Tag Archives: Tom Izzo

NCAA Tournament: Midwest Region Preview

At first blush, the Midwest Region seems to be destined to have the top seeds represented in the Sweet 16 and Elite 8; but questions abound for Kansas, Louisville, and Oregon as the opening rounds approach.  Although most of the double-digit seeds in this region don’t appear to pose a serious threat, there’s at least one that may knock heads with the big boys.

Jayhawks are going to Kansas City, Kansas City here they come!

There’s no reason to suspect that the Kansas Jayhawks shouldn’t find their way to KC, but will they be able to go any further?  Bill Self’s team had another incredible season, scattering four losses throughout the year, including bookends in the season opener, and to close the season in the Big 12 semifinals.   Despite their immensely talented backcourt led by Frank Mason III, Devonte Graham, and Josh Jackson, the Jayhawks frontcourt is a bit thin.  Could a potential matchup with Michigan State and the Spartan’s tough frontcourt combo of Miles Bridges and Nick Ward be too much for Landen Lucas to handle on his own?  This is the time of year that Tom Izzo starts working his magic, but if he can’t, top seeded Kansas should be bound for Kansas City, and a shot to advance out of the Midwest Regional Final.

Cardinals need more Dr. Jekyll, less Mr. Hyde

Louisville may be the one of deepest and most talented teams in the Midwest region, and perhaps the country.  However, the biggest issue this team has shown has been its wild personality swings.  Particularly glaring during late season losses to Wake Forest and Duke, the Cards have displayed a propensity to squander big leads.  UofL can dominate the vast majority of a game, only to completely go away from everything that is working.  Those lapses are what terrify and infuriate the Louisville fan base.  What is most shocking is that this tendency manifested early in the season during Louisville’s first loss of the year to Baylor.  The Cardinals let a 22 point lead slip before falling to the Bears in the Bahamas.  That may just be the identity of this year’s version of the Louisville Cardinals.  I suspect that Rick Pitino will tighten up the rotation, which should provide more cohesiveness; and Donovan “Spida” Mitchell is the type of player that can carry a team into early April.  If the Cards are Dr. Jekyll, they could win it all; if they’re Mr. Hyde, it could be a very early exit.

Rough Rhode ahead for the Ducks

Oregon has spent the entire 2016-17 season among the nation’s elite teams, and still has a loaded roster, and excellent coach in Dana Altman to lead them deep into this tournament.  Much will depend on the way the Ducks respond to the loss of versatile 6-10 senior Chris Boucher.  While Boucher was important, this team goes as junior Dillon Brooks goes.  However, the injury essentially cost Oregon a seed line, which is ridiculous since seeding should be based on a team’s body of work.  Will the Duck’s be ultra-motivated by the injury and a little bit of a slight by the committee, or will these late season factors lead to a bit of a malaise?  I’m leaning toward the latter.  Assuming Oregon survives the Round of 64 against Iona, the Ducks may be in for a rude awakening in the Round of 32 against Rhode Island.

Rams are a dark horse?

Don’t sleep on Rhode Island.  As mentioned above, URI could be a serious stumbling block for Oregon should they run into each other in the Round of 32.  The Rams were sitting squarely on the bubble, and then ripped off eight wins in a row, and took the Atlantic 10 Tournament title to ensure a spot in the field.  Dan Hurley’s squad has solid inside-outside balance with E.C. Matthews and Hassan Martin; and has shown a ton of grit down the stretch.  In a region that appears to be set up for the chalk to advance, Rhode Island is poised to make a run.  Certainly the opener against the Creighton Blue Jays will be no cakewalk, but if the Rams escape, there’s no reason that Hurley’s club can’t bounce the 3 seed Oregon, and find themselves in the Sweet 16.

Perfect storm for the Cyclones

Over the last few seasons, Iowa State has been a huge disappointment (I know they’ve killed my bracket), but the path the Cyclones face may be tailor-made to make amends.   I loved the Steve Prohm hire when Fred Hoiberg bolted for the NBA; and although it took some time to come together, ISU has the pieces in place to do some damage this year.  A rare senior-laden team in college basketball, the Cyclones are in great hands, particularly with Naz Long and Monte Morris.  After several bitter tournament showings, look for Iowa State to get past #4 seed Purdue, to set up another Big 12 showdown with rival Kansas in the Sweet 16.

North Carolina Central and UC Davis will square off on Wednesday for the right to be the first roadblock for the Jayhawks on their way to a cozy spot in Kansas City.  There should be a lot of answers about the Midwest Region when the Round of 32 wraps up on Friday evening, but don’t be surprised if there are even more questions.

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

Photo via Flickr/Brett Hurd

Mike Krzyzewski is as Overrated as Roy Williams is Underrated

When the question of the best coach in men’s college basketball gets asked, many immediately respond with Coach Mike Krzyzewski. He has over 1,000 career wins, five NCAA Championships and is currently the man leading USA Men’s Basketball at the Olympics.

His career numbers are impressive — since the 1983-84 season he has only missed one NCAA Tournament. There’s been 12 Final Fours, 12 ACC regular season championships and 13 ACC conference tournament championships.

From the 96-97 to 00-01 seasons Duke won five straight regular season titles. The final three years of that stretch included three straight ACC tournament championships to go with the regular season titles. There were two Final Four’s, with an NCAA Championship in 00-01.

That was easily the most dominant stretch of Coach K’s coaching career.

While Duke won the NCAA Tournament in the 2014-15 season, it’s been six years since they’ve won the ACC regular season, and five since they’ve won the ACC Tournament. That’s a decent drought for a coach considered head and shoulders above his peers.

Back to the question — Who is the best coach in men’s college basketball? How many names were brought up before Roy Williams? I personally don’t put him in my top 5, which is telling since North Carolina is one of three teams I follow closely.

He’s often labeled as a coach who gets by with the talent on his roster, one who lacks the ability to make in-game adjustments. Sometimes it seems as if UNC finishes games with more timeouts than they started with.

Furthermore, there’s criticism that he’s been unable to land top-tier high school prospects in recent years. It’s pretty impressive when you can be accused of relying on your team’s talent, while also being blasted for the lack of it.

Williams has won 16 regular season conference championships, including seven as the head coach of UNC. He has two national championships in eight trips to the Final Four.

Yet, he’s overlooked by the public, underrated amongst his own fan base.

Where Coach K and Duke don’t have an ACC regular season championship in six years, Williams and UNC have three. That’s telling for two elite coaches in the same conference — with a large gap in how they’re perceived by the public.

Coach K very may well be the best coach around, but good ol’ Roy deserves some respect as well.

For what it’s worth, here is my top 5 list of active men’s college basketball coaches:

  1. Rick Pitino (7 Final Fours, 2 National Championships)
  2. Tom Izzo (7 Final Fours, 1 National Championship)
  3. Mike Krzyzewski (12 Final Fours, 5 National Championships)
  4. John Calipari (4 Final Fours, 1 National Championship)
  5. Jim Boeheim (5 Final Fours, 1 National Championship)

Active wins leaders:

  1. Mike Krzyzewski, 1043
  2. Jim Boeheim, 989
  3. Roy Williams, 783 (8 Final Fours, 2 National Championships)
  4. Rick Pitino, 743
  5. Bob Huggins, 719 (2 Final Fours)

While I applaud Krzyzewski for building Duke into the power it is today, I still can’t shake the feeling that too many of his teams in recent memory have underperformed. Top-level talent should produce consistent top-level results — both in the regular season and postseason.

This is why I give Pitino and Izzo the top spots, they’ve done more with less.

Coach K is overrated — somehow the coach who has won more games than anyone, hasn’t won enough. Roy Williams is underrated — viewed as a man just trying not to screw up a program that runs itself.

‘Tis how it goes when you’re the head men at Duke and North Carolina.

E-mail Zak at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @playorbplayd.

Photo courtesy of Flickr/Bryan Horowitz

Best and Worst: Final Four and Championship Monday

Duke bball picture

It’s all over. Nothing left to debate, ok, wait. Nothing left to debate? Nah, there is plenty to talk about after the Final Four weekend and the National Championship on Monday night. There were plenty of great things that occurred with the Final Four and a just a few things that were not so great. Overall, I thought the championship round was a good one to watch in 2015.

Best: Michigan State making the Final Four as a number seven seed. Do we even doubt the coaching brilliance of Tom Izzo anymore? I won’t. I didn’t really doubt him at the beginning of this tournament anyways, but he put together a run that was fun to watch. It did help that Villanova bowed out early to help pave the way for Sparty’s run to the Final Four. Watching Trice, Valentine, and Dawson play hard, tough nosed basketball was a thing of beauty. However, watching Izzo get his troops ready for battle was fun to watch as well. He made them believe that they could compete with anybody, that anything was possible. They say a team takes on the personality of its coach and it was very apparent that this is what happened with this year’s version of Michigan State. The players bought in. How can you not buy in? Coach Izzo is a proven commodity. It was his seventh Final Four appearance, but certainly not his last. It would not surprise me to see him back in the Final Four or cutting the nets down on a Monday night next year.

Wisconsin ruining Kentucky’s chance at history. If there was EVER a team that people got behind as the tournament progressed, it was Wisconsin. You had a team that had a perception of playing hard nosed defense, being very deliberate on offense, playing as a team, and having a coach that was about as no-nonsense as a coach can be. It provided for some great drama. They got a second chance at a Kentucky team that had beat them in a close game the year before, but this year they also got to crush the Wildcats dreams of being undefeated. Kentucky was certainly the bigger hyped team, they had height, talent, and a coach that was known for getting one-and-done players to sacrifice their own game for the good of the team. Wisconsin played disciplined, Sam Dekker made some more timely buckets, Frank “the tank” pulled players away from the basket and used his considerable skills to keep the Wildcats off balance enough to pull off the upset. Bottom line is that Wisconsin made plays, Kentucky did not.

The amount of NBA type of talent on the floor was another thing I enjoyed watching. I say “type” of talent simply because you never know how some of these players and their “game” translate to the next level. Watching Towns of Kentucky dominate in the middle during the tourney was amazing to watch, seeing Frank Kaminsky use his footwork to create shots and to watch him pop shots from the 3-point arc made me wonder how he would be at the next level. Willie Cauley-Stein was blocking shots and running down the court stride for stride with a guard showed me that he could possibly be a player on the NBA level. Jahlil Okafor of Duke, who, for me is the best big prospect in college this year showed how he could dominate in the blocks. Okafor has immense hands, a big lower body which will help him bang with NBA big men, he has to improve his footwork and develop some more low post moves, but he has all the basics that an NBA GM wants to see. Now, he had some problems with fouling in the championship game, and that affected his output for the game, but I would take Okafor in a heartbeat. Question I have about some of the Kentucky talent is this. Do you draft either one of the Harrison twins? What about Dawson from Michigan State? Did Sam Dekker convince people that he’s a lottery pick? This will all play itself out in the next couple months.

Worst: Now there are not many things I would consider bad from the weekend and from Monday night, but they do revolve around game behavior and post-game comments. I realize that things get said in the heat of battle during a game and most of it is not PG variety. I’m fine with it, trash talking is part of the game, but complaining about call after call after call is not something I like seeing. Wisconsin was yapping after every call in the title game. It almost took away from my enjoyment of the game. They acted like NBA guys who are shocked that they fouled anybody, anytime. Hey Badgers, you do foul, it’s not the refs fault. There was talk that the refs had it in for Wisconsin and purposely were calling fouls on the Badgers and not as much on Duke. What? I agree that the officiating in the title game was a little sketchy, and everybody points to out-of-bounds call that the refs used replay with as an example. Ok, I got you there, but EVEN if the Badgers get the ball there they had not shown anything to suggest that they were going to score. Just because you have the ball, does not automatically mean that you will score the next basket. Fans want to make to make that leap with that particular call, but if they settle down and realize how the team was playing in the last 10 minutes of that game they would see that scoring in that situation was going to be a difficult proposition for them.

Bo Ryan showed that he can get a little sour when things don’t go his way. Ryan is a guy that needs to control things, he’s not what I would call a guy that evolves with the game of basketball. He didn’t like the physicality of the game and let that be known in post-game comments. “There was more body contact in this game than any game we played this year, and I felt sorry for my guys…” Ryan said. Let’s try and keep classy next time Bo. I know you’re disappointed in losing the title game, but there were other things that caused your teams defeat. How about an offense that isn’t really a come from behind type of offense or how about your teams inability to knock down shots? The Bo let it be known his feeling on the one and done type of player. He called them “rent-a-player”. Is this true? In a sense, yes, but it is the state of the game right now. Many coaches, including Coach K of Duke have come to terms with this state of the game. The players in college basketball have a certain amount of control right now, Bo Ryan, a man who likes control, can’t control a one and done player. As much Bo Ryan would want that type of talented player, that player doesn’t want Bo Ryan. He will either figure out how to evolve with this state of the game or the times just may pass him by.

Overall, it was a great weekend of Final Four action. The good certainly outweighed the bad and in the end, we were given a truly worthy champion in the Duke Blue Devils. Here’s to hoping that 2015-2016 is just as good.

 

 

East Region Notebook: Michigan St – The Beasts Of The East

The Elite 8 game between Louisville and Michigan St promised to be a great one. As I wrote about earlier in the week, this was a game between two March oriented coaches. When the dust settled, Tom Izzo and the Michigan St Spartans took Louisville to overtime and lived to see a Final Four birth.

This is Izzo’s 7th trip to the Final Four in 17 seasons. What else can be said of Izzo, he just gets it done in March. It hasn’t mattered if Michigan St has been a high or low seed. In chronological order, Izzo has made Final Four appearances with the following seeded teams: 1,1,1,5,2,5 and 7.

Don’t be fooled, Michigan St had to take its lumps throughout the year. This is a team that lost to Texas Southern, Nebraska, Illinois and Minnesota. Not what anyone would call quality losses and the Texas Southern loss came in East Lansing.

Then the Big Ten Tournament happened. They reeled off wins against Ohio St and Maryland. The Spartans showed grit and determination in getting to the conference championship game against fellow Final Four participant Wisconsin. They ultimately lost that game in overtime, but Izzo had set the stage for what would turn out to be another one of his patented marches through March.

Who the Spartans play is currently up for grabs. It will either be Gonzaga or Duke. Michigan St played Duke in the second game of the year. They lost that game 81-71, but I remember watching it and saying that Izzo had some pieces that he could develop in true Izzo fashion.

Once the final piece of the Final Four puzzle has been put into place, i’ll have a preview of Izzo’s next foe. It obviously won’t be easy but as my friend Bird would say, “it’s nutcuttin’ time.” And “nutcuttin’ time” has become synonymous with Izzo time.

*featured image courtesy of interactives.wivb.com

East Region Notebook: Will the Real Mr. March Please Stand Up

The East’s portion of the Elite 8 is set and it is fitting who the participants are. Louisville and Michigan St will play for the right to go to the Final Four. It is fitting that Michigan St is in this game because Tom Izzo is considered to be Mr. March. Louisville, on the other hand, is led by Rick Pitino who may very well be Mr. March himself.

Michigan St had to fight their way from behind against Oklahoma. The Spartans found themselves playing from behind for much of the game and finally took a lead of their own with under 10 minutes to play in the game. With Travis Trice leading the way, the Spartans edged out the Sooners with a final score of 62-58. Tom Izzo performed his usual late season masterful job in getting the Spartans to play their best basketball when it counted.

Louisville was in a battle of their own against NC State. This was not the same type of battle that Michigan St and Oklahoma played. There was always the sense that Michigan St would pull their game out. However, the two teams were considered to be evenly matched. In the Louisville game, I never sensed that NC State truly belonged in the game and it was simply a matter of time before Louisville peeled away.

Now for giving Pitino his due. Louisville was solid this year but had to work through issues. Check this tweet out from Doug Gottlieb.

The cutting of the point guard is the real meat of Gottlieb’s statement. Pitino was not afraid to cut ties with a primary player, Chris Jones, at a point in the season when having all hands on deck mattered most. Quentin Snider replaced Jones had has been nothing short of masterful running the show for Pitino. His statistical contributions have been top notch and I could list them all out. But all you or anyone else needs to know is that Snider’s increased role has not proved to be a distraction.

Pitino has historically been at his best when it matters most. His overall record in Sweet 16 games is 12-1 and is 6-1 in Sweet 16 games with Louisville. The man has been to 4 Final Fours, 4 Elite Eights, has been the NCAA Runner-up 1 time and NCAA Champion 2 times.

Izzo is given wide spread respect nationally and deservedly so, but Pitino’s record is just as good if not superior. It’s time to give Pitino his due. He is Mr. March.

*feature image courtesy of lexpatriates.wordpress.com

Jinxing Your Team One Pick at a Time

50%. That’s roughly the number of people who are picking Kentucky to win it all on ESPN’s Tournament Challenge. That has to be by far the highest in a while. I’m actually a little surprised that it’s that low. The next highest team picked to win it all? Wisconsin at just under 10%.

So what teams are capable of knocking off Kentucky? I’d say short of some surprise team going 15-22 from 3 against them, only the other Top 5 teams. Wisconsin has a pretty good shot. They’re extremely balanced, play ultra-efficient on offense and have player of the year candidate Frank Kaminsky. And though it is a different Kentucky squad, the Badgers were one shot away from beating them in the tourney last year and won’t be intimidated. Wisconsin’s possible Elite 8 opponent Arizona also has as good a shot as anyone. They have experienced guards, play elite defense, and have the bigs to match-up with Kentucky’s size. At least to the point anyone could match their size. Duke (gulp) is probably the only other team that has a realistic shot, if for no other reason than they come closest to matching Kentucky from an NBA talent stand point, and they also have the 3-point shooting to match.

Ultimately do I think Kentucky will go down? On to the picks…


SWEET 16

Kentucky over West Virginia
Too much size, too much talent, too much everything for West Virginia to pull off the upset here.

Wichita State over Butler
Regardless of what their seed says, the Shockers are really good. They were in the Final Four two years ago and were undefeated last year until running into a Kentucky team that made the championship game. Key players from those two teams lead this year’s group and they move on here despite Butler’s edge inside.

Wisconsin over Arkansas
I like Arkansas to get past North Carolina because of their edge on defense and having the best player on the floor (Bobby Portis) but that won’t be enough to get them past Wisconsin. The Badgers are simply too good and Arkansas didn’t really challenge the only elite team they played in SEC play (Kentucky)

Arizona over Baylor
Rico Gathers can match up with Zona but I don’t think Baylor has anyone else to match the Wildcats’ size. Close for a while, but Arizona wins relatively easily.

Villanova over Louisville
I don’t think Louisville is that good, but I’m not sure anyone else they’d play before this point is great either. With the quality of competition increased immensely, the Cardinals fall.

Michigan State over Providence
Providence has two great players in Kris Dunn and LaDontae Henton that will carry them to this point. However, I think the Spartans have the ability to take one of them away and down the Friars. Having one of the best coaches in the country won’t hurt either.

Duke over Stephen F. Austin
Duke could get a scare from San Diego State (if SDSU gets through St. John’s) but even if the Aztecs hold Duke 20 points below their season average, I don’t think they can score enough on offense. Every year there are one or two surprises in the Sweet 16. I think Stephen F. Austin is that team this year, but their Cinderella run will end here as the Blue Devils’ talent proves too much to overcome.

Iowa State over Gonzaga
I admittedly have little feel for this part of the region. The Cyclones are obviously talented enough to beat Gonzaga, and after recent years I refuse to believe the Zags can make the Final Four until they actually do it.


ELITE 8

Kentucky over Wichita State
The Shockers have the guards to play with Kentucky (and probably have the edge there) but they would get slaughtered on the boards. Kentucky wins fairly handily.

Arizona over Wisconsin
While I hate it when people use rematch to describe two teams that played a previous year, this is about as close as it gets. Wisconsin returned virtually everyone from last year’s Final Four team and got huge improvement out of players like Nigel Hayes. These two teams played basically dead even last year in a game Frank Kaminsky dominated. He’ll have to do the same because this Arizona team is better than last year’s. They replaced defensive standout Aaron Gordon with Stanley Johnson, who can take a game over, and their defense is just as good. The difference this year is Arizona will have Brandon Ashley, who missed the tournament last year due to injury.

Michigan State over Villanova
The Spartans are battle tested after having played almost 1/3 of their games vs Top 10 teams. Villanova seems like the likeliest one seed to bow out earlier than hoped and with only one day in between games, I’m going with Tom Izzo.

Duke over Iowa State
The Cyclones have the offensive firepower to keep up with Duke and have some good wins this year. But I think Duke has just enough of a size advantage, and Iowa State’s 3-point defense (217th in the country) will be a problem against a Duke team that has four regulars who hit at least 38% from beyond the arc.


FINAL FOUR

Kentucky over Arizona
Arizona has the size to match Kentucky. They have solid guard play. What they don’t have is outside shooting and it will be hard to score on Kentucky in the paint. This would be a close, low-scoring game with Kentucky ultimately securing a return trip to the title game.

Duke over Michigan State
The Spartans defense isn’t as stingy as usual and when these two teams played in November, the Spartans gave up 81. They can’t afford to play at Duke’s pace, and the Blue Devils have too much talent on offense for Michigan State to overcome.


NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP

Kentucky over Duke
Duke has what you’d want to beat Kentucky except for defense. The Blue Devils defense has been anything but great this year. On the flip side, the Wildcats have the NBA level talent down low to match Jahlil Okafor and limit him the way other teams cannot. Kentucky completes its undefeated season.

Here are the bigger first round upsets I see going down:

13 Valparaiso over 4 Maryland
11 Ole Miss over 6 Xavier
12 Stephen F. Austin over 5 Utah
13 Eastern Washington over 4 Georgetown

Jason is on Twitter at @Jlindy87 or you can e-mail him at [email protected]

Time to Flip the NCAA’s March Madness Switch!

The best month on the sports calendar is here.  The NCAA basketball tournament.  Opening Day. The Masters. Finally.  For those on the East Coast who are snow blind after this record-setting winter, Selection Sunday heralds both the promise of spring and the unmatched excitement that accompanies college basketball’s marquee event.

For a few days after Selection Sunday, each of the 68  teams has a chance.  For some teams that chance is infinitesimal, but that doesn’t keep everyone from dreaming about what, theoretically, is possible.   College basketball’s increasing parity has given rise to a higher number of upsets in recent years.  A 15 seed has beaten a 2 seed just seven times, but the pace of high seed upsets has increased dramatically in recent years. Last year 14 seed Mercer destroyed at least 99% of the nation’s brackets on the second day of the tournament when it stunned Duke 78-71.  Last year 11 seed Dayton made the Elite Eight. Virginia Commonwealth accomplished the same feat in 2011, losing to 8 seed Butler for a spot in the championship game!  There’s a reason that Warren Buffett can offer $1,000,000 for a perfect bracket. There has never been one and there never will be.  He should offer a grabazillion dollars.  It’s a safer bet than the sunrise.

That doesn’t mean that there is nothing certain about March Madness, however. Excitement is  certain. Heartbreak is certain. Heck, even uncertainty is certain. There certainly will be some mid-major or small conference school that beats the odds to win a game or three.  Or four. However, for the first time that I know of the odds makers have made one team the even-money favorite to win the title. That team of course is Kentucky. Even money.  Bet a buck to win a buck.  The sharps in Vegas have a better feel for Kentucky’s chances than just about anyone else, so this betting line tells you all you really need to know about the 2014-15 Kentucky Wildcats and their national title hopes. This team of teenaged marauders and future lottery picks has cold-cocked the rest of college basketball this year and now stands just six games away from immortality.  The Wildcats had a few close calls early but now are playing at a level that likely makes pretenders of every other tournament team.Even money might seem preposterous given the incalculable number of scenarios yet to play out, but the odds makers are signaling that only long shot lovers should bother to put any team but Kentucky on the champion’s line.

It’s unfortunate that newly-ascendant teams like Northern Iowa and Virginia are having great seasons in a year in which Kentucky is having a historically great one because when a team makes history by going undefeated, that’s all anyone remembers.  What else do we remember about Indiana’s undefeated 1976 season besides the Bicentennial and Elton John singing “Philadelphia Freedom” to honor his friend Billie Jean King? Okay, I might be the only person to remember that but does anyone remember that Rutgers also was undefeated going into the Final Four?  Maybe if you went to Rutgers. History, as they say, is written by the winners.

The selection committee’s job never is easy and always is subject to ridicule.  Geography mandates the placement of the higher seeds, with but one exception. Teams from the same conference that have already played twice in the regular season cannot be among the top four seeds in the same region. Larger schools from power conferences undoubtedly get the benefit of the doubt over smaller schools from lesser conferences, as is the case with UCLA this year. The Bruins posted a 2-8 record against teams in this year’s field, but passed the “eyeball test” according to selection committee chair Scott Barnes. Was UCLA more deserving than a Colorado State team that reeled off 15 straight wins to start the season and had a better record against the RPI top 100 than did the Bruins? The selection committee determined that it did.  With so much emphasis placed on quantifiable metrics, the eyeball test seems like a very unscientific methodology.

Despite that, the committee always manages to create some compelling matchups with interesting storylines.  Virginia opens the tournament against Belmont, which features Virginia transfer Taylor Barnette.  Belmont shoots the hell out of the three, which is a shot that Virginia grudgingly concedes in order to better defend the basket.  It is not unthinkable that Belmont could shoot Virginia right out of the tournament. Should Virginia prevail,  an even more stern test likely awaits the Cavaliers. Michigan State. The Spartans ended Virginia’s season last year in an epic tournament game at Madison Square Garden and this year are Dick Vitale’s sleeper pick to make the Final Four. Additionally, Tom Izzo is a great tournament coach and has the record to prove it. According to Jared Andrews, since becoming the Spartans’ coach in 1995, Izzo is 19-4 in the round of 32 game.   Michigan State looks horribly under seeded at the seven spot, but I am sure that the committee felt like a Virginia-Michigan State rematch would make for good television. Virginia fans are feeling hosed.

Why?  Because Duke. In filling our my own brackets and doing my research, Duke’s path to Elite Eight seems absurdly easy.  Of course, that’s what we thought last year before Mercer messed everything up. However, Duke’s path most likely looks like this: San Diego State, S.F. Austin.  Yes, I am picking  S.F. Austin  to win two games.  They are the trendy 12 pick in the first round against  Utah and should they triumph, they most likely will get a game against an overseeded Georgetown squad that has gone 7-5 in its last 12 games and got knocked out of the Big East semifinals by Xavier, the 6 seed over in the West bracket. Prior to the ACC Tournament, both Virginia and Duke looked good for 1 seeds. Then both teams lost in the tournament semifinals, Virginia to a UNC team that played its best game of the year and Duke to a Notre Dame team that had already beaten the Blue Devils earlier in conference play. Duke’s loss had no apparent effect on its seeding while Virginia, getting a marginal contribution from vital cog and twice-injured Justin Anderson, was bumped to the 2 line for its loss. And people wonder why it seems like Duke gets preferential treatment? Selection Committee chairman Scott Barnes said Duke got the higher seed by virtue of its win at Virginia in January, ignoring that Duke had some inexplicable losses and Virginia didn’t.  Splitting hairs, I know.

Having now lost two of its last three, Virginia does appear wobbly.  A healthy Justin Anderson may be just what Virginia needs to go along with the motivation provided by the perceived seeding slight.  Virginia coach Tony Bennett, diplomatic as ever, waved it off, stating that every team will need to win six games to be national champion and that his team will play whoever is on the schedule. Tony Bennett, unflappable as always.

Some paths to the Final Four undoubtedly look easier than others, but then a funny thing happens. The refs throw the ball up and the players play, often with unexpected–but never boring–results. March Madness baby!

Oh, and I still hate Christian Laettner, even if he is resting in a hammock made of his own laurels.

Things You Should Know Before Finishing Your Bracket

1. Seth Tuttle is really good
For anyone unfamiliar with the name, Seth Tuttle plays for 5 seed Northern Iowa, won the MVC Player of the Year, ranks third in the nation in win shares, and is the country’s fourth most efficient player. Every March, a small conference player emerges into the national spotlight with impact play in the tournament. This year, Tuttle could be that guy. If he leads NIU on deep tournament run, he could also become just the third player in school history to be drafted by the NBA.

2. Tom Izzo loves the weekend
Since becoming Michigan State’s head coach in 1995, Izzo is 19-4 in the second game of the week in the NCAA tournament. He owns Saturdays and Sundays. If the Spartans win their first game, their likely next opponent is Virginia…

3. Justin Anderson is still hurt
After missing eight games with a hand injury, Justin Anderson has failed to score in either of Virginia’s two contests since his return. Clearly, he is still bothered by the injury. If his hand does heal quickly, the 2 seeded Cavs will be vulnerable to an early upset.

4. So is Juwan Staten
The West Virginia Point Guard has not played since injuring his knee on February 24. Consequently, the Mountaineers have lost 3 of 4 without him. He appears unlikely to return to full strength in time for the team’s first game. This leaves WVU susceptible to the always popular 5-12 upset.

5. VCU is wreaking less havoc these days
Ever since the season-ending injury to Briante Weber, the team just hasn’t played at the same level. They were 17-4 and winners of 11 straight with Weber and are just 9-5 without him. Matching up with the nation’s best point, D’Angelo Russell, in game one, VCU will sorely miss Weber’s defensive presence.

6. Iowa State knows how to come back
The team has trailed by double digits in each of its past five games with a combined deficit of 75 points, yet somehow managed to win all five. If the Cyclones can find their way to better starts, Fred Hoiberg could be dancing all the way to the Final Four.

7. Maryland knows how to win the close ones
The Terps are an odds-defying 11-1 in games decided by six points or less. They play with tremendous poise late in games, and their three best players shoot a combined 82% from the foul stripe. Those are two key ingredients to tournament success.

8. Kentucky knows how to win them all
We all know this: Kentucky has not lost all season. They possess what all great teams seem to have—the ability to find another gear in the most crucial situations. Any time that the Wildcats have been challenged, they have collectively elevated their play. Pair that with as much length as an NBA team, and as much talent as some of the cellar dwellers of league, and Kentucky enters the tournament as the overwhelming favorite and a chance to finish 40-0.

9. 12 seeds will topple 5s
Selecting 12 over 5 seeds has become a trendy choice in recent years. Evidently fans are finally taking notice to the upsets. The 12 seeds have always fared pretty well in their opening games; in fact, they are 8-4 over 5 seeds in the past three tournaments. Expect at least one 12 seed to advance again this year.

10. Don’t overlook the 11 seeds
If a 12 seed can knock off a 5, it seems logical that an 11 can beat a 6, right? In the past five years, 11 seeds are 10-10 in the round of 64.

11. The Big Ten has been really, really good (but not great)
At least one Big Ten team has advanced to the Final Four in five of the last six seasons. Wisconsin, who did so last season, seems to be the most likely Big Ten team to continue that trend this year. However, no Big Ten team has captured the national title since 2000 (Michigan State).

12. NC State beat Duke, Louisville AND North Carolina
This seemed too impressive not to include. If they can topple those powerhouse teams then they should at least be good enough to beat an erratic, mistake-prone LSU squad in their opening game.

13. The First Four actually matter
Since the tournament expanded to 68 in 2011, at least one team from the First Four has gone on to win a game in the Round of 64. Actually, save for 2012, a First Four team has reached at least the Sweet 16 every season, including in 2011 when VCU went all the way to the Final Four.

14. Advanced analytics are helpful
Unless your name in Charles Barkley, you really should consider glancing at these advanced stats before finishing your bracket. Kenpom.com and teamrankings.com are two of the most useful analytics sites.

15. No team has ever won the NCAA tournament after losing its first conference tournament game.

Not much to add here.  This is just something to mindful of if you’re thinking of choosing an underdog as your champ.

16. Cinderella likes to crash the party of 8
In 31 of the past 36 years, a team seeded 6 or worse has advanced to at least the Elite 8. Last season UConn, a 7 seed, defeated Kentucky, an 8 seed, in the national championship game. Don’t totally shy away from the larger-numbered seeds; they still pose a threat.

17. Preseason rankings are meaningful
13 of the past 17 national champions were ranked in the top 9 of the AP preseason poll. This year’s top 9: Kentucky, Arizona, Wisconsin, Duke, Kansas, North Carolina, Florida, Louisville, and Virginia.
18. I finished last in my NCAA pool in 2014
It was not my finest hour, but I also finished first in the pool the year before. Given the tournament’s unpredictable nature, perhaps a predictor with wildly inconsistent levels of success is exactly whose thoughts you should take heed of before finishing your bracket.

What do you think? Follow Jared on Twitter (@JaredAndrews3) or leave a comment! Make sure to like More Than a Fan on Facebook!

Dan Gilbert is Becoming a Problem

To say the Cleveland Cavaliers organization is in a bit of a turbulent state right now only begins to describe what’s going on. The front office has recently been overhauled, there are question marks around several key players (most notably Kyrie Irving and his future with the franchise) and they are still trying to find a new Head Coach – which will make their third Head Coach in three years. At the helm of this ship is owner Dan Gilbert. The majority owner since 2005, Gilbert endeared himself to many fans with his blistering open letter to Cavs fans following the LeBron James Decision. Up to that point, and even in the year or two after, Gilbert was a beloved owner by many Clevelanders. He invested in the city, his Cavs team was winning games and he was active, often sitting courtside for games. Life was good for Cavs fans. Life was good for Dan Gilbert. It’s now 2014 and we might be realizing something, Dan Gilbert is a problem.

I’ll follow that up by saying I absolutely loved Gilbert, and to some extent still do. I was absolutely on board with him when he worked to bring a casino to Cleveland. I loved his willingness to spend money on the team. I loved that he invested money into the City of Cleveland. To borrow a phrase from his son Nick, “what’s not to like?” Then Gilbert lost his biggest asset, a northeast Ohio kid who happened to be one of the best basketball players in the game, and things started go downhill for Gilbert and the Cavs. The aforementioned letter guaranteed a Cavs championship before LeBron would win one. In the first year post-LeBron the Cavs went 19-63, including a streak of 26 consecutive losses, under new Head Coach Byron Scott. Scott was brought in to replace Mike Brown, his hiring viewed as a dramatic overcorrection of Brown’s defensive focused system and thought of as the first of many potential moves to try and bring home LeBron. Meanwhile, the Heat made it to the NBA Finals in their first season as a super team, eventually losing to the Dallas Mavericks. Since then the Cavs have continued to lose, the Heat have continued to win (championships now), and Dan Gilbert has increased his meddling.

Especially recently, rumors and reports have been circulating that Gilbert is taking a Jerry Jones approach to ownership. He is supposedly in on draft picks, player decisions and coaching decisions. I get it, he’s a very rich owner of a professional sports franchise. He’s going to have an opinion. If I owned a professional sports franchise I’d have an opinion as well. Gilbert needs to realize something – he’s not a general manager and he isn’t a “basketball guy”.

The biggest concern currently with Gilbert was the pursuit of University of Kentucky coach John Calipari. There are conflicting reports about the timeline, which you can read here and here. There are concerns, however, no matter which guys sources you believe (for the record, and with all due respect to Joe Lull, I’ll go with Adrian Wojnarowski all day).

Coach Calipari, who recently signed an extension with Kentucky and reportedly rejected a Cavaliers contract offer.
Coach Calipari, who recently signed an extension with Kentucky and reportedly rejected a Cavaliers contract offer.

Let’s start with Lull’s contention that Dan Gilbert offered Calipari the Cavs coaching job (and a co-title as President) before David Griffin was made the full time GM. This is clearly not very meddling, however it’s valid to question the intelligence of this move. John Calipari is a fantastic college coach, no disputing that. However he failed as a Head Coach in the NBA with the New Jersey Nets. The bigger concern is what makes Dan Gilbert think Calipari is qualified to be a Head Coach and team President in the NBA? There is no indication that Gilbert has any sort of NBA intelligence that would allow him to assess whether or not Calipari is qualified for such a position as President – a position he has absolutely no experience with. Recruiting five star high school prospects is much different than being the General Manager of a professional basketball team (Calipari wouldn’t be GM in title, but would’ve had final roster say). Furthermore, how can Dan Gilbert evaluate whether or not Calipari has the tools to be a successful NBA Head Coach, especially after he failed once already? Simply put, Dan Gilbert has zero business offering anybody a Head Coaching position. For proof, on Gilbert’s watch Mike Brown has been hired twice and fired three times by the organization. He’s fired four head coaches (Paul Silas, Mike Brown, Byron Scott, Mike Brown) and three GMs (Jim Paxson, Danny Ferry and Chris Grant). The majority of those firings have come within the past five years. Go ahead, find the common denominator.

Now, we go with Wojnarowski’s contention that the offer to and rejection from Calipari was much closer to the present day, and was done without the knowledge of General Manager David Griffin. This is a something that the Akron-Beacon Journal’s Jason Lloyd echoed. If this is true, it’s obviously the bigger concern. Look at it this way, David Griffin has already been made the General Manager. Then, Dan Gilbert goes out behind Griffin’s the front office’s back (according to the report) and offers Calipari a contract to be the Head Coach and President of the Cavs. This would cripple Griffin’s ability as a GM as Calipari would have the final say on the roster. There is also absolutely no consideration given as to whether Griffin and Calipari could work together philosophically. If this report is true (and again, I’ll believe Wojnarowski over Lull) then this is a huge problem for the Cavs. What they have is a Jerry Jones type of owner, a guy with all the money, all the power, some success, a gigantic chip on his shoulder and minimal knowledge about the sport in which he owns a team. Dan Gilbert is unqualified to make these moves.

And in either scenario, well let’s just call it what it is. Gilbert is going after higher profile, recognizable by name coaches (Tom Izzo, John Calipari, Byron Scott) with LeBron James at least in the back of his mind. Put any bias you have for James aside for a minute. You’re flat out kidding yourself if you don’t recognize he’s one of, if not the, best player in basketball right now. There are 29 other NBA teams that would love to have James. But for Gilbert to make a coaching move that even slightly includes the potential plans of James, or any other NBA player not on the Cavs roster, is asinine and a disservice to the players currently on the roster.

The best professional sports owners are the ones who don’t move the team, spend money and get involved only when required than step out of the spotlight. Dan Gilbert seems to be failing to understand this. It’s easy to love a guy (Gilbert) when his team is successful. Winning covers up a lot. But right now, Gilbert is not doing himself any favors.

B1G Basketball: Possibly the best it has ever been

big-ten-logoLast night as I was watching the Ohio State/Michigan game, I really started thinking about the current state of the Big Ten.  I remember as a child how my Basketball Buckeyes were my first love.   I grew up on the same street as former Randy Ayers top assistant Dave Cecutti.  Thanks to Coach Cecutti’s role with the Buckeyes, he was able to give me an opportunity to be a ball boy for the Bucks.  I began in the early 90’s, shortly after the departures of Buckeye greats Jim Jackson and Chris Jent.  That was a rough time for Buckeye basketball.  As I was really getting into my fandom, I remember there being some great Big Ten players through those years.  You would normally see one or two teams a year in the National Title picture, but nothing too spectacular.

As we entered the 2000’s, the Big Ten began to turn a corner.  Michigan State took home a title and a couple programs began their ascent to national relevance.  As the one and done rule became a big part of the game, many Big Ten schools didn’t land these types of players.  While some schools have made it their staple in the NCAA, most of the Big Ten continued to build through the more traditional methods.  Sure, the B1G has had its fair share of “one and done’s”, but for the most part our big names seemed to never leave (William Buford, Robbie Hummel, Jordan Taylor, Draymond Green and so on).

A direct factor to this was the major upgrade the Big Ten has made in coaching.  Coaches like Tom Crean and Jon Beilein left what was then the most Powerful Conference in college basketball (Big East) to restore prominence to two historically successful Universities.  You also saw Minnesota go out and grab Tubby Smith.  Great coaching tends to lead to great recruiting and player development.

Now that this has all come full circle, the Big Ten is beginning to flex its muscles.  The mediocre Big Ten that I grew up with is a distant memory, the excellent coaching, top notch recruiting and guys sticking around for more than a year or two has led to some of the most entertaining basketball in the country.  While other power conferences tend to lean on the athleticism and play making of its players, the Big Ten still stays true to its roots and puts an emphasis on the team game.

You will not see the defensive discipline in any other conference and there is not a single team that is an easy out on the road.  There was a time where Big Ten basketball was tough to watch for an out of conference fan.  Now it’s a throwback to old school basketball, played by some of the best athletes the country has to offer.  Believe me; I live in full on ACC country.  The Big Ten is the talk of the area.  Mind you, with Maryland’s move to the Big Ten, the area is starting to follow it a little more closely.

I’m not ready to anoint the Big Ten as college basketball’s version of SEC football, you have rack up a decent amount of titles to do that, but I think it is head and shoulders above the rest of the NCAA right now.

The matchups against the conference’s top teams have been great battles and we are just getting into the meat of conference play.  I am getting ready to book my tickets to Chicago for the Conference Tournament, because I honestly believe that it will be the best display of basketball that you will see all year.

As we get closer to March, there is a legitimate chance that we could see several Big Ten teams make a deep run in the NCAA tournament.  Indiana, Michigan, Ohio State, Michigan State, Minnesota, and Wisconsin are all talented enough to beat anyone on a neutral floor.

I look forward to watching the rest of this play out.  If you’re not watching Big Ten basketball this year, you’re missing out.  Tune in and enjoy a great display of basketball, filled with great coaches, gritty players and passionate fan bases.