Monday, March 19, 2007
The Shark, The Strick, and The Sweet Sixteen
Good morning. Today I'd like to do a little Monday morning quarterbacking on my Round of 32 picks, discuss the upcoming Sweet Sixteen, and reveal my choice for champion. I have been on a five-year dry spell picking the NCAA victor, with my last correct prediction coming thanks to the Orangemen during my freshman year in college. (Hey, I'm no expert. That's why I don't get paid.) I'm also going to give a rare preview of two features to come in honor of the Sweet 16.
I have to start from the back. The first thing I want to discuss is Memphis, the team I am rooting for to win it all. Why, you ask?
Memphis is coached by John Calipari, who gave my area of the world (Brattleboro, Vermont) its only taste of college basketball glory during his time at UMass. He was a great coach who I admit may have cheated to get Marcus Camby into his program (I don't know the details) and get to the Final Four. Calipari also had almost as much success with Lou Roe. He is one of the best coaches in the game, and he was an exceptional point guard when he played.
His playing and coaching experience must have helped him see through the walls of bullshit surrounding one of my favorite players, Rod Strickland. Rod is on the bench with him at all times, helping Memphis sustain its recent run of success. He's the reason I'm rooting for Memphis right now.
Rod Strickland was one of the best point guards of the 1990's, and was constantly dogged because he was involved in a highly publicized contract dispute, was injured frequently, and described by some uneducated observers as playing lazily on the court. While Strickland probably bears some responsibility for his contract troubles and was at times bitten by the injury bug, the accusation that his personality somehow was troublesome or that his talent was ineffectual is bullshit. He played great basketball whenever he was on the floor, was a great leader, and played skillfully for a longer period of time than most point guards - until age 38. Tomorrow I will go in depth and take a look at Rod Strickland, the player, and address some of the criticism he has been the target of.
UNLV's recent run to the Sweet Sixteen has very little to do with my favorite coach of all time, Jerry Tarkanian. (As a matter of fact, it has a lot to do with one of my least-favorite coaches of all time, Lon Kruger, pulling one of my least favorite coaching moves, the "play my progeny".) The Rebels' run is notable because they have been so terrible for so many years, after decades of success from the the seventies until the nineties. That success (and the recent failure) can all be attributed to Mr. Tarkanian, and his fight against the NCAA. They called Tark "The Shark" because of his appearance, but he personified his nickname in a much deeper way. He was a fighter on every level, and exhibited talent, courage, tenacity, and work ethic that is often talked about but rarely seen in the athletic arena.
I want to discuss in depth Jerry Tarkanian's fight with the NCAA and how it effected UNLV and one of the greatest coaches in the history of basketball. He's 76 and may die before he ever sees Springfield because of his constant refusal to back down. I doubt he cares. He's changed the lives of most of his players and revolutionized the sport of basketball to earn the adoration of fans like me.
Rod Strickland and Jerry Tarkanian; a contrarian's dream. Get it all this week on Don't Ever Give Up: The Basketball Blog.
For now, though, let's get down to business:
My Super Sweet 16
I'm understandably excited we've gotten this far. While there was perhaps excess docility in the early rounds, this may set the stage for the law of averages to grace us with some exciting finishes, hard fouls, yelling, crying, and everything else that comes with a closely-played game.
Before looking ahead, though, let's take a look at my arguably crappy Round of 32 picks in italics (with the winners bolded).
Purdue v. Florida: Purdue played better than they should have and made some important progress for a program that has seen some hard times lately. Still tough to beat a #1, though.
Butler v. Maryland: A Strawberry disappoints me again. I should have known. I thought he'd smoke A.J. Graves but it was quite the opposite. I think since A.J. Graves marginalized Strawberry, he should be nicknamed "cocaine".
Winthrop v. Oregon: As I said before: "I don't know a thing about either of these teams, okay?" I got this pick wrong, but I'm glad I did, because now I know that Oregon is a sweet team. (Their point guard is five-six and I didn't know about it. I'm truly embarrassed.)
UNLV v. Wisconsin: Only Jerry Tarkanian could coach his ghost to haunt the NCAA Tournament while he's still alive. This was my proudest pick of the weekend.
Kansas v. Kentucky: This, on the other hand, was not my proudest pick. While I was watching this game it seemed like Kentucky was a couple of bad plays from getting blown out, and when they lost a guy to fouls and Brandon Rush started nailing shots, I thought "Shit, Kansas has been getting upset all these years and this is the year I should have picked them to win it all." I've been trying to settle down since then. I'm not sure I have.
Southern Illinois v. Virginia Tech: Speaking of bad picks I made, this one sucked. I got bit by the typical "I haven't watched the Salukis play all year and now I look like an idiot". What can I say? I thought the Mountain Valley conference wouldn't produce consistency. It has. Chris Lowery deserves serious respect.
Pittsburgh v. VCU: I don't know if this is really worth mentioning. Non-conference team takes on Big East team, is overpowered. Yee ha.
Indiana v. UCLA: This was a game where it was kind of tempting to choose Indiana what with all their history and defensive-minded coach. Sometimes you gotta take a couple of deep breaths and pick the favorite.
UNC v. Michigan State: I wrote the UNC would win it in a close one. I guess I overestimated Tom Izzo.
USC v. Texas: I was correct that the hype machine would jinx Kevin Durant's chances of winning. I know everyone is criticizing Texas's coaching, but I have to say, Rick Barnes has probably been the best recruiter in the nation in the past few years. He gets no credit for that but gets killed for not being able to win on a team where one player is clearly better than everyone else. I'm not sure that's as easy as people make it out to be (see the Hawks of the late 80's).
Vanderbilt v. WSU: I picked Washington State because Drew Bledsoe went there. Apparently I'm the last person on earth to realize that 2006-2007 is the year where everything Drew Bledsoe is involved in turns into agonizing defeat.
BC v. Georgetown: BC made a game of it, then John Thompson III stopped his elaborate drill, told Roy Hibbert he was allowed to shoot in the second half, and Georgetown killed them.
Tennessee v. Virginia: I just got lucky. Tennessee as a state (i.e. Memphis + Tennessee) is looking better than North Carolina this year, and I don't think that's ever happened. I wasn't a big Virginia fan (that's the only team I had seen, and I only saw them once), and they didn't look very impressive. I like Tennessee's Jajuan Smith; he seems like my kind of pesky pain-in-the-ass guard (2.1 spg). Too bad they have to play Ohio State next.
Louisville v. Texas A&M: I fought the Law, and the Law won...
Nevada v. Memphis: I think I said as much as I need to say about Rod Strickland above. Regardless, the Tigers looked really fast, able, and athletic against Nevada, and made the Wolf Pack look like the small conference jokers they were. I'm interested to see them play again.
Okay, so now that's out of the way. My conclusion is that I have been spot on twice, gotten a few picks right because of luck and a little good analysis, and been spot wrong twice. I can live with that. Let's look ahead at the Sweet Sixteen:
Florida v. Butler: I'll get this out of the way now: If I were running an NBA team (and there's a litany of reasons why I'm not), I'd be a hell of a lot more interested in Horford than Noah. Who cares about a sissy little fancy boy who runs around screaming, pounding his chest, and shaking his big girly hairdo? I think at best he'll be a less-imposing version of Drew Gooden.
On the other hand, I think Butler matches up terribly against Florida. They have no front court, at all. It seems like they've been getting pretty lucky so far, and I think their luck will run out, though I swear to you, I am dying to pick against Florida and will go so far as to guarantee a loss in the Elite Eight. But not now, and not to Butler. Butlers don't win; they serve tea.
Oregon v. UNLV: As I said before, I'm a newfound believer in Oregon. UNLV has had a lot of luck and seems poised to run out of it. This is that game where every fan is like "one of those teams has to make the Elite 8?"
I never thought I'd be saying this, but Lon Kruger is doing a hell of a job. He beat a very legit team (Georgia Tech) and then a team that was in the hunt for the championship and is as tough as they get (Wisconsin). Oregon has played two crappy teams and barely beat Miami of Ohio. I think UNLV might be the team that nobody realizes is greater than the sum of its parts, and I'm picking them again. I think Oregon may have gotten lucky in their last game. UNLV have looked to me like the best defensive team in the tournament so far, and that will turn the tide.
Kansas v. Illinois: If the Salukis pull this off, they will become the Gonzaga of the mid-west. It's interesting how they manage to put themselves in a very similar station to the Bulldogs in the opposite manner; they are almost all-black, hustle their asses off, and play really great defense. (Not that Gonzaga doesn't hustle or play good defense, but they are usually powered by white boys who are shooters.)
Kansas looked vulnerable in the first half of their game against Kentucky, but only when Kentucky was executing perfectly and the Jayhawks were not. The whole time it felt like that was going to change, and it did. I can't pick against these guys. Kansas.
Pittsburgh v. UCLA: Pittsburgh were, are, and will continue to be my pick to win the tournament. This will be the first of at least three terribly hard games they'll have to win to do it.
Despite the OT in the VCU game, Pittsburgh looked much better for most of the game. I like where Pittsburgh is; They just avoided a heartbreaker, and have already gotten their butts kicked by Georgetown. That means two things: 1) They are resilient 2) No one thinks they'll win a thing. I just like teams in those positions to do big things.
UCLA is actually in a somewhat similar position (only scoring 54 against Indiana and getting tied up late, and losing to Washington). I think Afflalo is overrated, though, and I have to pick the Big East team if the going gets tough. Pittsburgh.
UNC v. USC: This is a pretty clear one. USC will be all juiced up from beating Texas, with all of its fans and hype, and won't be ready to take on another stalwart. Sorry guys.
Vanderbilt v. Georgetown: The other clear pick. I don't even know why the NCAA makes the players play these games; it must be for ratings or something. Vanderbilt is a good offensive team with good shooters in the classic matchup against a tough, physical team. In my book, the latter will win about 80% of the time, and in this game they'll have the advantage in athleticism and coaching as well. I'll be blown away if Vandy wins.
Ohio State v. Tennessee: Ohio State is just too damn good. When they stepped up after Oden getting pulled out the other night, it was very impressive, in my opinion. I love to pick upsets but this is one game where it ain't gonna happen.
Texas A&M v. Memphis: I'm pissed off that Texas A&M beat Louisville, but I have to admit that it intrigues me. Memphis hasn't really played anyone serious yet, but has looked great.
This seems like the classic situation where on one hand I think Texas A&M might be tired after facing Louisville, or might just be the real deal. It's hard for me to tell. As an undecided voter, I'm going with the Memphis because before Louisville, TAMU didn't really play anyone either, and didn't fare so well (losing to Texas and OK State).
Memphis has good personnel, good coaching, and was executing very, very well against Nevada. Both Chris Douglas-Roberts and Jeremy Hunter are great, great scorers (and players), and Joey Dorsey is a classic 6-9, 260 ham and eggs player who gets ya ten and ten. Seems like there's a lot to like on this team, except they don't really have a center, and against Texas A&M, I don't see why they'll need one. Throw in Rod Strickland and you've got the W.
That's all I've got for today. As always, e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Posted by Jimmy at 11:06 AM