Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Sweet 16 Preview

I'm getting this done a day early because, as I said below, I'm having a tooth extraction tomorrow so once I get the pain meds and antibiotics in me, I'll be loopier than the OJ Simpson criminal trial jury.

Here are tomorrow's games (start-time order): Louval/UWash; Illinois/Wisco-Milwaukee; TexTek/WVU and Zona/Ok State.

Here are Friday's games: Mich. State/Duke; NCSU/Wisco; Utah/Kentucky; Villanova/Carolina.

Hmm. Tomorrow's slate seems more fun. My pre-Tourney Final Four are all still alive and my tourney pool is doing ok. On with the insightful analysis (and with predicted winner team colors for each entry)!

Louisville/Washington: the problem for Washington is that Louisville is coached by Rick Pitino, a man who knows press defense, how to break press defense, how to run a very good half-court offense (just ask Ga. Tech) and who is one of the better college coaches in the game. The problem for Louisville is they have no real point guard and they've really lived and died offensively with Francisco Garcia's shooting touch. Then again, the Cards' defense has been so good that if Garcia's been off, they can still win. I had this game pre-Tourney and picked Louisville. I'll stick with that.

Illinois/Wisco-Milwaukee: Nice matchup for Illinois -- a pressing team against the Illini's guard-heavy squad and no interior problem for the Illins to worry about. I'd laugh my arse off if UWM won and that'd be painful with two newly empty dental sockets. I'm not worried. And remember, Illinois is playing in Chicago so if the Illini do NOT win, it's a BIG upset.

Texas Tech/West Virginia: this is an intriguing game and one that will be worth paying attention to because it may end up as the best game of the night. WVU is all heart-and-scrap, Texas Tech is more of the same. I think WVU has more inside/outside flexibility and it proved it could run with Wake. John Beilein (say "beeline") is the new great-coach-nobody-knew-about and the Mountaineers need to be whipped to be defeated; this game will be close = edge to WVU. The winner will lose Saturday.

Arizona/Oklahoma State: Arizona is the Syracuse of the West. You never know when they'll go in the tank early, underperform, or make a big run. Three years ago I thought they'd stomp Oklahoma, but OU stomped them. Two years ago Zona got bullied by Kansas and burned by KU's Kirk Hinrich. This year, Zona is fully capable of being bullied about, but the question is whether OSU can do the bullying? OSU has played only middling-quality games in rounds one and two, especially because Joey Graham has scored fewer points in those two games than he usually scores in one. I also do not put too much stock into how impressive a team was in weekend #1 if it only played a pair of stiffs, as Zona did. Case in point: 2003 Tourney, Pitt whomps its first two opponents, Marquette struggles into the regional semis, they meet, Marquette wins; similarly in the 1997 Tourney, KU won its first two comfortably, Zona won close games and then beat KU in the regional semis. That 4-5 day layoff can help teams who struggled in rounds one and two re-focus.

I had this game and thought OSU would win pre-Tourney. I think OSU should win on paper, but I'm not going to bet my mortgage on it in Vegas.

For Friday: I think the early games will be close and the late games are potential blowouts.

Duke/Michigan State is the game of the night because these two played early in the season at Duke (Duke 81-74), Michigan State has the athletic capacity to run with the Dookies, and Duke has been VERY underwhelming in its first two games, especially that tight matchup against an underachieving Mississippi State. But Michigan State has the same negative every other Big Ten team left in the Tourney has: it has not faced a major conference opponent yet. Vermont tripped up Syracuse, but did not have the athletes to run with MSU (note that SU beat the substantially similar MSU teams in both 2003 and 2004); Wisconsin has topped Northern Iowa and Bucknell; Illinois beat the highest seed of any Big Ten opponent: #9 Nevada. The competition level between mid-majors and underdogs coming off upsets and top-caliber ACC teams is huge. Duke should win. I can't stand Duke.

Wisconsin/NC State: This is the only Sweet 16 game where I didn't get one of the contestants correct. This game will be like watching paint dry for the first 35 minutes and then watchable only because it will be close at the end -- a 57-55 type score. Wisconsin has beaten teams worthy of a preseason "invitational" tournament like the Hoosier Classic (where Indiana invites two stiffs and a semi-stiff) or the old Carrier Classic (Syracuse's old joke tourney). NC State outplayed UConn, a real team. And NC State will have the best player on the floor -- a fact that tends to tip close games in the Tourney, as I noted here. It says here that NCSU will win; it certainly should.

Utah/Kentucky: The biggest freak situation in the 1990s = from 1996-98, Kentucky beat Utah in the NCAA Tourney each year. This year, Kentucky is young, Utah is tall. I've said before that the SEC sucked and the way the NCAA Tourney has played out has not created doubt as to the accuracy of that evaluation. One interesting factor is the coaching: Utah doesn't have the genius of Rick Majerus on the bench, Kentucky has four days of prep time for Tubby Smith. Utah has the best player left in the bracket and when all is said and done, that should be the tiebreaker. If I'm right, my immediate post-bracket reaction of a Duke-Utah Final Eight matchup will look genius.

One quick note on Tubby Smith: I don't think there is a universe in which he is not underrated. In his first season, after Kentucky had lost Ron Mercer and Anthony Epps from its 1997 NCAA Finalist, he led the team to a national title. Since 1998, Kentucky has been in the Sweet 16 five times in seven years and has never had the talent level that the 1992-96 Wildcats boasted. Why? Primarily the Garnett Factor: kids who are Antoine Walker/Ron Mercer/Jamal Mashburn caliber players don't go to college for two-year long apprenticeships anymore, instead they go straight to the pros or stay for one year. So Smith seeks the second-tier of players who WILL matriculate and participate, and does wonders with them, such as those bands of mid-level stiffs who nabbed a #1 seed in the 2003 and 2004 Tournaments. Tubby gets ripped by a lot of the rabid UK fans, he shouldn't.

Villanova/North Carolina: UNC has been the most impressive of the #1 seeds so far. It whacked Oakland and thumped Iowa State. It has not had 30-40 minute challenges by undermanned opponents (I'm talking to you, Illinois, Duke) and it hasn't let its opponents really feel they even had a chance to win (Washington, that means you). Villanova creamed New Mexico for 20 minutes then almost choked; it followed that win with a victory over perennial underperformer Florida. But UNC has talent and character and should take advantage of its size (Sean May, the Williamses) and speed (McCants, Felton, Noel, Manuel) against a Villanova team that will be without its best player. UNC should win by double digits and take care of the unfortunate winner of NCSU/Wisconsin.

There you have it. Check in again Saturday as I brag or issue mea culpas or both.

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