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.