I'm embarrassed to admit how much basketball I watched over the weekend, so I got a lot on my mind. Here goes.
9) Are we headed for four Big East teams in the final four?? I'm not going to say it's likely, but it's definitely a strong possibility.
East - Nova and Pitt
Midwest - Louisville
South - Syracuse
West - UConn
Not a bad first weekend for the Big East. The Big East may very well end up with 0 teams in the Final Four, but I think the odds are looking good for multiple Big East bids. And if the Big East has all four teams in the Final Four, they should just move the Final Four to Madison Square Garden. Either way, it's great for the league, and it's going to reap benefits in future years for getting more NCAA bids.
The arms race in the Big East is really starting to ramp up. The coaches in the league are superb, and the recruiting in the league has really exploded to the point where the Big East has far and away the best collection of talent in the country. Between Pitt, Nova, Louisville, Syracuse, UConn, and Georgetown, you now have 6 programs in the Big East that are going into every season with legitimate Final Four aspirations. And that's before you get to West Virginia and Marquette and ND and Cincy. Scary.
8) Is parity a thing of the past in college basketball?? Remember about 5-7 years ago when it seemed like every tournament produced all kinds of insane upsets and crazy brackets with #8 seeds going to the Final Four and all kinds of double digit seeds in the Sweet 16?? Look at what has happened in the last two NCAA tournaments. Last year, we had all four #1 seeds in the Final Four. This year, we have all the #1 seeds, all the #2 seeds, and all the #3 seeds intact headed into the Sweet 16. When was the last time that happened?? There were virtually zero upsets this weekend. Lots of close games and close calls, but the major powers got it done and advanced.
So what's the deal?? Why has the balance of power shifted back to the heavyweights?? I think it comes down to head coaches. There are a ton of GREAT coaches at the big time schools:
UNC - Roy Williams
Duke - Coach K
UConn - Calhoun
Memphis - Calipari
LVille - Pitino
Michigan State - Izzo
Kansas - Bill Self
Syracuse - Boeheim
Pitt - Dixon
Nova - Jay Wright
If you are some feisty 6 seed or 10 seed, who are you beating in that group?? When all the top teams have great coaches, there just aren't going to be that many upsets. Guys like Izzo and Roy and Calhoun and Pitino and Self aren't losing in the early going of the NCAA tournament all that often these days. I don't think the mid-majors are worse. A lot of midmajors played their butts off over the weekend but couldn't get a win. I just think the power teams are really really strong these days.
The only highly seeded team that really bowed out early was Wake Forest. No offense to Dino Gaudio, but he's not one of the elite coaches in the game. If anything, the Prosser-Gaudio model has proven to be a failure in the NCAA tournament, so it probably wasn't a huge surprise that Wake was vulnerable to an upset.
The plus side to the dominance of the major powers is that we're going to get a ton of great games in the Sweet 16 and beyond. You have some great games coming up this week:
The days of Iowa State being a 2 seed and losing in the first round or a Huggins coached UC team being a 2 seed and losing early seem to be gone for now. The big boys are loaded, and I don't think it's going to be easy for the small schools to rise up and knock those teams off.
7) Some teams that most impressed me this weekend. These teams aren't all necessarily teams that I see going to the Final Four or anything. Just teams that I watched and enjoyed for one reason or another. I didn't get to watch everyone, so I know there are teams like Missouri and Gonzaga that probably would have impressed me if I had watched more of them.
UConn - Couldn't have been more impressed with UConn on Saturday against Texas A&M. That was a clinical dismantling. UConn went from the #1 seed that I thought would be the first to bow out to the team that I now think might be the favorite to cut down the nets. They went through their adjustment period without Dyson, and now they look like they're back. There's always one lead guard who takes his game to the next level in the NCAA Tournament every year (call it the Juan Dixon Memorial Award or something like that), and I think the guy this year might be AJ Price. He was unguardable this weekend, and he gives off the vibe like he is not going to be denied this year.
Another key guy who has emerged out of nowhere for UConn?? Stanley Robinson. My god, where did this guy come from?? Where has he been all year?? He might be one of the most athletic forwards I've seen all year. Between Price, Robinson, and Adrien, UConn now has 3 guys who can score. And that's before you talk about Thabeet.
I don't know why I even doubted UConn. They have Jim freaking Calhoun!! The guy is one of the best tournament coaches of the last 25 years, and they've been a pretty cohesive group all year. The only time Calhoun has ever underachieved at UConn was with that Rudy Gay team that lost to George Mason, and that team was just flaky all year. This team has been really good all year, and now they appear to be playing their best ball in March.
I don't know, maybe A&M was just the perfect matchup for them or something, but UConn looked about as impressive as they could possibly look on Saturday.
Villanova - Is there a more enjoyable team to watch in the country than Villanova?? I love how they play, and Jay Wright has the perfect formula for that program. It seems like he just loads up on these lightning quick bulldog combo guards from New York and Philly who can all go to rack like crazy, and then just unleashes them on teams that cannot keep up. Between Reynolds, Fisher, Stokes, Anderson, etc, they have so many different guards who can create off the dribble. And their defense is suffocating. I never have thought of UCLA as an unathletic team, and yet the Bruins looked like a MAC team compared to Villanova. Cunningham is a really really good college big man as well. I was never a huge fan of him, but he has been so solid this year. He can score inside and outside, and he's a good rebounder and defender.
There are only a handful of teams that can win this thing, and I think I'd put Villanova down as one of the teams that could cut down the nets (maybe even ahead of a team like Pitt). With their guards and defense and Cunningham inside, aren't they sort of like those Arizona teams in the late 90s with Bibby and Simon?? I think Nova is going to the Final Four out of the East Region.
As for Jay Wright, it's not even really debatable between him and Brey anymore. If you think Brey is on the same level as Wright at this point, you're just not paying attention. Wright is one of the elite recruiters and coaches in the game, and is headed to his fourth Sweet 16 in the last five years. Mike Brey is headed to the NIT for the 4th time in 6 years. I'm embarrassed to even admit that I once put those two on the same level.
Memphis - Honestly, I think Memphis and UConn in the regional final might decide the title. After that shaky opening round performance by Memphis, I was prepared to say that maybe their hype had exceeded them this year, but how could you not be impressed by what they did to Maryland?? Just ran them out of the building. Tyreke Evans is spectacular with the ball, and their overall athleticism is so intimidating. They don't really shoot that well, but it doesn't even seem to matter. No one can really deal with their athleticism. They own the glass, they get in your shorts, and they get to the rim. They just come out and play their game, and there's nothing you can do about it.
Calipari is one of the five best coaches in the country. Just win baby. That's what he does. He doesn't have any Rhodes scholars on that roster, but that's not what he's paid to do. Getting high and mighty about Memphis being a bunch of thugs who can't read is pretty silly when your team is in the NIT and they are going deep in the NCAA Tournament every year. I'd gladly trade places with them.
Purdue - Purdue is the only team I've listed that I don't think can get to a Final Four, but how can you not be impressed with what Purdue has done in March this year?? First, they plowed through the Big Ten Tournament, and now they are in the Sweet 16 after beating Washington in front of a hugely partisan UW crowd. I'll admit that I've been a Purdue skeptic all year, and couldn't have been more wrong about them. Great year for Purdue basketball, and their future is really really bright. Grant, Hummel, Moore, and JaJuan Johnson are all underclassmen. Purdue is going to be a top 10 team in 2009 (not that they aren't already a top 15 team) with definitely Final Four aspirations.
Most impressive thing about Purdue when you watch them? DEFENSE. Man, they get in your shorts as soon as you cross half court. I love watching teams play defense like that. Always on the attack to shut you down and take you out of your game. Teams like Purdue and Nova love to make life extremely difficult for opposing offenses. What I would give to see an ND team do something like that. Has ND ever had a disruptive defense at any point in the Mike Brey era?? Don't give me stats. I can see with my two eyeballs that we have never played defense like Purdue and Villanova do.
Syracuse - Devendorf and Flynn. Enough said. Syracuse can definitely get to the Final Four, and I think they can definitely win it all. I've felt that they had the potential to make a deep run since the first time I watched them against ND back in January, and now they've actually put it together to the point where they are playing great team basketball. They've stopped turning it over and stepped it up defensively and on the glass. Devendorf has become as clutch as anyone in college basketball, and Flynn is spectacular.
Syracuse is a funny program. They have their down stretches, but every few years Boeheim just gets a perfect mix of alpha dogs and role players that he can ride deep into the NCAA tournament. This year, he has Flynn and Devendorf as his warriors, and they also have a perfect blend of role guys like Rautins and Onganaet and Onuaku and Jackson that fill a role. The Orange aren't perennially in the top 10, but they get on these rolls every few years where things start clicking in March. The 1996 team that lost to Kentucky in the Finals was very similar. They plodded along for the most of the year as a #3/#4 seed, and then John Wallace turned into this superhuman player in March and all those role guys like Otis Hill and Lazarus Sims and Jason Cippola filled in around him.
Anyway, I'm going with the Cuse as my Final Four team out of the South bracket and probably beyond that.
6) Now for some teams that did not impress me through the first two rounds:
Louisville - Maybe Louisville will turn on the jets again in the next couple weeks, but I'm not counting on it. Championship teams don't flake out as often as Louisville does. At some point, they are going to run into a team that gets out to a huge lead while the Cards are sleepwalking and they won't be able to come back from it. Great teams don't fall behind to freaking Siena late in the second half. Louisville can't seem to play 40 minutes of basketball.
Maybe they can get to the Final Four (I'm not all that convinced that they'll even get that far), but I don't even consider Louisville as a viable national title contender at this point. I've seen what I need to see out of them. Pitino is great, but they are too inconsistent to win 6 games in a row in this tournament. Pitino has always been at his best when he has a perimeter guy (i.e. Tony Delk) who can carry the team when they need buckets. Terrance Williams is a great player, but he's not that guy. And guys like Clark and Samuels and McGee and Sosa can't do it consistently.
Pitt - Pitt is one of the teams I came into the tournament rooting for, so I was curious to see how they looked in the first couple rounds. A little shaky. I don't see how you can win a national title without elite guard play, and I don't think Pitt has the guards. It's one thing to be rugged (i.e. Michigan State). It's another thing to just play ugly, and that's who Pitt is. I love the coach, love the team, love how they play in the Big East, but their style of play is not made for a national title run in March. I'm crossing Pitt off my list of teams that can win the title.
North Carolina - I didn't get to watch more than a couple minutes of live look-ins for UNC, but I pretty much know what UNC is all about. And after watching some other teams play, I don't think Carolina will be there in the end. That offense is deadly when it's clicking, but this tournament is going to be won with defense. If I had to pick an exit point for UNC, it would be against Syracuse in the Elite Eight.
5) If it isn't readily apparent from the paragraphs above, this March Madness has served as yet another reminder of why it is becoming more and more obvious that Mike Brey is not the long term answer at ND. The Mike Brey model for success is finesse play and 3 point shooting and trying to outscore teams. It's the type of model that you would see at a place like North Dakota State. Everything about that formula screams out mid-major style of basketball. Brey views ND as this plucky underdog that can't lock people up defensively and has to outshoot people to get wins, and yet the only way to win in March is with defense and toughness and athleticism. Teams like Michigan State win every year because they fight for every loose ball, they own the glass, and they battle for every inch of the court. Villanova is another team that really attacks you and doesn't give up an inch on the defensive end.
More and more, college basketball is becoming a game of inches. In March, you have to scratch and claw for every inch on the court, and the teams that consistently can beat other teams to a spot on the floor win basketball games. If you can get past your man to the bucket or cut your man off or box your man out to get a rebound, you are going to be successful. It has almost become like football in some respects in that teams are fighting for field position. If you are getting good looks close to the basket on dribble drives and second chances on rebounds and the other team isn't getting those looks, you are going to probably win the basketball game. These good coaches really preach that in the NCAAs. Mike Brey doesn't preach that philosophy at all.
I have been a fervent Mike Brey supporter, but I can't stand the fact that we don't lock teams up defensively. Everyone is out there scraping and clawing for every inch of the court, and we're giving up open layups and easy putbacks left and right. There's nothing that we do well defensively. We don't protect the rim, but we also don't put any pressure out on the 3 point line. Our only response is to try to hoist up more 3s to make up for defensive liabilities.
And that's before you get to recruiting. How does a team like Villanova get 5 lightning quick guards from NYC and yet we can't get one?? How does a school like Purdue get a 6'10" beast like JaJuan Johnson and yet we can't seem to ever get guys like that?? How does a team like freaking Gonzaga look more athletic than ND?? I see a kid like Sherron Collins from Chicago going to Kansas. Why couldn't a kid like that ever go to ND?? At some point, Mike Brey needs to get more athletic players. There is no reason that schools like Michigan State and Purdue and Xavier always have better athletes than us even though we recruit in the same region as them. Bottom line, Brey has too many white players on the team. We should not have more than 2-3 white players on the roster at any one time, and next year we are going to have 7. SEVEN!! The current team has four. That can't happen if we want to hang around with the big boys.
Mike Brey will probably be at ND for a long time if he can get ND back to the tournament with some level of regularity, but I think it's safe to say that ND is not going to take the next step as a basketball program under Mike Brey unless he completely overhauls his program. If I had my druthers, I would be quietly looking around at other coaches. It's time to step up as a program. Get the new facility built and loosen up the academic restrictions. If we do all that and Brey is still bringing in 3 white man recruiting classes and bowing out early in the NCAAs (if we even make it), I'd pull the trigger and go get a big time young coach who knows defense. If we are committed to the program financially, I think we can lure in a really good young coach.
4) I miss Billy Packer. There I said it. I know he was probably the most disliked college basketball analyst in the country, but wasn't there something to be said for Billy Packer adding a "big game feel" to any game that he called?? Say what you want about Packer, but at least he was INTO THE GAME right from the start. Once the ball went up into the air, the only thing he focused on was the game in front of him. No fuss. No schtick or Vitale nonsense. Just giving you his thoughts on what he was seeing.
Plus, even though Packer wasn't funny at all and probably never cracked a joke in 30 years, there was always the unintentional comedy of Packer pointing out 25 times that "Derrick Rose is tired" even though the game had just started. And I think I laughed out loud every time Packer pointed out a "good timeout by Jim Calhoun." Where else are you getting that type of analysis?? And I'm dead serious. I was never a Billy Packer hater, and I actually think the tournament misses him a little. Not a ton, but it's noticeable.
Clark Kellogg is an extremely likable guy who lives in the Columbus area and who I really like as a person, but he gives me nothing as an analyst. It's just white noise to me. Whether you agree with Packer or not, at least you were listening to what he had to say. I respect that. With Kellogg, I'm basically tuning him out. He's also an awful match for Nantz because he makes Nantz even more boring than he normally is (and I'm saying that as someone who thinks the world of Jim Nantz). The tv might as well be on mute with the Nantz-Kellogg pairing, and I think it will really stick out in the Final Four when everyone is falling asleep during the telecast.
The best color analyst in the game right now?? I'd vote Jay Bilas, and it's not even close. I love that Enberg-Bilas combo. Enberg is more than willing to do his thing calling the action, and then he just lets Bilas take over and do what Bilas does. Great pair. Bilas gives you insight that no one else is giving. Whenever I watch a game that Bilas does, he can immediately tell you exactly why Team A is outplaying Team B. Surprisingly, there are very few analysts who can do that. There are too many guys out there who are just giving you fluff and superficial stuff. Bilas gives you the real insight. As a basketball fan, I appreciate it.
The other combo that just gets better and better every year: Verne Lundquist and Bill Raftery. I would all but guarantee that those two closed down several bars in the Greater Dayton area this weekend. You cannot beat Verne Lundquist calling a great game, and he was at his very best for that Ohio State-Siena game. I think Verne Lundquist will go down as the greatest play by play announcer of all time when it's all said and done. He's my favorite college football play by play guy of all time, he's probably my favorite college hoops play by play guy alongside Gus Johnson of all time, and he's made two of the most famous calls in the history of The Masters (if not all of golf). Plus, he called the Laettner-Kentucky game. If I had to pick one guy to call a great game, Verne Lundquist would be my pick. The Golden Throat. One of the best nicknames ever.
The Gus Johnson-Len Elmore pairing is underrated as well as is the Kevin Harlan-Dan Bonner duo.
By the way, is CBS going to make the huge mistake of bringing back James Brown for the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight like they did last year?? Nothing against James Brown (who is one of the best studio hosts of all time), but he was woefully unprepared for the NCAAs last year. I hope he doesn't do the basketball again this year. Just do what you do best and stick to the NFL studio.
3) Some player thoughts while I'm here:
Blake Griffin - I'll admit that I have not really sat down and watched Blake Griffin at all until the tournament, so I was sort of intrigued to see him in action against Michigan the other day. I didn't know anything about his game, so it was a complete blank slate for me.
I was impressed with Griffin, but I definitely don't think he's a franchise type player in the NBA. Who does he remind me of?? The guy that keeps coming up for me is Antawn Jamison for some reason. They have similar games. Very quick feet with incredible hands and coordination for their size. Not your classic low post player, but they do a lot of their work in the paint. When I'd see Griffin flash open in the low post, it reminded me of what Jamison used to do at UNC. They are the types of guys who don't blow you away with anything, but then you look at the scoreboard and they each have 25 points on about 8 layups and 9 free throws. Griffin is definitely a better ballhandler at this stage of his career, and I think he'll be the type of guy who can knock down the 15 footer with ease in the NBA. There are so few good big men in college these days that I enjoyed watching a good big man for a change. Most of the big men in college have bad hands and no body control, so Griffin is an anomaly. Carlos Boozer is probably another name that comes to mind, but I think of Boozer as more of a power player than Griffin seemed to be.
I like Griffin. His bust potential is almost zero from what I could tell. If you can catch the ball and run the floor and finish down low, you are going to be able to do things in the NBA. Most big men don't come into the NBA with those skills. As noted earlier, Griffin looks like the type of guy who will be draining 15-18 footers once he has the chance to expand his game from what he is being asked to do in college. I didn't know what to expect out of him, and it turns out that he's pretty much your prototype power forward. I don't want to overdo it with Griffin because he won't blow you away by any means. But at least he showed me why people really like him.
Anyway, Griffin passed the look test for me, but he has more of a Kenyon Martin/Antawn Jamison career ahead of him than a Tim Duncan/Dwight Howard type career if you ask me. Not a superstar but a really good player who probably will be making franchise money at some point even if he's not really a franchise player. That's not a bad thing either. He'll be one of those guys who goes 20-10 quite a bit, and he'll make a ton of money doing it. Good for him.
I'd like to see Oklahoma and UNC meet up in the regional final. Would love to see Griffin and Hansborough lock horns. I wasn't blown away by Oklahoma, but I definitely think they have the ability to get to the Final Four. The winner of that OU-Cuse game is my pick for the Final Four out of the South.
James Harden - This guy is a lottery pick?? Really?? Am I missing something?? Not only do I not think he's worthy of being a top 5 pick, I'm not even sure he would start for a good Big East team!!
I had been hearing about how spectacular this guy was all year, so I was curious to see him play at some point this season. I was picturing like a Dwayne Wade type player with explosive moves who could take over a game at any moment. I first watched Harden during the Pac 10 tournament, and my initial impression was that he was one of those Chris Douglas-Roberts guys who isn't an athletic beast but seems to find ways to score even though he's not a pure shooter. But after watching him play against Syracuse, I don't really see what this guy brings to the table. Did he just play horribly or is really not that good?? Are there any Sun Devil fans who read this blog?? I saw a guy who looked disinterested, can't shoot, turned the ball over, and seemed perfectly content to defer to the other guys on his team. He gave off a vibe like he didn't care. If a guy can't get fired up for the NCAA tournament, what is he going to be like for 82 games in an NBA season?? He's not even Chris Douglas-Roberts. He's like the homeless man's CDR. That sentence alone should scare the heck out of an NBA team.
And yet NBA teams are drooling over this guy?? Can someone explain why?? From what I could tell, he didn't even look like he would have started at Syracuse or several other Big East teams.
By the way, for you CDR fans out there, he has scored 20 and 18 in his last two games for the Nets. Always thought he would be a good NBA player if he got the chance. James Harden is no CDR.
Jonny Flynn - At this point, if you don't like Jonny Flynn, I don't know what to say to you. I don't know how anyone COULDN'T like Jonny Flynn. If there's one guy left in this tournament who I would pay to watch, it's Jonny Flynn. What a gamer.
I don't know where he is projected to go in the draft, but don't you think some NBA team would talk themselves into taking him in the late lottery if he came out after this year?? If he takes the Cuse to the Final Four (or further), I can't imagine that his stock would ever be higher. I'd love to see him back at Syracuse, but I think I'd take a hard look at coming out if I was Jonny Flynn. How many times have we seen point guards stay a year or two too long in college basketball and knock themselves down about ten spots in the draft by doing so?? Ty Lawson went from a late lottery guy after his freshman year to a guy who is probably going to be lucky to get drafted in the first round. Chris Thomas would be another example. If Flynn comes back next year and plays about the same as he did this year, then he's viewed as having less upside. As dumb as that logic is, it's how NBA GMs seem to operate.
I don't know what the Knicks' point guard situation is, but don't you think the New York fans would be going bonkers if the Knicks drafted Jonny Flynn with the 10th pick or whatever?? I think they would be thrilled. This 2009 draft class looks really weak (especially when the likes of James Harden are being talked about as top 5 picks), so now might be the time to strike for Sir Jonny.
Demarr Derozan - Another guy who has been EXTREMELY impressive throughout March. Other than maybe Griffin, I thought Derozan had the most professional ability of anyone I saw in the tournament. He already has an NBA body, and his athleticism and body control were really impressive. If he actually stayed for 3 years, he'd be Vince Carter or somebody like that. I don't see how anyone would be able to guard him. I watched this guy in about 4 games between the Pac 10 tournament and the NCAAs, and he was the best player on the court in every game. For a true freshman, that's mighty impressive.
I know there are a ton of 6'6" wings in the NBA with great bodies and great athleticism, but Derozan seems like a really safe bet to be a really good NBA player. Honestly, looking at how weak this draft class is, I'm not sure Derozan isn't the 2nd best prospect in this draft.
Anyway, just wanted to get those thoughts out there about a few guys. I have some thoughts on some other guys, but I'll save those for another week. I'm headed to Indy next weekend for the Midwest Regional on Friday and Sunday, so I'm hoping to throw in some thoughts next week on Sherron Collins and Aldrich and Budinger and Jordan Hill and maybe some of the Louisville guys.
2) Bold prediction: I'm predicting that Ben Howland's seat gets a little warm at some point in the next five years. Howland is a fabulous coach, but he had his big chance to win a title in the last couple years and didn't do it. Now it looks like UCLA is rebuilding a little bit, and they got completely blown off the floor by Villanova with somewhat of a veteran team. I always assumed it was a matter of when and not if Ben Howland won a national title at UCLA, but now I think it's going to be awhile. If he doesn't win a national title in the next few years at UCLA, are the fans in Westwood going to get a little restless?? At these big time schools, they want to know that you are capable of cutting the nets down at some point. Heck, it seemed like Kansas fans were getting a little anxious about Bill Self until he pulled through last year. It will be interesting to see how quickly Howland gets the Bruins back in position to try to win a national title. Three straight Final Fours buys you a lot of time, but he's got to keep the momentum going toward an eventual national championship.
1) Power poll (admittedly did not see some of these teams play). This list is obviously subject to change, but this would be my personal ranking on what team has the best shot to cut down the nets based on what I saw over the weekend.
6) Michigan State
5) North Carolina
Now UConn will probably lose to Purdue, but that's my opinion for now.