Monday, March 09, 2009

Championship Week Diaries, Days 1/2

Big South: Radford 108, VMI 94

--Ever since the first 10 minutes of this game, I've been trying to think if I've ever seen a bigger contrast of basketball styles than one team spearheaded by a 6-10 Belarussian behemoth at center (plus a 6-8 power forward) vs. a team who plays one dude taller than 6-4 (and he's 6-7) and has played the country's fastest pace for three straight years. Watching the Keydets climb all over Artsiom Parakhouski (as Kyle said, the tall one in the picture above) was like watching a Dad play backyard basketball with his five very fast, very athletic, three-point inclined sons.

--So, yeah, there's a reason Radford outrebounded VMI 56-24. I'm also trying to remember if I've ever seen a rebounding margin of "+32." When you turn the ball over 27 times (as Radford did) and still manage to take 14 more free throws and only seven fewer shots than your opponent, yes, safe to say you've a good game on the glass.

--Can't say Radford didn't deserve the bid after winning the league by a couple of games, but man, it would have been nice seeing VMI in the NCAAs. Watching the Holmes twins run up an down the court against, say, Michigan St. would have been sweet. Oh well--the Keydets are the ultimate boom-or-bust kind of team, and shooting 16-of-50 on their 3's is pretty close to bust. (Allowing Radford to shoot 55.7 percent is pretty busty as well.)

--Occasionally, you'll see these Euro giants who are playing hoops basically because God made them 7-feet tall and a basketball court is the only place in the world it's not a curse--dour faces, not much interaction with their teammates, a general sense of obligation rather than love for the game. This is not the case with Parakhouski, who popped his jersey at every opportunity and screamed his way upcourt after the mighty accomplishment of hitting a two-footer off the glass over a Keydet half his height. Cocky? Hell yeah, but a welcome cockiness.

--Parakhouski (who finished 11-of-16 for 26 points with 18 boards) and the 6-8 Joey Lynch-Floor give Radford a puncher's chance in the NCAA's first round. (It's also, of course, why they rolled through the Big South ... no one in a league this guard-oriented has that kind of size.) Sure, the Highlanders got rolled by every high-major team they played, but hey ...take 30 seconds on every possession before feeding it into Parakhouski, let Floor-Lynch hang in there on the boards, hope the opponent has an awful day from outside, and who knows? Not that this is likely, but if Radford can avoid a 16 seed, they have a shot at being competitive.

Atlantic Sun: East Tennessee St. 85, Jacksonville 68

--Cliff Warren's quietly done one of the best coaching jobs in the country in taking JU from the depths of 1-26 a few years ago to a regular season A-Sun title and now back-to-back conference tourney championship games. But man, he's got to figure out a different way of preparing his team for these games, because this is two straight years the Dolphins have been total no-shows with the bid on the line. Weird.

--That said, JU could have been totally on top of their game and it wouldn't have mattered. ETSU left last year's tournament (in which a--to put it politely--complete horsecrap technical call handed Belmont a win they only partially deserved) feeling like they had unfinished business, and they took care of it Saturday. When a senior-laden team on this level with guys with as much talent as Courtney Pigram and Kevin Tiggs--not to mention a front line that goes 6-7, 6-8--comes out as focused and energetic as the Bucs did on Saturday, forget it. The game was 23-11 and over by the under-12 timeout.

--Tiggs and Pigram are the guys with the names, but no doubt about it, Mike Smith was the best player on the floor in the title game. Long, athletic, a sweet-looking stroke from deep ... Smith finished with 22 points on 15 shots, 12 boards, four assists, and a couple of steals. How did I not know about this guy before?

--If Smith's going to play like that, ETSU absolutely has a shot in their first-round game. They've got a little bit of size, are athletic enough to play some worthwhile D, Messrs. Tiggs, Pigram, and Smith can score on anyone, Murray Bartow's been here a couple of times before ... like Radford, there's not really anything in their resume that screams "ready to win a 15-2 game," but they looked the part of a potential David on Saturday.

--Going from the madness of Radford's Dedmon Center to the dead zone of Lipscomb's arena, where ETSU and the Dolphins played in front of a crowd of DOZENS, was all the evidence you need to show why rewarding league champs with home court is the right move.

Ohio Valley: Morehead St. 67, Austin Peay 65

--After two disappointing blowouts to kick off Championship Week (seriously, both those earlier title games looked like even-steven match-ups), the OVC made up for it with a double-overtime thriller. Figured you'd show up eventually, March.

--For the most part, neither team was particularly polished on the offensive end, but it doesn't get any sweeter than the play Donnie Tyndall drew up for Morehead at the end of regulation. 10 seconds of lull you to sleep dribbling, followed by a precision lob and wide-open jam with 2 seconds left on the shot clock and 7.6 left on the game clock. That brand of execution, particularly given the pressure and situation, made it one hell of a play. (As if to drive the point home as to how much this sport is based on total, absolute luck, Peay's ballhandler drove smack into an Eagle defender, dribbled the ball off his foot, and had it roll directly to Peay's Caleb Brown who banked in a leaner as the buzzer sounded. Morehead pulling it out in the end was definitely some kind of delayed justice.)

--Hoo boy, great as they were from a dramatic standpoint, those overtime period were tough to watch from an aesthetic standpoint. Both teams were totally gassed and weren't all that interested in running smooth offense to begin with, so, well, there's a reason they combined for 6 points in the second OT and Peay didn't hit a FG.

--I'm not sure either of these teams had much of a chance of even hanging tough come NCAA time--Peay's only productive post player is the 6-5 Drake Reed, who sometimes seem to disappear for stretches in OVC play--but given how long it's been since Morehead had gotten a Dance ticket and that they and the Governors had finished with the same record in OVC play, I was happy to see the Eagles. Besides, it's a little easier to see Morehead hanging around in the first round, thanks to 6-8 center Kenneth Faried. Faried averages 14 and 13 and looked against APSU like a kind of taller, equally-manic Renaldo Balkman, right down to the ponytail. He could at least keep Morehead alive on the glass against a power team, and I'd trust the Eagles to play better D than the Govs.

Missouri Valley: Northern Iowa 60, Illinois St. 57

--Siiiiigh. I hate to say this, but this game really hammered home how far the top end of this league has slipped over the last couple of years. UNI and ISU are both good teams as these things go ... but UNI is a painfully unathletic team that doesn't even shoot particularly well and whose best player (7-footer Jordan Eglseder) can only take the court for 20 minutes a game. The Redbirds, meanwhile, have as much athleticism as you could want but play a brand of offense they seemed to learn at the local YMCA. (30.2 percent shooting against UNI!) Already eliminated, of course, were Creighton and the Bluejays' utter lack of post presence or any kind of rebounding. There's nothing here to match the Southern Illinois's and Creighton's and Bradley's of yesteryear.

--So, yeah, it didn't really make much difference personally who won this game. I think ISU had a slightly better chance at winning a 12-5 game, since if they committed themselves on D and had a decent shooting game, they wouldn't face much of a deficit in the way of talent or hops. But in the end, eh, I'd just assume watch UNI move on--watching Champ Oguchi jack up yet another three 10 seconds into the shot clock when he could blow past his defender at any time might have me throwing things.

--Seriously, this game never should have gone into overtime. The only thing that kept ISU in the game was Eldridge's ridonkulous series of circus threes midway through the second half ... and when that's all you've got to base your offense around, you're in trouble. UNI did their best to help the Redbirds out with a curious insistence on turning the ball over and refusing to get the ball into the post.

--Then again, all ISU needed to win this game was for either 1) Oguchi to not blow an easy layup with 27 seconds left in OT 2) Sampay to go up with his offensive rebound with 1:30ish left for what would have been an easy basket. Instead he pulled it out, Eldridge missed a 3 (of course) and the Redbirds never scored again.

--OK, so does UNI have a shot at an NCAA win? Yes, a shot. Eglseder gives them some excellent size for as long as he can go--which is longer given the crazy length of NCAA TV timeouts--and point man Kwadzo Ahelegbe looked a lot more sure of himself this game than earlier in the season. Still, the specter of the Panthers proving themselves totally unable to handle the tempo or athleticism of Sien on BracketBusters Saturday looms large. They'll have to get a good, slow match-up (Illinois? Cal?) to have a true chance at advancing to the Round of 32.

--Maybe he can keep his tennis gig, but it's time to put Dick Enberg out to pasture where hoops is concerned. He made more errors than I could count, none worse than at the end of regulation when ISU committed the foul that would send UNI to the line to tie the game with 30 seconds left--!!!!--and Enberg calmly explained how the ball had gone out of bounds but would stay at that end. His color guy, Bob Wenzl, might have been worse--when Sampay pulled the OT rebound out, he effusively praised the decision. Of course he did--because purposefully passing on the chance to go up two possessions with still more than a minute remaining is such a great idea.

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