Thursday, March 29, 2007

"Final Four preview: This could be memorable"

I woke up this Thursday morning excited, ready for some basketball, itching for some more NCAA tournament action. All day I couldn't stop thinking about it. Florida, UCLA, Georgetown, Ohio State. I had goose bumps by lunchtime and major goose bumps by lunchtime on the West Coast.

And then I turned on CBS at 7 p.m. and "Entertainment Tonight" was on? Quickly it hit me, like dodgeball right in the gut. The games aren't until Saturday, unless the NIT championship is considered a game (not quite).

The news depressed me, but at the same time it makes the upcoming games all the more juicy. As if they could get any juicier than they already are. Let's face it, folks. While the first eight days of the tournament may not have been as chaotic as last year, these last three games have the potential to go down in history (unlike last year's final weekend, which was anti-climatic at best).

There is no reason not to watch every second of the two games on Saturday and whatever matchup they beget for Monday. There are thousands of reasons why you should be watching. I'll throw out a few.

Greg Oden vs. Roy Hibbert. We haven't seen a matchup of true big men like this since Olajuwon vs. Ewing in the 1984 finals. This could only be better if G-Town was playing Houston instead of Ohio State. The Hoyas' attack even features Patrick Ewing Jr., with John Thompson III manning the sidelines. Meanwhile, John Thompson Jr. should be doing radio (although we all know he shouldn't be) and the elder Ewing will more than likely be in the stands. Hibbert and Oden should be extremely fun to watch. All season long these guys - especially Oden - have had to ease their way against smaller players trying to pick up cheap fouls. Now they can go at each other, one blow after another. The more physical the better.

Jeff Green, the best player nobody outside of the Big East knew about until last weekend. If you've noticed, this kid can flat-out play, and he'll do plenty of playing at the next level as well. Too many forwards in today's college game are content to settle for outside jumpers and playing the finesse game. Not Green. He's an attacker, an assailer, a slasher, a banger. And to cap it all off, he's one of the smartest players in the Final Four. His calmness during G-Town's comeback against North Carolina on Sunday was admirable. It'll be a pleasure to watch him shred Ohio State's zone.

Ron Lewis, Mr. Clutch. He saved the Buckeyes against Xavier. He saved 'em against Tennessee. What's next for Lewis? All I know is the senior will not shy away from the big shots come Saturday. How can you not love a player who wants the ball at the end of a game, who wants the last shot, and who knows he's going to make it. Lewis has been the Buckeyes' unheralded MVP so far this tournament. Look for him to continue his impressive play.

Mike Conley Jr., the unfazed freshman. Save the talk about Oden. We'll be mentioning his name for years to come. What about his freshman counterpart? While Oden has had a relatively subpar tournament, Conley has been the Buckeyes' second-best player behind Lewis. He runs the offense like a senior (yes, they still exist - Lewis is one of them). He's as unselfish as Steve Nash. Yet he also knows when he needs to be aggressive (like during overtime against Xavier with Oden out). As good as Georgetown's Jessie Sapp is at running the Hoyas, the reason I'm taking OSU is Conley. Buckeyes' fans need not worry when the ball's in his hands.

On the other side of the bracket, how about the matchup? A rematch of last year's national title game, which really wasn't a game (let's be honest). Florida absolutely dominated UCLA's big men a year ago, scoring at will and making shot-blocking into an art form. I can't wait to see the response by the Bruins' bigs.

Sure, they lost Ryan Hollins, but every other big man is back. Lorenzo Mata and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute - these two players have more to prove than anyone left in this tournament. Can they stand up to Joakim Noah and Al Horford? They don’t' need to score a lot. They just need to rebound and stop those two guys from scoring. They have something to prove, and you have to expect they'll come ready to play and fired up for the Gators. An added plus: I bet you no one named Luc Richard Mbah a Moute has ever played in back-to-back Final Fours before. Lemme know if you want the bet (I promise, I haven't researched it).

And then there are the Gators, the group of underclassmen no one knew about a year ago who surprised just about everyone (although everyone was also disappointed when they eliminated George Mason). Now everyone is familiar with Noah, and Horford, and Humphrey, and Brewer, and Green, and their young, genius coach, Billy Donovan. No one outside of Gainesville particularly likes them either. No one wants to see them become the first team since Duke in 1991-92 to win back-to-back national titles.

But here's the bottom line: When the Gators are playing their best - which they haven't done yet this tournament, a scary thought - they are a beautiful team to watch. None of their five starters are liabilities on either end of the court (OK, Humphrey isn't a great defender, but he has plenty of help behind him). And all of their five starters fill their roles perfectly. Horford's your typical big man who can post up with his back to the hoop and power his way to the basket. Noah's your atypical post player. He'd rather get the ball facing the hoop and make a move off the dribble. Brewer's the slasher/jump shooter. Basically, he can do a lot of things efficiently. He's not great, but very solid. Humphrey's the classic outside shooter. That's all he does, and all he needs to do. His 23 points against Oregon led the Gators. Finally, Green is the x-factor. When his boys aren't playing like they should, he huddles them in and starts the engine again. And he's also the shot-maker. He'll pull up on the break and nail the 23-footer when it’s needed most.

Watching Florida's five starters play as a unit is almost as beautiful as Noah's ponytail (Sorry, bad joke). But seriously - any true basketball fan has to be pleased the Gators are still playing.

So who's it gonna be? Who will survive Saturday to play Monday? Who will get to be interviewed by Billy Packer Monday night (not that this is the reason players try to reach championship Monday). It's about as difficult to predict as the weather here in Michigan. Which is great. Because uncertainty is what drives this madness, especially when the best of the best are facing off. So below you'll see some picks, some guesses from a small section of my brain, but don't count on them happening, because this Final Four weekend may be the most wild, thrilling and memorable in quite some time.

Saturday's picks
- Ohio State 78, Georgetown 74
- Florida 63, UCLA 57

Monday's pick
- Florida 70, Ohio State 66

Sunday, March 25, 2007

"That's why they're 'student-athletes' "

For about 33 minutes of its Elite Eight showdown with Georgetown Sunday evening, North Carolina's play belied its fundamental flaws.

The Tar Heels were a great team all season, but the two things you had to question about them were their toughness and their smarts. Both were on display during those 33 minutes, and as a result North Carolina led 75-65 after two Marcus Ginyard free throws with 7:19 to play.

The North Carolina faithful could feel the Heels' second Final Four appearance in three years on their fingertips.

But then those vices came back to sting North Carolina at the most inopportune time. The Heels rushed shots and - with the exception of four points from Tyler Hansbrough and a tip-in by Brandan Wright - were dominated down low. The large rebounding margin they had held for much of the game slowly dwindled until it was unrecognizable (North Carolina had a double-digit advantage in boards most of the second half, but ended up with just a 41-37 edge). There were no more second-chance opportunities despite the Hoyas playing a healthy dose of zone defense.

And with North Carolina taking quick shots and being limited to a single shot each possession, Georgetown had plenty of time to get back into the game. Unlike the Heels, there were no hurried shots by the Hoyas. Instead, they went to their bread and butter every time down the floor: Jeff Green and Roy Hibbert, who scored five out of seven Georgetown points to get within 75-72 with 4:22 remaining on a thunderous dunk by Hibbert.

Then, with North Carolina's defense focused on Georgetown's Big Two, the other guys took advantage. Jessie Sapp, one of college basketball's most underrated players, scored a difficult layup to cut UNC's lead to one. Then, trailing by three with less than a minute remaining, Jonathan Wallace calmly stepped up and nailed a game-tying 3-pointer.

And the game was as good as over.

The overtime was more of the same. UNC impatiently settled for way too many 3-pointers and didn't score until a Ty Lawson 3-pointer with 8 seconds remaining. By that time, CBS had already inked the Hoyas for Atlanta and the final spot in the Final Four.

After the game, UNC coach Roy Williams didn't attribute his team's meltdown to youth - he simply said they missed shots. He's definitely got a point. They missed a lot of shots, making just three field goals in the final 12 minutes of regulation plus overtime. But a lot of those shots were from 3-point range, and the Tar Heels (outside of Wes Miller) aren't a very consistent outside shooting team. They were on the bad side of "streaky" Sunday afternoon.

Georgetown worked the ball offensively, making sure Green and Hibbert at least touched the ball on every possession.

It was very smart basketball, the kind of basketball that wins teams games this time of year.

And it was just barely enough against a more talented UNC squad.

It wasn't surprising, however. In fact, it was the theme of this past weekend. Of the teams still standing, all four have very astute players who don't get flustered in pressure situations. They may not be the most talented teams out of their regions (at least UNC in the East and Kansas in the West would claim that title), but talent doesn't reign supreme in March.

Experience, smarts and, of course, a little luck is what championship teams possess.

Florida and UCLA have plenty of experience. They, um, played in the national title game a year ago. 'Nuff said. Four of Georgetown's most key players - Green, Hibbert, Wallace and Patrick Ewing Jr. - are juniors, which, in this day and age, is considered very experienced. Ohio State is definitely the least experienced of the Final Four teams - with freshmen Mike Conley Jr. and Greg Oden its best players - but it wouldn't be here if not for the heroics of senior Ron Lewis, who has led the Buckeyes the last three games.

When the game is on the line, none of the four teams panic. They know what they want to do, and they do an excellent of job of executing this. For UCLA, it's getting the ball to Aaron Afflalo, the Bruins' junior shooting guard. When Kansas threatened UCLA's lead midway through the second half Saturday, Afflalo kept the Jayhawks at bay with seven consecutive points. He finished with 24 on 10-for-15 shooting from the field. Florida is smart enough to work off its big men - Al Horford and Joakim Noah - down low, knowing that this will open up the perimeter for sharp shooter Lee Humphrey. Against Oregon Humphrey was the key, making seven 3-pointers en route to a team-high 23 points.

But don't think that each of these teams didn't receive a little good fortune on their way to Atlanta. Ohio State's the most obvious case. If Xavier hadn't missed a free throw in the final seconds, Ron Lewis' game-tying 3-pointer wouldn't have been game-tying. As great as Georgetown was in the final minutes Sunday, North Carolina's Wayne Ellington had a wide-open 3-point attempt right before regulation expired. If that had fallen, we'd all be praising the Heels right now. While UCLA and Florida haven't needed last-second 3-pointers to get this far, they haven't exactly waltzed to the ATL either. In the second round, UCLA survived a last-minute comeback when Indiana threw away a chance to tie the game in the final seconds. Florida and Butler were tied 54-54 with 3 minutes left Friday before the Bulldogs missed three out of four free throws and three out of four layups as the Gators pulled away.

So don't say that luck doesn't play a role in March. It certainly does.

But it's not the difference. That would be smart play in the waning moments of tense games. Next year, North Carolina could have it. The Heels should return most of their nucleus - depending on draft departures - for another run at the title.
But for now they must sit at home and watch as four of college basketball's smartest teams - with textbooks in hand - clash for the ultimate prize.

Friday, March 23, 2007

"The best time of year"

You can argue with me all you want. In fact, I'd love to hear some counter points of view. But nothing will change my stance that this is the best time of the year for sports.


Why? Well, mostly because of 10 days filled with 63 men's college basketball games. The fifth day was Thursday. And if you missed it, you better have TiVo. If you weren’t in a chair, on a couch, standing up, lying down or in some other posture watching the four games Thursday, you're not a sports fan. Three of them were decided by a combined five points. The two games in San Antonio were decided by a point.

Both games came down to a player taking a shot at the last possible second. The only thing missing was the player making the shot. But, no worries. I have a feeling we'll see a buzzer-beater before the weekend is through.

While people all over the country love the first weekend of the NCAA tournament - and I'm no exception - the second weekend is the best. That's because almost every single game is made up of two quality teams. And both teams are good enough that if one of them falls way behind, it has the guns to get back into the game.

Yes, I'm talking about Ohio State.

It's funny how fans love to rule their team out way, way before the game is over (not sure if it’s some superstitious thing, but, hey, if it works, go for it). After speeding back from work Thursday night, I entered the front door of my fraternity house only to hear our lone Ohio State fan lamenting that the Buckeyes were done. And it was the first half! Sure, they had a lot of work to do, considering they were behind by 17 points, but as far as I saw it, the game wasn't close to over.

Sure enough, the Buckeyes cut a 17-point halftime deficit down to one in the first nine minutes of the second half, and from there it was on. To its credit, Tennessee never folded, getting big shots from its go-to guy, Chris Lofton, but Ohio State's versatility on offense was too much.

One of the great things about this greatest time of year is that players who received relatively little recognition during the regular season make a name for themselves. It always happens, and this year has been no exception. Ohio State senior Ron Lewis has come to play. He saved the Buckeyes against Xavier with a last-second bomb to send the second-round game to overtime. And he was a big part of the comeback Thursday night, scoring 25 points - including 18 in the second half - on 9-for-17 shooting.

What's amazing about Ohio State's run to the Elite Eight is that it's accomplished this, basically, without the services of Greg Oden. The big man was ineffective against the Vols, hampered by foul trouble all night that limited him to 18 minutes. He scored nine points and had more fouls (4) than rebounds (3). But he also had four blocks, and his final one on Tennessee's Ramar Smith sealed the Buckeyes' victory.

Ask just about anyone before the tournament if OSU could reach the Elite Eight without getting much from Oden, and the typical response would have been, "Nope. No way." Another great thing about this time of year: it's unpredictable.

For instance, there was no way Acie Law IV was going to miss that layup in the final minute against Memphis, which would have given the Aggies a three-point lead. He did. And there was no way Memphis would get four shots to win the game in the final seconds when it had gotten only seven offensive rebounds all night and was being outrebounded 30-24. It did, and Antonio Anderson hit two big free throws with 3.1 seconds remaining to give Memphis the win.

All season long, Law was the most clutch player in the nation. Late in close games he was cash money. But on Thursday Law scored just five of his 13 points in the second half, and his last two shots - a 3-point attempt and that layup - didn't fall. Another thing about March. A team can't always rely on one player to make all the plays. These are, after all, just college kids. No older than 22. They’re gonna have bad nights.

But, man, did the Salukis from Southern Illinois play like pros Thursday night. Just like any smart betting man, they played the odds. They knew they wouldn't stand a chance against mighty No. 1 seed Kansas if they tried to run with the Jayhawks. Kansas was way too athletic for them. It wouldn't have been a contest. So they slowed the game down, played great defense - forcing Kansas into an uncharacteristic 19 turnovers - executed their halfcourt offense and got a big game from senior guard Jamal Tatum, who led them with 19 points.

It nearly worked. If games were 35 minutes long, the Salukis might still be dancing. And copy editors across the country could rejoice at the thought of using the word "Salukis" in headlines for a couple more days. But, alas, the Jayhawks decided they were done with underachieving in the tournament (they were knocked out as a No. 3 and No. 4 seed in the first round the past two years).

One of the knocks against Kansas all year has been that it lacks a go-to player, someone who wants the ball in the final seconds. Well, nothing has been inked, but Brandon Rush had a fine, fine audition Thursday. The sophomore made all six of his field goal attempts for 12 points, and none was more important than his runner in the lane to give Kansas a three-point lead in the final minute.

If Kansas goes on to make the Final Four (which should be a very difficult task, considering UCLA awaits) and win the national title, Rush will likely never forget that shot. Even if he ends up a star in the NBA, it is something that will stay with him forever. Just as Buckeyes fans - if OSU continues its run - will point to the Xavier and Tennessee games 20 years from now and say, "We had to do a little surviving."

It's a time of year that breeds many great memories, plays that will be shown in highlight packages for years to come. It's the only single-elimination tournament among the major sports (college or pro), and that's the main reason it's the best.

Yes, October is great. Watching two college football games and a World Series game on Saturday and two NFL games and another World Series game on Sunday doesn’t make for a bad weekend. But this takes the cake.

Ten days.

Sixty-three games.

Unrelenting madness.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

"Who's MVP?"

Steve Nash? Dirk Nowitzki? Kobe Bryant?

It’s a three-man race for NBA MVP this season, and everyone seems to have a viewpoint on the issue. Yesterday on sports talk radio, the host said there’s no way Bryant shouldn’t win it because he does more (such as rebound and defend) than Nash. Plenty of pundits have vouched for Nowitzki because his team has the best record in the NBA.

But what about Nash? The lack of support for him goes back to the whole “let another guy win” thing. Remember in December when college football coaches wanted to give Florida a shot at Ohio State since Michigan had already had its chance?

This is kind of like that.

Bryant may be leading the NBA in points per game, but look at his team. It’s barely hanging on to a playoff spot. Meanwhile, Nash’s Suns are firmly seated in the second spot.

To me, it’s toss-up between these two guys. Nowitzki is just behind them simply because the Mavericks would still be a good team – a playoff team – without him. LA and Phoenix would likely be lottery teams without their stars.

So as we come down the stretch here, let’s not forget that this is a new year. Who won the MVP the past two seasons has nothing to do with the voting for this year. The fact that Bryant has never won an MVP has nothing to do with it either.

The MVP will be this year’s best player. And right now it’s tough to choose between Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

"A call from coach Dungy"

Some moments you simply do not forget in life. Whether it's your prom night, your college graduation, the first time your kid walked or the day the towers fell, these instants of time are stuck in your mind for eternity.

I experienced one of these moments, I'm pretty sure, Monday night. I was sitting at the sports desk in Jackson, passing the time on a very slow-moving night in the world of sports, when the phone rang.

I picked it up, "Sports desk, this is Jake."

"Um, yeah, is Chip Mundy there," the familiar voice on the other end replied.

It took me a second to register the voice, but then - as I was in the midst of meekly replying, "Yeah, just one minute" - it hit me: I was talking to Tony Dungy, as in the Super Bowl-winning coach of the Indianapolis Colts.

Our "conversation" lasted a mere 10 seconds before I transferred him to Chip - who grew up with Dungy in Jackson - but, still, I had talked to Tony Dungy. As I aimlessly went about my duties the rest of the night, I couldn't stop thinking about it.

Hopefully in the future I'll talk to and interview high-profile figures like Dungy on a daily basis. But right now, as a young sports journalist who hasn't covered anything bigger than D-3 basketball, it was one of those moments that I'll never forget no matter where the rest of my life takes me.

Monday, March 19, 2007

"NCAA tournament Day 4 diary"

Almost two weeks ago during Championship Week, CBS color analyst Billy Packer was paraphrased in a "USA Today" article as saying that the NCAA tournament had been infected by And1, the shoe sponsor that holds tournaments in which "wannabes" dunk with their toenails, juke dudes out of their sneakers, and perform just about every other trick in the bag.

Packer complained that the tournament was becoming too "And1" and that the new rule forcing high school stars to attend college for a year was only feeding the problem.

If Packer watched either of the games in front of him Sunday, however, he would know that the college game is far from being contaminated by players just looking to get on SportsCenter. The two games in Chicago were UNLV vs. Wisconsin in the Midwest region and Kansas vs. Kentucky in the West region.

Both games, Packer must admit, were won by teams, not individuals. Sure, individual players stepped up, making big shots when their teams needed them, but everyone contributed for UNLV in its upset of the Badgers, and Kansas' great depth overwhelmed Kentucky in the nightcap.

It is absolutely ridiculous to think that what Packer saw in Chicago was anything but solid team basketball. Consider the scoring balance for the two winning teams. Four players scored at least nine points in UNLV's 74-68 win as well as in Kansas' 88-76 victory, in which three of those players scored between 16 and 21 points. Consider the passing displays by both teams. The Runnin' Rebels assisted on 12 of 24 field goals while the Jayhawks assisted on 19 of 30 field goals. Not exactly 1-on-1 basketball.

And Packer's two games weren't the only ones in which teamwork was essential Sunday. What's great about college basketball, especially during March, is that guys we've never heard of come out of the shadows to make huge shots or huge defensive plays to help their team move on to the next round. In the NBA, we know all the players. We know Miami will post up Shaq. We know Steve Nash will dish out 15 assists. But the college game is more unpredictable. It's hardly ever 1-on-1 isolation. It's about ball movement, screening, and fast-breaking. That's what makes it great. It's not nearly as stagnant as the NBA game is.

And Sunday was a perfect example of what makes the game fun to watch. During any possession, Kansas would have five scorers on the floor, and the ball would be passed 10 to 15 times before an open shot was attempted.

It wasn't the stars who won on Sunday. In fact, the two Naismith Award finalists who played (Kevin Durant of Texas and Alando Tucker of Wisconsin) lost. Tucker scored 17 points and grabbed seven rebounds. Durant scored 30 points and snared nine boards. Not a bad afternoon for either player. But neither effort was enough. Their teammates didn't do enough. Both are great players, but the results of their games reinforced the point that this time of the year only the complete teams are victorious.

You want a complete team? How about Memphis? Entering the tournament, I wasn't familiar at all with the Conference USA squad and I knew it had played a super-weak schedule, so I picked the Tigers to lose to Nevada - and possible lottery pick Nick Fazekas - in the second round.

The Tigers threw a 'lil - no, a lot - BALANCE in my face. Six players scored between eight and 16 points to lead them to a 78-62 victory over Nevada. Even when their leading scorer, Chris Douglas-Roberts, left the game more than midway through the second half with an injury - and Nevada cut Memphis' lead to two -the Tigers responded, getting baskets and free throws from five different players during a 14-0 run to finish off the game.

And did I mention defense? The Tigers played stellar man-to-man defense to hold Nevada scoreless the final 6:17 of regulation.

As we approach Memphis' game against Texas A&M Thursday in the South regional semifinals, the big question will be whether Douglas-Roberts can play. That's a legitimate question, of course. He is, after all, the Tigers' leading scorer. But if he doesn't play, I wouldn't relax if I was Texas A&M.

What Sunday proved is that a group of good individuals working together will almost always beat one great individual.

Especially this time of year in college hoops.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

"NCAA tournament Day 3 diary"

Amidst all the attention super freshmen such as Kevin Durant, Greg Oden and Brandan Wright have gotten this season, I nearly forgot that teams still have seniors. And that these seniors, despite the amazing talents of their younger teammates, are still, generally, the players with the ball in their hands in the final moments. And, finally, that these seniors usually are the ones to save their teams when all seems lost.

Enter Ron Lewis, senior, The Ohio State University.

His Buckeyes appeared dead meat late in the second half Saturday, trailing No. 9 seed Xavier by nine points. The team with so much talent, with very likely this year's No. 1 draft pick, was getting schooled by its Ohio rivals, by the team its coach, Thad Matta, abandoned three years ago.

That's when Lewis took over. People throughout the state of Ohio will undoubtedly remember the 3-pointer he jacked from somewhere in Tennessee to tie the game with two seconds remaining. They may not recall, however, Lewis scoring five of Ohio State's nine points before The Shot (he finished with a game-high 27). Fellow senior Jamar Butler scored three of the other four points, with Oden adding a free throw.

Oden fouled out in the final minute. Lewis stayed in the game and kept his team in the game. As good as Oden is and as great as he will be, in the final moments he was helpless on the bench, watching his teammates fight for survival. It was the seniors' time to shine.

Lewis' heroics weren't the only ones to come from upperclassmen on a day when seven of eight games came down to the final moments and the other - North Carolina's 81-67 win over Michigan State - wasn't decided until the last few minutes.

On the same court Lewis saved the Buckeyes, Texas A&M senior point guard Acie Law IV, rightfully nicknamed "Captain Clutch," blocked out a blood-seeking Louisville crowd and scored 26 points to send Texas A&M to the Sweet 16 for the first time in 27 years. For several fleeting moments during the second half, it looked like the Cardinals, in front of their partisan crowd, were ready to run away with the game thanks to their fullcourt trap. But Law wouldn't let it happen, making big play after big play to silence the crowd.

Law was especially clutch at the free throw line, where he made 13 of 15, including two in the final minute. Louisville freshman point guard Edgar Sosa was even better at the line, making his first 15 attempts to score 31 points. However, he missed his last two free throws, in the final minute, helping A&M escape with the victory. Don't tell me the frosh didn't feel the pressure.

Skipping ahead to the night games, Aaron Afflalo, UCLA's junior shooting guard, saved the day for the Bruins. UCLA led by nine points with under 4 minutes to go, a huge lead considering the game was in the 40s - not exactly a West Coast shootout. But behind their vaunted 3-point attack, the Hoosiers fought all the way back to tie the game 49-49 on an Earl Calloway layup with 1:01 remaining. With all the momentum on Indiana's side, Afflalo didn't settle for an outside jumper. Instead, with several defenders around him, he took the ball strong to the basket, giving the refs no choice but to call the obvious foul against Indiana. Afflalo calmly sank two free throws - nothing but net on both of them - and after an Indiana miscue and two Darren Collison free throws, UCLA's heartbeat could return to normal.

Overall, it was an awful shooting day by Afflalo. He made just two of 11 field goals and scored 10 points. But, at the same time, the fact that he was struggling makes his assertiveness in the final seconds more impressive. He knew he wasn't having a good shooting night from outside - he finished 0-3 from 3-point range - so he got to the free throw line.

He did what it took to win. Like Lewis. Like Law.

Three upperclassmen carrying their teams when they needed them most.

That was the theme of Saturday, the theme on easily the most exciting day so far of the tournament, the theme on a day when several high-seeded teams could have easily gone down, but the only "upset" ended up being Vanderbilt's double OT win over Washington State (which really wasn't much of an upset).

Before I call it a night, two other players need to be recognized for stepping up on Saturday. Roy Hibbert of Georgetown and Tyler Hansbrough of North Carolina were absolute beasts Saturday night. Both were playing against very physical teams, but both were up to the challenge as Hibbert's Hoyas slipped by Boston College 62-55 and Hansbrough's Tar Heels pulled away from Michigan State 81-67.

Throughout the season Hibbert has been inconsistent, showing up on some nights but not on others. On Saturday, he came to play when his team needed him most. The 7-foot-2 junior scored 17 points, grabbed 12 boards and blocked two shots in 34 minutes of action. He even showed some moves on the offensive end (not just brute strength), spinning around a BC defender for a layup. He was the difference against a very good Boston College team.

Michigan State should have known it was in trouble when Hansbrough came out without the mask he had worn the previous few games to protect his nose. The sophomore - who plays a lot more like a senior - refused to be stopped. Michigan State threw throngs of defenders at him, but he was simply too strong. He motored to 33 points on 10-for-17 shooting from the field and 13-for-17 shooting from the free throw line. And, believe me, he earned every one of the free throws he attempted. He was beat up all night.

So with Saturday in the books, the only question is whether today can match up. While I doubt there will be as many tight finishes, this time of year you have to expect the unexpected. With that said, here are my picks for today's games. Notice how close I believe they’ll all be.

- Tennessee over Virginia, 87-81
- Nevada over Memphis, 71-68
- Texas over USC, 80-74
- Florida over Purdue, 70-62
- Winthrop over Oregon, 78-74
- Wisconsin over UNLV, 65-60
- Kansas over Kentucky, 81-68
- Virginia Tech over Southern Illinois, 64-56

Saturday, March 17, 2007

"NCAA tournament Day 2 diary"

Big 10 haters may want to back down a bit. At least for now.

On Friday the Big 10 won two of three games to finish the first round a scintillating 5-1. If not for Illinois blowing a double-digit lead against Virginia Tech, the league would have gone a perfect 6-0. The Illini didn't score in the final 4:20 of the game, allowing the seemingly dead Hokies to finally overtake them in the final minute. It was a pretty good choke job, no doubt about it.

But it certainly doesn't taint the Big 10's performance thus far. The league's teams may be boring to watch. Seriously boring. Even Ohio State and Wisconsin fans must have been switching channels to the Big 12 title game a week ago. Texas-Kansas was that much more exciting.

HOWEVA, as Stephen A. Smith would say, when it comes to playing hard-nosed, physical, smash-the-glass, no-easy-buckets basketball, no one is better than the Big 10. We saw this the past couple days. It took Marquette nearly 10 minutes to score a single point against Michigan State on Thursday. And Friday, Purdue dominated Arizona on the glass, 37-29, sending a message to the Pac 10 that you can't finesse your way to victories. Especially in March. Illinois did the same to Virginia Tech, until that collapse (which, honestly, I still can't believe happened).

The only Big 10 team that didn't look impressive in the first round was Wisconsin, which received a serious scare from Texas A&M-Corpus Christi. The Badgers trailed by as many as 18 points in the first half, but were saved in the second half by seniors Alando Tucker and Kammron Taylor, who scored 47 of Wisconsin's 76 points.

Wisconsin will definitely be challenged by UNLV in the second round, but I think it will move on. The close call will be beneficial, as there's no way Bo Ryan will allow his team to come out asleep on Sunday as it did on Friday.

The Big 10 should get at least two teams to the Sweet 16. I don't foresee Ohio State having much of a problem today against Xavier, and watch out tonight for Indiana against UCLA. If the Hoosiers can hit their 3's, they're a dangerous bunch.

Unfortunately for Michigan State and Purdue, they face No. 1 seeds in North Carolina and Florida, respectively. It would take supreme defensive efforts for them to corral their more talented opponents. Still, I foresee that by Sunday night critics will no longer be ripping the Big 10 and the committee's decision to select six teams from the league.

Speaking of the committee, it was pretty obvious from watching the first two days which two at-large teams didn't belong in the field of 65. Stanford and Arkansas. The Cardinal got absolutely rocked by Louisville on Thursday, and the Razorbacks didn't have much fight against USC on Friday. I'm sure - check that, positive - Drexel and Syracuse could have given better efforts. They belonged in the field.

Well, my upset picks backfired again on Friday. For some reason - maybe the fact that I just don't like the state of Virginia (bad family reunion; it's a long story) - I thought Virginia would fall to Albany. Boy, was I far off. It became clear, watching the Cavaliers, that at least in the first round, all a team needs are a couple of great guards. Sean Singletary and J.R. Reynolds were sensational for Virginia on Friday. They combined for 51 points on just 28 field goal attempts and also grabbed a combined 13 rebounds.

While inside-outside balance is necessary in order to win a championship, it isn't imperative in order to survive the first weekend. Virginia and Tennessee will be a great matchup of guards on Sunday. The Volunteers absolutely torched Long Beach State on Friday 121-86 – the 121 points the most scored in a tournament game in over 15 years - with three guards scoring 20-plus points led by Chris Lofton's 25. We should see a barrage of 3-pointers from these guard-dominated teams on Sunday.

Finally, the game to watch today (if you can only peep one - something I don't recommend). It's gotta be Texas A&M against Louisville in Lexington. There should be a raucous crowd for the Cardinals, but can anyone shake Acie Law? I don't think so. He's the most clutch player in the country. Still, this should be a heckuva game. Louisville will try to play at a frenetic pace while A&M will attempt to slow it down. Whoever wins the tempo battle should have the early edge, but I expect the game to go down to the end. And that's when Law will win it for the Aggies, 75-71.

My other picks for today:
- Ohio State over Xavier, 77-61
- North Carolina over Michigan State, 72-65
- Vanderbilt over Washington State, 75-69 (yeah, I know, I'm jumping on Vandy's bandwagon; just trying to be honest here)
- Georgetown over Boston College, 62-50
- UCLA over Indiana, 68-60
- Pitt over VCU, 66-58
- Maryland over Butler, 73-68

There should be several close games, if not upsets. Which will be in contrast to the first two days, which produced 23 games (out of 32) decided by 10 or more points.

It’s time for some drama.

Friday, March 16, 2007

"NCAA tournament Day 1 diary"

What a... non-exciting day in the Big Dance???

Did I just say that? Wow. Unbelievable. Shocking.

The men's NCAA tournament had its most uneventful, non-"upsetting" first day in at least half a decade Thursday (and I don't even have to look that one up; it's the truth). Only three lower seeds won, and two of those were No. 9 seeds (Michigan State and Xavier). The other "upset" - VCU over Duke - was a No. 11 over a 6, which isn't a huge shocker. And, honestly, Duke didn't deserve a No. 6 seed anyway. It was more of a 7-10 matchup.

So, basically, things played out like they were supposed to. Which is cool, except that it isn't, because this never happens. And it's much more exciting to see the little guys rule, until you look down at your busted bracket. (On a side note, my bracket is relatively unscathed - like, probably, the majority of people's - after a 13-for-16 opening day).

But I'm not going to stop beating myself over the head - for at least a week and a half - for picking Stanford and George Washington, two teams that got absolutely obliterated by Louisville and Vanderbilt, respectively. I apologize to anyone who listened to my picks on those two. I don't know what I was thinking taking a young Stanford team playing on the road in Lexington (I regretted the pick as soon as the Cardinal were down five), and George Washington was simply a brain fart. If not for those lousy picks and my choice of the 'Zags over Indiana, I would have been perfect on the day.

Which really isn't saying much, considering how normal the games were. A common theme: The smaller underdog would stay with the bigger, stronger team for a half, or even a half and a half, but then the favorite would flex its muscle and pull away. We haven't seen that the past few years. Here is the biggest reason, I believe, for Thursday's top-heavy results.

- The smaller schools, such as Oral Roberts (which lost to Washington State) and Old Dominion (which collapsed against Butler) relied way too much on the 3-pointer when they got down. They started chucking up treys instead of taking the ball to the basket and getting to the free throw line.

- The bigger teams, on the other hand, didn't rely on the outside shot (with the exception of hot-shooting Butler and Vandy). Even Indiana, which shot lights out in the first half against Gonzaga, threw the ball down low to D.J. White in the second half, possession after possession, and had great success doing so. Not only did White score 16 points and grab 11 rebounds, but he also received great attention on the block, freeing Indiana's outside shooters, who buried nine triples.

In Maryland's win over Davidson, the Terrapins simply beat up the Wildcats, outrebounding them 49-31. While Davidson's freshman guard Stephen Curry was outstanding, connecting on five 3-pointers to score 30 points, the Terrapins did a good job of not settling for 3's on the other end. While Davidson was 10-for-37 from 3-point range, Maryland was a much more efficient 6-for-17. All of the favorites who won did an excellent job (most of the time) of working the ball on offense to find the best shot. They were very disciplined.

But is this dominance by the higher seeds going to last? Nope, very doubtful. Look for a bevy of upsets - and a return to normalcy - today. A couple of upsets I could certainly see happening are in the South Regional, where Albany takes on No. 4 seed Virginia in the earliest game and then Long Beach State battles No. 5 seed Tennessee. While Virginia gets outstanding guard play from Sean Singletary and J.R. Reynolds, I think it relies on that duo too much, and it's also not the most disciplined team. I think a good effort by Albany could result in the biggest upset so far of the Dance. And Tennessee-LBSU should be a shootout. Both teams like to get up and down the court. And as long as LBSU takes good care of the basketball so that it takes as many shots as the Volunteers, it has a fighting chance.

As far as the game of the day, don't miss the Creighton-Nevada matchup. I love both of these teams, which is why - for my bracket's sake - I hate the fact that they're playing in the first round. Creighton's Nate Funk is one of the most clutch players in the land, and Nevada's trio of Nick Fazekas (a likely lottery pick), Marcelus Kemp and Kyle Shiloh (if he plays) is deadly. Should be a great first-round game.

So it's time to move on to Day 2. Day 1 produced just three out of 16 games decided by less than 10 points, an absolutely amazing number for the Big Dance. Don't expect this to continue, however.

Today will be nuts, berserk, absolute chaos. Favorites will fall. Brackets will be scathed by red X's. There will be several nail-biters.

That's the beauty of this first weekend. There may be one uneventful day. But there's always the next day, and it's rarely the same.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

"Momentum means nothing come March"

When filling out my NCAA tournament brackets, I used to always be temped to pick teams that were on a hot streak - teams that supposedly owned that all-important "M" word (momentum) heading into the Big Dance.

That's why I stupidly chose Syracuse to advance to the Sweet 16 a year ago after the Orangemen won four games in four days to take the Big East Tournament. Then I watched on the first night of the Big Dance as the Orange completely ran out of gas against Texas A&M and lost. Gerry McNamara, who had been unstoppable during the Big East tourney, stunk up the joint against the Aggies and wasn't even in the game at crunch time.

After that game, I finally learned my bracketology lesson for the year: Momentum means nothing going into the NCAA tournament. This is different from momentum gained during the tournament. That's a good thing. That's what propelled Florida to the national title a year ago. They got hot in the Big Dance and, frankly, became invincible. But any winning streaks taken into the tournament can be thrown out the window.

The only streak that matters come Thursday is who can pile up six straight wins.

Positive momentum?
No coach will ever admit it (at least publicly), but if a team is assured of a high seed in the tournament, an early loss in its conference tournament can't be the worse thing. It gives the team an extra few days to rest and prepare. And if the coach thinks his players were maybe becoming overconfident or too relaxed on the court, it is a perfect opportunity for him to teach them a lesson about taking every game seriously - exactly what is needed during the three-week Big Dance.

This year's Maryland team is the perfect example. The Terrapins cruised into the ACC tournament having won eight consecutive games, including two over Duke and one over North Carolina, a No. 1 seed in the Big Dance. But Maryland lost in the first round of the conference tournament to Miami, a team that's not attending any postseason tournament. I know Gary Williams relished the opportunity to work with his players Friday, Saturday and Sunday while Roy Williams was coaching North Carolina to the ACC title.

And I can guarantee the Terrapins will be prepared for their first-round matchup this week with Davidson. There will be no looking ahead. They will be rested and ready to go - something that could not be said if they had gone on to play in the ACC title game. Sure, they might have gotten a No. 3 seed instead of a No. 4 (which I thought was extremely generous), but when it comes down to it, the seeding doesn't matter. Every team still has to play the games.

A team on the other end of the spectrum is Texas, which nearly delayed the selection committee’s unveiling of the brackets by playing overtime with Kansas in the Big 12 Tournament Sunday afternoon. The game ended around 5:40 p.m. EST, 20 minutes before the selection show. The Longhorns lost the game, but still got a No. 4 seed and a lot of respect from national pundits, who believe Texas has what it takes to possibly upset North Carolina in the Sweet 16.

But Texas must win two games in three days before it can think about the Tar Heels.
Luckily for the Longhorns, they play on Friday evening instead of, say, noon on Thursday. But, still, they'll only have had four days to practice and prepare for New Mexico State. As great as Kevin Durant is, Texas fans have to be just a little concerned about their team. Texas played three games in three days - including a draining comeback against Baylor and the OT loss to Kansas - and it isn't a team with a lot of depth. This was obvious on Sunday when point guard D.J. Augustin was out of the game. No player could run the offense like he did. His presence on the bench allowed Kansas to recover from a 22-point deficit.

Does this mean Texas will lose to New Mexico State? No, probably not. But the Longhorns' weekend will not be as easy as many experts predict.

As exciting as Texas' Big 12 tournament run was, maybe it would have been better off allowing Baylor to hold onto its huge lead in the quarterfinals Friday night. That would have done two things. First, it would have given the thin Texas lineup a full week to rest and get ready for the Big Dance. Second, it would have put the Longhorns below the radar. After this past weekend, everyone knows what the Longhorns can do as a team. They were a Kansas 3-pointer at the end of regulation away from winning the tournament. But if they had been beaten by lowly Baylor, maybe people would have had questions about this team. Or, maybe, people simply wouldn't have talked about it as the tournament neared.

Last year, no one was chatting up Florida as a potential Final Four candidate until the Elite Eight. The Gators used a lack-of-respect approach perfectly to cruise to the national title. They weren't quite the Cinderella George Mason was, but they certainly weren't as popular of a pick as Connecticut or Duke to make the Final Four.

This year, however, the target is on Florida's back. And they were one of four high-profile teams - along with Kansas, Ohio State and North Carolina - who won a conference tournament on Sunday. While it would take an historical event - the first 16-over-1 upset - for one of these teams to lose its first-round matchup, it will be interesting to see how this "momentum" serves them (and others, such as Texas) as March Madness roars forward.

Monday, March 12, 2007

"NCAA tournament preview part II: my picks"

NOTE: Yes, I've watched probably as much college basketball this season as Digger Phelps. Yes, I think I know what I'm talking about. But, no, that doesn't mean anything. These picks could be atrocious. So if you want to roll with me, that's gravy. But don't hold me responsible for your busted bracket after two days.

With that said, here are my "official picks."


No. 1 Florida def. No. 16 Jackson State: A no-brainer.
No. 8 Arizona def. No. 9 Purdue: Much more talent on Arizona's side, but will the Wildcats use it?
No. 5 Butler def. No. 12 Old Dominion: More big-game experience for Butler.
No. 4 Maryland def. No. 13 Davidson: Close game, but Terps prevail.
No. 11 Winthrop def. No. 6 Notre Dame: Tough to pick against Winthrop, who took North Carolina to the brink.
No. 3 Oregon def. No. 14 Miami (Ohio): Miami's just happy (and lucky) to be here.
No. 10 Georgia Tech def. No. 7 UNLV: Yellow Jackets showed in win over UNC what they're capable of.
No. 2 Wisconsin def. No. 15 Texas A&M - CC: No problems yet for the Badgers.
No. 1 Florida def. No. 8 Arizona: More disciplined Gators pull away in second half.
No. 4 Maryland def. No. 5 Butler: Terps too athletic for Butler.
No. 3 Oregon def. No. 11 Winthrop: Ducks shoot lights-out from 3-point range.
No. 2 Wisconsin def. No. 10 Georgia Tech: Tough defense forces young Yellow Jackets into several turnovers.
No. 1 Florida def. No. 4 Maryland: Florida's big men too much for younger Maryland bigs.
No. 3 Oregon def. No. 2 Wisconsin: Ducks push the tempo, take Alando Tucker out of the game.
No. 1 Florida def. No. 3 Oregon: Huge advantage for Florida down low is the difference.


No. 1 Kansas def. No. 16 Florida A&M/Niagra: Yeah... no first-round loss this time around.
No. 8 Kentucky def. No. 9 Villanova: With Mike Nardi still not 100 percent, Kentucky’s defense focuses on Scottie Reynolds and possibly saves Tubby Smith's job.
No. 5 Virginia Tech def. No. 12 Illinois: Zabian Dowdell dominates against weak Illinois backcourt.
No. 4 Southern Illinois def. No. 13 Holy Cross: Given nearly two weeks to rest and prepare, Salukis come out with something to prove.
No. 11 VCU def. No. 6 Duke: Weakest Duke team in years has trouble scoring.
No. 3 Pittsburgh def. No. 14 Wright State: Panthers shut down Wright State, get big outing from big man Aaron Gray.
No. 10 Gonzaga def. No. 7 Indiana: Playing in Sacramento, 'Zags again are a mid-major with something to prove.
No. 2 UCLA def. No. 15 Weber State: It won't be easy. Remember, Weber State knocked off No. 3 seed North Carolina about five years ago.
No. 1 Kansas def. No. 8 Kentucky: Jayhawks run Wildcats tired with their large rotation of capable players.
No. 5 Virginia Tech def. No. 4 Southern Illinois: Hokies are able to play their up-and-down style, and that's the difference.
No. 3 Pittsburgh def. No. 11 VCU: Pitt is able to turn game into a grind-it-out defensive battle.
No. 2 UCLA def. No. 10 Gonzaga: Rematch of last year's Sweet 16 game, which UCLA stole at the end. No theft necessary this time. Aaron Afflalo shoots over 'Zags' smaller guards.
No. 1 Kansas def. No. 5 Virginia Tech: Kansas' three super guards - Mario Chalmers, Russell Robinson and Sherron Collins - wear down Dowdell, and Julian Wright shreds the defense with his passing.
No. 2 UCLA def. No. 3 Pittsburgh: Another defensive battle goes to Bruins, who are able to neutralize Gray and get a big game from point guard Darren Collison.
No. 1 Kansas def. No. 2 UCLA: The only advantage for the Bruins is experience. Kansas has more depth and talent at every position. The Jayhawks should win, but who really knows? Will be a great game.


No. 1 North Carolina def. No. 16 Eastern Kentucky: Only concern for the Heels is playing just four days after three-day ACC tournament.
No. 9 Michigan State def. No. 8 Marquette: Tough call here, but with Jerel McNeal still nursing an injury and a size advantage inside for the Spartans, gotta go with MSU.
No. 5 USC def. No. 12 Arkansas: In fast-paced game, Razorbacks will wear down toward end thanks to four-game, four-day stretch during SEC tournament.
No. 4 Texas def. No. 13 New Mexico State: Beware of Reggie Theus' Lobos, but D.J. Augustin leads way for Texas in this one.
No. 11 George Washington def. No. 6 Vanderbilt: Commodores rely way too heavily on 3-pointers.
No. 3 Washington State def. No. 14 Oral Roberts: Under-the-radar Cougars play some of country's best defense.
No. 7 Boston College def. No. 10 Texas Tech: Jared Dudley is too much for the Red Raiders.
No. 2 Georgetown def. No. 15 Belmont: Hoyas continue their great play of late.
No. 1 North Carolina def. No. 9 Michigan State: Tar Heels overwhelm Spartans with their depth, and they stop Drew Neitzel with several bigger defenders.
No. 4 Texas def. No. 5 USC: Simply put, Trojans have no answer for Kevin Durant down low.
No. 3 Washington State def. No. 11 George Washington: Another smothering defensive effort.
No. 2 Georgetown def. No. 7 Boston College: Dudley won't be able to penetrate and get his shot off against big Roy Hibbert.
No. 1 North Carolina def. No. 4 Texas: What a matchup. In the end, North Carolina's depth is too much for the Longhorns and senior Reyshawn Terry steps up down the stretch.
No. 2 Georgetown def. No. 3 Washington State: See the Hoyas' win over Pittsburgh Saturday? This will be a carbon copy. Jeff Green scores the tough points against the Cougars.
No. 2 Georgetown def. No. 1 North Carolina: What pace will be game be played at? That's the key. Hoyas want a slow game. Tar Heels want a race. Tar Heels have more talent, but something's telling me Georgetown. Don't ask me why.


No. 1 Ohio State def. No. 16 Central Connecticut State: Look out for Mr. Greg Oden.
No. 9 Xavier def. No. 8 BYU: People are saying Xavier shouldn't be in. With chip on their shoulder, Musketeers prove their worth.
No. 5 Tennessee def. No. 12 Long Beach State: Tempted to pick the proverbial 12-5 upset, but Chris Lofton changes my mind.
No. 13 Albany def. No. 4 Virginia: All I can say is I feel this one happening. If you want some backup, Virginia relies way too much on Sean Singletary.
No. 11 Stanford def. No. 6 Louisville: Probably not a popular pick here, but Cardinal, like Xavier, feel they need to prove their worth. And that tough Pac 10 schedule will help them here.
No. 3 Texas A&M def. No. 14 Pennsylvania: No way Acie Law lets Aggies lose this one.
No. 7 Nevada def. No. 10 Creighton: Couldn't be angrier about this matchup because I LOVE both teams. However, forced to pick, trio of Nick Fazekas, Marcelus Kemp and Ramon Sessions leads Wolfpack to very, very close win.
No. 2 Memphis def. No. 15 North Texas: Tempted to pick upset, but North Texas doesn't sound like a Cinderella team.
No. 1 Ohio State def. No. 9 Xavier: No problems for Buckeyes as Oden-Mike Conley Jr. combo dominates.
No. 5 Tennessee def. No. 13 Albany: Volunteers' athleticism too much for America East Conference champs.
No. 3 Texas A&M def. No. 11 Stanford: Experienced Aggies are too much for talented but young Cardinal.
No. 7 Nevada def. No. 2 Memphis: Nevada's experienced playmakers trump Memphis' athletic youngsters.
No. 1 Ohio State def. No. 5 Tennessee: Volunteers have no answer for Oden inside.
No. 3 Texas A&M def. No. 7 Nevada: Aggies force Wolfpack into gritty, defensive battle. Law hits big shots over smaller Nevada guards.
No. 1 Ohio State def. No. 3 Texas A&M: Buckeyes guard Law with their bigger guards and small forwards. Conley Jr. makes Law have to work on defense, and when Aggies help on Oden, Buckeyes' 3-point shooters have a great day.

Florida def. Kansas: Teams played epic overtime game in December, with Kansas sneaking away with the victory. This will be another great one. In the end, Florida's big-game experience will be the key, as the Gators play just a little more poised down the stretch.
Ohio State def. Georgetown: Oden vs. Hibbert will be very fun to watch, but Oden - minus his lack of experience - should have the edge. Conley Jr. is a much better point guard than anyone Georgetown has. If the Buckeyes can contain Jeff Green, this should be a hard-fought win for them.

Florida def. Ohio State: Who would have thought? A rematch of the BCS title game with the same result. Except it won't be a huge blowout. The bottom line is this: When Florida is on its game, it is the best team in college basketball and it can't be stopped. If it gets this far in the tournament, don't expect it to play a mediocre game. Noah, Al Horford and the Gators' other big men will contain Oden; Green and Corey Brewer will do a good job on Conley Jr.; and Lee Humphrey will hit some big 3's.

Final score: Florida 68, Ohio State 59

Sunday, March 11, 2007

"NCAA tournament preview part I: criteria for success"

Well, we have finally reached Selection Sunday, the second biggest sports Sunday of the year for most sports fans (and the biggest if you don't follow professional football). The bracket is out, and it is STACKED. There are several teams in each region capable of making the Final Four. And there is a good pool of teams capable of taking home the championship.

I am just about prepared to throw my reputation as a "knowledgeable" hoops aficionado on the line, but before I make my picks, let me give you a few characteristics that I will look for in teams to determine whether they can go far in the tournament. Of course a game's outcome will always depend on the matchups between the two teams - and a little luck - but teams with these attributes, I believe, will have the best chance of doing some damage late into March.

1. Have a go-to guy
As much as I love a balanced team (and more about that in a second), a team that wants to go deep into the tournament has to know who is going to have the ball in their hands come crunch time. That player doesn't necessarily have to take the big shot, but he has to be able to make plays when they're needed most - whether it's hitting the game-winner or penetrating and dishing off to someone else.
- To name a few: Acie Law (Texas A&M); Mike Conley Jr. (Ohio State); Chris Lofton (Tennessee).

2. Have offensive balance
This is the biggest reason Wisconsin, the No. 2 seed in the Midwest, won't make it to the Final Four. Whenever Alando Tucker, the Badgers' player of the year candidate, has a bad game, they usually lose. Teams need to have several options on offense; different guys who can step up at various times. Teams especially need an inside-outside threat. That's why Ohio State is so dangerous with Conley and Greg Oden down low. Ditto Texas with Kevin Durant and D.J. Augustin and A.J. Abrams.

3. Have a very solid point guard
It was obvious today, when watching the Big 12 championship game, that Texas was a completely different team without Augustin on the floor. Durant didn't get the ball. The offense had no flow. Every team will play hard-nosed defense with great effort during the NCAA tournament. A successful team will need an experienced point guard to calm down his teammates during critical situations and run the offense like it's supposed to be run. A team without an experienced or precocious point guard during the tournament isn't going past the Sweet 16.
- To name a few: Taurean Green (Florida); Aaron Brooks (Oregon); Darren Collison (UCLA).

4. Shoot free throws well
No matter how good a team is, more than likely it will find itself in a NCAA tournament game where it needs to convert free throws in the final minutes to pull out the victory. Teams don't necessarily need to be good as a whole shooting free throws, but they need to have at least three excellent free throw shooters who will be in the game at crunch time.
- To name a few teams: Gonzaga, Nevada, Oregon (I promise, there's no West Coast Bias here).

5. Have a shot-blocker
Look at each of the past five national champions. Maryland (2002) had Lonny Baxter and Chris Wilcox; Syracuse (2003) had Hakim Warrick - remember that block to seal the national title game?; Connecticut (2004) had Emeka Okafor; North Carolina (2005) had Sean May; and last year? Well, Joakim Noah set an NCAA tournament record for blocks. A shot-blocker is super important during the tournament because teams who face off normally aren't that familiar with each other, so a player can surprise the opponent with his ability to swat shots.
- To name a few: Oden (Ohio State), Durant (Texas), Steven Hill (Arkansas), Noah (Florida).

6. Finally, get on a hot streak
This, ultimately, is the most important factor in who ends up dancing on the first Monday night of April. This is what propelled Florida to its first championship a year ago. If a talented team comes together and plays their best basketball of the season over the course of three weeks, watch out. Conversely, if a talented team doesn't show up for a game, its season could be over. Just like that. The bottom line is, the teams that are able to stay focused for each game - no matter the opponent - and play the most consistently have the best chance of moving on. One lapse, and you can start talking about next year.

With that said, let's get ready for tourney time. I'll say it every year - but even more so this time around. Anything is possible come Thursday.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

"Michigan's woes must fall on Amaker"

Dion Harris caught the ball on the fastbreak and was going up for a relatively uncontested layup, which could have cut Michigan's deficit to eight points with still four minutes to play, when he lost it. The ball simply slipped out of his hands and out of bounds. Timeout. Ohio State ball. Game over. NCAA tournament hopes dashed.

No, Michigan's loss to the Buckeyes in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten tournament on Friday wasn't because of this one play (think: Greg Oden's dominance, 16 turnovers, two misses of front ends of bonus opportunities, a terrible shooting afternoon by Harris, little productivity from Courtney Sims, etc.). But Harris' miscue was a perfect representation of this season for the Wolverines - and, ultimately, of the entire six-year reign of Tommy Amaker as head coach.

Missed opportunities.

That's what the Wolverines' struggles have been all about. They simply have not capitalized on their chances for success. And that falls on Amaker.

To Amaker's credit, the Wolverines played some of their best basketball the past two weeks. Their best two games of the season were their home victory over Michigan State and the first 36 minutes of their heartbreaking loss to Ohio State a week ago. The team played as a unit in these games. The offense was about as smooth as it's ever going to be without a good point guard. The effort on the defensive end was there.

It was the sign of a good coach - getting his players to play their best basketball at the end of the season. But when they've been playing mediocre - often heartless - basketball up until the season's final weeks, it's too late. And that's the sign of a poor coach - not being able to get through to his players until it's crunch time.

Michigan didn't cost itself an NCAA tournament bid a week ago or on Friday. Yes, it basically giftwrapped the game for the Buckeyes at Crisler Arena. But until the final minutes, the Wolverines played their best game of the year against a team that is clearly more talented than them (On Friday that talent showed itself very clearly in the form of Greg Oden. He was unstoppable).

Michigan's tournament hopes went down the drain for a ninth consecutive year in December, and January and even February. In its one non-conference home game against a school you can locate on a map, Georgetown, Michigan played lackadaisical and lost by a large margin. A win in that contest would at least have Michigan on the bubble right now because while the Hoyas were struggling at that point of the season - they weren't even in the top 25 - now they're arguably college hoop's hottest team and likely a No. 2 seed come 6 p.m. today.

Then, during the Big Ten season, Michigan often looked uninterested in road games. It was blown out at Purdue and Indiana. It looked awful at Michigan State and Illinois. It got crushed against Wisconsin. It only beat Northwestern and Minnesota away from home. And the only loss it looked decent in was against those same Buckeyes.

One or two quality road wins, and we'd be talking NCAA tournament.

Finally, and this is the clincher, Michigan's home collapse against Iowa was absolutely unacceptable. The Wolverines held a comfortable lead until Iowa went on a 20-1 second-half run to surge ahead. No NCAA tournament team squanders a big lead at home against a non-tournament team such as the Hawkeyes.

Blame the coach and his staff

Michigan's failures come back to Amaker and his coaching staff. He needs to be fired. It's that simple. Has he done a great job of cleaning up the program and recruiting players who stay for four years? Yes. Is he a class act? Undoubtedly. But is he - at least at Michigan - a good head coach?

No. No. No.

There are two main reasons for Michigan's failures the past six years. Since this season had been a microcosm of the Amaker Era, I'm just going to focus on it.

The players hardly get better

First off, he is not very good at developing players. Look at this year's senior class. Tell me - is Lester Abram any better than he was as a freshman? No, he's worse. Some of that has to do with the injuries he's suffered and his rehabilitation from them, but he's been healthy this season, and he's been achingly inconsistent.

What about Dion Harris? He averaged three more points this season than he did as a freshman. And his field goal percentage was worse. Amaker's inability to recruit a suitable backup point guard to Daniel Horton might have cost Harris a shot at the NBA. While his adaptation to playing the point guard role the last couple years when Horton was out is admirable, Harris never looked comfortable at the position. He is a true shooting guard - with a beautiful shot - who unfortunately had to take a lot more 3-pointers off the dribble than off the pass.

Finally, seniors Courtney Sims and Brent Petway need to be mentioned. While Sims' scoring average improved two points from his freshman year to his sophomore year, it hasn't even increased two points since then despite Sims being Michigan's lone inside offensive threat. Of more concern, his rebounding numbers have increased by just one rebound since his sophomore season. Anyone who's watched Sims for four years knows his main problem is a lack of aggressiveness and assertiveness. Yet, with a few exceptions this year, Sims still appeared too cautious and slow on the court. Has he improved from a year ago? Yes. But not as much as a player of his caliber should have.

Petway may be the most glaring example of Amaker and his coaching staff's inability to develop players over four years. Petway is arguably the greatest leaper in college basketball. Some of the ally-oops he converts are simply amazing. But the rest of his offensive repertoire hasn't come to fruition. It's easy to joke about how many of his points in a given games are going to be on ally-oops and putback dunks. If Michigan's coaches could have broadened Petway's game to include post moves and a mid-range jumper (which, obviously, would be unblockable) he could have been a dominating college player. Instead, he has just been occasionally exciting.

Stop playing cupcakes

Amaker's second big mistake has been non-conference scheduling. The Wolverines have played ridiculously weak non-conference schedules just about every season under Amaker, and it kills them come Big Ten season because they are not prepared for the tough games - especially on the road. Additionally, if they are on the bubble come tournament time, their resume is always weakened by a glaring lack of good non-conference wins (an ESPN graphic actually listed Davidson as a "key win" this year for Michigan because Davidson won its obscure conference tournament).

Who did Michigan beat this season in non-conference play (besides, Davidson, of course)? Their best win was probably over Miami of Ohio, which won the MAC tournament on a lucky 3-pointer at the buzzer Saturday night. That's sad. The only good teams Michigan played were UCLA (who's really good and obliterated Michigan) and Georgetown. The Wolverines also played North Carolina State on the road, but that was part of the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, in which the Wolverines are required to compete in.

So, basically, Michigan played in two tough non-conference games in late December (UCLA was Dec. 23 and Georgetown Dec. 30) and got smoked in both games because it hadn't played anyone to prepare for them. Why not play a Missouri Valley team or a middle-of-the-pack Big East team to lead up to UCLA and Georgetown (two teams who could easily end up in the Final Four)? It makes perfect sense. Yet Amaker thought playing Wofford would suffice.

What makes the weak scheduling sadder is that Michigan has a senior-laden team this year. Harris, Abram, Petway and Sims have all played four years at Michigan. Yet Amaker somehow didn't feel they were ready for tough non-conference play.

It doesn't make sense. But then again, it does - at least in a way. Jim Carty of the "Ann Arbor News" wrote in a column Saturday that Amaker doesn't follow any of the NCAA tournament talk about which teams are "in" and which teams are on "the bubble" and what criteria teams need to make the Big Dance. Amaker just coaches. And that'd be fine if he was at North Carolina, with enough talent to spread around the entire ACC. But when you're at a school that's been longing for eight years just to make it to the NCAA tournament, you need to do whatever you have to - legally, of course - to make it happen. Listen to the experts. Schedule the tough teams in December. Don't be afraid of losing to good teams. It will make you better in those close games in early March (aka the meltdown against the Buckeyes).

But, no. Amaker doesn't follow the hype. And now, when the field of 65 is announced tonight, his kids won't be a part of the hype. They'll prepare for another NIT appearance - their third in four years - and they'll be left to wonder what the thrill of playing in the NCAA tournament is like.

Mostly because their coach didn't know how to lead them there.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

"Pills, 'roids, and wife-beaters"

And so the whacky world of sports lives on.

We have reached the middle of another week, and guess what - hold your breath! - there are sports figures in the news for swallowing pills (Lindsey Hunter), taking human growth hormones (John Rocker) and allegedly beating their wife (good ole Ron Artest).

And, naturally, all of these stories are fairly big news. Because we just don't hear about this stuff very often... right?

Um, lemme check the archives. Oh, boy, there was this story a while ago about a couple Indiana Pacers players allegedly assaulting a bartender. And, WHAT?? Evander Holyfield buying steroids? Where have I been.

OK, I'll snap out of it. I've been here this whole time, digesting the week-to-week transgressions of the athletes we both laud and criticize. And, no, I'm not the least surprised by any of their actions, from the pill-taking to the wife-beating. Sometimes particular cases are a bit on the shocking side, such as Hunter - known as one of the NBA's better guys - being suspended 10 games for "accidentally" taking one of his wife's diet pills. But for the most part, no negative sports news is the least surprising anymore.

And here's another truth bite. It ain't going to stop. George Mitchell's senate committee has been at "work" for over a year now, trying to clean up baseball. Yet no players will talk to the committee - why would they? All they could do is alienate teammates and friends - and the most successful steroids probe has come out of upstate New York, with nine athletes, including Holyfield and the Angels' Gary Matthews Jr. being named.

It's great these investigations are taking place, and I'm sure more players will be linked to steroids, but at the same time other players will stay ahead of the game by finding new supplements to power their swing or throwing arm.

In other words, this is an "ongoing investigation" that will still be "ongoing" when we have amusement parks on Mars.

As for wife-beating athletes, they're not going anywhere. Just like any field of work has its share of domestic abusers, there are always going to be bad eggs in the NBA, NFL, AFL - you name the league - who were never told not to hit women. Now, in all fairness to Artest, this is just an allegation, but, yeah, it didn't surprise me the least.

Just listen to his rap lyrics.

And as much as I love Hunter as a player - a sparkplug off the bench who has always hustled for loose balls and not been afraid to take the big shots - he should have known better than to take a "diet pill," just like Barry Bonds shoulda known that the cream and the clear isn't some holistic olive oil, and on and on we go.

Athletes deny knowing they consumed a banned substance more often than Dickie V yells, "Baby!" I'll applaud the first athlete who stand up and says, "I knew this was illegal, but, damn, it just looked so appealing. I couldn't help myself."

That will be a great day.

But until that day, nothing changes. The world keeps spinning on its axis, squirrels keep scrambling up trees, and athletes continue to provide off-the-field news for us to endlessly dissect.

Until we feel the need for some diet pills.

Monday, March 05, 2007

"This is your time, Shaq"

All right, Shaq, Diesel, Great Aristotle, this is your time, your chance to show you're still the best center in the league, your opportunity to show you're not just some washed-up, indolent, four-ring-wearing, police-badge-carrying dude.

Yeah, Dwyane Wade said he's trying to return. He must be the most courageous player in the league. Not a soul on this planet would have condemned him for taking off the rest of the season and getting surgery to repair his dislocated shoulder. But, nope, being one of the league's fiercest competitors, he's planning a no-strings-attached return, which could see him playing in the last few games of the regular season and then - if the Heat make it - the playoffs.

But, Shaq, don't take this as a sign to relax. Your team's chances of qualifying for the playoffs in the dismal, awful, embarrassing Eastern Conference are on your gigantic shoulders. Your team's offense needs to run through you, because otherwise we'll be watching Jason Williams chuck up 25-footers and Antoine Walker trying to drive the lane like he's 25, and no one wants to see that.

But you, even at 34, can still bang with the league's biggest, baddest dudes. We know this, Shaq. Just the other day Detroit's Dale Davis said in the "Detroit Free Press" that you're still the toughest big man to defend in the league. When you want the ball down low, when you want to score, you're unstoppable. We all know this. You proved against Davis and others last Friday, dominating the Pistons to the tune of 31 points, 15 rebounds and six assists. You play like that - with even a 50 percent D-Wade at your side - and the Pistons will have close to no shot against you in the playoffs.

I personally consider you an enigma, Shaq Daddy. When you play your hardest, I consider you the greatest player of all time. You are that good, and you've proved that with your playoff performances. During your three NBA championship seasons with the Lakers you averaged 30.7, 30.4 and 28.5 points per game, respectively, in the playoffs. You could be counted on when the game mattered most. Your playoff numbers are among the best of all-time, alongside Jordan's (33.4 ppg) and West's (29.1 ppg).

But, Diesel, those guys never took a third of the regular season off. They never relied on a superstar teammate to carry their team to the playoffs while they chased down criminals in Miami (although that is very altruistic of you). In five of your 14 seasons previous to this one, you failed to play 60 regular season games. This will be your sixth.

If you dedicated yourself during the season and off-season, you could have put up Wilt-like numbers your entire career. Heck, you've already played more seasons than Wilt (who dominated the league for most of 14 years). But, it should be noted, with the exception of one season, Wilt never played less than 72 games and played the entire 82 games four times, including his final three seasons. You have a chance to become universally considered the best center to ever play the game.

This is your biggest challenge. You've always had that sidekick. Penny in Orlando. Kobe in L.A. (until you two became more antagonists than sidekicks) and D-Wade in South Beach. These guys have always been healthy, keeping the motor running when you've gone down to your various injuries (the big toe was my favorite).

But now it's the sidekick who's down. And at just 29-29 your Heat are in the seventh spot in the East and up a mere 2½ games on New York and Orlando, who are tied for ninth. One bad streak, and you could be on the outside looking in. This is your time, Shaq. How will you respond? Gary Payton's not gonna save this season. Ditto J-Will, 'Toine, James Posey, Eddie Jones, Udonis Haslam, etc.,. etc. This may be your last shot at a championship – at least with the current makeup of your team. You guys (minus D-Wade) are old, and Pat Riley looks ready to retire for good.

One man will be responsible for either saving this season for the Miami Heat or making this the first year since 1999 that the defending NBA champion did not make the playoffs. And that Bulls team was sans M.J., Pippen, Phil Jackson and Dennis Rodman. Yeah, a few key pieces.

But you've got everybody back from a year ago except for now, of course, your MVP. So now you need to make up for his absence, play through any aches or pains you're feeling and be The Man. As you showed against Detroit, you're certainly capable of it. You're certainly capable of logging 36 minutes and a double-double night in and out.

So let's see it, Shaquille O'Neal. Let's witness the rebirth of arguable the game's greatest center. Hey, if Wilt played 82 games and 42.3 minutes per game during his final season, you can play 35 minutes a night for 24 games until your sidekick returns, can't you?

Saturday, March 03, 2007

"The perfect choke job"

You'd think the team with the freshmen and sophomores playing on the road would have choked. Not the senior-laden team with much more at stake.

Well, you thought wrong.

The University of Michigan men's basketball team was on its way to a huge upset of No. 1 Ohio State Saturday - which would have nearly sealed the team's first NCAA tournament bid since 1998 - until it pulled the perfect choke job.

The Wolverines led by six points, 61-55, after a three-point play by Courtney Sims with just under four minutes to play. Then there was a timeout. Now I'm no insider, so I don't know what went on during those couple minutes - I can't say if Tommy Amaker told his players they'd worked too hard to win, or if some drug was slipped in Dion Harris' water - but the game changed drastically after the timeout.

All game, Michigan's seniors - Harris, Sims, Lester Abram and Brent Petway - had led the way, as they should on Senior Day. Harris had hit the big 3-pointers. Petway and Sims had banged down low against Super Freshman Greg Oden. Each scored 11 points and Petway had eight rebounds.

All game long... until it counted most. With Michigan's lead cut to 65-61, Sims got a great feed down low and elevated over Oden, but missed a dunk. He threw his arms in the air, complaining about the no-call, but with less than 3 minutes to play in a close game, you can't expect to get a touch foul. The bottom line is Sims should not have blown the dunk.

Then, after the Buckeyes took a two-point lead, Harris was fouled with 48 seconds remaining and approached the free throw line for a bonus opportunity. The senior calmly (at least he appeared calm) went through his routine then released the ball.

Not even close. Clank, off the front right part of the rim. You can't say anything except Harris choked. Harris entered the game an 85.9 percent free throw shooter and had made four of four of six attempts before his choke job.

Switching gears here, Amaker has rightfully taken a lot of the heat for this team's woes. But this loss has to fall on the players' shoulders. You could tell, just watching on TV, how much Amaker wanted this win. He actually picked up a technical foul. Amaker hardly shows enough emotion during most games to make you think he's the head coach. But on Saturday he did everything possible to lead his team to the huge upset. His team just let him down at the end.

Obviously there was much more pressure on Michigan than Ohio State coming into the game. The Buckeyes had already clinched the outright Big Ten title and could still get a No. 1 seed in the approaching NCAA tournament with a loss to the Wolverines. Michigan NEEDED this win. Now it's most likely headed to yet another NIT. Unless the Wolverines win at least three games in the Big Ten tournament, I don't see them getting in the field of 65. One reason is that there are more bubble teams than ever out there. Teams who have actually beaten somebody. The Wolverines haven't beaten a team in the current Top 25 yet this season and have 0 quality road wins.

A perfect team to compare the Wolverines to is Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets are just 19-10 heading into their regular-season finale against Boston College, however they got that "key" win by upsetting North Carolina at home on Thursday. That's the difference between the Yellow Jackets and the Wolverines. That wins which stands out. Michigan doesn't have one.

They were 4 minutes away on Saturday. The crowd at normally silent Crisler Arena was on its feet, anticipating the biggest win for the program in nearly a decade. Everything was looking up. Then the seniors gagged. Yes, they're just kids, really. That shouldn’t be forgotten. We're not talking about professional athletes. It was transparent after the game how hurt they were that they didn't deliver a win for the home fans on Senior Day. They should still be recognized as fine student-athletes who have served U-M well.

But, yeah, they choked. Ohio State played well in the final minutes. Greg Oden had a huge tip-in to cut Michigan's lead to two, and Jamar Butler made an acrobatic fastbreak layup - which looked like a very difficult shot - to give Ohio State a 63-61 lead and then made two clutch free throws with 12 seconds remaining to all but ice it.

In the end, Ohio State's young players did what they needed to do to win in a hostile environment (really - I'm not kidding, the fans were rowdy) and push their candidacy for a No. 1 seed. Michigan's players, on the other hand, most likely inked their bid to yet another NIT tournament.

It's sad, really. They were so close, yet now so far. The definition of a missed opportunity.

Friday, March 02, 2007

"Where'd my money go?"

In this modern world of sports, where athletes make millions of dollars often before they've even proven themselves at the professional level, it's difficult to feel sorry for them or sympathize with their “difficult” situations.

But when it comes to NFL players and their non-guaranteed contracts, I feel their pain. Imagine one day being on top of the world, having been drafted in the first round of the NFL Draft. You sign a multimillion dollar deal and endorsements are on the way. Then, out of the blue, you fall down the stairs, or get hit by a car, or struck by lightning. Whatever the catastrophe, it causes a career-ending injury.

Almost magically your money disappears. The companies knocking on your door to sponsor you run in the other direction. You don't have a college education. You don't have any money. You're S-C-R-E-W-E-D. Such is the life of an NFL player.

Yesterday was a perfect example of how NFL players are thrown around by their supposed "loyal" teams in order to save money. Several top-notch players - such as Pittsburgh's Joey Porter and New Orleans' Joe Horn - were released by their teams so the organizations wouldn't have to pay their bonuses. Releasing a player also ends whatever contract he had with the organization, and teams will often waive a player and then attempt to resign him for a smaller amount of money - a scheme that can certainly work if the player had a poor season.

In baseball it's very common to see a relatively unknown player put together one great season and get a huge, guaranteed contract for his good six months. In football, a big season might get a player a nice contract, but how much of that cash ends up in their bank account is a completely different bag'a beans. As long as a team either doesn't believe it needs a player or feels it can re-sign him (for less money), there's no harm in waiving him before free agency begins, especially if it means not having to dole out a bonus.

Players such as Porter and Horn shouldn't have a problem finding new homes and fat contracts. They're impact players in the NFL. Teams will do anything to win, and Porter and Horn are winners - with Porter’s Steelers winning the Super Bowl a year ago and Horn helping the Saints put together an amazing comeback season last fall. But plenty of other players whose names aren't in the headlines every day are waived by their teams and forced into signing wimpy contracts by professional sports' standards. It's either that, or call it a career at a very young age.

No, I don't feel sorry for NFL players. They still make a few bucks here and there. And they get to retire at a very young age. But when compared to new San Francisco pitcher Barry Zito, who is making hundreds of millions to pitch a game every fifth day, NFL players are getting... yeah, that "screwed" word again.

Poor guys.