When Missouri and Texas A&M bolt for the SEC in July, the departure will mark the Big 12′s first shift since its inception in 1996. For the most part, the past 15 seasons have belonged to Kansas, which has captured the only National Championship during this time period and has also won or shared 11 regular-season championships. The Jayhawks’ dominance extends all the way through the old Big Eight’s history, too. Naturally, we’ve selected two Jayhawks as the most influential figures. Perhaps it’s unfair to place so much KU emphasis on our four Mount Rushmore selections, and yes, it’s probably unfair to ignore the rest of the league as a result. However, we made our selections with an eye toward postseason success and long-term legacy. Frankly, no other Big 12 program can even come close to Kansas in either of those departments, so its players and coaches simply must be included.
Here’s our Big 12 Mount Rushmore:
Wayman Tisdale: The late Tisdale was more than just a basketball player. He was a musician, a man who publicly fought cancer for two years, and most importantly, a man remembered for being one of the most genuine people in sports. The forward had a productive NBA career, but he thoroughly dominated the Big Eight for three seasons at Oklahoma. As a freshman, sophomore and junior, Tisdale took home Big Eight Player of the Year honors, and he was unique in that he made such an immediate impact early in his career. Unlike most freshmen at that time, Tisdale didn’t need time to acclimate himself to the college game. He was a one-and-done kind of player who stayed and dominated the nation for three seasons. Frightening.
Danny Manning: These days, Manning roams the Kansas sidelines as a towering, hard-to-miss assistant coach. Two decades ago, though, Manning’s Jayhawks soared through the 1988 NCAA Tournament as a six-seed, shocking the nation by knocking off #1 Oklahoma in the title game in Kansas City. To this day, even fans who never watched Larry Brown’s team play still refer to that squad as “Danny and the Miracles.” Manning may have scored the most points in Big Eight history, but we’ll remember him for the way he lit up the scoreboard in those six games in March.
So many people are assuming threat postures over this so-called battle of words between John Calipari and Rick Pitino, but to us this is just a symptom that fans of college basketball just want something to talk about. We’ll never fault anyone for that, but it just doesn’t seem like there’s a lot in this. Here’s the deal: speaking in front of the tent village that pops up around Lexngton’s Memorial Coliseum annually as people camp out for Midnight Madness tickets, Calipari told an interviewer that Kentucky basketball was the biggest deal “throughout this whole state,” raising the ire of Louisville fans. Pitino responded with a little bit of name-calling without actually saying Calipari’s name. That’s it. There’s no feud here because what Calipari said is correct. There are thousands of UK fans who live in Louisville. Yes, there are thousands of U of L fans who live in non-Louisville Kentucky, but to us Calipari’s comments were meant to compliment UK fans and were centered on his program, and did not constitute an insult of the Louisville program or its fans.
Grantland.com doesn’t need our help getting attention, but we’ll always link quality college basketball discussion wherever it is, and this qualifies: remember that brawl in the summer that happened when Georgetown took its trip to China and played an exhibition against the Bayi Rockets? No surprise, there’s much more to it than you’d think. The New York Times’ Jim Yardley was in China three years ago doing a story on another Chinese professional team but got the scoop on Bayi. The team is a former military propaganda showpiece and have been given every break by those who run that league, are the most hated squad in the country, but have lost relevance of late. The incident with Georgetown, as Yardley writes, may be the thing that puts the Rockets away for good. His history of that team and the Chinese pro league is a must-read, and provides considerable insight on the fracas with the Hoyas.
With conference realignment buzzing along as it is and people talking about the eventual superconferences at some point seceding from the NCAA, college hoops fans are wondering what effect these changes will have on the holiest of holies, the NCAA Tournament. Inspired by a series of tweets last night from Bylaw Blog and SI.com’s Andy Glockner, Rock Chalk Talk has laid out one fantastic (though obviously remote) possibility: the establishment of a champion based on the UEFA Champions League model. Can you imagine, say, six Selection Sundays as opposed to one? True, the singularity of Selection Sunday is what makes it so special, but in this model each one would mean just as much. And the idea of certain Power Six conference programs getting relegated, you have to admit, is pretty intriguing. Interesting stuff whether you’re a soccer fan or not.
“Ladies and gentlemen…Tone Loc!” Such an introduction would inspire exactly zero excitement in anyone currently enrolled at Syracuse. Frankly, it probably wouldn’t inspire much excitement in anyone who has children enrolled at Syracuse. But that’s who was slated to host the midnight madness festivities at the Carrier Dome. Unfortunately, it’s been a tough month for Tone, who recently pleaded no contest to a domestic violence charge. That in mind, the ‘Cuse made went with a change of host, tapping Philadelphia rapper Meek Mill (no, really) as master of ceremonies. As the Syracuse site Troy Nunez Is An Absolute Magician points out, at least Julie Boeheim will still be there. By the way, the last two sentences in the linked article are great.
One of the best (or worst, whatever you prefer) examples of a kid that was hyped to death and just never, ever panned out was Schea Cotton. This is no exaggeration; Cotton had been touted as a basketball messiah from the age of 15, and many pros — meaning no less than Baron Davis, Tyson Chandler, Ron Artest, Paul Pierce — compared both the style and skill level of Cotton’s game to that of LeBron James. And many, including those same pros, can’t explain why he never played a minute in the NBA. Cotton is the subject of an upcoming documentary entitled Manchild, and we cannot wait to see it. If you want to see the reason for the hype (and the opinions of the aforementioned pros), check out the trailer contained in the linked article. Oh. My. Goodness.
Forgive West Tennessee residents if they feel like their beloved Memphis Tigers have taken on a colorful desert hue lately. Head coach Josh Pastner announced on Monday that his open third assistant coaching position will go to former Arizona star and currently locked-out Los Angeles Laker, Luke Walton. Walton continues the Wildcat theme on the banks of the Mississippi River, as Pastner and his two other assistants, Jack Murphy and Damon Stoudamire, are also UA graduates having come from the coaching tree of Lute Olson. Walton will be responsible for big man instruction as well as some recruiting at Memphis, and the 31-year old who has only played intermittently because of nagging injuries the last two seasons, is probably looking for a comfortable landing spot once his playing career ends. If you’re interested in more information on this, Pastner discusses the hiring of Walton in this clip.
New Penn State head coach Patrick Chambers received great news with the completion of transfer paperwork for Southern Mississippi guard DJ Newbill on Monday. Newbill, a native of Philadelphia where he was the Pennsylvania Class AA player of the year in 2009-10, had a fantastic freshman season in Hattiesburg. He was selected as an all-CUSA frosh after a year where he contributed 9.2 PPG and 6.2 RPG while shooting 53.5% from the field. His rebounding numbers are what sets him apart, though; at only 6’4″, 195 lbs, the lithe Newbill finished in the top 200 players nationally in offensive rebounding percentage (11.3%) and had six games of double-figure boards. When he becomes eligible with three years remaining in 2012-13, Penn State fans are going to fall in love with the heart, effort and desire of this guy.
It’s been a week since the Nevin Shapiro/Miami fiasco hit the media, and in the interim, Gary Parrish writes that Missouri brass have done exactly the wrong thing in leaving their new head coach (and subject of allegations) Frank Haith dangling in the wind. By stating on the record that they are “waiting for the NCAA process to carry itself out,” they’re essentially cutting the legs out from under Haith’s ability to compete on the recruiting trail against schools that are without question using that uncertainty against him. Of course, what Parrish argues makes complete sense here: Either you come out with full public support of your coach, or you don’t, but to leave him in a purgatory of pending is to effectively emasculate your own program.
We talk a lot about the difficulties that mid-majors have in developing good schedules to improve their RPIs and, by proxy, their chances at the NCAA Tournament or the NIT. But we rarely discuss the quandary that lower-level power conference teams face when setting their non-conference schedules. As this piece by Brian Rosenthal at the Lincoln Journal-Star shows, Nebraska assistant coach Chris Croft called nearly every major basketball school in America in an effort to improve the Huskers’ schedule in 2011-12. Most had no interest in a game with Doc Sadler’s team anywhere, and even fewer were inclined to travel to Lincoln during the winter. Eventually they confirmed games against USC, Wake Forest and Oregon, but other schools, like Notre Dame (“stop calling”) and Duke (“only in Durham”) were considerably less interested. Furthermore, with Nebraska’s recent move to the Big Ten and a less-than-amicable split from the Big 12 still fresh on everyone’s minds, the Huskers got a full Heisman from their old league — not a single school would play them next year, anywhere. Go figure.
Staying in the Big 12, Kansas announced on Monday that it would be holding an alumni game called “Legends of the Phog” on September 24 in Lawrence. The NBA lockout has created a situation where NBA players have more available time for games like these (Kentucky, as you recall, had something similar in Lexington and Louisville last week). The Boston Celtics’ Paul Pierce has already committed to the game, and you can bet that many of Bill Self’s recent Jayhawk stars such as Sherron Collins, Cole Aldrich, Darrell Arthur, Mario Chalmers and others will be in attendance. Some of the proceeds will go to charity, and tickets will go on sale the week after Labor Day.
Over the course of the next month until the NBA Draft on June 24, RTC will be rolling out comprehensive profiles of the 30-35 collegians we feel have the best chance to hear their names called by David Stern in the first round that night. There won’t be any particular order to the list, but you can scroll back through all the finished profiles by clicking here.
Player Name:Xavier Henry
Height/Weight:6’7″, 210 lbs
NBA Position:Shooting Guard/Small Forward
Projected Draft Position:Mid- to Late Lottery
Overview: When Henry came to Kansas before last season–after initially committing to Memphis before the Billy Gillispie/John Calipari circus came to town–everybody had high hopes for the swing man coming out of high school with a NBA veteran’s physique. Early in the year, Henry’s exceptional performance led one SI/CBS pundit to say that Henry was every bit as impressive as John Wall. As you know that level of performance did not continue for the rest of Henry’s freshman season and his numbers tailed off considerably. Henry was able to occasionally show signs of brilliance later in the season including back-to-back games of 24 points (on 9/16 FG) and 23 points (on 9/13 FG) against Colorado and Oklahoma respectively in late February. However those signs of brilliance were frequently interrupted by games where Henry was a non-factor including the Jayhawks season-ending loss to Northern Iowa in which Henry was physically superior to anybody the Panthers could throw at him, but Henry managed just 8 points on 6 shots (although he did pull down 8 rebounds). While Henry’s play as a freshman is enough to merit first round consideration, it is his immense potential that makes him a lottery pick.
Will Xavier Henry live up to his NBA potential?
Will Translate to the NBA: Just looking at Henry you can see how he would fit into a NBA roster right away. With his strength, fluid game, and sweet left-handed shot he could be a nice change of pace player right away and could develop into an All-Star swing man. If Henry develops the ability to hit his shot off-the-dribble consistently he could become a very dangerous player in a few years. In either case he should be a swing man on NBA rosters for years to come. The question is will he be a complimentary player or will he be the go-to-guy who should be able to score from just about anywhere on the floor.
Will Translate to the NBA: Even though Stephenson is a borderline first round pick his game is NBA ready (his nickname is “Born Ready” after all) and if he works on keeping his ego in check, which reports out of workout sessions suggest, he should be a solid NBA player. With his power, quickness, and a solid mid-range jumper Stephenson should have a spot on a NBA roster for the next decade along as he continues to be the new-and-improved Lance Stephenson instead of the malcontent who nearly turned the basketball recruiting world upside down in the spring and summer of 2009.
Needs Work: For all of his athletic gifts Stephenson lack the explosiveness (both with his first step and his vertical) that scouts expect in high draft picks. While there isn’t much Stephenson can do about that other than try to shed a few pounds and go to Tim Glover during the off-season a few times. As for the more realistic targets for Stephenson, he could work on his long-range shooting (21.9% from 3 last year), defensive intensive intensity, going with the flow of the game instead of making up his mind before the play develops, and going with the simple play instead of the “And 1″ play. So Stephenson has a lot to work on over the next few years. . .
College basketball fans over the age of 20 undoubtedly remember the 1997 Kansas Jayhawks, a team that was 34-1 (its only loss coming on the road at rival Missouri) heading into its Sweet 16 match-up against a 21-9 Arizona team. That Jayhawk team was coached by Roy Williams (back when he was known for his inability to win the big game) and featured Jacques Vaughn, Raef LaFrentz, Scot Pollard, and a talented sophomore named Paul Pierce. Coming into the game the Jayhawks were heavily favored with good reason having compiled that record despite having Vaughn sit out most of their non-conference schedule with an injury.
As you know things didn’t work out Roy’s Jayhawks. That night Lute Olson and the Wildcats pulled off one of the great upsets of the decade. In retrospect, looking at the talent on the Arizona team it shouldn’t have been that shocking since the underdogs had the eventual tournament MOP (Miles Simon) along with future NBA stars (Jason Terry and Mike Bibby). Still at the time the result shocked the nation. Despite a valiant effort from Pierce who had 27 points (on just 13 FG attempts) and 11 rebounds, the Jayhawks needed a flurry of late 3s to cut into the Wildcats lead. After Bibby hit a couple of late free throws to extend the lead to 3, the Jayhawks were forced to attempt several desperation 3s to try and force OT.
When LaFrentz’s 3 from the corner fell short Roy Williams was dealt one of the most devastating losses of his career. To this day, many Kansas fans still have a hard time getting over the game. Ironically Roy may have had the one player capable of hitting a 3 to earn a trip to the Final Four sitting on his bench. . .
In our first college football-free weekend of the season (except for Mark Ingram’s Heisman and ESPN’s phenomenal documentary on “The U”) we had quite a few interesting story lines from the weekend, but one stood out on Sunday — the pair of upset victories by Atlantic 10 teams over highly ranked Big East teams in crosstown rivalry games (Temple against Villanova and Xavier against Cincinnati). Not only does it give those individual programs some bragging rights and a much needed boost on the recruiting trail, but it also gives a huge lift to the national perception of the Atlantic 10 and might cause some consternation amongst the Big East fans who like to promote their conference as the best in the nation for college basketball.
A great night for Xavier and the A-10 (Credit: AP/David Kohl)
The A-10 Rising
Xavier 78, #19 Cincinnati 75 (2 OT). This might not be as shocking to the rest of the nation, but it might go down as the game of the year so far. It had a little bit of everything you could ask for in a game at this point of the season. Bitter rivalry? Check. Physical play? Check. Biting fan chants? Check (Brian Kelly). Big comeback? Check. Buzzer beater? Check (later waved off). National TV audience? Not so much thanks to ESPNU’s sparse national penetration, but RTC Live was there. In the end it was Terrell Holloway‘s 26 points and Jason Love‘s 19 rebounds that were the difference as the Musketeers overcame 22 points from Lance Stephenson in a game where neither team led by more than 4 points during the last 19 minutes of the game and that was only after the Bearcats fouled Xavier in an attempt to get the ball back when Dion Dixon missed a 3-point attempt that could have tied the game with 21 seconds left in the second overtime. To get a really good feel as to how intense this game was, definitely read our accounting from RTC Live above and check the highlight package below.
Temple 75, #3 Villanova 65: The Owls used an 11-0 run to start the 2nd half to overcome a 6-point deficit at halftime to knock off the Wildcats. The story of the game was Juan Fernandez who scored 33 points including 7 of 9 from 3-point range to knock off the highest ranked Big East team coming into the weekend. While the casual basketball fan will consider this a huge upset, those of us who follow college basketball closely knew that this would be a tough game for Jay Wright‘s crew against a team that had only lost by one to Georgetown (still undefeated) and St. John’s (only one loss by nine against Duke). The Wildcats managed to keep it relatively close with 23 from Scottie Reynolds, 16 from Antonio Pena, and 14 from Corey Fisher, but in the end it wasn’t enough to overcome Fernandez, 20 points from Ryan Brooks, and 10 points and 17 rebounds from Lavoy Allen. The loss was just the 2nd loss for Villanova in their last 23 games against one of their Big 5 rivals. After the victory, the fans began chanting, “We want Kansas!” in reference to their upcoming game on January 2nd. We love what the Owls have done so far this season, but the student body might want to be careful what they wish for because they might just get it. One bright spot for Villanova fans: Reggie Redding (think he might have been helpful against Allen today?) will return to action against Fordham on Saturday in his first action since he was suspended ten games for his arrest for possession of marijuana and other drug paraphernalia.
In other action…
#1 Kansas 90, La Salle 65: The Jayhawks were able to overcame an off-night from Sherron Collins (1/12 FG) thanks to a season-high 31 points from Xavier Henry (the last KU freshman to score 30 points in a game was some guy named Paul Pierce) and a 12-point, 12-rebound effort from Markieff Morris. Cole Aldrich added 19 points, 6 rebounds, and 5 blocks while Tyshawn Taylor had 10 points and 6 assists with no turnovers. The Jayhawks’ next two games should be a bit more competitive as they face a pair of teams—Michigan (12/19) and California (12/22)—that have failed to live up to preseason expectations, but both have a lot of talent.
Well it’s finally here. The month of March is upon us. Here at RTC, we’ll be coming up with a ridiculous number of posts (I’m not sure how we will be able to do it with our other “lives”) so be sure to check back throughout the month as we will have posts for conference recaps, our unique bubble watch, frequent bracket updates by our resident bracketologist Zach, our favorite NCAA tournament memories, and the most comprehensive NCAA tournament preview anywhere. Ever.
11:00 AM: Just to set the table for today (and before I run out to grab some lunch before the games start), we’ll be following all three of the major games today, which will all be on CBS. At noon, Dominic James-less #10 Marquette will travel to #6 Louisville. Then at 2 PM, #8 Missouri will travel to Lawrence to take on the defending national champs, #15 Kansas. (CBS will also be airing the Tennessee-Florida game at 2. We will be very unhappy if we end up with that game instead.) The last time these teams met, Missouri shocked the Jayhawks with a Zaire Taylor 10-footer to hand Kansas its only loss in their last 13 games. A win here for Kansas would essentially seal the Big 12 regular season title for Kansas since they own the tie-breaker over Oklahoma (thanks to Blake Griffin‘s absence). Finally at 4 PM, #9 Michigan State will go to #20 Illinois. Like the preceding game, a win here would essentially clinch the Big 10 regular season title for the Spartans. In addition, we will be following the aforementioned UT-UF game (hopefully online instead of on our TVs) as well as a handful of bubble match-ups (Providence at Rutgers, Cincinnati at Syracuse, Michigan at Wisconsin, and West Virginia at South Florida).
11:50 AM: If any of you are wondering if I might decide to ditch this and go outside to enjoy the beautiful March weather, here’s your answer. On a side note, I just saw myself on ESPN for the second time this season (thanks to the miracle of HD).
11:55 AM: Wow. I just saw the Blake Griffin play from yesterday where we went over the scorer’s table. Pretty impressive after his concussion against Texas.
Noon: CBS just announced they will be have an interview with Jamie Dixon at halftime. So the Pittsburgh fans might want to tune in for that if a top 10 match-up in their own conference wasn’t enough.
12:05 PM: Rick Pitino is wearing his Colonel Sanders suit for the white out. As the CBS guys mentioned, last year he had to switch at halftime. Let’s see if it is more effective this year.
Yeah, like most everyone else, we’re equally in awe of what Carolina has been able to do thus far in the season. We are on record saying that the Heels wouldn’t be able to get through a pretty tough first month of the season without taking an L due to the loss of Marcus Ginyard and Tyler Hansbrough to injuries, and we couldn’t have been more wrong. The Heels have been nothing short of awesome through the first quarter of the regular season, beating eight opponents (two of which were in the preseason top 10) by an average of 30.4 points per game.
Their offensive and defensive stats are through the roof thus far. They average nearly 100 pts per game (97.0), shooting 51% from the field and 41% from three. They are #2 nationally in points per possession (1.207) and percentage of trips where they score at least a point (59.7%). They share the ball amazingly well (#2 nationally in assists – 21.7) and have a preposterous nearly 2:1 assist-to-turnover ratio (1.87). The Heels also rebound with the best of the country (#8 nationally) and play defense with abandon (holding opponents to 37.3% shooting and forcing 19 turnovers per game – 14th nationally). Put simply, this team is playing GREAT basketball.
The Heels are Posterizing Everyone in Their Path
photo credit: Jim Hawkins/AP
So the question is begged – why do we need to finish out the season if we know that Carolina is far-and-away the best team? Well… because it’s still early. December 5th is a light year away from April 6th in college basketball time, and a lot can and will happen in the interim. Other teams will improve, and UNC, while looking indomitable at this point, could eventually suffer from the fatigue of increasing pressure to win every game and/or simply a rough night in March. That’s the beauty of our game. Short of a major injury, we can rest assured that the Lakers and Celtics will more than likely be back in the NBA Finals due to the sport’s seven-game series playoff format. But in a one-game situation in the NCAA Tournament, much like the World Cup and NFL Playoffs, an inspired underdog can accomplish the unthinkable and take down the seemingly unbeatable favorite (witness last year’s Super Bowl for just such a recent example).
For proof of this, let’s take a walk down memory lane for a brief history lesson. Below are a handful of teams who, like this year’s Tarheels, were seemingly invincible for the entire season. That is, until they ran into a plucky team who had enough heart and made just enough plays in the right moments to block the favorite’s manifest destiny.
1984 UNC (28-3, 15-1 ACC) - We can start with a former version of the Heels. Bob Knight’s Indiana team shot 65% from the field (69% in the second half) to take down Michael Jordan and Sam Perkins’ Heels in the second round of the NCAAs. To this day, old-time Heels fans lament an injury to Kenny Smith’s wrist that limited his effectiveness in the postseason. UNC had only a 1-pt loss at Arkansas and a 2-pt loss to Duke in the ACC Tourney prior to the NCAAs. Of the 28 victories, only four were by single-digit margins. This team was nasty.
1985 Georgetown (35-3, 17-2 Big East) – We still can’t fathom how this absolute beast of a defending national champion with Patrick Ewing and Reggie Williams lost to Villanova in the greatest upset in NCAA Tournament history. Still, they did, as Villanova hit a ridiculous 79% from the field against a defensive dynamo that regularly held teams well under 40%.
1987 UNC (32-4, 16-1 ACC) - UNC, led by all-american Kenny Smith and super-frosh JR Reid, lost in the regional finals to Syracuse by 4 pts, in a game where Derrick Coleman and Rony Seikaly destroyed the Heels on the boards to eke out the victory. Their only other losses were at UCLA (5 pts), at Notre Dame (2 pts) and in the finals of the ACC Tourney vs. NC State (1 pt). While not as dominant as the 1984 version, this team was everyone’s choice to win the national title.
1991 UNLV (34-1, 20-0 Big West) - The best team we’ve ever seen that didn’t win the national title. Simply an astonishing combination of talent and experience on the cusp of the early-entry era. Duke, who had lost by 30 in the NCAA Final to this same team one year prior, became Duke on this night – roaring back behind Mr. March, Christian Laettner, to win the game in the final minutes 79-77. UNLV, who placed all five starters on the all-Big West team (four 1st teamers), had beaten its opponents by an average of 27.5 pts per game coming into the national semis, including a whipping of #2 Arkansas at the old Barnhill Arena by a score of 112-105 (the final was much closer than the game actually was).
1997 Kansas (34-2, 18-1 Big 12) – We still contend that this was Roy Williams’ best team (even better than the 2005 UNC national champions). A two-pt double-OT loss at Missouri was the only blemish on a near-perfect season until upstart and eventual national champion Arizona, led by Mike Bibby and Miles Simon, pulled off an 85-82 upset in the regional semifinals of the NCAAs. Raef Lafrentz, Paul Pierce and Jacque Vaughn led a balanced attack that absolutely devastated most of its oppenents, many of whom were ranked (9-1).
1999 Duke (37-2, 19-0 ACC) – With the possible exception of 2006 UConn (who we find overrated), this was the last college team that was absolutely loaded with A-grade NBA talent. The lineup featured two NPOYs (Elton Brand, Shane Battier) in addition to draftees Will Avery, Trajan Langdon and Chris Carrawell. Future all-star Corey Maggette came off the bench. Only four teams all season were able to stay within 10 pts of the Devils, who crushed teams by an average of 24.6 points per game. Had this team won the title game against UConn, it would have been on the short list of greatest teams in the modern era.
2002 Duke (31-4, 16-3 ACC) - This team didn’t have the outrageous statistical profile of its predecessor three years prior, but it was the defending national champs and boasted Jason Williams, Mike Dunleavy Jr. and Carlos Boozer in a balanced attack that seemed destined for back-to-back titles. That is, until this team’s only bugaboo, FT shooting (68.9%) popped up to bite them in the Sweet 16 against Indiana. Two one-pt losses, a three-pt loss and a 14-pt loss to national champion Maryland were the only blemishes on this team’s resume.
So there you have it. Our memories don’t go back further than the 80s, but we’re sure there are probably some other great historical examples of this phenomenon. Leave them in the comments if you wish. Of course, there are just as many (if not more) dominant teams that actually got it done and won the national title – which one will the 2008-09 Tarheels become? To answer that question is why we will continue to watch.
Well it’s the series everybody has been waiting for (ok, not rtmsf). I’ll try to limit my bias in this preview although all of my friends are well aware of the extent of my taunting. Honestly, they’re just happy there isn’t a potential Triple Crown (and eternal bragging rights) at stake here. Anyways, on to what might be the most hyped NBA Finals since 1991 when Michael Jordan formally took the throne away from Magic Johnson (and Larry Bird).
By now, you may have heard that the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers have a little bit of basketball history. Boston comes in sporting an amazing 16-3 record in NBA Finals, but no appearances since 1987 andno titles since 1986 (following that title they selected a forward out of Maryland named Len Bias). Meanwhile, LA comes in with a 9-13 record, but had a 3-peat from 2000-2002 and appeared in the 2004 Finals. However, as Rick Pitino said during his ignominious stint in Boston:
Despite all the hype ESPN has given (wonder who has broadcast rights) to the history of this rivalry–think hammer versus nail (sorry, I can’t help myself)–none of the players that led the franchises to their numerous titles will be walking through that door except for some guy named Kobe Bryant. So instead of focusing on the glorious past of this match-up, I’ll focus on the present and this season.
Point Guard: Rajon Rondo vs. Derek Fischer. It seems like this match-up hasn’t been getting much press, but I think it could be the most pivotal of the series. This is definitely a young gun versus experience veteran type of match-up as Rondo is much more athletic than Fischer, but is more prone to making silly mistakes. Along with experience, Fischer has a big edge on Rondo in terms of shooting. With all the helpside defense that Kobe demands, Fischer will likely get a lot of shots. Advantage: Fischer. This match-up is closer than you might think because of Rondo’s athleticism and his surprising maturity. Unfortunately for Boston, Rondo is too inconsistent to give Boston the advantage at PG, but if he plays well he should be able to equal Fischer.
Shooting Guard: Ray Allen vs. Kobe Bryant. Somehow this turned into a rivalry soon after Shaq left LA and Ray Allen told the media that Kobe would go to to Mitch Kupchak in a few years and demand a trade (a few years later. . .). Later, Kobe said that he and Jesus Shuttlesworth shouldn’t be mentioned in the same sentence. Now, the two All-Stars are saying that there never really was a feud. Why do I bring this up? Well because even though these two play the same position, I can’t see them guarding each other much. LA might put Kobe on Allen particularly if he goes into another one of his funks, but Kobe roams too much and that’s a very bad idea against Allen even if he hasn’t been performing up to his standard. As for Allen guarding Kobe, even Doc Rivers isn’t that dumb. Kobe will see a steady diet of James Posey and occasionally Paul Pierce although Ray Allen will probably play some matador defense against him early in the game as Kobe will probably defer to his teammates early as he notes “I can get off any time I want” (insert Colorado hotel room joke here). Advantage: Kobe. This one isn’t even close. Allen has sort of become a wild card for the Celtics. Even when he’s on this position goes to Kobe and the Lakers, but if Allen can hit from the outside he can keep Boston in the series.
Small Forward: Paul Pierce vs. Vladimir Radmanovic. This might be the biggest mismatch of the series (not including the coaches). If they match up head-to-head, Pierce will dominate Vlad. As Shaq once said, “My name is Shaquille O’Neal and Paul Pierce is the motherfucking truth. Quote me on that and don’t take nothing out. I knew he could play, but I didn’t know he could play like this. Paul Pierce is the truth.” An Inglewood native, Pierce grew up idolizing Magic and the Showtime Lakers, but during his time in green, he has torched the Lakers for a career average of 27.9 PPG (his most against any team). My guess is that Kobe will be guarding Pierce in crunchtime. The rest of the time Vlad will try to stay in front of him. The key for LA is for Vlad to hit his 3s, which usually energizes the Hollywood crowd (if it’s after the 6 minute mark in the 2nd quarter when the crowd shows up) and will make Pierce or whoever is guarding him work. Advantage: Pierce. Big edge although this might turn into a Kobe vs. Pierce match-up, which Kobe would still win.
Power Forward: Kevin Garnett vs. Lamar Odom. This is the most interesting match-up of the series. Although Pierce is Boston’s go-to guy, KG is the heart-and-soul of the team. Usually he is able to dominate at the 4 because he is much more versatile than the opposing player. However, Odom’s unique skill set could theoretically pose a problem for KG especially with the amount of help defense he will have to play with Kobe and Gasol. Odom has the type of game that could limit KG’s ability to roam, but Odom is so inconsistent that it may not matter. Advantage: Garnett. If you look at the match-up on paper based on skills, it would be pretty close other than defense, which Odom doesn’t seem to care about most of the time. However, KG’s consistency and effort wins out over Odom’s tendency to space out (insert bong joke here).
Center: Kendrick Perkins vs. Pau Gasol. The Boston fans will really hate Chris Wallace by the time this series is over. Not only did he kill a few years of Paul Pierce’s prime by trading Joe Johnson for Rodney Rogers and Tony Delk (some blame falls on Paul Gaston, the Celtics owner at the time, who refused to resign either player), but he also gave the Lakers Gasol, who poses a tough match-up for Perkins. One of the 3 straight-to-pro starters this series (you probably know the other two) Perkins has grown a lot this year. Playing alongside KG has certainly helped during games, but perhaps more importantly off the court in practice and it shows in his improved performance. Unfortunately for Kendrick, Gasol is basically the worst match-up he could have. While Perkins is a hard-nosed defender with good strength, he isn’t particularly agile and the Lakers pick-and-roll with Kobe and Gasol could give Celtics fans nightmares over the next 2 weeks. Gasol will probably dominate this match-up unless Perkins can somehow turn this into a physical match-up. To limit the Lakers advantage, Perkins will have to try and dominate the glass as the Lakers don’t really have a great rebounder (Gasol can put up numbers, but isn’t going to get physical) while the Celtics have two (Perkins and Garnett). Advantage: Gasol. The Lakers have a clear advantage here as Gasol is one of the best centers in the league, but it’s closer than most people think. Perkins has had some big games in the playoffs and will need to do so in this series if the Celtics are to win #17.
Bench: James Posey, P.J. Brown, Eddie House, Leon Powe, Glen Davis, Tony Allen, & Sam Cassell vs. Luke Walton, Sasha Vujacic, Jordan Farmer, Ronny Turiaf, & Trevor Ariza. The Celtics will probably use Posey quite a bit on Kobe and Brown on Gasol as neither of the Celtic starters appear to match up particularly well. If Posey can focus on staying in front of Kobe and knock down 3s on kickouts, he could become an important facto in the series. Outside of Posey, Brown and House are the most likely to play key roles in this series. Brown primarily for his interior presence against Gasol and House to spot up for 3s assuming Doc notices Cassell couldn’t cut it in a YMCA league. Powe and Big Baby could also contribute in spots, but I have a feeling that Doc will yank around their minutes too much to give either a chance to contribute for more than a game or two. If Doc is smart, Allen and Cassell won’t take off their warm-ups as neither of them has contributed much this season. Meanwhile, the Lakers have a very strong bench. I’m pretty sure Walton would start on most teams in the league. He’s one of the rare players who can come into the game and make an immediate impact, which I attribute to Luke being one of the few players in the NBA who plays with his head instead of his body. Vujacic and Farmer have also proven to be valuable and will spell Fischer when Rondo starts to wear him out. Both of them can hit 3s, which will make them valuable when Kobe decides to drive. As for Turiaf, he’s not a great player, but he’s the only legit thing the Lakers have as a 4/5 backup. Advantage: Lakers. This may be the difference in the series even if Doc doesn’t screw up the rotations like he usually does.
Coaching: Phil Jackson vs. Doc Rivers. The Zen Master with 9 rings as a coach (tied with Red Auerbach) and 11 rings overall (tied with Bill Russell) versus the least stable rotation in basketball history. Advantage: Jackson. This is probably the biggest mismatch in Finals history. Even Ubuntu can’t save Doc in this one and it might cost the Celtics a shot at the title.
Prediction: Lakers in 6. If the Celtics play to their potential (that means you Ray), I think they can win, but he’s just been so inconsistent and the Lakers have been so dominant (in a better conference) that I just can’t pick them to win as much as it kills me if you haven’t caught my bias in the preview. I think LA and Boston will split the opening 2 games and Boston will come back to win 1 of 3 in LA before Kobe takes over in Game 6 and puts the Celtics away.
It seems like the general consensus among NBA analysts is that this will be Boston vs. Detroit in the conference finals unless Lebron goes off for an entire series. I’m hoping to provide a little more insight than that with a preview of each opening round series and brief predictions of what I think will happen for the rest of the conference playoffs. I won’t expound upon the later rounds in great detail as I’ll probably mess up my first round picks making the subsequent previews meaningless.
First Round #1 Boston vs. #8 Atlanta: This series looks like the biggest mismatch in the 1st round. Boston won all 3 games this year including the last when they sat the starters for the 4th quarter and still managed to win handily despite the fact that Atlanta actually needed the game to help get them into the playoffs. I don’t think there is any question that Boston will win the series easily. The only question I have seen by any analysts will be whether the Hawks will manage to win a game (most analysts don’t think they will). The more interesting thing is the individual match-ups:
PG: Rajon Rondo vs. Mike Bibby: This will be our first good look at Rondo against a quality PG in a playoff series. While Bibby isn’t the same player he was back around 2000 when he was the only Sacramento King who would take (and hit) big shots against the Lakers. It seemed like Bibby was ready to become a star at that point, but he never did. Rondo should have his hands full in this match-up individually, but the Celtics overall advantage is so great that it should actually serve as a great introduction to the playoffs for Rondo. If he struggles, the Celtics should be able to overcome it that night and if necessary they can always rely on Sam Cassell for short periods of time.
SG: Ray Allen vs. Joe Johnson: This match-upprobably has the most star power with 2 All-Stars battling. Johnson, who started his career in Boston before being traded during his rookie season, could give Allen a hard time throughout this series. If Atlanta is going to win a game, Johnson will have to dominate Allen for a night (along with Bibby winning his match-up against Rondo/Cassell).
SF: Paul Pierce vs. Josh Smith: Pierce is certainly the better player in this match-up (he deserves consideration for one of the All-NBA teams), but Smith’s length and athleticism make this an interesting match-up. Smith may also have to help on KG, who will be killing Marvin Williams.
PF: Kevin Garnett vs. Marvin Williams: To be honest, I haven’t seen Williams play much since his days at UNC. He seems to be putting up decent numbers, but this is a really bad match-up for him against Garnett, a MVP candidate. KG’s team playoff troubles and inability to hit the big shot has been well-documented, but that won’t come into play this series.
C: Kendrick Perkins vs. Al Horford: This is probably the only match-up that Atlanta has a decided advantage in with Horford, who will likely finish 2nd to Kevin Durant in ROY voting. Even though he is still the weak link in the starting line-up, Perkins has evolved into a decent NBA center, which might say more about the level of NBA centers in the league than it does about Kendrick’s game. I’m interested to see how Horford’s game has changed since he left Gainesville.
-Prediction: Celtics in 4. None of the games will be close.
#2 Detroit vs. #7 Philadelphia: The veteran Pistons team should win this series pretty easily in 4 or 5 games. The Pistons match-up well against the Sixers 2 best players (Andre Miller versus Chauncey Billups and Andre Igoudala versus Tayshaun Prince). The only real question is how intense the Pistons will be as they have a tendency to take games off even in the playoffs.
-Prediction: Detroit in 5. Philadelphia has a surprisingly tough team, but Detroit is too good to blow this series especially since the Sixers don’t have a Lebron-type player to win the series by himself.
#3 Orlando vs. #6 Toronto: Although the NBA experts have been ripping the Eastern Conference first round match-ups, I have to say that this series and the Cleveland-Washington series could be very interesting. Dwight Howard and Chris Bosh are obviously the marquee stars here, but both teams have good players at the other positions. It will be interesting to see which of the other players (Rashard Lewis, Hedo Turkoglu, Jameer Nelson, T.J. Ford, Jose Calderon, and Rasho Nesterovic) in this series step up and make themselves household names (outside of basketball junkie circles).
-Prediction: Toronto in 6. In such a close series, I’m tempted to go with the home-court. However, in this case I’m going with the relative experience of the Raptors to win a couple of the close games and close out the series in Toronto.
#4 Cleveland vs. #5 Washington: It appears like this is the only first round series in the Eastern Conference that the mainstream media cares about. It seems like the media is focusing on the Wizards (DeShawn Stevenson and Gilbert Arenas) calling out Lebron. However, there are a bunch of other interesting things about this series: (1) Can Washington finally beat Cleveland having lost to them the last 2 years in first round? (2) Can Agent Zero control his ego enough to play a supporting role? (3) Can Lebron win another series with a horrible supporting cast? Our answers: No. No. Yes.
Prediction: Cleveland in 7. I think that Washington is the better team, but Cleveland has Lebron. Ever since the Detroit series it appears that Lebron has decided to start taking over games (not counting the Finals last year that nobody watched). In the end, it will be Lebron (and David Stern’s refs) pushing the Cavs into the 2nd round.
I’ll make longer posts for the later rounds when the match-ups are set. For now, I’ll just stick with predictions.
Second Round #1 Boston vs. #4 Cleveland: Celtics in 5. #2 Detroit vs. #6 Toronto: Detroit in 6.
Conference Finals #1 Boston vs. #2 Detroit: Celtics in 7.