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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Gonzaga Rises above the Rubble/Fed not Dead

February 2nd, 2017 sendarama Posted in college basketball, tennis | No Comments »

With the sporting public finally focused on college basketball during the two week lull before the Super Bowl, the nation’s top quintets made a compelling case that there is no clear favorite to cut down the nets in Phoenix on April 3rd. They did so not with their stellar play but by a run of losses to lesser foes which suggests that not a team among them can string together the necessary six victories under difficult conditions to win a title.

Last week, seven of the top 10 and fourteen of the top 25 lost once. Six of the top 25 lost twice.

No. 1 Villanova blew a 17- point lead and lost to unranked Marquette 74-72. Oregon, winner of 17 straight, was upended by lowly Colorado 74-65. No. 2 Kansas lost to West Virginia 85-69. After playing six straight games against ranked teams with a 5-1 record, Florida State lost back-to-back affairs to weak Georgia Tech and unranked Syracuse. Conference kingpins Kentucky and North Carolina lost on the road to Tennessee and Miami, respectively. Duke, the pre-season number one in the AP poll, has lost five games already, including at home to NC State for the first time since 1991.

If Marvin Gaye were alive, he’d wonder “What’s Goin’ On?” The answer is not a Lack of Lovin’, nor a deterioration in the quality of play. The top programs are getting more than their share of the one-and-dones, and there is no shortage of top talent to fill out the supporting roles. So why are the best teams losing so much?

A couple of changed conditions are at work. As a result of the realignment of the conferences into five super conferences containing up to fifteen teams, the regular season schedules in the Big Ten, ACC, Big Twelve, and Pac-12 have become minefields for upsets. Prior to expansion, Duke and North Carolina used to steamroller their way to lopsided regular season records in the ACC with home and aways against Boston College, Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech, and Clemson. Now, they must face the likes of Louisville, Syracuse, Notre Dame, and Pittsburgh in a staggered schedule. Six of Carolina’s next eight games are against Duke, Notre Dame, Virginia , and Louisville, all top 25 residents.

West Virginia, which entered the Big 12 in 2012, has already inflicted losses on Kansas and Baylor. Maryland has made things difficult for everyone in the re-constituted Big Ten. In the new Big East, Creighton, Marquette, Xavier, and Butler are tough outs for Villanova, and for each other.

Secondly, liberalization of the transfer rules has made it easier for middle tier programs to reinforce their rosters with proven scorers. Big ticket freshmen often flame out, but there is little risk to recruiting a two or three year starter who wants to take his talents elsewhere. The one –year waiting period for undergraduate transfers remains, but players with remaining eligibility who have achieved their undergraduate degrees can transfer to another institution and play immediately.

The addition of a mature scorer to an team with a pressing need can transform a middling team to a good one, a good team to great. For example, Syracuse, hit hard by the surprise defection of freshman Malachi Richardson to the pros after a break-out 2016 post-season, recruited fifth year transfers Andrew White III and John Gillon for the 2016-2017 season. Between them, they scored 71 points in the Orangemen’s overtime win over NC State on Tuesday.

Another leading exponent of transfers is also the principal beneficiary of the carnage of losses which has afflicted the top 25. Quietly, rung by rung, Gonzaga has climbed from an opening rank of number 14 to its present position at the top of the charts. The Zags did it, not with a run of big victories, but by avoiding losses during their relatively soft non-conference schedule and decidedly soft West Coast Conference schedule.

Gonzaga is not all smoke and mirrors and a patsy schedule. At 23-0, including last night’s 85-75 disposal of Brigham Young, they’re the nation’s only undefeated team. They’ve won 16 straight by double digits, and convincingly beat tough Arizona on a neutral court. They’ve made the NCAA tournament for eighteen consecutive seasons, but suffer annually from a failure to be taken seriously. This is because they play in the weak WCC, and because they have not one Final Four appearance to show for all of their post-season appearances. More often than not they have been bounced from the Big Show early.

This year’s team is anchored by three transfers. Sharpshooter Jordan Mathews left California as a graduate transfer after three years of double-digit scoring for the Golden Bears. Johnathan Williams is a burly rebounder and interior scorer who played two years for Missouri. Point guard Nigel Williams-Goss was a star at Washington for two seasons before moving down the road to Spokane.

Williams-Goss is already the best yet hyphenated transfer, but if he continues to shine with his all-round game, he may become Gonzaga’s best player ever, John Stockton and Adam Morrison notwithstanding. He leads the team in scoring, rebounds, steals, and assists and exerts a Jason Kidd-like control over the game. Last week, against San Francisco, he became the fifth player in the last 20 years with 35 points, 10 rebounds, five assists and 80 percent shooting from the field in a game. Against BYU, he shot 12 of 18.

NWG driving against BYU

Williams-Goss leads a balanced attack. The first seven average between eight and fourteen ppg. Transfer Williams supplements a massive front line, featuring 7’ 1″ 300 lb. senior Przemek Karnowski and 7’ freshman Zach Collins, who averages 10.8 ppg in less than 20 minutes a game. Rounding out the backcourt with NWG are reliable returning lettermen Josh Perkins and Silas Melson.

Unlike their Power Five counterparts, Gonzaga does not face continuing regular season challenges. Only St. Mary’s on February 11th stands a ghost’s chance of stealing a victory from the Zags before NCAA play. If form holds, they will become only the fourth team to enter the NCAA tournament undefeated in the last 25 years.

If form doesn’t hold, they could lose a regular season game. But if so, or if not, be prepared for another surprise – a long Zag run in the tournament.

Fed not Dead

A most welcome interlude from the onslaught of hoops and cacophony of Super Bowl talk was Roger Federer’s five-set victory over Rafael Nadal Sunday in the Australian Open. If you saw the match, you will never forget it.

Both Federer and Nadal were returning from long lay-offs. Federer, 35, was sidelined for six months after knee surgery. The leader in major victories at 17, Fed had not won a big one since 2012. Entering the tournament, he was seeded 17th. Furthermore, Nadal , winner of 14 majors, had Federer’s number. Federer had not beaten Nadal in a major in ten years, going 0-6 in the process.

The first four sets played according to form. There was one service break per set, and each proved decisive. Each player had registered 110 points after four sets. In the fifth set, all hell broke loose.

Nadal broke Federer in game 1. Federer failed to convert either of four break points in games 2 and 4 and entered the fifth set down 1-3. To survive, Federer needed to scale breakback mountain twice, a tall if not impossible task.

Federer held serve decisively in Game 5, and finally broke through on his sixth break point to make it 3-3. Three service aces propelled him to a 4-3 lead. Federer won the first three points on Nadal’s service in game 8 to set up three break points, but Nadal elegantly fought back to deuce. After a 26-hit rally to get to ad point. Federer scaled the mountain.

The wind at his back, Federer served for the match at 5-3. Nadal reached two break points, but finally faltered. Match point, decided on an appeal of a line call, was almost anti-climactic. But there was no shortage of jubilation to come.

With all permissible props to the wondrous Nadal, Federer’s victory at Melbourne, all things considered, qualifies as one of the very great individual sports triumphs of our time.

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The Longest Game

October 21st, 2016 sendarama Posted in baseball | No Comments »

I’m just getting back from Game 5.

Metaphorically, that is. In fact, I returned home from Nationals Stadium at 2:30 a.m. Friday, after the longest game in NL playoff history (4 hours, 32 minutes) ended in the Nats’ elimination from the baseball playoffs, and after a traffic jam, fueled by Metro’s refusal to extend service past midnight, had kept me stalled on Half Street for another hour.

But the game’s reach extended beyond 2:30 a.m. on Friday. My dreams that night were filled with pitching changes and double switches, and strike outs with men on third and less than one out. A week later, Game 5 still lingers.

Was this Game 5 loss worse than Game 5 of 2012, when the Nats blew a 6-0 early lead and a 2-run lead in the ninth? How did it compare with 2014 when manager Matt Williams’ bad choices cost them two games against an inferior opponent? In the aftermath, it felt like the worst of all.

Because they lost, again, Game 5 will reverberate far into the future, extending the Nats’ image as postseason underachievers and feeding into the notion that they lack playoff muster. Just too many failures at moments of truth. The Nats had Game 5 on their turf with their ace, 20-game winner Max Scherzer, ready to go. The Dodgers led with 36-year-old journeyman Rich Hill, the game 2 starter. Hill’s lifetime record over 10 seasons was 26-23. A year ago he was pitching for the Long Island Ducks. It was a game the Nats should win.

What happened?

Was manager Dusty Baker outdueled by Dodger skipper Dave Roberts? Absolutely. Roberts, in his first year as Dodger manager, conducted a bullpen management clinic. We should have known genius was at work when he lifted Hill after 2 2/3 innings when he was pitching well. He had fanned thirteen Nats in seven innings of work, primarily with a baffling curve ball which travels 73-74 mph and moves both sidewards and downwards. But Hill had been nicked for one run, and Roberts was leaving no room for another. Power righty Joe Blanton snuffed a Nats rally and pitched a clean fourth.

Then Roberts inserted 20-year-old starter Julio Urias to pitch the fourth and fifth. He defied convention when he inserted closer Kenley Jansen to pitch the seventh and eighth innings and into the ninth; and in a managerial coup de grace, he summoned stud starter Clayton Kershaw on one-day rest to get the final two outs with two men on in the ninth.

Conversely, Baker’s rapid removal of Scherzer after Joc Pederson homered to lead off the seventh had backfired. Baker used five pitchers after Scherzer in the seventh inning alone, setting a record for most pitchers used in an inning, and the Dodgers scored four times. The seventh inning lasted 66 minutes. In the course of the multiple mound changes, Baker made two double switches which cost him Ryan Zimmerman and Anthony Rendon at crunch time. The double switch is a convenient tool to push back the pitcher’s position in the batting order, but Baker overdid it. Suddenly Baker’s 0-9 record in playoff deciding games is no longer a mystifying stat.

But you can’t blame Baker for the outcome, not when he was such a huge upgrade all year long over Williams, and not when the Nats blew so many chances on the field. If there is a common denominator to the Nats’ postseason troubles, it has been their failure to make the most of scoring opportunities. And that’s what happened in Game 5.

The primary culprit was Jayson Werth. Because his arrival as a free agent in 2011 coincided with the Nats’ improvement as a team, and because of his monster game-winning home run in game 4 of the 2012 NLDS, Werth has gotten a pass. He earns prime star money at $18 million a year, but his average stat line since joining the Nats is .270, 16 homers, and 60 rbi’s. In the last two years, he has batted .221 and .244, respectively. He can be a black hole in the middle of the line-up when he is batting second or third.

Werth hit well during the first four games of the series but it was fools gold. In Game 5, he reverted to form. He struck out three times, twice with a runner on third and less than one out. With the Nats ahead 1-0, Trea Turner led off the third with a single to left. He promptly stole second. Then, after Bryce Harper’s medium drive to left center, Turner took off for third, narrowly edging Pederson’s laser-like throw with a head-first slide which originated at least fifteen feet from the bag. Safe. One out, Turner on third, Werth up.

Trea’s bold progression around the bases without a base hit was typical of his contribution. His arrival from the minor leagues in late July altered the Nats’ character and solidified their roster. He provided speed at the top of the order, solved the center field problem, and fortified the infield and outfield depth. He was Trea the Transformer. Derek Jeter on steroids.

Had the Nats advanced, Turner would have been the reason. Like Jeter, Turner is a tall, rangy shortstop by trade with a modicum of power. But he fields three positions, has the speed of a cheetah (22.7 mph at top speed), beats out infield grounders, and steals bases at will. His stats over 73 regular season games projected to .342 BA, 233 hits, 29 homers and 73 stolen bases for the full season.

So it was particularly important to this observer that Werth get the runner home – to reward Turner’s effort, and to manufacture a run in a playoff game where it might make the difference. Pre-Turner, the Nats squandered scoring opportunities. Now, through the devices of Turner, they were run creators.

But he’d need at least a minimal contribution from Werth to finish the job.”Just get the damn ball on the ground, and I’ll score,” Turner must have been thinking to himself.

But Werth struck out, and Turner was stranded on third. The importance of that second run cannot be discounted. Had the Nats led 2-0 when Pederson homered to lead off the seventh, perhaps Baker would have extended Scherzer’s leash and left him in the game. Werth continued his reign of error. In the sixth, after a walk, he was thrown out by a mile when he tried to score on Ryan Zimmerman’s double to the left corner; and he struck out in the seventh inning with one out and the tying run on third.

Werth’s problem is not just that he bats third and does not hit for average. His outs are predominantly strike outs, or feeble pop-ups to the right side. He is no more than adequate in the outfield. His lackadaisical approach to a flyball hit by Justin Turner in Game 4 cost the Nats a crucial run. He enters the final year of his contract in 2017.

The Nats should not wait until the end of his contract to reduce Werth’s role. Obtaining a righty-hitting outfielder with pop should be high on GM Mike Rizzo’s wish list. In the task of re-configuring the Nats from post-season failures to playoff victors, eliminating Jayson Werth will be an important first step.

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Pearl Everlasting

April 25th, 2016 sendarama Posted in college basketball | No Comments »

The tall dude with the pronounced paunch and an apparent case of the cocaine sniffles looked vaguely familiar, but it had been several years since I’d seen him dribble under duress, and he looked nothing like the whirling dervish of a point guard who went behind his back and through his legs as routinely as taking a breath. He entered the Big Wheel Bikes store in Georgetown in the summer of 1989 as a customer, not as an icon, and that’s how I figured it.

I’m looking for a bike, he mumbled. I showed him a few options, and then he left.

Two hours later, he came back and said he wanted the black Fuji Royale on the front display hook. He took out his American Express card for payment.

I read the name emblazoned on the front of the card and gulped. “Dwayne Washington,” it read. I looked up at my customer, peered down again at the card, snuck a final stare at Dwayne Washington’s features, and blurted out in astonishment, “Son of a bitch, you’re Pearl Washington.”

That’s right, said Pearl, but it was clear that he didn’t want to have a discussion about basketball.

I told him that I’d never forget his monster performance against Georgetown in the Big East conference tournament final in 1984, and he had trouble recalling the game. Knowing full well that he‘d been cut by Miami just a few weeks earlier, and was obviously out of shape, I gingerly asked him what his plans were. He said that he was in DC for a short stretch to be with his girlfriend, and would be attending the Houston Rockets training camp in the fall.

I had the feeling that my efforts to buddy up to Pearl were not being reciprocated, so I gave up trying. I delivered the bike, and we bid our adieus.

When I heard of Pearl’s death last week of a brain tumor at age 52, I was touched, in part because of our brief encounter, in part for my affection for Syracuse, but principally because Pearl Washington was the most exciting college basketball player I’ve ever seen. With the ball in his hands, he was electrifying.

Pearl in mid-dribble

Pearl failed to hang on at Houston, and his descent continued with short stops with Rapid City and San Jose in the Continental Basketball Association, where spectators wondered aloud what had happened to Pearl Washington in a few short years.

It was posited that his ball-handling talents did not translate to the NBA , where 7-foot Goliaths guarded the lane, and his slowness afoot and lack of leaping ability were fatal drawbacks. And he had a problem controlling his weight. But you’d think that the best penetrating point guard in the history of college basketball could find a niche in the NBA among players he had trounced in college.

Pearl himself provided an insight during an interview in 2003 with the New York Times, “I had a God-given talent, and I was always ahead of everybody else in high school and in college. But when I got to the next level, guys were above me. So you have to decide – either you work hard enough to excel in the NBA, or ‘this ain’t for me anymore.’ I didn’t love it enough to really work hard at it anymore.”

To say Pearl’s NBA career was nondescript is to embellish it. Pearl was drafted with the 13th pick in the first round by New Jersey, a moribund franchise whose star point guard, Michael Ray Richardson, had been suspended by the NBA a few months before for cocaine use. He signed for three years and $900,000. En route to consecutive seasons of 24-58 and 19-63 during 1986-87 and 1987-88, the Nets were the pits of the NBA, drawing flies to their makeshift stadium in Hackensack, NJ, and playing in the perpetual shadow of the Knicks.

Pearl came off the bench, averaging about 20 minutes a game. He put up decent numbers, but Nets officials criticized him for being slow and unwilling to work at his game. And there was a bad environment in the locker room. Three Nets were suspended from the league for drug use between 1986 and 1988. When Pearl was left unprotected by the Nets after the 87-88 season, he was drafted by the expansion Miami Heat, who cut him in the spring of 1989. Three years out of college, he was out of the league.

If a lack of motivation and effort were to blame, can you fault the Pearl for not being inspired to succeed in the NBA? He had already blown away expectations at several levels. When he was an 8-year old in the playgrounds of Brooklyn, older players on the court compared his moves to Earl The Pearl Monroe, then a star with the Knicks who was famous for his herky-jerky spin moves and unorthodox shots. He didn’t just live up to the moniker – he usurped it.

The Two Pearls

As a high schooler at Boys and Girls High in Brooklyn, he averaged 35 points, 10 rebounds, 8 assists and 4 steals and was the most highly recruited player in the country. He put Syracuse on the map as a college basketball power and was “the most exciting player who ever played in the Big East and the most important player to our program,” said his coach, Jim Boeheim.

Pearl took ball-handling to a new dimension. He dribbled primarily with his left hand, but shot righty. He created the crossover, a side-to-side dribbling maneuver which freezes defenders at their knees, often causing them to fall backwards. “In the open court, or on the break, or steering through the lane, one on one, there’s nobody better,” wrote Curry Kirkpatrick of Sports Illustrated during Pearl’s freshman season at Syracuse.

That’s what we’ll remember about the Pearl – his dashing, headlong, daring, and of course, penetrating, forays to the hoop, the Carrier Dome exploding as his lay-in somehow eludes Patrick Ewing’s fingertips, David slaying Goliath.

Even in repose, he’ll never stop being the Pearl. The NBA?…. that’s just a footnote.

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Despite Snub, Smart Money’s on Sparty

March 15th, 2016 sendarama Posted in college basketball | No Comments »

They’re short on glitz, but long on substance.

They don’t blow you out -they wear you down, with the consistency of a conveyor belt and the work ethic of a hardhat on steroids.

Projected one and dones know to look elsewhere.

It’s not that Michigan State coach Tom Izzo would reject a Ben Simmons or Brandon Ingram or any other top talent guy appearing on his doorstep, but “he goes after the guys he feels can have the most success in his system. Those are the guys he recruits,” says former star Mateen Cleaves, who led the Spartans to Izzo’s only national championship in 2000.

Their three leading scorers this year are seniors, and the best of them, Denzel Valentine, is a case study in incremental improvement. His latest strides forward make him the leading candidate for player of the year. Matt Costello, the burly fourth-year power forward, has improved his scoring and rebounding stats each year. Bryn Forbes, a transfer from Cleveland State, is the nation’s leading 3-point shooter.

While many of Izzo’s prominent coaching peers are dealing with allegations of sexual misconduct, recruiting violations, player arrests, and pervasive grade tampering, the closest thing to a scandal involving Izzo or his players is a failure to fall back on defense during practice. Recently, 68-year-old Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan was compelled to resign early because of the revelation of an extramarital affair. The chances of that happening to Izzo are roughly equal to the likelihood of Donald Trump being caught at confession.

Purity, toughness, and attention to detail are the hallmarks of the Michigan State program, and it’s working. In Izzo’s 21 years at Michigan State, he’s taken the Spartans to seven final fours and nineteen consecutive NCAA tournament appearances, including this year’s affair, which begins tonight with the play-in games at Dayton, Ohio.

All of those good qualities were necessary for the Spartans to get by Maryland Saturday in the Big Ten Conference semi-finals and Purdue Sunday in the finals. Befitting a tough, experienced team coached by a mastermind, the Spartans made every big play down the stretch to outlast the talented Terps and Boilermakers.

Nine Spartans dented the box score in the first half as MSU sprinted to a 36-24 lead. Maryland’s starting team is as good as any quintet in the country, but the Terps get little contribution from their bench. Nevertheless, their defense tightened, and when center Diamond Stone backed in on 6’10” freshman Davante Davis with 30 seconds to go and Maryland trailing by a point, the game was up for grabs. At the top of his jump, well above the basket, and with the ball about to start its descent, Davis rejected Stone’s baby hook to preserve the victory.

Davis saves the day

Purdue mounted no less an effort the next day. Two plays by Valentine encapsulated the contribution of this consummate team leader. After an 8-0 second half run by Purdue which narrowed the Spartans lead to 46-47, Valentine lost his dribble and stumbled to the ground. En route, he lofted a desperation lob to Davis at the rim, who stuffed it through.

Somehow, the ball always gets back to Valentine at critical moments. Ahead 62-61 with less than a minute to go and the shot clock running down, Valentine began his signature move across the painted area. He was stuffed, but double clutched and managed to get the shot off. It swished, and the Spartans closed out the victory and another Big Ten championship.

After those weekend heroics, there was no question that Michigan State had earned a number one seed in the tournament. Except they didn’t. To most pundits’ surprise, the Spartans were relegated to a number two seed in the Midwest Region. Perhaps the result was necessitated by the late ending of the game on Sunday, just an hour or two before the brackets were to be announced. The selection committee may have wanted to avoid a last-minute scramble.

But Michigan State shrugged off the slight. Last year, they reached the Final Four as a number 7 seed. And in 2014 and 2015, they defeated Virginia, this year’s number one seed in the Midwest and their likely opponent in the round of eight. And they have a relatively easy path to the quarterfinals.

The toughest region is the South, where overall number one seed Kansas will meet the winner of Maryland and California in the Sweet Sixteen. Balanced and deep, Kansas lacks star power. No one on its roster is likely to have a productive NBA career. When Maryland meets California in the round of 32, the game will feature at least four future pros. Should Kansas prevail over Maryland or Cal, both Miami and Villanova will present stern tests for the Jayhawks.

The West region is the weakest, but upstart number one seed Oregon is unlikely to last long. Should the Ducks quack their way by St Joseph and the winner of Duke-Baylor, battle-tested Oklahoma will be too much in the round of eight.

In the East, despite overriding talent, number one seed North Carolina appears to lack the “Je ne sais quoi” of a champion. They melted down late against Duke on February 17th, do not shoot that well, and often suffer defensive lapses.

No such problems with Michigan State. If the Final Four match-up between Carolina and MSU comes down to late-game execution, or to a battle of wits between UNC’s Roy Williams and Izzo, the smart money’s on the Spartans, where winning is a habit.

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