Virginia in State of Denial

February 6th, 2019 sendarama Posted in college basketball | No Comments »

Thomas Jefferson’s presence looms large over the Charlottesville campus of the University of Virginia, which he conceived, designed, and founded exactly 200 years ago, in 1819. In doing so, he was motivated by a desire to perpetuate through a great learning institution the principles he set forth in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, namely the preservation of individual freedoms and the right of each individual to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Called “Jefferson’s Masterpiece,” the campus gives physical shape to his ideals. The Academic Village, the Rotunda, and the Lawn continue to serve as reminders of Jefferson’s vision of bringing educational opportunity, and the full panoply of human rights, to the common man.

But there is one section of Charlottesville to which Jeffersonian egalitarianism does not extend.

On the outskirts of town, about fifteen times a year, within the unfriendly confines of the John Paul Jones Arena, the University of Virginia men’s basketball team routinely denies opponents their heretofore fundamental right to possess the basketball, dribble the basketball, pass the basketball, and yes, God forbid, to shoot the basketball.

They do it with a defense which never lets up and is first in the nation in points allowed (52.9 ppg ), overall field goal defense (37%), and 3-point field goal defense (24.7%). They’ve held nine of their opponents this season under 50 points. Often, they’ll blitz you right out of the gate. Recently, they led Wake Forest 25-3 and Notre Dame 15-0 in successive games. In fairness, the referees should issue a Miranda warning to the opposition before tip-off because when an offense tries to score against the Cavaliers, they ain’t got no rights at all.

How does Virginia do it? And why does no other team in the country come close to replicating the havoc caused by Cavalier defenders?

TJ looks things over

TJ looks things over

The short answer is their pack-line defense which is a variation of man-to-man defense developed by ex-coach Dick Bennett, who just happens to be the father of Virginia coach Tony Bennett. Under the pack-line man-to-man defense, one man pressures the ball outside and the other four defenders sag back inside the imaginary “pack line,” which is about two feet inside the 3-point line. The idea is to clog the inside, prevent point-guard dribble penetration, and to always have a hand in the face of the 3-point shooter. Deny the post, deny the drive, deny the three-ball.

But they do not do it on defense alone. They’re patient with the ball and milk clock with every possession, shooting 48% from the field, 76 % from the stripe and almost 40% from 3-point land. Trying to come from behind against the Cavaliers is like slogging in heavy boots in quicksand.

Playing in the tough Atlantic Coast Conference against the likes of Duke, North Carolina, Syracuse and Louisville, Virginia’s regular season record since Bennett took over has been phenomenal. Since 2013-2014, They’ve won 30 or more games three times, 29 once, and at 20-1, they’re on track to win 30 again. Their record within the ACC during that stretch is 81-18, a full eight games better than North Carolina and Duke.

The knock against the Cavaliers is two-fold. They do not have elite talent and they have performed disappointingly in the NCAA tournament, most notably last year when they became the first number one seed ever to lose in the first round. They start two skinny white kids in the backcourt, a four year journeyman at center, and they have exactly one NBA prospect on their roster. Duke, their opponent Saturday night in what is likely to be the game of the year, has four future pros, including the unstoppable force, Zion Williamson.

The counter to the talent argument is that the Cavs are better than they look, and because of their cohesion, their whole is greater than the sum of their parts. Their spindly backcourt duo of juniors Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome is wily strong and plays like assassins. On 50-50 balls, they go 75-25. They will bury open 3’s as if they were lay-ups. Jack Salt, the nondescript pivot man, sets picks, rebounds and blocks shots. At opportune times, he will provide surprising offense, and he is an excellent interior passer. The front court is filled out by superstar, D’Andre Hunter, and by the rapidly improving Mamadi Diakite.

Mamadi Diakite an Emerging Star

Mamadi Diakite is an emerging star

But the secret weapon for the Cavs heading into the last third of the season may be their bench. 7’1” Jay Huff is a productive replacement for Salt, and 6’8” Braxton Key, a transfer from Alabama, is athletic and can shoot the three. 5’9” back-up point guard Kihei Clark, a skilled ball-handler and the only freshman who plays, completes the 8-man rotation.

As for their post-season play, the notion that they under perform is a canard fueled by their untimely exit a year ago. They stormed through the ACC tournament last year and lost their best player, Hunter, to injury on the eve of their first round game against UMBC. It will come as no surprise if they turn last season’s humiliation into a run to the Final Four.

When Duke and Virginia meet, it’s not just for supremacy in the ACC; it’s a clash of cultures. Duke in the past few years has parroted Kentucky and recruited McDonald’s All-Americans for instant gratification. So what if they depart for the pros within eight months of enrollment? Virginia recruits for the long haul with a view to developing midlevel recruits into ACC stars. The classic example of the Virginia way is Malcom Brogdon, an unheralded recruit who stayed five years, improved every year, and is now a mainstay for the Milwaukee Bucks.

When they played at Durham January 19, star power won out. Williamson and RJ Barrett combined for 57 points in Duke’s 72-70 triumph, and Virginia shot an uncharacteristic 3 of 17 on 3-balls. If the Cavaliers shoot their normal percentage and keep the bullish Williamson under wraps, Saturday’s outcome will be different.

With their overpowering talent, Duke is one of the few teams which can contend with the Virginia defense. Another is North Carolina, Virginia’s opponent Monday in what will certainly be a defining week for the scrappy Cavaliers. To win, their defense must contain these prolific quintets to 70 points or less.

There’s no denying that.

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No Judgment for Nunberg/ Cavaliers Look to Finish the Job

March 13th, 2018 sendarama Posted in college basketball | No Comments »

March Madness came early this year.

I refer not to the howling winds which ravaged the East Coast and uprooted a large tree in my back yard on March first, nor to Michigan’s stirring victory in the Big Ten tournament, which was held a week early to accommodate Madison Square Garden scheduling, but to Sam Nunberg, a virtually unknown former Trump Aide, who dispensed his own brand of insanity during multiple interviews on CNN and MSNBC last Monday.

Nunberg reacted to a Robert Mueller grand jury subpoena by going on TV and defiantly declaring that he would ignore it. “Screw that,” he said of the summons. He also had racy things to say about Trump (“Idiot”), Sarah Huckabee Sanders (“A fat slob’), Corey Lewandowski (“scum bag”), and others in the Trump circle. He fanned the flames of Trump involvement with the Russians. It was refreshing to finally hear a Republican call these deplorables out; but Nunberg’s narrative,though juicy in parts, sounded like a desperate and disjointed plea for relevance by a lost soul.

Maybe Nunberg is smarter than we think, and coyly seized a chance to make himself famous by acting eccentrically on a national stage. Not likely. He came across as unhinged and not very bright. Remember, he was initially fired by the Trump campaign for making racial taunts on Facebook, and called Al Sharpton’s daughter the N-word.

Two questions come to mind. First, who’s loonier, Nunberg or Carter Page?

Secondly, is Nunberg Jewish? Probably. His first name is Sam. He went to law school. His name ends in “Berg.” But he acts and sounds more like a Non-Berg than a Nunberg. None of the Bergs, Greenbergs, Grossbergs, Sternbergs or Ellenbergs that I have known has been a 36-year old schlemiel with the temerity, make that stupidity, to challenge the world’s toughest prosecutor on national television.

Not surprisingly, Nunberg appeared before the Grand Jury on Friday and avoided a court-ordered jail sentence for contempt. He is free to renew his career as the poster boy for lowlife political operatives. As long as Trump’s in power, there will always be demand for his services.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
With Nunberg having receded from view, we can focus on the real March Madness without the distraction of cable news. But there are other distractions. Casting a giant shadow over the NCAA tournament, which begins tonight, is a federal investigation into the seamy relationship between sports agents and coaches affecting the recruitment of star athletes.

A September, 2017 indictment in the Southern District of New York charges four assistant basketball coaches, including Emanuel “Book” Richardson of Arizona, as conspirators in a scheme with sports agents to lure athletes to schools with secret cash payments, and then through the good offices of the assistants, to refer them to the conspiring agents for lucrative representation agreements. The sources of the cash were the agents and apparel companies who paid both the players and the assistant coaches.

And it’s possible that the wrongdoing stretches beyond the assistants. Acccording to an ESPN report, there exists a taped phone conversation in which Arizona head coach Sean Miller is heard discussing and/or authorizing a $100,000.00 cash payment to current Arizona sensation Deandre Ayton. Miller denies involvement and has been allowed to stay on the job after a meeting with the Arizona Board of Regents. The NCAA has provisionally cleared Ayton to play in the NCAA tournament, but if Ayton received under-the-table cash to play for Arizona, there remains the possibility that any victories achieved with him in the line-up could be retroactively voided.

It is not a crime by itself to pay a player to attend a school or to sign with an agent. The statute which the defendants are claimed to have violated is 18 U.S. 666, entitled Theft or Bribery Concerning Programs Receiving Federal Funds. The essence of the crimes charged is that the payments made were in violation of NCAA rules against impermissible benefits. The irony here is that the NCAA would love for the indictment to disappear, but its archaic rules against athletes receiving compensation gave rise to the charges. There will be great pressure on the NCAA in the months to come to permit regulated compensation to student athletes.

You can understand why Miller might have bent the rules to secure Ayton’s services. The 7’1” – 260 lb forward-center is being heralded as the best big man prospect since Shaquille O’Neal. And he is coming on like gangbusters. In the final two games of the Pac-12 tournament, against UCLA and USC, Ayton averaged 32 points and 16 rebounds shooting 27 of 36 from the field and 9 of 10 from the foul line. He shoots 36.4% from 3-point land. Ayton is certain to be the first player selected in the NBA draft and may overtake Trae Young as player of the year.

Arizona is a center of attention for reasons other than the looming scandal. Ayton’s development and its late burst to win the Pac-12 regular season and conference tournament make it one of the hottest teams in the NCAA’s. Under-seeded at number 4 in the South, the Wildcats stand to face Kentucky in round 2 and if successful, Virginia in the sweet sixteen. They will be a tough out for the Cavaliers.

Virginia, the top-rated team in the tournament, has had a most remarkable season in a most unorthodox fashion. Its primary guards are two skinny white guys; their starting forwards average 18 points/game between them; their center primarily sets picks and rebounds; and their best athletes come off the bench. They average 67.5 ppg, a full six points less than any other team in the NCAA field.

Yet they finished 31-2 overall, 17 and 1 in the tough ACC, and set a record by winning all of their ACC road games. How did they do it? The answer is by defense, by a smothering, suffocating, swarming assault on the ball which leaves no entry pass or shot unchallenged. The result is a team which is greater than the sum of its parts. They allow 53.4 ppg, more than ten points less than any other team in the tourney, save Cincinnati. And when they take a lead, they hold onto it, by being careful with the ball and by making their foul shots.

Can they be beaten? Yes, by a hot shooting team which takes a lead, controls the pace, and can get into the 70’s. Arizona, averaging 80.9 ppg with three future pros in its starting five, meets the description. But their defense failed them in February losses to Oregon, Washington, and UCLA, and it’s not at all clear that they have elevated their game to Virginia’s level.

Villanova (30-4) has an easier run than Virginia to the Final Four. Only second-seeded Purdue in the round of eight is capable of giving ‘Nova a hard time. Kansas,the number one seed in the Midwest, will either fall to Seton Hall in the second round or in the round of eight to the Duke-Michigan State winner. The West’s top seed, Xavier, will be hard-pressed to get by Gonzaga in the Sweet Sixteen.

Despite Virginia and Villanova’s gaudy records, this NCAA field resembles the pool of candidates for the Democratic nomination for president in 2020. There are no standouts, only contenders. Some of the contenders bring a lot of firepower. But unlike offense, which comes and goes, defense always travels.

And the Cavaliers have their bags packed. Virginia to win it.

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Back-up QB’s Diminish Cousins’ Value / In Revived BIG 12, Trae Young Is Tres Good

January 16th, 2018 sendarama Posted in college basketball, pro football | No Comments »

Washington Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins earned 24 million dollars in 2017, which is about twelve million more than the combined salaries of Case Keenum, Blake Bortles and Nick Foles. This previously unheralded trio, of course, led their teams to victory in last weekend’s divisional playoffs, overcoming twenty five million dollar men Matt Ryan, Ben Roethlisberger, and Drew Brees in the process.

Keenum’s last-second fling to Stefon Diggs for a 61-yard touchdown was football’s Shot Heard Round the World. The Minnesota Miracle may have done more to alter pro football’s landscape than Bobby Thompson’s legendary blast off Ralph Branca in 1951 affected baseball. First, it was the first playoff game to end in a touchdown and certainly the most exciting ending to an NFL playoff game since Franco Harris’s Immaculate Reception in 1972; second, it resuscitated an NFL season plagued by boring games, sideline kneel-downs, interminable play reviews, and declining ratings; third, it set the stage for the Vikings to be the first team ever to host a Super Bowl; and fourth, together with the performances of Bortles and Foles, it may have put the lie forever to the notion that you need a top-tier quarterback to succeed in the NFL.

Keenum was undrafted out of Houston in 2012. He bounced around for several seasons between the Texans and Rams before signing a one-year contract with the Vikings for two million as a backup to Sam Bradford. He became the starter in week two after an injury to Bradford, and has excelled ever since, no more so than with his perfect pass to Diggs. Foles is playing for Philadelphia because of an injury to Carson Wentz. Bortles has been much-maligned during his five years in Jacksonville.

Stefon Diggs makes miracle grab

Throughout Cousins’ free agency, during which he has received the franchise tag twice, the debate has been whether he was an elite quarterback worth a top tier rate over a long-term contract. In light of the playoff performance of the back-ups, perhaps the better question is whether Cousins has the skill set to mesh with the current roster of Redskins to deliver a regular playoff contender. If not, as appears to be the case, then the payroll can be put to better use acquiring a number one wide receiver, a durable running back, a sure-tackling free safety and yes, a serviceable but not star quarterback. For the same reason that a non-contending baseball team refuses to pay top dollar for a closer, the Redskins may pass on Cousins.

Cousins is a former back-up who made good seeking great quarterback money. In an odd twist, the success of his erstwhile colleagues may have turned the market against him.

IN REVIVED BIG 12, TRAE YOUNG IS TRES GOOD

Just a few years ago, after the massive realignment of the power conferences, the Big 12 was the little kid left at the station. Think Kevin in “Home Alone.” Gone were Nebraska. Colorado, Missouri, and Texas A&M. Replacing them, sort of, were West Virginia and TCU. WVU pitched the SEC hard, but took the Big 12 as a last gasp. While the ACC, Big Ten, SEC and Pac-10 increased their memberships to fifteen , fourteen, fourteen, and twelve teams, respectively, the Big 12 reduced to ten. But it kept its name, the Big 12.

There’s been pressure on the football side for the Big 12 to add member schools. At twelve, it could create two divisions and add a conference championship game, thereby increasing the chances of the winner qualifying for the college football playoffs. And additional members would perhaps facilitate the creation of a conference-themed TV network as the Big Ten, SEC, and Pac-10 have done.

But on the basketball side, there’s an advantage to being smaller. One of the most attractive features to conference play has always been the rivalries, which fester best in home and home regular seasons. Familiarity breeds contempt. The second meeting between conference rivals, late in the season before a boisterous crowd, with NCAA seeding on the line, is an inspired setting.

Having expanded to an unwieldy number, the ACC, SEC, and Big Ten have been required to abandon the balanced schedule, with the result that some teams face tougher schedules than others, and there is only a limited home and home component. You cannot judge a team based on conference record without having examined its conference schedule.

But the Big 12 remains pure. Top to bottom, the conference is arguably as good as it’s ever been. Nine members have qualified for the NCAA’s in the last two years, The outlier, TCU, started this season 12-0. Kansas, West Virginia, Oklahoma, Texas Tech and TCU breezed through the non-conference portion of their schedule at 54-5. Kansas, West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Texas Tech are in the top ten of the current AP and Coaches poll.

But the biggest reason for the Big 12 buzz is Trae Young, Oklahoma’s lighting quick 6’2” freshman point guard. The Young-ster leads the nation in scoring (30 ppg) and assists (10/gm). On December 22, he handed out 22 assists against Northwestern State, tying a record set by Sherman Douglas of Syracuse 30 years ago. He’s a lock for freshman of the year and a near-lock for player of the year. Young says that he patterned his game after assist maven Steve Nash, but his quick release, global range and striking accuracy most resemble Steph Curry. At TCU January 13th in a revenge encounter, Young added another name to his cast of characters – Russell Westbrook.

Trae Young at work against TCU

With the Sooners trailing by six points late, Young took over. En route to a 43-point, 11 rebounds, 7 assist performance, Young scored 11 points in the last three minutes to force overtime, where Oklahoma pulled away. It was the second wrecking job that Young inflicted on TCU this season. On December 30, he registered 39 points and 14 assists against the Horned Frogs including two foul shots with seconds remaining to win it. “Sometimes you wonder if he’s even human,” mused teammate Christian James.

Also on January 13, Kansas, at home, edged Kansas State 73-72, and Texas Tech overcame a 10-point deficit in Lubbock to defeat number 2-ranked West Virginia 72-71, ending the Mounties’ 15-game winning streak. Just another routine day in the Big 12. Considering the strength of the conference, this looked like the year to break Kansas’s 13-year stranglehold on the Big 12 regular season title. But on Monday, as a 6.5 point underdog at West Virginia, Kansas put its detractors on hold. The Jayhawks made up a 16-point second half disadvantage to startle the Mountaineers 71-66, their second defeat in 48 hours after winning fifteen straight. Last night, Kansas State at home flashed its bona fides by spanking Oklahoma 87-69. Young, who can be overzealous, came back to earth with eleven turnovers.

You can make the case that there is no more difficult task in college basketball than winning a conference game on the road in the Big 12. “There are no easy outs in the Big 12,” lamented WVU coach Bob Huggins. “Every team is tough.”

All ten of them.

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The Fab Four

October 4th, 2017 sendarama Posted in baseball | 2 Comments »

They were the best of teams. They were the worst of teams.

In a baseball season of improbable happenings, including records for home runs and strikeouts, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the Los Angeles Dodgers reached the extremities of good and bad in the same season.

Through 127 games, after which their record was 91-36, the Dodgers had won at least 13 of 14 games three times and led their division by 21 games. From June 7-August 6, they went 43-7, the best 50-game major league stretch in over 100 years. They won virtually all the time, nearly every day, and in virtually every way, including ten walk-offs.

With the deepest starting pitching in the majors, including four lefties, young megastars Corey Seager and Cody Bellinger anchoring a power-hitting infield, the best closer (Kenley Jansen), and shrewd manager Dave Roberts pulling the strings, the Dodgers became the favorites to win the World Series.

Then, for reasons unknown, the roof fell in. No one has the answer. There’s been no finger-pointing, no explanations offered. But from August 26- September 11 the Dodgers lost fifteen of sixteen games. In one of them, starter Rich Hill lost a no-hitter and the game in the 10th inning. The other losses were more conventional. Their bats ran cold, their middle relief sagged. They displayed deficiencies in left field and at second base. They batted only .249 as a team.

One hard core Bums advocate offered a reason for the slump: “Lack of pressure and fear of injuries made them complacent. I am scared about the playoffs if they play Arizona in the first round. Arizona has beaten them six straight times.”

The Dodgers rebounded from their disastrous run, and won eight of ten to finish the season, ending with a league-best 104 wins. But the streak is a stark reminder of their vulnerability, as they enter the strongest post-season pool since the wild-card format was instituted in 1995. Great teams don’t lose 15 of 16.

Rookie Cody Bellinger sparks the Dodgers

At different points in the season, other teams looked like the best team in the majors. Coming out of spring training, the World Series winning Chicago Cubs appeared prime to repeat. But after the first two months of the season, the surprise answer to the trick question “What’s the best team in baseball?” was the Houston Astros.

Just three years removed from four consecutive 100 loss seasons, the Astros bounded to a 29-12 start and a 10 game lead in the American League West by the middle of May. They accomplished the transformation with an ace number one starter (Dallas Keuchel), a diminutive 3-time batting champion, 5’6″ Jose Altuve, a successful youth movement (Carlos Correa, George Springer), and one of the most productive offenses in years.

The Astros strike out less and hit for more power than any other team. As well, they had more infield hits than any other team and more extra base hits. Their team batting average for the year was .282. Twelve Astros had ten or more homers. Lead off man Springer had 34 homers and 85 rbi’s. Their team total of 238 taters is second only to the Yankees 241, and the Bombers had Aaron Judge (52).

To shore up their starting pitching, which was mid-level, the Astros acquired former MVP and Cy Young winner Justin Verlander from Detroit just before the waiver deadline. He arrived in Houston the same day that the team returned home after Hurricane Harvey, and he proceeded to energize the city and pitch splendidly throughout September. He pairs with Keuchel to give the Astros a formidable one-two punch. One sobering note: Tyler Clippard is their set-up man.

At about the time the Astros leveled off, in mid-July, the Cleveland Indians finally began to resemble the team which made the World Series a year ago without several of its best players. Injured starters Danny Salazar and Carlos Carrasco were back, along with veteran hitter Michael Brantley, and the Tribe added slugger Edwin Encarnacion in free agency; but Cleveland stumbled out of the gate and settled in at a few games over .500. Through 93 games, they stood at 48-45, in a tight race for the Central Division lead.

Then they turned on the switch. They won nine of eleven to close out July and open up a sizable lead in the Central Division. They acquired slugger Jay Bruce from the Mets at the trade deadline, and he provided an immediate boost. Their pitching stabilized. On August 23rd, they began what some analysts have referred to as the most dominating stretch of baseball ever played.

Over the next 22 games games, all won by Cleveland, they hit more home runs than their opponents scored runs, led by Bruce and Encarnacion. They didn’t just win. They pulverized opponents. Their run differential over the streak was greater than their run differential for all of last season, when they won 94 games. During the streak, they pitched to an era under 2.00.

After the streak ended, they won 11 of their last 15 to finish the season with 102 wins, second to the Dodgers’ 104. Their win streak overlapped the Dodgers’ losing streak, but despite the Tribe gaining almost 20 games in the standings on the Dodgers over that 3-week period, LA still finished with the better season record and the tie breaker should the teams meet in the World Series.

Are the Indians the favorite to win the World Series? Yes, acccording to the odds-makers, who have them slightly favored over the Dodgers. In the post-season, good pitching dominates good hitting, and the Tribe pitching staff has the lowest era in baseball (3.34). Its bull pen is air tight featuring the resplendent middle reliever and set-up man Andrew Miller, who will pitch at any time for varying lengths. Manager Terry Francona can match wits with anybody.

Andrew Miller can be the difference maker for Cleveland

Cleveland faces tough hurdles in the ALDS with the suddenly tough Yankees and with Houston, which Cleveland would meet in the ALCS; but the team which poses the biggest obstacle to the Tribe ending its 69 year World Series drought is, it says here, the Washington Nationals, the last of the four number one seeds.

At no time did the Nats capture the national spotlight, like LA, Houston, and Cleveland. There were no glossy winning streaks and no crucial series. But they are poised to eliminate the aftertaste of three brutal first round exits in the past five years. Bryce Harper is back from injury, Trea Turner is an ascendant star at shortstop due for a breakout series, and the other infielders – Rendon, Murphy, and Zimmerman – are having career years. The pitching staff is healthy for once, and the remade bullpen has put up good numbers. Their depth is superb. They must beat Chicago in the first round, for the sake of the team and the town’s collective psyches, and they should beat the Dodgers (or Arizona) because they’re the better team.

But the Tribe is strong in the areas where the Nats have question marks – starting pitching depth, relief pitching, and a history of playoff success. Plus, they have the secret weapon – Andrew Miller.

The post-season is Miller Time. Cleveland in seven.

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Gridlocked

March 15th, 2017 sendarama Posted in college basketball | No Comments »

I’ve spent hours staring at my NCAA grid trying to divine who among the top seeds has the least obstructed path to Phoenix, and the answer is …..nobody. There are valid reasons why 10-15 teams can either win all their games or be knocked out by the second round.

And I’m not the only one confused. When the most respected source in the college basketball industry, the Pomeroy College Basketball Ratings, rates West Virginia, a four seed, as the 7th best team in the country, no. 1 seed Kansas 10th, 5th seed Virginia 7th, and no. 2 seed Arizona 20th, you know that we are not dealing with an exact science.

Unlike a year ago, when Michigan State was robbed of a no. 1 seed, there was no outcry this time over the top seeds. The wonderment arises over several mid-level slottings. How do Maryland and Minnesota rate higher seeds than Michigan or Wisconsin? What is Florida State, which limped home with losses to Georgia Tech and Pittsburgh, doing as a rarefied 3 seed in the West? The biggest travesty is Wichita State, eighth in the Pomeroy ratings and winners of 10 straight, seeded 10th in the South. The selectors may have been trying to set up a re-match of their classic bout w/Kentucky three years ago, but the seeding is an insult to the Shockers’ season.

Among the top 25, no team really stands out, and no team can be counted out. Can no. 8 seed Wisconsin topple Villanova in the second round in the East? Absolutely. Can no. 7 seed Michigan, fresh off a sweep of the Big Ten conference and featuring a revamped starting lineup, beat Louisville and Oregon to make the round of eight (and more) in the Midwest? That’s a definite maybe.

What about unnoticed and unheralded SMU, sixth seeded in the East and winners of 20 straight? The Mustangs were ravaged by scholarship reductions resulting from NCAA violations, and injuries, and lost their coach, Larry Brown, abruptly just before the season. But they boast the nation’s 3rd best defense (59.4 ppg), five starters 6-6 or taller, and one of the nation’s great players in Semi Ojeleye, a transfer from Duke. SMU-Duke in the round of 16 will be a collision.

The curve ball in predicting any outcome is the presence and prevalence of the 3-ball. More and more games are being turned by disparities in 3-point accuracy. Big leads are being extinguished in moments by 3-point specialists on hot streaks, which leads to the greater chance of upsets.

Among the top seeds, Gonzaga probably has the easiest early path since they’re a gimme to win their first two games, but Notre Dame, their likely opponent in the round of sixteen, should put up fierce resistance. The Irish offense is a force. They shoot 80.9 from the charity stripe. 6-5, 240 lb forward Bonzie Colson is Charles Barkley in diapers. He averages a double double. Seniors Beacham and Vasturio are smooth operators. Notre Dame is battle-tested and Gonzaga is not. Upset alert.

Kansas is flawed and can be toppled early by either Michigan State or Iowa State, its Big 12 rival. The Jayhawks played a lot of close games, and their front court is far from overpowering. They do not shoot fouls well.

Through 25 minutes of the semi-final ACC tourney match between North Carolina and Duke, Carolina looked like the best team in the country. They won the regular season of the nation’s strongest conference by two games, have size and depth to burn, and are ultra-experienced, having lost in the finals last year to Villanova on a last-second shot. But the last 15 minutes of their semis encounter with Duke rekindled all of our suspicions about them. They lost their point guard, Joel Berry, to foul trouble; they lost a 13-point lead; and they lost their nerve.

Based on their strong regular season, North Carolina held onto the number one seed in the South, but this is clearly the toughest region, particularly in the bottom half of the bracket. where four powerhouses reside – Kentucky, UCLA, Cincinnati, and Wichita State. Fortunately for the Tarheels, following difficult but winnable outings against Seton Hall and Butler, they will have to face only the survivor of the four; and they should be up to that task.

But analysis gets us only so far. Kismet can matter just as much as adjusted offense efficiency when crowning a champion.
It’s been twenty years since an NCAA champion (Arizona) came from the Pacific time zone, and this year’s Final Four is in their back yard. The Arizona Wildcats, featuring the positively splendid 7′ freshman from Finland, Lauri Markkanen, cut down the nets.

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