Some thoughts on the Elite 8 matchups and the upcoming Final Four. Oh and hire Steve Lavin! Would love to see him back in the college game at St. Johns (even if I'm not sure how great of a hire that would be).
7) For my money, the breakout star of this tournament is not John Wall or DeSean Butler or even Brad Stephens. In fact, it’s not even a guy playing or coaching in this NCAA Tournament.
It’s Chad Millman from ESPN.com. Hands down the biggest “winner” of this tournament from a career standpoint if you ask me. Ever since that Bill Simmons podcast, it seems like he has become the go-to guy for March Madness prognostication. Great addition by ESPN. It’s about time that ESPN finally brought in a Jimmy The Greek style gambling guru who knows just a little bit too much about sports betting and Vegas and the seedy side of sports in general. I think it’s a fascinating angle.
And I love that he has this band of gambling cronies working with him and that they all have nicknames like “Boston” and Teddy Covers. Teddy Covers! How great is that?? Just throw a “Covers” in as a substitute for his last name, and suddenly he has instant credibility.
How does the Millman Gang’s presence on ESPN.com change the overall tone of the ESPN operation?? I mean, this is an operation that openly refers to guys like Dickie V and Digger and Lee Corso and Mike Golic as “experts” in terms of prognostication and analysis. Half the guys in the ESPN stable have been mailing it in for a decade or longer. Dickie V has never even heard of Northern Iowa or Baylor let alone actually placed a bet on them. Meanwhile, the “wise guys” are dropping big dollars on all these teams throughout the year. Who are you going to trust for a pick....Teddy Covers or freaking Pat Forde??
ESPN has slowly embraced more of an intelligent sports fan niche in the last few years with additions like Keith Law and his SABR-oriented analysis and Hollinger and now a guy like Millman. My guess is that ESPN has seen how popular Bill Simmons has been with fans because he actually does his homework and has an intelligent perspective on sports, and now they want to capture more of those eyeballs. For a long time, the only columns I would read on ESPN were Simmons and Gammons and maybe some college football. If I wanted to read something more in-depth on baseball or football or some other sport, I was going elsewhere. Now, you can go to ESPN and read all sorts of interesting stuff. Fans are much smarter and more engaged than ESPN wanted to acknowledge, and it seems like they finally realized that generic commentary and "personalities" is not what the public wants.
I would love to see a daily “Behind the Bets” show on ESPN or ESPN2 where Millman and Covers and a few other guys from the gambling business sit around and discuss that day’s games. How great would that be on a college football Saturday morning?? Maybe like a 9am show right before College Gameday?? And then do the same thing before the NFL games on Sunday. I’m fired up just thinking about it.
By the way, Millman's crony, Boston, went 4 for 4 in Elite 8 picks. Even hit that Duke -5 line when probably 75% of America was loving that Baylor +5 line. How many of you out there had Baylor, Sparty, WVU, and Duke winning this weekend and hitting all the lines?? I'm guessing very few, if any. Color me impressed.
I like Sparty and West Virginia this weekend, so feel free to take Butler and Duke.
6) If Duke hadn't won that Baylor game, I think CBS executives would have been climbing out to the nearest ledge this morning. Baylor, Michigan State, West Virginia, Butler would have been atrocious for ratings. Heck, even with Duke, this is not exactly going to be a ratings bonanza. There's just not a lot of star power. West Virginia and Michigan State are blue collar teams with regional fanbases, Butler is a mid-major, and Duke just doesn't have the same brand name cache that they had 10-15 years ago. When you watch Duke, you know it's just not the same as it was when they were really a powerhouse. It's a whiter and slower version of Duke. Still well-coached, still super-skilled, gutty, and a great shooting team, but they don't pass the eyeball test. I mean, come on. They have 6 white guys in their 7 man core. How many times did a Duke guy take the ball to the bucket and just get stuffed?? Meanwhile, Baylor was on the other end throwing down monster dunks and seemed to have their way in terms of getting shots.
Credit to Duke for winning the game of course, but Duke winning a national title this year would be an indictment of college basketball in general. Comparing this Duke team to the great Laettner-Hill-Hurley teams (which were loaded and deep with guys like Antonio Lang and Thomas Hill and Brian Davis) and the Langdon-Avery-Brand-Maggette teams and the Battier-Jay Williams-Boozer teams is just not fair. Those teams had legit NBA players. I'm not even sure anyone on this team would even start for those teams.
The ratings are going to be brutal. Outside of the diehards, people are not going to set aside 4-5 hours of their time on a third straight weekend to watch Butler-Michigan State, especially now that the weather in the north is finally thawing out. Plus, you have baseball and The Masters coming right around the corner. For all the talk about "greatest tournament ever," this thing is going to limp to the finish line just like the 2006 tournament that had similar accolades in the early going.
Not good timing for the NCAA either with the March Madness contract coming up this year. Is there any doubt that the NCAA is going to 96 teams now?? They are going to need something to sell to the networks.
I fully expect ESPN to win the rights to the first 96 team tournament with Dickie V calling the title game. Ugh. Then again, at least ESPN will be able to show all the games on their various networks.
5) I will say one thing about Duke, and I can't believe I'm saying this. I actually agree with Dickie V about one thing. The constant Duke-bashing is over the top and feels stale to me.
It's one thing to not be a Duke fan (I'm not a Duke fan), but the outright hatred for them?? I'm not sure I understand it. It's not like they've been dominating college basketball for a decade and everyone is just sick of them. If anything, I actually find this team to be pretty likable in an overachieving sort of way. They win games, they graduate players, their players are solid citizens, they don't have a roster filled with neck tattoos and "one and dones", and for the most part, they aren't knee deep in the college hoops cesspool like some of these other programs. Sure, they get some favorable calls, but that's the nature of the beast. All of the high profile teams get favorable calls. When you are the biggest name in the sport and CBS/NCAA needs you for television ratings, you're going to maybe get the benefit of the doubt at times. How is that different from the Lakers or the Cavs or North Carolina or any other big time program?
I actually find their style of play to be refreshing compared to what you see around the country. It's been so long since Duke was nationally relevant this far into the tournament that I sort of forgot what watching them was like. Always making the extra pass, getting their hands on a lot of balls defensively, blocking out to get rebounds, good free throw shooting. Baylor threw the kitchen sink at them athletically, but Duke just hung in there and made shots and got stops on defense. If you took off the Duke jerseys, I think people would find them to be a pretty likable group.
Coach K has done a pretty impressive job in getting Duke to the Final Four this year. I don't care what the recruiting rankings say. Duke is far from the most talented team in the nation. To go to the Final Four with no real low post scorer, minimal depth, and a severe lack of athleticism is an impressive feat.
I think it's good for college basketball when Duke is good. I don't think this is a classically great Duke team by any means, but I'm looking forward to seeing them in the Final Four. Any time the most high profile program in the nation is around, it makes for more compelling television.
4) I feel like we say this every year, but how amazing is Tom Izzo?? I don't know why I would ever doubt him. If you see him in the tournament, just pencil them into the Final Four until proven otherwise. Somehow he gets his teams playing their best ball in March, even if they've looked middling going into the tournament. Durrell Summers went from a guy who was benched in the Big Ten Tournament to maybe the MVP of the NCAA Tournament so far.
What is the magic for Michigan State?? Quality recruiting and tough, physical play. It's a good mix of skilled guys and enforcers, so they can pretty much play any style. If you want to push it, they always have the guards to do it. If you want to bang in the halfcourt game, they have the bangers to do that. Izzo seems to have a great feel for how the game is going and makes adjustments to pull it out in the 2nd half. When you get into that last ten minutes, they always seem to make their move to get a win.
Rebounding has become a critical component of college basketball partially because teams miss so many shots nowadays. Seems like you need to have 3-4 bangers down low who can come in and get rebounds and either keep possessions alive or turn opposing possessions into "one shot and out" trips. Obviously, Sparty is the king when it comes to grabbing boards, but maybe the biggest beneficiary of that philosophy this year has been Duke. They are actually a really good rebounding team now and probably won the game against Baylor because of those 22 offensive rebounds. If Lance Thomas didn't keep alive all those possessions, they probably would have lost. I really hope Mike Brey is pounding on that all summer with ND's team. Dominating the glass should be a priority with all of our bangers.
Michigan State's recruiting is an underrated ingredient to their success though. It's not like Izzo is winning with a bunch of scrubs. Morgan is a 4 star, Lucious, Allen and Summers are 4 stars, Lucas was a 4 star, and Delvin Roe was a 5 star. I mean, that's a lot of talent. Pretty much every year, Sparty is bringing in a top 20 class. And they have another top 10 class coming in next year. You gotta have the horses, and Michigan State has them.
The key for Izzo in recruiting is that he always seems to land these top 50ish players who don't have the NBA "one and done" mindset. He doesn't seem to go for the elite top 10 type guys who are thinking about the NBA the second they get on campus. A guy like Derrick Favors is great to have on the roster, but what happens when he leaves after one year?? What have you really gained from him?? All you accomplished is a gaping hole in your roster that could have been filled for 3-4 years with someone a little less talented. Would you rather have Raymar Morgan for 4 years or Favors for one?? Or Chris Allen for 4 years vs. Eric Bledsoe or Jrue Holliday for one year?? I think the answer is pretty obvious. If you want to win, you need some of those veterans.
Either way, amazing work by Tom Izzo to go to the Final Four yet again without his best player. Two wins from backing into a 2nd national title. Hands down the best coach in college basketball today.
3) Speaking of teams that could benefit from some veterans.....the Kentucky Wildcats. Just goes to show that it is really really hard to win with a bunch of freshmen going up against juniors and seniors even if your freshmen are supertalented. When WVU really stepped up the intensity in the 2nd half, Kentucky came unglued. They hadn't really faced that type of adversity, and didn't really know who to turn to for big buckets.
Kentucky is going to have to find some of those "Izzo recruits" to go with the stars that they bring in. The so-called "program guys" who have been through the grind and can give you a steady hand in crunch time. I would guess that's exactly what Calipari is going to set out to find. The Chris Douglas Roberts types.
Even with a guy like Bledsoe, as valuable as he was this year, wouldn't Calipari rather have a solid 4 star type who can become the veteran leader of this program in a couple years?? If Bledsoe, Cousins, Wall, and Orton leave, they're basically starting all over next year with another crop of freshmen. That's unsustainable. At some point, you're going to swing and miss on some guys who aren't ready to contribute heavily in year one.
For what it's worth, I am astounded that a team would actually draft Eric Bledsoe in NBA lottery this year. Even if you like his potential, you have absolutely no idea what you're getting with him as a potential finished product based on his one year at Kentucky. To me, he's just a really fast guard who can occasionally shoot well. Sure, he might blossom into a star, but he could just as easily be a huge bust. I don't see how an NBA team has any type of read on him at this point in his career to justify using a lottery pick on him. Is the draft that weak this year??
Then again, that's the nature of the beast. The draft has become more and more of a crapshoot. If Bledsoe is actually considered a lottery pick (or even a mid to late first rounder) and wants to go right now, then by all means go to the league, get your check, and work on your game.
2) I always love it when there's a legit 1 vs. 2 debate for the NBA Draft. Last year was so clearly the Blake Griffin Sweepstakes throughout the tournament, but this year really does have a "Wall vs. Turner" feel to it. How can you not like both guys a ton, especially after the way they performed in March?? Do you take the guy who hit a 37 foot buzzer beater and came up big game after game or do you take the guy who dropped a 19-9-5 breathtaking performance against West Virginia??
As much as I love Evan Turner, I don't know how you can pass up John Wall. Amazing how explosive and fluid he is with the dribble and how he can get to the rim in a blur. His outside shot stinks right now, but he's only 19 years old. Once he has a chance to get in the gym every day and develop a shot, that will eventually come. He's got a nice stroke. Just needs some repetition. All these NBA guys eventually develop their shots. Look at Rajon Rondo. He never shot from the outside, and now he's completely fine out there.
If Wall actually played at Kentucky for three years, he would be unbelievable. I can't even fathom how dominant he would be. To do what he did as a true freshman is pretty amazing. He was the best player on the floor in that West Virginia game. Just couldn't get any help from his teammates.
I remember watching Evan Turner as a freshman, and he was so raw it's not even funny. You could see that he had ability, but every other time he touched the ball was a turnover. That "Evan Turnover" nickname still hasn't left him in Columbus. Now, he's three years into his career and a completely different player. Wall would be like that if he stayed for a few years.
Turner is about as safe a #2 pick as there is though. He's so smooth, has all the tools to be a scoring machine, always gets his teammates involved, and has the big game moxie that you want to see in a player. Plus, he's a really good guy. I would be stunned if he isn't averaging 20ppg as a two guard in 3-4 years. Can he be a franchise guy on a championship team?? Probably not. But he can be a Brandon Roy type as the leading scorer on a playoff team.
In fact, if I was the Bulls, I would offer my next three #1 picks to move up and take Turner to pair him up with Derrick Rose. That would be a phenomenal combination.
1) Finally, an ode to Bobby Huggins. Congratulations to Huggs on his second Final Four appearances. I don't think I could be happier for him, and I'm glad to see him getting the national recognition that he deserves even if it is not taking place at UC. In terms of pure coaching ability, you will not find many better coaches in America than Bob Huggins. I've always believed that, and I'm glad that he finally has a program and a team that has allowed him to thrive on the national stage. Huggins has always been a misunderstood figure (part of it is his own doing with his personal behavior and bad attire and low key personality), but I think the world realized how good of a coach he can be with that game plan against Kentucky. Just completely flustered UK's young freshmen and outwitted Calipari the entire game.
In hindsight, UC fans never knew how good they had it with Bob Huggins. People complained about Huggins in the latter stages of his UC career because of a slew of 2nd round NCAA Tournament exits, but he was the reason they even made the tournament in the first place. They were lousy before he was there, and they've been lousy since he's been gone. And they'll probably never have the level of success that they had in the 90s again.
In the end, it all worked out for Huggins. He now has access to better talent on the east coast, he doesn't need to rely on JUCOs to win, and it's a higher profile job in the best basketball conference in America. He is the perfect fit for West Virginia. And when you look at his roster, you don't get the willies like you did watching his Cincy teams. Sure, most of them have tattoos, but for the most part, they look like college kids instead of prison inmates. They play good, solid, team-oriented basketball, and Huggins has gotten everything out of that roster that he can.
Anyway, I'm pulling for West Virginia to cut down the nets in Indy. They've come through on big stages all year and have represented the Big East well, and I'm pulling for Huggins to get his first ring. If he does it, his Hall of Fame resume will look awfully strong.
Take me home, country roads!