Monday, March 16, 2009
My good friend Larry Horn used to describe the first two days of the NCAA tournament as the "High Holidays." It was the perfect description. There's nothing quite like those first two days of the Big Dance. It's a basketball fan's dream. Wall-to-wall games for 48 hours. Dramatic finishes. Historic individual performances. Top seeds flexing their muscle. Enough fried salami to feed the entire Western Kentucky starting five. For 'The Lar Horn,' Temple was very much a part of his religious experience...after all, their matchup zone can cause nightmares for opposing teams.
The tournament brings together the hard core hoop-heads that know all the top players on each team and the less ardent followers that root for Marquette each year because "it's a Michigan school." (Me and my brother Gabe grew up firmly believing that the Marquette basketball powerhouse was located in our great state's Upper Peninsula...and a small part of me still does.) Some love the tourney simply out of a sheer passion for the game. Others look forward to getting a closer look at the top players to predict which ones will be the next group of superstars moving on to the NBA.
But the vast majority of tournament crazies consists of those filling out the sacred brackets, trying to be crowned victorious in the zillions of pools that will be created in the next 72 hours. Without further ado, let's take a look at the prospects for MSU and U of M, along with some other teams to watch for in this early preview of March Madness.
Tom Izzo's group has been one of the most consistent teams in the nation throughout the course of the year. They put together long winning streaks, won tough games on the road, and now finally seem to be fully healthy heading into the NCAA's. I know it is one of the biggest cliches thrown around when the brackets are first unveiled, but you really do have to love the way this bracket sets up for Michigan State. Robert Morris, the 1st round opponent, is one of those odd schools that is obviously named for somebody, even though none of us have any idea who that person is. It doesn't exactly carry the same clout as say a "George Washington" or "James Madison." My favorite example of this kind of school is the similarly named "Morris Brown College," a place I'd always assumed growing up was named after the local legend in our neighborhood by the same name. Years later, however, I discovered that it was actually a historically all-black college...and the Mo Brown in our 'hood was a Jewish doctor. Maybe it wasn't named after him after all.
The 2nd round will see Sparty either taking on Boston College or Pac-10 tournament champs USC. I don't expect too much of a problem with either squad. BC has an extremely talented scoring guard in Tyrese Rice, but somehow Al Skinner's teams usually find a way to lose in March. USC might be a cute pick for some because of their recent hot streak, but they've been up and down during the year, and do not have the depth to match MSU.
It's funny. Sometimes I think Michigan State's greatest weapon can also be a bit of a hindrance. Their outstanding depth. Tom Izzo is not afraid to run 10, even 11 guys out for significant time on a given night. This allows players to go full throttle when they are in the game, with fresh bodies always available to come in when necessary. Teams with only 6-7 quality players can be worn down when trying to match State's intensity for the whole 40 minutes. However, there are is also something to be said for guys having a hard time getting in the flow of the game when the minutes can be so brief and sporadic at times. Shot attempts are so widely distributed among Izzo's guys sometimes that the hot hand can go ignored instead of utilized. For instance, Goran Suton made his first five shots in the Big Ten tourney loss to Ohio State, yet played just 27 minutes, and never took another shot. A guy like Durrell Summers has shown the ability to be a dynamic scorer and shot maker in big games, but has seemingly fallen out of favor with Izzo. He's also a guy that is more prone to play well when getting into the rhythm of the game and playing big minutes, while tending to struggle when forced to quickly find his shot in 10-15 minutes of court time.
But that's why Tom Izzo is the master. As he usually does come the month of March, he will find a way to get the absolute best out of his team. He will find the right mix at the right times, and we know this because he has been doing it better than almost any coach for the last decade.
Other questions surround this second seeded Spartan team...
Can Kalin Lucas, the Big 10's Player of the Year, lead his squad to the Final Four as just a sophmore?
People love to talk about the hit or miss nature of Raymar Morgan, but I think the more important mystery is whether you're going to get the good or bad Chris Allen. When he is firing from distance, the duo of him and Lucas make the Spartans one of the most dangerous teams in the country. When he's not, he can shoot you right out of a game with that quick and inaccurate trigger (see losses against Northwestern, Ohio State).
If Michigan State can reach the Final Four to be played at Ford Field, they would have a distinct advantage playing so close to East Lansing with loads of green and white sure to pepper the crowd. Yet while they have had a tremendous season, dominating the Big Ten regular season and attaining a # 2 seed in the Big Dance, I do not see them finding their way home. Rick Pitino's Louisville Cardinals loom as a potential opponent in the Elite Eight, and that is where I see Sparty's dream ending. A very good season to be sure, but one that might end up just a few paces short of the D.
Once Michigan fans get over the panic they felt watching the first three quarters of the NCAA selection show, they can begin to assess the upcoming first round clash with Clemson. For the first time since 1998, the Wolverines are in the tournament that matters. For the last number of years, Michigan's postseason home has come to be Madison Square Garden, home of the NIT Final Four. Thankfully, they will be nowhere near New York this year.
Talk about catching a team at the perfect time. The Clemson Tigers performed their annual pratfall after winning their first 16 games of the season. This is one of college basketball's most consistent traditions. Clemson will burst out of the gates, going undefeated through non-conference play while everyone buzzes about their title possibilities. Then they'll drop a game or two in ACC play, and before you know it, they're heading downhill faster than Tommy Moe, and whimpering quietly out of the tournament. This year, their end of season slide was right on cue. The Tigers dropped 4 of their last 5, including a deflating ACC tourney loss to Georgia Tech, a team that went just 2-14 in conference play. And while Michigan has not exactly been setting the world on fire the last few weeks, they do come in as the hotter team. With the coaching matchup clearly favoring John Beilein over Oliver Purnell (Purnell has failed to win an NCAA tournament game in his 21 year career), Big Blue is the choice in this mini 7 vs. 10 upset.
As for the rest of the tourney, well, I think it's safe to say that most Michigan followers would be ecstatic with even one W. Oklahoma waits in the wings in round two, led by the possible future #1 overall pick in the NBA Draft, Blake Griffin. The Sooners also have a nice collection of shooters surrounding the big man in freshman Willie Warren and point guard Austin Johnson. I wouldn't put it past Michigan to give them a run for their money, as they have with most top teams this season, but this is likely where they bow out. If you could believe that both DeShawn Sims and Manny Harris would show up for every game, a long tournament run would not be out of the question. But this has been a nagging bugaboo all year, trying to get both stars going on the same night for an extended period.
That is what the tournament is all about. Having your best players playing at a high level for six straight contests. For Sims and Harris, no off-nights can be tolerated, or they will be sent packing. And for now, the Wolverines just do not have the firepower from the supporting cast to make up for such a performance. Stu Douglass, Zack Novak, and Laval Lucas-Perry are wildly inconsistent and need more seasoning. These three could be a handful in the coming years, though. And despite Gus Johnson's semi-insane proclamation that C.J. Lee has been the Wolverines' "2nd most important player this season," the truth is that the Wolverines routinely get very little production from the point guard spot. There are not a whole lot of teams in tournament history advancing through the rounds with nothing more than a stopgap at the lead guard slot.
(Sidenote: I respect Gus Johnson as a broadcaster, but the guy has been nothing short of bizarre with some of his comments regarding Michigan. Besides the Lee compliment, he has also begun referring to Stu Douglass as "Stuey," while mentioning in the same breath that Douglass is "extremely athletic." Hmm...since when did "taking a million 3s and rarely venturing into the lane" translate to a high level of athleticism. Johnson frequently compares Douglass to former Piston Bobby Sura, who actually was a highly athletic 2-guard that could sky and make acrobatic plays. The only thing Sura has in common with Douglass is that they are both white, and to be honest, Sura was always very tan, so even that parallel is a stretch.)
Other Teams to Watch For
The Cinderella of yesteryear has undergone a role reversal and is now a perennial contender in March. However, they have struggled in that role, bowing out early in each of the last two tournaments. I think they're a different squad this year, though. Matt Bouldin (a bigger Dan Dickau) and Jeremy Pargo (a mini Will Bynum) make up one of the best and most experienced backcourts in the entire field. That's usually a good recipe come this time of year. Up front, they have a very rugged, but skilled big man in Josh Heytvelt.
And last but not least, Austin Daye (right), the freakishly versatile 6'11, 200 pound power forward. He does it all for this team, and many scouts project him as a future lottery pick. Not to mention, the man is a first ballot "T-Shirt Hall of Famer" made up of guys that made a point of wearing a big, baggy t-shirt under their jersey during the college days. Toby Bailey and Roy Hibbert are Co-Presidents of this prestigious group.
The problem for this squad, as in most years, is the lack of competition they get during conference play. Indeed, they coasted through with an unblemished 14-0 mark, and steamrolled through their postseason tourney. Another perception with the Zags is that, as my boy Harold says, they are "tissue-paper soft." Sometimes they do not acquire that nasty edge necessary for tournament play, having spent the past couple of months trouncing the likes of Loyola Marymount, Pepperdine, and the University of Rice Pilaf. If Mark Few's boys from Gonzaga can manage to squeak by North Carolina in a possible Sweet 16 battle, I like 'em to make a surprise appearance at Ford Field.
You might have fun picking them to win a game or two, because they have the WAC Player of the Year in Gary Wilkinson...who is a Chris Weinke-esque 26 years old. He's like a man amongst boys on the floor. On many possessions, he simply discards the man trying to stay in front of him, then lays the ball in the hoop. Wilkinson is a 6'9 redhead, and you can envision him looking exactly like Philip Seymour Hoffman in 15 years. And while most players in the tournament have a girlfriend or their parents in the crowd, when Wilkinson is involved, there are constant screen shots of his wife. This is not your typical college Senior, and Utah State is not to be ignored. All joking aside, they had a magnificent year in the WAC and trounced Nevada on their home floor in the conference tournament final. They take on Marquette in the 1st round, with the game taking place in nearby Boise. I suggest you heed my advice and advance Mr. Capote and company along in the bracket.
(Sidenote: Where does Hoffman's role as 'Sandy Lyle' in "Along Came Polly" rank in terms of all-time great movie characters? Top ten? Five? The best ever? Taking Ben Stiller's grease from his pizza for his own...the "Let it rain!" and "Raindance!" call on every bricked jumper...his hilarious scenes acting in a community theater presentation of "Jesus Christ, Superstar,"...and finally, the admission that the camera crew following him around the whole movie for a hit reality show was really a farce, and that he had hired the guys himself, with no actual show in place. The combination of these factors presents a pretty intriguing argument that he is, in fact, at the top of the list. And yeah, the clock reads 3:08 AM right now...this last paragraph reflects that.)
I love the way they are playing and defending right now. With UCONN as the #1 seed in that area of the bracket, I expect the Boilers to give them all they can handle should they meet. Matt Painter is an excellent coach and you sense that his club is peaking at the perfect time. After all, Connecticut's national championship teams always revolve around great guard play, whether it be Rip Hamilton, Khalid El-Amin, or Ben Gordon. This year's edition does not have that. Look for Purdue to possibly be that 2nd Big Ten squad, besides MSU, to make some noise in this tournament.
A team that everyone, including myself, loves to hate, but they seem to be due for a classic Coach K run here. With a relatively pedestrian side of the bracket, and both Jon Scheyer and Kyle Singler shooting the ball extremely well of late, look for Duke to get back to their winning ways this year. They might not have the bulk to match a team like Pittsburgh in the Elite Eight, but let's also remember that Jamie Dixon has never led his Pitt squad past the round of 16. Do not be surprised to see the Blue Devils in Detroit three weeks from now.
Coming Wednesday...funny tales about past bracket mishaps, potential million dollar paydays, other tournament thoughts, and a pick for the eventual National Champion. Drop a comment below, or e-mail me for "expert" bracket guidance at email@example.com