Friday, March 25, 2011

NCAA Sweet Sixteen: Bracket Busters

Calm under pressure
No. 11 Marquette vs. No. 2 North Carolina

#5 Kendall Marshall - Guard
6-3 186 Freshman Dumfries, VA
6.2 ppg 6.1 apg

The Tar Heels were point-guard-by-committee for the first 21 games of the season until Marshall emerged.  His first game playing significant minutes came Feb. 6 against Florida State in Tallahasee. Marshall dimed 16 assists on the Seminoles; the all-time single game record for a UNC player in an ACC game.  The freshman point possesses poise beyond his years and has been unflappable so far in the tournament.  The Tar Heels will need Marshall to settle down the offense and not get into a shoot out with a Marquette team that likes to make you play in a hurry.

No. 12 Richmond vs. No. 1 Kansas

#21 Markieff Morris - Forward
6-10 245 Junior Philadelphia, PA
13.9 ppg 8.3 rpg

The more low-post oriented of the Morris twins.  Coming off a 24-point 12-rebound performance against Illinois in the round of 32, Kansas must continue to feed its hot hand.  The Jayhawks can kill the will of the upstart Spiders by pounding them inside where they don't really have much depth.  Dominant inside play by Markieff and his brother Marcus will lead to double-teams in the post and kickouts to the perimeter that will give Kansas shooters Brady Morningstar and Tyshawn Taylor plenty of open looks.

Buford can kill you from anywhere on the floor.
No. 4 Kentucky vs. No. 1 Ohio State

#44 William Buford - Guard
6-5 205 Junior Toledo, OH
14.6 ppg 4 rpg 3 apg

Buford is the jack-of-all-trades for the Buckeyes and the team's most athletic guard.  He can hurt you on offense from either guard position.  He creates a matchup problem with his size as he has the ability to rise and shoot over smaller defenders and is fast enough to penetrate past bigger ones.  Good at drawing help defense and finding David Lighty and Jon Diebler for open 3-pointers on the perimeter or dropping off passes to Jared Sullinger when driving the paint.  You can't play off of him either as he his hitting at 44-percent clip from beyond the arc.  Buford is also the team's best on ball defender and will likely be given the task of staying in front of Kentucky freshman guard Brandon Knight.

Singleton goes hard in the paint.
No. 11 Virginia Commonwealth vs. No. 10 Florida State

#31 Chris Singleton - Forward
6-9 225 Junior Canton, GA
13 ppg 6.7 rpg 2 spg 1.5 bpg, leads team in all categories

The Seminoles might not have snuck up on anyone by surprise if it wasn't for an injury to Singleton's foot that required him to have surgery after a Feb. 12 game against Virginia.  Many assumed Singleton would be out for the season and that Florida State could not perform well enough without him to make the NCAA tournament since Singleton was playing like an ACC Player of the Year candidate before he went down with the injury.  Despite going 3-3 without their best player, the 'Noles made the tournament, and Singleton returned for the team's opening round game victory against Texas A&M after missing just over a month.  He hasn't returned to full form yet (0 points in 10 minutes against Notre Dame last round) but will be critical in tonight's game against VCU as the Rams will look to forwards Jamie Skeen (15.2 ppg, 7.3 rpg) and Bradford Burgess (23 points and eight rebounds in last round win vs. Purdue) to carry them to the Elite Eight.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

NCAA Sweet Sixteen: Stepping Up

The pressure turns up now that these teams are in the Sweet Sixteen and it takes a full team effort to advance as the quality of opponent teams face increases exponentially.  These are the men that must step up today in order for their teams to advance.

Leonard must produce for the Aztecs to win.
No. 3 Connecticut vs. No. 2 San Diego State

#15 Kawhi Leonard - Forward
6-7 225 Sophomore Riverside, CA
15.6 ppg 10.6 rpg 1.5 spg, leads team

Strong on ball defender, better help defender.  He and forwards Malcolm Thomas and D.J. Gay will have to protect the paint and limit the drives of UConn's Kemba Walker, because there is no guard in the country that can stay in front of Walker man-to-man.
Leonard is a solid ball handler that can grab the defensive board and start transition offense.  They will need him to drive the paint when he receives the ball on the perimeter rather than settling for jumpshots, as he only shoots 29-percent from 3-point and it's not really his game.

No. 3 Brigham Young vs. No. 2 Florida

#1 Kenny Boynton - Guard
Can the athletic Boynton end the Jimmer Show?
6-2 183 Sophomore Pompano Beach, FL
14 ppg 33-percent 3-point

Boynton forms a solid backcourt with All-SEC guard Erving Walker and is instrumental on defense as the 5'8" Walker does not defend bigger guards very well.  Boynton will be asked to defend BYU's Jimmer Fredette, a threat to score as soon as he enters the arena and the nation's leading scorer.
No. 5 Arizona vs. No. 1 Duke

#23 Derrick Williams - Forward
6-8 241 Sophomore La Mirada, CA
19.1 ppg 8.2 rpg 60-percent field goal
Williams has elite NBA talent.

Williams is slated to be an NBA Lottery Pick, and his tournament performance could convince NBA GMs to select him No. 1 overall, much like how Memphis guard Derek Rose jumped Kansas State forward Michael Beasley in 2008.
Duke is a perimeter oriented team that relies heavily on getting offensive rebounds and second chance points.  The Wildcats will need Williams to dominate the glass and limit the Blue Devils' opportunities.
No. 8 Butler vs. No. 4 Wisconsin

#30 Jon Leuer
6-10 228 Senior Orono, MN
18.7 ppg 7.3 rpg, leads team

Leuer might be the toughest player left in the tournament to defend off the pick-and-roll as he is comfortable extending out to the 3-point line (38-percent) and is good and finding teammates cutting to the basket for open layups.  He will be a problem for Butler big men Matt Howard and Andrew Smith who could end up getting into foul trouble trying to defend Leuer and Badger guard Jordan Taylor.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

'The Big L-East'

They speak for us all.

I know how you feel right now.  Your previous excitement about Mach Madness and how unstoppable your brackets will be in your pay-to-play pools has by now likely dissipated into torment, frustration, and utter disbelief.  All year long you heard the experts saying that the Big East is the best conference ever and deserves 13 NCAA Tournament bids.  And then Morehead State happened.  O.K., there had to be an upset somewhere in the first round and Louisville was it.  Later on that day Gonzaga -- the vintage 1990s tourney Cinderella -- brutalized fan favorite-to-make-a-run-to-the-Final-Four St. John's and effectively dover the Red Storm and anyone (including me) riding their bandwagon off the steepest of cliffs.  Villanova and Georgetown limped into the tournament, but surely there is enough talent on those teams to handle the likes of George Mason and Virginia Commonwealth of the Colonial Athletic Assosication.  Nope.  If that wasn't enough, how about the most consistent Big East team for the entire season and No. 1 seed Pittsburgh getting their hearts ripped out by Butler, and No. 2 seed Notre Dame with Big East Player of the Year Ben Hansbrough getting waxed by Florida State (somewhere, Charlie Ward and Warrick Dunn are smiling)?  Should've saw it coming though.  Last year everyone was clamouring about the Big East too, and the only team to make the Final Four from that conference was West Virginia; which was probably the least lauded team of the pack ranked in the top of the Big East standings.  The same thing has almost happened this year.  Marquette and Connecticut are the only two teams left in the NCAA Tournament out of the 11 selections from the conference.  The Golden Eagles hovered around .500 in the Big East all season while the Huskies seemed destined for a first round tourney exit before Kemba Walker basically carried them to five wins in five days to win the conference tournament. 
Sights set on Final Four.
So what is the explanation for this?  Do they beat up on each other in the regular season and are too worn out to perform in March?  Are they overlooking teams that play outside of conference because of arrogance?  This time of year, it's hard to explain anything that happens in a basketball game using rational thought.   If that were the case, all four No. 1 seeds would make it to the Final Four every year.  Either way, don't slit your wrists if you had a bad weekend and your bracket is about as useful as nuclear wasteland, because most of America is probably with you.  Just sit back, enjoy this weekend's games, and root for your friends who still have hope in their brackets to fail miserably. 

Saturday, March 5, 2011

'Can't Take The Heat'

Wade has seen better days in South Beach.
The regular season in the NBA doesn't mean anything.  The schedule is for 82 games and we can't judge a team in April by what they did in November.  Plus, good teams lose to the Memphis Grizzlies and the Charlotte Bobcats all the time; not because those teams are better or have better players, but because good teams can't get up to play those games on the second night of a back-to-back on a roadtrip.  And when two good teams collide in the regular season, whoever wins doesn't matter either, 'cause like Los Angeles Lakers coach Phil Jackson said "Is is the playoffs yet?"  The only thing that the team's overall record means is where they will be seeded in the playoffs and whether or not they will have home court advantage; it has nothing to do with their chances of reaching or winning the Finals . . . In my opinion, NONE OF THESE EXCUSES APPLY TO THE 2010-2011 MIAMI HEAT!!!!!  After blowing a 24 point second half lead at home to the Orlando Magic last night, and squandering leads of 15 and 11 to the New York Knicks and Chicago Bulls respectivley in the past week and a half, it is clear to me that this team does not have what it takes to make a significant playoff run this year.
This was supposed to be the newest, biggest, and best "BIG 3" of any collection of three players to attain that moniker in the entire history of the NBA!  LeBron James coming off an MVP season, Dwyane Wade coming off an MVP calibur season, and Chris Bosh, a 20-10 guy that can drop 40 on any given night, joining forces to form the most powerful group of heroism since the Justice League.  The "Heatles" were supposed to sweep across the universe to the tune of 72+ wins, according to ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy, eclipsing the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls for the single season wins record.  They won't sniff 70 wins this year and frankly, there's been some hard day's nights for the Heat lately, especially when it comes to playing good teams and closing out games.  Allow me to throw out everything that happened before Christmas Day 2010, since those guys with big egos were still in the 'feeling out' process with each other's games.  On that Christmas, the Heat blewout the defending champion Lakers in L.A. 96-80, and had everyone thinking that they had turned the corner.  Since that win, Miami has two wins over a top 10 NBA team (at Oklahoma City Thunder Jan. 30 and at Orlando Feb. 3).  On the other hand, they have lost to the Denver Nuggets (when they still had Carmelo Anthony), the Bulls (twice), Boston, and then this recent slide when they have had double-digit leads and still were not able to close out.  The toughest question to answer is "what is going wrong with them?" since it seems that there are multiple responses to that singular question.  You wouldn't think a team with that much star power would have so many holes.  Let me atleast scratch the surface.

Still looking for answers.
1.  They don't run anything on offense.
The next time you watch the Boston Celtics, see how they set up their offense when they are in the half court.  Rajon Rondo gets the ball at the point and will throw up some type of hand signal to key the beginning of a play.  Players will set screens for Ray Allen to run through, big men make back picks, the ball moves from one side of the floor to the other, and no one cares who shoots the ball; as long as they get a layup or a good open look.  This doesn't happen with Miami.  They are at their best in transition; converting on the break when other teams miss a basket or turn the ball over by using their athleticism to get down the floor.  They get ball movement sometimes off isolation but that mainly happens when James and Wade are hitting (see last night's game, first half).  When 'Bron and D-Wade are off, the offense is stagnant, and that lag leaks into the team's defensive intensity as well (see last night's game, second half).

2.  The team's best defender, rebounder, and shot blocker, is LeBron.
James is a physical beast that prides himself in doing it all and excelling at it all but his bread and butter is on the offensive end.  He can lockdown on D, and chip in rebounding the ball, but he cannot be the biggest presence in the paint on defense.  If LeBron has to be in the low block so often to help stop penetration, it takes away from his capability to leak out and start transition offense.

3.  No one outside of the 'Big 3' is reliable.
No role player is stepping up in big games.
If Wade, Bosh, and James each score 25 points, my math tells me that's only 75 points.  Those are good games individually, but clearly not enough collectively to win against elite teams without some help from someone else.  James Jones and Mike Miller get plenty of open looks when the big guys are rolling, but they don't create shots for themselves or teammates and they are defensive liabilitiesErick Dampier, Joel Anthony, and Zydrunaus Ilgauskas are average rebounders and defenders at best and are totally inept offensively, so forget about creating offense by feeding the post like the Celtics, Magic, Lakers, Bulls, and San Antonio Spurs can do.

4.  Who takes the last shot?
When you look at it honestly, newly acquired veteran guard Mike Bibby is the clutchest player on this roster.  Every once in a while, one of LeBron's fadeaway 35-footers to tie or win a game actually goes in, but the next leap year isn't until 2012, so I guess we will have to wait until then to see that again.  Wade is a proven finisher, but when James is on the court, I think he is almost expecting to not get the ball, and it steals his swagger a little bit.  Bosh would be an option if he actually played in the post, but he's just a jump shooter and you would rather have James or Wade doing that.

5.  The wrong guy is coaching this team.
History shows that a team with this many egos requires a coach with an above average to equal ego of the top players or they will pretty much coach themselves.  Erik Spoelstra is just another guy.  Pat Riley has stated that he doesn't want to coach anymore but he might be exactly what this team needs.  The last time he took over the Heat, when they had just acquired Shaquille O'Neal from the Lakers, Miami went on to win the championship.  Don't know why Riley is holding out but I think that he could probably coach this team in his sleep.  No way are they blowing fourth quarter leads and taking wild shots with someone heading that team to steer them right when things are going wrong.

Listen, I'm not trying to bash the Heat, because I think eventually they will work out the kinks.  I just think that the time to figure out all these problems have run out for this year.  Maybe they can miraculously turn things around these last games and in the playoffs but I doubt it.  They have the Spurs tonight in San Antonio, before the Bulls, Lakers, and the Spurs again next week at home.  We'll see really soon whether or not they can prove me wrong.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

'Johnnie On The Spot'

Beast of the East.
Connecticut guard Kemba Walker was the clear cut favorite to win Big East player of the year early in the season, but his play has been less than spectular as of late, and the Huskies don't look as formidable.  Coming down the stretch in the regular season, no team in the conference, or maybe even the entire country, is playing better than the St. John's Red Storm (No. 25 ESPN/USA Today, No. 23 AP) and most of that success has had to do with senior guard Dwight Hardy.  At the beginning of the season, newly hired head coach Steve Lavin said he would be happy with being in the conversation for the NCAA tournament come this time of year.  With the Johnnies (19-9, 11-5 Big East) going 7-0 in the month of February, with wins over potential tourney number one seed Pittsburgh, UConn, and most recently Villanova, the only question about St. John's tournament status is how high they will be seeded.  And with a roster that includes nine seniors who haven't won much over their college careers, they have the look of a team that won't be happy with just getting to the dance.  Hardy is the hard-nosed squad leader and is flat out balling during this recent seven game stretch.  The Bronx native had a career-high 33 points in the dramatic win over Pitt at Madison Square Garden where he drove through the paint and made a Jordanesque dribble fake away from the baseline, spun back towards the baseline while tip-toeing to keep his balance, and laying in the game-winning teardrop over a couple of defenders with 1.2 seconds left on the clock.  I felt like describing in writing, but just watch and see for yourself . . .

In the matchup with 'Nova last Saturday Hardy topped that scoring mark with 34 points in a 81-68 road win at the Pavilion.  Right now, he's got to be the front-runner for Big East player of the year with Providence guard Marshon Brooks, (25.1 points per game leads Big East, second in nation), Notre Dame senior guard Ben Hansborough, and Walker being the other considerations.  SJU is currently the third ranked team in the Big East (a conference expected to get 11 teams into the NCAA tournament) and has the opportunity for more big wins when the conference tournament starts next week at the Garden.  Hardy and St. John's are heading into March Madness with a head of steam, but they're not the only team to watch out for.

Kansas State
Senior guard Jacob Pullen is playing like the first-team Big 12 talent he is late in the season after a rocky start.  The Wildcats (21-9, 9-6 Big 12), currently unranked after opening the season ranked No. 5, have two big wins over Kansas and Missouri at home in each of the last two weeks and a 75-70 statement victory over a hungry Texas team in Austin on Monday.

Brigham Young
It's not just Jimmer who can hurt you when facing the CougarsBYU (27-2, 13-1 Mountain West) has crept up to No. 3 in the polls -- the highest ranking in school history -- and Fredette (27.3 points per game, leads nation) gets solid assistance from 6-foot-5 forward Charles Abouo, a swingman that can bang on the boards as well as knock down the open 3, and senior guard Jackson Emery, who has hit four or more 3-pointers in a game eight times this season. 

Yeah, the Wildcats did drop two games on the road in the conference over the weekend but there is a well kept secret in Tucson that will come to light come tournament time.  Teams better not sleep on Arizona because sophomore forward Derrick Williams is a potential NBA lottery pick who has quietly put together an All-American calibur season.  The 6-foot-8 Williams (19.1 points per game, 8.1 rebounds) is an elite athlete who is virtually unguardable.  He has notched double figures in scoring in all but one game this year while shooting 61-percent from the field.  Words can't say enough, roll footage . . .