Monday, March 19, 2007

Paging Cinderella: the NCAA Tourney's lost underdogs

So the first weekend of the NCAA Tourney is over with no shock story lines. There's no conjecture whether George Mason can beat UConn and if Bradley could survive Memphis. Only in 1995 has the Tournament not had at least one team with a lower seeding than UNLV's #7 in the Midwest survive the first weekend.

What do we know this year? First, the Committee crossed up its 4 and 5 seeds. Each bracket had a 4-5 matchup and in three of those, the #5 won -- once convincingly (USC/Texas), twice close (Butler and Tennessee over Maryland and Virginia).

Second, the ACC ultimately was a one-team league this year. North Carolina is very good, no one else is above decent.

Third, the Big East does not completely suck. Pitt and Georgetown are in the Sweet 16, and Louisville would have been if it hadn't been underseeded and faced a very solid Texas A&M. Notre Dame's whiff against Winthrop is bad. The no-shows by Villanova and Marquette once again raise the question of "Where's Syracuse?" I checked the Big East standings, SU finished ahead of both.

Fourth, the Big Tenplusone did not deserve six bids. Like that's news. Illinois honked out of the gym against a suspect Va. Tech (which in turn got throttled by So. Illinois); Michigan State could not stick with Carolina, Wisconsin had to rally mightily to drop a #15 seed before it took a loss to UNLV. Worse yet, Ohio State should be out -- a free throw here, a slight hitch in a jumper there and the Buckeyes are done against Xavier. Only Purdue and Indiana acquitted themselves well -- and the latter did so partially because UCLA is fairly woeful on offense for a top 4 seed.

Fifth, the SEC does not suck (other than Arkansas, which took a methodical flaying from USC). Kentucky played well, Vandy and Tennessee are in the Sweet 16, Florida is meeting expectations.

Some other observations: (1) Tim Floyd is a good college coach. He may not have Pete Carroll/Lou Holtz syndrome (horrible pro coach, great college coach), but his USC team plays well, plays smart and has looked sharper than most of the teams in Tourney, period. (2) Georgetown is susceptible to zone -- SU killed the Hoyas with it, BC nearly stole the game with it. That BC team had no business beating G'Town. The one problem with the Princeton offense is that it is predicated on combatting a man-to-man defense. It is much less effective against the zone. (3) Now that Hansbrough is playing without the mask, UNC is a threat to win the Tourney. But 3 points from Brandan Wright will not suffice in the forthcoming rounds. (4) I still don't trust UCLA -- they don't score enough. I picked the Bruins for the Final Four because they're playing in California but that may not be enough to topple Kansas. On the other hand, I have a slight regret not picking A&M because now that it survived getting dumped into Louisville's backyard it gets some home cookin' of its own with the Regionals in San Antonio. And OSU is lucky to be playing.

Finally, a short rant. The Monk received his The Sporting News copy on Friday where Mike DeCourcy and Kyle Veltrop discussed the Tournament. Veltrop picked Texas for the Final Four even though the team's defensive efficiency is #62 in the country and the 2005 Michigan State team's #25 ranking is the lowest of the Final Four participants since 2004. Veltrop made a bad call.

DeCourcy, usually one of the best college hoops writers in the business, completely whiffed. The vogue comparison before the Tourney was to measure Kevin Durant, the Texas superfrosh and National Player of the Year, against Carmelo Anthony's performance for Syracuse. And it compares favorably: Durant scored more, rebounded more, shot a better percentage (although 'Melo was a supra-50% shooter inside of the 3-point line). DeCourcy claimed that Durant could get his team to the Final Four because it had more talent than the 2003 Syracuse squad.

That comment indicates DeCourcy needs to readjust his meds.

First, one primary reason that Durant outscored and outrebounded 'Melo is Durant's LACK of help. Texas has three players: Durant, AJ Abrams and DJ Augustin. Everyone else is filling space. SU had 'Melo, Warrick (15 points, 8+ rebounds), McNamara (13+ points) and Duany (11 points) notching 10+ ppg as starters. On its bench, Texas has nothin'. SU had Billy Edelin and Josh Pace. Edelin was one of the top point guard recruits in the country in 2001, ran into trouble, had personal issues (the guess is severe depression based on what I'd read about him) and missed the first 12 games of the 2002-03 season. By the time the Tournament began, Edelin was a threat to hit for 12+ off the bench (like his 12 against KU in the title game), a top ballhandler and a good defender. He lit Notre Dame for 26 and keyed the SU comeback against Oklahoma State in the second round with 20. Pace helped cinch the game against Auburn in the regional semis. Even backup center Jeremy McNeil contributed -- his defensive presence helped SU press its way back from down 17 to a 12-point win over Ok. State.

Second, Texas has no defense. The Longhorns are low-rated as a defensive team, SU had Warrick and Anthony handling the back line of the zone, with either the 6-4 Edelin or 6-5 Duany pairing with G-Mac up front. SU defended well (39% overall FG for opponents, 30.4% from 3-point range, 7 blocks per game) and that defense (56 points for Ok. State, 47 for #1 seed Oklahoma) helped it reach the Final Four.

Third, SU had balance. Texas has no inside presence other than Durant, and he is a winger who plays outside first, inside second. 'Melo had Warrick and Pace operating inside (Warrick on the block, Pace on the baseline) and G-Mac to balance the team outside. 'Melo also could play inside first, outside second because he was decidedly larger (6-9, 230) than the skinnier Durant.

The comparison is ultimately unfair to Durant, to previous 'Melo wannabes (Malik Hairston of Oregon), next year's 'Melo-in-waiting Michael Beasley of K-State, and any other potential impact frosh (OJ Mayo, Kevin Love, Kyle Singer, Donte Greene). Anthony had superb talent, charisma, a solid set of teammates and tremendous desire. Sometimes, lightning can get caught in the bottle.

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