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.


Anonymous said...

Hey Skippy,

It's the George Mason Patriots, not the George Mason Colonials.

Jerry Hinnen said...

Bloody hell! I'm better than that. The worst error on this blog since I wrote that Neko Case was Canadian.

John said...

Don't judge Jason Richards on his outside shot based solely on the game against Elon. He's 2nd on the team in 3s made for the season and 3rd for percentage (among players who get significant minutes). He's got a nice stroke that's been on display before. Go ask Winthrop if you don't believe me.