We’ve been anxiously awaiting the next thirty days for the last eleven months. You have too. In fact, if this isn’t your favorite time of year by a healthy margin then you should probably click away from this site for a while. Because we plan on waterboarding you with March Madness coverage. Seriously, you’re going to feel like Dick Cheney himself is holding a Spalding-logoed towel over your face. Your intake will be so voluminous that you’ll be drooling Gus Johnson and bracket residue in your sleep. Or Seth Davis, if that’s more your style. The point is that we’re all locked in and ready to go. Are you? To help us all get into the mood, we like to click around a fancy little website called YouTube for a daily dose of notable events, happenings, finishes, ups and downs relating to the next month. We’re going to try to make this video compilation a little smarter, a little edgier, a little historical-er. Or whatever. Sure, you’ll see some old favorites that never lose their luster, but you’ll also see some that maybe you’ve forgotten or never knew to begin with. That’s the hope, at least. We’ll be matching the videos by the appropriate week, so all of this week we re-visited some of the timeless moments from the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament. Enjoy.
NCAA First and Second Rounds
Context: The opening tip of the First Round is less than twelve hours away, and nothing says March Madness excitement more than the epic buzzer beaters that we’ve come to associate with it throughout its modern history. We all know the usual suspects — Bryce Drew and Tyus Edney immediately come to mind — but here are a few of our favorites that may have slipped your mind in the intervening years. Hopefully we’ll have a couple more of these by the end of the weekend!
2000 First Round – Florida vs. Butler – Mike Miller
2003 First Round – Maryland vs. UNC-Wilmington – Drew Nicholas
2006 First Round – Northwestern State vs. Iowa – Jermaine Wallace
2008 First Round: Western Kentucky vs. Drake – Ty Rogers
Our third installment of Set Your Tivos brings us what I consider the first legitimate tournament of the season–the Maui Invitational. It’s your yearly chance to see some of the biggest names in college basketball rocking Hawaiian t-shirts or polos. You could argue that I’m just being nostalgic over the most shocking upset in NCAA history (that barely anybody saw live) except that the famous game actually happened a little less than 3 months before I was born. Anyways, onto our weekly countdown. . .
#10: Boston College vs. #10 Purdue, Wednesday at 7 PM on ESPN2 and ESPN360.com: I’m curious to see how one of the Big 10 co-favorites (along with Michigan State and now Michigan) will do against a middle to bottom of the pack Big East ACC team. This game is about getting some respect for the Big 10. If the Boilermakers don’t win this game easily, it could be a sign that we’re in for another season of really bad Big 10 basketball.
#9: Duquesne at #5 Duke; Friday at 3 PM on ESPN and ESPN360.com: It will still be November when they play this game so the Blue Devils should win this game even though they have struggled at times this year. One of the revelations from last week’s Coaches vs. Cancer was that Brian Zoubek may still be a stiff, but he is a tall one. Look for Coach K to try to get Zoubek involved as he may be a key for Duke if they want to advance deep into the NCAA tournament this year. (Hint: Don’t put Duke too far in your March Madness bracket).
#8: Maryland vs. #7 Michigan State, Thursday at 7 PM on ESPN2 and ESPN360.com: This game seems more interesting on paper (program reputation) than it will be on the court (this year’s teams), but I’ll be tuned in to see what Tom Izzo actually has this season. The Spartans come in with a preseason #7 ranking, but got “UNLV-Duke 1990″ crushed by Memphis in their Sweet 16 match-up and have lost their floor general Drew Neitzel. This year’s Spartan team has the potential to make it to Detroit (for the Final 4–I can’t imagine why you would want to go there for any other reason), but they’ll have to step it up several levels from where they were last week (beating Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne by 11 in a game that was as close as the final margin indicates).
#7: UAB vs. #14 Oklahoma, Wednesday 9 PM on ESPN2 and ESPN360.com: This game will be a match-up of potential All-Americans–Robert Vaden and Blake Griffin–although they won’t match-up against each other outside of the occasional switch off a screen. The Sooners looked like they were still basking in the glow of beating America’s sweetheart Davidson when they almost lost to Gardner-Webb although BIlly Gillispie may disagree. The thought here is that if Oklahoma could hold of Stephen Curry then they can do the same against Vaden.
#6: Saint Joseph’s vs. #8 Texas, Monday at 3 PM on ESPN2 and ESPN360.com: Rick Barnes managed to get to the Elite 8 one year after losing national POY and the greatest freshman ever (I disagree with rtmsf) Kevin Durant. Now the question is how far he can get the Longhorns after losing All-American point guard D. J. Augustin. The early game of ESPN’s tripleheader will give us some insight into that. The Longhorns should win this one easily since Phil Martelli’s crew is in rebuilding mode (see their loss to Holy Cross), but the Hawks could show us some weaknesses that the Longhorns may have.
#5: Syracuse at #19 Florida, Monday at 7:30 PM on ESPN2 and ESPN360.com: Jim Boeheim will need big games out of Jonny Flynn and Eric Devendorf to pull off the upset tonight. Despite struggling to put away Richmond last week, the Orangemen have the potential to pull off the upset against Billy Donovan’s young squad especially after the loss of last year’s starting PG Jai Lucas. I’m assuming that the Gators will return to the NCAA tournament, but if they want to have a successful season (Sweet 16 trip), they will have to be able to beat teams of Syracuse’s caliber.
#4: Indiana vs. #9 Notre Dame, Monday at 5:30 PM on ESPN2 and ESPN360.com: Our first look at Tom Crean’s new squad (Bruce Weber has already told us what he thinks of them). Unfortunately this game isn’t at Alumni Hall. It will be interesting to see how the Hooiser faithful react to Crean and his JV squad. I am imaging the scene out of Hooisers at town hall where they vote Norman Dale out before Jimmy Chitwood shows up and saves the day. Unfortunately, I don’t think Eric Gordon can come back to Bloomington with any eligibility to recreate this. Bottom line: The Golden Domers will have something to look forward to after pelting their football players with snowballs after another embarrassing loss.
#3: #6 Pittsburgh vs. Texas Tech, Friday at 7:30 PM on HDNet: I’m guessing that Pat Knight’s boys won’t be putting up 167 tonight unless this game goes to 6 OTs. So far the Panthers have players compared to Shaq (DeJuan Blair) and Lebron (Sam Young) and that doesn’t even factor in Levance Fields, who may be the most important player on the roster. There is no question that Pittsburgh is the better team in this match-up, but I’ll be following this to see just how good the Panthers are and the Red Raiders have had a tendency to come up with big upsets early in the year.
#2: #3 Louisville vs. Western Kentucky, Sunday at 3 PM on Fox College Sports Atlantic: Our first good look at RTC pre-season bracketology national champion against some real competition. The Hilltoppers lost a lot in the backcourt (Courtney Lee, Ty Rogers, and Tyrone Brazelton), but they return a lot of experience in the frontcourt. If the Hilltoppers want to give Rick Pitino’s Cardinals a game they will need JUCO transfer Sergio Kerusch, Motlow State Community College transfer Anthony Sally, and Dejan Cvoro, a point guard from Serbia, to step up. I’m guessing that Western Kentucky will keep it close for the first 10 minutes before Louisville pulls away, but it should still be interesting to see just how good freshman Samardo Samuels is. If he is as good as advertised, Pitino may have a legitimate title contender.
#1:Oklahoma State vs. #11 Gonzaga, Thursday at 9 PM on ESPN2 and ESPN360.com: Mark Few comes into this year with his 2nd highest ranked team ever (7th in the 2005-2006 preseason poll) and one of the most talented teams he has ever had. While the Zags lack the superstar they had a few years ago in Adam Morrison, they are not lacking in talent (Jeremy Pargo, Matt Bouldin, Austin Daye, and Josh Heytvelt). However, as the Zags have steadily moved up in the national conscience andthe regular season polls, they seem to have underperformed in the NCAA tournament. After losing to Cinderella (Davidson) in the first round last year, the Zags are hoping to bounce back and their first big test of the season will be against Travis Ford’s Cowboys. Ford has been quick to keep expectations realistic for his rookie season, but some experts have picked the Cowboys to be a surprise in the Big 12 despite their lack of interior play.
WYN2K. The Sun Belt is a league that has seen better days in the eyes of the basketball world. In the 80s and early 90s, the conference was a top ten league that regularly sent multiple teams to the NCAA Tournament (10 times from 1980-95), peaking at four bids in 1986. Since 1995, however, the league has been exclusively a one-bid conference, as its corresponding seed average has dropped from a #10.9 (1985 to present), to a #12.6 (1995 to present), to a #13.8 seed in the last five years. In other words, the Sun Belt is trending downward (and league officials know it). What was once a proud mid-major league is now clearly a low-major (albeit near the top of that heap), despite its relatively robust 167-208 (.445) record against OOC opponents in the last three years. Some of this may be attributable to a loss of league identity, as the conference expanded away from its mid-South roots and has swelled to thirteen schools that span three time zones in locations that often have very little in common with each other (i.e., Boca Raton, FL, Bowling Green, KY, and Denver, CO).
Predicted Champion.Western Kentucky (#13 seed NCAA). Darrin Horn’s Hilltoppers have been a bit of a hard luck team over the past few seasons, averaging 20.5 wins over his four year tenure and winning one regular season championship, but having no NCAA appearances to show for it. Guards Courtney Lee, Tyrone Brazelton and TyRogers comprise a returning perimeter corps that is among the most experienced and talented in the league, and three other significant contributors return from a 22-11 (12-6) team. If WKU is to slip up, it will probably be because of its sometimes porous defense that has a tendency to give up easy baskets (allowing an eFG% of 52.6% – #272 nationally) and foul a lot (43.2 FTAs given up per game – #284 nationally). We believe this is the year that the Toppers get it done. Check the nasty follow dunk from C-Lee below.
Others Considered. Should WKU falter, the next best teams we see are Louisiana-Monroe and Florida Atlantic. Monroe returns all five starters from an 11-7 team that lost in overtime in the conference finals against North Texas last year. They were nearly unbeatable at home (14-0) and seemed to win all the close games (5-0 in games decided by <6 pts in conference) last year. Because of this, they were considered one of the “luckiest” teams in America last year (#10 via Pomeroy), earning 2.7 wins more than expected by their overall profile. Notwithstanding their luck, we’re just not comfortable picking a team that has nobody taller than 6’8 on their roster. Florida Atlantic is another team that returns substantial experience including the league’s best big man Carlos Monroe, a burly 6’8, 245 lb. beast who shot nearly 60% from the field and pulled down over a quarter (25.8%, #18 nationally) of his team’s defensive boards last year. The Owls also finished strong, winning six of their last seven games and pestering WKU in a tough quarterfinal matchup in the conference tourney before bowing out. New Orleans is also intriguing simply because the Privateers have a new coach in former Cal assistant and Bob Knight disciple Joe Pasternack, but they also have the league’s best player in Bo McCalebb, a Wooden Award candidate who averaged mind-numbing numbers last year (25 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 3.3 apg, 2.0 spg). Did we mention that he was the team’s leading rebounder as a 6’0 guard? There are three other starters returning from a 9-9 team that was #4 nationally in 3fg% (41.4%), #5 nationally in stl% (7.1%) and #11 nationally in to% (17.0%). The Privateers shoot well, take care of the ball, and have a fantastic player – if any team was going to make a huge improvement with a new coach, it would be this team. Quick note: last year’s regular season and tourney champs simply lost too much to be considered as a contender this year – South Alabama lost three starters and its head coach, John Pelphrey, while North Texas lost its top two scorers.
Games to Watch. The top of this league should be exciting to watch this year, as there are several excellent players (Courtney Lee, Bo McCalebb, Carlos Monroe) who could singlehandedly influence the conference race. With the unbalanced schedule in this league, New Orleans appears to be the most likely beneficiary (only three games against the other three, two at home).
RPI Booster Games. Given its location (spanning 2000+ miles from Denver to Miami), the Sun Belt takes on a full complement of SEC and Big 12 teams every year. Last year the league was 2-30 (.063) against BCS teams (WKU 70, Georgia 67; Ark-Little Rock 67, Minnesota 66), and there are a similar amount of games scheduled this year. Here are some highlights.
Louisiana-Monroe @ Kansas (11.09.07)
Florida Atlantic @ Boston College (11.12.07)
South Alabama @ Mississippi (11.13.07)
New Orleans @ NC State (11.18.07)
WKU @ Gonzaga (11.22.07)
Nebraska @ WKU (12.05.07)
Middle Tennessee St. @ Memphis (12.05.07)
Mississippi St. @ South Alabama (12.15.07)
WKU @ Southern Illinois (12.22.07)
Louisiana-Monroe @ Arkansas (12.29.07)
Odds of Multiple NCAA Bids. We’re a long way removed from the Sun Belt’s glory years, so none this year.
Neat-o Stat. Joe Scott is returning to Colorado to take over as head coach at Denver, just a few clicks down the road from where he revitalized the Air Force program in the early 2000s. What should we make of this guy? Using the Princeton offense that he learned under Pete Carril in the 80s as a player and 90s as an assistant, he successfully built the Air Force Academy into a Mountain West champion and NCAA Tournament team in 2004. So how do we explain how he went back to Princeton in 2005 and orchestrated two (out of three) terrible seasons and an overall record of 18-24 in the Ivy League (2-12 in 2007) during his time there? He has yeoman’s work ahead of him, as Denver ranked in the bottom five teams nationally in defensive efficiency (#330) and four other defensive statistics, as well as in the bottom dozen two-point fg% (42.8%) teams in America. Work on layup drills, perhaps?
64/65-Team Era. The Sun Belt is 11-32 (.256) in the NCAA Tourney during this era, but due to the severe drop in league cachet over the last ten to fifteen years, those numbers are somewhat skewed for present consideration, especially when you consider that the league’s last NCAA victory was in 1995 (#8 WKU defeated #9 Michigan 82-76). Despite ten trips to the second round (most trips: WKU with 4), only one team has broken through to the Sweet 16, Ralph Willard’s #7 Western Kentucky squad in 1993. In fact, that Hilltopper team was an overtime loss away (Florida St. 81, WKU 78) from meeting Rick Pitino’s Kentucky team in the elite eight.
Final Thought. We’d love to be able to say that the Sun Belt contains solid mid-major material at the top, but recent history belies that position as only once in the last four years has a Sun Belt team so much as tested its first round NCAA opponent (2005: Louisville 68, Louisiana-Lafayette 62). The other three years the Sun Belt team got blitzed by an average of 16.7 pts, and we’re not sure we see a way for this league to turn things around. It’s uncertain if there’s been any talk to this effect, but perhaps going the WAC/Mountain West route and drafting a few more teams, only to split into two leagues, is the way to re-focus itself.