Sunday, March 06, 2005

NCAA Hoops Pre-mortem

The Monk's full service blogging continues with today's installment: college hoops.

This week will have all the major conference tournaments, next Thursday (3-17-05) will be the day after the PaMonk's birthday, but from the NCAA's perspective, it is day one of the 2005 NCAA Championship Tournament.

Today saw three upsets (Illinois, Kentucky and Kansas) and yet another classic in the sport's best rivalry: Duke-North Carolina. I've followed the sport since I was a kid, through my days as sports editor at the Cavalier Daily and beyond and I never get tired of the NCAA Tournament, especially the Elite Eight weekend. Herewith, a couple of quick hits:

First, my favorite team is going out dismayingly quickly. Syracuse ended an underwhelming Big East campaign by getting whacked at Connecticut. The preseason Big East favorite ended up 11-5 in the conference, the same record the Orange had last year despite losing its starting point guard to personal difficulties and two teams that were threats to win the NCAA title, UConn and Pitt. This year, the regular-season champ is no real threat to win the national title, Pitt and UConn are not as good as they were last season, SU was supposed to be on the way up and yet my team is likely no better than the #5 seed it received last year: it has only one shooter, one inside scorer and a complete lack of internal muscle that better teams (Pitt, UConn, Oklahoma St., BC) have exploited. Thus, I'm a bit disappointed.

As for other top teams: I think North Carolina is as likely to win the national title as anyone else. Today, the Tar Heels came back against Duke from 73-64 down to win 75-73 despite not having their top scorer available. The difference betweeen UNC this year and last year: Sean May can hit layups. Last year he was amazingly inaccurate for a guy who rarely shot from beyond five feet. This year, he can finish. Even better, he dominates on the boards, and has dominated Duke's Shelden Williams twice. Today, May had 26 points and 24 rebounds. In the first Duke-UNC game, May had 21 and 18. And with good inside/outside balance, leapers and bangers in the paint (Jawad Williams, Marvin Williams, May) and one of the best point guards in the country, UNC is as good as anyone.

That includes Illinois. The Illini coughed up their first loss this year today as Ohio State rallied. The Illini blew out Wake Forest, but that's not that compelling to me because (1) Wake has a distinct lack of defensive ability that will end up being the end of the Deacons' run and (2) that win was early in the year, before UNC, Wake and Duke toughened up on ACC competition and Illinois smacked around the pathetically weak Big Ten.

The pre-bracket bet here is UNC, Illinois, and Kansas will be in the Final Four. KU has enough offense if Keith Langford is healthy, UNC and Illinois are the nation's two best teams. The fourth guess is bracket-specific. Big East team with deepest run? UConn again.

More to come.

[Corrections since first posted: The NCAA Tournament (other than the play-in game) starts on March 17, not 16; Sean May had 24 rebounds yesterday, not 23. I used the CBS player of the game graphic that had May at 22 and added one for his rebound of Daniel Ewing's missed desperation shot at the end; the official scoresheet had 24.]

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