Saturday, March 21, 2009

Review of the First Two Days of the Tourney

Nothing like having a major conference at work put a kabbash on trying to watch the afternoon first round NCAA games. On Thursday evening, my friends and I went over our friend Don's house, who cordially invited us to watch all the games on his Direct TV package in his home theater system, complete with five TVs, one large one in the center. The UCLA cheerleaders and the VCU kickline look great in large high def. :-) So thus it was some Mike's hard lemonade, some various snacks, a comfy chair and some good college basketball. Last night, I had an online baseball draft, so in one browser tab I was listening to Arizona wax Utah (and cursing out the fact that the Mountain West teams were so bad they were getting blown out by mediocre PAC-10 teams), then watching dribs of Cleveland State and Wake Forest, while drafting Albert Pujols and Dustin Pedroia.

On the first day of action, well, there was only one major upset, and I should have seen it coming but didn't. I did say in my preview of this game "I can see the Hilltoppers winning here". Perhaps I should have trusted my vision more. #12 Western Kentucky thoroughly outplayed Illinois for 38 minutes then held onto beat Illinois 76-72 in the Portland Regional. It's the second straight year the Hilltoppers knocked off a #5 seed. Last season, Western Kentucky beat Drake in the first round of the Tampa Regional. The Hilltoppers had all five of their starters score in double figures led by Steffphon Pettigrew who had 17. Only one of those five is a senior. Damn. As for the Illini, well to paraphrase the song, "I never promised you a second round in the Rose Garden."

As for near upsets, first - Maryland over Cal and Michigan over Clemson do not really count as upsets. A #10 over a #7 when it involves two power conference teams, uh no.

Well as for what I would consider an upset, some teasers but no real skin. :-) During the day in the South Region, Butler was down 9-0 early to LSU. It took the Bulldogs a while but with about 14 and half minutes left in the second half, they went up 44-43 on the Tigers. They would again comeback and be ahead by one, 54-53 with eight minutes left, but it was their last lead of the game as they lost 75-71. What hurt Butler the most was 11 steals by LSU, which is very uncharacteristic of a Butler team. Matt Howard led Butler with 22 points.

Around the same time in the West Region #15 Cal State Northridge put the fear of god into #2 Memphis and a lot of people with the Tigers in their brackets. For about 33 minutes, the Matadors played the game of their lives. Their lead in the second half at one time was as much as six, 62-56 with 10 minutes left. But finally the Tigers overcame the mighty bull killers with a game ending 20-6 run.

In the West region, # 12 Northern Iowa felt right at home playing #5 Purdue. Despite being down 14 points early in the second half , the Panthers plodded their way back but couldn't get closer than four points, losing 61-56 to the Boilermakers in what could best be described as "Northern Iowa meets the Big Ten and You Get a MAC game" matchup.

In the evening on Thursday, as I sat in my comfy chair with my Mike's Lemonade in hand and mesmerized by five TVs, I was going to see some interesting games. In the East in Philly, #3 Villanova took on #14 American. The Wildcats were expecting to handily beat the Eagles. As did I. The Eagles had other plans, specifically Garrison Carr and Derrick Mercer. As Carr and Mercer started burying shots from the outside, Villanova tried to follow suit and failed miserably. As Jay Bilas railed about the Wildcats needing to go inside, American went on its merry own way and went up 41-31 at the half.

The Nova fans had to be stunned and the four of us were watching with great pleasure, even if our brackets looked like they might be going up in smoke, at the possibility of a major upset. As my friend Dr J was texting me with "We may have found this year's Curry" in Garrison Carr, the Eagles came out and scored the first four points of the second half. It was a 14 point lead now.

But Villanova must have got an earful from Mr. GQ at the half and starting scoring inside on layups and foul shots. And the Wildcats started pressing. The Eagles were able to break the press but seemed content to set their offense instead of making them. As my friend Mal yelled at the screen "Points are your friend!" , the Wildcats chipped at the lead. Then the crucial decision by Jeff Jones that sealed American's fate. He sat Carr when the senior guard got his fourth foul. The Eagles offense was never the same. Nova took the lead 58-55 on a Dwayne Anderson three with less than six and a half minutes left and the Wildcats never trailed again. Carr came back in and hit a jumper to cut the lead to five 62-57 with 4:30 left, but the damage was done. Nova went on to win 80-67. Carr had 22 points and Mercer added 17 for the Eagles.

Meanwhile in a battle of mid majors, you had the Zags face the Zips as Gonzaga got more than they expected from a MAC tested Akron team. Akron came out and dictated the pace. That meant MAC basketball -slow, plodding, methodical basketball with physicality. Lots of physicality. Not quite the Morgan State take down of Blake Griffin that night, but close enough.

Thus, Akron was up for a good part of the game, leading 46-41 with 15:25 left. Then the Zags took over. The Zags first took the lead with a 9-3 spurt. Then Gonzaga took the lead for good with a 23-3 run which included Josh Heytvelt scoring ten of the twenty three points. The run also featured three forced turnovers on Zag forward Brett McKnight. The Zags over the Zips 77-64 as Gonzaga shot 52 percent as Heytvelt had 22 points and 8 rebounds.

Then was the game near and dear to our CAA following hearts, VCU vs UCLA. Maynor vs. Collison. Sanders vs Oboya.. The Rams kickline vs. the UCLA Cheerleaders. Can I call that last one a draw and take both?!

The game was really two parts. The game with Larry Sanders on the court and the game with Larry Sanders on the bench. The first half was pretty even with the Rams having a one point lead 23-22 with 5:11 left. Then Larry Sanders got his second foul and went to the bench. With Sanders on the bench, Eric Maynor had no other options for scoring. With Sanders on the bench , the Bruins had no one to contest them in the lane. UCLA went on a 13-2 run to end the half to go up 35-25.

In the second half, Sanders avoided foul trouble for the most part. Thus the Rams were able to chip away on the Bruins' lead cutting it to five several times over the first ten minutes. However, VCU could not get any closer and UCLA actually extended the lead to eleven 57-46 with six and a half minutes left. The Rams did them no favors by missing six of eleven free throws during this time, including missing the front end of an one and one three times.

Yet VCU came back. A 16-6 run centered around who else Eric Maynor cut the Bruins lead to one 63-62 with 1:19 left. Still up a point, the Bruins ran the clock down on their last possession, "pulling a Hofstra", but Sanders blocked Collison's shot attempt with 22 seconds left and the Rams had the ball. After a timeout, Maynor got the ball and started driving on Collison. But instead of driving to the basket for a potential "Maynor", his patented floater in the lane, he pulled back and tried a fade away jumper. It clanked off the rim and the Bruins held on for 65-64 win.

Very simply put, if Sanders is not out of the game for that critical 11 point UCLA run, the Rams win. My friends Mal, Tieff and I talked about that (Dr J also texted me when Jones did that with Carr). When you have a critical game with not much leeway and Sanders is such an important player, don't you keep him in (and say to him, whatever you do, don't leave your feet and foul).

With Sanders in the game, he kept UCLA from scoring in the lane with his four blocks (he altered many others) and there were no second shots with his 11 rebounds (he also had 10 points). Without him, UCLA eleven point run. That was the difference in the game. Maynor led the Rams with 21 points while all five UCLA starters were in double figures including the incredibly quick Jrue Holiday with 13 points while Josh Shipp had 16 points.

Yesterday, again during the day there were very few upsets and none that involved a true mid major. Utah State had a four point lead with 3:42 left but Marquette came back for a one point win 58-57. Watching the game, the highlight for me was a missed Aggie three pointer and when Aggie center Gary Wilkinson went for the rebound, the Eagles Lazar Hayward boxed Wilkinson out by hip checking him out of bounds while the ball bounced harmlessly out of bounds. No call. Typical.

North Dakota State was game but fell short in their attempt to beat Kansas. Ben Woodside singlehandely kept the Bison in the game with his 37 points on 13 of 23 from the field but too much Sherron Collins (32 points ) and Cole Aldrich (23 points, 13 rebounds) as the Bison lost to the Jayhawks 84-74.

The closest to an upset might have been of all the things the #16 seed Buccaneers of ETSU giving #1 Pitt fits in the first round of the East Regional. Despite last having a lead of 15-13 with twelve minutes left, the Bucs' law firm of Smith, Pegram and Tiggs kept the Bucs close the entire game. With 4:28 left, after a three by Kevin Tiggs, the lead was two for Pitt, 59-57. But the Panthers outscored the Bucs 13-5 the rest of the game as Pitt won 72-62. DeJuan Blair had 27 points and 13 rebounds and Sam Young had 14 points and 13 rebounds to lead Pitt

The only upset was #11 Dayton knocking off #6 West Virginia in the Midwest regional as Chris Wright had 27 points and 10 rebounds. Once the Flyers took the lead 4-3 with 18:42 left in the first half, they would never trail again. West Virginia would get it within two several times in the second half but never could take the lead.

So the evening came. So far there were really only two upsets, One involving a mid major as Western Kentucky dominated Illinois. The other involving a pseudo mid major, A10 Dayton controlling West Virginia. The usually reliable Butler went down to LSU. The dangerous VCU fell just short of knocking off UCLA. The trendy picks, North Dakota State and Utah State were game but couldn't close the deal. Afew lower seed upstarts, American, Cal St Northridge and ETSU gave their opponents great scares but fell short. So the mid majors were looking at only two teams, Gonzaga and Western Kentucky moving to the Round of 32, unless Siena and Cleveland State, two teams I predicted to make the second round, could save the day (remember here at this site, the A10 is not a mid major).

Save the day they did. But first there were two other evening upsets. In the West Region, Arizona's Nic Wise had a feel day driving into the lane and scorching a slow Utah team for 29 points. The still not worthy of an at large bid #12 seeded Wildcats scored 50 second half points enroute to an 84-71 in over the #5 seeded lethargic Utes. Second, #11 USC came back from a halftime deficit and double up #6 BC in the second half winning handily 72-55 in a Midwest Region game. Taj Gibson, Dwight Lewis, and DeMar DeRozan combined for 62 points and 21 rebounds for the Trojans.

However a#10 over a #7 is not really much of an upset. A #5 over a #12 is. But let's get something straight. Arizona is NOT a cinderella, which i am hearing today. A cinderella is a team that doesn't supposedly belong in the next round or further rounds. Arizona is a team with a long standing power conference tradition of 25 straight years in the tournament. A cinderella is a Western Kentucky, Cleveland State or a Siena. Teams not from power conferences that are not supposed to get into the Round of 32 let alone the Sweet 16. Even Gonzaga, a long standing basketball power, is considered an interloper due to playing in the mid major West Coast Conference.

So now onto the REAL upsets. First Team Lockdown, the Vikings of Cleveland State just overwhelmed perhaps the most undisciplined team that my friend Dr J and I have ever seen, the Demon Deacons of Wake Forest. It started right off the bat with Cedric Jackson and Norris Cole nailed three three pointers and it was 9-0 Vikings. Then it was 18-6, then 29-12. as Wake Forest only hit of five of their first shots while Cleveland State hit on eleven of their first 20. There were also four steals by the Vikings during that time.

You could have turned off the game right there, but if you were watching it like me, did it seem to you that the crowd was real dead the entire second half? It was really eerily quiet and relatively empty. Did all the Demon Deacons fans go home atthe half? Anyway, Jackson, Cole and J'Nathan Bullock, combined for 62 points, 13 assists and 13 rebounds as Cleveland State crushed Wake Forest 84-69. Wake actually shot 52 percent from the field but Cleveland State had 15 more FG attempts as the Demon Deacons had 18 turnovers to the Vikings 6.

Finally, there was Siena - Ohio State. What a way to end the night. A veteran Saints team playing a young Buckeyes team in the Buckeye's back yard, Dayton Ohio, thus a loud O-H-I-O chanting supportive crowd that Siena had to deal with. The Buckeyes got off to a quick 8-3 start but the Saints quickly tied it back at eight all. That was a common theme in the first half as Ohio State would pull ahead then Siena would come back. The lead was five at the half 28-23.

However, the start of the second half was not kind to Siena. Ohio State pulled out to a 41-30 lead. But just as they did for most of the game, the Saints marched back in (cmon you knew the pun was coming). A 9-0 run cut the lead to two, 41-39 with 10:41. But as I watched the second part of the half, I wondered if Siena could come back to tie it. It took nearly eight minutes, but finally Ryan Rossiter tied the game up at 49 with 2:57 left. But then it seemed Siena let up as Ohio State scored seven of the next ten points and again the Buckeyes were up 56-52 with 55 seconds left and Ohio State with the ball at the line.

Then the critical moment that Buckeye fans will be complaining about for the next nine months. B. J. Mullens missed both free throws and Siena had life. And the Saints took advantage. Kenny Hasbrouck, who struggled the entire game, buried a three to cut the lead to one, 56-55. After an Evan Turner miss, Siena had a chance to win the game, but Hasbrouck was fouled on his way to a layup that just missed being a three point play. Hasbrouck, a surprising weak free throw shooter for such a good scorer, only hit one of two free throws and tied the game. Another Ohio State miss and the game went into overtime.

The Saints then took the lead for the first time since it was 3-2 by scoring the first four points to take a 60-56 lead. But Ohio State would score eight of the next ten points and the Saints again were down three with nine seconds left. But as I texted to my friend Dr J, "You can always count on someone named Moore", Ronald Moore buried a three pointer to tie the game at 65 and thus it was onto a second overtime.

The second overtime was just like the first, Siena went ahead 68-65, then Ohio State tied it up on an Evan Turner three. After Moore hit one of two free throws (ok, so us Moores need work on our free throws), Turner again hit a shot to put Ohio State up 72-71. Again, staring at the end of the season in front of a hostile crowd, Siena reached down one more time. And who else do you go to? Ronald Moore. Moore buried another three with two seconds left to put the Saints up 74-72. Ohio State missed a long desperation shot and Siena moved on to the second round for the second year in a row.

Just like the entire season, it was a team effort for Siena. The entire starting five scored in double digits led by Edwin Ubiles 20 points. All five Saints starters played 44 minutes or longer with Alex Franklin playing the full 50 minutes. Amazing. Hopefully they will have slept late today. They will need it facing #1 Midwest seed Louisville tomorrow.

So after two days, we have four legitimate mid major teams left; Western Kentucky,Gonzaga, Cleveland State and Siena. The Hilltoppers and Zags play each other tonight, so one is guaranteed a sweet sixteen. Maybe Cleveland State and Siena will join them too.

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