (Bruce Price) started literally walking around the court when he wasn't getting the ball. I'm not the sort to credit very much to the spectre of "mental toughness," but, um, they really didn't show a whole lot mental toughness. Guess that's why even though they clearly had the talent to play with the league champs Peay (who they'd beaten in the regular season) they only ended up the No. 6 seed.

--As for Peay, they had a pretty easy time of it in the second half, but I was still pretty impressed--they looked like a much, much stronger champion than last year's OVC representative (a wishy-washy-looking Eastern Kentucky squad). Wright's a solid PG, Babington gives them a hell of a sniper, and you had to like the way they attacked the offensive glass. But ... yeah, I think if they wind up a 15 or 16 they're still going to get killed on the boards. Just not enough beef. But hey, f Babington gets really hot ... who knows?

Atlantic Sun

--When it comes to Jacksonville, I hate to make ridiculously pronounced judgments about a team like "Well, that's what happens when you go from 1-26 to a conference championship game in two seasons," but, well, that's what happens when you go from 1-26 to a conference championship game in two seasons. The Bruins came out hot--think it helped this was their third time around this particular block?--and the Dolphins just weren't ready for a hot Belmont at all. So it goes.

--So, is this the year Belmont actually makes a high seed work for their dinner after rolling over for UCLA and Georgetown the last two years? Honestly ... I'm not seeing it. I know they knocked off Cincinnati and I know another lights-out performance from behind the arc could make things interesting, but even JU was all over the offensive glass. The image of Roy Hibbert grabbing his own miss, like, 17 consecutive times from last year's first round is still too fresh for me to take the Bruins' chances too seriously. If I'm Belmont, I send all five guys to the defense glass and say screw anything inside the arc that's not a backdoor layup--it's threes galore and pray they all fall.

--Lastly, good-bye to the omnipresent Justin Hare, who seems like he's been starring in the A-Sun longer than Belmont itself.