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.


PhilipVU94 said...

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

Do you think Stanford minus Brook Lopez is a "major pelt"? I don't, especially if you look at the context of that game.

We've not been great on the road. That will be a problem if I drive to Tampa only to find that Friday's game has been moved to Albany.

I'm working on understanding Pomeroy's efficiency ratings better so I can't really discuss those intelligently, except to say that KP appears to lump every facet of winning close games as "luck", which is IMO only a half-truth.

We could lose to Siena, but so far I haven't seen any solid reasons associated with Siena -- people just don't like Vanderbilt, just as they didn't like Vanderbilt in 2007, just as they didn't like Vanderbilt in 2004, just as they didn't like Vanderbilt in 1993.

Jerry Hinnen said...

Well, first I would say that it's not that I'm utterly and completely convinced this is goint to happen; I just think SOME protected seed is going to fall and Vandy looks the most likely. Wouldn't surprise me that much if it neded up being ORU over Pitt or Winthrop over Wazzu.

In response:

a) Lopez or no Lopez, home or road game, it's still Stanford. More than most other 13s/14s have.

b) Road woes do generally correlate to tourney success. (I do see that that link hates the same GMU team I'm pimping, but they were excellent in neutral venues this season. Hopefully they'll be fine.)

c) In Vandy's case I'm not looking at the kenpom ratings as much as Gasaway's Basketball Prospectus efficiency posts, but either way the point is that Vandy's scoring margin (a better indicator of future results than record, as Hollinger mught say) isn't what you'd expect from a team with their record or seed.

d) The positives with Siena, here at least, are the win over Stanford and taking the top-seed in their conference (an experienced coach doesn't hurt, either).

As for not believing in Vandy, this site at least had them in the Sweet 16 last year; 2003 was more about Western Michigan looking like a hell of a team than Vandy hate; and as I was 14 in 1993, I can't accurately gauge what the expectations were (wasn't that the Billy MCaffrey team that lost to Temple in the Sweet 16?). I think it's more that this particular team was seen as a 5 or 6 and got a 4 than any systemic, nationwide Vandy hate.