Monday, March 21, 2011

The Great Debate: Who impressed the most in the Tournament's opening weekend?

Bracket torn to pieces? Already sick of the Madness and tired of hearing the words "Cinderella," "upset," and "chalk" being thrown with regularity in conversation?

Well, too freaking bad! We only get one NCAA Tournament a year and we -- Matt Donato and Michael Kelly -- are going to live it up while we can. Here's our take on the most impressive team from each region in the men's NCAA Tournament. As always, feel free to chime in using the comments section.


KELLY: I don't think we'll have too much of a difference in opinion over this one -- Ohio State was the most impressive team in this region by quite a bit.

First, Ohio State easily dispatched of UT-San Antonio by 29 points. While being the latest No. 1 to knock off a 16-seed is not exactly something to write (email?) home about, the Buckeyes did maintain their focus and hold the Roadrunners to 46 points. As a big UNC fan who watched his team allow (freaking) Long Island score 87 points, I know how easy it is for an overwhelming favorite to allow itself to simply play along with the underdog. Ohio State deserves credit for not doing so.

Then, George Mason. Wow. The Patriots were being thought of as a club with a legitimate shot to upset the Buckeyes and, instead, Ohio State made George Mason look more like a wide-eyed mid-major than a program only a few years removed from a Final Four run.

While outscoring the Patriots 52-26 in the first half was obviously the eye-popping team statistic, I am more impressed by Ohio State's 46-40 second-half advantage. Even up 26, the Buckeyes maintained their focus. Right now, they're the epitome of a team on a mission.

DONATO: I agree. I was absolutely certain that George Mason was going to give the Sullinger Gang a fight to the buzzer. The team couldn't find a rebound this year outside of Sullinger, and had a very shallow bench. Somehow this week, we underrated the No. 1 overall seed, and they proved to us just how good they really are.

They are the No. 1 seed though, and should be expected to dominate the opening rounds. Marquette, however, has acted like most people expected every other Big East team to play in the tournament, yet did so as an 11-seed.

They handled Xavier easily (won by 11) in the opener, and dispatched my "hindsight is 20-20" East favorite Syracuse on Sunday night. They are the forgotten Big East team, dismissed as the 11th member who only just got in. Yet their conference makes their run seem less Cinderella-esque.

The Saratogian's Alex Ventre was in the office Sunday night rooting for Marquette because he'd prefer UNC play them over the Orange, but the Golden Eagles are playing with some dangerous nobody-believed-in-us swagger.

Your -- Kelly is a UNC fan -- Tar Heels will win the battle of the boards, but if Marquette can hit 82% of their FTs like they did Sunday and hold UNC to under 70 points like they did to Xavier and 'Cuse, the Eagles have played well enough to envision them being the fifth 11-seed ever to make it to the Elite Eight.


DONATO: I am really pleased with how my Huskies have performed out west, putting down Bucknell with ease and outplaying familiar foe Cincinnati, but the team that has really caught my attention in these first two rounds has been Arizona.

While they have not blown out either of their opponents, winning by a combined margin of three points, they have become the collegiate Anti-Heat with their close wins against tough opponents.

Memphis was 28th in RPI when the tournament started and was as high as No. 13 overall in the AP poll this season, and Texas spent three weeks as the No. 3 overall, finished No. 8, yet still drew a 4-seed. Both are a misleading draw, neither in favor of Arizona, yet the Wildcats played both games down to the last second and have survived into the Sweet 16.

They have shown great tenacity and grit. I only hope they still have something in the tank for Duke.

Despite shooting 4-of-14 from the field against Texas, Derrick Williams has been really impressive these last two games (Did you know he hit 61% 36-of-59 of his 3-pointers this season? How does he not shoot them more?) with his game-saving block against Memphis and amazing game-winning three-point play on Sunday.

When Williams was shooting poorly, Solomon Hill was filling in the gaps. Both had good peripheral numbers in the Texas game as well. I hope Duke will not take them as lightly as I did heading into the tournament.

KELLY: Before I explain my unconventional pick for this region's most impressive team, yes, Arizona was fantastic and Williams is a stud. To answer your questions about his lack of 3-point attempts -- that's my favorite thing about him. Williams is the rare player in this generation who seems to like to bang down low even though he has a nice perimeter game.

If I had the No. 1 pick in this upcoming draft and did not have a positional need to dictate my choice, I would take Williams in a heartbeat.

ANYWAY, my choice for the West's most impressive team is the now-eliminated Michigan Wolverines. A 30-point blowout of Tennessee and an almost upset of No. 1 Duke was enough for me; coach John Beilein has the once-vaunted Big Ten program back in the thick of things. Michigan has gotten to the tournament now in two of the last three years (after not being in the tournament since 1998) and has won a game in each visit.


KELLY: We certainly have a bevy of choices to pick from here. I'll take the VCU Rams, a program now headed to the Sweet 16 for the first time in the school's history. After spending the days leading up the tournament hearing how they did not even belong in the play-in game, the Rams went out and beat USC of the Pac-10, Georgetown of the Big East and Purdue of the Big Ten.

Correction: Not only won, but defeated each major-conference representative by at least 13 points. VCU's average winning margin so far in the tournament has been 16.3 points per game. Even better for Cinderella-watchers, VCU next has a winnable game against the ACC's Florida State, which likely would be followed by a date with Kansas out of the Big 12. Could you imagine if VCU ran through five of the six major conferences on its way to a Final Four berth?

DONATO: I am loving the Rams in the tournament this year. The whole Southwest has been a lot of fun, with 10 through 13 making it to the technical third round and 10 through 12 still playing in the Sweet 16, there are plenty of teams to choose from.

I'm going to have to throw my support behind Florida State, because Sunday night's win over Notre Dame was never in doubt. The Seminoles grabbed about a 10 point lead midway through the first half, and the game stayed at that level throughout.

Florida State has been great this year at limiting opponents' FG% and did just that to the Irish. Notre Dame shot 31 percent from the field, and their dangerous 3-point shooters hit only seven of their 30 shots (23%) from behind the arch.

Bernard James has been a great low post threat, hitting 11-of-16 shots in the tournament and collecting 16 rebounds. VCU and Florida State meet on March 25, and the way the Southwest is going, the winner may face Richmond. (Man, how did Richmond not get any love in this column?)


DONATO: I could make a case for each of these teams, and would do so if that did not mean that I would walk all over your end of the contributions for this region. The team that has stood out to me the most has been Wisconsin.

The Badgers did not allow Belmont to get going after Belmont became a chic upset pick, and stopped Kansas State when the majority of people felt that Jacob Pullen and the Wildcats were the favorite. Wisconsin was also coming off a train wreck loss to Penn State in the Big Ten tournament by a score of 36-33.

As much as I liked Wisconsin during the regular season (one of two teams to beat Ohio State), I gave them high probability to lose either of their first two games, and even though their seeding suggests that they belong in the Sweet 16, their play in getting there has been a pleasant surprise.

KELLY: I'm just going to do it. Jimmer and the Fredettes were this region's most impressive team and here's why: No team had more to prove -- "You can't win without Davies!" -- and a bigger spotlight -- both games on CBS, prime-time -- and the BYU Cougars delivered.

Sure, they were touch-and-go for a bit in the Wofford-game, but the Cougars responded with a 22-point drubbing of Gonzaga.

More importantly, the local kid did himself right. Averages of 33 points and 6.5 assists per game, showing once and for all he's just not a kid who can light it up against the whatstheirnames in the Mountain West.

So, what's your take? Agree, disagree? Let us know in the comments!

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Saturday, March 19, 2011

Sunday's Round of 32 Preview

We wrap up the early rounds of the men's NCAA tournament on Sunday and punch the tickets of eight more teams to the Sweet 16. Here's a glance at each of the games on the second day of the Round of 32.*

East Region: No. 2 North Carolina vs. No. 7 Washington, 12:15 p.m., CBS

The Tar Heels were content to just play along with Long Island in North Carolina's 102-87 win on Friday night. While Long Island is not an offensive slouch -- the Blackbirds averaged 82.6 points per game this season, fourth best in the nation -- the Tar Heels will need to find some semblance of defense in order to get past a very talented Washington club.

The Huskies were ranked early on this season before trailing off in late January. Isaiah Thomas (16.9 points, six assists per game) is one of the nation's most explosive players and senior Matthew Bryan-Amaning (15.3 points, eight rebounds per game) provides the muscle down low for Washington.

The most interesting matchup in this one will be Bryan-Amaning against UNC's Jon Henson down low. Amaning (240 pounds) is a wide body and Henson's body has a stick-figure look to it. Still, the North Carolina sophomore is a top defensive player and is averaging 10.3 rebounds and 3.2 blocks per game.

West Region: No. 1 Duke vs. No. 8 Michigan, 2:45 p.m., CBS

The West is the bracket of fate, isn't it? First we get Duke-Michigan on the immediate heels of last weekend's Fab Five documentary which featured these two teams' matchup in the 1991 national championship. Then, possibly down the road, we could get either one of these teams going against ex-Michigan coach Steve Fisher's San Diego State club in the Elite Eight.

Just pointing out that if you believe the selection committee does not consider storyline when making up the bracket, you are painfully naive.

(That, or the selection committee is the luckiest group of people in the world. Your pick.)

Anyway, this game features two of the teams with more impressive tournament debuts. Duke walked past Hampton State, but was able to get Kyrie Irving into the action for a bit, and Michigan trounced a seemingly distracted Tennessee team by 30 points.

Should be an interesting contrast of styles -- Michigan can break out its 1-3-1 zone against Duke, something that I do not think the Blue Devils have faced this season. Should make for an interesting subplot to see how Duke's 3-point shooters react to those wing-to-corner 3-pointers being covered.

East Region: No. 1 Ohio State vs. No. 8 George Mason, 5:15 p.m., CBS

I don't think anyone will be too surprised if George Mason pulls off this upset. Coach Jim Larranaga's club cannot sneak up on anyone like it did several years ago in mounting a Final Four run, but this year's Patriots are good enough that they do not need to take anyone by surprise.

Ohio State has more pure talent and will have the best player (Jared Sullinger, the potential No. 1 pick in this year's NBA draft), but George Mason's biggest strength comes against Ohio State's greatest weakness: Guard play. Luke Hancock and Cam Long average a combined 25.9 points per game and take excellent care of the ball, only coughing it up 4.1 times per game between them.

West Region: No. 4 Texas vs. No. 5 Arizona, 6:10 p.m., TNT

This one might be our best game in the entire tournament in terms of potential pro prospects.

Arizona's Derrick Williams is a fantastic prospect and a likely top-5 pick in this upcoming draft. The 6-foot-8 power forward averaged 19.2 points per game this season ... on 61-percent shooting from the floor. He also has a nice touch, connecting on 36-of-59 3-pointers this season (61 percent). Williams went for 22 points and 10 rebounds in his team's opening victory over Memphis.

Texas has a couple pro prospects, its best being Jordan Hamilton and Tristan Thompson. Hamilton, a 6-foot-7 sophomore, averaged 18.7 points per game this season, while Thompson is more of a stat-sheet stuffer. The freshman averaged 13.4 points and 7.9 rebounds per game, and compiled 17 points, 10 rebounds and seven blocks in his team's second-round victory against Oakland.

Southwest Region: No. 3 Purdue vs. No. 11 VCU, 7:10 p.m., TBS

VCU has already won two games in this tournament and might be able to pull off the upset here, too. Purdue's losing of Kelsey Barlow didn't hurt the Boilermakers in their blowout of St. Peters, but VCU may be the tournament's hottest team right now. The Rams have won four of their last five games, with wins over George Mason, USC and Georgetown -- that's a pretty impressive list.

East Region: No. 3 Syracuse vs. No. 11 Marquette, 7:45 p.m., truTV

Just another Big East battle.

Syracuse has a chance to avenge one of its regular-season losses in this one. The Orange lost to Marquette at the tail-end of Syracuse's four-game losing streak at the end of January that temporarily derailed the team after its fantastic start.

Back when they met in January, Syracuse's vaunted zone defense was no match for Jae Crowder, who sliced and diced his way to 25 points. The Golden Eagles also connected on 6-of-13 3-pointers and managed to get to the line for 33 free-throw attempts.

Jim Boeheim's club will need to tighten up its defense in order to reverse January's game-result. A better game from guard Brandon Triche

Southwest Region: No. 1 Kansas vs. No. 9 Illinois, 8:40 p.m., TNT

This seems like a game we should just be able to (rock) chalk up a win for the Jayhawks, but Illinois was so impressive in its victory against UNLV. Up 22 points at the half, Illinois coasted a bit in the second half, but still managed an 11-point win.

In order to pull off the upset, Illinois needs to play a full game and get better ball protection from point guard Demetri McCamey (seven assists, six turnovers).

Southwest Region: No. 2 Notre Dame vs. No. 10 Florida State, 9:40 p.m., TBS

Let's not waste our time -- Notre Dame is probably playing the best basketball in the NCAA, winning 13 of their last 15 games. Mike Brey and his club are moving on to the Sweet 16.  

*Consider my mailing in of that final game to be retribution for the NCAA allowing this batch of games to be dubbed the "Round of 32." Seriously, NCAA? Sweet 16, Elite Eight, Final Four ... and Round of 32?

--Michael Kelly

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Friday, March 18, 2011

Saturday's Round of 32 Preview

Eight more games on the slate for Saturday's NCAA men's basketball tournament as the Madness moves into Day 3. Here's a quick look at each of Saturday's games. 

East Region: No. 4 Kentucky vs. No. 5 West Virginia, 12:15 p.m., CBS

This is a rematch of one of last year's Elite Eight contests, though neither squad has too many, if any, impact players back from last year. Much like last year, Kentucky would seem to have an advantage in pure talent and athleticism, so it will be interesting to see if Bob Huggins can outwork John Calipari once again.

Should be fun to see how Kentucky's much-ballyhooed freshman point guard, Brandon Knight, responds after his dud of a game on Thursday against Princeton. Last year's top-rated high school point guard finished with only two points on 1-of-8 shooting, only his second single-digit scoring output this season.

After that first single-digit game (six points against UConn on Nov. 24) Knight bounced back to post one of his most complete stat lines of the season (23 points, six rebounds, six assists) in a win over Boston University. 

Southeast Region: No. 2 Florida vs. No. 7 UCLA, 2:45 p.m., CBS

Much like the first game on Saturday, this one features two programs with recent history between them ... though no current players were around to experience it. On its way to back-to-back championships in 2006 and 2007, Florida upended UCLA in both the Final Four and championship.

Florida is coming off a 28-point win in its first game, while Ben Howland's UCLA club almost blew a 20+-point lead in the second half against Michigan State.

Southwest Region: No. 12 Richmond vs. No. 13 Morehead State, 5:15 p.m., CBS

We've actually now gotten one of these 12-13 matchups in three of the past four tournaments, so you may want to store that morsel away for next year's bracket.

Anyway, this one should be a walk for Richmond. The Spiders pulled off the toughest upset there is in the tournament, converting the 12-over-a-5 upset that everyone expected to happen. Usually when everyone jumps on the bandwagon of an underdog, it doesn't work out, but Richmond showed why everyone thought they were the real deal.

West Region: No. 2 San Diego State vs. No. 7 Temple, 6:10 p.m., TNT

We should be in store for a fun one, as the Aztecs could be prone to an upset here against the Owls, one of March's perennial upset-makers.

San Diego State has a clear talent advantage and is one of the nation's best rebounding teams in the country. Coach Steve Fisher tends to be a "roll the ball out" type of coach, but it has worked for him this year as the Aztecs have consistently taken good shots (47-percent shooting this season) and fantastic care of the ball (11 turnovers per game).

But Temple will be ready -- the Owls played several top teams this season and beat Georgetown, 68-65, as well as other major-conference schools (Georgia, Maryland, Seton Hall and, now, Penn State).

Southeast Region: No. 1 Pittsburgh vs. No. 8 Butler, 7:10 p.m., TBS

Expect this one to not make it out of the 50s, as both teams like to slug it out down low and make the most of each possession.

The most important thing in this game will be whether or not Butler's Matt Howard can stay out of foul trouble. In the past, the big man has struggled to stay on the floor when Butler takes on big-time opponents. If Howard can give Butler 25-to-30 minutes, that might be enough for Shelvin Mack and Co. to pull off the upset and send our first top seed home. 

Southeast Region: No. 3 BYU vs. No. 11 Gonzaga, 7:45 p.m., CBS

Jimmer Time. Let's go.

Gonzaga is long and athletic, but they sure did BYU a favor by knocking off rugged St. Johns. However, Fredette will need some help -- and probably some rest -- to get through to the Sweet 16.

Fredette has played all 40 minutes in his team's last four games and it has shown a bit in his shooting. If we take out Fredette's 52-point performance within this stretch, the senior has shot 27-of-71 (38 percent) while logging such heavy minutes. Fredette needs someone else to step up and help him; Noah Hartsock (4-of-6, 10 points against Wofford) and Charles Abouo (five points in only 16 minutes, foul trouble) are likely candidates to (hopefully) step up. 

Southeast Region: No. 4 Wisconsin vs. No. 5 Kansas State, 8:40 p.m., TNT

Well, Bo Ryan's Badgers managed to bounce back and score more than 33 points in their opening round victory.

But Kansas State is the team to watch in this contest. Of late, Frank Martin's club has become the team everyone though it could be when the season opened. Kansas State has won seven of its last eight games and Jacob Pullen (24.1 points per game during the stretch) has really hit his stride. 

West Region: No. 3 UConn vs. No. 6 Cincinnati, 9:40 p.m., CBS

Didn't take us long to get a Big East rematch in the tournament, did it?

These two clubs met only once in the regular season, a 67-59 victory for the Huskies. In that game, UConn shot a blistering rate from the field (50 percent from the floor, 53 percent from 3), but struggled to create separation. The Bearcats could pull off the upset if they take better care of the ball and shoot a better percentage from when these two teams first met; Cincy shot 24 percent from deep and committed 17 turnovers in the loss. 

-- Michael Kelly

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Wednesday, March 16, 2011

From the Paper: Jimmer Extra

Couple Jimmer Fredette-themed articles in Thursday's paper (here's one and here's the other) to help get the men's NCAA basketball tournament started.

When interviewing Glens Falls coach Tony Hammel, I asked the coach if he had any idea when he coached Fredette is he would become the collegiate (and, soon-to-be NBA) player that he had.

Hammel said he never thought Fredette would do what he has this season -- "I really don't think you could predict that" -- but he did have an anecdote to share of when he knew Fredette was extra special and not just your run-of-the-mill high-scoring high school ballplayer.

Glens Falls' basketball team plays in a tournament every year in Allentown, Penn. where Hammel grew up. The tournament is played in the summer before the school year and is highly competitive.

"Usually when we go down there, it's a double elimination tournament and we'll win one or two games and then we're done," Hammel said.

But not the summer before Fredette's senior year. Playing against teams from all over Pennsylvania -- including much bigger schools than Glens Falls -- Fredette scored 35 points per game and led Glens Falls to an 8-0 record in the tournament. Fredette was named the tournament's MVP.

"I knew how good he was when he was able to carry us through that tournament and not lose a game," Hammel said.

Glens Falls athletic director Chip Corlew -- who coached Fredette in modified basketball when he was in seventh grade -- said he too was surprised Fredette reached the heights of college basketball that he has, namely, being in the running for National Player of the Year.

"I knew he'd be a very good college player, but I didn't think he would do this," Corlew said.

Corlew didn't expect it, but he's not totally shocked it has happened, either.

"He works out in our gym every summer," Corlew said. "If you could watch him work out, you would know why he is the leading scorer in the country.

"He's earned everything he has gotten."

--Michael Kelly

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The Great Debate: Will the Big East get two in the Final Four?

Matt Donato and Michael Kelly, going at it again!

This time we're debating an over/under for the number of Big East teams in the Final Four in this year's men's NCAA basketball tournament. We set the over/under at 1.5, so feel free to use the comments section to chime in. 

Donato: Arguing for the under

An over/under on Big East teams in the Final Four at 1.5 seems like a relative no-brainer. The under is a Blake Griffin slam dunk.

Like most sports arguments, this one comes down to a reasonably simple equation. The Big East has 11 teams in the NCAA Tournament out of the 68 participating. They represent a mere 16% of the teams in the field. It would take 25% to expect beyond a reasonable doubt that one team should be represented in the Final Four. So two teams seems, in the face of probability, very unlikely.

Granted, you may soon counter by saying that the worst (by seeding) Big East team is Marquette at 11, including a 1 seed, a 2 seed and two 3 seeds, and that should play favorably into their probability. The NCAA Tournament is not played in a vacuum you may say. Good point.

But is that enough to sway the 16% enough to make the over favorable? I say no. 

Kelly: Arguing for the over

OK, first of all -- the Big East has 11 teams in the 64-team field. So, the conference actually has 17 percent of the teams in the real field.

Quibbling? As a certain former Republican ticket member would say, "You betcha!"

Anyway, let's get real about what teams are going to the Final Four. In the last 10 years, only one Final Four combatant has come from outside the top five seeds in a region, so let's cut down our prospective pool of teams for the final weekend to 20 (each regions' 1-5 seeds).

Of those 20 spots, the Big East controls six, so already we're up to a 30-percent chance that one team from the nation's best conference makes it to the Final Four.

Oh, yeah -- of the five non-top 5-seeds in the tournament from the Big East, three of those five are 6-seeds, right on the brink of being in major consideration for a Final Four spot. That gives the Big East nine of the top 24 spots (38 percent) in the Big Dance.

Did I mention this year's Big East was unquestionably the greatest conference in modern college basketball history?

I'll send this back your way, but, honestly, I don't know why we're even continuing this. The Big East is a lock for at least two of the Final Four entries. 

Donato: Under

38% does put us right at the tipping point for 1.5, but this year sports the most wide-open field of any NCAA Tournament that I can harken back to. Every region is loaded with upset specials, and some of them are just waiting to pick apart the weary Big East.

I feel No. 11 Gonzaga is not out of the question to beat No. 6 St. John's, and the Tigers are a strong upset candidate when you consider No. 11 Missouri's RPI: 37 against No. 6 Cincinnati's RPI: 36.

Also, you have to take into consideration them knocking each other out. In the Southwest, if Georgetown makes it past Purdue (I'm thinking, no.) they would likely have to face the 2-seed Notre Dame in the Sweet 16. In the East, if Marquette gets past Xavier they will more than likely draw Syracuse in the second round. In the West if Cincinnati does not get upset by Missouri they are lined up immediately to face Big East Tournament Champion UConn (God, it feels great to write that.) in the second round.

The teams are immediately picking each other off. The brackets were designed to not have two Big East teams reach the Final Four. 

Kelly: Over

OK, so you made a good point about how Big East teams may very well knock each other off in this tournament. But, like any savvy analyst, I'm pretty much just going to ignore that inarguable truth and move on.

What makes this year's field unique for the Big East -- besides have an NCAA-record 11 teams in the field -- is that the handful of very best Big East teams are positioned away from one another, so they all can actually make a Final Four run. This year's Beasts of the East -- Louisville, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh, Syracuse and UConn -- will not play each other until, at earliest, the Elite Eight (possibly Louisville and Notre Dame). So, while some Big East-on-Big East crime may occur in the early rounds, it should not matter too much to the conference's Final Four chances.

If we agree -- as everyone pretty much does -- that the Big East is the best conference this season, then it's not unreasonable at all to think they could get at least two teams in. Like you said, it's a wide-open field, so there are not a multitude of superpowers from other conferences waiting to take down the Big East's entries.

Kind of to that point -- we're not really even sure if these teams from other conferences can compete with the Big East teams. The Big East dominated the non-conference portion of the year and then beat up -- and improved -- each other in conference play. Duke and Kansas are great, but neither team has gone through the rigors of the Big East schedule.

Furthermore, getting two teams in the Final Four is not even a major stretch for a conference; the Big East just accomplished the feat two years ago when UConn and Villanova each made the final weekend of play. 

Donato: Under

I agree it is not out of the question for the Big East to get two teams into the Final Four. I just think the odds are against such a feat. If the Big East is to pull it off, I believe their best bets come out of the Southeast (Jimmer territory) and the East.

Pitt (RPI 10) is a 1-seed, so they have an edge, but they potentially have to get past either Utah. St. (Seriously, a team ranked 15 in RPI is a 12-seed? Wisconsin is a 4-seed in that region and they are 16th in RPI.) or BYU RPI-5, and then Florida RPI 8.

The East is a different animal. It has four Big East teams therein and is home to my "Ballsy Upset Special". (Ohio State does not make it out of the second round. You heard it here first!) Of course, that is still not probable. Villanova has to beat a sneaky-tough George Mason team just to face the Buckeyes. Syracuse is well-rested after their one-game Big East tourney and I could see them making a run, but their shoddy free throws make me weary of close games.

Louisville and UConn just beat the heck out of themselves on their Big East Tourney run, may not have much left in the tank, and I think my Huskies have used each of their three wishes, including an Aladdin-style trick bonus wish to win every game following the DePaul one. Cincinnati will be a tough game for them and the challenge will only increase with SDSU and Duke likely to follow.

Louisville and Notre Dame are locked in a room with RPI No. 1 Kansas in the Southwest, making escape unlikely. Even though Notre Dame was in contention for a 1 seed, I don't like their matchup with Purdue.

Now, the Big East does seem like Mr. Burn's starting lineup from "Homer at the Bat", but they will be far less formidable unless, of course, my eleven Big East teams fall victim to eleven separate good fortunes and are able to play in the Sweet 16. But that will never happen.

Three good fortunes, that's possible. Seven good fortunes, there's an outside chance. But eleven good fortunes? I'd like to see that!

Actually, I would like to see that, improbable as it may be.

Kelly: Over

I wish you weren't such a huge UConn fan so I could just call you a Big East-hater and dismiss you. Oh well.

Anyway, how about we let the always rational, sane and truth-driven people of the comments section take this one away from here and declare a victor?

Will the Big East get two in or will the other conferences' put their foot down on this "best-ever conference" talk? Keep it classy, profanity-free, and remember to side with the over.

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Monday, March 14, 2011

Five Best Opening Round Games: Thursday Edition

First, a rant ...

Let's call CBS/TNT and the NCAA out on something that is beyond ridiculous. They are now trying to convince us that the play-in games are legitimate enough to be their own round and that Thursday and Friday's games are actually the "second round."

No, CBS/TNT and NCAA -- your play-in games still only make up the play-in round. If you want to look at as you gave 60 teams a first-round bye, go ahead, but that's a leap you guys are going to make by yourselves.

Rant over.

For those who don't want to take advantage of every single game being aired this year -- CBS, TBS, truTV and TNT are all showing games -- here are the best five games on Thursday when the tournament really gets rolling. Check back tomorrow for Friday's best five games.

Let's roll ...

No. 8 Butler vs. No. 9 Old Dominion
Tip at 12:40 p.m., on truTV

Could everyone's favorite underdog from last year, the Butler Bulldogs, drop out of this year's Big Dance in the first round? I say yes.

Butler (23-9) had another great year and won its conference tournament, but the Monarch of Old Dominion (27-6) may just be good enough to topple last year's runner-up. Led by Frank Hassell (15 points, 9.6 rebounds per game) down low, the Monarchs have the size to give the scrappy bunch from Butler all they can handle. The Monarchs averaged 40.2 rebounds per game as a team, seventh-best in the NCAA; Butler came in 177th this year in team rebounding.   

No. 7 Temple vs. No. 10 Penn State 
Tip at 2:10 p.m., on TNT 

Can our non-Jimmer* local rooting interest -- Penn State's Talor Battle, a Bishop Maginn graduate -- do some damage in his first trip to the tournament? The senior point guard delivered all years for the team from Happy Valley to the tune of 20.1 points per game and upped his game in the Big Ten's conference tournament's later rounds, going for 24.5 points, six rebounds and six assists per game in the semifinals and championship.
No. 4 Wisconsin vs. No. 13 Belmont
Tip at 7:27 p.m., on truTV

This one will feature two teams who sure like to play different styles of ball. Slow-it-down, slug-it-out Wisconsin -- coming off a 36-33 loss to Battle's Nittany Lions -- likes to walk the ball up the court and work deep into the shot clock before locking up its opponents on defense; meanwhile, the 30-4 Belmont Bruins love to run-and-gun, averaging 80.4 points per game this season, 11th best in the NCAA. 
Wisconsin has struggled in past tournaments against teams that move the Badgers out of their comfort zone -- the 50s -- so this one could give us the tournament's largest upset, seeding-wise. Even if Belmont cannot pull off the upset, this one will be an interesting watch to see which team's style wins out.

No. 6 St. Johns vs. No. 11 Gonzaga
Tip at 9:45 p.m., CBS

Back in the tournament for the first time in years, the Johnnies are welcomed by a March mainstay, Mark Few's Gonzaga Bulldogs. Steve Lavin's Red Storm lost its best player -- D.J. Kennedy -- for the season in the team's loss to Syracuse in the Big East tournament, but this is still a more than winnable game for St. Johns.
No. 5 Kansas State vs. No. 12 Utah State
Tip at 9:57 p.m., on truTV 

One of the night's final games features a potential 12-5 upset, everyone's favorite underdog matchup. This one should not disappoint, as Utah State actually should be the favorite in this one -- Utah State finished the season with an RPI of 15; Kansas State finished at 23.

At this point, we know all about Kansas State. They have an outstanding guard in Jacob Pullen, a crazy coach in Frank Martin and ferocious bigs down low. But Utah State (29-3) is a fantastic team on a great ride this season, winning 24 of its last 25 games. Should be a fun one ... especially if Utah State can pull off the upset so we can watch Martin lose it.

*BYU and Jimmer should easily advance out of the first round, so I didn't include the game. But, Fredette's bunch plays Thursday at 7:15 p.m. on CBS.

-- Michael Kelly

The Great Debate: Jimmer Fredette vs. Kemba Walker for Player of the Year

With one of the fiercest Player of the Year battles in recent history raging on, The Saratogian's Michael Kelly and Matthew Donato pick a side and fight it out like real men ... with numbers.

Matthew Donato: for Kemba Walker
So, unfortunately, this argument may be over before we even begin. Five games in five days, four of which were against ranked opponents in the toughest conference in the country ... Kemba Walker has to be the choice for Player of the Year.

He has single-handedly carried an overachieving UConn team who I predicted on Extra Points at the beginning of the season to be merely a sneaky opponent who will play giant-killer to a few Big East teams, but not contend.

Instead, the Huskies upset Michigan State, Kentucky, Texas and Tennessee early in the season and made it as high as the No. 4 ranking before the tough Big East schedule got their hits in.

Would BYU have been as good without Jimmer? No chance. But UConn would have floundered in the Big East with their young, leaderless team if Kemba were not in command.

Michael Kelly: For Jimmer Fredette
Whoa, whoa, whoa ... "over before we even begin?" Simmer down, Donato, we have a ways to go.

Jimmer Fredette led the nation in scoring at 28.5 points per game, went for 30 or more points on 13 different occasions, and was the only reason why people even knew about the BYU Cougars this season.

You want to talk quality wins? The Cougars beat the Pac-10 regular-season champion (Arizona), the West Coast Conference regular-season champion (St. Mary's) and took down conference-rival San Diego State twice this season.

Finally, before turning this back to you, UConn was young, but filled with talent; freshmen like Jeremy Lamb, Shabazz Napier and Roscoe Smith were all top-100 recruits out of high school and were not exactly scrubs. While I won't discredit what Walker did in leading a young group of guys through the country's best league, let's also acknowledge that what those guys lacked in experience, they made up for in talent.

In short, if we were to draft up 5-on-5 teams out of these two teams, Jimmer and Kemba excluded, we're each taking UConn guys with our first three or picks before we even get to a Cougar.

Granted, Lamb and Shabazz may go ahead of a Noah Hartsock, but how much did BYU suffer after Davies was out?

The team was blown out in their second loss to New Mexico, squeaked by TCU in the first round, and needed Jimmer's 52 point explosion to get by New Mexico into the MWC finals, which they lost handily.

Davies was a key presence down low with his .525 shooting percentage, and he and Hartsock provided the majority of the rebounds and blocks for the team. Losing him proved how much the rest of the team helped enable Jimmer to be the scoring machine he is.

Walker has been key in the clutch. Before the Big East semifinals, ESPN showed a montage of the game winners he has sunk this season. The man has enough for a montage! That hop-back jumper that he used to beat Pitt made more than one appearance. That move is automatic.

Anyway, if you take away those game-winners and tie-ers (is that a writable word?), how many more games does UConn lose? Even someone of his talent, without that ability to step up in the clutch, would have kept UConn out of contention.

Walker was key in the clutch in several situation from this past week, but he did not bring it on a game-to-game basis like "The Jimmer."

Though this could be twisted into a support of Walker, Kemba only shot 35 percent in his team's losses this season (he shot 43 percent for the season).

Meanwhile, Fredette averaged 30 points per game and shot 44 percent (46 percent on the year) in his team's four losses, so none of his team's losses were on him.

Kemba's worst game this season: Eight points (in 38 minutes!) in a 66-58 home loss to Syracuse.

Jimmer's worst game this season: 13 points ... in a 12-point win at Creighton.

If you want to make a "See? Walker is more valuable to his team!" argument based off this, be my guest.

But shouldn't Fredette be rewarded for always showing up?


Kemba did cool off for a few games after his hot start, but with the exception of Lamb, the whole team was off that game. I would chalk that one up to a good game plan on Syracuse's end.

For a team that I expected to have a season much like what Marquette had this year, I can understand one team really shutting down Walker and Co., especially when Connecticut faced the caliber of opponents it did this season.

According to, UConn's strength of schedule (where zero is the average team's schedule) was 10.26, the highest for the team since it began keeping track of the stat in the 1979-1980 season. BYU's was 5.66. Since zero is the average, that put's UConn's opponents at about 25% tougher than BYU. Did Walker have a 25% better supporting cast to perhaps equal that out? Frankly, I don't know how to quantify that, but my gut says no.


There's no point in even debating who played a tougher schedule -- UConn plays in the Big East and BYU plays in the Mountain West, so I'll concede any SOS-related argument you throw at me.

However, allow me just a quick second to point out that BYU and UConn both finished with 3-seeds in the Big Dance and that the Cougars finished the regular season No. 5 in the RPI, while Walker's UConn finished in 14th. Anyway, I think you will instantly regret bringing basketball-reference into this because it allows me to expose Walker as a gunner and Jimmer as smooth a shooter as Jimmy Chitwood.

Let's look at "True Shooting Percentage," which is a gauge which takes into account all the shots a player takes (2's, 3's and FTs). Fredette finished the regular season with a TSP of .598; Walker was at .543.

Now, let's look at "Win Shares," which involves a mathematical formula that determines how many wins a player helps contribute to his team's bottom line. Fredette finishes with 7.8 win shares; Walker finished with 6.4.

More important than any numbers, though, is that, in college basketball, this was the year of Jimmer. When we are looking back on this season five, 10 years from now, we will remember this season as the one where the kid with the funny name scored all those points.

Walker had a fantastic week at the Big East Tournament and a great season, but what Fredette did was transcendent. Think about it: The Glens Falls-native had people trying to figure out if they had "Versus" and random CBS sports channels so they could watch (freaking) Mountain West basketball games to get a glimpse of him.

Jimmers win shares also come almost completely from the offensive side. 5.1 vs 1.9, whereas Walker is more balanced at 3.5 vs 2.9. That makes Jimmer much more of a defensive liability. Do they give MVPs to DHs in baseball? No. Hell, even Steph Curry, whom everyone called out for his defense, had a defensive win share of 3.5.

Also, in the five games for BYU since the Davies popped the honor code, (Can we keep that in there? Probably not.), Fredette has played an average of 38.2 minutes per game, (let's call it 19% of the total time a position is filled on the court in a game), yet has only 12% of the team's rebounds, 21% of their steals, and for a point guard, has only 28% of the team's assists. I know he is usually the one who is scoring and therefore his assists would be down, but outside of scoring, he isn't bringing much else to the table.

Kemba, during that same stretch, has averaged 38 minutes per game, the same 19%, yet claims 23% of the team's rebounds, (with the Big East's second leading rebounder Alex Oriakhi banging the glass too), 25% of the team's steals, and 40% of the team's assists.

Kemba is multi-dimentional, and has more of a positive effect on more areas of the team.

Also, going back to Steph Curry. He is for what I remember 2008. He played for a mid-major in a smaller conference and carried a Davidson team with his incredible offensive display night after night. 2008 was the year of Steph Curry, yet he did not win Player of the Year. Tyler Hansbrough did.


Hold up -- Steph Curry was a fine college player and had a magical tournament run in 2008, but he was not the type of force that Mr. Fredette has been this season. Curry scored a lot of points on a team that earned a 10-seed in the tournament; Fredette did everything Curry did while also leading BYU to a top-10 ranking for most of the season.

(Sidenote: Tyler Hansbrough's little brother -- you know, Ben Hansbrough, the guy who beat Walker out for the Big East Player of the Year? -- may have an issue with this whole Jimmer vs. Kemba debate.)

I don't think it's really prudent to argue against Walker as the better all-around player of the two -- since, Kemba is the better all-around player -- but Fredette's singular skill to score the basketball is unmatched by any current player in college basketball, and perhaps any college player since "Pistol" Pete Maravich.

Your argument for Walker as the player of the year is sound and, in a normal year, I would likely give him the nod and agree with you. But what Fredette has done -- scored so many points that BYU basketball matters on a national stage and is a legitimate Final Four contender -- transcends normalcy, and thus the statistics are only part of his case. Fredette is the player of the year in the most literal sense of the phrase -- he is the player everyone will remember from this year as college basketball's singular greatest story.

I suppose we can leave it to the good, rational people of the comments section to decide whether Jimmer or Kemba is the Player of the Year.

I think the real winners here are the basketball fans of New York. For all the similarities we have pointed out, the one non-basketball sameness is their home state. Jimmer, as we in the capital region are all familiar with, is from Glens Falls, and Kemba is from the Bronx. While both left town for their collegiate careers, New York can still lay claim to the two best college basketball players of 2011.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Bracket Help

About to enter your family/friends/office pool, but haven't paid too much attention this year? I got you covered.

I won't bore you with who you should pick as your champion -- mine, every year, is North Carolina, regardless of how they do in the regular season; this often comes back to hurt me -- and I won't just go over who the best upsets are, though I did do this the other day here and here.

Instead, here are five general tips for figuring out how you want to predict this year's field ...

1) Beware the East

While the Southeast Region is no slouch, the East bracket really brings the power. The winner of the George Mason/Villanova game could easily topple overall No. 1 Ohio State in the second round and there are several teams -- namely, Kentucky and Washington -- who seemed to be a seed or two better during the regular season than they were given.

My advice is -- unless you have a UNC-bias, as I do -- avoid picking a national champion from the East Region. I think you could make a case for the top nine seeds in this bracket to be your Final Four entry from this region which means no one team has a fantastic shot of making it.

2) Will we get a 12 beating a 5?

Every year, this seems to be the heaviest upset we can expect to happen, so who will it be this year?

Though Utah State is a solid bet in the Southeast Region, my preference is for Richmond over Vanderbilt in the Southwest. Richmond is fresh off winning the Atlantic 10 conference tournament and has won seven games in a row. Plus, the Spiders also won its toughest game of the season -- Purdue in the pre-conference schedule -- so they have big-game experience already.

3) Who has the easiest road to the Final Four?

My money is on Duke for this one, though Kansas is a close second. Duke is the No. 1 seed in the West Region and has as smooth a ride to the Elite Eight as a team could hope for; the only game Duke could lose before the Elite Eight is if floundering Texas gets itself together in time for the Sweet 16.

Duke also gets the benefit of playing the winner of San Diego State/UConn in the Elite Eight. Both those teams are athletic and scrappy, so their Sweet 16 matchup should be a dogfight, perhaps tiring out the victor for its matchup two days later with the Blue Devils.

4) Do we have a Final Four sleeper?

If we consider anyone lower than a 4-seed to be a sleeper, I think we have a few, but my favorite is Kansas State. The 5-seed in the Southeast has a tough first-round game against Utah State, then takes on the winner of Wisconsin/Belmont (I like Belmont for the upset), and then will have a date with No. 1 Pittsburgh.

The Panthers have been a force all season, but historically tend to flame out in the Sweet 16; Pitt has been a power since the early 2000s, but has only once (2009) gone to the Elite Eight. After that, Kansas State will have a winnable game against likely either Florida or BYU.

5) Does Jimmer have a chance?

The unofficial Four More Years Player of the Year does have a shot at March Madness glory because the Selection Committee was very good to our friend, Jimmer Fredette.

Jimmer and the Fredettes got a second-round date with St. Johns, a tough matchup for the Cougars because of the Red Storm's size, but the Johnnies are coming off a loss in which they lost their best player (D.J. Kennedy). St. Johns will be a tough out for BYU in the second round, but it is more than doable and the road gets easier from there.

After that, BYU gets to play Florida, who the Cougars beat in last year's NCAA tournament, albeit in double-overtime.

My take? If you like BYU over St. Johns, you can safely put Jimmer and his crew into the Elite Eight. Of the top teams in that bracket, I don't love BYU matching up with Pitt's size, but Jimmer will likely be favored against any other team in the Elite Eight.

--Michael Kelly

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Thursday, March 10, 2011

From the Paper: Flockerzi played at eccentric Grinnell College

Friday's edition of The Saratogian featured an article on Luke Flockerzi and Jeff Juron, a pair of coaches for the men's basketball team at the University of Rochester. The duo — Flockerzi is the head coach, Juron an assistant who played in high school for Burnt Hills — coached at Skidmore before heading out to Rochester, who is still alive in the D-III NCAA tournament.

It wasn't exactly relevant to the article, but an interesting sidebar is that Flockerzi played his college ball at Grinnell College, a D-III school in Iowa. The team's basketball program gained national attention a few years ago for its unorthodox style of play — simply put, Grinnell runs and guns ... and then runs and guns some more. Grinnell is coached by David Arseneault and routinely leads the country in points per game; this season, Grinnell went 18-7 and scored 102..9 points per game.

For some perspective, the D-1 leader in men's basketball (Virginia Military) averaged 87.9 points per game this season.

Grinnell's system gained national attention in the mid-2000s when ESPN the Magazine did a featured article about the team and then the network showed one of the team's games on TV. The team regularly subs all five players out at the same time and routinely plays more than 15 players so that legs can remain fresh to hoist 3-pointers; this season, the team shot 1,399 shots from behind the arc.

Again, perspective — Virginia Military led D-I in 3-point attempts and "only" took 978 shots from deep.

"It's definitely a different style of game, it's a lot of fun to play," Flockerzi said of Grinnell's approach to the game. "It definitely lends itself to being very team-oriented because everyone gets to contribute."

On this most recent Grinnell squad, 13 players played double-digit minutes and seven players scored more than eight points per game.

More of a role player on the team, Flockerzi (dismissively) said his high-game during his Grinnell career was (just) 22 points. Though not a common occurrence because of the way Grinnell hands out minutes, it is not rare for players on the team to have career-high scoring games in the 30s, 40s and 50s.

Flockerzi said his personal style of play is a mixture of all the coaches he has been around, but his teams do have some Grinnell-like flavor to them. He helped recruit the personnell for this past year's Skidmore squad that took 221 more 3-pointers than any other team in the Liberty League and Flockerzi's Rochester club has scored 75.9 points per game this season.

Mostly, Flockerzi said, Grinnell's style most infused his coaching personality in that he is willing to give his players extra freedom in shot selection and in going for steals on defense.

"(Beacuse of Grinnell) I can live with mistakes of aggression," he said.

--Michael Kelly

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Wednesday, March 9, 2011

March Madness Mid-Majors (Part II)

Yesterday, we took a glance at five mid-majors worth considering for an upset pick or two come bracket-filling out time. Since we try to maintain a Kevin Love-like level of consistency here at Four More Years, here's five more teams to keep in mind this Sunday from your non-powerhouse conferences* ...

Butler Bulldogs (23-9, Horizon League champions)

The Deal: OK, we're not exactly breaking new ground here by telling you that last year's national championship runner-up might be a decent pick for a couple rounds, so we'll treat this as more of just an update on how everyone's favorite Bulldogs did this year. Butler actually had a midseason slump this year -- three straight losses a little over a month ago -- but rebounded from it to the team's current nine-game winning streak.

Your Bracket: Don't go crazy with Butler. Nobody on this year's version has the talent of Gordon Hayward, so Butler will struggle to compete with the big boys. Feel justified in picking them as long as they stay clear of the top two seeds in their bracket.

Cleveland State Viking (26-8, Horizon League regular season co-champions)

The Deal: The Vikings are not a lock to make the tournament field since they would need to do so as an at-large, but Cleveland State is an intriguing squad. They boast an RPI of 41 (as of games completed through Tuesday) which is an impressive ranking for a mid-major and Cleveland State a great singular talent in Norris Cole. The senior guard does a bunch of everything -- 21.6 points per game, six rebounds, 5.3 assists -- and can throw up a crazy stat line with the best of them; in his team's win against Youngstown State, Cole went for 41 points, 20 rebounds and nine assists.

Your Bracket: Unlikely to crack the field, but not a terrible major upset pick, especially if you play in a pool where additional points are given based on a team's seeding. If they snag a 14-seed and play against a fading 3-seed, the Vikings are worth a look.

Gonzaga Bulldogs (24-9, West Coast Conference champions)

The Deal: Much like the other Bulldogs -- for those just skimming, Butler brought us our first collection of Bulldogs; by the way, Bulldogs is the most common moniker for NCAA teams --we're familiar with the Gonzaga program at this point. But this year's batch of left-coast hoopsters has gone, for the most, under the radar because they lost a bunch of games early in their out-of-conference schedule and lack quality wins. But, here are two of the clubs Gonzaga fell to early in the season -- San Diego State (by three) and Notre Dame (by four). Those two teams turned out to be two of the best 10 in the country and Gonzaga played them very close.

Your Bracket: Gonzaga has won nine games in a row and is peaking at the right time; if they get a favorable draw, they're not out of the Elite 8 picture. A favorable draw for them would include playing teams that are not loaded with super-quick guards (think Kentucky, North Carolina or Villanova).

Hofstra Pride (21-11, CAA runner-up)

The Deal: The Pride are on the bubble, but are a team to watch if they do make it into the field. The CAA was fantastic all year, so despite a lack of quality wins outside the conference, Hofstra has been tested. More importantly, the Pride has Charles Jenkins -- the senior guard averaged 22.9 points per game this season 30+ points four different times this season. Love an underdog that has a top gun capable of carrying a team for a night.

Your Bracket: If they get it, likely in the 13- to 14-seed range. If they get a first-round opponent that is more of a size team -- like Pittsburgh -- the Pride are worth a look.

Long Island Blackbirds (27-5, Northeast champions)

The Deal: Essentially, Long Island has played nobody of consequence this season, as the team's best opponent was the MAAC's Iona ... and the Blackbirds took the L in that one. But, the Blackbirds can score (82.5 points per game, sixth in the country) and rebound (41.8 boards a game, third in the country). If you can score and take care of the glass, you can cause headaches in March.

Your Bracket: Possibly a team headed to one of the play-in games for a 16-seed; worth a pick for that round if that is where they end up.

*I left out BYU and San Diego because both teams have been nationally ranked and discussed for most of the year. Obviously, these teams will be expected to win games in the tournament and won't get a chance to spring an upset.

--Michael Kelly

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Tuesday, March 8, 2011

March Madness Mid-Majors (Part I)

We were thisclose to crowning a mid-major* champion in last year's tournament when the Butler Bulldogs almost pulled off the upset against Duke. We're unlikely to get a school from a small conference to the national championship again this year, but that does not mean we won't get our usual share of never-heard-of-them-before schools creating all types of havoc within our brackets. Here's my look at five mid-major clubs who could easily win a game or more in this year's Big Dance; check back tomorrow for five more small schools worth your time come Selection Sunday.

*Just for the record: Mid-major, for our purposes, is any school not from the ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, SEC, or Pac-10. 

Belmont Bruins (30-4, Atlantic Sun champion)

The Deal: I got beat to the punch on this one, as ESPN's college basketball blog did a piece on the Bruins a little bit ago. Basically, two things you need to know about Belmont: First, the Bruins have won 21 of its past 22 games and three of the team's losses came against SEC opponents; second of all, Belmont plays a frenetic style that takes advantage of a deep bench and deft shooting touch that has the team making almost 10 3-pointers a game. 

Your Bracket: Belmont figures to be somewhere in the seeding range of 11-13; at any of those three spots, the Bruins are definitely worth a look. If Belmont is a 12 of 13 and can avoid a 3-seed in the second round, a Sweet 16 spot is not out of the question. 

George Mason Patriots  (26-6, CAA at-large)

The Deal: Our Cinderella story from a few years back, the Patriots lost in their conference tournament but were nationally ranked -- albeit, No. 25 -- before the loss. Prior to the loss to VCU, George Mason had won 16 straight games; I don't care what conference you play in, if you can win 16 games in a row, you're pretty good. Solid, solid team 

Your Bracket: The Patriots are likely to get something in the 9-12 range. If they end up in as a 9-seed, might be a fun pick to win the first game and possibly upset the No. 1 in the second round. Downside to George Mason is that they will not sneak up on any team after its run a few years ago and that might make them first-round vulnerable.

North Carolina-Asheville Bulldogs (19-13, Big South champion)

The Deal: These guys didn't have a great year, but they sure did finish well. The Bulldogs won its last six games, including two wins over Coastal Carolina, who at one point had won 22 straight games this season. 

Your Bracket: How about a real underdog? The Bulldogs will likely be in a play-in game before getting the chance to take on a No. 1 seed. Pick'm in the play-in game and then, hey, eventually a No. 1 seed has to lose right? Oh, right ... probably not. 

Oakland Golden Grizzlies (25-9, Summit League champion)

The Deal: Here is a name for you -- Keith Benson. The senior center is a 17-10 guy and sure utilizes his 6-foot-11 body, shooting 55 percent from the floor. Not just a one-man show, Oakland has four players who score in double digits. The Golden Grizzlies average the second-most points in the nation (85.5 points per game) and will prove to be a tough out for any team in the tournament. 

Your Bracket: A lot will come down to the matchup, but this is definitely a team worth giving a shot for a round or two. Oakland figures to be in the 12-14 range, seed-wise, but the Golden Grizzlies could be a fun first-round sleeper if they get matched up with a team that isn't a defensive juggernaut.  

Old Dominion Monarchs (27-6, CAA champions)

The Deal: Out of the same conference as George Mason in what will likely be a three- or four-bid league, the Monarchs have the best resume of any mid-major. Forget coming out of the country's best mid-major conference for a second, the Monarchs also own wins over the ACC's Clemson and the Atlantic 10's Xavier (not to mention playing the Big East's Georgetown to within three points). 

Your Bracket: My guess is the Monarchs will end up in the 6-8 seed-range in the tournament, so the questions with them are A) do they get matched up with a major conference team struggling down the stretch (Villanova?) in the first round and B) do you like them enough for a Sweet 16 push? My gut feeling is that Old Dominion will get a little too much love in the days leading up to the tournament as the chic mid-major upset pick and end up not being able to sneak up on anyone, so a Sweet 16 push might be tough; definitely like them in the first round, though.

--Michael Kelly

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Wednesday, March 2, 2011

What Davies' dismissal means for BYU and Jimmer

Well, for local fans swept up in Jimmer Fredette this college basketball season, Wednesday's news of the dismissal of Brandon Davies from the BYU Cougars was an Anderson Silva-like kick to the stomach (or head).

Watching BYU get blown out at home against New Mexico on Wednesday night, 82-64, sure didn't help the mood of any Jimmermaniacs.  

I'm going to leave discussion about the cultural issues about Davies dismissal -- as of right now, it's reported that he admitted to having sexual relations with his girlfriend, a no-no under BYU's strict honor code that students must abide by at the school -- and instead focus on the burning question related to the three-week long holiday that starts in a couple weeks: How will this impact Jimmer and the Fredettes in March Madness?

To start, I wrote less than a month ago that BYU was in line to get a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, which was true at the time and certainly was a notion that gained considerable momentum in the last couple of weeks.

Now, BYU's resume will still be No. 1 seed worthy if the Cougars win their conference tournament (possible), but without Davies it is unlikely BYU will see its name in the top line. The NCAA tournament selection committee has a history of dropping teams down a peg or two if a star player will miss the tournament. For example, the Kenyon Martin-fueled Cincinnati Bearcats of 2000 spent most of the year at No. 1 in the polls, but saw themselves only receive a three-seed after Martin broke his leg in the Conference USA tournament.

So, BYU's chance for a top seed is out the window, in my opinion, because the Cougars will struggle to pass the smell test of the selection committee without their best rebounder and defensive presence down low.

But it's not like earning a top seed was BYU's goal this season -- probably just winning the Mountain West was the team's goal, truthfully -- and the Cougars will still get a one, two or three come Selection Sunday. If BYU really struggles without Davies and perhaps loses before the final of the team's conference tournament, maybe the Cougars get bumped down to the line of four-seeds, but that's unlikely.

Instead, what Jimmer and the Fredettes need to focus on in the team's remaining handful of games prior to the NCAA tournament is regaining their confidence in the wake of the loss of Davies and figuring out how to adjust their playing style to account for the loss of Davies. If I were in charge of the BYU program -- still waiting for the call -- here would be the three main things on my agenda ...
  1. Tell everyone not to worry at all about the loss to New Mexico on Wednesday night. Yes, it was a blowout loss at home, but recognize that A) BYU had no chance to win on the day it was rocked by the loss of a key cog and B) New Mexico also beat BYU earlier this season and may just have the Cougars' number. Sometimes, no matter how good a team is, an inferior team may just have the matchups in its favor.
  2. Pump up the confidence of Noah Hartsock. The smooth-shooting junior only averages nine points per game, but shoots 52 percent from the floor (and has an effective shooting percentage of 57 percent for the stat geeks out there). BYU needs to make sure Hartsock, who averages less than seven shots a night, is getting plenty of touches
  3. Finally, Jimmer. The Glens Falls native had an off night on Wednesday, scoring 33 points but shooting only 10-of-26 from the floor in doing so. My advice to BYU would be to take the ball out of Fredette's hands a little more often at the start of possessions so opposing defenses can spend less time sending multiple defenders his way early in the shot clock. Like any team with an offensive superstar -- LeBron James when in Cleveland, Michael Jordan in Space Jam --  the Fredettes often find themselves watching and waiting for Jimmer to bail them out with a 35-foot 3-pointer, which needed to change come tournament time, anyway.
When you consider that very last point, that BYU's Jimmer-first and Jimmer-second approach to offense needed to change come March, losing Davies is almost a blessing in disguise; it forces BYU to reconsider itself before the tournament, which could help the team avoid becoming a predictable one-man show come tournament time.

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