...says Denzel Valentine of Big Ten Tourney favorite MSU, which is 5-7 in its last 12 games. Cumong, man.
When I see tomorrow's college football schedule as it pertains to the Big 10 conference, I cant help but flashback to the second week of the 2005 season. That might have been the last time the conference was given any street cred by the college football fashionistas. Recall, the league had three teams--Ohio State, Michigan and Iowa--all ranked in the top 10, and, if you can believe it, there were many whispers that the Big 10 was biggest and baddest group in the land. That day all three heavyweights faced critical tests against brand names and bigtime rivals.
It was supposed to be a day of statements for the Big 10. Instead, the league spent the day telling everyone that the preseason hype was as fake as a Lou Holtz pep talk. Third-ranked Michigan listed their way through their match with Notre Dame, stumbling around like a Dave Wannstedt coached team in the red zone in a 17-10 loss. Iowa netted just a field goal in a 20-point beatdown in Ames against Iowa State. And, Ohio State, at home, did not have the fourth quarter chops to beat Texas, in a ballyhooed showdown that seemed to have had about ten times more the offseason hype than tomorrow's game with the Trojans does. The day began with the Big 10 owning the college football world. By the end, the Emperor had no clothes and the league proved itself a fraud, nothing more than a summer preview magazine creation.
The league has not been the same since. And, rather than securing its footing in the college football world, the conference has seen its stock continue to plummet since that late summer day of football four years ago. Sure, Michigan and Ohio State teased us with thrilling 2006 seasons leading to a #1 vs #2 matchup in The Game, but both teams were steamrolled in their BCS Bowl games, again bringing out the cries of fraud and mockery. We know whats happened since. Just about every outcome of the last two football seasons has further buried midwestern college football.
Michigan losses to an FCS school and then has their worst season in decades the following year. Ohio State keeps getting pantsed on the biggest stage. Iowa loses it mojo. Wisconsin hires Brett Bielema. Purdue's basketball on grass is figured out over night. Minnesota is no longer a darkhorse team with a stable of NFL ready tailbacks. Penn State has has been resurgent during this time, but they dont have a single OOC win that resonates among the masses and were completely outclassed in last season's Rose Bowl by USC. Michigan State has had two nice seasons in a row, but have lost to ACC and SEC teams in bowl games, looking like a stodgy, archaic Big 10 in the process. I think you get the picture.
I bring this up because this weekend's slate looks strikingling similar to that 2005 docket. Not only are the rivalries between Iowa and Iowa State and Michigan and Notre Dame renewed, but the Buckeyes are hosting a premier team, this time USC, under the lights at the Shoe. Unlike 2005, there are several other games on the docket important to the Big 10. Four years ago, the Big 10 was the top dog heading into a showdown weekend. Today, they're a weak link in a strong college football landscape. Saturday, the Big 10 has a chance to take a big step up the ladder in the climb back to respectively. If things break right, the Sunday morning storyline could be about a Big 10 Renaissance. Of course, league teams could again take the gas pipe, the conference will continue to take public perception hits and there will be viable discussion about the Mountain West Conference surpassing it.
Which way will it go? 50/50. I do hope, however, that the alley cat return of Big 10 picks is better than a 50/50 proposition.
First, two caveats: I am not playing all these games. If you'd like to see my card for the day, stroll over to the JCB as I'll have the card up by 9 tomorrow morning. And, as always, blindly following my picks can be hazardous to your wallet. Here goes:
Iowa State +7 vs Iowa (noon, FSN) Ames has become Waterloo for the Iowa Hawkeyes with the with four losses in five game at ISU, avering just 16 points per game in those contests and topping the 14-point mark just once. Iowa did not look good in last week's near miss against Northern Iowa. The culprit, as I saw it, was an offensive line, expected to be a major strength, that played poorly. Combined with the Hawks lack of a big time tailback the running game, this led to enough choppy offensive football to allow the Panthers to hang around. The line has been wrecked by injuries and suspension, but some of that was supposed to get ironed out this week. Think again. The news got worse for the Hawks up front with the announcement that Bryan Bugala has been felled with an illness and has been ruled out tomorrow. The prospects of more offensive line shuffling do not sound good. The Hawks are going to be what we saw last weekend all season until they get things ironed out up front. Also: the Cyclones are 10-1 ATS in this series. I have to ride those numbers.
Central Michigan +14.5 at Michigan State (noon BTN). This is not so much a pick against MSU as it is a pick on CMU. I have believed in this CHIPS! team for the last several years. And while they excell much better against the number in league games, than when they step out of conference, I like their chances of hanging with their, uh, big brother in East Lansing. I was impressed with CMU's defensive effort next week. When they have the ball, Central will face an easier defense in the Spartans than they did with Arizona last week. I dont think the Spartans lose, but I'll take CMU and LeFevour catching a two TD head start against most of the Big 10.
Fresno State +8 at Wisconsin (noon ESPN). The Great Fu Manchu arrives in Madison for another stop on his 'anyone, anytime, anywhere' tour. You cant say Fresno State is not afraid of challenges and September college football this decade has been marked in part by Pat Hill's Bulldogs taking on and scaring the hives out of bigger named foes. I am not sold on what Wisconsin is doing with their lineup right now. I cant shake the feeling that Bielema would have been better off going with Curt Phillips at QB. It took half a season for him to realize who his best QB was last year, and it looks like the same thing might happen this year. And, I know limiting Jon Clay's touches by making him second string means you're putting a less talented team on the field. I am fascinated to see how these decisions play out tomorrow against a real live team thats going to come at them with as much speed and talent as they have. Here is the killer number to keep in mind: In his Fresno State career, Pat Hill is 20-6-1 ATS as underdogs against BCS conference foes.
Michigan +3 at Notre Dame (3:30 ABC). The underdog in this series is 20-5 ATS. I'm interested and I'm already in. The dog is also 12-12-1 straight up, so the history in this series says the team catching points is as likely to win the game as the favorite. Speaking of the Wolverines, I dont think any other team in the country saw odds shift as much in their favor based on opening week. Consider the line movements trending towards the Wolverines in their games later this year against Illinois and Ohio State. Michigan was catching a full touchdown against both teams, but the impressive Michigan win and poor performances by the Illini and the Bucks caused a significant line drop. Michigan is just +3 at Illinois and +4 against Ohio State as of this morning. If they put another good performance in the books tomorrow, I wonder if those lines will move again?
Northwestern -21 vs Eastern Michigan (noon BTN). Obviously Ron Jonathon English will have his team looking ahead to his return next week to Michigan Stadium. More than likely, its Northwestern's defense, which you can make a case is one of the top three in the Big 10, will shut the Eagles down cold. They could barely score against Army. They wont reach double digits against the Cats as Northwestern rolls to its largest margin of victory of the season. We've proved that English's defenses struggle against mobile QBs, right? Kafka for NW is going to have a big day running the QB keepers.
Minnesota -3 over Air Force (7:00, BTN). I expect the Gophers to come out on fire in the opener for their brand new stadium. I like the overall talent Minnesota has in spots of its roster. I just wish Tim Brewster was known more for his coaching than tweeting. Dont look to much into the Gophers struggles against the Cuse. At least they won. But past bowl teams from West Virginia and Virginia have struggled in recent season openers at the Carrier Dome against eventually awful Orange teams and still had enough to rally for good seasons. Its a tricky place to play, especially early in the year when the Orange haven ot been totally demoralized by a long losing streak. This game will be close and entertaining, but I like the Gophers to win by at least a touchdown. Expect this game to be turned by the opportunistic Gopher defense creating a pair of momentum changing turnovers.
Penn State -28 over Syracuse (noon, BTN). Big step up for Syracuse in their second game. Playing at home against Minnesota is the opposite of playing Joe Pa's boys in Happy Valley. Greg Paulus will learn that tomorrow. There is a chance he can exploit the green PSU secondary, but I dont think he'll have any time to set up back in the pocket. Sometime in the third quarter, he will be planted by Navarro Bowman and come up begging for a charging call. Last week against the Zips, the Lions closed it down at the half. I expect them to jump out to another big early lead, but in the Game Two, Paterno will let them stretch their legs more in the second half. This will be a rout. Penn State is 14-9 ATS as a home favorite, 8-3 against non conference foes. They didn't cover in either role last week. Its called playing the percentages, Strawberry.
Indiana -1 over Western Michigan (noon, BTN). Here it is, the one time of the year I blindly take my Alma Mater without putting any thought into it. Neither club looked great last week. While WMU QB Tim Hiller wont be facing the speed and athletes he saw last week in Ann Arbor, the Hoosiers do bring a good pash rush and enough secondary playmakers to give Hiller and the Broncos the same type of fits. I also think this Pistol offense will break out a bit more in their second go around of the season. Dont you have to take the Big 10 team at home against a MAC team in a pick 'em game? Thats what I keep telling myself, anyway.
Purdue +13 over Oregon (10:15 FSN). I'm not sure the Ducks have the defense, especially in the back four, to trust laying a baker's dozen of points in chalk to anyone. And this anyone is the Boilermakers, who looked very good on offense last week and played the Ducks into overtime one year ago. I think some of that momentum can carry over. I'd think about the Over in this one, that is if I hadnt sworn off totals in the offseason. Want proof that I find a stat anywhere to support my play? The Ducks are 1-5 ATS as home favorites against a team playing with revenge of a straight up, against the spread win. Want proof that I can torpedo any stat the goes against my play? Even though Oregon has covered their last four home openers, the last time they didn't is when a second rate Big 1o came to town and the Ducks slept walked through the whole affair. That was in 2004 when Indiana remarkably took the Ducks down 30-24. And if you guessed that I only brought that up to highlight one of the five great moments of IU football in the last 20 years in a paragraph about Purdue, then what can I say? You know me well.
USC -7 over Ohio State (8:00, ESPN). I honestly cant believe I am not taking Ohio State in their own house with a touchdown headstart. In fact, I'm not. I am hiding this pick within the prose in hopes those goons I hired to beat me down if I ever picked against USC dont see it. Barkley will struggle on this stage and I think a strong possiblity exists that this game plays out a bit like the 2006 Texas game when the Bucks, on the road, stymied redshirt freshmen Colt McCoy in his first big game start. Here's why I am taking this chance: The line was -3 all summer, but leapt to -7 when it re-opened Sunday, in large part because of public reaction to Ohio State's close call against Navy. When it comes to football games, I just dont trust the volatile sways of the public opinion. Not even when it looks obvious. Or when the hired muscle men are wearing brass knuckles. But make no mistake: I'm not putting a single dollar or cent on it.
(Diarist Note: I edited the title. just trying to be a smartass)
Just some thoughts while watching the best team in Ohio destroy Rutgers in their season opener.
Brian covered a lot of ground in The Downgrade about the weekend that was for our Big 10 brethern. I will try to avoid being overly repetitive, but let me add a few more words to the discussion.
Th Big 10 spent the offseason seeing their reputation get skinned alive. Opening weekend only added more blood to the feeding frenzy. The public turned more anti-Big 10 with the early 2009 returns. For proof, lets go to the big betting board. Odds tilted in the favor of Big 10 foes for key upcoming games after the less than impressive debuts Saturday. Lets talk about them on a team-by-team basis.
They say home field advantage is worth three points in the spread, but aparently sleep walking your way through a game and nearly losing to a service academy at the buzzer is worth a few more.
The Buckeyes spent all summer as unshakeable 3.5-point underdogs in their showdown next week with USC. (Real quickly something to keep in mind: Books release Game of the Year Odds in the summer. They stay up all year, but always get pulled from the board sometime before the weekend action kicks in. They get re-released after the weekend games conclude) This morning? Ohio State is now +7, a 3.5 point swing from Friday's line. Even more compelling on what kind of action the experts in the desert expect to see on the game is the fact that Las Vegas Sports Consultants, who release recommended lines, leaned to USC -4.5 just yesterday. Oddsmakers took one look at that, promptly said NOT GOOD ENOUGH and raised the action to a full touchdown in hopes of luring in some Buckeye money, that's not already invested in trailer park safety upgrades.
My take? Keep in mind that I dont see myself betting this game. I wasnt going to be taking OSU +3.5 and I remain unenticed at +7. Besides, I have people on the payroll in charge of slugging me if I ever bet against the Trojans when they're playing a Big 10 team. They are big, mean and goony looking. I am not ready to test them yet.
That said, I do discount some of the lethargy we saw in the Shoe. Keep in mind, they were playing a team that has been to six bowl games in a row. That qualification alone should tell you that Navy brings more game to the table than the stereotypes built up in the public mind. I dont think the Buckeyes played with the right level of urgency coming out of the gates, perhaps a symptom of them coming out of the tunnel together with Navy in solidarity. Tressel didnt have their settings on 'Babby Eating' at the start and it showed as Navy was able to establish their offense. Once Navy does that, you're in trouble, no matter who you are.
Of course, Ohio State did allow a meticulous 99-yard TD drive, were dominated on third downs on both sides of the ball and made the Naval QB, in his second ever start, look like a good passer. He may be a good passer, but the performance eased a lot of fears out there that a Trojan QB making his first ever start could be overmatched on setting alone.
The Hawkeyes own dismal performance against Northern Iowa was also worth a field goal in their own grudge match this coming Saturday. The Hawks travel to Ames to play Iowa State and initially were given the nod as 10-point favorites. The Cyclones have proven a Waterloo of sorts for Iowa backers, not only covering the spot in 10 of the last 11 games, but also winning seven of them outright, including 4-1 SUATS in games at Ames. On series history alone, despite how bad Iowa State appears to be, catching double digits looked mighty mighty tempting. Iowa laying chalk to Iowa State is Dutch for "Its a trap!" Little known fact.
The Hawkeyes were a mess on offense Saturday. They are supposed to have one of the best offensive lines in the country. Injuries and suspension forced them to play a brand new interior and the line could not control the point of attack against one the better FCS teams in the land. After playing depth chart games all summer long with their only legit deep threat Derrell Johnson-Koulianos, Iowa went more than two full quarters without him even stepping on the field. The Paki O'Meara experience as lead ball carrier went nowhere, giving way to Adam Robinson, a redshirt freshmen who is so obscure he didnt even have a Phil Steele number coming out of high school. And while Ricky Stanzi did get the passing game going, he was in midseason form with his patened 'No Stanzi' moments gift wrapping an early UNI score giving Hawk fans flashbacks to last year's Pitt game. Or was it Northwestern? Maybe MSU? You get the picture.
Kirk Calloway comes off suspension and will be back on the line and they could get injured starter Juilian Vandevelde back as well. Perhaps the DJK thing was a one game thing because they could get away with it against UNI. Ferentz has a history of unearthing sleeper running backs in these injury situations and Robinson's emergence might signal that continuation. Maybe Stanzi stops doing random and unexpected Anthony Morelli impersonations.
Maybe it all suddenly gets worked out this week with the despised Cyclones on the slate. At double digits, this looked attractive. Even though some of the icing have been wiped off, I still might take a bite of the cake at +7. The history is strong in the series. Iowa has struggled to put points on the board against ISU in the past, and it didnt look last week that they're any better equipped to do so this go around.
Talk about laying an egg. Everyone was on Illinois. And everyone lost. When the Golden Nugget released its Games of the Year odds back in June, the Illini were just -2.5 in this game. By game time, the line was nearly a full touchdown. I cant shake the thought the Book came out way ahead on this one.
Somehow all those talented defensive players flocking to Champagne and Juice Williams at QB have done nothing but get worse since arriving on campus. Welcome to the Ron Zook Experience. You could probably still buy real cheap tickets from Florida fans if you want a seat on the ride.
We wont see the Illini back on the betting board until September 26th when they travel to Columbus. They play FCS team Illinois State this week and have a bye in the 19th. We have not seen the impact of the Illini's performance will have on the odds as future games have yet to be released since this weeks games arent officially over. But, they were +9.5 at OSU, +2.5 at home vs PSU and -7 at home vs UM. Those lines are being reconsidered, I am sure.
The Illini are a compelling team for me to follow. They topped Phil Steele's list of most improved team and could figure prominently in my theory of following those teams when they're catching points. After watching them play Missouri, I am expecting them to be an underdog now more often in their games. I cant wait. I need a drink.
Michigan was the most impressive Big 10 team on the day. Wait a sec, did I say that right? Let me try again. Michigan was the most impressive Big 10 team on the day. Really, its supposed to read that? Ok, thats why I trust my writers, I'll go with it. I'll start over.
Michigan was the most impressive Big 10 team on the day.
Like a lot of the Michigan fanbase, everybody on the outside is also trying to manage possible new expectations for Wolverines. Oddsmakers and the betting public, however, have not been impressed yet. At least as it pertains to the Notre Dame game.
If you recall, the summer line for this game opened at ND -2.5. Bettors wasted no time in pumping Irish money into the coffers and the line quickly raised to 3, then 3.5, where it rested for the rest of the summer. Now? It's at ND -4. It actually opened earlier today at -4.5, so maybe oddsmakers pushed it a little too far. We'll see.
Michigan was placed as an underdog in all 6 Games of the Year that oddsmakers released. Based on the intial reactions with the ND line, its hard to imagine a whole lot of movement on those lines. I am still intrigued to see what they look like after Saturday's debut. And, if Michigan adds a win against Notre Dame, it's safe to say that Michigan will probably reverse roles in at least a couple of those contests.
There were a couple other games for this coming Saturday that have seen major line shifts on account on opening week. Real quickly, UGA fell from an 11.5-point favorite to just 7 points against South Carolina last week. Somebody advised weeks ago to get in on the Gamecocks at that first number. TCU was going to be 5.5 -point road chalk at Virginia this week, but after the Cavs were dominated by William/Mary (Sorry, OC. Sorry, MaizeandBlueWahoo), the Horned Frogs are walling into Charlottesville as double digit chalk at -11.
A sure sign that I'm having way too much summer fun is that point spreads for dozens of college football games have been on the Vegas Board for more than a month, and I have yet to break down those spots in a TL;DR MGoDiary. Well, fellow MGoBloggers, here it is, with the season beginning three weeks from tonight, lets take a look at how the oddsmakers have factored the Wolverines' chances in some of their more important games of the season. I know there has been a handful of threads briefly discussing this topic, so I doubt I'm breaking much news with these spreads, but I still felt a more in depth look into these spots was warranted.
Oddsmakers put out lines for six of Michigan's 12 games. What those numbers reveal is just how unconvinced the public remains on a Wolverine turnaround in 2009 and the challenges the Books face in enticing Michigan money to flow through the betting windows. Michigan is an underdog in all six games. Regardless of foe, be it as powerful as Penn State or Ohio State, or maligned as Notre Dame or Wisconsin, the Wolverines are catching points on the early line of every game of that's been released.
Even though that development was not entirely unexpected, it still deserves a sticker shock double take of sorts. Before last season, Michigan had only been catching points in seven regular season games this decade. In last year's disastrous season, Michigan was installed as a dog five times. Before the first ball is even kicked off for the 2009 season, Michigan looks to be the underdog already in at least six games. The only way Vegas can get people to bet on Michigan in any of these games is to give them anywhere between a field goal and a touchdown head start.
None of this should be construed as any real dour news. Well, other than the transfers that will certainly ensue with the further publication of these lines. But seriously, Michigan has historically been a great play when catching points. Even in bowl games. Since 1985, Michigan is 30-17 ATS as an underdog. If you remove any games against Ohio State--a rivalry that tilts to the home team against the spread and during which the Wolverines are a pedestrian 5-5 ATS as a dog during this run--Michigan's record when catching points improves by a few percentage points with a 25-12 record.
History says Michigan will cover more of these games than not. We'll see if Rodriguez's young charges are up to the burden of history this year and whether or not any of the possible underdog covers net upset wins. Without further adieu, lets take a look at the games on the Big Board.
Western Michigan at Michigan, 9/5
Line: Michigan -12
A clarification: This line has only been released within the last few days and not part of the Book Community's Games of Year Board that came out several weeks ago. In those games, the Wolverines are catching points in everyone. But, most online books have updated to include the entire Week One slate and here are the Wolverines laying serious chalk against a team that, unlike the Maize and Blue, played in a bowl game last season.
Of course, the Broncos were absolutley obliterated by Rice last season in that bowl game and my concerns for this game had really subsided for most of the off season. Now that the drum beat of the approaching season is louder and closer, the worry wort fan in me has begun to envision Tim Hiller channeling his inner John Elway and slinging the ball all over the place against the young, retooling Michigan defense.
I still think Michigan has a significant edge in the trenches in this game. As bad as last year was, Michigan still rushed for almost 5 yards a carry against their two MAC foes last season. And, Brandon Minor had a total of one combined carry in the contests. With the Broncos completely rebuilding on defense, Michigan's offensive line expected to make the leap and something in the ballpark of 20 carries out of Minor and I dont think the Wolverines will have problem moving up and down the field.
The question is will that be enough to score points? Last year's offense bogged down in those MAC games and struggled to turn an efficient offense in between the 30 yard lines into points. I believe Forcier will be a difference in those spots. However, he is a true freshmen and could throw a killer pick-6 like Threet did last year against Toledo. Michigan will have enough to finally win an opening game, but can anybody not drunk on Maize and Blue Koolaid (and, trust me, that shit tastes good) really feel comfortable laying 12 points with them right now? I cant. Besides, there are much better investment chances on opening weekend.
Notre Dame at Michigan, 9/12
Line: ND -3.5
There has already been quite a bit of activity surrounding this line. When the Golden Nugget in Vegas released their lines in June, it was reported that the Irish were indeed 3.5 point chalk. However when the army on onlines formally released lines several weeks later, the Irish had been moved down to 2.5 points. It was quickly bet up to 3 and tagged with a higher taxed juice at -120. The extra vig has not stopped the momentum in favor of the chalk and, as of today, the line has been bumped back up to 3.5.
All the seemingly one-sided action the public is placing with the off shores on the Irish flies in the face of the history of this series. The underdog is 20-5 ATS since the modern rivalry resumed in 1978 and has won this game outright as often as the favorite. I've talked about it many times. It is the series identity. It trumps whatever matchup breakdown you can throw out there.
I could go on and list all the times a chalk Wolverines squad got chopped at the knees by the Irish. But that would bring up way too many scars. Besides, short of a Michigan romp over WMU combined with a Nevada upset over the Irish opening week nothing will flip MIchigan into the favorite role. So lets talk about them as dogs in this series.
Notre Dame has only covered once in this series as a favorite. In 1982. I was in the fifth grade. That was a long time ago.
Notre Dame has been favored only once in the Big House and that was back in 1985. Michigan unveiled a dominant defense, crisp offense and let the football world know that day that it was back after a disatrous 6-loss campaign the year before in a 20-12 upset win. I could go for a parallel outcome next month, whadya say Fielding Yost up there in Football Vahalla?
The last two times Michigan has been catching points in this series, Remy Hamilton knocked home a game winning field goal and Yakety Sax 2006 happened.
What intrgiues me about this series is how often the winner ends up playing aruguably their best game of the season. Name me a better win by the 1998, 2002, 2004, 2005 or 2008 Irish team? How about a more clutch game than played by the 2006, 1999, or 1994 Wolverines. The thread in most of those games is the underdog springing the upset or, at the very least, keeping the final score closer than the experts thought.
I'll blindly throw a buck or two down based on the series history alone and wont lose any sleep over doing so.
Michigan at Michigan State, 10/3
Line: MSU -4
It's hard to get past a pair of technical edges when looking at this year's Michigan-Michigan State game. Neither lines up well for the Wolverines.
Michigan will be playing its first road game after four straight home contests to begin the season. Underdogs in that spot are just 12-15 ATS since 1998. That tilts away from the Wolverine's side, but only slightly and not hardly enough to stand alone as a serviceable handicapping angle.
The fact it's MIchigan's first road game is damning enough, however, to make a pick. The Wolverines first road trip of the year has been a nightmare for Michigan boosters with the program checking in with a 9-21 ATS record in their first game of the year in the other guy's stadium.
This dates back to 1979, making it a Michigan tradition as old as great flankers wearing the #1 jersey.
The Wolverines traveled to Cal that season as heavy 9-point chalk. But, Michigan played a sloppy first half, puncuated by a block punt that set the Bears up on short field for an easy touchdown. Trailing 10-0 to start the second half, Michigan finally kicked it in gear. A hit by defensive tackle Paul Girgash gave Michigan the turnover they needed to get it started. Two plays later a Stan Edwards run put the Wolverines on the board. Later in the quarter, a BJ Dickey pass to Doug Marshfield provided the go ahead score. Despite dominating the game statisically (Michigan had nine sacks and nearly twice as many yards), the Wolverines never threatened to score the spread busting points.
After listening to the game on the radio, a young Jamie Mac, while happy his team won, walked down the block to pay off the quarter bet he had made with some loudmoth Buckeye neighbor that Michigan would roll by at least double digits. His main bone of contention: Schembechler burying the cant miss, 5-star waterbug recruit Anthony Carter on the bench as AC rarely saw the field that day. From that point forward, Michigan's misery in their first road game only grew. Here are some lowlights:
- In 1981, preseason #1 MIchigan lost their season opener, on the road, to lowly Wisconsin thanks to a gazillion interceptions thrown by Steve Smith. Later that day, an infant Brian Cook helped his family paint their home pink and collect injured stray kittens from around the neighborhood.
- In 1987, Demetrious Brown tossed two gazzilon interceptions as MSU and Lorenzo White powered past MIchigan 17-11. Somewhere in southern MIchigan, toddler Dex begins chain smoking and swinging whiffle ball bats at whomever mocked his Wolverines. The seeds of an Army were sown.
- In 1993, the Spartans again stymied the heavily favored Wolverines, bottling up Tyrone Wheatley the way no other Big 10 could ever replicate and mandhanled MIchigan in a 17-7 win. This result so enraged Other Brian that he declared, on sight, a war on everything green and started by torching the grass in his parent's front yard. He has been protecting us from the Green Menace ever since.
- In 1998, the defending national champs got smoked in the second half in South Bend as touchdown chalk en route to a 38-20 loss. Magnus pink slipped quarterback Tom Brady for engineering an offense that failed in the red zone, settling for too many field goal attempts and missing a chance to blow the Irish out during the game's first 30 minutes. The quarterback who should keep his job was Drew Henson. Or Jason Kaspner.
- In 2003 Varsity Blu-er, I mean MGoTim consoled himself after the loss at Oregon by pouring over highlight films of a rising junior who was sure to be the steal of the eventual 2005 recruiting class: Johnny Sears.
I mean I could go on and on and on here. There is a plethora of epic, heartbreaking fail here.
But, no. I wont. Instead, I come bearing news of a loophole that could lead us around this historical landmine. Like most of the games in this diary, the Wolverines are an underdog. That's important when looking deeper into these otherwise woeful numbers. When catching points in their first road game of the year, Michigan is 7-2 against the spread, with four "upset" wins and a tie straight up.
Think about that for a second. In all games, Michigan's historic success rate in the role of first road game is less than 33 percent. However, in this specific role as a dog, their success rate shoots up to 87 percent. I'd say those are intrguing numbers.
Penn State at Michigan, 10/24
Line: Penn State -5
The winner of this game has also covered the spread in 12 of the 14 all-time meetings between these teams since the Nittany Lions joined the Big 10. Sometimes its as easy as picking the winner. No problem, right?
The only two times the winning team also failed to get the cash also provided a pair of memorable Michigan Stadium moments: Michigan's overtime win by 3 in 2002 as four point favorites and the inimitable Manningham catch puncuating the 2005 27-25 win. Hard to believe, but the Wolverines were field goal chalk against the unbeaten Lions that afternoon.
I'd like to think Michigan can win this game. We'll know by October if our dreams of an improved season are materializing and whether or not Michigan has the chops to compete here. One thing I will say is that I am not 100 percent sold on Penn State. They are very talented in spots. But they have some holes that also raise eyebrows. They're rebuilding their entire secondary. They're replacing a lot of talent of the offensive line. Daryl Clark still has not made a big throw in a moment of truth spot. I'm not that sold on Clark as a great QB, and with all his targets gone from last year he will see more of the passing game burden fall on his ability to deliver the right ball. Yeah, they can be exposed by good teams. But is Michigan a good team?
Real quickly about those receivers: I generally dont get too swayed on a team's chances based on skill players returning or leaving. But, I cant shake that this will be a big problem for Penn State. They're replacing a trio of wideouts who have finished 1-2-3 in receiving stats for the team all four years they were on the team. That's going to hard to replace this season merely by dipping down on the depth chart.
The biggest blow is Derek Williams, who caught, ran and passed the ball out of multitude of formations. He was as important to PSU's run last year as Michael Robinson was in 2005 and we all saw how inconsistent the Lions were for a couple of seasons without him. The Spread HD was all the rave last season with Clark at QB instead of Anthony Morelli, but I dont think Jay Pa and Galen Hall will know how to call plays as effectively without Williams to lean on. Just epinion.
Michigan at Illinois, 10/31
Line: Illinois -7
A year after Illinois stabbed dagger-in-the-heart play into our hearts one after the other and thumped Michigan to the tune of 45 points, its probably hard to conjure up images of a Michigan win here. But was last year really that much of a blowout?
What happens if Threet and Odoms connect on a wide open pass over the middle in the closing minute of the first half? That's a touchdown and Michigan lead of three going into the half. Instead the connection achingly was off target with another. Or, after Illinois had forged a 10-point lead in the second half, a deep sideline pass to Savoy had connected? Michigan always could connect on those when the chips are on the table. But, on that play, Savoy was so overmatched against Vontae Davis he had no chance to catch the ball, which was thrown so poorly it probably would not have helped had Savoy even been able to get open.
What does all this excuse making mean? If Michigan's offense takes the steps forward many readers of this blog expect, then the Wolverines should be able to do damage against the Illini. They came sneakingly close to going point for point with them in last season's otherwise decisive Illini win. The question is can they keep up all four quarters? Can the defense get enough stops to help the cause? With a lot of fireworks expected in this one, a touchdown head start could come in handy.
Michigan at Wisconsin, 11/14
Line: Wisco -3.5
The home team has won five straight games in this series. That's bad news for Michigan. The underdog has covered at a 6-1-1 clip with five meetings decided by five or less points. That's good news for Michigan.
What's better news for Michigan? Brett Bielema remains the coach for the Badgers.
If Michigan needs the Badgers to forget who their best tailback weapon is, Bielema will be there for them. If Michigan needs the Badgers to fail on third and short by getting too cute with the playcalling, Bielema will be there for them. If Michigan needs extra prep for a field goal at the end of the clock, Bielema will be there to call timeout. If Michigan needs the running game to start working, Bielema will be there with ridiculously wide gapped defensive fronts.
He will be All In for Michigan.
The problem may be the calendar. This game is in early November. That should give Bielema enough time to figure out that Curt Philips is his best bet at QB. Not to mention enough time for Jonathon Clay to become enough of a star that Bielema wont be able to lose him on the bench like he did last year.
Nevertheless, this has become one of the more dramatic series in the Big 10 this decade with three games decided in the final minute, two others by less than five and a sixth by just a touchdown. No reason the trend of tight games with the Badgers will stop. The more points the better in games like that.
Ohio State at Michigan, 11/21
Line: OSU -7
Ah, the big one. After spending the better part of TWENTY YEARS owning this series, Michigan has seen the roles reversed in this rivalry and have been the nail since 2004 with five losses in a row. I refuse to insult you with a pep talk about how we are Michigan and never count us out, especially in a big rivalry. That's rah-rah stuff and wont mean a hill of beans if the 2009 Wolverines dont take the steps forward many are counting on.
Instead, I will repeat the same type of expectations I have for this game as I did last year. If you recall, last summer Michigan opened up as a 14-point underdog. All I had hoped for is that Michigan play well enough during the season to see that line decrease and maybe shrink to single digits by game week. Of course, the complete oppositie happened. The season did not go well. D'uh. By game week, the Bucks were laying three touchdowns instead of just two.
I have the same hopes and feelings here. Hopefully Michigan will play well enough in the upcoming months to see this line get shaved a point or two down. Or how about a little wishful thinking and get it down to just a field goal. What would make that happen? Well, a Michigan team entering the contest with 7-9 wins might do it. I guess so to would a Buckeye team with four losses or so. I wont lie, both those outcomes I would accept. The latter would quiet a lot of locals around my scarlet and gray neighborhood here behind enemy lines.
So, rather than breaking down what might be a matchup mismatch on paper, I'll just lean on the hopes that Michigan improves enough this year to make this spot smaller. Michgian Football 2009: Where We Hope To Play Well Enough To Get Better Oddsmaker Respect By November. Can you feel the excitement? Alright maybe its not as thirlling as 'All In' but its what I'm sticking to.
We'll see what happens. Until then, enjoy the games.
Diarist Note: For more insights on all things college football and hoops related with some NFL thrown in, make sure to visit my new e-blog: justcoverblog.com. I've been sporadic at posting this summer at the start, but will be revving up with daily posts in the next few days. There will loads of content and a few gambling rants once the season begins.
Well, five weeks from today, the college football season begins. We're all chomping at the bit to see and discuss some actual action. Speaking of action, lets get some discussion rolling on these Big 10 out of conference games that are already on the Big Board in Vegas and other odds sites.
Got any best bets among this group? Let's hear them. Here are the games:
Missouri +6 over Illinois (neutral site), Week One.
Iowa -10 at Iowa State, Week Two.
USC -3 at Ohio State, Week Two.
Notre Dame -3 at Michigan, Week Two.
Michigan State +7 at Notre Dame, Week Three.
Illinois -3 at Cincinnati, Week 12.
Wiso -11 at Hawaii, Week 14.
I know, not a lot to choose from.
A couple of points:
1.) We have seen some big movements in the Mizz/Illini and USC/OSU lines. At the Golden Nugget in downtown Las Vegas, the Illini opened at -2.5. It did not stay that way for too long. Very quickly it got bet up to six and when online books finally released lines, that is the number it opened at. The same thing happened with the USC/OSU line, but in the oppositie direction. That line opened at 6 at the Nugget. But all sorts of early money came in on the Bucks and the price fell to -3.
2.) The Michigan/Notre Dame line opened at 3.5, fell to 2.5 and is now holding steady a 3.The ND line is weighed at -120, while Michigan is at even money. That tells us that more recent money is coming in on ND and in order to stem that, the oddsmakers not only boosted the lines, but made the bet more expensive to make as well. Is it worth pointing out the underdog in thise series is 20-5 ATS with a 12-12-1 straight up record? I love seeing the Wolverines catching points in this rivalry. The public can keep pouring money in on the Irish for all I care. I'll fade them and go with the Book everytime.
3.) By matter of principle, I always take the Dog in the UM/ND series. In addition to that, I love, I mean flat out adore the Spartans catching a full TD against the Irish. MSU has won 10 of the 13 games on the scoreboard and really own ND Stadium having won six a row there. Among this small menu of games, it is my BEST BET. Book It!
Any thoughts on these games? Hell, I dont care, lets talk about other games. Whatever. Let's get this season rolling!
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.
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.