Thursday, March 31, 2011

Santa Clara Downs Iona and Wins the 2011 CIT Championship

It's very difficult for a team to travel all the way from the West Coast to New York, then play well in a hostile environment.  That was the task that Santa Clara had last night in New Rochelle as Iona hosted the championship game of the College Insider Tournament (CIT).  The Gaels were home to a near capacity crowd and were heavy favorites coming into the game.  Someone though forgot to tell the long distance traveling Broncos that.

For my son Matthew, it was his second straight Iona game in a row.  He had gone to the quarterfinal game at the Hynes Center where Iona downed Buffalo.  After a dinner of McDonald's french fries, he was ready to watch some basketball, along with my friends Tony, Mal, Tony Bozzella, and Assistant Iona Women's Coach Lauren Defalco.

Before the game started, Iona brought out its bagpipe band, which was really neat.  I just wished they had brought out the team to the music of the bagpipe band.  That would have been electric.  Still, Iona was pulling out all the stops for this event.  They had a local Army color guard, the bagpipe band, a very nice, but very long a cappella rendition of the national anthem and of course the Madison Square Garden like team introduction.

Say what you want about the CIT, but both teams really wanted to win that trophy.  For Iona, it would be a bit of redemption after losing in the MAAC Championship game to St Peter's, a game they were heavily favored in after sweeping the Peacocks in the regular season.  For Santa Clara, a relatively young team with their two best players being junior Marc Trasolini and sophomore Kevin Foster, this was a chance to build on a successful 20 win plus season.

The game started out with Iona coming out in its usual press and that threw Santa Clara off balance early.  The Broncos missed five of their first six shots and turned the ball over three times in the first five and half minutes. Santa Clara's best player, Foster, airballed his first two three point attempts.  Meanwhile Iona's best player, Glover, was a man on a mission.  He scored seven of the Gaels first sixteen points.  Iona was up early 16-8 with 12 minutes left in the first half.  However, there was an underlying story developing that favored Santa Clara and they just needed to capitalize on it.

The Broncos called a timeout after eight minutes of action, followed by an official TV timeout.  And the Broncos responded strongly from the timeouts with a huge run.  It was fueled by the underlying story, Santa Clara's decided advantage on the boards, especially the offensive glass.  After failing to take advantage of their rebounding in the first eight minutes, the Broncos were now getting points off second opportunities.  During Santa Clara's 22-3 run over seven minutes, the Broncos scored seven of their points off offensive rebounds while limiting the Gaels to 1 of 10 shooting and one offensive rebound over that span.   Mr. Momentum had a change of address and Santa Clara was up 30-19 with 5:09 left after a Ben Dowdell three point play.

Meanwhile, Iona inexplicably went away from its bread and butter in Glover.  Over the last twelve minutes of the first half, Glover only had two field goal attempts, hitting one of them and hitting one of two free throws.  And it wasn't like Santa Clara was double teaming him.  The Gaels just didn't get him the ball and settled for three point jumpers.  Sean Armand buried his third three pointer of the half to cut the lead to six, 33-27.  A Glover free throw actually then got it down to five.   But Michael Santos hit a tip in for Santa Clara, and Foster, who at the time only had five points, buried a Charles Jenkins like 35 foot three pointer (as noted by Defiantly Dutch in a tweet) at the buzzer. The Broncos were back up by ten at the half, 38-28.

When the second half started, the Gaels stormed out of the locker room with a 6-0 mini-spurt resulting in a Broncos timeout.  The Iona Pep Band kept the mojo going with my favorite song of theirs, Steely Dan's Peg (as I responded to a Defiantly Dutch tweet as "A HUGE WIN!").  Iona kept the streak going with two Scott Machado layups, the second of which tied the game at forty all with fifteen and half minutes remaining.  The partisan crowd roared in approval and perhaps as Beach noted, the Broncos legs were starting to get weary from the long trip out to New York.

But just when we all thought Iona had the momentum, Santa Clara quickly answered, again using their offensive rebounding to their advantage.  On the next possession, the Broncos got THREE offensive rebounds, the last resulting in a Trasolini three pointer (Trasolini had just previously scored a tip in shot after another three offensive rebound possession).  Ray Cowels buried a three and then Trasolini scored another putback off a miss by Foster.  Before you blinked an eye, Santa Clara was back up eight, 48-40 in not even two minutes.

Glover and Armand did their best to rally the troops for Iona and got the score within five, 55-50 with a chance to cut the lead even further.  But Scott Machado, who had a very off shooting night missed an open three and the Broncos scored to go back up seven.   Iona had simply no answer in stopping Santa Clara.  Foster scored five straight points and the Broncos had their biggest lead with 7:11 left, 65-51.

The Gaels made one last run and it was their bread and butter, Glover leading the way.  He scored seven of Iona's sixteen points and the Gaels had it down to six, 73-67 with 1:21 left.  But Iona decided not to foul Santa Clara immediately on their next possession until it was too late.  Dowdell was fouled as he hit a layup.  The three point play gave the Broncos their final points of the game and Iona would only score two more points.  Santa Clara won the CIT Championship 76-69.

Foster led five Broncos' players in double figures with 16 points, despite shooting 6 of 20 from the field. Trasolini was the thorn in Iona's side with 12 points and 8 rebounds, 6 on the offensive end.  Santa Clara outrebounded Iona 50-33 with 17 rebounds coming from the offensive end.   Glover did everything he could leading all scorers with 22 points, 12 rebounds and 3 blocks.  But he only had eleven FG attempts, making seven while shooting eight of twelve from the line.  What hurt Iona was Machado and Jenkins, their second and fourth leading scorers combining to shoot 5 of 22 including 0 of 7 from beyond the arc.  The nation's 19th best team in FG percentage at 47.4% only shot 41.8 % from the field.

We only briefly stayed for the awarding of the championship trophies.  When I saw them, I'll be honest, I thought they looked like things made in a woodshop class.  Still if you were the Broncos, the championship trophy means a lot to an up and coming team.

The six of us hung out for a little while and eventually Defiantly Dutch caught up with us as well.  As we normally do, we ended up talking about the game. A lot of the talk centered around the rebounding differential and how Glover didn't get the ball enough.

Then it was on our way back home to Long Island.  Matthew wolfed down a bag of goldfish, drank a bottle of water and fell asleep in the back seat of our Honda CRV within 15 minutes.  When we got home around midnight, I carried him upstairs and put him in his bed.  It had been a long day for my oldest son, but he loves his basketball and he had been a good little trooper.

For me, it was the 41st and last live college basketball game I would see this season.  Yes, there is still the NIT Championship and the Final Four, so certainly the college basketball season is not over.  But those four games will be watched on TV.  My live college basketball season ended last night.

As it has for the last several years, it ended all too soon.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

A Good Omen for VCU and Follow me on Twitter for Santa Clara-Iona Updates

Last night was the semifinals of the NIT at Madison Square Garden, the World's Most Famous Arena.   And it turned out to be an all VCU night.  In the first game, Wichita State, who lost at home to VCU in their nationally televised BracketBuster matchup, absolutely crushed Washington State.  And in the nightcap, the previous coach of VCU, Anthony Grant, now the coach of Alabama, led his team to a one point win over Colorado.  It really does seem like the stars are aligning for the Rams.

Tonight, I will be in New Rochelle for the championship game of the College Insider Tournament, otherwise known as the CIT, or as known by Kyle Whelliston as "the Bracketbusters from Hell".   Santa Clara will be taking on the host, Iona for the title. The Broncos feature terrific sophomore guard Kevin Foster while the Gaels feature star forward Michael Glover.

The game will be on Fox College Sports.  If you don't have Fox College Sports, follow my tweets at gmoore21566, the Twitter home of The College Hardwood.

Monday, March 28, 2011

In Making the Final Four, VCU Sets Its Own Standard

At the beginning of March, shortly before the CAA Tournament began, I wrote my CAA preview entitled "It's 2006 All Over Again - The CAA Tournament Preview".   And what I wrote in my preview was that based on all the facts/statistics/rankings/RPI ratings/history etc. that we were seeing the second coming of the 2006 season.  In that preview, I talked about #3Bids4CAA.  But I predicted (wrongly so) that Hofstra was going to win the tournament and that ODU and George Mason would be at large teams (I had facts to back that up at the time).

In the same preview as far as VCU, I mentioned that the "Rams were in the hunt for an at large bid when they were first in the CAA at 10-1 and 18-5 overall.  But the Rams lost five of their last eight and in the three games they won, one was in overtime and the combined margin of victory in the other two games was a total of five points."  Even I thought that their struggles down the stretch were too much for them to overcome.

Then came the CAA Tournament.  The Rams survived Drexel in the quarterfinals, then basically thrashed George Mason (much to the delight of Defiantly Dutch) in the CAA semifinals, before valiantly losing to ODU in the CAA final.   As a result of the neutral site win over Mason, the tough loss to Old Dominion, along with a regular season road win over ODU. a neutral site win over UCLA and a BracketBuster road win over now NIT semifinalist Wichita State, VCU started getting press for a potential at large bid.  Though it seemed a remote possibility, #3Bids4CAA still had a pulse.

Then came Selection Sunday.  Even the Rams decided not to get together to meet to watch the selection show.  Hell, Bradford Burgess was at a Five Guys Burgers and Fries when "it" all went down.  "It" being VCU selected for one of the two at large First Four Games to play for an #11 seed.  ODU was already in as an automatic with a #9 seed and George Mason grabbed an at large bid with an #8 seed.  For the first time ever in the Colonial, #3Bids4CAA became a reality. 

Then of course came the Tournament run.  First was the win over USC that showed how VCU could slug out a defensive win over a supposedly better defensive team beating the Trojans at their own game by 13.  Then the Rams followed with a Libyan No Fly Zone Offense as they bombed the Hoyas from beyond the arc for an 18 point thrashing of the six seed Georgetown.   Then VCU followed that up with their most impressive win as they dominated the lane in a 94-76 thrashing of Purdue, one of the best defensive teams in the country.

In all three cases, the Rams were given very little chance of winning.  But anyone who saw VCU defeat UCLA ( a team that throttled Michigan State in the round of 64 NCAA game) like I did at the NIT Tipoff knew the Rams could beat the Bruins' fellow PAC-10 team.  Georgetown was also a team that had struggled down the stretch, so VCU had a legitimate chance of winning.   Finally, Purdue had lost to a team VCU had played (though lost to) in Richmond.  The Rams certainly could play with the Boilermakers.

Thus after three wins, VCU had made the Sweet Sixteen.  Yet many pundits had them losing to a #10 seeded Florida State team.   And it was really the Rams first tough challenge as the Seminoles rallied from a nine point second half win and the game went to overtime with Florida State up late by a point.  But thanks to a patient Joey Rodriguez and a nice move by Bradford Burgess, VCU had a terrific inbounds play for a layup and an overtime win.

Then came VCU's ultimate challenge yesterday, #1 seeded Kansas in the regional final.  The Jayhawks had previously systematically destroyed the Spiders in the Sweet Sixteen, the aforementioned team the Rams lost to earlier in the regular season.  And when Rock Chalk came out working it inside to the Morris twins for a quick 6-0 lead, one had to wonder if VCU could survive this last challenge.  

They did more than survive this challenge.  The Rams took charge.  VCU buried KU with nine three pointers during their 39-15 run in the first half to go up by 18 points.   Their fast paced style of basketball which Shaka Smart calls "havoc" forced numerous Jayhawk turnovers.   Kansas was stunned, winded and down fourteen points at the half.

But a top seeded team doesn't give up without at least one run.  And Kansas went on a 12-0 run early in the second half to cut the lead to two.  With a raucous pro Jayhawk crowd, the Rams were on the verge of losing their lead and possibly the game.  But again, the Rams faced with adversity rose to the challenge.   VCU responded with an 11-3 run that basically ended the game with less than nine minutes left and the Rams up ten.  VCU would win by ten, 71-61.   

So the Rams became the second team from the CAA to make the Final Four.  And thus began the inevitable comparisons for VCU to George Mason in 2006.   And while yes, there are similarities, there are many differences.   The Rams have set their own standard and here's why.

1) Obviously, the Rams were the first team in NCAA history to win FIVE games to make the Final Four.  Of course this was the first season that there was a First Four as there are now 37 at large bids as opposed to 34.  The Patriots obviously only won four games to make the Final Four in 2006.  

2) VCU received much more negative press for making the tournament than George Mason did in 2006.  Yes, Mason received negative press for their inclusion in the tournament, especially by one Billy Packer, who wouldn't know a mid major from a sergeant major.   But most of the negative press was a result of Mason making it over Hofstra, who had swept the Patriots in their season series.   I remember vividly Jay Bilas of all people defending the Pride, er Flying Dutchmen, stating that the committee should have used head to head to decide which CAA team should have been taken.  Perhaps I am mistaken and my brain is faulty from having two kids, but the general consensus was that it was OK that a second CAA team, in this case Mason, was in the tournament.

And for further proof that a second CAA team deserved to be in, look at George Mason's seeding in the NCAA Tournament in 2006.  In one of the strangest seedings ever done by the CAA (perhaps even tops this season's weird seedings), Mason was not only not the lowest at large seed in the tournament, they were not even the lowest team in the East - Washington DC regional.   Mason was the #11 seed, but Utah State was the #12 seed and Air Force the #13 seed (further proof of my CAA-WAC-MWC conspiracy).  Bradley was the #13 seed in the West-Oakland regional while Texas A&M was the #12 seed in the Southeast - Atlanta Regional.    There were four at large teams seeded lower than Mason.

In the case of VCU, a good number of pundits, especially Bilas ripped the Rams inclusion as one of the last four play in teams.  They felt VCU didn't belong in period, that the CAA didn't deserve three bids. Bilas commented that not only did VCU fail the eye test, it failed the laugh test as well.  It was much more hostile for VCU than it was for Mason (at least that I can remember).

3)  VCU had a much tougher road then Mason.   Think about this.  With the First Four play in game then the two regional games in Chicago, VCU had to play three games in five days.   And to win the third game by 18 points over the #3 seed on the fifth day is one of the most impressive feats in NCAA Tournament history.  Mason of course only had to play two games in three days in Dayton in 2006.

4) VCU has been much more dominant than Mason in 2006.   In 2006, Mason only won one game by double digits, their 75-65 first round win over Michigan State.  The other games were decided by five, eight and two.   Meanwhile, VCU has only had one close game, the one point win over Florida State in overtime.  All their other wins were double digits - thirteen, eighteen, eighteen and ten.   

5) Finally, Mason was a six man rotation team in the tournament.  You had the five starters - Jai Lewis, Will Thomas, Tony "Nut Punch" Skinn, Lamar Butler and Folarin Campbell with Gabe Norwood as the sixth man.  Jordan Carter and Sammy Hernandez played some minutes in some tournament games and barely played in others.

VCU is a much deeper team with a ten man rotation, all of them playing a good number of minutes over the five games.  Of course you had the five starters - Jamie Skeen, D.J. Haley, Bradford Burgess, Ed Nixon and Joey Rodriguez.   Brandon Rozzell has been a huge sixth man, but Darius Theus, Rob Brandenburg and Juvonte Reddic have all seen major minutes during this run.  It's probably one of the main reasons why they won three games in five days.

So there are five reasons why VCU is different from George Mason.  Now many pundits think it's their three point shooting that has made the difference for the Rams.  In fact Jay Bilas said last night that if you limit VCU's three point shooting, the Rams can't shoot enough twos to win.   That's hogwash.  Against Purdue, VCU shot only shot 8 of 21 from beyond the arc, while shooting 29 of 44 from two (66 percent).  So VCU can attack you from beyond the arc and drive to the basket too.

If you really want to see why VCU has been so dominant in their run, it's because of their half court defense.  During the regular season, VCU was at the bottom of the CAA in FG percentage defense at 45 percent.  If you look down below, only one team has shot better than 39.5 percent against VCU.

USC - 39.5 %
Georgetown - 38.5 %
Purdue - 44.8 %
Florida State - 36.6 %
Kansas - 35.5 %

So when you combine the fact that they have forced 69 turnovers in 5 games with that significant improvement in field goal percentage defense, that's why the Rams have been on such a terrific run.  They could always score points (99th overall at 71.5 points per game).  They now can play half court D as well.

So VCU stands on their own in NCAA Tournament history.  They have set a new standard not just for mid major teams but for power conferences and wannabe conferences (C-USA, A-10 and MWC) as well in winning five games to get to the Final Four.  In some aspects the 2010-11 VCU Rams remind me of the 2005-06 George Mason Patriots.  But it's my belief this VCU team has set their own standard and has passed that George Mason team as the greatest team in the history of the CAA.  

And the Rams still aren't done yet.

The Amazing VCU Run Continues

I will have a lot more on this tonight.  But all I can say was my son and I were glued to the television set yesterday.  To see a five year old so excited that his adopted team (since Hofstra is no longer playing) stun the world as the Rams defeated the Jayhawks, well it was an amazing sight.  I will have more on this tonight, which will include how some analysts still don't get VCU.   But Ram Nation, enjoy and congrats! Oh and one last thing - #6Wins4CAA.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Butler Provides Hope and Light for All Mid Major Teams

When Gordon Hayward left for the NBA draft last year, many people, including yours truly thought Butler would still be a good team.  A team that would probably make the NCAA Tournament, but not quite have the success that they had last season when they were a Hayward three pointer away from winning the national title.  Still, another NCAA Tournament would be considered a success for one of the best mid major programs in the country.

Then the season started and the Bulldogs struggled at the outset.  The Bulldogs went 4-4 in their first eight games.  But in fairness, three of their four losses were to Louisville, Xavier and defending national champion Duke, three very successful teams this season.  But the Bulldogs would win the Diamond Head Classic defeating Florida State and Washington State along the way to win that tournament.

The Horizon League season started and despite a loss to Wisconsin Milwaukee, Butler stood at 5-1 in conference after a convincing 23 point win at Detroit.  Then the struggles truly began for the Bulldogs.  They would lose four of their next five games in conference.  Their last loss was to last place Youngstown State on February 3rd on Pixelvision Night at  I covered that game for the Mid Majority site (press play on the Cover It Live to see all the tweets from me covering the game).

The Penguins led most of the game until later in the second half.  The Bulldogs went on a 21-5 run to go up ten, 57-47 with 5:25 left.  I even tweeted that "Mack buries a three as well and #Butler now up 5 with 8:36 left. Clock may have struck midnight for #YSU."  But Youngstown State rallied using a 15-3 run to end the game with the upset victory 62-60.   The Bulldogs from a season ago would have never let that comeback happen.  The 2009-10 Bulldogs were very good at stepping on a team's neck once they had them down.

But perhaps the Youngstown State game was the wakeup call Butler needed.  They weren't playing the lock down defense that propelled them to the National Championship game.  I even wrote about that during the beginning of that aforementioned slump when they lost at Wright State in mid January.

Whatever Brad Stevens told his team after that loss to the Penguins, the Bulldogs responded.  Butler would not lose another conference game, winning seven regular season conference games.  Then they dominated the Horizon Tournament, defeating Cleveland State by eight, then crushing Wisconsin Milwaukee on their home court by sixteen to win the Horizon League title.  And they did it the Butler way, with suffocating defense as they only allowed an average of 58 points in those nine straight wins.

Then came the NCAA Tournament and even though they were an eight seed, they were considered by many an underdog against the ninth seed Old Dominion (and yes, I thought ODU was going to beat Butler).  The Monarchs had won the very competitive CAA Tournament and had knocked off Clemson, Richmond and Xavier, a team Butler had lost to during the season.  If that sounds familiar, Butler was considered an underdog by many in their first round NCAA Tournament game vs. UTEP last season, even though the Bulldogs were a five seed.

ODU and Butler went toe to toe for 40 minutes.  The Monarchs even rallied late from six points down to tie the game.  But in one of the most ironic moments of the NCAA Tournament, Butler won the game at the buzzer on a putback rebound by Matt Howard, which happened against the best rebounding margin team in the nation, ODU.

Then came the Shelvin Mack Attack against #1 seed Pittsburgh in the round of 32.  Mack went off on the Panthers for 30 points, hitting big shot after big shot.  And after Andrew Smith scored on layup from a pass by Shawn Vanzant, the Bulldogs seemingly had the game won with 2.4 seconds left.  Then came the inbounds pass, and Mack going for the ball, forced Pittsburgh's Gilbert Brown out of bounds.  A foul was correctly called. Brown hit the first free throw to tie the game, then missed the second.  Howard grabbed the rebound for the Bulldogs and was fouled by the Panthers' Nasir Robinson.  Howard hit the first free throw to win the game for Butler 71-70 in one of the most unreal games in NCAA Tournament history.

Butler was now in the Sweet Sixteen and would face #4 seed Wisconsin, a team that plays similarly to the Bulldogs.   The Badgers had a recent history of losing to mid major teams in the NCAA Tournament (Davidson 2008, Cornell 2010), and Butler continued that history.  The Bulldogs came out strong and dictated the pace of the game.  Butler was up nine at the half, then by as many as twenty in the second half, 47-27 as Wisconsin was 1 of 16 from the field to start the second half.  However, the Badgers rallied and cut the lead to four but the Bulldogs held on and defeated the Badgers 61-54.

So it was onto the final against the #2 seed, Florida.    The Gators went after Butler inside as Vernon Macklin dominated the Bulldogs in the first half, scoring 13 first half points.  But the Bulldogs stayed in thanks to Mack and Zack Hahn combining for five threes.  Butler was only down one, 33-32 at the half.

The second half saw Butler take the lead early due to Howard and Mack.  But Florida clamped down on defense and went on a 12-1 run as Macklin and Alex Tyus continued to do damage inside.  Meanwhile Butler couldn't score a basket during those six minutes.  The Bulldogs were shooting just 3 of 15 in the second half from the field and were down 51-40 with 9:25 left.

But as they had shown in the previous twelve games they had won in a row, Butler refused to quit and Brad Stevens made a brilliant "science lab" move (review Mid Majority's tweets from yesterday to understand) by inserting freshman Chrishawn Hopkins in the game.  It was Hopkins first minutes of the game and outside of a minute at the end of the Wisconsin game, his first real minutes of the NCAA Tournament.  Well, the mad scientist Stevens' experiment worked.  Hopkins keyed a 17-6 run with a three pointer, an assist and much needed energy.   When Mack hit a layup with two minutes left, the game was tied at 57.

Florida would retake the lead thanks to Macklin's dunk and one of two free throws.   But the Bulldogs who struggled most of the day from the line got two big free throws by Mack and Howard tied the game at 60 by hitting the first free throw.  Howard missed the second free throw.  Florida had a chance to win in regulation but instead of working the ball to Macklin for the win, Billy Donovan pulled out a late game play from Leonard Hamilton's playbook.  Erving Walker dribbled down the clock then missed a three to tie.

In the overtime, Butler slogged their way to the lead, hitting all seven of their free throws in the extra five minutes while Khyle Marshall had a huge three point play on a putback rebound.   With Butler up one, Florida had a chance to take the lead.  Again, instead of working it inside to Macklin, Kenny Boynton fired up a bad three point attempt and missed.  Howard grabbed the ball and was tied up.  Butler had the possession arrow, then Mack got fouled after he ran off some clock.  Mack's two free throws gave them a 74-71 lead.  Walker missed another three pointer and Ronald Nored fired the rebound down court to run out the clock.  Butler was back in the Final Four again for the second year in a row.

If you think about what Butler has accomplished, it's truly amazing.  A thirteen game winning streak.  Two straight Final Fours, nine wins in the NCAA Tournament.  When many thought Duke was going to be in the Final Four two years in a row, it was Butler instead that accomplished the feat.  And think about all the teams Butler beat along the way the past two seasons. Here they are listed below.

2010 - #12 UTEP, #13 Murray State, #1 Syracuse, #2 Kansas State, #5 Michigan State
2011 - #9 ODU, #1 Pittsburgh, #4 Wisconsin, #2 Florida

The Bulldogs beat six teams with a #5 seed or higher the last two years in the tournament.  They accomplished this with defense, great coaching, hustle and yes, talent.   Anyone watching can see Shelvin Mack is a legitimate star guard.  Matt Howard is a terrific, relentless, old school garbage pail forward who now has added a three point shot to his arsenal.  Shawn Vanzant is a very good defender and quick on the drive.  And Khyle Marshall is a very talented freshman.

Butler has proven that mid major teams that have talent and are all in together on the system they play, can play and beat Power Six conference teams.  And that has been the case since 2006, since, yes Jerry Beach, George Mason.  But in 2006, it was not just Mason making the Final Four.  Wichita State and Bradley also made the Sweet 16 in 2006.  In 2007 Butler made it to the Sweet 16 before losing to eventual national champion Florida (REVENGE!).  In 2008, Davidson made it to the Elite Eight and were a Steph Curry three away from knocking off Kansas to go to the Final Four.  In 2009, if you consider Gonzaga and Xavier mid majors, then both made the Sweet 16 in that tournament.  In 2010, there was not just Butler, but St Mary's, Northern Iowa and Cornell (and you can throw Xavier in if you want) all made the Sweet 16.   Richmond made the Sweet Sixteen this season.

And of course, this NCAA Tournament is not just Butler, but there is VCU as well.  Due to the new 68 team format, VCU is the first team to win four games to make it to the Elite Eight.  They knocked off PAC-10 member USC, then #6 Big East member Georgetown, then #3 Big Ten member Purdue and finally #10 ACC member Florida State (who finished third in the ACC in the regular season).

Like all of the mid major teams mentioned above, VCU and Butler got to where they are by beating elite competition.  And lest you think that mid major teams don't have talent, obviously Curry was a first round pick two years ago.  There was also first round picks Eric Maynor and Larry Sanders of VCU and of course Hayward as well.

Kenneth Faried, whose block ensured Morehead State's upset win over Louisville, is considered by Chad Ford as the fifteenth best player on his NBA draft board.   In fact, Faried is the top player in John Holllinger's Player Efficiency Ratings.  The number six player in those ratings, Hofstra's Charles Jenkins who led Hofstra to a third place finish in the CAA (VCU finished fourth in the CAA), was named Third Team All American by the Sporting News.  Jenkins is #46 on Ford's rankings and is considered a late first to second round pick for the NBA Draft.

So there are talented teams and talented individuals on mid major teams.  The Power Six conferences and their players usually dominate the spotlight and media coverage during the regular season.  It just sometimes takes the NCAA Tournament to shine a "tiny light" on the mid major teams that in some cases are just as good and have players just as talented as the Power Six.   And thus, a little Grace Potter and the Nocturnals was appropriate for today.

Enjoy the final two Elite Games today.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Forget Chicago - Richmond's My Kind of Town

When this 2010-11 season finishes in about the next ten days, I will look back on everything that I witnessed as far as college basketball is concerned.  And when I do, the first thing that will pop into my head is the city of Richmond.   That's because so much of the regular season, the CAA Tournament and now the NCAA Tournament has revolved around the city of Richmond and especially it's two teams, VCU and Richmond.

In November, I went with my friends Mal and Tieff to the 2K Classic at MSG.  You know, the tournament that really wasn't a tournament.  And that night, as we watched two good games (especially the second game between Illinois and Texas), we kept track of a game in New Rochelle.  That game was Richmond vs. Iona.  We knew how good Richmond was from the season before (lost in first round to St Mary's in the NCAA Tournament). So when Iona upset them in overtime, we thought that was a big win for the Gaels.

A few days later, I talked about ODU being "The Ground and Pound of College Basketball".  And one of the things I talked about was that "Significant tests remain before conference season starts.  There are home games with Richmond and Dayton."  And sure enough, ODU defeated Richmond.   The Spiders would gain their revenge on the CAA by defeating VCU at home.

Only a couple of days after that, I was at the Preseason NIT at MSG to watch VCU play Tennessee on Wednesday in the semifinals, then UCLA in the consolation game on Friday.  The Rams played well in both games, barely losing to the Volunteers on Wednesday then beating the Bruins on Friday.  I came away very impressed with the Rams' Jamie Skeen, who became one of my favorite CAA players during the season. Not only did the Rams play well, but their pep band was downright terrific. The pep band even did the national anthem for the championship game that Friday.

Richmond rebounded from their losses to Iona and ODU with a big neutral site win over Purdue (who would end up a #3 seed and of course get roasted by VCU) and over VCU at home.   The Spiders looked to have a good non conference record going into A-10 play despite the losses to ODU and Iona.  You figured they were on track for another NCAA Tournament bid.

VCU split their first two games in conference in the CAA, then proceeded to win seven in a row.  On Thursday January 27, VCU, 8-1 in conference hosted Hofstra, 8-1 in conference at the Siegel Center on ESPNU.  The game was for sole possession of first place in the CAA.  VCU would win that game 82-67, then win their next home game with UNCW 79-70.  Their record at the time was 18-5, 10-1 in conference.  Their reward was a featured Friday night televised Bracketbuster road game vs Wichita State.

As for the Spiders, Richmond finished non conference play with a 11-4 record (they lost to Bucknell another NCAA Tournament team and Georgia Tech). Richmond then started off in A-10 conference play at 5-1 and a 16-5 record overall.  Then on Saturday January 29 as Tieff and I went to a doubleheader (first St Bonaventure vs. Fordham and then Drexel vs. Hofstra), we listened on Sirius to the Xavier-Richmond game, which was for first place in the A-10.   The Musketeers crushed the Spiders on their home court 85-62.  Richmond was now 5-2 in conference.  However, the Spiders would only lose one conference game the rest of the way and would finish third in the regular season A-10 at 13-3 and 24-7 overall.

In fact, I got to see Richmond the next weekend after their loss vs. Xavier when they traveled to Fordham.  The Spiders took out their loss to the Musketeers on the Rams.  As a fan two seats down from me stupidly kept yelling out "Hey Anderson, you're too slow for the NBA", Kevin Anderson put on a clinic.  In the span of six minutes in the first half, Anderson would score twelve points, all on threes and add two assists.  I loved how the Spiders moved the ball around.  I was thoroughly convinced I was watching a NCAA Tournament team.

After their 10-1 conference start and a featured televised BracketBuster game, the Rams were part of the subject talk of #3Bids4CAA.  Perhaps due to this talk, VCU would then struggle.  They would lose three of their next five games in conference, including losses at home to both ODU and George Mason.   They rebounded in typical Rams fashion winning their BracketBuster game at Wichita State 68-67 on two last second free throws by Joey Rodriguez.  The Rams were now 21-8 and 12-4 overall in conference and with the CAA winning four of the five televised Brackebuster games, talk of #3Bids4CAA got even stronger.

Unfortunately for VCU, they couldn't keep the momentum of their win over the Shockers going.  They would lose two games in a row to Drexel and James Madison and finish fourth in the CAA in the regular season at 21-10 and 12-6 in conference.  Due to those two losses, many thought #3Bids4CAA was over and that ODU and George Mason were the only two Colonial teams going to the CAA Tournament.

Then came the CAA Tournament in Richmond.  For the eighth time in nine years, Richmond was the center of my college basketball season.   There is nothing like a college basketball tournament and the CAA Tournament is possibly the best mid major tournament there is (for those of you who are loyal readers, remember, I don't consider the A-10 a mid major conference).  Since 2006 when they expanded to twelve teams, there are ten games in the first three days of the CAA Tournament.  For a college basketball fan, that's like eating Man Vs. Food meal size portions.

And this year's CAA Tournament didn't disappoint, especially the first round.  You had four games where every game the margin of victory was six points or less.  You even had Towson play their hearts out before losing to Drexel.  And of course, you had an upset as William and Mary knocked off the Enigma known as James Madison.  And all top four seeds advanced on Saturday to the semifinals on Sunday.  As always, the CAA Tournament was great, great fun.

Since the Rams finished fourth, they had a first round bye. On Saturday, they faced Drexel in the quarterfinals.  They had split their regular season series with both games being very close.   And sure enough, the Rams and the Dragons had a knockdown drag out brawl that included some questionable officiating.  Drexel rallied late to tie the game, but Jamie Skeen hit a layup at the buzzer to give VCU a 62-60 victory.

On Sunday, in one of the most raucous atmospheres I ever witnessed in my eight years of going to Richmond for the CAA Tournament, VCU took on a George Mason team on a sixteen game winning streak in the first semifinal.  Tieff and I got there an hour before game time and we got to witness the VCU and Mason pep bands going back and forth with terrific songs.  The crowds were both into it and the stage was set.

As for the game, it was nip and tuck for the first ten minutes, with Mason leading 20-18. Then VCU went on a 21-5 run to end the first half up fourteen as the Rams were shooting the lights out.   The Patriots came out in the second half and cut the lead in half.  But VCU would not let Mason get any closer and ran them out of the building with a convincing 79-63 win that ended the Patriots winning streak.

With the talk of #3Bids4CAA at its highest now with the strong possibility of VCU winning the CAA championship, the Rams came out somewhat flat vs. ODU.  The Monarchs had an eighteen point lead before a furious Rams rally cut the lead to one.  But Old Dominion held onto win the CAA Championship 70-65.  ODU was assured a spot in the dance and Mason seemed pretty solid with their regular season conference title and a 16-2 league record.   VCU had to wait till Selection Sunday to see their fate.

Meanwhile Richmond entered the A-10 Tournament really needing to win the conference championship.  They were firmly on the bubble despite their neutral site win over Purdue.   And the Spiders responded with a quarterfinal win over the Rams of Rhode Island, a team they lost to at home during the regular season.  Then in perhaps their biggest game of the season to date, in the semifinals, Richmond knocked off #2 seeded Temple, a team that was a lock for the NCAA Tournament.    Finally, the Spiders left nothing to chance in the A-10 Championship.  Richmond defeated Dayton (who had upset Xavier in the quarterfinals) and grabbed the A-10 automatic bid.

Selection Sunday came.   Despite winning the A-10 conference championship and the wins over Purdue, VCU and Temple, the Selection Committee "rewarded" Richmond with a #12 seed in the Southwest and a first round matchup vs. Vanderbilt.  As for VCU, when UAB was stunningly announced as an at large team in the first play-in game, it seemed the Rams were heading to the NIT.   But when VCU was amazingly announced to play USC, #3Bids4CAA became a reality.

As you all know, there was a lot of derision of the committee's selection by the so called pundits.  The criticism that VCU received was downright awful.   Coach Skaka Smart used that criticism to rally his team.  After UAB laid an egg in their First Four play-in game, the pressure was even more on the Rams to come through.

And did VCU ever come through.  Having been used to USC's style of play from their wars with Drexel, the Rams completely shutdown the Trojans' big men.  VCU had TWENTY ONE more field goal attempts than USC and force fifteen Trojan turnovers.  Skeen had a double double with 16 points and 10 rebounds and the Rams had a convincing 59-46 win over USC.

Then came the first day of the round of 64.  ODU played Butler in a classic rock fight only to lose at the buzzer due to a Matt Howard putback.  And in one of the most entertaining games of an exciting afternoon of college basketball, Richmond went toe to toe with Vanderbilt.   Kevin Anderson, the terrific guard that some Fordham knucklehead fan thought was too slow, put on another clinic against the Commodores as he had 16 of his 25 points in the second half.  Yeah he is too slow.  And Darrius Garrett was a one man block party for the Spiders with five blocks (and should have had more due to bad foul calls).  The result was a Richmond 69-66 win.

On Friday night, after Mason gave the CAA it's second win in the Tournament with rallying to beat Villanova, VCU took center stage against Georgetown.   And with Joey Rodriguez knifing through the Hoyas, the Rams bombed away from three on their Big East counterparts.  #11 seeded VCU completely annihilated Georgetown 74-56 by shooting 12 of 25 from beyond the arc with Brandon Rozzell leading the way with 26 points.  The CAA was 2-0 vs. the Big East on that Friday and the Rams proved they belong.

The second round of the tournament came.  I was in a baseball auction but I kept track of Richmond's win over Morehead State (who of course knocked off Louisville).  The Spiders's Justin Harper, a highly thought of talent by the NBA, had 19 points as Richmond won impressively by seventeen, 65-48.   The Spiders team that had to win the A-10 to get in, now has a 29-7 record on the season.

On Sunday night, my son Matthew and I were firmly glued to our flat screen TV to watch VCU take on #3 seeded Purdue.  And as much as the Rams bombarded the Hoyas with threes, this time they used a more conventional approach in taking down the Boilermakers.  The Rams consistently drove the lane vs Purdue, with either the driver getting the easy layup or dishing to an open man underneath for the easy deuce.  One of the best defensive teams in the country was torched for 58 percent FG shooting by VCU.  Brandon Burgess had 25 points as the Rams scored NINETY FOUR points against the Boilermakers.   VCU made their first ever Sweet Sixteen with an awesome 94-76 beatdown of Purdue. #3Bids4CAA had turned into #4Wins4CAA.

So here you have it on Friday morning. Richmond, Virginia, center of the college basketball universe with two teams playing in the Southwest region and potentially having the chance to play in all Richmond regional final.   Considering that all that has happened this basketball season, especially in a NCAA Tournament where Butler has outlasted Duke, its counterpart from last season's championship game, having the only two D1 teams in the same city in the Sweet 16 is one truly amazing feat.

As much as I love Chicago, based on all that's happened, right now, Richmond's my kind of town.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

College Basketball is the Tie That Binds

For the past couple of years, I had been trying to get my older son Matthew to come to see Hofstra Men's or Iona Women's basketball games with me.  Matthew liked shooting hoops in the backyard with his four foot  Little Tykes basketball hoop.  But each time I would ask, he would say something like "No, I would rather stay home and be with mommy and Jonathan."  And I understood. You can't force someone not to do something they don't want to do.  And I certainly don't want to do that to my two children.

But on February 15, 2011, my birthday, as a birthday present to me, my older son went with me to the William and Mary vs Hofstra game at the Mack Center.  It turned out if there was any game that I could have picked to bring Matthew that was the game.  A high scoring affair with Quinn McDowell dueling with Charles Jenkins.  And as most people know, Jenkins forced overtime with a long three, then won the game in overtime with an even longer three.

Due to the excitement of the game, the raucous Lions Den section (who gets a big assist here), Matthew was hooked.  Long before Jenkins had tied the game with that three pointer at the end of regulation, Matthew turned to me and said "I want to go to another basketball game."   For someone who truly loves college basketball, to hear that, especially on my birthday, it was one of the most special moments so far of being his dad.   And I didn't realize how much he was hooked.

For all of his five plus years on this planet, Matthew Patrick Moore when he likes something gets completely involved.  I remember when he was just two years old, we took him to a Mets game. And there he was in his seat, completely focused on the pitcher and the catcher.  And he would mimic how the catcher throws the ball back to the pitcher.  It was impressive.

When Matthew got home that night on February 15, he told my wife how much he loved the basketball game he saw.  He immediately grabbed one of his basketballs in the house and started dribbling.  And dribbling and dribbling.  When he was outside, all he wanted to do was play basketball.  On Monday, I saw him do a normal crossover dribble.  When I asked Chelle where did that come from, my wife says "he really studies how they play."

Matthew went with me to the final Hofstra home season game vs. Delaware, Senior Day where Charles Jenkins had his number retired.  After he got home from that impressive win, everything was Hofstra.  He played as "Hofstra" and he would shoot baskets saying "Hofstra is up 8-2".   Basketball was now in his blood.

I kept him updated on Hofstra when they played in the CAA Tournament.  I told him about the win over William and Mary and the sad news when Old Dominion beat Hofstra in the CAA Semifinals.   He so wanted to see another Hofstra game but when Evansville (with an assist from the Missouri Valley officiating crew) beat Hofstra, their season was over.   Even though Hofstra lost, he still wanted to see another college basketball game.

During the NCAA Tournament, I had Matthew rooting for Richmond, Butler and VCU.  On Friday night, he stayed up with me for the first half of Georgetown-VCU.  My wife had to shoo him off to bed with him protesting that he wanted to stay up and watch the game with me.  I told him I would leave him a note of who won since I had to work early Saturday morning.  Sure enough on our little whiteboard on the refrigerator I wrote "Matthew, VCU Won!!!!!"

Since I couldn't watch most of the Saturday day and evening games due to work and a baseball auction, I gave him a homework assignment to watch the Richmond and Butler games and keep me informed.  I did get to see the end of the Butler- Pitt game, but when I got home, Matthew told me the good news about that and Richmond.   On Sunday, Matthew watched the VCU-Purdue game with me.  When Bradford Burgess hit his first three to put VCU up early, Matthew exclaimed "I love it!!"   To me, that was awesome.

Meanwhile Iona had lost in the MAAC finals to St Peter's, a team that I had seen get crushed by the Gaels in New Rochelle.   Iona then accepted a bid to the College Insider Tournament, otherwise known as the CIT, or as Kyle Whelliston calls it "Bracketbusters From Hell".   Iona had a first round bye, then smoked Valpo in the second round.   My friend Tony Bozzella informed me that if Buffalo won at Western Michigan, Iona would get a home game vs. Buffalo.  Sure enough, Buffalo upset Western Michigan and Iona had a home game last night.

I told Matthew as soon as I could and he told all his friends at school and the teaching assistant Joe at his after school program on Monday and Tuesday that he was going.  Then during the day on Tuesday, my wife informed me via phone call that Matthew suffered a bloody nose while playing basketball outside with a friend in the afterschool program (they banged heads).  But Matthew was fine and told my wife so on the phone.  When I picked him up later, there was no evidence that he was hurt and he told me he was fine.

So after my wife got home, Matthew and I headed off to New Rochelle.  It was the fourth time this season I would see the men's basketball team play.  And each time I saw them, they had won convincingly.  In late December, I saw Iona soundly defeat Hofstra.  Then in early January, I saw the Gaels defeat the Peacocks of St Peter's by eighteen (but as noted, St Peter's would gain revenge in the MAAC Championship game).  Finally, I saw Iona defeat Siena in a sold out doubleheader game at the Hynes Center in mid February.  Would Matthew and I see another Gael win?

The Gaels were taking on the Bulls of Buffalo.   The Bulls lost to Kent State in the second round of the MAC Tournament.  As I tried to tell Matthew, it was a battle of the MAAC vs the MAC.  As much as I tried to explain it, Matthew's eyes glazed over and he just wanted the game to start.   But first, Mr. Defiantly Dutch, Jerry Beach was there to do a story on the game and he came by to say to the both of us. Meanwhile we ended up sitting next to Coach Bozzella and his assistant, Lauren DeFalco.

From the start of the game,  Iona pressed Buffalo and the Bills struggled with it from the outset.   The Gaels forced three turnovers in about a minute and went up 6-0.  But Buffalo hung in there and outscored Iona 10-2 to go up 10-8.  Matthew tried his best by hexing the Bulls when they were on offense, but his jinx attempts were to no avail.

The two teams changed leads several times in the first half.  Iona went back ahead 13-10.  Then Buffalo rallied and were up by as many as four, 21-17.  The Gaels came back with a 9-0 run to go up 26-21.  But the Bulls came back with a 10-1 run to go up 31-27.  Finally Iona came back again and went into the half up 41-36.   Javon McCrea, a freshman forward, put on a show the first half going 7 of 10 from the field for 16 points.   But Sean Armand had 11 of his own for Iona.

One of the things I enjoy most about Iona men's basketball games is their pep band.   Of course they do classics like Edgar Winter's Frankenstein and Led Zeppelin's Immigrant song.  But they also do a terrific version of Steely Dan's Peg, which Mr. Beach can attest to as well.   And the pep band also plays the I Dream of Jeannie theme song, as well as the Wild Wild West television show theme song.   Old School, gotta love it.

For the first eleven minutes of the second half, the teams played even as Iona still had only a five point lead, 54-49 as McCrea did his best to keep the Bulls in the game.   During those first eleven minutes, McCrea had eight of the Bulls thirteen second half points to keep the deficit within five with nine minutes left in the game.

But as my son dutifully kept track of the score and gave me updates, Iona started to pull away over the final nine minutes, in large part due to one Jermel Jenkins.    Jenkins hit three three pointers and scored eleven of the Gaels next fifteen points as the Gaels went up 67-53 with 5:06 left.  Several of the 1,638 in attendance started up chants of "I-O-N-A  IONA GAELS" knowing the end was coming soon for Buffalo.

Buffalo did go on a 5-0 mini spurt to cut the lead to nine, 67-58 with 3:30 left.  But inexplicably, Buffalo did not foul over the next minute and a half, then started fouling with 1:50 left.   Iona would hit four three throws and a monster dunk by Glover and the Gaels were up fifteen 75-60 with 57 seconds.  Yet the Bulls, who didn't want to foul when the game was within nine, started fouling the rest of the way with the outcome already decided.  So instead of letting the clock run out, Buffalo prolonged the fans agony over the final few seconds.

The game would end as Matthew happily pronounced the final score to me 78-63 for "our team", Iona.  McCrea who didn't miss a shot in the second half led all scorers with 29 points on 13 of 16 shooting from the field.  Jenkins had 23 points and was 7 of 11 from beyond the arc.  Despite seemingly being everywhere on the offensive end, Michael Glover only had 8 points.  Iona also forced 20 Buffalo turnovers.

Matthew and I said our goodbyes to Jerry and headed home.  Along the way, Matthew asked when our next basketball game was going to be.  I told him that it may have been the last live game of the season unless Iona got another home game in the championship of the CIT.   He was disappointed but he understood

When we got home, Matthew proudly told his mom that his team won tonight and gave the score.   Then he grabbed his basketball and started dribbling in the living room.  Later sitting on the couch with my wife and me as we watched TV, he told us that when he grew up he wanted to be a basketball player.

When I heard that, I just smiled.   I don't know what he will be when he grows up.  But I know right now he is enjoying himself and he loves college basketball, just like his dad.   And to me, that's the coolest thing on the planet.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Why It's Called March Madness

Sorry that I haven't posted recently.  But there's a good reason for that.  I spent a good part of the four days of the NCAA Tournament watching many buzzer beaters, upsets, double overtime games, the Big East quickly becoming the Big Least and ESPN analysts eating crow.  There's nothing quite like March Madness, especially the first two rounds of  the NCAA Tournament.

Unless you have been under a rock or been kidnapped by wild non basketball loving gypsies (and may they all have looked like Salma Hayek), you know what's happened the last four days.  So, I will give you my take on what I saw (alas no Salma Hayek sightings).

Nothing says St Patty's Day like Butler and ODU in classic knock down Irish street brawl affair featuring two terrific defensive teams and two terrific coaches, Blaine Taylor and Brad Stevens.  I actually went home for lunch to watch the first half of the game, then caught the rest at work while working on my budget (shhh).  It was close throughout, but Butler looked like they were going to win.  However, ODU, with the great Frank Hassell, rallied late to tie the game.  But to see the Monarchs, the team leading the NCAA in rebounding margin lose on a rebound putback by Matt Howard might just be the most ironic moment of the college basketball season.  Or at least to someone who followed both teams religiously this season like me.

Then there was #13 Morehead State and  Kenneth Faried going toe to toe with #4 Louisville, the Big East Conference Championship runnerup. I caught this game only at the end, which was perfect.  Demonte Harper buried a three to put the Eagles up one.  Then of course was that great block by Faried to ensure the victory.  How gutsy was it of him to go block the basketball when others would have just backed away or just attempt a hand in the face?  The man is fearless and will be a future NBA player due to his talent and fearlessness.  And of course the outcome caused the mascot and Rick Pitino to both cover their eyes.

A friend of mine, Jeff and I saw the end of the Princeton/Kentucky game in his office at the end of the day (he is a Tigers grad).  The Wildcats had more than they could handle with the Tigers who rallied to tie the game.  But wth the game tied at 67. freshman Brandon Knight hit the game winning layup to put UK into the second round.  The kid is a very good player.  But give the Princeton kids kudos for giving Ole Kentucky Blue Nation a real scare.

After work, I picked up my younger son and raced home to watch the second upset of the day and to me the most fun game (and I got to watch it too), #12 Richmond outlasted #5 Vanderbilt as Kevin Anderson and Darrius Garrett led the way for the Spiders.  Having seen Richmond and their terrific offense dismantle Fordham in 20 minutes in February, I wasn't surprised that Anderson shot down the Commodores.  What I was surprised about was Garrett's play against Vandy.  In the second half, every time a shot went up, Garrett seemingly came out of nowhere to block it.  It was impressive.   Throw in Justin Harper and the Spiders are a very talented team.  Morehead State found out the hard way in the second round.

I was at Canz in Westbury watching several games (and other things) Thursday night with my friends Bob and Mal.  Gonzaga may have played their best basketball of the season when they ran over St John's in their first round matchup.   The Zags really seemed up for the game and played with an intensity  I hadn't seen all year (and I have seen a lot of Gonzaga games).  Marquis Carter, Elias Harris and Steven Gray all had good games against the Johnnies, who just couldn't stop them defensively.   It was a beatdown and one of many surprising losses for the Big East over those four days.

Friday came and it was CAA day.   First George Mason rallied to knock off a reeling Villanova team that played well for about forty eight minutes.  Of course all of this was to the chagrin of one Defiantly Dutch.  Then the game of the day was played that night.  VCU earned their way into the game vs. Georgetown by beating USC, then they went out and celebrated by bombing the Hoyas.  It was raining in Chicago Friday night...raining threes as the Rams nailed twelve three pointers on the night.  Seventeen turnovers didn't help Georgetown's cause as VCU won by eighteen.

One other thing from Friday.  I got to see the LIU - UNC game.  And having seen the fast paced, gritty Blackbirds win their NEC championship game vs. Robert Morris, I wasn't surprised by how hard they played vs. the Tar Heels.  The game was tied at 33 at one point and in the second half, LIU cut a twenty plus point lead down to ten with before losing by 15.  LIU actually had 18 more FG attempts than Carolina.  Pretty impressive.

I didn't watch much basketball till late in the day due to work and a fantasy baseball auction.  But I did catch the end of Butler - Pittsburgh.  Lost in the shuffle of one of the most unreal endings to a game ever (and yes, those were definitely both fouls) was the performance of Shelvin Mack.  Yes, he did a commit a not so smart foul at the end of the game, but he hit huge shot after huge shot Saturday night as the Bulldogs won their seventh game in the past two NCAA Tournaments.  Think about that a little while.  Outside of Duke, is there any other team that can say that?  I don't think so.

After the Butler game ended, Mal and I went to our cars at CW Post where the fantasy baseball auction was held.  We both were stunned when we turned on the radio that BYU was blowing out Gonzaga.  But Jimmer was being Jimmer.  In fact Jimmer was so impressive that the always funny Tom Brennan, who was the analyst for the Westwood One radio broadcast of the game, decided to change his name to Tommer.  And in fact when they interviewed Fredette after the game, Brennan introduced himself as Tommer to Jimmer.  Hilarious.

Sunday came and after a late morning/early afternoon at Planting Fields Arboretum, I went over to my brother's house and watched UNC vs. Washington.   If the Huskies had any frontcourt players that didn't have hands of stone, they would have won that game.  Still, give credit to the Tar Heels for rallying and holding on.  But their interior defense needs serious work.

Then after watching my two sons play with monster trucks and my brother's two dogs, we got back home in time to watch George Mason vs. Ohio State.   When the Patriots went out to an 11-2 lead, I thought this was going to be a really good game.  Then the Buckeyes went on a monster 50-15 run the rest of the first half.   It was an onslaught. Lighty, Diebler and Buford burying three after three.  Buckeyes scoring at will on the inside.  The only question left was whether the Buckeyes were going to score a 100 and give Defiantly Dutch free tacos.  It was the most dominant performance I have seen all year.  Ohio State is that good.

I saw the end of the Texas - Arizona game and as I watched that game, when Jordan Hamilton came down with the rebound and call timeout, I was like my dog when she doesn't understand something I say (you know, the tilted head).  You needed to run out clock there and force Arizona to foul.  That gave the Wildcats a chance to stop the inbounds play and you all know what happened.  Just dumb on Hamilton's part.

Then after watching Kansas finally pull away from an Illinois team I saw at the 2K classic at the Garden, it was VCU taking on Purdue in Chicago in front of a mostly partisan Boilermaker crowd.  And everyone had to wonder if Purdue could stop the runaway freight train that VCU had become.

Well the light at the end of the tunnel for the Boilermakers was that oncoming Rams train.  Chicago became VCU's kind of town as the Rams won another game by 18 points.  And this time, it wasn't done by the three pointer.  It was done by Joey Rodriguez and Brandon Bozzell among others driving at will into the lane on Purdue for easy layups or passes to Jamie Skeen and Brandon Burgess for easy layups.  Burgess followed up Rozzell's monster game vs. Georgetown with his own, burying threes as six VCU players scored in double figures.  It was as if the CAA was channeling the Untouchables to the Big Ten - "They send one of yours to the hospital (Mason), you send one of their to the morgue (Purdue). That's the Chicago way."

Then the night finished up as I sat in my bedroom watching Notre Dame become the ninth Big Least team to lose before the Sweet 16 as Florida State defensively dominated that game from start to finish.  Now you are guaranteed of at least a #10 seed or lower in the Elite Eight since #10 FSU plays #11 VCU in the Sweet 16.  In fact, nearly a third of the teams left in the NCAA Tournament are #8 seeds or lower (Butler, Florida State, VCU, Marquette and Richmond).  If that doesn't tell you that a) there is a lot more parity in college basketball and b) senior laden teams tend to do well now in the NCAA Tournament since so many power teams are freshman and sophomore laden, then I don't know what will tell you.

By the way,  the Big East deserved eleven teams.  #11 Marquette proved that by making the Sweet 16.  But the Big East is a conference made up of good not great teams.  There is no Ohio State nor Kansas in the Big East.  I thought Pitt could have been but they fell short.  And outside of UConn with Kemba Walker, there is no other team in the Big East that has a player that can carry their team on their shoulders.  Perhaps that's why UConn is still in the tournament and that's why they ran the table in the Big East Tournament.  One player can make a huge difference in the NCAA Tournament (see Jimmer Fredette and Stephen Curry among others) and Kemba Walker certainly fits that bill.

And lost in the NCAA Tournament shuffle was the fact that two #1 NIT seeds, Boston College and Virginia Tech lost their second round games at home on Saturday.  In fact, the Hokies, considered by many to have been snubbed by the NCAA lost to Wichita State.  Guess who won at Wichita State in their Bracketbuster game?  Yup, VCU.  Case closed.

We're down to the Sweet Sixteen.  Lots of good tournament action still left.  What will happen next?  Who knows.  Just watch and find out.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

VCU Shows the NCAA Selection Committee That They Were Right

A night after UAB was drubbed by Clemson on the first day of the First Four, VCU took the court in Dayton to take on USC on the final day of the First Four.   All the talk on the pre-game show on truTV was about how the Trojans' guards would handle the press and be able to penetrate the lane on the Rams and that VCU would have trouble against USC's bigs.  

A funny thing happened actually during the game.  VCU's defense stifled USC's big men and guards.  The Trojans had TWENTY ONE less field goals attempts, fifteen turnovers (compared to only eight for VCU) and were 1 of 9 from beyond the arc.  The result was a convincing 59-46 win for the Rams.  Jamie Skeen had a double double with 16 points and 10 rebounds as the Rams outrebounded the vaunted frontline of the Trojans (with 15 offensive rebounds to boot).  It was the first time all season that USC allowed less than 60 points and lost (previously 14-0).  Shaka Smart should give an assist to Bruiser Flint, whose Drexel teams prepared VCU over their three games for slugfests like this.

All I have left to say is three things. One, hope all you analysts who said VCU didn't belong are properly eating crow and apologizing today.  Second, how do you like them now?!

And finally, #3Bids4CAA.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The First Four Begins, Hofstra Loses to Evansville in CBI & NCAA Tournament Thoughts

So last night, I watched the first two games of "The First Four", the NCAA Tournament's new format for the first four play-in games.  And based on the commercials for TruTV shows, I can tell you that outside of NCAA Tournament action I will never ever watch TruTV.  The only reality TV I watch is sports and Man Vs. Food.

As for the games, UALR and UNC Asheville was actually a fun game to watch.    The Bulldogs rallied from a ten point second half deficit and forced overtime when Matt Dickey nailed a three pointer with 13 seconds left.  Like Clark Kellogg, I thought Matt Mouzy's three pointer was going to go in at the buzzer for the Trojans, but it was just slightly off to the right. UNC Asheville went on to win 81-77 in overtime.  My favorite player on the night was Bulldogs' center D.J. Cunningham who made some sweet passes in the first half and had four assists in the game before fouling out.

As much as I liked the first game of the First Four, the second game of the night was an absolute drubbing. Clemson dominated basically from start to finish as their defense forced turnover after turnover on UAB. TheTigers used a 21-2 run to jump out to a 25-7 lead in the first half, eventually winning easily 70-52.  Jerai Grant reminded me of his dad Harvey Grant as he scored 22 points to lead Clemson to the victory.

The Blazers unfortunately validated the criticism laid on them by many college basketball analysts that they didn't belong in the tournament.  They struggled simply maintaining the ball in the first half committing 12 of their 19 turnovers.  The Tigers so dominated the inside that UAB was forced to shoot from beyond the arc.  The Blazers were successful from there, hitting 12 of 24 three point attempts.  But UAB was brutal from two, shooting 6 of 24.  It was a classic Brad Brownell defensively coached game.  Clemson definitely has the personality of the former UNCW & Wright State coach.

Speaking of the CAA, it was a rough night for them in the CBI.  During stops in action of UALR - UNC Asheville, I was able to turn on HDNET, which is covering some of the CBI games.  And once again I saw James Madison act like they didn't want to be on a basketball court as they got hammered at Davidson 85-65.  The Dukes were down by as many as twenty six points in the second half.  Denzel Bowles and Andrey Semenov combined to shoot 7 of 13 from the field, but the rest of JMU shot 16 of 48.  The Wildcats hit eleven of their twenty four three point attempts and shot 50 percent from the field.

It seems the stars were not aligning for Hofstra in their first round game vs. Evansville.  First, the Pride had to fly into Nashville, then take a long bus ride from Nashville to Evansville.  Then, the Pride had to play the Purple Aces on the home court of Southern Indiana's PAC, due to the Evansville's Roberts Stadium being booked for Disney on Ice.  Then last night, I was hoping to watch the game on the Purple Aces streaming video site.  The live video never materialized at alI as I and others only got  "connecting".  But if that wasn't bad enough, Defiantly Dutch clued me on the live stats on Evansville's site as well.

Meanwhile, based on the WRHU streaming audio feed, on the court of Southern Indiana's PAC, the Purple Aces had a simple game plan vs. Charles Jenkins.  Put three guys on him as soon as he got the ball.  Jenkins only had two first half points, but did a good job of getting others involved as the Pride went out to a 36-34 halftime lead. 

Hofstra extended their lead in the second half to 43-36 as Jenkins and Mike Moore started going to work.  The Pride were still up 49-43 with about fourteen minutes left.  But they couldn't stop the Aces offensively as Evansville went on a 16-4 run to go up 59-53.  Hofstra got within two points three times the rest of the game, the last time being 72-70.  But as Jerry Beach tweeted, Mike Moore channeled Greg Johnson from the 2007 CAA Quarterfinals and attempted to get fouled while shooting a three pointer with 24 seconds left.  No foul call was made and the airball went out of bounds to the Aces.  Evansville held onto for the 77-70 win. 

Not being able to see the game, I couldn't tell if Moore was fouled, but based on the WRHU announcers, the officiating was suspect all night.  In fact, Brad Kelleher went up to the WRHU announcers and asked if they were in Richmond.  And Mo Cassara was so upset about a timeout called for Evansville when no one had the ball, that he threw off his suit jacket.  Damn.

Jenkins was held to 14 points as he only had twelve field goal attempts, making six of them.  He did get his 2500th point, which makes him only the 62nd player in the history of the NCAA to score 2500 or more points.  Jenkins also had six assists but had three turnovers, two of which were due to offensive fouls/charges called against him.  After only having six turnovers combined in their last two games, the Pride had 13 turnovers last night.  Hofstra shot 51 percent from the field but so did Evansville, who was also 7 of 14 from beyond the arc.  It was also the second consecutive game that Hofstra gave up 77 points (the Pride lost to ODU in the CAA Semifinals 77-69).

Again, the first four first round CBI games proved to be terrible attendance draws.  Only 1,284 showed up for the Hofstra-Evansville game.  Creighton's Qwest Center, which holds 18,000 only had 3,086 for the San Jose State - Creighton game (they had nearly 16,000 for their previous home game vs. Northern Iowa).   Austin Peay - Boise State drew 2,384.  And leading the way in least attendance, the JMU-Davidson game drew 989 folks, which still wasn't as bad as the 953 that attended IUPUI-Hofstra last season.  Could someone please mercifully end the CBI?  Pretty please?

As for the NCAA Tournament, I think you will see a lot of upsets, especially in the 4-13 and 5-12 games.  I expect the A-10 to do well as I think Xavier, Temple and Richmond will all win their first round games.  Also, don't be surprised if Belmont knocks off Wisconsin and Utah State's defense stymies a Kansas State team that relies on Jacob Pullen too much.  Oakland with Keith Benson will show Texas why it was such a difficult non conference opponent for Tennessee, Purdue and Michigan State.

Also, I like the CAA to win a few games in the NCAA Tournament.  I think VCU's press will dictate pace against a more methodical USC team.  Look for Jamie Skeen to have a big game shooting threes forcing USC's big to defend him outside.   Also, I like George Mason to mercifully end Villanova's now struggling season.

Finally, I think you have potentially the best #8 vs. #9 game in NCAA Tournament in a long time with Butler vs. ODU.  Both teams play physical defensive basketball and both the Bulldogs and Monarchs run their teams through their centers - Butler's Matt Howard and Old Dominion's Frank Hassell.  That should be one of the best matchups of the season.  Look for ODU's numerous bigs to get Howard into foul trouble.  Butler's lack of frontcourt depth after Howard and Andrew Smith will hurt them against a deep Old Dominion team.  Look for ODU to beat Butler then give Pitt absolute fits in the second round.

Finally, whether you like it or not, you will see some top seeds perform very well in the tournament.  Kansas and Duke in particular.  Also look for St John's to make a good run, BYU to make an early exit either vs. Wofford or the Johnies.  I like Washington a lot also as well San Diego State.   Other than these teams I like and some first round wins for mid majors, I am not going to exactly predict who is going to the Sweet Sixteen let alone the Final Four.  Makes it more fun that way.

Just sit back and enjoy the NCAA Tournament.  March Madness is the best time of year.