Friday, April 22, 2011

It's All About the Sun and the Money as Larranaga Leaves Mason for Miami

When news broke out last night that George Mason gave the University of Miami permission to talk to Jim Larranaga, it was at first quite stunning.  During the offseason, there were several CAA coaches - Blaine Taylor, Shaka Smart and Bruiser Flint who were bandied about in the news for seemingly higher profile jobs.  But they all stayed put.  Instead, one of the least likely to go, or so probably many thought, ends up leaving for the sun and hobknobbing with LeBron and Wade.

Mike Litos put it best in his terrific article today about Larranaga taking over the Miami job.

"Larranaga would appear to be the perfect candidate to try to resurrect the moribund program. 
But Larranaga is 61 years old. How many years, seriously, until Miami is doing this all over again? It takes a special kind of energy for what Larranaga is undertaking. It seems like a fine idea now, but how does he feel crisscrossing the country in July 2015, when Larranaga is 65 years old?"  
Well I have four reasons to answer that.

1) As Litos notes, Larranaga probably realizes that with Alan Merten leaving as a president of George Mason that the new incoming administration may not be as open to expanding the basketball program than under Merten.   Larranaga had talked to the administration about getting his coaches better paid (as Litos so correctly notes, "why wasn't this done in 2006?") but perhaps that fell on deaf ears.  Also apparently he was having a difficult time with Mason AD Tom O' Connor about getting his assistant coaches better paid (and perhaps Larranaga as well).

2) As Litos notes, Larranaga is 61.  He probably has only a few years left.  So why not get a great contract now for the next four years after which he can basically retire?   Based on the rumored numbers, his new annual salary will be in excess of $1 million (and from what Brian Mull tweeted me earlier, it's possibly closer to $2 million a year).   And based on his current contract with George Mason, I am sure there will be bonuses if he makes the NCAA Tournament, wins a first round NCAA Tournament game and wins the ACC tournament (I know, good luck with that one).  Plus there are the basketball camps, TV and radio shows etc that will give him additional income.

3) Now some of you are saying, well why did he turn down the Providence job a few years ago but now is taking the Miami job?  Well, first he was three years younger when he turned down Providence.  Second, Providence would have been a higher pressure job.   The Friars have a history of success with former coaches Rick Pitino and Billy Donovan.  The result has been what seems to be a too high expected rate of success for the Friars program.  And despite Tim Welsh leading the Friars to several NCAA Tournament appearances, that didn't seem to be enough for the administration or the Friar boosters.

So three years ago, since it being his alma mater, Larranaga would have been seen as the savior at Providence.  And trying to be successful in the Big East is much more difficult than ever with the now sixteen team league.  Larranaga was wise to turn it down (as was Tom Pecora to turn down Seton Hall in 2006).  Keno Davis' firing after only three years is just further proof of the lack of patience that Providence has as far as its basketball program.  And perhaps Larranaga was wise to pass on the job again in light of this stunning article about Jamine Peterson.

So thus, the reason he is taking the Miami job, and thus why he didn't take the Providence job, is that there is less pressure at Miami than say Providence.  First, unlike Providence where Marshon Brooks has graduated, Miami has basically its entire team returning.  Center Reggie Johnson declared for the NBA Draft but didn't hire an agent, so he could decide to return to school for his junior year.   Second, the Hurricanes don't have a rich tradition in college hoops.  They have been to the NCAA Tournament only six times with a record of 4-6.

In comparison, Providence has been to 15 NCAA Tournaments with two Final Fours. George Mason has had as many tournament appearances as Miami, six, and of course has been to a Final Four (overall record 5-6).   So though there will be a lot of fanfare of Larranaga coming aboard, he won't be as under as much pressure as he would have been at say Providence.  Miami is, of course, a football school.  Any success by Larranaga during his tenure there will be gravy.

4) Finally, it's Miami, duh!  If you are going to spend the last few years of your basketball career, why not spend it in South Beach, home of LeBron, Wade, beautiful women and warm weather.   Let's face it, it beats the climate of Providence or Fairfax.   And if you are going to retire, you usually end up in Florida anyway.  Thus Jim doesn't have to move all that far once he retires from the game.

So for those four reasons, Larranaga had to take the Miami position - salary, sun, less pressure and the ability to shape the program the way he wants.  I am sure he will take several of his top assistants with him and it could be all of them depending on who the new coach will be at George Mason.

Now I grant you the Miami position isn't George Mason.  Right now, I would take Mason's team over Miami's team any day of the week.  As I tweeted earlier today (remember, follow me at gmoore21566), the Patriots had four of their five returning starters from a 27-7 team (16-2 in the CAA) coming back for the 2011-12 season.  This is a team certainly capable of not just winning the CAA next season but possibly making the Sweet Sixteen in 2012.    Miami is a decent team but not as good.   Also, as I noted, Miami is a football school.   So unless Miami makes at least the Final Four, the basketball team will never get the publicity the football team does.  Hopefully the media savvy Larranaga realizes that.

It will be interesting to see what Larranaga says at his press conference at Miami about why he accepted the position.   If he is honest enough, he should say it was for the salary and the sun.   Otherwise, why leave a better team at Mason?

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Basketball People Part II - NIT Seeding

Last Saturday, I wrote an article called NCAA Double Standards and Basketball People.  An anonymous person wrote a comment about that article, which is listed under the comments section of the above linked article, but here's the comment below.
"Would you agree that the NIT has money (read-attendance) issues that severely impact its seeding decisions? Shame on CM for not admitting that but some realism has to be a part of the analysis, no? Nice article overall, just a little acidic."
Now the article was meant to be acidic due to a) in light of the NCAA's inconsistent punishment of players and coaches, which was again brought to light by Joe Nocera's excelllent op-ed piece in the New York Times and b) Jay Bilas' knee-jerk response to this past Selection Sunday.

But the anonymous person brought up the point I had mentioned briefly in my article about the seeding in the NIT, which was mainly done by one of the "basketball people",  C.M. Newton, chair of the NIT selection committee.  His question was whether the NIT did the seeding based on money/attendance?

Well to answer the question, no I don't think the overall NIT seeding was truly done by money/attendance.  Because, if  that was the case, then it was somewhat badly done.  I will give you some evidence that shows it wasn't by money/attendance for a good number of seeds.

Here are the home teams for each of the first three rounds of the NIT.  They are listed with their seeds, their attendance figures and for the team's first home game the capacity of their home arena in parentheses.

Round One

#6 Charleston 4,717 (5000)
#2 Cleveland State 1,472 (13,610)
#1 Alabama 5,116 (15,308)
#3 Oklahoma State 5,342 (13,611)
#3 Missouri State 5,089 (11,000)
#3 Colorado State 3,202 (8,745)
#1 Boston College 5,035 (8,606)
#4 New Mexico 9,626 (17,200)
#2 Saint Mary's 2,443 (3,500)
#4 Wichita State 7,336 (10,573)
#2 Miami 1,509 (8,000)
#4 Northwestern 3,915 (8,117)
#1 Virginia Tech 2,892 (10,052)
#4 California 2,350 (11,877)
#1 Colorado 6,299 (11,112)
#2 Washington State 4,213 (11,566)

Round Two

Colorado 7,614
Boston College 2,615
Cleveland State 2,077
Virginia Tech 4,382
Fairfield 3,954 (9,500)
Miami 1,623
Alabama 6,821
Washington State 5,201


Colorado 9,065
Wichita State 10,506
Alabama 8,612
Washington State 5,905

Now if the seedings were based purely on attendance draws, then the NIT selection committee did a very mediocre job and in some cases, really didn't do their research.   Had St Mary's won their first round game, the NIT would have given two home games to a team that plays in a gym with a capacity of 3,500.   They gave Cleveland State two home games.  The Vikings, as my twitter friend Mike Miller notes, do not draw very well at Holstein Center.  In fact, for their first round Horizon League Tournament home game vs. UIC, Cleveland State, a team with the terrific Norris Cole drew 1,112 in a 15,000 seat arena.  No, that was not a misprint and the two subsequent NIT home games proved that.

The NIT also ended up giving two home games to a Miami, Florida team that also poorly draws as shown above.   For their last regular season ACC home game vs. Maryland, the Hurricanes only drew 4,866 in an 8,000 seat arena, which is 60 percent capacity.    For the two NIT games combined, the Hurricanes only drew 64 percent of  that Maryland game attendance figure (3132).

Now did St Mary's and Cleveland State deserve two seeds based on merit?  Absolutely.  But Wichita State probably equally deserved a #2 seed when you compare their RPI with the other teams seeded higher.  And had the NIT Selection Committee properly done their homework based on attendance, then Wichita State would have got another home game.

So how did the NIT Selection Committee do their seeding?  Well it was a combination of what power conference teams got snubbed by the NCAA - Virginia Tech, Colorado and Alabama all got #1 seeds. A lot of the seeding was done based on regions thus less travel costs.  Colorado was seeded #1 in a western region bracket that included #2 St Mary's, #3 Colorado State and #4 California.  Likewise in Virginia Tech's region, #2 was Cleveland State, #3 Dayton (though they had to play on the road due to the First Four) and #4 Wichita State.  The Alabama region had a southern feel for it with Miami as a #2 seed.  As for Boston College getting a #1 seed, well none of the other top seeded teams were really in the eastern region - #2 Washington State, #3 Oklahoma State and #4 Northwestern, so your guess is as good as mine.

But when it comes down to it, looking at the numbers above, the attendance figures were generally poor as it has been recently for the NIT.  The power conference teams in a lot of cases barely filled a third to a half of their arenas.  Saint Mary's couldn't even sellout their 3,500 seat gym for their home first round game.  Only Wichita State came close to a sellout for the NIT.   And as for the MSG games, the semifinals drew 6,082 and the championship game, 4873.   The Creighton - Oregon CBI championship games had much larger attendance figures (mind you they were on the teams' home courts).

Perhaps the NIT truly stands for the Now Irrelevant Tournament.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

NCAA Double Standards and Basketball People

I want first to note a TERRIFIC op-ed piece in the New York Times yesterday by Joe Nocera.  It's called the NCAA's Double Standard.  Basically it talks about the different punishments the NCAA handed down to UConn coach Jim Calhoun and Baylor freshman Perry Jones.  Nocera further talks about the NCAA's punishment of five Ohio State players when they were "caught selling O.S.U. paraphernalia and pocketing the money".

When Nocera asked the NCAA's Stacey Osburn about these inconsistencies in NCAA punishment, Osburn replied "every situation is different".  Huh?  What about the core principle that they both violated a NCAA rule?

This is not the first time I have written about the No Clue At All and their lack of consistency in handing down punishment for rules infractions. Hofstra fans all know about the Brad Kelleher NCAA experience.  Kelleher gets suspended for a year and eight games for signing an application form while John Wall misses two games, one being an exhibition game in his suspension, for taking money from an agent.  Was Kelleher allowed to have an exhibition game count in his eight games in the second year?  No, because he didn't play for Kentucky.   Michael Litos wrote about it best here.

The funny thing about the No Clue At All is that the NCAA thinks they are still in the 1980's.  To them, there is no such thing as the Internet and that no one will realize or talk about their inconsistent punishments and their seeming favoritism towards big schools and big money.  Yes, Jones is on Baylor, but Baylor can't be compared to UConn in basketball or is certainly not Ohio State in the grand scheme of NCAA sports.

Litos calls for an overhaul of the process.  I am at least calling for a consistent punishment.  Here it is in a nutshell - You violate a rule, you are suspended IMMEDIATELY for whatever length of punishment the NCAA decides.  Do Not Pass Go, Do Not Collect $200 (or in Jim Calhoun's case $87,500 for winning the NCAA Tournament).

It's time for consistency in the NCAA.  And until there is consistency, people like me are going to keep calling the NCAA the No Clue At All.  And that doesn't mean I think the NCAA is a stupid organization.  Oh no, that's far from what I mean.  It means that they are so brazen in their favoritism towards certain schools (see aforementioned UConn, Kentucky and Ohio State) that they think they will not be called to the mat on it.  Not having a clue at all doesn't mean you're not smart.  Often it means that you think you are impervious to harm.

And perhaps the only way to deal with an organization that thinks it is impervious to harm is for someone to investigate the NCAA.  Perhaps it's time a government body investigates the NCAA's practices. As Jerry Tarkanian said last year the NCAA is "the crookedest organization in our society".  Tark sued the NCAA in 1992 and received a $2.5 million settlement in 1998.

Perhaps Tark was onto something there.


I have been meaning to get to this next topic for weeks. But since the NCAA Tournament played out so beautifully, sans UConn winning the national championship, I waited until now to talk about this.  Jay Bilas, who is now the subject/butt of one of the funnier T-shirts ever made, wrote an article for his ESPN insider blog called "How to Improve NCAA Selection".  Now you may not have ESPN Insider access, but since I do, (comes in handy for Fantasy Baseball), let me tell you about what he wrote.

But first, my favorite thing in the article was the caption under the picture of UAB playing Clemson in their First Four game.  It states "Before losing to Clemson in the First Four, fans criticized UAB for its inclusion in the tournament."

Fans?  Well yes, I am sure fans of Colorado, Alabama and Virginia Tech criticized UAB on their online chat boards.  And yes, even I didn't think UAB belonged in the tournament.   But "the fans" criticism of UAB didn't receive national attention.  It was the so-called experts, the analysts like Jay Bilas, Hubert Davis, Dick Vitale etc who ripped the Selection Committee for the inclusion of UAB and VCU in the tournament.  As Bilas noted "These were bad decisions.  We talk about the eye test.  This one fails the laugh test."

Well, I'll get back to that last Bilas comment later, but in his article, Bilas writes that they should split up the selection committee and have only "'basketball people' in charge of selection and seeding only."  Bilas continues to write "Some people hear 'basketball people' and recoil and feel like it is basketball snobbery. It is not."  But then Bilas adds this part to the article.

For years, selection committee members have told people that the input and experience of members like Dave Gavitt, Carroll Williams and C.M. Newton have been invaluable. If that is true, why not have a committee of 10 people with that kind of experience?

Sorry, but when I saw "C.M. Newton", I just recoiled BIG TIME.  If you are one of the few, the proud, the loyal readers of my blog, you know how much love I have for C.M. Newton.  Not.   If you don't know by now, Newton is the Chair of the NIT Selection Committee.  When the NIT selection committee did the seeding for the NIT Tournament, they gave #1 seeds to Boston College and Colorado.  Harvard, who had beaten BC on the Eagles' home court and won a neutral site game vs. Colorado got a #6 seed.  C.M. was interviewed on the ESPNU NIT Selection Show and said they spent a lot of time deciding the #1 seeds.

Well apparently, they didn't spend enough time on the #1 seeds. BC was destroyed at home by Northwestern by 18 points in the second round of the tournament and Virginia Tech lost at home to eventual NIT champion Wichita State.  Wichita State was a #4 seed despite having a higher RPI than Colorado or Alabama, who the Shockers defeated in the NIT Championship.

Newton will always also be near and dear in my heart for this dandy.  In the 2010 NIT, William and Mary played on the road to North Carolina, despite having a much higher RPI (58 vs. 92) and despite having beat Wake Forest and Maryland, two 2010 NCAA Tournament teams, on the road.   The Tar Heels lost at Maryland by 21.  W&M had ten road wins, as opposed to two for UNC.  North Carolina was also at FIVE HUNDRED, 16-16 going into the NIT Tournament.

So when asked when Tony Shaver thought it was "an injustice" that the Tribe had to go on to the road to play the Tar heels, Newton first said that the committee thought North Carolina was the better team (?)  and then responded with this beauty of a quote to Brian Mull.

"They should go over to Chapel Hill and whip their fannies and blame it all on us. That’s the beauty of basketball. We’ll get to find out. All they had to do was win a couple more games and we wouldn’t be having this discussion"

How about North Carolina should have won a few more games in 2009-10 and you wouldn't be having this discussion?  Yes, North Carolina won the game, but they had to rally from behind at home (in this case sold out Carmichael Arena) in the last two and half minutes to beat William and Mary.

The point is this -  Jay, if you think C.M. Newton should be one of the basketball people in the NCAA Selection Committee process, well then you are more wrong than your comment about VCU.   If you are going to have a committee with Newton and Gavitt (the former Big East Commissioner and Providence coach) and similar types on it, then you need to have "basketball people" that know about mid major basketball. Williams, the former Santa Clara AD is a start, but people like Tom Brennan or Mark Adams, two former coaches, now analysts, who know about good mid major teams, would be good additions as well.  But personally, I would leave Newton with the NIT, since he is so good at it (chuckle).

Bilas also stated that Selection Sunday should be moved to a week prior to Championship Week, aka the Sunday before.  Well actually Jay, Championship Week is really two weeks. The first week of March is the mid major tournaments, then the second week is the Power Six/A-10/Mountain West championships (with a couple of mid major championships as well).  It's actually not a bad idea, but the Power Six conferences would never allow it, because they make their money in the conference tournaments, and you would also have to take in account the possibility of teams that wouldn't make the tournament otherwise getting auto bids (nearly had that with Dayton in the A-10).

Finally, Bilas says that the NCAA needs new metrics.  Bilas states "The RPI is a useless metric in basketball. That seems to have been proven beyond a reasonable doubt."   He recommends using Ken Pomeroy and Sagarin.

First, the RPI is useless and "that seems to have been proven beyond a reasonable doubt" ?  Bilas, I am glad you didn't pursue a career in law, because here's my evidence otherwise.  Before the NCAA Tournament started, VCU had a higher RPI than Virginia Tech, Colorado and Alabama, three teams that Bilas and friends said belonged in before VCU.  Well, we all know how the Rams did in the NCAA Tournament, so I think the RPI deserves a little vindication.  And as I noted above, before the NIT Tournament started, Wichita State had a higher RPI than Alabama.  Who beat who in the NIT championship?  Again, the team with the higher RPI.

As for Pomeroy, a lot of people like his ratings.  I am not a big fan of his ratings and I have one major case in point. In his ratings, he has Virginia Tech as the 34th best team in the country.  Now, if the Selection Committee had used his ratings, Virginia Tech would have been the 25th best at large team in the country and would have had seeds higher than Vanderbilt, Georgetown, St John's, Temple, Xavier and Texas A&M - all of which had seeds of seven or higher in the NCAA Tournament.  Now we can all agree that Virginia Tech was at best a bubble team, certainly not worthy of a seven seed or better.

And if that's not enough for you, Pomeroy has Maryland as his 36th best team in his ratings.  Now Maryland wasn't even on the radar of the NCAA Selection Committee nor did any analysts think Maryland was wrongly denied of an at large spot.  By the way, the RPI had Maryland at 94.  Useless metric my butt.

So if it came down to using Pomeroy or the RPI, I'll take the RPI every time.

Now I grant you, the Selection Committee did a bad job in seeding and yes, UAB wasn't a good choice (I could have told you that by the Moore Primer).   But if there is anything that sums up leaving the Selection Committee the way it is and using the metrics it currently is using, well it's three letters.

V...C...U.  The selection committee's eye test was a lot better than Bilas' laugh test.  Now whatcha talkin bout Bilas?

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Another College Basketball Season Ends, But the Memories Remain

After watching Butler lose to UConn in the National Championship Game last night,  the men's college basketball  season was over (the women's season ends tonight).  There was lament, not as much for me as when Hofstra to ODU in the semis of the CAA Tournament, due in large part to being there for the game in Richmond, but there was lament.  There was the definite hope, especially at the half with the Bulldogs up three, that this was finally a mid major team's time to win the National Championship.  But it came crashing down with a loud clank, sadly like most of Butler's second half shots.

Did I want Butler to win?  Yes, very badly.  It would have been the final sledgehammer blow to break down the crumbling Great Wall of  Power Six conference domination of college basketball.  Was there sadness and remorse in seeing the Bulldogs lose?   Yes, just like last season when they lost in the final seconds to Duke.  Last season's championship loss hurt much more because the game came down to the final few seconds.  Last night was decided much earlier in the second half.

Kyle Whelliston 's belief, which he again so eloquently noted today, is the season ends with loss.  And yes with loss, comes lament.   Some losses like Hofstra's in the CAA Tournament Semis hurt more than others.  And yes for those dedicated Butler fans as well as their players, today hurts a lot.   But this kind of loss is temporary.  The loss of a loved one hurts so much more and stays with you much, much longer.

But for me, the season doesn't end in loss.  It just ends.  Again, the feeling of loss to me in the college basketball world is short lived, with some exceptions (see Hofstra NCAA snub 2006).  But if any thing, I am more sad with the end of the basketball season as a whole more than the loss of one game, no matter how important at the time the loss may seem.

Now with the advent of tournaments such as the CIT, the CBI, and the ever present NIT, besides UConn, three other teams' seasons didn't end in a loss (Santa Clara, Oregon and Wichita State).  Say what you want about the other three lesser tournaments, but for those teams they were happy with the end result.  So loss in college basketball in some ways has been lessened now.

Since I have started writing this blog in the season of 2005-2006, I have learned to deal with the college basketball season ending.  One of the Webster Dictionary definitions of the word season is "a time characterized by a particular circumstance or feature."  And that's college basketball in a nutshell.  From November to the beginning of April of the next year, college basketball is played.   And it's good that it is a set period of time.   There has to be a beginning (non conference play), a middle (conference play) and an end (conference tournament and post season play).  And there is always an end to the college basketball season.

But though there is loss at the end, again to me it's temporary.  The feeling of loss for the past two years has been quickly replaced by the memories of these seasons as a whole.   Last season, despite the tough loss to Duke, for me there was so much to rejoice about.  There was the heart warming story of William and Mary trying their darnedest to break their NCAA drought, only to fall short in the CAA championship game.  In 2009-10, mid majors made their mark as five of them - St Mary's, Cornell, Northern Iowa, Xavier (if you count them as such) and Butler all made the Sweet Sixteen.  Two of those teams, the Gaels and the Bulldogs were teams I had rooted for/supported all year.   And then, Butler did their best to play the part of Milan High School in front of a mostly partisan crowd in their home city of Indianapolis for the Final Four, then eventually the National Championship game.

Then there was this season.   I went to forty one men's basketball games and four women's basketball games (three Iona Women's games and one Hofstra women's game).  Forty five live basketball games in total.  Of all the live games that I have gone to over the years, this is the first time I actually counted how many I went to in a season.  And there might have been more games, but due to deadlines and commitments, forty five was really all I could muster.

For the Hofstra fan in me, I took great pride (yes, a pun) in seeing a team that had lost basically three starters to transfer and injury overcome all that to finish third in the CAA (the conference that had three other teams in the NCAA Tournament) due in large part to good team play, a superstar guard (Charles Jenkins) and an energetic first year coach (Mo Cassara).   It also resulted in my five year old son, Matthew becoming hooked on basketball late in the season, much to the sheer joy of his dad.   Everything became Hofstra basketball to Matthew.  When he dribbled around the living room, he was Hofstra vs. Delaware.

But just when I thought Hofstra's loss in the CAA Tournament was the climatic moment of the season, there were three teams that made the postseason even more special.  First, a Richmond team that I watched dismantle Fordham in the Bronx made a run to the Sweet 16.   At the same, a VCU team that I saw at the beginning of the season beat UCLA at MSG, then later upset George Mason in Richmond, made a historic run from the First Four to the Final Four. After Hofstra's season ended, Matthew adopted VCU as his team.  And to top what VCU did, Butler again made a run to the Final Four, setting up a first, an all mid major Final Four game with the Rams, then appearing in the National Championship game again.

For the Butler players and fans, as I noted, today probably hurts a lot, as it hurt VCU players and fans on Satuday night.  But soon, perhaps even today, the Butler Blue faithful will look back on the accomplishment of this season, of the last two seasons.  They will realize their team did something incredibly special.  Back to Back Final Four Appearances.  Back to Back National Championship Game appearances.   That is an incredible accomplishment that a Bulldog fan, hell a basketball fan, can look back for years to come.

VCU can look back that they were the first team to win five games to make it to the Final Four, a unique achievement for a team many thought shouldn't have made the tournament.   It's a memory that the Rams' players and fans will have forever.

The end of the basketball season does not necessarily mean the end of this blog for this season.  I have a few more articles to write.  But once those set of articles are done, the blog will take a hiatus.  There will be Matthew's T-Ball, spring day trips and vacations, lots of baseball to watch and the hazy days of summer.  But come October, that old familiar feeling will come back.  And so will this blog for its seventh basketball season.

And the end of the college basketball season doesn't mean the end of basketball altogether.  For those of you who like the NBA, that's still going strong.   You can also play basketball on your own for the entire year, as Matthew seems warranted to do now . When I get home in the evening, Matthew and I play a few games of H-O-R-S-E on his four foot high hoop.  And he has practiced so hard, that yes, he has beat me a couple of times, but only a couple of times. Matthew has to earn his victories since dad loves playing basketball too.

But yes, for those of us who love to go to live college basketball games, the season has ended.  However, the memories never fade and the love of college basketball never ends.  It only grows.

Just ask Matthew Moore.

Monday, April 4, 2011

For Your Viewing

Here's a few links to enjoy before today's game.  My review of Saturday's games and my prediction for Sunday are listed in the previous article.

Someone who came across my blog suggested this article.  It's what they think is the Top Ten Most Memorable Mid Major Tourney Teams.  It was obviously done before VCU's and Butler's runs this season.  And if you are a long time reader of this blog, you well know I don't consider Conference USA teams (Tulsa) or Atlantic 10 teams (Temple and St Joseph's) as mid-majors.

And I have a problem with some of their selections.  First the teams are from the past eleven years (earliest team is Gonzaga 1999).  Any discussion of Top Ten Most Memorable Mid Major Tourney Teams HAS to include Missouri Valley member Indiana State in 1979 as well as Ivy League member Penn who was also there in 1979. Also, I have a problem with the order of the list.   2008 Davidson should be third as 1999 Gonzaga was considered a better team and I think was poorly seeded.  What Curry's 10th seeded team did was truly amazing and having seen their first two games myself, it was more impressive than the Adam Morrison led Bulldogs.  Finally Kent State should have been higher up in the order as well.  That team had Antonio Gates and won 30 games.

Brian Mull has a terrific article on how three of the bottom CAA teams may surprise next season.  If I had to pick one team, it's definitely William and Mary.  Quinn McDowell is my early pick for CAA Player of the Year in 2011-12.   Plus I really like their guards Julian Boatner and Brandon Britt.

John Gasaway and Ken Pomeroy play National Championship Crossfire on BasketballProspectus.Com.

Gary Parrish has written a nice story on Butler.  Brad Stevens yelled at the TV when TCU wasn't included in the BCS?!  I thought he didn't even yell at refs.

And finally, where will you be tonight for the National Championship game?  I will be here (the one in Westbury).  Enough said.  Wherever you are, enjoy the game.

Butler is Back in the National Title Game

I recorded Saturday's National Championship game between VCU and Butler.  And it's amazing to be able to stop and rewind to see how some of the key plays of the game were setup.  Yes, there was the difference in rebounding, especially for Butler on the offensive end.  And there was of course the Bulldogs denying  the Rams' Joey Rodriguez of his offensive ability.   But there were two key sequences that really made the difference in Butler winning over VCU.

In the first half, right after Shelvin Mack's three pointer put Butler up 25-24, Jamie Skeen was called for an offensive foul for apparently what was an illegal screen.  But when you rewind and look at the play again, Skeen was not trying to set a screen.  He was trying to get open for one of Rodriguez' classic drives and kick backs for an open three.  Howard just happened to be in his way as Skeen try to get himself free.  With Skeen heading to the bench, it was part of that Butler 12-4 run the rest of the way and went up six, 34-28 at the half.  It was a huge call.

The second sequence happened again with our two key protagonists Howard and Skeen almost midway through the second half.  After a TV timeout with less than twelve minutes left and Butler up one 44-43,  Rob Brandenburg missed what seemed to be a sure layup and then Mack buried another three to put the Bulldogs up 47-43.  Then in the next possession, Howard picked up his third foul.  Right after, Skeen drove the lane and Howard appeared to bump him and no foul was called.   Though Skeen would get two points on free throws later to cut it back to two, Mack would bury a contested three, then a layup to put Butler up 52-45.
Howard would pick up his fourth foul later, but that was about a minute and half later after the quick five points by Mack and the Bulldogs had more of a cushion.

Now I am not saying that it was bad officiating on both those plays.  But they were key factors in two series that certainly made a difference for Butler.  The numerous fouls that were called and Butler's rebounding prowess definitely slowed down the pace, which frustrated VCU.

As for the entire game, it was terrific.  It was really well played defensively and both teams gave it everything they had.  The nation got to see how talented Shelvin Mack and Jamie Skeen really are and how huge Matt Howard is down the stretch of games.  All that was missing was Howard leveling someone on a pick (don't worry Bulldogs fans, Howard has 40 minutes left to set one vs. UConn).

VCU did miss its share of layups, part of which could be due to Butler's physicality.  Skeen and Burgess had their points, but when Rozzell and Rodriguez combine for only five points, nearly seventeen under their combined average, it's going to be hard for the Rams to win.  The Bulldogs also did a terrific job of denying Rodriguez' patented drive and kicks (amazingly Rodriguez still had seven assists).  Butler also did a terrific job of contesting most of VCU's three point attempts.

As for the second game between Kentucky and UConn, to be honest, I didn't think it was as well played as the first game.  It was close though and it was exciting down the stretch.  But UConn struggled with the ball a lot (15 turnovers) and was an ugly 1 of 12 from beyond the arc.  Kemba Walker had an off game shooting wise and I thought Jeremy Lamb should have got more touches (he was 5 of 8 from the field)  UK did a good job of denying UConn offensive rebounds (only six for a team that averages fourteen per game) but Josh Harrelson had by far his worst game of the tournament.  And Brandon Knight's 6 of 23 shooting did not help matters.  Then finally there was UK's brutal 3 of 12 shooting from the line, typical of a Calipari team.

Honestly, I thought it came down to who made less mistakes at the end and UConn made less mistakes than Kentucky.  Napier turned the ballover for UConn on a bad drive, but then there was bad shot selection on the part of Kentucky at the end.  Instead of working it to Knight for perhaps a layup or Terrence Jones in the corner, DeAndre Liggins took a bad three point field goal attempt.   The game was over after the freshman Napier calmly hit two free throws.

As for the national championship today, I am thoroughly convinced that Butler will win the game.  UConn really only has two scoring threats, Walker and Lamb.  If Butler plays the kind of D they did against VCU, the Huskies will have a real difficult time scoring.  The key for the Bulldogs is to keep the Huskies off the offensive glass.  And as long as Howard and Andrew Smith stay out of foul trouble, I think they will.  Butler was able to beat one Big East team, Pitt at their own style of play.  I don't see any reason why it can't be two.  Butler wins 64-58.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Final Four Predictions

Yesterday, I was going to write an April Fool's article on how Kentucky will have to vacate this year's Final Four after the NCAA found improprieties into UK's recruiting of various players including Enes Kanter.  But since there have been two John Calipari teams having vacated their Final Four standing already (UMass and Memphis), I might seriously have the NCAA contacting me as a result (as in where I got my info).

Congratulations to Wichita State as they won the 2011 NIT defeating Alabama (coached by former VCU coach Anthony Grant) Thursday night 66-57.  The Shockers were quite impressive at MSG, having defeated Washington State by 31 on Tuesday night.  The Shockers shot 48.6% from the field, which was above their 46.4% FG shooting for the season, which was 43rd in the country.  Wichita State finished 29-8 on the year.  The Shockers have played two teams that are in this year's Final Four.  UConn rallied to defeat Wichita State 83-79 in nationally televised game at the Maui Invitational.  VCU defeated Wichita State 68-67 in a nationally televised BracketBuster game.

Creighton tried to make it to two Missouri Valley champions but barely lost to Oregon 71-69 in the third and deciding game of the CBI Championship series.  As I was watching the game on HDNET last night, I didn't realize/see the midcourt line.  The rocket scientists who designed the Oregon basketball court floor made the halfcourt line barely visible.  And the Bluejays' Antoine Young, their leading scorer, who had received the inbounds pass with 26 seconds left, didn't see it either.  He stepped backwards over the line and was called for the over and back violation.  Then E.J. Singler hit a jumper with two seconds left for the victory.  In a season full of ironies, Ducks coach Dana Altman defeated his former team, the Bluejays, coached by Greg McDermott, former arch rival of his at Northern Iowa.

So today, it's the Final Four, one of the most unique Final Fours ever.  No number one seeds.  Two storied Power Six conference programs - UConn and Kentucky, an unlikely but talented returning Final Four team, Butler and a team, VCU that was one of the last at large teams in the tournament, a team that has set the new standard for most games won to make a Final Four (five).  The first game is the battle for the Mid Major Championship between Butler and VCU.  And the second game is between two coaches who have had recent NCAA violations in their program (Jim Calhoun) or past programs (John Calipari).

Let's start with the second game, which is a rematch of the Maui Invitational championship game.  Now I don't write much about Power Six conference teams, because they already get a lot of coverage, but I watch a lot of Power Six conference games on TV (plus I went to seven Power Six conference games during the season).  When I first saw Kentucky in the Maui Classic, I was really impressed with their transition game.  They were exciting to watch.  When they got throttled by UConn in the championship, I saw the Wildcats struggle in the half court game.  Josh Harrelson struggled in that game as Alex Oriakhi had a double double while Harrelson had a goose egg in his 25 minutes.

UK has improved greatly in that facet as they have the ability to work the ball for the open three and they have got Harrelson much more involved lately than for a good part of the season.  Through 23 games, Harrelson only had six games where he scored in double figures.  In the last seven games, Harrelson has had six double figure scoring games and three of those games were double doubles.  The Wildcats now have an inside game.

Meanwhile, UConn was mostly Kemba Walker all the time for a good part of the season.  And it worked for the most part as the Huskies were at one point 17-2 and 5-2 in the Big East.  But once into the teeth of the conference season, UConn struggled.  They lost seven of their last eleven conference games and finished at .500 in conference.   They ended up playing on the first day of the Big East Tournament.  And we all know what happened, the Huskies set a Big East record by winning five games in five days to win the Big East Championship.

A lot of that was due to the fact that UConn somewhat diversified their offense.  And Jeremy Lamb's consistency has been a key during their nine game Big East and NCAA Tournament winning streak.  At the beginning of the season, the freshman was streaky.  After scoring double digits in his first game against Stony Brook, here's what Lamb did as far as scoring;

Nov. 17 - Nov. 30 - Zero games in double figures.
Dec. 3 - Dec. 22 - Four games in a row in double figures.
Dec. 27 - Jan. 11 - Zero games in double figures.
Jan. 15 - Feb. 10 - Eight games in double figures.
Feb. 13 - Mar. 5 - Only double figure scoring game in seven games.
Mar. 8 - present - Nine straight double figure scoring games.

Talk about streaky.  But Lamb has saved his real hot streak for a good time.  In the past nine games, Lamb has averaged nearly 16 points per game while shooting 53 of 107 from the field (obviously just about 50 percent). In his last four games, Lamb is 11 of 15 from beyond the arc.

So, there are a couple of keys to this game - Harrelson and Lamb.   Harrelson simply must have a better game against Oriakhi than he did in the first game.  And UK must especially limit UConn's second chance opportunities as the Huskies are the 11th best rebounding team in the country and average over 14 offensive rebounds per game.  Meanwhile, Lamb must continue his torrid shooting to keep UK honest in their defense against Walker.

Now for the first game.  It's a game where no one expected either of these teams to be here.  Yes Butler made the finals last season.  But with their best player, Gordon Hayward leaving school to be a lottery pick in the NBA draft,  despite having most of last season's National Runnerup Team intact, a Sweet 16 would have been a great follow up to last season.   Yet Matt Howard and Shelvin Mack have willed their team to their second straight Final Four with the trademark "Butler Way" - hard nosed defense, good ball possession, clutch play at the end of games and a will not to lose.

Meanwhile, VCU, one of three CAA team in the NCAA Tournament this season, was raked over the coals by so-called experts for being one of the last teams selected as an at large bid.  They had to play in the one of the first ever First Four games.  So what did they do.  The Rams simply went out and throttle their opposition. With the exception of a one point Sweet Sixteen win over Florida State in OT, VCU has won every other game by double digits including their stunning ten point win over #1 seed Kansas in the Southeast Regional Final.   Yes, their three point shooting has been superb, but as I noted in a previous article, it's their much improved half court defense that has made the difference.

When I look at this game, I expect a rock fight, a slug fest half court game.  Now normally, you would think this favors Butler in a big way.  But this isn't the case.  First, VCU comes from the CAA, the conference of the rock fights.  The Rams have had their share of rock fights vs. ODU and especially Drexel.  They will be used to this style of play.

Also, I read somewhere in the past day or two that Butler has more depth than VCU.  Sorry folks, I know both these teams very well and I think VCU has more depth than Butler.   The Bulldogs only really go eight deep with Ronald Nored/Chase Stigall, Zack Hahn, and Khyle Marshall coming off the bench.  Garrett Butcher plays a f ew minutes and you might have a Chrishawn Hopkins sighting, but it's really eight deep. VCU has nine players who average about ten minutes and another players who averages eight minutes (D.J Haley).  This depth comes in very handy for their relentless press which basically winded Kansas in their regional final game.

It's easy to say the keys to the game are Jamie Skeen and Matt Howard.  And those two players are major figures in this.  But I think you need to dig deeper for this game.   I think the first key for Butler is Ronald Nored.   Nored will likely be responsible for guarding Joey Rodriguez.  Rodriguez has torched every Power Six conference team in VCU's way in the tournament with 33 assists and only 10 turnovers in five games.  Nored must limit Rodriguez' ability to drive into the lane where he kicks it back for the open three.

As for VCU, look for Juvonte Reddick to play an integral part.  Reddick's play so far in the NCAA Tournament has been spotty at best.  He was huge against Purdue with 12 points,  but has only played more than ten minutes in three of the five games.  He needs to use his 6 foot 9 frame to keep Butler's Andrew Smith off the glass today.  If Reddick can give them fifteen quality minutes and keep Smith at bay, VCU has a really good chance to win.

So as for predictions, well let's get to the second game first.   I think Lamb will have another big day for UConn and though Harrelson will do better against Oriakhi, Oriakhi will limit him more than other teams have so far in the tournament.  And then it comes down to Walker vs. Terrence Jones and Brandon Knight.  As much as Jones and Knight have been huge at the end of games, Walker is the best player on the floor.  Walker will be the difference at the end of this game as UConn prevails in a nail biter.

As for our featured first game, well toss a coin in the air and decide it.  Yes Butler has the experience advantage with this being their second Final Four in a row.  But the team is not as deep as last year's team.  Plus VCU is not 2006 George Mason.   With the exception of the Seminoles game, they have throttled their opponents and have simply no fear in them right now.  Plus the Rams style of play I think is really conducive to wearing the Bulldogs down.   The Bulldogs will have an advantage on the boards, but I think VCU's length will give them fits.  In a very close game with Bradford Burgess hitting a huge three down the stretch, VCU takes it.

However, this is why they play the games.  It should be a great day of basketball games.  And I can't wait. I bet neither can you.  Enjoy.