Sunday, March 13, 2011
NCAA Tournament Selection Sunday is winding down, and Drive and Dish has been silent all day. We've been thinking on and off about this year's NCAA Tournament field since the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee released the official 2011 NCAA Tournament bracket earlier in the evening. Unfortunately, 2011 has been a profoundly uneventful year in college basketball, and unlike recent years in which we went against the conventional wisdom to correctly predict the eventual NCAA Tournament winner in or brackets, we cannot honestly report that we have any particular unique wisdom regarding this year's NCAA Tournament field. It's been a down year for college basketball, and the Tournament field is relatively weak from top to bottom. If you've followed college basketball at all this year, you already know as much. At this point, most peoples' dogs and cats probably know it too. So there's not much we can say that hasn't probably been said many times in other forums. Nevertheless, Drive and Dish editors are contractually obligated to write about college basketball. So in the waning hours of Selection Sunday, we offer a few thoughts about the NCAA Tournament:
1.) Ohio State was awarded with the top overall seed in the Tournament. And they're probably the best team in college basketball. They're strong in every aspect of the game. They have no clear weaknesses. They have great inside scoring, courtesy of freshman superstar big man Jared Sullinger. They have strong play on the perimeter from their guards and wings. Freshman point guard Aaron Craft takes care of the ball, runs the offense, picks apart defenses and controls the tempo of the game like a seasoned veteran. Senior David Lighty can break opponents down from the wing and get to the basket whenever he wants to. William Buford is an underrated guard who would probably be a star on most other teams. Jon Diebler may very well be the most automatic shooter in all of college basketball. And head coach Thad Matta has the luxury of being able to call on a talented bench.
Ohio State's high-powered offense may get most of the attention, but it's their hard-nosed defense that makes them go. Craft is one of the best on-the-ball defenders at the point in college basketball. David Lighty is a chiseled, fleet-footed athlete with great vision and quick hands. He's as adept at slipping into passing lanes, sliding over on the help side, trapping, and recovering on the perimeter as anybody in the college game. What's more, with his combination of size, strength and athleticism, he's capable of guarding multiple positions.
Craft and Lighty's perimeter defense clearly sets the tone, but the Buckeyes team defense has the ability to simply shut teams down.
Drive and Dish loves Ohio State and thinks they're probably the best team in college basketball. But we can't get the fact that experience wins in the NCAA Tournament out of our heads. As impressive as freshmen Jared Sullinger and Aaron Craft have been for Ohio State this year, we have to wonder if a team led by freshmen at the key positions of point guard and center can really win it all. Craft is so heady and plays with so much poise that we're tempted to make an exception to Drive and Dish's near-ironclad "never pick teams that have a freshman at point guard" rule. But as impressed as we've been all season with Craft, Sullinger and the Buckeyes, we're still not entirely sold. Check back to see our ultimate take on Ohio State when we release our filled-out bracket late on Tuesday night.
2.) Last Saturday, throngs of Duke fans were at wits' end following their season-ending road loss to arch-rival North Carolina. Drive and Dish editors even had to console former Drive and Dish ACC bureau chief (and rabid Duke fan) Mark Buckets after the game via several lengthy late night SMS texts. At an hour when most other people were sending and receiving booty calls, Drive and Dish staff were texting Mr. Buckets off the ledge. The crux of our argument was that ending the season by losing to a young, up-and-coming and surging team like North Carolina on the road was no big deal for a veteran team like Duke. Sure, the Blue Devils definitely miss the stalwart senior leadership that Jon Scheyer provided for last year's NCAA Championship team. Nevertheless, they return most of the other key players who helped to propel them to the 2010 Championship.
We instructed Mr. Buckets to reserve judgment on Duke's chances for defending their Championship until the conclusion of the ACC (Atlantic Coast Conference) tournament. We thought that if Duke's veteran team could turn on the jets in the ACC tournament, they could use that tournament to build ever-crucial momentum at just the right time. Our contention was that an ACC tournament trophy would wipe the North Carolina loss from memory and put the wind at the Blue Devils' sails just in time for the NCAA Tournament.
Succeeding in the NCAA Tournament is all about surging and going on runs. Successful veteran teams like Duke know how to surge at the right time. By beating North Carolina to win the ACC tournament, Duke has put itself in position to surge its way through the NCAA Tournament.
3.) As all the pundits say, the Big East is the best conference in college basketball. The 16-team mega-league has more good teams than any other conference. Eleven Big East teams are in the NCAA Tournament field. The league is stocked with big, physical, well coached teams feature outstanding perimeter players who handle the ball, shoot and slash to the basket like NBA guards. For people who truly love basketball, the Big East might just be the most fun league to watch. The ACC and the SEC play more of an uptempo, fast game than the often half court-oriented Big East. And that looks great on TV. But for those who truly love college basketball -- and know the Xs & Os of the game -- it's nearly impossible not to enjoy watching Big East games.
That said, the Big East is overrated.
It always is.
That's why we expect several of the eleven Big East teams to get upset in the Tournament's early rounds. It happens every year. It will happen again this year.
4.) The conventional wisdom seems to point to Kansas winning it all this year. That was the case last year too. Obviously, Duke surprised many people by holding on to the Championship in 2010. We thought Duke had a pretty obvious clear path through their bracket, but everybody else in the free world seemed to think Kansas was a shoe-in (until the Jayhawks got upset by Northern Iowa -- after that, most people who picked KU turned their allegiance to Kentucky). So it would be tempting to pick against Kansas for the simple reason that everybody else seems to be picking them. But we predict the outcomes of games by analyzing a number of factors, not the least of which is how each participant matches up against each other.
Kansas probably has the requisite pieces in place to win the NCAA Championship. Yet, Drive and Dish has serious reservations about Kansas' prospects anyway. The Jayhawks are vulnerable.
5.) Oakland (MI) might be the best team in the Tournament that nobody has heard of. As a 13 seed, they face 4 seed Texas on Friday in Tulsa, OK. Oakland should give coach Rick Barnes' ever-disappointing Longhorns a run for their money. In the end, Texas' superior size and depth will probably win out, but don't be shocked if Oakland pulls off the upset anyway.
6.) With everybody and their grandmother complaining about Virginia Commonwealth's surprising inclusion in the Tournament field, we expect VCU's players to come out with gargantuan chips on their shoulders. They face the Kevin O'Neill-coached USC Trojans in one of Wednesday's play in games in Dayton, OH. USC is big and talented, but VCU has something to prove. Drive and Dish likes VCU's chances to knock off USC en route to a Friday showdown with Georgetown in Chicago.
7.) Michigan is one of the hottest teams in the country. Fans of other schools love to hate on head coach John Beilein. But he's done quite a nice job in his time at Michigan. Beilein runs a fairly unorthodox system for college basketball. We love his system because it relies on highly skilled, fundamentally sound players with high basketball IQs, and because it emphasizes our favorite play -- the drive and dish (or drive and kick). It's much more of a wide-open offense than most college teams employ, but it requires cerebral players who can put the ball on the floor and shoot the lights out. This year, Beilein finally has a team full of players he recruited to fit into that system. And he's even moved away from his trademark 1-3-1 zone defense somewhat in favor of more man to man (and the occasional 2-3 zone).
John Beilein's teams would be fun to play for. We don't know coach Beilein personally, but coaches who do have told us that he's an outstanding human being in addition to being an outstanding coach. It's been nice to see his young 2010-11 team exceed the "experts'" expectations. We think Michigan is poised to knock off Tennessee and advance to play Duke. Michigan won't beat Duke, but we expect coach Beilein's young Wolverines to be a thorn in the Blue Devils' side for quite a while in that potential game.
8.) Penn State deserved to get into the Tournament. They're not a very well balanced team and they don't have a great deal of depth. But they're a gritty, scrapping team with a great backcourt. Senior guard Talor Battle is the all time leading scorer in the history of Penn St. basketball. Penn St. got a favorable 10 seed, and opens against 7 seed Temple on Thursday in Washington, D.C. If you like guard play, that should be a fun game to watch.
9.) Memphis is a long, athletic, but wildly undisciplined team. They play like garbage way too often, but can be truly dangerous on the occasions when they put it together. It's difficult to predict how they'll play in the NCAA Tournament, but if Memphis can somehow put together long stretches in which they're focused and play within themselves (big, big ifs), they could make some serious noise. They play a very beatable Arizona team in the first round.
Should Memphis advance past the first round, they would face the winner of the game between eminently beatable Texas and Oakland (MI) in the second round. It probably won't happen, but Memphis has the horses to get past the Tournament's first weekend.
10.) Georgia plays fast. They're a long, athletic SEC team that likes to push the ball at warp speed. They're well coached by second year head coach Mark Fox, but sometimes they play wild and undisciplined anyway. Somewhat like Memphis, Georgia has the potential to be dangerous, provided they can find a way to play within themselves. It wouldn't be a big shock if they upset Washington in the 7-10 game in Charlotte on Friday.
11.) Butler vs. Old Dominion: It's no secret that Brad Stevens has done a phenomenal job at Butler. But few people know are aware of what a great job Blaine Taylor has done at Old Dominion. Coach Taylor has made the Monarchs a fixture in the postseason. Last year, Drive and Dish picked ODU to make a Cinderella run to the Sweet Sixteen. And while that didn't quite happen, the Monarchs did upset Notre Dame in the first round. Nobody here at Drive and Dish knows coach Taylor personally, but friends and associates of ours who do know him tell us what a great coach he is. And having seen Old Dominion play in person a few times over the last two or three years, we've left the building impressed by them every time (that's why we picked them last year).
It's too bad that Butler and Old Dominion play each other in the first round. Both teams are capable of making noise in the Tournament, but only one will get to advance.
12.) Speaking of Old Dominion, it's worth noting that the NCAA Tournament field includes four mid major teams from the Commonwealth of Virginia. Lost amid the heavy attention given to the Tournament Selection Committee's controversial decision to burst Virginia Tech's "bubble" by leaving the Hokies out of the Tournament for the second straight year has been the ever-mounting body of evidence that the Commonwealth is quickly becoming the epicenter of mid major college basketball.
Virginia mid majors Old Dominion, George Mason, Virginia Commonwealth (all from the Colonial Athletic Association) and Richmond (from the Atlantic 10 Conference) all made it into the Tournament. And it's worth noting that none of those four programs are strangers to the Tournament, or merely caught "lightning in a bottle" this year. Each of the four has had recent success in the NCAA Tournament. Remember, in spite of the made-for-Hollywood, "Hoosiers"-esque storyline of Butler's 2010 Final Four run -- small, over-matched Indiana school makes improbable, "David vs. Goliath" surge to championship game against perennial basketball powerhouse -- it was George Mason that made history by being the first mid major Cinderella to break through to the Final Four in 2006. What's more, Richmond has been a frequent NCAA Tournament participant for the better part of the last 25 years. Virginia Commonwealth upset Duke in the first round of the Tournament in 2007. And, as mentioned, Old Dominion upset Notre Dame in the first round last year.
13.) Michigan State was one of the most disappointing teams in college basketball this year. Many college basketball analysts expected the Spartans to make a return trip to the Final Four. As it happens, Tom Izzo's team limped in to the Tournament as a bubble team.
But none of that matters now. The Spartans are dangerous. And they were awarded a very favorable seeding by the Selection Committee. If the Spartans can get past UCLA in the first round, a vulnerable, over-seeded Florida (2 seed) likely awaits. Should Michigan State get that far, the winners of St. John's vs. Gonzaga and BYU vs. Wofford await.
Michigan State is big and talented. Their front line can play with anybody in college basketball. But injuries and defections have taken a severe toll this year. As a result, the 2010-11 Spartans are not the kind of elite-level team that college basketball fans have come to expect from Michigan State in recent years. And unlike most Tom Izzo coached teams, this year's Spartans are not particularly deep. But since the 2011 Tournament field is so weak, Michigan State probably still has enough pieces in place to do some damage.
Senior point guard Kalin Lucas was an the Big Ten Player of the Year in 2009. But he suffered a ruptured achilles tendon in last year's NCAA Tournament during a second round game against Maryland. Achilles tendon ruptures are perhaps the most difficult injuries to recover from. A post-achilles surgery athlete will typically undergo nine months of rehabilitation before being cleared to resume athletic competition. But it's generally accepted that it takes athletes considerably longer -- one and a half to two years -- to round back into pre-achilles rupture form.
Kalin Lucas' return to the court in 2010-11 was full of ups and downs. Lucas had always been known as a "lightning quick" guard who loved to blow past perimeter defenders and loved to push the ball in transition. But on his return, he was visibly slower than he had been before. He no longer had the superior speed and quickness that he had relied on so heavily in years past. And he had trouble elevating on his jump shots. As a result, he struggled for much of the season. However, by February, Kalin Lucas was beginning to show flashes of his pre-injury self.
If Kalin Lucas can find his legs and play with quickness and bounce, Michigan State has the potential to go deep in the Tournament. But with the mid-season dismissal of Lucas' backcourt running mate Corey Lucious, the Spartans have little margin for error. Lucious picked up the slack and helped lead the Spartans to the Final Four when Lucas got injured last year. With Lucious in the backcourt, Michigan State could afford the occasional sluggish post-injury performance by Lucas. Without him, Michigan State will go only as far as Lucas can take them.
14.) Purdue has been great all year, but they're vulnerable. They run a nice 4 out 1 in motion offense, with JuJuan Johnson as their only big man around the basket. But though highly talented and tall, Johnson is too thin to handle teams that feature rugged, physical big men. What's more, although he's a good rebounder and shot-blocker, Johnson appears most comfortable in the high post. He's athletic and he's got a great jump shot for a big man, but he can't be counted on to mix it up under the basket with bruising big men night after night.
Guard E'Twaun Moore is what basketball people call a "scorer." He can shoot, create his own shot and get to the basket. It's not always pretty, but he manages to put the ball in the basket . . . a lot. And he gets to the free throw line all the time. Moore is tough and he exhibits a good amount of leadership for a non-primary ball handler.
Purdue is a very good team that has put together a great season. They play with a great deal of intensity, but they're not very big or very deep. Thanks to a favorable seeding (which they deserved), the Boilers open the Tournament in nearby Chicago. That's good for Purdue, because it should ensure that plenty of Purdue alumni and fans will be in the stands for their early Tournament games. That might give them something of a quasi-home court edge.
Purdue is a legitimate Sweet Sixteen contender. If they get that far, a potential in-state Sweet Sixteen match up with Notre Dame awaits in San Antonio (provided Notre Dame doesn't get upset by Akron, or the winner of Florida State vs. Texas A&M).
However, as much as Drive and Dish loves Purdue, we don't see the Boilermakers as a legitimate Final Four contender. Bigger, deeper and more physical teams will give them trouble as they advance through the Tournament.
15.) Kevin Stallings has done a great job at Vanderbilt. Since he's been coach, the Commodores have become a fixture in the NCAA Tournament. Historically, Vanderbilt has had quite a bit of basketball success in the SEC. But prior to Stallings' arrival at the selective Nashville school, the program hadn't found a way to sustain its success, or to be a consistent, year-in and year-out lock for the NCAA Tournament.
Stallings' Vanderbilt teams are perennial AP Top 25 ranked NCAA Tournament participants. And that's no surprise. In the 1990s, Stallings built Illinois State into a mini power in the Missouri Valley Conference. Like his Vanderbilt teams, Stallings' Redbird teams were fixtures in the NCAA Tournament. As a result of his success at Illinois State, Stallings had numerous opportunities to take head coaching jobs at higher profile institutions. Rumor has it that at one point, Stallings even turned down the opportunity to become head coach at Michigan (after the firing of Brian Ellerbe). Whether or not coach Stallings actually said no to Michigan, the Collinsville, IL, native and former Purdue point guard was clearly in no hurry to leave Illinois State for alleged greener pastures. He stayed at ISU until the right offer -- Vanderbilt -- came along.
Upon coach Stallings' departure for Vanderbilt, Illinois State fell off the college basketball map.
Vanderbilt has a rough path in the Tournament. They face a tough first round opponent in 12 seed Richmond. If they beat Richmond, they'll most likely have to play a very dangerous Louisville team. Louisville coach Rick Pitino has tough, talented guards (as usual), and has his Cardinals surging at just the right time (as usual).