Tag Archives: Final Four

2017 NCAA Tournament Notebook: Final Four Coastal War

Heading into the NCAA Tournament, not many people could’ve predicted the Final Four cast that will be on display this coming Saturday in Glendale, Arizona.  Two schools arrive from the extreme east coast, both from the Carolinas no less.  It had been since UCLA made it to their third straight Final Four in 2008 that the west coast had representation.  This year the college basketball world was graced with two left coast participants.  Each of the teams in the Final Four has at least one distinct attribute which provides an advantage over their semifinal opponent; and perhaps which will carry over into the title game.  It’s going to be a true coastal war on Saturday evening.

Standing Tall

North Carolina crushes opponents on the boards.  The Tar Heels lead the nation in rebounding margin, and that will serve as a major factor against Oregon.  Jordan Bell was a one man wrecking crew against Kansas in the Elite Eight.  How will he be able to handle UNC’s huge front line of 6-10 Kennedy Meeks, 6-9 Isaiah Hicks, and 6-10 Tony Bradley?  The ability to crash the boards, particularly on the offense end allows Justin Jackson to unleash his quick-release jumper freely, and give the Tar Heels multiple possessions.  If the Ducks can’t neutralize this quickly, it will make for a long night.

Oblivious to the Danger

Right now, Oregon is playing with absolutely no fear.  Tyler Dorsey is flat-out killing it.  Jordan Bell single-handedly terrorized Kansas around the rim, and Dillon Brooks is a willing go-to guy who is unconscious about unleashing some offense.  The Ducks have a pretty light rotation, but what they do have are multiple stars that can rise to the occasion, leaving multiple outlets if a big shot is necessary.  Oregon can play with pace to get out in transition; and have the individual offensive skills to find shots when the game bogs down in the half court.  If anyone can run with UNC, it’ll be the Ducks.

Well-balanced Diet

Mark Few’s team is the most balance team remaining.  Gonzaga can put pressure on opponents from the perimeter, slashing to the paint, or attacking the rim with size in the post.  There’s also a nice blend of veterans and young players; and more than any of the other teams remaining, the Bulldogs are likely playing with the biggest chip on their collective shoulders.  Nigel Williams-Goss is still the key cog in the machine, and he has the chops to carry the Zags for the final two games.  Gonzaga’ capacity to be multi-faceted will be crucial against South Carolina.

Up in Your Grill

Much like their coach Frank Martin, the Gamecocks have been right up in their opponent’s kitchen every single game.  South Carolina has proven to be the most physical team remaining in the field, and that will be their ace-in-the-hole.   Gonzaga struggled with West Virginia’s pressure and physicality in the Sweet 16.  While Martin’s team won’t press heavily, the constant harassment and bumping in the half court is more than sufficient to rattle cages.  Although the Gamecocks don’t have a ton of size on the front line, the guards are powerfully built, and that drives their physicality.  If South Carolina is given the freedom to play as physically as they have all tournament, Gonzaga will be battered, bruised, and possibly go bye-bye.

New Blood vs. Blue Blood

Aside from the east coast/west coast rift, the 2017 Final Four also gives us some upstart programs trying to make a name, versus one legendary program, and coach who is trying to cement his legacy.  Although Dana Altman, Mark Few, and Frank Martin have been around for quite some time, this is the breakthrough opportunity each has been waiting for.  Altman did a nice job at Creighton for many years, but never really gets mentioned among the great college basketball coaches.  Martin gave Kansas State some of its best years in the college basketball landscape, but winning a title at a football-crazed school could propel South Carolina to sustained success in hoops.  Mark Few is Gonzaga basketball.  Whether Gonzaga ascends to the upper echelon of college basketball’s elite programs, hinges upon what Few’s team does this coming weekend.

Predictions

In the first semifinal, I see Gonzaga’s depth and versatility being the deciding factor versus South Carolina.  The whistles will probably be a bit tighter especially early-on in the semifinal games, and that won’t make it easy for the Gamecocks to apply the physicality that Frank Martin’s team is accustomed to.  With a bit more free reign, Mark Few’s team will outlast South Carolina to reach Monday’s final.

As much fun as it would be to see an all west coast National Title game, I think the Tar Heels are going to simply be too much on the boards for Oregon’s slim frontline to handle.  It was one thing to punch Kansas in the mouth, as the Jayhawks only real threat in the paint was Landen Lucas.  North Carolina will pound the paint and the glass until the Ducks are beaten into submission.  Normally the pace that Oregon can play at would be a distinguished advantage, but the Tar Heels love to get out in transition, especially after giving up a basket.  North Carolina will meet Gonzaga for the championship.

Despite a topsy-turvy last few weeks, which provided a less than predictable Final Four, we’ll be left with two #1 seeds squaring off for the National Championship trophy.  Roy Williams, an all-time great, with an opportunity to carve his legendary status into stone.  And Mark Few, a great coach who has stayed the course at a school long considered a mid-major.  Winning a national title will validate not only his status as an all-time great coach, but will permanently remove the mid-major label from Gonzaga University.

Prior to the tournament, I didn’t like Gonzaga to advance past the Sweet 16.  However, the Bulldogs have gotten better as the tournament has progressed, and have the versatility and firepower to go toe-to-toe with North Carolina.  Without a doubt, Roy Williams’ team has the experience and the pedigree.  A year ago most of these same players ended the season with heartbreak against Villanova.  This year the Zags rip the Tar Heels hearts out once again.  Gonzaga 86 North Carolina 82.  The Gonzaga Bulldogs will be College Basketball’s 2017 National Champion.

E-mail Damon at  or follow him on Twitter @DamoKnowsSports.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

March Madness – From Pistol Pete to a Magic Carpet Ride

I didn’t begin to grow my hair, longer than the crew cut I sported at the time, because of the influence of rock groups I listened to, like Steppenwolf and Cream, who were popular at the time. It was due to a basketball player who was my idol, “Pistol” Pete Maravich. I loved the way Pistol Pete’s shaggy brown hair flopped as he brought the ball up the court for his team, the LSU Tigers.

Freshmen weren’t allowed to play on the varsity back in 1966, so Pete’s first year as a starter for the Bayou Bengals was the fall of 1967. And there were very few games that were televised back then, but when there was a game on television I was watching. I couldn’t wait for Saturday afternoons and the SEC game of the week.

I was also a sophomore on our high school’s team in ’67 (we didn’t have a varsity and junior varsity). We had an “A” team and a “B” team and I was on the “B” team.

The problem was, we had to cut our hair to play sports at Wilcox County High School in Camden, AL. I began to let mine grow in 1968 which was my second year on the “B” team (that team went 17-0 by the way). But come November and basketball practice, whack, we had to get that hair cut. Mine wasn’t trimmed short enough so I had to go back and get it snipped again. And friends, it wasn’t very long to begin with.

The fall of 1968 was also when I had my first kiss, my first taste of whiskey, and my first cigarette. I’ve since given up the cigarettes.

So those were heady days. And as the lyrics to the Grateful Dead’s Uncle John’s Band go, “Wo, oh, what I want to know, where does the time go?”

It has now been 50 years since Pistol Pete Maravich was in his first varsity season down in Baton Rouge. I was fortunate to witness him play the first game in what became Beard-Eaves Memorial Coliseum in Auburn on January 11, 1969. The home team Tigers won that game, 90-71. Sorry Pete.

And, it is noteworthy that LSU never made the NCAA Tournament during Maravich’s playing days. They did receive an invitation to the NIT his senior year.

March wasn’t exactly bursting with madness back in those days. In fact, there were only 23 teams in the NCAA Tournament. But, the UCLA Bruins were in the middle of a three-year title run under the tutelage of John Wooden and the leadership of their star center, Lew Alcindor, who was later to become Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Yes, it’s a long way from those 23 teams, from 50 years ago, to the field of 68 that we grapple with today, and there are 10 of the usual suspects (North Carolina, Princeton, West Virginia, Dayton, Virginia Tech, Kansas, Louisville, New Mexico State, SMU, and UCLA) in both sets of brackets.

But interest is at a fever pitch, in the year 2017, and we are all caught in the throes of what is now termed “March Madness.”

The “Sweet 16” will have begun play by the time you read this, and here is the way I see it shaking down.

In chronological order:

Sweet 16

Michigan over Oregon

Gonzaga over West Virginia

Kansas over Purdue

Arizona over Xavier

North Carolina over Butler

South Carolina (Welcome Cinderella!) over Baylor

UCLA over Kentucky

Wisconsin over Florida

 

Elite Eight

South Carolina over Wisconsin

Gonzaga over Arizona

Kansas over Michigan

UCLA over North Carolina

 

That leaves us with a Final Four of:

South Carolina vs. Gonzaga

Kansas vs. UCLA

 

So let’s fasten our seat belts as we approach the final turn on that magic carpet ride… ”March Madness.”

 

E-mail Bird at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @Autull.

It’s not a Homer Pick if my Team can Win it All

As much as I love the Louisville Cardinals basketball team, I always muse that it’s much easier to remain objective picking my March Madness bracket if the Cards don’t make the field.  Now, that’s typically a rare occurrence, and fortunately, over the last decade or so, UofL has been in the discussion as a national title contender, so picking them to win isn’t an outlandish proposition.  This past Monday, I rapidly completed my bracket, and immediately tweeted my prediction that Louisville will win it all.  Within minutes of making announcing my choice, I had several friends drop the “Homer” label on me.  So, I ask the question, is it really a homer pick if the team you root for is a legitimate contender?  I say no.  Ponder that as you read through my predictions for the entire bracket.

East Region

The defending Champion Villanova Wildcats reside here, and it’s their region for the taking.  Jay Wright’s team is battle-tested, and looks more than capable of a repeat.  Let’s not be too hasty, as there are a number of hazards on the road to Phoenix.

Dangerous on Day 1:

Watch out for the UNC-Wilmington Seahawks.  Kevin Keatts is from the Rick Pitino coaching tree, and he has put together a dangerous squad.  In last year’s tournament, the Seahawks pushed Duke to the limit in the Round of 64 before losing a hard-fought game by just eight points.   The Seahawks will push the pace and play pressure defense, which will be in direct contrast to Virginia, as they get another ACC foe this year.  If UNCW can dictate tempo, it could spell early round trouble for the Cavaliers.  While Tony Bennett’s team is always one of the toughest defensively, their style keeps opponents within striking distance, which could play right into Wilmington’s hands.

Early Exit:

Baylor ripped off 15 straight wins to open the season, and looked like an elite team.  While the Bears aren’t completely abysmal, an early disappearing act may be on its way.  Baylor is 5-5 over its final 10 games; and is scuffling enough that a loss to New Mexico State in the opening round, or a run-in with a powerful and hungry SMU team in the Round of 32 should be the demise of Scott Drew’s club.

Pivotal Match-Up:

The most critical match-up to affect this region will be Virginia vs. Villanova, part two.  Part one on January 29 was an absolute classic, as the Cavaliers led most of the way, on the road no less.  The Wildcats scratched and clawed their way back into the game late, and won 61-59 on Donte DiVincenzo tip in as time expired.  I suspect round two will be just as grinding as the first meeting, only with a trip to the Elite Eight on the line.  I have Nova surviving it, but no matter which team comes out of it, they’ll be in prime form to make it out of the East Region.

Dark Horse:

Fittingly, the SMU Mustangs are the dark horse in the East.  A bit under the radar, and under -appreciated coming out of the AAC, Tim Jankovich’s team has something to prove.  The Mustangs have an awful lot of length, and a ton of experience, led by the powerful Semi Ojeleye.   The Ponies haven’t lost since January 22 at Cincinnati 66-64, and the Bearcats finished just a game behind SMU in the standings.  Facing a favorable #3 Seed in Baylor, and then a Duke team which is heavily reliant on young players, there’s a strong chance the Mustangs can aptly fulfill the dark horse role.

Who Wins the East?

I’ve gotta stick with the Villanova Wildcats.  Whether the Cats have it in them to repeat once they arrive at the Final Four, I can’t say, or at least won’t say just yet; but this team has enough talented pieces to chase a mini dynasty.  With a rock-solid backcourt of Jaylen Brunson and senior leader Josh Hart, along with last year’s hero, senior Kris Jenkins, it would be a good bet to book a reservation for Nova in Phoenix.

West Region

The OCD in me loves that we actually got two western teams as the top seeds with #1 Gonzaga and #2 Arizona.  It feels like there’s a real opportunity for the west coast to get some representation in the Final Four; and in the case of Zona, have a distinct home court advantage.

Dangerous on Day 1:

The West has many double-digit seeds that I think can stop some hearts in the Round of 64.  Xavier is one, although they’re not an under-the-radar candidate.  The same goes for VCU.  However, the 12, 13, 14 seeds, Princeton, Bucknell, and Florida Gulf-Coast may also pose some problems.  My personal pick is Bucknell.  The Bison have the mid-major formula of solid veteran guards, along with sufficient frontcourt size, which leads to upsets.  Guys like Zach Thomas, Nana Foulland, and Stephen Brown may inject themselves into the American consciousness with a win of West Virginia, and potential battle with Notre Dame.  The West may be blown up by day two.

Early Exit:

West Virginia is my odds-on favorite to get bounced.  Naturally, as I picked Bucknell, as my double-digit danger choice; and the Bison face the Mountaineers.  Not that there’s anything particularly wrong with West Virginia.  Bob Huggins’ team got plucked in the Round of 64 last year, and feel like a good candidate to get bounced, in what could be a topsy-turvy region.  If I had to pick another top seed that may be at peril, it would be Florida State.   Leonard Hamilton has put together a talented group led by sophomore 6-7 guard Dwayne Bacon.  However, these Seminoles haven’t experienced the tournament yet.  If the Noles get past Florida Gulf Coast, the Round of 32 could be the end of the road.

Pivotal Match-Up:

A Sweet 16 tilt between Gonzaga and Notre Dame is my key match-up for this region.  Mark Few has had the Bulldogs on the precipice of the Final Four in the past, only to have his talented, expectation-laden teams fall short.  This rendition of Gonzaga has a go-to star in Nigel Williams-Goss, and plenty of heft manning the middle with Przemek Karnowski.  Many feel like this is the year for the Zags to finally break through.  Not so fast.  The Golden Domers are essentially the same team that has been to the Elite Eight the past two seasons.  Mike Brey’s team is led by the versatile Bonzie Colson, and has plenty of exterior firepower as well with Steve Vasturia and V.J. Beachem.  I think the Irish make a third consecutive trip to the Elite Eight, and leave Gonzaga fans longing for that elusive Final Four run.

Dark Horse:

The aforementioned Notre Dame Fighting Irish team is my dark horse.  Yes, the Irish are a #5 seed, but certainly are not considered favorites to escape the region.  The experience on hand, along with the tournament success this team has gained over the previous two seasons, makes Brey’s team extremely dangerous.  Assuming Notre Dame gets past Gonzaga, there’s no reason that Arizona, or whichever opponent finds their way to the Elite Eight, can’t be eliminated by the Fighting Irish.

Who Wins the West?

I’ve barely mentioned the Arizona Wildcats up until now, but Sean Miller’s squad is my choice to win the West.  The Wildcats are at the top of their game heading into the NCAA Tournament, having won nine of their last 10 games, including capturing the Pac-12 tournament title.  6-5 sophomore Alonzo Trier is a do-everything type of player and 7-0 super frosh Lauri Markkanen is rapidly becoming one of the best players in the country.  Miller just missed the Final Four in 2015.  This year he’ll get Zona to Phoenix for a shot at the National Championship.

Midwest Region

The Midwest Region seems to have laid out fairly well for my Louisville Cardinals.  Without a doubt Kansas can’t be taken lightly as the #1 seed.  However, #3 seed Oregon just lost a key player.  #4 Purdue is good, but definitely not elite, and the Cardinals have already beaten the Boilermakers.  And #5 seed Iowa State has been a huge disappointment the last few years come March.  Of course, I say this, and the entire region could blow-up in my face.

Dangerous on Day 1:

When I look at the Midwest, I think chalk.  It just feels like a section of the bracket that will end up staying to form, as few of the double-digit seeds feel like a huge upset threat.  If I had to guess which teams have a shot, I’d point out Nevada and Vermont.  The Wolfpack won the Mountain West regular season, and tournament titles, and closed the season winning eight in a row.  The Catamounts haven’t lost a game since December 21, closing out the regular season with 21 wins in a row.  Both teams face opponents – Iowa State and Purdue – which have displayed the propensity to get clipped early in the tournament.  Beware.

Early Exit:

I referenced in my Midwest Region Preview yesterday, that Oregon’s biggest challenge heading into the NCAA Tournament is the loss of Chris Boucher to injury.  Most teams that suffer loss of key personnel typically either rally around it, or sulk and lose focus.  My bet is on the latter.  Top player Dillon Brooks can be a star, but he also has his own meltdowns and antics which distract from the team.  Round of 64 opponent Iona played NCAA tourney participants Florida State and Nevada early in the year; and knocked off Nevada in the second match-up.  The Ducks will likely get past the Gaels, but my prediction is that Oregon will run into red-hot Rhode Island, and get shot down quickly.

Pivotal Match-Up:

It may seem a bit early to be considered a pivotal match-up, but the potential Kansas/Michigan State game will play a major factor in this region.  The Spartans have been down this season.  So down, that for a while it felt like Tom Izzo’s team wouldn’t make the Big Dance.  Well, here come the Spartans, landing at a #9 seed, just in time to bug the hell out of top seeded Kansas.  Honestly, there’s no reason the Jayhawks shouldn’t knock off MSU.  However, the one major weakness for Kansas is in the frontcourt where Bill Self’s team is a bit thin.  That just happens to be a strength of the Spartans.  If Kansas escapes, it will likely propel the Jayhawks to great fortune.  If not, the Midwest Region really opens up.

Dark Horse:

#11 seed Rhode Island is the sleeper in this region.  The Rams closed strong, winning eight of nine; and have a win over Cincinnati under their belts early in the year.  Undoubtedly, URI starts with a difficult contest against #6 Creighton, and would likely have to take on #3 Oregon in the Round of 32.  With the way the Rams are playing, solid inside-outside balance, and up-and-coming Dan Hurley at the helm, Rhode Island has the look of a Cinderella.  I envision the Rams riding that late-season success into an Elite Eight appearance.

Who Wins the Midwest?

I have the Louisville Cardinals coming out of the Midwest.  As I mentioned in my preview of the Midwest, the Cardinals have their flaws.  Most of those flaws however are self-inflicted.  This is a team that can play multiple defenses, get out in transition, and pick teams apart.  Focusing on applying the death blow is what Louisville needs to add to the repertoire to advance deep into the tournament.  Rick Pitino will adjust the rotations, and as usual, have some tricks he kept hidden all season, which will put UofL on the right path toward the Final Four.

South Region

There’s always one region which seems to have a lion’s share of top programs, and could almost be considered a “Group of Death”.  The South is it this year.  Arguably the top three college basketball programs of all time – KentuckyNorth Carolina, and UCLA – all reside in the South.  What makes this region really fun though, is that in addition to all that tradition, some of the most dangerous double-digit seeds also found their way here.

Dangerous on Day 1:

This one is easy; the most dangerous high seed is #12 Middle Tennessee State.  The Blue Raiders pulled off the biggest upset in NCAA Tournament history last year, knocking off #2 seed Michigan State.  Much of that squad is back for a second helping, and now they have 6-8 senior JaCorey Williams.  The Arkansas transfer leads MTSU in scoring at 17 points per game.  In the Round of 64, the Blue Raiders get Richard Pitino’s #5 Minnesota Golden Gophers.  The Gophers are back in the tournament field after having a miserable 2015-16 season, finishing 8-23.  Without a doubt, Pitino did a masterful job turning this team around, but the visit to the tournament may be short-lived.

Early Exit:

Once again John Calipari has an uber-talented group of freshmen, forecasted for greatness, which captured the SEC regular season and tournament titles.  Kentucky has won 10 games in a row, and may possibly be hitting their stride.  Like most of Calipari’s teams, in-game focus, and reliance on physical ability over substance, are the most glaring flaws.  On most nights, the Wildcats can overcome those.  Enter Wichita State as the foe in Round 2.  Greg Marshall’s team has reeled off 15 wins in a row, and has faced tournament teams, Louisville, Michigan State, and Oklahoma State this season.  The Shockers were also woefully under-seeded by the tournament committee.  That sounds familiar.  Like 2014 familiar when Wichita State was undefeated and a #1 seed, and had to face a Kentucky team that ended up with a peculiar #8 seed.  Turnabout is fair play.  Wichita gets revenge on Kentucky, and sends the Cats packing.

Pivotal Match-Up:

It has to be Kentucky vs. Wichita State.  If my forecast is correct, and the Shockers knock off the Wildcats, then things open up for UCLA.  Not that the Bruins can’t take down Kentucky, they’ve done so the last two years in row.  This year, Steve Alford’s team traveled to Rupp Arena and did it.  Despite my prediction, it will take everything Wichita has to defeat the Wildcats.  Many times, that type of effort leads to a let-down the following game.  If Kentucky gets through the Shockers, then Calipari’s team has vengeance on the mind, and a more talented opponent for the Bruins to have in their way.

Dark Horse:

The Cincinnati Bearcats haven’t been able to recapture the success experienced under Bob Huggins in the 1990’s.  Now relegated to the AAC after the Big East restructure several seasons ago, UC doesn’t garner a lot of respect.  Mick Cronin’s team could punch some teams square in the face and take back respect.  Cincy plays a physical brand of basketball, particularly on the defensive end.  That has been Cronin’s hallmark.  Senior point guard Troy Caupain runs this team with aplomb.  Juniors Gary Clark and North Carolina State transfer Kyle Washington provide a strong frontcourt, to go with the scoring punch of 6-6 sophomore Jacob Evans.  Assuming the Bearcats get by Kansas State in the opener, UC could present a tough match-up for UCLA in the Round of 32.

Who Wins the South?

Although I’m never sold on Steve Alford coached teams, I’ve got the UCLA Bruins getting out of the South, and giving the Final Four its second west coast rep.  There’s an awful lot of talent on board for the Bruins, particularly super freshman Lonzo Ball and T.J. Leaf.  Ball does just about everything, and Leaf leads the UCLA in scoring.       Blend that with veteran contributions from senior Isaac Hamilton and junior Thomas Welsh, and the Bruins have the arsenal available to make a run at the NCAA title.

THE FINAL FOUR:

The first semifinal pits a couple of Wildcats against each other.  Defending champion Villanova against traditional power Arizona.  Nova has all the moxie, veteran experience, and the championship in their hands until someone rips it away.  Josh Hart is one of the toughest players around, and always seems to make the necessary play to win.  I think the biggest difference will be up front.  Lauri Markkanen is getting better by leaps and bounds every game.  The size issue that Zona presents will be the difference as Arizona gets back to the NCAA title game for the first time since 2001.

On the other side of the bracket, Louisville and UCLA square off.  It’s been some time since the Cardinals and Bruins have played, so it’ll be nice to see these traditional powers, and rivals of the 70s and 80s get back together.  The Bruins can put up some serious points, and have an edge in overall depth of talent, but that gap isn’t as large as you’d think.  Getting out in transition is just what Donovan Mitchell and Deng Adel want to do for the Cardinals, and if UofL doesn’t have to settle for jump shots, it’s for the best, as that runs hot and cold for the Cards.  The biggest difference here is coaching and experience.  Rick Pitino is a far superior strategist than Steve Alford.  The Cardinals also have several holdovers from the 2015 Elite Eight run, including Quentin Snider and Mangok Mathiang.  After having to miss out on the Big Dance last year, the Cardinals are hungry for more, and get through to the Championship game.

THE NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP:

Arizona Wildcats.  Louisville Cardinals.  This is a National Championship game that I crave.  Sean Miller’s star continues to rise, as he brings Arizona back to the prominence.  Rick Pitino continues his master craftsmanship of molding elite basketball teams.  Alonzo Trier and Donovan Mitchell will be the showstoppers.  Much of the talent position by position will be crossed out.  Louisville has the big men to throw different looks at Lauri Markkanen, and limit the freshman’s impact on the game.  The X-factor will be junior point guard Quentin Snider.  Q can very quietly step up in the biggest moments, and his control of the game, and perhaps a big shot or two, will decide this one.  Rick Pitino gets his third, and the Louisville Cardinals grab their fourth National Championship.

E-mail Damon at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @DamoKnowsSports.

Filling out My Bracket with a Cavalier Attitude

2016 was one of those rare College Basketball seasons which never revealed a truly elite team.  Usually there’s at least one school which is head and shoulders above the rest.  With so many teams flitting in and out of elite status over the course of the season, I had to loosen the reigns a bit while making my selections.

Most years I can pretty confidently have the bracket completed within 15-20 minutes after the field is released on Selection Sunday; but certainly not this season.  It took me until Tuesday evening to finalize my picks all the way to the Champion.  Here is my Region by Region breakdown of the 2016 NCAA Tournament.

SOUTH REGION

We’ll start in the South Region, where the top overall seed, the Kansas Jayhawks reside.  Bill Self’s team began to pick up steam late in the year, and is one team which is as close to being truly elite as you can ask for this year.  This is how the South shakes out:

Dangerous on Day 1:

The Hawaii Rainbow Warriors are my pick to cause real problems as a double-digit seed.  Stefan Jankovic is the name to remember.  The 6-11 junior is the leading scorer and rebounder for the Bows.  Out of conference, they beat a tough Northern Iowa team, and lost close battles with tournament participants Texas Tech and Oklahoma.  Look for Hawaii’s experienced backcourt, along with their star Jankovic to knock off the Cal Golden Bears, and their super frosh Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb.

Early Exit:

As far as a higher seed which will get bounced on the first day, I just mentioned them, the California Golden Bears.  Cuonzo Martin’s team has a plethora of talent, but inconsistency has plagued them.  Cal has a good mix of size and perimeter ability.  Aside from the freshmen Brown and Rabb, the Bears also have excellent wing players in Jabari Bird, Tyrone Wallace, and Jordan Mathews.  However, between the inconsistency, and now the revelation of a scandal involving a recently fired assistant coach, I see the Golden Bears departing quickly.

Pivotal Match-up:

The face-off between the Maryland Terrapins and the Kansas Jayhawks should decide the region.  Kansas is one of the more balanced teams.  Senior Perry Ellis uses a variety of fundamentally sound post moves to lead the way in scoring.  Old man jokes aside, Ellis truly has an old school game.  He teams up front with Landen Lucas, and brick house Jamari Traylor.   Add in the perimeter attack of Frank Mason III, Devonte Graham, along with Wayne Selden; and Kansas has a lot of ways to beat you.

The Terps are on the list of teams with temporary elite status this year.  But don’t let that fool you; they’re as talented as any team in the country.  Melo Trimble is arguably the best point guard in the country; and they have plenty of post power with Robert Carter and Diamond Stone.  It’ll be interesting to see how Jake Layman matches up both offensively and defensively in this one, because he may be the difference.  In any event, whichever team gets past this game is going to the Final Four.

Dark Horse:

Sixth seeded Arizona is my pick to surprise in the South.  Like much of the Pac-12, the Wildcats were up and down all season.  Much of that can also be attributed to the absence of blue chip freshman Alonzo Trier for a number of games.  However, Trier, Gabe York, and Ryan Anderson each average over 15 PPG; and they can rely on seven-foot senior Kaleb Tarczewski to patrol the paint.  Don’t be surprised to see Coach Sean Miller get his team together for another deep run.

Who Wins the South?

My pick to win the South Region is the Maryland Terrapins.  Coach Mark Turgeon is a coach on the rise, and is building a strong foundation at Maryland.  His team has the balance and depth necessary to sustain a deep run, and fend off periods of offensive drought.  Keep an eye out for the Terps in Houston.

WEST REGION:

The West is widely considered the weakest region.  Top seeded Oregon is not a school accustomed to being in this position, and probably hasn’t been seen by many people East of the Mississippi.  A weaker installment of the Duke Blue Devils, and a perimeter heavy #2 seed in Oklahoma, makes for a wide open, truly Wild West.

Dangerous on Day 1:

Yale has rapidly gained popular support as the classic 5/12 upset special.  The Bulldogs made sure to play some top teams in the non-conference.  Duke beat them by 19, and USC by 12, but they also pushed SMU to the limit in a two-point loss.  They are dealing with turmoil of their own, with the dismissal of team Captain Jack Montague in February, but Yale still has what it takes to advance at least one round.

Early Exit:

I have no doubt that Shaka Smart is going to do great things at Texas, just not this year.  Smart did a real nice job with the Longhorns this season, but it’s going to take a bit more time for his full “Havoc” to take effect.  Running into a veteran Northern Iowa team, who is playing in their second straight tournament is simply the wrong spot for Texas.

Pivotal Match-up:

Texas A&M vs. Northern Iowa won’t necessarily determine the Final Four representative from the West, but it will have a major impact.  The Aggies became a popular choice immediately after the brackets were released, to take the West Region.  While they have had a strong season overall, they had a rough four game losing streak against some very average teams in the SEC.  I’m not sure Northern Iowa has answers for Danuel House and Jalen Jones; however, the Panthers’ Wes Washpun will be the X-factor.  He’ll pester the Aggies shaky lead guards, and has a knack for hitting big shots.  If A&M can get past this one, it may propel them to great things.  I just don’t believe they will.

Dark Horse:

Cincinnati is my sleeper in the region, coming in as the #9 seed.  The Bearcats are always tough defensively, and their physical nature could disrupt the up and down style of Oregon in the second round.  Whether they can score enough is the question?  Cincy could be the team to knock out the first #1 seed.

Who Wins the West?

I’ve barely mentioned them while discussing the West Region, but my Final Four pick out of this bracket is the Oklahoma Sooners.  Although it goes against my nature to pick a perimeter heavy team to advance this far, I think the path in front of them lends itself to that type of success.  Buddy Hield has been flat-out magical this season, and that magic will carry them through the West Region.

EAST REGION:

Yesterday in my piece regarding equitable brackets I referred to the East Region as the “Group of Death”.   That may be a bit dramatic, but the East is certainly heavy with pedigree, if you will.  We should get blue bloods Indiana and Kentucky in the second round, followed by the winner of that game against North Carolina in the Sweet 16.  This is going to be a fun region to watch.

Dangerous on Day 1:

Most of the double-digit seeds in this region aren’t much of a threat.  However, you won’t want to sleep on Stephen F. Austin.  The Lumberjacks are playing in their third straight NCAA Tournament, and they did knock off VCU in the First Four a couple of years ago.  Coach Brad Underwood is beginning to emerge as an attractive potential hire for the power conferences; and they have the guard play to compete.  I doubt SFA pulls it off, but they have the goods to put a mighty scare into West Virginia.

Early Exit:

This is the one region which doesn’t really have a glaring candidate among the higher seeds to get bounced early.  Either Kentucky or Indiana will go home at the end of the first weekend regardless, so unless there’s a big shocker, most of the top seeds are safe.  Notre Dame against the play-in winner is the closest thing to an early out surprise that the East has to offer.

Pivotal Match-up:

All the talk is about the top of the region, but the most pivotal match-up to me is Xavier vs. West Virginia.  Both of these teams are tough as nails, so this should be a grinder.  Chris Mack’s team was very consistent, and has good perimeter/interior balance.  The battle up front between Devin Williams, who’s an absolute beast, and the Musketeer’s big men James Farr and Jalen Reynolds should be entertaining.  We’ll also witness some outstanding guards going head-to-head with Trevon Bluiett and Jaysean Paige.  With all eyes on the top of the bracket, the winner of this game may get to fly under the radar.

Dark Horse:

Anytime you have a sure-fire lottery pick on your team, you’ve got a chance to advance through the bracket.  Providence has that player in Kris Dunn.  A powerfully built 6-4 guard, Dunn is the type of player who could put a team on his back for three weeks.  Luckily, he’s also got a great running mate in 6-9 Ben Bentil, who leads the Friars in scoring and rebounding.  Early in the season it looked as if Providence would do better than a 9 seed.  Don’t be shocked if they make a deep run.

Who Wins the East?

The Xavier Musketeers have never made the Final Four.  This year, I think they finally do it.  Led by one of the bright young coaches in the game in Chris Mack, along with the required balance necessary to deal with every type of opponent; I see Xavier getting the job done.  The Musketeers will harass the North Carolina guards into a rough shooting night, and the big men will keep Brice Johnson at bay on the glass to finally break through to the Final Four.

MIDWEST REGION:

If the East is the Group of Death, then the Midwest is “The Bloodbath”.  Honestly I view this as the most difficult region.  There are essentially two #1 seeds with Virginia and Michigan State.  Both of these top-tier teams will have some tremendously physical match-ups en route to the Regional Final.  Can they survive it?

Dangerous on Day 1:

While most of the Midwest region will be playing brass knuckle ball, the Iona Gaels and Iowa State Cyclones are going to be in a track meet.  Iona has a future pro in A.J. English; and that alone makes them dangerous.  The Gaels will get up and down with the best of them, and shoot a lot of 3’s.  Although they didn’t have any great wins this season, they may just get their first during the tournament.

Early Exit:

Iowa State clearly has talent, and Georges Niang will be the most versatile player on the floor on most nights.  The Cyclones have seven players who average double figures, so scoring won’t be an issue. However, it’s been rocky waters in Steve Prohm’s first season in the locker room, which may end much like last year’s did for Iowa State; on the first day.

Pivotal Match-up:

When I mentioned this region being a bloodbath, I was thinking specifically about the potential match-up between Virginia and Purdue.  The Boilermakers frontline of A.J. Hammons, Caleb Swanigan, and Isaac Haas is imposing.  The Cavaliers won’t be intimidated with 7-0 Mike Tobey, and powerful Anthony Gill going to battle with them.  The backcourt is where Virginia likely gets it done, with London Perrantes knocking down shots, and Malcolm Brogdon doing a bit of everything.  The key will be if either of these teams have another 15 rounds in them once they reach the Regional Final.

Dark Horse:

Seton Hall is HOT! The Pirates have won 14 of their last 16 games, including the Big East Tournament Title.  They’re led by four sophomores, namely Isaiah Whitehead on the wing, and Angel Delgado in the paint.  Whitehead is the type of player that can lift a team onto his shoulders, especially for a short sprint of the tournament.  The toughest part will be the difficult pairings they’ll have right from the jump.

Who Wins the Midwest?

Virginia has lost to Michigan State two years in a row in the NCAA Tournament; last year in the second round, and the Sweet 16 the prior year.  Both of those games were bare knuckle brawls.  The toe-to-toe match-up between Denzel Valentine and Brogdon one last time may become a thing of legend.  I expect nothing less than brilliance this year, but this time Tony Bennett gets his guys over the hump.  Virginia advances to the Final Four.

THE FINAL FOUR:

In the first semifinal we’ll have Maryland vs. Oklahoma.  There will be some unbelievable guard play on display with Melo Trimble and Rasheed Sulaimon, nose-to-nose with Isaiah Cousins and Buddy Hield.  The guards may cross each other out, leaving the Terps frontcourt to be the difference.  This is the game which will expose the Sooners up front.  Willow-thin Khadeem Latin will have all he can handle and then some with Robert Carter and Diamond Stone.  The overall balance of Maryland gets them into the Championship game.

Next up will be Final Four newcomers Xavier, versus a Virginia team which hasn’t been this far since 1984.  While the backcourt match-up won’t be quite as dynamic in this game, it will certainly be formidable.  Unlike the other semifinal, the yeoman’s work being done up front by both teams big men, may even things out.  The difference here will be the defense of Virginia, and Malcolm Brogdon.  The Cavaliers put opponents in a vice and squeeze until they crush them.  Defense will push Virginia into the final game.

THE NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP:

Squaring off in the National Title game are the Maryland Terrapins and the Virginia Cavaliers.  Former ACC Rivals meet again for the hardware.   Virginia has beaten opponents all season by imposing their will.  A similar fate awaits the Terrapins in the Championship game.  The size up front which Maryland has been able to use as an advantage all tournament, will be offset by the physical nature of Virginia.  Melo Trimble will rise to stardom this March, but the Cavaliers have a disciplined backcourt combo which will be able to keep him in check.  Once again, Malcolm Brogdon is the difference maker, impacting every aspect of the game, to lead his team to victory.  The senior laden Virginia Cavaliers are your National Champions!

Email Damon at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @DamoKnowsSports.

Image via Flickr/Thomson20192

Creating Bracket Equity

Complaining about how each region of the NCAA Tournament bracket is structured has been a time-honored tradition for as long as I can remember.  2016 is not the year for that ritual to change.  Aside from the issues with who got in, and who was left out; the grouping of teams within regions becomes the hot topic.  Mike DeCourcy of the Sporting News wrote an excellent piece regarding the topic of bracket imbalance today.  While I agree with most of what he has to say, I thought I’d weigh in on the subject.

The major issue the higher seeded teams gripe about is the fact that their bracket is stacked.  It happens every year, and I liken it to the dreaded “Group of Death”, which occurs in any major international Futbol (Soccer) tournament around the globe.  It’s the idea of having too many of the best teams in one region, who ultimately eliminate each other; thus robbing the fans of the marquee match-ups late in the tournament.

This year, the East Region is coming under the most scrutiny.  In particular, the grouping at the top which includes historical powers, Indiana, Kentucky, and North Carolina, has been the focus of the clamoring masses.  Now, this could’ve been resolved without removing any of these teams from the region.

Shift Kentucky down to the three slot and West Virginia to the four; and there may have been some minor grumbling, but the headliner match-up of North Carolina vs. Kentucky for a spot in the Final Four would’ve been possible.  There are other ways to rectify this, but we’ll circle back to that.

In DeCourcy’s piece, he references a quote from John Calipari, in which he questions the seed that Texas A&M received, despite the fact that the Wildcats beat the Aggies that afternoon.  Again, while I agree that UK deserved a higher seed in this case, I caution in general to overvalue conference tournament results in seeding one team or another.

Far too often we see prominent programs have an off-year, put together an outstanding four to five-day run in the conference tourney and end up getting rewarded with much too high of a seed.  Taking nothing away from Kentucky again in this case, but the committee needs to ensure seeding is based on the entire body of work.

Two glaring examples of this I can recall are Syracuse in 2006; and Maryland in 2004.  The Orange were hovering around the bubble going into the Big East Tournament, then ripped off four straight wins behind red-hot Gerry McNamara shooting.  The committee rewarded them with a five seed, when in reality they were deserving of probably a seven or eighth. They were inconsistent all year, got hot, and got over seeded.  ‘Cuse went out and laid an egg to 12 seed Texas A&M in the first round.

Then there’s 2004 Maryland.  The Terrapins were bubbilicious heading into the ACC Tournament at 16-11, in all honesty, not Big Dance worthy.   Well, the Terps went out and won the ACC crown, and despite being on the brink of missing the tournament, they ended up with a four seed.  How does a team which proved how supremely average they were all year get a four seed?  Sure, they won a game, and then lost to Syracuse in the second round.

I’m a proponent of the concept that the results don’t justify the decision.  So regardless of what happened in those two examples, those teams weren’t worthy of the seed they received.  This type of error in seeding feeds the imbalance of the brackets.  The committee probably had more deserving candidates in those slots before the crazy tournament runs by those teams, but was blinded by late season heroics.   That’s a critical error when trying to structure equitable brackets.

Going back to what DeCourcy intimated earlier today, attempting to placate the higher seeds with a favorable location needs to be completely removed from the equation.  Seeding should be based on doing everything that can be done, to allow the best teams to navigate to the Final Four.

Sure, the East Region should be held in locations in the eastern part of the country and the other regions should follow suit.  And of course, if Kansas for example is the top seed as they are this season, they should be in the geographically appropriate region, but stop bending over backward to try to get as many top seeds in their actual backyards.

There’s no way to ensure this can accommodate all of the higher seeds, so it shouldn’t be done at all.  I think back to the 2007 NCAA Tournament.  Somehow as a six seed, my Louisville Cardinals ended up in Lexington.  Now despite the fact that the Cardinals were playing in their direct rival’s gym, they were only 45 minutes from home.  A pretty cozy location given their seed.

The point is somewhere in the process of creating that bracket, someone screwed up, and in an attempt to focus on location, they created a situation that could’ve screwed a more deserving team.  Remove the “close to home” factor completely from the equation; and the formula will become much simpler.

Jay Bilas was on Mike & Mike in the morning earlier this week, and he mentioned the concept of seeding the field in advance.  Place values of 1-68 on every team, one or two weeks before Selection Sunday, and as upsets happen in the conference tournaments, remove at-large teams from that list of seeds.  This is a pretty excellent and simple concept, which should be adopted without question.

Tie this in with what I proposed last week regarding the play-in games and you have a winning formula for crafting balanced brackets.  By seeding every team from top to bottom, you’re also assigning value within the seed lines.  Using this year’s bracket, Kansas, North Carolina, Virginia, and Oregon aren’t just the number one seeds.  They’re also 1a, 1b, 1c, and 1d.  Each and every seed line will have its own sub-ranking.

This will allow the committee to build the bracket so that if everything stays to form, then the highest ranking one seed would get to play the lowest ranking four seed and then mix and match the other top four seeds in each region accordingly.  Once that is established, and the bubble teams are all assigned to the play-in games on the 11 line, it will be significantly easier for the committee to work directly off of the preset rankings, in order to balance out the regions.

The only caveat I see to the rankings will be how the committee treats the mid-majors.  The inconsistency with which teams like Monmouth and Valparaiso are treated for example may continue to be the spanner in the works.  In my estimation, if the committee would begin to lean toward the deserving mid-majors, over the underachieving majors – Syracuse and Michigan serving as this year’s examples – there will be less difficulty in creating the rankings list and seeding properly.

Any mid-majors included in the list of 68 would surely fall closer to the bottom of the at-large grouping, allowing the higher seeds in the four to five range, to play less prominent schools which fall to the 12-13 line in the early rounds.  Ultimately that will lead to the elite programs navigating further into the field, giving everyone the marquee match-ups we’re looking for.  Creating the perfect bracket isn’t very difficult after all.

Email Damon at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @DamoKnowsSports.

Photo via Wikipedia

A Slew of Stretch 4’s

A couple of weeks back I was watching the Oklahoma/Kansas game on Monday night, and casually tweeted that a handful of college basketball teams have legit, post playing big men; and the rest have a slew of stretch fours.

I really hadn’t thought about it much since. Then last Thursday, I was watching my own Louisville Cardinals playing against Pitt. During that game, Chinanu Onuaku – who has made major strides during his sophomore season – was breaking out these exquisite, two-dribble, drop-step, finish with the slam, post moves. It was a thing of beauty.

Watching this throwback skill set brought that thought back in to my head. It really made me wonder why the true back-to-the-basket, low block operators have become practically extinct? And will they ever return?

I’m reminded of this as I watch Syracuse attempt to knock off Duke in Cameron Indoor. The Blue Devils, trailing by five with less than three minutes to play, are spread all around the three-point arc. Their lone big man Marshall Plumlee, has not shown for the ball one time anywhere near the paint. After three wayward bombs from beyond the arc, the Devils are bailed out by Brandon Ingram; their frosh stretch four, who’s able to tip in one of the rebounds. That possession would have been much simpler if they had one capable post player.

Getting back to the point, first and foremost, I don’t believe we’ll ever see a day where the low block is a primary focus. Gone are the days of Sampson, Ewing, Olajuwon, Mourning, and O’Neal. Hell, I’d take Rik Smits. But it is shocking that more coaches in the college game don’t devote more time to developing at least one guy to do the job.

The lack of a true post presence is part of the reason we see such ineffective half court offensive execution. Some teams are aware of their inefficiencies to the point that they force transition, just to avoid playing in the half court. That becomes a problem when the game does become a half court battle. Defenses can force the opposition to the perimeter, leading to poor shot selection.

It may seem counterintuitive, but having a vacancy in the post also is a major factor when teams struggle against a zone defense. The thought process is typically to shoot a team out of a zone. Simply put, shoot threes and make them all, so the zone gets busted. That’s a nice idea, until the shots don’t drop. You need a pivot in the middle, who can catch the ball low, and swing it opposite.

Those zone-busting jumpers are suddenly a lot cleaner looking. The threat to score inside that defense also forces that zone to collapse. Think of a guy like Tim Duncan moving from block to block, and rotating up to the free throw line within that zone. We were treated briefly to a couple of those guys last season, in Jahlil Okafor and Karl Anthony Towns; but they weren’t around long enough to make post play trendy again.

After making my initial statement, I should actually amend it. In addition to the slew of stretch fours who are power forward size, but float around the perimeter and primarily play facing the basket; there are now an abundance of guys I’d describe as “activity forwards”.

What I mean are players whose offense is predicated on athleticism and activity, rather than an array of offensive weapons and excellent footwork. Players that come to mind are Jameel McKay, or Montrezl Harrell last year. Don’t get me wrong, they’re great guys to have. However, most of their scoring is derived from put backs, dunks, and being on the end of easy passes, off of guard penetration.

Activity forwards usually have their footwork exposed when faced with a good defender, thus the offense doesn’t run as smoothly.  They also don’t sit low enough on their defender when trying to establish position.  More often than not, they aren’t very good passers out of the post, so they don’t find open shooters. There’s an increasing population of these guys in the college game.

Even though it is somewhat of a dying art, consistent post play is a key ingredient to making a title run. Last year Duke had Okafor, and Wisconsin had Frank Kaminsky. In 2013 Louisville had Gorgui Dieng and Chane Behanan. Stretching back a bit further, North Carolina had Tyler Hansbrough in ’09, and the back-to-back Florida championship teams had Joakim Noah and Al Horford.

On the flip side, teams that pull major upsets usually have at least one legit big man who keeps finding offense when things get tough. Think Taylor Coppenrath for Vermont, George Mason’s Jai Lewis, or Kyle O’Quinn for Norfolk State.

And upset victims in many instances are perimeter oriented teams, without a consistent post scorer. Iowa State was a glaring example last year of a team that couldn’t find simple buckets when they needed them, because they weren’t accustomed to scoring down low.

I know it’s a bit early, but as you begin to put together your dark horse teams that will make a run to the Final Four; and identify those that like ripe for an early exit, think post play. The low block may never again be a focal point in college hoops, but it will always be critical to long-term success.

Six is the Magic Number

As a lifelong College hoops fanatic, I’m typically resistant to any significant changes to the rules. However, when the NCAA Playing Rules Oversight Panel released the rule updates which were being put in place for 2015-16, it was the first time I can recall agreeing with the changes.

I had my concerns about reducing the shot clock, but 30 seconds is a sweet spot I can live with; and for years, I’ve been shouting to the rooftops to change the 10 second rule. The NCAA did the right thing, and no longer resets the 10 second count if the team in possession calls a time out while still in the back court. Those were the two most significant adjustments to the actual game play; and two months into the season, college basketball is largely unchanged, with some nice enhancements via the rule modifications.

Despite the improvements brought about due to this year’s updates, the one rule change which should have been pushed to the front of the line was to increase personal fouls from five to six. Now, that was proposed, and is in experiment mode to some extent this coming post season; however, it won’t be in play come NCAA Tournament time. Giving players a little bit longer leash would have been a major upgrade to college hoops, and I’ll tell you why.

Across the sports landscape these days, officiating is under heavy fire. Whether it’s college or pro, football, basketball, baseball, you name it; officials in every sport are, let’s just say, not very well liked. Of course it’s not always warranted, but college basketball has its fair share of really poor referees. And more than any other sport, college hoops seems to have more officials, who inject themselves into the game, and think they’re part of the show.

What does any of this have to do with adding a sixth personal foul? It has everything to do with it. Allowing each player an additional personal foul will reduce the impact the officials have on the outcome of the game. I’m not suggesting that by adding that sixth foul, poor officiating shouldn’t be addressed. However, you can’t very well discipline a bad official during the game. So let’s clip their claws a bit.

Scaling back the damage caused by quick whistles will do wonders for the game and the viewers. Even on nights when the refs want to impose their will on both teams, guys who normally would need to sit on the bench for the last 10-15 minutes of the first half, will now have new life. While the constant stoppages will still be annoying, at least the fan favorites will still be on the floor.
That brings me to my next point.

College basketball has a popularity problem, particularly during the regular season. So let’s keep the stars on the floor. There isn’t nearly the amount of true “stars” in college hoops, as there were in decades past. Many teams are carried by one or two strong players, with a bunch of role players around them.

Take the Providence Friars as an example. Last week, Kris Dunn got two first half fouls against Butler. The inability to keep him on the floor, led to a 12 point deficit. While they were able to climb out of it, and ultimately win the game, his absence put them in peril. Dunn needs to be on the floor producing highlight reels, not walking on egg shells trying to avoid picking up number three.

More and more college freshmen are hanging around for one year, until they bolt for the NBA. With such limited opportunity to watch these rising stars play, we need to reduce the possibility of having them saddled with early fouls, planted to the pine.

Ben Simmons is one of the most hyped freshmen in recent history. Given that his LSU Tigers squad has been underwhelming thus far, there’s a distinct possibility America won’t see him in the Big Dance. In the meantime, we run the risk of flipping over to the rare, nationally televised LSU game, and having Simmons nowhere to be found if he gets slapped with a couple early fouls. College ball needs the stars and future stars out there showing off their talents.

A while back, my esteemed colleague Hollis Mclain III wrote a piece explaining how the new rules would narrow the gap between the haves and have-nots. You can check that out here after you finish this post. I personally disagree, and feel that by and large we won’t see much difference than we have in recent years. However, I do believe that adding a sixth personal foul will actually widen the gap; and that’s a good thing. Allow me to explain.

As I stated earlier, by adding another personal foul to each player’s arsenal, we’re drawing power away from the referees; and keeping the best players on the floor for longer periods of time. Over time, the cream will rise. More skill and physical talent will eventually wear down lesser opponents. It will also provide the viewing audience with a better basketball experience.
This won’t be as evident during the regular season, though it will certainly have an impact. Come March, when the games are being played on the biggest stage, that’s when it will really show. Rather than having a top seed sweating it out against some double-digit nightmare because their best player picked up two quick ones, coaches will be able to keep their stars in the game, thus avoiding the scare.

Look, I’m all for the VCUs, Wichita States, and Butlers of the world making a deep tournament run. I enjoy watching a 14 or 15 seed pull off a stunner. However, when we get down to the Elite Eight, and the Final Four; it’s time for the little guys to go, and let the big boys play. This rule change would increase the likelihood that as the NCAA Tournament progresses; the top teams have their best players at their disposal, allowing the tournament to take proper shape.

I love college basketball above any other sport, and I certainly don’t want to see it mirror the NBA game. But adopting the six personal foul rule permanently, like the NBA, is the right move. Ultimately I believe it will be put in play. Since it wasn’t done this year, it needs to be done sooner rather than later, for the good of the game.

Photo: ATrumbly/Flickr

Goliath’s Tale: Why Kentucky Deserves to be Remembered

America loves the underdog. Maybe because this nation was born as a scrappy fighter, colliding with a nearly invincible Goliath and coming out on top. When the giant falls a collective shout of glee is heard across the land. Tonight, the Wisconsin Badgers took their turn as the beloved little man and sent a colossus home by defeating the Kentucky Wildcats in the Final Four.

As Madison reveled in joy the formerly undefeated Wildcats descended in the bowels of Lucas Oil Stadium clearly crushed about the defeat. Outside of the Big Blue Nation not many will take time to notice the heartbreak of John Calipari’s team. After all the greater story is the unexpected victory by Frank Kaminsky and company.

While the underdog celebrates let us turn our thoughts to the slayed monster. What of his tale?

The narrative of the 2014-2015 Kentucky Wildcats will most likely be one of a team that danced with immortality and only to fall short like so many other great teams before them. This Kentucky team deserves to be remembered for so much more than that.

Andrew and Aaron Harrison began the season surrounded by whispers about their failure to follow in the “One and Done” tradition of many heralded Calipari recruits. They end this season with praise for Aaron’s innate ability as a clutch player and Andrew’s evolution into a true leader. The Harrisons deserve to be remembered for their redemption.

Tyler Ullis arrived as pint sized novelty. The talk around the Chicago product was that he was a nice backup plan after a higher ranked point guard committed elsewhere. As the season progressed Ullis morphed from a curiosity into a consummate floor general. Conversations about him started and ended praising his calm demeanor and superb ability as a floor general. Ullis deserves to be remembered for proving his critics wrong.

Willie Cauley-Stein surprised nearly everyone when he returned for his junior season. The formerly inconsistent center blossomed into the nation’s most versatile defender. Cauley-Stein deserves to be remembered for defying logic and enhancing his chance at success at the professional level.

For the past fifty years Kentucky basketball served as one of basketball’s greatest villains. Adolph Rupp is often remembered as the standard bearer for the days of segregated basketball. The program is known for scandals just as much as championships. Current Kentucky helmsmen John Calipari is the most polarizing figure in college basketball whether it be for rumors of shady dealings or his embrace of contemporary basketball culture.

Since November this Kentucky team has defied the negative perception attributed to the program. Nine coveted recruits willingly sacrificed playing time for the good of the team. They played hard and with relentless energy on defense. Most of all, the team was comprised of good natured and lovable young men. All of them deserve to be remembered for one of the greatest seasons in college basketball history.

History mayremember the triumph of Bo Ryan’s team but the giant they slayed deserves posterity just the same.

Best and Worst: Elite 8 Weekend

The NCAA Tournament is something made for television. There is drama, drama, oh, and more drama as the tournament progresses through the different rounds. This year has been no different than any other year for the NCAA. Here are some of the best and worst from the Elite 8 weekend.

Best: The big team match-ups. When you go through a weekend where you have great team match-ups from major programs, it is a delight to watch. When Arizona took the floor against Wisconsin on Saturday, there was revenge on the Wildcats mind for their loss to them last year in overtime during the Elite 8 round. The Badgers, on the other hand, wanted to show that they were not an afterthought for people wanting to see an Arizona/Kentucky match up in the Final Four. I was one of those people wanting to see that match-up. I’m a Pac-12 guy, writer, and was wanting to see how the Cats would stack up against Big Blue, but to my dismay, it’s not going to happen. Wisconsin showed their prowess to shoot the three ball in the second half and simply couldn’t miss. They made 10 three pointers in the second half to break the backs of the Arizona Wildcats. It was truly a spectacle watching Sam Dekker and his mates in the back court drain three after three after three. Now, it’s Wisconsin’s shot at defeating Kentucky.

Notre Dame and Kentucky was certainly one of the best things of this weekend. Watching the Irish in a position to pull off another major upset in college sports was incredible. The Irish came to play, played hard, tough, made big shots, and kept the Wildcats off balance for most of the game, but we know how this played out. To beat Kentucky, you have to be up big, making them start to panic. That didn’t happen. Letting the Cats hang around and feel that they are not out of the game is something you can’t let happen. The Irish did and paid the ultimate price for it.

Coach Calipari. As much as he is looked at as a pariah in college sports, can people start recognizing what a great coach he is? Please. Some people will say “Anybody could win that talent.” Well, Coach Cal has figured out a way to get these high school All-Americans to come to Kentucky and play team ball. He gets them to put their own personal stats aside to benefit the concept of “team”. He does all he can to get them to “The League”, even has his own pre-draft camp, so GM’s can come in and look and drool over his talent. Calipari has figured out how to play ball in the one and done era of college basketball. If he’s only going to have them for a year, why not get the most out of them while they are at Kentucky? The players love him and have shown to be extremely loyal to him and the program. He does have baggage and a reputation that precedes him, but if people want to hang on to that baggage to condemn him, then they need to also recognize what he has done on the positive side since he’s been at Kentucky. That probably won’t happen, but there are always to sides to an argument. Don’t forget that college basketball fans.

Watching Kentucky dismantle West Virginia. Some may say that this game was over before it started, and they may well have been right. This game was a highlight reel from the get go. Blocked shots, lock down defense, lob passes for big dunks and basically the Mountaineers look like a freshmen high school team. West Virginia was not helped by the mistimed comments by their freshman point guard Daxter Miles Jr saying that they were going to end the Wildcat season. You don’t put bulletin board material out there for a team like Kentucky. They will want to make you look stupid, and that is what they did to West Virginia.

Worst: The Pac-12 not being able to get somebody to the Final Four. Now, in all honesty, the Pac-12 really had only one team that had a legit shot at getting there. Arizona. The Pac-12 was a down conference this year in basketball and getting a team in the Final Four would have been a nice accomplishment for Arizona and the Pac-12. The tournament is about match-ups and Arizona ran into a team that had too fire power for them.

Notre Dame had Kentucky, had them. I think the time out that they wasted at the end, should have been held onto like precious gold. The shot that Jerian Grant had at the end of the game could have been much better if they could have had a time out to use to set something a little better up. They had six seconds and that is enough time to get a better shot off than a double clutch fade away three pointer from the corner with Kentucky bigs running down the court with you. I’m not saying Notre Dame wins the game by having that time out, but they would have a chance at a better shot to win the game. One of those things about Kentucky being in many big games compared to Notre Dame.

In the end, there were many more positives out of this Elite 8 than negatives for fans, media, and anybody else to focus on. The Final Four has what everybody wants, big name teams from big name conferences. Watching Kentucky, Wisconsin, Duke, and Michigan State battle it out for the title will be something to watch for every college basketball fan.

NCAA Tournament Seeds of Doubt

The science of populating the NCAA Tournament bracket is unquestionably inexact. While most of the bubble griping which goes on tends to be much ado about nothing; there are usually some legitimate cases of inaccurate seeding of the teams which make the field. There is also a lot of ranting about a handful of teams which may or may not have deserved to make the field.

What I always find fascinating is the immediate overreaction to seed placement, or inclusion in the field, based on the results of the first weekend. The action this past weekend certainly stoked the fires of those discussions. However, I’d argue that regardless of whether a team should’ve been higher, lower, or left out of the field; winning or losing in the first couple rounds doesn’t validate a team’s Tournament status.

The most prevalent argument tends to be the “Obviously (Insert School Name) didn’t deserve a (Insert Number) seed”. Villanova was the most noticeable victim of this dubious honor. The Wildcats were given the top seed in the East Region, and subsequently amplified the voice of the naysayers by losing to NC State in the round of 32.

Despite the loss to a Wolfpack squad which simply wasn’t a great physical match-up for them, Villanova more than earned the #1 seed they were given. Although they didn’t have any real headlining wins early in the season, the Wildcats did up end a tournament team in VCU. They also beat two Big 10 teams in Michigan and Illinois, along with Syracuse out of the ACC. Certainly Jay Wright couldn’t anticipate that all three of those teams would be average coming into the year.

The Wildcats also finished the regular season on a 15 game winning streak, winning the Big East regular season going away; and then completing the sweep by taking the Conference Tournament crown. Undoubtedly one could lobby for Arizona, or perhaps Virginia over them, but Villanova was worthy of the #1 seed they achieved.

While Villanova fell on the proverbial “Over Seeded” sword, there were a couple of glaring examples of “Under Seeded” teams. These squads typically garner an outpouring of sympathy and outrage from the College Basketball public, as they are perceived to deserve a much higher seed. Wichita State and Dayton filled this role nicely.

Let’s start with Wichita State. The Shockers somehow fell to a #7 seed in the Midwest Region. As a champion of the mid-major, and more specifically, representatives from the under-appreciated Missouri Valley Conference; I was amongst the loudest voices crying foul on their assignment.

While most will say that performance in previous seasons should have no bearing, I’m of a differing opinion. That’s not to say that results from last year should allow a team to be handed an invite. However, based on their Final Four appearance in 2013, and 34-0 start last year, which was accompanied by a #1 Seed, the Wheat Shockers have earned some street cred.

Being under seeded can have some interesting consequences. Either said recipient runs into a stronger opponent earlier than they should, or they serve as a much more difficult opponent than a higher seed should have to face in the early rounds. Wichita proved to be the latter. Beating Indiana was expected, and to some, it came as no surprise that they were able to oust #2 Kansas in the round of 32.

The other prime example of a team which deserved a significantly better seed is Dayton. Heading into Selection Sunday, the Flyers by all accounts were a safe bet to join the party. On the day of reckoning they ended up as the last team in, drawing the #11 seed in the East Region, coupled with a play-in game. In similar fashion to Wichita, the slight by the committee proved to be detrimental to their opponents.

The Flyers were awarded a game on their home floor, and took advantage as such. Again, that’s not to say they wouldn’t have won a couple of games regardless; but Dayton was able to dispatch Boise State and Providence, before battling Oklahoma to the bitter end. Ultimately, both Wichita State and Dayton won in spite of the fact they weren’t given the respect they were due.

Since Dayton received a snub from the committee, someone else had to be awarded. Now, there were a few culprits who could be named. Indiana, Texas, and UCLA all should have been left out of the field of 68 in my estimation. While I champion the cause of the deserving mid-major, I am staunchly against rewarding the mediocre high-major. All three of these teams fit the description.

The big boys from the power five conferences have chance after chance all season to get “good” wins. None of these teams did that. As expected, the Hoosiers and Longhorns went out with a whimper. On the other hand, UCLA is still hanging around, so of course the “UCLA was deserving” crowd are shouting from the rooftops.

The Bruins trip to the Sweet 16 has been a perfect storm of good fortune. After SMU coughed up a multiple possession lead in the waning moments, UCLA was catapulted into the next round with a huge assist from the infamous goal tending call. One of the worst calls I’ve ever seen in NCAA Tournament history. Perhaps they would’ve found a way to win without the help, but we’ll never know.

Earlier that day, the first stroke of luck went the Bruins way. When the UAB Blazers upset the Iowa State Cyclones, it removed a large obstacle from their path. Taking nothing away from the Blazers victory, but one upset was all they had in them. It showed when they were overwhelmed by UCLA, allowing the Bruins to make another appearance in the Sweet 16.

None of the success UCLA has experienced to this point expunges their pre-tournament rap sheet. Yes, the Bruins did manage to finish above .500 in a very average PAC 12 Conference. However, finding a good win on their schedule is near impossible. The win over Utah in late January has gained some legs now that the Utes have made the Sweet 16; and they did beat those same UAB Blazers way back in November.

Otherwise, they got blasted by every legitimate team they faced, and mustered seven points in the first half against Kentucky in December, on a neutral floor. Based on the body of work UCLA put together throughout the regular season, there had to be at least one candidate more deserving of a bid.

Part of what makes the NCAA Tournament so great is the emotion it stirs amongst all of those watching. Naturally, in the “what have you done for me lately” culture of sports, it’s easy to assume that a team’s recent performance is their true identity. However, whether a team deserves to move up a seed, down a seed, or receive no seed at all, should be determined by what they did to get there; not justified by their subsequent Tournament performance.