…of the Decade

April 7, 2009

It’s hard to believe but we’re not finished with the first decade of this century, at least as far as college basketball goes. So I’ll be the first to put together the teams and coaches of the aughts. I’ll use a breakdown of final fours, title games and championships to determine who’s been the best over the past ten years.

Here are the pertinent stats:

Final Fours:
UNC – 4
Florida – 3
Michigan State – 3
UCLA – 3
Kansas – 3
Connecticut – 2
Duke – 2
Maryland – 2

Title Games:
Florida – 3
UNC – 2
Kansas – 2
Michigan State – 2

Titles:
Florida – 2
UNC – 2
Michigan State – 1
Connecticut – 1
Duke – 1
Maryland – 1
Syracuse – 1
Kansas – 1

Here’s how the conferences break down:
Final Fours:
ACC – 9
Big 10 – 8
Big 12 – 6
Big East – 5
Pac 10 – 4
SEC – 4
Conference USA – 3

Title Games:
ACC – 5
Big 10 – 5
SEC – 3
Big East – 2
Pac 10 – 2
Big 12 – 2

Titles:
ACC – 4
Big East – 2
SEC – 2
Big 10 – 1
Big 12 – 1

And for Coaches:
Roy Williams – 5 Final Fours (3 UNC, 2 KU), 2 titles
Billy Donovan – 3 Final Fours, 2 titles
Tom Izzo – 3 Final Fours, 1 title
Ben Howland – 3 Final Fours
Mike Krzyzewski – 2 Final Fours, 1 title
Gary Williams – 2 Final Fours, 1 title
Jim Calhoun – 2 Final Fours, 1 title

Just using stats, it’s hard to argue with Roy Williams and UNC as being the coach and team of the decade, though the reality is probably different. Williams is definitely the coach of the decade having spent half the decade in the Final Four and playing in three title games with two different schools. But the team is harder to define.

You can’t connect the 2000 Matt Doherty-coached Tar Heels with the Roy Williams teams of the later years. UCLA went three years in a row to the Final Four but never won it all (and only made one title game). Florida won back-to-back titles but certainly weren’t the same team that lost to Michigan State in 2000. Maryland played in back-to-back Final Fours but no one would argue that they are the best team of this decade.

I guess in the end there is no answer. No team was the dominant one throughout the decade. Duke probably won more games than anyone else but they could never put together the tournament runs to justify their mentioning. Florida and UNC had long gaps between their Final Four successes, UCLA never dominated and neither did Michigan State.

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All Carolina

April 7, 2009

unc

It wasn’t even close. Even in the second half when Carolina really wasn’t very good, it still wasn’t close. After scoring the most-ever points in a first half of the NCAA title game, it really didn’t matter.

This was what I thought would happen to Michigan State against Kansas, Louisville or Connecticut. Not that I thought MSU wasn’t a good team, I just didn’t consider them a true heavyweight. Instead they played beyond their normal level, one of those more than the sum of their parts teams, and escaped each of those power programs to get the chance to play Carolina. Yet none of it mattered in the end because the team that simply could not miss in earlier games was completely deficient on the offensive end, particularly in the first half.

When I talked to my brother about the game on Sunday he made a good point that Carolina just builds a big lead in the first half and the other team has to play catch-up the rest of the night which forces bad shots, more turnovers and in the end, a loss. That could not have been a more accurate explanation for what happened last night in Detroit. Michigan State looked scared and then downright careless (if not just bad).

It’s hard to tell how this UNC team will be judged. They were anointed before the season as the guarantee for the title. So does simply meeting those expectations garner any more respect? Probably not. But they did win every single tournament game by more than a dozen points and often by more than fifteen, including last night. I know other teams have done it before, I think Florida may have even done it a few years ago, but looking back, this Carolina team was completely dominant when it mattered most.

What I think we all underestimated with this team was how embarrassed they were with their loss in the Final Four last year to Kansas in San Antonio. Remember that? It was 40-12 at one point in the first half? That’s why Hansbrough, Lawson and Ellington all came back. They were clearly motivated by a much bigger idea that until the tournament started, no one really mentioned very often. That force was more than enough to win four of their easiest games in the sweet sixteen, great eight, final four and title game.


The NCAA Finals

April 6, 2009

I’m not going to spend tons of space here dissecting tonight’s game as anyone with two eyes and a pulse knows the story. UNC is the goliath that everyone expected to win and little old Michigan State is pursuing the dream season in the home town gym.

Ok, barf. Here’s the real story.

UNC has had as many, if not more injuries than the famed Michigan State sob-story. Marcus Ginyard never played this year, Tyler Zeller’s development was stunted with a broken hand, Danny Green was out, Ty Lawson didn’t play for the first half of March, etc. It’s true that Michigan State has had its share of injuries, illness and the like, but both teams have had to struggle equally to get through the season unscathed.

Michigan State is being projected as the little engine that could when that is really furthest from the truth. Several pundits picked them to go to the Final Four before the season started. They won the Big 10 regular season title and were a no. 2 seed (had they won the Big 10 tournament, they would’ve likely been a no. 1 seed, or at least had a nice case for one). It’s true that MSU was not favored against either Louisville or UCONN and that they had to beat a good Kansas team just to get here. But let’s not make them out to be some scrappy George Mason clone.

Finally, about the fact that MSU is in the Final Four. People everywhere (except Mitch Albom) have been saying that Michigan State have been the saviors of the tournament by selling out the games in a city where no one in their right mind would ever want to go otherwise (example, the Mayor of Indianapolis was robbed Saturday night in Detroit). But let’s be honest, what does the city of Detroit want with the Final Four? Thousands of people staying in their city for the weekend. Instead they get a school that is just 90 miles from the city. That means that all of the Michigan State fans are did not spend all day Sunday and all day today in Detroit. It means they all drove back home, did not stay in hotels, did not go out to eat, did not go to bars or casinos, etc. They all went home and are coming back tonight.

So, I hope this has given everyone a better idea of what’s actually going on tonight. It’s like I said with the Arizona story going into the sweet 16: the media need something to cling to as a sob-story, Olympics-style feature and create Michigan State as this colossal underdog. That simply is not the case.

Oh, and I like Carolina tonight, 81-72.


Worst Performance by a Supposedly Good Team

March 30, 2009

ulThat distinction goes to Louisville, who in the second half of their Midwest Regional Final against Michigan State looked like the worst team to ever play basketball. Let me go ahead and give MSU their due now so I don’t have to mention it again because I really don’t think they had much to do with it.

Ok, so what the hell was Louisville doing? This was supposed to be the team that was super-aggressive on defense, hard-working, good shooting, tough, character-driven and talented. In the second half yesterday they were none of those. Time after time, UL left Michigan State guards wide-open for three-pointers. When those guards occasionally missed, Louisville couldn’t bother to box-out and State had tip-ins on multiple misses. There was no pressure defense at all, not in the full court, 3/4 court and really not even in the half-court sets.

On offense, Louisville looked like they were in a pick-up game with a bunch of dudes they’d never met. None of the players seemed to know how to play in an offense together and as a result, there wasn’t much of an offense to speak of. A few times Earl Clark was able to knock down shots but mostly UL just dribbled around a bunch until there were less than ten seconds on the shot clock and then fired up either a guarded three-pointer or an impossible fade-away jumper. Granted, Michigan State obviously knew what they were doing defensively, but this was a Louisville team that had scored over 100 points just two days earlier.

Ultimately I think what happened to UL was that they just didn’t play anyone good at all until they ran into MSU. Look at their schedule: Morehead State, Siena, Arizona. People will probably start crying about how good Siena was but seriously, they’re not that great. The killer for Louisville appears to have in fact been that Arizona game. They were flexing their muscles, showing off, smiling for the cameras and generally toying with Arizona (who was so completely overrated, by the way). They weren’t challenged in that game at all and it showed when they played Michigan State. MSU had to battle for every point and probably deserved to lose to Kansas in the Sweet Sixteen. But they prevailed, and spurred by the tough play needed to oust a really good KU team, plowed on through against Louisville.

But maybe most confusing about the complete collapse of Louisville yesterday was how they were pretty good in the first half. Only down by three points at half (30-27), Louisville tied the game up at 32 early in the second. And then the wheels fell off. What happened? Rick Pitino teams are always in the very best of shape, so it couldn’t have been that they just got tired. Something happened mentally against Michigan State and they just completely fell apart.


NCAA’s Day Five

March 27, 2009

Just a few thoughts after watching the four Regional Semi-finals yesterday:

1. Domes suck. There’s nothing worse than watching a game that’s taking place in an enormous stadium with tens of thousands of empty seats. I know the NCAA is about nothing more than trying to turn a profit, so it won’t change. But why have a game in the ‘cavernous‘ Arizona Cardinals’ football stadium (as aptly described by one of the guys on tv) when you could play at the Phoenix Suns’ stadium that’s nearby? I realize you can get more people into the football stadium, even if it looks empty, but the sight lines for players are probably terrible and it just looks ridiculous. They’re also never loud because the sound just drifts away into the vast nothingness of the massive stadium.

2. I’m convinced that Levance Fields is actually just Khalid el-Amin. It’s been ten years since the pudgy point guard helped lead UCONN to their first national title so I guess it’s about time that someone came along that mimicked that style, and size, of play. Fields is probably actually better than el-Amin ever was, but the lumbering, chubby point guard is just not a normal sighting. It is absolutely no contest when it comes to personality though, Fields is a dud and el-Amin was fantastic to watch.

3. Duke lost in exactly the way I said they would. I mean, exactly. Duke had an off night shooting (to say the least), they had no answer for a capable inside player (Dante Cunningham) and they were way too soft to play with Villanova. Gerald Henderson was the worst player on the court the entire game, not making a shot until a three-pointer with less than four minutes left and Duke already behind by more than fifteen points. Jon Scheyer got pushed around like the skinny white guy that he is and really only Kyle Singler did anything productive at all. And even he shot just 5-13 and scored 15 points. It was clear going in that Henderson, Scheyer and Singler were going to have to be great every game for Duke to keep going. None of them were good last night. And they just had no answer on the defensive end. They have no tough players, no big strong guys, no one to completely shut down another team.

4. Missouri is really good. They’re the only team in the tournament who plays a legitimately up-and-down style (now that Oklahoma State and Tennessee are both gone). Even Memphis, a theoretically wild and running team, looked slow and methodical in comparison. I don’t know if Mizzou has what it takes to beat UCONN but they’re absolutely going to give them a game. It should be a much more fun game to watch than any of the Huskies’ games to this point. Yet, despite Mizzou playing so well, they really had no answer for Tyreke Evans, who may have just earned himself a top-5 draft spot if he decides to leave early.


AD nauseum – NCAA’s First Two Rounds

March 23, 2009

podcast

This week’s podcast (or at least the first one of this week) deals with what happened in the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament over the weekend and my thoughts and projections about what could happen in the games this coming weekend. I hope you’ll check it out and as always, leave whatever feedback you might have. This one is a lot shorter too, just 22 minutes, so it should actually be digestible.


Arizona is not a Cinderella

March 23, 2009

arizona

There are a few phrases that I hate this time of year. The chief among them is ‘Cinderella story.’ I understand the connotation and yes, there are a few cases where teams do actually fulfill the requirements for the title. A few examples are: George Mason (2006), Princeton (1996), Gonzaga (1999). Teams that do not fit this bill include: Arizona (2009).

The Webster’s definition of a Cinderella is: one suddenly lifted from obscurity to honor or significance. I understand that in the cases above. Most people were shocked when George Mason made it into the tournament field over Hofstra, let alone reaching the Final Four. Princeton used a bunch of smart, white guys to knock of the defending national champions in UCLA and Gonzaga was a tiny Jesuit college in eastern Washington that stunningly won three games against schools from the Big 10, Pac 10 and SEC. So why doesn’t Arizona fit into that mold?

Arizona has reached the NCAA tournament 25 years in a row which is the second-longest streak ever (27 by UNC from 1975-2001). They won the national championship in 1997, were finalists in 2001 and were in the Final Four in 1994 and 1988. Just because folks were surprised when they made the tournament does not mean they are a wonderful, shocking story. Arizona defeated Utah and Cleveland State to reach the sweet sixteen, hardly a who’s who of college basketball powers.

The main reason Arizona is anointed to this position of supposed Cinderella is that this year’s tournament is proving to be even more bland than last year. In each region the top three seeds advanced with the rest being a 4-seed, 5-seed and Arizona’s 12. Had there been true ‘Cinderella’ teams (Utah State, Cleveland State) no one would be talking about Arizona at all. But the folks in sports media need something to talk about and some reason to convince their readers/viewers that this is as interesting as any other year.

So let’s cool it with the talk of how ‘special’ this Arizona team is. They appear to be pretty good but until they beat Louisville, I’m not ready to refer to them as even an interesting or surprising team.