Friday, March 27, 2009

Downgrading Duke and Tourney notes

The Monk's bracket went down last night. And as long as you're going down . . . FLAMES it is!

My two semi-upset picks for the Final Four got whacked. Memphis lost its defense somewhere between the C-USA tourney and last weekend, and allowed Mizzou to hang 100 on it. And Duke looked like crap. The Monk thought that Villanova would be the biggest hurdle for Duke in the region, and Duke didn't even compete. That game may have been just a 26-23 'Nova lead at the half, but it felt like all one team needed to do was start hitting some shots and it would become a blowout. And, while watching that game, The Monk thought 'Nova would be that team.

For all The Monk's NCAA Tourney stat-geeking, the one that got past me was this: since it won its national title in 2001, Duke has NOT defeated a team seeded higher than #5 in the NCAAs. In the eight Tournaments from 2002-2009, Duke has been a 1, 3, 1, 1, 1, 6, 2, and 2 seed. In the last eight Tournaments, Duke's elimination has come against a lower seeded team SEVEN times (exception: '03, when second-seed KU beat 3-seed Duke). A couple of the losses have been pure choke jobs where Duke should have won ('02 loss to Indiana, '04 loss to UConn), but most just occurred because Duke got beat by a team that could run, jump and defend better than it even though the opponent had a lower seed ('05 Mich. State, '06 LSU, '08 WVa, '09 'Nova).

Colin Cowherd called Duke the Notre Dame of college basketball (gaudy record against familiar competition, getting beat by the big boys) and there is now truth to that. In 2001, Duke had five SOLID NBA players starting for its national title winner: Battier (top defender), Boozer (all-star), Dunleavy (11-14 ppg in NBA), Williams (a star to be until he crashed his motorcycle) and Duhon (starting pg). In 2004, its Final Four team (the only Duke team to even beat a team seeded as high as a #5 since 2001) was led by JJ Redick and Shelden Williams (combined ppg in NBA = < 11). The talent dropoff had begun.

Duke's biggest problem has been recruiting players for today's game -- bigger, stronger, heavier. Duke has always been a finesse team that relies upon speed and skill. It still recruits the quintessential BigWhiteStiff -- the overrated white power forward or center who gets his lunch handed to him by more athletic African-American players (Bryan, Bilas, Palmer, Newton, Beard, Meek, Domzalski, Burgess, Randolph, McRoberts, Singler). There was only one Christian Laettner among that dross. And those stiffs have hurt Duke's recruiting because it gets labeled as a program that cannot develop these players -- all of whom were highly rated (and usually McDonald's All-Americans) coming out of high school. Notably, since 1995, Duke's three Final Four teams have all featured a large, powerful, African-American back-to-the-basket post player (Brand, Boozer, Williams).

Its preferred lineup has consistently been one power forward who can play facing the basket, not just a post player, surrounded by three wing players, and a point guard. Often, the power forward wasn't that powerful (Ferry, McRoberts, Randolph, Newton, Singler). The combination of speed, skill, Coach K's coaching and the fear factor of other ACC teams has allowed Duke to continue its conference success (but notably, not against UNC since Roy Williams' arrival) even as it falters in the NCAA.

Today's top teams have more bulk, more length and more athletic ability than Duke. Villanova is smaller than the other top Big East clubs (Louisville, UConn, Pitt), but still had a size advantage over the Dookies last night. Big guys who can run and jump will beat on skill guys who cannot.

The Duke for the Final Four pick was the one I doubted the most. And with good reason. Should've listened to my doubts over my hopes for a UNC whupping of Duke in the Final Four.

Some quick notes:

(1) Memphis' defense crumbled in the Tournament. Coach Calipari will have to figure out why, but 70, 70 and 102 are not the points allowed levels that team is accustomed to.

(2) Oklahoma's top three-point shooters are better than Syracuse's, the Sooners shoot over 35% as a team from 3-point range, and Blake Griffin is the best player in the country. But in 2003, Oklahoma shot 39% from 3-point range, and both its top guards -- Hollis Price and Quannas White -- shot better than 43% from 3-point range. In the East Regional Final, SU held OU to 5-for-28 from 3-point range and won by 16. Then again, OU didn't have a Blake Griffin.

(3) Syracuse has caused 15 turnovers total in the NCAA. A good turnover rate for a defense is about 15 per game.

(4) The Big East is guaranteed to have a Final Four team for the second time in three years and the fourth time in the past seven years. Other than 1982-87 and 1984-89, the Big East has not had at least four Final Four teams in seven Tournaments. Remember, but for Syracuse's breakthough in 1996, which broke a six-year Final Four drought for the conference, UConn's 1999 title would have been the first time in 10 years that a Big East team had reached the Final Four. And this will also change: since 1990, Big East teams other than UConn and Syracuse are 1-9 in the Final Eight; including UConn and SU raises the record to 5-14 (UConn 2-5, SU, 2-0). Pitt/Villanova will give the Big East a 2-10 record in the Final Eight for non-UConn/SU Final Eight games, which will improve to 3-10 or drop to 2-11 depending on what Louisville does to Mich. State/KU.

(5) If the seeds hold, the Big East will have one-half of the Final Eight. If SU upsets OU, it will have five of the Final Eight (Louisville is going to beat Arizona -- bet your mortgage on it). I don't care if UNC runs through three Big East teams to win the title, the Big East is still the best conference in the country and there's no arguing otherwise.

(6) UNC's biggest question: can Ty Lawson handle two games in 1.5 days on his bad toe? UNC has the late game tonight and an afternoon game on Sunday (if it wins).

(7) The Monk frequently prefers the Final Eight to the Final Four. The Final Four has been accorded such a mythic quality that reaching it seems to be more important to some teams than winning the title. We heard a week's worth of hype when Marquette made the Final Four in 2003, only to see the Warriors flop miserably and lose in the first ten minutes. Last year, it was all about UNC/UCLA or UNC/Memphis . . . until KU ran out to a 40-12 lead against the Heels. And no matter how pretty Cinderella looked at the ball, George Mason got wiped out early by Florida in '06. In '05 and '06, the Final Four matches were dreadful, but in '05 three Regional Finals were classics and the fourth merely a great game. And the Final Eight consumes a whole weekend, the Final Four is just one night.

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