that's unfortunate, but at least the interest is there on both sides
So, we've had some great posts recapping a wonderful basketball season. I've heard a lot of talk about next year, unsurprisingly, and there's only been little spatterings of our incoming talent on the interwebs that I've seen. So, here's my attempt to give a deeper look into what this roster will look like next year. Feel free to criticize away!
Darius Morris - PG 6'3" 175 ****
Matt Vogrich - SG 6'4" 180 ***
Jordan Morgan - PF 6'8" 245 ***
Blake McLimas - C 6'9" 210
Eso Akunne (pref. walk on)
This year's walk-ons were Corey Person and Eric Puls. With four scholarship players coming in and preferred walk-on Eso Akunne entering the fold, I find it unlikely (without knowing exact roster limitations) that either will be back.
First, the addition of Darius Morris will be a huge step for this program - he's a legit college PG with size. Something we haven't had since, well since before I got to Michigan, that's for sure. Morris has an above average handle and a good head on him. He's a guy that you look at and say "he's the future." It'll be fun to see what he can do with JB teaching him.
Matt Vogrich put up sensational numbers throughout his senior year. He's a pure shooter and a great fit for the Beilein system. It was nothing out of the ordinary to see headlines of "Vogrich puts up 35" all winter. The kid is a scorer.
Morgan is an interesting case. Nothing has been overly impressive about his senior season. He has very good size for a PF and could potentially be something we're missing - a big body that can rebound - yet there's been a lot of talk about a red-shirt.
McLimas is certainly a project. He transferred to a top academy where he put up decent to meh numbers. I fully expect a redshirt.
Everyone likes to throw around projected starting lineups, myself included. But at this point - none of these guys have set foot on campus since their recruitment - that's kinda pointless. But looking at how the roster fills out is still interesting and provides some big questions:
Point Guard-y type players: Grady, LLP, Morris, Douglass
Guards: Harris, Douglass, Novak, Vogrich, LLP
Wings: Harris, Novak, Wright, Sims
Bigs: Sims, Gibson, Cronin, Morgan, McLimas
So, I went with PG-y type players because I feel the PG position is a real crap shoot as of now. I think one thing that can be universally agreed upon is that our best bet is for Kelvin Grady to pick it up defensively, work out his mental lapses on the offensive end, have a great off-season, and emphatically win the job. In a perfect world, we'd have that. Darius Morris would be able to learn his way through his freshmen season, gaining some valuable season from the bench while still having an experienced PG in control of the team. Now, if Kelvin can't make that leap, then we have issues. Does LLP split time with Grady and Morris early on? Does Douglass, who has improved tremendously and shown he's an extremely good passer, get called on to handle the responsibilities?
I'm personally ok with Douglass at point in certain instances. He's a very heady player, he's brought the ball up the court at several points in the season, he's an excellent passer, and he defends well. Obviously, he would be playing out of position though, and would be giving up foot speed to almost any B10 PG. Early in the season if there is flux and uncertainty at point, however, I can see JB looking to Douglass to handle the PG role on the offensive end with perhaps LLP also on the floor to handle the defensive side of the ball.
The other option is to throw the job at Morris, the heir apparent, and live with freshman mistakes. I'm not a huge fan. Maybe by B10 season he'll be ready to take the reins, but this is a complex system. I'd be much more in favor of the above Stu/LLP situation
Looking to the other end, it will be very interesting to see how far Cronin can come along. IMO, ideally, Cronin will have an excellent off-season and be able to find a role as a 10-minute guy off the bench. I think asking for anything more is pushing it. From all accounts he still plays soft and small. He's been away from basketball for several months now. It would take a very good off-season to get to the point where JB can use him as the first big off the bench. That said, I wouldn't be surprised if we see more of the small lineups that we had this year (at least to start the season). That means Novak will be our everything guy, yet again. Perhaps Ant can help fill in that role as well, but judging by this year, who knows.
Whether or not Jordan Morgan can come in and contribute as a big off the bench is a big question. If he and Cronin are able to step in and provide quality minutes, we could get the Sims/Gibson starting lineup that many of us crave. That's an ideal situation, however. I would expect us to still play small with either Cronin or Morgan providing spot minutes and at times allowing Sims and Gibson to play together when necessary (for those UConn, OU, Illinois type games).
What happens with the bigs will heavily affect how much playing time Matt Vogrich gets, IMO. With LLP, Douglass, and Novak providing the 2/3 outside shooter roles, and Manny being Manny, Vogrich is going to have a tough time finding PT. If we go small then I think it's likely that we see Vogrich get some time. However, if our bigs play out in an ideal fashion, Vogrich may be the odd man out. it's truly amazing the depth we have at 2/3. There's so many possible lineup combinations that it hurts to even consider it. But in the end, Vogrich is competing with Douglass, Novak, LLP, Manny, and Ant for PT. Despite the fact that the guy is supposed to be lights out from the arc, I find it hard to see where he'll find the floor with all these other guys already with 1 or 2 years of experience in Beilein's system.
So, all in all, alot depends on the off-season development of Kelvin Grady and Ben Cronin. Those are the two guys that, if they work extra hard in the off-season and make a deep commitment to truly getting better, they can really change the face of this team. Otherwise, we could be looking to freshmen (Morris at point, Morgan as reserve big) to be taking over important roles. The talent for this team is at a level that can be compared to the senior season of Dion Harris, Courtney Sims, et al. It'll be interesting to see if they can take advantage of that talent better than Amaker's final team could.
When Manny Harris fouled out yesterday, my first thought was I hate these refs. My second thought was oh my god if we somehow pull this out John Beilein's benching of Manny Harris during the Iowa overtime will go down in Michigan basketball lore.
At the time of the benching, most fans were pissed because they thought his coaching arrogance had cost us a trip to the tourney. JB claimed he did it becuase it was "best for the team in the long run". Yesterday showed us what JB meant by the long run. The Iowa overtime gave the team experience playing important minutes without Manny. Remember, the first time Manny missed important minutes (after the ejection), the team totally imploded and quit. JB wanted to teach the team that they are capable of competing against good teams without Manny. Although they got smoked in the overtime against Iowa, they never quit during the overtime, just as they never quit yesterday (while also going against shit refs in both games). JB's most controversial coaching decision almost resulted in the team going to the sweet 16.
In fact, I think this, more than anything else, proves why John Beilein is such a great coach. John Beilein's most controversial decisions, such as benching Manny Harris during the Iowa overtime, recruiting two low rated Hoosiers over Detroit leftovers, and inserting CJ Lee into the starting lineup, end up being his most applauded decisions in the long run.
It is REALLY early to start looking ahead to next season for the basketball team, but after such a successful turnaround this year it is hard not to get excited for the future. I thought I'd take a first look at how the minutes are going to break down for next season.
First, let's make some assumptions:
-- Manny and Deshawn do not go to the NBA.
-- We'll ignore any possibility of injury for this excercise and assume that Cronin is healthy.
-- The incoming freshmen are all eligible and remain committed.
Now let's talk minutes:
-- Manny and Deshawn will play the same number of minutes as this past season.
-- Douglass has shown he can play D, hit some shots, and will probably get some minutes even at PG next year. Let's assume his minutes stay the same.
-- Gibson showed some spunk in the tournament, but given the influx of height next year I'll assume his minutes stay about the same. They might go up slightly, but that's about it.
-- Despite his great game against OK, Wright will struggle to get off the bench.
-- Merritt, Lee, and Douglass give up all their minutes.
(I can't figure out how to insert a graphic, so sorry in advance for the crappy formatting)
NAME:_______2009 MIN___2010 MIN?
I made the assumption that Novak would get fewer minutes since there is more height coming in and he'll spend less time at the four.
I made the assumption that LLP will improve, play a little point, and boost his minutes a little.
But what do you do at with Grady? I think he'll start the season as the primary PG until Morris is ready. But given how much he was glued to the bench lately I suspect he'll be used sparingly. I put him at 15.
If you add all of that up, you're looking at 44mpg that are currently unused for next year. Where do they go? Here's my theory:
Morris = 18 (Eventually he'll start and get minutes)
Cronin = 10 (Year of experience, size, D, rebounding)
Vogrich = 10 (Lot of SG candidates, so he'll only get a small dose)
That leaves about six minutes left. I expect that to go to either McLimans or Morgan. I can't see either playing more than some garbage time next year and it makes sense to redshirt one of them. I think they'll duel it out in camp to see who gets the redshirt.
What does everyone think?
I'd like to thank the Texas Longhorns and Western Kentucky Hilltoppers for saving my ass. Chalk ruled yesterday. Not good news for somebody who invested in seven underdogs. But, with the Horns and Hilltoppers nearly upseting higher seeds, the final two dogs cashed, winning me a little money back.
A lot of the dogs I liked weren't even competitive, making for about as uncomfortable day of wagering as you can find. Somehow, I managed a 4-4 record. I breathed a sigh of relief just to get that record.
I misread the action yesterday. I ignored what we had learned for most of the season, that being there's about a handful of power teams in the country, that have played at a level a couple rungs up the ladder than everyone else. This is only a wide open tournament if you limit your group to, say, six teams. Anyway, the teams that have been part of that group all season eviserated their foes yesterday with four double digit win and covers. Duke was to the only club of the crew not to cover their spread, but in Texas that had the m ost established and talented foe. Of the rest, Michigan and LSU were competitive and could have, but were done ultimately, but strong closing kicks. Texas A/M and Maryland were annihilated from the opening tap. Whatever Greivas Vasquez had in mind mouthy off to Memphis clearly backfired.
I have tons of Michigan thoughts, but need some more time to put something together thats not a choatic mess. There's all sorts of post mortem every in the M blogosphere, so give it a tour for your Sunday reading. I know folks have been following my picks, so I want to use this space to quickly throw them out there.
*** Syracuse -2 over Arizona State. A game that students of zone defense will love. Both teams specialize in it and will face huge challenges today. Can ASU slow the explosive Big East attack? Can Syracuse stymie James Hardin, who is expected to be a top-5 pick in the upcoming NBA Draft. Syracuse has scored at least 80 points 21 times this season, going 18-3 in those games. The Devils allow just 60 points per game. You'll be able to figure out who is winning the pace game by tracking thos numbers. The Orange are 9-6 in their lower scoring games, so they can win at that pace. I dont think the Devils can win at the Orange's pace though. ASU's zone will have its success, but the Orange are balanced and diverse on offense. They'll find enough answers. I'm not sure the Devils can beyond Hardin. Plus, this Orange team came togther in the Big East Tournament. It actually goes back to the Seton Hall game, a chippy game with a couple of fights. This club has been steeled togehter like no Orange team we've seen in recent seasons. Finally, this loaded roster is playing with a sense of team purpose. They win today and will be a dangerous out for Oklahoma next weekend.
*** Oklahoma State +8.5 over Pitt. What was that I said about misreading the board because I ignored how much better the cream was than everyone else? Sometimes you just dont learn. Look, I was surprised by just how poorly ETSU played and still had a chance to beat mighty Pitt. That Panthers have never been great tournament favorites and for whatever reason their style lends itself to trouble this time of year. No Sugarcoat. The Cowboys have been trending upwards for an entire month and have a ton of offense. I think they can showcase enough of it and push the tempo to take minimize the interior advantage of Pitt to stay in this one.
*** Dayton +8 over Kansas. The Hawks needed everything in their bag to stay a few steps ahead of North Dakota State the other day. The offensive going will much tougher to sled today against the D-minded Flyers. Dayton loves to bring the game down to an ugly level. They would fit right in with the Big 10. I was impressed by them on Friday. West Virginia was a KenPom darling, but Dayton was able to exert its style and will and make a team that at times took my breath away this year, into a typical-offense lacking Bob Huggins team. Until last season, KU would eventually give us a typical March clunker. I think Dayton shows us the way to that today.
*** Wisco +4 Xavier. It was good to see an ACC team get a dose we Big 10 teams get at least a couple times a year: Old school street fights with Wisconsin. Wasn't that a vintage Wisconsin game the other night with their win over Florida State. They use that style to compete every year. National pundits hammer the league because they just dont give the Badgers respect. Just epinion. I think they give Xavier a dose of that today and this one goes down to the wire similar to the FSU game from Friday.
*** CSU +3 over Arizona. Better late than never with the Vikings. Man, do I regret not pulling that trigger Friday night. Same situation happened to me last year with Siena. All week, I loved them over Vandy, but had this bizarre last second doubt and didn't bet it. Siena rolled. I grabbed them in the second round, and they could come through. I hope this late-to-the-bandwagon syndrome nets a different result today. It's 50/50 CSU is relentless. I dont think the Wildcats are tough to enough to scrape 40 full minutes with the Vikings. Also: Did you know the CSU Viking mascot is named Magnus.?
I have zero idea who I like in the other three games. But, five bets should keep me occupied until then.
This is a great team. This is a team that makes you proud to be a Michigan Wolverine. They have kicked off the Renaissance of Michigan Basketball, beginning a new era of greatness for future teams to build on. There is no question in my mind: WE ARE BACK! John Beilein is a great coach. Maybe one of the best ever. And he is here to sweep away all of the memories of the past decade and bring our program out of the darkness. It didn't seem possible a year ago...
It would not be fair to John B. if we looked back further than last season. Those were the Dark Ages of Michigan Basketball, riddled with bad coaching and some players of bad character. There were heroes then also, but for comparison's sake we will stick to last season.
It was the depths. Michigan Basketball was a joke. When we lost to Amaker's Harvard squad I admittedly lost interest. It seemed that the team couldn't or wouldn't buy into Beilein's style. Plus I couldn't really follow the team as I was in the Caribbean with no internet or TV. So I just paid very little attention and dreamed big dreams for a Rich Rod led storm of dominance. Yeah, that didn't work out so well.
So after arriving back in the land of crazy multimedia this past fall, I had zero expectations for this team. We had lost Udoh (probably a very good thing, more on that later) and we had added a couple of shortish white boys from Indiana that could possibly drop some threes. I thought this could end up anywhere in the range of just like last year (very poor) to maybe .500 if John B. truly was a great coach.
Then the season began and I was hooked right away. It floored me to see such crisp passes and competent offense. Our defense didn't look great but the 1-3-1 was creating some turnovers. Then we beat UCLA. Then we beat DUKE! We looked like an elite team. Excitement went through the roof, igniting the fan base. Maybe...we...mattered? Expectations went far out of control. We were a lock for the tourney this year for sure! But a lingering doubt was always there as well. We had been conditioned to accept failure and choke-jobs down the stretch. The Big10 looked strong and this team was young, young, young.
The cards seemed stacked against us as well. We only played Indiana once. Our easiest games looked to be early in the conference season with the final stretch a killer. We had to go play #1 UConn in the middle of all of it. Still it seemed that a .500 conference record might get us in. Surely that was doable? We beat DUKE! But our road was as hard as it appeared.
When we lost to Iowa the NIT seemed more than probable. I was resigned to this. I thought that a strong NIT run would be good for this team heading into next season. But that is exactly how I felt for all of those Amaker teams and it never really was true. Being a 1 seed in the NIT is just missing your true goal.
Then this team showed why they are different. They showed us what great teams do when up against it. They beat Purdue. They beat Minny. They won that important opening round game of the B10 tourney. They did what no Amaker team could: they persevered and they went dancing.
They could have just been happy to be there. Already way above expectations, no one would have felt bad with a one-and-done. But John B. is a great coach and this is a great team. They had one more thing to prove: that they belonged on the big stage. And prove it they did.
I had some hope of winning against Oklahoma, but not much. Their star was perfectly aligned against our weaknesses. Griffen is a stud and we have no answer for him on this team. If they would have missed their outside shots we had a chance but they made just enough of those in the first half to keep the game even. This game was a great team versus and elite team. There was no shame in this loss.
1. John Beilein - There is truly no ceiling to where this guy could take this program. He is among the best coaches I have ever seen. Thank you Johnny B.
2. Senior Walk-Ons - No team is supposed to have this level of success with walk-ons starting. Merritt and Lee were solid all year and gave this team a chance at greatness. I wish them (and Sheppard) success in their futures.
3. Manny Fresh - He looked spent after getting his 5th foul last night (on a total B.S. call). This kid has greatness in his future and will really wow us next year. Please don't go pro Manny, we need you.
4. Deshawn Sims - Most improved player IMHO this season. With one more year of seasoning I think he goes from too small for power forward to a legit NBA role player. I expect he'll be back.
5. White freshmen from Indiana - These guys were the essential glue for this team and played well above expectations. Stu and Novak remind me of smaller versions the old days of Voskul and Pelinka*, and I think they will have just the same sort of role with future teams.
6. Ant - That was a surprising and valiant effort last night. I think this team has a place for you after all.
*Yes, I realize I am bringing up white guys to compare to white guys. Let's hear a better comparison.
Can anyone not be excited about this program going forward? We are losing some grit and moxie in Merritt and Lee and replacing it with real talent and size. Cronin and the incoming freshman class will be integrated into a team that already has the experience, coaching, and winning attitude to reach ever greater heights. I would be surprised if we weren't in the top three in the B10 next year and the Sweet 16 doesn't seem much of a stretch.
Oh, and Udoh's departure had benefits we can only fully realize now. Lacking his interior presence forced the team to really buy into the 1-3-1 and tighten up their individual assignments. I think it made us a better team in the end and will help this program going forward.
On a side note, does this not give everyone hope for the football team as well? Maybe West Virginia is really a gold mine for us.
We burned it down baby.
Before getting into the Michigan-Oklahoma game, lets take a quick tour of the Michigan blogosphere. The WLA is sending its insane leader to Kansas City for the game. Dylan at UMHoops laments the Wolverines date with the nation's top player, but is quick to point out that Beilein has eliminated top players before, such as Chris Paul and Wake Forest back in 2005. Varsity Blue's Tim's foray into tempo free stats reveals a matchup of doom for Michigan. Brian's is contemplating the similarities between Blake Griffin and Eric Puls. Maize 'N Brew is still partying over the Clemson win. And, why the F not, I tell ya. Meanwhile, in Sooner land, they're pleading for better guard play to dice Michigan's patented zone defense.
I am not ready for this to end. The team has exceeded all my expectations. I can honestly say I have never had this much fun following a basketball team and its season. Did you know that by getting this far, Michigan puts itself in the top-10 percent of all basketball programs this season? That is some achievement to earn in the wake of one of the worst seasons's in team history. They are a win away from the Sweet Sixteen. And, I cant stop lauging about it. I am not ready for this to end today. To quote the song, "such a long long time to be gone, and a short time to be there."
You know what I find goofy? In the first round, Michigan was the biggest underdog on the board in those 7/10 games. In the second round games, they're the smallest puppy (OU -6.5, O/U 136) of the the four teams facing the mighty #2 seeds. What gives there? Does Vegas expect smart money to fall on Beilein's acumen and they've deflated to numbers to rope in as much Sooner money as possible? We can only hope. I like being on the side of the professional gambler. Well, the profitable ones, anyway.
Not for nothing, but my strategy would be let Griffin get his stats and force the others to beat you. Griffin's awesome talent has taken the team to another level. They're still good without him, but nobody else has shown they can carry the club. Let him gobble up something close to a 20/20, but if the rest are contained, Michigan will be there in the end.
Oklahoma does not get a ton of three-point production. They dont score a bunch of points off of turnovers. If Michigan can come out and put together a stretch of three point makes, they can play with a lead and build confidence. Expect Beilein to give his shooters the early green light in an attempt to do just that.
I find confidence in this game in the Oklahoma State Cowboys. The Pokes are more limited up front with bigs than Michigan. They have less at their disposal to counter Griffin than Michigan does. In three games with Oklahoma, the Cowboys performed better each time, nearly springing a February upset in Norman and beating them in the Big 12 tournament. The Cowboys play at a faster tempo than Michigan does, but I wouldn't be surprised if Michigan is instructed to run a little today because it eliminates Griffin from locking down the inside. The Cowboys are a better offensive team than Michigan, but Michigan is a much stronger defensive outfit. My only point: If a doughnut team like the Pokes can hang with the Sooners on the road and in a nuetral setting, than so too can Michigan.
The Pick: UM +6.5 Look, I'm not going to blow smoke up your you-know-what. This would be a huge upset according to rankings and bracket expectations. But, I refuse to get off the Beilein Bandwagon. You know, the one that is 38-21 ATS in March games, including 4-1 this season. Michigan is on a 9-3 ATS run. Burn the boats, indeed.
#1 UNC vs #8 LSU. Line, UNC -11.5, O/U 158
Powerful North Carolina's Achilles Heel may be a big toe. Ty Lawson, still nursing a sore toe, is a game day decision today in advance of their second round game with the LSU Tigers. Despite a boatload of talent, the Heels lose a big weapon in their arsenal without Lawson. He's the engine that gets everyone else involved. Without him, they become too much of a jump shooting team and they can be had. The Heels really could use a return to form from Danny Greene. LSU likes to pack it inside on defense and are willing to give up a lot of three-point attempts. In the first round, Butler launched two-dozen treys. If Greene and Wayne Ellington come out hot, this game coule become an early rout.
The ACC and SEC regular season champs meet in this one today. You would expect this to be later in the tourney, but the SEC mediocrity, combined with zero wins over ranked teams this season by LSU, downgraded their championship season all the way down to the 8-seed line. Nevertheless, LSU is similar to Michigan in the fact that they've already exceeded expectations and have had a successful season. They're playing with house money today.
We all know about the Heels. Here's a thumbnail of the Tigers. They're not a bulky team, but they are athletic, versatile, tough to guard in the halfcourt and, to lean on a cliche, play larger than they really are. The main gun is Marcus Thorton. He can hurt you from the outside, but is also a crafty enough of a scorer to hang down low on the baseline and still get points. Sometimes, he plays point guard in the offense. He's a great passer, so doubling him can lead to trouble if the supporting cast is kncoking down jumpers. Ellington has been a spotty defender all season, so the Tigers could have an advantage if that's who draws the D assignment on Thorton.
He needs to have an All-American performance for the Tigers to have a chance today.
The Pick: LSU +11.5 I think they get that type of performance. Last year, the Heels smoked an ACC team in the second round. But, LSU is so much better--especially on the defensive end--than Arkansas was last year. The Hogs wanted to go up and down the floor with the Heels. Trent Johnson wont let the Tigers do that and it will allow LSU's athletes a chance to shine in the half court. Speaking of D, yeah, I dont trust UNC. It always lets them down and it will allow LSU a chance to stay in the game.
#5 Purdue vs #4 Washington. Line, UW -1, O/U 139.5
The Pac 10 regular season champ meets the Big 10 tournament champ with a Sweet 16 bid on the line. Can Chris Kramer for Purdue check Isiah Thomas? Who will be more of a difference maker inside, JuJuan Johnson or Jon Brockman? Can Robbie Hummel and Etwaun Moore, two guys who I feel give UW matchup problems, step up and deliver like the All-Big 10 performers they can be. Can Purdue's defense slow the tempo and keep the high octane, aggressive Huskie guards from running up the floor and driving to the goal?
Those are the questions to keep in mind as this gets underway. The the tale of the tape is as close as you can in this one.
The Pick: Purdue +1 Well, I need the Boilers to win this or my Big 10 Prop bet of over seven wins will have zero chance. Last season, the Boilers broke my heart and a little of my bank with a second-round loss to Xavier. I think they make amends today. This is the most talented team in the Big 10. They're healtier and more in synch with one another than at any other time in the season. They're peaking and have been working all season to get back to this point of the year to correct last year's wrongs. I am feeling a big Robbie Hummel game and he will run Brockman ragged, taking the Huskie big guy out of his comfort zone. Here's hoping the Boilers add to the Big 10's growing March resume.
#2 Duke vs #7 Texas. Line, Duke -7.5, O/U 139.5
There are at least a dozen players on the court today who were on a top-150 list when they were being recruited. Doesn't this sound like a Final Four game? Two monster programs, with one bowing out before the Sweet 16. This has potential to be a classic.
The Horns have struggled this year, especially finding an offensive stride. But, they've always been live underdogs, mostly because they have so much talent on the roster than the no-respect card motivates them to play above their heads. On one hand, they have physical mismatches on the inside. On the other hand, expect Duke to go small, play Singler at the 5-spot in order to negate that. Either way, Dexter Pittman's game will go a long way in determining the Longhorns fate today. So will whether or not Texas uses its athletic advantage to pressure the ball to take Duke out of its rythmn.
The Pick: Texas +7.5 Duke has had a fantastic season. Texas has had a lot of head scratching performances. By all accounts, the Devils have a chance to run the Horns out of the building. But, I love Texas as an underdog in hoops. It's always been something that's treated me well. I have no problem backing them today. Really, ask this question: With Texas, dont I have the more talented team?
#4 Gonzaga vs #12 Western Kentucky. Line, Zags -10.5, O/U 143.5
A classic mid-major battle. And, its WKU, not Gonzaga that has the longest Sweet 16 streak going. Ok, its just a 1-year streak, but the Hilltoppers are a game away from repeating, which would be a huge achievement for this Sun Belt program.
In their way is mid major royalty in the form of the Gonzaga Bulldogs. Hard to believe its been a decade since the Zags burst onto the national scene. They're as strong as ever and desperate to make another run deep into the field after two straight first round departures.
The Pick: WKU +10.5 The Zags have not been great tournament favorites. No way I lay double digits with them. The Hilltoppers looked great against the Illini, but at the same time I didn't feel they were maxing out. I think they can hang all the way through with the Zags. I doubted the Hilltoppers new players on this stage the other night, but they more than proved me wrong. I'll grab them with a 10-point head start and take my chances.
Alright, apparently my handicapping skills were simple this morning: Take all the underdogs and let the chips fall where they may.
I did take one favorite today, Villanova. That was easy money. Hopefully the other favorites aren't as dominant. Adding that win--along with the no 14-15-16 seed wins prop--I am now 53-38-4 in March, including 10-3-1 in the Big Dance.
You know the best part of blogging? I can throw my Saturday round up in a couple of parts throughout the day. Sorry I could not get it all done at once, but expect the second half of this preview, with plenty of UM/OU commentary sometime within the next couple of hours.
You know the best part of NCAA Tournament? In my opinion, its the Saturday Second Round session. You finally get bigtime matchups between power schools. It does not matter what your seed is, you have a legit chance of going down. Today, we have a clash between the ACC and SEC regular season champions. We have Texas-Duke with about a dozen top-150 recruits combined on their roster. We have the Pac 10 regular season champ playing the Big 10 tournament champ. We have final four contenders Memphis, Oklahoma and Connecticut facing talented, well-coached schools from power conferences. And, with Gonzaga-Western Kentucky we have legit mid-major flare. It is all on tap today with Sweet 16 bids on the line.
The Tournament gained a lot of momentum last night in the final session of the first round. A pair of dramatic overtime games, the first real upset that turned brackets upside down (folks, CSU undressed Wake. Combined with another Big 10 school beating an ACC school, I bet Billy Packer is rolling over in his grave) and a couple more 12 seeds pulled out wins. The buzz carried over well into this morning. I made three stops this morning before I sat down to write, and at all three, tournament discussion was on everyone's lips.
Today's quadrupleheader provides great action, starting with a classic East Coast, West Coast battle between Big East and Pac 10 heavyweights.
#3 Villanova vs. #6 UCLA. Line, Nova -2, O/U 145<.b>
This is a Sweet 16 game disguised as a second round game. Before the season began, you would have assumed a March game between these clubs would take place at least somewhere in the second weekend of the tournament. Instead, we're here in the second round and some of the college game's marquee players over the last couple of seasons will be taking an earlier-than-expected departure from the dance stage. Both programs have greater dreams and expectations than the second round. The Bruins have made three straight final fours, so this elimination game will be a dramatic way to begin Saturday's action. In order to extend their careers and seasons, the task will monumental for both clubs.
Bubble News tracked UCLA most of the winter because of its relevancy to Michigan Strength of Schedule. Its pretty easy to figure out the Bruins. They still play insane defense and demolish what you want to do offensively. The problem with the Bruins is they go through too many Dust Bowl-like droughts. Worse, they all seem to come in the second half. They flat stop scoring for long stretches and it cost them a number of times in the Pac 10 season. We saw that in their first round survival against VCU. The Bruins were up comfortably by 10 with five minutes to play, but they went cold. Empty possession followed empty possession until VCU had a final shot to win at the buzzer. How many more games in this tournament can they survive with that pattern? Despite the usual Bruin high expectations, UCLA observers urge to Bruins to enter the game feeling no pressure.
What struck me about the VCU game was how spent Darren Collison looked at the end. Despite Collison being slowed by a bruised tailbone, Howland matched his point guard up exclusively with the Rams Eric Maynor on Thursday night and it gassed Collison. They're going to need more energy out of him down the stretch to get by the Wildcats. Will Collison go head to head for 40 minutes against the Cats Scottie Reynolds or will Howland look to mix up his defensive assignments a bit more? The Cats have a better perimeter supporting cast than the Rams did beyond Maynor. They need to run whomever Collison guards around the court all day because I dont think the Bruins will have enough in the final minutes if Collison is on empty.
The Wildcats prefer a faster pace to the game than UCLA and expect them to sprinkle in plenty of full- and half-court press to both up the tempo and wear out the Bruins. Nova is efficient from behind the arc, but the main focus of their offense is beating teams off the dribble with an assortment of guards. They get a ton of points from the free throw line. Thursday, they spent the final 12 minutes of the game in the bonus. They remind me a lot like the Washington and Arizona State teams which went 3-1 against the Bruins this season. Those teams attacked the goal all day with their own collection of guard superstars and, in turn, upset the balance of power in the Pac 10. Collison struggles against strong guards and in Reynolds and Corey Fisher the Cats have some of the more muscluar guards on the east coast. Reynolds has been turnover prone, though, and Collison has made a college career causing perimeter turnovers, so this is the matchup edge to watch.
The Pick: Villanova. I hate, hate, hate going against the Bruins and Ben Howland. But, let's face it, this is not a vintage Bruin squad. I worry about their energy level late as Howland has drastically shortened his bench latey. I worry about their ability to contain Nova's guards and keep them off the free throw line. Make no mistake, playing in Phily, the Cats will get the calls. Mostly I worry about the inevitable scoring drought. Here's where these fancy efficiency stats fail the eye test. UCLA is one of the best on offense, but every time I see them they struggle late with empty possessions. KenPom's black and white stats dont account for that. Even so, according to him, Nova has one of the most efficient defenses. I'll take defense over offense in this one.
UCONN vs #9 Texas A/M. Line, UCOO -10, O/U 139
What a strange and goofy scenario the Huskies faced with their coach being hospitalized the morning of their opening round game. They sure did not miss a beat in their torching of Tenn-Chatanooga. Thankfully, Jim Calhoun returns to the sideline today in what ought to be an interestng chess match between him and Aggie coach Mark Turgeon.
Turgeon coaxed a Wichita State team into the Sweet 16, so dont assume he cant coach this club up today to spring the upset. Also, dont forget the Aggies played in a 1/9 game last season and nearly upset UCLA. They were hacked on their final attempt, but the refs swallowed their whistle. A year and a bumpy road (the Aggies were 3-7 in Big 12 play on Valentine's Day) later, Texas A/M finds itself in the exact same position as last year.
The last three seasons seen the Aggies eliminated from the tournament by a total of four points. They look to avoid another heartbreaking loss today.
The Aggies love to run a lot of ball screens and motion offense. That's the best way to handle the Huskies size by forcing guys like Thabeet and Adrian to play defense away from the basket. One team that gave the Huskies trouble all season was the big, physical Pitt Panters and their assortment of wide bodies. The Aggies bring that to the table with the mixture of Bryan Davis, Chinemelu Elonu and David LeBeau. That's a trio of 6-9 or taller guys who expect to scrap with Thabeet all day. Pay attention to how the refs whistle this game. The Aggies will have no problem blooding up Thabeet, but will the officials allow that kind of play. If so, the Aggies will be in this sucker.
Of course, the Huskies will bring it up front as well. They wont shrink from what ought to be an amazing battle of frontcourts this afternoon. We all know about Thabeet and Adrian, but now Stanley Robinson has found his stride. Playing a lot like former Huskie Josh Boone, Robinson has given the Huskies a third, and more athletic presence, to go with an already imposing group of bigs.
The key today for the Huskies is how well they do from the perimeter. With Josh Carter, Donald Sloan, Derrick Roland and BJ Holmes, I like the Aggies back court and permieter attack much better. The Huskies have really struggled shooting jumpers since the Dyson injury. A.J. Price has been able to shoulder some of the outside scoring burden, but nobody else is picking up the slack in the wake of Dyson's injury. Craig Austerie is less than 20-percent on his last 70 treys attempts and Kemba Walker has clanked 17 misses in a row from behind the arc. These are their #2 and #3 guys right now and they will need one of them to break out thir slump today in order to advance.
The Pick: Texas A/M +10 I just cant see the Huskies running away from the Aggies today. Expect the Aggies to turn this into as ugly a game as possible, limit the possessions and hope their perimeter advantage gets it done. They probably wont win in the end, but the Aggies match-up too well with the Huskies too well to forecast a double digit win at all for the Huskies.
#2 Memphis vs #10 Maryland. Line, Memphis -10, O/U 131.5
Want some fighting words? Greivas Vasquez A HREF="http://www.commercialappeal.com/news/2009/mar/21/talks-a-good-game/">has you covered. In the lead-up to today's match with #2 seed Memphis, Vasquez sent a shot across the Tigers bow, saying if the Tigers played in the ACC, they, like the Terrapins, would have a losing league mark. You know what that is? That's just Greivas being Greivas.
It's also prime bulletin board material for the Tigers and John Calipari, who inspires his team playing the no respect card better than any coach in America. The Tigers are getting accustomed to winning 30 games a season and are in prime position to maintain that streak for the next couple of seasons. As for this season, its been said the Tigers have the best defense in America, but it didn't show in their sleepwalking scare against UCSN Thursday. We'll see if Vasquez trash talk wakes them up. I suspect it will and the Venezuelan Sensation will be a marked man all day long.
I really am going to miss Vasquez when he leaves College Park after this season. He's been must see viewing. He might go off for 35 points. He might single handedly doom his team with sloppiness. He's a soul mate, of sorts, with his coach and he plays with the exact same kind of chaotic emotion that Gary Williams coaches with from the bench. He's a showstopper, a lighnting round of discussion and controversy amid his own fan base and somebody I just have not been able to steer my eyes away from the last couple of seasons. I have both buried and exalted Jasquez in this blog this winter. The college basketball world will lose a ton of personality when he leaves.
Can he extend his career past this weeked? Does he have enough magic in his bag to keep his team alfoat against the big bad Tigers? Can he and the Terps puncture the Tigers defense with their space the floor, draw and kick stlye of play? The Terps are certainly more battle tested than Memphis having played a dozen more games against tournament teams than the Tigers did. After going 12 rounds with ACC heavyweights and a tough OOC slate, the Terps will at least feel like the belong on the same court with the Tigers.
Vasquez is a sensation, but so his mighty freshmen Tyreke Evans for Memphis. These may be the two most razzle dazzle guards in the country. I set the O/U on jump-out-of-your-seat highlights between these two at 3.5 today. Don't expect them to match up head to head today, however. You have to think Calipari will put stopper Antonio Anderson on Vasquez. Anderson shut out Robert Vade, a prolific college game scorer from UAB, earlier in the year and he should draw the Vasquez assignment often today. What a great battle that will be during Maryand's possessions.
The Pick: Maryland +10. I do feel Memphis will harass Vasquez into some bad moments. But, there's also no reason to expect that Maryland cant thwart the Tigers with their own defense. Against CSN, Dozier and the rest of the Tigers inside game was irrelevant thanks to the Matadors zone defense. Gary Williams, I am sure, was taking notes. I just dont trust this Memphis offense and they've been shorting out from the perimeter lately. And, as well as Evans has played this year, he is no Derick Rose. I think the freshman struggles on this stage today. Memphis might pull out the win, but I dont think this game ends up a blowout. The only teams that have crushed the Terps this season have been ones on fire from the perimeter and the Tigers just dont have that type of offense.