The Week That Was: Tournament Preview EditionPosted by rtmsf on March 15th, 2011
March Madness is officially here. Introduction over.
What We Learned
Connecticut scoffs in the face of conventional wisdom that says it’s better for a team to be well rested before the NCAA tournament. The Huskies won five games in five days to capture the Big East Tournament title last Saturday night. And for my money, Kemba Walker locked up the Naismith Award with his play over those five games. Walker averaged 26 PPG and 38 MPG at Madison Square Garden, carrying a team that finished 9-9 in the Big East to the #3 seed in the West. We are a little concerned that Walker went only 2-16 from three during the tournament, but he countered his poor outside shooting with at least nine attempts from the free throw line each game. For those who think Walker has to be running on fumes right now, remember that he had enough left to break some ankles, rise and knock down a J to beat Pittsburgh despite playing all 40 minutes of that game. Because of their 7:20 PM ET tip on Thursday, the Huskies will have had nearly five days off to ready themselves for the Tournament. That’s plenty of time for Kemba to recharge for another run.
Conference tournaments are fun and everything, but oftentimes they’re played in atmospheres that make NBA arenas look like Cameron Indoor. TWTW was courtside for the Pac-10 Tournament, and we left wondering if the Pac-10 could find a better venue than Los Angeles. The Staples Center was never more than half full, and there were plenty of premium seats available for the final between Washington and Arizona. It’s tough to expect every tournament to be like that of the Big East or the ACC (when it’s in North Carolina). And a major conference will never go the small league route and host its championship on campus — too much money at stake. But the ambivalence of Los Angeles is ill-suited for college basketball games that don’t involve UCLA or USC. One city that we think would be a great host is Portland, Oregon. It boasts an NBA arena and great nightlife (have you tried a Portland microbrew?), two tournament musts. Also, the city of Portland has a great reputation regarding its basketball fans, so it’s easy to imagine the average Portlander buying a couple of tickets for the weekend. No way the Rose Garden is a third full for the semifinal round.
Florida is possibly the most laughable #2 seed in recent history. We don’t think that tournament championship games should dramatically alter seedings, but we couldn’t help but chuckle when we saw the Gators earn a #2 seed in the Southeast and Kentucky get the East’s #4 just hours after the Wildcats beat Florida by 16. Florida is ranked #19 in KenPom’s efficiency ratings, four spots lower than North Carolina, whom he rates as the third worst #2. The Gators also lost to Central Florida and Jacksonville in non-conference play. Anyone else smell a second round upset?
Hero of the Week
Princeton’s Douglas Davis. There were plenty of memorable buzzer-beaters during championship week. Walker’s against Pitt was the prettiest. Isaiah Thomas’ against Arizona had the greatest call. But Davis’ dagger to beat Harvard required the most stones, having gone just 3-13 from the field before attempting the game-winner. His shot was the only one with a tournament bid on the line; plus Walker and Thomas had the slight advantage of their games being tied. The best part about Davis’ shot was the Harvard player that flew through the air when Davis abruptly pivoted right. Not sure if that qualifies as a shot fake, but either way it was beautiful.
Goat of the Week
The field of 68. People have already chastised the committee on the supposed injustices as to which teams made the NCAA tournament and which were relegated to the NIT (but hey, at least it’ll be the most covered NIT ever…cheer up, Seth!). TWTW finds the snub conversations very dull. It’s hard for us to get all that animated when arguing the merits of one mediocre team vs. another. Colorado and Virginia Tech weren’t going to win the title (or influence the outcome, for that matter), so if they wanted a ticket to the Dance then the Hokies shouldn’t have lost their last two games of the regular season and the Buffaloes would have been wise to avoid going 8-8 in the Big 12. While TWTW feels zero outrage with the last four out, we’re already dissatisfied with the expanded bracket. So Round 1 is now Round 2? And what the hell is this Round 3 business? Why do we have to label Tuesday and Wednesday’s play-in games as the first round? It’s not the first round; it’s the play-in round. We shouldn’t change the format of the rest of the tournament just to make the two losing teams feel like they got to be a part of the actual tournament. But that’s only half of our issue. No one knows when you should have your bracket filled out now. Will you lose points for not picking USC-VCU or Clemson-UAB? Filling out a winning bracket was confusing enough with 65 teams, and 68 is pushing our patience. We shudder to think what will happen when the tournament inevitably expands to 96.
Three Things We’re Looking Forward To
The Cleveland pod. The games themselves don’t exactly jump out at you (#8 George Mason vs. #9 Villanova; No. 1 Ohio State vs. UTSA/Alabama St.; #6 Xavier vs. #11 Marquette; and #3 Syracuse vs. #14 Indiana St.) but we’ll definitely be tuning in to the games in Cleveland throughout Friday and Sunday. Why? Gus Johnson and Len Elmore will be in Cleveland for the weekend, and we go wherever Gus goes. Gus already whetted our March Madness appetite with his absurdly awesome call of Isaiah Thomas’ cold-blooded J to beat Arizona in the Pac-10 Tournament championship game. And, lest you forget, he has history with two of the teams in the pod. Johnson called Ohio State’s win over Xavier in the second round of the 2007 tournament (remember the Ron Lewis game-tying three?). And last year he was on hand for Xavier’s 2OT thriller against Kansas State.
A potentially wild weekend in Tucson. There’s always one pod that gets turned upside down, and there’s good reason to think that chaos will rule in Tucson. Tucson boasts this year’s hot mid-major sleeper in #13 Belmont, and a team that was ranked in the top 25 for much of the year in #12 Utah State. Belmont went 30-4 overall and 21-1 in its last 22 games. The Bruins are ranked #18 in the nation according to KenPom, and they boast an offense that’s #9 in effective FG% (54.4%) and a the #2 defense in terms of turnovers forced (TOs on 27.6% of opponents possessions). Belmont opens against a Wisconsin team that could only muster 33 points against Penn State. Cue the upset alert. And with Utah State we have possibly the most underseeded team in the whole Tournament. KenPom has the Aggies at #16, and they were ranked #19 in the final AP poll. How on earth did the committee look at those numbers and give Utah State a 12-seed? The Aggies open against Kansas State, and a win there would be an upset in seeding only.
Warp speed ahead in Charlotte. This group’s quartet from the East Region (#2 North Carolina, #7 Washington, #10 Georgia and #15 Long Island) should provide some of the most fan-friendly basketball of the opening weekend. The Tar Heels, Huskies and Blackbirds all like to play fast, as these three teams rank in the top 21 in tempo. Long Island plays at a higher pace than any team in the tournament, running at a blazing 74 possessions per 40 minutes. Washington is the fourth fastest team in the field of 68, North Carolina ranks fifth, while Georgia is the outlier of the bunch at 261st overall in tempo. Playing in the SEC hasn’t exactly prepared the Bulldogs to play these kinds of teams (South Carolina is the lone SEC squad to rank in the top 100) if Washington establishes its preferred style, watch out. And if chalk rules on Friday, the UNC-UW game could be the game of the tournament.