Monday, March 28, 2011

Kentucky, VCU, Boom!

The tale of two programs exists. As Kentucky prepares to take on mutual powerhouse Connecticut, Virginia Commonwealth is punching their own Cinderella ticket.

Let's get after it!

Massachusetts, Memphis, now Kentucky, say what you will about Wildcat head coach John Calipari but he's headed to Houston and he's bringing his third program (only Slick Rick Pitino has done the same) to the Final Four. On the heels of a few monster games from freshman guard Brandon Knight (63 pts. in four games) and an extremely solid tournament run from senior big man Josh Harrellson, it's likely this could be Calipari's best shot at a title. Harrellson played so well against Ohio State's Jared Sullinger, averaging 15 points and close to 9 boards a game, he's giving the Wildcats a huge advantage inside. With guard DeAndre Liggins having big games off the bench for Kentucky, the Wildcats have come a long way since their early season 17-point loss to the team they are set see, Connecticut. For Calipari, beating Ohio State and North Carolina en route to the Final Four was just an appetizer, knocking off Jim Calhoun would really be icing on the cake.

Go get 'em Shaka! I don't know how it happened, and truly, I don't care. Virginia Commonwealth reaching The Final Four is get out of here amazing. The Rams of VCU are literally just (1) of three teams to knock off Kansas all season long. They are the 'Against All Odds' team of this tournament, they're out George Masoning - George Mason. Vitale, Bilas, and now Billy Packer coming out refusing to back down from their stance that the Rams didn't belong in the tournament, I've got one thing to say: They're in the Final Four - own it. They've earned it as well. Dropping teams from the PAC-10, Big East, Big Ten, ACC, & Big 12??!?! No slouches either, no Northwestern's or DePaul's in that group, we're talking the Jayhawks, Boilermakers, Hoyas, come on now! Nearly half the team is upper class men, including senior 4-year starting point guard Joey Rodriguez (averaging nearly eight assists a game), and junior guard Brad Burgess who tossed up monster 20+ point games against Florida State and Purdue. It's like I said . . .Go get 'em Shaka!

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Sunday, March 27, 2011

Butler, Connecticut, Check Please

Stevens, Calhoun, Walker, Howard, Lamb, and Mack, welcome to the Final Four, done. As Connecticut yet again stood up when called upon and Butler put down the Gators in overtime, we're left with the first two tickets to the big dance punched.

Get After It!

Why do we still have that stunned look? An upper class men dominated program, a core of players who have been to the mountain top, and a head coach who for all intents and purposes is more successful over the last two seasons than any coach this side of Kansas' Bill Self. Isn't that the recipe? Shouldn't we have assumed that Butler wasn't just Gordon Hayward and his band of merry men? As crazy as it sounds this morning, a day after Butler dropped Florida in overtime and advanced to their second straight round of four, we did just that. We dismissed any chance Butler had at reaching Houston. We dismissed Brad Stevens, a head coach with a 60-14 record over the past two seasons. We dismissed junior guard Shelvin Mack, a player who a huge part in Butler's 2010 run just a season ago. We dismissed forward Matt Howard, who ripped down over 145 more rebounds this season than he did the last. We dismissed a team that doesn't quit, they play hard, they're talented, and they're very well coached. You won't see the Bulldogs locking arms in the final minutes, they believe they're supposed to be there and that's why they're headed to Houston.

The Connecticut Huskies have ripped through the West Regional, on the heels of ripping through the Big East Tournament, and what's next? In 19 days the Huskies have won nine straight games against the likes of DePaul (insert joke), Georgetown, Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Louisville, Bucknell, Cincinnati, San Diego State, and yesterday Arizona. With stud guard Kemba Walker averaging 26.3 points over the stretch, and the coming of age for 6'5" Georgia native Jeremy Lamb, putting up 16 points-per of his own, the Huskies have become so very dangerous. Placed way in the back of their minds is the Connecticut team who went 4-7 down the stretch and found themselves as a ninth seed in the Big East tournament, that team doesn't exist anymore. Let's go back to Walker for a moment, because what this guy has done is flat out amazing. On Thursday night in their Sweet 16 game, Walker went off on a stretch where he scored 14 straight points for Connecticut en route to roaring past San Diego State. Is this kid going to ever get tired? Even I was wrong, when Kemba Walker is on the court he said it best "I'm good."

Who's next?!?!?

Thursday, March 24, 2011

How Sweet It's Been . .

The Butler Bulldogs aren't going to be one and out. San Diego State hasn't disappointed, the Big East is as I thought they were, overrated. As much excitement as the first couple rounds of the tourney has brought, you better buckle in and get ready for an exciting Sweet 16.

Get after it!

Rock Chalk Jayhawk! Welcome to the Southwest Region, live from San Antonio, Texas. Let's get right to it, the top-seeded Jayhawks steamrolled through Boston University and the Illini of Illinois with relative ease. Looking down at the remaining opponents in their region, the 12th seeded Spiders of Richmond, the 10th seeded Seminoles, and surprise of the tournament Virginia Commonwealth (11), can anyone play speed bump to the Jayhawks road to the Final Four? The answer is an emphatic, nope! Just one loss since the end of January and two throughout the entire season, Kansas is very, very scary. Stop with the Virginia Commonwealth talk, head coach Shaka Smart will get his big time opportunity soon enough. The Spiders who get first crack, Vandy and Morehead aren't exactly a quality tune-up for Bill Self's squad. Maybe, and I say that with much trepidation, the Seminoles long and athletic bunch led by senior guard Derwin Kitchen can cause fits for Kansas, but I doubt it. You want a call? I think you've got it.

Put your arms together repeatedly, be obnoxious, the Gators and Billy Donovan are back. Welcome to 'Nawlins and the Bayou, it's the Southeast Region. I want nothing more than to see Butler and BYU step aside and remove 'Jimmer Time' and the Butler Bulldogs from our existence. A Wisconsin vs. the aforementioned Florida, would be an ideal matchup of two very coached teams that would battle to the buzzer. The Gators have jumped out to a pretty good start with a quality 8-point win against UCLA in the previous round. As for the Badgers, they've slammed Belmont and knocked off Kansas State, a big tournament hopeful. For the Jimmer Fredette and BYU fans out there, you might just be the only ones cheering for this squad. For Butler, we've seen that show and like a re-runs of Everybody Loves Raymond, I'm just not interested. You're getting Wisconsin & Florida - deal with it.

Wild, Wild, West Region, to Anaheim go San Diego State, Connecticut, Duke, and Arizona - which just got a whole lot more interesting. I take back everything I said about this region, pre-tournament. San Diego State gets a huge test in Connecticut and Kemba Walker on Thursday night. There is a reason this team won the Big East tournament, and even more of a reason why Kemba Walker looked so good doing it. As for Duke v. Arizona, before you pencil the 'Dukies' into the round of eight, check out who they're playing. It was only a matter of time before former Xavier coach turned Arizona front man Sean Miller was going to put the Wildcats back on the map. After escaping Memphis and Texas, Arizona has really started to get some respect. No bones about it though, the Blue Devils are poised to defend their title and this region in Anaheim goes through Duke.

The only rough part of this tournament for the Buckeyes, they're in Newark. Playing for the East Region, the Buckeyes are joined by Carolina, Kentucky, and Marquette, all tournament tested. After ripping their way through two cupcakes, yes that is what George Mason is, the Ohio State Buckeyes get Kentucky and I don't expect things to change. Turn your attention to Marquette and Carolina, for those of you who are die hard Big East Fans, watch the ACC rip through Marquette bouncing just one of their two remaining from a field of 11. Carolina and Ohio State are on a crash course for the next round, but don't expect Ohio State to lose sleep over it. David Lighty, Jared Sullinger, Dallas Lauderdale, please. This team is super strong with a ton of talent and their about to show much. Move over Pope Tressel *(stole that) there is a new story in Columbus. I expect Ohio State to roll over this region and turtle anyone in their path, the question remains can they win it all?

Less than an hour till tip-off of the round of 16t - Get after it!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

LRN: Sweet Sixteen

On your lunch break, stuck in traffic, staying up late, you've got to find the time to work this bracket out folks. We're already under way and because we've tipped-off 2 of the 4 play-ins, you're behind! Figured I would let you take a look at mine so you could hang you're hat on something!

Here's the LRN: Sweet Sixteen . . .

Ohio State ~ No stunner here, the Buckeyes are the odds on favorite. Heading into March Madness winning seven straight, the Buckeyes have
East Region looked really good as of late. Led by super-freshman Jared Sullinger, Ohio State is wired for the National Championship.

Princeton ~ You have to take some shots. I'm taking mine with Ivy. The Tigers can score, they play disciplined, and they're the anti-Kentucky. I'm aware that they would need victories not only against John Calipari but possibly even Bob Huggins, undeterred. Pushing the chips to the middle, got to take some shots.

'Cuse ~ Boeheim can coach in the tournament, and coach very well. If you're a fan of the Orange you've got to really hope that the team who outscored St. John's 47-36 in the second half at MSG en route to the Big East semis is the team who shows up this first weekend of the tournament. Getting 12-points from Fab Melo off the bench would help as well.

North Carolina ~ Freshman Harrison Barnes is absolutely no joke. His 40-point outburst against Clemson in the ACC Tournament cemented it for me. Since mid-January the Heels have lost just two games, both against Duke. Fortunately, they won't see the Blue Devils till the Final Four. Tournament mainstays are always a safe bet.

West Region

Duke ~ They're the defending champions. Duke looked very impressive in the ACC Tournament Championship game destroying the Tar Heels on a neutral court. Coack K will have this team ready to play in the tournament and make yet another deep run into March.

Texas ~ The Longhorns aren't bad. They've beaten Michigan State, North Carolina, and conference rival Kansas. Early non-conference, close losses to Pittsburgh and Connecticut have me sold, the Longhorns can win a few big games. Even if Rick Barnes is still on the sidelines, they can pull out wins against either Arizona or Memphis.

UConn ~ How can you not look at what Kemba Walker and Connecticut did over five days in the Big East Tournament and not like them? With a player who can take over games by lighting up the scoreboard, isn't Kemba Walker one of the most important players in this tournament? I like the Huskies to roll up a couple, including Big East foe Cincinnati.

San Diego State ~ The field was very different when you realized the Mountain West San Diego State Aztecs were a (2) two seed, yet they deserve it. The Aztecs wrapped up a season winning the conference tourney by finally breaking through and beating BYU who owns the only two black marks on the SDSU resume.


Kansas ~ Of their 32-wins this season, they've got at least five against non-conference teams who have reached The Madness. Just one loss since February 1st en route to winning both the Big 12 Championship and conference tournament championship.

Richmond ~ By winning their first A-10 conference tournament championship, the Spiders punched a ticket to the dance. Avenging their 20-point loss earlier this season to Temple and beating up Dayton in the championship game, Richmond has ruffled a few feathers heading into this thing.

Southern California ~ I'm taking a stab here with USC for a couple of reasons. (1) I thought it'd be interesting to snag a team who had to play during one of the two days of play-in games, meaning I could lose a Sweet 16 team prior to the real day one of the tourney. (2) Listen this team has some quality games on their resume: wins versus Texas, Tennessee, UCLA, and Arizona as well as a couple close losses to Kansas and Washington.

Notre Dame ~ The Irish beat Gonzaga, Wisconsin, Connecticut, and St. John's in the first half. In the second half, Connecticut and Pittsburgh. The Irish can win games, they don't have a deep bench, but they'll beat a very on-off Florida State team to punch their ticket.


Pittsburgh ~ Of Pittsburghs five losses only one of them was by more than five points, impressive for a team that plays in the toughest conference in college basketball. Jamie Dixon is definately one of the top coaches in this tournament and I'll take good coaching in college hoops over nearly anything. Dixon and the Panthers get it done.

Wisconsin ~ The Badgers are always well coached and they've got some players. I know everyone wants to claim that Belmont is an upset special, and to them I say, slow you're roll. They're the class of the Big 10 along with teams like Ohio State and Purdue, both whom they beat. As I wrote yesterday, watch for Taylor and Leuer to come up big for Wisconsin.

Gonzaga ~ I like the Zags because it seems as though we've forgot how good of a coach Mark Few really is and how good of a postseason team Gonzaga has historically been. Very close losses to Notre Dame and San Diego State, both (2) seeds highlight their resume. Big wins against Marquette and Xavier make people think the Zags have a shot here to have their moment. It happens against an overrated St. John's team.

Florida ~ I'm still not sure how Florida is seeded as high as they are. That being said, they've got some easy ones early that will put them directly into the round of 16. Getting past UC Santa Barbara then UCLA or Michigan State
shouldn't be a problem for a Florida team that has played very well as of late.

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Tuesday, March 15, 2011

March Magic

A couple thoughts to wet your appetite prior to tourney time. The nation's leading scorer. One dominating conference. Some players to watch for. The Buckeyes eye a national championship run through one of the toughest regions. Time to get after it!

BYU senior guard Jimmer Fredette will have all eyes on him come the Cougars opening round St. Patrick's Day game against Wofford. Averaging nearly 30 points-per-game during his 4th year in Provo, Fredette has had his share of eye popping moments this season. BYU's 12-point win against UNLV in early January, Fredette dropped 39 including 7 of 10 from 3-point land. On the road at Utah, Fredette rolls up the Utes for the first of two times, pouring in 47. In the Cougars two regular season wins against the eventual Mountain West tournament champion San Diego State Aztecs, Fredette went for 68. Wait, did I forget his 52-point performance during BYU's Moutain West tournament beat down of New Mexico? Now with possible matchups against St. John's, UCLA, Gonzaga, and Florida looming, can Fredette lead an undersized BYU deep into the tourney?

Did you really need eleven from the Big East? The 5-10 since January 17th Villanova Wildcats. The 8-8 since mid-January Marquette Golden Eagles, while boasting early season non-conference losses to Duke, Gonzaga, Vanderbilt, and Wisconsin. Georgetown's 10-conference wins, I guess that's about as impressive as their 1-5 record since Valentine's day. All due respect to The Big East Conference, but come on. I'll hold Boston College to the fire for winning just seven of their final fifteen, and Colorado for doing close to the same, but not 'Nova and Marquette? With only five of the conferences sixteen teams at home watching, doesn't it seem like a bit much. Yes the conference is tops in college basketball, but eight or nine would have been just fine. For fans of Big East Hoops, the only thing missing is Madison Square Garden.

If Ohio State is the #1 overall, you could have fooled me. The Buckeyes slated in the East Region don't have it like a typical #1 should. Between Jared Sullinger and Jon Diebler, the Buckeyes have won both the Big 10 regular season championship and the Big 10 tournament championship. A 32-2 record this season is just as impressive as it sounds. 24-Straight wins to open the season, including victories against both ACC and SEC tournament bound teams. However, with landmines loaded throughout the East Region, it doesn't seem like Buckeyes have been rewarded. Winning 18 of their final 19, George Mason is looming as an eight seed. Kentucky and their pressuring defense sitting on a four seed. Xavier's Tu Holloway leading the Musketeers to just three losses since the new year as a six seed. Then we get to the big boys, (2) North Carolina & (3) Syracuse, both teams that can knock off anyone in the country on any given night. Seems to me that a #1 seed shouldn't be treated like this. Especially when the defending champion Blue Devils are looking at a cake walk through the West Region, a gassed UConn team, an overachieving San Diego State team, and the 4-4 in their last 8 Texas Longhorns. Yet again I ask, who's the #1 overall?

Connecticut's Kemba Walker, Wisconsin duo Jordan Taylor & Jon Leuer, and San Diego State's Kawhi Leonard all will play major roles in March. You just saw what Kemba Walker was capable of, if he hasn't played his way into a top five lottery selection, I don't know who has. Walker went off during the Big East tourney, scoring 26 points per game during the Huskies tournament championship run. If Walker is gassed so may be Connecticut, yet if he can put together a couple more games like he just has, walker can carry UConn in March. Wisconsin's Taylor & Leuer, Big 10 1st team All Americans, average close to 40-ppg and close to 12 rebounds per, this type of production in March can give the Badgers the room to make a deep run here. In Wisconsin's victory over Ohio State earlier this season, the two went for 39-points leading the Badgers to a shocking win at home. A couple games like this in the tourney, and Wisconsin will make some noise. When it comes to Kawhi Leonard in San Diego State, he's a legitimate NBA talent. Leonard being coached by former Michigan head man Steve Fisher has been phenomenal this season averaging 15 points and 10 rebounds per game. In three games against BYU, Leonard scored close to 60 points and pulled down 12 rebounds per game. If these players get going, watch for San Diego State, Wisconsin, and UConn to really rip it up.

Get your brackets filled out, we're hours away . . .

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

How Heat It Is

We like this right? Losers of five straight, six of their last seven. Spoelstra on the brink. LeBron trying to have his awkward TebowESQUE moment after a early-March loss? Bosh publicly questioning his role in the Heat offense. Being called out by Stan Van and the Zen Master in the same week. Catching more vitriol usually set aside for franchises the caliber of the Yankees and Cowboys. The Miami Heat have become a punchline. Yep, the self-proclaimed Team John Dillinger has entered a free-for-all and if not for Chuck Sheen, they'd have our 100% undivided attention. Oh, and we're loving it!

Upon further examination of the column I wrote praising these same Heat back in early February, I'll admit that I may have missed a few very important details. They're as follows:

Jackson, Popovich, Brown, Riley, and Rivers. Only 5 head coaches have raised an NBA title since the start of the '95-'96 season. Eric Spoelstra isn't getting on that list this easy. For starters, you don't let it slip that grown men are shedding tears over a regular season loss. It's bad enough that at the very least two players in that locker room believe they know more about winning and how to get it done at this level than the head coach, now the rest don't trust you. Whether it be Miami's confusion at the end of close games, the inability to build on-the-court chemistry between your three best players, or just your missteps in front of the microphone, Pat Riley has more than enough just cause to make the move when he sees fit, and that isn't a thought, that will happen. Maybe not before the end of this current season, yet if Spoelstra makes it past an early playoff round exit, I'd be shocked.

They aren't scaring or sneaking up on anyone. The Celtics have dropped them three times this season and the Bulls have done the same. For you scoring at home, that's 0-6 against the top two teams in the Eastern Conference. Over the last couple days, the Heat have blown a huge lead against Orlando, been blown out in San Antonio, and got their bells rung by Portland, all playoff teams. With L.A., Memphis, and Oklahoma City coming in next, it's put up time for LeBron and Company. When does a team lose confidence against the better opponents? Noah's Bulls and Garnett's Celtics play with a level of confidence and intensity that Miami just hasn't been able to match. How many times can you lose games to the same team before you believe you can't win? The Miami Heat will have a very short playoff experience if they can't figure out how to finish off and beat those teams who have smothered them all season long.

Maybe only Dwyane Wade knowing what it takes to win a championship isn't enough? Wade hasn't taken the leadership role through any of this. He could have taken the stance that his team isn't doing the things they need to win, he could have publicly called out Bosh or at least spoken to Bosh about talking to the media about his role in the offense, and why hasn't he demanded the ball at the end of games? Kobe does, Pierce does, Ginobli has the ball in his hands, but Wade? How many times have you seen LeBron take the back seat to the guy who actually has the hardware to back up what he should be preaching? LeBron quit on the Cavaliers last year, go watch those Eastern Conference games against Boston, he flat out quit. Bosh? I'm not sure he even knows what playoff basketball is like, he spent his whole career in the basketball annex that is Toronto for crying out loud. As much as we don't like the fact that Riley is hovering around this team, that's a guy who knows what it means to put championships in the rafters, maybe that's what they need?

In any event, the Heat aren't the team they dreamed up last summer. If they have spawned super teams in New York and possibly New Jersey and Orlando, they are going to have to put it together with more than just three blank checks and a bunch of fill-ins.

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